The Chimes Chapter 1.

First Quarter.

 

There are not many people—and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again—there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.  I don’t mean at sermon-time in warm weather (when the thing has actually been done, once or twice), but in the night, and alone.  A great multitude of persons will be violently astonished, I know, by this position, in the broad bold Day.  But it applies to Night.  It must be argued by night, and I will undertake to maintain it successfully on any gusty winter’s night appointed for the purpose, with any one opponent chosen from the rest, who will meet me singly in an old churchyard, before an old church-door; and will previously empower me to lock him in, if needful to his satisfaction, until morning.

For the night-wind has a dismal trick of wandering round and round a building of that sort, and moaning as it goes; and of trying, with its unseen hand, the windows and the doors; and seeking out some crevices by which to enter.  And when it has got in; as one not finding what it seeks, whatever that may be, it wails and howls to issue forth again: and not content with stalking through the aisles, and gliding round and round the pillars, and tempting the deep organ, soars up to the roof, and strives to rend the rafters: then flings itself despairingly upon the stones below, and passes, muttering, into the vaults.  Anon, it comes up stealthily, and creeps along the walls, seeming to read, in whispers, the Inscriptions sacred to the Dead.  At some of these, it breaks out shrilly, as with laughter; and at others, moans and cries as if it were lamenting.  It has a ghostly sound too, lingering within the altar; where it seems to chaunt, in its wild way, of Wrong and Murder done, and false Gods worshipped, in defiance of the Tables of the Law, which look so fair and smooth, but are so flawed and broken.  Ugh!  Heaven preserve us, sitting snugly round the fire!  It has an awful voice, that wind at Midnight, singing in a church!

But, high up in the steeple!  There the foul blast roars and whistles!  High up in the steeple, where it is free to come and go through many an airy arch and loophole, and to twist and twine itself about the giddy stair, and twirl the groaning weathercock, and make the very tower shake and shiver!  High up in the steeple, where the belfry is, and iron rails are ragged with rust, and sheets of lead and copper, shrivelled by the changing weather, crackle and heave beneath the unaccustomed tread; and birds stuff shabby nests into corners of old oaken joists and beams; and dust grows old and grey; and speckled spiders, indolent and fat with long security, swing idly to and fro in the vibration of the bells, and never loose their hold upon their thread-spun castles in the air, or climb up sailor-like in quick alarm, or drop upon the ground and ply a score of nimble legs to save one life!  High up in the steeple of an old church, far above the light and murmur of the town and far below the flying clouds that shadow it, is the wild and dreary place at night: and high up in the steeple of an old church, dwelt the Chimes I tell of.

They were old Chimes, trust me.  Centuries ago, these Bells had been baptized by bishops: so many centuries ago, that the register of their baptism was lost long, long before the memory of man, and no one knew their names.  They had had their Godfathers and Godmothers, these Bells (for my own part, by the way, I would rather incur the responsibility of being Godfather to a Bell than a Boy), and had their silver mugs no doubt, besides.  But Time had mowed down their sponsors, and Henry the Eighth had melted down their mugs; and they now hung, nameless and mugless, in the church-tower.

Not speechless, though.  Far from it.  They had clear, loud, lusty, sounding voices, had these Bells; and far and wide they might be heard upon the wind.  Much too sturdy Chimes were they, to be dependent on the pleasure of the wind, moreover; for, fighting gallantly against it when it took an adverse whim, they would pour their cheerful notes into a listening ear right royally; and bent on being heard on stormy nights, by some poor mother watching a sick child, or some lone wife whose husband was at sea, they had been sometimes known to beat a blustering Nor’ Wester; aye, ‘all to fits,’ as Toby Veck said;—for though they chose to call him Trotty Veck, his name was Toby, and nobody could make it anything else either (except Tobias) without a special act of parliament; he having been as lawfully christened in his day as the Bells had been in theirs, though with not quite so much of solemnity or public rejoicing.

For my part, I confess myself of Toby Veck’s belief, for I am sure he had opportunities enough of forming a correct one.  And whatever Toby Veck said, I say.  And I take my stand by Toby Veck, although he did stand all day long (and weary work it was) just outside the church-door.  In fact he was a ticket-porter, Toby Veck, and waited there for jobs.

And a breezy, goose-skinned, blue-nosed, red-eyed, stony-toed, tooth-chattering place it was, to wait in, in the winter-time, as Toby Veck well knew.  The wind came tearing round the corner—especially the east wind—as if it had sallied forth, express, from the confines of the earth, to have a blow at Toby.  And oftentimes it seemed to come upon him sooner than it had expected, for bouncing round the corner, and passing Toby, it would suddenly wheel round again, as if it cried ‘Why, here he is!’  Incontinently his little white apron would be caught up over his head like a naughty boy’s garments, and his feeble little cane would be seen to wrestle and struggle unavailingly in his hand, and his legs would undergo tremendous agitation, and Toby himself all aslant, and facing now in this direction, now in that, would be so banged and buffeted, and touzled, and worried, and hustled, and lifted off his feet, as to render it a state of things but one degree removed from a positive miracle, that he wasn’t carried up bodily into the air as a colony of frogs or snails or other very portable creatures sometimes are, and rained down again, to the great astonishment of the natives, on some strange corner of the world where ticket-porters are unknown.

But, windy weather, in spite of its using him so roughly, was, after all, a sort of holiday for Toby.  That’s the fact.  He didn’t seem to wait so long for a sixpence in the wind, as at other times; the having to fight with that boisterous element took off his attention, and quite freshened him up, when he was getting hungry and low-spirited.  A hard frost too, or a fall of snow, was an Event; and it seemed to do him good, somehow or other—it would have been hard to say in what respect though, Toby!  So wind and frost and snow, and perhaps a good stiff storm of hail, were Toby Veck’s red-letter days.

Wet weather was the worst; the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat—the only kind of great-coat Toby owned, or could have added to his comfort by dispensing with.  Wet days, when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and re-passed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums, as they knocked against each other on the crowded footway, throwing off a little whirlpool of uncomfortable sprinklings; when gutters brawled and waterspouts were full and noisy; when the wet from the projecting stones and ledges of the church fell drip, drip, drip, on Toby, making the wisp of straw on which he stood mere mud in no time; those were the days that tried him.  Then, indeed, you might see Toby looking anxiously out from his shelter in an angle of the church wall—such a meagre shelter that in summer time it never cast a shadow thicker than a good-sized walking stick upon the sunny pavement—with a disconsolate and lengthened face.  But coming out, a minute afterwards, to warm himself by exercise, and trotting up and down some dozen times, he would brighten even then, and go back more brightly to his niche.

They called him Trotty from his pace, which meant speed if it didn’t make it.  He could have walked faster perhaps; most likely; but rob him of his trot, and Toby would have taken to his bed and died.  It bespattered him with mud in dirty weather; it cost him a world of trouble; he could have walked with infinitely greater ease; but that was one reason for his clinging to it so tenaciously.  A weak, small, spare old man, he was a very Hercules, this Toby, in his good intentions.  He loved to earn his money.  He delighted to believe—Toby was very poor, and couldn’t well afford to part with a delight—that he was worth his salt.  With a shilling or an eighteenpenny message or small parcel in hand, his courage always high, rose higher.  As he trotted on, he would call out to fast Postmen ahead of him, to get out of the way; devoutly believing that in the natural course of things he must inevitably overtake and run them down; and he had perfect faith—not often tested—in his being able to carry anything that man could lift.

Thus, even when he came out of his nook to warm himself on a wet day, Toby trotted.  Making, with his leaky shoes, a crooked line of slushy footprints in the mire; and blowing on his chilly hands and rubbing them against each other, poorly defended from the searching cold by threadbare mufflers of grey worsted, with a private apartment only for the thumb, and a common room or tap for the rest of the fingers; Toby, with his knees bent and his cane beneath his arm, still trotted.  Falling out into the road to look up at the belfry when the Chimes resounded, Toby trotted still.

He made this last excursion several times a day, for they were company to him; and when he heard their voices, he had an interest in glancing at their lodging-place, and thinking how they were moved, and what hammers beat upon them.  Perhaps he was the more curious about these Bells, because there were points of resemblance between themselves and him.  They hung there, in all weathers, with the wind and rain driving in upon them; facing only the outsides of all those houses; never getting any nearer to the blazing fires that gleamed and shone upon the windows, or came puffing out of the chimney tops; and incapable of participation in any of the good things that were constantly being handed through the street doors and the area railings, to prodigious cooks.  Faces came and went at many windows: sometimes pretty faces, youthful faces, pleasant faces: sometimes the reverse: but Toby knew no more (though he often speculated on these trifles, standing idle in the streets) whence they came, or where they went, or whether, when the lips moved, one kind word was said of him in all the year, than did the Chimes themselves.

Toby was not a casuist—that he knew of, at least—and I don’t mean to say that when he began to take to the Bells, and to knit up his first rough acquaintance with them into something of a closer and more delicate woof, he passed through these considerations one by one, or held any formal review or great field-day in his thoughts.  But what I mean to say, and do say is, that as the functions of Toby’s body, his digestive organs for example, did of their own cunning, and by a great many operations of which he was altogether ignorant, and the knowledge of which would have astonished him very much, arrive at a certain end; so his mental faculties, without his privity or concurrence, set all these wheels and springs in motion, with a thousand others, when they worked to bring about his liking for the Bells.

And though I had said his love, I would not have recalled the word, though it would scarcely have expressed his complicated feeling.  For, being but a simple man, he invested them with a strange and solemn character.  They were so mysterious, often heard and never seen; so high up, so far off, so full of such a deep strong melody, that he regarded them with a species of awe; and sometimes when he looked up at the dark arched windows in the tower, he half expected to be beckoned to by something which was not a Bell, and yet was what he had heard so often sounding in the Chimes.  For all this, Toby scouted with indignation a certain flying rumour that the Chimes were haunted, as implying the possibility of their being connected with any Evil thing.  In short, they were very often in his ears, and very often in his thoughts, but always in his good opinion; and he very often got such a crick in his neck by staring with his mouth wide open, at the steeple where they hung, that he was fain to take an extra trot or two, afterwards, to cure it.

The very thing he was in the act of doing one cold day, when the last drowsy sound of Twelve o’clock, just struck, was humming like a melodious monster of a Bee, and not by any means a busy bee, all through the steeple!

‘Dinner-time, eh!’ said Toby, trotting up and down before the church.  ‘Ah!’

Toby’s nose was very red, and his eyelids were very red, and he winked very much, and his shoulders were very near his ears, and his legs were very stiff, and altogether he was evidently a long way upon the frosty side of cool.

‘Dinner-time, eh!’ repeated Toby, using his right-hand muffler like an infantine boxing-glove, and punishing his chest for being cold.  ‘Ah-h-h-h!’

He took a silent trot, after that, for a minute or two.

‘There’s nothing,’ said Toby, breaking forth afresh—but here he stopped short in his trot, and with a face of great interest and some alarm, felt his nose carefully all the way up.  It was but a little way (not being much of a nose) and he had soon finished.

‘I thought it was gone,’ said Toby, trotting off again.  ‘It’s all right, however.  I am sure I couldn’t blame it if it was to go.  It has a precious hard service of it in the bitter weather, and precious little to look forward to; for I don’t take snuff myself.  It’s a good deal tried, poor creetur, at the best of times; for when it does get hold of a pleasant whiff or so (which an’t too often) it’s generally from somebody else’s dinner, a-coming home from the baker’s.’

The reflection reminded him of that other reflection, which he had left unfinished.

‘There’s nothing,’ said Toby, ‘more regular in its coming round than dinner-time, and nothing less regular in its coming round than dinner.  That’s the great difference between ’em.  It’s took me a long time to find it out.  I wonder whether it would be worth any gentleman’s while, now, to buy that obserwation for the Papers; or the Parliament!’

Toby was only joking, for he gravely shook his head in self-depreciation.

‘Why! Lord!’ said Toby.  ‘The Papers is full of obserwations as it is; and so’s the Parliament.  Here’s last week’s paper, now;’ taking a very dirty one from his pocket, and holding it from him at arm’s length; ‘full of obserwations!  Full of obserwations!  I like to know the news as well as any man,’ said Toby, slowly; folding it a little smaller, and putting it in his pocket again: ‘but it almost goes against the grain with me to read a paper now.  It frightens me almost.  I don’t know what we poor people are coming to.  Lord send we may be coming to something better in the New Year nigh upon us!’

‘Why, father, father!’ said a pleasant voice, hard by.

But Toby, not hearing it, continued to trot backwards and forwards: musing as he went, and talking to himself.

‘It seems as if we can’t go right, or do right, or be righted,’ said Toby.  ‘I hadn’t much schooling, myself, when I was young; and I can’t make out whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not.  Sometimes I think we must have—a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding.  I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad.  We seem to be dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against.  One way or other, we fill the papers.  Talk of a New Year!’ said Toby, mournfully.  ‘I can bear up as well as another man at most times; better than a good many, for I am as strong as a lion, and all men an’t; but supposing it should really be that we have no right to a New Year—supposing we really are intruding—’

‘Why, father, father!’ said the pleasant voice again.

Toby heard it this time; started; stopped; and shortening his sight, which had been directed a long way off as seeking the enlightenment in the very heart of the approaching year, found himself face to face with his own child, and looking close into her eyes.

Bright eyes they were.  Eyes that would bear a world of looking in, before their depth was fathomed.  Dark eyes, that reflected back the eyes which searched them; not flashingly, or at the owner’s will, but with a clear, calm, honest, patient radiance, claiming kindred with that light which Heaven called into being.  Eyes that were beautiful and true, and beaming with Hope.  With Hope so young and fresh; with Hope so buoyant, vigorous, and bright, despite the twenty years of work and poverty on which they had looked; that they became a voice to Trotty Veck, and said: ‘I think we have some business here—a little!’

Trotty kissed the lips belonging to the eyes, and squeezed the blooming face between his hands.

‘Why, Pet,’ said Trotty.  ‘What’s to do?  I didn’t expect you to-day, Meg.’

‘Neither did I expect to come, father,’ cried the girl, nodding her head and smiling as she spoke.  ‘But here I am!  And not alone; not alone!’

‘Why you don’t mean to say,’ observed Trotty, looking curiously at a covered basket which she carried in her hand, ‘that you—’

‘Smell it, father dear,’ said Meg.  ‘Only smell it!’

Trotty was going to lift up the cover at once, in a great hurry, when she gaily interposed her hand.

‘No, no, no,’ said Meg, with the glee of a child.  ‘Lengthen it out a little.  Let me just lift up the corner; just the lit-tle ti-ny cor-ner, you know,’ said Meg, suiting the action to the word with the utmost gentleness, and speaking very softly, as if she were afraid of being overheard by something inside the basket; ‘there.  Now.  What’s that?’

Toby took the shortest possible sniff at the edge of the basket, and cried out in a rapture:

‘Why, it’s hot!’

‘It’s burning hot!’ cried Meg.  ‘Ha, ha, ha!  It’s scalding hot!’

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ roared Toby, with a sort of kick.  ‘It’s scalding hot!’

‘But what is it, father?’ said Meg.  ‘Come.  You haven’t guessed what it is.  And you must guess what it is.  I can’t think of taking it out, till you guess what it is.  Don’t be in such a hurry!  Wait a minute!  A little bit more of the cover.  Now guess!’

Meg was in a perfect fright lest he should guess right too soon; shrinking away, as she held the basket towards him; curling up her pretty shoulders; stopping her ear with her hand, as if by so doing she could keep the right word out of Toby’s lips; and laughing softly the whole time.

Meanwhile Toby, putting a hand on each knee, bent down his nose to the basket, and took a long inspiration at the lid; the grin upon his withered face expanding in the process, as if he were inhaling laughing gas.

‘Ah!  It’s very nice,’ said Toby.  ‘It an’t—I suppose it an’t Polonies?’

‘No, no, no!’ cried Meg, delighted.  ‘Nothing like Polonies!’

‘No,’ said Toby, after another sniff.  ‘It’s—it’s mellower than Polonies.  It’s very nice.  It improves every moment.  It’s too decided for Trotters.  An’t it?’

Meg was in an ecstasy.  He could not have gone wider of the mark than Trotters—except Polonies.

‘Liver?’ said Toby, communing with himself.  ‘No.  There’s a mildness about it that don’t answer to liver.  Pettitoes?  No.  It an’t faint enough for pettitoes.  It wants the stringiness of Cocks’ heads.  And I know it an’t sausages.  I’ll tell you what it is.  It’s chitterlings!’

‘No, it an’t!’ cried Meg, in a burst of delight.  ‘No, it an’t!’

‘Why, what am I a-thinking of!’ said Toby, suddenly recovering a position as near the perpendicular as it was possible for him to assume.  ‘I shall forget my own name next.  It’s tripe!’

Tripe it was; and Meg, in high joy, protested he should say, in half a minute more, it was the best tripe ever stewed.

‘And so,’ said Meg, busying herself exultingly with the basket, ‘I’ll lay the cloth at once, father; for I have brought the tripe in a basin, and tied the basin up in a pocket-handkerchief; and if I like to be proud for once, and spread that for a cloth, and call it a cloth, there’s no law to prevent me; is there, father?’

‘Not that I know of, my dear,’ said Toby.  ‘But they’re always a-bringing up some new law or other.’

‘And according to what I was reading you in the paper the other day, father; what the Judge said, you know; we poor people are supposed to know them all.  Ha ha!  What a mistake!  My goodness me, how clever they think us!’

‘Yes, my dear,’ cried Trotty; ‘and they’d be very fond of any one of us that did know ’em all.  He’d grow fat upon the work he’d get, that man, and be popular with the gentlefolks in his neighbourhood.  Very much so!’

‘He’d eat his dinner with an appetite, whoever he was, if it smelt like this,’ said Meg, cheerfully.  ‘Make haste, for there’s a hot potato besides, and half a pint of fresh-drawn beer in a bottle.  Where will you dine, father?  On the Post, or on the Steps?  Dear, dear, how grand we are.  Two places to choose from!’

‘The steps to-day, my Pet,’ said Trotty.  ‘Steps in dry weather.  Post in wet.  There’s a greater conveniency in the steps at all times, because of the sitting down; but they’re rheumatic in the damp.’

‘Then here,’ said Meg, clapping her hands, after a moment’s bustle; ‘here it is, all ready!  And beautiful it looks!  Come, father.  Come!’

Since his discovery of the contents of the basket, Trotty had been standing looking at her—and had been speaking too—in an abstracted manner, which showed that though she was the object of his thoughts and eyes, to the exclusion even of tripe, he neither saw nor thought about her as she was at that moment, but had before him some imaginary rough sketch or drama of her future life.  Roused, now, by her cheerful summons, he shook off a melancholy shake of the head which was just coming upon him, and trotted to her side.  As he was stooping to sit down, the Chimes rang.

‘Amen!’ said Trotty, pulling off his hat and looking up towards them.

‘Amen to the Bells, father?’ cried Meg.

‘They broke in like a grace, my dear,’ said Trotty, taking his seat.  ‘They’d say a good one, I am sure, if they could.  Many’s the kind thing they say to me.’

‘The Bells do, father!’ laughed Meg, as she set the basin, and a knife and fork, before him.  ‘Well!’

‘Seem to, my Pet,’ said Trotty, falling to with great vigour.  ‘And where’s the difference?  If I hear ’em, what does it matter whether they speak it or not?  Why bless you, my dear,’ said Toby, pointing at the tower with his fork, and becoming more animated under the influence of dinner, ‘how often have I heard them bells say, “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart, Toby!  Toby Veck, Toby Veck, keep a good heart, Toby!”  A million times?  More!’

‘Well, I never!’ cried Meg.

She had, though—over and over again.  For it was Toby’s constant topic.

‘When things is very bad,’ said Trotty; ‘very bad indeed, I mean; almost at the worst; then it’s “Toby Veck, Toby Veck, job coming soon, Toby!  Toby Veck, Toby Veck, job coming soon, Toby!”  That way.’

‘And it comes—at last, father,’ said Meg, with a touch of sadness in her pleasant voice.

‘Always,’ answered the unconscious Toby.  ‘Never fails.’

While this discourse was holding, Trotty made no pause in his attack upon the savoury meat before him, but cut and ate, and cut and drank, and cut and chewed, and dodged about, from tripe to hot potato, and from hot potato back again to tripe, with an unctuous and unflagging relish.  But happening now to look all round the street—in case anybody should be beckoning from any door or window, for a porter—his eyes, in coming back again, encountered Meg: sitting opposite to him, with her arms folded and only busy in watching his progress with a smile of happiness.

‘Why, Lord forgive me!’ said Trotty, dropping his knife and fork.  ‘My dove!  Meg! why didn’t you tell me what a beast I was?’

‘Father?’

‘Sitting here,’ said Trotty, in penitent explanation, ‘cramming, and stuffing, and gorging myself; and you before me there, never so much as breaking your precious fast, nor wanting to, when—’

‘But I have broken it, father,’ interposed his daughter, laughing, ‘all to bits.  I have had my dinner.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Trotty.  ‘Two dinners in one day!  It an’t possible!  You might as well tell me that two New Year’s Days will come together, or that I have had a gold head all my life, and never changed it.’

‘I have had my dinner, father, for all that,’ said Meg, coming nearer to him.  ‘And if you’ll go on with yours, I’ll tell you how and where; and how your dinner came to be brought; and—and something else besides.’

Toby still appeared incredulous; but she looked into his face with her clear eyes, and laying her hand upon his shoulder, motioned him to go on while the meat was hot.  So Trotty took up his knife and fork again, and went to work.  But much more slowly than before, and shaking his head, as if he were not at all pleased with himself.

‘I had my dinner, father,’ said Meg, after a little hesitation, ‘with—with Richard.  His dinner-time was early; and as he brought his dinner with him when he came to see me, we—we had it together, father.’

Trotty took a little beer, and smacked his lips.  Then he said, ‘Oh!’—because she waited.

‘And Richard says, father—’ Meg resumed.  Then stopped.

‘What does Richard say, Meg?’ asked Toby.

‘Richard says, father—’  Another stoppage.

‘Richard’s a long time saying it,’ said Toby.

‘He says then, father,’ Meg continued, lifting up her eyes at last, and speaking in a tremble, but quite p

Advertisements

Design: KavnMedia

Send this to a friend