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       Coffins, p.17

           Rodman Philbrick
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  4. Beneath the Paint

  When I staggered from the undertaker’s parlor I was a changed man, and not for the better. Everything I knew and believed had rotted away with the unnatural decay of Tom Coffin’s remains. There was no rational explanation for what I had witnessed, no possible scientific theory. It made me see the world in a different way. Or rather it was as if I were suddenly looking through this world into another, as if the place I’d lived, worked, thought, and loved was nothing more than a trompe l’oeil, a clever, pleasant little illusion painted upon the horror that lurked just beneath it. I was unmoored, a soul loosed from the earth, and I did not soar, no, but plummeted into a feverish, waking nightmare.

  For a time my senses became strangely enhanced. The drab, winter monochrome of a coastal village became vibrant with colors so bright and intense that my eyes ached. Signs and images seemed to sing or scream, as if color had a musical or vocal component. The cold, salty air carried a thousand piercing odors, some so fragrant I wept with physical pleasure, others so repulsive it made me choke on my own bile. The bloom of life, the stench of death, both intertwined, and so powerfully experienced that I thought my brain might boil away while I still lived.

  Surely I was seen in this state, lurching like a drunken sailor through the narrow, winding streets of White Harbor, but I can’t recall seeing another human being until at last I found myself once more at the Coffin house, scarcely comprehending how I got there. Barky the cook, observing my distress, urged me to lie down while he fetched a doctor. I threw off his gentle hands, reminded him that I was a doctor and would heal myself, whereupon I cackled like a madman and then fell to weeping.

  “We are doomed,” I told him. “All of us, doomed.”

  “Course we are,” he agreed with a click of the tongue. “Every man must die. That’s a given. But God made heaven for us, so we needn’t despair. That’s a given, too.”

  “Barky,” I said, grasping his huge wrist and drawing him near. “Barky, what if there is no heaven?”

  “There must be heaven,” he squeaked. “It’s in the Bible.”

  “What if there is no heaven?” I insisted. “What if hell exists all around us? All we have to do is scratch through the paint and there it is. Terrible things hiding behind the paint. Awful things. Waiting to leap out at us. Things that can cut men to pieces and freeze babies and shape themselves in lightning. It’s true, Barky. I’ve seen it! Like the Captain sees it. Things behind the paint!”

  “I wish you’d take this brandy, Dr. Bentwood.”

  “No! No brandy! It smells vile! Can’t you smell it? Stinks like swamp fire! Get it away!”

  “Easy now. I’ll put the brandy aside, maybe you’ll want it later.”

  “You must believe me, sir! I thought I knew what the world was, but the world you see is a trick of paint. An illusion. I thought there were rules, laws of physics. But there are no rules, there are no laws! Hell is right here!” I screamed, banging the table with my fists. “It waits beneath! Under the paint, Barky, under the paint!”

  As I knew from our previous acquaintance, the huge man had the patience of a saint, and he somehow managed to restrain me without doing me any harm, or letting me harm myself. Like any nightmare the details are vague, but I think I was trying to scrape away my own skin to show him what was underneath. Then I must have fainted, because the next thing I remember is lying on my bed in my chamber, and Lucy holding a cool, moist cloth to my brow.

  “Lucy,” I muttered. “Your perfume. I can barely smell it.”

  “Not perfume,” she murmured. “Rose water. It has, I’m told, a very light fragrance.”

  “Good, good. You smell lovely, really.”

  Then I slept.

  By the next day I had recovered my composure, such as it was. Colors no longer blinded me. Odors no longer electrified my senses. I stopped raving and scratching at my skin. But what I confessed to Barky remained essentially true, as it does to this day. My recent experiences had convinced me that another world existed, an invisible world that might at any moment make itself known in the most horrifying way. For this was not the harmless sort of afterlife world described by spiritualists, where dead relatives milled about eager to communicate, or the cook’s biblical heaven, but a place where demons dwelled among us, separated by the merest gossamer. Nothing else made sense. I had to believe it or go insane.

  Fortunately I was clever enough to keep my own counsel. Captain Coffin had seen that world beneath, and for raving about it he’d been locked in a tower, or he’d locked himself in, which amounted to the same thing. I was determined that that not happen to me, even if I had to pretend to be the same supremely rational fellow who had first arrived in White Harbor. I told myself I must appear rational and reasonable, therefore I would act rational and reasonable, and if anyone asked what I’d been raving about I would feign loss of memory. Fever dreams, I would say, common delirium, pay no attention.

  Anything but admit the truth. The new truth of the new Davis Bentwood.

  The glimpse I’d seen was not enough to satisfy me. Not that I wished to return to that state. Far from it. But I wanted very much to know what, exactly, Cassius Coffin had done to scratch the paint, as it were. If I wanted to retain my sanity, and keep what was happening to the Coffins from happening to me, I must find out, and soon. One thing was certain: it had to be more than the grave sin of slavery, for if that was all it took, half the houses in the nation would be haunted.

  “You look yourself again,” Lucy said when I came down to breakfast, and found her eating alone. “I’m glad of that.”

  “Yes, yes,” I said, fiddling with the pot of coffee. “I’m quite recovered, thank you. And I do apologize for frightening you last night.”

  Lucy smiled. “Oh, Davis, you did not frighten me. You were quite sweet, really. Why, you told me I smelled like roses and heaven.”

  “Did I? Oh, but you do, I’m sure.”

  She gave me a long, lingering look with her icicle-blue eyes, as if trying to read my secret thoughts. “I see that you’re embarrassed. Please don’t be. There’s nothing unmanly about suffering a nervous disorder. You’d been through a terrifying experience aboard the schooner and you’d taken everything upon yourself, trying to help us. You were exhausted. You had to deal with the remains, and I’m sure that was awful. It’s no wonder your mind decided to take a holiday.”

  I was astonished. “Is that what you think happened? My mind took a holiday?”

  “What else?” She raised her eyebrows, as if waiting for me to disagree, or to supply an explanation of my own. Instead I accepted her description of what she perceived to be my breakdown, and then endeavored to change the subject.

  “So. How do your cousins fare?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

  “Well enough, considering. No, I do not tell the truth. This home lies under a pall,” she said, with a gesture that seemed to describe the oppressive silence of the great house. “The Captain is mad again, they say, and Jebediah is not himself. Benjamin does nothing but pray, and Nathaniel frets for his wife.”

  “What other news is there?” I asked, indicating the newspaper she’d put down when I entered the dining room. “How goes it with the rest of the world?”

  “More gloom, I’m afraid,” she said with a sigh. “The train has been gathering speed and now, it seems, no one can jump off.”

  “More states have seceded?”

  She nodded. “Nearly all those below the Mason Dixon line. And worse, they are spoiling to prove their independence, looking for any excuse to confront federal authorities. Which is something of a problem.”

  “How so?”

  “Aside from postal workers, the only ‘federals’ located in this new Confederacy are a few soldiers stationed here and there, at long-established army bases. They’re under orders not to fight unless attacked. They’re certainly not attempting to enforce any federal laws. So if there’s going to be war, the Southerners will have to start it.”

  We discussed the subject for a while, so as not to return to the gloomy prospects of the family, but I failed to summon any passion for argument, and so we found ourselves agreeing. Gradually the conversation diminished, and I was able to excuse myself by saying that I was obliged to check in on Jebediah and Captain Sweeney.

  “You’ll find poor Jeb in his chamber,” Lucy informed me. “Captain Sweeney left here when you were en route to Nova Scotia.”

  “Really?” I asked, alarmed. “But where has he gone? Was he well enough to travel?” I had no idea where the man might go. With his beautiful schooner destroyed, the salty fellow had, in effect, no home.

  “He’s boarding at the same house where Nathaniel and Sarah took rooms. My impression was that he’s on the mend but not completely healed. He still had a terrible cough and could take no solid food.”

  “Why, then, did he leave, sick as he was?”

  Lucy gave me the strangest look, as if I’d again lost my senses. “Why, I suppose he left because he could,” she said. “Can you blame him?”

  “Lucy!” I said. “Is it only obligation that keeps you here? You must not feel so. I’m sure Jeb would agree.”

  She shook her head. “I remain of my own free will. It is not obligation but friendship that keeps me. The Coffins are my friends as well as my relations. They took me in when I had no place else to turn. How can I leave them in their time of need? Surely you feel the same.”

  My heart warmed as I stared at this beautiful, valiant young woman. “Yes,” I agreed, with all my heart. “We feel the same.”

  5. Another Kind of Dead

  Mrs. Merriman’s boardinghouse was a sturdy saltbox located a few blocks from the waterfront. Its narrow clapboards were painted a cheerful yellow, and each of the many small windows was fitted with a pair of black shutters. In the neatly apportioned front yard, small mounds in the snow revealed where beds of flowers would thrive, come spring. A cobbled walkway had been scraped and sanded all the way to the entrance. Despite my bleak cast of mind, I smiled approaching the door. There was something sunny and welcoming about the place, a personality that, alas, can’t be ascribed to every boardinghouse, and it was obvious that Nathaniel and Captain Sweeney had chosen well.

  I knew at once, upon entering the guest parlor, that the proprietress had a special fondness for cats. At least a dozen of the creatures lounged luxuriously upon stuffed cushions and braided rugs set out for that purpose. One very forward tom leaped down from an upholstered ottoman and began to writhe about my legs, purring like a little steam engine. A moment later Mrs. Merriman entered, saying, “Scat, Boozer! Leave the gentleman alone!”

  If Boozer heard and understood, he gave no sign, but continued his joyous paroxysm undeterred. “I don’t mind,” I told the lady. “I like a cat about the house. For the mice, you know.”

  “Mice?” she tittered. “Mice know better than to venture here! There’s a paucity of mice in these parts, believe you me.”

  The good lady was small and slightly plump, with her iron-gray hair up in a bun. She was dressed in the kind of pleated, fussily embroidered gown that was passé in Boston, but was now, no doubt, the height of fashion in White Harbor society. This being a small town, my introduction was a formality—Mrs. Merriman already knew who I was, and seemed to have a clear idea of what had brought me to the Coffin house.

  “How is poor Cash faring?” she inquired. “All those handsome sons. What a terrible thing! He was so proud of those boys. We all were, come to that. A credit to the Harbor, every one.”

  We exchanged sympathetic remarks about the family, and I got the impression that Mrs. Merriman was sincerely fond of the Coffin brothers, if not exactly keen about their father, for whom she had respect but little apparent affection. “Have you come to consult with Sarah? If so I must tell you she is still greatly disturbed by any intrusion. Nathaniel has asked that visitors—and doctors—call at a later time.”

  “Has Dr. Griswold been treating her?”

  Mrs. Merriman seemed uncomfortable with the question, as if afraid I’d be offended by another physician’s proximity. “Dr. Griswold called once or twice,” she said uneasily. “Nathaniel has requested that he not call again.”

  “I see.”

  “Is there nothing can be done for the poor soul?”

  I shook my head. “Nothing a doctor can prescribe. In time she may return to herself.”

  “I will keep her in my prayers.”

  “I wanted to check on Sarah, of course, if only as a friend, but my main target is Captain Sweeney. I was told he’s taken possession of a room.”

  That elicited a girlish laugh from my hostess. “Well spoke, Dr. Bentwood. That’s exactly what he’s done, the old rascal. I will bring you to him. And then I will flee out of range of his guns.”

  “Guns?” I asked, concerned, as she let me up the stairs. There was a small woven rug on each tread, and almost as many cats to be avoided.

  “Figure of speech, Doctor. Don’t you fret. I doubt he’ll do you any actual harm, beyond the usual tongue lashing. He’s been in a fearsome bad mood since his precious schooner came to grief.”

  Black Jack Sweeney had been given a corner room, with low ceilings, a small but active fireplace, and a window that overlooked the harbor. I found him sitting in a high-backed chair, feet up on a stool. He was covered in one of Mrs. Merriman’s crocheted shawls, and staring out the window with a dark, pensive expression. Upon spotting me with his one good eye he sucked on his long clay pipe and put a cloud of pungent smoke between us. “So you didn’t go down with my ship,” he said, sounding disappointed.

  “I’m afraid I survived. May I visit?”

  He scowled and pawed at the smoke. “Suit yourself. But I ain’t taking none of your vile medicines, so don’t even try me.”

  “I won’t,” I promised. “You seem better.”

  “Do I?” he leered. “You ain’t much of a doctor, if you think that.”

  “I’m sure you’re right. I’m not here as a doctor, Captain Sweeney. I’m here as a friend.”

  That gave him pause. “You consider yourself my friend, do you?” he said, scratching at the strap that held his shabby eye patch in place.

  “I’d like us to be friends, yes. But I meant I’m here as a friend of the family.”

  He snorted grumpily. “I suppose you’re that, I’ll give you that much. How do they fare, then?”

  “Not well,” I said. “Not well at all.”


  “Refusing visitors at the moment.”

  “Aye? He’s a wise man, then.”

  “Mr. Barkham is doing his best, but Jeb won’t eat. A little barley broth, that’s all.”

  “That’s bad,” said Sweeney, with obvious concern. His gruffness was, I sensed, in part contrived, to mask whatever it was he truly felt.

  “I’m sorry about your ship,” I said. “I know how you loved her.”

  He swallowed and averted his eye. His voice, when he spoke, was husky with emotion. “Was me in charge of Raven she’d still be afloat. She’d be out there right now where I can see her,” he said, pointing at the window.

  “No,” I said, disagreeing as gently as I knew how. “It wasn’t Tom Coffin wrecked the schooner. I think you know that, even if you don’t want to admit it.”

  “You do, eh?” he said pugnaciously. “You know a lot for a Boston fella.”

  Now or never, I said to myself, fire your broadside while he’s dead in the water, unsuspecting.

  “I know Cash Coffin was a slave trader,” I said, bearing in. “And I know, or think I know, that something terrible happened, long ago. Something that still haunts the family. And I’m fairly certain you know more about it than I do.”

  “Eh?” he said uneasily. He sucked nervously upon the clay pipe, unaware that it had gone out. “What makes you think that?”

  “Your name. Black Jack. You told me you got it while you were on the slave coast.”

  “Hmph. That’s
no secret,” he said dismissively. “Everybody knows me knows that.”

  I pulled up a chair, blocking any chance of retreat. “I didn’t come to inquire about your nickname. I came because the Coffins are being destroyed, one by one. Four dead in circumstances that defy rational explanation. I believe that something unnatural is happening, and I think you believe it, too. Something frightened you enough to make you flee the house when you were too sick to leave under your own power.”

  That got him bolt upright in his chair, and made his single eye glitter with fury. “You came here to call me a coward?” he snarled, and raised a shaking, sea-gnarled fist.

  “No, Captain Sweeney. Never would I say such a thing to a man like you. I came here to ask for your help, because I’m frightened, too. We’re all frightened. Some, like Cash and Sarah and Jebediah, have been terrified out of their wits. Please help me. Please help them. I’m begging you, sir. I’ll go down on my knees and beg if that’s what it takes.”

  All at once the old tar’s fury dissipated and his face crumpled and sagged. A tear ran from his one good eye and he hastily mopped it away with his sleeve. “You got me right, Doc,” he croaked. “By the good Lord above, I swear I was so fearful I nearly wet my drawers. Wasn’t nothing I could see, mind you. But something awful was in the room with me that night.”

  Sweeney then recounted, in his halting way, what happened the night his fever broke, the night Raven left the harbor without him. He awoke from a sound sleep and knew at once that he was in grave danger. There was, he said, a palpable presence in the room, and though it could not be seen he believed that it was sucking all the goodness from the air.

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