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The Perils of the Night
As the afternoon light faded over the village of Grantchester, the parishioners lit fires, drew curtains and bolted their doors against the dangers of darkness. The external blackness was a memento mori, a nocturnal harbinger of that sombre country from which no traveller returns. Canon Sidney Chambers, however, felt no fear. He liked a winter's night.
It was 8th of January 1955. The distant town of Cambridge looked almost two-dimensional under the moon's wily enchantment, and the silhouettes of college buildings were etched against the darkening sky like illustrations for a children's fairytale. Sidney imagined princesses locked in towers, knights leaving on dangerous quests through forests, and woodcutters bringing supplies to stoke the fires of great medieval halls. The River Cam was stilled in time, its waters frozen and embedded with fallen branches, scattered twigs and dead leaves. The snow that settled on Clare Bridge made the decoration of its parapet rails look like fourteen snowballs that had been left by a giant standing astride a model of an English university. Set back and to the south, across whitened grass, the magnesian limestone that comprised the fabric of King's College Chapel was given extra luminance by the snow that gathered on the roof, parapets and pinnacled standards of its turrets. Wind gusted round the edges of the building, throwing white flurries against the mouldings and mullions of the windows. The stained glass was darkened, as if waiting for something to happen; a new Reformation perhaps, an air raid, or even the end of the world. The stillness of the night was broken by only a few sporadic sounds; a passing car, a drunken shout, the footsteps of university proctors making their rounds. In Sidney's college of Corpus Christi, stalactites clung to the guttering while uncertain weights of snow slithered off the eaves-cornices of Old Court and fell in heavy slabs from the keystone of the main gate. Bicycles lay against spiked railings, the spokes of their wheels frosted white. It was an evening for drawn curtains, hot toddies and warm fires: for sitting in a favourite armchair with a good book and a companionable dog.
Sidney had enjoyed a couple of pints at the Eagle with his good friend Inspector Geordie Keating and was beginning his journey home. It was after ten, and most of the undergraduates were locked in their colleges. Admittance after that time was through the Porter's Lodge and on payment of a 'late-fee' of one shilling. This latitude extended until midnight, after which there was no legal admission. The only option open to those wishing to return to their rooms in the small hours was to behave like a cat burglar and break in. Sidney had done this when he was a student, some ten years before he had become vicar of Grantchester, approaching the college in Free School Lane, mounting the railings by St Bene't's Church, shinning up a drainpipe, and making his way across the roofs and over the conservatory before climbing in through an open window of the Master's Lodge. Soon after this escapade, Sidney had discovered that this was a rather better known route than he had thought, and that the Master's daughter, Sophie, often left her bedroom window open deliberately in the hope of a little late night entertainment. The practice of night climbing had become something of a Cambridge sport, as students pursued a hobby of illegal mountaineering in the name of 'high jinks'. Onions had been rolled off the appropriately shaped dome of the Divinity School, umbrellas had been left on the Tottering Tower of the Old Library and a Canadian student at King's had become obsessed by a fanatical desire to put a herd of goats on his college roof.
The possibility of discovery, and the potential penalty of being sent down as a result, had deterred Sidney from taking a full part in such proceedings, but rumours of daring feats of architectural mountaineering still fed the gossip in college common rooms. The university authorities had increased the number of torchlight patrols in an attempt to stamp out the practice, but undergraduates still risked their future university careers in the name of freedom and adventure, conspiring in low voices about the challenge of photographing each other while climbing the Great Gate of Trinity, the New Tower of St John's, or the north face of Pembroke.
The ultimate challenge for those driven by 'pinnaclomania' was an ascent of one of the four octagonal turrets of King's College Chapel. Valentine Lyall, a research fellow of Corpus, was leading an expedition that very night. The consequences were to prove fatal.
Sidney was alerted to the situation by a commotion on King's Parade. Such was its volume that he made an immediate detour, turning right out of Bene't Street rather than his customary left.
Lyall was a seasoned night climber who was well known throughout the university. He was accompanied by Kit Bartlett, his postgraduate student, a blond-haired athletics blue; and Rory Montague, an altogether stockier third-year undergraduate who had been called upon to photograph the expedition for posterity.
The three men were dressed in polo-neck sweaters and gym shoes and the climb took place in two stages; from ground to roof and from roof to north-east turret. Lyall had taken the lead by placing his hands between the clamps of the lightning conductor and pushing himself up twenty feet with his arms. He carried two coils of hundred-foot rope over his shoulder. He used his feet to lever his body outwards and upwards against the wall, while a hand-over-hand movement worked in a semi-contrary motion, keeping him tight against the stone while sustaining his ascent.
The accompanying students followed with torches, and, after a brief rest on a broad sloping ledge, they began to 'chimney' up the fissure between two walls, their backs against one wall and their feet against the other, thrusting themselves upwards with their legs. The stone flange against which they pressed their feet was four inches wide and the ascent was performed at an oblique angle. Sidney could see one of the men stop and look down to the iron railings below. He was fifty feet from the ground, with forty still to go.
The university proctors were already at the scene. 'Can anyone go after them?' Sidney asked.
'They'll kill themselves if they do,' one of the men replied. 'We'll get their names when they come down. We don't think they're from this college. They must have been hiding when the porters did the rounds. This has got to stop, Canon Chambers. They may think it's a sport, but we'll end up taking the responsibility if it goes wrong.'
The climbers gathered at the base of an octagonal turret that rose from the roof in six stages. Some sections were easy to climb, with pierced stone latticework offering opportunity for handholds: but the height of the parapet was forbidding. Valentine Lyall began his traverse round the base of the pinnacle and found a series of air holes in the clover-leaf stonework above the first overhang. They were fifteen inches deep and across, and he could use them as a short ladder. He was now over a hundred feet from the ground.
He climbed up on to the parapet and approached the chessboard stonework near the top of the pinnacle before calling down. 'Careful, men, the stone gets crumbly here. Make sure you have three grips at once; two hands and one foot, or one hand and both feet.'
Rory Montague was losing his nerve. As he approached the second overhang he noticed that there was no handhold for a distance of five feet. 'I can't do this,' he said.
'Don't give up,' Bartlett urged. 'Use your knees. Keep close to the stone. Don't lean out.'
'I'm not going to.'
'There's only twelve feet to go.'
Lyall was already on the second overhang. 'We need a photograph.'
'Not now,' hissed Bartlett.
'Help me,' Montague cried. 'I'm stuck.'
'Don't look down.'
'It's as dark as hell.'
Lyall shone his torch. 'Get round to your right. There's a drainpipe.'
'What if it gives way?'
'It stops before the parapet.'
'That's only a few feet.'
Montague called up, 'I need the rope.'
'Give me a minute.' Lyall reached the last parapet. He leant outwards at full stretch, grasping it with both hands, and pulled himself up by using the gaps in the stonework until his feet reached the topmost hole.
Bartlett followed and the two men threw down the rope. Montague caught it and used it as leverage to make the final ascent.
Sidney had moved further along the exterior of the north side of the nave to get a better view. Snow fell in his eyes, while the high and distant figures appeared as silhouettes against moon and torchlight. 'There's nothing to protect them if they fall,' he said.
'They never fall,' one of the proctors replied.
'I imagine the descent is much harder.'
'Once they've got back down on to the roof they return through the interior; if they've got a copy of the key, that is.'
'And have they?'
'I wouldn't put it past them.'
'So you'll wait for them at the bottom?'
'Once they're in the roof space they can hide amongst the main timbers until they think we've gone home. Last year a couple of men were in there for hours. We just barred the staircase from the outside and waited until they were hungry enough to give themselves up.'
'You mean there's no escape?'
'No one's managed it so far.'
The wind dropped. Lyall gave instructions to Rory Montague. 'Hold on to the rope and lower yourself down. Use the clover-leafs as footholds, and then make a traverse to your left. We won't be able to see you but we can feel you.'
Montague began the descent. All seemed well until the cloverleaf stopped. He then missed a foothold. 'Bugger.' He pushed himself away from the wall and let the rope take his weight.
'What the hell are you doing?' Lyall called.
'I can't get a foothold.'
'Use a hand. I can't take all this weight.'
'I need both hands on the rope. I'm not strong enough just to use one.'
'Push your feet into the wall. Get the strain off the rope.'
'I'm too far away from the building.'
Montague's left foot hovered against the side of the parapet, trying to find a hold.
He began to sway above the abyss.
A porter shouted up. 'COME DOWN AT ONCE.'
Montague let his hands slide down the rope. He felt his palms burn. His right elbow hit a gargoyle. 'Slacken off,' he ordered.
'What's going on?' Lyall asked.
Montague began a short abseil down the side of the building, and found a foothold. There he rested before pulling at the rope again.
'What are you doing?' Lyall called down. 'You have to tell us when you've finished with the rope so I can untie and make my descent. I don't need it.'
'I do,' Montague replied. He wondered where the hell his friend Kit Bartlett had gone.
'I'll lean out and give you some more,' said Lyall. 'We've got enough. Are you safe?'
'I think so.'
'Good. I'll just ... hell ... wait ... oh ...'
He fell away from the building, backwards through the night air and the snow, past the contorted faces of the silent gargoyles, the body gathering an inevitable momentum until its hard arrival on ground that would never be soft enough to stop death.
There was no scream: just silence, the fall, and the dull sound of a landing without echo: a gap in time, filled only with the incomprehensible disbelief of its witnesses.
'My God,' a proctor said quietly.
'Was that Mr Lyall?' Montague asked. 'The rope's loose. I can't see Bartlett. I'm on my own. I don't know how to get down.'
One of the porters called up. 'Take it slowly, sir.'
'DID MR LYALL FALL?'
'Get back down to the roof, sir, and someone will come and get you. Do you know the interior staircase?'
'There's a trapdoor in the roof. Wait there and we'll come and get you.'
'I don't know anything about a trapdoor. Where's Kit? What's happened to Mr Lyall?'
The porter did not answer. 'We need to get you down.'
'I don't want to die,' Montague shouted back.
'Who is with you?'
'I've told you. Kit Bartlett. But I don't know where he is. DID MR LYALL FALL?'
'Where are you from?'
Montague clambered down and jumped the last few feet on to the roof. He searched the length of the chapel for the trapdoor that led down to the interior staircase. Had his friend Kit already found this or was he hiding somewhere else? How had he managed to disappear so quickly?
An ambulance made its way down King's Parade.
Sir Giles Tremlett, the Master of Corpus, was deeply distressed by the death of one of his fellows and asked Sidney to come and see him the following evening. 'I am assuming that you will be prepared to take the funeral?'
It would be Sidney's third that year already. He saw so much natural death in winter and it saddened him that this was so needless. 'I didn't know Lyall well.'
'Nevertheless, it would be appropriate for a fellow of the college to be buried at Grantchester.'
'I take it he was not a churchgoer?'
'These days, scientists seldom are.' The Master poured out a stiff sherry and then stopped. 'I am sorry. I always forget you don't like this stuff. A little whisky?'
'With water. It's rather early.'
The Master was distracted. Normally he would have a servant present to pour out the drinks but it was clear that he wanted an uninterrupted conversation. A tall man with long clean hands and elegant fingers, Sir Giles had a precision about his manners and exactitude in his dress that diverted any suspicion of the fey. His speech was as crisply ironed as his shirt, and he wore a three-piece suit in dark navy from Savile Row, together with the regimental tie of the Grenadier Guards. He had fought in the First War alongside Harold Macmillan, and he was a good friend of Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary. His wife, Lady Celia, always dressed in Chanel, and their two daughters had married into minor aristocracy. Decorated with a KBE in his early fifties, Sir Giles was considered to be a key figure in the British establishment; so much so that Sidney wondered if he thought a Cambridge college was something of a backwater.
As a former diplomat Sir Giles was used to the ambiguities of political discourse and the technicalities of the law, but, since taking up his post only a few years previously, he had been surprised how personally academics took to their disputes and how difficult it was to find lasting and satisfactory resolutions to their problems. It was bad enough discussing matters at meetings of the governing body, but now that one of their own had died in mysterious circumstances, he was going to have to rely on all his tact and discretion to smooth things over. 'I was hoping that this could all be kept within the confines of the university, but that wish has proved forlorn. I believe you know Inspector Keating of the Cambridge police force?' he asked.
'I saw him only last night; and I am sure that he will take an interest in the case.'
'He already has. He plans to interview Rory Montague this afternoon.'
'It is a tricky situation. It was irresponsible of Lyall to take students out on such a night. I know that some of us have done a bit of night climbing in the past but that was when we were students. You would have thought he might have got it out of his system by now. Rory Montague claims he can't remember anything. I was hoping that you might talk to him, Sidney.'
'A pastoral visit? Surely the college chaplain could see to that?'
'No, I'd like you to see him. You were there, after all. Of course it hardly helps that Kit Bartlett has disappeared.'
'There is still no sign of him?'
'None. His parents have already telephoned. They seem to know that something is amiss (God knows how) and will start making their own enquiries. They might even go to the press which is, of course, the last thing we need ...'
'Montague says Bartlett vanished before he started the descent. And there's another curious thing: his rooms are empty.'
'As if he had planned to disappear all along?'
'And therefore Lyall's death may not have been accidental?'
'I don't think it will take the police too long to reach that conclusion, do you? Keating's not stupid and he's bound to interfere. I can only suppose that Bartlett's in hiding. We'll have to talk to all his friends, of course.'
'Did Montague see what happened?'
'He can remember the rope being thrown down to him. After that, he claims his mind is blank.'
'He suffers from vertigo so he feels guilty. He says that they wouldn't have used the rope if he hadn't been with them.'
'It makes you wonder why he went up in the first place.' 'He was their photographer,' the Master explained. 'And I imagine he was keen to impress. Kit Bartlett is a charismatic figure and Lyall was his tutor.'
'Pacifists used to do foolhardy things in the war to prove they weren't cowards.' Sidney remembered two cheerful friends who had worked as stretcher-bearers, refusing to kill enemy soldiers, acting with daring courage on a Normandy beach before they were blown up in front of him.
'I don't know if that will be Montague's story or not. I am also not sure whether it is helpful if he confesses to any responsibility. It could lead to a manslaughter charge and we don't want that.'
Sidney finished his whisky. 'We do, however, want the truth.'
The Master was irritated. 'The last thing this college needs is a scandal. We have already had a generous response to the appeal on our six hundredth anniversary and I do not want to put that into jeopardy.'
'We have to ascertain what happened.'
'That, I recognise. We will behave with authority and fairness. It will be my official position.'
'Then I must assume you have an unofficial position?'
'It is a delicate matter, Sidney.'
'Then perhaps you could explain?'
'I am sure Inspector Keating will keep himself busy. Investigating. Asking questions.'
'He certainly will. What of it?'
The Master gave Sidney what he hoped was a confidential look. 'I'd like you to tell me what he thinks. I would like some warning if his enquiries become too detailed; particularly regarding the personal lives of those involved. I wouldn't like him to delve too closely; either into their relationships or their political interests.'
'I thought Lyall was married?'
Excerpted from Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night by JAMES RUNCIE. Copyright © 2013 by James Runcie. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
The Perils of the Night.................... 00
Love and Arson.................... 00
Unholy Week.................... 00
The Hat Trick.................... 00
The Uncertainty Principle.................... 00
Appointment in Berlin.................... 00
Posted January 8, 2014
I won this book off the the goodreads give-away! I did not realize it was book 2 in a series till it came in. I have to read books in order so I checked out the first one from the library to read. This book is set around the era of the 50/60's in England. It has a lot of history in it which is always interesting but I did find it slow at times. The main character Sidney is a Anglican priest who dabbles on the side as a detective. Like the first book there are multiple short stories in the book where a new crime takes place and Sidney comes to the rescue to solve it. As the book progresses Sidney finally starts having a love life and finally take leaps of faith in that direction to match his strong Christian faith. All in all this book was ok but I have to say I actually enjoyed the first book more! If you like the early british era mixed in with multiple short mysteries then I suggest you check out the first book at your library. If you enjoy it you can always then buy it and the 2nd book as well. I will pass this book on to someone else as it is not something I would re-read again.
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Posted April 4, 2014
Set during start of Berlin wall and is a series of short stories connected and preceding in order always back to the vicarage. Not too familar of how the church and vicar function there is the church tax supported? Prefer the classic english mystery rather than the hardboiled and read many but the church position still escapes me mom
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 15, 2013
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