The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin

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Authors: Robert J. Begiebing
time?”
    â€œWell,” 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.”
    â€œCertainly you can.”
    â€œThen 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.
    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 aroundtheir 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.
    â€œIt has been so long since we’ve seen you,” Elizabeth Higgins finally said.
    â€œI heard how well you were all doing and thought it best not to trouble you.”
    â€œTrouble us? Your company is no trouble to us, Mr. Browne. You encourage us.”
    â€œI 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.”
    â€œAgain, I thank you, who came here a stranger, after all. May I be of any help?”
    â€œNot just now. The time will come. My feeling is that I’m approaching something now. But it is too soon to speak of it.”
    â€œI 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.”
    â€œIt isn’t me alone.”
    â€œNo,” 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.
    â€œYour land is the rise above the river you spoke of before?” she asked.
    â€œYes, exactly so.”
    â€œAnd you say the land is conveyed already?”
    â€œI received seizin last week. Mr. Cole performed the

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