Read CHAPTER II - CRUSHED of Red Rose and Tiger Lily / In a Wider World, free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

Sir John Thornton could be a very pleasant host.  He was a reserved man with a really cold nature.  He disliked fuss and what he called “ébullitions of affection;” he hated kissing and fondling.  He liked to treat even his nearest and dearest with ceremony, but he was a perfect host - the little attentions, the small politenesses which the rôle of host requires, suited his character exactly.  Hester and Nan, his only children, were his opposites in every respect.  It is true that Hester inherited some of his pride, and a good deal of his reserve, but the fire underneath her calm, the passionate love which she could give so warmly to her chosen friends, she inherited from her mother, not from her father.  Nan had never yet shown reserve to anyone.  As far as any creature could be said to be without false pride, Nan was that individual - she was also absolutely devoid of fear.  She believed that all the world loved her.  Why not?  She was perfectly willing to love all the world back again.  If it chose to hate her, she could and would hate it in return with interest; but, then, why should it?  The world was a good place to Nan Thornton up to the present.

Now, Sir John dreaded his impulsive younger daughter more than words can say.  Perhaps somewhere in his heart he had a certain fatherly admiration for her, but if so it did not show itself in the usual fatherly way.  Annie Forest was at the present moment absorbing his attention.

Annie was between sixteen and seventeen years of age; she was still, of course, quite a child in Sir John’s eyes, but she was undoubtedly very pretty - she had winning ways and bright glances.  Her little speeches were full of wit and repartee, and she was naturally so full of tact that she knew when a word would hurt, and therefore seldom said it.

When Nan entered the room in which a hasty supper had been prepared for the hungry travellers, she found her father and Annie talking pleasantly to one another at one end of the table, while Hester presided over the tea equipage at the other.

“Here you are, little whirlwind,” said Sir John, slipping his arm round his younger daughter’s waist and drawing her for a moment to his side.

Nan looked at him soberly.  She gazed into his eyes and examined the curves of his lips, and noted with satisfaction the wrinkles on his brow, the crows’ feet at the corner of each eye, and some strong lines which betokened the advance of years in the lower part of his face.

“You’re too old,” she said, in a contemplative voice.  “I’m so glad - you’re much too old.”

She stroked his deepest wrinkle affectionately as she spoke.

Now Sir John hated being considered old, and an angry wave of colour mounted to his forehead.

“As usual, you are a most impolite little girl,” he said.  “I do not trouble myself to inquire what your sage remark means, nor why you rejoice in the fact of my possessing the infirmities of years; but I wish to repeat to you a proverb which I hope you will bear in mind, at least, when in my presence during the holidays, ’Little girls should be seen and not heard.’  Now go to your seat.”

Sir John released his hold of Nan’s broad waist and turned to Annie.

“Yes, a good deal of the country is flat,” he said, “but we have some pretty drives.  Are you fond of riding?”

“I should be if I had a chance,” replied Annie; “but the fact is, I never was on horseback since I was five years old, so I cannot be said to know much about it.”

“I am sure you could quickly learn,” said Sir John.  “Hester has a very quiet pony which she can lend you while you are here.  By the way, Hester, Squire Lorrimer called to-day.  I said you would go to the Towers to-morrow morning - you can take Miss Forest with you.  The Lorrimers are a very lively household, and it will amuse her to know them.”

“I should think they are lively,” burst from Nan at the far end of the table.  “How is Kitty Lorrimer, and how is Boris?  And have they got as many pets as ever?  Oh, can you tell me, please, father, if the dormouse has awakened yet?  It was fast asleep when I was home at Christmas, and Boris said it mightn’t wake again until May.  Boris was so sorry it wasn’t quite dead, because he wanted to stuff it; but he couldn’t if it was alive, could he?  That would be cruel, wouldn’t it?  Father, can you tell me if the dormouse is awake?”

Sir John fixed a cold eye upon Nan.

“I am unacquainted with the state of the dormouse’s health,” he said - “disgusting little beasts,” he added, turning for sympathy to Annie, whose bright dark eyes danced with fun as she watched him.

“They’re not disgusting; they’re perfectly heavenly little darlings,” came from Nan in an indignant voice.  “Oh, and what about the white rats?  Boris had four in a box when I went last to the Towers, and Kitty had one all to herself, and Boris and Kitty were always fighting as to which were the most beautiful - the one rat or the four.  Did you ever see a white rat, Annie?  They are pets, with long tails like worms.”

“Hester,” exclaimed Sir John, “will you induce Nan to hold her tongue and eat her supper in peace?”

Hester bent forward and whispered something to Nan, who shrugged her shoulders indignantly.  Her face grew crimson.

“I can’t learn that proverb,” she said, after a pause.  “I can’t obey it, its no use trying.  Father, do you hear?  I can’t be one of those seen-and-not-heard girls.  Do you hear me, father?”

“I do, Nan.  If we have finished supper, shall we go into the drawing-room?” he added, turning to Annie.

Nan lingered behind.  She slipped her hand through her sister’s arm and dragged her on to the terrace.

“I feel so wicked that I think I’ll burst,” she exclaimed.  “Why is father always throwing a damp cloth over me?”

“Nan, dear, you irritate him a good deal.  Why do you talk in that silly way when you know he cannot bear it?”

“Because I’m Nan,” answered the child, pouting her lips.

“But Nan can learn wisdom,” said Hester, in her sweet elder-sisterly tone.  “Even though you are the liveliest, merriest, dearest little girl in the world, and though it is delicious to have you back” - here there came an ecstatic hug - “you need not say things that you know will hurt.  For instance, you are perfectly well aware that father does not like his age commented on.”

“Oh, that,” said Nan, some of the trouble which nurse’s words had caused coming back to her eyes.  “Oh, but I really said what I meant, then - it was not mischief.  I was so glad to see that he is old.  I love those wrinkles of his - I adore them.”

“What can you mean, you queer little thing?”

“Why, you see, Hetty, he won’t be attractive, and there’ll be no fear.”

“No fear of what?”

“Nurse said that perhaps he’d be having a wife, and giving us a stepmother.”

“Oh, what nonsense!” said Hester, in a vexed tone.  “What a silly thing for nurse to say.  I am quite surprised at her.  As far as I can tell our father has no intention of marrying again; but if he did?”

“If he did,” repeated Nancy, “nurse says that you wouldn’t be mistress of the Grange any longer.”

A wistful sort of look, half of pain, half of suppressed longing, filled Hester’s dark eyes for a moment.

“I might go out into the world,” she said, “and have my heart’s desire.”

“But aren’t you happy here?”

“Yes, oh yes!  I am talking nonsense.  My duty lies here, at least at present.  Mrs. Willis has taught me always to put duty first.  Now, Nan, let us forget what is not likely to happen.  It is nearly time for you to go to bed; you look quite tired; there are black rings under your eyes; but first, just tell me about Mrs. Willis and the dear old school.”

“Mrs. Willis is well,” said Nan, with a yawn, “and the school is in statu quo.  I am in the middle school now, and perhaps I shall get a drawing-room to myself before long.  I’m not sure though, for I never can be tidy.”

“I wish you could be; it’s a pity not to curb one’s faults.”

“Oh, bother faults.  I don’t want you to lecture me, Hetty.”

“No, darling, I don’t wish to; but I thought you were so fond of Mrs. Willis.  I thought you would do anything to please her.”

“Yes, of course.  I think I do please her.  She gave me two prizes at the break up - one for French and one for music.  She kissed me, too, quite half-a-dozen times.  Look here, Hetty, I don’t want you to ask Annie Forest a lot of questions about me.  I can’t help having a romping time now and then at school; and there are two new girls - Polly and Milly Jenkins; they are so killingly funny; nearly as good as Boris and Kitty Lorrimer.  I always had a little bit of the wild element in me, and I suppose it must come out somehow.  Annie was wild enough when she was my age, wasn’t she, Hester?”

“Annie will be gay and light-hearted to the end of the chapter!” exclaimed Hester.

“But she was naughty when she was my age, wasn’t she?”

“She is not naughty now.”

“Well, no more will I be when I am sixteen.  Now, good-night, Het.  Am I to sleep in your room?”

“Yes.”

“How scrumptious.  Look out for a fine waking early in the morning.”

Nan hugged Hester in her usual rough-and-ready manner, and danced upstairs, singing as she went -

    “Old Daddy-long-legs wouldn’t say his prayers,
    Catch him by his left leg and throw him downstairs.

This was one of Nan’s rhymes which Sir John detested.  Her voice was loud and somewhat piercing.  He heard it in the drawing-room, and went deliberately and shut the door.

“Miss Forest,” he said to his young guest, “there are moments when I feel extremely uneasy with regard to the fate of my youngest daughter.”

“About Nan’s fate?” exclaimed Annie, raising her arched eyebrows; “why, she is quite the dearest little thing in the world.  I wish you could see her at school; she is the pet of all the girls at Lavender House.”

“That may be,” said Sir John, with a slightly sarcastic movement of his thin lips; “but it does not follow that school pets are home pets.  If my good friend, Mrs. Willis, finds Nan’s society so agreeable, I wish she would arrange to keep her for the holidays.”

Annie’s young face, so round, so fresh, so charming, was fixed in grave surprise on her elderly host.

“Don’t you love Nan at all?” she asked, wonder in her tone.

Sir John had been giving Miss Forest credit for great tact.  Up to this moment, he had considered her a very pretty, agreeable little girl, who would be an acquisition in the house.  Now he winced; she had trodden very severely on one of his corns.

“I naturally have a regard for my child,” he said, after a pause, “and I presume that I show it best by having her properly educated and disciplined in her youth.”

“Oh, no, I don’t think you do,” said Annie.  “You must forgive me for saying frankly what I really think.  I used to be like Nan when I was a little girl, and I’d never have changed - never - never, I’d never have become thoughtful for others, I’d always have been an unmitigated horror to all my friends if my father had treated me like that.  He’s not a bit like you, Sir John.  I don’t mean to compare him to you for a moment.  He is quite a rough sort of man, and he has led a rough life; but, oh dear me, from the time he came back from Australia, and I knew that I had a living father, I cannot tell you what a difference there has been in my life.  I have generally spent my holidays with him, and he has loved me so much that I have loved him back again, and have learnt to know exactly what will please him and make him happy.  Nothing tamed me so much as the knowledge that I was necessary to my father’s happiness.  I am sure,” added Annie in a low voice, and with a suspicion of tears in her eyes, “that it would be just the same with dear little Nan.”

She broke down suddenly, half afraid of her own temerity.  There was silence for nearly half a minute then Sir John rose from his chair, and, going over to a lamp which was slightly smoking, turned it down.

“If your father has been in Australia,” he said, turning again and looking fixedly at his young visitor, “you will be interested in books on that country.  I have got all Henry Kingsley’s novels.  You will find them in the library.  Ask Hester to show you the book-case.”

He strode deliberately out of the room, and Annie had to own to herself that she felt crushed.