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On The Downs Post by :connielu Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :4045

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On The Downs

We spread our lunch on the crown of one of those great billows of the downs that stand along the sea. Down in the hollows tiny villages or farmsteads stood in the midst of clumps of trees, and the cultivated lands looked like squares of many-coloured carpets, brown carpets and yellow carpets and green carpets, with the cloud shadows passing over them and moving like battalions up the gracious slopes of the downs beyond. A gleam of white in the midst of one of the brown fields caught the eye. It seemed like a patch of snow that had survived the rigours of the English summer, but suddenly it rose as if blown by the wind and came towards us in tiny flakes of white that turned to seagulls. They sailed high above us uttering that querulous cry that seems to have in it all the unsatisfied hunger of the sea.

In this splendid spaciousness the familiar forms seem incredibly diminutive. That little speck moving across one of the brown carpets is a ploughman and his team. That white stream that looks like milk flowing over the green carpet is a flock of sheep running before the sheep-dog to another pasture. And the ear no less than the eye learns to translate the faint suggestions into known terms. At first it seems that, save for the larks that spring up here and there with their cascades of song, the whole of this immense vacancy is soundless. But listen. There is "the wind on the heath, brother." And below that, and only audible when you have attuned your ear to the silence, is the low murmur of the sea.

You begin to grow interested in probing the secrecies of this great stillness. That? Ah, that was the rumble of some distant railway train going to Brighton or Eastbourne. But what was that? Through the voices of the wind and the sea that we have learned to distinguish we catch another sound, curiously hollow and infinitely remote, not vaguely pervasive like the murmur of the sea, but round and precise like the beating of a drum somewhere on the confines of the earth.

"The guns!"

Yes, the guns. Across fifty miles of sea and fifty miles of land the sound is borne to us as we sit in the midst of this great peace of earth and sky. When once detached, as it were, from the vague murmurs of the breathing air it becomes curiously insistent. It throbs on the ear almost like the beating of a pulse--baleful, sepulchral, like the strokes of doom. We begin counting them, wondering whether they are the guns of the enemy or our own, speculating as to the course of the battle.

We have become spectators of the great tragedy, and the throb of the guns touches the scene with new suggestions. Those cloud shadows drifting across the valley and up the slopes of the downs on the other side take on the shapes of massed battalions. The apparent solitude does not destroy the impression. There is no solitude so complete to the outward eye as that which broods over the country when the armies face each other in the grips of death. I have looked from the mountain of Rheims across just such a valley as this. Twenty miles of battle front lay before me, and in all that great field of vision there was not a moving thing visible. There were no cattle in the fields and no ploughmen following their teams. Roads marched across the landscape, but they were empty roads. It was as though life had vanished from the earth. Yet I knew that all over that great valley the earth was crawling with life and full of immense and sinister secrecies--the galleries of the sappers, the trenches and redoubts, the hiding-places of great guns, the concealed observations of the watchers. Yes, it was just such a scene as this. The only difference was that you had not to put your ear to the ground to catch the thunder of the guns.

But the voice of war that has broken in upon our peace fades when we are once more on the move over the downs, and the visions it has brought with it seem unreal and phantasmal in their serene and sunlit world. The shadows turn to mere shadows again, and we tread the wild thyme and watch the spiral of the lark with careless rapture. We dip down into a valley to a village hidden among the trees, without fear or thought of bomb-proof shelters and masked batteries, and there in a cottage with the roses over the porch we take rest and counsel over the teacups. Then once more on to the downs. The evening shadows are stretching across the valleys, but on these spacious heights the sunshine still rests. Some one starts singing that jolly old song, "The Farmer's Boy," and soon the air resounds to the chorus:

"To plough and sow, to reap and mow,
And be a farmer's boy-o-o-o-oy,
And be a farmer's boy."

No one recalls the throbbing of the guns or stops to catch it from amidst the murmurs of the air. This--this is the reality. That was only an echo from a bad dream from which we have awakened.

And when an hour or two later we reach the little village by the sea we rush for the letters that await us with eager curiosity. There is silence in the room as each of us devours the budget of news awaiting us. I am vaguely conscious as I read that some one has left the room with a sense of haste. I go up to my bedroom, and when I return the sitting-room is empty save for one figure. I see at a glance that something has happened.

"Robert has been killed in battle," he says. How near the sound of the guns had come!

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On The Downs

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