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       Coffins, p.26

           Rodman Philbrick
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  “Think of it, Davis! Think of it, dear Lucy! Is it not wonderful? We will arm the fugitive slaves. They can take revenge against their masters, earning freedom by the same means as our white countrymen did, at the point of a bayonet! Freedom must be written in blood, never forget that!”

  It soon became obvious, alas, that my little friend had been roused from his languorous state by more than champagne and cause for celebration. Jebediah was raving. His eyes had taken on a peculiar glassy hue, as if he were looking not upon a meager audience of two, but a throng of thousands cheering his cause, and himself. In his haste to dress, his coat jacket was buttoned askew. He’d also neglected to put on his boots or stockings, and his twisted, hair-tufted little feet poked out from under his trouser legs in a way that might have been comical under more benign circumstances. Oblivious to his own appearance, or our reactions to it, he strutted around his father’s library, gesturing grandly with the champagne bottle and hoisting his cup to the imagined multitudes, as if the shelves held not volumes of books, but people. “Heed the call to arms! Countrymen, do your duty! Will you let this nation be torn asunder, and all we have gained be lost, so that a few rich plantation owners can keep their pound of flesh? Arise! Grab your muskets and follow me!” and so on.

  Both Lucy and I attempted to soothe him into a more placid state, but he would not be calmed. “What do I care what happens to me? I have lived to see this day! That is enough! That’s life enough for any man! Our cause is just and we have prevailed! The chains will be broken! See, Davis, do you see? Lucy! You can see, can’t you? We will march together, all of us, and carry the banner! Let Lincoln step aside, and Douglass replace him! YES! Let Frederick Douglass appoint me Secretary of War, and I’ll show those so-called Southern gentlemen what happens to traitors! They’ll fear Jebediah Coffin like they fear the devil himself! More! More champagne!”

  Jeb’s forehead was so hot with excitement that Lucy brought in a handful of snow, and I made an ice poultice for his fevered brow. He took it as vastly amusing, our concern for his physical well-being. “What does it matter now, what happens to me or my family?” he crowed. “You can’t cool the heat of revenge, or keep down the black masses. No! We sinners are doomed. Soon there’ll be coffins aplenty and no more Coffins to fill ’em, isn’t that a great joke? Go on, Lucy, laugh, you’re so lovely when you laugh!”

  Eventually the champagne took its toll on his small body, which was in mass no larger than a child, and as easily overcome. After ranting for nearly an hour, finally his mind slowed and his speech began to slur. When at last he collapsed with a groan, I summoned Barky and we were able to carry poor little Jeb upstairs to his chamber and put him to bed, still muttering of war, glorious war, and of coffins to be filled. He roused himself enough to mutter, “Why do you weep, Davis? I lived to see my dream come true. No man can ask for more,” and then his head lolled back on his feather pillow and he began to snore.

  In the hallway outside the chamber, Barky touched me on the elbow and inquired, in a squeaky whisper, “Is there nothing can be done for him or the rest?”

  “Nothing I know of,” I said. “We’ve tried medicine. We’ve tried prayer. Nothing avails.”

  “But we must have hope, Doc, mustn’t we?” he asked plaintively, looking back at Jeb’s door.

  On the subject of hope I no longer had an opinion, and left Barky with his candle, hovering outside of Jebediah’s chamber in case he was needed.

  Downstairs I nearly collided with Lucy, who was coming from a closet with a straw broom in hand.

  “Don’t trouble yourself,” with the mess,” I begged her. “Tomorrow we’ll hire someone to tidy up.”

  That made her trill a sarcastic laugh at my expense. “Tidy up? I doubt you’ll find a charwoman willing to stand on her head and ‘tidy up’ the ceilings.”

  She bade me follow her into the parlor and look up where she pointed. There, still firmly affixed to the ceiling like a leather-bound spider, was Father Whipple’s Bible. A trickle of icy water ran through my veins and raised the small hairs on the back of my neck. Impossible, but there it was, in defiance of the laws of nature and gravity. The sight of it filled me with dread and fear, but Lucy’s reaction was quite the opposite. She raged at the thing as she strove to dislodge it with her upended broom. “How dare you! How dare you mock us with the book of God! Davis, tell it to let go!”

  “Let me try,” I said, taking the broom from her hands. It took more courage than I possessed to stand on a sturdy chair and poke at the unholy Bible, but I did it anyway. Mostly because I was deeply afraid that Lucy’s intemperate rage would summon the awful presence back into the room, and perhaps into us.

  I mashed and poked and pried, but the priest’s book would not relinquish its limpetlike hold on the ceiling. Trembling with my effort, and with the fear it inflamed, I got down from my perch and admitted defeat.

  “Never mind,” said Lucy, turning her back on the scene. “We shall ignore its impudence. Let it have the damned Bible.”

  “Lucy!” I hissed.

  “Oh, shut up, sir, and pour me a drink. A very strong drink.”

  Shocked and not a little hurt by her tongue-lashing, and disturbed by the change in her nature, I complied and went to the sideboard for the whiskey. Considering what we’d been through, strong whiskey was doubtless appropriate, if only as medication to dull the nerves. Turning with the drinks in my hand, I heard a distinct plop! and a delighted cry from my beautiful companion.

  “There!” she said, picking the Bible up from the floor. “Ignore the thing and it goes away!”

  “I wish it were that simple,” I said, handing her the glass.

  She covered the Bible with a cast-iron bookend, lest it seek to rise, and turned to me with a look of triumph as she lifted the glass to her lips. “To our health, Dr. Bentwood.”

  “To our health.”

  “Come sit with me. The air has a chill and we daren’t build a fire in that wretched stove.”

  No, quite true, the wretched stove had its chimney pipes askew, and the parlor was, indeed, quite cool, though I hadn’t noticed it before, heated up as I was by my efforts to dislodge the wretched book—no, never the wretched book, the Bible was not at fault—why had the term “wretched book” come so easily into my mind? Ah, the stove, yes, a confabulation of an exhausted mind.…

  Thus were my thoughts addled, as I placed myself next to Lucy on the damask fainting couch. Smiling brazenly, she snuggled somewhat closer than was comfortable and placed a hand upon my knee. “You think me bold? Tonight I am quite bold. I don’t care a fig what anyone might think.”

  “Lucy, we—”

  “Shhh!” She placed a finger upon my lips. “Bide with me for a while.”

  Humming a tune I did not recognize, she laid her head on my shoulder. Truly I do not know what made my senses swirl the more, the whiskey or her perfume. Not only perfume, but the scent of herself, as fragrant as any blossom. “What does your Mr. Emerson have to say about love, Dr. Bentwood?” she whispered in a sultry way. “Any wisdom worth repeating? No, don’t speak—think of it and I will sense your thoughts. For I do believe such intimacy is possible, when two minds think alike.”

  It was not difficult to remain silent, as my thoughts were incoherent; mere sensations rather than deliberative thinking, really, and centered upon the precise place where her hand touched so delicately upon my knee. If she sensed the flush that must have turned my face quite pink, she was not offended and leaned, if anything, a little closer. So close I could hear her swallow as she hungrily consumed the whiskey. “Another,” she purred, raising her empty glass. “I want more, Dr. Bentwood.”

  It took all of my will to disengage, and rise from the fainting couch. All of my will to take a deep breath and shake my head and try to regain control of my intense desire; a desire that might lead, I feared, to an act that would compromise my beautiful young companion’s virtue. And surely, for all of her sultry talk, and the light play of her fingertip
s, she could not wish herself compromised. Surely not. We would have, I decided, one more small whiskey, as requested, and this time I would resist sitting so close.

  But when I turned, holding out her glass, Lucy had risen from the couch. Her eyes flickered strangely, as if she was about to faint, but before I could react, the moment of weakness passed, and the eyes that looked upon me suddenly smoldered knowingly, as if she really was able to see into my mind, and discern the animal lust within. Her voice was husky, and had a deliberate, insinuating intonation I’d never heard her use before. Almost, it seemed, as if another spoke with her voice.

  “Look at me,” she commanded, her eyes never leaving mine.

  “I am,” I responded with a thick tongue.

  “No,” she insisted. “I mean really look at me.” And with that she reached down, grasped the hem of her gown and her ruffled crinoline petticoats, and lifted all to the height of her waist, exposing her naked body to my astonished eyes.

  I knew I must look away, but I could not. Surely this was not my Lucy, exposing her pale hips like a woman of the streets, but an aspect of the presence that possessed her; indeed, that possessed us both. The presence had stolen upon us quietly, seductively, insinuating itself into our mutual desire, inflaming our animal passions in the most foul way imaginable. I found myself trapped within a small, dim corner of my own mind, able to share the view through my own eyes, but unable to restrain my own actions. No matter what my conscience might declare, I must look upon her well-formed legs and the enticing shadow that lay between them, limbs that had the soft glimmer of the palest marble in the flickering light of the sperm-oil lamps.

  It was not Lucy’s voice, but the voice of a brazen succubus that came from her swollen mouth. “Come, sir, let us make the beast,” and then she pressed her nakedness against me, and found my lips with her lips. Her fingers deftly peeled away the intervening clothing and in a moment we were joined and thrusting.

  There is a place in Cambridge, notorious among the undergraduates, where slatterns fornicate standing up against a pissstained brick wall, for whatever coins they might receive. No slattern there was ever more bold than Lucy Wattle, or rather the presence that had taken possession of her body that night. We writhed and panted, grunted and pawed each other like animals in rut. She ripped the lace from her bosom and placed my hands there to feel the heat that radiated from her tender flesh. We spoke not in words, but in spasms of carnality, as desperate as if we were drowning in desire.

  When I felt I must stop or die of exquisite pleasure, she snarled and bit my shoulder and held me within her. Twice she cried out “Tom!” as if I had been displaced by her dead cousin, but even that did not deter me. Our thrusts became violent and painful, and yet we could not stop, dared not stop, as if stopping would bring death, or something worse than death. Once I saw a flicker of the real Lucy trapped within her eyes, and I wanted to weep with humiliation. Instead I took her from behind, howling like a dog, snapping and spitting and rubbing my face on her back.

  That was how Barky the cook found us when he rushed into the parlor, crying, “Please, Dr. Bentwood, it’s the Captain. He needs help!” The words were out before he saw us with half our clothing ripped away, madly coupled, and still we did not stop.

  I managed to cry out, “Help us, please!” but he did not understand my meaning, how could he? And then when Lucy rose on her haunches and hissed, unfurling her long black serpent tongue to lick him, he dropped his candle and fled from the room; indeed, he fled from the house.

  5. Revelations

  We were both torn and bleeding when Nathaniel Coffin finally put an end to it by dashing us with a bucket of cold water, as if we were a pair of dogs trapped in coitus, which was not far from the truth. The shock brought us back to our senses. Lucy, soaking wet and sobbing with shame, crawled out from under me and tried to cover herself with her soiled petticoats. “Don’t cry, cousin, I care not what you do,” Nathaniel said, his voice as cold as the water he’d flung upon us. He turned to me with something like restrained contempt. “The Captain is trapped in the tower, Dr. Bentwood, and Jebediah has gone to help him. I fear for them both.”

  He’d been summoned by Barky, who’d run to the boardinghouse to rouse him. Having done so, the brave cook had then gone to plead again with Benjamin, who thus far had refused to leave his chamber, no matter how Barky begged him, or what dire scenes he painted. I learned that much from the grim-faced Nathaniel as he led me to the tower staircase.

  “What you saw back there,” I stammered, hurrying along as I set my clothing right, or as right as it could be made, considering. “It wasn’t what you think. We were made to do that. Forced against our will.”

  “I care not,” he repeated sharply. At the stairwell door he raised his lamp to see my face and asked, very sternly, “What do you know of this tower curse?”

  “Only that it comes from the black gods.” I told him. “From the mouth of a slave your father killed, many years ago.”

  “My father? Kill a slave? Are you mad?”

  “Believe what you like,” I said. “But we must get your father and Jebediah out of the tower.” I was well aware that the presence could make itself known anywhere, if need be, in sawmills and schooners, a hundred miles hence, but it seemed especially powerful within the house. Our only recourse was to remove Captain Coffin from this place, against his will if necessary.

  What I did not then share with Nathaniel was my idea that Cash’s surviving sons should be separated from their father by as great a distance as possible. The malevolence seemed to flow through him as it was directed toward them, a kind of evil electrical current conducted from father to son, with fatal results for the latter. Send Jebediah off to California, say, and Benjamin to Brazil, and Nathaniel to the Far East, and the presence might be constrained to work its harm on Cash Coffin, and leave his sons alone.

  I now believe the idea, born of desperation, had no merit whatsoever, but that night it was fixed in my mind like a shining beacon that pierced a fog of fearful uncertainty. What Barky had forlornly called “hope” came to me in the form of a scheme for the family’s survival, even if the patriarch must perish for his sins. Get them out of the tower, out of the house, out of their father’s past, their father’s life, that was my plan. So intent was I to save my dear friend Jebediah from what seemed an inevitable fate that I was able to overcome the paralyzing shame of what had happened in the parlor. Nathaniel’s contempt and Barky’s revulsion mattered not—for the present all that mattered was Jeb’s salvation.

  Strangely enough we heard nothing of the commotion in the tower until Nathaniel opened the door to the stairwell. Then the air suddenly rushed past us, making an unnatural wind that whined and whistled eerily up into the tower. “There, that’s him!” said Nathaniel, cocking an ear. “Jeb!” he shouted. “Are you there?” but the only answer was another moan more pitiful than the first.

  “Hold on, brother, I’m coming!” Nathaniel cried, taking the steps three at a time while I struggled to keep up.

  As it turned out, Jeb was not so near as he’d sounded. We were almost to the second landing before we found him huddled in a corner, shivering in terror, his eyes rolling in his head. My little friend had on nothing but his cotton nightgown, and even in the quivering light of our lamps, it was instantly obvious that he’d soiled himself. “In my chest,” he muttered, gasping. “Inside my chest!”

  Afraid that his heart might have failed from fright, I put my ear to his chest and heard a reassuring thump. His pulse was very high, of course, but the beat was strong, and betrayed none of the fluttery, hispy gurgles associated with heart failure.

  I was gradually made to understand that Jebediah believed something had reached into his chest and squeezed his heart like an overripe peach. That would explain the soiled nightgown, and his pitiful state of fear.

  “Will he live?” Nathaniel begged to know, with a concern at least as great as my own.

  “We must get him away from t
his place. As far away as we can, do you understand?”

  He nodded. “What about my father?”

  I shook my head. “Too dangerous. There’s nothing can be done for him.”

  “What?” Nathaniel demanded angrily. “You’d leave him here?”

  “Do what you must,” I urged him. “I’ll see to Jeb.”

  At that moment the Captain cried out from the top of the tower, a terrified wail of unbearable anguish that set my teeth on edge. The cry struck Nathaniel like the crack of a whip, driving him up the stairs. A courageous man, considering what he had seen and experienced in the last weeks. Having lost his infant child and the affections of his wife, he was determined not to lose his father, even if it cost his life, or his sanity.

  Much to my surprise, Jebediah seemed to understand what had just transpired. “Stop him, Davis!” he begged me. “It wants him. It wants our Nate, don’t you see?”

  I tried to ignore his imprecations and, taking him up in my arms, began to work my way down the stairwell. My mistake was in underestimating his strength. In stature Jebediah might be no larger than a child, but his strength was equal to my own, and he easily loosed himself from my grasp and at once began to crawl up the stairs, seeking his brother.

  I tried to persuade him to flee, but he adamantly refused. “I would not die a coward!” he said with a fierceness that could not be doubted. As if to goad us into action, Nathaniel’s shriek echoed down through the stairwell. “No! God help me, no!” he screamed in panic. Then a high keening: “Help me! Please help me!”

  My heart sank, and with it all my hopes, for his brother’s cry meant that Jebediah would not be deterred, or persuaded from the tower. My own dread was such that my knees felt weirdly unhinged, but what could I do? It was not a question of courage—I had none—but of shame. I’d been shamed in the parlor with Lucy, and could not bear the thought of another shameful act.

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