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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 30
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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 30 Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :Frank R Stockton Date :May 2012 Read :3205

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The Late Mrs. Null - Chapter 30

CHAPTER XXX

Mr Brandon was not a weak man, nor one very susceptible to outside influences, but, in the whole course of his life, nothing so extraordinarily nerve-stirring had occurred to him as this visit of old Mrs Keswick, endeavoring to appear in the character of the young creature he had wooed some forty-five years before. For a long time, Mrs Keswick had been the enemy of himself and his family; and many a bitter onslaught she had made upon him, both by letter, and by word of mouth. These he had borne with the utmost bravery and coolness, and there were times when they even afforded him entertainment. But this most astounding attack was something against which no man could have been prepared; and Mr Brandon, suddenly pounced upon in the midst of his comfortable bachelordom by a malevolent sorceress and hurled back to the days of his youth, was shown himself kneeling, not at the feet of a fair young girl, but before a horrible old woman.

This amazing and startling state of affairs was too much for him immediately to comprehend. It stunned and bewildered him. Such, indeed, was the effect upon him that the first act of his mind, when he was left alone, and it began to act, was to ask of itself if there were really any grounds upon which Mrs Keswick could, with any reason, take up her position? The absolute absurdity of her position, however, became more and more evident, as Mr Brandon's mind began to straighten itself and stand up. And now he grew angry. Anger was a passion with which he was not at all unfamiliar, and the exercise of it seemed to do him good. When he had walked up and down his library for a quarter of an hour, he felt almost like his natural self; and with many nods of his head and shakes of his fist, he declared that the old woman was crazy, and that he would bundle her home just as soon as he could.

By dinner-time he had cooled down a good deal, and he resolved to treat her with the respect due to her age and former condition of sanity; but to take care that she should not again be alone with him, and to arrange that she should return to her home that day.

Mrs Keswick came to the table with a smiling face, and wearing a close-fitting white cap, which looked like a portion of her night gear, tied under her chin with broad, stiff strings. In this she appeared to her host as far more hideous than when wearing her sun-bonnet. Mr Brandon had arranged that two servants should wait upon the table, so that one of them should always be in the room, but in his supposition that the presence of a third person would have any effect upon the expression of Mrs Keswick's fond regard, he was mistaken. The meal had scarcely begun, when she looked around the room with wide-open eyes, and exclaimed: "Robert, if we should conclude to remain here, I think we will have this room re-papered with some light-colored paper. I like a light dining-room. This is entirely too dark."

The two servants, one of whom was our old friend, Peggy, actually stopped short in their duties at this remark; and as for Mr Brandon, his appetite immediately left him, to return no more during that meal.

He was obliged to make some answer to this speech, and so he briefly remarked that he had no desire to alter the appearance of his dining-room, and then hastened to change the conversation by making some inquiries about that interesting young woman, her niece, who, he had been informed, was not a married lady, as he had supposed her to be.

At this intelligence, Peggy dropped two spoons and a fork; she had never heard it before.

"The late Mrs Null," said Mrs Keswick, "is a young woman who likes to cut her clothes after her own patterns. They may be becoming to her when they are made up, or they may not be. But I am inclined to think she has got a pretty good head on her shoulders, and perhaps she knows what suits her as well as any of us. I can't say it was easy to forgive the trick she played on me, her own aunt, and just the same, in fact, as her mother. But Robert," and as she said this the old lady laid down her knife and fork, and looked tenderly at Mr Brandon, "I have determined to forgive everybody, and to overlook everything, and I do this as much for your sake, dear Robert, as for my own. It wouldn't do for a couple of our age to be keeping up grudges against the young people for their ways of getting out of marriages or getting into them. We will have my niece and her husband here sometimes, won't we, Robert?"

Mr Brandon straightened himself and remarked: "Mr Croft, whom I have heard your niece is to marry, will be quite welcome here, with his wife." Then, putting his napkin on the table, and pushing back his chair, he said: "Now, madam, you must excuse me, for I have orders to give to some of my people which I had forgotten until this moment. But do not let me interfere with your dinner. Pray continue your meal."

Never before had Mr Brandon been known to leave his dinner until he had finished it, and he was not at all accustomed to give such a poor reason for his actions as the one he gave now, but it was simply impossible for him to sit any longer at table, and have that old woman talk in that shocking manner before the servants.

"Robert," cried Mrs Keswick, as he left the room, "I'll save some dessert for you, and we'll eat it together."

Mr Brandon's first impulse, when he found himself out of the dining-room, was to mount his horse and ride away; but there was no place to which he wished to ride; and he was a man who was very loath to leave the comforts of his home. "No," he said. "She must go, and not I." And then he went into his parlor, and strode up and down. As soon as Mrs Keswick had finished her dinner, he would see her there, and speak his mind to her. He had determined that he would not again be alone with her, but, since the presence of others was no restraint whatever upon her, it had become absolutely necessary that he should speak with her alone.

It was not long before the Widow Keswick, with a brisk, blithe step, entered the parlor. "I couldn't eat without you, Robert," she cried, "and so I really haven't half finished my dinner. Did you have to come in here to speak to your people?"

Mr Brandon stepped to the door, and closed it. "Madam," he said, "it will be impossible for me, in the absence of my niece, to entertain you here to-night, and so it would be prudent for you to start for home as soon as possible, as the days are short. It would be too much of a journey for your horse to go back again to-day, and your vehicle is an open one; therefore I have ordered my carriage to be prepared, and you may trust my driver to take you safely home, even if it should be dark before you get there. If you desire it, there is a young maid-servant here who will go with you."

"Robert," said Mrs Keswick, approaching the old gentleman and gazing fondly upward at him, "you are so good, and thoughtful, and sweet. But you need not put yourself to all that trouble for me. I shall stay here to-night, and in your house, dear Robert, I can take care of myself a great deal better than any lady could take care of me."

"Madam," exclaimed Mr Brandon, "I want you to stop calling me by my first name. You have no right to do so, and I won't stand it."

"Robert," said the old lady, looking at him with an air of tender upbraiding, "you forget that I am yours, now, and forever."

Never, since he had arrived at man's estate, and probably not before, had Mr Brandon spoken in improper language to a lady, but now it was all he could do to restrain himself from the ejaculation of an oath, but he did restrain himself, and only exclaimed: "Confound it, madam, I cannot stand this! Why do you come here, to drive me crazy with your senseless ravings?"

"Robert," said Mrs Keswick, very composedly "I do not wonder that my coming to you and accepting the proposals which you once so heartily made to me, and from which you have never gone back, should work a good deal upon your feelings. It is quite natural, and I expected it. Therefore don't hesitate about speaking out your mind; I shall not be offended. So that we belong to each other for the rest of our days, I don't mind what you say now, when it is all new and unexpected to you. You and I have had many a difference of opinion, Robert, and your plans were not my plans. But things have turned out as you wished, and you have what you have always wanted; and with the other good things, Robert, you can take me." And, as she finished speaking, she held out both hands to her companion.

With a stamp of his foot, and a kick at a chair which stood in his way, Mr Brandon precipitately left the room, and slammed the door after him; and if Peggy had not nimbly sprung to one side, he would have stumbled over her, and have had a very bad fall for a man of his age.

It was not ten minutes after this, that, looking out of a window, Mrs Keswick saw a saddled horse brought into the back yard. She hastened into the hall, and found Peggy. "Run to Mr Brandon," she said, "and bid him good-bye for me. I am going up stairs to get ready to go home, and haven't, time to speak to him, myself, before he starts on his ride."

At the receipt of this message the heart of Mr Brandon gave a bound which actually helped him to get into the saddle, but he did not hesitate in his purpose of instant departure. If he staid, but for a moment, she might come out to him, and change her mind, so he put spurs to his horse and galloped away, merely stopping long enough, as he passed the stables, to give orders that the carriage be prepared for Mrs Keswick, and taken round to the front.

As he rode through the cool air of that fine November afternoon, the spirits of Mr Brandon rose. He felt a serene satisfaction in assuring himself that, although he had been very angry, indeed, with Mrs Keswick, on account of her most unheard of and outrageous conduct, yet he had not allowed his indignation to burst out against her in any way of which he would afterward be ashamed. Some hasty words had escaped him, but they were of no importance, and, under the circumstances, no one could have avoided speaking them. But, when he had addressed her at any length, he had spoken dispassionately and practically, and she, being at bottom a practical woman, had seen the sense of his advice, and had gone home comfortably in his carriage. Whether she took her insane fancies home with her, or dropped them on the road, it mattered very little to him, so that he never saw her again; and he did not intend to see her again. If she came again to his house, he would leave it and not return until she had gone; but he had no reason to suppose that he would be forced into any such exceedingly disagreeable action as this. He did not believe she would ever come back. For, unless she were really crazy--crazy--and in that case she ought to be put in the lunatic asylum--she could not keep up, for any length of time, the extraordinary and outrageous delusion that he would be willing to renew the feelings that he had entertained for her in her youth.

Mr Brandon rode until nearly dark, for it took a good while to free his mind from the effects of the excitements and torments of that day. But, when he entered the house and took his seat in his library chair by the fire, he had almost regained his usual composed and well satisfied frame of mind.

Then, through the quietly opened door, came Mrs Keswick, and stealthily stepping towards him in the fitful light of the blazing logs, she put her hand on his arm and said: "Dear Robert, how glad I am to see you back!"

The next morning, about ten o'clock, Mrs Keswick sent her eighteenth or twentieth message to Mr Brandon, who had shut himself up in his room since a little before supper-time on the previous evening. The message was sent by Peggy, and she was instructed to shout it outside of her master's door until he took notice of it. Its purport was that it was necessary that Mrs Keswick should go home to-day, and that her horse was harnessed and she was now ready to go, but that she could not think of leaving until she had seen Mr Brandon again. She would therefore wait until he was ready to come down.

Mr Brandon looked out of the window and saw the spring-wagon at the outside of the broad stile, with Plez standing at the sorrel's head. He remembered that the venerable demon had said, at the first, that she intended to stay but one night, and he could but believe that she was now really going. Knowing her as he did, however, he was very well aware that if she had said she would not leave until she had seen him, she would stay in his house for a year, unless he sooner went down to her; therefore he opened his door, and slowly and feebly descended the stairs.

"My dear, dear Robert!" exclaimed Mrs Keswick, totally regardless of the fact that Peggy was standing at the front door with her valise in her hand, and that there was another servant in the hall, "how pale, and haggard, and worn you look! You must be quite unwell, and I don't know but that I ought to stay here and take care of you."

At these words a look of agony passed over the old man's face, but he said nothing.

"But I am afraid I cannot stay any longer this time," continued the Widow Keswick, "for my niece would not know what had become of me, and there are things at home that I must attend to; but I will come again. Don't think I intend to desert you, dear Robert. You shall see me soon again. But while I am gone," she said, turning to the two servants, "I want you maids to take good care of your master. You must do it for his sake, for he has always been kind to you, but I also want you to do it for my sake. Don't you forget that. And now, dear Robert, good-bye." As she spoke, she extended her hand towards the old gentleman.

Without a word, but with a good deal of apparent reluctance, he took the long, bony hand in his, and probably, would have instantly dropped it again, had not Mrs Keswick given him a most hearty clutch, and a vigorous and long-continued shake.

"It is hard, dear Robert," she said, "for us to part, with nothing but a hand-shake, but there are people about, and this will have to do." And then, after urging him to take good care of his health, so valuable to them both, and assuring him that he would soon see her again, she gave his hand a final shake, and left him. Accompanied by Peggy, she went out to the spring-wagon and clambered into it. It almost surpasses belief that Mr Brandon, a Virginia gentleman of the old school, should have stood in his hall, and have seen an old lady leave his house and get into a vehicle, without accompanying and assisting her; but such was the case on this occasion. He seemed to have forgotten his traditions, and to have lost his impulses. He simply stood where the Widow Keswick had left him, and gazed at her.

When she was seated, and ready to start, the old lady turned towards him, called out to him in a cheery voice: "Good-bye, Robert!" and kissed her hand to him.

Mrs Keswick slowly drove away, and Mr Brandon stood at his hall door, gazing after her until she was entirely out of sight. Then he ejaculated: "The Devil's daughter!" and went into his library.

"I wonders," said Peggy when she returned to the kitchen, "how you all's gwine to like habin dat ole Miss Keswick libin h'yar as you all's mistiss."

"Who's gwine to hab her?" growled Aunt Judy.

"You all is," sturdily retorted Peggy. "Dar ain't no use tryin' to git out ob dat. Dat old Miss Keswick done gone an' kunjered Mahs' Robert, an' dey's boun' to git mar'ed. I done heered all 'bout it, an' she's comin' h'yar to lib wid Mahs' Robert. But dat don' make no dif'rence to me. I's gwine to lib wid Mahs' Junius an' Miss Rob in New York, I is. But I's mighty sorry for you all."

"You Peggy," shouted the irate Aunt Judy, "shut up wid your fool talk! When Mahs' Robert marry dat ole jimpsun weed, de angel Gabr'el blow his hohn, shuh."

Slowly driving along the road to her home, the Widow Keswick gazed cheerfully at the blue sky above her, and the pleasant autumn scenery around her; sniffed the fine fresh air, delicately scented with the odor of falling leaves; and settling herself into a more comfortable position on her seat, she complacently said to herself: "Well, I reckon the old scapegrace has got his money's worth this time!"

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