"McCutchan brings . . . a driving narrative style and a vast knowledge of and love for the sea that is certain to delight seafaring buffs." —Booklist
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Halfhyde and the Guns of Arrest
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 3
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1976 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
It was a long way from the sea and the lash of bright silver spray over the plunging bow of a warship: as the sun climbed high above the fells, bringing to a rich bronze the autumn tints on wood and grassland, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde shaded his eyes and looked towards the spectacular immensity of Whernside in the distance. His gaze travelled south-easterly next, towards the long summit of Ingleborough between Greta and Ribble. After the sea, Yorkshire was his first love, though he had seen little of it in the past few years: during the gall of unemployment on the Admiralty's half-pay list, he had seldom made the long train journey north to his father's farm in Wensleydale; the seedy poverty of life as an officer without appointment had made him prefer the anonymity of London and the motherly ministrations of Mrs Mavitty, his landlady in Camden Town who always treated him as a gentleman no matter what. Not that the good people of Wensleydale would have treated him any differently; but he would not sponge upon his parents nor feel unable to buy beer for beer in the hostelries of Hawes. Now, however, he was no longer on half-pay: after a commission afloat that had ended the wilderness years he was on leave and awaiting appointment, which was a totally different kettle of fish. A sovereign or two jingled loose in his pocket, uncommitted except for his pleasure, and once again he could afford whisky in place of beer ...
He turned to his companion. "I've a mind to anchor for a spell, Reuben."
The old man clicked his tongue. "Y'aren't at sea now, Master Vinny. But we'll rest. I'm not so young as I was."
"I dare say the sheep can wait for us." Halfhyde slid the canvas haversack from his shoulder, took off his cloth cap, and lowered his body to the soft, springy earth of the fellside. He glanced at Reuben Rumbelow's face: it was large and square, with a full white beard, and what skin was visible was weatherworn to a leathery brown. Halfhyde smiled to himself: old Reuben, his father's shepherd these last forty years, would be a mere passenger on the heaving wet decks of one of Her Majesty's ironclads at sea, and he, Halfhyde, was equally ignorant, despite his rural background, of the foibles of the Yorkshire Lonk or any other breed of sheep; yet much more than facial toughness linked the men of the sea with the men of the hill farms. Each faced wind and weather, scorching sun and driving sleet. Each was steeped in the lore of his own calling to such an extent that his reaction to events was instantaneous. Each was watchful for the safety of his charge, be it vessel or animal. Each was hardened to a lonely life and to the self- reliance that was an essential part of his work. Between old Reuben and "Master Vinny" there was a strong bond: Reuben Rumbelow had been part of High Farm for many years before Halfhyde's birth.
Halfhyde brought out a flask of whisky, unscrewed the stopper, and handed the flask to Reuben.
"It's early, Master Vinny."
"Damn it, look at the sun! It's noon. And the sheep won't mind."
"If they put a foot in a pothole, they'll mind."
"It'd take more than the whole flask to stop you pulling them clear. Have a mouthful, Reuben: wet your whistle."
No further argument: the shepherd took his mouthful, a meagre one, and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. Bread and cheese were brought out and eaten in friendly silence as a light wind chased streaks of white cloud across the sky to bring a dappled effect to dale and fell. Behind them the first of the autumn fires smoked from the chimneys of the market town of Hawes between Ribblesdale and Swaledale. It was the shepherd who broke the silence after a couple of mouthfuls.
"You've not said much about what you've been up to ... and you've been back at t'farm a week now."
"There's little to tell, Reuben."
Reuben made a gesture of impatience, met the eye of the collie lying full stretch a few yards away, head between paws, feathery tail outstretched behind. "That's nobbut modesty!"
A grin touched Halfhyde's mouth. "I sank a Russian fleet."
"Never!" The shepherd stared. "All by thissen?"
"With the assistance of my captain," Halfhyde said in acknowledgment of modesty, "and a good ship's company."
"Is that true, Master Vinny?"
Reuben scratched his head. "I'll be buggered. I've never known you to tell owt else, I'll say that. But by gum! It's a wonder you didn't start a bloody war!"
"That's what Their Lordships said to my captain. But in the end, Reuben, honour was satisfied all round and some good was done. For various reasons Their Lordships were able to regard the damage to the fleet as a self-inflicted wound. Anyway, the Russians are lying very low now, and I'll say no more about it."
"They told you not to, did they, these Lordships?"
Halfhyde grinned again. "Something like that, Reuben. So tell it only to your sheep." He got to his feet and stretched, tall, slim, and agile. He called to the fell dog who, grinning back at him from behind a mat of hair, waved his tail and stood up, coming towards Halfhyde who bent to rumple his ears. The shepherd looked on with indulgence: the young master, whom he could never quite think of as a full-fledged officer of Her Majesty's fleet, had always got on well with animals and children, and to Reuben that was praise enough. But it seemed he did not get on with the Russkies! To sink a fleet of great warships was both a wonderful and terrible thing to do, and indeed in the peace and tranquillity of the Pennine fells was an impossible thing for a man to visualize who had never so much as seen the sea ... Reuben thought of death, and broken bodies, and fire, but was unable to see the whole picture or to appreciate the dramatic horror of the last moments of a great ship.
The two men carried on with the day's work, Reuben communicating with the collie in the manner known only to the shepherd-brotherhood of the fells, a skill that Halfhyde knew he would never learn. Even here, even today, his thoughts were with great waters and the race of men who went down in danger to the sea. His very gait rolled to the imagined heave of a slippery deck with life-lines rigged fore and aft in a sea-way. After Reuben's question his thoughts had gone back across the world to the China seas, and the task of the gallant old Viceroy, Captain Henry Bassinghorn in command, to plant the British flag on the volcanic island that was now to go down on the Admiralty charts as Halfhyde's Island: Bassinghorn himself had insisted on this on their return to report to Their Lordships of the Admiralty. The Hydrographer of the Navy had been pleased enough to concur with orders from the First Sea Lord, and Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, though still very much alive, had passed into history. The shattering roar of the eruptions that had laid Admiral Prince Gorsinski's flagship almost vertically upon an upthrust mountainside halfway between Hong Kong and San Francisco exploded in his ears again. The work, strictly speaking, had perhaps been God's! In those terrible eruptions, due to the forcing of God's hand by the impact of gunfire from the Russian cruiser, an arm of solid land had been lifted and thrown across the anchorage; the Russian squadron was in there still, and would remain there until the metal rusted away and the great gun- batteries fell to pieces, stark memorials to the frustrated ambitions of the Czar of All the Russias.
Walking the fells with his mind elsewhere, answering old Reuben's occasional questions absently, Halfhyde was scarcely aware, as the sun went down the sky towards Kendal and the lakes behind, that they had turned homeward. Coming down a little to the east of Hawes and meeting the road running through Wensleydale to Leyburn, they began to walk the last mile to High Farm on the road's hard, rutted surface. They had gone no more than a couple of hundred yards when from behind came the urgent tinging of a bicycle bell; and they moved to the left in single file to allow free passage to the cyclist.
They were hailed. "Well, I'll be damned, sir, if 'taint Master Vinny hissen." The cyclist braked, skidded in a shower of dust and stones, and dismounted: he was the postman from Hawes. "A good afternoon to you, sir."
"And to you, John." Halfhyde shaded his eyes with one hand. "What's the hurry?"
"I was going up to t'farm. There's a telegram from London." The voice was hoarse with import. "From t'second Sea Lord o' t'Admiralty, for thee."
"A telegram, indeed!" Halfhyde held out his hand. "Let's have it, and its dictates!"
The envelope was passed across: Halfhyde slit it quickly. It was brief enough: Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, Royal Navy, from Second Sea Lord. You are to report to Commander-in-Chief Plymouth forthwith on appointment as lieutenant for special duties in Her Majesty's Ship Prince Consort, Captain Henry Bassinghorn, Royal Navy, in command.
Halfhyde caught his breath. "Bassinghorn again!" he said aloud. "He must have asked for me. That's an honour, at all events!" He put a hand on the postman's shoulder. "Thank you, John. You've brought me good news, though you'll prove a Job's comforter to my unfortunate mother and father. Off you go back to Hawes."
"A safe journey to you, Master Vinny." The postman saluted, almost standing at attention, feeling his position as a link in the chain of momentous communication: not often did one speed a naval officer upon his duty. True, the great houses of the district provided their quotas of officers for the regiments — the West Yorkshires, the Green Howards, the Duke of Wellington's, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry — but Her Majesty's Navy was a rarer flower. As the harbinger swung his machine round and pedalled off back to Hawes, Halfhyde took Reuben Rumbelow's arm. "Dinner tonight must lack my company, old friend. Forthwith means what it says — at once if not sooner! I'll pack my gear and then my father must drive me in the trap to the railway station at Hawes."
The long journey was made even longer by the disappointment in the faces at High Farm. From Hawes Junction Halfhyde went to Northallerton and caught the Edinburgh–London express stopped for him on telegraphed orders from the stationmaster at Hawes. In London next morning, after changing into uniform at the station hotel at King's Cross, he caught the train out of Paddington for Plymouth.
When his uniform cases had been removed from the guard's van, Halfhyde took a cab to Devonport and the dockyard gates in Fore Street, to be immediately absorbed into the atmosphere of the Navy. Devonport, like Portsmouth, like Chatham in the Nore Command, was a sailor's town. Here the fleet was everything, the military garrison a thing of the second rank. The libertymen from the ships in port filled the streets, overflowing from the public houses in carousing groups. Some of the men wore sennit hats, others round caps, and others again the peaked caps of petty officers. There were gnarled able seamen with faded blue collars and a full quota of gold good-conduct badges on their left arms; men with beards, men clean-shaven, men with years of service behind them, and youngsters starting their first commission afloat. Looking from the dark interior of the cab, Halfhyde noted the ship-names on the black, gold-lettered cap ribbons: Inflexible, Agincourt, Calliope — known to the fleet as "Hurricane Jumper" after making out to sea from Apia in Samoa into the jaws of a hurricane to seek safety in open water while less prudently commanded ships succumbed — Arethusa, Trafalgar, Royal Oak, and many more, honoured names that over the years had carried the White Ensign across every ocean of the world. Some of the roistering sailors had women on their arms; others, alone, stopped occasionally in their lurching progress to take a swig from a bottle. As Halfhyde's cab swayed on, police appeared, supported by the military: they blew whistles and shouted for the roadway to be cleared; and from the distance behind him Halfhyde heard the skirl of the pipes and the beat of the drums. He ordered the cabbie into the roadside, to wait. Past him came a Highland regiment, proud men in hackled bonnets with kilts aswing around weather-hardened knees. The air was filled with the sound of the pipes and drums playing "The Campbells Are Coming." Carried proudly aloft behind them were the Queen's and regimental colours, the latter bearing the battle honours. When the rearguard had gone past down Fore Street and under the dockyard gate, Halfhyde ordered his cabbie to proceed again, past Miss Agnes Weston's Royal Sailors' Rest by the dockyard gate. At the gate he gave his name and that of his ship to the constable on duty and was saluted through to the offices of the commander-in-chief. Before moving on, he leaned out of the window again.
"The Scots — are they embarking for foreign service?"
"Yessir. Bombay, sir, and the North-West frontier. The Malabar's lying off in the Sound, sir, to take them from tenders."
Halfhyde nodded and signalled the cabbie to move on. After the troopship sailed out of Plymouth Sound, there would be many seasick Scots and the pipes would lie silent — to the delight of the Sassenachs among the Malabar's crew. Bowling over the dockyard cobbles, Halfhyde sniffed the smells appreciatively — the tar and the rope, the canvas that still lingered from the old sailing navy, the salt of the sea blown inshore from the Sound and the Hamoaze — the waters sailed by Drake when he went out to sweep the Channel clear of the great Armada and save England as surely as Nelson had, later. Halfhyde hummed to himself:
Take my drum to England, hang et by the shore,
Strike et when your powder's runnin' low;
If the Dons sight Devon, I'll quit the port o' Heaven ...
The cab stopped: port had been reached, but it was not heaven. Emerging from the cab, Halfhyde was saluted by a sentry of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and by the sergeant of the guard, to whom he gave his name and errand. Inside the commander-in-chief's building he was met by the flag lieutenant.
Halfhyde gave a slight bow. "At your service. Am I to report to the commander-in-chief in person, or to the chief of staff?"
"The former, who shall see you presently. My office is at your disposal meanwhile."
Halfhyde nodded his thanks, and followed the immaculate flag lieutenant along a green-painted passage. In the flag lieutenant's office Halfhyde asked the question he had been dying to ask ever since he had received that urgent telegram: "Do you know what this is all about? I refer to the fact of my special duties."
"I do, but I must leave the telling of it to the admiral." The flag lieutenant, who gave his name as Newton-Andrews, smiled understandingly. "You've had a damned long journey from Yorkshire, and you've been speculating."
"I have, very busily. And then there's the ship herself. The Prince Consort has a poor reputation in a sea-way. I'm pleased enough to have an appointment afloat, but —"
"But you can think of more modern battleships?"
"You have it precisely, Mr Newton-Andrews. I know the Prince Consort's reputation, as I say. Apart from anything else, she's said to be dangerous when in company with other ships if she should be so unwise as to exceed ten knots. Ten knots is not fast ... and speaking of reputations, I have my own to consider."
"Your reputation for insubordination, Mr Halfhyde?" The flag lieutenant's eyebrows shot up. "I should hardly think that worth preserving."
"No. My reputation as a seaman and a ship-handler."
"Not a reputation famed for its tact."
"I am not a tactful man. God failed to grant me that grace," Halfhyde said, half mockingly.
"Nevertheless, I would advise tact with the admiral, and some concealment of the irritation which is said to afflict you when in the presence of senior officers —"
"Only some senior officers, not all. I have the greatest respect for Captain Bassinghorn, and to that extent I am delighted to be joining his command." Halfhyde stared into the flag lieutenant's eyes, coolly. "Mr Newton-Andrews, you appear to know a great deal about me."
"You are not precisely a retiring officer, Mr Halfhyde."
"Only a half-pay one, from time to time — as, it seems, you know."
Excerpted from Halfhyde and the Guns of Arrest by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1976 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Philip McCutchan served on various British war ships during WWII. Afterwards, he concentrated on writing, publishing more than 80 books, including the fifteen-book Halfhyde series.
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