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       Coffins, p.12

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  Mr. Douglass’s fine dark eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Good sir, didn’t I just grasp your hand in gratitude? Boston did the same, and for the same reason.”

  “Boston?” I asked.

  “The boy’s name. In your honor.”

  “Here! Here! Hail the conquering hero!” Jebediah clapped his hands and led a rousing huzzah. Lucy joined him, beaming approval.

  What could I do but sit down to breakfast?

  5. The Face in the Tower Window

  The great abolitionist left in three days time, bound for rallies in Springfield and Hartford, and thence back home to New York for a spell, where he would await the decision of the new president and the new Congress, as to the ongoing secession of the slave states. The band of twenty-eight fugitives remained hidden away in the cellars of the Coffin house, for the wind was fierce and contrary, and Raven lay double-anchored in White Harbor, her ice-coated shrouds moaning eeeeh … ahhh, eeeeh … ahhh, like a seabird grounded in a frozen nest.

  Her master, Black Jack Sweeney, had taken ill and been brought ashore suffering from chills, catarrh, muscle tremors, and a troubling congestion of the lungs. The esteemed Dr. Bentwood, having supposedly saved two lives, was expected to work a similar miracle with the ailing mariner. Bowing to expectations, I began, for the first time, to assume the responsibilities of a general practitioner or country doctor, in so far as family and friends of the family were concerned. An eager young druggist helped me put together a rudimentary bag of medicines, and I worked up courage sufficient to approach the crusty, foul-mouthed (and now foul-tempered) old coot.

  “Leave me be, young fool!” he roared when I tried to spoon a calomel purgative into his pipe-stained mouth. “If I survived the cholera I can survive a winter ague. Take your stinkin’ poison away! Be gone!”

  The calomel was poisonous only in larger doses, but I was willing enough to leave his sick-smelling chamber. Other, more sympathetic patients required attention. There was Jebediah with his lingering melancholy, which returned the moment Mr. Douglass departed. For Jeb I prescribed a small dose of jalap, followed by a brisk walk, and it seemed to help a little, although he continued to complain about the fatalistic gloom that weighed so heavily upon his small, stunted shoulders. He was doomed, his family was doomed, the nation was doomed, humanity was doomed, and so on, as if he were trapped in a dark pit and couldn’t raise himself high enough to see over the edge, to the daylight beyond.

  Then there was poor Sarah, who remained virtually insensible with grief. Her devoted husband Nathaniel had arranged temporary rooms in the village, since Sarah appeared to believe that the Coffin house itself—or something in it—had killed little Casey. According to his brother Benjamin, who made frequent visits to pray over them, Nathaniel was beside himself with fear that in her delirium Sarah would take her own life. Would the esteemed doctor do what he could? Of course. And so I prescribed various sleeping powders, then a nerve tonic, and finally an elixir to stimulate appetite. Lastly, at Nathaniel’s insistence, I bled the woman. Nothing seemed to have any positive effect. I shared Nathaniel’s concern about his wife’s will to live, but there was naught to be done but pray, and hope that time eventually eased her grief.

  As to the original patient, and my reason for being summoned to White Harbor, little enough was heard. There had been no further outbursts from the tower, no pistol shots or raving, and Barky the cook reported that the Captain was eating again. Nor had there been any more inexplicable phenomenon. It was as if the famous abolitionist’s whirlwind visit had swept the old house free of vengeful spirits, or vengeful neighbors, or whatever it was that had so cruelly tormented the family.

  Having established myself, however fraudulently, as an effective physician, I should have taken my leave before the truth of my actual incompetence inevitably made itself known. Two things held me: concern for Jebediah, and my growing interest in his beautiful cousin, Lucy. Day by day, minute by minute, I became more intrigued by her radiant presence. I was particularly fascinated by the way she seemed to study everyone she came in contact with, peering at them from all sides, ceaselessly questioning, as if seeking some sort of revelation, an answer to all the mysteries of life. The most fundamental mystery came down to this: was she as intrigued by me as I with her? And if true, how deeply felt was the attraction? Was I shaping up as a prospective lover, or was she weighing my potential as a husband, or both?

  Even if I’d had the courage to inquire of her feelings, the present circumstances made it impossible. The house was in triple mourning, hardly a propitious time for courtship. The best I could do was use every excuse to be in her company. To this she was amenable. We dined together, played cards, and each morning discussed the dispatches from the numerous journals, weekly broadsides, and inflammatory pamphlets delivered to the house at Jebediah’s request. Each day brought news of yet another Southern state voting to join South Carolina, and it seemed clear that secessionists would soon band together in what they were calling a “confederacy” of the slave states.

  “Item from Richmond,” I read aloud, after clearing my throat. “‘It is rumored that former United States Senator Jefferson Davis, who has assumed the presidency of the new confederacy, has been in communication with General Robert E. Lee. Would the general consider resigning from the Army of the United States and throw his support to the Confederacy? General Lee is thus far undecided, even if the secessionists are not.’”

  Erect in her straight-backed chair, pale as new snow in the faint winter light of midafternoon, Lucy shook her head and frowned prettily. “That would be treason, would it not?”

  “Not if he resigns first.”

  “Is General Lee so important to their wretched ‘cause’?”

  “He’s very well respected. It would be a great blow if he goes over to the other side.”

  “Then let him go. Surely there are plenty of generals at West Point?”

  “Few so highly regarded. The question, as I see it, isn’t what general will command the secessionist militias, but what President Lincoln will do about it.”

  “What can he do?” Lucy said. “At this moment the so-called Confederacy has no army, no money—or not much—and no duly elected authority. All it has is hot air by the acre. What would you have the president do about a rebellion that so far is no more than a bad idea?”

  “The nation looks to him for guidance. We wish to know his intentions. Will it be compromise or war?”

  “Is there no other alternative?” she asked slyly. “Can we not remain as we are?”

  “Is that what you wish? To remain as we are?” I asked, taking the opportunity to nudge my chair an inch closer to hers.

  “Cousin Jebediah says blood must be shed,” she said, parrying the question. “It is the only way to cleanse the nation of our sins.”

  I nodded. “Yes. Jeb wants to see the slaveholders punished as cruelly as the slaves themselves have been tormented.”

  “And you do not?”

  “I wish to see slavery abolished. I also wish to see the nation preserved without the necessity of taking up arms.”

  Lucy leaned forward. Her ivory fingers lightly touched my wrist, and it was all I could do to disguise a shudder of pleasure. “And how do you reconcile those two positions?” she asked. “Can an army make war without firing a shot? Will Jeff Davis surrender before the battle begins? What could persuade such a man to give up everything he believes in?” Her hand squeezed my wrist and then withdrew. “No, my dear, there must be war. Some trifling thing will set it off.”

  “No,” said I.

  “Yes,” she insisted. “The age of compromise ended with Lincoln’s election, and war was certain the day he took office. If you don’t believe in fate then you must at least believe in math.”

  “Math?” I asked with a laugh. “What has math to do with war?”

  “Why everything,” she said, affecting surprise. “As new states are added, and new senators, the mathematical balance in Congress must shift.
With compromise no longer possible, slavery will be outlawed within the next few years. Rather than free their slaves, who they fear—having beaten the men and ravished the women—rather than free such people for retribution, the so-called gentlemen of the South will fight. ‘States’ rights!’ they shout, but the only ‘right’ they’re really interested in is the right to own slaves. The ‘right’ to bed, beat, torture, and murder them as they see fit. There is no other ‘right’ in dispute.”

  “Murdering a slave is a crime in every state,” I reminded her. “Even the slave states.”

  Lucy’s eyes flashed and her voice became more forceful—but attractively, passionately so. “Has a white man ever been arrested for such a crime? No, he has not. Never in the history of our nation. And yet many slaves are murdered each year. Thousands, perhaps. Murdered or worked to death. Murdered for whims, or because the overseer was drunk, or because the slave had ‘dangerous ideas.’ And those that are not actually killed, beaten, or raped are slow-tortured by the withholding of food. Even as we idle here, digesting a luncheon that would feed an enslaved family for a week, there are tens of thousands of men, women, and children already hard at work with empty bellies. What causes this, a famine? No. There is no lack of food in the South. Slaves are starved as a means of keeping them compliant.”

  Her passion stirred me, if not the subject itself. “I read Mr. Douglass’s essay on that very subject,” I said.

  “And did you not believe him?”

  “Of course I believed him!”

  Lucy eyed me doubtfully, then rattled another broadside newspaper, pointing to a particularly offensive paragraph. “States’ rights! Even the wretched Free Democrats echo the lie. But here is the truth of it, in cold ink. Here is Jefferson Davis himself on the subject of states’ rights: ‘What is the reason we are compelled to assert our rights? That the labor of our African slaves would be taken away by the federal government.’ Oh, and listen to Alexander Stevens, the Confederacy’s vice president. This is what the good Mr. Stevens has to say about states’ rights: ‘The immediate cause of our present revolution is the threat to the institution of slavery. Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.’” Lucy snapped the newspaper sharply upon her knees. “The words come from their own mouths. These men will never give up slavery so long as they live. Jebediah has it right. Blood must be shed. And if the federal forces don’t shed it first, the South will. They are sick with the suspense, and so if Lincoln won’t pick the fight, they will do it for him.”

  A small sigh escaped me, and Lucy did not miss it. “I suppose it must be especially difficult for one who was trained to be a doctor,” she said. “I mean, for such a man to contemplate the taking of lives.”

  “What?” I said, aghast. “Let me assure you, my dear, I do not contemplate taking lives.”

  “You must pardon me, ‘my dear,’” she said, giving the phrase a wry twist as she sent it back to me. “Of course you will not take lives. What was I thinking. You are a physician and so will save lives for a greater purpose. Surgeons are not employed to fire bullets or wield bayonets. Surgeons are employed to lop off ruined limbs and sew up wounds and send the soldiers back into battle.”

  “Lucy!” I cried, aghast.

  “Oh? Are you offended by my language? Have I said something that isn’t true?”

  “No, but … I mean to say, we are not yet at war and I am not yet a surgeon, nor will I ever be.”

  “But you have such fine, clever hands,” she said, tracing her fingertips across the back of my hands. “What a shame it would be to waste them.”

  Blood pounded behind my eyes and for a moment the room was tinted pink. Fantastic images came to mind, and fantastic, lascivious desires. Mere proximity to this vibrant woman was suddenly intolerable. I leaped to my feet and paced the sitting room. Lucy thought she had offended me and attempted to apologize. “No, no!” I protested. “Nothing you could do or say could ever be offensive! I’m simply, ah, overstimulated by all this talk of war and bloodshed. Ha! The air is close, do you not find it close?”

  I was babbling like a schoolboy caught in full blush of adolescent craving, and like a schoolboy I ran away.

  Outside, the noon-high sun melted snow from the eaves, and it tinkled merrily, mocking my embarrassment. What an ass! How could the touch of a female hand so inflame a full-grown man? But then, recalling the uncanny and irresistible electricity of that contact, how could it not?

  I told myself that something was wrong. It was as if there was some stifling effect within the great house that caused normal human desire to fester like a lingering wound, until desire itself became diseased. There was no other explanation for the feverish, repellent thoughts that coursed through my mind, images of ravishment and violent ecstasies of the flesh that were alien to my nature. Images so vile that if Lucy were to share my mind for the merest moment, she would flee from my presence.

  Determined to stop these hideous thoughts, I plunged my hands into an icy puddle and splashed myself in the face. The shock of the cold brought me back to my senses, and after several deep, shuddering breaths I was able to return to the house in a more sensible state.

  My distraction was such that I did not at first see the face in the window. The face in the tower window. The white-bearded face of Cassius Coffin, who stared down at me from the heights of his lunacy with the ancient mocking eyes of an insane prophet. The force of his gaze was such that I stopped in my tracks, as if I were a lost ship suddenly illuminated by a lighthouse beacon. A mad, blue-eyed beacon.

  Suddenly the old sea captain threw upon the window, and pointing down to where I stood in slack-jawed astonishment, launched a word that pierced my heart like a poisoned arrow.

  “Beware the alchemy!” he bellowed. “Monbasu lives!”

  6. Bounty Men

  It may be that any words shouted by a madman have the power to invoke fear. “Beware the alchemy,” yes, surely, but what alchemy? As to “monbasu,” certainly I was aware that the old sea captain must have heard the French-Canadian sawyers muttering about “monbasu” at the shipyard where his sons were killed. And yet the word itself produced an instantaneous physical effect within me, as if the icy water of the snowmelt had leached into my bones. Before the echo of his scream died my teeth were chattering and my whole body began to shake uncontrollably. It was all I could do to lurch to the portico and gain entrance by the side door, which deposited me in Barky’s kitchen.

  “Oh, deary,” the cook squeaked in his high-choked voice. “Dr. Bentwood has taken himself a chill.”

  I was shivering so hard I couldn’t make myself understood, and in any case there was no point in arguing. “Chill” was a weak description of whatever had overcome me, but it would have to do. It was as if the heat of my unseemly desire for Lucy was being punished by an extreme reversal of bodily temperature, in some strange way triggered by the Captain’s outburst. Before I quite knew what was happening, the cook had swathed me in woolen blankets and pressed a hot mug of coffee into my trembling hands. Gradually the violent fit of shivering passed, and I was at last able to speak, and to thank this kindly, charitable gentleman.

  “Best dose yourself with your own medicine,” was his reply. “But just for now we’ll rely on Barky’s cure. See can you choke this down.”

  There was no need to “choke down” the generous slice of hot, fresh from-the-oven bread soaked with dark, pungent honey. It was as if the fit of shivering had somehow famished me, and I devoured Barky’s “cure” like a starving man. When I was able to express my thanks I did so, and then without really considering it beforehand, asked if he was familiar with the term “monbasu.”

  “What’s that then,” he responded in all innocence, “a kind of stew?”

  “I think it is a kind of curse word,” I told him. “Peculiar to French Canada.”

  Barky chuckled as he loaded ki
ndling into his huge kitchen stove. “Like any has been to sea, I know many a cuss,” he said. “English cuss words. American cuss words. Schooner cusses, whaler cusses, and navy cusses. There’s Portagee cusses’ll make your ears hurt, and French, Italian, and Greek that leave smoke in the air. And then there’s a couple of choice cusses I learnt from a New Quineaman that claimed to be a cannibal. But I never heard ‘mon bassoon.’”

  “Monbasu,” I corrected.

  “That neither.”

  “You never heard the Captain use it, when you delivered his meals?”

  The gentle cook bridled. “What? Cuss when I bring him his vittles? Never!”

  I hastened to apologize, explaining that I meant no connection to his cooking, but that he’d often been in the Captain’s proximity, more so than anyone else in the house.

  “Any but the cat,” Barky agreed. “I heard himself cuss, of course, him being a seafaring sort of man, but always the usual variants. ‘G’ words and ‘F’ words and the like.”

  “Thank you, Barky. Please take no insult.”

  “No insult taken, sir,” he squeaked amiably. “Have some more coffee, and there’s pie on the way.”

  That evening Jebediah came to me in a state of agitation. For a moment I feared that his eyes glowed with the same lunacy that afflicted his father. Like his father he had a kind of brightness in his gaze that seemed to look beyond this world, into the next. But I soon learned that his agitation was not a result of madness or melancholy, but of a very real threat to the refugees he was harboring.

  “Word has come!” he announced. “Bounty hunters have found us!”

  “Bounty hunters? Surely not!”

  It was absurd to think that, with the nation on the brink of war, slave owners would still be offering rewards for runaway slaves. But as Jeb quickly explained, nothing had yet changed in that regard. The slave owner still had the law on his side, and retained the absolute right to retrieve his property anywhere within the United States and its territories. If anything the prospect of a split with the federal government had increased the foul activity of that seedy brotherhood of bounty hunters, whose efforts had become more violent and unseemly than ever before. And although care had been taken to bring the runaways to the Coffin house under cover of darkness, and keep them all confined and out of sight, somehow word had passed to the bounty men, who were already en route from Falmouth, and expected by daybreak, which was their favorite hour for striking. At one hundred in gold “per woolly head” (as the return posters exclaimed) a fortune was hidden in the Coffin cellars, waiting to be mined by the fiendish, soulless beasts who roamed the countryside, returning men to shackles, and women to the masters who had ravished them.

 
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