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.

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