Chapter XXIV
 

One of the remarks most frequently heard on California Street was to the effect that whenever Cappy Ricks girded up his loins and went after something he generally got it. His scheme to get Matt Peasley to sea for one voyage, accompanied by Florry, worked as smoothly as a piston; and on the fifteenth of January the Peasleys went aboard the Retriever at Bellingham and towed out, bound for Manila with a cargo of fir lumber. Matt made the run down in sixty-six days, a smart passage, waited a week in Manila Bay before he could secure a berth and commence discharging, discharged in a week, loaded a cargo of hemp, with a deckload of hardwood logs, and was ready for the return trip to San Francisco on April twenty-fourth, on which day he towed out past Corregidor.

His wife, however, was not with him on the return voyage. Following a family conference, it was decided that Florry should return home on the mail steamer--which action Cappy Ricks considered most significant when Matt apprised him of it by cable, but failed to state a reason. The president emeritus, immediately upon receipt of this information, trotted into Mr. Skinner's office and laid Matt Peasley's cablegram on the latter's desk.

"Well, Skinner, my dear boy," he piped, rubbing his hands together the while, "what do you know about that?"

"Do you--er--suspect--er--something, Mr. Ricks?"

"Suspect? Not a bit of it. I know! Neither Florry nor Matt would dream of permitting the other to come home alone if there wasn't a third party to be considered. Paste that in your hat, Skinner. It isn't done."

Cappy was right, for the same steamer that bore his daughter home carried also a brief letter from his son-in-law conveying the tidings of great joy. The old man was so happy he went into Mr. Skinner's office and struck his general manager a terrible blow between the shoulders, after which he declared it was a shame that his years and reputation for respectability denied him the privilege of chartering a seagoing hack and painting the town red!

The Retriever crept slowly up the China Sea on the first of the southwest monsoon. At that period of the year, however, the monsoon is weak and unsteady; and after clearing the northern end of Luzon the Retriever kicked round in a belt of light and baffling airs for a week. Then the monsoon freshened somewhat and the Retriever once more rolled lazily away on her course, with young Matt Peasley humming chanteys on her quarter-deck and pondering the mystery that confronts all mankind in their first adventure in fatherhood. Would it be a boy or a girl? He was expressing to himself for perhaps the thousandth time the hope that it would be a boy, when from the poop he saw something he did not relish.

It was the ship's cat coming across the deckload toward him, in his yellow eyes a singularly pleased expression and in his mouth a singularly large rat.

Matt Peasley stepped below, found an old glove and drew it over his right hand, after which he returned to the quarter-deck.

"Come, Tommy!" he called; and pussy came, to be seized by the tail and, still holding fast to his prey, cast overboard.

"It's bad luck to do that to a black cat, sir," the mate informed him.

Matt Peasley's eyes were blazing.

"And it's worse luck still for any mate aboard my ship who neglects to put the rat-guards on the lines when the vessel is lying at the dock," he growled. "You lubberly idiot!"

"But I did put the rat-guards on the lines," the mate protested.

"Yes, I know you did; but I had to remind you of it," Matt replied. "You didn't get them on in time--and now the Lord only knows how many rats we have aboard. Ordinarily I don't mind rats, but an Oriental rat is something to be afraid of."

"Why, sir?"

"Because they carry the germs of bubonic plague, you farmer!" And Matt very carefully removed his glove and cast it overboard after the cat. "And it's a cold day when you can't find an occasional case of plague in the Orient. The cat caught the rat and mauled it round; hence the cat had to go, because I never permit in my cabin a cat that has been on intimate terms with an Oriental rat. And now I bet I know what's wrong with that fo'castle hand that went into the sick bay the day before yesterday. He complained of swelling in the glands of his neck and groins."

The cook left the forward deckhouse and came aft over the deckload. At the break of the poop he paused.

"Captain Peasley," he announced, "Lindstrom is dead."

"Tell everybody to keep away from him," Matt ordered. He turned to the mate. "Mr. Matson," he announced, "the first duty of a murderer is to get rid of the body. Go forward and throw Lindstrom's body overboard; then stay forward. If you come aft until I send for you I'll blow your brains out!"