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The Late Mrs. Null by Frank Richard Stockton

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dat gate shet."

"Is dat your 'Melia County par'ble?" asked the old woman.

"Dat's it," answered Isham.

"Reckon dat country's better fur 'bacca dan fur par'bles," grunted Aunt


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

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

"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

"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

"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

"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.


When 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 that, as it was a long ride, he
would like to start as soon as his horse could be brought to him. But
this procedure was condemned utterly by the old lady, who insisted that
Mr Croft should not leave until after dinner, which meal should be
served earlier than usual in order to give him plenty of time to get to
the Springs before dark, and as Lawrence had nothing to oppose to her
very urgent protest, he consented to stay. Before dinner was ready he
found out why the protest was made. The old lady took him aside and made
inquiries of him in regard to Mr Null. He had already informed her that
he was not acquainted with that gentleman, but she thought, as Mr Croft
seemed to be going about the country a good deal, he might possibly meet
with her niece's husband; and, if he should do so, she would be very
glad to have him become acquainted with him.

To this Lawrence replied with much gravity that he would be happy to do

"Mr Null has not yet come to my house," said Mrs Keswick, "and it is
very natural that one should desire to know the husband of her only
niece who is, or should be, the same as a daughter to her."

"A very natural wish indeed," said Lawrence.

"I am not quite sure in what business Mr Null is engaged," she
continued, "and, although I asked my niece about it, she answered in a
very evasive way, which makes me think his occupation is one she is not
proud of. I have reason to suppose, however, that he is an agent for
the sale of some fertilizing compound."

At this Lawrence could not help smiling very broadly.

"It may appear very odd and ridiculous to you," she said, "that a person
connected with my family should be engaged in a business like that, for
those fertilizers, as you ought to know, are all humbugs of the vilest
kind. The only time I bought any it took my whole wheat crop to pay for
it, and as for the clover I got afterward, a grasshopper could have
eaten the whole of it. I am afraid he didn't tell her his business
before he married her, and I'm glad she's ashamed of it. As far as I can
find out, it does not seem as if Mr Null has any intention of coming
here for some time; and, as I said before, I do very much want to know
something about him--that is from a disinterested outsider. One cannot
expect a recently married young woman to give a correct account of her

"I do not believe," said Mr Croft, "that there is any probability that I
shall ever meet the gentleman--our walks in life being so different."

"I should hope so, indeed!" interrupted Mrs Keswick. "But people of all
sorts do run across each other."

"But if I do meet with him," he continued, "I shall take great pleasure
in giving you my impressions by letter, or in person, of your
nephew-in-law." "Don't call him that!" exclaimed the old lady with
much asperity. "I don't acknowledge the title. But I won't say any more
about him," with a grim smile, "or you may think I don't like him."

"Some of these days," he said, "you may come to be of the opinion that
he is exactly the husband you would wish your niece to have."

"Never!" she cried. "If he were an angel in broadcloth. But I mustn't
talk about these things. I mentioned Mr Null to you because you are the
only person of my acquaintance who, I suppose, is likely to meet with
him. In regard to that little company I spoke of to you, I have not
quite made up my mind about it, and, therefore, haven't mentioned it;
but if I carry out the plan I will write to you at the Springs, and
shall certainly expect you to be one of us." "That would give me great
pleasure," said Lawrence, in a tone which indicated to the quick brain
of the old lady that he would like to make a condition, but was too
polite to do so.

"If Miss March should agree to come," she said, "it might be pleasant
for you to make one of her party and ride over at the same time.
However, I'll let you know if she is coming, and then you can join her
or not, as suits your convenience."

"Thank you very much," said Lawrence, in a tone which betrayed no

As he rode away that afternoon, Lawrence Croft, as his habit was on
such occasions, revolved in his mind what he had heard and said and done
during this little visit to the Keswick family. "Nothing could have
turned out better," he thought. "To be sure the young man could not or
would not be of any assistance to me, which is probably what I ought to
have expected, but the strong-tempered old lady, his aunt, promises to
be of tenfold more service than he could possibly be. As to that very
odd young lady, Mrs Keswick's niece, I imagine that she does not regard
me very favorably, for she was quite cool after I refused to let her
into the secret of my desire to find her cousin, but as I did not ask
for her confidences, she had no right to expect a return for them. And,
by-the-way, it's odd how many confidences have been reposed in me since
I've been down here. Keswick begins it; then old Brandon takes up the
strain; after that Mr Candy's ex-cashier tells me the story of her life,
and entrusts me with the secret of her marriage with a man of wind--that
most useful Mr Null; after that, her aunt makes me understand how much
she hates Mr Null, and how she would like me to find out something
disreputable about him; and then--, by George! I forgot the old negro
woman in the cabin!" At this he put his hand in the side-pocket of his
coat, and drew out the pair of little blue shoes. "Why in the name of
common sense did the old hag give me these? And why should she suppose
that Mrs Keswick intended me a harm? The old lady never saw or heard of
me until yesterday, and her manner certainly indicated no dislike of me.
But, of course, Aunt Patsy's brain is cracked, and she didn't know what
she was talking about. I shall keep the shoes, however, and if ever the
venerable purple sun-bonnet runs afoul of me, I shall hold them up before
it and see what happens."

And so, very well satisfied with the result of his visit to Hewlett's,
he rode on to the Green Sulphur Springs.

On the afternoon of the next day Miss March received an invitation from
Mrs Keswick to spend a few days with her, and make the acquaintance of
her niece who had recently returned to the home of her childhood. The
letter, for it was much more than a note of invitation, was cordial, and
in parts pathetic. It dwelt upon the sundered pleasant relations of the
two families, and expressed the hope that Mr Brandon's visit to her
might be the beginning of a renewal of the old intimacy. Mrs Keswick
took occasion to incidentally mention that the house would be
particularly dull for her niece just now, as Junius was on the point of
starting for Washington, where he would be detained some weeks on
business; and she hoped, most earnestly, that Miss Roberta would accept
this invitation to make her acquaintance and that of her niece; and she
designated Thursday of the following week as the day on which she would
like her to come.

As may reasonably be supposed, this letter greatly astonished Miss
March, who carried it to her uncle, and asked him to explain, if he
could, what it meant. The old gentleman was a good deal surprised when
he read it; but it delighted him in a far greater degree. He perceived
in it the first fruits of his diplomacy. Mrs Keswick saw that it would
be to her interest, for a time at least, to make friends with him; and
this was the way she took to do it. She would not come to Midbranch
herself, and bring the niece, but she would have Roberta come to her. In
the pathos and cordiality Mr Brandon believed not at all. What the old
hypocrite probably wanted was to enlist his grateful sympathy in that
ridiculous divorce case. But, whatever her motives might be, he would be
very glad to have his niece go to her; for if anything could make an
impression upon that time-hardened and seasoned old chopping-block of a
woman, it was Roberta's personal influence. If Mrs Keswick should come
to know Roberta, that knowledge would do more than anything else in the
world to remove her objections to the marriage he so greatly desired.

He said nothing of all this to his niece; but he most earnestly
counselled her to accept the invitation and make a visit to the two
ladies. Of course Roberta did not care to go, but as her uncle appeared
to take the matter so much to heart, she consented to gratify him, and
wrote an acceptance. She found, also, when she had thought more on the
matter, that she had a good deal of curiosity to see this Mrs Keswick,
of whom she had heard so much, and who had had such an important
influence on her life.


On the afternoon of the day on which Mrs Keswick's letter arrived at
Midbranch, Peggy had great news to communicate to Aunt Judy, the cook:
"Miss Rob's gwine to Mahs' Junius' house in de kerridge, an' I's gwine
'long wid her to set in front wid Sam."

"Mahs' Junius aint got no house," said Aunt Judy, turning around very
suddenly. "Does you mean she gwine ter old Miss Keswick's?"

"Yaas," answered Peggy.

"Well, den, why don' you say so? Dat aint Mahs' Junius' house nohow,
though he lib dar as much as he lib anywhar. Wot she gwine dar fur?"

"Gwine to git married, I reckon," said Peggy.

"Git out!" ejaculated Aunt Judy. "Wid you fur bride'maid?"

"Dunno," answered Peggy. "She done tole me she didn't think she'd have
much use fur me, but Mahs' Robert, he said it were too far fur her to go
widout a maid; but ef she want me fur bride'maid I'll do dat too."

"You bawn fool!" shouted Aunt Judy. "You ain't got sense 'nuf to hock
the frocks ob de bridesmaids. An dat's all fool talk about Miss Rob
gwine dar to be married. When she an' Mahs' Junius hab de weddin',
dey'll hab it h'yar, ob course. She gwine to see ole Miss Keswick, coz
dat's de way de fus' fam'lies allus does afore dey hab dere weddin'. I's
pow'ful glad she's gwine dar, instid ob ole Miss Keswick comin' h'yar. I
don' wan' her kunjerin' me, an' she'd do dat as quick as winkin' ef de
batter bread's a leetle burned, or dar's too much salt in de soup. You's
got to keep youse'f mighty straight, you Peggy, when you gits whar ole
Miss Keswick is. Don' you come none ob your fool tricks, or she kunjer
you, an' one ob your legs curl up like a pig's tail, an' neber uncurl no
moh'. How you like dat?"

To this Peggy made no reply, but with her eyes steadfastly fixed on Aunt
Judy, and her lower jaw very much dropped, she mentally resolved to keep
herself as straight as possible during her stay at the Keswick's.

"Dar's ole Aun' Patsy," continued the speaker. "It's a mighty long time
sence I've seen Aun' Patsy. Dat was when I went ober dar wid Miss Rob's
mudder when de two fam'lys was fren's. I was her maid, an' went wid her
jes as Mahs' Robert wants you ter go 'long wid Miss Rob. He ain't gwine
to furgit how they did in de ole times when de ladies went visitin' in
dere kerridges fur to stay free, four days. Aun' Patsy were pow'ful ole
den, but she didn't die soon 'nuf, an' ole Miss Keswick she kunjer her,
an' now she can't die at all."

"Neber die!" ejaculated Peggy.

"Neber die, nohow!" answered Aunt Judy. "Mighty offen she thought she
gwine to die but 'twarnt no use. She can't do it. An' de las' time I
hear ob her, she alibe yit, jes' de same as eber. An' dar was Mahs' John
Keswick. She cunjer him coz he rode de gray colt to de Coht House when
she done tole him to let dat gray colt alone, coz 'twarnt hisen but
hern, an' he go shoot hese'f dead by de gate pos'. You's got to go fru
by dat pos' when you go inter de gate."

"Dat same pos'!" cried Peggy.

"Yaas," said Aunt Judy, "dat same one. An' dey tells me dat on third
Chewsdays, which is Coht day, de same as when he took de gray colt, as
soon as it git dark he ghos' climb up to de top ob dat pos', an' set dar
all night."

With a conjuring old woman in the house, and a monthly ghost on the
gate-post outside, the Keswick residence did not appear as attractive to
Peggy as it had done before, but she mentally determined that while she
was there she would be very careful to look put sharp for herself, a
performance for which she was very well adapted.

It was on a pleasant autumn morning that Mr Brandon very carefully
ensconced his niece in the family carriage, with Peggy and a trusty
negro man, Sam, on the outside front seat. "I would gladly go with you,
my dear," he said, "even without the formality of an invitation, but it
is far better for you to go by yourself. My very presence would provoke
an antagonism in the old lady, while with you, personally, it is
impossible that any such feeling should exist. I hope your visit may do
away with all ill feeling between our families."

"I want you to understand, uncle," said Miss Roberta, "that I am making
this visit almost entirely to please you, and I shall do everything in
my power to make Mrs Keswick feel that you and I are perfectly well
disposed toward her; but you can't expect me to exhibit any great warmth
of friendship toward a person who once used such remarkable and violent
expressions in regard to me."

"But those feelings, my dear," said Mr Brandon, "if we are to believe
Mrs Keswick's letter, have entirely disappeared."

"It is quite natural that they should do so," said Roberta, "as there is
no longer any reason for them. And there is another thing I want to
impress on your mind, Uncle Robert, you must expect no result from this
visit except a renewal of amity between yourself and Mrs Keswick."

"I understand it perfectly," said the old gentleman, feeling quite
confident that if his family and Mrs Keswick should once again become
friendly, the main object of his desires would not be difficult of
accomplishment. "And now, my dear, I will not detain you any longer. I
hope you may have a very pleasant visit, and I advise you to cultivate
that young Mrs Null, whom I take to be a very sensible and charming
person." And then he kissed her good-bye and shut the carriage door.

It was about the middle of the afternoon when Sam drove through the
outer Keswick gate, and Peggy, who had jumped down to open said gate,
had made herself positively sure that, at present, there was no ghost
sitting upon the post. Before she reached the house, Roberta began to
wonder a good deal if she should find Mrs Keswick the woman she had
pictured in her mind. But when the carriage drew up in front of the
porch there came out to meet her, not the mistress of the estate, but a
much younger lady, who tripped down the steps and reached Roberta as she
descended from the carriage.

"We are very glad to see you, Miss March," she said. "My aunt is not
here just now, but will be back directly."

"This is Mrs Null, isn't it?" said Roberta, and as the other smiled and
answered with a slight flush that it was, Roberta stooped just the
little that was necessary, and kissed her. Mrs Keswick's niece had not
expected so warm a greeting from this lady, to whom she was almost a
stranger, and instantly she said to herself: "In that kiss Freddy dies
to you." For some days she had been turning over and over in her mind
the question whether or not she should tell Roberta March that she was
not Mrs Null. She greatly disliked keeping up the deception where it was
not necessary, and with Roberta, if she would keep the secret, there was
no need of this aerial matrimony. Besides her natural desire to confide
in a person of her own sex and age, she did not wish Mr Croft to be the
only one who shared her secret; and so she had determined that her
decision would depend on what sort of girl Roberta proved to be. "If I
like her I'll tell her; if I don't, I won't," was the final decision.
And when Roberta March looked down upon her with her beautiful eyes and
kissed her, Freddy Null departed this life so far as those two were

Mrs Keswick had, apparently, made a very great miscalculation in regard
to the probable time of arrival of her guest, for Miss March and Peggy,
and even Sam and the horses, had been properly received and cared for,
and Miss March had been sitting in the parlor for some time, and still
the old lady did not come into the house. Her niece had grown very
anxious about this absence, and had begun to fear that her aunt had
treated Miss March as she had treated her on her arrival, and had gone
away to stay. But Plez, whom she had sent to tell his mistress that her
visitor was in the house, returned with the information that "ole miss"
was in one of the lower fields directing some men who were digging a
ditch, and that she would return to the house in a very short time. Thus
assured that no permanent absence was intended, she went into the parlor
to entertain Miss March, and to explain, as well as she could, the state
of affairs; when, as she entered the door, she saw that lady suddenly
arise and look steadfastly out of the window.

"Can that be Mr Croft?" Miss March exclaimed.

The younger girl made a dash forward and also looked out of the window.
Yes, there was Mr Croft, riding across the yard toward the tree where
horses were commonly tied.

"Did you expect him?" asked Roberta, quickly.

"No more than I expected the man in the moon," was the impulsive and
honest answer of her companion.

"I am very glad to see you, Mrs Null," said Lawrence, when that lady met
him on the porch. And when he was shown into the parlor, he greeted Miss
March with much cordiality, but no surprise. But when he inquired after
other members of the family, he was much surprised to find that Mr
Keswick had gone to Washington. "Was not this very unexpected, Mrs
Null?" he asked.

"Why, no," she answered. "Junius told us, almost as soon as he came
here, that he would have to be in Washington by the first of this week."

Mr Croft did not pursue this subject further, but presently remarked:
"Are you and I the first comers, Miss March?"

Roberta looked from one of her companions to the other, and remarked: "I
do not understand you."

Lawrence now perceived that he was treading a very uncertain and,
perhaps, dangerous path of conversation, and the sooner he got out of it
the better; but, before he could decide what answer to make, a silent
and stealthy figure appeared at the door, beckoning and nodding in a
very mysterious way. This proved to be the plump black maid, Letty, who,
having attracted the attention of the company, whispered loudly, "Miss
Annie!" whereupon that young lady immediately left the room.

"What other comers did you expect?" then asked Roberta of Mr Croft.

"I certainly supposed there would be a small company here," he said,
"probably neighborhood people, but if I was mistaken, of course I don't
wish to say anything more about it to the family."

"Were you invited yourself?" asked Roberta.

Croft wished very much that he could say that he had accidentally
dropped in. But this he could not do, and he answered that Mrs Keswick
asked him to come about this time. He did not consider it necessary to
add that she had written to him at the Springs, renewing her invitation
very earnestly, and mentioning that Miss March had consented to make one
of the party.

This was as far as Roberta saw fit to continue the subject, on the
present occasion; and she began to talk about the charming weather, and
the pretty way in which the foliage was reddening on the side of a hill
opposite the window. Mr Croft was delighted to enter into this new
channel of speech, and discussed with considerable fervor the
attractiveness of autumn in Virginia. Miss Annie found Letty in a very
disturbed state of mind. The dinner had been postponed until the arrival
of Miss March, and now it had been still further delayed by the
non-arrival of the mistress of the house, and everything was becoming
dried up, and unfit to eat. "This will never do!" exclaimed Miss Annie.
"I will go myself and look for aunt. She must have forgotten the time of
day, and everything else."

Putting on her hat she ran out of the back door, but she did not have to
go very far, for she found the old lady in the garden, earnestly
regarding a bed of turnips. "Where have you been, my dear aunt?" cried
the girl. "Miss March has been here ever so long, and Mr Croft has come,
and dinner has been waiting until it has all dried up. I was afraid that
you had forgotten that company was coming to-day."

"Forgotten!" said the old lady, glaring at the turnips. "It isn't an
easy thing to forget. I invited the girl, and I expected her to come,
but I tell you, Annie, when I saw that carriage coming along the road,
all the old feeling came back to me. I remembered what its owners had
done to me and mine, and what they are still trying to do, and I felt I
could not go into the house, and give her my hand. It would be like
taking hold of a snake."

"A snake!" cried her niece, with much warmth. "She is a lovely woman!
And her coming shows what kindly feelings she has for you. But, no
matter what you think about it, aunt, you have asked her here, and you
must come in and see her. Dinner is waiting, and I don't know what more
to say about your absence."

"Go in and have dinner," said Mrs Keswick.

"Don't wait for me. I'll come in and see her after a while; but I
haven't yet got to the point of sitting down to the table and eating
with her."

"Oh, aunt!" exclaimed Annie, "you ought never to have asked her if you
are going to treat her in this way! And what am I to say to her? What
excuse am I to make? Are you not sick? Isn't something the matter with

"You can tell them I'm flustrated," said the old lady, "and that is all
that's the matter with me. But I'm not coming in to dinner, and there is
no use of saying anything more about it."

Annie looked at her, the tears of mortification still standing in her
eyes. "I suppose I must go and do the best I can," she said, "but, aunt,
please tell me one thing. Did you invite any other people here? Mr Croft
spoke as if he expected to see other visitors, and if they ask anything
more about it, I don't know what to say."

"The only other people I invited," said the old lady with a grim grin,
"were the King of Norway, and the Prime Minister of Spain, and neither
of them could come." Annie said no more, but hurrying back to the
house, she ordered dinner to be served immediately. At first the meal
was not a very lively one. The young hostess _pro tempore_ explained the
absence of the mistress of the house by stating that she had had a
nervous attack--which was quite true--and that she begged them to excuse
her until after dinner. The two guests expressed their regret at this
unfortunate indisposition, but each felt a degree of embarrassment at
the absence of Mrs Keswick. Roberta, who had heard many stories of the
old woman, guessed at the true reason, and if the distance had not been
so great, she would have gone home that afternoon. Lawrence Croft, of
course, could imagine no reason for the old lady's absence, except the
one that had been given them, but he suspected that there must be some
other. He did his best, however, to make pleasant conversation; and
Roberta, who began to have a tender feeling for the little lady at the
head of the table, who, she could easily see, had been placed in an
unpleasant position, seconded his efforts with such effect that, when
the little party had concluded their dinner with a course of hot pound
cake and cream sauce, they were chatting together quite sociably.

In about ten minutes after they had all gone into the parlor, Miss Annie
excused herself, and presently returned with a message to Miss March
that Mrs Keswick would be very glad to see her in another room. This was
a very natural message from an elderly lady, who was not well, but
Roberta arose and walked out of the parlor with a feeling as if she
were about to enter the cage of an erratic tigress. But she met with no
such creature. She saw in the back room, into which she was ushered, a
small old woman, dressed very plainly, who came forward to meet her,
extending both hands, into one of which Roberta placed one of her own.

"I may as well say at once, Roberta March," said Mrs Keswick, "that the
reason I didn't come to meet you when you first arrived was, that I
couldn't get over, all of a sudden, the feelings I have had against your
family for so many years."

"Why then, Mrs Keswick," said Roberta, very coldly, "did you ask me to

"Because I wanted you to come," said Mrs Keswick, "and because I thought
I was stronger than I turned out to be; but you must make allowances for
the stiffness which gets into old people's dispositions as well as their
backs. I want you to understand, however, that I meant all I said in
that letter, and I am very glad to see you. If anything in my conduct
has seemed to you out of the way, you must set it down to the fact that
I was making a very sudden turn, and starting out on a new track in
which I hope we shall all keep for the rest of our lives."

Roberta could not help thinking that the sudden turn in the new track
began with the visit of her uncle to this house, and that the old lady
need not have inflicted upon her the disagreeable necessity of
witnessing a hostess taking a very repulsive cold plunge; but all she
said was that she hoped the families would now live together in friendly
relations; and that she was sure that, if this were to be, it would give
her uncle a great deal of pleasure. She very much wanted to ask Mrs
Keswick how Mr Croft happened to be here at this time, but she felt that
her very brief acquaintance with the lady would not warrant the
discussion of a subject like that.

"She is very much the kind of woman I thought she was," said Roberta to
herself, when, after some further hospitable remarks from Mrs Keswick,
the two went to the parlor together to find Mr Croft. But that
gentleman, having been deserted by all the ladies, was walking up and
down the greensward in front of the house, smoking a cigar. Mrs Keswick
went out to him, and greeted him very cordially, begging him to excuse
her for not being able to see him as soon as he came.

Lawrence set all this aside in his politest manner, but declared himself
very much disappointed in not seeing Mr Keswick, and also remarked that
from what she had said to him on his last visit he had expected to find
quite a little party here.

"I am sorry," said the old lady, "that Junius is away, for he would be
very glad to see you, and it never came into my mind to mention to you
that he was obliged to be in Washington at this time. And, as for the
party, I thought afterwards that it would be a great deal cosier just to
have a few persons here."

"Oh, yes," said Lawrence, "most certainly, a great deal cosier."

Mrs Keswick ate supper with her guests, and behaved very well. During
the evening she sustained the main part of the conversation, giving the
company a great many anecdotes and reminiscences of old times and old
families, relating them in an odd and peculiar way that was very
interesting, especially to Croft, to whom the subject matter was quite
new. But, although her three companions listened to the old lady with
deferential attention, interspersed with appropriate observations, each
one made her the object of severe mental scrutiny, and endeavored to
discover the present object of her scheming old mind. Roberta was quite
sure that her invitation and that of Mr Croft was a piece of artful
management on the part of the old lady, and imagined, though she was not
quite sure about it, that it was intended as a bit of match-making. To
get her married to somebody else, would be, of course, the best possible
method of preventing her marrying Junius; and this, she had reason to
believe, was the prime object of old Mrs Keswick's existence. But why
should Mr Croft be chosen as the man with whom she was to be thrown. She
had learned that the old lady had seen him before, but was quite certain
that her acquaintance with him was slight. Could Junius have told his
aunt about the friendship between herself and Mr Croft? It was not like
him, but a great many unlikely things take place.

As for Lawrence, he knew very well there was a trick beneath his
invitation, but he could not at all make out why it had been played. He
had been given an admirable opportunity of offering himself to Miss
March, but there was no reason, apparent to him, why this should have
been done.

Miss Annie, watching her aunt very carefully, and speaking but seldom,
quite promptly made up her mind in regard to the matter. She knew very
well the bitter opposition of the old woman to a marriage between Junius
and Miss March; and saw, as plainly as she saw the lamp on the table,
that Roberta had been brought here on purpose to be sacrificed to Mr
Croft. Everything had been made ready, the altar cleared, and, as well
as the old lady's grindstone would act, the knife sharpened. "But," said
Miss Annie to herself, "she needn't suppose that I am going to sit quiet
and see all this going on, with Junius away off there in Washington,
knowing nothing about any of it."

Miss Roberta retired quite early to her room, having been fatigued by
her long drive, and she was just about to put out her light when she
heard a little knock at the door. Opening it slightly, she saw there
Junius Keswick's cousin, who also appeared quite ready for bed.

"May I come in for a minute?" said Annie.

"Certainly," replied Miss March, admitting her, and closing the door
after her.

"I have something to tell you," said the younger lady, admiring as she
spoke, the length of her companion's braided hair. "I intended to keep
it until to-morrow, but since I came up stairs I felt I could not let
you sleep a night under the same roof with me without knowing it. I am
not Mrs Null."

"What!" exclaimed Roberta, in a tone which made Annie lift up her hands
and implore her not to speak so loud, for fear that her aunt should hear
her. "I know she hasn't come up stairs yet, for she sits up dreadfully
late, but she can hear things, almost anywhere. No, I am not Mrs Null.
There is no such person as Mr Null, or, at least, he is a mere gaseous
myth, whom I married for the sake of the protection his name gave me."

"This is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard," said Roberta. "You
must tell me all about it."

"I don't want to keep you up," said Annie, "you must be tired."

"I am not tired," said Roberta, "for every particle of fatigue has flown
away." And with this she made Annie sit down beside her on the lounge.
"Now you must tell me what this means," she said. "Can it be that your
aunt does not know about it?"

"Indeed, she does not," said Annie. "I married Freddy Null in New York,
for reasons which we need not talk of now, for that matter is all past
and gone; but when I came here, I found almost immediately, that he
would be more necessary to me in this house than anywhere else."

"I cannot imagine," said Roberta, "why a gaseous husband should be
necessary to you here."

"It is not a very easy thing to explain," said the other, "that is, it
is easy enough, but--"

"Oh," said Roberta, catching the reason of her companion's hesitation,
"I don't think you ought to object to tell me your reason. Does it
relate to your cousin Junius?"

"Well," said Annie, "not altogether, and not so much to him as to my
aunt." "I think I see," said Roberta. "A marriage between you two would
suit her very well. Are you afraid that she would try to force him on

"Oh, no;" said Annie, "that would be bad enough, but it would not be so
embarrassing, and so dreadfully unpleasant, as forcing me on him, and
that is what aunt wants to do. And you can easily see that, in that
case, I could not stay in this house at all. I scarcely know my cousin
as a man, my strongest recollection of him being that of a big and very
nice boy, who used to climb up in the apple-trees to get me apples, and
then come down to the very lowest branch where he could drop the ripest
ones right into my apron, and not bruise them. But, even if I had been
acquainted with him all these years, and liked him ever so much, I
couldn't stay here and have aunt make him take me, whether he wanted
to, or not. And, unless you knew my aunt very well, you could not
conceive how unscrupulously straightforward she is in carrying out her

"And so," said Roberta, "you have quite baffled her by this little ruse
of a marriage."

"Not altogether," said Annie with a smile, "for she vows she is going to
get me divorced from Mr Null."

"That is funnier than the rest of it," said Roberta, laughing. And they
both laughed together, but in a subdued way, so as not to attract the
attention of the old lady below stairs. "And now, you see," said Annie,
"why I must be Mrs Null while I stay here. And you will promise me that
you will never tell any one?"

"You may be sure I shall keep your queer secret. But have you not told
it to any one but me?"

"Yes," said Annie, "but I have only told it to one other, Mr Croft. But
please don't speak of it to him."

"Mr Croft!" exclaimed Roberta. "How in the world did you come to tell
him? Do you know him so well as that?"

"Well," said Annie, "it does seem out of the way, I admit, that I should
tell him, but I can't give you the whole story of how I came to do it.
It wouldn't interest you--at least, it would, but I oughtn't to tell it.
It is a twisty sort of thing."

"Twisty?" said Roberta, drawing herself up, and a little away from her

Annie looked up, and caught the glance by which this word was
accompanied, and the tone in which it was spoken went straight to her
soul. "Now," said she, "if you are going to look at me, and speak in
that way, I'll tell you every bit of it." And she did tell the whole
story, from her first meeting with Mr Croft in the Information Shop,
down to the present moment.

"What is your name, anyway?" said Roberta, when the story had been told.

"My name," said the other, "is Annie Peyton."

"And now, do you know, Annie Peyton," said Roberta, passing her fingers
gently among the short, light-brown curls on her companion's forehead,
"that I think you must have a very, very kindly recollection of the boy
who used to come down to the lowest branches of the tree to drop apples
into your apron."


Shortly after Peggy arrived with her mistress at the Keswick
residence, her mind began to be a good deal disturbed. She had been
surprised, when the carriage drew up to the door, that "Mahs' Junius"
had not rushed down to meet his intended bride, and when she found he
was not in the house, and had, indeed, gone away from home, she did not
at all know what to make of it. If Miss Rob took the trouble to travel
all the way to the home of the man that the Midbranch people had decided
she should marry, it was a very wonderful thing, indeed, that he should
not be there to meet her. And while these thoughts were turning
themselves over in the mind of this meditative girl of color, and the
outgoing look in her eyes was extending itself farther and farther, as
if in search of some solution of the mystery, up rode Mr Croft.

"Dar _he!_" exclaimed Peggy, as she stood at the corner of the house
where she had been pursuing her meditations. "He!" she continued in a
voice that would have been quite audible to any one standing near. "Upon
my libin' soul, wot brung him h'yar? Miss Rob don' wan' him round,
nohow. I done druv him off wunst. Upon my libin' soul, he's done brung
his bag behin' him on de saddle, an' I reckon he's gwine to stay."

As Mr Croft dismounted and went into the house, Peggy glowered at him;
sundry expressions, sounding very much like odds and ends of
imprecations which she had picked up in the course of a short but
investigative existence, gurgling from her lips. "I wish dat ole Miss
Keswick kunjer him. Ef she knew how Miss Rob hate him, she curl he legs
up, an' gib him mis'ry spranglin' down he back."

The hope of seeing this intruder well "kunjered" by the old lady was the
only thing that gave a promise of peace to the mind of Peggy; and though
her nature was by no means a social one, she determined to make the
acquaintance of some one or other in the house; hoping to find out how
Mrs Keswick conducted her conjurations; at what time of day or night
they were generally put into operation; and how persons could be brought
under their influence.

The breakfast hour in the Keswick house was a variable one. Sometimes
the mistress of the establishment rose early and wanted her morning meal
before she went out of doors; at other times she would go off to some
distant point on the farm to see about something that was doing or ought
to be done, and breakfast would be kept waiting for her. The delays,
however, were not all due to the old lady's irregular habits. Very often
Letty would come up stairs with the information that the "bread ain't
riz;" and as a Virginia breakfast without hot bread would be an
impossibility, the meal would be postponed until the bread did conclude
to rise, or until some substitute, such as "beaten biscuit" had been

On the morning after his arrival, Lawrence Croft came down stairs about
eight o'clock, and found the lower part of the house deserted; and
glancing into the dining-room as he passed its open door, he saw no
signs of breakfast. The house was cool, but the sun appeared to be
shining warmly outside, and he stepped out of the open back door into a
small flower garden, with a series of broad boards down the walk which
lay along the middle of it. Up and down this board walk Lawrence strode,
breathing the fresh air, and thinking over matters. He was not at all
satisfied at being here during Keswick's absence, feeling that he was
enjoying an advantage which, although it was quite honorable, did not
appear so. What he had to do was to get an interview with Miss March as
soon as possible, and have that matter over. When he had been definitely
accepted or rejected, he would go away. And, whatever the result might
be, he would write to his rival as soon as he returned to the Springs,
and inform him of it, and would also explain how he had happened to be
here with Miss March. While he was engaged in planning these honorable
intentions, there came from the house Mrs Keswick's niece, with a basket
in one hand, and a pair of scissors in the other, and she immediately
applied herself to cutting some geraniums and chrysanthemums, which were
about the last flowers left blooming at that season in the garden. "Good
morning," said Croft, from the other end of the walk. "I am glad to see
you out so early."

"Good morning," she replied, with a look which indicated that she was
not at all glad to see him, "but I don't think it is early."

Croft had noticed on the preceding day that her coolness towards him
still continued, but it did not suit him to let her know that he
perceived it. He went up to her, and in a very friendly way remarked:
"There is something I wish very much you would tell me. What is your
name? It is very odd that during all the time I have been acquainted
with you I have never known your name."

"You must have taken an immense interest in it," she said, as she
snipped some dried leaves off a twig of geranium she had cut.

"It was not that I did not take any interest," said Croft, "but at first
your name never came forward, and I soon began to know you by the title
which your remarkable condition of wedlock gave you."

"And that is the name," said the lady, very decidedly, "by which I am to
be known in this house. I am very proud of my maiden name, but I am not
going to tell it to you for fear that some time you will use it."

"Oh!" ejaculated Mr Croft. "Then I suppose I am to continue even to
think of you as Mrs Null."

"You needn't think of me at all," said she, "but when you speak to me I
most certainly expect you to use that name. It was only by a sort of
accident that you came to know it was not my name." "I don't consider it
an accident at all," said Croft. "I look upon it as a piece of very
kindly confidence."

Miss Annie gave a little twist to her mouth, which seemed to indicate
that if she spoke she should express her contempt of such an opinion,
and Croft continued:

"I am very sorry that upon that occasion I should have felt myself
obliged to refuse your request that I should make you acquainted with my
reasons for desiring to know Mr Keswick's whereabouts. But I am sure, if
you understood the matter, you would not be in the least degree--"

"Oh, you need not trouble yourself about that," she interrupted. "I
don't want you to tell me anything at all. It is quite easy, now, to see
why you wished to know where my cousin was."

"It is impossible that you should know!" exclaimed Croft.

"We will say no more about it," replied Annie. "I am quite satisfied."

"I would give a good deal," said Lawrence, after looking steadily at her
for a few moments, "to know what you really do think."

Annie had cut all the flowers she wanted, or, rather, all she could get;
and she now stood up and looked her companion full in the face. "Mr
Croft," she said, "it has been necessary, and it is necessary now for me
to have some concealments, and I am sorry for it; but it isn't at all
necessary for me to conceal my opinion of your reasons for wanting to
know about Junius. You were really in pursuit of Miss March, and knowing
that he was in love with her, you wanted to make sure that when you
went to her, he wouldn't be there. It is my firm opinion that is all
there is about it; and the fact of your turning up here just after my
cousin left, proves it."

"Miss Annie," exclaimed Croft--"I have heard you called by that name,
and I vow I won't call you Mrs Null, when there is no need for it--you
were never more mistaken in your life, and I am very sorry that you
should have such a low opinion of me as to think I would wish to take
advantage of your cousin during his absence."

"Then why do you do it?" asked Miss Annie, with a little upward pitch of
her chin.

At this moment the breakfast-bell rang, and Mrs Keswick appeared in the
back door, evidently somewhat surprised to see these two conversing in
the garden.

"I am very much vexed," said Lawrence, as he followed his companion, who
had suddenly turned towards the house, "that you should think of me in
this way."

But to this remark Miss Annie had no opportunity to reply.

After breakfast, Mrs Keswick proved the truth of what her niece had said
about her unscrupulous straightforwardness when carrying out her
projects. She had invited Mr Croft and Miss March to her house in order
that the former might have the opportunity which she had discovered he
wanted and could not get, of offering himself in marriage to the lady;
and she now made it her business to see that Mr Croft's opportunity
should stand up very clear and definite before him; and that all
interfering circumstances should be carefully removed. She informed her
niece that she wished her to go with her to a thicket on the other side
of the wheat field which that young lady had advised should be ploughed
for pickles, to look for a turkey-hen which she had reason to believe
had been ridiculous enough to hatch out a brood of young at this
improper season. Annie demurred, for she did not want to go to look for
turkeys, nor did she want to give Mr Croft any opportunities; but the
old lady insisted, and carried her off. Croft felt that there was
something very bare and raw-boned about the position in which he was
left with Miss March; and he thought that lady might readily suppose
that Mrs Keswick's object was to leave them together. He imagined that,
himself, though why she should be so kind to him he could not feel quite
certain. However, his path lay straight before him, and if the, old lady
had whitewashed it to make it more distinct, he did not intend to refuse
to walk in it.

"I have been looking at that hill over yonder," said he, "with a cluster
of pine trees on the brow of it. I should think there would be a fine
view from that hill. Would you not like to walk up there?"

Lawrence felt that this proposition was quite in keeping with the
bareness of the previous proceedings, but he did not wish to stay in the
house and be subject to the unexpected return of the old lady and her

"Certainly," said Miss March; "nothing would please me better." And so
they walked up Pine Top Hill.

When they reached this elevated position, they sat down on the rock on
which Mrs Null had once conversed with Freddy, and admired the view,
which was, indeed, a very fine one. After about five minutes of this,
which Lawrence thought was quite enough, he turned to his companion and

"Miss March, I do not wish you to suppose that I brought you up here for
the purpose of viewing those rolling hills and distant forests."

"You didn't?" exclaimed Roberta, in a tone of surprise.

"No," said he; "I brought you here because it is a place where I could
speak freely to you, and tell you I love you."

"That was not at all necessary," said Miss March. "We had the lower
floor of the house entirely to ourselves, and I am sure that Mrs
Keswick would not have returned until you had waved a handkerchief, or
given some signal from the back of the house that it was all over."

Croft looked at her with a troubled expression. "Miss March," said he,
"do you not think I am in earnest? Do you not believe what I have said?"
"I have not the slightest doubt you are in earnest," she answered.
"The magnitude of the preparation proves it." "I am glad you said that,
for it gives me the opportunity for making an explanation," said
Lawrence. "Our meeting at this place may be a carefully contrived
stratagem, but it was not contrived by me. I am very well aware that Mr
Keswick also wishes to marry you--"

"Did you see that in the Richmond _Dispatch_ or in one of the New York
papers?" interrupted Miss March.

"That is a point," said Lawrence, overlooking the ridicule, "which we
need not discuss. I am perfectly aware that Mr Keswick is my rival, but
I wish you to understand that I am not voluntarily taking any undue
advantage of his absence. I believe him to be a very fair and generous
man, and I would wish to be as open and generous as he is. When I came,
I expected to find him here, and, standing on equal ground with him, I
intended to ask you to accept my love."

"Well, then," said Roberta, "would it not be more fair and generous for
you to go away now, and postpone this proposal until some time when you
would each have an equal chance?"

"No, it would not," said Lawrence, vehemently. "I have now an
opportunity of telling you that I love you ardently, passionately; and
nothing shall cause me to postpone it. Will you not consider what I
say? Will you make no answer to this declaration of most true and honest

"I am considering what you have said," she answered; "and I am very glad
to hear that you did not know of this cunning little trap that Mrs
Keswick has laid for me. It is all very plain to me, but I do not know
why she should have selected you as one of the actors in the plot. Have
you ever told her that you are a suitor for my hand?"

"Never!" exclaimed Lawrence. "She may have imagined it, for she heard I
was a frequent visitor to Midbranch. But let us set all that aside. I am
on fire with love for you. Will you tell me that you can return that
love, or that I must give up all hope? This is the most important
question of my whole life. I beg you, from the bottom of my heart, to
decide it."

"Mr Croft," said she, "when you used to come, nearly every day, to see
me at Midbranch, and we took those long walks in the woods, you never
talked in this way. I considered you as a gentleman whose prudence and
good sense would not allow him to step outside of the path of perfectly
conventional social intercourse. This is not conventional and not

"I loved you then, and I love you now;" exclaimed Lawrence. "You must
have known that I loved you, for my declaration does not in the least
surprise you."

"Once--it was the last time you visited Midbranch--I suspected, just a
little, that your mind might be affected somewhat in the way you speak
of, but I supposed that attack of weakness had passed away."

"I know what you mean," said Lawrence, "but I can't endure to talk of
such trifles. I love you, Roberta--"

"Miss March," she interrupted.

"And I want you to tell me if you love me in return."

Miss March rose from the rock where she had been sitting, and her
companion rose with her. After a moment's silence, during which he
watched her with intense eagerness, she said: "Mr Croft, I am going to
give you your choice. Would you prefer being refused under a cherry
tree, or under a sycamore?"

There was a little smile on her lips as she said this, which Lawrence
could not interpret.

"I decline being refused under any tree," he said with vehemence.

"I prefer the cherry tree," said she, "there is a very pretty one over
there on the ridge of this hill, and its leaves are nearly all gone,
which would make it quite appropriate--but what is the meaning of this?
There comes Peggy. It isn't possible that she thinks it's time for me to
give out something to Aunt Judy."

Croft turned, and there was the wooden Peggy, marching steadily up the
hill, and almost upon them.

"What do you want, Peggy?" asked Miss Roberta.

"Dar's a man down to de house dat wants him," pointing to Mr Croft.

Lawrence was very much surprised. "A man who wants me!" he exclaimed.
"You must be mistaken."

"No sah," replied Peggy, "you's de one."

For a moment Lawrence hesitated. His disposition was to let any man in
the world, be he president or king, wait until he had settled this
matter with Miss March. But with Peggy present it was impossible to go
on with the love-making. He might, indeed, send her back with a message,
but the thought came to him that it would be well to postpone for a
little the pressing of his suit, for the lady was certainly in a very
untoward humor, and he was not altogether sorry to have an excuse for
breaking off the interview at this point. He had not yet been discarded,
and he would like to think over the matter, and see if he could discover
any reason for the very disrespectful manner, to say the least of it,
with which Miss March had received his amatory advances. "I suppose I
must go and see the man," he said, "though I can't imagine who it can
possibly be. Will you return to the house?"

"No," said Miss Roberta, "I will stay here a little longer, and enjoy
the view."


As Lawrence Croft walked down Pine Top Hill his mind was in a good deal
of a hubbub. The mind of almost any lover would be stirred up if he came
fresh from an interview, in which his lady had pinned him, to use a
cruel figure, in various places on the wall to see how he would spin and
buzz in different lights. But the disdainful pin had not yet gone
through a vital part of Lawrence's hopes, and they had strength to spin
and buzz a good deal yet. As soon as he should have an opportunity he
would rack his brains to find out what it was that had put Roberta March
into such a strange humor. No one who simply desired to decline the
addresses of a gentleman would treat her lover as Miss March had treated
him. It was quite evident that she wished to punish him. But what had
been his crime?

But the immediate business on his hands was to go and see what man it
was who wished to see him. Ordinarily the fact that a man had called
upon him would not be considered by Lawrence a matter for cogitation,
but as he walked toward the house it seemed to him very odd that any one
should call upon him in such an out-of-the-way place as this, where so
few people knew him to be. He was not a business man, but a large
portion of his funds were invested in a business concern, and it might
be that something had gone wrong, and that a message had been sent him.
His address at the Green Sulphur Springs was known, and the man in
charge there knew that he was visiting Mrs Keswick.

These considerations made him a little anxious, and helped to keep his
mind in the hubbub which has been mentioned.

When he reached the front of the house, Lawrence saw a lean, gray horse
tied to a tree, and a man sitting upon the porch; and as soon as he made
his appearance the latter came down the steps to meet him.

"I didn't go into the house, sir," he said, "because I thought you'd
just as lief have a talk outside."

"What is your business?" asked Croft.

The man moved a few steps farther from the house, and Lawrence followed

"Is it anything secret you have to tell me?" he asked.

"Well, yes, sir, I should think it was," replied the other, a tall man,
with sandy hair and beard, and dressed in a checkered business suit,
which had lost a good deal of the freshness of its early youth. "I may
as well tell you at once who I am. I am an anti-detective. Never heard
of that sort of person, I suppose?"

"Never," said Lawrence, curtly.

"Well, sir, the organization which I belong to is one which is filling a
long felt want. You know very well, sir, that this country is full of
detective officers, not only those who belong to a regular police force,
but lots of private ones, who, if anybody will pay them for it, will go
to Jericho to hunt a man up. Now, sir, our object is to protect society
against these people. When we get information that a man is going to be
hounded down by any of these detectives--and we have private ways of
knowing these things--we just go to that man, and if he is willing to
become one of our clients, we take him into our charge; and our
business, after that, is to keep him informed of just what is being done
against him. He can stay at home in comfort with his wife, settle up his
accounts, and do what he likes, and the day before he is to be swooped
down on, he gets notice from us, and comfortably goes to Chicago, or
Jacksonville, where he can take his ease until we post him of the next
move of the enemy. If he wants to take extra precautions, and writes a
letter to anybody in the place where he lives, dated from London or Hong
Kong, and sends that letter under cover to us, we'll see that it is
mailed from the place it is dated from, and that it gets into the hands
of the detectives. There have been cases where a gentleman has had six
months or a year of perfect comfort, by the detectives being thrown off
by a letter like this. That is only one of the ways in which we help
and protect persons in difficulties who, if it wasn't for us, would be
dragged off, hand-cuffed, from the bosom of their families; and who,
even if they never got convicted, would have to pay a lot of money to
get out of the scrape. Now, I have put myself a good deal out of the
way, sir, to come to you, and offer you our assistance."

"Me!" exclaimed Croft. "What are you talking about?"

The man smiled. "Of course, it's all right to know nothing about it, and
it's just what we would advise; but I assure you we are thoroughly
posted in your affair, and to let you know that we are, I'll just
mention that the case is that of Croft after Keswick, through Candy."

"Stuff and nonsense!" exclaimed Lawrence, getting red in the face.
"There is no such case!"

He was about to say more, when a few words from the anti-detective
stopped him suddenly.

"Look here, Mr Keswick," said the man, leveling a long fore-finger at
him, and speaking very earnestly, "don't you go and flatter yourself
that this thing has been dropped, because you haven't heard of it for a
month or two; and if you'll take my advice, you'll make up your mind on
the spot, either to let things go on and be nabbed, or to put yourself
under our protection, and live in entire safety until this thing has
blown over, without any trouble, except a little travelling." At the
mention of Keswick's name, Lawrence had seen through the whole affair at
a single mental glance. The man was after Junius Keswick, and his
business was to Lawrence more startling and repugnant than it could
possibly be to any one else. It was necessary to be very careful. If he
immediately avowed who he was, the man might yet find Keswick, before
warning and explanation could be got to him, and not only put that
gentleman in a very unpleasant state of mind, but do a lot of mischief
besides. He did not believe that Mr Candy had recommenced his
investigations without consultation with him, but this person evidently
knew that such an investigation had been set on foot, and that would be
sufficient for his purposes. Lawrence decided to be very wary, and he
said to the man, "Did you ask for me here by name?"

"No, _sir_," said the other, "I had information that you were here, and
that you were the only gentleman who lived here and although you are in
your own home, I did not know but this was one of those cases in which
names were dropped and servants changed, to suit an emergency. I asked
the little darkey I saw at the front of the house if she lived here, and
she told me she had only just come. That put me on my guard, and so I
merely asked if the gentleman was in, and she went and got you. We're
very careful about calling names, and you needn't be afraid that any of
our people will ever give you away on that line."

Lawrence reflected for a moment, and then he said: "What are your terms
and arrangements for carrying on an affair of this kind?"

"They are very simple and moderate," said the man, taking a wallet from
his pocket. "There is one of our printed slips, which we show but don't
give away. To become a client all you have to do is to send fifteen
dollars to the office, or to pay it to me, if you think no time should
be lost. That will entitle you to protection for a year. After that we
make the nominal charge of five dollars for each letter sent you, giving
you information of what is going on against you. For extra services,
such as mailing letters from distant points, of course there will be
extra charges."

Lawrence glanced over the printed slip, which contained information very
similar to that the man had given him, and as he did so, he came to the
conclusion that there would be nothing dishonest in allowing the fellow
to continue in his mistake, and to endeavor to find out what mischief
was about to be done in his, Lawrence's, name, and under his apparent
authority. "I will become a subscriber," said he, taking out his
pocket-book, "and request that you give me all the information you
possess, here and immediately."

"That is the best thing to do," said the man, taking the money, "for, in
my opinion, no time is to be lost. I'll give you a receipt for this."

"Don't trouble yourself about that," said Lawrence; "let me have your

"You're very right," said the man. "It's a great deal better not to
have your name on anything. And now for the points. Candy, who has
charge of Croft's job, is going more into the detective business than he
used to be, and we have information that he has lately taken up your
affair in good, solid earnest. He found out that Croft had put somebody
else on your track, without regularly taking the business out of his
hands, and this made him mad; and I don't wonder at it, for Croft, as I
understand, has plenty of money, and if he concluded to throw Candy
over, he ought to have done it fair and square, and paid him something
handsome in consideration for having taken the job away. But he didn't
do anything of the kind, and Candy considers himself still in his
employment, and vows he's going to get hold of you before the other
party does; so, you see, you have got two sets of detectives after you,
and they'll be mighty sharp, for the first one that gets you will make
the money."

"Where are Candy's detectives now?" asked Lawrence.

"That I can't tell you positively, as I am so far from our New York
office, to which all information comes. But now that you are a
subscriber, I'll communicate with head-quarters and the necessary points
will be immediately sent to you by telegraph, if necessary. All that you
have to do is to stay here until you hear from us."

"From the way you spoke just now," said Lawrence, "I supposed the
detective would be here to-day or to-morrow."

"Oh no," said the other, "Candy has not the facilities for finding
people that we have. But it takes some time for me to communicate with
head-quarters and for you to hear from there; and so, as I said before,
there isn't an hour to be lost. But you're all right now."

"I expected you to give me more definite information than this," said
Lawrence, "but now, I suppose, I must wait until I hear from New York,
at five dollars a message."

"My business is to enlist subscribers," said the other. "You couldn't
expect me to tell you anything definite when I am in an out-of-the-way
place like this."

"Did you come down to Virginia on purpose to find me?" asked Lawrence.

"No," said the man, "I am on my way to Mobile, and I only lose one train
by stopping here to attend to your business."

"How did you know I was here?"

"Ah," said the anti-detective, with a smile, "as I told you, we have
facilities. I knew you were at this house, and I came here, straight as
a die."

"It is truly wonderful," said Lawrence, "how accurate your information
is. And now I will tell you something you can have, gratis. You have
made one of the most stupid blunders that I ever heard of. Mr Keswick
went away from here, nearly a week ago, and I am the Mr Croft whom you
supposed to be in pursuit of him."

The man started, and gave vent to an unpleasant ejaculation.

"To prove it," said Lawrence, "there is my card, and," putting his hand
into his pocket, "here are several letters addressed to me. And I want
to let you know that I am not in pursuit of Mr Keswick; that he and I
are very good friends; and that I have frequently seen him of late; and
so you can just drop this business at once. And as for Candy, he has no
right to take a single step for which I have not authorized him. I
merely employed him to get Mr Keswick's address, which I wished for a
very friendly motive. I shall write to Candy at once."

The man's face was not an agreeable study. He looked angry; he looked
baffled; and yet he looked incredulous. "Now, come," said he, "if you
are not Keswick, what did you pay me that money for?"

"I paid it to you," said Lawrence, "because I wanted to find out what
dirty business you were doing in my name. I have had the worth of my
money, and you can now go."

The man did not go, but stood gazing at Lawrence in a very peculiar way.
"If Mr Keswick isn't here," he said, "I believe you are here waiting
for him, and I am going to stay and warn him. People don't set private
detectives on other men's tracks just for friendly motives."

Lawrence's face flushed and he made a step forward, but suddenly
checking himself, he looked at the man for a moment and then said: "I
suppose you want me to understand that if I become one of your
subscribers in my own name, you will be willing to withhold the
information you intended to give Mr Keswick."

"Well," said the man, relapsing into his former confidential tones,
"business is business. If I could see Mr Keswick, I don't know whether
he would employ me or not. I have no reason to work for one person more
than another, and, of course, if one man comes to me and another
doesn't, I'm bound to work for the man who comes. That's business!"

"You have said quite enough," said Lawrence. "Now leave this place

"No, I won't!" said the man, shutting his mouth very tightly, as he drew
himself up and folded his arms on his chest.

Lawrence was young, well-made, and strong, but the other man was taller,
heavier, and perhaps stronger. To engage in a personal contest to compel
a fellow like this to depart, would be a very unpleasant thing for
Lawrence to do, even if he succeeded. He was a visitor here, the ladies
would probably be witnesses of the conflict, and although the natural
impulse of his heart, predominant over everything else at that moment,
prompted him to spring upon the impudent fellow and endeavor to thrash
him, still his instincts as a gentleman forbade him to enter into such a
contest, which would probably have no good effect, no matter how it
resulted. Never before did he feel the weakness of the moral power of a
just cause when opposed to brutal obstinacy. Still he did not retreat
from his position. "Did you hear what I said?" he cried. "Leave this

"You are not master here," said the other, still preserving his defiant
attitude, "and you have no right to order me away. I am not going."

Despite his inferiority in size, despite his gentlemanly instincts, and
despite his prudent desire not to make an exhibition of himself before
Miss March and the household, it is probable that Lawrence's anger would
have assumed some form of physical manifestation, had not Mrs Keswick
appeared suddenly on the porch. It was quite evident to her, from the
aspect of the two men, that something was wrong, and she called out:
"Who's that?"

"That, madam," said Lawrence, stepping a little back, "is a very
impertinent man who has no business here, and whom I've ordered off the
place, and, as he has refused to go, I propose--"

"Stop!" cried the old lady. And turning, she rushed into the house.
Before either of the men could recover from their surprise at her sudden
action, she reappeared upon the porch, carrying a double-barreled gun.
Taking her position on the top of the flight of steps, with a quick
movement of her thumb she cocked both barrels. Then, drawing herself up
and resting firmly on her right leg, with the left advanced, she raised
the gun; her right elbow well against her side, and with her extended
left arm as steady as one of the beams of the roof above her. She hooked
her forefinger around one of the triggers, her eagle eye glanced along
the barrels straight at the head of the anti-detective, and, in a
clarion voice she sang out "Go!"

The man stared at her. He saw the open muzzles of the gun barrels;
beyond them, he saw the bright tops of the two percussion caps; and
still beyond them, he saw the bright and determined eye that was taking
sight along the barrels. All this he took in at a glance, and, without
word or comment, he made a quick dodge of his head, jumped to one side,
made a dash for his horse, and, untying the bridle with a jerk, he
mounted and galloped out of the open gate, turning as he did so to find
himself still covered by the muzzles of that gun. When he had nearly
reached the outer gate and felt himself out of range, he turned in his
saddle, and looking back at Lawrence, who was still standing where he
had left him, he violently shook his fist in the air.

"Which means," said Lawrence to himself, "that he intends to make
trouble with Keswick."

"That settled him," said the old lady, with a grim smile, as she lowered
the muzzle of the gun, and gently let down the hammers. "Madam," said
Lawrence, advancing toward her, "may I ask if that gun is loaded?"

"I should say so," replied the old lady. "In each barrel are two
thimblefuls of powder, and half-a-box of Windfall's Teaberry Tonic
Pills, each one of them as big and as hard as a buckshot. They were
brought here by a travelling agent, who sold some of them to my people;
and I tell you, sir, that those pills made them so sick that one man
wasn't able to work for two days, and another for three. I vowed if that
agent ever came back, I'd shoot his abominable pills into him, and I've
kept the gun loaded for the purpose. Was this a pill man? I scarcely
think he was a fertilizer, because it is rather late in the season for
those bandits."

"He is a man," said Lawrence, coming up the steps, "who belongs to a
class much worse than those you have mentioned. He is what is called a

"Is that so?" cried the old lady, her eyes flashing as she brought the
butt of the gun heavily upon the porch floor. "I'm very glad I did not
know it; very glad, indeed; for I might have been tempted to give him
what belonged to another, without waiting for him to disobey my order to
go. I am very much troubled, sir, that this annoyance should have
happened to you in my house. Pray do not allow it to interfere with the
enjoyment of your visit here, which I hope may continue as long as you
can make it convenient." The words and manner convinced Lawrence that
that they did not merely indicate a conventional hospitality. The old
lady meant what she said. She wanted him to stay.

That morning he had become convinced that he had been invited there
because Mrs Keswick wished him to marry Miss March; and she had done
this, not out of any kind feeling toward him, because that would be
impossible, considering the shortness of their acquaintance, but because
she was opposed to her nephew's marriage with Miss March, and because
he, Lawrence, was the only available person who could be brought forward
to supplant him. "But whatever her motive is," thought Lawrence, "her
invitation comes in admirably for me, and I hope I shall get the proper
advantage from it."

Shortly after this, Lawrence sat in the parlor, by himself, writing a
letter. It was to Junius Keswick; and in it he related the facts of his
search for him in New York, and the reason why he desired to make his
acquaintance. He concealed nothing but the fact that Keswick's cousin
had had anything to do with the affair. "If she wants him to know that,"
he thought, "she can tell him herself. It is not my business to make any
revelations in that quarter." He concluded the letter by informing Mr
Keswick of the visit of the anti-detective, and warning him against any
attempts which that individual might make upon his pocket, assuring him
that the man could tell him nothing in regard to the affair that he now
did not know.

After dinner, during which meal Miss March appeared in a very good
humor, and talked rather more than she had yet done in the bosom of that
family, Lawrence had his horse saddled, and rode to the railroad
station, about six miles distant, where he posted his letter; and also
sent a telegram to Mr Junius Keswick, warning him to pay no attention to
any man who might call upon him on business connected with Croft and
Keswick, and stating that an explanatory letter had been sent.

The anti-detective had left on a train an hour before, but Lawrence felt
certain that the telegram would reach Keswick before the man could
possibly get to him, especially as the latter had probably not yet found
out his intended victim's address.


As Lawrence Croft rode back to Mrs Keswick's house, after having posted
to his rival the facts in the case of Croft after Keswick, he did not
feel in a very happy or triumphant mood. The visit of the anti-detective
had compelled him to write to Keswick at a time when it was not at all
desirable that he should make any disclosures whatever in regard to his
love affair with Miss March, except that very important disclosure which
he had made to the lady herself that morning. Of course there was no
great danger that any intimation would reach Miss March of Mr Croft's
rather eccentric search for his predecessor in the position which he
wished to occupy in her affections. But the matter was particularly
unpleasant just now, and Lawrence wished to occupy his time here in
business very different from that of sending explanations to rivals and
warding off unfriendly entanglements threatened by a blackmailer.

It was absolutely necessary for him to find out what he had done to
offend Miss March. Offended that lady certainly was, and he even felt
that she was glad of the opportunity his declaration gave her to inflict
punishment upon him. But still he did not despair. When she had made him
pay the penalty she thought proper for whatever error he had committed,
she might be willing to listen to him. He had not said anything to her
in regard to his failure to make her the promised visit at Midbranch,
for, during the only time he had been alone with her here, the subject
of an immediate statement of his feelings toward her had wholly occupied
his mind. But it now occurred to him that she had reason to feel
aggrieved at his failure to keep his promise to her, and she must have
shown that feeling, for, otherwise, her most devoted friend, Mr Junius
Keswick, would never have made that rather remarkable visit to him at
the Green Sulphur Springs. Of course he would not allude to that visit,
nor to her wish to see him, for she had sent him no message, nor did he
know what object she had in desiring an interview. But it was quite
possible that she might have taken umbrage at his failure to come to her
when expected, and that this was the reason for her present treatment of
him. To this treatment Lawrence might have taken exception, but now he
did not wish to judge her in any way. His only desire in regard to her
was to possess her, and therefore, instead of condemning her for her
unjust method of showing her resentment, he merely considered how he
should set himself right with her. Cruel or kind, just or unjust, he
wanted her.

And then, as he slowly trotted along the lonely and uneven road, it
suddenly flashed upon him, as if in mounting a hill, a far-reaching
landscape, hitherto unseen, had in a moment, spread itself out before
him, that, perhaps, Miss March had divined the reason of his extremely
discreet behavior toward her. Was it possible that she had seen his
motives, and knew the truth, and that she resented the prudence and
caution he had shown in his intercourse with her?

If she had read the truth, he felt that she had good reason for her
resentment, and Lawrence did not trouble himself to consider if she had
shown too much of it or not. He remembered the story of the defeated
general, and, feeling that so far he had been thoroughly defeated, he
determined to admit the fact, and to sound a retreat from all the
positions he had held; but, at the same time, to make a bold dash into
the enemy's camp, and, if possible, capture the commander-in-chief and
the Minister of War.

He would go to Roberta, tell her all that he had thought, and explain
all that he had done. There should be no bit of truth which she could
have reasoned out, which he would not plainly avow and set before her.
Then he would declare to her that his love for her had become so great,
that, rushing over every barrier, whether of prudence, doubt, or
indecision, it had carried him with it and laid him at her feet. When he
had come to this bold conclusion, he cheered up his horse with a thump
of his heel and cantered rapidly over the rest of the road.

Peggy, having nothing else to do, was standing by the yard gate when he
came in sight, and she watched his approach with feelings of surprise
and disgust. She had seen him ride away, and not considering the fact
that he did not carry his valise with him, she supposed he had taken his
final departure. She had conceived a violent dislike to Mr Croft,
looking upon him in the light of an interloper and a robber, who had
come to break up that expected marriage between Master Junius and Miss
Rob, which the servants at Midbranch looked forward to as necessary for
the prosperity of the family; and the preliminary stages of which she
had taken upon herself the responsibility of describing with so much
minuteness of detail. With the politeness natural to the Southern negro,
she opened the gate for the gentleman, but as she closed it behind him,
she cast after him a look of earnest malevolence. "Ef dot ole Miss
Keswick don' kunjer you, sah," she said in an undertone, "I's gwine to
do it myse'f. So, dar!" And she gave her foot a stamp on the ground.

Lawrence, all ignorant of the malignant feeling he had excited in this,
to him, very unimportant and uninteresting black girl, tied his horse
and went into the house. As he passed the open door of the parlor he
saw a lady reading by a window in the farthest corner. Hanging up his
hat, he entered, hoping that the reader, whose form was partially
concealed by the back of the large rocking chair in which she was
sitting, was Miss March. But it was not; it was Mrs Keswick's niece,
deeply engrossed by a large-paged novel. She turned her head as he
entered, and said: "Good evening."

"Good evening, Miss Annie," said Lawrence, seating himself in a chair
opposite her on the other side of the window.

"Mr Croft," said she, laying her book on her lap, and inclining herself
slightly toward him, "you have no right to call me Miss Annie, and I
wish you would not do it. The servants in the South call ladies by their
first names, whether they are married or not, but people would think it
very strange if you should imitate them. My name in this house is Mrs
Null, and I wish you would not forget it."

"The trouble with me is," said Lawrence, with a smile, "that I cannot
forget it is not Mrs Null, but, of course, if you desire it, I will give
you that name."

"I told you before how much I desired it," said she, "and why. When my
aunt finds out the exact state of this affair, I shall wish to stay no
longer in this house; and I don't want my stay to come to an end at
present. I am very happy here with the only relatives I have in the
world, who are ever so much nicer people than I supposed they were, and
you have no right to come here and drive me away."

"My dear young lady," said Croft, "I wouldn't do such a thing for the
world. I admit that I am very sorry that it is necessary, or appears to
you to be so, that you should be here under false colors, but--"

"_Appears_ to be," said she, with much emphasis on the first word. "Why,
can't you see that it would be impossible for me, as a young unmarried
woman, to come to the house of a man, whose proprietor, as Aunt Keswick
considers herself to be, has been trying to marry to me, even before I
was grown up; for the letters that used to make my father most angry
were about this. I hate to talk of these family affairs, and I only do
it so that you can be made understand things."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, "do not think I wish to blame you. You have
had a hard time of it, and I can see the peculiarities of your residence
here. Don't be afraid of me; I will not betray your secret. While I am
here, I will address you, and will try to think of you as a very grave
young matron. But I wish very much that you were not quite so grave and
severe when you address me. When I was here last week your manner was
very different. We were quite friendly then."

"I see no particular reason," said Annie, "why we should be friendly."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, after a little pause, during which he
looked at her attentively, "I don't believe you approve of me."

"No," said she, "I don't."

He could not help smiling at the earnest directness of her answer,
though he did not like it. "I am sorry," he said, "that you should have
so poor an opinion of me. And, now, let me tell you what I was going to
say this morning, that my only object in finding your cousin was to know
the man who had been engaged to Miss March."

"So that you could find out what she probably objected to in him, and
could then try and not let her see anything of that sort in you."

"Mrs Null," said Lawrence, "you are unjust. There is no reason why you
should speak to me in this way."

"I would like to know," she said, "what cause there could possibly be
for your wanting to become acquainted with a man who had been engaged to
the lady you wished to marry, if you didn't intend to study him up, and
try to do better yourself."

"My motive in desiring to become acquainted with Mr Keswick," said
Lawrence, "is one you could scarcely understand, and all I can say about
it is, that I believed that if I knew the gentleman who had formerly
been the accepted lover of a lady, I should better know the lady."

"You must be awfully suspicious," said she.

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