It's the 1890s and Royal Navy Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde finds himself out of favor with the Navy and on half-pay ashore when he is summoned to the Admiralty. His mission: to sail to the Bight of Benin in West Africa and spy on the not-so-secret Russian presence there. As a Russian speaker who is familiar with Benin, Halfhyde is confident he's the man for the job--until he runs into Admiral Prince Gorsinski, cousin of the Czar and Halfhyde's former jailer.
About 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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Halfhyde at the Bight of Benin
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 1
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1974 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, wakeful in the dank darkness of his tiny cabin, darkness slightly relieved by the dim glow of a police light coming through the grating above his door from the midshipmen's chest flat, listened to the many sounds of the steel-sided 3000-ton cruiser, built in the late 1880s, as she rolled to a heavy beam-sea. All around there was noise: from far below the thunder of shifting, storm-flung mountains of coal in the bunkers; the drop and swill of ton upon ton of water over the quarterdeck above his head; the creak of hammock-clews against their rings as the off-watch midshipmen asleep outside in the flat swung to the roll; an overhead rush of barefoot bluejackets and the wind-tossed shouts of petty officers as a part of the watch was sent, clinging hard to the lifelines, to secure the torn griping-bands of Number Five cutter, swaying from the davits below the after conning position; the rythmic rattle of rifles against the chain running through the trigger-guards as they stood in their racks, from farther aft the stamp of the sentry provided by the Royal Marine Light Infantry outside the cuddy; the thousand and one smaller noises of any ship in a sea-way — the creak of woodwork, the roll of personal gear left unsecured by careless snotties along the deck of the chest flat, the eerie howl of wind in rigging, the booming slap of water along the armoured sides. Around all this, the close, damp fug, the below-deck emanations of a ship battened-down for bad weather. It was a cold fug too: St Vincent Halfhyde cursed heartily, knowing that all too soon he would be much colder, knowing that in twenty minutes' time the bosun's pipes would be shrilling throughout the ship, along the mess decks and flats, to rouse the middle watch men. A fleeting thought: down below were six men who would never rouse again for a watch on deck; six corpses — one lieutenant, one gunner's mate, four seamen — already sewn into their canvas shrouds and currently lying in the cruiser's meat store, awaiting committal to the sea as soon as the weather should moderate. That, Halfhyde reflected, was the sea life: hardship, death, instant decision. After two years on half-pay, kicking his heels around London, an unemployed naval officer with little to support himself beyond that meagre half-pay, Halfhyde was glad enough to feel again the lift of a deck beneath him. Yet there were moments when he hated the sea with an intensity that racked his mind and body, and left him shocked, shaken by the fury that was in him.
Only four days earlier, Halfhyde, in his lodgings in Camden Town, had received a telegram from the Admiralty: he was to report in uniform to the office of the Second Sea Lord, at eleven am that very forenoon. In a fever of excitement, but also with some trepidation, Halfhyde had foraged for his long laid aside uniform in its metal cases on the top of the vast wardrobe that almost filled his bedroom. He had shaved carefully, dressed with nervously shaking fingers. The uniform fitted still: there was a sharp smell of mothballs, but otherwise he was a naval officer once again. He looked at his reflection in a long looking-glass. Carefully, he brushed the frock-coat with its two gold rings on either cuff, pulled down the starched shirt-cuffs until the dark blue cloth of the frock-coat tightened around them, seeming starched itself. Thus clad, he went to his sitting-room for breakfast.
The sight of him startled Mrs Mavitty, his landlady. She stood staring, arms raised in wonder.
"Lawks, sir, what's come over you?"
Halfhyde smiled, softening the hard lines of a long face. "The telegram, Mrs Mavitty."
"Oh, dearie me, sir, there's never going to be a war, is there?"
"I doubt it, Mrs Mavitty, I doubt it." He sat, pulling up his trouser-legs, resting his elbows on the table, where stood coffee, a heated dish of kedgeree, toast and marmalade. Almost guiltily, he stole a look at the stripes of gold lace with the executive curl above. "It's no compliment, Mrs Mavitty, to suggest that it would take a war to persuade Their Lordships to ... take an interest in me."
"Their Lordships, Mr Halfhyde?"
"The Board of Admiralty, Mrs Mavitty. It's possible I may be leaving you." Halfhyde could not check the rising hope in his voice. The last two years had been comfortable in a sense, for Mrs Mavitty was kindness itself, and her terms for a steadily paying gentleman were moderate. But half-pay was no bed of roses for an active man, whose profession of Her Majesty's Service — for such it had remained — precluded his participation in any lesser occupations. "In the meantime, my good woman, you have forgotten the hot milk."
"The hot milk, sir?" Mrs Mavitty seemed overcome at the sight of her lodger in his naval splendour. "Dearie me, sir, I'll forget me own head next," and she went off as fast as her bulk could carry her, and could be heard shouting for Mavitty her husband, in tones she would never have employed for Mr Halfhyde.
Halfhyde that morning ate with little appetite, absently. After his breakfast he sat looking out of his window, down into the tawdry streets of Camden Town, and the dust, and the horse manure, and the busy carts, the men and women moving about their affairs in workaday London, not seeing them, but seeing instead more nostalgic and more wondrous things from his own past: the splendid sight of a British Battle Squadron at sea in line ahead, the strings of coloured bunting blowing out from the signal halliards, or the winking masthead lights at night; a great concourse of seaworn grey ships entering Malta's Grand Harbour to anchor together on the signal from the flagship, the lower- and quarter-booms being swung out, the boats and gangways lowered, and the anchors let go at split-second timing, all together, as the engines thrashed astern to bring the ships up; misty dawns in Scottish anchorage, with a red sun behind the haze rose-tinting the distant, towering hills as the White Ensign was hoisted to the jackstaff to the strains of martial music, the bugles echoing, savage and triumphant, as they blared out for Colours; a steam picket-boat coming alongside a cruiser's quarterdeck ladder, her crew soaked in the spray of a brisk morning; the Northern Lights, viewed from a torpedo-boat's bridge off Lyness, or the Old Man of Hoy standing out to starboard, in broad daylight even at two bells in the middle watch, as a ship steamed north about through the Pentlands from the Firth of Forth to the Clyde; the wondrous, fairy like beauty of Kyle of Lochalsh and a night passage under moonlight of the Minch with the Isle of Skye to port and a wind coming through the Sound of Harris; a cruiser battling through boisterous seas in the Great Australian Bight with a roaring gale blowing straight off the southern ice; China-side, and the mysteries and glamour of the East, and dances on the quarterdeck beneath the awnings in Trincomalee and Singapore. And other things too, less pleasant things, but all part and parcel of the same life: wars, and death, and vindictive senior officers who believed that their powers were derived from God Himself.
But very different from Camden Town, and half-pay.
At 10:15, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde called down to Mrs Mavitty: "A cab, if you please. Will you be good enough to send Mavitty?"
"That I will, sir." The shouts for Mavitty were renewed, boisterously. Within five minutes Halfhyde was on his way, his sword dangling between his knees from the gilded sword-belt round his waist.
"Captain, this is Mr Halfhyde. Mr Halfhyde — Captain Fitzsimmons."
Halfhyde slightly inclined his head, heels together. Captain Fitzsimmons extended a hand. The grip was hard. Halfhyde looked into the eyes of Captain the Honourable Quentin Fitzsimmons and knew he looked into the eyes of a hard man, an officer known throughout the Service for two things in particular: a ruthless dedication to duty which had made him a fine, if cautious, seaman, and a terrible liking for the aristocracy. Captain Fitzsimmons, an aristocrat himself, could naturally not be accused of snobbishness, but it was whispered in the Fleet that his prediction for gently born officers verged at times upon undermining his undoubted devotion to strict duty. For example, Captain Fitzsimmons never unbent to his engineer officers. They were not, and by their calling could not be, gentlemen, let alone in any way connected with the aristocracy, so Captain Fitzsimmons never spoke to them other than officially. All this Halfhyde knew, and as a result was much puzzled, for he had put two and two together and had failed to find a suitable answer. He was, he felt strongly, being introduced to his new Commanding Officer, but he was well aware that he was no aristocrat. His father, a prosperous enough farmer in the Yorkshire Dales, had contributed to his training in HMS Britannia but by no means to his likely inclusion in the favour of Captain Fitzsimmons.
Halfhyde looked at the officer in whose mahogany-darkened Admiralty office this meeting was taking place, a portly rearadmiral, white-haired, red-faced, and very short of breath. The brass buttons of his frock coat, Halfhyde saw, were as strained as the bowels of a constipated bitch. Halfhyde's look was an enquiring one, and it was answered by the Rear- Admiral.
"Captain Fitzsimmons commands the Aurora, presently lying at Portsmouth," the Rear-Admiral puffed at him. "You are being offered an appointment as a lieutenant under his command."
Halfhyde fought down rising excitement, managed to keep his face austere and non-committal. "And Captain Fitzsimmons?" he asked deferentially. "I take it he is ... agreeable?"
Fitzsimmons, a tall man, heavily bearded, very thin, nodded. "No objections," he said. He failed, however, to sound keen. St Vincent Halfhyde conjectured that already he would have been looked up, fruitlessly, in Burke's Landed Gentry. A look passed between Fitzsimmons and the Rear-Admiral. The latter gave a cough, and spoke to Halfhyde.
"Captain Fitzsimmons," he said portentously, "has been informed. He is fully aware."
"Of my record, sir, as officially written down?"
Stiffly, the Rear-Admiral nodded. "Two years on half-pay, following upon a ... disagreement with your Captain."
"A disagreement that was none of my making, sir, as well you must know —"
"Mr Halfhyde —"
"And you must also know that an enquiry was refused me —"
"Mr Halfhyde, do you wish to talk yourself out of an appointment? For damme, sir, you are close upon doing so!" The Rear-Admiral, redder in the face than ever, huffed and puffed alarmingly. "The past is the past, Mr Halfhyde, and only a foolish man would attempt to disturb it now. Captain Fitzsimmons is prepared to overlook such matters in the interest of — of Admiralty requirements. This is your chance, Mr Halfhyde. Accept this appointment, and you will go back on the full-pay list as of the moment you do so."
"And the appointment, sir? Its nature, if I may ask?"
"You will be appointed as a watchkeeping lieutenant of less than eight years seniority to Her Majesty's cruiser Aurora, vice Mr Lewis —"
"And Mr Lewis?"
"Was lost overboard in a sea-way off Finisterre, whilst Aurora was homeward bound from Gibraltar. Do you not read the papers, Mr Halfhyde?"
Halfhyde gave a wintry smile. "On half-pay, sir?"
"There is no occasion for jocularity," the Rear-Admiral snapped.
"No more there is in the predicament of half-pay," Halfhyde said. In fact he recalled a column in the Morning Post some weeks earlier. Mr Lewis had indeed gone overboard in full view of one, apparently helpless, witness; the incident had been noted in the deck and fair-copy logs, and that was all. A man had died and a frugal Treasury had been graciously spared the expense of a naval funeral ashore. Halfhyde turned to his new Captain. "I accept the appointment gratefully, sir."
Fitzsimmons nodded, his face expressionless. "There are other aspects," he said. "You should know about these, and Rear-Admiral Masters will confirm a degree of secrecy in what I have to say ..."
Halfhyde was ordered to join his ship next day. That evening he visited his club for the first time in two years. He had kept up his subscription, but actual attendance was beyond his means, for he was a man who preferred not to indulge himself at all unless he could indulge to the full. That night he celebrated with friends of whom also he had not seen much during his two years on half-pay, and had a decent skinful of drink, after which he repaired to the room of a lady friend known on the stage as Tiny Teazer.
In the morning, after a leavetaking, tearful on her part, he went back by hansom cab to Camden Town; paid his last bill; said good-bye to the Mavittys, who were sad to see him go; and, in frock-coat, cap, and sword, went to Waterloo station, for Portsmouth Town, with all his gear. Making for a first-class carriage, he saw ahead of him, also about to enter the train with a nicely-dressed, veiled lady bidding him good-bye, a small uniformed, midshipman, a species more familiarly known throughout the British Navy simply as a wart.
Feeling the need for naval company however lowly, Halfhyde moved on, saluted the veiled lady, who smiled back somewhat warily upon seeing his uniform, and joined the Portsmouthbound wart, who in point of fact looked thoroughly embarrassed at being caught with his mother by a high and mighty lieutenant. The wart, still on the platform, almost tore himself in two with a smart salute. Halfhyde was regretfully conscious that he had spoiled the fond farewell: a kiss was frantically dodged just before the guard's whistle blew, and the wart embarked.
The train began to pull out, and mother fell behind. The wart looked at Halfhyde. Halfhyde smiled. "For God's sake," he said, "wave! Dammit, she's your mother!"
"Oh! Thank you, sir!" The small wart leapt up, flung himself at the window, hung out and waved. Halfhyde grinned. He remembered his own wart days well enough: his tearful mother; his father being very withdrawn and proud but obviously wishing young St Vincent had stayed to help on the slopes of the Wensleydale fells; the bullying in the gunrooms of the Fleet; the harsh discipline; the fearsome arrogance of some lieutenants of over eight years seniority — that line of demarcation which, having once been passed, entitled the lieutenant to a gold halfstripe between the two full ones, and much increase in pay; the bloody-mindedness of Commanders when warts made more juvenile noise then they were entitled to stun their seniors' ears with. Of course there had been the compensations: the thrill of a first command — command of the Duty Steam Picket Boat, the link between ships of a squadron at anchor, when a wart had to show himself both a seaman and an officer able to command coxswain and crew, each old enough to be his father and with enough collective sea-time behind them to reach back almost to the days of Nelson; the awed adoration of young women, who liked to dance with a brassbound bum-freezer jacket; the company of real men rather than the clerkly popinjays of civil life — real men who nine times out of ten were decent men also, behind the snap and golden glitter of sea-going autocracy. Yes, they had been good days ...
Smiling at the wart, Halfhyde threw a conversational ball as the train gathered speed in its cloud of smoke and steam. "What ship?"
Halfhyde laughed. "Well, I'll be damned! So am I. Your first ship — as a wart, I mean?"
"Runcorn? H'm — familiar, that. Trafalgar."
The wart nodded vigorously, looking proud and pleased. "A great-uncle of my father's, sir. He was a midshipman under Admiral Nelson."
"I'm sure you're proud," Halfhyde said, and added, "as I am of mine. I, too, had an ancestor at Trafalgar."
"Really, sir? Who, sir?"
"Daniel Halfhyde ... gunner's mate in the Temeraire."
Excerpted from Halfhyde at the Bight of Benin by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1974 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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