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Scötterdämmerung

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Five bells in the middle watch and the brig Ariel was cracking on regardless in the fine blow, bound for Elsinore and then into the Baltic. By the light of the old, lopsided moon, Lieutenant Pullings, could discern the expanse of angry sea on either hand and in the far distance, on the starboard bow, a murk that might betoken a spectre of a...

And by the starboard hances, Fat Arse Jenkins was unfurling a whispered yarn of nautical misadventure and supernatural terror to a transfixed landsman – "No mortal ship" he was relating with relish "no

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sailors of flesh and blood were her crew. She can never make port, you see, and is fated to sail the oceans forever. If she is hailed by another ship, why her crew asks after folks long dead in countries that ain't no more."

Meanwhile, Pullings was gazing through his telescope. He was sure that there was a ship there, approaching fairly rapidly, but it seemed to be glowing with a ghostly light. He wondered whether he had eaten too much toasted cheese last night. He thought he heard a distant cry:

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'Wheesht!'

It was not the song of the wind in the rigging but Stephen's new curiosity, a mechanical Scot, which he had acquired after a tense evening of piquet in one of the lesser royal establishments. It had bested the better known Mechanical Turk in a game of chess inside four moves, the last move consisting of a head-butt.

As far as any of the officers present could tell the creature, McTosh by name, was authentically clad in the full traditional garb of his race, from lead brogues (a daily trial to the holystoning crew) to ginger Tam o' Shanter.

The internal humours of the mechanism were impelled by an ingenious device, a cloth bag held under the armpit and pumped by inward pressure from the elbow, the whole sending compressed air as required through a tube held in the mouth. McTosh was endowed with a vocabulary encompassing several antic Scotch expressions, as well as the ability to generate new ones.

'Crivvins!' he boomed, unexpectedly.

Jack thumped the table. 'Bless you, Doctor! He is as realistic as any Scotchman I have seen in all my nautical career.'

Just then Killick burst into the cabin, less pleased. 'Which cook has lost half his stores and is ready to sew hisself into his hammock with two round-shot and tip hisself over the side. If the blow keeps on there won't be no condiments for the captain's puttanesca.'

Stephen handed him an ingenious device composed of glass, cork, rubber and wire. 'Sure, that will clap a stopper over his capers.'

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The aroma of the stoppered capers in garlic dispersed and was subsumed in that of the well-travelled salt beef – "Which it's already seasoned" observed the cook "which I said, it come already seasoned ha ha!".

Killick adjusted his trousers and assumed a nonchalant air – "You ever seen the ghost in the bread-room?" he asked the cook.

"You don't believe in ghosts, do you mate?"

"What? And I just heard one in the machine the doctor brought aboard? A ghost in a machine. It talked." Looking around and then in a hoarse whisper "It said 'Crivvins'".


"That'll be one of your Scotch ghosts then. You don't want to have nothing to do with them. Probably dematerialise when we're out of the German Ocean and raise Elsinore. "

"What's this old German Ocean then?"

"It is whit is nou mair aften kent as the North Sea"

"Who said that??"

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Up on deck, Fat Arse Jenkins, his back to the sea, was continuing: "They says that the curse can be lifted only by a man not born of women, who speaks an antic tongue."

Later, Pullings couldn't believe his eyes. A shimmering ship was now following a parallel course to starboard, seeming to pulse gently in and out of focus. "Call for the Captain!" cried Pullings, transfixed.

McTosh stomped out from behind a mast and declaimed fearlessly, "A maun dree my weird!"

"I fear that the Doctor's machine is broken," said the Master. "It is making no sense."

"Stop your havers! A'm gaun for the ghaist gailey."

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Jack, now on deck, turned to Pullings and said, 'Hail that vessel.'

Pullings turned to the officer of the watch, not three feet away, and shouted, 'Mr Nicolls, hail that vessel!'

The officer of the watch called out to the mate of the watch at his side, 'Hail that vessel!'

The mate of the watch, getting into the spirit of the thing, called out to no-one in particular, 'HAIL THAT VESSEL!'

The gently swaying figure of McTosh waved in the direction of the ghostly ship now gliding a cable's length away and called, "Whit dae ye cry thon yin?"

An eery, high-pitched reply wafted over the uneasy waters: "Away an' bile yer heid!"

Jack frowned. 'Very well. Mr Pullings, let us beat to quarters.'

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To the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty

My Lords,

It is with honour that I apprise your Lordships that His Majesty's uncommonly-commodious-as-it-turned-out Brig Ariel under my command has taken in tow the Flying Duck, a privateer in the Scottish service that foundered in these waters some centuries past. We came upon her seemingly abandoned, in x degrees of Latitude and y degrees East.

The Duck was proceeding with all sails unfurled, galley fire alight and open lit portholes, manned only by a phantom crew. She surrendered, while under the gaze of our cannons, after an exchange of remarks between a Scottish guest of our surgeon and her numpty captain, the MacDuff of that ilk. Pending our return, Captain MacDuff is being held captive in the spirit room.

I have the honor to be your most obedient humble servant,

Jno. Aubrey


HMS Ariel, in The Belt, 26th July, 1808.


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'There,' said Jack. Please tell me what you think. I have tried to put it in a plain straight-forward manner – no rhetoric, no flourishes – and while nothing it says is false, there are things it don't say.

Stephen bowed and said, 'Indeed.' Together they gazed sombrely into the puddle on the dining table caused by the oversetting of the breakfast pot, the cross-swell causing the liquid to shimmer in a manner very like that of a flashback, the coffee lending a suitable sepia tinge to the reflection.

MacDuff's surrender of his sword to Jack on the quarterdeck of the prize... the conference in the ghostly cabin, with the ear of MacDuff's shrewish, disagreeable servant McKillick plainly visible through the translucent door... the rapid passage, with not a moment to be lost... Elsinore looming up on the starboard bow...

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Stephen paused in his recollections and asked, looking into Jack's face, "The spirit room?"

"Why, yes," said Jack, reflecting that perhaps there might be wiser places to have chosen.


The Marine sentry outside the spirit room was puzzled and wretched. He had never been asked to keep someone *in* before. He thought he heard barrels being pushed up against the inside of the door and mutters of "Pisht as Davy's sow and A've just begun."


On deck, the First Lieutenant was trying to explain to McTosh why he, Pullings, couldn't just call for the Captain because a mechanical Scot had requested it. "Yer bum's oot the windae! The heid yin has tae

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Even as the Mechanical Scot is in mid-sentence, the sun suddenly departs the ramparts of Elsinore where the young Richard Wagner muses among the elderly ghosts and the goblins of witchcraft which hover there in the twilight. He has come thither in search of material for what he hopes will be his first mature music drama. Already he's picked up a rousing tune from a passing British vessel, doubtless from a mariner who'd got into the spirit room – Dum de dum DUM de dum, Dum de dum DUM de dum Ho! He! Je! Ha!

He wonders how the plot is going to work out....

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Shortly after, the lookout alerted the quarterdeck to a small craft making its erratic way from the shore below Elsinore Castle towards the Ariel. A boy was despatched to the Doctor.
'Mr Pullings' duty and compliments sir, and asks was you expecting one of your confidential visitors, helmeted, no seaman,' he asked.

Jack and Stephen came on deck in time to hear a muffled 'Scheiße!' as the mysterious visitor collided with the Ariel, then in the gloom saw the figure place an ear-trumpet to one of the portlids.

At a nod from Captain Aubrey Awkward Davies fetched the man up on deck with the aid of a boat hook under the collar.

'Mr Pullings, we shall crack on for the Baltic without the loss of a moment. Now who are you, sir, and why are you listening to my vessel?'

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The visitor took off his helmet, to reveal a bulbous forehead and side-whiskers that met under his chin.

He spoke passionately in German. Towards the end, to the amazement of all hands, he bellowed out a strangely familiar tune and gestured wildly with his ear-trumpet towards the decks below, in the direction of the spirit room. He finished his peroration with a bow to Jack.

Jack looked back at him with a perfectly blank face. "You have the German, I recollect?" he asked Stephen.

"Alas, not a sufficient grasp to understand that tirade."

McTosh, who had joined the group as quietly as his shoes allowed, chimed in. "Yer crackit auld bampot! Yon jessie wants

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to speak to the mariner who sang this Leitmotif – "Dum de dum DUM de dum, Dum de dum DUM de dum Ho! He! Je! Ha!"

After an astounded pause Stephen shrieked "I have been duped as though I were just off the mountain or the bog, for shame. I purchased the machine on the understanding that it was mechanical and, what is more, Scottish".

Actually, your honours", gulped McTosh, exploded, "I was born of woman. Ermmm (and here his voice rose several octaves) I am a soprano myself. Ever since I heard the tale of the Flying Duckman I have been infatuated with him and it is my ambition to redeem Captain MacDuff by my love – for which purpose I needed first to become acquainted with the melliflous Scots tongue on its native heath."

Everybody went below and made themselves comfortable as they listened to the tale of the faux automaton. Wagner took notes. Her name was Senta and she was the daughter of an itinerant Norwegian chess-master. When she heard of an opening in the Mechanical Turk chess-playing line, she had seized the chance to tour Scotland, and later the rest of the kingdom, under the same guise. Now it only remained to introduce Senta and the object of her devotion.

Theirs was a brief encounter. Captain MacDuff caught one glimpse, gibbered, and tottered back to the spirit room where he commanded the Marine sentry to bolt him in or he would howl for evermore. Senta cast herself into the North Sea in her lead brogues and sank straight to the bottom. But Richard Wagner rowed back to Elsinore in a creative trance, elaborating the snippets of the Duckman's invention – Johohohe! Johohohe! Hoo! etc. Steuermann, Lasst die Wacht! etc. – into something new and strange.

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But wait! There was scope here for a much longer, more ambitious work... What if Senta's cursed engagement ring spilled from her cold hand and was carried by watery enchanted maidens from the mouth of the Rhine across the North Sea to her adopted home, Scotland? It would be a new foundation myth, a grand cultural narrative: a sort of National Scotialism. Heroic figures... titanic struggles... godlike triumphs... but finally culminating in a Scötterdämmerung. And oh, the music!

As Wagner paddled he sang the central leitmotif that he had learned by rote at the spirit room door, the language unfamiliar to him but the rich, evocative sounds no doubt expressing deeds and themes born in the very roots of the Earth, and the song drifted over the waters to the bemused crew of the Ariel:

I belong tae Glasgow,
Dear old Glasgow town;
But what's the matter wi' Glasgow,
For it's goin' roun' and roun'!
I'm only a common old working chap,
As anyone here can see,
But when I get a couple o' drinks on a Saturday,
Glasgow belongs tae me!