The old iron-clad Meridian steams south on her last journey under the British flag, on route to her new home in the Chilean Navy. Using the transfer of the ship as cover, Halfhyde and Watkiss are on a covert operation to protect British interests in South America from the encroaching Germans. Soon Halfhyde has an added mission: he must help a detective from the Metropolitan Police track down and intercept a traitorous civil servant who has escaped from prison and is on the run for South America.
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 Ordered South
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 6
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1979 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
IT WAS a filthy passage. The westerlies howled smack into the fo'c'sle and superstructure of the old battleship to send solid water hurtling over the compass platform. Ton upon ton of water fell upon the anchors secured with compressors and rope stoppers, with lashings and strops on stocks and shanks — water that rushed aft as the deck lifted to submerge the great sixteen-inch guns in the swivel turrets and continued in its headlong rush past hatch coamings and davits to thunder down and meet the Southern Ocean once again as the greybeards lifted to the captain's stern-walk. Everything, everywhere was under a blanket of spindrift. Wet pervaded body and soul, mess deck and galley, ward-room and cuddy. Men of the watch on deck huddled where they could, with luck, find shelter of a sort and yet maintain a lookout and be ready to answer any emergency call from the officer of the watch, as wet and storm-tossed as themselves. The word had been passed below by voice-pipe that the watch would not be relieved until the weather moderated; and that might not be for days yet. Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, Officer of the Morning Watch, glowered from the compass platform, seeking a sight of Cape Horn through the spindrift and the huge, rearing crests of grey water, seeking other shipping at large in the dreary wastes at the world's foot. One of the great seaways of world trade, Cape Horn was seldom without a number of windjammers beating round into the Pacific from east to west, or running the other way before the great west winds that blew almost continually right round the world in the high south latitudes until, below the Cape of Good Hope, they merged into the Roaring Forties to sweep the ships on for the Leeuwin and the Great Australian Bight. The route was not so often used by Her Majesty's ships of war — and just as well, Halfhyde thought mutinously, as he felt the tremendous shudder of the great ironclad beneath his feet. Almost 12,000 tons of obsolete battleship was Her Majesty's Ship Meridian, 12,000 tons that stood in urgent need of a dockyard refit which the Lords of the Admiralty would not sanction; instead, the old Meridian was being delivered to the Chilean Navy by gracious consent of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and by virtue of the jingling of a little gold into the coffers of the Treasury in London. The Disposal List ... yet Halfhyde's vigilance was not only for the ship and for any windjammers that might be encountered trying to round Cape Stiff under lower topsails, but also, since this was no ordinary ship-delivery run, for the fighting-tops and gun-turrets and streaming ensigns of Vice-Admiral Paulus von Merkatz commanding the Special Service Squadron of the German Emperor.
Only a month earlier when serving with the Fleet in the Mediterranean, Halfhyde's life had been very different. The Fourth Torpedo-Boat Destroyer Flotilla under the command of Captain Watkiss, Royal Navy, had been lying peacefully alongside the quay in the harbour of Mers-el-Kebir below the shadow of the French Foreign Legion fort and the base and arsenal of Oran. St Vincent Halfhyde, Lieutenant-in-Command of HMS Vendetta, had just shifted into plain clothes with the intention of taking his galley into Oran, there to sample the pleasures of French women and Algerian wine, when Prebble, his first lieutenant, had come to his cabin with a message delivered by hand, from Captain Watkiss in the leader.
His face cold, Halfhyde had opened the missive and read: "Vendetta from Venomous: you are to report aboard immediately."
"The literary style of the good Captain Watkiss changes but little from one year to the next, Prebble."
Halfhyde tapped the message. "Have you any idea what he wants, Prebble?"
"No, sir. Not precisely, that is. But a carriage went alongside Venomous half an hour ago, and a French officer boarded, and left again within five minutes."
Halfhyde nodded. "Very well, Prebble, thank you. I shall obey the order and trust that temper will not coerce me into planting a foot in Captain Watkiss's backside. I had other plans for this afternoon." Ahead of his first lieutenant, Halfhyde climbed to the upper deck and was saluted over the side by the officer of the day and the gangway staff, the former frockcoated and wearing a sword-belt. It was a warm day, with no more than a gentle breeze stirring the dust along the wharf. Halfhyde glanced up at the Tricolor of France floating from the flagstaff over Fort Mers-el-Kebir, at a bearded sentry of the Foreign Legion standing with his rifle by the main gate. An outpost of France, and les belles dames waiting a few miles away across the harbour in Oran ... much sea-time of late had kept the men of the Fourth TBD Flotilla away from the fleshpots of the shore, and Halfhyde would not be the only one suffering the effects of abstinence and frustration. Shore leave had been piped for that afternoon, although the liberty men had not yet fallen in for inspection; when they did so, the duty watch would wait enviously for their turn next day. Halfhyde ground his teeth angrily: for him it was worse, for the cherry had been seized from between his teeth. Desire stirred uselessly in him as he caught a glimpse of a long dress, a parasol, and an elegant figure on the fort's battlements. An officer's wife, flaunting beauty before suffering beasts ... the land forces of any country had a better time of it than the Navy, and the Frogs in particular never neglected the demands of nature! Halfhyde, tall and angular, stalked on towards Venomous's gangway. At its head he was met by Beauchamp, Watkiss's first lieutenant, an officer wearing the thin stripe of a senior lieutenant between his two thick gold stripes. Salutes were punctiliously exchanged and Halfhyde enquired what was afoot; Beauchamp, a nervous man at the best of times, seemed jumpy and spoke in a low voice as though attack might come at any moment.
"Captain Watkiss is —" He stopped. Halfhyde, from the corner of his eye, saw why: from the starboard after door below the shelter-deck a rotund figure had emerged bearing a telescope. This was Captain Watkiss in person; and he gave tongue.
"Captain Watkiss is what, Mr Beauchamp, pray?"
"I — I beg your pardon, sir." Beauchamp sweated, but was saved by a purely fortuitous circumstance: Captain Watkiss had seen, across his deck and the yellow-brown dust of the wharf, the young woman upon the battlements of Fort Mersel-Kebir. He dropped his monocle from his eye to dangle at stomach level from its black silk toggle, and brought up his telescope with its gleaming pipeclayed turk's-heads, a tattooed snake emerging upon his forearm as his cuff lifted.
"I'll be damned! A woman! It's all the Frogs think about, is it not? Damn foreigners! Feller that brought the despatch smelt like a chemist's shop — I felt obliged to keep my backside against the bulkhead — you never know. Ah, Mr Halfhyde."
"I was ordered aboard, sir —"
"Yes. No need to tell me my own orders, Mr Halfhyde. I dislike that." Captain Watkiss snapped his telescope shut. "Come below. And you, Mr Beauchamp."
"Aye, aye, sir."
"You may use my ladder."
Beauchamp almost bowed; Halfhyde kept a straight face. Captain Watkiss's tone had indicated a great concession, democratically made: the starboard ladder, like all starboard ladders throughout the ship, was marked by a painted notice reading CAPTAIN ONLY, notices that were always removed before an admiral came aboard and were replaced immediately he had gone. Descending past this disgraceful example of Godhead, Halfhyde reached the captain's cabin and, with Beauchamp, was bidden to a hard-seated chair. Captain Watkiss removed his gold oak-leaved cap and installed himself at his roll-top desk, which he opened with a rattle and brought out an envelope the seal of which he had already broken. "We are under orders for England, Mr Halfhyde. Not the flotilla. You and I only."
"I see, sir. And may I ask, for what purpose?"
"You may not," Captain Watkiss answered promptly. "The purpose will be promulgated at a later date." He thrust out his jaw and placed his monocle in his eye. "You may rest assured it will prove a matter of much importance, however — of much importance for our country and the Empire. That's fact — I said it. Mr Beauchamp?"
"The flotilla will cast off and sail for Gibraltar the moment all my ships have steam. See to that."
"Aye, aye, sir." Beauchamp paused. "Leave —"
"Has been piped, yes, I know that, but it will not now be given, Mr Beauchamp, as you should know without being damn well told."
"Sir, the liberty parties will already be going ashore."
Captain Watkiss lifted his telescope and shook it at his first lieutenant. His face deepened in colour. "Then stop them, Mr Beauchamp, stop them instantly — and tell all my Commanding Officers to get back any men who have been landed, personally if they can find no other way, or I shall have them all in arrest and you too, Mr Beauchamp. And they are to report the moment they're ready to proceed to sea."
"Aye, aye, sir." Beauchamp left the cabin in a hurry and Captain Watkiss, clicking his tongue in annoyance, apprised Halfhyde of a little more of their shared orders which had come, it seemed, from the Admiralty by telegraph to the signal station at Gibraltar. From Gibraltar, the captain-in-charge had passed them to the French authorities in Oran; thus far, at any rate, there was no secrecy. But Captain Watkiss insisted pompously that secrecy would come.
"I would not be required upon some minor matter, Mr Halfhyde."
"Indeed not, sir." Sarcasm tinged Halfhyde's voice. "And I?"
"Oh, as to you, I can't say," Watkiss answered off-handedly. "However, we are both to leave my flotilla at Gibraltar and embark aboard the homeward-bound P&O from Bombay. When in the Channel and off the Isle of Wight, we shall be taken off by a steam picket-boat out of Portsmouth Dockyard and we shall report to the commander-in- chief for his disposal."
"And the flotilla, sir?"
Watkiss looked disagreeable. "My flotilla, God help it, will pass under the care of Mr Beauchamp until a post captain can be appointed to take my place. As regards Vendetta, Mr Halfhyde, you will hand over to your first lieutenant immediately upon arrival in Gibraltar."
"I shall do so with confidence, sir. Prebble's a first-rate officer, well fitted for command."
Halfhyde was, indeed, as pleased by this news as Prebble himself would be. Prebble had come up from the lower deck, making the long hard climb via the hawse-pipe to the intermediate rank of mate, and was a little old for his present subordinate position: he could well do with the experience of command that would lead to advancement in the Service, and that he would acquit himself adequately was a foregone conclusion in Halfhyde's mind.
The relevant information imparted, Halfhyde was dismissed to return aboard his own ship and prepare for sea. Fires had not been drawn and within the next two hours, with all their ships' companies aboard, the five vessels of the Fourth TBD Flotilla had cast off from the wharf and were nosing in line ahead towards the Mediterranean, Captain Watkiss standing squat and square upon his navigating bridge as the routine farewell signals were politely made to Fort Mers-el-Kebir and its loose-living officers, and to the port authority in Oran. Gradually the town faded away on the port quarter, its two component parts, the seaport with the old Spanish town to the west of the ravine of Oued Rekhi, and the new French quarter to the east, seeming to come together beneath the great mountain that backed them. The sea was calm and flat; as night fell the bow waves of the flotilla creamed back along the sides in brilliant phosphorescence.
Halfhyde, with little else to do but breathe deeply of the good fresh air as he walked his small quarterdeck, pondered on the future. The orders were very non-committal but Halfhyde accepted the point that Watkiss had made: a post captain would not be hurriedly withdrawn from his flotilla and hastened into home waters without excellent reason. The ways of the Lords of the Admiralty were largely unpredictable and wrapped in mystery, but were not capricious to that extent. And where did he, Halfhyde, fit? He knew that he had done his duty, that his command had been well conducted; though still unable upon occasion to curb his tongue and his forthrightness, he would not be going home to face reprimand and censure followed by half-pay as had once been his lot. He grinned to himself as he paced, bracing his tall bony body automatically to the slight roll of the deck. He had always had that reputation for a degree of insubordination, for occasional acid rudeness to senior officers when he had seen through blind stupidity and pomposity — and God knew Watkiss was very often both and there had been many sharp exchanges over the past months. But Watkiss, who was largely an impossible man to serve under and was accustomed to making mincemeat of those of his officers who quailed before him, tended to respect an officer who stood firm and would not be bullied; and he had one great virtue: he dealt with his problems himself and did not pass his strictures on to a higher level. His reports, if biased towards giving maximum glory to himself, were largely fair upon his subordinates, and a mere lieutenant could not ask for more than that. Halfhyde's bursts of frustration would not have been the subject of adverse report. So the mystery remained: why were he and Captain Watkiss to be apparently bound together for disposal by the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth? Halfhyde grinned again. "For disposal" always had a dustbin ring, yet when used in regard to personnel it was no more than a routine Service expression giving the disposer power to make his own appointments of the officers or men concerned. And again, in this case, why?
By next morning's first light Watkiss's flotilla had rounded Europa Point into Gibraltar Bay and had entered the inner harbour to go alongside the wharf, passing the homeward bound P&O at anchor in the bay, a great ship with a black hull and buff upperworks like one of Her Majesty's ships, wearing the Blue Ensign in indication that her master and a proportion of her officers and men were enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve and committed to fight as Queen's men in time of war.
Immediately the leader had berthed, Captain Watkiss was seen to embark in his galley and proceed across the inner harbour below the great brown eminence of the Rock, to report to the captain-in-charge in the dockyard. As Halfhyde mustered his ship's company to bid them farewell, the bugles started blowing reveille over the regiments and corps in garrison, and a little later, from the direction of Red Sands, came the stirring sound of the pipes and drums as a Highland battalion paraded. The garrison began to come alive to a new day, with redcoats visible along the defences, and the shouts of NCOs coming from Hesse's Demi-Bastion, Cornwall's Parade, Chatham Counterguard, Forbes's Battery, Casemates, and the Land Port.
Soon, back across the water came Captain Watkiss. As he neared the flotilla he clambered to his feet and stood dangerously, foolishly really, in the stern-sheets. He removed his gilded cap and waved it energetically as his coxswain reached out a steadying hand. As he passed, each vessel cheered ship, a storm of sound echoing out across the blue water as the sennit hats, hastily donned by the seamen for the occasion of bidding their Senior Officer goodbye, were waved in the air. Watkiss finally replaced his cap and saluted. He must, Halfhyde thought, be feeling happily nostalgic. Cheers were always heartening, but it was at least debatable whether on this occasion they were expressions of relief. Captain Watkiss reached Venomous, climbed to his quarterdeck, and vanished below, and within two minutes the signals had started as expected: Venus had been slow to secure alongside; Vortex had a length of codline hanging judas over her stern plating; and Mr Halfhyde would be taken off by Captain Watkiss's galley for the liner as soon as Vendetta's new Commanding Officer had placed in the report a stoker who had been observed peering from a hatchway wearing a dirty singlet as his senior officer passed by.
Excerpted from Halfhyde Ordered South by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1979 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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