Davis Bentwood has nearly finished medical school when he meets an abolitionist dwarf walking across Harvard Yard. Jeb Coffin is a nonpracticing doctor, a devoted student of transcendentalism whose home life has been shaken by tragedy. The two men become friends, and Coffin invites Bentwood to rural Maine to save his family from itself. The Coffins are noted abolitionists, their home a stop on the Underground Railroad, and lately they have been menaced by a supernatural terror. The tragedies are countless: two brothers killed, a father driven mad, and a baby frozen solid in its crib.
At first Bentwood cannot bring himself to acknowledge the impossible horrors that have cursed this family. But he will not survive his sojourn in Maine unless he can open his mind to the possibility that something evil is waiting in the dark.
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By Rodman Philbrick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Rodman Philbrick
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A Stern Angel
It all began, I suppose, the day I first saw the abolitionist dwarf waddling across Harvard Yard. This was in the year 1857, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was completing medical school and contemplating a life of well-disciplined leisure. I'd recently inherited a small but tidy fortune that would enable me to live quite comfortably without having to enter practice, or apprentice with a surgeon, options that lately had begun to seem more and more unsuitable to my nature. My ambition, if you can call it that, was to be an amateur scientist, in the tradition of America's great lightning bug, Benjamin Franklin, save that I would trap transcendentalism in a jar, and make it charge the battery of the mind.
My name is Davis Arthur Bentwood, distant but sole-surviving relation to the owners of the now-defunct Bentwood Mills, and the dwarf (the one in the Yard, the abolitionist) went by the name of Jeb, alias Jebediah Coffin, of the famous, seafaring Coffins of White Harbor, Maine. The strange little gnome of a man was famous for his fanatical attachment to the cause of ending slavery, violently if need be. Violently because young Coffin had, despite his diminutive size, beaten a student of contrary opinion with a knobbed cane and been brought up on charges, dismissed when an amused magistrate saw what was before him.
"That one so small holds opinions so large is bound to cause trouble," the magistrate had said, looking down from the bench to where Jeb stood, his largish head no higher than the desk behind which his lawyers cowered. "I admonish you to relinquish the cane, if not the cause."
The defendant surrendered the weapon and promptly acquired an exact duplicate. Or so it was reported in The Liberator, an abolitionist broadside. But then abolitionists have been known to bend the truth if it serves their purpose, and for all I know the entire scene was improved upon. Suffice to say it made Jebediah Coffin an object of even more curiosity, including certain salacious comments overheard from the painted, gin-scented mouth of a not-too-particular female who made her living granting amorous interludes to some of the more depraved undergraduates.
"You want the scale of the thing," she had cackled, "look to that big head of his, not to his hands, no bigger'n a child's hands them are. But the thing of him, I swear, larger than the usual by the length of my thumb, ha!"
Oh, yes, there was much speculation about the odd little man, most of it unkind. For in the company of his fellow students he would not play the clown, as was expected of a man with his affliction. An observer sensed this instantly, by the way he held his head—handsome and noble enough to be inscribed on a coin—and by the will with which he forced his small, twisted body into an aspect of proper, gentlemanly posture, with his short little back held straight as a ramrod. I have described his walk as a waddle, and it is true it had something in the way of a waddle; it must have, given the shortness of his legs. But there was an element of strutting, too, the restrained but nevertheless confident strut of one who has hitched his wagon to a star, and knows it.
Emerson again, for when my mind seeks a way through the complexities of recollection, I hitch myself to the sage of Concord, and try to see things as he might see them. What would the great thinker make of Jebediah Coffin, whose temperament was as foreign to reasoned philosophical contemplation as China is to Arkansas? Jeb who cared little for Nature, and less for Religion? Jeb whose wrath was not the wrath of a vengeful God, not John Brown's righteous fury, but the rational anger of a human being who sees a great injustice and cannot rest until it has been expunged from the earth?
I understood or sensed only the smallest part of this, of him, that first day in the Yard, where I witnessed an incident of casual, thoughtless cruelty. A mob of street boys had followed the dapper little man in from the Square and made him the target of their mockery. Taunting him with "There's the freak, where's the sideshow?" and the like. Nothing very imaginative, just what you might expect from a pack of idlers who had endured, no doubt, much cruelty themselves. The boys pecked at him as pigeons will do when one of their number shows deformity, and oh, how they suffered for it. The boys, I mean, not the pigeons.
I witnessed the incident from a short distance away, while exiting a lecture hall, and was about to intercede when something about the small man's demeanor gave me pause. From my vantage his great and noble head was in profile. The skull was strong and well molded, with a powerful, slightly hooked nose and a fine curl to his lips. Beneath his tall black stovepipe hat, hair the color of raw honey fell in thick waves to his shoulders, and seemed to surround his head in a nimbus of light, as if he were a stern angel painted on some popish altar. But it was the set of his jaw that paused me, for he had the fore-thrust, deeply cleft chin of a man who would brook no interference, and quite possibly curse the fool who dared to offer.
This, then, was the man the gang of youths taunted, prancing about in crude imitation of his reduced stature, and his distinct, upright manner of walking. At first the little man did not react, continuing on his way as if they did not exist, serene and dignified in his exquisitely tailored black frock coat and his gleaming patent leather boots. Serene and oblivious until the tallest of the n'er-do-wells blocked his path and knocked the tall hat from his head.
"Looky here, boys! It ain't got horns, but it might've sawed 'em off, like they do with cattle. Is that what happened, after them demon horns ripped out yer mama's belly? Sawed 'em off did you? Any stumps left, eh? Here, let me touch 'em for luck."
The boy, the biggest of the gang, made the mistake of reaching out to brush the dwarf's hair away, as if looking for evidence of the "demon horns," which surely he did not believe existed except as a means of tormenting a victim half his size. The boy's mistake being that his victim, though small, was far from defenseless.
In a flash the cane was rammed into the youth's lean belly with such force that it looked at first to be a fatal blow, and might well have proved so, had it not been the blunt end of the cane.
Dumbstruck by the unexpected turn of events, the other boys hesitated before reacting, but then gathered up their courage and swarmed forward, intent upon rescuing their leader. But the dwarf stood over the groaning bully and waved his cane like a scythe, holding his ground. "Back, or I'll slit his throat with my fingernail! Demon nails are sharp as razors!" he roared, making a claw of his small and harmless-looking hand.
The gang of toughs hesitated, and he saw he had their measure.
"Yes, I've lost my demon horns," said the dwarf, fastening his eyes upon them with an intensity that made the boys quiver. "But still I can see the future. Your future. You!" he said, indicating a particular boy, a youth with skin like coddled milk. "You shall die a coward's death, running away from battle, and be shot in the gut by your own officers. You shall live in agony for three days and die with your mouth and eyes open. Flies will enter your throat and breed maggots in your eyes before your death. And you!" he said, picking another youth, "you will have your legs sawed off by a man who stinks of whiskey, and gangrene will eat the stumps and then the stumps will be sawed off, and when eventually you return to this place you'll be shorter than me, and you shall remember this day, and rue it, and end your wretched life by drinking lye."
Boys of all types are a superstitious lot, and these shrank from the dwarf, in the belief that he could, as he claimed, foresee their deaths. Death which had, I suppose, never been imagined until that moment, or certainly not in such horrific detail. For if they had seen a drowned body or two bobbing in the Charles, as any street boy might, or a man crushed by a horse, as had happened only last week, right in the Square, and no doubt innumerable relatives laid out and waked, never had they looked at death and seen themselves.
All of the foreseen deaths were the result of war, a notion the dwarf clearly relished. "You'll try to hide behind the cannon mounts," he told one pale-faced youth, "shitting your drawers in terror. But when the shell strikes it blows the rampart to hell, and you with it, a splinter of oak through your shriveled heart."
At that moment the prostrate gang leader revived enough to grab the dwarf's cane, catching him by surprise. The bloody-mouthed youth was attempting to force the smaller man to the ground and beat him with his own cane when I finally intervened.
Normally a gang of street boys wouldn't turn tail and run at the sight of a single adversary, even a full-grown specimen as sturdily built as myself. But they'd been shaken by the visions of destruction visited upon them by the dwarf—who, for all they knew, really did have the powers of prophesy—and so they fled, dragging their leader with them, and left me to hand the little man his tall silk hat. A very expensive item, with the label of an exclusive Boston haberdashery, and it was, I noted, somewhat larger in size than my own.
"Thank you, sir," he said, rather gruffly.
"Not at all," I responded. "You had them well in hand. Or maybe I should say 'well in mind,' for you got inside their thick skulls and gave 'em the fright they so richly deserved."
"You think so?" he said, studying me, unsure of my intentions.
"Davis Bentwood," I said, offering my hand. "I'd be most pleased if you'd join me for a brandy. You'll notice my hand trembling, even if yours is not."
Looking up at me were a pair of eyes as bright and filled with light as a wave about to crest in a clear blue sea. Truth-seeking eyes, and they found enough truth in my good intentions to agree that yes, a brandy might be just the thing.
And so we repaired to my rooms, uncorked a bottle, and raised our glasses eagerly, for by then we both knew, without having to speak of it, that we were well on our way to becoming friends. "I have only one request," I said before drinking. "Don't, please, say how or when I will die."
Jeb's face—remarkably well formed, if out of proportion to his body—creased with a smile that made me feel the sun was out, and heaven had come upon the earth.
"There's nothing whatever to say upon the subject," he said. "Because you're going to live forever."
That was but the first of many lies that would be told by my dear friend Jebediah Coffin. Who drew me into a horror he could not comprehend, though in some ways he was the unwitting cause of it. For no man is truly innocent, that much I have learned, even if he lives on the side of angels.CHAPTER 2
Collectors of the Heavenly Spark
Had I all the time in the world, now would begin a lengthy recollection of how my friendship with Jebediah Coffin shaped itself over the years. How, exactly, our contrasting natures formed a bond, as if two opposite elements, once combined, made an unbreakable mortar, binding flint to granite. Jeb being the flint, of course, and myself the boring, unsparkable granite.
But as to time—there is none. My hand races ahead of the bullet that will soon make an end of me, and so I must trust the reader to imagine that such a friendship does indeed exist. That is, between a stolid, scientifically trained, philosophically inclined dilettante (myself), a contemplator of Science and Nature and Self (and his own navel, as Jeb would say), and a curiously crippled, intensely focused man of action, who thought little enough about himself, and nothing whatever about the nature of Thought.
In any event, three years later, on the last day of February 1861, I placed myself upon a train leaving Boston for Portland, Maine, having been summoned by an urgent telegram.
TWO COFFINS BURIED THIS DAY. THE CAPTAIN INSENSIBLE WITH GRIEF. YOU ARE NEEDED, PLEASE COME AT ONCE. JEBEDIAH, WHITE HARBOR
"Two Coffins buried" must, I assumed, mean that two of his family had recently passed away. The Captain had to be his father, revered by Jeb and invariably referred to by his mariner's title. The Captain said this, the Captain did that, always in a tone implying the highest kind of filial devotion. So if I parsed it right, the patriarch of the Coffin family was insensible with the tragedy, and Jeb, in his distress, had need of a friend.
Naturally I could not refuse. Indeed, I packed up clothing suitable for mourning and boarded the train eagerly. I am ashamed to say the darker part of my nature was glad of the excuse to leave the smoke and stink of the city for an excursion into what I envisioned to be a kind of salty paradise. I pictured slumbering mountains sloping gently to a pine-treed shore. White sails luffing in a still and perfect harbor. A church steeple poised to pierce clouds of cotton bunting. For my image of White Harbor was derived entirely from a painted postcard that I carried in my breast pocket as a reminder of destination, to be consulted frequently, if not mooned over.
White Harbor, Maine. Surely, despite the expected lamentations, and the orderly rituals of grief (with which I was all too familiar, having buried the sum total of my blood relations), the change of scenery would be most welcome. My work, if it could be called work, had not been going well. To be truthful, it had not been "going" at all.
Each day at noon, having wasted as much of the morning as possible over a late breakfast, I would finally, gingerly, sit down at my desk and take up my pen—and then stare for hours at the blank page before me. My book had a lofty title, The Transcendental Journey, Reflections on the Teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, yes, a lofty title and little else, for I'd torn up a number of false starts and at present my "book" was comprised of a few scribbled notes and an outline that had been revised so many times it no longer made sense to the would-be author.
I'd not much to show after nearly a year of labor. You think me lazy, but there's nothing more exhausting than attempting to force that which will not come. Say to yourself "I shall write a fine poem, as good as any by Byron or Tennyson." Now take up your pen and begin. What's the problem—can't think of a first line? A first word? No? Try starting with the letter "A," as in "A fool attempts to mimic his betters."
So I left my unfinished book behind, spurned like a reluctant lover, and hurried off to the wilds of Maine with barely a twinge of regret.
Jebediah I had not seen for some months. He'd given up his rooms in Cambridge and had been accompanying various fanatical abolitionists to rallies and lectures throughout the Northern states. Though he never himself took the stage, my little friend was the force behind many an impassioned speech, and acted as a financial backer, paying expenses for the speakers, who invariably had vast appetites. Lately, with the prospect of war more and more likely, the abolitionist cause seemed to be at one with the idea of battle, and the true believers spoke of the necessity of spilling blood. At the time I was of two minds regarding this unfortunate situation; opposed to slavery, and equally opposed to war, for what can be settled by cacophonous battle, when the true freedom of man is held within?
I was soon to find out, in a way unimaginable.
The Boston & Maine Railroad crosses into Maine through the sleepy hamlet of Dover, New Hampshire. From there it is a little more than two hours to Portland, the primary port and by far the largest city in the state. The industrious nature of the Portland waterfront rivals that of Boston, and is in some ways more hectic, with ships and schooners and lighters plying what seemed every square yard of the bay. Hundreds of vessels were lashed or moored to all available docking space, often rafted five or six deep, making the air bristle with a forest of spars and masts. The citizens liked to say that a man could walk from one end of Casco Bay to the other without getting his feet wet, simply by trodding upon boats. They're exaggerating, but not by much.
A hackney coach conveyed me from the train station to the main wharves, where a ferry service would, I was told, provide a more direct route to White Harbor than could be had by land. My destination lay a little less than twenty miles east by sea, whereas the overland route was nearer forty, due to the curvaceous nature of the coastline. There were certain villages in these parts separated by no more than a few miles of water, whose remove by the shoreline route exceeded a hundred miles.
Excerpted from Coffins by Rodman Philbrick. Copyright © 2002 Rodman Philbrick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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