The Grave By The Handpost

  • 12 Sep - 18 Sep, 2020
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

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 were no funeral, in a Christen manner of speaking. But 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. '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 their selves 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. '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.

'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 knowhow.' '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 worthwhile, 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 was buried, we can hardly make a job.' 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, 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 rectors were 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, and 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.