Chapter XXXIII

During the period when Joey Gurney was busy doing all that Cappy Ricks desired him to do and some things that were slightly off Cappy's program, the president emeritus of the Blue Star Navigation Company and allied interests was discovering that it is one thing to declare for the simple life and quite another to live it. The Great War challenged so much of the Ricks interest that he could not bear to live far from morning and evening editions--and he wanted them red hot off the presses. Things were doing in the shipping world. The most inconceivable trades were being consummated daily, freights were soaring, lumber prices had reached an unprecedentedly high level and promised to go higher; there was something doing every minute and not enough minutes in a working day to accommodate half of these somethings. What more natural, therefore, than that Cappy presently should find himself caught in the maelstrom, even though he told himself daily that, come what might he would keep out of it.

The first indefinite evidence that he was about to be engulfed came in the form of a newspaper story, ex the steamer Timaru, from Sydney, via Tahiti. There it was, as big as a church--a paragraph of it, tucked away in a column-and-a-half story of the bombardment of Papeete by the German Pacific fleet early in September of 1914:

"An incident of the bombardment was the sinking of the German freight steamer Valkyrie by shells from the German fleet. The vessel had been captured by the French gunboat Zeile some weeks previous and was at anchor in the harbor, under the guns of the Zeile, when the German squadron appeared off the entrance. The gunboat immediately was made the target for the German guns, and sunk. During the attack, however, a wild shell missed the Zeile and struck the Valkyrie, tearing a great hole in her hull and causing her to sink in ten fathoms at her anchorage."

Ten fathoms! Sixty feet! Why, at that depth Cappy should have known that her masts and funnel would be above water; that in all probability she carried war-risk insurance; that she was so far from anywhere the underwriters would have abandoned her, even had she not been a prize of war, since there are no appliances in Papeete for salving a vessel of her size; that she could be raised if one cared to spend a little money on doing it; that one projectile probably had not ruined her beyond repair; that she was a menace to navigation in Papeete Harbor and hence would have to be gotten out of the way, either by dynamite or auction; that--well, any number of thats should have occurred to Cappy Ricks to suggest the advisability of keeping track of the wreck of the Valkyrie. However, for some mysterious reasons--his resentment against the German cause, probably--the golden prospect never appealed to him, for when he had finished reading the article he merely said:

"Well, what do you know about that? Skinner, it's a mighty lucky thing for that German admiral that I'm not the Kaiser, for I'd certainly make him hard to catch. The idea of sinking that fine steamer--and a German steamer at that! Here was the little old French gunboat, about as invulnerable as a red-cedar shingle; and instead of moving into proper position and raking her with their light guns--instead of calling on her to surrender--these Germans had to go to work in a hurry and inaugurate a campaign of frightfulness. The minute they were off the harbor--Zowie! Blooey! Bam! It was all over but the cheering, and they'd chucked an eight-inch projectile through a ship that was worth four of the gunboat.

"Skinner, that's what I call spilling the beans. Why they didn't take their time, recapture that freighter and give her skipper a chance to hustle across to San Francisco or Honolulu and intern, is a mystery to me. The idea! Why, for that German fleet to waste ammunition on that Jim-Crow town and a hand-me-down gunboat was equivalent to John L. Sullivan whittling out a handle on a piece of two-by-four common fir in order to attack a cockroach!"

Cappy was so incensed that he growled about the Germans for an hour. Then he forgot the Valkyrie, notwithstanding the fact that the press jogged his memory again when the German fleet, deciding that prudence was the better part of valor, fled from the Pacific to escape the Japanese, only to be destroyed in the South Atlantic by the British fleet. A resume of the operations of the German squadron in the Pacific brought forth mention of the destruction of the Zeile and the Valkyrie. However, Cappy's mind was not in Tahiti now, but off the Falkland Islands, for he was very much pro-Ally and devoted more thought to military and naval strategy than he did to the lumber and shipping business.

However, the climax of Cappy's indignation over the disaster to the Valkyrie was not attained until a few months later when, in conversation on the floor of the Merchants' Exchange with the skipper of the schooner Tarus, who happened to have been in Papeete at the bombardment, he learned he had done the German admiral a grave injustice. He came back to his office, boiling, declaring the French were a crazy nation, and that, after all, he could recall meeting one or two fine Germans during the course of a fairly busy career. He summoned Mr. Skinner and Matt Peasley to hear the sordid tale.

"Remember that steamer Valkyrie the Germans were supposed to have sunk by accident in the harbor of Papeete during the bombardment in September of 1914?" he queried.

"I believe I read something about it in the papers at the time," Mr. Skinner replied.

"What about her?" Matt Peasley demanded.

"Why, the Germans didn't sink her at all, Matt! The Frenchmen did it," Cappy shrilled. "The crazy, frog-eating jumping-jacks of Frenchmen! The tramp wasn't flying the German flag--naturally the Frenchmen had hauled it down; so the Germans didn't investigate her. Besides, they were in a hurry--you'll remember the Japs were on their trail at the time; so they just devoted forty minutes to shooting up the town, and beat it. I don't suppose they ever knew they hit the Valkyrie; perhaps they figured that, having sunk the gunboat, the Valkyrie could up hook and away at her leisure, since there was nothing left to prevent her.

"Huh! Makes me sick to talk about it; but the skipper of the Taurus was there at the time and he tells me that, though the Valkyrie was pretty well down by the stern, her bulkheads were holding and she wouldn't have sunk if those blamed Frenchmen, fearful that the German fleet was coming back after her, hadn't gone aboard and opened her sea cocks! Yes, sir. Rather than risk having her recaptured, they opened her sea cocks and sunk her! And, at that, they didn't have sense enough to run her out to deep water. No! They had to do the trick as she lay at anchor; and there she lies still, a menace to navigation and a perennial reminder to those Papeete Frenchmen that he who acts in haste will repent at leisure."

To this outburst Mr. Skinner made some perfunctory remark, attributing the situation to a lack of efficiency, while Matt Peasley went back to his office and grieved as he reflected on the corrosive action of salt water on those fine, seven-year-old engines.