(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 the hell was that all about? Jeez!” At first I had the very strong feeling I should dust myself off. My eyes were still adjusting but my brain hadn't even begun the process. “You damn well better tell me what's happening! Where the hell are we? Not to mention how did we get here?”
“Are you always given to this level of profanity?” my traveling companion asked. “You seem to be rather upset by this.”
“I'm not in the habit of being kidnapped – as for my profanity level...”
There'd been a flash, a surge of warmth and a rapid, roaring sound like I'd been sucked into a wind tunnel which couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, if even that much.
“Don't worry, you're safe: everything came through intact – your hair's not even disheveled. Not bad,” he smiled, “for your first time.”
In his hand, he held something shiny in the sunlight, metal (probably silver) – (wait, it was sunny and we were outside?) – not much larger and only a little bulkier than an old-fashioned fountain pen.
“This is my Tonic Screwdriver,” the man said. “Never leave home without it!” It looked like no screwdriver I'd ever seen.
“Oh, that 'wind' sound you heard, incidentally, was music, a long-winded circle-of-fifths modulation – which then eventually resolved to our present location. True, to most ears, harmonies moving that quickly tend to become a blur.”
I stood there looking around without a clue, beyond no longer being in Tom Purdue's basement or outside in his backyard. “What the hell do you mean, 'resolved to our present location' – what location?”
“It's probably best,” my kidnapper cautioned, speaking in a whisper, “not to attract undue attention by loud talking or outlandish behavior.” The man who called himself The Kapellmeister nodded toward a knot of several people who appeared on the road before us.
“They look like a bunch of costumed Colonial American re-enactors: where are we?”
“Not 're-enactors,' as you so quaintly called them, and they're not wearing costumes. By the way, just try to 'act natural'? If my calculations are correct, we're in Farmington, Maine, August 14th of 1814.”
I managed to strangle another stream of profanities, despite possibly being more intense than any I've produced since my student days.
Looking around, I imagined we'd landed not too far from some woods, several houses visible in the distance beyond those rocks, the fields, probably farmland, and trees on the other side rich and green. The road we stood beside, I initially assumed a dirt path, was hard and dusty, though quite possibly a main road. We were standing on the edge of town, some simple farmhouses on our left, a barely hidden riverbank to our right. The road behind us descended from some hills with a slow, gentle curve.
The people coming toward us I imagined were farmhands returning home after work, a group of maybe ten men and boys. Before reaching us, they turned toward the town, perhaps cutting through a field. They had no sooner made their turn than they suddenly broke into song.
“Listen to that – four-part harmony, perfectly in tune!”
“This town is home to one of New England's most famous singing teachers.”
“Yes, and there, undoubtedly, goes a perfect example of his work and dedication.”
This, I figured, was why he brought me here, because he thinks I know something about this Belcher Codex he mentioned.
“So what are we doing here, where do we go – just follow them? You couldn't have landed us closer in town?”
“We could hardly just materialize in the middle of somebody's parlor – be discreet.”
As we trudged along the road, he apologizing for “abducting” me like that, since there hadn't been time to ask me and he hadn't left me time to consider much less decline the offer. He had heard someone coming, figuring it would be awkward to explain his presence there – “no shit, Sherlock” – and, so, vanished.
“But I needed Purdue's help and in his unfortunate absence, there you were, plus you said you know about Belcher's manuscript.”
“No, I assumed you meant Supply Belcher as opposed to, say, Fred Belcher...”
“Ah, that's right, you did say Purdue hadn't told you about it, but I thought maybe you knew about it independently.”
“Does that complicate my situation, here, because I know nothing about your Codex?”
“I think it rather complicates my situation, rather, but yours, certainly, I'm afraid.”
“You can't wave your screwdriver and return me...?”
He looked at me like I was mad and sighed, shaking his head while holding out the screwdriver for my inspection: it was, he explained, a “transportalization device” designed for only one person's use. However, by holding onto my arm like that, he'd managed to transport me along with him without, presumably, “undue deleterious effect.”
I looked at the screwdriver, this pen-shaped silver contraption – “titanium, to be accurate” – with various knobs and buttons on it.
“It's very accurate for short-range distances, but for greater, I'd need my Mälzelotron-120.”
Since we continued our trudge without further explanation, I finally had to ask what that was and what, coincidentally, he was. Clearly he wasn't just another musicologist with a penchant for strangely designed apparel. And talking to just any eccentric musical expert would not have landed me in an early-19th Century village in rural Maine.
“I am,” he said, looking straight ahead, “what you'd call a Tempo Maestro, 2nd Class, working presently on my 7th degree.”
“You mean you're going for your fifth PhD? That could explain a lot...”
“Unlike your bricklayers who have only 32 degrees, our degree levels are infinite.” Perhaps he was referring to the Masonic Order.
Ignoring his use of “our,” I asked if he was researching Belcher's Codex.
“I've been sent here to locate it, yes.”
“You're from some parallel universe?”
“Oh, not exactly: you're clearly the parallel universe.”
There was somebody behind us though I wasn't sure when he'd approached us, walking with an avowed limp and shuffling feet. His hair was stringy and unkempt, his chin a riotous mass of stubble. As we'd been walking along, wrapped in our own conversation, the man's appearance was more of a surprise than his appearance. Before the man overtook us, the Kapellmeister whispered to me to be cautious talking with people considering there's a war on and the locals may not take charitably to finding strangers in their midst.
“Ah, good man,” my parallel traveler said, addressing the stranger – though clearly we were the strangers, here – “perhaps you could help.”
He eyed us suspiciously, no invitation to continue. Perhaps he couldn't understand us.
“We're travelers here, newly arrived from Boston,” the Kapellmeister continued, ignoring his demeanor, “and seek the house of Mr Supply Belcher.”
With that, the man came up to us and, without changing his expression, proceeded to give each of us a hug, as if embracing long-lost colleagues not seen for years who've now suddenly returned. Clapping us on the shoulders, he looked at each of us and smiled, the change on his face removing all concern.
I glanced at the man calling himself the Kapellmeister and grinned at how “uncharitably” this particular local regarded these two strangers. Regardless, though, the man, somewhat hardened by circumstances, did look a bit uneducated.
“Looking for the famous Squire Belcher, are you? – singing-master, teacher, town magistrate, physician. Aye, he's famous in these parts, that's true.” Yet the man did not sound quite the fan his words would seem. “One of the town's original settlers, here 'bouts, and successful too, he's been. My pa and me, we come later, though.”
And judging from the looks of him, I'd say this man and his pa had not thrived nearly so well, either.
“We are interested in music and wish to meet the Handel of Maine.”
“'Int'ersted,' are ye?” His tone was mocking despite the expression on his face. “Well, then, ye know of old William Billings?” We smiled and nodded as he rambled on, enjoying his bit of fame-by-association. He became nostalgic, saying how his father worked for Billings back in Boston. “But ye'r in luck: thar's the Squire's boy!”
The man he pointed to, walking toward the intersection of his road with ours, was hardly a boy given his stature, much less his confident demeanor, well-dressed by comparison to those others we'd seen. Our would-be friend hailed the young man and got his attention, stepping forward. “These gentlemen be likin' to meet yer pa.”
I noticed a look first of annoyance then displeasure quickly replaced by curiosity as he took in two strangers standing there. Without saying another word, our acquaintance turned and shuffled back up the road.
The young man, clearly among the town's elite, paused, doffing his stove-pipe hat, curiosity now turned into a polite, engaging smile. He wore long pants and a short-trimmed coat, his hair also cut short.
“I am Hiram Belcher, just on my way to my father's house from a day at the office. And you are...?”
The Kapellmeister explained himself as simply as possible without much satisfaction of curiosity – I remained none the wiser regarding his name – as young Belcher turned and asked me if I were a Kapellmeister, too.
“No, sir,” I responded, nodding, “I am only a teacher – I'm from Philadelphia.” The Kapellmeister added he was “lately” of London.
“And here you have traveled all this way just to meet my father? He will most certainly be amazed and delighted! But surely,” he added, glancing around, “where are your horses and your luggage?”
As the Kapellmeister paused momentarily to ponder this predicament, I decided to inspect some of the cat hair on my sweater, following his advice about conversing with locals who might be suspicious of strangers, until he decided upon the excuse we had left them at a farm “down the road” and ultimately chose to walk. Wondering exactly how far “down the road” the nearest farm might be, I had amassed a surprising amount of cat hair before Mr Belcher, who could have been a lawyer, decided to believe him.
Young Belcher invited us to follow him home – “it is not much farther” – so by the time we had gone a short way, he pointed out which house was his, or rather his father's. By modern standards, I wouldn't say it was much but compared to most of those around it, it was fairly impressive.
|Supply Belcher's Homestead (photographed in 1905)|
Mr Belcher (who hadn't invited us to call him anything, much less Hiram) explained when the family moved to the town which was then called only Sandy River Township, he was barely an infant. “My brother Clifford – he's twelve years my senior – tells horrifying stories, moving here in the dead of winter, lucky to survive.” The area was still a frontier town, its pioneering spirit not too distant, becoming a proper town with shops and lawyers. His father had been the first town clerk, and now here he was.
“But as you're musicians, you will have arrived in time for one of our singing evenings when friends and neighbors join, and Father gets out his ancient fiddle to lead our greatly expanded choir.” We approached the house, its windows opened wide, and could hear the hubbub of what sounded like a sizable gathering within.
If the outside of the house was simple, the inside was nearly invisible behind the hoard of people who filled it, occupying every piece of furniture, every bed lining the walls, and floorspace between. Several adults of various ages and dress and youngsters from teens to toddlers were crammed in as if at a concert. We followed behind Hiram who was greeted warmly by several people, including children, a wave of chatter flowing toward the doorway. They greeted both of us just as warmly, assuming we were Hiram's friends.
Since he didn't know what to call us, introductions were initially quite awkward, bringing home two total strangers he'd just met, until an older gentleman, still wearing breeches and stockings, asked us our names.
“He is called 'The Kapellmeister,'” I said, “because his real name is unpronounceable. I am Geoffrey Crayon, a teacher and traveler.”
A young boy was standing in front of me, perhaps a lad of fifteen, barefoot and in homespun shirt and trousers.
“And what are you called,” I asked him.
“Yo,” I said automatically.
Giving me an odd glance, a woman I suspected being his mother came forward and pulled him back into the crowd.
“He's named after my father,” she said, “whom everybody 'round here calls 'Uncle Ply,' so for short we call this'n 'Sup.'”
“And speaking of Father,” Hiram added, “tell him two more musicians have arrived!”
A great fuss rose from the back of the room as heads turned and a cheer went up as a door – I suspected into one of the bedrooms – opened and a white-haired man entered who might be tall compared to his community, clean-shaven like all the rest (except for those young stylish men sporting mustaches). Holding his fiddle aloft, he strode through the crowd which separated for him and spoke with a strong, clear, imposing voice.
“Do I hear tell we've guests – and these two bearded foreigners are musicians?”
The man, his hair long, no longer pulled back in the once-fashionable queue, had steely blue eyes with an intense expression that looked us over in a way I couldn't say approved or not. The room had become severely silent as if awaiting a stern judge's verdict until, breaking into a smile, he cried, “Welcome!”
So this was the great Supply Belcher, singing teacher and composer who put together a volume called The Harmony of Maine yet looked little different than the rest who were largely farmers or merchants. For one of his anthems which strongly resembled the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah, he had been dubbed “The Handel of Maine.”
They certainly revered this man as a musician who brought entertainment and art to their otherwise drab and hard-working frontier lives. But it was as a teacher, magistrate, and father they respected him most.
There were handshakes and greetings shared around the room though I would be hard pressed to recall names after a while, most of us settling for nods and smiles along with some polite chatter. When Squire Belcher asked the Kapellmeister his name again, Young Sup said “He's Mr Unpronounceable,” and others sitting around them laughed.
In the crowd were conflicting styles of dress which might be considered fashionable, the older more out-dated than new-fangled younger ones. Belcher's wife Margaret poured glasses of homemade whiskey or cider for everyone present.
Our host and the Kapellmeister were deeply engaged in conversation; I heard only occasional words, some talk about Bach and Handel. At one point I heard the Kapellmeister turn things toward the compositional craft.
“I wonder what you might tell me about the Ten Commandments of Harmony.”
Belcher practically spat out his whiskey and laughed.
“And what would you know about these commandments, Mr Kapellmeister, that you would wander as far as Maine to ask me?” His tone was slightly menacing despite the smile still evident on his face. “You hardly strike me, given your European knowledge and presumèd expert training, as needing help from the backwood likes of me.”
After disengaging myself from a conversation with one of Belcher's neighbors, I moved closer to them so I could hear better, having recalled Squire Belcher was a local politician and his expression deliberately dubious.
“It is only that, in Boston, after I – or rather, we – recently arrived, there was much subtle talk of such knowledge once associated with the singing master William Billings whom you'd be acquainted with. 'Once hung above the counter in his shop,' one of them told me, apparently a list of 'ready-made' instructions for composers.”
“Now, where would you have heard something like that,” the old squire grinned, eying up the Kapellmeister from head to toe. “Old Bill made a fuss over that bit of malarky for a while. He always knew it was a joke but others, not figuring that out, came miles to copy them out by hand.”
“You're telling me, then,” I said, “this document called Ye Olde Ten Commandments of Harmonie was originally meant as a joke?”
“'Document'? That thing was written out on a cow's hide, befitting a tanner!”
The general conviviality heard across Squire Belcher's parlor ground instantly to a halt like a carriage which regrettably lost a wheel once everyone stopped to hear what had caused the old man to roar.
“And we added that 'Ye Olde' bit to make it sound genuinely archaic, like perhaps it was 'The Word of God'.” There was a ripple of laughter as people agreed how funny that sounded, that anyone could take such a thing seriously. “There were those, alas, thinking we had taken the Lord's Words in vain.”
He explained how, one summer, Andrew Law, one of the finest musicians in New England, traveled through his home town, Stoughton, where Belcher then had a tavern and Billings was holding his singing school. Along with young Danny Read, they'd talk long into the night and came up with an idea regarding Law's latest book.
“We'd already had Dr Law's Art of Singing in Three Parts,” he explained, “and his Rudiments of Music was nearly finished, so, playing on the Good Doctor's name, I thought we needed 'simple laws.' You know, the kind that anyone could follow to create his own music, setting psalms guided by, say, Musical Ten Commandments.”
Billings, then generally regarded as the best known – “which is not to say necessarily the finest” – of our composers, entirely self-trained, expressed himself in rather pompous terms, going on and on about “Nature's laws.”
“He complained how all those 'hard, dry, studied rules' could never enable any person to form an Air of wholesome beauty as anyone scarcely mastering the rules of Grammar would instantly become a poet. Slavishly following such rules as those against consecutive octaves and fifths would 'spoil the Air, crossing the strain that fancy dictated.'”
The joke was to write these commandments in such an Old Testament style, then leave it hidden in such a place as Billings himself would discover it and think it the Word of God, and realize all these years he'd been composing, he had been led astray by his “willful fancy” against God and Nature!
“Such merriment we had crafting it, finding a hide from our local tannery and using the blackest ink we could make, with Danny inscribing it in his beautiful calligraphy: the whole was brilliantly done!”
They rolled it into a tight scroll wrapped with a frayed ribbon Belcher found on one of his grandmother's old dresses, then covered the scroll with dust, placed it in an old wooden crate. “I even found some old cobwebs in my tavern's storage room,” Belcher said, “delicately wrapping them around the scroll and ribbon.” Then one morning he slipped into the rooms where Billings held his classes and left the crate in a dark corner. It took a few days before “natural curiosity” got the better of him.
“Here, I thought I would hear Old Bill laugh clear across the town but we heard not a peep from him, so Daniel went to the school one morning to check on the crate. It was still there, he told me, but it had been pried open and the scroll removed, meaning he'd found it.”
“Or meaning somebody found it,” I said, “perhaps a student in the class who noticed the box hadn't been there before? Someone who might run off to study it and write his own masterpieces?”
“Oh, no, it ended up with Old Bill who left not long afterward, leaving us without a word about his discovery.”
He explained how a friend of his, visiting Boston, told him of this wondrous thing Billings had hanging in his shop. “People were coming from miles around just to look at it and wonder!”
There it hung, Belcher's hands stretching before him to set the scene, this cow-hide with his Ten Commandments inscribed on them, nailed to the wall of Billings' Boston shop where he sold his music. “Thou shalt not commit parallel fifths,” he intoned in his deepest register possible, “nor commit undue leaping unto thy inner voices...”
Squire Belcher was not aware of any impact it had on Billings himself, nor if he knew about the Commandments' origins. Suffice it to say it hung in his shop for several more years.
“But then, business being as bad as it had been during the War, I took my family off on new adventures. We came first to Hallowell, then over a dozen years ago settled here.”
“But you've no idea what Mr Billings did with these Commandments of yours?”
“Why, Mr Kapellmeister, your interest I find intriguing...”
Two strangers, oddly dressed and clearly foreign, appeared in his parlor completely unannounced on this particularly fine summer's evening after dinner and expressed an interest in this joke of his from thirty years ago; how could he not be amused that somehow, somewhere, somebody was still taking seriously what he originally intended as a lark? The good squire's amusement was one thing but I stood back wondering how significant this “Belcher Codex” was thought to be and what this apparent revelation meant to the Kapellmeister and his research project.
There was also the matter of scholarly verification considering the Kapellmeister could not prove this information from a documentable, written source, hardly admitting in 2015 “I interviewed the subject in 1814, and he admitted...” Perhaps he could write this down himself and bring it into the future but wouldn't scientific analysis prove it a forgery?
At this point, Belcher lowered his voice to draw us in as if imparting a secret told in a crowded room once the others resumed previous conversations concerning more mundane events of the day. Mrs. Belcher went about refilling glasses with whiskey as the talk grew louder, while her grandson Sup saw to the cider. This time, regardless of who was driving – if at this point anybody was – I decided opting for the cider was wiser.
“Thank you, Sup,” I said, raising my glass.
The boy smiled. “Yo – sir.”
“Life in Maine was a challenge those first years, and I quickly forgot such silliness as Mr Billings and his commandments. Then I'd heard he had died some ten years after I'd settled here. He'd been a strange man – strange-looking indeed, blind in one eye, a withered arm, one leg shorter – but a great talent.
“But then, oh – maybe five years since – a man who'd worked with Billings set up a tannery of his own here. An odd man himself, name of William Prentiss – said he knew about music.
“Bill Prentiss joined our church, had a pleasant enough tenor voice but was no master,” Belcher said, his voice dropping further. “Then one day he told me he had this 'amazing communication' Billings found. It consisted of various rules of musical composition, all 'lovingly inscribed' on leather as if by the hand of God Hisself!”
Belcher laughed in the man's face, seeing his joke return to haunt him, once Prentiss offered to sell it to him. “Delightful to think 'The Handel of Maine' needs any rules about composing music!”
The Kapellmeister leaned forward, lowering his voice further. “And is it likely this Mr Prentiss still has this... 'communication from God'?”
“He died shortly afterward, went off in the head if he weren't already, fell into his own lime pit one night. They found him the next morning, I heard – not a very pleasant sight...”
The very thought of that, of dying like that, made me draw back, the fine line between either accident or suicide, whether through drunkenness or the effect of his polluted environment on the brain. My imagination brought to mind the Toxic Avenger rising from his chemical grave, giving new meaning to the term “tanning salon.”
“If anyone would know,” the squire confided, “it would be his son, Junior, who's not quite right in the head himself, especially now that the tannery is failing, always desperately in need of money. But I can't see these cow-hide commandments being of any value,” he chuckled, “except for the leather they'd been inscribed on.”
I noticed the look on the Kapellmeister's face, checking hurriedly through his pockets, as he leaned over and whispered to me: “it seems I have lost my tonic screwdriver – which means, friend, we're screwed!”
Hiram Belcher approached us after noticing the panic spreading across my face, interrupting his father to ask if anything was wrong, when I replied how some unexpected concerns had developed about our getting home. The Kapellmeister's raised eyebrow did not go unnoticed as he explained I'd meant “back to the farm where we were staying.”
“And whose farm is that,” the squire asked, “Rufus Titcomb's? Or Johnny Tufts'? I'm sure someone could give you a ride.”
“Thank you – it was further out, I'm afraid; we walked quite a distance.”
“The only homestead in that direction beyond Titcomb's farm is Ebenezer Sweet's tannery; by then you'd be closer to the Falls.”
The Kapellmeister wanted to change the topic. “Yes, just above the Falls. So...” but before he could ask Belcher anything more, someone else said, “You won't make it to Prescott's Mill before dark, now.”
“Well,” Belcher said, looking around, “I'm sure once we've finished our evening, there'll be room for two travelers for the night. Then you can find your way back to your host's in the morning.”
“Besides,” Sup's mother pointed out, “it's not safe at night with Indians about. You'd best stay – we'll find you some space.”
Not knowing what space there could possibly be, we gladly preferred their hospitality compared to running into Indians in the woods. Finally, we could resume the conversation about the whereabouts of Squire Belcher's Commandments.
“Junior complained his father's death was Uncle Ply's fault,” one of the other guests continued, “how he'd been goaded into madness. If you ask me, it's all the time he'd spent in those fumes.” Hiram came over and listened to what was clearly a frequently told story, wondering what Junior might have said to us.
“Yes,” the squire nodded, leaning forward, “you'll want to stay well clear of the likes of Junior Prentiss, mark my words.”
“But Father,” Hiram said, “it was Junior who set them in my direction.”
While the conversation flowed around me, I admit my mind was focused elsewhere, less on our walking back to our imaginary host's farm in the morning than somehow walking back to the 21st Century. Should we excuse ourselves to go search the road while it's still daylight, hoping to find where the Kapellmeister dropped it?
The Kapellmeister nudged my knee, bringing me out of my revery and nodded toward the squire who then repeated his question.
“What did you say your name was, sir? And why are you here?”
“Ah – I'm called Geoffrey Crayon, and I am always fond of visiting new scenes and observing, uhm... unfamiliar characters and manners.”
Again, Squire Belcher laughed and slapped his knee, then reached for his fiddle. A cheer rose up from the surrounding crowd. “That, sir, is nigh poetical, by my fancy, and worth itself a song!”
Belcher held up his fiddle, his bow raised, asking his friends for silence while he closed his eyes to enable concentration. A smile began to play on his lips, his body swaying in rhythm. His amiable face was beaming, a figure made larger than his physical presence.
“I think I have it: tenors, your tune.”
With that, he laid out a brand new piece, created on the spot, first playing a tune that was definitely unhymn-like, to which he sang the words I'd just spoken, one note per syllable, and though the prosody was a bit rough and the phrasing uneven, on the whole it was quite a pleasant tune. To this he added next the basses' version of the tune which wandered to the altos and finally to the sopranos. Adding other lines of countermelody, he had turned my introduction into a fugue.
After working his new tune through its various rounds a few more times, making some corrections or suggestions along the way, Belcher led his performers – also his audience – three times through his fuging tune. It met with general delight and there was applause from the women and cheers from the men asking to repeat it.
And so the squire led his latest piece through two more runs, the Kapellmeister joining in with a rousing tenor voice. I, a largely indifferent bass, apologized that I would much prefer to listen.
“No need for your apologies, good Mr Crayon. Tomorrow, I shall inscribe it with my sharpest quill, doubtless improving it, too.”
“And then definitely publish it,” the Kapellmeister suggested, “including with it your commandments.”
“Bah! Those commandments and such rules were intended for ye of little talent, a manner for beginners' training and no more.”
The music-making continued as “Uncle Ply” led his forces through several hymns and tunes, most requested by members of his choir, until someone suggested singing “Chester,” the famous tune by the famous Mr Billings.
The squire urged a moment of silence “as we are at war again with the British” before giving them their pitch.
“Though I want no discussion of politics to mar this evening,” he added, “first a silent prayer to honor our boys.”
Their performance grew to such intensity, any modern chorister would have been envious.
Even afterward there was silence, despite glances between some and others indicating disagreement: word recently arrived of the British taking Eastport, Hiram quietly explained, the federal government so far giving the locals no support. Recalling my American history, I knew Madison's War was unpopular in New England, some supporting secession to form their own Republic.
Once the singing had resumed, one of Mr Belcher's neighbors, someone named Fairbanks, approached the Kapellmeister to ask him a question: “How be ye dark-skinned like a savage yet not speak like a savage?”
The man seemed more curious than judgmental, such things being outside his experience – after all, what 'diversity' had they seen before? – but regardless there was not the least bit of prejudice in his demeanor.
Another neighbor appeared more concerned our “fantastical garb” might be what “young Macaronis” considered the height of fashion, our beards especially.
After a few more hymns, the singing stopped at least for the moment, everyone now turning their attention to more drink, along with further camaraderie, wandering about to talk with others around the room. Some of the younger gentlemen, mostly farmers and merchants, engaged the Kapellmeister in conversation about what news he had “from abroad.” While the ladies sat politely by the larger central fireplace, their children, especially the younger ones, played hide-and-seek among their skirts. The older boys stood off to one corner, making fun of our beards.
Meanwhile, I was deep in conversation with the squire about one of the newer composers then all the rage in Europe.
“You say his name is Beethoven,” Belcher said. “I've not heard of him.”
I told him about his symphonies and concertos, and Belcher seemed quite impressed.
“But then does he write no choral music?”
“Ah, no, he's written one choral work that...” – I paused, realizing this judgment would be one for the future to make – “I'm sure will become one of the greatest masterpieces for all of time.” Then I started humming a tune – the famous hymn-tune, the “Ode to Joy” – and the squire was much transfixed by it.
Unfortunately, I could not remember all the tune's words in the original German, and so inserted “la la la” as needed. But Belcher soon was humming along after he asked me to repeat it.
“An ode to joy, you say? How delightful,” the old man continued, mumbling (though technically, he was still younger than I), “but perhaps such thoughts might be too heady for us on the frontier. I must come up with different words for this – good, English words, too – a theme too good to waste on German!”
The harmony, he admitted, would be a little static, your basic three-chord chorale, but the tune was superb and easily learned.
“Yes, let us see what I could do with such a tune, myself!”
Picking up his fiddle and bow again, “Uncle Ply” called for everyone's attention and began playing and humming Beethoven's glorious melody. He began forming words to match the tune's rhythms, about fighting Britain's tyrants.
The singers were becoming more and more enthralled as they sang it back.
“Sup, write this down – an Ode to Freedom!”
“What have I done,” I wondered, smiling despite myself, nodding in tempo as Belcher spun out his setting of Beethoven's theme. “Someone, somewhere, is going to have lots of explaining to do,” I laughed. What will future musicologists assume, discovering Belcher's “Ode to Freedom” from 1814, when Beethoven wrote his “Ode to Joy” in 1823?
And then I heard the answering phrase begin “Yankees ever, gath'ring together, we sha-all fight 'gainst num'rous woes,” which led to “Paaa-tri-ots, our band of brothers, driving off all Freee-dom's foes” as it ended.
“We will repeat the tune with a variation, now, ladies – take my lead,” as Belcher's fiddle began to weave a descant full of catchy syncopations with a martial flare and some more sustained notes.
In the midst of this, I noticed Sup frown, glancing toward the window. What could have distracted him from the music?
Outside the window, in the quickly growing dusk, figures marched along the street, led by one in military uniform, saber raised. Somehow, I doubted the police were responding to a complaint about the noise. I tried to get the Kapellmeister's attention, how this might not bode well, when I saw Junior gesturing toward the house.
As one of Belcher's older sons went to the door, the Kapellmeister motioned me toward the kitchen, led by young Sup. A semicircle of several men pointed their muskets at Squire Belcher's front door.
The man we'd met earlier who managed our introduction to Squire Belcher's son stood there beside the officer, his face beaming, as he pointed out our presence toward the back of Belcher's gathered friends, and I saw in that instant the gleaming silver object he held in his hand, slightly larger than a fountain pen. He must have seen the Kapellmeister showing it to me when we arrived, probably even saw us materialize on the road. That wasn't a hug of welcome: Junior picked his pocket and stole it!
“He's got your screwdriver thing, your traveling device,” I whispered at the Kapellmeister.
“I am well aware of that, Mr Crayon.”
“And more to the point, how do you propose to get it back?”
It probably wasn't the time to engage in another round of cordial hugs – “so much for the friendliness of the locals.”
True, everybody at Belcher's house, however curious they were, had been most friendly, not the least bit unneighborly much less suspicious, and seemed even more baffled by the militia's unexpected appearance than we were. There was some quick whispering between the Kapellmeister and the grandson named Sup who whispered to two of the other boys.
The Kapellmeister nodded for me to follow him back through the jostling crowd, the boys clearing a path toward the kitchen. As everyone moved, soldiers pushing their way in, we slipped out the backdoor.
We wasted little time making our escape as the stalwart captain of the Farmington Militia Company announced “information had recently been received regarding two strangers, newly arrived in town, purported to be British spies and how both had been seen of late entering into Squire Belcher's house,” droning on as if reading from a warrant.
As we ran across the field toward the road Sup and his cousins led us to, we heard people shouting, “Spies?!” Then the other boys reluctantly stood back, turned and ran toward the house.
“If too many are missing, we'll be noticed before they realize you've disappeared. They'll think Junior's crazy if you've just vanished. Earlier, you mentioned those commandments written on leather, the ones Junior's father had?”
Sup overheard his grandfather telling Uncle Hiram how Junior tried to sell them.
The Kapellmeister asked, “you know where they are?”
How awkward, I thought, if Junior, through his own stupidity, activated the screwdriver, finding himself suddenly two centuries into the future? Indeed, how awkward for us if we remained behind in the early 19th? Junior did not seem a character who would do well in the future, considering we were equipped to fare no better.
If he stayed in the present – that is the past – we might be able to steal the screwdriver back from him; if not, how would we return to the future – that is, the present?
This, I thought, had “very bad TV situation comedy” written all over it with no resolution in sight regarding our predicament, just week after week of being chased by Yankee militiamen through Maine's backwoods.
With my luck, such a show would no doubt prove a season hit and our contracts would be renewed for eternity...
“Wait,” I said, suddenly realizing we were now running somewhere with a purpose and my lungs were rapidly proving themselves inadequate. “What's going on – shouldn't we be trying to get the screwdriver thing back?”
“Sup's taking us to the Codex: Prentiss must have it at his house,” the Kapellmeister said, hardly challenged by the exertion.
“But I thought you didn't want to take the thing back with you; you know, your rules about time traveling etiquette?”
“I must see it, to prove it exists – before someone else destroys it!”
“Whoa!” I stopped nearly dead in my tracks. “If you take the Codex now, nobody's looking for it in the future.” There was more to say but I had no breath to say it.
“And your point?” The Kapellmeister grabbed me by the arm, pulling me forward. “Come on, we must get to Junior's house.”
Sup ran back, urging us to hurry onward. “We're not going to Junior's. It's his father's old house by the tannery. It's where Junior stores a lot of stuff – nobody'd think to look, there.”
“Yet if everyone knows that, isn't that the most logical place to look?” This was no time to argue, I gathered. The boy was convinced it would be there and so off we went.
“You forget, sir, that Junior is not the sharpest crayon in the box.” The Kapellmeister tapped the side of his head.
There was no one about as the town around us sank into darkness, a pale half moon barely over the horizon. Houses became more distant and more widely separated and occasionally a dog barked. Alerted by their dogs, farmers grabbing muskets fending off burglars were one thing; I was more concerned about running into Indians.
We had reached a stream on our left – Sup called it the river – from here, the Old Prentiss Tannery wasn't far. A road wound through a stretch of forest where it was already dark.
Stopping for breath under a large, spreading tree, the Kapellmeister explained his plan, how we needed a bargaining chip with Junior. “Though the Codex is worthless to a non-musician, it could be worth money.”
“Oh, I get it,” much relieved, “he would want his Ten Commandments back and you'll trade them for your screwdriver thingee.”
Sup laughed and shook his head but then we heard the alarm bell, the signal warning everyone of an impending attack. Word of our escape spread quickly across town and we were not safe.
“Commandments or not,” Sup said, “you'll need to hide out here until morning.”
“Why are you helping us,” I asked him.
“You know too much about music,” he said. “How could you be spies?”
There, before us, stood a genuine haunted house if I ever saw one.
And then I sensed someone – something – behind us.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, October 3rd]
In this video clip, "Wake Ev'ry Breath" is performed by the Down East Singers in 2009 at Blue Hill, Maine's Congregational Church. It will give you an idea how it might have sounded had it been sung in Supply Belcher's home in Farmington, Maine, that summer evening in 1814.
= = = = = = =
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.