The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (8 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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He shook himself like a man waking up, and walked around to the other side of the house, where young Jared was splitting and piling wood. But on coming around the corner he was disconcerted again, for no reason other than his state of mind, to see Elizabeth Higgins standing there talking to her children about her plans to walk out with himself.

He managed to say hello again, and to compliment the boy on the growing woodpile. The children were all gathering around
their mother. Each one had some piece of work—stitching, early summer vegetables to wash, small wood to be gathered for summer cooking. The oldest girl, Jerusha, as fair as her mother, held the half-asleep baby. Goody Higgins had changed her apron and cap. She now looked clean and fresh, thoroughly in command, a compassionate captain giving final instructions to her attentive troops.

Silent, the man and woman walked along the green bridle path toward the site of Browne's property. Birds and squirrels were thick in the trees. In the sunny spaces where plants and bushes flowered bright orioles chattered and whistled. Sunlight glistened off the stirring foliage. The warm air carried the brackish and swampish odors of the ebbing river.

“It has been so long since we've seen you,” Elizabeth Higgins finally said.

“I heard how well you were all doing and thought it best not to trouble you.”

“Trouble us? Your company is no trouble to us, Mr. Browne. You encourage us.”

“I was also away during most of May, up in the country. And I haven't given up my investigations of your husband's fate. I've been drawn away in my pursuit. But I must confess that I have nothing new.”

“Again, I thank you, who came here a stranger, after all. May I be of any help?”

“Not just now. The time will come. My feeling is that I'm approaching something now. But it is too soon to speak of it.”

“I don't know how it is, but I believe it's your coming here that has put an end to so many of our afflictions.”

“It isn't me alone.”

“No,” she interrupted, “you mustn't bother with such modesty. Not with me. Let's be frank as to our thoughts. Too much lies hidden otherwise.”

Browne glanced at her, but realized her words were innocent and honest. He could not help feeling dishonest himself, however. He could be satisfied, at least, that her immediate torments had ceased. She and her children were all taking care of one another, and surviving. He had not been a complete failure, perhaps, not a total sham. He might not be utterly unworthy of her faith.

“Your land is the rise above the river you spoke of before?” she asked.

“Yes, exactly so.”

“And you say the land is conveyed already?”

“I received seizin last week. Mr. Cole performed the honors, turf and twig.”

“It is such a property to have,” she said. “He must value you highly. Are you pleased?”

“Very. I need not intrude much on the commons, being here. Though I'm bound to keep up my share of the fences.”

“As all must,” she said.

She then spoke of the enormous run of fish that spring, and of the wild flowers they noticed spreading in the sunny spaces. He said little until they reached the gradually rising interval overlooking the river.

“Mr. Cole says there was an Indian village and planting ground here long ago,” Browne said. “And here I plan to build and plant.”

They left the path and climbed the gradual incline through knee-high meadow.

“They seem to have always taken the most beautiful prospects,” she said as they reached the top of the swelling meadow and looked southeastward out over the placid tidal river. It was perhaps thirty yards from shore to shore at this point up from the bay.

“Indeed,” Browne said, thinking of what his future life might be in such a place. He bent over, plucked a fat strawberry, and tasted it. Finding the berry ripe he plucked one for her.

“The story is that this had been an old cornfield, and then they planted it over, or allowed to flourish, their grass-berries, as they call them.” He stopped to eat more.

“Or heart-berries,” she said, “which is more pretty, don't you think?” She bent to pluck a few more and ate them. “Strawberry Hill, this is called, I remember now. We used to gather berries here. And it is far enough away from the settlement that no one built here from town at first.”

“Mr. Cole says that it had been put aside some years ago in case more planting ground should be required,” Browne said. He held three fat berries in the palm of his hand. The berries were between one and two inches about. Elizabeth Higgins chose one, her hands and mouth already red with juice. Browne popped the other two into his mouth.

“Strawberry Hill,” he said, chewing lightly. “I like that.” He looked at his own red palm.

“You will build here?” she asked.

“A little farther down toward the river,” he said, pointing, “to gain some protection against winter winds.”

“Perfect,” she answered. “I would say just off toward the southern edge of the meadow there, where that great shade tree would be pleasant in summer. And you'd turn the house to be square with the sun at noon?”

“Certainly. Just so.”

“It can mean so much in this country, come winter. It's a perfect spot, Mr. Browne. Quite beautiful!”

Browne smiled and spread his arms wide. In full voice he began to recite toward the horizon:

Ye have been fresh and green,

Ye have been fill'd with flowers;

And ye the Walks have been

Where Maids have spent their houres.

You have beheld, how they

With Wicker Arks did come

To kisse, and bear away

The richer Couslips home.

Y'ave heard them sweetly sing,

And seen them in a Round:

Each Virgin, like a Spring,

With Hony-succles crown'd.

Their eyes were drawn again to the river by a passing cargo boat, large and flat, that steered along in the ebbing current by men wielding poles. Cattle stirred and murmured in their pen, bundles of wood and fur lay upon the deck.

Field and saltmarsh rose greenly from the muddy river bank. Beyond the farther easterly shore groves of trees were scattered like islands in a meadow-green sea. Farther still on the horizon rose a final, wooded hill between them and the unseen Atlantic.

“I had thought of a two-story house,” Browne said. “Perhaps even a third, garret or corn loft. A shingle roof and plaster walls, rather than flush siding or wooden shingles.”

“White walls would add to the beauty here,” she said. “Chimney at either end?”

“Central. And a second range of rooms under a shed roof in the back. Nothing exceptional, but commodious. Sufficient for a future. My carpenter is traditional and insists on an oaktimbered frame. He's indentured to Mr. Cole, one John Steele. You know him?”

“Jared worked with him once. I've seen him. He is said to be the best.”

“It's the sawyers that are costly, nearly seven shillings a day.”

“You'll have a beautiful view and warmth if you arrange the windows properly to the southeast,” she said. “My husband always builds that way. And the good high, steep roof is best, of course. Let's go down to the house site then, shall we? See the prospect. There is nothing so pleasant as a good prospect, coming and going.”

They walked without speaking down the hill. “Yes,” she said as they reached the site and began to look around them, “You might as well build large enough for a family, Mr. Browne. You will want to settle.” She put her hands together and looked around as if she were planning and seeing the whole future of the Browne family on this spot.

“That is what Mr. Cole tells me,” he said and then laughed.

“Oh, he's right. Let me begin to look around for someone likely. She should have more than common manners and style. And money?” She smiled. “Let's see,” she continued, “family . . . perhaps two or three languages, music. . . . Why Mr. Browne, we shall have to send to Salem or Boston, if not London, to satisfy your requirements.” They laughed.

“But my requirements are modest, Goody Higgins, as are my present circumstances.” Modest and perhaps desperate, he thought. He had a flash of vision: some coarse jade from the Isles of Shoals, a dozen miles off the coast, where, as a ship's officer once told him, as many men shared a woman as a boat. The very edge of his vision awoke to a terrible debauch in some dark corner where naked men like besotted satyrs snorted and licked about the unclean, undulant body of a woman who grunted and licked back.

He forced the vision away.

“I'll think about it,” she was saying. “There may even be a suitable young woman hereabouts that I can summon for your consideration.” She laughed.

“I have no one in mind,” he said. “As we all know maids are soon gone in this country.” She nodded in agreement. “I have been too occupied since coming here for that.” She did not speak, so he continued. “I simply have not had the leisure to meet unattached women. I expect to build and live alone, and to rebuild what others have squandered. Even now I am cultivating associates in the fur and lumber trades that I mean to develop between myself and certain gentlemen and merchants
of London. Mr. Cole propounds the real future is in lumber products—boards, planks, shingles, masts, barrel staves, everything. Fur already promises to diminish. He sees a parade of shallow draft ships constantly plying the river in five or ten years, transporting wood above all.”

“It goes well, then?” she asked, looking at him.

“Not so well as I'd like. There is the problem of avoiding as many intermediaries as possible if one is to profit by shipping. It seems I will have to return to London, toward the end of this house building now. August, September. I must go to Boston soon to book passage. But, yes, I have begun to make arrangements for trade on this side. And I plan to hire some knowledgeable men for this venture.”

“Darby Shaw might advise you. I'll say a good word. He's met with success with the savages and merchants, and without even your advantages, Mr. Browne.”

“None but his own skill. I have approached him. He seems agreeable to some relationship, but word from you I would much appreciate, if you wouldn't mind.”

“Why shouldn't I help you?” she said and then turned toward the crown of the sloping meadow. “Wouldn't that gentle rise make a good orchard? Let's go back up to consider plantings and outbuildings.”

Walking back up the slope of the hill, he said: “And I may not be alone after all, Goody Higgins. I may prevail upon my younger brother to return with me, and his wife. He is the only immediate family I have left in England. He lives on family property, where I also was living before coming to America. But since so much of my future patrimony was invested dangerously, we have been having a hard time of it. I can no longer fund the operations and upkeep of the estate, modest as it is, from America in my present circumstances. And although they have survived the civil strife without becoming embroiled with either side, their situation will be uncertain. His help could be invaluable to me, and to both our
futures, here. Provided I can tighten the arrangements I have in mind in London. If not, I may need his help on the other side of the Atlantic. All that remains to be determined.”

They reached an outcrop near the top of the meadow and sat down. Browne asked: “Have you seen Mr. Coffin since we last met?”

“Not at all. I'm just as pleased. I have no wish to look on his face.” The breeze strengthened at the top of the hill and stirred her hair out from under her cap. She leaned forward and plucked another strawberry.

“I have spoken with him on a number of occasions and need to see him again soon. I now believe he has kept something from me.”

“Be sure to place yourself in no danger. I shouldn't like to see you come to harm for my troubles.”

“No. No, I think you overrate his evil intentions. I have met with nothing but kindness and reasonableness from him.”

“So they say of the Devil.”

“They say many things. My belief is that this man is not the source of your afflictions, but merely a principal player in the bloody drama.”

She looked at him blankly. “Nevertheless, Mr. Browne. The danger is real. You had better take care to watch yourself. I would say that now both your safety and mine depend on your watchfulness.”

“I will watch.”

“Then I can ask no more.”

She attempted to gather her hair back under her cap from the wind, but it was useless now. The breeze had been steadily increasing on the knoll. Fair weather clouds were gathering on the horizon behind them and flying rapidly over their heads in the bright sky.

The wind finally drove them from the knoll back to the pathway to her house, where the children had abandoned their tasks and were playing by the brook which ran through the yard and down into the river.


BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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