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       Coffins, p.15

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  In Portland Harbor, destination of the paddle-steamer, I hired a cooper to seal Tom Coffin’s remains in a rum-filled cask, which then accompanied us on the remainder of our sad journey. Jebediah had approved these arrangements with a nod of his heavy head, which lately seemed too large for his diminutive body to support. He sagged in his seat, chin down, staring at the hole in his world, and seemed, by my reckoning, to be well beyond fear.

  He was, indeed, like a man already dead, and what have the dead to fear?

  Alerted by my telegram, cousin Lucy kept vigil for us under the portico, wearing a black, hooded, full-length cloak that made her appear a stern and spectral figure. As our carriage came to a stop I saw her eyes register the newly made cask and then darken, as if she knew what it must contain. She raised a hand in silent greeting, a simple acknowledgment of shared sorrow, then turned and hurried into the house.

  A moment later Barky emerged. With a gentleness derived of great strength he lifted Jebediah from his seat and cooed, “Young Jeb! Poor soul! You’re home now, home with us that loves you.”

  My little friend did not respond, but he allowed the burly cook to carry him inside. After directing the men where to place the cask—it was taken to one of the sheds, to await more specific instructions—I joined Lucy in the kitchen, where a simple meal had been laid out.

  “Shall I pour?” she asked, holding up a glazed teapot. When I nodded she filled a cup, leaving room for a generous portion of dark Jamaican rum, which she added without comment. I hadn’t the heart to refuse, or to explain why that particular form of alcohol conjured such morbid thoughts. Out of politeness I downed the stuff like a dose of vile medicine, and was glad of the punishing burn it produced from throat to gullet.

  Lucy then sat beside me and took my hands in hers. There was a look in her sad, lovely eyes that convinced me she wished to speak, but wanted me to prompt her.

  “How are things here?” I asked, a quaver in my voice.

  She sighed deeply, and then gathered herself. “Terrible, as you might imagine. Unbearable, really, but what choice do we have? We must bear it.”

  “The brothers?” I asked. “How did they take it?”

  Tears brimmed from her liquid blue eyes. Her voice was as soft as a caress, but infinitely sad. “When Benjamin and Nathaniel learned, it was as if they themselves had been struck dead. As if they became, in that moment, ghosts instead of men.”

  “Where are they now?” I asked, looking around the kitchen, which we had to ourselves.

  “Ben has gone to tell his father. Nathaniel bides with his wife, at one of the rooming houses.”

  “Poor Benjamin,” I said, mindful of the difficulty of imparting yet more bad tidings to the madman in the tower.

  “Yes,” Lucy breathed, squeezing my hands. “The only good news is that you have returned.”

  God help me, but my thoughts went to the last time her hands had touched mine, and the carnal heat that had coursed through my blood, and the icy chill that had followed. When I gave an involuntary shiver she drew her hands away and laid her palm upon my forehead. “You’ve taken ill,” she said gravely. “I shouldn’t wonder. With all you’ve been through. With all you’ve seen.”

  “Not ill, exactly,” I said. “Sick at heart.”

  “Your telegram said only that Tom had perished and the ship gone down. How did such a thing happen?”

  I’d wanted to spare her the specifics of our ordeal, but instead found myself spilling the tale and leaving nothing to the imagination. I even told her, God help me, how we’d had to saw through the broken bowsprit and pry poor Tom loose from his deadly perch. As if something in me wanted to punish her for not being there to see it with her own eyes, for not suffering exactly as the rest of us had suffered. But rather than shrink from the horror she pressed me for details, and I felt bound to comply, though it would surely ruin her sleep forever, as mine had been ruined.

  When I came to the last, she placed her hands on her bosom and moaned as if she, too, had been penetrated by that great splinter of oak. Closing her eyes she wept and then suddenly collapsed upon the table. “So it is true what they say!” she gasped. “They are cursed, all of them!”

  I begged her to tell me what she knew of this wretched curse. Little enough, she said, only what Jebediah had said, that night when he held the pistol to his head. “But why should the Coffins be accursed?” I asked. “What makes them think so?”

  Lucy shook her pretty head as she wiped her tears ’way with my hankie. “I’ve heard Jeb allude to it in his darker moments,” she said. “I assumed he meant he wished he’d never been born to such deformity. When he was a boy, you know, the others taunted him with that. As if his was the punishment for the sins of the family.”

  “Sins? What sins?”

  Lucy gave me a curious look, as if startled by my naiveté. “Oh, the sin of success, I suppose. When a family gets too high above itself, there are plenty of volunteers eager to bring them down a peg.”

  “You speak of envy?”

  “Envy isn’t a strong enough word for what I mean. I don’t know what word is. I take it you did not grow up in a small town?”

  I shook my head. “I grew up in Boston, Hub of the Universe.”

  The jape brought a small smile to her lips. “Yes, I’ve heard it called that.”

  “I assure you, there’s no lack of envy in Boston.”

  “Of course not. But the envy I speak of takes a different form in a small town. In Boston you think you know everyone, but what you really mean is you know everyone worth knowing. Everyone within your circle. In a village like White Harbor, remote from the city, relying upon itself, everyone really does know everyone else. They know each other intimately, in a way that city folk never do. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They know who said what to whom, and who did what to whom. They know each other’s most shameful secrets, and they remember it all forever.”

  “You just ruined my postcard,” I told her.

  “What?”

  “Nothing. Please go on.”

  “Remember that Cash Coffin was born in this village. No doubt he was a snot-nosed boy like all the other snot-nosed boys who race the streets, no better and no worse. But unlike the others, he grew up to be rich and powerful. Not only a shipmaster, which is a kind of royalty here, but the owner of a fleet of ships. So naturally there are those who thought him high above his station, who resented his success, his wealth. Some, I’m told, resented his five strong and perfect sons, destined to be ship captains like their father. Understand that Rebecca Coffin had five children, and all of them survived, and all of them were boys. Look around at the other family graveyards and you will see how many died in infancy. How many had one child perish for every one that survived.”

  “I know something of infant mortality,” I reminded her softly.

  Lucy looked startled, and her cheeks colored. “Of course you do. I’m sorry, Davis. I forget that your medical experience took you into the poor wards.”

  I shook off her apology, which was not required. “Why do you say that Rebecca Coffin had only five sons? Jebediah is the sixth son, is he not?”

  Lucy nodded. “That’s my point. Jeb was the sixth, after the first five were born perfect. And poor Rebecca died giving him birth. So there were those cruel enough to say Jeb was the curse upon the family. Proof that Cash Coffin didn’t deserve his success. Proof of his sins.”

  It was hard, being forced to imagine what little Jebediah had endured. The cruel taunts from children his own age, and from adults who resented his father, or were merely offended by the very existence of a dwarf in their midst. His keen awareness of how others saw him, and how so many of them denied him his humanity, his manhood. How had he borne it? How had he become such a person as I first met in Harvard Yard, a man of courage, nobility, and unshakable conviction? There was only one answer: Jebby the dwarf had become Jebediah Coffin, Abolitionist, through the strength and support of his kind and generous brot
hers, who loved him for what he was, and what he would become. He was the sum of their wholes, and now with half of his family destroyed—by his own fault, he thought, for the temerity of existing—half of him was destroyed as well.

  “It wasn’t only the children and the ignorant adults,” Lucy said. “There was Cornelius Remick.”

  “Who?” I asked. The name was familiar, but I was certain I did not know the man.”

  “Father Remick,” Lucy said. “The Episcopal priest. I was told he presided over Rebecca Coffin’s funeral, and that he was the first who alluded to Jebediah’s deformity as just punishment.”

  “What?” I said, scarcely believing that a man of the cloth, a man of God, could inflict such cruelty on his own parishoners. “He said the family was cursed?”

  “I don’t know that Remick actually said that Jebediah was a curse upon the family. It may have been one of those priestly allusions, with quotes from the Scripture. All I know is that Cash stormed out of the church in the middle of the funeral and has never returned, and that shortly thereafter Remick was forced from his congregation and had to leave White Harbor. But no one who lived here has forgotten what the priest said, and they never let Jeb forget it, either.”

  “Does he still live?” I asked her. “This man Remick? Is he alive?”

  “I’ve no idea,” she said, “but there’s someone who might know. The man who replaced him. Father Whipple.”

  “Then I shall speak with the good father,” I said, getting to my feet.

  And then, summoning my courage, I kissed her. A chaste kiss, but sweet.

  2. The Good Father

  It was unspeakably late when I approached the tidy building that served as the Episcopal rectory, located a few streets away from the church itself. The little house was precisely square, somewhat less than twenty feet on a side. The recent snow had collected into a glistening pile under the icicle-bound eaves. White smoke rose from a center chimney and a faint glow illuminated one of the small upstairs windows, so I assumed the inhabitant had not yet retired for the night. Not that a lack of candle would have prevented my fist from booming upon the storm door.

  “Good Lord! Coming! Coming!”

  The candle glow moved from upstairs to down, and soon enough the inner door creaked open and the storm shutter was unlatched.

  “Father Whipple?”

  “Yes, yes, who else? Get in, man, before the heat gets out!”

  The priest, who I’d spoken to very briefly at little Casey’s interment, was a moon-faced man of about fifty, with shoulder-length white hair and a neatly trimmed beard. Curled, Oriental slippers peeked out from beneath the hem of his floor-length sleeping gown. As he raised the candle to inspect me, I noticed bottle-thick spectacles affixed to his nose and held in place by means of a black ribbon. He peered at me with the faintly puzzled eyes of the badly nearsighted and asked, “Do I know you, sir? You do look familiar, but my eyes are weak.”

  “Davis Bentwood. I’m a friend of the Coffins.”

  “Yes, of course,” he said. “You were at the infant’s burial, were you not? Sad affair, very sad. Heard something of you from Griswold, later it was, after Sunday service, I think. Hmm? Yes, so it was.”

  “Excuse me?”

  “Dr. Griswold. Member of the congregation. Mentioned a young scamp from away, ‘poaching on his territory.’ His words, not mine, couldn’t care less. This way, Dr. Bentwood. To the heat, man, the heat!”

  I followed the priest to the very center of his little domicile, where a Franklin wood stove had been installed in front of the bricked-up hearth. The cast-iron doors were closed, the draft was whistling, and the whole stove was pleasantly pink with warmth. Gratefully I joined my host, rubbing my badly chilled hands over the rising heat.

  Father Whipple coughed, snorted, sniffled, cleared his throat, shuffled his slippers, and finally regarded me with a not-unfriendly gaze. “If you’re here at this ungodly hour, I must assume the rumors are true. Another Coffin has met his Maker.”

  “I’m afraid so.”

  “And you wish me to preside at this funeral, too? Hmm?”

  “Your service would be most welcome, of course, when it comes to that. But I came with another purpose, to ask if you know anything of your predecessor, Father Remick.”

  “Cornelius? Oh, indeed, I knew Cornelius quite well. He was a good man.”

  The air sighed out of me, and with it some of my resolve. “Do I take it Father Remick is deceased?”

  Whipple stopped rubbing his hands over the stove and began tugging thoughtfully at his beard. “Five years. No, wait. More like six or seven. Died in his sleep, the lucky fellow.”

  I uttered an oath and then quickly apologized.

  “Don’t trouble yourself,” he said, waving his hand as if the profane words were inconsequential puffs of smoke. “These walls have heard worse. I’m an old bachelor priest, but Father Remick was not. Lived in this very house, small as it is, with a wife, five daughters, and his mother-in-law, who had a salty tongue and used it frequently.” He paused from his recollection. “What did you want of Father Remick? Take a pew, Dr. Bentwood, and tell me all about it.”

  The man kindly offered me an upholstered chair. I slumped into it and buried my face in my hands, at a loss for how to explain that I was searching for an answer to a question that I couldn’t even begin to formulate. The good father took a “pew” next to me, held his curiously slippered feet out to the glowing stove, and mused aloud. “Hmm. Let me think. Says he’s a friend of the Coffins but wanted to see old Cornelius. Medical man, Boston accent. Hmm. There’s a clue. Were you at school with young Jebediah, is that it?”

  “Yes,” I admitted.

  “Hmm, hmm. Two and two together. So. First visit to our little village? Yes? I’d have known, I think, if you’d dropped anchor before. Tell me, Dr. Bentwood, are you sure you’re not here about a proper funeral, speaking on behalf of the family, or of Jebediah? Because that wouldn’t be a problem, despite that wicked old man’s animus.”

  “Animus?”

  “To this church, and to the late Father Remick in particular, and to me because I took his place. Never you mind, son, let bygones be bygones. We can organize a funeral mass at your convenience, if it would make the family rest easy, and when the ground thaws we’ll see the poor Coffin boys buried proper, with every pomp and circumstance, not to worry.”

  “It isn’t that,” I said. “It has to do with why Remick left. Do you know anything of the circumstance? Can you relate it without, um, betraying a confidence?”

  “Ah,” he said, studying his slippers. “Hmm. Depends, I suppose.”

  “Depends on what?”

  “On exactly what you want to know. I’ve no desire to go up against Cassius Coffin, after all these years. Ancient history.”

  “That’s what I must know,” I said urgently. “The ancient history. Specifically what Father Remick said at the funeral of Rebecca Coffin, Jebediah’s mother.”

  “Ah,” Whipple said, bobbing his head. “You know nothing of it, then?”

  “Nothing. Only that whatever was said, it made the old man leave the church. I assume he was the one who drove your predecessor away.”

  Father Whipple nodded thoughtfully, studying my face as he might a map. “Oh, indeed he did. Quite right. Cash Coffin. A man of considerable influence. A man more interested, I might say, in burying the past than he was in burying his wife.”

  “Oh?” I asked eagerly. “What do you mean?”

  “What do I mean? Let me get this right, my boy. Hmm, did I say ‘boy’? You’ll excuse me, Dr. Bentwood, for I’m an old man, old enough to be your father.”

  “I take no offense. What was this about not wanting to bury Rebecca Coffin?”

  “Did I say that? Didn’t mean it, if I did say so. You should know, if you’re to understand what happened between the two men, that Rebecca Coffin was the bosom friend of Jessie Remick. Remick’s wife Jessica. Hmm? See the picture? Rebecca Coffin was, they sa
y, a lovely, generous lady. Never knew her myself, but I’ve no reason to doubt it. Much beloved in the village, for not getting too high above herself. They say she was on the point of convincing her husband to build a proper rectory for the church. Something with enough room to house the whole Remick clan in comfort. But then Rebecca died on the birthing bed and everything changed. The way I understand it, Jessie blamed Cassius for Becky’s death, and she persuaded her husband to be of the same mind. Then he spoke his mind and Cash Coffin would have none of it. Didn’t matter if everyone in the village knew, it wasn’t to be spoken of, or alluded to.”

  “What wasn’t to be spoken of?”

  “Hmm? Ah? Why, where they’d got their money, of course.”

  “And where was that?”

  “You don’t know? Why, everyone knows that Cash Coffin made his fortune running slaves.”

  I gasped.

  “Hmm. I don’t suppose Jebediah would want to mention it, him being such a fervent abolitionist,” Father Whipple mused, weaving his long elegant fingers through the scruff of his white beard. “For that matter I’m not certain how much your friend actually knows of the particulars—families have a way of smothering such unpleasant kittens. But his father wasn’t the only sea captain made his pile in the African trade. Wasn’t even the only one in this village, come to that. Many a Yankee fortune was made in the buying and selling of men.”

  This was hardly news to me, about the making of Yankee fortunes, but somehow I’d never considered that the Coffins might have been involved in the odious enterprise. It had never occurred to me that a slave trader would so generously finance his son’s various abolitionist causes, to the point of having Frederick Douglass as an honored house guest. Was Mr. Douglass aware of the source of the family fortune? I wondered. Had I been the only one present at the Coffin house who couldn’t appreciate the delicious triple irony of a former slave directing runaway slaves to safety in the home of a former slaver?

 
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