After they had walked a couple of miles they sat down on a bank at the edge of the road for a rest. Victoriana laboriously unbuttoned her boots and rubbed her feet vigorously.
‘They do feel a little sore,’ she admitted to Irving.
At that moment, a horse pulling a cart loaded with bundles of straw came clopping smartly up the road behind them. Irving sprang to his feet and stepped out in front of it.
‘Hey, buddy, can ya give us a ride?’ he asked, startling the figure who had been lolling on his seat, seemingly relying on the horse to find its own way.
‘Mebbeasyerenoasassenach: whauryeboundthin?’ asked the driver.
Rusty got out his translator box and turned the little wheel.
‘Mebbeasyerenoasassenach: whauryeboundthin?’ said the box.
Irving grabbed it from him and gave it a sharp smack on the side of the cart, then turned the little wheel again.
‘Aye, stranger, as ye’re no’ an Englishman: pray, whither are ye bound?’ it said, in a fluting Scottish accent.
‘I’ve been modifying the speech module a little,’ admitted Rusty, ‘though it still needs a bit of work.’
Having been assured that the carter was passing through Taynuilt on the way to his croft, they gratefully accepted a lift and climbed up on top of the straw, and the cart resumed its journey.
As they round wound around a hill and a view of the coast opened up, Victoriana gave a little gasp of excitement.
‘Look!’ she cried, ‘a castle!’
The driver turned his head, scowled and spat angrily at the ground.
‘Aye,’ fluted the box, ‘’tis the lair o’ that rascally McHerring, divil take his black soul. Dunstaffnage Castle was niver the same since he bought it. Folks around here believe the castle tried tae rid itself of him, there was terrible shakin’s an rumblin’s for mony a month after, aye.’
‘There seems to be a lot of activity round it at the moment,’ observed Rusty. ‘Those look like soldiers to me.’
‘Mebbe they’s come to drag him awa’,’ said the box hopefully.
Indeed, there was a lot of activity around the castle, with lorries and personnel wagons and even a small armoured vehicle clustered near the entrance, with groups of soldiers swarming about like ants.
‘Dey’re not wearing skoits like dem ones in da movies,’ said Fingers.
‘Kilts,’ corrected Rusty automatically. ‘I think they’re English, and I bet your Papa had them mobilised to try to retrieve the Telectroscope, Victoriana. They must have tracked McHerring down. Should we go down there?’
‘Um,’ Victoriana hesitated. ‘It’d probably be better if I spoke to Mama first. After all, we did disappear rather suddenly.’
They all agreed it would be a wiser course to postpone any reunion until the ground had been a little prepared; they therefore elected to stick to the plan to spend the night in Taynuilt and devise a way to contact Victoriana’s and Rusty’s parents in the morning.
‘But why do you not like Mr McHerring?’ Victoriana asked the carter.
‘Ach, ’tis a sorry tale,’ said that worthy, ‘and it goes back tae when A was a wee lad livin’ doon there on the foreshore in the shadow of yon castle. Ma aul’ Da was a coral diver, and he used tae row out tae the reef and dive doon to collect the coral wi’ his billies for tae sell tae the shops awa’ in Glasgie: the rich folk loved the coral for the decorations, ye ken, and ’twould fetch a pretty price. Nay, but ’twas dangerous work, and lives were lost in the gatherin’.’ A large tear rolled down his cheek as he spoke.
‘But then, this Spanish gentleman, who was holidayin’ in the area, was watchin’ one day when the boat came ashore, loaded wi’ coral and the daid body of a diver. He was so moved by wit he saw…’ another tear rolled slowly down his cheek, ‘… that he awa’ and made a wooden boat that could sail beneath the waves, and gather the coral. Aye,’ he glared at them defiantly, ‘’tis true, ’tis true!’
‘He means a submarine,’ whispered Rusty. ‘It … it couldn’t have been Monturiol, could it?’
The carter thrust a bony arm at him which bore a swirly tattoo of a dolphin amid the waves: as he flexed his muscles, the fish appeared to swim through the sea.
‘The whole crew had these, ev’ry mon,’ he said. ‘A was on’y a wee lad, but A was ta’en along to tend the engine whaur there was no space for a mon.’
‘’Twas a beautiful craft,’ he said dreamily, ‘carved of wood and polished tae a shine. The first boat he made was small, and he used a lot o’ auld whisky barrels, but it still sailed like a dream. We covered twenty-five miles when we tested ’un, though most of that was in circles, as the fumes from the auld wood were quite strang,’ he smiled in reminiscence.
Abruptly a scowl darkened his face.
‘Then along came that divil McHerring, and offered tae pay for the buildin’ of a proper boat, one big enough tae take on th’Atlantic and dive doon tae the coral reefs.’ He fell silent, brooding on the past.
‘And?’ prompted Rusty. ‘What happened then?’
‘Aye, well, he paid the money and built the boat, and that was the last we saw of ’un. We heard he made a mint of money selling ’un tae the gov’ment, alang wi’ the classy wee engine the Spanish gentleman designed. Awa’ the Señor went, back tae Spain brokenhearted, and niver more did we hear o’ him.’ He wiped his sleeve across his eyes.
‘Well,’ said Victoriana heatedly, ‘what a rotter McHerring is. No wonder he thought nothing of stealing the Telectroscope.’
They all agreed that McHerring must be an absolute blackguard and should be brought to justice, if indeed he succeeded in evading the army besieging his castle.
* * *
They were enveloped by the gathering dusk as the cart rolled into the village and halted outside an ancient inn.
‘Ye’ll find board an’ lodgin’ yonder, nae doot,’ said the carter, waving away their expressions of gratitude, ‘if ye’re no friends o’ the McHerring. Th’old wooden boat o’ yon Spanish gentleman kept a lot of men occupied and would ha’ brocht wealth tae these parts: folks have long memories aroon’ here.’ He glanced meaningfully at the inn, whose sign creaked sadly in the breeze.
‘But it’s the Stag’s Head,’ said Rusty in a puzzled manner.
‘Och, aye, reetly sae. A one-armed feller name o’ Perrott boucht the place a while back and renamed it. He didna seem tae care for the sea or anythin’ aboot it.’
The carter gathered the reins up and was about to urge the horse on again when he was struck by a thought. He leaned over and spoke in Victoriana’s ear. ‘Indeed, A thoucht a saw a sleek wooden undersea vessel off the point by the castle a nicht or two since,’ he confided, ‘but ’twas after closin’ time by then, ye ken.’
And with that he flicked the reins and the horse and cart ambled off into the night.
‘I think there is just enough fuel in the translator box to allow us to negotiate with the landlord,’ said Rusty, giving it a little shake.
They trooped up to the inn and were approaching the door when it was flung open and a group of soldiers staggered out into the night on a billow of yells and laughter, leaving behind a scene of carousing and jollity as if an entire army were occupying the premises.
‘Now then, lads,’ said the box, as the landlord, a big beefy cheerful fellow in an apron, followed them out and turned them carefully in the right direction, ‘follow that lane an’ it’ll tak’ ye back to the camp with yer fellows.’
‘’Scuse me, bud,’ said Irving, ‘do ya have any beds fer the night?’
The landlord turned and a suspicious frown clouded his face.
‘Ye’re no journalists, are ye?’ he asked.
‘Why would we be joynalists?’ asked Fingers in surprise, ‘we’s jus’ visitin’, erm, f’r a kinda vacation.’
The landlord’s face lit up: he rubbed his hands together gleefully.
‘Tourists!’ he exclaimed, ‘an’ frae America! ’Tis ma lucky nicht. I bid ye welcome.’
‘Why would we be journalists?’ asked Victoriana.
‘Did ye no see the excitement aroon’ the castle? ’Twas hard tae miss wi’ a’ they soldiers and things.’
‘What happened?’ asked Rusty eagerly.
‘The lads inside,’ he jerked his head over his shoulder, ‘are celebrating capturing a dangerous gang, it seems. They ha’ captured McHerring and his mob an’ locked him in the castle dungeons…’
‘And … and … Mulletchops,’ interrupted an inebriated soldier, appearing at his elbow. ‘Don’t forget Mulletchops and his crew, we got ’em as well, an’, an’ they’re locked up in another dungeon an’all. Funny thing is, the Captain don’t seem to be too happy, keeps muttering about something called a telectromon … tetrectolol … trolectolly…’
‘Telectroscope!’ exclaimed Victoriana.
‘Thashit!’ agreed the soldier triumphantly, ‘seems the Captain got a bo … got a bothering from the Major ’cos he couldn’t find it anywhere. Seems to o’ dishappeared completely.’
This chapter by HB. © Tachybaptus et al. 2017.