WHO invented them, anyway? It may be part of the Youth Illusion which possesses Age, but I seem to recall that there was a time when bells occupied their proper place in the General Scheme of Things. In that remote period they added a touch of gentle sentiment to the quiet life of our sequestered community.
The solitary village clock tolled the hours with decorum and decency, and on Sunday and Friday the church bell invited worshipers to the House of the Lord. Sleigh bells added to the joy of crisp winter mornings, and deep-toned cowbells were an aid to me in my excursions after wandering kine on remote hillsides. Bells in those days had their proper place and proper functions.
But this, like all other idyllic conditions, could not last. A prosperous son of our village, in an excess of misguided generosity, built and presented to the town a monumental structure in the top of which he placed a varied assortment of bells. Through thrift, or through an oversight, he failed to provide for the services of anyone to operate them. Inspired by a new civic pride, the town fathers made up the deficiency from the slender budget of the village and for one clamorous year the bells thundered and jangled on every possible occasion. Horses became timorous, children rebellious, women querulous, and men surly and brutal. In ten months the entire town was experiencing an advanced neurosis.
The next year the necessary appropriation was omitted from the warrant of the town meeting, and now kindly ivy is concealing the more serious architectural defects of the structure and will, in time, enfold the bells themselves in a green mantle of quiet.
Since those happy days I have wandered far, and everywhere I have found the same bell madness. I am at present occupying a small apartment in a foreign city. My abode is said to ‘ nestle beneath the shadow of the cathedral.’ This is true, if a thing can be said to ‘nestle’ which is on the top of an almost perpendicular hill, very difficult to negotiate in bad weather. But there is no doubt of the cathedral part of the description. It is there, I know it to my sorrow.
During the first months of my sojourn I noticed a growing tendency on my part to be short of speech, unfriendly in judgments, and very prone to ‘all uncharitableness.’ Then came a sudden sense of peace. Life assumed its wonted cheerfulness and the amiable qualities of my friends once more engaged my attention.
I was not long in discovering the cause of this agreeable change. The bells in the cathedral tower were, for some mysterious reason, silent. For weeks I led a life of perfect peace, undisturbed sleep, and long hours of work and reading. Then to my horror I found that these days of respite had been devoted to an entire rehabilitation of the bells and their adjustment to a new and much longer and more intricate chorus of dissonance. What helpless atoms we are in the whirlpool of circumstance, how vain it is to struggle against overwhelming odds, how futile to match one’s puny will against the great forces of a world demented! Philosophy alone can save us.
And it was to philosophy that I turned in my hour of need. I resolutely refused to allow this new torture to affect me. I argued that, if I were destined to live in the most bell-mad city of a bell-mad world, I could at least extract from the experience certain philosophic pleasures. I set myself to study the bell habits of my city. I followed closely the operations, not only of my most adjacent bells, but of all the countless others that showered the hapless city with a babel of metallic discord by day and by night.
In the first place I tried to find out what my cathedral thought it was doing. I tried to discover some semblance of tune or rhythm or cadence in its performance. So far I have been unable to do so. Certain sections of its outpourings seem fairly intelligible, but others are quite beyond me, particularly one part which seems to be devoted to a multitude of the smaller and less tuneful bells engaged in a hand-to-hand struggle to make themselves heard.
The entire programme, in its full richness, is mercifully reserved for the solemn duty of striking the hours. It is only twenty-four times a day that the city has to survive this particular ordeal, but what is vastly more annoying to me, were I to permit myself to be annoyed in my new philosophic temper, is the quarter, half, and three-quarter announcements. In my youth we used to sing ’John Brown’s Body’ in a most mirth-provoking manner. As we sang these immortal words over and over again, we dropped the last word until the entire company finished with a tumultuous rendering of the one word ‘John.’
Those in charge of my friendly enemy, the cathedral, seem to have been inspired by the same suggestion. They have divided the entire programme into parts. The first is sounded on the quarter, the first and second on the half hours, the first, second, and third on the quarter-of, and all four parts in a glorious whole on the hour. But the effect is not humorous, for it so happens that each of these sections ends on a note that has a peculiarly interrogative quality. It asks a question, it sends out over the city a brazen inquiry which quavers off into a timorous query as to things in general.
It is particularly unpleasant at night after a day rather less well spent than others. It is not agreeable to be asked three times during each still hour as to the use you have made of the day just past, the probity of your actions, and the nobility of all your purposes. Such inquiries induce neither sleep nor repentance, only a peevish dissatisfaction with all bells and all bell ringers, either human or mechanical.
The most sonorous, and I have no doubt the largest, of this collection of bells is devoted, however, to one diverting and human purpose. The meetings of the august City Council are held in or near the cathedral, and the arrival of each member is announced by a single stroke of the bell. I do not need to see them, I can hear them coming. Gentlemen of portly habit, busily important with their civic duties and dignities, breathlessly climbing up the ill-paved and precipitous street. Longcontinued attendance at these meetings will either kill them or greatly improve their figures. The conscientious ones arrive early in groups of threes and fours, and the bell hurries to announce their advent. I know their type. Prompt, efficient, brisk in manner and a bit domineering, they control the proceedings. Then the less efficient ones arrive at irregular intervals. The one, however, who has my most affectionate regard is he who arrives last. After a long interval, during which there have been much irritation and the consulting of watches by the efficient ones, there comes a final stroke of the bell and I know that the laggard has arrived. I can see his smiling and somewhat apologetic entrance, and the frowning dignity of the chairman as he calls the meeting to belated order. This I record as the single pleasure a bell has ever afforded me since ray early youth.
I have no suggestion to offer. I am not, and never have been, a ‘constructive critic.’ Like other prophets, I see no light ahead. As bells decline, — if they are declining, which I doubt, — horns increase. Which of the two I dislike most I do not know, but this I wall say for the horns: I have yet to hear one that asks embarrassing questions.