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       Coffins, p.19

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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I decided the best tactic was to ignore his order to leave and keep him talking. That he remained in the grip of a profound melancholy, there was no doubt, but his mind was otherwise clear, and I had need of his memories, and his perceptions of the past.

  “What do you know about how your father made his fortune?” I asked him gently, but bluntly. “Do you know anything at all?”

  My little friend seemed to shrink even more inside himself, averting his eyes as if ashamed. “Of course I do,” he said. “How could I live in this house, this village, without knowing? But I wished you never to know. I wished you to think well of us, Davis, but now, obviously, you’ve stumbled on the awful truth.”

  “Jebediah, listen to me.” I took his chin in my hand and forced him to meet my eyes. “You are not to be blamed for whatever your father did in his youth. Original sin does not apply in this instance. The sin was neither original, nor was your father the first to commit it. In his favor, I know of no other man who made his fortune slave trading who then donated so much of it to the cause of banishing slavery from this earth.”

  “You don’t understand,” he said plaintively.

  “Tell me then. What don’t I understand?”

  “My father doesn’t finance abolitionists out of sincere belief. He gives to them out of fear.”

  I patted his hands. “Now we’re getting somewhere. What exactly does he fear?”

  Jebediah shrugged, and I saw how thin he’d become, and how his growing weakness made his large head wobble upon his frail shoulders. “I never knew until this all began. This is what he feared. That his family and his fortune would be destroyed.”

  “You spoke with him about this notion, this belief, that he had brought a curse upon you and your brothers?”

  “No. Never. But I knew. Each time I went to him for funds for the cause he gave too eagerly. At no other time was he generous with his money. They used to say you needed a crowbar to pry a penny from Cash Coffin’s hand, and they weren’t exaggerating by much. And when he first invited abolitionists to the house, and encouraged me to hear them, I knew that he did not share their passion. Even as a child I knew that. Later I assumed it was shame that made him encourage me.”

  “You felt he was ashamed of you?”

  “No, never that!” he said, almost eagerly. “The Captain was never ashamed of me, and that’s why I still love him, despite the terrible things I suppose he must have done. No, what shamed him was that he believed his being a slaver had somehow made me a dwarf.”

  “The deformity is quite common,” I insisted. “Dwarfs are born to the best of families, and to the worst. No one knows why.”

  “They say it is an affliction of the evil eye.”

  At first I was stunned to think that my educated friend might give credence to such ignorant superstitions, and that he had secretly harbored his fearful guilt for all these years. But then I saw that, given what had transpired, it was only natural that he seize upon any possible explanation for his wretched condition.

  “Listen to me,” I said, gently but firmly. “The notion of an ‘evil eye’ is an old wives tale. I take, as you know, the more enlightened view, and all of modern science supports me.”

  “Science? Bah.”

  “You may ‘bah’ all you like, but this is the age of reason, and reason tells me this: we don’t know what causes physical deformities such as yours, but whatever may be the cause, it does not lie with you, or with anything like ‘evil eyes,’ or curses upon your family. Deformity is somehow an accident of the birth process, and is in that sense quite natural, even expected. It occurs in all life forms, not only human beings. Do we assume that a deformed calf is the result of some sin its parents committed? The very idea is ridiculous. So it is with human deformity. There is no possible connection to sin, or family curses, or the punishment of evil.”

  Jeb looked at me with grave curiosity. “Are you so certain?” he asked.

  “Absolutely certain,” I said with more confidence than I felt. “Now enough of that, do you hear? It solves nothing to keep blaming yourself for events beyond your control. We must get at this somehow. What really happened, long ago? Where did this all begin?”

  “Before I was born, I suppose. Father sold his slave ships the day my mother died, or soon after. But he carried the weight of it always. I saw it each time he looked upon me.”

  “He never hinted what it might be?”

  Jeb shook his head.

  “Do you think he would tell me, if I asked?”

  The thought made him cringe. “I suppose he might. But he might just as easily shoot you. You’ve seen his state of mind. He’s capable of anything, Davis, you mustn’t risk it.”

  “No,” I agreed. “Not until I am better armed.”

  “Better armed?” The idea frightened him.

  “With information,” I assured him. “Surely there is someone else who knows. Crew or business partner. It was a complicated enterprise, buying slaves and bringing them across the sea. He didn’t do it alone. I think Captain Sweeney knew something of what happened, but the poor man expired before I had the chance to press him.”

  “Another victim,” Jeb said with vicious self-loathing.

  “No, I think not,” I said, and described how I’d found the old tar in his chair, as peaceful as if asleep. That seemed to bring Jebediah a little relief, though hardly enough to lift his gloom.

  As I was about to take my leave, Jeb propped himself up and asked, “Did darkness frighten you, when you were a child?”

  “I suppose it must have. I don’t remember.”

  “I used to put my pillow a certain way, and then the goblins under the bed couldn’t harm me. Strange what children believe, isn’t it? But I wasn’t far off the mark. It isn’t the goblins under the bed who can harm you. It’s the goblins in here,” he said, and thumped his chest.

  8. A Light That Guides

  Lucy found me in the parlor, drinking whiskey so that I might sleep. I was physically exhausted by the events of the long and arduous day, but my conversation with Jebediah had left me wide awake, in that state where the brain seems to twitch and the ears feel stuffed with cotton. I wasn’t sure what my own thoughts were, other than that they disturbed me.

  “May I join you?”

  “Of course!” In leaping up I had to steady myself, which drew a sympathetic smile.

  To my intense surprise, Lucy wore a tightly corseted gown of sky-blue satin, showing off her figure to the best advantage, as well as her startling eyes. The gown’s bodice had been cut daringly low, and then discreetly laced in a way that left more to the imagination than was actually on display. The bottom of her skirts was widely belled with crinoline, to an extent that would have pleased the demimonde in Boston. Whiskey or no, I was more than a little nonplussed, as it seemed a costume more appropriate to a formal ball than a house in mourning.

  “You think my dress improper?” she asked sharply. “I see the glint of disapproval in your eye.”

  “No, of course not,” I stammered. “It’s a lovely gown. Quite lovely.”

  “Pour me a glass of whiskey and I’ll explain,” she said.

  Turning to cover my embarrassment—how easily she read me!—I did as she requested. A moment later she clinked her glass to mine and then leaned forward, so close I could feel the heat radiating from her bosom. Her complexion, normally of a porcelain paleness, had darkened somewhat, and that was worrisome, as it might indicate an oncoming fever or inflammation of the blood. “I’ve decided to defy death,” she whispered in a husky, conspiratorial voice. “I conceived a notion that by wearing bright attire, I might lift the pall that hovers over us. A ridiculous idea, but there it is.”

  It wasn’t only the whiskey in her glass, I realized. My beautiful companion had the distinctive scent of sherry on her breath. She was, not to put it crudely—for there was nothing crude about her behavior—halfway to being tipsy. It was alcohol, not fever, that darkened her complexion.

  When I took her arm and
guided her to the settee, she did not resist. She patted the cushion, indicating that I sit by her. “I won’t bite,” she promised.

  I decided to drink no more of the whiskey, else I lose my composure. “My apologies, but you’ll get no sensible conversation from me this evening,” I told her. “My mind wanders.”

  “It’s no wonder,” she said sympathetically. “You are much put upon by circumstance. No matter what horrible thing happens in this house, or to this family, it falls to you. It hardly seems fair.”

  “Fairness doesn’t enter,” I said stiffly. “It is duty that compels us.”

  “Ah, yes. Duty. Mustn’t forget the importance of duty, to God and country and Coffins. Why, you’re blushing, Dr. Bentwood! I think I have made you angry.”

  “No,” I protested weakly. “It’s just that I’m exhausted. My mind is somewhat distracted.”

  “Of course it is, after rescuing poor Sarah.”

  “It was Nathaniel who rescued her,” I corrected. “All I did was help restore circulation.”

  “Nevertheless, you continue to be our hero.” She giggled, covered her mouth as she laughed outright. “Our knight! Our knight in shining armor.”

  “I’m pleased to amuse you, Miss Wattle.”

  Slowly she regained control of herself, and then begged my forgiveness. “Honestly, I did not mean to laugh. My compliment was sincere. But I’ve felt myself on the verge of hysteria these last few days, and with me it takes the form of laughter.”

  “Hysteria? But that is quite serious. I must prescribe a powder, or possibly a purgative.” My concern was sincere, for up until now Lucy had never betrayed any evidence of nervous affliction.

  “Powder?” she said, laughing dismissively. “Do you think you can cure what ails me with one of your powders? I thought you were a serious man, Dr. Bentwood, not a popinjay.”

  The insult caused me to stiffen, and though I did not otherwise respond, Lucy knew at once that she’d offended me. Her expression suddenly crumpled into despair.

  “Oh, I’ve spoiled everything,” she said, her voice breaking. “What a silly twit I am! I hate this dress. Hate it!” she cried, tearing at the lace on her sleeves. “I only wore it because poor Tom said he liked it. You’ve guessed, haven’t you, that I loved him?”

  “We were all of us fond of Tom.”

  “I didn’t say ‘fond,’ I said ‘love,’ and I meant it. In all the ways a woman can mean it. I didn’t care that he was my cousin, does that shock you?”

  In fact it did shock me, but I demurred, not too convincingly.

  “Of course he would have nothing to do with me,” she said, sniffing in her misery. “In his eyes, I remained the little girl he remembered. But I can’t help it. A woman can’t choose who she loves, it isn’t within our power. Oh, how I miss him!”

  “There, there,” I said, handing her my hankie.

  “That he should have died so horribly. I can’t bear it. And now you despise me.”

  I calmed her, as best I could, and swore that our misunderstanding was so small a thing as to be easily forgotten.

  “Then you forgive me?” she asked plaintively, crumpling my handkerchief in her pale, perfect hands.

  “I will forgive you under one condition,” I said, moving to the writing desk and picking up a pen. “You must send to the druggist. Have him roused if necessary. He will prepare a solution of opiate. You will sleep and give your nerves a long rest. Agreed?”

  “Agreed,” she said with a sigh, lowering her eyes.

  I handed her my scrawled prescription and went off to bed.

  Despite my own agitation I fell asleep at once, without need of laudanum, and dreamed of poor Tom Coffin, alive and writhing upon the bowsprit. His mouth tried to form a word, but I could not make it out, and implored him to keep trying, convinced that if he spoke the word aloud, all our troubles would cease. I was clinging to the bowsprit, inching myself closer to him, hands slick with his blackening blood, when a bright light invaded the dream and woke me.

  At first I groggily thought my chamber had been illuminated by starlight, for it had that quality. Cold and distant, and yet bright enough to read by, were I so inclined. Then my eyes registered the source of light and I became convinced that someone stood not far from the bed, holding a strange lantern.

  It was no lantern. At least no earthly lantern. A ball of soft but brilliant light hovered near the end of my bed. All at once I became aware of a presence within the room, centered upon that glowing nimbus. A presence, but not a living presence, and perhaps not human at all, but a presence that hated me, and all living men. A hate so palpable that it crawled upon my skin and stifled the air in my lungs.

  My heart thudded in terror, and yet I felt myself somehow removed from fear. Part of me, the rational core, wanted nothing more than to throw the blankets over my head and scream for the thing to go away, or myself to awaken from this horrible nightmare. And yet I knew then, as I know now, that I was not asleep, but as wide awake as a man has ever been.

  Slowly the ball of light drifted away, toward the chamber door. No word was spoken, no audible command, but I understood what I must do, or it would stop my heart and suck away my soul.

  I rose from my bed and followed.

  The door opened of its own, and the strange, uncanny light pushed through, into the dark hallway. Out I went, wearing only my nightgown. Nothing stirred in the house, not a sound did I hear, not even my own naked feet padding on the icy floor. The light and the presence—they were one and the same somehow—drew me along on an invisible leash, helpless to resist.

  I found myself at the base of a stairway, leading from the second floor to the third, to a rearward part of the house I had not before visited. The last thing I wanted to do was mount that stairway, but again the presence made me know that resistance was impossible. With each step upward my dread increased, until I thought my heart must cease beating. The presence was all around me now, painting my face with light. I was somehow within the terrible presence, this unimaginable otherness, but not yet part of it. That was the thing I feared most, that it would absorb me and I would be no more.

  At the head of the stairs, another, smaller hallway, barely wider than my quivering shoulders. The very walls seemed to breathe, urging me on, a kind of deep vibration much lower than the lowest pedal of a cathedral organ, a sound beneath hearing, a sound of unbearable, unknowable, unstoppable dread.

  I came—we came—to a small paneled door. As before, the door opened of its own, and then I was within a room that, by its musty odor, hadn’t been entered in some time, for ages, perhaps. I could not see the walls—the light did not extend so far—but felt the room to be small, and understood from the stacked crates and boxes that it served as a storage place, a repository of things unused, or hidden away. A thick coating of dust lay over all, and a little of it rose, stirred by the hem of my nightgown.

  I wanted to speak, to ask what was wanted of me, but no words issued. Words were not needed. The light, in answer, danced nimbly over the boxes and crates and came to hover over an ancient seaman’s trunk, bound in leather and brass.

  I went to it, guided by the light.

  The old trunk was sealed with a massive padlock. I half expected a key to float before my eyes. Instead the padlock shattered with a cold snap! and fell away, kicking up another eddy of acrid dust.

  There was no question of resisting, no possibility. I had been brought here to open the hasp and lift the lid, and I did so, fully expecting some ghoulish, undead thing to rise from the trunk. But the only thing that assaulted me was a distinct odor of salt air, as if the trunk had been sealed at sea, and the smell imprisoned.

  Inside the trunk I found the ordinary instruments that might be cherished by a mariner. A sextant, lovingly wrapped in soft chamois. A brass telescope within a clever little deal-wood case. A weighty thing that, unwrapped, became a ship’s chronometer. Another leather case contained a crude surgical kit, with huge curved needles that could have sti
tched a wounded sailor, or repaired a torn sail, perhaps both. And beneath these things, secreted in the very bottom of the trunk, a single volume bound in calfskin.

  As I lifted the slender book from the trunk, the light glowed brighter. There being no imprint or clue upon the cover, I opened it and saw inscribed, in a neat plain hand, in blackest ink, the following words: “True log of the Whippet, 1837, C. Coffin, Master.”

  Once the book was safely in my possession, the strange light faded quickly, and the overpowering presence departed, leaving me alone and blind in that crypt of darkness for what seemed an eternity, until daylight, normal, ordinary daylight, blessed daylight! found me shivering and weeping in the dust.

  9. The Alchemy

  Night horrors rarely survive the blanching effect of the morning sun. The mind relinquishes its little fears, and a rational, scientific sort of man might convince himself that his hideous experience was nothing more than a waking, walking nightmare. True, I’d never been known to suffer from sleepwalking, but there was always a first time. This was a comforting thought, that I’d stumbled into that dusty little room while dreaming, and the invisible otherness that had so frightened me was nothing more than the invention of an exhausted mind.

  Sleepwalking would explain my dislocation and my filthy nightgown, but how to explain the calfskin volume that I’d clutched to my chest? Was it a book I’d blindly seized in my dream, a book, for all I knew, of poetry or cooking receipts? With trembling hands I lifted the blank cover and saw that it was, indeed, exactly as I remembered, the “True log of the Whippet.”

  It was all true, every dread-filled, blood-soaked moment of it. Something had led me to a remote storage chamber, and to the ancient trunk, for a purpose. Within lay the secret of the Coffins and, I hoped—prayed!—a means to stop the horror.

  I remained closeted in my chamber for all of that day, reading first by the wan winter light, and then by candle. Reading not only the lines and entries and the precise calculations of his commerce, but between the lines into the mind of a much younger Cash Coffin, owner and captain of the slave ship Whippet, who was engaged in the enterprise of extracting what he called “black gold” from the western coasts of Africa.…

 
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