Elisabeth Fairchild
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from the anthology "A Regency Christmas Carol"

by Elisabeth Fairchild

Signet Books
ISBN #0-451-19387-3
December 1997

Tolling the Devil's Knell

Every Christmas eve in the parish church of Dewsbury Yorkshire, a team of bell ringers toll the tenor bell--once for every year since Christ was born. The final stroke is timed for midnight. Legend has it the practice began in the 13th century when a local baron, as penance for killing a servant boy, gave a bell to All Saint's and ordered it rung every Christmas to remind him of his crime. Some of the parishioners believe the ringing of the bell drives the devil away from Dewsbury for the next twelve months. St. Thomas's Day, December 21 Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

Chapter One

Bells were ringing. Of all sounds, it was the toll of bells Constance Conyngham most associated with Christmas. From the tower of All Saint's they rang today, a merry carillon peeling across the fog-bound expanse of Calder Valley, nothing to do with sadness and yet she was saddened, echoes bouncing from the past, echoes bouncing from the foothills of the Pennines. Constance stood at one of the misted windows of Leland Manor, the better to hear, the better to remind herself these happy bells rang in St. Thomas's Day, December twenty-first. Nothing more. Five days until Christmas, the fifth she had spent in Dewsbury.

She took a deep breath, as if in so doing she could inhale the spirit of the season in the biting, fresh, outdoorsy smell of the evergreen boughs decorating the window sill. The schoolroom smelled today, not of chalk dust, glue, ink and book mold, but of fresh cut greenery, of pungent cloves and the zest of citrus. Lili was making wardrobe pomanders as gifts for the servants, studding hothouse oranges, lemons and limes with whole cloves. The smell overpowered the fainter perfume with which cook had lately inundated the entire house. Five days until Christmas, less than a dozen days until the old year was rung out and a new one rung in. Seven years since Constance had heard the bells in Dover clanging, announcing not St. Thomas's Day, but a ship gone down, no trace of the crew to be found--her world changed forever. Bittersweet, the bells.

"To the devil, did you say?"

Shocking words to hear fall from Florabelle Leland's innocent, young mouth.

"Inappropriate language for a young lady, Flora," Constance reprimanded, standing back from the window, drawing the drapes over her chilly view, recalled to her duties as governess. Clarabelle, Florabelle and Lilibelle Leland--Mrs. Leland had insisted in the naming of them, that all of her girl's must be belles--were engrossed today in the making of gifts; Christmas gifts for the servants, Twelth day gifts for their parents. What had any of it to do with the devil?

"Lili said it first," Flo's usually cheerful countenance was marred by a pout. "You do not mean to let her go. Do you?"

"Go? Where is it you mean to go, Lili? I was not attending."

Like a Christmas angel Lili was. The youngest at six, she was all golden hair, bright eyes and soulful expressions. "I would go 'a gooding', Mrs. Conyngham. To the Devil's Keep." She nodded decisively as she said it, curls bouncing, her expression serious. "It is my right as a female, is it not? Betsy told me the practice was only open to females. She and Mary mean to go about the entire neighborhood today."

"You spend far too much time fraternizing with the servants, Lilibelle," Clara, a stiff-knecked mothering sort of nine year old, looked up from the penmanship she was practicing in writing Yuletide correspondence to all of her relatives. "It does not set the proper tone, does it Mrs. Conyngham?"

"It is a 'gooding' onion she is after," Flora giggled over the embroidered L she was stitching into a handkerchief for her father. At thirteen, she giggled over most things, especially if it had anything to do with boys. "It is your future husband you wish to dream about tonight, is it not, Lili?"

"It is not!" Lili sat up very straight in her chair and set aside the orange she was studding. "Sleeping on an onion sounds silly and smelly! And I do not spend too much time with the servants. I overheard Betsy asking to have the day free. She says it is not just widows who go 'a gooding' these days, but all the women in the neighborhood."

"But why should you wish to go 'gooding', my dear?" Constance was surprised. "You want for nothing. It is no more than a sprig of greenery or a piece of fruit you may hope to gather."

Lili was quite serious in her reply. "Father tells me that the women who are blessed with 'gooding' day goodies wish all that is good on the master of the house for the coming year. He will be blessed many times today."

"And what has that to do with the Devil's Keep, of all places you might wish to go?" Clara asked.

"I would hear none of you speak of our neighbor as the devil again, girls. It is vulgar. You will refer to the earl by his proper title."

"But Freddie calls him devil, and within father's hearing," Flora chortled. "He says Lucian Deleval is just the devil misspelled twice. That the earl is no gentleman at all."

"Neither is Freddie a gentleman if he spreads such malicious gossip," Constance corrected her softly. "Nor is it the least ladylike to find Freddie's rudeness amusing. Now, Lili, please explain, if you will, what possessed you of this notion to go 'gooding' at Deleval Keep?"

Lili plucked at her lip uneasily. "Betsy said she and Mary meant to go everywhere--except the Keep, that no one will take the time to walk so far with expectation of little more than a door slammed in their faces. But it occurred to me, Miss Coyngham, that surely none needed a 'gooding' day blessing more than a man everyone calls the devil."

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