Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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her hand. " One of the funniest things," she said, as
she came to the door, "is Mr. Salmon's chapter on
paradoxes. He thinks it would be quite improper to
issue a book of this kind without alluding to geograph
ical paradoxes. Listen to this one." And then she
read to him the elucidation of the apparent paradox
that there is a certain place in this world where the
wind always blows from the south ; and another ex
plaining the statement that in certain c?nnibal islands
the people eat themselves. "There is something he
says about Virginia," said she, turning over the pages,
" which I want you to be sure to read."

" Won't you sit down," said Lawrence, " and read to
me some of those extracts? You know just where to
find them."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

"That chair wasn't put there for me," said Miss
Annie, with a smile.

"Nonsense," said Lawrence. "Won't you please
sit down? I ought to have asked you before. Per
haps it is too cool for you out there."

" Oh, not at all," said she. " The air is still quite
warm." And she took her seat on the chair, which
was placed close to the door-step, and she read to him
some of the surprising and interesting facts which Mr.
Salmon had heard, in a Dublin coffee-house, about Vir
ginia and the other colonies, and also some of those
relating to the kindly way in which slave-holders in
South America, when they killed a slave to feed their
hounds, would send a quarter to a neighbor, expecting
some day to receive a similar favor in return. "When
they had laughed over these, she read some very odd
and surprising statements about southern Europe, and
the people of far-away lands ; and so she went on from
one thing to another, talking a good deal about what
she had read, and always on the point of stopping and
giving the book to Lawrence, until the short autumnal
afternoon began to draw to its close, and he told her
that it was growing too chilly for her to sit out on the
grass any longer.

" Very well," said she, closing the book and handing
it to him ; " you can read the rest of it yourself ; and if
you want any other books on the list, just let me know
by Uncle Isham, and I will send them to you. He is
coming now to see after you. I wonder," she said,
stopping for a moment as she turned to leave, " if Miss
March had been sitting in that chair, if you would have
had the heart to tell her to go away, or if you would
have let her sit still and take cold? "

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Lawrence smiled, but very slightly. "That sub
ject/ 7 said he, " is one on which I don't joke."

" Goodness ! " exclaimed Miss Annie, clasping her
hands and gazing with an air of comical commisera
tion at Mr. Croft's serious face. "I should think
not ! " And away she went.

Just before supper-time, when Lawrence's door
had been closed and his lamp lighted, there came a
knock, and Mrs. Keswick appeared. "That plan of
mine didn't work," she said ; " but I will bring Miss
March out here, and manage it so that she'll have to
stay till I come back. I have an idea about that.
All that you have to do is to be ready when you get
your chance."

Lawrence thanked her, and assured her he would
be very glad to have a chance, although he hoped
without much ground for it that Roberta would not
see through the old lady's schemes.

Mrs. Keswick lotioned and rebandaged the sprained
ankle, and then she said : " I think it would be pleas
ant if we were all to come out here after supper and
have a game of whist. I used to play whist, and
shouldn't mind taking a hand. You could have the
table drawn up to your chair, and let me see yes,
there are three more chairs. It won't be like having
her alone with you," she said, with the cordial grin
in which she sometimes indulged, " but you will have
her opposite to you for an hour, and that will be
something."

Lawrence approved heartily of the whist-party,
and assured Mrs. Keswick that she was his guardian
angel.

"Not much of that," she saidj "but I have been
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

told often enough that I'm a regular old match
maker, and I expect I am."

"If you make this match," said Lawrence, "you
will have my eternal gratitude."

The supper sent out to Lawrence was a very good
one, and the anticipation of what was to follow made
him enjoy it still more ; for his passion had now reached
such a point that even to look at his love, although he
could only speak to her of trumps and of tricks, would
be a refreshing solace which would go down deep into
his thirsty soul.

But bedtime and old Isham came, and the whist-
players came not. It needed no one to tell Lawrence
whose disinclination it was that had prevented their
coming.

"I reckon," said Uncle Isham, as he looked in at
Letty's cabin on his way to his own, " dat dat ar Mister
CroP ain't much use' to gittin' hisse'f hurt. All de time
I was helpin' him go to bed he was a-growlin' like de
bery debbil."



238



CHAPTER XX

ALTHOUGH October in southern Virginia can gen
erally be counted upon as a very charming month, it
must not be expected that her face will wear one con
tinuous smile. On the day after Lawrence Croft's
misadventure the sky was gray with low-hanging
clouds, there was a disagreeable wind from the north
east, and the air was filled with the slight drizzle of
rain. The morning was so cool that Lawrence was
obliged to keep his door shut, and Uncle Isham had
made him a small wood fire on the hearth. As he sat
before this fire, after breakfast, his foot still upon a
stool, and vigorously puffed at a cigar, he said to him
self that it mattered very little to him whether the sun
shone, or all the rains of heaven descended, so long as
Roberta March would not come out to him ; and that
she did not intend to come, rain or shine, was just as
plain as the marks on the sides of the fireplace, prob
ably made by the heels of Mr. Junius Keswick during
many a long, reflective smoke.

On second thoughts, however, Lawrence concluded
that a rainy day was worse for his prospects than a
bright one. If the sun shone and everything was
fair, Miss March might come across the grassy yard,
and might possibly stop before his open door to bid

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

him good morning, and to tell him that she was sorry
that a headache had prevented her from coming to
play whist the evening before. But this last, he pres
ently admitted, was rather too much to expect, for
he did not think she was subject to headaches, or to
making excuses. At any rate, he might have caught
sight of her ; and if he had, he certainly would have
called to her, and would have had his say with her,
even had she persisted in standing six feet from the
door-step. But now this dreary day had shut his door
and put an interdict upon strolls across the grass.
Therefore it was that he must resign any opportunity,
for that day at least, of soothing the harrowing per
turbations of his passion by either the comforting
warmth of hope, or by the deadening frigidity of a
consummated despair. This last, in truth, he did not
expect 5 but still, if it came, it would be better than
perturbations. They must be soothed at any cost.
But how to incur this cost was a difficult question
altogether. So, puffing, gazing into the fire, and
knitting his brows, he sat and thought.

As a good-looking young man, as a well-dressed
young man, as an educated and cultured man, as a
man of the clubs and of society, and, when occasion
required, as a very sensible man of business, Mr. Croft
might be looked upon as essentially a commonplace
personage, and in our walks abroad we meet a great
many like him. But there dwelt within him a cer
tain disposition which, at times, removed him to quite
a distance from the arena in which commonplace
people go through their prescribed performances.
He would come to a determination, generally quite
suddenly, to attain a desired end in his own way,

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

without any reference to traditionary or conventional
methods ; and the more original and startling these
plans, the better he liked it.

This disposition it was which made Lawrence read
with so much interest the account of the defeated
general who made the cavalry charge into the camp
of his victorious enemy. Defeat had been his all
through his short campaign, and it now seemed that
the time had come to make another bold effort to get
the better of his bad luck. As he could not woo Miss
March himself, he must get some one else to do it for
him, or, if not actually to woo the lady, to get her at
least into such a frame of mind that she would allow
him to woo her, even in spite of his present disad
vantages. This would be a very bold stroke, but
Lawrence put a good deal of faith in it.

If Miss March were properly talked to by one of
her own sex, she might see, as perhaps she did not
now see, how cruel was her line of conduct towards
him, and might be persuaded to relent, at least enough
to allow his voice to reach her ; and that was all he
asked for. He had not the slightest doubt that the
widow Keswick would gladly consent to carry any
message he chose to send to Miss March, and, more
than that, to throw all the force of her peculiar style
of persuasion into the support of his cause. But this,
he knew very well, would finish the affair, and not at
all in the way he desired. The person he wanted to
act as his envoy was Mrs. Null. To be sure, she had
refused to act for him ; but he thought he could per
suade her. She was quiet, she was sensible, and could
talk very gently and confidingly when she chose ; she
would say just what he told her to say, and if a con-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

tingency demanded that she should add anything, she
would probably do it very prudently. But then, it
would be almost as difficult to communicate with her
as with Miss March.

While he was thus thinking, in came the old lady,
very cross. " You didn't get any rubber of whist last
night, did you ? " said she, without salutatory preface.
" But, I can tell you, it wasn't my fault. I did all that
I could, and more than I ought, to make her come ;
but she just put her foot down and wouldn't stir an
inch, and at last I got mad and went to bed. I don't
know whether she saw it or not, but I was as mad as
hops ; and I am that way yet. I had a plan that
would have given you a chance to talk to her, but
that ain't any good, now that it is raining. Let me
look at your ankle ; I hope that is getting along all
right, anyway."

While the old lady was engaged in ministering to
his needs, he told her of his plan. He said he wished
to send a message to Miss March by some one, and if
he could get the message properly delivered, it would
help him very much.

"I'll take it," said she, looking up suddenly from
the piece of soft old linen she was folding j " I'll go to
her this very minute, and tell her just what you want
me to."

" Mrs. Keswick," said Lawrence, " you are as kind
as you can possibly be, but I do not think it would be
right for you to go on an errand like this. Miss March
might not receive you well, and that would annoy me
very much. And besides, to speak frankly, you have
taken up my cause so warmly, and have been such a
good friend to me, that I am afraid your earnest de-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

sire to assist me might perhaps carry you a little too
far. Please do not misunderstand me. I don't mean
that you would say anything imprudent, but as you are
kind enough to say that you really desire this match,
it will be very natural for you to show your interest
in it to a degree that would arouse Miss March's
opposition."

"Yes, I see/' said the old lady, reflectively ; "she'd
suspect what was at the bottom of my interest. She's
a sharp one ; I've found that out. I reckon it will
be better for me not to meddle with her. I came
very near quarrelling with her last night, and that
wouldn't do at all."

"You see, madam," said Lawrence, well satisfied
that he had succeeded in warding off the old lady's
offer without offending her, " that I do not want any
one to go to Miss March and make a proposal for me.
I could do that in a letter. But I very much object
to a letter. In fact, it wouldn't do at all. All I wish
is that some one, by the exercise of a little female
diplomacy, should induce her to let me speak to her.
Now, I think that Mrs. Null might do this very
well."

"That is so," said the old lady, who, having now
finished her bandaging, was seated on a chair by the
fireplace. "My niece is smart and quick, and could
do this thing for you just as well as not. But she has
her quips and her cranks, like the rest of us. I called
her out of the room last night to know why she didn't
back me up better about the whist-party, and she
said she couldn't see why a gentleman who hadn't
been confined to the house for quite a whole day
should be so desperately lonely that people must go

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

to his room to play whist with him. It seemed to me
exactly as if she thought that Mr. Null wouldn't like
it. Mr. Null, indeed ! As if his wishes and desires
were to be considered in my house ! I never men
tion that man now, and Annie does not speak of him
either. What I want is that he shall stay away just
as long as he will ; and if he will only stay away long
enough to make his absence what the law calls deser
tion, I'll have those two divorced before they know
it. Can you tell me, sir, how long a man must stay
away from his wife before he can be legally charged
with desertion ? "

"No, madam, I cannot," said Lawrence. "The
laws, I believe, differ in the various States."

"Well, I'm going to make it my business to find
out all about it," said Mrs. Keswick. " Mr. Brandon
has promised to attend to this matter for me, and I
must write to him to know what he has been doing.
Well, Mrs. Null and Miss March seem to be very good
friends, and I dare say my niece could manage things
so as to give you the chance you want. I'll go to the
house now, and send her over to you, so that you can
tell her what you want her to say or do."

"Do you think she will come, madam 1 ?" asked
Lawrence.

The old lady rose to her feet, and knitted her brows
until something like a perpendicular mouth appeared
on her forehead. "No," said she, "now I come to
think of it, I don't believe she will. In fact, I know
she won't. Bother take it all, sir! What these
young women want is a good whipping. Nothing
else will ever bring them to their senses. What pos
sible difference could it make to Mr. Null whether

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

she came to you and took a message for you, or
whether she didn't come especially in a case like
this, when you can't walk or go to anybody?"

"I don't think it ought to make any difference
whatever/' said Lawrence. " In fact, I don't believe
it would."

" It's no use talking about it, Mr. Croft," said the
old lady, moving towards the door. " I can go to my
niece and talk to her, but the first thing I'd know I'd
blaze out at her, and then, as like as not, she'd blaze
back again, and then the next thing would be that
she'd pack up her things and go off to hunt up her
fertilizer agent. And that mustn't be. I don't want
to get myself in any snarls just now. There is noth
ing for you to do, Mr. Croft, but to wait till it clears
off, so that dainty young woman can come out of
doors ; and then I think I can manage it so that you
can get a chance to speak to her."

"I am very much obliged to you," said Lawrence.
" I suppose I must wait."

" I'll see that Isham brings you a lot of dry hick
ory, so that you can have a cheerful fire, even if you
can't have cheerful company," said Mrs. Keswick, as
she closed the door after her.

Lawrence looked through the window at the sky,
which gave no promise of clearing. And then he
gazed into the fire, and considered his case. He had
spent a large portion of his life in considering his
case, and therefore the operation was a familiar one
to him. This time the case was not a satisfactory
one. Everything in this love-affair with Miss March
had gone on in a manner in which he had not in
tended, and of which he greatly disapproved. No

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

one in the world could have planned the affair more
prudently than he had planned it. He had been so
careful not to do anything rash that he had, at first,
concealed, even from the lady herself, the fact that he
was in love with her, and nothing could be farther
from his thoughts and desires than that any one else
should know of it. And yet, how had it all turned
out? He had taken into his confidence Mr. Junius
Keswick, Mr. Brandon, old Mrs. Keswick, Mrs. Null,
as she wished to be called, and, almost lastly, the lady
herself. " If I should lay bare my heart to the colored
man Isham," he said to himself, "and the old cen
tenarian in the cabin down there, I believe there
would be no one else to tell. Oh, yes ; there is Candy
and the anti-detective. By rights, they ought to
know." He did not include the good little Peggy in
this category, because he was not aware that there
was such a person.

After about an hour of these doleful cogitations, he
again turned to look out of his front window, which
commanded a view of the larger house, when he saw,
coming down the steps of the porch, a not very tall
figure, wrapped in a waterproof cloak, with the hood
drawn over its head. He did not see the face of the
figure, but he thought from the light way in which it
moved that it was Mrs. Null; and when it stepped
upon the grass and turned its head, he saw that he
was right.

" Can her aunt have induced her to come to me ? "
was Lawrence's first thought. But his second was
very different, for she began to walk towards the large
gate which led out of the yard. Instantly Lawrence
rose, and hopped on one foot to the window, where

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

he tapped loudly on the glass. The lady turned, and
then he threw up the sash.

" Won't you step here, please ? " he called out.

Without answering, she immediately came over the
wet grass to the window.

" I have something to say to you," he said, " and I
don't want to keep you standing in the rain. Won't
you come inside for a few minutes t "

" No, thank you," said she. " I don't mind a slight
rain like this. I have lived so long in the city that I
can't imagine how country people can bear to shut
themselves in when it happens to be a little wet. I
can't stand it, and I am going out for a walk."

" It is a very sensible thing to do," said Lawrence,
"and I wish I could go with you and have a good
long talk."

" What about? " said she.

" About Miss March."

" Well, I am rather tired of that subject," she said,
" and so I reckon it is just as well that you should stay
here by your fire, I see you have one there, and that
I should take my walk by myself."

"Mrs. Null," said Lawrence, "I want to implore
you to do a favor for me. I don't see how it can be
disagreeable to you, and I am sure it will confer the
greatest possible obligation upon me."

"What is it?" she asked.

" I want you to go to Miss March, and endeavor, in
some way, you will know how better than I can tell
you, to induce her to let me have a few words with
her. If it is only here at this open window it will
do."

Mrs. Null laughed. " Imagine," she said, " a woman
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

putting on a waterproof and overshoes, and coming
out in the rain, to stand with an umbrella over her
head, to be proposed to ! That would be the funniest
proceeding I ever heard of ! "

Lawrence could not help smiling, though he was
not in the mood for it. "It may seem amusing to
you," he said, "but I am very much in earnest. I
am in constant fear that she will go away while I am
confined to this house. Do you know how long she
intends to stay?"

" She has not told me," was the answer.

" If you will carry it," he said, " I will give you a
message for her."

"Why don't you write it?" said Miss Annie.

"I don't want to write anything," he said. "I
should not know how it had been received, nor would
it be likely to get me any satisfaction. I want a live,
sympathetic medium, such as you are. "Won't you
do this favor for me? "

"No, I won't," said Miss Annie, her very decided
tone appearing to give a shade of paleness to her fea
tures. "How often must I tell you that I will not
help you in this thing t "

" I would not ask you," said Lawrence, " if I could
help myself."

" It is not right that you should ask me any more,"
she said. " I am not in favor of your coming here to
court Miss March while my cousin is away, and I
should feel like a traitor if I helped you at all, espe
cially if I were to carry messages to her. Of course
I am very sorry for you, shut up here, and I will do
anything I can to make you more comfortable and
contented ; but what you ask is too hard for me."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

And as she said this a little air of trouble came into
the large eyes with which she was steadfastly regard
ing him. " I don't want to seem unkind to you, and
I wish you would ask me something that I can do for
you. I'll walk down to Hewlett's and get you any
thing you may like to have. I'll bring you a lot of
novels which I found in the house, and which I ex
pect, anyway, you will like better than those old-
time books. And I'll cook you anything that is in
the cook-book. But I really cannot go wooing for
you, and if you ask me to do that, every time I come
near you, I really must"

"My dear Mrs. Null," interrupted Lawrence, "I
promise not to say any more to you on this subject.
I see it is distasteful to you, and I beg your pardon
for having mentioned it so often. You have been
very kind to me indeed, and I should be exceedingly
sorry to do anything to offend you. It would be very
bad for me to lose one of my friends, now that I am
shut up in this box and feel so very dependent."

" Oh, indeed ! " said Miss Annie. " But I suppose if
you were able to step around as you used to do, it
wouldn't matter whether you offended me or not."

"Mrs. Null," said Lawrence, "you know I did not
mean anything like that. Do you intend to be angry
with me, no matter what I say ? "

" Not a bit of it," she answered, with a little smile
that brought back to her face that warm brightness
which had grown upon it since she had come down
here. "I haven't the least wish in the world to be
angry with you, and I promise you I won't be, pro
vided you'll stop everlastingly asking me to go about
helping you to make love to people."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Lawrence laughed. "Very good," said he. "I
have promised to ask nothing more of that sort. Let
us shake hands on it."

He stretched his hand from the window, and Miss
Annie withdrew from the folds of her waterproof a
very soft and white little hand, and put it into his.
"And now I must be off/ 7 she said. "Are you cer
tain you don't want anything from the store at Hew
lett's ?"

" Surely you are not going as far as that," he said.

" Not if you don't want anything/ 7 she answered.
" Have you tobacco enough to last through your im
prisonment? They keep it."

"Now, miss," said Lawrence, "do you want to
make me angry by supposing I would smoke any
tobacco that they sell in that country store?"

"It ought to be better than any other," said Miss
Annie. "They grow it in the fields all about here,
and the storekeepers can get it perfectly fresh and
pure, and a great deal better for you, no doubt, than
the stuff they manufacture in the cities."

" When you learn to smoke," said Lawrence, " your
opinion concerning tobacco will be more valuable."

" Thank you," she said ; " and I will wait till then
before I give you any more of it. Good morning."
And away she went.

Lawrence shut down the window, and hopped back
to the fire. " There is my last chance gone," said he
to himself. " I suppose I may as well take old Mrs.
Keswick's advice, and wait for fair weather. But,
even then, who can say what sort of sky Eoberta
March will show?" And not being able to answer
this question, he put two fresh sticks on the fire, and

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

then sedately sat and watched their gradual annihila
tion.

As for Miss Annie, she took her walk, and stepped
along the road as lightly and blithely as if the skies
had been blue and the sun shining ; and almost before
she knew it, she had reached the store at Hewlett's.
Ascending the high steps to the porch, quite deserted
on this damp, unpleasant morning, she entered the
store, the proprietor of which immediately jumped
up from the mackerel-kit at the extreme end of the
room, where he had been sitting in converse with


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