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Episode #42 – “The Passing Bell” by Amy Griswold

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The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold


My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives. 

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft. 

[Full transcript after the cut.]


Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is “The Passing Bell” by Amy Griswold.

Amy Griswold is the author (with Melissa Scott) of DEATH BY SILVER and A
DEATH AT THE DIONYSUS CLUB from Lethe Press. Her most recent work
(with Jo Graham) is the interactive novel THE EAGLE’S HEIR from Choice of
Games. She lives in North Carolina, where she writes standardized tests as well
as fiction, and tries not to confuse the two.



The Passing Bell

by Amy Griswold


My hired horse threw a shoe between Bristol and Bath, and by the time the wearying business of getting another nailed on was complete the shadows were growing long and the wind was sharpening its knives.

“It’s kind of you to put me up,” I said, jingling pennies in my pocket to encourage such generosity.  In a town so small it had neither pub nor inn, I considered myself fortunate to be offered the chance to sleep in the blacksmith’s loft.

“Glad to, if you’ve got the coin,” the blacksmith said.  “Only the missus is particular in her way about knowing something about strangers who are going to sleep under her roof.  What’s your name, and what’s your age, and what’s your trade, good man?  For she’ll ask me all three.”

“Rob Tar is my name, and my age is twenty and six,” I said.  “And I’m an able seaman aboard the Red Boar out of Bristol.  My girl Minnie lives in Bath, and I’m on my way to keep her company a while until we sail again.  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I’ll be no trouble to you, and I can pay you for supper and bed.”  In fact I had three months’ pay, most of it stuffed down my shirt to pose less temptation to thieves.  “Will that satisfy your lady?”

“It should,” Mister Smith said, with a sheepish sort of shuffle that would have looked more at home on a boy than a big man with biceps like hams.  “You understand, she’s a particular sort of woman.”  He seemed to notice for the first time that his dogs were circling me suspiciously, as if waiting for the cue to set their teeth into an intruder.  “Get by, dogs, we’ve a guest tonight.”

He led me into a kitchen where a warm fire was glowing and went aside to speak with the presumed mistress of the house, a young wife but hardly a merry one, her dun hair matching her dun dress so that she looked faded, as if washed too many times.  I was beginning to get some feeling back into my feet when she came over with bread and salt fish.

“That ought to do for a sailor,” she said, and I nodded polite thanks, though in truth I’d eaten enough fish while at sea that I’d have preferred the toughest fowl or most dubious of hams.  “If you’d come a week ago, we’d have had nothing for you but pork.”

“Too bad,” I said, and tried not to think about crisp bacon.

At that moment, a dull music split the air, the heavy tolling of a steeple-bell.  It rang twice, paused, rang twice again, and then began a doleful series of strokes.  It was the death knell, and I put on my most solemn face, thinking how awkward it was to be a stranger in a small town at such a time.  “Who do you suppose has died?”

“I expect no one yet,” Mister Smith said.  His wife said nothing, only stood with her mouth pressed tight together, listening to the tolling bell.  In a small town such as this, I could well believe they kept up the old custom of ringing the bell as soon as the parson heard news of a death, but to ring it before the death seemed perverse.

“Surely there aren’t any hangings here,” I said.  A condemned prisoner was the only sort of man I could think of whose death might be predicted with certainty beforehand.  “I suppose if someone’s lying deathly ill . . .”

“We’ll know by morning,” Mister Smith said.  “The bell never lies, you see—”  He broke off abruptly as the bell finally came to the end of its dull refrain and seemed at a loss for how to go on.

“Twenty-six,” Mistress Smith said, and when I turned at her tone I saw that her face had turned gray with some strong emotion I didn’t understand.  “Nine strokes to tell a man, and twenty-six to tell his age.  Don’t tell me I miscounted.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” the smith said.  He twisted the leather of his apron in his hands, looking from one of us to the other.  “It might be best if you found your bed now.”

“The hour is growing late,” I said, because I misliked his wife’s expression, and had developed aboard ship a keen sense of how the wind was blowing.

The man picked up a lantern and led me back out into the chill dooryard.  The ladder up to the loft above the forge was rickety, and he held the lantern to light my way.  “You mustn’t mind my wife,” he said.  “Our troubles here are nothing to do with you.”

Well, only the most incurious of born lubbers could have refrained from asking the question after that. “What did she mean about the bell?”

“There’s somewhat wrong with our church bell,” Smith said.  “The parson rings it in the ordinary way after every death in the town, but you can hear it all through town the night before.”

It took me a moment to parse that.  “You mean the bell rings before someone dies?”

“The bell sounds before someone dies, but the parson doesn’t ring it until after.  It’s been that way as long as anyone in town can remember. You mustn’t think we’re entirely ungrateful; when it tolls for your old uncle, you can go round and see him beforehand and say your farewells, you see?  But it’s hard when it tolls for a child, or a man in his prime with little chance of passing away peacefully in his bed.”

The light from the lantern shifted, as if his hand were less than steady on its handle.  Outside its circle of light, black branches bent against a dark sky that was beginning to spit frigid rain.  “This wouldn’t be a tale spun to frighten travelers, would it?” I asked.  “For I’ve heard them all in my time.”

“I swear it’s the plain truth,” Smith said.  “And it’s a bad night for traveling, but I’ll understand if you’d rather be on your way.”  He paused a moment and then added, “It might be for the best.  You heard what the bell told.”

“I’m willing to take the chance,” I said.  “I’ve heard more frightening stories than this.”

“It’s no more than the truth,” the man said, but with resignation, as if he were used to skepticism from strangers.  He hung up the lantern, and turned abruptly to go.  “Your horse is shod and I’ve got your coins for the night’s lodging, so I expect we’re square, and there’s no more that needs to be said.”  He tramped out, leaving me to ascend the ladder in no mood to settle down easily to sleep.

I shivered for a while under the thin horse blanket spread over an equally thin pallet, and then realized that the forge and the kitchen of the house shared a common chimney that went up the opposite wall.  I made my way over to it, hoping to warm my hands at least, and I heard the mutter of voices through the wall.  After a bare moment’s hesitation, I pressed my ear unashamed to the stones, having long profited from such caution.

“Give me the hatchet,” I heard Mistress Smith say, and was abruptly glad I hadn’t balked at eavesdropping.

“You don’t need the hatchet,” Mister Smith said.  “I mean to leave it in the good Lord’s hands.”

“You mean you don’t mean to lift a hand yourself to save your life, when it’s you or that stranger who’ll die tonight.  Well, you needn’t get your hands dirty if you scruple to it.  Just you give me the hatchet, and tell anyone who asks that you slept sound.”

“And what do you mean to say, when the town watch comes knocking?”

“Old Bill?  I’ll tell him that I woke at a noise in the courtyard, and came out to see men running away.  He’ll set up a hue and cry that will take the rest of the night.  You’ll see.”  There was a feverish certainty to her voice.  “All you need do is leave it all to me.”

“I won’t have it, I tell you.”

“I don’t care what you will and won’t have.  You’re not much of a man, it seems, but you’re my man, and I don’t mean to wager your life on the toss of a coin.  Give me the hatchet, and don’t you set foot outside until I come back.”

I had only a few moments to escape.  I had a knife, which I took up now, and the cover of darkness on my side.  For all that, my heart was pounding in my chest; I’ve never been a brawler, nor been much in the habit of fighting with women.  I made for the ladder, but before I reached it I heard the sound of footsteps below.

“Do you lie comfortably?” Mistress Smith’s voice rose up.

I thought of feigning snores, but lacked confidence in my own dramatic skills. “Quite comfortably,” I called back down.  “I’ve everything a man could want.”

“I thought I’d bring you a hot drink,” she said.  “A bit of a toddy to take the chill from the air.  Do come down and drink it before it gets cold.”

“It’s very kind,” I said, putting my back to the loft wall and hoping that a swung hatchet wouldn’t go through it.  “But I never touch the demon drink, not since I got religion.”

“A sailor who’s an abstainer?” she said.  “I never heard of such.”

“It’s true all the same,” I said.  “It pleases my girl, you understand.”

“I’ve a blanket for you at least,” she said.  “And you can come in with me and fetch a cup of hot milk.”

“Thank you kindly, but I’ll lodge where I am.”  I held my breath, and heard the ladder creak as she put her foot on it.  It creaked twice more, and then her head and shoulders appeared framed in the doorway and light glinted off the hatchet blade.

I kicked her square in the bosom, though I’m not proud to say it, and knocked her and the ladder both down from the loft.  I swung down after her, seeing her sprawled in the straw, unhurt but struggling to rise, and went for the hatchet.

She grasped it as well, her hands clawing at mine, raking them with her fingernails.

“Will you give over!” I tried to shoulder her away.  “You’re wrong in what you think.  I’m no man of twenty-six.”

“You claim now you were lying?” Her face was close enough to mine as we struggled that I could smell her breath.  “There’s a strange habit, for a man to tell lies about his age to everyone he meets.”

Her grip on the hatchet loosened as she spoke, and I tightened my own.  “So it would be,” I said.  “But I’m no man, and that was the lie I told.  That and the bit about the drink, which I admit is a besetting vice.  I put on breeches to go to sea, but I’m a woman all the same underneath them, and never more glad of it than today.”  I forebore to add that my girl was glad of it too, as I felt under the circumstances it would be taken as cheek.

She laughed in my face.  “That’s a nasty lie to save your skin.”

“I’ll prove it if you like,” I said.  “If you’ll give over your attempt to chop me up for firewood long enough.”

At that moment, her husband came in, and I shoved her toward him, hoping that he’d catch the hatchet out of her hands.  He plucked it away from her with his left hand and tossed it aside, but as he let her go I saw that he had a cleaver in his right hand.  I saw the bulging of his shoulders and thought I must know what a chicken felt like at butchering time.

“It came on me that it was wrong to leave the missus to do what must be done,” he said.

“I’ll swear any oath you like, my mother named me Kate,” I said, and reached for the top button of my shirt.

“A wicked wench who’ll dress up as a man can’t complain if she’s buried as one,” the woman said, and I saw a look pass between her and her husband that made my heart sink.  “What the parson doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“I’m sorry to have to do it,” Mister Smith told me, but he was lifting the cleaver, and I turned tail and ran.

I heard the clamor of dogs barking behind me, and rethought in a hurry my initial plan to make for the road out of town.  I looked about for a tree to climb, and saw none.  There was a stone wall at the end of the lane, though, and I went pelting toward it with what sounded like a whole Bedlam of dogs baying at my heels.

They leapt snarling as I scrambled up the wall, but any sailor, lad or lass, can climb like a monkey, and I reached the top of the wall and dropped down on the other side.  I was in a little churchyard, but before I could slip away over the wall on the other side, the parson came out to see what was the matter with the dogs, who were still howling in a perfect fury.  Though he wore spectacles balanced on his narrow nose, he also had a heavy stick in his hand and looked as if he were willing to use it.

“The blacksmith set his dogs on me,” I blurted out.  “I swear to you I’m no thief.”

The parson didn’t loosen his grip on the stick.  “I don’t believe Mister Smith is in the habit of setting his dogs on innocent strangers.”

“It’s on account of the bell, the passing bell,” I said, and couldn’t help looking up at the tower that threw its shadow over us both.  The bell tower was just a rickety little thing by the measure of city churches, but the pool of gloom it cast over the churchyard seemed heavy and dark.  “His wife put him up to it, for she thinks it’s either him or me who’ll die tonight.”

The parson came forward a little, then, and looked me up and down through his spectacles.  “I never knew the blacksmith’s age,” he said, as if speaking as much to himself as to me.  “I try not to know, you see.  But in a town so small, it’s hard not to be aware . . .”  He shook his head, and there was something closed in his expression.  “I think I had better see you out the gate,” he said.

“The dogs are still out there,” I pointed out.

“That’s really not my concern.”

“And you a parson.”

“I can’t stop what’s to come,” he said.  “You must understand that, you must see.  I’ve tried, sometimes, when I knew.  There was a girl, a child of thirteen . . . I sat up with her all night, in the church, and we prayed together.  She wept, and I told her to have faith, that the Lord would protect her.  And an hour before morning her fear overcame her, and she rose to flee.  I caught hold of her, I demanded she stay, I promised she would be safe.  I struggled with her.  And she fell, and her head struck the altar steps.  And God was silent.”

He reached out and caught hold of my collar to march me toward the gates.  My hand rested on my knife, and then I took it away again, not sure if I could bring myself to stab a man of the cloth, even to make my escape.

“I don’t see why you can’t just resolve not to ring the bell anymore,” I said.  “If you don’t ring it in the morning . . .”

“I did not ring it that night,” he said, still marching me along, as if by thrusting me out the gates he could banish the memory.  “I sat on the altar steps in misery, and at the first light, I heard the bell tolling.  It was little Johnnie Boots, the choirboy, who had taken it into his head to ring the bell for me as a kindness, since, as he said, I must have been taken ill.”

He paused before the high wooden gate, and outside I heard an eager chorus of barks, and then the even more ominous growling of dogs who see their aim in sight.  “There are some who have called for us to take down the bell,” he said.  I silently cheered on “some,” whoever they might be.  “But it is the Lord who put this curse on us, and when he judges us free of sin, he will take it away again.  When we have been made clean.”  His knuckles were white on his stick, and his eyes were on the horizon, as if he saw some horror there I couldn’t see.  “I have prayed, but of course my sinner’s prayers have not been answered,” he said.  “Pray now, and perhaps yours will be heard as mine have not been.”

I put my hands together, although I had done precious little praying of any kind since I’d taken up my present life.  It sat badly with me to beg for my life anyway, like a craven captain pleading for quarter on his knees.  Dear Lord, I’ve been a wicked woman but a good seaman, I said silently.  You’ve winked at my deceit, and let me live when better men have died.  If you care for wicked women, as I’ve heard you did in life, show me one more trick to save my skin.

The parson was reaching for the gate, and I blurted out, “A moment more!”

“You’ve had time for your prayers.”

“A moment to wish my girl goodbye,” I said, and drew out the locket I carried.  It was a little tin thing with a half-penny sketch inside, but the boy who drew it had caught Minnie’s laughing eyes, and it was worth a fortune in gold to me.  She’d scolded me for going back to the sea, though it was my wages that kept her all the time I was away, and told me at some length that if I drowned she wouldn’t have a single prayer said for my worthless wayward soul.

“You’ve had that as well,” the parson said, and reached for the latch on the gate.  I reached again for my knife, wondering if I could stick him without hurting him too much, and what the townsmen would do to me if they caught me after that.  Being hanged for stabbing a parson seemed even worse than being hacked apart for nothing.

And then I had it, all at once, like a breath of wind snapping open a slack sail.  “One thing more!” I demanded.  “I had a traveling companion on the road, another sailor who took ill and died by the wayside.  I buried him as best I could, but I’d be easier in my mind if the passing bell were rung for him.  His name was Tom, and I know his age as well, for he told me at the end he was born twenty-six years ago to the day.”

The parson stood staring at me for a long moment.  “Do you expect me for one moment to believe such a story?”

“Is it any of your business to doubt it?” I asked, and reached into my coat to draw out my purse.  “If I had come to you a week ago, would you have questioned whether there was a man named Tom or a roadside grave?”

“I would not,” he admitted.  I held out my purse to him, and while I’d like to believe he took it in pure gratitude for the escape I offered him, I can’t say that its weight didn’t figure in his decision as well.

“Then go on and ring the passing bell for poor old Tom,” I said.  “For I think I have worn out my welcome in this town, or at least it has worn out its welcome with me, and I am eager to be on the road again.”

I followed him to the foot of the tower stairs, and watched him ascend.  I waited until the sound of his steps told me he had gone a full turn of the stairs, and then started up after him, keeping my own steps quiet.

Even after everything that had happened, I was not entirely prepared for what I saw when I mounted to the bell-tower; the parson was heaving on the bell-rope, his back to me, and the bell was heaving as well, the clapper slamming into its sides hard enough that I could see its tremor, but no sound came from the bell, no sound at all.  The only sound was the wind, keening through the wide openings on all sides of the tower like a crying dog.

I waited, breath held, until the bell made its final swing and the parson released the bellrope.  I scrambled around him, evading his surprised attempt to catch me back, and clambered up onto the beams that held the bell in place.  The bell was an old one, and held only by thick ropes, not by a heavy chain; it was the work of a moment to hack the stiff ropes in two.

There was a clamor like brazen hounds baying in hell as the bell came crashing down.  It tumbled out the open side of the bell tower, clattering for a moment on its edge and then plunging toward the earth.

“They do say the Lord helps those as help themselves,” I said, jumping down.  The parson crossed himself and backed away from me.

“There’s some devil in you, and I’m not sure whether to try to cast it out or thank you for what you’ve done,” he said.

“Call it payment for all the hospitality I’ve had in this town,” I said.  “But now I must be away.”  I took off down the stairs at a run, and plunged out into the open air.

I stopped short when I saw the bell lying fallen on the churchyard stones.  It was cracked and split, crumpled like the body of Mister Smith, who lay fallen beneath it, with his dogs circling round him, cringing now and whimpering.

The parson came out after me, and made the sign of the cross over the dead blacksmith in silence.  “He was a good man,” he said after a while.

“I expect he was,” I said.

“You mustn’t blame yourself.”

“Nor will I,” I said, for it seemed the blacksmith had been doomed from the time the bell first sounded, and at least now the bell had rung its last. “But can I have my purse back, then?  I expect I can find a man to ring the passing bell for my old mate Tom somewhere considerably nearer home.”

The parson gave me a look as he handed it over that I suppose I well deserved, but what can I say?  I’ve never claimed to be a good man, but I am Minnie’s best girl, and she’d been waiting patiently for me to bring her home my pay, and to come back to her safely from the sea.



“The Passing Bell” was originally published in Temporally Out of Order and is copyright Amy Griswold, 2015.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back soon with a GlitterShip original.

1 Comment

  1. First, I really appreciate GlitterShip! I love that all these queer stories exist in audio form. I was wondering, though, if you would consider including content/trigger warnings in each episode? I personally avoid sexual content in stories, or at least like to know to expect it beforehand, so it would be really nice to have that information in order to decide if I want to listen to an episode or not.

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