Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


I REMEMBER once, in a day's tramp in Warwickshire, I was directed to some place which I wished to reach by the help, among other landmarks, of a wayside ale-house which bore for its sign "The Old Ring of Bells." Whenever I have heard the sound of bells or thought of them--and that is very often, for I love the church bells whether in town or country--I have remembered that sign with pleasure, not only as a relief from the most part of signs, alternating between the equally impossible monsters White Lions and Blue Boars, but because it seems to me that there is something additionally pleasant in the word " Old," as if though the ring or chime of bells had become useless by age and had been replaced by a new one, the people still remembered with affection the old sound which had so often reached them over the tree-tops, calling them from all the country round to their devotions in the church. However this may have been, that love of the bells which doubtless influenced the choice of the village host seems to be common with everybody, and I think we cannot wonder at it. Independently of the material pleasure we derive from the sweet soothing of the sound, whether it comes "over flowery fields and shadowed waters in the heat of summer," as sweetly as the southwest wind of Arcadia came to the ear of Sidney, or whether, in winter, it come more sullenly through the frosty air over frozen waters and white fields, independent of this material pleasure, there are, associated with the ringing of the bells some of the most pleasant recollections that cheer the heart of man. They are indeed a living on of the past into the present, and I sometimes wonder, in this material age, why they have not been discontinued. They belong to a time when clocks and watches were few and, in the country, rarely to be met with, and then indeed the bells were wanted to call the people to the churches. It is pleasant to think of all the Sabbaths since England was peopled, when all the steeples, all over the land, have rung out their chime-voices to the glory of God. Pleasant also is it to think of what times of trouble these bells have rung out in, soothing and calming the minds of men. In the great Civil Wars, when the unaccustomed sounds of battle and death startled the fields of rural England, preaching how different a lesson from the rattle of the musquetry! Before the battle of Edgehill, when the royal army was standing on the top of the hill waiting to begin the conflict, the sweet tones of the bells from the many churches in the plain below came up through the still Sabbath morning air, and reached the ears of the King. "Those bells," he said, "preach peace, forgiveness, and goodwill to men, and we go forward to fight!" And when the Earl of Northampton marched out of Stafford to the battle of Hopton Heath, where he was slain, the church bells were ringing for the afternoon service as he rode through the streets. Indeed, the Sabbath bells are so mixed up with all the pleasantest and everyday recollections of our lives, from our earliest childhood to our last long resting-place, that the sound of them seems naturally to form itself into legends like the following relation, concerning a village chime of bells, which has led to the foregoing remarks.

Many years ago, perhaps almost a century, when men still wore cocked hats and swords and lace clothes, there was a small village in one of the Midland counties of England that possessed, as many small villages do, a fine large church and a very beautiful ring of bells. These bells, cast in the old popish times, had plenty of silver in them, and their soft lingering sound would rest lovingly upon the tops of the sunny wood and over the fields. About a mile from the church, but in full view of it over the meadows, there was an old red-brick house which belonged to a family who had lived there for more than four hundred years, of the name of Field. They had never produced any very remarkable men,--many of them indeed had been justices of the peace, two had been deputy-lieutenants, and one, in latter times, member for the county,--but this had been the height of their, greatness. They were, nevertheless, well thought of and beloved by their neighbours, to whom, when they needed help, they were very charitable. I say neighbours because, though a wealthy family and well-landed, they were not lords of the manor on which they lived.

To this red-brick house over the fields came every Sabbath and holy day the sound of the church bells. On the still Sabbath mornings in the bright summer time it came in through the open windows, mingling with the sweet scent of flowers and the pleasant rustling of the leaves. In the winter it came loudly through the frosty air, over the bare trees. It was hard to tell when it came most sweetly--in the sultry summer afternoons, or when in winter it sounded solemnly through the dark evenings. And they seldom rang in vain; for year after year, soon after they began ringing, generation after generation of the Fields left their old house, and going out through the garden and along the footpath over the fields, passed through the little gate in the low wall of the churchyard, and so on into the church, to their great old pew in the chancel. And if any were left behind through sickness, or to watch by a sickbed, they would listen to the sound of the bells till they ceased, and then in their minds they followed the service they had so often joined in, and which was then going on in the church. And one of the Fields departed out of this transitory life one bright Sabbath morning in summer, when the bells were ringing for the morning service, and some present would have closed the window of the room and shut out the sound, but he stopped them and caused himself to be raised up in the bed that he might look out over the green fields to the church, and when the bells ceased he fell back and soon after died--gone, as his friends humbly trusted, to the great living Church in heaven, there to join in everlasting praise and thanksgiving.

But there came a time, about which I am going to write, when the red-brick house over the fields was inhabited by only three persons who bore the name of Field. Edward Field and his sister Belinda were orphans, their parents having died when they were very young. They lived here with an old maiden lady who was some far-off cousin, and who kept house for them. In their childhood they went regularly to the church, and the sound of the bells spoke peacefully to their consciences. But when Edward Field grew up he became a fine gentleman, and spent most of his time in London--at Ranelagh or in the Parks--at theatres or gambling at White's or at Almack's Tavern. When he came down to his home he brought gentlemen with him who drank deep and late into the night, and the villagers going homeward could hear their drinking songs through the open windows of the dining-room. Then they would get up late and tired in the morning and would not go to church, and Edward would try to persuade his sister not to go either; and sometimes she did not, and sometimes she would yield to the entreaties of the good old lady who lived with them, and go with her; so that there seemed to be a conflict for the soul of the beautiful young girl (for she, like all the Fields, was very handsome). But the old lady always went to church, as she had done all her life, and would sit alone often in the large old pew, very sad and sorrowful, and pray that better times might come; and sometimes when the people were going into the church, or even while the service was performing, Mr. Edward would ride by, and the grand gentlemen, his friends, that were with him, calling to their dogs; but this was always when Miss Belinda went to church, for when she stayed with them she kept them from riding through the village.

And now, when he never went to church, Edward Field could not bear to hear the bells, either when they woke him out of his late sleep in the morning, or when they disturbed him in the evening as he sat drinking after dinner. As he was not lord of the manor nor even landlord of the village, he had not sufficient influence to stop the bells altogether, but he tried in all sorts of ways to prevent them being rung. He bribed the ringers to feign themselves ill, or to go away from their homes suddenly, or he sent for them up to his house and made them drunk and locked them up over night. But one way or another some one was always found to ring the bells at the right time, and he was always disappointed. The old clergyman, who had known his father, often spoke with him and laboured hard to convince him of his sin, but to no avail.

Time went on, and he grew worse and worse. He would ride out hunting on the Sabbath day, and make his hounds run the fox through the village, and one morning they killed him in the churchyard while service was performing. Indeed he went so far that the gentlemen who came down to see him refused to accompany him, and even went to church to show they disapproved of his conduct. His sister too went there oftener than before.

At last one day he had two young gentlemen stopping with him, wild and reckless as himself; they resolved over their wine that the next Sunday the bells should not be rung. They kept their intention a secret from Miss Belinda, for fear she should reveal it, and took their measures so well that they bribed or sent everybody out of the place who knew how to ring the bells. The sexton was to leave the village very early in the morning on pretence of some urgent business, and the gentlemen ordered their horses to be ready at the usual hour when the bells began to ring.

It was a fine autumn morning--one of those bright cold days at the end of summer that remind one of sunlight streaming upon some old marble effigy.

At the time appointed, they mounted their horses and rode off towards the village. The horse-road was not so near as the path over the fields, and they had to make a circuit. They rode along, laughing at the perplexity the people of the village would be in, and the astonishment of the good clergyman when he came to the church and found it closed. They were now in full sight of the church, and the time was come when the bells ought to ring.

Suddenly, to their intense astonishment, there arose upon the air from the steeple where the bells were, a peal louder, nearer, and more beautiful by far than they had ever rung before. It swept over the fields and woods, which were in their autumn foliage, and ascended up joyfully into the blue sky. Edward Field and his companions looked at each other with blank faces of dismay; the grooms, who were not in the secret, were astonished at the beauty of the sound. With a fierce exclamation Mr. Field put spurs to his horse, and, leaping the hedges, rode straight across the fields to the church, followed by his friends. The wonderful peal still continued, and when they reached the wall of the churchyard, the people were mostly come out of their houses, and were thronging to it. The clergyman was there waiting for the keys, for all the doors were fast locked. The men who brought them at last said that the sexton was gone from home, suddenly, on some business. The ringing of the bells still kept on, the door of the tower was open, and the clergyman, followed by the three gentlemen, went in. The place was quite empty, the ropes hung down motionless, and the bells above were quite still, but up in the steeple where the bells were, there was a great ringing as of a most beautiful chime or ring of bells. The clergyman turned round to the young men, who were trembling, their faces deadly pale. "This is the hand of God," he said, solemnly. "If any one here knows anything of this, let him take it for a warning, for assuredly it is a gracious sign permitted from heaven." The three gentlemen said nothing, but they pulled off their hats and went up the aisle to the old pew, dusty and mouldy from want of use, and knelt down with one accord to pray; and just then, the people being all assembled, the ringing ceased of its own accord, and the organ played solemn and grand music, and the morning service began:

When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Project Canterbury