15. The tide starts to turn against the New Jacobite Brotherhood - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Franky’s every nerve screamed with urgency, even though she knew the engineers were doing their damnedest, and that any overt pressure on them from the Old Lady would merely lead them to make expensive mistakes. But the Albion was going too slowly for her patience, even with her drive well up into the red-line sector. If they couldn’t manage better speed than this maybe they would only make it home in time for the wake, despite the engineers’ best efforts, and Simon’s - bless him - dogged fortitude, and Ives, of course, whose inspired talent for mayhem had made it possible for them to be on the homeward voyage at all, and the wholly unexpected self-sacrificing heroism of Gibbs -
Abruptly, unexpectedly, there was a sharp pricking behind Franky’s eyes at the memory of poor, gallant, foolish Gibbs, who would never bore a Mess again with the anecdote about the Vicar and the donkey-cart.
The navigation officer coughed respectfully, and she gave a curt nod in acknowledgement. They were about to cross the Western shore of the Outer Hebrides; they were back in the United Kingdom at last.
Franky barked an order, and a klaxon went off, summoning all the Albion’s remaining able-bodied fliers to their planes. She had planned this moment that the struggle aboard the Albion had begun to swing against the mutineers (she thought with grim satisfaction of the well-guarded cells in the bowels of the ship, now stuffed to capacity, and those parts of the sick-bay still groaning (literally) under the weight of the captives brought low by the new, improved Mal. Malefic Anti-Malingering potion which Ives had somehow forced into their systems in industrial quantities).
She moved out from the bridge onto the flight-deck. Someone proffered her a megaphone, but she shook her head. They had taught her at Dartmouth to make herself heard above a full gale without mechanical assistance, and it was nothing more than a light air on the flight deck. Especially given the recent challenge to her authority Franky was not planning to do anything which detracted from her official omniscience and omnipotence.
The fliers were lined up in rows before the assembled, prepared ‘birds. She acknowledged them all with a cold, sweeping glance.
“You all know what it is that the Empire faces,” she said flatly. “It may be that we are the first help to arrive. I don’t know what you will find out there; all I do know is that you are, until further notice, to assume that we are on a war footing, albeit that war has not been declared. Accordingly, anyone whom you intercept in any plane must be required to answer your questions as to name, business and intent, fully, promptly and unequivocally: if the pilot refuses you are entitled to treat that plane as hostile and to act accordingly. I would, however, infinitely prefer prisoners for interrogation to corpses for post mortem.”
She favoured them all with her best parade-ground stare, trying to concentrate into it the chill which was reflecting up from the winter Minch which was now below them.
“Treat any appeals for help with sympathy but also with caution. They may be ambushes. Keep your wits about you - and, the very best of British luck to you all.”
She gave a nod of farewell and dismissal and the waiting aircraft roared into life, the directing ratings on the flight deck choreographing their departures down the runway at crisp, measured, seconds-apart intervals. They soared out into the Eastern sky over the British mainland, and fanned out in a pre-determined, hunting pattern.
My hounds are bred of the Spartan kind.
Franky stood out looking after them for far longer than they could possibly have been visible to the naked eye, willing herself to be with them, doing something concrete, vital, dynamic; actually being on the front line of battle, not trapped here as a ponderous rearguard. Eventually, at Simon’s touch on her arm (no-one else would have dared to approach the Old Lady in her quarter-deck reverie, she recognised with bleak amusement) she went below to her cabin, to start writing the endless reports which - if there was still an Admiralty to make them to - she would need to have in apple-pie order if she were to ensure that her sword would be returned to her hilt-first after the inevitable court-martial.
It was perhaps two hours later - certainly it was twilight when she raised her head to look through the porthole - when Ives’ knock roused her from her tasks. She summoned him into the cabin; the duties of acting signal lieutenant were obviously sitting lightly on his shoulders, because he had an air of irrepressible high spirits. Momentarily, Franky considered delegating to Ives the writing of some of the trickier portions of her current dispatches - the explanation for Admiralty eyes of precisely how he had come to arrive in her cabin via the ventilation ducting, for example.
“Permission to report that an enemy ‘plane has been intercepted and is being escorted in to land by - ” He cast a quick glance down at the piece of paper in his hand. “Lieutenants McGough, Henri and Patten, Ma’am. ETA five minutes. Lieutenant McGough added a priority coded dispatch for your eyes only, Ma’am.”
He passed it across. She digested it, and her eyebrows rose.
“Ives? Get me a double guard of honour - in their full dress uniforms. I want them in parade formation on the flight deck no later than 4 minutes and fifty-nine seconds from now.”
Ives saluted smartly.
“Right on it, Ma’am!”
He had reached her cabin door before Franky spoke again.
“Oh, and Ives?”
“Tell them I expect them to have live ammunition in all their weapons. And to deploy it on my signal.”
She did not bother to see how he took that one, because she was already turning towards her dressing closet, in a frantic effort to dig out her own dress uniform. This was an encounter which would go down in history, and she was not going to meet Destiny improperly dressed.
Less than four minutes later she strode out onto the bitterly chill flight deck, in front of the waiting honour guard. Already in the dark eastern sky she could pick up the lights from a moving constellation; the captured ‘plane and its escorts coming in towards the Albion. Franky spared an appreciative thought for the precision with which the three escorting ‘planes touched down before and behind the captive: had the pilot they had been escorting had any idea of a suicide plunge into the Albion’s superstructure their close formation would have neutralised it.
But, Franky realised, as the hatchway opened and the prisoners began to emerge into the frozen formality of the Albion’s floodlit flight-deck, and the honour guard presented their arms to the salute, the pilot might have thought of such a thing had he been caught alone, but not with the precious freight he carried. The impossibly thin, quintessentially chic woman in her furs, and the man on whose arm she rested came down the gangway with - Franky had to admit - a sang-froid she could not have replicated in their circumstances. And, after all, this was not a moment which even she could approach without emotion, although she had not expected to be so moved, and not in this particular way.
A song of her half-forgotten youth made its way unbidden into her brain:
I danced with a man, who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales -
For the man who stood at the gangway’s foot was no ordinary prisoner. Irrespective of his constitutional significance, he had in his day carried all the hopes and ambitions of much of the female portion of one quarter of the Earth’s surface: far more than any Hollywood star could or ever would command. And the thin, chic woman on his arm had thrown the dice for the ultimate prize and, it seemed, won - and then had lost everything - and so, it would seem, they had both thereafter chosen to play double or quits with the fate of nations -
Franky realised, abruptly, how small Mosley, their pilot, seemed in their train; cheap and flashy, his hair brushed so it shone with the meretricious shine of patent leather, his thin-lipped face showing to disadvantage as a picture of frustrated ambition, and his whole person overlooked - a tool which had failed and was now to be tossed aside.
Franky smiled genially in Mosley’s direction.
“It’s been a long time since we met in Malta, Sir Oswald,” she said.
His shark-like eyes flashed with sudden recognition - no small wonder, she thought with a grim sense of satisfaction. Men tend to remember women who have propelled them into the rose-bushes of a Governor-General via a swift knee into their groin. Without waiting for his response, she turned to the other couple.
“In the name of King George VI and on my authority as an officer of His Majesty’s Navy, it is my duty to take you into custody on a charge of treason. Pending further orders, if I receive your parole I propose to allow you to remain in house arrest in the Admiral’s quarters of this vessel, until we arrive in London and I can transfer you to the jurisdiction of the appropriate authorities.”
She meant the Tower, of course; it was, immemorially, where traitors to the Crown were lodged. But what happened after the Tower - especially where the traitor was of the Blood - was also set down in immemorial tradition, and the man standing before her in a Savile Row suit which was - self-evidently - too thin for the weather would know it too. It would be sheer brutality to spell it out.
Her prisoner nodded with quiet dignity. “So be it.”
Franky gave a discreet signal with one hand. As she escorted the couple from the flight deck to their quarters all the honour guard saluted. And what they saluted was all of what had been and what could have been in the man before them. Franky flung up her arm with the rest of them - and with the tail of her eye Franky saw Mosley’s face, looking down at the lights of the Albion reflecting off the impassive black surface of the North Sea beneath them.
She thought she could decode the words his lips were murmuring repeatedly.
“Saluted, at last,” he breathed. “On a British Naval vessel. Over the water.”
Franky turned aside to cloak her pity and terror at his meaningless babbling.