Halfhyde on the yangtze, p.1
Halfhyde on the Yangtze, page 1
DARKNESS LOOMED, as did the enclosing banks of rock little more than one hundred and fifty yards on either beam, rocky banks that led into the gloom and danger of the narrow gorges through which the river ran for part of its course upstream from Shanghai. In the Chutang Gorge and in the Wu Gorge the channel narrowed at times to a mere hundred yards, and the British gunboats, steaming at slow speed in line ahead behind their leader, were frequently brought beam on to the rushing, turbulent waters of the Yangtze Kiang. Halfhyde sweated despite the cold of the night: to be brought to grief in this wild land, to take a shoal, to smash in the side of any of the gunboats, would be to ask for death. Heathen bandits would not be far away, bandits who had already shown hostility to the naval force pushing through from the East China Sea. Ancient guns had been let off, and some of the seamen had been wounded, and one had died. The British were not wanted up the Yangtze; some of the attackers had not in fact been bandits but uniformed soldiers of the old Empress-Dowager.
China was a closed land ever inimical to foreign devils, a cruel, harsh land of extreme poverty for all below the rank of mandarin, a land that knew well how to torture. The navigation of its rivers required a knowledge and an expertise very different from that demanded by the deep, open sea, and no Chinese had been found willing to pilot the flotilla through to Chungking, nor for that matter any of the British pilots of the Shanghai and Hong Kong pilotage, themselves not familiar with the Yangtze apart from the waters around its mouth; while the Senior Officer, Captain Watkiss, was no more help than a haddock. Lieutenant St Vincent Halfhyde, as he watched and prayed and used his engine in split-second decisions to keep the ship on a straight course as the water took her, found his mind turning in fragmented moments to the change in his orders after his arrival in Hong Kong. He had been in temporary command of a torpedo-boat destroyer for delivery to the China Squadron and had entertained hopes that he might be allowed to remain in command of Daring; but this was not to be, as he had been told within an hour of his arrival thirty-six days out from Portsmouth.
THE COMMANDER of the Hong Kong dockyard, Commodore Renshaw, was a ponderous officer, lantern-jawed and darkly lugubrious, with a habit of reaching behind himself to scratch his bottom as he walked up and down, a nervous tic the frequency of which was indicated by the slight soiling of the backside of his white uniform trousers even though they would have been fresh upon his body that morning. He seemed unable to keep still; and Halfhyde, seated, found his eyes moving from right to left and back again as though he were watching a game of lawn tennis in England. Renshaw nodded from time to time as Halfhyde made his routine report upon the voyage from Portsmouth and then proceeded without delay to an exposition concerning Halfhyde’s future employment.
“A situation has arisen,” he said carefully. “Not unprecedented, but serious. It’s a pity you’re not familiar with Chinese river navigation, but in the circumstances it can’t be helped.”
Halfhyde coughed. “May I ask where you acquired the information as to my lack of river experience, sir?”
“By cable from the Admiralty,” Renshaw answered, scratching. He paced. “As an intelligent and practical officer, you will no doubt quickly accommodate yourself. I am ordered to reappoint you from the Daring immediately. You are to take command of the river gunboat Gadfly. There has been sickness in the flotilla—this is a wretched station, Halfhyde, full of disease, as you’re probably aware.”
“I am, sir. I’ve served out here before, though not upon the rivers.”
“Yes, quite. Now, both the Captain and the First Lieutenant of Gadfly are sick with the typhoid, and the flotilla is to leave as soon as possible for Shanghai. Thus I have also to fill the room of your First Lieutenant.” Renshaw ceased his pacing for a moment and stood in front of Halfhyde, staring down at him. “Daring must spare her First Lieutenant as well. How do you find Lord Edward Cole?”
“A capable officer, sir,” Halfhyde answered. Lord Edward had initially proved languid, but a charge of dynamite in the right place had worked wonders, and the aristocratic young officer was becoming used to having his beautifully tailored uniform soiled and to being sent for whilst in mid gin in the wardroom when matters required his attention; and had also resigned himself to being addressed by his Captain as “Mr Cole.” “I shall find him acceptable as my First Lieutenant in Gadfly, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I am, yes. I’m glad of your remarks, Halfhyde.”
“I am glad to be able to offer them, sir. May I ask what the orders are for Gadfly?”
Renshaw said, “I prefer to leave that to your Senior Officer, Halfhyde. A touchy man, with whom you have sailed before. To be precise, Captain Watkiss.”
He might have known, he told himself as he left Renshaw to scratch and took a ricksha back to the dockyard steps. Casting around through his telescope from his bridge just after arrival in the port, Halfhyde had observed a boat waiting at the foot of some steps descending to the water of the naval dockyard opposite the Kowloon side. Around this boat hovered a number of sampans bearing chattering Chinese, men, women and children. And down the steps an officer had been proceeding to embark in the boat: an officer of rotund shape, wearing a highly curious but well-remembered rig of white Number Ten tunic and overlong white shorts that ended just below the knee and obscured the tops of the white stockings. A telescope was beneath the left arm, and below the gold oak-leaves fringing the cap a monocle flashed back the sun’s fire. As Halfhyde watched in incredulous astonishment at seeing Captain Watkiss once again, the latter’s voice was heard loud and clear across the water.
“You there, cox’n. Clear away those damn dagoes! I’ll not have them impeding my boat and that’s fact, I said it.”
That earlier sight of Captain Watkiss had held foreboding. Now the foreboding had come to pass; the future, whatever it might be, would be filled with tantrums and contradictory orders and sheer stupidity largely nullified for its perpetrator by the extraordinary luck that seemed to protect Captain Watkiss from court martial. It was not, of course, luck alone: Watkiss had useful connections in the form of two sisters, one married to the First Sea Lord and the other to the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury—these sisters no doubt being the reason why Commodore Renshaw had been walking warily and avoiding treading on Captain Watkiss’ corns by pre-empting a captain’s right to expound his orders. Watkiss could be a rude man when he felt his dignity assailed. Reaching his galley, Halfhyde was pulled out across the harbour towards the Daring in her temporary anchorage in Victoria Harbour. Once aboard, he apprised Mr Cole of his new appointment.
“I say, sir!” Mr Cole responded, beaming.
“It’s awfully good news really. I’m awfully interested in China. I imagine we’ll be going up a river?”
Halfhyde said sourly, “I imagine so, Mr Cole. Have you ever served under Captain Watkiss?”
Cole pursed his lips and screwed up the flesh around his eyes. “Er…no, sir, actually I haven’t.”
“Then you may find him interesting also. I suggest you pack your gear without delay, Mr Cole, and inform the sublieutenant that pending the appointment of a more senior officer I wish to hand over the command to him at once. I repeat, we are ordered to join the Gadfly as soon as possible. In the terms employed by Captain Watkiss, that means ten minutes ago.”
Halfhyde turned away, leaving his First Lieutenant to puzzle over his words. Poor Cole was eager but not too bright: Halfhyde’s mind went back with a degree of irritation to his first meeting with Lord Edward Cole upon joining the Daring in Portsmouth dockyard. The ship had looked dirty and the gangway staff had been inattentive, keeping him waiting while the brougham hired to bring him
There had been a hurt look. “Yes, sir, indeed.”
“I’m glad. I’d be obliged to be shewn to my cabin, and once there I’d like a word with you, Mr Cole.”
“I know what you’re about to say, Mr Cole, and that is a matter I shall discuss with you in private.”
“Oh. Yes, sir.”
The First Lieutenant had turned away and Halfhyde had followed. Once inside his cabin Halfhyde had ostentatiously shut the door and faced his second-in-command. “I have some things to say. The first is this: I am aware from the Navy List that you are Lord Edward Cole, but from now until I leave the ship in Hong Kong you will be addressed as Mr Cole like any normal First Lieutenant. The second is this: the ship’s a damn disgrace and will be cleaned from truck to keel before we leave Portsmouth. I’ve already noted lines hanging judas over the side, the ensign virtually at the dip, and potato peelings outside the galley. In the absence of your Captain, Mr Cole, you run a slack ship. That will cease.”
“Yes, sir. I’m awfully sorry.”
“You’ll be sorrier if matters don’t improve rapidly. The peerage doesn’t count with me, Mr Cole; I care only for efficiency and good seamanship. Prove yourself, and I shall forgive you your family connections.” There was a smile lurking about the corners of Halfhyde’s mouth now. “Tell me, Mr Cole, did you have an ancestor at Trafalgar?”
“Er…no, sir, I didn’t.”
“I did,” Halfhyde had said with relish. “Daniel Halfhyde, gunner’s mate in the Temeraire. A common seaman.”
“Did you really, sir?” The eyes, wide already, had widened further. “Oh, I say, I think that’s awfully…awfully…”
“Awfully what, Mr Cole?”
“Awfully sporting, sir.”
Today, ten thousand miles east of Portsmouth yard, Halfhyde thought about that comment and grinned to himself as his servant, Able-Seaman Bodger, packed his master’s gear along with his own bag and hammock: Halfhyde had been able to secure permission from the Commodore to bring his own servant in place of the Chinese locally-enlisted rating who would normally attend upon gunboat officers. Bodger had served with Halfhyde for a long time and was irreplaceable. Within half an hour of returning aboard, Halfhyde with his two companions was being pulled by Daring’s galley’s crew round Kowloon Point to the warship anchorage. Halfhyde’s first sight of the river gunboat flotilla was depressing. Four curious vessels, tiered like wedding cakes as to their decks, short and tubby and looking most remarkably unwieldy and unseaworthy, each with a single thin funnel sticking pencil-like through the layers of the cake. Aboard the leader, HMS Cockroach, a capless figure reclined in a deck chair beneath an awning, reading a bulky volume bound in red leather. This was Captain Watkiss; he did not look up as Halfhyde was pulled past, but had evidently noted his passage all the same. When the boat from Daring came alongside Gadfly and Halfhyde embarked and identified himself to a midshipman standing by with a piping party, he was at once handed a signal reading: GADFLY FROM SENIOR OFFICER. YOU ARE TO REPAIR ABOARD IMMEDIATELY.
“AH, MR Halfhyde once again. You might have reported quicker.”
“Oh, don’t start off by arguing, Mr Halfhyde, I detest argument as you should know. You argued with me when I commanded the Fourth tbd flotilla, and again when we were in South America, until I was nearly on the sick list. I really don’t know why the Admiralty’s wished you on me again, damned if I do.” Captain Watkiss looked vaguely unwell, as though China failed to suit him. He had a flabbier aspect than Halfhyde remembered, although their sojourn together in Chilean and Uruguayan waters had not been so very long ago, and his skin was damp and yellowish…Captain Watkiss went on, eschewing further words of welcome, “My flotilla will leave for the mouth of the Yangtze at four bells in the afternoon watch. Is Gadfly ready to proceed, Mr Halfhyde?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
Watkiss placed his monocle in his eye. His tone was incredulous. “Did I hear you say you don’t know?”
“You did, sir. The reason is that I was scarcely aboard before you sent for me—”
“I call that impertinent.”
“I apologize, sir,” Halfhyde said coldly. “Be assured that my ship will, in fact, be in all respects ready for sea whenever required. May I know the orders, sir?”
“Yes.” Captain Watkiss, although the interview was taking place in the privacy of his cabin, lowered his voice as if instinctively and looked portentous. “There is a most important task ahead of me, Mr Halfhyde, most important, and I fancy the Admiralty considers it fortunate that I happened to be here in Hong Kong. I dare say it explains why I was appointed to the command of a damn gunboat flotilla,” he added with a touch of angry pettishness, “since nothing larger could make the passage, but never mind that. Will you kindly remove your blasted feet from before my legs, Mr Halfhyde, there is no room to swing a cat.”
Halfhyde moved his legs; he had the strong impression that Captain Watkiss found his appointment demeaning, and it was certainly true that his cabin was little bigger than a cupboard. When commanding Venomous in the Fourth TBD Flotilla he had solved his problem of space by removal of a bulkhead so that he could take in his First Lieutenant’s cabin in addition to his own, but Cockroach was so constructed that he was unable to expand without dockyard assistance, and that would have called for Admiralty permission. Looking caged, Watkiss expounded. It appeared that the flotilla was under orders to enter the Yangtze and proceed up river to Chungking with the utmost despatch.
“A terrible voyage, Mr Halfhyde. The Yangtze is fast flowing and filled with gorges. Damn dagoes along the banks, too.”
Watkiss shifted irritably. “All foreigners are dagoes, Mr Halfhyde, I’ve told you that before. And I don’t like them, don’t like them at all. Not honest, and murderers to a man. Pirates, that’s what they are out here Chinaside, and that’s fact, I said it. Well, we shall have to brave them, that’s all.”
“In the interest of what or whom, sir?”
“Of Her Majesty, basically. Surely that’s obvious?” Captain Watkiss bent forward, then twisted backwards to make sure no one was eavesdropping outside the square port of his cabin. “Mr Halfhyde, be so good as to pull up the jalousie.”
Halfhyde reached out to pull up the slatted shutter. When he had done so Watkiss went on. He said, “There’s been trouble in Szechwan province, I’m damned if I know quite what, I’m a simple sailor after all. I expect to be given further information by Commodore Marriot-Lee commanding the China Squadron off Foochow, under whose orders I am to come.” He sniffed. “It’s some kind of rebellion, of course—the dagoes are always rebelling, dreadful bunch. If only everyone could be British, but of course I suppose they can’t be. To escape slaughter, a number of British traders and their wives have taken refuge in Chungking, one of the treaty ports if only a blasted river one. I am ordered to bring them out aboard my flotilla, and this I shall do. There’s one important thing: word has been put about that my flotilla’s leaving Hong Kong for the treaty port of Foochow, so the dagoes won’t know we’re bound for Shanghai and the Yangtze, do you understand?”
“Until we reach Shanghai, sir.”
Watkiss stared. “What do you mean, Mr Halfhyde?”
“They’ll know then, sir.”
“Oh, that’s not the blasted point, is it?” Watkiss bounced angrily in his wickerwork chair. “We shall have pulled the wool over their eyes for a time at least, and it all helps.”
“In Chungking, Mr Halfhyde. I said that.” Watkiss looked long-suffering.
“So you did, sir. My question was meant to be a narrowing one. In what building are they to be found?”
“In the British Consulate,” Watkiss answered. “Traders are always a confounded nuisance, but there we are. Trade, they say, follows the flag. I know where I’d sooner be. Traders are not gentlemen.” He sounded much put out, though Halfhyde guessed that the beleaguered Britons would prove to be not so much traders as respected company officials, bankers and so on, but of course they were not gentlemen either…Watkiss went on, brandishing his telescope as though it were a sword or cutlass, “We shall cease for a while to be sailors, Mr Halfhyde, and shall become soldiers. We shall form landing-parties, with gaiters, rifles and side-arms, to fight through to their succour!” He waved an arm and struck the exhaust steam pipe for the steering engine, which led through his cabin to make it hot and stuffy when at sea. “Oh, God damn!” He was about to add further comment when a somewhat timid knock came at the frame around his door-curtain, which he had forgotten to check earlier when he had checked the port, and a face came through bearing a deferential look. It was a face Halfhyde recognized: Mr Beauchamp, a senior lieutenant, proud possessor of a half stripe between the two thicker ones on his shoulder straps. Poor Beauchamp, who had evidently not managed to avoid another spell of drudgery as Watkiss’ First Lieutenant…
“Go away, Mr Beauchamp, can’t you see I’m busy?”
Watkiss brandished his telescope. “Are you deaf, Mr Beauchamp?”
“No, sir. An important matter—”
“Oh, God damn—”
The voice grew louder in desperation. “Your ice-box, sir.”
The Senior Officer’s face reddened dangerously. “Yes, Mr Beauchamp, what about my ice-box?”
“No ice has come aboard, sir. I’m very sorry, sir. Your lettuce has become limp.”
by Philip McCutchan have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes