CHAPTER I. NAN'S GOLDEN MANE.
It was a perfect summer's evening. The sun had just set, and purple, gold, violet, rose colour still filled the sky in the west. There was a tender new moon, looking like a silver bow, also to be seen; before long the evening star would be visible.
Hester Thornton stepped out of the drawing-room at the Grange, and, walking a little way down the broad gravel sweep, began to listen intently. Hester was about seventeen—a slender girl for her age. Her eyes were dark, her eyebrows somewhat strongly marked, her abundant hair, of a much lighter shade of brown, was coiled in close folds round her well-shaped head. Her lips were slightly compressed, her chin showed determination. Hester had not been beautiful as a child, and she was not beautiful as a girl, but her face was pleasant to look at, very bright when animated, very steadfast and sweet when in repose. The air was like nectar to her cheeks. She was naturally a pale girl, but a faint rose colour was now discernible in her complexion, and the look of expectation in her dark eyes made them charming.
A step was heard on the gravel behind, and she turned quickly.
"Is that you, father?" she exclaimed.
"Yes. Are not you very imprudent to come out at this hour in your thin house shoes, and with nothing on your head? There is a very heavy dew falling."
"Oh, I never take cold," replied Hester with a smile, which showed her even and pretty white teeth; "and I certainly shan't to-night," she continued, "for I am feeling far too excited."
Sir John Thornton was considered by most of his acquaintances (he could boast of scarcely any friends) as a reserved and almost repellent person, but now, as his eyes rested on his young daughter, something seemed to soften their expression; he took her slight hand and drew it affectionately through his arm.
"It takes a small thing to excite you, my love," he said; "but you always were of a turbulent disposition—just your poor mother over again."
Hester sighed faintly when Sir John spoke of his wife, then she quickly cheered up and said in an eager voice—
"You don't call it a little thing, father, to know that in a minute or two I shall welcome Nan back from school? Nan comes to-night—Annie Forest to-morrow. It would be difficult for any girl to want more to make her perfectly happy."
Sir John raised his brows.
"I only know Miss Forest by hearsay," he said, "so I will reserve my judgment upon her; but I do know Nan. She will upset the entire régime of the house. I like order, and she likes disorder. I like quiet meals, she likes uproarious ones. I hate shocks and she adores them. I am glad, of course, to welcome the child home, but at the same time I dread her arrival. I cannot possibly understand how it is that Mrs. Willis, who is supposed to be such a splendid instructor of youth, should not have brought Nan a little better into control. Now, you, my dear Hetty, are very different. You have passions and feelings—no one has them more strongly—but you keep them in check. Your reticence and your reserve please me much. In short, Hester, no father could have a more admirable daughter to live with him. I am pleased with you, my dear; the experiment of having you home from school to look after my house has turned out well. There is nothing I would not do to please you, and while your friend Miss Forest is here, I will do my best to render her visit a success. The only discordant element will be Nan. I cannot understand why Mrs. Willis has not got Nan into the same control she had you in."
"You forget," said Hester, "that I am seventeen and Nan only eight. No one ever yet could say 'No' to Nan. Father, don't you hear the carriage wheels? She is coming—I know she is coming. Please forgive me, I must run to meet her."
Sir John released his daughter's hand, and Hester flew with the speed of an arrow from a bow up the long avenue. She was not mistaken. Her keen ears had detected the smooth roll of wheels. A landau drawn by a pair of horses had even now entered the lodge gates....