Chapter XLIX
 

MONSIEUR LE CAPITAINE RICKS

Cappy Ricks entered his office at the unheard-of hour of eight- thirty. On his way to his sanctum at the end of the long suite of offices Cappy paused in the lair of Mr. Skinner, who looked up, amazed.

"Hello!" he saluted the president emeritus. "What brings you down on the job so early this morning, Mr. Ricks?"

"I've got a hen on," Cappy replied briskly. He glanced at Skinner and rubbed his hands together. "Skinner, my dear boy," he continued, "this is a one-horse concern."

"Three sawmills with a combined output of a million feet a day on a ten-hour shift--not to mention a billion feet of stumpage--isn't my idea of a one-horse concern," Mr. Skinner retorted with some asperity.

"Tut, tut, Skinner! I'm not referring to the lumber end at all; so don't get touchy. I'm referring to the Blue Star Navigation Company. It's a dinky proposition.

"Forty-two vessels--windjammers, steam schooners and foreign-going freighters--" began Mr. Skinner; but Cappy cut him short:

"Foreign-going grandmothers! We've got the Narcissus and the Tillicum."

"How about my boat--the John P. Skinner?"

"Oh, yes! That one we scraped up off the bottom of Papeete Harbor," Cappy answered maliciously. "Well, that makes three; and really the Skinner and the Narcissus are the only vessels built to go foreign. Remember, Skinner, we built the Tillicum, for the coast-wise lumber trade, even though she's so big our competitors thought when we launched her we were crazy to build such a whale for that trade."

"Well, Mr. Ricks?"

"We ought to have more big bottoms, Skinner. We'll have hell- cracking freight rates during the war and for a long time thereafter--and here we sit round like a lot of dubs, too conservative to help ourselves to the gravy. Why, you and Matt Peasley ought to be knitting socks in an old ladies' home, for all the progressiveness you're displaying."

"I am not in charge of the shipping end, Mr. Ricks."

"No; but you've got a tongue in your head, haven't you? You were practically in charge of the Blue Star for more than six months-- during the entire period Matt was at sea in the Retriever and we thought he was a goner. Why, dog-gone you, Skinner, even when you thought Matt was dead you didn't suggest increasing the fleet. I'm surprised, Skinner, my boy, that in my old age, after gathering a lot of young fellows round me to carry on the business, I've still got to be the bell mare!"

Mr. Skinner had nothing to say to this; if he had it is doubtful whether he would have said it, for he had been too long with Cappy Ricks not to know the signs when the old gentleman took the bit in his teeth and declared for a new deal.

"I'm going into my office to do some tall thinking, Skinner," Cappy continued. "Remember! No visitors until I've threshed this whole business out to my satisfaction. I'm not in to anybody."

Cappy retired to his office, sat down on his spine in his upholstered swivel chair, swung his thin old shanks to the top of his desk, bowed his head on his breast, and closed his eyes. Scarcely had he done so when the door opened and Matt Peasley thrust his head in.

"Well, Matt?" Cappy queried without opening his eyes.

"I have an offer of forty thousand dollars for our old bark Altair, Cappy. What do you think we ought to do?"

"Take it!" Cappy shrilled. "You jibbering jackdaw! Grab it! She's been a failure since the day I built her; never balanced, always burying her nose in the seas, and drowning a sailor about once a year. If we keep that ship much longer she'll sail herself under some day and we'll be out the forty thousand. Altair! Fancy name! Skinner got it out of Ben Hur. He'd been in the shipping game ten years then and hadn't learned that was the name of a star! We should have called her the Water Spaniel. Sell her, Matt, and we'll put the money into a steamer that can run foreign."

"If you can tell me where we can buy, even at three times her intrinsic value, a steamer that will run foreign, I'm willing to consider selling the Altair. Just at present she's earning big dividends; and until we can find a place to invest her selling price, the money will earn six per cent instead of sixty, as at present."

"Clear out and let me think!" Cappy commanded, and Matt Peasley retired to Mr. Skinner's office.

"Have you noticed the old gentleman lately?" he inquired of Skinner. "Ever since his grandson arrived grandpa has been paying attention to business."

"He's dissatisfied with his own and our efforts thus far. He thinks he's been a piker and that you and I are his first-assistant pikers. He has ships on the brain."

"He's getting pretty cocky," Matt agreed; "but, at that, I guess he has a license to be."

"I've been with him twenty-six--yes, twenty-seven--years; and I know him, Matt. He's cooking up something prodigious--and it will soon be done."

The door of Cappy's office opened and Cappy stood in the entrance.

"Skinner," he ordered, "get me a letter of credit for about twenty thousand dollars. I'm going travelling."

"Where?" Matt and Skinner queried in chorus.

"To Europe."

"You're not!" Matt Peasley declared. "You're liable to be torpedoed en route."

"I know, but then, too, I'm liable not to be; and if I am, why, I'm an old man, and I'll only be cheating the devil by a few years or a few months. Come in here, you two dead ones."

They followed him into his office.

"We need some steamers," Cappy announced. "Every shipyard in the United States that could build the kind of steamer we want is full up with contracts for the next three years; so I'm going to Norway or Sweden or Denmark, or some non-belligerent European country, and see whether I can't place some contracts there for a couple of real freighters. Then, too, I may be able to pick up good vessels over there at a reasonable price. Under the Emergency Shipping Act we can get them provisional American registry--and that's all we need. Before a great while Uncle Sam is going to turn his antiquated shipping laws inside out, and any foreign-built boats we may acquire now will be given the right to run in the coastwise trade also."

"See here, Cappy," Matt reminded the old man; "you're retired and I'm in charge of the destinies of the Blue Star Navigation Company. I don't want you working yourself to death."

"You mean you don't want me butting in. Nonsense! What's the use of having a grandson if a fellow doesn't hustle up something for the boy to sharpen his teeth on when he grows up? Here I've been living from day to day, just marking time on the road to eternity and figuring life wasn't worth while because the stock was going to die out with me. Up until recently I was content with a little old one-horse business; but now, by the Holy Pink-Toed Prophet, boy, we've got to get out and shake a leg! Freighters! That's what we want. Big, well-decked tramps, flying the Stars and Stripes in every port on earth. Why, what kind of a nation are we getting to be, anyway? We're a passel of mollycoddles, asleep on the job. We haven't half enough ships to coal our navy. In the event of war it would take us a week to dig up ships enough to transport the New York Police Department. I tell you, Matt, when I'm gone you'll have to have something for that grandson of mine to do or he'll grow up into one of these idle-rich, ne'er-do-well, two-for-a-quarter dudes. You bet I've been doing a deal of thinking lately. We can't send that boy to college, and spoil him before he's twenty-five. We'll run that young man through high school; just about that time he'll begin to get snobbish and we'll take that out of him by sending him to sea as a cadet on one of our own ships. We'll teach him democracy--that's what we'll teach him. When he's twenty-one he'll be a skipper like his forebears and you'll be only about forty-six. Good Lord! To think of you two young fellows running my Blue Star ships--and not enough ships to keep you busy! Preposterous! I can't consider--Well, Hankins, my dear boy, what's troubling you?"

Mr. Hankins, the secretary, had entered.

"I wanted to see Mr. Skinner a moment. I'll wait. Didn't know you were busy."

And he started to retire. Cappy checked him: "Finish with Skinner, Hankins. He'll be in consultation here with Matt and me for an hour yet."

"I just wanted to know, Mr. Skinner, whether all those cablegrams to Captain Landry, of the Altair, are to be charged to general expense, Captain Landry's personal account, or to the Altair."

"It seems to me you should charge them to Captain Landry, Hankins," Mr. Skinner spoke up. "It isn't ship's business and it isn't Blue Star business. If he wants this office to cable him every day about his family--"

"Here! What's this you're talking about, Skinner?" Cappy interrupted.

"When Captain Landry sailed for Callao his wife didn't accompany him--"

"Lucky rascal! He told me he was expecting an heir."

"And he's still expecting that heir."

"Naturally," Mr. Hankins explained, "he's been anxious for news; and ever since his arrival in Callao he's cabled us every other day--latterly every day--asking whether the baby has been born, and whether it's a boy or a girl."

"A very pardonable human curiosity, my boy. Proceed."

"Unfortunately the baby appears to be held up on demurrage and I think we've spent at least fifty dollars cabling to Landry that the youngster has failed to report. I imagine the skipper has spent twice that sum inquiring for news--"

"Of course! It's his first baby, isn't it? You must allow for human nature."

"I thought we would--for the first half dozen cablegrams; but after it became a habit it appeared that Landry ought to pay for his fancies."

"He should," Mr. Skinner declared firmly. "Charge the cablegrams to Landry."

"Nothing doing!" piped Cappy. "Charge 'em to general expense. Dang you, Skinner, I despair of ever breaking you of that habit of operating on the cheap!"

"Oh, very well, sir--only the expense is getting to be quite an item."

"I'm just about to send him another cablegram," Mr. Hankins declared fretfully. "The Altair is due to sail from Callao and the baby is still unborn; it will be two months old, at least, before the skipper gets any further news."

"Let's see your cablegram," Cappy ordered, and Mr. Hankins passed it over. Cappy read it. "Holy suffering sailor!" he cried. "Why this concern isn't in the hands of a receiver is a mystery to me." He looked up at Mr. Hankins with blood in his eye. "Here you are, Hankins, trying to saddle a bill of expense on a poor, heartbroken, anxious, embryo parent-to-be. Knowing full well that he only makes a hundred and fifty dollars a month, you admit to an endeavor to stick him for fifty dollars' worth of cablegrams from this end, not to mention those from his end. If you had spent your time, sir, figuring out a way to cut down that cable expense, instead of discovering a rotten way to get rid of it--Why, look here! You can use your code book and save a couple of dollars."

"Code book!" Mr. Hankins protested indignantly. "Why, who ever heard of a code book for cabling on baby business?"

"Use your shipping code. Here; hand me that code book. There's bound to be something to fit the occasion--there always is. Hum-m-m! Ahem! Harumph-h-h! Let us see what we shall see under the head of cargoes; Loading! Discharging! Demurrage! Ahem! That won't do. He'd be liable to confuse it with the ship's business. Harumph-h-h! Arrivals. Now we have it. Landry has been asking of an expected arrival, hasn't he?" Cappy ran his index finger down the page. "Here you are, Hankins. Hum-m-m! Afilamos--meaning no new arrivals. Naturally Landry will say to himself: 'Well, for heaven's sake, when will that child arrive?' We should enlighten him on that point."

"We cannot."

"Very well, then. Say so. Here you are. Affumicata--meaning: We cannot guarantee time of arrival. Hankins, have you talked with Mrs. Landry's physician in order to get the latest ringside reports?"

"Yes, sir."

"What does he say?"

"Well, he says he thinks it will be twins, in a couple of days at the most."

"Good news! Here you are. Afilaba--meaning: Heavy arrivals expected shortly. Now then, Hankins, he'll want some news of his wife, won't he? How about her?"

"She went to the hospital this morning."

Cappy closed his eyes and pondered; then once more took up the code book. Followed a silence. Then:

"Bully! He'll understand perfectly, being a sailor. Desdoble-- meaning: Is now in dry dock. And, of course, Landry will want to know whether his wife is in any danger. Danger! Danger! Ships are sometimes in danger. When? When they're wrecked, of course. Let us look under the head of wrecks... No; nothing seems to fill the bill. Wreck, wrecked, worse, writ, write, wrong--ah, I have it! Wohlgemuth-- meaning: There is nothing wrong." He looked up at Mr. Hankins. "Now there's the kind of cablegram to send--even on baby business. Those four code words translated mean: No new arrivals; heavy arrivals expected shortly; is now in dry dock; there is nothing wrong. Literally translated it means: Baby not born yet; twins expected shortly; your wife now in hospital; everything lovely! I suppose, Hankins, you have carbon copies of all these cablegrams you've been sending?"

"Yes, sir."

"Code them all, so far as possible, and ascertain how much money you might have saved the Blue Star by the exercise of a little common sense; then charge the cablegrams, on the coded basis, to our general expense, and charge to your personal account the sum you might have saved by the exercise of the ingenuity and efficiency I have a right to expect of a man who draws down as fat a salary as you do."