Frank Richard Stockton.

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a sly, mean creature, deceiving others for my own
good."

" Well," said Croft, " although I can't say you are
right in making your relatives believe you are married
when you are not, still, I see you had very fair reasons
for what you did, and you certainly showed a great
deal of ingenuity and pluck in carrying out your re
markable schemes. By the way," he continued, some
what hesitatingly, " I am in your debt for your ser
vices to me."

" Not a bit of it ! " she exclaimed quickly. " I never
did a thing for you. It was all for myself, or, rather,
for my cousin. The only money due was that which
you paid to Mr. Candy before I took charge of the
matter."

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THE LATE MRS NULL

Lawrence felt that this was rather a sore subject
with his companion, and he dropped it. " Do you still
hold the position of cashier in the Information Shop * "

" No," she said. " When I started out on my lonely
wedding-tour I gave up that, and if I should go back
to New York, I do not think I should want to take it
again."

" Do you propose soon to return to New York? " he
asked.

" No ; at least, I have made no plans in regard to it.
I think it would grieve my aunt very much if I were
to go away from her now, and as long as I have Mr.
Null to protect me from her matrimonial schemes, I
am glad to stay with her. She is very kind to me."

" I think you are entirely right in deciding to stay
here," he said, looking around at her, and contrasting
in his mind the bright-faced and somewhat plump
young person walking beside him with the thin-faced
girl in black whom he had seen behind the cashier's
desk.

" Now," said she, with a vivacious little laugh, " I
have poured out my whole soul before you, and, in re
turn, I want you to gratify a curiosity which is fairly
eating me up. Why were you so anxious to find my
cousin Junius? And how did you happen to come
here the very day after he arrived ? And, more than
that, how was it that you had seen him at Midbranch
so recently? You were talking about it last night.
It couldn't have been my letter from Hewlett's that
brought you down here? "

"No," said Lawrence ; "my meeting with Mr. Kes-
wick at Midbranch was entirely accidental. When
I arrived there, a few days ago, I had no reason to

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

suppose that I should meet him. But I must ask you
to excuse me from giving my reasons for wishing to
find your cousin, and for coming to see him here.
The matter between us has now become one of no im
portance, and will be dropped."

The lady's face flushed. Oh, indeed ! " she said.
And during the short remainder of their walk to the
house she made no further remark.



158



CHAPTEE XIV

WHEN Lawrence and his companion reached the house,
they found on the porch Mrs. Keswick and her
nephew ; and after a little general conversation, the
latter remarked to Mr. Croft that he had found it
would not be in his power to attend to that matter he
had spoken of 5 to which Croft replied that he was
very much obliged to him for thinking of it, and that
it was of no consequence at all, as he would probably
make other arrangements. He then stated that he
would be obliged to return to the Green Sulphur
Springs that day, and that, as it was a long ride, he
would like to start as soon as his horse could be
brought to him. But this procedure was condemned
utterly by the old lady, who insisted that Mr. Croft
should not leave until after dinner, which meal should
be served earlier than usual in order to give him
plenty of time to get to the Springs before dark ; and
as Lawrence had nothing to oppose to her very urgent
protest, he consented to stay. Before dinner was ready
he found out why the protest was made. The old lady
took him aside and made inquiries of him in regard to
Mr. Null. He had already informed her that he was
not acquainted with that gentleman ; but she thought,
as Mr. Croft seemed to be going about the country a

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

good deal, he might possibly meet with her niece's
husband, and, if he should do so ; she would be very
glad to have him become acquainted with him.

To this Lawrence replied with much gravity that he
would be happy to do so.

" Mr. Null has not yet come to my house," said Mrs.
Keswick, "and it is very natural that one should
desire to know the husband of her only niece, who is,
or should be, the same as a daughter to her."

" A very natural wish, indeed," said Lawrence.

" I am not quite sure in what business Mr. Null is
engaged," she continued, "and although I asked my
niece about it, she answered in a very evasive way,
which makes me think his occupation is one she is
not proud of. I have reason to suppose, however,
that he is an agent for the sale of some fertilizing
compound."

At this Lawrence could not help smiling very
broadly.

" It may appear very odd and ridiculous to you,"
she said, "that a person connected with my family
should be engaged in a business like that, for those
fertilizers, as you ought to know, are all humbugs of
the vilest kind. The only time I bought any it took
my whole wheat crop to pay for it, and as for the
clover I got afterwards, a grasshopper could have eaten
the whole of it. I am afraid he didn't tell her his
business before he married her, and I'm glad she's
ashamed of it. As far as I can find out, it does not
seem as if Mr. Null has any intention of coming here
for some time ; and, as I said before, I do very much
want to know something about him that is, from a
disinterested outsider. One cannot expect a recently

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

married young woman to give a correct account of
her husband."

"I do not believe," said Mr. Croft, "that there is
any probability that I shall ever meet the gentleman
our walks in life being so different."

" I should hope so, indeed ! " interrupted Mrs. Kes-
wick. "But people of all sorts do run across each
other."

" But if I do meet with him," he continued, " I shall
take great pleasure in giving you my impressions by
letter, or in person, of your nephew-in-law."

" Don't call him that ! " exclaimed the old lady, with
much asperity. " I don't acknowledge the title. But
I won't say any more about him," with a grim smile,
" or you may think I don't like him."

" Some of these days," he said, " you may come to
be of the opinion that he is exactly the husband you
would wish your niece to have."

" Never ! " she cried. " If he were an angel in
broadcloth. But I mustn't talk about these things.
I mentioned Mr. Null to you because you are the only
person of my acquaintance who, I suppose, is likely to
meet with him. In regard to that little company I
spoke of to you, I have not quite made up my mind
about it, and therefore haven't mentioned it ; but if
I carry out the plan I will write to you at the Springs,
and shall certainly expect you to be one of us."

"That would give me great pleasure," said Law
rence, in a tone which indicated to the quick brain of
the old lady that he would like to make a condition,
but was too polite to do so.

" If Miss March should agree to come," she said, " it
might be pleasant for you to make one of her party

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

and ride over at the same time. However, I'll let you
know if she is coming, and then you can join her or
not, as suits your convenience."

" Thank you very much," said Lawrence, in a tone
which betrayed no reserves.

As he rode away that afternoon, Lawrence Croft, as
his habit was on such occasions, revolved in his mind
what he had heard and said and done during this
little visit to the Keswick family. "Nothing could
have turned out better," he thought. " To be sure, the
young man could not or would not be of any assistance
to me, which is probably what I ought to have ex
pected ; but the strong-tempered old lady, his aunt,
promises to be of tenfold more service than he could
possibly be. As to that very odd young lady, Mrs.
Keswick's niece, I imagine that she does not regard me
very favorably, for she was quite cool after I refused
to let her into the secret of my desire to find her
cousin 5 but as I did not ask for her confidences, she
had no right to expect a return for them. And, by
the way, it's odd how many confidences have been
reposed in me since I've been down here. Keswick
begins it ; then old Brandon takes up the strain ; after
that Mr. Candy's ex-cashier tells me the story of her
life, and intrusts me with the secret of her marriage
with a man of wind that most useful Mr. Null ; after
that, her aunt makes me understand how much she
hates Mr. Null, and how she would like me to find
out something disreputable about him ; and then by
George ! I forgot the old negro woman in the cabin ! "
At this he put his hand in the side-pocket of his coat
and drew out the pair of little blue shoes. " Why in
the name of common sense did the old hag give me

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

these? And why should she suppose that Mrs. Kes-
wick intended me a harm? The old lady never saw
or heard of me until yesterday, and her manner cer
tainly indicated no dislike of me. But, of course,
Aunt Patsy's brain is cracked, and she didn't know
what she was talking about. I shall keep the shoes,
however, and if ever the venerable purple sunbonnet
runs afoul of me, I shall hold them up before it and
see what happens."

And so, very well satisfied with the result of his
visit to Hewlett's, he rode pn to the Green Sulphur
Springs.

On the afternoon of the next day Miss March re
ceived an invitation from Mrs. Keswick to spend a
few days with her, and make the acquaintance of her
niece who had recently returned to the home of her
childhood. The letter, for it was much more than a
note of invitation, was cordial, and in parts pathetic.
It dwelt upon the sundered pleasant relations of the
two families, and expressed the hope that Mr. Bran
don's visit to her might be the beginning of a renewal
of the old intimacy. Mrs. Keswick took occasion to
incidentally mention that the house would be particu
larly dull for her niece just now, as Junius was on the
point of starting for Washington, where he would be
detained some weeks on business ; and she hoped most
earnestly that Miss Roberta would accept this invita
tion to make her acquaintance and that of her niece ;
and she designated Thursday of the following week as
the day on which she would like her to come.

As may reasonably be supposed, this letter greatly
astonished Miss March, who carried it to her uncle,
and asked him to explain, if he could, what it meant.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

The old gentleman was a good deal surprised when he
read it ; but it delighted him in a far greater degree.
He perceived in it the first-fruits of his diplomacy.
Mrs. Keswick saw that it would be to her interest, for
a time at least, to make friends with him ; and this
was the way she took to do it. She would not come
to Midbranch herself, and bring the niece, but she
would have Roberta come to her. In the pathos and
cordiality Mr. Brandon believed not at all. What
the old hypocrite probably wanted was to enlist his
grateful sympathy in that ridiculous divorce case.
But, whatever her motives might be, he would be
very glad to have his niece go to her ; for if anything
could make an impression upon that time-hardened
and seasoned old chopping-block of a woman, it was
Roberta's personal influence. If Mrs. Keswick should
come to know Roberta, that knowledge would do more
than anything else in the world to remove her objec
tions to the marriage he so greatly desired.

He said nothing of all this to his niece ; but he most
earnestly counselled her to accept the invitation and
make a visit to the two ladies. Of course Roberta
did not care to go, but as her uncle appeared to take
the matter so much to heart, she consented to gratify
him, and wrote an acceptance. She found, also, when
she had thought more on the matter, that she had a
good deal of curiosity to see this Mrs. Keswick, of
whom she had heard so much, and who had had such
an important influence on her life.



164



CHAPTER XV

ON the afternoon of the day on which Mrs. Keswick's
letter arrived at Midbranch, Peggy had great news to
communicate to Aunt Judy, the cook : " Miss Bob's
gwine to Mahs' Junius's house in de kerridge, an' I'se
gwine 'long wid her to set in front wid Sam."

" Mahs' Junius ain't got no house," said Aunt Judy,
turning around very suddenly. " Does you mean she
gwine to old Miss Keswick's ? "

" Yaas," answered Peggy.

"Well, den, why don' you say so? Dat ain't Mahs'
Junius's house nohow, though he lib dar as much as
he lib anywhar. Wot she gwine dar fur ? "

" Gwine to git married, I reckon," said Peggy.

" Git out ! " ejaculated Aunt Judy. " Wid you fur
bride'maid ? "

" Dunno," answered Peggy. " She done tole me she
didn't think she'd have much use fur me, but Mahs'
Robert he said it were too far fur her to go widout a
maid ; but ef she want me fur bride'maid I'll do dat
too."

" You bawn fool ! " shouted Aunt Judy. " You ain't
got sense 'nuf to hook de frocks ob de bride'maids.
An' dat's all fool talk about Miss Rob gwine dar to be
married. When she an' Mahs' Junius hab de weddin',

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

dey'll hab it h'yar, ob course. She gwine to see ole
Miss Keswick, cos dat's de way de fas' fam'lies allus
does afore dey hab der weddin'. I'se pow'ful glad she's
gwine dar, instid ob ole Miss Keswick comin' h'yar.
I don' wan' her kunjerin' me, an' she'd do dat as quick
as winkin' ef de batterbread's a leetle burned, or dar's
too much salt in de soup. You's got to keep yo'se'f
mighty straight, you Peggy, when you gits whar ole
Miss Keswick is. Don' you come none ob your fool
tricks, or she kunjer you, an' one ob your legs curl up
like a pig's tail, an' nebber uncurl no mo'. How you
like dat?"

To this Peggy made no reply, but with her eyes
steadfastly fixed on Aunt Judy, and her lower jaw
very much dropped, she mentally resolved to keep
herself as straight as possible during her stay at the
Keswicks'.

"Dar's ole Ann' Patsy," continued the speaker.
" It's a mighty long time sence I've seen Ann' Patsy.
Dat was when I went ober dar wid Miss Rob's mudder
when de two fam'lies was fr'en's. I was her maid, an'
went wid her jes as Mahs' Robert wants you to go
'long wid Miss Rob. He ain't gwine to furgit how
dey did in de ole times when de ladies went visitin'
in der kerridges fur to stay free, four days. Aun'
Patsy were pow'ful ole den, but she didn't die soon
'nuf, an' ole Miss Keswick she kunjer her, an' now she
can't die at all."

" Nebber die ! " ejaculated Peggy.

" Nebber die, nohow!" answered Aunt Judy.
"Mighty offen she thought she gwine to die, but
'twarn't no use. She can't do it. An' de las' time I
hear ob her, she alibe yit, jes de same as ebber. An'

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

dar was Mahs 7 John Keswick. She kunjer him cos he
rode de gray colt to de coht-house when she done
tole him to let dat gray colt alone, cos 7 twarn 7 t hisn
but hern, an 7 he go shoot hese 7 f dead by de gate-pos 7 .
You's got to go fru by dat pos 7 when you go inter de
gate."

" Dat same pos 7 ! " cried Peggy.

" Yaas, 77 said Aunt Judy, " dat same one. An 7 dey
tells me dat on third Chewsdays, which is coht-day, de
same as when he took de gray colt, as soon as it git
dark he ghos 7 climb up to de top ob dat pos 7 , an 7 set
dar all night. 77

With a conjuring old woman in the house, and a
monthly ghost on the gate-post outside, the Keswick
residence did not appear as attractive to Peggy as it
had done before, but she mentally determined that
while she was there she would be very careful to look
out sharp for herself a performance for which she
was very well adapted.

It was on a pleasant autumn morning that Mr.
Brandon very carefully ensconced his niece in the
family carriage, with Peggy and a trusty negro man,
Sam, on the outside front seat. "I would gladly go
with you, my dear, 77 he said, " even without the for
mality of an invitation, but it is far better for you to
go by yourself. My very presence would provoke an
antagonism in the old lady, while with you personally
it is impossible that any such feeling should exist. I
hope your visit may do away with all ill feeling be
tween our families. 77

" I want you to understand, uncle, 77 said Miss Ko-
berta, " that I am making this visit almost entirely to
please you, and I shall do everything in my power to

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

make Mrs. Keswick feel that you and I are perfectly
well disposed towards her ; but you can't expect me
to exhibit any great warmth of friendship towards a
person who once used such remarkable and violent
expressions in regard to me."

"But those feelings, my dear," said Mr. Brandon,
" if we are to believe Mrs. Keswiek's letter, have en
tirely disappeared."

"It is quite natural that they should do so," said
Roberta, " as there is no longer any reason for them.
And there is another thing I want to impress on your
mind, Uncle Robert : you must expect no result from
this visit except a renewal of amity between yourself
and Mrs. Keswick."

" I understand it perfectly," said the old gentleman,
feeling quite confident that if his family and Mrs. Kes
wick should once again become friendly, the main
object of his desires would not be difficult of accom
plishment. "And now, my dear, I will not detain
you any longer. I hope you may have a very pleasant
visit, and I advise you to cultivate that young Mrs.
Null, whom I take to be a very sensible and charming
person." Then he kissed her good-by and shut the
carriage door.

It was about the middle of the afternoon when Sam
drove through the outer Keswick gate, and Peggy,
who had jumped down to open said gate, had made
herself positively sure that, at present, there was no
ghost sitting upon the post. Before she reached the
house, Roberta began to wonder a good deal if she
should find Mrs. Keswick the woman she had pictured
in her mind. But when the carriage drew up in front
of the porch there came out to meet her, not the mis-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

tress of the estate, but a much younger lady, who
tripped down the steps and reached Roberta as she
descended from the carriage.

" We are very glad to see you, Miss March," she said.
"My aunt is not here just now, but will be back
directly."

"This is Mrs. Null, isn't it!" said Roberta; and as
the other smiled and answered with a slight flush that
it was, Roberta stooped just the little that was neces
sary, and kissed her. Mrs. Keswick's niece had not
expected so warm a greeting from this lady, to whom
she was almost a stranger, and instantly she said to
herself : " In that kiss Freddy dies to you." For some
days she had been turning over and over in her mind
the question whether or not she should tell Roberta
March that she was not Mrs. Null. She greatly disliked
keeping up the deception where it was not necessary,
and with Roberta, if she would keep the secret, there
was no need of this aerial matrimony. Besides her
natural desire to confide in a person of her own sex
and age, she did not wish Mr. Croft to be the only one
who shared her secret ; and so she had determined that
her decision would depend on what sort of girl Roberta
proved to be. If I like her Til tell her ; if I don't
I won't," was the final decision. And when Roberta
March looked down upon her with her beautiful eyes
and kissed her, Freddy Null departed this life so far
as those two were concerned.

Mrs. Keswick had, apparently, made a very great
miscalculation in regard to the probable time of arrival
of her guest, for Miss March and Peggy, and even Sam
and the horses, had been properly received and cared
for, and Miss March had been sitting in the parlor for

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

some time, and still the old lady did not come into
the house. Her niece had grown very anxious about
this absence, and had begun to fear that her aunt had
treated Miss March as she had treated her on her
arrival, and had gone away to stay. But Plez, whom
she had sent to tell his mistress that her visitor was in
the house, returned with the information that "ole
miss" was in one of the lower fields directing some
men who were digging a ditch, and that she would
return to the house in a very short time. Thus assured
that no permanent absence was intended, she went
into the parlor to entertain Miss March, and to explain,
as well as she could, the state of affairs ; when, as she
entered the door, she saw that lady suddenly arise and
look steadfastly out of the window.

" Can that be Mr. Croft? " Miss March exclaimed.

The younger girl made a dash forward and also
looked out of the window. Yes, there was Mr. Croft,
riding across the yard towards the tree where horses
were commonly tied.

"Did you expect him?" asked Koberta, quickly.

" No more than I expected the man in the moon,"
was the impulsive and honest answer of her com
panion.

" I am very glad to see you, Mrs. Null," said Law
rence, when that lady met him on the porch. And
when he was shown into the parlor, he greeted Miss
March with much cordiality, but no surprise. But
when he inquired after other members of the family,
he was much surprised to find that Mr. Keswick had
gone to Washington. " Was not this very unexpected,
Mrs. Null? "he asked.

" Why, no," she answered. " Junius told us, almost
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

as soon as lie came here, that he would have to be in
Washington by the first of this week."

Mr. Croft did not pursue this subject further, but
presently remarked : " Are you and I the first comers,
Miss March?"

Eoberta looked from one of her companions to the
other, and remarked : " I do not understand you."

Lawrence now perceived that he was treading a very
uncertain and, perhaps, dangerous path of conversa
tion, and the sooner he got out of it the better ; but
before he could decide what answer to make, a silent
and stealthy figure appeared at the door, beckoning
and nodding in a very mysterious way. This proved
to be the plump black maid Letty, who, having at
tracted the attention of the company, whispered
loudly, " Miss Annie ! " whereupon that young lady
immediately left the room.

"What other comers did you expect?" then asked
Eoberta of Mr. Croft.

" I certainly supposed there would be a small com
pany here," he said, " probably neighborhood people j
but if I was mistaken, of course I don't wish to say
anything more about it to the family."

" Were you invited yourself ? " asked Eoberta.

Croft wished very much that he could say that he
had accidentally dropped in. But this he could not
do, and he answered that Mrs. Keswick asked him to
come about this time. He did not consider it neces
sary to add that she had written to him at the Springs,
renewing her invitation very earnestly, and mention
ing that Miss March had consented to make one of the
party.

This was as far as Eoberta saw fit to continue the
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

subject on the present occasion, and she began to talk
about the charming weather, and the pretty way in
which the foliage was reddening on the side of a hill
opposite the window. Mr. Croft was delighted to
enter into this new channel of speech, and discussed
with considerable fervor the attractiveness of autumn
in Virginia.

Miss Annie found Letty in a very disturbed state of
mind. The dinner had been postponed until the
arrival of Miss March, and now it had been still
further delayed by the non-arrival of the mistress of
the house, and everything was becoming dried up and
unfit to eat.

" This will never do ! " exclaimed Miss Annie. " I
will go myself and look for aunt. She must have for
gotten the time of day, and everything else."

Putting on her hat, she ran out of the back door ;
but she did not have to go very far, for she found the
old lady in the garden, earnestly regarding a bed of
turnips. "Where have you been, my dear aunt?"
cried the girl. "Miss March has been here ever so
long, and Mr. Croft has come, and dinner has been
waiting until it has all dried up. I was afraid that
you had forgotten that company was coming to-day. v

" Forgotten ! " said the old lady, glaring at the tur
nips. " It isn't an easy thing to forget. I invited the
girl, and I expected her to come. But I tell you, Annie,
when I saw that carriage coming along the road, all
the old feeling came back to me. I remembered what
its owners had done to me and mine, and what they
are still trying to do, and I felt I could not go into the
house and give her my hand. It would be like tak
ing hold of a snake."

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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 11 of 26)