This chapter from Heathcliff: The Lost Years begins with Heathcliff discovering the body of the first mate, Mr. Coil, who has died from wounds sustained during a ferocious mutiny at sea. A sudden storm is bearing down on the ship, but Captain Collingwood insists on giving his first mate a proper burial at sea despite the storm…
Heathcliff: The Lost Years is the untold story at the heart of Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliff knocked on the door to Mr. Coil’s cabin. The first mate didn’t answer. When Heathcliff stepped inside, he discovered the first mate’s dead body. The cabin smelled of death. Heathcliff ran for the surgeon. Dr. Chum sent him to fetch the captain, who held the dead man’s hands for a long time before turning away.
“Have Fiddler build Mr. Coil a good sound coffin,” the captain said. “Keep the quashees below deck this morning. We must give our first mate a proper burial at sea.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” responded the second mate, who had joined them in the dead man’s cabin.
Heathcliff helped the surgeon wrap the first mate’s emaciated body in his hammock and place the body inside the wooden coffin with his sea chest and personal effects. The Irishman nailed the coffin shut. Clouds rushed by overhead as they brought Mr. Coil’s wooden coffin up to the deck.
“Take care with that,” said the captain.
“He weighs very little,” Fiddler said. “His coffin may not sink.”
“Open it up. Place cannonballs on both sides of the body,” said the captain. “The casket must sink into the sea.”
After prying open the coffin and carefully placing several twelve-pound cannonballs on each side of the body, the Irishman again nailed Mr. Coil’s coffin shut.
Mr. Bolt pointed out thunderheads massing on the horizon behind the ship.
“Some bad weather coming, captain,” said Mr. Bolt. “Could be on us before long.”
“It is my duty as captain of this vessel to assure our first mate a proper burial at sea, Mr. Bolt. I will attend to the longboat. I must personally conduct the burial. You stay here and attend to the ship.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” said Mr. Bolt.
Wind blew hard from the north as they placed Mr. Coil’s coffin onto the longboat and carefully lowered the boat into the sea. With his Bible between his teeth, the captain descended the sea-ladder and took his place at the steering oar.
As Heathcliff began to row, the Atlantic became choppy. Dark clouds raced past overhead. A few scattered drops of rain began to fall. The ocean swells seemed to grow larger.
A good distance from the ship, Captain Collingwood stood up. Shouting into the wind, he opened the Bible with some difficulty and read a verse and then stopped, apparently disabled by emotion.
A steady rain began. With Mr. Coil’s casket across it, the longboat rode low in the water.
“Good, loyal Mr. Coil, your wise counsel helped me so on my voyage to African climes,” said Captain Collingwood, passing his Bible over the coffin. “Your counsel will be missed by me, and every man aboard the Commerce. Good Mr. Coil, helpful and wise Mr. Coil, as master of the Commerce, I hereby commit your body to the deep.”
With a wave of his hand, the captain closed his Bible, crouched down, and made his way back to the stern.
Some distance away, a bolt of yellow lightning snaked to the water. The longboat tilted to larboard as mariners struggled to lift and push the coffin over the side.
With a deathly rumble of rolling cannonballs, mariners shoved off the coffin. To Heathcliff’s surprise, the coffin stood erect in the sea, weighted down by the cannonballs at one end. Half buried in the waves, it bobbed like a ghastly bottle before their eyes.
“Good God!” said the captain.
Slowly, Mr. Coil’s coffin rolled over backwards into the sea. In the blowing rain, Heathcliff thought the longboat drifted farther away from the ship.
“Captain,” he said, pointing to the ship.
“Give way, lads!” the captain shouted. “Put your backs to the oars!”
Heathcliff clenched his teeth and pulled at his oar. Ahead of the longboat, a ring of lightning bolts electrified the sea around the ship, producing a blast of light brighter than daylight immediately followed by bone-banging thunder.
For a moment, the upper tips of the masts and yards glowed with violet light, like three ghostly crosses hovering above the ship. The sea around the Commerce turned luminous as liquid silver. The entire ocean sparkled with glistening diamonds.
“Damn St. Elmo’s Fire! Keep to your oars!” shouted the captain.
Mr. Coil’s coffin popped to the surface on Heathcliff’s side of the longboat, its lid apparently loosened in the rough sea. The first mate’s pale hand had worked itself out from beneath the coffin lid, as if the corpse was seeking to escape its watery grave.
Peter stood up from the thwart, pointing frantically at the coffin.
“C-captain!” he shrieked.
“Sit down and row, Peter, all of you” screamed the captain. “Pick up your stroke! The Commerce drifts away!”
Fear put desperate strength in Heathcliff’s arms. In the hammering rain, the longboat strode toward the ship through the madly galloping sea.
++END OF THIS CHAPTER ++
David Drum’s Heathcliff: The Lost Years is an 111-chapter historical novel now available as a paperback, an e-book, and an audible versions from major vendors. The book may also be special ordered from any bookstore.