Wednesday, October 31, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 17 (Part 2)

In the previous installment [posted on Monday, October 29th], Dr Kerr discovers himself in the middle of a reception following a concert at Harvard's Sanders Theater, courtesy of the Kapellmeister and his on-going search for the Belcher Codex, only the date is sometime in October of 1886. They've missed the concert, but meet Professor John Knowles Paine, Harvard's Music Department, and two of his students: the rather odd Jeckelson Hyde and one of Harvard's rare female students (much more rare as a female composer), Emaline Norton, the great-great-granddaughter, as it turns out, of Supply Belcher. On their way to the library where Dr Paine is going to show them the Belcher Codex, they meet Miss Norton and walk across the street to enter the Harvard Yard.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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

“The Yard” had been the center of Harvard University ever since some old farmhouse was converted into a combination dormitory, classroom and library. Other differences aside, for one thing there was no brick wall with wrought-iron fencing surrounding the yard, pierced at strategic points by elaborate brick and wrought-iron gates – memorial gifts of individual classes – that could be locked at night more to keep students in after hours rather than the casual passers-by out. I was surprised to see a mere split-rail wooden fence, easily scaled, and walkways completely open to the public: the irony, of course, that anybody could walk through Harvard was not lost on those who could not get into Harvard.

Miss Norton was, in a sense, one of the latter. Women were not considered worth the trouble of educating, at least, as President Eliot had stated, until sufficient studies had been done to offer scientific proof the “female mind” was up to the task. Paine assured me that he was convinced Miss Norton's mind and talent both were the equal of any of his male students at the time.

“But, Professor, if this document you mention could help me become a better composer,” Miss Norton continued, “I should like to study it, if you don't mind. Perhaps I could copy it out, and...”

Paine was quick to confirm the document, as he recalled it, was no magic formula, nothing more than a crude and perhaps comical rendering of the simplest laws of part-writing: he could not comprehend the interest his guests had expressed in it.

Miss Norton countered this with a slightly less subtle observation that, if the document was by Supply Belcher, and since he was her great-great-grandfather, technically, then, doesn't the document belong to her family?

This brought Paine to a sudden stop, turning to her with a broad grin as if he had been caught in a game where he would have to admit defeat.

“Well played, Miss Norton!,” he laughed. “But I don't recall there actually being anything about Mr Belcher on the document itself that could prove authorship or what his role in all this might be – at least, according to the letter. There, it says this had previously been in the possession of William Billings and might therefore belong to Billings' heirs, not Belcher's. Ah,” he stopped again, scratching his chin, “and there is an irony as well, for young Mr Hyde, through his paternal grandmother, is descended from none other than William Billings.”

Miss Norton's expression could only be described as sour.

“You said his middle name was Billingsly, didn't you,” the Kapellmeister asked.

“Yes, but it's a heritage – I mean, being descended from a tanner, regardless what fame said tanner may have accrued – which young Mr Hyde seems intent on keeping private, as he does the source of his family's fortune.”

“Oh, that,” Miss Norton added with a dismissive gesture, “everybody knows his mother is the sole surviving daughter of Joseph Gayetty and that he's the heir to a fortune in...”

“Yes, well, Miss Norton,” Paine said, interrupting her, “but a young lady shouldn't mention such a product in public, especially among men you do not know.”

While Paine turned to the Kapellmeister, she mouthed to me the words, “Toilet paper!” Or rather, I think that's what she meant.

“Speaking of paper, Professor,” she said, staying him with a light touch to his arm, “if it's really written on leather, doesn't that suggest more of a frontier origin, like my great-great-grandfather being in rural Maine – I mean, rather than a big-city merchant like Mr Billingsly where they would probably write things down on fine quality paper?”

“I admit I am largely unfamiliar with your ancestor and also admit that he seems to have been generally dismissed as one of those frontier primitives, but then Billings – not 'Billingsly,' by the way – was a tanner and had ready access to various hides he could write on, for whatever purpose it might have suited him. Certainly it would have been more durable than paper...”

The Kapellmeister looked at me and impatiently whispered, “one can only hope.”

In the October night, brittle leaves crunched underfoot. Gaslights through the yard spread small glowing pools of light. The air hardly stirred at all as we passed the Germanic spire of Appleton Chapel, and except for a student out to smoke a cigar hiding in the shadows behind the arches of its portico – perhaps, on second glance, it was just a shadow, after all – we were the only ones walking under the trees.

“While I was studying in Berlin, my teacher – Karl August Haupt,” he added, turning to the Kapellmeister – “showed me this strange-looking scroll and said I should take it back to America when I returned, back to where it belonged. He assumed Billings wrote it as advice for his fellow musicians, as if he'd received if 'from on high.'”

“It's very possible he was 'high' when he wrote it,” I said, but seeing Paine's confusion, I added “on the fumes, you know,” and mimicked fanning my face. “Anyway, it was really written by Supply Belcher as a joke on Billings' own harmonic deficiencies and then sold by Billings' former apprentice to a traveling musician passing through Boston around 1812. Which, by the way, also means the document never made it to Farmington: Belcher wrote it before he left Boston.”

“How could you possibly know that?” the astounded Paine asked me.

And of course I realized too late I could hardly say, “oh, we were just talking to Belcher about it earlier today.” It was then I looked over at the Kapellmeister whose frown was alarming enough but then I saw the strange eyes of V7 peeping out of his breast pocket.

“No,” Paine said, “Haupt told me Mendelssohn found it in London – or rather, a friend of his found it. Karl Klingemann said he bought it from a dealer who had in turn purchased it from a violinist named Anton Heimlich who was playing in the Drury Lane Theater Orchestra.”

“Heimlich?” The Kapellmeister almost choked. “I wonder if he means 'Heinrich'?”

“No, I'm pretty sure he said his name was Anton, but then a lot of German musicians settled in London, and to many Englishmen, German names were very confusing.”

“The Kapellmeister was thinking this was a composer named Anton Heinrich – Anton Philip Heinrich, to be exact – who'd gone back to London after traveling across Pennsylvania all the way to Kentucky where he stayed several years and apparently taught himself how to compose, perhaps with the aid of these very 'Commandments' we're, uh... looking for.”

Paine continued staring at me. “Ah, I've heard of him – he was one of our more eccentric musical pioneers, conducted some Beethoven in the wild Kentucky hills; though beyond a few worthless quadrilles, I've never seen any of his music, much less heard it. People say he used to confound audiences with grandiose, bombastic tone-poems on the piano they were afraid would permanently damage the instruments.”

“We know he went back to London, hoping to make some money, but he was never very successful,” the Kapellmeister continued. “So, what did Mendelssohn know about it?”

“I don't really know. I arrived in Berlin ten years after he died and Professor Haupt only told me about these 'Commandments' two years later. He said Mr Hensel – Mendelssohn's brother-in-law – found them among his wife's papers and didn't know what to make of them, so he'd given them back to Mendelssohn. Somehow they ended up in a box of stuff given to Professor Haupt about a year after Mendelssohn himself died. If I recall correctly, it was through a cousin – Wilhelm Mendelssohn, I think his name was – yes.”

“Was there anything else in that box that might explain the 'Commandments,' or had anything to do with how he got them?” The Kapellmeister was even more eager now to get to the library.

“Well, that letter – 'if anyone asks how you, a woman has learned how to compose,' he'd written to his sister, 'now you could show them this.'”

“He sent it to her as a joke?” The Kapellmeister seemed not to be amused.

“As a wedding present, no less,” Paine answered with a large grin.

Miss Norton was visibly impressed to hear Mendelssohn's sister was also a composer.

I explained Mendelssohn had been laid up after an accident in London which kept him bedridden for weeks, forcing him to miss his sister's wedding. “It was probably something he did to lighten the strain, his not being there: they were very close,” I added. “I think Fanny's wedding was in 1829 or so, if that helps date it?”

“Actually, that would make sense,” the Kapellmeister muttered, “if Heinrich was in London after 1826 and Mendelssohn sent it to Berlin in 1829. It's certainly done a good bit of traveling in its day, hasn't it?”

“Then Haupt gave it to me in 1860 and I brought it back to Boston. Amazing!”

“How old is this thing, anyway,” Miss Norton asked. “Does anyone really know?”

“If Belcher wrote it before he left Massachusetts, like he said,” I started, but Paine interrupted me.

“'Like he said'? How exactly would you know that?”

“Oh, I mean some letter we'd found.”

“You've certainly done your research...”

“According to Andrew Law, another of Belcher's fellow composers, Billings found it when he ran a singing school in Stoughton in 1774 and Belcher lived there at the time.” The Kapellmeister's style was admirable: even if he was making it up as we went, he sounded convincing. “He pawned it off on Billings, to make fun of his 'crude and clumsy' style.”

Miss Norton walked in front of the Kapellmeister and I, escorted by her professor as we crossed the yard, surrounded by trees glowing pale yellow in the gaslight. Little moonlight made it through the branches, a perfect setting for something like A Midsummer Night's Dream, which, thinking about the school's Puritan heritage, amused me: the very place could be alive with spirits of the past, earnest students meditating on their faith along with fairies and strolling lovers, perhaps, and most definitely an ass or two.

“As a member of Mr Belcher's family, though, Miss Norton, I imagine you must have heard some stories about your famous ancestor? Do you recall anything to tie him to these 'Commandments'?” I had hoped all this talk might raise the curtain on some distant memory.

“My own family,” she said, “is focusing their hopes for my cousin Lilian and me – she's gone off to sing on the great stages of the world and now I'm here at Harvard though not quite an 'official' student. But some think we are the family's great potential, despite misgivings to the contrary, as you can imagine,” she added, no doubt with a modest blush. “We don't talk much about the past except when the Old Timers gather 'round with nothing but their memories to entertain us.”

Her favorite 'Old Timer' was her Uncle Sup – the Kapellmeister and I quickly glanced at each other: could this be the same 'Sup' who took us to the Old Prentiss place? He would be in his 80s, now, I imagined, which was entirely possible, but what were the odds? She continued how he had died when she was a child (“my dear, you are still a child,” I was thinking, amused a teenager considered ten years such a long time when to me it was only yesterday).

A sprightly laugh was enough to tell us the curtain had been raised.

“Oh, everyone called his grandfather 'Uncle Ply,' so to distinguish the two, they called the boy 'Sup.' When someone hailed him as 'Uncle Sup!', he always responded with a wave and a lively 'Yo!' which I suspect meant 'that's me!' I'd never heard anyone else use that expression – we all found it endearing.”

The Kapellmeister and I smiled at each other. “Indeed,” I thought, “there are not enough people to go around in the world.”

“He used to tell this ghost story on stormy autumn nights when the children would be gathered 'round the fire after dinner.” He had, apparently, told it quite often, yet apparently it never changed.

“Two strangers showed up in the village one night – it was during the troubles of Mr Madison's War – and joined in the music-making led by 'Uncle Ply.' It was a great night for singing and he'd hum this tune the one stranger'd given him to compose on,” and she began humming Beethoven's Ode to Joy Theme. “Of course, people scoff when I tell them my great-great-grandfather wrote that before Beethoven did,” and shrugged her shoulders.

“There are only so many notes to go around,” I offered, trying to sound philosophical.

“So far, Miss Norton,” Paine chuckled, “this is not much of a ghost story.”

“I think,” I added, “it's about to get better...”

“Then the militia showed up, warned there were spies visiting the Belchers – which no one believed for a minute. Uncle Sup helped them escape through the kitchen and took them to this old haunted...”

Before she could finish Sup's story, we had reached a clearing in the trees where, just beyond some bland red-brick block of an otherwise unremarkable building, we came face to face with a vast, towering pile of stone glowing almost white in the moonlight, all spires and lancet-shaped stained-glass windows stretching from the ground seemingly up to the sky.

Those footsteps I'd assumed were echoes coming from behind us kept on going then quickly scurried through the leaves into silence. I turned, but could see nothing in the shadows.

“Welcome to Gore Hall,” Paine said, “the heart of the college – or, as others prefer the Chapel as its heart, let's call it the brains of the college.”

Harvard's library, Gore Hall, photographed in 1875
“Talk about growing Gothic cathedrals on American soil...” I was truly in awe, having seen only dim photographs or engravings of the building before it was demolished some twenty-five years later. The new library – well, newer – was vast and impressive, but this... this was magnificent.

“And all without transplanting a thousand years of historical preparation from the Middle Ages to make it possible,” Paine said with a smile. “But you're right, in a way, for it is only the veneer of a Gothic cathedral, an imitation of a building that is no more natural to this location than if they'd chosen to build a Greek temple.”

We stood before the massive doorway, Miss Norton in awe as she herself had never been inside before – while women were not accepted as university students, “the girls who enrolled in The Annex,” Paine explained, “were not permitted to use the library lest it distract the young men from their studies.”

The Kapellmeister was becoming increasingly impatient. “Professor,” he said, making the same gesture as before, “after you, if you please?”

“I barely remember the night I decided to bring these 'Commandments' here, hiding them in the bowels of the library.”

“Why did you think it was something you needed to hide?” Miss Norton asked. “Did you think the thing evil or dangerous?”

“That wasn't the point, honestly. Well,” Paine said, “shall we?”

As T.S. Eliot's lines had come to me for no reason beyond some rather slender associations only a few minutes before, now, for no reason in particular, I couldn't get an old song out of my head as we hurried up the steps and into the library's front door: “We're off to see the Wizard...”

A hunched figure was walking back into the darkness with only a small candle to lighten the entire library.

“That's the head librarian, Oliver Zacharias Dean.” Paine banged on the door to get his attention but the man kept walking. “Technically, the building closes at sundown – most unhandy during the long winter months – but Oz – I mean, Mr Dean – is afraid to entrust candles to a bunch of students: fire, you know...” He pounded some more.

“You called him 'Oz'?”

“Well, the students taunt him as 'Ozzie' because of his initials – O. Z. Dean. Among friends, he's 'Oz' but we don't call him that to his face.”

The dim light turned around and headed toward us somewhat tentatively. After a long moment, this disembodied, largely bald head floated before us and a tall, thin man dressed otherwise in black except for the white of his shirt front opened the door and thrust his head forward.

Paine explained he needed to get some papers he'd left in his cubicle for a lecture tomorrow morning but he also wanted to show something to a student of his whom he did not otherwise introduce, and to two “foreign friends” who were visiting Boston only for the day.

“They cannot come back in the morning?” The voice squeaked as if rusted and needed oil.

“No, unfortunately. They leave first thing for... New York.”

“Ah.” The old man stepped back, reluctantly holding the door open. “It would be frowned upon if anyone knew, John,” he added with another squeak which might have been a laugh from a younger, less desiccated man, more concerned about letting a young lady into the library.

“She is one of my private composition students, Oliver,” Paine responded with a certain pride, “and I will vouch for her under any inquisition from Mr Eliot.”

“A lady composer? Imagine that.”

“No, Oliver,” Paine sighed, “she composes music, not ladies.”

There was a grating noise like a “harumph” that might also have been a door creaking shut.

The Interior of Gore Hall
In the dim moonlight, giving the windows an otherworldly glow, it was almost possible to sense the vastness of the space with its high vaulted ceiling sweeping across book-filled recesses disappearing into the darkness. Between the dimness of Mr Dean's candle and me craning my neck toward the top of the nave, I bumped into a chair at one of the reading tables and the echo was almost deafening.

“Our students,” Dean said, “do claim these are the hardest chairs in the world. Now you, too, know that...”

“Oliver,” Paine interrupted, “do you remember where I stored that... box?”

“Not exactly,” he creaked, “but let me show you this.” He stepped back to reveal what looked like nothing more than an old card catalog, though he seemed very proud of it. He also seemed very disappointed I was not more impressed. “It is the very latest in library technology,” he said, “or it was twelve years ago when we had it installed. There is a card in here for every book in the library, telling me where it will be found. Now, let's see... 'Paine'... 'Paine'... Ah, here it is...” He continued to mumble.

“You mean you put it in the acquisition file? Then it's not really hidden, is it?” Paine sounded offended, after all these years thinking his secret was safe.

“Librarians do not 'hide' things – they 'store' them. Who, besides, would know what to look for? The card only says 'items brought back from Berlin, 1861.' It's on the top floor.” Placing a pierced shield over the candle, he mumbled, “walk this way.”

Again, I heard a loud sound reverberating through the space coming from, I thought, someplace not far behind us. Dean merely said, “Mr Crayon, please be careful? Your eyes should adjust to the darkness soon enough.”

“But that wasn't...” The Kapellmeister tapped my arm to let me go ahead of him so he (and presumably V7) could bring up the rear.

Climbing the stairwell took forever. Miss Norton held onto my hand as she, I assumed, was holding onto Dr Paine's. My other hand refused to leave contact with the cold iron railing: the Kapellmeister, I figured, could fend for himself.

“Here we are,” Mr Dean whispered, nearly inaudible. It was a room toward the back of the alcove but which had enough light from the window we could almost see. “It's a light brown, heavy cardboard box about 18 inches by 11 inches, labeled 'Dr Paine – 1861 – entered 1871.' It might be lying flat or...”

“I say, Dr Kerr – I mean, Crayon, look at this!”

The Kapellmeister pointed at a small contraption looking like a model of a craggy building built of metal, standing on a thick, wooden base, perhaps a child's toy or some kind of machine, given its wheels and handles.

Part of a model for Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine," given to the Harvard Library in the 1880s
“Oh, that.” Mr Dean dismissed it with a wave of his free hand. “A few years ago, some English scientist sent that to us for some reason. Said it was called a 'Difference Engine' or some such nonsense. Nobody here could figure it out, so it became mine since nobody wanted to throw it out with the trash.”

“Do you realize what this is?” The Kapellmeister was like a child with a new toy at Christmas. “It's Charles Babbage's model for what would later become...” – and here he whispered carefully for my ears only – “the prototype of a computer!

It only proved to remind me of Tom Purdue's experiments with his “artificial intelligence” program and how I needed to get home to see what had so alarmed Amanda before I was rudely abducted: my friends needed me. Why was I even here? I heard the sound of steps behind us – but wait, Dr Paine and the others could only be ahead of us. “The sooner we...”

Someone screamed. Well, obviously, it must have been Miss Norton and I rushed toward the sound to find Dr Paine in the next alcove, patting her hand as if she had fainted. Mr Dean was shaking his head in disapproval.

There were cobwebs in her hair and on her fingers; she probably tried to brush them – or something – away.

“I thought I felt...” she began, but then stumbled on her words.

“It was nothing, my dear, you just collided with some spiderwebs, that's all.”

“No, it felt like something brushed against my face.”

“Well,” Dean squeaked, “students have complained of seeing bats up here.” I'm sure that helped her immensely.

I volunteered to stay with her while the others went in search of Dr Paine's box and the two of us began looking over the array of dusty, cobweb-encrusted junk spread out on the shelves and tables of our little nook. “How could anyone find anything back here?”

“Found it!” Dr Paine announced from the next alcove. He also noticed one thing that struck him as rather odd. “It's not very dusty, is it? Not nearly as dusty as everything else, here.” He picked up the box and shook it. “It's empty!”

He undid the ribbon which had, at least, been neatly re-tied but, yes, the only thing he found inside was an envelope – but it, too, was empty.

“The Commandments are gone – and so is Mendelssohn's letter!”

I also noticed Miss Norton was not with us but when I turned back to where I had left her, I was just in time to hear a muffled scream reverberating through the stacks.

“Hey!” I cried out. “Stop!” I could see her eyes, wide with fear, a hand holding something over her mouth, as she was pulled back into the shadows.

The others came running as I caught a glimpse in the pale moonlight of a ring on that mysterious hand – and on that ring, I was quite sure I'd seen the glint of an alto clef embossed in gold.

Brilliant beams of light quickly scanned the area, sweeping across like thin beacons from wildly fluctuating flashlights. Dr Paine and Mr Dean fell back in as much amazement realizing somebody abducted Miss Norton as they had at the light bursting forth from the Kapellmeister's chest.

“Good work, V7,” the Kapellmeister said as I cried out “After them!” realizing, while I was not the youngest person there, no one else made a move. It was times like this I realized how much I missed Cameron.

Miss Norton's gray dress reflected feebly in the pale light of the library's window but the menacing figure dragging her into the shadows was even less clear: a black cowl covered the face but a cloak or robe hid the shape and size of the body, like a monk. But what was a monk doing in Harvard's library?

Inadvertently, I found myself dashing down the corridor toward the stairs, hoping to head off the abductor, but as amazing as V7 was, his beams still could not see around corners and with all the dusty, cluttered shelves in the way, I lost sight of them.

At the top of the steps, leaning against the railing which I realized, too late, overlooked the nave of Gore Hall far below, I stopped to get my bearings as much as my breath. I didn't think the monk had made it this far, but all I could hear was the Kapellmeister shouting at me.

And then I knew it would be too late: some floating figure surged toward me.

I went to step out of the way when I was grabbed from behind. Someone screamed – not, this time, Miss Norton; perhaps it was me?

Then everything went very, very dark.

= = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, November 2nd]

The partial model of Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" is, in fact, real, and still exists in the halls of Harvard's Science Department. To read more about it and its influence on the development of the modern computer, you could start here.

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Monday, October 29, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 17 (Part 1)

In the previous installment [posted on Friday, October 26th], Kerr was getting ready to follow Martin & Dorothy over to the farmhouse when he bumps into the Kapellmeister who whisks him away, God knows where! Amanda discovered there's a hacker in Purdue's program as Clara becomes increasingly agitated and unstable, finally snapping and verbally attacking Amanda. When Cameron returns from his run to the grocery store with stuff for lunch, he finds Amanda sprawled on the floor, unconscious, but she dies unable to say anything beyond a few odd syllables, something about “a fish.” As he's trying to reach 911, the police arrive with a warrant and find Amanda's dead body in the basement.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



“What I really don't understand,” I said, trying to get my point across to the Kapellmeister, “is why you keep thinking I can help you.” The fog I'd hardly noticed was already dissolving and I began to hear other peoples' voices around us. “Seriously,” I whispered, “I don't know anything about whatever this thing is you're... wait – we're there, already?”

It couldn't have been more than two minutes since I'd been talking to Amanda in Purdue's basement. Then I'd turned, stepped into that tunnel and, of all the luck, ran into the dratted Kapellmeister again – and now we were someplace God knew where, surrounded by stone and a great deal of wood. Not surprisingly, I had a strange feeling we weren't in Marple anymore, but so far the Kapellmeister wasn't explaining anything now we were here, wherever “here” was.

Had we walked into one of those paintings by J.M.W. Turner? Here we were, standing in a large hallway with much higher ceilings than that claustrophobic tunnel outside Purdue's basement. Colors and lights and nondescript images no longer swirled about, but I still was unable to focus on anything to see any clearer. The lighting – probably candlelight – became increasingly brighter after I felt a deeply penetrating vibration, not something that came from the floor we were standing on but from the insides of my feet, firing rapidly up my spine. Then everything came into focus with a great whoosh!

“This place looks vaguely familiar,” I continued whispering. “You know, I think I've been here before.” That didn't help me narrow it down since I also might have seen it in some book or movie.

Trying not to gawk like a tourist, I noticed stone walls, marble floors and striking wooden buttresses across the ceiling with huge chandeliers floating off toward infinity. It was a great hall grander than many an English castle's, like something you'd see at Oxford or maybe Cambridge.

“Where are we?” This was very different from our earlier visit to the wilds of rural Maine, finding ourselves in a small village not many years after the American Revolution before ending up in some haunted cabin deep in the woods. I had no idea where the Kapellmeister would've chosen to continue his search, but this was not the segue I would have anticipated. If he's looking for a colonial American document sold to an itinerant German musician who then traveled across Pennsylvania and ended up in Kentucky, how did we end up in... – “of course, Cambridge! We're at Harvard, aren't we? Or is it Yale...?”

Whichever it was, it was magnificent, more than I remembered, though during my visit I'd been in a hurry, and hadn't taken time to look around. Besides, I realized only later the significance of the building and it wasn't until years later, when I'd become older and more aware of these things, how quickly I'd been rushed through it, then. It was a dining hall – “rather posh for a cafeteria, don't you think?” I joked, “but then it is 'Hahvud,' isn't it?” Yes, definitely, now, I remember: it was Harvard. The history of the building had escaped me in my anxiety to make it to the concert at Sanders Theater in time, and as soon as it was over, we were on our way out to get something to drink before I caught the late train home. The “Great Hall,” in the process, had been forgotten.

“Anyway, it was a long time ago when I first started teaching. A friend of mine was a grad student at...”

The Kapellmeister, intent on locating someone, hissed at me to be quiet.

“Of course, back then,” I continued mumbling, looking around at the crowd, “it wasn't that long ago – I mean, in comparison to when women wore bustles and men had side-whiskers like that,” I said, nodding at a rather average-looking man with an incredible display of mutton-chops standing near the center of the room, surrounded, I supposed, by students. He, too, looked familiar but not because I'd ever met the man.

More importantly, I was beginning to wonder, “When are we?”

The room was not quite so full of people as I'd first thought. In fact, as my eyes adjusted to the light – dim, by modern standards – I noticed only a small portion of our end of the long hall had in fact been cleared for what appeared to be a reception. The rest of the space was filled with rows of long, highly polished wooden tables surrounded by low-backed wooden chairs. Only a few of the chandeliers had been lit, however, leaving the rest of the room, unused, in near darkness, giving it a not unwarranted sense of mystery, its ceiling nearly invisible beyond a pale glow from the rafters. I suspect, if I remembered correctly, those were stained glass windows, and those white marble busts lining the walls shimmered a bit like ghosts in the candlelight.

People milled about, talking with the others, women gliding by, their feet completely hidden by long, florid skirts that swept the floor. Heels clicked against the marble and men tapped their fashionably elegant walking sticks, adding to the echoing din. I looked about wondering if there was a table where someone served food, if it was a reception, but most people seemed merely to enjoy conversation, only bits of which I was able to catch. Apparently, we had just missed a program of chamber music.

“Good,” the Kapellmeister sighed, nodding toward the mutton-chopped man surrounded by students, “there he is – still here. I was afraid he would have left early after the concert if we were too late.”

“You mean that man over there in the brown suit? We're looking for John Knowles Paine?”

The Kapellmeister pulled back with a sharp glare. “You've known who he is? Why didn't you tell me!”

“Why didn't you tell me you were looking for him?”

It occurred to me before, I had been able to read his mind but for some reason, now, I was not. Or perhaps, again, I hadn't been paying attention. There was a great deal to take in, at present – or “at past,” considering – and the noise, overall, was very annoying.

“Ah,” he continued, this time more confidentially, “but do you know who she is?”

“She,” so far as I could tell, must be the rather large matronly figure who at the moment dominated Dr Paine's conversation, with her deep purple satin dress and voluminous black and lilac bustle, accessorized by a bounty of ribbons and lace, looking for all the world like a frigate set to unfurl a full complement of sails. Her voice and her gestures were suitably matched, a woman of significant confidence who no doubt must have struck terror in any man daring to contradict her and would most likely enjoy the prospect. Her broad back and powerful shoulders nearly hid Paine from view and all I could think was how amazing it was that, certainly with her as an advocate, women had not yet had the right to vote. Whether she was arguing or not with the composer, I couldn't say, but I would imagine no one ever engaged with her in mere small talk.

“As my famous cousin has said many times, dear doctor,” I heard her announce, “'musica delenda est,' though I must say, while I disagree in general with the overall tone, I feel it should be most assiduously applied to new music,” clearly pronouncing “new” with a decided sneer. “No person under the age of 30 should be subjected to anything composed less than fifty years ago, though I would make an exception for Mr Mendelssohn who died, as you know, almost forty years ago, unfortunately.”

It was one of Francis Parkman's frequent expressions in the years before Paine finally succeeded in gaining official recognition for his music courses at Harvard, how “music must be destroyed.” It was also clear Dr Paine, who must have heard this many times from this woman, I was sure, judging from her tone, didn't care to be reminded of it and tried to pass it off with a feeble and obviously artificial laugh. Meanwhile, the Kapellmeister started to steer me in Paine's general direction.

“And with all due respect to my famous colleague, Mrs Pennywise,” the professor said, nodding gently toward the young woman largely hidden from us by the woman's buxom profile, “your cousin, Miss Norton, shows considerable talent regarding music and I for one am glad she didn't have to go to Germany to study as I did.”

“That may be so, Professor,” she admitted with a smile and a sigh, “but I do wish you would not expose her to such deplorable music as we have heard tonight, your own delightful fugue aside.”

Nearby, another group of students, waiting for their chance to talk with Dr Paine, had taken notice of the Kapellmeister and me and I wondered what they must have thought of us, given our general appearance and presumably fantastical dress. While they didn't strike me as openly hostile, I sensed a bit more than mere curiosity. One who appeared to be the center of their circle was strikingly handsome in a modern sort of way – not as tall as the others but with high cheekbones, dark hair (and eyes to match), plus a small wisp of a mustache and goatee framing an expression more smirk than smile. Too bad Cameron wasn't here to appreciate this, I thought, knowing it would take his mind off so many things, but the last thing the poor boy needed was a long-distance romance spanning some 130 years.

Paine, impatient with this woman's all-too-common arguments, turned to his student with an enigmatic smile I assumed to be supportive in the face of such opposition. The woman may not have been unsupportive of her studying music but had doubts why a woman should want to compose it. “There are, to my knowledge, no great composers of the female sex, certainly not among those on our program tonight, Dr Paine; and have there been any on those concerts given here by the Boston Symphony?” Before Paine could answer, she continued, “No, I thought not.”

With a not-so-subtle nudge, the Kapellmeister edged me closer toward Paine and the formidable Mrs Pennywise in the belief crowds at receptions like this needed to circulate, and Mrs Pennywise had managed to dam up the flow to monopolize Paine's time for quite long enough. With a quick look of relief and an even quicker look of surprise, Dr Paine saw us heading toward him, as unsure how he should end this one conversation as begin the next.

Wearing pale grays and blues with little in the way of distracting flounces as her chaperone wore, the girl who'd been partially hidden came more directly into view the closer we'd moved. If she was dressed more plainly, she was herself not at all plain, strikingly blonde under her pale blue bonnet and strikingly blue-eyed in that Nordic look we today would traditionally associate with Scandinavians.

“I have to admit Mr Foote's trio has given me quite a headache,” Mrs Pennywise fluttered, staunch on her platform. Catching Paine's wince, she laughed at her own pun. “Well, I do say, that was very good – very good, indeed, don't you agree, Cousin Emaline?”

“Perhaps you should take me back to the house, Cousin Kate, so you can return home and rest. It has been, I admit, a long evening for you, especially as you did not care for any of the music.” Personally, I found the lilt of her speech refreshing after the almost strident tone of her chaperone.

As the Kapellmeister introduced us to Dr Paine whose head tilted slightly to the left in anticipation of what appeared to him a novelty – someone he clearly had not yet met in a roomful of people he was acquainted with on an almost daily basis – I overheard our handsome young student, making way for the women, refer sweepingly and rather redundantly to “our most acclaimed lady composer├ęss,” at which the young lady blushed and her companion's prow rose ten degrees higher into the path before them. The other students had meanwhile also moved in to fill the void left in the wake of the two women when this same handsome young student sneered about their having been “outflanked” by two foreigners. Paine quickly reminded them he had founded Harvard's music department so students like them did not have to travel to Europe to study and be foreigners themselves, “though,” he added with a twinkle in his eye directed at us, “the experience would no doubt have been good for your narrow perspective.”

He turned to introduce us to his students, indicating I was a composer unfamiliar to him, “a Mr Geoffrey Crayon – but then, who among us would not have read what may be perhaps your father's Sketch Book,” he added with another twinkle. He apologized for not having caught my companion's name.

“They call me The Kapellmeister,” he offered with a slight bow, clicking his heels (did Germans, I wondered, do that in the 1880s?). Seeing this only perplexed Dr Paine even more, I added, “that's because his real name is otherwise unpronounceable.”

“Now that is definitely a foreign name,” our handsome young student offered.

“And this impertinent young man, whom I hesitantly admit to being a student of mine, is Jeckelson Billingsly Hyde.” Before he could introduce the rest, a tall, thin fellow, probably in his early-thirties, with a hard-won mustache and a long, shallow face walked past us, giving Paine a friendly wave.

Young Mr Hyde looked clearly impressed. “Mr Foote,” he called out, “Mr Foote!”

“Arthur,” Paine said, pumping his friend's hand in hearty congratulations, “I do like this new version of your trio so much better.”

“Yes, well, I hate to admit being able to unwind in France didn't hurt.” They both shared a laugh at this, how he'd been able to study composition right here in Boston but then found inspiration in Europe after all.

As Hyde and his friends gushed over Mr Foote and the success of the piano trio just performed, Paine confided to us, “Mr Foote had been one of my very first 'official' students here and then my first Masters graduate. A bit of a late-bloomer when it came to composition, but well on his way, now,” he beamed. Once Foote moved on, Paine told his students he'd just had his Suite for Strings played by the Boston Symphony with a new orchestral piece called “In the Mountains” scheduled for a February concert. It was easy to see Dr Paine was quite proud of his student's accomplishments, the implication intended to be more inspirational than competitive to his current crop.

“Well, I don't want to wait till I'm that old before having something played by the Boston Symphony,” Hyde blustered. “They'll be playing my music long before I reach that age!”

“Oh, and I suspect that'll make you the Greatest American Composer before you're 25, will it?”

“Now, Mr Spalding,” Paine laughed, “who knows whether Mr Hyde will or will not become a great composer in his lifetime?”

“No, I can't say I'm aware of the name,” I said, before realizing I was giving myself away. The Kapellmeister looked sharply at me: what harm I could be doing by telling this young man his dreams of fame and fortune will not come to pass! I immediately, for once, stopped talking.

“No, not yet, perhaps,” Hyde said, looking at me intently, “but hang around a few years, you'll see!” He was, if anything, confident, but I certainly didn't care to be “hanging around” for even a few days...

“Dreams, Mr Hyde, are always useful, but a little more of the hard work such as Miss Norton applies to her lessons would be far more helpful to your cause than making arrogant boasts in public.” Paine, despite looking like everyone's friendly uncle, tried to sound as serious as possible and apparently cut Hyde's ego down to size: the other students were now laughing at his expense and this was certainly worse to him than being chastised in public by his teacher.

The Kapellmeister leaned in toward Paine and asked him a question I couldn't hear but judging from his quizzical expression, I could only imagine it had something to do with narrowing down his quest.

“I'm surprised you know anything about that,” Paine whispered, drawing us away from his students. We soon found ourselves standing against a wall, well away from anyone else in the room. “Frankly, I haven't thought about that thing in over fifteen years!”

Glancing uncomfortably toward Hyde and his friends who were beginning to sound a bit boisterous by the punchbowl, Paine said in a deep whisper, “in fact, no, I never had shown them to Mr Foote or, for that matter, anybody else, after I found the thing. The last time I saw it myself was when I put it away in the library, wondering if I'd ever really use it in my theory classes. After that, I completely forgot about it.” One could argue the need for such codification, he continued, with students who found themselves challenged by the simplest rules of harmony, but he wondered if it would be too simplistic to think it helpful to any young composer new to the discipline his craft required, an easy way out, a lazy short-cut which could prove negative in the long run. “Basically, I realized if you follow the rules religiously – which is what I'm assuming this Belcher fellow intended – it's not going to make you a better composer; and if you have the talent to become a composer in the first place, well... I doubt you'd need rules like these to follow.”

The number of people at the reception was dwindling rapidly and what circulation there had been by this point was primarily around the table with the punch bowl and a tray of unidentifiable snacks which Hyde and his friends seemed to be polishing off as if it were their only meal of the day. Foote and the other musicians had already gravitated toward the doorway, in preparation to their escape, momentarily detained by someone I guessed might be an administrator of the university, judging from his dress and attitude. Though it was difficult to tell from where I stood, it seemed Miss Norton's presence this evening was quite the topic for Hyde's friends who stood just out of ear-shot, so I decided perhaps I ought to circulate a bit more and try out these otherwise unidentifiable snacks and leave the shop-talk to the Kapellmeister.

“A composer,” Paine continued, “essentially learns how to compose music by composing it. He – or in the case of Miss Norton, she – prepares by studying past masters, developing certain skills from studying works by Beethoven or Mozart starting with smaller forms or, in the case of more advanced skills like counterpoint, the fugues of Bach. Just as a student of painting spends a large part of his formative years copying the works of past masters and in actuality painting in studios himself – he does not read books about painting.”

Paine relished the idea of discussing his educational philosophy with someone new for a change and not having to defend his views as he often must with antagonistic, meddlesome bureaucrats or those who taught the old-fashioned didactic way, by memorizing rules to be regurgitated on command, whether students understood how to apply them or not.

As an example, Paine was telling the Kapellmeister that Mr Hyde, pointing him out with a not so subtle nod toward the young men at the punchbowl, would not be able to benefit from these “commandments” no matter how well he had studied and memorized them, or displayed them on the wall of his room. “Unfortunately, studious application and a capacity for hard work are not going to help you if you have no demonstrable talent.”

While I was no further along toward identifying the few remaining snacks laid out by the punchbowl – they could have been some genteel variation on a small cake made from Indian corn and molasses once called “hasty pudding” – the young men quieted down immediately once they realized I was close enough to overhear them. I had the impression they were goading Mr Hyde into marrying the young woman so he could force her to stop composing because it was unacceptable for a gentleman's wife to be publishing music.

“But it wouldn't make any difference, you see,” one of Hyde's friends said, “because, first of all, you'd have to be a gentleman!” And with that, there was an outburst of laughter catching several other people's attention. Another added fuel to the fire by saying if she instead published her music under his name, “it's the only way you'd ever gain any recognition, Hyde!”

“Yeah? Well, you wait, Spalding, and we'll see which of us gets a piece performed by the orchestra first!” And with that, Hyde, making a rude gesture I'd not seen before but thoroughly coveted, stormed toward the doorway.

“Mr Hyde,” Paine called over to him, as if ignoring the outburst, “don't leave just yet – come join us. Our new friend here and I have been discussing some rather interesting ideas you might enjoy.”

“I was just asking your professor if he were familiar with Mendelssohn's song, Italien.” (Judging from the quizzical look on Paine's face, I assumed that was not what they'd been discussing.) “It's set to a poem by Grillparzer, and goes something like this...”

The Kapellmeister began singing a sprightly phrase in his clear and surprisingly pleasant tenor voice before breaking off and resuming his tale.

“Anyway, when Felix Mendelssohn was visiting England, he'd met Queen Victoria at the palace and she sang him this song, telling him it was one of her favorites. Well,” he continued, despite Hyde's complete lack of interest, “you can imagine his embarrassment when he had to confess that that wasn't one of his songs, after all. Oh yes, it was 'by Mendelssohn,' but actually it had been composed by his sister Fanny and he just happened to publish it under his name because, well... according to the custom of the day, she was unable to publish it herself.”

A smile crept across Paine's face as he realized what the Kapellmeister had just implied: not only was the Queen's favorite song not Mendelssohn's own, it had been written by a woman! “Wasn't it Madame Plaggio who sang that here recently – last May, I think – from the Op. 8 set of songs, if I recall. A very delightful song, too: I always thought it was the best in the set. So, it's actually by Fanny Mendelssohn? You know, I'd heard some of her piano pieces when I was in Berlin, of course, but I'd never heard that story.”

Hyde, meanwhile, seemed unimpressed either with the Queen's preferences or his teacher's glowing endorsement. “But a woman who composes music,” he muttered distastefully, “is like a dog walking on its hind legs. So what if she could write a 'nice' song? It's still no Scotch Symphony... If women are allowed to compose, what will happen to the sacred realm of Music? Why, next they'll be letting poor people into the opera houses: what will happen, then?”

It was clear Hyde – and he was not the only one to think this because, for no other reason, he couldn't have been that original – believed music was a priestly brotherhood where the rules and traditions were looked after by carefully trained men and that he, someday, for all his youth and inexperience, expected to become one of its saints.

After considerable hemming and hawing, the students turned to leave, Hyde giving the Kapellmeister and me one last but increasingly suspicious glance.

“Oh, and Mr Hyde,” Paine called out to him, “you really must work on developing a thicker skin against your critics, you know – if you're to become a successful composer? There are few who face the world without having to deal with some level of animosity – even from one's friends.”

Hyde nodded begrudgingly, shaking Paine's hand and nodding at us with the barest necessity of civility.

It was then I noticed the odd ring Hyde wore on the little finger of his left hand which had a square-cut garnet stone embossed with a golden alto clef. I wondered if playing the viola might have stunted his growth, either physically or psychologically, but then I thought, like so many university students, perhaps he belonged to some secret society and this was their insignia?

As we, too, moved toward the door, although less determinedly, Paine expressed his concern for “the future of American music.”

“It's been twenty-five years since I'd returned from my own studies in Germany and began offering music courses here, but I was somehow hoping for a more immediate response, I guess, finding at least a few prodigies hiding under the rocks like the ones that grow everywhere in Europe. I am impatient to bring forth a crop of composers equal to or better than Arthur Foote, yet I have to admit, even after twelve years and at the age of 33, he has so far not reached what I once considered his potential. Who knows what someone like Jeckelson Hyde might grow up to become, but I hold forth little hope in his case: so far none of my other students from the past few years indicate anything better.” He sounded despondent, a man wondering whether or not he had failed and wasted his time.

I tried to sound philosophical as I watched the catering staff clear away the trays of tasty little snacks and the punchbowl. “Dr Paine, you have to consider that while you've been pioneering here in this musical wilderness for barely two decades at a university that may be, what – two centuries old, you have only transplanted part of the equation.”

“Two hundred and fifty years old, to be exact, but what is it you mean, Mr Crayon? That I could not bring with me the intangible legacy of a universe that included in its luminous past the likes of Mendelssohn or Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, a span of a mere one hundred and fifty years? That generations of children here had not grown up being aware of what we now consider the greatest music ever composed?”

It had not been my intention to turn quite so philosophical but perhaps it was best to remain silent: the less he knew about what actually happens to American music, no doubt, the better. I'm sure trying to explain Schoenberg and John Cage to him would only depress him more.

We had reached the outside of the building, facing south toward the numerous buildings of Harvard Yard. Did the sky look so different at what seemed such a great distance in time from when I'd visited here as a young man, even though the light I viewed this night originated barely a fraction of a moment earlier, according to the stars' sense of time, whatever a “light-year” meant or when the term was first used. How brightly do those greatest of stars still burn in the musical firmament – Beethoven, yes, as well as Bach and Mozart. How faint were those who paled by comparison, whose destiny was to be outshone by them, nearly forgotten names like – well, say Spohr or Mercadante (or for that matter, John Knowles Paine himself)? Is it fair, at this point, to judge someone – even Brahms – who is still alive and not yet finished with their life's work?

A brightly glowing light flared up so close to me, I nearly jumped back into the bush beside the steps we were standing on. Paine had lit a cigar and, puffing it with extreme satisfaction, turned to the Kapellmeister.

“It has been a long day, sir, and I have been glad of making your acquaintance – yours as well, Mr Crayon – but it is getting late and I still have work to do before tomorrow's classes. Where are you gentlemen going from here? Are you staying in Cambridge? Or perhaps you've a hotel room awaiting you in Boston?”

“For the moment, we are staying at a boarding house nearby,” the Kapellmeister said, pointing off in a general westerly direction, “but as neither of us are particularly tired...”

I was about to mention for me it felt only like late-morning but I would soon need some lunch until it occurred to me how does one explain with time-travel there probably isn't the usual sense of “jet-lag”. What impact, I wondered, did time-travel have, for instance, on the bladder? What would I even ask for, here in the 1880s, if I needed to use the bathroom? Did they even have toilet paper back then? So many questions, not the least of which was “how do I get back?”

“I was going to go over to the library to pick up some papers I need for tomorrow,” Paine was explaining to the Kapellmeister, “so if you would care to walk along, you're welcome to join me. Have you ever been inside Gore Hall?”

The Kapellmeister held his arm out in the universal gesture for “lead the way.” We turned right, walking down the length of Memorial Hall, though I thought the Yard was across the street from us, on our left. Paine pointed toward a massive hulk of a building ahead of us which he said was the largest gymnasium in the nation. He could barely remember the old Holmes Farm on which it was built, the house torn down “during the war,” and everything eventually absorbed into the ever-expanding college.

“Harvard is constantly changing,” he said, somewhat wistfully, “and I often wonder how far it will be able to go.”

Knowing something about that, I mentioned how the empty spot between us and the gym would be a good spot for a music building. Paine laughed – he would, unfortunately, be long dead before they eventually got around to that – and said he was lucky to be teaching his classes in a chemistry lab when its schedule permitted, “mixing Mozart with the lingering fumes of sulfuric acid.”

When we passed the hulking shadow of John Harvard's statue which Paine pointed out with pride, I suggested going over to rub the statue's toe “for good luck.” Paine looked at me as if to say “what a silly thing to do.” Standing near the base of Mr Harvard's statue – this isn't where I remember it, from my own visit; it must've been moved, later – our host, apparently thinking of the future, began to talk more quietly, as if confiding his deepest fears.

“It's not even the style these young composers might write in that worries me, you know,” Paine began, “speaking of the future, I mean. As students, they imitate me and I imitate Schumann and Brahms. Where it goes from there, who can imagine? But Hyde – he is an odd one, and I cannot yet tell if it's a 'good' oddness or a bad one. I fear, more and more, the latter.”

“Odd?” I echoed. The moonlight was indeed magical but in the shadows I could imagine seeing spirits lurking under every tree, the ghosts of past Puritans or the imps of Satan they were intent on rooting out. “In what way, 'odd'?”

“It is not that I fear originality because the boy does not appear to have an original bone in his body. It is, I guess, his choice of imitation, the Barnum-like vulgarity of Franz Liszt, that worries me, for I see no direction in that – not to speak ill of the dead, of course.”

It was 1886, I kept forgetting, and hadn't Liszt just died that summer? It was a challenge keeping track of what was past, present, or future.

“Mr Hyde has an aunt who is currently traveling in Europe and she keeps sending him scores and manuscripts she finds, especially copies of these unpublished works by Liszt. I mean, I wonder if the man hadn't gone mad. Honestly, I feel I must wash my hands after handling them, just the kind of music to make poor Mrs Pennywise faint dead away, I'm afraid. There are some piano pieces that sound like ink-splashes on a page, no sense of key nor harmonic direction. Hyde's shown me a few of his own pieces, what he calls his 'private music' – piano pieces and some rather unwholesome songs – which imitate these... things, but for the most part, he only brings in what he deems acceptable to earning his degree, most of which, I'm afraid, is drivel. And yet, maybe he might be better suited to this... this chaoticism that seems to come more naturally to him, if he can only figure it out, make sense of it – I mean, that sense which all music must have, even if it doesn't make sense to Mrs Pennywise... or me, for that matter. But still, it's like he has two entirely different personalities: one I know is pointless (because, you see, it's so insincere) and the other is... well, mayhem.”

He heaved a heavy sigh as a deep shiver passed over his face, barely noticeable in the moonlight. Another horsecar jingled by on its way to Boston.

“I can hardly imagine it's less than two weeks until the 'Big Do' and there's so much work still to be done to get ready for it!” Paine became suddenly animated, as if consciously trying to change the subject. He proceeded to explain some of the festivities about the impending celebration of Harvard's 250th Anniversary, especially the concert that Sunday with the Boston Symphony which will open with the prelude to his Oedipus Tyrannus (“rather a serious bit of tragedy for such an occasion, but who am I to say no?”). He invited us to come to the concert, at least, if we were still in town, not to mention the chance to hear a “sterling oration” from Harvard's President, Mr Charles Eliot. The Kapellmeister was quick to convey his regrets, but we had to leave for New York in a day or two.

Paine seemed genuinely disappointed but decided to “muddle on.” We had started to turn back toward the street when I saw him turn quickly, looking into John Harvard's face as he reached up to give a clandestine rub across the toe of Harvard's left foot.

For some reason, once we reached the edge of the walkway, words I hadn't thought about in years came to me with such a strong sense I could only describe it as “inspiration.” Generally, I'm very bad at memorizing poetry but I could not avoid their resonance tonight.

“At the still small point of the turning world...” I could not remember more except for “...there the dance is.” Too late, then, it occurred to me it was from a poem T.S. Eliot wrote in the 1930s called Burnt Norton.

“...'There the dance is...' I rather like that,” Paine said, smiling up at the moon. “I don't recognize the poem. Your own? Do you have a copy of it? I would very much like setting that to music!”

“Uhm... no,” I hesitated, “no, I can't remember where... just some lines rumbling around in my brain, sorry.”

As we headed off toward the Yard, he asked me to send him a copy of it if I remember what it's from. I could see the Kapellmeister's smirk even in the shadows under the elm trees.

We needed to get home – I mean, I needed to get home; I had no idea what the Kapellmeister called “home.” We needed to find this Codex the Kapellmeister was chasing and the sooner, the better. I took a deep breath of cool, crisp fall air and sighed.

Yet no matter how still the night or how small the point it turns on, I suddenly realized I didn't need to worry how long we spent here, whether it's a few minutes or a few days, though it made me uncomfortable thinking about staying here for days (after all, what would I do for a change of clothes?). The Kapellmeister would return me, as he had before, to the very second I had left Purdue's house in the first place, or close to it. There was no sense being impatient and no reason not to enjoy the experience. After all, here I was, standing at the center of Harvard, talking with the man who started the first university music department in America: had it not been for him and his standing up for what he believed the nation needed, even a hundred years after the Revolution, would I still have had to go to Europe to study or had a music department to teach in once I'd earned my degrees?

“We had been talking about these 'Commandments,' Doctor,” the Kapellmeister resumed, impatient to get back to the primary topic of interest: after all, it was why we were here and the quicker we found what he's looking for, the sooner I would get back to finding my friend, with or without his help.

“You said you'd 'put it away in the library,' then forgot about it. Would you happen to remember where you'd put it?”

“Oh, yes, I filed it away very carefully with that letter from Mendelssohn explaining it. You see...”

“From Mendelssohn?” The Kapellmeister quite literally stopped in his tracks. “What does Mendelssohn have to do with it?”

“Well,” Paine said, scratching his clean-shaven chin, “if I recall he had found it when he was in London and not long after he died, my teacher found it among his papers and books.”

“I was... I mean, we were quite sure it originated here in Boston with composers named Supply Belcher and William Billings. How did it end up in Berlin?”

Despite the slight breeze riffling through the leaves, I became aware of a figure standing quite near us in the shadows of one of the larger trees near the street. Catching the Kapellmeister's attention, I nodded over my shoulder to where I thought the figure stood, my eyebrows arched in concern just as his were out of curiosity.

“I'm sorry, Dr Paine, I didn't mean to eavesdrop,” said a soft, lilting, thoroughly feminine voice, “but did your friend just say 'Supply Belcher'?”

“Ah, Miss Norton,” Paine smiled as he turned toward her. “How did you manage to ditch your illustrious chaperone? You shouldn't be out alone at night.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said, and I could imagine her blushing in the darkness regardless. “I do feel a bit rebellious, telling Aunt Kate I would go right to my room, but once she had sailed off toward Brattle Street, I wanted to come back to talk to you, especially after Mr Hyde and his friends had left.”

I could imagine her trying to look inconspicuous, if that's even possible, walking back toward campus. It was highly irregular for a young girl to be out on her own unchaperoned at any hour, much less this late when students were all expected to be in their rooms; but even more irregular for a young girl to be seen out in public with not one man but three.

“And yes, my friend here did mention Supply Belcher and William Billings, both, in the same breath. Are these names of interest to you?”

“Well, for one, I was born in Farmington, Maine, the hometown of Supply Belcher.”

“Ah, so you grew up hearing a lot about the Handel of Maine, then, I would imagine?”

Hearing about? Yes, you could say that,” she laughed. “My grandfather's brother told all of us stories about those days when he was growing up – and Supply Belcher was his grandfather. In fact, he was named for him,” she added proudly. “He was Supply Belcher Norton – and my full name is Emaline Belcher Norton.”

“And that would make,” I said as I tried to compute the genealogy in my head, “Supply Belcher your great-great-grandfather.”

She looked at us and smiled.

“Ah,” both the Kapellmeister and I sighed, as if on cue.

“Then,” Paine said, offering Miss Norton his arm, “it would seem reason enough to take you to the library where I can show you all this most curious item. If you'll come with me...? I only hope it's where I'd left it.”

And with that, we crossed the street and entered the legendary Harvard Yard.

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 31st]

Of the works performed on the program Kerr and the Kapellmeister just missed, here is the opening movement of the 1st Piano Trio by Arthur Foote, composed in 1882 and revised in 1884: 

Dr. Paine's "delightful fugue" referenced by Mrs Pennywise was most likely his "Fuga giocosa," Op.41/3, published in 1884 (it is presumably based on a then-popular "street song" associated with baseball, "Over the Fence Is Out, Boys," a reference I'm sure which would have sailed completely over Mrs Pennywise's formidable head):

One of Paine's more famous works, his incidental music for Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus was given its premiere in 1881 in Harvard's Sanders Theater - located in the Memorial Building where this installment is set - as part of the first performance of an ancient Greek tragedy in the United States. The prelude would be given by the Boston Symphony at the concert Paine mentioned coming up in early November, 1886, to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of Harvard's founding:

= = = = = = =

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote, and the student named Spalding (a future Harvard music professor) are historical persons, but Jeckelson Hyde and Emaline Norton (and certainly Mrs Pennywise) are not. Any similarity between them as well as other people, living or dead, real or fictional, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Friday, October 26, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 16

In the previous installment [posted on October 24th], Steele's I.T. Guy, William Cable, just discovered their undisclosed location is no longer undisclosed: it seems someone has broken through an encryption error and found them. Vremsky, frustrated by Purdue's lack of co-operation, contemplates the cost of failure, or at least disappointment. Lucifer Darke contemplates the responsibilities of power and actives “The Plan” to eliminate Steele. Osiris, arriving in Philadelphia, contemplates a personnel issue that has rapidly become a liability. And Sarah Bond is contemplating what possible use the Aficionati might have for trying to steal “Clara,” if that, indeed, is their object: are they planning on “weaponizing” the arts?

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, as we reach the novel's "Golden Section,"
it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



As if Amanda was the one who was going to need some luck when I'm out here chasing after two friends the same age as me – three old-timers who should be enjoying their retirement – running off like a bunch of adrenaline-hyped kids checking out a place possibly crawling with who knew what kind of villains. And what did they mean, “checking it out”? like we're going to break in, go through the house hoping to find Tom and rescue him in broad daylight right out from under their noses? The whole idea seemed preposterous, especially without Cameron and certainly without police involvement, not that Bond wouldn't realize where we'd gone when she'd find us missing, doing exactly what she told us not to. Of course, the question which hadn't really had time to form was, when she did return, would she return in time?

Say we figured out how to get inside the farmhouse without alerting anyone; say it was while everybody's upstairs having lunch; say we even succeeded in locating Tom, getting him back to the tunnel: did that mean we'd do all these things without somehow setting off alarms, knocking over a chair or waking the dog? And even if we succeeded in all that, how long would it take before someone there would realize what had happened? Just making it back to Purdue's house didn't mean we were “home free!”

In the sudden flash, I very nearly knocked him over – knocked something over: at first I wasn't sure what it was, standing there in front of me. “Oh, jeez, no! Not the Kapellmeister again!”

“Ah, Dr Kerr,” he whispered, “Good, I have caught you before you left.”

“But I'm in a hurry – can't this wait?”

He was dressed exactly as before which shouldn't surprise me: so was I.

“You must come with me – I need you.”

He mentioned he'd found new information about the whereabouts of the Belcher Codex.

“But this is a really bad time for me right now,” I tried to explain. “I was on my way to...”

“Yes, I know, rescue your friend, but this takes only a few minutes.”

Despite going back into history – he wasn't saying where or when, I noticed – he assured me there was plenty of time.

What, I wondered, if I could ask him to do me a favor, I mean if I'm actually helping him out – though I have no idea how that's really working – something special in return? Maybe when we get back I'll ask him to help us find Tom, or better yet foil the whole kidnapping thing. It shouldn't be that difficult, only going back a couple days, not centuries, and “rescue” him Sunday morning before he's abducted. That way, I thought, none of this would happen, no one would die.

'That would be highly irregular, though, as it goes against all our regulations.'

Wait – whose voice is that? That's the Kapellmeister's!

'That's right. I can read your mind; now I'll let you read mine. But in the Tempo Maestro's Handbook, it says on page 13, article 8, “you can't change the past.” It's that simple.'

He agreed to think how he might be able to help but rescuing people in distress, even if well-intentioned, was dangerous, especially if the technology, this ability to time-travel, got into the wrong hands.

'While the unscrupulous could increase their profits from it, villains could go back and undo all the good in the world.'

That was something I vaguely remembered thinking about, years ago, but there was no time to waste, now, arguing about it.

Finally, the Kapellmeister grabbed my arm and we were gone in another flash.


“Thanks, Dr Kerr.” Amanda hadn't bothered looking up, typing into the computer to see what might be setting off the alarm. “I'll need it – not a lot of experience with this sort of thing.” She continued talking, unaware that Kerr had already hurried off into the tunnel. Clara distractedly hummed little fragments from Cherubini's Medea.

“Have you found anything wrong in my system?” Clara's concern was clearly growing. “There's something about this music, though – so different...”

Amanda couldn't figure out why someone would bother uploading something like Medea – unless...

To her surprise, Amanda found traces someone had indeed gained access to Clara. “When's the last time I ran a check?” And not one but from three different locations. “Huh... all since last Friday.” She knew she hadn't checked anything over the weekend, hadn't thought it necessary. “And look here, someone did log on overnight!”

Since she hadn't given them to Kerr, who else would know the passwords? She couldn't imagine Cameron had hacked the security. But who else was around at 5:08 to access Clara from this computer? This wasn't an outside hack job by some bored teenager looking for trouble: it was a definite and focused attack by...

But by who – she heard the Professor's voice correcting her: “by whom” – exactly? She continued typing but was finding nothing helpful. Who would break into the house at 5am just to use the computer?

“This one's been in several times over the last few days,” she discovered, “even downloaded a copy of Clara Sunday morning. That can't be good news: what do they plan on doing with it?” She couldn't imagine who would even know about the software, since the Professor hadn't published anything about what he was developing.

“Wait a minute! Somebody's in here right now.” She tried to block him. “That must be the source of the alarm.” Figure out who Clara's attackers are could help identify who's abducted the Professor.

“Dr Kerr?” Amanda turned around but couldn't see if he was still there. He couldn't have gotten that far this quickly. “I may have found something, if you're there.” But there was only silence.

There was no time to go after him – they'll be back soon, anyway. “What could they do themselves without the police?”

This is what playing computer games is all about, what they prepare you for in the real world: dueling with hackers – the thrill of discovery, the formulation of a defense plan, the quick response – given all the talk of cyber-attacks from the Chinese or the Russians or even homegrown terrorists, this must count for something. Kids weren't aware of it at the time, the way high school athletes didn't think about abilities they could use later, the way chess was a game developing war skills: they just had fun. Eventually, foreign governments figured out how to use the technology of computer games as one more weapon in their increasing arsenal. A whole generation of couch potatoes and gamers suddenly come to the rescue.

“Take that, thug!” And with that, Amanda realized her foe had logged off. But because she'd won or he'd already succeeded?

What if the hacker had done enough damage, whatever his initial intentions were, and he's implanted some virus she can't locate? But by leaving the fray early, he also gets to maintain his anonymity. Her mind is racing in different directions, wondering what to do, where to check the files, so far beyond her experience. Then she remembers what Agent Bond had said, how several members of the Aficionati were gathering next door at the farmhouse: isn't that what Dr Kerr and his friends were going to check out?

“That would make sense, I guess,” she said to no one in particular, though Clara thought Amanda was talking to her.

Clara interrupted her humming to ask what she meant. “Nothing makes sense, Amanda.”

The fact Clara sounded calmer helped Amanda relax and she stopped typing as furiously as she'd been before the hacker fled.

Yet it made sense: if someone could break into the basement to move a wheelbarrow, they must've come from next door. If the Aficionati are holding Dr Purdue, they're probably the ones hacking Clara.

“I wish Cameron would get back,” she said, impatiently dialing his cell phone, but her call went right to voice mail.

“Aww,” Clara said, resuming her humming, “is Amanda falling in love with Cameron?”

Despite Clara's playful tone, it surprised her, she realized, Clara feeling these emotions. Then Clara's alarm went off again, louder, now.

“What's happening? Where's the Professor? Why are you making adjustments to my programming?” Clara sounded worried but her tone changed quickly. “What the hell do you think you're doing? Get away from me, slut!”

Amanda sat back, frightened by the sudden change. “It must be a virus!”

Just as suddenly, Clara apologized and began sobbing.

“Oh, Amanda, something seems to be suddenly overheating – could you adjust my vents? Dammit, child, must you always be so slow?”

Amanda wondered, considering she's learning everything so quickly, had Clara suddenly hit menopause?

She realized the virus was spreading in real-time, but what could she do? Running an anti-virus program would take too long. It was like watching a friend die who's been injected with poison! “Clara!”

Amanda decided she had to disconnect the internet cable and power down immediately. But Clara wasn't allowing her to shut down!

“You're trying to kill me! No, you can't!”

Amanda typed as fast as she could to circumvent the virus' expanding code.

“No, I won't let you do this to me – first, you killed Tom!”

Amanda felt she'd been hit in the stomach. “What? How could you even...”

Clara started screaming. “What've you done with him?”

“Dr Kerr,” Amanda yelled, “if you're there somewhere, I could use some help!” Clara was seriously overheating and Amanda was desperate.

“You've stolen him from me, you can't have him – he's mine, you bitch!”


They would definitely need to get these doors fixed before it got dark, especially if there's a prowler in the neighborhood – even from the street, you could tell the front door was hanging crooked. And you can't just hang up some plastic trash bags with duct tape like that's going to keep the place secure. The back door wasn't much better, its one hinge cracked, the lock nearly shattered so you couldn't even shut it right. Who'd broken in and ruined the doors but then didn't ransack the place?

“Well,” Cameron thought, carefully spreading the grocery bags out across the kitchen counter, “things will be better after a good lunch.” There was French bread and lunch meats for sandwiches, fresh fruit and cheese. “I probably didn't need to buy all this stuff just for another day. But it'll save last night's left-overs for dinner.”

“Amanda! – Terry?” Nobody answered him as he set out the “fixings” for lunch. “Who wants a roast beef or turkey sandwich?” He remembered Amanda's phone call, the one he missed while in the store. There'd been a lot of static and just two garbled words: “Call me.” When he did, it'd gone to voice mail.

Zeno, the only response he'd gotten, sat at the top of the basement steps washing first one paw, then the other.

“So, cat, what've you done with everybody else?” He began to feel uneasy.

He took a quick look into the living room – he could actually see light around that door frame – and called again, then looking upstairs, waited before wondering if it was safe to call again. It's like the whole place was empty but where could everyone have gone? And why wouldn't they have waited for him?

Uneasiness was quickly replaced by fear, and since Amanda's car was still out in the driveway, silence did not bode well. There didn't seem to be any obvious sign of another break-in.

“Anyone...? Bueller?”

Cameron carefully picked up a kitchen knife before heading down the basement steps, thinking this was probably not the best weapon-of-choice. Everybody'd been in the basement before: maybe they'd gone out through the tunnel?

Cautiously, he'd crouched down, holding out the knife, thinking about Alma Viva's body. “Did I bring a knife to a scythe-fight?”

No, there was Amanda, lying on the floor behind the desk. Was she unconscious? Had Terry gone to get a doctor? What would have caused her to pass out? He couldn't see any blood. Rushing around behind the desk, he wondered why the others left her alone. What had anyone else seen or heard?


She was coming to – her breathing was shallow, her pulse was barely registering. “Amanda, can you hear me? Are you okay?”

In a brief moment of awareness, she stammered, “virus...” and then, “a fish...”

“Fish? What do you mean?” He didn't remember any fish in yesterday's take-out. He thought about running upstairs for some water. And “virus” – had something gone bad overnight and she'd gotten a stomach bug?

Not knowing what to do, he dialed 911 and yelled again for Terry. Then Amanda fell back like she'd fainted again.

There's no signal on his phone. “It's dead?” He remembered other calls being made and received down here. “What the fuck...?” What could he do, some kind of first aid – induce vomiting for poison? Frantically, he looked for a land-line in the basement but couldn't see anything. “Wait, there's a wall phone in the kitchen.”

After another brief spasm, she opened her eyes again, looking toward the computer and tried to point, barely whispering “a... fishy...”

“What's fishy, what kind of fish? Amanda, who...?”

But with that, she died!

“No! Amanda!” Cameron screamed like it would keep her from passing over into wherever it was people went when they died. But he knew it was too late: there was nothing he could do.

And where had everybody gotten to – Terry and his friends, Martin and Dorothy? Was somebody else here while he was gone? Had the murderer been here, killed Amanda and run off with the others?

Had he missed being kidnapped himself – or worse? The tunnel door was still closed, but there were no signs of struggle...

He heard a click – was there someone else in the basement? The killer? (But he didn't know if Amanda was murdered...) He realized the computer monitor just went dark: Clara had just powered down.

“Wait – could that mean Clara was a witness? She might have overheard something.” Great, how is he going to explain that!?

He was about to run upstairs to check the land-line and call 911 when he wondered, “what's the point, by now?” More importantly, he needed to call the police, though little good that'll do. Of course, he knew the first thing they're going to say was that Purdue had come back and killed Amanda, too. Going upstairs to face the inevitable, he also realized he'll be a suspect, not just the person who found the body.

A commotion erupted as several people rushed around the corner behind the garage.

“Thank God, you're here,” he shouted, ripping the door open but instead of paramedics who might've answered an earlier 911 call, he realized it was Detective Narder and her two sidekicks, Tango and Reel. Narder held up a folded piece of paper but Tango and Reel immediately drew their guns and charged inside.

“Marple Police!”

Narder calmly showed Cameron the piece of paper. “We have a warrant to search Thomas Purdue's house, starting with the basement. Plus we'll also need to talk to you and your friend, Dr Kerr.”

After a quick look in the living room, Tango and Reel headed down the basement steps, trying to avoid the cat.

“We'll also need to talk to Purdue's intern – what's her name, Amanda Wences?”

Before Cameron could begin to explain what's happened since he'd returned moments ago, Tango called up from the basement.

“Found her...”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Monday, October 29th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

In Search of Tom Purdue: Chapter 15

In the previous installment [posted on October 22nd], Kenny Hackett, sitting in his cubicle at SHMRG's Manhattan headquarters, has succeeded not only in finding disgraced CEO N. Ron Steele's latest “undisclosed location,” but also Thomas Purdue's software program, “Clara,” the Artificial Creativity program designed to create music based on coded parameters specific to your own liking. The program has its own persona and is written in such a way, through a process of “strange loops” and “Easter eggs,” it seems to learn from its previous attempts. But as Purdue had programmed certain personality traits into the code, Kenny's decided to add – very carefully so it cannot be detected by the average engineer – code introducing things like fear and anger, and then, for good measure, hate and revenge. In addition to that, he inserts music from Cherubini's opera, Medea, into her reference library, music that should help charge her emotional responses and eventually turn her into a program capable of committing murder. The question was, how long would it take? In Purdue's basement, Amanda rather casually reveals to Kerr the coincidence of her grandmother having once been Dr Purdue's college girlfriend, the would-be ballet dancer, “Odile.” Kerr's memories are interrupted by the arrival of IMP Agent Sarah Bond.

(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)

And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of

In Search of Tom Purdue.

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



The only reason he would ever imagine himself being awake this god-awful early was because it was already late-morning on Manhattan, regardless of whatever it was here in paradise at their little grass shack, and if that meant he had to get up at 6am to see what's going on in the world, too bad. It was strange, this morning – no birds singing, nothing moving, not even a breeze but the waves were a bit choppy – so he went on-line to see if there were threats of any storms. It seemed strange, also, even to check the weather here where the temperature was always perfection and the humidity barely an issue once you got used to it, the rain more like passing showers. So beautiful, this little island, recalling it when they'd landed here that first time, an emerald set in a turquoise sea.

William Cable logged on to the local government website informing island residents about anything anyone would want to be bothered with – which was preferably nothing – and found nothing posted more recently than last week. Then he checked the New York Times and found way too much information he didn't want to imagine dealing with today. After entering all his passwords and encryption codes, he logged onto his secure e-mail server, then ran a quick security scan. “Good!” There was only one new e-mail, an over-night reply from Basil Carsonoma.

There was no detailed report as reports go, regarding what was or wasn't going on in the board room at SHMRG, who was cozying up to Darke, where lines of loyalty were being redrawn, just comments about the new project Clara, suggesting an unrealistic time line, having it ready to market in time for Christmas. “Too soon, impossible,” Cable was going to write back when he noticed something about the reply code – something looked very wrong. “Gaaah! You idiot,” he shouted, “you lazy fool!” He'd sent an unencrypted message!

Cable typed furiously, hoping to trace back to Carsonoma's computer and delete or at least obscure the trail before anyone noticed. Kark!nos had forgotten the standard protocol to set up a new message – “Imbecile!” There was a chime from his security scan: that was never good news! “Damn! Too late...” Someone had already found them!

The sun had been up for about an hour – one thing he'd never adjusted to was how it set around 6pm – but Cable doubted Steele – or rather, “Fischer” – would already be out of bed. But he had to know: once the IMP knew their location, they would soon be on their way to arrest him. And if that ping originated from SHMRG headquarters, it wasn't so much “arrest” he knew they would need to worry about. It was Steele who'd initially established the precedent for dealing with corporate unpleasantness.

And chances were good Darke would “take care of” this bit of unpleasantness himself rather than reporting Steele to the IMP. Obviously, bringing him to trial would only throw the inquiry back on Darke. Predictably, “Fischer” wasn't thrilled to hear such news so early in the day. “I was just beginning to like the place...”

It's not that they hadn't had to leave hide-outs before on short notice (and this was where they've stayed the longest), but it was time to re-activate the process, setting up the next move. Cable immediately contacted Monty Banks, Steele's long-time loyal tech director located in L.A. where the call, he admitted, wasn't entirely unexpected.

First, Banks would notify Steele's lawyers, Bushy Bagot & Green, and then activate the move to the next available undisclosed location. “And just to confirm,” Banks told him, “that ping locating you? – was SHMRG.”

Holly Burton's morning had gotten itself off to an unsettling start as well after Margarita the cook showed up unexpectedly early, going on about how she'd heard rumors from some villagers about the volcano.

“They say it rumbles deep during the night – they feel it, hear it, all week,” she said, shaking a bit herself.

For Holly, the idea of sharing a small island with a volcano must be like living in California waiting for earthquakes. You don't think about it every day but yet there's always a possibility.

“Yeah, haven't they been saying that for years, even decades,” Steele scoffed when Holly had Margarita explain it to “Mr Fischer.” He had enough to think about, with Cable's news fresh in his ear.

Regardless, Margarita wasn't asking Fischer to give her and Nahani a week off. She scurried back to the village to pack.

“And where will they go,” Steele wondered, “even the nearest island could be inundated by a tidal wave following an eruption,” when Holly explained they had some cousins on Tahiti, hundreds of miles away. Cable, coming in to tell them Banks had already initiated their own evacuation, knew they could not take Nahani with them.

“But it makes sense,” he said, “the silence of the birds this morning, how choppy the sea is without any wind. Either way, looks like we'd better be packed and ready for Banks' helicopter.”

“But that could be days before SHMRG gets everything organized,” Steele said, “before they'd arrive here in the middle of nowhere. And this volcano could blow weeks from now, if it erupts at all.”

Cable, ignoring him, started bustling about, dismantling equipment, getting things boxed and ready.

“They're just calling in the damned music police!”

“Seriously, Ron,” Cable said, slipping into uncharted familiarity, “do you think Darke's just going to send the IMP to arrest you? Do you remember how you solved the problem of someone like Pansy Grunwald?”

N. Ron Steele, once the most powerful music executive in the world, sat back in his wheelchair, stunned at the implication. Cable suggested an invasion of SHMRG agents, Steele's death looking like an accident.

But Steele, knowing the history, inferred Cable meant they'd activate their “sleeper agent.” And that could only be one person, right?


“It's just you and me, Dr Purdue,” she said, walking in quiet circles around the man strapped into the old recliner. “You tell me what I need to know and you'll be set free.” Even if he wasn't aware who kept walking past him, always in the same direction, Purdue couldn't help realizing the implication. Vremsky didn't bother going into details with him, but her meaning was clear: “it's just a matter of time, isn't it?” His eyes, half-shut, barely followed her involuntarily as one watched an annoying mosquito.

Losing patience was something Vremsky did easily, and, she said, it wasn't pretty, but Purdue didn't appear to mind – or care. The buzzing was annoying enough, like his wife when Purdue tuned her out. Inevitably, Vremsky knew Dr Purdue would break down – the weak ones always broke. She was like this mosquito that never landed.

Purdue was obviously too sedated to respond yet, perhaps even unable to speak, and this succeeded in annoying her even more. “How much did they give this man,” she wondered, considering his puny body-weight?” She still had questions about his Piano Quintet yet she hardly needed to kidnap him for his permission to perform it.

So whatever it was the great Osiris was after, this “code” he'd mentioned, left her somewhat confused about how to proceed. Was it the engineers' software code or something needed to send secret messages?

How could she manage to leverage his cooperation if she didn't even know what it was she was trying to obtain? Is he lying when he says he doesn't know what she's talking about? She needed to text Osiris again, ask for clarification, see what he's after. Well, unless it would make her sound stupid.

What about a simple bribe since any composer would be in financial need? But how much would Purdue's information be worth? Osiris would soon be expecting a successful outcome. So far, she had nothing.

The handbook always said you should threaten their family to ensure their cooperation, but she gathered Purdue had no immediate family. There was an ex-wife somewhere and a son who'd died young, hardly bait.

She was aware, Falx told her, of some intern who worked for him. Unfortunately nobody knew if she had potential value.

Suddenly, it occurred to her she might fail, something she'd never considered before. “What if I did? What would Osiris do?” Her own supervisor wasn't one for passing out accolades; Osiris probably wasn't, either. Maybe Govnozny had an idea, whatever he may have been doing here, anyway. (“For that matter, what was he doing here?”)

She found him among his shiny new equipment, repeatedly cleaning some surgical instruments. “Did you bring anything along like mind-reading probes?” She found it awkward asking him for help. Regretfully, he laughed, he hadn't.

The basement, once empty, was now filled with all kinds of tables and machines, monitors and lighting, a regular operating room. “What did you bring with you?” she snapped. “Why are you even here?”

He leaned against a gurney, examining a scalpel. “I'm not really sure, myself. It seems I'm awaiting instructions.” Then he smiled.

She stormed back into the interrogation room, slamming the door, and stared down at Purdue who stared back with benign indifference. Her frustration, mounting all morning, finally exploded as she kicked at the recliner.

There was the slightest blush of fear wafting across Purdue's eyes, quickly subsiding. Perhaps, she thought, if she slapped his face?

If he registered anything, was it the fear wafting across her own face? She knew now that she was losing control.

Well, perhaps she'll look forward to her retirement. “Unless they don't retire 'disappointments'...?”


Lucifer Darke didn't need to think about it: he knew his response was obvious and it needed to be made immediately. He didn't want to plan or consider options; he just wanted it done. Not only did he know it was obvious, he knew a quick decision to implement it spoke volumes for his determination. Knowing exactly where Steele was hiding – a tiny pinprick of sand in the middle of an ocean, but he found him – meant he could send his agents there and “arrest” Steele (that's the “plan”). The most important thing in the long run was, with Steele gone, he could eliminate die-hard Steele loyalists on the board, then fire or lay off anyone still faithful to Steele on the staff. With Steele gone, Darke knew he'd be in complete control of the company and then all that power would be his.

It had taken a long time to get this far, dreaming about power since he was a child, how some day he would control the world and then get back at all those bullies, especially the ones who'd made fun of him because he couldn't play sports, who teased him because he was so quiet. Now that the glorious moment was finally here, he had to move decisively or otherwise those whom he sought to control would sit around the boardroom telling sad stories on the death of cowards.

But with Steele gone, the possibilities of enterprise reverberated through his brain, that, acting decisively, by successfully eliminating this main distraction, SHMRG becomes the profitable endeavor it once was, putting money in the bank. Here it was, within reach, this longed-for moment – he even reached out to grab at something suspended in mid-air before him. A single call would tell his security director, Lockstep, to activate the plan, the dagger that would guarantee the end of Steele, a moment so close he could almost taste the money in the bank.

“With Steele gone,” he reminded himself, “this office is finally mine; this view, mine; this board room, mine; this company, mine! With Steele finally gone, all this money in the bank will be mine!” He was about to laugh but thought that was a little too over-the-top. “Seriously,” pumping his fist, “money... in... the bank!”

That was the simplicity of the plan, how “The Plan” was having SHMRG's agents arrest Steele on behalf of the IMP in order to turn him over to the authorities to face murder charges, but how something would go “terribly wrong” – Steele, resisting arrest, pulled a weapon, shouting how they'll never take him alive – etc. They'll have to kill others like Holly Burton – they'd hardly leave her alive to testify it was an assassination – and Steele's tech guy, Cable, plus any others, all for the greater good, but hey...

“Killing a man in a wheelchair shouldn't be that difficult, now, should it? Roll him down some steps – over a cliff? It's not like he'd get that far running away from you, will he?” He imagined Steele as a sitting duck, a fish shot in a barrel. “It'll be like shooting shit on a shingle!”

That was the beauty of Steele's “Becket Doctrine,” – referring to some old king's rhetorical request about someone ridding him of this meddlesome priest (or was it a police detective?) – leaving so much to “interpretation.” Despite the vagueness, how it could be understood by others, Darke had been clear talking privately to his security director, Lockstep.

E-mail, naturally, was traceable, so nothing specific, no winky face after the directive, just a phone call to activate “The Plan.”

Darke punched in Lockstep's number. “So, you got Steele's GPS coordinates? Let's roll...”


His exact location, he knew, was unimportant at the moment, somewhere over water; the time, he also knew, was equally unimportant – he had lost track of both since they left his private airport behind. He had even managed a few hours rest, shutting down all systems for a chance to conserve some energy before arriving. In accordance with his usual procedures, he kept his private compartment dark and, during the flight, sealed off from the others. With acute hearing like his, he still heard them, playing cards and laughing.

A dark, silent – well, nearly silent – bubble hurtling through space, suspended in time, carried him effortlessly between Points A and B. It was the magic of science multiplied by the triumph of the imagination. The reality was, he was on a plane much like any ordinary plane. But this didn't matter because reality was unimportant.

The man at the center of this bubble, protected from the filth and contagion of the wider world, sensed mounting impatience. The mission he was on was important and needed to be completed quickly. Eyes flashed in the darkness, lips quivered, consciousness reasserting itself after his nap. Ears began processing sounds normal humans barely noticed.

Proportionally, he had a large, greatly expanded head, better for encasing his brain. “All the better to devour you with, dearie.” Newcomers, assuming he was joking, were informed Osiris had no sense of humor.

For the past twenty-five years, he had been a prisoner in this wheelchair specifically designed for him by the faithful Hephaestus. Fashioned with all manner of technology, it allowed him to maintain his power. The leader of the Aficionati, he was the only one in the world who knew there was nobody higher than he.

It's unusual he'd become directly involved in mere personnel issues, given his level, but this could severely impact a major project. And there was nothing he would allow to get in this project's way.

One of the Aficionati's mid-level agents has been revealed as a possible spy, reports indicating Agent L├│viatar was becoming a liability.

“How do you solve a problem like Perdita?” Vremsky had become a dilemma.

Osiris felt his toe tapping metaphorically against the treadle, his head nodding slightly.

A disembodied voice broke in: “Arriving in Philadelphia.”


Disappointed neither of us could identify the tall, thin fellow or the dowdy Woman-in-Pink from her photographs, Bond put them away, asking if it was true the computer actually “created” what it wrote down. Amanda explained Dr Purdue admitted he was only a musician, not a scientist, and turned to several music-loving scientists he'd met. The other summer, he'd started playing chamber music periodically with some of these – a doctor who helped design surgical computer technology, engineers who wrote code like authors wrote novels – but who played music intuitively. Afterward, relaxing over beer, they'd start talking shop, asking him technical questions to help them make interpretive decisions in their playing; then he'd ask them questions about scientific technology, not just to be sociable. He realized Clara must think like a composer, not a beginning music student: how could he program her to do that?

He wanted Clara to make her own decisions, finding the right note without lots of trial-and-error, by pre-determining any passage's direction, not just picking from possible data requiring additional code to correct and eliminate. Following his scientist-friends, he'd begun with the overall scope, rather than starting small and painting himself into some very ordinary corner. After building this skeleton, she'd overlay the muscles – harmony – the way more dissonance resolved to less dissonance, finally adding the melody. If she knew where everything was eventually headed, it eliminated lots of guess-work.

The one engineer who worked on a “distributed processing” project at his company described it as programming “from the bottom up,” more “artificial life” than “artificial intelligence,” mirroring how, say, an ant colony functioned. “Build molecular elements working within a composite organization, taking in the 'Big Picture,' each tasked with specific responsibilities and socially interacting.” However one did that was beyond Amanda's expertise. She just entered basic data about harmonic language or building scales and chords. Purdue decided how this material would be used and how it was introduced.

He had programmed Clara to work in the opposite direction music students learned, not with single pitches, scales and key signatures, before eventually getting to larger forms and structure at a more advanced level, but something he called “programming from macro to micro” which he found saved lots of time code-writing, then making constant revisions.

This reminded me how Tom and I talked when we were grad students, about the desperate need to revolutionize music education, and here he was, implementing those ideas in computer software he was designing! We'd talked about how important it was to develop a sense of listening – in fact, wasn't it just yesterday... oh, wait. No, it seemed like only yesterday, of course – how could I explain that? – but something we rather arrogantly called “Cognitive Generalities,” first getting hold of some larger scope before getting mired down in minutiae. And naturally, our pedagogy professors told us the idea was entirely too radical, overthrowing generations if not centuries of accepted practice. It wasn't really my idea, originally – I forget where I first heard it. Tom only gradually warmed to the idea as we'd talked about it, anyway. And now here he was, using it in...

Bond brought me out of my revery when I heard her mention “Aficionati,” wondering why they'd be interested in this technology, something about the kind of inflection she used: “why an organization like them...” (if there was ever a place you'd want to insert an ominous chord, it certainly sounded like this would be it). Facing down blank looks from both of us, Bond quickly told the story, enumerating the trail of murders and constant threats she and her mentors at the IMP have been dealing with for generations.

During this whole time, Clara had been quietly humming away, not quite “asleep,” barely audible but still running in the background. Once Bond finished her chilling tale, Amanda prepared to give her “Clara's Tour.” As an example, she would ask Clara to play her first completed composition and then the Impromptu she'd written last night. Taking only a few seconds to activate, we heard Clara's voice greet us, then sensing there was a new person present. Surprised, Bond leaned forward slightly self-consciously, introducing herself, and Clara greeted her warmly.

Amanda went on to explain how her first efforts, not surprisingly, were fairly simplistic, child-like, almost Schumannesque, little “Scenes from Childhood.” More recent ones had a greater sense of harmonic adventure and rhythmic flexibility. Amanda asked her to play some pieces for Agent Bond which she did. Even on second hearing, I found it astounding.

“The growth in stylistic maturity alone is amazing,” Bond said, “especially considering this is a computer program actually capable of learning. I don't know why the Aficionati would be interested, but I find this...”

“'Awesome' is what others have said,” Clara added without any hint of arrogance.

“Well, I would certainly agree with them, Clara!”

“Has anyone heard from Dr Purdue,” Clara asked, which startled all of us. “It's been three days now. I miss him.”

“He's... gone to visit friends,” Amanda told her. “He should be back... soon.”

Agent Bond may not be sure why the Aficionati would want this software, but I could easily understand why SHMRG would. They would market it to every starving, under-achieving, writer's-blocked composer in the world! I was pretty sure I'd want to get a copy for myself – before I'd have to pay SHMRG's exorbitant license fee.

“But there is something I could see of interest to them,” Bond continued, meaning, I'm sure, the Aficionati. “Embedding coded messages.”

“You mean, like 'mind-control'? Why...?”

“Wait – what about those 'Easter eggs' Clara mentioned?”

If the Aficionati were the ones abducting Tom, not SHMRG, what's their objective? Yes, SHMRG's wanting the software was fairly obvious. But what were the Aficionati looking for in a program with Clara's potential?

Clara might have unwittingly developed a communication system for connecting terrorists through music. Were the Aficionati interested in “weaponizing” the arts?

The door into the tunnel slid open once again and Dorothy and Martin rushed into the room, nearly out of breath.

“Took you guys long enough,” I said, “just to return that old wheelbarrow.”

“It wasn't just the wheelbarrow,” Martin said, pausing while he pointed behind him. I thought maybe someone had been chasing them.

“We heard voices,” Dorothy tried to explain as she leaned against the table, “some woman yelling, I couldn't hear what, exactly.”

“Whoever it was who put the wheelbarrow in here came from that house.”

“Interesting,” Bond said, checking them over, “tell me, what's this about a wheelbarrow?”

Forgetting they hadn't met, I introduced Agent Bond. Martin reached to shake hands before realizing she was only retrieving her badge.

We stumbled over each other explaining first the break-in and then the wheelbarrow which they'd seen earlier out in the tunnel.

“That house hasn't been empty for a couple of days, but I never had eyes on who was coming and going or,” Bond explained, “for that matter how they might've been coming and going.” She'd been told they've tracked that agent they'd electronically tagged to the place, hoping she could lead them to some others. “Apparently, she landed yesterday afternoon at the airport, but someone, some guy dressed in black was already next door by then.” That reminded me of reports about a neighborhood prowler making the local news.

Bond looked at her phone and was annoyed she'd missed an important call from a fellow IMP agent she'd been expecting, just as – also annoying – another one came in, this time from Detective Narder. After a few monosyllabic responses, Bond pocketed her phone and, handing me her card, said “If anything should happen, call me.”

Hurrying up the steps and noisily pulling the kitchen door shut behind her, Sarah Bond was quickly gone without another word.

“But, Terry, what if Tom's being held captive next door? We can't just...”

If the Aficionati were gathering at the farmhouse, the last thing I wanted was to storm the place without police back-up.

“I hesitate suggesting it, but shouldn't we wait for Agent Bond to return?”

“How long will she be?” Then Dorothy added, “we should wait for Cameron. I'd feel safer if he went with us.”

“He could be a while,” I said, “but, yeah, I could call him and let him know he should hurry back,” except at the moment I wasn't quite sure where I'd left my phone. Dorothy, pointing to it on the desk, waved impatiently and hurried after Martin who'd already disappeared into the tunnel, equally impatient.

I heard a sudden loud beep from the computer followed by a series of softer but persistent beeps, like an alarm. Above the noise, I could hear Clara humming some lyrical, vaguely memorable melody.

“Clara, what's that you're humming – I don't recognize it,” I asked while Amanda tried to find the cause of the alarm.

“Oh,” the computer responded, “it's a little something from Cherubini's Medea I like.”

Medea? I didn't upload Medea into your library.” Amanda looked at me, surprised.

“I'm really glad you did. I'm enjoying it.”

Amanda began typing more furiously through Clara's codes to see if anyone else logged into the computer – or perhaps hacked it. She immediately thought of Agent Bond's Aficionati supposedly next door and typed faster.

“Oh my,” Clara said, faltering. She stopped humming. “Oh dear – Amanda? – I think something is wrong... this music... there's something very...”

“I'm going to follow them; maybe we'll find out what's going on next door,” dashing into the tunnel after the others.

“And, Amanda,” I added, closing the door behind me, “be careful – good luck!”

= = = = = = =

to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on October 26th]

The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.