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Title: A Bell's Biography
Author: Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Bell's Biography" ***


A Bell’s Biography

by Nathaniel Hawthorne



Hearken to our neighbor with the iron tongue. While I sit musing over
my sheet of foolscap, he emphatically tells the hour, in tones loud
enough for all the town to hear, though doubtless intended only as a
gentle hint to myself, that I may begin his biography before the
evening shall be further wasted. Unquestionably, a personage in such an
elevated position, and making so great a noise in the world, has a fair
claim to the services of a biographer. He is the representative and
most illustrious member of that innumerable class, whose characteristic
feature is the tongue, and whose sole business, to clamor for the
public good. If any of his noisy brethren, in our tongue-governed
democracy, be envious of the superiority which I have assigned him,
they have my free consent to hang themselves as high as he. And, for
his history, let not the reader apprehend an empty repetition of
ding-dong-bell. He has been the passive hero of wonderful vicissitudes,
with which I have chanced to become acquainted, possibly from his own
mouth; while the careless multitude supposed him to be talking merely
of the time of day, or calling them to dinner or to church, or bidding
drowsy people go bedward, or the dead to their graves. Many a
revolution has it been his fate to go through, and invariably with a
prodigious uproar. And whether or no he have told me his reminiscences,
this at least is true, that the more I study his deep-toned language,
the more sense, and sentiment, and soul, do I discover in it.

This bell—for we may as well drop our quaint personification—is of
antique French manufacture, and the symbol of the cross betokens that
it was meant to be suspended in the belfry of a Romish place of
worship. The old people hereabout have a tradition, that a considerable
part of the metal was supplied by a brass cannon, captured in one of
the victories of Louis the Fourteenth over the Spaniards, and that a
Bourbon princess threw her golden crucifix into the molten mass. It is
said, likewise, that a bishop baptized and blessed the bell, and prayed
that a heavenly influence might mingle with its tones. When all due
ceremonies had been performed, the Grand Monarque bestowed the
gift—than which none could resound his beneficence more loudly—on the
Jesuits, who were then converting the American Indians to the spiritual
dominion of the Pope. So the bell,—our self-same bell, whose familiar
voice we may hear at all hours, in the streets,—this very bell sent
forth its first-born accents from the tower of a log-built chapel,
westward of Lake Champlain, and near the mighty stream of the St.
Lawrence. It was called Our Lady’s Chapel of the Forest. The peal went
forth as if to redeem and consecrate the heathen wilderness. The wolf
growled at the sound, as he prowled stealthily through the underbrush;
the grim bear turned his back, and stalked sullenly away; the startled
doe leaped up, and led her fawn into a deeper solitude. The red men
wondered what awful voice was speaking amid the wind that roared
through the tree-tops; and, following reverentially its summons, the
dark-robed fathers blessed them, as they drew near the cross-crowned
chapel. In a little time, there was a crucifix on every dusky bosom.
The Indians knelt beneath the lowly roof, worshipping in the same forms
that were observed under the vast dome of St. Peter’s, when the Pope
performed high mass in the presence of kneeling princes. All the
religious festivals, that awoke the chiming bells of lofty cathedrals,
called forth a peal from Our Lady’s Chapel of the Forest. Loudly rang
the bell of the wilderness while the streets of Paris echoed with
rejoicings for the birthday of the Bourbon, or whenever France had
triumphed on some European battle-field. And the solemn woods were
saddened with a melancholy knell, as often as the thick-strewn leaves
were swept away from the virgin soil, for the burial of an Indian
chief.

Meantime, the bells of a hostile people and a hostile faith were
ringing on Sabbaths and lecture-days, at Boston and other Puritan
towns. Their echoes died away hundreds of miles southeastward of Our
Lady’s Chapel. But scouts had threaded the pathless desert that lay
between, and, from behind the huge tree-trunks, perceived the Indians
assembling at the summons of the bell. Some bore flaxen-haired scalps
at their girdles, as if to lay those bloody trophies on Our Lady’s
altar. It was reported, and believed, all through New England, that the
Pope of Rome, and the King of France, had established this little
chapel in the forest, for the purpose of stirring up the red men to a
crusade against the English settlers. The latter took energetic
measures to secure their religion and their lives. On the eve of an
especial fast of the Romish Church, while the bell tolled dismally, and
the priests were chanting a doleful stave, a band of New England
rangers rushed from the surrounding woods. Fierce shouts, and the
report of musketry, pealed suddenly within the chapel. The ministering
priests threw themselves before the altar, and were slain even on its
steps. If, as antique traditions tell us, no grass will grow where the
blood of martyrs has been shed, there should be a barren spot, to this
very day, on the site of that desecrated altar.

While the blood was still plashing from step to step, the leader of the
rangers seized a torch, and applied it to the drapery of the shrine.
The flame and smoke arose, as from a burnt-sacrifice, at once
illuminating and obscuring the whole interior of the chapel,—now hiding
the dead priests in a sable shroud, now revealing them and their
slayers in one terrific glare. Some already wished that the altar-smoke
could cover the deed from the sight of Heaven. But one of the rangers—a
man of sanctified aspect, though his hands were bloody—approached the
captain.

“Sir,” said he, “our village meeting-house lacks a bell, and hitherto
we have been fain to summon the good people to worship by beat of drum.
Give me, I pray you, the bell of this popish chapel, for the sake of
the godly Mr. Rogers, who doubtless hath remembered us in the prayers
of the congregation, ever since we began our march. Who can tell what
share of this night’s good success we owe to that holy man’s wrestling
with the Lord?”

“Nay, then,” answered the captain, “if good Mr. Rogers hath holpen our
enterprise, it is right that he should share the spoil. Take the bell
and welcome, Deacon Lawson, if you will be at the trouble of carrying
it home. Hitherto it hath spoken nothing but papistry, and that too in
the French or Indian gibberish; but I warrant me, if Mr. Rogers
consecrate it anew, it will talk like a good English and Protestant
bell.”

So Deacon Lawson and half a score of his townsmen took down the bell,
suspended it on a pole, and bore it away on their sturdy shoulders,
meaning to carry it to the shore of Lake Champlain, and thence homeward
by water. Far through the woods gleamed the flames of Our Lady’s
Chapel, flinging fantastic shadows from the clustered foliage, and
glancing on brooks that had never caught the sunlight. As the rangers
traversed the midnight forest, staggering under their heavy burden, the
tongue of the bell gave many a tremendous stroke,—clang, clang,
clang!—a most doleful sound, as if it were tolling for the slaughter of
the priests and the ruin of the chapel. Little dreamed Deacon Lawson
and his townsmen that it was their own funeral knell. A war-party of
Indians had heard the report, of musketry, and seen the blaze of the
chapel, and now were on the track of the rangers, summoned to vengeance
by the bell’s dismal murmurs. In the midst of a deep swamp, they made a
sudden onset on the retreating foe. Good Deacon Lawson battled stoutly,
but had his skull cloven by a tomahawk, and sank into the depths of the
morass, with the ponderous bell above him. And, for many a year
thereafter, our hero’s voice was heard no more on earth, neither at the
hour of worship, nor at festivals nor funerals.

And is he still buried in that unknown grave? Scarcely so, dear reader.
Hark! How plainly we hear him at this moment, the spokesman of Time,
proclaiming that it is nine o’clock at night! We may therefore safely
conclude that some happy chance has restored him to upper air.

But there lay the bell, for many silent years; and the wonder is, that
he did not lie silent there a century, or perhaps a dozen centuries,
till the world should have forgotten not only his voice, but the voices
of the whole brotherhood of bells. How would the first accent of his
iron tongue have startled his resurrectionists! But he was not fated to
be a subject of discussion among the antiquaries of far posterity. Near
the close of the Old French War, a party of New England axe-men, who
preceded the march of Colonel Bradstreet toward Lake Ontario, were
building a bridge of logs through a swamp. Plunging down a stake, one
of these pioneers felt it graze against some hard, smooth substance. He
called his comrades, and, by their united efforts, the top of the bell
was raised to the surface, a rope made fast to it, and thence passed
over the horizontal limb of a tree. Heave ho! up they hoisted their
prize, dripping with moisture, and festooned with verdant water-moss.
As the base of the bell emerged from the swamp, the pioneers perceived
that a skeleton was clinging with its bony fingers to the clapper, but
immediately relaxing its nerveless grasp, sank back into the stagnant
water. The bell then gave forth a sullen clang. No wonder that he was
in haste to speak, after holding his tongue for such a length of time!
The pioneers shoved the bell to and fro, thus ringing a loud and heavy
peal, which echoed widely through the forest, and reached the ears of
Colonel Bradstreet, and his three thousand men. The soldiers paused on
their march; a feeling of religion, mingled with borne-tenderness,
overpowered their rude hearts; each seemed to hear the clangor of the
old church-bell, which had been familiar to hint from infancy, and had
tolled at the funerals of all his forefathers. By what magic had that
holy sound strayed over the wide-murmuring ocean, and become audible
amid the clash of arms, the loud crashing of the artillery over the
rough wilderness-path, and the melancholy roar of the wind among the
boughs?

The New-Englanders hid their prize in a shadowy nook, betwixt a large
gray stone and the earthy roots of an overthrown tree; and when the
campaign was ended, they conveyed our friend to Boston, and put him up
at auction on the sidewalk of King Street. He was suspended, for the
nonce, by a block and tackle, and being swung backward and forward,
gave such loud and clear testimony to his own merits, that the
auctioneer had no need to say a word. The highest bidder was a rich old
representative from our town, who piously bestowed the bell on the
meeting-house where he had been a worshipper for half a century. The
good man had his reward. By a strange coincidence, the very first duty
of the sexton, after the bell had been hoisted into the belfry, was to
toll the funeral knell of the donor. Soon, however, those doleful
echoes were drowned by a triumphant peal for the surrender of Quebec.

Ever since that period, our hero has occupied the same elevated
station, and has put in his word on all matters of public importance,
civil, military, or religious. On the day when Independence was first
proclaimed in the street beneath, he uttered a peal which many deemed
ominous and fearful, rather than triumphant. But he has told the same
story these sixty years, and none mistake his meaning now. When
Washington, in the fulness of his glory, rode through our flower-strewn
streets, this was the tongue that bade the Father of his Country
welcome! Again the same voice was heard, when La Fayette came to gather
in his half-century’s harvest of gratitude. Meantime, vast changes have
been going on below. His voice, which once floated over a little
provincial seaport, is now reverberated between brick edifices, and
strikes the ear amid the buzz and tumult of a city. On the Sabbaths of
olden time, the summons of the bell was obeyed by a picturesque and
varied throng; stately gentlemen in purple velvet coats, embroidered
waistcoats, white wigs, and gold-laced hats, stepping with grave
courtesy beside ladies in flowered satin gowns, and hoop-petticoats of
majestic circumference; while behind followed a liveried slave or
bondsman, bearing the psalm-book, and a stove for his mistress’s feet.
The commonalty, clad in homely garb, gave precedence to their betters
at the door of the meetinghouse, as if admitting that there were
distinctions between them, even in the sight of God. Yet, as their
coffins were borne one after another through the street, the bell has
tolled a requiem for all alike. What mattered it, whether or no there
were a silver scutcheon on the coffin-lid? “Open thy bosom, Mother
Earth!” Thus spake the bell. “Another of thy children is coming to his
long rest. Take him to thy bosom, and let him slumber in peace.” Thus
spake the bell, and Mother Earth received her child. With the self-same
tones will the present generation be ushered to the embraces of their
mother; and Mother Earth will still receive her children. Is not thy
tongue a-weary, mournful talker of two centuries? O funeral bell! wilt
thou never be shattered with thine own melancholy strokes? Yea, and a
trumpet-call shall arouse the sleepers, whom thy heavy clang could
awake no more!

Again—again thy voice, reminding me that I am wasting the “midnight
oil.” In my lonely fantasy, I can scarce believe that other mortals
have caught the sound, or that it vibrates elsewhere than in my secret
soul. But to many hast thou spoken. Anxious men have heard thee on
their sleepless pillows, and bethought themselves anew of to-morrow’s
care. In a brief interval of wakefulness, the sons of toil have heard
thee, and say, “Is so much of our quiet slumber spent?—is the morning
so near at hand?” Crime has heard thee, and mutters, “Now is the very
hour!” Despair answers thee, “Thus much of this weary life is gone!”
The young mother, on her bed of pain and ecstasy, has counted thy
echoing strokes, and dates from them her first-born’s share of life and
immortality. The bridegroom and the bride have listened, and feel that
their night of rapture flits like a dream away. Thine accents have
fallen faintly on the ear of the dying man, and warned him that, ere
thou speakest again, his spirit shall have passed whither no voice of
time can ever reach. Alas for the departing traveller, if thy voice—the
voice of fleeting time—have taught him no lessons for Eternity!





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