Chapter XXVII
 

Four months had passed since the Ecudorian had spoken Matt Peasley off the coast of Formosa; during that period no further news had been received in Cappy Ricks' office, although the diligent Skinner, aided and abetted by the waterfront reporters, managed to have a piece of cheering information for Florry about every two weeks. And, in order to forestall any possibility of some garrulous girl friend, with a male relative in the shipping business, "spilling the beans," as Cappy expressed it, the old man had taken a house in the country, and came to the office only twice a week to mourn for his lost Matthew and glean what little comfort he could from the empty words of hope Mr. Skinner dispensed so lavishly.

"If we can only keep Florry buoyed up with hope until the baby comes!" Cappy would groan. "She's worried; but, strange to say, Skinner, she hasn't the slightest idea he's in any danger. Those fake cablegrams and reports of ships speaking Matt--each time closer to home--have done the trick, Skinner. Of course the boy's dead, and I killed him; but Florry--well, she took a trip on the Retriever and knows how safe she is, and I've had a lot of old sailing skippers down to visit me, and primed them to tell her just how they would get away with such a proposition as Matt's--and how easy it would be. Besides, she knows Matt had some plague prophylactic aboard--"

"Yes; and I've told her she mustn't show the white feather--for your sake," Mr. Skinner interrupted; "and I think she's sensible enough to know she mustn't permit herself to show it--for the baby's sake."

Cappy bowed his head and shook like a hooked fish.

"When the baby's two weeks old I'll tell her," he moaned. "Oh, Skinner, Skinner, my dear boy, this is going to kill me! I won't last long now, Skinner. All my fault! I had to go butting in. That girl's heart is breaking with anxiety. When she comes down to breakfast, Skinner, I can see she's been crying all night."

"Horrible!" Mr. Skinner murmured. "Horrible! We can only hope."

On the twelfth of September Florry's baby was born. It was a boy, and a bouncing boy at that; and Cappy Ricks forgot for the moment he had rendered that baby fatherless, and came up to the city to report the news to Skinner.

"Well, Skinner, my dear boy," he announced with just a touch of his old-time jauntiness, "little Matthew just arrived! Everything lovely."

Mr. Skinner was about to formulate suitable phrases of congratulation when the telephone bell rang. It was Jerry Dooley up at the Merchants' Exchange; and he was all excitement.

"Hey, Skinner," he cried. "The Retriever is passing in!"

"No!" Mr. Skinner shrieked. "It isn't possible!"

"It is! She's coming in the Gate now--she's right under the lookout's telescope; and there's only one man on deck--"

Mr. Skinner turned to Cappy Ricks, put his arms round him and jerked the old man from one end of the office to the other.

"He's safe, he's safe, he's safe, he's safe!" he howled indecorously. "Matt's sailing her in. He's sailing her in--"

"You scoundrel!" Cappy shrilled. "Be quiet! Is she sailing in or towing--"

"She's sailing in."

Cappy Ricks slumped down in his chair, his arms hanging weakly at his sides.

"Yes, Skinner," he barely whispered, "Matt's alive, after all. Nobody else would have the consummate crust to sail her in but him. Any other skipper under heaven would have hove to off the lightship and sent in word by the pilot boat to send out a tug. Oh, Lord, I thank Thee! I'm a wicked, foolish, bone-headed old man; but Lord, I do thank Thee--I do, indeed!"

Half an hour later Cappy Ricks and Mr. Skinner, in a fast motorboat, came flying up the bay and caught sight of the Retriever loafing lazily past Fort Mason. On she came, with a tiny bone in her teeth; and suddenly, as Cappy peered ahead through the spray that flew in over the bows of the launch and drenched him to the skin, the Retriever's mainsail was lowered rapidly. The vessel was falling off by the time the mainsail was down and Cappy and Mr. Skinner saw Matt run aft, steady the wheel and bring the vessel up on the wind again. She was now under spanker and the headsails. Matt lashed the wheel and again ran forward, pausing at the main-topmast-staysail halyards to cast them off and permit the sail to come down by the run.

On to the topgallant forecastle Matt Peasley leaped, praising his Maker for patent anchors on the Retriever. With a hammer he knocked out the stopper; the starboard anchor dropped and the red rust flew from her hawsepipe as the anchor chain screamed through it. With his hand on the compressor of the windlass, Matt Peasley snubbed her gently to the forty-five fathom shackle, cast off his jib halyards to let the jib slide down the stay by its own weight, raced aft, and gently lowered the spanker as the American barkentine Retriever, with the yellow flag flying at the fore, swung gently to anchor on the quarantine grounds, two hundred and twenty-one days from Manila.

Cappy Ricks turned to his general manager.

"Pretty work, Skinner!" he said huskily. "I guess there's nothing wrong with that boy's health. Damn! The quarantine boat will beat us to it! Matt's throwing the Jacob's ladder over the side for them."

"We can't board her until she passes quarantine--" Mr. Skinner began; but Cappy silenced him with a terrible look.

"The word can't, Skinner, was eliminated from my vocabulary some fifty years ago. We can--and I will! You needn't; but I've simply got to! Hey, you!"--to the launchman--"kick her wide open and show some speed."

Despite the warning cries from the quarantine officers in the health boat, the launch ran in along the Retriever's side; Cappy Ricks grasped the Jacob's ladder as the launch rasped by and climbed up with an agility that caused Mr. Skinner to marvel. As his silk hat appeared over the Retriever's rail a wind-bitten, bewhiskered, gaunt, hungry-looking semi-savage reached down, grasped him under the arms, snaked him inboard and hugged him to his heart.

Silence for a minute, while Cappy Ricks' thin old shoulders shook and heaved as from some internal spasm, and Matt Peasley's big brown hand patted Cappy's back. Presently he said:

"Well, father-in-law--"

From somewhere in Matt Peasley's whiskers Cappy's voice came plaintively:

"Not father-in-law, sonny. New title--this morning--six o'clock--nine--pounds--grandfather! Eh? Yes; grandfather! Grandpa Ricks!"

"Boy or girl?" Matt Peasley roared, and shook the newly-elected grandfather.

"Boy! Florry--fine--never lost hope!"

A port health officer came over the rail. He shook an admonitory finger at Cappy Ricks.

"Hey, you! Old man, you're under arrest--that is, you're in quarantine, and you'll have to stay aboard this ship until she's fumigated. Yes; and we'll fumigate you, too. Whadje mean by coming aboard ahead of us?"

"Cappy," Matt Peasley said, "tell that person to go chase himself! Why, there hasn't been any plague aboard the ship in nearly five months!"

Cappy looked up and wiped the tears of joy out of his whiskers.

"Scoundrel!" he cackled. "Infernal young scoundrel! What do you mean by risking my Retriever, sailing her through the Gate with a crew of one man?"

"Take a look at me!" Matt laughed. "I'm all hands! And didn't I prove I'm enough men to handle her? The pilots wouldn't board me, and by sailing her in myself I saved pilotage and salvage claims. I lost the lower topsail and the consignees are going to find a shortage in those hardwood logs; but that's all--except that I haven't had a decent meal in God knows when. Say, Cappy, what does he look like? A Peasley or a Ricks?"

"Both," Cappy chirped diplomatically. "Matt, are you all over the blue-water fever?"

"You bet!" he declared. "No more relief jobs for me. I've had plenty, although it might have been worse. It was lonely and sometimes I thought I was going crazy. Used to talk out loud to myself! I had some awful weather; but I just tucked her head under her wing and let her roll, and after I ran into the northeast monsoon, and later into the westerly winds, I had it easier and got more rest. You know, Cappy, when a ship is sailing on the wind, if you lash her helm a little bit below amidships she'll steer herself. Slow work, but--I got here; and, now that I'm here, I'm going to stay here.

"Of course, Cappy," he added, "I've just got to have something with sails to play with; but no more offshore sailing in mine--that is--well, I'm going to stay home for a long time--after a while, maybe--and meantime I'm going to build a little schooner yacht--"

"For the love of Mike, do!" Cappy pleaded. "I'll be stuck in quarantine with you for a couple of days and we'll kill time drawing up a rough set of plans. And when that schooner yacht is ready, Matt, I'll tell you what I want you to do."

"What, Cappy?"

"Send the bill to grandpa, Matthew!"

"If I hadn't been a case-hardened old fool I'd have cheered you on when you wanted to build that schooner yacht last year. I'd have saved myself a world of grief."

He placed his hand gently on Matt's shoulder and his face was ineffably sad as he continued: "Of course, with you away and your fate undecided, as it were, Matt, that infernal Skinner wasn't worth two hoots in a hollow. Why, the boy flopped around the office like a rooster with its head off, and as a result I've had to come out of my retirement and keep an eye on things. Thank God, I can let go now. Really, Matt, you have no idea how I long to separate myself from the hurly-burly of California street. What I want is peace and seclusion--"

"You can have my share of that commodity for the remainder of my natural life," Matt laughed happily, "I want noise and people. I want screaming and yelling and fighting and risks and profits and losses and liars and scoundrels and honest men all inextricably mixed." He tossed his great sun-tanned arms above his head. "Lord, I want Life," he half shouted.

Cappy sighed. These young pups! When they grow to see life as old dogs--

"Well, Matt, all I've got to say is that the first man that butts into my private office and starts unloading a cargo of grief on me, is going to get busted between the eyes with a paper weight. I'm through with grief and woe. I don't give a hoot what happens to the world or anybody in it. I want peace and a rest. I can afford it and wouldn't I be a first-class idiot not to take it while the taking is good, Matt?"

"No more mixing in the shipping end, eh?" Matt asked hopefully.

Cappy raised his right hand solemnly. "Never again, Matt. I'm through with ships and sailors and cargoes and the whole cussed Blue Star fleet can sink and be damned to it, but I'll not lift a hand to save it. I'm THROUGH."