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قراءة كتاب The Lair of the White Worm

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‏اللغة: English
The Lair of the White Worm

The Lair of the White Worm

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 7

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.

“In the dawn of the language, the word ‘worm’ had a somewhat different meaning from that in use to-day.  It was an adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon ‘wyrm,’ meaning a dragon or snake; or from the Gothic ‘waurms,’ a serpent; or the Icelandic ‘ormur,’ or the German ‘wurm.’  We gather that it conveyed originally an idea of size and power, not as now in the diminutive of both these meanings.  Here legendary history helps us.  We have the well-known legend of the ‘Worm Well’ of Lambton Castle, and that of the ‘Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh’ near Bamborough.  In both these legends the ‘worm’ was a monster of vast size and power—a veritable dragon or serpent, such as legend attributes to vast fens or quags where there was illimitable room for expansion.  A glance at a geological map will show that whatever truth there may have been of the actuality of such monsters in the early geologic periods, at least there was plenty of possibility.  In England there were originally vast plains where the plentiful supply of water could gather.  The streams were deep and slow, and there were holes of abysmal depth, where any kind and size of antediluvian monster could find a habitat.  In places, which now we can see from our windows, were mud-holes a hundred or more feet deep.  Who can tell us when the age of the monsters which flourished in slime came to an end?  There must have been places and conditions which made for greater longevity, greater size, greater strength than was usual.  Such over-lappings may have come down even to our earlier centuries.  Nay, are there not now creatures of a vastness of bulk regarded by the generality of men as impossible?  Even in our own day there are seen the traces of animals, if not the animals themselves, of stupendous size—veritable survivals from earlier ages, preserved by some special qualities in their habitats.  I remember meeting a distinguished man in India, who had the reputation of being a great shikaree, who told me that the greatest temptation he had ever had in his life was to shoot a giant snake which he had come across in the Terai of Upper India.  He was on a tiger-shooting expedition, and as his elephant was crossing a nullah, it squealed.  He looked down from his howdah and saw that the elephant had stepped across the body of a snake which was dragging itself through the