“That is all; but its history contains the histories of all the others–in fact, the whole history of early England.” Sir Nathaniel, seeing the expectant look on Adam’s face, went on:
“The history of the Castle has no beginning so far as we know. The furthest records or surmises or inferences simply accept it as existing. Some of these–guesses, let us call them–seem to show that there was some sort of structure there when the Romans came, therefore it must have been a place of importance in Druid times–if indeed that was the beginning. Naturally the Romans accepted it, as they did everything of the kind that was, or might be, useful. The change is shown or inferred in the name Castra. It was the highest protected ground, and so naturally became the most important of their camps. A study of the map will show you that it must have been a most important centre. It both protected the advances already made to the north, and helped to dominate the sea coast. It sheltered the western marches, beyond which lay savage Wales–and danger. It provided a means of getting to the Severn, round which lay the great Roman roads then coming into existence, and made possible the great waterway to the heart of England–through the Severn and its tributaries. It brought the east and the west together by the swiftest and easiest ways known to those times. And, finally, it provided means of descent on London and all the expanse of country watered by the Thames.
“With such a centre, already known and organised, we can easily see that each fresh wave of invasion–the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes, and the Normans–found it a desirable possession and so ensured its upholding. In the earlier centuries it was merely a vantage ground. But when the victorious Romans brought with them the heavy solid fortifications impregnable to the weapons of the time, its commanding position alone ensured its adequate building and equipment. Then it was that the fortified camp of the Caesars developed into the castle of the king. As we are as yet ignorant of the names of the first kings of Mercia, no historian has been able to guess which of them made it his ultimate defence; and I suppose we shall never know now. In process of time, as the arts of war developed, it increased in size and strength, and although recorded details are lacking, the history is written not merely in the stone of its building, but is inferred in the changes of structure. Then the sweeping changes which followed the Norman Conquest wiped out all lesser records than its own. To-day we must accept it as one of the earliest castles of the Conquest, probably not later than the time of Henry I. Roman and Norman were both wise in their retention of places of approved strength or utility. So it was that these surrounding heights, already established and to a certain extent proved, were retained. Indeed, such characteristics as already pertained to them were preserved, and to-day afford to us lessons regarding things which have themselves long since passed away.
“So much for the fortified heights; but the hollows too have their own story. But how the time passes! We must hurry home, or your uncle will wonder what has become of us.”
He started with long steps towards Lesser Hill, and Adam was soon furtively running in order to keep up with him.
CHAPTER IV–THE LADY ARABELLA MARCH
“Now, there is no hurry, but so soon as you are both ready we shall start,” Mr. Salton said when breakfast had begun. “I want to take you first to see a remarkable relic of Mercia, and then we’ll go to Liverpool through what is called ‘The Great Vale of Cheshire.’ You may be disappointed, but take care not to prepare your mind”–this to Adam–“for anything stupendous or heroic. You would not think the place a vale at all, unless you were told so beforehand, and had confidence in the veracity of the teller. We should get to the Landing Stage in time to meet the WEST AFRICAN, and catch Mr. Caswall as he comes ashore. We want to do him honour–and, besides, it will be more pleasant to have the introductions over before we go to his FETE at the Castle.”
The carriage was ready, the same as had been used the previous day, but there were different horses–magnificent animals, and keen for work. Breakfast was soon over, and they shortly took their places. The postillions had their orders, and were quickly on their way at an exhilarating pace.
Presently, in obedience to Mr. Salton’s signal, the carriage drew up opposite a great heap of stones by the wayside.
“Here, Adam,” he said, “is something that you of all men should not pass by unnoticed. That heap of stones brings us at once to the dawn of the Anglian kingdom. It was begun more than a thousand years ago–in the latter part of the seventh century–in memory of a murder. Wulfere, King of Mercia, nephew of Penda, here murdered his two sons for embracing Christianity. As was the custom of the time, each passer-by added a stone to the memorial heap. Penda represented heathen reaction after St. Augustine’s mission. Sir Nathaniel can tell you as much as you want about this, and put you, if you wish, on the track of such accurate knowledge as there is.”
Whilst they were looking at the heap of stones, they noticed that another carriage had drawn up beside them, and the passenger–there was only one–was regarding them curiously. The carriage was an old heavy travelling one, with arms blazoned on it gorgeously. The men took off their hats, as the occupant, a lady, addressed them.
“How do you do, Sir Nathaniel? How do you do, Mr. Salton? I hope you have not met with any accident. Look at me!”
As she spoke she pointed to where one of the heavy springs was broken across, the broken metal showing bright. Adam spoke up at once:
“Oh, that can soon be put right.” “Soon? There is no one near who can mend a break like that.”
“You!” She looked incredulously at the dapper young gentleman who spoke. “You–why, it’s a workman’s job.”
“All right, I am a workman–though that is not the only sort of work I do. I am an Australian, and, as we have to move about fast, we are all trained to farriery and such mechanics as come into travel– I am quite at your service.”
“I hardly know how to thank you for your kindness, of which I gladly avail myself. I don’t know what else I can do, as I wish to meet Mr. Caswall of Castra Regis, who arrives home from Africa to-day. It is a notable home-coming; all the countryside want to do him honour.” She looked at the old men and quickly made up her mind as to the identity of the stranger. “You must be Mr. Adam Salton of Lesser Hill. I am Lady Arabella March of Diana’s Grove.” As she spoke she turned slightly to Mr. Salton, who took the hint and made a formal introduction.
So soon as this was done, Adam took some tools from his uncle’s carriage, and at once began work on the broken spring. He was an expert workman, and the breach was soon made good. Adam was gathering the tools which he had been using–which, after the manner of all workmen, had been scattered about–when he noticed that several black snakes had crawled out from the heap of stones and were gathering round him. This naturally occupied his mind, and he was not thinking of anything else when he noticed Lady Arabella, who had opened the door of the carriage, slip from it with a quick gliding motion. She was already among the snakes when he called out to warn her. But there seemed to be no need of warning. The snakes had turned and were wriggling back to the mound as quickly as they could. He laughed to himself behind his teeth as he whispered, “No need to fear there. They seem much more afraid of her than she of them.” All the same he began to beat on the ground with a stick which was lying close to him, with the instinct of one used to such vermin. In an instant he was alone beside the mound with Lady Arabella, who appeared quite unconcerned at the incident. Then he took a long look at her, and her dress alone was sufficient to attract attention. She was clad in some kind of soft white stuff, which clung close to her form, showing to the full every movement of her sinuous figure. She wore a close-fitting cap of some fine fur of dazzling white. Coiled round her white throat was a large necklace of emeralds, whose profusion of colour dazzled when the sun shone on them. Her voice was peculiar, very low and sweet, and so soft that the dominant note was of sibilation. Her hands, too, were peculiar–long, flexible, white, with a strange movement as of waving gently to and fro.