Maid in Waiting, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 30

The reflections of Adrian and his niece, when together they entered the Coroner’s Court on the following day, might have been pooled as follows:

A coroner’s inquest was like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays, devised for other times. When Sunday afternoons were devoted to games, murders infrequent, and suicides no longer buried at cross-roads, neither custom had its initial wisdom. In old days, Justice and its emissaries were regarded as the foes of mankind, so it was natural to interpose a civilian arbiter between death and the Law. In an age in which one called the police ‘a splendid force’ was there not something unnatural in supposing them incapable of judging when it was necessary for them to take action? Their incompetence, therefore, could not well be considered the reason for the preservation of these rites. The cause was, surely, in one’s dread of being deprived of knowledge. Every reader of a newspaper felt that the more he or she heard about what was doubtful, sensational, and unsavoury, the better for his or her soul. One knew that, without coroners’ inquests, there would often be no published enquiry at all into sensational death; and never two enquiries. If, then, in place of no enquiry one could always have one enquiry, and in place of one enquiry sometimes have two enquiries, how much pleasanter! The dislike which one had for being nosy disappeared the moment one got into a crowd. The nosier one could be in a crowd the happier one felt. And the oftener one could find room in a Coroner’s Court, the greater the thankfulness to Heaven. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” could never go up more fervently than from the hearts of such as had been privileged to find seats at an enquiry about death. For an enquiry about death nearly always meant the torture of the living, and than that was anything more calculated to give pleasure?

The fact that the Court was full confirmed these reflections and they passed on into a little room to wait. Adrian saying: “You go in fifth wicket down, Dinny, both Hilary and I are taken before you. If we keep out of Court till we’re wanted they can’t say we copied each other.”

They sat very silent in the little bare room. The police, the doctor, Diana and Hilary had all to be examined first.

“It’s like the ten little nigger boys,” murmured Dinny. Her eyes were fixed on a calendar on the wall opposite; she could not read it, but it seemed necessary.

“See, my dear,” said Adrian, and drew a little bottle from his breast pocket, “take a sip or two of this — not more — it’s fifty-fifty sal volatile and water; it’ll steady you no end. Be careful!”

Dinny took a little gulp. It burned her throat, but not too badly.

“You too, Uncle.”

Adrian also took a cautious gulp.

“No finer dope,” he said, “before going in to bat, or anything like that.”

And they again sat silent, assimilating the fumes. Presently Adrian said:

“If spirits survive, as I don’t believe, what is poor Ferse thinking of this farce? We’re still barbarians. There’s a story of Maupassant’s about a Suicide Club that provided a pleasant form of death to those who felt they had to go. I don’t believe in suicide for the sane, except in very rare cases. We’ve got to stick things out; but for the insane, or those threatened with it, I wish we had that Club, Dinny. Has that stuff steadied you?”

Dinny nodded.

“It’ll last pretty well an hour.” He got up. “My turn, I see. Good-bye, my dear, good luck! Stick in a ‘Sir,’ to the Coroner, now and then.”

Watching him straighten himself as he passed through the door, Dinny felt a sort of inspiration. Uncle Adrian was the man she admired most of any she had ever seen. And she sent up a little illogical prayer for him. Certainly that stuff had steadied her; the sinking, fluttering feeling she had been having was all gone. She took out her pocket mirror and powder-puff. She could go to the stake, anyway, with a nose that did not shine.

Another quarter of an hour, however, passed before she was called, and she spent it, with her eyes still fixed on that calendar, thinking of Condaford and recalling all her pleasantest times there. The old days of its unrestored state, when she was very small, hayfield days, and picnics in the woods; pulling lavender, riding on the retriever, promotion to the pony when Hubert was at school; days of pure delight in a new, fixed home, for, though she had been born there, she had been nomadic till she was four — at Aldershot, and Gibraltar. She remembered with special pleasure winding the golden silk off the cocoons of her silkworms, how they had made her think of creeping, crawling elephants, and how peculiar had been their smell.

“Elizabeth Charwell.”

Nuisance to have a name that everyone pronounced wrong as a matter of course! And she rose, murmuring to herself:

“One little nigger, walking all alone,
Up came a coroner, and then there was none.”

Someone took charge of her on her entry, and, taking her across the Court, placed her in a sort of pen. It was fortunate that she had been in such places lately, for it all felt rather familiar, and even faintly comic. The jury in front of her looked as it were disused, the coroner had a funny importance. Down there, not far to her left, were the other little niggers; and, behind them, stretching to the blank wall, dozens and dozens and dozens of faces in rows, as of sardines set up on their tails in a huge sardine box. Then aware that she was being addressed, she concentrated on the coroner’s face.

“Your name is Elizabeth Cherrell. You are the daughter, I believe, of Lieutenant-General Sir Conway Cherrell, K.C.B., C.M.G., and Lady Cherrell?”

Dinny bowed. ‘I believe he likes me for that,’ she thought.

“And you live with them at Condaford Grange in Oxfordshire?”

“Yes.”

“I believe, Miss Cherrell, that you were staying with Captain and Mrs. Ferse up to the morning on which Captain Ferse left his house?”

“I was.”

“Are you a close friend of theirs?”

“Of Mrs. Ferse. I had seen Captain Ferse only once, I think, before his return.”

“Ah! his return. Were you staying with Mrs. Ferse when he returned?”

“I had come up to stay with her on that very afternoon.”

“The afternoon of his return from the Mental Home?”

“Yes. I actually went to stay at their house the following day.”

“And were you there until Captain Ferse left his house?”

“I was.”

“During that time what was his demeanour?”

At this question for the first time Dinny realised the full disadvantage of not knowing what has been said already. It almost looked as if she must say what she really knew and felt.

“He seemed to me quite normal, except that he would not go out or see anybody. He looked quite healthy, only his eyes made one feel unhappy.”

“How do you mean exactly?”

“They — they looked like a fire behind bars, they seemed to flicker.”

And, at those words, she noticed that the jury for a moment looked a trifle less disused.

“He would not go out, you say? Was that during the whole time you were there?”

“No; he went out on the day before he left his home. He was out all that day, I believe.”

“You believe? Were you not there?”

“No; that morning I took the two children down to my mother’s at Condaford Grange, and returned in the evening just before dinner. Captain Ferse was not in then.”

“What made you take the children down?”

“Mrs. Ferse asked me to. She had noticed some change in Captain Ferse, and she thought the children would be better away.”

“Could you say that you had noticed a change?”

“Yes. I thought he seemed more restless, and, perhaps, suspicious; and he was drinking more at dinner.”

“Nothing very striking?”

“No. I—”

“Yes, Miss Cherrell?”

“I was going to say something that I don’t know of my own knowledge.”

“Something that Mrs. Ferse had told you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you needn’t tell us that.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

“Coming back to when you returned from taking the children to your home, Captain Ferse was not in, you say; was Mrs. Ferse in?”

“Yes, she was dressed for dinner. I dressed quickly and we dined alone together. We were very anxious about him.”

“And then?”

“After dinner we went up to the drawing-room, and to distract her I made Mrs. Ferse sing, she was so nervous and anxious. After a little we heard the front door, and Captain Ferse came in and sat down.”

“Did he say anything?”

“No.”

“How was he looking?”

“Dreadful, I thought. Very strange and strained, as if under the power of some terrible thought.”

“Yes?”

“Mrs. Ferse asked him if he had had dinner, and if he would like to go to bed; and if he would see a doctor; but he wouldn’t speak — he sat with his eyes closed, almost as if he might be asleep, until at last I whispered: ‘Is he asleep, d’you think?’ Then suddenly he cried out: ‘Sleep! I’m for it again, and I won’t stand it. By God! I won’t stand it.’”

When she had repeated those words of Ferse, Dinny understood better than hitherto what is meant by the expression ‘sensation in Court’; in some mysterious way she had supplied what had been lacking to the conviction carried by the witnesses who had preceded her. Whether she had been wise in this, she was utterly unable to decide; and her eyes sought Adrian’s face. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod.

“Yes, Miss Cherrell?”

“Mrs. Ferse went towards him, and he cried out: ‘Leave me alone. Go away!’ I think she said: ‘Ronald, won’t you see someone just to give you something to make you sleep?’ but he sprang up and cried out violently: ‘Go away! I’ll see no one — no one!’”

“Yes, Miss Cherrell, what then?”

“We were frightened. We went up to my room and consulted, and I said we ought to telephone.”

“To whom?”

“To Mrs. Ferse’s doctor. She wanted to go, but I prevented her and ran down. The telephone was in the little study on the ground floor, and I was just getting the number when I felt my hand seized, and there was Captain Ferse behind me. He cut the wire with a knife. Then he stood holding my arm, and I said: ‘That’s silly, Captain Ferse; you know we wouldn’t hurt you.’ He let me go, and put his knife away, and told me to put on my shoes, because I had them in my other hand.”

“You mean you had taken them off?”

“Yes, to run down quietly. I put them on. He said: ‘I’m not going to be messed about. I shall do what I like with myself.’ I said: ‘You know we only want your good.’ And he said: ‘I know that good — no more of that for me.’ And then he looked out of the window and said: ‘It’s raining like hell,’ and turned to me and cried: ‘Get out of this room, quick. Get out!’ and I flew back upstairs again.”

Dinny paused and took a long breath. This second living through those moments was making her heart beat. She closed her eyes.

“Yes, Miss Cherrell, what then?”

She opened her eyes. There was the coroner still, and there the jury with their mouths a little open, as it seemed.

“I told Mrs. Ferse. We didn’t know what to do or what was coming — we didn’t see what we could do, and I suggested that we should drag the bed against the door and try to sleep.”

“And did you?”

“Yes; but we were awake a long time. Mrs. Ferse was so exhausted that she did sleep at last, and I think I did towards morning. Anyway the maid woke me by knocking.”

“Did you hear nothing further of Captain Ferse during the night?”

The old school-boy saying ‘If you tell a lie, tell a good ’un,’ shot through her mind, and she said firmly: “No, nothing.”

“What time was it when you were called?”

“Eight o’clock. I woke Mrs. Ferse and we went down at once. Captain Ferse’s dressing-room was in disorder, and he seemed to have lain upon the bed; but he was nowhere in the house; and his hat and overcoat were gone from the chair where he had thrown them down in the hall.”

“What did you do then?”

“We consulted, and Mrs. Ferse wanted to go to her doctor and to her cousin and mine, Mr. Michael Mont, the Member of Parliament; but I thought if I could get my uncles they would be better able to trace Captain Ferse; so I persuaded her to come with me to my Uncle Adrian and ask him to get my Uncle Hilary and see if they could find Captain Ferse. I knew they were both very clever men and very tactful,” Dinny saw the coroner bow slightly towards her uncles, and hurried on, “and they were old family friends; I thought if they couldn’t manage to find him without publicity, nobody could. So we went to my Uncle Adrian, and he agreed to get my Uncle Hilary to help him and try; then I took Mrs. Ferse down with me to the children at Condaford, and that’s all I know, Sir.”

The coroner bowed quite low towards her and said: “Thank you, Miss Cherrell. You have given your evidence admirably.” The jury moved uneasily as if trying to bow too, and Dinny, with an effort, stepped down from the pen and took her seat beside Hilary, who put his hand on hers. She sat very still, and then was conscious that a tear, as it were the last of the sal volatile, was moving slowly down her cheek. Listening dully to what followed, the evidence of the Doctor in charge of the Mental Home, and the coroner’s address, then waiting dumbly for the jury’s verdict, she suffered from the feeling that in her loyalty to the living she had been disloyal to the dead. It was a horrid sensation, that: of having borne evidence of mania against one who could not defend or explain himself; and it was with a fearful interest that she watched the jury file back into their seats, and the foreman stand up in answer to the demand for their verdict.

“We find that the deceased died from falling down a chalk pit.”

“That,” said the coroner, “is death from misadventure.”

“We wish to express our sympathy with the widow.”

Dinny almost clapped her hands. So! They had given him the benefit of the doubt — those disused men! And with a sudden, almost personal, warmth she tilted her head up and smiled at them.

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