the lost harpsichord

John Bellairs
October 17, 1958, Scholastic #3

A little while ago, much to my surprise, I discovered a letter imbedded in the dust of my mailbox. So, with a deft blow of a cold chisel, I removed the rust-clogged lock and examined my "surprise." Inside was a neat bit of office stationery, with the letterhead in Old English type reading, "Office of Student Accounts" and in the middle of the page this entry:

Harpsichord lessons: $42.03

Below this was a notice which many may recognize as Form Z23069-K, or Courteous Reminder with Thinly Veiled Threat. Now, as far as I know, my last encounter with a keyboard instrument (except a typewriter) was in the sixth grade, when it was discovered that I was unable to do anything other than find "middle C" after two years of intense study. This bill seemed about as likely as one for a phone call to the Cape Verde Islands, or so I thought. At any rate, I headed for the Main Building, armed with a Student Manual, a box of candy, and a copy of Griswold's "Book of Snappy Comebacks for All Occasions."

When I got to the office in question, I was detained in an anteroom for about an hour and a half, until a secretary ushered me into an office, which was decorated with a large faded mural of the Cathedral of Burgos. The young man behind the desk looked up from the pencil he was sharpening and said: "Well?"

I informed him of the bill, which I offered for his scrutiny, and assured him that the harpsichord and I were total strangers. He scanned the letter, resumed his pencil-sharpening, and said suspiciously:

"Have you ever played an instrument that looked like a harpsichord?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Well, can you prove that you haven't?

I thought about this for a while, then decided that very few of my friends would testify to my non-harpsichord-playing without snickering. Meanwhile, the young man began to lecture me on the penalties for falsifying records and on the efficient procedure I was disrupting. My gaze fell upon a Bible on a lectern, on which I was willing to swear that I came from a long line of unmusical people. I was about to suggest that I do this, when he said: "Perhaps you could demonstrate your inability to play this instrument. Can you?"

I played with this suggestion, such as it was, for a few minutes, then asked if it might be proved that there was no harpsichord on campus. He seemed impressed by this idea, and walked to a huge bank of files which seemed to contain records of University property. He observed that there was a record of a harpsichord purchased in 1884, which had been stored on the fourth floor of the Main Building for the last thirty years. After some more shuffling of papers, he remarked: "There are pianos here. Perhaps one of them is a harpsichord."

This reply left me at a temporary loss. He began to lecture again, and my thoughts shifted from the Bible to a large ornamental letter-opener, in the shape of a scimitar, which lay on the desk. Perhaps it wasn't really sharp, though. At length, this person produced the original bill for the lessons. It was written on a piece of coarse manila paper, and looked as though it had been left to soak for several days in a vat of pickle brine. The cost was barely legible on the bill, and the signature, written in smudged pencil, looked like Jmmm L. Bmmmmmn. (The linotypist will doubtless leave out an "m" somewhere. This is not my fault.)

"This is probably not my name," I said.

"Stuff and nonsense," said he, "But I will dismiss the matter if you will sign a few forms."

This consisted of writing my name and student number on fifteen papers of different colors. When I had finished, he remarked, observing the papers I had signed:

"Aren't they pretty? Just like autumn in their multi-colored grandeur."

By this time I was half way out the door. He began to mutter something about an unpaid bill for a linotype machine, but I didn't stay to listen. Sometimes this sort of thing gets out of hand.

FASCINATING REGULATIONS DEPT.

A sweating and mud-caked messenger recently arrived at my room clutching an important communiqué concerning the regulations which will govern the Sorin Saturday Bacchanalia in the future. At present, these rules are being engraved on a brass plate which will be attached to the Sorin porch. Meanwhile, however, I will set them down in this column for your admiration:

RULE I. All wind instruments of brass, gold, or polystyrene shall be banned. As for stringed instruments, only the three-stringed lute, the balalaika, and the dulcimer shall be permissible, except between 1300-1450 (Greenwich Mean Time), when the lower three octaves of the piano may be heard. Percussion instruments are banned altogether, unless muffled so that they do not exceed 35 decibels.

RULE II. Concerning the music to be played upon the aforementioned instruments and sung in accompaniment with them: Certain songs, because of their lyrics, shall be prohibited. Among these are: "The Ship Caulker's Lament," "The Dying Itinerant Chimneysweep's Song to His Somewhat Disgruntled Admirers," and the "Wreck of the H.M.S. Disconsolate off the coast of Van Diemen's Land."

RULE III. Pertaining to Costume: Students may wear blazers with stripes running horizontally, but certainly not vertically. Forbidden are Tyrolean hats, baggy knickers, and leather jerkins, except when worn with sequins in non-subversive colors.

RULE IV. There will be no public flogging, ridiculing, or burning in effigy of student government officials, except with permission of the one being flogged, ridiculed, or burned.

RULE V. No student shall set fire to a spectator or to the porch, or, at least, he shall not brag about it.

RULE VI. No one named Charlie Bowen shall be allowed to be on the porch at all, except to sell pennants and windshield stickers.

Anyone violating any of the above rules shall be made to sit in the stadium with his back to the field during the games. This will contribute to de-emphasis in sports.

SPORTS DEPT.

Now that Frisbie (one of 14 accepted spellings) seems to be about as popular as 15-man rugby, there is need for new diversion to keep the students from their work. I will suggest a few, or as many as will fill the rest of this column.

Kick-the Can. This can be quite amusing, especially when played on the grass in the middle of the main quadrangle. The ensuing race between the players and the ID-seeking policeman can be almost as much fun as the game itself.

Pick-up-Sticks. This game has the advantage of being originally intended for children of ages 3-7, as was Frisbie. As an added refinement, the sticks may be sharpened and dipped in curare, for use against unruly players.

Ukrainian Hockey. This is played upon a hexagonal field, by two teams. One team is dressed in khakis and T-shirts, the other in suits and ties. At each vertex of the hexagon is a pocket, and they are numbered from on to six, with a zero-pocket in the center of the field. The object of the game is to kick a skull into one of the pockets, or to keep it out, depending on the team you are on. A great game for student-faculty teams.


Commentary

Charles Bowen does not recall whether Bellairs actually did receive a misdirected bill for music lessons; "it's quite possible, though it certainly wouldn't have been for harpsichord lessons. His satire on university bureaucracy is effective, in that it targets three characteristics most of us came to be familiar with: clumsiness (sending the bill to the wrong person), needless complication (all those multicolored forms), and the presumption that the student is always wrong."

"While 'bacchanalia' would definitely be an exaggeration, the Sorin porch was a popular place to hang out and would particularly come to life on a home football Saturday, when it would generally sport a Dixieland band and a cheering section," says Myers, who says that a grill on the sidewalk in front of the hall was fired up to sell sausages to the football crowd. Bowen notes that John's "fascinating regulations" refer to these mini-pep rallies staged before the game. "They attracted some criticism from censorious souls (see my comments on my November 21 column). It's too bad John's regulations weren't put into effect, at least as a one-time experiment. It would have been a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill hoopla."

Myers describes the rest of the article as pure Bellairsian invention, though certain (phony) songs mentioned, "The Ship Caulker's Lament" et al., are indicative of Bellairs' love of folksongs, particularly of the macabre variety.

"Notre Dame changed a lot in the sixties (as I know from my younger brother's experience there), but in the fifties its administration was still in the grip of attitudes more appropriate to a bygone day," explins Bowen. "Students were regarded as mischief-bent ragamuffins who needed to be watched closely and disciplined firmly in order to prepare them to take their place in the world as responsible Catholic laymen - that is, in every respect their attitudes and values should conform as closely as possible to those of the Holy Cross Fathers, many of whom had been in seminary since the age of 13. I'm not really making that up, nor is it (entirely) based on dyspeptic analysis of experience. We were constantly bombarded with pamphlets (such as the weekly Religious Bulletin) and sermons that quite explicitly expressed this point of view. In fact, many students bought into it, and it wasn't uncommon to hear a student say, as if it were something to brag about, that Notre Dame students were subject to a degree of discipline unknown in American higher education outside of the military academies."

"Also, Treading on the grass on the main quadrangle (directly in front of Sorin Hall and facing the Sacred Heart Church and the Main Building) was strictly forbidden. Campus policemen would actually confiscate the ID cards of students caught frolicking there and turn them over to the Dean of Students for appropriate action. This happened to me once, when, on a lovely spring day in my senior year, I yielded to the impulse to toss a frisbee. There was no other grass in the vicinity, though, in back of Sorin Hall, there was a humongous asphalted lot surrounded by basketball hoops. It is typical of ND administrative thinking that this was considered a sufficient and appropriate venue in which students might disport themselves, and all grass-covered areas were, as far as I can recall, verboten, except some fields peripheral to the campus (and a good hike from Sorin) that were used for physical education classes and intramural sports. I was lucky that time I was busted. Frisbee was a novelty at the time, and when I reported as directed to Father Leonard, the Dean of Students, he looked at me and asked somewhat disbelievingly, 'The object of this game is just to throw this thing and catch it? That's all there is to it?' I admitted that this was true, and he sighed, expressing untold depths of world-weary contempt, and handed back my card. I would have been less lucky had I faced his formidable predecessor, Father McAuliffe, known to the students as 'Black Mac.' His title had been not Dean of Students but (following ancient Notre Dame tradition) Prefect of Discipline. With Leonard's succession to the job, the title was changed to something more befitting a 20th century university."