The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (6 page)

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Able to travel by canoe only part of the distance to the village of the Penacook, Shaw and Browne finally had to strike out through the wild woods. During their three-day journey Shaw explained some of what he knew of this tribe. The two men talked during their breaks for rest or meals, conserving their energy while they moved by saying little and concentrating on their way through the woods. What intrigued Browne most during these conversations was what Shaw said of the sachem Tantpasiquineo, a true Indian prince and powah, or magician, who could raise a living serpent from a snakeskin, create ice in summer and fire from ice, make trees dance, and heal the dying back into life.

Browne also wondered how Shaw kept track of where they were going. They were moving at a near trot without any apparent hesitation.

“Indian path,” Shaw said. “Thousands of years old. Unless accustomed, white men don't see these paths. They lead in every direction through the forest.”

“I see no paths, no markings or indicators.”

“Just as I say,” Shaw returned. “You'd as well look for churches and fair houses as for milestones and way markers among the Indians. Although such is what many English do.”

They never stopped for long because of the swarms of black-flies. In the interior these “black devils,” as Shaw called them,
were a worse plague even than the mosquitoes in the humidity of mid-summer near the coast. Browne especially suffered, until Shaw gave him some greasy, malodorous ointment out of the little he had left in a container made from a small animal's skull.

When they finally approached the village Browne saw wigwams along the lakeshore and, far into the forest, cooking fires and groups of people. There were scores offish and pelt-drying racks scattered about; in certain places of the visible lake were fishing weirs. Here was an Indian city, unlike any of the clusters of savage dwellings Browne had ever seen. Were they all gathering here under the great sachem against the onslaught of their afflictions? Or was this an ancient city? Certainly, he thought, as they moved into the village, this might well be the place for a man in search of anonymity and security from his white brethren.

Here too Shaw was known. The men Shaw spoke to seemed to understand and accept the Englishmen's purpose. They agreed to a meeting on another day with Higgins. For now the Englishmen were again invited to join the seasonal celebration.

When the eating ended that night, an old man rose before Browne and began to chant. These, Shaw explained, were ancient Indian tales he was reciting. To Browne they seemed mellifluous and strangely rhymed, yet incomprehensible.

“This is the story of the father deer,” Shaw told Browne in a quiet voice. Browne looked at him blankly.

“The deer has power for them. These people have gathered into one of the last strongholds of the northern forest in the territory of Massachusetts and the southern Province of Maine. Many groups still spread throughout the forests, but here is a settlement impregnable by its numbers and most powerful leader. Not even the Mohawks dare provoke them now.”

“The Mohawks are enemies of these savages?” Browne asked.

“And the most feared. But Tantpasiquineo defies them. He pays no tribute. And when two Mohawks were caught skulking nearby, they met their end. Tantpasiquineo returned a severed hand from each man to their own prince.”

“What became of these wretches?”

“They were tortured to death, in the savage manner. It is worse for an enemy who falls into their hands for they are masters of keeping him alive under his torments.”

“May we never become their enemies!” Browne said.

“We are brothers in trade. It is only the English who may break the partnership, as some even now have. There must be trust on both sides.”

“Or we will be subject to their barbarisms.”

“Reap as we sow.”

After a moment Shaw added: “But their practices can be no worse than the torments of the Turks or Persians, or Christians come to that. Yet these Indians may exceed them all in prolonging an enemy's misery.”

“By what method?” Browne asked.

“By divers practices. The common thing is to bind the victim to a tree and begin by cutting off one finger and toe at a time, then the hands, feet, arms, legs at each joint, until only the trunk remains. The flow of blood is each time stanched by searing the wound with fiery coals. Near the end they flay the flesh from the head and place more embers like a cap on the head. If his heart is still alive they cut it from his breast.”

“A fiendish horror,” Browne said and shook his head.

“More so for anyone awaiting similar treatment, who must watch and hear the screams of the victim, whose songs increase the next victim's terror.”

Browne grew silent. The old poet's melodious chant flowed into the night. Browne recalled what he had been told of Boston and the southerly reaches of New England during the Pequod wars, a limited uprising the English had been able to beat down.
It seemed to him at the moment an historical eccentricity rather than a prophecy of the relations between the light and dark races. They cooperated in a trade now that the English were extending to the marketplaces of the world, a vast market, Browne believed, that could only grow in size and stability.

But Shaw's words recalled for him stray images of the old war. A man had once described for Browne the conditions of vigilance in the dank, gray-clouded Boston of late August, 1637. He saw again the smoke blowing about the town where grim, armed men received and displayed the gruesome trophies of war sent by friendly tribes and British excursions: the wampum, the squaws, the blood-clotted heads and hands of Pequod chiefs and warriors. And these sights and odors of war had stirred men to greater religious fervors, the trials and banishments resulting from the Antinomian controversy. Fast upon Shaw's talk of savage mutilations, Browne could not help recalling the descriptions of similar grotesque tortures matched back and forth between the English and the Pequod.

The night pressed in from behind him and millions of orange sparks leaped from the fire toward white stars. The only sound above the rush of the fire was the old poet's music.

IX

The next morning the two Englishmen were shown into a wigwam where they met an Indian seated alone on a heap of animal skins. The Indian rose and embraced Shaw, then, at first in slightly hesitant English, asked his visitors to sit before him.

Browne soon realized that the man before him must be Higgins himself despite the greased and dyed flesh, the savage's clothing and hair.

In the course of early conversation, Browne also came to understand that there was some mild restriction placed upon Higgins at the moment, some discipline he was enduring, for he was required to reside and eat alone, and to avoid close contact with women. He joined the savages, however, in their daily work and entertainments, treated, it seemed in this sense at least, as a member of their community.

Higgins asked questions about the plantation and the condition of his family, and Shaw offered detailed answers. Yet Higgins showed some uncertainty toward Browne. It was not, to Browne's surprise, any particular anger over Shaw having broken his oath of secrecy. Higgins seemed to understand that Browne wished to help his family, seemed to accept Browne's arrival as some necessity in the unfolding of events. But there was a tail of suspicion, an animal watchfulness in the darkened face and steady eyes.

When his questions revealed nothing new about the
circumstances of Kathrin Coffin's death, Browne suddenly turned to the question of necromancy. What, Browne asked, was the role of Tantpasiquineo in all this?

“I met him, as the sachem, two years ago,” Higgins answered, “while trading with Darby here. We saw that he was a powerful man. So we worked through him our trading. We made sure the others we traded with knew we were trading under his care.”

“With success?”

“With much success. We kept our trade honest. Darby could tell you the wealth he has put aside. I too was seeing my way to such gain in the fur trade when Mistress Coffin met her end. No one knows what we gained in trade but ourselves. There is wealth to be taken here, Mr. Browne, if one knows the ways of this New World.”

“I don't doubt it. But what of Tantpasiquineo?”

“There was trust between us. There was profit on both sides. So when I came here in my afflictions, he grew interested in these torments and took me in, saw the danger immediately.”

“Are there not other and more efficacious sources of help in affliction for Christians?” Browne asked.

“The source of salvation becomes less important when you are running from evil, from the death of all you know and love. My household cursed, my children dying. I myself under unjust suspicion. I had no other source within the plantation.”

“Nor the polity of Massachusetts Bay?” Browne asked.

“You have to ask me that, Sir?” Higgins retorted. “The choice was death or flight. So I left, told no one. Except Darby, of course. This seems to have worked until now.”

“For now,” Browne agreed. “What is the role of this savage magician?”

“He has provided for my comfort and life. We also work together to understand the events and dreams attached to my affliction. I've placed myself under his protection.”

“And he has offered you hope of deliverance?”

“He would learn something of Englishmen's magic. And he has labored in my behalf.”

“By his chants and spells?”

“By whatever power he has.”

“You would traffic with the Devil, his consort?”

“I'm a Christian, Sir. But I've been held over the pits of Hell, and have watched my children begin to tumble into the pits. Do not the Liberties of New England allow a tormented, innocent man to save himself and his own?” He hesitated, looking from Browne to Shaw. “I am no Separatist, no Opinionist, no Sectary of any color. I am a poor planter like so many others who has lived by his skill, Mr. Browne, and who has now found the fur trade to be good.”

“But through necromancy, Higgins? Through black arts and heathens? One need not be a Separatist nor even bound under the Liberties of Massachusetts Bay, as we all now are, to see the dangers that way. If you would speak of the terrors of Hell's Pit, speak of maleficence, speak of the battles of necromancers.”

“Tantpasiquineo has applied his powers in my behalf. That is all,” Higgins said. “To do so is what he has chosen. And there seems some relief in it.”

“Yet nothing is resolved,” Browne said. “Still less the circumstances of your abandoned family. Your wife grows distracted, Higgins. With good cause. Might we not rejoin you and them and seek some Christian solution to these trials? Even granting there are black arts against you—which I do not—surely we could search them out.”

“You would take that chance now? Have me take it?” Higgins asked. “I would not.”

“Mr. Cole would bring in whatever pastors or teachers or physicians are necessary to relieve your burdens.”

“Mr. Browne, I don't know you. But I believe your purposes honorable. I trust Mr. Cole's judgment of you. And Darby's.
But I mean to stay here for now. I don't know when I may return. Too much dear to me is at stake. And there's an end of it, Sir. I have to place myself in your hands also. I trust you to speak to no one of this meeting. No one. Else the blood of others is upon your hands. Exile under Tantpasiquineo has saved me and mine. Pray, do
not
cross me now.” He rose to indicate that the interview was over.

That night Browne's sleep was punctuated by wakefulness and dreams.

“Was there someone in the wigwam with us last night?” he asked Shaw the next morning.

“No. I sleep hard, but I wake if someone comes near. Who?”

“I don't know. He stood by the dying fire, and but for one slice of moonlight in the smokehole, that spark was the only light. I saw a black shape; arms like wings. There seemed to be someone with him, behind him, a woman white as the moon.”

“A dream,” Shaw said, pulling his leather jacket over his head. “I saw nothing.”

“Perhaps. What chance do you think we have of convincing Higgins to leave with us?”

“None. But that's something he must decide for himself. We'll give him a week, as we agreed.”

Throughout that week Higgins never came any closer to leaving, and Browne never met Tantpasiquineo. The undersagamores were, however, completely accommodating.

It was on their journey home that Browne began to understand Higgins' position. There was a certain logic to his adamancy, if one accepted his version of events. That version, of course, shed no light upon Mistress Coffin's death. Were he, Higgins, the guilty party, there would be reason enough for his flight from his own people and law, to become one of the lost or dead. But was Browne to discount the deaths of children, or even these accounts of sinister dreams?

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BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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