A moorland Machpelah.
There was a sepulchral tone in the voice, and well there might be, for it was a voice from the grave. Floating on the damp autumnal air, and echoing round the forest of tombs, it died away over the moors, on the edge of which the old God’s-acre stood.
Though far from melodious, it was distinct enough to convey to the ear the words of a well-known hymn—a hymn sung in jerky fragments, the concluding syllable always rising and ending with a gasp, as though the singer found his task too heavy, and was bound to pause for breath.
The startled listener was none other than Mr. Penrose, the newly-appointed minister, who was awaiting a funeral, long overdue. Looking round, his already pale face became a shade paler as he saw no living form, other than himself.
There he stood, alone, a stranger in this moorland haunt, amid falling shadows and rounding gloom, mocked by the mute records and stony memorials of the dead.
Again the voice was heard—another hymn, and to a tune as old as the mossed headstones that threw around their lengthening shadows.
‘I’ll praise my Maker—while I’ve breath,’
followed by a pause, as though breath had actually forsaken the body of the singer. But in a moment or two the strain continued:
‘And when my voice—is lost in death.’
Whereon the sounds ceased, and there came a final silence, death seeming to take the singer at his word.
As Mr. Penrose looked in the direction from which the voice travelled, he saw a shovel thrown out of a newly-made grave, followed by the steaming head and weather-worn face of old Joseph, the sexton, all aglow with the combined task of grave-digging and singing.
’Why, Joseph, is it you? I couldn’t tell where the sound came from. It seems, after all, the grave can praise God, although the prophet tells us it cannot. Do you always sing at your work?’
‘Partly whod. You see it’s i’ this way, sir,’ said Joseph; ’grave-diggin’s hard wark, and if a felley doesn’d sing a bit o’er it he’s like baan to curse, so I sings to stop swears. There’s a fearful deal o’ oaths spilt in a grave while it’s i’ th’ makin’, I can tell yo’; and th’ Almeety’s name is spoken more daan i’ th’ hoile than it is up aboon, for all th’ parson reads it so mich aat of his book. But this funeral’s baan to be lat’, Mr. Penrose’; and drawing a huge watch from his fob, he exclaimed: ’Another ten minutes and there’s no berryin’ i’ th’ yard this afternoon.’
‘I don’t understand you, Joseph,’ said Mr. Penrose wonderingly.
‘We never berry here after four o’clock.’
’But there’s no law forbidding a funeral at any hour that I know of—is there?’
‘There is wi’ me. I’m maisther o’ this berryin’ hoile, whatever yo’ may be o’ th’ chapel. But they’re comin’, so I’ll oppen th’ chapel durs.’