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       Coffins, p.3

           Rodman Philbrick

  Surely this was the perfect landfall, I decided, while our one-eyed master sailed Raven through the rows of watercraft and brought the proud little ship up to her mooring. The man was as good as his promise, for the cigar stub was still hot in my fingers as the stern swung round and the sails were dropped and folded.

  “Take Dr. Bentwood ashore, smartly now!” came the order, and without quite knowing how it came to pass I found myself in the launch, being rowed by two energetic sailors who bared their tobacco-stained teeth in silent if somewhat ferocious smiles.

  Upon the village wharf was a small figure, dressed entirely in black, from great coat to boots. The figure paced energetically, now and then waving his arms, as if exhorting the launch to move faster, which was scarcely possible. As we approached, my little friend raised his tall, stovepipe hat and hailed me, his distinctive voice booming over the water.

  “Davis Bentwood!” he shouted. “Friend to Man and friend of mine!”

  The launch was deftly positioned beneath a ladder, and soon I was clambering up, lent a hand by Jeb, who seemed loath to relinquish it. “At last,” he said, heaving a great sigh. “You’ll put things right. You’re a medical man, not prone to superstition. You’ll talk sense to him, make him see reason.”

  He rambled on, not making a great deal of sense, but I decided not to press him, not so soon after my arrival. It was instantly obvious that Jebediah was suffering a terrible distress that affected even his posture. His back was hunched, his waddle more pronounced, and as he led me to a waiting carriage he moved as if he carried some great mass upon his small shoulders.

  The carriage was set in motion by a man whose primary occupation had obviously been that of a seaman, but he handled the horse as well as Black Jack Sweeney had handled Raven. I was pleased to see that we were heading for the largest of the clapboard houses, the towered one on the hill, for it was, as I’d surmised, home to the Coffins.

  “Dear, dear Davis, it was good of you to come,” said Jeb. He sighed again and looked up at me with doleful eyes. “We lost the twins, and now my poor father seems to have lost his mind.”

  “Oh, Jeb, I’m so sorry.”

  As it happened “the twins”—two of his nearest brothers—were the only other members of his family I’d actually met. More than a year ago they’d come into Boston on business (something to do with the shipping trade) and Jeb had invited me to join them for a pleasant luncheon at the Long Wharf Tavern. I recalled a pair of tall, powerful men whose mutual resemblance was uncanny, save that one had a slightly more luxuriant beard. The greatest impression I took away from the meal was how much they were devoted to their youngest brother, treating him with warm affection and respect, clearly vying for his approval. Among them it was as if his affliction did not exist; as if his man-sized head was, like their own, mounted upon a six-foot body. These two, being closest in age to Jeb—although a full ten years his senior—had in youth been his primary defenders, and I could well imagine that in White Harbor, at least, no one had dared taunt the village dwarf for fear of facing the bare-knuckle wrath of Samuel and Ezekiel Coffin. Called “Sam’n’Zeke,” as if theirs was one name divided between two men. Magnificent examples of manhood, they were, in the prime of their lives, and it was difficult to imagine that anything could have felled them.

  As if sensing my disbelief, Jeb explained that Sam’n’Zeke had been killed in a gruesome milling accident—cut to pieces, both of them—while overseeing the construction of a coastal schooner for the Coffin fleet, and that their father had been there when it happened, and considered himself somehow at fault. “Of course he had nothing whatever to do with it,” Jeb added. “There were a dozen witnesses who testified that he was in no way to blame, but still he’s in a fearful torment, and without peace. He scarcely sleeps. Sometimes he rages like a madman, although I’m not convinced he’s truly mad, but only somehow unhinged by what happened to the twins. You’ll set him right,” he added, patting me briskly on the knee. “He’ll listen to you, Davis. He’s a great admirer of your friend Emerson. You’ll speak to him of reason and enlightenment. It will ease his mind. It’s a great comfort to have you here. Indeed, indeed.”

  Then, staring straight ahead, my friend suddenly wept silently, and copiously, until the tears dripped from the cleft of his chin and stained the stiffly starched collar of his black suit of mourning.

  I did not have the heart to tell him that mere conversation with a rational stranger was unlikely to set his father’s mind at ease, and there was at present no effective medical treatment for sudden fits of madness. Only time could bring that sort of release, or death. Nevertheless it was my duty to honor his request, and I silently vowed to do so without complaint or equivocation.

  Besides, I thought, what harm could it do, spouting on about Emerson and enlightenment, if it pleased my friend?

  There is no such thing as a typical sea captain’s house. As a class of men, mariners favor a wide range of eccentric designs, and Cassius Coffin was apparently no exception in that regard. A fashionable “shell drive,” composed of crushed and whitened oyster shells, crunched pleasantly under our carriage wheels as we approached. At close hand the house was even larger than it had first appeared, seen from a distance. The main building faced toward the harbor below, and was enclosed by a wide porch that curved to a point in the center, suggesting the prow of a ship. On this “prow,” neatly arranged, was a row of wicker rocking chairs, apparently left out even in the depths of winter. To one side, where our carriage delivered us, was a handsome portico supported by Greek columns, and under it a formal entrance that would have been worthy of a Virginia mansion. I could see that at some point a wing had been added to the original construction, in effect doubling the size of the structure, which, if the plethora of windows and chimneys was any indication, must contain thirty rooms or more.

  Inside, the entire house had the look and feel of a well-constructed vessel, and indeed the entire structure had been built by ships’ carpenters. The doorways were gently rounded over the top, like hatchways. The white oak floors were fastened and bunged like the deck of a yacht, and honed, as I would later discover, with holystones. Everything was neat and shipshape, with none of the usual clutter of small possessions, as if the occupants were prepared to stow the contents at a moment’s notice, should the seas get rough. The only decoration, save for a few framed paintings and mementos hung on the walls, was the black crepe draped from the mantelpieces. Compared to the Boston homes I was used to visiting, this was an empty place, filled not with furniture but with shadow and light—and more shadow than light, come to think of it.

  Promising a tour somewhat later, Jeb led me directly to the kitchen or galley, as he called it. A warm meal awaited us, served up by a pigtailed cook whose massive forearms were decorated with elaborate tattoos; a souvenir, Jeb explained, of the South Pacific. Wrapped around his left biceps was a black mourning band, -another reminder of the recent tragedy.

  “Brisket, taters, ’n’ gravy,” the massive fellow announced in a squeaky voice that startled me, for it was as high as that of a girl.

  “This is Mr. Barkham,” Jeb explained, looking fondly upon the cook. “Barky had his throat crushed by a shackle.”

  “’Twas a fall of block ’n’ tackle,” Barky gently squeaked. “I was stone drunk at the time.”

  “Never mind,” said Jeb amiably, “He’s the best cook that ever primed a stove.”

  We took seats at a wide, pine-board table, sitting side by side, as Barky ladled out the food. The fellow was, as Jeb had promised, an exemplary cook. His brisket, lightly seasoned with pepper and gratings of horse radish, was delicious, melting in the mouth. A generous side dish of boiled vegetables still tasted of the garden. Honey-flavored biscuits, hot from the oven, were a kind of buttered ambrosia. With a sea-sharpened appetite, I stuffed my gullet while the cook beamed with pleasure, standing ready to keep the plates heaped full.

  “Why, it’s the first proper meal master Jeb has eaten
in days,” Barky squeaked.

  My diminutive friend nodded solemnly. “I am greatly relieved by Dr. Bentwood’s presence,” he explained, “and that has eased my digestion. Has the Captain taken food today?”

  “Only enough for the cat,” said Barky in his strangely small voice. “I left ship rations outside his door, thinking he might respond to the old ways, but it was not to be.”

  “Ah,” said Jeb, “we must keep trying.”

  When I attempted to tactfully suggest that his poor father needed not the services of a physician, particularly an unlicensed scamp like myself, but those of a minister, Jeb dismissed the suggestion out of hand. “The Captain cannot abide men of either persuasion,” he explained. “Since my mother’s death—my birthday, as it happened—he has never been seen by a doctor, nor set foot inside a church.” Seeing my reaction, he added, “Talk to him, Davis. That’s all I ask. He’ll not speak reasonably with any of the family, but he’ll listen to you. He must.”

  “Am I to see your father now?”

  He shook his head. “We must pick a moment when he’s amenable to conversation. I can’t say when that will be exactly, but within the next few days, certainly.”

  I thought it strange that having got me here in great haste, he now seemed in no particular rush to use me, but I would not insult him by saying so. “Whenever you think right,” I told him.

  “Excellent fellow! In the meantime, you shall treat this home as your own and have the run of White Harbor. I hope you approve of our little village.”

  “Indeed!” I exclaimed. “From what I have seen, I could not like it better.”

  At that moment a few more Coffins appeared, lured by the odors emanating from Barky’s kitchen. Jeb introduced Nathaniel and Benjamin, two of his siblings, employed in the coastal trade but now grounded for a period of mourning. Both were large, strongly built men in their forties, instantly recognizable as mariners from their rolling gaits to their whiskered, weathered faces and sun-squinted eyes. Nathaniel, the second son, was affable, even gregarious, and seemed to know a great deal about the various adventures his youngest brother and I had shared in college. The eldest son Benjamin, on the other hand, parted with words reluctantly and, after mumbling his good-byes, hurried from the kitchen with a generous pail of brisket and biscuits in hand.

  “Poor Ben has taken it hard,” Nathaniel explained after his brother had gone. “He particularly depended on Sam’n’Zeke. And it was he who ordered the building of another schooner.”

  “Surely he doesn’t blame himself,” I said.

  Nathaniel was seated opposite, and contented himself with a single biscuit and a glass of milk. “I fear he does,” he said. “Blames himself for the twins, and for father’s trouble, too. If he hadn’t fancied another ship, none of this would have happened, is how he sees it. He won’t be shed of the notion. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

  “Perhaps in time.…” I began, and then to my embarrassment, couldn’t find a way to finish the thought.

  “Maybe,” said Nathaniel, sounding doubtful, but clearly understanding my unexpressed intentions. “Ben always takes things deep, ever since he was a tyke. Once he broke my finger, accidental-like, by slamming it in a trunk lid. Oh, how he suffered! He wept and he prayed for forgiveness, which I readily supplied, but it was weeks before he could see me without a tear coming to his eye.”

  Despite the vividness of his descriptions, it was hard to imagine that either of the men had ever been children. I could easily picture them pacing a deck or braving a storm, but it was difficult to conjure up an image of a Coffin in nappies, or engaged in the frivolity of childhood. Surely the whole clan had sprung full blown from their father’s brow, like the offspring of Zeus. Men as bolts of lightning, yes, but children, never.

  “Do you play pinochle, sir?” Nathaniel suddenly inquired.

  “Passably,” I admitted. “If the stakes are small.”

  “I imagine the stakes would be matchsticks or the like,” he said with a grin. Turning to Jeb he added. “I was thinking of our cousin, Miss Lucy Wattle, who has come to stay with us since her father passed. You know how she loves her cards, Jeb, and we’re all quite hopeless.”

  “That would depend on Davis,” Jeb responded, then looked at me with eyebrows raised. “Our cousin is something of a suffragist, but very well mannered, despite that. Doesn’t bite, or rarely.”

  “I have, um, no particular objection to women’s suffrage,” I said, somewhat gallantly.

  “Do you not?” He grinned amiably. “I can think of many objections. Are you an enthusiast, then? I hadn’t noticed. Somehow I can’t quite picture you marching for the cause, sir.”

  It was said in such a wry way that it was intended to make me laugh, and did. “You may count on me for a hand of cards,” I said, “if not for radical political opinions.”

  “Splendid, we can ask no more. The house has been very dour, as you might imagine, and our cousin will, I’m sure, appreciate the diversion. Perhaps tomorrow evening, if you would be so kind?”


  “Speaking of diversions,” Jeb continued, “we will soon have the honor of welcoming that great advocate of freedom, Frederick Douglass. He and some of his people will arrive within the fortnight.”

  It was not the first I’d heard of Mr. Douglass, far from it. At Jeb’s insistence, I had accompanied him to an abolitionist rally in Boston, and had been astonished by the famous Negro’s mastery of rhetoric. That the great man had once been a lowly slave seemed inconceivable, given his obvious education and eloquence. Having expressed this sentiment to Jeb, he’d flown into high dudgeon, exhorting me to purge such prejudicial thoughts from my mind, for did I not know that any Negro taken from the field and given the opportunity might equal the example of Douglass? Did I not? he had demanded, banging his cane.

  What then transpired was a collegial battle of wits that soon degenerated into the lowest form of argument, although we never actually came to blows. Jeb simply could not abide my own strongly held opinion that great men of any complexion were rare specimens. Example: how many gentlemen of means had been educated in Cambridge or New Haven, and how few of them had developed into Hawthornes or Emersons? Was it any more likely that mere education would turn every field hand into a Frederick Douglass? Not likely, I thought, and still think, but Jeb had taken my position to mean that I opposed the education of the Negro, and prefer he remained unlettered.

  Now, it seemed, the great man was soon to be among us, sheltering in this very house. Quite suddenly a lantern lit itself within my mind, illuminating yet another possible motivation for my having been summoned to White Harbor: to serve as a foil for the Captain’s recent madness, a kind of metaphysician whose special task was to soothe a troubled mind. It’s one thing to keep a mad relation chained in the attic (many a New England home has just such a closet, well padded to muffle the screams), but quite another to be seen as arranging treatment for an unfortunate nervous affliction in one you hold dear. And with the family physician and minister both forbidden, what other option remained but to send for your friend the amateur philosopher?

  If this was true—and Jebediah was more than capable of such subtleties—then on one level at least I was present simply as a demonstration of filial concern. You think me unkind, impugning such base motivations to a dear friend, but be assured I was not the least offended by the possibility. Indeed, the notion was a relief, for this was a role I could play, so long as I wasn’t expected to effect an actual cure.

  Like the black crepe hanging from the mantles, I would assume a decorous role. Davis Bentwood, Consulting Metaphysician. All the better because his specialty, transcendentalism, was in vogue, proclaimed as the only sensible spiritual guide for the thoroughly modern man. How else might a troubled mind transcend the inadequacies of the empirical and scientific realities, and by sheer intuition sense the Supreme Mind, the god that exists within ourselves?

  “Frederick Douglass,” Jeb was saying, his eyes aglo
w with admiration. “In an ideal world he’d be elected to the highest office. A Negro as president of the United States! Do you doubt him capable of such service?” he demanded.

  “I have not one scintilla of doubt,” I responded. “Mr. Douglass would make an exemplary president. Of course, such a thing would never happen. Not in this century, or the next.”

  “How can you be so sure?” said my friend, as if amused by my obdurate ignorance.

  “Look around you, Jeb. Talk to the blacksmith, the farmer, the clerk. Such folk may be willing to support the idea of a United States—may even be willing to die for it—but while many of them despise the institution of slavery, they will not fight for Negro suffrage, any more than they will fight for female suffrage. It is too alien a thing to be embraced by the masses. Men such as you and I have the run of the country, and it will ever be so, because we will not easily relinquish what we believe to be our right by birth.”

  “Piffle and nonsense!” Jeb exclaimed. “Fixed notions can be changed. It was a fixed notion that the colonies were sovereign to the Crown. A fixed notion that kings ruled by divine right. I put it to you that only white men may be elected to high office is likewise a fixed notion, and therefore subject to change.”

  And so we debated the issue until well after the twilight had dissipated, with neither of us yielding an inch and both, I think, relishing the battle of wits. The others in the house, which included Nathaniel’s wife Sarah and their newborn baby, and the as-yet-unseen-by-me cousin Lucy, apparently avoided entering whatever room Jeb and I occupied (for we moved around, it being an ambulatory sort of argument) and left us to unfurl our passions without interruption.

  Then, having pleasantly exhausted ourselves, we took hot toddies of Jamaican rum and retired for a while to the main salon, where Jeb, stirring the fire with a poker, remarked that the fading embers looked like the souls of doomed men.

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