Crucible of Gold

Page 2

Laurence held himself very still a moment, against the involuntary betraying jerk of movement which nearly escaped: if the bars had not been lying across Hammond's palm Laurence would have imagined it a sort of wretched joke, a twist of the mind inspired by exhaustion and liquor, but so much premeditation made it true: true, and no less absurd for that. He was a traitor. If he had done anything of note in the invasion of Britain to merit a lessening of the natural penalty for his crime, he had already been granted the clemency of transportation instead of hanging for services rendered, and since had done nothing which should merit the favorable attention of Whitehall: had indeed refused the orders of a Navy officer point-blank.
"Oh! Oh, Mr. Hammond, how could you not say so at once? But I must not reproach you, when you have brought such splendid news," Temeraire was saying, head bent low and turned so that one enormous eye could survey the bars. "Laurence, you must have your green coat, at once; Mr. Shipley! Mr. Shipley, pray fetch Laurence's chest here-"
"No," Laurence said, "-no, I thank you. Sir," he said to Hammond, with more courtesy than he could feel under the circumstances, "I am very sensible of the kindness you mean to do me by coming all this way with the news, but I must decline."
He had said it: the only possible answer he could make, and bitter to give. The bars still hung upon Hammond's palm before him: small and unadorned to represent as they did the lifting of a blot upon his name and his family, whose shame he had with so much effort learned not to think of, as he could do nothing to repair it.
Hammond stared, his hand still outstretched, and Temeraire said, "But Laurence, surely you cannot mean it," looking at the gold bars.
"There can be only one purpose for ordering my reinstatement in such a manner, in our present circumstances," Laurence said flatly, "and that is to charge me with oversetting the rebellion here in Sydney: no. I am sorry, sir, but I will not be the Government's butcher again. I have no great sympathy for Mr. MacArthur and his grab for independence, but he has not acted without cause or without sense, and I will not slaughter British soldiers to march him to a scaffold."
"Oh-but-" Hammond said, stuttering, "no; no, Captain-I mean, of course, Mr. Laurence; I ought not presume, but-sir, you have mistaken me. I do have business with Governor MacArthur; of course this notion of independence is all nonsense and cannot be allowed to stand, but that is not-while certainly your assistance would be convenient if-"
He paused, collecting himself, while Laurence steeled himself against the hope which demanded its long-abandoned place, and which he ought to have known better than to indulge: if Hammond had brought a mission which any honorable officer of the Corps might be asked to undertake, such an officer would have been asked. But Hammond had drawn himself up more formally: whatever he might now offer would certainly be cloaked in more tempting accents, and all the more difficult to resist.
"First," Hammond said, "allow me to say I entirely understand your sentiments, sir; I beg your pardon for not expressing myself in a more sensible mode. I will also add for your ears that in many quarters, Mr. MacArthur's other actions have been seen in nothing less than a prudential light. I hope you can imagine that cooler minds have regarded the prospect of outright war with China, which Captain Willoughby's-out of courtesy, I will not say folly-which Captain Willoughby's intentions would have induced, as sheer madness, and not in any accord with the spirit of his orders."
Laurence only nodded, austerely; he had expressed much the same sentiments in his report on the matter to Jane Roland, which if it had not been officially taken notice of had certainly been seen: Hammond did not have to study far to know his feelings on that subject.
"Insofar as Mr. MacArthur has shown better judgment in rebelling than in acceding to so disastrous a course, he may well be pardoned for the extremity to which he has gone," Hammond went on, "provided he should acknowledge his mistake and recant. You of course, having direct knowledge of the gentleman, can better say if he can be swayed by reason, but I assuredly have not come with the intention to work upon him by violence, or merely to treat him as a felon."
"I am very sure Mr. MacArthur will be sensible," Temeraire put in anxiously: his wings were pinned back flat and the expressive ruff also. Laurence knew Temeraire valued his lost captaincy all the more for blaming himself for its loss and that of the better part of Laurence's fortune. Though Laurence was unable to value either so high as the honor which he had sacrificed, Temeraire had proven unable to accept his assurances on that score: perhaps for the greater chance which the former had, of ever being recovered.
But however Laurence thought of MacArthur-a second-rate Napoleon, whose talents were not more outsize than his ambitions-he could do him this much credit, or perhaps calumny: if Hammond indeed bore such an offer, Laurence thought it would indeed be accepted. Certainly MacArthur had proclaimed often enough that he had not rebelled on his own account, or for selfish reasons, but only to protect the colony. If that were not entirely the truth, at least MacArthur had deliberately kept open a line of defense less likely to lead him to the gallows; and if he were not inclined to be as sensible as Temeraire hoped, his wife, a wiser woman, likely would be on his behalf.
"Then for what purpose do you require me a captain, instead of a farmer?" Laurence said.
"Nothing at all to do with the rebellion," Hammond said, and then qualified himself, "at least, perhaps-I do not wish to be accused of deceiving you, sir; it may have been considered as an adjunct to the main thrust of our deliberations, that your reinstatement should perhaps give my discussions with Mr. MacArthur a certain-a degree of-let us say, potency-"
"Yes," Laurence said, dryly.
Hammond cleared his throat. "But that is not at all our central purpose: any dragon, any first-rate, might be deployed here for such an action, should it prove necessary, and certainly if you have any objection I would consider myself empowered to-that is, you should not have to undertake the mission yourself; after all there is nothing very urgent in correcting the situation, so long as Mr. MacArthur continues to accept the convict ships, as he has. No: it is the situation in Brazilia; perhaps you have heard something of it?"
Laurence paused; he had heard only the most wild hearsay, borne by an American sea-captain. "That Napoleon had shipped some number of the Tswana dragons there, to attack the colony; to Rio, I understand, if it is not only rumor." They heard only a little news in their isolate valley, and he had not pursued more than what came of its own accord.
"No-no, not rumor," Hammond said. "Bonaparte has conveyed, at last report, more than a dozen beasts of the most fearsome description, who have wholly laid waste Rio; and there is every expectation of his shipping still more as soon as his transports should return to Africa for them ."
Laurence began to understand, now, what might have brought Hammond here, and his anxious look. "Yet I was only a prisoner among them, sir," Laurence said slowly, remembering that sudden and dreadful captivity: borne over a thousand miles into the heart of a continent and separated from Temeraire without warning and, at the time, no understanding of the purpose behind his abduction.
"That is more familiarity than nearly any other person can claim," Hammond said, "and in particular with their language-their customs-"
He stammered over it, and Laurence listened with skepticism: what he had learned over the course of those months of captivity, most of it spent in a prison-cave, he had conveyed in his reports, and he found it difficult to believe that his small experience of the Tswana should have rendered him an acceptable ambassador in the eyes of their Lordships.
To this Hammond said, "I believe-that is to say, I have heard-that his Grace of Wellington thought it not inadvisable-"
"If Wellington maintains any sentiments towards myself or Temeraire past the liveliest impatience, I should be astonished to hear it," Laurence said.
"Well," Hammond said, "rather, as I understand it-a certain suggestion-"
Hammond tried for a little longer to dress it up: but when at last he came out with a description which Laurence could swallow, it seemed Wellington had expressed the opinion that if anyone might be hoped to have success at talking sense into a band of uncontrollable dragons, it should be the two of them; as long as someone was sent along to be sure they did not in the process give away three-quarters of the colony.
"I am sure we should be splendid ambassadors," Temeraire put in, peering down at Laurence hopefully, "however uncomplimentary Wellington may have been about it. Not that I was not quite angry with the Tswana at the time, for after all they had no right to take you, but one must make allowances for their people being taken for slaves, and I am sure the Tswana can be reasonable. Indeed, I do not see why we might not satisfy them at once, by returning those who were stolen."
"Ah," Hammond said awkwardly, "yes, well-of course, the interests of our allies must be considered-the difficulty of tracing particular individuals-and naturally the position of the Government vis-à-vis the, the property rights of-"
"Oh! Property rights! That is perfectly absurd to say," Temeraire said. "If I should take a cow to eat, even if no-one was watching it, you should call it stealing; and if I should give it away to Kulingile for some opals, you would not say that he had any property rights, I am sure, particularly if he knew perfectly well that it was not my own cow at the time."
Hammond began to take on again the harried look familiar from several occasions of their first mission together, to China, and Laurence was unable to resist, with a certain dour amusement, some speculation whether Hammond would not quickly regret having allowed time to soften his impressions of those past difficulties-and to add a roseate glow to the final triumph-and having volunteered himself as the man intended to keep a leash upon them in this proposed endeavor.
For his own part, Laurence was entirely sure that the number of slaves who would be returned in such a programme as Temeraire proposed would not satisfy the Tswana. Even if the Portuguese were willing to hand over their slaves honestly, they could not raise up the dead devoured by the cruel labor of their mines and plantations, and by the hopelessness of their captivity. Nor could he conceive of making himself in any way the agent of slave-owners, which Hammond had ought to have known, if not from acquaintance with Laurence himself, then from the reputation of his father: Lord Allendale had long been a passionate advocate for abolition.
"But nothing of the sort is conceived, I assure you," Hammond protested. "Indeed, I will go so far as to say that the Portuguese are quite prepared-under the circumstances, a certain readiness to compromise-" He halted, before making any outright promises, and added, "but in any case, you should not at all be their agent, but ours."
"And our interest in the matter?" Laurence said.
"The establishment of peace," Hammond said, "which surely you cannot dispute to be desirable."
"Peace is not unpleasant, or nearly so boring as one might expect," Temeraire said, with a faintly wistful note that gave him the lie, "but I do not see why you should be particularly interested in peace in Brazil; if you thought it so splendid you might make peace with Napoleon, in Europe, first: not that I at all wish to promote such a thing," he added hastily, "at least, not while Lien is lording it over in France: I hope we shall never be at peace with her."
"Ah," Hammond said, fumbling, and then stopped, visibly irresolute before saying, "Sir, if I may rely upon your discretion-the utmost secrecy-"
"I am sure you may," Temeraire said with interest, pricking forward his ruff as he leaned in; Hammond looked still more uncertain, as a large dragon's notion of confidential whispering might be heard a good ten yards away.
"So far as it is in our power, you may," Laurence said, "and for what we cannot control, you may rely, sir, on your news being of only scant interest locally, and unlikely of being carried on in any manner which should render it worth relying upon, to any hostile agent."
That, at least, was very true: there was commerce to and from Port Jackson, but there was not a man laboring in the valley who might reasonably expect to leave this country again; where poverty and perpetual inebriation did not bar them, the law would, and they were as trapped here as Laurence had thought himself and Temeraire to be. Britain was another world; the war a distant fairy-story; none of them would care, if they overheard.
"Then I will be so bold as to reveal to you," Hammond said, "Napoleon has overreached, with the failure of his invasion, and now the jaws of a trap are laid open for him at last: we will shortly be landing our own troops in Portugal. We mean to bleed him from the south, while the Russians and the Prussians come at him from the east; and Wellington is confident of our eventual victory."
Audacious in its very extremity: Laurence could only imagine the slog of this proposed war, their troops clawing one inch at a time slowly up the Peninsula through Portugal, through Spain, through the Pyrenees at last to France. Napoleon had indeed suffered dreadful losses in Britain, and left behind an army of prisoners in making his own escape, but whether those losses had been sufficient to leave him vulnerable to final defeat in a grinding campaign, Laurence was not nearly so certain.
"But there can be no hope of victory at all, without a foothold established," he said.
"Yes," Hammond said. "We must have Portugal. And if the Prince Regent should have to flee Brazil and return, with Napoleon already occupying Spain-"

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