Both his companions noticed how much Adam was taken by the pretty girl, and spoke of her to him in a way which made his heart warm to them.
“Did you notice that party that passed? The old man is Michael Watford, one of the tenants of Mr. Caswall. He occupies Mercy Farm, which Sir Nathaniel pointed out to you to-day. The girls are his grand-daughters, the elder, Lilla, being the only child of his elder son, who died when she was less than a year old. His wife died on the same day. She is a good girl–as good as she is pretty. The other is her first cousin, the daughter of Watford’s second son. He went for a soldier when he was just over twenty, and was drafted abroad. He was not a good correspondent, though he was a good enough son. A few letters came, and then his father heard from the colonel of his regiment that he had been killed by dacoits in Burmah. He heard from the same source that his boy had been married to a Burmese, and that there was a daughter only a year old. Watford had the child brought home, and she grew up beside Lilla. The only thing that they heard of her birth was that her name was Mimi. The two children adored each other, and do to this day. Strange how different they are! Lilla all fair, like the old Saxon stock from which she is sprung; Mimi showing a trace of her mother’s race. Lilla is as gentle as a dove, but Mimi’s black eyes can glow whenever she is upset. The only thing that upsets her is when anything happens to injure or threaten or annoy Lilla. Then her eyes glow as do the eyes of a bird when her young are menaced.”
CHAPTER V–THE WHITE WORM
Mr. Salton introduced Adam to Mr. Watford and his grand-daughters, and they all moved on together. Of course neighbours in the position of the Watfords knew all about Adam Salton, his relationship, circumstances, and prospects. So it would have been strange indeed if both girls did not dream of possibilities of the future. In agricultural England, eligible men of any class are rare. This particular man was specially eligible, for he did not belong to a class in which barriers of caste were strong. So when it began to be noticed that he walked beside Mimi Watford and seemed to desire her society, all their friends endeavoured to give the promising affair a helping hand. When the gongs sounded for the banquet, he went with her into the tent where her grandfather had seats. Mr. Salton and Sir Nathaniel noticed that the young man did not come to claim his appointed place at the dais table; but they understood and made no remark, or indeed did not seem to notice his absence.
Lady Arabella sat as before at Edgar Caswall’s right hand. She was certainly a striking and unusual woman, and to all it seemed fitting from her rank and personal qualities that she should be the chosen partner of the heir on his first appearance. Of course nothing was said openly by those of her own class who were present; but words were not necessary when so much could be expressed by nods and smiles. It seemed to be an accepted thing that at last there was to be a mistress of Castra Regis, and that she was present amongst them. There were not lacking some who, whilst admitting all her charm and beauty, placed her in the second rank, Lilla Watford being marked as first. There was sufficient divergence of type, as well as of individual beauty, to allow of fair comment; Lady Arabella represented the aristocratic type, and Lilla that of the commonalty.
When the dusk began to thicken, Mr. Salton and Sir Nathaniel walked home–the trap had been sent away early in the day–leaving Adam to follow in his own time. He came in earlier than was expected, and seemed upset about something. Neither of the elders made any comment. They all lit cigarettes, and, as dinner-time was close at hand, went to their rooms to get ready.
Adam had evidently been thinking in the interval. He joined the others in the drawing-room, looking ruffled and impatient–a condition of things seen for the first time. The others, with the patience–or the experience–of age, trusted to time to unfold and explain things. They had not long to wait. After sitting down and standing up several times, Adam suddenly burst out.
“That fellow seems to think he owns the earth. Can’t he let people alone! He seems to think that he has only to throw his handkerchief to any woman, and be her master.”
This outburst was in itself enlightening. Only thwarted affection in some guise could produce this feeling in an amiable young man. Sir Nathaniel, as an old diplomatist, had a way of understanding, as if by foreknowledge, the true inwardness of things, and asked suddenly, but in a matter-of-fact, indifferent voice:
“Was he after Lilla?”
“Yes, and the fellow didn’t lose any time either. Almost as soon as they met, he began to butter her up, and tell her how beautiful she was. Why, before he left her side, he had asked himself to tea to- morrow at Mercy Farm. Stupid ass! He might see that the girl isn’t his sort! I never saw anything like it. It was just like a hawk and a pigeon.”
As he spoke, Sir Nathaniel turned and looked at Mr. Salton–a keen look which implied a full understanding.
“Tell us all about it, Adam. There are still a few minutes before dinner, and we shall all have better appetites when we have come to some conclusion on this matter.”
“There is nothing to tell, sir; that is the worst of it. I am bound to say that there was not a word said that a human being could object to. He was very civil, and all that was proper–just what a landlord might be to a tenant’s daughter. . . Yet–yet–well, I don’t know how it was, but it made my blood boil.”
“How did the hawk and the pigeon come in?” Sir Nathaniel’s voice was soft and soothing, nothing of contradiction or overdone curiosity in it–a tone eminently suited to win confidence.
“I can hardly explain. I can only say that he looked like a hawk and she like a dove–and, now that I think of it, that is what they each did look like; and do look like in their normal condition.”
“That is so!” came the soft voice of Sir Nathaniel.
Adam went on:
“Perhaps that early Roman look of his set me off. But I wanted to protect her; she seemed in danger.”
“She seems in danger, in a way, from all you young men. I couldn’t help noticing the way that even you looked–as if you wished to absorb her!”
“I hope both you young men will keep your heads cool,” put in Mr. Salton. “You know, Adam, it won’t do to have any quarrel between you, especially so soon after his home-coming and your arrival here. We must think of the feelings and happiness of our neighbours; mustn’t we?”
“I hope so, sir. I assure you that, whatever may happen, or even threaten, I shall obey your wishes in this as in all things.”
“Hush!” whispered Sir Nathaniel, who heard the servants in the passage bringing dinner.
After dinner, over the walnuts and the wine, Sir Nathaniel returned to the subject of the local legends.
“It will perhaps be a less dangerous topic for us to discuss than more recent ones.”
“All right, sir,” said Adam heartily. “I think you may depend on me now with regard to any topic. I can even discuss Mr. Caswall. Indeed, I may meet him to-morrow. He is going, as I said, to call at Mercy Farm at three o’clock–but I have an appointment at two.”
“I notice,” said Mr. Salton, “that you do not lose any time.”
The two old men once more looked at each other steadily. Then, lest the mood of his listener should change with delay, Sir Nathaniel began at once:
“I don’t propose to tell you all the legends of Mercia, or even to make a selection of them. It will be better, I think, for our purpose if we consider a few facts–recorded or unrecorded–about this neighbourhood. I think we might begin with Diana’s Grove. It has roots in the different epochs of our history, and each has its special crop of legend. The Druid and the Roman are too far off for matters of detail; but it seems to me the Saxon and the Angles are near enough to yield material for legendary lore. We find that this particular place had another name besides Diana’s Grove. This was manifestly of Roman origin, or of Grecian accepted as Roman. The other is more pregnant of adventure and romance than the Roman name. In Mercian tongue it was ‘The Lair of the White Worm.’ This needs a word of explanation at the beginning.