Chapter VIII
 

Just about the time the Narcissus was kicking ahead at nine knots, in distant San Francisco the cable company was getting Mr. Skinner out of bed to dictate to him over the telephone a message which had just arrived from Pernambuco.

"Ah!" murmured the incomparable Skinner as he donned a dressing gown and slippers and descended to his library to decode the cablegram. "The luck of the Blue Star flag still holds. That belligerent and highly intelligent fellow Murphy has received our cablegram, sent him in care of the American consul, and in accordance with my instructions he is acknowledging its receipt. Hum-m-m! The first word is 'oriana.' Let me turn to 'oriana.' Hum-m! 'I have an order presumably emanating from blank.' Ah, yes, the next word is 'Buestar,' the cable address of the Blue Star Navigation Company. Well, well, well, the foxy fellow! After wiring us to cable him, he gets our cable and then cables us to confirm it! Caution is a virtue, but this brand is too high-priced. The next word is 'osculo'."

Mr. Skinner turned to "osculo" and discovered that it meant "I am ordered to--" The next word in the cablegram was "Montevideo."

"Good heavens!" Mr. Skinner gasped. "He has received orders, presumably emanating from us, ordering him to Montevideo! Can it be possible that Mr. Ricks or Matt Peasley has sent him a cablegram without my knowledge? I must read further."

He did, and having done so he discovered that, in addition to being ordered to Montevideo, Mike Murphy wanted to know if it was all right and if von Staden and Ulrich--presumably German--were to be trusted; that he would remain in command at the company's request, although he considered such request unreasonable, even if it could be granted without risk. Also, he wanted these instructions confirmed and was anxiously awaiting an answer.

"Well, I'm certain of one thing," Mr. Skinner soliloquized after reading this extraordinary message: "Murphy has not been to the American consul's office for the cablegram I sent him several days ago. Evidently there is mischief afoot. However, there is nothing to be gained by cabling him again in care of the American consul, so I'll just assume that he has registered his cable address with the cable company; hence, if I cable him to his cable address the message will be delivered to him aboard the Narcissus. And since he says he is anxiously awaiting an answer, I'll relieve his anxiety with all possible speed and send him an answer immediately."

Whereupon Mr. Skinner wasted several dollars cabling Mike Murphy that the Blue Star Navigation had not, to his knowledge, cabled him any instructions save those sent in care of the American consul; that von Staden and Ulrich were unknown to him, and to be very careful not to lose the ship. This message Mr. Skinner dictated over the telephone to the telegraph office and asked them to rush it. Evidently they did so, for just as Cappy Ricks arrived in the office the following morning, word was received from the telegraph company that owing to the departure of the Narcissus from Pernambuco the night before, the Blue Star Navigation Company's cablegram had not been delivered.

"Well, Skinner," Cappy chirped as he sat in at his desk and lighted a cigar, "what's the news around the shop this fine morning? Any word from Murphy?"

"Yes--and no," Mr. Skinner replied, and laid his information before Cappy for perusal. Cappy read it all twice, then slid out to the edge of his chair, placed his hands on his knees and looked at Mr. Skinner over the rims of his spectacles.

"Skinner, my dear boy," he said solemnly, "this is certainly hell! Cable the American consul in Pernambuco and ask him if Murphy received the cablegram we sent in care of the consulate. And, in the meantime, don't whisper a word of this disquieting information to Matt Peasley. Time enough to cross a bridge, Skinner, when you come to it."

Mr. Skinner promptly filed a cablegram to the American consul, and just before the office closed they got about forty dollars' worth of reply, informing them that Captain Murphy had appeared at the consulate greatly excited the night previous; that he had declared the cablegram awaiting him might mean life or death--certainly a large sum of money; that he had been given the cablegram and had gone aboard ship to look up his cipher key. He had not returned and the ship was not in the harbor.

"Let me see the carbon copy of the cablegram you sent Murphy in care of the American consul," Cappy demanded. Mr. Skinner with a sinking heart obeyed.

"Skinner," said Cappy, "do I understand you sent this message in cipher, which necessitated on the part of our captain a trip back to his ship before he could decipher it? Why didn't you send him the message in regular code? He would then have decoded it right in the consulate, or at best he could have gone to the cable office and borrowed a code book from them."

"I sent it in our secret cipher," Mr. Skinner faltered. "It was delicate business--quite--er--an international complication, as it were, and in the event of unpleasant developments--Well, how did I know but that some German might be on the key at the cable office when the message arrived there for Murphy--"

"Quite right, Skinner, my boy, quite right," Cappy interrupted sadly. "The only trouble with you, Skinner, is that you're too danged efficient. You look so far into the future you're always gumming up the present." He sighed.

"Why, what do you think--" Skinner began, but Cappy silenced him with an autocratic finger.

"I do not think, Skinner, I know. Had it not been for your damnable cipher message, Murphy would have got your warning ashore instead of being forced to go back to the ship for it. Having got it ashore he would have taken care to warn the Brazilian authorities and they would have been on watch and prevented the ship from leaving. As I view the situation, Mike went aboard, deciphered your message and got ripping mad. Von Staden and Ulrich were probably aboard, and hot-headed Mike probably undertook to throw them overboard single-handed--and failed. His body is doubtless feeding the fishes in Pernambuco harbor this minute, and our lovely--big--Narcissus--the pride of--the Blue Star fleet--"

"Shall I tell Captain Peasley?" Mr. Skinner faltered.

"Yes, tell him. He's bound to find out sooner or later. Skinner, I could stand the loss of the ship, but what breaks me all up is the thought that after forty years of honorable business my friends and my enemies might suspect me of being a filibuster. I, Alden P. Ricks, whose great-grandfather died at Yorktown, whose grandfather was killed at Lundy's Lane, whose father won a medal of honor at Chapultepec--I, Alden P. Ricks, who had to belong to the Home Guard because I was such a little runt they wouldn't take me in the Civil War--to think that I should attain to seventy years and even be suspected of staining the flag of my country for the sake of a few dirty dollars--after all the Ricks blood that has been shed for that flag! Horrible!"

Mr. Skinner turned away for, man and boy, he had spent twenty-five years under Cappy Ricks, and he loved him. He could not bear to see the old man suffer.