Frank Richard Stockton.

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

. (page 14 of 26)
Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 14 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


to marry Miss March ; and she had done this, not out
of any kind feeling towards him, because that would be
impossible considering the shortness of their acquaint
ance, 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 ad
mirably 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

204



THE LATE MRS. NULL

the affair. "If she wants him to know that," he
thought, " she can tell him herself. It is not my busi
ness 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 ap
peared 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 rail
road-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.



205



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 intima
tion 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 Law
rence 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

206



THE LATE MRS. NULL

proper for whatever error lie 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 prom
ised visit at Midbranch, for, during the only time he
had been alone with her here, the subject of an im
mediate statement of his feelings towards 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 de
siring 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 de
sire 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 towards her. Was it
possible that she had seen his motives, and knew the

207



THE LATE MRS. NULL

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 rea
soned 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 inde
cision, 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 Eob, which the servants at

208



THE LATE MRS. NULL

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 dat ole Miss Keswick don' kunjer you, sah," she
said in an undertone, " I'se gwine to do it myse'f. So
dar ! " And she gave her foot a stamp on the ground.

Lawrence, 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 sit
ting, was Miss March. But it was not ; it was Mrs.
Keswick's niece, deeply engrossed in a large-paged
novel. She turned her head as he entered, and said :
" Good evening."

" Good evening, Miss Annie," said Lawrence, seat
ing 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 towards 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 imi
tate them. My name in this house is Mrs. Null, and
I wish you would not forget it."

209



THE LATE MRS. NULL

"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 rela
tives 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 to 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

210



THE LATE MRS. NULL

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 ob
jected 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.
211



THE LATE MRS. NULL

"ETo, I am not/ 7 lie answered, "and I knew you
would not understand me. My only desire in speak
ing to you upon this subject is that you may not un
reasonably 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 com
panion'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 per
fectly 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 him-
212



THE LATE MRS. NULL

self 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 re
quest 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 Law
rence, 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 towards
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 after
noon ; 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, and changed
the conversation to the consideration of the fact that
a fertilizer agent, a pill man, or a blackmailer would
find out a person's whereabouts, even if he were at-

213



THE LATE MRS. NULL

tending the funeral of his grandmother on a desert
island.

The next morning, about an hour after breakfast,
Lawrence was walking up and down on the grass in
front of the house, smoking a cigar, and troubling his
mind. He had had no opportunity on the previous
evening to be alone with Miss March, for the little
party sat together in the parlor until they separated
for bed 5 and so, of course, nothing was yet settled.
He was overstaying the time he had expected to spend
here, and he felt nervous about it. He had hoped to
see Miss March after breakfast, but she seemed to have
withdrawn herself entirely from observation. Perhaps
she considered that she had sufficiently rejected him
on the previous morning, and that she now intended,
except when she was sure of the company of the others,
to remain in her room until he should go away. But
he had no such opinion in regard to their interview on
Pine Top Hill. He believed that he had been pun
ished, not rejected, and that when he should be able to
explain everything to her, he would be forgiven. That,
at least, was his earnest hope, and hope makes us be
lieve almost anything.

But although there were so many difficulties in his
way, Lawrence had a friend in that household who
still remained true to him. Mrs. Keswick, with sun-
bonnet and umbrella, came out upon the porch, and
said cheerily : " I should think a gentleman like you
would prefer to be with the ladies than to be walking
about here by yourself. They have gone to take a
walk in the woods. I should have said that Miss
March has gone on ahead, with her little maid Peggy.
My niece was going with her, but I called her back to

214



THE LATE MRS. NULL

attend to some housekeeping matters for me, and I
think she will be kept longer than she expected, for I
have just sent Letty to her to be shown how to cut out
a frock. But you needn't wait; you can go right
through the flower-garden, and take the path over the
fields into the woods." And having concluded this
bit of conscienceless and transparent management, the
old lady remarked that she herself was going for a
walk, and left him.

Lawrence lost no time in following her suggestions.
Throwing away his cigar, he hurried through the
house and the little flower-garden, a gate at the back
of which opened into a wide pasture-field. This field
sloped down gently to a branch, or little stream, which
ran through the middle of it, and then the ground
ascended until it reached the edge of the woods. Fol
lowing the well-defined path, he looked across the
little valley before him, and could see, just inside the
edge of the woods, the trees and bushes being much
more thinly attired than in the summer-time, the
form of a lady in a light-colored dress with a red scarf
upon her shoulders, sometimes moving slowly, some
times stopping. This was Roberta ; and those woods
were a far better place than the exposed summit of
Pine Top Hill in which to plight his troth, if it should
be so that he should be able to do it, and there were
doubtless paths in those woods through which they
might afterwards wander, if things should turn out
propitiously. At all events, in those woods would he
settle this affair.

His intention was still strong to make a very clean
breast of it to Eoberta. If she had blamed him for his
prudent reserve, she should have full opportunity to

215



THE LATE MRS. NULL

forgive him. All that he had been she should know ;
but, far more important than that, he would try to
make her know, better than he had done before, what
he was now. Abandoning all his previous positions,
and mounted on these strong resolutions, thus would
he dash into her camp, and hope to capture her.

Reaching the little ravine, at the bottom of which
flowed the branch, now but two or three feet wide, he
ran down the rather steep slope, and stepped upon the
stout plank which bridged the stream. The instant he
did so, the plank turned beneath him as if it had been
hung on pivots, and he fell into the stony bed of the
branch. It was an awkward fall, for the leg which
was undermost came down at an angle, and his foot,
striking a slippery stone, turned under him. In a
moment he was on his feet, and scrambled up the side
of the ravine down which he had just come. When
he reached the top he sat down and put both his hands
on his right ankle, in which he felt considerable pain.
In a few minutes he arose and began to walk towards
the house ; but he had not taken a dozen steps before
he sat down again. The pain in his ankle was very
severe, and he felt quite sure that he had sprained it.
He knew enough about such things to understand that
if he walked upon this injured joint, he would not only
make the pain worse, but the consequences might be
serious. He was very much annoyed, not only that
this thing had happened to him, but that it had hap
pened at such an inauspicious moment. Of course he
could not now go on to the woods, and he must get some
body to help him to the house. Looking about, he saw,
at a distance, Uncle Isham, and he called loudly to him.

As soon as Lawrence was well away from the edge
216






THE LATE MRS. NULL

of the ravine, there emerged from some thick bushes
on the other side of it, and at a short distance from
the crossing-place, a negro girl, who slipped noiselessly
down to the branch, moved with quick steps and
crouching body to the plank, removed the two round
stones on which it had been skilfully poised, and re
placed it in its usual firm position. This done, she
slipped back into the bushes, and by the time Isham
had heard the call of Mr. Croft, she was slowly walking
down the opposite hill, as if she were coming from the
woods to see why the gentleman was shouting.

Miss March also heard the call, and came out of the
woods, and when she saw Lawrence sitting on the grass
on the other side of the branch, with one hand upon
his ankle, she knew that something had happened, and
came down towards him. Lawrence saw her approach
ing, and before she was even near enough to hear him,
he began to shout to her to be careful about crossing
the branch, as the board was unsafe. Peggy joined
her, and walked on in front of her ; and when Miss
March understood what Lawrence was saying, she
called back that she would be careful. When they
reached the ravine, Peggy ran down, stepped upon the
plank, jumped on the middle of it, walked over it and
then back again, and assured her mistress that it was
just as good as ever it was, and that she reckoned the
city gentleman didn't know how to walk on planks,
and that " he jes done fall off."

Miss March crossed, stepping a little cautiously, and
reached Lawrence just as Uncle Isham, with strong
arms and many words of sympathy, had assisted him
to his feet. " What has happened to you, Mr. Croft? "
she exclaimed.

217



THE LATE MRS. NULL

"I was coming to you/' he said, "and in crossing
the stream the plank turned under me, and I am afraid
I have sprained my ankle. I can't walk on it."

" I am very sorry," she said.

"Because I was coming to you," he said grimly,
" or because I hurt myself? "

" You ought to be ashamed to speak in that way,"
she answered ; " but I won't find fault with you, now
that you are in such pain. Is there anything I can
do for you?"

" No, thank you," said Lawrence. " I will lean on
this good man, and I think I can hop to the house."

"Peggy," said Miss Roberta, "walk on the other
side of the gentleman, and let him lean upon your
shoulder. I will go on and have something prepared
to put on his ankle."

With one side supported by the stout Isham, and
his other hand resting on the shoulder of the good
little Peggy, who bore up as strongly under it as if she
had been a big walking-stick, Lawrence slowly made
his way to the house. Miss March got there some time
before he did, and was very glad to find that Mrs.
Keswick had not yet gone out on the walk for which
she was prepared. That circumspect old lady had
found this and that to occupy her, while she so man
aged her household matters that one thing should
follow another to detain her niece. But when she
heard what had happened, all other impulses gave
way to those which belonged to a head nurse and a
mistress of emergencies. She set down her umbrella ;
shouted an order to Letty to put a kettle of water on
the fire ; brought from her own room some flannel and
two bottles of embrocation j and then, stopping a mo-

218



THE LATE MRS. NULL

merit to reflect, ordered that the office should be pre
pared for Mr. Croft, for it would be a shame to make
a gentleman with a sprained ankle clamber up-stairs.
The office was a small building in the wide front
yard, not very far from the house, and opposite to the
arbor which has been before mentioned. It was one
story high, and contained one large and comfortable
room. Such buildings are quite common on Virginia
farms, and, although called offices, are seldom used in
an official way, being generally appropriated to the
bachelors of the family or their gentleman visitors.
This one was occupied by Junius Keswick when he
was at home, and a good many of his belongings were
now in it ; but as it was at present unoccupied, noth
ing could be more proper than that Mr. Croft should
have it.



219



CHAPTER XIX

ABOUT noon of the day of Mr. Croft's accident, Uncle
Isham had occasion to go to the cabin of the venerable
Aunt Patsy, and of course he told her what had hap
pened to the gentleman whom he and Aunt Patsy still
supposed to be Miss Annie's husband. The news pro
duced a very marked effect upon the old woman. She
put down the crazy-quilt, upon the unfinished corner
of which she was making a few feeble stitches, and
looked at Uncle Isham with a troubled frown. She


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 14 of 26)