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" A snake ! " cried her niece, with much warmth.
" She is a lovely woman ! And her coming shows what
kindly feelings she has for you. But, no matter what
you think about it, aunt, you have asked her here,
and you must come in and see her. Dinner is wait
ing, and I don't know what more to say about your
absence."

"Go in and have dinner," said Mrs. Keswick.
" Don't wait for me. Fll come in and see her after a
while ; but I haven't yet got to the point of sitting
down to the table and eating with her."

" Oh, aunt ! " exclaimed Annie, " you ought never
to have asked her if you are going to treat her in this
way ! And what am I to say to her ? What excuse
am I to make ? Are you not sick ? Isn't something
the matter with you?"

"You can tell them I'm flustrated," said the old
lady, " and that is all that's the matter with me. But
I'm not coming in to dinner, and there is no use of
saying anything more about it."

Annie looked at her, the tears of mortification still
standing in her eyes. " I suppose I must go and do
the best I can," she said ; " but, aunt, please tell me
one thing. Did you invite any other people here ?
Mr. Croft spoke as if he expected to see other visitors,
and if they ask anything more about it, I don't know
what to say."

" The only other people I invited," said the old lady,
with a grim grin, " were the King of Norway and the
Prime Minister of Spain, and neither of them could
come."

Annie said no more, but hurrying back to the house,
she ordered dinner to be served immediately. At

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

first the meal was not a very lively one. The young
hostess pro tempore explained the absence of the mis
tress of the house by stating that she had had a nervous
attack, which was quite true, and that she begged
them to excuse her until after dinner. The two guests
expressed their regret at this unfortunate indisposi
tion, but each felt a degree of embarrassment at the
absence of Mrs. Keswick. Roberta, who had heard
many stories of the old woman, guessed at the true
reason, and if the distance had not been so great she
would have gone home that afternoon. Lawrence
Croft, of course, could imagine no reason for the old
lady's absence except the one that had been given
them, but he suspected that there must be some other.
He did his best, however, to make pleasant conversa
tion ; and Roberta, who began to have a tender feeling
for the little lady at the head of the table, who, she
could easily see, had been placed in an unpleasant
position, seconded his efforts with such effect that
when the little party had concluded their dinner with
a course of hot pound-cake and cream-sauce, they
were chatting together quite sociably.

In about ten minutes after they had all gone into
the parlor, Miss Annie excused herself, and presently
returned with a message to Miss March that Mrs. Kes
wick would be very glad to see her in another room.
This was a very natural message from an elderly lady
who was not well, but Roberta arose and walked out
of the parlor with a feeling as if she were about to
enter the cage of an erratic tigress. But she met with
no such creature. She saw in the back room into
which she was ushered a small old woman, dressed
very plainly, who came forward to meet her, extend-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

ing both hands, into one of which Eoberta placed one
of her own.

" I may as well say at once, Roberta March," said
Mrs. Keswick, " that the reason I didn't come to meet
you when you first arrived was that I couldn't get
over, all of a sudden, the feelings I have had against
your family for so many years."

"Why, then, Mrs. Keswick," said Roberta, very
coldly, " did you ask me to come ? "

" Because I wanted you to come," said Mrs. Keswick,
" and because I thought I was stronger than I turned
out to be ; but you must make allowances for the stiff
ness which gets into old people's dispositions as well as
their backs. I want you to understand, however, that
I meant all I said in that letter, and I am very glad
to see you. If anything in my conduct has seemed to
you out of the way, you must set it down to the fact
that I was making a very sudden turn, and starting
out on a new track, in which I hope we shall all keep
for the rest of our lives."

Roberta could not help thinking that the sudden
turn in the new track began with the visit of her
uncle to this house, and that the old lady need not
have inflicted upon her the disagreeable necessity of
witnessing a hostess taking a very repulsive cold
plunge ; but all she said was that she hoped the fami
lies would now live together in friendly relations, and
that she was sure that if this were to be it would give
her uncle a great deal of pleasure. She very much
wanted to ask Mrs. Keswick how Mr. Croft happened
to be here at this time, but she felt that her very brief
acquaintance with the lady would not warrant the
discussion of a subject like that.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" She is very much the kind of woman I thought
she was," said Roberta to herself, when, after some
further hospitable remarks from Mrs. Keswick, the
two went to the parlor together to find Mr. Croft.
But that gentleman, having been deserted by all the
ladies, was walking up and down the greensward in
front of the house, smoking a cigar. Mrs. Keswick
went out to him, and greeted him very cordially,
begging him to excuse her for not being able to see
him as soon as he came.

Lawrence set all this aside in his politest manner,
but declared himself very much disappointed in not
seeing Mr. Keswick, and also remarked that from what
she had said to him on his last visit he had expected
to find quite a little party here.

"I am sorry," said the old lady, "that Junius is
away, for he would be very glad to see you, and it
never came into my mind to mention to you that he
was obliged to be in Washington at this time. And
as for the party, I thought afterwards that it would be
a great deal cosier just to have a few persons here."

" Oh, yes," said Lawrence ; " most certainly, a great
deal cosier."

Mrs. Keswick ate supper with her guests, and be
haved very well. During the evening she sustained
the main part of the conversation, giving the com
pany a great many anecdotes and reminiscences of old
times and old families, relating them in an odd and
peculiar way that was very interesting, especially to
Croft, to whom the subject-matter was quite new.
But although her three companions listened to the old
lady with deferential attention, interspersed with ap
propriate observations, each one made her the object

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

of severe mental scrutiny, and endeavored to discover
the present object of her scheming old mind. Roberta
was quite sure that her invitation and that of Mr.
Croft was a piece of artful management on the part of
the old lady, and imagined, though she was not quite
sure about it, that it was intended as a bit of match
making. To get her married to somebody else would
be, of course, the best possible method of preventing
her marrying Junius ; and this, she had reason to be
lieve, was the prime object of old Mrs. Keswick's
existence. But why should Mr. Croft be chosen as
the man with whom she was to be thrown. She had
learned that the old lady had seen him before, but was
quite certain that her acquaintance with him was
slight. Could Junius have told his aunt about the
friendship between herself and Mr. Croft ? It was not
like him, but a great many unlikely things take place.

As for Lawrence, he knew very well there was a trick
beneath his invitation, but he could not at all make
out why it had been played. He had been given an
admirable opportunity of offering himself to Miss
March, but there was no reason apparent to him why
this should have been done.

Miss Annie, watching her aunt very carefully, and
speaking but seldom, quite promptly made up her
mind in regard to the matter. She knew very well
the bitter opposition of the old woman to a marriage
between Junius and Miss March ; and saw, as plainly
as she saw the lamp on the table, that Eoberta had
been brought here on purpose to be sacrificed to Mr.
Croft. Everything had been made ready, the altar
cleared, and, as well as the old lady's grindstone would
act, the knife sharpened. " But," said Miss Annie to

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

herself, "she needn't suppose that I am going to sit
quiet and see all this going on, with Junius away off
there in Washington, knowing nothing about any
of it."

Miss Roberta retired quite early to her room,
being fatigued by her long drive, and she was just
about to put out her light when she heard a little
knock at the door. Opening it slightly, she saw there
Junius Keswick's cousin, who also appeared quite
ready for bed.

" May I come in for a minute? " said Annie.

" Certainly," replied Miss March, admitting her, and
closing the door after her.

" I have something to tell you," said the younger
lady, admiring, as she spoke, the length of her com
panion's braided hair. " I intended to keep it until
to-morrow ; but since I came up-stairs I felt I could
not let you sleep a night under the same roof with me
without knowing it. I am not Mrs. Null."

" What ! " exclaimed Roberta, in a tone which made
Annie lift up her hands and implore her not to speak
so loud, for fear that her aunt should hear her.

" I know she hasn't come up-stairs yet, for she sits up
dreadfully late ; but she can hear things almost any
where. No, I am not Mrs. Null. There is no such
person as Mr. Null, or, at least, he is a mere gaseous
myth, whom I married for the sake of the protection
his name gave me."

" This is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard,"
said Roberta. " You must tell me all about it."

" I don't want to keep you up," said Annie ; " you
must be tired."

" I am not tired," said Roberta, " for every particle
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

of fatigue has flown away." And with this she made
Annie sit down beside her on the lounge. " Now you
must tell me what this means," she said. " Can it be
that your aunt does not know about it? "

"Indeed, she does not," said Annie. "I married
Freddy Null in New York, for reasons which we need
not talk of now, for that matter is all past and gone ;
but when I came here, I found, almost immediately,
that he would be more necessary to me in this house
than anywhere else."

" I cannot imagine," said Roberta, " why a gaseous
husband should be necessary to you here."

"It is not a very easy thing to explain," said the
other ; " that is, it is easy enough, but"

" Oh," said Roberta, catching the reason of her com
panion's hesitation, " I don't think you ought to object
to telling me your reason. Does it relate to your cousin
Junius t "

"Well," said Annie, "not altogether, and not so
much to him as to my aunt."

"I think I see," said Roberta. "A marriage
between you two would suit her very well. Are you
afraid that she would try to force him on you? "

" Oh, no," said Annie ; " that would be bad enough,
but it would not be so embarrassing, and so dread
fully unpleasant, as forcing me on him, and that is
what aunt wants to do. And you can easily see that,
in that case, I could not stay in this house at all. I
scarcely know my cousin as a man, my strongest recol
lection of him being that of a big and very nice boy,
who used to climb up in the apple-trees to get me
apples, and then come down to the very lowest branch,
where he could drop the ripest ones right into my

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

apron, and not bruise them. But even if I had been
acquainted with him all these years, and liked him
ever so much, I couldn't stay here and have aunt
make him take me, whether he wanted to or not.
And unless you knew my aunt very well, you could
not conceive how unscrupulously straightforward she
is in carrying out her plans."

"And so," said Roberta, "you have quite baffled
her by this little ruse of a marriage."

" Not altogether," said Annie, with a smile, " for she
vows she is going to get me divorced from Mr. Null."

" That is funnier than the rest of it," said Roberta,
laughing. And they both laughed together, but in a
subdued way, so as not to attract the attention of the
old lady below stairs.

" And now you see," said Annie, " why I must be
Mrs. Null while I stay here. And you will promise
me that you will never tell any one ? "

"You may be sure I shall keep your queer secret.
But have you not told it to any one but me? "

" Yes," said Annie ; " but I have only told it to one
other Mr. Croft. But please don't speak of it to
him."

"Mr. Croft!" exclaimed Roberta. "How in the
world did you come to tell him ? Do you know him
so well as that?"

" Well," said Annie, " it does seem out of the way,
I admit, that I should tell him ; but I can't give you
the whole story of how I came to do it. It wouldn't
interest you at least, it would, but I oughtn't to tell
it. It is a twisty sort of thing."

"Twisty?" said Roberta, drawing herself up and a
little away from her companion.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Annie looked up, and caught the glance by which
this word was accompanied, and the tone in which it
was spoken went straight to her soul. "Now," said
she, " if you are going to look at me and speak in that
way, Fll tell you every bit of it." And she did tell
the whole story, from her first meeting with Mr. Croft
in the Information Shop, down to the present moment.

" What is your name, anyway? " said Roberta, when
the story had been told.

" My name," said the other, u is Annie Peyton."

" And now, do you know, Annie Peyton," said Ro
berta, passing her fingers gently among the short,
light-brown curls on her companion's forehead, " that
I think you must have a very, very kindly recollec
tion of the boy who used to come down to the lowest
branches of the tree to drop apples into your apron."



181



CHAPTER XYI

SHORTLY after Peggy arrived with her mistress at the
Keswick residence, her mind began to be a good deal
disturbed. She had been surprised, when the carriage
drew up to the door, that "Mahs' Junius" had not
rushed down to meet his intended bride, and when she
found he was not in the house, and had, indeed, gone
away from home, she did not at all know what to make
of it. If Miss Rob took the trouble to travel all the
way to the home of the man that the Midbranch people
had decided she should marry, it was a very wonderful
thing indeed that he should not be there to meet her.
And while these thoughts were turning themselves
over in the mind of this meditative girl of color, and
the outgoing look in her eyes was extending itself
farther and farther, as if in search of some solution of
the mystery, up rode Mr. Croft.

"Dar he!" exclaimed Peggy, as she stood at the
corner of the house where she had been pursuing her
meditations. " He ! " she continued, in a voice that
would have been quite audible to any one standing
near. "Upon my libin' soul, wot brung him h'yar?
Miss Rob don' wan' him roun', nohow. I done druv
him off wunst. Upon my libin' soul, he's done brung

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

his bag behin' him on de saddle, an' I reckon he's
gwine to stay."

As Mr. Croft dismounted and went into the house,
Peggy glowered at him, sundry expressions, sounding
very much like odds and ends of imprecations which
she had picked up in the course of a short but inves
tigative existence, gurgling from her lips.

" I wish dat ole Miss Keswick kunjer him. Ef she
knew how Miss Kob hate him, she curl he legs up, an'
gib him mis'ry spranglin' down he back."

The hope of seeing this intruder well "kunjered"
by the old lady was the only thing that gave a promise
of peace to the mind of Peggy ; and though her nature
was by no means a social one, she determined to make
the acquaintance of some one or other in the house,
hoping to find out how Mrs. Keswick conducted her
conjurations, at what time of day or night they were
generally put into operation, and how persons could be
brought under their influence.

The breakfast-hour in the Keswick house was a
variable one. Sometimes the mistress of the establish
ment rose early and wanted her morning meal before
she went out of doors ; at other times she would go
off to some distant point on the farm to see about some
thing that was doing, or ought to be done, and break
fast would be kept waiting for her. The delays,
however, were not all due to the old lady's irregular
habits. Very often Letty would come up-stairs with
the information that the " bread ain't riz " ; and as a
Virginia breakfast without hot bread would be an im
possibility, the meal would be postponed until the
bread did conclude to rise, or until some substitute,
such as "beaten biscuit," had been provided.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

On the morning after Ms arrival, Lawrence Croft
came down-stairs about eight o'clock, and found the
lower part of the house deserted j and glancing into
the dining-room as he passed its open door, he saw no
signs of breakfast. The house was cool, but the sun
appeared to be shining warmly outside, and he stepped
out of the open back door into a small flower-garden
with a series of broad boards down the walk which lay
along the middle of it. Up and down this broad walk
Lawrence strode, breathing the fresh air, and thinking
over matters. He was not at all satisfied at being
here during Keswick's absence, feeling that he was
enjoying an advantage which, although it was quite
honorable, did not appear so. What he had to do was
to get an interview with Miss March as soon as pos
sible, and have that matter over. When he had been
definitely accepted or rejected, he would go away.
And, whatever the result might be, he would write to
his rival as soon as he returned to the Springs, and
inform him of it, and would also explain how he had
happened to be here with Miss March. While he was
engaged in planning these honorable intentions, there
came from the house Mrs. Keswick's niece, with a
basket in one hand, and a pair of scissors in the other,
and she immediately applied herself to cutting some
geraniums and chrysanthemums, which were about the
last flowers left blooming at that season in the garden.

" Good morning," said Croft, from the other end of
the walk. " I am glad to see you out so early."

" Good morning," she replied, with a look which in
dicated that she was not at all glad to see him, " but
I don't think it is early."

Croft had noticed on the preceding day that her
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

coolness towards him still continued, but it did not
suit Mm to let her know that he perceived it. He
went up to her, and in a very friendly way remarked :
" There is something I wish very much you would tell
me. What is your name ? It is very odd that during
all the time I have been acquainted with you I have
never known your name."

" You must have taken an immense interest in it,"
she said, as she snipped some dried leaves off a twig of
geranium she had cut.

" It was not that I did not take any interest," said
Croft, "but at first your name never came forward,
and I soon began to know you by the title which your
remarkable condition of wedlock gave you."

" And that is the name," said the lady, very decidedly
" by which I am to be known in this house. I am very
proud of my maiden name, but I am not going to tell
it to you for fear that some time you will use it."

" Oh ! " ejaculated Mr. Croft. " Then I suppose I
am to continue even to think of you as Mrs. Null."

"You needn't think of me at all," said she, "but
when you speak to me I most certainly expect you
to use that name. It was only by a sort of accident
that you came to know it was not my name."

" I don't consider it an accident at all," said Croft.
" I look upon it as a piece of very kindly confidence."

Miss Annie gave a little twist to her mouth, which
seemed to indicate that if she spoke she should express
her contempt of such an opinion, and Croft continued :

" I am very sorry that upon that occasion I should
have felt myself obliged to refuse your request that I
should make you acquainted with my reasons for de
siring to know Mr. Keswick's whereabouts. But I am

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

sure, if you understood the matter, you would not be
in the least degree"

" Oh, you need not trouble yourself about that," she
interrupted. " I don't want you to tell me anything
at all. It is quite easy now to see why you wished to
know where my cousin was."

" It is impossible that you should know ! " ex
claimed Croft.

" We will say no more about it," replied Annie. " I
am quite satisfied."

"I would give a good deal," said Lawrence, after
looking steadily at her for a few moments, " to know
what you really do think."

Annie had cut all the flowers she wanted, or, rather,
all she could get ; and she now stood up and looked
her companion full in the face. " Mr. Croft," she said,
" it has been necessary, and it is necessary now, for me
to have some concealments, and I am sorry for it ; but
it isn't at all necessary for me to conceal my opinion
of your reasons for wanting to know about Junius.
You were really in pursuit of Miss March, and, know
ing that he was in love with her, you wanted to make
sure that when you went to her he wouldn't be there.
It is my firm opinion that is all there is about it ; and
the fact of your turning up here just after my cousin
left proves it."

"Miss Annie," exclaimed Croft, "I have heard
you called by that name, and I vow I won't call you
Mrs. Null when there is no need for it, you were
never more mistaken in your life, and I am very
sorry that you should have such a low opinion of me
as to think I would wish to take advantage of your
cousin during his absence."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Then why do you do it ? " asked Miss Annie, with
a little upward pitch of her chin.

At this moment the breakfast-bell rang, and Mrs.
Keswick appeared in the back door, evidently some
what surprised to see these two conversing in the
garden.

"I am very much vexed," said Lawrence, as he
followed his companion, who had suddenly turned
towards the house, " that you should think of me in
this way."

But to this remark Miss Annie had no opportunity
to reply.

After breakfast, Mrs. Keswick proved the truth
of what her niece had said about her unscrupulous
straightforwardness when carrying out her projects.
She had invited Mr. Croft and Miss March to her
house in order that the former might have the oppor
tunity, which she had discovered he wanted and could
not get, of offering himself in marriage to the lady ;
and she now made it her business to see that Mr.
Croft's opportunity should stand up very clear and
definite before him, and that all interfering circum
stances should be carefully removed. She informed
her niece that she wished her to go with her to a
thicket on the other side of the wheat-field (which
that young lady had advised should be ploughed for
pickles) to look for a turkey-hen which she had reason
to believe had been ridiculous enough to hatch out a
brood of young at this improper season. Annie de
murred, for she did not want to go to look for turkeys,
nor did she want to give Mr. Croft any opportunities ;
but the old lady insisted, and carried her off. Croft
felt that there was something very bare and raw-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

boned about the position in which he was left with
Miss March ; and he thought that lady might readily
suppose that Mrs. Keswick's object was to leave them
together. He imagined that himself, though why
she should be so kind to him he could not feel quite
certain. However, his path lay straight before him,
and if the old lady had whitewashed it to make it-
more distinct, he did not intend to refuse to walk
in it.

" I have been looking at that hill over yonder," said
he, " with a cluster of pine-trees on the brow of it. I
should think there would be a fine view from that
hill. Would you not like to walk up there? "

Lawrence felt that this proposition was quite in
keeping with the bareness of the previous proceed
ings, but he did not wish to stay in the house and be
subject to the unexpected return of the old lady and
her niece.

" Certainly," said Miss March, " nothing would
please me better." And so they walked up Pine Top
Hill.

When they reached this elevated position, they sat
down on the rock on which Mrs. Null had once con
versed with Freddy, and admired the view, which
was, indeed, a very fine one. After about five minutes
of this, which Lawrence thought was quite enough,
he turned to his companion and said :

" Miss March, I do not wish you to suppose that I


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 12 of 26)