Royal Navy Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde is assigned a second in command of the heavy cruiser Viceroy and ordered to a volcanic island that has recently surfaced in the north Pacific. The Admiralty hopes to claim the island for the Crown and establish an outpost there, but the hostile Russians have other ideas and the wily Japanese are prepared to carry out their own agenda.
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.
Read an Excerpt
The Halfhyde Adventures, No. 2
By Philip McCutchan
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1975 Philip McCutchan
All rights reserved.
THE INTERVIEW had been far from satisfactory: not for the first time in his career in Her Majesty's Navy, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde walked out of the Admiralty onto Horse Guards Parade in a state of high indignation at the autocratic manners of Their Lordships' highly-placed representatives. Making in a chill wind towards the Mall, and feeling more than a hint of coming snow in that wind, he lifted a white-gloved hand towards a hansom cab trotting up from the direction of Buckingham Palace. The cab altered course and came alongside under the command of an elderly man, red faced and white whiskered.
"Mornin', Captain. A cold day, sir."
Halfhyde glowered: one of his so-recent interviewers had been a Rear-Admiral, red faced, white whiskered. Getting in, he snapped, "24 Crimea Row, Camden Town."
"Yessir." The ancient cabby flicked his long whip: the thong flew over Halfhyde's head like a paying-off pennant floating over the after turrets of a man-of-war. The cab moved away, came under the Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square. Halfhyde looked up at Nelson: Vice-Admiral Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte ... Nelson of the Nile, of Copenhagen, of Trafalgar. From inside the swaying, leather-smelling cab, Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde brought his right hand to the brim of his full-dress cocked hat in sardonic salute. Nelson he admired: an ancestor had sailed under the great little admiral with his black patch and his empty coat-sleeve. The salute's sardonic element was not for Nelson but for the way in which he was used by the modern Navy. Almost ninety years had passed since HMS Victory had with sadness hauled down the Admiral's flag, and the present rulers of the Queen's Navy had laid aside the lesson of the humility that had been part of Nelson's greatness. Then a smile twisted Halfhyde's lips, a wry smile full of self-knowledge: there were people in the Service who would have said, and indeed had said, that humility was not one of his own virtues ...
The Rear-Admiral had come close to saying it only some fifteen minutes earlier. Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Ponsonby of the red face and cabby's whiskers, body shaped like a rum tub, had walked round and round the seated lieutenant as though he were a museum relic to be studied with interest. Halfhyde had grown hot beneath the scrutiny, had felt hot words press against his closed lips. He had kept them closed, knowing his own temper. The walking scrutiny had ended at last, and Sir Edward had uttered.
"Before the Aurora, two years on half-pay."
"Result of a disagreement with your then Captain."
Halfhyde continued to keep his mouth shut. The disagreement had been none of his own making, but to say so now would not help. Sir Edward proceeded, shooting a length of starched white shirt-cuff beyond the broad gold band surmounted by a thinner one bearing the executive curl. "Your Captain in the Aurora gave the next report upon you, as you know. Result, another nine months on half-pay —"
"I beg your pardon, sir. I'll ask you to remember that my mission was successful."
"And caused a diplomatic storm nevertheless," the Rear-Admiral said disagreeably. "Mission in a sense successful, yes. Subordination less so, and kindly do not argue with me as I gather you argued with your Captain. You're to learn respect for your seniors, Mr Halfhyde, or you'll be given no more chances."
"Do I understand I'm being given one now, sir?" There was eagerness in Halfhyde's voice, a fresh light seemed to lift the long face and soften the wide mouth. "A sea appointment?"
A finger wagged in his face. "Don't anticipate my words." A silence followed; Sir Edward Ponsonby turned away and walked with his hands behind the back of his frock-coat towards a tall window, which stood open despite the coldness of the London morning. From the direction of Whitehall came military music and shouted commands from a Corporal of Horse as the mounted guard was changed. Halfhyde turned a little in his chair and looked past Sir Edward through the window: he saw the Royal Standard floating high above the palace. Her Majesty was not yet upon her Christmas journey to Balmoral ... Halfhyde's thoughts moved a little way from majesty and settled upon Captain the Honourable Quentin Fitzsimmons, commanding Her Majesty's cruiser Aurora. Fitzsimmons was an aristocrat, and had preferred his executive officers to be of similar station; he had found no mention of Halfhyde's family in Burke's Landed Gentry, still less in the Peerage. Halfhyde came of farming stock, yeoman stock, good men of the Yorkshire Dales but not good enough for Captain Fitzsimmons, and this fact explained much that could not be pointed out to the Board of Admiralty, who stood as supporting pinnacles of power behind their sea-going captains. Halfhyde listened to Sir Edward's voice as the latter turned from the window towards a massive desk of highly-polished mahogany that reflected the pale white light of a mid winter sun: listened, but did not hear, and somewhat obviously so, for Sir Edward stopped short.
"Do me the courtesy of paying attention, Mr Halfhyde."
"I'm sorry, sir."
There was a snort. "I shall repeat myself this time, not again: you are appointed lieutenant in the Viceroy, at present lying at Portsmouth —"
"Lying, sir? Did you say lying?" Halfhyde's face flushed, and he made as if to rise from his chair. "The word I would use is rotting rather than lying!"
The Rear-Admiral gave a thin smile. "Then you shall assist in unrotting her, Mr Halfhyde. There is work for her to do, and you also. I advise you to do it well and have a care for your future. Although you have not your eight years seniority in your rank, you are in fact appointed First Lieutenant. In a ship carrying no Commander, you will therefore be the Executive Officer, Mr Halfhyde. You will be under the command of Captain Bassinghorn, of whom you may have heard. Captain Bassinghorn sets high standards, and you will observe them."
First Lieutenant of a hulk ... it was a Pyrrhic promotion, but it was, at least, intriguing: Captain Bassinghorn and the old Viceroy scarcely seemed to go together. Captain Bassinghorn was a martinet with the reputation of running a taut ship and a smart one, a man who was said to have missed flag rank because he was contemptuous of the emerging ideas, scornful of the modern Navy ... Halfhyde, sitting back in the cab as it neared Camden Town, conscious of the raucous cries of the street vendors and the sharp smell of horseflesh coming from brewers' drays and bakers' carts, reflected that there was, after all, a point of contact. Henry Bassinghorn was a sailor of the old school, sail trained and hard as nails, a man no longer young. And the Viceroy ... by God, she had been built in the 1850s! A development of the armoured wooden frigates built by the French following upon the success of the heavily armoured floating batteries against the Baltic and Black Sea forts, the Viceroy had been almost the first iron-built, armoured warship to join the British Fleet. Today she had retreated from her former glory: she had first been relegated to the reserve and then converted to a store hulk. When last at sea, she had found her motive power partly from sails, partly from steam. The sails would fit Captain Bassinghorn, but the ship herself was an insult. Halfhyde fumed, but at the same time knew that his curiosity had been well aroused. Sir Edward Ponsonby, suddenly becoming mysterious, almost furtive, had revealed no details of his appointment. These, unusually in Halfhyde's experience, would be communicated by his new Captain ...
The cab stopped. A sleety rain had started, and to this the whiskered face above drew Halfhyde's attention. "You'll get wet, sir."
"I shall not," Halfhyde said evenly. "Down from your perch, man, and thunder on the door of Number 24. Tell Mrs Mavitty to bring an umbrella. Quickly now! I have Her Majesty's commands to execute."
"Yessir." The cabby scrambled down and did as he had been told. To the door of Number 24 came Mrs Mavitty, landlady; vanishing again into the narrow hallway upon receiving her instructions, she re-emerged with a large black umbrella, and advanced upon the cab.
"Well I never did," she said disparagingly and with a click of her tongue. "A sea gentleman to need an umbrella!"
"Full dress is expensive, Mrs Mavitty. If you don't like the rain, you should have sent Mavitty." Halfhyde stepped down from the cab, umbrella-shielded, and shook his scabbarded sword at a crowd of grinning, barefoot urchins. Not for the first time, he was seized with extreme distaste for Camden Town: what he needed was the lift of a deck beneath his feet, and oilskins on his body, the wind in his face, and the flung spindrift flying over the guns.
He had brought despondency to Mrs Mavitty: the good lady liked the cachet of having a naval officer, even a half-pay one, as a lodger; and she had grown fond of Halfhyde who, when his temper and his seafaring ways were allowed for, was a considerate gentleman and a prompt payer. Now he had come from the Admiralty to bid goodbye: that very night, he told her, he was bound into Cambridgeshire for Christmas, and in the meantime she was to pack his trunks and uniform cases. He would pick them up on the day after Boxing Day, if the coming snow did not stop the trains into London. Then he would proceed to Portsmouth Town, and Mrs Mavitty, like a battleship at the end of its commission, would be paid off.
That early evening, by way of Liverpool Street and Cambridge, Halfhyde, now in plain clothes and accompanied by one small trunk, reached the branch line station at St Ives near the border of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. He stepped down into a pool of railway lamplight and a swirl of steam and smoke, with snow lying thick beyond the platform, glistening wet in the yellow light of the lamps. The train chugged on for Godmanchester, leaving Halfhyde to the Christmas scene: there was holly around, and distantly a carol hung in the air, and then church bells. It was cold, with a biting wind that seemed to come straight from Siberia: Halfhyde had kept himself middling warm inside with a flask of whisky, but his face felt blue. He walked into the booking hall followed by a porter with his trunk on a creaking barrow, and flung his arms about his tall body. From a bench a coachman rose, and removed his head-gear.
"You're Mr Halfhyde, I take it, sir?"
"I am. You're from Captain Bassinghorn?"
"From the rectory, sir."
Halfhyde nodded: Captain Bassinghorn, a bachelor, was spending his leave with a brother, rector of the village of Elsworth. The coachman preceded Halfhyde out to the station approach and opened the door of his conveyance. His trunk embarked, Halfhyde rolled away through the small market town, turning across the Ouse into flat country on the fringe of fenland. Dank smells smote him, smells of river and marsh: the whole countryside, as seen in the dim glow from the lamps, seemed deep in snow. The journey, one of some six miles along lonely roads, was perforce slow: the solitary horse slithered and slipped dangerously, and from the coachman the air was as blue as Halfhyde's frozen face. Along the hedges the wind had shipped the snowflakes into drifts; above the hedges the trees were outlined in silver, a scene of fairyland as the moon came out from behind cloud. Fenland was a mysterious place, and new to Halfhyde except by reputation: he shivered suddenly. In Captain Bassinghorn's young days, this would have been the sort of night to watch for highwaymen. It was a far cry from racing seas and rolling ships and the roaring drunken songs of Portsmouth Town: despite his farming background, St Vincent Halfhyde was no countryman, but, rather, a throw-back to his one seafaring ancestor, Daniel Halfhyde, Gunner's Mate in the Temeraire under Nelson. It was not his consuming curiosity alone that brought him a feeling of relief when the coach turned into a gravel drive and crunched to a stop beneath a storm lantern slung from the ceiling of the porch: the sooner he met Captain Bassinghorn, the sooner he would, presumably, be back in more familiar surroundings.
The coachman opened the door: Halfhyde got down. In the depths of the rectory a bell jangled like a knell as though summoning the incumbent to a funeral. A streamered housemaid opened the door and briefly curtsied: behind her loomed the dark figure of the rector. Behind again, a big man, tall as Halfhyde himself, very broad in the beam, and with a heavy grey beard jutting from a strong chin. This man came forward, brushing the rector aside, half physically, half with his very presence, an emanation of authority and vigour.
"Halfhyde? My name's Bassinghorn. Come in, come in. Rufus, your study, if you please, then you can dismiss. Halfhyde, come with me." The rector hovered uncertainly. Bassinghorn held out a hand; taking it, Halfhyde felt crushed, boneless, though his own grip was no mean one. Captain Bassinghorn leaned forward and sniffed. "Whisky. I don't mind it on a night like this, but I won't have it aboard my ship at sea."
Halfhyde raised an eyebrow. "At sea, sir?"
"D'you imagine the old Viceroy's not capable?"
"A store hulk, sir —"
"Come into my brother's study," Captain Bassinghorn said abruptly. He led the way: the study was book-lined, furnished with old oak and, currently, with Christmas holly and ivy. A fire burned, spreading welcome warmth, and, surprisingly in view of the Captain's recent stricture, there was a silver tray with a crystal decanter of whisky.
Bassinghorn said, "Help yourself. It's Christmas and damned cold outside. Pour me a finger, no more."
Halfhyde poured, restricting his own, prudently, to a little under a finger. Captain Bassinghorn raised his glass. "To Her Majesty's Ship Viceroy, which is no longer a hulk. I've been in Portsmouth myself and I've not been idle."
Halfhyde, drinking to the toast, waited. Captain Bassinghorn, staring at him hard with piercing blue eyes, the eyes of a seaman, said, "I'll tell you something, Halfhyde: I'm an old man close to retirement and I'm not going to make flag rank. The Viceroy's well past her prime, though still capable and seaworthy. And you're an embarrassment to Post Captains, inclined to rudeness and insubordination —"
"Sir, I —"
"You'll be insubordinate with me at your peril, so hold your tongue. The three things I've mentioned ..." Bassinghorn's voice tailed away and he stared down unseeingly into the dancing flames of the fire.
Halfhyde prompted: "Sir?"
Bassinghorn gestured with a hand. "Never mind, Halfhyde, never mind. It was just a thought and perhaps one better left where it is." He turned and met Halfhyde's eye again. "All of us may have our defects, but in spite of them we're sailing to be of service to the Empire and Her Majesty."
Halfhyde, puzzled by Bassinghorn's words and manner, looked back at him. There was a curious light in the Captain's eye, a light of determination and total dedication to some duty as yet uncommunicated to Halfhyde, a duty that Bassinghorn was clearly uneasy about nevertheless ... and a light that heralded a stormy life ahead for the ship's company of the Viceroy if her Commanding Officer should be seized with too firmly fixed a notion that he could turn a sow's ear of a dockyard hulk into the silk purse of a first-rater.CHAPTER 2
FROM ONE lodging to another, but this time in a sailor's town, a sailor's environment: Halfhyde, having watched the muster of his gear by a porter at Portsmouth Town Station, took a cab to St Thomas's Street. His lodgings, recommended by Captain Bassinghorn as fit for a naval officer, were not far from the George Hotel in the High Street where Admiral Nelson had spent his last night ashore in England before embarking in the Victory for his apotheosis at Trafalgar. Having left his belongings and made his number with the good woman who would be his landlady whilst he stood by the still refitting Viceroy, Halfhyde, in uniform once again, lost no time in making his way to the dockyard to report formally to his Captain. He went on foot: to walk was not expected of a naval officer, but Halfhyde wished to savour Portsmouth, a town that had marked his career like so many milestones over the years. Here he had joined the cruiser Aurora for his eventful voyage to the Bight of Benin on the West African coast; here, his duty done, he had returned, but had at once been ordered to report at the Admiralty. He had not seen Portsmouth in the interval: as a half-pay officer, he had preferred not to hang around the skirts of employed comrades. Camden Town had spelled anonymity whilst in the wilderness of heel-kicking. But now, walking along the old High Street, reflecting upon its past associations with the British Fleet, he was a new man. He burgeoned, walked with pride and a springy step past the George Hotel and, farther on, the military barracks built in the days of the Napoleonic Wars. Moving on towards the Hard, he came below the railway bridge that carried the trains to the South Railway jetty in the dockyard. Past the Keppel's Head Hotel and onto the Hard itself, smelling of the sea, busy with sailors, libertymen from the Fleet whose salutes he returned punctiliously. Men who had come back from long commissions in China, the Mediterranean, South Africa, the West Indies, or were taking their last run ashore before sailing away to join some mighty squadron overseas. Men with the proud names of their ships in gold lettering on black cap-ribbon; men with thick beards, with gold badges on blue sleeves, or youngsters beardless and badgeless yet, boys with all before them to learn and experience: Halfhyde smiled with a touch of bitterness. They would know both the good and the bad: the pleasures of lasting friendships made, the comradeship of a world of men, the lift of a deck in fair weather with a laughing breeze from ahead and the smoke lying thick astern over a tumbling, merry wake, the thrill as the great grey guns roared across the seas and the coloured bunting, run up by nimble, barefoot signalmen from the signal bridge, flew gay and free from the halliards on their sheaves at masthead and yardarm; but the breezes could turn to gale-force winds, and then a ship became a nightmare of flung water that found its way below into mess decks and store-rooms, a nightmare of men ripped bodily from lifelines to be cast into a boiling sea with no hope of rescue. Under those conditions a ship's company lived a half-life of frozen cold and wet clothes and no hot food for days on end. And the guns did not fire only in practice runs: there could come the days when high explosive ripped through a ship's plates to burst in red-spattered torment upon crowding seamen, or a hit below the waterline would blow up the magazines and spread destruction and roaring flames until the inrush of the seas brought the main deck below the level of the waves ...
Excerpted from Halfhyde's Island by Philip McCutchan. Copyright © 1975 Philip McCutchan. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.