The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (7 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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Jonathan Cole was a large, competent man who had risen from a long line of commoners. Unlike Browne or Coffin he had not been a university man, but had started as an apprentice and journeyman printer in London, had taught himself French and Latin, and had ultimately bought a printing shop, which he sold in middle life to go on an adventure to the New World with a new, and first, wife. Not unlike Higgins, he was a man of varied talents and practical skills that had stood him well on his adventure. But to these practical abilities Cole added a keen intelligence and a shrewd administrative capacity to manage community affairs. Everyone respected him and many sought his advice. He was one of the original, elected rulers of the settlement.

His manner with orderly people was just and kindly, almost (as he passed well into his fifties) avuncular. Yet when he was aroused over some breach of courtesy, modesty, or justice, he was like a black August storm suddenly piling in from the western sky bearing a blast of hail and a menace of high winds.

These qualities and a debt of generosity and friendship to Cole caused Browne discomfort as he sat in Cole's library withholding the solution he had discovered to the riddle of Higgins' disappearance.

The decision to withhold information from Cole had been long and tortuous. But finally Browne reasoned that there were
lives at stake, including children's lives, and that he was growing less rather than more certain of the nature of Balthazar Coffin. Furthermore, the evidence against Higgins was riddled with faults.

“At this point it would be best, Mr. Cole, to speed up this search for a minister,” Browne said. “Provide ample remuneration and bring in an excellent man. Perhaps the sickness here is more spiritual than legal.”

“Are the two so separate, Richard?” Cole asked. There was an edge of good humor in his voice. “And our offers have been lucrative, including some of our choicest lands. Two of the recent candidates we rejected: one a narrow fanatic, the other an old goat whose sole vigor was, by reputation, concupiscence. Our best candidates have so far lacked, finally, sufficient interest to join us. Thus our search continues.”

“Might not some pious and courageous man now be sufficiently intrigued even by Goody Higgins' dark circumstances?”

“That is a possibility, but of course if we discount the suffering that arises from a missing husband, her torments seem to have ended. Mostly this reduction in afflictions has occurred since your arrival, Richard. She tells me she has great faith in your abilities. So you have helped her greatly, as I believed you would.

“It is precisely because of your many talents and abilities—nay, even sympathies—that I encouraged you to join our plantation and asked for your help and judgment in this Higgins affair. My former associations with your father were not my only considerations, you see. It is, however, perhaps time for you to consider your other purposes here as well. Your acceptance is assured, there is the grant of property about which we have spoken, the trade in wood and other commodities flourishing all around us. ‘If this Land be not rich, then is the whole world poor,' eh?” Cole chuckled. “What more propitious time for a young man of parts to regain his family's losses? Between
us we know many people here and in England who can help you to great advantage.

“Moreover, the magistrates of Boston will be delighted to learn such a man as Richard Browne has become one of us here. They raise continual complaints about those of us in the whole Pascataqua region—accepting all their reprobates and outcasts!” Cole laughed. He leaned back in his chair and enjoyed himself over the idea. Then he stood up and said, “More cider, Richard!” and held out his hand.

He left the room. Browne, nervous, got up from his chair and paced about the small room. Cole was right, he did have overriding responsibilities to himself and his relations back in England. There was wealth to be made here, to be replenished.

When Cole returned holding two noggins full of cider, Browne began: “I cannot deny my responsibilities, nor my desire to settle and begin here, Mr. Cole. And I can never repay your aid and kindnesses to me. But if I may, I would dwell somewhat longer on this Higgins matter. I believe Coffin wants testing, for one thing. And if Coffin be innocent, then Higgins has much to answer for. Should he be found. I believe him alive.”

“Alive?” Cole sipped his cider, musing. “You may suit yourself, as to that. And I would have you probe these matters so long as you may release truths out of darkness, so long as your efforts repay us. It is a mysterious business. Have they told you of the light over the meetinghouse the night before Mistress Coffin's death?”

“The light?”

“It is not uncommon. The Indians see them, and they have appeared near Boston. ‘Corpse fires' some call them because they are sure to produce a corpse next day. Like a flame, hovering above a wigwam, church, or house.”

“I had not heard of such a fire in this particular connection.”

“Whatever the invisible world may answer for in England, Richard, it has much more to answer for in this wilderness
where the English have planted. A gentleman from Cape Ann entertained me with his mouth full of marvels half the night on my recent visit there. Nearly twenty years ago many would swear to a great, snaky sea monster coiled like a cable upon a certain rock. Woe to the mariner who strayed too close!” Cole laughed, not the laugh of incredulity, but of curiosity in security, of men exchanging stories. Cole was known for taking pleasure in tales of wonder and human folly.

“One providence he told me was of an incident on that Cape, about a decade ago, which happened to a ship's master, a fisherman, one Mr. Foxwell. He had put off from shore to a night anchorage and was awakened at midnight by the calling of his own name, ‘Foxwell—Foxwell,' coming across the water from the beach. He rose and looked out upon a great fire on the sands. Men and women were holding hands to form a ring and dancing around the fire. Again he heard his name, but finally there was only the dancing and the fire until the fire burned low and the dancers vanished. Exploring ashore the next morning, he found the footprints of men, women, and children. And an infinite number of brand-ends had been tossed up by the surf. The footprints were of people who wore shoes, but he could find nowhere any other traces of people, English or Indian.”

“There is much that cannot be answered for in this world,” Browne said.

“As there is in this case you pursue?”

“Perhaps the solution is beyond our understandings.”

“Then we had better resort to prayer and fast,” Cole said. “But Mr. Coffin is a man of parts. I believe he is to be trusted. Of course I have not had the opportunity to study the case as you have. Goody Higgins is at some peace now. Her oldest son, Jared, especially helps with a man's work. But life is difficult here alone. If her husband intends to keep absent, or if he is as I believe dead, we may have to provide her the opportunity
to marry again. It comes to the same thing whatever the cause of his absence.” He looked at Browne and smiled. “I can imagine no lack of suitors.” He rose and stepped over to a series of little cupboards and drawers built into the wall beside the fireplace and pulled forth his pipe, which he proceeded to pack methodically as he ruminated. Then he turned around, waved his pipe generally about the room, and said: “Sup with us this evening, Richard. You have been away much too long. Mistress Cole has been asking after you. No need to dine out, as I've told you.”

He then stepped within the great hearth and, with a coal snatched and held by a particularly slender pair of smokingtongs, lit his pipe. “We are happy to have you with us,” he went on. “We see so little of you, now you've taken lodgings. You'll have your own life soon enough, once you build. Then I'll wager we shall never see you! Come sup then.”


On his way to consider once again the property to be granted him, Richard Browne passed Elizabeth Higgins' house and noticed the woman dressed in summer calico moving about in her kitchen garden. Although he had not spoken to her since returning some weeks ago from the village where Jared Higgins hid himself from the society of Englishmen, Browne knew instantly that he could not prolong his own silence.

He went up to the sturdy board fence that enclosed her garden, hearing the shunk-shunk of young Jared chopping wood on the opposite and shaded side of the house, and saw that she was now on her knees over weedpatches in the peas and lettuce. Bean leaves and blossoms stirred in the slight morning breeze. Browne saw coriander and dill plants underway, and one other plant that struck him as having the complete freedom of her garden—the large gillyflower. This, he guessed, to encourage hummingbirds. But here was a ripe profligacy by any garden standard, a crowding neighborliness of all manner of edible, herbaceous, and flowering plant.

Kneeling in the morning sunlight, caught amongst her floral charges, she had yet to notice Browne. He toyed with the thought that he had surprised the very deity behind the glorious golden profusion of English gorse that some time ago had crept and spread through certain nearby fields, as it had in so many fields among the settlements to the east and south. Flora
herself. “To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene; And sweet as Flora. . . .”

But no, this woman wiping the perspiration from her face was real flesh entirely. And, come to think of it, was not Flora's sweetness itself tainted? Loved by courtesans and common whores? Enshrined beside the Circus Maximus?

She turned quickly, sensing someone behind her, and began to rise. He in turn was startled back from his wandering thoughts and approached to lean on the fence, confirming in that instant his decision not to tell her, not yet, of her husband's true condition. He spoke immediately in his embarrassment over being caught watching her.

“Good morning, Goody Higgins! Fine morning to be out in such a garden.” It was all he could think to say. He smiled and waved an arm over the garden.

“Lovely,” she said, catching her breath now that she recognized her onlooker. Her hand, which had been over her heart, rose to wipe her damp face.

“‘Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.'” He rather too loudly declaimed the words of Solomon, and laughed. “I was just on my way to make early plans for the property granted me,” he added. “I'm to be your new neighbor, at some distance.” He waved his arm again, in the general direction of his property.

“Not at too great a distance, I hope?” she said, her face pretty and open, expressing genuine interest.

“Not too great,” he repeated. “Just as surely one you can call on for help in any need.”

“Thank you, Mr. Browne.” She loosened the ties on her hat. “My children have been such a help to me since their father disappeared, the older ones especially. They're a blessing. But your offer to help us is welcome. And if I can return the offer—some matter about your new house that requires my experience
or a woman's touch. . . .” She wiped her forehead again, and her coarse, dirty gloves left a stain of soil on her face.

“Have you a few moments to join me now?” Browne asked. “Perhaps you could begin by giving me your opinion of where I plan to situate the house.” He smiled to encourage her. “It is merely a quarter hour or so walk,” he said, looking off in the general direction. “I have meant to speak with you in any event. Can the children look after one another a short time?”

“Well,” she began, somewhat confused by the invitation, “they have done so before.” She came through the small gate and stood beside Browne, looking up at him. She adjusted the hat sheltering her face from the sun, squinted into the sunlight, and drew out a cloth to wipe her face again. “If you really think I can be of some help.”

“Certainly you can.”

“Then let me go in a moment to clean off my face and these hands; they get dirty right through gloves.” She removed the gloves and held up two hands to the sun. The hands fascinated him; they were delicate hands, yet coarsened and dirtied by work. He stood speechless as she turned to enter the house. Suddenly it occurred to him how recovered, how lively and energetic she seemed. How ridiculous he must appear, standing momentarily incapacitated beside the fence that protected Elizabeth Higgins' herbs and vegetables from roaming hogs, cattle, and chickens. Somehow her absent husband seemed to have been prescient concerning the danger his family might still face.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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