Chapter VII
 

Arrived ashore, Captain Murphy hurried to the cable office, registered his cable address, borrowed a code book and sent a code telegram to his owner. Then, having subsidized the operator liberally to rush it, Michael J. Murphy set out for a stroll among the limited attractions of Pernambuco. His cablegram would get through in two hours at the very most, and though the captain figured the Blue Star offices would be closed when the message reached San Francisco, still he was not discouraged. He knew the cable company always telephoned to Mr. Skinner, at his home, all Blue Star and Ricks Lumber & Logging messages arriving after office hours and before midnight. Naturally Skinner could be depended upon to have a copy of the code at home, and if he didn't Murphy knew he would rush down to the office, no matter what the hour, and decode it there. Of course he would cable his reply immediately, in which event it might be that the captain would have an answer shortly after midnight or by breakfast at the latest.

He decided, therefore, to return to the cable office about midnight and await the reply to his cablegram. He had proceeded but a few blocks from the cable office, however, before a disturbing thought struck him with such force as to bring him to an abrupt pause.

His owners had cabled him in care of von Staden & Ulrich, when in the telegram sent just before sailing from Norfolk he had instructed them to cable him in care of the American consul. Murphy's native shrewdness had made him suspicious of von Staden the instant the latter had so nonchalantly offered him a bribe of five thousand dollars, for the proffer of a bribe of that magnitude, without any preliminary bargaining, did not co-ordinate with Michael's idea of business. Certainly if the charterers had his owners "fixed," five thousand dollars was too much money to give their captain, particularly since there were available any number of capable rascals eager to do the job for twenty-five hundred, and the devil take the consequences.

At the time von Staden had handed him the two cablegrams from the Blue Star Navigation Company, no suspicion that they were forgeries had entered the captain's mind; indeed, Matt Peasley's cablegram to him appeared at first blush to be an answer to the telegram which Murphy had sent his owners from Norfolk. In that telegram Murphy had mentioned his suspicions and hinted at unwarranted risks and the possibility of the circumstances attending the delivery of his cargo forcing his resignation. Matt's cablegram handed him by von Staden urged him to remain in the ship and assured him there were no risks; that if there were, the charterers assumed them. For the nonce, therefore, the master's mind did not dwell on any doubts as to the genuineness of the orders he had received, even though he decided instantly as a precautionary measure to confirm them before proceeding to carry them out. This, however, was merely because he was suspicious of von Staden and desired to obviate the possibility of that individual's double-crossing the Blue Star Navigation Company.

Under the circumstances, therefore, he had considered it good policy to appear to fall readily in line, and, the better to disarm von Staden's watchfulness, he had demanded extra compensation. The ease with which the bribe had been secured having crystallized his suspicions, instantly he had cast about in his ingenious brain for a good sound excuse for going ashore and cabling his owners. To demand his bribe in advance and then announce that he would go ashore and express it to those dependent upon him, in case he failed to return and enjoy it himself, seemed to present a reason that would not be questioned and accordingly he had done so.

Michael J. Murphy removed his uniform cap and thoughtfully scratched his head. "Now why," he demanded of the scented night, "did Matt cable me in care of that German firm when he must have known I would call on the American consul in the expectation of finding a cablegram there?" He shook his head. "They've got us winging, Michael," he soliloquized, "so I suppose the only thing to do is to play safe, call upon the American consul immediately if not sooner, and ask if he has a cablegram for us."

And without further ado the worthy fellow sprang into a cab and was whirled away to the residence of the American consul. Yes, the consul had a cablegram for him, but it was at his office. Could Captain Murphy not wait until morning?

Most emphatically Captain Murphy could not. That cablegram was important; it meant a great deal of money and possibly life or death--

Regretfully the consul entered the cab with the captain, drove to the consulate and delivered the cable-gram to the eager mariner, who swore when he discovered it was in cipher and not code, for this necessitated immediate return to the Narcissus in order to obtain the key to the cipher. He thanked the consul and sent the latter home in the cab, while he hurried for the harbor front and the nearest boat landing. He was filled with apprehension, for indeed there was something radically wrong when his owners cabled him in the secret cipher of the Blue Star Navigation Company--something the company had, doubtless, never found occasion to do before. For while each vessel of the Blue Star fleet had a copy of the A.L. code aboard, with the cipher key typewritten and pasted on the second fly-leaf, not a single Blue Star skipper knew why it had been pasted there or why the company should have gone to the trouble of getting up any one of the hundreds of secret ciphers possible to be developed from the A. L. Telegraphic Code. This was a secret that lay locked in the breast of Mr. Skinner. It is probable, however, that it had occurred to him in an idle moment that a secret cipher might come in handy some day, and Mr. Skinner believed in being prepared for emergencies.

The captain bade the launch wait for him at the accommodation ladder, while he hurried round to his state-room and promptly fell to work on Mr. Skinner's cipher cablegram. When he had laboriously deciphered it this is what he read:

"Unaccountably failed note suspicious clause charter. Something rotten. We are playing square game. Think plot deliver coal German fleet South Atlantic. Discharge your German crew immediately, first notifying Brazilian authorities and American consul. Have help when you notify them game is off, otherwise may take vessel away from you. They will stop at nothing; fleet desperate for coal. Cable acknowledgment these orders; also cable when orders fulfilled. Very anxious. "BLUE STAR NAVIGATION COMPANY."

"Ah-h-h!" breathed Michael J. Murphy softly, but very distinctly. "So that's the game, eh?" His big square chin set viciously; subconsciously he clenched his hard fist and shook it at his enemies. "The cunning Dutch devils!" he murmured very audibly, and at that precise instant Herr August Carl von Staden stood in the open doorway. He coughed, and Murphy glanced up from the translation of the cipher message just in time to note a swift shadow pass over the supercargo's face, a shadow composed of equal parts of suspicion, embarrassment and desperation.

"You have returned very promptly, captain," he remarked smoothly, and then his restless glance fell on the cablegram and beside it the scratch pad and the two parallel columns of words scrawled on it. A man of far less intelligence than von Staden possessed would, have realized as quickly that the first column was composed of cipher words, while the second column was the translation. From this tell-tale evidence his suspicious glance lifted to the skipper's face, and he read in Michael J. Murphy's black eyes the wild rage which no Irishman could have concealed--which the majority of his race would not even have taken the trouble to endeavor to conceal.

In that glance each learned the other's secret; each realized that the success of his plans depended on the silence of the other; each resolved instantly to procure that silence at any cost. Von Staden reached for his hip pocket, but before he could draw his automatic pistol and cover the skipper, Michael J. Murphy had hurled ten pounds of code book into the geometric centre of the supercargo's face. It was the first weapon his hand closed over, and he did not disdain it. The instant it landed and von Staden reeled before the blow, Murphy came out of his state-room with a scuttering rush and von Staden fired as he came. The captain felt the sting of the bullet as it creased the top of his left shoulder; then his right fist came up in a blow that started at his hip and landed fairly under the supercargo's heart. Von Staden grunted once, the pistol dropped clattering to the deck and he folded up like an accordion. For him the battle was over.

Not so, however, with Mike Murphy. Gone to the winds now was the caution he would have exercised had the attack been delayed two seconds longer; forgotten was the shrewd advice of his owners to have help standing by when the ship cleaning should commence. Michael J. Murphy thought of nothing but blood, for the fight had started now and he was loath to have it cease.

"You bloody murderer!" he growled. "You'd kill me and steal my ship, would you?" And with the reckless abandon of a sailor he planted the broad toe of a number nine boot in Herr von Staden's short ribs, hoping to break a few, for in the process of working his way up from the bottom Michael had fought under deep-sea rules too often to be squeamish now. So he kicked Herr von Staden again, after which a glimmer of reason penetrated his hot head and he walked to pick up the supercargo's automatic pistol. Then something landed on him from above and he went down backward. His head struck the deck with a resounding thump, and Michael J. Murphy had a through ticket to the Land of Nod and no stop-over privileges.

The something which had thus inopportunely dropped on Michael was Mr. Henckel, the second mate. He had gone up on the bridge to see if the canvas jacket had been dropped over the brightly polished brass engine-room telegraph apparatus at each end of the bridge, in order to protect it from the tropical dew. While thus engaged he had heard the shot which von Staden fired at the captain, and forthwith had run across the top of the house and peered over to discover what was happening on the deck below. Discovering the captain in the act of kicking a distinguished son of the Fatherland in that fragile section of the human anatomy frequently referred to as the "slats," the second mate had stood a moment, immobile with horror, the while he gazed upon the fearful scene. Then the captain walked to a spot on the deck directly beneath the position occupied by his subordinate, and stooped to pick something up.

Even their enemies are proud of the dash and gallantry, the utter contempt for consequences, which animate the German going into battle, and Mr. Henckel, second mate of the S.S. Narcissus, was as fine a German as one could find in a day's travel. The instant Michael J. Murphy stooped to recover von Staden's automatic pistol, therefore, Mr. Henckel saw his duty and, in the language of the elect, "he went an' done it"--the which was absurdly simple. He merely leaped down off the house on top of the captain, and forthwith deep peace and profound silence brooded over the good ship Narcissus, of San Francisco.

It is worthy of remark here that Mr. Terence Reardon who, had he been present, might have had something to say--not that his action would indicate that he despised Mike Murphy the less, but that he loved his owners more--was unfortunately down in the engine-room. Consequently he failed to hear the shot, and when he came up on deck the victims of the affray had been collected and taken thence, a seaman with a mop had removed the profuse evidence which Mike Murphy's rich red blood had furnished and Mr. Schultz, the first mate, was on the bridge, while Mr. Henckel was up on the forecastle head with his gang, waiting for the order to break out the anchor.

Presently a seaman came up on the bridge and reported that the light in Mr. Reardon's state-room had been out fifteen minutes. So Mr. Schultz waited an hour longer to make certain the chief engineer would be asleep; whereupon commenced a harsh, discordant tune--the music of the anchor chain paying in through the hawse pipe. When it ceased Mr. Schultz stepped to the marine telegraph; a bell jingled in the bowels of the Narcissus; an instant later all the lights aboard her went out as the first assistant engineer threw off the switch, and silently in the heavy velvet gloom the great vessel slipped out of Pernambuco harbor and headed south.