Martha Kapakatoak is Inuit. She lives in the far, far north. She has inherited the only real piano that exists on Baffin Island and it contains a hidden treasure.
Martha Kapakatoak is a young Inuit girl with a passion for music. She has a talent and an instrument that was passed down to her by her ancestors. She is a self-taught pianist because in Iqaluit, the capital city of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, there are no piano teachers. In fact, her piano is the only real acoustic piano in the entire community and it is sadly in need of repair and a good tuning. A square piano, the instrument was brought over to Canada’s far north in the mid-1800s, and dragged across the tundra on a dogsled. It is the family’s most treasured heirloom, and part of the music world’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Autumn is Martha’s story, a story that takes music from the concert hall to the vacant spaces of the northern tundra. It is a story that interweaves with the other stories from The Four Seasons series and its characters. Melanie Harris, the famous violinist from Spring (PublishAmerica, 2005), the first book in The Four Seasons series, and Hope Jones, the Gitxsan fiddler-turned-classical violinist from Summer (Baico, 2008), the second book in The Four Seasons series, join Martha in an adventure of music and mystery in a race to discover the piano’s true history and its hidden secrets before someone else gets hurt. Emily-Jane Hills Orford’s Autumn is the third book in The Four Seasons series. It follows rave reviews of the first two books, which were described as having “a classic charm” (Strings May 2008) with a plot that “grows on you with its deepening chords and situations” (Writer’s Digest 2009).
At first light the huntsman sets out
with horns, guns and dogs.
putting his prey to flight and following its tracks
- Antonio Vivaldi 1725
Baffin Island, Canada’s Far North - September 1851
Tommy looked around the cabin to make sure that all was neat and tidy. That was his job. He was the Captain’s boy and he had to tidy things up in the Captain’s cabin. It really should not matter, certainly not now. Who would ever see the inside of the Captain’s cabin again? Indeed, who would ever see this grand vessel again? The ship was as good as doomed, trapped in the ice as it was. Even as he looked around at the spanking clean cabin, Tommy could hear the creak and the groan of the ship’s main timbers as they fought against the crushing forces of the thick blocks of ice pushing against the sides of the ship.
It was hard to believe that it was only the beginning of September and yet here they were in a cold, harsh, winter climate like nothing the young lad had ever seen before. Tommy had grown up along the Scottish coastline, spending much of his time looking over the cliffs at the deep, blue sea that seemed to stretch forever. He had laboured on the family croft, tending the sheep; but he had spent his days dreaming of a life at sea. His chance had come last spring. Tommy’s family had been forced off their land and they had moved to the big city of Glasgow in the hopes of finding work. Unfortunately, so many other families had been forced into similar dire straits and were also seeking work in the big city. The small crofts had met on hard times and the families were unable to keep up with their rent. They had lost everything: their crofts, their homes and their livelihood.
With no food, no money and nowhere to go, the family had moved around camping out wherever they could. First, Tommy’s parents became ill. Then his younger brother and sister took sick. There was no money for doctors or medicine. Somehow, Tommy was the only one who did not get sick. He took on the burden of the family’s welfare and spent the days wandering the streets of Glasgow, picking up odd jobs here and there. It was never enough to really help his parents and siblings. One by one, Tommy’s family, weakened by the hunger and the cold, had succumbed to the illness. Tommy was left alone. He started to hate the sights of the big city. There were too many reminders of all he had done in a vain attempt to just survive. It was a crushing blow to lose an entire family and suddenly have nowhere to go.
Tommy had wandered out into the countryside and made his way along the coast of the Clyde. He fished and dug for food and managed to survive as he wandered. He soon found himself in the bustling community of Greenock. Fascinated by the ships he had seen from the hills surrounding the city, Tommy had made his way to the docks. It was there that he had quite literally run into Captain McTavish, who signed him on immediately as the Captain’s boy. The Captain, it would seem, had taken an instant liking to Tommy since he reminded him of the son he had so recently lost.
Captain McTavish was in command of the HMS Brianag, which, at 330 tons, was a sturdy looking vessel. It was 102 feet long, certainly considerably larger than anything Tommy had seen from the cliffs near his family croft. It could make use of either its sails or its 20 horsepower steam engine to move across the water. The ship accommodated a large crew, twenty-four officers and over a hundred men, which now included Tommy. The young lad had found it difficult to keep from gaping in wonder as the Captain showed him around the ship.
“It’s a fine ship for an Arctic expedition, my lad,” the Captain had explained with obvious pride. “Searching for the northern passage is a family dream. My father sailed with Sir John Franklin many years ago. It does not seem so long ago that they sailed away on those fine ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. That was in 1845. He never returned. My older brother and I were both at home when my mother lay on her deathbed. We promised her that we would not stop searching for Father. My brother was the first to try to follow his route. He wanted to find Father’s lost ship; but they were stopped by massive mountains of ice that would dwarf the size of our bonny hills of Scotland. He was lucky. His ship managed to free itself from the ice and return safely to Greenock. He’s out there again, somewhere on the northern seas. I remember my father once saying that it would take a brave man, a brave crew, and a strong ship to follow this adventure. I believe him. I must follow through with the promise I made. I must at least try.”
The Captain then abruptly perked up and patted Tommy fondly on the back. “I do hope you are a brave lad, Tommy,” he smiled at the boy. Tommy nodded timidly. At this point, he would have followed anyone to the ends of the earth on such a fine ship as the Brianag, being so well named after the Celtic goddess who was known for her strength. Besides, he was too tired, too hungry, and too lonely to argue. On the Brianag Tommy would be fed, he would have companionship, and he would have a sheltered place to rest. After months living out in the open, nothing about the Captain’s talk of the cold north frightened Tommy.
“Aye,” Tommy had agreed.
“Excellent,” the Captain had praised Tommy. “We need more lads like you to venture to the far northern seas. It is imperative to have a strong spirit, a strong mind, and a strong body if we are to find this elusive Northwest Passage. And we will, Tommy. We will. The HMS Brianag will go down in history, and so will we.”
Now, Tommy wondered if he had made a rash decision all those months ago. At first, the trip across the northern Atlantic had been quick and uneventful, though rather rough at times. Then they had entered the cold waters between the frozen landscapes. The great mountains of ice appeared to be getting closer and closer to the ship until the ship could no longer move. It had been frightening, but the Captain had bolstered the crew and rallied their hopes, until the food supply dwindled and the ice started to crush the ship’s hull. The men were getting sick and dying. Some had already abandoned ship, preferring to try their luck on the frozen landscape then wait to be crushed along with the ship. Soon, it was only Tommy and the Captain left on board. The First Officer had already made his departure with the remainder of the men. It had been a blow to the Captain to lose his command and now he would lose his ship.
“Come along then, Tommy,” Captain McTavish called from the doorway to the cabin. He leaned against the doorframe and shuddered with the deep cough that had wracked his body for the past few nights. Tommy looked at the Captain with concern etched across his brow. The Captain noticed Tommy’s concern. Clearing his throat, he pushed himself away from the doorframe and pushed his shoulders back, holding his head high. He forced a smile on his face that did not quite reach his eyes. It was an effort. Tommy could see that and it worried him all the more. “The light is already bad enough,” the Captain stated in his usual command voice. “No point in dawdling here any longer. We have to make headway while we can still see where we are going.”
“Where are we going?” Tommy asked the Captain in a timid voice.
“Somewhere warm,” the Captain chuckled half-heartedly before breaking down in another fit of coughing. Once he had overcome the spasm, he turned abruptly and commanded Tommy to follow. “Now, come along. The piano is safely wrapped and tied to the sled. We shall take turns pulling it.”
“Why must we take the piano?” Tommy asked.
The Captain shuddered. “We can’t leave it here,” he stated quite forcefully. “It’s too valuable to be left on board. My father treasured the piano. He picked it up in Denmark many years ago and presented it to my mother as a gift. She had a real talent for playing the piano. She taught my brother and I how to play. My brother took little interest; but I loved it. Music can be so relaxing after a stressful day. I could not possibly leave this family treasure behind. Some day you will understand. It simply must come with us.”
Tommy knew better than to pursue any argument. Once the legs were removed, it was not too big of an item to transport and its square shape made it maneuverable on the sled. The Captain clearly cherished his piano. Tommy had never seen a piano before boarding the ship in Greenock. He had been fascinated with the keys and the inside of the instrument where metal strings were stretched. He quickly learned that the strings made the sounds once the keys were struck. He also quickly learned that his Captain was a very avid musician and he loved to play his piano at the end of the day, no matter how rough the seas.
Tommy learned the names of the composers who wrote the music his Captain played. There was a composer by the name of Johann Sebastian Bach who had lived in the previous century. He soon learned to love Bach as he listened to his Captain’s fingers run over the keyboard, sometimes fast and sometimes slow. Tommy had listened pensively when the Captain chose to play his favourite hymns and sacred music. There seemed to be no end to the Captain’s musical repertoire and the great vast seas always came alive with its potent accompaniment.
The Captain had been quick to notice Tommy’s interest. He started to teach Tommy simple tunes on the piano. Then he showed him some basic chords to add for accompaniment. Tommy learned quickly. He seemed to have a gift for music. Whilst he had once sung popular folk songs and hymns while he minded the sheep on the bonny hills back home, he discovered the piano to be a more satisfying form of musical expression. He started to look forward to that part of the day when he and the Captain relaxed around the piano. Towards the end of the journey, the Captain had started teaching Tommy how to read musical notation. Tommy found all the dots and squiggles confusing; but he persevered. He quickly caught on to the concept of reading music. His effort was rewarded when he discovered that he could slowly figure out the notes on some of the Captain’s more difficult compositions. He had to agree with the Captain. The piano was clearly a treasure, even if it was a bit cumbersome on the makeshift sled.
Tommy paused at the door taking one last glance around the cabin, and, then, pulling his woolen wraps more closely around him, scurried off to help his Captain pull the beloved piano across the frozen land away from the doomed ship. The wind was picking up as the two trudged awkwardly over the rough, icy surface. Jagged chunks of ice poked out of the frozen earth here and there at irregular and unexpected intervals, making the passage wrought with hidden dangers. The light was fading quickly and snow flurries were blowing around. It was not long before the ship was lost from sight, its fate forever to be a mystery. The two men mustered on, not knowing where they were or where they were going. The snow became heavy and darkness surrounded them. They pulled the sleigh together, fearful of losing contact with each other and the precious cargo. They knew better than to stop even when the cold started to freeze their fingers and toes. To stop would mean certain death.
Tommy lost track of time as he lost all the feeling in his feet. The darkness was so intense that he could not see beyond his nose. Therefore, it was quite a shock to find himself suddenly standing face to face with another human being, someone other than the Captain. The face was barely visible, wrapped as it was in skins and furs, all of which was crusted with layers of frozen snow and icicles. The narrow slits that appeared to be eyes were also covered in a thin crust of snow and ice. Nothing was said as the stranger took hold of the sleigh and helped the two maneuver it up a slight incline for several hundred yards. Tommy did not know how long they walked with the stranger, but suddenly he was being pushed down on all fours and nudged through a tunnel of ice.
The Captain followed close behind. They entered a hollowed out space, lined with great blocks of ice. A warm fire was keeping the inside bright and warm. Two women tended the fire, stirring the contents of a large pot hanging over the hot flames. The women looked up as the men entered. They quickly hustled to unwrap Tommy’s and the Captain’s frozen bodies. They motioned the men towards the fire and wrapped furs around them before handing them each a steaming bowl of broth.
As the bodies began to thaw, so did the minds. “Thank you,” the Captain smiled at their host, the man who had rescued them. The man merely nodded in acknowledgement. The women spoke not a word, but looked carefully at the strangers through dark, narrow eyes.
“Where are we?” Tommy asked timidly in little more than a whisper. He was not too sure about these quiet people. They made him feel like he was in some sort of revered space and he really did not know how to act or respond.
“We’re in an snowhouse,” The Captain explained, trying to hold his bowl of broth without spilling it as another wave of coughing shook his body. When the coughing stopped, he continued to explain. “The Eskimos build these houses out of big blocks of snow. Large blocks of snow are placed one on top of the other. Wet snow is well packed around the blocks. It is really a very resourceful and ingenious construction. And, as we are witnessing, very warm and comfortable.”
“Are these people Eskimos?” Tommy asked.
The Captain merely nodded in reply, once again too consumed by his coughing to voice a reply.
Their rescuer, who had not yet removed his wraps, went back outside, returning shortly with the Captain’s bundles from the sleigh. He made several trips and finally returned with the largest bundle, the piano. It barely fit through the tunnel. The Captain smiled in appreciation when he saw his treasure. Getting up from his place beside the fire, he carefully unwrapped it and fondly ran his hand over the entire surface.
“My piano,” he beamed. The hosts looked on in wonder as the Captain crouched beside his instrument. He opened the lid gingerly, rubbing his hands together, blowing on them to loosen up the joints that had stiffened in the cold. As he blew on his hands, he started to cough yet again. The spasm shook his entire body and he shivered as he fought to control the fit of coughing. Once the coughing had subsided, he smiled wanly at his hosts before placing his fingers on the keyboard. He started to play a popular hymn. The hosts beamed in recognition. They chattered quietly amongst themselves as they listened, nodding and smiling with both pleasure and amazement. They had obviously had some contact with the missionaries and knew some hymns. They started singing in a language very foreign sounding to anything Tommy had heard before. It was a quiet, gentle sounding language and it soothed Tommy’s weary soul. He knew the words to the hymn, too, and he sang along, his rich Gaelic burr adding its own texture to the soft voices of his hosts. The music provided a universal bond of communication, a means to share and express one’s emotions. They smiled at each other across the fire and sang on to the Captain’s piano accompaniment.
The Captain played on into the night as the storm raged outside. The warm fire soon warmed the chilled instrument. Its music warmed the souls. After the Captain closed his instrument for the night, he wrapped himself close to the others and the fire. In between coughing spells that had become progressively worse as the evening progressed, he spoke seriously to Tommy. “Tommy, my boy,” he instructed the lad. “You have served me well. Never abandon the piano. Promise me you’ll somehow get it back to my family where it truly belongs. It’s a great instrument. It has a grand history. Promise me, my lad.” The Captain succumbed to a fit of coughing that lasted several minutes.
“I promise,” Tommy gave the Captain his assurances, although he had no idea how he would accomplish such a task. Here he was in a snowhouse, lost in the frozen north with no means of getting the piano anywhere, let alone back across the ocean to Scotland!
“Promise me,” the Captain repeated in a much weaker voice than Tommy had ever heard from this strong commanding man. “Promise me!” He broke into another fit of coughing.
“I promise,” Tommy said yet again when the spasm subsided.
The Captain breathed a deep sigh of relief and patted the boy fondly on the shoulder. “That’s my boy,” he said with great affection. Tommy drifted off to sleep as the embers in the fire died down. He heard his Captain’s coughing throughout the night, and then, sometime before morning, all was quiet.