Chapter XXXII. Skinner Proposes--and Cappy Ricks Disposes




Having, as he thought, evaded the spirit of Mr. Skinner's ultimatum while conforming to its literal terms, Cappy Ricks hurried home leaving his general manager a stunned and horrified man. In this instance, however, Cappy had erred in his strategy. Skinner was calm, cold-blooded, suave, politic and deferential, but in his kind of fight he never bluffed. He never played his hand until he had sufficient trumps to take the odd trick.

He looked ahead now, into the not very distant future, and saw Matt Peasley, husband of the heiress to the Ricks millions, giving him orders--and the vision did not sit well on the general manager's stomach. Consequently, Mr. Skinner decided for a test of strength at once.

Accordingly, when Cappy Ricks came down to the office the following morning, Mr. Skinner came into the old fellow's sanctum and requested an interview.

"Fire away, my boy," said Cappy amiably, yet with a queer sinking feeling in his vitals, for he did not like the look in Skinner's eye; and something told him there was blood on the moon.

"With reference to this rowdy, Peasley, whom you tell me you are going to make port captain--"

"I also told you, Skinner, my boy, that he is to be my son-in-law," Cappy interrupted, like a good general bringing up his heavy artillery prior to ordering a charge. "I beg of you, Skinner, whatever your animosities, to bear in mind the fact that my daughter could not possibly engage herself to a rowdy."

"Out of respect to you and Miss Florence I shall not indulge in personalities, sir," Mr. Skinner replied smilingly, and Cappy shuddered, for Mr. Skinner never smiled in a fight unless he had the situation well in hand. "I have merely called to tell you that I have invested seventy-five cents of my salary in a stout hickory pick-handle, and the next time Captain Matt Peasley enters my office I shall test the quality of the said pick-handle over his head. I don't care if he is engaged to your daughter; the minute you bring that man into this office I go out. You shall have my resignation instantly. That decision, Mr. Ricks, is final and irrevocable." And without giving Cappy an instant for argument Mr. Skinner bowed himself out.

A month and Cappy Ricks remained minus his port captain; Mr. Skinner was still strongly entrenched in his job as general manager. It was a hard hand to beat, for the fact of the matter was that Cappy Ricks simply could not afford to dispense with Mr. Skinner. The man was too honest, too conscientious, too industrious, too brilliant, too efficient, not to be reckoned with. To part with Skinner was like parting with a dividend-producing gold mine; it was equivalent to unloading on Cappy's shoulders again the burden of work and worry that would have killed him ten years ago had he not surrendered it to Skinner, who handled it as a juggler handles nine balls. Moreover, Skinner knew all of the business secrets of the Ricks Lumber and Logging Company and the Blue Star Navigation Company--why, he was an integral part of the business; and, lastly, Cappy was fond of the man.

Skinner had come to him as office boy at the tender age of ten--and that was twenty-five years before. A daily association for twenty-five years would make a human being like Cappy fond of the devil himself; and, barring the fact that he was cold-blooded, Skinner was a fairly likeable chap, and devoted, body and soul to Cappy Ricks. The longer Cappy pondered the thought of asserting his authority as boss and defying Skinner, the more impossible the alternative became. Also the longer he thought of having Matt Peasley kept out of the business by Skinner, the higher rose his gorge, for Cappy had yearned for a son like Matt Peasley and been denied. Now when he had planned successfully to do the next best thing and have Matt for a son-in-law, to be blocked by Skinner was unbearable. All Cappy could do was to search vainly for an "out," and in the interim, whenever he met Matt Peasley at his home, he carefully avoided all reference to Matt's future in the Blue Star employ for which, by the way, Matt was eternally grateful. He did not care to talk business with Cappy for a month as yet. He was too happy with Cappy's daughter.

Another month passed. Cappy grew thin and lost his relish for his food. Then Florence, being a woman, began to see, looming out of the rose-tinted mist of her happy dreams, a huge interrogation mark.

She wondered what her father intended doing for her future husband; and since she was accustomed to bossing her parent she spoke to Cappy about it, thereby increasing his mental agony.

About the same time Matt Peasley commenced to wonder also, but forbore to mention the subject to Cappy. Instead, he went down to the Red Stack people and got himself a job skippering a tug; and great was his joy thereat, for the wages were fully as good as he had enjoyed on the Quickstep, and he was enabled to spend nearly every night in port. The two months of idleness, albeit the happiest he had ever known, had commenced to pall on him, and he wanted to be up and doing once more. Also, being a man, he sensed something of the embarrassment of Cappy's position, and, manlike, decided to relieve the old fellow of that embarrassment. Matt concluded that he would retain his job as master of the tug Sea Fox for a few months--say six--and then ask Cappy Ricks for twenty thousand dollars, which amount would by that time be to his credit on the Blue Star books by reason of his half-interest in the seventy-five-dollar-a-day profit he and Cappy had annexed when rechartering the steamer Unicorn. With that amount of money in hand, plus the savings from his salary, he planned to marry Cappy's daughter and go into business for himself as a ship, freight and marine insurance broker.

Mr. Skinner heard of Matt Peasley's appointment as master of the tug Sea Fox several hours before the same information reached Matt himself. The general manager of the tugboat company, scanning Matt's application and having a vacancy to fill, called up Mr. Skinner.

"Say, Skinner," he said, "I have an application for a job as master for one of our tugs from Captain Matthew Peasley. He tells me he was a couple of years under the Blue Star flag, from A. B. to master of steam and sail, with an unlimited license. Is he a good man?"

"We never had a more capable skipper in our employ," said Mr. Skinner truthfully.

"Why did you let him go then?"

"He resigned."

"Under fire?"

"No, he quit voluntarily."

"Honest?"

"Very."

"Then what's wrong with him?"

"He doesn't like me. But he's capable and fearless and a devil on wheels. He'll take a ship anywhere and bring her out again whole."

"Then he's my huckleberry. That's the kind of man for a tugboat skipper," was the reply, and Matt Peasley had the job, greatly to the joy of Mr. Skinner, who realized now that his ultimatum to Cappy Ricks had been a knockout blow. Cappy had surrendered, and the rowdy Matt, having given up hope of a snug berth as port captain of the Blue Star Navigation Company, had in despair sought a job with a tugboat company.

Mr. Skinner was so happy he shelved his office dignity long enough to whistle a popular ballad that had been running through his mind of late. All too gladly had he recommended Matt Peasley for that tugboat job! He would have employed anything, short of dishonorable methods, to rid the Blue Star of that incubus!

Cappy Ricks almost wept with rage when his daughter informed him that Matt had gone back to salt water. She was a little indignant over it, and demanded a show-down from her unhappy father, who looked at her miserably and said he'd think it over.

He did. Every afternoon, upon his return from luncheon he slid down on his spine in his upholstered swivel chair, draped his old shanks over his desk, dropped his chin on his breast, closed his eyes and went into a clinch with the awful problem, with all its dips, spurs and angles. Save for the nervous clasping and unclasping of his hands one would have thought him sound asleep.

For a month no gleam of light filtered through the deep gloom of the old gentleman's predicament. A dozen times had he reached forth to press the push-button on his desk, summon Skinner and force the latter to do one of two things; recede from his position or resign as general manager. Ten times he had paused with his finger on the push-button. He simply could not afford to dispense with Skinner! The eleventh time, however, grown desperate from much brooding over his unhappy lot, Cappy pressed the button.

"Send Mr. Skinner in," he commanded bravely to the boy who answered his summons.

Mr. Skinner entered and stood awaiting Cappy's pleasure. On the instant the old fellow was overcome by panic. Frantically he sought an "out."

"Skinner, my dear boy," he purred, "has it occurred to you that young Tommy, the office boy, has been here long enough, and behaved himself well enough, to merit a raise of about ten dollars a month?"

Mr. Skinner was a natural conservative and considerable of a pessimist.

"Well, I daresay he has, although I hadn't given the matter any thought, sir. However, the way lumber has been selling the past few months, we ought to be cutting salaries instead of raising them."

"I know, Skinner, I know. But a boy needs some encouragement; he has to have some concrete evidence of appreciation, er--er--attend to it, Skinner, my boy, attend to it."

Mr. Skinner nodded and retired, leaving Cappy to grit his teeth and curse himself for a poltroon. "It's certainly hell when a man of my age and financial rating stands between his love and duty," he mourned. "Darn that fellow Skinner. If my bluff should fail to work and he got on his high horse and quit, I'd have to climb off my high horse and beg him to return to work. And he knows it. He knows I've been taking it easy so long I never could bring myself to take up the burden of active business again. Money! What does money mean if it can't buy happiness? Drat that devilish Skinner. I wish to jiminy he had the burden of my dollars--"

He paused, overcome by a sudden brilliant thought. "Bully for you, Alden P., you old, three-ply, copper-riveted, reinforced, star-spangled jack-ass!" he murmured. "Why didn't you think of it before and save yourself all this grief?"

His hand shot out once more to the push-button. "Send in Mr. Hankins, sonny," he ordered the office boy.

Mr. Hankins was the cashier; also secretary of all of Cappy's companies, of which Mr. Skinner was first vice president. He entered and stood deferentially beside Cappy's desk.

"Hankins, my dear boy, bring me the stock certificates for my holdings in the Ricks Lumber and Logging Company and the Blue Star Navigation Company. I am going to indorse them, after which I wish you would reissue the stock to me, less one hundred shares of each in the name of Mr. Skinner. Say nothing to Mr. Skinner about this and bring the new certificates to me immediately."

When Hankins had complied with his request Cappy Ricks placed the Skinner certificates in his pocket and went uptown to the office of his attorney. He returned to his office within an hour and immediately sent for Mr. Skinner.

"Skinner, my dear boy," began Cappy affably, "sit down. I want to have a very serious talk with you."

"Nothing wrong, I trust," Skinner began apprehensively, for Cappy's air was very portentous.

"If there was," Cappy snapped, "you wouldn't be here to-day. Some other fellow would be holding down your job, and, I dare say, giving poor satisfaction--by the way, my dear Skinner, something which you have never done."

Mr. Skinner flushed pleasurably and thanked his employer.

"Some twenty-five years ago," Cappy continued, "you entered my employ as a spindle-legged office boy. To-day you are my general manager, and a rattling good one, too, even if we do have our little run-in together every so often. We mustn't pay any attention to that, however, for a fight is good for a man, Skinner. I maintain that it brings out all of his virtues and vices where one can have an unobstructed view of them. However, passing that, I decided a long time ago, Skinner, that you are entitled to more than a mere salary--"

"My salary has been eminently satisfactory, sir--" Mr. Skinner began.

"Don't be an ass, Skinner," Cappy interrupted tartly. "I wouldn't give two hoots in hell for a satisfied man, unless he's his own man--understand. You should have a more vital interest in the Ricks Lumber and Logging Company and the Blue Star Navigation Company. We always make our skippers own a piece of the vessels they command, so they will not be tempted to rob us, for in robbing us they rob themselves. Consequently, thinking it over, Skinner, I have decided to make you own a piece of both the companies you manage, not because you may rob them but because I want to reward you for faithful service. I had planned to do this in my will, but I feel so healthy lately I think I'll live a long time yet, and there isn't any real sense in keeping you waiting. What is the book valuation of the Ricks L. & L. stock?"

"Three hundred eighty-seven thirteen, according to the last annual report," replied Skinner glibly. His eyes glistened.

"And the Blue Star stock?"

"Four hundred thirty-two twenty-seven."

"Hump! Harump-h-h! It will be worth more when the Panama Canal is opened. We'll have a crack at the Atlantic Seaboard market with our Pacific Coast lumber, and the water freight will knock the rail rate silly. Besides, I'm going to buy up a couple of large freighters, or build them, and that stock of yours will pay dividends then. I'll soak you four hundred per share for the Blue Star stock. Is that satisfactory?"

Nobody knew better than Mr. Skinner the fact that the Blue Star stock at the book valuation was appraised very conservatively. He nodded.

"Lumber market's up and down, down and up, and we never know where we stand. Give you that at two-fifty a share. Want it?"

"I should say I do!" Skinner gasped.

"Then you owe me sixty-five thousand dollars. I'll take your promissory note for it at five per cent., and you can pay the note out of your salary and the dividends. You'll be in the clear in ten years at the very latest; the stock I'm selling you now will be worth a hundred thousand--with your management. Here's the contract, which embodies a promissory note. Sign it, endorse the stock to me to secure the payment of the note, and then clear out of here. Not a peep out of you, sir, not a peep. If you say 'Thank you' I'll change my mind about selling."

Mr. Skinner's hand trembled a little as he wrote his name across the backs of the stock certificates and appended the same clear, concise signature to the note. Silently he wrung Cappy's hand.

"Get out," rasped Cappy. Mr. Skinner got out.



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