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       Coffins, p.11

           Rodman Philbrick
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  Lucy blushed to the roots of her slim neck and seemed, for a moment, struck speechless. But after a pause—a very genial pause warmed by Mr. Douglass’s kindly smile—she recovered her composure and responded. “I am honored that Elizabeth Cady Stanton considers me a friend. In truth, I was only her secretary for a time, before my father’s illness. I’m astonished that she remembers me at all.”

  “She spoke very warmly of you, Miss Wattle. Your assistance has not been forgotten, I’m sure.”

  I was myself somewhat distressed to know that Lucy had never seen fit to confide that she had acted as secretary to the great suffragist. Did she have the impression that I was not sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage? Was she concerned that potential suitors might object to her radical beliefs? Was I, then, a potential suitor?

  I didn’t have the time nor the occasion to raise the delicate subject, as we directly went into supper, and ate sumptuously. Soon enough the concern slipped my mind entirely, as we were regaled by many a tale from Mr. Douglass, who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of fascinating anecdotes. He managed to put himself at the center of every story in the most charming way, as if he were the bemused observer of a life he’d never imagined possible. I found him to be quite the most likable and natural companion, despite his elevated stature, for he had the ability to place his listeners on equal footing with himself. As if we too might easily have been the toast of England, speaking to cheering thousands, showered with invitations, hobnobbing with famous aristocrats. It was like being in the presence of an enormous, soul-warming fire, as if we were all small chunks of coal eagerly seeking his spark. No, more like small planets orbiting his gigantic sun. All of us drawn by his warmth, his gravity, his physical beauty, and the radiance of his intelligence. None more than Jebediah, whose condition seemed to improve by the minute.

  “Shall there be war at last?” Jeb asked him, with all the eagerness of a child anticipating Christmas.

  The big man shrugged, and his expression became somber. “I have given up attempting to divine the mind of Mr. Lincoln,” he said. “Certainly the Southern states will continue to secede, as they are doing this very moment. But the new government may well continue to seek compromise. Lincoln could yet decide to let his famous house be divided into two houses, rather than let it fall. I think not even Mr. Lincoln knows his own mind on the subject, and won’t until he feels the flow of power, and where the currents of state may take him.”

  “So the office makes the man?” Jeb teased.

  Mr. Douglass considered the question gravely. “Yes,” he decided, “on balance I think it does. Or amend that to ‘changes the man.’ One day I am hopeful, regarding Mr. Lincoln’s intention, the next I am consumed by despair. Even if war is declared, it will be up to the new president to rouse the people. The Southern militias are well armed and eager for battle. And the North?” Mr. Douglass cupped a hand to his ear and pretended to listen. “I hear neither drum nor fife.”

  “You will hear it,” Jeb promised. “The people will rise up, once blood has been spilled. But for now, might we hear a sweet fiddle, dear Fred? You know how I love a sweet fiddle.”

  Mr. Douglass obliged and had his instrument brought to the salon. In truth it required no great powers of persuasion, as the great abolitionist loved to play upon his violin, and did so with considerable skill. Accompanied by Miss Assing on the piano, Douglass entertained us with a selection of the simple country tunes he’d learned as a child, as well as pieces from the European composers. He had a particular fondness for Mozart. His technique was somewhat peculiar because of a prior injury to his hand, which had been broken by a cruel overseer, but he played with such intensity of feeling that his audience was often moved to tears. That a broken hand might play so well! Indeed, cousin Lucy wept openly, and stood to applaud when the piece jogged to an end.

  Upon seeing her, Mr. Hugh Clinton rose to join her in applauding. He gave the impression of doing so more for Lucy’s approval than for any love of the music, and that hardened my heart to the fellow. Did he not know he was an interloper here? But the unkind thought only served to remind me that I, too, was an interloper, at least in regard to my admiration of Jeb’s beautiful young cousin.

  “Bravo!” Clinton barked. “Bravo!”

  Mr. Douglass bowed, gesturing in appreciation to Miss Assing at the piano. “You are too kind,” he said to his audience, but clearly he was pleased by the emotional effect of his music. After putting away his instrument he returned to the foot of the fainting couch and laid his hand upon the knitted comforter that warmed Jebediah’s stunted legs. “And now, my friend, what can we do for you? You ask that we put aside tragedy, but I cannot. Shall we pray for your dead, and for the living who endure so much pain? When my Annie passed I prayed and it seemed to help.”

  “My brother Ben has prayers enough for all of us,” Jeb said. “But tell me, Fred, does this mean you and the church have been reconciled?”

  It was obvious the thrust of the question made Mr. Douglass uncomfortable. His differences with several of the more popular denominations had been frequent, and public, since while the majority of pastors had been persuaded to agree that slavery was an abomination, and that Negroes were to be considered as human beings, still these same pastors were loath to allow dark skin to soil their white pews. In their minds God had divided the races for good reason, and the proximity of a dark-skinned person was naturally repulsive to a white-skinned person. It wasn’t only pastors or their parishioners; many of the more fervent white abolitionists actually agreed with this thesis, and behaved accordingly, in church and out. The general opinion in the North was that while Negroes might be human, and therefore not to be sold as chattel property, they were an inferior and degraded race, deemed so by God, and not fit for cohabitation with the white race. Worse, many of the popular Northern congregations, Methodists and so on, continued to preach that slaves were legal property, in the same way that white-skinned indentured servants owed labor to their masters, and could therefore be pursued into the free states, captured by bounty hunters, and returned to their rightful owners.

  So Frederick Douglass, who as a young man had secretly ministered the gospel to his fellow slaves, and who knew the Bible as well as any man, had over the years put considerable distance between himself and organized religion, as a matter of principle.

  “A man can pray outside of church,” he said gently. “Indeed, is it not encouraged?”

  “What do you hear from Garrison?” Jeb said, deflecting the question of prayer. “Are you reconciled?”

  “I hear from him,” Mr. Douglass admitted, “but no, we are not reconciled. How can we be?”

  It was obvious that the split with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, troubled him even more than his divisions with the church. It was Garrison who had first discovered and promoted young Fred Douglass as a speaker for the cause, a luminous example of the Negro’s equality of intelligence, but the two men had fallen out when, with his fame increased, Mr. Douglass decided to publish his own newspaper, The North Star, in competition with Garrison’s The Liberator. More serious was their public disagreement about the very idea of secession. Garrison and many of his fellow abolitionists had for decades believed that the Constitution was fatally flawed and that the free states must therefore separate themselves from the slave states and form a new abolitionist government. Out of loyalty to Garrison, Mr. Douglass had originally adhered to this view, but over the years had changed his mind. It was not the Constitution that was flawed, he decided, but the men who interpreted it. Secession of the free states was no answer, because it did nothing to address Mr. Douglass’s fundamental concern—the slaves themselves, who would remain in chains, secession or no. And now, lately, the Southern states had themselves embraced the idea of secession, exactly as Mr. Douglass had predicted they would, further embarrassing Mr. Garrison.

  Garrison’s response had been to encourage rumors about the impropriety of Mr. Douglass’s apparently inti
mate relationship with Miss Assing, while alluding to the fact that Anna Douglass, his wife, was illiterate, unable to read the books her famous husband had written. Indeed, that Douglass had hired tutors to remedy the embarrassing situation, but Anna refused them. This reference to his wife’s illiteracy and willful ignorance seemed to rile Douglass more than any hint of impropriety with Miss Assing.

  “Never mind my little concerns,” Mr. Douglass said to Jeb, admonishing him gently. “What of your concerns? I know of the terrible tragedies, and I understand if you do not wish to speak of them, but tell me, please, what has made you so ill you couldn’t rise and dance to my fiddle? Is it grief, or something worse?”

  “Worse,” Jeb admitted. “I am doomed.”

  “Doomed?” Mr. Douglass asked, incredulous.

  Jeb gave us all a sickly sort of smile and then shrugged. “We are all doomed, are we not? Never mind. You are here, Fred, and for as long as you are in this house, doom must wait! Now tell us, dear Ottie, of the latest books,” he said resolutely, closing the subject of his recent distress.

  And so the conversation touched on the latest translations of the great man’s autobiography, and his various essays and speeches, until all of us began to yawn. We made our excuses and retired, each of us, to our own private chambers, and passed the night in blessed silence.


  4. Strange Cargo

  Strangely enough, the screams did not awaken me. I slept as soundly as if I were dead, drifting in a limbo of gray, shapeless dreams, until Lucy came into my chamber and, finding me insensible, finally managed to rouse me by tugging firmly upon my left ear.

  “Wake up!” she hissed. “You are needed!”

  With lantern in hand she seemed but another phantasm, although more radiant, and infinitely more beautiful. What? I thought, struggling to wake. Who needed me? Could it be this lovely creature before me, her face pinched with concern?

  If I was sluggish upon being roused, the echo of a dying moan soon brought me fully conscious. Instantly I understood that this time it was not a baby crying, but an adult woman experiencing intolerable pain. You will not forget such a sound if ever you have walked the night wards. Never had I felt so helpless, and so unable to help others, as in those wards, during the last year of medical school. Night rounds, and the dire emergencies that seem to occur only then—the experience had so unnerved me that I soon relinquished any thought of a residency or apprenticeship to a surgeon. And now in the cold December night, the moaning seemed to have followed me all the way from Boston City Hospital.

  “Gather your things,” Lucy said, urging me with the lantern.

  “My things? What things?”

  “Your doctoring tools.”

  “But I don’t have any,” I protested, rather weakly.

  “Then gather yourself, and follow,” she retorted with an air of disgust.

  What could I do but obey?

  In an alcove by the kitchen we were met by Mr. Douglass and Miss Assing, both in their nightclothes, as well as by a worried-looking Jebediah. Worried, I noted, but not frightened. There was never any question in my mind but that this nocturnal outburst was corporeal, and human. Unlike the eerie, maddening wails of the crying infant, the moaning did not move from room to room. It originated from a particular location beneath the house, somewhere in the cellars, the inside entrance to which we found, within the alcove.

  It was Frederick Douglass himself who led us below, holding high the lantern and admonishing the taller of us to mind our heads. Before we got to the bottom step, even before I could see the glistening dark faces illuminated in the glow of the lantern, I understood that we had here, in the subterranean shelter of the Coffin house, a group of runaway slaves.

  It made sense, considering Jebediah’s fanatical abolitionism, that he would make his own home a stop on the so-called underground railway. And these poor frightened creatures—no, these poor human beings—were quite literally underground, having been transported, I was soon made aware, from the harbor at Gloucester, via the swift Raven, which was often secretly utilized for that purpose.

  “Black Jack Sweeney is one of our most trusted ’conductors,’” Mr. Douglass confided, referring to Raven’s one-eyed master. “More than a thousand former slaves owe their freedom to that pretty little ship. When the weather improves this group is bound for Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to join the community we’ve established there. But meantime their numbers are about to increase by one. Provided you can help with a difficult birthing.”

  Such was the source of the frantic moaning. A terrified young woman, no more than twenty, was being attended by the other females in the group, the men having placed themselves in the far end of the cellar, where they crouched and stared worriedly at the moving lanterns. Truthfully, I wanted to join them, for my entire experience of the birth process had been strictly as an observer, in the charity wards, when some poor unfortunate happened to find herself there at the crucial moment, rather than safe at home where babies are more properly, and more safely, delivered. I had but once assisted (stood by in horror is more like it) while a whiskey-scented surgeon—a charming fellow with intelligent, kindly eyes—attempted a cesarean and botched it badly, murdering the mother in the process. Thus had I finally been cured of any desire, however faint, to take up the actual practice of medicine, because by necessity a physician’s hands are stained with the blood of his patients, called by some his victims.

  So you will understand my anxiety upon being summoned to this scene, which was even more hopeless than the situation preceding the fatal cesarean. The group of women helping the young mother turned to me so beseechingly that at the very least I must give my opinion, and I’m afraid my opinion was very grave: the baby was breached in the birth canal and as it continued its feeble struggle the umbilical cord was wrapping ever tighter around its tiny neck. There was no reason to suppose the baby could live, and every passing minute made it less likely that the young, terrified mother would survive the ordeal.

  Had beautiful, alluring cousin Lucy not been there, it is likely I would have refused to intervene in a natural process whose culmination could only be death. As it was, I hadn’t the courage to reveal the truth: that the esteemed Dr. Bentwood was a physician in title only, highly educated but virtually inexperienced. In other words, as capable of worsening the situation as of improving it. But being unwilling to shame myself in the presence of a woman who I wished to think well of me, I bade one of the frightened female slaves hold the lantern while I interfered with the struggling mother.

  “You there, grip her ankles,” I ordered, affecting an authority I did not feel. “Someone else get a cold compress for her forehead. And you, put something between her teeth, if you please. And, madam,” I said, addressing the poor young female who writhed in pain, “please try to relax between contractions. There’s no point in pushing until we get this little fellow pointed in the right direction.”

  “Good man!” Mr. Douglass exclaimed, keeping his distance. “Do not despair,” he announced to the male runaways, who continued to avert their eyes from female mysteries. “We’ve a fine Boston doctor attending. All that can be done, will be done.”

  If only you knew! I thought. Crouched between the woman’s trembling legs, I frantically tried to remember what the textbooks had to say on the subject of breached births. I vaguely recalled that forceps were recommended, and possibly speculums, but I had neither, and all I could do was prod at the tiny little being who was trapped, as it were, between two worlds. Its heart was still beating—beating very rapidly—but that could not long continue. Truthfully, I was merely waiting for its life to ebb away, with some vague idea that I might then pry it loose and save the mother, when something grasped my bloody finger.

  A hand it was, not much larger than my knuckle. And yet the tiny fingers grasped my own with desperate strength. A reflex, I thought—the poor child is in the throes of death. And yet it did not die. Instead, with no real assistance from me, the infant
suddenly shifted position. First the elbow slid into view, and then a round glistening object that thrummed with the pulse of life.

  “The head!” I cried. “I see the head!”

  The mother gasped with hope, then groaned heavily, thrust her hips, and tensed every muscle in her slender body.

  “Keep pushing!” I cried. Quite suddenly, and almost easily, the slick, blood-smeared baby slid into my open hands. The umbilical cord was loosely wrapped around its neck and under one tiny shoulder, and once that was free the boy—yes, it was a boy, no doubt about that—the boy opened his gasping little mouth, coughed up a knot of phlegm, and then cried quite loudly, as if to say, I live, I live.

  I left the women to tidy up the afterbirth and fled, as if from the scene of a crime.

  An hour later, having thrown away my ruined nightgown, and washed up with the heated water and soap supplied by a grinning Barky, I made a more dignified entrance into the dining room, where Mr. Douglass and his party were breakfasting.

  Upon seeing me the big man threw down his napkin, rose from the table, and eagerly wrung my hands. “We thought the poor girl was doomed and you saved her! You saved them both!”

  Lucy smiled at me as she had never smiled before, as if I had surpassed her rather meager expectations. That this fine woman might admire me was a pleasant prospect, but I couldn’t let the lie stand, not and live with myself.

  “I did nothing,” I confessed to all. “It was a miracle.”

  Mr. Douglass studied me with bemusement. “A miracle? Oh, I’m sure God helped, but you, sir, are the miracle. That you were here. That you had the skill. That’s miracle enough.”

  “You don’t understand,” I said. “The baby grabbed my hand.”


  “A newborn can’t grasp like that,” I explained. “It hasn’t the strength or the ability.”

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