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The first Glencannon omnibus (1938)


by Guy Gilpatric

Scotch and Water




A MOON like Cortez's silver shield hung in the sky above Havana. It made of the city an intricate lovely pattern of sharp black shadow and cold pale green — the cold pale green of a luminous wristwatch dial which, if it had happened to be an accurate wristwatch, would have given you the time as a quarter to three. But it was really too hot to be wearing a wristwatch.

   Out in the harbor lay a drowsy herd of tramp steamers — battered, they were, and rusty as old dun cows, and streaked with the salt of every sea from Behring to Sargasso. Beyond their humble picket line, towering and aristocratic, rode the world cruise ship Brandenburger, of Hamburg — twenty-five thousand tons of Diesel engines, gilt furniture, grand ball rooms, and electric horses for sluggish livers. From her mighty superstructure came the glow of many lights; but it was a discreet illumination, such as filters through a sidewalk awning on the night of an embassy ball, and just sufficient for the swabbing of decks and the chalking thereupon of cabalistic diagrams for the morrow's shuffle-board.

   The Brandenburger would put to sea at six for San Juan, in Porto Rico. Meanwhile' according to the cruise prospectus, her passengers would "Gaze back across the sleeping city, and spend the farewell pensive hours in the spice-filled hush beneath the tropic moon . . . ."

   The only obstacle between the prospectus and reality was the Inchcliffe Castle. The Castle — Montevideo to Cardiff — was the tramp moored nearest the Brandenburger, and perhaps the rustiest, most disreputable craft currently South of Cancer. She was laden with hides and beef-bones which in stifling wafts made mockery of the "Spice-filled" allusion of the tourist company's literature. The "Tropical moonlight" she disposed of with two 500 watt lamps slung in the mouth of the port poop ventilator-lamps whose blinding rays blanked the puny lunar effort, flooded her deck, and made the surface of the surrounding waters as nastily bright as a sheet of new tin. Directly in the glare, their oil-soaked carpet slippers cocked at comfortable angles, their pipes distilling noisome juices, and their rugged faces wreathed in smoke and homesick wistfulness, sat seven alcoholized Scotsmen. Their corporeal selves (in a deplorable state of undress) were in Havana, but their hearts were in the Highlands. And the reason for this was the bag-pipe recital even then in progress — a recital by no less a virtuoso than Mr. Colin Glencannon, Chief Engineer of the Inchcliffe Castle, and pupil of that greatest of pipers, The MacCrimmon of Gairloch, on the Isle of Skye. And — last straw for the prospectus — Mr. Glencannon's efforts most effectively disposed of the "hush."

   Clad in drawers, slippers, gnats, mosquitoes and perspiration, Mr. Glencannon was pacing before his guests, up and down upon the deck. Under his arm was a pig-shaped tartan bag, and out of it jutted sundry be-ribboned pipes. Out of these, in turn, came squeals and wails and shrieks and dronings which filled the harbor and the sky, rent the tropic night asunder, and in the distant city raped the chaste silence of patios which had for centuries echoed no music save the romantic strummings of caballeros' guitars.

   Mr. Glencannon was playing the ceol beag — the lighter music of Scotland — which consists of reels, flings, and such — like rollicking didoes. He had been playing it, in fact, for four hours, pausing between tunes only long enough to toss off tumblerfuls of neat whisky. Later on, when the pipes should be really in tone and the audience properly en rapport, he planned to play the classic ceol mor, and especially the piobaireachd Coghiegh nha Shie — strains so inspiring that they cause Scotsmen to bite the necks off bottles, and even, in the tenderer passages, to give away their matches.

   On, on, and ever on he played! It was magnificent! Over in the Cabañas Fortress, the garrison was tossing wide-eyed upon its cots and muttering fierce "carramba's." Out on the bastions of distant Morro, the very sentries were pacing sleepless. And forward, Captain Ball, master of the Inchcliffe Castle, had read five chapters of "Lloyd's Maritime Register" and three of the Book of Ezekiel, without unseating the insomnia which rode him like a succubus. At last, even as Aphrodite, he arose from his bunk, draped a towel around his mid-section, and walked through the passage to the Mate's room. The door was ajar on the hook.

   "Mr. Montgomery," he whispered, "are you asleep?"

   "Great God, no!" came a voice from the darkness. "'Arf a mo', Sir, while I switch on the light."

   The Captain entered, sat down, and scowled resentfully at the electric fan.

   "You'd as well turn it off, Mr. Montgomery — that breeze will give you blisters."

   "T'isn't the 'eat that bothers, Captain — it's that bleeding racket aft."

   "It's awful, Mr. Montgomery, isn't it? If only them tunes wouldn't wind on and on so — if only they'd get somewheres. . . ."

   "— To 'ell, for instance!" suggested the Mate, savagely.

   Captain Ball leaned forward and shook the perspiration from his chin. "Well," he said, gloomily, "There's really nothing I can do about it. I gave Mr. Glencannon permission to invite his friends to this party, and — well, there they are! I couldn't risk offending him, because he's the only engineer in the world who could keep that coffee mill below-decks running which our damned sheeney owners call an engine."

   "I suppose he is," conceded the Mate, reluctantly. "But it's awful, just the syme, Sir! — It looks like a gathering of the clans, back there on the poop. — Thickest gang of Scots I ever set eyes upon. They're all engineers from the other boats."

   "— All with Aberdeen accents and genuwine Edinburgh thirst! When I looked 'em over, two hours ago, they'd done in nine quarts of Duggan's Dew, and every man of them still dreary sober."

   There was a long silence, broken only by the purr of the fan. — Silence, that is, in the immediate foreground; all the rest of the world shuddered to the screech of pipes.

   Through the porthole came the sound of oars, and of a boat bumping the gangway.

   "Hell's bones!" groaned the Captain. "Can that be more of them?"

   Bo's'n Hughes tapped on the door jamb, and though he stood respectfully beyond the sill, a fierce light glinted in his eye.

   "Captain, Sorrh," he said, tensely, "There's a 'Un h'officer from the Brandenburger 'as boarded us, and says 'as 'ow 'e'd loike to speak with the Captain, Sorrh."

   "Speak to me, Hughes? And how often must I tell you not to call Dutchmen 'Huns'? — I wonder what he wants to speak to me about? Well, Mr. Montgomery, that means I've got to get all dressed and sweated to talk to this brass-bound Heiney . . . oh, won't that piping ever stop?"

   Five minutes later, Captain Ball stepped out on deck. At the gangway-head stood a spruce white-uniformed officer who clicked his pipe-clayed heels, saluted, and bowed from the waist. He looked cool, which was irritating. He was German, which was more irritating still. "Goot evening, Keptain," he said, with a bright, toothy smile which was most irritating of all. "My name iss Schneider, Keptain — I am second officer of the welt-gruise ship Brandenburger. It iss a lovely evening, iss it not?"

   "No," said Captain Ball, one of whose principles was never to agree with Germans. "Talk a bit slower, my man — your accent is shocking."

   "But the moonlight, Keptain," persisted the German, undismayed. "Surely the moonlight iss jarming?"

   Captain Ball favored the man with a sour glance, and then, in the tone of one who has recently smitten his thumb with a hammer, said:

   "Oh, charming — quite!"

   "Quite?" repeated the visitor, hopefully pricking up his ears. "Quite? — Yes, Keptain, the evening iss quite jarming, but not quiet . . . . See, I make a joke, Keptain — quite but not quiet — har, har!"

   "Er — what?" asked Captain Ball, frowning. "A joke? — 'Quite but not quiet?' — Er, that is, I mean to say, are you laughing at me, Sir?"

   The German's smile became a bit discouraged at the corners, but he was a brave man.

   "It iss only vat the French call a bon mot, Sir," he explained. "Vat I mean iss, that the evening iss quite jarming, but it iss not quiet. It iss not quiet because of the musics which come from this ship. Our passengers are gomplaining that they cannot schleep. Also, these bright lights have attracted a million bugs and moths and even two wampire bats which fly around in the ballroom. And so, Keptain von Meissner has sent me to ask you, Sir, for your kind goöperation . . . ."

   "Now, just a minute, Sir!" interrupted Captain Ball. "Just let me get this thing straight. — First of all, I observed — and I think politely — that this evening was 'quite charming.' Whereupon you, Sir, twisted the very words in my mouth and . . ."

   "— But Keptain, please! It was only a play on words, . . ."

   Captain Ball squared his shoulders and advanced truculently. Bo's'n Hughes, one pace to the rear, also cleared for action.

   "Sir!" bellowed Ball, "I resent having the English language made a fool of by them as cannot speak it! I resent having Captain von-what-ever-the-hell-his-name-is send a third steward like you with an impertinence of this kind! Get off my ship, before I lose my temper and kick you over the side! And if you and your Captain and your passengers don't like the sound of this greatest music of the Northern civilizations, let them go below and play the Wacht am Rhein on their ha'penny tin whistles!"

   The German opened his mouth once or twice, but no sound emerged. He stiffened, saluted, bowed, and departed briskly down the ladder, the Captain's scowl burning wrinkles in his back like a red-hot waffle-iron.

   Ball witnessed his departure with fists clenched, muttering to himself.

   "Captain, Sorrh, beggin' pardon," said Hughes, who had itched to take an active part in the rencontre, "I've seen that 'Un before, I 'ave! 'E was mate of a bloody 'Un submarine durin' the War. 'E sunk us, 'e did, in blizzardy February with the tempachoor below zebra, Sorrh! And he never give us a minute to put blankets and food in the lifeboats — 'e just sunk us and left us floatin' 'elpless in the North Sea, the domned 'Un 'ound!"

   "See here, Hughes," said the Captain severely, "that's no way to talk about our late enemies! Er — well anyway, what could you do about it now?"

   "Well, Captain, Sorrh, if I could 'ave your kind permission to stay ashore a night or two, I'd lay for 'im on the dock, I would, and I'd barsh 'is narsty 'ead in, Sorrh!"

   "Hughes," said the Captain thoughtfully, "it's possible that what you propose would be a great and Christian work. The only trouble is that his ship is sailing in two hours. It's hard luck — but well, good night, Hughes!"

   As the Captain stepped into the deck house, the sound of retreating German oars arose from the water. Hope overcame the Bos'n's momentary dejection and he sprang to the side and peered downward. Then, lithe as a cat, he scurried aft, across the well-deck, and in amongst the celebrants on the poop. And though his fingers closed on the fresh quart bottle which was instantly proffered, he did not trouble to pull the cork. Instead, the bottle gripped in his capacious paw, he leaned over the taffrail, his eyes straining into the shadow.

   At this very moment the spirit of Terpsichore descended upon Mr. Glencannon's little party and entered the person of Mr. Donald MacBane, second Engineer of the Saxon Merchant. Lurching to his feet and hiccuping his intention of treading a measure, he looked about the deck for a pair of claymores upon which to execute the ancient Caledonian sword-dance. It chanced that there were none; so Mr. MacBane folded up a chair, and within its difficult confines, spurred on by the throaty "Hoots!" of his audience and the frenzied shrilling of the pipes, he danced, tripped, sprawled, and undaunted, danced again.

   To Mate Schneider, standing in the sternsheets of his gig, with the tiller between his legs, these cries, this increased sound, spelled derision. His four oarsmen, he knew, were laughing at him; and this was hateful. As the gig passed into the black shadow beneath the Inchcliffe Castle's stern, rage overcame him. He looked up toward the light, shook his fist, and cursed the Scottish swine with all the soulful if inadequate oaths of his Fatherland.

   An invisible Something hurtled down through the night, caught him neatly on the forehead, and he slithered overboard as limply as an old pair of dungarees.

   His descent into the depths was attended by the phosphorescent phenomena peculiar to tropical waters, and which are so invaluable to aged and infirm sharks employed on the night shift. It happened that one of these — a twelve foot specimen with a bullet-hole through his dorsal, and therefore familiar to the estivadores as El Herido — was pessimistically exploring the neighborhood with his appetite set on nothing more pretentious than potato peelings. A German was as far beyond his hopes as caviar to those of a Russian beachcomber; and yet — here was a German in a white uniform descending before his very snout — sprawling, bubbling, shimmering in an aura of light. — Descending, and then, very slowly, rising again. El Herido followed him up, smacking his chops and wondering whether to eat him whole or on the half-shell. In any case, it would be the daintiest snack since the day the seaplane crashed, off Playa del Rey . . . .

   Near the surface, El Herido made up his mind; — he would chew this German into filets, which are really delicious. His perforated dorsal cleaving the water, he turned on his side, opened his mouth, and zipped toward his meal. Suddenly, a terrific weight crashed down upon his back, knocked the breath out of him, jolted away his appetite, and severely damaged his courage. Half-stunned and wholly dismayed, he sought sanctuary beneath the Inchcliffe Castle's weed-grown bottom to take sulky stock of his twinging vertebrae.

   He saw the man who had jumped upon him — a man clad only in drawers and carpet slippers — swimming downward with powerful strokes to the very bottom, and there apparently groping for something. Then he saw this strange visitor abandon his quest and start upward for air — in the course of the journey colliding with the German who was going down for the last time. He of the drawers paused, registered surprise, seized the German and dragged him toward the surface. There were splashes as the sailors hauled the pair into the gig, and silvery haloes in the water as the oars propelled it back to the Inchcliffe Castle's gangway.

   Mr. Glencannon, wringing out his drawers, led the way up the ladder, leaving the Germans to manage with the limp Schneider. He was greeted with cheers from his guests, which he silenced with upraised hand.

   "Scots wha' hae wi' Wallace bled!" he announced, sadly, "My journey to the realms o' Nepchoon was a sorry failure. All I ha' brought back wi' me is a drowned Dutchman, who is even the noo' bein' conveyed aboard us by a quartet o' his deepraved compatriots. So let us no' weep over the dear departed — let us broach a fresh bottle an' mak' murry while the Huns are admeenistering last rites."

   The German sailors set about restoring life to their officer by frantic pumping of the arms and similarly-strenuous devices of first aid. Soon Mate Schneider's eyelids fluttered, and he groaned.

   "Gi' him a drink!" urged Mr. Glencannon, taking charge. "Here, Mr. Campbell, hae the kindness to pass me that bottle after ye've quaffed yere fill. — Thank 'ee, Mr. Campbell. — And noo, we'll see if this Gairman reesponds to gude Scottish liquor as a human being should!"

   Prying open the Teutonic mouth, he poured into it approximately one pint. It was a hundred and fifty proof, and the results were stupendous. Mate Schneider coughed explosively, sprang to his feet, saluted, and shouted "Achtung!" Then he lurched against the rail, and stood stupidly fingering a livid bruise above his left eye.

   "Ye're a'richt, noo!" Mr. Glencannon said soothingly. "Ye're fit as a fuddle, Meester Dutchman! Do ye sit doon in this chair and summon ye're scrambled faculties."

   Mate Schneider sat, and turning to his sailors made thick and guttural inquiries in his native tongue. They replied with voluble enthusiasm and much respectful pointing toward Mr. Glencannon.

   "Sir!" said the German, rising unsteadily and seizing his savior's hand, "I am your efferlasting debtor! My men haf described your bravery in fighting the shark and safing my life. I cannot begin to tell you . . ."

   "Shark?" echoed Mr. Glencannon, lowering his bottle in astonishment. "What shark? — Why, the poor mon is daft!"

   "Vat shark? — Ah, Sir, you haf a sublime modesty! I shall neffer forget vat you did, Sir, I shall neffer forget it!"

   "Have a drink," invited Mr. Glencannon. "Have a drink. T'wull be gude for yere apoplexy."

   "Aboblexy? Ach, you are right, Sir. — I must have had aboblexy! I stand in my boat and suddenly — puf! — I know nothing! It must be aboblexy, from the high air bressure in the submarines during the War."

   "Beyond a doot!" Mr. Glencannon humored him. "But befeer you leave us to gae aboard yon floating palace, let's a' ha' a drink toguther. 'Just a wee doch an' doris,' as the great poet Burns ha' phrased it. And, by the way, Mr. What's-yer-name, that's a song we've got to teach ye! Come on — sing! . . .


'Just a wee doch an' doris
 Just a wee drap, that's a'
 Just a wee doch an' doris
 Befeer we gang awa. . . .

   "Come, join in, gentlemen, an' let us learn our new-found friend that most brouching tallad — er, that most touching ballad o' gude fellowship! Mr. MacTavish, if you please, when ye've frinished with that crorkshrcrew, we'll sing."

   Mate Schneider — his cargo of harbor water now well-diluted with alcohol — found his voice and raised it high in song.

   "Ach," he said, after the fifteenth chorus, "Such hosbitality! I drink to you again, brave Scottishers! Hoch! Gesundheit! — But Gott, vat a potency has this liquor!"

   "Ha' another, for yer apoplexy!" invited Mr. Glencannon, passing one arm around a stay for better support. "An' noo', let's sing it once again."

   The hoot of a siren burst upon them with mighty surging sound. It was the Brandenburger! and as they turned toward her, their song drowned in their throats, they saw a plume of steam curling from her anchor winch. Beyond to the East, the red sun was rising over the fincas. This, then, was the parting. Ah, grief!

   Mate Schneider's emotions quite overcame him, and mercifully, consciousness fled . . . .

   Tenderly, tearfully, the Scotsmen carried him down the ladder and laid him in his boat. Only the respectful firmness of the sailors prevented them from embarking as a guard of honor and completely swamping the craft.

   "Gentlemen!" sobbed Mr. Glencannon, his misty eyes following the departing gig, "Let us drink to a prince o' gude fellows!"

   Even as they tilted their bottles in his honor, Mate Schneider lurched to his feet, and waved his hand in fond farewell. Then another fit of apoplexy seized him, and he collapsed into his boat.


   The Inchcliffe Castle, Liverpool to Odessa, swung at anchor off Piraeus, in Greece. She was rustier than ever — more woe-begone than any vessel seen in those classic waters since the lusty days of Ulysses.

   Mr. Glencannon, beneath the awning, was deep in an ancient copy of the Presbyterian Churchman. A boat came off from shore with the mail, and the Engineer was handed a neat and impressive packet.

   Now, in all his twenty years at sea, this was the first time Mr. Glencannon had received anything in the post, but he accepted the packet with a casual air, took a swig out of the bottle which stood beneath his chair, and carefully considered the address. Yes, it was for him, without a doubt. "Herr Colin Glencannon, S.S. Inchcliffe Castle, care of H.B.M. Consul, Piraeus, Greece." The stamps were German, and the postmark that of Hamburg.

   Tearing off the wrapper he found a red morocco case, within which was a handsome gold medal. Having viewed this for several minutes, he removed it from its velvet niche, bit it to see if it was genuine, and then, satisfied, solemnly pinned it to the breast of his overalls. Next he produced a roll of parchment, richly engrossed but entirely in German. He wrinkled his brows and cleared his throat.

   "I dinna mak' head nor tail o' it," he announced. "Mr. Flynn, I'll trouble ye to whustle through yon speakin' chube an' tell that Dutchman in the fireroom to come oop here an' translate this meestery."

   A grimy German appeared, a corner of his neckrag between his teeth.

   "Hun," said Mr. Glencannon, banding him the scroll, "translate, and mind ye speak the truth, lest I smite ye with this bottle which is no more than a quarter empty."

   The fireman glanced through the document, and read


   "In recognition of the heroism of Colin Glencannon in plunging into the shark infested harbor of Havana and saving the life of Kurt Schneider at peril of his own, the Humane Society of Hamburg is honored in conferring upon the said Colin Glencannon its Gold Medal and Certificate."


   "Havana?" repeated Mr. Glencannon doubtfully, turning to Captain Ball. "Havana? Why, when were we ever in Havana?"

   "Havana? Well, I couldn't say exactly without looking at the log. About fourteen months ago, I fancy."

   There was a long silence, while Mr. Glencannon contemplated his medal and took another drink.

   Then a great light dawned upon him. "Foosh!" he chuckled. "I remember noo, o' course! That was the nicht I dove overboard to retrieve a full bottle o' whusky which that dom' temperance fanatic, Bos'n Hughes, had thrown away! Down near the bottom o' the sea I chanced to mak' the acquaintance o' a Dutchman who was havin' a fit o' apoplexy. Oh, cairtainly I remember nool But Captain ——" his face fell and he shook his head sadly — "— I could na' find that whusky!"