Young Mr. Merrill's Love Affair
Young Mr. Merril's Love Affair.
By J. S. FLETCHER.
UNTIL young Mr. Anthony Merrill met Miss Annetta Lister at Mr. Poskitt's Christmas party, he had never wasted a moment's thought on girls in all the peaceful smoothness of his four-and-twenty years of existence. He had two sisters of his own, and his opinion of girls was a low one. It seemed to him that, apart from performing certain household duties in a perfunctory manner, giggling and tittering about nothing at every available opportunity, dressing them- selves up and peacocking about the village street, or in the market town, in obvious endeavours to catch the eyes of every man they met, there was nothing that girls could be said to do. With Anthony himself it was different—he was a sturdy young son of the soil, very solid upon his legs, very rosy of cheek, blue of eye, and yellow of hair, a real chip of the old Norse block that drifted somehow across the North Sea so many centuries ago, and just as full as his forebears of determination and perseverance and dogged tenacity. He had been bred to the notion that his father's farm was eventually to be his, and all his youthful life had shaped itself to that end. Up to the time of the party he had thought of nothing but horses and cattle, sheep and pigs; he bewailed the constant drop in prices just as zealously as any farmer of fifty, and all the countryside said that there was no 'casion for old Mr. Merrill to trouble himself about going to auction or market, for young Tony knew as much about buying or selling as ever his father did.
It was, therefore, an absolutely heart-whole Anthony who accompanied his father and mother and his two sisters to Mr. Poskitt's Christmas festivities. He had no anticipation that anything out of the common would take place; he knew quite well that there would be a good dinner, for Mr. Poskitt was known all over the neighbourhood as the constant keeper of a good table and the prince of hosts, and he let his mind dwell lazily on the prospect of roast goose and apple sauce, plum pudding and mince pies—lazily, because he knew that his healthy appetite was sure to be satisfied. He also knew that there would be what rustic folk call "company" present—that is to say, other people than himself and his own family, and that he would have to assume his "company" manners. Anthony was quite prepared for this—"company" manners with him meant that he must never put his knife in his mouth; never speak with his mouth full; that he must say: "If you please" and "No, thank you," at the right moments; and that when he sat in the drawing-room, he must sit straight up in his chair and keep his hands in his lap, and abstain from putting them in his pockets, or from twiddling his thumbs. He was prepared for everything—he had been to Christmas parties before. He was even prepared to meet girls—girls of any age from seventeen to twenty-seven—to meet them with a quiet and patient sufferance of their giggles and their sillinesses. But there was one thing that Anthony was not prepared to meet, and that was Miss Annetta Lister. And yet, as it chanced, Miss Annetta Lister had been brought there on purpose to meet Mr. Anthony Merrill. Mr. Poskitt, a hospitable and jovial old gentleman, who believed that at Christmas every lass should have a lad, and every lad a lass, had discovered that after inviting Anthony to his party he had no young lady to pair off with him, and he had forthwith commissioned his nephew Stephen's wife, who was coming from Leeds to attend the festivity, to bring a friend with her—"a nice, lively young woman with no standoffishness about her, and up to a bit of fun." The nice, lively young woman proved on arrival to be Miss Annetta Lister, and Mr. Poskitt kissed her under the mistletoe and playfully chucked her under the chin as soon as she crossed his threshold.
Anthony was introduced to Miss Lister in the drawing-room, exactly five minutes before dinner, and was instructed to conduct the young lady to the hospitable board. He felt decidedly uncomfortable as he sat on the edge of a chair in close proximity to Miss Lister, and he was glad that she talked so volubly, though he did not understand one half of what she said. He was the colour of beetroot when—Miss Lister having taken him by the arm—he had piloted his charge to the big parlour where the Christmas dinner was spread out, and he remembered afterwards that he had said it was very hot four times in crossing the hall. Miss Lister agreed with him so sweetly, and discoursed upon the weather with such manifest grace and ease, that he gradually came to himself and fell to work upon his roast goose with all his accustomed appetite.
In the interval of a meal which spread itself well over an hour, Anthony stole surreptitious glances at Annetta. She was of a tall and lissom figure, singularly graceful in carriage and movement; she had a profusion of pretty light-brown hair, with more than a touch of gold in it; her eyes, full of a rather sleepy fun that could suddenly flash into a roguish vivacity, were almost Irish in their grey; her nose was pretty, her mouth small and scarlet, her ears as pink and delicate as a baby's. Her manners were full of ease; she never fidgeted with her hands or seemed impatient to see the end of the feast; in everything she was quite self-possessed. And even Anthony, countryman though he was, and unobservant of most things, could see that she was the best-dressed young woman in the room. Her black gown sat on her as if it had been modelled to her figure, and though it was by no means such a magnificent affair as Mrs. Tewkesbury's moire antique, Mrs. Poskitt's plum-coloured satin, or Miss Merrill's black silk, glittering with beads and bangles, there was an air of distinction about it which was very apparent indeed to all the womenfolk and a little evident to Anthony.
When dinner was over, the other young men and maidens of the party, of whom there were several couples, sorted themselves in somewhat ready fashion, and Miss Lister found herself with young Mr. Merrill. As he was at that moment entirely absorbed in watching the efforts of a belated fly to crawl feebly across the ceiling, she inspected him with critical, half-closed eyes, and smiled a little at the end of the inspection. "They seem to have left us all to ourselves, Mr. Anthony," she said presently. "All gone to follow the bent of their separate inclinations, I suppose."
"Yes," replied Anthony. "Yes." Then he summed up courage, or possibly resigned himself to the necessity of having to talk. "It's always the same here, or at any similar place, after dinner on a Christmas Day," he said. "The old 'uns get into the little parlour and drink and smoke all the afternoon; the old ladies go into the drawing-room and chatter a bit and sleep a bit; the girls go off with their young men—that's how it's done. They'll all turn up again at tea-time."
"Oh!" said Miss Lister, looking round the dining-room in which all the young people had been left, and from which these other couples had already escaped to their own devices. "Oh! that's how it's done, is it?"
"That's how it's done," repeated Anthony. "Always the same."
"Rather dull," said Miss Lister. "Don't you think so?"
"Oh," replied Anthony, "I always think these sort of things are dull. They don't appeal to me at all. Perhaps you'll find it livelier after tea—there'll be games and music, and the mummers will perform in the kitchen, and, maybe, the handbell ringers will come. It's generally pretty lively at night."
"And what does appeal to you?" inquired Miss Lister.
"A jolly good day with the hounds," replied Anthony with great enthusiasm, "or a bit of good shooting or fishing—anything out of doors."
"Ah!" said Miss Lister, throwing much significance into her tone. "You're a sportsman—that's very plain to see. I felt at once you were when I noticed the fox's head at the top of your scarf-pin—I think you can always tell a sportsman by his scarves and his pins. I should say our host, Mr. Poskitt, was a sportsman."
"Oh, he's fond enough of a day with the hounds, is Mr. Poskitt," said Anthony. "He always was fond of horses and dogs, and that sort of thing. He's got the prettiest bit of horseflesh, in the shape of a bay mare, in his stable across the garden there, that I've seen for many a year—she's a beauty."
Miss Lister glanced out of the window at the gable-end of the stable, which showed above the clumps of laurel and holly in Mr. Poskitt's garden. The shrubs and hedgerows were grey-white with frost—through the dark belt of fir trees which fringed the meadow beyond the garden, a blood-red sun was slowly sinking towards the edge of the horizon. The room in which Miss Lister and Anthony sat was hot—the winter landscape looked cool and inviting. Miss Lister, from her side of the big fire, looked at Anthony, sprawling in an easy-chair on his.
"How I should like to see it!—her, I mean," she said. "Couldn't we—would Mr. Poskitt mind if we went to look at her?"
"Not he!" said Anthony. "Here, come on, I'll take you over to the stable. I'll wager aught you like there isn't a man in Yorkshire can show you the points of a horse as well as I can. Horseflesh is my particular hobby."
"Let me get my cloak," said Miss Lister, as they went into the hall together. "It must be so very cold in the garden. Or, perhaps"—she glanced at a large collection of men's great-coats hanging in the hall—"perhaps I might put one of these overcoats over my shoulders?"
"Put mine on," said Anthony, with a gallantry that would have astonished his sisters. "Here—there's no cold 'll get through that," and he helped her into a very smart, very sporting-looking garment of strong Melton cloth, almost white in tint, and ornamented with very large mother-of-pearl buttons. "It's cold-proof, is that coat."
"But what will you do?" inquired Miss Lister.
"Pooh! I'm not afraid of cold," said Anthony, as he opened the hall-door and led the way to the stable. "When you come to rise at five o'clock of a morning, as I make a point of doing, you don't think much about cold. Now, then," he continued, as they entered the stable and saw Mr. Poskitt's mare throw a somewhat vicious eye over her shapely shoulders at them, "what do you think of that? Isn't she a beauty?—gad, I wish she was mine! She's a great deal too young and skittish for old Poskitt—she'll throw him some day. Now, then, Miss Lister, if you'll sit down on that meal-bin, I'll just show you all her points. Whoa-hoa, my beauty, whoa-hoa! No need to be frightened. Miss Lister, while I'm here, though I don't mind saying that this mare has a devil of a temper. I've seen her kick a splashboard to matchwood—she won't go between shafts. Now, you see——"
If Miss Annetta Lister had desired to make a conquest of Mr. Anthony Merrill, she could not have devised a better plan of campaign than that which Anthony himself thus forced upon her. When the two emerged from the stable after nearly three-quarters of an hour's horse-talk, Anthony was firmly convinced that of all the common-sense, intelligent, practical young women in the world, this tall and attractive young woman, wrapped in his new great-coat, was the paragon. She had understood every word that he had said to her; she had never asked one single foolish question; she had kept her eyes on the lecturer all the time, and had followed his elaborate explanations. He had never enjoyed talking horse so much in all his life, and he lifted Miss Annetta Lister on to a high pedestal with no uncertain hand.
"Well, you have some sense in your head!" he said, as they left the mare to herself. "Dash it all, I never came across a girl with such a power of understanding things straight off. Now, if I'd been explaining all that to one of our girls, dashed if she'd ha' known at the end of it which was the pastern and which was the shoulder! But I'll wager anything you'd point out the exact thing in a trice."
"Oh, yes," said Miss Lister with cheerful confidence. "But then, you see, Mr. Anthony, you made everything so clear. You ought to be one of those—what do they call them? County Council lecturers—you have such a decided gift for explaining things."
There was a very pleasant little greenhouse in close proximity to Mr. Poskitt's stable, and Mr. Anthony and Miss Lister entered it to inspect the plants, and as it was very cosy and comfortable and contained a couple of easy-chairs, they lingered there for some time and made other explanations. It appeared in the course of these that Miss Lister's vocation in life was that of a show-woman in one of the very first dressmaking establishments in Leeds, that she "lived in" and was a native of London, that her salary was a very handsome one, and her ideas of an eminently businesslike nature. She told Anthony a great deal about her own particular line of business, and was very chatty and communicative; it was, therefore, quite in the order of things that Anthony should tell her all about his father's farm, and the stock that was on it, and should confide to her his own pet notion that when he got everything into his own hands he would make great alterations in many ways, and do well in spite of fallen prices and general depression.
"I think the young lady from Leeds has quite brought our Anthony out of his shell," said Mrs. Merrill to Mrs. Poskitt, later in the evening. "As, a usual thing, he never takes no notice of the gels, but see you there—he's talkin' to her in that corner as free as can be!"
The freedom with which Mr. Anthony Merrill conversed with Miss Lister increased as the evening went on, and before supper-time came he had decided that there was something in girls, after all, though he inclined to an opinion that all that there was of that something was crystallised in Miss Lister. Anthony, in short, was falling head over heels in love, and with the greater celerity because he had never been in love before. He stuck to Miss Lister during the rest of the evening—he was furiously jealous when young Mr. Spriggins, who was engaged to his sister Matilda, called Annetta out during the fascinating game of "Postman's Knock," and he trembled all over when, in the course of a country dance which Mr. Poskitt insisted on having, he found his arm round Miss Lister's slim waist. Before the evening was over he had made progress in a fashion which dazzled his subsequent vision of things.
Miss Lister had given him permission to call upon her next time he went to fair or market at Leeds, and she had promised that when spring came round again she would pay a visit to Sellincote Farm, and not only see all the things that Anthony could show her, but take a lesson in riding.
"You'll look as well in the saddle as any woman that rides to hounds in the county!" said Anthony, eyeing her over as critically and coolly as if she had been a prize hackney or a smart cob. "I'll swear you've a perfect seat, and you'll set a habit off as few girls could."
Miss Lister was not unimpressed by these genuine tributes to her grace. She went homewards next morning wondering whether a country life would suit her. As a child of the city, she knew little of Arcadia, but she was one of those young women who keep their eyes open, and she had observed during the course of her Christmas visit to Mr. Poskitt's hospitable home that, however much these farming folk might grumble about bad times, falling prices, and all the rest of it, they were all surrounded by what struggling shopfolk in the towns would call prosperity and even luxury; they could afford to dress well; they lived—in Mr. Poskitt's case, at any rate—on the fat of the land, and they must be well-to-do if they could keep servants and pianos, and be able to go a-hunting. As a young woman of two-and-twenty, Miss Lister had visions of settling down in life. She wondered, as the train carried her over a snow-bound land from the village to the great smoky town, whether she would not prefer a rural existence to a life amongst bricks and mortar. She had thought young Anthony an oaf at first, only to discover later on that he was intelligent enough and clever enough about the things which interested him, and that his tongue could wag with something like eloquence if it were unloosed on any topic that lay near his heart. As the train came to a standstill amidst the smoke and grime of Leeds, Miss Lister found herself thinking of young Anthony as of a breath of country air, and she wondered when she would see him again.
Had she known all that was going on in Anthony's heart, Annetta might have made up her mind that it would not be very long before that young gentleman sought her out. For three weeks after the Christmas party, Anthony knew sleeplessness for the first time in his life. He also lost something of his usually large appetite, and as he went about the land, he found a girl's face floating between him and the brown earth in a most discomposing fashion. His sisters, as past masters in the game, rallied him on his preoccupation, and said things about Miss Lister in his presence which Anthony listened to in silence. It had been a somewhat sore infliction on them to behold the grace of Miss Lister's movements, the indefinable air with which she wore her gown, the general atmosphere of something superior about her which they knew they could never hope to attain to or even imitate. And so, after the fashion of women, they ran her down, and in Anthony's presence, and at last they went too far, and roused their brother to retaliatory remarks.
"I should never have thought," said Miss Matilda Merrill, as she and her sister Jennie sat trifling with their fancy-work before the parlour fire one January afternoon while Anthony lounged in his father's easy-chair and stared moodily at the ruddy glow of the cinders, "I should really never have thought, Tony, that you would have been mashed by a shop-girl, for she is nothing but a shop-girl, however grand her airs may be. Mrs. Tomlinson, of the Oak Farm, got her winter mantle at Hart and Hind's last November, and saw her in the show-room. She tries the gowns on—I mean they're put on her, so that lady customers can see how they look."
"That's how it was she played the fine lady so well," said Miss Jennie. "Of course, she'd been trained to it, just as they train performing elephants. A shop young woman! Yes, I'm surprised at you, Tony, especially when one considers that you might have your pick of half the nice girls in the neighbourhood. Of course, the son of Mr. Merrill, of Sellincote Farm, couldn't marry a girl out of a shop."
Anthony set his teeth.
"It's a pity his daughters don't look higher, then!" he snorted. "They don't seem to have very grand tastes, my conscience!"
Anthony's sisters sat up in their chairs in very correct attitudes.
"Anthony Merrill!" exclaimed Miss Matilda.
"Why, what's Sprigging but a farmer?" sneered Anthony, "I should ha' thought you'd ha' wanted a duke, by your talk."
"Mr. Spriggins is a gentleman-farmer," said Miss Matilda, with emphasis on the word which made all the difference between gentility and vulgarity.
"What, on two hundred acres, and in bad times?—stuff and nonsense!" retorted Anthony. "He's naught but a little farmer. And what's that whipper-snapper Pool, that Jennie's sweet on?—a vet.'s assistant!"
"A veterinary surgeon's a professional gentleman," said poor Jennie, almost in tears. "He wouldn't look at a shop-girl that struts about in borrowed plumes."
Anthony was about to make some angry retort, but he suddenly laughed, rose to his feet, and strolled out of the room. He came back presently, carefully carrying a saucer of cream, which he deposited on the hearthrug in front of his sisters.
"Mercy upon us!" exclaimed Miss Matilda. "What on earth is that for?"
"It's for the cats to lap," replied Anthony, and went out of the parlour whistling.
Next morning Mr. Merrill told Anthony that he should want him to go over to Leeds on business during the afternoon. At the mere mention of the word Leeds, Anthony felt his heart begin the antics of a steam-engine, but his pride kept him from showing any sign of emotion, and he stared at his sisters with stern eyes looking out of a mask-like face. He asked his father for instructions, discussed the details of the business with him, and promised to leave by the afternoon train from Sicaster, the market town five miles away.
"Why, he'll have to stop in Leeds all night!" exclaimed his mother. "What will the lad do with himself? Don't you go to any of them wicked theatres, now, Anthony!"
"All right, mother," replied Anthony; "I can take care of myself."
"I'd call on Miss Lister if I were you, Tony," said Matilda. "I'm sure she'd be pleased to see you."
"Nothing of the sort, Matilda!" said Mrs. Merrill, in her most reprimanding manner. "Anthony's much too sensible to run after young girls."
Anthony heard and made no reply. He not only meant to see Miss Lister, but to take her out for a walk—perhaps to the theatre. It was not often that he got the chance of spending the evening in Leeds; on this occasion he meant to spend it after his own fashion.
He made his toilet for the journey with more than usual care. Like most men who love horses, Anthony was a little "dressy"—he liked to array his well-set-up young figure in large checks, and Newmarket gaiters, and fancy waistcoats, and smart white neckerchiefs with horseshoe pins in them, and he was as strict in the surveillance of his tailor as a man of fashion is. Upon this occasion he arrayed himself in a new suit of shepherd's plaid—a smartly cut morning-coat and riding- breeches suit—which was made the more striking and brilliant by the addition of a scarlet waistcoat set off with gilt buttons. His Newmarket gaiters were of fawn-coloured cloth; his cravat, of stiffly starched white linen, was ornamented by the fox's-head pin which Miss Lister had seemed to admire. In these gay bedizenments, topped by the very light Melton overcoat with the mother-of-pearl saucer-sized buttons, Anthony looked a very buckish figure indeed, and his mother was proud of her son as he set off on his journey.
The business which had brought Anthony to Leeds kept him kicking his heels in the office of an agricultural implement maker's establishment until long past seven o'clock, and it was already a quarter past eight when he found himself at liberty to seek the presence of Miss Lister. He was afraid that it was then too late to go to the theatre, but as the evening was fine, if a little frosty, he decided to ask the young lady to go for a walk with him. That he must spend the rest of the evening in her company was, to him, a foregone conclusion; it had not entered into his mind that anything could interfere w4th his projects. Anthony, who knew Leeds very well, sought out the establishment of Hart and Hind, whereat his goddess earned her living and "lived in." The private entrance was in a side street, and as Anthony approached the door he was aware that the first-floor windows were brilliantly lighted, that a piano was being performed upon with considerable vigour, and that shadows, male and female, were continually projected upon the blinds, to disappear and reappear in rhythmic order. The place had all the appearance of being given up to a small and early dance.
Anthony attached no significance to these things. He rang the bell of the private door and inquired of a trim waiting-maid who answered it if he might see Miss Lister.
"Miss Lister, sir? Yes, sir, certainly. Will you step inside, sir?" answered the maid very politely. "Will you take your coat off, sir?"
"No, thank ye," said Anthony. "I'll keep it on."
The maid looked surprised, hut she turned towards a broad flight of stairs down which at that moment floated the strains of a lively polka.
"What name shall I say, sir?" she asked.
"My name is Merrill," said Anthony. "M-e-double r-i double ll-Merrill."
"Yes, sir. Will you come this way, please, sir?" said the maid.
Anthony followed her up the stairs. She appeared to be following the call of the music, and at last she stopped at a door behind which the piano was being operated upon more loudly than ever. She threw the door wide open.
"Oh, if you please, Miss Lister, here's Mr. Merrill to see you!"
Anthony found himself on the threshold of a large room which was brilliantly lighted and somewhat dazzling to his eyes. He was aware that there were several couples gyrating in the middle of the floor; that their eyes were all turned upon himself; that the person at the piano ceased playing, and that the materials for a hushed silence were all ready. He saw, too, that all the young men were arrayed in sober black, and that the ladies wore a semi-evening toilet—and then he caught sight of Annetta and forgot all the rest.
Annetta came forward to meet him with a cordiality that was as real as the amusement which she felt at seeing an incongruous figure at an evening party. She held out her hand, and at the same time she cleverly indicated to the pianist that she might resume her self-interrupted performance.
"Why, if it isn't Mr. Anthony!" said Miss Lister. "Well, I'm glad to see you—just to think that you should call on the night of my party! But you must take your coat off—here, I'll go down with you to the hall myself."
She piloted Anthony out of the room and closed the door upon them. Anthony sighed with relief.
"I—I didn't know you were having a party," he said, "or else I wouldn't have called. But I'm obliged to stay the night in Leeds, and so I thought I'd call and ask you to go to the theatre with me."
"I should have been delighted," said Miss Lister, "but, of course, you see how it is. We have a great many privileges here, and one is that the heads of the departments are allowed to give a party to their friends once a year, and to have the use of these rooms. This is my party—if I'd had the least notion, Mr. Anthony, that you would have cared to come, you would have received an invitation. But now that you're here, you'll stop—take your coat off, do!"
"But—" said Anthony, unbuttoning the coat, "they're all dressed up inside there."
"Never mind," said Miss Lister. "It's my party—come now, to please me."
Anthony would have ridden a wild horse to please her, and he suffered himself to be led back to the room which they had just quitted. The polka was over, and the company were spread here and there about the room. Miss Lister, keeping Anthony at her side, sailed round, introducing her companion as a dear friend of hers from the country who had dropped in accidentally. The young ladies, who were quick to recognise Anthony's good looks, fine proportions, rude health, fell down and worshipped him on the spot; the gentlemen, whose pale faces were made still paler by their black clothes, hated him fervently. As for Anthony, he blushed and laughed, and showed his white teeth, and shook hands with everybody as if he were working the handle of a pump, and was altogether so bright and fresh that the ladies grew more and more in love with him and thought he was the nicest boy they had seen for a long time.
"Mr. Anthony," whispered Miss Lister, "can you waltz? because if you can, you shall waltz with me."
Now, it so chanced that dancing was Anthony's sole indoor accomplishment. It was a sort of family tradition amongst the Merrills that they should all dance well, and old Merrill himself, though he weighed eighteen stone, could foot it as lightly as a girl. So Anthony said that he would be only too pleased to dance with Miss Lister, and the hostess thereupon bade the gentlemen take their partners.
A consequential person with very black whiskers approached Miss Lister as she and Anthony stood near the piano. He executed a low bow and glanced at Anthony's un-evening-like garments with supercilious eyes.
"Our dance, I believe, Miss Lister," he said.
Miss Lister looked a little annoyed—she felt that the man might have shown more tact.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Roller," she said, "but you must excuse me—I'm giving this dance to Mr. Merrill. See—there's Miss Jones over there—she's disengaged. Won't you ask her?"
Mr. Roller closed his very white teeth over his very black moustache and retired, not to dance with Miss Jones, but to get into a corner with his friend Mr. Webber, there to sulk and say nasty things.
"That's the way with women, Webber," he said bitterly. "Her and me's almost engaged, and she throws me over for a country bumpkin like that—a feller that comes to an evenin' party in shootin'-clothes and boots as big as canal boats."
"I don't know," said Mr. Webber slowly. "He's rather a small foot, and by Jove, bumpkin or not, he can waltz! There's none of us can waltz like that, Roller, old man."
"Pshaw!" said Mr. Roller. "I'm sick of women—fickle things! Wish we could go somewhere and do a bitter or a drop of Scotch. No hope of that, worse luck!"
There was no hope of anything of that sort until an hour later, when Miss Lister invited her guests into an adjoining room to partake of a cold collation. By that time Anthony had waltzed with several young ladies, and had become well warmed by the exercise. He was now the colour of a full blown blush rose; his blue eyes were bright, and he laughed when anybody spoke to him. It was plain that the ladies were far too much interested in him, and the gentlemen grew correspondingly jealous.
"Wait a bit," said Mr. Roller. "I'll take a rise out of young Hayseeds yet—you take a little notice."
Anthony, as the greatest stranger, was placed by Miss Lister at the head of the table—Miss Lister paid great attention to him. Mr. Roller, black hatred in his heart, sat near, biding his time. There came a lull in the conversation. Mr. Roller caught Anthony's eye.
"Grow a good many thistles down your way, I should think, sir?" he said in a voice that besought the company's particular attention.
Anthony stared at Mr. Roller out of innocent eyes.
"Thistles?" he said wonderingly.
"I always understood that asses lived on thistles," said Mr. Roller, winking at Mr. Webber and the other young men.
Anthony caught the wink. An expression that was almost infantile in its innocence stole over his features as he stared back at his interlocutor.
"We have rather a fine crop of thistles in one of our fields," he said blandly. "I'll have it kept for you if you like—I've never tried 'em myself, but I'm sure they'd suit you."
"Hah-hah-hah!" laughed Mr. Webber. "That's one for you, Roller, my boy—he had you there, a fair treat!"
But Mr. Roller was one of those persons who delight in running their heads against brick walls, and he presently returned to the charge.
"How's whooäts?" he inquired, fancying that he was imitating the Yorkshire dialect. "And how's turmuts?"
"Oats is down and tunnups middlin'," replied Anthony with great good humour. "How much is a yard of black tape at present?"
This pointed reference to Mr. Roller's occupation struck that gentleman as being in very low taste, and he muttered something about "country bumpkins" and turned his attention to his neighbour, Miss Larkin. Truth to tell, the attention was of a perfunctory sort, for Mr. Roller was deeply in love with Miss Lister's undoubted cleverness and talents. He wanted to make her Mrs. Roller, and mistress of a snug little business that he had his eye on, and it vexed him to see her smiling upon Anthony and plying him with obvious attentions. And being a gentleman of no perception, Mr. Roller rushed upon his fate.
He was engaged for a waltz with Miss Lister after supper, and as soon as it had fairly begun, Mr. Roller commenced a diatribe against the vagaries of women. He was peevish and bad-tempered. Miss Lister allowed him to growl and sneer and whine until she had had enough of it. She suddenly stopped and removed herself from Mr. Roller's encircling arm.
"That'll do, Mr. Roller," she said quietly. "I've had enough of all that—and of you. I suppose you understand?"
Mr. Roller understood only too well. He left Miss Lister, lingered, hands in pockets, in a corner of the room for a few moments, confided to Mr. Webber that the affair was a "bloomin' frost and gave him the 'ump," and sidled away. As he passed through the door, he looked back—Miss Lister was dancing with Mr. Anthony Merrill.
"I'm sorry Mr. Roller was so rude to you," she said, as they floated about.
"Went like water off a duck's back," said Anthony.
"But it was such bad manners!"
"He never paid the extra twopence," said Anthony, with a wide grin.
"Well," said Miss Lister, "I've sent him off with a flea in his ear—he'll not trouble——"
"Why——?" Anthony's eyes looked in astonishment, and asked a question.
"He—he wanted me to marry him," she said in a low voice.
"What!" exclaimed Anthony. "A chap like—that?"
"Of course, I didn't care for him at all," she said hastily. "I wouldn't have had him for—for worlds?"
Anthony's arm got a firm grip on Miss Lister's waist; Anthony's face drew a little nearer to the small head that was not so very far away from his shoulder.
"Will you have me?" he whispered.
"Yes," answered Miss Lister, keeping her eye on the tips of her gyrating shoes. "I will."
The trim waist was compressed by the strong arm more tightly than ever, and Anthony and Annetta danced through the clouds.
Copyright, by J. S. Fletcher, in the United States of America