Crucible of Gold

Page 14

"They are very good eating," Forthing said by way of apology for the wait, as he packed up the eggs, perhaps aware that Temeraire was regarding him with ill-concealed disfavor. That had nothing to do with it, however: it was a great deal more to the point that Forthing's coat had begun as a cheap and shabby garment, and was now both threadbare and faded from bottle-green to a drab greyish shade by sea-water and sun. His shirt, which it had formerly hidden from view, was worse-stained yellow at the neck and underarms with sweat and imperfect laundering, and the back mostly a mess of untidy darns done with thread of various colors.
He could certainly not have been considered a credit to any dragon at all, and Temeraire felt it keenly. One might excuse any number of temporary irregularities brought on by their trials, but Forthing might have had a better coat, or a decent shirt, to begin with; and he certainly might have trimmed his untidy hair or shaven his beard, which was inclined to grow in four or five different colors, off his very broad square jaw.
"We will want more of this sort of thing than we can get, I expect, before they come back," Forthing added, to Temeraire's censorious look.
"We are not going to just sit here and wait for the French to come back and take us off again," Temeraire said with some heat.
"Well-I don't see what else we can do," Forthing said. "We haven't any rope to tie ourselves on with, if you could even get anywhere from here flying."
"I am sure Laurence will think of something," Temeraire said; he had not himself, so far, but of course they had only just arrived. "This is just the sort of thing a Navy captain must deal with, you know, so Laurence is most fitted to work out precisely where we are, and what we shall do next; you see he knew at once what he wished us all to be doing."
Forthing had the gall to look unconvinced. "I don't see as being a Navy man will help him to get us off a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific a thousand miles from anywhere," he said. "If he were Merlin, it might be some use."
"Who is Merlin?" Temeraire asked, flaring his ruff. "I am sure he would not be any more use than Laurence, to anyone."
"I was only having a joke," Forthing said. "He's a wizard, but not really; it is only stories. There was a fellow would tell them to us, at the foundling house, to keep us quiet," he added. "About King Arthur, and all."
"You may tell them to me, then, as we go," Temeraire said, thinking Forthing might be a little useful after all: but Forthing looked awkward.
"Er, well, it is all early on," he said. "So they weren't very keen on dragons, at the time-" and it came out that this King Arthur and his knights had done nothing of real note but to kill innocent dragons all around Britain: almost certainly a pack of lies, as Forthing admitted they had not possessed even any guns at the time, and unpleasant lies at that.
"What are we going to do next, Laurence?" Temeraire asked, in a low voice, later that evening. Forthing had sketched out the lines of the island from memory, and not very badly; Temeraire had helped him. They thought the island was perhaps a mile wide at the extreme, mostly brush and scrub on the western side where the French had landed them, and a jungle-like growth over most of the eastern half; there were a great many little coves and inlets which they had not had time to investigate thoroughly.
"That rain-forest is promising," Laurence had said tiredly, wiping his brow; there had been a great deal of activity in their absence-lean-tos had gone up to shelter a supply of dry wood, and a cellar dug for the barrels of salt pork; the one cauldron which had been left them was boiling away ceaselessly to make their dinner-which had become breakfast when Forthing unloaded the turtle eggs. No-one else seemed to mind that Forthing's shirt was so wretched, although Temeraire inwardly writhed with embarrassment, and tried to keep himself between the scene and Iskierka's view, at least.
"There might be some fruit, at least; and better timber than what we have here," Laurence said now, yawning; he was leaning against Temeraire's arm, and his eyes were already closed. "We will send parties as we can; it is damnable not to have men one can trust."
"Oh, yes, but I meant, what are we going to do about getting to land?" Temeraire said. "We must find some way to get to Brazil, still; we cannot only wait here until the French come back and sail us off to prison."
"I will count myself delighted if we manage even so much," Laurence said; and then he was asleep, and Temeraire could not press him further.
It was an endless struggle to keep the men to their small ration, and could not have succeeded if salt pork were any more edible without its hours of boiling; in the third week, inspection discovered that the store of biscuits, weevil-eaten as it was, had been raided.
"It's a sorry mess, Captain, and it's certain we'll soon feel hunger claw at all our bellies," O'Dea said, reporting the destruction with an air of gloomy satisfaction, which Laurence would have been glad to think unwarranted but instead understated the case. Barrels smashed, one gone entirely, and nearly as much biscuit left to rot in the open air as had been stolen. That was worse than the mere theft: the rank stupidity which even an instinct of self-preservation alone ought to have prohibited.
"Enough left to live on, if we cut the ration in half," Laurence said, tossing aside a sprung board from one of the ruined barrels. "And if there is not another such incident of pillaging."
"We can't live on salt pork and crabmeat alone," Granby said, standing with him, pale and holding the injured arm clasped hard against his side. "There's no help for it: we'll have to keep a watch on it ourselves."
Laurence nodded. But there were already not enough aviators for all the tasks which a community of several hundred men required for its survival: too many of Granby's officers and Laurence's had been engaged belowdecks in fighting the fire, when the Allegiance had gone up. Besides Forthing, there was only Granby's second lieutenant Bardesley, a silent and sunburnt man brought on in Madras who had been fished from the wreckage; a few of their young midwingmen and ensigns, of whom Cavendish was the oldest; and Granby's harness-man Pohl: his ankle had been twisted a few days before the fire, and he had as a consequence remained on the dragondeck during the confusion, to the preservation of his life.
"Pohl will do it, and I'll take a turn myself," Granby added. "At least I can do that, if I am of precious little other use." He jerked his chin towards his shoulder.
They had no guns, of course, and no rope; nothing convenient to make a lash with, even if there had been a culprit or a dozen to single out. But any number of men had been on guard over the course of the week, and had opportunity to commit the crime themselves or allow others to do so. "And we cannot easily put a man on shorter commons than we already are," Laurence said.
There was only one other potential avenue of punishment-but Laurence would not ask that of the dragons for such a cause. Even if he had been willing to set them upon an unarmed man, fragile as a naked child before them regardless of guilt, and if they had been willing to be so set, the example would have been more maddening than salutary, he feared . The sailors already muttered among themselves that they should be fed to the beasts when the hunting had run out: the dragons were forced to spend nearly all the day flying out and back, to keep from stripping their fishing grounds.
"Soon I suppose we will have to eat sharks," Temeraire had said, dismally. "And it is all very well to say they can be excellent eating," he added to Gong Su, "I am sure of it, when they have been prepared properly; but we cannot carry any quantity of them back for you to cook for us, and eaten raw they are dreadfully gristly. But we cannot be flying much farther out, and still catch enough to make the flight worth the while."
This sort of conversation, overheard, did not reassure those same minds which thought to plunder the stores necessary for their own survival. Laurence supposed they would not have hesitated for a moment to throw their own fellows to the dragons, if thereby they might save their own skins, or for that matter obtain a cup of grog: which was the main subject of the daily reveries which occupied all their time besides the bare minim of tasks they could be chivvied into by the aviators.
There was not much necessary to keep the camp in good order: not much necessary, but what was necessary still was not done. Each morning saw the shore strewn afresh with driftwood and seaweed, palm fronds blown down upon them, the splatted excrement of the crying gulls objecting to the intrusion of so noisy a party into their domain. Laurence had given over trying to have the filth cleared away more than once every three or four days: instead they all kicked aside the refuse as they walked here and there, or slipped on it.
"If you will not work, you will not eat," he had told the men-the one threat which made for any work at all, and which could not be used without limit. A slight, stoop-shouldered midwingman of sixteen like Cavendish could not clout Richard Handes, a man of thirty and four with fists the size of melons and a mouth full of teeth broken in dockside brawls.
Demane managed to impose, when he needed to; which Laurence was certain must have been due to some ferocious quarrel carried on out of his sight, and Emily Roland might have managed a few at once on the strength of personality alone: might have, if Laurence had any intention of trying so dangerous an experiment; instead he took every opportunity to order her away from camp before sunrise, and watched closely that none of the sailors drifted in the same direction.
Laurence would have given a great deal for even one man among the lot whom he could have made bo'sun, but if there were any trustworthy men to be found, they had not put themselves forward. O'Dea and Shipley were not properly of the sailors: they were Laurence's followers, and O'Dea had enjoyed too well, during their stay about the Triomphe, making somber pronouncements on the demonic effect of liquor-a subject he was most qualified to speak upon, certainly-with imputations on the character of the sailors who had succumbed to its influence. His own culpability in that respect he protested vigorously: he had not been on duty, he was heard to say virtuously.
Shipley, meanwhile, had gown ambitious: he had begun to recognize, with so few hands among the aviators, that a man a little handy and willing might advance past his ordinary expectations. He had been a tailor, before some misfortune had led to his conviction and transportation, and with the loss of Fellowes had evidently formed the aim of making ground-crew master: they did not have harness for him to work on, now, but he made himself busy nonetheless, holding himself apart and lofty from the sailors. They were neither of them to be of use in bridging the gap.
The best candidate, if one were to be had, would have been Mayhew: an older man and one of their small handful of able sailors, who had at one time even advanced to the rank of master's mate before being rated for drunkenness, and might have been of some use. But he had breathed a great deal of smoke in his own escape from the wreck of the Allegiance, and yet coughed in a near-consumptive fashion; and in any case, he had made no push to fix himself in authority among his fellows.
So instead Urquhart and Handes were the most popular-had even been delegated to speak to Laurence, after the first week, with the sailors' grievances. "It is hard to be kept so short, Captain," Urquhart said, with a shifty and a sidelong look that said he did not like so well to be actually addressing Laurence, instead of merely muttering with his fellows. "-dreadful hard, after the troubles we have had; we hope you will think better of it-"
Laurence listened with a mouth pressed thin by wrath, until Urquhart trailed off sidling back and away as his words dried up. Handes, less perceptive, added with brazen insolence, "It is no good going on here as if we were all still on board, and high and mighty. The stores must be opened and shared out proper. We had better have mess twice a day instead of one, and the beasts might bring us a little fish, too, instead of eating it all the day by themselves."
The words alone were pure disrespect, if they had not also been foolish to an extreme; and to round them out with insult, Handes spoke while clapping one great fist into his other hand softly but in meaningful rhythm, as if he meant to imply some sort of threat: Temeraire was away hunting, at present.
But Laurence was neither slight nor stoop-shouldered, and he had once been a lieutenant-briefly and unhappily-under a hard-horse captain; he had never in his own command found it necessary to resort to similar tactics, but that did not mean he was shy of them. He bent down and seized a brand out of the fire and struck Handes in the belly to fold him over, and then again across the shoulders to flatten him to the ground.
"Stay there," Laurence said, savagely, standing over him, "stay there, Handes; I will not answer for it, if you should get up. By God, you may hope I will not think better of wasting the very air upon the lungs of a pack of misbegotten whelps of sea-dogs; I had as lief tell Temeraire to chase the lot of you out into the ocean for the sharks, and send you to join the better men who are gone before you. Get you both out of my sight."
There had been no repetition of this envoy from the sailors, and their industry had already been so bare that it could not be said to have slackened, but Laurence had no illusion that their feelings had altered. Shared out proper was euphemism: the men imagined, or at least dreamed, that there was some liquor hidden among the stores. There might have been: De Guignes had meant to leave them a supply of rum, but Laurence had without hesitation refused this particular generosity. He could scarcely have convinced the sailors of as much, however; to tell them that the offer had been made and rejected would be as much as to tell them it had been made and the results secreted somewhere for the private enjoyment of the aviators.

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