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Halfhyde for the Queen
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 5
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1978 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
IT WAS PITCH DARK by now, with an increasing wind blowing through the strait from the Atlantic. A dirty night out at sea: water washed aboard, swilling over Vendetta's turtle-decked bows as course was altered towards the coast of Spain on the signal from the flotilla leader, bringing wind and sea abeam. In accordance with orders issued back in Gibraltar, all the navigation lights went off as the five vessels of the Fourth Torpedo-Boat Destroyer Flotilla formed in line ahead behind Captain Watkiss and headed towards Point Calaburras to the south-west of Malaga. On Vendetta's navigating bridge, last of the line as junior ship, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde stood, bracing his tall, angular body against the wind, telescope lifted to watch the stern of his next ahead as the flotilla pushed on through the restless sea. At any moment now, the final orders should come from Captain Watkiss, by shaded signal lamp trained astern. The weather, dirty as it was, had proved kind to their as yet undisclosed mission: they should be nicely screened from the view of any hostile eyes along the Spanish coast.
St Vincent Halfhyde, still watching closely and ready to caution his officer of the watch should the gap between his ship and the next ahead narrow too much, thought fleetingly of the Great Armada that some three hundred years before had sailed out of Spanish waters against England. He thought of Nelson and his captains who in these very waters had fought the French and, again, the Spaniards. The ancient enemy! And enemy again, though Great Britain and Spain had been these many years at peace? It was inconceivable, surely; yet the urgency with which the TBD flotilla had been ordered out in secret from Gibraltar seemed scarcely to speak of peace. Halfhyde paced his narrow bridge, as restless as the sea itself, as he waited for the orders to come through.
Only the morning before there had been no thought of action movement, of a sudden dash to sea. Halfhyde, in tonight's cold and wet, reflected upon yesterday's awakening from a whore's bed. The day had been fresh and bright, clean and invigorating before the sun was fully up, though there had been a promise of a Mediterranean scorcher to come. Halfhyde had stood bare-chested at the window of the square, white-walled house, breathing deeply to dispel the previous night's fumes of whisky and tobacco, looking down on the harbour and the sparkling, sun-gilded blue waters of Gibraltar Bay — or Algeciras Bay as the Spaniards preferred it. High up to the north-west, beyond the isthmus that connected the Rock of Gibraltar to the Spanish mainland, stood upon its mountain eminence the old Martello Tower known as the Queen of Spain's Chair. In this Queen Isabella had sworn to sit until the Spanish flag was hoisted over the fortress of Gibraltar, her release from this selfimposed vigil being chivalrously given by the action of the British garrison in hoisting the standard of Spain for long enough to allow a dignified descent ... and Isabella's chair still commanded a fine view of the small white town of La Linea and of the frowning, light-brown hills of North Africa across the strait. Below, in the harbour and the dockyard, the long day's routine had already begun; the rousing bugles of the Royal Marine Light Infantry had already sounded throughout the mess decks and flats of the great battleships and cruisers of the Mediterranean Fleet and of the Channel Squadron assembled in the bay for the spring exercises and combined manoeuvres. Boats were crossing the harbour — duty steam picket-boats and boats under oars heading in towards the steps below the signal tower. Anchored separately from the rest of the warships lay the vessels of the Particular Service Squadron; from the flagship, Her Majesty's battleship Revenge, flew the flag of the rear-admiral in command: a white flag with a red St George's Cross, defaced in the quarters nearer the mast by two red balls.
Halfhyde sighed; fresh and clean the day, but for him and all his ship's company it was to be spoiled: Her Majesty's ship Vendetta, junior ship of the Fourth Torpedo-Boat Destroyer Flotilla, currently secured to a mooring buoy in the waters of the harbour, was under orders to shift at six bells in the morning watch to the North Mole for coaling, a filthy task. The previous day, when the rest of the flotilla had coaled ship, Vendetta had been ordered to sea to the assistance of a merchant vessel in distress; today she alone would fill her bunkers. Halfhyde turned from the window and his contemplation of natural and maritime beauty and surveyed the girl still asleep in the rumpled bed. Halfhyde, bent a little against the ceiling's constriction, grimaced. In truth the girl, though passable enough, was less beautiful than she had appeared the night before; nevertheless the bedding of her had been satisfactory, and as Halfhyde looked down on her nakedness he felt desire stirring again, and urgently.
Getting back into bed beside her, he spoke her name. "Carla ..." His touch, running down her body, caused her to open her eyes. They were deep brown, lazy and voluptuous. She welcomed the awakening, trembling a little with memory and anticipation; St Vincent Halfhyde had proved a capable lover, one who could respond to her passionate Spanish nature, a man of muscle and hard body and of no paunch or flab. Once again satisfied, Halfhyde rolled over and stood up. "Time to get back to my ship, Carla."
"No. Please stay."
"Impossible. Her Majesty is a hard taskmistress."
The girl pouted through damp strands of black hair. "She is a terrible old woman, your Queen Victoria."
Halfhyde sat on the bed, reached out and took the small, oval face in his hands. He said solemnly. "As a loyal officer I should thrash you for that."
"But you will not?"
Halfhyde chuckled. He shifted his grip, rolled her over till her buttocks stared him in the face, and gave her a resounding smack. She cried out and squirmed away.
"English devil! Be a little late. Your Queen Victoria, she will never know."
"Carla, I am not an ordinary seaman, I am the captain. There's a difference." Halfhyde got to his feet and went across to the wash-stand where he washed and shaved in cold water. As the razor scraped across his face efficiently he said, "I shall come ashore this afternoon. You'll be here?"
"For you, my love, yes."
"Good." Shaved, Halfhyde dressed in his plain clothes, a suit of white sharkskin, and took his leave with a kiss planted lightly on the girl's cheek: to do more might well have delayed him, and he was a punctilious commander, as punctilious as he expected his officers and men to be. Leaving the room he walked along a cool corridor, down a flight of stairs and out into a small square from which he descended into Waterport Street with its shops and stalls, bars and eating places, picking his way past the droppings of the goats from which the town and garrison of Gibraltar drew their milk, past small boys who even at such an unpropitious hour tagged along at his elbow with descriptions of their sisters' bodily charms until driven away by a roar of impatience. "Away with you, niños! Sell your sisters to the soldiers, who are here for longer than sailors and will produce more profit in the end."
Halfhyde strode on, swinging a silver-topped cane. He walked past the naval picket-house, returning the salute of the sentry, on past the small cemetery where lay so many of the heroes of Trafalgar, their bodies landed in honour from the old wooden ships that had brought victory to Lord Nelson, on down the hill to the Ragged Staff Gate and through the dockyard to the Tower steps where his boat should be awaiting him. And was, he noted with a captain's satisfaction as he cast a critical eye over the turn-out of the ratings manning it. Seeing his approach, a barefoot leading-seaman, wearing three blue goodconduct badges on the left sleeve of his white uniform, climbed nimbly from the stern-sheets and stood at the salute.
"Good morning, Parslow."
"Good mornin', sir. A fine day, sir."
"Shortly to be sullied. Is the ship ready to shift berth, Parslow?"
"Yessir, I think so, sir. I'd not speak for the first lieutenant, sir."
"Quite right, indeed." Halfhyde, about to descend the steps, paused and looked across the harbour. A galley was approaching; in the stern-sheets sat a rotund officer with a red face beneath a blue-puggareed white helmet. From the face, fire reflected: the morning sun, caught by a monocle. Halfhyde said, "Captain Watkiss is coming ashore, I see."
"I'll wait." This was a wise decision; even as he made it, a hail came from the approaching galley and an arm was waved vigorously.
"May I ask where you're going?"
"Back to my ship, sir."
"No you aren't." The galley swept up to the steps, and the senior officer of the flotilla disembarked, telescope in hand. Captain Watkiss mounted the steps and returned Halfhyde's salute. The sun reflected in golden glory from the four stripes on either shoulder, from the shining brass buttons of his white uniform. Pompously Watkiss cleared his throat and said: "I've been bidden to wait upon the rear-admiral commanding the Particular Service Squadron, who is currently conferring with the captain-in-charge ashore."
"An early summons, sir."
"Quite. Something in the air — must be!" Captain Watkiss, nose raised suspiciously, moved closer. "Where did you spend last night, Mr Halfhyde, may I ask?"
Halfhyde shrugged. "Quietly, sir."
"Very quietly! In a barrel of whisky by the smell of your breath." Watkiss flourished his telescope. "You appear sober, however —"
"Very sober, sir —"
"Which is fortunate for you, since I don't like drinking officers. I —"
"Sir, I dislike having my movements questioned in front of lower-deck ratings —"
"Then you must get accustomed to it, Mr Halfhyde," Captain Watkiss said energetically. "I am a post captain and your senior officer, you are merely a lieutenant-in-command, are you not? And you'll not answer back, d'you hear me? Now, I wished words with you, which was why I hailed you." Watkiss lifted the telescope and waved it in front of Halfhyde's face. "Be ready — have your ship ready — for anything that may happen. Admirals do not hold conferences before breakfast without good cause."
He turned his back and walked away in a curious bouncing motion, his sword clutched in his left hand clear of the dockyard stone. Halfhyde, grimly furious but impotent, swung on his heel and went down the steps to his boat. Captain Watkiss was not a comfortable senior officer under whom to serve, and the relationship, since Halfhyde had been temporarily appointed to the command of the Vendetta by the vice-admiral commanding the Inshore Squadron at Malta, had been largely a sour one. No one had been more astonished than Halfhyde when, following upon the successful cutting- out of the sailing ship Falls of Dochart from under the noses of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, his appointment had been made permanent by the Admiralty. Someone, somewhere, must obviously have overcome the diplomatic storm that had threatened as a result of his, Halfhyde's, actions on that occasion; and equally as astonishing as the confirmation of his appointment had been the comparative meekness with which Captain Watkiss had received the news of it. But there were many sides to Captain Watkiss, Halfhyde reflected as, still seething, he came alongside his ship and was piped aboard. Captain Watkiss could be both a chameleon and an overblown balloon, and like any overblown balloon was mightily susceptible to the prick of a pin ...
Reaching his quarterdeck, Halfhyde returned the salutes of the gangway staff and received his first lieutenant's report: "Ship ready to shift alongside the coaling berth, sir. Buoy-jumper standing by and starboard anchor ready to let go."
"So I noticed, Mr Prebble. Thank you." Halfhyde paused. "I am advised by Captain Watkiss to stand by for possible orders, but have not been told what those orders might be. In the meantime, pipe the hands to stations, if you please."
"Aye, aye, sir." The first lieutenant motioned to the bosun's mate and the pipe began shrilling its message through the ship. Halfhyde went below to change, and when properly dressed in white uniform proceeded to his bridge. Shortly after, Vendetta cast off from the buoy, got under way and made across the harbour to secure alongside the coaling berth. All hands were piped to shift into coaling gear, and emerged from the mess decks looking like tramps and vagabonds. The officers were no less sensibly attired. With all ports and non-working hatchways closed tightly against the clouds of coal-dust to come, the operation started. Up the brows from the wharf came a constant stream of Spanish dockyard workmen supported by ratings of all branches — deck, engine-room, cooks, stewards and supply ratings — bearing bags of coal for tipping down the chutes into the bunkers. Almost within minutes, everything and everyone in sight was black. Sweat poured, tempers flamed, language grew foul and then fouler. A light breeze coming through the strait from the Atlantic only made matters worse, blowing the dust into every nook and cranny, laying it against the canvasshrouded six-pounder guns and against the covered torpedotubes. The bridge took on the aspect of a pit-head housing, and Halfhyde longed to hear the wash-deck hoses in glorious cleansing action. To get away from this appalling filth, the recurrent hell of a seaman's life since sail had vanished from the seas, would be close to heaven. Halfhyde's mind wandered towards the girl of the night before: more bliss awaited him, but the clock moved only slowly.
Some eighty minutes after coaling had started, Captain Watkiss was seen coming off in his galley, in which a certain confusion appeared to be taking place: a canvas dodger was being rigged alongside the senior officer, who rapidly became invisible behind it as the galley came within coal-dust range. Fifteen minutes later the expected happened: aboard the flotilla leader a signal lamp began winking out Vendetta's pennants and was read by a blackened duty signalman and reported to Halfhyde.
"From Venomous, sir. Do not make so much dust."
The signalman coughed into a hand, discreetly. "Reply, sir?"
"Any reply would be unwise."
"Yessir." Grinning, the signalman turned away. Halfhyde glared towards the leader, his long jaw out-thrust. All post captains in Her Majesty's Fleet had their idiosyncrasies, and must be allowed them, but Captain Watkiss had many more than most. Halfhyde sat firmly upon insubordinate thoughts and ten minutes later another signal, this time general to all commanding officers, was received from the leader: You are to report aboard immediately.
Halfhyde swung round upon his first lieutenant. "Mr Prebble, I am bidden aboard Venomous — immediately. Call away my galley, if you please." He paused and lifted an eyebrow. "What are you staring at, Mr Prebble?"
"I beg your pardon, sir. Something tells me you have it in mind not to clean first."
"You are told right, Mr Prebble. The signal says immediately. Captain Watkiss is a stickler for obedience to orders. Now, my galley, if you please."
"You are insolent, Mr Halfhyde, in good keeping with your reputation." Captain Watkiss flapped at his immaculate uniform, its whiteness now sullied by coal-dust shaken from his visitor. "Damn it all, man, no other commanding officer has seen fit to attend upon me in such a state!"
"No other commanding officer is coaling ship, sir."
"Don't argue, Mr Halfhyde," Watkiss said in a distant tone. "I have a mind to order the hoses turned upon you. However, time is short and I must put up with you. I have received orders from the rear-admiral commanding the Particular Service Squadron, gentlemen." Captain Watkiss, seated at the head of the ward-room table with his commanding officers placed to right and left, drummed his fingers on the wood. "I am entrusted with a most important mission — a mission that is to remain a close secret, known only to such persons as must of necessity know, both now and after it has been successfully carried out. I am permitted to tell you little. Indeed I am permitted to tell you only our destination at this stage. Further orders will be passed later, as and when it becomes necessary." The voice became almost reverent. "I can add only this: much is at stake, gentlemen. The honour and safety of the realm is involved, and there is to be a need for diplomacy —" Watkiss broke off, staring haughtily at Halfhyde, and angrily too. "You seem anxious to speak, Mr Halfhyde. What, for God's sake, is it now?"
Excerpted from Halfhyde for the Queen by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1978 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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