The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (5 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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“Might you at the least tell me of these torments as you understand them, Shaw?”

“They belong to Goody Higgins. I'll not tamper with them.”

“I seek only to learn more about the nature of your laying their source to Coffin. A woman is murdered. The man most recently associated with her, and then his wife, experience ill fate and visions. Does that lead us to the victim's husband? Does that demonstrate his necromancy? It is a possibility, of course. But might not murder, suit, investigations all distract minds? Might not nature kill and blast?”

Shaw's body seemed to rise up out of his fatigue. “Here is a dream, then,” he said. “Tell me it comes from nature, or God. It is Higgins', not his wife's. Those she can tell you herself.”

Shaw leaned back on his bench against the wall. He looked directly at Browne. “In his sleep Higgins dreams he is planting an orchard. He takes care in the cultivation of seven trees that they might bear autumn fruit. Still, one tree dies, and it is not clear why. This tree bleeds a little, real heart's blood. The other trees flourish.

“Another night the dream returns, yet only after one of the children, little Mehitabel, is taken away by violent illness. This time Higgins returns to the dream orchard and another of the six remaining trees dies off. It is exactly as before—sudden, the bleeding, without clear cause.”

“Then a second child?” Browne interrupted.

Shaw ignored his question. “Higgins wakes up crying. He tells his wife. They are confused. Helpless and filled with sorrow. They examine the children. Each of the six seems well in his sleep. But each night Higgins cannot sleep. He fears the dream, another dead child. He sleeps briefly each night and wakes up sweating, exhausted. Just when he and his wife begin to believe death will not follow, the second child falls ill, Anne, his youngest daughter, and dies of the same fever and bloody flux within a week.

“It was then that Higgins fled. It was as if he were killing his own children by his dreams. He wasn't going to wait for another dream, and death.”

“These two alone died, finally?” Browne asked, although he knew the answer.

“Two of their seven. That he fled seems to have worked it. He felt as if some poison were in him. Might not his far and sudden removal put a stop to this power from wherever it came? What other way lies before a desperate and helpless father?”

“His dreams have stopped?” Browne asked.

“I know not where he is, alive or dead.”

“Come, Shaw. If you can't tell me where, at least tell me whether the dreams have stopped. The children are alive now. We may need to watch and protect them. Surely he would wish us to!”

“They have stopped,” Shaw said. He looked down at the table board.

“Ah,” Browne answered. He remained silent. After some moments he asked: “He has not returned?”


“Can we help him?”

“He has decided to help himself.”

“How so?”

“That I am pledged by my life not to say. And will not. I have broken my promise. Tell
no one
he is alive. The lives of his wife and children depend on our silence. Speak nothing of this to a soul.”

Shaw looked up grimly. His face told what agony he was in to regain his secret and promise.

Browne felt a murderous moment pass between them and shifted his legs to brace himself. But Shaw only slammed his fist on the table. Then Shaw lay his head, face down, in the circle of his arms, and Browne left without another word.


In late April when scattered groups of coastal New England Indians returned to fishing encampments on the seaward reaches of the rivers, and when the first tumult of spring run-off had subsided enough to make canoe travel practical, Browne and Shaw set off by river and bay to find Jared Higgins among the Indians. Early in the voyage down the tidal river into the bay they were tracing the exact route Jared Higgins and Kathrin Coffin had traveled nearly a year before.

Browne had kept Shaw's secret. Not even Elizabeth Higgins knew from him anything of her husband. Between Shaw and Browne there had grown a trust, if no friendship. Gradually, Shaw had come to agree to take Browne in search of Higgins. Might not Browne and Higgins together, Shaw had been persuaded to believe, find a way out of the apparent dilemma that Higgins must either remain in secret exile or condemn his family by return?

They had passed the estate of the wealthiest man in the Piscataqua Plantations, one of the original pioneers sent by no less than Captain Mason himself to oversee the settlement and exploitation of the region. It seemed an estate in progress, but even now the most imposing monument to civilization in the wilderness that Browne had seen north of Boston. The owner's expanding manor house, his gardens, cornfields, orchards, pastures, timber lots, barn and outbuildings—all sweeping along
the gently-rising grassy west bank of the river—struck Browne as the realization of what would have seemed until now an impossible ideal. He was unaware of his gaping until Shaw, behind him, laughed.

They had passed down through the thousands of alewives running upstream. Now on the first summery morning of the year, their canoe floated into the mouth of the river opening into Great Bay. Sunshine glittered off the spreading water with intolerable brightness. Salt marshes spread wide the margins between forest and water. The men saw the huge distant trees of the forest, open and parklike, the home of deer and fowl. In the labor and heat of paddling, Browne had removed his linen shirt. The cool, rank air from the water and marshes bathed their bodies. Across the bay thousands of geese were taking off and landing on the bright water. Swans glided by, their wings whistling overhead.

From time to time one of the men would dip into a small cask to drink cider from his earthen mug. As their canoe slid along one shore of the bay, birds croaked, chattered, and sang their spring polyphonies. Big trees with moss-covered trunks grew closer to the water's edge now, only occasionally pushed back by an interval of marsh or mead. As the canoe approached several white pines two hundred and fifty feet tall, three great herons broke from the tree closest to the shore.

But for a hunter's isolated and empty wigwam, there was no sign of humanity in this portion of the bay. As the morning wore on towards noon, the men spotted an occasional, distant fishing shallop, and once they saw a lone man fowling from a canoe, but they traveled in the signs and sounds of wilderness only. At midday they paddled to a small island to eat and rest.

They ate in silence, at times drawing from their rundlet of beer. Browne lay back on a soft rotting log to doze. They were both anxious to complete the search for Higgins, yet they lazed a while longer in the sun. Shaw was miserable in his leisure, a
man who had been protecting his friend from evil, who had broken the ring of protection, and who now had to face the friend. Wouldn't the friend lash out, like an animal protecting its family? Yet Shaw, like Browne, lay in the sun, digesting his food, relaxing his muscles and back. Each man waited for the other to suggest they take up the journey. The spring sunlight was the narcotic through which they contemplated the encounters ahead and the hoped-for resolutions.

Browne dozed in and out of consciousness. He breathed the scent of brackish water mingled with pine, hints of spring blossoms, and damp earth. Sea gulls keened overhead. A fish hawk called out over the water from a tree on the island. The three-beat moan of some creature, perhaps a dove, eased across the water from the nearby shore. Then Browne fell completely asleep.

He was somewhere on the Mediterranean, in a white house with open windows and doors. Sunlight and warm wind stirred through the building. He was entirely alone in the bright house, which he now realized was situated on a hill or cliff overlooking the sea. There was a noise outside, as if someone had kicked stones. An old man whose hair, skin, and tunic were completely white entered the house, ignoring Browne. The old man began to paint dark murals on the white walls and to speak in a language unknown to Browne. Browne tried French, Italian, and Latin on the old man, who only laughed. Finally, he turned his pallid face on Browne and said in English: “Even though you are entering the middle of life, see how you must still struggle, fight, and learn. . . .” There was a sharp kick to the sole of Browne's foot, and he woke up.

“You snore worse than the lean of an old ship,” Shaw was saying. He kicked Browne's boot again. “We must be moving. I fell asleep myself.”

Browne did not get up at first. He wiped his face with his hand and breathed deeply. Then he struggled into a sitting
position, still confused. Finally, he managed to stumble to the edge of the island and splash water against his sweaty face.

Later, they began to move inland up one of the several tidal rivers that emptied into the bay. The river gradually narrowed and the trees began to arch above them into a shadowy canopy. Shaw threw in a line to catch their evening meal. They surprised more than one bear wading about in the shallows for teeming fish. Within half an hour the empty spaces in the bottom of their boat were so filled with fish that they pulled in their line. Shaw said that they would make camp below a falls he knew just ahead, and portage around the falls in the morning. As they moved closer to the falls the men heard cheering and singing.

“They'll be there,” Shaw said.

“That noise?” Browne asked.

“Indians. Spring encampment; they're celebrating.”

By the time they arrived at the Indian camp the Indians were awaiting them. Browne saw a large cleared area beneath a few giant trees, about which reed-covered wigwams were scattered. The only noise he heard now was the falls, which the English had not yet dammed for their mills, and where now and then a fish leapt out of the boil. The Indians were brightly dressed, especially the young women and certain of the men (whom Browne took to be sagamores) whose bodies and hair were bedecked with fine blue and white beads. Children in turkey-feather cloaks scurried about the camp or giggled at these Englishmen in the canoe.

Once the canoe landed the Indians greeted Shaw as one they knew. There were preliminary courtesies; then the Englishmen were shown to a central fire by which fish on racks were being smoked and cooked. The games and contests were ended, Browne conjectured, by their arrival. But it became clear that feasting would soon begin. Most of the women, still in a playful mood,
began to cook with a menagerie of pots and kettles—some of clay, some of copper and French in design, others of iron and more distinctly English. Only the children continued to chase one another and play, their laughter breaking the relative quiet now.

Shaw contributed their own catch to the feast. He spoke to a group of men in Algonquian dialect, translating bits of conversation for Browne when it might be of interest. As they began to be seated, the men produced clay and stone pipes painted with fantastic designs and almost human images. As they began smoking tobacco, Shaw turned to Browne and said: “I doubted they might be here this season, things have changed so much for the Indian these last ten years.”

“English and disease,” Browne said.

“And tribal war. Some have removed farther west,” Shaw said. “Eat your fill.”

Browne could not join in the talk that continued throughout the eating. He might have been a deaf man at a stranger's marriage feast. But once the eating abated, Shaw turned to Browne again and said: “Higgins is not among them. They tell me he is with the Penacooks, several days journey upriver and through the forest. They will likely be by the lakes. How far up country are you willing to go to find him?”

“As far as need be,” Browne answered.

“There is no other choice,” Shaw said and turned away.

Browne heard owls and wolves far away in the woods. Then the dancing started, absorbing the sounds of the night. Shaw joined in the celebration, seeming to abandon himself to the chants and rhythms as completely as the Indian men and women. There was much in their adorned nakedness, in their gestures and movements, that disturbed and excited Browne. But he merely watched, eating some final portions placed before him. Much later, both Englishmen grew tired and, at their request,
were led to a wigwam where the opened area met the margins of the deeper woods.

Pleased now with the sweet fullness of his stomach and his dry, comfortable bed of animal skins thrown over flooring raised a foot off the earth, Browne felt his exhausted body glide toward dreamless sleep as he listened to Shaw's deep breathing and to the songs of Indians celebrating the renewal of their earth's gifts.


BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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