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       Coffins, p.6

           Rodman Philbrick
 

  “I do not gamble,” I replied, rather stiffly. “To my knowledge, neither does Jebediah.”

  Lucy’s eyes sparkled with amusement. “What a shame! All that naughty fun in the big city, and you didn’t partake. I suppose that means you’re a serious young man. Were you at the divinity school, then?”

  I understood that she was teasing me, and did my best to respond in kind. “The Reverend Bentwood at your service,” I said, effecting a seated curtsy. “But no, I’m sorry to disappoint you. My interest was more science than religion. I’ve a conceit that Emerson’s teachings about the mind and spirit can somehow be tied to modern medicine. So far I’ve failed to find the connection.”

  That brought another kind of smile to her face. “Emerson, yes, yes. The Sage of Concord, isn’t that what he calls himself?”

  “Others do. Emerson himself is a modest man, despite his genius.”

  “I know him as a friend to the cause of women’s suffrage, and of course as a poet.”

  “And?” I prompted.

  “And what?”

  “What do you think of his poetry?” I asked, wanting to steer clear of the whole delicate matter of women’s suffrage, as it was not an easy topic for first meetings.

  Lucy sighed. “Poetry. Ah. No doubt Mr. Emerson is, as you say, a genius of some kind. But I find him rather dry. I’m more partial to the English poets. Byron, Shelley, Keats. Though I don’t care a fig for that man Tennyson,” she added.

  I was not startled to discover she was a woman of strongly held opinions—her confident poise suggested as much, and her mention of suffrage had indicated a certain fervor for the cause—but to dismiss Tennyson with a slight wave of her hand, it was somehow breathtaking, and made me admire her all the more, though I myself held Tennyson in high esteem. “Did you not appreciate ‘The Princess’?” I asked tentatively.

  “Why? Because it speaks of women’s emancipation? Do you fancy me an emancipator, Dr. Bentwood? One of those modern harridans? The keening suffragist?”

  There it was, the subject I’d thought best avoided, until we were more thoroughly acquainted. And clearly she expected a reaction from me. “I would describe you as a modern sort of woman,” I said tactfully. “Never a harridan. And if you are a suffragist, you do not keen.”

  She liked that, and rewarded me with a smile. “If I admitted to a previous interest in suffrage, Dr. Bentwood, would you flee the room?”

  “Certainly not. But why do you say a ‘previous’ interest?”

  She shrugged prettily. “Before my father’s illness I did support the cause. Since that sad event I’ve retired from it, although still believing that I and all my sisters should have the vote.”

  “And so you would, were it mine to give,” I offered gallantly, but without the slightest confidence that such a thing would ever truly come to pass.

  “I think you are jesting with me, Dr. Bentwood.”

  “Oh? I didn’t mean to offend.” I was glad of the gloom, or she might have noticed the blush upon my face. To cover my embarrassment I decided to change the subject from suffragists and poets to something more prosaic.

  “I understand you have a fondness for pinochle.”

  That earned me a lift of her lovely eyebrows. “Apparently my reputation precedes me,” she said. “Which leaves us with the question, does a ‘modern woman’ play pinochle? For all I know, emancipation and games of chance may be mutually exclusive.”

  “Surely pinochle involves skill.”

  “Not much. It’s all in the cards, as they say. Are you suggesting we play a hand? And what stakes do you have in mind, if you’re not, as you claim, a gambling man?”

  I was trying to think of a witty reply, something worthy of this intoxicating young woman, when Jebediah returned with the news that the Captain was “amenable.”

  “Ah!” I turned to make my apologies and could not help but notice the look that passed between Jebediah and his cousin, as if they were both privy to a discomforting secret that could not be revealed in my presence.

  Before I could do more than bid her a hasty farewell, Jeb was hurrying me along a dark hallway deep within the interior of the great house. “He seems to be himself today,” he said. “And of course he’s greatly relieved that Charley survived.”

  “Charley?” I asked, racking my brains to think if there was a brother by that name.

  “You’ll see,” Jeb said mysteriously. “Father is eager to meet you by the way. I told him you were a friend of Emerson’s.”

  “Hardly that!” I exclaimed. “Would that I were. But really, Jeb, you know better. Emerson and I are barely acquainted. I doubt he’d remember me.”

  “Nonsense. You’re too modest. And if I exaggerate slightly, it is because the Captain holds Emerson in such high regard.”

  “As a poet?”

  Jeb shook his head. “As an abolitionist. I doubt my father has ever read the great man’s poetry. Or any poetry, for that matter, beyond sea chantey doggerel.”

  “I see.”

  Jeb turned and studied me directly. “Do you? No matter.”

  We had come to a door somewhere in the center of the house. My friend took a key from his waistcoat, unlocked the door, and opened it. “All the way to the top,” he said, gesturing at the steep stairs within the door.

  “You won’t accompany me?”

  He shook his head firmly. “Two of us would likely confuse the, issue. I’ll wait below—if there’s a problem, you have only to shout.”

  I mounted the stairs with more than a little trepidation. It was a long ways up—three landings—but the way was lighted by a series of round windows, very like portholes, and a spectacular view of the harbor gradually came into view. This pretty picture lightened my mood. What, after all, was there to fear from an old man uneasy in his mind? If the meeting did not go well, all I had to do, as Jeb suggested, was call for assistance.

  My destination was at the top of the tower, which rose like a lighthouse over all of White Harbor. With each turn of the stairs another portion of the village appeared and I could not help but linger for a few moments at each of the portholes, one higher than the next, until I felt like a bird hovering above the world. From here I had a clear view of the wharf where I had arrived, of Raven at her mooring, and the protected harbor, the rocky promontory, and the sea beyond, which seemed to melt into the wintery blueness of the sky without a sharply defined horizon.

  At the top of the stairway I came upon a stout door of unpainted oak. There was no knocker. For that matter it lacked a handle, though a pattern of screw holes indicated there had once been a handle, and that it had been removed.

  I was poised to knock my fist upon the oak when an inside bolt was drawn and the door swung open a few inches.

  “State your name,” came a muffled voice from behind the door.

  “Davis Arthur Bentwood.”

  A glittering eye surveyed me through the hinge gap, and then blinked furiously. “Remove your jacket!” the voice ordered.

  “Captain Coffin? Good day, sir. I’m a friend of Jebediah’s, I believe he mentioned—”

  “REMOVE YOUR JACKET!” he bellowed from behind the door.

  This was a voice capable of “starting” a sailor as efficiently as the strike of a lash, and my arms hastened to shed my black frock jacket before my mind had given the order.

  “Waistcoat, shirt, collar, cuffs, pantaloons. Step lively now!”

  “I’m not armed, sir. There’s no need to—”

  “I AM ARMED, DAMN YOUR SOUL! NOW STRIP OFF YOUR GEAR OR I’LL PUT A BLOWHOLE IN YOUR BELLY!”

  Was it true? Had the family allowed the madman to arm himself? Recalling the pistol shot of the previous evening, I hurried to obey his command.

  It is amazing how fast a man can strip when he believes his life may be at stake. In less time than it takes to recite one of the shorter psalms I whipped off my waistcoat, unclipped my starched shirt collar, unbuttoned and removed my cuffs, shed my boiled shirt, droppe
d my pants, kicked off my boots, and stood before that glittering eye in only the long, one-piece woolen underwear that concealed my nakedness from neck to ankle.

  “Turn around! Right! Go on inside then! Sit yourself on the stool and keep your hands on your knees!”

  The tower room was no more than a dozen paces on a side, with windows all around. Other than a small ship’s stove with a tin chimney, the only furnishings were an upholstered sofa, a Turkey rug, a seaman’s trunk, a cedar bucket, and a three-legged stool. The stool was short, the room was cold—no heat radiating from the little stove—and as I took my place every inch of exposed flesh seemed a welter of goose bumps.

  A sudden bang! made me jump inside my skin, but it was only the heavy oak door slamming shut.

  “There now,” said Cassius Coffin in a conversational tone. “So you’re the famous abolitionist. I’ve always wanted to meet you, sir.”

  Standing before me was a man who at first glance did not give the impression of madness. To my physician’s eye his complexion was perhaps a little too ruddy, indicating a choleric humor and a bilious temperament (which he had already demonstrated) but high choler is hardly a mental deficiency. Nor did his confident poise or upright posture betray any of the muscular twitching or spasmatic indications of insanity. Unlike his taller sons he was of medium height, although broad-shouldered and unusually robust for a man of his years. A full white beard fit him like a bib, or the rays of light emanating from the visage of the sun found in certain archaic illustrations. His hair, white and thinning, curled in oily tendrils from a widow’s peak upon his deeply furrowed brow, and looked as if it hadn’t been properly trimmed in quite some time. He had the prominent, hooked nose characteristic of all the Coffins, and the familiar deep-set eyes, which seemed to glitter now with curiosity, not the mad gleam I’d thought to perceive from behind the crack in the door.

  The old sea captain wore the dark blue, tightly woven uniform of his trade, with a double-breasted jacket and enough brass buttons to please an admiral. His fully bloused trouser legs were tucked into knee-high, badly scuffed boots. He had the look of a man who could live within a single change of clothes for months, if necessary. Indeed he had about him the distinct pong of one who hadn’t bathed recently; a thin, not entirely unpleasant scent of tar, tobacco, sawdust, and sweat.

  There was, as promised, a rather large flintlock pistol suspended from a wide leather belt, of an ancient type unfamiliar to me, but deadly in appearance nonetheless.

  “I’ve heard tell of you, Mr. Emerson. How came you to be in these parts?”

  It was obvious he’d somehow confabulated Jeb’s explanation of my identity as Emerson’s friend, and confused me with the man himself. I opened my mouth to correct him, saw his blunt hands nervously stroking the barrel of the pistol, and reconsidered. He might not be drooling mad—a sure sign—but there was something “off” about the old man, and if it eased his mind to think his visitor was a famous philosopher and abolitionist, so be it. Under the circumstances I could play along without dishonoring myself, as one might humor the witless or infirm.

  “I am acquainted with your son Jebediah,” said I, my mind racing as it searched for a credible explanation, given my new “identity.” “Your son has, um, devoted himself to the cause and I, ah, I wished to converse with him upon the subject.”

  “We agree, all of us, that slavery is a great evil,” replied the old man. Suddenly he looked fearfully around the small room, as if suspecting that we were being overheard. “My Jebediah has the soul of a giant,” he hissed. “Do you agree?”

  “I do,” I replied without hesitation.

  That seemed to please him. Muttering to himself, the old man took a seat on the narrow horsehair sofa, which I gathered also served as his bed, and placed the heavy pistol within easy reach.

  “Come, Charley,” he called out.

  It was all I could do not to leap up from my stool when something brushed against my leg. Gliding quietly along the floor like a puff of condensed smoke was the largest cat I’d ever seen. A ringed tail, thick as my hand, trailed above it like a fat exclamation point. With a small mew—small for an animal so large—it raised its forepaws and labored to mount the sofa. Labored because a white bandage encased most of one’ haunch—a fresh bandage, from the look of it.

  Presently the cat settled upon the old man’s lap and regarded me solemnly with a pair of exquisitely beautiful green and yellow-flecked eyes. “My Charley, poor lad,” the old man said by way of introduction.

  “What manner of cat is that?” I asked.

  “Called a ‘coon’ in these parts,” he said, stroking under the beast’s ample chin. Soon the thing was purring, or possibly growling, and its startling eyes never left mine. “On account of the ringed tail, I suppose. They’re particular animals, but pretty fair sailors. Charley here has been full ways round the world more than once, and he never complained so long as he got his vittles.”

  “And how was Charley injured?” I asked, innocently enough, wanting to express concern for an animal so much in his favor.

  “I shot him,” said the old man.

  The simplicity of the statement left me speechless. At once I guessed that this remarkable creature had been the source of the horrible squalling from the previous night, and the pistol shot had obviously found its mark upon the cat’s haunch.

  “Had to shoot him,” the old man explained with a weary shrug. “He was taken hold of.”

  “Taken hold of?” I stammered. “By whom?”

  “Him that cursed me,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Never mind my troubles, lad. Tell me how you and Jebediah aim to put an end to slavery, that’s what I’ve a mind to hear.”

  I pried my tongue from the roof of my mouth and tried to form an answer. “Well, you see … the problem is …” I began, and then trailed off as my mind went blank.

  “Ha!” he said, chuckling beneath his beard. “Sinking a long-established evil ain’t so easy, is it?”

  “No,” I agreed, feeling grateful for the lead. “Not easy at all.”

  The old man nodded eagerly, his eyes as bright and moist as chips of melting ice. “Work of a lifetime!” he said. “That’s what I been telling Jebediah. As he’s made it, and as he progresses. Seeking the end of an institution older than Moses. But fair work, and noble good. It pleases me the boy has aimed his sights so high.”

  “Oh, indeed, very high.”

  “And you’re lending a hand, is that it?” His fingers strayed from the cat’s chin to the pistol.

  “Oh, yes, lending a hand,” I said eagerly.

  He resumed stroking the green-eyed beast sprawled in his lap. There was silence between us that was beginning to feel almost comfortable when suddenly the old man said, in a conspiratorial tone, “You heard what happened to my twins? My precious book-end boys?”

  There was something about his manner that suggested the question was a trick, and that I must answer correctly.

  “I heard,” I said carefully. “Please accept my condolences.”

  “Wasn’t no accident,” he told me fiercely. “They was murdered.”

  “Oh?”

  “Murdered by him that cursed me! Him that stuck them to the log and would not let move until they was sawed to pieces before my eyes!”

  “Him?” I asked.

  The glittering madness had returned to his eyes. “Don’t trifle with me, lad, you know who I’m talking about!” he bellowed. And then, softly, “The same who took hold of Charley, that’s who. The same who’ll take hold of you, if it pleases him.” He picked up the pistol and aimed it at my heart. “Don’t think I won’t shoot.”

  “Please don’t,” I pleaded.

  “Hands on your knees, Mr. Emerson. If that be your name. Is it?”

  “No,” I said, feeling an urgent need to speak the truth. As if truth might blunt the bullet. “My true name is Davis Arthur Bentwood.” The pistol did not waver, prompting me to babble rather desperately. “I, ah, studi
ed with Emerson, or rather I studied him, you see. I’m writing a book. Not much of a book, but it follows the lamp of Emerson. Jeb and I were friends at Harvard. Splendid fellow, your son Jebediah. As you say, the soul of a giant. Asked me to visit with you, chat about Emerson and abolition and so on. Happy to oblige.”

  “Bentwood,” he mused. “I recollect that name. Bentwoods round about Lowell and Boston. You one of them?”

  “I am,” I said eagerly. “That’s me, last of the Bentwoods.”

  That seemed to please him. “The last?” he asked, his eyes narrowing. “Was you cursed?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  “You’d know a thing like that. The cursing, that would be enough to make a man change his name, I guess,” as if that explained the misunderstanding. He returned the pistol to the sofa and resumed petting the cat.

  I remained perched on the stool, trying to stem the shivers, hands grasping my knees. Not wanting to disabuse him of the notion that I, too, was cursed. That we had it in common, which ought to prevent my being shot by that dreadful weapon.

  For a time the old man occupied himself muttering to the cat, stroking it softly and fussing with the bandage. But soon enough he took note of me again, and I was relieved to see that his expression had softened. “I’ve enjoyed yarning with you, Mr. Emerson. You’d best leave now, before he takes hold of you and I’m obliged to shoot.”

  Hastily I backed away from the stool and picked up my pile of clothing where it lay by the door.

  “If he does take hold, tell him he can’t have Cash Coffin. I know his ways. I can see him coming. I’ll kill him before he kills me, just as I did before. Only this time he’ll stay dead!” he thundered, again brandishing the pistol, though not taking aim. “You tell him that, Mr. Emerson. Cash Coffin can’t be had! Not in this world he can’t!”

  With that I fled, and did not stop trembling until I was dressed and safe away, with an oak door and three flights of stairs behind me, and a glass of whiskey in my shaking hands.

  7. The Frozen Baby

  As the reader has no doubt surmised from the title given to this chapter, we’ve come round at last to where we began, to the mystery of the infant dead in his cradle. A poor, ten-week-old child somehow frozen solid in a room as stifling warm as an Indian sweat lodge. My recollection is somewhat confused by the emotional state of all concerned, not the least myself, and I do not recall precisely how we managed to remove Sarah from the nursery, or how I was able to pry Nathaniel’s hands from the bar of the cradle. By then Benjamin Coffin had entered along with Jebediah, and eventually Barky the cook, who had been roused from his hammock nearby the kitchen, and whose stoic presence helped to calm us all somewhat.

 
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