of the men away. You know how they love fish.’
He wiped a hand over his face.
‘We got ourselves backed into the shallow water there, held up the fish. Well, they were smart enough to be careful at the start. But we called and coaxed and dangled the damned fish… we grabbed two poor devils, they were slippery as eels and fought like the blazes but I had eight good men there, we got the ropes around them in the end.’
Rooke could see it: the boat lurching, the native men sprawled in the water slopping about in the bottom, pinned there with the sheer poundage of cursing sailors. He wanted to hear the next part of the tale, in which the natives threw off the sailors, leaped out of the boat, swam ashore, vanished into the woods.
‘I cannot believe that the governor,’ he started, but Gardiner was not listening.
‘They cried out, Rooke,’ Gardiner exclaimed. ‘By God you should have heard them crying out, it would break your heart. The ones left behind as we got away, they were screaming. The wretches in the boat crying out. Oh God. They may be savages, we call them savages. But their feelings are no different from ours.’
He jumped up as if the chair had grown spikes and went over to the window. Rooke could see only his big shoulders, the back of his head. The hut was silent. Even the water at the foot of the rocks was holding its breath.
Rooke half rose out of his chair, not knowing what to do next, only that he could not let Gardiner stand there alone. But as he moved, Gardiner took a long shaky breath that ended in a cough, dragged out his handkerchief and blew his nose. He came back to the table and poured himself a drink, his hands shaking.
‘Well, they are in the hut behind the governor’s house now. He had the shackles put on them, I am glad I did not have to watch that.’
‘You did your duty, that was all.’
How feeble that sounded. What did duty have to do with a man undone by feeling?
‘You did it in the kindliest way. That such a task could be done. Since it had to be done.’
‘Kindly!’ Gardiner repeated. ‘He will put it in that light, you may be sure of it. In London they will all agree. How kindly.What a splendid fellow, best give him another fifty pound a year.’
Rooke knew Gardiner as well as he knew any man, but had never dreamed that he might speak with this depth of bitterness. Or how some answering sharpness in himself was responding. He had not known how much he had come to dislike the governor, that secretive sour man.
‘ Brought in , that is what he calls it. The natives were brought in . Never mind that they were kidnapped. Violently. Against their will. They were crying, Rooke, I tried to show them we meant no harm, but they were wailing as if their hearts would break! Who will say how it really was? Tell the truth about it?’
‘Certainly not a pair of lieutenants who know which side their bread is buttered!’ It was an effort to lighten the mood, but Rooke might as well not have spoken.
‘It was by far the most unpleasant service I ever was ordered to execute.’
Gardiner’s voice was low, ashamed. Rooke thought, And I? Have I ever been given an order that would shake me, shame me? Nothing came to his mind. On Resolution he could not see the men his blind shots might have reached, if there had been any. In New South Wales he had sidestepped the whole business of being a soldier through the good offices of astronomy. But it was chance, nothing more. There was a coldness in him, knowing that only accident lay between his situation and Gardiner’s.
A loose shingle rattled, the branch of a bush scratchedagainst the wall. A bird warbled once, twice.
‘I wish to God I had not done it! He should not have given the order, but I wish to God I had not obeyed!’
Gardiner was shouting, the words filling the hut and sailing out the window.
‘For God’s sake, man! Have a care what you say!’
They were private out here, but no degree of privacy was safe when such
M. S. Parker, Cassie Wild
Sean Dalton - [Operation StarHawks 03]