Our footsteps fall softly on the smooth grey flagstones as we make our way through the cloisters of Hawkins College, bathed in the milky moonlight of a sky that bears the beginnings of the taste of dawn. There is the faint tinkling sound of metal on metal coming from Professor Duke, which is strange as it is I who carries the cumbersome keys to the College chapel.
I glance across at him and he smiles back, evidently enjoying himself. I have to admit, even I am becoming accustomed to being dressed as a nun. The habit is a surprisingly comfortable garment and the wimple negates the need to worry about what to do with one’s hair.
“Professor, slow down. Nuns don’t go marching about the place. We need to be more nun-like.”
“Well, this is it: it’s not easy being nun-like when one has three swords hidden beneath the habit thingy,” the Professor replies. “And plus, I’ve got itching powder in my pocket that I really, really want to get rid of, I must admit.”
“Sorry – you’ve got what under your habit?”
“Dadblame itching powder.”
“No, the bit before that.”
“You mean the awesome swords?” Suddenly, the Professor breaks stride and strikes a gallant pose, brandishing an impressive looking curved sword from within the folds of black material.
“Where did that come from?” I am breaking into mild panic, now. Waving weapons around is one sure way to draw attention to oneself, nuns or no nuns. “Put it away!”
“I’ve got two more such beautiful things hiding about in here.” The Professor nods. “One is for you, and the other is just in case my first choice breaks. Which it won’t. But it might. You know what they say: One is none, two is one, and three is two. Which means I have one since I’m giving one to you… Rats. Didn’t think about that.”
Well, you can’t argue with logic, I suppose.
Reluctantly, the Professor returns his sword to beneath the mysterious folds of his habit and we continue on our way. The chapel looms into view as we exit the courtyard, a towering cacophony of soaring spires, stabbing the night sky with their marble-like magnificence. The sight of it catches my breath for a moment; the awe fails to diminish no matter how many times I set eyes on this structure. Its presence is entirely different to that of the humble ancient beauty of our own Chapel. This is a place that wears piety with vanity as if the two things were the same. It does not inspire the familiar feeling of quiet reflection, but rather a kind of bewitching unease.
The Professor keeps watch as I wrestle with the aged keys, the cold metal heavy with history in my hands. I have become quite the expert in difficult keys and it seems that those of Hawkins College share a similar querulous disposition to our own. The lock grinds into reluctant movement and there is a sigh from the hinges as I push open the door.
Stepping into the chasmal body of the chapel, our eyes soar involuntarily upwards to gaze upon the enormous fan vault, one of the largest and finest in the world. The chapel has an illustrious history and took over a century to build. When the old King commissioned its design, he was keen to ensure that it would be without equal in both size and beauty. Although late gothic in style, the chapel displays some remarkably modern feats of architecture for its time. I fight the crush of humbling awe that presses down upon me, some how heightened by the starlight that falls like a scattered rainbow through the stained glass.
“This place disturbs me, I must admit,” whispers the Professor, his hushed tones echoing lightly about the carved marble statues that reside with quiet dignity in alcoves all around the walls. “In a good way, of course.”
“Come on, we’d better get on with it.”
We try to walk with gentle steps but nonetheless their careful patter resounds all about us as we hurry to the vestry. The choral robes are easy enough to spot, displayed as they are in readiness for the Choir Competition which is now mere hours away. They are most regal with their purple velvet and fine gold embroidery and I cannot help but feel that these Hawkins types really do have ideas above their station. My previous misgivings about our underhanded tactics evaporate with the urgent desire to look down on these robes with a smug smile of victory.
The Professor fusses beneath his robes and retrieves the package of itching powder. He sets about liberally applying the vicious dust in a manner that suggests he might have done this once or twice before. Satisfied that our work is done, we allow ourselves a moment to bask in our achievement. So pleased I am with our endeavours, I could almost hug the chap. But I doubt he would like that much.
“Let’s get, faster than two snails,” the Professor says. “Plus, I’m in the need for a sandwich or something.”
Before I can reply, an ominous sound catches our ears. We fall into an urgent silence and strain to hear what it might be.
And – wouldn’t you just know it – they’re coming our way.