Saturday, July 28, 2018

A FLASH IN A MOMENT OF TIME (Part 2): An Adventure with Dr Kerr & the Kapellmeister

In this second installment of an excerpt from my new novel, In Search of Tom Purdue (you can read the first one, here.), Dr T. Richard Kerr's time-travelling adventure with The Kapellmeister – going back to Maine, 1814 – continues.

After finding himself “modulated” to an entirely different time and place than the basement in Marple PA he'd been standing in in 2015, he's now met not only this character who calls himself “The Kapellmeister” but also the composer, Supply Belcher, once famous as “The Handel of Maine.” Kerr has been hoodwinked into helping locate “The Belcher Codex,” which turns out to be a practical joke played on William Billings, consisting of Ten Commandments intended to give the novice musician the requisite skills to compose music – like those four-part chorale settings music students must suffer through to learn the basics of harmony. (The implication is Belcher and his friends were trying to help Billings overcome his technical short-comings.)

Sitting in Belcher's living room on a convivial evening spent with the famous musician's friends and neighbors, the Kapellmeister has just discovered he's lost his “tonic screwdriver,” the device that is, essentially, his time machine. Without it, well...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Hiram Belcher approached us after noticing the panic spreading across my face, interrupting his father to ask if anything was wrong, when I replied how some unexpected concerns had developed about our getting home. The Kapellmeister's raised eyebrow did not go unnoticed as he explained I'd meant “back to the farm where we were staying.”

“And whose farm is that,” the squire asked, “Rufus Titcomb's? Or Johnny Tufts'? I'm sure someone could give you a ride.”

“Thank you – it was further out, I'm afraid; we walked quite a distance.”

“The only homestead in that direction beyond Titcomb's farm is Ebenezer Sweet's tannery; by then you'd be closer to the Falls.”

The Kapellmeister wanted to change the topic. “Yes, just above the Falls. So...” but before he could ask Belcher anything more, someone else said, “You won't make it to Prescott's Mill before dark, now.”

“Well,” Belcher said, looking around, “I'm sure once we've finished our evening, there'll be room for two travelers for the night. Then you can find your way back to your host's in the morning.”

“Besides,” Sup's mother pointed out, “it's not safe at night with Indians about. You'd best stay – we'll find you some space.”

Not knowing what space there could possibly be, we gladly preferred their hospitality compared to running into Indians in the woods. Finally, we could resume the conversation about the whereabouts of Squire Belcher's Commandments.

“Junior complained his father's death was Uncle Ply's fault,” one of the other guests continued, “how he'd been goaded into madness. If you ask me, it's all the time he'd spent in those fumes.” Hiram came over and listened to what was clearly a frequently told story, wondering what Junior might have said to us.

“Yes,” the squire nodded, leaning forward, “you'll want to stay well clear of the likes of Junior Prentiss, mark my words.”

“But Father,” Hiram said, “it was Junior who set them in my direction.”

While the conversation flowed around me, I admit my mind was focused elsewhere, less on our walking back to our imaginary host's farm in the morning than somehow walking back to the 21st Century. Should we excuse ourselves to go search the road while it's still daylight, hoping to find where the Kapellmeister dropped it?

The Kapellmeister nudged my knee, bringing me out of my revery and nodded toward the squire who then repeated his question.

“What did you say your name was, sir? And why are you here?”

“Ah – I'm called Geoffrey Crayon, and I am always fond of visiting new scenes and observing, uhm... unfamiliar characters and manners.”

Again, Squire Belcher laughed and slapped his knee, then reached for his fiddle. A cheer rose up from the surrounding crowd. “That, sir, is nigh poetical, by my fancy, and worth itself a song!”

Belcher held up his fiddle, his bow raised, asking his friends for silence while he closed his eyes to enable concentration. A smile began to play on his lips, his body swaying in rhythm. His amiable face was beaming, a figure made larger than his physical presence.

“I think I have it: tenors, your tune.”

With that, he laid out a brand new piece, created on the spot, first playing a tune that was definitely unhymn-like, to which he sang the words I'd just spoken, one note per syllable, and though the prosody was a bit rough and the phrasing uneven, on the whole it was quite a pleasant tune. To this he added next the basses' version of the tune which wandered to the altos and finally to the sopranos. Adding other lines of countermelody, he had turned my introduction into a fugue.

After working his new tune through its various rounds a few more times, making some corrections or suggestions along the way, Belcher led his performers – also his audience – three times through his fuging tune. It met with general delight and there was applause from the women and cheers from the men asking to repeat it.

And so the squire led his latest piece through two more runs, the Kapellmeister joining in with a rousing tenor voice. I, a largely indifferent bass, apologized that I would much prefer to listen.

“No need for your apologies, good Mr Crayon. Tomorrow, I shall inscribe it with my sharpest quill, doubtless improving it, too.”

“And then definitely publish it,” the Kapellmeister suggested, “including with it your commandments.”

“Bah! Those commandments and such rules were intended for ye of little talent, a manner for beginners' training and no more.”

The music-making continued as “Uncle Ply” led his forces through several hymns and tunes, most requested by members of his choir, until someone suggested singing “Chester,” the famous tune by the famous Mr Billings.

The squire urged a moment of silence “as we are at war again with the British” before giving them their pitch.

“Though I want no discussion of politics to mar this evening,” he added, “first a silent prayer to honor our boys.”

Their performance grew to such intensity, any modern chorister would have been envious.

Even afterward there was silence, despite glances between some and others indicating disagreement: word recently arrived of the British taking Eastport, Hiram quietly explained, the federal government so far giving the locals no support. Recalling my American history, I knew Madison's War was unpopular in New England, some supporting secession to form their own

Once the singing had resumed, one of Mr Belcher's neighbors, someone named Fairbanks, approached the Kapellmeister to ask him a question: “How be ye dark-skinned like a savage yet not speak like a savage?”

The man seemed more curious than judgmental, such things being outside his experience – after all, what 'diversity' had they seen before? – but regardless there was not the least bit of prejudice in his demeanor.

Another neighbor appeared more concerned our “fantastical garb” might be what “young Macaronis” considered the height of fashion, our beards especially.

After a few more hymns, the singing stopped at least for the moment, everyone now turning their attention to more drink, along with further camaraderie, wandering about to talk with others around the room. Some of the younger gentlemen, mostly farmers and merchants, engaged the Kapellmeister in conversation about what news he had “from abroad.” While the ladies sat politely by the larger central fireplace, their children, especially the younger ones, played hide-and-seek among their skirts. The older boys stood off to one corner, making fun of our beards.

Meanwhile, I was deep in conversation with the squire about one of the newer composers then all the rage in Europe.

“You say his name is Beethoven,” Belcher said. “I've not heard of him.”

I told him about his symphonies and concertos, and Belcher seemed quite impressed.

“But then does he write no choral music?”

“Ah, no, he's written one choral work that...” – I paused, realizing this judgment would be one for the future to make – “I'm sure will become one of the greatest masterpieces for all of time.” Then I started humming a tune – the famous hymn-tune, the “Ode to Joy” – and the squire was much transfixed by it.

Unfortunately, I could not remember all the tune's words in the original German, and so inserted “la la la” as needed. But Belcher soon was humming along after he asked me to repeat it.

“An ode to joy, you say? How delightful,” the old man continued, mumbling (though technically, he was still younger than I), “but perhaps such thoughts might be too heady for us on the frontier. I must come up with different words for this – good, English words, too – a theme too good to waste on German!”

The harmony, he admitted, would be a little static, your basic three-chord chorale, but the tune was superb and easily learned.

“Yes, let us see what I could do with such a tune, myself!”

Picking up his fiddle and bow again, “Uncle Ply” called for everyone's attention and began playing and humming Beethoven's glorious melody. He began forming words to match the tune's rhythms, about fighting Britain's tyrants.

The singers were becoming more and more enthralled as they sang it back.

“Sup, write this down – an Ode to Freedom!”

“What have I done,” I wondered, smiling despite myself, nodding in tempo as Belcher spun out his setting of Beethoven's theme. “Someone, somewhere, is going to have lots of explaining to do,” I laughed. What will future musicologists assume, discovering Belcher's “Ode to Freedom” from 1814, when Beethoven wrote his “Ode to Joy” in 1823?

And then I heard the answering phrase begin “Yankees ever, gath'ring together, we sha-all fight 'gainst num'rous woes,” which led to “Paaa-tri-ots, our band of brothers, driving off all Freee-dom's foes” as it ended.

“We will repeat the tune with a variation, now, ladies – take my lead,” as Belcher's fiddle began to weave a descant full of catchy syncopations with a martial flare and some more sustained notes.

In the midst of this, I noticed Sup frown, glancing toward the window. What could have distracted him from the music?

Outside the window, in the quickly growing dusk, figures marched along the street, led by one in military uniform, saber raised. Somehow, I doubted the police were responding to a complaint about the noise. I tried to get the Kapellmeister's attention, how this might not bode well, when I saw Junior gesturing toward the house.

As one of Belcher's older sons went to the door, the Kapellmeister motioned me toward the kitchen, led by young Sup. A semicircle of several men pointed their muskets at Squire Belcher's front door.

The man we'd met earlier who managed our introduction to Squire Belcher's son stood there beside the officer, his face beaming, as he pointed out our presence toward the back of Belcher's gathered friends, and I saw in that instant the gleaming silver object he held in his hand, slightly larger than a fountain pen. He must have seen the Kapellmeister showing it to me when we arrived, probably even saw us materialize on the road. That wasn't a hug of welcome: Junior picked his pocket and stole it!

“He's got your screwdriver thing, your traveling device,” I whispered at the Kapellmeister.

“I am well aware of that, Mr Crayon.”

“And more to the point, how do you propose to get it back?”

It probably wasn't the time to engage in another round of cordial hugs – “so much for the friendliness of the locals.”

True, everybody at Belcher's house, however curious they were, had been most friendly, not the least bit unneighborly much less suspicious, and seemed even more baffled by the militia's unexpected appearance than we were. There was some quick whispering between the Kapellmeister and the grandson named Sup who whispered to two of the other boys.

The Kapellmeister nodded for me to follow him back through the jostling crowd, the boys clearing a path toward the kitchen. As everyone moved, soldiers pushing their way in, we slipped out the backdoor.

We wasted little time making our escape as the stalwart captain of the Farmington Militia Company announced “information had recently been received regarding two strangers, newly arrived in town, purported to be British spies and how both had been seen of late entering into Squire Belcher's house,” droning on as if reading from a warrant.

As we ran across the field toward the road Sup and his cousins led us to, we heard people shouting, “Spies?!” Then the other boys reluctantly stood back, turned and ran toward the house.

“If too many are missing, we'll be noticed before they realize you've disappeared. They'll think Junior's crazy if you've just vanished. Earlier, you mentioned those commandments written on leather, the ones Junior's father had?”

Sup overheard his grandfather telling Uncle Hiram how Junior tried to sell them.

The Kapellmeister asked, “you know where they are?”

How awkward, I thought, if Junior, through his own stupidity, activated the screwdriver, finding himself suddenly two centuries into the future? Indeed, how awkward for us if we remained behind in the early 19th? Junior did not seem a character who would do well in the future, considering we were equipped to fare no better.

If he stayed in the present – that is the past – we might be able to steal the screwdriver back from him; if not, how would we return to the future – that is, the present?

This, I thought, had “very bad TV situation comedy” written all over it with no resolution in sight regarding our predicament, just week after week of being chased by Yankee militiamen through Maine's backwoods.

With my luck, such a show would no doubt prove a season hit and our contracts would be renewed for eternity...

“Wait,” I said, suddenly realizing we were now running somewhere with a purpose and my lungs were rapidly proving themselves inadequate. “What's going on – shouldn't we be trying to get the screwdriver thing back?”

“Sup's taking us to the Codex: Prentiss must have it at his house,” the Kapellmeister said, hardly challenged by the exertion.

“But I thought you didn't want to take the thing back with you; you know, your rules about time traveling etiquette?”

“I must see it, to prove it exists – and then perhaps destroy it!”

“Whoa!” I stopped nearly dead in my tracks. “If you take the Codex now, nobody's looking for it in the future.” There was more to say but I had no breath to say it.

“And your point?” The Kapellmeister grabbed me by the arm, pulling me forward. “Come on, we must get to Junior's house.”

Sup ran back, urging us to hurry onward. “We're not going to Junior's. It's his father's old house by the tannery. It's where Junior stores a lot of stuff – nobody'd think to look, there.”

“Yet if everyone knows that, isn't that the most logical place to look?” This was no time to argue, I gathered. The boy was convinced it would be there and so off we went.

“You forget, sir, that Junior is not the sharpest crayon in the box.” The Kapellmeister tapped the side of his head.

There was no one about as the town around us sank into darkness, a pale half moon barely over the horizon. Houses became more distant and more widely separated and occasionally a dog barked. Alerted by their dogs, farmers grabbing muskets fending off burglars were one thing; I was more concerned about running into Indians.

We had reached a stream on our left – Sup called it the river – from here, the Old Prentiss Tannery wasn't far. A road wound through a stretch of forest where it was already dark.

Stopping for breath under a large, spreading tree, the Kapellmeister explained his plan, how we needed a bargaining chip with Junior. “Though the Codex is worthless to a non-musician, it could be worth money.”

“Oh, I get it,” much relieved, “he would want his Ten Commandments back and you'll trade them for your screwdriver thingee.”

Sup laughed and shook his head but then we heard the alarm bell, the signal warning everyone of an impending attack. Word of our escape spread quickly across town and we were not safe.

“Commandments or not,” Sup said, “you'll need to hide out here until morning.”

“Why are you helping us,” I asked him.

“You know too much about music,” he said. “How could you be spies?”

There, before us, stood a genuine haunted house if I ever saw one.

And then I sensed someone – something – behind us.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Like most in the village, Prentiss' was a smaller version of Belcher's house, a simple Cape Cod house, a single chimney, built against the rough winters they experienced in the woods of Inland Maine; still, a vast improvement, almost luxurious, compared to the original cabins and encampments thrown together when settlers arrived fifty years earlier. The one thing standing out with this particular house was how run-down it looked compared to the others, ramshackle and unlived-in, unlike all the rest, each neat and well-cared-for, the invading brush cleared away. It had only been a few years since Bill Prentiss died, Sup said, but most of the tannery had washed away, another victim of the big flood that hit the town earlier in May. Neither Junior nor Junior's brother had the money or the skill to rebuild, and the woods were slowly claiming it back.

The road, he continued, was called Prentiss Lane though the Old Prentiss Place was the only house back here, so far: no one “in their best wits” wanting to live downwind from a tannery.

“Let me guess,” I said, looking up at the large tree standing before the house, “they call this the Prentiss Elm?”

Sup looked at me like I was daft, as if “why would anyone name a tree that stood on someone's property?” Instead, he said, “can't you tell even in the dark that's an oak?”

All these years later, there still hung about the place the stench associated with tanneries I'd read about but couldn't imagine, from the killing and gutting of animals, dumping their remains along the river, to all the various chemicals they used in the process of cleaning and curing the skin that turned it into leather. We could also hear several sounds I associated with the forest at night, made spookier in the absence of a flashlight, but it was the snap of a twig that caught my attention – Indians?

There was enough moonlight to see the house, the yard overgrown with weeds, the clapboard worn and in need of paint, with one shutter hanging loose that must bang terribly in a strong wind. But there was a path we could see, worn through weeds and brambles: somebody lives here, someone heavier than Prentiss' ghost.

“Sup, you just said something about Junior's brother,” I reminded him, wondering if that would explain the presence of this path. “What if he's living here, but people just assume it's a ghost instead?”

“Oh, Junior's Brother may sometimes stay here, sir, but he's not the ghost. Even he's told tales about his daddy's ghost.”

The Kapellmeister seemed more concerned we were about to break into a house where someone might be living, ghost or not. “If he's Junior's brother, is he likely to give us the Commandments willingly?”

Sup wasn't sure Junior's Brother would be here; in fact, no one was sure where he lived, even during the winter. The story was they're twins – identical – and Old Bill Prentiss named both William.

“It's difficult to tell the brothers apart since they're both not quite right, so everyone calls them Junior and Junior's Brother.”

“That's right, boy,” a disembodied voice growled, nearly scaring the crap out of me as it stepped out from the bushes. I could barely see the figure standing there but the smell was self-evident. As the man stepped closer and my eyes adjusted, returning to their sockets, I could tell he was pointing a rifle.

“I heered the alarm and thought t'investigate things, so would ye mind telling me what exactly ye'r doing on my proppity?”

“So, I take it you're Bill Prentiss, then?”

“No, ya idjitt – I'm Will!”

We explained our situation with Sup's help (but mostly with his eager corroboration), how we were travelers visiting in town when the militia approached and how, being travelers, we had been mistaken for spies. The swirl of details and general confusion that ensued was presumably more than Will's mind could comprehend, looking to the boy.

“It's true, every word, sir,” Sup nodded, looking confidently at the shadowy figure whom we could then see lower his rifle. “I led them out here thinking the place was abandoned, safe to hide...”

“Ye'r that Carnelius Norton's son, ain't ye, boy?” Will cut him off, raising the rifle again. “Me and him's got 'issues.' Ain't I chased you and ye'r friends outta here before – last month, mebbe?”

“N-n-no, sir,” Sup replied, hoping Will had forgotten, “that was my cousin Ichabod.” Clearly, he'd forgotten about the Kapellmeister and me.

“Waall, then, what is it ye'r doin' back here, botherin' me and my place ag'in,” putting his rifle down and coughing. “Ye lose a bet, now ye spend a night in a 'haunted house'?”

Wasn't that where we, the Kapellmeister and I, were now planning if not hoping to spend the night, evading the militia?
“An' ye two who say ye'r not spies, what is it brings ye to the humble abode of Ol' Bill Prentiss?”

“Aside from avoiding wrongful arrest,” the Kapellmeister said, “rumors about some musical commandments.”

“Rumors, eh?” I couldn't see him smile, but one would have to be deaf not to hear it in his tone. “And what rumors have ye heard that bring ye lookin' fer Pa's 'Commandments'?”

“Precisely that,” the Kapellmeister said, “ink written on leather your father had possessed, the same as once belonged to William Billings.”

There was a pause and in the interim, Will's smile became a snarl. “Ye knows a lot 'bout my Pa's commandments...”

“We are traveling musicians having arrived from Boston where old legends still persist.”

There was a shift as the man stood a bit taller, smiling proudly. “The people o' Boston talk 'bout my pa?”

I was about to say that information was given us by Squire Belcher.

“Alas, it seems there's talk your father had stolen them from Mr Billings.”

“'Tis a lie,” Will spat, “a bleedin' lie!”

He had once again raised his rifle – musket, really – his tone bitter, accusatory, telling us it was all Ply Belcher's fault (at least that's what Bill always told him) always spreading these “e-vile rumors.”

Will raised the musket upwards and left off a shot that sent some animals scurrying into the woods, myself nearly included.

“If Belcher would've bought that damned piece o' leather when Pa asked him, we'da got our money and kept the tannery. The likes of ye comin' here, sayin' that, make me sick – damn sick!”

A second shot exploded into the air over our heads, hitting the tree, which brought down a branch landing behind us. If this was an old double-loader musket, was Will now out of ammunition?

“When Ol' Man Billings died,” he explained, “they was goin' t'throw 'em out. Pa took 'em – thinkin' they'd be worth somethin'...”

As it turned out, nobody was particularly interested in them, whatever Prentiss thought. “Thing looked real old, not real purty, though. Pa said they're these rules 'bout writin' music, really old rules, like 'God-given.' Full o' Thou shalts an' Thou shalt nots, all kinds o' musical jargon – don't know, neither Bill nor me can read.

“Then Pa moved us to this God-forsaken hell-hole, found Supply Belcher livin' here, figgered he's a composer, mebbe he'd buy 'em. He knew Billings, right? But he warn't inter'sted – he just laughed at Pa!”

It wasn't long, as Will went on about it, still aiming the musket at us, till his father apparently went insane and between all the drinking and gambling gave up on maintaining the tannery. Then one night, maybe chasing some “forest creat'ur,” he fell into a lime pit, “dead an' dried-up” when they found him.

“Thar's them 'at say he killed himself, threw himself into that lime pit, but that wasn't like Pa, not my pa. We buried him yonder up the hillside, there, undisturbed by the spring freshets.”

Soon, people in town started saying how the Old Prentiss Place was haunted, Dead Bill's ghost seen walking on the land and how weird noises could be heard inside the house late at night. But Junior was living in a shack on the edge of the village while Will stayed in the hills above town.

The Kapellmeister began smoothly, modulating his tone to comfort Will in his sadness. “I would gladly pay you a handsome-enough sum to purchase your father's commandments if you still had that 'piece of leather.' Is it possible he might have left it behind here in the house, for instance, maybe hidden somewhere safe – and dry?”

“A 'handsome' sum? How much...? In fed'ral dollars?” Again, without seeing his face, you could hear his expression in the voice.

“I have a very wealthy friend in New York who's interested in this.”

“Now, I know Pa didn't tack the damn thing up on the wall, since he came to hate it so much. It wouldn't s'prise me he'd tried burnin' it, 'specially on some winter's night.”

“Perhaps we could go inside and maybe all start looking around for it?”

“Don't know how you'll see – got no lantern.”

But the idea of the Kapellmeister's very rich friend living in New York must have quickly worked its magic on him, for soon Will led the way into the house; me, stumbling on behind. Sup, as if his eyes had long adjusted themselves to this night-time world, guided me forward like one leading the blind.

“Perhaps it'll be 'nough money I'd move to Boston and make a life? Anything,” Will mumbled, “to get away from this...!”

The house inside was pitch black and stifling, the ceiling low and oppressive.

It would take me years to adjust to the kind of darkness here, so used to street lights illuminating the city, seeing those little glowing pinpoints from appliances and devices scattered throughout my house, needing a flashlight to get around during power outages to protect my shins, even the urban glow on the countryside's horizon. While outside, courtesy of the stars and a weak moon, the vault of heaven far above us made the woods navigable, the blackness inside was intense, a void without having the distinction of shadows.

Junior's Brother threw open one of the windows looking out onto the clearing that left in a pale shaft of dimness, giving some sense of contrast to what was air and what was solid.

“Pa had a lantern 'round by the door, not sure 'bout any candles. Any you gents got a flint, by chance?”

Sup announced with some pride he, in fact, did, but as I didn't smoke, I had no cigarette lighter with me, not sure what effect having a flame in a small container might have. While Will scratched around what appeared to be a table, looking for something, I fingered through the things in my pockets.

“Needing a flashlight,” I remembered thinking, “to protect my shins: of course! D'oh!” My fingers tried not to jangle my keys. One had a tiny flashlight fob to find a keyhole in the dark.

By the time I'd safely pulled my house keys out of my pocket, Junior's Brother had already managed a feeble flame to light a stub of a candle which he placed in the lantern. It was enough to light up a circle of a few feet's diameter, giving us our first glimpse of our host.

He was indeed Junior's twin, perhaps more scruffy and his hair more stringy, a few more teeth missing, one eye bruised.

“Waall, ain't ye a strange lot,” Will scoffed, “what kind o' costume's that?”

Without further comment, he trundled over toward a corner and yanked up a dusty trapdoor, announcing he'd check the cellar first. “Pa stored most o' his stuff down here. Now, don't ye go nowheres.”

The light disappeared behind him but there were glimpses caught between some floorboards. The glow from beneath us was unsettling enough.

“And where would we go,” the Kapellmeister whispered, “having come all this way?” He watched as I moved toward the window. “But then you, I suspect, Mr – Crayon, you have found something, haven't you?”

Holding up my ring of keys, glinting in the dimness from the window, I finally managed to extricate my light-fob. “Ta-daa!”

A faint beam of bluish light cut through the darkness, cutting a barely helpful saber across the room to the table.

“Sweet Jesus,” Sup yelped and jumped back, “what manner of magic is this?”

That's when the noise began, quietly at first, some distant moaning from above. But wasn't Junior's Brother below, in the cellar?


Someone pounded on the wall behind us.

BANG! – again, but further away.

“Haunted, you said? That's why no one would come look for us here?”

BANG! BANG! – now from the wall opposite us.

I took my light-fob and scanned it around the room but, since the beam was too weak, could barely see anything, certainly nothing that could cause any noise at that volume against the walls. The moaning continued – “it's coming from the roof” – but the pounding momentarily stopped. “That must have been coming from the outside.”

The faint glow from Will's lantern reached the far side of the cellar.

BANG! – but only a half-hearted one this time.

“Wait – that's on this end of the house: Will's lantern's on the other...”

Perhaps the militia had sneaked up on the house and trapped us inside, banging on the walls pretending to be ghosts? Anyone down the road would've heard Will's two gunshots and alerted other neighbors. By now, I'm sure, they could have gotten here without our knowing it. Glancing out the window, I saw no shadows.

Suddenly, two greenish beams of light, whirling about at odd angles to each other, broke forth from where the Kapellmeister stood and I suspected our ghost must have somehow attacked him on the spot.

These two beams rapidly fused as if originating from the Kapellmeister's left lapel, where I immediately flashed my comparatively weaker light, his beam focusing first on me, then on Sup who could barely breathe.

“Jesus,” I said, “what the fuck is that?” Sup muttered words probably approximating the same thing. “It looks like a lizard.”

“What manner of magic is that?” Sup drew closer, in awe of the Kapellmeister's light, realizing neither of us seemed afraid.

“More like, 'what kind of technology is that,' from a slightly different perspective.”

Sup peered intently at the lizardly thing now crawling onto the Kapellmeister's shoulder. “What kind of knowledge-y thing is that, sir?”

The Kapellmeister explained he had not yet wanted to rely on his 'assistant,' but he might prove helpful under the circumstances.

“Allow me to introduce V7,” my companion announced.

“Where are you men from...?”

The Kapellmeister pronounced it “Vee-seven” , unlike any student of music, seeing a Roman numeral, who would say “Five-seven” or “Dominant 7th.” None of these alternatives would be worth explaining to our stupefied young friend.

“He's a robotic chameleon, basically – a bionic lizard programmed with some artificial intelligence.” Like that would help Sup understand it better...

There was no time left for further explanations as the moaning from above us quickly turned into a child's delighted laughter. V7's beam tried locating the noise, heavy footprints pressing down
from the ceiling.

Once the laughter turned predictably darker, more mocking, slow heavy breathing sounds came from the walls, buckling inward with each inhalation. The lizard cast its beams around the walls where dark stains began spreading.

It's like the house was breathing, even bleeding.


The pounding started again.

The door blasted wide open!

I should scream...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“Waall, lookit here!” The silhouette of someone barely discernible spoke from the doorway, a man, definitely human, judging from the shape, but who sounded a lot like Junior's brother – or Junior's Brother's brother, Junior. “Ye mebbe 'spectin' a ghost or somethin' like? That'd prolly be my Pa.” He walked in and held up a lantern.

When the door appeared likely to implode, both V7 and I instinctively turned off our lights, leaving the inside in darkness. Presumably, whatever was about to enter might therefore have more trouble finding us.

The light from the lantern fell first on poor Sup who looked as if he might need a change of pants and had yet to recover from strange lights seen emanating from stranger places.

“Hmmmph,” the man grunted, “that 'splains how ye made setch a fast get-away from Ol' Belcher's place, after kid-nappin' the boy.”

There was quite a hue-and-cry once the spies disappeared and Sup's cousins returned what with Young Sup nowhere to be found, till one admitted the strangers took off with him, headed for the river.

“An' since Mrs. Norton – yer ma, boy – said ye'r asking 'bout them comman'ments, I figgered ye'd come here lookin' fer 'em.”

“Very astute, Mr Prentiss – I assume we're addressing the man known as 'Junior'?” The Kapellmeister maneuvered us around toward the window.

“You git away from that window, ye'll not escape so easy this time.”

The man nodded, drawing a pistol on us, admitted to being Junior Prentiss as he set the lantern on the table, though how on earth could anyone mistake him for his ugly little brother?

“We were told you were twins,” I said, “by somebody at the Squire's.”

“They was talkin' 'bout me? – can't be good...”

“Only in that your father had these Commandments given him by William Billings,” the Kapellmeister said, “which he'd tried to sell.”

“We thought you'd know their whereabouts,” I added.

“Ain't no whereabouts t'know, now.”

“You mean your father hasn't hidden them away, here?” the Kapellmeister said. “Pity...”

“Ain't no pity, nyther, since I sold 'em.”

An ugly face peered quietly over the trapdoor: Junior's Brother was not pleased.

“Sold 'em to some travelin' musician like yerselves, down in Boston – German fella...” The name reminded him of his son, Henry.

When the brother's face disappeared behind the trapdoor, I had to get Junior to say something that would so anger Will, it would distract them both so we could overpower them, but with what? I doubted it would be both brothers together against the three of us but would Will automatically be on our side?

“Henry,” Sup said, speaking up for the first time since Junior showed up, “didn't he run off a couple years ago?”

“He warn't no run-away, Mr Smarty-Pants,” Junior bellowed, “the injuns got 'im, sure.”

I was afraid to get off-topic with Junior, since his attention span was undoubtedly less than a gnat's, his brother's shorter.

“What did you sell them for, these Commandments?” I'm sure Will was listening.

“Ha! Ten dollars, fed'ral – includin' some other music stuff Pa stole from Billings.”

“Pity – we could easily have paid you fifty...”

“Heinrich,” the Kapellmeister said, slapping his palm on the table, nearly rattling the lantern to the floor, “was that his name?”

I was sure I'd heard a muffled curse from behind the trapdoor.


Anton Philip Heinrich, I explained, was a wealthy merchant and composer from Bohemia. Junior agreed that sounded about right to him.

“Too bad,” the Kapellmeister sighed, “I'll probably have to pay him twice that to get him to
sell them to me...”

“Ye'r worth more'n that when I turns ye over to Col. Oliver Bailey.”

Junior immediately started telling us how the state militias would pay him ten federal dollars a head for each spy arrested.

“But isn't there something you've overlooked: don't you have to catch us first?”

“Case you ain't already figgered it out, looks like I gone done that.”

“Maybe, but turned us in to be paid?”

The militia, he assured us, would be here soon, taking us into custody: all he had to do was hold us. He didn't seem to wonder who might have fired those shots he'd heard.

“One spy gits me ten dollars an' two spies at ten dollars apiece” – we could see the creaking in Junior's brain as he tried calculating this – “why, sweet Jesus, thet'd be a hunnert dollars!” He laughed at the idea how we were going to cheat him by buying the commandments for a mere fifty dollars.

He swung the pistol back in our faces and motioned us further back toward the empty fireplace, away from the window. The door, however, was still open with Will's rifle propped up against it. But he also hadn't noticed the ugly face scowling from behind the trapdoor. And what about the banging on the walls?

The Kapellmeister, distracted but unfazed by our circumstances, rummaged through his pockets again. “Damn, I must have dropped that decoder wand...” Meanwhile, I noticed V7 peeking out from under the brim of his hat.

Junior smiled and held up the Kapellmeister's screwdriver, glinting in the faint lantern-light. “Dee-coder wand, ye call it? How's it work?”

“That's it, thank you,” the Kapellmeister said, reaching out. “Where'd you find it?”

“I saw ye appear,” – he stepped back – "one minute, nothin'; next, ye'r thar. An' yer holdin' this thing: what's it do?”

“Ah, but you want to be careful with it, though: it's also designed to self-destruct if you hit the wrong button.”

Junior held it out as if it might explode right in his hand.

“Plus it wouldn't look good if the Colonel found it on you, Junior, secrets you could be delivering to the Brits?”

“Turnin' you in'll keep 'em off o' me, they don't suspec' a thing.”

“But it'll be easier if they find that on us. Wait – suspect what?”

“Why, my little gunpowder-runnin' business, of course.”


Instead of the walls beginning to shake from the pounding we'd experienced earlier, now it was from the trapdoor dropping shut as the face behind it materialized into the full form of Junior's Brother. The anger on his face – especially his eyes – only made him uglier still and Junior's surprise didn't help him any, either.

“Ye damned traitor,” Will bellowed,"what're ye storin' gunpowder in Pa's cellar for?”

What had Junior's Brother done with his lantern?

“What infernal region did you blow in from?” Junior turned, re-aiming the pistol.

“What're ye gonna do with all that gunpowder an' the lime from the tannery down thar –
sell it to the Brits?”

“Don't matter none to you, now, does it?”

“It's Pa's house – half's mine!”

“And don't forget,” I added,"he didn't bother sharing the money he made from selling those Commandments your father once owned.”

“I caught these spies, even warned the militia, I'll turn 'em in an' takes the money – everyone'll think I'm a hero.”

“Half that money's yours, Will,” but Junior only pointed his pistol at me.

“And I caught 'em before ye,” Will said."I'll turn you all in! Bet thar's a ree-ward fer that gunpowder, too!”

“Wouldn't matter, Junior, the British Army would seize your gunpowder as 'war-time contraband' and more likely arrest you for illegal possession. How will they react if they hear you've betrayed two of their agents?”

Laughter erupted from the ceiling, rippling down in waves over the flickering lantern, almost extinguishing the flame in its chilling breath. The air grew cold as the childlike laughter turned into old women's cackling. Sup drew closer behind me, not sure I'd be able to protect him but less inclined to rely on the brothers.

“Give me the wand thing, Junior,” the Kapellmeister said, reaching out his hand."It will only implicate you as a spy.”

I heard the laughter turn into distant shouts, but still Junior didn't budge.

The glow from beneath the floorboards indicated what happened to Junior's Brother's lantern: the entire cellar was being engulfed in flames.

“What the hell, ya idjit! We gotta run!”

“Ye'r not goin' nowhere, Billy-Boy!”

“Sup, hurry! Run fast and warn the militia – keep everyone away from here!”

“Stop, boy!” Junior raised his pistol and aimed.

Will tackled his brother and threw him up against the door jamb – BANG! – so the shot went wild, missing the boy who ran off yelling into the woods, the commotion of voices drawing nearer. But Junior still held the screwdriver in his hand and wouldn't let go."No, ye don't, little brother– this thing's mine!”

Somehow we had to get that back and escape before the militia arrived or, more importantly, before the place blew up. The Kapellmeister stood there, tall and motionless, waiting. Flames began licking the walls.

V7's beams sliced through the dimness, hitting the struggling brothers squarely who, seeing the sudden and inexplicable light, jumped back, terrified. The light appeared to come directly from the top of the Kapellmeister's forehead.

Then even more amazingly, a long arcing filament shot forth through the beam. Junior screamed, falling to the floor in shock.

Snatching the screwdriver from Junior's hand some ten feet away was astounding enough, though V7 was clearly not your ordinary chameleon satisfied with snagging flies a mere foot away with its incredibly well-designed tongue.

The smell of burning wood and chemicals became stronger, I imagine like brimstone, flames below and around us increasing in intensity.

The militia captain appeared in the doorway, barring our path – Junior screaming, “Demons!” – as the Kapellmeister yelled, grabbing my elbow.


But was the flash the result of our disappearance, the gunpowder – or both?

* * ** *** ***** ******** to be continued (eventually) ******** ***** *** ** * *

A FLASH IN A MOMENT OF TIME: An Adventure with Dr Kerr & The Kapellmeister

An excerpt from the classical-music-appreciation comedy-thriller:

In Search of Tom Purdue is my fourth classical-music-appreciation comedy-thriller, having already written The Klangfarben Trilogy already posted on this blog (see the links for The Doomsday Symphony, The Lost Chord, and The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben on the blog's right panel). 

It feels like it's taken forever to finish it, even before taking a year off to compose a so far incomplete piano quintet; and it feels like it's taking even longer just to edit the novel. Yet I am already working out the details for its sequel, The Salieri Effect.

But I thought I'd post this more-or-less self-contained chapter – Chapter 9, officially, part of an internal sub-plot
as a sample even if, in fact, it has nothing to do with the search for somebody named Tom Purdue.

Besides, it's summer and everybody is looking for a vacation adventure: why not investigate a little time-travelling get-away? (Any time and place away from reality, right?)

Meet Dr T. Richard Kerr (as in
ricercar, an old musical form from the Italian, “to search”). He's a composer, retired professor, and an occasional “music detective” who's been called in to find out what's happened to a friend he hasn't seen much since their days in grad school together. Thomas Purdue, a composer, like many down on his luck, is working on a project to develop a kind of “artificial creativity” program he's dubbed “Clara,” something two different and rather shady organizations are interested in for their own nefarious reasons: SHMRG and The Aficionati.

But while Kerr understands little of that so far in the story, he
is aware Purdue is the prime suspect in a murder which took place earlier at his publisher's – actually, two murders: a young secretarial assistant named Alma Viva who has been brutally murdered during the first few minutes of her first day on the new job (speaking of difficult work-place environments); and the boss of the company herself later that same afternoon, the very formidable Belle diVedremo.

It is late October a few years ago. Dr Kerr and his Watsonian assistant, a young man named Cameron Pierce, are standing in the basement of Tom Purdue's house, located in Marple, a suburban township of Philadelphia, where they've just discovered a mysterious tunnel which leads... well, that's for later. Cameron runs upstairs to find a flashlight, urging his often hapless friend not to go anywhere until he gets back. So this is, of course, the perfect moment for Dr Kerr's mysterious visitor and future tour guide to make his appearance...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

A momentary flash of bright light distracted me; perhaps Cameron had turned on another light which then burned out and died. Except I became aware of someone standing behind me who couldn't be Cameron.

Since I'd just seen Cameron going up the steps into the kitchen, no one else could have come down the steps. And since Cameron opened the secret panel, no one could've entered from there. Slowly, I turned around and saw a man standing there, smiling at me. I took the smile as a good sign.

Not that his presence wasn't enough to scare the crap out of me, but his appearance was immediately noted as “weird,” but weird in a good way or a threatening one, I wasn't sure. My first thought was, he must be a guy on his way to a Hallowe'en party who'd taken a wrong turn. My second thought was, was he the guy who'd plugged the computer back in overnight and reconnected it to the internet? Thirdly, wouldn't that mean he'd waited all night for me to wake up?

Before he said “Hello,” my fourth thought was, I'd had an awful lot of thoughts in this brief amount of time, none of them terribly comforting as they increased in difficulty to answer rationally. I mean, was the Hallowe'en party last night, had he googled for help, was there some purpose in waiting for me? Then it occurred to me what his costume was – or rather, was like, being unlike anything I'd ever seen till now – like he'd just stepped out of the pages of a music appreciation textbook.

Standing there was a man not much taller than I (therefore, somewhat short) wearing what a German Baroque composer might wear, a long coat reaching almost to his calves, slightly flared from the waist, the sleeves long with deep cuffs, a waistcoat, a white shirt with lace, trousers only to the knees, and silk stockings.

But, except for the linen shirt, everywhere that ought to be elegant fabric – coat, waistcoat, breeches, even an uncharacteristic flat cap – was instead a heavy brown tweed as if he had originated in Edinburgh. Around his neck wound a scarf of seasonal reds, oranges and browns, which, when stretched full length, probably measured ten feet.

Yet, the costume aside, there was also a noticeable discord in distinctly Indian features with his cinnamon complexion and black hair, not at all what I'd expected in a Baroque court composer from Scotland.

Perhaps I wasn't fully awake yet, after all, which could explain many things, dropping off to sleep in a strange place, except why I chose to ask this stranger, “Who the hell are you?” It didn't seem to be the best foot to start a conversation on, but then again one had to begin somewhere.

“I suppose I could ask you the same, if only more delicately worded,” he said, though without any sense of challenge. He also spoke English without any sense of accent, German, Scottish, or Indian.

“Have you been waiting for me here all night, standing in the darkness? Or maybe you were sitting at the computer?” Either way, it made me feel creepier, knowing he'd been watching me sleep.

“No, actually, I'd just arrived a moment ago.” He stepped forward, hand extended. “They call me The Kapellmeister. And you are...?”

“I guess that would make me The Doctor,” I said with a chuckle, shaking his hand which, however, felt fully corporeal, “but if you're looking for Dr Purdue, he's not home at the moment.” Perhaps the less information I offered him, though, the better it would be: he might be the one who'd abducted Tom. It's possible he's here looking for Clara or he's already downloaded the program, though it's unlikely he would be technologically savvy. And, as weird as all this was, he might be reading my mind.

“Yes, I was, now that you mention it – and hoped perhaps Dr Purdue might be able to offer me some assistance since, unfortunately, I need to locate the thing before certain undesirable elements do.”

But rather than process this bit of information – specifically, how he knew Tom – I'm wondering where the hell he came from.

“And what 'thing' is this which you hope he can help you find?” (as if this plot wasn't already convoluted enough). “There're piles of stuff all over the place: maybe I can help you?” But then, looking around at all the junk lying about in the basement, I doubted that was a very wise suggestion.

“Ah, it's not a 'something' I think he has,” the strange visitor said, looking around and picking up a dusty book. “It's more something he might know where it is, who might have it.”

Putting the book back down, he explained what he's looking for is an old manuscript “of sorts” (whatever that qualification meant) but there's a major problem in tracking it after it disappeared in 1791.

“So, the year Mozart died – it has something to do with Mozart's death?”

“The year Mozart died is a coincidence only.”

Here, hoping this might explain one of the great tragedies of classical music, I missed some of what he'd said next.

“...Because it's imperative I find the Belcher Codex!”

“A manuscript by Supply Belcher?”

“Is this something Purdue has told you about?”

“No, can't say he did.” I heard Cameron calling me from the kitchen.

“Quick, someone's coming,” he said, “I must go.”

“It's just a friend of...”

The strange man grabbed my shoulder and then there was this brilliant flash.

Suddenly, I was no longer in Tom's basement.

* * ** *** ***** *** ** * *

“What the hell was that all about? Jeez!” At first I had the very strong feeling I should dust myself off. My eyes were still adjusting but my brain hadn't even begun the process. “Could you tell me what just happened there? Where the hell are we? Not to mention how did we get here?”

“Are you always given to this level of profanity?” my traveling companion asked. “You seem to be rather upset by this.”

“I'm not in the habit of being kidnapped – as for my profanity level...”

There'd been a flash, a surge of warmth and a rapid, roaring sound like I'd been sucked into a wind tunnel which couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, if even that much.

“Don't worry, you're safe: everything came through intact – your hair's not even disheveled. Not bad,” he smiled, “for your first time.”

In his hand, he held something shiny in the sunlight, metal (probably silver) – (wait, it was sunny and we were outside?) – not much larger and only a little bulkier than an old-fashioned fountain pen.

“This is my Tonic Screwdriver,” the man said. “Never leave home without it!” It looked like no screwdriver I'd ever seen.

“Oh, that 'wind' sound you heard, incidentally, was music, a long-winded circle-of-fifths modulation – which then eventually resolved to our present location. True, to most ears, harmonies moving that quickly tend to become a blur.”

I stood there looking around without a clue, beyond no longer being in Tom Purdue's basement or outside in his backyard. “What the hell do you mean, 'resolved to our present location' – what location?”

“It's probably best,” my kidnapper cautioned, speaking in a whisper, “not to attract undue attention by loud talking or outlandish behavior.” The man who called himself The Kapellmeister nodded toward a knot of several people who appeared on the road before us.

“They look like a bunch of costumed Colonial American re-enactors: where are we?”

“Not 're-enactors,' as you so quaintly called them, and they're not wearing costumes. By the way, just try to 'act natural'? If my calculations are correct, we're in Farmington, Maine, August 14th of 1814.”

I managed to strangle another stream of profanities, despite possibly being more intense than any I've produced since my student days.

Looking around, I imagined we'd landed not too far from some woods, several houses visible in the distance beyond those rocks, the fields, probably farmland, and trees on the other side rich and green. The road we stood beside, I originally assumed a dirt path, was hard and dusty, though quite possibly a main road. We were standing on the edge of town, some simple farmhouses on our left, a barely hidden riverbank to our right. The road behind us descended from some hills with a slow, gentle curve.

The people coming toward us I imagined were farmhands returning home after work, a group of maybe ten men and boys. Before reaching us, they turned toward the town, perhaps cutting through a field. They had no sooner made their turn than they suddenly broke into song.

“Listen to that – four-part harmony, perfectly in tune!”

“This town is home to one of New England's most famous singing teachers.”

“You mean, Supply Belcher, the 'Handel of Maine'?”

“Yes, and there, undoubtedly, goes a perfect example of his work and dedication.”

This, I figured, was why he brought me here, because he thinks I know something about this Belcher Codex he mentioned.

“So what are we doing here, where do we go – just follow them? You couldn't have landed us closer in town?”

“We could hardly just materialize in the middle of somebody's parlor, – be discreet.”

As we trudged along the road, he apologizing for “abducting” me like that, since there hadn't been time to ask me and he hadn't left me time to consider much less decline the offer. He had heard someone coming, figuring it would be awkward to explain his presence there – “no shit, Sherlock” – and, so, vanished.

“But I needed Purdue's help and in his unfortunate absence, there you were, plus you said you know about Belcher's manuscript.”

“No, I assumed you meant Supply Belcher as opposed to, say, Fred Belcher...”

“Ah, that's right, you did say Purdue hadn't told you about it, but I thought maybe you knew about it independently.”

“Does that complicate my situation, here, because I know nothing about your Codex?”

“I think it rather complicates my situation, rather, but yours, certainly, I'm afraid.”

“You can't wave your screwdriver and return me...?”

He looked at me like I was mad and sighed, shaking his head while holding out the screwdriver for my inspection: it was, he explained, a “transportalization device” designed for only one person's use. However, by holding onto my arm like that, he'd managed to transport me along with him without, presumably, “undue deleterious effect.”


I looked at the screwdriver, this pen-shaped silver contraption – “titanium, to be accurate” – with various knobs and buttons on it.

“It's very accurate for short-range distances, but for greater, I'd need my M√§lzelotron-120.”

Since we continued our trudge without further explanation, I finally had to ask what that was and what, coincidentally, he was. Clearly he wasn't just another musicologist with a penchant for strangely designed apparel. And talking to just any eccentric musical expert would not have landed me in an early-19th Century village in rural Maine.

“I am,” he said, looking straight ahead, “what you'd call a Tempo Maestro, 2nd Class, working presently on my 7th degree.”

“You mean you're going for your seventh PhD? That could explain a lot...”

“Unlike your bricklayers who have only 32 degrees, our degree levels are infinite.” Perhaps he was referring to the Masonic Order.

Ignoring his use of “our,” I asked if he were researching Belcher's Codex.

“I've been sent here to locate it, yes.”

“You're from some parallel universe?”

“Oh, not exactly: you're clearly the parallel universe.”

There was somebody behind us though I wasn't sure when he'd approached us, walking with an avowed limp and shuffling feet. His hair was stringy and unkempt, his chin a riotous mass of stubble. As we'd been walking along, wrapped in our own conversation, the man's appearance was more of a surprise than his appearance. Before the man overtook us, the Kapellmeister whispered to me to be cautious talking with people considering there's a war on and the locals may not take charitably to finding strangers in their midst.

“Ah, good man,” my parallel traveler said, addressing the stranger – though clearly we were the strangers, here – “perhaps you could help.”

He eyed us suspiciously, no invitation to continue. Perhaps he couldn't understand us.

“We're travelers here, newly arrived from Boston,” the Kapellmeister continued, ignoring his demeanor, “and seek the house of Mr Supply Belcher.”

With that, the man came up to us and, without changing his expression, proceeded to give each of us a hug, as if embracing long-lost colleagues not seen for years who've now suddenly returned. Clapping us on the shoulders, he looked at each of us and smiled, the change on his face removing all concern.

I glanced at the man calling himself the Kapellmeister and grinned at how “uncharitably” this particular local regarded these two strangers. Regardless, though, the man, somewhat hardened by circumstances, did look a bit uneducated.

“Looking for the famous Squire Belcher, are you? – singing-master, teacher, town magistrate, physician. Aye, he's famous in these parts, that's true.” Yet the man did not sound quite the fan his words would seem. “One of the town's original settlers, here 'bouts, and successful too, he's been. My pa and me, we come later, though.”

And judging from the looks of him, I'd say this man and his pa had not thrived nearly so well, either.

“We are interested in music and wish to meet the Handel of Maine.”

“'Int'ersted,' are ye?” His tone was mocking despite the expression on his face. “Well, then, ye know of old William Billings?” We smiled and nodded as he rambled on, enjoying his bit of fame-by-association. He became nostalgic, saying how his father worked for Billings back in Boston. “But ye'r in luck: thar's the Squire's boy!”

The man he pointed to, walking toward the intersection of his road with ours, was hardly a boy given his stature, much less his confident demeanor, well-dressed by comparison to those others we'd seen. Our would-be friend hailed the young man and got his attention, stepping forward. “These gentlemen be likin' to meet yer pa.”

I noticed a look first of annoyance then displeasure quickly replaced by curiosity as he took in two strangers standing there. Without saying another word, our acquaintance turned and shuffled back up the road.

The young man, clearly among the town's elite, paused, doffing his stove-pipe hat, curiosity now turned into a polite, engaging smile. He wore long pants and a short-trimmed coat, his hair also cut short.

“I am Hiram Belcher, just on my way to my father's house from a day at the office. And you are...?”

The Kapellmeister explained himself as simply as possible without much satisfaction of curiosity – I remained none the wiser regarding his name – as young Belcher turned and asked me if I were a Kapellmeister, too.

“No, sir,” I responded, nodding, “I am only a teacher – I'm from Philadelphia.” The Kapellmeister added he was “lately” of London.

“And here you have traveled all this way just to meet my father? He will most certainly be amazed and delighted! But surely,” he added, glancing around, “where are your horses and your luggage?”

As the Kapellmeister paused momentarily to ponder this predicament, I decided to inspect some of the cat hair on my sweater, following his advice about conversing with locals who might be suspicious of strangers, until he decided upon the excuse we had left them at a farm “down the road” and ultimately chose to walk. Wondering exactly how far “down the road” the nearest farm might be, I had amassed a surprising amount of cat hair before Mr Belcher, who could have been a lawyer, decided to believe him.

Young Belcher invited us to follow him home – “it is not much farther” – so by the time we had gone a short way, he pointed out which house was his, or rather his father's. By modern standards, I wouldn't say it was much but compared to most of those around it, it was fairly impressive.

A large, rectangular Cape Cod house of white clapboard with two chimneys – itself, a sign of some standing – its steep roof pitched broadly over two stories, no doubt the home of a large family, with two windows and a door on the side greeting us, but three windows and a door facing across the front. There was little symmetry about the place, the chimneys situated haphazardly, the space between windows and doors unequal and oddly positioned, yet for all its rustic ineptness, clearly one of the neighborhood's grander houses.

Mr Belcher (who hadn't invited us to call him anything, much less Hiram) explained when the family moved to the town which was then called only Sandy River Township, he was barely an infant. “My brother Clifford – he's twelve years my senior – tells horrifying stories, moving here in the dead of winter, lucky to survive.” The area was still a frontier town, its pioneering spirit not too distant, becoming a proper town with shops and lawyers. His father had been the first town clerk, and now here he was.

“But as you're musicians, you will have arrived in time for one of our singing evenings when friends and neighbors join, and Father gets out his ancient fiddle to lead our greatly expanded choir.” We approached the house, its windows opened wide, and could hear the hubbub of what sounded like a sizable gathering within.

If the outside of the house was simple, the inside was nearly invisible behind the hoard of people who filled it, occupying every piece of furniture, every bed lining the walls, and floorspace between. Several adults of various ages and dress and youngsters from teens to toddlers were crammed in as if at a concert. We followed behind Hiram who was greeted warmly by several people, including children, a wave of chatter flowing toward the doorway. They greeted both of us just as warmly, assuming we were Hiram's friends.

Since he didn't know what to call us, introductions were initially quite awkward, bringing home two total strangers he'd just met, until an older gentleman, still wearing breeches and stockings, asked us our names.

“He is called 'The Kapellmeister,'” I said, “because his real name is unpronounceable. I am Geoffrey Crayon, a teacher and traveler.”

A young boy was standing in front of me, perhaps a lad of fifteen, barefoot and in homespun shirt and trousers.

“And what are you called,” I asked him.


“Yo,” I said automatically.

Giving me an odd glance, a woman I suspected being his mother came forward and pulled him back into the crowd.

“He's named after my father,” she said, “whom everybody 'round here calls 'Uncle Ply,' so for short we call this'n 'Sup.'”

“And speaking of Father,” Hiram added, “tell him two more musicians have arrived!”

A great fuss rose from the back of the room as heads turned and a cheer went up as a door – I suspected into one of the bedrooms – opened and a white-haired man entered who might be tall compared to his community, clean-shaven like all the rest (except for those young stylish men sporting mustaches). Holding his fiddle aloft, he strode through the crowd which separated for him and spoke with a strong, clear, imposing voice.

“Do I hear tell we've guests – and these two bearded foreigners are musicians?”

The man, his hair long, no longer pulled back in the once-fashionable queue, had steely blue eyes with an intense expression that looked us over in a way I couldn't say approved or not. The room had become severely silent as if awaiting a stern judge's verdict until, breaking into a smile, he cried, “Welcome!”

So this was the great Supply Belcher, singing teacher and composer who put together a volume called The Harmony of Maine yet looked little different than the rest who were largely farmers or merchants. For one of his anthems which strongly resembled the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah, he had been dubbed “The Handel of Maine.”

They certainly revered this man as a musician who brought entertainment and art to their otherwise drab and hard-working frontier lives. But it was as a teacher, magistrate, and father they respected him most.

There were handshakes and greetings shared around the room though I would be hard pressed to recall names after a while, most of us settling for nods and smiles along with some polite chatter. When Squire Belcher asked the Kapellmeister his name again, Young Sup said “He's Mr Unpronounceable,” and others sitting around them laughed.

In the crowd were conflicting styles of dress which might be considered fashionable, the older more out-dated than new-fangled younger ones. Belcher's wife Margaret poured glasses of homemade whiskey or cider for everyone present.

Our host and the Kapellmeister were deeply engaged in conversation; I heard only occasional words, some talk about Bach and Handel. At one point I heard the Kapellmeister turn things toward the compositional craft.

“I wonder what you might tell me about the Ten Commandments of Harmony.”

Belcher practically spat out his whiskey and laughed.

“And what would you know about these commandments, Mr Kapellmeister, that you would wander as far as Maine to ask me?” His tone was slightly menacing despite the smile still evident on his face. “You hardly strike me, given your European knowledge and presum√®d expert training, as needing help from the backwood likes of me.”

After disengaging myself from a conversation with one of Belcher's neighbors, I moved closer to them so I could hear better, having recalled Squire Belcher was a local politician and his expression deliberately dubious.

“It is only that, in Boston, after I – or rather, we – recently arrived, there was much subtle talk of such knowledge once associated with the singing master William Billings whom you'd be acquainted with. 'Once hung above the counter in his shop,' one of them told me, apparently a list of 'ready-made' instructions for composers.”

“Now, where would you have heard something like that,” the old squire grinned, eying up the Kapellmeister from head to toe. “Old Bill made a fuss over that bit of malarky for a while. He always knew it was a joke but others, not figuring that out, came miles to copy them out by hand.”

“You're telling me, then,” I said, “this document called Ye Olde Ten Commandments of Harmonie was originally meant as a joke?”

“'Document'? That thing was written out on a cow's hide, befitting a tanner!”

The general conviviality heard across Squire Belcher's parlor ground instantly to a halt like a carriage which regrettably lost a wheel once everyone stopped to hear what had caused the old man to roar.

“And we added that 'Ye Olde' bit to make it sound genuinely archaic, like perhaps it was 'The Word of God'.” There was a ripple of laughter as people agreed how funny that sounded, that anyone could take such a thing seriously. “There were those, alas, thinking we had taken the Lord's Words in vain.”

He explained how, one summer, Andrew Law, one of the finest musicians in New England, traveled through his home town, Stoughton, where Belcher then had a tavern and Billings was holding his singing school. Along with young Danny Read, they'd talk long into the night and came up with an idea regarding Law's latest book.

“We'd already had Dr Law's Art of Singing in Three Parts,” he explained, “and his Rudiments of Music was nearly finished, so, playing on the Good Doctor's name, I thought we needed 'simple laws.' You know, the kind that anyone could follow to create his own music, setting psalms guided by, say, Musical Ten Commandments.”

Billings, then generally regarded as the best known – “which is not to say necessarily the finest” – of our composers, entirely self-trained, expressed himself in rather pompous terms, going on and on about “Nature's laws.”

“He complained how all those 'hard, dry, studied rules' could never enable any person to form an Air of wholesome beauty as anyone scarcely mastering the rules of Grammar would instantly become a poet. Slavishly following such rules as those against consecutive octaves and fifths would 'spoil the Air, crossing the strain that fancy dictated.'”

The joke was to write these commandments in such an Old Testament style, then leave it hidden in such a place as Billings himself would discover it and think it the Word of God, and realize all these years he'd been composing, he had been led astray by his “willful fancy” against God and Nature!

“Such merriment we had crafting it, finding a hide from our local tannery and using the blackest ink we could make, with Danny inscribing it in his beautiful calligraphy: the whole was brilliantly done!”

They rolled it into a tight scroll wrapped with a frayed ribbon Belcher found on one of his grandmother's old dresses, then covered the scroll with dust, placed it in an old wooden crate. “I even found some old cobwebs in my tavern's storage room,” Belcher said, “delicately wrapping them around the scroll and ribbon.” Then one morning he slipped into the rooms where Billings held his classes and left the crate in a dark corner. It took a few days before “natural curiosity” got the better of him.

“Here, I thought I would hear Old Bill laugh clear across the town but we heard not a peep from him, so Daniel went to the school one morning to check on the crate. It was still there, he told me, but it had been pried open and the scroll removed, meaning he'd found it.”

“Or meaning somebody found it,” I said, “perhaps a student in the class who noticed the box hadn't been there before? Someone who might run off to study it and write his own masterpieces?”

“Oh, no, it ended up with Old Bill who left not long afterward, leaving us without a word about his discovery.”

He explained how a friend of his, visiting Boston, told him of this wondrous thing Billings had hanging in his shop. “People were coming from miles around just to look at it and wonder!”

There it hung, Belcher's hands stretching before him to set the scene, this cow-hide with his Ten Commandments inscribed on them, nailed to the wall of Billings' Boston shop where he sold his music. “Thou shalt not commit parallel fifths,” he intoned in his deepest register possible, “nor commit undue leaping unto thy inner voices...”

Squire Belcher was not aware of any impact it had on Billings himself, nor if he knew about the Commandments' origins. Suffice it to say it hung in his shop for several more years.

“But then, business being as bad as it had been during the War, I took my family off on new adventures. We came first to Hallowell, then over a dozen years ago settled here.”

“But you've no idea what Mr Billings did with these Commandments of yours?”

“Why, Mr Kapellmeister, your interest I find intriguing...”

Two strangers, oddly dressed and clearly foreign, appeared in his parlor completely unannounced on this particularly fine summer's evening after dinner and expressed an interest in this joke of his from thirty years ago; how could he not be amused that somehow, somewhere, somebody was still taking seriously what he originally intended as a lark? The good squire's amusement was one thing but I stood back wondering how significant this “Belcher Codex” was thought to be and what this apparent revelation meant to the Kapellmeister and his research project.

There was also the matter of scholarly verification considering the Kapellmeister could not prove this information from a documentable, written source, hardly admitting in 2015 “I interviewed the subject in 1814, and he admitted...” Perhaps he could write this down himself and bring it into the future but wouldn't scientific analysis prove it a forgery?

At this point, Belcher lowered his voice to draw us in as if imparting a secret told in a crowded room once the others resumed previous conversations concerning more mundane events of the day. Mrs. Belcher went about refilling glasses with whiskey as the talk grew louder, while her grandson Sup saw to the cider. This time, regardless of who was driving – if at this point anybody was – I decided opting for the cider was wiser.

“Thank you, Sup,” I said, raising my glass.

The boy smiled. “Yo – sir.”

“Life in Maine was a challenge those first years, and I quickly forgot such silliness as Mr Billings and his commandments. Then I'd heard he had died some ten years after I'd settled here. He'd been a strange man – strange-looking indeed, blind in one eye, a withered arm, one leg shorter – but a great talent.

“But then, oh – maybe five years since – a man who'd worked with Billings set up a tannery of his own here. An odd man himself, name of William Prentiss – said he knew about music.

“Bill Prentiss joined our church, had a pleasant enough tenor voice but was no master,” Belcher said, his voice dropping further. “Then one day he told me he had this 'amazing communication' Billings found. It consisted of various rules of musical composition, all 'lovingly inscribed' on leather as if by the hand of God Hisself!”

Belcher laughed in the man's face, seeing his joke return to haunt him, once Prentiss offered to sell it to him. “Delightful to think 'The Handel of Maine' needs any rules about composing music!”

The Kapellmeister leaned forward, lowering his voice further. “And is it likely this Mr Prentiss still has this... 'communication from God'?”

“He died shortly afterward, went off in the head if he weren't already, fell into his own lime pit one night. They found him the next morning, I heard – not a very pleasant sight...”

The very thought of that, of dying like that, made me draw back, the fine line between either accident or suicide, whether through drunkenness or the effect of his polluted environment on the brain. My imagination brought to mind the Toxic Avenger rising from his chemical grave, giving new meaning to the term “tanning salon.”

“If anyone would know,” the squire confided, “it would be his son, Junior, who's not quite right in the head himself, especially now that the tannery is failing, always desperately in need of money. But I can't see these cow-hide commandments being of any value,” he chuckled, “except for the leather they'd been inscribed on.”

I noticed the look on the Kapellmeister's face, checking hurriedly through his pockets, as he leaned over and whispered to me: “it seems I have lost my tonic screwdriver – which means, friend, we're screwed!”

* * ** *** ***** ******** to be continued ******** ***** *** ** * *