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       Coffins, p.10

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  “It goes very fast?” I asked, trying to imagine what went wrong. How, exactly, the twins got in the way of the blade.

  Herr Buchen shook his head. “No, no, not fast. Walking speed. See, like this?” He walked along the trundle track at a stately pace. “Only this speed. Terrible, terrible.”

  It finally dawned on me that his “terrible, terrible” referred as much to the speed as the accident itself. For the whole thing had happened very slowly, at a walking pace. It seemed that Sam’n’Zeke, having taken hold of the keel timber, found themselves somehow stuck to the massive timber as it entered the whirling saw blade. “Like this,” he said, pretending to place his hands where the keel would have been upon the trundle car.

  Cash Coffin, having engaged the lever, struggled to disengage it, but failed to do so.

  “Nothing wrong now,” Herr Buchen told me, working the lever back and forth. “But then, something wrong. Stuck. Coffin boys are stuck to keel. The grain of the oak open up, and then shut tight, trapping their hands.”

  “How is that possible?” I asked.

  “Don’t ask me how, I do not know. I know only what happen next. The boys are stuck to keel and keel is stuck to carriage, and carriage will not stop. My Canucks, they hear Captain scream. They right away stop steam engine. But big saw, you see, the counterweights keep it spinning.”

  Yes, I could see it now. The terrible spinning blade with its eight-inch teeth. The trundle inexorably drawn by the whirling counterweights. Two men cut in two, twins divided, their blood gushing in high, blade-strewn spatters as their father screams and throws his whole weight against the lever, unable to disengage the chain.

  “You say their hands were trapped in the grain of the wood. You mean like a fissure that opened and then closed?”

  “I don’t know what is ‘fissure.’”

  “Could it have been splinters that snagged them somehow?”

  “No splinters. A man can pull loose from splinters, if he sees that he will die. Their hands were pinned, so,” he said, demonstrating.

  “You were here? Saw the whole thing?”

  The shipbuilder nodded and pointed up to his perch above the loft floor. So he’d been up there in the eaves, a shipbuilder god looking down upon his saw-dusty angels. “Nothing I could do. Nothing anyone could do. And now my beautiful new sawmill is finished, kaput.”

  The actual mechanism had not been damaged, he explained, but his men refused to work the great, steam-driven saw. “I say it is only a machine, I say accidents happen, they do not believe me. They are superstitious people, these French Canucks. They think a devil lives inside,” he said, tapping the boiler.

  I shook my head, confused. “Why do they think that?”

  “Because it laughed. After the Coffin boys die, my Canucks say the devil laughed and spoke his name. From inside the boiler.”

  “My God!”

  “Not God,” the shipbuilder corrected, sucking on his pipe, studying me. “The devil. And his name, they say, his name is Monbasu.”

  “Monbasu?”

  He shrugged. “I suppose it is their name for devil.”

  “I see.”

  “Do you?” Herr Buchen stared hard at me, as hard as a hammer setting nails. “What do you see? Tell me please, so I can see it, too.”

  2. The Dark Gibraltar

  Daylight was already dimming by the time I drew within sight of White Harbor, but the feeling of dread I’d been anticipating did not return. By then I’d had sufficient time to digest the shipbuilder’s description of the terrible accident, and in a strange way the grim facts had assembled themselves into something that made sense. There was no doubt in my mind that the seeds of superstition—the whole idea of a “curse”—had been planted by Gunther Buchen’s French-speaking workmen. Confronted with an inexplicable horror, they heard the echo of their own fears in the last dying hiss of the steam boiler, and gave it a name. Their curious Canadian word for devil: Monbasu. As mankind has, for centuries, named the source of countless inexplicable tragedies. Flood, famine, plague; who but the devil himself could be blamed for such calamities? Certainly not the God who inhabits our white churches, and who appeals to our better angels. Better a curse on someone else than to face the even more terrifying prospect of an accident that could take any one of them, on any given day, in a trade where sharply honed edges, killing edges, shaped not only the ships they built, but their very destinies.

  And what of the Coffin brothers, hewn by the insentient, uncaring blade? Why had they been unable to free themselves in time? We would probably never know—how could we?—but I was satisfied that despite what Herr Buchen thought he saw from the eaves, it could have been something as simple, and mortally dangerous, as unseen splinters of oak, snagging at their sleeves.

  Killed by splinters? Why not? Kingdoms had been lost for less.

  At noon of the following day, a telegram came from Portland, announcing that a “Great Man” would soon embark for White Harbor. The “Great Man” could be none other than Frederick Douglass himself, and in his case the description was hardly an exaggeration. No other figure from the Negro race had made such an impression upon the white race, with his books and his speeches and his impregnable dignity. He was the dark Gibraltar upon which the cruel and violent sea of slavery crashed, wave upon wave, and yet he could not be eroded. The circumstances of his life, so powerfully recounted in his autobiography, were themselves a perfectly articulated argument against the institution of slavery. I had heard the man speak only once, and that from a distance, and yet his carefully reasoned rhetoric, made vivid by his impassioned recollections of life under the lash, had been forever burned into my mind. Whatever my differences with Jebediah about the necessity of civil war, Mr. Douglass had left me with no doubt that slavery was an abomination, and that it must be eradicated. I was therefore eager to make his acquaintance, even in the present strained circumstances.

  Despite the inclement weather, Mr. Douglass and his party made use of that favorite mode of Coffin transportation, namely the swift schooner Raven. While many travelers might have chosen the Eastern Railroad as a safer and drier alternative, Mr. Douglass by his own reckoning did not have that option, for he had long ago refused to take passage in what was commonly known as the “Jim Crow” car, the fetid box at the back of the train where Negroes were obliged to ride.

  Jebediah, roused from his melancholy languor by the much anticipated arrival, recounted for me the incident that had precipitated Douglass’s famous “Jim Crow” refusal. “Frederick always sends someone ahead to buy his ticket, to avoid prohibition if he can. In this case he had purchased a first-class ticket and took his seat,” Jeb said, his eyes warming in recollection. “One of the other passengers objected and ordered him to proceed to the ‘nigger car.’ Fred said nothing, but refused to give up his seat. The enforcers were sent for. You know how roughly railroad enforcers handle customers, given the opportunity? Well, four of those brutes took hold of Fred, and Fred took hold of his seat. I need not remind you how immensely strong he is, in body as well as mind. They could not pry loose his fingers—four men!—and when they finally did ‘loosen’ him, that first-class seat came with him!”

  I knew the story well, but Jeb’s enthusiasm made it worth hearing again. “The Eastern Railroad has since done away with the ‘Jim Crow’ car,” he went on, rubbing his hands together in a kind of anticipatory glee, “but they still discourage Negroes in the first-class compartment, so Frederick comes to us by Raven wings, first class all the way!”

  First class, perhaps, but in the teeth of a winter squall that turned the harbor into a raging froth of spume and spray. Jeb not yet feeling well enough to leave the house, I went at the appointed time with the carriage driver, and it was all the horses could do to pull us into the wind. Wind that screeched and moaned through the pristine village, setting my teeth on edge, and rain driven so hard the shingled buildings seemed to be coated with glass as the rain froze on contact. The very wharf shuddered wi
th the force of the gale, and so much salt water flew through the air I couldn’t make out the first line of moorings, let alone the mouth of the harbor.

  It didn’t seem possible that even so fine and seaworthy a craft as Raven could prevail in such a squall, but barely had we gained the wharf when suddenly the storm eased and the spray dropped enough for me to catch a glimpse of the schooner entering the harbor under heavily reefed sails. She glided easily enough, betraying only a slight shudder at the peak of each wave, as if to shake off the remnants of the driving rain. It gladdened my heart to see the little ship prevail, and I was reminded that what may seem terrifying to a landsman is often but a “spot of weather” to the mariner.

  In less than a half hour we had Mr. Douglass and his party safely aboard the carriage with their trunks stowed. I was surprised to find the famous abolitionist soaked through to his light, coffee-colored, skin, but grinning as if he’d just enjoyed a great joke. “What exhilaration!” he exclaimed. “I’ve always loved a ship, even when I was obliged to take passage on the open deck, but I never quite realized how much I loved a storm. All it wanted was a lightning bolt or two, to make things perfect, hey, Ottie?”

  Mr. Douglass had addressed himself to a thoroughly bedraggled creature who was, I soon learned, Miss Ottilie Assing, a native of Germany who assisted Mr. Douglass in the publication of his newspapers and pamphlets, and who had translated his autobiography into the German language. Miss Assing obviously did not share the great abolitionist’s enthusiasm for stormy weather. Her eyes had the look of someone who has seen, in all too vivid detail, the approaching scythe of the Grim Reaper. However, she soon recovered, and with the help of a dry towel made herself presentable. I should say more than merely presentable, for Miss Assing or “Ottie” had a kind of physical intensity that transcended mere beauty. Taken at a glance or seen in a crowd, she might have been dismissed as ordinary, but I was soon to learn that there was nothing ordinary about her.

  In addition to Miss Assing, Mr. Douglass was accompanied by two gentlemen who were active in abolitionist societies, Mr. Hugh Clinton, of Portland, and Mr. Benton Chivers, of Boston. Clinton, at thirty years of age the younger by a decade, had affected a pair of side-whiskers so large they made him look faintly ridiculous. Nothing he was to do or say in the next few days would alter that first impression. Chivers was, in contrast, a man of substantial intellect, although something of a prude, for he was not only an abolitionist, but a fervent advocate of temperance, and a Methodist. It was he who rolled his eyes and told me that at the height of the storm Mr. Douglass had clung to the forward mast and insisted on reciting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in a very loud voice.

  “Why did you protest?” Mr. Douglass asked with obvious amusement. “Is it not a fine poem? You know how I love Coleridge.”

  “And what if you’d been swept overboard?” Chivers retorted primly. “What then? Would you have us lose you for a whim?”

  Mr. Douglass shrugged his broad shoulders. “I was in no such danger,” he said, but seemed very satisfied to have disturbed his fellow travelers, and beamed at them with a sunny expression that contained an element of ferocity, as if daring them to disagree. Although about forty years of age, with more than a few streaks of gray woven into his dense shock of frizzled hair, Mr. Douglass retained a youthful vigor that seemed to warm whatever space he occupied. His face was very nearly as striking as his voice, an intoxicating mixture of the races, wherein the high, broad cheekbones of Africa balanced the prominent nose and thin-lipped mouth of the white man who had fathered him by committing a savage act. He was, then, the very embodiment of slave and slaveholder, physical proof of black bondage and white depravity. That such a combination should be also strikingly handsome made him all the more disconcerting, and he seemed to know it, and to revel in it, and at the same time to always be offering an unspoken apology for the audacity of his very existence.

  It was Miss Assing who first remembered to inquire about Jebediah. “Is the little man not well?” she asked. I explained that the tragic circumstances of the past week had incapacitated our host, but that he seemed on the mend, and that the excitement of their visit could be nothing but a positive stimulation.

  “Two brothers, you say, and a baby?” Mr. Douglass blinked his startlingly large eyes, which had lost their challenging frivolity. “The poor fellow. I know something of what he must be feeling.”

  Miss Assing patted the great man’s hand and looked to me with a somber expression. “Frederick lost his dear Annie less than a year ago.”

  Annie, I was made to understand, was Mr. Douglass’s eleven-year-old daughter, whose death had caused him to leave England and return home despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest in connection with the John Brown conspiracy. That he had tried to dissuade Brown from his doomed assault upon Harper’s Ferry was conveniently overlooked by his enemies, who doubtless wished to see Mr. Douglass’s body “moldering in the grave” as well that of the late and song-lamented John Brown.

  Having brought the subject of death into the carriage, I attempted to lighten the mood by describing the rainswept village and its seafaring inhabitants as we passed through it. Later, after learning that this was by no means Mr. Douglass’s first visit to White Harbor, I could only appreciate his politeness at listening to my rather ignorant travelogue. But then an exquisite sense of politeness was but one of the great man’s many facets.

  Clinton, the fellow with the ridiculous side-whiskers, stared pop-eyed as we approached our destination. “Why the house has a face!” he cried. “A terrible face!”

  I peered through the blurred rain and at first saw nothing but the now-familiar building. Porch, portico, wings, and tower. But then my eyes were drawn to a pair of illuminated windows on the second floor, and to the storm lanterns that had been set in a row along the porch. Clinton might be a fool, but he was not without imagination. The effect was that of a jack-o’-lantern: two glowing eyes and a row of glowing teeth below.

  It was not those glowing “eyes” that put a sparkle of ice in my blood. It was the reaction of Frederick Douglass.

  “My God,” he said in a badly shaken voice. “It’s the head of Death, and it’s looking right at me.”

  3. That a Broken Hand Might Play So Well

  The spell was soon broken when the carriage creaked to a stop under the portico. By then Mr. Douglass was shaking his head in self-admonition. “How silly,” he exclaimed, “to fear a few ordinary lanterns. What was I thinking?” To lighten the mood, and relieve our anxiety, he proceeded to recount an anecdote about a superstition on his old plantation. I overheard it only in part, as I attended to the luggage.

  The famed abolitionist was saying something like, “Kind old Sandy handed me that root and swore it would keep me safe from beatings, if only I carried it on my right side. Well, I did so, and wouldn’t you know? I was never beaten again! At least not on that particular farm. Now the Baltimore waterfront, that’s another thing entirely.”

  By then the driver and I had got the trunks inside without them being further soaked, and Jebediah was calling from the salon: “Fred! Are you there! Is that you, Fred? Come quick! If I have to wait another minute, I promise to explode!”

  Mr. Douglass and his party strode dripping into the Coffin house, as bold as an invading army, but more certain of their welcome. Tom Coffin waited just inside the door, eager to shake the famous man’s hand, and pious Benjamin bowed from the waist, as if admitting a king, and cousin Lucy kissed Ottilie Assing upon the cheek, although they had never in life met before. Even Barky stood ready with a tray of steaming hot chocolate, and followed us all into the salon, where Jebediah had been made comfortable on a fainting couch upholstered in maroon velvet.

  “Friends! Romans! Countrymen!” Jeb exclaimed, his face alive with welcome.

  “We shan’t be lending you our ears,” Mr. Douglass joked as he grasped Jeb’s outstretched hands. “Our ears are wet and full of the sea.”

  “Was it a
terrible storm?”

  “Most terrible. I enjoyed every minute of it,” crowed Mr. Douglass, seating himself on the foot of the fainting couch. And then, in a more sober tone: “I’ll tell you all, dear fellow, but first let me offer you my condolences.”

  “You’re most kind,” said Jeb with a dismissive wave of the hand, “but let us put aside the convention of mourning while you are in residence. I can’t bear to think of sad things when I feel such joy. Is that dear Ottie? Why you look more enchanting than ever!”

  Miss Assing beamed at the compliment and murmured her thanks. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Chivers were then brought forward for introductions—yes, Jeb did recall meeting both men at the abolitionist convention in New York two years previous, what a long time ago that was—and we all took cups of Barky’s chocolate concoction and drew chairs around Mr. Douglass, as if he were the magnet and we so many iron filings.

  “And did the cargo arrive safely, by the way?” Jeb asked mysteriously.

  After glancing at me, Mr. Douglass nodded, and no more was said of this mysterious cargo. By the look Jeb gave me—amused and pleased with his little secret—I was confident of an explanation, eventually, but it was clear the subject would be discussed no further in the present circumstance, which soon became entirely social.

  “Do you have a Miss Wattle in residence?” Douglass wanted to know. When Lucy presented herself with a formal curtsy, the abolitionist took her hand and said, “Your friend Mrs. Stanton wishes to be remembered to you. We shared the speaker’s podium in Portland, and when she heard my destination, she asked that I convey her regards.”

 
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