The Grave by the Handpost
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
‘I think I know what that mid mean!’ one of the group
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
‘’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
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
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
Lot nodded assent. ‘The man ought to hae his chances,’
‘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
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
‘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
‘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
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
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.