Coffins, p.1
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       Coffins, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
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Coffins


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  Coffins

  Rodman Philbrick

  For the Friday night transcendental billiard boys:

  Dennis, Julian, Ronan, Steve, Sol, and Tim,

  whose conversations helped steer this book to port—

  and a fine smooth port it was, too!

  EDITOR’S NOTE

  The following manuscript was assembled from the contents of four notebooks and a ship’s log recovered from the effects of Davis A. Bentwood, a battlefield surgeon with the 20th Maine, under the command of Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg. The personal notebooks were bound in calfskin and imprinted with the author’s name and rank, and are generally in a good state of preservation. The ship’s log is partially water-damaged, and bears stains of what was recently determined to be human blood. Although not authored by Dr. Bentwood, the ship’s log was firmly bound to his own notebooks with a stout black ribbon, of the type used for armband mourning displays in the nineteenth century. The material was found among the thousands of other objects of Civil War memorabilia collected by Mr. Denton Wattle, late of York, Maine.

  It was Mr. Wattle’s heir, Miriam Coffin Wattle, who first brought the Bentwood material to my attention. Indeed she may have been the first person to actually read Dr. Bentwood’s strange narrative, after locating the notebooks and the attached ship’s log in the false bottom of the surgeon’s monogrammed medical valise, which had been part of the immense and impressive Wattle Collection for at least fifty years.

  I have been able to determine that a Davis A. Bentwood did indeed enlist with Chamberlain’s famous fighting corps, at the rank of captain, which was typical for a medical officer. An examination of the archives of Harvard Medical School prove beyond a doubt the narrative was written in Bentwood’s very distinctive hand. Other than that, I cannot vouch for the veracity of what he wrote, as the events he describes in such chilling detail were never mentioned in any contemporary newspaper or journal.

  Read it and judge for yourself.

  Rodman Philbrick

  Kittery, Maine

  I

  MANIFESTATIONS

  The vanished gods to me appear;

  And one to me are shame and fear.

  RALPH WALDO EMERSON

  March 4, 1861

  White Harbor, Maine

  We were playing pinochle in the parlor, cousin Lucy and I, when the screaming began.

  The parlor was the darkest of the many rooms in the Coffin mansion, and my right hand was wrapped protectively around a glass of whiskey, not my first. You should know that I am not a drinking man, not usually, but this was an unusual evening, all things considered, and the draught of fine Kentucky sour mash had a calming affect upon my shattered nerves. It enabled me to deal the cards without trembling much, and if beautiful dark-haired Lucy—Lucy of the startlingly pale, icicle-blue eyes—if Lucy noticed my discomfort she did not comment upon it. She was aware of what had happened in the tower earlier that day, and since the Coffins did not speak of madness in the family, and in particular of the Captain’s white-eyed, pistol-waving madness, we spoke instead of trifling things. The scandalous price of the sperm oil that barely illuminated the gloomy room. The fair weather that seemed to promise a mild winter. Jeb’s new hat. Barky’s remarkable cooking.

  Meanwhile I concentrated on the turn of the cards, and Lucy’s trill of laughter when she won, which was most of the time.

  “Does your friend Emerson play at cards?” she wanted to know as she lay down yet another triumphant hand.

  “I assume he does,” I said. “Though as you know Mr. Emerson is not exactly my friend.”

  “Not exactly?” said Lucy with a teasing smile. “What is he to you then, the great man?”

  “More a mentor than a friend. His writing guides me, and his sermons.”

  “Then you’re what, a transcendentalist? Do I say the word correctly?”

  “Exactly so,” I said, shuffling the cards together.

  “So tell me, Dr. Bentwood, does a transcendentalist believe in God?”

  The question was not unfamiliar, and I answered it as I usually do, with the reasoned equanimity of a modern man of science. “What is God? If God is an eye hovering over the wilderness, an eye whose light gives us life, and meaning, then yes, I believe in God.”

  My companion smirked prettily. “God as a floating eyeball? How very strange, Dr. Bentwood.”

  “Please,” I asked, “call me Davis.”

  “Davis,” Lucy said, as if savoring the word, or tasting the name, which put a delicious shiver through me. “Tell me, Davis, does this floating God of yours believe in you?”

  I was searching for a witty remark, something wise and amusing, something to impress this ravishing young woman, whose dark beauty seemed strangely suited to her modest, and very plain, black mourning attire, when the first scream came echoing through the empty rooms of the great house.

  Lucy stood at once, as did I.

  “No,” she whispered, as if to herself. “Not again.”

  Not again. And yet this was, so far as I knew, the first such scream, although not, as it happened, the last. Far from the last.

  “The nursery,” cried Lucy. “Sarah!”

  Sarah was her cousin Nathaniel’s wife, and mother of a newly christened infant. Sarah had impressed me as a quiet, sober, intelligent sort of woman, and the thought of her crying out from the nursery made my blood run as cold as the currents in the harbor that lay a thousand yards from us, full of ships snug at their winter moorings.

  I held the lamp but let my companion guide us, for in the last few days I’d more than once gotten lost in the maze of rooms and intersecting hallways. Lucy, however, was surefooted, and rushed ahead, a rustle of black crinoline vanishing into the darkness. I followed the sound of her running feet as much as the vague shape of her, but she was soon lost in the shadows. Leaving me alone with the house all around me.

  The first spate of screaming had settled into an awful keening, and it was that mournful quality that cleared my head of whiskey. Something terrible had happened, and the thrill of that now familiar fear—an unspeakable fear that had first manifested itself that morning in a visit to the family crypt, and continued unabated through my terrifying experience in the tower—made me want to race for the front porch and down the steps, and away from this awful house.

  I did no such thing, of course, being a gentleman and a friend of the family. Instead I steeled myself against the keening and attempted to follow that wretched, heartrending sound through the dark hallways.

  “Are you there?” I called out, affecting a calmness I did not feel. “Am I near?”

  Another scream echoed. Not Sarah, this time, but cousin Lucy. A scream distinct and vibrant, and yet for the life of me I could not place the direction. Something about the way sound carried within the cavernous house was strangely disorienting. The keening echoed weirdly, and at times seemed to emanate from the very walls, as if the house itself gave voice to a terrifying despair.

  Finally I stopped and set the lamp upon the floor, and attempted to somehow get my bearings. There. The sound was definitely coming from behind. I picked up the lamp, retraced my steps, and with my empty hand found a break in the wall, an intersection with yet another hallway. In the distance—how far I could not tell—a light glowed faintly. Making my way toward the light, I came upon the nursery at last, and the source of the horrible keening.

  Inside the nursery an oak fire blazed in the hearth. My first impression upon stumbling into the small, low-ceilinged room was that the place was stifling, the air close and fragrant with the mingl
ed scents of perfumed powder and something that might have been milk. Baby smells, and something else—the sweat of fear.

  Two women were embraced near the hearth, as if poised for a sentimental silhouette. Lucy, her arms enfolded around the sobbing, keening Sarah, whose face was buried in her cousin’s shoulder. Lucy looked at me beseechingly, willing me to take charge of the situation, as custom and friendship demanded.

  Nathaniel Coffin, Sarah’s husband, stood by the crib, his broad-shouldered, six-foot frame stooped with grief. I went to him, still holding the lamp, but he was at first oblivious to my presence.

  “Casey,” his broken voice whispered. “Poor little Casey.”

  “Let me see,” I said gently. “Maybe I can be of help.”

  But the baby lay unmoving in the center of the crib, with an utter stillness that meant there was nothing to be done. Tangled around his tiny feet was the soft lamb’s-wool blanket he’d evidently kicked away; and no wonder, for the room was as warm as a summer day. Then, holding the lamp aloft, I noticed that the infant’s skin had taken on a strange blue hue. Blue and glistening.

  “He’s froze up hard,” Nathaniel murmured, his big hands gripping the sides of the crib so firmly that his knuckles had gone as white as his face.

  Froze up hard. Was this some local expression for the death that so frequently came to newborn babies, snuffing them in their cradles? I reached out to touch little Casey, and my hand encountered not the soft, lifeless flesh I’d expected, but a hard and icy coldness. A cold so intense it instantly numbed my fingers.

  “My God!”

  The baby was not simply dead, it was frozen solid.

  1. A Stern Angel

  It all began, I suppose, the day I first saw the abolitionist dwarf waddling across Harvard Yard. This was in the year 1857, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was completing medical school and contemplating a life of well-disciplined leisure. I’d recently inherited a small but tidy fortune that would enable me to live quite comfortably without having to enter practice, or apprentice with a surgeon, options that lately had begun to seem more and more unsuitable to my nature. My ambition, if you can call it that, was to be an amateur scientist, in the tradition of America’s great lightning bug, Benjamin Franklin, save that I would trap transcendentalism in a jar, and make it charge the battery of the mind.

  My name is Davis Arthur Bentwood, distant but sole-surviving relation to the owners of the now-defunct Bentwood Mills, and the dwarf (the one in the Yard, the abolitionist) went by the name of Jeb, alias Jebediah Coffin, of the famous, seafaring Coffins of White Harbor, Maine. The strange little gnome of a man was famous for his fanatical attachment to the cause of ending slavery, violently if need be. Violently because young Coffin had, despite his diminutive size, beaten a student of contrary opinion with a knobbed cane and been brought up on charges, dismissed when an amused magistrate saw what was before him.

  “That one so small holds opinions so large is bound to cause trouble,” the magistrate had said, looking down from the bench to where Jeb stood, his largish head no higher than the desk behind which his lawyers cowered. “I admonish you to relinquish the cane, if not the cause.”

  The defendant surrendered the weapon and promptly acquired an exact duplicate. Or so it was reported in The Liberator, an abolitionist broadside. But then abolitionists have been known to bend the truth if it serves their purpose, and for all I know the entire scene was improved upon. Suffice to say it made Jebediah Coffin an object of even more curiosity, including certain salacious comments overheard from the painted, gin-scented mouth of a not-too-particular female who made her living granting amorous interludes to some of the more depraved undergraduates.

  “You want the scale of the thing,” she had cackled, “look to that big head of his, not to his hands, no bigger’n a child’s hands them are. But the thing of him, I swear, larger than the usual by the length of my thumb, ha!”

  Oh, yes, there was much speculation about the odd little man, most of it unkind. For in the company of his fellow students he would not play the clown, as was expected of a man with his affliction. An observer sensed this instantly, by the way he held his head—handsome and noble enough to be inscribed on a coin—and by the will with which he forced his small, twisted body into an aspect of proper, gentlemanly posture, with his short little back held straight as a ramrod. I have described his walk as a waddle, and it is true it had something in the way of a waddle; it must have, given the shortness of his legs. But there was an element of strutting, too, the restrained but nevertheless confident strut of one who has hitched his wagon to a star, and knows it.

  Emerson again, for when my mind seeks a way through the complexities of recollection, I hitch myself to the sage of Concord, and try to see things as he might see them. What would the great thinker make of Jebediah Coffin, whose temperament was as foreign to reasoned philosophical contemplation as China is to Arkansas? Jeb who cared little for Nature, and less for Religion? Jeb whose wrath was not the wrath of a vengeful God, not John Brown’s righteous fury, but the rational anger of a human being who sees a great injustice and cannot rest until it has been expunged from the earth?

  I understood or sensed only the smallest part of this, of him, that first day in the Yard, where I witnessed an incident of casual, thoughtless cruelty. A mob of street boys had followed the dapper little man in from the Square and made him the target of their mockery. Taunting him with “There’s the freak, where’s the sideshow?” and the like. Nothing very imaginative, just what you might expect from a pack of idlers who had endured, no doubt, much cruelty themselves. The boys pecked at him as pigeons will do when one of their number shows deformity, and oh, how they suffered for it. The boys, I mean, not the pigeons.

  I witnessed the incident from a short distance away, while exiting a lecture hall, and was about to intercede when something about the small man’s demeanor gave me pause. From my vantage his great and noble head was in profile. The skull was strong and well molded, with a powerful, slightly hooked nose and a fine curl to his lips. Beneath his tall black stovepipe hat, hair the color of raw honey fell in thick waves to his shoulders, and seemed to surround his head in a nimbus of light, as if he were a stern angel painted on some popish altar. But it was the set of his jaw that paused me, for he had the fore-thrust, deeply cleft chin of a man who would brook no interference, and quite possibly curse the fool who dared to offer.

  This, then, was the man the gang of youths taunted, prancing about in crude imitation of his reduced stature, and his distinct, upright manner of walking. At first the little man did not react, continuing on his way as if they did not exist, serene and dignified in his exquisitely tailored black frock coat and his gleaming patent leather boots. Serene and oblivious until the tallest of the n’er-do-wells blocked his path and knocked the tall hat from his head.

  “Looky here, boys! It ain’t got horns, but it might’ve sawed ’em off, like they do with cattle. Is that what happened, after them demon horns ripped out yer mama’s belly? Sawed ’em off did you? Any stumps left, eh? Here, let me touch ’em for luck.”

  The boy, the biggest of the gang, made the mistake of reaching out to brush the dwarf’s hair away, as if looking for evidence of the “demon horns,” which surely he did not believe existed except as a means of tormenting a victim half his size. The boy’s mistake being that his victim, though small, was far from defenseless.

  In a flash the cane was rammed into the youth’s lean belly with such force that it looked at first to be a fatal blow, and might well have proved so, had it not been the blunt end of the cane.

  Dumbstruck by the unexpected turn of events, the other boys hesitated before reacting, but then gathered up their courage and swarmed forward, intent upon rescuing their leader. But the dwarf stood over the groaning bully and waved his cane like a scythe, holding his ground. “Back, or I’ll slit his throat with my fingernail! Demon nails are sharp as razors!” he roared, making a claw of his small and harmless-looking
hand.

  The gang of toughs hesitated, and he saw he had their measure.

  “Yes, I’ve lost my demon horns,” said the dwarf, fastening his eyes upon them with an intensity that made the boys quiver. “But still I can see the future. Your future. You!” he said, indicating a particular boy, a youth with skin like coddled milk. “You shall die a coward’s death, running away from battle, and be shot in the gut by your own officers. You shall live in agony for three days and die with your mouth and eyes open. Flies will enter your throat and breed maggots in your eyes before your death. And you!” he said, picking another youth, “you will have your legs sawed off by a man who stinks of whiskey, and gangrene will eat the stumps and then the stumps will be sawed off, and when eventually you return to this place you’ll be shorter than me, and you shall remember this day, and rue it, and end your wretched life by drinking lye.”

  Boys of all types are a superstitious lot, and these shrank from the dwarf, in the belief that he could, as he claimed, foresee their deaths. Death which had, I suppose, never been imagined until that moment, or certainly not in such horrific detail. For if they had seen a drowned body or two bobbing in the Charles, as any street boy might, or a man crushed by a horse, as had happened only last week, right in the Square, and no doubt innumerable relatives laid out and waked, never had they looked at death and seen themselves.

  All of the foreseen deaths were the result of war, a notion the dwarf clearly relished. “You’ll try to hide behind the cannon mounts,” he told one pale-faced youth, “shitting your drawers in terror. But when the shell strikes it blows the rampart to hell, and you with it, a splinter of oak through your shriveled heart.”

  At that moment the prostrate gang leader revived enough to grab the dwarf’s cane, catching him by surprise. The bloody-mouthed youth was attempting to force the smaller man to the ground and beat him with his own cane when I finally intervened.

 
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