Read CHAPTER XII - THE FINAL BLOW of Bristol Bells A Story of the Eighteenth Century , free online book, by Emma Marshall, on

Betty found that to question Bryda as to the cause of her wrath against Mr Bayfield was useless.

To Betty’s simple soul a kiss under the mistletoe bough was of no further significance.  She had been kissed by Jack, and even her Aunt Dorothy had received a kiss from a neighbouring farmer who had visited them on Christmas day.

Betty pleaded that if the Squire was disposed to be kind and friendly to the old grandfather it was a risk to anger him.  If they could keep the farm during his life times might improve, and there might be saving instead of loss, and the debt paid back.

Both girls felt that the debt itself had a peculiar interest for them.  It had been originally incurred to save their father from death, for death by hanging was then the punishment awarded to forgery.  Bryda, however, preserved silence as to the Squire, and when she had returned to Bristol Betty found the necklace and the silver comb hidden away in a deep drawer in a bureau.

Betty was suddenly struck with an idea.

’Perhaps the Squire is really in love with her, and if he is, why should she be so angry?  It would be a fine thing for Bryda, who sets such store by pretty things, and is so much more of the lady than I am.  Dear Bryda, I should love to see her happy-but oh, poor Jack! what would he say?’ And as she recalled his fierce looks as he sprang upon Mr Bayfield she added, ‘And what might he not do?’

It is always difficult to realise how swiftly a certain period which we fix for any great decision in our lives, or any event which is to seriously affect us, will come.  We look forward, especially in youth, to six or nine months and think there is time yet, we need not determine yet on any particular course of action, or make any definite plan yet.  And then, even while we are thinking that there is yet delay, the days and weeks and months, perhaps years, have passed, and we find ourselves changing ‘not yet’ changed into the inexorable now.

It was thus with Bryda when she had pleaded for delay from Mr Bayfield.  The hour for decision looked far away, and she had tried to put off thinking about it, and, trust with the hopefulness of youth, that all would be well.

Her life at Mrs Lambert’s was not uncongenial to her, and she rose daily in the old lady’s favour.  Her hunger for books was in a measure satisfied, and she found good pasturage in the standard works of those times, with which Mr Lambert’s library was well furnished.

Though the lace mending and lace cleaning for Mrs Lambert’s caps and whimples and neckerchiefs and aprons went on, and though the preparation of dainty dishes to please the lawyer’s appetite when he came home after hours spent in his office gave more and more satisfaction, Bryda found, and made time for her favourite pursuit.  She was now allowed to take the books from the shelves and study them at leisure, and an old edition of Shakespeare’s plays filled her with a strange thrill of delight.  They were to Bryda, as to many another novice, like an introduction into a new world.

For all her aspirations and longings, and for all her secret misgivings and fears for the future, for all her dreams of beauty and love of the good and true, she found the right expression and the right word.

‘How wonderful,’ she thought, ‘that he should know everything I feel.’

The master’s hand was recognised, and the recognition quickened her sympathy for poor Chatterton, who at this time-this Eastertide of 1770-was so greatly in need of it.

The storm that had long been in the air now broke over the head of Mr Lambert’s apprentice.

Bryda heard angry voices in Mr Lambert’s study before he went to his office one morning, and presently Madam Lambert came out bridling with rage, and declaring she would not sleep another night under the same roof with ‘the young rascal.’

’No, no, I will not run the risk.  What are you standing there for, Miss Palmer?’ she said as, trembling with suppressed indignation, she put out her hand to Bryda to support her into her own parlour.

‘Take care of my mother, Miss Palmer,’ the lawyer said.  ’Give her a glass of wine.  She is too old to work herself into a frenzy like this.’

Bryda, frightened at the old lady’s pale face and trembling lips, hastened to get something to revive her, and placing her in her chair in the parlour, held a glass of port wine to her mouth, and fanned her with a large green fan lying on her little table.

‘What has he done?  What has Mr Chatterton done?’

’Tried to kill himself.  Why, we might have had the house streaming with blood, and the crowner’s inquest held here.’

’He threatened to kill himself, in a letter which Mr Barrett put into my hands,’ Mr Lambert said, as he stood at the parlour door looking anxiously at his mother.  ’Come, come, mother, no harm is done.  The boy is mad, and a lot of people here have turned his head by flattering him till he is puffed up, and, like the frog in the fable, is all but bursting with conceit.  I’ll soon settle matters.  He must take away what belongs to him; there’s not much, I’ll warrant, except his manuscripts in their outlandish trashy language.  Now, keep her quiet, Miss Palmer, and don’t let her fume and fret.’

Madam Lambert took her son’s advice, and Bryda, seeing her inclined to take a nap, quietly left the room, and went downstairs to pursue her usual domestic duties.  Mrs Symes was gone to market, and the footboy had been sent with her to carry the basket of purchases, so that Bryda was alone in the kitchen regions.

Presently a quick step was heard coming down the stairs, and Chatterton appeared.

‘I am free,’ he said, ’Miss Palmer, I am free, and Bristol chains will hold me no longer.  Do they think I am sorry?  Not I!  And yet’-the boy paused-’there is my mother.  Poor soul, it will vex her sorely-and poor sister also.  Well, I shall be off to London, and then-why, Miss Palmer, then you may live to hear of me as famous.’

Bryda raised her eyes to the boy’s glowing face as he repeated the word famous, and said gently,-

’You would not, sure, think of taking your own life?  Oh, it is very dreadful-it is a sin!’

‘A sin!’ he repeated.  ’Well, I have not done it yet.  I feel vastly full of life to-day.  Old Lambert’s rating at me put some spirit into me, and I shall not die yet.’

‘Death is so solemn,’ Bryda said, ’even when God calls us to die-the leaving of the sun and all the beauty of the world for the dark grave.  I always shudder to see even a little bird dead, to think its songs are silent for ever, and its happy flights into the blue sky, and its sleep in its warm nest-

‘Ah!’ Chatterton said, ’you have a breath of poetry in you.  You can understand!’

’But what will you do in London?  It is such a big place.  And how will you live?’

’I shall try to live, and if I can’t-well, I will do what I meant to do to-morrow-die.  But,’ he went on, throwing back his head with the proud gesture peculiar to him, ’I can turn a penny to more purpose in London than here.  I have been paid for my contributions to the Town and Country Magazine, and the Middlesex Journal will take what I write and be glad.  Then I have all my “AElla”-AElla,"’ he repeated, ’I set great store by “AElla”-money will be sure to come for that and “The Tournament.”  But come and see my mother, Miss Palmer, next week, and we will have a parting visit together to the grand old church, and I will tell you more.  Oh, I am not crushed yet-not I!  I have heaps of literary stuff which may turn into gold, and I can say,-

     Hope, holy sister, sweeping through the sky,
     In crown of gold and robe of lily white,
     Which far abroad in gentle air doth fly,
     Meeting from distance the enjoyous sight,
     Albeit oft thou takest thy high flight
     Shrouded in mist and with thy blinded eyne.

‘Yes, holy sister,’ he repeated, ’I clasp thee to my heart, and away and away to London.’

‘These are beautiful words,’ Bryda said; ‘are they yours?’

’Mine? yes, they are mine.  Despair came to me in black guise when I went to old Burgum, and he vowed he had not sixpence to give me.  And as to lend money-who would lend to a beggar?  Not Burgum; he is a thrifty soul though he comes of the grand race of De Bergheim, of which he is mighty proud, poor fool!’ And Chatterton indulged in a fit of laughter, probably remembering how easily the honest pewterer had been gulled by the story of his noble ancestry, for which he had given him a crown piece.

The laugh was strange, and not a melodious sound, and almost at the same moment Mrs Symes and the footboy came into the kitchen.

‘Laughing, are you?’ she said.  ’You will have to laugh on the wrong side of your mouth, young man.  Why, the folks are all talking of you and your wickedness.  Come, I hear you have notice to quit-be off.  And as to you, Miss Palmer, I would take care what you have to do with this limb, for he is a limb and no mistake-a real limb of the Evil One.’

Chatterton did not seem much affected by Mrs Symes’ tirade.  He made a graceful bow as he left the kitchen for the last time, and with ’We shall meet again, Miss Palmer, so whispers the holy maid we spoke of just now,’ he was gone.

But although Chatterton could be indifferent to the gibes of Mrs Symes he was by no means indifferent to the censure of his best friend Mr Barrett.  The good surgeon sent for him to his house, and then said that, after a consultation with all his friends, there seemed no alternative but to agree to Mr Lambert’s giving up the indentures, and getting rid of him.

Mr Barrett had ever a kindly feeling for the wild, undisciplined boy, whose genius he recognised although he had not measured the extent of his powers.  Perhaps he knew how to awake in the boy poet his best and higher nature, for instead of receiving his reproofs and advice in a defiant manner he melted into tears, confessed that pride, his unconquerable pride, was his worst enemy, and that he would try to learn humility.  The mention of his mother’s distress affected him more than anything, and Mr Barrett, saw him depart with a sad heart.

Of all his other friends, perhaps the kindly good-natured George Catcott was the most sorely troubled.  But this Easter week in Bristol was one of great excitement, and the worthy citizens were all much occupied with their views of the great event of the time.

On Tuesday, the 17th of April, Mr Wilkes was released from prison, and all the advanced Liberals of the ancient city were to make themselves merry at the Crown Inn in honour of their hero’s triumphant release.

Bristol has always been foremost in hero-worship, though too often the Dagon at whose feet it has lain has, like Mr Wilkes, been a poor creature after all, and has fallen from his pedestal and broken himself to pieces.

As Chatterton was pacing the familiar streets, and with alternate fits of hope and the most cruel despair thinking out his future, he passed the Crown Inn, in the passage from Bond Street to Gower Lane.

Sounds of revelry and merry voices struck his ear, and he paused to listen.

There were several other hangers-on in the precincts of the inn, and they were discussing Wilkes and liberty, and the freedom of the subject, with all the keen zest of those within.

A woman jostled against Chatterton, and raised herself on tiptoe, hoping to see something through the crack in the red curtain which hung over the window of the large room where the revellers were gathered.  She was poor and ragged, and the goodly smell of the viands made her exclaim,-

’What a dinner they be having, while hundreds are starving.  Ah! starving is hard work!’

Chatterton heard the words and said,-

‘Aye, my good woman, you are right,’ and then he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out one of the very few copper coins which were left there and gave it to the woman.

‘Lord bless you, my dear,’ she said, ’you’ve a kind heart, and you look as thin as a rod yourself.  I hear,’ she said confidentially, ’they’ve got forty-five pounds of meat in there, and puddin’ and punch and baccy.  Ah! it’s a queer world, that it is!’ and then she passed on, the smell of the viands becoming more tantalising every minute.

There is something very pathetic in the position of the Bristol poet on that spring evening-alone, and as he thought deserted, and driven to despair by what he believed to be the ill-treatment of the people of Bristol.

After the lapse of a hundred and twenty years the memory of that boyish figure still haunts the streets of Bristol, and there comes a vain and helpless longing that at that critical moment of Chatterton’s life some hand of blessed charity had been stretched out to him, some word of loving counsel and sympathy offered him.

It was the young eagle chafing against the bars of his cage, wounding his wings in every vain attempt to soar above his prison house; it was the prisoner held captive by chains, of his own forging, it may be, but not the less galling.  The gift bestowed by the hand of God was soiled by its contact with earthly desires, and the Giver altogether unrecognised, and His divinity unfelt.

Chatterton, on this evening, was drifting on a sea of doubt and perplexity, nursing within angry passions of hate and revenge, and yet through all was to be seen the better self trying to assist itself, as when he gave his poor mite to the starving woman, and going to his home made his mother’s heart sing for joy as he cast off his gloom, praised the frugal supper she set before him, and told her the day was soon coming when she should feast with him in London, whither he was bent on going as soon as possible.  The very next day this scheme was rendered comparatively easy of accomplishment.

Mr Barrett, probably when discussing Chatterton’s story over the punch bowl at the Crown, got up a little subscription for him, and sent for him to communicate the intelligence on the next morning.

And now indeed Hope, holy sister, swept through the poet’s sky in crown of gold and robe of lily white.  Dire despondency was changed into raptures of joy, and his mother, though with a pain at her heart, busied herself to enter into all the little preparations for her son’s start to London-London, which meant for him a new bright world, the world of Goldsmith and Garrick, of Johnson and Burke, and who could tell if, when with the laurel crown of success on his brow, he might not meet Horace Walpole as an equal and repay his coldness with disdain.  Who could tell?  Alas that this exultant happiness in promised good should be doomed to end in the wail of sadness which was to know no note of triumph henceforth.