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       Coffins, p.24

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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  Both women stood up. Lucy’s normally pale complexion was slightly blushed, as if by excitement or stimulation. “Dr. Bentwood,” she said. “May I present my dear friend Mrs. Stanton.”

  It was not, then, a visage made familiar in a famous painting, but a face engraved for a thousand newspapers and magazines. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the radical proponent of suffrage for women, the much reviled mother of seven children who had challenged the very idea of the sanctity of marriage, her own marriage not excepted, and been attacked from pulpits all over America, and the world. Lately she’d put aside her lifelong ambition to secure voting rights for the gentler sex to campaign as a full-time abolitionist, which was indeed how she’d first entered public life.

  Women’s rights had never, I confess, been one of my particular enthusiasms, but then I’d never had much enthusiasm for any of the various reform movements that periodically swept the nation, whether it be temperance, abolition, vegetarianism, or universal suffrage. I was not opposed to the notion that women should have rights of property—a right now gained through the efforts of Mrs. Stanton and her followers—nor was I among those who believed the Republic would be destroyed by women getting the franchise. But I had never bothered to attend a female rally or convention, any more than I would have attended an abolitionist rally, had I not be dragged to one by Jebediah. My interests were mainly philosophical, academic, and utterly selfish.

  Still, one could not read of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s remarkable accomplishments without feeling admiration. As a young mother married to a roving abolitionist, she had conceived the idea that the legal rights accorded to all men should be expanded not only to Negro males, but to all women as well. In 1848 she’d had the audacity to rewrite the Declaration of Independence, and make it say that “all men and all women are created equal,” calling it her “Declaration of Rights And Sentiments.” At the same convention she then proposed the most shocking resolution of all, that women should be given the vote. The scandal was enormous. Over the intervening years the idea had become less shocking, if not less controversial, but at the time even the most ardent campaigner for women’s rights, Lucretia Mott, would not support her, for fear that demanding suffrage would make women appear ridiculous. Many ministers and abolitionists still considered Mrs. Stanton’s demands ridiculous, but I did not, even if I’d never stirred myself to actively support them. Indeed, to be in her presence for more than a moment was to know she was anything but ridiculous. She was formidable in her small, rotund person, and in the way her almost violently blue eyes seemed to command attention.

  “Very pleased,” Mrs. Stanton remarked as I took her hand. “Lucy tells me you are a sensible person. I’m hoping to find you so.”

  “Oh, indeed?” I replied uncertainly.

  “I have been attempting to persuade her to depart from this very charming village and act as my secretary, a role she once filled most admirably.”

  “Oh, please, Elizabeth, you must let me—” Lucy began, and was cut off by a gesture from her friend.

  “I have been on the lecture circuit these last few weeks, and in Portland heard disturbing news of the situation here,” she explained, leveling her intensely bright eyes at me. “Madness, mysterious deaths, and so on. I felt compelled to visit in person, and see if I might convince her to leave.”

  “I see,” I said, somewhat disingenuously, for Mrs. Stanton’s intentions were not at all clear to me.

  The suffragist bade me sit down and then turned in her chair and faced me resolutely, ignoring her young friend’s now obvious embarrassment. “Lucy left my employ to care for her ailing father. This was commendable. But I’ve since learned that having been left more or less destitute, she’s placed herself in an even more desperate circumstance.”

  Lucy protested indignantly. “Really, Elizabeth, how can you speak of me as if I’m not in the room?”

  “Hush, child. You know I have your best interests in mind. Dr. Bentwood, please dissuade me. Convince me that I’m mistaken, and that Miss Wattle is not in danger.”

  “Well,” I began, at a loss.

  “Convince me this unfortunate family is not in the grip of madness,” she went on, as unstoppable as a steam locomotive. “Convince me that my friend—and you are my friend, Lucy—that my dear friend may not suffer the same awful fate as so many of her blood relations.”

  I took a deep breath and steeled myself, for I knew Lucy would oppose me in what I was about to say. “I cannot in good conscience attempt to dissuade you, Mrs. Stanton.”

  “Call me Elizabeth, please,” she said primly. “Continue.”

  “Actually, I share your concern. I’m convinced that all who stay in this house are in danger, if not of death, than of self-destructive madness. But I’m equally convinced that Lucy will not abandon her cousins because she believes that duty compels her to stay. We had occasion to discuss the subject, and she made herself very clear.”

  “I see. Thank you, Dr. Bentwood.” She turned to Lucy. “Do you see, child? I am not alone. Surely no one here would prevent your leaving.”

  “No one but myself,” said Lucy, her eyes brimming with tears. “Oh, Elizabeth, I do appreciate your concern, but this is the only family I have left in the world, and were I to abandon them in their hour of need, I couldn’t live with myself.”

  The suffragist sighed. “I know something of family obligation, and will not press you further. But my offer stands. If you should ever have occasion or need to leave, there is a place for you, so long as I live—and I intend to live a very long time! Now dry your tears, dear, and we shall visit a little.”

  Barky brought in a tray of hot tea and scones, and Mrs. Stanton regaled us with tales of her recent speaking engagements, very charmingly told, for she loved to laugh and had a quick, sharp sense of humor. “A sourpuss parson in Portland became very distressed by my statement that only war would settle the question,” she said. “So distressed, indeed, that after heaping insults upon me he fell from his pulpit and fractured his ankle. I could not help myself, and remarked that he’d not have been injured if his foot hadn’t been so firmly stuck in his mouth. I’m afraid I made an enemy, which is regretful, but still, if you could have seen the man’s face! As if he’d been biting lemons, and the lemon bit back! May I take it, Dr. Bentwood, that you are in sympathy with abolition?”

  “I am. Though like your unfortunate parson, I hate the idea of war.”

  “We all hate the idea of war, sir, but war must come!” she responded, her fine voice rising. “The secessionists have made that very clear in these last few weeks. They shall deny and defy until the end of time, or the end of their repulsive Confederacy. We must oblige them in that.”

  In the light of midafternoon the parlor was warm and pleasant, and it did not seem credible that any threat dwelled in the house, or among the family. I knew better, but it was a relief to pretend otherwise, and to hear intelligence from someone outside the small world of our troubles. Mrs. Stanton spoke movingly of the abolitionist cause, and of her recent differences with her long-time associate, Susan Anthony, who was greatly distressed that Mrs. Stanton had given up on the suffrage movement. “I can’t make the dear woman understand that I have not given up on getting us the vote, I’ve only deferred my desires until the even more terrible problem of slavery is resolved. Once the issue is settled, I’ll climb back on my horse and ride it to victory. Unfortunately poor Susan is of the belief that if we suspend the cause now, suffrage will not come in our lifetime. I cannot persuade her otherwise, and so she has retired to her farm to wait out the war.”

  “You speak as if war is inevitable,” I said.

  “And so it is. I expect hostilities to begin in the next few months, possibly sooner. The Union army will put a quick end to that foolishness, and having won the war, Lincoln will have no choice but to emancipate the slaves and grant them voting rights. That done, how can he give the vote to the black men and not to women? He cannot. It must be so. It will be so.”

&
nbsp; Her steely confidence was almost as shocking as her belief that emancipated slaves be allowed to vote. I supported the idea of abolition, but surely the notion of granting suffrage to uneducated Negroes was unwise? Not at all, she countered, hundreds of thousands of ignorant white men made their marks on ballots each election day. In New York, for instance, half the voting population was staggering drunk upon entering the polling place. Would I deny to a sober if illiterate Negro the privilege granted to a drunken and illiterate white man? On what basis did I defend such a proposition?

  In the face of one of the great thinkers and debaters of the day, I found myself quite speechless and utterly unable to defend what was, in truth, a merely instinctive reaction to her radical propositions. In any event, I did not seek debate, but only polite discussion, and so meekly surrendered before I, too, found myself fallen from the pulpit.

  “Have you seen Frederick Douglass recently?” Lucy wanted to know. “He stopped by and entertained us with his violin.”

  Mrs. Stanton sighed again. “There is a difficulty there, I am sorry to say. The situation is that we sometimes share a stage or podium, but our personal conversations never stray beyond the weather. His connection to Miss Assing is most unfortunate. It is not so much that I disapprove, but my own call for legalizing divorce puts me in an awkward position, as Douglass will not divorce his wife. I fear it will end in disgrace and disaster.”

  “For Douglass?” I asked.

  She shook her head briskly, making her curls jump. “For Miss Assing. Douglass is too great a man to be much reduced by a marital scandal. In any event, men are forgiven for their urges. It is women who must wear the scarlet letter.”

  I could not disagree, though I thought the Douglass-Assing scandal had more to do with racial taboos than infidelity. Having dispensed with her fellow abolitionists, I asked Mrs. Stanton what she knew of Lincoln’s disposition. She snorted and said, “I suppose his disposition is that of a man who finds he must either cut off one of his own limbs, or die. He has no belly for making war, that’s obvious, no great enthusiasm for using the army. But very soon he will have no choice but to use it, and when that happens I think we’ll be well served by Mr. Lincoln. He is a politician and therefore shares the bloodlines of ferret, weasel, wolf, and serpent. They all must do, or they can’t be elected. So ‘Honest Abe’ will lie and feint and bite and slither on his belly when it serves his purpose, and that facility will also serve in prosecuting a war.”

  When the time came for her to go—she was expected at a rally in Waldoboro that evening—Mrs. Stanton embraced Lucy, patted her back, and said, “Child, if ever you need shelter from the storm, look to me. Is that understood?”

  “Understood,” said Lucy.

  The famous suffragist shook my hand briskly, and left us without a backward glance.

  Mrs. Stanton was not gone but a quarter hour when Barky cried out from the kitchen. With his ruined voice, it was really no more than an excited squeak, but still it started me running to help.

  I found him on his hands and knees, where he’d been scrubbing at the floorboards with a pair of holystones, to make the floor as clean and smooth as the deck of a ship. His great round face had gone quite pale, and his small, lively eyes squinted in fear. “Did you hear?” he asked in his high-pitched voice, and pointed at the floor.

  “Hear what?” Lucy asked, gliding into the kitchen behind me, with considerably more grace than I’d been able to muster.

  “A noise,” he squeaked. “Like a thump. Coming from below.”

  I crouched upon the damp floor and touched my hand to the boards. Exactly as I did so, there came a distinct thump, seemingly from directly beneath my feet.

  “Felt that, didja?” Barky asked with concern, as if fearful that the strange thump might have originated in his mind alone.

  “Does the cellar extend under the kitchen?” I asked him.

  “Oh, yes,” he said. “Under the whole of the house. The Captain’s a great one for wanting a good foundation. Dug it down to ledge, they did, and built up with slabs of quarried granite.”

  I stood up and dried my hands on a handkerchief. “Someone must be down there. One of the brothers, possibly.”

  “Not Jeb, he ain’t left his bed.”

  “Benjamin or Nathaniel?”

  Barky considered the question. “Ben ain’t never liked the cellar much. Says the damp gets in his bones, and everybody knows cellar damp is worse’n ship damp. And Nathaniel bides with his wife, at Merriman’s boardinghouse.”

  There was another, louder thump from beneath our feet, and something that sounded like muffled voices.

  “Fetch a lantern,” Lucy suggested, and marched resolutely for the cellar door, situated in an alcove off the kitchen.

  “Stand back, missy,” Barky suggested, when he arrived with lantern in hand.

  He was about to thumb the latch on the door when Benjamin appeared in the hallway, demanding to know what was going on. When I explained that noises had been heard, coming from below, he shot a stern glance at Lucy. “Have you anything to tell us, cousin? Has your friend left us with more runaways?”

  I instantly understood that he was referring to Mrs. Stanton, and to his suspicion that she, like Mr. Douglass, had come to visit while shepherding fugitive slaves along the underground railroad.

  Lucy took a breath and met his stern gaze. “If so, she told me nothing of it,” she said firmly.

  Benjamin nodded, satisfied. “They know this place,” he said. “Could be a stray, I suppose. Crack the hatch, Mr. Barkham, and let us shed some light on our ‘visitors.’”

  Immediately the door was open, voices came up from the stairwell. I took them to be Negro voices, speaking one of the African tongues, for it was not a language familiar to me. “There,” said Benjamin with some satisfaction. “Strays. Lucy, you stay behind. We’ll see to their needs.”

  “Nonsense. A woman’s kindness may be needed.”

  Seeing that she would not be dissuaded, Benjamin shrugged his big shoulders as if to say, let it be on your head. With the door open, and the musty smell of the cellar air rising to greet us, Barky led the way, holding high the lantern. We were about halfway down the stairs when there came a distinct crack! of a lash on flesh, and a stifled moan of pain.

  “What evil is this?” Benjamin exclaimed.

  Behind me Lucy caught her breath. Suddenly the stairwell began to vibrate with the sound of chains smashing rhythmically against a wooden surface. Foul smells rose up from below. The stinging, highly unpleasant odors of unwashed human beings confined in a small, hot space.

  “How can this be?” Lucy cried out, grasping my arm as she nearly lost balance on the stairs.

  Meanwhile Benjamin was bulling ahead, having taken the lantern from the cook’s reluctant hand. He had the attitude of a man who must move swiftly or be frozen by fear, and the fear emanating from the cellar was palpable, as strong and nauseating as the eye-watering stench of human waste.

  I begged that Lucy leave us at once, but she would not, and linking her hand firmly to my own, bade me follow Benjamin into the black depths of the stairwell, into the gloomy, Stygian darkness of the cellar itself.

  The smashing rhythm of the chains was like that of drums. African drums, I supposed, never having heard any. I tried to imagine the previous group of fugitives—meek and frightened—having the rude audacity to raise such a din, and could not. They had moved like silent shadows, fearful of discovery, and the only thing that had disturbed their furtive silence was the cry of a newborn baby. What kind of fugitives were we about to encounter, then, who announced themselves so purposefully? And why, having freed themselves from their masters, had they kept their chains?

  I confess that I wasn’t thinking clearly, or I might have had some intuition as to what we would find in that terrible black cellar. As it was, the sensations came too fast for me to reason properly. The noise, the smells, the chanting voices, it was all too much for my poor, addled mind to comprehend. It
wasn’t until Benjamin got to the bottom of the stairs and pivoted around, using the lantern to illuminate the darkness, that I got an inkling of the true reality—if truth or reality can be said to factor into the inexplicable phenomenon we all experienced.

  I say “inexplicable” because the cellar was empty. Completely empty save for ourselves. Though Benjamin bravely carried his light to every corner, searching for the source of the deafening noise, we found not another human being in that place. And still the frantic cacophony carried on around us—the smashing of chains, the moaning of prisoners, the haranguing of the one most powerful voice, and the responding chant from his followers or supplicants. A phantom voice raised in high dudgeon, calling, I could only suppose, the gods of the drums, seeking vengeance.

  It was exactly as if the slave deck of the Whippet had somehow sent forth an echo from the past, or from hell itself, and whose angry voice could it be but that of Monbasu, exhorting his fellow captives to revolt? Had I not been in the company of others, I might have supposed these horrible sounds to be a figment of my overwrought imagination, but we all heard it as clearly as if we, too, were chained upon the slave deck.

  Poor Benjamin seemed to take it the worse, as if the manifestation was a blasphemy against his own God, and he raised his voice, trying to shout down the pagan chants. Lumbering about with his lantern swinging, as if determined to give the shadows substance.

  “Be gone from this house!” he shouted, as fearsome as any Old Testament prophet. “Leave us alone! In the name of God, get thee out!”

  Whether his exhortations had any effect I cannot say, but within five or ten minutes of our entering the cellar, the chanting slowly began to fade, growing ever more distant, as if the foul ship was drawing away from us through the intervening years, carrying the plaintive moans across the unseen waters. The last we heard was a distinctly feminine whimper, the last gasp of an unbearable life drowning in pain and misery, and then silence.

 
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