Frank Richard Stockton.

The Late Mrs. Null online

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was about to be done in his, Lawrence's, name, and under his apparent
authority. "I will become a subscriber," said he, taking out his
pocket-book, "and request that you give me all the information you
possess, here and immediately."

"That is the best thing to do," said the man, taking the money, "for, in
my opinion, no time is to be lost. I'll give you a receipt for this."

"Don't trouble yourself about that," said Lawrence; "let me have your
information."

"You're very right," said the man. "It's a great deal better not to
have your name on anything. And now for the points. Candy, who has
charge of Croft's job, is going more into the detective business than he
used to be, and we have information that he has lately taken up your
affair in good, solid earnest. He found out that Croft had put somebody
else on your track, without regularly taking the business out of his
hands, and this made him mad; and I don't wonder at it, for Croft, as I
understand, has plenty of money, and if he concluded to throw Candy
over, he ought to have done it fair and square, and paid him something
handsome in consideration for having taken the job away. But he didn't
do anything of the kind, and Candy considers himself still in his
employment, and vows he's going to get hold of you before the other
party does; so, you see, you have got two sets of detectives after you,
and they'll be mighty sharp, for the first one that gets you will make
the money."

"Where are Candy's detectives now?" asked Lawrence.

"That I can't tell you positively, as I am so far from our New York
office, to which all information comes. But now that you are a
subscriber, I'll communicate with head-quarters and the necessary points
will be immediately sent to you by telegraph, if necessary. All that you
have to do is to stay here until you hear from us."

"From the way you spoke just now," said Lawrence, "I supposed the
detective would be here to-day or to-morrow."

"Oh no," said the other, "Candy has not the facilities for finding
people that we have. But it takes some time for me to communicate with
head-quarters and for you to hear from there; and so, as I said before,
there isn't an hour to be lost. But you're all right now."

"I expected you to give me more definite information than this," said
Lawrence, "but now, I suppose, I must wait until I hear from New York,
at five dollars a message."

"My business is to enlist subscribers," said the other. "You couldn't
expect me to tell you anything definite when I am in an out-of-the-way
place like this."

"Did you come down to Virginia on purpose to find me?" asked Lawrence.

"No," said the man, "I am on my way to Mobile, and I only lose one train
by stopping here to attend to your business."

"How did you know I was here?"

"Ah," said the anti-detective, with a smile, "as I told you, we have
facilities. I knew you were at this house, and I came here, straight as
a die."

"It is truly wonderful," said Lawrence, "how accurate your information
is. And now I will tell you something you can have, gratis. You have
made one of the most stupid blunders that I ever heard of. Mr Keswick
went away from here, nearly a week ago, and I am the Mr Croft whom you
supposed to be in pursuit of him."

The man started, and gave vent to an unpleasant ejaculation.

"To prove it," said Lawrence, "there is my card, and," putting his hand
into his pocket, "here are several letters addressed to me. And I want
to let you know that I am not in pursuit of Mr Keswick; that he and I
are very good friends; and that I have frequently seen him of late; and
so you can just drop this business at once. And as for Candy, he has no
right to take a single step for which I have not authorized him. I
merely employed him to get Mr Keswick's address, which I wished for a
very friendly motive. I shall write to Candy at once."

The man's face was not an agreeable study. He looked angry; he looked
baffled; and yet he looked incredulous. "Now, come," said he, "if you
are not Keswick, what did you pay me that money for?"

"I paid it to you," said Lawrence, "because I wanted to find out what
dirty business you were doing in my name. I have had the worth of my
money, and you can now go."

The man did not go, but stood gazing at Lawrence in a very peculiar way.
"If Mr Keswick isn't here," he said, "I believe you are here waiting
for him, and I am going to stay and warn him. People don't set private
detectives on other men's tracks just for friendly motives."

Lawrence's face flushed and he made a step forward, but suddenly
checking himself, he looked at the man for a moment and then said: "I
suppose you want me to understand that if I become one of your
subscribers in my own name, you will be willing to withhold the
information you intended to give Mr Keswick."

"Well," said the man, relapsing into his former confidential tones,
"business is business. If I could see Mr Keswick, I don't know whether
he would employ me or not. I have no reason to work for one person more
than another, and, of course, if one man comes to me and another
doesn't, I'm bound to work for the man who comes. That's business!"

"You have said quite enough," said Lawrence. "Now leave this place
instantly!"

"No, I won't!" said the man, shutting his mouth very tightly, as he drew
himself up and folded his arms on his chest.

Lawrence was young, well-made, and strong, but the other man was taller,
heavier, and perhaps stronger. To engage in a personal contest to compel
a fellow like this to depart, would be a very unpleasant thing for
Lawrence to do, even if he succeeded. He was a visitor here, the ladies
would probably be witnesses of the conflict, and although the natural
impulse of his heart, predominant over everything else at that moment,
prompted him to spring upon the impudent fellow and endeavor to thrash
him, still his instincts as a gentleman forbade him to enter into such a
contest, which would probably have no good effect, no matter how it
resulted. Never before did he feel the weakness of the moral power of a
just cause when opposed to brutal obstinacy. Still he did not retreat
from his position. "Did you hear what I said?" he cried. "Leave this
place!"

"You are not master here," said the other, still preserving his defiant
attitude, "and you have no right to order me away. I am not going."

Despite his inferiority in size, despite his gentlemanly instincts, and
despite his prudent desire not to make an exhibition of himself before
Miss March and the household, it is probable that Lawrence's anger would
have assumed some form of physical manifestation, had not Mrs Keswick
appeared suddenly on the porch. It was quite evident to her, from the
aspect of the two men, that something was wrong, and she called out:
"Who's that?"

"That, madam," said Lawrence, stepping a little back, "is a very
impertinent man who has no business here, and whom I've ordered off the
place, and, as he has refused to go, I propose - "

"Stop!" cried the old lady. And turning, she rushed into the house.
Before either of the men could recover from their surprise at her sudden
action, she reappeared upon the porch, carrying a double-barreled gun.
Taking her position on the top of the flight of steps, with a quick
movement of her thumb she cocked both barrels. Then, drawing herself up
and resting firmly on her right leg, with the left advanced, she raised
the gun; her right elbow well against her side, and with her extended
left arm as steady as one of the beams of the roof above her. She hooked
her forefinger around one of the triggers, her eagle eye glanced along
the barrels straight at the head of the anti-detective, and, in a
clarion voice she sang out "Go!"

The man stared at her. He saw the open muzzles of the gun barrels;
beyond them, he saw the bright tops of the two percussion caps; and
still beyond them, he saw the bright and determined eye that was taking
sight along the barrels. All this he took in at a glance, and, without
word or comment, he made a quick dodge of his head, jumped to one side,
made a dash for his horse, and, untying the bridle with a jerk, he
mounted and galloped out of the open gate, turning as he did so to find
himself still covered by the muzzles of that gun. When he had nearly
reached the outer gate and felt himself out of range, he turned in his
saddle, and looking back at Lawrence, who was still standing where he
had left him, he violently shook his fist in the air.

"Which means," said Lawrence to himself, "that he intends to make
trouble with Keswick."

"That settled him," said the old lady, with a grim smile, as she lowered
the muzzle of the gun, and gently let down the hammers. "Madam," said
Lawrence, advancing toward her, "may I ask if that gun is loaded?"

"I should say so," replied the old lady. "In each barrel are two
thimblefuls of powder, and half-a-box of Windfall's Teaberry Tonic
Pills, each one of them as big and as hard as a buckshot. They were
brought here by a travelling agent, who sold some of them to my people;
and I tell you, sir, that those pills made them so sick that one man
wasn't able to work for two days, and another for three. I vowed if that
agent ever came back, I'd shoot his abominable pills into him, and I've
kept the gun loaded for the purpose. Was this a pill man? I scarcely
think he was a fertilizer, because it is rather late in the season for
those bandits."

"He is a man," said Lawrence, coming up the steps, "who belongs to a
class much worse than those you have mentioned. He is what is called a
blackmailer."

"Is that so?" cried the old lady, her eyes flashing as she brought the
butt of the gun heavily upon the porch floor. "I'm very glad I did not
know it; very glad, indeed; for I might have been tempted to give him
what belonged to another, without waiting for him to disobey my order to
go. I am very much troubled, sir, that this annoyance should have
happened to you in my house. Pray do not allow it to interfere with the
enjoyment of your visit here, which I hope may continue as long as you
can make it convenient." The words and manner convinced Lawrence that
that they did not merely indicate a conventional hospitality. The old
lady meant what she said. She wanted him to stay.

That morning he had become convinced that he had been invited there
because Mrs Keswick wished him to marry Miss March; and she had done
this, not out of any kind feeling toward him, because that would be
impossible, considering the shortness of their acquaintance, but because
she was opposed to her nephew's marriage with Miss March, and because
he, Lawrence, was the only available person who could be brought forward
to supplant him. "But whatever her motive is," thought Lawrence, "her
invitation comes in admirably for me, and I hope I shall get the proper
advantage from it."

Shortly after this, Lawrence sat in the parlor, by himself, writing a
letter. It was to Junius Keswick; and in it he related the facts of his
search for him in New York, and the reason why he desired to make his
acquaintance. He concealed nothing but the fact that Keswick's cousin
had had anything to do with the affair. "If she wants him to know that,"
he thought, "she can tell him herself. It is not my business to make any
revelations in that quarter." He concluded the letter by informing Mr
Keswick of the visit of the anti-detective, and warning him against any
attempts which that individual might make upon his pocket, assuring him
that the man could tell him nothing in regard to the affair that he now
did not know.

After dinner, during which meal Miss March appeared in a very good
humor, and talked rather more than she had yet done in the bosom of that
family, Lawrence had his horse saddled, and rode to the railroad
station, about six miles distant, where he posted his letter; and also
sent a telegram to Mr Junius Keswick, warning him to pay no attention to
any man who might call upon him on business connected with Croft and
Keswick, and stating that an explanatory letter had been sent.

The anti-detective had left on a train an hour before, but Lawrence felt
certain that the telegram would reach Keswick before the man could
possibly get to him, especially as the latter had probably not yet found
out his intended victim's address.




CHAPTER XVIII.


As Lawrence Croft rode back to Mrs Keswick's house, after having posted
to his rival the facts in the case of Croft after Keswick, he did not
feel in a very happy or triumphant mood. The visit of the anti-detective
had compelled him to write to Keswick at a time when it was not at all
desirable that he should make any disclosures whatever in regard to his
love affair with Miss March, except that very important disclosure which
he had made to the lady herself that morning. Of course there was no
great danger that any intimation would reach Miss March of Mr Croft's
rather eccentric search for his predecessor in the position which he
wished to occupy in her affections. But the matter was particularly
unpleasant just now, and Lawrence wished to occupy his time here in
business very different from that of sending explanations to rivals and
warding off unfriendly entanglements threatened by a blackmailer.

It was absolutely necessary for him to find out what he had done to
offend Miss March. Offended that lady certainly was, and he even felt
that she was glad of the opportunity his declaration gave her to inflict
punishment upon him. But still he did not despair. When she had made him
pay the penalty she thought proper for whatever error he had committed,
she might be willing to listen to him. He had not said anything to her
in regard to his failure to make her the promised visit at Midbranch,
for, during the only time he had been alone with her here, the subject
of an immediate statement of his feelings toward her had wholly occupied
his mind. But it now occurred to him that she had reason to feel
aggrieved at his failure to keep his promise to her, and she must have
shown that feeling, for, otherwise, her most devoted friend, Mr Junius
Keswick, would never have made that rather remarkable visit to him at
the Green Sulphur Springs. Of course he would not allude to that visit,
nor to her wish to see him, for she had sent him no message, nor did he
know what object she had in desiring an interview. But it was quite
possible that she might have taken umbrage at his failure to come to her
when expected, and that this was the reason for her present treatment of
him. To this treatment Lawrence might have taken exception, but now he
did not wish to judge her in any way. His only desire in regard to her
was to possess her, and therefore, instead of condemning her for her
unjust method of showing her resentment, he merely considered how he
should set himself right with her. Cruel or kind, just or unjust, he
wanted her.

And then, as he slowly trotted along the lonely and uneven road, it
suddenly flashed upon him, as if in mounting a hill, a far-reaching
landscape, hitherto unseen, had in a moment, spread itself out before
him, that, perhaps, Miss March had divined the reason of his extremely
discreet behavior toward her. Was it possible that she had seen his
motives, and knew the truth, and that she resented the prudence and
caution he had shown in his intercourse with her?

If she had read the truth, he felt that she had good reason for her
resentment, and Lawrence did not trouble himself to consider if she had
shown too much of it or not. He remembered the story of the defeated
general, and, feeling that so far he had been thoroughly defeated, he
determined to admit the fact, and to sound a retreat from all the
positions he had held; but, at the same time, to make a bold dash into
the enemy's camp, and, if possible, capture the commander-in-chief and
the Minister of War.

He would go to Roberta, tell her all that he had thought, and explain
all that he had done. There should be no bit of truth which she could
have reasoned out, which he would not plainly avow and set before her.
Then he would declare to her that his love for her had become so great,
that, rushing over every barrier, whether of prudence, doubt, or
indecision, it had carried him with it and laid him at her feet. When he
had come to this bold conclusion, he cheered up his horse with a thump
of his heel and cantered rapidly over the rest of the road.

Peggy, having nothing else to do, was standing by the yard gate when he
came in sight, and she watched his approach with feelings of surprise
and disgust. She had seen him ride away, and not considering the fact
that he did not carry his valise with him, she supposed he had taken his
final departure. She had conceived a violent dislike to Mr Croft,
looking upon him in the light of an interloper and a robber, who had
come to break up that expected marriage between Master Junius and Miss
Rob, which the servants at Midbranch looked forward to as necessary for
the prosperity of the family; and the preliminary stages of which she
had taken upon herself the responsibility of describing with so much
minuteness of detail. With the politeness natural to the Southern negro,
she opened the gate for the gentleman, but as she closed it behind him,
she cast after him a look of earnest malevolence. "Ef dot ole Miss
Keswick don' kunjer you, sah," she said in an undertone, "I's gwine to
do it myse'f. So, dar!" And she gave her foot a stamp on the ground.

Lawrence, all ignorant of the malignant feeling he had excited in this,
to him, very unimportant and uninteresting black girl, tied his horse
and went into the house. As he passed the open door of the parlor he
saw a lady reading by a window in the farthest corner. Hanging up his
hat, he entered, hoping that the reader, whose form was partially
concealed by the back of the large rocking chair in which she was
sitting, was Miss March. But it was not; it was Mrs Keswick's niece,
deeply engrossed by a large-paged novel. She turned her head as he
entered, and said: "Good evening."

"Good evening, Miss Annie," said Lawrence, seating himself in a chair
opposite her on the other side of the window.

"Mr Croft," said she, laying her book on her lap, and inclining herself
slightly toward him, "you have no right to call me Miss Annie, and I
wish you would not do it. The servants in the South call ladies by their
first names, whether they are married or not, but people would think it
very strange if you should imitate them. My name in this house is Mrs
Null, and I wish you would not forget it."

"The trouble with me is," said Lawrence, with a smile, "that I cannot
forget it is not Mrs Null, but, of course, if you desire it, I will give
you that name."

"I told you before how much I desired it," said she, "and why. When my
aunt finds out the exact state of this affair, I shall wish to stay no
longer in this house; and I don't want my stay to come to an end at
present. I am very happy here with the only relatives I have in the
world, who are ever so much nicer people than I supposed they were, and
you have no right to come here and drive me away."

"My dear young lady," said Croft, "I wouldn't do such a thing for the
world. I admit that I am very sorry that it is necessary, or appears to
you to be so, that you should be here under false colors, but - "

"_Appears_ to be," said she, with much emphasis on the first word. "Why,
can't you see that it would be impossible for me, as a young unmarried
woman, to come to the house of a man, whose proprietor, as Aunt Keswick
considers herself to be, has been trying to marry to me, even before I
was grown up; for the letters that used to make my father most angry
were about this. I hate to talk of these family affairs, and I only do
it so that you can be made understand things."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, "do not think I wish to blame you. You have
had a hard time of it, and I can see the peculiarities of your residence
here. Don't be afraid of me; I will not betray your secret. While I am
here, I will address you, and will try to think of you as a very grave
young matron. But I wish very much that you were not quite so grave and
severe when you address me. When I was here last week your manner was
very different. We were quite friendly then."

"I see no particular reason," said Annie, "why we should be friendly."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, after a little pause, during which he
looked at her attentively, "I don't believe you approve of me."

"No," said she, "I don't."

He could not help smiling at the earnest directness of her answer,
though he did not like it. "I am sorry," he said, "that you should have
so poor an opinion of me. And, now, let me tell you what I was going to
say this morning, that my only object in finding your cousin was to know
the man who had been engaged to Miss March."

"So that you could find out what she probably objected to in him, and
could then try and not let her see anything of that sort in you."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, "you are unjust. There is no reason why you
should speak to me in this way."

"I would like to know," she said, "what cause there could possibly be
for your wanting to become acquainted with a man who had been engaged to
the lady you wished to marry, if you didn't intend to study him up, and
try to do better yourself."

"My motive in desiring to become acquainted with Mr Keswick," said
Lawrence, "is one you could scarcely understand, and all I can say about
it is, that I believed that if I knew the gentleman who had formerly
been the accepted lover of a lady, I should better know the lady."

"You must be awfully suspicious," said she.

"No, I am not," he answered, "and I knew you would not understand me. My
only desire in speaking to you upon this subject is that you may not
unreasonably judge me."

"But I am not unreasonable," said Annie. "You are trying to get Miss
March away from my cousin; and I don't think it is fair, and I don't
want you to do it. When you were here before, I thought you two were
good friends, but now I don't believe it."

How friendly might be the relations between himself and Keswick, when
the latter should read his letter about the Candy affair, and should
know that he was in this house with Miss March, Lawrence could not say;
but he did not allude to this point in his companion's remarks. "I do
not think," he said, "that you have any reason to object to my
endeavoring to win Miss March. Even if she accepts me, it will be to the
advantage of your cousin, because if he still hopes to obtain her, the
sooner he knows he cannot do so, the better it will be for him. My
course is perfectly fair. I am aware that the lady is not at present
engaged to any one, and I am endeavoring to induce her to engage herself
to me. If I fail, then I step aside."

"Entirely aside, and out of the way?" asked Mrs Null.

"Entirely," answered Lawrence.

"Well," said Annie, leaning back in her chair, in which before she had
been sitting very upright, "you have, at last, given me a good deal of
your confidence; almost as much as I gave you. Some of the things you
say I believe, others I don't."

Lawrence was annoyed, but he would not allow himself to get angry. "I am
not accustomed to being disbelieved," he said, gravely. "It is a very
unusual experience, I assure you. Which of my statements do you doubt?"

"I don't believe," said Annie, "that you will give her up if she rejects
you while you are here. You are too wilful. You will follow her, and try
again."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, "I do not feel justified in speaking to a
third person of these things, but this is a peculiar case, and,
therefore, I assure you, and request you to believe me, that if Miss
March shall now positively refuse me, I shall feel convinced that her
affections are already occupied, and that I have no right to press my
suit any longer."

"Would you like to begin now?" said Annie. "She is coming down stairs."

"You are entirely too matter-of-fact," said Lawrence, smiling in spite
of himself, and, in a moment, Roberta entered the room.

If the young lady in the high-backed rocking-chair had any idea of
giving Mr Croft and Miss March an opportunity of expressing their
sentiments toward each other, she took no immediate steps to do so; for
she gently rocked herself; she talked about the novel she had been
reading; she blamed Miss March for staying so long in her room on such a
beautiful afternoon; and she was the primary cause of a conversation
among the three upon the differences between New York weather and that
of Virginia; and this continued until old Mrs Keswick joined the party,


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe Late Mrs. Null → online text (page 13 of 25)