- Author : Thomas Hardy
- Narrator : Matt Dovey
- Host : Alasdair Stuart
- Audio Producer : Marty Perrett
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“The Grave by the Handpost” was first published in 1897 and is part of the volume A Changed Man and Other Tales.
This episode is sponsored by J.R. HAMANTASCHEN (who podcasts at The Horror Of Nachos And Hamantaschen) and his new story collection A DEEP HORROR THAT IS VERY NEARLY AWE.
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The Grave By The Handpost
by Thomas Hardy
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 intersected.
‘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 Sidlinch.
‘Ay, sure. Can it be that it is old Sergeant Holway you’ve a-buried there?’
‘’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 Lot.
‘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 Indies?’
‘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 leave.
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 wayside.
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 no.’
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 do!’
‘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 done—’
‘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 God.’
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 forthwith.
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 inscription:—
HERE LYETH THE BODY OF SAMUEL HOLWAY, LATE
SERGEANT IN HIS MAJESTY’S ——D REGIMENT OF
FOOT, WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE DECEMBER THE 20TH,
180-. ERECTED BY L. H.
‘I AM NOT WORTHY TO BE CALLED THY SON.’
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 district.
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 WORTHY TO BE CALLED THY SON.’
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 ceiling.
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 churchyard.
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