The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Nineteen

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The wedding was quiet, and there being no newspapers at that time to take such matters for their province, Cullerne curiosity had to be contented with the bare announcement: "At Saint Agatha's-at-Bow, Horatio Sebastian Fynes, Lord Blandamer, to Anastasia, only child of the late Michael Joliffe, of Cullerne Wharfe." Mrs Bulteel had been heard to say that she could not allow dear Lord Blandamer to be married without her being there. Canon Parkyn and Mrs Parkyn felt that their presence also was required ex-officio, and Clerk Janaway averred with some redundancies of expletive that he, too, "must see 'em turned off." He hadn't been to London for twenty year. If 'twere to cost a sovereign, why, 'twas a poor heart that never made merry, and he would never live to see another Lord Blandamer married. Yet none of them went, for time and place were not revealed.

But Miss Joliffe was there, and on her return to Cullerne she held several receptions at Bellevue Lodge, at which only the wedding and the events connected with it were discussed. She was vested for these functions in a new dress of coffee-coloured silk, and what with a tea-urn hissing in Mr Sharnall's room, and muffins, toast, and sweet-cakes, there were such goings-on in the house, as had not been seen since the last coach rolled away from the old Hand of God thirty years before. The company were very gracious and even affectionate, and Miss Joliffe, in the exhilaration of the occasion, forgot all those cold-shoulderings and askance looks which had grieved her at a certain Dorcas meeting only a few weeks before.

At these reunions many important particulars transpired. The wedding had been celebrated early in the morning at the special instance of the bride; only Mrs Howard and Miss Euphemia herself were present. Anstice had worn a travelling dress of dark-green cloth, so that she might go straight from the church to the station. "And, my dears," she said, with a glance of all-embracing benevolence, "she looked a perfect young peeress."

The kind and appreciative audience, who had all been expecting and hoping for the past six weeks, that some bolt might fall from the blue to rob Anastasia of her triumph, were so astonished at the wedding having finally taken place that they could not muster a sneer among them. Only lying-and-mischief-making Mrs Flint found courage for a sniff, and muttered something to her next neighbour about there being such things as mock marriages.

The honeymoon was much extended. Lord and Lady Blandamer went first to the Italian lakes, and thence, working their way home by Munich, Nuremburg, and the Rhine, travelled by such easy stages that autumn had set in when they reached Paris. There they wintered, and there in the spring was born a son and heir to all the Blandamer estates. The news caused much rejoicing in the domain; and when it was announced that the family were returning to Cullerne, it was decided to celebrate the event by ringing a peal from the tower of Saint Sepulchre's. The proposal originated with Canon Parkyn.

"It is a graceful compliment," he said, "to the nobleman to whose munificence the restoration is so largely due. We must show him how much stronger we have made our old tower, eh, Mr Westray? We must get the Carisbury ringers over to teach Cullerne people how such things should be done. Sir George will have to stand out of his fees longer than ever, if he is to wait till the tower tumbles down now. Eh, eh?"

"Ah, I do so dote on these old customs," assented his wife. "It is so delightful, a merry peal. I do think these good old customs should always be kept up." It was the cheapness of the entertainment that particularly appealed to her. "But is it necessary, my dear," she demurred, "to bring the ringers over from Carisbury? They are a sad drunken lot. I am sure there must be plenty of young men in Cullerne, who would delight to help ring the bells on such an occasion."

But Westray would have none of it. It was true, he said, that the tie-rods were fixed, and the tower that much the stronger; but he could countenance no ringing till the great south-east pier had been properly under-pinned.

His remonstrances found little favour. Lord Blandamer would think it so ungracious. Lady Blandamer, to be sure, counted for very little; it was ridiculous, in fact, to think of ringing the minster bells for a landlady's niece, but Lord Blandamer would certainly be offended.

"I call that clerk of the works a vain young upstart," Mrs Parkyn said to her husband. "I cannot think how you keep your temper with such a popinjay. I hope you will not allow yourself to be put upon again. You are so sweet-tempered and forbearing, that everyone takes advantage of you."

So she stirred him up till he assured her with considerable boldness that he was not a man to be dictated to; the bells should be rung, and he would get Sir George's views to fortify his own. Then Sir George wrote one of those cheery little notes for which he was famous, with a proper admixture of indifferent puns and a classic conceit: that when Gratitude was climbing the temple steps to lay an offering on Hymen's altar, Prudence must wait silent at the base till she came down.

Sir George should have been a doctor, his friends said; his manner was always so genial and reassuring. So having turned these happy phrases, and being overwhelmed with the grinding pressure of a great practice, he dismissed the tower of Saint Sepulchre from his mind, and left Rector and ringers to their own devices.

Thus on an autumn afternoon there was a sound in Cullerne that few of the inhabitants had ever heard, and the little town stopped its business to listen to the sweetest peal in all the West Country. How they swung and rung and sung together, the little bells and the great bells, from Beata Maria, the sweet, silver-voiced treble, to Taylor John, the deep-voiced tenor, that the Guild of Merchant Taylors had given three hundred years ago. There was a charm in the air like the singing of innumerable birds; people flung up their windows to listen, people stood in the shop-doors to listen, and the melody went floating away over the salt-marshes, till the fishermen taking up their lobster-pots paused in sheer wonder at a music that they had never heard before.

It seemed as if the very bells were glad to break their long repose; they sang together like the morning stars, they shouted together like the sons of God for joy. They remembered the times that were gone, and how they had rung when Abbot Harpingdon was given his red hat, and rung again when Henry defended the Faith by suppressing the Abbey, and again when Mary defended the Faith by restoring the Mass, and again when Queen Bess was given a pair of embroidered gloves as she passed through the Market Place on her way to Fording. They remembered the long counter-change of life and death that had passed under the red roofs at their feet, they remembered innumerable births and marriages and funerals of old time; they sang together like the morning stars, they shouted together like the sons of God for joy, they shouted for joy.

The Carisbury ringers came over after all; and Mrs Parkyn bore their advent with less misgiving, in the hope that directly Lord Blandamer heard of the honour that was done him, he would send a handsome donation for the ringers as he had already sent to the workhouse, and the old folk, and the school-children of Cullerne. The ropes and the cage, and the pins and the wheels, had all been carefully overhauled; and when the day came, the ringers stood to their work like men, and rang a full peal of grandsire triples in two hours and fifty-nine minutes.

There was a little cask of Bulteel's brightest tenpenny that some magician's arm had conjured up through the well-hole in the belfry floor: and Clerk Janaway, for all he was teetotaler, eyed the foaming pots wistfully as he passed them round after the work was done.

"Well," he said, "there weren't no int'rupted peal this time, were there? These here old bells never had a finer set of ringing-men under them, and I lay you never had a finer set of bells above your heads, my lads; now did 'ee? I've heard the bells swung many a time in Carisbury tower, and heard 'em when the Queen was set upon her throne, but, lor'! they arn't so deep-like nor yet so sweet as this here old ring. Perhaps they've grow'd the sweeter for lying by a bit, like port in the cellars of the Blandamer Arms, though I've heard Dr Ennefer say some of it was turned so like sherry, that no man living couldn't tell the difference."

Westray had bowed like loyal subaltern to the verdict of his Chief. Sir George's decision that the bells might safely be rung lifted the responsibility from the young man's shoulders, but not the anxiety from his mind. He never left the church while the peal was ringing. First he was in the bell-chamber steadying himself by the beams of the cage, while he marked the wide-mouthed bells now open heavenwards, now turn back with a rush into the darkness below. Then he crept deafened with the clangour down the stairs into the belfry, and sat on the sill of a window watching the ringers rise and fall at their work. He felt the tower sway restlessly under the stress of the swinging metal, but there was nothing unusual in the motion; there was no falling of mortar, nothing to attract any special attention. Then he went down into the church, and up again into the organ-loft, whence he could see the wide bow of that late Norman arch which spanned the south transept.

Above the arch ran up into the lantern the old fissure, zigzag like a baleful lightning-flash, that had given him so much anxiety. The day was overcast, and heavy masses of cloud drifting across the sky darkened the church. But where the shadows hung heaviest, under a stone gallery passage that ran round the inside of the lantern, could be traced one of those heavy tie-rods with which the tower had recently been strengthened. Westray was glad to think that the ties were there; he hoped that they might indeed support the strain which this bell-ringing was bringing on the tower; he hoped that Sir George was right, and that he, Westray, was wrong. Yet he had pasted a strip of paper across the crack, so that by tearing it might give warning if any serious movement were taking place.

As he leant over the screen of the organ-loft, he thought of that afternoon when he had first seen signs of the arch moving, of that afternoon when the organist was playing "Sharnall in D flat." How much had happened since then! He thought of that scene which had happened in this very loft, of Sharnall's end, of the strange accident that had terminated a sad life on that wild night. What a strange accident it was, what a strange thing that Sharnall should have been haunted by that wandering fancy of a man following him with a hammer, and then have been found in this very loft, with the desperate wound on him that the pedal-note had dealt! How much had happened—his own proposal to Anastasia, his refusal, and now that event for which the bells were ringing! How quickly the scenes changed! What a creature of an hour was he, was every man, in face of these grim walls that had stood enduring, immutable, for generation after generation, for age after age! And then he smiled as he thought that these eternal realities of stone were all created by ephemeral man; that he, ephemeral man, was even now busied with schemes for their support, with anxieties lest they should fall and grind to powder all below.

The bells sounded fainter and far off inside the church. As they reached his ears through the heavy stone roof they were more harmonious, all harshness was softened; the sordino of the vaulting produced the effect of a muffled peal. He could hear deep-voiced Taylor John go striding through his singing comrades in the intricacies of the Treble Bob Triples, and yet there was another voice in Westray's ears that made itself heard even above the booming of the tenor bell. It was the cry of the tower arches, the small still voice that had haunted him ever since he had been at Cullerne. "The arch never sleeps," they said—"the arch never sleeps;" and again, "They have bound on us a burden too heavy to be borne; but we are shifting it. The arch never sleeps."

The ringers were approaching the end; they had been at their work for near three hours, the 5,040 changes were almost finished. Westray went down from the organ-loft, and as he walked through the church the very last change was rung. Before the hum and mutter had died out of the air, and while the red-faced ringers in the belfry were quaffing their tankards, the architect had made his way to the scaffolding, and stood face to face with the zigzag crack. He looked at it carefully, as a doctor might examine a wound; he thrust his hand like Thomas into the dark fissure. No, there was no change; the paper strip was unbroken, the tie-rods had done their work nobly. Sir George had been quite right after all.

And as he looked there was the very faintest noise heard—a whisper, a mutter, a noise so slight that it might have passed a hundred times unnoticed. But to the architect's ear it spoke as loudly as a thunderclap. He knew exactly what it was and whence it came; and looking at the crack, saw that the broad paper strip was torn half-way across. It was a small affair; the paper strip was not quite parted, it was only torn half-way through. Though Westray watched for an hour, no further change took place. The ringers had left the tower, the little town had resumed its business. Clerk Janaway was walking across the church, when he saw the architect leaning against a cross-pole of the scaffolding, on the platform high up under the arch of the south transept.

"I'm just a-locking up," he called out. "You've got your own key, sir, no doubt?"

Westray gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"Well, we haven't brought the tower down this time," the clerk went on. But Westray made no answer; his eyes were fixed on the little half-torn strip of paper, and he had no thought for anything else. A minute later the old man stood beside him on the platform, puffing after the ladders that he had climbed. "No int'rupted peal this time," he said; "we've fair beat the neb'ly coat at last. Lord Blandamer back, and an heir to keep the family going. Looks as if the neb'ly coat was losing a bit of his sting, don't it?" But Westray was moody, and said nothing. "Why what's the matter? You bain't took bad, be you?"

"Don't bother me now," the architect said sharply. "I wish to Heaven the peal had been interrupted. I wish your bells had never been rung. Look there"—and he pointed at the strip of paper.

The clerk went closer to the crack, and looked hard at the silent witness. "Lor' bless you! that ain't nothing," he said; "'tis only just the jarring of the bells done that. You don't expect a mushet of paper to stand as firm as an anvil-stone, when Taylor John's a-swinging up aloft."

"Look you," Westray said; "you were in church this morning. Do you remember the lesson about the prophet sending his servant up to the top of a hill, to look at the sea? The man went up ever so many times and saw nothing. Last he saw a little cloud like a man's hand rising out of the sea, and after that the heaven grew black, and the storm broke. I'm not sure that bit of torn paper isn't the man's hand for this tower."

"Don't bother yourself," rejoined the clerk; "the man's hand showed the rain was a-coming, and the rain was just what they wanted. I never can make out why folks twist the Scripture round and make the man's hand into something bad. 'Twas a good thing, so take heart and get home to your victuals; you can't mend that bit of paper for all your staring at it."

Westray paid no attention to his remarks, and the old man wished him good-night rather stiffly. "Well," he said, as he turned down the ladder, "I'm off. I've got to be in my garden afore dark, for they're going to seal the leek leaves to-night against the leek-show next week. My grandson took first prize last year, and his old grandad had to put up with eleventh; but I've got half a dozen leeks this season as'll beat any plant that's growed in Cullerne."

By the next morning the paper strip was entirely parted. Westray wrote to Sir George, but history only repeated itself; for his Chief again made light of the matter, and gave the young man a strong hint that he was making mountains of molehills, that he was unduly nervous, that his place was to diligently carry out the instructions he had received. Another strip of paper was pasted across the crack, and remained intact. It seemed as if the tower had come to rest again, but Westray's scruples were not so easily allayed this time, and he took measures for pushing forward the under-pinning of the south-east pier with all possible despatch.