Chapter XV
 

Mr. Schultz, the first assistant, and Mr. von Staden were engaged in coffee and repartee when Terence Reardon thrust his head in at the dining saloon window. He was mildly excited.

"Be the Great Gun av Athlone!" he declared. "I've just been bit be a bedbug--an' I t'ought there wasn't a bedbug in the ship!"

Mr. Schultz looked up, horrified. "Chieve," he said, "dot is rodden news. Bedbugs! Ach!"

"An' well you may 'Ach,' Misther Schultz. Let a colony av bedbugs move into the Narcissus an' Terence P. Reardon will move out. There's only wan thing to do, Misther Schultz, an' that is to tackle the divils before we're overwhelmed be the weight av numbers. Have ye a bit av sulphur in yer shtore-room, Misther Schultz--the kind that comes in balls an' is used to burrn in shtate-rooms to kill bedbugs?"

When Terence Reardon put that innocent query to the first mate he knew very well Mr. Schultz would reply in the negative--which he did--for the reason that Michael J. Murphy had privately informed Mr. Reardon that the little cockney steward, Riggins, had charge of the bedbug ammunition. Riggins, who had been standing with his back against the wall, eyeing Mr. Schultz sourly, now spoke up and said he had some sulphur.

"More power to ye, Riggins!" Mr. Reardon declared heartily. "Then do ye, like the good lad, give me two or three balls av it. I'll burn them in me shtate-room to-night, wit' the door an' window locked, an' be morrnin' sorra bedbug will be left alive."

"Very well, sir," Riggins replied. "Might Hi arsk, Mr. Reardon, where you hintend passin' the night?"

"I'll shleep in me auld aisy-chair abaft the house an' next the funnel, where I'll be snug an' warrm," Mr. Reardon replied, for he desired an excuse to be on deck all night without arousing the suspicions of Mr. Schultz or von Staden.

The steward, having finished serving those who ate in the dining saloon, stepped out on deck and started for his own room. Mr. Reardon remained by the window a minute, discoursing on the curse of bedbugs aboard a ship, and then with a sigh followed the steward leisurely. Mr. Schultz appeared undecided whether or not to accompany him in the capacity of censor, but finally concluded to remain and finish his coffee, for if Riggins had decided to enlighten the chief as to the real reason for the skipper's indisposition he had had frequent opportunity to do so during the past ten days. It did not seem likely, therefore, that he would run any risks at this late date. To Mr. Schultz, Riggins appeared to be a man who could be depended upon to remember which side his bread was buttered on and who supplied the butter.

Arrived at the steward's state-room, Mr. Reardon helped himself to the entire box of bedbug exterminator and addressed Riggins very briefly:

"Riggins, ye're a child av Johnny Bull, are ye not?"

Riggins, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, admitted his disgrace.

"An' bein' what ye are," Mr. Reardon continued, "would ye do somethin' av great binifit to England?"

Riggins replied that inasmuch as he had lost two brothers at the Battle of the Marne, that ought to indicate bally well where the Riggins tribe stood on the subject of defense of the realm.

"Good!" Mr. Reardon murmured. "Even if misguided in their pathriotic motives, shtill yer brothers were brave min, an' for that I respect thim. Now, thin, Riggins, ye rabbit, listen to me: In a momint av surpassin' innocince Captain Murphy an' mesilf swallowed a cute suggestion from a lad whose back I'll break in two halves whin the Narcissus gets back to San Francisco. 'Why not save expinse,' says he, 'an' ship the crew av this German liner that's interned over in Richardson's Bay?' Riggins, to make a long shtory short, we have thim this minute, an' the dear God knows that even if shipped at the German scale av wages that gang'll prove a dear crew to the Blue Star Navigation Company if you an' I, Riggins, fail to do our djooty. They've half murdered the captain, shtolen the ship an' cargo from him, an' run her t'ousands av miles off her course to deliver the coal to the German fleet."

"Oh, my bloody ol' Aunt Maria!" gasped the horrified Riggins.

"What I want to know from you, Riggins, is this: Will ye help me shteal the ship back to-night? We're runnin' almost due south, an' that good-for-nothin' von Staden has been in communication wit' the fleet all day long. I feel it in me bones. If we get the ship back we'll head due west for the coast av South America an' hug the three-mile limit-an' the devil scoort them thin. Riggins, ye gossoon, what for the cause av Merry England? They wouldn't take ye for a gift in the British Arrmy, for I doubt if ye'd weigh ninety pounds soakin' wet an' a rock in yer hand, but for all that, here's an iligant opporchunity for ye to serrve yer counthry, an' should worrd av yer brave action reach the king--bad cess to him--he may call ye Sir Thomas Riggins an' make ye consul-general av the Cannibal Islands.

"Out wit' it, Riggins. Yer king an' counthry calls ye, an' be the same token so do Michael J. Murphy an' Terence P. Reardon. What'll ye give, Riggins, to preserve the seas to Britain?"

"Me 'eart's blood, that's wot!" Riggins replied quietly.

"I accept the sacrifice in the name av His Majesty, King Jarge! Be on deck at ten o'clock sharp, waitin' close undher the shtarboard companion leadin' to the bridge. Whin I come out on the shtarboard ind av the bridge an' whistle 'O'Donnell Abu,' do ye--"

"S'help me, chief, I never 'eard of the blighter before," Riggins interrupted.

"God forgive me!" Mr. Reardon murmured sotto voce. "I'll have to do it. Well, thin, Riggins, whin I come out on the shtarboard ind av the bridge an' whistle 'God Save the King'--troth, I'll gamble that's one blighter ye've hearrd tell av--do ye run up into the pilot-house an' take the wheel. I'll not whistle until we have the deck to ourselves, wit'out fear av intherruption, an' ye must come quick an' take the wheel, else the vessel'll fall off into the trough av the sea an' commince to wallow--which same'll wake up the second mate an' bring him an' von Staden on deck to see what's wrong wit' her. An' until I'm ready to call on those lads I'm not wishful to have them call on me! Remimber, Riggins: Wan jump an' ye're into the pilot-house; then howld her head up to the sea--an' lave the rest to me. Gwan wit' ye now, or that skut, Schultz, will be gettin' suspicious av us."

When Mr. Schultz came along ten minutes later he found Mr. Reardon very busy calking with oakum the cracks round the door and window of his state-room, through which little wisps of yellow smoke were curling. Mr. Schultz was so completely deceived that he hurried round to his own quarters and pawed over his own mattress and bedding in a vain search for bedbugs.