The first Glencannon omnibus (1938)
Scotch and Water (1931)
THE LOST LIMERICK
|IT WAS a fine sunny morning, and the Inchcliffe Castle was butting her nose into the turquoise swell which surges off North Africa — butting, then rearing back, and pouring cascades of white water from her rusty fo’c’sle head. Off to starboard, the saw-tooth Atlas Mountains loomed in the heat haze, with here and there an ancient crumbling Moorish watch tower repeating itself in the sky above their summits in obedience to the mad whims of Fata Morgana, or lying down sidewise upon a cloud some miles above its proper earthly foundation. Once, a three mile stretch of coast range wavered viscously, broke loose from its anchorage, and stood coyly on its head upon the horizon . . . .
Mr. Glencannon, viewing these phenomena from the Inchcliffe Castle’s deck, paused on his way to breakfast to frown in sour disapproval.
“Asseenine, pairfickly asseenine!” he declared. “Fortunate it is that I’m no’ a drinking mon, or those donned mirages wad gi’ me St. Vittle’s dance! Still” — and he settled an elbow on the rail the better to pursue his train of thought, “Still, yon’s a hot an’ theersty country, beyont a doot — and I’ll be three days in Algiers wi’ oot a saxpunce to bless myself. — It’s a dry prospect, and a lesson never to send hame my savings unless present needs are provided for. But — Heaven will provide!” And with head bowed deep in thought he strolled down the deck and stepped through the doorway.
“Captain Ball and gentlemen, I bid ye a vurra gude morning,” he said, touching his cap visor. “I hope your healths are better than my poor shattered ain.” There was a scupping sound as he attacked his oat porridge — a heaping quart of which, lubricated with a lump of oleomargarine the size of a cricket ball, constituted his time-honored breakfast.
Captain Ball, who had heard the greeting and the scupping every morning for nine long years, acknowledged the former with his usual polite concern.
“We’re all quite fit, Mr. Glencannon, thank you; but we’re sorry, m’sure, to hear that your own condition is still unsatisfactory. — Er, just what seems to be the trouble today, Mr. Glencannon?”
“It’s my nairves,” sighed the Engineer, pushing back his empty plate and producing an old plaid sock which served the dual function of tobacco-pouch and pipe-case. “Yes, it’s my nairves. They’ve been all a-joomp and a-jangle since we cleared Melilla for Algiers. Yes, Captain, since we cleared for Algiers . . . . I fear that Algiers wull eventually be the death o’ me.” And as he filled his pipe, he glanced covertly from one to another of them, as if to appraise the effect of his lugubrious prophecy.
“Algiers?” repeated Mr. Montgomery, the First Officer, rising to the bait, “And wot, may I arsk, is so fatal about Algiers?”
“Weel,” explained Mr. Glencannon, his canny Caledonian eye gleaming through the toxic mixture of smoke and steam which arose from his pipe, “It’s a seetuation so strange as to be no less than eunuch. As some of you know, Captain Ball and gentlemen, I’ve always been a great one for lummericks — silly veerses o’ poesy, like, for instance, the one aboot a cairtain young mon from Bombay who went oot a riding one day, and the Coolie who lived in Hong-Kong whose job was to hammer a gong . . . you know the sort o’ thing? . . . O’ course! Weel, there are leeterally hundreds o’ them, a’ more-or-less immoral, but a’ o’ them vurra comic — yes, vurra vurra comic indeed! It’s been a hobby o’ mine to collect and meemorize a lummerick for every port in the world — in fact, it’s been a matter o’ pride that no living mon, aship or ashore, could stump me when it comes to lummericks. Weel, when I heard aboot our nuxt port o’ call being Algiers, I o’ course thought o’ the famous lummerick which goes — weel, the feerst line goes something aboot ‘Algiers.’ Ye know it?” . . . And tensely he leaned forward.
“Oh, ha ha, why, my word, certainly I know it!” chuckled Captain Ball, patronizingly. “It goes . . . it goes . . . er, wait a moment, let’s see, now . . .”
Mr. Montgomery spoke up. “Oh, I’ve ‘eard that one, Sir! It’s about the, er . . .”
“It’s about Algiers, Sir!” volunteered the third mate, who was extremely young. “I’ve recited it a thousand times, I ‘ave! Er — funny, though — it seems to eskype me.”
Captain Ball shot him a withering glance. But the mate’s eyes were closed and his fingers were beating time upon the table.
“Ah!” sighed Mr. Glencannon, “There, gentlemen, there is the deeficulty! I know that lummerick, you know that lummerick; — but I canna think o’ it and neither can you! And because my health is frail at best, the domned thing has become an obseesion wi’ me nicht and day, and my nairves are shattered in conseequence.”
“Well, I’ll think of it in a minute,” said Captain Ball, doggedly, “That is, I will if you gentlemen will do me the favor to shut up and stop drumming on the table. I’ve got a pretty good memory for such things.”
“So ‘ave I,” declared Mr. Montgomery.
“Well, mine’s a bit above the average,” said Mr. MacQuayle, the Second Engineer.
“Oh, and is it?” inquired Captain Ball. “Well, I’ll have you know, Sir, that I’m in command of this vessel, and when it comes to memory . . .”
“‘Old ‘ard — I mean excuse me, Sir!” exclaimed Mr. Montgomery, springing to his feet. “The h’Algiers limerick goes like this . . . er . . . wyte a minnit now, ‘arf a mo’ . . . Oh, ‘ell, I do believe it’s slipped me!”
The mess-boy paused in gathering the dishes, and cleared his throat respectfully. “Beggin’ pardon, Sorrh, if Oi moight say a word to the Captain, Sorrh, O’ive ‘eard that h’Algiers limerick monny’s the toime, Sorrh! It’s (ha hal) it’s something a, um, er . . . er, just a second, Sorrh, whoile Oi goes and arsks the cook.”
There was silence at the table, broken only by tense mutterings and the ruminative drumming of fingers upon oilcloth.
The mess-boy returned, hand pressed to brow, and walking as if in a trance.
“Well?” snapped Captain Ball.
“Sorrh, the cook says ‘e knows it loike a beggar in ‘is cups — in fact ‘e was on the very pint of tellin’ me, Sorrh, when it slipped ‘im, it did. — But ‘e says as ‘ow ‘e’ll ‘ave it in a jiffick . . . .”
“Weel, I ha’ me doots,” declared Mr. Glencannon, wagging his head sagaciously. “Dinna meesunderstand me, Captain and gentlemen, when I say that if a meemory like mine — which has mastered Bobby Burns from cover to cover — fails in recalling a sumple lummerick, there’s no’ much chance on a ship like this!”
“Oh, we don’t misunderstand you a dam bit!” bristled Mr. Montgomery. “What you mean is that the rest of us is so many ‘arf-wits, so to say!”
Mr. Glencannon blew a stifling cloud and through it smiled a seraphic smile. “Oh, no!” he protested, “To you, Muster Mate, I wad no’ say as much as that . . . .”
“Wait!” interrupted Captain Ball in a voice of frozen fury. “I said before, and I say again, that I’ve got the best memory on this ship, and what’s more I’ve got money to prove it! — What’s your answer to that, gentlemen?”
“You mean you’ll bet, Sir?”
“Well,” said the Captain, with such effort at repression that he almost bit off his palate, “That was the idea I intended to convey. But I doubt if there’s anybody in the crowd who’s sportsman enough to bet with me!”
“Let’s myke it a pool — how about that, Sir?” suggested Mr. Montgomery. “All fork up a percentage of our pay, winner tyke all?”
“Right-o for me,” agreed Captain Ball. “The more I win the merrier! What do you say, Mr. Glencannon?”
There was a pause while the Engineer thought it over. “A-weel,” he said at length and doubtfully, “I’m no’ a gambling mon, such being contrary to my streect Preesbyteerian principles. Also, I’m extremely conseervative in a’ matters conceerning finance. But if you yoursel’ wull admeenister the thing, Captain — taking it oot o’ the hands o’ the mates and thus assuring fair play — I’ll cairtainly parteecipate.”
And so it was arranged that the first man to hand Captain Ball a copy of the limerick, before the Inchcliffe Castle docked at Algiers the following day, would receive ten percent of the monthly pay of all of them.
This was, in itself, a tidy sum; but later in the morning the second mate was waited upon by Bo’s’n Hughes.
“Sorrh,” said the Bo’s’n, “The fo’c’s’le is in a h’uproar! Oi’ve ‘ad to broike three ‘eads, Oi ‘ave, to muntain the discipline. And all h’about the ruddy limerick which the H’engineer arsked the Captain and the Captain arsked the mess-boy and the mess-boy arsked the cook. — All of us knows it, of course, but none of us can quoite think of it!”
“Ah,” said the Mate absently, gazing toward a soaring sea-gull and moving his lips in futile quest of vague and fleeting words. “Ah? That is, I mean to say, yes?”
“Yes,” said Bo’s’n Hughes, “And wot Oi’d loike to s’y, Sorrh, is that the men would loike to come in on the pool, they would, syme as the h’orfficers, and settle once and for all ‘oos got the best memory in this ‘ere ship.”
Thus the pool was swelled to mammoth proportions; and by mid-day the Inchcliffe Castle had taken on a strangely preoccupied air. On the bridge Mr. Montgomery was pacing back and forth, eating one cigar after another, and pausing at intervals to smite himself upon the forehead as does one who strives to summon an elusive memory. The man at the wheel was gnawing his moustache and peering off into space for minutes at a time; recalling himself to the binnacle and business only by the fear that Mr. Montgomery might glance astern, see the wavers in the wake, and kick him as Mr. Montgomery alone knew how. While the British Board of Trade, in its wisdom, has decreed that no officer shall strike a seaman, it has said nothing at all about kicking him; and the Inchcliffe Castle’s mate, observing the letter of the law, had also mastered the technique of the boot.
Only, just now, Mr. Montgomery was too busy thinking of something else to bother about the extremely untidy wobbles in soapsuds. Suddenly his face brightened; he stepped to the engine room speaking-tube and whistled down it.
“Second Engineer,” answered a voice.
“I’ll speak to the Chief, if he’s down there,” barked Mr. Montgomery.
There was a long pause during which the mate beat time upon the tube-nozzle. “‘Ell!” he growled impatiently, “If ‘e don’t ‘urry up it’ll slip me. ‘— Da-de-de-de-de-de Algiers‘ . . . I s’y, are you there, Mr. Glencannon?”
“No, Sir — it’s MacQuayle again. The Chief says he canna speak to ye the noo, and says he’s vurra annoyed at bein’ deesturbed, Sir.”
“Well, damn it all, tell ‘im I almost ‘ad it!”
“So did he, Sir, but he says ye bruck his train of thought. He’s standing nuxt the crank-pit noo, Sir, seerching for it in the rhuthm o’ the engines.”
“Rhythm your eye!” shouted Mr. Montgomery, beating on the tube with his fist. “I know the rhythm — it’s the words! The rhythm goes ‘De-da-de-de-de-de Algiers’!”
“I beg to deefer wi’ ye, Sir!” — and the voice came through the tube a trifle tartly. “The proper rhuthm is ‘Da-da-DE-da-de-Algiers,‘ and ye’ll obsairve it’s wuth three da’s an’ twa de’s, and no’ wi’ one da and five de’s, as ye reheersed it, Sir.”
“Wait, wait, wait, can’t you!” screamed the mate. “There’s first a de, then a da, then four — no five . . . oh, blarst your eyes, MacQuayle, you’ve got me all mixed up, you ‘ave!”
Mr. Montgomery let the tube snap shut, glanced aft, saw the snakes in the wake, and advanced truculently toward the wheelman — timing his stride like a hurdler who plans to elevate his right foot smartly and at the proper instant.
The wheelman didn’t see him coming. Head back and eyes closed, he was murmuring, “There once was a de-de Algiers . . .”
“Right-oh!” exclaimed Mr. Montgomery, staying his foot in midair. “You’ve almost got it, you ‘ave! Think ‘ard, my man, think ‘ard!”
The wheelman thought. He thought frantically, and in the process let the Inchcliffe Castle slide full seven points off her course. “There once was a — There once was a — er — oh — I’m afraid it’s got me beat, Sir,” he admitted feebly.
Mr. Montgomery tossed his head in disgust, remembered the wake, and launched his kick — all more or less in one motion. Then, becoming conscious of a monotonous and distracting sound, he scowled down at the well deck where three seamen were chipping paint. Their hammers rose and fell in unison in a vaguely familiar and yet unsatisfactory rhythm which they changed from time to time after prolonged and heated debate.
“Strike me pink,” muttered the mate. “Why, I do believe the ‘ole bloomink ship’s gone barmy!”
And so, in truth, it seemed. At supper that evening scarcely a word was spoken or a mouthful eaten. So preoccupied were the officers with scraps of paper and stubs of pencils that none of them noticed that the meat was scorched or that the treacle was served on the potatoes instead of on the pudding.
“Weel,” Mr. Glencannon broke the silence as he pushed back his chair, “I’ll spend the evening in streect concentration. What time wull we be docking tomorrow, Captain Ball?”
“Eleven o’clock at latest. Please to notify everybody, Mr. Montgomery, to hand in their limericks by four bells sharp.”
“Ye may rest assured that by four bells I’ll hand ye the winning teecket, sir,” declared Mr. Glencannon, retreating to the deck before a volley of vicious snorts.
Chuckling to himself, he went to his room, bolted the door, and hung a blanket over the porthole before he switched on the light. Then, pausing a moment to listen for footsteps outside, he took from a drawer a huge oilcloth-covered scrapbook and sat down upon the bunk.
He turned to the first page, which was a methodical and neatly hand-written index, and ran his finger down the columns. “No,” he said at length, “No — it’s even as I suspected. Under ‘A’ there’s nowt that wull sairve — absolutely nowt! But noo, let’s conseeder the rest o’ the alphabet . . . .”
For the better part of an hour he studied the index and thumbed the pages. At length an idea seemed to come to him, and eagerly he turned to the letter “T.”
“There!” he exclaimed, triumphantly smiting the page, “I knew I cud find one! T’wull fit like a piston fits a cylinder! It’s not only good, it’s pairfect! And noo I’ll write it doon, so’s to have it a’ in readiness for the morrow!”
Having written it down, tucked it into an envelope, and tucked the envelope into his pocket, he produced from beneath his bunk a bottle whose label bore the legend “Duggan’s Dew of Kirkintilloch.” He held the bottle to the light and sighed sepulchrally. “Less than a quart!” he said. “Losh, but I figured close — so close it was foolhardy! I should ha’ laid in twa or three spare cases at Rabat before I sent my money hame. Why, just suppose we’d struck rough weather! . . .”
Shuddering at the thought, he poured himself a brimming tumblerful and drank it gratefully. “Saxty-foor poonds, nineteen sheelings, saxpunce,” he mused. “That’s what the pool comes to, by the most conseervative esteemate! ‘Twull be a braw bricht festival in Algiers after a’!”
Replenishing the tumbler, he dragged an oil-skin case from beneath his bunk, and from it produced a bagpipe.
Then, filling his mouth with the Dew of Kirkintilloch, he removed the reed from the chanter of the bagpipe, and thrust it between his lips. Now, ordinary pipers, of course, suffer from the delusion that a chanter reed can be properly conditioned by saliva alone; but this is because such great virtuosi as The MacCrimmons of the Isle of Skye have jealously guarded as a secret of their art the fact that only Scotch whisky (and notably Duggan’s Dew of Kirkintilloch) can so affect pipe and piper as to produce the so-desired soul-shivering result. Mr. Glencannon, religiously observing the ritual, let the chanter reed soak for full five minutes. Then he swallowed the mouthful, and drank what remained in the tumbler for his own benefit.
“Whoosh!” he said, tucking the bagpipe under his arm and stepping out into the moonlight, “God’s in his heaven an’ a’s richt wi’ the world! What cud be more feeting than an hour or two o’ ‘Cock O’ The North?’”
“Cock O’ The North,” as all good Caledonians know, is the greatest and grandest music ever composed by mortal man; but unfortunately none but the Caledonians are capable of appreciating it. The rest of mankind is unanimous in decrying the opus, and dismissing it along with all other bagpipe music as the merest mélange of savage groans, shrieks and catterwauls. And so, though Mr. Glencannon paced up and down the deck and played “Cock O’ The North” as perhaps only four other living men could have played it, his efforts were not gratefully received by the rest of the ship’s company.
The first manifestation of disapproval came from the Mate. Mr. Montgomery, tactfully awaiting a moment when Mr. Glencannon had laid down his pipes to take up his bottle, ascended the ladder to the upper deck.
“Orl finished?” he asked, hopefully.
“If ye’re refeering to the whusky, yes,” said Mr. Glencannon, hastily laying the bottle on its side behind the doorsill to conceal the fact that it was still a good quarter full. “But if, on the other hand, ye’re refeering to the museec, ye’ve still a gude three hours to enjoy it. And noo,” picking up the pipes and inflating the bag, “I’ll beed ye’ ‘a vurra gude nicht, Muster Mate.”
Mr. Montgomery was undaunted. “I s’y, now, see ‘ere,” he protested. “You’ve put the ‘ole ship to a lot of trouble, you ‘ave, with your ruddy limerick and orl, and it ayn’t cricket for you to go disturbing the rest of us wot’s trying to think of it. ‘Ow can we think of this limerick — ‘ow can we think of anything, for that matter! — with you up ‘ere plying this bloody squealing yowler orl night? I arsks you, Mr. Glencannon, yes I arsks you, — is it cricket or ay’nt it?”
“No,” said Mr. Glencannon, “It is no’ creeket, which is at best a fool’s game. It’s museec, which is a gentleman’s highest deevairsion! I’ll reemind ye, Muster Montgomery, that ye wear but three stripes and I wear foor, and if ye dinna take ye’re ugly face beyont my reach, I shall be forced to reesort to lusty meesures . . . .”
“Oh, so that’s it, is it?” said Mr. Montgomery, backing down the ladder. “Well, just for that, my Scotch bucko, I’ll go to me room, I will, and show you ‘oos ‘oo when it comes to remembering limericks on this ‘ere ship!”
“Scottish, not ‘Scotch,'” corrected Mr. Glencannon, patiently. “And for ye’re further information, the true pronownciation is no’ ‘oo, but who, wi’ the ‘H’ audeeble, as in ‘hoot.’”
Mr. Montgomery’s growl of rage was lost in the drone and shrill of the pipes, as for the two hundred and sixty-fourth time Mr. Glencannon launched into “Cock O’ The North.”
Shortly, though, there was a hiss of steam, a rasping wheeze, a shower of warm water-and the Inchcliffe Castle’s whistle gave vent to a bellow which shook the ship and shattered the night. The roar kept on — head-filling, terrible; and Mr. Glencannon, cocking his eye across the empty moonlit expanse of sea which lay ahead, realized that the whistle was being sounded solely in a malicious attempt to drown him out.
“On the bridge, there!” he hailed, “Muster Coyle, ye mannerless pup ye, if ye dinna stop wasting steam-pressure oot o’ my boilers, I’ll feerst come up and tromple ye, and then I’ll go doon and tell the Captain why.”
The whistling subsided and the piping resumed. Resumed, and continued for another ghastly hour at the end of which Mr. Glencannon, discovering that his bottle was almost empty, reconditioned the chanter reed, laid away his pipes and prepared for bed.
He had switched off the light, said his prayers and composed himself for slumber with blissful thoughts of sixty-four pounds, ten shillings, sixpence, when he was stabbed into trembling wakefulness by a frightful fear.
“Foosh!” he exclaimed, his feet groping in the darkness for his slippers. “How cud I have forgotten him?” And with his nightshirt flapping around his shins in the warm African breeze, he tiptoed his way to the wireless room and peered furtively through the port.
There, sure enough, was Sparks — ear-phones in place, cigarette going, and his dark pimply young face illuminated by the eerie blaze of miniature thunderbolts which crackled and stuttered as his fingers set them free. Suddenly he abandoned the key, seized his pencil, and listened. Thin cold notes were coming from across the ocean spaces — coming in a broken whine which Mr. Glencannon visualized as flying fragments of pale blue thread. But Sparks knew their meaning, and eagerly wrote it down. When he had finished, and sat back reading the result, Mr. Glencannon threw wide the door and stood pointing an accusing finger.
“Swundler!” he shouted. “Gi’ me yon paper befeer I do ye in!”
Sparks, who was a callow youth and typical of his calling, glanced him up and down, handed him the message, and shrugged.
“‘Ere you are, old walrus, and a fat lot of good it’ll do you!” he said. “I thought I’d cop the pool, as so would you if you ‘ad ‘arf my chance! I’ve been sending out a query ‘Seek detailed information limerick about Algiers.‘ Just now I gets this reply from 2 FMP, which is Funchal Madeira, the ruddy Portugee swine! . . . ‘Ere, read it for yourself!”
“H’m,” said Mr. Glencannon, holding the pad beneath the green-shaded light. “It says ‘Limerick not about Algiers. Limerick about 129 miles W.S.W. of Dublin Ireland.‘ — Ha, ha, they completely meesunderstood ye, ye perishing young thief. Weel, noo,” and he assumed a pious air, “Let this be a lesson to ye, young Muster What’s-Yer-Name, that honesty is the best policy!”
Very deliberately, Sparks switched off his receiving apparatus, sat back, and lighted another Gold Flake. “My nyme,” he said, “Is not ‘Whut’s-Yer-Nyme’ — it’s Levy. There’s quite a few of us is trydesmen in Whitechapel . . . . But aside from that, ‘ow would you like to see the replies I’ve ‘ad from nine other stytions and twenty-two different ships — orl of which I got before you cyme barging in ‘ere where you ‘aven’t a mite of right to be, you being a h’engineer h’orfficer, blarst your eyes, Sir! Do you know, I’ve arf a mind to report you to the Captain?”
Mr. Glencannon paled, swallowed twice, and assumed his most charming smile.
“Ah, noo!” he said, “Be paceefic, Muster Levy, be paceefic! I did na’ mean to inteerfere wi’ your juties! It was only that . . .”
“It was only that you’ve got this swindle orl figured out, you ‘ave, and you’re afryde I’ll crab it. Well, I will crab it! I’ll go stryght to the Captain now, and tell him that there simply ayn’t no such thing as a limerick h’about h’Algiers! Now wot do you s’y to that?”
Mr. Glencannon’s somewhat prominent Adam’s apple travelled up and down his throat like the conveyor-bucket of a Liverpool coal barge.
“Er — why, noo, what ye say is rideeculous, young Muster Levy — absolutely rideeculous! I don’t mind telling ye that even noo, a fair copy o’ the Algiers lummerick is reeposing in my room, a’ready for the Captain in the morning.”
“Then it’s a fake — a ruddy fake!” declared Mr. Levy. “None o’ them ships and stytions wot answered my query ‘ave ever ‘eard of a h’Algiers limerick! And besides that, the British Consulate in h’Algiers ‘as an h’expert on limericks, and ‘e says as ‘ow there never was a h’Algiers limerick. So now I’ll step below, I will, and tell the Captain that you’re trying to swindle the ship. And I’ll warn ‘im not to settle the pool until after ‘e’s seen the Consul in the morning . . . .”
“Wait!” said Mr. Glencannon, restraining him.
Mr. Levy took several deliberate drags on his Gold Flake and lowered the lids of his extremely intelligent eyes. “I’ll wyte while you mykes up yer mind — but remember, time is money!”
“Meaning what?” asked Mr. Glencannon, nervously.
“Meaning, what’s my split?” explained Mr. Levy.
Mr. Glencannon licked his lips, and did some rapid calculating. “Ten percent — there, that’s fair, isn’t it?”
“Ha, ha!” replied Mr. Levy.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Twunty, then! Twunty — why, think o’ it!”
“Twenty? Why, I s’y, listen ‘ere, Mr. Glencohen, I thought you was a sensible business man, I did! Now I don’t know just ‘ow you’re going to work your swindle, but I do know I’ll go to the Captain this minnit unless you agree to split arf-and-arf. And that’s that!”
Mr. Glencannon was on the verge of tears. “Fufty percent! Why, t’wull come to theerty-odd poonds!” he moaned.
“Well, maybe I’d better myke it sixty,” mused Mr. Levy.
“Fufty percent! So be it, then,” said Mr. Glencannon, hurriedly. But after a moment he chuckled and looked up. “Do ye know, Muster Levy, that ye’re a most preecocious young mon? In monny ways, ye’re a lad after my ain heart, and I preedict ye’ll go far! What do ye say tomorrow we exploore Algiers together?”
“Orl right with me,” agreed Mr. Levy. “Only, I wants my share right ‘ere in my pocket before we starts ashore!”
Hot and humiliated, Captain Ball plodded up the arch-borne ramps which lead from the docks to the Boulevard de la Republique. His eyes, long accustomed to the grateful blues and greens and greys of the seven seas, winced at the dazzling whiteness which leaped out at them from all sides . . . . Well, he was getting old — that was the answer! Even his memory was deserting him. It had been a bitter pill to stand before the officers and crew, that morning, and bestow those sixty-odd pounds upon a blithering Scot with a memory no longer than the interval between drinks!
The dome of the mosque Jamaa-el-Kasbah seared his eyeballs, and he looked away. “Narsty town!” he muttered. “Damned if I don’t write a letter to the Member from Dorking, demanding that the British Consulate be moved down to the water-front where a white man can get to it!”
At the Rue Bab Azoun he paused and glanced about him. On the corner, surrounded by spellbound Arabs, sat a snake charmer playing a bulbous brass instrument to the strident brayings of which sundry reptiles writhed and reared upon a rug. Beside him, a boy beat upon a tom-tom.
“Three damns to you, my man!” snarled Captain Ball, tossing his cigar butt into the snake-charmer’s alms bowl. “Your profession is narsty, so are you, and your instrument sounds like a shuddering bagpipe anyway!” And crossing the street, he made for a building which bore the sun-blistered arms of Great Britain. That he had to climb two flights of stairs added nothing to his poise.
He entered a room on the third floor and introduced himself. His Majesty’s Third Assistant Vice Consul, Major Cheynesyde, D.S.O., fiddled with hopeless courtesy at the lever of the electric fan.
“Shno use,” he said, rather thickly. “Twelve fifty’s all she’ll rev., same’s my old Sop Dolphin. Say, you weren’t in jolly old Flying Corps during war, were you? Why no, f’course not — it was ‘nother chap named Ball, but the Hun got him. Trust you’ll pardon my undershirt, Captain. Bottle and splash are right there at your elbow, Captain. Clap your handsh twiche — twice — for ice, Captain. Realize it’s breach of hoshtality to ask guest to clap own handsh for ice, but I’m not very good at clapping handsh. Haw!”
“Haw!” echoed Captain Ball, tartly. “Er, that is, I mean to say haw haw!”
“Thash spirit — haw haw haw!” roared His Majesty’s Third Assistant Vice Consul. “I’d clap for you, Captain, only my right handsh made of jolly old aluminium. ‘Riginal member got shot off during war by jolly old sphlosive bullet . . . . And now, Captain, I shpose you want me to sign ships papers and all that?”
“Yes, Sir, if you please,” said Captain Ball in a businesslike tone. “Vessel, Inchcliffe Castle; thirty-six hundred tons; port of register . . .”
“Inchcliffe Castle?” repeated Major Cheynesyde. “Oh, of course, by all meansh! I hope you got my message?”
“Message?” repeated Captain Ball.
“Yesh — in reply to your wireless last night. — Always glad to be of shervice in such matters! You see, I’m an expert — yes, Captain, the world’s greatest limming — er, living limerick expert alive in world today. Thash why I’m in position to say asholutely that there’sh never been a limerick about Algiers. I’ve spent years in research, burned gallonsh of midnight oil, in fruitless efforts to find . . .”
“Just a moment, Sir,” interrupted Captain Ball, groping in his pocket. “I don’t know what you mean about wireless messages from my ship. But I do know I’ve just awarded a pool of approximately seventy pounds to one of my officers for remembering a limerick which is most certainly about Algiers!”
“Indeed?” inquired Major Cheynesyde, his face lighting up like that of a book-collector who has discovered a Gutenberg Bible on a bargain counter. “Oh, read it, Captain, read it!”
Captain Ball cleared his throat, glanced at the servant, and blushed.
“It’s a funny one — but, well, it’s fair foul, Sir!” he warned. “Perhaps it would be better if you’d read it to yourself. It might demoralize the A-rab.”
“H’m,” said the Major, reaching for his monocle but finding his key-ring instead. “Er, haw! Er, really, I mean to say, haw haw!” “Why, what’s wrong?” inquired Captain Ball, hitching forward in his chair.
“Wrong? Why, my dear fellow, you’ve been had! Oh, my word, you’ve been imposed upon, yesh, frightfully! Why, I wrote this limerick myself in 1919! But I wrote it about Tangier, not Algiers! It ishn’t about Algiers at all! There’s no s on Tangier, so Algiers is a false rhyme. Can’t you shee, Captain, that this line here — and this one (haw, it is rather neat . . . very neat, you musht admit it, Captain!) could apply only to Tangier? You see, I was in the Tangier Consulate before I came here, and . . .”
Captain Ball cleared his throat, gulped his drink, and cleared his throat again.
“Hell’s bones!” he murmured. “I’ve been swindled, and no mistake!”
“You certainly have!” agreed the Major, “But it’s not too late. Why not make him give the money back — face him with the swindle and jolly well make him cough up the cash!”
Captain Ball bowed his head upon his breast in thought. Dimly he heard the whine of the snake-charmer’s pipe and the throb of the tom-tom. But suddenly there came an outburst of shouting and the sounds of strife. The music ceased, and then even, the shouting died away.
“Well,” Captain Ball broke the silence, “I guess in some ways you’re right. It’s plain we’ve been swindled, but I’m afraid it would be difficult to get the money back. You see . . .” and suddenly he paused, listened . . .
The snake-charmer’s pipe had once more found voice — but now, it was playing “Cock O’ The North.”
Captain Ball sprang to his feet and strode to the window. “That’s him now!” he announced. “Mister Glencannon himself — drunk as a fiddler, and wounded A-rabs heaped all around him!”
“Er — Glencannon? He sounds a bit Scottish,” remarked the Major.
“He is! And why look there, Sir — there’s Mr. Levy, my wireless man, selling the tom-tom to those American tourists!”
“Ah,” mused His Majesty’s Consul — “Glencannon, did you say? . . . And Levy? Well, Captain, er, I mean to say, perhaps, after all, you’ll have to charge it to experience. Have a chair, won’t you, and clap your handsh for ice.”