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Chimes at Midnight

On church bells.

For the past few months, I have found myself sitting up deep into the night in my second-floor office, which overlooks the street. It is the place I like most in my house because the heavy carpet and full bookshelves lining the walls insulate it from sounds both inside and out. When I’m alone there, wife and child asleep down the hall, I hear little more than the hum of the radiator. My entire world shrinks to a room. I might believe that nothing exists beyond it, if not for the moonlight pouring through the window.

A few weeks ago, however, I cracked open the window and something odd happened. I heard the heavy peal of bells, coming from somewhere out in Georgetown, perhaps only ten blocks away. I looked down at my watch. It was twelve o’clock. “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow,” I murmured to myself, mimicking the utter dejection of the Orson Welles Falstaff in my favorite filmed Shakespeare adaptation. When the last echo of the ringing faded, I closed the window.

The next night I heard the bells again. Even with the window shut, my ears had become so attuned to the sound that no matter where I was in the house, the muffled monotone still reached me. This became part of my nightly ritual, and I eagerly awaited the bells ringing. The reason was in part, I think, that the ritual was irregular: sometimes the first gong sounded two minutes before the hour, sometimes two after. This challenged my initial suspicion that the bells were timed—and the sound perhaps only a recording—and called up imaginings of some lonely sexton ascending a tower to signal the new day, though this duty had long ago deprived him of any regular use for days and instead had driven him to a world of solemn thought. When I was growing up in Northern Virginia, there was an electronic carillon at the Methodist church down the road from my house. At noon, it played “Greensleeves,” “Ode to Joy,” and the like. Even then, this embarrassed me. The tolling of church bells should be among the most mournful of sounds, a frequent reminder of death, judgement, and the fear of Hell for anyone within earshot. 

The bells soon possessed my daytime thoughts, to the point that I spoke of them frequently at dinners and cocktail parties. No one else, not even people who also lived in Georgetown, had heard them before. Some doubted their existence. I searched church websites and neighborhood message boards for some confirmation, but nothing turned up. (The strangest things are rarely discoverable online.) My wife confessed to me that she too had never heard the bells. One night, just as the ringing began, I rushed into our bedroom and shook her awake. She nodded along with the gongs and collapsed back into sleep.  

It occurred to me that I could easily discover the location of the bells myself. My street runs vertically down Northwest D.C. from the Russian embassy to Georgetown Hospital, where I was born in a room not updated since my grandmother’s college years. There are not many steeples nearby from which sound could carry all the way to my house. On the top end of the street is Washington National Cathedral, whose belltower is the highest point in the city and whose massive change ringing bells, when they are rung in a full sequence, call to mind for many people that line from Longfellow: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.” And just below the bottom is Healy Hall at Georgetown University, whose clock tower defines the neighborhood’s skyline when seen from the river and whose bells predate the Episcopal cathedral’s by nearly a century. There are a few other churches nearby—most notably the Greek and Russian orthodox cathedrals—but none with bells so massive or so high. 

I agonized for days over whether or not I should attempt to find the source. If I succeeded, I feared that the bells would at once lose their melancholy charm and that whenever I heard them thereafter, I would only think (no doubt with a local’s resentment) of the heedless institution that rang them at such a hallowed time of night for no other reason than custom. Better, I thought, that the ringing of the bells remain to me a mysterious visitation to which I could ascribe my own meanings. 

But these tell-tale heart situations are always the same. The ringing was in my head, and I had to know from whence it came. One evening, about twenty minutes before midnight, I drove up to National Cathedral and stood outside the narthex, peering down the nave as I waited, wondering silently at the sanctuary that has never housed Our Lord and likely never will. Midnight came and went without a sound. I breathed a long sigh—maybe the bells came out of the air itself. I should have stopped my search there. But instead, on the following night, I walked down to the university and waited on the front quad by the clock tower, watching drunk students reel home from the bars. At three minutes until midnight, I held my breath. I knew exactly what would happen. The sound was brazen, unceremonious, and nothing at all like what I had heard back in my little room.