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       Coffins, p.16

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  “If I remember correctly, and I think I do, Jessie Remick said that Becky had for some time made it known to her husband that she wished him to quit the vile business. And her husband in turn blamed Cornelius for turning his wife against him, as he saw it, by preaching against the slavers and turning his congregation into a hotbed of abolitionism.”

  “And was it that?” I asked. “A hotbed of abolitionism?”

  Father Whipple snorted and shook his head. “Hardly. Not by today’s standards. But Captain Coffin couldn’t abide it when any man dared disagree with him, especially in public. Also, let us not forget, that even back then transporting slaves from Africa was an illegal activity. So possibly Coffin felt that the abundant rumors put him in peril. Whatever was in his mind—and I don’t pretend to know—he forbade his wife from seeing Jessie, and she in turn defied him and bared her heart to her dear friend.”

  “But what has this to do with Rebecca’s death, or the funeral?” I asked.

  The priest sighed. “I was told that a day or two before Rebecca gave birth, she came to Jessie in some torment. The two women closeted themselves and exchanged the usual confidences. And then Becky related some terrible secret having to do with her husband. Don’t ask me what secret, exactly,” he said, holding up his hand, “because I do not know. Jessie never said, not even to her husband, and she passed away some years ago, preceding Cornelius. All I know is that the subject was, in Jessie’s words, ’unspeakable,’ which explains, I suppose, her silence upon the subject.”

  “But it had to do with slaving?”

  “I’ve always assumed so, but I can’t be sure. Certainly Cornelius thought so. For that was the subject of the sermon that got him dismissed. ‘The Curse of the Slave Trader.’ That was the title. Old Corny was a direct sort of man, God love him. Didn’t dilly-dally with words. And when Rebecca died, and the child with her, Father Remick saw it as a sign from God, a punishment like unto that of Job himself, and thundered so from his pulpit.”

  “Wait!” I said. “Did you say the child died? Jebediah didn’t die!”

  “No,” Father Whipple agreed. “Jeb lived, but his brother died. His twin.”

  I don’t know why the idea of twins should have stunned me so, but it did. Perhaps because of Jeb’s precious twin brothers, Sam’n’Zeke, so recently and so horribly deceased. When the priest saw that I was at a loss, he rose from his chair and fetched us brandy from the cupboard. “I think the occasion warrants medication,” he said with a smile, handing me a generous glass of the peachy-smelling stuff. “I see that you are shocked, but it is not so unusual that of two infants in the womb, one should be born flawless but dead, and the other deformed but alive.”

  “Jebediah’s twin was not deformed?”

  “According to the midwife, the baby was perfect in every way save that it had ceased thriving some weeks before labor commenced. Poor Rebecca gave birth to a tiny corpse. Not an unusual occurrence, but it was the first time a child of hers had not survived. A few minutes after they’d wrapped the dead infant in a shroud, Becky suffered the convulsion that killed her, and the result of that convulsion was to expel the infant that still lived, the twin no one had foreseen or expected.”

  “Jebediah. But as you say, the death of an infant is so common, why did Father Remick take it for a curse? Was it because the surviving twin was deformed?”

  The priest lowered his empty glass. “No, it wasn’t that. Or I should say it wasn’t only that. It was what happened to the dead infant.”

  A thrum of excitement sat me upright and quivering. “Was it cold?” I said, feeling that an explanation, however unusual, was maddeningly close. “Was the dead twin unusually cold? As if mysteriously frozen? Was that it?”

  Father Whipple was clearly baffled by my outburst. “Cold? Frozen? No. This is what happened: before the shroud was wrapped, the little corpse turned black. Before their eyes the perfectly formed white baby shriveled and turned black. As black as the souls that Cash Coffin traded for gold.”

  That so astonished me that I failed to hear the glass break when it dropped from my hands.

  3. The Body in the Barrel

  Long after midnight, when the moon was down, and the hour was black, and the stars were distant and cold, I returned to the Coffin house. I crept back like the guilt-ridden thief who wants to replace what can never be recovered. Namely the innocence with which I’d viewed my little friend and his exemplary family.

  It had been a soul-killing night. Lucy had, unwittingly perhaps, canceled my mental postcard of a serene and pleasant White Harbor, and now a companionable, kindhearted priest had destroyed the nobility of the seafaring family I’d so admired. Fearless, self-reliant men whose courage and resolute behavior had, I thought, transcended the ordinary, and made each bell of their shiply watches chime as pure as the music of the Divine. Except that their very lives had been purchased with the lives of others, and so that each Coffin might thrive and prosper, a thousand men had been draped in chains, a thousand women raped and ruined, a thousand children whipped and starved.

  It was enough to make a man retch, and I did so, spitting vile peach brandy onto the dull ice that glazed the granite steps under the portico. There it instantly froze, visible proof of my weakness. How could I not have known what the world had known? Was it mere innocence on my part, or willful ignorance? Why was I who had worshipped at the altar of the Rational and the Reasonable so unable to see the Evil right before my eyes? Emerson had seen the larger sin, the national disgrace, and he had denounced it in no uncertain terms. But I, who supposed himself attuned to the great man’s insights, had been unable to recognize the obvious: that none of us can be innocent through ignorance, not when we dwell among evildoers, and do nothing to stop them.

  Do not suppose that my wretched state of mind made me think less of my friend Jebediah. It did not. For all that had happened, and everything I had learned, I could not help but admire a son who strove so valiantly to make amends for the sins of his father. That he did not confide his shame to me was easily forgivable, and in some sense eased my own mind, for it made me better understand his present torment. Jeb’s whole life had been formed in the shadow of that terrible truth. His own dead twin, the soul with whom he’d shared his mother’s womb, was proof of the Coffin corruption. If validation of sainthood is held to be the incorruptible body, then what did it say when an innocent, stillborn baby was putrefied to blackness within moments of being delivered? No wonder Jebediah believed himself cursed. He was cursed. Cursed not by the doctrine of original sin, but by the willful evil perpetrated by those he loved.

  But was it the punishment of a just God that cursed the Coffins? Were the recent tragedies a kind of biblical revenge, an Old Testament leveling of the scales? Or was there some other force at work? A greater evil, if such a thing could be imagined? But I did not have to imagine it. I had seen such improbabilities with my own eyes: a crypt defiled, a baby frozen solid in a warm room, a hanged man formed of lightning, a prodigal son impossibly impaled on a splinter of oak. It was true that I had not actually observed Sam’n’Zeke cut in twain by the vengeful sawblade, but their fate was no less improbable, absent some sort of intervention by a force or presence invisible. A force or presence that could not be accounted for in the transcendental philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Immanuel Kant, or the rational arithmetic of Descartes. And so I was left with only two possible explanations, two possible agents of the impossible: God or the devil. Who had brought such horror to this family, was it God or one of his fallen angels? And what did it have to do with “alchemy,” that word shouted like a curse from the madman’s tower?

  Stumbling into the darkened hallway, my boots resounding on the oaken floor of that hollow place, my mind was, I am now convinced, unhinged by exhaustion, fear, and alcohol taken on a sour stomach. For I had formed a very fixed idea of what I must do to prove or disprove my thesis.

  Tom Coffin’s body must be taken from the cask and examined.

  I
did not sleep those last hours before daybreak, when I intended to rouse the world and put my plan into action. Sleep is impossible when your brain races like mine did, examining a thousand rational explanations and rejecting them all. It came down to this: I had to know if the body in the barrel was as blackened as Jebediah’s twin had been, so long ago. Tom’s remains had been placed in a hogshead cask of rum and if, despite that well-known preservative, his body was badly decayed, then I would take that as proof that my theory was correct: a force beyond human control or understanding was at work, destroying the Coffins one by one.

  To this end I sent for the undertakers, Caswell by name. A father and son, both called Jasper. We were already acquainted, as they had supplied the tiny casket for the baby’s burial. Like so many of their profession, the Jaspers looked the part. They were, father and son, pale and narrow and scarecrow thin, with melancholy, deep-set eyes. Jasper Caswell the elder drove the hearse wagon, which was drawn by a single, plodding, ancient horse whose hooves had been fitted with scuffed leather booties, the better to grip the ice. Upon arrival, Jasper the younger climbed down from his seat and with the utmost adolescent gravity held the old horse while his father shuffled to the door, brushing snowflakes from his black, swallow-tailed frock jacket. He bowed deeply, doffed his high beaver, and offered me condolences.

  “We been waiting for the summons, having heard what happened to poor Master Tom,” he added. “Terrible thing, when a man is taken in the prime of life.”

  “Yes,” I said. “It was a terrible thing.”

  “I understand the Captain is feeling poorly?”

  “Yes,” I agreed. “He’s greatly disturbed.”

  That was putting it mildly. According to Benjamin, bearer of the bad news, the old man had flown into a froth-mouthed rage, throwing everything but the cat at his eldest son, and then at whatever invisible thing it was that seemed to be abusing him. Yelling and eventually pleading with his unseen tormentor to stop laughing. When I asked Ben if he’d heard the laughter, he gave me a strange, appraising kind of look and finally said no, he had heard nothing of the kind, and didn’t expect to, unless he, too, went mad. “What did you do?” I had asked him, to which he replied, “I prayed for him. I prayed for him and for me and for all of us—even you, Dr. Bentwood. I begged my father to join me in petitioning the Lord, but he said I was already dead and dead men needn’t pray. That’s what he does believe, too, in his madness, that all of his sons are dead. That I was a ghost come back to haunt him. Like he was all turned around about who had died and who had not.”

  I tried to speak comfortingly to Benjamin about the possibility of his father recovering his senses, but neither of us believed such a thing was now possible, and Ben trudged off to pray over Jebediah, in hopes of piercing the overwhelming gloom that kept the little man bedridden.

  “So you’ll be handling the arrangements on this one, too?” the elder undertaker asked, as his gray tongue wetted his chapped and colorless lips. “Still representing the family in their time of need?”

  “Something like that,” I said, somewhat sharply. “I’ll see your fee is paid, if that’s what you mean. As I did for the child’s casket.”

  “Apologies, sir,” he said, dropping his eyes. “I was only inquiring. Apologies most heartfelt.” Undeterred, he took a deep breath and resumed. “I was only inquiring because a fullgrowed man is, of course, considerable more than an infant baby. For the handling of him and so on.”

  “Follow me to the carriage shed.”

  I was seething with fury by the time we managed to wrest the cask aboard the undertaker’s wagon, with the help of such servants as could be found, and were willing to lend a hand. Mine was an inchoate form of anger, misdirected and all out of proportion to the offense. A muddled anger that had more to do with fear, I now think, than with any ill-considered phrases that issued from the hideous, saliva-specked mouth of Jasper Caswell the elder, who was thoroughly odious but sincerely did not mean to give offense. What terrified me so? I was terrified of what I might find in the cask, and what that meant to my orderly world, and to the philosophies that had thus far informed my life, given it shape and meaning. Why such furious anxiety should have been bound up in the idea of examining a body for signs of corruption I cannot now fathom, save that as it turned out, I was right to be terrified. Nothing I had learned or observed in the crudest autopsy theater could prepare me, or any man, for what I was about to discover.

  J. Caswell & Son, Undertakers, was located in the lower end of the village, where the buildings were smaller, cruder, and more closely built together, as if proximity was necessary to keep them upright. A number of other trades prospered, more or less, in the same area. Carpentry shops, framing stalls, wheelwrights, gunsmiths, fabricators, and so on, many of them sharing buildings or spaces within. No doubt one of the cabinetmakers moonlighted for caskets, a number of which were on display in what Mr. Caswell called “the sample parlor,” little more than four fly-specked walls and a pile of caskets set on sawhorses. They ranged from unfinished pine to varnished mahogany, but I was in no mood to make a selection or “set the price,” in the undertaker’s unctuous words.

  “Do you have a workroom?” I demanded. “A place where we can lay out Mr. Coffin’s body?”

  “Yes, yes, course we do,” he said, rubbing the knuckles of his pale hands. “But mostly, you understand, we tend to work from the home. That’s how folks want it. We come to your house and do the necessary.”

  I glowered in a way that made both Jaspers retreat a step or two. “The ‘necessary’ can be accomplished right here!” I thundered. “The family must not be disturbed, is that understood?”

  “Course it is, course it is. Only the back parlor, um, you might call, well, you might call it shabby.”

  “I might call it filthy and rat-infested, but that does not matter. Kindly take the cask into this ‘back parlor,’ wherever it is.”

  I had it right. Filthy and rat-infested fit the bill of particulars. The stench of flesh and sickness and grave rot I will not attempt to describe, save that I had never smelled worse, not even in the foul basements of the city hospitals. The cask was too heavy to be lifted by the three of us, but the younger Caswell was clever enough, as it turned out, and he engineered a way to winch our burden from the back of the wagon and set it square upon the floor. While his father stood by, rubbing his knuckles and muttering nervously, his son borrowed a mallet and pry bar from one of the adjoining establishments and set about breaking the seal on the lid.

  Instantly the parlor filled with the fumes of rum, an odor powerful but clean, and to my way of thinking it was an improvement. No stench of corruption rose from the cask, and this was reassuring.

  “Take off your coat and help us,” I demanded of the father.

  “This is irregular, most irregular,” he objected. “Not the way the Jasper Caswells do things, fetching bodies in rum barrels.” But at a pleading glance from his beleaguered son he doffed his crusted black suit coat, rolled up his sleeves, and gingerly reached into the cask.

  “On a count of three and heave, boy, are we agreed?”

  “Yes, Father.”

  “Ready now. One, two, THREE AND HEAVE!”

  As it turned out, the body was easily dislodged, for rigor had come and gone and poor Tom was pliant enough. First his head rose—still handsome in death—and then his once strong arms were gingerly unfolded by the grunting Jaspers. The dead man was still clothed in such garments as remained when he was removed from the bowsprit, blue woolen trousers and torn white cotton shirt, both now bearing stains of the preserving rum that ran in torrents as he was lifted free of the cask. As the two men shifted the cadaver, squeezing his horribly punctured chest for purchase, Tom’s head fell back and the amber liquid gushed from the hole, and from his mouth, startling us all.

  When the time came I grasped the ankles and with another count of three and heave we got the corpse upon the workbench.

  “There!” said the elder
Jasper. He stood back to admire his handiwork. “He looks quite fair, I’d say, for a gentleman three days gone or more. Fair about the face and head, I mean. That big hole in his chest, we can fill it with wax, if you like. New woolly togs from Eames the tailor and he’ll shape up quite presentable, considering.”

  All of us were thoroughly drenched with rum, and a little light-headed from the fumes, when the cadaver began to react with the air. I knew, of course, that soon after a body is removed from an alcohol solution the normal course of corruption may continue, particularly if the preservative hasn’t fully penetrated. But then it hadn’t been my intention to preserve the body for any longer than was necessary to facilitate a hygienic burial. My relief upon seeing the normal condition of the cadaver evaporated with the fumes, and with it any semblance of normality in the body itself, which began to change with an impossible rapidity.

  “Father! What should I do?” the younger Jasper pleaded.

  “You might stand back!” his father suggested.

  Before our very eyes the cadaver was visibly swelling with the gases of decay. As the flesh filled and stretched it caused the limbs to move and twitch, in a disturbing mockery of life. No, it was not as if we saw Tom Coffin’s ruined body come back to life. Ghastly as that might have been, the reality was much, much worse. There was nothing lively about the shuddering twitches of the corpse. Rather, we saw him getting deader by the second, his flesh putrefying and splitting apart, as if the normal, six-week process of corruption were being compressed into a few intolerable minutes. We watched in silent horror, made mute by terror and disbelief, as muscles and ligaments tightened, then relaxed, then unraveled from the bone. We saw the skin writhe as it sloughed away from liquefying organs, the whole running mess of it bubbling, foaming, blackening, yes, blackening, with flesh-rot and bone-mold and jellied excrescence. His eyeballs dissolved in their sockets and leaked like tears through his closed eyelids and ran down his now-black face. Fingernails ripened, exploding softly from the digits. His brain melted, spurted from ears, nose, mouth. And when, somehow, the calcifying ligaments pulled taut, wrenching the spine free of the flesh and sitting it bolt upright, Tom Coffin’s jaw suddenly dropped away from Tom Coffin’s skull, and the scream that came from where his mouth had been, the scream that quivered the air and shattered the softened bones and dissolved the corpse into dust, that scream was mine.

 
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