During the two years that followed, matters went from bad to worse for
the shipper. Even as Captain Hawley had predicted, the dearth of oysters
continued. Day after day the fleet came back from the oyster grounds
with the lightest of loads. But expenses were as heavy as ever. Gloomy,
indeed, were these days at Bivalve. Credit was strained to the utmost.
Ship-chandlers, merchants, supply houses, and banks were carrying
accounts long overdue, and lending still more money to men unable to pay
what they already owed. The lenders’ only hope of getting out what they
had already put into the oyster business lay in putting in still more,
in carrying the shippers until the oyster business became prosperous
again. Yet there was a limit even here, and now one, and then another
shipper went to the wall.
Though nobody guessed it, Captain Rumford was in worse shape than any
other planter in the business. His loans were so widely scattered,
however, that not even the bankers suspected his actual condition.
Bravely he fought to stave off a smash. Finally he came to the point
where he had to sacrifice something or lose all. He sold a large
oyster-bed. Three years previously it would have brought him double the
price he now got for it. But now the oyster business was in the worst
sort of a depression. Nobody wanted oyster-beds at any price. Shippers
could not work what they already had. So for a time the captain’s offer
went begging. Then finally some one who had money picked up the bargain.
Alec alone of the shipper’s forces saw the oyster ground change hands
without sorrow. It was one of the beds that Alec had condemned. He
believed the shipper had benefited rather than harmed himself by the
sale. In his opinion Captain Rumford would have been wise to sell his
poor beds and work his good beds more intensively. He tried to tell the
shipper something of this, but it was cold comfort to the captain.
Weeks passed. Things grew steadily worse in the oyster business. Yet
there were exceptions to the general rule. More than one shipper was
making money. Anybody who had oysters would have made money, for as
oysters became scarcer the price rose higher. And some shippers had
them. Day after day their boats came in well laden. Day after day their
slips were occupied by well filled oyster scows, their piers encumbered
with long rows of bulging oyster sacks waiting to be trundled aboard the
trains. With his eyes open to all that was doing, Alec noted who these
fortunate shippers were. He was much about the piers now, for sometimes
for days on end the shipper kept him in the office to look after
things, while the shipper himself was absent on business. Daily Alec
made it a point to note who was shipping oysters in quantity. Now he
dropped a casual question here, now a joking inquiry there, until he
amassed an amount of information that was amazing. For he was finding
out far more than the mere matter of what planters had oysters. He was
ascertaining where each man’s oysters came from, and whether they were
principally planted oysters or oysters that had set themselves in the
various beds. Alec even tabulated the information he got, and when his
table was complete, he examined his charts of the oyster-beds in the
light of it.
He now possessed the most complete data about the oyster grounds that
any one had probably ever collected. For his chart showed him, not only
the contour of the Bay and the location and ownership of the various
oyster-beds, but to a large extent the contour of the bottom of the Bay,
the depth of water at different points, the nature of the bottom,
whether muddy or sandy, while every principal slick and swirl and eddy
was plainly indicated. Now, as he studied these data, he wanted to shout
for very joy; for again and again he found proof of his own beliefs
about oysters, and confirmation of the facts he had gotten from his
little book. Here were planters with beds located much like the deep
water beds of Captain Rumford, who were getting next to nothing. Here
were others, with beds bordering a slick, like Captain Hardy’s, who
were bringing in good catches of oysters, while still others whose
grounds lay in some great eddy, like Captain Rumford’s inshore beds,
were coining money through their good hauls. Only where heavy plantings
had been made were there good crops in those areas that Alec considered
poor locations. Here was confirmation, indeed, here was proof, in very
truth, of the convictions that had formed in Alec’s mind. He believed
that the truth about oyster grounds could be learned by any one who
would study diligently, as he had, and with an open mind. For Alec never
doubted that to him the truth was now an open secret.
All that he learned only convinced him the more that Captain Rumford’s
enforced sale of his deep water beds was not the calamity the shipper
considered it. So he felt little distress when Captain Rumford was
compelled to sacrifice still another of his deep water holdings. But he
was frankly puzzled. He could not understand why this sale was
necessary. Although he knew that the shipper was losing money steadily,
he had a very fair idea as to the extent of these losses. To Alec it
seemed as though the sale of the first bed should have enabled the
captain to come through the season safely; for, though the bed had gone
at a sacrifice, nevertheless, the sum actually received for it was
large. That, with the money the captain did have, Alec thought, should
have carried him through the season. Yet it was no time at all before
the shipper was again in desperate straits. When the shipper parted
with still another of his holdings, Alec was dumfounded.
He went to Elsa with the matter. “Do you know,” he asked, “why your
father found it necessary to sell his third oyster ground?”
Elsa looked at him searchingly. Alec misunderstood the look. “I am not
trying to pry into your father’s affairs, Elsa,” he said, “but you
“Of course you aren’t, Alec,” she replied. “Did you really think I
believed you were? You ought to know me better by this time, Alec. I
would never suspect you of doing anything dishonorable or discreditable.
But your question startled me. I didn’t even know that father had sold
another oyster-bed. But I know he’s deeply in trouble. Night after night
I hear him talking to mother about things, though I don’t know what they
are saying, and mother looks so worried. And we have to be so careful
about expenses, Alec. Father has always given me almost everything I
asked for. Now he says he can’t afford to spend a cent that he doesn’t
just have to. I don’t know what it all means, but I know he’s in
“Well, Elsa, you know I help keep his books, and I can’t help knowing
something about his business. He lost money last year and he’s losing
money this year. But the loss isn’t so terrible that it should cause all
this distress. At least I don’t see how it can be. Yet your father is
terribly worried. I can see it in a thousand ways. And he has sold
three oyster grounds now, and yet seems as hard pressed for money as
ever. You do know that I don’t want to pry into his business, Elsa, but
I’d like to know more about it in a perfectly honest, friendly way.
Likely there isn’t a thing in the world I can do to help him. But if
there is, I want to do it. That’s why I’m asking you the present
“Thank you, Alec,” said Elsa. “That is very fine of you. I know you mean
every word of it. And I know it would give you pleasure to help father.
But I am as much puzzled as you are. And what you say worries me. Come
to me to-morrow night, and, meantime, I will see if I can learn what is
A very sober-faced Elsa it was who greeted Alec on the next night.
“Come,” she said. “Let us take a walk. I have lots to tell you, but I
cannot tell it here.”
They left the house and walked in the moonlight along the cool country
road. On his arm Alec could feel Elsa’s hand tremble. “Oh, Alec!” she
almost sobbed, when they had walked a little distance. “It’s terrible,
just terrible. Father thinks he’s going to lose everything he has–his
oyster grounds, his boats, all his stocks and bonds and money, and even
our very home. He says he doesn’t know what is to become of us. He’s too
old to make another fortune and we may have to go to the poorhouse.” She
broke down and stopped in a flood of tears.
“Elsa, Elsa–dear,” said Alec, “don’t cry. Surely it cannot be so bad
as that. I cannot see how his indebtedness can be so great. He isn’t
losing so terribly much.”
She laid her head on his breast and Alec passed his arm protectingly
around her shoulders. “It isn’t the oyster business at all, Alec. He has
some other debts we never even suspected. I asked him what was the
trouble and he told me everything. He said it would come easier if I
could prepare myself for the crash.”
“But tell me about it, Elsa. What are these debts? Has your father been
“No, Alec. But he has made large investments on the partial payment
plan. If the oyster business had kept up the way it was going for two or
three years, he could have met his obligations nicely and canceled his
indebtedness. Now he not only has no revenue from his oysters to meet
the payments, but he is getting in debt deeper every day he runs his
“Why doesn’t he stop running them?”
“Oh! He can’t, Alec, he can’t. He doesn’t dare let anybody know the
situation, for nobody suspects it yet.”
“But surely the banks will help him out. Why, if he has an equity in a
valuable property, even if it isn’t fully paid for, the banks will
gladly lend him money.”
“Oh, Alec! That’s just where the trouble is. He’s borrowed every cent
that anybody will lend him. He’s tried and tried, and he can’t borrow
“But surely he can’t be so desperately off as you think, Elsa.”
“I’m afraid it’s worse than I think. Mother has been crying all day.
Father said flatly that he didn’t think there was a particle of hope.
He’ll hang on as long as he can, in the hope that something may save
him. By selling more oyster-beds and his boats, he says he can keep his
head above water for a little while, but if he sells his grounds and his
boats, how is he ever to pay the debts he owes? Oh, Alec! It’s
“Little girl,” said Alec, “if I were to tell you that what you have just
told me makes me almost happy, I suppose you’d never speak to me again.”
“Oh, Alec!” cried Elsa springing away from him. “Whatever do you mean?
You can’t mean what you say.”
“No, Elsa. I don’t. I am distressed beyond measure about your father.
But if your father is in such bad condition financially, you wouldn’t
call him rich any longer, would you?”
“Rich! Why, Alec, we’ll soon be paupers. That’s the very word father
“Then if you are a pauper, Elsa, you wouldn’t think me a fortune-hunter
if I asked you a question that’s been in my heart for months, would
“I–I–I don’t know,” faltered Elsa. “How can I know when you haven’t
even asked me?” But her tone showed very plainly that she knew.
“Are you sure you want me to ask you?” said Alec, raising her face with
his hand and looking straight into her eyes. “I’ll wait–if you wish
“Please–ask me,” she said.
Alec bent his head and whispered in her ear.
“Are you asking because you really don’t know, or just because you want
to hear me say yes?” asked Elsa, archly.
“How could I know, when you haven’t told me?” retorted Alec. “And
anyway, I _do_ want to hear you say yes.”
“Then I’ll say it. Yes.”
“Thank you, Elsa,” said Alec, pressing her hand. “Now that I know, I
shall not bother you any more. What I must do, what we all must do, is
to try to save your father.”
“Oh! If only he could get oysters, he’d pull through sound enough. I’m
sure of it. Prices were never higher. The shippers that have them are
coining money. If only father’s beds would yield as they sometimes do,
he could meet all his interest charges and gradually pay off his debts.”
“Then there’s just one thing for me to do–find those oysters for him.”
Far into the night Alec lay awake, turning the situation over and over
in his mind. Where could he find the oysters for Captain Rumford? Find
them he must. Never could he see his friend and benefactor, the man who
had given him a start and who was helping him up the ladder–never could
he see him go to the wall if by any possibility he could prevent it. And
now, if he could only find the oysters, he could prevent it. But where
could he find the oysters? Where could they be had at a reasonable
He got up and lighted the lamp. Then he got his charts. Carefully he
examined his notes. He had marked down every bed in the Cove that was
producing well. One by one he examined the beds he had listed. Not one
of them offered the slightest solution to his problem. The men who owned
them were working them to capacity. He could hope for no help there.
Again and again he went over his list, only to become more and more
certain that no oysters were to be had.
In despair he turned to his chart itself. Bed after bed he examined,
still without success. Then he came to Hardy’s bed. Why hadn’t he
thought of it before, he asked himself. There must be oysters there. If
what he had read about oysters was true, there _must_ be oysters in
Hardy’s bed. There must be quantities of them. Hardy had had plenty of
shells down. Alec knew about the shells. He didn’t know whether Hardy
had planted many oysters or not. But if the shells were there, even if
Hardy hadn’t planted any seed, the bed must be loaded with oysters, Alec
felt sure. Alec had examined the water in the bed. He knew it was
swarming with spat. There _must_ be oysters there. For the bed had lain
untouched since Hardy went to prison. During the hard times that had
come upon the oyster business these few years, almost nobody had bought
oyster-beds or wanted to buy any. And when they did buy, they wanted to
secure grounds from shippers known as careful oystermen, men like
Captain Rumford, who took care of their grounds and worked them; not men
like Captain Hardy, who was known to be reckless and careless, and who
never took care of his beds. So there they had lain, untouched through
all these months. There Alec could find oysters. There he _must_ find
them. For if he could not get them there, he could not get them at all.
It was Hardy’s bed or nothing.
Now he got out his bank-book and counted to the last cent the money he
had on deposit, in his clothes, and owing him. Then he got his shell
records. His shell boy kept track of the number of bushels he gathered
from day to day, and each week Alec posted the record in his shell book.
So he knew almost to a basket what he had. The season was well along,
his pile of shells was large, though not so huge as it would have been
in a good year. But it was large enough. The shells in it were worth
hundreds of dollars.
Next day, his shell book in his hand, Alec went to the bank where the
captain had his account. He was well known there. He often made deposits
for the shipper, or drew the pay-roll for him. He was listened to
attentively. He wanted the bank to lend him a sum equal to the present
value of the shells. The bank could have the shell pile as security. The
pile would grow larger day by day.
“What do you want of the money?” the cashier asked him.
“I know where there is an unworked oyster-bed that I believe has oysters
in it. I want to lease it and work it.”
“Suppose there are no oysters in it. What then?”
“But there are.”
“How do you know? Have you been dredging in it?”
“No, sir; but I know. I’ve been studying the waters of the oyster
grounds for three years. I know every bed in the Cove. I know every
slick and swirl and eddy. I know where the oyster larvæ are thick and
where they are few. I know where you will get rich yields of oysters by
shelling and where you will get hardly any. And I know there are oysters
in this bed.”
“See here, young man,” said the banker, “I don’t understand all this.
Nobody else ever talked to me this way about oysters and oyster-beds
before. And I’ve been dealing with oystermen all my life. Are you trying
to stuff me?”
“Of course you never heard anything like it,” said Alec, “for nobody
ever did these things at Bivalve before. I am the first oysterman here
of the new type. There will be scientific oystermen aplenty in a little
“I want to know more about this. Just come back into the directors’ room
and tell me more about it.”
Half an hour later Alec walked out of the directors’ room, his face
shining. He signed a note and shoved it through the window to the
“That’s all right, Mr. Cunningham,” said the cashier. “I’ll put this sum
to your credit. And remember, if you need more we shall be glad to help
Alec thanked the banker and walked hastily out. “Now who’d have thought
that the mere story of what I’ve been doing would make him lend me the
money?” he said to himself. What Alec did not understand was that it was
his own character and not his story of scientific oyster methods that
got him the money. Like Captain Rumford and other men, the banker, too,
had been watching Alec through the years.
Straight to a lawyer Alec now hurried, with instructions to lease
Hardy’s oyster grounds. “Lease them on a royalty basis, if you can, at
so much per bushel,” said Alec. “If you can’t get them that way, pay a
flat sum. I can give you so much now in cash, and the remainder from
month to month as we dredge the oysters.”
In a few days the lease was secured. Hardy wanted a lump sum. Alec
signed the agreement and drew his check for all he had in the bank.
“Now,” he said to himself, “everything I’ve got in the world is at
stake. I’ve backed my judgment to the limit. If I lose, I’ll have to go
in debt to pay what I still owe Hardy. If I win, the shipper is saved.”
From the lawyer’s office Alec went to the shipper’s home. He found Elsa,
as he had hoped he would, and told her what he had done.
“Oh, Alec!” she said. “I can’t begin to tell you how fine you have been.
If only you do get the oysters–won’t it be wonderful!”
He sought out the shipper. “Captain Rumford,” he said, “I wish you would
lend me the _Bertha B_ for a day.”
The shipper looked at him in astonishment. “What do you want of the
_Bertha B_?” he asked curiously.
“I’ve leased Hardy’s oyster-beds,” said Alec quietly. “I borrowed the
worth of my shell pile and added all my savings to that and paid it down
on a lease, and I still owe money on it. I want to see if there are any
oysters in the bed.”
Captain Rumford looked at his assistant as though the latter had
suddenly gone crazy. “You’re joking,” he said.
“I’m telling the simple truth,” replied Alec. “I very much want to know
whether there are any oysters in that bed. Wouldn’t you, if you had
“Alec! Alec!” cried the shipper sternly. “Have you lost every bit of
sense you ever had? You won’t get a dollar’s worth of oysters out of
that bed. I’ve told you time and again those deep water beds are no
place for oysters.”
“You have, indeed, Captain Rumford,” said Alec. “I know exactly what you
think of them. What I want to know now is whether you’ll lend me the
_Bertha B_ for a day.”
“You might as well know the truth first as last,” said the shipper.
“There is nothing so terrible as suspense. Take the boat and welcome.”
And the shipper turned away with his face so haggard that it made Alec’s
Twenty-four hours later the _Bertha B_ came plowing up to her pier. Alec
leaped ashore and ran to the shipper’s office. “Captain Rumford!” he
called, his eyes shining, his voice vibrant with emotion, “Will you
please come out on the pier?”
The captain came slowly down the stairs. In looks he had aged ten years.
His face was drawn and haggard. His brow was deeply furrowed. Dark
circles were about his eyes. His step was uncertain, almost shambling.
His shoulders were stooped. Alec was shocked when he looked at him.
“What is it?” asked the shipper in a dull, lifeless tone.
“Please come look at the _Bertha B_. I just wanted you to see her before
we go to the float.”
The shipper followed Alec down the pier. Half-way he stopped dead in his
tracks, paralyzed with astonishment. The _Bertha B_ sat so low in the
water her decks were almost awash. Her cabin, her hatches, her deck, her
forepeak, all were covered with oysters. The boat was fairly swamped
“Oysters!” gasped the astonished shipper. “How many have you? Where did
you get them? What are you going to do with them?”
“There’s more than a thousand dollars’ worth,” said Alec. “We are going
to put them on your big float up the river.”
“But where did you get them?”
“In the bed I just leased–Tom Hardy’s bed. Come into the office and
I’ll tell you all about it. I don’t want to do it here.”
Alec waved his hand to Skipper Hawley, then took the shipper by the arm
and led him up to his office.
“Captain Rumford,” he said, “there are oysters and oysters and oysters
out there. I can bring you in a thousand dollars’ worth a day. While we
were at it, we just looked at my grounds and they’re simply covered with
oysters, too. There are tons and tons of them in my beds. They are a
little too small to dredge yet, but they’ll be all right next fall. And
your own shallow beds will be ready to dredge then, too.”
The shipper fairly gasped. “You got those oysters out in that deep
water?” he said. Then he asked, “What are you going to do with them now
that you have them?”
“That’s just what I want to talk about, Captain,” said Alec. “I’ve got
the oysters. You’ve got the boats. If we could just make some sort of
agreement–if we could somehow combine forces–why, Captain, if you’ll
just go ahead and dredge oysters for yourself until you get on your feet
again, and then dredge a few for me—-” Alec stopped, embarrassed. He
did not know how to say what he wanted to say, now that the time had
come to say it.
The shipper looked at him with the old piercing glance that had seemed
to bore through Alec so long ago. “Boy,” he said, “what are you trying
to do–give me those oysters after the way you’ve toiled and studied and
saved to get them?”
“Oh! Captain, if you’ll only take them,” said Alec, “I’ll be the
happiest fellow in the world. They are yours–every one you need, even
if you need them all.”
“God bless you, lad,” cried the shipper, blowing his nose violently, and
beginning to pace the floor. “How I would like to take them. Why, they’d
save me, lad. They’d save me.”
“Then take them. That’s why I got them, Captain Rumford,–to save you.”
The captain turned and faced his assistant. “I will take them,” he
said. “I will take them. But I’ll take them on one condition. I take
them as your partner.” He hesitated a moment. His face paled a bit.
“Maybe you wouldn’t want a broken-down old man as a partner,” he said,
“an old man already behind the times.”
“Captain Rumford,” said Alec, “you are jesting. Surely you don’t mean
that you want me as your partner in business. Why, I have no money now,
and I have nothing, sir, but a little oyster-bed to put up against your
great oyster grounds and your boats. It’s a wonderful opportunity, sir,
but it wouldn’t be fair to you to take it.”
“Humph!” said the shipper. “Not fair, when I shall owe to you everything
I have in the world. I am the one who is penniless; for without these
oysters you offer I am a pauper. Now will you become my partner?”
“Oh, Captain!” said Alec. “Of course I will, but I never dreamed of such
“Likely not,” said the captain. “But I have known for a long time that
it was coming.”
“What!” gasped Alec.
“Certainly,” said the shipper. “I rather suspected it the first time I
set eyes on you. I knew it the night you went overboard after Hawley.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alec. “I don’t understand it at all, sir.”
“It’s plain enough, lad. A man of my age can’t carry on a business
forever. I’ve needed somebody to help me for a long time back and I’ve
been looking for some one, too. Yet I never could find just the man I
wanted as a partner. But when I found how clean and true and fine you
were, young man, and when I came to know you well enough to understand
that I could trust you as I can my own wife, my mind was made up. What
do you think I’ve had you in the office for, anyway? What do you think
I’ve put my business more and more in your hands for? Didn’t you ever
suspect that I was training you up to carry on the work when I couldn’t
do it any longer?”
“Captain!” gasped Alec. “I can hardly believe it. To think of my being
an oyster shipper–now–when I was only this morning a deck-hand. It
just doesn’t seem possible.”
“Are you sure that you’re satisfied with the bargain? Don’t you want to
draw out before it’s too late?”
An idea came to Alec and he stepped quickly toward the shipper. “There
is one thing more I’d like,” he said, “something I want more than
anything else in the world.”
The shipper looked at him uncertainly, questioningly, as though
displeased. “Name it,” he said brusquely.
“Your daughter, sir.”
“God bless me!” said the shipper. “You want a lot.”
“Hadn’t you foreseen that, too?” asked Alec, smiling.
“I wouldn’t be truthful if I said no,” said the shipper.
“Your answer?” said Alec.
“_My_ answer?” said the shipper. “What about the girl? Don’t you think
it would be a good thing to ask her?”
“I have,” said Alec, blushing. “She’s like that man I told you of once.”
“That man?” said the shipper, puzzled. “What man? What was his name?”
“Barkis,” said Alec.
The shipper laughed and held out his hand. “Take her, son,” he said.
“You deserve her. And take an old man’s blessing. You have saved a gray
head from disgrace. Now God bless you.”