Chapter XXI
 

Capt. Matt Peasley, with his heart in his throat, called up the British consul at San Francisco. Cappy Ricks, looking very pale and unhappy, sagged in his chair, while Mr. Skinner stood by, gnawing his nails and looking as if he would relish being kicked from one end of California Street to the other.

"Hullo!" Matt Peasley began. Cappy Ricks shuddered and closed his eyes. "Is this the British consul's office?... This is Captain Peasley, of the Blue Star Navigation Company... Yes... About our steamer Narcissus... You say the consul is on his way down to our office... Thank you... Goodbye."

Cappy Ricks sighed like an old air-compressor. "I hope I live till he gets here," he declared feebly. "Deliberate race, the British. No pep. Never get anywhere in a hurry."

As if to give the lie to Cappy's criticisms, the British consul was admitted at that moment.

"Gentlemen," he announced as the heart-broken trio gathered round him, "I have some very grave news for you." His voice was vaguely reminiscent of that of the foreman in a quarry who calls upon a lady to inform her that her husband has just been caught in a premature blast and that the boys will be up with the pieces directly. "Your steamer Narcissus, loaded with ten thousand tons of coal, has been captured a hundred miles north-east of the Falkland Islands by His Majesty's cruiser Panther. In view of your vessel's clearance--"

A low moan broke from Cappy Ricks.

"Tightwad!" he reviled. "Old Alden P. Tightwad, the prince of misers! He thought he'd add a couple of ten-dollar bills to his roll, so he encouraged his skipper to hire a lot of interned Germans to work his ships in neutral trade! He was penny-wise and pound-foolish, so he cut out the wireless to save a miserable hundred and forty dollars a month. Bids are invited for the privilege of killing the damned old fool--Skinner! What are you looking at?"

"N-n-nothing!" stammered Mr. Skinner.

"I won't be looked at that way, Skinner. I have my faults, I know--"

"Ssshh!" Matt Peasley interrupted.

"And I won't be 'sshh-ed' at either. I lost the ship. I admit it. I O.K.'d the charter, and Murphy did his best to save her for us and couldn't. I'm the goat, but if it busts me I'll reimburse you two boys for every cent you have lost through my carelessness--"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Ricks," the consul interrupted. "Pray permit me to proceed. The circumstances attending this case are so very unusual--"

"My dear Mister British Consul, I shall not argue the matter with you. You're too bally deliberate, and, besides, what's the use? The ship is gone. Let her go. We'll build another twice as big. Of course I could give you an excuse, but if I did you'd think I was old Nick Carter come to life. We'll just have to take it up through our State Department, present our alibi, and try to win her back in the prize court."

"She will never be sent to a prize court, Mr. Ricks. It doesn't require a prize court to decide the case of the steamer Narcissus. The evidence is too overwhelming. There could not possibly be a reversal of the decision of our admiral."

Mr. Skinner sat down suddenly to keep from falling down. The consul continued: "The commander of the Panther, Captain Desmond O'Hara--by the way, an old schoolmate of mine--has sent me a long private report on the affair; by wireless, of course, and in code. It appears that in Pernambuco harbor your German crew overpowered the captain--"

"What?" cried Cappy, Matt and Skinner in chorus. "You admit that?"

"We do, Mr. Ricks. And last night your chief engineer, Mr. Terence Reardon, with the aid of the steward, one Riggins--a British subject and unfortunately killed in the affray--and Captain Murphy overpowered the German crew--"

"Oh, Mr. Ricks!" gasped Skinner.

"Oh, Matt!" shrilled Cappy Ricks.

"Oh, Cappy!" yelled Matt Peasley.

"Oh, nonsense," laughed the British consul. "They stole her back, gentlemen, and when Captain O'Hara found her rolling helplessly and boarded her, she was a shambles. Dead men tell no tales, Mr. Ricks--yet it was impossible for any fair-minded man to doubt the testimony of the dead men aboard your Narcissus! Her killed, wounded and prisoners formed a perfect alibi. In the meantime, Mr. Reardon and Captain Murphy are aboard the Panther, receiving medical attention, and will be returned to duty in a few weeks; the Narcissus is proceeding to meet the other ships of our fleet. She will coal them at sea."

"Then you've confiscated her cargo?" Matt Peasley demanded.

"We should worry about the cargo if they give us back our vessel," Cappy Ricks declared happily. "We haven't received our freight money, of course, but by the time I get through with the charterers they'll pay the freight and ask no questions about the coal."

"We confiscated it, Mr. Ricks," the British consul continued, "for the reason that it was German coal. The supercargo who boarded the vessel at Pernambuco told your captain his people had paid cash for it to the charterers. But we're going to give you back your vessel because we haven't any moral right to keep her, since her owners have committed no breach of international law. The supercargo left fifteen thousand dollars behind him when he jumped overboard, but Captain O'Hara declined to confiscate that. At Captain Murphy's suggestion it will be forwarded to the widow of the man Riggins. Captain O'Hara especially requested that I call upon you and inform you that you have two of the finest Irishmen in the world to thank for your ship."

"Thank you, Mister Consul. By the way, can you reach Captain O'Hara by wireless? If you can, I should be glad to pay for a message if you will send it."

"I shall be delighted indeed."

"Then tell him the Blue Star Navigation Company thanks him for the courtesy of his message, but that it does not agree with his statement that we have two Irishmen to thank for our ship. We think we have three! I know the Irish. The scoundrels never go back on each other in a fight."

The consul laughed.

"By the way," he said, as he took up his hat preparatory to leaving, "your ship is now equipped with wireless--a fine, powerful plant such as they use in the German Navy. The supercargo brought it aboard at Pernambuco."

Matt Peasley, the Yankee, came to life at that. "Has that been confiscated, too?" he queried.

"No, captain. However, we have confiscated that German crew of yours--"

"Hallelujah!" yelled Cappy Ricks.

"--and loaned you a crew of British seamen from the tramp Surrey Maid. The Scharnhorst torpedoed her off the coast of Chile, and we found her crew on board one of the German transports when we captured them after the fleet was destroyed. You're all fixed up, from skipper to cabin boy--"

"Wireless operator, too?" Matt Peasley cried.

The consul nodded. "He's got a steady job," the youthful president declared, and turned to Cappy Ricks for confirmation of this edict. But Cappy, the pious old codger, had bowed his head on his breast and they heard him mutter:

"O Lord, I thank Thee! All unworthy as I am, Lord, thou loadest me with favors--including a wireless plant, free gratis!"