Whether this disposition arose out of his old prepossessions in favour of the young lady, whose history had surrounded her in his mind, almost from his cradle, with circumstances of unusual interest; or from his attachment towards the young gentleman, into whose confidence he had, through his shrewdness and alacrity, and the rendering of sundry important services as a spy and messenger, almost imperceptibly glided; whether they had their origin in either of these sources, or in the habit natural to youth, or in the constant badgering and worrying of his venerable parent, or in any hidden little love affair of his own which gave him something of a fellow-feeling in the matter, it is needless to inquire--especially as Joe was out of the way, and had no opportunity on that particular occasion of testifying to his sentiments either on one side or the other.
It was, in fact, the twenty-fifth of March, which, as most people know to their cost, is, and has been time out of mind, one of those unpleasant epochs termed quarter-days. On this twenty-fifth of March, it was John Willet's pride annually to settle, in hard cash, his account with a certain vintner and distiller in the city of London; to give into whose hands a canvas bag containing its exact amount, and not a penny more or less, was the end and object of a journey for Joe, so surely as the year and day came round.
This journey was performed upon an old grey mare, concerning whom John had an indistinct set of ideas hovering about him, to the effect that she could win a plate or cup if she tried. She never had tried, and probably never would now, being some fourteen or fifteen years of age, short in wind, long in body, and rather the worse for wear in respect of her mane and tail. Notwithstanding these slight defects, John perfectly gloried in the animal; and when she was brought round to the door by Hugh, actually retired into the bar, and there, in a secret grove of lemons, laughed with pride.
'There's a bit of horseflesh, Hugh!' said John, when he had recovered enough self-command to appear at the door again. 'There's a comely creature! There's high mettle! There's bone!'
There was bone enough beyond all doubt; and so Hugh seemed to think, as he sat sideways in the saddle, lazily doubled up with his chin nearly touching his knees; and heedless of the dangling stirrups and loose bridle-rein, sauntered up and down on the little green before the door.
'Mind you take good care of her, sir,' said John, appealing from this insensible person to his son and heir, who now appeared, fully equipped and ready. 'Don't you ride hard.'
'I should be puzzled to do that, I think, father,' Joe replied, casting a disconsolate look at the animal.
'None of your impudence, sir, if you please,' retorted old John. 'What would you ride, sir? A wild ass or zebra would be too tame for you, wouldn't he, eh sir? You'd like to ride a roaring lion, wouldn't you, sir, eh sir? Hold your tongue, sir.' When Mr Willet, in his differences with his son, had exhausted all the questions that occurred to him, and Joe had said nothing at all in answer, he generally wound up by bidding him hold his tongue.
'And what does the boy mean,' added Mr Willet, after he had stared at him for a little time, in a species of stupefaction, 'by cocking his hat, to such an extent! Are you going to kill the wintner, sir?'
'No,' said Joe, tartly; 'I'm not. Now your mind's at ease, father.'
'With a milintary air, too!' said Mr Willet, surveying him from top to toe; 'with a swaggering, fire-eating, biling-water drinking sort of way with him! And what do you mean by pulling up the crocuses and snowdrops, eh sir?'
'It's only a little nosegay,' said Joe, reddening. 'There's no harm in that, I hope?'
'You're a boy of business, you are, sir!' said Mr Willet, disdainfully, 'to go supposing that wintners care for nosegays.'
'I don't suppose anything of the kind,' returned Joe. 'Let them keep their red noses for bottles and tankards. These are going to Mr Varden's house.'
'And do you suppose HE minds such things as crocuses?' demanded John.