Frank Richard Stockton.

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

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leave that part of the country in order to make im
possible an interview for which he believed the proper

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

time had not arrived. He was consulting his best
interests, and also, no doubt, those of the lady. And
yet, in spite of this reasoning, he was not satisfied with
himself. He felt that his note was not entirely honest
and true. There was subterfuge about it, and some
thing of duplicity. This he believed was foreign to
his nature, and he did not like it.

Lawrence had scarcely finished his breakfast the
next morning when Mr. Junius Keswick arrived at
the door of his cottage. This gentleman had walked
over from Midbranch, and was a little dusty about his
boots and the lower part of his trousers. Lawrence
greeted him politely, but was unable to restrain a
slight indication of surprise. It being more pleasant
on the porch than in the house, Mr. Croft invited his
visitor to take a seat there, and the latter very kindly
accepted the cigar which was offered him, although
he would have preferred the pipe he had in his
pocket.

" I thought it possible," said Keswick, as soon as the
two had fairly begun to smoke, " that you might not
yet have left here, and so came over in the hope of
seeing you."

" Very kind," said Lawrence.

Keswick smiled. " I must admit," said he, " that it
was not solely for the pleasure of meeting you again
that I came, although I am very glad to have an op
portunity for renewing our acquaintance. I came
because I am quite convinced that Miss March wished
very much to see you at the time arranged between
you, and that she was annoyed and discomposed by
your failure to keep your engagement. Considering
that you did not, and probably could not, know this,

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

I deemed I would do you a service by informing you
of the fact."

"Did Miss March send you to tell me this?" ex
claimed Lawrence.

" Miss March knows nothing whatever of my com
ing/' was the answer.

" Then I must say, sir," exclaimed Lawrence, " that
you have taken a great deal upon yourself."

Keswick leaned forward, and after knocking off the
ashes of his cigar on the outside of the railing, he re
plied in a tone quite unmoved by the reproach of his
companion : " It may appear so on the face of it, but,
in fact, I am actuated only by a desire to serve Miss
March, for whom I would do any service that I thought
she desired. And, looking at it from your side, I am
sure that I would be very much obliged to any one
who would inform me, if I did not know it, that a lady
greatly wished to see me."

"Why does she want to see me?" asked Croft.
" What has she to say to me f "

"I do not know," said Keswick. "I only know
that she was very much disappointed in not seeing
you yesterday."

" If that is the case, she might have written to me,"
said Lawrence.

" I do not think you quite understand the situation,"
observed his companion. " Miss March is not a lady
who would even intimate to a gentleman that she
wished him to come to her when it was obvious that
such was not his desire. But it seemed to me that if
the gentleman should become aware of the lady's
wishes through the medium of a third party, the matter
would arrange itself without difficulty."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

"By the gentleman going to her, I suppose," re
marked Croft.

" Of course," said Keswick.

" There is no ' of course ' about it," was Lawrence's
rather quick reply.

At that moment some letters were brought to him
from a little post-office near by, to which he had
ordered his mail to be forwarded. As the address on
one of these letters caught his eye, the somewhat stern
expression on his face gave place to a smile, and beg
ging his visitor to excuse him, he put his other letters
into his pocket, and opened this one. It was very
short, and was from Mr. Candy's cashier. It was
written from Hewlett's, Virginia, a place unknown to
him, and stated that the writer expected in a very
short time to give him some accurate information in
regard to Mr. Keswick, and expressed the hope that
he would allow the affair to remain entirely in her
hands until she should write again. It was quite nat
ural that, under the circumstances, Lawrence should
smile broadly as he folded up this note. The man in
question was sitting beside him, and, in a measure,
was turning the tables upon him. Lawrence had been
very anxious to find out what sort of a man was Kes
wick, and the latter now seemed in the way of making
some discoveries in the same line in regard to Law
rence. One thing he must certainly do : he must write
as soon as possible to his enterprising agent, and tell
her that her services were no longer needed. She
must have pushed the matter with a great deal of
energy to have brought her down to Virginia, and he
could not help hoping that her discretion was equal to
her investigative capacity.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

When, after this little interruption, Lawrence again
addressed Junius Keswiek, his manner was so much
more affable that the other could not fail but notice it.

" Mr. Keswick," he said, " as our conversation seems
to be based upon personalities, perhaps you will ex
cuse me if I ask you if I am mistaken in believing that
you were once engaged to be married to Miss March ? "

"You are entirely correct," said Junius. "I was
engaged to her, and I hope to be engaged to her
again."

" Indeed ! " exclaimed Croft, turning in his chair
with a start.

" Yes," continued Keswick ; " our engagement was
dissolved in consequence of a certain family complica
tion, and, as I said before, I hope in time to be able to
renew it."

Lawrence threw away his cigar, and sat for a few
moments in thought. The engagement, then, did not
exist. Koberta was free. Eecollections came to him
of his own intercourse with her during the past sum
mer, and his heart gave a bound. "Mr. Keswick,"
said he, " upon consideration of the matter I think I
will call upon Miss March this morning."

If Keswick had expressed himself entirely satisfied
with this decision he would have done injustice to his
feelings. The service he had taken upon himself to
perform for Miss March he had considered a duty, but
if his mission had failed he would have been better
pleased than with its success. He made, however, a
courteous reply to Croft's remark, and rose to depart.
But this the other would not allow.

" You told me," said Croft, " that you walked over
here ; but it is much warmer now, and you must not

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

think of such a thing as walking back. The man here
has a horse and buggy. I will get him to harness up,
and I will drive you over to Midbranch."

As there was no good reason why he should decline
this offer, Junius accepted it, and in half an hour the
two were on their way.



82



CHAPTER VIII

OLD Mr. Brandon of Midbranch was not in a very
happy frame of mind, and he had good reasons for
dissatisfaction. He was an ardent supporter of a mar
riage between his niece and Junius Keswick ; and
when the engagement had been broken off he had con
sidered that both these yonng people had acted in a
manner very foolish and contrary to their best inter
ests. There was no opposition to the match except
from old Mrs. Keswick, who was the aunt of Junius,
but who considered herself as occupying the position
of a mother. Junius was the son of a sister who had
also married into the Keswick family, and his parents
having died while he was a boy, his aunt had taken
him under her charge, and her house had then become
his home ; although of late years some of his absences
had been long ones. Mrs. Keswick had no personal
objections to Roberta, never having seen that lady,
and knowing little of her ; but an alliance between her
Junius and any member of that branch of the Bran
dons " which," to use the old lady's own words, " had
for four generations cheated, stripped, and scornfully
used my people, scattering their atoms over the face
of three counties," was monstrous. Nothing could
make her consent to such an enormity, and she had

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

informed Junius that if he married that March girl
three of them should live together himself, his wife,
and her undying curse. In order that Miss March
might not fail to hear of this post-connubial arrange
ment, she had been informed of it by letter. Of course
this had broken off the engagement, for Roberta would
not live under a curse, nor would she tear a man from
the only near relative he had in the world. Keswick
himself, like most men, would have been willing to
have this tearing take place for the sake of uniting
himself to such a charming creature as Roberta March.
But the lady on one side was as inflexible as the
lady on the other, and the engagement was definitely
and absolutely ended.

Mr. Brandon considered all this as stuff and non
sense. He could not deny that his branch of the
Brandons had certainly got a good deal out of Mrs.
Keswick's family. But here was a chance to make
everything all right again, and he would be delighted
to see Junius, a relative, although a distant one, come
into possession of Midbranch. As for the old lady's
opposition, that should not be considered at all, he
thought. It was his opinion that her mind had been
twisted by her bad temper, and nothing she could say
could hurt anybody.

Of late Mr. Brandon had been much encouraged by
the fact that Junius had begun to resume his position
as a friend of the family. This was all very well. If
the young people, by occasional meetings, could keep
alive their sentiments towards each other, the time
would come when all opposition would cease, and the
marriage would become an assured fact. He did not
believe either of the young people would care enough

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

for a post-mortem curse, if there should be one, to
keep themselves separated from each other on its ac
count for the rest of their lives.

But the recent quite unexpected return of Lawrence
Croft to Midbranch, combined with the evident dis
composure into which Roberta had been thrown by
his failure to come the next day, had given the old
gentleman some unpleasant ideas. His niece had
mentioned that she expected Mr. Croft that day, and
although she said nothing in regard to her subsequent
disappointment and vexation, his mind was quite acute
enough to perceive it. Exactly what it all meant he
knew not, but it augured danger. For the first time
he began to look upon Mr. Croft in the light of a
suitor for Roberta. If a jealous feeling at finding
another person on the ground was the cause of his not
coming again, it showed that he was in earnest, and
this, added to the evident disturbance of mind of both
Roberta and Junius, was enough to give Mr. Brandon
most serious fears that an obstacle to his cherished
plan was arising. Roberta was fond of city life, of
society, of travel, and if she had really made up her
mind that her union with Junius was no longer to be
thought of, the advent of a man like Croft, who had
been making her acquaintance all summer, and who
had now returned to Virginia no doubt for the sole
purpose of seeing her again, was, to say the least, ex
ceedingly ominous. One thing only could correct this
deplorable state of affairs. The absurd bar to the
union of Junius and Roberta should be removed, and
they should be allowed to enter upon the happiness
that was their right.

Above all, the estate of Midbranch should not be

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

suffered to go into the possession of an outsider, who
might be good enough, but who was of no earthly
moment or interest to the Brandons. He would go
himself, and see the widow Keswick, and talk her out
of her nonsense. It was a long time since he had met
the old wildcat, as he termed her, and his recollection
of the last interview was not pleasant ; but he was not
afraid of her, and he hoped that the common sense of
what he would say would bring her to reason.

Mr. Brandon made up his mind during the night ;
and when he came down to breakfast he was very glad
to find that Junius had already gone out for a walk.
The distance to the widow Keswick's house was about
fifteen miles, a pleasant day's ride for the old gentle
man, and as he did not expect to return until the
next day, he felt obliged to inform Eoberta of his des
tination, although, of course, he said nothing about the
object of his visit. He told his niece that he was
obliged to see the widow Keswick on business, to which
remark she listened without reply.

Soon after breakfast he mounted his good horse
Albemarle, and early in the afternoon he arrived at
the widow Keswick's gate. He had looked for a
stormy reception, in which the thunder-bolts of rage
should burst around him, and he was surprised, there
fore, to be received with the frigidity of the North
Pole.

" I never expected," she said, without any previous
courtesy, " to see one of your people under my roof,
and it is not very long ago since I would have gone
away from it the moment any one of you came near it."

"I am happy, madam," said Mr. Brandon, in his
most courteous manner, " that that day is past."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" My staying won't do you any good," said the old
lady, whose purple sunbonnet seemed to heave with
the uprising of her hair, " except, perhaps, to get you a
better meal than the servants would have given you.
But I want a lawyer, and I can't afford to pay for one
either, and when I saw you coming I just made up my
mind to get something out of you, and if I do it, it'll
be the first red mark for my side of the family."

Mr. Brandon assured her that nothing would give
him more pleasure than to assist her in any way in
his power.

"Very well, then," said Mrs. Keswick; "just sit
down on that bench, and, when we have got through,
your horse can be taken, and you can rest awhile,
though it seems a very curious thing that you should
want to stop here to rest."

" Well, madam," said Mr. Brandon, seating himself
as comfortably as possible on a wooden bench, " I shall
be happy to hear anything you have to say."

The old lady did not sit down, but stood up in front
of him, leaning on her umbrella, with which faithful
companion she had been about to set out on her walk.
" When my son Junius came home awhile ago" she
began.

"Do you still call him your son?" interrupted Mr.
Brandon.

" Indeed I do ! " was the very prompt answer.
" That's just what he is. And, as I was going to say,
when he wrote me a short time ago that he was coming
here, I believed, from his letter, that he had some
scheme on hand in regard to your niece, and I made
up my mind I wouldn't stay in the house to hear
anything more said on that subject. I had told him

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

that I never wanted him to say another word about it ;
and it made my blood boil, sir, to think that he had
come again to try to cozen me into the vile compact."

" Madam ! " exclaimed Mr. Brandon.

" The next day," continued Mrs. Keswick, " a lady
arrived ; and as soon as I saw her drive into the gate
I felt sure it was Eoberta March, and that the two
had hatched up a plot to come and work on my feel
ings, and so I wouldn't come near the house."

" Madam ! " exclaimed Mr. Brandon, " how could
you dream such a thing of my niece? You don't
know her, madam."

" No," said the old lady, " I don't know her, but I
knew she belonged to your family, and so I was not to
be surprised at anything she did. But I found out I
was mistaken. An old negro woman recognized this
young person as the daughter of my younger sister
you know there were three of us. The child was born
and raised here, but I have not seen and have scarcely
heard of her since she was eight years old."

" That's very extraordinary, madam," said Mr.
Brandon.

" No, it isn't, when you consider the stubbornness,
the obstinacy, and the wickedness of some people. My
sister sickened when the child was about six years old,
and her husband, Harvey Peyton"

11 1 have frequently heard of him, madam," said Mr.
Brandon.

"And I wish I never had," said she. "Well, he
was travelling most of the time, a thing my sister
couldn't do ; but he came here then, and stayed, off
and on, till she died. And not long afterwards, just
because I told him that I intended to consider the

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

child as my child, and that she should have the name
of Keswick instead of his name, and should know me
as her mother, and live with me always, he got angry
and flared up, and actually took the child away. I
gave it to him hot, I can tell you, before he left, and
I never saw him again. He was so eaten up with rage
because I wanted to take the little Annie for my own,
that he filled her mind with such prejudices against
me that when he died, a year or two ago, she actually
went to work to get her own living instead of applying
to me for help. But now she has come down here, and
I was really filled with joy to have her again and carry
out the plan on which my heart had long been set-
that is, to marry her to her cousin Junius, and let them
have this farm when I am gone"

At this Mr. Brandon raised his eyebrows and low
ered the corners of his mouth.

" But I suddenly discover," continued the old lady,
" that the little wretch is married actually married."

At this Mr. Brandon lowered his eyebrows and raised
the corners of his mouth. "Did her husband come
with her ? " he asked, pleasantly. And he gave a few
long, free breaths, as if he had just passed in safety a
very dangerous and unsuspected rock.

"No, he didn't," replied the old lady. "I don't
know where he is, and, from what I can make out, he
is an utterly good-for-nothing fellow, allowing his wife
to go where she pleases and take care of herself. Now
this abominable marriage stands square in the way of
the plan which again rose up in my mind the moment
I heard that the girl was in my house. If Junius and
she should marry, there would be no more dangers
for me to look out for."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" But the existence of a husband/' said Mr. Brandon,
blandly, "puts an end to all thoughts of such an alli
ance."

" No, it don't/ 7 said the old lady, bringing her um
brella down with force on the porch. " Not a bit of
it. Such an outrageous marriage should not be suf
fered to exist. They should be divorced. He does
nothing for her, and neglects and deserts her abso
lutely. There's every ground for a divorce, or enough
grounds, at any rate. All that's necessary is for a
lawyer to take it up. I don't know any lawyers, and
when I saw you riding up from the road gate I said
to myself: 'Here's the very man I want and it's full
time I should get something from people who have
taken nearly everything from me.' "

Mr. Brandon bowed.

" And now," continued the old lady, " I am going to
put the case into your hands. The man is evidently
a good-for-nothing scoundrel, and has probably spent
the little money that her miserable father left her.
It's a clear case of desertion, and there should be no
trouble at all in getting the divorce."

Mr. Brandon looked down upon the floor of the
porch, and smiled. This was a pretty case, he thought,
to put into his hands. Here was a marriage which was
the strongest protection in the promotion of his own
plan, and he was asked to annul it. "Very good,"
thought Mr. Brandon, "very good." And he smiled
again. But he was an old-fashioned gentleman, and
not used to refuse requests made to him by ladies.
" I will look into it, madam," said he. " I will look
into it, and see what can be done."

" Something must be done," said the old lady ; " and

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

the right thing, too. How long do you intend to stay
here?"

"I thought of spending the night, madam, as my
horse and myself are scarcely in condition to continue
our journey to-day."

" Stay as long as you like," said Mrs. Keswick. " I
turn nobody from my doors, even if they belong to
the Brandon family. I want you to talk to my niece,
and get all you can out of her about this thing, and
then you can go to work and blot out this contemptible
marriage as soon as possible."

" The first thing," said Mr. Brandon, " will be to talk
to the lady."

This reply being satisfactory to Mrs. Keswick, Uncle
Isham was called to take the horse and attend to him,
while the master was invited into the house.

Mr. Brandon first met Mrs. Null at supper-time,
and her appearance very much pleased him. " It is
not likely," he said to himself, "that the man lives
who would willingly give up such a charming young
creature as this." They were obliged to introduce
themselves to each other, as the lady of the house had
not yet appeared. After a while Letty, who was in
attendance, advised them to sit down, as "de light
bread an' de batterbread was gittin' cole."

" We could not think of such a thing as sitting at
table before Mrs. Keswick arrives," said Mr. Brandon.

" Oh, dar's no knowin' when she'll come," said the
blooming Letty. "She may be h'yar by breakfus'-
time, but dar ain't nobuddy in dis yere worl' kin tell.
She's down at de bahn now, blowin' up Plez fur gwine
to sleep when he was a-shellin' de cohn-fiel' peas. An 7
when she's got froo wid him she's got a bone to pick

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

wid Uncle Isham 'bout de gyardin. 'Tain't no use
waitin' fur ole miss. She nebber do come when de
bell rings. She come when she git ready, an' not
afore."

Mr. Brandon now felt quite sure that it was the in
tention of his hostess not to break bread with one of
his family, and so he seated himself, Mrs. Null taking
the head of the table and pouring out the tea and
coffee.

" It has been a long time, madam, since you were in
this part of the country," said the old gentleman, as
he drew the smoking batterbread towards him and
began to cut it.

" Yes," said Mrs. Null ; " not since I was a little girl.
I suppose you have heard, sir, that Aunt Keswick and
my father were on very bad terms, and would not have
anything to do with each other?"

" Oh, yes," said Mr. Brandon ; " I have heard that."

" But my father is not living now, and I am down
here again."

1 1 And your husband f He did not accompany you f "
said Mr. Brandon.

" No," replied Mrs. Null, very quickly. " We were
both very sorry that it was not possible for him to
come with me."

Mr. Brandon's spirits began to rise. This did not
look quite like desertion. " I have no doubt you have
a very good husband. I am sure you deserve such a
one," he said, with the air of a father and the purpose
of a lawyer.

" Good ! " exclaimed Mrs. Null, her eyes sparkling.
" He couldn't be better if he tried ! Will you have
sweet milk or buttermilk ? "

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i _



THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Buttermilk, if you please," said Mr. Brandon. " Of
course your aunt was delighted to have you with her
again."

" Oh," said Mrs. Null, with a laugh, " she was not at
home when I arrived, but when she returned nothing
could be too good for me. Why, she had been here
scarcely half an hour, and hadn't taken off her sun-
bonnet, before she told me I was to marry Junius and
we two were to have this farm."

" A very pleasant plan, truly," said Mr. Brandon.

" But then, you see," continued the young girl, " Mr.
Null stood dreadfully in the way of such an arrange
ment ; and when Aunt Keswick heard about him you
can't imagine what a change came over her."

" Oh, yes, I can ; yes, I can," exclaimed Mr. Brandon,
" I can imagine it very well."

" But she didn't give up a bit," said Mrs. Null. " I
don't think she ever does give up."

"You are right, there," said Mr. Brandon, "quite
right. But what does she propose to do? "

" I don't know, I'm sure ; but she said I had no right
to marry without the consent of my surviving rela
tives, and that she was going to look into it. I can't
think what she means by that."

Mr. Brandon made no immediate answer. He gave
Mrs. Null some damson preserves, and he took some
himself, and then he helped himself to a great hot roll
from a plate that Letty had just brought in, and care
fully opening it he buttered it on the inside, and
covered one half of it with the damson preserves.
This he began slowly to eat, drinking at times from
the foaming glass of buttermilk at the side of his plate,
from which the coffee-cup had been removed. When

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

he had finished the half-roll he again spoke : " I
think, my dear young lady, that your aunt is desirous
of having your marriage set aside."

"How can she do that?" exclaimed the girl, her
face flushing. " Has she been talking to you about it f "

"I cannot deny that she has spoken to me on the



Online LibraryFrank Richard StocktonThe novels and stories of Frank R. Stockton . (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 26)