It 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."
The 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."
The 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 know."
"It is a powerful poem."
"It 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 story.
"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 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 commission."
The Colonel's face grew red. "As I stated at the beginning, Mr.
Drake, I do believe that this background is important."
"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 understand."
"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 ...., and the Battle of Myingyan, and the siege of the
Maymyo garrison, one of his favorite stories. He waited.
Edgar 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 now."
"I would like to hear about the piano if you don't mind."
"Yes, yes of course, the piano." He sighed. "What would you like to
know? I believe you have been informed of most of the details of this
matter in the letter from Colonel Fitzgerald."
"Yes, Carroll requested a piano. The army purchased an ....
Erard grand and shipped it to him. Would you mind telling me more
of that story?"
"I can't really. Other than hoping to repeat the success he found in
reciting Shelley, we can't understand why he would want a piano."
"Why?" The piano tuner laughed, a deep sound that came unexpectedly
from the thin frame. "How many times I have asked myself
the same question about my other clients. Why would a society
matron who doesn't know Handel from Haydn purchase an 1820
Broadwood and request that it be tuned weekly even though it has
never been played? Or how to explain the County Justice who has his
instrument revoiced once every two months -- which, I might add,
although entirely unnecessary, is wonderful for my affairs -- yet this
same man refuses an entertainment license for the annual public
piano competition? You will excuse me, but Doctor Carroll doesn't
seem so bizarre. Have you ever heard, sir, Bach's Inventions?"
The Colonel stuttered, "I think so . . . I'm certain I must have,
but -- no offense intended, Mr. Drake -- I do not see how that has anything
to do with -- "
"The thought of living for eight years in the jungle without Bach's
music is horrid to me." Edgar paused, then added, "It sounds beautiful
on an 1840 Erard."
"That may be, but our soldiers are still fighting."
Edgar Drake took a deep breath. He could suddenly feel his heart
beating faster. "I apologize, I do not intend my remarks to seem presumptuous.
In fact, every minute of your history makes me more
interested. But I am confused. If you so disapprove of our pianist,
Colonel, then why am I here? You are a very important person; it is
rare for someone of your rank to spend several hours interviewing a
civilian, even I know this. I also know that the War Office must have
invested a tremendous sum in shipping the piano to Burma, let alone
purchasing it. And you have offered to pay me generously -- well,
fairly in my opinion, but from an objective perspective, generously.
Yet you seem so disapproving of my commission."
The Colonel leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his
chest. "Very well. It is important that we discuss this. I am open with
my disapproval, but please do not confuse that with disrespect. The
Surgeon-Major is an extremely effective soldier, an unusual person
perhaps, but he is irreplaceable. There are some, very high within
this office, who have a great interest in his work."
"But not yourself."
"Let's just say that there are men who get lost in the rhetoric of
our imperial destiny, that we conquer not to gain land and wealth but
to spread culture and civilization. I will not deny them this, but it is
not the duty of the War Office."
"And yet you support him?"
The Colonel paused. "If I speak bluntly, Mr. Drake, it is because it
is important that you understand the position of the War Office. The
Shan States are lawless. Except Mae Lwin. Carroll has accomplished
more than several battalions. He is indispensable, and he commands
one of the most dangerous and important posts in our colonies. The
Shan States are essential to securing our eastern frontier; without them we risk invasion, French or even Siamese. If a piano is the concession
we must make to keep him at his post, then it is a small cost.
But his post is a military post, not a music salon. It is our hope that
when the piano is tuned he will return to his work. It is important
that you understand this, that you understand that we, not the
Surgeon-Major, are hiring you. His ideas can be . . . seductive."
You don't trust him, thought Edgar. "Just a concession then, like
cigarettes," he said.
"No, this is different, I think you understand."
"So I should not try to argue that it is because of the piano that he
"We will know when it is tuned. Won't we, Mr. Drake?"
And at his words, the piano tuner smiled. "Perhaps we will."
The Colonel sat forward. "Do you have any other questions?"
"Yes, what is it?"
Edgar looked down at his hands. "I am sorry, Colonel, but what
exactly is wrong with the piano?"
The Colonel stared. "I think we have discussed this."
The tuner took a deep breath. "With all due respect, sir, we discussed
what you think is wrong with a piano. But I need to know what
is wrong with this piano, with the 1840 Erard that sits somewhere in
a jungle far away, where you are asking me to go. Your office has told
me little about the piano besides the fact that it is out of tune, which,
I might add, is due to the swelling of the soundboard, not the body, as
you mentioned in your letter. Of course, I am amazed that you did not
anticipate this, the piano going out of tune. Humidity works horrors."
"Again, Mr. Drake, we were doing this for Carroll. You will have to
make such philosophical inquiries of the man himself."
"Well, then may I ask what it is that I need to mend?"
The Colonel coughed. "Such details were not provided to us."
"He must have written about the piano somewhere."
"We have only one note, strange and uncharacteristically short for
the Doctor, usually a man of eloquence, which made us somewhat
incredulous of the request, until it was followed by his threat to resign."
"May I read it?"
The Colonel hesitated, and then passed a small brown piece of
paper to the piano tuner. "It is Shan paper," the Colonel said. "Supposedly
the tribe is famous for it. It is odd, as the Surgeon-Major has
never used it for any other correspondence." The paper was soft, a
handmade matte with visible fibers, now stained with a dark ink.
The Erard grand can no longer be played, and must be tuned
and repaired, a task which I have attempted but failed. A piano
tuner who specializes in Erards is needed urgently in Mae Lwin.
I trust that this should not be difficult. It is much easier to
deliver a man than a piano.
Surgeon-Major Anthony J. Carroll, Mae Lwin, Shan States
Edgar looked up. "These are spare words to justify sending a man
to the other side of the world."
"Mr. Drake," said the Colonel, "your reputation as a tuner of
Erard grands is well known by those in London who concern themselves
with the matter of music. We anticipate the entire duration of
the journey to be no longer than three months from when you leave
to when you return to England. As you know, you will be rewarded
"And I must go alone."
"Your wife will be well provided for here."
The piano tuner sat back in his chair.
"Do you have any more questions?"
"No, I think I understand," he said softly, as if speaking only to
The Colonel set the papers down and leaned forward in his seat.
"Will you go to Mae Lwin?"
Edgar Drake turned back to the window. It was dusk, and wind
played with the falling water, intricate crescendos and diminuendos
of rain. I decided long before I came here, he thought.
He turned to the Colonel and nodded.
Copyright © 2002 by Daniel Mason