Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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Mahs' John take jes as much car' o' he neighbus'
cohn as he own. An' den he see Mahs' John stan' up
ag'in' de pos' an' shoot de pistol, an' he see Mahs' John's
soul come right out de hole in de top ob his head an'
go straight up to heben like a sky-racket."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Wid a whiz ? " asked the open-eyed Letty.

" Like a sky-racket, I tell you," continued the old
man ; " an' den me an 7 ole miss come up. She jes tuk
one look at him, an' den she said in a wice, not like
she own wice, but like Mahs' John's wice, wot had
done gone forebber : You Jim, come out o' dat cohn
an' help carry him in ! ' An' we free carried him in.
An' you dunno ole miss, nohow, an' I don' want to
hear no fool talk from you, Letty, 'bout her. Jes
you 'member dat ! "

And with this Uncle Isham betook himself to the
solitude of his own cabin.

"Well," said Letty to herself, as she rose and ap
proached the bed in the corner of the room, "I'se
pow'ful glad dat somebody's gwine to take de key-
bahsket, for I nebber goes inter dat sto'-room by
myse'f widout tremblin' all froo my backbone fear ole
miss come back, an' fin' me dar 'lone."



46



CHAPTER V

WHEN Lawrence Croft now took his afternoon walks
in the city, he was very glad to wear a light overcoat,
and to button it, too. But, although the air was get
ting a little nipping in New York, he knew that it
must still be balmy and enjoyable in Virginia. He
had never been down there at this season, but he had
heard about the Virginia autumns, and besides, he
had seen a lady who had had a letter from Roberta
March. In this letter Miss March had written that
as her father intended making a trip to Texas, and
therefore would not come to New York as early as
usual, she would stay at least a month longer with her
Uncle Brandon ; and she was glad to do it, for the
weather was perfectly lovely, and she could stay out
of doors all day if she wanted to.

Lawrence's walks, although very invigorating on
account of the fine, sharp air, were not entirely cheer
ing, for they gave him an opportunity to think that
he was making no progress whatever in his attempt to
study the character of Junius Keswick. He had in
trusted the search for that gentleman's address to Mr.
Candy's cashier, who had informed him, most oppor
tunely, that she was about to set out on a wedding-
tour, and that she had possessed herself of clews of

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

much value which could be readily followed up in con
nection with the projected journey. But a fortnight
or more had elapsed without his hearing anything
from her, and he had come to the conclusion that hy
meneal joys must have driven all thoughts of business
out of her little head.

After hearing that Roberta March intended pro
tracting her stay in the country, the desire came to
him to go down there himself. He would like to have
the novel experience of that region in autumn, and
he would like to see Roberta, but he could not help
acknowledging to himself that the proceeding would
scarcely be a wise one, especially as he must go with
out the desired safeguard of knowing what kind of
man Miss March had once been willing to accept. He
felt that if he went down to the neighborhood of Mid-
branch one of the battles of his life would begin, and
that when he held up before him his figurative shield,
he would see in its inner mirror that, on account of
his own disposition towards the lady, he was in a con
dition of great peril. But, for all that, he wanted
very much to go, and no one will be surprised to learn
that he did go.

He was a little embarrassed at first in regard to the
pretext which he should make to himself for such a
journey. Whatever satisfactory excuse he could make
to himself in this case would, of course, do for other
people. Although he was not prone to make excuses
for his conduct to other people in general, he knew he
would have to give some reason to Mr. Brandon and
Miss Roberta for his return to Virginia so soon after
having left it. He determined to make a visit to the
mountains of North Carolina, and as Midbranch would

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

lie in his way, of course he would stop there. This he
assured himself was not a subterfuge. It was a very
sensible thing to do. He had a good deal of time on
his hands before the city season, at least for him,
would begin, and he had read that the autumn was an
admirable time to visit the country of the French
Broad. How long a stop he would make at Midbranch
would be determined by circumstances. He was sorry
that he would not be able to look upon Miss Koberta
with the advantage of knowing her former lover, but
it was something to know that she had had a lover.
With this fact in his mind he would be able to form
a better estimate of her than he had formed before.

The man who lived in the cottage at the Green
Sulphur Springs was somewhat surprised when Mr.
Croft arrived there, and desired to make arrangements,
as before, for board, and the use of a saddle-horse.
But, although it was not generally conceded, this man
knew very well that there was no water in the world
so suitable to remedy the wear and tear of a city life
as that of the Green Sulphur Springs, and therefore
nobody could consider the young gentleman foolish for
coming back again while the season permitted.

Lawrence arrived at his cottage in the morning ; and
early in the afternoon of the same day he rode over
to Midbranch. He found the country a good deal
changed, and he did not like the changes. His road,
which ran for much of its distance through the woods,
was covered with leaves, some green, and some red and
yellow, and he did not fancy the peculiar smell of
these leaves, which reminded him, in some way, of
that gathering together of the characters in old-fash
ioned comedies shortly before the fall of the curtain.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

In many places where there used to be a thick shade
the foliage was now quite thin, and through it he
could see a good deal of the sky. The Virginia
creepers, or poison-oaks, whichever they were, were
growing red upon the trunks of the trees, as if they
had been at table too long and showed it, and when
he rode out of the woods he saw that the fields, which
he remembered as wide, swelling slopes of green, with
cattle and colts feeding here and there, were now being
ploughed into corrugated stretches of monotonous drab
and brown. If he had been there through all the
gradual changes of the season, he, probably, would
have enjoyed them as much as people ordinarily do ;
but coming back in this way, the altered landscape
slightly shocked him.

When he had turned into the Midbranch gate, but
was still a considerable distance from the house, he
involuntarily stopped his horse. He could see the
broad steps which crossed the fence of the lawn, and
on one side of the platform on the top sat a lady whom
he instantly recognized as Miss Roberta ; and on the
other side of the platform sat a gentleman. These two
occupied very much the same positions as Lawrence
himself and Miss March had occupied when we first
became acquainted with them. Lawrence looked very
sharply and earnestly at the gentleman. Could it be
Mr. Brandon? No, it was a much younger person.

His first impulse was to turn and ride away, but this
would be silly and unmanly, and he continued his way
to the stile. His disposition to treat the matter with
contempt made him feel how important the matter
was to him. The gentleman on the platform first saw
Lawrence, and announced to the lady that some one

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

was coming. Miss March turned around, and then
rose to her feet.

" Upon my word ! " she exclaimed, elevating her
eyebrows a good deal more than was usual with her,
" if that isn't Mr. Croft ! "

"Who is he? " asked the other, also rising.

" He is a New York gentleman whom I know very
well. He was down here last summer, but I can't
imagine what brings him here again."

Lawrence dismounted, tied his horse, and ap
proached the steps. Miss Eoberta welcomed him
cordially, coming down a little way to shake hands
with him. Then she introduced the two gentlemen.

" Mr. Croft," she said, " let me make you acquainted
with Mr. Keswick."

The afternoon, or the portion of it that was left,
was spent on the porch, Mr. Brandon joining the
party. It was to him that Lawrence chiefly talked,
for the most part about the game and scenery of North
Carolina, with which the old gentleman was quite
familiar. But Lawrence had sufficient regard for
himself and his position in the eyes of this family to
help make a good deal of general conversation. What
he said or heard, however, occupied only the extreme
corners of his mind, the main portion of which was
entirely filled with the chilling fear that that man
might be the Keswick he was looking for. Of course,
there was a bare chance that it was not, for there
might be a numerous family, but even this little
stupid glimmer of comfort was extinguished when
Mr. Brandon familiarly addressed the gentleman as
" Junius."

Lawrence took a good look at the man he was

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

anxious to study, and as far as outward appearances
were concerned lie could find no fault with Roberta
for having accepted him. He was taller than Croft,
and not so correctly dressed. He seemed to be a
person whom one would select as a companion for a
hunt, a sail, or a talk upon political economy. There
was about him an air of present laziness, but it was also
evident that this was a disposition that could easily be
thrown off.

Lawrence's mind was not only very much occupied,
but very much perturbed. It must have been all a
mistake about the engagement having been broken
off. If this had been the case, the easy friendliness of
the relations between Keswick and the old gentleman
and his niece would have been impossible. Once or
twice the thought came to Lawrence that he should
congratulate himself for not having avowed his feelings
towards Miss Eoberta when he had an opportunity of
doing so; but his predominant emotion was one of
disgust with his previous mode of action. If he had
not weighed and considered the matter so carefully,
and had been willing to take his chances as other men
take them, he would, at least, have known in what
relation he stood to Eoberta, and would not have
occupied the ridiculous position in which he now felt
himself to be.

When he took his leave, Roberta went with him to
the stile. As they walked together across the smooth,
short grass, a new set of emotions arose in Lawrence's
mind which drove out every other. They were grief,
chagrin, and even rage, at not having won this woman.
As to actual speech, there was nothing he could say,
although his soul boiled and bubbled within him in

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

his desire to speak. But if he had anything to say,
now was his chance, for he had told them that he
would proceed with his journey the next day.

Miss Roberta had a way of looking up and looking
down at the same time, particularly when she had
asked a question and was waiting for the answer. Her
face would be turned a little down, but her eyes would
look up and give a very charming expression to those
upturned eyes ; and if she happened to allow the smile
with which she ceased speaking to remain upon her
pretty lips, she generally had an answer of some sort
very soon. If for no other reason, it would be given
that she might ask another question. It was in this
manner she said to Lawrence : " Do you really go away
from us to-morrow ! "

"Yes," said he, "I shall push on."

" Do you not find the country very beautiful at this
season?" asked Miss Roberta, after a few steps in
silence.

"I don't like autumn," answered Lawrence.
" Everything is drying up and dying. I would rather
see things dead."

Eoberta looked at him without turning her head.
" But it will be just as bad in North Carolina," she said.

"There is an autumn in ourselves," he answered,
"just as much as there is in nature. I won't see so
much of that down there."

" In some cases," said Koberta, slowly, " autumn is
impossible."

They had reached the bottom of the steps, and Law
rence turned and looked towards her. " Do you mean,"
he asked, " when there has been no real summer ? "

Roberta laughed. " Of course," said she, " if there
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

has been no summer there can be no autumn. But
you know there are places where it is summer all the
time. Would you like to live in such a clime ? "

Lawrence Croft put one foot on the step, and then
he drew it back. " Miss March," said he, " my train
does not leave until the afternoon, and I am coming
over here in the morning to have one more walk in
the woods with you. May I ? "

" Certainly," she said ; " I shall be delighted ; that
is, if you can overlook the fact that it is autumn."

When Miss Roberta returned to the house she found
Junius Keswick sitting on a bench on the porch. She
went over to him, and took a seat at the other end of
the bench.

" So your gentleman is gone," he said.

"Yes," she answered, "but only for the present.
He is coming back in the morning."

"What for?" asked Keswick, a little abruptly.

Miss Eoberta took off her hat, for there was no need
of a hat on a shaded porch, and holding it by the
ribbons, she let it gently slide down towards her feet.
" He is coming," she said, speaking rather slowly, " to
take a walk with me, and I know very well that when
we have reached some place where he is sure there is
no one to hear him, he is going to tell me that he loves
me ; that he did not intend to speak quite so soon, but
that circumstances have made it impossible for him to
restrain himself any longer, and he will ask me to be
his wife."

"And what are you going to say to him?" asked
Keswick.

" I don't know," replied Eoberta, her eyes fixed upon
the hat, which she still held by its long ribbons.

54



THE LATE MRS. NULL

The next morning Junius Keswick, who had been
up a long, long time before breakfast, sat, after that
meal, looking at Roberta, who was reading a book in
the parlor. " She is a strange girl," thought he. " I
cannot understand her. How is it possible that she
can sit there so placidly reading that volume of Hux
ley, which I know she never saw before and which she
has opened just about the middle, on a morning when
she is expecting a man who will say things to her which
may change her whole life 1 I could almost imagine
that she has forgotten all about it."

Peggy, who had just entered the room to inform her
mistress that Aunt Judy was ready for her, stood in
rigid uprightness, her torpid eyes settled upon the
lady. "I reckon," so ran the thought within the
mazes of her dark little interior, " dat Miss Rob's wus
disgruntled dan she was dat ebenin 7 when I make my
cake, fur she got two difent kinds o> shoes on."

The morning went on, and Keswick found that he
must go out again for a walk, although he had rambled
several miles before breakfast. After her household
duties had been completed, Miss Roberta took her book
out to the porch ; and about noon, when her uncle
came out and made some remarks upon the beauty of
the day, she turned over the page at which she had
opened the volume j ust after breakfast. An hour later
Peggy brought her some luncheon, and felt it to be her
duty to inform Miss Rob that she still wore one old
boot and a new one. When Roberta returned to the
porch after making a suitable change, she found Kes
wick there, looking a little tired.

"Has your friend gone? " he asked, in a very quiet
tone.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" He has not come yet/ 7 she answered.

"Not come!" exclaimed Keswick. "That's odd!
However, there are two hours yet before dinner."

The two hours passed and no Lawrence Croft ap
peared 5 nor came he at all that day. About dusk
the man at the Green Sulphur Springs rode over with
a note from Mr. Croft. The note was to Miss March, of
course, and it simply stated that the writer was very
sorry he could not keep the appointment he had made
with her, but that it had suddenly become necessary
for him to return to the North without continuing the
journey he had planned ; that he was much grieved to
be deprived of the opportunity of seeing her again ;
but that he would give himself the pleasure, at the
earliest possible moment, of calling on Miss March
when she arrived in New York.

When Miss Roberta had read this note she handed
it to Keswick, who, when he returned it, asked : " Does
that suit you?"

" No," said she, " it does not suit me at all."



56



CHAPTER VI

IT was mail-day at the very small village known as
Hewlett's, and to the fence in front of the post-office
were attached three mules and a horse. Inside the
yard, tied to the low bough of a tree, was a very lean
and melancholy horse, on which had lately arrived
Wesley Green, the negro man who, twice a week,
brought the mail from Pocahontas, a railway -station
twenty miles away. There was a station not six miles
from Hewlett's, but, for some reason, the mail-bag
was always brought from and carried to Pocahontas ;
Wesley Green requiring a whole day for a deliberate
transit between the two points.

In the post-office, which was the front room of a
small wooden house approached by a high flight of
steps, was the postmistress, Miss Harriet Corvey, who
sat on the floor in one corner, while before her ex
tended a semicircle of men and boys. In this little as
semblage certain elderly men occupied seats which
were considered to belong to them quite as much as if
they had been hired pews in a church, and behind
them stood up a row of tall young men and bare
footed boys of the neighborhood, while farthest in
the rear were some quiet little darkies with mail-
bags slung across their shoulders.

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THE LATE MRS. NULI

On a chair to the right, and most convenient to Miss
Harriet, sat old Madison Chalkley, the biggest and
most venerable citizen of the neighborhood. Mr.
Chalkley never, by any chance, got a letter, the only
mail-matter he received being the " Southern Baptist
Becorder," which came on Saturdays, but, like most
of the people present, he was at the post-office every
mail-day to see who got anything. Next to him sat
Colonel Iston, a tall, lean, quiet old gentleman, who
had, for a long series of years, occupied the position of
a last apple on a tree. He had no relatives, no friends
with whom he corresponded, no business that was not
conducted by word of mouth. In the last fifteen years
he had received but one letter, and that had so sur
prised him that he carried it about with him three
days before he opened it, and then he found that it
was really intended for a gentleman of the same name
in another county. And yet everybody knew that if
Colonel Iston failed to appear in his place on mail-day, it
would be because he was dead or prostrated by sickness.

With the mail-bag on the floor at her left, Miss
Harriet, totally oblivious of any law forbidding the
opening of the mails in public, would put her hand
into its open mouth, draw forth a letter or a paper,
hold it up in front of her spectacles, and call out the
name of its owner. Most of the letters went to the
black boys with the mail-bags who came from country
houses in the neighborhood, but whoever received
letter, journal, or agricultural circular, received also
at the same time the earnest gaze of everybody else in
the room. Sometimes there was a letter for which
there was no applicant present, and then Miss Harriet
would say : " Is anybody going past Mrs. Willis Sum-

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

merses?" And if anybody was, he would take the
letter, and it is to be hoped he remembered to deliver
it in the course of a week.

In spite of the precautions of the postmistress, un
called for letters would gradually accumulate, and
there was a little bundle of these in one of the few
pigeonholes in a small desk in the corner of the room,
in the drawer of which the postage-stamps were kept.
Now and then a registered letter would arrive, and
this always created considerable sensation in the room,
and if the legal recipient did not happen to be present,
Miss Harriet never breathed a quiet breath until he
or she had been sent for, had taken the letter, and
given her a receipt. Sometimes she sat up as late as
eleven o'clock at night on mail-days, hoping that some
one who had been sent for would arrive to relieve her
of a registered letter.

All the mail-matter had been distributed, everybody
but Mr. Madison Chalkley had left the room ; and when
the old gentleman, as was his wont on the first day of
the month, had gone up to the desk, untied the bundle
of uncalled-for letters, the outer ones permanently
rounded by the tightness of the cord, and after care
fully looking over them, one by one, had made his
usual remark about the folly of people who wouldn't
stay in a place until their letters could get to them,
had tied up the bundle and taken his departure ; then
Miss Harriet put the empty mail-bag under the desk,
and went up-stairs, where an old lady sat by the win
dow, sewing in the fading light.

" No letters for you to-day, Mrs. Keswick," said she.

" Of course not," was the answer ; " I didn't expect



any."



59



THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Don't you think/' said Miss Harriet, taking a seat
opposite the old lady, " that it is about time for you
to go home and attend to your affairs'? "

"Well, upon my word!" said Mrs. Keswick, let
ting her hands and v her work fall in her lap, " that's
truly hospitable. I didn't expect it of you, Harriet
Corvey."

" I wouldn't have said it," returned the postmistress,
" if I hadn't felt dead certain that you knew you were
always welcome here. But Tony Miles told me, just
before the mail came in, that the lady who's at your
place is running it herself, and that she's going to use
pickle brine for a fertilizer."

"Very likely," said Mrs. Keswick, her face totally
unmoved by this intelligence, "very likely. That's
the way they used to do in ancient times, or some
thing of the same kind. They used to sow salt over
their enemy's land so that nothing would ever grow
there. That woman's family has sowed salt over the
lands of me and mine for three generations, and it's
quite natural she should come here to finish up."

There was a little silence after this, and then Miss
Harriet remarked : " Your people must know where
you are. Why don't they come and tell you about
these things?"

" They know better," answered Mrs. Keswick, with
a grim smile. " I went away once before, and Uncle
Isham hunted me up, and he got a lesson that he'll
never forget. When I want them to know where I
am, I'U tell them."

"But really and truly," said Miss Harriet, "and
you know I only speak to you for your own good, for
you pay your board here, and if you didn't you'd be

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

just as welcome, do you intend to keep away from
your own house as long as that lady chooses to stay
there?"

" Exactly so long/ 7 answered the old lady. " I shall
not keep them out of my house if they choose to come
to it. No member of my family ever did that. There
is the house, and they are free to enter it, but they
shall not find me there. If there was any reason to
believe that everything was dropped and done with,
I would be as glad to see him as anybody could be, but
I knew from his letter just what he was going to say
when he came, and as things have turned out, I see
that it was all worse than I expected. He and Ko-
berta March were both coming, and they thought that
together they could talk me down, and make me for
give and be happy, and all that stuff. But as I wasn't
there, of course he wouldn't stay, and so there she is
now by herself. She thinks I must come home after a
while, and the minute I do that, back he'll come, and
then they'll have just what they want. But I reckon
she'll find that I can stick it out just as long as she can.
If Koberta March turns things upside down there, it'll
be because she can't keep her hands out of mischief,
and that proves that she belongs to her own family.
If there's any harm done, it don't matter so much to
me, and it will be worse for him in the end. And
now, Harriet Corvey, if you've got to make up the
mail to go away early in the morning, you'd better
have supper over and get about it."

Meanwhile, at Mrs. Keswick's house Mrs. Null was
acting just as conscientiously as she knew how. She
had had some conversations with Freddy on the sub
ject, and she had assured him, and at the same time

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

herself, that what she was doing was the only thing



Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 4 of 26)