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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 13
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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 13 Post by :mrtwist Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :1777

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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII

Lawrence Croft had no idea of leaving the neighborhood of Howlett's until Keswick had made up his mind what he was going to do, and until he had had a private talk with Mrs Null; and, as it was quite evident that the family would be offended if a visitor to them should lodge at Peckett's store, he accepted the invitation to spend the night at the Keswick house; and in the afternoon Junius rode with him to Howlett's, where he got his valise, and paid his account.

But no opportunity occurred that day for a _tete-a-tete with Mrs Null. Keswick was with him nearly all the afternoon; and in the evening the family sat together in the parlor, where the conversation was a general one, occasionally very much brightened by some of the caustic remarks of the old lady in regard to particular men and women, as well as society at large. Of course he had many opportunities of judging, to the best of his capacity, of certain phases of character appertaining to Mr Candy's cashier; and, among other things, he came to the conclusion that probably she was a young woman who would get up early in the morning, and he, therefore, determined to do that thing himself, and see if he could not have a talk with her before the rest of the family were astir.

Early rising was not one of Croft's accustomed habits, but the next morning he arose a good hour before breakfast time. He found the lower part of the house quite deserted, and when he went out on the porch he was glad to button up his coat, for the morning air was very cool. While walking up and down with his hands in his pockets, and looking in at the front door every time he passed it, in hopes that he might see Mrs Null coming down the stairs, he was greeted with a cheery "good morning," by a voice in the front yard. Turning hastily, he beheld Mrs Keswick, wearing her purple sun-bonnet, but without her umbrella.

"Glad you like to be up betimes, sir," said she. "That's my way, and I find it pays. Nobody works as well, and I don't believe the plants and stock grow as well, while we are asleep."

Lawrence replied that in the city he did not get up so early, but that the morning air in the country was very fine.

"And pretty sharp, too," said Mrs Keswick. "Come down here in the sunshine, and you will find it pleasanter. Step back a little this way, sir," she said, when Lawrence had joined her, "and give me your opinion of that locust tree by the corner of the porch. I am thinking of having it cut down. Locusts are very apt to get diseased inside, and break off, and I am afraid that one will blow over some day and fall on the house." Lawrence said he thought it looked like a very good tree, and it would be a pity to lose the shade it made.

"I might plant one of another sort," said the old lady, "but trees grow too slow for old people, though plenty fast enough for young ones. I reckon I'll let it stand awhile yet. You were talking last night of Midbranch, sir. There used to be fine trees there, though it's many years since I've seen them. Have you been long acquainted with the family there?"

Lawrence replied that he had known Miss March a good while, having met her in New York.

"She is said to be a right smart young lady," said Mrs Keswick, "well educated, and has travelled in Europe. I am told that she is not only a regular town lady, but that she makes a first-rate house-keeper when she is down here in the country."

Lawrence replied that he had no doubt that all this was very true.

"I have never seen her," continued the old lady, "for there has not been much communication between the two families of late years, although they used to be intimate enough. But my nephew and niece have been away a great deal, and old people can't be expected to do much in the way of visiting. But I have a notion," she said, after gazing a few moments in a reflective way at the corner of the house, "that it would be well now to be a little more sociable again. My niece has no company here of her own sex, except me, and I think it would do her good to know a young lady like Miss March. Mr Brandon has asked me to let Annie come there, but I think it would be a great deal better for his niece to visit us. Mrs Null is the latest comer."

Lawrence, speaking much more earnestly than when discussing the locust tree, replied that he thought this would be quite proper.

"I think I may invite her to come here next week," said Mrs Keswick, still meditatively and without apparent regard to the presence of Croft, "probably on Friday, and ask her to spend a week. And, by the way, sir," she said, turning to her companion, "if you are still in this part of the country I would be glad to have you ride over and stay a day or two while Miss March is here. I will have a little party of young folks in honor of Mrs Null. I have done nothing of the kind for her, so far."

Lawrence said he had no doubt that he would stay at the Green Sulphur a week or two longer, and that he would be most happy to accept Mrs Keswick's kind invitation.

They then moved toward the house, but, suddenly stopping, as if she had just thought of something, Mrs Keswick remarked: "I shall be obliged to you, sir, if you will not say anything about this little plan of mine, just now. I have not spoken of it to any one, having scarcely made up my mind to it, and I suppose I should not have mentioned it to you if we had not been talking about Midbranch. There is nothing I hate so much as to have people hear I am going to give them an invitation, or that I am going to do anything, in fact, before I have fully made up my mind about it."

Lawrence assured her that he would say nothing on the subject, and she promised to send him a note to the Green Sulphur, in case she finally determined on having the little company at her house.

"Now," triumphantly thought Croft, "it matters not what Keswick decides to do, for I don't need his assistance. An elderly angel in a purple sun-bonnet has come to my aid. She is about to do ever so much more for me than I could expect of him, and I prefer her assistance to that of my rival. Altogether it is the most unexpected piece of good luck."

After breakfast there came to Lawrence the opportunity of a private conference with Mrs Null. He was standing alone on the porch when she came out of the door with her hat on and a basket in her hand, and said she was going to see a very old colored woman who lived in the neighborhood, who was considered a very interesting personage; and perhaps he would like to go there with her. Nothing could suit Croft better than this, and off they started.

As soon as they were outside the yard gate the lady remarked: "I have been trying hard to give you a chance to talk to me when the others were not by. I knew you must be perfectly wild to ask me what this all meant; why I never told you that Mr Keswick was my cousin, and the rest of it." "I can't say," said Lawrence, "that I am absolutely untamed and ferocious in regard to the matter, but I do really wish very much that you would give me some explanation of your very odd doings. In fact, that is the only thing that now keeps me here."

"I thought so," said Mrs Null. "As I supposed you had got through with your business with Junius, I did not wish to detain you here any longer than was necessary."

"Thank you," said Lawrence.

"You are welcome," she said. "And when I saw you standing on the porch by yourself, the idea of being generous to old Aunt Patsy came into my mind. And here we are. Now, what do you want to know first?"

"Well," said Mr Croft, "I would like very much to know how a young lady like you came to be Mr Candy's cashier."

"I supposed you would want to know that," she said. "It's a dreadfully long story, and as it is a strictly family matter I had almost made up my mind last night that I ought not to tell it to you at all, but as I don't know how much you are mixed up with the family, I afterward thought it best, for my own sake, to explain the matter to you. So I will give you the principal points. My mother was a sister of Mrs Keswick, and Junius' mother was another sister. Both his parents died when he was a boy, and Aunt Keswick brought him up. My mother died here when I was quite small, and I stayed until I was eight years old. Aunt Keswick and my father were not very good friends, and when she came to look upon me as entirely her own child, and wished to deprive him of all rights and privileges as a parent, he resented it very much, and, at last, took me away. I don't remember exactly how this was done, but I know there was a tremendous quarrel, and my father and aunt never met again.

"He took me to New York; and there we lived very happily until about two years ago, when my father died. He was a lawyer by profession, but at that time held a salaried position in a railroad company, and when he died, of course our income ceased. The money that was left did not last very long, and then I had to decide what I was to do. It would have been natural for me to go to my only relatives, Aunt Keswick and Junius. But my father had been so opposed to my aunt having anything to do with me that I could not bear to go to her. He had really been so much afraid that she would try to win me away from him, or in some way gain possession of me, that he would not even let her know our address, and never answered the few letters from her which reached him, and which he told me were nothing but demands that her sister's child should be given back to her. Junius had written to me, how many times I do not know, but two letters had come to me that were very good and affectionate, quite different from my aunt's, but even these my father would not let me answer; it would be all the same thing, he said, as if I opened communication with my Aunt Keswick. Therefore, out of respect to my father, and also in accordance with my own wishes, I gave up all idea of coming down here, and went to work to support myself. I tried several things, and, at last, through a friend of my father, who was a regular customer of Mr Candy, I got the position of cashier in the Information Shop. It was an awfully queer place, but the work was very easy, and I soon got used to it. Then you came making inquiries for an address. At first I did not know that the person you wanted was Junius Keswick and my cousin, but after I began to look into the matter I found that it must be he who you were after. Then I became very much troubled, for I liked Junius, who was the only one of my blood whom I had any reason to care for; and when one sees a person setting a detective--for it is all the same thing--upon the track of another person, one is very apt to think that some harm is intended to the person that is being looked up. I did not know what business Junius was in, nor what his condition was, but even if he had been doing wrong, I did not wish you to find him until I had first seen him, and then, if I found you could do him any harm, I would warn him to keep out of your way."

"Do you think that was fair treatment of me?" asked Croft.

"You were nothing to me, and Junius was a great deal," she answered. "And yet I think I was fair enough. The only money you paid was what Mr Candy charged; and when I spoke of receiving money for my services when the affair was finished I only did it that it might all be more business like, and that you should not drop me and set somebody else looking after Junius. That was the great thing I was afraid of, so I did all I could to make you satisfied with me."

"I don't see how your conscience could allow you to do all this," said Croft.

"My conscience was very much pleased with me," was the answer. "What I did was a stratagem, and perfectly fair too. If I had found that it was right for you to see Junius, I would have done everything I could to help you communicate with him. But when I did at last see him, down you swooped upon us before I had an opportunity of saying a word about you."

"Your marriage was a very fortunate thing for you," said Mr Croft, "for if it had not been for that I should never have allowed you to go about the country looking up a gentleman in my behalf. But how did you get over your repugnance to your aunt?"

"I didn't get over it," she said, "I conquered it, for I found that this was the most likely place to meet Junius. And Aunt Keswick has certainly treated me in the kindest manner, although she is very angry about Mr Null. But when I first came and she did not know who I was, she behaved in the most extraordinary manner."

"What did she do?" asked Croft.

"Never you mind," she answered, with a little laugh. "You can't expect to know all the family affairs."

They had now arrived at Aunt Patsy's cabin, and Mrs Null entered, followed at a little distance by Croft. The old woman had seen them as they were walking along the road, and her little black eyes sparkled with peculiar animation behind her great spectacles. Her granddaughter happened not to be at home, but Aunt Patsy got up, and with her apron rubbed off the bottoms of two chairs, which she placed in convenient positions for her expected visitors. When they came in they found her in a very perturbed condition. She answered Mrs Null's questions with a very few words and a great many grunts, and kept her eyes fixed nearly all the time upon Mr Croft, endeavoring to find out, perhaps, if he had yet been subjected to any kind of conjuring.

When all the questions which young people generally put to old servants had been asked by Mrs Null, and Croft had made as many remarks as might have been expected of him in regard to the age and recollections of this interesting old negress, Aunt Patsy began to be much more disturbed, fearing that the interview was about to come to an end. She actually got up and went to the back door to look for Eliza.

"Do you want her?" anxiously inquired Mrs Null, going to the old woman's side.

"Yaas, I wants her," said Aunt Patsy. "I 'spec' she at Aggy's house--dat cabin ober dar--but I can't holler loud 'nuf to make her h'yere me." "I'll run over there and tell her you want her," said Mrs Null, stepping out of the door.

"Dat's a good chile," said Aunt Patsy, with more warmth than she had yet exhibited. "Dat's your own mudder's good chile!" And then she turned quickly into the room.

Croft had risen as if he were about to follow Mrs Null, or, at least, to see where she had gone. But Aunt Patsy stopped him. "Jus' you stay h'yar one little minute," she said, hurriedly. "I got one word to say to you, sah." And she stood up before him as erect as she could, fixing her great spectacles directly upon him. "You look out, sah, fur ole miss," she said, in a voice, naturally shrill, but now heavily handicapped by age and emotion, "ole Miss Keswick, I means. She boun' to do you harm, sah. She tole me so wid her own mouf."

"Mrs Keswick!" exclaimed Croft. "Why, you must be mistaken, good aunty. She can have no ill feelings towards me."

"Don' you b'lieve dat!" said the old woman. "Don' you b'lieve one word ob dat! She hate you, sah, she hate you! She not gwine to tell you dat. She make you think she like you fus' rate, an' den de nex' thing you knows, she kunjer you, an' shribble up de siners ob your legs, an' gib you mis'ry in your back, wot you neber git rid of no moh'. Can't tell you nuffin' else now, for h'yar comes Miss Annie," she added hurriedly, and, stepping to the bedside, she drew from under the mattrass a pair of little blue shoes, tied together by their strings. "Jes' you take dese h'yar shoes," she said, "an' ef eber you think ole miss gwine ter kunjer you, jes' you hol' up dem shoes right afore her face. Dar now, stuff 'em in your pocket. Don' you tell Miss Annie wot I done say to you. 'Member dat, sah. It ud kill her, shuh."

At this moment Mrs Null entered, just as the shoes had been slipped into the side-pocket of Mr Croft's coat by the old woman. And as she did so, she whispered, in a tone that could not but have its effect upon him, "Now, nebber tell her, honey."

"Here is Eliza," said Mrs Null, as she came in, followed by the great granddaughter. "And I think," she said to Mr Croft, "it is time for us to go. Good-bye, Aunt Patsy. You can send back the basket by Eliza."

When the two left the cabin, Croft walked thoughtfully for a few moments, wondering what in the world the old woman could have meant by her strange words and gift to him. Concluding, however, that they could have been nothing but the drivelings of weak-minded old age, he dismissed them from his mind and turned his attention to his companion. "We were speaking," he said, "of Mr Null. Do you expect him shortly?"

"Well, no," said the lady. "I can't say that I do."

"That is odd," said Lawrence. "I thought this was your wedding journey."

"So it is, in a measure," said she, "but there is no necessity of his coming here. Didn't I tell you that my aunt was opposed to the marriage?" "But she might as well make up her mind to it now," he said.

"She is not in the habit of making up her mind to things she don't like. Do you know," she added, looking around with a half smile, as if she took pleasure in astonishing him, "that Aunt Keswick is going to try to have us divorced?"

"What!" exclaimed Croft. "Divorced! Is there any ground for it?"

"She has other matrimonial plans for me, that's all."

"What an extraordinary individual she must be!" he exclaimed. "But she can never carry out such a ridiculous scheme as that."

"I don't know," she said. "She has already consulted Mr Brandon on the subject."

"What nonsense!" cried Croft. "If you and Mr Null are satisfied, nobody else has anything to do with it."

"Mr Null and I are of one mind," said she, "and agree perfectly. But don't you think it is a terrible thing to know you must always face an irritated aunt?"

"Oh," said Croft, looking around at her very coldly and sternly, "I begin to see. I suppose a separation would improve your prospects in life. But it can't be done if your husband is opposed to it."

"Mr Croft," said the lady, her face flushing a good deal, "you have no right to speak to me in that way, and attribute such motives to me. No matter whom I had married, I would never give him up for the sake of money, or a farm, or anything you think my aunt could give me."

"I beg your pardon," said Croft, "if I made a mistake, but I don't see what else I could infer from your remarks."

"My remarks," said she, "were,--well, they have a different meaning from what you supposed." She walked on in silence for a few moments, and then, looking up to her companion, she said: "I have a great mind to tell you something, if you will promise, at least for the present, not to breathe it to a living soul."

Instantly the lookout on the bow of Lawrence Croft's life action called out: "Breakers ahead!" and almost instantly its engine was stopped, and every faculty of its commander was on the alert. "I do not know," he said, "that I am entitled to your confidence. Would it be of any advantage to you to tell me what you propose?"

"It would be of advantage, and you are entitled," she added quickly. "It is about Mr Null, and you ought to know it, for you instigated my wedded life."

"I instigated!"--exclaimed Mr Croft. And then he stopped short, both in his speech and walk.

"Yes," said the lady, stopping also, and turning to face him, "you did, and you ought to remember it. You said if I had a husband to travel about with me you would like very much to employ me in the search for Mr Keswick, and it was solely on that account that I went and got married." Observing the look of blank and utter amazement on his face, she smiled, and said: "Please don't look so horribly astonished. Mr Null is void."

As she made this remark the lady looked up at her companion with a smile and an expression of curiosity as to how he would take the announcement. Lawrence gazed blankly at her for a moment, and then he broke into a laugh. "You don't mean to say," he exclaimed, "that Mr Null is an imaginary being?"

"Entirely so," she replied. "My dear Freddy is nothing but a fanciful idea, with no attribute whatever except the name."

"You are a most extraordinary young person," said Lawrence; "almost as extraordinary as your aunt. What in the world made you think of doing such a thing? and why do you wish to keep up the delusion among your relatives, even so far as to drive your aunt to the point of getting you divorced from your airy husband?" And he laughed again. "I told you how I came to think of it," she said, as they walked on again. "It was very plain that if I wanted to travel about as your agent I must be married, and I have found a husband quite a protection and an advantage, even when he doesn't go about with me; and as to keeping up the delusion, as you call it, in my own family, I have found that to be absolutely necessary, at least for the present. My aunt, even when I was a little girl, determined to take my marriage into her own hands; and since I have returned to her, this desire has come up again in the most astonishing way. It is her principal subject of conversation with me. Were it not for the protection which my dear Freddy Null gives me I should be thrown bodily into the arms of the person whom my aunt has selected, and he would be obliged to take me, whether he wanted to or not, or be cast forth forever. So you see how important it is that my aunt should think I am married; and I do hope you will not tell anybody about Mr Null."

"Of course I will keep your secret," said Croft. "You may rely upon that; but don't you think--do you believe that this sort of thing is altogether right?"

She did not answer for a few moments, and then she said: "I suppose you must consider me a very deceptive sort of person, but you should remember that these things were not done for my own good, and, as far as I can see, they were the only things that could be done. Do you suppose I was going to let you pounce down on my cousin and do him some injury, for, as you kept your object such a secret, I did not suppose it could be anything but an injury you intended him."

"A fine opinion of me!" said Croft.

"And then, do you suppose," she continued, "that I would allow my aunt to quarrel with Junius and disinherit him, as she says she will, should he decline to marry me. I expected to drop my married name when I came here, but I had not been with my aunt fifteen minutes before I saw that it would never do for me to be a single woman while I stayed with her; and so I kept my Freddy by me. I did not intend, at all, to tell you all these things about my cousin, and I only did it because I did not wish you to think that I was a sly, mean creature, deceiving others for my own good."

"Well," said Croft, "although I can't say you are right in making your relatives believe you are married when you are not, still I see you had very fair reasons for what you did, and you certainly showed a great deal of ingenuity and pluck in carrying out your remarkable schemes. By-the-way," he continued, somewhat hesitatingly, "I am in your debt for your services to me."

"Not a bit of it!" she exclaimed quickly. "I never did a thing for you. It was all for myself, or, rather, for my cousin. The only money due was that which you paid to Mr Candy before I took charge of the matter." Lawrence felt that this was rather a sore subject with his companion, and he dropped it. "Do you still hold the position of cashier in the Information Shop?"

"No," she said. "When I started out on my lonely wedding tour I gave up that, and if I should go back to New York, I do not think I should want to take it again.".

"Do you propose soon to return to New York?" he asked.

"No; at least I have made no plans in regard to it. I think it would grieve my aunt very much if I were to go away from her now, and as long as I have Mr Null to protect me from her matrimonial schemes, I am glad to stay with her. She is very kind to me."

"I think you are entirely right in deciding to stay here," he said, looking around at her, and contrasting in his mind the bright-faced, and somewhat plump young person walking beside him with the thin-faced girl in black whom he had seen behind the cashier's desk.

"Now," said she, with a vivacious little laugh, "I have poured out my whole soul before you, and, in return, I want you to gratify a curiosity which is fairly eating me up. Why were you so anxious to find my Cousin Junius? And how did you happen to come here the very day after he arrived? And, more than that, how was it that you had seen him at Midbranch so recently? You were talking about it last night. It couldn't have been my letter from Howlett's that brought you down here?"

"No," said Lawrence, "my meeting with Mr Keswick at Midbranch was entirely accidental. When I arrived there, a few days ago, I had no reason to suppose that I should meet him. But I must ask you to excuse me from giving my reasons for wishing to find your cousin, and for coming to see him here. The matter between us has now become one of no importance, and will be dropped."

The lady's face flushed. "Oh, indeed!" she said. And during the short remainder of their walk to the house she made no further remark.

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CHAPTER XIVWhen Lawrence and his companion reached the house, they found on the porch Mrs Keswick and her nephew; and, after a little general conversation, the latter remarked to Mr Croft that he had found it would not be in his power to attend to that matter he had spoken of; to which Croft replied that he was very much obliged to him for thinking of it, and that it was of no consequence at all, as he would probably make other arrangements. He then stated that he would be obliged to return to the Green Sulphur Springs that day, and
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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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