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 Mälzelotron-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 presumèd 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!”