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       Coffins, p.5

           Rodman Philbrick
 

  Knowing that an excess of coffee tended to stimulate my small friend, I did not rise to the “humbug” bait, but diverted his attention to a dispatch regarding shipment of arms to the South.

  “‘As for the armament of the South,’” I read aloud, “‘it is intended to defend the whites against a servile insurrection. There has been so much said about the abolitionism of Lincoln and Hamlin, that the Negroes have become indoctrinated with the idea that they will be free on the fourth of March, when the new president takes the oath of office. It is to guard against a ‘rising’ that Sharpe rifles and Colt revolvers, and Ame cutlasses, are being sent southward. These weapons have to be paid for in good funds, and the Yankees who take them receive kind treatment.’”

  This brought me an owlish look from my companion. “I’m confident a man of your intelligence doesn’t believe such poppycock,” he said.

  I affected surprise. “You mean arms are not being shipped southward by greedy Yankees?”

  “I mean nothing of the kind! We Yankees are known for our greed, and we’re proud if it. But I have my own ‘dispatches’ from the South, and they tell me there is, unfortunately, little to fear of a slave insurrection. The Southerners know this very well, having beaten and tortured the Negroes into submission for many generations. At the first sign of spirit or independence in a male Negro, he is whipped. At the second sign, he is castrated or hung. If the spirited Negro happens to be female, her children are taken and then she is sold to an even harsher master. No, the spirited Negro does not rise up if he wishes to live, he flees north! And it is to stop this fleeing, and to repel federal troops, that the South is arming itself. They have refused to allow any of the federal forts to be relieved. Soldiers at Pickens and Sumter cannot leave, for fear of being attacked by the populace.”

  “But they have not been attacked, that’s my point. So far it is nothing but Southern bluster.”

  “Hardly. I’ll give the Southerners this much: they know there must be war to settle the question, even if you—and your like—do not.”

  “My like?” I said, somewhat disingenuously.

  “All you Free Democrats,” he said dismissively, with an impatient wave of his hand. “Am I wrong to lump you in with them?”

  He was not wrong. Fearing Lincoln’s obstinacy, I had cast my vote for Senator Douglas, the Free Democrat candidate. Full-throated abolitionists like Jebediah believed that Free Democrats were somehow worse than the Pro-Slavery Democrats, for being opposed to slavery but lacking the will to abolish it by bloody means if necessary.

  “Just because I voted for Douglas doesn’t mean I’m in favor of slavery. You know I abhor the very idea. What I am in favor of is preserving the Union. And if Congress fails to find compromise, the South will carry through on its threats, which will leave us either divided or at war, or both.”

  “Exactly my point,” was Jeb’s happy reply. “War is inevitable.”

  I could not contain a sigh of frustration. In the several years of our acquaintance, never once could it be said that I had prevailed in argument. My friend’s belief in the cause was absolute, like the faith another might have in God, and he could not be “reasoned” out of it.

  “Look here,” he said, giving his broadsheet another sharp snap. “A new gun has been invented by a Mr. L. Thomas, and is represented to be better than either the Armstrong or the Whitworth piece. It has a range of nearly six miles, with a shot of 170 pounds. Incredible! Mr. Lincoln may never have to leave Washington. He can make war from his front yard!”

  Jebediah’s expression was gleeful—the first I had seen since my visit—and I could not bring myself to puncture this most welcome elevation of mood. If gloating about the imminence of civil strife made him happy, so be it. I drank my coffee and tried to agree with everything he said, no matter how extreme. Therefore I found myself agreeing that all slave owners were, in effect, traitors, and should be dealt with as such. And that non-slave owners in slave states were complicit in the crime and subject to the same penalty. That after the situation had been “resolved,” as he put it, a Negro State should be founded, possibly several Negro States, and certainly a Negro Territory or two, and that any blacks wishing to be repatriated to Africa would be carried there as guests of the United States Navy, and given such implements as they required to farm the land.

  In my compliancy I agreed that we must invade Cuba and force the end of slavery there, too, as the conditions on that island were even more abominable than those in the South. I may even have agreed to lead such an expedition, single-handed if necessary.

  My reward was a hearty laugh from Jeb, and a slap on the back with the knob of his cane.

  “Done!” he cried. “Admiral Bentwood you shall be, Liberator of Cuba and the World!”

  Not long after leaving the inn we found ourselves treading uphill, on a course to intercept the soaring, sunlit spire that dominated the center of the village. Jeb grew more and more quiet with every step. We came to the Episcopal church. It was a neat, clapboard affair, white as a May cloud, but we did not enter. Through the open doors I saw rows of white benches dappled with light from the high-peaked windows, and beyond that, a tall lectern partially obscured by shadows.

  “The Captain cannot abide Father Whipple,” Jeb explained, breaking the silence. “It’s no fault of Whipple’s, he’s a decent fellow. But his predecessor, a certain Cornelius Remick, had unkind things to say about the family, in the form of a sermon shortly after that my mother passed away. My father connects the two events in his mind.”

  “Ah,” said I, expecting my friend to reveal the topic of the offensive sermon, but he did not, and we continued on, taking a neatly bricked path into the adjacent cemetery.

  Here, built as a miniature of the church, but without the spire, was the family mausoleum, made of finely pebbled granite. Because graves are difficult to excavate in the winter-months, there were many such aboveground crypts, inscribed with local names like Drake and Locke and Kilburn and Griswold, although none were so large or neatly appointed as this. Below the family name “COFFIN,” in smaller letters, was a second inscription, “SEAFARERS,” and the chiseled relief of a three-masted schooner under full sail. Beneath the schooner, the final inscription, in the old style: “To Heaven If The Wind Be Fair.”

  In the center of the crypt was a plain, black-iron door, of a size that would require a man of my height to stoop, were I inclined to enter. Strangely enough, the door was partly open, revealing a shadowed interior as black and cold as the iron itself.

  Although I am not inclined to superstition or morbidity, a chill came into my bones, and with it a kind of dread that could not be explained by a mere unlocked door. Perhaps it was the smell, for there was the hint of it even then, some yards away. Not the smell of corruption, I hasten to add, but something much more foul.

  Beside me Jeb seemed to freeze in place, his eyes gone large and owlish, as if he could not believe what he was seeing. “The vault was shut as of yesterday. I locked the hasp myself.”

  “One of your brothers, perhaps?”

  To which he snapped a curt, “No, impossible.”

  He stepped forward, braced his cane against the iron door, and pushed it all the way open. Daylight did not seem to relieve the shadows, but the stench was suddenly overpowering, and brought a flood of tears to my eyes. Coughing into his handkerchief, Jeb cursed and then muttered, “Light. We need a light.”

  I volunteered to fetch a lantern from the church. “But you must promise not to enter until I return,” I added, quite firmly.

  “A promise easily kept,” was Jeb’s weak reply. He retreated from the open doorway and, catching another whiff of the horrible stench, uttered, “What can it be?” in such a way it was obvious he didn’t expect me to answer. Instead I hurried into the vestry of the church, found an old candle lantern with an inch or two of beeswax left to burn, and hastily returned to the family crypt.

  Jebediah was nowhere to be seen.

  Fearing that he
had entered alone, into that foul darkness, I cried out his name, only to have him step out from behind a stout oak tree. His face was ashen and his hands, as he reached for the lantern, trembled.

  “Allow me,” I insisted, lighting the candle with a sulfur match. I was determined to enter the crypt first, and try to save my friend from the distress of whatever was causing the ungodly stench.

  Holding the lantern out, I held my breath, stooped, and entered the pall of darkness.

  At first I could see nothing, the light from the small candle was so faint. It seemed impossible that daylight did not penetrate, at least a little, but the sun was more or less directly overhead, which must have accounted for the unnatural darkness. The only sound was my own boots scratching crablike upon the stone. Turning very slowly, I was barely able to make out the walls and the low ceiling—as if the darkness had a kind of substance that absorbed the candlelight. It did not help that the noxious fumes made my eyes water.

  Behind me, his small silhouette sharply defined in the doorway, Jeb called out, “Hullo!”

  “There’s no one here,” I said, without much confidence.

  “No one alive,” Jeb replied softly. “My brothers lie in their caskets, do you see?”

  Eventually I did see, when I had gone far enough into the interior to bump up against something solid. That “something” was revealed to be a stone tier. A kind of low platform meant to keep a casket above water should the crypt be flooded by the spring rains. It wasn’t the local practice to inter the remains within the mausoleum itself; once spring had come, and the frost had safely dissipated from the ground, a waiting casket was buried beneath the grass close by, and marked with a modest stone.

  A disruption had somehow occurred. The two fresh caskets were not upon the tier, but lay toppled on the floor. I was greatly relieved to see that the casket lids remained fastened in place, but one pass of the candle revealed the source of the horrible stench.

  Both caskets had been fouled with excrement.

  It was as if some large animal had forced entry into the crypt, shoved the wooden boxes from the tier, and then squatted over them to do its business. I say a large animal, because the excrement was copious—much more than, say, a dog or even a bear could have supplied. And then came a thought nearly as odious as the stench: that this was the action of human agents. Vandals who had forced their way into the Coffin tomb and purposefully debased it in as wretched a way as possible.

  “What do you find?” Jeb asked, calling in a clenched voice from the open door.

  And so I returned to the light of day and guided him some distance away, so we could both breathe a bit of fresh air. Jeb waited for my reply, anticipating the worst, and in this he was not disappointed. There was nothing for it but to describe, in plain words, what I had discovered.

  “Vandals?” he said doubtfully. “And you say they used it as a privy? But that isn’t human shit, I know that smell.”

  He was right, not even the foulest privy smelled so rank. “Then they collected the filth and brought it with them for that purpose,” I suggested.

  “But who would do such a thing?” my friend asked plaintively.

  There was only one possible answer. Someone consumed with righteous loathing for the deceased, and for the living who shared their name. Someone who hated Coffins, alive or dead.

  6. The Creature with Yellow Eyes

  On the way back home Jeb swore me to secrecy. “No one in the family must know. It will only add to their distress.”

  “Let me be your agent in this matter,” I said. “The church sexton will know someone willing to clean up the mess, and be quiet about it, if the price is right.”

  “I’ll pay, of course.”

  I stopped my friend with a hand upon his shoulder, and turned him to face me. “You will do nothing of the kind. You will leave everything to me, and you will banish this whole affair from your mind, exactly as if it had never happened.” There must have been something in my manner that prevented further argument, because Jebediah acquiesced with a kind of shrug, his eyes downcast.

  When home was at last in sight he stopped and took off his stovepipe hat. “I must ask another favor of you,” he began, and then faltered. Finally he blurted out, “Will you see the Captain now?”

  “Of course,” I responded without hesitation. “Though I doubt it will do much good, if he’s as disturbed as you describe.”

  Jeb’s smile was grim. “My dear Davis, you underestimate your powers of persuasion, and the comfort of your rational mind. But I hasten to add, this is no small favor. The Captain, my father, he’s … he’s quite reasonable much of the time. But there have been spells—that is, he’s suffered from spells of … some sort of brain fever or dementia. A kind of madness that comes and goes, although it never leaves him entirely. While in this, ah, ‘feverish’ state he can be quite dangerous. He’s an old man, but still fearsomely strong. So you must exercise caution. Whatever you do, don’t tell him you’re a doctor.”

  When we reached the house, Jeb asked me to wait in the parlor while he made sure the old man was “amenable to visitors,” as if I was about to undertake a social call. I wasn’t sure the word “amenable” applied to an apparently dangerous madman, but kept my reservations to myself. Poor Jebediah was having a terrible time trying to cope with the ravages of death and madness in his family, and it was understandable that he hadn’t yet fully accepted his father’s condition, even as he warned me against him.

  The parlor had the feel of a ship’s salon, long and narrow and dark with mahogany. Heavy black velvet mourning drapes made it dim, despite the hour. No fire had been lit, and the air was cool and sea-damp. I sat upon a hard-bottomed chair in the gloom, awaiting my summons, and could not help but doubt the situation. My friend was convinced that I could, by mere conversation, ferret out the cause of his father’s illness, but the whole enterprise seemed doomed to failure.

  After a few minutes I looked up, startled, as a shadow entered the parlor.

  “So you are still here,” said a familiar voice.

  “Miss Wattle! Yes, well, so I am,” I stammered, rising, as the young cousin glided close enough so that her exquisite face was visible, pale and perfect over the satiny blackness of her mourning attire. “Why—why would I not be here?”

  She laughed softly before sitting primly upon a chair a few yards from me, spreading out her full black skirt, her pale hands folded upon her lap. Her lustrous hair, I could not help noticing, was held in place with a black ribbon, and her porcelain complexion required no powder to achieve an exquisite paleness. “I thought perhaps the events of last night might have driven you from our company,” she said. “You were disturbed, were you not? I certainly was. That horrible screaming, and the pistol shot. I’m obliged to stay—indeed, I have nowhere else to go—but you are not.”

  “But I am,” I said resolutely, settling back into the chair. “Jebediah is my friend.”

  “Ah,” she said. “Your friend. And in the name of friendship you’re willing to brave the fiends of the night?”

  “Fiends of the night? Surely you’re joking!” I exclaimed.

  But she relieved my anxiety with the warmth of her laughter. “A bad habit of mine, making jokes at a time like this.”

  “Not at all.”

  She shook her head. “You’re being polite. I’m well aware of my deficiencies.”

  No deficiency was visible. Hers was a lovely head, with a long neck, large expressive eyes set wide, full lips, that flawless complexion, and fine thick hair. A delicately crocheted black shawl covered her shoulders, and served to accent the startling blue paleness of her eyes. A black satin dress, tightly corseted, showed off a slim waist, and the skirts were full and of a length to conceal her ankles and even her shoes. Her crinoline, which in fashionable belles can make the width of the skirt a full six feet, was much more modest. Boston is known for its jeweled beauties—it is the Hub of society, after all—but I’d seen none there to rival this you
ng woman. Not that she wore jewelry, of course—to do so while in mourning would have been inappropriate.

  I knew little about her, beyond her connection to the Coffins, and the vague and possibly erroneous suggestion that she was a suffragist. If so, she was an uncommonly lovely suffragist, but then Jeb and Nathaniel could have been pulling my leg in that regard. That matter aside, I had gotten the impression she was something of a poor relation, or anyhow had need of shelter, being alone and unmarried, and I longed to be better informed, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding presumptuous.

  “You and Jeb were college chums, do I have that right?” she asked brightly. “No doubt like most college boys you frequented gambling halls, and dens of iniquity, and the like.”

 
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