The Music Master of Babylon
By EDGAR PANGBORN
Illustrated by KRIGSTEIN
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
What more fitting place for the last man on
Earth to live in than a museum? Now if only
he could avoid becoming an exhibit himself!
For twenty-five years, no one came. In the seventy-sixth year of his life, Brian Van Anda was still trying not to remember a happy boyhood. To do so was irrelevant and dangerous, although every instinct of his old age tempted him to reject the present and dwell in the lost times.
He would recall stubbornly that the present year, for example, was 2096; that he had been born in 2020, seven years after the close of the Civil War, fifty years before the Final War, twenty-five years before the departure of the First Interstellar. (It had never returned, nor had the Second Interstellar. They might be still wandering, trifles of Man-made Stardust.) He would recall his place of birth, New Boston, the fine, planned city far inland from the ancient metropolis that the rising sea had reclaimed after the earthquake of 1994.
Such things, places and dates, were factual props, useful when Brian wanted to impose an external order on the vagueness of his immediate existence. He tried to make sure they became no more than that—to shut away the colors, the poignant sounds, the parks and the playgrounds of New Boston, the known faces (many of them loved), and the later years when he had briefly known a curious intoxication called fame.
It was not necessarily better or wiser to reject those memories, but it was safer, and nowadays Brian was often sufficiently tired, sufficiently conscious of his growing weakness and lonely unimportance, to crave safety as a meadow mouse often craves a burrow.
He tied his canoe to the massive window that for many years had been a port and a doorway. Lounging there with a suspended sense of time, he was hardly aware that he was listening. In a way, all the twenty-five years had been a listening. He watched Earth's patient star sink toward the rim of the forest on the Palisades. At this hour, it was sometimes possible, if the Sun-crimsoned water lay still, to cease grieving too much at the greater stillness.
There was scattered human life elsewhere, he knew—probably a great deal of it. After twenty-five years alone, that, too, often seemed almost irrelevant. At other times than mild evenings, hushed noons or mornings empty of human commotion, Brian might lapse into anger, fight the calm by yelling, resent the swift dying of his echoes. Such moods were brief. A kind of humor remained in him, not to be ruined by sorrow.
He remembered how, ten months or possibly ten years ago, he had encountered a box turtle in a forest clearing, and had shouted at it: "They went thataway!" The turtle's rigidly comic face, fixed by nature in a caricature of startled disapproval, had seemed to point up some truth or other. Brian had hunkered down on the moss and laughed uproariously—until he observed that some of the laughter was weeping.
Today had been rather good. He had killed a deer on the Palisades, and with bow and arrow, thus saving a bullet. Not that he needed to practice such economy. He might live, he supposed, another decade or so at the most. His rifles were in good condition and his hoarded ammunition would easily outlast him. So would the stock of canned and dried food stuffed away in his living quarters. But there was satisfaction in primitive effort and no compulsion to analyze the why of it.
The stored food was more important than the ammunition. A time would come soon enough when he no longer had strength for hunting. He would lose the inclination for trips to cross the river. He would yield to such laziness or timidity for days, then weeks. Some time, when it became months or years, he might find himself too feeble to risk climbing the cliff wall into the forest. He would have the good sense then, he hoped, to destroy the canoe, thus making of his weakness a necessity.
There were books. There was the Hall of Music on the next floor above the water, probably safe from its lessening encroachment. To secure fresh water, he need only keep track of the tides, for the Hudson had cleaned itself and now rolled down sweet from the lonely, uncorrupted hills. His decline could be comfortable. He had provided for it and planned it. Yet gazing now across the sleepy water, seeing a broad-winged hawk circle in freedom above the forest, Brian was aware of the old thought moving in him:
"If I could hear voices—just once, if I could hear human voices...."
The Museum of Human History, with the Hall of Music on what Brian thought of as the second floor, should also outlast his requirements. In the flooded lower floor and basement, the work of slow destruction must be going on. Here and there, the unhurried waters could find their way to steel and make rust of it, for the waterproofing of the concrete was nearly a hundred years old. But it ought to be good for another century or two.
Nowadays the ocean was mild. There were moderate tides, winds no longer destructive. For the last six years, there had been no more of the heavy storms out of the south. In the same period, Brian had noted a rise in the water level of a mere nine inches. The window-sill, his port, was six inches above high-tide mark now.
Perhaps Earth was settling into a new, amiable mood. The climate had become delightful, about like what Brian remembered from a visit to southern Virginia in his childhood.
The last earthquake had come in 2082—a large one, Brian guessed, but its center could not have been close to the rock of Manhattan. The Museum had only shivered and shrugged; it had survived much worse than that, half a dozen times since 1994. After the tremor, a tall wave had thundered in from the south. Its force, like that of others, had mostly been dissipated against the barrier of tumbled rock and steel at the southern end of the submerged island—an undersea dam, Man-made though not Man-intended—and when it reached the Museum, it did no more than smash the southern windows in the Hall of Music, which earlier waves had not been able to reach. Then it passed on up the river, enfeebled. The windows of the lower floor had all been broken long before that.
After the earthquake of '82, Brian had spent a month boarding up all the openings on the south side of the Hall of Music—after all, it was home—with lumber painfully ferried from mainland ruins. That year, he had been sixty-two years old and not moving with the ease of youth: a rough job. He had deliberately left cracks and knotholes. Sunlight sifted through in narrow beams, like the bars of dusty gold Brian could remember in a hayloft at his uncle's farm in Vermont. It was quite pleasant.
The Museum had been built in 2003. Manhattan, strangely enough, had never been bombed, although, in the Civil War, two of the type called "small fission" had fallen on the Brooklyn and Jersey sides—so Brian recalled from the jolly history books that had informed his adolescence that war was definitely a thing of the past.
By the time of the final War, in 2070, the sea, gorged on the melting ice caps, had removed Manhattan Island from history. Everything left standing above the waters south of the Museum had been knocked flat by the tornados of 2057 and 2064. A few blobs of rock still marked where Central Park and Mount Morris Park had been, but they were not significant. Where Long Island once rose, there was a troubled area of shoals and tiny islands, probably a useful barrier of protection for the receding shore of Connecticut.
Men had yielded the great city inch by inch, then foot by foot; a full mile in 2047, saying: "The flood years have passed their peak and a return to normal is expected."
Brian sometimes felt a twinge of sympathy for the Neanderthal experts who must have told each other to expect a return to normal after the Cro-Magnons stopped drifting in.
In 2057, the island of Manhattan had to be yielded altogether. New York City, half-new, half-ancient, sprawled stubborn and enormous upstream, on both sides of a river not done with its anger. But the Museum stood. Aided by sunken rubble of others of its kind, aided also by men because they still had time to love it, the Museum stood, and might for a long time yet—weather permitting.
It covered an acre of ground well north of 125th Street, rising a modest fifteen stories, its foundation secure in that layer of rock which mimics eternity. It deserved its name: here men had brought samples of everything, literally everything known in the course of humanity since prehistory. It was, within human limits, definitive. In its way, considering how much the erosion of time must always steal from scholars, it was perfect.
No one had felt anything unnatural in the refusal of the Directors of the Museum to move the collection after the Museum weathered the storm of 2057. Instead, ordinary people, more than a thousand of them, donated money so that a mighty abutment could be built around the ground floor, a new entrance designed on the north side of the second. The abutment survived the greater tornado of 2064 without damage, although, during those seven years, the sea had risen another eight feet in its old ever-new game of making monkeys out of the wise.
It was left for Brian Van Anda alone, in 2079, to see the waters slide quietly over the abutment, opening the lower regions for the use of fishes and the more secret water-dwellers who like shelter and privacy. In the '90s, Brian suspected the presence of an octopus or two in the vast vague territory which had once been parking lot, heating plant, storage space, air-raid shelter, etc. He couldn't prove it; it just seemed like a comfortable place for an octopus.
In 2070, plans were under consideration for building a new causeway to the Museum from the still expanding city in the north. In 2070, also, the final War began and ended.
When Brian Van Anda came down the river late in 2071, a refugee from certain unfamiliar types of savagery, the Museum was empty of the living. He had spent many days in exhaustive exploration of the building. He did that systematically, toiling at last up to the Directors' meeting room on the top floor. There he observed how they must have been holding a conference at the very time when a new gas was tried out over New York in the north, in a final effort to persuade the Western Federation that Man is the servant of the state and that the end justifies the means.
Too bad, Brian sometimes thought, that he would never know exactly what happened to the Asian Empire. In the little paratroop-invaded area called the Soviet of North America, from which Brian had fled in '71, the official doctrine was that the Asian Empire had won the war and that the saviors of humanity would be flying in any day to take over. Brian had doubted this out loud, and then stolen a boat and got away safely at night.
Up in the meeting room, Brian had seen how that new neurotoxin had been no respecter of persons. An easy death, though—no pain. He observed also how some things survive. The Museum, for instance, was virtually unharmed.
Brian had often recalled those months in the meeting room as a sort of island in time, like the first hour of discovering that he could play Beethoven; or like the curiously cherished, more than life-size half-hour back there in Newburg, in 2071, when he had briefly met and spoken with an incredibly old man, Abraham Brown, President of the Western Federation at the time of the Civil War. Brown, with a loved world in almost total ruin around him, had spoken pleasantly of small things—of chrysanthemums that would soon be blooming in the front yard of the house where he lived with friends, of a piano recital by Van Anda at Ithaca, in 2067, which the old man remembered with warm enthusiasm.
Yes, the Museum Directors had died easily, and now the old innocent bodies would be quite decent. There were no vermin in the Museum. The doorways and floors were tight, the upper windows unbroken.
One of the white-haired men had a Ming vase on his desk. He had not dropped from his chair, but looked as if he had fallen comfortably asleep in front of the vase with his head on his arms. Brian had left the vase untouched, but had taken one other thing, moved by some stirring of his own never-certain philosophy and knowing that he would not return to this room, ever.
Another Director had been opening a wall cabinet when he fell; the small key lay near his fingers. Plainly their discussion had not been concerned only with war, perhaps not at all with war—after all, there were other topics. The Ming vase would have had a part in it. Brian wished he could know what the old man had meant to choose from the cabinet. Sometimes, even now, he dreamed of conversations with that man, in which the Director told him the whole truth about that and other matters; but what was certainty in sleep was in the morning gone like childhood.
For himself, Brian had taken a little image of rock-hard clay, blackened, two-faced, male and female. Prehistoric, or at any rate wholly primitive, unsophisticated, meaningful like the blameless motion of an animal in sunlight, Brian had said: "With your permission, gentlemen." He had closed the cabinet and then, softly, the outer door.
"I'm old," Brian said to the red evening. "Old, a little foolish, talk aloud to myself. I'll have some Mozart before supper."
He transferred the fresh venison from the canoe to a small raft hitched inside the window. He had selected only choice pieces, as much as he could cook and eat in the few days before it spoiled, leaving the rest for the wolves or any other forest scavengers who might need it. There was a rope strung from the window to the marble steps that led to the next floor—home.
It had not been possible to save much from the submerged area, for its treasure was mostly heavy statuary. Through the still water, as he pulled the raft along the rope, the Moses of Michelangelo gazed up at him in tranquility. Other faces watched him. Most of them watched infinity. There were white hands that occasionally borrowed gentle motion from ripples made by the raft.
"I got a deer, Moses," said Brian Van Anda, smiling down in companionship, losing track of time. He carried his juicy burden up the stairway.
His living quarters had once been a cloakroom for Museum attendants. Four close walls gave it a sense of security. A ventilating shaft now served as a chimney for the wood stove Brian had salvaged from a mainland farmhouse. The door could be tightly locked; there were no windows. You do not want windows in a cave.
Outside was the Hall of Music, an entire floor of the Museum, containing an example of every musical instrument that was known or could be reconstructed in the 21st century. The library of scores and recordings lacked nothing—except electricity to play the recordings. A few might still be made to sound on a spring-wound phonograph, but Brian had not bothered with it for years; the springs were rusted.
He sometimes took out the orchestra and chamber music scores, to read at random. Once his mind had been able to furnish ensembles, orchestras, choirs of a sort, but lately the ability had weakened. He remembered a day, possibly a year ago, when his memory refused to give him the sound of oboe and clarinet in unison. He had wandered, peevish, distressed, unreasonably alarmed, among the racks and cases of woodwinds in the collection, knowing that even if the reeds were still good, he could not play them. He had never mastered any instrument except the piano.
"But even if I could play them," he muttered, now tolerantly amused, "I couldn't do it in unison, could I? Ah, the things that will bother a man!"
Brian recalled—it was probably that same day—opening a chest of double basses. There was an old three-stringer in the group, probably from the early 19th century, a trifle fatter than its modern companions. Brian touched its middle string in an idle caress, not intending to make it sound, but it had done so. When in use, it would have been tuned to D; time had slackened the heavy murmur to A or something near it. That had throbbed in the silent room with a sense of finality, a sound such as a programmatic composer—Tchaikovsky, say, or some other in the nadir of torment—might have used as a tonal symbol for the breaking of a heart. It stayed in the air a long time, other instruments whispering a dim response.
"All right, gentlemen," said Brian. "That was your A." He had closed the case, not laughing.
Out in the main part of the hall, a place of honor was given to what may have been the oldest of all instruments, a seven-note marimba of phonolitic schist discovered in Indo-China in the 20th century and thought to be at least 5,000 years of age. The xylophone-type rack was modern; for twenty-five years, Brian had obeyed a compulsion to keep it clear of cobwebs. Sometimes he touched the singing stones, not for amusement, but because there was an obscure comfort in it. Unconcerned with time, they answered even to the light tap of a fingernail.
On the west side of the Hall of Music, a rather long walk from Brian's cave, was a small auditorium. Lectures, recitals, chamber music concerts had been given there in the old days. The pleasant room held a twelve-foot concert grand, made by Steinway in 2043, probably the finest of the many pianos in the Hall of Music.
Brian had done his best to preserve this, setting aside a day each month for the prayerful tuning of it, robbing other pianos in the Museum to provide a reserve supply of strings, oiled and sealed up against rust. No dirt ever collected on the Steinway. When not in use, it was covered with stitched-together sheets. To remove the cover was a sober ritual; Brian always washed his hands with fanatical care before touching the keys.
Some years ago, he had developed the habit of locking the auditorium doors before he played. Even with the doors locked, he would not glance toward the vista of empty seats—not knowing, nor caring much, whether this inhibition had grown from a Stone Age fear of seeing someone there or from a flat, reasonable certainty that no one could be.
The habit might have started (he could not remember precisely) away back in the year 2076, when so many bodies had drifted down from the north on the ebb tides. Full horror had somehow been lacking in the sight of all that floating death. Perhaps it was because Brian had earlier had his fill of horrors; or perhaps, in 2076, he already felt so divorced from his own kind that what happened to them was like the photograph of a war in a distant country.
Some of the bodies had bobbed quite near the Museum. Most of them had the gaping wounds of primitive warfare, but some were oddly discolored—a new pestilence? So there was (or had been) more trouble up there in what was (or had been) the Soviet of North America, a self-styled "nation" that took in east New York State and some of New England.
Yes, that was probably the year when he had started locking the doors between his private concerts and an empty world.
He dumped the venison in his cave. He scrubbed his hands, blue-veined now, but still tough, still knowing Mozart, he thought, and walked—not with much pleasure of anticipation, but more like one externally driven—through the enormous hall that was so full and yet so empty, growing dim with evening, with dust, with age, with loneliness. Music should not be silent.
When the piano was uncovered, Brian delayed. He flexed his hands unnecessarily. He fussed with the candelabrum on the wall, lighting three candles, then blowing out two for economy. He admitted presently that he did not want the serene clarity of Mozart at all right now. This evening, the darkness of 2070 was closer than he had felt it for a long time. It would never have occurred to Mozart, Brian thought, that a world could die. Beethoven could have entertained the idea soberly enough; Chopin probably; even Brahms. Mozart would surely have dismissed it as somebody's bad dream, in poor taste.
Andrew Carr, who lived and died in the latter half of the 20th century, had endured the idea from the beginning of his childhood. The date of Hiroshima was 1945; Carr was born in 1951; the inexhaustible wealth of his music was written between 1969, when he was eighteen, and 1984, when he died in an Egyptian jail from injuries received in a street brawl.
"If not Mozart," said Brian to his idle hands, "there is always The Project."
Playing Carr's last sonata as it should be played—as Carr was supposed to have said he couldn't play it himself—Brian had been thinking of that as The Project for many years. It had begun long before the war, at the time of his triumphs in a civilized world which had been warmly appreciative of the polished interpretive artist, although no more awake than any other age to the creative one. Back there in the undestroyed society, Brian had proposed to program that sonata in the company of works that were older but no greater, and play it—yes, beyond his best, so that even critics would begin to see its importance.
He had never done it, had never felt that he had entered into the sonata and learned the depth of it. Now, when there was none to hear or care, unless maybe the harmless brown spiders in the corners of the auditorium had a taste for music, there was still The Project.
"I hear," Brian said. "I care, and with myself as audience I want to hear it once as it ought to be, a final statement for a world that couldn't live and yet was too good to die."
Technically, of course, he had it. The athletic demands Carr made on the performer were tremendous, but, given technique, there was nothing impossible about them. Anyone capable of concert work could at least play the notes at the required tempos. And any reasonably shrewd pianist could keep track of the dynamics, saving strength for the shattering finale in spite of the thunderings that must come before. Brian had heard the sonata played by others two or three times in the old days—competently. Competency was not enough.
For example, what about the third movement, that mad Scherzo, and the five tiny interludes of sweet quiet scattered through its plunging fury? They were not alike. Related, perhaps, but each one demanded a new climate of heart and mind—tenderness, regret, simple relaxation. Flowers on a flood—no. Warm window-lights in a storm—no. The innocence of an unknowing child in a bombed city—no, not really. Something of all those, but much more, too.
What of the second movement, the Largo, where, in a way, the pattern was reversed, the midnight introspection interrupted by moments of anger, or longing, or despair like that of an angel beating his wings against a prison of glass?
It was, throughout, a work in which something of Carr's life and Carr's temperament had to come into you, whether you dared welcome it or not; otherwise, your playing was no more than a bumbling reproduction of notes on a page.
Carr's life was not for the contemplation of the timid.
The details were superficially well known. The biographies themselves were like musical notation, meaningless without interpretation and insight.
Carr had been a drunken roarer, a young devil-god with such a consuming hunger for life that he had choked to death on it. His friends hated him for the way he drained their lives, loving them to distraction and always loving his work a little more. His enemies must have had times of helplessly adoring him, if only because of an impossible transparent honesty that made him more and less than human.
A rugged Australian, not tall but built like a hero, a face all forehead and jaw and glowing hyperthyroid eyes. He wept only when he was angry, the biographers said. In one minute of talk, they said, he might shift from gutter obscenity to some extreme of altruistic tenderness, and from that to a philosophical comment of the coldest intelligence.
He passed his childhood on a sheep farm, ran away to sea on a freighter at thirteen, studied like a slave in London with a single-minded desperation, even through the horrors of the Pandemic of 1972. He was married twice and twice divorced. He killed a man in an imbecile quarrel on the New Orleans docks, and wrote his First Symphony while he was in jail for that. And he died of stab wounds in a Cairo jail. It all had relevancy. Relevant or not, if the sonata was in your mind, so was the life.
You had to remember also that Andrew Carr was the last of civilization's great composers. No one in the 21st century approached him—they ignored his explorations and carved cherry-stones. He belonged to no school, unless you wanted to imagine a school of music beginning with Bach, taking in perhaps a dozen along the way, and ending with Carr himself. His work was a summary and, in the light of the year 2070, a completion.
Brian was certain he could play the first movement of the sonata acceptably. Technically, it was not revolutionary, but closely loyal to the ancient sonata form. Carr had even written in a conventional double-bar for a repeat of the entire opening statement, something that made late 20th century critics sneer with great satisfaction. It never occurred to them that Carr expected a performer to use his head.
The bright-sorrowful second movement, unfashionably long, with its strange pauses, unforeseen recapitulations, outbursts of savage change—that was where Brian's troubles began. It did not help him to be old, remembering the inner storms of twenty-five years ago and more.
As the single candle fluttered, Brian realized that he had forgotten to lock the door. That troubled him, but he did not rise from the piano chair. He chided himself instead for the foolish neuroses of aloneness—what could it matter?
He shut his eyes. The sonata had long ago been memorized; printed copies were safe somewhere in the library. He played the opening of the first movement, as far as the double-bar; opened his eyes to the friendly black and white of clean keys and played the repetition with new light, new emphasis. Better than usual, he thought.
Now that soaring modulation into A Major that only Carr would have wanted just there in just that sudden way, like the abrupt happening upon shining fields. On toward the climax—I am playing it, I think—through the intricate revelations of development and recapitulation. And the conclusion, lingering, half-humorous, not unlike a Beethoven ending, but with a questioning that was all Andrew Carr.
"No more tonight," said Brian aloud. "Some night, though.... Not competent right now, my friend. Fear's a many-aspect thing. But The Project...."
He replaced the cover on the Steinway and blew out the candle. He had brought no torch, long use having taught his feet every inch of the short journey. It was quite dark. The never-opened western windows of the auditorium were dirty, most of the dirt on the outside, crusted wind-blow salt.
In this partial darkness, something was wrong.
At first Brian could find no source for the faint light, the dim orange with a hint of motion that had no right to be here. He peered into the gloom of the auditorium, fixed his eyes on the oblong of blacker shadow that was the door he meant to use, but it told him nothing.
The windows, of course. He had almost forgotten there were any. The light, hardly deserving the name, was coming through them. But sunset was surely well past; he had been here a long time, delaying and brooding before he played. Sunset should not flicker.
So there was some kind of fire on the mainland. There had been no thunderstorm. How could fire start, over there where no one ever came?
He stumbled a few times, swearing petulantly, locating the doorway again and groping through it into the Hall of Music. The windows out here were just as dirty; no use trying to see through them. There must have been a time when he had enjoyed looking through them.
He stood shivering in the marble silence, trying to remember.
He could not. Time was a gradual eternal dying. Time was a long growth of dirt and ocean salt, sealing in, covering over forever.
He stumbled for his cave, hurrying now, and lit two candles. He left one by the cold stove and used the other to light his way down the stairs to his raft. Once down there, he blew it out, afraid. The room a candle makes in the darkness is a vulnerable room. With no walls, it closes in a blindness. He pulled the raft by the guide-rope, gently, for fear of noise.
He found his canoe tied as he had left it. He poked his white head slowly beyond the sill, staring west.
Merely a bonfire gleaming, reddening the blackness of the cliff.
Brian knew the spot, a ledge almost at water level. At one end of it was the troublesome path he used in climbing up to the forest. Usable driftwood was often there, the supply renewed by the high tides.
"No," Brian said. "Oh, no...."
Unable to accept, or believe, or not believe, he drew his head in, resting his forehead on the coldness of the sill, waiting for dizziness to pass, reason to return. Then rather calm, he once more leaned out over the sill. The fire still shone and was therefore not a disordered dream of old age, but it was dying to a dull rose of embers.
He wondered a little about time. The Museum clocks and watches had stopped long ago; Brian had ceased to want them. A sliver of moon was hanging over the water to the east. He ought to be able to remember the phases, deduce the approximate time from that. But his mind was too tired or distraught to give him the necessary data. Maybe it was somewhere around midnight.
He climbed on the sill and, with grunting effort, lifted the canoe over it to the motionless water inside. Wasted energy, he decided, as soon as that struggle was over. That fire had been lit before daylight passed; whoever lit it would have seen the canoe, might even have been watching Brian himself come home from his hunting. The canoe's disappearance in the night would only rouse further curiosity. But Brian was too exhausted to lift it back.
Why assume that the maker of the bonfire was necessarily hostile? Might be good company.
Brian pulled his raft through the darkness, secured it at the stairway, and groped back to his cave.
He then locked the door. The venison was waiting, the sight and smell of it making him suddenly ravenous. He lit a small fire in the stove, one that he hoped would not be still sending smoke from the ventilator shaft when morning came. He cooked the meat crudely and wolfed it down, all enjoyment gone at the first mouthful.
He was shocked then to discover the dirtiness of his white beard. He hadn't given himself a real bath in—weeks? He searched for scissors and spent an absent-minded while trimming the beard back to shortness. He ought to take some soap—valuable stuff—down to Moses' room and wash.
Clothes, too. People probably still wore them. He had worn none for years, except for sandals and a clout and a carrying satchel for his trips to the mainland. He had enjoyed the freedom at first, and especially the discovery in his rugged fifties that he did not need clothes even for the soft winters, except perhaps a light covering when he slept. Then almost total nakedness had become so natural, it required no thought at all. But the owner of that bonfire—
He checked his rifles. The .22 automatic, an Army model from the 2040s, was the best. The tiny bullets carried a paralytic poison: graze a man's finger and he was painlessly dead in three minutes. Effective range, with telescopic sights, three kilometers; weight, a scant five pounds.
He sat a long time cuddling that triumph of military science, listening for sounds that did not come, wondering often about the unknowable passage of night toward day. Would it be two o'clock?
He wished he could have seen the Satellite, renamed in his mind the Midnight Star, but when he was down there at his port, he had not once looked up at the night sky. Delicate and beautiful, bearing its everlasting freight of men who must have been dead now for twenty-five years and who would be dead a very long time—well, it was better than a clock, Brian often thought, if you happened to look at the midnight sky at the right time of the month when the Man-made star could catch the moonlight. But he had not seen it tonight.
At some time during the long dark, he put the rifle away on the floor. With studied, self-conscious contempt for his own weakness, he strode out noisily into the Hall of Music with a fresh-lit candle. This same bravado, he knew, might dissolve at the first alien noise. While it lasted, though, it was invigorating.
The windows were still black with night. As if the candle-flame had found its own way, Brian was standing by the ancient marimba in the main hall, the light slanting carelessly away from his thin, high-veined hand. Nearby, on a small table, sat the Stone Age clay image he had brought long ago from the Directors' meeting room on the fifteenth floor. It startled him.
He remembered quite clearly how he himself had placed it there, obeying a half-humorous whim: the image and the singing stones were both magnificently older than history, so why shouldn't they live together? Whenever he dusted the marimba, he dusted the image respectfully and its pedestal. It would not have taken much urging from the impulses of a lonely mind, he supposed, to make him place offerings before it and bow down—winking first, of course, to indicate that rituals suitable to two aging gentlemen did not have to be sensible in order to be good.
But now the clay face, recapitulating eternity, startled him. Possibly some flicker of the candle had given it a new mimicry of life.
Though worn with antiquity, it was not deformed. The chipped places were simple honorable scars. The two faces stared mildly from the single head; there were plain stylized lines to represent folded hands, equally artless marks of sex on either side. That was all. The maker might have intended it to be a child's toy or a god.
A wooden hammer of modern make rested on the marimba. Softly, Brian tapped a few of the stones. He struck the shrillest one harder, waking many slow-dying overtones, and laid the hammer down, listening until the last murmur perished and a drop of hot wax hurt his thumb.
He returned to his cave and blew out the candle, thinking of the door, not caring that he had, in irrational bravado, left it unlocked. Face down, he rolled his head and clenched his fingers into his pallet, seeking in pain and finding at last the relief of stormy helpless weeping in the total dark.
Then he slept.
They looked timid. The evidence of it was in their tense squatting pose, not in what the feeble light allowed Brian to see of their faces, which were as blank as rock. Hunched down just inside the open doorway of the cloakroom-cave, a dim morning grayness from the Hall of Music behind them, they were ready for flight. Brian's intelligence warned his body to stay motionless, for readiness for flight could also be readiness for attack. He studied them, lowering his eyelids to a slit. On his pallet well inside the cave, he must be in deep shadow.
They were aware of him, though, keenly aware.
They were very young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, firm-muscled, the man slim but heavy in the shoulders, the girl a fully developed woman. They were dressed alike: loin-cloths of some coarse dull fabric and moccasins that might be deerhide. Their hair grew nearly to the shoulders and was cut off carelessly there, but they were evidently in the habit of combing it. They appeared to be clean. Their complexion, so far as Brian could guess it in the meager light, was the brown of a heavy tan.
With no immediate awareness of emotion, he decided they were beautiful, and then, within his own poised, perilous silence, Brian reminded himself that the young are always beautiful.
Softly—Brian saw no motion of her lips—the woman muttered: "He wake."
A twitch of the man's hand was probably meant to warn her to be quiet. His other hand clutched the shaft of a javelin with a metal blade. Brian saw that the blade had once belonged to a bread-knife; it was polished and shining, lashed to a peeled stick. The javelin trailed, ready for use at a flick of the young man's arm. Brian opened his eyes plainly.
Deliberately, he sighed. "Good morning."
The youth said: "Good morning, sa."
"Where do you come from?"
"Millstone." The young man spoke automatically, but then his facial rigidity dissolved into amazement and some kind of distress. He glanced at his companion, who giggled uneasily.
"The old man pretends to not know," she said, and smiled, and seemed to be waiting for the young man's permission to go on speaking. He did not give it, but she continued: "Sa, the old ones of Millstone are dead." She thrust her hand out and down, flat, a picture of finality, adding with nervous haste: "As the Old Man knows. He who told us to call him Jonas, she who told us to call her Abigail, they are dead. They are still-without-moving for six days. Then we do the burial as they told us. As the Old Man knows."
"But I don't know!" said Brian, and sat up on his pallet, too quickly, startling them. But their motion was backward, readiness for flight, not for aggression. "Millstone? Where is Millstone?"
Both looked wholly bewildered, then dismayed. They stood up with splendid animal grace, stepping backward out of the cave, the girl whispering in the man's ear. Brian caught only two words: "Is angry...."
He jumped up. "Don't go! Please don't go!" He followed them out of the cave, slowly now, aware that he might well be an object of terror in the half-dark, aware of his gaunt, graceless age and dirty hacked-off beard. Almost involuntarily, he adopted something of the flat stilted quality of their speech: "I will not hurt you. Do not go."
They halted. The girl smiled dubiously.
The man said: "We need old ones. They die. He who told us to call him Jonas said, many days in the boat, not with the sun-path, he said, across the sun-path, he said, keeping land on the left hand. We need old ones to speak the—to speak.... The Old Man is angry?"
"No, I am not angry. I am never angry." Brian's mind groped, certain of nothing. No one had come for twenty-five years. Only twenty-five? Millstone?
There was red-gold on the dirty eastern windows of the Hall of Music, a light becoming softness as it slanted down, touching the long rows of cases, the warm brown of an antique spinet, the arrogant clean gold of a 20th century harp, the dull gray of singing stones five thousand years old and a clay face much older than that.
"Millstone?" Brian pointed southwest in inquiry.
The girl nodded, pleased and not at all surprised that he should know, watching him now with a squirrel's stiff curiosity. Hadn't there once been a Millstone River in or near Princeton? He thought he remembered that it emptied into the Raritan Canal. There was some moderately high ground around there. Islands now, no doubt, or—well, perhaps they would tell him.
"There were old people in Millstone," he said, trying for gentle dignity, "and they died. So now you need old ones to take their place."
The girl nodded vigorously. A glance at the young man was full of shyness, possessiveness, maybe some amusement. "He who told us to call him Jonas said no marriage can be without the words of Abraham."
"Abr—" Brian checked himself. If this was religion, it would not do to speak the name Abraham with a rising inflection, at least not until he knew what it stood for. "I have been for a long time—" He checked himself again. A man old, ugly and strange enough to be sacred should never stoop to explain anything.
They were standing by the seven-stone marimba. His hand dropped, his thumbnail clicking by accident against the deepest stone and waking a murmur. The children drew back alarmed.
Brian smiled. "Don't be afraid." He tapped the other stones lightly. "It is only music. It will not hurt you." He was silent a while, and they were patient and respectful, waiting for more light. He asked carefully: "He who told you to call him Jonas, he taught you all the things you know?"
"All things," the boy said, and the girl nodded quickly, so that the soft brownness of her hair tumbled about her face, and she pushed it back in a small human motion as old as the clay image.
"Do you know how old you are?"
They looked blank. Then the girl said: "Oh, summers!" She held up both hands with spread fingers, then one hand. "Three fives. As the Old Man knows."
"I am very old," said Brian. "I know many things. But sometimes I wish to forget, and sometimes I wish to hear what others know, even though I may know it myself."
They looked uncomprehending and greatly impressed. Brian felt a smile on his face and wondered why it should be there. They were nice children. Born ten years after the death of a world. Or twenty perhaps. I think I am seventy-six, but did I drop a decade somewhere and never notice the damn thing?
"He who told you to call him Jonas, he taught you all that you know about Abraham?"
At sound of the name, both of them made swift circular motions, first at the forehead, then at the breast.
"He taught us all things," the young man said. "He, and she who told us to call her Abigail. The hours to rise, to pray, to wash, to eat. The laws for hunting, and I know the Abraham-words for that: Sol-Amra, I take this for my need."
Brian felt lost again, dismally lost, and looked down to the grave clay faces of the image for counsel, and found none. "They who told you to call them Jonas and Abigail, they were the only old ones who lived with you?"
Again that look of bewilderment. "The only ones, sa," the young man said. "As the Old Man knows."
I could never persuade them that, being old, I know very nearly nothing.
Brian straightened to his full gaunt height. The young people were not tall; though stiff and worn with age, Brian knew he was still a bonily overpowering creature. Once, among men, he had mildly enjoyed being more than life-size.
As a shield for the lonely, frightened thing that was his mind, he put on a phony sternness: "I wish to examine you about Millstone and your knowledge of Abraham. How many others are living at Millstone?"
"Two fives, sa," said the boy promptly, "and I who may be called Jonason and this one we may call Paula. Two fives and two. We are the biggest, we two. The others are only children, but he we call Jimi has killed his deer. He sees after them now while we go across the sun-path."
Under Brian's questioning, more of the story came, haltingly, obscured by the young man's conviction that the Old Man already knew everything. Some time, probably in the middle 2080s, Jonas and Abigail (whoever they were) had come on a group of twelve wild children who were keeping alive somehow in a ruined town where their elders had all died. Jonas and Abigail had brought them all to an island they called Millstone.
Jonas and Abigail had come originally from "up across the sun-path"—the boy seemed to mean north—and they had been very old, which might mean anything between thirty and ninety. In teaching the children primitive means of survival, Jonas and Abigail had brought off a brilliant success: Jonason and Paula were well fed, shining with health and cleanliness and the strength of wildness, and their speech had not been learned from the ignorant. Its pronunciation faintly suggested New England, so far as Brian could detect any local accent at all.
"Did they teach you reading and writing?" he asked, and made writing motions on the flat of his palm, which the two watched in vague alarm.
The boy asked: "What is that?"
"Never mind." He thought: I could quarrel with some of your theories, Mister whom I may call Jonas. "Well, tell me now what they taught you of Abraham."
Both made again that circular motion at forehead and breast, and the young man said with the stiffness of recitation: "Abraham was the Son of Heaven, who died that we might live."
The girl, her obligations discharged with the religious gesture, tapped the marimba shyly, fascinated, and drew her finger back sharply, smiling up at Brian in apology for her naughtiness.
"He taught the laws, the everlasting truth of all time," the boy recited, almost gabbling, "and was slain on the wheel at Nuber by the infidels. Therefore, since he died for us, we look up across the sun-path when we pray to Abraham Brown, who will come again."
But I knew him, Brian thought, stunned. I met him once. Nuber? Newburg, the temporary capital of the Soviet of—oh, the hell with that. Met him in 2071—he was 102 years old then, could still walk, speak clearly, even remember an unimportant concert of mine from years before. I could have picked him up in one hand, but nobody was ever more alive. The wheel?
"And when did he die, boy?" Brian asked.
Jonason moved fingers helplessly, embarrassed. "Long, long ago." He glanced up hopefully. "A thousand years? I think he who told us to call him Jonas did not ever teach us that."
"I see. Never mind." Oh, my good Doctor—after all! Artist, statesman, student of ethics, philosopher—you said that if men knew themselves, they would have the beginning of wisdom. Your best teacher was Socrates. Well you knew it, and now look what's happened!
Jonas and Abigail—some visionary pair, Brian supposed, maybe cracking up under the ghastliness of those years. Admirers of Brown, perhaps. Shocked, probably, away from the religions of the 21st century, which had all failed to stop the horrors, nevertheless they needed one, or were convinced that the children did—so they created one. There must later have been some dizzying pride of creation in it, possibly wholehearted belief in themselves, too, as they found the children accepting it, building a ritual life around it.
It was impossible, Brian thought, that Jonas and Abigail could have met the living Abraham Brown. As anyone must who faces the limitations of human intelligence, Brown had accepted mysteries, but he did not make them. He was wholly without intellectual arrogance. No one could have talked with him five minutes without hearing him say tranquilly: "I don't know."
The wheel at Nuber?
Brian realized he could never learn how Brown had actually died. Even if he had the strength and courage to go back north—no, at seventy-six (eighty-six?), one can hardly make a fresh start in the study of history. Not without the patience of Abraham Brown himself, who had probably been doing just that when the wheel—
An awed question from the girl pulled Brian from a black pit of abstraction: "What is that?" She was pointing to the clay image in its dusty sunlight.
Brian spoke vaguely, almost deaf to his own words until they were past recovering: "That? It is very old. Very old and very sacred." She nodded, round-eyed, and stepped back a pace or two. "And that—that was all they taught you of Abraham Brown?"
Astonished, the boy asked: "Is it not enough?"
There is always The Project. "Why, perhaps."
"We know all the prayers, Old Man."
"Yes, I'm sure you do."
"The Old Man will come with us."
"Eh?" There is always The Project. "Come with you?"
"We look for old ones," said the young man. There was a new note in his voice, and the note was impatience. "We traveled many days, up across the sun-path. We want you to speak the Abraham-words for marriage. The Old Ones said we must not mate as the animals do without the words. We want—"
"Marry, of course," said Brian feebly, rubbing his great, long-fingered hand across his face so that the words were blurred and dull. "Naturally. Beget. Replenish the Earth. I'm tired. I don't know any Abraham-words for marriage. Go on and marry. Try again. Try—"
"But the Old Ones said—"
"Wait!" Brian cried. "Wait! Let me think. Did he—he who told you to call him Jonas, did he teach you anything about the world as it was in the old days, before you were born?"
"Before? The Old Man makes fun of us."
"No, no." And since he now had to fight down physical fear as well as confusion, Brian spoke more harshly than he intended: "Answer my question! What do you know of the old days? I was a young man once, do you understand? As young as you. What do you know about the world I lived in?"
Jonason laughed. There was new-born doubt in him as well as anger, stiffening his shoulders, narrowing his innocent gray eyes. "There was always the world," he said, "ever since God made it a thousand years ago."
"Was there? I was a musician. Do you know what a musician is?"
The young man shook his head, watching Brian—too alertly, watching his hands, aware of him in a new way, no longer humble. Paula sensed the tension and did not like it.
She said worriedly, politely: "We forget some of the things they taught us, sa. They were Old Ones. Most of the days, they were away from us in—places where we were not to go, praying. Old Ones are always praying."
"I will hear this Old Man pray," said Jonason. The butt of the javelin rested against Jonason's foot, the blade swaying from side to side. A wrong word, any trifle, Brian knew, could make them decide in an instant that he was evil and not sacred. Their religion would certainly require a devil.
He thought also: Merely one of the many ways of dying. It would be swift, which is always a consideration.
"Certainly you may hear me pray," said Brian abruptly. "Come this way." In a fluctuating despair, he knew that he must not become angry, as a climber stumbling at the edge of a cliff might order himself not to be careless. "Come this way. My prayers—I'll show you. I'll show you what I did when I was a young man in a world you never knew."
He stalked across the Hall of Music, not looking behind, but his back sensed every glint of light on that bread-knife javelin.
"Come this way!" he shouted. "Come in here!" He flung open the door of the auditorium and strode up on the platform. "Sit down over there and be quiet!"
They did, he thought—he could not look at them. He knew he was muttering, too, between his noisy outbursts, as he snatched the cover off the Steinway and raised the lid, muttering bits and fragments from old times, and from the new times.
"They went thataway. Oh, Mr. Van Anda, it just simply goes right through me; I can't express it. Madam, such was my intention—or, as Brahms is supposed to have said on a slightly different subject, any ass knows that. Brio, Rubato and Schmalz went to sea in a—Jonason, Paula, this is a piano. It will not hurt you. Sit there, be quiet, listen."
He found calm. Now if ever, now when I have living proof that human nature (some sort of human nature) is continuing—surely now, if ever, The Project—
With the sudden authority that was natural to him, Andrew Carr took over. In the stupendous opening chords of the introduction, Brian very nearly forgot his audience. Not quite, though. The youngsters had sat down out there in the dusty region where none but ghosts had lingered for twenty-five years or more. The piano's first sound brought them to their feet. Brian played through the first four bars, piling the chords like mountains, then held the last one with the pedal and waved his right hand at Jonason and Paula in a furious downward motion.
He thought they understood. He thought he saw them sit down again, but he could pay them scant attention now, for the sonata was coming alive under his fingers, waking, growing, rejoicing.
He did not forget the youngsters again. They were important, terrifying, too important, at the fringe of awareness. But he could not look at them any more. He shut his eyes.
He had never played like this in the flood of his prime, in the old days, before great audiences that loved him. Never.
His eyes were still closed, holding him secure in a secret world that was not all darkness, when he ended the first movement, paused very briefly, and moved on with complete assurance to explore the depth and height of the second. This was a true statement at last. This was Andrew Carr; he lived, even if, after this late morning, he might never live again.
And now the third, the storm and the wrath, the interludes of calm, the anger, denials, affirmations. Was there anything he didn't know, this heir of three centuries who died in jail?
Without hesitation, without any awareness of self, of age or pain or danger or loss, Brian was entering on the broad reaches of the last movement when he opened his eyes.
The youngsters were gone.
Well, he thought, it's too big. It frightened them away. He could visualize them, stealing out with backward looks of panic. Incomprehensible thunder. But he could not think much about them now. Not while Andrew Carr was with him. He played on with the same assurance, the same joyful sense of victory. Savages—let them go, with leave and good will.
Some external sound was faintly troubling him, something that must have begun under cover of these rising, pealing octave passages—storm waves, each higher than the last, until it seemed that even a superhuman swimmer must be exhausted. An undefinable alien noise, a kind of humming.
Brian shook his head peevishly, shutting it away. It couldn't matter, at least not now. Everything was here, in the beautiful labors his hands still had to do. The waves were growing more quiet, settling, subsiding, and now he must play those curious arpeggios which he had never quite understood—but, of course, he understood them at last. Rip them out of the piano like showers of sparks, like distant lightnings moving farther off across a world that could never be at rest.
The final theme. Why, it was a variation—and how was it that he had never realized it?—a variation on a theme of Brahms, from the German Requiem. Quite plain, quite simple, and Brahms would have approved. Still it was rather strange, Brian thought, that he had never made the identification before in spite of all his study. Well, he knew it now.
Blessed are the dead....
Yes, Brian thought, but something more remained, and he searched for it, proudly certain of discovering it, through the mighty unfolding of the finale. No hurrying, no crashing impatience any more, but a moving through time with no fear of time, through radiance and darkness with no fear of either. Andrew Carr was happy, the light of the Sun on his shoulders.
That they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow after them.
Brian stood up, swaying and out of breath. So the music was over, and the young savages were gone, and somewhere a jangling, humming confusion was filling the Hall of Music, distant, but entering with violence even here, now that the piano was silent. Brian moved stiffly out of the auditorium, more or less knowing what he would find.
The noise was immense, the unchecked overtones of the marimba fuming and quivering as the high ceiling of the Hall of Music caught and twisted them, flung them back against the answering strings of harps and pianos and violins, the sulky membranes of drums, the nervous brass of cymbals.
The girl was playing it. Really playing it.
Brian laughed once, softly, in the shadows, and was not heard. She had hit on a most primeval rhythm natural for children or savages and needed nothing else, hammering it out swiftly on one stone and then the next, wanting no rest or variation.
The boy was dancing, slapping his feet, pounding his chest, thrusting out his javelin in perfect time to the clamor, edging up to his companion, grimacing, drawing back to return. Neither was laughing or close to laughter. Their faces were savage-solemn, downright grim with the excitement, the innocent lust, as spontaneous as the drumming of partridges.
It was a while before they saw Brian in the shadows.
The girl dropped the hammer. The boy froze briefly, his javelin raised, then jerked his head slightly at Paula, who snatched at something. Only moments later did Brian realize that she had taken the clay image before she fled. Jonason covered her retreat, stepping backward, his face blank with fear and readiness, javelin poised. So swiftly, so easily, by grace of a few wrong words and Steinway's best, had a Sacred Old One become a Bad Old One, an evil spirit.
They were gone, down the stairway, leaving the echo of Brian's voice crying: "Don't go! Please don't go! I beg you!"
Brian followed them unwillingly. It was a measure of his unwillingness that moments passed before he was at the bottom of the stairway looking across the shut-in water to his raft, which they had used and left at the window-sill port. Brian had never been a good swimmer; he was too dizzy now and short of breath to attempt to reach it.
He clutched the rope and hitched himself, panting, hand over hand, to the window, collapsing there a while until he found strength to scramble into his canoe and grope for the paddle. The youngsters' canoe was already far off, heading up the river, the boy paddling with deep powerful strokes.
Up the river, of course. They had to find the right kind of Old Ones. Up across the sun-path.
Brian dug his blade in the quiet water. For a time, his rugged ancient muscles were willing. There was sap in them yet. Perhaps he was gaining slightly.
He shouted hugely: "Bring back my two-faced god! Bring it back! It's not yours. It's not yours!"
They must have heard his voice booming at them. At any rate, the girl looked back once. The boy, intent on his effort, did not.
Brian roared: "Bring back my god! I want my little god!"
He was not gaining on them. They had a mission, after all. They had to find the right kind of Old Ones. But damn it, Brian thought, my world has some rights, hasn't it? We'll see about this.
He lifted the paddle like a spear and flung it, knowing even before his shoulder winced how absurd the gesture was. The youngsters were so far away that even an arrow from a bow might not have reached them.
The paddle splashed in the water. Not far away: a small infinity. It swung about to the will of the river, the heavy end pointing, obediently downstream. It nuzzled companionably against a gray-faced chunk of driftwood, diverting it, so that presently the driftwood floated into Brian's reach.
He caught it, and flung it toward the paddle, hoping it might fall on the other side and send the paddle near him. It fell short, and in his oddly painless extremity, Brian was not surprised, but merely watched the gray driftwood floating and bobbing along beside him with an irritation that was part friendliness, for it suggested the face of a music critic he had met in—New Boston, was it? Denver? London? He couldn't remember.
"Why," he said aloud, detachedly observing the passage of his canoe beyond the broad morning shadow of the Museum of Human History, "I seem to have made sure to die."
"Mr. Van Anda has abundantly demonstrated a mastery of the instrument and of the—" You acid fraud, go play solfeggio on your linotype! Don't bother me!—"and of the literature which could, without exaggeration, be termed beyond technique. He is one of those rare interpreters who at the last analysis—"
"I can't swim it, you know," said Brian.
"—have so deeply submerged, dedicated themselves, that they might truly be said to have become one with—" Gaining on the canoe, the gray-faced chip moved tranquilly, placidly approving, toward the open sea. And with a final remnant of strength, Brian inched forward to the bow of the canoe and gathered the full force of his lungs to shout up the river: "Go in peace!"
They could not have heard him. They were too far away and a new morning wind was blowing, fresh and sweet, out of the northwest.