“Today’s subject, boys, is Truth. Truth, I think you’ll agree, is undoubtedly the most fundamental aim of any philosophical enquiry. But what is it about the truth? Why is it valued so highly? Knowing the truth does not always lead to happiness – it is often the case in this life that ignorance is bliss. However, philosophers maintain that it is better to be an unhappy Socrates than a contented pig. Why?
“Boys, you will find in your journey through life, courage to face the truth, whether it be good or bad, is one of the most important attributes you can possibly cultivate. Something that Kipling said about treating those two impostors both the same springs to mind, although I can’t quite remember the quote exactly. It is for this reason that we feel that here at Pindlebee School the most appropriate way to develop virtue in our students is not to patronise them with myths and euphemisms.
“Which is where I reach the real point of this speech. There is, in fact, a particular truth I am pertaining to. Did any of you actually believe that piffle Professor Garty was spraying around yesterday about a faulty mechanism in the clock tower? I see it as my duty to inform you that the true reason why the bell has lately sometimes been ringing at midnight is that the tower is haunted. The ghost, we believe, is that of Lady Jennifer Sengerye, who was murdered in the tower almost precisely a hundred years ago. I see it as no coincidence that the first time the bell was heard ringing at midnight was on the hundredth anniversary of her death.
“Now, children, let me tell you the fascinating, if somewhat unsettling story of Lady Jennifer Sengerye. A strikingly beautiful young lady, considered at the time to possess unnatural intelligence for a woman. It was said that her only downfall was her fiery temper. She became engaged to one of our students, a Mr Edgar Hawke, who absolutely worshipped her. According to all sources they were blissfully happy – That was until the day she spotted him across the quad flirting with one of the maids. Edgar maintained until the day of his execution that it was all very innocent, but having seen them together several times, Jennifer grew so intensely jealous that she didn’t even consider seeking an explanation before plotting to murder her fiancé. With an ancient sword, apparently a family heirloom, hidden in the skirt of the exquisite blood red gown she famously always wore, she lured Edgar up the tower, where she intended to carry out the deed. The only account of what happened in the tower on that frightful day was given by Edgar Hawke at his trial.” Ellenglaze proceeded to produce a battered copy of “Pindlebee School – A History” which fell open on the appropriate page.
“’All of a sudden, it appeared that she was possessed by something not of this world. She raised her sword, her bright eyes glistening with the reflection of the gleaming blade. And the next thing I knew, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, and I had lost control, and I was lunging at her…’
“Not exactly bedtime reading, is ‘Pindlebee School – A History’, but I strongly recommend that each of you goes forth and reads it.”
The atmosphere that Ellenglaze had created in that assembly was incredibly potent; the boys drifted silently out of the Great Hall, where tension lingered like a smothering cloud of smoke in the air. Hans and his disciples, however, were grinning triumphantly. If the whole school were living in fear of what lurked at the top of that tower, there would be no chance of anyone ever uncovering his corrupt activities. He cast his mind gleefully back to the day a week previously when he had masterminded the whole fantastic plan…
The reason why Hans had been creeping back to his room at Pindlebee at two in the morning on that crisp winter night is somewhat beside the point. Ask young Anneliese Hauspunkt from Pindlebee High School for Girls if you really want to know, but trust me, you probably don’t. The moonlight-drenched quad was filled with a perfect silence as he tiptoed in through the archway beneath the ancient clock tower. Its beauty was such that even a shameless young scamp like the sixteen-year-old Kornik-Angstram was compelled to pause and savour it.
All of a sudden the atmosphere was shattered by the creaking of one of the heavy doors along the side of the archway. Hans darted into the nearest shadowy corner, where he observed the caretaker emerging from the door, stabbing it frantically with a large key several times before locating the keyhole, and proceeding to stumble haphazardly across the quad, gurgling drunkenly to himself, and disappear into his lair. When all, once more, fell silent, Hans resumed his late-night quest. Walking past the battered oak door from which the caretaker had sprang; he noticed something that any curious mind would find impossible not to explore further. That heavy iron key was still protruding from the lock. Where could it lead him?
Without making any conscious decision, Hans watched his hand reach for the key, turn it in the keyhole with a satisfying clunk, and proceed to open the door. Darkness. He delved around in his pocket, where he tentatively swapped the key for a match. By the light of the tiny flickering flame, he could see the dull outlines of a granite spiral staircase in front of him. Step by step, he climbed. It seemed almost endless. Finally, he reached the top.
When Hans entered a room for the first time, he would judge it solely by its potential as a venue for corrupt behaviour. His current location scored particularly highly. It was approximately the right size, and situated in a particularly appropriate location, for a clandestine drinking and gambling event for four to six people. It even happened to have several bottles of assorted alcoholic poisons stashed away in the corner. A silvery shaft of moonlight shining through a small rectangular hole in the wall with two rusty bars bolted across it illuminated the monumental bell in the centre. Something metallic glimmered on the ledge beneath this primitive window. What was it? Hans took a closer look. A peculiar, tarnished little brass plaque.
ON THIS SPOT, ON 17TH NOVEMBER 1827, LADY JENNIFER SENGERYE WAS MURDERED
Hmm… interesting. Hang on! 17th November 1827! In two days time it would be the hundredth anniversary of this mysterious murder. Hans had a bright idea. If he could somehow cause the bell to toll at midnight on that date, he would be able to have a debauched little party in the tower without any chance of getting caught. The possibility of a ghost in residence would strike fear into the heart of any member of staff thinking of going up there to investigate. Indeed, at any time afterwards he could repeat the entire episode and everyone would still be under the illusion that Pindlebee Tower was haunted.
Within a few minutes, not only had Hans discovered which gear wheel to twiddle in order to make the bell ring without altering the clock, but had also devised a pulley mechanism, comprising only of a bit of string, a loose floorboard, an empty matchbox, and a cheese grater, with which he could turn the wheel with minimal effort. It was in a contented state that Hans finally slunk back through the quad and clambered into his dorm through the window.
His quest to make that curious little room practically his own commenced early the next morning, when he excused himself from breakfast with a counterfeit headache. Sneaking out through the window, he wandered into town to the locksmith’s, where he had several copies of the clock tower key made using a substantial proportion of his weekly allowance from his mother. They would certainly earn a good profit when sold to his friends at an extortionate price. Fortunately after his escapade, and replacing the original key in the lock, Hans was only a few minutes late for his first lesson of the day: Ancient History with Professor Garty, during which he managed to inconspicuously distribute the keys to the appropriate chums accompanied by instructions. And in any case, Garty was so thoroughly engrossed in imparting his extensive knowledge on the death of Achilles that he probably wouldn’t have noticed if the entire class had turned up naked.
At precisely eleven thirty on the 17th November 1927, Hans, this time accompanied by Anneliese, once again made his way up the tower. Despite his protests that such an adventure would not be entirely suited to the disposition of a delicate young lady such as herself, she had absolutely insisted that she be allowed to accompany him. After lighting a few candles, he dislodged the loose floorboard under which he had hidden the string, matchbox and cheese grater and reassembled the pulley mechanism. Throughout this procedure a perfect, impenetrable silence was maintained, and he almost dropped his bottle of wine in shock when at last Anneliese exclaimed,
“Oh my God, this is just like, so, exciting!”
As any respectable gentleman would, he proudly showed her how his pulley system worked, which seemed to produce the effect of returning her to a state of awestruck silence, if only for a few seconds. At this point it only seemed appropriate to uncork the wine and get drinking.
“Hey, Hans, darling! What happens if I pull this bit of string?”
As Hans turned around, he realised that Anneliese had decided to let that bit of string speak for itself rather than awaiting an answer from him. He looked on, aghast, as the irreversible chain of events occured in elegant slow motion… gear wheels set each other in motion, gracefully gaining momentum in perfectly engineered unison… until finally…
A few minutes later, a small collection of schoolboys could be heard scuffling their way up the steps.
Hans woke up the following morning with a hangover of legendary proportions. Although he had told his friends otherwise, it was the first time he had drank alcohol, and from that day on he never touched a single drop of intoxicating liquor ever again. However, he had won himself a fair amount of cash on a card game and therefore saw no harm whatsoever in continuing with the parties - after all he had grown rather attached to “Jenny’s boudoir” as his chums had somewhat distastefully christened the damp little room…
“Boys,” announced Ellenglaze, at the assembly of the 27th of November, “at last we feel that we can solve this clock tower problem for once and for all. Yesterday my dear, courageous husband, the great explorer Sir Aubrey Ellenglaze, returned from his expedition in South Africa and has promised us that next time that bell rings at midnight he’ll be straight up there to investigate. After all, compared to some of the creatures he’s come across on his travels the ghost of some neurotic little girl will seem like nothing… isn’t that right darling?”
She proceeded to gaze obsequiously at Aubrey, who was lounging gracefully amidst a veritable gaggle of dusty professors in the corner of the great hall. He scowled back, shook his head and sighed. Evidently he’d made no such promise, but would now be obliged to obey the command of his wife rather than face humiliation in front of the shameless tribe of schoolboys. And anyway, it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
“That’s it,” declared Henry, “we’re going to have to abandon the whole thing. I mean, if we continue we can hardly not get caught now, can we?”
“Shut up, Henry!” snapped Hans, “If the ringing at midnight stops straight after that assembly, old Hockey-Crompton will smell a rat and as always when odd things happen around school will consider the idea that we’re nothing to do with it a thoroughly preposterous one. What I propose we do is ring the bell tonight and then scare dearest Aubrey away.”
“Scare Sir Aubrey Ellenglaze away? Are you mad?”
“All we have to do is correctly attire Anneliese, give her a large metal object to wield, and position her appropriately in the tower. Trust me, if she merely stands still holding said item aloft in such a way that it catches the moonlight just right to gleam menacingly, little Aubrey will flee in no time and we’ll be free to disgrace ourselves in peace.”
“Do you have any idea what this Lady Jenny Thingy-Whatnot is supposed to look like?”
Hans dragged out a crumpled scrap of paper from his blazer pocket which, when unravelled, could be identified as an illustration ripped out of the copy of “Pindlebee School – A History” from the library. It was a striking black and white photograph of an oil painting of Lady Jennifer. Her sharp features glared defiantly from their shabby, yellowing background as if to say, “I dare you”, and the deeply avid expression in her intense dark eyes was unsettlingly haunting.
“Wow”, said Henry, “Do you really think Anneliese can carry this off? I mean, I know she’s your girlfriend and all, but…”
“…Jennifer had black hair for a start, and Anneliese is blonde…”
“…and, looking at that picture, Lady Jennifer was absolutely stunningly…”
Despite Henry’s disagreement with the entire project, he managed to procure a splendidly authentic sword from some source whose identity he refused to reveal. Hans could have sworn he recognised it from somewhere.
And so, just before midnight, with Anneliese appropriately dressed (apart from that ridiculous beret) in a somewhat too large ball gown she had borrowed from one of the older schoolgirls and positioned at the top of the staircase, Henry and Hans crouched shivering by the bells. The countdown to midnight was excruciating. By eleven forty-five Henry had already finished the flask of whisky he’d intended to drink in celebration of their impending triumph over Sir Aubrey Ellenglaze and was more than a little squiffy.
“Anneliese, please, for your own sake as well as ours, remove that stupid hat!” he moaned.
“No, this beret is just, like, so cool – everyone’s wearing them in Paris! Man, we’re gonna kick some ass tonight! This is just like one of those really quaint English school stories!”
“Henry, do let dear Anneliese keep her hat on if she so wishes.”
“Everyone may be wearing ridiculous headgear like that in Paris but quite frankly a well-dressed young lady in the 1820’s wouldn’t be seen dead in it!” argued Henry, receiving a faint act of mock laughter from Anneliese, although the pun had been thoroughly unintentional.
“See… darling Hans agrees with me, don’t you dear?”
She grinned at him in a particularly silly manner, and the clock promptly struck midnight. Hans unceremoniously rang the bell. Meanwhile, Henry snatched the offending piece of millinery from Anneliese’s head and defenestrated it. She threw the most colossal tantrum, which, since she happened to have a large sword in her hand, more than slightly perplexed poor Henry.
“Don’t worry, I’ll go and get it back for you, darling!”
Hans scurried to the hole in the wall and, after grabbing one of the rusty metal bars wedged across it, which crumbled away in his hand, slipped nimbly out of the window onto the roof, where he could just about make out the outline of the hat dangling rather neatly from the weather vane.
When he returned, both Henry and Anneliese were gone. He never saw Anneliese again and was later informed that she had been sent home in disgrace on the first ship back to Germany. Never mind, he thought, she always was an irritating girl. Having returned the sword to Professor Garty’s collection that he so unwisely kept in his classroom before the old eccentric had even noticed it gone, and endured an excruciating meeting with the Old Headmaster, Henry somehow retained his right to stay at Pindlebee School. Rumour had it that his father made a “generous donation” to the school funds. Miraculously, Hans’ reputation remained completely untarnished throughout the entire ordeal.