The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (4 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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One wag was sentenced to the whipping post for saying he intended to join the church to have his dog christened. There was a group of young husbands presented for going into the woods with liquors to sing and shout at an unseasonable time
of night, thereby occasioning their wives and some others to go out and search for them. Another wife told the Court to kiss her arse.

Amidst all of this Browne had found Higgins v. Coffin for slander and Coffin v. Higgins for defamation, raising an evil report of his deceased wife, and breach of a promise to carry his wife in a canoe to market, yet not bringing her up in the canoe again. And he had discovered, eventually, three preliminary depositions relating to the case.

But it was Shaw's deposition alone that Browne paid the clerk to copy for him at the end of the day, promising to return in a fortnight for it with the remainder of the clerk's fee. Browne was due to return to Robinson's Falls the next day.

His notes bundled in his bag, Browne hurried in the cold, murky evening to the ordinary where he had also been able to engage a room through the keeper's wife. He thought of his supper by the fire, of a bowl or two of sack, of his bed and warming pan.

Later, his belly full, his body relaxed from the drink and the fire, Browne lay curled up in his bed under thick bedclothes, squinting by dim flickering light one last time at his documents list, hoping for some hint of an unseen pattern, or some missed connection between the players in the Higgins-Coffin drama.

He saw the labor before him. He now found a certain pleasure in trying to tease out meaning and order. He saw that he would have to cast a wider net of interviews. He would have to probe Coffin and Goody Higgins far more than he had, come to know them and draw out all the implications of their stories, and compare their stories more closely with others'. All the implications, all the hidden turnings of past actions, seemed to demand of him some resolution now. And the missing Jared Higgins seemed to beg for pursuit. That was the major task his benefactor Cole had set him to, just over a month ago.

He knew well enough that despite his friendship with Cole, any outsider had to demonstrate his usefulness to a settlement, any newcomer would be accepted only after scrutiny. Yet the violent death of this woman had already begun to take on a force of its own in his mind. Here was something worthy of his solution. Each interview and document, however unrevealing, deepened his fascination with these people, their circumstances, their relations. He felt intuitively just now that the solution would be shockingly simple, like some soon-to-be-grasped mathematical principle still teasing about the portals of a theoretician's mind.

Browne snuffed out the lantern and slid deep into the warm bedclothes. His drift toward sleep glowed with wine-touched confidence. Find the woman's husband. And the truth. The very thing to do.

After all, he had seen his family's fortunes squandered in considerable measure on New World ventures, had journeyed to reclaim his losses from the hands of incompetents or, worse, thieves, and had failed to recoup a single loss yet had resolved to begin remaking that fortune in a world free of the props and limitations of homeland and family. He, therefore, upon his arrival at a remote plantation in mid-winter needed something worthy to fascinate and represent him while awaiting the promises of spring.


this twentieth day of June,
anno Domini 1648,
Being Sworn saith:

My name is Darby Shaw, carpenter and trader, of Robinson's Falls since 1641. I am thirty-five, widowed, previously of Nottinghamshire, England, Parish Gotham.

Assistant Magistrates:
Are you not an acquaintance or associate of Jared Higgins?

Known him most of my life, Your Honors. We were boyhood friends. After my second wife, Mary, died in childbirth he helped me settle at the plantation. It was our first child, and we but married two years.

Your association with Higgins extended to trade, did it not?

It did. We'd hunt and explore together. We've claimed some intervals and upland meadow together, know the best hunting lands from our travels and from the savages. Yes, he has helped me in the fur trade now and again.

Whenever one of us needs help in some labor we ask one another first, provided there is payment enough for two.

You have trusted each other completely?

Aye to that, Your Honors. Better than any other.

Your trade is directly through the savages? And you, as well as Higgins, consort with them and are welcomed by them?

You can find better quarter with most savages than with some English plantations, Your Honors. More than one have remarked on that.

So they may have, Shaw. But our question is the extent of your trafficking and living with the savages.

Well, in my case, much. Fur is my trade, now, Sirs. When I first came to the plantation I built and enlarged fair houses and mills. Fishing shallops even, everything there was to be built. But the fur proved ready and sovereign. Beaver, otter, musquash, martin, fox, raccoon—anything that'll bring the price.

Higgins comes along when he can spare the time, for about a third of my return.

Myself, I travel and live with the lords of the soil weeks at a time, mostly in these parts. But I've been known as far as the interior lakes and all up the coast of Maine.

We run a trading wigwam too. Moved some thousands of skins through last year on the beaver trade alone. Most of our corn comes in that way—worth five or six shillings a bushel.

Was Higgins well known among the savages?

Times he has lived with them as I have. With some there is deeper trust than with others. But we've always abided the law—no trade in strong waters nor firearms, if that's your meaning. Where trust is sound by proved trade, there is no necessity to break English law. Higgins' relations with savages are less than mine. But he knows their ways well.

Then it is true as has been said of you that you have lived as a White Indian?

I don't deny that. For a time. But I live at Robinson's
Falls. When I return to the savages it is for the sake of my trade, and theirs. All benefit. I do, the savages do. I need not tell Your Honors the gain to England, to all Europe, from the wealth of these forests.

And Higgins too has lived as a White Indian?

That too is true, though not so much as I. No one calls him so, as some have called me.

Shaw, now think you hard upon your oath. Might there be some savage barbarity here in this violence to Mistress Coffin?

For a pound or two? A few kernels? They live not by such need. Nor inclined to such doings as befell the good woman. To what purpose? Our trade and relations with the savages is good. Better here than in plantations to the south. Even where peaceable relations are maintained. There is less treachery because more sharing the return.

Higgins had no entanglements to bring on such barbarity? Had Higgins, to your knowledge, ever pursued this woman? Sought her favors?

To my knowledge there were neither adulterous favors sought, denied, nor granted. These are matters I know nothing of. Nor did he ever speak of her particularly.

To your knowledge was there ever an instance of Higgins soliciting the favors of any woman?

Any woman?

Upon your sworn testimony.

Well, 'Honors, he was as true to his good wife as most, I believe. To be honest, I know only of an instance with an Indian squaw. There was a misunderstanding. He had thought the woman a maid. And having been away from his family so long, was tempted that her company would do no harm. Yet later the woman confronted him with her husband. Higgins saw his mistake and sought reparations. With my help we made the husband understand Higgins' mistake. He, the
husband, had threatened to carry the matter to our own magistrates, saw it as an assault. He knew adultery to be a serious crime under our laws.

Our explanations along with some gifts in peace and good faith prevailed.

And there are no other adulterous instances to your knowledge?

None, Sirs. He was, like any, likely to turn his eye on a beauty. Or like any other to comment on some passing jade or goodwife who caught his eye. But no instances such as this one.

Nor any bestial or sodomistical filthiness?

None, Sirs. None.

Keep yourself available for further examination, Shaw. And to bear witness at the pleasure of the Court. Take no journeys mind you, even for your trade.


Upon his return to Robinson's Falls, Browne spoke with Cole further about certain inhabitants of the settlement and then interviewed Darby Shaw. He found Shaw in his one-room bachelor's cottage, sullenly awaiting the approach of weather warm enough to make extended travel to distant fur trading outposts practical. The inside walls of his cottage were hung with clean, well-oiled tools—hand saws, whip saws, files, wrests, augers, chisels, gimlets, froes, hammers, felling and broad axes.

Thin, compact, tawny, Shaw was a peculiar-looking man. His appearance was less that of an Englishman than a French trader or cross-breed. His long hair was kept in place by a leather mechanism. His clothing was made of coarse animal skins worn with the fur side against his body, just as an Indian would reverse his clothing, fur inward, during cold seasons. Yet at the moment he also wore over the skins an English laboring man's short brown fustian frock.

Shaw seemed fatigued to Browne, despite his wiry strength, from his day spent building a new gristmill. And he was not pleased to have a stranger questioning him again about his friend Jared Higgins. He knew nothing about this, nothing about that. Browne knew better, so he tried another tack.

“You know Goody Higgins well?” Browne asked.

“I do. She is my friend's wife. Why would I not?”

“Indeed. Have you any idea of her torment over the loss of her husband?”

“Of course. What do you take me for? I feel much for the woman. I help as I can.”

“So she has told me,” Browne said.

“Have you questioned Coffin and Mr. Cole?” Shaw asked.

“I have.”

“And you see no greater torment from that direction?”

“Coffin? Thus far, I have not.”

“Then you had better look deeper.”

“What do you know of the matter?” Browne asked.

“Only that the woman is unnaturally tormented.”

“And such torments you lay to Mr. Coffin?”

“He would have reason, by his lights.”

“Yet you have no other or clearer reason to believe these torments come from Mr. Coffin?”

“You need ask me that, Mr. Browne? From what you have said you know all the circumstances. You offer some other explanation of the source of her torments?”

“Such things do not always arise from dark arts.”

“Then you lay to God these horrors?”

“I do not presume to lay anything to God, Shaw. And I am careful in laying mischief to anyone. I have seen no horrors. Have you?”

“No. But I trust the word of Higgins, and of his wife.”

“So I understand.”

“You understand?”

“I have been on these researches for some time now, as you see. My belief is that Higgins is alive. I come for your help, Shaw. I am here to help Goody Higgins. That is my charge from Mr. Cole. I wonder if we might not do better, even for her sake, to quit this play of wit and be direct.”

“I know nothing of Higgins' disappearance. You think I would not have told his wife if I did?”

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
9.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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