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Halfhyde on Zanatu
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 7
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1982 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
It was a splendid morning, fresh and invigorating after a night spent incognito in the roistering bars of Portsmouth town. Officers of Her Majesty's Fleet were not usually accustomed to drink beer and gin alongside men of the lower deck, but Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde found an occasional night in their company a more refreshing experience than listening to the often constipated expoundings of his brother officers. Last night, the fumes of liquor had been heavy, and still were, but the breeze coming off the waters of Spithead was beginning to clear them from his brain. Away to the east came the rumble of heavy gunfire from Fort Cumberland as the gunners of the Royal Marine Artillery were exercised in the laying and training of their batteries upon a target to the eastward of the Isle of Wight. Halfhyde, who had risen early, had walked from his lodgings in Victoria Road towards the sea, taking a long route to the dockyard. Small white horses sparkled around the sea forts; an inwardbound battleship turned for the buoyed channel to enter harbour, her seamen divisions fallen in fore and aft wearing their sennit hats, while a string of coloured bunting strained against the signal halliards. Halfhyde recognized her as the Royal Sovereign, launched in 1891 ... a 14,000-ton ship of high freeboard, her four 13.5-inch guns in open barbettes neatly trained now to the fore-and-aft line for entering harbour. The on-shore breeze brought fitful music from the band of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, fallen in on the battleship's quarterdeck.
"A fine sight," Halfhyde said aloud.
Beside him, from close to the ground as he stood seaward of Southsea Castle, a small voice said fervently, "It is that, mister!"
Halfhyde looked down, raising his eyebrows: an urchin, barefoot and in ragged clothing, but with the young face alight. "It gladdens the heart, boy, does it not?"
The urchin nodded. "I'm goin' to go to sea, mister, if they'll have me."
"Then I wish you luck. How old are you?"
"Ten, mister, goin' on eleven." It was said with importance: eleven was a great age, much more so than ten. "Soon as I'm old enough, I'm goin' to join."
"You could do worse," Halfhyde said gravely. "What's the view of your parents, and of your schoolmasters?"
The urchin grinned. "Don't matter what they say, mister, I know what I want." He looked towards the stately battleship as it slid slowly past the beach; he was totally absorbed. Already he could see himself, as Halfhyde was aware, barefoot as now, nimbly climbing the steel ladders that networked the battleship below-decks, or swarming to the flag deck as a signal boy with a smart blue sailor's collar and bell-bottomed trousers.
After a word or two of encouragement Halfhyde turned away and walked on with a springy step. All was well with the Empire and would remain so as long as England's youth wanted to go to sea or join the army. A man could do no better ... Halfhyde rounded the castle and strode across Southsea Common, coming eventually along Pembroke Road and then into the High Street of Old Portsmouth, passing the George Hotel where Lord Nelson had spent his last night on English soil before sailing away to Trafalgar and a glorious death. By the military barracks he turned left for Portsmouth Hard and the main gate of the dockyard, where he was approached by a constable of the Metropolitan Police, the force that had the honour of guarding the royal dockyards.
Halfhyde, who was in plain clothes, identified himself. "Lieutenant-in-command of Seahorse undergoing refit."
"All right, sir." The policeman saluted, and Halfhyde walked through into the sea smells of the yard, tangy and evocative of tar and rope and salt water, past the boatyard and the lofty ware-houses and the Royal Sovereign now busily securing to the South Railway jetty. He walked on to the dry-dock where the torpedoboat destroyer lay with her plates exposed and the dockyard mateys swarming all over her like busy flies with rivetting hammers and all manner of strange tools. Halfhyde sighed; she looked a mess, and had looked a mess for the last four months. With most of her former company split up and drafted to other ships, and with no living accommodation aboard her, she had temporarily ceased to live. As Halfhyde watched with distaste and tried to project his mind ahead to the day when she would recommission and go again to sea, his first lieutenant emerged from what looked like no more than a jagged hole in the super-structure. He had news. "There's a signal for you, sir, from the commander-in-chief." He handed a signal form to Halfhyde.
Halfhyde's eyebrows went up. "I'm required to attend upon the admiral at once, am I? I wonder what's in the wind now." He glanced down at his plain clothes. "No doubt at once means at once. Since my uniform is in my lodgings, I shall attend as I am."
Taken off by a dockyard boat to the old Victory, Halfhyde stepped aboard and was escorted with bent head along the timber decks, past the cannons that had roared Lord Nelson's thunder at the French and Spanish fleets, to be greeted by the flag lieutenant. The latter stared disdainfully at plain clothes that had seen better days: lieutenants without private means were among the world's poor. Halfhyde, the flag lieutenant said, would be admitted immediately to the admiral's presence; and was as good as his word. He turned away towards the great stern cabin once occupied by Nelson, and was quickly back and beckoning Halfhyde to follow. Halfhyde entered the cabin to find the admiral seated behind a desk, short, square, much whiskered, and impeccably uniformed, with a beautifully turk's-headed telescope gleaming on the polished mahogany and leather of the desk.
"Ah, Halfhyde." There was a glare. "What the devil d'you mean by this?"
"By what, sir?"
"By presenting yourself to me out of uniform, of course!"
"I apologize, sir, but fancied speed in execution of orders to be preferable to sartorial considerations."
"I think you're being impertinent, Mr Halfhyde, and not for the first time in your career. I advise you very strongly to guard your tongue, or you'll find yourself back on the half-pay list. I do not expect my commanding officers to appear on duty in the dockyard or aboard my flagship out of uniform, and the fact that your ship is refitting is no excuse, do you understand?"
"Sit down, then."
Halfhyde lowered himself gladly enough into a chair: the Victory's deckheads were low enough to be torture to a tall man. Whilst the admiral pushed irritably at papers and signals on his desk, Halfhyde reflected on half-pay, an unsatisfactory state of affairs into which he had been projected in the past by his habit of not suffering gladly the peccadilloes of unintelligent senior officers; he had no wish to return to that state, or to Camden Town and the ministrations, however kindly, of the good Mrs Mavitty, his erstwhile landlady. He would watch his tongue when the admiral uttered again, which within the next minute he did.
"I consider your experience wasted, Mr Halfhyde, in standing by a ship undergoing refit — a refit that has lasted for longer than was expected. As it happens, I have been asked by the Admiralty to recommend an officer of lieutenant's rank for a special duty, and I have submitted your name."
"Thank you, sir. May I ask for what duty?"
The admiral nodded, looking keenly at Halfhyde. "You may. You are appointed lieutenant-in-command of the torpedo-boat destroyer Talisman with effect from noon tomorrow. You will leave port at noon the following day and your orders are to take your ship to the South Pacific by way of Singapore. It will be a long and hazardous voyage for a small vessel, as no doubt you are aware."
"Yes, sir. May I ask, why not enter the South Pacific by way of the South Atlantic and Cape Horn?"
"For a very good reason," the admiral said. "In Singapore you are to rendezvous with a squadron under Commodore Bassinghorn." Heavy eyebrows lifted. "I understand you have served under him in the past?"
"I have, sir, and with pleasure." Captain Bassinghorn, as he had then been, was a splendid seaman and a fine man, and a friendship had developed when Halfhyde had been Bassinghorn's first lieutenant in the old battleship Viceroy in Chinese waters, had been continued in the Prince Consort off South-West Africa and again — though only briefly before Halfhyde had been snatched away to serve under the extraordinary Captain Watkiss — in the Lord Cochrane in the Mediterranean. "I shall be delighted to serve under him again."
"I am glad to hear it," the admiral said. Tapping his fingers on his desk, he went on, "Commodore Bassinghorn is flying his broad pennant in the first-class cruiser Port Royal, which is accompanied by the second-class cruiser Plantagenet, these two ships forming the Long Range Squadron. Upon your arrival off Singapore, Commodore Bassinghorn will pass his detailed orders, but I am able to inform you of their basis. The squadron is under Admiralty orders to steam towards the island of Zanatu. The Colonial Office is in receipt of intelligence to the effect that certain persons on the island, which is a British possession, are planning a revolt against our rule. This is to be nipped smartly in the bud."
"I see, sir. Could it not be nipped the more smartly by using ships already in Australian waters?"
"We have no ships available off the Australian colonies, Mr Halfhyde, otherwise, you may rest assured, the Admiralty would have used them without advice from you."
"I am delighted you agree," the admiral said with heavy sarcasm. "You will kindly proceed to hand over to your first lieutenant, who is appointed in command of Seahorse in your place."
On the stroke of noon next day Halfhyde arrived alongside Talisman in the dockyard basin. This time he was in uniform, with the two gold stripes of his rank glinting on his sleeves above the starched white shirt-cuffs. Looking down from the wall of the basin Halfhyde saw, with pleasure, that the Talisman looked a smart ship; he had not expected this. The admiral had made no mention of why the TBD's former commanding officer, a senior lieutenant, had needed replacement and Halfhyde, exercising unusual tact, had refrained from asking; but discreet enquiries made after leaving the admiral's presence had revealed that drink had been the cause. Drunken captains did not normally produce smart ships unless they had conscientious and loyal subordinates, and the fact spoke well for the first lieutenant. Meanwhile, there was activity below: the quartermaster and his gangway staff had sprung to attention and a moment later a lieutenant appeared on deck to salute his new captain aboard.
Halfhyde clambered down an almost vertical ladder and stepped on to the quarterdeck. "You are my first lieutenant?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Name of Halliburton, sir."
Halfhyde nodded. "I trust we shall get on well together, Mr Halliburton. The ship is clean and that's a good start. I'd be obliged to be shown to my cabin, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir." Halliburton turned and Halfhyde followed. Once inside his cabin, he faced his second-in-command, standing stiffly with his hands clasped behind his tall back. Halliburton looked willing but stolid, somewhat pudding-faced. "Your history, if you please, Mr Halliburton."
"Yes, sir." Halliburton gave a nervous hitch to his trousers. "Britannia, of course, for my cadet's time. Midshipman in the Flying Squadron under Lord Clanwilliam. Sub-Lieutenant in the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. Appointed to this ship as a lieutenant, sir." Halliburton paused. "One year's seniority now, sir."
"Yes, I see." Halfhyde smiled and held out his hand. After that Halliburton had little more to say; he did not appear to be a man of much conversation and seemed ill-at-ease in his captain's presence. Halfhyde nodded a dismissal; and later, after meeting his other officers in the small ward-room, made an extended tour of the ship prior to moving to the anchorage.
At six bells in the forenoon watch next day Halfhyde said, "One hour to sailing, Mr Halliburton. I shall expect your reports of readiness in forty-five minutes."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The first lieutenant went about his business. The minutes ticked away to departure on her long voyage and Halfhyde's engineer, Mr Dappers, approached and saluted and reported his engines ready to proceed. Then Mr Halliburton, reporting the ship's company correct and the ship ready for sea.
"Thank you, Mr Halliburton. Pipe the hands to stations for leaving harbour." Halfhyde went forward to the navigating bridge, where the sub-lieutenant stood by the binnacle. The routine signal was made to the Queen's Harbour Master, asking formal permission to proceed; when this permission came, Halfhyde passed the order to weigh anchor. With the cable already shortened-in, the anchor was quickly hove-to the waterline and left underfoot in case of need; once outside the harbour it would be brought aboard to the cathead and secured for the long sea passage to Gibraltar, where the bunkers would be replenished to take the ship on through the Mediterranean for Port Said and the hot haul through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea. Halfhyde put his engines ahead for the harbour mouth, piping the still and coming to the salute as his ship proceeded past the flag of the commander-in-chief aboard the Victory. Moving onward he passed the Royal Sovereign at the South Railway jetty, and again saluted in respect for a post captain's commissioning pennant. The Talisman slid out through the narrow entrance, leaving the crusted walls of Fort Blockhouse to starboard and the Round Tower to port, moving along the buoyed channel until the transit bearings told Halfhyde when to make his turn to starboard into the waters of Spithead, where a century before England had been shaken by the mutiny of her fleet. Times had changed since then; but a seaman's life was still a hard one and the twelve thousand sea miles to Zanatu in a ship as small as the Talisman would bring no comfort to any of her company.CHAPTER 2
After coaling ship, Gibraltar was left behind as a magnificent sunset flooded the harbour and the outer anchorage with colour. The bugles of the Royal Marine Light Infantry sounded across the bay from the quarterdecks of the Mediterranean Squadron, to be followed by the lowering of the White Ensigns. From the military barracks ashore came the sound of the bands of the regiments in garrison, stirring sounds of Empire, of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's sway over half the world. With the filthy coal-dust of the bunkering evolution swilled away by the wash-deck hoses, the Talisman steamed past Europa Point into the Mediterranean where the sea lay flat and the night sky was soon hung with a myriad stars. Behind the ship the wake streamed away westward, a bright green swathe of phosphorescence. In due course they left the great Malta base to starboard — another pillar of British might whose Grand Harbour held a powerful array of battleships and cruisers.
In Port Said they took more coal aboard before the passage of the canal. In Aden, and in Colombo, and once more in Singapore, Talisman bunkered again. On their arrival Commodore Bassinghorn was conspicuous only by his absence; and during the coaling operation a hand message was brought aboard from Government House. The Long Range Squadron had been delayed in sailing from Hong Kong, and Halfhyde was now ordered to make a rendezvous off the island of Woleai in longitude 143° east, latitude 7° north. When the rendezvous was made, the reinforced squadron would steam direct for Zanatu at its maximum speed.
Coaling once again completed, Halfhyde took the Talisman out through the Singapore Strait and headed nor'-nor'-east into the South China Sea to come round the northern tip of Borneo, thence altering to the eastward through the Balabac Strait and passing between the islands of the Sulu archipelago into the Celebes Sea.
It was nearly three days later that trouble came.
Excerpted from Halfhyde on Zanatu by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1982 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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