Crucible of Gold

Page 5

If ever they returned. He turned and went back into the house.
The governor's mansion stood opposite the promontory housing the covert, around the bay, so the aviators and the soldiers had a sobering course of night air on the way back to their quarters. Some of the younger officers found the lights of the dockside taverns along the way a stronger lure than the quiet of their barracks, however, and eeled away in twos and threes; until Laurence was very nearly walking alone but for Granby. Rankin was on ahead, with Lieutenant Blincoln and Lieutenant Drewmore, and without need for discussion Laurence and Granby slowed their steps and turned off onto a more circuitous route, to stretch out the walk.
"No-one can say it wasn't a handsome way to see us off," Granby said, "although MacArthur might have been less festive about it: I am sure he would have wrung my hand with just as much pleasure if I had told him I was going to the devil; not to say we aren't."
"I think we must have a little more faith in Mr. Hammond than that," Laurence said.
"I've more in the Tswana," Granby said. "I can't imagine what he supposes we are going to say that will turn them up sweet, and they have some damned dangerous beasts: fire-breathers, and four heavy-weight breeds that we know of, and we know precious little. I would just as soon try farther north, and see if the colonials would hire out some of their beasts for fighting, if they have so many they are using them for freight these days."
He spoke with a vague disgruntlement shared, Laurence knew, by every aviator who had learned that the Americans had begun to raise dragons in so much earnest that they were bidding fair to rival British numbers, with a scant fraction of the number of men looking to fly them: it was deeply dissatisfying to those who had spent their lives in service, hoping for a rare chance to one day captain their own dragon.
"But much smaller creatures," Laurence said, "and without military training; there can be no comparison. You may be certain Napoleon will have shipped the most deadly of the Tswana, and as many of them as he could cram aboard his transports."
"Well, I will hope the three of us may make them take enough notice to bother listening, instead of just having at us straight off," Granby said, but pessimistically.
"I know Hammond is claiming there will be reinforcements sent to meet us from Halifax, or the Channel, but I will rely on that when they land before us yelling for cattle, and not an instant before.
"Anyway, I oughtn't complain about the Foreign Office's latest notion, when I am damned grateful for the consequences: it was enough to drive a fellow wild thinking of you and Temeraire thrown away in this wretched little port with that fellow Rankin yapping at your heels, and a crowd of useless layabouts besides. I don't blame you for chucking the lot of them and going into the wilds. Whatever are they about, now?" They had come at last in sight of the covert gates, and there was a commotion up on the hillside.
They found something of an uproar, overseen by four interested dragons whose heads loomed above the knot of men; Demane at the heart of it, Laurence rather despairingly saw, and an officer of the New South Wales Corps on his knees in the dirt before him with a bloody lip and wild-eyed alarm at Kulingile peering down.
"-outrage," Rankin was saying in great heat, "-will have his commander here in the morning, demanding an explanation-"
"I don't care!" Demane said. "And the only one who has been outrageous is him; I know you don't care a jot, so he is here and will stay here, until Captain Laurence comes back; and if he wants to get up and leave before then, he may try, and I will have Kulingile hold him upside-down over the cliff."
"But Roland, I am sure if Demane is angry with him, he has done something to deserve it," Temeraire was saying meanwhile to Emily Roland, with what Laurence could only call misplaced loyalty, "so there is no reason not to wait for Laurence to come back: he will certainly know whatever is the best thing to do. But perhaps you had better not hold that fellow over the cliff," he added to Kulingile, the first thing of sense in the conversation, "for you might very easily drop him, if he squirmed. If he should try and run away, you can just pin him down instead: only being careful not to squash him."
"You are all a pack of damned fools," Roland said, as furious as Laurence had ever heard her, "and if he weren't a coward, he would run, and none of you should do anything; there ain't any reason the captain ought hear anything about it."
Iskierka said, "Well, I would like to hear about it, as I am not asleep anymore; is there some fighting?"
"Oh, lord," Granby said, under his breath.
"I am here; what the devil is going on?" Laurence said grimly. "Demane, we spoke this afternoon, I thought, on the subject of brawling."
"I haven't!" Demane said; then realizing the bloody mess of his captive's face gave him every appearance of a lie, added, "Roland did that; only she would have let him off-"
"Because I didn't care to make a stupid great fuss of knocking down some drunken looby is no reason for you to put your oar into it; what bloody right do you suppose you have, pushing into my affairs?" Roland said. "Sir, pray don't give him any mind-"
"How was I to know, anyway?" the soldier blurted, from the ground, "-with her hanging about in trousers; I thought it was a get-up, for a joke."
"If it was, that wouldn't mean I wanted any of your grabbing, anyway," Roland said contemptuously, "and if you didn't know that, you ought have asked, first, if you mean to complain of me."
Rankin snorted. "Ah; I might have known it would be something on the order of this sordid mess. You may relieve yourself of your prisoner, Demane: no-one expects that the women of the Corps protect their virtue as if they were gentlewomen, and I can only imagine the ridicule with which any suit for breach should meet in such a case; or did you expect to be permitted to hang him for jealousy?"
"That is enough, sir; more than enough," Laurence said to Rankin, sharply. "And you: your name, sir, and your commander's," he said to the soldier, who a little belligerently gave it as Lieutenant Paster. "He will hear from me in the morning; I trust he will share my opinion of a man who cannot show decent respect either to a woman, or to a fellow officer."
Lieutenant Paster did not stay to argue, when Laurence had waved him off, but escaped down the hill at speed; Demane scowled, and the crowd began to disperse with the focus of interest lost.
"Sir, I don't need a fuss made," Roland said, coming up to him. "There wasn't anything to the matter-"
"If you please," Laurence said, forestalling her with a hand, and turning to lead her back to his tent, Demane following and trying to speak to her; Roland kept a determined shoulder to his face and ignored him coldly, while he protested that he had only done as he ought-
"That is more than I can say," Laurence said sharply, sitting at his desk . "Your first concern, Demane, ought have been for the reputation and satisfaction of the lady in question, neither of which can have been served by enacting a public scene in a temper-"
"Thank you, sir," Roland said, and glared at Demane with satisfaction.
"-I excuse it in the circumstances," Laurence added, "only as having proceeded from my own failing: the insult could not have been offered in the first place, had I done my duty and arranged for proper chaperonage. No, Roland," he said, when she began to splutter, "your duties must of course come first, but you are nevertheless a gentlewoman and the daughter of a gentlewoman-"
"I am not!" she said, indignantly. "I am an officer and Mother is-"
"If a man may be asked to be both officer and gentleman, so, too, may you, as far as duty permits," Laurence said implacably, "-The one does not preclude you from the responsibilities of the other; nor me from mine as your guardian, until you are of age. I will see to the matter in the morning."
"Now see what you have done," Roland hissed at Demane, and stormed out of the tent.
"Sir," Demane said in protest, "I didn't mean anything of the sort; it is not as though I would let anyone bother Roland-"
"That, sir, is not your privilege," Laurence said, "nor will be, unless Roland should choose to make it yours, with the consent of her family; until then, I will see to it you comport yourself as a gentleman, also. There will be no more of this running wild, and so far as you choose to press your suit, you will do so within bounds."
"But that is not-Roland and I-" Demane said.
"Has she made you any commitments, or given you license to consider her promised to you?" Laurence said.
"-No," Demane said, surly, "but-"
"Then let me hear nothing more of this," Laurence said with finality.
Demane stalked from the tent in as great a temper as Roland herself, and left Laurence with the very meager satisfaction of knowing he had faced up to an inconvenient duty, without the slightest idea of how to accomplish it. Hiring a satisfactory chaperone at all in the unsettled state of the colony would have been a remarkable task, much less finding one in the span of three days who would not balk at coming on a long sea-voyage and a dangerous mission.
And he could not leave Roland in Sydney; that would be to neglect his still-greater duty to see her formed into an officer fit to command a priceless dragon, the which could not be done without useful experience, even if accompanied by danger. She should have no opportunity to acquire any in a sluggish port, and still less under Rankin's command. In any event, that gentleman had made it perfectly plain he could not be relied upon to have any consideration for either Roland's training or her protection.
Laurence wondered doubtfully if perhaps he might find and hire some retired soldier, of advanced years, for the duty: the arrangement could not be called proper, and such a person could offer Roland none of that advice which Laurence vaguely felt was also the purview of a chaperone, unless perhaps the man had raised daughters? But it might do, in lieu of any better solution; and in the meantime, he realized, he should have to row out to the Allegiance and speak to Riley about Roland's quarters.
"Nothing particularly out of the ordinary," Laurence said, "but there must be a separate berth, and one for the chaperone."
"A lady?" Riley said, doubtfully. "Not that I don't see the need, of course," he added, "but Laurence, you cannot mean us to go carting a gentlewoman about to Brazil, with a war going? I don't suppose we have above three women on board, if you count Old Molly in the galley, and the gunner's wife, and her baby, which I don't think should count." And he looked even more doubtful at Laurence's proposed substitution of a retired gentleman.
Laurence was particularly grateful, now, that Riley had learned of the existence of female officers among the aviators; at least Riley did not need a long explanation. It was true Roland could not expect to enjoy the usual satisfactions of marriage and family, either, and perhaps nothing might truly apply, of the ordinary course of rearing a young woman; but Laurence knew very well what he would have thought of a sea-captain who let his young midshipmen run themselves into gaming debts or overindulgence in either drink or whoring; or otherwise render themselves wholly ineligible to a woman of sense and character. He did not intend to be guilty of the same, nor to allow a situation to persist which had already exposed Roland to insult.
"Even if I can only hire a maid, that would at least be something," he said.
"You had better consult Mrs. MacArthur," Riley said. "At least she can tell you how to go on, and perhaps put you in the way of some steady creature; if there is one to be had at such short notice: I think we will have our wind tomorrow, and the tide is at noon."
They went out on the deck, presently noisy with holystoning and stinking with fresh paint, the hands hard at labor under the watchful eye of Lord Purbeck, the first lieutenant; and Laurence thought Riley was right: a certain unsteadiness in the air, which spoke to old instincts.
"And if you do find someone, I can manage the berths, of course," Riley added. "You haven't much crew among the three of you, and there is plenty of room in the bow cabins," these normally being intended for the use of aviators, aboard a dragon transport, and for a much greater number than the Allegiance would be shipping in this case. "I suppose my own mids may cut up a fuss if your ensign has a berth, if they aren't to know why; but they must lump it."
"That one source of difficulty, at least, I may remove," Laurence said, and shook Riley's hand before he went down to the ship's launch, to be taken back to shore.
He found Roland working, with short angry strokes, on oiling some of Temeraire's harness which had been neglected for lack of ground crew; she sprang up when she saw him. "No," Laurence said, "I have not reconsidered; however, I have also another duty, to which I trust you will not object: you have seen more than enough service to make midwingman."
The announcement mollified her a little, but she did say with hopeful cunning, "As midwingman I surely cannot need a chaperone, sir; and anyway, ought you hire one without consulting Mother?"
This reminder was as unnecessary as it was unwelcome: Laurence was awkwardly aware that he was by no means certain of Jane's approving the hiring of a chaperone. Certainly she herself had never had the benefit of one, and would likely abuse the notion as absurd. But neither did he think Jane would have approved of Emily's being subject to any unwanted attentions which she could no longer avoid through camouflage; and still less approve of Emily's engaging herself in any permanent attachment at so young an age.

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