Tongues of Serpents


"OF COURSE it is not a real rebellion," MacArthur said, handing Laurence a glass of the cool sillery; the heat had broken at last, and the autumnal air was pleasant as the small bats cried and flung themselves among the trees along the border of his gardens. "I don't see any reason we ought to behave like those Yankee Doodles, cutting off our nose to spite our face; but it is unreasonable to be governed at eight months' distance and guesswork. Their Lordships cannot have known they were asking for a war we cannot win: what should we do if China sent over a dozen of these albatross creatures, which they do not even know existed, and ran them over our heads with sacks full of bombs? No, plainly we must manage ourselves; but certainly I do not mean to forswear my loyalty to the King. Never that."

By which, Laurence supposed, MacArthur meant that he did not mean to forswear himself for at least the next year and a half, before some fresh answer came; if the ministers should not choose at that time to recognize his new self-declared position as First Minister of Australia, Laurence suspected MacArthur's feelings on the matter would prove somewhat more malleable.

"Now then," MacArthur said, "this Rankin fellow: I cannot see how he can continue the commander of our little aerial force here - "

"I should be surprised if you had much success in persuading him to undertake it," Laurence said dryly. He had rather expected Rankin to return to England, with Macquarie: the deposed governor had no notion of lingering as Bligh had, but meant at once to leave by the same frigate which had brought him, when that ship was ready.

"You would be surprised, I think," MacArthur said. "He is a little stiff-necked, there is no denying it, but his beast is a reasonable creature; I have found it work well enough when I have a word in his ear beforehand to any discussion with his captain. But it is no use saying Rankin has charge of the covert, under the circumstances: you are the man we want for the business. I have written you a pardon; there may be a little irregularity about it, of course, but it must do for now - "

"Sir," Laurence said, "I am obliged to you; I must call it more than a little irregular."

"Well," MacArthur said, waving a hand to leave this minor quibble in the air, "we are all irregular here, more or less, and we shan't grow less so for a good long time: I do not think, sir, you are inclined to sit in a corner until we get back some word: you are not made to moulder in some forgotten corner of the world. And why ought you? You were sent here, after all, and with the intention of your doing work for the colony. I cannot see how it should in any way contravene the terms of your transportation."

There was a special sort of gall in proposing that Laurence's life-sentence for treason did not preclude his taking command of the nascent covert and its aviators; the same sort of gall, of course, which had staged not one but two separate coups d'etat. Laurence rather thought MacArthur and Bonaparte were cut from the same cloth, spiritually speaking, if they did not have the same gifts.

"And I do not mind saying," MacArthur said, "you cannot help but be damned useful in this whole China business. They turn up remarkably sweet as soon as they have clapped eyes on you and this fellow, no one can help but see that."

For this MacArthur's evidence was a pair of young Chinese officials, who had been brought to the colony the last week: Temeraire at his request had managed to intercept Lung Shen Gai, the dragon previously sighted so near to Sydney, and invite discussion of the territorial issues. MacArthur represented the general sentiment of his citizenry in embracing with great enthusiasm the prospect of Chinese goods entering their market in considerable quantity: free trade was the byword on every man's lips who had an opinion, which was everyone. The reports from the north of the haul of treasure brought in by the serpents, of tea and luxury, had by now diffused very widely among the populace from O'Dea's reports: which he recounted nightly in the taverns for his grog, the accounts losing no allure in the transmission and gaining much.

"I dare say if you should not care to be the commander of the covert," MacArthur added, "you might take on the foreign ministry: why, that might do better, indeed."

"You would do better to hire Temeraire for that post, if he were inclined to serve," Laurence said. "No: I thank you for the compliment of your confidence, but no." He set down his glass. "Pray give my compliments to your wife."

Temeraire was drowsing in the field behind the house: filled out a little better after a month of recovery, and the scales of his hide beginning to regain some of that particular glossy sheen. He raised his head as Laurence came nearer, and yawned. "Is your dinner finished? What did he wish to say to you?"

"To offer me the earth, or at least a portion of it, if we would take charge of the covert," Laurence said, swinging himself up and hooking on his carabiner straps. "He would like to make me an admiral, or a minister; and of course he has pardoned me, for whatever that is worth in a British court: perhaps another twenty years on the sentence, I would imagine."

"It is a kind thought, of course," Temeraire said, his ruff pricking up. "You are sure you should not like to be a minister?" he inquired. "That is very like a lord, is it not, for you are always saying their Lordships when you should mean the King's ministers."

"Very sure," Laurence said.

The deposed governor was at the promontory when they returned, speaking with Rankin, low; a small guard of New South Wales Corps soldiers stood a little way off, his escort - or gaolers, nearer the truth.

"If I cannot approve your reluctance to act, I am glad to hear you have not wholly acceded to MacArthur's rebellion," Macquarie said heavily. "The Crown will wish to remove you at once, with Captain Rankin and the loyalist officers: if we can catch the Allegiance, we will return for her to serve as your transport. Some arrangement can be made for your sentence to be carried out in India - "

"You must forgive me, sir," Laurence said, "but if you have no better use for us than to trundle us over the ocean to a pen in India, only to keep us from MacArthur's powers of persuasion, I will forgo the pleasure."

Macquarie was by no means easily reconciled to this position: he protested, and commanded, and came as near cajolery as a man so sensible of his dignity, and wounded in it, could do; but Laurence found himself wholly unmoved even by the final, grudging offer. "You are impatient with your lack of use; some honorable work surely can be found - will be found," Macquarie said, "which perhaps may even render suitable a pardon - "

"There is an ugly character to the work which has heretofore been found for us," Laurence said, "and I think I have done trying the patience of my commanding officers."

"Laurence," Temeraire said tentatively, when Macquarie had gone away frustrate, "it is not that I mind, for I had just as soon not have anything more to do with Government and their orders; but are you quite sure you would not like to go back to the war, if they will have us?"

Laurence was silent a moment, waiting for the sense of duty to answer; but it did not speak. They would not be asked to defend England, or liberty, or anything worthy of service: only to assist at one spiteful destruction or another. He found in himself only a great longing for something cleaner. "No," he said finally. "I am sick of the quarrels of nations and of kings, and I would not give ha'pence for any empire other than our valley, if that can content your ambition."

"Oh! It can, very well," Temeraire said, brightening. "Will we go there tomorrow, then? I have been thinking, Laurence, we might have a pavilion up before the winter."

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