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visited the house, and it was quite natural that he
should go to his rival and tell him what he thought
about it. But he had been there a long, long time,
and she did hope they would not get very angry with
each other, and that nothing would happen. One
thought comforted her very much : Mr. Croft was
disabled, and Junius would scorn to take advantage
of a man in that condition.

At an upper window, at the other end of the house,
sat Eoberta March, ready for bed, but with no inten
tion of going there until Junius Keswick had come
out of the office. Knowing the two men as she did,
she had no fear that any harm would come to either
of them during this long conference, whatever its sub
ject might be. That she herself was that subject she
had not the slightest doubt, and although it was of no

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

earthly use for her to sit there and gaze upon that
light streaming into the darkness of the yard, but
revealing to her no more of what was going on inside
the room than if it had been the light of a distant
star, still she sat and speculated. At last the office
door opened, and Junius came out, turning to speak
to the occupant of the room as he did so. The brief
vision of him which the watchers caught, as he stood
for a moment in the lighted doorway before stepping
out into the darkness, showed that his demeanor was
as quiet and composed as usual ; and one of the three
women went to bed very much relieved.



268



CHAPTER XXII

FROM breakfast-time, the next morning, until ten
o'clock in the forenoon, at which hour the Midbranch
carriage arrived, Junius Keswick had been vainly
endeavoring to get an opportunity to speak with
Miss March. That lady had remained in her own
room nearly all the morning, where his cousin had
been with her , and his aunt, who had her own pecu
liar ways of speeding the parting guest, had retired to
some distant spot on the estate, either to plan out
some farming operation for the ensuing season, or to
prevent her pent-up passion from boiling over in her
own house.

Thus Junius had the lower floor to himself, and he
strode about in much disquietude, debating whether
he ought to send a message to Roberta, or whether he
should wait till she had finished her packing, or what
ever it was, that was keeping her up-stairs. His last
private interview with her had not been a pleasant
one, and if he had intended to speak to her for him
self, he would not have felt much encouraged by her
manner of the preceding evening ; but he was now
engaged on the affairs of another, and he believed
that a failure to attend to them would be regarded as
a breach of faith.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

When Mr. Brandon's carriage drove into the yard
he began to despair ; but now Roberta came running
down-stairs to speak to Sam, the driver, and ask him
how long it would be necessary to rest his horses.
Sam thought an hour would be long enough, as they
would have a good rest when they got home j and this
matter having been settled, Junius came forward, and
requested Roberta to step in the parlor, as he had
something to say to her. Without reply, she followed
him into the room, and he closed the door. They sat
down, one on one side of the round centre-table, and
one on the other, and Junius began his statement.

He was by profession a lawyer, and he had given a
great deal of attention to the art of putting things
plainly, and with a view to a just effect. He had
carefully prepared in his mind what he should say to
Roberta. He wished to present this man's message
without the slightest exhibition of desire for its suc
cess, and yet without any tendency to that cold
blooded way of stating it to which Croft had objected.
He had, indeed, picked up his adversary's sword, and
while he did not wish, in handing it to him, to prick
him with it, or do him some such underhand injury,
he did not think it at all necessary to sharpen the
weapon before giving it back.

What Junius had to say occupied a good deal of
time. He expressed himself carefully and deliber
ately ; and as nearly as a skilfully stuffed and pre
pared animal in a museum resembles its wild original
of the forest, so did his remarks resemble those that
Lawrence would have made had he been there.

Roberta listened to him in silence until he had
finished, and then she rose to her feet, and her man-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

ner was such that Junius rose also. "Junius Kes
wick," she said, "you have deliberately come to me
and offered me the hand of another man in marriage."

"Not that," said Junius. "I merely came to ex
plain"

" Do not split hairs," she interrupted. " You did
exactly that. You came to me because he could not
come himself, and offered him to me. Now go to him
from me, and tell him that I accept him." And with
that she swept out of the room, and came down-stairs
no more until, bonneted, and accompanied by Miss
Annie, she hurried to the front door, and entered the
carriage which was there waiting for her, with Peggy
by the driver. With some quick good-bys and
kisses to Annie, but never a word to Junius or any
body else, she drove away.

If Junius Keswick had been nervous and anxious
that morning, as he strode about the house waiting
for an opportunity to speak to Miss March, it may
well be supposed that Lawrence Croft, shut up in his
little room at the end of the yard, would be more so.
He had sat at his window, waiting and waiting. He
had occasionally seen Mr. Keswick come out on the
porch and with long strides pace backward and for
ward, and he knew by that sign that he had yet no
message to bring him. He had seen the Midbranch
carriage drive into the yard ; he had seen Miss March
come out on the porch and speak to the driver, and
then go in again; he had seen the carriage driven
under a large tree, where the horses were taken out
and led away to be refreshed ; in an hour or more, he
saw them brought back and harnessed to the vehicle,
which was turned and driven up again to the door,

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

when some baggage was brought down and strapped
on a little platform behind. Shortly afterwards
Peggy came round the end of the house, with a hat
on, and a little bundle under her arm, and approached
the carriage, making, however, a wide turn towards
the office, at which, and a mile or two beyond, her
far-off gaze was steadily directed.

Lawrence threw up the sash and called to her, and
his guardian imp approached the window. "Are
you Miss March's maid? I think I have seen you at
Midbraneh."

" Yaas, sah ; you's done seen me offen," said Peggy.

"Does Miss March intend to start immediately!"
he asked.

" Yaas, sah," said the good Peggy ; " she'll be out in
a minute, soon as she done kissin' Mahs' Junius good-
by in de parlor." And then, noticing a look of
astonishment on the gentleman's face, she added:
"Dey's gwine to be mar'ed Chris'mus."

" What ! " exclaimed Lawrence.

"Good-by, Mister Oof," said Peggy; "Tse got to
hurry up."

Lawrence made no answer, but mechanically tossed
her a coin, which picking up, she gave him a fare
well grin, and hastened to take her seat by the
driver.

Very soon afterwards Lawrence saw Eoberta come
out, accompanied only by Mrs. Null, and hurry down
the steps. Forgetting his injured ankle, he sprang to
his feet, and stepping quickly to the door, opened it,
and stood on the threshold. But Miss March did not
even look his way. He gazed at her with wide-open
eyes as she hastily kissed Mrs. Null and sprang into

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

the carriage, which was immediately driven off. As
Mrs. Null turned to go into the house, she looked
towards the office and nodded to him. He believed
that she would have come to him if he had called her,
but he did not call. His mind was in such a condi
tion that he would not have been capable of framing
a question, had she come. He felt that he could speak
to no one until he had seen Keswick. Closing the
door, he went back to his chair ; and as he did so his
ankle pained him sadly, but of this he scarcely
thought.

He did not have to wait long for Junius Keswick,
for in about ten minutes that individual entered.
Lawrence turned as his visitor opened the door, and
he saw a countenance which had undergone a very
noticeable change. It was not dark or lowering ; it
was not pale; but it was gray and hard, and the
eyes looked larger than Lawrence had remembered
them.

"Without preface or greeting, Junius approached
him and said : " I have taken your message to Miss
March, and have brought you one in return. You
are accepted."

Lawrence pushed back his chair, and stared blankly
at the other. "What do you mean?" he presently
asked.

" I mean what I say," said Keswick. " Miss March
has accepted you."

A crowd of emotions rushed through the brain of
Lawrence Croft ; joy was among them, but it was a
joy that was jostled and shaken and pushed this way
and that. "I do not understand," he said. "I did
not expect such a decisive message. I supposed she

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

might send me some encouragement, some why
didn't she see me before she left? "

" I am not here to explain her actions, if I could,"
said Junius, who had not sat down. " She said : < Tell
him I accept him.' That is all. Good morning."

" But stop ! " cried Lawrence, on his feet again.
"You must tell me more than that. Did you say
to her only what I said to you? How did it affect
her?"

"Oh," said Junius, turning suddenly at the door,
" I forgot that you asked me to observe her mood.
Well, she was very angry."

" With me? " cried Lawrence.

" With me," said Junius. And closing the door be
hind him, he strode away.

The accepted lover sat down. He had never spoken
more truly than when he said he did not understand
it. "Is she really mine?" he exclaimed. And with
his eyes fixed on the blank wall over the mantel
piece, he repeated over and over again : " Is she
mine ? Is she really mine ? " He had well-developed
mental powers, but the work of setting this matter
straight and plain was too difficult for him.

If she had sent him some such message as this, " I
am very angry with you, but some day you can come
and explain yourself to me," his heart would have
leaped for joy. He would have believed that his
peace had been made, and that he had only to go to
her to call her his own. Now his heart desired to
leap with joy, but it did not seem to know how to do
it. The situation was such an anomalous one. After
such a message as this, why had she not let him see
her ? Why had she been angry with Keswick ? Was

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

that pique? And then a dark thought crossed his
mind. Had he been accepted to punish the other?
No, he could not believe that; no woman such as
Roberta March would give herself away from such
a motive. Had Keswick been joking with him? No,
he could not believe that ; no man could joke with
such a face.

Even the fact that Mrs. Keswick had not bidden Miss
March farewell troubled the mind of Lawrence. It
was true that she might not yet know that the match
which she had so much encouraged had been finally
made, but something must be very wrong, or she
would not have been absent at the moment of her
guest's departure. And what did that beastly little
negro mean by telling him that Keswick and Miss
March were to be married at Christmas, and that the
two were kissing each other good-by in the parlor?
Why, the man had not even come out to put her in
the carriage, and the omission of this courtesy was
very remarkable. These questions were entirely too
difficult for him to resolve by himself. It was abso
lutely necessary that more should be told to him and
explained to him. Seeing the negro boy Plez crossing
the yard, he called him and asked him to tell Mr.
Keswick that Mr. Croft wished to see him immedi
ately.

" Mahs' Junius," said the boy, " he done gone to de
railroad to take de kyars. He done took he knapsack
on he back, an' walk 'cross de fiel's."

When, about an hour or two afterwards, Uncle
Isham brought Mr. Croft his dinner, the old negro
appeared to have lost that air of attentive geniality
which he usually put on while waiting on the gentle-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

man. Lawrence, however, took no notice of this, but
before the man reached the table on which he was to
place the tray he carried, he asked : " Is it true that
Mr. Keswick has gone away by train? "

" Yaas, sah," answered Isham.

"And where is Mrs. Keswick?" asked Lawrence.
" Isn't she in the house? "

" No, sah ; done gwine vis'tin', I 'spec'."

" When will she return? "

"Dunno," said Isham. "She nebber comes to me
an' tells me whar she gwine an' when she comin'
back."

And then, after satisfying himself that nothing more
was needed of him for the present, Isham left the
room ; and when he reached the kitchen, he addressed
himself to its plump mistress. "Letty," said he,
"when dat ar Mister Oof has got fru wid his
dinner, you go an' fotch back de plates an' dishes.
He axes too many questions to suit me dis day."

" You is po'ly to-day, Uncle Isham," said Letty.

"Yaas," said the old man; "I'se right much on
de careen."

Uncle Isham, perhaps, was not more loyal to the
widow Keswick than many old servants were and are
to their former mistresses, but his loyalty was peculiar
in that it related principally to his regard for her
character. This regard he wished to be very high,
and it always troubled and unsettled his mind when
the old lady herself or anybody else interfered with
his efforts to keep it high. For years he had been
hoping that the time would come when she would
cease to " r'ar and chawge," but she had continued, at
intervals, to indulge in that most unsuitable exercise ;

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

and now that it appeared that she had reared and
charged again, her old servant was much depressed.
She had gone away from the house, and, for all he
knew, she might stay away for days or weeks, as she
had done before ; and Uncle Isham was never so much
"on the careen" as when he found himself forced to
believe that his old mistress was still a woman who
could do a thing like that.

Letty had no objections to answering questions, but,
much to her disappointment, Lawrence asked her
none. He had had enough of catechising negroes.
But he requested her to ask Mrs. Null if she would be
kind enough to step out, for a few minutes, and speak
to him. When, very shortly thereafter, that lady
appeared, Lawrence was seated at his open door, ready
to receive her.

" How are you ? " she said. " And how is your ankle
to-day? You have had nobody to attend to it."

"It has hurt me a good deal," he answered. "I
think I must have given it a wrench this morning ;
but I put on it some of the lotion Mrs. Keswick left
with me, and it feels better."

"It is too bad," said Mrs. Null, "that you have to
attend to it yourself."

" Not at all," said Lawrence. " Now that I know
how, I can do it perfectly well ; and I don't care a
snap about my ankle, except that it interferes with
more important affairs. Why do you suppose Miss
March went away without speaking to me, or taking
leave of me in any way ! "

"I thought that would trouble you," said she,
"and, to speak honestly, I don't think it was right.
But Roberta was in a very agitated condition when

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

she left here, and I don't believe she ever thought of
taking leave of you, or any one, except me. She and
I are very good friends, but she doesn't confide much in
me. But one thing I am pretty sure of, and that is
that she is dreadfully angry with my cousin Junius,
and I am very sorry for that."

" How did he anger her ? " asked Lawrence, wishing
to find out how much this young woman knew.

" I haven't the least idea," said Miss Annie. " All
I know is, she had quite a long talk with him in the
parlor, and after that she came flying up-stairs, just as
indignant as she could be. She didn't say much, but
I could see how her soul raged within her." And
now the young lady stopped speaking, and looked
straight into Lawrence's face. " It isn't possible," she
said, " that you have been sending my cousin to pro
pose to her for you ? "

This was not a pleasant question to answer, and,
besides, Lawrence had made up his mind that the
period had passed for making confidants of other
persons in regard to his love-affairs. " Do you sup
pose I would do that? " he said.

"No, I don't/' Miss Annie answered. "Cousin
Junius would never have undertaken such a thing,
and I don't believe you would be cruel enough to
ask him."

"Thank you for your good opinion," said Law
rence. " And now can you tell me when Mr. Keswick
is expected to return! "

" He has gone back to Washington, and he told me
he should stay there some time."

"And why has not Mrs. Keswick been out to see
me?" asked Lawrence.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" You are dreadfully inquisitive," said Miss Annie ;
" but, to tell you the simple truth, Mr. Croft, I don't
believe Aunt Keswick takes any further interest in
you, now that Eoberta has gone. She had set her
heart on making a match between you two, and doing
it here without delay ; and I think that everything
going wrong about this has put her into the state of
mind she is in now."

"Has she really gone away?" asked Lawrence.

" Oh, that doesn't amount to anything," said Miss
Annie. "She went over the fields to Hewlett's, to
see the postmistress, who is an old friend, to whom
she often goes for comfort when things are not right
at home. But I am going after her this afternoon in
the spring-wagon. I'll take Plez along with me to
open the gates. I am sure I shall bring her back."

" I must admit, Mrs. Null," said Lawrence, " that I
am very inquisitive, but you can easily understand
how much I am troubled and perplexed."

"I expect Miss March's going away troubled you
more than anything else," said she.

" That is true," he answered ; " but then, there are
other things which give me a great deal of anxiety.
I came here to be, for a day or two, the guest of a
lady on whom I have no manner of claim for pro
longed hospitality. And now here I am, compelled
to stay in this room and depend on her kindness or
forbearance for everything I have. I would go away
immediately, but I know it would injure me to
travel. The few steps I took yesterday have prob
ably set me back for several days."

"Oh, it would never do for you to travel," said
she, "with such a sprained ankle as you have. It

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

would certainly injure you very much to be driven
all the way to the Green Sulphur Springs. I am told
the road is very rough between here and there ; but
perhaps you didn't notice it, having come over on
horseback."

"Yes, I did notice it, and I could not stand that
drive. And even if I could be got to the train to
go North, I should have to walk a good deal at the
stations."

" You simply must not think of it," said Miss Annie.
" And now let me give you a piece of advice. I am
a practical person, as you may know, and I like to do
things in a practical way. The very best thing that
you can do is to arrange with Aunt Keswick to stay
here as a boarder until your ankle is well. She has
taken boarders, and in this case I don't think she
would refuse. As I told you before, you must not
expect her to take the same interest in you that she
did when you first came; but she is really a kind
woman, though she has such dreadfully funny ways,
and she wouldn't have neglected you to-day if it
hadn't been that her mind is entirely wrapped up in
other things. If you like, I'll propose such an ar
rangement to her this afternoon."

" You are very kind indeed," said Lawrence ; " but
is there not danger of offending her by such a propo
sition f"

"Yes, I think there is," answered Miss Annie,
" and I have no doubt she will fly out into a passion
when she hears that the gentleman whom she invited
here as a guest proposes to stay as a boarder ; but I
think I can pacify her, and make her look at the
matter in the proper way."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" But why mention it at all, and put yourself to all
that trouble about it?" said Lawrence.

"Why, of course, because I think you will be so
much better satisfied, and content to keep quiet and
get well, if you feel that you have a right to stay
here. If Aunt Keswick wasn't so very different from
other people, I wouldn't have mentioned this matter,
for, really, there is no necessity for it; but I know
very well that if you were to drop out of her mind
for two or three days, and shouldn't see anything of
her, that you would become dreadfully nervous about
staying here."

"You are certainly very practical, Mrs. Null, and
very sensible, and very, very kind ; and nothing could
suit me better, under the circumstances, than the plan
you propose. But I am extremely anxious not to
give offence to your aunt. She has treated me with
the utmost kindness and hospitality."

" Oh, don't trouble yourself about that," said Miss
Annie, with a little laugh. "I am getting to know
her so well that I think I can manage an affair like
this very easily. And now I must be off, or it will
be too late for me to go to Hewlett's this afternoon,
and I am a very slow driver. Are you sure there is
nothing you want? I shall go directly past the store,
and can stop as well as not."

"Thank you very much," said Lawrence, "but I
do not believe that Hewlett's possesses an article that
I need. One thing I will ask you to do for me before
you go. I want to write a letter, and I find that I
am out of paper; therefore I shall be very much
obliged to you if you will let me have some, and
some envelopes."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

"Why, certainly/ 7 said Miss Annie, and she went
into the house.

She looked over the stock of paper which her aunt
kept in a desk in the dining-room, but she did not
like it. "I don't believe he will want to write on
such ordinary paper as this," she said to herself.
Whereupon she went up-stairs and got some of her
own paper and envelopes, which were much finer in
material and more correct in style. " I don't like it
a bit," she thought, " to give this to him to write that
letter on ; but I suppose it's bound to be written, any
way, so he might as well have the satisfaction of good
paper."

"You must excuse these little sheets," she said,
when she took it to him, "but you couldn't expect
anything else in an Amazonian household like ours.
Cousin Junius has manly stationery, of course, but I
suppose it is all locked up in that secretary in your
room."

" Oh, this will do very well indeed," said Lawrence ;
"and I wish I could come out and help you into
your vehicle," regarding the spring-wagon, which now
stood at the door, with Plez at the head of the solemn
sorrel.

" Thank you," said Miss Annie ; " that is not at all
necessary." And she tripped over to the spring-
wagon, and mounting into its altitudes without the
least trouble in the world, she took up the reins.
With these firmly grasped in her little hands, which
were stretched very far out and held very wide
apart, she gave the horse a great jerk and told him
to " get up ! " As she moved off, Lawrence from his
open door called out, " Bon voyage " ; and in a full,

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

clear voice she thanked him, but did not dare to look
around, so intent was she upon her charioteering.

Slowly turning the horse towards the yard gate,
which Plez stood holding open, her whole soul was
absorbed in the act of guiding the equipage through
the gateway. Quickly glancing from side to side,
and then at the horse's back, which ought to occupy
a medium position between the two gate-posts, she
safely steered the front wheels through the dangerous
pass, although a grin of delight covered the face of
Plez as he noticed that the hub of one of the hind
wheels almost grazed a post. Then the observant boy
ran on to open the other gate, and with many jerks
and clucks, Miss Annie induced the sorrel to break
into a gentle trot.

As Lawrence looked after her, a little pang made
itself noticeable in his conscience. This girl was cer
tainly very kind to him, and most remarkably con
siderate of him in the plan she had proposed. And
yet, he felt that he had prevaricated to her, and, in
fact, deceived her, in the answer he had made when
she asked him if he had sent her cousin to speak for
him to Miss March. Would she have such friendly
feelings towards him, and be so willing to oblige him,
if she knew that he had in effect done the thing which
she considered so wrong and so cruel? But it could
not be helped. The time had passed for confidences.


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 18 of 26)