THE LATE MRS NULL
FRANK R. STOCKTON
There was a wide entrance gate to the old family mansion of Midbranch, but it was never opened to admit the family or visitors; although occasionally a load of wood, drawn by two horses and two mules, came between its tall chestnut posts, and was taken by a roundabout way among the trees to a spot at the back of the house, where the chips of several generations of sturdy wood-choppers had formed a ligneous soil deeper than the arable surface of any portion of the nine hundred and fifty acres which formed the farm of Midbranch. This seldom opened gate was in a corner of the lawn, and the driving of carriages, or the riding of horses through it to the porch at the front of the house would have been the ruin of the short, thick grass which had covered that lawn, it was generally believed, ever since Virginia became a State.
But there had to be some way for people who came in carriages or on horseback to get into the house, and therefore the fence at the bottom of the lawn, at a point directly in front of the porch, was crossed by a set of broad wooden steps, five outside and five inside, with a platform at the top. These stairs were wide enough to accommodate eight people abreast; so that if a large carriage load of visitors arrived, none of them need delay in crossing the fence. At the outside of the steps ran the narrow road which entered the plantation a quarter of a mile away, and passed around the lawn and the garden to the barns and stables at the back.
On the other side of the road, undivided from it by hedge or fence, stretched, like a sea gently moved by a groundswell, a vast field, sometimes planted in tobacco, and sometimes in wheat. In the midst of this field stood a tall persimmon tree which yearly dropped its half-candied fruit upon the first light snow of the winter. It is true that persimmons, quite fit to eat, were to be found on this tree at an earlier period than this, but such fruit was never noticed by the people in those parts, who would not rudely wrench from Jack Frost his one little claim to rivalry with the sun as a fruit-ripener. To the right of the field was a wide extent of pasture land, running down to a small stream, or "branch," which, flowing between two other streams of the same kind a mile or two on either side of it, had given its name to the place. In front, to the left, lay a great forest of chestnut, oak, sassafras, and sweet gum, with here and there a clump of tall pines, standing up straight and stiff with an air of Puritanic condemnation of the changing fashions of the foliage about them.
On one side of the platform of the broad stile, which has been mentioned, sat one summer afternoon, the lady of the house. She was a young woman, and although her face was a good deal shadowed by her far-spreading hat, it was easy to perceive that she was a handsome one. She was the niece of Mr Robert Brandon, the elderly bachelor who owned Midbranch; and her mother, long since dead, had called her Roberta, which was as near as she could come to the name of her only brother.
Miss Roberta's father was a man whose mind and time were entirely given up to railroads; and although he nominally lived in New York, he was, for the greater part of the year, engaged in endeavors to forward his interests somewhere west of the Mississippi. Two or three months of the winter were generally spent in his city home. At these times he had his daughter with him, but the rest of the year she lived with her uncle, whose household she directed with much good will and judgment. The old gentleman did not keep her all the summer at Midbranch. He knew what was necessary for a young lady who had been educated in Germany and Switzerland, and who had afterwards made a very favorable impression in Paris and London; and so, during the hot weather, he took her with him to one of the fashionable Southern resorts, where they always stayed exactly six weeks.
The gentleman who was sitting on the other side of the platform, with his face turned towards her, had known Miss Roberta for a year or more, having met her at the North, and also in the Virginia mountains; and being now on a visit to the Green Sulphur Springs, about four miles from Midbranch, he rode over to see her nearly every day. There was nothing surprising in this, because the Green Sulphur, once a much frequented resort, had seen great changes, and now, although the end of the regular season had not arrived, it had Mr Lawrence Croft for its only guest. There was a spacious hotel there; there was a village of cottages of varying sizes; there were buildings for servants and managers; there was a ten-pin alley and a quiet ground; there were arbors and swings; and a square hole in a stone slab, through which a little pool of greenish water could be seen, with a tin cup, somewhat rusty, lying by it. But all was quiet and deserted, except one cottage, in which the man lived who had charge of the place, and where Mr Croft boarded. It was very pleasant for him to ride over to Midbranch and take a walk with Miss Roberta; and this was what they had been doing to-day.
Horseback rides had been suggested, but Mr Brandon objected to these. He knew Mr Croft to be a young man of good family and very comfortable fortune, and he liked him very much when he had him there to dinner, but he did not wish his niece to go galloping around the country with him. To quiet walks in the woods, and through the meadows, he could, of course, have no objection. A good many of Mr Brandon's principles, like certain of his books, were kept upon a top shelf, but Miss Roberta always liked to humor the few which the old gentleman was wont to have within easy reach.
This afternoon they had rambled through the woods, where the hard, smooth road wound picturesquely through the places in which it had been easiest to make a road, and where the great trunks of the trees were partly covered by clinging vines, which Miss Roberta knew to be either Virginia creeper or poison oak, although she did not remember which of these had clusters of five leaves, and which of three.
The horse on which Mr Croft had ridden over from the Springs was tied to a fence near by, and he now seemed to indicate by his restless movements that it was quite time for the gentleman to go home; but with this opinion Mr Croft decidedly differed. He had had a long walk with the lady and plenty of opportunities to say anything that he might choose, but still there was something very important which had not been said, and which Mr Croft very much wished to say before he left Miss Roberta that afternoon. His only reason for hesitation was the fact that he did not know what he wished to say.
He was a man who always kept a lookout on the bows of his daily action; in storm or in calm, in fog or in bright sunshine that lookout must be at his post; and upon his reports it depended whether Mr Croft set more sail, put on more steam, reversed his engine, or anchored his vessel. A report from this lookout was what he hoped to elicit by the remark which he wished to make. He desired greatly to know whether Miss Roberta March looked upon him in the light of a lover, or in that of an intimate acquaintance, whose present intimacy depended a good deal upon the propinquity of Midbranch and the Green Sulphur Springs. He had endeavored to produce upon her mind the latter impression. If he ever wished her to regard him as a lover he could do this in the easiest and most straightforward way, but the other procedure was much more difficult, and he was not certain that he had succeeded in it. How to find out in what light she viewed him without allowing the lady to perceive his purpose was a very delicate operation.
"I wish," said Miss Roberta, poking with the end of her parasol at some half-withered wild flowers which lay on the steps beneath her, "that you would change your mind, and take supper with us."
Mr Croft's mind was very busy in endeavoring to think of some casual remark, some observation regarding man, nature, or society, or even an anecdote or historical incident, which, if brought into the conversation, might produce upon the lady's countenance some shade of expression, or some variation in her tone or words which would give him the information he sought for. But what he said was: "Are they really suppers that you have, or are they only teas?"
"Now I know," said the lady, "why you have sometimes taken dinner with us, but never supper. You were afraid that it would be a tea."
Lawrence Croft was thinking that if this girl believed that he was in love with her, it would make a great deal of difference in his present course of action. If such were the case, he ought not to come here so often, or, in fact, he ought not to come at all, until he had decided for himself what he was going to do. But what could he say that would cause her, for the briefest moment, to unveil her idea of himself. "I never could endure," he said, "those meals which consist of thin shavings of bread with thick plasters of butter, aided and abetted by sweet cakes, preserves, and tea."
"You should have reserved those remarks," she said, "until you had found out what sort of evening meal we have."
He could certainly say something, he thought. Perhaps it might be some little fanciful story which would call up in her mind, without his appearing to intend it, some thought of his relationship to her as a lover—that is, if she had ever had such a notion. If this could be done, her face would betray the fact. But, not being ready to make such a remark, he said: "I beg your pardon, but do you really have suppers in the English fashion?"
"Oh, no," answered Miss Roberta, "we don't have a great cold joint, with old cheese, and pitchers of brown stout and ale, but neither do we content ourselves with thin bread and butter, and preserves. We have coffee as well as tea, hot rolls, fleecy and light, hot batter bread made of our finest corn meal, hot biscuits and stewed fruit, with plenty of sweet milk and buttermilk; and, if anybody wants it, he can always have a slice of cold ham."
"If I could only feel sure," thought Mr Croft, "that she looked upon me merely as an acquaintance, I would cease to trouble my mind on this subject, and let everything go on as before. But I am not sure, and I would rather not come here again until I am." "And at what hour," he asked, "do you partake of a meal like that?"
"In summer time," said Miss Roberta, "we have supper when it is dark enough to light the lamps. My uncle dislikes very much to be deprived, by the advent of a meal, of the out-door enjoyment of a late afternoon, or, as we call it down here, the evening."
"It would be easy enough," thought Mr Croft, "for me to say something about my being suddenly obliged to go away, and then notice its effect upon her. But, apart from the fact that I would not do anything so vulgar and commonplace, it would not advantage me in the slightest degree. She would see through the flimsiness of my purpose, and, no matter how she looked upon me, would show nothing but a well-bred regret that I should be obliged to go away at such a pleasant season." "I think the hour for your supper," said he, "is a very suitable one, but I am not sure that such a variety of hot bread would agree with me."
"Did you ever see more healthy-looking ladies and gentlemen than you find in Virginia?" asked Miss March.
"It is not that I want to know if she looks favorably upon me," said Lawrence Croft to himself, "for when I wish to discover that, I shall simply ask her. What I wish now to know is whether, or not, she considers me at all as a lover. There surely must be something I can say which will give me a clew." "The Virginians, as a rule," he replied, "are certainly a very well-grown and vigorous race."
"In spite of the hot bread," she said with a smile.
Just then Mr Croft believed himself struck by a happy thought. "You are not prepared, I suppose, to say, in consequence of it; and that recalls the fact that so much in this world happens in spite of things, instead of in consequence of them."
"I don't know that I exactly understand," said Miss Roberta.
"Well, for instance," said Mr Croft, "take the case of marriage. Don't you think that a man is more apt to marry in spite of his belief that he would be much better off as a bachelor, than in consequence of a conviction that a Benedict's life would suit him better?"
"That," said she, "depends a good deal on the woman."
As she said this Lawrence glanced quickly at her to observe the expression of her countenance. The countenance plainly indicated that its owner had suddenly been made aware that the afternoon was slipping away, and that she had forgotten certain household duties that devolved upon her.
"Here comes Peggy," she said, "and I must go into the house and give out supper. Don't you now think it would be well for you to follow our discussion of a Virginia supper by eating one?"
At this moment, there arrived at the bottom of the inside steps, a small girl, very black, very solemn, and very erect, with her hands folded in front of her very straight up-and-down calico frock, her features expressive of a wooden stolidity which nothing but a hammer or chisel could alter, and with large eyes fixed upon a far-away, which, apparently, had disappeared, leaving the eyes in a condition of idle out-go.
"Miss Rob," said this wooden Peggy, "Aun' Judy says it's more'n time to come housekeep."
"Which means," said Miss Roberta, rising, "that I must go and get my key basket, and descend into the store-room. Won't you come in? We shall find uncle on the back porch."
Mr Croft declined with thanks, and took his leave, and the lady walked across the smooth grass to the house, followed by the rigid Peggy.
The young man approached his impatient horse, and, not without some difficulty, got himself mounted. He had not that facility of sympathetically combining his own will and that of his horse which comes to men who from their early boyhood are wont to consider horses as objects quite as necessary to locomotion as shoes and stockings. But Lawrence Croft was a fair graduate of a riding school, and he went away in very good style to his cottage at the Green Sulphur Springs. "I believe," he said to himself, as he rode through the woods, "that Miss March expects no more of me than she would expect of any very intimate friend. I shall feel perfectly free, therefore, to continue my investigations regarding two points: First, is she worth having? and: Second, will she have me? And I must be very careful not to get the position of these points reversed."
When Miss Roberta went into the store-room, it was Peggy, who, under the supervision of her mistress, measured out the fine white flour for the biscuits for supper. Peggy was being educated to do these things properly, and she knew exactly how many times the tin scoop must fill itself in the barrel for the ordinary needs of the family. Miss Roberta stood, her eyes contemplatively raised to the narrow window, through which she could see a flush of sunset mingling itself with the outer air; and Peggy scooped once, twice, thrice, four times; then she stopped, and, raising her head, there came into the far-away gloom of her eyes a quick sparkle like a flash of black lightning. She made another and entirely supplementary scoop, and then she stopped, and let the tin utensil fall into the barrel with a gentle thud.
"That will do," said Miss Roberta.
That night, when she should have been in her bed, Peggy sat alone by the hearth in Aunt Judy's cabin, baking a cake. It was a peculiar cake, for she could get no sugar for it, but she had supplied this deficiency with molasses. It was made of Miss Roberta's finest white flour, and eggs there were in it and butter, and it contained, besides, three raisins, an olive, and a prune. When the outside of the cake had been sufficiently baked, and every portion of it had been scrupulously eaten, the good little Peggy murmured to herself: "It's pow'ful comfortin' for Miss Rob to have sumfin' on her min'."
About a week after Mr Lawrence Croft had had his conversation with Miss March on the stile steps at Midbranch, he was obliged to return to his home in New York. He was not a man of business, but he had business; and, besides this, he considered if he continued much longer to reside in the utterly attractionless cottage at the Green Sulphur Springs, and rode over every day to the very attractive house at Midbranch, that the points mentioned in the previous chapter might get themselves reversed. He was a man who was proud of being, under all circumstances, frank and honest with himself. He did not wish, if it could be avoided, to deceive other people, but he was prudent and careful about exhibiting his motives and intended course of action to his associates. Himself, however, he took into his strictest confidence. He was fond of the idea that he went into the battle of life covered and protected by a great shield, but that the inside of the shield was a mirror in which he could always see himself. Looking into this mirror, he now saw that, if he did not soon get away from Miss Roberta, he would lay down his shield and surrender, and it was his intent that this should not happen until he wished it to happen.
It was very natural when Lawrence reached New York, that he should take pleasure in talking about Miss Roberta March and her family with any one who knew them. He was particularly anxious, if he could do so delicately and without exciting any suspicion of his object, to know as much as possible about Sylvester March, the lady's father. In doing this, he did not feel that he was prying into the affairs of others, but he could not be true to himself unless he looked well in advance before he made the step on which his mind was set. It was in this way that he happened to learn that about two years before, Miss March had been engaged to be married, but that the engagement had been broken off for reasons not known to his informants, and he could find out nothing about the gentleman, except that his name was Junius Keswick.
The fact that the lady had had a lover, put her in a new light before Lawrence Croft. He had had an idea, suggested by the very friendly nature of their intercourse, that she was a woman whose mind did not run out to love or marriage, but now that he knew that she was susceptible of being wooed and won, because these things had actually happened to her, he was very glad that he had come away from Midbranch.
The impression soon became very strong upon the mind of Lawrence that he would like to know what kind of man was this former lover. He had known Miss March about a year, and at the time of his first acquaintaince with her, she must have come very fresh from this engagement. To study the man to whom Roberta March had been willing to engage herself, was, to Lawrence's mode of thinking, if not a prerequisite procedure in his contemplated course of action, at least a very desirable one.
But he was rather surprised to find that no one knew much about Mr Junius Keswick, or could give him any account of his present whereabouts, although he had been, at the time when his engagement was in force, a resident of New York. To consult a directory was, therefore, an obvious first step in the affair; and, with this intent, Mr Croft entered, one morning, an apothecary's shop in a street which, though a busy one, was in a rather out-of-the-way part of the city.
"We haven't any directory, sir," said the clerk, "but if you will step across the street you can find one at that little shop with the green door. Everybody goes there to look at the directory."
The green door on the opposite side of the street, approached by a single flat step of stone, had a tin sign upon it, on which was painted:
"INFORMATION OF EVERY VARIETY FURNISHED WITHIN."
Pushing open the door, Lawrence entered a long, narrow room, not very well lighted, with a short counter on one side, and some desks, partially screened by a curtain, at the farther end. A boy was behind the counter, and to him Lawrence addressed himself, asking permission to look at a city directory.
"One cent, if you look yourself; three cents, if we look," said the boy, producing a thick volume from beneath the counter.
"One cent?" said Lawrence, smiling at the oddity of this charge, as he opened the book and turned to the letter K.
"Yes," said the boy, "and if the fine print hurts your eyes, we'll look for three cents."
At this moment a man came from one of the desks at the other end of the room, and handed the boy a letter with which that young person immediately departed. The new-comer, a smooth-shaven man of about thirty, with the air of the proprietor or head manager very strong upon him, took the boy's position behind the counter, and remarked to Lawrence: "Most people, when they first come here, think it rather queer to pay for looking at the directory, but you see we don't keep a directory to coax people to come in to buy medicines or anything else. We sell nothing but information, and part of our stock is what you get out of a directory. But it's the best plan all round, for we can afford to give you a clean, good book instead of one all jagged and worn; and as you pay your money, you feel you can look as long as you like, and come when you please."
"It is a very good plan," said Lawrence, closing the book, "but the name I want is not here."
"Perhaps it is in last year's directory," said the man, producing another volume from under the counter.
"That wouldn't do me much good," said Lawrence. "I want to know where some one resides this year."
"It will do a great deal of good," said the other, "for if we know where a person has lived, inquiries can be made there as to where he has gone. Sometimes we go back three or four years, and when we have once found a man's name, we follow him up from place to place until we can give the inquirer his present address. What is the name you wanted, sir? You were looking in the K's."
"Keswick," said Lawrence, "Junius Keswick."
The man ran his finger and his eyes down a column, and remarked: "There is Keswick, but it is Peter, laborer; I suppose that isn't the party."
Lawrence smiled, and shook his head.
"We will take the year before that," said the man with cheerful alacrity, heaving up another volume. "Here's two Keswicks," he said in a moment, "one John, and the other Stephen W. Neither of them right?"
"No," said Lawrence, "my man is Junius, and we need not go any farther back. I am afraid the person I am looking for was only a sojourner in the city, and that his name did not get into the directory. I know that he was here year before last."
"All right, sir," said the other, pushing aside the volume he had been consulting. "We'll find the man for you from the hotel books, and what is more, we can see those two Keswicks that I found last. Perhaps they were relations of his, and he was staying with them. If you put the matter in our hands, we'll give you the address to-morrow night, provided it's an ordinary case. But if he has gone to Australia or Japan, of course, it'll take longer. Is it crime or relationship?"
"Neither," replied Lawrence.
"It is generally one of them," said the man, "and if it's crime we carry it on to a certain point, and then put it into the hands of the detectives, for we've nothing to do with police business, private or otherwise. But if it's relationship, we'll go right through with it to the end. Any kind of information you may want we'll give you here; scientific, biographical, business, healthfulness of localities, genuineness of antiquities, age and standing of individuals, purity of liquors or teas from sample, Bible items localized, china verified; in fact, anything you want to know we can tell you. Of course we don't pretend that we know all these things, but we know the people who do know, or who can find them out. By coming to us, and paying a small sum, the most valuable information, which it would take you years to find out, can be secured with certainty, and generally in a few days. We know what to do, and where to go, and that's the point. If it's a new bug, or a microscope insect we put it into the hands of a man who knows just what high scientific authority to apply to; if it's the middle name of your next door neighbor we'll give it to you from his baptismal record. I'm getting up a pamphlet-circular which will be ready in about a week, and which will fully explain our methods of business, with the charges for the different items, etc."
"Well," said Lawrence, taking out his pocket-book, "I want the address of Junius Keswick, and I think I will let you look it up for me. What is your charge?"
"It will be two dollars," said the man, "ordinary; and if we find inquiries run into other countries we will make special terms. And then there's seven cents, one for your look, and two threes for ours. You shall hear from us to-morrow night at your hotel or residence, unless you prefer to call here."
"I will call the day after to-morrow," said Lawrence, producing a five-dollar note.
"Very good," replied the proprietor. "Will you please pay the cashier?" pointing at the same time to a desk behind Lawrence which the latter had not noticed.
Approaching this desk, the top of which, except for a small space in front, was surrounded by short curtains, he saw a young girl busily engaged in reading a book. He proffered her the note, the proprietor at the same time calling out: "Two, seven."
The girl turned the book down to keep the place; then she took the note, and opened a small drawer, in which she fumbled for some moments. Closing the drawer, she rose to her feet and waved the note over the curtain to her right. "Haven't any change, eh?" said the man, coming from behind the counter, and putting on his hat. "As the boy's not here, I'll step out and get it."
The girl turned up her book, and began to read again, and Lawrence stood and looked at her, wondering what need there was of a cashier in a place like this. She appeared to be under twenty, rather thin-faced, and was plainly dressed. In a few moments she raised her eyes from her book, and said: "Won't you sit down, sir? I am sorry you have to wait, but we are short of change to-day, and sometimes it is hard to get it in this neighborhood."
Lawrence declined to be seated, but was very willing to talk. "Was it the proprietor of this establishment," he asked, "who went out to get the money changed??"
"Yes, sir," she answered. "That is Mr Candy."
"A queer name," said Lawrence, smiling.
The girl looked up at him, and smiled in return. There was a very perceptible twinkle in her eyes, which seemed to be eyes that would like to be merry ones, and a slight movement of the corners of her mouth which indicated a desire to say something in reply, but, restrained probably by loyalty to her employer, or by prudent discretion regarding conversation with strangers, she was silent.
Lawrence, however, continued his remarks. "The whole business seems to me very odd. Suppose I were to come here and ask for information as to where I could get a five-dollar note changed; would Mr Candy be able to tell me?"
"He would do in that case just as he does in all others," she said; "first, he would go and find out, and then he would let you know. Giving information is only half the business; finding things out is the other half. That's what he's doing now."
"So, when he comes back," said Lawrence, "he'll have a new bit of information to add to his stock on hand, which must be a very peculiar one, I fancy."
The cashier smiled. "Yes," she said, "and a very useful one, too, if people only knew it."
"Don't they know it?" asked Lawrence. "Don't you have plenty of custom?"
At this moment the door opened, Mr Candy entered, and the conversation stopped.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, sir," said the proprietor, passing some money to the cashier over the curtain, who, thereupon, handed two dollars and ninety-three cents to Lawrence through the little opening in front.
"If you call the day after to-morrow, the information will be ready for you," said Mr Candy, as the gentleman departed.
On the appointed day, Lawrence came again, and found nobody in the place but the cashier, who handed him a note.
"Mr Candy left this for you, in case he should not be in when you called," she said.
The note stated that the search for the address of Junius Keswick had opened very encouragingly, but as it was quite evident that said person was not now in the city, the investigations would have to be carried on on a more extended scale, and a deposit of three dollars would be necessary to meet expenses.
Lawrence looked from the note to the cashier, who had been watching him as he read. "Does Mr Candy want me to leave three dollars with you?" he asked.
"That's what he said, sir."
"Well," said Lawrence, "I don't care about paying for unlimited investigation in this way. If the gentleman I am in search of has left the city, and Mr Candy has been able to find out to what place he went, he should have told me that, and I would have decided whether or not I wanted him to do anything more."
The face of the cashier appeared troubled. "I think, sir," she said, "that if you leave the money, Mr Candy will do all he can to discover what you wish to know, and that it will not be very long before you have the address of the person you are seeking."
"Do you really think he has any clew?" asked Lawrence.
This question did not seem to please the cashier, and she answered gravely, though without any show of resentment: "That is a strange question after I advised you to leave the money."
Lawrence had a kind heart, and it reproached him. "I beg your pardon," said he. "I will leave the money with you, but I desire that Mr Candy will, in his next communication, give me all the information he has acquired up to the moment of writing, and then I will decide whether it is worth while to go on with the matter, or not."
He, thereupon, took out his pocket-book and handed three dollars to the cashier, who, with an air of deliberate thoughtfulness, smoothed out the two notes, and placed them in her drawer. Then she said: "If you will leave your address, sir, I will see that you receive your information as soon as possible. That will be better than for you to call, because I can't tell you when to come."
"Very well," said Lawrence, "and I will be obliged to you if you will hurry up Mr Candy as much as you can." And, handing her his card, he went his way.
The way of Lawrence Croft was generally a very pleasant one, for the fortunate conditions of his life made it possible for him to go around most of the rough places which might lie in it. His family was an old one, and a good one, but there was very little of it left, and of its scattered remnants he was the most important member. But although circumstances did not force him to do anything in particular, he liked to believe that he was a rigid master to himself, and whatever he did was always done with a purpose. When he travelled he had an object in view; when he stayed at home the case was the same.
His present purpose was the most serious one of his life: he wished to marry; and, if she should prove to be the proper person, he wished to marry Roberta March; and as a preliminary step in the carrying out of his purpose, he wanted very much to know what sort of man Miss March had once been willing to marry.
When five days had elapsed without his hearing from Mr Candy, he became impatient and betook himself to the green door with the tin sign. Entering, he found only the boy and the cashier. Addressing himself to the latter, he asked if anything had been done in his business.
"Yes, sir," she said, "and I hoped Mr Candy would write you a letter this morning before he went out, but he didn't. He traced the gentleman to Niagara Falls, and I think you'll hear something very soon."
"If inquiries have to be carried on outside of the city," said Lawrence, "they will probably cost a good deal, and come to nothing. I think I will drop the matter as far as Mr Candy is concerned."
"I wish you would give us a little more time," said the girl. "I am sure you will hear something in a few days, and you need not be afraid there will be anything more to pay unless you are satisfied that you have received the full worth of the money."
Lawrence reflected for a few moments, and then concluded to let the matter go on. "Tell Mr Candy to keep me frequently informed of the progress of the affair," said he, "and if he is really of any service to me I am willing to pay him, but not otherwise."
"That will be all right," said the cashier, "and if Mr Candy is—is prevented from doing it, I'll write to you myself, and keep you posted."
As soon as the customer had gone, the boy, who had been sitting on the counter, thus spoke to the cashier: "You know very well that old Mintstick has given that thing up!"
"I know he has," said the girl, "but I have not."
"You haven't anything to do with it," said the boy.
"Yes, I have," she answered. "I advised that gentleman to pay his money, and I'm not going to see him cheated out of it. Of course, Mr Candy doesn't mean to cheat him, but he has gone into that business about the origin of the tame blackberry, and there's no knowing when he'll get back to this thing, which is not in his line, anyway."
"I should say it wasn't!" exclaimed the boy with a loud laugh. "Sendin' me to look up them two Keswicks, who was both put down as cordwainers in year before last's directory, and askin' 'em if there was any Juniuses in their families."
"Junius Keswick, did you say? Is that the name of the gentleman Mr Candy was looking for?"
"Yes," said the boy.
Presently the cashier remarked: "I am going to look at the books." And she betook herself to the desk at the back part of the shop.
In about half an hour she returned and handed to the boy a memorandum upon a scrap of paper. "You go out now to your lunch," she said, "and while you are out, stop at the St. Winifred Hotel, where Mr Candy found the name of Junius Keswick, and see if it is not down again not long after the date which I have put on this slip of paper. I think if a person went to Niagara Falls he'd be just as likely to make a little trip of it and come back again as to keep travelling on, which Mr Candy supposes he did. If you find the name again, put down the date of arrival on this, and see if there was any memorandum about forwarding letters."
"All right," said the boy. "But I'll be gone an hour and a half. Can't cut into my lunch time."
In the course of a few days Lawrence Croft received a note signed Candy & Co. "per" some illegible initials, which stated that Mr Junius Keswick had been traced to a boarding-house in the city, but as the establishment had been broken up for some time, endeavors were now being made to find the lady who had kept the house, and when this was done it would most likely be possible to discover from her where Mr Keswick had gone.
Lawrence waited a few days and then called at the Information Shop. Again was Mr Candy absent; and so was the boy. The cashier informed him that she had found—that is, that the lady who kept the boarding-house had been found—and she thought she remembered the gentlemen in question, and promised, as soon as she could, to look through a book, in which she used to keep directions for the forwarding of letters, and in this way another clew might soon be expected.
"This seems to be going on better," said Lawrence, "but Mr Candy doesn't show much in the affair. Who is managing it? You?"
The girl blushed and then laughed, a little confusedly. "I am only the cashier," she said.
"And the laborious duties of your position would, of course, give you no time for anything else," remarked Lawrence.
"Oh, well," said the girl, "of course it is easy enough for any one to see that I haven't much to do as cashier, but the boy and Mr Candy are nearly always out, looking up things, and I have to do other business besides attending to cash."
"If you are attending to my business," said Lawrence, "I am very glad, especially now that it has reached the boarding-house stage, where I think a woman will be better able to work than a man. Are you doing this entirely independent of Mr Candy?"
"Well, sir," said the cashier, with an honest, straightforward look from her gray eyes that pleased Lawrence, "I may as well confess that I am. But there's nothing mean about it. He has all the same as given it up, for he's waiting to hear from a man at Niagara, who will never write to him, and probably hasn't any thing to write, and as I advised you to pay the money I feel bound in honor to see that the business is done, if it can be done."
"Have you a brother or a husband to help you in these investigations and searches?" asked Lawrence.
"No," said the cashier with a smile. "Sometimes I send our boy, and as to boarding houses, I can go to them myself after we shut up here."
"I wish," said Lawrence, "that you were married, and that you had a husband who would not interfere in this matter at all, but who would go about with you, and so enable you to follow up your clew thoroughly. You take up the business in the right spirit, and I believe you would succeed in finding Mr Keswick, but I don't like the idea of sending you about by yourself."
"I won't deny," said the cashier, "that since I have begun this affair I would like very much to carry it out; so, if you don't object, I won't give it up just yet, and as soon as anything happens I'll let you know."
Autumn in Virginia, especially if one is not too near the mountains, is a season in which greenness sails very close to Christmas, although generally veering away in time to prevent its verdant hues from tingeing that happy day with the gloomy influence of the prophetic proverb about churchyards. Long after the time when the people of the regions watered by the Hudson and the Merrimac are beginning to button up their overcoats, and to think of weather strips for their window-sashes, the dwellers in the land through which flow the Appomattox and the James may sit upon their broad piazzas, and watch the growing glories of the forests, where the crimson stars of the sweet gum blaze among the rich yellows of the chestnuts, the lingering green of the oaks, and the enduring verdure of the pines. The insects still hum in the sunny air, and the sun is now a genial orb whose warm rays cheer but not excoriate.
The orb just mentioned was approaching the horizon, when, in an adjoining county to that in which was situated the hospitable mansion of Midbranch, a little negro boy about ten years old was driving some cows through a gateway that opened on a public road. The cows, as they were going homeward, filed willingly through the gateway, which led into a field, at the far end of which might be dimly discerned a house behind a mass of foliage; but the boy, whose head and voice were entirely too big for the rest of him, assailed them with all manner of reproaches and impellent adjectives, addressing each cow in turn as: "You, sah!" When the compliant beasts had hustled through, the youngster got upon the gate, and giving it a push with one bare foot, he swung upon it as far as it would go; then lifting the end from the surface of the ground he shut it with a bang, fastened it with a hook, and ran after the cows, his wild provocatives to bovine haste ringing high into the evening air.
This youth was known as Plez, his whole name being Pleasant Valley, an inspiration to his mother from the label on a grape box, which had drifted into that region from the North. He had just stooped to pick up a clod of earth with which to accentuate his vociferations, when, on rising, he was astounded by the apparition of an elderly woman wearing a purple sun-bonnet, and carrying a furled umbrella of the same color. Behind the spectacles, which were fixed upon him, blazed a pair of fiery eyes, and the soul of Plez shrivelled and curled up within him. His downcast eyes were bent upon his upturned toes, the clod dropped from his limp fingers, and his mouth which had been opened for a yell, remained open, but the yell had apparently swooned.
The words of the old lady were brief, but her umbrella was full of jerky menace, and when she left him, and passed on toward the outer gate, Plez followed the cows to the house with the meekness of a suspected sheep dog.
The cows had been milked, some by a rotund black woman named Letty, and some, much to their discomfort, by Plez himself, and it was beginning to grow dark, when an open spring wagon driven by a colored man, and with a white man on the back seat came along the road, and stopped at the gate. The driver having passed the reins to the occupant on the back seat, got down, opened the gate, and stood holding it while the other drove the horse into the road which ran by the side of the field to the house behind the trees. At this time a passer-by, if there had been one, might have observed, partly protruding from behind some bushes on the other side of the public road, and at a little distance from the gate, the lower portion of a purple umbrella. As the spring wagon approached, and during the time that it was turning into the gate, and while it was waiting for the driver to resume his seat, this umbrella was considerably agitated, so much so indeed as to cause a little rustling among the leaves. When the gate had been shut, and the wagon had passed on toward the house, the end of the umbrella disappeared, and then, on the other side of the bush, there came into view a sun-bonnet of the same color as the umbrella. This surmounted the form of an old lady, who stepped into the pathway by the side of the road, and walked away with a quick, active step which betokened both energy and purpose.
The house, before which, not many minutes later, this spring wagon stopped, was not a fine old family mansion like that of Midbranch, but it was a comfortable dwelling, though an unpretending one. The gentleman on the back seat, and the driver, who was an elderly negro, both turned toward the hall door, which was open and lighted by a lamp within, as if they expected some one to come out on the porch. But nobody came, and, after a moment's hesitation, the gentleman got down, and taking a valise from the back of the wagon, mounted the steps of the porch. While he was doing this the face of the negro man, which could be plainly seen in the light from the hall door, grew anxious and troubled. When the gentleman set his valise on the porch, and stood by it without making any attempt to enter, the old man put down the reins and quickly descending from his seat, hurried up the steps.
"Dunno whar ole miss is, but I reckon she done gone to look after de tukkies. She dreffle keerful dat dey all go to roos' ebery night. Walk right in, Mahs' Junius." And, taking up the valise, he followed the gentleman into the hall.
There, near the back door, stood the rotund black woman, and, behind her, Plez. "Look h'yar Letty," said the negro man, "whar ole miss?"
"Dunno," said the woman. "She done gib out supper, an' I ain't seed her sence. Is dis Mahs' Junius? Reckon' you don' 'member Letty?"
"Yes I do," said the gentleman, shaking hands with her; "but the Letty I remember was a rather slim young woman."
"Dat's so," said Letty, with a respectful laugh, 'but, shuh 'nuf, my food's been blessed to me, Mahs' Junius."
"But whar's ole miss?" persisted the old man. "You, Letty, can't you go look her up?"
Now was heard the voice of Plez, who meekly emerged from the shade of Letty. "Ole miss done gone out to de road gate," said he. "I seen her when I brung de cows."
"Bress my soul!" ejaculated Letty. "Out to de road gate! An' 'spectin' you too, Mahs' Junius!"
"Didn't she say nuffin to you?" said the old man, addressing Plez.
"She didn't say nuffin to me, Uncle Isham," answered the boy, "'cept if I didn't quit skeerin' dem cows, an' makin' 'em run wid froin' rocks till dey ain't got a drip drap o' milk lef' in 'em, she'd whang me ober de head wid her umbril."
"'Tain't easy to tell whar she done gone from dat," said Letty.
The face of Uncle Isham grew more troubled. "Walk in de parlor, Mahs' Junius," he said, "an' make yourse'f comf'ble. Ole miss boun' to be back d'reckly. I'll go put up de hoss."
As the old man went heavily down the porch steps he muttered to himself: "I was feared o' sumfin like dis; I done feel it in my bones."
The gentleman took a seat in the parlor where Letty had preceded him with a lamp. "Reckon ole miss didn't spec' you quite so soon, Mahs' Junius, cos de sorrel hoss is pow'ful slow, and Uncle Isham is mighty keerful ob rocks in de road. Reckon she's done gone ober to see ole Aun' Patsy, who's gwine to die in two or free days, to take her some red an' yaller pieces for a crazy quilt. I know she's got some pieces fur her."
"Aunt Patsy alive yet?" exclaimed Master Junius. "But if she's about to die, what does she want with a crazy quilt?"
"Dat's fur she shroud," said Letty. "She 'tends to go to glory all wrap up in a crazy quilt, jus chockfull ob all de colors of the rainbow. Aun' Patsy neber did 'tend to have a shroud o' bleached domestic like common folks. She wants to cut a shine 'mong de angels, an' her quilt's most done, jus' one corner ob it lef'. Reckon ole miss done gone to carry her de pieces fur dat corner. Dere ain't much time lef', fur Aun' Patsy is pretty nigh dead now. She's ober two hunnerd years ole."
"What!" exclaimed Master Junius, "two hundred?"
"Yes, sah," answered Letty. "Doctor Peter's old Jim was more'n a hunnerd when he died, an' we all knows Aun' Patsy is twice as ole as ole Jim."
"I'll wait here," said Master Junius, taking up a book. "I suppose she will be back before long."
In about half an hour Uncle Isham came into the kitchen, his appearance indicating that he had had a hurried walk, and told Letty that she had better give Master Junius his supper without waiting any longer for her mistress. "She ain't at Aun' Patsy's," said the old man, "and she's jus' done gone somewhar else, and she'll come back when she's a mind to, an' dar ain't nuffin else to say 'bout it."
Supper was eaten; a pipe was smoked on the porch; and Master Junius went to bed in a room which had been carefully prepared for him under the supervision of the mistress; but the purple sun-bonnet, and the umbrella of the same color did not return to the house that night.
Master Junius was a quiet man, and fond of walking; and the next day he devoted to long rambles, sometimes on the roads, sometimes over the fields, and sometimes through the woods; but in none of his walks, nor when he came back to dinner and supper, did he meet the elderly mistress of the house to which he had come. That evening, as he sat on the top step of the porch with his pipe, he summoned to him Uncle Isham, and thus addressed the old man:
"I think it is impossible, Isham, that your mistress started out to meet me, and that an accident happened to her. I have walked all over this neighborhood, and I know that no accident could have occurred without my seeing or hearing something of it."
Uncle Isham stood on the ground, his feet close to the bottom step; his hat was in his hand, and his upturned face wore an expression of earnestness which seemed to set uncomfortably upon it. "Mahs' Junius," said he, "dar ain't no acciden' come to ole miss; she's done gone cos she wanted to, an' she ain't come back cos she didn't want to. Dat's ole miss, right fru."
"I suppose," said the young man, "that as she went away on foot she must be staying with some of the neighbors. If we were to make inquiries, it certainly would not be difficult to find out where she is."
"Mahs' Junius," said Uncle Isham, his black eyes shining brighter and brighter as he spoke, "dar's culled people, an' white folks too in dis yer county who'd put on dere bes' clothes an' black dere shoes, an' skip off wid alacrousness, to do de wus kin' o sin, dat dey knowed for sartin would send 'em down to de deepes' and hottes' gullies ob de lower regions, but nuffin in dis worl' could make one o' dem people go 'quirin' 'bout ole miss when she didn't want to be 'quired about."
The smoker put down his pipe on the top step beside him, and sat for a few moments in thought. Then he spoke. "Isham," he began, "I want you to tell me if you have any notion or idea——"
"Mahs' Junius," exclaimed the old negro, "scuse me fur int'ruptin', but I can't help it. Don' you go, an ax an ole man like me if I tinks dat ole miss went away cos you was comin' an' if it's my true b'lief dat she'll neber come back while you is h'yar. Don' ask me nuffin like dat, Mahs' Junius. Ise libed in dis place all my bawn days, an' I ain't neber done nuffin to you, Mahs' Junius, 'cept keepin' you from breakin' you neck when you was too little to know better. I neber 'jected to you marryin' any lady you like bes', an' 'tain't f'ar Mahs' Junius, now Ise ole an' gittin' on de careen, fur you to ax me wot I tinks about ole miss gwine away an' comin' back. I begs you, Mahs' Junius, don' ax me dat."
Master Junius rose to his feet. "All right, Isham," he said; "I shall not worry your good old heart with questions." And he went into the house.
The next day this quiet gentleman and good walker went to see old Aunt Patsy, who had apparently consented to live a day or two longer; gave her a little money in lieu of pieces for her crazy bed-quilt; and told her he was going away to stay. He told Uncle Isham he was going away to stay away; and he said the same thing to Letty, and to Plez, and to two colored women of the neighborhood whom he happened to see. Then he took his valise, which was not a very large one, and departed. He refused to be conveyed to the distant station in the spring wagon, saying that he much preferred to walk. Uncle Isham took leave of him with much sadness, but did not ask him to stay; and Letty and Plez looked after him wistfully, still holding in their hands the coins he had placed there. With the exception of these coins, the only thing he left behind him was a sealed letter on the parlor table, directed to the mistress of the house.
Toward the end of that afternoon, two women came along the public road which passed the outer gate. One came from the south, and rode in an open carriage, evidently hired at the railroad station; the other was on foot, and came from the north; she wore a purple sun-bonnet, and carried an umbrella of the same color. When this latter individual caught sight of the approaching carriage, then at some distance, she stopped short and gazed at it. She did not retire behind a bush, as she had done on a former occasion, but she stood in the shade of a tree on the side of the road, and waited. As the carriage came nearer to the gate the surprise upon her face became rapidly mingled with indignation. The driver had checked the speed of his horses, and, without doubt, intended to stop at the gate. This might not have been sufficient to excite her emotions, but she now saw clearly, having not been quite certain of it before, that the occupant of the carriage was a lady, and, apparently, a young one, for she wore in her hat some bright-colored flowers. The driver stopped, got down, opened the gate, and then, mounting to his seat, drove through, leaving the gate standing wide open.
This contempt of ordinary proprietary requirements made the old lady spring out from the shelter of the shade. Brandishing her umbrella, she was about to cry out to the man to stop and shut the gate, but she restrained herself. The distance was too great, and, besides, she thought better of it. She went again into the shade, and waited. In about ten minutes the carriage came back, but without the lady. This time the driver got down, shut the gate after him, and drove rapidly away.
If blazing eyes could crack glass, the spectacles of the old lady would have been splintered into many pieces as she stood by the roadside, the end of her umbrella jabbed an inch or two into the ground. After standing thus for some five minutes, she suddenly turned and walked vigorously away in the direction from which she had come.
Uncle Isham, Letty, and the boy Plez, were very much surprised at the arrival of the lady in the carriage. She had asked for the mistress of the house, and on being assured that she was expected to return very soon, had alighted, paid and dismissed her driver, and had taken a seat in the parlor. Her valise, rather larger than that of the previous visitor, was brought in and put in the hall. She waited for an hour or two, during which time Letty made several attempts to account for the non-appearance of her mistress, who, she said, was away on a visit, but was expected back every minute; and when supper was ready she partook of that meal alone, and after a short evening spent in reading she went to bed in the chamber which Letty prepared for her.
Before she retired, Letty, who had shown herself a very capable attendant, said to her: "Wot's your name, miss? I allus likes to know the names o' ladies I waits on.''
"My name," said the lady, "is Mrs Null."
The Autumn sun was shining very pleasantly when, about nine o'clock in the morning, Mrs Null came out on the porch, and, standing at the top of the steps, looked about her. She had on her hat with the red flowers, and she wore a short jacket, into the pockets of which her hands were thrust with an air which indicated satisfaction with the circumstances surrounding her. The old dog, lying on the grass at the bottom of the steps, looked up at her and flopped his tail upon the ground. Mrs Null called to him in a cheerful tone and the dog arose, and, hesitatingly, put his forefeet on the bottom step; then, when she held out her hand and spoke to him again, he determined that, come what might, he would go up those forbidden steps, and let her pat his head. This he did, and after looking about him to assure himself that this was reality and not a dog dream, he lay down upon the door-mat, and, with a sigh of relief, composed himself to sleep. A black turkey gobbler, who looked as if he had been charred in a fire, followed by five turkey hens, also suggesting the idea that water had been thrown over them before anything but their surfaces had been burned, came timidly around the house and stopped before venturing upon the greensward in front of the porch; then, seeing nobody but Mrs Null, they advanced with bobbing heads and swaying bodies to look into the resources of this seldom explored region. Plez, who was coming from the spring with a pail of water on his head, saw the dog on the porch and the turkeys on the grass, and stopped to regard the spectacle. He looked at them, and he looked at Mrs Null, and a grin of amused interest spread itself over his face.
Mrs Null went down the steps and approached the boy. "Plez," said she, "if your mistress, or anybody, should come here this morning, you must run over to Pine Top Hill and call me. I'm going there to read."
"Don' you want me to go wid yer, and show you de way, Miss Null?" asked Plez, preparing to set down his pail.
"Oh, no," said she, "I know the way." And with her hands still in her pockets, from one of which protruded a rolled-up novel, she walked down to the little stream which ran from the spring, crossed the plank and took the path which led by the side of the vineyard to Pine Top Hill.
This lady visitor had now been here two days waiting for the return of the mistress of the little estate; and the sojourn had evidently been of benefit to her. Good air, the good meals with which Letty had provided her, and a sort of sympathy which had sprung up in a very sudden way between her and everything on the place, had given brightness to her eyes. She even looked a little plumper than when she came, and certainly very pretty. She climbed Pine Top Hill without making any mistake as to the best path, and went directly to a low piece of sun-warmed rock which cropped out from the ground not far from the bases of the cluster of pines which gave the name to the hill. An extended and very pretty view could be had from this spot, and Mrs Null seemed to enjoy it, looking about her with quick turns of the head as if she wanted to satisfy herself that all of the scenery was there. Apparently satisfied that it was, she stretched out her feet, withdrew her gaze from the surrounding country, and regarded the toes of her boots. Now she smiled a little and began to speak.
"Freddy," said she, "I must think over matters, and have a talk with you about them. Nothing could be more proper than this, since we are on our wedding tour. You keep beautifully in the background, which is very nice of you, for that's what I married you for. But we must have a talk now, for we haven't said a word to each other, nor, perhaps, thought of each other during the whole three nights and two days that we have been here. I expect these people think it very queer that I should keep on waiting for their mistress to come back, but I can't help it; I must stay till she comes, or he comes, and they must continue to think it funny. And as for Mr Croft, I suppose I should get a letter from him if he knew where to write, but you know, Freddy, we are travelling about on this wedding tour without letting anybody, especially Mr Croft, know exactly where we are. He must think it an awfully wonderful piece of good luck that a young married couple should happen to be journeying in the very direction taken by a gentleman whom he wants to find, and that they are willing to look for the gentleman without charging anything but the extra expenses to which they may be put. We wouldn't charge him a cent, you know, Freddy Null, but for the fear that he would think we would not truly act as his agents if we were not paid, and so would employ somebody else. We don't want him to employ anybody else. We want to find Junius Keswick before he does, and then, maybe, we won't want Mr Croft to find him at all. But I hope it will not turn out that way. He said, it was neither crime nor relationship and, of course, it couldn't be. What I hope is, that it is good fortune; but that's doubtful. At any rate, I must see Junius first, if I can possibly manage it. If she would only come back and open her letter, there might be no more trouble about it, for I don't believe he would go away without leaving her his address. Isn't all this charming, Freddy? And don't you feel glad that we came here for our wedding tour? Of course you don't enjoy it as much as I do, for it can't seem so natural to you; but you are bound to like it. The very fact of my being here should make the place delightful in your eyes, Mr Null, even if I have forgotten all about you ever since I came."
That afternoon, as Mrs Null was occupying some of her continuous leisure in feeding the turkeys at the back of the house, she noticed two colored men in earnest conversation with Isham. When they had gone she called to the old man. "Uncle Isham," she said, "what did those men want?"
"Tell you what 'tis, Miss Null," said Isham, removing his shapeless felt hat, "dis yere place is gittin' wus an' wus on de careen, an' wat's gwine to happen if ole miss don' come back is more'n I kin tell. Dar's no groun' ploughed yit for wheat, an' dem two han's been 'gaged to come do it, an' dey put it off, an' put it off till ole miss got as mad as hot coals, an' now at las' dey've come, an' she's not h'yar, an' nuffin' can be done. De wheat'll be free inches high on ebery oder farm 'fore ole miss git dem plough han's agin."
"That is too bad, Uncle Isham," said Mrs Null. "When land that ought to be ploughed isn't ploughed, it all grows up in old field pines, don't it?"
"It don' do dat straight off, Miss Null," said the old negro, his gray face relaxing into a smile.
"No, I suppose not," said she. "I have heard that it takes thirty years for a whole forest of old field pines to grow up. But they will do it if the land isn't ploughed. Now, Uncle Isham, I don't intend to let everything be at a standstill here just because your mistress is away. That is one reason why I feed the turkeys. If they died, or the farm all went wrong, I should feel that it was partly my fault."
"Yaas'm," said Uncle Isham, passing his hat from one hand to the other, as he delivered himself a little hesitatingly—"yaas'm, if you wasn't h'yar p'raps ole miss mought come back."
"Now, Uncle Isham," said Mrs Null, "you mustn't think your mistress is staying away on account of me. She left home, as Letty has told me over and over, because your Master Junius came. Of course she thinks he's here yet, and she don't know anything about me. But if her affairs should go to rack and ruin while I am here and able to prevent it, I should think it was my fault. That's what I mean, Uncle Isham. And now this is what I want you to do. I want you to go right after those men, and tell them to come here as soon as they can, and begin to plough. Do you know where the ploughing is to be done?"
"Oh, yaas'm," said Uncle Isham, "dar ain't on'y one place fur dat. It's de clober fiel', ober dar, on de udder side ob de gyarden."
"And what is to be planted in it?" asked Mrs Null.
"Ob course dey's gwine to plough for wheat," answered Uncle Isham, a little surprised at the question.
"I don't altogether like that," said Mrs Null, her brows slightly contracting. "I've read a great deal about the foolishness of Southern people planting wheat. They can't compete with the great wheat farms of the West, which sometimes cover a whole county, and, of course, having so much, they can afford to sell it a great deal cheaper than you can here. And yet you go on, year after year, paying every cent you can rake and scrape for fertilizing drugs, and getting about a teacupful of wheat,—that is, proportionately speaking. I don't think this sort of thing should continue, Uncle Isham. It would be a great deal better to plough that field for pickles. Now there is a steady market for pickles, and, so far as I know, there are no pickle farms in the West."
"Pickles!" ejaculated the astonished Isham. "Do you mean, Miss Null, to put dat fiel' down in kukumbers at dis time o' yeah?"
"Well," said Mrs Null, thoughtfully, "I don't know that I feel authorized to make the change at present, but I do know that the things that pay most are small fruits, and if you people down here would pay more attention to them you would make more money. But the land must be ploughed, and then we'll see about planting it afterward; your mistress will, probably, be home in time for that. You go after the men, and tell them I shall expect them to begin the first thing in the morning. And if there is anything else to be done on the farm, you come and tell me about it to-morrow. I'm going to take the responsibility on myself to see that matters go on properly until your mistress returns."
Letty and her son, Plez, occupied a cabin not far from the house, while Uncle Isham lived alone in a much smaller tenement, near the barn and chicken house. That evening he went over to Letty's, taking with him, as a burnt offering, a partially consumed and still glowing log of hickory wood from his own hearth-stone. "Jes' lemme tell you dis h'yar, Letty," said he, after making up the fire and seating himself on a stool near by, "ef you want to see ole miss come back rarin' an' chargin', jes' you let her know dat Miss Null is gwine ter plough de clober fiel' for pickles."
"Wot's dat fool talk?" asked Letty.
"Miss Null's gwine to boss dis farm, dat's all," said Isham. "She tole me so herse'f, an' ef she's lef' alone she's gwine ter do it city fashion. But one thing's sartin shuh, Letty, if ole miss do fin' out wot's gwine on, she'll be back h'yar in no time! She know well 'nuf dat dat Miss Null ain't got no right to come an' boss dis h'yar farm. Who's she, anyway?"
"Dunno," answered Letty. "I done ax her six or seben time, but 'pears like I dunno wot she mean when she tell me. P'raps she's one o' ole miss' little gal babies growed up. I tell you, Uncle Isham, she know dis place jes as ef she bawn h'yar."
Uncle Isham looked steadily into the fire and rubbed the sides of his head with his big black fingers. "Ole miss nebber had no gal baby 'cept one, an' dat died when 'twas mighty little."
"Does you reckon she kill her ef she come back an' fin' her no kin?" asked Letty.
Uncle Isham pushed his stool back and started to his feet with a noise which woke Plez, who had been soundly sleeping on the other side of the fireplace; and striding to the door, the old man went out into the open air. Returning in less than a minute, he put his head into the doorway and addressed the astonished woman who had turned around to look after him. "Look h'yar, you Letty, I don' want to hear no sech fool talk 'bout ole miss. You dunno ole miss, nohow. You only come h'yar seben year ago when dat Plez was trottin' roun' wid nuffin but a little meal bag for clothes. Mahs' John had been dead a long time den; you nebber knowed Mahs' John. You nebber was woke up at two o'clock in the mawnin wid de crack ob a pistol, an' run out 'spectin' 'twas somebody stealin' chickens an' Mahs' John firin' at 'em, an' see ole miss a cuttin' for de road gate wid her white night-gown a floppin' in de win' behind her, an' when we got out to de gate dar we see Mahs' John a stannin' up agin de pos', not de pos' wid de hinges on, but de pos' wid de hook on, an' a hole in de top ob de head which he made hese'f wid de pistol. One-eyed Jim see de whole thing. He war stealin' cohn in de fiel' on de udder side de road. He see Mahs' John come out wid de pistol, an' he lay low. Not dat it war Mahs' John's cohn dat he was stealin', but he knowed well 'nuf dat Mahs' John take jes' as much car' o' he neighbus cohn as he own. An' den he see Mahs' John stan' up agin de pos' an' shoot de pistol, an' he see Mahs' John's soul come right out de hole in de top ob his head an' go straight up to heben like a sky-racket."
"Wid a whizz?" asked the open-eyed Letty."
"Like a sky-racket, I tell you," continued the old man, "an' den me an' ole miss come up. She jes' tuk one look at him and then she said in a wice, not like she own wice, but like Mahs' John's wice, wot had done gone forebber: 'You Jim, come out o' dat cohn and help carry him in!' And we free carried him in. An' you dunno ole miss, nohow, an' I don' want to hear no fool talk from you, Letty, 'bout her. Jes' you 'member dat!"
And with this Uncle Isham betook himself to the solitude of his own cabin.
"Well," said Letty to herself, as she rose and approached the bed in the corner of the room, "Ise pow'ful glad dat somebody's gwine to take de key bahsket, for I nebber goes inter dat sto'-room by myse'f widout tremblin' all froo my back bone fear ole miss come back, an' fin' me dar 'lone."
When Lawrence Croft now took his afternoon walks in the city, he was very glad to wear a light overcoat, and to button it, too. But, although the air was getting a little nipping in New York, he knew that it must still be balmy and enjoyable in Virginia. He had never been down there at this season, but he had heard about the Virginia autumns, and, besides he had seen a lady who had had a letter from Roberta March. In this letter Miss March had written that as her father intended making a trip to Texas, and, therefore, would not come to New York as early as usual, she would stay at least a month longer with her Uncle Brandon; and she was glad to do it, for the weather was perfectly lovely, and she could stay out-of-doors all day if she wanted to.
Lawrence's walks, although very invigorating on account of the fine, sharp air, were not entirely cheering, for they gave him an opportunity to think that he was making no progress whatever in his attempt to study the character of Junius Keswick. He had entrusted the search for that gentleman's address to Mr Candy's cashier, who had informed him, most opportunely, that she was about to set out on a wedding tour, and that she had possessed herself of clues of much value which could be readily followed up in connection with the projected journey. But a fortnight or more had elapsed without his hearing anything from her, and he had come to the conclusion that hymeneal joys must have driven all thoughts of business out of her little head.
After hearing that Roberta March intended protracting her stay in the country the desire came to him to go down there himself. He would like to have the novel experience of that region in autumn, and he would like to see Roberta, but he could not help acknowledging to himself that the proceeding would scarcely be a wise one, especially as he must go without the desired safeguard of knowing what kind of man Miss March had once been willing to accept. He felt that if he went down to the neighborhood of Midbranch one of the battles of his life would begin, and that when he held up before him his figurative shield, he would see in its inner mirror that, on account of his own disposition toward the lady, he was in a condition of great peril. But, for all that, he wanted very much to go, and no one will be surprised to learn that he did go.
He was a little embarrassed at first in regard to the pretext which he should make to himself for such a journey. Whatever satisfactory excuse he could make to himself in this case would, of course, do for other people. Although he was not prone to make excuses for his conduct to other people in general, he knew he would have to give some reason to Mr Brandon and Miss Roberta for his return to Virginia so soon after having left it. He determined to make a visit to the mountains of North Carolina, and as Midbranch would lie in his way, of course he would stop there. This he assured himself was not a subterfuge. It was a very sensible thing to do. He had a good deal of time on his hands before the city season, at least for him, would begin, and he had read that the autumn was an admirable time to visit the country of the French Broad. How long a stop he would make at Midbranch would be determined by circumstances. He was sorry that he would not be able to look upon Miss Roberta with the advantage of knowing her former lover, but it was something to know that she had had a lover. With this fact in his mind he would be able to form a better estimate of her than he had formed before.
The man who lived in the cottage at the Green Sulphur Springs was somewhat surprised when Mr Croft arrived there, and desired to make arrangements, as before, for board, and the use of a saddle horse. But, although it was not generally conceded, this man knew very well that there was no water in the world so suitable to remedy the wear and tear of a city life as that of the Green Sulphur Springs, and therefore nobody could consider the young gentleman foolish for coming back again while the season permitted.
Lawrence arrived at his cottage in the morning; and early in the afternoon of the same day he rode over to Midbranch. He found the country a good deal changed, and he did not like the changes. His road, which ran for much of its distance through the woods, was covered with leaves, some green, and some red and yellow, and he did not fancy the peculiar smell of these leaves, which reminded him, in some way, of that gathering together of the characters in old-fashioned comedies shortly before the fall of the curtain. In many places where there used to be a thick shade, the foliage was now quite thin, and through it he could see a good deal of the sky. The Virginia creepers, or "poison oaks," whichever they were, were growing red upon the trunks of the trees as if they had been at table too long and showed it, and when he rode out of the woods he saw that the fields, which he remembered as wide, swelling slopes of green, with cattle and colts feeding here and there, were now being ploughed into corrugated stretches of monotonous drab and brown. If he had been there through all the gradual changes of the season, he, probably, would have enjoyed them as much as people ordinarily do; but coming back in this way, the altered landscape slightly shocked him.
When he had turned into the Midbranch gate, but was still a considerable distance from the house, he involuntarily stopped his horse. He could see the broad steps which crossed the fence of the lawn, and on one side of the platform on the top sat a lady whom he instantly recognized as Miss Roberta; and on the other side of the platform sat a gentleman. These two occupied very much the same positions as Lawrence, himself, and Miss March had occupied when we first became acquainted with them. Lawrence looked very sharply and earnestly at the gentleman. Could it be Mr Brandon? No, it was a much younger person.
His first impulse was to turn and ride away, but this would be silly and unmanly, and he continued his way to the stile. His disposition to treat the matter with contempt made him feel how important the matter was to him. The gentleman on the platform first saw Lawrence, and announced to the lady that some one was coming. Miss March turned around, and then rose to her feet.
"Upon my word!" she exclaimed, elevating her eyebrows a good deal more than was usual with her, "if that isn't Mr Croft!"
"Who is he?" asked the other, also rising.
"He is a New York gentleman whom I know very well. He was down here last summer, but I can't imagine what brings him here again."
Lawrence dismounted, tied his horse, and approached the steps. Miss Roberta welcomed him cordially, coming down a little way to shake hands with him. Then she introduced the two gentlemen.
"Mr Croft," she said, "let me make you acquainted with Mr Keswick."
The afternoon, or the portion of it that was left, was spent on the porch, Mr Brandon joining the party. It was to him that Lawrence chiefly talked, for the most part about the game and scenery of North Carolina, with which the old gentleman was quite familiar. But Lawrence had sufficient regard for himself and his position in the eyes of this family, to help make a good deal of general conversation. What he said or heard, however, occupied only the extreme corners of his mind, the main portion of which was entirely filled with the chilling fear that that man might be the Keswick he was looking for. Of course, there was a bare chance that it was not, for there might be a numerous family, but even this little stupid glimmer of comfort was extinguished when Mr Brandon familiarly addressed the gentleman as "Junius."
Lawrence took a good look at the man he was anxious to study, and as far as outward appearances were concerned he could find no fault with Roberta for having accepted him. He was taller than Croft, and not so correctly dressed. He seemed to be a person whom one would select as a companion for a hunt, a sail, or a talk upon Political Economy. There was about him an air of present laziness, but it was also evident that this was a disposition that could easily be thrown off.
Lawrence's mind was not only very much occupied, but very much perturbed. It must have been all a mistake about the engagement having been broken off. If this had been the case, the easy friendliness of the relations between Keswick and the old gentleman and his niece would have been impossible. Once or twice the thought came to Lawrence that he should congratulate himself for not having avowed his feelings toward Miss Roberta when he had an opportunity of doing so; but his predominant emotion was one of disgust with his previous mode of action. If he had not weighed and considered the matter so carefully, and had been willing to take his chances as other men take them, he would, at least, have known in what relation he stood to Roberta, and would not have occupied the ridiculous position in which he now felt himself to be.
When he took his leave, Roberta went with him to the stile. As they walked together across the smooth, short grass, a new set of emotions arose in Lawrence's mind which drove out every other. They were grief, chagrin, and even rage, at not having won this woman. As to actual speech, there was nothing he could say, although his soul boiled and bubbled within him in his desire to speak. But if he had anything to say, now was his chance, for he had told them that he would proceed with his journey the next day.
Miss Roberta had a way of looking up, and looking down at the same time, particularly when she had asked a question and was waiting for the answer. Her face would be turned a little down, but her eyes would look up and give a very charming expression to those upturned eyes; and if she happened to allow the smile, with which she ceased speaking, to remain upon her pretty lips, she generally had an answer of some sort very soon. If for no other reason, it would be given that she might ask another question. It was in this manner she said to Lawrence: "Do you really go away from us to-morrow?"
"Yes," said he, "I shall push on."
"Do you not find the country very beautiful at this season?" asked Miss Roberta, after a few steps in silence.
"I don't like autumn," answered Lawrence. "Everything is drying up and dying. I would rather see things dead."
Roberta looked at him without turning her head. "But it will be just as bad in North Carolina," she said.
"There is an autumn in ourselves," he answered, "just as much as there is in Nature. I won't see so much of that down there."
"In some cases," said Roberta, slowly, "autumn is impossible."
They had reached the bottom of the steps, and Lawrence turned and looked toward her. "Do you mean," he asked, "when there has been no real summer?"
Roberta laughed. "Of course," said she, "if there has been no summer there can be no autumn. But you know there are places where it is summer all the time. Would you like to live in such a clime?"
Lawrence Croft put one foot on the step, and then he drew it back. "Miss March," said he, "my train does not leave until the afternoon, and I am coming over here in the morning to have one more walk in the woods with you. May I?"
"Certainly," she said, "I shall be delighted; that is, if you can overlook the fact that it is autumn."
When Miss Roberta returned to the house she found Junius Keswick sitting on a bench on the porch. She went over to him, and took a seat at the other end of the bench.
"So your gentleman is gone," he said.
"Yes," she answered, "but only for the present. He is coming back in the morning."
"What for?" asked Keswick, a little abruptly.
Miss Roberta took off her hat, for there was no need of a hat on a shaded porch, and holding it by the ribbons, she let it gently slide down toward her feet. "He is coming," she said, speaking rather slowly, "to take a walk with me, and I know very well that when we have reached some place where he is sure there is no one to hear him, he is going to tell me that he loves me; that he did not intend to speak quite so soon, but that circumstances have made it impossible for him to restrain himself any longer, and he will ask me to be his wife."
"And what are you going to say to him?" asked Keswick.
"I don't know," replied Roberta, her eyes fixed upon the hat which she still held by its long ribbons.
The next morning Junius Keswick, who had been up a long, long time before breakfast, sat, after that meal, looking at Roberta who was reading a book in the parlor. "She is a strange girl," thought he. "I cannot understand her. How is it possible that she can sit there so placidly reading that volume of Huxley, which I know she never saw before and which she has opened just about the middle, on a morning when she is expecting a man who will say things to her which may change her whole life. I could almost imagine that she has forgotten all about it."
Peggy, who had just entered the room to inform her mistress that Aunt Judy was ready for her, stood in rigid uprightness, her torpid eyes settled upon the lady. "I reckon," so ran the thought within the mazes of her dark little interior, "dat Miss Rob's wuss disgruntled dan she was dat ebenin' when I make my cake, fur she got two dif'ent kinds o' shoes on."
The morning went on, and Keswick found that he must go out again for a walk, although he had rambled several miles before breakfast. After her household duties had been completed, Miss Roberta took her book out to the porch; and about noon when her uncle came out and made some remarks upon the beauty of the day, she turned over the page at which she had opened the volume just after breakfast. An hour later Peggy brought her some luncheon, and felt it to be her duty to inform Miss Rob that she still wore one old boot and a new one. When Roberta returned to the porch after making a suitable change, she found Keswick there looking a little tired.
"Has your friend gone?" he asked, in a very quiet tone.
"He has not come yet," she answered.
"Not come!" exclaimed Keswick. "That's odd! However, there are two hours yet before dinner."
The two hours passed and no Lawrence Croft appeared; nor came he at all that day. About dusk the man at the Green Sulphur Springs rode over with a note from Mr Croft. The note was to Miss March, of course, and it simply stated that the writer was very sorry he could not keep the appointment he had made with her, but that it had suddenly become necessary for him to return to the North without continuing the journey he had planned; that he was much grieved to be deprived of the opportunity of seeing her again; but that he would give himself the pleasure, at the earliest possible moment, of calling on Miss March when she arrived in New York.
When Miss Roberta had read this note she handed it to Keswick, who, when he returned it, asked: "Does that suit you?"
"No," said she, "it does not suit me at all."
It was mail day at the very small village known as Howlett's, and to the fence in front of the post-office were attached three mules and a horse. Inside the yard, tied to the low bough of a tree, was a very lean and melancholy horse, on which had lately arrived Wesley Green, the negro man who, twice a week, brought the mail from Pocohontas, a railway station, twenty miles away. There was a station not six miles from Howlett's, but, for some reason, the mail bag was always brought from and carried to Pocohontas; Wesley Green requiring a whole day for a deliberate transit between the two points.
In the post-office, which was the front room of a small wooden house approached by a high flight of steps, was the postmistress, Miss Harriet Corvey, who sat on the floor in one corner, while before her extended a semicircle of men and boys. In this little assemblage certain elderly men occupied seats which were considered to belong to them quite as much as if they had been hired pews in a church, and behind them stood up a row of tall young men and barefooted boys of the neighborhood, while, farthest in the rear, were some quiet little darkies with mail bags slung across their shoulders.