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Chapter 13: “Ring the Bell!”

Heather Hopp-Bruce and Ulrike Welsch/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe


Chapter Thirteen

“The Mechanic” is a novella by best-selling author Ben Mezrich. The fictional work will publish exclusively on BostonGlobe.com over the next two weeks. Read more about this book at globe.com/themechanic. Sign up to be alerted when the next installment goes live here.

The moment Adrian stepped through the doorway of King’s Chapel he found himself transported backward 250 years. He quickly worked his way by the enclosed pews — wooden booths containing red cushioned benches and walls, separated from the aisle by hinged doors — heading toward the front of the prayer hall, which was well-lit by arched windows and a magnificent central chandelier. The tourists around Adrian seemed most excited by the pews; in the Revolutionary era, wealthy families would purchase the enclosed real estate, passing the velvety cubicles down from generation to generation. But Adrian’s focus remained elsewhere. Not on the raised minister’s perch, or the massive C.B. Fisk organ that took up the back balcony — King’s Chapel’s sixth, installed in the mid-1960s. Adrian hadn’t come to the church for religion or music; he was there searching for answers.

It took him more time than he would have liked to navigate past the tourists and families milling in the aisles, but eventually he arrived at his destination, the roped-off entrance to the stone stairwell leading up to the church’s bell room. The man standing on the other side of the velvet rope acknowledged Adrian with little more than a nod. The man’s first name was Alvin, and that was one of two important things Adrian knew about him, other than that he was one of the half-dozen caretakers of the church’s grounds. They’d met twice before on previous visits; it was during the second of these, when Adrian had wanted a private tour of the vast catacombs beneath the church, that he had discovered the second fact: Alvin was paid by the hour and wasn’t paid much. Fifty dollars was enough to get him to do most anything you wanted.

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Today, Adrian wasn’t interested in digging through catacombs. Once he showed Alvin the $50 he had stashed in the front pocket of his cycling pants, the groundskeeper unclasped the velvet rope and ushered him into the stairwell.

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“Hurry up, professor. There’s a guided bell tour in 20 minutes, so we’ve got to be quick.”

The stairwell was narrow and dark, and felt a century older than the rest of the church interior. The walls were stone, the steps wooden. Adrian had to move carefully not to trip over himself as he rushed to keep up with Alvin. A handful of narrow twists, and then they reached the top where the stairwell opened into a small room with slatted windows and more stone walls.

In the center of the room was the biggest bell Adrian had ever seen in person, hanging in a rusting, iron frame, attached to a circular wooden mechanism with a heavy rope leading downward, through the floor, into the church proper. Even in the near darkness, the bell was impressive, more so because Adrian knew the details. Over 4 feet in diameter, weighing 2,500 pounds, when it rang it could be heard throughout the city. Etched across the top, in clear letters, the name of the man who’d cast and delivered it: Revere.

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“He called it the ‘sweetest bell he ever made’,” Alvin said, as they stood in front of the bell. “Died two years after it was hung.”

Adrian didn’t respond. He knew more about Revere, and by extension, this bell, than this church groundskeeper could learn in a lifetime. The bell in front of them had indeed been cast by Paul Revere, and hung in King’s Chapel two years before Revere died, at 83. Although the date carved into the bell, near Revere’s name, was the date it was delivered and hung, 1816, Revere had begun molding and casting it two years earlier, when he’d first gotten the order from the church, whose original bell had cracked. In 1814.

“His last one,” Alvin continued. “He made 300 of them. Some say he became obsessed with making bells late in life. Had a heck of a business in copper, cannons, armaments, silver, engravings. But all he seemed to care about as he got older were the bells. Kept on making ‘em, until this one.”

Adrian was hardly listening to the man. He knew what the textbooks said about the bell in King’s Chapel, that it was Revere’s last and most impressive. What was written in textbooks and most history books didn’t matter to Adrian. Most textbooks were flawed, only as valuable as the reputations of those that had penned them. And most people who wrote history were flawed as well, spending their careers in pursuit of elusive acclaim.

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Men like Charles. And yet, sometimes even the flawed and foolish found themselves struck by intellectual lightning.

Adrian reached into his backpack, this time beneath the manila folder, and retrieved a small but heavy electronic device, about the size of a hardcover book. It had a screen on one side next to a panel of knobs and buttons. He had been careful during the 6-mile ride from Medford not to hit any potholes or bumps that might damage the thing; Professor Vladimir Gregor, one of the heads of the Electrical Engineering Department at Tufts, had assured him it was much more expensive than it looked.

Gregor had been surprisingly helpful when Adrian visited him in his engineering lab earlier that day, even though Adrian had done his best to hold back as much information as he could. Not because he didn’t trust Gregor, who was one of the few members of the faculty Adrian found serious enough to call a friend. But precisely because Gregor shared his sensibilities, and might very well have laughed him right out of the engineering lab if he’d known the full, absurd-sounding truth.

Adrian had shown Gregor the engraving, which was unavoidable — and Gregor had only needed to look at the picture for a moment before he’d actually gotten excited. The wine glasses, he’d exclaimed, lined up like that in front of the bell you see what they are, don’t you? And then he’d explained: The wine glasses were an ingenious if primitive version of the device that Adrian now held in his hands.

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“What the hell is that?” Alvin asked. “You’re not going to damage the bell, are you? Because that’s gonna cost you way more than 50 bucks.”

“I’m not going to damage it. I’m just going to measure it. This is a spectrum analyzer. It measures sounds — tonal frequency, lengths of acoustic waves. Creates a pattern that can be understood mathematically.”

Adrian was saying words he barely understood himself. But Gregor had been sure. In the engraving, Paul Revere had set up the wine glasses to measure the waves of sound coming off of the bell. Although when a bell was rung, the human ear translated the varying frequencies given off by the curvature of the metal as a single tone, the math behind what one was hearing was much more complex. Rising and falling sine curves representing the frequency of the sound waves.

In the engraving, Gregor had explained, the surface of the wine in the glasses would have rippled because of those waves. Where each wine glass was positioned, combined with how much liquid was in each one and the shape of the glasses themselves, would capture those waves differently, giving you a surprisingly precise measure of the length of the waves. The distance between each ripple could be calculated, and with that information, you could reconstruct the sound you were hearing mathematically. At least you could if you were brilliant at such things, like Gregor — or Paul Revere.

The numbers beneath the glasses represented Revere’s calculations based on the readings from the ripples in the wine. Those numbers, in that particular sequence, gave you the mathematical signature of a specific “tone” — the sound emanating from the bell. According to Charles’s paper, Revere had been experimenting his way to a particular tone: a tone with, as insane as it sounded, world-changing ramifications. According to the paper, it had taken Revere 300 bells to get it right, but with his last bell, he had succeeded. Achieved the impossible, made a bell whose tone could ... it was so insane, impossible, Adrian couldn’t even put the thought into words.

Gregor had been able to calibrate the device that Adrian was now holding with the data Revere recorded. Which meant that, over 200 years after Revere had hung his sweetest bell, Adrian was about to conduct the very same experiment pictured in the engraving.

“Ring it,” Adrian said. Alvin looked at him.

“You’re kidding, right? That bell gets rung three times a week. Sundays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. And you don’t ring it from here, you ring it from downstairs. That’s what the rope is for.”

“But you could. Ring it from here. Right now.”

Adrian cradled the spectrum analyzer in one hand and pulled a second $50 bill out of his cycling pants, held it out along with the first. Alvin stared at the two bills for a moment, then shrugged.

“I do get my days mixed up sometimes. All the allergy medicine I take. Like they say, don’t operate heavy machinery when you take antihistamines.”

He grinned, snatched the two bills, then made his way to the heavy rope leading down below. He took the rope in both hands, and looked at Adrian.

“Might want to cover your ears.”

Adrian ignored him, instead hitting a switch on the spectrum analyzer, powering it up. The screen turned green, with a bright line running across the middle. Beneath the line was a row of numbers.

“Ring the damn bell, Alvin.”

Alvin put his weight into the rope, pulling down. The giant bell stirred, slowly at first, then rocked forward in its frame. Adrian could feel the wind from the great beast against his face, and then the bell reached the highest point of the arc, swung downward, and from it emerged a clang so loud and powerful it nearly knocked Adrian off of his feet. The stone wall behind him shook; hell, the entire church seemed to vibrate with the noise. Adrian could imagine the tourists in the pews below and out on the street — and across the city — looking up. Then his focus was entirely on the device in his hands.

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The green line on the screen was no longer straight, it was suddenly curving up and down like a slithering snake, undulating like ocean waves, moving from one side of the device to the other. Beneath the curves, a sequence of numbers began to appear, one after another. One for each of the calibrations Gregor had entered into the machine based on the etching. A mathematical code for the noise coming from the bell. Adrian’s face flushed as he looked from the curve to the numbers, hardly believing that it was working, that Gregor had been right, that Revere in the engraving had been using the glasses to measure the bell — when suddenly he noticed something.

The numbers were wrong. They didn’t match the numbers in Revere’s engraving.

Either Gregor had miscalculated, which seemed unlikely, given the man’s background and ability. Or the numbers were wrong because this wasn’t the sound that Revere had been measuring in the engraving. This wasn’t the sound — the tone Revere had been chasing, the powerful, world-changing tone — because this wasn’t the bell.

But that didn’t seem possible. The date on the engraving was 1814. Revere had made this bell in 1814, or around then, just a couple of years before he’d died. He’d made 300 bells, worked obsessively building them up until his death. The King’s Chapel bell wasn’t just supposed to be the sweetest bell Revere had ever made. It was supposed to be his last.

“But it wasn’t,” Adrian suddenly said. “It wasn’t his last bell.”

The bell slowed in its frame, the sound receding just enough so that he could be heard. “The textbooks are wrong.”

Alvin looked at him, hands still on the heavy rope.

“That’s not true. The King’s Chapel bell was Revere’s last. It’s right in the brochures we give out downstairs."

Adrian smirked. With Charles’s death, he was now the singular, preeminent Revere scholar in the nation, and he knew better. There was another bell. He should have figured it out before. But he’d been too worked up, too excited, too angry, and hadn’t done the research. He hadn’t looked where only he knew where to look.

“There’s another bell. I don’t know where it is, but I know how to find it.”

“What’s this all about, professor? What are you trying to measure with that device?”

Gregor had asked something similar, back in his lab. What was Revere up to, with those glasses? What was so important about that bell in the picture, and the sound it was supposed to have made?

Adrian hadn’t been able to answer Gregor then, and he certainly wasn’t going to answer this groundskeeper now. Not because Adrian didn’t know the answer; that, in short, was the entire thesis of Charles’s paper. The last paper he’d written before he’d died.

An insane, absurd, fanciful thesis, about who Paul Revere really was, and what he was trying to achieve. And what, if the engraving meant what Charles thought it had meant, Revere had achieved.

What could Adrian have possibly told Gregor? That Paul Revere along with John Hancock, Samuel Adams, even Ben Franklin — all the Revolutionary heroes from the history books — were involved in an archaic pseudoscience? That a recently deceased professor of American history had found evidence in a 250-year-old time capsule that Revere may have discovered a mathematical formula, hidden in those snakelike sine curves, that could change the course of human history?

Flights of fancy. Science fiction.

And yet, Adrian’s thoughts were immediately drawn to the other image from Charles’s paper — the discovery Charles had found inside John Hancock’s trunk, the trunk that Revere had carried off and hidden during the battle of Concord and Lexington. Another engraving, except this time it wasn’t of Revere, or wine glasses, or a bell. It was an engraving of what appeared to be a mold, for an object that, according to Charles’s own research, had never been made.

Adrian shoved the spectrum analyzer into his backpack and headed for the stairs leading down into the church.

“Where are you going, professor?”

Adrian didn’t answer. His mind was already somewhere else. Across the city, to the place where he knew he would find more answers. There was another bell, he was sure of it. And if Charles was right, as crazy at it seemed, hidden within waves produced by that other was the same equation that shaped the mold that Revere had never used.

A mold that Adrian could picture even with his eyes closed, because he’d just seen something very similar, in bright green on the screen. Undulating waves, a slithering snake.

Or, as it had appeared in the mold, in the engraving in Hancock’s trunk.

The curves of an unfurled wing. The wing of an eagle.