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- Lair of the White Worm - 6/29 -
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 jungle. 'So far as I could see,' he said, 'it must have been eighty or one hundred feet in length. Fully forty or fifty feet was on each side of the track, and though the weight which it dragged had thinned it, it was as thick round as a man's body. I suppose you know that when you are after tiger, it is a point of honour not to shoot at anything else, as life may depend on it. I could easily have spined this monster, but I felt that I must not--so, with regret, I had to let it go.'
"Just imagine such a monster anywhere in this country, and at once we could get a sort of idea of the 'worms,' which possibly did frequent the great morasses which spread round the mouths of many of the great European rivers."
"I haven't the least doubt, sir, that there may have been such monsters as you have spoken of still existing at a much later period than is generally accepted," replied Adam. "Also, if there were such things, that this was the very place for them. I have tried to think over the matter since you pointed out the configuration of the ground. But it seems to me that there is a hiatus somewhere. Are there not mechanical difficulties?"
"In what way?"
"Well, our antique monster must have been mighty heavy, and the distances he had to travel were long and the ways difficult. From where we are now sitting down to the level of the mud-holes is a distance of several hundred feet--I am leaving out of consideration altogether any lateral distance. Is it possible that there was a way by which a monster could travel up and down, and yet no chance recorder have ever seen him? Of course we have the legends; but is not some more exact evidence necessary in a scientific investigation?"
"My dear Adam, all you say is perfectly right, and, were we starting on such an investigation, we could not do better than follow your reasoning. But, my dear boy, you must remember that all this took place thousands of years ago. You must remember, too, that all records of the kind that would help us are lacking. Also, that the places to be considered were desert, so far as human habitation or population are considered. In the vast desolation of such a place as complied with the necessary conditions, there must have been such profusion of natural growth as would bar the progress of men formed as we are. The lair of such a monster would not have been disturbed for hundreds--or thousands--of years. Moreover, these creatures must have occupied places quite inaccessible to man. A snake who could make himself comfortable in a quagmire, a hundred feet deep, would be protected on the outskirts by such stupendous morasses as now no longer exist, or which, if they exist anywhere at all, can be on very few places on the earth's surface. Far be it from me to say that in more elemental times such things could not have been. The condition belongs to the geologic age--the great birth and growth of the world, when natural forces ran riot, when the struggle for existence was so savage that no vitality which was not founded in a gigantic form could have even a possibility of survival. That such a time existed, we have evidences in geology, but there only; we can never expect proofs such as this age demands. We can only imagine or surmise such things--or such conditions and such forces as overcame them."
CHAPTER VI--HAWK AND PIGEON
At breakfast-time next morning Sir Nathaniel and Mr. Salton were seated when Adam came hurriedly into the room.
"Any news?" asked his uncle mechanically.
"Four what?" asked Sir Nathaniel.
"Snakes," said Adam, helping himself to a grilled kidney.
"Four snakes. I don't understand."
"Mongoose," said Adam, and then added explanatorily: "I was out with the mongoose just after three."
"Four snakes in one morning! Why, I didn't know there were so many on the Brow"--the local name for the western cliff. "I hope that wasn't the consequence of our talk of last night?"
"It was, sir. But not directly."
"But, God bless my soul, you didn't expect to get a snake like the Lambton worm, did you? Why, a mongoose, to tackle a monster like that--if there were one--would have to be bigger than a haystack."
"These were ordinary snakes, about as big as a walking-stick."
"Well, it's pleasant to be rid of them, big or little. That is a good mongoose, I am sure; he'll clear out all such vermin round here," said Mr. Salton.
Adam went quietly on with his breakfast. Killing a few snakes in a morning was no new experience to him. He left the room the moment breakfast was finished and went to the study that his uncle had arranged for him. Both Sir Nathaniel and Mr. Salton took it that he wanted to be by himself, so as to avoid any questioning or talk of the visit that he was to make that afternoon. They saw nothing further of him till about half-an-hour before dinner-time. Then he came quietly into the smoking- room, where Mr. Salton and Sir Nathaniel were sitting together, ready dressed.
"I suppose there is no use waiting. We had better get it over at once," remarked Adam.
His uncle, thinking to make things easier for him, said: "Get what over?"
There was a sign of shyness about him at this. He stammered a little at first, but his voice became more even as he went on.
"My visit to Mercy Farm."
Mr. Salton waited eagerly. The old diplomatist simply smiled.
"I suppose you both know that I was much interested yesterday in the Watfords?" There was no denial or fending off the question. Both the old men smiled acquiescence. Adam went on: "I meant you to see it--both of you. You, uncle, because you are my uncle and the nearest of my own kin, and, moreover, you couldn't have been more kind to me or made me more welcome if you had been my own father." Mr. Salton said nothing. He simply held out his hand, and the other took it and held it for a few seconds. "And you, sir, because you have shown me something of the same affection which in my wildest dreams of home I had no right to expect." He stopped for an instant, much moved.
Sir Nathaniel answered softly, laying his hand on the youth's shoulder.
"You are right, my boy; quite right. That is the proper way to look at it. And I may tell you that we old men, who have no children of our own, feel our hearts growing warm when we hear words like those."
Then Adam hurried on, speaking with a rush, as if he wanted to come to the crucial point.
"Mr. Watford had not come in, but Lilla and Mimi were at home, and they made me feel very welcome. They have all a great regard for my uncle. I am glad of that any way, for I like them all--much. We were having tea, when Mr. Caswall came to the door, attended by the negro. Lilla opened the door herself. The window of the living-room at the farm is a large one, and from within you cannot help seeing anyone coming. Mr. Caswall said he had ventured to call, as he wished to make the acquaintance of all his tenants, in a less formal way, and more individually, than had been possible to him on the previous day. The girls made him welcome--they are very sweet girls those, sir; someone will be very happy some day there--with either of them."
"And that man may be you, Adam," said Mr. Salton heartily.
A sad look came over the young man's eyes, and the fire his uncle had seen there died out. Likewise the timbre left his voice, making it sound lonely.
"Such might crown my life. But that happiness, I fear, is not for me--or not without pain and loss and woe."
"Well, it's early days yet!" cried Sir Nathaniel heartily.
The young man turned on him his eyes, which had now grown excessively sad.
"Yesterday--a few hours ago--that remark would have given me new hope--new courage; but since then I have learned too much."
The old man, skilled in the human heart, did not attempt to argue in such a matter.
"Too early to give in, my boy."
"I am not of a giving-in kind," replied the young man earnestly. "But, after all, it is wise to realise a truth. And when a man, though he is young, feels as I do--as I have felt ever since yesterday, when I first saw Mimi's eyes--his heart jumps. He does not need to learn things. He knows."
There was silence in the room, during which the twilight stole on imperceptibly. It was Adam who again broke the silence.
"Do you know, uncle, if we have any second sight in our family?"
"No, not that I ever heard about. Why?"
"Because," he answered slowly, "I have a conviction which seems to answer all the conditions of second sight."
"And then?" asked the old man, much perturbed.
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