Chapter VI
 

Throughout the long, lazy days that the Narcissus rolled into the South, Captain Michael J. Murphy's alert brain was busy every spare moment, striving to discover, in the incomprehensible charter his owners had made for him, what the French call la raison d'etre. Not having any wireless, he was unable to keep in touch with the stirring events being enacted in Europe and on the high seas, as news of the said events filtered by him through space. While on the West Coast, where all the newspapers are printed in Spanish, he had been equally barred from keeping in touch with the war, although en route through the Panama Canal he did his best to buy up all the old newspapers on the Zone.

Upon arrival in New York with his cargo of nitrate, his anxiety to make a record in his first command in steam caused him to stay on the job every moment the Narcissus was discharging, for Cappy Ricks had impressed upon him, as he impressed upon every skipper in the Blue Star employ, the fact that a slow boat is slow paying dividends. Consequently, the worthy captain had had no time to acquaint himself with the movements of the various fleets, and when he sent his day letter to his owners on the morning of the day he sailed from Norfolk for Pernambuco, his action was predicated, not on what he knew, but on what he felt. The sixth sense that all real sailors possess warned him that his cargo of coal was not destined for Batavia nor yet Manila, but for delivery at sea to the warships of some foreign nation. Devoutly Michael J. hoped it wasn't for the British fleet, since in such a contingency he would be cruelly torn between his love and duty. Consequently he resolved that, should the choice of alternatives be forced upon him, he would steer a middle course and resign his command.

On the other hand, Mike Murphy knew Matt Peasley and Cappy Ricks to be intensely pro-Ally in their sympathies, despite the President's proclamation of neutrality and the polite requests of the motion-picture houses for their audiences to remain perfectly quiet while Field-Marshal von Hindenburg, Sir John French and General Joffre came on the screen and bowed. Under the circumstances, therefore, Murphy found it very difficult to suspect his owners of conspiring to deliver a cargo of coal to the German fleet at sea. No, indeed! Matt Peasley and Cappy Ricks were too intensely American for that; indeed, Cappy was always saying he hoped to see an American mercantile marine established before he should be gathered to the bosom of Abraham.

From whatever angle the doughty skipper viewed it, therefore, the tangle became more and more incomprehensible. Cappy and Matt knew full well the rules of the game as promulgated by their Uncle Samuel, and the dire penalties for infraction. However, granted that they knew they could scheme successfully to evade punishment at the hands of their own government, Mike Murphy knew full well that no man could guarantee immunity from the right of a belligerent warship to visit and search, or from confiscation or months of demurrage in a prize court in the event that his ship's papers and the course the vessel was travelling failed to justify her presence in that particular longitude and latitude. And with the huge profits to be made in neutral trade, it seemed incomprehensible that a sound business man like Cappy Ricks should assume all these risks for the sake of a little extra money. Surely he must realize that if he sent her on an illegal errand her war-risk insurance would not hold.

On the other hand, it appeared to Murphy that the charter must have been consummated with the full knowledge and consent of the Blue Star Navigation Company, for the veriest tyro in the shipping business could not have failed to be suspicious of that clause in the charter party, stipulating a call at Pernambuco for orders. Of course there was the possibility that this acquiescence had been due to misrepresentation on the part of the New York agents or rank stupidity on the part of the Blue Star Navigation Company. But Seaborn & Company were above a shady deal. In putting through the charter for the Blue Star Navigation Company it might have occurred to them that all was not as it should be, but that was none of their business. If they spread their hand and permitted Cappy Ricks an unobstructed view, it was up to Cappy to decide and order them to close or reject the charter. As for stupidity on the part of the Blue Star Navigation Company, Murphy knew full well that stupidity was the crime Cappy Ricks found it hardest to forgive. Even had Cappy overlooked that suspicious clause in the charter, because of his age, Matt Peasley's youth and practical maritime knowledge should have offset Cappy's error; and even if both had erred, there still remained the matchless Skinner, as suspicious as a burglar, as keen as a razor, as infallible as a chronometer.

No, it just didn't seem possible that the Blue Star Navigation Company had gone into the deal with eyes wide open; on the contrary, it seemed equally impossible that they had gone into it with their eyes shut. Consequently Michael J. decided to wake them up--provided they slept on the job--and to give them an opportunity to repent before it should be too late.

He felt very much better after sending that telegram, but as the Narcissus ploughed steadily south at the rate of two hundred and thirty miles a day, he began to grieve because he had no wireless to bring him a prompt reply; he berated himself for not waiting at the dock in Norfolk until his owners should have had an opportunity to answer; he abused himself for his timidity in questioning the judgment of his owners, for indeed he had been content to hint when more decisive action was demanded.

How Michael J. Murphy yearned to discuss his problem with some one as loyal and devoted to the Blue Star Navigation Company as himself! His dignity as master of the Narcissus, however, bade him refrain from discussing the integrity of his owners with his mates--particularly with new mates, to whom the house-flag stood for naught but a symbol of monthly revenue. In fact, of the forty-one men under him, there was but one with whom he could, with entire dignity, discuss the matter. That man was Terence Reardon. But even here he was barred, for since he had called the chief engineer a renegade, the only possible discussion that could obtain between them now must be anything but academic; in consequence of which Michael J. Murphy was forced to hug his apprehensions to himself until the Narcissus steamed slowly into the outer harbor of Pernambuco. Ten minutes after she dropped her big hook the skipper's suspicions were crystallized into certainty.

Just as she came to anchor the steward appeared on deck, vociferously beating his triangle to announce supper--for at sea dinner is always supper.

"Mr. Schultz," the captain called from the bridge, "as soon as your men have had their supper clear away the working boat. I'm going ashore."

"Very vell, sir," Mr. Schultz replied heartily, and the captain went below to supper. He was scarcely seated before Mr. Schultz stuck his head in the dining saloon window and announced that a gentleman who claimed to represent the charterers was alongside in a launch and desired to come aboard and speak with him.

"Let down the accommodation ladder, Mr. Schultz, and when the gentleman comes aboard, show him round to my state-room," the skipper answered. "I'll meet him there in a pig's whisper. It is probable he has come aboard with our orders, Mr. Schultz, so never mind clearing away the boat until I speak to you further about it. Steward, set an extra cover at my right. We may have a guest for supper."

He hurried round to his state-room and donned a uniform coat to receive his visitor. Mr. Schultz came presently, bearing a visiting-card upon which was engraved the name: Mr. August Carl von Staden. Behind the mate a sailor with a bulging suitcase stood at attention; two more sailors stood behind the first, a steamer trunk between them, and as Captain Murphy stepped out on deck to greet his visitor he observed a tall, athletic, splendid-looking fellow coming leisurely toward him along the deck. The stranger carried a large Gladstone bag.

The captain bowed. "I am the skipper of this big box," he announced pleasantly. "Murphy is my name."

Herr von Staden shook hands and in most excellent English, without the slightest trace of a German accent, expressed his pleasure in the meeting. The captain cast a glance of frank curiosity at the bag von Staden carried and at the baggage the sailors had in tow. Von Staden interpreted the glance and smiled.

"I have brought you your orders, Captain Murphy. They are contained in this envelope;" and he handed a blank envelope to the captain. "However, I happened to know that one of the orders is to provide a berth for me. I'm to go with you as supercargo."

"I hadn't heard anything about such a possibility," Mike Murphy replied, with just a shade of formality in his tones. He turned to the first mate: "Mr. Schultz, will you be good enough to see to it that Mr. von Staden's baggage is stowed in the owners' suite. Then tell the steward to see that our guest's quarters are put in order. Mr. von Staden, will you kindly step into my stateroom here while I read these orders?"

Von Staden nodded. Entering the captain's room he sat down on the settee and lighted a gold-tipped cigarette, while Murphy tore open the envelope. It contained a cablegram reading as follows:

"Von Staden & Ulrich,--Pernambuco, Brazil,--Ornillo Montevideo.

"BLUESTAR."

The captain reached for his telegraphic-code book. When decoded the message read:

"Instruct captain to proceed to Montevideo and there await further orders.

"BLUE STAR NAVIGATION COMPANY."

The cablegram had been filed at San Francisco two days before. Murphy looked keenly at his guest, who smoked tranquilly and returned the look without interest.

"Mr. von Staden," the captain announced, "these are strange orders, in view of the fact that I cleared from New York for Manila or Batavia, via the Cape of Good Hope. It would be a sure sign of bad luck to the steamer Narcissus if a British cruiser should pick her up off the coast of Uruguay."

Von Staden smiled. "You are very direct, captain--very blunt indeed. This is a characteristic more Teutonic than Celtic, I believe, so I shall experience no embarrassment in being equally frank with you. Your cargo of coal is designed for our German Pacific fleet."

"I guessed as much, sir. Nevertheless, my owners did not see fit to take me into their confidence in this illegal undertaking, Mr. von Staden--"

"They did not think it necessary," von Staden interrupted smilingly. "In fact, Captain Peasley assured our people in New York that your sympathies are so overwhelming in favor of our cause we need anticipate no worry as to the course you would pursue. Moreover, in the event of a judicial inquiry it would be an advantage if you could say that you had had no voice in the matter, but had been instructed to obey the orders of the charterers--of whom we are the agents in Pernambuco. Perhaps this cablegram will allay your fears," and he drew an unopened cablegram from his pocket and handed it to Murphy. It was a code cablegram, signed by the Blue Star Navigation Company and addressed to Murphy in care of von Staden & Ulrich. When decoded it read:

"Execute the orders of supercargo if possible. It may lead to further business. Charterers must take the risk. We do not think there is any risk. Please remain."

This cablegram was signed "Matt."

"Well, captain?" von Staden queried politely.

"I don't like this business at all," the captain replied. "My owners may think there is no risk, but I'm afraid. England controls the seas--"

"We are in possession of the secret code of the British Navy, Captain Murphy. We know the approximate location of every British warship in the Atlantic and Pacific--and I assure you there is no risk."

"Well, my boss informs me the charterers assume the risk, so I suppose I shouldn't worry over the Blue Star Navigation Company's end of the gamble. They know their own business, I dare say. Evidently they feared I might want to resign, so I have been asked to remain; and when Captain Peasley says 'please' to me, Mr. von Staden, I find it very, very hard to refuse."

"I am glad, for the sake of our selfish interests, my dear captain, to find you so loyal to your owners' financial interests," the supercargo replied heartily. "Now that you have decided to remain, I need not point out to you the danger of a resignation at this time. It might lead to some unlooked-for developments which might prejudice your owners, although I think they have covered their tracks very effectually. Nevertheless, it is not well to take the slightest risk--"

"Without being well paid for it," Murphy interrupted sneeringly. "My owners have been well paid for their risk, but where do I come in? I haven't been promised double my usual salary, or a split on the profits of the voyage; and I know if I were to command a vessel loaded with munitions of war I would not be asked to take her into the North Sea at the customary skipper's wages. I'd be offered a large bonus."

"You forget, my dear captain, that your charterers assume all the risks. One of them was the risk that you might resign unless you received adequate compensation. I came aboard prepared to insure that risk," and he touched with his toe the Gladstone bag. "What do you say to $5,000?"

Michael J. Murphy smiled. "It is pleasant, sir," he said, "to be paid $5,000 for doing something one yearns to do for nothing. I am not a hog. Five thousand dollars is sufficient. How do I get it--and when?"

"In gold coin of the United States, or gold certificates of the same interesting country, my dear captain, and you may have it immediately." Again Herr von Staden kicked the Gladstone bag.

"I'll take it in gold certificates. And in order that my dear old father and mother may have the benefit of my rascality in case anything unforeseen should arise to prevent my return, I suggest you hand over the boodle this minute, and I'll go ashore and express it home."

"Captain Murphy, you are a man after my own heart--"

"I am not a born fool, sir," Murphy interrupted. "I'm accepting this money to be a fool, well knowing it is foolish to do it, for still I am taking a risk. I am thirty-eight years old, Mr. von Staden, and a skipper as young as that has his future all before him. Set him down on the beach, however, with his ticket revoked for all time--and his future is behind him."

"In that event," the supercargo replied, "you might accept my assurance, without questioning my authority for such assurance, that you would have no difficulty in procuring a remunerative position ashore. The firm of von Staden & Ulrich could use you very handily."

"Thank you, sir. Consider the matter settled. Will you come ashore with me, sir, and dine, or would you prefer to have supper aboard?"

"I beg of you to be excused from going ashore, captain. I have much to do to-night. The launch which brought me alongside has a knocked-down wireless plant aboard, and I am anxious to have it set up on your good ship Narcissus--a task I shall have to oversee personally. I shall probably work all night."

"Praise be!" Michael J. Murphy answered heartily. "We'll have some interest in life now. We can get all the war news, going and coming, can't we? Have you brought along an operator?"

"I am an operator," the supercargo answered. "By the by, can you fix me up with a wireless room?"

"There are two staterooms and a bath in the owners' suite which you will occupy. You can take your choice."

"Good. I shall want to sleep close to my instrument."

He opened the bag, counted out five one-thousand-dollar gold certificates of the United States of America and handed them to the captain.

"The grand old rag," Michael J. murmured. "How many rascals fight under the flag of old King Spondulics!"

"I believe you have an Irish chief engineer," von Staden continued. "While I understand his sympathies are with us, still it seems only right to compensate--"

"Suit yourself, Mr. von Staden."

"What kind of a man is he, captain?"

"I'd hate to tell you. I've had little to do with him, but that little was enough. We avoid each other as much as possible and never speak except in the line of duty. I make no bones of the fact that I think he's a scrub."

Mr. von Staden nodded sagely. "Perhaps I'd better wait and get acquainted with him," he suggested, and closed his bag. Murphy showed him to his quarters, which the steward, under the first mate's supervision, was already setting in order; and, having decided to set up the wireless in the sleeping-room, von Staden accompanied the skipper round to superintend the taking on board of the wireless plant from the gasoline launch bobbing alongside. When the equipment was finally hoisted to the deck of the Narcissus, Michael J, Murphy boarded the launch and was whisked ashore for the avowed purpose of sending to his aged parents the fruits of his elastic conscience.

Herr August Carl von Staden stood at the head of the accommodation ladder and smiled as the launch disappeared into the tropic twilight. Then he said something in German to Mr. Schultz, who laughed. Evidently it was very good news, for even the quartermaster at the companion ladder smiled covertly. It is possible they would not have felt so cheerful had they known that Michael J. Murphy's "dear old father and mother" had been sleeping in a Boston cemetery some fifteen years, and that their last words to Michael had been an exhortation to remember that manliness and honor must be his only heritage. And as the launch bore him shoreward, he looked back and grinned at the dim, duck-clad figure of von Staden.

"Your agents looked me up, my hearty," he soliloquized, "and if they did their work half well, they told you I was an honest man. Only a crook comes with a bag of gold to talk illegitimate business with an honest man. I'm banking you're as crooked as a bed spring, and that there's something fishy about this enterprise. Cappy Ricks isn't fully informed, otherwise he wouldn't be doing business with a crook!"