Chapter XLVI
 

With this Parthian shot Matt himself retired, leaving Cappy to shiver and bow his head on his breast; in which position he remained motionless for fully an hour.

"I guess the boy's right," he soliloquized finally. "I think I'd better retire, after pulling that kind of a deal twice in the same place. The pace is getting too swift for me, I think; I can't keep up... Well, I guess they've got the goods on me this time. Matt was certainly on the job twice, and I blocked him both times ... Oh, Lord! I'll never hear the last of this... By the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet, I've lost my punch! Matt didn't say so; but he thinks it. And I don't blame him a bit."

The door of Cappy's office opened and again the youth stood in the entrance. "Mr. Redell is calling; there's a gentleman with him," he announced.

"Tell 'em I'm busier'n a cranberry merchant," Cappy snarled. "And unless you're figuring on hunting a new job, my son, don't you come in here again today."

The youth retired. However, he knew from experience that Cappy Ricks never discharged anybody save for insubordination or rank incompetence; hence, he did not hesitate to disobey the old gentleman's edict.

"Mr. Redell says his business is very important," he announced, presenting himself once more at the door.

"All right! No rest for the weary. Show them in."

J. Augustus Redell entered, accompanied by no less a personage than the British Consul. Cappy greeted them without enthusiasm and bade them be seated.

"Well," J. Augustus Redell announced cheerily, "It's plain to be seen that Little Sunshine hasn't been round this office recently."

Cappy grunted.

"What's gone wrong, Cappy?"

"Everything! Been going wrong for years and I never realized it until this afternoon. Ah, Gus, my dear young friend, how I envy you your youth, your capacity to think, your golden dreams, your boundless energy, your ability to make two-dollar bills grow where one-dollar bills grew before, thus making an apparently barren prospect as verdant as a meadow in spring. But make the most of your opportunity, young feller! The day will come to you, as it has come to me, when everything you do will be done twenty minutes too late; when every dollar you make will be subject to a cash discount of one hundred per cent; when every competitor you held cheap will suddenly develop the luck of the devil, the brains of a Demosthenes, and the courage of a hog going to war."

"I should judge that you have recently suffered a great bereavement."

"I have, Augustus, I have. Through my indecision I have just lost a bank roll a greyhound couldn't have jumped over. Suppose it was a paper profit? I grieve just the same."

"Forget it, Cappy! Life is real, life is earnest, and you have a bank roll of real profits a giraffe couldn't reach the top of."

"Oh, it isn't the money, Gus. Money is only a vulgar symbol of my bereavement. The trouble is--I've lost my punch! I can't think, Gus; I can't act promptly. I'm out of touch with my times. I remind myself of nothing so much as the old rooster that suddenly discovered he had been elected to furnish the dinner the following Sunday. His hens cackled and called to him that they had found some worms, but he wouldn't pay any attention to them; just leaned up against the wire netting in the poultry yard and said to himself: 'Oh, hell! What's the use? Today an egg--tomorrow a feather duster!'"

"Don't be pessimistic, Cappy. Don't! It doesn't become you, and I don't believe a word you're telling me. You're still the old he-fox of the world; and I've come to you for help on a deal that's going to mean a whole lot of money to both of us if we can only put it through."

"I'm sorry, Gus, but I'm not interested. As a matter of fact, I've retired."

"Nonsense! Nonsense! I know where there's a beautiful ten-thousand- ton, net register, steel steamer to be bought for three hundred thousand dollars--"

Cappy Ricks threw out an arm and pressed his hand against Redell's mouth.

"Sh-h-h!" he warned. "Sh-h-h! Hush!"

With the agility of a man half his age Cappy ran to the door, bolted it on the inside and returned to his desk. He was rubbing his hands and his eyes were aglow with interest.

"What are you sh-h-h-ing about?" Redell demanded.

"Matt Peasley and that cowardly Skinner. Not a word of this to them, Gus! Not--a--whisper!" And he winked one eye and twisted up the corner of his mouth knowingly. Mr. Redell nodded his promise and Cappy went on: "Now Gus, my dear young friend, start in at the beginning and tell me everything. I assume, of course, that this is real business and not another of your jokes on the old man. Word of honor, Gus?"

"Word of honor, Cappy."

"All right; blaze away! Come, come! What have you got to offer?"

"I have a condition and I offer you a half interest in it if you can suggest a plan to circumvent His Royal Highness, Kaiser Wilhelm--"

"Hum-m-m! Enough!" Cappy interrupted, and turned to the British Consul: "This is an international affair, eh? See if I don't state the proposition in a nutshell--if I may be pardoned the bromide. This steamer is a German, and the proposition is to get her under the American flag so firmly that she'll stay there; then, I suppose, we're to charter her to the British Government, or one of Britain's allies--Russia, for instance."

J. Augustus Redell and the British Consul exchanged admiring winks.

"What did I tell you, Mister Consul?" Redell declared triumphantly. "Mr. Ricks knows the story before we have told it. And yet he's complaining about the loss of his punch!"

Cappy looked slightly self-conscious; it was plain the compliment pleased him.

"Well, Gus, my boy," he answered, "I have lost my punch, though at that I'm not exactly a pork-and-beaner. Hum-m-m! Ahem! Harumph-h-h! This must be a hard order to fill. Mister Consul, when Gus Redell has to come to me for help. That son of a gun can move faster and go through more obstacles than quicksilver. Gus, what's gone wrong with you? Have you lost your punch too? And at your age?"

"Looks like it, Cappy. I've thought and thought until I'm desperate, and not an idea worth while has presented itself. That's why I've come to you."

"Well, I don't guarantee a cure, my boy. But I'll say this much: If you and I can't put this thing over, then it just isn't put-overable. Fire away, Gus!"

"Have you ever heard of the steamer Bavarian?"

"Of course! She belongs to Adolph Koenitz and flies the German flag. Since the war started she's been interned down in Mission Bay."

Redell nodded.

"Adolph Koenitz never became an American citizen, despite the fact that he had lived in San Francisco twenty years and operated three steamers out of this port. He was a reserve officer in the German Navy; and when the war broke out he interned his ships, placed his entire estate in his wife's name and reported for duty. He perished in the Battle of Jutland, both his boys were killed at Verdun, and now his widow would like to sell the Bavarian and get some cash. She had a large income from an estate in Germany, but the war cut that off.

"Also, it appears that Koenitz was rather heavily involved, and the expense of maintaining those interned steamers, with their German crews aboard, has his widow badly worried; in fact, she has reached the point where she finds it necessary to sell one of the steamers in order to hang on to the other two. She has tried to raise a mortgage on the Bavarian, but nobody cares to loan money on an interned German steamer."

"Naturally," Cappy replied sarcastically. "And I'm amazed that you should consider me boob enough to consider seriously buying the same steamer outright! Gus, I'd have about as much use for that steamer as I would have for a tail. Even if I should buy her now, and not use her until the war is over, I should be risking my money; for the German Government, if you remember, issued an order in 1915 forbidding its subjects to sell their interned ships without the consent of the said government. And, even if Mrs. Koenitz can procure the Kaiser's consent, I fail to see the wisdom of tying up three hundred thousand dollars in an idle investment."

"Ah, but under those circumstances she wouldn't be an idle investment."

"Yes, she would, my boy. Great Britain issued an Order in Council in 1914 notifying all neutral nations that she would not sanction the transfer of registry of any German vessel. A few daring devils took a chance--and what happened? The British Navy overhauled the ships at sea and took them into a British port where a British prize court confiscated them. There is the case of the Mazatlan, for instance. She was German owned and flew the German flag; her owner put her under the Mexican flag, and subsequently she was sold at a bargain to one of our neighbors, who put her under American registry. Do you know where the Mazatlan is now? Well, I'll tell you: She's freighting war munitions for Johnny Bull--and our optimistic neighbor isn't collecting the freight money either."

"Quite true, Mr. Ricks; quite true--in ordinary cases," the Consul told him smilingly.

"By the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet! I smell a mouse. Hum-m-m! That simplifies matters. We-l-l! If you are in position, Mister Consul, to give me your word of honor as a gentleman and an officer of your king that the British Navy will turn its blind side to the Bavarian when she puts to sea, I'll buy the Bavarian so fast it'll make your head swim. In return for this favor, of course, I am to charter the ship at the going rates to--"

"Our ally, the Russian Government, Mr. Ricks. And you have my word of honor, which is all I can give you; for a deal like this, as you know, cannot be made in writing. I have had the matter up with the Admiralty, however, and permission has been granted me to give the verbal assurance of my government."

"I'll make a finger bet with your government, Mister Consul. As for Kaiser Bill's consent to the transfer--heraus mit 'em! We'll get along without that. Wilhelm doesn't cut much ice with me these days and I'm willing to wager the price of the Bavarian that such ice as he does cut will blame soon melt. Gus, you say Mrs. Koenitz wants to sell?"

"Yes."

"And she doesn't care who buys?"

"Not a particle! She's sore on the Kaiser; it's been thumbs down on Wilhelm ever since Adolph and the boys lost the number of their mess. She says to me: 'Herr Riddle, dot Kaiser orders war like I order beer!' However, there's an 'if' to the transfer. While we know the British Navy will not bother us should we buy the steamer, still enthusiastic Britishers all over the world will have their eyes on the Bavarian and clamor for her capture. Great Britain cannot publicly--or, at least, obviously--make any exceptions to her Order in Council, and we'll have to mess up that steamer's title and nativity to save John Bull's social standing. We must make a bluff at deceiving him. If we can show some sort of legal transfer to another flag J. B. can play blindman's buff with dignity and honor; otherwise nix!"

Cappy Ricks' eyes sought the ceiling.

"What have I done to deserve this?" he demanded of an invisible Presence. "Why am I afflicted thus? Job had his boils; but you and I, Augustus, are covered with a financial rash, bleeding at every pore, and with no relief in sight."

"I told you this was a tough one, Cappy. I've pondered the situation until my brain is addled like a last year's nest egg, and finally I've come to you as a last resort. If you can't cook up an airtight scheme, then there is no help; and I'm going to forget the Bavarian and attend to some business more profitable and less debilitating."

"There must be an out, Gus. It's too good a thing to abandon. Suppose you and the Consul go away and give me time to concentrate my thoughts on this problem. It's a holy terror; but--Well, I've seen dogs almost as sick as this one cured."

"God bless you!" Mr. Redell murmured fervently. "Consul, let us depart and leave Mr. Ricks to himself. Call me up, Cappy, when you see a ray of light. Two heads are better than one, you know."