The power game, p.10
The Power Game,
‘You have prior experience yourself, I take it?’
‘It is impossible to spend any time in this colony, Mr Power, without finding oneself in close quarters with all manner of people,’ Monsarrat replied, reminding himself to be careful on this subject.
‘As you say, the most outrageous stories circulate, and seem to get a coating of plausibility with each retelling, so that by the time they reach the twentieth ear, or the thirtieth, they are dipped in the gold of truth.’
‘So I presume you’re aware of these particular stories,’ said Monsarrat.
‘That Walter and I had some sort of tryst? Yes, I’m aware of them. It is because of them that I am no longer welcome at the Brewsters’ table. So those particular rumours have cost me the last friendship I had in this place.’
‘I see. The Brewsters gave them credence, then?’
‘Oh yes. Particularly after Harefield came running up to James Brewster one day. Flapping his short arms and saying he had seen Walter and me embracing.’
‘Why would Captain Brewster be inclined to believe Harefield?’
‘I’m not sure he did, at first. But then he came to ask me about it. And I don’t like to lie – please don’t snort, dear lady, it makes me concerned for your health – so I told him what had really happened. I told him it was true.’
Monsarrat had been telling Mrs Mulrooney the truth when he said he knew this sort of thing happened. He had heard of it in places like Port Macquarie. In a place where a tiny number of the settlement’s 1500 inhabitants had been women, it was quietly accepted, went unremarked on. And Monsarrat could understand it. A friend, an ally, was someone who could take on the aspect of a lover, even for men who might normally have desired women; longing made more intense under the pressures of loneliness, boredom, isolation and the overwhelming absence of females.
Blind eyes were frequently turned in penal settlements, and Monsarrat had once heard a soldier remark to another that as long as it kept them quiet, pliable, no one was inclined to interfere.
But a prisoner of Power’s stature was a different matter. Not a faceless road-gang lag or a lime burner with his skin beginning to slough off his face. Not a poacher or a pickpocket. This was a revolutionary, one whose death at the end of a rope might incite further uprisings. One who had refused his freedom as it would bind him to a promise not to leave the colony.
Monsarrat was probably the most knowledgeable person on the island when it came to the colony’s laws. And one of those laws imposed a penalty of death for sodomy. Such a charge would also strip Power of a large part of his lustre. Should it be brought, Monsarrat believed the authorities would be delighted.
‘You … you aren’t telling me, surely, that you and Walter have had some sort of … relationship?’
Power held Monsarrat’s gaze for what seemed like minutes. Then he threw his head back and burst out laughing.
‘Good God, man, you’d think I had just confessed to murdering the King!’
‘Both actions would result in your death, Mr Power.’
Power’s laughter subsided. ‘This is true enough. However, I must caution you, Mr Monsarrat, to listen to what I am saying. I did not confess to the crime of sodomy. I confessed to receiving an embrace from Walter Gendron. One does not necessarily indicate the other.’
‘You are right, I do need to be more cautious in my listening. A dear friend of mine frequently tells me that.’
Monsarrat knew with absolute certainty that had they been alone Mrs Mulrooney would have applied the corner of a cleaning cloth to his temple, with significant force.
‘Oh, I always listen, Mr Monsarrat. It is quite remarkable what one can discern from the things which remain unsaid,’ Power said.
Monsarrat heard Mrs Mulrooney give a grudging ‘hmmf’ from the height of her chair.
‘All very true, but I’m more interested in what exactly did happen.’
‘Well, Walter … He is quite a singular fellow.’
‘Yes. I should say so.’
‘People call him simple. He is a long way from it, though. He is highly intelligent, a skilled observer and has an imagination unequalled on this island, perhaps in the colony. He simply lacks the ability to navigate the world. A place like this – actually it’s not bad for him, not bad at all. He is insulated from the dangers of a larger settlement and he has the love and protection of his sister. And until recently he had my friendship.’
‘Why did you withdraw that friendship?’ said Monsarrat.
‘I didn’t. It was cut in half by these walls, and by the will of the Brewsters. When I had the freedom of the island, Walter would come with me from time to time on walks. We would hunt for fossils up near the cliffs, or we would try to spot the vapour ejected from the head of a whale. Walter would fabricate these marvellous stories about what the seals he saw in the bay were thinking, or where the dolphins were bound as they dipped in and out of the waves. It was the most … restful acquaintance. My life, you see, has until this point been anything but restful.’
‘And when they restricted your movement, did you maintain the acquaintance?’
‘I flatter myself he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. We would sit where you are sitting now, Mr Monsarrat, and talk of whatever took the lad’s fancy. He would ask why magpies knew to grow white feathers on one part of their body and black ones on another. He would ask by what agency the leaves knew to fall from the trees at the same time. He would wonder aloud whether the wombats had any means of non-verbal communication by which they warned of danger or alerted others to the presence of food. Apart from my walks, it was by far the most liberating experience I could have had here. And I must tell you, I miss his company dreadfully.’
Monsarrat was reasonably certain Power could make just about anything sound believable, but this last statement, his wistfulness for Walter’s company, seemed genuine.
‘And the incident which led to the rumours that are currently circulating the island with all the ease of one of those odd geese?’ asked Mrs Mulrooney. She seemed to have slightly warmed towards Power. Possibly it was a result of his kind words about Walter.
‘Well, he was here with me one morning. I think from memory we were talking about the concept of free will, how to make it reconcile with the whole idea of transportation. Anyway, our late friend Harefield rapped on the gate, was let in. A package had arrived for me from my sister in Ireland. She knows that I go mad without books, and she had been kind enough to send a copy of the novel Walladmor by the German Alexis, which I understand is all the rage in London at the moment, along with the argument that he stole it from Walter Scott. Well, dear Walter, he does like that sort of thing, so I gave him the book. Told him to take his time reading it, to return it to me when he was replete. And he was so delighted he jumped up and down a few times on the spot like a little boy and then embraced me. Nearly squeezed the breath out of me, if I’m honest. Harefield was still there. He stood looking at me for a moment, then turned and left.’
‘So you say Harefield reported this to Brewster?’
‘I knew he would,’ said Power. ‘And I knew he would put as much of a slant on it as he could. That one, he saw information as power. Quite right he was, too. He liked to hold himself forth as the source of truth on the island. He would say, “I am the one who leaves and returns; I am the one who knows what is happening beyond this island.” Naturally, as the most skilled sailor here, he was essential to everyone’s survival. So people would go to great lengths to avoid upsetting him. And then there was the matter of the liberal quantities of rum that he brought here. Well, the geese certainly didn’t bring it.’
‘No,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘All they bring are droppings and fright.’
Power laughed. ‘Bellicose creatures, aren’t they? Who can blame them? We did, after all, invade their home. You and I, dear lady, we know how that feels, don’t we?’
Mrs Mulrooney pressed her lips together and turned to exa
‘Was Brewster angry?’ asked Monsarrat.
‘Livid. He cut off all contact. Is no doubt hoping against hope that you are even now finding evidence against me.’ Power patted Monsarrat on the shoulder. ‘But you and I, of course, know there is none to find.’
The gesture, and the assumption which went with it, irritated Monsarrat. You, he thought, with your books from your sister and your complaints of the harshness of your incarceration. You who have never had to break a rock, or swing a pick, or scrabble for grain. Who rejected freedom when it was offered, to feed your own legend. You do not tell me what I know and what I don’t.
‘I know no such thing, Mr Power,’ he said. ‘I will be calling on you again.’
Power didn’t react to the slight, or pretended not to. He slowly unfolded himself from his perch on the veranda. ‘Rather uncomfortable, don’t you think, for those of us with long legs to be sitting so long? Not that I begrudge the chair, of course.’
He offered his hand to Mrs Mulrooney, who ignored the gesture and rose as though he wasn’t there. He aimed a conspiratorial wink at Monsarrat, walked towards the gate, casually rapped on it with the back of his hand.
As Private Ennis opened it, Power leaned towards Mrs Mulrooney and whispered something to her. Her frown remained in place but she nodded and walked through the gate, her chin high and her shoulders square as though her skirt was that of a ball gown with a long train.
‘Do make sure you come again soon, Mr Monsarrat,’ Power called. ‘I have enjoyed our conversation.’ He turned to the private. ‘Now, Ennis, you do realise that we are only halfway through Tristan and Isolde. Shall we get started?’
‘What did he whisper to you?’ asked Monsarrat as soon as they were out of earshot of the cottage. With only the light from the moon, full as it was, it was difficult to tell whether Mrs Mulrooney’s face was still set. Her words, though, when she forced them out, were truncated, strangled by an anger Monsarrat did not fully understand.
‘He asked me to visit him,’ she said.
‘Visit him? You?’
‘Don’t sound so surprised, eejit of a man. I doubt there was any intention of impropriety in the invitation. He said he wanted to talk about Ireland. And he said he wanted to talk about Elizabeth.’
‘Elizabeth? Mrs Brewster? What on earth could he have to say to you about her?’
‘And how would I know that? I’d hazard it’s about her behaviour at the wall of his enclosure today. Whatever she was feeling, hatred, or not, I can’t tell you, but she certainly seemed to be feeling something.’
‘Would you like me to accompany you?’
‘Perhaps. Perhaps not. If a chaperone is needed, I am sure young Ennis would serve. I will visit him tomorrow. With the commandant’s permission, of course – we have to be forthright with him, Mr Monsarrat. If he decides we are sneaking around behind his back, that will be an end to it. Will you arrange it with him?’
‘Yes, yes. I must say, I’m fascinated to hear what you find out.’
‘Don’t get too exercised about it, Mr Monsarrat. Whatever I find out will be half the truth, or even less.’
‘How can you be certain of that? You may indeed discover something significant.’
‘I may, and if I do it will be no thanks to Mr Power. I do not trust him, nor anything which comes out of his mouth.’
‘I could see you’d taken rather a set against him. How did the man earn your enmity in such a short period of time? I thought he’d be a hero of yours.’
She glanced at him, and the anger in her eyes almost made him stumble.
‘Do you see a scar on the man?’ she said. ‘A missing finger? A ruined scalp where the hair will never grow again? It is very easy for him to talk of revolution and his glorious part in it. He does not have to lie down and die in the mud, or bury what he loves, or leave it rotting on a hillside. And I might tell you, Mr Monsarrat, that I have met his kind before. Many times. My childhood was full of them – men who enjoyed rolling words around in their mouth, not caring whether they reflected the truth or not, believing the way they sounded was more important than the message they conveyed. I can’t tell you whether Power was responsible for splitting the head of the bosun. But I can tell you that of the words he lets tumble out of his mouth, not many of them will reflect the truth. Deciding which do will be the challenge.’
James Brewster’s office was a small, squat, brick building near the commissary. Sparse, even by military standards, a folding camp table covered in papers, a smaller sideboard, similarly swamped, and a tallow candle by the window for use when duties kept him in his office after nightfall.
There was blotting paper and a blotter and an assortment of pens on which the ink had been allowed to dry, which Monsarrat found offensive. How difficult is it, he thought, to wipe the things after you use them? It was certain that after this morning’s activities, more ink blotches would need to be cleaned up. Brewster did not have a clerk but was still encumbered with the administrative necessity of putting the settlement’s progress down on paper and sending it off to Lieutenant Governor Arthur in Hobart, who may or may not actually read it.
He was busy working on a dispatch when Monsarrat arrived, his pen jumping from ink pot to page and back again, spraying fine black droplets as it went, as he committed to paper his thoughts on the building of the hospital, or the progress of the flax crop.
Monsarrat was consumed by a sudden desire to step in, sit down, tidy the papers, clean the pens and await dictation. He smiled to himself for a moment. What have you become, he thought, that your most passionate urges relate to the ordering of disorder, to the taking of dictation?
The idea of passion, though, plunged him into thoughts of the downy cropped hair of Grace O’Leary; wondering how fast it was growing back; the amber flecks in her eyes; his fear that the convict system might yet assign her to a faraway master. He wanted, for a moment, to bolt down to the dock and ask Jones to sail to Sydney and up the reaches of the Parramatta River, to reassure himself she was still there. It was astounding to him that in these lunatic imaginings he felt most free, and happy.
The sound of the scratching of pen on paper stopped and Brewster was looking at him, one eyebrow raised in a silent question.
‘Captain, I am sorry to disturb you. I was wondering if I might have a moment?’
Brewster smiled, gestured to a chair which sat on the other side of his camp table. ‘Have you progress to report on the investigation?’ he asked. ‘As I am writing to Hobart anyway, I would like to include any developments.’
‘Sadly no, sir. Unfortunately, in my experience these things are seldom easy to resolve.’
‘I understand that. I had hoped, though, that you would have found some intimation of Power’s involvement.’
‘Nothing firm, no. Though it is on that matter that I wish to speak to you.’
Brewster nodded, folded his hands on the desk in front of him and leaned back, ready to receive whatever supplication might come.
‘It seems Mr Power is rather taken with my housekeeper,’ Monsarrat said.
Brewster’s eyebrows shot up.
‘I mean nothing indecent by that, of course,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Of course not. Power’s interests run in a different river,’ Brewster said.
Monsarrat saw no benefit in getting into a debate with Brewster on the matter.
‘What I mean to say, sir, is that he seems to have taken a liking to her because she is Irish.’
‘Yes, he does like reminders of home. Shanahan, of course …’
‘Quite. In any case, he has expressed an interest in continuing conversation with Mrs Mulrooney. I think it wise to allow that to occur. He may be more at ease while conversing with her. May let something slip, if there is anything to discover.’
‘Very well, she may visit him – either you or Private Ennis must attend, though. We shan’t have any more secret trysts.’
‘No, indeed, such
‘I suppose so. Although what an axe can tell you …’
‘Perhaps nothing, but the enquiry should be made.’
Brewster gave a noncommittal grunt.
‘And at the same time, I should like to visit the light where the crime occurred,’ said Monsarrat.
Brewster exhaled sharply. ‘Very well. I don’t think it’s the best use of your time, but I suppose it must be done. I’ll give you a note to take to Holloway in the guardhouse. He’ll make sure you have what you need.’
Holloway seemed less than delighted by his commandant’s instruction to provide all assistance to the interloper.
‘As I’ve told you, I have already examined the weapon, Mr Monsarrat. There is nothing to find.’
‘Yes, your commandant agrees with you, and I’m sure you’re both right. Nevertheless, I was not sent over these great leagues of ocean to fail to examine an implement which is within arm’s reach.’
Holloway grunted. ‘What makes you think it’s in arm’s reach?’
‘I was speaking metaphorically, Lieutenant Holloway.’
‘As it happens, you’re not far from the truth,’ Holloway said.
The guardhouse was a small, windowless building, brick, like all the rest, though in this case the convicts had been forced to construct a prison for the worst of their kind. The floor was dirt, already compacted and trampled flat by a great many feet, leaving Monsarrat with the impression that in its short existence the guardhouse had already been called on to fulfil its function. No one was in residence at present so the benches jutted out from the walls, empty for now, although Monsarrat had the uncomfortable impression that Holloway would like to see him occupying one of them.
The whole structure was no larger than Mr Eveleigh’s office at Government House in Parramatta.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes