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       Coffins, p.13

           Rodman Philbrick
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  There was nothing for it but to hastily put the runaways back aboard Raven and flee the harbor.

  “The wind has subsided even if the seas have not,” Jeb explained as he waddled anxiously about the room, gesturing with his stunted arms. “Any chance you can cure Captain Sweeney within the hour?”

  “None whatsoever,” I said. “He has an inflammation of the bronchial tubes that could develop into pneumonia. He’s a tough old bird, but exposure to cold sea air would likely prove fatal.”

  Tom Coffin, who had been ashore but briefly following his recent voyage to the Orient, volunteered to take charge of Raven. As master of a giant clipper ship with a sky full of sails, he was possibly overqualified to command a small coastal schooner for the relatively short passage to Nova Scotia, which lay a mere hundred and fifty miles or so to the east. Rather than condescend to the favor, his enthusiasm for the idea was such that Jebediah leaped into a nearby chair and embraced the young sea captain until he was quite red in the face.

  “You are a most excellent man!” Jeb exclaimed, and then, turning to me, “My dear Davis, will you be good enough to help?”

  Although I hadn’t previously paid more than lip service to the underground railroad, the actual proximity of brutal bounty hunters was so despicable that I found myself quite willing to break the law, and vowed to assist the desperate refugees in any way possible.

  “Excellent! Perhaps you could drive one of the wagons. We must get them to the harbor all in one go.” Jeb turned back to his handsome, seafaring brother, who seemed to glow with the prospect of action. “Tom, good Tom! Let us be quick. Quicker than the eye of God, or they’ll have us all in jail!”

  7. Dark Passage

  There was never a sky so dark, so oppressively dismal, as the starless, moonless sky that enclosed White Harbor like a great black fist. There is nothing inherently “supernatural” about an overcast sky, not in winter on the coast of Maine, and yet the clouds themselves were invisible, and therefore somehow dreadful. As if the familiar, reassuring starlight had been forever extinguished by a sepulchral darkness rising up from the frozen nothing of hell itself.

  Jebediah had forbidden the use of lanterns, fearing that the bounty hunters might have sent scouts ahead, and so our hurried procession to the wharf, and from there to the waiting Raven, was a floundering parade of the blind and frightened. The black refugees, roused from uneasy sleep, were obviously terrified, but maintained a communal silence that was violated only by the softly muffled mewling of the newborn baby. They were, as a group, well acquainted with the necessity for silence, and for furtive movement in the darkest hours. And yet I sensed, along with their understandable anxiety, a sense of keen anticipation, for they were all aware that if this last transfer was successful, the next time they touched land, freedom would be theirs. And yet, considering the bleakness of the night, and the ferocity of the sea, I could not but think that theirs was the hooded hope of a condemned man who expects to enter paradise when the trap beneath his feet has finally been sprung.

  Raven’s crew met us at the wharf and began the dangerous business of transferring passengers out to the schooner. I say “dangerous” because although the ferocious northeast wind had abated somewhat, huge ocean waves still surged over the promontory, sending steep, rolling swells throughout the harbor. Raven heaved and yanked on her double mooring like a maddened horse, as if determined to free herself from the anchorage. At times the swell lifted the approaching whaleboat well above the deck of the plunging schooner. Bringing the lightly built whaleboat alongside was treacherous indeed, but the crewmen went about their task with great aplomb, as if this was nothing to what they’d accomplished in other, even more wretched circumstances. Given the number of passengers, it would take, at minimum, four round-trips to get them all aboard. Four chances to capsize or be cracked like an egg against Raven’s unforgiving hull.

  “Looks worse than it is,” Tom Coffin confided jauntily as we waited our turn on the wharf.

  I could barely make him out in the darkness, but his brimming confidence was reassuring. “It will be a miracle if no one drowns,” I said, keeping my voice low, so as not to impart even more fear to the refugees who huddled along the wharf, awaiting the return of the whaleboat.

  “There’s one thing we’ve got in our favor,” he replied with a droll turn of the tongue.

  “What’s that?”

  “I’m the luckiest captain that ever steered a ship!” he said, clapping me on the back.

  “Sir! You astonish me! Is it not tempting ill fortune to say so, given what has happened to your brothers?”

  “What? Oh, I see. Please don’t misunderstand. I speak of my seafaring fortunes, not the awful luck we’ve had ashore. At sea, I assure you, my luck does hold.”

  “Surely you are referring to your skills as a mariner,” I said, scuttling away from the edge as a giant swell spewed up against the wharf timbers, showering us with icy spray. “What has luck or good fortune to do with skill?” I sputtered, clearing the salty cold water from my mouth. “You do not give yourself credit for skill.”

  Tom laughed easily and then stood closer, so that I might make out the merry twinkle in his eyes. “The skills of a mariner are enough to get him to the place where his ship sinks, or goes aground. It is luck, and only luck, that saves him from that fate. We Coffins have always had great luck at sea. My father sailed for thirty years and never lost a ship. Of our coastal fleet, none has ever been lost with a Coffin aboard. A little nor’east swell won’t trouble my luck this evening, Dr. Bentwood, I promise you that.”

  As to my accompanying the party, there was never any question about that. My duty as friend compelled me to stand by Jebediah in this particular hour of need. It was, on reflection, a way for me to demonstrate that despite our differences regarding the prospect of war, on this one issue we were agreed: slavery was such an abomination that the laws enforcing it could and must be disregarded, and disobeyed when necessary, by all men of conscience. There was also the necessity of providing medical attention to the refugees themselves, a number of whom were neither young nor sturdy. As for Captain Sweeney, I was reasonably sure he would improve in my absence, and if necessary he could be better attended by Dr. Griswold, who no doubt had a thousand times more experience treating respiratory ailments than did I.

  As it happened, Jeb and I were ferried out to Raven together, after the last of the refugees was safely aboard. There had been no sign of our pursuers, the night was fine, if over dark, and my little friend was greatly relieved.

  “We are embarked on a great voyage!” he exclaimed as we all clung to the sides of the heaving whaleboat.

  I had no words to reply, as my stomach had been left upon the wharf. Our small, fragile boat plunged down the face of an impossibly steep swell and I shut my eyes rather than see us overturned. And yet such was the skill of the oarsmen that we did not capsize, and aside from being thoroughly soaked by the bitterly cold mist rising off the waves, we were delivered to the schooner without further incident.

  At first it appeared we had merely been transferred from one small heaving deck to another, larger heaving deck, which was scarcely an improvement. But a strange and wonderful thing happened when Tom Coffin caused the storm-shortened sails to be raised. All at once Raven ceased her violent movements. The force of her canvas seemed to have a steadying effect, and as she slipped away from her moorings and gathered speed, the little ship came alive in a way that gave me confidence in her new master’s promise that his luck would hold.

  On deck were the grizzled crew who had manned Raven when it had taken me from Portland to White Harbor. They went about their business, scarce needing a word of command from Tom Coffin, who had assumed the role of helmsman, as well as that of sailing master. It was reassuring to see his steady hands upon the great wheel, and the ready smile that was visible in the light from the binnacle. Surely with this man in charge, no harm could come to us.

  I found a suitable cubbyhole on dec
k and watched in fear, and soon enough in a kind of excited, seasick wonder as the towering waves rose up behind the stern of the schooner, rolling and breaking quite harmlessly in our wake. For, as Tom Coffin explained, the wind had shifted round to the south, in our favor, and under these conditions Raven could outrun the following sea, heading downwind for Yarmouth.

  “A fair summer kind of wind!” he cried from the wheel. “And here we are in the teeth of winter!”

  The majority of the refugees had taken shelter below, the women and infant in the cabin salon, while the men huddled together in the cargo hold, warming themselves under damp woolen blankets. A few, however, chose to remain on deck, believing the open air less conducive to seasickness. I soon found myself in conversation with one Richard Daws, a Baltimore Negro who was accompanying his young wife. It was she, he confided, who had recently given birth, and he was obviously grateful for any small help I’d provided.

  “I did little enough,” I confided. “The child was determined to be born. Just as, I suppose, you are determined to be free.”

  Mr. Daws tightened his woolen blanket and turned so that I might see his face, which was not so dark as many of the others. I could make out very little of him, other than that his eyes bulged alarmingly, but he had a fine, melodious baritone that carried over the creaking of the masts and the mournful hum of the rigging. “I was already free,” he informed me. “My master, who was also my father, he made me a freedman on his death, and give me papers to prove it. I been free since I was eight years old.”

  “Extraordinary,” I said. “If you are already free, then why are you leaving the country?”

  “My wife,” he explained. “She was trained a seamstress, owned by Mrs. Purley, who is sister-in-law to my old master. We grew up neighborly, you see, my wife and me. Then I went off to Baltimore, to ’prentice a cooper. And come her sixteenth birthday, my Addie was hired out in the city, to sew for Mrs. Purley. Everything she made but ten cent a week, that went to Mrs. Purley, you see, and it vexed her. Vexed us both. So my Addie ran off to another ’stablishment in Baltimore, where she could keep what she earned, even though it was but half the reg’lar rate, on account of her situation, and Mrs. Purley sent a man to catch her. Man beat her, took her back to the Purley place, beat her some mo’, then they locked her in a cupboard without no food and only ’nuff water as to keep her alive. They aim to keep her in that cupboard, too, ’til they broke her. Anyhow, one of Addie’s sisters got word to me.”

  “My God, man, what did you do?”

  “I went down there and stole her out and we been on the run ever since. We finally made New York and got us church-married by a Negro preacher, but the bounty men, they got on to Addie, and the preacher man put us on to the Douglass railway. My little Addie, she first thought that meant we’d go by train like the white folk do, but mostly we traveled by foot, all the way up to Rhode Island. I’d a fixed to stay in Rhode Island, but the coopers there took a vote and decided they won’t abide a freedman in their guild. Even a freedman light as me. They swore they’d break my niggerish hands if I bent a stave, so it’s all the way to Canada for us, and hopes we find work there.”

  Daws had recounted his travails with very little emotional inflection, as if commenting upon the weather, but his story took my breath away. How had we come to this state of affairs in our nation, when a free Negro tradesman was compelled by circumstance to leave the country of his birth? I attempted to express my outrage, but Mr. Daws calmly shook his head and said, “Don’t you trouble yourself on my ’count, sir. We’s mighty grateful the way you helped my Addie.”

  With that he took his leave and rejoined the other few Negroes who remained on deck, sheltered in the lee of the fore cabin. Something in me wanted to follow him, this profoundly decent and brave man, and apologize for the injustices he and his young wife had suffered. But it wasn’t my wish to humble him in any way, as if I had the right to beg forgiveness for the cruelty of my fellows, and so I kept my silence, for better or worse, and comforted myself with the notion that he would find a better life.

  Meantime Tom Coffin stood boldly at the helm, both hands upon the spokes of the great wheel, steering Raven down the steep seas. Now and again he issued cryptic orders to the schooner’s crewmen, causing lines to be shortened or lengthened, sails adjusted and so on. I knew nothing of their business, but the result was an ever-increasing speed. At times the hull seemed to lift out of the water, as if wanting to skim upon the very surface. The whole effect was at once exhilarating and terrifying, as if we were perpetually on the verge of losing our balance, only to keep recovering by flying ever faster before the wind.

  “Nothing to worry about!” our handsome captain bellowed, sensing my concern, if not my palpable fear. “She steers like a dream, this one!”

  Like a dream, yes, thus far perhaps, but just lately my dreams had a way of warping into nightmare, and flying headlong into the black of night, blind but for the compass, did nothing to relieve my anxiety.

  Soon thereafter Jebediah returned from below, where he’d been overseeing the production of enough hot potato stew to warm the innards of the entire company. Handing me a two-handled tin of the stuff, he conferred briefly with his brother Tom at the helm. With a knit woolen cap pulled over his ears, Jeb looked the runt of a sailor man, a comical figure whose awkward, waddling gait seemed almost a purposeful attempt at humor. But when he returned to engage me in conversation he remained upright, with his back braced to the cabin, which put us at the same level. Observing him that way, in profile with his chin thrust out, I noted, not for the first time, that were we of the same height, his would be the more imposing figure.

  “Tom says we’ll be there by midday, if the wind holds on this heading,” he said, quite satisfied. “We’re making ten knots, which is quite an excellent speed, if you didn’t know.”

  “I didn’t. Thank you for the stew. I was expecting hardtack, whatever that is.”

  Jeb chuckled affectionately. “You don’t want to know, not if you value your teeth.”

  “I just heard the most remarkable story,” I said, and told him of my conversation with Mr. Daws.

  Much to my surprise, Jeb seemed strangely unmoved by the account. “They all have stories like that,” he said matter-of-factly. “Most of them worse. Daws was lucky his wife was only beaten and locked away. The time-honored method of ‘breaking’ a rebellious female slave is to get her with child, preferably one of your own. But enough,” he said, interrupting himself with an abrupt and violent gesture of his clenched fist, “we are sailing these poor folks away from a wretched past, into an uncertain future.”

  “Uncertain, yes, but free,” I reminded him.

  Jeb snorted at my ignorance. “Oh, yes, free. Free to live in poverty and be loathed by their fellow citizens.”


  “What? You find me cynical? I assure you, I do not exaggerate. The British may have outlawed slavery, but no one can outlaw hatred, particularly that form of hatred based on skin color. We will be allowed to land these folk on British soil because British law holds that we must. But believe me, free Negroes are no more welcome in Halifax than in Richmond.”

  “Then why risk it?” I asked, with an involuntary glance at the enormous seas piling up behind us.

  My small friend shrugged. “What else can I do? If I were a full-made man I’d be a general. I’d raise an army, invade the slave states, and send the oppressors to hell. I’d do so gladly and without hesitation—doubt me not! But even if the righteous win the coming war, and we must, I fear that race hatred will prevail.”

  I did not doubt that were it possible, Jebediah would indeed become a smaller Napoleon laying waste to the land of cotton. But his despair for the future of these particular refugees, and of all the colored race, was something I’d never heard before, for all his ranting upon the subject. This was a new darkness within, born of the family disaster, and in the belief that his very existence was a curse upon his kin.
r />   I found this new Jebediah disturbing, and longed for the return of my jolly, if excitable, old friend. Was he still there beneath the shadows, or had tragedy altered him irrevocably?

  Events would soon render the answer moot, for we were both about to be changed forever, and led into a darkness that made the starless sky above seem cheery by comparison.

  8. When Lightning Speaks

  As it happened, Raven made the small port of Yarmouth in fourteen hours, a run never before achieved by the schooner in the full depth of winter, according to its crew. Not a shroud parted, nor was any sail torn, and the bilge remained as dry as an autumn leaf, as if some power of Providence had puffed the favorable winds and kept us safe.

  We were met at a certain wharf by agents of the local abolitionist society, who had arranged transportation and shelter for the refugees. Although, as one Abner Simms confided, they hadn’t anticipated the arrival of quite so many of the black souls. “Our little Nigger Town has become somewhat overcrowded,” he told me. “Not so many as we’d hoped have elected to depart for Africa.”

  “You call the encampment Nigger Town?” I asked him pointedly.

  “No possible offense intended,” the glum little man assured me. “That’s the local name, it has no other, being a temporary accommodation.” His none-too-clean fingers thrummed upon his wet blubberous lips, and he seemed intent upon studying his own dung-stained boots rather than the faces of the refugees, who were being helped into crude, horse-drawn wagons.

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