Patricia A. McKillip

The Bell at Sealy Head


Judd Cauley stood in his father’s rooms in the Inn at Sealey Head, looking out the back window at the magnificent struggle between dark and light as the sun fought its way into the sea. Dugold Cauley seemed to be watching, too, his gray head cocked toward the battle in the sky as though he could see the great, billowing purple clouds swelled to overwhelm the sun striving against them, sending sudden shafts of light out of every ragged tear in the cloud to spill across the tide and turn the spindrift gold. His pale eyes seemed to reflect stray colors in the sky. But they had already lost their fight, Judd, glancing at him, thought with sudden pity: those old eyes overcast with mist. Slowly the wild light faded outside as well. Twilight smothered one last burning ember of sun. The bell rang then, as always, and Dugold, groping his way into the rocker behind him, turned his face toward his son.

“Was that a carriage I heard in the yard?” he asked, predictable as the bell.

Judd murmured absently, still watching the cliff behind the inn, where the waves were breaking so hard they sent spume high in the air that turned again and fell as a gentle rain onto the rocks. Gulls hung in the wind, white as froth, so neatly balanced they were motionless in all that roil before they dropped a wing, caught a current, and cried out as they flew over the sea. Another bell was sounding: the channel marker tumbling about in the tide, jangling to guide one last fishing boat toward the harbor on the north side of the headland.


“I know, I know,” he said mildly. “They’re fetching up in droves for the night.”

“I’m sure I heard—”

“Mr. Quinn will call me if someone stops. Stiven Dale’s boat is wallowing up the channel like a cow trying to swim. His hold must be full of something.”

“Water,” his father said dourly. “That tub is as old as I am.”

“Fish, I’ll bet you. I’ll send Mrs. Quinn down in the morning to see what he’s got.”


“You hope.” Judd dropped his hand lightly on Dugold’s shoulder. “I know Mrs. Quinn has trouble with fish.”

“She thinks they’re not dead unless she drowns them in boiling water for an hour.”

“I’ll have a word with her.”

“Why bother?” Dugold set the chair going on its rockers with a restless push. “I’ll be in my grave before Mrs. Quinn learns how to cook.”

“So will I,” Judd breathed, having a sudden, mouth-watering memory of his mother’s cooking.

“Her chowder,” his father said wistfully, reading Judd’s mind as he sometimes could. “Butter and cream and the clams so tender they melted between your teeth. Her leek-and-crab pie. You’ve got to find a better cook. Then we’d have them coming.”

“I’d have to pay a better cook,” Judd reminded him. “Mrs. Quinn works for as close to nothing as we can afford.” He was still then, his eyes caught by an unexpected bit of color among the rocks.

“Marry somebody,” Dugold suggested, again predictably. “Then she’d cook for free. Only make sure she can cook before you ask.”

“There’s a proposal sure to charm a woman into my life.”

“Well, it’s a thought to think about, isn’t it? Last time I looked, you had a few charms of your own. All from me, of course. Have you changed so much since I went dark inside?”

“How would I know?” Judd asked absently, peering through the thick whorls of glass at the odd bobble and flutter beneath the soft rain of tide. “Somebody’s out there.”


“I can’t tell . . .” He narrowed his eyes, picked out the sky-blue lining on a black cloak flapping like bats’ wings, a matching blue scarf streaming down the wind, a gold band on the hat the wearer clapped firmly to his head with one hand. “A stranger, I think. But what’s he doing out there?”

“A guest,” his father exclaimed, slapping the rocker arm with his palm. “Go and catch him before he gets away.”

“Before he gets swept away, more likely.”

“Whatever. Go on—” He was squinting at the window, too, as though he could see the elegant idiot wandering at the edge of the cliff with the tide thundering and breaking over his head, the hard rain of a sudden squall mingling with it now, streaking the glass. “Reel him in before you lose him.”

But the stranger was gone when Judd went out to look for him.

Judd lingered on the cliff. The squall passed overhead and away, blown inland by the fierce wind. He watched the world around him melt into twilight. He was a sturdy young man with pale, curly hair and fair-weather eyes, unshaken by the wind trying to buffet him into the sea. He went just close enough to the edge to make sure that the stranger wasn’t clinging desperately to a rock below, or floating like some exotic bird in the water. Accidents happened along that rough headland, where the bluff sloped down toward the deep channel the fishing boats and the occasional merchant ship used to reach the calmer waters of Sealey Head harbor. The town clung like a colony of barnacles to the rocky shore and the hillsides, bracketed at one end by the inn and at the other by Sproule Manor, on its lofty perch overlooking the harbor and the inhabitants. Judd could see its broad, mullioned windows glazed with firelight, lamplight. On the wooded hill above the inmost curve of the harbor, the ancient, stately facade of Aislinn House stood fading like a ghost of itself into the dusk, fires flickering randomly, frail as moth wings within the dark windows.

Judd knew every face born between those juts of land. He had drawn his first breath on Sealey Head, sent his first piping cry back at the seagulls. The inn had been built by his great-grandfather at that point along the rugged cliffs of west Rurex, where a traveler watching the sun sink into the sea from his horse or carriage window might decide that the broad stone building, with its thick walls, bright windows, clean, cobbled yard, might be a good place to stop for the night. For half a century there wasn’t much choice in the matter: it was either the inn, or the frumpy tavern beds in town that you reeled into drunk so not to care who pushed in beside you and snored in your ear all night.

The town had grown more prosperous since then. Some days over half a dozen merchant ships shifted their spiky profiles near Toland Blair’s warehouses, as dockworkers unloaded goods that would travel overland to the cities. Now the traveler had choices: a newer tavern along the docks or another inn at the back of the harbor, far from the exuberant winds and the cliff that shook under the tide on a stormy night.

All that Judd explained more than once to his father. But Dugold still blamed himself: his failed eyes, his failure to follow his own father’s footsteps into prosperity. Judd, he decided, must restore the inn to its former glory. It was in his blood. His destiny. Judd had no particular ambitions beyond reading every book in the world and taking care of his father. He had grown up making beds and fires, cleaning stables and scorched pots, carrying baggage to and fro, filling tankards in the dining room, chopping carrots in the kitchen. It was no hardship to stand in the doorway under the inn sign, welcoming travelers. These days, he handed them over to the care of Mr. Quinn, who brought up their baggage and stabled their horses, and Mrs. Quinn, who cooked. Their daughter, Lily, washed the sheets, dusted the mantels, swept the grates. They stayed on even as business dwindled. A bed was a bed, Mrs. Quinn said forthrightly, and better the one under your back than the one you left behind when you left to look for better than you had. Judd would never have to fear she would want to leave. No indeed.

He gave up hoping, resigned himself to her watery chowders, her rubbery fish, her bread so dense he could have bricked a wall with it. When there were no guests, he ate with his father, hunched over a table, turning pages with one hand and shoveling in whatever it was Mrs. Quinn called supper that night. After Lily took their plates away, he continued reading aloud while Dugold rocked and drank ale. When he started snoring in his chair, Judd

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