Chapter V
 

While the Narcissus was loading, the Fates were keeping in reserve for Cappy Ricks, Matt Peasley and Mr. Skinner a blow that was to stun them when it fell. About the time the Narcissus, fully loaded, was snoring out to sea past Old Point Comfort, Matt Peasley came across Seaborn & Company's telegram in the unanswered-correspondence tray on his desk. Five times he read it; and then, in the language of the poet, hell began to pop!

Cappy Ricks came out of a gentle doze to find his big son-in-law waving the telegram under his nose.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Matt Peasley bawled, for all the world as if Cappy was a very stupid mate and all the canvas had just been blown out of the bolt-ropes.

"Why didn't you ask me, you big stiff?" shrilled Cappy. He didn't know what was coming, but instinct told him it was awful, so he resolved instantly to meet it with a brave front. "Don't you yell at me, young feller. Now then, what do you want to find out?"

"Why didn't you tell me the Narcissus was to drop in at Pernambuco for orders?" roared Matt wrathfully.

Cappy pursed his lips and calmly rang for Mr. Skinner. He eyed the general manager over the rims of his spectacles for fully thirty seconds. Then:

"Skinner, what the devil's wrong with you of late? It's getting so I can't trust you to do anything any more. Tut, tut! Not a peep out of you, sir. Now then, answer me: Why didn't you tell me, Skinner, that the Narcissus was to call in at Pernambuco for orders?"

"I read you the telegram, sir," Mr. Skinner replied coldly, and pointed to the notation: "O.K.--Ricks," the badge of his infernal efficiency. "I read that telegram to you, sir," he repeated, "and asked you if I should close. You said to close. I closed. That's all I know about it. You and Matt are in charge of the shipping and I decline to be dragged into any disputes originating in your department. All I have to say is that if you two can't run the shipping end and run it right, just turn it over to me and I'll run it--right!"

Completely vindicated, Mr. Skinner struck a distinctly defiant attitude and awaited the next move on the part of Cappy. The latter, thoroughly crushed--for he knew the devilish Skinner never made any mistakes--looked up at his son-in-law.

"Well," he demanded, "what's your grouch against Pernambuco?"

"Forgive me for bawling you out that way," Matt replied, "but I guess you'd bawl, too, if somebody who should have known better had placed a fine ship in jeopardy for you. It just breaks me all up to think you may have lost my steamer Narcissus--the first steamer I ever owned too--and to be lost on her second voyage under the Blue Star flag--"

"Our Narcissus, if you please," Cappy shrilled. "You gibbering jackdaw! Out with it! Where do you get that stuff--lose your steamer on her second voyage! Why, she's snug in Norfolk this minute."

"If she only is," Matt almost wailed, "she'll never be permitted to clear with that German crew aboard. Pernambuco for orders! Suffering sailor! And you, of all men, to put over a charter like that! Pernambuco! Pernambuco! Pernambuco--for--orders! Do you get it?"

"No, I don't. It's over my head and into the bleachers."

"I must say, my dear Matt," Mr. Skinner struck in blandly, "that I also fail to apprehend."

"Didn't you two ever go to school?" Matt raved. "Didn't you ever study geography? Why under the canopy should we waste our time and burn up our good coal steaming to Pernambuco, Brazil, South America, for orders? Let me put it to you two in words of one syllable: The Narcissus is chartered to carry a cargo of coal from Norfolk, Virginia, to Batavia or Manila. At the time of charter--and sailing--the charterers are undecided which port she is to discharge at, so they ask us to step over to Pernambuco and find out. Now, whether the vessel discharges at Batavia or Manila, her course in the Atlantic Ocean while en route to either port is identical! She passes round the Cape of Good Hope, which is at the extreme south end of Africa. If her course, on the contrary, was round Cape Horn or through the Straits of Magellan there might be some sense in sending her over to the east coast of South America for orders. But whether she is ordered to Manila or Batavia, the fact remains that she must put in to Durban, South Africa, for fuel to continue her voyage; so why in the name of the Flying Dutchman couldn't the charterers cable the orders to Mike Murphy at Durban? The Narcissus is worth a thousand dollars a day, so you waste a few thousand dollars worth of her time, at the very least, sending her to Pernambuco when a ten-dollar cablegram to Durban would have done the business! I suppose all you two brilliant shipping men could see was a ten-dollar-a-ton freight rate. Eh? You--landlubbers! A-a-g-r-r-h! I was never so angry since the day I was born."

While Matt ranted on, Mr. Skinner's classic features had been slowly taking on the general color tones of a ripe old Edam cheese, while at the conclusion of Matt's oration Cappy Ricks' eyes were sticking out like twin semaphores. He clasped his hands.

"By the Twelve Ragged Apostles!" he murmured in an awed voice. "There's a nigger in the woodpile."

"I very greatly fear," Mr. Skinner chattered, "that you are mistaken, Mr. Ricks. Something tells me it's a German!"

"Well, well, well!" Matt Peasley sneered. "Skinner, take the head of the class. Really, I believe I begin to pick up signs of human intelligence in this sea of maritime ignorance."

"Oh, Matt, quit your jawing and break the news to me quickly," Cappy pleaded.

"Haven't you been reading the papers, sir? Australian and Japanese warships have been hunting for the German Pacific fleet for the past few weeks, and the Germans have been on the dodge. Therefore, they've been burning coal. They are only allowed to remain in a neutral port twenty-four hours, and can only take on sufficient coal and stores to enable them to reach the nearest German port. Consequently, since they have been afraid to enter a neutral port, for fear of giving away their position, it follows that they've had to stay at sea--and naturally they have run short of coal. A few steamers have cleared from San Francisco with coal, ostensibly for discharge at Chilean or Mexican ports, but in reality for delivery to the German fleet at sea, but even with these few deliveries, there is a coal famine. And now that the Pacific is getting too hot for it, the general impression is that the German fleet will try to get through the Straits of Magellan, for, once in the Atlantic, coal will be easier to get. More ships, you know; more ship-owners willing to take a chance for wartime profits--and they say Brazil is rather friendly to the German cause. We will assume, therefore, that the German secret agents in this country realize it is inevitable that Von Spee's fleet must be forced into the Atlantic; hence, in anticipation of that extremity, they are arranging for the delivery of coal to those harassed cruisers. The agent in Pernambuco is probably in constant communication with the fleet by wireless; the fleet will probably come ranging up the coast of South America, destroying British commerce, or some of the ships may cross over to the Indian Ocean and join the Emden, raiding in those waters. So the German secret agents charter our huge Narcissus, load her with ten thousand tons of coal--"

Matt Peasley paused and bent a beetling glance, first at Cappy Ricks and then at Skinner.

"Was she to carry soft coal or anthracite?" he demanded.

"I don't know," Mr. Skinner quavered.

"Search me!" Cappy Ricks piped up sourly.

"I thought so. For the sake of argument we'll assume it's soft coal, because anthracite has not as yet become popular as steamship fuel. Well, we will assume our vessel gets to Pernambuco. If, in the meantime, the German admiral wirelesses his Pernambuco agent, 'Send a jag of coal into the Indian Ocean,' to the Indian Ocean goes the Narcissus, and presently she finds a German warship or two or three ranging along in her course. They pick her up, help themselves to her coal, give Mike Murphy a certificate of confiscation for her cargo, to be handed to the owners, who in this case will be good, loyal sons of the Fatherland and offer no objection--"

"I see," Cappy Ricks interrupted. "And if, on the other hand, the German admiral says, 'Send a jag of coal to meet us in a certain latitude and longitude off the River Plate,' and Mike Murphy objects, that German crew on our Narcissus will just naturally lock Mike Murphy up in his cabin and take the vessel away from him! When they're through with her they'll give her back--"

"I'm not so certain they'll have to lock him up in his cabin in order to get the ship," Mr. Skinner struck in, a note of alarm in his voice. "Mike Murphy is so pro-German--"

"Ow! Wow! That hurts," Cappy wailed. "So he is! I never thought of that. And now that you speak of it, I recall it was his idea, getting that crew of Germans aboard! He said it would cut down expenses. Holy mackerel, Matt; do you think it was a frameup?"

"Certainly I do, but--Mike Murphy wasn't in on it. You can bank on that. No piratical foreigner will ever climb up on Mike Murphy's deck except over Mike Murphy's dead body. According to the president emeritus there is more than one kind of Irish, but I'll guarantee Mike Murphy isn't the double-crossing kind."

A boy entered with a telegram. It was a day letter filed by Mike Murphy in Norfolk that morning, and Matt Peasley read it aloud:

"Sailing at noon. Regret your failure take me into your confidence when deciding withdraw vessel from neutral trade. If orders send me to either of ports named in charter party and I am overhauled en route, that is your funeral. If orders conflict with charter party, as I suspect they may, that may be my funeral. Regretfully I shall resign at Pernambuco. You know your own business, and I cannot believe you would go it blind; if you change your mind before arrival Pernambuco, cable care American Consul and will do my best for you.

"M. J. M."

Gappy Ricks sprang into the air and tried to crack his aged ankles together.

"Saved!" he croaked. "By the Holy Pink-toed Prophet! Saved! Bully for Mike Murphy! Say, when that fellow gets back, if I don't do something handsome for him--"

Matt Peasley's scowls had been replaced by smiles.

"God bless his old Mickedonian heart!" he said fervently. "He thinks the coal is for that British fleet reported to be en route across the Atlantic to give battle to the German Pacific fleet; or for Admiral Craddock's Pacific fleet in case the Germans chase it back into the Atlantic. He knows that we know he is pro-German and for anything that's against England--and if he makes up his mind the coal is for the British fleet he'll resign before delivering it! By Judas, this would be funny if it wasn't so blamed serious."

"To be forewarned is to be forearmed," Mr. Skinner quoted sagely. "It is most fortunate for us that Murphy's suspicions do us a grave injustice. We know now that he will call on the American consul at Pernambuco and ask for a cablegram."

"Yes, and by thunder! we'll send it," Cappy declared joyously. "Cable him, Skinner, to fire that German crew so fast one might play checkers on their coat tails as they go overside."

"I wish to heaven I could wireless him to put back to New York and ship a new crew," Matt Peasley mourned. "There's just a possibility that German crew of his may take over the ship on the high seas and not put into Pernambuco at all!"

"We can only wait and pray," said Mr. Skinner piously.

Cappy Ricks slid out to the edge of his chair and, pop-eyed with horror, gazed at his son-in-law over the rims of his spectacles.

"Matt," he declared, "you're as cheerful as a funeral. Here we have this thing all settled, and you have to go to work and rip the silver lining out of our cloud of contentment. And the worst of it is, by golly, I think there's something in that theory of yours after all."

"We should always be prepared to meet the worst, Mr. Ricks," Mr. Skinner admonished the president emeritus. "While piracy as a practice practically perished prior to the--"

"Skinner! In the fiend's name, spare us this alliteration and humbug," Cappy fairly shrieked. "You're driving me crazy. If it isn't platitude, it's your dog-gone habit of initialing things!" He placed his old elbows on his knees and bowed his head in his hands. "If I'm not the original Mr. Tight Wad!" he lamented. "But you must forgive me, Matt. I got in the habit of thinking of expense when I was young, and I've never gotten over it. You know how a habit gets a grip on a man, don't you, Matt? Oh, if you had only overruled me when I decided to save money by cutting out the wireless on the Narcissus! I remember now you wanted it, and I said: 'Well, what's the use? The Narcissus hasn't any passenger license and she doesn't have to have wireless--so why do something we don't have to do?' Skinner, you should have known enough--"

"I am managing the lumber end of the business, Mr. Ricks," Skinner retorted icily.

"Never mind what you're managing. You're my balance wheel. I've raised you for that very purpose. I've been twenty-five years breaking you in to your job of relieving me of my business worries--and you don't do it. No, you don't, Skinner. Don't deny it, now. You don't. I pay you to boss me, but do you do it? No, sir. You let me have my own way--when I'm round you're afraid to say your soul's your own. You two boys know blamed well I'm an old man and that an old man will make mistakes. It is your duty to watch me. I pay the money, but I don't get the service. When Matt argued with me about the wireless you sided in with me, Skinner. You've got that infernal saving habit, too--drat you! Don't deny it, Skinner. I can see by the look in your eye you're fixing to contradict me. You're as miserable a miser as I am--afraid to spend five cents and play safe--you penurious--er--er--fellow! Skinner, if you ever forget yourself long enough to give three hoots in hell you'll want one of them back. See now what your niggardly policy has done for us? At a time when we'd hock our immortal souls for a wireless to talk to Mike Murphy and tell him things, where are we?" Cappy snapped his fingers. "Up Salt Creek--without a paddle!"

"Come, come," Matt said soothingly, "As Skinner says, we can only wait and pray--"

"All right. You two do the praying. I'm going to sit here and cuss."

"Well, we'll hope for the best, Mr. Ricks. No more crying over spilled milk now. I'll figure out when the Narcissus is due at Pernambuco and cable Mike to let his crew go. And you know, sir, even if he should not receive our cablegram, we have still one hope left. True, it is a forlorn one, but it's worth a small bet. The crew of the Narcissus is not all German. There are--"

"Two pro-German Irishmen, two disinterested Native Son Chinamen and a little runt of a Cockney steward," Cappy sneered. "And she carries a crew of forty, all told. Matt, those odds are too long for any bet of mine. Besides, Reardon and Murphy hate each other. A house divided against itself, you know--"

"They might bang each other all over the main deck," Matt replied musingly, "but I'll bet they'll fight side by side for the ship. Of course we haven't known Terence Reardon very long; he may be a bad one after all; but Mike Murphy will go far. He's as cunning as a pet fox, and he may make up in strategy what he lacks in numbers."

"The Irish are so filled with blarney--" Skinner began, but Cappy cut him short with a terrible look.

"There goes some more of our silver lining," he rasped. "Skinner, what are you? A kill-joy? Now, just for that, I'm going to agree with Matt. A man has got to believe something in this world or go crazy, and I prefer to believe that the ship is safe with those two Hibernians aboard--win, lose or draw. And I want you two to quit picking on me; I don't want the word 'Narcissus' mentioned in my presence until the ship is reported confiscated by the British, if her coal is for the Germans, or by the Germans, if her coal is for the British--which it isn't--or until Mike Murphy reports at Manila or Batavia and cables us for orders."

"I'm with you there, sir," Matt Peasley declared. "I'm going to bank on the Irish, and refuse to believe it possible for the Nar--for a certain vessel flying our house-flag to be caught by the wrong warship, a couple of thousand miles off her course and with coal, or evidences of coal, in her cargo space. Buck up, Skinner. A little Christian Science here, boy. Just make up your mind no man in authority is going to come over the rail of the--of a certain vessel--and ask Mike Murphy or his successor pro tem., for a look at his papers!"

"If she ever is confiscated on an illegal errand," Skinner mourned, "and Mike Murphy has nothing more tangible than a dime-novel tale of coercion as an excuse for being in that latitude and longitude--well, we'll never get our bully big ship back again!"

And for the first time in his life the efficient Mr. Skinner so far forgot himself as to swear in the office!