Coffins, p.2Rodman Philbrick
Normally a gang of street boys wouldn’t turn tail and run at the sight of a single adversary, even a full-grown specimen as sturdily built as myself. But they’d been shaken by the visions of destruction visited upon them by the dwarf—who, for all they knew, really did have the powers of prophesy—and so they fled, dragging their leader with them, and left me to hand the little man his tall silk hat. A very expensive item, with the label of an exclusive Boston haberdashery, and it was, I noted, somewhat larger in size than my own.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, rather gruffly.
“Not at all,” I responded. “You had them well in hand. Or maybe I should say ‘well in mind,’ for you got inside their thick skulls and gave ’em the fright they so richly deserved.”
“You think so?” he said, studying me, unsure of my intentions.
“Davis Bentwood,” I said, offering my hand. “I’d be most pleased if you’d join me for a brandy. You’ll notice my hand trembling, even if yours is not.”
Looking up at me were a pair of eyes as bright and filled with light as a wave about to crest in a clear blue sea. Truth-seeking eyes, and they found enough truth in my good intentions to agree that yes, a brandy might be just the thing.
And so we repaired to my rooms, uncorked a bottle, and raised our glasses eagerly, for by then we both knew, without having to speak of it, that we were well on our way to becoming friends. “I have only one request,” I said before drinking. “Don’t, please, say how or when I will die.”
Jeb’s face—remarkably well formed, if out of proportion to his body—creased with a smile that made me feel the sun was out, and heaven had come upon the earth.
“There’s nothing whatever to say upon the subject,” he said. “Because you’re going to live forever.”
That was but the first of many lies that would be told by my dear friend Jebediah Coffin. Who drew me into a horror he could not comprehend, though in some ways he was the unwitting cause of it. For no man is truly innocent, that much I have learned, even if he lives on the side of angels.
2. Collectors of the Heavenly Spark
Had I all the time in the world, now would begin a lengthy recollection of how my friendship with Jebediah Coffin shaped itself over the years. How, exactly, our contrasting natures formed a bond, as if two opposite elements, once combined, made an unbreakable mortar, binding flint to granite. Jeb being the flint, of course, and myself the boring, unsparkable granite.
But as to time—there is none. My hand races ahead of the bullet that will soon make an end of me, and so I must trust the reader to imagine that such a friendship does indeed exist. That is, between a stolid, scientifically trained, philosophically inclined dilettante (myself), a contemplator of Science and Nature and Self (and his own navel, as Jeb would say), and a curiously crippled, intensely focused man of action, who thought little enough about himself, and nothing whatever about the nature of Thought.
In any event, three years later, on the last day of February 1861, I placed myself upon a train leaving Boston for Portland, Maine, having been summoned by an urgent telegram.
TWO COFFINS BURIED THIS DAY. THE CAPTAIN INSENSIBLE WITH GRIEF. YOU ARE NEEDED, PLEASE COME AT ONCE.
JEBEDIAH, WHITE HARBOR
“Two Coffins buried” must, I assumed, mean that two of his family had recently passed away. The Captain had to be his father, revered by Jeb and invariably referred to by his mariner’s title. The Captain said this, the Captain did that, always in a tone implying the highest kind of filial devotion. So if I parsed it right, the patriarch of the Coffin family was insensible with the tragedy, and Jeb, in his distress, had need of a friend.
Naturally I could not refuse. Indeed, I packed up clothing suitable for mourning and boarded the train eagerly. I am ashamed to say the darker part of my nature was glad of the excuse to leave the smoke and stink of the city for an excursion into what I envisioned to be a kind of salty paradise. I pictured slumbering mountains sloping gently to a pine-treed shore. White sails luffing in a still and perfect harbor. A church steeple poised to pierce clouds of cotton bunting. For my image of White Harbor was derived entirely from a painted postcard that I carried in my breast pocket as a reminder of destination, to be consulted frequently, if not mooned over.
White Harbor, Maine. Surely, despite the expected lamentations, and the orderly rituals of grief (with which I was all too familiar, having buried the sum total of my blood relations), the change of scenery would be most welcome. My work, if it could be called work, had not been going well. To be truthful, it had not been “going” at all.
Each day at noon, having wasted as much of the morning as possible over a late breakfast, I would finally, gingerly, sit down at my desk and take up my pen—and then stare for hours at the blank page before me. My book had a lofty title, The Transcendental Journey, Reflections on the Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, yes, a lofty title and little else, for I’d torn up a number of false starts and at present my “book” was comprised of a few scribbled notes and an outline that had been revised so many times it no longer made sense to the would-be author.
I’d not much to show after nearly a year of labor. You think me lazy, but there’s nothing more exhausting than attempting to force that which will not come. Say to yourself “I shall write a fine poem, as good as any by Byron or Tennyson.” Now take up your pen and begin. What’s the problem—can’t think of a first line? A first word? No? Try starting with the letter “A,” as in “A fool attempts to mimic his betters.”
So I left my unfinished book behind, spurned like a reluctant lover, and hurried off to the wilds of Maine with barely a twinge of regret.
Jebediah I had not seen for some months. He’d given up his rooms in Cambridge and had been accompanying various fanatical abolitionists to rallies and lectures throughout the Northern states. Though he never himself took the stage, my little friend was the force behind many an impassioned speech, and acted as a financial backer, paying expenses for the speakers, who invariably had vast appetites. Lately, with the prospect of war more and more likely, the abolitionist cause seemed to be at one with the idea of battle, and the true believers spoke of the necessity of spilling blood. At the time I was of two minds regarding this unfortunate situation; opposed to slavery, and equally opposed to war, for what can be settled by cacophonous battle, when the true freedom of man is held within?
I was soon to find out, in a way unimaginable.
The Boston & Maine Railroad crosses into Maine through the sleepy hamlet of Dover, New Hampshire. From there it is a little more than two hours to Portland, the primary port and by far the largest city in the state. The industrious nature of the Portland waterfront rivals that of Boston, and is in some ways more hectic, with ships and schooners and lighters plying what seemed every square yard of the bay. Hundreds of vessels were lashed or moored to all available docking space, often rafted five or six deep, making the air bristle with a forest of spars and masts. The citizens liked to say that a man could walk from one end of Casco Bay to the other without getting his feet wet, simply by trodding upon boats. They’re exaggerating, but not by much.
A hackney coach conveyed me from the train station to the main wharves, where a ferry service would, I was told, provide a more direct route to White Harbor than could be had by land. My destination lay a little less than twenty miles east by sea, whereas the overland route was nearer forty, due to the curvaceous nature of the coastline. There were certain villages in these parts separated by no more than a few miles of water, whose remove by the shoreline route exceeded a hundred miles.
All of this information, possibly quite dubious, was had from the loquacious hack driver as we bumped over the cobbles of Exchange Street, avoiding clumps of snow and ice. The Downeaster of legend may be taciturn, but the real item is far from it. The locals have, it is true, developed a slower manner of speech than is common in Boston, but they make up for it with a dry wit, and a tendency to constantly amend and improve their answer
“Near a hundred ship captains sail out of White Harbor, in every kind of vessel, from whalers bound for the frozen oceans to coasters that never lose sight of Portland Light. ’Tis a breeding ground for mariners, and captains in particular,” he drawled, as if delighted to have a subject on which to converse, and show off his expertise. “The cows there drink straight from the salt marsh, and everyone knows that salty milk is what makes boys take to the water. White Harbor babies are toothed on hardtack biscuits and rum, and sleep in sailor hammocks. Every house is built like a copper-bottomed ship and stinks of tar, and their privies of bilge water. The captains stand watch at home, just as they would at sea, and sail their proud little village through the universe. As to the Coffins, aye, course I’ve heard of ’em, everyone has. They’re the best of the lot, and the boss of them all is Cassius Coffin, what’s called Cash, for the very reason that he’s the richer than Croesus.”
Cash Coffin. It was the first time I’d heard him called that. To Jeb he was always “the Captain” or, more rarely, “my dear father.” As to more specific information about the family, or any recent deaths therein, the hack had none, or if he did was not willing to share it.
Curiously, though I’d spent many an hour in deep conversation with my diminutive friend, I had only the vaguest sort of impression about his family. A tribe of seafarers, I knew that much, of course, and that Jeb was the youngest of six brothers. But our impassioned talks had more to do with issues than with the personal, and now that I was about to invade his home territory, I felt the need to gird myself with whatever information I could gather, and so behave accordingly, with less risk of offense.
The friendly hack left me at the ferry landing with a bit of droll advice. “If you feel the need to puke, seek the rail away from the wind.”
A surprise awaited me in the ferry building, when a suspicious-looking fellow waylaid me, placing his gnarled hand upon my shoulder.
“Be you Dr. Davis Bentwood?” he muttered, in a voice that sounded like something shaken from a bag of broken glass.
Startled, I confessed my identity. Before me was one who might have modeled for an illustration entitled “Old Tar.” He had bandy legs and a sailor’s pigtail jutting from under a knit wool cap. As well he was dressed in a worn pea jacket of dark blue wool, knee-high boots, and a black eye patch. In his face were etched the lines of a hundred voyages, and the scars, no doubt, of more than a few battles and waterfront skirmishes.
“We wuz sent by Jebediah,” the Old Tar hissed, fixing his claw upon my elbow and attempting to guide me, none too gently.
My first impulse was to resist, for I find the touch of a stranger a loathsome intrusion. But before I could react, another salty character—slightly younger, but no less shopworn—grabbed hold of my bags and began to stalk off.
When the Old Tar saw my eyes flash, he attempted to explain. “I beg you take no offense, Dr. Bentwood,” said he. “But only Jebediah is in a great hurry to have you home. We’ve brought a fast schooner for that purpose, but the ebb is almost gone and you’ll have to shake a leg or miss the tide.”
“And who might you be?” I demanded, attempting to maintain some dignity as I was being hurried along the docks.
“Black Jack Sweeney at your service,” rumbled the Old Tar, grasping me by the hand. “And as you’re a friend to Jeb, I take you to my bosom, for we all love the boy.”
“All?” I sputtered. “Who, might I ask, is ‘all’?”
“Why, the Captain’s crew,” he said, as if it was the most obvious of answers, and would allay my fears. “Hurry now, son! Step along right quick and we’ll be on our way!”
Our little ship was the sleekest of schooners, with a long delicate bowsprit, steeply raked masts, and a low, beautifully shaped hull that bore little or no resemblance to the tubby coasters used for the ferry trade. The hull itself was painted black, with a tasteful gold filigree below the rail, and the letters “RAVEN” carved upon the stern and filled with glittering gold leaf.
“You’ll naught find a faster ship for her length,” said the tar who called himself Black Jack. “Ninety feet from stem to stern, and flies like a bird, I swear, a lovely swift seabird, and not the raven she’s named for. But wait, you’ll see for yourself soon enough. Aboard, and quickly! Boys, let go the lines! There and there! Jump and pull, you buggers, jump!”
Four of his men leaped into a small narrow launch and by the use of long oars and strong backs pulled Raven’s bow away from the wharf. Black Jack roared orders, causing the sails to be run up. “Heave up, lads, heave up! For your lives, heave up!” As the bowsprit came by the wind, the canvas filled with what sounded very like a rumble of thunder, and suddenly the schooner came alive, as a thoroughbred might to the crack of a whip, and it was all the oarsmen could do to get back aboard and stow their little boat before we were under way.
Moments later, under a full press of sail, Raven flew through the crowded harbor, drawing looks of astonishment from those employed on the many moored vessels we so narrowly missed. More than once we came near enough to reach out and touch the rail of another ship as we cut and dodged and came about. And yet I never once felt we were in danger of actual collision, for it was immediately obvious that with old, one-eyed Jack at the wheel, the schooner was under a master’s hand. Of those who watched us pass, many would have agreed, for I saw in their startled eyes an admiration for so lively a vessel, so handsomely managed.
In no time at all we cleared Portland Light and veered east from the shores of Cape Elizabeth, where a grove of maple trees raised bare branches to the sky, as if wanting to scratch the clouds from the sky. It was a glorious winter day, bright and clean, and the air was so fresh and bracing that I felt my heart bloom in a way I hadn’t experienced while confined to the city. Something to do with the ever-changing, ever-forming whitecaps, or the salty spray, or the glorious hum of the wind in the rigging—whatever it was, my wild ride in Raven made me alive to myself, sensitive to the heavenly spark within. Thoreau can have his pond: give me a fast ship, the sparkled sea, and the coast of Maine!
With Portland Light dwindling in our wake, our one-eyed master stopped shouting orders and stood by the great spoked wheel, steering with supreme confidence as he puffed on a long clay pipe. “Ain’t she a beauty?” he asked me, squinting up at what seemed a mile or two of canvas spread above us.
I agreed there was never a vessel more beautiful, and this prompted a small lecture on the various features of this particular and unique design, most of which went over my head. But my willingness to listen, and to prompt further details, pleased my host, and he looked on me with such a friendly (if still slightly frightening) visage I felt free to ask how he’d come by his name.
“Aye, the Black Jack of me,” he said, puffing contentedly on his pipe. “Because for a time I was held captive in Senegal, in Africa, and lived among the wretched slaves in their barracoons.”
“Indeed?” I said, astonished. “And when was this?”
But something like a cloud passed over one-eyed Jack’s expression, and he would speak no more of it, but steered our conversation to a discussion of the ship. So intimate was he with the behavior of sailing vessels that he was able to communicate a sense of what he knew, even to so ignorant a lubber as myself. He told me Raven’s lines were drawn by a naval architect in Baltimore—hence the raked masts—but that she’d been built of stout Maine oak in a yard in Waldoboro. “Every board-foot from the Captain’s own wood lots,” he added with a grunt of satisfaction, “and the cabins paneled in white cedar, so the whole ship smells like a lady’s wardrobe, fresh as a new-cut shaving. The spars, well, there’s the exception, for they were carried down from New Hampshire, though cut by Maine men, straight and true.”
I expected him to mention what Coffins, exactly, had just been recently bu
“Have a cigar, Dr. Bentwood,” he advised, handing me a prime Havana robusto from his waistcoat pocket. “Rest easy and we’ll make port before you finish your smoke.”
And so we raced east on a broad reach, sails taut, our slim hull cutting through the seas like a surgeon’s knife, and for a time my worries were left in the wake that boiled behind us. I remember every detail of that glorious passage, and how my heart lifted with each surge of the bowsprit. I somehow managed to convince myself that whatever troubles might lie ahead, they were no more than the usual human trifles and tribulations.
This was the plan I embraced in all my insufferable ignorance: I would comfort a friend, take strength from the vigor of Nature, and then return to the plodding business of writing my book. A brief relief from citified drudgery, nothing more, then back to work, where, like my hero Emerson, I would attempt to collect the heavenly spark and discharge it upon my readers.
Blame it on the folly of youth, or the wind in my face, but I knew no better, and was all the happier for it.
3. Men As Bolts of Lightning
The postcard did not lie. If anything, White Harbor was even more serene and beautiful than the painted image fixed in my mind. The mountains to the north sloped gently down to a shoreline stiff with tall pine trees, dark green boughs lightly dusted with the fluffiest and whitest snow. Within the village proper stood a great number of white clapboard houses with cedar shingled roofs. The largest of them was set upon a hill, and equipped with a central tower no less high than the church steeple. The harbor itself, protected from the prevailing winds by a low, rocky promontory, was as calm and pristine as anyone could wish. Most of the vessels—and there were more than could be counted, of all types and sizes—were neatly moored fore-and-aft. The impression was of order and precision, in contrast to the frantic confusion of Portland.
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