Frank Richard Stockton.

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subject," he answered, " I being a lawyer. But I will
say to you, in strict confidence, please, that if you and
your husband are sincerely attached to each other
there is nothing on earth she can do to separate you."

" Attached ! " exclaimed Mrs. Null. " It would be
impossible for us to be more attached than we are.
We never have had the slightest difference, even of
opinion, since our wedding-day. Why, I believe that
we are more like one person than any married couple
in the world."

"I am very glad to hear it," said Mr. Brandon,
finishing his buttermilk, "very glad indeed. And,
feeling as you do, I am certain that nothing your aunt
can say will make any impression on you in regard to
seeking a divorce."

"I should think not!" said Mrs. Null, sitting up
very straight. " Divorce, indeed ! "

" I fully uphold you in the stand you have taken,"
said Mr. Brandon. " But I beg you will not mention
this conversation to your aunt. It would only annoy
her. Is your cousin expected here shortly ? "

" I believe so," she said. " To be sure, my aunt left
the house the last time he came, but she has his ad
dress, and has written for him. I think she wants us
to get acquainted as soon as possible, so that no time
will be lost in marrying us after poor Mr. Null is dis
posed of."

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Very good, very good," said Mr. Brandon, with a
laugh. " And now, my dear young friend, I want to
give you a piece of advice. Stay here as long as you
can. Your aunt will soon perceive the absurdity of
her ideas in regard to your husband, and will cease to
annoy you. Make a friend of your cousin Junius,
whom I know and respeet highly ; and he certainly
will be of advantage to you. Above all things, en
deavor to thoroughly reconcile him and Mrs. Keswick,
so that she will cease to oppose his wishes, and to
interfere with his future fortune. If you can bring
back good feeling between these two, you will be the
angel of the family."

Thank you," said Mrs. Null, as they rose from the
table.

The next morning, after Mr. Brandon and Mrs. Null
had breakfasted together, the mistress of the house,
having apparently finished the performance of the
duties which had kept her from the breakfast-table,
had some conversation with her visitor. In this he
repeated very little of what he had said to the younger
lady the night before, but he assured Mrs. Keswick
that he had discovered that it would be a very deli
cate thing to propose to her niece a divorce from her
husband, a thing to which she was not at all inclined,
as he had found.

" Of course not ! of course not ! " exclaimed Mrs.
Keswick. "She can't be expected to see what a
wretched plight she has got herself into by marrying
this straggler from nobody knows where."

" But, madam," said Mr. Brandon, " if you worry
her about it, she will leave you, and then all will be
at an end. Now, let me advise you as your lawyer.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Keep her here as long as you can. Do everything
possible to foster friendship and good feeling between
her and Junius j and to do this you must forget as far
as possible all that has gone by, and be friendly with
both of them yourself."

" Humph ! " said the widow Keswick. " I didn't ask
you for advice of that sort."

"It is all a part of the successful working of the
case, madam," said Mr. Brandon. " A thorough good
feeling must be established before anything else can
be done."

" I suppose so," said the old lady. " She must learn
to like us before she begins to hate him. And how
about your niece? Are you going to send her down
here to help on in the good feeling? "

"I have not brought my niece into this affair,"
replied Mr. Brandon, with dignity.

"Well, then, see that you don't," was the widow
Keswick's reply. And the interview terminated.

When Mr. Brandon rode away on his good horse
Albemarle, he looked at the post of the road gate, from
which he was lifting the latch by means of the long
wooden handle arranged for the convenience of riders,
and said to himself : " John Keswick was a good man,
but I don't wonder he came out here and shot himself.
It is a great pity, though, that it wasn't his wife who
did it, instead of him. That would have been a bless
ing to all of us. But," he added contemplatively, as
he closed the gate, " the people in this world who ought
to blow out their brains never do."

Soon after he had gone, Mrs. Null went up Pine Top
Hill, and sat down on the rock to have a "think."
" Now, then, Freddy," she said, " everything depends

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

on you. If you don't stand by me I am lost- that is
to say, I must go away from here before Junius comes ;
and you know I don't want to do that. I want to see
him on my account, and on his account too ; but I
don't want him crammed down my throat for a hus
band the moment he arrives, and that is just what will
happen if you don't do your duty, Mr. Null. Even if
it wasn't for you, I don't want to look at him from the
husband point of view, because, of course, he is a very
different person from what he used to be, and is a total
stranger to me.

" It is actually more than twelve years since I have
seen him, and besides that, he is just as good as en
gaged to that niece of Mr. Brandon's, who is a horrible
mixture of a she-wolf and a female mule, if I am to
believe Aunt Keswick, but I expect she is, truly, a
very nice girl. Though, to be sure, she can't have
much spirit if she consented to break off her marriage
just on account of the back-handed benediction which
Aunt Keswick told me she offered her as a wedding-
gift. If I had wanted to marry a man I would have
let the old lady curse the heels off her boots before I
would have paid any attention to her. Cursing don't
hurt anybody but the curser.

" What I want of Junius is to make a friend of him,
if he turns out to be the right kind of a person, and to
tell him about this Mr. Croft who is so anxious to find
him. The only person I have met yet who seems like
an ordinary Christian is old Mr. Brandon, and he's a
sly one, I'm afraid. Aunt Keswick thinks he stopped
here on his way somewhere, but I don't believe a word
of it. I believe he came for reasons of his own, and
went right straight back again. You are almost as

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

much to Mm, Freddy, as you are to me. It would
have made you laugh if you could have seen how his
face lighted up when he heard we were happy together,
and that I would not listen to a divorce. And yet I
am sure he has promised Aunt Keswick to see what
he can do about getting one. He wants me to stay
here and make friends of Aunt Keswick and Junius,
but he wouldn't like that if it were not for you, Mr.
Null. You make everything safe for him.

"And now, Freddy, I tell you again that all de
pends upon you. If I'm to stay here and I want to
do that, for a time anyway, for although Aunt Kes
wick is so awfully queer, she's my own aunt, and that's
more than I can say for anybody else in the world
you must stiffen up and stand by me. It won't do to
give way for a minute. If necessary you must take
tonics, and have a steel rod down your back, if you
can't keep yourself erect without it. You must have
your legs padded, and your chest thrown out ; and you
must stand up very strong and sturdy, Freddy, and
not let them push you an inch this way or that. And
now that we have made up our minds on this subject,
we'll go down, for it's getting a little cool on the top
of this hill."



98



CHAPTER IX

ON the morning of her uncle's departure from Mid-
branch, Roberta came out on the porch, and took her
seat in a large wooden arm-chair, putting down her
key-basket on the floor beside her. The day was
bright and sunny, and the shadows of two or three
turkey -buzzards, who were circling in the air, moved
over the field in front of the house. In this field also
moved, not so fast, nor so gracefully as the shadows,
two ploughs, one near by, and the other at quite a
distance. The woods which shut out a great part of
the horizon showed many a bit of color, but the scene,
although bright enough in some of its tones, was not a
cheering one to Roberta ; and she needed cheering.

Had it not been for the delay of her father in mak
ing his winter visit to New York, she would now be
in that city $ but if things had gone on as she expected
they would, she would have been perfectly satisfied to
remain several weeks longer at Midbranch. Junius
Keswick, who had not visited the house for a long
time, had come to them again ; and, now that the sub
ject of love and marriage had been set aside, it was
charming to have him there as a friend. They not
only walked in the woods, but they took long rides
over the country, Mr. Brandon having waived his ob~

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

jections in regard to his niece riding about with gentle
men. She had even been pleased with the unexpected
return of Lawrence Croft, for, for reasons of her own,
she wished very much to have a talk with him. But
he had not fulfilled his promise to her, and had gone
away in a very unsatisfactory manner.

This morning she felt a little lonely, too, for Junius
had left the place before breakfast, and she did not
know where he had gone ; and her uncle had actually
ridden away to see that horrible widow Keswick,
merely stating that his errand was a business one, and
that he would be back the next day. Eoberta knew
that there had been a great deal of business, particu
larly that of an unpleasant kind, between the two
families, but she did not believe that there was any
ordinary affair concerning dollars and cents which
would require the presence of her uncle at the house
of his old enemy. She was very much afraid that he
had gone there to try to smooth up matters in regard
to Junius and herself. The thought of this made her
indignant. She did not know what her uncle would
say, and she did not want him to say anything. He
could not make the horrible old creature change her
mind in regard to the marriage, and if this was not
done, there was no use discussing the matter at all ;
and she did not wish people to think she was anxious
for the match.

It was plain, however, that her uncle's desire for it
had experienced a strong revival ; and the unexpected
return of Lawrence Croft had probably had a great
effect on him. He had not objected to the visits of
that gentleman during the summer, but he had never
shown any strong liking for him, and Eoberta said to

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

herself that she could not see, for her part, why this
should be ; Mr. Croft was a thorough gentleman, an
exceedingly well educated and agreeable man.

As to Junius, she was afraid that he had not the
spirit which she used to think he possessed. There
was something about him she could not understand.
In former days, when Junius was in New York, she
compared him with the young men there, very much
to his advantage, but now Mr. Croft seemed to throw
him somewhat in the background. When Croft wanted
to do anything he did it ; even his failure to come to
her when he said he would do so showed strength of
will. If Junius had promised to come he would have
come, even if he had not wanted to do so, and there
would have been something weak about that.

While she thus sat thinking, and gazing over the
landscape, she saw afar off, on a portion of the road
which ran alongside the woods, a vehicle slowly mak
ing its way to the house. Roberta had large and beau
tiful eyes, but they were not of the kind which would
enable her to discover at so great a distance what sort
of vehicle this was, and who was in it. As the road
led nowhere but to Midbranch, she was naturally de
sirous to know who was coming. She stepped into
the hall, and, taking a small bell, rang it vigorously,
and in a moment her youthful handmaiden Peggy
appeared upon the scene. Peggy >s habit of projecting
her eyes into the far-away could often be turned to prac
tical account, for her vision was, in a measure, telescopic.

" What is that coming here along the road? " asked
Miss Roberta, stepping upon the porch, and pointing
out the distant vehicle.

Peggy stood up straight, let her arms hang close to

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

her sides, and looked steadfastly forth. " "Wot's coming
Miss Rob," said she, " is de buggy 'longin' ter Mister
Michaels, at de Springs, an' his ole mud-colored hoss
is haulin' it. Dem dat's in it is Mahs' Junius an'
Mister Oof ."

" Are you sure of that? " exclaimed Miss Eoberta, in
astonishment. " Look again."

" Yaas'm," replied Peggy. " I'se sartin shuh. But
dey jes gwine behin' de trees now."

The road was not again visible for some distance,
but when the buggy reappeared Peggy gave a start,
and exclaimed : " Dar's on'y one pusson in it now,
Miss Rob."

"Which is it?" exclaimed her mistress quickly,
shading her eyes and endeavoring to see for herself.

" It's Mister Oof," said Peggy. " Mahs 7 Junius mus'
done gone back."

" It is too bad ! " exclaimed Miss Roberta. " I will
not see him. Peggy," she said, snatching up the key-
basket and stepping towards the hall door, " when that
gentleman, Mr. Croft, comes, you must tell him that I
am up-stairs lying down, that I am not well and can
not see him, and that your Master Robert is not at
home."

" Ef Mahs' Junius come, does you want me ter tell
him de same thing ? "

" But you said he was not in the buggy," said her
mistress.

" No'm," answered Peggy ; " but p'r'aps he done cut
acrost de plough fiel' an' git h'yar fus'."

" If he comes first," said Miss Roberta, a shade of
severity pervading her handsome features, " I want to
see him." And with this she went up-stairs.

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

Peggy with her shoes on possessed the stolid steadi
ness of a wooden grenadier, for the heaviness of the
massive boots seemed to permeate her whole being,
and communicated what might be considered a slow
and heavy footfall to her intellect. Peggy without
shoes was a panther on two legs, and her mind, like
her body, was capable of enormous leaps. Slipping
off her heavy brogans, she made a single bound and
stood upon the railing of the porch, and, throwing her
arm around a post, gazed forth from this point of
vantage.

" Bress my eberlastin' soul ! " she exclaimed, " if
Mister CroP ain't got ter de road gate, and is a-waitin'
dar fur somebody ter come open it ! Does he think
anybody gwine ter see him all de way from de house,
and come open de gate? Reckon he don' know dat
ole mud-color hoss. He mought git out and let down
de whole fence, an' dat ole hoss 'u'd nebber move.
Bress my soul mo' p'intedly ! ef Mahs' Junius ain't
comin' 'long ter open de gate ! "

For a few moments Peggy stood and stared, her mind
not capable of grasping this astounding situation.
" No, he ain't, nudder ! " she presently exclaimed, with
an air of relief. " Mahs' Junius done tole him dat ef he
want dat gate open he better git down and open it
hese'f. Dat's right, Mahs' Junius ! Stick up ter dat !
Dar go Mahs' Junius into de woods, an' Mister Crof
he git out an' go after him. Dey's gwine ter fight,
sartin shuh ! Lordy ! wot fur dey 'low dem bushes
ter grow 'long de fence ter keep folks from seein' wot's
gwine on ! "

There was nothing now to be seen from the railing,
and Peggy jumped down on the porch. Her activity

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

seemed to pervade her being. She ran down the front
steps, crossed the lawn, and mounted the stile. Here
she could catch sight of the two men, who seemed to
be disputing. This was too much for Peggy. If there
was to be a fight she wanted to see it ; and, apart from
her curiosity, she had a loyal interest in the event.
Down the steps and along the road she went at the
top of her speed, and soon reached the gate. Her
arrival was not noticed by any one except the mud-
colored horse, who gazed at her inquiringly ; and look
ing through the bars without opening the gate, Peggy
had a good view of the gentlemen.

The situation was a more simple one than Peggy had
imagined. The road for the last half-mile had been
an uphill one, and Keswick, as much to stretch his own
legs as to save those of the horse, had alighted to walk,
while Lawrence, as in duty bound, had waited for him
at the gate. Here a little argument had arisen. Kes
wick, who did not wish to be at the house, or indeed
about the place, while Roberta was having her con
ference with Mr. Croft, had said that he had concluded
not to go up to the house at present, but would take
a walk through the woods instead. Lawrence, who
thought he divined his reason, felt an honorable indis
position to accept this advantage at the hands of a
man who was, most indisputably, his rival. If they
went together it would not appear as if he had waited
for Keswick's absence to return ; and there would still
be no reason why he should not have his private walk
and talk with Miss March.

At all events, it seemed to him unfair to leave Kes
wick at the gate while he went up to the house by
himself, and the notion of it did not please him at all.

104



THE LATE MRS. NULL

Keswick, however, was very resolute in his opposition.
He objected even to seeing Roberta and Croft together.
He thought, besides, if he and Croft came to the house
at the same time it would appear very much as if he,
Junius, had brought the other, and this was an ap
pearance he wished very much to avoid. He had
walked away, and Lawrence had jumped from the
buggy to continue the friendly argument, which was
not finished when Peggy arrived. Almost immediately
after this event Keswick positively insisted that he
would go for a walk, and Lawrence reluctantly turned
towards the vehicle.

Peggy's mind was filled with horror. Master Junius
had been frightened away, and the other man was
coming up to the house ! She could not stand there
and allow such a catastrophe. Jerking open the gate,
she rushed into the road and confronted Keswick.

"Mahs' Junius," she exclaimed, "Miss Hob's orful
sick wid her back an' her j'ints, an' she say she can't
see no kump'ny folks, an' Mahs' Robert he done gone
away ter see ole Miss Keswick. I jes run down h'yar
ter tell you ter hurry up."

Keswick started. " Where did you say your Master
Robert had gone f "

" Ter ole Miss Keswick's. He went dis mawnin'."

Junius turned slightly pale, and, addressing Mr.
Croft, said : " Something very strange must have hap
pened here ! Miss March is ill, and Mr. Brandon has
gone to a place to which I think nothing but a matter
of the utmost importance could take him."

" In that case," said Mr. Croft, " it will be highly
improper for me to go to the house just now. I am
very glad that I heard the news before I got there. I

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

will return to the Springs, and will call to-morrow and
inquire after Miss March's health. Do not let me de
tain you, as your presence is evidently much needed
at the house."

"Thank you," said Keswick, hurriedly shaking
hands with him. " I am afraid something very unex
pected has happened, and so beg you will excuse me.
Good morning." And passing through the gateway,
he rapidly strode towards the house, while Lawrence
prepared to turn his horse's head towards the Springs.

But, although Junius Keswick walked rapidly,
Peggy, who had started first for the house, kept well
in advance of him. Away she went, skipping, run
ning, dancing. Once she stopped and turned, and saw
that the buggy with the mud-colored horse was being
driven away, and that Master Junius was coming
along the road to the house j then she started off, and
ran steadily, the rapid show of the light-colored soles
of her feet behind her suggestive of a steamer's wake.
Up the broad stile she went, two steps at a time, and
down the other side in a couple of jumps $ a dozen
skips took her across the lawn j and she bounded up
to the porch as if each wooden step had been a spring
board. She rushed up-stairs, and stood at the open
door of Miss Roberta's room, where that lady reclined
upon a lounge.

"Hi, Miss Rob!" she exclaimed, involuntarily
snapping her fingers as she spoke. "Mahs' Junius
comin' all by hese'f, an' I done sent de oder gemman
clean off, kitin' ! "



106



CHAPTER X

JUNIUS KESWICK was received by Miss Roberta in
the parlor. Her face was colder and sterner than he
had ever seen it before, and his countenance was very
much troubled. Each wished to speak first, and ask
questions, but the lady went immediately to the front.

" How did it happen that you and Mr. Croft were
coming here together? Where had you been? "

" We came from the Green Sulphur Springs, where
I called on him this morning."

" I thought he was obliged to return immediately
to the North. What made him change his mind ? "

" Perhaps it will be better not to discuss that now,"
said Junius.

" I wish to discuss it," was the reply. " What in
duced him not to go I "

" I did," answered Junius, looking steadfastly at her.
" Did you not wish to see him? "

For a moment Miss Roberta did not answer, but her
face grew pale, and she threw herself back in the chair
in which she was sitting. " Never in my life," she said,
"have I been subjected to such mortification! Of
course I wished him to come, but to come of his own
accord, and not at my bidding. How do you suppose
I would have felt if he had presented himself, and

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THE LATE MRS. NULL

asked me what I wished to say to him ? It is an insult
you have offered me."

" It is not an insult," said Keswick, quietly. " It was
a service of of affection. I saw that you were an
noyed and troubled by Mr. Croft's failure to keep his
engagement, and what I did was simply"

" Stop ! " said Roberta, peremptorily. " I do not
wish to talk of it any more."

Junius stood before her a moment in silence, and
then he said : " Will you tell me if my Aunt Keswick
is ill or dead, and why did Mr. Brandon go there? "

" She is neither," answered Roberta ; " and he went
there on business." And with this she arose and left
the room.

Peggy, who had been in the hall, now made a bolt
down the back stairs into the basement regions, where
was situated the kitchen. In this spacious apartment
she found Aunt Judy, the cook, sitting before a large
wood fire, and holding in her hand a long iron ladle.
There was nothing near her which she could dip or
stir with a ladle, and it was probably retained during
her period of leisure as a symbol of her position and
authority.

Peggy squatted on her heels, close to Aunt Judy's
side, and thus addressed her : " Aun' Judy, ef I tell
you sumfin, soul an' honor, hope o' glory, you'll nebber
tell?"

" Hope o' glory, nebber ! " said Aunt Judy, turning
a look of interest on the girl.

"Well, den, look h'yar. You know Miss Rob she
got two beaux ; one is Mahs' Junius, an' de oder is de
gemman wid de speckle trousers from de Norf."

" Yes, I know dat," said Aunt Judy. Has dey fit f "
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

" Not yit, but dey wos gwine ter," said Peggy, " but
I seed 'em, an 7 I tore down de road ter de gate whar
dey wos gittin 7 ready ter fight, an 7 I jes let dat dar
Mister Oof know wot low-down white trash Miss Rob
think he wos, an' den he said ef dat war so 'twa'n't no
use fur ter come in, an' he turn roun' de buggy an'
cl'ar'd out. Den Mahs' Junius he come ter de house,
an' dar Miss Eob in de parlor waitin' fur him. I stood
jes outside de do', so's ter be out de way, but Mahs'
Junius he kinder back ag'in' de do' an' shet it. But
I clap'd my year ter de crack, an' I hear eberything
dey said."

" Wot dey say ? " asked Aunt Judy, her mouth open,
her eyes dilated, and the long ladle trembling in her
hand. ^ >

" Mahs' Junius he say ter Miss Eob dat he lub her
better'n his own skin, or de clouds in de sky, or de
flowers in de fiel' wot perish, an' dat de oder man he
done cut an' run, an' would she be Miss Junius all de
res' ob der libes forebber an' ebber, amen?"

" Dat wos pow'ful movin' ! " ejaculated Aunt Judy.
" An' wot did Miss Eob say? "

" Miss Eob she say, < I 'cept yo' kind offer, sah, wid
pleasure.' An' den I hearn 'em comin', an' I cut down
h'yar."

"Glory! Hallelujah!" exclaimed Aunt Judy,
bringing her ladle down upon the brick hearth. " Now
is I ready ter die when my time comes, fur Mahs' Ju-
nius'll have dis farm, an' de house, an' de cabins, an'
dey won't go ter no strahnger from de Norf."

" Amen," said Peggy. " An' Aun' Judy, dat ar piece
ob pie ain't no 'count to nobuddy."

" You kin hab it, chile," said Aunt Judy, rising and
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THE LATE MRS. NULL

taking from a shelf a large piece of cold apple-pie,
" an 7 bressed be de foots ob dem wot fotch good tidin's."



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