The Music Master of Babylon - Cover

The Music Master of Babylon

by Edgar Pangborn

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: 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!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

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.

After that--

“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.

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