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Crucible of Gold


Page 39


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"They can't much like the idea of going back crammed aboard the hold very like in the way they came, and so they would be," Warren said, "for if dragons go along, it will be no end of work fitting enough provisions for them all. If it can even be done: I would not wager on getting more than five hundred passengers aboard at a time, myself. Look sharp, there!"
This exclamation was provoked by the approach of one of the larger Tswana dragons, who abandoning her attempt to make herself comfortable in the ruin of the city had gone aloft, and now came towards the mountain. She had not sighted them, however, or at least paid them no attention if she had; she landed clutching onto the cliff face and began to scratch at the wall experimentally, as though to work out its composition.
Evidently satisfied, she turned her head down and roaring called to her fellows, a few of whom left off their own efforts and joined her in examining the stone. One of the smaller beasts made a thoughtful chirruping noise and darted away, returning shortly thereafter with one of the stolen cannon. From this they stripped away the wheels, leaving only a portion of the wooden housing, on which they seized; the barrel was set against the wall, and the larger beasts began to take it in turn to hammer the length into the rock. The smaller ones held it in place, and when it had been sunk halfway in began to twist and rock it; shortly they had burst out a small pattering avalanche of rock. It bore a strong resemblance to the work Laurence had seen once at the Tswana city of Mosi Oa Tunye, where the dragons carved immense living caverns out of the walls of the waterfall gorge.
By the next morning, the space was large enough for one of the smaller beasts to climb inside and sweep out debris; by that night, two of the larger dragons settled down therein to sleep. "Well, at least some of them are making themselves at home," Sutton said, as they checked upon the progress, but when Laurence returned to the negotiations and spoke with Lethabo, she shook her head.
"Kefentse will stay, and so will I and my daughters, for we have no other kinsmen remaining back home: but that is not true of many of the dragons," she said.
Fortunately Lethabo had been more generous to those beasts whose kindred had been wholly decimated, those same being more willing to accept refugees of doubtful lineage; and those dragons were willing to remain rather than risk the dangers of the crossing. But a dozen of the beasts still had villages and kin waiting for them in Africa, and insisted on returning at once, with almost two thousand men meant to accompany them: a company the size of a small army, and if anything more difficult to provision.
"Whatever fine language the Portuguese choose to write down in those papers, Captain, does not very much matter to dragons," Lethabo had said to Laurence, as they had left the negotiations. "You know it, and so do I. No agreement will hold which does not satisfy them. But this truly is our price: all the slaves freed and reunited with their ancestors, and transport back for those who wish to go. If you cannot do it, we must yet treat with the French, and then, if the Portuguese will not free their slaves-"
She spread her hands eloquently, and Laurence nodded.
"We could send the men by other boats, smaller ones-frigates, or a good-sized merchantman?" Warren proposed now-Laurence flinched a little at hearing him call a frigate a boat-but this suggestion Lethabo rejected out of hand: the dragons would not again be parted from their descendants.
"Well," Granby said, looking down past the harbor, where the two French transports rode at anchor, their colors bright from the masthead in the sun, "there is nothing else for it, but how can it be done?"
Chapter 18
"IT SHOULD BE EASY AS WINKING, if we wanted to sink them," Captain Warren observed: and a mere bombardment with boulders, carried one after another from the shore and dropped from on high, would indeed have sent the transports to the bottom of the ocean in no short order-where, of course, they would be of no use whatsoever in getting the Tswana home.
To take the great vessels, preserving them in a useful condition, was by far a more difficult problem, and not least because the French had been alive to the danger of just such an impulse on the part of their uncertain allies. The transports themselves were heavily armed, and bags of caltrops hung from the yard-arms above the dragondecks in such a way that they might instantly be spilt across the planking, their iron teeth being large enough to prevent any dragon from landing easily upon the ship while offering only a little difficulty to the sailors aboard.
Meanwhile the frigates in their company were too small for any but Nitidus or Dulcia to land upon: fast and maneuverable and armed for the most part with a few heavy snub-nosed cannonades which would certainly be turned at once upon any dragon who tried to descend upon the transports: they were close enough to make a directed attack practicable. Laurence could spy among their complement as many as four gun-boats apiece, each armed with the long, narrow-barreled guns which threw the small barbed cannonballs.
"The gun-boats will be in the water five minutes after the alarm is sounded," Laurence said, peering at them through his glass, "if the crews know their work; in ten minutes, otherwise, and we shall hear from the guns directly after; and the cannonades. We cannot keep the dragons on the decks under that degree of fire."
"And even if we do manage to hold the deck, the French will have hulled the ships so wretchedly we may as well sit in harbor the next three years, for all the good they will do us: they will never make the long crossing," Sutton said.
"Yes; we must do something about those gun-boats, first," Harcourt said, rolling out a sheet of smudged parchment, and taking a scrap of charred wood from the fire to sketch upon it the outline of the harbor. "If we can keep them pinned down, somehow; then take the transports quick as quick can be, if they aren't to spike the decks against us-if we can only give those frigates a proper fait accompli, they shan't hull us, unless they mean to sink all their own crews."
"There's another difficulty for you," Warren said cheerfully. "Who's to sail them? We shan't; and the Potentate can scarcely let us have enough men to sail two transports more across the ocean and to home. Your bag of sailors will do some good, Laurence, but-"
"They are much improved," Laurence said, "but I would not trust them to sail a dinghy rigged fore-and-aft across ten miles of calmest sea without trained officers."
"Pray let us worry about one thing at a time!" Harcourt said. "If we do manage to cut them out, we ought to be grateful enough to have any other difficulties to work out."
"I do not quite see how it is to be done myself, Laurence," Temeraire said over his shoulder as the blue-black ocean streamed away beneath them. The weather was all that it should be for flying, clear and not too hot, and he could not help but spiral in mid-air for sheer delight: the difficulties of taking the transports should surely, he thought, be overcome; one could not let that worry one on a day like this .
"I am still on the shipping lanes, I hope," he added, peering down: he did not understand how Laurence managed to be so certain without an elaborate consultation of his compass and the stars where in the ocean they might be; they had left behind land some two hours ago.
"You are," Laurence said, "and if you will bear two points to starboard, that is a whaler, I think, and we may hope one of ours; or an American-at present I would be glad to take a dozen sailors out of an American, and damn the provocation."
Temeraire would have been equally glad, so long as Laurence was satisfied that the act could be justified, and he put on as much speed as he could: but when they came nearer, she hung out Dutch colors to meet their own Union Jack. Laurence swung down by a rope to the rigging, and climbing to the deck met with her captain while Temeraire hovered above her.
He climbed back up alone, without taking any men out of her, so it was not a mere ruse; Temeraire sighed, but when Laurence had reached his back and clasped the carabiners on again he said, "South-south-west, my dear, there is not a moment to lose. Captain Hoerug tells me they spoke the Dapple this morning: a forty-eight and a crack frigate, and if we can catch her before she goes beyond our range, we will have our men."
Laurence scoured the ocean with his glass, and put every one of his small crew to the same task in all directions: a flash of light off a window, the gleam of a lantern when twilight came on, anything would do; and finally near the limits of the range he had privately defined to himself, Baggy called down uncertainly, "Captain? Is that her, there-away; I think I see a flash, maybe."
Dapple sent up a blue light as they neared, and seeing their flag hung out her colors, an unsuspecting welcome: her captain would not expect to be pillaged from aloft, of course. Laurence did not recall who had Dapple presently; there had been a vast and somber reshuffling in the wake of the disaster at Shoeburyness, and he climbed down preoccupied with working out how many officers she might be able to give him. Only when he was on the deck, amid the familiar life of a Navy ship, and found himself asked for his name, was he recalled abruptly to the awkwardness of his position. To most officers of Britain, he was yet a condemned criminal and a traitor: his reinstatement would surely not yet have made official news.
"Captain William Laurence," he said, "of Temeraire," and saw the starts of confusion in the younger officers, the whispers traveling hastily to enlighten those unfortunate enough not to recognize their names; and the looks thrown skyward into the dark, where Temeraire's black hide was only a shadow against the sky.
The ship's third lieutenant, a young man scarce twenty years by his looks, had been directing the men into throwing out the pontoon-decks by which they could have offered a dragon a landing place. "Hold there, if you please, Mr. Rightley," he said, and looked at his captain.
"Captain Adair Galloway," that gentleman, of an age with Laurence, said slowly without offering a hand, "and sir, I believe I require some explanation."
"You shall have it, sir," Laurence said, "but it must be brief: I am sorry to come to you with such demands, but I must have every man you can spare; and if possible some you would find it hard to part with." He saw his words travel the deck with even more astonishment than his name; and Galloway looked still more bewildered. Laurence knew him by name and a little by reputation: a stickler, and his ship looked it; fresh from the Atlantic crossing and on the verge of a run at the Horn, her paint gleamed new-bright and her brass shone warmly beneath the lanterns; her officers were every man of them in uniforms that would have done justice to a dinner-party, and there was a sense of quiet order in all the lines of the ship.
She was, in short, run along the methods he would once have preferred himself, Laurence realized, rueful and aware of his marked trousers, his dull and unblacked boots, his yellowing linen. However, there was this absurdity in his favor: he had four years on Galloway on the post-list; he had seniority. "Shall we go inside, sir?" he said. "Temeraire would be glad of a short rest, if you can give it to him; but we must be aloft again as quickly as we may: there is not a moment to lose."
With few alternatives, Galloway showed him into the stern cabin, and shut the door on his interested crew; Laurence knew, of course, that if not every ear on the ship would be pressed directly to the door, they would still hear the conversation repeated soon enough. "Sir," he said, "I hope you will pardon my forthrightness, but I would address your hesitation at once: I am restored to the list as of 11 November in the last year. But my personal circumstances are of little importance. There are two French transports in Rio: we mean to cut them out, and we have ten dragons to do it with; but I have only two hundred men for prize-crew, and not an officer among them."
Temeraire hovered impatiently, until the pontoon-deck had been tied down at last: it was not very large, and he had to let himself down very cautiously with his belly quite full of air to keep from swamping it entirely. "There; that will do," he said, swinging his head round to the ship's railing: a line of staring sailors backed hurriedly away, except for one young officer who blanched but kept his place.
"Thank you: although pray secure that third line a bit better; that knot is very ugly and is sure to slip in a moment: it would not be in the least pleasant to have this come apart beneath me, and I suppose I should have to pull on the ship to get out of the water again. How many of you do you suppose will come with us?" he asked, unable to resist inquiry.
He did not receive any answer but stammers until Laurence came out with the captain, who looked very displeased, but nevertheless gave orders for forty men to embark, and four of his officers. For the officers, Laurence had Gerry sling over some carabiners and spare harness, and Temeraire put them one after another onto his back, beginning with the third lieutenant, Creed, and ending with a midshipman of fifteen named Wren. The men reluctantly climbed into a makeshift sack upon the deck, which Temeraire himself drew up and stuffed into his belly-netting, where the sailors might climb out of it with some awkwardness but reasonable security.
Forty men more! Temeraire thought triumphantly as he lifted away. Though of course these new recruits should soon go into service aboard the transports, and would thus pass from his purview, the sheer number seemed quite an achievement however transitory; and anyway perhaps they would not be able to take the transports, in which case they might remain with the other sailors as a part of his extended crew, after all.
So he was perfectly satisfied, when he came to camp and let them off; and having eaten an excellent meal of roasted cattle stuffed with the sweet ripe banana fruit he fell asleep until roused unceremoniously several hours later by a shove. "Ow," he said, opening one eye, "whatever is that for?"


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