Chapter XLV
 

For once in his busy life it was, figuratively speaking, raining duck soup, and poor Cappy was there with a fork! When he had recovered his composure he sent for Matt Peasley.

"Matt, my dear boy," he confessed miserably, "this is certainly one occasion upon which father appears to have overlooked his hand. However, none of us is perfect; and if we're caught out without an umbrella, so to speak--"

"We?" Matt reminded him witheringly. "Cappy, it's all right to use that 'we' stuff when you're talking to Skinner, but trot out the perpendicular pronoun when you're talking to me. I hate to say 'I told you so'; but--"

"Lay off me!" Cappy pleaded. "I'm an old man, Matt; so be easy on me. Besides, I don't make a mistake very often, and you know it."

"I do know it. But when you blocked me on that building scheme you certainly made up for lost time. Really, Cappy, you mustn't make me play so close to my vest in these brisk times. If I'm to manage the Blue Star Navigation Company I mustn't have my ideas pooh-poohed as if I were a hare-brained child."

"I know, Matt; I know. But I built up the Blue Star Navigation Company and the Ricks Lumber & Logging Company by playing 'em close, and it's a hard habit to break.

"However, let us forget the past and look forward with confidence to the future. Matt, my dear boy, since we cannot get a shipyard to build a steamer for us, I'm going to break a rule of forty years' standing and buy one in the open market. I guess that'll prove to you I'm not so hide-bound with conservatism as you think. Go forth into the highways and the byways, Matt, and see what they have for sale."

"How high do you want me to go?"

"As high as they hung Haman--if you find it necessary."

"That's certainly a free hand; but I'm afraid it comes too late. I doubt if there is an owner with the kind of steamer we want who is crazy enough to sell her."

"Tish! Tush! All things are for sale all the time. Scour the market, Matt, and you'll find Cappy Ricks isn't the only damned fool left in the shipping business. My boy, you'd be surprised at the number of so-called business men who are entirely devoid of imagination. Dozens of them still think the war will end this fall, but I'm willing to make a healthy bet that the fall of 1917 still finds them going to it to beat four of a kind."

"You said something that time, father-in-law," Matt replied laughingly.

Then he roughed the old man affectionately and went forth into California Street, where he wore out much shoe leather before he located what he considered a bargain and reported back to the president emeritus.

"You're right, Cappy!" he declared. "You aren't the only boob in the shipping business. I've located another."

"That's what you get by taking father's advice," Gappy retorted proudly. "Have you bought a steamer?"

"No; but I'm going to buy one this afternoon. She's going to cost us half a million dollars, cash on the nail, and I have an option on her at that figure until noon today. Skinner has a lot of lumber money he isn't using, and I'm going to borrow a quarter of a million from his company on the Blue Star note at six per cent. Don't want to run our own treasury too low."

"Dog-gone that Skinner! That's some more of his efficiency. I own both companies, and it's just like taking money out of one pocket and putting it into the other; but Skinner's a bug on system. Just think of making me pay myself six per cent interest! However, I suppose we must have some kind of order. What's the name of the steamer?"

"The Penelope."

Cappy Ricks slid out to the edge of his chair, placed one hand on each knee, and appraisingly eyed his son-in-law over the rims of his glasses.

"Say that again, Matt--and say it slow," he ordered.

"I said Penelope--P-e-n-e-l-o-p-e. Maybe you call her the Pen-elope!"

"Are you buying her as is?" Matt nodded. "To hear you tell it, Matt, one might gather the impression that half a million dollars is about what we give the janitor at Christmas. Boy, half a million dollars is real money."

"Not in the shipping business these days, Cappy. Why, you have to wave that much under an owner's nose before he'll look up and show interest enough to ask you who you are and who let you in."

"Well, the man who would, in cold blood, consider paying half a million dollars for the Penelope is certainly ripe for a padded cell," Cappy jeered. "That fellow Hudner, of the Black Butte Lumber Company, owns her, does he not?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then you know exactly the condition she's in. I'll bet a cooky her bottom plates are rusted so thin from lack of an occasional coat of red paint that if you were to stand on her bridge and toss a tack hammer down her main hatch you'd punch a hole in her. She's a long, narrow-gutted, cranky coffin--that's what she is; and the worst-found ship in Pacific waters. Why, let me tell you something, young man: she can't get by the inspectors this minute."

"She has just gotten by them," Matt contradicted. "Passed yesterday."

"What does that signify? When her skipper has her up for inspection he scours the water front like a hungry dog, borrowing a boathook here, a sound life-boat there, some fire buckets elsewhere, a hose from the fire tug, and a lot of engine-room tools wherever he can get them. As for life preservers, he rents them for ten cents each from a marine junk dealer. So, when the inspectors arrive, the Penelope is a well-found ship; as soon as they pass her the skipper returns the equipment, with thanks. As for paint--why, the only painting she ever gets is when Hudner lays her alongside some British ship to discharge a foreign cargo of lumber into the lime-juicer; then her mate steals all the paint in the Britisher's lazaret. The poor, unfortunate devil! He has to do something to make a showing with the Penelope's owner! I tell you, Matt, I know this man Hudner! He's as thrifty as an Armenian and as slippery as a skating rink. He's laying to stab you, boy. Mind your step!"

"Even so, Cappy, she's a bargain. I expect to spend fifty thousand dollars putting her in first-class condition after we get her."

"You expect to spend it! Why, how you talk! Hudner is the one that should spend that money. For the love of trade, what is he selling you? A ship or a hulk?"

"I don't care what she is; we can make her pay for herself and earn half a million or a million extra before this war ends. And she won't be such a bad vessel after she's shipped a couple of new plates. She has a dead weight capacity for six thousand tons and was built at Sunderland in 1902. When she went ashore off Point Sur, in 1909, Hudner bought her from the underwriters for five thousand dollars and spent more than half her original cost repairing her. That, of course, made her tantamount to a ship built in the United States, and under American registry she can run between American ports. And that's what we want. She'll be just the thing to carry lumber to New York, via the Canal, when the war ends and the nitrate harvest is over."

Cappy Ricks threw up his hands.

"You see before you, my boy," he said mournfully, "a dollar-burdened, world-weary old man, who for ten years has been trying to retire from active business, and cannot. The reason is he dassent; if he dassed, this shebang would be in the hands of the sheriff within a year. Now, listen, young feller! I know all about the Penelope. Before the war she had repaid Hudner, with interest, every cent she cost him, and since the war I suppose she's made half a million dollars. Now when Hudner finds he has to spend a lot of money fixing her up, he figures it's best to get rid of her and saddle somebody else with the bill. Her intrinsic value is just about one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, and when Hudner asks half a million for her he expects to get four hundred and fifty thousand. In order to play safe, go back and offer him four hundred thousand dollars; presently he'll come down fifty thousand and you'll come up fifty thousand, and the trade will be closed on that basis. Meantime I'll sit here and weep as I reflect on the cost of putting that ruin in fit shape to receive a Blue Star house flag. I tell you, Matt, I wouldn't send Pancho Villa to sea in her as she is now."

Matt Peasley, like Cappy Ricks, was a Yankee; when he did business he liked to chaffer; and, after all--he thought--there was a certain shrewd philosophy in what his foxy father-in-law had said. At least Cappy had supplied him with ammunition for argument; so he went back to Hudner's office and argued and pleaded and ridiculed, but all to no avail. He returned to Cappy Ricks' office.

"I fought him all over his office," he complained, "but he wouldn't come down a cent. I think we'd better take a chance and give him half a million."

"Fiddlesticks! Stay with him, Matt. I know Hudner. He acts like he's full of bellicose veins, but anybody can outgame him. Let your option expire; then to-morrow meet him accidentally on 'Change and talk with him half an hour about everything on earth except the S. S. Penelope. Just before you leave him he'll grab you by the lapel of your coat and ask if you're still interested in the Penelope. Then you say: 'Why, yes--moderately; but not at half a million.' Then you make him a firm offer--for the last time--of four hundred and fifty thousand dollars; and he'll say: 'I'll split the difference with you'--and before he can crawfish you accept. You're bound to make at least twenty-five thousand by following my advice, Matt."

Matt Peasley ran his big hand through his thick black locks.

"By jingo," he declared, "we'd make twenty-five thousand dollars while we're dickering with Hudner!"

"I know, my boy; but then I don't like Hudner, and it's awful to do business with a son of a horsethief you don't like and let him put one over on you. That's the thrill of doing business, Matt. Though I'd hate to have anybody think I'm in business for fun, still, if I thought I couldn't get some fun out of business I'd go right down to Mission Street Wharf and end all."

"Nitrate freights are up to thirty dollars a ton," said Matt later that day. "They were twelve a year and a half ago. Cappy, we can't risk the delay; and I'm sorry I took your advice and let my option expire. I insist on buying." He reached for Cappy's desk 'phone. "I'm going to tell Hudner to prepare the bill of sale--that I'll be up in fifteen minutes with the check. He who hesitates is lost, and--"

The door opened and a youth stood in the entrance.

"Mr. J. O. Heyfuss is calling," he announced.

"Show him in immediately," Cappy ordered, glad of the opportunity to delay Matt's telephonic acceptance of the vessel at Hudner's price. "Hold on a minute, Matt," he continued, turning to his son-in-law. "Heyfuss is a ship broker; maybe he has a ship to sell us; she might prove to be a better buy than the Penelope... Howdy, Heyfuss? Come in and sit down."

Mr. Heyfuss entered smilingly, saluted both satellites of the Blue Star and sat down.

"Well, gentlemen," he announced, "wonders will never cease. Every day I'm seeing, hearing and doing wonderful things in the shipping business. Day before yesterday I bought the old barkentine Mayfair. She'd been laid up in Rotten Row for seven years, and for at least four years the tide has been rising and falling inside her. She cost me seven hundred and fifty dollars, and I sold her the same afternoon to Al Hanify for a thousand. Not very much of a profit; but then it was Saturday and everybody closes up shop at noon, you know. So I felt the day wasn't a blank, anyhow.

"And what do you suppose Al did? You'll laugh. He called up Crowley her out on Hanlon's Marine Way, putting a new bottom in her. They're going to spend twenty thousand dollars on her; and when she's ready for sea Redell has a cargo of fir for Sydney waiting for her.

"She'll come back with coal and make her owners at least fifty thousand dollars."

"That's all very interesting to outsiders, but commonplace stuff to us," Cappy reminded his visitor. "Have you got a commission to sell a ship for somebody?"

"Want one?"

"Surest thing you know!"

"All right. I'll sell you the Alden Besse. She's an old tea clipper, built in the forties; but she's sound and tight. Been a motion picture ship for the past five years. I can deliver her to you for forty thousand dollars."

"No, you'll not. I sold her to the motion picture people for fifteen hundred," Cappy countered, "and I don't want her back at any price. I send my boys to sea to earn a safe living, not to visit Davy Jones' locker."

"Well, I think I might get you the old Australian prison ship, Success. She was built at Rangoon in 1790, of teak, and will last forever. Perhaps you saw her when she was exhibited at the Exposition last year. Might get her for you kind of cheap."

"Nothing doing. Heyfuss, we want a steamer."

"Sorry, but I haven't a thing in steamers. Just sold the last one I had ten minutes ago--the Penelope."

"The what!" Matt Peasley and Cappy cried in chorus.

"The Penelope. Sold her to a big Eastern powder company. She goes into the nitrate trade, of course. These munition manufacturers must have powder, and to get powder they must have nitrate, and to get nitrate they must have ships, and to get ships they must pay the price. I got Hudner a million dollars for that ruin of a Penelope."

Matt Peasley gently seized J. O. Heyfuss by the ear and led him to the door.

"Out, thief!" he cried. "You can't sell us anything; so we don't want you hanging round this office. You might steal the safe or a roll-top desk, or something."

Heyfuss departed, laughing good-naturedly, and Matt Peasley turned to confront Cappy Ricks. The latter had shrunk up in his chair and was looking as chopfallen and guilty as a dog caught sucking eggs. He favored his big son-in-law with a quick, shifty glance, and then looked down at the carpet.

Matt folded his arms and stared at him until he looked up.

"Don't you go to pick on me!" he warned Matt furiously. "I'll not be picked on in my own office, even by a relative."

Matt threw back his head and chanted,

   "There was I, waiting at the church,
    Waiting at the church--"

"I was right!" Cappy shrilled. "My mode of procedure was without a flaw."

"Absolutely! The operation was a success, but the patient died."

"But a feller just has to haggle!" Cappy wailed. He was almost on the verge of tears. "It's the basic principle of all trading. Why, I've made my everlasting fortune by haggling. Drat your picture, don't you know that the very pillars of financial success rest on counter-propositions?"

"Listen, relative, listen: I haven't said a word to you, have I?" Matt replied.

"No; but you looked it, and I'll not be looked at."

"All right, Cappy, I'll not look. But I can't help thinking."

"Thinking what?"

"That it's about time you quit talking about retiring--and retired!"