Frank Richard Stockton.

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

. (page 21 of 26)
Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 21 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


She looked up at him with tears starting to her
eyes, and then she put her head against his breast.
She was too happy to say anything, and she did not
try.

It was about a minute after this that the sober

315



THE LATE MRS. NULL

sorrel, who took no interest in what had occurred be
hind him, and a great deal of interest in his stable at
home, started in an uncertain and hesitating way,
and, finding that he was not checked, began to move
onward. Lawrence looked up from the little head
upon his breast, and called out, " Whoa ! " To this,
however, the sorrel paid no attention. Lawrence
then put forth his right hand to grasp the reins j but
having lately forgotten all about them, they had
fallen out of the spring-wagon, and were now drag
ging upon the ground. It was impossible for him to
reach them, and so, seizing the whip, he endeavored
with its aid to hook them up. Failing in this, he was
about to jump out and run to the horse's head ; but
perceiving his intention, Annie seized his arm.
" Don't you do it ! " she exclaimed. " You'll ruin
your ankle ! "

Lawrence could not but admit to himself that he
was not in condition to execute any feats of agility,
and he also felt that Annie had a very charming way
of holding fast to his arm as if she had a right to
keep him out of danger. And now the sorrel broke
into the jog-trot which was his usual pace. "It is
very provoking," said Lawrence. "I don't think I
ever allowed myself to drop the reins before."

"It doesn't make the slightest difference," said
Annie, comfortingly. "This old horse knows the
road perfectly well, and he doesn't need a bit of
driving. He will take us home just as safely as if
you held the reins; and now, don't you try to get
them, for you will only hurt yourself."

" Very well," said Lawrence, putting his arm around
her again ; " I am resigned. But I think you are very

316



THE LATE MRS. NULL

brave to sit so quiet and composed, under the circum
stances."

She looked at him with a smile. "Such a little
circumstance don't count just now/ 7 she said. " You
must stop that," she added presently, " when we get
to the edge of the woods."

Before long they came out into the open country,
and found themselves in a lane which led by a wide
circuit to the road passing Mrs. Keswick's house. The
old sorrel certainly behaved admirably : he held back
when he descended a declivity ; he walked over the
rough places ; he trotted steadily where the road was
smooth.

" It seems like our fate," said Annie, who now sat
up without an arm around her, the protecting woods
having been left behind ; " he just takes us along with
out our having anything to do with it."

" He is not much of a horse," said Lawrence, clasp
ing, in an unobservable way, the little hand which
lay by his side, " but the fate is charming."

Fortunately, there was no one upon the road to
notice the reinless plight in which these two young
people found themselves, and they were quite as well
satisfied as if they had been doing their own driving.
After a little period of thought, Annie turned an
earnest face to Lawrence, and she said : "Do you
know that I never believed that you were really in
love with Roberta March."

Lawrence squeezed her hand, but did not reply.
He knew very well that he had loved Roberta March,
and he was not going to lie about it.

" I thought so," she continued, " because I did not
believe that any one who was truly in love would

317



THE LATE MRS. NULL

want to send other people about to propose for him,
as you did."

" That is not exactly the state of the case," he said,
"but we must not talk of those things now 5 that is
all past and gone."

"But if there ever was any love," she persisted,
" are you sure that it is all gone ? "

"Gone," he answered earnestly, "as utterly and
completely as the days of last summer."

And now the sorrel, of his own accord, stopped at
Mrs. Keswick's outer gate ; and Lawrence, getting
down, opened the gate, took up the reins, and drove
to the house in quite a proper way.

When Mr. Croft helped Annie to descend from the
spring-wagon, he did not squeeze her hand, nor ex
change with her any tender glances, for old Mrs.
Keswick was standing at the top of the steps. " Have
you seen Letty ! " she asked.

"Letty?" said Miss Annie. "Oh, yes," she added,
as if she suddenly remembered that such a person ex
isted ; " Letty was at church, and she was very active."

"Well," said the old lady, "she must have taken
more interest in the exercises than you did, for it is long
past the time when I told her she must be home."

"I do not believe, madam," said Lawrence, "that
any one could have taken more interest in the exer
cises of this morning than we have."

At this, Annie could not help giving him a little
look which would have provoked reflection in the
mind of the old lady, had she not been very earnestly
engaged in gazing out into the road, in the hope of
seeing Letty.

When Lawrence had gone into the office, and had
318



THE LATE MRS. NULL

closed the door behind him, he stood in a meditative
mood before the empty fireplace. He was making
inquiries of himself in regard to what he had just
done. He was not accusing himself, nor indulging
in regrets ; he was simply investigating the matter.
Here he stood, a man accepted by two women. If
he had ever heard of any other man in a like condi
tion, he would have called that man a scoundrel j and
yet he did not deem himself a scoundrel.

The facts in the case were easy enough to under
stand. For the first time in his life he had looked
into the eyes of a woman who loved him, and he had
discovered, to his utter surprise, that he loved her.
There had been no plan no prudent outlook into her
nature and feelings, no cautious insight into his own.
He had taken part in a most unpremeditated act of
pure and simple love ; and that it was real and pure
love on each side he no more doubted than he
doubted that he lived. And yet, had he been an im
postor when, on that hill over there, he told Eoberta
March he loved her? No, he had been honest; he
had loved her j and since the time that he had been
roused to action by the discovery of Junius Keswick's
intentions to renew his suit, it had been a love full of
a rare and alluring beauty. But its charm, its fasci
nation, its very existence, had disappeared in the first
flash of his knowledge that Annie Peyton loved him.
Had his love for Eoberta been a perfect one, had he
been sure that she returned it, then it could not have
been overthrown ; but it had gone, and a love com
plete and perfect stood in its place. He had seen
that he was loved, and he loved. That was all ; but it
would stand forever.

319



THE LATE MRS. NULL

This was the state of the case ; and now Lawrence
set himself to discover if, in all ways, he had acted
truly and honestly. He had been accepted by Miss
March, but what sort of acceptance was it? Should
he, as a man true to himself, accept such an accept
ance ? What was he to think of a woman who, very
angry, as he had been informed, had sent him a mes
sage which meant everything in the world to him, if
it meant anything, and had then dashed away with
out allowing him a chance to speak to her, or even
giving him a nod of farewell ? The last thing she had
really said to him in this connection were those cruel
words on Pine Top Hill with which she had asked
him to choose a spot in which to be rejected. Could
he consider himself engaged? Would a woman who
cared for him act towards him in such a manner?
After all, was that acceptance anything more than the
result of pique? And could he not, quite as justly,
accept the rejection which she had professed herself
anxious to give him ?

A short time before, Lawrence had done his best
to explain to his advantage these peculiarities of his
status in regard to Miss March. He had said to him
self that she had threatened to reject him because she
wished to punish him, and he had intended to implore
her pardon, and expected to receive it. Over and
over again had he argued with himself in this strain ;
and yet, in spite of it all, he had not been able to
bring himself into a state of mind in which he could
sit down and write to her a letter which, in his esti
mation, would be certain to seal and complete the
engagement. " How very glad I am," he now said to
himself, " that I never wrote that letter ! " And this

320



THE LATE MRS. NULL

was the only decision at which he had arrived when
he heard Mrs. Keswick calling to him from the
yard.

He immediately went to the door, when the old
lady informed him that, as Letty had not come back,
and did not appear to be intending to come back, and
that as none of the other servants on the place had
made their appearance, he might as well come into
the house and try to satisfy his hunger on what cold
food she and Mrs. Null had managed to collect.

The most biting and spicy condiments of the little
meal to which the three sat down were supplied by
Mrs. Keswick, who reviled without stint those utterly
thoughtless and heedless colored people who, once in
the midst of their crazy religious exercises, totally
forgot that they owed any duty whatever to those
who employed them. Lawrence and Annie did not
say much, but there was something peculiarly piquant
in the way in which Annie brought and poured out
the tea she had made, and which, with the exception
of the old lady's remarks, was the only warm part of
the repast ; and there was an element of buoyancy in
the manner of Mr. Croft as he took his cup to drink
the tea. Although he said little at this meal, he
thought a great deal, listening not at all to Mrs. Kes-
wick's tirades. "What a charmingly inconsiderate
affair this has been ! " he said to himself. " Nothing
planned, nothing provided for or against; all spon
taneous and from our very hearts. I never thought
to tell her that she must say nothing to her aunt
until we had agreed how everything should be ex
plained, and I don't believe the idea that it is neces
sary to say anything to anybody has entered her

321



THE LATE MRS. NULL

mind. But I must keep my eyes away from her, if I
don't want to bring on a premature explosion."

Whatever might be the result of the reasoning
which this young man had to do with himself, it was
quite plain that he was abundantly satisfied with
things as they were.

It was beginning to be dark when Letty and Uncle
Isham returned and explained why they had been so
late in returning.

Old Aunt Patsy had died in church.



322



CHAPTER XXVI

" LAWRENCE," said Annie, on the forenoon of the next
day, as they were sitting together in the parlor with
the house to themselves, Mrs. Keswick having gone to
Aunt Patsy's cabin to supervise proceedings there,
" Lawrence, don't you feel glad that we did not have
a chance to speak to dear old Aunt Patsy about those
little shoes ? Perhaps she had forgotten that she had
stolen them, and so went to heaven without that sin
on her soul."

" That is a very comfortable way of looking at it,"
said Lawrence, "but wouldn't it be better to assume
that she did not steal them ? "

" I am very sorry," said Annie, " but that is not easy
to do. But don't let us think anything more about
that. And don't you feel very glad that the poor old
creature, who looked so happy as she sat singing and
clapping her hands on her knees, didn't die until after
we had left the church? If it had happened while
we were there, I don't believe"

" Don't believe what? " asked Lawrence.

"Well, that you now would be sitting with your
arm on the back of my chair."

Lawrence was quite sure, from what had been told
him, that Aunt Patsy's demise had taken place before

323



THE LATE MRS. NULL

they left the church. But he did not say so to Annie.
He merely took his arm from the back of her chair
and placed it around her.

" And do you know," said she, " that Letty told me
something, this morning, that is so fanny, and yet in a
certain way so pathetic, that it made me laugh and
cry both. She said that Aunt Patsy always thought
that you were Mr. Null."

At this Lawrence burst out laughing ; but Annie
checked him and went on : " And she told Letty in
church, when she saw us two come in, that she be
lieved she could die happy now, since she had seen
Miss Annie married to such a pert gentleman, and
that it looked as if old miss had got over her grudge
against him."

"And didn't Letty undeceive her?" asked Law
rence.

" No ; she said it would be a pity to upset the mind
of such an old woman, and she didn't do it."

" Then the good Aunt Patsy died," said Lawrence,
" thinking I was that wretched tramp of a bone-dust
pedler which the fancy of your aunt has conjured up.
That explains the interest the venerable colored
woman took in me. It is now quite easy to under
stand ; for if your aunt abused your mythical husband
to everybody as she did to me, I don't wonder Aunt
Patsy thought I was in danger."

" Poor old woman ! " said Annie, looking down at
the floor ; " I am so glad that we helped her to die
happy."

" As she was obliged to anticipate the truth," said
Lawrence, " in order to derive any comfort from it, I
am glad she did it. But although I am delighted,

324



THE LATE MRS. NULL

more than my words can tell you, to take the place of
your Mr. Null, you must not expect me to have any
of his attributes."

" Now just listen to me, sir," said Annie. " I don't
want you to say one word against Mr. Null. If it had
not been for that good Freddy, things would have
been very different from what they are now. If you
care for me at all, you owe me entirely to Freddy
Null."

"Entirely?" asked Lawrence.

"Of course I mean in regard to opportunities of
finding out things and saying them. If Aunt Keswick
had supposed I was only Annie Peyton, she would not
have allowed Mr. Croft to interfere with her plans for
Junius and me. I expected Mr. Null to be of service
to me, but no one could have imagined that he would
have brought about anything like this."

" Blessed be Null ! " exclaimed Lawrence.

Annie asked him to please be more careful, for
how did he know that one of the servants might not
be sweeping the front porch, and of course she would
look in at the windows.

" But, my dear child," said Lawrence, pushing back
his chair to a prudent distance, "we must seriously
consider this Null business. We shall have to inform
your aunt of the present state of affairs, and before
we do that we must explain what sort of person
Frederick Null, Esquire, really was I am not willing
to admit that he exists, even as a myth."

" Oh, dear ! oh, dear ! " exclaimed Annie. " We shall
have a dreadful time ! When Aunt Keswick knows
that there never was any Mr. Null, and then hears
that you and I are engaged, it will throw her into the

325



THE LATE MRS. NULL

most dreadful state of mind that she has ever been in,
in her life ; and father has told me of some of the
awful family earthquakes that Aunt Keswick has
brought about when things went wrong with her."

"We must be very cautious," said Lawrence, "and
neither of us must say a word, or do anything that
may arouse her suspicions, until we have settled upon
the best possible method of making the facts known
to her. The case is indeed a complicated one."

"And what makes it more so," said Annie, "is
Aunt Keswick's belief that you are in love with Miss
March, and that you want to get a chance to propose
to her. She does think that, doesn't she ? "

"Yes," said Lawrence, "I must admit that she
does."

" And she must be made to understand that that is
entirely at an end," continued Annie. " All this will
be a very difficult task, Lawrence, and I don't see
how it is to be done."

" But we shall do it," he answered ; " and we must
not forget to be very prudent until it is fully settled
how we shall do it."

When Lawrence retired to his room, and sat down
to hold that peculiar court in which he was judge,
jury, lawyers, and witnesses, as well as the prisoner at
the bar, he had to do with a case a great deal more
complicated and difficult than that which perplexed
the mind of Miss Annie Peyton. He began by the
very unjudicial act of pledging himself, to himself,
that nothing should interfere with this new, this true
love. In spite of all that might be said, done, or
thought, Annie Peyton should be his wife. There
was no indecision whatever in regard to the new

326



THE LATE MRS. NULL

love 5 the only question was, "What is to be done
about the old one ? "

Lawrence could not admit, for a moment, that he
could have spoken to Roberta March as he had spoken
if he had not loved her j but he could now perceive
that that love had been in no small degree impaired
and weakened by the manner of its acceptance. The
action of Miss March on her last day here had much
more chilled his ardor than her words on Pine Top
Hill. He had not before examined thoroughly into
the condition of that ardor after the departure of the
lady, but it was plain enough now.

There was, therefore, no doubt whatever in regard
to his love for Miss March ; he was quite ready and
able to lay that aside. But what about her accept
ance of it? How could he lay that aside?

This was the real case before the court. The wit
nesses could give no available testimony ; the lawyers
argued feebly ; the jury disagreed ; and Lawrence, in
his capacity of judge, dismissed the case.

In his efforts to conduct his mind through the chan
nels of law and equity, Lawrence had not satisfied
himself, and his thoughts began to be moved by what
might be termed his military impulses. "I made a
charge into the camp," he said, with a little downward
drawing of the corners of his mouth, " and I did not
capture the commander-in-chief. And now I intend
to charge out again."

He sat down to his table and wrote the following note :

' ' MY DEAR Miss MARCH : I have been waiting for a
good many days, hoping to receive, either from you or
Mr. Keswick, an explanation of the message you sent
to me by him. I now believe that it will be impossible

327



THE LATE MRS. NULL

to give a satisfactory explanation of that message. I
therefore recur to our last private interview, and wish
to say to you that I am ready, at any time, to meet you
under either a sycamore or a cherry-tree."



And then he signed it, and addressed it to Miss
March at Midbranch. This being done, he put on his
hat and stepped out to see if a messenger could be
found to carry the letter to its destination, for he did
not wish to wait for the semi-weekly mail. Near the
house he met Annie.

"What have you been doing all this time?" she
asked.

"I have been writing a letter," he said, "and am
now looking for some colored boy who will carry it
for me."

" Whom is it to ? " she asked.

" Miss March," was his answer.

" Let me see it," said Annie.

At this Lawrence looked at her with wide-open
eyes, and then he laughed. Never, since he had been
a child, had there been any one who would have
thought of such a thing as asking to see a private
letter which he had written to some one else ; and
that this young girl should stand up before him with
her straightforward, expectant gaze, and make such a
request of him, in the first instance amused him.

"You don't mean to say," she added, "that you
would write anything to Miss March which you would
not let me see ? "

" This letter," said Lawrence, " was written for Miss
March, and no one else. It is simply the winding up
of that old affair."

328



THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Give it to me," said Annie, " and let me see how
you wound it up."

Lawrence smiled, looked at her in silence for a
moment, and then handed her the letter.

" I don't want you to think," she said, as she took
it, "that I am going to ask you to show me all the
letters you write. But when you write one to a lady
like Miss March, I want to know what you say to her."
And then she read the letter. When she had finished,
she turned to Lawrence and, with her countenance
full of amazement, exclaimed : "I haven't the least
idea in the world what all this means ! What message
did she send you? And why should you meet her
under a tree?"

These questions went so straight to the core of the
affair, and were so peculiarly difficult to answer, that
Lawrence, for the moment, found himself in the very
unusual position of not knowing what to say ; but he
presently remarked : " Do you think it is of any ad
vantage to either of us to talk over this affair, which
is now past and gone f "

" I don't want to talk over any of it," said Annie,
very promptly, " except the part of it which is referred
to in this letter ; but I want to know about that."

" That covers the most important part of it," said
Lawrence.

" Very good," she answered, " and so you can tell it
to me. And, now that I think of it, you can tell me,
at the same time, exactly why you wanted to find my
cousin Junius. I think I ought to know that, too."

" Yery well, then," replied Lawrence ; " if you have
the least feeling about it, I will relate the whole
affair, from beginning to end."

329



THE LATE MRS. NULL

" That, perhaps, will be the best thing to do, after
all," said Annie. " And suppose we take a walk over
the fields, and then you can tell it without being
interrupted."

But Lawrence did not feel that his ankle would
allow him to accept this invitation, for it had hurt
him a good deal since his walk to Aunt Patsy's cabin.
He said so to Annie, and excited in her the deepest
feelings of commiseration.

" You must take no more walks of any length," she
exclaimed, " until you are quite, quite well ! It was
my fault that you took that tramp to Aunt Patsy's.
I ought to have known better. But then," she said,
looking up at him, "you were not under my charge.
I shall take very good care of you now."

"For my part," he said, "I am glad I have this
little relapse, for now I can stay here longer."

" I am very, very sorry for the relapse," said she,
"but awfully glad for the stay. And you mustn't
stand another minute. Let us go and sit in the arbor.
The sun is shining straight into it, and that will make
it all the more comfortable while you are telling me
about those things."

They sat down in the arbor, and Lawrence told
Annie the whole history of his affair with Miss March,
from the beginning to the end ; that is, if the end had
been reached ; although he intimated no doubt to her
upon this point. This avowal he had never expected
to make. In fact, he had never contemplated its pos
sibility. But now he felt a certain satisfaction in tell
ing it. Every item, as it was related, seemed thrown
aside forever. " And now, then, my dear Annie," he said,
when he had finished, " what do you think of all that ? "

330



THE LATE MRS. NULL

"Well," she said, "in the first place, I am still
more of the opinion than I was before that you never
were really in love with her. You did entirely too
much planning and investigating and calculating ;
and when, at last, you did come to the conclusion to
propose to her, you did not do it so much of your own
accord as because you found that another man would
be likely to get her if you did not make a pretty
quick move yourself. And as to that acceptance, I
don't think anything of it at all. I believe she was
very angry at Junius because he consented to bring
your messages, when he ought to have been his own
messenger, and that she gave him that answer just to
rack his soul with agony. I don't believe she ever
dreamed that he would take it to you. And, to tell
the simple truth, I believe, from what I saw of her
that morning, that she was thinking very little of you,
and a great deal of him. To be sure, she was fiery
angry with him, but it is better to be that way with
a lover than to pay no attention to him at all."

This was a view of the case which had never struck
Lawrence before, and although it was not very flat
tering to him, it was very comforting. He felt that
it was extremely likely that this young woman had
been able to truthfully divine, in a case in which he
had failed, the motives of another young woman.
Here was a further reason for congratulating himself
that he had not written to Miss March.

" And as to the last part of the letter," said Annie,
"you are not going under any cherry-tree, or syca
more either, to be refused by her. What she said to
you was quite enough for a final answer, without any
signing or sealing under trees or anywhere else. I

331



THE LATE MRS. NULL

think the best thing that can be done with this pre
cious epistle is to tear it up."


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 23 24 25 26

Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 21 of 26)