Maid in Waiting, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 28

Waving their hands to where Fleur stood by her car with the remaining apple raised to her lips, the two brothers took the track on to the Down.

“You lead,” said Hilary; “you’ve got the best eyes, and your clothes are less conspicuous. If you sight him, we’ll consult.”

They came almost at once on a long stretch of high wire fence running across the Down.

“It ends there to the left,” said Adrian; “we’ll go round it above the woods; the lower we keep the better.”

They kept round it on the hillside over grass rougher and more uneven, falling into a climber’s loping stride as if once more they were off on some long and difficult ascent. The doubt whether they would catch up with Ferse, what they could do if they did, and the knowledge that it might be a maniac with whom they had to deal, brought to both their faces a look that soldiers have, and sailors, and men climbing mountains, of out-staring what was before them.

They had crossed an old and shallow chalk working and were mounting the few feet to the level on its far side, when Adrian dropped back and pulled Hilary down.

“He’s there,” he whispered; “about seventy yards ahead!”

“See you?”

“No. He looks wild. His hat’s gone, and he’s gesticulating. What shall we do?”

“Put your head up through that bush.”

Adrian knelt, watching. Ferse had ceased to gesticulate, he was standing with arms crossed and his bare head bent. His back was to Adrian, and, but for that still, square, wrapped-in attitude, there was nothing to judge from. He suddenly uncrossed his arms, shook his head from side to side and began to walk rapidly on. Adrian waited till he had disappeared among the bushes on the slope, and beckoned Hilary to follow.

“We mustn’t let him get too far ahead,” muttered Hilary, “or we shan’t know whether he’s taken to the wood.”

“He’ll keep to the open, he wants air, poor devil. Look out!” He pulled Hilary down again. The ground had suddenly begun to dip. It sloped right down to a grassy hollow, and halfway down the slope they could see Ferse plainly. He was walking slowly, clearly unconscious of pursuit. Every now and then his hands would go up to his bare head, as if to clear away something that entangled it.

“God!” murmured Adrian: “I hate to see him.”

Hilary nodded.

They lay watching. Part of the weald was visible, rich with colour on that sunny autumn day. The grass, after heavy morning dew, was scented still; the sky of the dim spiritual blue that runs almost to white above the chalky downs. And the day was silent well-nigh to breathlessness. The brothers waited without speaking.

Ferse had reached the level at the bottom; they could see him dejectedly moving across a rough field towards a spinney. A pheasant rose just in front of him; they saw him start, as if wakened from a dream, and stand watching its rising flight.

“I expect he knows every foot round here,” said Adrian: “he was a keen sportsman.” And just then Ferse threw up his hands as if they held a gun. There was something oddly reassuring in that action.

“Now,” said Hilary, as Ferse disappeared in the spinney, “run!” They dashed down the hill, and hurried along over rough ground.

“Suppose,” gasped Adrian, “that he’s stopped in the spinney.”

“Risk it! Gently now, till we can see the rise.”

About a hundred yards beyond the spinney, Ferse was plodding slowly up the hill.

“All right so far,” murmured Hilary, “we must wait till that rise flattens out and we lose sight of him. This is a queer business, old boy, for you and me. And at the end of it, as Fleur said: What?”

“We MUST KNOW,” said Adrian.

“We’re just losing him now. Let’s give him five minutes. I’ll time it.”

That five minutes seemed interminable. A jay squawked from the wooded hillside, a rabbit stole out and squatted in front of them; faint shiverings of air passed through the spinney.

“Now!” said Hilary. They rose, and breasted the grass rise at a good pace. “If he comes back on his tracks, here —”

“The sooner it’s face to face the better,” said Adrian, “but if he sees us following he’ll run, and we shall lose him.”

“Go slow, old man. It’s beginning to flatten.”

Cautiously they topped the rise. The Down now dipped a little to where a chalky track ran above a beech wood to their left. There was no sign of Ferse.

“Either he’s gone into the wood or he’s through that next thicket, and on the rise again. We’d better hurry and make sure.”

They ran along the track between deep banks, and were turning into the brush, when the sound of a voice not twenty yards ahead jerked them to a standstill. They dropped back behind the bank and lay breathless. Somewhere in the thicket Ferse was muttering to himself. They could hear no words, but the voice gave them both a miserable feeling.

“Poor chap!” whispered Hilary: “shall we go on, and try to comfort him?”

“Listen!”

There was the sound as of a branch cracking underfoot, a muttered oath, and then with appalling suddenness a huntsman’s scream. It had a quality that froze the blood. Adrian said:

“Pretty ghastly! But he’s broken covert.”

Cautiously they moved into the thicket; Ferse was running for the Down that rose from the end of it.

“He didn’t see us, did he?”

“No, or he’d be looking back. Wait till we lose sight of him again.”

“This is poor work,” said Hilary, suddenly, “but I agree with you it’s got to be done. That was a horrible sound! But we must know exactly what we’re going to do, old man.”

“I was thinking,” said Adrian, “if we could induce him to come back to Chelsea, we’d keep Diana and the children away, dismiss the maids, and get him special attendants. I’d stay there with him till it was properly fixed. It seems to me that his own house is the only chance.”

“I don’t believe he’ll come of his free will.”

“In that case, God knows! I won’t have a hand in caging him.”

“What if he tries to kill himself?”

“That’s up to you, Hilary.”

Hilary was silent.

“Don’t bet on my cloth,” he said, suddenly; “a slum parson is pretty hard-boiled.”

Adrian gripped his hand. “He’s out of sight now.”

“Come on, then!”

They crossed the level at a sharp pace and began mounting the rise. Up there the character of the ground changed, the hill was covered sparsely by hawthorn bushes, and yew trees, and bramble, with here and there a young beech. It gave good cover, and they moved more freely.

“We’re coming to the cross roads above Bignor,” murmured Hilary. “He might take the track down from there. We could easily lose him!”

They ran, but suddenly stood still behind a yew tree.

“He’s not going down,” said Hilary: “Look!”

On the grassy open rise beyond the cross tracks, where a signpost stood, Ferse was running towards the north side of the hill.

“A second track goes down there, I remember.”

“It’s all chance, but we can’t stop now.”

Ferse had ceased to run, he was walking slowly with stooped head up the rise. They watched him from behind their yew tree till he vanished over the hill’s shoulder.

“Now!” said Hilary.

It was a full half mile, and both of them were over fifty.

“Not too fast, old man,” panted Hilary; “we mustn’t bust our bellows.”

They kept to a dogged jog, reached the shoulder, over which Ferse had vanished, and found a grass track trailing down.

“Slowly does it now,” gasped Hilary.

Here too the hillside was dotted with bushes and young trees, and they made good use of them till they came to a shallow chalk pit.

“Let’s lie up here a minute, and get our wind. He’s not going off the Down or we’d have seen him. Listen!”

From below them came a chanting sound. Adrian raised his head above the pit side and looked over. A little way down by the side of the track lay Ferse on his back. The words of the song he was droning out came up quite clearly:

“Must I go bound, and you go free?
Must I love a lass that couldn’t love me?
Was e’er I taught so poor a wit
As love a lass, would break my heart.”

He ceased and lay perfectly still; then, to Adrian’s horror, his face became distorted; he flung his fists up in the air, cried out: “I won’t — I won’t be mad!” and rolled over on his face.

Adrian dropped back.

“It’s terrible! I must go down and speak to him.”

“We’ll both go — round by the track — slow — don’t startle him.”

They took the track which wound round the chalk pit. Ferse was no longer there.

“Quietly on, old son,” said Hilary.

They walked on in a curious calm, as if they had abandoned the chase.

“Who can believe in God?” said Adrian.

A wry smile contorted Hilary’s long face.

“In God I believe, but not a merciful one as we understand the word. On this hillside, I remember, they trap. Hundreds of rabbits suffer the tortures of the damned. We used to let them out and knock them on the head. If my beliefs were known, I should be unfrocked. That wouldn’t help. My job’s a concrete one. Look! A fox!”

They stood a moment watching his low fulvous body steal across the track.

“Marvellous beast, a fox! Great places for wild life, these wooded chines; so steep, you can’t disturb them — pigeons, jays, woodpeckers, rabbits, foxes, hares, pheasants — every mortal thing.”

The track had begun to drop, and Hilary pointed.

Ahead, beyond the dip into the chine they could see Ferse walking along a wire fence.

They watched till he vanished then reappeared on the side of the hill, having rounded the corner of the fence.

“What now?”

“He can’t see us from there. To speak to him, we must somehow get near before we try, otherwise he’ll just run.”

They crossed the dip and went up along and round the corner of the fence under cover of the hawthorns. On the uneven hillside Ferse had again vanished.

“This is wired for sheep,” said Hilary, “Look! they’re all over the hill — Southdowns.”

They reached a top. There was no sign of him.

They kept along the wire, and reaching the crest of the next rise, stood looking. Away to the left the hill dropped steeply into another chine; in front of them was open grass dipping to a wood. On their right was still the wire fencing and rough pasture. Suddenly Adrian gripped his brother’s arm. Not seventy yards away on the other side of the wire Ferse was lying face to the grass, with sheep grazing close to him. The brothers crawled to the shelter of a bush. From there, unseen, they could see him quite well, and they watched him in silence. He lay so still that the sheep were paying him no attention. Round-bodied, short-legged, snub-nosed, of a greyish white, and with the essential cosiness of the Southdown breed, they grazed on, undisturbed.

“Is he asleep, d’you think?”

Adrian shook his head. “Peaceful, though.”

There was something in his attitude that went straight to the heart; something that recalled a small boy hiding his head in his mother’s lap; it was as if the feel of the grass beneath his body, his face, his outstretched hands, were bringing him comfort; as if he were groping his way back into the quiet security of Mother Earth. While he lay like that it was impossible to disturb him.

The sun, in the west, fell on their backs, and Adrian turned his face to receive it on his cheek. All the nature-lover and country man in him responded to that warmth, to the scent of the grass, the song of the larks, the blue of the sky; and he noticed that Hilary too had turned his face to the sun. It was so still that, but for the larks’ song and the muffled sound of the sheep cropping, one might have said Nature was dumb. No voice of man or beast, no whirr of traffic came up from the weald.

“Three o’clock. Have a nap, old man,” he whispered to Hilary; “I’ll watch.”

Ferse seemed asleep now. Surely his brain would rest from its disorder here. If there were healing in air, in form, in colour, it was upon this green cool hill for a thousand years and more undwelt on and freed from the restlessness of men. The men of old, indeed, had lived up there; but since then nothing had touched it but the winds and the shadows of the clouds. And today there was no wind, no cloud to throw soft and moving darkness on the grass.

So profound a pity for the poor devil, lying there as if he would never move again, stirred Adrian that he could not think of himself, nor even feel for Diana. Ferse, so lying, awakened in him a sensation quite impersonal, the deep herding kinship men have for each other in the face of Fortune’s strokes which seem to them unfair. Yes! He was sleeping now, grasping at the earth for refuge; to grasp for eternal refuge in the earth was all that was left him. And for those two quiet hours of watching that prostrate figure among the sheep, Adrian was filled not with futile rebellion and bitterness but with a strange unhappy wonder. The old Greek dramatists had understood the tragic plaything which the gods make of man; such understanding had been overlaid by the Christian doctrine of a merciful God. Merciful? — No! Hilary was right! Faced by Ferse’s fate — what would one do? What — while the gleam of sanity remained? When a man’s life was so spun that no longer he could do his job, be no more to his fellows than a poor distraught and frightening devil, the hour of eternal rest in quiet earth had surely come. Hilary had seemed to think so too; yet he was not sure what his brother would do if it came to the point. His job was with the living, a man who died was lost to him, so much chance of service gone! And Adrian felt a sort of thankfulness that his own job was with the dead, classifying the bones of men — the only part of men that did not suffer, and endured, age on age, to afford evidence of a marvellous animal. So he lay, and watched, plucking blade after blade of grass and rubbing the sweetness of them out between his palms.

The sun wore on due west, till it was almost level with his eyes; the sheep had ceased cropping and were moving slowly together over the hill, as if waiting to be folded. Rabbits had stolen out and were nibbling the grass; and the larks, one by one, had dropped from the sky. A chill was creeping on the air; the trees down in the weald had darkened and solidified; and the whitening sky seemed waiting for the sunset glow. The grass too had lost its scent; there was no dew as yet.

Adrian shivered. In ten minutes now the sun would be off the hill, and then it would be cold. When Ferse awoke, would he be better or worse? They must risk it. He touched Hilary, who lay with his knees drawn up, still sleeping. He woke instantly.

“Hallo, old man!”

“Hssh! He’s still asleep. What are we to do when he wakes? Shall we go up to him now and wait for it?”

Hilary jerked his brother’s sleeve. Ferse was on his feet. From behind their bush they could see him wildly looking round, as some animal warned of danger might stand gazing before he takes to flight. It was clear that he could not see them, but that he had heard or sensed some presence. He began walking towards the wire, crawled through and stood upright, turned towards the reddening sun balanced now like a fiery globe on the far wooded hill. With the glow from it on his face, bareheaded and so still that he might have been dead on his feet, he stood till the sun vanished.

“Now,” whispered Hilary, and stood up. Adrian saw Ferse come suddenly to life, fling out his arm with a wild defiance, and turn to run.

Hilary said, aghast: “He’s desperate. There’s a chalk pit just above the main road. Come on, old man, come on!”

They ran, but stiffened as they were, had no chance with Ferse, who gained with every stride. He ran like a maniac, flinging his arms out, and they could hear him shout. Hilary gasped out:

“Stop! He’s not going for that pit after all. It’s away to the right. He’s making for the wood down there. Better let him think we’ve given up.”

They watched him running down the slope, and lost him as, still running, he entered the wood.

“Now!” said Hilary.

They laboured on down to the wood and entered it as near to the point of his disappearance as they could. It was of beech and except at the edge there was no undergrowth. They stopped to listen, but there was no sound. The light in there was already dim, but the wood was narrow and they were soon at its far edge. Below they could see some cottages and farm buildings.

“Let’s get down to the road.”

They hurried on, came suddenly to the edge of a high chalk pit, and stopped aghast.

“I didn’t know of this,” said Hilary. “Go that way and I’ll go this along the edge.”

Adrian went upwards till he reached the top. Below, at the bottom some sixty steep feet down, he could see a dark thing lying. Whatever it was, it did not move, and no sound came up. Was this the end then, a headlong dive into the half dark? A choking sensation seized him by the throat, and for a moment he stood unable to call out or move. Then hastily he ran along the edge till he came to where Hilary was standing.

“Well?”

Adrian pointed back into the pit. They went on along the edge through undergrowth till they could scramble down, and make their way over the grassed floor of the old pit to the farther corner below the highest point.

The dark thing was Ferse. Adrian knelt and raised his head. His neck was broken; he was dead.

Whether he had dived deliberately to that end, or in his mad rush fallen over, they could not tell. Neither of them spoke, but Hilary put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.

At last he said: “There’s a cart shed a little way along the road, but perhaps we ought not to move him. Stay with him, while I go on to the village and ‘phone. It’s a matter for the police, I suppose.”

Adrian nodded, still on his knees beside the broken figure.

“There’s a post office quite near, I shan’t be long.” Hilary hurried away.

Alone in the silent darkening pit Adrian sat cross-legged, with the dead man’s head resting against him. He had closed the eyes and covered the face with his handkerchief. In the wood above birds rustled and chirped, on their way to bed. The dew had begun to fall, and into the blue twilight the ground mist of autumn was creeping. Shape was all softened, but the tall chalk pit face still showed white. Though not fifty yards from a road on which cars were passing, this spot where Ferse had leapt to his rest seemed to Adrian desolate, remote, and full of ghostliness. Though he knew that he ought to be thankful for Ferse, for Diana, for himself, he could feel nothing but that profound pity for a fellow man so tortured and broken in his prime — profound pity, and a sort of creeping identification with the mystery of Nature enwrapping the dead man and this his resting-place.

A voice roused him from that strange coma. An old whiskered countryman was standing there with a glass in his hand.

“So there been an accident, I year,” he was saying; “a parson gentleman sent me with this. ’Tis brandy, sir.” He handed the glass to Adrian. “Did ‘e fall over yere, or what?”

“Yes, he fell over.”

“I allus said as they should put a fence up there. The gentleman said I was to tell you as the doctor and the police was comin’.”

“Thank you,” said Adrian, handing back the emptied glass.

“There be a nice cosy cartshed a little ways along the road maybe we could carry ’im along there.”

“We mustn’t move him till they come.”

“Ah!” said the old countryman: “I’ve read as there was a law about that, in case as ’twas murder or sooicide.” He peered down. “He do look quiet, don’t ‘e? D’e know ‘oo ‘e is, Sir?”

“Yes. A Captain Ferse. He came from round here.”

“What, one of the Ferses o’ Burton Rise? Why, I worked there as a boy; born in that parish I were.” He peered closer: “This’d never be Mr. Ronald, would it?”

Adrian nodded.

“Yeou don’ say! There’s none of ’em there neow. His grandfather died mad, so ‘e did. Yeou don’ say! Mr. Ronald! I knew ’im as a young lad.” He stooped to look at the face in the last of the light, then stood, moving his whiskered head mournfully from side to side. To him — Adrian could see — it made all the difference that here was no ‘foreigner.’

The sudden sputtering of a motor cycle broke the stillness; it came with gleaming headlight down the cart track into the pit, and two figures got off. A young man and a girl. They came gingerly towards the group disclosed by the beam from the headlight, and stood, peering down.

“We heard there’s been an accident.”

“Ah!” said the old countryman.

“Can we do anything?”

“No, thank you,” said Adrian; “the doctor and the police are coming. We must just wait.”

He could see the young man open his mouth as if to ask more, close it without speaking, and put his arm round the girl, then, like the old countryman, they stood silent with their eyes fixed on the figure with the broken neck lying against Adrian’s knee. The cycle’s engine, still running, throbbed in the silence, and its light made even more ghostly the old pit and the little group of the living around the dead.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37