“What are you reading?” asked Durtal, wishing to change a subject which he judged to be dangerous.
“Books about bells! Ah, Monsieur Durtal, I have some inscriptions here of truly rare beauty. Listen,” and he opened a worm-bored book, “listen to this motto printed in raised letters on the bronze robe of the great bell of Schaffhausen, ’I call the living, I mourn the dead, I break the thunder.’ And this other which figured on an old bell in the belfry of Ghent, ’My name is Roland. When I toll, there is a fire; when I peal, there is a tempest in Flanders.’”
“Yes,” Durtal agreed, “there is a certain vigour about that one.”
“Ah,” said Carhaix, seeming not to have heard the other’s remark, “it’s ridiculous. Now the rich have their names and titles inscribed on the bells which they give to the churches, but they have so many qualities and titles that there is no room for a motto. Truly, humility is a forgotten virtue in our day.”
“If that were the only forgotten virtue!” sighed Durtal.
“Ah!” replied Carhaix, not to be turned from his favourite subject, “and if this were the only abuse! But bells now rust from inactivity. The metal is no longer hammer-hardened and is not vibrant. Formerly these magnificent auxiliaries of the ritual sang without cease. The canonical hours were sounded, Matins and Laudes before daybreak, Prime at dawn, Tierce at nine o’clock, Sexte at noon, Nones at three, and then Vespers and Compline. Now we announce the curate’s mass, ring three angeluses, morning, noon, and evening, occasionally a Salute, and on certain days launch a few peals for prescribed ceremonies. And that’s all. It’s only in the convents where the bells do not sleep, for these, at least, the night offices are kept up.”
“You mustn’t talk about that,” said his wife, straightening the pillows at his back. “If you keep working yourself up, you will never get well.”
“Quite right,” he said, resigned, “but what would you have? I shall still be a man with a grievance, whom nothing can pacify,” and he smiled at his wife who was bringing him a spoonful of the potion to swallow.
The doorbell rang. Mme. Carhaix went to answer it and a hilarious and red-faced priest entered, crying in a great voice, “It’s Jacob’s ladder, that stairway! I climbed and climbed and climbed, and I’m all out of breath,” and he sank, puffing, into an armchair.
“Well, my friend,” he said at last, coming into the bedroom, “I learned from the beadle that you were ill, and I came to see how you were getting on.”
Durtal examined him. An irrepressible gaiety exuded from this sanguine, smooth-shaven face, blue from the razor. Carhaix introduced them. They exchanged a look, of distrust on the priest’s side, of coldness on Durtal’s.
Durtal felt embarrassed and in the way, while the honest pair were effusively and with excessive humility thanking the abbe for coming up to see them. It was evident that for this pair, who were not ignorant of the sacrileges and scandalous self-indulgences of the clergy, an ecclesiastic was a man elect, a man so superior that as soon as he arrived nobody else counted.