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       Coffins, p.8

           Rodman Philbrick

  Although I was greatly touched by my friend’s apology, I made a dismissive motion, saying, “There’s nothing to forgive,” and then went on in as light a tone as possible, to demonstrate my willingness to remain, and assist him to the best of my abilities. “What must be done? Shall we summon this other sawbones, and have him attend to Sarah? She may require a sleeping powder, or some other concoction for her nerves. Or, if you wish, I shall see to her, as best I can.” I went on, until at last the light returned to Jebediah’s eyes, and he looked about him like a man under siege, but no longer defeated.

  That very afternoon a telegram was delivered, containing the welcome news that another of Jebediah’s brothers, Thomas Coffin, had at last arrived in New York Harbor aboard the clipper Rapunzel, and was returning to Portland immediately by train. I was made to understand that Rapunzel was owned by a consortium of investors, of whom the Coffins were the majority holders, and that the voyage to the Orient had been spectacularly successful, her sleek hull fully laden with premium teas, exotic herbs and medical ointments, and bales of silk and cotton from India.

  Alas, poor Tom hadn’t even a pause to celebrate his success before the shipping agents informed him of the events at home, casting a shadow over his last few weeks at sea, when he had sailed on unaware of the recent tragedies.

  The last leg of his homeward journey was, like mine, aboard the swift Raven, and this time Jebediah and cousin Lucy and I were waiting at the wharf when the schooner sliced into the placid little harbor under full sail. It was a cold, clear day, and the horizon seemed to be half a world away. Squint and you could almost see the towers of Toledo, or China’s great wall. Raven leaped toward us as if from a great distance, sails an incandescent white against the glittering black waters. Once again all I could do was marvel at the masterful handling as one-eyed Black Jack and his crew made Raven turn and dash about like a thoroughbred in the able hands of an experienced rider.

  Lucy, of course, continued to wear full mourning attire out of respect for her departed cousins, and her black dress that morning included a full-length hooded cape and a dark veil. Her mood, previously irreverent and infectious despite the tragedy of Sam’n’Zeke’s demise, had been unrelievedly somber since the baby’s passing. She had, she confided, not seen her cousin Tom since she was thirteen and he already a ship’s master. “You can scarcely comprehend the impression of a handsome young captain on a girl of that delicate age. I nearly swooned when he deigned to kiss my hand! Of course he was only joking, but how was I to know at the time? I remember running to my mother, God rest her soul, and demanding to know if Tom was a ‘kissing cousin.’”

  “And what did your mother say?” I asked, eyes on the approaching launch.

  “Such a look! ‘There will be none of that in this family,’ or words to that effect. My mother was sister to his mother, never forget. No Wattle could marry a Coffin. First cousins might marry in the hills of Tennessee, but not here. Whereupon I suggested we all move to Tennessee.”

  “You were willful even then.”

  Her expression was unreadable behind the dark veil. “You disapprove of willful girls?”

  “Not. in the least,” I said. “Or willful women, for that matter.”

  When the man in question stepped onto the wharf, his expression seemed equal parts joy and grief. The first thing he did was drop to his knees and rest his head on Jebediah’s shoulder. This was, I thought, an extraordinary gesture. From what I’d witnessed, the Coffins were not a family given to open displays of affection. For instance, I’d seen Jeb greet Nathaniel with nothing more than a brief, cool handshake. And when the moment came, that was exactly how Tom greeted Lucy, though she was clearly poised to receive his full embrace, having thrown back her hood and lifted her veil.

  Perhaps sensing her disappointment, he attempted to make amends by praising her.

  “Lucy! My word, you’ve turned into a ravishing beauty. Breaking hearts from Boston to Bar Harbor, I reckon. And how is your dear father?”

  “Dead six months,” said Lucy with a dip of her head.

  Tom, having been so long at sea, had not heard of her father’s passing, and apologized for his ignorance. “We mariners can’t help but sail out of the past, for even with the telegraph, very little reaches us at sea. I am only now catching up, and part of me wishes I had never docked, but sailed on unaware.”

  Lucy was instantly solicitous of his feelings. “Forgive me, Tom. My dear old father’s passing was in some ways a blessed thing, an end to a long, painful illness, although it has left me alone in the world, and nearly penniless, and reliant upon my dear and generous cousins. Whereas, poor Sam’n’Zeke—it must have been a terrible shock to hear what happened.”

  “I still can’t believe they’re gone,” he admitted, with a nervous stroke of his thick brown mustache. Unlike most of his brothers, he kept his chin clean-shaven and his face went pink with a blush not of shame, I fancied, but of grief.

  As was revealed on the way home—his sailing trunk and a matched pair of large canvas bags stowed in the carriage—he’d also not been aware of baby Casey’s existence, for that happy event occurred some months after his departure for New York, and thence to the Orient. “What a cruel thing!” he exclaimed. “So many children die at that age, I wonder how parents can stand it. Poor Sarah and Nate have endured a hard blow. Are they as well as can be expected?”

  Jebediah cut me a look that said he knows nothing of the circumstances, let him remain ignorant for now, and I readily complied, while Lucy kindly distracted him from the unhappy subject by chatting brightly and ironically about her “season” in Portland. The bustling city was a mere village compared to Boston, but still there was a kind of social register, and Lucy had been presented in the proper fashion a few months before her father had lapsed into his final illness, and when, unbeknownst to her, he had spent the last of his fortune “bringing her out.” At some length she described the gala affair, the elaborate ball gown she had worn, the problem with the punch that made lips pucker, and the orchestra that featured, of all things, an Irish fiddler, considered scandalous by the more conservative guests—although not, obviously, by Lucy herself.

  “And how many suitors did you spurn?” Tom wanted to know, more out of kindness, I think, than any real curiosity. He was making an effort to be cordial, although clearly his mind dwelled on more somber events than a debutante ball.

  “All of them,” Lucy replied primly. “They were not suitors so much as codfish men and lobster boys. I decided then and there that I shall be a spinster and haunt a house in my old age.”

  That wrung a grin from Tom, and for a moment put a sparkle in his fine sea-green eyes. For the briefest moment a hint of his youth shone through, and then, just like that, he was a man of nearly forty years, creased and shaped by the life he’d lived.

  As the carriage approached the great house upon the hill, with its austere tower glinting in the sunlight, the attempts at conversation floundered, and we drew up to the portico as silent as the mourners who follow a funeral cortege. Tom climbed down with a sigh that made me wonder how much he knew, or guessed, of what awaited him. He turned to offer Lucy his hand, but she was already down, and heading resolutely to the open door where Barky, smelling of freshly baked bread, waited to greet us.

  “Master Tom,” he squeaked. “Home at last.”

  9. Links in the Chain

  The invisible baby began to cry shortly after midnight, but by then the evening was long ruined.

  Earlier there had been a brief respite from the gloom. Despite everything, the Coffins rose to the occasion of Tom’s homecoming, and made him feel welcome. Even Sarah, who had taken to her bed, emerged for long enough to attend an intimate gathering held in his honor. It was Benjamin who presided over the candlelit dinner, summoning various succulent dishes from Barky’s kitchen, and then, after the cake was served, he urged the retelling of amusing anecdotes touching upon Tom’s childhood.

  “Jebediah, tell the time
you put the toad under Tom’s pillow,” elicited a tale that brought tears to my eyes, for the oft-told story was in equal parts hilarious and affectionate.

  As Jeb launched into his recitation, I formed a picture of a much-younger brother desperately trying to attract the attention of a full-grown man who was something of a hero to the boy. More telling, the offending toad was a kind of metaphor for how young Jebediah saw himself at the time: ugly and stunted. Tom evidently understood this, and lavished such affection upon the “noble toad,” and in so doing upon Jeb himself, that it somehow helped the boy make the difficult transition to manhood. Of course my friend made the point without so baldly stating it, and with great warmth, but the impression to a stranger like me was indelible. The Coffins were all links in the same chain, forged together by blood and circumstance, and nothing, not even death, could diminish the strength they took from each other. Having been raised an only child by elderly, if kindly spinster aunts, I could not but be impressed, and more than a little envious of such intimate connections.

  Benjamin, who was a year older than handsome Tom, then launched into a tale whose main point seemed to be how the Captain had always favored his third and “prettiest” son, lavishing him with presents that included, on his tenth birthday, an exquisite sloop done up in the finest “Bristol” style. “It was built by Hiram Lowell himself,” Ben said, his eyes twinkling, “of the best white cedar. Frames of oak, and trimmed out with scads of varnished Honduran mahogany. I believe the tiller was carved from the jawbone of a whale, was it not?”

  “Right enough,” Nathaniel agreed. “Father brought it back from New Bedford when he sold Sandpiper, to be converted into a whaler. I remember that ship, a stout three-master—and I remember the whalebone tiller on Tom’s little sloop. A man in New Bedford made a specialty of items like that. Very stylish in those days. Everybody had to have a whalebone tiller.”

  “Do you remember how bad it leaked, Tom’s little sloop?”

  “Oh,” said Nathaniel with a chuckle. “Indeed. What terrible boys we were, Ben, to do a thing like that. And Tom such a good sport about it, despite our cruelty.”

  Their “cruelty,” it seemed, was opening up the seams of the birthday present that had made them so envious, causing it to sink at its mooring. Fortunately the little boat was kept in shallow water, and at low tide most of the mast was exposed, and the three elder brothers were eventually able to raise the sunken boat and effect the necessary repairs. In the course of which they came not only to regret their prank, but arrived at an understanding of why their father held young Tom in such high regard. A regard that his brothers shared from that moment on.

  For himself, Tom seemed a bit embarrassed by all the kind words. “It was only a boat you sunk, not me,” he said. “And if I didn’t run tattling to the Captain, it was only because he’d have boxed my ears. Really, I was a horrid little scab, like most boys.”

  The subject of their father having entered the discussion, Benjamin evidently felt compelled to say something about the old man’s condition. “I think we all understand why the Captain wasn’t able to join us this evening. He’s been hit hard. Stove in, you might say. As we all have,” he added, with a glance at Sarah, who wept silently, comforted by her husband. “Sometimes things happen that are so terrible the mind can’t rightly comprehend why God has struck us so cruel and hard. In our sorrow, we might even rail against the Lord, and hold him accountable for his mysterious ways. There’s only one thing to do when that happens, and that’s to pray for the aggrieved. So I ask you all to join hands. Let us bow our heads in prayer, and ask God to relieve the Captain of his terrible burden, and put his mind right.”

  We all did as he requested, and I found my right hand linked to Jeb’s, and my left to Lucy’s supple palm. As I glanced down, I fancied there was a light blush upon her neck, and then like the others I closed my eyes and listened as Benjamin Coffin spoke to his God.

  “Our Lord in heaven, look down upon us, and hear us. You have lately taken three of our family to your bosom, and in our weakness we grieve exceedingly. We ask that you relieve our sorrow, and give us a sign of your benevolence.”

  Ben took a deep breath and was about to go on when he was interrupted by the startling sound of a glass breaking. My eyes snapped open and I saw Nathaniel glance about with a puzzled expression, trying to locate what glass had tumbled.

  Suddenly the whole table began to shake, and more crockery toppled and was smashed upon the floor. A strange gargling noise came from Ben’s throat. His eyes had rolled white and his whole body shook, but not so hard that he released the hands in his grasp.

  “O Lord!” he cried. “O God, be with us!”

  A gust of wind came into the room and the candles guttered and went out, leaving us in the dark, save for the glow of the hearth. And then the hearth fire itself was extinguished and the table ceased to rumble, and all was silent.

  Out of the silence came Sarah’s voice, thick with rage. “Damn you!” she cried. “Damn every last one of you!”

  A chair tipped over, and as the flames flickered back up from the candles, I saw her flee the room, flinging her hands at her husband, who followed most desperately.

  When the soft glow light returned to the room. Jebediah stared at the disorder on the long dining table, the floor littered with broken bits of china, and said. “Yes, I suppose we are damned. Every last one of us.”

  Beside me Lucy wept quietly into her handkerchief.

  Having secured some medicinal brandy from the family stores, I had retired to my room shortly after the disaster in the dining room. But rather than soothing my palsied nerves, the brandy seemed to intensify my sensation of dread. A dread caused not by the quaking table, which might have Sarah shaking it in rage, or the guttered candles—a puff of wind let in by Barky, perhaps—but by the mournful pronouncement of my friend Jebediah.

  Damned, every last one of us.

  Said in such a way that I could not doubt he believed it to be true. It is an intolerable burden, to believe oneself doomed. The soul itself seems to go numb, and one so afflicted sleepwalks through life, having already resigned himself to his fate. There are many such victims on the battlefield—whole armies of sleepwalking men—and they do not wake until the bullet strikes.

  This I know now, for lately I myself have become a kind of doomed sleepwalker—one who longs for the final awakening—but that night in White Harbor I had no experience with the cursed or the damned, or for that matter the chaos of war, and I searched in vain for a way to bring comfort to my friend. Was there nothing in Emerson that applied? Feverishly I leafed through the sermons and essays, most of which I knew by heart, but the words seemed to blur upon the page. I was struck by the realization that there were situations that could not be rectified by the application of written wisdom or the reading of books.

  You think me a fool, no doubt, but until that night—really, until the dead baby cried—it was my firm belief that there was a solution for every problem, if one only knew where to look, who to consult, what to do. Emerson knew, and if not Emerson, Thoreau. If not Thoreau, then Hawthorne. Or the answer lay somewhere in the works of Rousseau, Carlyle, Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, or Goethe. Failing the Moderns, there was always Plato and Plotinus. Wiser men than I had puzzled out the answers, had seen the world in a drop of dew, understood the transcendent nature of the Universal Soul and the primitive fears that prey upon the individual mind. If we are all part of the same mechanism, if every man is divine unto himself, then that dreary, Calvinist idea of inescapable Fate ceases to exist, and no man can be cursed or doomed except within his own mind. That is what I had read, studied, memorized. That is what I believed.

  Until the dead baby cried.

  It began so distantly, so quietly, that it seemed to originate in my imagination. The ghost of an echo of a sound. A kind of pang or reminder of what had transpired, no doubt stimulated by my concern for Jebediah. But rather than dissipate into memory, the sound grew steadily s
tronger, louder.

  It was not my imagination. Somewhere in the house a baby was crying. This time there was no confusion about it being a cat or some other animal. This was, undeniably, an infant human wailing in distress.

  My first thought was that to console his wife, Nathaniel had somehow gotten hold of another baby. Taken from some local orphanage, perhaps, where they were glad of a willing parent.

  At that moment someone rattled the door to my chamber.

  “Davis!” Jebediah hissed. “Come along!”

  I hastily drew the sash around my robe, put on my slippers, and opened the door. There was Tom, fully dressed, and beside him, face pinched and eyes like embers, the much smaller form of Jebediah, attired in his cotton sleeping gown.

  “The nursery,” said Tom in a quavering voice. “Who can it be? Is there another child in the house?”

  “Poor Sarah,” said Jeb.

  And at that moment we heard her shriek from a nearby chamber.

  “Nate will see to her,” said Tom, sounding not at all convinced, as the three of us made our way more or less resolutely toward the nursery.

  My second impression, hurrying toward the unsettling noise, was that some enemy of the family had contrived another horrible prank, different from the defilement of the crypt, but no less repulsive. Someone mean-spirited enough to bring a baby into the house and induce it to cry, as a means of further tormenting the mother.

  The mere thought of such miserable behavior made me wish I’d brought along a firearm. Not to murder but to wound, as we had been wounded, as poor Sarah had been wounded.

  The impulse gave me pause, actually stopped me in my tracks. Was there really some dark part of me that wanted to stifle that pitiful sound? I had little experience of infants, being an only child, but my instinctive response, in the presence of a baby, had always been to coo and smile. Surely I would not harm this particular infant, who could not be held to blame for the cruel intrusion?

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