CAPTAIN MALTHUS, of the freighter Cambrian, was slightly surprised when the summons came. It was true he had been with Binford & Soames close to forty years, and it was true that he knew Mr. Binford very well indeed, could almost call him an old friend. Still, it was unusual for the president of the Line to call a master personally into his office on the very eve of sailing. It was so unusual that Captain Malthus felt a little uneasy, felt that something must be wrong. So he put on his best shore-going suit, brushed his silvery hair, snipped a few stray hairs from his cropped white mustache, and with a final inspection in the mirror adjusted his bowler hat and left his cabin, a frail, leathery-faced little man with anxious blue eyes.
“I can't imagine what it is,” he observed seriously to Mr. Wesley, his first mate, at the gangway head. "But it must be serious. The old man has never done this before. Wanting me only an hour before sailing time.”
"Maybe he’s going to give us all a bonus,” said the mate good-naturedly. He was big, beefy and red-faced, and he had a genuine affection for Captain Malthus. “Shall I call you a cab. sir?”
“No, I’ll walk,” said the captain absently, and set off in the blazing summer sun along the dock, nimbly dodging cargo slings, trucks and profane longshoremen. In the cool dimness of Mr. Binford's office he relaxed to a chair with a sigh, and groped for a cigar in the humidor the president pushed toward him. Mr. Ambrose, the junior partner, was present, lounging moodily against the window sill and inspecting his nails, and he nodded to him.
"It’s pretty urgent, Malthus,” said Binford shortly, “or I wouldn't have bothered you. I—just a minute.” He got up, circled his desk and carefully closed the transoms over the office doors. “Now,” he said, resuming his seat, “we’ll get down to business.”
“Better make it fast.” observed Mr. Ambrose without looking up. “I’ve got to send in an okay within the hour.”
Binford nodded. “Right. It’s this way, Malthus. One of our best clients has to ship bar gold to El Constitucion. A lot of it. Nearly two million dollars worth to be exact.”
Captain Malthus blinked and drew on his cigar.
"That’ll be a job for the Rose City, sir,” he said mildly. “She’s got a strong-room and she’s fast.”
“We were going to ship it on the Rose City,” agreed Mr. Binford, “but our client has information, whether real or fancied I don’t know, that there will be an attempt made to lift the stuff somewhere between here and El Constitucion.”
“Lift bar gold off the Rose City?” said Captain Malthus. surprised. “Why, that'd be impossible. Not to speak of the crew watching it, a single call would bring a cutter.”
“You’re forgetting the robbery on the Persian Prince ten years or so back,” said the president dryly. “That was supposed to be impossible, too. But they got a launch alongside, knocked out the radio men, stuck up the crew, and got clear away.”
“Ah, yes,” agreed the captain. He inspected the tip of his cigar and nodded. “I’d forgotten that.”
“So,” went on the other man, “to pacify everyone we’ve decided to pull a little trick. You’ll take the gold out on the Cambrian.”
There was a long silence. Captain Malthus blew smoke toward the ceiling and pursed his lips. He could think of a dozen objections. He even knew that if he refused Mr. Binford would agree. He had been long enough in the Line to know that his judgment was unquestioned. But he also knew that Binford would never have made the suggestion unless there had been need.
“Very well.” he said quietly. “And how will you arrange it?”
“This is the idea.” explained the other. “We load, under armed guard and all, what will appear to be bar gold on the Rose City. It will actually be lead, but anyone interested in the bullion won’t know that. All right. Now you sail in about—about—”
“One hour, sir.”
“All right, one hour. Just inside one hour, then, you will receive on the dock some new freight labelled as machinery. This will go in on top of the rest of your cargo, wherever you think best. There will be a few guards around but they won’t be noticeable. Two special agents wall travel with you, ostensibly as passengers. You sail immediately after the stuff is on board, and you will omit all usual ports of call and head straight for El Constitucion. You can double back afterward and attend to regular business. Am I clear?”
“Quite.” agreed Captain Malthus. “I need hardly point out that this is a grave responsibility for me, sir.”
Mr. Binford wiped his forehead.
“I can’t think of anyone else I’d sooner trust,” he said fervently. “But there should be no trouble. If anyone’s after the stuff, they’ll be attending to the Rose City. Except for the guards, who are heavily bonded and I suppose quite trustworthy, no one knows of the shift of cargo saving the three of us here, our clients, and, of course, the people in El Constitucion to whom the stuff is consigned. They will meet you anyway, with the proper papers, before you reach quarantine.”
“Is that all, sir?” asked Captain Malthus, rising. Mr. Ambrose straightened from the window sill and blew on his nails. He was a dapper man, with a neat black mustache and very slick hair, and he had a lazy drawl. Captain Malthus always expected somehow to see him collapse like a wet sack, from the languid way he held himself.
“I think, captain,” he suggested, “it might be an idea for you to radio us every two hours or so, letting us know if things are all right. If we don’t hear, you see, we can get busy.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” enthused Mr. Binford. And he added anxiously. “Do be careful, captain. It’s important to us that we please our clients—they’re our biggest. Probably their anxiety is a lot of nonsense, but we have to humor them.”
“I understand,” agreed the captain, and, adjusting his bowler hat, he shook hands, murmured something about doing his best, and left the office. Mr. Ambrose adjusted his tie and frowned a little.
“It seems a lot of responsibility to put on an old man.” he observed thoughtfully. Binford laughed and mopped his forehead.
“Don’t you worry about Malthus. I’ve known him a long, long time.”
It was a brilliant day. The harbor waters were soft purple, flecked with white where the warm wind cut across the little waves. The sky was an echoing blue, spotted with fleecy clouds, and the green hills of the shore seemed to expand under the genial summer sun. Here and there the white sails of yachts were clear, and the brasswork glinted on a white-walled liner coming in from the Orient. Under normal circumstances Captain Malthus would have admired all this, but until the Cambrian had cleared the heads and was beginning to lift to the deep-sea swell he was a little too nervous.
Looking at it rationally, he hardly knew why he should be. Everything had gone off without a hitch. The bar gold was safely in number one hold, on top of the other cargo, and so far as he knew no member of the crew even suspected. He had not even ordered the hatch battened down, in case it might arouse comment, for in such weather it was customary to leave a hatch or so off for the sake of ventilation. No, when he thought it over, there was no need to feel worried, except that he kept remembering the old episode of the Persian Prince, when gangsters had halted that vessel with a distress signal and then slid alongside in a launch and boarded her.
Of course, they had known the Persian Prince was carrying bullion and jewels, whereas no one knew the Cambrian was a treasure ship. And after they had lost sight of the land—Captain Malthus heaved a sigh of relief when they did—there would not be much chance for a launch. He went into the chartroom after a while and found the second mate busy checking the course, and he said, “By the way, mister. We’re making El Constitucion direct this run. We’ll catch other ports on a double-back.” The second mate looked surprised.
“That’s a bit unusual, sir, isn’t it? Are we on a special job?”
“Sort of,” agreed the captain mildly. The second mate shrugged, tore up the slips he had been making calculations on, and started again. Captain Malthus went along to the wireless shack and spoke to the operator.
“Once every two hours or so,” he said, “you will send word to the office, to Mr. Binford in person, that we are okay.”
The operator looked as surprised as the second mate had been.
“Send word we're okay, sir?” he said, puzzled. “But why shouldn’t we be okay? Every two hours, sir?”
“Night and day,” agreed Captain Malthus. “It will be hard on you without sleep, but it’s only a forty-eight-hour run so you can probably manage it. I’ll have someone keep you company later, to see you wake up at the proper times.”
“The old man must have gone nuts,” muttered the operator as the captain left. “Completely nuts.” He jammed up his switches and hammered out his first message, and then, as he was about to relax and light a cigarette, his hand stiffened halfway to his mouth. There was a large blue automatic thrust approximately beneath his nose, and a pleasant voice was saying, “Just take it easy, friend. You got company.”
The operator turned carefully and saw a sallow-faced, lean man with smiling dark eyes, and teeth that looked very white when he smiled.
“Just wh—what’s the big idea?” demanded the operator hoarsely. The other man carefully locked both doors, dropped the deadlights over the ports, sank to a spare chair and waggled the automatic carelessly.
“You wouldn’t understand, friend,” he stated. “Just behave and keep your eye on the clock. Send out the okay every two hours as you were told, and we’ll get along swell. I savvy the code, so don’t try sending anything I wouldn’t like. Now pull those switches, because we just blank out between hours. Savvy?”
CAPTAIN MALTHUS began to feel uneasy again as he made his way back to the bridge, though he couldn’t understand why. The Cambrian was clear of the coast, the radio operator had his orders, everything was running smoothly and there shouldn’t be a hitch. He found Mr. Wesley, the big mate, in the act of relieving the second, and the wheel relief was also taking over.
“I understand we’re heading for El Constitucion direct,” the mate ventured. “Must be something important. And by the way, sir, you didn’t tell me we were having a couple of passengers. I was going to raise hob with them, but they had letters from old Binford himself.”
“Ah, yes,” agreed the captain. He brushed his white mustache and frowned a little. “They’re special agents—I mean agents going to join the office at El Constitucion.”
The mate grunted but seemed satisfied. He stared through the glasses at a shoal of leaping porpoise, then casually swept the horizon, noting a streak of smoke far to the east, and his eyes coming down to the main deck, as he dropped the glasses in the bridge box, he gave vent to an amazed, “Well, I’ll be—! What’s going on?”
Captain Malthus joined him at the rail and they both stared astonished at several strange men, armed with automatics, who were ushering the watch on deck toward the fo’c’s’le. They thrust the seamen into the scuttle, slammed the steel door to, and dropped the outer bar across it. The mate looked wide-eyed at Captain Malthus, and Captain Malthus was very pale beneath his tan.
“So it’s happening to me too,” he whispered. “How did they—?” He checked himself and then spoke curtly and fast: “Get hold of Sparks and send out an S O S,” he said. “To the office. They’ll understand.”
The mate turned to run, took two steps and choked, an automatic ramming into his stomach.
“You’re not going anywhere,” snapped the stranger, a sandy-haired giant in soiled blue trousers and a worn uniform jacket. Captain Malthus turned and eyed him without comment, very calm. He noted there was another man standing by the frightened helmsman, and still another standing near by, watching him negligently and with thick thumbs stuck in his belt. All the men were grinning.
“I don’t understand.” protested the mate with an effort. His florid face had gone pale and he licked suddenly dry lips. “This is piracy.”
“Call it what you like,” agreed the sandy-haired man. “The ship’s been taken over.”
The mate looked at Captain Malthus and Captain Malthus nodded. Very carefully he fished inside a pocket, produced a cigar and lighted it. His hands were quite steady.
“We’re carrying gold bullion,” he explained to the puzzled mate. “Those last cases that came aboard. This gang must have found out somehow.”
“Nothing to it,” agreed the sandy-haired man “We just jostled around with the longshoremen and ducked into the holds when they cleared off. And you needn’t worry about them special agents, nor the rest of your crowd. It’s all been taken care of, including the radio guy.”
Captain Malthus blinked a little and drew hard on his cigar.
“And what are we supposed to do now?” he enquired gently. The other waggled the automatic in his direction.
“Just ease the ship into Bundy’s Harbor, grandad. We ought to be there by morning. And don’t try anything too funny, because I can navigate a bit myself, enough to know if you’re taking us up the wrong creek, see.”
“Perfectly,” said Captain Malthus dryly. He cleared his throat. “Except that I don’t navigate my ship to please ruffians."
The sandy-haired man grinned a little, showing tobacco-stained teeth. “You’ll come around,” he said genially and, stepping forward, smashed the back of his free hand against the captain’s mouth, crushing the cigar and sending the little white-haired man reeling back against the rail. He weaved a bit and then came upright again, blood staining his white mustache. Mr. Wesley made a choking sound and stepped in. His fist caught the sandy-haired man high on one cheek, and then again in the throat.
“You keep your paws off the skipper!” the mate blazed, and the sandy-haired man cursed, spat deliberately and lifted his automatic. There were two spanging reports and the mate wavered, took two or three halting steps forward and fell on his face. He rolled once, and then was still.
THERE was a tight silence. Captain Malthus wiped the blood from his mouth, and his hand was shaking a little now. He looked down at his mate, and then at the other armed men on the bridge. They were still grinning a little, unmoved. The sandy-haired man blew down the muzzle of his gun and waved it airily.
“That’s what you get when you try funny stuff with Clem Peterson,” he explained. “So remember that, grandad. You just do your job and you’ll be all right.”
“Was it necessary to kill him?” asked Captain Malthus quietly. “I think you’ve made a mistake.”
“I never make mistakes, grandad. It’s the other guy what does that.”
“And suppose I refuse to handle the ship as you want me to?”
“Well, we’ve got a couple other officers under lock and key. We’d haul them up one at a time and go to work on them, after we’d finished with you. I think you’d better behave. I might handle the packet myself, but I don’t know this coast and it’s been a long time since I did any real navigating.”
Shoes pounded on the companion from the main deck and a man burst into sight, calling angrily.
“Peterson! I told you no shooting! What the devil have you done?”
Captain Malthus started slightly and everything became clear. The newcomer was Mr. Ambrose, the junior partner of the Line, still in his office clothes, and with all his languor gone. Peterson shrugged.
“The guy took a swing at me, so I let him have it. What’s the difference?”
“I don’t want any killing—more than can be helped!” snapped Ambrose shortly. “You’d better keep that in mind.” He looked at Captain Malthus then and smiled cynically. “Quite a surprise, eh, captain? Well, you won’t be hurt so long as you do as you’re told.”
The captain nodded, wiped his mouth again and groped for a fresh cigar.
“I am surprised,” he agreed slowly. “I take it Mr. Binford knows nothing of this.” Ambrose laughed and straightened his tie.
“That old fool? He doesn’t even know I’m on board the Cambrian yet, and I’d like to see his face when they examine the firm’s books. No, he doesn’t know, captain. And this is my out. Too big a chance to miss. We just want to anchor in Bundy’s Harbor long enough to get the gold off her, and then you can go your own sweet way. We’ll be across the border long before you can get any action. Neat, eh?”
“Maybe,” the little sailor agreed dryly. “And maybe not. You’ll keep in mind this has gone beyond piracy now. It’s murder.”
“Which wasn’t my fault.” Ambrose glared at Peterson and the big man cursed sullenly. “Anyway, there won’t be any more killing if I can help it.” He glanced around on the summer sea, looked up at the white clouds in the azure sky, and then shrugged, finally looking at the big mate’s body huddled on the bridge mat.
“Well, it’s done now,” he said callously. “Better get rid of it, Peterson.”
The other grunted, put his gun away, and with the aid of another man lifted the body, carried it to the bridge wing and toppled it overside. Captain Malthus drew on his cigar and expelled smoke slowly and with care. His nerves had quieted and he felt calm and steady, and deadly cold inside.
“You seem to have things pretty well figured out,” he observed.
“Everything,” Ambrose placidly agreed. “The engine room’s under control. Your crew’s shut in. The radio’s taken care of and there’s a man in the galley to see the cook doesn’t try to poison us. I think that about covers it.”
“That about covers it.” the captain agreed and, facing for’ard, he clasped his hands behind his back and stared at the purple sea, his face bleak and his blue eyes a little narrowed. Ambrose nodded at Peterson and muttered, “He’ll be a good dog now. But keep an eye on him.”
To the captain he said aloud, “I’ve got the thing pretty well worked out. We should be in Bundy's Harbor around seven in the morning. The only ship we’re scheduled to pass will be the liner Maracol, about midnight. You will not attempt to signal her or in any way let her know there is something wrong, though I guess Peterson will take care of that. We may pass other vessels, and the same orders hold. I trust now that everything is clear.”
“Quite clear,” agreed Captain Malthus. without turning. Ambrose nodded and started below again to take, as he expressed it, a look around. Peterson rolled a cigarette and lounged on the rail. The other two armed men remained near the still frightened helmsman, squatting on their haunches with their backs to the wheelhouse bulkhead and talking in low tones. The Cambrian shouldered through the laughing summer sea, her bows throwing a curve of dazzling cream each side of her; her hull shaking rhythmically to the pulse of the engines, and creaking mysteriously each time she dipped and came up again. The wind murmured in the rigging and slatted the halyards, and the funnel smoke sprawled lazily astern like an enormous dusky fan. But all Captain Malthus could see before him was the ominous red stain that had soaked into the rope mat on the bridge.
SO TIME passed. He drew steadily on his cigar and tried to keep his thoughts in order. He had been through a great many things since he had first gone to sea; a mutiny, several shipwrecks, but nothing quite as fantastic as this. He had never liked Mr. Ambrose, but still he had never dreamed the man would turn out as he had, go entirely insane. Quite obviously he must have been up to some trick business with the firm, probably embezzlement, and this chance to obtain the bullion must have come as a godsend. It seemed a little incredible that he should have got a gang together at such short notice, or maybe he had always had the gang around. They might account for some certain mysterious robberies of the Line’s cargo sheds, which had been taking place off and on for some time. There was no knowing just what Ambrose had been up to all these years. And anyway, desperate men can sometimes accomplish desperate results.
He did not forget that his mate had been killed trying to defend him. He would never forget that. But the problem now was to figure out some way to save the bullion and to see the pirates were taken care of. He did not know just what business arrangements Binford had made about handling the bullion, but he had gathered that apart from its enormous value it had been an imperative matter to deliver it safely to please one of the Line’s most important clients. He knew too that often with special and valuable cargoes Binford & Soames carried their own insurance, and if this were so in this case, then it was entirely likely the loss of the bullion would ruin the firm. For that matter, when the fact came out that the firm’s junior partner had been the leading light in the piracy, the firm would probably be finished anyway. Shippers would certainly shy off any line with such a shady reputation. He felt he had to do something. The trouble was what? What could he do, an old man alone? The only definite chance for a contact with the outside world would be when they passed the Maracol about midnight, and he would not dare try signalling her. Or signal any other ships, and there should be a few making the coast this time of the year. He had to think.
He said after a long time, “Do you mind if I go below to my room?” Peterson pitched the stub of a cigarette away and yawned.
“What for, your gun?” he asked cynically.
“No, I was thinking I could do with a drink. I'll bring the bottle right up.”
“Now, that's something like,” said the sandy-haired man, licking his lips. “Dunno why I didn't think of it myself. I'll go below with you and see there’s no monkey business.”
He called out to one of the others to keep his eyes open, and went with Captain Malthus to the master’s cabin. The captain unlocked his closet and took down a bottle of his private stock, and then after a brief hesitation took two more.
They went up on the bridge again, carrying glasses, and with a gusty sigh Peterson knocked the neck off one bottle and slopped whisky out for himself and the others. Captain Malthus retired to the chartroom for a quiet drink of his own, and he left the bottle standing on the table in plain view, so they could help themselves when their own bottles were empty, while he laid off a new course that would bring to a bearing off Bundy’s Harbor by daylight. Peterson came in and checked the course, nodding.
“That’s right, grandad,” he said approvingly. “Just keep playing ball and we’ll all be all right.”
Ambrose came up soon after and exploded when he saw the whisky.
“I told you fools to lay off the liquor until this business was finished!” he blazed. “Blast you, Peterson, you’re liable to ruin everything!”
“I guess I can handle my liquor,” said the sandy-haired man belligerently. “We got to do something, stuck up here and just waiting.”
“Throw the stuff overboard!” snapped Ambrose. “Overboard I say!” He tried to wrest the bottle from Peterson’s hand and the big man pushed him away.
“Not so fast, boss. I’m sticking to this. And if you don’t like it you can lump it. We’re taking just so many orders and that’s all. Nothing’s going to go wrong, so forget it.” There were approving grunts from the other men and Ambrose looked at them through slitted eyes, and then with a curse went below again. He could not afford open mutiny at the present moment. Captain Malthus gave a little wintry smile as he faced for’ard again. He had had an idea this stripe of men would have a liquor weakness. They usually had. It probably wouldn’t do him any good, but you never could tell. He looked at the stain on the bridge mat again and his face grew sober and grim. He groped for a fresh cigar.
THE AFTERNOON waned away and dusk began to fall, and two men came up to relieve those on the bridge so they could go below and eat. Peterson remained to keep an eye on the captain, and after a while the scared saloon steward brought up a tray of food for both of them. They ate in the chartroom, leaning on the table, Peterson taking great swigs of whisky after each mouthful. The liquor did not seem to affect him very much. He grew more silent, morose even, and his movements became deliberate, but apart from that he seemed in full control.
“You’d better get a man to relieve the wheel,” the captain suggested mildly. “The man there now has been on for hours.”
“Aye,” Peterson agreed thickly. “Aye, it’s best we keep someone wide-awake at the wheel. Tricky coast they tell me.”
“The channel into Bundy’s Harbor is very bad,” agreed Captain Malthus. “I’ve never run it at night myself, so we’ll have to be careful.”
Peterson grunted. “That’s one reason you’re taking her in and not me. I’m too rusty, and anyway I’ve never run the channel at all. What’s more,” he added viciously, “don’t get any ideas about piling her up. We’d get the bullion anyway and you’d get a hunk of lead. That’s all.”
“I haven’t the faintest intention of wrecking my own ship.” said the captain stiffly. “But it might happen accidentally, unless you get another man at the wheel. In fact you might arrange it to have the helm relieved every two hours as is normal. We’ll certainly need someone with his wits about him when we reach the channel.”
“Yeah, there’s sense in that.” Peterson grunted. “I'll go for’ard and scare some guy out.” He peered out of the chartroom door at the gathering dusk and observed. “You’d better get the navigation lights on.”
“I was going to see to that,” the little sailor assured him, and as Peterson went away he attended to the matter. The two other guards on the bridge watched him indifferently, knowing nothing of ships. When the fresh man was at the wheel, Peterson shoved the other into the chartroom and told him to stay there.
“I'll get some grub sent up. And you c'n take a snooze on the settee for a couple of hours afore you take over again. I ain’t trotting back and forth to the fo’c’s’le for fresh hands all the time.”
Ambrose appeared at intervals, nervous and irritable. He complained about the drinking again, but no one paid him much attention, and after a careful look at Peterson, noting the big man still seemed reasonably sober, he appeared satisfied. He sighted a feather of smoke on the hazy horizon as he turned to go below again, and he touched Peterson’s arm.
“There’s some sort of vessel coming up now. Don’t let the old man signal.”
“He won’t,” Peterson assured him. “An’ you be sure them radio messages go out on the dot. We don’t want a cutter chasing after us.”
“They’re going out all right,” Ambrose assured him, and he grinned at Captain Malthus. “Pretty neat work all around, eh, skipper? I thought up this idea of having the Cambrian take the gold myself. Much easier to get at than it would have been on the Rose City.”
He dropped down to the main deck, and the captain compressed his lips and watched a dirty-sided, smoke-hung tramp march up out of the sea toward them. He glanced aloft to the foremast where the white navigation light shone, giving the direction the Cambrian was headed, and he wondered if he dared try and flash it on and off in the code. But Peterson was still too alert for that, so he gave up the idea with a sigh.
The tramp drew closer, came abreast, her green starboard light shining dear, and her portholes glowing.
“Don’t try nothing now,” Peterson warned, and he was wagging his automatic again. Captain Malthus lighted a cigar and made no response, but he watched intently. The tramp ship’s Morse lamp suddenly came to life, winking across the distance.
“Can you make out what she’s saying?” asked the captain softly.
But Peterson only swore. “Naw! I never was much good at the code. And anyway they’re sending too fast.” The captain drew a sharp breath of relief. He suspected the whisky had something to do with Peterson’s density also, and for that he was thankful. It was his only chance.
The Morse light continued to wink even after the ships had passed, and then it blanked out. Peterson scratched his chin with his gun muzzle and wrinkled his brow.
“Gabby sort of guy, ain't he? Must’ve had something important to say. Did you get any of it?”
Captain Malthus smiled a little. “Partly. It was something about us reporting him.” Peterson grunted and let the matter drop.
The darkness oozed down and the stars came out to spangle the velvet sky. Phosphorescence glimmered in the white wash along the Cambrian's hull, and the ship seemed to breathe as she lifted and fell slowly to the groundswell. Lights began to appear on the coast far off, and, taking a bearing on one of them. Captain Malthus changed his course again, with Peterson checking, somewhat befuddled now.
They passed another freighter about ten o’clock, and curiously enough her Morse light also awoke to life as she came close to the Cambrian. Peterson was not even curious this time, but Captain Malthus chewed nervously on his cigar and, unable to keep still, paced rapidly back and forth across the bridge, keeping an eye on the signal light until the ship had passed astern. And then, around midnight, they came up to the liner Maracol as scheduled. She was riding with a high bone in her teeth at her twenty-knot speed, and her tiered decks were ablaze with lights. They could hear the faint echoes of band music across the water, and then it was drowned out as her siren blasted and blasted again. Peterson jumped and stared wildly around.
“Now what’s she doing that for?” he demanded. Ambrose came running on the bridge with an excited “What’s wrong? What’s gone wrong now?”
“It’s nothing,” said Captain Malthus mildly. “She just wants to attract attention.” And he pointed. And there was the Maracol's Morse light flashing on and off, off and on, in the jerky code. The siren blasted again when the Cambrian gave no response, and Ambrose said nervously, “Maybe you’d better answer him,” but Peterson shook his head and growled, “I ain’t well enough up in the code to check him. He might call for help.” So Ambrose subsided and finally relaxed as the great liner dwindled away. Captain Malthus drew a deep breath. He had made his play, and the rest was up to luck and somebody’s common sense.
THE NIGHT passed without event, and drearily enough. Captain Malthus was dead tired long before it was over, but anxiety and a nervous excitement kept him going. Several times he climbed to the monkey bridge and swept the sea astern with the night glasses, until Peterson grumbled, “What’s got into you? Expecting someone?”
“Possibly,” said the little white-haired sailor, and Ambrose added hoarsely, “You’ve got something up your sleeve, you old fool! I’d like to know!” And he gnawed his hands and walked about nervously, sweating from every pore.
“What can he have up his sleeve?” Peterson demanded belligerently. “We’ll be in by dawn and the devil with him! He ain’t pulled nothing. He ain’t had a chance.” With which Peterson took another swig from his second bottle, hiccoughed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “There’s Point Sturgon light now,” he stated, pointing to a vivid flash that wheeled inland and came seaward again every few seconds. “Bundy’s Harbor’s just around the comer.”
“Of course, of course,” Ambrose mumbled, mopping his face. “We’re just about in. Neat, eh? Could never have done this with the Rose City.”
Captain Malthus watched the first faint glimmer of the false dawn glow along the eastern horizon, watched it fade, and then saw the true dawn start in red and gold. He ordered the wheel put to starboard as the Cambrian came abreast of the first reach of the long channel that ran into Bundy’s Harbor, and disappointment made him feel sick at his stomach. It seemed the bullion was really lost, and with it Binford & Soames, and Captain Malthus himself. He chewed on a dead cigar and felt suddenly very tired. The first time he had ever failed in carrying out a trust. He was about to drop the engines to half ahead for the tricky channel when a hoarse yell came from aft.
For a moment everyone stood motionless, and then with an oath Peterson ran for the after bridge rail and stared, swaying a little, the whisky bottle in one hand and his gun in the other. Ambrose choked and ran to look too, and the other men scrambled to their feet, swearing. Captain Malthus deliberately jammed the telegraphs to “Stop,” and leaned weakly against the rail. He was smiling very faintly and with a curious sense of triumph, for racing up upon them was a lean, grey cutter with an ominous-looking gun thrusting out. The little white-haired sailor picked up a megaphone and got into the bridge wing.
“What’s the matter with you fellows?” an officer on the cutter’s bridge was demanding as it ran alongside. “Charging all over the sea ...”
“Nothing! There’s nothing wrong,” Ambrose called frantically, but Captain Malthus’ voice came clear and sharp through the megaphone.
“Piracy, sir! Put a crew on board at once!”
Peterson ran for him, swearing drunkenly, and hit at his head with the automatic. The blow fell short, caught the captain on the shoulder and knocked him down. Peterson turned, swearing again, and shouted at Ambrose.
“This is a fine mess now! You better think of something fast!”
Captain Malthus groped up, dizzy, and without thinking brought the metal megaphone down on the back of Peterson’s head. The big man stumbled, dropping his whisky and his gun, but he did not fall. The captain dived for the gun, caught it up, and as Peterson turned and plunged into him he shot him through the heart.
Ambrose was shouting hysterically, “Captain, you’ve got to do something! Tell them something! I’ll make it right with you. We’ll cut you in on the bullion. See?” He was shaking the little sailor’s arm, but the captain threw him off and stared bleakly at the dull stain in the bridge mat.
“That ought to square things, Wesley,” he said gently, and then he turned to greet the cutter officer who was climbing to the bridge, gun in hand and with a squad behind him. There was no fight left in Ambrose’s men.
“Shooting,” said the officer coldly. “And what’s all this about piracy? Who’s in charge here?” He caught sight of Peterson’s huddled body then and lifted his brows. Captain Malthus nodded.
“I’m to blame for that. And I’m the master. If you’ll come into the chartroom I’ll explain, sir.”
“Look here,” shouted Ambrose, and he was raving now, “Look here! You couldn’t do it! You were watched all the time! I had the radio messages all fixed! You couldn’t do it!”
The cutter officer laughed.
“Couldn’t do what? Let us know there was trouble? We picked up at least two radio messages from freighters trying to talk to this ship, and then other messages when they gossiped to each other and wondered. And finally the Maracol called us direct, and reported, giving us your course and description.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Ambrose babbled, and he started to cry, went utterly to pieces.
“What the devil do you expect to happen,” demanded the cutter officer, “when you’re carrying a red light to starboard and a green light to port? Reversing all regulations. You might as well have hung out a distress signal.”
Captain Malthus coughed, lighted a cigar and spoke to Ambrose.
“You see, I fixed the navigation side lights when Peterson went for’ard to get a new man for the wheel. I didn’t switch on the electrics save at the masthead I used the emergency oil lamps and just changed them over. Had quite a job getting them fixed, seeing they weren’t made for the opposite slides, but I lashed them with a bit of line.” He watched Ambrose a moment and went on. “Every ship we passed tried to call us and ask what was the matter. And when we didn’t answer it was pretty obvious something was. That’s all.”
“Except,” observed the cutter officer severely, “you will have to pay a fine for improper lighting, and consequently being a menace to navigation.”
Captain Malthus sighed again and agreed. The law is always like that.