Frank Richard Stockton.

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

. (page 24 of 26)
Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 24 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


many years had been her head-gear on Sundays and
important occasions. But to this the old lady positively
objected. She was not going on a mere visit of state
or ceremony ; her visit at Midbranch would require
her whole attention, and she did not wish to distract
her mind by wondering whether her bonnet was
straight on her head or not, and she was so unaccus
tomed to the feel of it that she would never know if

362



THE LATE MRS. NULL

it got turned hind part foremost. She could not be
at her ease, nor say freely what she wished to say, if
she were dressed in clothes to which she was not accus
tomed. She was perfectly accustomed to her sun-
bonnet, and she intended to wear that. Of course she
carried her purple umbrella, and she wore a plain
calico dress, blue spotted with white, which was very
narrow and short in the skirt, barely touching the
tops of her shoes, the stoutest and most serviceable
that could be procured in the store at Hewlett's. She
covered her shoulders with a small red shawl, which,
much to Annie's surprise, she fastened with a large
and somewhat tarnished silver brooch, an ornament
her niece had never before seen. Attired thus, she
certainly would have attracted attention, had there
been any one there to see ; but the yard was empty,
and the house door closed. She descended the steps,
crossed the yard with what might be termed a buoyant
gait, and, mounting the porch, knocked on the door
with the handle of her umbrella. After some delay,
a colored woman appeared, and as soon as the door
was opened, Mrs. Keswick walked in.

"Where is your master?" said she, forgetting all
about the Emancipation Act.

" Mahs' Robert is in the lib'ery," said the woman.

"And where are Miss Roberta March and Master
Junius Keswick ? "

" Miss Eob went Norf day 'fore yestiddy," was the
answer, " an' Mahs' Junius done gone 'long to wait on
her. Who shall I tell Mahs' Robert is come? "

" There is no need to tell him who I am," said Mrs.
Keswick. "Just take me in to him. That's all you
have to do."

A good deal doubtful of the propriety of this pro-
363



THE LATE MRS. NULL

ceeding, but more doubtful of the propriety of oppos
ing the wishes of such a determined-looking visitor,
the woman stepped to the back part of the hall, and
opened the door. The moment she did so, Mrs. Kes-
wick entered, and closed the door behind her.

Mr. Brandon was seated in an arm-chair by a table,
and not very far from a wood fire of a size suited to
the season. His slippered feet were on a cushioned
stool ; his eye-glasses were carefully adjusted on the
capacious bridge of his nose ; and, intent upon a news
paper which had arrived by that morning's mail, he
presented the appearance of a very well satisfied old
gentleman in very comfortable circumstances. But
when he turned his head and saw the widow Kes-
wick close the door behind her, every idea of satisfac
tion or comfort seemed to vanish from his mind. He
dropped the paper j he rose to his feet ; he took off
his eyeglasses ; he turned somewhat red in the face ;
and he ejaculated : " What, madam ! So it is you,
Mrs. Keswick?"

The old lady did not immediately answer. Her
head dropped a little on one side, a broad smile be-
wrinkled the lower part of her well-worn visage, and,
with her eyes half closed behind her heavy spectacles^
she held out both her hands, the purple umbrella in
one of them, and exclaimed in a voice of happy fervor :
" Eobert ! I am yours ! "

Mr. Brandon, recovered from his first surprise, had
made a step forward to go round the table and greet
his visitor ; but at these words he stopped as if he had
been shot. Perception, understanding, and even ani
mation, seemed to have left him as he vacantly stared
at the elderly female with purple sunbonnet and um-

364



THE LATE MRS. NULL

brella, blue calico gown, red shawl, and coarse boots,
who held out her arms towards him, and who gazed
upon him with an air of tender, though decrepit,
fondness.

" Don't you understand me, Robert f " she continued.
" Don't you remember the day, many a good long year
ago, it is true, when we walked together down there
by the branch, and you asked me to be yours f I re
fused you, Eobert, and although you went down on
your knees in the damp grass and besought me to
give you my heart, I would not do it. But I did not
know you then as I know you now, Robert, and the
words of true love which you spoke to me that morn
ing come to me now with a sweetness which I was too
young and trifling to notice then. That heart is yours
now, Robert. I am yours." And with these words
she made a step forward.

At this demonstration Mr. Brandon appeared sud
denly to recover his consciousness, and he precipitately
made two steps backward, just missing tumbling over
his footstool into the fireplace.

" Madam ! " he exclaimed, " what are you talking
about?"

" Of the days of our courtship and your love, Rob
ert," she said. "My love did not come then, but it
is here nowhere now," she repeated, putting the
hand with the umbrella in it on her breast.

" Madam," exclaimed the old gentleman, " you must
be raving crazy ! Those things to which you allude
happened nearly half a century ago ; and since that
you have been married and settled, and"

"Robert," interrupted the widow Keswick, "you
are mistaken. It is not quite forty-five years since

365



THE LATE MRS. NULL

that morning, and why should hearts like ours allow
the passage of time, or the mere circumstance of what
might be called an outside marriage, but now extinct,
to come between them? There is many a spring,
Robert, which does not show when a man first begins
to dig, but it will bubble up in time. And, Robert,
it bubbles now." And with her head bent a little
downward, although her eyes were still fixed upon
him, she made another step in his direction.

Mr. Brandon now backed himself flat against some
book-shelves in his rear. The perspiration began to
roll from his face, and his whole form trembled.
" Mrs. Keswick ! Madam ! " he exclaimed, " you will
drive me mad ! "

The old lady dropped the end of her umbrella on
the floor, rested her two hands on the head of it, set
tled herself into an easy position to speak, and, with
her head thrown back, fixed a steady gaze upon the
trembling old gentleman. "Robert," she said, "do
not try to crush emotions which always were a credit
to you, although in those days gone by I didn't tell
you so. Your hair was black then, Robert, and you
looked taller, for you hadn't a stoop ; and your face
was very smooth, and so was mine ; and I remember I
had on a white dress with a broad ribbon around the
waist $ and neither of us wore specs. What you said
to me was very fresh and sweet, Robert, and it all
comes to me now as it never came before. You have
never loved another, Robert, and you don't know how
happy it makes me to think that, and to know that I
can come to you and find you the same true and con
stant lover that you were when, forty-five years ago,
you went down on your knees to me by the branch.

366



THE LATE MRS. NULL

We can't stifle those feelings of bygone days which
well up in our bosoms, Kobert. After all these years
I have learned what a prize your true love is, and I
return it. I am yours."

At this Mr. Brandon opened his mouth with a spas
modic gasp, but no word came from him. He looked
to the right and left, and then made a lunge to one
side, as if he would run around the old lady and gain
the door. But Mrs. Keswick was too quick for him.
With two sudden springs she reached the door and
put her back against it.

"Don't leave me, Robert," she said, "I have not
told you all. Don't you remember this breastpin?"
unfastening the large silver brooch from her shawl and
holding it out to him. " You gave it to me, Robert :
there were almost tears of joy in your eyes on the first
day I wore it, although I was careful to let you know
it meant nothing. Where are those tears to-day,
Robert! It means something now. I have kept it
all these years, although in the lifetime of Mr. Kes
wick it was never cleaned ; and I wore it to-day,
Robert, that your eyes might rest upon it once again,
and that you might speak to me the words you spoke
to me the day after I let you pin it on my white
neckerchief. You waited then, Robert, a whole day
before you spoke ; but you needn't wait now. Let
your heart speak out, dear Robert."

But dear Robert appeared to have no power to
speak, on this or any other subject. He was half sit
ting, half leaning on the corner of a table which stood
by a window, out of which he gave sudden agonized
and longing glances, as if, had he strength enough, he
would raise the sash and leap out.

367



THE LATE MRS. NULL

The old lady, however, had speech enough for two.
" Robert," she exclaimed, " how happy may we be,
yet ! If you wish to give up to a younger couple
this spacious mansion, these fine grounds and noble
elms, and come to my humble home, I shall only say
to you, l Robert, come ! ' I shall be alone there,
Eobert, and shall welcome you with joy. I have no
body now to give anything to. The late Mrs. Null,
by which I mean my niece, will marry a man who, if
reports don't lie, is rich enough to make her want
nothing that I have $ and as for Junius, he is to have
your property, as we all know. So all I have is yours,
if you choose to come to me, Eobert. But if you
would rather live here, I will come to you, and the
young people can board with us until your decease ;
after that I'll board with them. And I'm not sure,
Eobert, but I like the plan of coming here best.
There are lots of improvements we could make on this
place, with you to furnish the money, and me to ad
vise and direct. The first thing I'd do would be to
have down those abominable steps over the front fence,
and put a decent gate in its place ; and then we would
have a gravelled walk across the yard to the porch,
wide enough for you and me, Eobert, to walk together
arm in arm when we would go out to look over the
plantation, or stroll down to that spot on the branch,
Eobert, where the first plightings of our troth began."

The words of tender reminiscence, and of fond,
though rather late devotion, with which Mrs. Kes-
wick had stabbed and gashed the soul of the poor old
gentleman had at first deranged his senses, and then
driven him into a state of abject despair ; but the prac
tical remarks which succeeded seemed to have a more

368



THE LATE MRS. NULL

direful effect upon Mm. The idea of the being with
the sunbonnet and the umbrella entering into his life
at Midbranch, tearing down the broad steps which
his honored father had built, cutting a gravelled path
across the green turf which had been the pride of
generations, and doing no man could say what else
of advice and direction, seemed to strike a chill of
terror into his very bones.

The quick perception of Mrs. Keswick told her that
it was time to terminate the interview. "I will not
say anything more to you now, Robert," she said.
" Of course you have been surprised at my coming to
you to-day and accepting your offer of marriage, and
you must have time to quiet your mind and think it
over. I don't doubt your affection, Robert, and I
don't want to hurry you. I am going to stay here
to-night, so that we can have plenty of time to settle
everything comfortably. I'll go now and get one of
the servants to show me to a room where I can take
off my things. I'll see you again at dinner."

And, with a smile of antiquated coyness, she left the
room.



369



CHAPTER XXX

MR. BRANDON was not a weak man, nor one very sus
ceptible to outside influences ; but, in the whole course
of his life, nothing so extraordinarily nerve-stirring
had occurred to him as this visit of old Mrs. Keswick
endeavoring to appear in the character of the young
creature he had wooed some forty-five years before.
For a long time Mrs. Keswick had been the enemy of
himself and his family, and many a bitter onslaught
she had made upon him, both by letter and by word
of mouth. These he had borne with the utmost bra
very and coolness, and there were times when they
even afforded him entertainment. But this most
astounding attack was something against which no
man could have been prepared ; and Mr. Brandon,
suddenly pounced upon in the midst of his com
fortable bachelordom by a malevolent sorceress, and
hurled back to the days of his youth, was shown himself
kneeling, not at the feet of a fair young girl, but before
a horrible old woman.

This amazing and startling state of affairs was
too much for him immediately to comprehend. It
stunned and bewildered him. Such, indeed, was the
effect upon him that the first act of his mind, when
he was left alone and it began to act, was to ask of

370



THE LATE MRS. NULL

itself if there were really any grounds upon which
Mrs. Keswick could, with any reason, take up her
position? The absolute absurdity of her position,
however, became more and more evident as Mr.
Brandon's mind began to straighten itself and stand
up. And now he grew angry. Anger was a passion
with which he was not at all unfamiliar, and the ex
ercise of it seemed to do him good. When he had
walked up and down his library for a quarter of an
hour he felt almost like his natural self; and with
many nods of his head and shakes of his fist, he de
clared that the old woman was crazy, and that he
would bundle her home just as soon as he could.

By dinner-time he had cooled down a good deal,
and he resolved to treat her with the respect due to
her age and former condition of sanity, but to take
care that she should not again be alone with him, and
to arrange that she should return to her home that
day.

Mrs. Keswick came to the table with a smiling face,
and wearing a close-fitting white cap, which looked
like a portion of her night-gear, tied under her chin
with broad, stiff strings. In this she appeared to her
host far more hideous than when wearing her sun-
bonnet. Mr. Brandon had arranged that two servants
should wait upon the table, so that one of them should
always be in the room ; but in his supposition that the
presence of a third person would have any effect upon
the expression of Mrs. Keswick's fond regard he was
mistaken. The meal had scarcely begun when she
looked around the room with wide-open eyes, and
exclaimed : " Robert, if we should conclude to remain
here, I think we will have this room repapered with

371



THE LATE MRS. NULL

some light-colored paper. I like a light dining-room.
This is entirely too dark."

The two servants, one of whom was our old friend
Peggy, actually stopped short in their duties at this
remark ; and as for Mr. Brandon, his appetite imme
diately left him, to return no more during that meal.

He was obliged to make some answer to this speech,
and so he briefly remarked that he had no desire to
alter the appearance of his dining-room, and then
hastened to change the conversation by making some
inquiries about that interesting young woman, her
niece, who, he had been informed, was not a married
lady, as he had supposed her to be.

At this intelligence Peggy dropped two spoons and
a fork ; she had never heard it before.

"The late Mrs. Null," said Mrs. Keswick, "is a
young woman who likes to cut her clothes after her
own patterns. They may be becoming to her when
they are made up, or they may not be. But I am
inclined to think she has got a pretty good head on
her shoulders, and perhaps she knows what suits her
as well as any of us. I can't say it was easy to forgive
the trick she played on me, her own aunt, and just
the same, in fact, as her mother. But, Kobert," and
as she said this the old lady laid down her knife and
fork and looked tenderly at Mr. Brandon "I have
determined to forgive everybody and to overlook
everything, and I do this as much for your sake, dear
Robert, as for my own. It wouldn't do for a couple
of our age to be keeping up grudges against the young
people for their ways of getting out of marriages or
getting into them. We will have my niece and her
husband here sometimes, won't we, Robert?"

372



THE LATE MRS. NULL

Mr. Brandon straightened himself and remarked :
"Mr. Croft, whom I have heard your niece is to
marry, will be quite welcome here, with his wife."
Then, putting his napkin on the table, and pushing
back his chair, he said : " Now, madam, you must ex
cuse me, for I have orders to give to some of my
people which I had forgotten until this moment. But
do not let me interfere with your dinner. Pray con
tinue your meal."

Never before had Mr. Brandon been known to leave
his dinner until he had finished it, and he was not at
all accustomed to give such a poor reason for his
actions as the one he gave now ; but it was simply im
possible for him to sit any longer at table and have
that old woman talk in that shocking manner before
the servants.

" Kobert," cried Mrs. Keswick, as he left the room,
"I'll save some dessert for you, and we'll eat it to
gether."

Mr. Brandon's first impulse, when he found himself
out of the dining-room, was to mount his horse and
ride away ; but there was no place to which he wished
to ride, and he was a man who was very loath to
leave the comforts of his home. " No," he said. " She
must go, and not I." And then he went into his parlor,
and strode up and down. As soon as Mrs. Keswick
had finished her dinner, he would 'see her there and
speak his mind to her. He had determined that he
would not again be alone with her, but since the
presence of others was no restraint whatever upon
her, it had become absolutely necessary that he should
speak with her alone.

It was not long before the widow Keswick, with

373



THE LATE MRS. NULL

a brisk, blithe step, entered the parlor. " I couldn't
eat without you, Robert/' she cried, " and so I really
haven't half finished my dinner. Did you have to
come in here to speak to your people ? "

Mr. Brandon stepped to the door and closed it.
" Madam," he said, " it will be impossible for me, in
the absence of my niece, to entertain you here to
night, and so it would be prudent for you to start for
home as soon as possible, as the days are short. It
would be too much of a journey for your horse to go
back again to-day, and your vehicle is an open one ;
therefore I have ordered my carriage to be prepared,
and you may trust my driver to take you safely home,
even if it should be dark before you get there. If
you desire it, there is a young maid-servant here who
will go with you."

" Robert," said Mrs. Keswick, approaching the old
gentleman and gazing fondly upward at him, "you
are so good and thoughtful and sweet. But you need
not put yourself to all that trouble for me. I shall
stay here to-night, and in your house, dear Robert, I
can take care of myself a great deal better than any
lady could take care of me."

" Madam," exclaimed Mr. Brandon, " I want you to
stop calling me by my first name ! You have no right
to do so, and I won't stand it."

" Robert," said the old lady, looking at him with an
air of tender upbraiding, " you forget that I am yours,
now and forever."

Never since he had arrived at man's estate, and
probably not before, had Mr. Brandon spoken in im
proper language to a lady, but now it was all he could
do to restrain himself from the ejaculation of an oath ;

374



THE LATE MRS. NULL

but he did restrain himself, and only exclaimed:
" Confound it, madam, I cannot stand this ! Why do
you come here, to drive me crazy with your senseless
ravings ? "

" Robert," said Mrs. Keswick, very composedly, " I
do not wonder that my coming to you and accepting
the proposals which you once so heartily made to me,
and from which you have never gone back, should
work a good deal upon your feelings. It is quite
natural, and I expected it. Therefore don't hesitate
about speaking out your mind ; I shall not be offended.
So that we belong to each other for the rest of our
days, I don't mind what you say now, when it is all
new and unexpected to you. You and I have had
many a difference of opinion, Robert, and your plans
were not my plans. But things have turned out as
you wished, and you have what you have always
wanted ; and with the other good things, Robert, you
can take me." And, as she finished speaking, she held
out both hands to her companion.

With a stamp of his foot and a kick at a chair
which stood in his way, Mr. Brandon precipitately
left the room, and slammed the door after him ; and
if Peggy had not nimbly sprung to one side, he would
have stumbled over her, and have had a very bad fall
for a man of his age.

It was not ten minutes after this that, looking
out of a window, Mrs. Keswick saw a saddled horse
brought into the back yard. She hastened into the
hall, and found Peggy. "Run to Mr. Brandon," she
said, " and bid him good-by for me. I am going up
stairs to get ready to go home, and haven't time to
speak to him myself before he starts on his ride."

375



THE LATE MRS. NULL

At the receipt of this message the heart of Mr.
Brandon gave a bound which actually helped him to
get into the saddle ; but he did not hesitate in his
purpose of instant departure. If he stayed but for a
moment, she might come out to him and change her
mind j so he put spurs to his horse and galloped away,
merely stopping long enough, as he passed the stables,
to give orders that the carriage be prepared for Mrs.
Keswick, and taken round to the front.

As he rode through the cool air of that fine Novem
ber afternoon, the spirits of Mr. Brandon rose. He
felt a serene satisfaction in assuring himself that
although he had been very angry indeed with Mrs.
Keswick, on account of her most unheard-of and out
rageous conduct, yet he had not allowed his indigna
tion to burst out against her in any way of which he
would afterwards be ashamed. Some hasty words had
escaped him, but they were of no importance, and,
under the circumstances, no one could have avoided
speaking them. But when he had addressed her at
any length he had spoken dispassionately and prac
tically, and she, being at bottom a practical woman,
had seen the sense of his advice, and had gone home
comfortably in his carriage. Whether she took her
insane fancies home with her or dropped them on
the road, it mattered very little to him, so that he
never saw her again ; and he did not intend to see her
again. If she came again to his house, he would
leave it and not return until she had gone ; but he had
no reason to suppose that he would be forced into any
such exceedingly disagreeable action as this. He did
not believe she would ever come back. For, unless
she were really crazy, and in that case she ought to

376



THE LATE MRS. NULL

be put in the lunatic asylum, she could not keep up,
for any length of time, the extraordinary and out
rageous delusion that he would be willing to renew
the feelings that he had entertained for her in her
youth.

Mr. Brandon rode until nearly dark, for it took a
good while to free his mind from the effects of the
excitements and torments of that day ; but when he
entered the house and took his seat in his library
chair by the fire, he had almost regained his usual
composed and well-satisfied frame of mind.

Then, through the quietly opened door, came Mrs.
Keswick, and stealthily stepping towards him in the
fitful light of the blazing logs, she put her hand on his
arm and said : " Dear Robert, how glad I am to see
you back ! "

The next morning, about ten o'clock, Mrs. Keswick
sent her eighteenth or twentieth message to Mr. Bran
don, who had shut himself up in his room since a lit
tle before supper-time on the previous evening. The
message was sent by Peggy, and she was instructed to
shout it outside of her master's door until he took
notice of it. Its purport was that it was necessary
that Mrs. Keswick should go home to-day, and that
her horse was harnessed and she was now ready to go,
but that she could not think of leaving iintil she had
seen Mr. Brandon again. She would therefore wait
until he was ready to come down.

Mr. Brandon looked out of the window and saw the
spring-wagon at the outside of the broad stile, with
Plez standing at the sorrel's head. He remembered
that the venerable demon had said, at the first, that
she intended to stay but one night, and he could but

377



THE LATE MRS. NULL

believe that she was now really going. Knowing her
as he did, however, he was very well aware that if she
had said she would not leave until she had seen him,
she would stay in his house for a year unless he sooner
went down to her ; therefore he opened his door and


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 24 26

Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 24 of 26)