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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 11
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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 11 Post by :rlscott Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :3332

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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI

In the little dining-room of the cottage at the Green Sulphur Springs sat that evening Lawrence Croft, a perturbed and angry, but a resolute man. He had been quite a long time coming to the conclusion to propose to Roberta March, and now that he had made up his mind to do so, even in spite of certain convictions, it naturally aroused his indignation to find himself suddenly stopped short by such an insignificant person as Mr Brandon, a gentleman to whom, in this affair, he had given no consideration whatever. The fact that the lady wished to see him added much to his annoyance and discomfiture. He had no idea what reason she had for desiring an interview with him, but, whatever she should say to him, he intended to follow by a declaration of his sentiments. He had not the slightest notion in the world of giving up the prosecution of his suit; but, having been requested not to come to Midbranch, what was he to do? He might write to Miss March, but that would not suit him. In a matter like this he would wish to adapt his words and his manner to the moods and disposition of the lady, and he could not do this in a letter. When he wooed a woman, he must see her and speak to her. To any clandestine approach, any whispered conversation beneath her window, he would give no thought. Having been asked by the master of the house not to go there, he would not go; but he would see her, and tell his love. And, more than that, he would win her.

That morning, while waiting for the time to approach when it would be proper for him to go to Midbranch, he had been reading in a bound volume of an old English magazine, which was one of the five books the cottage possessed, an account of a battle which had interested him very much. The commander of one army had massed his forces along and below the crest of a line of low hills, the extreme right of his line being occupied by a strong force of cavalry. The army opposed to him was much stronger than his own, and it was not long before the battle began to go very much against him. His positions on the left were carried by the combined charge of the larger portion of the enemy's forces, and, in spite of a vigorous resistance, his lines were forced back, down the hill, and into the valley. It was quite evident he could make no stand, and was badly beaten. Thereupon, he sent orders to his generals on the left to retreat, in as good order as possible, across a small river in their rear. While this movement was in progress, and the enemy was making the greatest efforts to prevent it, the commander put himself at the head of his cavalry and led them swiftly from the scene of battle. He took them diagonally over the crest of the hill, down the other side, and then charging with this fresh body of horse upon the rear and camp of the enemy, he swiftly captured the general-in-chief, his staff, and the Minister of War, who had come down to see how things were going on. With these important prisoners he dashed away, leaving the acephalous enemy to capture his broken columns if he could.

This was the kind of thing Lawrence Croft would like to do. For an hour or more he puzzled his brains as to how he should make such a cavalry charge, and at last he came to a determination; he would ask Junius Keswick to assist him. There was something odd about this plan which pleased Croft. Keswick was his rival, with the powerful backing of Mr Brandon and a whole tribe of relatives, and it might naturally be supposed that he was the last man in the world of whom he would ask assistance. But, looking at it from his point of view, Lawrence thought that not only would he be taking no undue advantage of the other in asking him to help him in this matter, but that Keswick ought not and would not object to it. If Miss March really preferred Croft, Keswick should feel himself bound in honor to do everything he could to let the two settle the affair between themselves. This was drawing the point very fine, but Lawrence persuaded himself that if the case were reversed he would not marry a girl who had not chosen another man, simply because she had had no opportunity of doing so. He had a strong belief that Keswick was of his way of thinking, and before he went to bed he wrote his rival a note, asking him to call upon him the following day.

Early the next morning the note was carried over to Midbranch by a messenger, who returned, saying that Mr Keswick had gone away, and that his present address was Howlett's in the same county. This piece of information caused Lawrence Croft to open his eyes very wide. A few days before he had received a letter from Mrs Null, written at Howlett's, and now Keswick had gone there. He had been very much surprised when he found that the cashier had so successfully carried on the search for Keswick as to come into the very county in Virginia where he was; and he intended to write to her that he had no further occasion for her services; but he had not done so, and here were the pursuer and the pursued in the same town, or village, or whatever Howlett's was. He gave Mrs Null credit for being one of the best detectives he had ever heard of; for, apparently, she had not only been able to successfully track the man she was in search of, but to find out where he was going, and had reached the place in question before he did. But he also berated her soundly in his mind for her over-officiousness. He had not wished her to swoop down upon the man, but only to inform him of his whereabouts. The next thing that would probably happen would be the appearance of Mrs Null at the Green Sulphur Springs, holding Keswick by the collar. He deeply regretted that he had ever intrusted this young woman with the investigation, not because he had since met Keswick himself, but for the reason that she was entirely too energetic and imprudent. If Keswick should find out from her that she had been in search of him, and why, it might bring about a very unpleasant state of affairs.

Croft saw now, quite plainly, what he must do. He must go to Howlett's as quickly as possible. Perhaps Keswick and the cashier had not yet met, and, in that case, all he would have to do would be to remunerate the young woman and her husband--for she had informed him that she intended to combine this business with a wedding tour--and send them off immediately. He could then have his conference with Keswick there as well as at the Springs. If any mischief had already been done, he did not know what course he might have to pursue, but it was highly necessary for him to be on the spot as soon as possible. He greatly disliked to leave the neighborhood of Roberta March, but his absence would only be temporary.

After an early dinner, he mounted the horse which he had hired from his host of the Springs, and, with a valise strapped behind him, set out for Howlett's. He had made careful inquiries in regard to the road, and after a ride somewhat tiresome to a man not used to such protracted horseback exercise, arrived at his destination about sundown. When he reached the scattered houses which formed, as he supposed, the outskirts of the village, for such he had been told it was, he rode on, but soon found that he had left Howlett's behind him, and that those supposed outskirts were the place itself. Hewlett's was nothing, in fact, but a collection of eight or ten houses quite widely separated from each other, and the only one of them which exhibited any public character whatever, was the store, a large frame building standing a little back from the road. Turning his horse, Lawrence rode up to the store and inquired if there was any house in the neighborhood where he could get lodging for the night.

The storekeeper, who came out to him, was a very little man whose appearance recalled to Croft the fact that he had noticed, in this part of the State, a great many men who were extremely tall, and a great many who were extremely small, which peculiarity, he thought, might assist a physiologist in discovering the different effects of hot bread upon different organizations. He was quite as cordial, however, as the biggest, burliest, and jolliest host who ever welcomed a guest to his inn, as he informed Mr Croft that there was no house in the village which made a business of entertaining strangers, but if he chose to stop with him he would keep him and his horse for the night, and do what he could to make him comfortable.

Lawrence ate supper that night with the storekeeper, his wife, and five of his children; but as he was very hungry, and the meal was a plentiful one, he enjoyed the experience.

"I suppose you're goin' on to Westerville in the mornin'?" said the little host.

"No," replied Croft, "I am not going any farther than this place. Do you know if a gentleman named Keswick arrived here recently?"

"Why, yaas," said the man, "if you mean Junius Keswick."

"Certainly he did," said Mrs Storekeeper. "He rode through here yesterday, and he stopped at the store to see if we had any of that Lynchburg tobacco he used to smoke when he lived here. He's gone on to his aunt's."

"Where is that?" asked Croft.

"It's about two miles out on the Westerville road," said the little man. "If I'd knowed you wanted to see him, I'd 'a told you to keep right on, and you could 'a stopped with Mrs Keswick over night."

Lawrence wished to ask some questions about Mrs Null, but he was afraid to do so lest he might excite suspicions by connecting her with Keswick. If the latter had gone two miles out of town, perhaps she had not yet seen him.

The room in which Lawrence slept that night was to him a very odd one. It was a long apartment, at one end of which was a clean, comfortable bed, a couple of chairs, and a table on which was a basin and pitcher. At the other end were piles of new-looking boxes, containing groceries of various kinds, rolls of cotton cloth and other dry goods, and, what attracted his attention more than anything else, a vast number of bright tin cans, bearing on their sides brilliant pictures of tomatoes, peaches, green corn, and other preservable eatables. These were evidently the reserved stores of the establishment, and they were so different from the bedroom decorations to which he was accustomed, that it quite pleased Lawrence to think that with all his experience in life he was now lodged in a manner entirely novel to him. As he lay awake looking at the moonlight glittering on the sides of the multitude of cans, the thought came into his mind that this had probably been the room of the Nulls when they were here.

"As this is the only house in the place where travellers are entertained," he said to himself, "of course they must have come to it. And as they are not here now, it is quite plain that they must have gone away. I am very glad of it, especially if they left before Keswick arrived, for their departure probably prevented an awkward situation. But I shall ask the storekeeper no questions about these people. There is no better way of giving inquisitive folk the _entree to your affairs than by asking questions. Of course there was no reason why they should stay here after they had successfully traced Keswick to this part of the country; and every reason, if they wanted to enjoy themselves, why they should go away. But I can't help being sorry that I did not meet the young woman, and have an opportunity of paying her for her trouble, and giving her a few words of advice in regard to her action, or, rather, non-action in this matter. She has a fine head for business, but I should like to feel certain that she understands that her business with me is over."

And he turned his eyes from the glittering cans, and slept.

The next morning, Lawrence Croft rode on to Mrs Keswick's house, and when he reached the second, or inner gate, he saw, on the other side of it, an elderly female, wearing a purple sun-bonnet and carrying a purple umbrella. There was something very eccentric about the garb of this elderly personage, and many an inexperienced city man would have taken her for a retired nurse, or some other domestic retainer of the family, but there was a steadfastness in her gaze, and a fire in her eye, which indicated to Lawrence that she was one much more accustomed to give orders than to take them. He raised his hat very politely, and asked if Mr Keswick was to be found there.

If the commander of the army, about whom Mr Croft had recently been reading, had beheld in the earlier stages of the battle a strong, friendly force advancing to his aid, he would not have been more delighted than Lawrence would have been had he known what a powerful ally to his cause stood beneath that purple sun-bonnet.

"Do you mean Junius Keswick?" said the old lady.

"Yes, madam," answered Croft.

"He is here, and you will find him at the house."

The gate was partly open, and Lawrence rode in. The old lady stepped aside to let him pass.

"Do you want to see him on business?" she said. "How did you know he was here?"

"I inquired at Howlett's, madam."

Mrs Keswick would have liked to ask some further questions, but there was something about Lawrence's appearance that deterred her.

"You can tie your horse under that tree over there," she said, pointing to a spot more trampled by hoofs than the old lady wished any other portion of her house-yard to be.

When Lawrence had tied his bridle to a hook suspended by a strap from one of the lower branches of the indicated tree, he advanced to the house; and a very much astonished man was he to see, sitting side by side on the porch, Junius Keswick and Mr Candy's cashier. They were seated in the shade of a mass of honeysuckle vines, and were so busily engaged in conversation that they had not perceived his approach. Even now Lawrence had time to look at them for a few moments before they turned their eyes upon him.

Equally astonished were the two people on the porch, who now arose to their feet. Junius Keswick naturally wondered very much why Mr Croft should come to see him here; and as for the young lady, she was almost as much terrified as surprised. Had this man come down from New York to swoop upon her cousin? Had it been possible that she could have given him any idea of the whereabouts of Junius? In her last note to him she had been very careful to promise information, but not to give any, hoping thus to gain time to get an insight into the matter, and to keep her cousin out of danger, if, indeed, any danger threatened. But here the pursuer had found Junius in less than a day after she had first met him herself. But when she saw Junius advance and shake hands in a very friendly way with Mr Croft, her terror began to decrease, although her surprise continued at the same high-water mark, and Keswick found himself in a flood of the same emotion when Croft very politely saluted his cousin by name, which salutation was returned in a manner which indicated that the parties were acquainted.

At first Croft had been prompted to ignore all knowledge of the cashier, and meet her as a stranger, but his better sense prevented this, for how could he know what she had been saying about him.

"I was about to introduce you to my cousin," said Keswick, "but I see that you already know each other."

"I have had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Null in New York," said Lawrence, to whom the word cousin gave what might be called a more important surprise than anything with which this three-sided interview had yet furnished its participants. He gave a quick glance at the lady, and discovered her very steadfastly gazing at him. "I hope," he said, "that you and your husband have had a very pleasant trip."

"Mr Null did not come with me," she quietly replied.

Lawrence Croft was a man to whom it gave pleasure to deal with problematic situations, unexpected developments, and the like; but this was too much of a conundrum for him. That the man, whose address he had employed this girl to find out, should prove to be her cousin, and that she should start on her bridal trip without her husband, were points on which his reason had no power to work. One thing, however, he quickly determined upon. He would have an interview with Madam Cashier, and have her explain these mysteries. She was, virtually, his agent, and had no right to conceal from him what she had been doing, and why she had done it.

It was necessary, however, that he should waste no time in thoughts of this kind, but should immediately state to Mr Keswick the reason of his visit; for it could not be supposed he had called in a merely social way. "I wish to speak to you," he said, "on a little matter of business."

At these words Mrs Null excused herself, and went into the house. Her mind was troubled as she wondered what the business was which had made this New York gentleman so extraordinarily desirous to find her cousin. Was it anything that would injure Junius? She looked back as she entered the door, but the object of her solicitude was sitting with a face so calm and composed that it showed very plainly he did not expect any communication which would be harmful to him.

"It is a satisfaction," thought Mr Croft, "a very great satisfaction that I can enter upon the object of my visit knowing that my affairs and my actions have not been discussed by this gentleman and Mrs Null."

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CHAPTER XIIOld Mrs Keswick would willingly have followed the strange gentleman to the house in order to know the object of his visit, but as he had come to see Junius she refrained, for she knew her nephew would not like any appearance of curiosity on her part. Her reception of Junius had been very different indeed from that she had previously accorded him when she declined to be found under the same roof with him. Now he was here under very different auspices, and for him the very plumpest poultry was slain, and everything was done to make him comfortable
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CHAPTER XJunius 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 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,"
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