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       Coffins, p.7

           Rodman Philbrick
 

  “’Twas an unfortunate draft,” he muttered in his peculiar, high-pitched voice. “All the heat was sucked up the chimney with the blaze of the fire, and drew the cold up through the floorboards. Something like that. Must have been. Just a misfortunate accident, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Poor child, he never felt a thing. He’s in heaven now, missus, never doubt it,” and so on, seeking to ease the shock of the cruelly bereaved mother.

  It was Benjamin who insisted that we all remove to the parlor and await the arrival of the family doctor, who had already been summoned. Nathaniel at first resisted, as if he expected his little son to somehow return to life from an icy nightmare, but stern Benjamin prevailed and we soon found ourselves—the men, at least—sitting around the card table that had been hastily abandoned when the screaming began. Quite numbed and speechless, all of us, for what was there to say?

  Sarah lay insensible upon the appropriately named fainting couch, attended by cousin Lucy. I quickly procured smelling salts from the family medicine chest, and she revived somewhat, although her pulse was rapid and erratic. Still, she was a sturdy woman, if cruelly shocked, and would soon recover, or so I thought at the time.

  “Would you fetch a cool compress, and place it upon her forehead?” I asked Lucy, who readily complied.

  Jebediah had the look of a man possessed by some terrible and unbearable knowledge. He seized the nearly empty glass of whiskey I’d abandoned and downed the meager contents like a man dying of thirst. “Impossible,” he said at last, keeping his voice low and conspiratorial, excluding the women. “Never mind what Barky said, there was no draft in that room. None that I could feel.”

  “God took him,” Nathaniel said, burying his face in his hands. “God takes what he likes, don’t he? The mighty bastard!”

  “You mustn’t speak that way,” Benjamin hissed. “Think of your wife and mind what you say.”

  Insensible to his brother’s admonition, Nathaniel looked up through a blur of tears and said, to no one in particular, “If it wasn’t God took him, who was it then?”

  I spoke not a word—it wasn’t my place—but my mind was in a fever, searching for a rational explanation. Had someone snatched the baby, exposed his frail little body to the cold night air, and then returned it frozen to the nursery? But according to Sarah, or what we could make out of her keening, she’d never left the room. She’d nursed the baby, laid him down in his crib, adjusted the lamb’s-wool blanket, and then proceeded to knit by the fire. When she checked to see if he’d fallen asleep, she found him in the state we’d all seen. As cold and hard to the touch as a block of January pond ice.

  Was it possible that she’d nodded off by that roaring fire—lulled by the heat—and not been aware that her baby had somehow been removed and then returned, all without waking her? Possible, perhaps, but there was another factor, that being the actual weather conditions outside. It had been temperate these last few days, and though the winter frost had seeped into the ground, a skim of ice had just barely begun to form on the puddles left behind by the melting snow. An infant might well perish from such exposure, but it could scarcely be frozen solid in so short a time. Which brought me back to the cook’s theory, that a curious, icy draft had been caused by the heat roaring up the chimney. A blast of frozen air sucked up through the floorboards from some deeper, colder area beneath the house. Was it possible?

  Soon enough the family physician arrived. A certain Dr. Griswold, whose most notable feature was a pair of protuberant, bulging eyes, magnified by the lenses of a pince-nez. Apparently Griswold had heard a bit of the circumstances from the sailor who’d gone to fetch him. With barely a glance at Sarah, prostrate upon the couch, or Nathaniel hunched in paroxysm of grief at the card table, he turned his attention to Jebediah.

  “Take me to the nursery,” he demanded. “At once.”

  As there was nothing for me to do in the parlor, I felt it my duty to accompany Jeb and the stolid doctor. Dreading what undoubtedly awaited us, I was at the same time half convinced we would find the baby dead in his cradle, but otherwise normal. The blueness, the numbing cold of his tiny body, surely we’d all imagined it, mistaking the commonplace of death for something even more terrible.

  But there had been no mistake. The nursery was still warm to the point of stifling, and little Casey Coffin was as we’d left him: a block of blue ice, cold enough to burn the doctor’s fingers.

  “Good Lord!” Griswold cried out, snatching his hand away. So startled that the pince-nez fell from his eye and dangled violently upon its ribbon. “What mischief is this? Jebediah, how did this happen?”

  Jeb regarded the tiny body somberly, indeed mournfully, but without the distress he’d first expressed. “There is no explanation, none that you would believe,” he finally responded.

  “No explanation?” said the incredulous doctor. “You show me this … this thing, and you say there’s no explanation?”

  Death seemed to have made him angry, though at first the anger wasn’t focused upon us in particular, but at a world where babies died in their cribs, in warm rooms with loving mothers in attendance. Dr. Griswold was a middle-aged, small-boned man of less than medium height, somewhat swelled by the necessary overconfidence of his profession, but the anger had shrunk him small again, and when he’d digested what Jeb had said he focused a pop-eyed, glowering look in my direction. “What do you have to say for yourself, young man? Were you a witness to this event? Is that why you’re skulking around?”

  “Griswold!” Jebediah barked in a warning tone. “This is my good friend Davis Bentwood. He’s a graduate of Harvard Medical School, and a guest in this house, and must be treated with respect.”

  “You’re a doctor?” he responded with surprise and irritation. “Then why have I been called?”

  “I received my degree, but I’ve never actually practiced medicine. And in any case I know little or nothing about babies.”

  The doctor nodded stiffly, but continued to look on me with suspicion.

  It was only later, as the recollection burned itself into my mind, that I had occasion to reflect how strange was this scene. Three men surround a crib. The object of their interest is a dead baby. One of the men is a dwarf and he’s clearly in charge, a commanding presence all out of proportion to his stature. Shadows flicker, low flames cast spiky glows upon the low ceiling, and all three men are sweating profusely as they contemplate that which has no explanation.

  “There must be an inquest,” Griswold finally said, as if trying to convince himself that an inquest would put things right.

  “I leave that to you,” said Jeb, moderating his tone. “Will you take it with you,” he added, “out of this house?”

  “It?” asked the doctor helplessly.

  “The baby, sir. I’m concerned for the mother. She mustn’t see it again, not in this state.”

  The strangeness of the “state” he referred to was not just the original icy condition, eerie enough, but that after an hour in a hot room the little body hadn’t yet begun to thaw. It remained as hard as marble, and so cold that the good doctor—and he was, I think, a good man, despite his reflexive distrust of a stranger—the good doctor had to wrap the remains in several layers of blankets to prevent his own hands being frostbitten by contact.

  When at last he was ready to leave, bearing the tiny, swaddled corpse, he looked to Jebediah with a glance that was stern enough to curdle cream. “The body will be taken to Caswell’s,” he announced, naming the village funeral parlor. “I will examine the cadaver in the light of day, and make my report for the inquest. Burial can be anytime after, say, noon tomorrow. I will not attend, is that dear? I will have nothing more to do with this hideous affair. If the mother requires treatment for nervous prostration—and I assume she must—and if your Boston doctor doesn’t feel competent to attend her you are to call on Dr. Shattuck. Do I make myself clear?”

  “Very clear, sir.”

  And with hollow eyes he left us, clutching his
sad cargo and convinced, I’m certain, that someone in the house, and possibly all of us, had played a ghastly, damnable prank resulting in the death of an innocent child.

  There was, as you might imagine, no chance of sleep that night. Jeb and Benjamin and I sat in the kitchen—or galley, as the Coffins called it—in the glow of a well-tended stove, drinking strong coffee and trying to make some sense of what had happened. And yet the more we talked the clearer it became that there was no rational or scientific explanation that made any sense. There were old wives tales about “cold spots,” of course, and we’d all had the experience of detecting a chill in an otherwise warm room, but we all agreed that nothing less than exposure in a nor’ east blizzard would so quickly turn a body to ice. And yet it had happened, there was no denying that, and if it happened then it must, ipso facto, be possible.

  It was only, I told Benjamin, our ignorance that prevented an understanding of what, exactly, had occurred.

  “Ignorance?” he said groggily, and for an instant a dangerous look flickered in his eyes, as if he was resisting an urge to strike me with his powerful fist. “I suppose I am ignorant, never having been educated like you and Jebediah. But I went to my own school, the school of hardtack and salt beef, and I guess I know when a cursed thing has happened, and this is a cursed thing, in the same way Sam’n’Zeke getting sawed to bits was a cursed thing. Sailors know about cursed things. They know there’s nothing you can do but pray, and that’s what I aim to do, if God will hear me. I’m going to pray hard, as hard as I’ve ever driven a ship in beastly weather. I’m going to pray until my knees hurt, see if I don’t.”

  With that he got up from the trestle table and stalked from the kitchen, his leonine head dipping as he passed through the door.

  “Poor Ben,” Jebediah said when he was gone. “This has riled him something awful. They say as a boy he prayed most devoutly, but never, I think, since Mother died. Since I was born,” he added, and then turned to me with a curious look. “Do you think it might work? Prayer? What does Mr. Emerson say about prayer?”

  “He would never, I think, underestimate the importance of prayer,” I responded, somewhat diplomatically. My mentor had, of course, resigned from his ministry over a matter of theology, but that had not affected his spiritual nature. What I did not add, given the circumstances, was that Emerson’s transformative ideas about communing with the God-within-us-all would not likely meet with the approval of, say, the local Methodists or Lutherans. Indeed, in an earlier age they might well have burned him at the stake.

  The sun having fully risen, I suggested that we take a turn around the grounds and fill our lungs with fresh air. Although I could not say so without risking offense, the house itself had a morbid grip on me, and I was eager to get away, if only briefly.

  “You go, Davis,” Jeb said wearily. “I must see to things here.”

  “Then I shall stay,” I said instantly.

  Jebediah shook his head and sighed. “I insist that you walk as far as the harbor and stretch your legs. Stretch your mind, too, because we have another problem to solve. It is this: how do we bury a frozen baby? Under normal circumstances the body would lie in the crypt until spring. But I won’t risk exposing that poor child to the ravages we found there.”

  He looked so hopeless, so woeful, that my first instinct was to take his hands in mine. “My dear Jebediah. Please do not torment yourself about these matters. The crypt is being cleaned even as we speak, and once it has been returned to a presentable state the vault door will be sealed in a way that prevents any further defilement. Certainly little Casey will not have to enter the place, nor will you or anyone from the family. Let me take care of the arrangements for the poor child. May I do so without being presumptuous, or causing offense?”

  In reply Jebediah gripped my hands, bowed his great head, and wept.

  8. Ice to Ice

  A ten-dollar gold piece bought the services of three strong men recommended by the church sexton. My excuse that only an immediate burial would relieve the mother’s mind was accepted without comment, as all eyes focused upon the gold piece. Using sharply honed pickaxes the laborers managed to chip out a grave deep enough for the purpose, and later that day, after a final and useless examination by Dr. Griswold, little Casey was placed in a tiny coffin and laid to rest. The brief ceremony was attended only by immediate members of the family, along with Father Whipple (a severe though calming presence) and myself.

  The Captain, informed of his grandson’s death, raged for hours in his tower, but could not be persuaded to leave the place, which I thought was just as well, considering his strange and sometimes violent behavior. Not to mention his aversion to the Episcopal priest, whose presence was more or less demanded by Benjamin. The elder brother seemed to have recovered the fervency of religion he’d lost as a boy. He had, as he vowed, prayed excessively, and the effort had evidently appeased his grief at the inexplicable loss of his infant nephew. God’s will, he informed us, and he had become convinced, like Barky, that the baby had been carried off to heaven.

  Whatever Jebediah’s opinion on the subject, he kept it to himself. Indeed, a strange and uncharacteristic silence had descended upon my friend, and he scarcely spoke until the tiny casket was below ground and covered with frozen earth.

  “Ashes to ashes,” he muttered as we walked away from the snow-dusted cemetery, his cane skidding on the cobblestones. “They might as well have added, ice to ice,” was all he had to say on the subject.

  On reflection, Dr. Griswold had changed his mind about the necessity of the inquest. Perhaps because even many hours after the event the small corpse remained inexplicably frozen, despite the warmth of the examination room, and with no explanation in hand he despaired of making a reasonable and defensible conclusion as to the cause of death.

  “He still vows not to set foot in the house, ever again,” Jebediah complained to me the day after the burial, as he began to emerge from his cocoon of silence. “As if it is the house itself, and not the inhabitants, that has offended him.”

  Clearly my friend expected a response, although I was as yet unclear as to what he craved, agreement or argument. My reaction was in no way irreverent, for the Jebediah I knew thrived on argument, preferring it to what he called the “pap” of polite consensus. Still, he was in some way diminished by recent events, and the last thing I wanted to do was add to his distress by speaking insensitively on the subject. “The man took an oath,” I reminded him. “I feel certain that despite what Griswold says, if summoned he will respond.”

  Jeb turned to me with his darkest look. “The weasel has one thing right. He’ll never set foot in this house again, so long as I live. There’s another sawbones in the village—he’ll be glad enough for our business.”

  “Quite right,” I said. And then gathered up my courage and prepared to raise a related subject, one that had been preying on my mind. “As to the house. Griswold may be, as you say, more weasel than man. But I don’t think he’s entirely wrong about the effect of the house itself.”

  “Oh?”

  “It is well known that a place may become infected with gloom. Have you not noticed this, Jeb? How a certain room or landscape may affect your mood, for good or for ill?”

  “What are you saying?” he responded suspiciously.

  I decided to abandon my carefully measured arguments and simply tell him the truth. “This is my prescription: take leave of this house for the time being, at least for the long, melancholy months of winter. Come back to Boston with me. I know a house on Beacon Street that can be had quite reasonable. A cheerful, sunny place, with no taint of bad memories. Surely a change of scene will lift your spirits. And you’ve friends and associates in the city—they’d be delighted to have you back, right in the thick of the action. Why there’s hardly a week goes by without a rally!”

  Jeb’s expression was cool enough to chill. “And what of my brothers? Lucy? My father?”

  “By all means, bring them along! Plen
ty of room for everybody! A change of scene, Jeb, sometimes that’s the best thing in the world.”

  My old friend stared at me for a long time, as if taking my measure, and then shook his head. “The Captain won’t leave. Even if he was entirely himself he’d never abandon ship. We Coffins are born in these parts, and we die here. We travel the world but always return. We’re of this place, Davis, and we can’t be shut of it, or it of us.” After a deep sigh he continued. “I do, however, understand that you yourself are anxious to leave. You may go without prejudice. I’ve imposed on you long enough. We all have. And you’ve done us good service. I shall always be grateful.”

  His speech stunned me into silence, to think that my intentions had been so completely misunderstood. When I finally found my tongue I attempted to make it clear that my misgivings about the house had nothing whatsoever to do with any desire to abandon my friend in his hour of need.

  “I meant only what I said and nothing more,” I said with a kind of furious urgency to be understood. “It is my belief that the atmosphere of this place, and memories associated with it, may contribute to your father’s illness. I believe that you, too, have been affected. But if you disagree, if you choose to remain, so shall I. Assuming that you want me to remain, that is.”

  I saw that my small friend was weeping again, and that he was unashamed as the tears ran down his face. “My dear Davis,” he said thickly. “I don’t know what I should do without you. You are the rock we’ve clung to, these last few days. These last few terrible days. It was wrong for me to take offense at your kind suggestion. Please forgive me.”

 
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