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Lord Peter Wimsey and his manservant Bunter are halfway across the wild flatlands of East Anglia when they make a wrong turn, straight into a ditch. They scramble over the rough country to the nearest church, where they find hospitality, dinner, and an invitation to go bell-ringing. This ancient art is steeped in mathematical complexities, and tonight the rector and his friends plan to embark on a nine-hour marathon session to welcome the New Year. Lord Peter joins them, taking a step into a society whose cheerful exterior hides a dark, deadly past. During their stay in this unfamiliar countryside, Lord Peter and Bunter encounter murder, a mutilated corpse, and a decades-old jewel theft for which locals continue to die. In this land where bells toll for the dead, the ancient chimes never seem to stop.
430 pages, with a reading time of ~6.75 hours (107,628 words), and first published in 1934. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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“That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.
The car lay, helpless and ridiculous, her nose deep in the ditch, her back wheels cocked absurdly up on the bank, as though she were doing her best to bolt to earth and were scraping herself a burrow beneath the drifted snow. Peering through a flurry of driving flakes, Wimsey saw how the accident had come about. The narrow, hump-backed bridge, blind as an eyeless beggar, spanned the dark drain at right angles, dropping plump down upon the narrow road that crested the dyke. Coming a trifle too fast across the bridge, blinded by the bitter easterly snowstorm, he had overshot the road and plunged down the side of the dyke into the deep ditch beyond, where the black spikes of a thorn hedge stood bleak and unwelcoming in the glare of the headlights.
Right and left, before and behind, the fen lay shrouded. It was past four o’clock and New Year’s Eve; the snow that had fallen all day gave back a glimmering greyness to a sky like lead.
“I’m sorry,” said Wimsey. “Whereabouts do you suppose we’ve got to, Bunter?”
The manservant consulted a map in the ray of an electric torch.
“I think, my lord, we must have run off the proper road at Leamholt. Unless I am much mistaken, we must be near Fenchurch St. Paul.”
As he spoke, the sound of a church clock, muffled by the snow, came borne upon the wind; it chimed the first quarter.
“Thank God!” said Wimsey. “Where there is a church, there is civilisation. We’ll have to walk it. Never mind the suitcases; we can send somebody for them. Br’rh! it’s cold. I bet that when Kingsley welcomed the wild northeaster he was sitting indoors by a good fire, eating muffins. I could do with a muffin myself. Next time I accept hospitality in the Fen-country, I’ll take care that it’s at midsummer, or else I’ll go by train. The church lies to windward of us, I fancy. It would.”
They wrapped their coats about them and turned their faces to the wind and snow. To left of them, the drain ran straight as a rule could make it, black and sullen, with a steep bank shelving down to its slow, unforgiving waters. To their right was the broken line of the sunk hedge, with, here and there, a group of poplars or willows. They tramped on in silence, the snow beating on their eyelids. At the end of a solitary mile the gaunt shape of a windmill loomed up upon the farther bank of the drain, but no bridge led to it, and no light showed.
Another half-mile, and they came to a signpost and a secondary road that turned off to the right. Bunter turned his torch upon the signpost and read upon the single arm:
“Fenchurch St. Paul.”
There was no other direction; ahead, road and dyke marched on side by side into an eternity of winter.
“Fenchurch St. Paul for us,” said Wimsey. He led the way into the side-road, and as he did so, they heard the clock again–nearer–chiming the third quarter.
A few hundred yards of solitude, and they came upon the first sign of life in this frozen desolation: on their left, the roofs of a farm, standing some way back from the road, and, on the right, a small, square building like a box of bricks, whose sign, creaking in the blast, proclaimed it to be the Wheatsheaf public-house. In front of it stood a small, shabby car, and from windows on the ground and first floors light shone behind red blinds.
Wimsey went up to it and tried the door. It was shut, but not locked. He called out, “Anybody about?”
A middle-aged woman emerged from an inner room.
“We’re not open yet,” she began, abruptly.
“I beg your pardon,” said Wimsey. “Our car has come to grief. Can you direct us—-?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. I thought you were some of the men. Your car broke down? That’s bad. Come in. I’m afraid we’re all in a muddle—-“
“What’s the trouble, Mrs. Tebbutt?” The voice was gentle and scholarly, and, as Wimsey followed the woman into a small parlour, he saw that the speaker was an elderly parson.
“The gentlemen have had an accident with their car.”
“Oh, dear,” said the clergyman. “Such a terrible day, too! Can I be of any assistance?”