Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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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

that his impulses, however earnest they might have
been, were controlled by an extraordinary caution
and prudence, which, although it sometimes amused
her, was not in the least degree complimentary to her.
She could not prevent herself from resenting this some
what peculiar action of Mr. Croft, and this resentment
grew into a desire, which gradually became a very
strong one, that she might have an opportunity of
declining a proposal from him. That opportunity
came while they were both at Mrs. Keswick's, and she
had intended that what she said at her last interview
with Mr. Croft should be considered a definite refusal
of his suit, but the interview had terminated before
she had stated her mind quite as plainly as she had
purposed doing. She had not, however, wished to
renew the conversation 011 the subject, and had con
cluded to content herself with what she had already
said, feeling quite sure that her words had been suffi
cient to satisfy Mr. Croft that it would be useless to
make any further proposals.

When, on the eve of her departure from the house,
Mr. Keswick had brought her Mr. Croft's message, she
was not only amazed, but indignant ; not so much at
Mr. Croft for sending it as at Mr. Keswick for bring
ing it. Miss March was not ashamed to confess that
she was irritated and incensed to a high degree that a
gentleman who had held the position towards her that
Mr. Keswick had held should bring her such a mes
sage from another man. She was, therefore, seized
with a sudden impulse to punish him, and, without in
the least expecting that he would carry such an an
swer, she had given him the one which he had taken
to Mr. Croft. Having, until the day on which she
was writing, heard nothing further on the subject, she

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

had supposed that her expectations had been realized.
But on this day the astonishing letter from Mrs. Kes-
wick had arrived, and it made her understand that
not only had her impulsive answer been delivered,
but that Mr. Croft had informed other persons that
he had been accepted. She wished, therefore, to lose
no time in stating to Mr. Croft that what she had said
to him with her own lips was to be received as her
final resolve, and that the answer given to Mr. Kes-
wick was not intended for Mr. Croft's ears.

Miss March then went on to say that it might be
possible that she owed Mr. Croft an apology for the
somewhat ungracious manner in which she had treated
him at Mrs. Keswick's house ; but she assured herself
that Mr. Croft owed her an apology, not only for the
manner of his attentions, but for the peculiar publicity
he had given them. In that case the apologies neu
tralized each other. Miss March had no intention of
answering Mrs. Keswick's letter. Under no circum
stances could she have considered, for a moment, its
absurd suggestions and recommendations ; and it con
tained allusions to Mr. Croft and another person
which, if not founded upon the imagination of Mrs.
Keswick, certainly concerned nothing with which
Miss March had anything to do.

The proud spirit of Lawrence Croft was a good deal
ruffled when he read this letter, but he made no re
mark about it. " Would you like to read it? " he said
to Annie.

She greatly desired to read it, but there was some
thing in her lover's face, and in the tone in which he
spoke, which made her suspect that the reading of
that letter might be, in some degree, humiliating to
him. She was certain, from the expression of his face

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

as lie read it, that the letter contained matter very
unpleasant to Lawrence, and it might be that it would
wound him to have another person, especially herself,
read it ; and so she said : "I don't care to read it
if you will tell me why she wrote to you, and the
point of what she says."

"Thank you," said Lawrence. And he crumpled
the letter in his hand as he spoke. " She wrote," he
continued, "in consequence of a letter she has had
from your aunt."

" What ! " exclaimed Annie. " Did Aunt Keswick
write to her?"

"Yes," said Lawrence, "and sent it by a special
messenger. She must have told her all the heinous
crimes with which she charged you and me, particu
larly me ; and this must have been the first intimation
to Miss March that your cousin had given me the answer
she made to him ; therefore Miss March writes in haste
to let me know that she did not intend that that an
swer should be given to me, and that she wishes it
generally understood that I have no more connection
with her than I have with the Queen of Spain. That
is the sum and substance of the letter."

" I knew as well as I know anything in the world,"
said Annie, "that that message Junius brought you
meant nothing." And taking the crumpled letter
from his hand, she threw it on the few embers that
remained in the fireplace, and as it blazed and
crumbled into black ashes, she said : " Now that is
the end of Roberta March ! "

" Yes," said Lawrence, emphasizing his remark with
an encircling arm ; " so far as we are concerned, that is
the end of her."

350



CHAPTER XXVIII

ON the next day old Aunt Patsy was buried. Mrs.
Keswick and Annie attended the ceremonies in the
cabin, but they did not go to the burial. After a
time, it might be in a week or two, or it might be in
a year, the funeral sermon would be preached in the
church, and they would go to hear that. Aunt Patsy
never finished her crazy-quilt, several pieces being
wanted to one corner of it ; but in the few days pre
ceding her burial two old women of the congregation,
with trembling hands and uncertain eyes, sewed in
these pieces and finished the quilt, in which the body
of the venerable sister was wrapped, according to her
well-known wish and desire. It is customary among
the negroes to keep the remains of their friends a
very short time after death ; but Aunt Patsy had lived
so long upon this earth that it was generally conceded
that her spirit would not object to her body remaining
above ground until all necessary arrangements should
be completed, and until all people who had known or
heard of her had had an opportunity of taking a last
look at her. As she had been so very well known to
almost everybody's grandparents, a good many people
availed themselves of this privilege.

After Mrs. Keswick's return from Aunt Patsy 7 s cabin,
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

where, according to her custom, she made herself
very prominent, it was noticeable that she had dropped
some of the grave reserve in which she had wrapped
herself during the preceding day. It was impossible
for her, at least but for a very short time, to act in a
manner unsuited to her nature ; and reserve and con
straint had never been suited to her nature. She,
therefore, began to speak on general subjects in her
ordinary free manner to the various persons in her
house ; but it must not be supposed that she exhibited
any contrition for the outrageous way in which she
had spoken to Annie and Lawrence, or gave them any
reason to suppose that the laceration of their souls on
that occasion was a matter which, at present, needed
any consideration whatever from her. An angel, born
of memory and imagination, might come to her from
heaven, and so work upon her superstitious feelings
as to induce her to stop short in her course of reckless
vengeance ; but she would not, on that account, fall
upon anybody's neck, or ask forgiveness for anything
she had done to anybody. She did not accuse herself,
nor repent ; she only stopped. " After this/' she said,
" you all can do as you please. I have no further con
cern with your affairs. Only don't talk to me about
them."

She told Lawrence, in a manner that would seem to
indicate a moderate but courteous interest in his
welfare, that he must not think of leaving her house
until his ankle had fully recovered its strength ; and
she even went so far as to suggest the use of a patent
lotion which she had seen at the store at Hewlett's.
She resumed her former intercourse with Annie, but
it seemed impossible for her to entirely forget the

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

deception which that young lady had practised upon
her. The only indication, however, of this resent
ment was the appellation which she now bestowed
upon her niece. In speaking of her to Lawrence or
any of the household, she invariably called her " the
late Mrs. Null " ; and this title so pleased the old lady
that she soon began to use it in addressing her niece.
Annie occasionally remonstrated in a manner which
seemed half playful, but was in fact quite earnest ; but
her aunt paid no manner of attention to her words,
and continued to please herself by this half-sarcastic
method of alluding to her niece's fictitious matri
monial state.

Letty and the other servants were at first much
astonished by the new title given to Miss Annie, and
the only way in which they could explain it was by
supposing that Mr. Null had gone off somewhere and
died ; and although they could not understand why
Miss Annie should show so little grief in the matter,
and why she had not put on mourning, they imagined
that these were customs which she had learned in the
North.

Lawrence advised Annie to pay no attention to this
whim of her aunt. " It don't hurt either of us," he
said, " and we ought to be very glad that she has let
us off so easily. But there is one thing I think you
ought to do : you should write to your cousin Junius
and tell him of our engagement; but I would not
refer at all to the other matter ; you are not supposed
to have anything to do with it, and Miss March can
tell him as much about it as she chooses. Mr. Keswick
wrote me that he was going to Midbranch, and that
he would communicate with me while there 5 but as I

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

have not since heard from him, I presume he is still in
"Washington."

A letter was, therefore, written by Annie, and
addressed to Junius in Washington, and Lawrence
drove her to the railroad station in the spring-wagon,
where it was posted. The family mail came bi-weekly
to Hewlett's, as the post-office at the railroad-station
was entirely too distant for convenience ; and as Satur
day approached it was evident, from Mrs. Keswick's
occasional remarks and questions, that she expected a
letter. It was quite natural for Lawrence and Annie
to surmise that this letter was expected from Miss
March, for Mrs. Keswick had not heard of any re
joinder having been made to her epistle to that lady.
When, late on Saturday afternoon, the boy Plez re
turned from Hewlett's, Mrs. Keswick eagerly took
from him the well-worn letter-bag, and looked over
its contents. There was a letter for her, and from
Midbranch ; but the address was written by Junius,
not by Miss March. There was another in the same
handwriting for Annie. As the old lady looked at
the address on her letter, and then on its postmark,
she was evidently disappointed and displeased ; but
she said nothing, and went away with it to her room.

Annie's letter was in answer to the one she had sent
to Washington, which had been promptly forwarded
to Midbranch, where Junius had been for some days.
It began by expressing much surprise at the informa
tion his cousin had given him in regard to her assump
tion of a married title ; and although she had assured
him she had very good reasons, he could not admit
that it was right and proper for her to deceive his aunt
and himself in this way. If it were indeed necessary

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

that other persons should suppose that she were a
married woman, her nearest relatives, at least, should
have been told the truth.

At this passage, Annie, who was reading the letter
aloud, and Lawrence, who was listening, both laughed.
But they made no remarks, and the reading proceeded.

Junius next alluded to the news of his cousin's en
gagement to Mr. Croft. His guarded remarks on this
subject showed the kindness of his heart. He did not
allude to the suddenness of the engagement, nor to
the very peculiar events that had so recently preceded
it ; but, reading between the lines, both Annie and
Lawrence thought that the writer had probably given
these points a good deal of consideration. In a gen
eral way, however, it was impossible for him to see any
objection to such a match for his cousin, and this was
the impression he endeavored to give, in a very kindly
way, in his congratulations. But, even here, there
seemed to be indications of a hope, on the part of
the writer, that Mr. Croft would not see fit to make
another short tack in his course of love.

Like the polite gentleman he was, Mr. Keswick
allowed his own affairs to come in at the end of the
letter. Here he informed his cousin that his engage
ment with Miss March had been renewed, and that
they were to be married shortly after Christmas. As
it must have been very plain to those who were pres
ent when Miss March left his aunt's house that she
left in anger with him, he felt impelled to say that he
had explained to her the course of action to which she
had taken exception, and although she had not ad
mitted that that course had been a justifiable one, she
had forgiven him. He wished also to say at this point

355



THE LATE MRS. NULL

that he himself was not at all proud of what he had
done.

"That was intended for me/' interrupted Law
rence.

"Well, if you understand it, it is all right," said
Annie.

Junius went on to say that the renewal of his en
gagement was due, in great part, to Miss March's visit
to his aunt, and to a letter she had received from her.
A few days of intercourse with Mrs. Keswick, whom
she had never before seen, and the tenor and purpose
of that letter, had persuaded Miss March that his aunt
was a person whose mind had passed into a condition
when its opposition or its action ought not to be con
sidered by persons who were intent upon their own
welfare. His own arrival at Midbranch at this junc
ture had resulted in the happy renewal of their
engagement.

" I don't know Junius half as well as I wish I did,"
said Annie, as she finished the letter, " but I am very
sure indeed that he will make a good husband, and I
am glad he has got Eoberta March as he wants her."

" Did you emphasize i he ' f " asked Lawrence.

" I will emphasize it, if you would like to hear me
do it," said she.

"It's very queer," remarked Annie, after a little
pause, "that I should have been so anxious to pre
serve poor Junius from your clutches, and that, after
all I did to save him, I should fall into those clutches
myself."

Whereupon Lawrence, much to her delight, told
her the story of the anti -detective.

Mrs. Keswick sat down in her room and read her
356



THE LATE MRS. NULL

letter. She had no intention of abandoning her reso
lution to let things go as they would, and therefore
did not expect to follow up, with further words or
actions, anything she had written in her letter to
Koberta March. But she had had a very strong curi
osity to know what that lady would say in answer to
said letter, and she was therefore disappointed and
displeased that the missive she had received was from
her nephew, and not from Miss March. She did not
wish to have a letter from Junius. She knew, or
rather very much feared, that it would contain news
which would be bad news to her, and although she
was sure that such news would come to her sooner or
later, she was very much averse to receiving it.

His letter to her merely touched upon the points of
Mrs. Null, and his cousin's engagement to Mr. Croft ;
but it was almost entirely filled with the announce
ment, and most earnest defence, of his own engage
ment to Koberta March. He said a great deal upon
this subject, and he said it well. But it is doubtful
if his fervid, and often affectionate, expressions made
much impression upon his aunt. Nothing could make
the old lady like this engagement, but she had made
up her mind that he might do as he pleased, and it
didn't matter what he said about it ; he had done it,
and there was an end of it.

But there was one thing that did matter : that un
principled and iniquitous old man Brandon had had
his own way at last, and she and her way had been
set aside. This was the last of a series of injuries to
her and her family with which she charged Mr. Bran
don and his family ; but it was the crowning wrong.
The injury itself she did not so much deplore as that

357



THE LATE MRS. NULL

the injurer would profit by it. Arrested in her course
of raging passion by a sudden flood of warm and irre
sistible emotion, she had resigned, as impetuously as
she had taken them up, her purposes of vengeance,
and, consequently, her plans for her nephew and niece.
But she was a keen-minded as well as passionate
old woman, and when she had considered the altered
state of affairs, she was able to see in it advantages as
well as disappointment and defeat. From what she
had learned of Lawrence Croft's circumstances and po
sition, and she had made a good many inquiries on
this subject of Eoberta March, he was certainly a good
match for Annie ; and although she hated to have
anything to do with Midbranch, it could not be a bad
thing for Junius to be master of that large estate, and
that Mr. Brandon had repeatedly declared he would
be if he married Eoberta. Thus, in the midst of these
reverses, there was something to comfort her and
reconcile her to them. But there was no balm for
the wound caused by Mr. Brandon's success and her
failure.

With the letter of Junius open in her hand, she sat,
for a long time, in bitter meditation. At length a
light gradually spread itself over her gloomy coun
tenance ; her eyes sparkled ; she sat up straight in
her chair, and a broad smile changed the course of the
wrinkles on her cheeks. She rose to her feet; she
gave her head a quick jerk of affirmation ; she clapped
one hand upon the other ; and she said aloud : " I will
bless, not curse ! "

And with that she went happy to bed.



358



CHAPTER XXIX

ON the following Monday, Lawrence announced that
his ankle was now quite well enough for him to go to
New York, where his affairs required his presence.
Neither he nor the late Mrs. Null regarded this part
ing with any satisfaction, but their very natural re
grets at the necessary termination of these happy
autumn days were a good deal tempered by the fact
that Lawrence intended to return in a few weeks, and
that then the final arrangements would be made for
their marriage. It was not easy to decide what these
arrangements would be, for, in spite of the many wrong-
nesses of the old lady's head and heart, Annie had
conceived a good deal of affection for her aunt, and
felt a strong disinclination to abandon her to her
lonely life, which would be more lonely than before,
now that Junius was to be married. On the other
hand, Lawrence, although he had discovered some
estimable points in the very peculiar character of
Mrs. Keswick, had no intention of living in the same
house with her. This whole matter, therefore, was
left in abeyance until the lovers should meet again,
some time in December.

Lawrence and Annie had desired very much that
Junius should visit them before Mr. Croft's departure

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

for the North, for they both had a high esteem for
him, and both felt a desire that he should be as well
satisfied with their matrimonial project as they were
with his. But they need not have expected him.
Junius had conceived a dislike for Mr. Croft, which
was based in great part upon disapprobation of what
he himself had done in connection with that gentle
man j and this manner of dislike is not easily set aside.
The time would come when he would take Lawrence
Croft and Annie by the hand, and honestly congratu
late them, but for that time they must wait.

Lawrence departed in the afternoon ; and the next
day Mrs. Keswick set about that general renovation
and rearrangement of her establishment which many
good housewives consider necessary at certain epochs,
such as the departure of guests, the coming in of spring,
or the advent of winter. These arrangements occupied
two days, and on the evening that they were finished
to her satisfaction, the old lady informed her niece
that early the next morning she was going to start
for Midbranch, and that it was possible, nay, quite
probable, that she would stay there over a night. " I
might go and come back the same day," she said, " but
thirty miles a day is too much for Billy ; and besides,
I am not sure I could get through what I have to do
if I do not stay over. I would take you with me, but
this is not to be a mere visit ; 1 have important things
to attend to, and you would be in the way. You got
along so well without me when you first came here
that I have no doubt you will do very well for one
night. I shall drive myself, and take Plez along with
me, and leave Uncle Isham and Letty to take care of
you."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Under ordinary circumstances Annie would have
been delighted to go to Midbranch, a place she had
never seen, and of which she had heard so much $ but
she had no present desire to see Eoberta March, and
said so, further remarking that she was very willing
to stay by herself for a night. She hoped much that
her aunt would proceed with the conversation, and
tell her why she had determined upon such an ex
traordinary thing as a visit to Midbranch, where she
knew the old lady had not been for many, many years.
But Mrs. Keswick had nothing further to say upon
this subject, and began to talk of other matters.

After a very early breakfast, next morning, Mrs.
Keswick set out upon her journey, driving the sorrel
horse with much steadiness, intermingled with severity
whenever he allowed himself to drop out of his usual
jogging pace. Plez sat in the back part of the spring-
wagon, and whenever the old lady saw an unusually
large stone lying in the track of the road, she would
stop, and make him get out and throw it to one
side.

"I believe," she said, on one of these occasions,
"that a thousand men in buggies might pass along
this road thrice a day for a year, and never think of
stopping to throw that rock out of the way of people's
wheels. They would steer around it every time, -or
bump over it ; but such a thing as moving it would
never enter their heads."

The morning was somewhat cool, but fine, and the
smile which occasionally flitted over the corrugated
countenance of Mrs. Keswick seemed to indicate that
she was in a pleasant state of mind, which might have
been occasioned by the fine weather and the good con-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

dition of the roads, or by cheerful anticipations con
nected with her visit.

It was not very long after noonday that, with a
stifled remark of disapprobation upon her lips, she
drew up at the foot of the broad flight of steps by
which one crossed the fence into the Midbranch yard.
Giving Billy into the charge of Plez, with directions
to take him round to the stables and tell somebody to
put him up and feed him, she mounted the steps, and
stopped for a minute or so on the broad platform at
the top, looking about her as she stood. Everything
the house, the yard, the row of elms along the fence,
the wide-spreading fields, and the farm buildings and
cabins, some of which she could see around the end of
the house was all on a scale so much larger and more
imposing than those of her own little estate that, al
though nothing had changed for the better since the
days when she was familiar with Midbranch, she was
struck with the general superiority of the Brandon
possessions to her own. Her eyes twinkled, and she
smiled; but there did not appear to be anything
envious about her.

She presented a rather remarkable figure as she
stood in this conspicuous position. Annie had insisted,
when she was helping her aunt to array herself for
the journey, that she should wear a bonnet which for


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Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 23 of 26)