The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (3 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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“Higgins is a practical man, Mr. Browne. He is esteemed for his skill, not of mind but of hand. He has many cohorts, a strong reputation, audacity, courage. He has explored much in these parts, trades with the natives, wrests his living from this wilderness by shrewd doings and labors. Indeed, many owe him a debt. I may be the first to doubt his credibility.”

“I see.”

“I have absolutely no idea where he has got off to. But it is not unlike him. He has often been at some curious adventure or discovery.”

“But on such occasions of absence he would tell his wife of his intentions, would he not?”

“So one might expect. Yet I cannot answer for their habits, for what is between them.”

Browne sipped his rum. This man Coffin seemed forthright. There was, however, a sorrow that seemed to hang like a vestige of illness about his vigorous body.

“I can tell you little more, Mr. Browne. My wife was as good as any, but a sharp wit and without reticence.”

“Can you tell me of the inquiries arising from your action?”

“The inquiry became protracted. I will supply you a list of those connected with it.” He got up to gather pen and paper. “Might you not discover something in my favor as well?” he said, seating himself again.

While Coffin wrote in a flowing, clear hand, Browne asked: “Where are the records of these inquiries now? Among the Norfolk County Court papers?”

“Whatever records remain. A magistrate of the Associate Court, one Dr. Cotton, seems to administrate these sessions and records. Without sufficient cause to pursue action for more serious crimes—for ‘trials of life, limbs, or banishment,' as the magistrates say—the records at Boston would bear no fruit. The absence of a criminal case must be why Cole called upon you. My initial action was heard at the Hampton Quarterly Session. You might inquire there, or try Salisbury if nothing turns up.” He finished writing his list and handed Browne the paper.

Browne rose. “I'm sorry to have troubled you with painful events.”

At the front door, Browne added,
"Absit invidia,
Mr. Coffin.”

“Of course not, Mr. Browne. My household and library welcome you.”

Browne stepped over the threshold to the ground. “That is pleasant indeed, having left behind in England my own library, which I plan to recover at some later time. I have a particular collection of our English poets—famous and unknown—that perhaps one day I may show to you.”

“Of course, you won't find much of that here I'm afraid; few of our recent poets, certainly. But what I have is at your pleasure. Our plantation needs men like you.
Age quod agis,
Mr. Browne. Wisdom go with you.”

As Browne made his way back to the Cole's house, the snow on the frozen river, burying the marsh grass and covering the thickets, was reddened by the final rays of sun. The air was turning sharp, and a flutter of small wintering birds was gathering the thin warmth and protection of hemlock trees. He recalled now how it was the air that had struck him most upon his arrival in the New World two years ago. The peculiar, pleasant odors at each season enlivened him as if medicinal in whatever month of the year.

He passed the gristmill, now quiet in the freezeup, its huge wheel and buckets hung with snow and icicles on the opposite, east bank of the river. Higher up by the second falls on the west bank the new sawmill, long and narrow, open at both ends, was glowing and still in its sheath of unweathered shingles.

Goody Higgins' accusations puzzled him now. Could this man he had just met have presented nothing more than a mask? The man reveals no more than he has to, Browne thought, but I think there is no
maleficium,
not by this man's hand. He would have to search the court records.

III

T
HE
E
XAMINATION AND
D
EPOSITION OF
J
ARED
H
IGGINS,
This Fifteenth Day of June, Anno Domini 1648,
Being Sworn, saith:

My name is Jared Higgins, planter at Robinson's Falls since 1640. I have thirty-four years, am married, and previously of Nottinghamshire, England, Parish Gotham; thence of Charleston, Massachusetts Bay in New England.

Assistant Magistrates:
Now, Goodman Higgins, the events at Dover Market suggest on the face of them negligence on your part. You are aware of the divers actions to be brought against you at the next session of the Court. Would you explain, as you understand them, the terms of your agreement with one Mr. Balthazar Coffin.

Higgins:
It was all plain, Your Honors. I to receive three percent of the sale price of several head of cattle upon completion of her affairs. For that sum, I was to convey Mistress Coffin by my canoe along the river and bay to market at Dover, and home again. Twenty-fifth of May, I believe it was.

Mgts.:
And you discharged such agreement?

H:
I could not, Sirs.

Mgts.:
Could not?

H:
She never returned to the wharfs, Your Honors.

Mgts.:
You both had appointed a time?

H:
Roughly, Sirs. I was there early and stayed late.

Mgts.:
Had you looked well? Had you made inquiries? Had you any conjectures from such inquiries?

H:
I went to market myself, Sirs, on my own accounts. Then I bought a dram at the ordinary, spoke with some who know me. When at the time we agreed to meet she did not appear, I tied my canoe aways beyond the wharf and went back to seek her, guessing she dallied at market once the trading was over.

Mgts.:
You had no success?

H:
I saw her not, Sirs.

Mgts.:
What thought you? And what were your actions when you found her not?

H:
I was in the dark, Your Honors. I asked after her. Some had seen her at market, but not leaving, alone or with anyone. But she had her ways, Sirs, to charm the beard from Beelzebub, ask me. Proud of her sharp bargaining and of her husband's faith in like accomplishments. She wasn't the kind to hide her skill. More like to hold it up for all to know. And more than that, she wasn't above the pride of woman, truth be known.

Mgts.:
But her absence, Higgins, how considered you that?

H:
Darkness, as I say, to me, Sirs. I searched; I waited. I presumed a sudden notion took her to be away. Why? With who? I know not. Perhaps she struck a passion in one among the crowd. In time, I came to trust only that she lost herself.

Mgts.:
You insinuate, man? Be clear on these matters. Keep to what you know to be true, by your sworn oath.

H:
Sirs, I left for home without payment promised me. Thus am I also out my fee. I know only what I have said, Sirs. The day was hot, as if Nature had been wrenched in May to some late summer's noon. Once we were well upon the water she dropped her cloak. Then unfastened her cap.
Loos'd her bodice, free as that. There was such heat I pulled my shirt loose as well. But you, and Mr. Coffin too, ought to know she left herself too undone, and caught the eye of more than one waterman and planter along the quay.

And I to wait for such a one ‘til the sound of Doomsday? Agreements are kept so long only as both parties keep to measures.

I know nothing more. I heard her fate like all the rest. The marks on her body once found, the sores of lust, the bite of serpents old as the earth.

Mgts.:
Enough.

You know nothing more of what became of Mistress Coffin, upon your oath, Higgins?

H:
That is so, Your Honors.

Be there much mystery here? Pride, Sirs. And Vanity. A woman's curse, Devil's tools, man's humiliation, as we know. What temptings might not lead to what sorrows? What might not befall one so near the snares and pits?

Wait, Sirs.

Had you seen her you would agree Balthazar Coffin must be unwitted to let such a woman, a widow and his wife, stray so far to market. He had best think on his own suit in such light. Would not your own advice and wisdom steer him toward his own negligence?

Ask those who know me—there are many. There is no evil done this woman, or any other, here!

Mgts.:
Neither the causes nor the wits of Mr. Coffin are the question at this moment.

H:
Indeed so, Sirs! But, with respect, he paints her a model Christian soul. So she may seem to him. Yet if in the sight of others that which one takes for truth is not upheld, then neither Truth nor Law stay sightless to let such accusations fall against me.

Her nature was otherwise, Sirs. Ask after that.

Mgts.:
Cease this rant. You know nothing more of this woman's disappearance and end?

H:
Only that there was some enchantment over her ripe and plucky beauty, Sirs. I make no mistake: something in her ways to disturb Christian men and women, truth be known.

Mgts.:
Your answer is no, Higgins? Nothing else? Is that so?

H:
Yes, Your Honors, my answer is I know nothing more.

Mgts.:
Then keep yourself available for further examination at the pleasure of the Court. You are scheduled for the September session in Mr. Coffin's action.

IV

By early March, Richard Browne, wrapped against the cold, sat at a small table poring over court records, searching for any possible clarification of Mistress Coffin's death. With his gloved hands he occasionally scribbled notes to himself. On still another piece of paper he listed document numbers and titles as he flipped through them, reading rapidly. On top of a separate small set of papers he had placed Higgins' deposition.

He sat alone in the cold room, his breath smoking before him. An elderly clerk had unlocked the door for him after Browne had completed a lengthy interview with Dr. Cotton. Cotton—a large, gouty, red-faced, magisterial person—was a fellow Cambridge man. Although he had in common with Browne, as it turned out, several academic acquaintances, his Cambridge years predated Browne's. Cotton had attended Sidney College as a classmate of Cromwell.

At the moment Browne was feeling discouraged. He was surprised at how little he had been able to discover here. There was nothing to explain more fully Coffin's sudden retraction of his cause against Higgins. Nor was there anything to clarify Higgins' reciprocal retraction of his counter action for slander against Coffin. Nor was any greater light, finally, shed upon the woman's disappearance and death. Higgins was indeed implicated in nothing more than possible negligence and contractual failures. The examination and deposition of Coffin
clarified further only certain relations between families in the town and certain features of the settlement's governance.

Only the examination of one Darby Shaw, a cohort of Higgins, intrigued Browne. He could not say just why he was so intrigued. But he placed Shaw's deposition on top of those papers containing Higgins' deposition and sat back. He was tired from picking his way through it all, not only the record of the Court but the waste books filled with preliminary records. He had passed through deeds, inventories of estates, contracts, attested copies, apprentices' indentures, inquests, and writs. His mind wandered; his body grew slack with fatigue.

There had been, of course, moments of entertainment. He had stumbled here through all the ancient passions and vanities, the comic oddities, the upstart rebellions and enduring desires given expression in the New World. Many had been presented for being disguised with drink. One dissident woman appeared again and again among the pages. She had threatened to tear one man's flesh to pieces; she had displayed her contempt of the Court and magistrates. Browne had skimmed through charges and counter charges of abusing the watch or other persons as proud saucy boys, malapert boys, rascally and jackanapes boys. There were persons brought up for failure to train or attend meeting; for stealing and vandalizing cocks of hay; for making an uproar in the street (wives as well as husbands); for theft of apples, petticoats, and money; for “second drunks,” selling strong waters without a license, excessive drinking, vain mirth and singing with frequent oaths, lascivious songs and gestures; for suspicion of adultery; for sleeping in time of public ordinances and breach of Sabbath; for beating wives, husbands, or neighbors.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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