Read The Piano Tuner Online

Authors: Daniel Mason

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Piano Tuner

Piano Tuner





For my grandmother, Halina




“Brothers,” I said, “o you who have

a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west

  to this brief waking time that is left

  unto your senses, you must not deny

  experience of that which lies beyond

the sun, and
all the world that is unpeopled.”

canto XXVI

Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.


In the fleeting seconds o
final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman’s parasol. He has wondered which visions would remain—the Salween’s coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground turmeric, the weep of jungle vines. For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants. Or at times simply passing, blurred freight wagons in a traveling circus, each one a story that challenged credibility, not for any fault of plot, but because Nature could not permit such a condensation of color without theft and vacuum in the remaining parts of the world.

Yet above these visions, the sun rises searing, pouring over them like a gleaming white paint. The
who interpret dreams in shaded, scented corners of the markets, told him a tale that the sun that rose in Burma was different from the sun that rose in the rest of the world. He only needed to look at the sky to know this. To see how it washed the roads, filling the cracks and shadows, destroying perspective and texture. To see how it burned, flickered, flamed, the edge of the horizon like a daguerreotype on fire, overexposed and edges curling. How it turned liquid the sky, the banyan trees, the thick air, his breath, throat, and his blood. How the mirages invaded from distant roads to twist his hands. How his skin peeled and cracked.

Now this sun hangs above a dry road. Beneath it, a lone woman walks under a parasol, her thin cotton dress trembling in the breeze, her bare feet carrying her away toward the edge of perception. He watches her, how she approaches the sun, alone. He thinks of calling out to her, but he cannot speak.

The woman walks into a mirage, into the ghost reflection of light and water that the Burmese call
than hlat.
Around her, the air wavers, splitting her body, separating, spinning. And then she too disappears. Now only the sun and the parasol remain.

War Office
24, 1886

Dear Mr. Drake,

I have been informed by our staff
that you have received our office’s request for service in the name of
Her Majesty, but have not yet been notified as to the nature of your mission.
This letter serves to explain the specifics and urgency of a most serious
matter, and requests that you report to the War Office, where you will be
further briefed by Colonel Killian, Director of Operations for the Burma
Division, as well as myself.

A brief history of this matter. As you are
most likely aware, since our occupation of the coastal states of Burma sixty
years ago, through the recent annexation of Mandalay and Upper Burma, Her
Majesty has seen the occupation and pacification of the territory as central to
the security of our Empire throughout Asia. Despite our military victories,
several developments seriously endanger our Burmese possessions. Recent
intelligence reports have confirmed the consolidation of French forces along
the Mekong River in Indo-China, while within Burma, local insurgence threatens
our hold on the remoter regions of the country.

In 1869, during the
reign of the Burmese king Mindon Min, we stationed in Burma a physician named
Surgeon-Major Anthony Carroll, a graduate of University College Hospital in
London, who, in 1874, was appointed to a remote post in the Shan States, in the
eastern reaches of the colony. Since his arrival, Surgeon-Major Carroll has
been indispensable to the army, well beyond his immediate medical duties. He
has made remarkable progress in forming alliances with native princes, and,
although distant from our command, his site provides critical access to the
southern Shan Plateau, and rapid deployment of troops to the Siamese border.
The details of Carroll’s success are rather unusual, and you will be duly
briefed when you report to the War Office. Of concern to the Crown now is a
most peculiar note received from the Surgeon-Major last month, the latest in a
series of somewhat vexing communications regarding his interest in a

The source of our concern follows: although we are accustomed to
receiving unusual requests from the Surgeon-Major with regard to his medical
investigations, we were perplexed by a letter that arrived last December,
requesting the immediate purchase and delivery of one Erard grand piano. At
first, our officers in Mandalay were skeptical of the inquiry, until a second
message arrived by courier two days later, insisting on the seriousness of the
demand, as if Carroll had correctly anticipated the incredulity of our staff.
Our reply, that the delivery of a grand piano was logistically impossible, was
answered by the arrival of yet another breathless messenger one week later. He
brought a simple note, whose contents merit reprinting in full:


With all due respect to your office, I hereby
resubmit my request for a piano. I know the importance of my post to the
security of this region. Lest the urgency of my request again be misunderstood,
be assured that I will resign my post if the piano is not delivered to me
within three months. I am well aware that my rank and years of service entitle
me to honorable discharge and full benefits,
should I return to

Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, Mae Lwin, Shan

As you might imagine, this letter precipitated serious
consternation among our staff. The Surgeon-Major had been a flawless servant of
the Crown; his record was exemplary, yet he understood well our dependence on
him and his alliances with the local princes, as well as how critical such
alliances are for any European power. After some debate, we approved his
request and an 1840 Erard grand piano was shipped from England in January,
arriving in Mandalay in early February, and transported to the site by elephant
and foot by Carroll himself. Although the entire escapade was the source of
considerable frustration for some of our staff in Burma, nevertheless it was a
successful mission. In the following months, Carroll continued his fine
service, making excellent progress in surveying supply routes through the Shan
Plateau. Then last month we received another request. The humidity, it appears,
has stretched the body of the Erard such that it is no longer in tune, and all
local attempts to mend the instrument have failed.

And thus we arrive
at the intent of this correspondence. In his letter, Carroll specifically
requested a tuner who specializes in Erard grands. While we replied that
perhaps there were some easier means by which the piano could be repaired, the
Surgeon-Major remained adamant. At last we agreed, and a survey of London piano
tuners has produced a list of several fine craftsmen. As you must know, most of
the practitioners of your craft are quite advanced in age and not fit for
difficult travel. A more detailed inquiry led us to the names of yourself and
Mr. Claude Hastings of Poultry, in the City. As you are listed as an expert in
Erard pianos, we felt it appropriate to solicit your service. Should you refuse
our request, we will proceed to contact Mr. Hastings. The Crown is prepared to
reimburse you with a fee equivalent to one year of work for service of three

Mr. Drake, your skills and experience commend you to this
mission of extreme importance. We graciously request that you contact our
office as soon as possible to discuss this matter.


Colonel George Fitzgerald,

Assistant Director of
Military Operations,

Burma and East India Division


It was late afternoon. Sunlight streaked through a small
window to light a room filled with the frames of pianos. Edgar Drake, Piano
Tuner, Erards-a-Specialty, put the letter down on his desk. An 1840 grand is
beautiful, he thought, and he folded the letter gently and slid it into his
coat pocket. And Burma is far.

Book One

[from French
an adaptation of the
literally “flight”; from the Latin
related to
to flee] 1. A polyphonic
composition constructed on one or more short subjects or themes, which are
harmonized according to the laws of counterpoint, and introduced from time to
time with various contrapuntal devices. 2.
A flight
from one’s own identity …

glish Dictionary,
2nd ed. (1989)


t was afternoon in the office of Colonel
Killian, Director of Operations for the Burma Division of the British army.
Edgar Drake sat by a pair of dark, rattling heating pipes and stared out the
window, watching the sweep of rain. Across the room sat the Colonel, a broad,
sunburnt man with a shock of red hair and a thick mustache that fanned out in
combed symmetry, underlining a fierce pair of green eyes. Behind his desk hung
a long Bantu lance and a painted shield that still bore the scars of battle. He
wore a scarlet uniform, edged with braids of black mohair. Edgar would remember
this, for the braids reminded him of a tiger’s stripes, and the scarlet
made the green eyes greener.

Several minutes had passed since the
Colonel had entered the room, drawn up a chair behind a deeply polished
mahogany desk, and begun to thumb through a stack of papers. At last he looked
up. From behind the mustache came a stentorian baritone. “Thank you for
waiting, Mr. Drake. I had a matter of urgency to attend to.”

piano tuner turned from the window. “Of course, Colonel.” He
fingered his hat in his lap.

“If you don’t mind, we will
begin at once with the matter at hand.” The Colonel leaned forward.
“Again, welcome to the War Office. I imagine this is your first visit
here.” He did not leave time for the piano tuner to respond. “On
behalf of my staff and superiors, I appreciate your attention to what we
consider a most serious matter. We have prepared a briefing regarding the
background of this affair. If you agree, I think it would be most expedient if
I summarize it for you first. We can discuss any questions you may have when
you know more details.” He rested his hand on a stack of papers.

“Thank you, Colonel,” replied the tuner quietly. “I must
admit that I was intrigued by your request. It is most unusual.”

Across the table the mustache wavered. “Most unusual indeed, Mr.
Drake. We do have much to discuss of this matter. If you haven’t
recognized by now, this commission is as much about a man as it is about a
piano. So I will begin with Surgeon-Major Carroll himself.”

piano tuner nodded.

The mustache wavered again. “Mr. Drake, I
will not bother you with the details of Carroll’s youth. Actually, his
background is somewhat mysterious, and we know little. He was born in 1833, of
Irish stock, the son of Mr. Thomas Carroll, a teacher of Greek poetry and prose
at a boarding school in Oxfordshire. Although his family was never wealthy, his
father’s interest in education must have been passed along to his son,
who excelled at school, and left home to pursue medicine at University College
Hospital in London. Upon graduation, rather than open a private surgery as most
were inclined to do, he applied for a position at a provincial hospital for the
poor. As earlier, we have few records of Carroll during this period, we only
know that he remained in the provinces for five years. During this time he
married a local girl. The marriage was short-lived. His wife died in
childbirth, along with their child, and Carroll never remarried.”

The Colonel cleared his throat, picked up another document, and continued.
“Following his wife’s death, Carroll returned to London, where he
applied for a position as a physician at the Asylum for the Ragged Poor in the
East End during the cholera outbreaks. He held this post for only two years. In
1863 he secured a commission as a surgeon on the Army Medical Staff.

“It is here, Mr. Drake, that our history becomes more complete.
Carroll was appointed as a doctor to the 28th Foot in Bristol, but applied for
a transfer to serve in the colonies only four months after his enlistment. The
application was accepted immediately, and he was appointed deputy director of
the military hospital in Saharanpur, in India. There he gained an early
reputation not only as a fine physician but also as somewhat of an adventurer.
He frequently accompanied expeditions into the Punjab and Kashmir, missions
that put him in danger from local tribes as well as Russian agents, a problem
that persists as the Tsar tries to match our territorial gains. There he also
earned a reputation as a man of letters, although nothing that would suggest
the, well, let us say fervor that led him to request a piano. Several superiors
reported him shirking rounds and observed him reading poetry in the hospital
gardens. This practice was tolerated, albeit grudgingly, after Carroll
apparently recited a poem by Shelley—‘Ozymandias,’ I
believe—to a local chieftain who was being treated at the hospital. The
man, who had already signed a treaty of cooperation but had refused to commit
any troops, returned to the hospital a week after his convalescence and asked
to see Carroll, not the military officer. He brought with him a force of three
hundred, ‘to serve the “poet-soldier”’—his words,
not ours, Mr. Drake.”

The Colonel looked up. He thought he saw a
slight smile on the piano tuner’s face. “Remarkable story, I

“It is a powerful poem.”

is, although I admit the episode was perhaps somewhat unfortunate.”


“We are getting ahead of
ourselves, Mr. Drake, but I am of the mind that this matter with the Erard has
something to do with the ‘soldier’ attempting to become more of a
‘poet.’ The piano—and, granted, this is just my
opinion—represents a—how best to put this?—an illogical
extension of such a strategy. If Doctor Carroll truly believes that bringing
music to such a place will hasten peace, I only hope he brings enough riflemen
to defend it.” The piano tuner said nothing, and the Colonel shifted
slightly in his seat. “You would agree, Mr. Drake, that to impress a
local noble with recitation and rhyme is one thing. To request a grand piano to
be sent to the most remote of our forts is quite another.”

“I know little of military matters,” said Edgar Drake.

The Colonel looked at him briefly before returning to the papers. This was
not the kind of person ready for the climate and challenges of Burma, he
thought. A tall, thin man with thick graying hair that hung loosely above a
pair of wire-rim glasses, the tuner looked more like a schoolteacher than
someone capable of bearing any military responsibility. He seemed old for his
forty-one years; his eyebrows were dark, his cheeks lined with soft whiskers.
His light-colored eyes wrinkled at their corners, although not, the Colonel
noted, in the manner of someone who had spent a lifetime smiling. He was
wearing a corduroy jacket, a bow tie, and worn wool trousers. It all would have
conveyed a feeling of sadness, he thought, were it not for his lips, unusually
full for an Englishman, which rested in a position between bemusement and faint
surprise and lent him a softness which unnerved the Colonel. He also noticed
the piano tuner’s hands, which the tuner massaged incessantly, their
wrists lost in the cavities of his sleeves. They were not the type of hands to
which he was accustomed, too delicate for a man’s, yet when they had
greeted each other, the Colonel had felt a roughness and strength, as if they
were moved by wires beneath the calloused skin.

He looked back to the
papers and continued. “So Carroll remained in Saharanpur for five years.
During this time he served on no fewer than seventeen missions, passing more
time in the field than at his post.” He began to thumb through the
reports on the missions the Doctor had accompanied, reading out their names.
September 1866—Survey for a Rail Route Along the Upper Sutlej River.
December—Mapping Expedition of the Corps of Water Engineers in the
Punjab. February 1867—Report on Childbirth and Obstetric Diseases in
Eastern Afghanistan. May—Veterinary Infections of Herd Animals in the
Mountains of Kashmir and Their Risk to Humans. September—the Royal
Society’s Highland Survey of Flora in Sikkim. He seemed compelled to name
them all, and did so without taking a breath, so that the veins on his neck
swelled to resemble the very mountains of Kashmir—at least thought Edgar
Drake, who had never been there, or studied its geography, but who, by this
point, was growing impatient with the notable absence of any piano from the

“In late 1868,” continued the Colonel, “the
deputy director of our military hospital in Rangoon, then the only major
hospital in Burma, died suddenly of dysentery. To replace him, the medical
director in Calcutta recommended Carroll, who arrived in Rangoon in February
1869. He served there for three years, and since his work was mainly medical,
we have few reports on his activities. All evidence suggests he was occupied
with his responsibilities at the hospital.”

The Colonel slid a
folder forward on the desk. “This is a photograph of Carroll, in
Bengal.” Edgar waited briefly, and then, realizing he should rise to
accept it, leaned forward, dropping his hat on the floor in the process.
“Sorry,” he muttered, grabbing the hat, then the folder, and
returning to his chair. He opened the folder in his lap. Inside was a photo,
upside down. He rotated it gingerly. It showed a tall, confident man with a
dark mustache and finely combed hair, dressed in khaki, standing over the bed
of a patient, a darker man, perhaps an Indian. In the background there were
other beds, other patients. A hospital, thought the tuner, and returned his
eyes to the face of the Doctor. He could read little from the man’s
expression. His face was blurred, although strangely all the patients were in
focus, as if the Doctor was in a state of constant animation. He stared, trying
to match the man to the story he was hearing, but the photo revealed little. He
rose and returned it to the Colonel’s desk.

“In 1871
Carroll requested to be moved to a more remote station in central Burma. The
request was approved, as this was a period of intensifying Burmese activity in
the Irrawaddy River valley south of Mandalay. At his new post, as in India,
Carroll busied himself with frequent surveying expeditions, often into the
southern Shan Hills. Although it is not known exactly how—given his many
responsibilities—Carroll apparently found the time to acquire near
fluency in the Shan language. Some have suggested that he studied with a local
monk, others that he learned from a mistress.

“Monks or
mistresses, in 1873 we received the disastrous news that the Burmese, after
decades of flirtation, had signed a commercial treaty with France. You may know
this history; it was covered quite extensively in the newspapers. Although
French troops were still in Indo-China and had not advanced past the Mekong,
this was obviously an extremely dangerous precedent for further Franco-Burmese
cooperation and an open threat to India. We immediately began rapid
preparations to occupy the states of Upper Burma. Many of the Shan princes had
shown long-standing antagonism to the Burmese throne, and …” The
Colonel trailed off, out of breath from the soliloquy, and saw the piano tuner
staring out the window. “Mr. Drake, are you listening?”

Edgar turned back, embarrassed. “Yes … yes, of course.”

“Well then, I will continue.” The Colonel looked back at
his papers.

Across the desk, the tuner spoke tentatively.
“Actually, with due respect, Colonel, it is a most complex and
interesting story, but I must admit that I don’t yet understand exactly
why you need my expertise … I know that you are accustomed to give
briefings in this manner, but may I trouble you with a question?”

“Yes, Mr. Drake?”

“Well … to be honest, I
am waiting to hear what is wrong with the piano.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The piano. I was contacted
because I am being hired to tune a piano. This meeting is most comprehensive
with regard to the man, but I don’t believe he is my

The Colonel’s face grew red. “As I
stated at the beginning, Mr. Drake, I do believe that this background is

“I agree, sir, but I don’t know what is
wrong with the piano, or even whether or not I can mend it. I hope you

“Yes, yes. Of course I understand.” The
muscles in his jaw tensed. He was ready to talk about the withdrawal of the
Resident from Mandalay in 1879, and the Battle of Myingyan, and the siege of
the Maymyo garrison, one of his favorite stories. He waited.

stared down at his hands. “I apologize, please, please, do
continue,” he said. “It is only that I must leave soon, as it is
quite a walk to my home, and I really am most interested in the Erard
grand.” Despite feeling intimidated, he secretly savored this brief
interruption. He had always disliked military men, and had begun to like this
Carroll character more and more. In truth, he did want to hear the details of
the story, but it was almost night, and the Colonel showed no sign of stopping.

The Colonel turned back to the papers, “Very well, Mr. Drake, I
will make this brief. By 1874, we had begun to establish a handful of secret
outposts in the Shan territories, one near Hsipaw, another near Taunggyi, and
another—this the most remote—in a small village called Mae Lwin, on
the bank of the Salween River. You won’t find Mae Lwin on any maps, and
until you accept the commission, I can’t tell you where it is. There we
sent Carroll.”

The room was getting dark, and the Colonel lit a
small lamp on the desk. The light flickered, casting the shadow of his mustache
across his cheekbones. He studied the piano tuner again. He looks impatient, he
thought, and took a deep breath. “Mr. Drake, so as not to detain you much
longer, I will spare you the details of Carroll’s twelve years in Mae
Lwin. Should you accept the commission, we can talk further, and I can provide
you with military reports. Unless, of course, you would like to hear them

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