The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (10 page)

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But I rest not yet in my deliverance, nor, I confess, in my innocence. And as I am sorely in need of some person with whom to reflect on my recent life in America, to examine it, to search
it out, in order to see and perhaps to understand better the nature and failings of myself and others who share my adventure, I here take pen to paper for consolation and contemplation (even unto the yearnings, tribulations, and crosscurrents of my soul) of the events and errors of my recent days.

June 5, 1645

Having lived at Robinson's Falls better than a year, and having spent all that time settling ourselves in keeping with the laws of this place, in planting, and in building our house, Mr. C. and I were so consumed with arranging our affairs and getting our living that if our affections remained steady, they did not deepen. Beyond our joint labors and that affection, we had not sufficient opportunity to know one another more deeply than upon our marriage day. It was as if the conduct of our affairs kept us from conducting our lives as true companions, and from exploring the extent and secret of ourselves.

Indeed, my knowledge of Mr. C. has grown only since that first year at Robinson's Falls—a place as beautiful (with its fresh and salt rivers, its meads and marshes, open groves and cathedral forests) as it is unforgiving. Planning the business of one's livelihood from year to year is so exacting that there can be little tolerance for the common discords of community or breaches of law. The life of each depends upon the regulation of every other—from the granting and disposition of property, servants, and domestic animals, to the planting of fields and commons, and the management of woods, roads, trade, building, food surplus or storage. We manage better than we mismanage. This plantation is seven years old and thriving, as many others have not. The town now counts approximately three hundred souls. Every day there is talk of greater limitations on newcomers. And it seems as if our three magistrates are constantly placing some new ordinance for the
administration of town affairs before our Convocations for approval. Last week it was an ordinance to keep the road open to the width of three rods.

It is in this second year of our residence in America, as I say, that Mr. C. and I have begun to apprehend the true nature of one another. He is a man of even greater ability than I had foreseen. But it is as if he pays for his ability, especially his capacity for close study and feats of memory, with humors and distractions, with fluctuations through the full range of his person. Gradually, I have become more and more impressed with the idea that Mr. C. will not lead a common life—that he will be uncommonly bad or uncommonly good.

At first each of us endeavored to adapt our ways and habits to accommodate the needs of the other. Yet as time passes we grow less accommodating. He is never idle. He contributes his share to the town's common work. He labors, as I do, to the function and fruition of our household. Much private time, however, he consumes with study; so much is thus consumed that as we approach the third year of our marriage we grow isolated from one another, even as we have only begun to know one another.

We are not without our understandings and passions. Our passions correspond and remain the single living thread of our marriage. But there is too little of that love and gentleness left, too little of those sentiments and rewards upon which marriages endure happily. Brick by brick, we have begun the wall that disjoins us.

August 22, 1645

Persons of credit, aboard London ships freed by Parliament from custom, report the sighting of two suns setting over Cape Ann on August 20. Near the horizon lay a sun more bright than the true sun, seen above it, and a small cloud between the
two suns. New England abounds in prodigies and providences, the meanings of which may eventually be made known to us, but the sources and meanings of which Mr. C. would fathom as they appear or as he hears of them (for the tales of such marvels and doings pass over the countryside as quickly as sunlight shifting through wind and clouds).

September 17, 1645

This day I resolved anew for my part to enrich our marriage by gentleness and care toward my husband. I think if Mr. C. is sometimes unreasonable, I will be reasonable, and would rather suffer wrong than do wrong. Just as I hope he will kindly overlook my infirmities and failings, with which I am conscious I abound, so I feel a forgiving spirit towards him. Some caution in our every intercourse is called for, so I determined we should best live together if we might be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” I long to obey this direction. At this moment we live in a close balance of privacy and passion, reason and unreason.

Having borne no children in two marriages, I believe myself barren. No physic has provided remedy, even Goody Warner's oils of mandrake, potion of beaver cods and wine, and divers simples. Considering the isolations and delicacy of my relations with Mr. C., perhaps the absence of children may be counted a blessing. He blames me, justly, for our childlessness, but it is not within a woman's will—fruitfulness or barrenness coming from God alone. “Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” Even as Mr. C. retreats more into the isolation of his study, so do I become more active in our domestic and civil responsibilities. And as to the economies of barter and trade, I have begun to take on the whole of those matters myself. Therein I seem to excel, and Mr. C. is satisfied to have it so.

I have nourished a small trade in cheese and sage, and have goodwives at my door these late mornings. Some pay in spinning for me, others in pine boards, a few in tobacco or skillets or cotton wool. I have begun to look about for a maid to help me with daily chores that I might attend even more to these profitable exchanges. Mr. C. has made inquiries himself for such help, in addition to our cook, whether it be some local maid sent forth by her parents or some available redemptioner.

January 23, 1646

It was recently in this our earliest and sharpest winter yet that I learned the inconstancy of my husband. My heart has been torn with grief, my eyes with tears.

All nature is contorted, with ships frozen in the sea, horned rainbows about the sun, lights in the skies, and two or three suns at settings and risings.

His inconstancy was revealed to me thus. We had bonded a young Irish woman to serve. She had been a stranger to us, but sold for her passage to New England. I believe now she was fleeing some mischief there. I found her rude and full of vanity. Her ways to me were disagreeable. But to my grief I saw they were pleasing to Mr. C. His studies consumed him still, yet he seemed drawn from his closet more now than before. Whenever they met their whole attention seemed to be toward each other; and their impertinent conduct very aggravating to me. Conduct between them grew licentious.

I had hoped that his dark humors and distractions would eventually pass, and that he would finally return to me and regain our marriage. But now such hopes have fled. More, I feel as though my earthly joys have fled, and I mourn the loss of a second husband.

I earnestly pleaded with Mr. C. to consider the evil of his ways, to forsake the foolish and live. But he has turned a deaf
ear to all my entreaties, regarding neither my sorrows nor his own ruin, confounding my speaking to him with his angry
“Grata brevitas!”

It is only because, through the mercy of God, I have prevailed to send away this vile young woman to other labors beyond my household that he has retreated to his herbary and his library and become more regular in his ways. But my confidence in him, like my hope, is destroyed in great measure. This, however, I keep to myself. I work to put these evils from my mind as much as possible, knowing that “in the world ye shall have tribulations.” Yet now I find a wife's duty most difficult. Just as he has become less and less a companion, so has he become less a husband, more a betrayer and, through all his absorption in studies, an hypocrite.

Here we have no minister—Mr. Robinson having been twice banished (the second when we joined with Massachusetts Bay in 1643)—to guide us who are troubled. Neither is there anyone I am prepared to confide in, such is the nature of my affliction. I find consolation only in prayer and in my inkhorn and pen.

May 1, 1646

The spring being earlier and more seasonable than usual, by this third month the earth had completely cast off its gloomy mantle and wrapped itself in a brighter cloak of sunlight and green. Leaves bud and sprout, birds dash everywhere, the grass in the commons and meadows has shot forth greenly into the warm air, and when town drovers pass, our herds resound with the calls of lambs and calves.

My heart does not respond as it would. My husband on a journey, I have been troubled in heart and mind. He packed some few clothes and books, explained only that he had business to conduct in Cambridge several days, and set off
down-river to Strawberry Banke, and thence by sea to Boston. In the fortnight since his departure I have had signal trials of mind occasioned by exorbitant dreams.

I found myself, in one dream, alone in this plantation, my husband having abandoned me to this wilderness. No one in the town would pay me heed. Wolves prowled about my door and plundered our stock. I feared even going out to milk. I feared I would starve. I could do nothing but cry for help from my window at passersby. But all ignored me as if I cried from some other realm unknown to the world in which men and women acted and lived.

Another night I dreamt I was in a boat on the river with a boatman I knew not. I could not see his face for the black hood he wore, and he would not speak. As we traveled, the boat began slowly to sink. The stranger seemed not to notice, so I cried out and begged for help. Gradually the water filled our boat, rose above my knees and waist, pressed coldly on my chest. I woke up groaning, and thanked God. But I was troubled and could not sleep. This dream returned another night, and I awoke at precisely the same moment, in the same torment of soul.

Why, I asked, does my sleeping mind rove so over such foreign, unaccountable objects? Why must my thoughts wander in sleep at such a wild distance from everything that is real? I could not bear to consider what such things might portend. I feared perhaps the onslaught of that malignant fever which has taken so many lives in the warmth of early spring this year. But, thank God, it has not proved the cause.

Goody Sparhawk, wife to Sylvanus, met with this fever and suffered the loss of her youngest and most loved child, Deborah, nearly three. She knew the fever to be abroad, but they had remained untouched. Then last week upon entering her
milking shed, she saw the sleeve and arm only of her child sticking out from the hay. She ran to fetch her husband, not being able to face it alone. Upon entering the house where he sat with his children after a day in his planting grounds, however, she saw Deborah on her father's lap by the evening fire watching the pottage warm and bubble. She and her husband ran to the shed and found nothing—no sign of such an arm or sleeve as that of their little daughter, or of anyone else. They could not fathom this sighting, but felt some relief for the moment. Within three days, however, was poor little Deborah dead from her agonies in the fever.

As I lay in bed I began to long for my husband's return, as a hungry babe longs for the breast. Might we not renew our lost companionship, and ourselves? Wolves deep in the forest called to one another. Even though I had been busy all these days and much in association with the planters of Robinson's Falls, I felt at that moment as removed from these people and from my husband, in this remote part of the world, as I had in my earlier dream.

May 15, 1646

Mr. C. returned today. He is cordial but more than ever distracted by his studies. Far from encouraging him to renew our marriage, his sojourn has served only to intensify his appetite for learning and for distance between us, only to sharpen the same melancholic disposition and prepossession.

I now wonder whether the breaking of his vows troubles him so much that he is rendered incapable of the warm relations between spouse and spouse. Or is his mind wrenched merely by constant study and increasing removal from our life together here? In either case, his disposition towards me coupled with
his former behavior against our marriage sets me further from him every day. I feel a loathing, entirely foreign to my nature, of my marriage bed, so unfeeling is that rite between us now.

Not that his carnal cravings have lessened their ardor, but my secret if uncertain belief is that he would be willing to cease those relations between us. Yet if our bowels are dead to one another, there is danger in self-denial. Not only the danger of my former experience, through no instigation of my own, that carnal passions vent themselves elsewhere, which ventings are frequent enough in any case by the common testimony of mankind, and which introduce every disorder into the marriage, but there is also the danger of public disapprobation and enforcement, leveled especially against wives who deny their husbands' pleasures once marriage ceases to be marriage.

There was that action the litigious Godfrey Gibbons brought before the court. Edward and Judith Wilson being bound over to appear for “their disorderly living, upon a full hearing of the case” were bound to the treasurer in the sum of £5 apiece, “to be of good behavior each to the other during the pleasure of the court, and that the said Judith do attend her duty toward her said husband in the use of the marriage bed according to the rule of God's word, which if she refuses to do, upon complaint to the next court, the court doth order that she shall be whipped to the number of ten stripes.” Everyone knows and many have repeated from the decree, in jest, or gravely.

Yet will law answer alike to every case, however distinct? Which question I believe it was brought Mistress Hutchinson so much trouble some time ago, viz., law is no rule of life to a Christian, and thereby breaking law is not in every instance sin.

June 1, 1646

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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