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!”