With a ship to call his own at last, Royal Navy Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde sails for the Dardanelles in command of the little torpedo-boat Vendetta, part of a flotilla sent to rescue a Britsih sailing-ship unlawfully detained by the Russians. Unfortunately, Halfhyde's first command comes complete with a pompous flotilla captain in love with his own voice, and the looming threat of the irascible Admiral Prince Gorsinski. Cutting out the sailing-ship from amidst the Russian fleet and sneaking her back through the Narrows under the deadly batteries of the Turks and the Russians is the easy part. Facing Gorsinski's vengeance and the legendary wrath of the Romanovs is another matter!
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 to the Narrows
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 4
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1977 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
TALL AND LEAN, his skin burned brown by sun and wind, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde stood in the "at ease" position in front of the fo'c'sle division. The men were fallen in for entering harbour, wearing sennit hats and anticipatory grins as they considered the forthcoming delights of a run ashore to Strada Stretta, known in Her Majesty's Navy as The Gut. After an uneventful voyage from Portsmouth dockyard to join the Mediterranean Fleet at Malta, the ship's company of the Lord Cochrane were ready enough for wine, women, and song, and Halfhyde knew that tomorrow would bring a muster of men pale from a night's vomiting, and that succeeding days would bring a long line of sufferers from worse ailments to attend the doctor's surgery.
Halfhyde glanced upward and a little astern, his eye caught by sudden movement and colour: as the ship turned slowly and ponderously towards the Grand Harbour, her numeral pennants began climbing on their halliards to the starboard fore upper yard-arm, so as to identify her to the signal station at Lascaris, the eyes and ears of the admiral superintendent of the dockyard and of the commander-in-chief, Mediterranean Fleet, under whose orders the bombardment monitor would now come. The bright colours of the pennants, the polished brass of bollards and stanchions and picket-boat's funnels, and the paintwork of buff, white, and black stood out sharply beneath a strong sun, the heat of which made men glad enough of their white foreign-service uniforms; white and blue and gold, traditional colours of the sea ... Halfhyde felt at peace with himself and with the world at large. He was pleased to be sailing in to Malta, to be joining a great Fleet and to be becoming once again, after some years of half-pay followed by a variety of special missions on detached service, a part of the mainstream of naval life: as an ambitious officer he knew well that some degree of mainstream service was essential to promotion, and Malta in the 1890s was as pleasant a station as any in which to qualify.
From the monitor's flag deck more signals were made: the captain was now asking permission to enter, his engines stopped until the answer came. From Lascaris, within minutes, the Queen's harbourmaster signalled permission; blue water boiled up beneath the monitor's counter and, with the white-helmeted band of the Royal Marine Artillery playing on the quarterdeck beneath the snow-white, scrubbed canvas awnings, Her Majesty's Ship Lord Cochrane headed inwards to join the proud assembly of the warships anchored in the Grand Harbour. As the music of the band blared towards the rock and the clusters of yellow-white buildings that closed in the Grand Harbour, the monitor moved slowly past Fort St Angelo to the anchorage allotted her by the Queen's harbourmaster. Halfhyde's division was now fallen out, the hands standing by to let go the starboard bower anchor on receiving the signal from the bridge. As Captain Bassinghorn lowered his green flag, Halfhyde passed the order to the blacksmith to knock away the slips; in a shower of red rust the great links of the cable flew out around the out-of-gear centre-line capstan, rattling across the deck and down the cavernous mouth of the hawse-pipe to take the harbour bottom and hold the ship steady in her position. With the fourth shackle on deck, Halfhyde ordered the brake on the capstan, and as soon as the ship had "got her cable" the slips were re-secured. The hands were fallen out to go below, to await the piping away of the first of the liberty-boats.
In the wardroom St Vincent Halfhyde dropped into a worn leather armchair, thrust out long legs, and called for whisky: gin was the usual drink in Her Majesty's Navy — it was said that the aroma of gin was less obtrusive to senior officers' noses than that of whisky — but Halfhyde preferred whisky and refused to make concessions to other people's customs. His whisky, a double tot, would cost him twopence on his wine bill, and was more extravagant a drink than gin; but Halfhyde, as yet a single man, could afford the indulgence. He had by now made up the leeway of his impoverished years of half-pay on the Admiralty's unemployed list, to which he had been consigned as a result of his predeliction towards argument with his seniors when he considered himself in the right: for in naval eyes, perhaps the most heinous sin was to be right when a captain or an admiral was wrong. Prudent men were content to acknowledge this fact of service life and to mutter only into their beards or their gin ... Halfhyde grinned as he sipped the whisky brought by the wardroom servant: he was not a prudent man, except in one respect — he would not, whilst in Malta, be sampling the pleasures offered by the ladies of easy virtue who traded in The Gut. Unpleasant diseases were strictly for the lower deck, and officers had to stiffen their upper lips and wait either for the end of the commission or for the advent of young ladies of cleaner bodies, such as those upon whom Halfhyde had on occasions waited outside the doors of theatres and music halls in London, Portsmouth, and Devonport. These young ladies of the stage stood halfway between harlotry and the virtuous respectability of officers' wives and daughters, and as such were worth a risk when a single man felt the urge of desire. In between, it was a matter of whisky and the wardroom piano, or of very long walks and games of hockey ...
Halfhyde yawned, got to his feet and wandered over to a large square port to look out at the Grand Harbour, at the great battleships and cruisers of the Mediterranean Fleet lying at anchor in orderly lines, attended by busy picket-boats or by native dghaisas, curious craft with high-pointed bows and sterns, propelled by a single oar, that had often enough proved salvation for officers and men who had missed the last liberty-boat off shore — to the delight of the dghaisamen, whose instincts told them unmistakably of their passengers' misfortune and who doubled the fares accordingly ... Malta, island of the Knights Hospitallers, lived by and for the British Mediterranean Fleet, without which it would surely sink into the sea.
Hearing a knock at the open wardroom door, Halfhyde swung round. A seaman messenger stood waiting, his cap beneath his left arm.
"Mr Halfhyde, sir. Captain's compliments, sir, and he'd like to see you in his cabin, sir."
"Right, thank you."
The messenger turned about smartly, putting his cap on. Halfhyde finished his whisky, staring moodily into the glass when it was empty. He and Captain Henry Bassinghorn were old shipmates who had been through many difficulties together in the China seas and off the West African coast; but a captain's summons inevitably held overtones of some criticism, of something either left undone or done improperly. As he went aft to the cuddy Halfhyde's mind flickered over the recent past: had there been inefficiency in anchoring, had one of his division been slack, or slow to obey an order, such as would reflect upon his divisional lieutenant? Halfhyde believed his own eye to be as true as Bassinghorn's, as sharp to spot improprieties, but it had to be acknowledged that the navigating bridge gave a superior view ... as he passed the rifle racks Halfhyde absentmindedly returned the butt-salute of the armed Royal Marine Light Infantryman on sentry duty outside the cuddy, then tapped once on the captain's door.
"Come in," came Bassinghorn's deep voice.
Halfhyde tucked his cap beneath his arm and went in, standing at attention. "You sent for me, sir?"
"I did, Mr Halfhyde, but at the behest of someone else who has also sent for you."
Halfhyde raised an eyebrow. "Sir?"
"The vice-admiral commanding the Inshore Squadron, Mr Halfhyde." There was a gleam in Bassinghorn's eye, a suspicion of humour. "Do you know who the vice-admiral is, Mr Halfhyde?"
"I do not, sir."
Bassinghorn moved his heavy body slightly in the chair, looking at Halfhyde from under massive brows, grey turning to white. "When last you and he met, he was a commodore. Commodore Sir John Willard — at Hong Kong. He wishes you to dine with him tonight — seven-thirty for eight — I also was bidden, but pleaded a signal to dine with the commander-in-chief aboard the flagship, so you'll go alone."
"A sorry fate, sir," Halfhyde said involuntarily, thinking his own thoughts. "Not that I intend disrespect, but —"
"My presence would scarcely have helped. I'm a confirmed bachelor — you are not. I wish you very good luck, my dear Halfhyde — and remember that admirals' daughters can be double edged swords to an officer's career!"
True words indeed, Halfhyde reflected as he left the cuddy; and especially in the case of Miss Mildred Willard. An admiral set upon marrying off an unattractive daughter would need tactful handling. Halfhyde pulled out his timepiece: six-thirty — one bell in the last dog watch. He went to his cabin, washed, shaved for the second time that day, and put on the starched shirt and white bum-freezer laid ready by his servant, the gold stripes and curl of his rank as an executive lieutenant gleaming from his shoulder-straps. Dressed, Halfhyde took up his white covered cap, strode along the steel-lined alleyway of the officers' cabin flat and climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck. He had a word with the officer of the watch, a lieutenant wearing an empty sword-belt to indicate his duty status and carrying a telescope beneath his left arm. The next officer's boat for the shore would leave at three bells, too late for Halfhyde's purpose; but the duty steam picket-boat could be called away.
"I'll take a dghaisa," Halfhyde said, unwilling to have men disturbed for himself alone. "If you'll be so good?"
The officer of the watch passed the order to his midshipman, who stepped to the starboard guard-rail and hailed a passing craft: this immediately altered course for the foot of the monitor's accommodation-ladder. Halfhyde descended, returning the salutes of the gangway staff, stepped into the dghaisa and sat upon a thwart while the brown-skinned, bare-foot Maltese pulled him towards the quay opposite Fort St Angelo's frowning battlements, ancient stone that in its long history had looked down upon Lord Nelson's wooden Fleet and upon the valiant old ships of Collingwood and Cochrane, Troubridge and Codrington, Hood and St Vincent. But as he was pulled for the shore and what he felt in his bones would prove an awkward and constrained evening, Halfhyde's thoughts were centred, not upon the famous names of England's history, but upon the basically pointless words of a naval ditty that seemed currently apposite to marriage-broking admirals: "You may pass, kiss my arse, make fast the dghaisa ..."
At the vice-admiral's residence, Halfhyde stepped down from the carriage that had awaited him at the landing-stage. As he approached the magnificent front door it was opened by the admiral's chief steward in person, a portly chief petty officer with a lock of grey hair greased down with brilliantine over his left eye like a misplaced Nelson's patch, and a curious habit of lifting one corner of his mouth in a series of jerks as though it were some kind of Morse transmitter. Memory stirred in Halfhyde.
"I'll be damned!" he said. "It's Barty!"
"Chief Petty Officer Steward Bartholomew if it's all the same to you, Mr Halfhyde, sir —"
"Well, it isn't. Barty you were aboard the old Britannia, Barty you are still. How are you?" Halfhyde extended a hand, and shook the steward's warmly.
"None the better for seeing you, young sir," Barty grumbled, but the light in his eye was friendly enough. "Last time I see you, you'd cut me 'ammick netting through far enough for me to fall on me arse the moment I climbed in. I'll say one thing: you owned up like a man, and then apologized 'andsome." His mouth jerked. "Ruddy cadets. Enough to make a man shit a brick if you'll pardon the expression."
Chief Petty Officer Steward Bartholomew turned away across the admiral's hall, leading Halfhyde to the drawing-room, where he announced the visitor in loud tones and then closed the door behind him. To Halfhyde, the group by the fireless chimney-piece seemed frozen into attitudes struck long ago, in Hong Kong. Now as then, though adorned with more brass, Sir John Willard, with a face like a rock and a distant, haughty expression on it, stood flanked by wife and daughter. Lady Willard was as nervous as ever in her husband's presence and had lost none of her bulk — if anything, the years had increased it. Miss Mildred seemed poised on the brink of her dreadful horsey laugh; and her resemblance to her father was even more marked now. At about twenty-eight by Halfhyde's calculations, she had grown decidedly spinsterish, with no breasts and a broad behind. Halfhyde felt positively carried back in time, as though once again he and Bassinghorn were about to take the old Viceroy out across the China seas to plant the flag of Empire on what had since gone down in the Admiralty charts as Halfhyde's Island. Even the portrait over the fireplace was the same: Her Majesty Queen Victoria, garter ribbon, cap and bun, had made the journey from far Hong Kong to Malta and still stood looking out upon her beloved Scotland from behind the drawn-back tartan curtains of Balmoral Castle ...
"Good evening, Halfhyde. Glad you could come."
Halfhyde bowed his head politely to each in turn, then said, "My captain, sir, sends his apologies —"
"He's already sent 'em by signal." Sir John turned, and tugged at a bell-pull; Chief Petty Officer Steward Bartholomew silently appeared and the admiral snapped his fingers at him. "Sherry." Bartholomew vanished again and the admiral addressed Halfhyde once more. "You've met Bartholomew? He remembered you."
"Yes, sir. Dear old Barty." The admiral stared from under raised eyebrows. Halfhyde cleared his throat. "In Hong Kong, sir, he wasn't —"
"With me. No. Man I had there died. Drink — my drink! Damn thief." There was a long pause, during which Bartholomew came back and poured sherry. Halfhyde, no sherry drinker, found it thin and tasteless, much too dry. It was quickly gone and no more was offered. Into another pause came the chief steward's voice announcing dinner, and the admiral immediately shepherded family and guest towards the dining-room. They sat at a long table with Sir John at one end and, distantly, Lady Willard at the other. Rather closer together amidships, Halfhyde and Miss Mildred faced each other. The meal was frugal and fast: soup, fish, meat, pudding, and coffee flashed by as speedily as in Hong Kong. The admiral was no gourmet. The conversation was sparse also: the admiral was preoccupied, silent, frowning, continually tapping a hand upon the table; Lady Willard clearly had nothing to say, and the moment she ventured to say it she was snapped into silence by the admiral. Thus the conversation was left to Halfhyde and Miss Mildred, and to Halfhyde dinner was torture. Miss Mildred spoke of Ascot, Lincoln, Newmarket, the Row in Hyde Park, and of little else; and Halfhyde, in spite of his farming background in the Yorkshire Dales, had no interest in horses. His relief was great when the ladies withdrew, and Sir John Willard — precisely as in Hong Kong — poured the port and gruffly said, "Now then."
Now then was, for the second time in Halfhyde's experience, the admiral's personal signal for getting down to the real business, the business for which dinner was in a sense mere cover. The fact was that the lieutenant in command of a torpedo-boat destroyer of the Inshore Squadron, a ship outside the strict command of the Mediterranean Fleet itself, had died of Malta fever.
"Otherwise known as undulant fever," the admiral said. "Nasty. Enlarged spleen, profuse sweating, constipation, rheumatic pains, and swelling of the joints. Get it from the damn goats. Steer clear of goats, Halfhyde."
"This TBD, now. Her Majesty's Ship Vendetta. Fast and well-armed, and of shallow draft. Interesting to handle." Sir John Willard stared hard at Halfhyde, eyes boring into his guest from a face of granite. "Does it interest you, Halfhyde?"
"In what capacity, sir, if I may ask?"
Excerpted from Halfhyde to the Narrows by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1977 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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