Frank Richard Stockton.

The novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) online

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brought you up here for the purpose of viewing those
rolling hills and distant forests."

" You didn't! " exclaimed Roberta, in a tone of sur
prise.

" No," said he, " I brought you here because it is a
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

place where I could speak freely to you, and tell you
I love you."

" That was not at all necessary," said Miss March.
" We had the lower floor of the house entirely to our
selves, and I am sure that Mrs. Keswick would not
have returned until you had waved a handkerchief, or
given some signal from the back of the house that it
was all over."

Croft looked at her with a troubled expression.
" Miss March," said he, " do you not think I am in
earnest ! Do you not believe what I have said ? "

" I have not the slightest doubt you are in earnest,"
she answered. "The magnitude of the preparation
proves it."

" I am glad you said that, for it gives me the op
portunity for making an explanation," said Lawrence.
" Our meeting at this place may be a carefully con
trived stratagem, but it was not contrived by me. I
am very well aware that Mr. Keswick also wishes to
marry you "

" Did you see that in the Richmond " Despatch," or
in one of the New York papers?" interrupted Miss
March.

" That is a point," said Lawrence, overlooking the
ridicule, " which we need not discuss. I am perfectly
aware that Mr. Keswick is my rival, but I wish you
to understand that I am not voluntarily taking any
undue advantage of his absence. I believe him to be
a very fair and generous man, and I would wish to
be as open and generous as he is. When I came, I
expected to find him here, and, standing on equal
ground with him, I intended to ask you to accept my
love."

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" Well, then," said Roberta, " would it not be more
fair and generous for you to go away now, and post
pone this proposal until some time when you would
each have an equal chance ? "

"No, it would not," said Lawrence, vehemently.
" I have now an opportunity of telling you that I love
you ardently, passionately ; and nothing shall cause
me to postpone it. Will you not consider what I
say? Will you make no answer to this declaration
of most true and honest love? "

"I am considering what you have said," she
answered, "and I am very glad to hear that you
did not know of this cunning little trap that Mrs.
Keswick has laid for me. It is all very plain to me,
but I do not know why she should have selected you
as one of the actors in the plot. Have you ever told
her that you are a suitor for my hand? "

" Never ! " exclaimed Lawrence. " She may have
imagined it, for she heard I was a frequent visitor to
Midbranch. But let us set all that aside. I am on
fire with love for you. Will you tell me that you
can return that love, or that I must give up all hope ?
This is the most important question of my whole
life. I beg you, from the bottom of my heart, to
decide it."

"Mr. Croft," said she, "when you used to come,
nearly every day, to see me at Midbranch, and we
took those long walks in the woods, you never talked
in this way. I considered you as a gentleman whose
prudence and good sense would not allow him to step
outside of the path of perfectly conventional social
intercourse. This is not conventional and not pru
dent."

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" I loved you then, and I love you now ! " exclaimed
Lawrence. "You must have known that I loved
you, for my declaration does not in the least surprise
you.''

" Once it was the last time you visited Midbranch
I suspected, just a little, that your mind might be
affected somewhat in the way you speak of, but I
supposed that attack of weakness had passed away."

" I know what you mean," said Lawrence, " but I
can't endure to talk of such trifles. I love you,
Roberta"

" Miss March," she interrupted.

"And I want you to tell me if you love me in
return."

Miss March rose from the rock where she had been
sitting, and her companion rose with her. After a
moment's silence, during which he watched her with
intense eagerness, she said : " Mr. Croft, I am going
to give you your choice. Would you prefer being
refused under a cherry-tree or under a sycamore ? "

There was a little smile on her lips as she said this,
which Lawrence could not interpret.

" I decline being refused under any tree," he said
with vehemence.

" I prefer the cherry-tree," said she ; " there is a
very pretty one over there on the ridge of this hill,
and its leaves are nearly all gone, which would make
it quite appropriate. But what is the meaning of
this ? There comes Peggy. It isn't possible that she
thinks it's time for me to give out something to Aunt
Judy."

Croft turned, and there was the wooden Peggy,
marching steadily up the hill, and almost upon them.

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" What do you want, Peggy ? " asked Miss Roberta.

"Bar's a man down to de house dat wants him,"
pointing to Mr. Croft.

Lawrence was very much surprised. " A man who
wants me ! " he exclaimed. " You must be mistaken."

" No, sah," replied Peggy ; " you's de one."

For a moment Lawrence hesitated. His disposition
was to let any man in the world, be he president or
king, wait until he had settled this matter with Miss
March. But with Peggy present it was impossible
to go on with the love-making. He might, indeed,
send her back with a message ; but the thought came
to him that it would be well to postpone for a little
the pressing of his suit, for the lady was certainly in
a very untowards humor, and he was not altogether
sorry to have an excuse for breaking off the inter
view at this point. He had not yet been discarded,
and he would like to think over the matter, and see
if he could discover any reason for the very disre
spectful manner, to say the least of it, with which
Miss March had received his amatory advances. " I
suppose I must go and see the man," he said, " though
I can't imagine who it can possibly be. Will you
return to the house f "

" No," said Miss Roberta, " I will stay here a little
longer, and enjoy the view."



192



CHAPTER XVII

As Lawrence Croft walked down Pine Top Hill his
mind was in a good deal of a hubbub. The mind of
almost any lover would be stirred up if he came fresh
from an interview in which his lady had pinned him,
to use a cruel figure, in various places on the wall to
see how he would spin and buzz in different lights.
But the disdainful pin had not yet gone through a
vital part of Lawrence's hopes, and they had strength
to spin and buzz a good deal yet. As soon as he
should have an opportunity he would rack his brains
to find out what it was that had put Koberta March
into such a strange humor. No one who simply de
sired to decline the addresses of a gentleman would
treat her lover as Miss March had treated him. It
was quite evident that she wished to punish him.
But what had been his crime ?

But the immediate business on his hands was to go
and see what man it was who wished to see him.
Ordinarily the fact that a man had called upon him
would not be considered by Lawrence a matter for cogi
tation, but as he walked towards the house it seemed
to him very odd that any one should call upon him
in such an out-of-the-way place as this, where so few
people knew him to be. He was not a business man,

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but a large portion of his funds was invested in a
business concern, and it might be that something had
gone wrong, and that a message had been sent him.
His address at the Green Sulphur Springs was known,
and the man in charge there knew that he was visiting
Mrs. Keswick.

These considerations made him a little anxious, and
helped to keep his mind in the hubbub which has been
mentioned.

When he reached the front of the house, Lawrence
saw a lean gray horse tied to a tree, and a man sitting
upon the porch ; and as soon as he made his appear
ance the latter came down the steps to meet him.

" I didn't go into the house, sir," he said, " because
I thought you'd just as lief have a talk outside."

" What is your business? " asked Croft.

The man moved a few steps farther from the house,
and Lawrence followed him.

"Is it anything secret you have to tell me?" he
asked.

" Well, yes, sir ; I should think it was," replied the
other a tall man with sandy hair and beard, and
dressed in a checkered business suit which had lost a
good deal of the freshness of its early youth. " I may
as well tell you at once who I am. I am an anti-de
tective. Never heard of that sort of person, I sup
pose ? "

" Never," said Lawrence, curtly.

"Well, sir, the organization which I belong to is
one which is filling a long-felt want. You know very
well, sir, that this country is full of detective officers,
not only those who belong to a regular police force,
but lots of private ones, who, if anybody will pay

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them for it, will go to Jericho to hunt a man up.
Now, sir, our object is to protect society against these
people. When we get information that a man is going
to be hounded down by any of these detectives and
we have private ways of knowing these things we
just go to that man, and if he is willing to become one
of our clients we take him into our charge ; and our
business, after that, is to keep him informed of just
what is being done against him. He can stay at home
in comfort with his wife, settle up his accounts, and do
what he likes, and the day before he is to be swooped
down on he gets notice from us, and comfortably goes
to Chicago, or Jacksonville, where he can take his ease
until we post him of the next move of the enemy. If
he wants to take extra precautions, and writes a letter
to anybody in the place where he lives, dated from
London or Hong-Kong, and sends that letter under
cover to us, we'll see that it is mailed from the place
it is dated from, and that it gets into the hands of the
detectives. There have been cases where a gentleman
has had six months or a year of perfect comfort by
the detectives being thrown off by a letter like this.
That is only one of the ways in which we help and
protect persons in difficulties, who, if it wasn't for us,
would be dragged off, handcuffed, from the bosom of
their families, and who, even if they never got con
victed, would have to pay a lot of money to get out of
the scrape. Now, I have put myself a good deal out
of the way, sir, to come to you and offer you our
assistance."

" Me ! " exclaimed Croft, " What are you talking
about?"

The man smiled. " Of course it's all right to know

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nothing about it, and it's just what we would advise ;
but I assure you we are thoroughly posted in your
affair, and to let you know that we are, I'll just men
tion that the case is that of Croft after Keswick,
through Candy."

" Stuff and nonsense ! " exclaimed Lawrence, getting
red in the face. " There is no such case ! "

He was about to say more, when a few words from
the anti-detective stopped him suddenly.

" Look here, Mr. Keswick," said the man, levelling
a long forefinger at him, and speaking very earnestly,
" don't you go and flatter yourself that this thing has
been dropped because you haven't heard of it for a
month or two ; and if you'll take my advice, you'll
make up your mind on the spot, either to let things go
on and be nabbed, or to put yourself under our pro
tection, and live in entire safety until this thing has
blown over, without any trouble except a little trav
elling."

At the mention of Keswick's name Lawrence had
seen through the whole affair at a single mental glance.
The man was after Junius Keswick, and his business
was to Lawrence more startling and repugnant than
it could possibly be to any one else. It was necessary
to be very careful. If he immediately avowed who he
was, the man might yet find Keswick before warning
and explanation could be got to him, and not only
put that gentleman in a very unpleasant state of mind,
but do a lot of mischief besides. He did not believe
that Mr. Candy had recommenced his investigations
without consultation with him, but this person evi
dently knew that such an investigation had been set
on foot, and that would be sufficient for his purposes.

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Lawrence decided to be very wary, and he said to the
man, " Did you ask for me here by name? "

" No, tr," said the other ; " I had information that
you were here, and that you were the only gentleman
who lived here ; and although you are in your own
home, I did not know but this was one of those cases
in which names were dropped and servants changed
to suit an emergency. I asked the little darky I saw
at the front of the house if she lived here, and she told
me she had only just come. That put me on my guard,
and so I merely asked if the gentleman was in, and she
went and got you. We're very careful about calling
names, and you needn't be afraid that any of our peo
ple will ever give you away on that line."

Lawrence reflected for a moment, and then he said :
" What are your terms and arrangements for carrying
on an affair of this kind ? "

" They are very simple and moderate," said the man,
taking a wallet from his pocket. "There is one of
our printed slips, which we show but don't give away.
To become a client all you have to do is to send fifteen
dollars to the office, or to pay it to me if you think no
time should be lost. That will entitle you to protec
tion for a year. After that we make the nominal
charge of five dollars for each letter sent you giving
you information of what is going on against you. For
extra services, such as mailing letters from distant
points, of course there will be extra charges."

Lawrence glanced over the printed slip, which con
tained information very similar to that the man had
given him, and as he did so he came to the conclusion
that there would be nothing dishonest in allowing the
fellow to continue in his mistake, and to endeavor to

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find out what mischief 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 5
" 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 Law
rence.

" That I can't tell you positively, as I am so far from
our New York office, to which all information comes.

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But now that you are a subscriber I'll communicate
with headquarters 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 facili
ties for finding people that we have. But it takes
some time for me to communicate with headquarters
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 informa
tion 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 f "

"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 accu
rate 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.

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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 au
thorized 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 for
ward, but suddenly checking himself, he looked at the
man for a moment and then said : " I suppose you want

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me to understand that if I become one of your sub
scribers in my own name, you will be willing to with
hold the information you intended to give Mr.
Keswick."

" Well," said the man, relapsing into his former con
fidential 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 con
test, 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 ! "

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

Despite his inferiority in size, despite his gentle
manly 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 manifesta
tion, 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 recov
er from their surprise at her sudden action, she reap
peared upon the porch, carrying a double-barrelled
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 fore
finger around one of the triggers, her eagle eye glanced
along the barrels straight at the head of the anti-de
tective, 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,

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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 look
ing 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 Keswiek."

" That settled him," said the old lady, with a grim
smile, as she lowered the barrels of the gun and gently
let down the hammers.

" Madam," said Lawrence, advancing towards 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, be
cause 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."

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" Is that so ? " cried the old lady, her eyes flashing
as she brought the butt of the gun heavily upon the
porch floor. " Pm 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 hap
pened 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 con
venient."

The words and manner convinced Lawrence that
they did not merely indicate a conventional hospi
tality. 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


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 13 of 26)