Test Of Time

by J.Z.A. Wallis

After the death last year of noted Oxford historian Archibald Houghton, his longtime friend and colleague Prof. Laurentz shared that in the 1990s, the late Houghton had told her a story about a letter he’d discovered while researching his seminal work on the English Restoration.

The letter was supposedly written by Sir Henry Carter to his son in 1677, and Houghton claimed that it related an event that occurred at the court of Charles II. The king had, according to Sir Henry, been pleased to receive a certain visitor: a mysterious oriental magician and purveyor of exotic arcana who called himself the Great Nouzari. The merry monarch and his courtiers were shown certain remarkable items from Nouzari’s collection, including those of natural history, alchemical invention or mechanical genius.

But the jewel of the exhibition was musical in nature. It was a small chest built with materials unknown to the natural world and, the visitor claimed, it contained genies ensorcelled by King Solomon himself, in such a way that the hand-sized object could produce musical sound without any kind of instrument.

Indeed, the magus activated the box with nothing but a press of his finger, and all present exclaimed to hear the most astonishing aural phantasm that arose at once from no clear source. The music was quite unlike any known to the court; it comprised unimaginable sounds producing tremendous mood and feeling. Though it lasted only a few minutes, it created the greatest sensation for many weeks. Yet the Great Nouzari could not be prevailed upon to repeat the performance, and after receiving his commission, he departed at once.

Sir Henry then claimed that he had instructed his manservant to approach his counterparts among the magician’s retinue, and win from them a fuller account of the inexplicable music’s provenance. The box, he thus learned, came from the city of Alexandria in Egypt, where it had been gifted to Nouzari from a poor but noble family whose child’s life had been saved by his spells. These humble people claimed the musical device as an heirloom from the ancient temples of the pharaohs.

There was in Alexandria a legend attached to this ancient music, quite different from that of Solomon’s genies. According to this second tale, the box had been made by angels from a heavenly plane. One of these, entering the mortal world in the earliest days of the Egyptian dynasties, had brought the object with her, claiming it contained the music not of the gods or genies, but of man: music that man would create at some distant time yet to come, when the Day of Judgement neared. For the angel was a traveler in time, a scholar who sought to study man in all his different epochs. This music, she said, would be composed by a great queen of that far-off time whose name the glyphs rendered as BAY-YON-SAY.

So moved were the priests and pharaohs by the music, that they lost themselves to a species of obsession, and when the angel attempted to withdraw with her heavenly box, they seized her and kept her prisoner, in which state she soon withered and died. Such was the madness that then gripped the kingdom that blood ran in the palace. The nobles fought each other to possess the music, soon bringing the downfall of a centuries-long dynasty. Finally, the box was smuggled away by cooler minds, and sealed in a special tomb, long guarded by the family that the Great Nouzari much later encountered in Alexandria.

This tale both Nouzari and Sir Henry regarded with mistrust, yet there was no denying the wondrous effect that the music had produced from but a single performance for the English king. It was said that a great many natural-born children were conceived at court that night. Both the magician and his treasures were lost in a terrible storm at sea the following week, averting any calamity from the dangerous music’s exhibition at who knows what new venues. And yet perhaps the legend he brought from Alexandria, via Sir Henry, the late Doctor Houghton and his colleague Prof. Laurentz, thus completed the music’s temporal circuit, as it were: passing, in this observer’s humble opinion, the first true test of time.



J.Z.A. Wallis is a writer, editor, and Wikipedia addict based in London, and the author of The Evocation of Souls.

Philosophy Note:

The effect of modern culture on the ancient past is something that has been under-explored in time-travel fiction, and strikes me as an interesting way to illustrate the unchanging elements of human nature despite great fluctuations in cultural expression.

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