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       Coffins, p.18

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  “I tried to open the window but it wouldn’t rise. Then I made for the door, but it was like the air got thick or something, and I couldn’t never reach that neither, no matter how I tried. So I commenced to hollering, but it was like the holler was dyin’ in my throat, or got swallowed up somehow.

  “Oh, I been in a tight spot or two in my time, and more than once I figured to meet my Maker. You sail the seas as long as I have, you’re bound to come at a tight spot. I won’t say death don’t frighten me, but this was different.”

  I leaned closer. “Different? Different in what way?”

  While Sweeney turned the question over in his mind, he filled his pipe bowl and got it fuming. “Hmm. Now that’s a hard one, but let me try.” He puffed some, and then grunted, using the pipe stem to make his point. “I had the feeling—no, no, it were a certainty—yes, sir, I knew in my bones that if I was to die in that room, with that thing so close, I wouldn’t ever meet my Maker at all. I’d be dead in some other way. A kind of dead more terrifying and more horrible than regular dead.” He paused and gave me a quizzical look. “Can you make sense of it?”

  “No,” I admitted. “But I know exactly what you mean.”

  “Do you? Then I’m sorry for you, Doc. It changes a man inside, to feel a thing like that. I ain’t the same Black Jack Sweeney that sailed you into this harbor, and that’s a fact.”

  “Nor am I the same man you delivered.”

  “What has happened to us, do you suppose?”

  “I’ve no idea. Or nothing I can put into words. But I feel compelled to find out. I must find out, or be damned.”

  Captain Sweeney’s gnarled hands still trembled, as if vibrating to that memory of fear. “I believe you’re on the wrong tack, Doc. Whatever it is that preys upon Coffins, it can’t have nothin’ to do with how Cash made his pile. Too many years gone by for that.”

  “Perhaps,” I said. “But does the word ‘Monbasu’ mean anything to you?”

  The old tar visibly blanched, and gave me a look that couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d pulled out a pistol and shot him. “Monbasu?” he gasped. “What’s this got to do with that fella?”

  Now it was my turn to be astonished. “Monbasu is someone you know? I thought it was a kind of curse. A word for devil.”

  “He were a slave trader,” said Sweeney. “Then he was a slave himself, for a while. As rum a character as ever you wish to meet. He was a lot of things, some of ’em good and some of ’em bad, but he wasn’t no devil when I knew him.”

  “And when was this?”

  Sweeney’s brow furrowed. “More than twenty years ago. Just before Cash give up the trade for good.”

  I nodded. “So Monbasu was a fellow slave trader. Was he French?”

  Sweeney managed to laugh. “Was he French? No more’n I am. No, your Monbasu was an African sort of gentleman. He was black as your hat.”

  At that moment Mrs. Merriman threw open the door, put her hand to her heaving chest to catch her breath, and announced that Sarah Coffin had thrown herself into the harbor.

  6. Another Kind of Sleep

  It was not far to the harbor edge, and all of it downhill. I skidded most of the way on leather boot heels, which could find no purchase on the frosted cobblestones.

  Although it was barely noon, the sun was but a small pale presence, a shy visitor to the leaden sky, and the air was cold enough to clot in your chest.

  I calculated that the harbor waters could not be much above freezing. It is well known that flowing salt water can be colder by several degrees than frozen blocks of pond ice. One need not drown in such waters: simple immersion will likely result in death. As I ran and skidded my way downhill, I cursed myself for not insisting on a consultation with poor Sarah. Aware of her hysterical state, and of the possibility that she might seek to harm herself, I’d done nothing to help. The fact that her husband had forbidden visitors should not have deterred me. It was my duty as a physician to intercede, as Nathaniel was himself in a confused mental state, and therefore not qualified to make such a crucial decision as to forgo all treatment.

  Fool! Charlatan! Those were but two of the names I gave myself, on that headlong race to the harbor.

  As it happened, Nathaniel Coffin had got there before me. I found him in shirtsleeves, racing back and forth along the waterfront, frantically searching the harbor waters for a sign of his wife. The most telling thing I saw was a pile of female clothing and undergarments discarded on the pier. That a woman of Sarah’s modesty should strip herself naked indicated her desperate compulsion to destroy herself.

  “Oh, God! Oh, God!” the poor man wailed, tearing at his beard. Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to the placid, freezing waters. “It is only me, darling! Only me! You can’t be afraid of me!”

  I attempted to steer Nathaniel away from the edge, fearful that he, too, might decide to end his misery. He was scarcely aware of me, and there was nothing I could do to deter his frantic, hopeless search, for like all the Coffins he had shoulders of oak and limbs of iron.

  “I don’t know what got into her so sudden,” he muttered anxiously. “Like she didn’t know me! Like I was someone that scared her! Why should my lovely Sarah be scared of me?”

  I tried to reason with him, telling him we must get boats to drag the harbor, but he would not heed me. “Sarah!” he kept crying out. “Sarah, it’s only me! Please come back!”

  Apparently his wife had been relatively calm for the last day or so, which was why he had dismissed Dr. Griswold, whose visits only seemed to agitate her. The previous night she had slept soundly for the first time since the baby died, and Nathaniel was hopeful that she’d turned a corner. That morning they had prayed quietly together and then Nathaniel had read to her from a lady’s magazine, articles about etiquette and ladylike deportment that seemed to soothe her by suggesting a world far removed from her present reality. Then, just before noon, he went down for a tray of Mrs. Merriman’s luncheon sandwiches, convinced that his wife’s appetite might return with her newfound composure. But when he entered the room, tray in hand, Sarah shrank from him with a look of horror. He asked her what was wrong. Her reply was devastating. “Where is Nathaniel?” she demanded, shaking with fear. “What have you done to my husband?” When he tried to embrace her she shoved him away with a strength he’d never imagined she possessed, and then fled the room, locking the door behind her. It took him less than a minute to break the door and follow, but in that one precious minute she’d flown headlong to the pier, torn off all her clothing, and vanished under the water.

  “I turned the other way when I left the house,” he said mournfully. “I supposed she was headed to the graveyard, to see the baby. Then I heard a splash and ran for the pier, fast as I could.” He reached out to the pathetic pile of her discarded clothing but couldn’t bring himself to touch it. He gave me a look of such beseeching misery it broke my heart. “Why’d she think I wasn’t me?” he asked plaintively. “Why’d she think a thing like that?”

  Before I could formulate an answer—not that I had an answer—something caught my eye. A patch of palest white upon the dark water. Nathaniel saw me react and instantly spotted the same object. “Sarah!” he cried, lunging for the handrail.

  I tried to grab his legs and manhandle him to the ground, but he shed me effortlessly, and without hesitation leaped over the rail and dove headfirst into the icy harbor fully clothed, boots and all.

  The black water closed over him like a shimmering curtain, and all was silent.

  I sank back to my knees, convinced that Nathaniel would soon join his beloved wife in death, for her lifeless form floated facedown upon the waters, and betrayed no sign of life. The mere shock of plunging into water that cold—colder than ice, quite literally—was enough to render a man unconscious. I imagined his lungs filling, the weight of his heavy boots dragging him down, down. No pain, no anguish, no ability to struggle, only an overwhelming numbness as the nerves ceased to function
.

  A splash! shocked me out of my morbid reverie. There, thirty yards or more from the pier, Nathaniel had surfaced and was propelling himself forward with great, surging lunges of his powerful arms. Very soon he reached the floating body of his wife, locked his hands around her, and began to kick furiously back to the pier.

  I, meantime, searched frantically for a boat or dinghy, but there was nothing nearby, and my only hope was to find some object I could extend out into the water, should Nathaniel falter. With that in mind I managed to wrench free a section of the hand railing and stood waiting anxiously.

  “Here!” I cried. “This way! Quickly!”

  Nathaniel heard me and veered to where I knelt. I held out the length of wood, and with it we managed to hold his wife up while he pulled himself into the braceworks under the pier. He was quite blue, but never once faltered. With one hand he pulled himself clear of the water, with the other he lifted poor Sarah. Her head lolled back, revealing lips as black as the water that had swallowed her, and when I took her weight into my own arms, pulling her up onto the pier, I could detect no life in her sleek, icy cold body.

  With a soggy thump! Nathaniel levered himself onto the pier. Although he was shivering so violently his shirt buttons popped, his first thought was to cover Sarah with the garments she’d flung away. “She’s so c-c-cold!” he stuttered. “We m-m-must warm her.”

  This, as it turned out, was very sensible, although at the time my concern was for Nathaniel, who was so obviously suffering from the ill effects of exposure. My first glimmer of hope was the discovery that Sarah’s lungs were not filled with water. Indeed, her mouth appeared to have locked shut, as if the sudden shock of the unbearable cold had contracted the muscles of her jaw the moment she hit the water.

  I searched frantically for a pulse, finding none, and then realized that my own fingers were so cold as to be insensible. Shoving Nathaniel out of the way—actually, he moved willingly enough—I forced my ear to her chest and detected—was it possible, or was I imagining it?—one very faint thump that might have been a heartbeat.

  “Quickly, man! Rub her arms and leg! Force the blood to move! No, don’t worry about hurting her, just do it! Rub fast, man! Faster!” Meanwhile I flexed her limbs and prodded her abdomen, where the blood would naturally pool. When I felt a quivering under the icy skin of her belly, I again clamped my ear to her chest and yes, it was there, sluggish and slow.

  Sarah’s heart was beating. She was alive.

  At the boardinghouse Mrs. Merriman brought heated bricks from the stove. These we wrapped in towels and laid upon Sarah’s body. Nathaniel, who would see nothing done for himself until his wife was taken care of, urged me to cover her with blankets, but I was convinced we must keep moving her limbs to circulate and warm the blood, and I prevailed.

  “Nathaniel! Look at me!” I commanded. When his eyes met mine I said, brooking no argument, “You must see to yourself, man. It will be no good saving Sarah if you expire from the cold.”

  The big man nodded dumbly, conceding the point. Without so much as a glance at our hostess, who quite properly averted her eyes, Nathaniel stripped off his clothing, wrapped himself in a wool blanket, and got as close to the wood stove as he could without setting himself on fire.

  “Stay right there until you raise a sweat!” I called out. “Mrs. Merriman and I will see to your wife.”

  It was a near thing. A beating heart is not a guarantor of long-term survival in such cases. It is well known that the heart may beat for a time after the soul has left the body. During that wretched year when I made the hospital rounds, a man was carried in with most of his temple shot away in an argument over gambling debts. More than half his brain was destroyed and yet his heart continued to beat for three days. I very much feared that Sarah’s revival was a similar exercise in futility, and when her eyes fluttered open I was speechless with relief.

  “Cold,” she said in a small, childish voice.

  “You’ll be warm soon,” I said, and hastily covered her with a blanket.

  Nathaniel overheard us and rushed to her side before I could warn him off. But rather than regard him with the horror that had driven her into the dark waters, she gazed at him blankly, as if she’d never seen him before.

  “Sarah?” he whispered huskily, and then wept with joy.

  “Sarah cold,” she said.

  It was there in her childlike voice, in her petulant, needy expression. The woman who had returned was not the wife and grieving mother who had thrown herself into the harbor, but a little girl who remembered nothing of her grief, or of the husband who loved her.

  “Where’s Poppa?”

  “Poppa will be here soon,” he said, shooting me a look that said Sarah’s father was long gone from this earth.

  “You’re a funny man!” she said, and averted her face, almost playfully.

  “It doesn’t matter, darling,” he said. “Only that you’re alive.”

  I believed Nathaniel when he said that. It was enough for him that any part of his beloved wife had survived, even if it meant she did not remember him.

  When I left to call on Captain Sweeney, they seemed to be making friends.

  I found the door to his chamber open, as I’d left it. Captain Sweeney had not stirred from his chair by the window. His hand lay in his lap, cradling his cold pipe, and his leathery, weather-beaten face was relaxed in sleep. Strangely, the sleep made him young again, and with the ragged eye patch he looked like a boy disguised as a pirate, exhausted after a children’s party. Or maybe it was that Sarah had put me in mind of children, and the child who lives within each of us. In any event, I would not have disturbed such a profound and rejuvenating sleep had I not been desperate to learn more of his adventures in the slave trade, and what it might have to do with the present horrors.

  “Jack?” I said, as gently as I knew how. “Captain Sweeney?”

  Then I touched him and knew it was another kind of sleep.

  7. The Goblins Inside

  A strange thing happens to a man when he is surrounded by death. He very quickly gets used to it. Death becomes for him the more natural state, and life the exception. That Nathaniel and his wife survived immersion into killing waters was a shock. That Captain Sweeney passed away in his chair was to be expected. Was he not ancient for a sailor, had he not been grievously ill? Was his heart not strained by sickness and fear and, I sensed, more than a little regret? Of course he died. Death was the norm. The miracle was that I’d managed to speak with him at all, although what little I learned was merely tantalizing. Monbasu was no devil or demon, he was simply a man in the same evil trade as Cash Coffin. Upon hearing the name, Sweeney had evidenced no particular fear—quite the reverse. He’s as rum a character as you ever wished to meet. I was willing to wager that Captain Sweeney had much the same to say about numerous men from his colorful past. Monbasu was another, no more, no less.

  Thus I comforted myself. The truth was, Black Jack Sweeney was such a lively, engaging sort of fellow that I would miss him greatly, though we’d been acquainted for only a short while. Mrs. Merriman, sensing my distress, kindly informed me not to trouble myself, that she’d handle the arrangements. It seems that Sweeney was an old friend, and had left a sum of money in her care that was more than sufficient to cover the cost of his burial. “Like all of the sailormen Jack was very superstitious,” she told me. “It put his mind at ease to have planned for his own arrangements. He always told me that he’d probably die at sea, and be buried there, but just in case he made me his guardian in such matters.”

  This was a great relief, as I dreaded having any more contact with the Jasper Caswells, who as it happened were the only undertakers in the village. It was enough that they’d swept Tom Coffin’s remains, such as they were, into a casket, and delivered it to the family crypt, and swore never to divulge what they’d witnessed.

  “Had he family at all?” I asked.

  Mrs. Merriman shook her steely gray head. “None living. Neve
r took a wife, unless you count that schooner. How he loved that ship!”

  With that she wept quietly. Our grief was somewhat tempered by the sight of his body in repose. It was obvious at a glance that Captain Sweeney had died at peace with himself, and with the life he’d lived, and for that I was grateful. Such a tranquil death had become a rarity in White Harbor, and was to become rarer still.

  Jebediah asked for me that evening. I found him propped on his pillows, looking wan and disturbingly cadaverous. A number of sperm-oil lamps had been lit and placed around his chamber, adding to the funereal effect. The stench of illness, the dank odors of physical melancholia, overwhelmed the sweet perfume of the lamps.

  “I hope you are feeling better,” I said, feigning cheerfulness.

  “No better, no worse,” he responded morosely. “What does it matter?”

  “But, Jebediah, old friend, surely—”

  “Surely nothing,” he said, cutting me off. “May we speak plainly, Davis? As friends?”

  “Of course. But we always speak plainly, and as friends. That’s why I’m here.”

  “Then you mustn’t argue when I ask you to leave.”

  It was obvious that he wasn’t jesting. “Jeb, if I’ve done something to offend you, please accept my—”

  “Don’t!” he said, grasping my hands and indicating that I sit on the bed beside him. “We’ve covered this ground before. My dear Davis, you don’t have it in you to offend me, or anyone, I think. You are the least offensive man in the world, and the dearest to me, and that is why I insist that you leave this house and never look back.”

  “But, Jeb—”

  “Hush now! Hush! Terrible things have happened. Terrible things! They will not cease until we are destroyed, and there is nothing you or anyone can do to stop it.”

 
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