Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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Lawrence was amused by the piquant earnestness
of this decision. " But what am I to do t " he asked.
"I can't let the matter rest in this unfinished and
unsatisfactory condition."

"You might write to her," said Annie, "and tell
her that you have accepted what she said to you on
Pine Top Hill as a conclusive answer, and that you
now take back everything you ever said on the sub
ject you talked of that day. And do you think it
would be well to put in anything about your being
otherwise engaged ? "

At this Lawrence laughed. " I think that expres
sion would hardly answer," he said, " but I will write
another note, and we shall see how you like it."

"That will be very well," said the happy Annie,
" and if I were you I'd make it as gentle as I could.
It's of no use to hurt her feelings."

" Oh, I don't want to do that," said Lawrence ; "and
now that we have the opportunity, let us consider the
question of informing your aunt of our engagement."

" Oh, dear, dear, dear ! " said Annie, " that is a great
deal worse than informing Miss March that you don't
want to be engaged to her."

" That is true," said Lawrence. "It is not by any
means an easy piece of business. But we might as
well look it square in the face, and determine what is
to be done about it."

" It is simple enough, just as we look at it," said
Annie. " All we have to do is to say that, knowing
that Aunt Keswick had written to my father that she
was determined to make a match between Cousin

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Junius and me, I was afraid to come down here with
out putting up some insurmountable obstacle between
me and a man that I had not seen since I was a little
girl. Of course I would say very decidedly that I
wouldn't have married him if I hadn't wanted to ;
but then, considering Aunt Keswick's very open way
of carrying out her plans, it would have been very
unpleasant, and indeed impossible, for me to be in the
house with him unless she saw that there was no hope
of a marriage between us ; and for this reason I took
the name of Mrs. Null, or Mrs. Nothing, and came
down here secure under the protection of a husband
who never existed. And then, we could say that you
and I were a good deal together, and that, although
you had supposed, when you came here, that you
were in love with Miss March, you had discovered that
this was a mistake, and that afterwards we fell in love
with each other, and are now engaged. That would
be a straightforward statement of everything, just as
it happened ; but the great trouble is, how are we
going to tell it to Aunt Keswick? "

"You are right," said Lawrence. "How are we
going to tell it?"

" It need not be told ! " thundered a strong voice
close to their ears. And then there was a noise of
breaking latticework and cracking vines, and through
the back part of the arbor came an old woman wear
ing a purple sunbonnet, and beating down all obsta
cles before her with a great purple umbrella. " You
needn't tell it ! " cried Mrs. Keswick, standing in the
middle of the arbor, her eyes glistening, her form
trembling, and her umbrella quivering in the air.
"You needn't tell it! It's told!"

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Graphic and vivid descriptions have been written
of those furious storms of devastating wind and del
uging rain which suddenly sweep away the beauty
of some fair tropical scene ; and we have read, too, of
dreadful cyclones and tornadoes, which rush, in mad
rage, over land and sea, burying great ships in a vast
tumult of frenzied waves, or crushing to the earth
forests, buildings, everything that may lie in their
awful paths : but no description could be written
which could give an adequate idea of the storm which
now burst upon Lawrence and Annie. The old lady
had seen these two standing together in the yard, con
versing most earnestly ; she had then seen Annie read
a letter that Lawrence gave her ; and then she had
perceived the two, in close converse, enter the arbor
and sit down together, without the slightest regard for
the rights of Mr. Null.

Mrs. Keswick looked upon all this as somewhat
more out-of-the-way than the usual proceedings of
these young people, and there came into her mind
a curiosity to know what they were saying to each
other. So she immediately repaired to the large
garden, and quietly made her way to the back of the
arbor, in which advantageous position she heard the
whole of Lawrence's story of his love-affair with Miss
March, Annie's remarks upon the same, and the facts
of this young lady's proposed confession in regard to
her marriage with Mr. Null and her engagement to
Mr. Croft.

Then she burst in upon them. The tornado and the
cyclone raged ; the thunder rolled and crashed ; and
the white lightning of her wrath flashed upon the two
as if it would scathe and annihilate them as they stood

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

before her. Neither of them had ever known or
imagined anything like this. It had been long since
Mrs. Keswick had had an opportunity of exercising
that power of vituperative torment which had driven
a husband to the refuge of a reverted pistol, which
had banished for life relatives and friends, and
which, in the shape of a promissory curse, had held
apart those who would have been husband and wife ;
and now, like the long-stored-up venom of a serpent,
it burst out with the direful force given by concentra
tion and retention.

At the first outburst Annie had turned pale and
shrunk back, but now she clung to the side of Law
rence, who, although his face was somewhat blanched
and his form trembled a little with excitement, still
stood up bravely, and endeavored, but ineffectually,
to force upon the old lady's attention a denial of her
bitter accusations. With face almost as purple as the
bonnet she wore or the umbrella she shook in the
air, the old lady first addressed her niece. With
scorn and condemnation she spoke of the deceit which
the young girl had practised upon her. But this part
of the exercises was soon over. She seemed to think
that, although nothing could be viler than Annie's
conduct towards her, still, the fact that Mr. Null no
longer existed put Annie again within her grasp and
control, and made it unnecessary to say much to her
on this occasion. It was upon Lawrence that the
main cataract of her fury poured. It would be wrong
to say that she could not find words to express her ire
towards him. She found plenty of them, and used
them all. He had deceived her most abominably ; he
had come there the expressed and avowed lover of

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Miss March j he had connived with her niece in her
deceit j he had taken advantage of all the opportu
nities she gave him to attain the legitimate object of
his visit, to inveigle into his snares this silly and
absurd young woman ; and he had dared to interfere
with the plans which, by day and by night, she had
been maturing for years. In vain did Lawrence en
deavor to answer or explain. She stopped not, nor
listened to one word.

" And you need not imagine," she screamed at him.,
"that you are going to turn round, when you like,
and marry anybody you please. You are engaged,
body and soul, to Roberta March, and have no right,
by laws of man or Heaven, to marry anybody else. If
you breathe a word of love to any other woman, it
makes you a vile criminal in the eyes of the law, and
renders you liable to prosecution, sir ! Your affianced
bride knows nothing of what her double-faced snake
of a lover is doing here, but she shall know speedily.
That is a matter which I take into my own hands.
Out of my way, both of you ! "

And with these words she charged by them, and
rushed out of the arbor and into the house.



336



CHAPTEE XXVII

THEY were not a happy pair, Lawrence Croft and
Annie Peyton, as they stood together in the arbor
after old Mrs. Keswick had left them. They were
both a good deal shaken by the storm they had passed
through.

" Lawrence," said Annie, looking up to him with
her large eyes full of earnestness, " there surely is no
truth in what she said about your being legally bound
to Miss March?"

"None in the least," said Lawrence. "No man,
under the circumstances, would consider himself en
gaged to a woman. At any rate, there is one thing
which I wish you to understand, and that is that I
am not engaged to Miss March, and that I am engaged
to you. No matter what is said or done, you and I
belong to each other."

Annie made no answer, but she pressed his hand
tightly as she looked up into his face. He kissed her
as she stood, notwithstanding his belief that old Mrs.
Keswick was fully capable of bounding down on him,
umbrella in hand, from an upper window.

"What do you think she is going to do?" Annie
asked presently.

" My dear Annie," said he, u I do not believe that
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

there is a person on earth who could divine what your
Aunt Keswick is going to do. As to that, we must
simply wait and see. But, for my part, I know what
I must do. I must write a letter to Miss March, and
inform her, plainly and definitely, that I have ceased
to be a suitor for her hand. I think, also, that it will
be well to let her know that we are engaged? "

" Yes," said Annie, " for she will be sure to hear it
now. But she will think it is a very prompt pro
ceeding."

" That's exactly what it was," said Lawrence, smil
ing, " prompt and determined. There was no doubt
or indecision about any part of our affair, was there,
little one?"

" Not a bit of it," said Annie, proudly.

At dinner, that day, Annie took her place at one
end of the table, and Lawrence his at the other, but
the old lady did not make her appearance. She was
so erratic in her goings and comings, and had so often
told them they must never wait for her, that Annie
cut the ham and Lawrence carved the fowl, and the
meal proceeded without her. But while they were eat
ing Mrs. Keswick was heard coming down-stairs from
her room, the front door was opened and slammed vio
lently, and from the dining-room windows they saw her
go down the steps, across the yard, and out of the gate.

"I do hope," ejaculated Annie, "that she has not
gone away to stay ! "

If Annie had remembered that the boy Plez, in a
clean jacket and long white apron, officiated as waiter,
she would not have said this, but then she would have
lost some information. " Ole miss not gone to stay,"
he said, with the license of an untrained retainer.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

V

" She gone to Howlettses, an' she done tole Ann* Letty
she'll be back ag'in dis ebenin'."

"If Aunt Keswick don't come back," said Annie,
when the two were in the parlor after dinner, " I shall
go after her. I don't intend to drive her out of the
house."

" Don't you trouble yourself about that, my dear,"
said Lawrence. " She is too angry not to come back."

"There is one thing," said Annie, after a while,
" that we really ought to do. To-morrow Aunt Patsy
is to be buried, and before she is put into the ground
those little shoes should be returned to Aunt Keswick.
It seems to me that justice to poor Aunt Patsy re
quires that this should be done. Perhaps now she
knows how wicked it was to steal them."

" Yes," said Lawrence, " I think it would be well to
put them back where they belong ; but how can you
manage it ? "

" If you will give them to me," said Annie, " I will
go up to aunt's room, now that she is away, and if she
keeps the box in the same place where it used to be,
I'll slip them into it. I hate dreadfully to do it, but
I really feel that it is a duty."

When Lawrence, with some little difficulty, walked
across the yard to get the shoes from his trunk, Annie
ran after him, and waited at the office door. " You
must not take a step more than necessary," she said,
" and so I won't make you come back to the house."

When Lawrence gave her the shoes, and her hand a
little squeeze at the same time, he told her that he
should sit down immediately and write his letter.

" And I," said Annie, " will go and see what I can
do with these."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

With the shoes in her pocket, she went up-stairs
into her aunt's room ; and after looking around hastily,
as if to see that the old lady had not left the ghost of
herself in charge, she approached the closet in which
the sacred pasteboard box had always been kept. But
the closet was locked. Turning away, she looked about
the room. There was no other place in which there
was any probability that the box would be kept.
Then she became nervous ; she fancied she heard the
click of the yard gate. She would not for anything
have her aunt catch her in that room ; nor would she
take the shoes away with her. Hastily placing them
upon a table, she slipped out, and hurried into her
own room.

It was about an hour after this that Mrs. Keswick
came rapidly up the steps of the front porch. She
had been to Hewlett's to carry a letter which she had
written to Miss March, and had there made arrange
ments to have that letter taken to Midbranch very
early the next morning. She had wished to find some
one who would start immediately ; but as there was no
moon, and as the messenger would arrive after the
family were all in bed, she had been obliged to aban
don this more energetic line of action. But the letter
would get there soon enough ; and if it did not bring
down retribution on the head of the man who lodged
in her office, and who, she said to herself, had worked
himself into her plans like the rot in a field of pota
toes, she would ever after admit that she did not know
how to write a letter. All the way home she had
conned over her method of action until Mr. Brandon,
or a letter, should come from Midbranch.

She had already attacked, together, the unprincipled
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

pair who found shelter in her house, and she now de
termined to come upon them separately, and torment
each soul by itself. Annie, of course, would come in
for the lesser share of the punishment, for the fact
that the wretched and depraved Null was no more,
had, in a great measure, mitigated her offence. She
was safe, and her aunt intended to hold her fast, and
do with her as she would when the time and Junius
came. But upon Lawrence she would have no mercy.
When she had delivered him into the hands of Mr.
Brandon, or those of Roberta's father, or the clutches
of the law, she would have nothing more to do with
him ; but until that time she would make him bewail
the day when he deceived and imposed upon her by
causing her to believe that he was in love with another
when he was, in reality, trying to get possession of her
niece. There were a great many things which she
had not thought to say to him in the arbor, but she
would pour the whole hot mass upon his head that
evening.

Stamping up the stairs, and thumping her umbrella
upon every step as she went, hot vengeance breathing
from between her parted lips, and her eyes flashing
with the delight of prospective fury, she entered her
room. The light of the afternoon had but just begun
to wane, and she had not made three steps into the
apartment before her eyes fell upon a pair of faded,
light-blue shoes, which stood side by side upon a table.
She stopped suddenly, and stood, pale and rigid. Her
grasp upon her umbrella loosened, and, unnoticed, it
fell upon the floor. Then, her eyes still fixed upon
the shoes, she moved slowly sidewise towards the
closet. She tried the door, and found it still locked ;

341



THE LATE MRS. NULL

then she put her hand in her pocket, drew out^the
key, looked at it, and dropped it. With faltering
steps she drew near the table, and stood supporting
herself by the back of a chair. Any one else would
have seen upon that table merely a pair of baby's
shoes ; but she saw more. She saw the tops of the
little socks which she had folded away for the last
time so many years before. She saw the first short
dress her child had ever worn ; it was tied up with
pink ribbons at the shoulders, from which hung two
white, plump little arms. There was a little neck,
around which was a double string of coral fastened by
a small gold clasp. Above this was a face, a baby face
with soft, pale eyes, and its head covered with curls
of the lightest yellow, not arranged in artistic negli
gence, but smooth, even, and regular, as she so often
had turned, twisted, and set them. It was indeed her
baby girl who had come to her, as clear and vivid in
every feature, limb, and garment as were the real
shoes upon the table. For many minutes she stood,
her eyes fixed upon the little apparition ; then, slowly,
she sank upon her knees by the chair ; her sunbonnet,
which she had not removed, was bowed, so the pale
eyes of the little one could not see her face, and from
her own eyes came the first tears that that old woman
had shed since her baby's clothes had been put away
in the box.

Lawrence's letter to Miss March was a definitely
expressed document, intended to cover all the ground
necessary, and no more ; but it could not be said that
it was entirely satisfactory to himself. His case, to
say the least of it ; was a difficult one to defend. He

342



THE LATE MRS. NULL

was aware that his course might be looked upon by
others as dishonorable, although he assured himself
that he had acted justly. It might have been better
to wait for a positive declaration from Miss March,
that she had not truly accepted him, before engaging
himself to another lady. But then, he said to him
self, true love never waits for anything. At all events,
he could write no better letter than the one he had
produced, and he hoped he should have an oppor
tunity to show it to Annie before he sent it.

He need not have troubled himself in this regard,
for he and Annie were not disturbed during the rest
of that day by the appearance of Mrs. Keswick. But
after the letter had been duly considered and ap
proved, he found it difficult to obtain a messenger.
There was no one on the place who would undertake
to walk to Midbranch, and he could not take the
liberty of using Mrs. Keswick's horse for the trip, so
it was found necessary to wait until the morrow, when
the letter could be taken to Hewlett's, where, if no
one could be found to carry it immediately, it would
have to be intrusted to the mail, which went out the
next day. Lawrence, of course, knew nothing of Mrs.
Keswick's message to Midbranch, or he would have
been still more desirous that his letter should be
promptly despatched.

The evening was not a very pleasant one. The lovers
did not know at what moment the old lady might
descend upon them, and the element of unpleasant
expectancy which pervaded the atmosphere of the
house was somewhat depressing. They talked a good
deal of the probabilities of Mrs. Keswick's action.
Lawrence expected that she would order him away,

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

although Annie had stoutly maintained that her aunt
would have no right to do this, as he was not in a
condition to travel. This argument, however, made
little impression upon Lawrence, who was not the
man to stay in any house where he was not wanted ;
besides, he knew very well that for any one to stay in
Mrs. Keswick's house when she did not want him
would be an impossibility. But he did not intend to
slip away in any cowardly manner, and leave Annie
to bear alone the brunt of the second storm. He felt
sure that such a storm was impending, and he was also
quite certain that its greatest violence would break
upon him. He would stay, therefore, and meet the
old lady when she next descended upon them ; and
before he went away he would endeavor to utter some
words in defence of himself and Annie.

They separated early, and a good deal of thinking
was done by them before they went to sleep.

The next morning they had only each other for
company at breakfast ; but they had just risen from
that meal when they were startled by the entrance
of Mrs. Keswick. Having expected her appearance
during the whole of the time they were eating, they
had no reason to be startled by her coming now, but
for their subsequent amazement at her appearance and
demeanor they had every reason in the world. Her
face was pale and grave, with an air of rigidity about
it which was not common to her, for, in general,
she possessed a very mobile countenance. Without
speaking a word, she advanced towards Lawrence,
and extended her hand to him. He was so much sur
prised that, while he took her hand in his, he could
only murmur some unintelligible form of morning

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

salutation. Then Mrs. Keswick turned to Annie, and
shook hands with her. The young girl grew pale,
but said not a word ; but some tears came into her
eyes, although why this happened she could not have
explained to herself. Having finished this little per
formance, the old lady walked to the back window
and looked out into the flower-garden, although there
was really nothing there to see. Now Annie found
voice to ask her aunt if she would not have some
breakfast.

" No," said Mrs. Keswick ; " my breakfast was
brought up-stairs to me." And with that she turned
and went out of the room. She closed the door be
hind her, but scarcely had she done so when she
opened it again and looked in. It was quite plain to
the two silent and astonished observers of her actions
that she was engaged in the occupation, very unusual
with her, of controlling an excited condition of mind.
She looked first at one and then at the other, and
then she said, in a voice which seemed to meet with
occasional obstructions in its course : " I have nothing
more to say about anything. Do just what you please,
only don't talk to me about it." And she closed the
door.

" What is the meaning of all this? " said Lawrence,
advancing towards Annie. "What has come over
her?"

" I am sure I don't know," said Annie ; and with
this she burst into tears, and cried as she would have
scorned to cry during the terrible storm of the day
before.

That morning Lawrence Croft was a very much
puzzled man. What had happened to Mrs. Keswick

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

although Annie had stoutly maintained that her aunt
would have no right to do this, as he was not in a
condition to travel. This argument, however, made
little impression upon Lawrence, who was not the
man to stay in any house where he was not wanted ;
besides, he knew very well that for any one to stay in
Mrs. Keswick's house when she did not want him
would be an impossibility. But he did not intend to
slip away in any cowardly manner, and leave Annie
to bear alone the brunt of the second storm. He felt
sure that such a storm was impending, and he was also
quite certain that its greatest violence would break
upon him. He would stay, therefore, and meet the
old lady when she next descended upon them ; and
before he went away he would endeavor to utter some
words in defence of himself and Annie.

They separated early, and a good deal of thinking
was done by them before they went to sleep.

The next morning they had only each other for
company at breakfast ; but they had just risen from
that meal when they were startled by the entrance
of Mrs. Keswick. Having expected her appearance
during the whole of the time they were eating, they
had no reason to be startled by her coming now, but
for their subsequent amazement at her appearance and
demeanor they had every reason in the world. Her
face was pale and grave, with an air of rigidity about
it which was not common to her, for, in general,
she possessed a very mobile countenance. Without
speaking a word, she advanced towards Lawrence,
and extended her hand to him. He was so much sur
prised that, while he took her hand in his, he could
only murmur some unintelligible form of morning

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

salutation. Then Mrs. Keswick turned to Annie, and
shook hands with her. The young girl grew pale,
but said not a word ; but some tears came into her
eyes, although why this happened she could not have
explained to herself. Having finished this little per
formance, the old lady walked to the back window
and looked out into the flower-garden, although there
was really nothing there to see. Now Annie found
voice to ask her aunt if she would not have some
breakfast.

" No," said Mrs. Keswick ; " my breakfast was
brought up-stairs to me." And with that she turned
and went out of the room. She closed the door be
hind her, but scarcely had she done so when she
opened it again and looked in. It was quite plain to
the two silent and astonished observers of her actions
that she was engaged in the occupation, very unusual


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 26)