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       Coffins, p.9

           Rodman Philbrick

  As if in answer, an image came into my mind, sharp as an engraving: myself with pistol in hand, my face distorted by an expression of cold and furious anger.

  My hands shook so that it made the lantern cast wild shadows upon the wall. Dear God, I thought. This cannot be me.

  “Davis, are you all right?” asked Jeb, looking up at me with distracted concern.

  “Yes,” I lied. “It was nothing.”

  We arrived to find the nursery shut up. Behind a locked door the baby wailed, louder and louder. To my horror I saw that Jeb held a pistol at his side, partially obscured by the folds of his sleeping gown. Much like the pistol I’d possessed in my imagination. Possibly I’d caught a glimpse of it, and incorporated it into my thoughts without realizing the source.

  “What is your intention?” I demanded, indicating the weapon.

  “Never mind my intention,” he replied. “Open the door.”

  Tom searched a ring of keys, and as he did so the baby’s crying rose to a higher pitch. “Oh, God,” Tom said, fumbling at the lock.

  “God has nothing to do with this,” said Jeb, sounding both terrified and furious.

  I believe he was preparing to shoot away the lock when Tom finally managed to find the right key. Hastily he opened the door, and at that exact moment the baby ceased crying.

  “Hold high the lanterns,” Jeb ordered, and it was done.

  In less than a minute we ascertained that the nursery was empty. The crib had been taken away—by Nathaniel, as we later determined—and the room itself was cool and dark, no fire having been lit.

  “I d-don’t understand,” Tom stammered. “Where can it be?”

  A moment later the baby began crying again, from some other, more distant place in the house.

  For what seemed an eternity we followed the sound of the crying baby. From room to room we searched, lighting candles as we went, but the pitiful wailing kept moving from chamber to chamber, always just ahead of us. Sometimes it would stop, only to resume at a more desperate pitch. It was all I could do not to stop up my ears with some of the candle wax, for the crying seemed to resonate within my own breast, producing a kind of insufferable anguish, and pains upon the heart.

  Finally we came to the kitchen, where we found Barky the cook sound asleep in his hammock, evidently insensible to the din. At my prodding he slowly snorted himself to full wakefulness, and sought to aid us in our search of the premises.

  The wailing baby sounded close enough to reach out and touch, but we found nothing. Not in the cupboards, the closets, the pantry, or under the tables, no matter how frantically we searched. Nothing. And yet the crying continued, if anything louder and more distinct.

  It was there that Sarah found us. She rushed in with her gown flying, eyes as big as tea saucers.

  Tom went to her but she would not be calmed.

  “Make it stop!” she screamed when she found her voice. “Make it stop!” and then collapsed to the cold floor in a fit of sobbing that seemed to take her breath away.

  When poor Nathaniel finally reached us it was clear that Sarah had raked his face with her fingernails, although he was scarcely aware of the wounds, or the blood that seeped into his beard.

  I shouted to make myself heard. “Get her out of the house! Do it! Now, man, now!” He looked at me with an expression of horrified confusion, but slowly seemed to understand, and finally he scooped his wife up in his strong arms and carried her into the night.

  He was barely out the door when the crying turned into a wild peal of laughter. Hideous, vengeful. Laughter triumphant.

  “Oh, Jeb, no,” said Tom, sounding small and helpless, and much younger than his years.

  It was only then I noticed that my friend Jebediah Coffin was holding the pistol to his own head, and that his finger was squeezing hard upon the trigger.



  Men do not love those who remind them of their sins.


  1. Thou Seek a Mighty Blade

  “I will end this now,” Jeb whispered, gazing at the floor. “I can make it stop.”

  Handsome Tom seemed frozen, wanting to seize the pistol from his brother’s hand, but afraid to do so. He looked at me, pleading with bewildered, frantic eyes, Do something!

  Jeb remained exactly as he was when he’d surprised us in the galley, with the heavy pistol held against his temple. “Look at me,” he said, indicating his small, distorted body. “Is it not obvious? Was I not an abomination from birth? Cursed in my spine, cursed in my ridiculous legs?”

  “Jeb, please.”

  “Listen! The voice cries for my death. I’m inclined to oblige.”

  By then Barky the cook had become fully aware of the danger Jebediah posed to himself. Moving with a silent grace unusual for a man his size, he took me gently but firmly aside. “It ain’t poor Jeb that’s at fault,” he squeaked in confidence. “Persuade him to live, won’t you?”

  The Jebediah I knew had little enough interest in religion, let alone the more commonly held superstitions, but apparently the recent deaths and the strange, inexplicable phenomena of home and crypt had inflamed the nervous fibers of his mind. My little friend had come to believe that some sort of curse had settled upon the family, and that he was the living embodiment of it. Nothing in either my medical or philosophical training had prepared me for dealing with the irrational state, or the self-destructive impulse. The best I could venture was, “You are mistaken, Jeb. No one can be cursed. It’s an old wives’ tale. A superstition. And you’re the least superstitious man I know. Now please, put down the pistol.” Feeble, but it was enough to make his trigger finger relax somewhat.

  In the end it was the cook who knew exactly what to say. “Hear that, Master Jeb?” Barky said, cocking an ear. “The ghosty cryin’ stopped. Take it as a sign.”

  Finally he lowered the weapon and I was able to pry it from his grasp.

  “Sorry, sorry,” he muttered, weeping openly.

  Tom then picked him up bodily and ever so gently carried him to a narrow couch in the parlor, where he lay convulsed, covering his own face in shame as he wept like a child. I could do nothing but make some small noises of comfort, which he did not seem to hear. Never had I felt so helpless, so ignorant of human behavior.

  “Oh, the poor lad,” said Tom, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. “You mustn’t think to leave us, Jeb. What would we do without you? Hey? Couldn’t cope without our Jebediah, hey?”

  Barky, good man that he was, prepared a tot of brandy to “thin his blood,” which sounded very sensible. Jeb accepted the glass and drank from it gratefully. “I am s-so ashamed,” he stammered, unable to meet our eyes. “I hadn’t the courage to pull the trigger. I’m a c-coward.”

  “Nonsense,” I said. “You’re the bravest man I know. It was courage that made you stop.”

  At which Tom placed his hand on Jebediah’s brow and added, “Whatever might be cursed in this place, it can’t be you, little brother.”

  Our collective imprecations were awkward but eventually effectual. Jeb finally smiled sadly and said, “Dear friends, I fear you are wrong. But I give you my pledge that I will not shoot myself, whatever happens.”

  That was how it stood when dawn finally came. With Nathaniel and his poor, grief-addled wife gone from the house, and Jebediah lapsed into a brandy-induced sleep, and Benjamin praying with both hands, the weird “ghosty” crying was heard no more that night.

  Having returned to my chamber, I drew the heavy drapes and tried to sleep, but my mind raced with a thousand anxious concerns. What of poor Sarah, poor Jeb? Would they soon recover their senses, or were the wounds too deep? Who had defiled the family crypt? Could such an enemy have somehow contrived to murder an infant? And what if the mad Captain came storming down from his tower and confused me with some imaginary foe? Unlike the odd and loyal cat, I had no lives to spare.

  It was the vision of Cash Coffin blazing away with his antique miniballs that
finally roused me from my fitful slumber, and to a rational decision: if there were no sensible answers to be had in this house, I must journey to the shipyard where the tragedy began, and there demonstrate to my own satisfaction that the deaths of the twins, Samuel and Ezekial Coffin, had been merely accidental. Having done so, I might persuade Jebediah that his “curse” was but a tragic coincidence. Difficult to bear, horrible to contemplate, but nothing of the supernatural. This was my thesis, soon to be proved: tragedy sometimes came by the cartload, without the help of vengeful spirits.

  From the amply appointed stable I was given a small, lightly sprung chaise and a sturdy, high-stepping bay to pull it. The path was more or less direct, I was told, by a narrow, hard-packed road that veered from the shoreline for some six miles. Stick to the road, pay heed to the fingerboards pointing the way, and I couldn’t put myself wrong. The horse, the stable boy assured me, knew the way if I did not, and so I set out with confidence, eager to be away.

  The morning was chilly but glorious. A blue-streaked sky raced with high-blown clouds, and within a few minutes of leaving the Coffin estate I felt a great weight lift from my mind. As if the house itself had unfisted my heart and set me free.

  The horse, too, seemed eager enough to be gone, and drew the chaise through the miles without apparent effort, snorting happily whenever a cool shift of breeze brought the sea to our noses. There was but one serious hill on the Waldoboro road, and once over that a gentle incline led to a broad, shallow bay lapping against a pine-treed shore. From there the road curved—down into the crowded inner harbor, where a number of ramshackle yards had ships on the ways in various stages of completion. I say ramshackle because the building sheds appeared to have been thrown together haphazardly, in contrast to the precisely assembled schooners that swarmed with furious activity.

  A query shouted up into the staging caused a workman to lower his shaping adz and solemnly point me toward the largest of the building sheds. There I found Mr. Gunther Buchen, whose yard it was, and whose name was painted in man-high letters on the side of the shed, which I’d somehow overlooked.

  Herr Buchen oversaw his laborers from a small perch in the eaves. He summoned me up the ladder with a jerk of his thumb.

  I soon discovered that the shipbuilder, being both German and Quaker, was a doubly serious man, a full-bearded, black-eyed smoker of long-stemmed clay pipes who did not suffer fools, or visitors, gladly.

  “Does thee have business here?” he demanded, pointing the pipe stem at me as if it were a rifle barrel and me the squirrel.

  Such was the din of adzes, hammers, caulking mauls, and oaths that I had difficulty making myself understood, but when the shipbuilder heard the name “Coffin” his expression grew if anything more serious. Beckoning with that same curiously stiffened thumb, he bade me follow him along the catwalks until we reached a three-sided alcove where the cacophony was somewhat diminished.

  “Did thou say Cassius sent thee? It’s said the Captain has taken ill.”

  “Very ill,” I said. “I’m his, um, physician and, er, a friend of the family.”

  “Oh?” Buchen said suspiciously. “If that be true, why don’t I know thee?”

  I explained, as best I could, my relation to the youngest Coffin. Though I dared not break confidence by describing the Captain’s actual symptoms of madness, I was able to leave Herr Buchen with the impression that Cash Coffin was prostrate with grief, and blamed himself for the accident that had taken his twin sons. This was not strictly true, but was as much as the shipbuilder needed to know, nor did he press for further details of the Captain’s condition, as if he already knew something of the actual situation. Having heard me out, he sighed deeply, loaded and lighted his next pipe (he smoked a half dozen of the clay pipes in careful sequence, so as not to overheat the stems), and announced that accidents were common enough in shipyards, hadn’t he lost a hand himself?

  He held up the stiffened thumb, which startled me, as I had not realized his “hand” was carved from wood, and cleverly painted to look like flesh. “Mine got crushed when some timber shifted, and then festered so it had to be cut off. Thee truly didn’t notice?”

  “I assumed the hand was injured, but that it was real enough.”

  This pleased Herr Buchen, and from then on he warmed to my presence, or at least to our conversation. It seemed that unlike any of the other owners who contracted to have ships made in Gunther Buchen’s yard, the Coffins were actively involved in the actual building process.

  “The brothers, Sam’n’Zeke, they oversee many a schooner, from carving of the model to the building of the whole ship, until she floats free of the cradle. Only one man in all these yards knows more than the Coffin boys about the making of a true-found schooner. And that be Gunther Buchen!” he crowed, tapping himself in the chest with his pipe stem. “Smart boys, them Coffins, and fine gentlemen. Always ‘thee’d and thou’d’ me. Like they were my own two sons. Acch! Terrible thing! Terrible thing!”

  We left his little hidden alcove and emerged once more into the din. I followed the spry fellow down another ladder—the wooden hand seemed no bane to agility—to the hard-packed earth of the main shed, an area he called the “lofting floor.” Herr Buchen indicated that I should sit on an empty hogshead while he leaned against a workbench. The bench was neatly arrayed with a number of the hand-carved, model-sized hulls that ship designers call “half models.” I had seen such things displayed before, but never in the workplace where they were put to use, and my curiosity drew me closer. One of the models had been disassembled—cut lengthwise like the layers of a cake—and its component curves carefully traced upon a sheet of paper. These curves were then precisely expanded, Herr Buchen explained, and traced out on the lofting floor—“lofting” being the term used for the process of expansion from carved-hull model to full-sized ship.

  Above the bench, beautifully rendered in ink on parchment, was the detailed profile of a four-masted schooner.

  “Rebecca,” the shipbuilder said wistfully. “Named for Cash’s late wife.”

  “Beautiful,” I said, commenting quite truthfully, although the ship was not as ravishing, I thought, as the sleek Raven, which had been built for speed rather than cargo.

  “Oh, yes, very beautiful. And now it is the first ship of mine that sinks before it leaves the shed. Terrible! Terrible!”

  “How did it happen?” I asked. “If I can see it for myself, maybe I can help put the Captain’s mind at rest.”

  The shipbuilder studied me as if I were a knotty piece of oak, one he wasn’t quite sure how to shape or fasten. “You come,” he said and from the lofting floor led me out of the shed. There, on a long, gently sloped incline that led down to the bay, three massive ships were under construction, aswarm with workers bending long planks to the giant, curved frames that gave shape to the characteristic Waldoboro schooner. Carriers of coastal freight, each was of a length to require four masts, and from my keel-eyed vantage at the very bottom, they seemed immense arks, ready to weather the Flood that might soon sweep clean our nation.

  I followed Herr Buchen to the last of his shipways, where a bare oak keel had been partially laid on a set of inclining blocks and wedges. This was all that existed of Rebecca, which would have been the largest of the Coffin schooners, one of the rare five-masters, intended for the coastal coal trade.

  The shipbuilder produced his next pipe in the sequence, ignited the clay bowl, and crouched with his wooden hand touching the wooden keel. “If thou will know what happened to the Coffin boys, thee must understand the laying of the keel. If the keel is true and straight and properly fastened, so will the ship be true. Coffin boys know this. See how they skarf?” he said, raising his grizzled eyebrows to see if I understood.

  “Skarf?” I asked, for I knew little or no shipbuilding or sailor talk.

  He indicated a long, neatly executed joint in the length of the keel. “Skarf,” he grunted. “Keel is made of many pieces. Forty-foot lengths joined together wit
h skarf joints. Cut the skarf true, it locks each piece to the other. Coffin boys cut each skarf. My men very good jointers, but Coffin boys are best.” He showed me the last skarf joint, which lay open, yet to be covered with the final length of keel oak. “Boys working on this piece,” he said. “Want to get it right. Must be exactly so. Does thee understand?”

  “Is this where it happened?” I asked. “Is this where they died?”

  Buchen shook his head. “Happen inside,” he said.

  Inside we crossed the lofting floor, and then down to a lower level, a kind of trough within the shed building, where a steam-driven sawmill squatted like a gleaming war machine. The boiler was cold, however, as the great milling blade hadn’t been used since the accident, having been abandoned by the crew of French Canadian sawyers who had helped maintain it.

  “Sawmill is new, less than one year, but my Canucks, they run away, back to Quebec! It is good saw, best in all the schooner yards. Blade is six foot, tall as a big man, and see this? Teeth, eight inches! See this? Counterweights! Keep balance always smooth, cut-cut-cut, always smooth. Ha! Cuts through oak like butter! Best saw! Best money can buy!”

  The sawmill was a complex piece of machinery, with many leather belts and pulleys, and levers that controlled steam power to the drive shafts and to the trundling device that pulled timber into the voracious teeth of the giant blade. The trundle carriage ran on rails, drawn by chain, and it was there the accident had happened.

  “Coffin boys standing here by the lever, see? One on this side, other on that side. Old man, Cash, he’s over there, in charge of carriage. This is lever that starts and stops the carriage,” he said, pointing out a waist-high lever that stuck up from the trundle bed. “You pull, carriage goes along track like little railroad car. Forty-foot length of keel, rough cut from tree. Coffin boys want to square it up true. The old man, he wants to help them. They don’t need help, but he is their father and so they let him help. Sam has one side of keel, Zeke has other. They make sure it stays in line. Sam, he says, ‘Now, Father!’ and the Captain squeezes this handle, see! That releases the brake. Then he pulls back on the lever. Chain is engaged—here—and carriage goes that way, into the blade.”

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