Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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He must now work out this affair for himself, without
regard to persons who really had nothing whatever
to do with it.

Closing his door, he hopped back to his table, and,
seating himself at it, he opened his travelling-inkstand
and prepared to write to Miss March. It was abso-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

lately necessary that lie should write this letter imme
diately, for, after the message he had received from the
lady of his love, no time should be lost in putting him
self in communication with her. But before beginning
to write he must decide upon the spirit of his letter.

Under the very peculiar circumstances of his ac
ceptance, he did not feel that he ought to indulge in
those rapturous expressions of ecstasy in which he
most certainly would have indulged if the lady had
personally delivered her decision to him. He did
not doubt her, for what woman would play a joke like
that on a man upon two men, in fact? Even if
there were no other reason, she would not dare to do
it. Nor did he doubt Keswick. It would have been
impossible for him to come with such a message if it
had not been delivered to him. And yet, Lawrence
could not bring himself to be rapturous. If he had
been accepted in cold blood, and a hand, and not a
heart, had been given to him, he would gladly take
that hand and trust to himself to so warm the heart
that it, also, would soon be his. But he did not know
what Roberta March had given him.

On the other hand, he knew very well if, in his first
letter as an accepted lover, he should exhibit any of
that caution and prudence which, in the course of his
courtship, had proved to be shoals on which he had
very nearly run aground, that Roberta's resentment,
which had shown itself very marked in this regard,
would probably be roused to such an extent that the
affair would be brought to a very speedy and abrupt
termination. If she had been obliged to forgive him
once for this line of conduct, he could not expect her
to do it again. To write a letter which should err in

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neither of these respects was a very difficult thing to
do, and required so much preparatory thought that
when, towards the close of the afternoon, Miss Annie
drove in at the yard gate, with Mrs. Keswick on the
seat beside her, not a line had been written.

Mrs. Keswick descended from the spring- wagon and
went into the house j but Miss Annie remained at the
bottom of the steps, for the apparent purpose of speak
ing to Plez perhaps to give him some instructions in
regard to the leading of a horse to its stable, or to
instil into his mind some moral principle or other j
but the moment the vehicle moved away, she ran
over to the office and tapped at the window, which
was quickly opened by Lawrence.

"I have spoken to her about it," she said; "and
although she blazed up at first, so that I thought I
should be burned alive, I made her understand just
how matters really are, and she has agreed to let you
stay here as a boarder."

"You are extremely good," said Lawrence, "and
must be a most admirable manager. This arrange
ment makes me feel much better satisfied than I
could have been otherwise." Then, leaning a little
farther out of the window, he asked : " But what am
I to do for company while I am shut up here ? "

"Oh, you will have Uncle Isham, and Aunt Kes
wick, and sometimes me. But I hope that you will
soon be able to come into the house and take your
meals and spend your evenings with us."

"You have nothing but good wishes for me," he
said, "and I believe, if you could manage it, you
would have me cured by magic, and sent off, well and
whole, to-morrow."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

"Of course," said Miss Annie, very promptly.
"Goodnight."

Just before supper, Mrs. Keswick came in to see
Lawrence. She was very grave, almost severe, and
her conversation was confined to inquiries as to the
state of his ankle, and his general comfort. But Law
rence took no offence at her manner, and was very
gracious, saying some exceedingly neat things about
the way he had been treated ; and after a little her
manner slightly mollified, and she remarked : " And so
you let Miss March go away without settling anything."

!N"ow, Lawrence considered this a very incorrect
statement, but he had no wish to set the old lady
right. He knew it would joy her heart, and make
her more his friend than ever, if he should tell her
that Miss March had accepted him, but this would be
a very dangerous piece of information to put in her
hands. He did not know what use she would make
of it, or what damage she might unwittingly do to his
prospects. And so he merely answered : "I had no
idea she would leave so soon."

"Well," said the old lady, "I suppose, after aU,
that you needn't give it up yet. I understand that
she is not going to New York before the end of the
month, and you may be well enough before that to
ride over to Midbranch."

" I hope so, most assuredly," said he.

Lawrence devoted that evening to his letter. It
was a long one, and was written with a most earnest
desire to embrace all the merits of each of the two
kinds of letters which have before been alluded to,
and to avoid all their faults. When it was finished,
he read it, tore it up, and threw it in the fire.

286



CHAPTER XXIII

THE next day opened bright and clear, and before ten
o'clock the thermometer had risen to seventy degrees.
Instead of sitting in front of the fireplace, Lawrence
had his chair and table brought close to his open
doorway, where he could look out on the same beau
tiful scene which had greeted his eyes a few days
before. " But what is the good," he thought, " of this
green grass, this sunny air, that blue sky, those white
clouds, and the distant tinted foliage, without that
figure which a few days ago stood in the foreground
of the picture ? " But as the woman to whom, in his
souPs sight, the whole world was but a background,
was not there, he turned his eyes from the warm au
tumnal scene, and prepared again to write to her.
He had scarcely taken up his pen, however, when he
was interrupted by the arrival of Miss Annie, who
came to bring him a book she had just finished read
ing, a late English novel which she thought might be
more interesting than those she had sent him. The
book was one which Lawrence had not seen and
wanted to see ; but in talking about it to the young
lady, he discovered that she had not read all of it.
" Don't let me deprive you of the book," said Law-
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

rence. "If you have begun it, you ought to go on
with it."

" Oh, don't trouble your mind about that," she said,
with a laugh. "I have finished it, but I have not
read a word of the beginning. I only looked at the
end of it to see how the story turned out. I always
do that before I read a novel."

This remark much amused Lawrence. "Do you
know," said he, " that I would rather not read novels
at all than to read them in that way. I must begin
at the beginning, and go regularly through, as the
author wishes his readers to do."

" And perhaps, when you get to the end," said Miss
Annie, "you'll find that the wrong man got her, and
then you'll wish you had not read the story."

"As you appear to be satisfied with this novel,"
said Lawrence, " I wish you would read it to me, and
then I would feel that I was not taking an uncourteous
precedence of you."

" I'll read it to you," said she, " or, at least, as much
as you want me to, for I feel quite sure that after you
get interested in it you will want to take it yourself,
and read straight on till it is finished, instead of wait
ing for some one to come and give you a chapter or two
at a time. That would be the way with me, I know."

" I shall be delighted to have you read to me," said
Lawrence. " When can you begin? "

" Now," she said, " if you choose. But perhaps you
wish to write."

" Not at this moment," said Lawrence, turning from
the table. " Unfortunately, I have plenty of leisure.
Where will you sit? " And he reached out his hand
for a chair.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

11 Oh, I don't want a chair/' said Annie, taking her
seat on the broad door-step. " This is exactly what I
like. I am devoted to sitting on steps. Don't you
think there is something dreadfully stiff about always
being perched up in a chair? "

" Yes," said Lawrence, " on some occasions."

And forthwith she began upon the first chapter ;
and having read five lines of this, she went back and
read the title-page, suddenly remembering that Mr.
Croft liked to begin a book at the very beginning.
Miss Annie had been accustomed to read to her father,
and she read aloud very well, and liked it. As she
sat there, shaded by a great locust-tree, which had
dropped so many yellow leaves upon the grass that,
now and then, it could not help letting a little fleck
of sunshine come down upon her, sometimes gilding
for a moment her light-brown hair, sometimes touch
ing the end of a crimson ribbon she wore, and again
resting for a brief space on the toe of a very small
boot just visible at the edge of her dress, Lawrence
looked at her, and said to himself: "Is it possible
that this is the rather pale young girl in black who
gave me change from behind the desk of Mr. Candy's
Information Shop? I don't believe it. That young
person sprang up temporarily, and is defunct. This
is some one else."

She read three chapters before she considered it
time to go into the house to see if it were necessary for
her to do anything about dinner. When she left him,
Lawrence turned again to his writing.

That afternoon he sent Mrs. Null a little note on
the back of a card, asking her if she could let him
have a few more sheets of paper. Lawrence found

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

this request necessary, as lie had used up that day all
the paper she had sent him, and the small torn pieces
of it now littered the fireplace.

"He must be writing a diary letter/' said Miss
Annie to herself, when she received this message,
"such as we girls used to write when we were at
school.' 7 And bringing down a little the corners of
her mouth, she took from her stationery -box what
she thought would be quite paper enough to send to
a man for such a purpose.

But although the means were thus made abundant,
the letter to Miss March was not then written. Law
rence finally determined that it was simply impossible
for him to write to the lady until he knew more.
What Keswick had told him had been absurdly little,
and he had hurried away before there had been time
to ask further questions. Instead of sending a letter
to Miss March, he would write to Keswick, and would
put to him a series of interrogations, the answers to
which would make him understand better the position
in which he stood. Then he would write to Miss March.

The next day Miss Annie could not read to him in
the morning, because, as she came and told him, she
was going to Hewlett's, on an errand for her aunt.
But there would be time to give him a chapter or two
before dinner, when she came back.

"Would it be any trouble," said Lawrence, "for
you to mail a letter for me ? "

" Oh, no," said Miss Annie, but not precisely in the
same tone in which she would have told him that it
would be no trouble to read to him two or three chap
ters of a novel. And yet she would pass directly by the
residence of Miss Harriet Corvey, the post-mistress.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

As Miss Annie walked along the narrow path which
ran by the roadside to Hewlett's, with the blue sky
above her and the pleasant October sunshine all about
her, and followed at a little distance by the boy Plez,
carrying a basket, she did not seem to be taking that
enjoyment in her walk which was her wont. Her
brows were slightly contracted, and she looked straight
in front of her without seeing anything in particular,
after the manner of persons whose attention is entirely
occupied in looking into their own minds at something
they do not like. " It is too much ! " she said, almost
aloud, her brows contracting a little more as she spoke.
" It was bad enough to have to furnish the paper 5 but
for me to have to carry the letter is entirely too
much ! " And at this she involuntarily glanced at
the thick and double-stamped missive, which, having
no pocket, she carried in her hand. She had not
looked at it before, and as her eyes fell upon the
address, she stopped so suddenly that Plez, who was
dozing as he walked, nearly ran into her.

"What!" she exclaimed, "'Junius Keswick, 5 Q
Street, Washington, District of Columbia! 7 Is it
possible that Mr. Croft has been writing to him all
this time?" She now walked on 5 and although she
still seemed to notice not the material objects around
her, the frown disappeared from her brow, and her
mental vision seemed to be fixed upon something
more pleasant than that which had occupied it
before. As it will be remembered, she had refused
positively to have anything to do with Lawrence's
suit to Miss March, and it was a relief to her to know
that the letter she was carrying was not for that lady.
" But why," thought she, " should he be writing for

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

two whole evenings to Junius! I expected that he
would write to her to find out why she went off and
left him in that way, but I did not suppose he would
want to write to Junius. It seems to me they had
time enough, that night they were together, to talk
over everything they had to say."

And then she began to wonder what they had to
say, and gradually the conviction grew upon her
that Mr. Croft was a very, very honorable man. Of
course it was wrong that he should have come here
to try to win a lady who, if one looked at it in the
proper light, really belonged to another. But it now
came into her mind that Mr. Croft must, by degrees,
have seen this for himself, and that it was the subject
of his long conference with Junius, and also, most
probably, of this letter. The conference certainly
ended amicably, and, in that case, it was scarcely
possible that Junius had given up his claim. He was
not that kind of a man.

If Mr. Croft had become convinced that he ought
to retire from this contest, and had done so, and
Koberta had been informed of it, that would explain
everything that had happened. Roberta's state of
mind after she had had the talk in the parlor with
Junius, and her hurried departure without taking
the slightest notice of either of the gentlemen, was
quite natural. What woman would like to know that
she had been bargained about, and that her two lovers
had agreed which of them should have her? It was
quite to be expected that she would be very angry
at first, though there was no doubt she would get over
it, so far as Junius was concerned.

Having thus decided, entirely to her own satisfac-
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

tion, that this was the state of affairs, she thought it
was a grand thing that there were two such young
men in the world as her cousin and Mr. Croft, who
could arrange such an affair in so kindly and honor
able a manner, without feeling that they were obliged
to fight that horribly stupid way in which such
things used to be settled.

This vision of masculine high-mindedness which
Miss Annie had called up seemed very pleasant to
her, and her mental satisfaction was denoted by a
pretty little glow which came into her face, and by a
certain increase of sprightliness in her walk. " Now,
then," she said to herself; and although she did not
finish the sentence, even in her own mind, the sky
increased the intensity of its beautiful blue ; the sun
began to shine with a more golden radiance ; the
little birds who had not yet gone south chirped to
each other as merrily as if it had been early summer ;
the yellow and purple wild flowers of autumn threw
into their blossoms a richer coloring; and even the
blades of grass seemed to stretch themselves upward,
green, tender, and promising ; and when the young
lady skipped up the step of the post-office, she dropped
the letter into Miss Harriet Corvey's little box with
the air of a mother-bird feeding a young one with the
first ripe cherry of the year.

A day or two after this, Lawrence found himself
able, by the aid of a cane and a rude crutch, which
Uncle Isham had made for him and the top of which
Mrs. Keswick had carefully padded, to make his way
from the office to the house ; and after that he took
his meals and passed the greater part of his time in
the larger edifice. Sometimes he ransacked the old

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

library; sometimes Miss Annie read to him, and
sometimes lie read to her. In the evening there
were games of cards, in which the old lady would
occasionally take a hand, although more frequently
Miss Annie and Mr. Croft were obliged to content
themselves with some game at which two could play.
But the pleasantest hours, perhaps, were those which
were spent in talking ; for Lawrence had travelled a
good deal, and had seen so many of the things in
foreign lands which Miss Annie had always wished
that she could see.

Lawrence was waiting until he should hear from
Mr. Keswick, so that, with some confidence in his
position, he could write to Miss March. His trunk
had been sent over from the Green Sulphur Springs,
and he was much better satisfied to wait here than at
that deserted watering-place. It was, indeed, a very
agreeable spot in which to wait, and quite near
enough to Midbranch for him to carry on his desired
operations, when the time should arrive. He was a
little annoyed that Keswick's answer should be so
long in coming, but he resolved not to worry himself
about it. The answer was probably a difficult letter
to write, and one which Keswick would not be likely
to dash off in a hurry. He remembered, too, that the
mail was sent and received only twice a week at How-
lett's.

Old Mrs. Keswick was kind to him, but grave and
rather silent. Once she passed the open door of the
parlor, by the window of which sat Miss Annie and
Lawrence, deeply engaged, their heads together, in
studying out something on a map ; and as she went
up-stairs she grimly grinned and said to herself : " If

294



THE LATE MRS. NULL

that Null could look in and see them now, I reckon
our young man would wish he had the use of all his
arms and legs."

But if Mr. Null should disapprove of his wife and
that gentleman from New York spending so much of
their time together, old Mrs. Keswick had not the
least objection in the world. She was well satisfied
that Mr. Croft should find it interesting enough to
stay here until the time came when he should be able
to go to Midbranch. When that period arrived she
would not be slow to urge him to his duty, in spite of
any obstacles Mr. Brandon might put in his way. So,
for the present, she possessed her soul in as much
peace as the soul of a headstrong and very wilful old
lady is capable of being possessed.



295



CHAPTEE XXIV

THE letter which Lawrence Croft had written to
Junius Keswick was not answered for more than a
week ; and when the answer arrived, it did not come
through the Hewlett's post-office, but was brought
from a mail-station on the railway by a special mes
senger. In this epistle Mr. Keswick stated that he
would have written much sooner but for the fact that
he had been away from Washington, and having just
returned, had found Mr. Croft's letter waiting for him.
The answer was written in a tone which Lawrence
did not at all expect. It breathed the spirit of a man
who was determined and almost defiant. It told Mr.
Croft that the writer did not now believe that Miss
March's acceptance of the said Mr. Croft should be
considered of any value whatever. It was the result
of a very peculiar condition of things, in which he
regretted having taken a part, and it was given in a
moment of pique and indignation, which gave Miss
March a right to reconsider her hasty decision, if she
chose to do so. It would not be fair for either of them
to accept, as conclusive, words said under the extraor
dinary circumstances which surrounded Miss March
when she said those words.

"You asked me to do you a favor," wrote Junius

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Keswick, "and, very much against my inclination,
and against what is now my judgment, I did it. I
now ask you to do me a favor, and I do not think you
should refuse it. I ask you not to communicate with
Miss March until I have seen her, and have obtained
from her an explanation of the acceptance in ques
tion. I have a right to this explanation, and I feel
confident that it will be given to me. You ask me
what I truly believe Miss March meant by her mes
sage to you. I answer that I do not know, but I in
tend to find out what she meant, and as soon as I do
so, I will write to you. I think, therefore, considering
what you have asked me to do, and what you have
written to me about what I have done, that you can
not refuse to abstain from any further action in the
matter until I am enabled to answer you. I cannot
leave Washington immediately, but I shall go to Mid-
branch in a very few days."

This letter was very far from being a categorical
answer to Lawrence's questions, and it disappointed
and somewhat annoyed that gentleman ; but after he
had read it for the second time, and carefully con
sidered it, he put it in his pocket and said to himself :
" This ends all discussion of this subject. Mr. Keswick
may be right in the position he takes, or he may be
wrong. He may go to Midbranch, he may get his
explanation, and he may send it to me. But, with
out any regard to what he does, or says, or writes, I
shall go to Miss March as soon as I am able to use my
ankle ; and whether she be at her uncle's house, or
whether she has gone to New York or to any other
place, I shall see her and myself obtain from her an
explanation of this acceptance. This is due to me as

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

w;ell as to Mr. Keswick, and if he thinks he ought to
get it for himself, I also think I ought to get it for
myself."

The good results of Lawrence's great care in regard
to his injured ankle soon began to show themselves.
The joint had slowly but steadily regained its strength
and usual healthy condition, and Lawrence now found
that he could walk about without the assistance of his
rude crutch. He was still prudent, however, and took
but very short walks, and in these he leaned upon his
trusty cane. The charming autumn days which often
come to Virginia in late October and early November
were now at their best. Day after day the sun shone
brightly ; but there was in the air an invigorating cool
ness which made its radiance something to be sought
for and not avoided.

It was just after dinner, and it was Saturday after
noon, when Miss Annie announced that she was going
to see old Aunt Patsy, whom she had somewhat neg
lected of late.

" May I go with you? " said Lawrence.

Miss Annie shook her head doubtfully. " I should
be very glad to have your company," she said, " but I
am afraid it will be entirely too much of a walk for
you. The days are so short that the sun will be low
before we could get back, and if you should be tired,
it would not do for you to sit down and rest, at that
time of day."

" I believe," said Lawrence, " that my ankle is quite
strong enough for me to walk to Aunt Patsy's and
back without sitting down to rest. I would be very
glad to go with you, and I would like, too, to see that
venerable colored woman again."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Well," said Miss Annie, " if you really think you
can walk so far, it will be very nice indeed to have
you go ; but you ought to feel very sure that it will
not hurt you."

"Come along," said Lawrence, taking up his hat
and cane.

After a man has been shut up as Lawrence had
been, a pleasant ramble like this is a most delightful
change, and he did not hesitate to manifest his pleas
ure. This touched the very sensitive soul of his com
panion, and with such a sparkle of talk did she evince
her gratification that almost any one would have been
able to see that she was a young lady who had an
earnest sympathy with those who had undergone afflic
tions, but were now freed from them.

Aunt Patsy was glad to see her visitors, particularly
glad, it seemed, to see Mr. Croft. She was quite lo
quacious, considering the great length of her days and
the proverbial shortness of her tongue.

" Why, Aunt Patsy," said Miss Annie, " you seem to
have grown younger since I last saw you ! I do be
lieve you are getting old backward ! What are you
going to do with that dress-body? "

" Pse lookin' at dis h'yar," said Aunt Patsy, turning


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 19 of 26)