Chapter XLIV

Whenever Cappy Ricks made up his mind that his Blue Star Navigation Company ought to add another vessel to its rapidly growing fleet, he preferred to build her; for a few bitter experiences early in life had convinced him that the man who buys the other fellow's ship quite frequently is given a bonus in the shape of the other fellow's troubles--troubles which have the unhappy faculty of tilting the profit-and-loss account over into the red-ink figures. In order to avoid these troubles, therefore, Cappy would summon his naval architect, whom he would practically drive to distraction by fussing over the plans submitted before giving a final grudging acceptance. The blue prints approved, Cappy would spend a week picking holes in the specifications, and when there was no more fault to find Mr. Skinner, his general manager and the president of the Ricks Lumber & Logging Company, would send a list of the timbers, planking, and so on required, to one of Cappy's sawmills in Washington; for Cappy had a theory--the good Lord knows why or where acquired--that Douglas fir from the state of Washington was better for shipbuilding purposes than Douglas fir grown in Oregon. Perhaps he figured that the Columbia River, which separates the two states, made a difference in grade.

The woods boss would then be adjured to select his trees with great care. No tree would do that sprouted a limb within eighty feet of the butt, and the butt had to be at least six feet in diameter, in order that it might produce fine, clear, long-length planks that would not contain "heart" timber--the heart of a log having a tendency to check or split when seasoned. When the material was sawed a Blue Star steam schooner would transport it to San Francisco Bay, and it would be stored in Cappy's retail lumber yard in Oakland, to be seasoned and air-dried; following which Cappy Ricks would let the contract for the building of the vessel to a shipyard on Oakland Estuary, and sell the builder this seasoned stock at the price of rough green material, even though it was worth two dollars a thousand extra--not to mention the additional value for the extra-long lengths furnished specially. Cappy's ancestors, back in Maine, had built too many ships to have failed to impress upon him the wisdom of this course; for, on this point at least, initial extravagance inevitably develops into ultimate economy.

Following the laying of the keel, Cappy would come out of retirement and become an extremely busy man. He had the vessel's engines to consider; and for two weeks his private office would resound with the arguments and recriminations of Cappy and his port engineer. There would be much talk of pistons, displacement of cylinders, stroke, reciprocating engines, steeple compound and triple-expansion engines, Scotch boilers, winches, compressors, dynamos, composition and iron propellers and the latest developments in crude-oil burners. And on the day when the port engineer, grown desperate because of the old man's opposition to some detail, would fly into a rage and resign, Cappy would know that, at last, everything was all right; whereupon he would scornfully reject the resignation and take his port engineer to luncheon at the Commercial Club, just to show he wasn't harboring a grudge.

In the meantime the port captain would be making daily visits to the shipyard to make certain that the builder was holding rigidly to the specifications and not trying to skimp here and there; and on Saturdays Cappy would accompany him and satisfy himself that the port captain wasn't being imposed upon. Finally the ship would be launched; and as she slid down the ways Cappy Ricks would be standing on her forecastle head, his old heart fluttering in his thirty-six-inch chest and his coat-tails fluttering in the breeze, one arm round the port captain and the other round the port engineer. As the hull slipped into the drink he would say:

"Boys, this is the life! I love it! By the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet, there's more romance in ships than you'll find in most married lives!" Then he would wave an arm up Oakland Estuary, which prior to the great war was the graveyard of Pacific Coast shipping, and say with great pride: "Well, we've done a good job on this craft, boys; she'll never end in Rotten Row! Every sliver in her is air-dried and seasoned. That's the stuff! Build 'em of unseasoned material and dry rot develops the first year; in five years they're punk inside, and then--some fine day they're posted as missing at Lloyd's. Did you ever see a Blue Star ship lying in Rotten Row? No; you bet you didn't--and you never will! I never built a cheap boat and I never ran 'em cheap. By gravy, the Blue Star ships are like the Blue Nose that owns 'em! They'll be found dead on the job!"

Quite early in 1915 the Blue Star Navigation Company had found ample opportunity, due to a world scarcity of tonnage, to dispose of several of their oldest and smallest steam schooners at unbelievably fine prices.

"Get rid of them, Matt," Cappy advised his son-in-law, Captain Matt Peasley, whom he had made president of the company. "You have the permission of the president emeritus to go as far as you like. Big boats for us from now on, boy. Slip the little ones while the slipping is good. These high prices will not prevail very long--only while the war continues; and at the rate they're slaughtering each other over in France the war will be over in six months; then prices will fall kerflump! Then we'll build a couple of real steamers."

So Matt Peasley promptly sold five steam schooners, following which he made up his mind that the world still had two years of war ahead of it. Accordingly he urged the letting of contracts for two seven-thousand-five-hundred-ton steel freighters immediately.

"Nothing doing!" Cappy declared. "Why, it's rank nonsense to think of building now at wartime prices. If our recent sales have pinched us for tonnage we'll have to charter from our neighbors and worry along as best we can until the war is over."

"You're making a mistake, Cappy Ricks," his son-in-law warned him.

"Ask Skinner if I am. Skinner, let's have your opinion."

Mr. Skinner, always cautious and ultra-conservative promptly advised against Matt Peasley's course; but Matt would not be downed without a fight.

"I know prices for ship construction are fearfully high just now," he admitted; "but--mark my words!--they're going to double; and if we place our contracts now, while we have an opportunity to do so, we'll be getting in on the ground floor. I tell you that war hasn't really started yet; and the longer it continues the higher will prices on all commodities soar--but principally on ship construction. Father-in-law, I beg of you to let me get busy and build. Suppose the boats do cost us a quarter of a million dollars more each than we could have built them for in 1914. What of it? We have the money--and if we didn't have it we could borrow it. I don't care what a ship costs me when freight rates are soaring to meet the advance in construction costs."

Nevertheless, Cappy and Mr. Skinner hooted him down. Three months later, however, when Cappy Ricks had changed his mind, and Mr. Skinner was too heartbroken to curse himself for a purblind idiot, it was too late to place the contracts. Every shipyard in the United States and abroad was loaded up with building orders for three years in advance, and the Blue Star Navigation Company was left to twiddle its corporate thumbs. Matt Peasley was so angry that he almost speculated on the delight of being at sea again, in command of a square rigger, with Cappy Ricks and Mr. Skinner signed on as A.B.'s; in which condition of servitude he might dare to call them aft and knock their heads together. However, he managed to have his revenge. Every time nitrate freights went up a dollar a ton he told them about it with great gusto, and the day he chartered the Tillicum for Vladivostok, with steel for the Russian Government at seventy-five dollars a ton, he had poor Cappy moaning in his wretchedness.

"Just think how nice it would be," he taunted his aged relative, "if we had only placed contracts for two big boats when I urged it. By the middle of summer I'd have them both on the Vladivostok run--perhaps at a hundred dollars a ton; and long before the war is over you could do what you've been trying to do for the past ten years."

"Do what?" Cappy queried.

"Retire!" Matt retorted meaningly.

"In-fernal young scoundrel!" Cappy was angry enough to commit murder. "Out of my office!" he shrilled, and pointed to the door.