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    Ch. 4: The Grave By the Handpost

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    Chapter 4
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    I never pass through Chalk-Newton without turning to regard the
    neighbouring upland, at a point where a lane crosses the lone straight
    highway dividing this from the next parish; a sight which does not fail
    to recall the event that once happened there; and, though it may seem
    superfluous, at this date, to disinter more memories of village history,
    the whispers of that spot may claim to be preserved.

    It was on a dark, yet mild and exceptionally dry evening at Christmas-
    time (according to the testimony of William Dewy of Mellstock, Michael
    Mail, and others), that the choir of Chalk-Newton--a large parish situate
    about half-way between the towns of Ivel and Casterbridge, and now a
    railway station--left their homes just before midnight to repeat their
    annual harmonies under the windows of the local population. The band of
    instrumentalists and singers was one of the largest in the county; and,
    unlike the smaller and finer Mellstock string-band, which eschewed all
    but the catgut, it included brass and reed performers at full Sunday
    services, and reached all across the west gallery.

    On this night there were two or three violins, two 'cellos, a tenor viol,
    double bass, hautboy, clarionets, serpent, and seven singers. It was,
    however, not the choir's labours, but what its members chanced to
    witness, that particularly marked the occasion.

    They had pursued their rounds for many years without meeting with any
    incident of an unusual kind, but to-night, according to the assertions of
    several, there prevailed, to begin with, an exceptionally solemn and
    thoughtful mood among two or three of the oldest in the band, as if they
    were thinking they might be joined by the phantoms of dead friends who
    had been of their number in earlier years, and now were mute in the
    churchyard under flattening mounds--friends who had shown greater zest
    for melody in their time than was shown in this; or that some past voice
    of a semi-transparent figure might quaver from some bedroom-window its
    acknowledgment of their nocturnal greeting, instead of a familiar living
    neighbour. Whether this were fact or fancy, the younger members of the
    choir met together with their customary thoughtlessness and buoyancy.
    When they had gathered by the stone stump of the cross in the middle of
    the village, near the White Horse Inn, which they made their starting
    point, some one observed that they were full early, that it was not yet
    twelve o'clock. The local waits of those days mostly refrained from
    sounding a note before Christmas morning had astronomically arrived, and
    not caring to return to their beer, they decided to begin with some
    outlying cottages in Sidlinch Lane, where the people had no clocks, and
    would not know whether it were night or morning. In that direction they
    accordingly went; and as they ascended to higher ground their attention
    was attracted by a light beyond the houses, quite at the top of the lane.

    The road from Chalk-Newton to Broad Sidlinch is about two miles long and
    in the middle of its course, where it passes over the ridge dividing the
    two villages, it crosses at right angles, as has been stated, the lonely
    monotonous old highway known as Long Ash Lane, which runs, straight as a
    surveyor's line, many miles north and south of this spot, on the
    foundation of a Roman road, and has often been mentioned in these
    narratives. Though now quite deserted and grass-grown, at the beginning
    of the century it was well kept and frequented by traffic. The
    glimmering light appeared to come from the precise point where the roads

    'I think I know what that mid mean!' one of the group remarked.

    They stood a few moments, discussing the probability of the light having
    origin in an event of which rumours had reached them, and resolved to go
    up the hill.

    Approaching the high land their conjectures were strengthened. Long Ash
    Lane cut athwart them, right and left; and they saw that at the junction
    of the four ways, under the hand-post, a grave was dug, into which, as
    the choir drew nigh, a corpse had just been thrown by the four Sidlinch
    men employed for the purpose. The cart and horse which had brought the
    body thither stood silently by.

    The singers and musicians from Chalk-Newton halted, and looked on while
    the gravediggers shovelled in and trod down the earth, till, the hole
    being filled, the latter threw their spades into the cart, and prepared
    to depart.

    'Who mid ye be a-burying there?' asked Lot Swanhills in a raised voice.
    'Not the sergeant?'

    The Sidlinch men had been so deeply engrossed in their task that they had
    not noticed the lanterns of the Chalk-Newton choir till now.

    'What--be you the Newton carol-singers?' returned the representatives of

    'Ay, sure. Can it be that it is old Sergeant Holway you've a-buried

    "Tis so. You've heard about it, then?'

    The choir knew no particulars--only that he had shot himself in his apple-
    closet on the previous Sunday. 'Nobody seem'th to know what 'a did it
    for, 'a b'lieve? Leastwise, we don't know at Chalk-Newton,' continued

    'O yes. It all came out at the inquest.'

    The singers drew close, and the Sidlinch men, pausing to rest after their
    labours, told the story. 'It was all owing to that son of his, poor old
    man. It broke his heart.'

    'But the son is a soldier, surely; now with his regiment in the East

    'Ay. And it have been rough with the army over there lately. 'Twas a
    pity his father persuaded him to go. But Luke shouldn't have twyted the
    sergeant o't, since 'a did it for the best.'

    The circumstances, in brief, were these: The sergeant who had come to
    this lamentable end, father of the young soldier who had gone with his
    regiment to the East, had been singularly comfortable in his military
    experiences, these having ended long before the outbreak of the great war
    with France. On his discharge, after duly serving his time, he had
    returned to his native village, and married, and taken kindly to domestic
    life. But the war in which England next involved herself had cost him
    many frettings that age and infirmity prevented him from being ever again
    an active unit of the army. When his only son grew to young manhood, and
    the question arose of his going out in life, the lad expressed his wish
    to be a mechanic. But his father advised enthusiastically for the army.

    'Trade is coming to nothing in these days,' he said. 'And if the war
    with the French lasts, as it will, trade will be still worse. The army,
    Luke--that's the thing for 'ee. 'Twas the making of me, and 'twill be
    the making of you. I hadn't half such a chance as you'll have in these
    splendid hotter times.'

    Luke demurred, for he was a home-keeping, peace-loving youth. But,
    putting respectful trust in his father's judgment, he at length gave way,
    and enlisted in the ---d Foot. In the course of a few weeks he was sent
    out to India to his regiment, which had distinguished itself in the East
    under General Wellesley.

    But Luke was unlucky. News came home indirectly that he lay sick out
    there; and then on one recent day when his father was out walking, the
    old man had received tidings that a letter awaited him at Casterbridge.
    The sergeant sent a special messenger the whole nine miles, and the
    letter was paid for and brought home; but though, as he had guessed, it
    came from Luke, its contents were of an unexpected tenor.

    The letter had been written during a time of deep depression. Luke said
    that his life was a burden and a slavery, and bitterly reproached his
    father for advising him to embark on a career for which he felt unsuited.
    He found himself suffering fatigues and illnesses without gaining glory,
    and engaged in a cause which he did not understand or appreciate. If it
    had not been for his father's bad advice he, Luke, would now have been
    working comfortably at a trade in the village that he had never wished to

    After reading the letter the sergeant advanced a few steps till he was
    quite out of sight of everybody, and then sat down on the bank by the

    When he arose half-an-hour later he looked withered and broken, and from
    that day his natural spirits left him. Wounded to the quick by his son's
    sarcastic stings, he indulged in liquor more and more frequently. His
    wife had died some years before this date, and the sergeant lived alone
    in the house which had been hers. One morning in the December under
    notice the report of a gun had been heard on his premises, and on
    entering the neighbours found him in a dying state. He had shot himself
    with an old firelock that he used for scaring birds; and from what he had
    said the day before, and the arrangements he had made for his decease,
    there was no doubt that his end had been deliberately planned, as a
    consequence of the despondency into which he had been thrown by his son's
    letter. The coroner's jury returned a verdict of felo de se.

    'Here's his son's letter,' said one of the Sidlinch men. "Twas found in
    his father's pocket. You can see by the state o't how many times he read
    it over. Howsomever, the Lord's will be done, since it must, whether or

    The grave was filled up and levelled, no mound being shaped over it. The
    Sidlinch men then bade the Chalk-Newton choir good-night, and departed
    with the cart in which they had brought the sergeant's body to the hill.
    When their tread had died away from the ear, and the wind swept over the
    isolated grave with its customary siffle of indifference, Lot Swanhills
    turned and spoke to old Richard Toller, the hautboy player.

    "Tis hard upon a man, and he a wold sojer, to serve en so, Richard. Not
    that the sergeant was ever in a battle bigger than would go into a half-
    acre paddock, that's true. Still, his soul ought to hae as good a chance
    as another man's, all the same, hey?'

    Richard replied that he was quite of the same opinion. 'What d'ye say to
    lifting up a carrel over his grave, as 'tis Christmas, and no hurry to
    begin down in parish, and 'twouldn't take up ten minutes, and not a soul
    up here to say us nay, or know anything about it?'

    Lot nodded assent. 'The man ought to hae his chances,' he repeated.

    'Ye may as well spet upon his grave, for all the good we shall do en by
    what we lift up, now he's got so far,' said Notton, the clarionet man and
    professed sceptic of the choir. 'But I'm agreed if the rest be.'

    They thereupon placed themselves in a semicircle by the newly stirred
    earth, and roused the dull air with the well-known Number Sixteen of
    their collection, which Lot gave out as being the one he thought best
    suited to the occasion and the mood

    He comes' the pri'-soners to' re-lease',
    In Sa'-tan's bon'-dage held'.

    'Jown it--we've never played to a dead man afore,' said Ezra Cattstock,
    when, having concluded the last verse, they stood reflecting for a breath
    or two. 'But it do seem more merciful than to go away and leave en, as
    they t'other fellers have done.'

    'Now backalong to Newton, and by the time we get overright the pa'son's
    'twill be half after twelve,' said the leader.

    They had not, however, done more than gather up their instruments when
    the wind brought to their notice the noise of a vehicle rapidly driven up
    the same lane from Sidlinch which the gravediggers had lately retraced.
    To avoid being run over when moving on, they waited till the benighted
    traveller, whoever he might be, should pass them where they stood in the
    wider area of the Cross.

    In half a minute the light of the lanterns fell upon a hired fly, drawn
    by a steaming and jaded horse. It reached the hand-post, when a voice
    from the inside cried, 'Stop here!' The driver pulled rein. The
    carriage door was opened from within, and there leapt out a private
    soldier in the uniform of some line regiment. He looked around, and was
    apparently surprised to see the musicians standing there.

    'Have you buried a man here?' he asked.

    'No. We bain't Sidlinch folk, thank God; we be Newton choir. Though a
    man is just buried here, that's true; and we've raised a carrel over the
    poor mortal's natomy. What--do my eyes see before me young Luke Holway,
    that went wi' his regiment to the East Indies, or do I see his spirit
    straight from the battlefield? Be you the son that wrote the letter--'

    'Don't--don't ask me. The funeral is over, then?'

    'There wer no funeral, in a Christen manner of speaking. But's buried,
    sure enough. You must have met the men going back in the empty cart.'

    'Like a dog in a ditch, and all through me!'

    He remained silent, looking at the grave, and they could not help pitying
    him. 'My friends,' he said, 'I understand better now. You have, I
    suppose, in neighbourly charity, sung peace to his soul? I thank you,
    from my heart, for your kind pity. Yes; I am Sergeant Holway's miserable
    son--I'm the son who has brought about his father's death, as truly as if
    I had done it with my own hand!'

    'No, no. Don't ye take on so, young man. He'd been naturally low for a
    good while, off and on, so we hear.'

    'We were out in the East when I wrote to him. Everything had seemed to
    go wrong with me. Just after my letter had gone we were ordered home.
    That's how it is you see me here. As soon as we got into barracks at
    Casterbridge I heard o' this . . . Damn me! I'll dare to follow my
    father, and make away with myself, too. It is the only thing left to

    'Don't ye be rash, Luke Holway, I say again; but try to make amends by
    your future life. And maybe your father will smile a smile down from
    heaven upon 'ee for 't.'

    He shook his head. 'I don't know about that!' he answered bitterly.

    'Try and be worthy of your father at his best. 'Tis not too late.'

    'D'ye think not? I fancy it is! . . . Well, I'll turn it over. Thank
    you for your good counsel. I'll live for one thing, at any rate. I'll
    move father's body to a decent Christian churchyard, if I do it with my
    own hands. I can't save his life, but I can give him an honourable
    grave. He shan't lie in this accursed place!'

    'Ay, as our pa'son says, 'tis a barbarous custom they keep up at
    Sidlinch, and ought to be done away wi'. The man a' old soldier, too.
    You see, our pa'son is not like yours at Sidlinch.'

    'He says it is barbarous, does he? So it is!' cried the soldier. 'Now
    hearken, my friends.' Then he proceeded to inquire if they would
    increase his indebtedness to them by undertaking the removal, privately,
    of the body of the suicide to the churchyard, not of Sidlinch, a parish
    he now hated, but of Chalk-Newton. He would give them all he possessed
    to do it.

    Lot asked Ezra Cattstock what he thought of it.

    Cattstock, the 'cello player, who was also the sexton, demurred, and
    advised the young soldier to sound the rector about it first. 'Mid be he
    would object, and yet 'a mid'nt. The pa'son o' Sidlinch is a hard man, I
    own ye, and 'a said if folk will kill theirselves in hot blood they must
    take the consequences. But ours don't think like that at all, and might
    allow it.'

    'What's his name?'

    'The honourable and reverent Mr. Oldham, brother to Lord Wessex. But you
    needn't be afeard o' en on that account. He'll talk to 'ee like a common
    man, if so be you haven't had enough drink to gie 'ee bad breath.'

    'O, the same as formerly. I'll ask him. Thank you. And that duty

    'What then?'

    'There's war in Spain. I hear our next move is there. I'll try to show
    myself to be what my father wished me. I don't suppose I shall--but I'll
    try in my feeble way. That much I swear--here over his body. So help me

    Luke smacked his palm against the white hand-post with such force that it
    shook. 'Yes, there's war in Spain; and another chance for me to be
    worthy of father.'

    So the matter ended that night. That the private acted in one thing as
    he had vowed to do soon became apparent, for during the Christmas week
    the rector came into the churchyard when Cattstock was there, and asked
    him to find a spot that would be suitable for the purpose of such an
    interment, adding that he had slightly known the late sergeant, and was
    not aware of any law which forbade him to assent to the removal, the
    letter of the rule having been observed. But as he did not wish to seem
    moved by opposition to his neighbour at Sidlinch, he had stipulated that
    the act of charity should be carried out at night, and as privately as
    possible, and that the grave should be in an obscure part of the
    enclosure. 'You had better see the young man about it at once,' added
    the rector.

    But before Ezra had done anything Luke came down to his house. His
    furlough had been cut short, owing to new developments of the war in the
    Peninsula, and being obliged to go back to his regiment immediately, he
    was compelled to leave the exhumation and reinterment to his friends.
    Everything was paid for, and he implored them all to see it carried out

    With this the soldier left. The next day Ezra, on thinking the matter
    over, again went across to the rectory, struck with sudden misgiving. He
    had remembered that the sergeant had been buried without a coffin, and he
    was not sure that a stake had not been driven through him. The business
    would be more troublesome than they had at first supposed.

    'Yes, indeed!' murmured the rector. 'I am afraid it is not feasible
    after all.'

    The next event was the arrival of a headstone by carrier from the nearest
    town; to be left at Mr. Ezra Cattstock's; all expenses paid. The sexton
    and the carrier deposited the stone in the former's outhouse; and Ezra,
    left alone, put on his spectacles and read the brief and simple


    Ezra again called at the riverside rectory. 'The stone is come, sir. But
    I'm afeard we can't do it nohow.'

    'I should like to oblige him,' said the gentlemanly old incumbent. 'And
    I would forego all fees willingly. Still, if you and the others don't
    think you can carry it out, I am in doubt what to say.'

    Well, sir; I've made inquiry of a Sidlinch woman as to his burial, and
    what I thought seems true. They buried en wi' a new six-foot hurdle-saul
    drough's body, from the sheep-pen up in North Ewelease though they won't
    own to it now. And the question is, Is the moving worth while,
    considering the awkwardness?'

    'Have you heard anything more of the young man?'

    Ezra had only heard that he had embarked that week for Spain with the
    rest of the regiment. 'And if he's as desperate as 'a seemed, we shall
    never see him here in England again.'

    'It is an awkward case,' said the rector.

    Ezra talked it over with the choir; one of whom suggested that the stone
    might be erected at the crossroads. This was regarded as impracticable.
    Another said that it might be set up in the churchyard without removing
    the body; but this was seen to be dishonest. So nothing was done.

    The headstone remained in Ezra's outhouse till, growing tired of seeing
    it there, he put it away among the bushes at the bottom of his garden.
    The subject was sometimes revived among them, but it always ended with:
    'Considering how 'a was buried, we can hardly make a job o't.'

    There was always the consciousness that Luke would never come back, an
    impression strengthened by the disasters which were rumoured to have
    befallen the army in Spain. This tended to make their inertness
    permanent. The headstone grew green as it lay on its back under Ezra's
    bushes; then a tree by the river was blown down, and, falling across the
    stone, cracked it in three pieces. Ultimately the pieces became buried
    in the leaves and mould.

    Luke had not been born a Chalk-Newton man, and he had no relations left
    in Sidlinch, so that no tidings of him reached either village throughout
    the war. But after Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon there arrived at
    Sidlinch one day an English sergeant-major covered with stripes and, as
    it turned out, rich in glory. Foreign service had so totally changed
    Luke Holway that it was not until he told his name that the inhabitants
    recognized him as the sergeant's only son.

    He had served with unswerving effectiveness through the Peninsular
    campaigns under Wellington; had fought at Busaco, Fuentes d'Onore, Ciudad
    Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, Quatre Bras, and Waterloo; and had
    now returned to enjoy a more than earned pension and repose in his native

    He hardly stayed in Sidlinch longer than to take a meal on his arrival.
    The same evening he started on foot over the hill to Chalk-Newton,
    passing the hand-post, and saying as he glanced at the spot, 'Thank God:
    he's not there!' Nightfall was approaching when he reached the latter
    village; but he made straight for the churchyard. On his entering it
    there remained light enough to discern the headstones by, and these he
    narrowly scanned. But though he searched the front part by the road, and
    the back part by the river, what he sought he could not find--the grave
    of Sergeant Holway, and a memorial bearing the inscription: 'I AM NOT

    He left the churchyard and made inquiries. The honourable and reverend
    old rector was dead, and so were many of the choir; but by degrees the
    sergeant-major learnt that his father still lay at the cross-roads in
    Long Ash Lane.

    Luke pursued his way moodily homewards, to do which, in the natural
    course, he would be compelled to repass the spot, there being no other
    road between the two villages. But he could not now go by that place,
    vociferous with reproaches in his father's tones; and he got over the
    hedge and wandered deviously through the ploughed fields to avoid the
    scene. Through many a fight and fatigue Luke had been sustained by the
    thought that he was restoring the family honour and making noble amends.
    Yet his father lay still in degradation. It was rather a sentiment than
    a fact that his father's body had been made to suffer for his own
    misdeeds; but to his super-sensitiveness it seemed that his efforts to
    retrieve his character and to propitiate the shade of the insulted one
    had ended in failure.

    He endeavoured, however, to shake off his lethargy, and, not liking the
    associations of Sidlinch, hired a small cottage at Chalk-Newton which had
    long been empty. Here he lived alone, becoming quite a hermit, and
    allowing no woman to enter the house.

    The Christmas after taking up his abode herein he was sitting in the
    chimney corner by himself, when he heard faint notes in the distance, and
    soon a melody burst forth immediately outside his own window, it came
    from the carol-singers, as usual; and though many of the old hands, Ezra
    and Lot included, had gone to their rest, the same old carols were still
    played out of the same old books. There resounded through the sergeant-
    major's window-shutters the familiar lines that the deceased choir had
    rendered over his father's grave:-

    He comes' the pri'-soners to' re-lease',
    In Sa'-tan's bon'-dage held'.

    When they had finished they went on to another house, leaving him to
    silence and loneliness as before.

    The candle wanted snuffing, but he did not snuff it, and he sat on till
    it had burnt down into the socket and made waves of shadow on the

    The Christmas cheerfulness of next morning was broken at breakfast-time
    by tragic intelligence which went down the village like wind. Sergeant-
    Major Holway had been found shot through the head by his own hand at the
    cross-roads in Long Ash Lane where his father lay buried.

    On the table in the cottage he had left a piece of paper, on which he had
    written his wish that he might be buried at the Cross beside his father.
    But the paper was accidentally swept to the floor, and overlooked till
    after his funeral, which took place in the ordinary way in the

    Christmas 1897.
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