When Lieutenant St. Vincent Halfhyde finds himself unexpectedly placed on shore on the half-pay list of the Royal Navy (following the debacle of Captain Watkiss's accidental death chronicled in "Halfhyde on Zanatu") he decides to broaden his experience at sea on a merchantman bound for Sydney. His ship, the "Aysgarth Falls," has an unsavory crew consisting primarily, it seems, of villans on the run from the police. Bad weather and outbreaks of fighting in the fo'c'sle herald the dangers ahead.In his efforts to uncover an illicit but lucrative deal made between the First Mate and a mysterious passenger to be picked up off Chile, Halfhyde is seized by unscrupulous captors who intend to deliver him into the clutches of his old enemy, Vice-Admiral Paulus von Merkatz. In an attempt to escape, the intrepid Halfhyde displays his naval training in an exciting chase across the high seas that climaxes in a clash in the treacherous shallows around Australia's Great Barrier Reef—where Halfhyde, at last, has the chance to try one of the most devious of stratagems.This rousing adventure novel, set in the last days of the nineteenth century, once again proves Lieutenant Halfhyde to be one of the finest hers ever to sail the high seas.
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St Vincent Halfhyde came awake, slowly and painfully. His mouth was like the bottom of a parrot's cage, filled with the gritty feel of sawdust, and his head rang like a ship's bell. On the floor above, a cat sounded as though it was stamping its feet. The smallest sound went through Halfhyde like the jab of a marline spike. He retched violently and broke out into a cold sweat as the sleazy room swayed around him. His recollections of the night before were so hazy as to be virtually nonexistent. He remembered falling in with a seasoned shipmaster, a short man in a tall hat who had been having his final fling ashore before taking his windjammer out of the Mersey and south for Cape Horn. Sobriety had lain ahead and Captain McRafferty was making hay while he could, and had drawn Halfhyde with him in his almighty haywain ...
Liverpool was a roistering hell of a place. As the nineteenth century moved towards its end and the old Queen grew even older and more revered and the Prince of Wales waited impatiently for his inheritance and his freedom, Liverpool was reaching a peak of prosperity, its docks and wharves crowded with masts and spars, with bales of cargo to and from all the world's ports, with swearing, blaspheming, hard-living and hard-drinking stevedores and ships' officers and crews, the latter having largely come through purgatory to the Mersey and soon to be off again for another dose.
It was no wonder the public-houses did a roaring trade in whisky, gin and beer. One of the best and busiest was the Bear's Paw, handy for the docks on the Birkenhead side of the river. It had been in the Bear's Paw that Halfhyde had made the casual acquaintance of Captain McRafferty. "I am being driven to the drink," Captain McRafferty had said as he emptied his seventh glass of Dunville's whisky, "against my will."
"'Tis the truth I'm telling you, my friend. 'Tis the filth and smoke that's doing it." McRafferty waved an arm towards the vicinity of the river. "All those dirty steamers that send their stink to heaven to offend the good Lord's nostrils. There's more and more of them today, driving sail from all the seas." He laid down half a sovereign on the bar and signalled up his eighth Irish whisky. He gathered up nine shillings and eight pence change in silver and copper. This he thrust into a leather purse; Halfhyde regarded the purse sardonically: a purse was the symbol of a mean man, and McRafferty hadn't bought him so much as one drink, a compliment that he had not hesitated to return. Each paid for his own. "There's a new breed come in with the steamers," McRafferty went on, not in the least discommoded by the amount of drink he had taken. "Engineers, they call themselves, and think they should be classed as officers, so I'm told. They're black with filth, with oil and grease and coal-dust. It would not be possible to have them in any decent ship's saloon. Now I'll tell you something."
"Never would I take a steamer to sea. I'd sink first. I'm a sailing-ship man and always will be. And you?"
Halfhyde smiled. "Steam has been my own experience, but —"
"I might have known it," McRafferty said in disgust. "You look like a seaman, and yet you don't — that's steam for you! When I was young ships were made of wood, the men who sailed them were made of iron. Now it's the other way round, so help me God. Iron ships and wooden men. Drink up, and maybe I'll stand you the next."
Halfhyde gave a hiccup. "You don't really mean that, Captain."
"Well now, maybe I don't. You have money?"
"Enough for my humble needs."
"Then I don't mean it. Drink up just the same. What's your ship?"
"At this moment, I have no ship. That's to say —"
"On the beach. I see. Your line, man?"
Halfhyde said, "Grey Funnel."
"Her Majesty's Navy, Captain. But I have a sabbatical. I have recently been placed, not for the first time, upon the half-pay list."
"You mean," McRafferty said with much deliberation, "You have been booted out. I like an honest man, not one who uses euphemisms."
"I am no liar, Captain McRafferty," Halfhyde said. He set his glass down hard enough to break it. Whisky and blood stained the bar. "I told you I am on half pay and that's the truth. If —"
"Very well, I accept your word. It is not important to me after all," McRafferty said off-handedly. "And now? Have you come to Liverpool to look for more active employment aboard a ship, or what? Are you in need of further pay, and have found that no one ashore stands in need of those trained to the sea?"
Halfhyde said, "I wish to return to sea, certainly. But I'm not in need of a permanent berth. I intend sailing ultimately as an independent shipmaster."
McRafferty gave a loud laugh followed by a belch. "Your pardon. Damme, you're mad! You sound like an owner, as I also —" "That's what I intend to be after acquiring some experience aboard a merchant ship," Halfhyde said. "Then I shall be in the market for a small but well-found ship, and it must be steam."
COMING DIZZILY that next morning through the fumes of Dunville's, Halfhyde knew that he was not in his customary lodging but had no idea where he might be. No matter; he was alive and uninjured by the gangs of evil-minded men who roamed the night streets and alleys of Liverpool. He racked his brains in an attempt to remember exactly what he had told Captain McRafferty. One thing he was able to recall: McRafferty had asked him to go aboard his ship, the fully rigged Aysgarth Falls of which he was owner as well as master. A time had been set for noon. Halfhyde, whose family farmed a large area of Wensleydale in Yorkshire not far from Aysgarth falls, had no difficulty in remembering that name. There had been a bargain in the air: McRafferty had seemed interested in taking him to sea for a consideration, but in what capacity now eluded Halfhyde's memory. The night had turned into a debauch, and at last Captain McRafferty had departed, still upright, to seek out female company for what remained of the hours to daylight. Halfhyde had left the Bear's Paw and called a cab; in the cab, he had passed out. The cabby, by a stroke of luck a decent man, had driven him behind a decrepit horse to a respectable lodging-house, one where his drunken fare would not be shanghaied to sea and the uttermost ends of the earth by a boarding-house master. The cabby had recompensed himself for his thoughtfulness by delving into Halfhyde's pockets and extracting two golden sovereigns, enough for a month's food for himself and his horse. Halfhyde had no female company, though he could well have done with some ... as thoughts of Captain McRafferty receded, they were replaced by thoughts of the erstwhile Miss Mildred Willard, now his wife by unkind fate. Halfhyde had spent some of his naval career in avoiding Miss Willard, daughter of a vice-admiral, from Hong Kong to Malta. When as lieutenant-in-command he had brought the torpedo-boat destroyer Talisman into Portsmouth dockyard from the South Pacific to face an Admiralty enquiry into the death of Captain Watkiss in distant waters, he had found Vice-Admiral Sir John and Lady Willard ensconced in their retirement in a splendid house in the High Street of Old Portsmouth, not far from the George Hotel where Lord Nelson had passed his last night before sailing to the glory of Trafalgar. Having met the admiral and his lady at a reception, Halfhyde had been bidden to dine at the house and had renewed his acquaintance with Miss Mildred, who was still unmarried and likely, it had seemed then, to remain so ...
Halfhyde had had her photograph pressed upon him before he had come north to Liverpool and it was in his baggage at his proper lodging; he grimaced at the thought of it. Mildred was ill-favoured as to face and figure, closely resembling the horses that were her life's interest. All her talk was of the Row in Hyde Park, of Ripon, of Newmarket and of little else except of course of the dear Queen. Her God was bloodstock ... Halfhyde savagely cursed the whisky bottle that had led him to a proposal, as much to stop the wagging of her tongue as anything else. As a man of some honour, he had felt unable to withdraw when sober. There was another aspect too: at that time unaware that he was to be placed on the half-pay list, as a result of censure in regard to the untimely death of the extraordinary Captain Watkiss, who in fact had virtually committed suicide by his remarkable behaviour towards the Japanese and Russians, Halfhyde had felt impelled to keep on the right side of Sir John Willard and no less of Her Ladyship, the admiral's personal prod.
The preliminaries leading to the wedding at St Thomas' church had been torture. A prospective son-in-law having been taken like a prize, Lady Willard had lost no time. Halfhyde was trapped like a man undergoing cell punishment in Detention Quarters. There had been one bright spot: Sir John's brother, Henry Willard, squire of a village in Hampshire. Hunting, shooting and fishing his interests might be; conventional — but Henry Willard was very human and detested his brother and sister-in-law. He and Halfhyde found much in common in that regard.
"Pompous bore," Henry Willard remarked one day. "Dreadful wife, just like a hen's backside — her mouth I'm referring to, my boy. Mildred's worse, though I shouldn't be saying this to her fiancé, of course. You'll forgive me?"
"Indeed I will, sir."
Henry gave him a shrewd look. "Well, now, that speaks volumes. You're being a bloody fool, y'know. Get out of it while you can."
"I'm bespoke, sir —"
"Yes, yes, I know that. By God, you'll regret it! A breach of promise action's a better thing by far than a lifetime of regret, Halfhyde."
They were walking one of Henry Willard's fields. Halfhyde navigated round a cowpat. "As a man of honour —"
"Oh, quite. I understand, naturally, and your attitude does you great credit, my boy. But as someone who seems about to become your unclein-law, if there's such a title — well, I'm entitled to speak my mind, I think — hey?"
"For the last time, then — after the marriage it'll become an impertinence, and you'd be entitled to knock me down. But that girl has me beat. Even I can't stomach horse talk morning, noon and night, I realize there are other things in life. I dare say you do, too."
"Then go and enjoy 'em while you can," Uncle Henry said energetically, waving his walking-stick.
After Halfhyde's visit to the Admiralty the world had seemed a place of woe and gloom, the sunshine gone for at least a year. He had been interviewed by the Second Sea Lord himself, and that high-ranking officer had seemed disinclined ever to recommend Halfhyde for the full-pay list again. Too many times in the past he had proved, however efficient and loyal, to be a thorn in the sides of Their Lordships of the Admiralty. His habit of outspokenness was held against him; so was his habit of running counter to the orders of his seniors when he saw those orders as either ludicrous or downright dangerous. Halfhyde had never been tactful, had never been inclined to suffer fools, had never shrunk from a head-on collision with brass-bound authority; and he had suffered previous periods of unemployment on the half-pay list, residing in Camden Town with the good Mrs Mavitty, his landlady, his clothes growing seedier and more frayed, his footsteps taking him past the London clubs where ultimately he could no longer afford to repay hospitality and therefore refrained from entering. But this time there was to be no Mrs Mavitty. The Admiralty had taken their time in sending for him, and in the interval Lady Willard had seen to it that Halfhyde was wed, and he had endured a short honeymoon in Scotland, during which he had spent a day propelling Mildred down Loch Lomond in a rowing boat and had been visited by strong desires to bundle her ashore on one of the small islands and leave her there for ever and a day. He it was who had insisted upon Scotland, and the highlands in particular, because, to his knowledge, there was no racecourse north of a line drawn from Glasgow to Edinburgh; the Scots, like himself, preferred whisky and the bagpipes. It was perhaps significant that there had never been more than one cavalry regiment of Scots in all Her Majesty's Army. Mildred it was who, denied such pleasures as she might have found in the horsey vicinities of Ayr and Paisley, Lanark and Edinburgh, had nagged continually about his choice and had grown more and more morose, pining for the saddle and the hunting field, and had bought every picture postcard she could find that depicted a horse and had stationed these around their hotel bedroom as her father might when serving have disposed pictures of his fleet. And at the end of the honeymoon month, Mildred was still a virgin. She had proved as determined as any well-bred horse at a jump.
Soon after their return to occupy, temporarily, four rooms in Admiral Willard's house, the Admiralty had demanded Halfhyde's presence and thereafter the atmosphere had grown cold: the Admiral didn't like a halfpay son-in-law and neither did his wife, who said so frequently.
It was this that had driven Halfhyde to his understanding mentor, Uncle Henry; and Uncle Henry, as generous as he was friendly, had provided a solution. Go back to sea, he had said, in the merchant ships. Buy yourself a small steamer, command it yourself, and range the world, leaving Mildred to her parents in the meantime.
Halfhyde had laughed at the idea. "And the money to buy a ship, sir? Where in heaven's name does that come from? From my father-in-law, who might be glad enough to get rid of me at any price?" "No. From me," Henry Willard said. "I can raise thirty thousand with no difficulty at all, and glad to. It'll be a loan, to be repaid when you're able. I see you making your fortune, my boy — and mine too, though I don't need it. I'll be a sleeping partner if you prefer it that way — an investment." Uncle Henry had put a hand on Halfhyde's shoulder and looked into his eyes. "I see honesty, reliability and independence of mind in your face, and the capacity for the command you've already held. Go to it with my blessing."
HALFHYDE HAD done so. His father-in-law had looked baffled when informed of his intentions, half glad, half peeved. He saw Halfhyde as a common seaman; but it was better than everlasting half-pay and a poverty-stricken presence around the High Street house. He had said it must be on Halfhyde's own head; he would know nothing about his son-in-law's movements if any enquiry should be made by the Admiralty — their Lordships would not approve of a half-pay officer being out of the country and employed other than in the naval service, and he would say nothing about it. His arrangements made, Halfhyde went north by the train to Liverpool, with two purposes in mind: to bend an alert ear around the steamship market, and to make an attempt to get signed on aboard a merchantman so as to learn the handling of such at first hand as a preliminary step towards qualifying himself to take command of his own ship and to make her a commercial success from the start. Uncle Henry had insisted on his gaining that experience as a condition of the loan, and had not needed to insist far; Halfhyde was in full agreement. He needed to know the ways of the merchant ships even though, as a lieutenant of some years' seniority in Her Majesty's Fleet, he would be entitled, not to a certificate of competency as possessed by master mariners who had gone through the seven-year mill of sea-time and examinations, but to a certificate of service that would exempt him from the normal requirements of command. And he had determined to look for a berth aboard a windjammer, since it was the custom of steamship owners to demand sail experience of their masters, and Halfhyde would accept no less for himself insofar as he was able to do anything about it ...
He stood up in the lodging-house bedroom. He swayed and felt sicker than ever; but he managed to stagger from the room to the landing, where he shouted for attention.
A stout woman clad in black emerged from a doorway in the narrow hall below. She called up, "So you've recovered, 'ave yer? Lawks amussy, never did I see the like —"
"Rubbish," Halfhyde snapped. "Liverpool's not Cheltenham and well you know it. I require water — hot, with soap and a towel. And a razor, a clean one and sharp. I'd be obliged if you'd jump to it."
Excerpted from "Halfhyde Outward Bound"
Copyright © 1983 Philip McCutchan.
Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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