His Excellency fastened a cold eye upon him and demanded, ‘Well?’
‘He refuses to come.’ Bidworthy’s veins stood out on his forehead. ‘And, sir, if only I could have him in the space troops for a few months I’d straighten him up and teach him to move at the double.’
‘I don’t doubt that, Sergeant Major,’ the Ambassador soothed. He continued in a whispered aside to Colonel Shelton. ‘He’s a good fellow but no diplomat. Too abrupt and harsh-voiced. Better go yourself and fetch that farmer. We can’t loaf around forever waiting to learn where to begin.’
‘Very well, Your Excellency.’ Trudging across the field, Shelton caught up with the farmer, smiled pleasantly and said, ‘Good morning, my man.’
Stopping his machine, the farmer sighed as if it were one of those days one has sometimes. His eyes were dark brown, almost black as they regarded the newcomer.
‘What makes you think I’m your man.’
‘It is a figure of speech,’ explained Shelton. He could see what was wrong now. Bidworthy had fallen foul of an irascible type. They’d been like two dogs snarling at one another. Oh, well, as a high- ranking officer he was competent to handle anybody, the good and the bad, the sweet and the sour, the jovial and the liverish. Shelton went on oilily, ‘I was only trying to be courteous.’
‘It must be said,’ meditated the farmer, ‘that that is something worth trying for—if you can make it.’
Pinking a little, Shelton continued with determination, ‘I am commanded to request the pleasure of your company at the ship.’
‘Really and truly commanded?’
The other appeared to wander into a momentary daydream before he came back and asked blandly, ‘Think they’ll get any pleasure out of my company?’
‘I’m sure of it,’ said Shelton.
‘You’re a liar,’ said the farmer.
His colour deepening, Colonel Shelton snapped, ‘I do not permit people to call me a liar.’
‘You’ve just permitted it,’ the farmer pointed out. Letting it pass, Shelton insisted, ‘Are you coming to the ship?’
‘Myob!’ said the farmer.
‘What was that?’
‘Myob!’ he repeated. It sounded like some sort of insult. Shelton went back, told the Ambassador, ‘That fellow is one of those too-clever types. At the finish all I could get out of him was ‘Myob’ whatever that means.’
‘Local slang,’ chipped in Grayder. ‘An awful lot of it develops in four centuries. I’ve come across one or two worlds where there has been so much of it that to all intents and purposes it formed a new language.’
‘He understood your speech?’ asked the Ambassador of Shelton.
‘Yes, Your Excellency. And his own is quite good. But he won’t leave his work.’ He reflected briefly, suggested, ‘If it were left to me I’d bring him in by force with an armed escort.’
‘That would encourage him to give essential information,’ commented the Ambassador with open sarcasm. He patted his stomach, smoothed his jacket, glanced down at his glossy shoes. ‘Nothing for it but to go and speak to him myself.’
Shelton was shocked. ‘Your Excellency, you can’t do that!’
‘Why can’t I?’
‘It would be undignified.’
‘I am fully aware of the fact,’said the Ambassador dryly. ‘What alternative do you suggest?’
‘We can send out a patrol to find someone more co-operative.’
‘Someone better informed, too,’ Captain Grayder offered. ‘At best we won’t get much out of one surly hayseed. I doubt whether he knows one quarter of what we require to learn.’
‘All right.’ The Ambassador dropped the idea of doing his own chores. ‘Organise a patrol and let’s have some results.’
‘A patrol,’ said Colonel Shelton to Major Hame. ‘Nominate one immediately.’
‘Call out a patrol,’ Hame ordered Lieutenant Deacon. ‘At once.’
‘Parade a patrol forthwith, Sergeant Major,’ said Deacon.
Bidworthy lumbered up the gangway, stuck his head into the airlock and shouted,’ sergeant Gleed, out with your squad and make it snappy!’ He gave a suspicious sniff and went farther into the lock. His voice gained several more decibels. ‘Who’s been smoking? By heavens, if I catch the man—’
Across the fields something quietly went chuff-chuff while fat wheels crawled along.