It was again a very still and misty night,—extraordinarily mild for the time of year. A singular brooding silence held all the woodlands above Great End Farm. There was not a breath of wind. Every dead branch that fell, every bird that moved, every mouse scratching among the fallen beech leaves, produced sounds disproportionately clear and startling, and for the moment there would be a rustle of disturbance, as though something or some one, in the forest heart, took alarm. Then the deep waters of quiet closed again, and everything—except that watching presence—slept.
The hut in Denman Wood, which had formerly played a hospitable part as the scene of many a Gargantuan luncheon to Colonel Shepherd’s shooting parties, had long been an abandoned spot. All the Colonel’s keepers under fifty had gone to fight; and there was left only an old head keeper, with one decrepit helper, who shot the scanty game which still survived on strict business principles, to eke out the household rations of the big house. The Ipscombe woods were rarely visited. They were a long way from the keeper’s cottage, and the old man, depressed by the difference between war and pre-war conditions, found it quite enough to potter round the stubbles and turnips of the home farm when game had to be shot.
The paths leading through the underwood to the hut were now in these four years largely over-grown. A place more hidden and forgotten it would have been difficult to find. And for this reason, combined with its neighbourhood to Rachel Henderson’s farm, Roger Delane had chosen to inhabit it.
It was the third night after his interview with his former wife. He reached the hut after dark, by various by-paths over the wide commons stretching between it and X—the station at which he now generally alighted. He carried in his pocket some evening newspapers, a new anthology, and a novel. Owing to an injection of morphia—a habit to which he had only lately taken—he felt unusually fit, and his brain was unusually alert. At the same time he had had a disagreeable interview with a doctor that morning who had been insisting on Sanatorium treatment if the remaining lung was to be preserved and his life prolonged. He did not want to prolong his life, but only to avoid the beastliness of pain. It seemed to him that morphia—good stuff!—was going to do that for him. Why hadn’t he begun it before? But his brain was queer—he was conscious of that. He had asked the doctor about some curious mental symptoms. The reply was that phthisis was often accompanied by them.
Obsession—fixed ideas—in the medical sense: half of him, psychologically, was quite conscious that the other half was under their influence. The sound self was observing the unsound self, but apparently with no power over it. Otherwise how was it that he was here again, hiding like a wild beast in a lair, less than a mile from Great End Farm, and Rachel Henderson?