Crucible of Gold



ARTHUR HAMMOND PRIDED HIMSELF on a certain degree of insensibility in the cause of duty - an indifference to physical discomfort and even to social awkwardness - a squelching of the natural repugnances, when these should interfere with the progress of a diplomatic mission. Other men, blessed with a greater share of the graces, could afford delicacy; he acknowledged himself a blunter instrument, and if he must be so, he must be the ideal blunt instrument - must be seen to be as heedless of himself as of others, the only possible justification - to be thought of, if grudgingly, "Oh, Hammond - intolerable, but he will see the job through."

So he had cultivated where native tendency led, and seized without compunction or politesse whatever opportunity offered itself, with the consequence that he could while not yet thirty years of age call himself ambassador plenipotentiary to China: a post which he himself had contrived to establish.

And which in turn had led him to his present miserable state, which put to bitter test his determined self-neglect: frost grimed over the surface of the woolen blankets which he had wrapped even over his head, and the hideous swoop-and-lift of the great pale blue wings as the dragon dived to eat, at intervals too far apart to grow used to and yet too near to recover fully from one to the other. Hunger warred with nausea at every moment; there was meat and rice in his satchel, but he scarcely managed to worm his hand out of the coverings to feed himself once a day, and half his provisions were taken off by the wind in any case. He subsisted mostly on the strong rice wine in his flask, in rationed swallows, and passed from one day to another in a daze of blurred vision - his glasses were carefully tucked inside his coat - and illness.

His figurative insensibility had become, by the end of three weeks, nearly a literal one: he did not notice for a long time when the descent at last began, and when the courier folded her wings and put her head around and said, "We have had a very pleasant flight," Hammond was unable to remove himself from the harness for half-an-hour together, hands shaking and clumsy.

Shen Li politely did not remark on his difficulties, but bent her head to the water-hole and drank very deeply for a long stretch; then she raised her head and shook off the water from her muzzle. "I do not see the most honorable Lung Tien Xiang," she observed, while Hammond continued to struggle with the clasps, "but you see the pavilion which he has commanded to be built, there on the mountain - "

Hammond did not see, until he had managed to wrest out his glasses and wipe the lenses, and peering saw the pavilion standing on a cliffside at the far end of the valley where Shen Li had landed. It was an ambitious edifice: something neighbor to the Parthenon in size by the columns of yellow stone which paced out its perimeter, as yet without a roof and circled round by makeshift huts.

"Yes, I do; but are we not very far away?" Hammond said - or meant to say; a dry croak was all that emerged, and he gave up the attempt to converse, in favor of getting off the harness. At the moment he felt he would gladly have walked all the remaining distance in bare feet, over thorns, before going aloft again.

He let himself down from Shen Li's back in the indecorously slow manner used in China only by small children and the infirm, moving one hand or foot at a time. When he had reached the ground he sank down upon a broad smooth stone near the waterside.

"Perhaps I will go and hunt before we continue to the pavilion, if you would care to compose yourself a little," Shen Li said, a hint he could not manage to be ashamed to require. She shook out the immense wings and went aloft in a scattering of leaves and pebbles. Left behind, Hammond sat and gazed at the surface, churned-dark, and imagined drinking: the reality should have to wait another half-an-hour, he thought, before he might dare trust his legs to carry him across the two yards separating him from the water.

He gradually became aware, as the sun penetrated the intense chill which had settled into him, that the day was immensely hot. In Peking it was presently