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       Coffins, p.25

           Rodman Philbrick
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  Only the stench of human degradation remained when we wearily mounted the cellar stairs, and bolted the door behind us. We stood there in the hallway, in the welcome stillness of the great house, and could not bear to look upon one another, as if we had witnessed something too shameful to acknowledge.

  As, indeed, I believe we had.

  3. What They Did to Witches

  That evening, after a cold supper at which we all picked glumly at our portions, appetites ruined by foreboding, Lucy and Benjamin whispered among themselves, and then left the house without explanation. I assumed it must concern poor Sarah, but less than a half hour later they returned in the company of Father Whipple, the kindly Episcopal priest. He was delighted to see me again, and straightway wrung my hands with such enthusiasm that his spectacles went askew, which had the effect of making him look like he was about to tip over.

  “Father Whipple has agreed to help us if he can,” Benjamin informed me, somewhat shyly, as if he thought I would disapprove.

  “Whatever’s expected,” said the priest agreeably, as Lucy took his shabby greatcoat and hung it up to dry. “We’ll keep this on the hush though, will we?” he said sotto voce. “Mustn’t upset the old boy, hmm?”

  Benjamin quietly assured him that Captain Coffin had not left his tower room in weeks, and would not be likely to do so even if he knew a priest was present. Then, he added, “Bless you, Father. It was fine of you to come, considering how you and your kind have been abused in this house.”

  Whipple waved away his concern as we drew up seats not far from the parlor stove. “Piffle. Didn’t take it personally, hmm? Your father had his reasons.”

  “Father is a great man,” said Benjamin, somewhat stiffly. “But in this he’s been a great fool. Why should the word of God be forbidden in this house, just because a priest once insulted him?”

  Whipple looked alarmed. “Forbidden? The word of God? But surely you have prayed, Ben?”

  “He’s done little else but pray, these last weeks,” Lucy said primly, casting a glance my way, for confirmation.

  Benjamin hung his head, quite miserable. “I keep praying, Father, but the presence I spoke of, it pays no heed, but comes and goes on its own evil whim. I’m a weak vessel.”

  Whipple patted his arm, attempting to console him. “Nonsense! Weak vessel, what rot! A Coffin, weak? Unheard of. Nothing weak about you, Ben, but that we’re all of us weak in the eyes of God. All humans are, in that respect, hmm? I’m certainly no exception.”

  “Then tonight you must be strong, Father,” said Lucy, making clear she expected no less.

  “Yes, my dear, I’ll try. With the Lord’s help.”

  “There is evil in this house, and you must cast it out,” she said, staring at me as if daring me to disagree.

  Whipple gulped, his watery eyes magnified by the odd spectacles tied to his head with a black ribbon. “Only our Savior has the power to cast out evil, Miss Wattle. I explained that when you came to find me. All we can do, as true believers, is ask for the Lord’s help.”

  “Yes, so you said,” said Lucy, in her argumentative way. “But isn’t there something in the Bible about casting out devils? What good is a priest if he can’t cast out devils?”

  “Lucy!” said Benjamin, highly insulted on Whipple’s behalf.

  “No, that’s all right,” said the priest gently. “Go on,” he encouraged her.

  “The Pilgrims cast out devils, didn’t they?”

  “They were Puritans,” Whipple patiently explained. “They believed that every flaw of human nature was the result of demonic possession. But we live in the Age of Enlightenment, Miss Wattle. We have come to understand that we’re all flawed creatures, and the fault is within us, not the devil.”

  “He doesn’t understand,” said Lucy in despair, to her cousin and me. “How could he? Tell him, Davis, tell him what happens in this house!”

  I hesitated. How much did Benjamin know of his father’s hidden past? Could he, as a devout, God-fearing Christian, accept the idea of another, darker god having dominion over his own father, and his father’s children? It was contrary to everything he understood and believed, to all that he held dear, to the very shape of the world he carried within. And yet I too, believed the time had come for plain words about all that had happened, even if it grieved Benjamin to hear it.

  “Father Whipple, do you consider me a rational sort of man?” I began.

  “Oh, most certainly,” he responded, very eagerly.

  “A man of science and the modern philosophies?”

  “From what I know of you, yes, indeed.”

  “Would you be surprised if I confessed that as of a month ago, I did not believe in devils or ghosts, and lacked what you would call faith?”

  He chuckled. “I’m not one for ghosts or devils myself. But what do you mean, you lacked faith? Do you mean belief in our Lord?”

  “Not exactly that,” I said, hedging a trifle. “Let us say I had more faith in Emerson, who teaches that we all have God within us. And that if we seek the God within, we may achieve a state of transcendence.”

  “Hmph!” said Whipple. “Can’t say I’ve ever understood what that Emerson fellow was always going on about. Sounds a bit like having visions, hmm? Saints wandering in the wilderness and so on.”

  “But you take my meaning, that I was not in the least superstitious? That I abhorred the very idea of otherworldly manifestations, or spiritualism?”

  “I’ll so accept,” Whipple said, looking around the room and smiling at our little gathering. “Let us all stipulate, ‘Dr. Bentwood is not given to superstition.’”

  “Then you may be surprised to learn that I now believe this family to be haunted by an evil presence that seeks revenge upon Cash Coffin and all of his descendants. I say this by direct observation and experience. A few hours ago we all heard it. And only last night I felt it move me.”

  Lucy gasped in astonishment and covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, Davis, you, too?”

  Benjamin also groaned, and buried his face in his hands. “We have all felt it, Father. An invisible thing that sucks the life from your soul.”

  “Ben!” Whipple cried with concern. “Poor lad!”

  “I live in dread that I will die in its presence,” said Benjamin, his voice thick with weeping. “It steals into my dreams. It steals my faith away. You must help us, Father, please! Bring God back into this house, and cast the devil out!”

  Then, for a time, all was silent, as Lucy comforted her cousin in his misery. Father Whipple was busily leafing through his Bible, but it was obvious that he was becoming exasperated. He looked to me for commiseration. “The Roman church had a rite that was used for casting devils out of souls possessed, but it has fallen out of use in the last century. From what I understand, their so-called exorcism was little more than an excuse to persecute the Jews for an imperfect conversion to Christianity, during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s what they used on witches, too, when they wanted to drown or hang them. I’m not familiar with any Episcopal rite that’s applicable.”

  “It isn’t that we’re possessed, Father. Or not exactly that. More that the evil presence wishes to do harm. And has done great harm.”

  Lucy was growing more and more impatient with the gentle, well-intentioned priest. “Father Whipple, do you believe in good?”

  “Of course I do, my dear. If I believe in God, and I do, then I must believe in his goodness.”

  “Do you believe in evil?”

  “Evil exists. There can be no doubt.”

  “And do you believe that good will triumph over evil?”

  Whipple took her questions most seriously. The last he gave some thought to before replying. “In the end, child, yes I do. I believe that the goodness of our Lord will prevail.”

  “Then please, Father, look in your Bible and find a way to say so!”

  That prompted more hurried leafing through the book in question, until at last Whipple settled on a page and put hi
s finger to a line. Clearing his throat, and pitching his reedy baritone to be heard throughout the room, if not the house, he began. “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together, I sought the Lord and he heard me and delivered me from all my fears. The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. Depart from evil and do good, for the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.”

  “Amen,” Benjamin uttered with a whimper. And then, gathering courage, a little louder, “O Lord, amen! Deliver us from evil!”

  “More, Father,” Lucy urged him, her eyes darting fearfully to the dark corners of the parlor. “Keep going, for the love of God!”

  “Yes, hmm.” He cleared his throat, and began reciting from memory, only occasionally consulting the text. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we shall not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.” A sudden chill stole into the room. The priest looked about him with mild concern, and then seemed relieved that the stove had gone out, as if that explained it. “The heathen, um, the heathen raged,” he continued, “the kingdoms were moved: He uttered His voice, the earth melted. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. Lord, bless us and bless this house, Lord God deliver us from evil.”

  The air began to move, lifting the hairs on the back of my neck. The lamps dimmed, and now it was Lucy who whimpered, and begged that Whipple not be distracted, but continue with his good agency. But the poor fellow could not help being distracted when the wind stole into a closed room and billowed his robes, snatching the brightness from the sperm-oil lamps and guttering the candles. It was not so dark that I could not see the light of recognition in his eyes, that our minds were not, as he must have supposed, addled by grief. The presence was with us, and all around us, and it seemed to be focusing its malevolence upon the priest.

  “The Lord is my shepherd,” Father Whipple said, as bravely as he knew how. “I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters.”

  At that moment the floor beneath our feet began to vibrate, very like a platform does as the train approaches. Lucy screamed, but the sound of it somehow died in the air, muffled strangely, as if the presence in the room had the power to stifle our very utterances. I could see Whipple’s mouth opening wide, as if he was shouting into a full-blown gale, but I could barely make out the words of that familiar psalm. “He restoreth my soul!” the priest recited, struggling to remain upright as something pushed him backward, flattening his robes around his spindly legs. His spectacles flew off, leaving him blinking and half-blind. “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

  At that very moment the Bible leaped from his hands and smacked up against the ceiling, where it remained, as if glued.

  But the brave fellow didn’t need a Bible, he knew the psalm by heart, as we all did. Lucy, who clung to Benjamin—his eyes rolled in fear, and all of him trembled, even his beard—Lucy implored me with her eyes that we must join Whipple, and recite together. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil! For thou art with me!” we shouted together, feeling our words muffled and compressed, and hearing ourselves as if from a great distance. “Thy rod and thy staff shall comfort me! Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies!” Beneath us the floor rumbled, and furniture began to slowly spin about the room. A low growling came from the snuffed out stove, as if a savage beast crouched within. The tin chimney rattled and shrieked. Father Whipple was leaning forward, hands clutching at his flapping robes, as if struggling to make his way in a nor’east gale that only he felt. “Louder!” Lucy shouted, but we could barely hear ourselves, though our throats were raw with the strain of trying to make ourselves heard. “Thou anointest my head with oil! My cup runneth over! Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life! I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”

  The priest’s struggling feet suddenly lost traction, and he was flung backward, his black robes rippling in an unnatural way, as a hideous snake might writhe beneath sheets. Poor Whipple, who had come out of the goodness of his heart, to offer us the comfort of his religion, poor Father Whipple was flung rapidly backward until he collided with the thick, black velvet curtains that covered the window, dark mourning curtains that seemed to swallow him up and spit him out as he was expelled from the house, and cast through the shattered window glass and the broken mullions with a scream that was much, much louder than all of our prayers.

  4. Making the Beast

  By the time I found the village doctor’s house, it was past nine o’clock in the evening and Griswold had to be roused from his bed. To say that he received me with ill temper is putting it mildly, for the furious little man was obviously loath to find himself in my presence. In his mind I’d not only displaced him as the Coffin family physician, but my conduct regarding the death of the infant Casey was questionable, possibly suspicious. And then I dared to bang upon his door, many hours after sunset, raving about a wounded man who had, in all probability, been assaulted by none other than myself. It’s no wonder that his first words were a threat to send for the constable.

  “By all means, do so,” I told him. “But not before you attend Father Whipple,” and with that I dragged the semiconscious victim into the small room that served as Griswold’s surgery, where I laid him on the examination bench. “I think he’s concussed. He was struck a terrible blow on the head when he went through the window.”

  “Through the window! You threw a priest through the window!”

  “Not I.”

  “If not you, then it must have been that scoundrel Coffin!” the doctor cried, but already he was directing his attention to his groaning patient. “That crazy old fool should be locked up!”

  “He is locked up,” I informed him. “I must leave, they’ve need of me at the house.”

  “Wait, you son of a bitch! How dare you!” he cried, reaching out to snag my trouser leg, and hold me.

  Truth be told. I was more shocked by his intemperate language than by him grabbing me. “Calm yourself, Griswold. When Father Whipple regains his senses he can tell you exactly what transpired. I doubt you’ll believe him, but that’s not my concern. Terrible things have happened, and I must return.”

  “Terrible things? What terrible things?”

  “Things beyond your understanding. Do you want to come round to the Coffin house, and find out for yourself?”

  That put the fear into him. He let go of me, muttering about what cheeky devils those Boston doctors were, and I fled while I had the chance, flinging the surgery door shut behind me.

  Outside I ran through the darkness, boots crunching on the new-fallen snow, knife points of cold air in my wheezing lungs. I’d hated to abandon my friends, but the priest had had obvious need of medical attention, and I was in no state to provide it, nor was it safe, obviously, to bring him back into the house. Lucy had urged me to take him to Griswold, and come back as quickly as I could, and I intended to make good on my promise.

  By the time I made it to the top of the hill, and saw my destination before me, the weaker part of my conscience was suggesting how sensible it would be to turn around and take a room for the night with the widow Merriman. Had I not risked enough already? Surely the bonds of friendship no longer required my presence. It was not as if I’d been of any real assistance, nor was it within my power to lift the curse, or interrupt the cruel process of destruction. Jebediah himself had begged me to leave, had he not? Seize your chance, Davis, and retreat with your tail between your legs, or it may be you who is flung out a window, or impaled on a splinter of wood, or driven mad.

  In the end my conscience, cowardly though it might be, would not let me abandon my friends to the strange forces unleashed within the house. And so I trudged the rest of the way up the hill, keenly aware of
the tower looming over me, of its jagged, starlit shadow on the snow, and the darkened windows that look as empty as the eyes of the dead.

  I had expected to find the house in a state of dark melancholy, given what had happened to the priest. But scarcely had I entered when Jebediah himself emerged from the library, his face ablaze with excitement as he waved a sheet of paper.

  “The day has come!” he announced. “Come, you must join the celebration! You must propose a toast! We must all propose toasts!”

  My first reaction was to suppose that my small friend had joined his father, and crossed over into the land of the mad. What else could have caused him to rise from his bed? But he soon allayed my fears. It seemed that intelligence had just been received, by telegraph and fast rider: the Southern militia had finally fired upon the federal forces they’d quarantined at Fort Sumter, and war would be declared tomorrow.

  The impromptu celebration had been convened around a stout bottle of champagne long cached for this day, and set out on the very desk where Cash Coffin had drawn so many checks for the cause.

  “Raise your glass, my friends!” Jebediah implored us. Us being myself and Lucy, whose uneasiness somehow prevented her from making eye contact with me, as if, I could only suppose, she did not wish to discuss the impossible events that had resulted in Father Whipple’s expulsion from the parlor.

  Dutifully, we raised our glasses. Jebediah beamed. “In three months—six at the most—the rebel army will surrender,” he declared. “Their sham government will be soundly defeated, and their slaves set free!”

  In truth, I was not moved. Whatever events might be taking place far to the south were eclipsed by the present danger. But Jebediah was deaf to anything but the happy prospect of the war he had so eagerly anticipated. He didn’t want to hear about poor Father Whipple’s ordeal, or why, after boarding up the shattered window, Benjamin had taken to his bed. The troubles of the Coffin family were, he avowed, of little consequence, now that the tide of history had at last begun to turn, and its waters soon to run red in battle.

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