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       Coffins, p.14

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  “And what is this about sailing for Africa?” I demanded.

  “Liberia, of course. The slave colony. I should say the colony founded by former slaves, with the help of enlightened white men. We had assumed, those of us who sacrificed so much to welcome the poor nigger folk, that most if not all would continue on to Liberia, where they might be more naturally comfortable.”

  I was appalled by this statement. The idea of returning former slaves to the pestilence and anarchy of the African colony was a cruel phantasm lately supported by the slave owners themselves, who feared an ever-increasing population of free Negroes circulating among those who were still bound by chattel laws. The New England abolitionists understood this ruse perfectly well, but the intelligence had not penetrated the thick, self-satisfied skull of Mr. Abner Simms, of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and nothing I could say or do made any impression upon the man. His small mind had all the dexterity of a tidewater mussel, clinging to his original purpose, and he would not be shed.

  Jebediah, seeing my temper rise, cautioned me not to offend Mr. Simms, or his other more well-intentioned minions, who believed themselves to be doing God’s work, and therefore deserving of God’s praise. “We leave this place within the hour,” he reminded me. “These others must stay, and they must get along with Simms and his ilk.”

  Thus chastened, I returned to Raven and spoke no more with the charitable white gentleman who condescended to aid runaway slaves. In hopes, apparently, they would keep running until they vanished from the earth. But my original conviction had been etched more deeply by the experience: if slavery had a solution its name was not Africa. Consider: none of the refugees I’d spoken to had any firsthand knowledge of that troubled continent. All were native to America, born on her soil, and all too often bled for her soil. Their proper home was therefore no more Africa than mine was England.

  And so Raven departed Yarmouth lighter by twenty-eight souls. As we passed out of the harbor, the winter sun slipped wanly below the horizon, leaving the seas dark and glassy, but open before us, and not nearly so steep. By then the wind had shifted to its more common bearing, fitful and cold from the northeast, which would serve us well for the passage to White Harbor. With things so unsettled at home, the Coffin brothers were both anxious to return, and Tom cracked on as much canvas as he judged the masts could stand. Then, exhausted from his long watch at the helm, the young captain turned the wheel over to this first mate and retired below, leaving orders that he be roused if anything should go wrong.

  “Not that it will,” he assured us gruffly, his icicle-blue eyes puffy from lack of sleep. “This little ship practically sails herself, that’s how sweet she is.”

  Sleep, what a splendid idea. With the passengers departed Raven had room to spare, and I found myself a narrow, empty bunk that smelled not too strongly of its previous inhabitant (a sailor by the tar-touched scent of him) and “racked out.” I slipped away almost instantly, and dreamed of a cargo hold full of dark faces, all of them beseeching me to do something, I knew not what. Scurrying about a nightmare ship that seemed confused with the Coffin house, I searched frantically for some object, I knew not what exactly, only that I would recognize it when I found it. Gradually I became aware of an evil presence in the house/ship, an invisible something that seeped into the atmosphere, draining away what little light there was, until I was completely blind. At which point a cold hand touched my face and I sat up screaming, and bumped my head on the slats of the bunk above.

  “Calm yourself, Davis!”

  “What? What?”

  “I thought you should know,” said Jebediah. “We are becalmed. Tom has set out the whaleboat.”

  My little friend sounded worried, but it seemed to me that while an excess of wind might be dangerous, the reverse was simply inconvenient, for it would delay our return to White Harbor. Upon reaching the deck I discovered that my landlubberly assumption was mistaken.

  “We have a hundred fathoms under our keel,” Tom Coffin explained. He was standing in the bows of the schooner, directing the oarsmen in the whaleboat, who were attempting to tow Raven by strength of oar. “Hundred fathom is too deep to anchor—we haven’t the rode. And yet a tidal current is setting us north. A very strong current. Too damned strong! Never seen the like in these parts.” He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Ahoy the whaleboat! Put your backs into it, men! Pull for your life! Pull! Pull!”

  While his brother was busy exhorting the oarsmen, and setting canvas for whatever breath of wind he might find, Jeb explained that an unusually strong tidal current was carrying the schooner directly toward a notoriously dangerous reef. By last reckoning the reef was somewhat less than a mile distant, and with the strange tide sweeping Raven northward at something like three knots, we would be upon the rocks in less than an hour. Fortunately the oarsmen were making progress. The idea was not so much to fight the powerful current—quite impossible—but to veer on a heading that would clear the rocks.

  “I believe we shall just clear it,” Tom declared, staring hopefully up at the slack sails. “My luck will hold,” he said with a fierce promise. “It must hold, even if the anchors will not.”

  My own sense was that misfortune had been brought upon us by all this talk of the seafaring good fortune peculiar to the Coffins. If there ever had been such a thing, surely it had been dissolved by the fog. A dense, nose-wetting fog had arisen during the night, shrinking our world to a circumference that barely extended as far as the whaleboat, whose ever-thrusting bow threatened to dissolve in the heavy mist. Unlike the rogue current, there was nothing strange about pea soup fog in the Gulf of Maine. But even a novice like me understood that dense fog made accurate navigation difficult if not impossible—no stars, fixed points, or landmarks to reference—and Tom’s calculations had to be made by what he called “dead reckoning,” which seemed an unfortunate phrase, considering our situation.

  I offered my services as an oarsman, but Tom politely declined. “These boys have rowed together for years. A new apple would upset the cart.”

  “I see,” I said. “Is there anything at all I can do?”

  “All that can be done, is being done,” the young captain said resolutely. “Wind! Bring me some wind, dammit!”

  At that very moment—crack!—a sharp explosion of thunder made us all jump, and then laugh nervously at the coincidence. But though thunder began to rumble, and the pale fog pulsed weakly with the flash of distant lightning, the wind would not stir. We remained becalmed, in thrall to the ravenous current.

  “Wind!” cried Tom Coffin, shaking his fist into the damp, still air. “Damn the lightning, give me wind! Wind from any point of the compass and I’ll take my chances!”

  But the wind would not rise, and we continued to be drawn inexorably toward the reef, which Jeb described to me as a series of small, unpopulated stone islands connected by a veritable tooth line of jutting rocks and perilous ledges. It was a hazard well known to all mariners, and the course we’d set from Yarmouth should have cleared it by fifty miles. And yet while the captain slept an unanticipated current had arisen, an invisible force undetected because the stars had been obscured.

  “There is only one possible explanation,” Jeb said hoarsely. “Some evil force is at work upon us.”

  In the light of the storm lantern his eyes had a flat, unfocused sheen and his flesh was bloodless and pale. Rather than try to argue some sense into him—it being no rare thing that a ship encounter peril at sea—I bade him lie down so that I might count his pulse. A touch told me all I needed to know—his blood pounded like a steam hammer. “You are overstimulated,” I cautioned him. “This is perfectly understandable, given our situation, but you must calm yourself or I can’t answer for your heart.”

  Jebediah stared at me, unheeding. Or really it seemed as if he stared through me, to another person or place. “Would that I might die,” he whispered. “Be a true friend, Davis, and kill me.”

  “Hush. You’re talking nonsense. Brother Tom is a
s skilled a mariner as ever sailed the seas. Trust in him, he will save us. If worst comes to worst, we’ll abandon ship and take to the whaleboat.”

  Indeed, that very course of action had been suggested by Tom Coffin himself, should Raven ground upon the reef. We were, he said, no more than thirty miles from the coast and the whaleboat was sound enough to carry all of us safely to shore, if it came to that.

  Until then he would do everything within his power to save the schooner. With all sails slack and the oarsmen making little or no headway, he ordered the anchors let go, and all of the rode played out. The hope was that one or more of the anchors would snag bottom before the ship did, but it was a desperate attempt, and it failed. With the current dragging us so fast, the anchors were unable to reach bottom, or skipped along if they did, shivering the ship timbers but failing to slow our inevitable collision.

  “Wind!” Tom Coffin roared in frustration. “Give me wind!”

  “Too late,” Jebediah muttered, from where he’d slumped on the deck. “Whatever will be was long ago ordained.”

  “Stuff and nonsense,” I said, affecting a cheerfulness I did not feel. “There is no such thing as Fate. Fate is a Calvinist conceit. Remember what our friend Emerson has taught us. We make our own way, dear Jeb, and your brother will save us yet, even if he fails to save the ship.”

  In the end our progress toward destruction was curiously slow. Three knots is no faster than a brisk stroll. But let a man stroll briskly into a brick wall and he won’t come away unbroken. As we closed upon the reef, oily swells rose through the fog, rocking Raven and making her slack halyards shudder and her spars creak and moan most piteously. Tom Coffin ordered the oarsmen to leave off towing—it was quite useless—and stand by for collision. At the first touch of keel on rock we were to all fling ourselves over the side and be recovered by the whaleboat, which could be rowed to safety even if it couldn’t save the ship.

  That was the plan. It was not to be. Before the keel touched at our placid, strolling pace, the lightning spoke.

  Raven was, in that moment before it happened, alive with electricity. My hair rose high above my head. The shrouds and halyards seemed to be coated with a luminous green moss that sparkled and pulsated like something alive. I saw my own fingernails glowing eerily. No doubt my own face was as cadaverous as Jebediah’s, as if the flesh had become translucent, revealing the skull within.

  “Look! In the shrouds!” one of the crewmen screamed, his voice breaking in panic.

  A strange luminescent form had taken shape at the cross-tree spar of the main mast, forty feet above the deck. The glow became recognizable: a translucent man-shape made of cold fire, writhing in the shrouds, as if alive. Alive or dying.

  “God help us,” someone moaned. “That’s a hung man, look at ’im kick. A hung man in the throes of death!”

  It was true, the glowing, crackling thing seemed to shudder and kick the way a hanged man kicks. My rational mind assured that it was not a man, or the shape of a man, but some weird electrical or atmospheric effect grounded between mast and shrouds. A variant, perhaps, of the Saint Elmo’s fire that had been terrifying ignorant sailors for centuries. That’s what my rational mind said. But all my human instincts told me to shrink in horror from the palpable evil that charged the very air with the stink of ozone—or was it sulfur?

  At that moment, at the very instant when I had almost convinced myself not to be afraid, the wind suddenly piped up and spoke through the vibrating shrouds. It was not as if we heard recognizable words resonating from the shrouds. No, not words as we could understand words. It was enough to hear the sudden wind transformed into the amplified moan of someone in great distress or incandescent rage. Then the wind increased and it became not one moan, but many. A great moaning of humanity amplified and alive in the way a sounding board makes piano strings resonate more loudly.

  “Mmmmooooooaaaannnnnaaaaaaaahhhhhhhoooooooh!”

  My knees trembled so violently that I lost balance and tumbled to the deck not far from where Jebediah lay, his face bathed in the ghastly light. My friend looked more than merely cadaverous, he had the look of a man who had just been condemned to spend eternity in hell.

  “There is no need to kill me,” Jeb croaked, “for I am already dead.”

  Suddenly the air itself became more dense, as if we had all been cast in dark amber or molten glass. I knew what must happen but could not move to save myself.

  “Cover!” Tom Coffin screamed from where he stood, legs braced at the helm, hands on the wheel. “Take cover! Save yourselves!”

  Then it struck. First a blinding flash, then the CRRRRAAAAAAAK! of the smoking foremast crashing to the deck as a bolt of lightning exploded in the shrouds. A moment later the vast expanse of sails caught the full brunt of the sudden gale of wind and the ship was knocked down. We careened heavily to one side—was it port? starboard?—I knew not where I was facing, and had room for only one thought, striking like a small bell in my mind: we are doomed, doomed, doomed.

  And yet the noble little ship, though knocked flat into the still placid waters, did not completely capsize. Raven’s spars were immersed as the top of the remaining mast touched water and then, slowly, as if inhaling very painfully, the mast lifted away from the seas and Raven began to rise.

  Through all of this I clung to the deck and to Jebediah, who did nothing to save himself. At last the schooner righted herself. The seas she’d taken aboard roared back through the scuppers. We bobbed and shook like a dog ridding himself of water as the deck rose. Raven still lived.

  The first thing I noticed, aside from my own tangled proximity to the damaged rail (another inch or two and Jeb and I would have been flung overboard), was that the wind had dropped as fast as it had risen.

  We were once more becalmed and in thrall to the relentless current.

  “Cap’n Tom!” a frightened voice cried out. “Where’s Cap’n Tom?”

  I looked back to the helm and saw that the wheel had been smashed away by a fallen spar. There was no sign of Tom Coffin, who had been handling the great spoked wheel when disaster struck.

  Untangling myself from Jebediah, I ran to the rail at the stern of the ship, searching the dark waters. Barrels and parts of shattered spars bobbed nearby, turning and whirling in the current, but I could see no sign of the young captain. Could he swim? I wondered. If so he might save himself. Or even if he couldn’t swim he might be clinging to a piece of debris in that icy water.

  The medical man in me was calculating how long poor Tom might last in the frigid waters before his blood thickened, when suddenly Raven caught something beneath her keel and began to rise, her hull groaning. There was a series of small, muffled explosions as her ribs cracked and her planks sprang open.

  Our collision with the reef was not so violent as I had feared it would be. It was as if the seas had grown tired of us and simply handed the ship up onto the rocks without further ceremony. When Raven settled, the decks were actually almost level, and I saw that the schooner had been pinched between two enormous, barely submerged boulders.

  The broken hull sighed as seas began to circulate through the newly rent openings below the water line. It was obvious that although Raven had been fatally damaged it could not actually sink any farther. Thus we had all the time in the world to gather our things and board the waiting whaleboat, which was miraculously unscathed by either the lightning or the sudden squall that followed.

  I was attempting to help Jebediah to his feet—he was muttering strangely and seemed disoriented—when a hollow voice cried out from the bow of the dead ship.

  “There! Look there! It’s our Tom!”

  I ran forward, my heart curiously light with the hope that our young captain had been found alive, floating unharmed.

  It was my last true moment of hope, for what I found turned my heart to stone and my blood to ash. Had I a soul it must in that horrible moment have shriveled like meat on a spit, and departed myself forever.

  For ther
e, impaled on the shattered bowsprit, hands and feet still writhing as life ebbed from his body, was our brave Tom Coffin. The great splinter of oak had passed through the center of his abdomen and protruded a yard beyond. In the throes of death his neck arched and his handsome head was thrown back. His mouth worked silently, piteously, as if he wanted desperately to say something. But it was impossible, for the spar that passed through him had taken the last breath from his lungs. Still he would not die, but struggled like a bug on a pin.

  I had never before wished for a man’s death, but his final agony was such that I prayed for his heart to stop.

  Eventually, of course, it did.

  III

  MONBASU

  The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and wealth.…

  GEZO, KING OF DAHOMEY

  1. The Cask and the Kiss

  Our return to White Harbor was a kind of long and ponderously slow funeral cortege. We proceeded first by paddle-steamer, then locomotive, and finally by horse-drawn carriage, and in the whole of the journey my dear friend Jebediah spoke scarcely a word. There was nothing insensible about his grief—he was perfectly aware of his surroundings and his companions—it was as if he could not bring himself to speak. Such was the depth of his sorrow and dread that no words could express the loss of his cherished brother, or the inexplicable tragedy that had stalked his entire family.

  I left my little friend to his enormous silence, and took it upon myself to arrange our transportation, and to notify the surviving Coffins of the latest catastrophe. By the cold, inhuman pulse of the telegraph they were informed that the schooner Raven had been destroyed, that Thomas Coffin was no more, that Jebediah and the rest of the crew had survived, and that we had been taken from the wreck by a passing paddle-steamer, which had sighted our unhappy party soon after the fog lifted, and sent boats to rescue us.

 
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