The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (20 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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By the time he had returned from his second journey to contact Higgins, Richard Browne had half decided to let the truth about Higgins rest. At this point he saw little choice but to hide the truth from those who knew of his recent expedition and say that the man was dead. Walking to see Mr. Cole, Browne recalled his questions to Shaw as they had paddled homewards from their unproductive interview with Higgins, who had been more immovable than ever.

“Do you believe him?” Browne had called back over his shoulder as they ran downstream.

“Why should I not?” Shaw answered.

“And should I? His resistance to his loved ones due to his new family, his tale of woe?”

“You have nothing else, Mr. Browne, and you never will. Don't expect the Fletchers to be your measure of truth.”

“But Higgins, after all he's been through? This White Indian?”

“He's as good as his word, ask me. He has chosen. He has taken his leave of me. Neither of us will ever see the man again, you can be sure. You might sooner find the tormented soul of Balthazar Coffin.”

“But I cannot rest for this man's family!”

“You had better rest, Mr. Browne. You had better, than squander yourself. Anything more here is impossible now. Better to say
we found he is dead. Then the poor woman can get on with it. I'll back you. And he's as like as dead.”

“I cannot,” Browne said. “Not yet.”

Shaw had said no more about it in the following days as they negotiated their canoe toward the seaport at Newbury.

Yet now he found himself once again before Cole distorting some of the truth while revealing some of what he had hidden previously.

Higgins, a White Indian, he lied, was dead. The essence of Mistress Coffin's journal, however, he now uncovered for Cole. And they had the Fletcher testimony. That testimony lent possibility to a version of events something like what Browne now secretly knew as Higgins' story. Even without the benefit of that story, Jonathan Cole was fitting the pieces together. But Cole was greatly troubled by the direction the truth seemed to be taking, and by the number of these discoveries Browne had hidden from him for so long.

“You knew the nature of Balthazar Coffin from the journal, corroborated by these criminal Fletchers, and you said nothing? I had come to believe they were lying to save their skins, to be honest, Richard. Am I some tattling schoolboy or gossiping crone?”

Cole's mood smouldered. Browne quietly reminded Cole of the many delicate dimensions of his researches. “I have always told you the truth I was sure of, nothing I was either unsure of, or that would make you responsible for the jeopardy of another.”

“But this man's whereabouts? Kept from me and, worse, from his long-suffering wife? This fool of an Englishman-become-savage!”

“I determined her in danger from such knowledge. And I was sworn to secrecy. Any breach might have destroyed all possibility of the trust necessary between us if I was to nourish the chance of Higgins' return. Mr. Coffin has never seemed to me
a man to take chances with. Higgins too was in grave danger, it seemed to me, might there be any possibility—however farflung—of Coffin's discovering his position. Each time any person is told such information, the information is tenfold more likely to come out, somehow, despite the good intentions of everyone. Anyone might be in danger with such knowledge and such a man as Mr. Coffin appears now to have been.”

“No matter. No matter. Who am I? Someone you cannot trust? You disappoint me, Richard. No, don't interrupt me. I could have helped you more. We could have restrained this dangerous man, whatever he was up to. Exactly what, is not so certain, and never will be now.”

“I endeavored to keep as many souls from harm as I could, Sir. I was uncertain of his powers myself. If I have let you down, I tender my deepest apologies and regrets. . . .”

“From now on let me worry about keeping harm from myself or another soul. Keeping information from me does more harm than good, and it reduces our chance of progress towards some resolution.” He looked sharply at Browne: “Take as your motto with me, from the Apostle Paul, that you can do nothing against the Truth.”

“As you say, Sir,” Browne said. He felt crushed between Cole's reaction and his new lie. He was tempted for a moment to throw it all over and tell Cole everything. But he feared further outrage, hesitated a moment, then decided to persevere. “What,” he asked, “would you advise, as to telling Goody Higgins?”

Cole got up, started pacing about the room, and ordered two brandies of his new servant girl.

“I am conscious of all I owe you, of all you have done on my behalf,” Browne said. “I have never, I hope, wanted gratitude on that score, nor affection for you as a friend and advisor.”

“I know that, Richard. I know all that. Let me think on Goody Higgins. Let me think.”

The brandy arrived.

Richard Browne could no longer contain the truth about his disposition of Coffin's legacy. Cole looked surprised at first, but as Browne explained his reasoning, Cole began to nod his head in understanding. The two men agreed that £112 was generous, and that in the battle over trade one must be at least as ruthless as one's competitors.

“The Fletchers are what trouble me now,” Cole said. “They must be gone tomorrow. We'll no more with them.” Cole slammed his fist on the table. “There's little else we can do under law, as things are left now. As to their hands in this affair, and their degree of innocence, we have only their own testimony. Nothing else is likely to come. But they must be sent into exile, according to their sentence.” His fist hit the table again. “They are a blight on the land, on the community.”

Browne nodded assent. “The Lord shall reward the doer of evil, according to his wickedness.”

“And you have said nothing, not a word, to Goody Higgins as yet?” Cole asked.

“She does not yet even know I have returned.”

“Good. Now, what to do. She had better know,” Cole said. “Tell her he is dead, I suppose, eh?”

“I believe so. That was my thought, Mr. Cole.”

Cole drank the residue of brandy straight off.

“She can decide what to do from here,” Browne said, “once we tell her. All for the best, even though it will cause her pain.”

“It will,” Cole agreed, “but it will also relieve other kinds of pain.” Cole pondered a moment, licked a spot of brandy from his lips. “Young Elderidge has been around, trying to court her,” he continued. “Now he'll leap in after her. A few others have had their eyes on her, if I'm not mistaken.” He paused as if tallying up the would-be suitors, their names, their positions. “Not that I blame them.” He smiled. “She is no mere snoutfair young thing. But she's come to be like a daughter to me, a daughter who married less than she might have, but a daughter
whose difficulties I cannot neglect. Whether she follows my wishes, or not. You see what I mean, Richard?”

“Yes.”

“How about you?”

“Me?”

“Yes. Your interest in her. Don't be the blockhead.”

“Sorry. I've thought about it . . . her. Her housewifery, her delightful person. With some book learning a fit consort. I must admit I have found myself increasingly drawn to her. But I could not expose such feelings even while I sought the woman's husband.”

Cole laughed. He seemed assuaged now. “‘A just reward for her high housewifery,'” he quoted. “She may not be from your people, of course,” he said musingly, “but she's all the woman any man could hope for or deserve.”

“I quite agree.”

“Then hadn't you better discover whatever her feelings for you are?”

“I suppose I could test the waters, after I have borne the news, and appropriate time for sorrow has elapsed. . . .”

“And you'll let Elderidge, or some other beat you at a man's game?” Cole laughed. He was happy to be joking with Richard again, man-to-man, in their private moment, as if they were putting all secrets and lies behind them.

But Richard Browne was uncomfortable, his misery increasing every moment. He thought of running away, confessing his errors, begging forgiveness, returning to England, suicide, shooting Higgins himself. None of the possibilities was satisfactory. He merely stood up to leave. “I'll speak to her now,” he said. “Get the awful news behind us.”

“Good.”

“Then we shall see.”

“No. Court her, Richard. As if your life depended on it. Make that your first business. We'll see she gets a widow's third, at
least. He left no will, I suppose, the blackguard, skulking in the suburbs of Hell. She'll need time for mourning, yes. But she's a quick and resilient woman who has long prepared herself for this, expects it.” He looked at Browne, who was in the act of leaving. “Mind you, Richard, don't let the others get there ahead of you. No hesitant blockhead will win such a woman.” He winked and laughed. Browne finished his brandy and left. At the end, he told himself, they had become simply two men in frolic company.

So it happened that Browne eventually lied again to Elizabeth Higgins that her husband was indeed—just as she had expected—dead. Shaw came along to confirm the story, the two men grimly walking together to her house, dead to the beauties of field and meadow—the drooping blue flowers of flax, the violet of flower-de-luce, the deepest greens of grains and grasses about to ripen into yellows and browns.

She took the news calmly. “Do you know how it happened?” she asked.

“Some sort of hunting accident, it seems, Elizabeth,” Shaw offered. He too was uncomfortable, but believed this course the best. “He had completely gone over to them, as far as we can tell. He was an Indian. He had taken the name White Robin.”

“And here am I,” she said, folding her hands on the table and looking at the table top. “I knew it was so.”

“Can we do anything?” Shaw asked.

Browne, after delivering the news, was speechless. He felt as if he were in a dream, helpless to change the course of events. For a moment he thought he might weep, as one might in such a dream until waking.

“Not just now, thank you,” she said. “May I be alone for a day or two? To think what I will do.”

Browne found his tongue. “Do nothing immediately, Goody
Higgins. At least until your mourning has passed. Let me, let us, help in any way we can. These matters need maturation; they need to be properly considered.” Then he was suddenly silent again, holding back an unfamiliar anger with himself. Surely, however, as Shaw had said, they were laying the foundation on which she might build a solid life for herself and her children.

Or, he wondered, was he a mere hypocrite making excuses for himself. Yet both men had sworn to secrecy for the woman's sake. He was buffeted by desires he had not even admitted to himself. Were our lives so saturated with sensuality? Must we human beings always be so blown about by the storms in our flesh, like ships at bad anchorage? Was it all some jest played on humanity? No. Nothing in God's world was in jest. Blasphemy. How lucky he never entered the ministry. How much more suitable the law in such a world. And even in the law he had foundered.

How many escaped these hungers? Very few. Despite all our pretensions. Damnation to the miscreants and election to the few, the very few. That was the way of the world. And he not even a Calvinist, merely a wayward Anglican adrift in the New World.

The two men left her. Never again did they speak to one another about their journey or Jared Higgins. Browne lost himself in his work for three months. He avoided Elizabeth Higgins, who had gone into an official period of mourning. The suitors, he knew, drew ever closer about her and waited, as inevitable as the tides. But he could make himself forget nothing of what he had done, and he could not say whether he had done the right thing. He fought himself to ignore it all, and that was the best that he could do.

Finally, three months later he paid her a visit. She was
appropriately dressed. She seemed to him more than ever a woman of integrity, humility, and energy. He realized how much he had missed seeing her.

“They have begun leaving their little gifts and names, as if we were in Boston,” she said and let out a small laugh.

He tried to enter her mood. “I would add my own, but being a simple neighbor, I have none to bring.”

She looked at him curiously and smiled. “Suitors must be fools,” she said. “They ignore my sorry condition. One day I am married, the next a widow. Thenceforward when I open my door, men enter. I look out my window, more men. If I go to my garden to gather herbs and flowers, I find men blooming in the late summer winds. There are days I dare not enter my pantry. Have we all gone mad, Mr. Browne?”

“I fear we may have, Goody Higgins. Why not choose one?”

“Oh, I cannot! These fools who leave their verses and prayers, their gift sermons and trinkets?”

“I suppose it is all so much impertinency.”

“Worse. I do not know these men, but as names on town lists, or mere acquaintances—a few—as speakers at meetings and taverns. Or tradesmen, woodsmen, soldiers. My children do not even daunt certain widowers with broods of their own. One spoke of doubling the size of his house.

“I have sat before the fire evenings, my children gathered about me, and I ask: ‘My dears, what shall become of us?'”

“Have you any thoughts of what shall become of you?”

“Nothing that seems possible. I had thought of opening a tavern, if Mr. Cole would help me through the regulations and approvals.”

“Surely with all these men offering themselves, you have better prospects before you.”

“Better? Perhaps. But I cannot see it so. And in that matter I have no advisors. I am still too unsettled to know my mind. And I will not be hurried about like a leaf in November winds.”
She quickly rose from the settle and walked to the table, upon which sat a small cake.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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