Chapter XXV
 

When the Retriever was out from Manila seventy days Cappy Ricks remarked to Mr. Skinner that Matt would be breezing in most any day now. On the eightieth day he remarked to Mr. Skinner that Matt was coming home a deal slower than he had gone out. The efficient Skinner, however, cited so many instances of longer passages from Manila to San Francisco that Cappy was comforted, although he was not convinced. "You make me a type-written list of all those vessels and their passages, Skinner," he cautioned; "and when you can't think of any more authentic cases fake up a few. Florry's beginning to worry. She knows now what it means to be a sailor's wife, and if that doggoned Matt doesn't report soon 111 know what it means to be a sailor's father-in-law. I wish to Jimminy I hadn't sent Matt out with the Retriever."

Ninety days passed. Cappy commenced to fidget. A hundred days passed, and Cappy visited the hydrographic office and spent a long time poring over charts of the air currents in the China Sea, along the coast of Asia and in the North Pacific.

"Skinner, my dear boy," he quavered when he returned to the office; "I'm a most unhappy old man."

Mr. Skinner forgot for an instant that he was a business man and, with a sudden, impulsive movement, he put his long, thin arm round the old man and squeezed him.

"If you didn't think so much of him, sir," he comforted Cappy, "you'd worry less. She really will not be overdue until she's out a hundred and twenty days."

"Skinner," Cappy piped wearily, "don't try to deceive me. I've been in the shipping game for forty-odd years, boy. I know it's about six thousand miles from San Francisco to Manila, and if a vessel averages ninety miles a day she's making a smart passage. Matt made it down in sixty-six days, and he ought to come back in sixty, because he has fair winds all the way. Skinner, the boy's a month overdue; and if he never shows up--if he stays out much longer--Florry'll break her heart; and my grandson--think of it, Skinner!--think of the prenatal effect on the child! Oh, Skinner, my dear, dear boy, I want him big and light-hearted and sunny-souled like Matt--and to think this is all my doing--my own daughter! Oh! Oh, Skinner, my heart is breaking!"

Mr. Skinner fled to his own office and did something most un-Skinner-like. He blinked away several large bright tears; and while he was blinking them the telephone bell rang. Mechanically Mr. Skinner answered. It was Jerry Dooley, in charge of the Merchants' Exchange.

"Mr. Skinner," said Jerry, "I've got some bad news for you."

"The-the-Retriever--" Skinner almost whispered.

"Yes, sir. I thought I'd tell you first, so you could break it to the old man gently. The Grace liner Ecudorian arrived at Victoria this morning and reports speaking the Retriever eight hundred miles off the coast of Formosa. The vessel was under jib, lower topsail, foretopmast staysail, mainsail and spanker. She was flying two flags--an inverted ensign and the yellow quarantine flag. The Ecudorian steamed close alongside of her, to windward. Captain Peasley was at the wheel--"

"Thank God!" Mr. Skinner almost sobbed. "What was wrong with her, Jerry? Hurry up, man! Hurry up! Tell me!"

"He was alone on the ship, Mr. Skinner. Bubonic plague! Killed the entire crew! Matt was the only man immune, and he's sailing the Retriever home alone!"

Mr. Skinner groaned.

"Good gracious Providence! Why didn't the Ecudorian take him off?"

"Credit them with offering it," Jerry replied. "He wouldn't come. He declined to jeopardize the people aboard the steamer and he wouldn't abandon the Retriever with her full cargo; so what could they do? They had to sail away without him."

Gently Mr. Skinner broke the news to Cappy Ricks; for, of course, the United Press dispatches had carried it to the later afternoon editions and it would be useless for Mr. Skinner to attempt to lie kindly. Cappy, with bowed head, heard him through; when finally he looked up at Skinner his eyes were dead.

"Quite what I expected of him, Skinner," he said dully. "And I'd rather have him die than dog it! This report from the Ecudorian helps some, Skinner. It will do to keep hope alive in my Florry--and every two weeks until the boy is born we'll--we'll--Oh, Skinner--"

"Yes, sir; I'll attend to it. Leave everything to me, Mr. Ricks. I'll have wireless reports and telegrams and cablegrams from every port on earth telling of ships having spoken the Retriever, with the skipper well and hearty, and sending messages of good cheer to his wife."

"You--you won't be--er--stingy, Skinner? You'll send out the Tillicum to find him and tow him in, won't you? And you'll have real telegrams--spend money, Skinner! I'll have to bring those messages home to Florry--"

"Everything, Mr. Ricks. And I'll start right in by slipping fifty dollars to each of the waterfront reporters on all the papers. They're good boys, Mr. Ricks. I'll tell them why I have to have the service. Mrs. Peasley must have our fake reports confirmed in the papers--"

"For work like that the marine reporters should have more money," Cappy suggested wearily. His old hand reached out gropingly, closed over Mr. Skinner's and held it a moment childishly. "You're a very great comfort to me, Skinner--very great indeed! And you'll come home with me to-night, won't you, Skinner? I'm a little afraid--I want you near me, Skinner--in case I can't get away with it to Florry."

His dry, dead eyes studied the pattern in the office carpet.

"Two mates, a cook and ten A. B.'s!" he murmured presently. "One man, even a Matt Peasley, cannot do the work of thirteen men. No, Skinner; it isn't done. One man simply cannot sail a barkentine."

But Mr. Skinner was not listening. He was on the long-distance phone calling the master of the Tillicum, just about finishing discharge of a cargo of nitrate at San Pedro. And presently Cappy heard him speaking:

"Mr. Ricks, listen! Grant, of the Tillicum, says Matt would go up the China Sea on the southwest monsoon... Yes, captain. You say--ah, yes; quite so... Grant says he'd edge over until he got into the Japan Stream, and that would add a knot or two an hour to his speed... Yes, Grant. Speak up! ... Grant says, Mr. Ricks, that about the middle of September or the first of October Matt would run out of the southwest monsoon into the northeast monsoon--that's it, Grant, isn't it? He'd get them about off Formosa, eh?... Yes, Grant. Then he'd run into the prevailing westerly winds and run north on a great circle about five hundred miles below the Aleutian Islands--I see, Grant. All right! Fill your oil tanks and take an extra supply on deck, head into the North Pacific... Yes; use your own judgment, of course. Mine's no good... Yes; and bring a lot of disinfectants and a doctor, so it'll be safe to put a few men aboard when you find her and put your hawser on her ... Yes, Grant. If you find her you'll not have reason to regret it. Good-bye! Good luck!"

"While the Tillicum is on this wild-goose chase, Skinner," Cappy said wearily, "she is chartered by the Blue Star Navigation Company to Alden P. Ricks personally, at the prevailing rates. The stockholders mustn't pay for my fancies, Skinner. You'll see to that, won't you?"