Cap'n Tristram's Shipbuilding


OLD sea-towns, when with the changing years their ships have sailed forever away, and they are left to shift for themselves, are likely to take the desertion philosophically, and, ignoring time, to settle down into a dreamy reminiscent existence, unhurried, unruffled, comfortable. Their sailor-men retire within their big, square-built homes, their silent wharves, slowly and unheeded, decay. Their warehouses, still holding the look of the sea, stand empty, or harbor a few unobtrusive odds and ends of shore business. The mellow calm of early autumn forever pervades their atmosphere, and life moves as slowly, dreamily, as moves a marshland tide in September.

A part of such a town was Cap n Tristram Macey. Cap’n Tristram, big, broad, placid, was finishing his afternoon’s work in the little office where he carried on a small coal business, looked after a moderate amount of insurance, and dickered a little in real estate; while, comfortable by the office-stove, the high altar of that redoubtable band of sitters known as ‘The Watch,’ sat Captain Abner Stevens. Wrapped in deep contemplation and clouds of blue tobacco-smoke, Abner was contentedly awaiting the time when the Cap’n’s tasks should be ended, when his feet should seek the stove-rail, and his chair assume that magic angle of conversation which all men should know and love.

At length that time arrived. The spell of Abner’s dreams was broken, and his hazy thoughts crystallized into words.

‘When re you goin’ t’ move that house you bought of Eddie Fowler?’ he demanded.

‘Why, I dunno, Abner; I’m sure I dunno. I’ve about give the idea up, I guess — it warn’t practical.’

And Cap’n Tristram looked out of the window contemplating the sunlight.

‘What’s the trouble, would n’t she hold together?’ questioned Abner with a sly grin; for he, and all the Watch for that matter, knew that Cap’n Tristram was seldom too keen in his real-estate ‘dickers,’ whereas Eddie Fowler’s genius was of a remarkably high order, as all ‘The Port’ could testify.

‘Oh, the house is all right, Abner; she’s sound’s a nut. She’d stand it to go ’round the Horn; but to go where I wanted to with her, I had to cross the railroad tracks, and there’s where I fetched up, and I fetched up all standin’!’

‘Would n’t let you acrost! ’ exclaimed Abner, the joy of discovery in his tone.

‘That’s just the size of it,’ admitted Cap’n Tristram; ‘he would n’t let me cross.’

‘Who’s he?’

‘He? Why, he’s Mr. Armstrong, one of the big men of the road. I finally went to see him about it, but it warn’t no use. I could n’t dicker with him.’

Abner, at long range, scored a bull’seye in the spittoon, and Cap’n Tristram continued, —

‘No, I could n’t dicker with him. You’d ’a’ thought, Abner, why you ‘d ’a’ thought to have heard him that he was admiral of the fleet and I was powder-monkey complaining o’ the ship’s grub. Rile me? Yes, that man did rile me. That house ain’t a mite of good where it sets, and it never will be if I can’t get it across them tracks. I would n’t have held up none of his trains, nor bothered him any with his new bridge — and he was so mighty overbearin’! I ’ll own he riled me up considerable.’

‘Well,’ demanded Abner, ‘what ye goin’ to do about it?’

There was a bit of a twinkle in Cap’n Tristram’s eyes, and he was slow in answering. He looked at the long shadows creeping across the Square, then at his watch. It was nearly six o’clock.

‘Why I guess, Abner,’ he finally said, ‘I guess for one thing, I’ll do what I oughter done half an hour ago — I’ll go home to supper.’


Several days later, Abner, in the course of a morning’s cruise, sighted Cap’n Tristram just as he was leaving the office of Thurlow and Muzzy, attorneys at law. His curiosity leaped full-grown in an instant, for Cap’n Tristram’s kindly philosophy of life had, in all its course, found little need of the law’s help. With a hail Abner hove him to, and together they squared away for the office.

At the office there was little to be done; a memorandum and a few letters to write, and Cap’n Tristram was free to enjoy himself and the silent companionship of Abner, who, after a suitable interval, fired the first conversational shot.

‘Warn’t you off your course at that lawyer’s office, Tristram?’

‘Why I dunno; just a trifle, maybe; I was taking aboard a pilot.’


‘Takin’ aboard a pilot, Abner. You see, I’m going into buildin’, and I want someone who knows the shoals ’n ’ what-not of it, to keep me clear and out of trouble. That’s sound, ain’t it?’

‘Um—hum,’ admitted Abner; ‘what ye goin’t’ build?’

‘Ships,’ said Tristram.

‘Ships! Thunder mighty! Where?’

‘ Why, here, right here in the Port, right where the old Dreadnaught was built. Maybe I’ll hang out my shingle, “Tristram Macey, Shipbuilder” — it would n’t look half bad, now, would it?’

No visions, either of ships or of shingles, moved Abner’s unimaginative soul. He was incredulous. The shipyards, from whence the fame of the town had gone the world over, had long been silent. A generation had well-nigh passed since the last vessel had slid down the ways, and her sails, gleaming in the sunlight, had left the harbor, which she never again visited. There were all sorts of stumbling-blocks to a revival of the industry — hosts of them.

‘You can’t git no men,’ he declared.

‘Oh, yes, I can, Abner; you’d be surprised to see how many you can pick up right here in the Port; and then, there’s Gloucester and Essex to draw from.’

‘Well, the yard ain’t fitted up. It would take a mighty sight of money; it would — ’

‘Abner,’ interposed Cap’n Tristram, ‘ you ’re always trying to sail with your tops’ls aback. Now, I’ve got the yard, I’ve got the money, and I’ve got the contract for the first two vessels.’

Abner fired a last shot: ‘Your yard ’s above the bridge; you’ll run afoul the railroad again!’

Cap’n Tristram beamed.

‘No, Abner, I don’t callate I’ll get hung up there again. I learned a pretty good lesson with that house o ’mine; and besides, you know, I’ve took aboard a pilot this trip. He ought to keep me out of trouble — he’s a good one.’

So it came to pass that the Watch, who had enjoyed Cap’n Tristram’s recent discomfiture to the full, and had solemnly advised him to ‘try no more viges in a house,’ had a new theme for conversation, new points for argument, and a new centre of interest, in the reawakened shipyard; and, although the ‘shingle’ was not hung out, Tristram Macey, Shipbuilder, was a busy man.

It was a pleasant morning of September, when the yellow glow of autumn had crept into the sunlight and the air was fresh with the smell of the sea, that Cap’n Tristram was busy in the yard, overseeing, admonishing, advising. With a master’s eye to every detail, he moved among the busy ‘hands’ with the calm dignity of a battleship or giant liner that holds its slow way amid the scurry of smaller, bustling harbor craft. His solid bulk, not wholly unlike the massive new ships in its sturdiness, was bedecked with shavings and stray bits of oakum. The hulls of ‘the first two vessels’ were nearing completion.

He had nearly finished his rounds of inspection when a stranger intercepted him and fell into conversation. Cap’n Tristram was cordial. He convoyed the man about the yard, soft and springy with yellow chips. Within and without he made him acquainted with the secrets of ships and the glories of shipbuilding.

The stranger was interested. He, too, gathered upon himself chips and oakum and shavings. With evident pleasure, he sniffed the boiling tar. He talked. He let his eye wander out over the broad river, down to the new railroad bridge, flaming vermilion in its red lead; and he looked again at the new schooners.

Cap’n Tristram answered his unspoken query.

‘Rig ’em? Why, mister, bless your soul, there ain’t no better place on earth to rig ’em than just where they set.’

‘What, right there on the ways, as I think you call them ? ’

‘Aye, aye, right there on the ways, and nowhere else. Why not?’

‘Well,’ said the stranger, ‘there’s no draw in that new bridge below you.’

Cap’n Tristram’s eye searched the bridge from end to end.

‘You ’re right, mister,’ he agreed at length, ‘there ain’t. But I can’t help that; it ain’t my bridge, and from what I know of the railroad folks who built it, I rather guess they’re satisfied to stand their own lookout without no help from me.’

Soon after, the stranger took his leave. Watching him, Cap’n Tristram stood, his hands in his pockets, his shirt-sleeves fluttering in the breeze.

‘Unless my reckonin”s off,’ said he, chuckling to himself, ‘that lad’s from Mr. Armstrong, — I recollect him in the railroad office, — and if I ain’t mistaken in the way the wind’s blowin’, he’ll be back.’


Whether Cap’n Tristram’s reckoning was right or wrong, does not really matter. What does matter is that his judgment of the wind was correct — or at least very nearly so; for although ‘the lad from Mr. Armstrong’ did not again visit the yard, a big man in a big automobile did.

Not finding Cap’n Tristram, he followed the directions of the yard boss to the little office by the Square, where he did find him, and, as it chanced, Abner and a fair proportion of the Watch.

Big the stranger certainly was: a big opulent sort of man, past middle life, with heavy brows, short bristling white hair, and about him the air of the highly successful man of business, the financier— ‘gold-mounted,’ as one of the Watch afterward observed.

As he entered with short, heavy steps, he seemed to fill the place. With a quick sweep he took in the unpretentious room, gave to the silent Watch a glance of imperious distrust, and faced the desk, where, comfortably leaning back in his chair, sat Cap’n Tristram.

‘Mr. Macey, I believe.’

There was a deal of aggressiveness, perhaps unconscious, in that simple and wholly courteous query. A sort of demand that, willy-nilly, Cap’n Tristram should be ‘Mr. Macey’ from that moment forth.

‘Yes, sir, I’m Cap’n Macey; how-dedo, sir.’

The visitor replied by hooking his heavy walking-stick over one arm; and, with another glance at the Watch, —

‘A word in private, if you please, captain.’

Cap’n Tristram apologized. He was reely sorry. He could n’t accommodate the gentleman.

‘For this one office is all I’ve got — but the boys here won’t mind waiting, won’t mind it a mite — they’ll reely be glad to, I know they will. Keep your settin’ boys, keep your settin’. What can I do for you, Mr. Armstrong?’

The mention of that name anchored the Watch. It stopped the hand of Abner, fumbling for his ‘plug.’

Mr. Armstrong was annoyed, but his manner became gracious.

‘Ah, really, captain, it is I who should put that question.’

‘Um— hum,’ answered Cap’n Tristram.

‘Er — yes, er—yes, indeed. In fact, I am here for that very purpose! but before we take that matter up, I — er’ —a pause—‘I presume that you recall, captain, that we — the road — had some correspondence with you concerning the moving of a house across our tracks. I believe that I took the matter up with you personally.’

‘I believe so,’ agreed Cap’n Tristram.

‘Yes,’ also agreed the railroad man with a vigorous nod. ‘Now, at that time, we found it advisable to — er — to — er — refuse the permit.’

‘I recollect it,’ observed Cap’n Tristram.

‘Yes — er — yes; however,’ continued the visitor with a wave of his glasses and an upward lift of his brows, ‘I have now arranged all that for you. Move your house, captain, move your house, at your convenience. You will meet with no objection from the road. None whatever, I assure you.’

Cap’n Tristram looked first at the railroad man, then out of the window.

‘Mr. Armstrong,’ said he at length, ‘I’m afraid you ’re a trifle late. I ain’t doing anything in the real-estate way now. If you’d let me go across your tracks with that house when I wanted to, — and there warn’t no reason but clear, sheer bilge-water cussedness why you would n’t, — most likely I’d be dickerin’ in houses yet; but you did n’t let me, and now, Mr. Armstrong, I’m buildin’ ships.’

A finality in Cap’n Tristram’s tone dismissed further discussion of the house or its moving. It was as if a door had been suddenly slammed in Mr. Armstrong’s red, well-shaven face.

‘ Oh — yes — indeed — er — yes, I see, I see. Well, I am sorry, captain, I am sorry. I hoped to be of some service to you. However, as you say, you are building ships, and that brings us to the real matter in hand. To come to the point, Captain Macey, we have put no draw in our new bridge.’

‘Um — hum,’ said Cap’n Tristram.

‘And your two ships are — ’


‘Precisely, precisely. Now see here, captain, we treated you rather shabbily in that matter of your house. I admit that, and I am quite ready to make amends. Now here are your two vessels. Of course you must rig them.’

‘I was certainly callatin’ to,’ admitted Cap’n Tristram.

‘Yes; and before you can do that, you must get them below our bridge. Why not let me do that part for you?’

‘M — m,’ mused Cap’n Tristram; ‘it would cost consid’able.’

‘Oh, don’t let that thought worry you, captain. The road can look out for that; you need never think of it — a mere trifle to balance our account, if you choose.’

‘All told, it would be a sight of work, Mr. Armstrong, a sight of work.’

‘But I would be glad to do it, captain.’

‘You’d reely like to?’

‘I would consider it as a favor, Captain Macey; really as a favor.’

Drumming slowly upon his desk, Cap’n Tristram meditated.

‘Mr. Armstrong,’ said he at length, ‘a spell back I wanted consid’able to get a house over your railroad tracks and you said it warn’t advisable to let me. Now, Mr. Armstrong, it seems that you ’re considerable anxious to get my ships under your tracks and I don’t think that ’s advisable. I ’ll rig ’em where they set.’

‘But, captain, somebody must get them under. You can’t sail a full-rigged ship through a steel bridge, you know! ’

‘Oh, yes, I can,’ blandly returned Cap’n Tristram.

‘ How ? ’

‘How? You know the law, Mr. Armstrong.’

Mr. Armstrong did know the law, but he had not expected to be told of it to the visible joy of a half-score of ancient seamen. His temper, always lively, too often outran his diplomacy. His face flushed, his feet put a belligerent space between them, and, fingering his heavy cane, he stared full upon Cap’n Tristram, a long, silent, belligerent stare.

Unmoved, the captain continued: —

‘ I ’ll own you beat me once, Mr. Armstrong, when I run afoul of your railroad tracks with that house of mine. But I learned my lesson, and this time, it’s me who is sure of the course — there’s a sight of difference, you know, between a house and a ship! ’

The Watch chuckled audibly. The railroad man fought hard, but his temper flared. His voice approached shouting.

‘Mr. Macey, sir, I see your intention, I see it clearly. It is absurd, sir, it — is — pre-pos-ter-ous! ’ and his cane wrathfully beat out the last syllables. ‘Until we refused — as, sir, we had a perfect right to refuse — your request concerning that house, shipbuilding, and shipping of every sort, was dead in this town, ab-so-lute-ly dead, and had been, sir, for forty years! And, if you are to resurrect it, above our bridge, from motives of spite, by heaven, sir, draw or no draw, law or no law, I’ll fight you, I’ll fight you through every court in the land till I have you beaten! ’

The blast disturbed Cap’n Tristram not a whit. Quietly he took off his spectacles and turned to face more squarely the glaring man of wrath.

‘I would n’t do that, Mr. Armstrong,’ said he; ‘I would n’t fight anybody, unless of course I had to; especially if I was sure to get the worst of it — as you know you be.’

The other attempted to speak, but Cap’n Tristram’s even voice continued, ‘Of course, I know how you feel, Mr. Armstrong I know just how you feel. You feel just’s I did when my house fetched up on your railroad tracks!’

That last remark and an appreciative ripple from the Watch furnished the slight touch of the spur which Mr. Armstrong’s already galloping temper needed.

‘Well,’ he roared, his face purple, ‘what do you propose to do about it? ’

Cap’n Tristram rose. His calmness was unruffled, but his easygoing serenity he put from off him as he would have put off a coat. It was Captain Tristram Macey, the captain who had commanded his ship from stem to stern, whose one word had been absolute law, who now faced the wrathful magnate. Every whit as big he seemed bigger. His eyes blazed.

‘Do!’ he thundered; ‘I callate, Mr. Armstrong, it is not for me to do anything! You have built that bridge without a draw to it. I don’t know where the gover’ment was to let you do it, — these days, — but you did. You’re obstructing navigation. Clean agin the law you ’ve penned in me and my two schooners; and now, sir, now you stand here in my office and ask me what I propose to do about it! Mr. Armstrong, sir, you’re on the wrong tack. The question is, what are you going to do — and you know it!’

Adam Armstrong, director of the Eastern Railroad, stared. For a minute that was all he could do. Never had he been so addressed — never! But the force of the blast, the steady eye, the unexpected power, — the very bulk of this old sea-captain, — in a measure cooled his wrath. Besides, he was a sensible man.

‘This will get us nowhere, captain; my time is valuable. We must talk business.’

‘That’s my way of lookin’ at it, Mr. Armstrong. Set down.’

Impressively, Mr. Armstrong sat down. His hand began to play with his dangling eye-glasses and their broad black ribbon, and he began to ‘talk business.’

‘Now, captain,’ said he, ‘I will be perfectly candid with you. You are perhaps right concerning the law and the lack of a draw in our new bridge, and very possibly you could cause us some trouble if this matter were ever brought to the attention of the government. But that, of course, need never be. Our interests seem to conflict, but I trust we can reach an agreement, right here, and in a very friendly way. We — the road — owe you something. Now what would you consider a reasonable proposition?’

Cap’n Tristram meditated.

‘Why, I dunno, Mr. Armstrong, I’m sure I dunno. You see I warn’t plannin’ on any “propositions.” I was expectin’ to rig my ships right where they be — and it still seems pretty advisable to me. But I don’t like to make trouble for anybody. I never did. I don’t believe in it, and so, well, if you reely want to do as you said, reely want to tow my schooners somewheres below your bridge, paying all the bills of course, why, I don’t know’s I’d mind, but — ’

‘Good, good!’ broke in the railroad man, instantly, emphatically. ‘I was positive that we could reach an agreement. I appreciate this, and —’

Cap’n Tristram checked him.

‘Hold your luff, Mr. Armstrong, there ain’t no hurry. Let me finish. I only said I would n’t mind — would n’t mind lettin’ you do what you propose with my ships; and I would n’t, if I could rig ’em myself in any place but where they be. But I can’t. If I’m to rig those vessels, they’ve got to stay just where they set.’

Mr. Armstrong’s jaws snapped.

‘What do you mean, captain?’

‘Why, just what I said, Mr. Armstrong. I myself can’t rig them ships anywhere but where they be now.’

‘And what do you expect?’

‘I don’t expect anything, Mr. Armstrong; only if you move ’em, I myself can’t rig ’em.’

‘ Indeed! and so perhaps you — er — a — wish us to rig them for you! That, sir, is utterly absurd!’

‘All right, Mr. Armstrong, all right — then I’ll rig ’em myself, and I’ll rig ’em right where they be. It seems pretty advisable to me, anyway.’

Mr. Armstrong straightened back in his chair.

‘Captain Macey, you take decided advantage of our position — er — that is, of our generosity, sir, de-cided advantage!’

‘Then you don’t think it advisable —’

‘Advisable!’ snorted the railroad man. ‘Advisable! Don’t say that word again! This is robbery — plain, spiteful, revengeful robbery; but, under the circumstances, I suppose we must submit to it. I suppose we must consent to be robbed, and so we will agree to rig your ships! ’

‘And spar ’em?’

‘You pirate!’ shouted Mr. Armstrong. ‘No!’ And his fist banged the chair-arm.

‘Then I’ll spar ’em myself, and, being a pirate, I reckon I ’ll put the spars into ’em right where they set, and you, Mr. Armstrong, you can dicker with the gover’ment!’

Abner, the forgotten, choked. The Watch deluged the spittoon. Shooting one furious glance at them, Mr. Armstrong, his eyes bulging, his face flaming, bolt upright with rage, turned upon Cap’n Tristram. His mouth opened, but no word came from it until he blazed, —

‘Pirate? Yes, you are a pirate! You’ re a robber, sir, a low, petty robber! I want no dealing with you. I scorn you — but — but — but to be rid of you, simply to — be — rid — of — you, sir, I will spar your infernal ships. And now sir, now I am done, I am ab-so-lute-ly done with you.’

And glaring at the captain, Mr. Armstrong reached for his hat and cane.

Cap’n Tristram held up his hand soothingly.

‘ Calm yourself, Mr. Armstrong, calm yourself. I ain’t no pirate, I ain’t no robber, nor I ain’t no hand to drive hard bargains, neither, no hand at all. But I learned considerable about dickerin’, especially with railroads, through that house of mine, and I’ll have to keep my lead agoin’, as we say to sea, afore I ’m certain whether we ’re done or not. Now, as I understand it, to save yourself trouble with your new bridge, you’re anxious to take my two schooners, tow ’em off somewheres, and, standin’ all expense of course, to put the spars into ’em and rig ’em for me. Well, I dunno but what to be obligin’, I ’d let you do that; but see here, you’ll have to take them vessels clear to Boston. Well now, s’posin’ you was to lose ’em on the way? s’posin’ a gale was to spring up and drive ’em ashore on Plum Island — what then?’

‘Then,’ shouted Mr. Armstrong with the grace of a bated bull, ‘then they could go to the devil, sir, straight to — the — devil, where they belong.’

His fist pounded out his statement.

‘Then,’ said Cap’n Tristram soberly, ‘I can’t trust you with ’em. I was willin’ to be accommodatin’ and to oblige you, but —’

‘Oblige! Accommodate! What do you mean, you old sea-scoundrel! Accommodating! It’s robbery, sir, robbery; that’s what it is, plain barefaced robbery; and I tell you, I’ll not submit to it! I tell you, I ’ll not be held up in this office of yours and swindled! Rig your ships! Do what you please with them! Go to the law! Go to the courts! Go to the devil! Sail through our bridge if you can! We’ll fight you! We’ll fight you to the Supreme Bench and our last dollar! We’ll, we’ll —’

‘Abner,’ observed Cap’n Tristram, ignoring the bellowing man before him, ‘this’s a reg’lar typhoon, ain ’t it? Would you say now, just for a guess, that Mr. Armstrong was dickerin’ with me or with the gover’ment?’

‘Oh, I — I’m dickerin’ with you, you pirate!’ shouted the railroad man, grabbing his cane and leaping to his feet. ‘I’m dickerin’ with you, because I’ve got to; but you’re a swindler, sir! You’re a crook! I loathe you, I loathe you! I loathe everything pertaining to you! Not a word, not a word, sir— I scorn you. I scorn dealing with you, and simply to be rid of you, simply to be rid of you, sir, I’ll tow your abominable little ships below our bridge for you; I’ll tow them to Boston or to New York or to Hong Kong for you! I’ll rig them for you. I’ll spar them for you. And if I lose them going or coming, I ’ll pay you for them and I’ll buy that — that — DAMNED house of yours to boot! By Heaven, I will; and here’s this miserable gang of old shell-backs that you ’ve kept here, to witness my words! ’

And Adam Armstrong, second vicepresident and director of the Eastern Railroad, spent for breath, stamped from the office that shook with his wrath. He headed for his big automobile, shouting to his chauffeur.

Just as he was entering the car, Cap’n Tristram called from the doorway, —

‘Oh, Mr. Armstrong, when you order them masts, the four lowers, I mean, you ’d better get Oregon pine. They’ll cost considerable more to begin with, but in the long run, they’ll be worth it, more’n worth it.’

The furious reply was lost in the roar of the starting motor, but neither the shaking fist nor the purple look shot at the captain was to be misunderstood.

Cap’n Tristram watched the automobile cross the Square and disappear up State Street. Slowly he turned from the doorway, and with a smile faced the Watch.

‘Abner,’ said he, ‘Mr. Armstrong don’t seem interested in Oregon pine, does he?’

And the Watch roared!