Lieutenant Halfhyde, Captain Watkiss, and Admiral Daintree are under orders to round Cape Horn on a voyage from Chile to Britain to deliver traitor Sir Russell Savory to his fate. With them and the crew, on the flagship "Halcyon," are a motley group of passengers. Their old enemy, Vice-Admiral von Merkatz is on their trail in hopes of freeing Savory.Watkiss constantly countermands the aged Admiral's orders and, despite the efforts of Halfhyde to thwart Watkiss's reckless behavior, pursues his dangerous policy of confrontation with the Kaiser's navy.Watkiss's overt aggression is deflected by orders to return to South America. A revolutionary coup jeopardizes the safety of the British Ambassador to Uruguay. Rightly supposing that the British attention will be focussed on the ambassador rather than their captive traitor, von Merkatz steams confidently up the River Plate and, with extravagant promises, quickly makes allies of the new Uruguayan regime. Watkiss's interference on the "Halcyon's" bridge has caused three of the five ships in Admiral Daintree's squadron to collide while anchoring. Thus the British are ill-prepared to contest a challenge from von Merkatz.Like all the Halfhyde Adventures, this volume is leavened with humor.
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As savage as ever, Cape Horn reared grim and grey to the northward, glimpsed through the spindrift blown by the westerlies off the tops of the rollers that threatened every moment to drop with smashing force on the quarterdecks of the vessels of the Detached Cruiser Squadron on passage from Puerto Montt in Chile to the British base in the Falkland Islands. Aboard the flagship, Her Majesty's cruiser Halcyon, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, taking a turn as Officer of the Watch though he was not in fact borne upon the ship's books, stared ahead towards the escorting sloops Biddle and Delia, keeping their station forty-five degrees on either bow: those small six-gun sloops-of-war were having the devil's own time of it down here at the world's bottom, and must be awash from stem to stern as they rose manfully to the crests and then for long moments disappeared down into the great sea-valleys ... Halfhyde turned as he heard himself addressed by a small, bird-like figure, oil skinned and sou'westered like everyone else on the compass platform and upper deck, and secured by a cat's cradle of rope lashings to a high chair, not unlike a baby's, set in the fore part of the bridge.
"You called, sir?" Halfhyde approached: Rear-Admiral Daintree's voice was not a carrying one in a gale of wind.
A neat beard wagged from above the neck of the oilskin. "Your thoughts, Mr Halfhyde. You have the aspect of Moses, facing death before he reached the Promised Land."
"Death seems present enough, sir," Halfhyde roared into the Rear-Admiral's ready ear, "at least for those poor wretches aboard the escort!"
"Queen Victoria's service is not an easy one, Mr Halfhyde."
"But her seamen have stout hearts — hearts of oak still, though our ships have been of blasted iron these many years," Daintree said in an aggrieved tone. For a while he brooded, then said, "All those ironclads, and not a sail among 'em!"
"I beg your pardon, sir?" Halfhyde asked politely.
"Golden Jubilee Review of the Fleet. I was present, you know."
"Were you indeed, sir?"
"Yes. Diamond Jubilee's not so far off now, and I dare say I may yet live to see the Fleet go farther downhill." Admiral Daintree turned amid his many lashings and asked disagreeably, "Where's my Flag Captain, Mr Halfhyde, do you know?"
"Captain Watkiss went below, sir —"
"Without permission! Kindly send your midshipman with my compliments, Mr Halfhyde. I wish words with my Flag Captain at once."
"Aye, aye, sir." Halfhyde raised an arm and beckoned to a plump youth who was putting as much distance as possible between Cape Horn and himself by shivering in the starboard wing of the bridge. "Mr Perrin, if you please?"
"Aye, aye, sir!" The midshipman moved across, slowly climbing up hill for a space as the cruiser lurched to starboard, then running headlong as the roll projected him the other way.
"The Admiral's compliments to Captain Watkiss, Mr Perrin, and will he please come to the compass platform."
"Yes, sir." Mr Midshipman Perrin turned away towards the ladder but was recalled by a bellow from Halfhyde.
"Tactfully, Mr Perrin, if you value your skin."
"Oh, yes, sir!" Perrin vanished; the reminder had been, perhaps, unnecessary: Perrin had a wholesome regard for the uncertain temper of Captain Watkiss and a full awareness of the strength of arm of sub-lieutenants commanded by high authority to wield canes against the bottoms of midshipmen. Halfhyde returned to a contemplation of the surging waters, watching the great guns along the foredeck as they emerged from green seas, watching the sweep of the water along the fo'c'sle and the great salt gouts pouring from the hawse-pipes after purging the anchor-cables that drummed against the plating even though the slips and stoppers had been screwed down hard in expectation of appalling weather. Glancing aft, Halfhyde for a moment watched a curious procession making its gruesome way for'ard from the quarterdeck towards the waist: four armed privates of the Royal Marine Light Infantry gripping the arms of a pallid figure that was in the very evident throes of seasickness as it lurched and slid along the wet decks — the traitor Sir Russell Savory, finally apprehended aboard the old battleship Meridian in Puerto Montt before she had been handed over to the Chilean Navy, a gift from Her Majesty. Behind Savory was his captor, Detective Inspector Todhunter of the Metropolitan Police, his bowler hat flying from the end of its toggle as the dreadful westerlies raged around him. Mr Todhunter, drenched and windswept to the detriment of his blue serge suit, was a stickler for being dressed as befitted his position and standing in Scotland Yard and for giving his prisoner the laid-down exercise periods as would be expected by his chief superintendent in London. His chief super would not be impressed by reference to the exigencies of Cape Horn.
Captain Watkiss, despite the weather and the fact that he no longer held an independent command, was in a remarkably mild mood when Perrin knocked at the day-cabin door in his harbour quarters aft, whence the Flag Captain had proceeded to answer a call of nature in comfort.
"Ah, Mr Perrin! Good morning, Mr Perrin."
"G-good morning, sir."
"Well, out with it, what d'you want?" Captain Watkiss shot his starched shirt-cuffs until they extended below the four gold stripes on the sleeves of his monkey-jacket and obscured the lurid head of the tattooed snake whose body wound up his forearm. "Don't stand there exchanging pleasantries, boy!"
"No, sir. The Admiral, sir. He would like to speak to you, sir."
"Yes, very well, why didn't you say so — no, damn you, don't argue! I detest back answers, detest 'em." Captain Watkiss took up his gold oak-leaved cap, placed it on his head, screwed his monocle into place, and stood on tiptoe to stare at his tub-shaped reflection in his looking-glass. Then, frowning, he removed the cap and replaced it with a sou'wester, and took a capacious oilskin from his wardrobe. "Very well, Mr Perrin, thank you, you may return to the compass platform."
"Yes, sir, thank you, sir —"
"You're more pimply than ever, Mr Perrin, most unhealthy-looking to be sure." Captain Watkiss faced him squarely. "What's the reason? Everything has a reason, that's fact, I said it. What's yours?"
"Sir, the — the ... we're very short of fresh vegetables, sir."
"Oh, nonsense, that's got nothing to do with it, there's always lime-juice available, is there not, Mr Perrin? Drink some."
"Yes, sir —"
"And don't neglect your exercise or I'll have you running up to the foretop and down again for a full watch." Captain Watkiss prodded the midshipman's stomach with his telescope. "And keep regular, that's most important. Black draught's wonderful stuff. What does the Admiral want of me?"
"I–I don't know, sir."
Watkiss glared. "Never say 'I don't know' to a senior officer, Mr Perrin, you should have learned that at least by now. The correct answer is I don't know, but I'll find out. However, on this occasion, I shall find out for myself."
As Perrin retreated, the Flag Captain pushed through from his cabin, a thick, rotund figure looking oddly like a short-legged crow in its black oilskins, the monocle reflecting golden fire from the electric lights along the alleyway as Watkiss bounced his way for'ard to the compass platform. Reaching it after climbing many ladders somewhat breathlessly, he saluted the figure of his Admiral and announced his presence. "You wished words with me, sir."
"Ah yes, Watkiss. Dammit," Daintree said irritably, "I thought you were here already, if you understand me. Kindly do not leave the compass platform without permission in future."
Watkiss reddened. "Permission my backside, sir! With great respect, of course. I submit, sir, that I am not a blasted snotty still wet behind the ears —"
"No," Daintree interrupted, "you're my Flag Captain, and I have a right to your presence. As a senior officer, you should know better, but I shall nevertheless amend my stricture: in future, you'll kindly not leave the compass platform without informing me first —"
"My dear sir, I made an attempt to inform you, but you were asleep —"
"I repeat, sir, you were sound asleep, and I decided not to waken you. I consider myself quite senior enough to make such a decision. I remind you, sir, that I have been accustomed to the command of my own ship, indeed of a flotilla —"
"And you feel constricted whilst acting as my Flag Captain?"
"You put it well, sir. Yes, I feel a certain constriction." Watkiss retrieved his monocle, which had been torn from his eye by the weight of the wind, and screwed it back firmly. "As Flag Captain, of course, I command the ship, I'm aware of that. But the command is not an independent one."
"Quite." Daintree's voice was frosty. "Rest assured your purgatory will not last for long. When we reach Portsmouth, I shall exchange you for someone more congenial to me — I shall make my arrangements with the Admiralty."
"Thank you, Captain Watkiss, the matter is closed. I wish to speak to you about von Merkatz."
"Von Merkatz, sir? I think the blasted Hun no longer concerns us, does he? The bugger took his squadron out of Puerto Montt before we left, did he not — and will be steaming fast to join his blasted Kaiser in Kiel!"
Daintree tapped the guardrail in front of his scraggy body. "Perhaps, and perhaps not. He's wily, you know — a twister if ever there was one. Not to be trusted."
"Why, in that, I concur, sir. Indeed I do! I dislike Huns, dislike 'em intensely. But what do you suspect, if I may ask!"
Admiral Daintree lifted his telescope in the air, extended it to its fullest extent, and sighted it like a rifle at some invisible enemy. "Bang, bang, bang," he said fiercely.
"I beg your pardon?" Watkiss asked.
"War, Watkiss!" Daintree said in much excitement. "Von Markatz wished to cut Savory out from under our noses. He may try again, and upon the high seas. Savory is still, it seems, of the utmost value to the Kaiser and the German government. We could be steaming into an ambush, don't you see? Soon we shall be approaching Staten Island. Are we to go round the island to the eastward of Cape San Juan, or are we to go through the Le Maire Strait?"
Watkiss said, "I fancy the wind and weather must decide that, sir."
"And I fancy not! I fancy our assessment of the mind of Admiral von Merkatz must decide, Watkiss. Will he come at us with the guns of his squadron from northward of Cape San Juan, or will he lie in wait in the Le Maire Strait, springing out upon us like some wretch of a pickpocket intent upon his prey? Which?"
Watkiss shrugged. "Which indeed, sir? You may well ask! It's six of one and half a dozen of the other in my opinion. Whichever route we chose may be the wrong one."
Daintree pulled abstractedly at his beard. "We shall confer at six bells. All persons concerned in the Savory case are to muster in my sea-cabin, and I shall pick their brains."
Below in the warrant officers' mess when the daily exercise of his prisoner was over, Detective Inspector Todhunter stared from a porthole towards Cape Horn, now beginning to recede somewhat towards the west. His view was bleak and misty, for now and again the dreadful waters rose to wash over the thick glass of the port, and when they fell away again, they left it dripping with salty smears. Mr Todhunter's mood was as bleak as the glass: he carried the overwhelming responsibility for the safe delivery to Britain of the traitor Savory, now thank goodness the prisoner Savory, and never mind the fact that above him stood Rear-Admiral Daintree and Captain Watkiss. He, Todhunter, epitomized the law of Great Britain here present in southern and violent seas, and as such he represented civil power and the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. He was feeling the worse since he had just suffered rudeness at the horny hands of Mr Mottram, late gunner of Her Majesty's battleship Meridian and who was now, like Todhunter and all the old battleship's company, taking passage back to Portsmouth. Mr Mottram, a man of action and little feeling, had told him to "wrap up" during a discourse about his great responsibilities.
"It's the Admiral wot bears the weight, Mr Tod'unter. Not you."
Todhunter shook his head firmly. "The Civil Power is superior to the military — or naval. That's laid down in the Constitution."
"Not off Cape Stiff, or anywhere else at sea. If Savory drowns, say, it won't be your fault, will it?"
"I wasn't thinking of that, Mr Mottram. I was thinking of his escape. That may be unlikely, but it's a tremendous weight upon me I do declare." Mr Todhunter brought out a large blue handkerchief and mopped at his face: the warrant officers' mess was very stuffy, a nasty cold fug being present, and much smoke from the off-watch warrant officers' filthy pipes, and a tang of gin, and a most alarming thunder from the deckhead as the seas dropped aboard and rushed hither and thither as though seeking out the prisoner Savory to snatch him from custody ... Mr Todhunter's stomach grew queasy, and the sweat on his brow told him unmistakably that a return to the upper deck would be advisable always providing he stood to leeward. He groped in his pocket and brought out his panacea: Doctor Datchet's Demulcent Drops, the Remedy That Never Fails. Mr Todhunter called to a steward for a glass of water, placed two tablets in his mouth and drank them down, suffering Mr Mottram's sardonic look. As he got unsteadily to his feet, a seaman boy appeared in the doorway of the mess, his sou'wester beneath his arm, and addressed the flagship's boatswain, Mr Peabody.
"Mr Peabody, sir, permission to speak to Mr Tod'unter, sir?"
Mr Peabody waved an arm. "Go ahead, lad."
The boy entered and spoke to the Detective Inspector, bringing tidings that the Admiral wished his presence in his sea-cabin at six bells. Mr Todhunter nodded and rushed for the fresh air. He had delayed a little too long in taking his remedy.
When the messenger from the compass platform reached the wardroom, Canon Rampling was lying at full stretch on a leather settee like a bison taking a forenoon nap in unlikely surroundings. The canon, chaplain to Admiral Daintree's squadron and thus back aboard his own ship after an interesting experience under Captain Watkiss aboard the Meridian, was not in fact asleep but reading with a growing sense of boredom the obituaries in a copy of The Times that had been aboard the Halcyon since she had sailed from Portsmouth two years earlier. It was a miracle, the canon thought, that the fragile pages had held together for so long; but the newspaper's longevity was possibly due to the fact that it had only recently been discovered wrapped around a consignment of officers' toilet rolls brought up from the paymaster's stores soon after leaving Puerto Montt. Canon Rampling had already read it some four or five times from cover to cover and was glad enough to be interrupted by the summons to his Admiral's quarters. He had found life dull after the excitement of the overland chase in Chile, all the way from Puerto Montt to Valparaiso and back, to say nothing of the daily shipboard tantrums of Captain Watkiss which had always brought something unexpected. Aboard Halcyon he was back, when the weather permitted, to church services during which the ship's company sang lustily but without tune, and some members of his seafaring congregation could from time to time be heard uttering words different from those laid down in the Church Hymnal; soon he would be offering simple advice upon marital problems brought to husbands by the mail when the squadron reached port. Lifting himself from the comfort of the settee and proceeding to his cabin to cover his cassock with oilskins the better to negotiate the upper deck en route for the sea-cabin, Rampling pondered on his summons: Daintree was not of a religious turn of mind, and the call was unlikely to be connected with God. Rampling's musings turned naturally to Sir Russell Savory, traitor to the Queen, mouldering in the cruiser's cells under the watchful eyes of the Master-at-Arms and the ship's corporals, plus Mr Todhunter, that Chief Superintendent-ridden sleuth. Savory would be much on Daintree's mind and was doubtless the reason for the services of God's deputy being required. Savory might well have a need of religion now.
Excerpted from "Halfhyde and the Flag Captain"
Copyright © 1980 Philip McCutchan.
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