Read CHAPTER XV - RINGING THE CURFEW of Frank Fairlegh Scenes From The Life Of A Private Pupil , free online book, by Frank E Smedley, on ReadCentral.com.

     If the bell have any sides the clapper will find em.-
     -Ben Jonson.

“ -ringing changes all our bells hath marr’d,
Jangled they have and jarr’d
So long, they’re out of tune, and out of frame;

They seem not now the same.  Put them in frame anew, and once begin To tune them so, that they may chime all in. -Herbert.

Great then are the mysteries of bell-ringing:  and this may be said in its praise, that of all devices which men have sought out for obtaining distinction by making a noise in the world, it is the most harmless. -The Doctor.

AS we proceeded through the town Lawless, despite our endeavours to restrain him, chose to vent his superabundant spirits by performing sundry feats at the expense of the public, which, had the police regulations of the place been properly attended to, would have assuredly gained us a sojourn in the watch-house. We had just prevailed upon him to move on, after singing “We won’t go home till morning” under the windows of “the Misses Properprim’s Seminary for Young Ladies,” when a little shrivelled old man, in a sort of watchman’s white greatcoat, bearing a horn lantern in his hand, brushed past us, and preceded us down the street at a shuffling trot.

“Holloa!” cried Lawless, “who’s that old picture of ugliness? Look what a pace the beggar’s cutting along at! what on earth’s he up to?”

“That’s the sexton and bell-ringer,” returned Coleman; “they keep up the old custom at Hillingford of ringing the curfew at daybreak, and he’s going about it now, I suppose.”

“What jolly fun!” said Lawless; “come on, and let’s see how the old cock does it; “and, suiting the action to the word, off he started in pursuit.

“We’d better follow him,” said I; “he’ll be getting into some mischief or other, depend upon it.”

After running a short distance down the street, on turning a corner we found Lawless standing under a small arched door-way leading into a curious old battlemented tower, which did not form part of any church or other building of the same date as itself, but stood alone, 130~showing, as it reared its time-worn head high above the more modern dwellings of which the street was composed, like some giant relic of the days of old. This tower contained a peal of bells, the fame of which was great in that part of the country, and of which the townspeople were justly proud.

“All right!” cried Lawless; “the old scarecrow ran in here like a lamp-lighter, as soon he saw me bowling after him, and has left the key in the lock; so I shall take the liberty of exploring a little; I’ve a strong though undeveloped taste for architectural antiquities. Twopence more, and up goes the donkey! come along!”

So saying, he flung open the door, and disappeared up some steps leading to the interior of the tower, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Coleman and I followed him.

“Don’t be alarmed, old boy!” observed Lawless, patting the sexton (who looked frightened out of his wits at our intrusion) so forcibly on the back as to set him coughing violently; “we’re not come to murder you for the sake of your lantern.”

“This gentleman,” said Coleman, who by the cunning twinkle of his eye was evidently becoming possessed by the spirit of mischief, “has been sent down by the Venerable Society of Antiquaries to ascertain whether the old custom of ringing the Curfew is properly performed here. He is, in fact, no other than the Noble President of the Society himself. That gentleman (pointing to me) is the Vice-President, and I, who have the honour of addressing you, am the unworthy Secretary.”

“That’s it, Daddy,” resumed Lawless, coolly taking up the lantern, and lighting a cigar; “that’s the precise state of the poll, I mean case; so now go to work, and mind you do the trick properly.”

Thus adjured, the old man, who appeared completely bewildered by all that was going on, mechanically took hold of a rope, and began slowly and at stated intervals tolling one of the bells.

“Where are your assistants, my good man?” inquired Coleman after a short pause.-The only answer was a stare of vacant surprise, and Coleman continued, “Why, you don’t mean to say you only ring one bell, to be sure? oh, this is all wrong:-what do you say, Mr. President?”

“Wrong?” replied Lawless, removing the cigar from his mouth and puffing a cloud of smoke into the sexton’s face, “I should just think it was, most particularly and confoundedly wrong. I’ll tell you what it is, old death’s-head and cross-bones; things can’t be allowed to go on 131~in this manner. Reform, sir, is wanting, ’the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill’. I mean to get into Parliament some day, Fairlegh, when I am tired of knocking about, you know-but that wasn’t exactly what I was going to say.”

“Suppose we show him the proper way to do it, Mr. President!” suggested Freddy, catching hold of the rope of one of the bells.

“Off she goes,” cried Lawless, seizing another.

“Gentlemen, good gentlemen, don’t ring the bells, pray,” implored the old man, “you’ll raise the whole town; they are never rung in that way without there’s a fire, or a flood, or the riot act read, or something of that dreadful natur the matter.”

But his expostulations were vain. Lawless had already begun ringing his bell in a manner which threatened to stun us all; and Coleman saying to me, “Come, Frank, we’re regularly in for it, so you may as well take a rope and do the thing handsomely while we are about it; it would be horridly shabby of you to desert us now,” I hastened to follow his example.

Now it must be known that when I arrived at the inn, before supper, owing probably to a combination of the fatigue of the day, the excitement of the evening and the pain of my arm, I felt somewhat faint and exhausted, and should have greatly preferred going at once quietly to bed; but, as I was aware that by so doing I should break up the party I resolved to keep up as well as I could, and say nothing about it. Finding myself refreshed by the bottled porter, I repeated the dose several times, and the remedy continuing to prove efficacious, without giving the thing a thought, I drank more deeply than was my wont, and was a good deal surprised, when I rose to accompany the others, to discover that my legs were slightly unsteady, and my head not so clear as usual. Still I had been far from approving the proceedings of my companions, and had any one told me, when I entered the tower, that I was going to ring all the good people of Hillingford out of their beds in a fright, I should indignantly have repelled the accusation. Now, however, owing to the way in which Coleman had requested my assistance, it appeared to my bewildered senses that I should be meanly deserting my friends the moment they had got into difficulties, if I were to refuse; but when he used the word “shabby,” it settled the business, and, seizing a rope with my uninjured hand, I began pulling away vigorously.

132~"Now, then, you wretched old beggar,” shouted Lawless, “don’t stand there winking and blinking like an owl; pull away like bricks, or I’ll break your neck for you; go to work, I say!” and the miserable sexton, with a mute gesture of despair, resuming his occupation, a peal of four bells was soon ringing bravely out over hill and dale, and making “night horrible” to the startled inhabitants of Hillingford.

After the lapse of a few minutes a distant shout was heard; then a confused noise of people running and calling to each other in the streets reached our ears; and lastly the sound of several persons rapidly approaching the bell-tower became audible.

“We’re in for a scrimmage now, I expect,” said Lawless, leisurely turning up his sleeves.

“Not a bit of it,” replied Freddy; “only leave it to me, and you’ll see. All you fellows have got to do is to hold your tongues, and keep on ringing away till your arms ache; trust me to manage the thing all right. Lawless, keep your eye on ancient Methuselah there, and if he offers to say a word just knock him head over heels by accident, will you?”

“Aye, aye, sir,” replied Lawless, shaking his fists significantly at the sexton.

At this moment a short fat man with a very red face (who we afterwards learned was no less a person than the mayor of Hillingford in his public, and a mighty tallow-chandler in his private, capacity) appeared, attired in a night-cap and greatcoat, and bearing the rest of his wardrobe under his arm, followed by several of the townspeople, all in a singular state of undress, and with the liveliest alarm depicted on their countenances. The worthy mayor was so much out of breath by his unwonted exertions that some seconds elapsed before he could utter a word, and in the meantime we continued ringing as though our lives depended upon it. At length he contrived to gasp out a hurried inquiry (hardly audible amidst the clanging of the bells) as to what was the matter. To this Coleman replied by pointing with one hand to a kind of loop-hole, of which there were several for the purpose of supplying light and air to the interior of the tower, while with the other hand he continued ringing away more lustily than before.

“Bless my soul!” exclaimed the mayor, raising himself on tiptoe, and stretching his short neck in a vain endeavour to peep through the loop-hole, “it must be a fire in West Street!”

133~Two or three of the by-standers immediately rushed into the street, calling out, “A fire in West Street! send for the engines”.

At this moment Freddy caught the eye of a tall, gaunt-looking man in a top-boot and plush breeches, but without coat or waistcoat, and wearing a gold-laced cocked hat on his head, hind part before, from beneath which peeped out a white cotton night-cap. Having succeeded in attracting the attention of this worthy, who in his proper person supported the dignity of parish beadle, Coleman repeated the same stratagem he had so successfully practised upon the mayor, save that in this instance he pointed to a loop-hole in a completely opposite direction to the one he had indicated previously. The beadle immediately ran out, muttering ere he did so, “I was certain sure as they was all wrong".-In another minute we heard him shouting, “It’s in Middle Street, I tell you, there’s a fire in Middle Street!”

Coleman now turned to the mayor, who, having somewhat recovered his breath, was evidently preparing to question the sexton as to the particulars of the affair, and exclaimed in a tone of deep feeling, “I am surprised to see a person of your high station standing idle at a moment like this! take a rope, sir, and lend a hand to assist us, if you be a man”.

“To be sure, to be sure,” was the reply, “anything for the good of the town,” and, grasping an unoccupied rope, he began pulling away with all his might.

The hubbub and confusion now became something unparalleled-people without number kept running in and out of the tower, giving and receiving all kinds of contradictory orders; volunteers had been found to assist us, and the whole peal of eight bells was clashing and clanging away above the tumult, and spreading the alarm farther and wider; men on horseback were arriving from the country eager to render assistance; women were screaming, dogs barking, children crying; and, to crown the whole, a violent and angry debate was being carried on by the more influential members of the crowd as to the quarter in which the supposed conflagration was raging-one party loudly declaring it was in Middle Street, while the other as vehemently protested it was in West Street.

The confusion had apparently attained its highest pitch, and the noise was perfectly deafening, when suddenly a shout was raised, “The engines! clear the way for the engines!” and in another moment the scampering of the 134~crowd in all directions, the sound of horses’ feet galloping, and the rattle of wheels, announced their approach. While all this was going on Coleman had contrived silently and unperceived to substitute two of the by-standers in my place and his own, so that Lawless was the only one of our party actually engaged in ringing. Seizing the moment, therefore, when the shout of “The engines!” had attracted the attention of the loiterers, he touched him on the shoulder, saying, “Now’s our time, come along,” and, joining a party who were going out, we reached the door of the bell-tower unobserved.

The scene which presented itself to our view as we gained the open street would require the pencil of a Wilkie, or the pen of a Dickens, to describe. The street widened in front of the bell-tower, so as to make a kind of square. In the centre of the space thus formed stood the fire-engine drawn by four post-horses, the post-boys sitting erect in their saddles, ready to dash forward the moment the firemen (who in their green coats faced with red, and shining leather helmets, imparted a somewhat military character to the scene) should succeed in ascertaining the place at which their assistance was required. The crowd, which had opened to admit the passage of the engine, immediately closed round it again in an apparently impenetrable phalanx, the individual members of which afforded as singular a variety of costume as can well be imagined, extending from the simple shirt of propriety to the decorated uniforms of the fire-brigade. As every one who had an opinion to give was bawling it out at the very top of his voice, whilst those who had none contented themselves by shouting vague sentences devoid of particular meaning of any kind, the noise and tumult were such as beggared description. There was one short, stout, red-faced little fellow (for I succeeded in catching sight of him at last) with a mouth of such fearful dimensions that when it was open the upper half of his head appeared a mere lid, whose intellects being still partially under the dominion of sleep, evidently imagined himself at the Election, which had taken place a short time previously, and continued strenuously vociferating the name of his favourite candidate, though the cry of “Judkins for ever!” did not tend greatly to elucidate matters. Suddenly, and at the very height of the confusion, the bells ceased ringing, and for a moment, as if influenced by some supernatural power, the crowd to a man became silent.

The transition from the Babel of sounds I have been 135~describing to such perfect tranquillity was most striking, and impressed one with an involuntary feeling of awe. I was aroused by Coleman, who whispered in an undertone, “The sexton has peached, depend upon it, and the sooner we’re off the better”.

“Yes, and I’ll go in style too; so good-bye, and take care of yourselves,” exclaimed Lawless, and, springing forward, before any one was aware of his intention, he forced his way through the crowd, overturning sundry members thereof in his progress, until he reached the fire-engine, upon which he seated himself with a bound, shouting as he did so: “Forward, forward! do you want the place to be burnt to the ground? I’ll show you the way; give ’em the spur; faster, faster, straight on till I tell you to turn-faster, I say!”

The appearance of authority, coupled with energy and decision, will usually control a crowd. The firemen, completely taken in by Lawless’s manner, reiterated his orders; the post-boys applied both whip and spur vigorously-the horses dashed forward, and, amidst the enthusiastic cheering of the mob, the engine disappeared like a flash of lightning.

“Well, I give the Honourable George credit for that,” exclaimed Coleman, as soon as we had a little recovered from our surprise at Lawless’s elopement with the fire-engine; “it was a good idea, and he worked it out most artistically; the air with which he waved his hat to cheer them forward was quite melodramatic. I’ve seen the thing not half so well done by several of the greatest generals who ever lived-gallant commanders, whom their men would have followed through any amount of the reddest possible fire during the whole of Astley’s campaigns, that is, if the commissariat department (consisting of the pot-boy stationed at the side-scenes with the porter) did its duty efficiently.”

“Freddy, they’re beginning to come out from the bell-tower,” interrupted I; “we shall be called upon to answer for our misdeeds if we stay much longer; see, that long man in the cocked hat is coming towards us.”

“So he is,” returned Coleman; “it strikes me they’ve found us out; follow me, and try and look as if it wasn’t you as much as possible, will you?” So saying, he began to make his way out of the crowd unperceived, an example I hastened to follow; but we were not destined to effect our purpose quite so easily. The point Coleman wished to gain was an arched gateway leading into a stable-yard, from which he hoped, by a foot-path with which he was acquainted, across some fields, to reach 136~without molestation the inn where I was to sleep.  But, in order to effect this, we were obliged to pass the door of the bell-tower, from which several people, who appeared angry and excited, were now issuing.  The foremost of those, the cock-hatted official before mentioned, made his way up to us, exclaiming as he did so:-

“Here, you young gen’lmen, just you stop a bit, will yer? His Wusshup, the mayor, seems to begin to think as somebody’s been a making a fool of him.”

“A very natural idea,” returned Coleman; “I only wonder it never occurred to him before; as far as my limited acquaintance with him will allow me to judge, the endeavour appears to have been perfectly successful. I wish you a very good-morning.”

“That’s all wery fine, but I must trouble yer to come along o’ me; his Wusshup wants to speak to yer,” replied the beadle, seizing Coleman by the coat-collar.

“That is a pleasure his ‘Wusshup’ must contrive to postpone till he has caught me,” answered Freddy, as with a sudden jerk he succeeded in freeing himself from his captor’s grasp, while, almost at the same moment, he dealt him a cuff on the side of the head which sent him reeling back to the door of the bell-tower, where encountering the mayor, who had just made his appearance, he came headlong to the ground, dragging that illustrious functionary down with him in a frantic endeavour to save himself. Profiting by the confusion that ensued Freddy and I sprang forward, darted through the archway, and, making the best use of our legs, soon found ourselves in the open fields, and quite beyond the reach of pursuit.