The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin (9 page)

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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On another warm day that June, Richard Browne paid a fourth visit to Balthazar Coffin. Coffin greeted Browne warmly, but the older man was haggard. Browne conjectured that the gaunt face was the result of Coffin's loss and sorrow, as if his pain had only gradually worked into him during the past year. Now Coffin seemed to be the one living without sleep.

“You have been away, Mr. Browne,” Coffin said. “Welcome back.”

Browne explained that he had come to discuss several points that were yet unclear to him about the circumstances of Mistress Coffin's death.

“Your journey was fruitful?” Coffin asked.

“Yes. But so much remains to be uncovered.”

“Ah. Ever the case, Browne. Ever the case.” He shook his head and, pointing to a chair for Browne to sit in, slowly sat into another. A woman servant entered the room and asked if they would care for refreshment.

“Cider?” Coffin asked. “Claret?”

“Thank you,” Browne said. “Cider would be excellent.”

“Two drams of sharpest cider, Martha, please,” Coffin said. As the woman left the room, Coffin added: “I'll be alone soon; Martha is leaving within the month. Then it will be just me and cook. And that old widow, Goody Hastings, grows more deaf and blind, more the crone, each day. We'll make a pretty
couple.” He laughed and shook his head, as if imagining two invalids hobbling about the house like damaged crows.

“To what extent did your wife know Higgins before you hired him to take her to market?” Browne asked quietly.

“I can't remember much anymore. Oh, I remember old times, way back, clear as yesterday. But yesterday itself? Or recent events? Even an hour ago? And I forget so many small things now. You'd think me eighty, rather than approaching the half-century.” He laughed. “Crabwise, to be sure, but approaching.” The woman entered again with two servings of cider. Coffin thanked her and added in the same breath: “I am tired, of many things. But as to your question, forgive me. Yes. Yes, she knew him. How well? That is more difficult. I am perhaps among the least to answer it. May I let it go at that for the moment? May I enlighten you further on that point later? Let's consider these other questions first that you spoke of, Mr. Browne.”

“My other questions depend on your answer to my first, so we will return to it as you say. But let me ask you this, Mr. Coffin. Why did you hire Higgins? Why that man?”

“Have I not told you at a previous interview that Higgins is an able man, a skilled man? He is widely respected. There are few men anyone would hire before Higgins for river travel as much as for building a shed, or fencing, or judging the worth of planting grounds, or any multitude of things.”

“There is no other reason?”

“Not in the main. I knew him, as here everyone does.” He paused, waved his hand and fixed Browne with his eyes. “Kathrin knew him.” He paused, then continued. “I am tired to the bones, Mr. Browne, so let me come to the point. I wish to show you something, in secret trust, something I discovered after her death.” Coffin rose slowly and left the room.

While he was absent—perhaps some quarter of an
hour—Browne rose and paced nervously. He walked into the library, a room which on an earlier visit he had seen only superficially, and looked at the table covered with papers as well as writing and drawing implements. His glance passed over a flat, ornately carved, open box on the table. Within the box were delicate measuring instruments and several small round stones of a kind he had seen once before and now immediately thought of as oriental bezoar stones. He looked at Coffin's books. There must have been nearly twenty in folio and more in quarto, many bound in good leather and stoutly corded. A few in quarto seemed to have been stitched and bound, some in parchment, by their owner. He pulled a few free and discovered considerable polite reading: Virgil, Lucan, du Bartas, Jonson, and the like. But there were many more works of a speculative and investigative turn: various herbals from Dodoens, and Gerard, to Parkinson; and there were Pliny, Gesner, Clusius, Alpinus, Monardes, and Cornuti. It was, in all, a curious mixture of polarities, of the quaint and the philosophically advanced—Paracelsus the shelf neighbor of Galen, Harvey of Valentinus. He quietly discovered some of those bound in parchment to be transcribed, perhaps by students, perhaps by Coffin himself. These were shelved as bound manuscript copies of older books. There were trunks of books as well, but hearing Coffin calling to him, he did not look into these. He returned to the parlor where they had been sitting.

“Remarkable library!” Browne said upon entering. Coffin managed a smile and said: “As you know, Mr. Browne, my library is at your disposal. Perhaps some time we may discuss more pleasant topics?”

“Indeed,” Browne said, but then he noticed that Coffin held a small, red, leather-bound book. As Coffin laid the book on the table and pushed it toward him, Browne noticed a gold clasp or locking device on the book.

“I have here,” Coffin said, “a curious little book that may answer many of your questions. You may take it up; it is for your study.”

Browne picked up the book and caressed the soft red leather. Coffin handed him the clasp key, which was strung upon a delicate necklace.

“By giving this to you, Mr. Browne, I indicate that I will have no more to say upon the matter of Mistress Coffin's death. All I know of the matter is in that book. It does not reveal all the mysterious circumstances of her tragic misfortune. But you shall learn more from it, from her, than from any other source.

“This book,” he continued after a pause, “I found in a locked cabinet after I buried Kathrin. Martha and I were clearing her belongings out of the house. Such reminders weigh too heavily on my soul.” He looked up at Browne carefully. “This was her private journal.”

“You wish me to read this?” Browne asked.

“It will answer many questions. I trust you to keep its contents confidential. Except for confidential Court records, should you judge it new and significant evidence.”

“That I can promise. Unless by your leave.”

Coffin sat down slowly, indicated Browne's chair with his hand, and said, as if to himself: “She seems to have required some expression of her secret thoughts, her private experiences. Though such a tendency is not uncommon among men in our day, it is unusual in women, wouldn't you agree? And you may find an urgency and frankness that suggests something more.”

He paused and looked at Browne again. As Browne was about to speak, Coffin added: “Perhaps I failed as a husband. If not in my outward duties toward her, in the ways of the heart, Mr. Browne. I think you will see quite clearly that in her eyes I did fail. And I cannot quarrel with her on that point.”

“Had she never shared her private thoughts with you?”

“Were you to have asked me that two years ago, I would have answered yes. But since finding Kathrin's journal, I cannot say that she did. Oh, we shared private memories and meanings, mental sympathies and the like, as married people, even in a bad marriage, do.”

“Does this journal implicate anyone in her death?”

“No more than I have told you myself. But that is for you to decide, or the Courts, should you deem this confidential evidence worthy of a Court of law, of renewed action before the bar. I hope that you will not find it so. However, I do not ask you to cross your integrity.

“For myself,” Coffin continued, “I cleanse myself of further anxiousness over justice in this matter. My personal failures I will bear myself. I am no longer a man who can view his life a moderate success.” He stopped to look Browne in the eye. “You hold in your hands not only her secret soul, but mine as well, in a sense. I would be in your debt if you were to treat us with tenderness. But you must do what is your duty and follow justice and conscience.”

“I am honored, Mr. Coffin, by your trust and frankness with me. We shall speak again after I have studied this document.”

“I think not. You're still a young man, but knowledgeable about the world and certain niceties of the law. Moreover, Mr. Browne, you are a man of understanding and education, and have none of the narrow prejudgments of those who have lived in this remote settlement. That, I take it, is the foundation of Mr. Cole's faith in you as well. You will achieve things in this New World, I am sure of it. As a partial resolution to your investigations, this little book may increase your opportunity to look after your own affairs. And, as I myself did, you too may learn useful truths from its contents.

“During the initial inquiries I showed this book to no one. I think you will soon understand why. Consider this private journal rather as a gift; learn from my own misfortunes, Mr. Browne.”

“Felix quem faciunt aliena pericula cautum!"
Browne said and smiled.

“Ah! Indeed, Mr. Browne, indeed. Fortunate is he who thus learns caution.” He smiled. “Now about your trip up into the country. You met the aborigines? Would you be so kind as to amuse me with some tales? They have a certain wisdom too, do they not?”

“Yes, Mr. Coffin. But my mind is full of your astonishing gift. I fear I'm at a loss at the moment for tales of aborigines. Another time perhaps?”

“Certainly.”

“My house is underway now. I'll be leaving for London at summer's end. It will take time for me to understand what you have given. May I take this with me wherever I go?”

“It is yours. I have given it to you. In confidence.”

“Please accept my apologies if my earlier questions have offended you. I thank you again for your generosity and frankness whenever we have met.”

“All I ask in return, my young friend, is that you press me no further on the contents of the journal after you've read it. Everything related to Kathrin is too painful for me now. I look for some release from that pain; I have long felt the need to impart these contents to another. But I can discuss it no further.”

“It can be only as you choose, Mr. Coffin.”

Browne soon discovered that he had indeed been tendered a gift, but he was never to thank Coffin again or to discuss it with him, nor with Coffin to follow justice, conscience, or duty. For he never again saw Balthazar Coffin. And by the time all the journal's secrets had been studied, puzzled out, and searched so that he began to understand them, he had too many entanglements and secrets of his own.

Part II

 

 

Mr. Hopkins, the governor of Hartford upon Connecticut, came to Boston, and brought his wife with him (a godly young woman, and of special parts) who was fallen into a sad infirmity, the loss of her understanding and reason, which had been growing upon her divers years, by occasion of her giving herself wholly to reading and writing, and had written many books. Her husband, being very loving and tender of her, was loath to grieve her; but he saw his error, when it was too late. For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women, and not gone out of her way calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits, and might have improved them usefully and honorably in the place God had set her. He brought her to Boston, and left her with her brother, one Mr. Yale, a merchant, to try what means there might be had here for her. But no help could be had.

 

—John Winthrop, 1645

KATHRIN COFFIN HER PRIVATE JOURNAL

I, Kathrin Coffin, daughter of Deacon William Bunting of Plymouth, County Devon, undertake to record some of the dealings of the allwise God with me, in events, which I ought solemnly to remember as long as I live.

I was ever treated with the greatest tenderness by my family—my parents, brothers, sisters—from my infancy and during my continuance in my father's house. So that I passed the morning of my years in peace and contentment. My father loved all his children, and saw to the education of every one of us, taking on much of the burden himself for my and my sisters' schooling.

I was married to my first husband, Mr. Joshua Pincheon, a vintner of London, in June of my 20th year, A.D. 1640: a restless time. Our marriage was a happy one, for my husband was my constant friend. Yet because he delighted in taking upon himself the travels associated with affairs of the wine trade, we were separated more than either of us had wished. Being without the blessing of children about the third year of our marriage, I began to travel on occasion with my husband and lend my support to his traffic. I saw, as a result, other lands and was no stranger to the Atlantic Islands. Indeed, it was while stopping at the Madeiras in 1643 that my dear husband was called back to the Lord, after grievous suffering of a plaguish fever. There I buried Mr. Pincheon, and there I stopped a while
longer to look after our interests. Nor was I able to leave him, but made daily visits to his grave.

There too it was that I first met Mr. Balthazar Coffin, lately of Antwerp, who eventually became my second husband. He had booked passage for America by way of the Islands and was awaiting his ship. He was a learned, vigorous, and handsome man and very comforting to me in my lonely trial. Having lived in London previously, he returned with me to that city while the lawyers settled my husband's will and estate, a project that expended six months.

I will record in few words only that we married in December of 1643, and, due to the disturbances in England and abroad, resolved to continue together my new husband's intention to remove to America.

I did earnestly look to God for His blessing upon this marriage—sensible that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” As while I lived with my parents I esteemed it my happiness to be in subjection to them; so now I thought it must be a still greater benefit to be once again under the aid of a judicious and loving companion, who would rule well his own house. Just as it had been with my first husband.

But God often disappoints the purposes of his creatures and suffers mankind sorely to afflict and oppress one another; and not only those who appear as open enemies—but sometimes those who pretend to be our friends, cruelly afflict. It is happy when such treatment is overruled to promote a greater good. Job's afflictions did thus. The trials of Joseph but prepared the way for his greater exaltation. David, by being hunted and distressed by Saul, was prepared for the crown of Israel.

BOOK: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin
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