Failsworth Chippenfish operated a newsstand in the shadow of old Saint Sufferer’s Cathedral. Every evening the church bells rang to summon the faithful to prayer, and each time the bells chimed Mr Chippenfish would cock his head and sigh with pleasure.
“Listen to them beautiful bells,” he told his daughter Fretter. “I swear they’re calling my name … Fails – worth, Fails – worth … Can’t you hear it?”
Fretter was busy rearranging dusty magazines and aging candies around their closet-sized newsstand, her blonde hair flying loose from its bun as she twirled about. “Papa, if we don’t sell something soon, we shall never be able to pay the rent tomorrow,” she said. “And no, I don’t hear the bells calling your name. They make enough racket of their own without adding any conversation.”
As the bells fell silent, a poorly dressed young man entered the shop. “Do you have the latest copy of Ireland’s Own?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.
“Morepence!” cried Fretter, forgetting her troubles. She embraced their only customer of the day and planted a fervent kiss upon his cheek. “Everything is sweeter when you arrive.”
Bowing deeply, Morepence shook out his ragged cape and produced a half-penny he’d tucked into the top fold of one red stocking. “Here, Mr Chippenfish,” he said, voice trembling. “It’s all I can offer from my wages at the fish gutters’ market. We made plenty of fertilizer today, but I was passed over again for the manger’s position.”
“Oh,” Fretter groaned, her pretty face distorting with sorrow.
“There, there,” Mr Chippenfish tutted. “Don’t be sad, Fretter. The bells were just telling us that the New Year ahead is going to be bright, you’ll see.”
“Your father’s right,” Morepence said, seizing Fretter’s hand. “As a matter of fact, today I resolved that we shall be married on New Year’s Eve. No more waiting until I amass a fortune, darling Fretter. Why should we stay apart waiting for money to come, when it may never happen?”
“You might wait a bit longer,” Mr Chippenfish said. “Just in case.”
“Love will light our way, even if we have no money to start our life together,” Fretta argued, her brow unfurrowed for a change.
“What’s this about marrying without money?” a booming voice interrupted. It was Lord Suppressthepoor, sleek and plump in his New Year finery, puffing a cigar and sporting a walking stick with a solid gold handle. He was on his way to prayer at the cathedral, late as usual, knowing the priest wouldn’t dare begin the service until he arrived.
“My Lord,” Morepence said, bowing deeply again. “I have asked this lady to marry me on New Year’s Eve, though I have barely a farthing in savings.”
Lord Suppressthepoor’s eyes bugged nearly out of their sockets. “Idiocy! Poppycock! Tomfoolery!” he cried. “Don’t you see that if you marry without money, over the hard years ahead this beautiful lady will grow weary and careworn. After she bears your multitudes of children, she’ll grow fat and sagging and … dare I say it … hideously ugly!”
“Oh, no,” Fretta cried. “Papa, say something, please.”
“Your mother, God rest her soul, didn’t manage to keep her figure,” Mr Chippenfish ventured. “I married her without money and look at me now.”
Morepence looked stricken, passing his gaze first over shabby old Mr Chippenfish and then over Fretta (who was actually quite waiflike from hunger). A match had been struck, lighting the fires of Morepence’s imagination, and he saw a bitter future ahead of him connected with this newsstand.
“Perhaps I’ve been hasty in proposing marriage,” Morepence mumbled.
“That’s my boy,” said Lord Suppressthepoor. Flipping a copper penny to Failsworth, the rich man wrapped his arm about Morepence’s quivering shoulders and led him out of the shop.
“Papa!” Fretta wailed. “I am ruined, utterly ruined, thanks to you. Why weren’t you in favour of my marriage? Why couldn’t you say something to persuade Morepence to change his mind?”
“Now, then. The bells have promised us happiness. Don’t despair.”
“You and your foppish bells!” She stomped up the rickety stairs that led to her attic room over the newsstand and barred the door to her father’s entreaties to share a few breadcrumbs for dinner.
Late that night as Failsworth Chippenfish lay in bed, rehashing the evening’s events and rethinking (as we are prone to do) what he should have said to Morepence, the cathedral chimes began to ring. Softly at first and then growing louder. Fails – worth, Fails – worth, they called. Come to us. We will help you.
Leaping out of bed, the newsstand keeper tugged off his nightcap and found his trousers. Taking up his bedside candle, he ran out of the shop and crossed the cobblestone street to the church. The door will surely be locked, he thought—but it was open wide.
Wielding his candle against the cold and gloom of the empty cathedral, he found his way to the steps leading up to the bell tower. These ancient stairs were treacherous in daylight, and he knew he risked breaking his neck clambering up at night. But still the chimes called him: Fails – worth, Fails - worth. And so up he went.
When he reached the top of the steps, he opened a wooden trap door and stood with his chin poking into the bell loft. The chimes were swinging back and forth in the darkness and he felt the swish of their ponderous movement near his head. As his eyes grew accustomed to his surroundings, he realized that there were shiny creatures dancing around him. In and out these phantoms darted and wrapped themselves among the huge bells being tolled by some unseen ghostly hands. Suddenly, the wraiths ceased their ballet and the bells froze in mid-air. All was deadly silent until a gigantic black figure rose up in the center of the loft. Failsworth was ready to flee, but a powerful force lifted him through the trap door and stood him on his feet before this dark judge.
“Failsworth Chippenfish,” the dark figure thundered.
“You are the voice of the chimes, then, always calling me so sweetly?” Failsworth stammered. “The bells are so cheery. I love to hear them at the end of my workday.”
“Silence! What a fool you are,” the black ghost said. Pacing around Failsworth, the ghost moaned and growled. “Do you know the great harm you have done today?”
“Well, yes, I think I do,” Failsworth said. “My poor daughter wanted me to defend her honor against the arguments of mighty Lord Suppressthepoor … and I suppose I failed.”
“You suppose?” the ghost screeched. Raising a skeletal black hand before Failsworth’s face, he enveloped the poor man in a wave of rotting fish odor. “This is what your daughter’s lover, Morepence, smells every day at his twenty-hour shift at the fish gutters’ market.” The ghost laughed. “It is the smell of a man’s future gone rotten from selfishness and greed. You must guide him away from this path.”
A vision formed in the air of Morepence, gray-faced and staggering, begging for coins in the town square.
“Morepence will become a drunken libertine, without Fretta beside him.”
Waving his hand, the ghost conjured up a vision in the still air. Failsworth gasped to behold his daughter Fretta, her hair tangled and clothes tattered, barely concealing her swollen belly.
“The father of Fretta’s child will be the great uncaring Lord Suppressthepoor, if you don’t do something to stop it. Fretta will die in childbirth and you’ll land in the workhouse, with his Lordship’s help,” the ghost grumbled. “This is the future. This is your New Year.”
Failsworth got down on his knees. “I thought Morepence was a poor match for my Fretta, so I did little to encourage their marriage. Now I see that it must take place this New Year’s Eve or we will all be destroyed.” He bowed his head in supplication to the ghost of the chimes. “Oh, please forgive me for not understanding your message yesterday when you were calling my name.”
The next morning, Failsworth woke with a start. Light was streaming through the cracks of his drafty bedroom wall, and Fretta was shaking his arm.
“Wake up, Papa,” she said, her face radiant. “Morepence has just come back to the shop, begging my forgiveness and asking me to be his little wife. Can you believe it? We are to be married New Year’s Eve after all.”
Wiping sweat from his brow, Failsworth nodded. “I approve. Yes, I heartily agree that you must be married. Why not right away, this morning?”
“Oh, Papa,” Fretta laughed. “I need to sew a dress, find some flowers, and beg the bell ringers to chime out our happiness without pay on the wedding day.”
“All of that is fine,” Failsworth said. “Except the chimes. I think we can dispense with that formality. My ears are still ringing.”
Fretta embraced him tenderly. “Happy New Year to us all,” she said.
Dawn Lowe ©
*The Chimes, A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year by Charles Dickens (1844)