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There was, Halfhyde found as he stepped down from the train at the high-level platform of the station near the Town Hall, much nostalgia in his return to Portsmouth. Portsmouth was all navy, the streets would as ever swarm with bluejackets, tough bearded men with a swaggering walk and the very feel and smell of the sea about them as they roistered in and out of the many hundreds of public houses that adorned the port. Though Halfhyde's many initial regrets at having left Her Majesty's Fleet had by now been submerged by the happy thought that he owned and sailed his own ship under the Red Ensign of the Merchant Service, the nostalgia was strong, as strong as the damp smell of blue serge sweated into by a naval draft from Chatham that had been on his train out of Waterloo. As he went down the steps to street level, he was submerged by the mass of ratings under the charge of a petty officer second class, a man heavily tattooed as to the backs of his hands. The draft was met by the naval patrol, gaitered seamen under a ship's corporal who mustered and checked the men before they were fallen in to march to the barracks, while their kitbags and hammocks continued by another train of bare vans to the barracks' siding on the line that ran into the dockyard.
Halfhyde watched the men march off in column of fours. The town's traffic was held up for them by a policeman with a bulging stomach and side-whiskers, the tight neck of his tunic seizing him by the neck so hard that rolls of flesh overhung it. There was a bluejackets' band to head the files: such was good for recruiting, and there was talk of war in the air, had been for some while now. Brother Boer was getting uppish again and might have to be taught a sound lesson, given a sound thrashing for his impudence. If it came, it looked like being a land war rather than a naval one, but all the same, the fleet was making ready, and new battleships and cruisers were being commissioned continually.
The men marched away, the band playing "Goodbye, Dolly Gray." More nostalgia, the sound of songs of war ... Halfhyde shrugged, turned his back and sent a porter to get him a cab. He had no gear with him, he intended returning to London that same day en route for Liverpool, but he was not going to have his father-in-law, if indeed Sir John Willard still regarded himself as such, imagining that he was too penurious to afford one-and-sixpence. It had been Halfhyde's sense of duty that had impelled him to seek audience with Sir John, nothing else; he did not look forward to the interview and hoped he would be spared a meeting with the unfortunate Mildred.
The porter came back, touching his cap. "Cab's awaiting, sir."
"Thank you." Halfhyde handed the man tuppence, which was gratefully received. The cap was touched again, and the porter led the way to the cab. The scraggy horse was whipped awake and behind the clopping hooves Halfhyde looked out at the Town Hall square, was taken past the Theatre Royal and on past Government House to turn right further along past the back of the military barracks, then left again into the High Street of Old Portsmouth, past the George Hotel with its memories of Lord Nelson, to stop outside the residence of Vice-Admiral Sir John Willard.
Halfhyde got out, looked back at the cabby. "You'll kindly wait," he said. "I shall not be long."
Standing with his back to the fireplace in his study, Sir John's face was grim. He snapped, "Master of a gun-runner to the damn Irish rebels!"
"Not so, sir. Well you know it! My crew and I were instrumental in preventing the arms reaching the rebels – as was fully reported in the newspapers —"
"Which was why you asked to see me, no doubt. Because I would know you were in this country. Had it not been for that —"
"I would not have come, sir. That's true. But in the circumstances, a sense of decency —"
"Hah notwithstanding, sir, I demand an apology for your accusation of gun-running." Halfhyde was standing also, and his long jaw was thrust out. There was a hard light in his eye. "You will apologize at once, sir. As a gentleman —"
"Oh, very well!" the vice-admiral snapped, reddening. "If it relieves me of your presence the faster, then I apologize. And now pray tell me what you want of me, Halfhyde." He paused, glaring distastefully. "I suppose you call yourself Captain Halfhyde now."
"No, sir. I do not call myself Captain Halfhyde. I am Captain Halfhyde —"
"We'll not argue the point. Kindly answer my question."
Halfhyde took a deep breath. "I want nothing of you, sir. I came merely to express my regrets as to the past ... and to enquire after Mildred, who is, after all, my wife still."
"Whom you abandoned."
"I'm sorry —"
"Sorry indeed! Lady Willard has been far from well since ... I wish no damned apologies from you, nor anything else —"
"Nevertheless, sir, I do not run from my responsibilities. Despite financial difficulties, I shall still maintain my wife so far as I am able to do so. I —"
"You can keep your damn money, Halfhyde. My daughter wishes to have none of it."
Halfhyde shrugged. "Well, you're far from a poor man, I'll grant, sir. All the same —"
"Must I repeat it? My daughter will accept nothing from you, d'you hear me?" Sir John's colour was rising dangerously towards apoplexy. "Your money is tainted and such as you've already given her will be returned – there was mention in the newspapers of a woman aboard that ship of yours —"
"Yes. A passenger."
Sir John glowered. "You expect me to believe that!"
"Perhaps not a passenger only," Halfhyde admitted. "I am a man, sir, and I have the needs of a man. When one's wife —"
"What you call needs ... my daughter no doubt regards them as disgusting."
Halfhyde smile frigidly. "You sound as though you agree, sir. In which case I find myself very surprised, not to say astonished, that your daughter was born at all —"
"I regard this conversation as degrading, Halfhyde – and highly improper. If you have no more to say, I'd be obliged if you would kindly remove yourself from my house – and not return again."
Halfhyde gave an ironic bow. "As you say, of course, sir. May I, as a final request, ask how Mildred is? I am not without some regard for my wife, and I wish her nothing but well, and wish for her happiness. If —"
"My daughter has her interests. She has her horse. She stands in no need of sympathy from you." Sir John tugged at a bell ribbon, his mouth clamped shut. He said nothing further; when his manservant entered the study, he merely gestured towards Halfhyde, who was at once shown out with no godspeed from Sir John Willard. He re-entered the cab, directing the cabby back to the railway station, his face grim. As he had tried to show, he was not without remorse for a marriage that he should never have entered upon in the first place. That was not entirely his fault, though he had often blamed himself. Lady Willard, scenting a suitable suitor in a lieutenant of the Royal Navy, as Halfhyde had then been, for an unattractive wallflower, had been pressing. She knew well enough there would be no other aspirants. A feeling of pity for Mildred, allied to an excess of whisky taken one night, had done the rest. What little remained of joy in the marriage had evaporated under those very interests of Mildred as mentioned byher father: she was never happy away from straw, horse dung and the hunting field – or the race track. Her face was itself equine, so was her posterior, which rose and fell when she walked, like the buttocks of a horse being gently led around a ring. She lacked only a tail. And bed was far from being her favourite place. She was as cold as a winter's night in Halfhyde's native Wensleydale in the North Riding, as unresponsive as Aysgarth Falls when in the grip of ice. When Victoria Penn had come into his life unbidden, across the world in Sydney, Halfhyde had more than welcomed the thaw into the hot sun of summer and – so far as his anxieties in regard to the gun-running Porteous Higgins had allowed – had enjoyed the soft nights beneath the Pacific stars as the Taronga Park had steamed with her clanking engine towards the Chilean port of Puerto Montt.
Going back now to London, Halfhyde's mind switched from thoughts of Mildred to more fruitful ones: the future. No cavils had emerged from the authorities as to his claim for the refitting of the Taronga Park, her engine-room shattered by fire-axes when halfway across the South Atlantic as a result of Porteous Higgins' seizure of the ship. Halfhyde had performed a good service for the government by upsetting Higgins' plans for arms supply to the Irish rebels, and the government had been unusually grateful. But the refit had been a long one; only a few days before, Halfhyde had brought his ship from Queenstown to Liverpool in search of a cargo – and a crew. More than half his original crew, men in the pay of Porteous Higgins, had jumped ship in Queenstown, taking Higgins' bounty with them, and they had appeared to have made good their escape. Others had died, killed at sea by Higgins or his confederate Gaboon. Halfhyde's first mate, Perry, had died in Chile. So now there was much to be done, and as ever the future held financial uncertainty. The obtaining of a cargo was the essential factor; Halfhyde was prepared to take a cargo for any of the world's ports, and on arrival hope to find another to carry him on again to anywhere else.
In the meantime, however, he had something else to do: a call upon the Admiralty the following morning. With the country moving towards war, he could not stand aside, nor might he be allowed to. He was still a lieutenant on the unemployed list, a naval officer in retirement liable to recall. For the future conduct of his livelihood, he had to know where he stood.
Halfhyde dined that night, extravagantly, at the Café Royal, accompanied by Victoria Penn who had been waiting for him at Waterloo station. The girl's face had been somewhat strained as she saw him striding along the platform from the Portsmouth train: he might have been cajoled back to Mildred. But he had at once taken her in his arms and lifted her bodily off the ground, crushing her close. They kissed, and she knew then that all was well. In the privacy of a hansom cab they kissed again, and she asked about his day.
"Better forgotten," he said crisply. "Though it was not as bad as it might have been. I never set eyes upon the old faggot – Lady Willard. An attack of the vapours, no doubt, at the mere thought of me."
"And – your wife?"
"She has her horse," Halfhyde answered, repeating Sir John's words with a grin. "And what have you been doing in my absence, Victoria?"
She said, "I went along to look at Buckingham Palace."
"Yes," she said. Victoria Penn, born in the North Riding not so far from Halfhyde's own boyhood home, had been many years in Australia and now thought as an Australian; and there had been nothing in her life, or in Australia, like Buckingham Palace. "I hoped I might see the Queen, but no. There were a lot of soldiers marching, in red coats and funny hats —"
"Bearskins. They'll not be wearing their red for much longer. This new-fangled khaki as worn in India ... that'll be what they'll wear in South Africa." Halfhyde had bought an evening paper at Waterloo. He flourished the pages at Victoria. "It's all building up."
"Let's forget it," she said.
"I doubt if anyone wants to do that. The crowds'll be out soon, cheering their heads off as the troops march off for the railway and the transports."
"Well, I won't be cheering. Not if you get involved."
He took her in his arms again and said no more about the possibilities of war. The cab set them down at Halfhyde's bidding in Birdcage Walk, and they strolled in St James's Park, looking at the ducks on the water and Buckingham Palace looming over the green of the trees. It was a peaceful scene, far removed from the gunfire of a land battle or the stormy heave of deep waters and the gale-torn route to the west coast of South America and Australia round Cape Horn. Nevertheless Halfhyde lost himself in thought around that other cape, the Cape of Good Hope, and the ships that might soon be assembling in Table Bay, the warships and the transports that would take out the regiments to rout the overweening Boers and their leaders, Smuts, Cronje, Kruger, farmer-generals in slouch hats, shirtsleeves, waistcoats and bandoliers.
At his side Victoria said, "Come back to London, love. I'm here, right?"
He smiled down at her. "I'm sorry." They walked on, across the Mall and up St James's Street into Piccadilly. From the direction of Piccadilly Circus there came something like uproar: a crowd of people, civilians, soldiers, bluejackets, surged along. They were cheering and shouting and singing patriotic songs: "Soldiers of the Queen," "Goodbye, Dolly Gray," even "The Girl I Left Behind Me," brought across the years from Wellington's armies. The blood-lust was up already. Halfhyde and Victoria were surrounded by the crowd, good-natured, happy, looking forward to stirring news when the British troops were ordered out. A burly bluejacket, a leading stoker by his badges, seized hold of Victoria and planted a smacking kiss before releasing her and moving on, waving his sennit hat in the air, displaying the name of his ship on the ribbon: HMS Powerful. Halfhyde drew Victoria out of the seething mass, turning left along Bond Street to thread through lesser thoroughfares for the Café Royal.
After dinner she was pensive. She said, "That bloody hotel you recommended."
"What's wrong with it?"
She shrugged. "Oh, nothing. Just lonely. You could have come there with me. Don't know why you had to go to that Mrs what's her-name."
"Mavitty. She's an old friend, a good landlady years ago when I was impoverished on the half-pay list – I've told you before. I owe it to her to make use of her services again. She'd be hurt otherwise."
"Soft-hearted, aren't you?"
"Not particularly. A sense of duty," Halfhyde said austerely, "doesn't come amiss at times."
"And your wife?"
"I did my best. No man can be expected to cling to an icicle, especially when continually upon a horse. Though I'm far from saying I applaud myself —"
"Look, I wasn't criticizing."
"I know." He reached out and laid a hand over hers. "We shall be back aboard tomorrow evening – have patience, as I must myself."
"That's all very well. You said you had rooms at Mrs thing's, didn't you? That's not like having just a room in a lodging house, what you do is your —"
"By no means under the good Mrs Mavitty's roof, Victoria. Mrs Mavitty has principles, just like your own namesake in Buckingham Palace. She would be scandalized at such brazenness and would undoubtedly throw us out into the street. She looks upon me as a gentleman, Victoria."
She glared at him. "And gentlemen don't f —"
"Not in Mrs Mavitty's house."
Later he saw her to her hotel, not far off Leicester Square. She was ruffled, so much was obvious. Victoria, Halfhyde thought, had much to learn about English life. In basis it was not so different from New South Wales, where morality also prevailed on the surface. But Victoria Penn had come from the King's Cross district of Sydney, where crime and prostitution prevailed over respectability. To put no finer point on it, she had herself been caught up in prostitution; she had left that, and Porteous Higgins who profited from her activities, behind her with relief. But she was not attuned yet to the outlook of such as Mrs Mavitty who had her good name to consider.
When Halfhyde reached Camden Town Mrs Mavitty had news: Mavitty, a morose, hen-pecked man who escaped as often as possible to the nearest public house, had been informed by a fellow drinker, who had got the word from a friend who worked in a lowly capacity in the War Office, that the British South African colonies had been invaded and that a column of four thousand men under General Symons, part of the Ladysmith garrison in Natal, had come under attack, their camp being heavily shelled by the Boers from Talana Hill. In carrying the hill by assault, his artillery being outranged by the Boers, General Symons had been killed.
"So it's war," Mrs Mavitty said, standing arms akimbo and wearing a formidable expression. "Dearie me, sir, all them poor soldiers! But we'll just show that Kruger he can't get away with it, won't we, sir? Mind, Mavitty does get things wrong sometimes ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Halfhyde and the Chain Gangs"
Copyright © 1985 Philip McCutchan.
Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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