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       Coffins, p.4

           Rodman Philbrick
 

  “Shall we debate the point?” said I.

  This drew, as I knew it must, a warm smile from my small friend. “Another time. For now, let me show you to your chamber, and you can debate the subject of sleep with your pillow. I’ve no doubt you can win that argument, if no other.”

  And so my first day in White Harbor ended pleasantly, and I went to bed a little woozy from the rum, and did not awaken until the beast began to wail.

  4. The Wailing of the Beast

  Some hours later the squalling of a cat roused me from a deep slumber. Sitting up in the dark, stupefied by sleep, I knocked over the sperm-oil lantern. So it was that several minutes passed before I could shed my oil-soaked nightshirt, somehow dress myself in the dark—collar and cuffs nowhere to be found, and therefore done without. I then made a fumbling search for the box of sulfur matches and, finally, put light to a candle.

  By then the noise was beginning to sound human. As if it was not a cat at all, but a man reduced to some terrible animal distress. Candle in hand, I ventured out into the hallway. Try as I might I could not pinpoint the origin of the squalling noise. The anguished sound seemed to echo over the cool oak floorboards from various directions. As if the animal—if it was an animal—was trapped somewhere within the walls, and moving around.

  Using my hand as a shield so the candle would not gutter, I had to proceed with caution. The weakness of the flame rendered me nearly blind in a house whose layout was barely known to me. At times the awful wail had the timbre of a human infant, and then, abruptly, a mewling quality that could be naught but a cat; it was the uncanny changes that kept me going, as much as the wailing itself. Whatever the origin, the cry bespoke a desperate fear.

  Moving cautiously through the darkness, I knew there had to be a rational explanation for the awful noise. Despite the nightmarish quality of the experience, this was no dream or troubled sleepwalk. Something alive was obviously terrified, and had succeeded in frightening me.

  Suddenly I was struck in the forehead, as if by a stony fist. But my opponent, on closer inspection, turned out to be a door standing open into the hallway. I must have cursed, because a nearby voice admonished me with a curt, “Sir!”

  It was a woman’s voice, and before my heart had slowed she appeared out of the gloom, holding up a sperm-oil lantern, twin to the one I’d spilled. “Oh,” she said, examining the welt on my forehead. “Sorry. It was I who left the door open.”

  “Cousin Lucy?” I asked. Draped in a sheer cotton nightdress, she looked, in the lantern glow, like a spectral succubus, perhaps, with long dark hair loose upon her shoulders. Hers was radiant, porcelain beauty of the type that makes men into stumbling fools. Even in the dim light her eyes had a peculiar stimulating effect, for they were large almond-shaped eyes set slightly farther apart than is the norm, and of a pale, icicle-blue color that seemed to dazzle the lantern flame, rather than the reverse.

  “I am Lucy Wattle,” she said, sounding amused to be recognized. “Captain Coffin’s poor relation. His niece, to be exact. And you must be Jebediah’s friend.”

  At that moment the wail rose up a pitch or two, and then was cut short by what could only be a pistol shot.

  “Oh!” exclaimed Lucy, losing her grip on the lantern.

  The glass shattered on the oaken floor, and the blue glow of flame spread around her. Instantly I dropped to my knees and smothered the fire with my sleeve, and could see nothing but Lucy’s slim, elegant, and quite naked feet dance lithely away.

  When the flames were finally extinguished, we were left once again in absolute darkness, for my own candle had flickered out.

  “Oh, dear,” came Lucy’s voice, sounding very close. “I feel so silly. Was that a pistol?”

  “Yes, I think so.”

  “There must a thousand explanations for why a pistol might be fired in the night,” she mused. “Maybe that horrible screaming was a rabid animal, and it had to be put down.”

  “Possibly,” I agreed. “I caution you—don’t move. There is broken glass scattered all around your feet.”

  “Stupid of me to drop the lantern. I keep thinking my eyes will adjust to the dark. So far I can’t see a thing. Are you standing right next to me, by any chance?”

  A hand fumbled along my arm and came to rest on my wrist, which was instantly warmed by her touch. I confess that my mind, which should have been concentrating on the pistol shot, was addled with all sorts of erotic phantasms, for there is nothing quite so stimulating as to be touched by a beautiful woman under condition of absolute darkness. It was as if her slim hand had a life of its own, though she touched only my wrist, and that quite chastely.

  “What shall we do?” she asked, her voice soft and whimsical. “We can’t stand here until dawn. Or can we?”

  Her hand tightened on my wrist. Could she feel my pulse? Did she know my heart was pounding like a steam thresher? What, I wondered, would be her reaction if I offered to carry her away from the broken glass and back to her chamber? It was the prospect of her laughter—being the object of a young woman’s scornful amusement—that prevented my making the suggestion. And just as well I refrained, for a minute or so later another light appeared in the hallway, carried by none other than Benjamin Coffin.

  “No cause for alarm,” he said, but even in the soft glow of his lantern, I could see that he was hesitant to meet our eyes. And not just out of natural shyness, of which he had an abundance, but because he was discomforted by speaking less than the truth.

  “But we heard a pistol shot!” Lucy exclaimed, letting go of my wrist.

  Benjamin gave the distinct impression he was hiding behind his beard. I noted that he was fully dressed in a way that suggested he’d never been to bed, right down to his black frock coat, and that a large, sturdy key ring peeked from his waistcoat pocket. Keys that he fingered nervously as he hastened to guide us back to our rooms. “Nothing to worry about,” he said of the pistol shot. “An accidental kind of thing. Please put it from your mind.”

  As a guest it was not my place to question him. Even Lucy, his blood relation, evidently did not feel comfortable pressing the matter. When he’d got us back to her door she thanked him, and nodding at me said, in a voice that seemed to promise more, “Tomorrow we shall be properly introduced, Dr. Bentwood. Until then, sleep well.”

  It was a sweet sentiment, but sleep was impossible. After the dour Benjamin left me, I went to lock my door and discovered there was no locking mechanism, not even a latch or bolt. After propping a chair against the door, I lay upon the bed, staring up into the darkness, as my brain burned with two feverish trains of thought. The first concerned Lucy, beautiful raven-haired Lucy, and the other the peculiarity of the wailing and the shot in the night. Had it been a rabid animal, would not Benjamin have said so? What did he have to lie about, this man who quite obviously loathed prevarication? And what message had his cousin meant to impart, by touching her supple hands upon my wrist? Had she been amused by my charm, or by my failings? Did the hideous wailing emanate from the tower, is that what made it strangely echo throughout the house? What was Lucy doing now, at this very moment? Was she lying there in her gauzy nightdress, staring into the darkness and thinking of me?

  I slept a little, and suffered dreams that cannot be written, else they burn the page.

  The next morning at breakfast, something of the mystery was solved. Jeb entered the dining room in company with Nathaniel’s pretty, plump, red-haired wife Sarah, who carried a six-week-old infant in her arms. A boy, she said, christened Cassius in honor of his grandfather. “I expect we’ll call him Casey,” she said, giving me the distinct impression that the intended nickname was the result of compromise with the child’s father. She took her place at the table with a great swish of her crinolined black skirt.

  “I’m sorry you were disturbed by all that fuss last night,” were Jeb’s first words to me. “Father had a bad spell,” he added vaguely.

  “Your father?”

  He nodded. “And
his cat.”

  My friend did not intend to make a further explanation, that much was clear. There was no mention of a pistol shot, and from his foreboding expression, I knew better than to inquire. Maybe he would satisfy my curiosity later, when his sister-in-law was no longer present.

  Jeb climbed awkwardly into a chair whose seat had been raised several inches higher than the others, bringing his head almost to normal level above the table. There were dark circles under his clouded blue eyes, and a haggard look about him—more evidence of his father’s “bad spell,” whatever that might mean. “Nate and Ben have taken Raven down to Falmouth on pressing business,” he said, attempting conversation as Barky brought out platters of eggs, sausage, and currant muffins. “If the wind cooperates, we can expect them back by evening.”

  Sarah, who had quite a pleasant face, spoiled it with a dark scowl. Clearly she did not approve of her husband’s absence. “Tonight for certain. He promised,” she said, casting a sidelong glance at Jeb.

  “Nothing to worry about, dear,” said Jeb, but his own brow furrowed with concern, as if the very thought of his brothers’ business in Falmouth was troubling. “Tell me, Davis, is the coffee here as bitter as it is in Boston?”

  “By no means,” I answered, raising my cup. “Your cook is a treasure. I’ll leave here a fat man, and the happier for it.”

  Jeb was quite obviously relieved that I’d let him steer the conversation into safer waters, and he chatted amiably enough. By an effort of will he brought a smile to his face and began to discuss the attractions of White Harbor. It seemed my Portland hack driver was not far off in his estimations. Almost a hundred sea captains did indeed make their homes in the village, or nearby, though only a score were in residence at any one time, waiting to ship out. Some were gone for years at a stretch, while others plied more local waters for the thriving coastal trade. It had long been a White Harbor tradition that every able-bodied boy was destined for a life at sea, and many of the master tickets were passed from father to son. It had been so for generations.

  “The only place to touch it is Nantucket, where the trade is pretty much confined to whaling,” Jeb said. “The Coffins there are as likely to be innkeepers as mariners, and are no relation to us, at least so far as we can determine.”

  I had read a rather odd book on the whaling industry by Hawthorne’s friend Melville, but truthfully had not been able to make head nor tails of it, so loaded down was the story with heavy-handed symbolism. I was no Ishmael when it came to tales of the sea, but preferred the clear prose of Richard Henry Dana, who made his voyaging seem more an adventure, and less a quest for strained metaphor.

  “The White Harbor Coffins are related to none but the White Harbor Coffins,” Sarah stated, as if she expected an argument. She got none, however, and was left to butter her muffins and care for the infant Casey, who fussed quietly at her bosom.

  “I promise a tour,” Jeb said to me. “On foot, I think, so you can observe the exquisite smallness of the place. Then, once we’ve seen the living, we’ll stop by the cemetery and pay our respects to the departed.”

  “A most excellent idea,” I responded, rising from the table.

  And so we went out to the village of White Harbor, and saw what there was of it. Or as much as was not hidden from outsiders like myself.

  5. Intruders in the Crypt

  Jebediah strode purposefully along with his peculiar, sauntering gait, the result of forcing his extremely short legs to keep pace with me. The top of his high silk hat came nearly up to my chin and his cane rat-tatted along the cobblestones, as if keeping count. I got the impression he’d resurrected his good spirits by sheer force of will.

  “You see this small hill?” he asked, indicating the rise upon which the Coffin mansion loomed over the village. “For me, as a boy, it was a great mountain of a place, and to this day I associate it with gleeful joy. Sam’n’Zeke, clever lads, built me a little wagon fitted out to look like a boat. They ‘sailed’ me down this hill many a time. Oh, those were grand days! I was all of five years old,” he added wistfully, “and hadn’t yet realized that I’d already reached the height God intended. All things still seemed possible then.”

  Although none of the merchant homes we passed were as large or imposing as that of the Coffins’, many were very fine indeed, rivaling any to be found in Marblehead, Newburyport, or Portsmouth. One needn’t have the eye of an architect or builder to note how the houses of White Harbor had been improved upon over time, adding filigrees of trim here and there, and fine entrances framed with classical columns. No doubt the increasing prosperity of the village was reflected in such numerous additions and adornments. The majority of the cedar-shingled rooftops were interrupted by sun-sparkled cupolas, and by the curious, fenced-in roof structures known as “widow’s walks.” Jeb explained that by means of a hatch cut into the attic, a mariner’s wife could stand almost upon the peak of her own roof and scan the horizon for sails, for ships, for the promise of a husband’s safe return.

  “A dangerous life, the sea,” I said.

  “Indeed. Though far more dangerous for, say, the Gloucester fisherman than the White Harbor mariner. So many of those poor Gloucester lads who venture out in codfish boats never return. A single storm may drown them by the dozen. Whereas our village can sometimes go almost an entire year without losing a man. And never, to my certain knowledge, has a Coffin failed to return from a voyage.”

  “Extraordinary,” I said.

  Jeb thumped the brim of his tall hat with the knob of his cane. “Like all men we must die, of course, but apparently not at sea. I speak not from hubris, but from simple statement of fact. ‘Fear the sea, and it shall fear you.’ My father’s refrain. His prayer, one might say.”

  I waited, expecting this to lead into the delicate subject of the Captain’s condition, but Jeb lapsed into thoughtful silence for a time, and we walked amiably, if quietly, through the narrower streets of White Harbor, traversing an area where the houses were built close upon the cobbled roadway, with little space between. Many a doorpost advertised for boarders, and it became clear that while a few score of Harborites might be wealthy sea captains, another class of lesser beings dwelled in the shadows below the great merchant homes, living upon scraps left by the wealthy.

  Soon enough the street widened on a rise above the harbor, and here the shops and commercial enterprises flourished. Many of the shops had been fixed up “fancy” and made to look as “rich” as the finer shops of Boston; indeed the sizable business district reeked of a prosperity rare in a small, coastal village town of barely three thousand souls. Evidently all the gold was not in California, but was to be found at sea, and extracted by ships and the men who sailed them.

  “There are not just one, as you might expect, but two tailor shops catering exclusively to the trade,” Jeb informed me. “No ship’s master would dream of departing this harbor without proper attire. Merchant sailors may not be uniformed like navy officers, and yet there is a kind of uniform, I assure you, and it does not come cheap.”

  The “uniform” of a White Harbor shipmaster was not confined to dark blue wool, double-breasted jackets and pea coats, or brass buttons, or sturdy knee-high leather boots. He would be expected to drive a fine coach, supplied by Chase & Sons Livery, and dine upon silver plate, and drink from crystal goblets, and light his home with the finest lanterns and the most fragrant oils. I remarked that this was the kind of expectation our British brothers had of the royal class, and Jebediah agreed, although he made a joke of it. “Can you doubt that I was raised as a little prince, a tyrant to the servants?”

  “I doubt it not. Except that you had not only the servants and merchants waiting upon you, but all of your brothers as well.” The remark, intended lightly, brought a clenched look to my friend’s face, and I instantly attempted to apologize.

  “No, no,” he said, his breath steaming in the chilly air. “You have it exactly right. What a fortunate boy I was! Lacking a mother, I had so many
brothers willing to mother me. Five brothers,” he repeated softly. “Five of the best!”

  It seemed that any reference to family brought him up sharp against the recent tragedy, for the six had been reduced to four, and that unfortunate pair were those two he had held in the closest affection. Sam’n’Zeke had been as much like male nursemaids as elder brothers, having raised and nurtured him deep within the protective Coffin bosom. To make matters worse, and extend the period of mourning, another of the Coffin brothers was yet at sea, returning from the Orient, unaware of the tragedy.

  “Lucky Tom,” he said, speaking of the absent brother. “I so envy him his ignorance.”

  Attempting to distract him from these sad ruminations, I pointed out an inn upon whose dining-room windows was etched a promise of “The Finest Coffees & Teas.” Jeb agreed, but insisted upon first purchasing a handful of Portland newspapers to, as he said, “soak up the java beans” as we drank.

  It was well before noon but long after breakfast, so we had the dining room to ourselves, with the steaming beverage—the best Brazilian beans!—served by the proprietor himself, who bowed and scraped as if Jebediah really was of the aristocracy we’d joked about. “You’ll give my best wishes to the Captain?” the innkeeper asked, rather plaintively, as he pulled nervously at the ends of his rat-brown mustache, and then attempted to put right his unbuttoned and none-too-clean collar.

  “Yes, of course, I shall mention you to my father,” Jeb responded, cracking open a newspaper, effectively dismissing the poor man, who did not seem the least bit offended.

  “Look here,” Jeb said, indicating a dispatch on the front page. “That humbug Lincoln has found his backbone at last. He’s persuaded Buchanan to send a cutter to Charleston with orders to protect the customs revenue.”

  The comment brought a smile to my lips, for scarcely three months before, Jeb had been a great enthusiast for the Republican candidate, believing that the man from Illinois embraced the abolitionist cause with a fervor similar to his own. Now, only a few months after he’d been elected, Lincoln was a “humbug” for not pledging to dispatch troops to the slave states, with orders to enforce all federal laws. Having stated that a nation half slave-owning, half free was a house divided against itself, and could not stand, Mr. Lincoln was now busy contemplating the prickly realities of a presidency he would not formally assume for another few days. The slave states had vowed to ratify their own confederacy if an abolitionist was elected, and the populace, knowing this, had nevertheless voted for one; but now, having done so, the whole nation seemed gripped with a kind of nervous hesitation, as if slowly awakening to the full meaning of their convictions. Several states had already passed formal resolutions of secession. Meanwhile Senator Douglas, whose loathing of Lincoln seemed palpable, had failed to forge yet another compromise that might somehow appeal to the anti-slavery faction and still keep the South from abandoning the ship of state. The South Carolina legislature had been the first to vote for secession, and many of the other slave states had followed, but what legal import did those votes have, in light of the Constitution, which made no provision for dissolving the union? At the moment it was only pique and hot air, and hostilities might still be avoided.

 
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