Chapter 5 – So Foul And Fair A Day

“Any news from Winchester?” Beaton enquired as Mundy re-emerged from his cubby-hole. The admiral had been pacing his office for some time, occasionally pausing in front of the window to soak up the view of the harbour. It was another glorious Mediterranean morning and the brasswork on the two capital ships flashed in the sunlight. If it’s grey, paint it; if it isn’t, polish it was the Commonwealth fleet’s approach to seamanship. It certainly kept matelots busy who would otherwise be idle, and idleness breeds indiscipline.
“Nothing yet and what’s the point of asking? If I had heard anything I would have told you. I’m in need of tea,” Mundy answered brusquely and made himself comfortable where Abdecker had sat not half an hour previously. “That airship still up there?”
Beaton strode back to the window to check. The giant machine lumbered in slow, lazy circles over the Prussian fleet. “Still up there. Spying on our Prussian friends I guess.”
“Yes, amongst other things,” said Mundy as he rolled himself a cigarette and rang the bell to summon the valet. Beaton raised an eyebrow in mock admonishment; Mundy did rather make himself at home in the admiral’s office. Petty Officer Adam Duncan stepped into the room. looking flustered “Sir?” he enquired of Beaton.
“Tea, if you please; Earl Grey,” said Mundy, lighting his cigarette. “And whatever he wants,” he continued, nodding towards the admiral. The Petty Officer glared at the man lounging in the armchair, who seemed to be a mass of gangly limbs and arrogance. The Petty Officer did not take orders from civilians, indeed it flew in the very face of all his training and he found Mundy’s regular abuse of position trying.
Beaton sighed. “Some tea for Mr Mundy, please Duncan, and I would grateful of more coffee. Are you quite alright?”
Fine, sir,” Duncan replied sharply. “I’ve just come back from escorting your guest to the Officers Club. I didn’t hang around,sir.”
“Oh damned good show, Duncan. I was telling Abdecker what a bloody fine chap you are,” said Beaton.
“Thank you sir. I do my best.”
“Coffee? May as well drink coal dust and cream. Bloody disgusting stuff,” Mundy said as he blew a stream of cigarette smoke towards the the ceiling fan and watched it get caught up in the air currents and eddies, swirling and tumbling around the room.
“Yes, thank you Gregory. I happen to like it. If you please Duncan,” said Beaton, reseating himself opposite Mundy. The Petty Officer gave a little bow in acknowledgement and slipped fro the room. “Now then, Gregory. Care to explain?”
“Explain?” said Gregory, gesturing nonchalantly with his hands.
Beaton sighed again. He did wish Mundy would not play games. “You said that the airship wasn’t just spying. Care to elucidate?”
“Ah yes,” said Gregory, “the airship. Doing us a favour. It’s amazing what you can get when you ask nicely.”
“Yes, quite,” Beaton responded. “I am presuming that you asked our Spanish chums to send an airship up to take a peek at the Prussians?”
“I did indeed. And much to my amazement they obliged.”
“Well, I congratulate you on your powers of persuasion, but care to explain why?” the admiral enquired. There was a rapping at the door and Duncan entered bearing a tray. He approached the two men lounging around the small table and was about to set the tray down when Mundy sneezed, causing the Petty Officer to slop the milk.
“Bless you Gregory,” said Beaton. “And don’t fuss so, Duncan,” he continued as the valet tried to mop up the mess. “Now, please do tell.”
“A distraction.”
“A distraction? Distraction from what?” Beaton said.
“Crabbe. If everyone in the Prussian fleet is looking upwards to see what the Spanish are up to, there’s less chance of Crabbe being spotted as he toddles about beneath them,” Mundy said, spooning sugar into his teacup.
“Bloody risky venture.”
“Perhaps, but it seems to be working,” Mundy answered.
“Now then, let me get this straight; the Prussians destroy the Spanish bridge, they then ask us for assistance, we ask the Spanish for assistance and spy on the Prussians. Meantime, we stare point blank down the barrels of Von Steinheims nautical wonders,” the admiral said. He had a feeling that any grip he had on the situation was slipping away from him.
“That’s about the nub of it, yes,” said Mundy calmly. He poured tea into the cup and then added milk. Beaton took a sip of his coffee and regretted it; it was scalding hot and he burnt his lip.
“Every considered that you may have exceeded the limits of your authority? I mean, for example, us spying on the Prussians is to be expected, but getting the Spanish to lend a hand might considered unsportsmanlike. If it was me up on the bridge of Derfflinger I would be flipping a coin to decide which out of Warspite and Iron Duke to blow out of the water first,” said Beaton, sucking on his blistering lip.
Mundy stared at the admiral over the rim of his cup for a moment or two before placing it carefully back on the saucer. “I am an intelligence officer. You pay me, for what it’s worth, to use my intelligence.”
“I pay you to seek out intelligence, not use it,” Beaton snapped.
“Clearly there has been a misunderstanding,” Mundy said dryly, stubbing out his cigarette. “In my opinion, and this is just my opinion you understand, handing intelligence to the military is like giving a treasure map to a baboon; it is very grateful that it has something to wipe its arse with. I could do with a biscuit. Got any biscuits?”
“Oh bugger your biscuits,” growled Beaton. “If this all goes west I’ll have your arse hauled over the coals. Assuming both of us are still in one piece and haven’t been used for target practice by the Prussians.”
Mundy said nothing and rang the bell. Duncan appeared almost immediately. “Any chance of some biscuits?” the intelligence officer enquired. The valet scowled and left the room.
“For heaven’s sake man! Stop thinking of your stomach. Politically and militarily we are potentially in very hot water here,” Beaton pleaded.
“Why?” Mundy asked lazily. Duncan appeared bearing a tray of biscuits which he set down on the low table and retired. When the door clicked shut the intelligence officer continued, “The Prussians would expect us to sneak about and if the Spanish did nothing they would be horribly suspicious. I’m just providing what they expect to see. As long as the crew of the airship don’t do anything stupid everything will be fine.”
There was the muffled sound of a distant explosion.
“What the hell was that?” Beaton cried. Leaping to his feet he hurried to the window.
“Oh bloody hell. I imagine that’s the crew of the airship doing something stupid,” muttered Mundy, helping himself to a biscuit. “Mmmm. That’s better. Can’t think straight on an empty stomach. Want one?”
Gunfire could now be heard. Alarms were sounding around the harbour. Men hurried about frantically.
“No I don’t. What the blazes is going on?” Beaton demanded, pointing out of the window.
Gregory picked another biscuit from the plate, dunked it, took a hefty bite and then joined the admiral at the window. A thin column of smoke was rising from the Seydlitz. Flashes of small calibre gunfire could be seen around the Prussian ships. The airship was still circling but higher now. Something fell from it and a few seconds later a column of water erupted between the two rows of ships. “It looks like they are bombing the battle fleet,” said Mundy without showing any signs of surprise or concern. He went back to his seat and checked the teapot to see if there was any left.
“Are they mad? It’s like a wasp trying to sting a bull,” said Beaton, watching the action develop. The airship dropped another bomb, scoring a second hit, this time on the Von der Tann. A small fire could be seen on the aft decking. “They can bomb all they like; those things aren’t big enough to even scratch the armour on one of those ships.”
Mundy poured himself another cup, flicked crumbs off his waistcoat and rolled another cigarette. “I like your wasp and bull analogy, very apt. The wasp sting doesn’t really hurt the bull but it will get it running. What are the Prussians doing? Apart from taking ineffective potshots? They may have the most advanced fleet but they hadn’t considered aerial attack.Small arms won’t bring down an airship. That’s something you may want to flag up with the Admiralty by the way; future naval conflict will take place in the air. Kind of ironic really.”
“Yes, quite,” Beaton replied, irritably. Something caught his eye and he gripped the window ledge. “By the gods, you’re spot on Gregory. They’re moving off; Von Steinheim’s actually retreating. Why hasn’t he opened fire on Algeciras?”
Mundy made a face; the tea was stewed and unpleasant. “Thinking about it I misjudged our Spanish chums; not so stupid after all. Or perhaps they are just lucky gamblers.”
“Meaning?”
“They bomb the Prussians knowing it won’t do much in the way of damage but hoping Von Steinheim moves away from their doorstep. The rest of Europe will feel the Spanish are justified as they have just had their bridge blown up. On the other hand the Prussians may have some secret support from us, the French Republic, the Italian states, etcetera, for removing the unpopular bridge but that support would quickly disappear if they start blasting away at the Spanish navy.”
Beaton continued to watch as Prussian battlecruiser funnels belched smoke and the fleet headed out of the bay, gathering speed. “But what about Crabbe?” he said suddenly. “Dear god! I hope they haven’t blown him out of the water. Those bombs would certainly do him some damage.”
Mundy puffed away contentedly. “Calm down dear chap. The Spanish may seem rash but don’t forget they had a grand view. I imagine they saw Crabbe heading back to harbour and took that as their signal to start chucking munitions about.”
“Did you plan all this?” the admiral asked suspiciously, returning to his seat.
“No but it has played out better than I expected. The airship was my doing, the bombing was their idea which I was not party to so don’t shoot me for that one,” admitted Mundy.
“Don’t bloody tempt me,” snapped Beaton. He tried his coffee again; it had gone cold. “You get away with murder here. I ought to keep you on a shorter leash.”
“And then where would you be? Oh, and the murder bit; is that a licence?” asked Mundy mischievously.
“Drop it. Just don’t push your luck otherwise we’re both for the high jump if Winchester gets wind of what I permit you to get away with,” Beaton warned. “At least the Spanish have relieved the pressure of us for a while. I guess we wait for Crabbe to get back and see what he has to say.”
“And Barnaby?”
Beaton’s brow folded into a frown. “Barnaby? What about Barnaby?” he said.
Mundy leaned forward, stubbed his cigarette out and, unintentionally, breathed smoke over the admiral. “Barnaby was at the club with the Prussians. Abdecker was going to collect his men and make his way back to the fleet. I doubt whether he had time to gather them up, weave their way to their launch with bellies full of gin, and get back to Von Steinheim before it all kicked off out there.”
“Holy mother!” Beaton bellowed. “Crabbe! Abdecker is going to get a bloody eyeful of Crabbe and his machine!” He jumped up, grabbed his hat from the stand. “I’m going to detain them somehow. Wait here.” Beaton rushed from the room, calling for Duncan to accompany him.
Mundy remained sitting, quite relaxed. He rang the bell for some more tea, then remembered that the valet had gone with the admiral. He got up, wandered casually over to Beaton’s desk and made himself comfortable in the chair. It was a fine leather and wooden swivel chair which Mundy made full use of, rotating several times and muttering “Flash bastard”. He brought himself to a stop facing the desk, picked up the telephone and said “Officers Club please.”

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