The power game, p.11
The Power Game, p.11Thomas Keneally
Why do we do this? Monsarrat thought. Why do we lay claim to all this vastness, and use it for buildings of such strangulated proportions, quickly filled with the wails of those contained in them.
Holloway went to a small table. On the earth beneath it was a bundle wrapped in grimy canvas. He reached for it, put it on the table and unwrapped it as though he was in the process of displaying a precious golden candlestick or a jewelled sceptre.
I must not antagonise this man, Monsarrat thought, not for the first time since arriving. The rash, headlong aspect of his nature was growing weary of the continued pretence, the ongoing need to guard against speaking, thinking or acting like a former convict. It wished, like a child, to grab a hold of the entire situation, throw it in the air and see where the pieces fell.
‘I must say, I question the wisdom of keeping a weapon such as this in close proximity to a cell where the most refractory among you are sometimes detained,’ he said, wishing with every word that he could swallow it back.
He was unsurprised by the reaction from Holloway, whose face reddened. ‘I would have thought it was obvious to use the most secure building in the settlement.’
Monsarrat nodded slightly, barely restraining himself from pointing out that the situation was subject to change by the very nature of the purpose of the settlement.
He went over to the unwrapped bundle, looked at the implement lying on the bed of canvas. He drew out the blue leather case which now accompanied him everywhere and extracted the ornate magnifying glass – Eveleigh’s parting gift, although at the time Monsarrat had not realised that it came with an identity which was false and difficult to maintain: the uncomfortable pretence that he had always been free.
The axe was hardly tiny and really he didn’t need the magnifying glass. But he was making a point to Holloway. I am vigilant. I miss nothing. He did not, however, need magnification to see that the axe was considerably shorter than average, with a narrower head. When he picked it up, he noticed that the head wobbled slightly in its notch. He put it down again, flourished the magnifying glass in a way which even he found a little overdone, and held it a few inches above the blade. The blade, as it turned out, was quite an odd thing.
Each of the axes Monsarrat had seen on the island had been unpocked by rust. They were used too frequently for that, and considered so essential by their owners that they were frequently wiped, even waxed or coated with fat to prevent any corrosion. This blade had not been the beneficiary of similar treatment. It was decorated with small blooms of rust, some of which had been there long enough to begin to pit the metal.
But its sharp edge was different. It had a sheen to it that not even the best cared for axes usually possessed. Through his magnifying glass, Monsarrat could see the lines on the metal made by the movement of a whetstone.
The edge of this blade had been sharpened. Very recently.
Monsarrat ran his finger down it, and was unsurprised to see a small line of red emerging. ‘Lieutenant Holloway – your opinion on a certain matter, if you please.’
The man straightened his spine, held back his shoulders. He clearly did not like or trust Monsarrat, but seemed happy to be solicited as an expert.
‘Is there any reason that you can think of as to why someone would allow every part of an axe to fall into such a state of corruption but the cutting edge?’
‘People do, on occasion, let their implements rust, Mr Monsarrat. Perhaps the owner of this one suddenly noticed and took steps to correct it.’
‘Doesn’t seem much point though. Fixing the cutting edge when the blade is being eaten away.’
‘And come to that – have you made any progress on finding out who owns this axe?’
‘Axes are axes, Mr Monsarrat,’ Holloway said. ‘As I’ve told you, very few of them are owned by one individual. They use whatever they can grab to cut wood. That’s all there is to it. It’s likely this axe did not have one owner, was simply used from time to time by whoever had need of it.’
‘So it could not belong to Power?’
‘Do you really think, Mr Monsarrat, that we would leave him in possession of an axe? Some of the other convicts are allowed to use them. Him? No.’
‘I would have thought not, but neither would I have thought to find such a weapon in a place of confinement for the worst convicts on the island.’
‘Power could have found it easily enough,’ said Holloway. ‘There are some who I’ve threatened with a reduction in rations for leaving their axes propped up against their wood-piles rather than taking them inside. Not convicts, either. One or two privates less careful than they should be. When he had greater freedom, Power could easily have noted those who were careless. The man could talk his way out of hell, and I doubt he would have had any problem talking his way out of his enclosure – not with Shanahan as his only guard. It would have been simple for him to find this.’
‘But he has not been provided with such an item.’
‘Certainly not. It is not needed, in his case. The only people who don’t cut their own wood here are Power and the Brewsters.’
The patch of earth on which the visiting magistrate’s cottage stood had, like the Brewsters’ house, an excellent view of the bay.
And the bay was becoming rather crowded, Hannah thought. Three whalers were waiting in the distance, hoping for a chance to pierce the flank of a beast larger than a carriage. They may well get that chance, too. From her vantage point, she could see what the whalers probably couldn’t – further out, beyond the sheltering arms of the bay and the northern tip of the island, small puffs of water vapour rose every few minutes from the surface.
Closer in, too, the bay was busy. Arched dolphins were threading themselves into and out of the water, in a way which would have delighted Walter Gendron. Hannah envied them their ease, their smiling beaks suggesting they were equally happy in both water and air, while she was barely a mistress of one and terrified of the other.
Standing on this smear of earth as the sea licked the cliffs and was carried on the breeze into her lungs, she thought, I am as far from home as it is possible to be. The realisation nearly felled her. This is not you, she admonished herself. This place has no power over a woman who has survived … She recoiled at where the thought was leading her, as the sea spray seemed to transform into smoke and the geese’s cries into the laughs of a madwoman.
A distraction was needed, and the activity on the small dock below her provided it. Jones was standing in his cutter, arms reaching up to accept a tied bundle of turned chair legs, and bales of flax. She presumed he would be returning with other crates, ones containing the necessities that the settlement was unable to provide. The refusal of the request for bullocks and sheep meant the only red meat came in casks and entombed in salt. As for other forms of meat – the geese, she thought, must surely be utterly stupid creatures. She had made herself very plain – continued incursions on the small cottage would be rewarded with a wrung neck, and possibly a nice stuffing of breadcrumbs and walnuts, if such things could be found here.
She would have thought that her tone of voice, her mimicry of their flapping as she chased after them, had made her intentions quite plain. I must have gone soft in Parramatta, she thought. There was a stab of unease, a lick of distaste at the prospect of grabbing a goose by the neck and twisting. It was something she would have cheerfully done in Wexford, and even more cheerfully so during her early years in the colony, had a goose presented itself, had they not all been reserved for the tables of the rich.
Then again, she was becoming accustomed to the idea. Even more so this morning, when she had opened the back door of the cottage to find a step splattered with white excrement. She had looked around for the perpetrator, seeing none until one of the creatures had clearly felt the urge to confess to its abuse of the cottage’s back step. It had been on the roof of the commandant’s house, and now stood, stretched its wings and flew down to her, its neck lolling as its w
Hannah inhaled. It had been a while, anyway, since she had tasted goose. And the sooner it was over, the better for both of them. She walked slowly towards it, not wanting to send it into another gangling flight. She felt slightly guilty at the fact that it seemed to anticipate no danger, just stood there looking, perhaps hoping she had some shortbread crumbs in her pocket. As she reached out for it though, it was startled by another voice and flew off with its head dipping in front of it.
‘Mrs Mulrooney, I am sorry to interrupt.’
She turned to see young Private Ennis. Who was guarding Power now, wondered Hannah?
‘It’s no trouble,’ she said. She had no argument with him, only his prisoner. ‘That goose is very grateful to you, in any case.’
‘Yes, not bad eating, when we get them,’ said Ennis. ‘You’d think the wombats would be a feast. All bone and fat and gristle though. Kangaroo isn’t bad when we can catch them, which isn’t often. Fast buggers, they are, and we’ve no hounds to chase them down. You have to be careful not to cook them too long, else it’s like eating a shoe. But I’m afraid you’ll have to forget the geese for now. I’ve been sent here by the commandant. He has asked me to fetch you to Mr Power.’
‘Ah. The man wishes to reminisce about a country he thinks we shared.’
‘Did you not? I understood you were Irish? You certainly sound it.’
‘We shared the same island. But not the same country, not really. His country is decorated with estates and fine houses and streams that always yield fish and plump livestock which can be slaughtered at will for the table. My country was one of anger and blood and courage and loss.’
Ennis opened his mouth and then closed it, clearly unsure of what to say.
Hannah sighed. ‘I’m sorry, a buachaill. It’s the air here, you see. I find it’s deranging me,’ she said.
‘Yes … I’ve seen it have that effect on others as well. But why did you call me a …’
‘A buachaill. Forgive the familiarity, private. It’s just that you put me in mind of a dear friend who is gone. It means “my boy”.’
‘Oh. Well, I can certainly tell you I’ve been called worse, even last night in the barracks. Now, as that goose has gone back up to roost on the commandant’s roof – would now be a convenient time for you to come with me?’
Monsarrat was beginning to wonder about Holloway.
He had assumed the man’s obstructive stance came from his wounded pride, from being thwarted at his chance to be a hero in bringing a killer to justice. But the obstacles Holloway was putting in his path seemed to Monsarrat to speak of more than bruised self-regard.
‘I would strongly counsel you against going up there,’ Holloway said, when Monsarrat told him of his intention to visit the light.
‘On what possible basis? It was the scene of the murder! The very event I’m here to investigate!’
‘Ah, you see, but the track … it is very difficult.’
‘Not too difficult for Harefield to ascend every night. And I imagine you’ll want to get Jones up there soon enough, with all the whalers in the bay. One assumes the lights should not remain unlit.’
‘Well, the commandant has yet to decide who’ll change the lights now. Until he does, no one should visit the place.’
‘I intend to do so anyway, Lieutenant Holloway. And I have Captain Brewster’s agreement to it. You are, of course, most welcome to accompany me, should you have any … concerns about what evidence the place may hold.’
Holloway stepped back, as if struck. ‘My only concern, Mr Monsarrat, is for your safety.’
‘I am more than equal to it, lieutenant. I have been in challenging situations in the past.’
‘Have you indeed?’ said Holloway. ‘Well, let’s hope you don’t meet with any mishaps. The snakes can be particularly aggressive, and they do not find cheaper shoe leather much of an impediment.’
Monsarrat was not interested in finding out whether Holloway was correct in his assessment about the snakes’ attitude to poor-quality leather. In fading light, he kept to the narrow dirt path, glancing from side to side constantly as he went, searching periodically for the striped flank of a tiger snake on the edge of the path. A man on his work gang had run foul of one of them and his symptoms had progressed quickly from headache to nausea to death. Once or twice Monsarrat pulled up with a start at the sight of something long and thin across the path, which revealed itself on closer inspection to be a stick or a tree root. What did the Irish convicts make of this island so different from their home country, where St Patrick was said to have eradicated the snakes? And behind Power’s brave front, were the snakes of this place a further weight on his soul and occasional visitants to his hut and his nightmares?
Monsarrat was surprised that neither Holloway nor Brewster had shown more urgency to reinstate the light, given the number of whalers he saw when he reached his destination. And there was the skeletal structure which supported the light, a tower of wooden struts about one and a half times the height of a man, nailed and lashed together, at the top of which sat a large, rotund oil lamp.
The light may be prosaic, but the cliff on which it rested was extraordinary. Layers of ancient sand had been compacted through the weight of the grains into a striped pattern which seemed too artfully rendered to be natural. The remarkable sight had lain under dirt and vegetation until the persistent sea had eventually eaten away a chunk of the cliff, revealing the beauty underneath.
Monsarrat wondered whether Harefield had enjoyed the sight, or whether he had simply begrudged the walk and the prospect of making his way back to the settlement as night fell and the snakes were emboldened.
Apart from the threat of serpents, though, Monsarrat saw little evidence of the dangers Holloway had warned him about. There did not seem to be any unsteady sections of cliff, holes or impediments. A small slope on the way up to the headland, yes, but nothing that would trouble a man who had at one time been used to traversing the scree at Port Macquarie.
Monsarrat looked up at the tower and its neglected light. He had assumed, seeing the structure from a distance, that Harefield would have simply climbed it. Now he realised he was wrong. A ladder lay nearby. It was broken, snapped in two. Monsarrat wondered whether Holloway was aware of it, or was even now cursing himself for not removing it.
Harefield now occupied a plot of land a little further down from the hospital, from which, had he stood on the land which was now his grave, he could have seen the light spring up. But Monsarrat had not arrived soon enough to examine the body, which would have putrefied in the summer heat had it not been taken care of.
Surgeon Chester had spoken of the lacerations associated with a fall, a fall which Monsarrat had assumed had taken Harefield from the top of the cliff to the bottom. But what if his descent had started earlier? If he had come within inches of igniting the flame in the large glass jar, only to have the ladder pulled away? That, Monsarrat thought, would not have taken nearly the same strength as dragging the man to the cliff’s edge if he was still alive and struggling. All it would have taken was a stealthy approach and enough wit and speed to step out of the way as the ladder brought Harefield to earth with it.
And there was someone on this island with an excess of wit, and plenty of time to practise stealth while pacing around his small yard.
Hannah was uneasy about why Thomas Power would want a private meeting with her. She could, she supposed, understand the impulse to talk to someone who had walked under the same sky, when they were both at this remove from their childhood home, and Power had recently lost access to the company of not only the Brewsters but also Walter. Or perhaps he is just using me as a mirror, she thought. Someone to tell him of his bravery, his courage. Someone to reflect his glory back at him. ‘If that’s his intention,’ she muttered to herself as
‘I’m sorry, did you say something?’ asked Ennis.
‘Nothing at all. Just a rambling woman. I assume you’re going to unlock that?’ she said, nodding at the green gate in the white wall.
He did, and gestured her in. ‘I’ll be in here with you the whole time,’ he said as she passed him.
‘Ah. I shouldn’t worry. If you have other duties, you should get about them. Power is no threat.’
‘Not to your person, but possibly to your reputation,’ he said. ‘And that, here, can be just as dangerous. You wouldn’t be the first to discover that.’
Power was sitting at a small table in his parlour, scratching at a piece of paper with a wood-shafted pen. Stacks of used paper were piled up on the desk and around it, Power’s thoughts spilling over, seemingly in no particular order, onto the floor, inching their way towards the hearth. Some had reached their destination. Hannah noticed scraps of burned paper in the grate.
Power looked up when Ennis cleared his throat. ‘How wonderful!’ Power said, springing to his feet. ‘Mrs Mulrooney, I am delighted that you decided to come.’
‘I had little better to do,’ said Hannah.
‘Now, we can sit and talk, if you’d like. But I rather fancy a walk around the yard. Not that it will challenge us much – we will probably do twenty laps in the next half-hour. Do you have any objection?’
‘None that I can think of at present. If one occurs to me, I’ll let you know.’
Power chuckled again, and gestured to the small patch of earth.
Hannah was used to Monsarrat’s slow, deliberate tread, hands clasped behind the back, as he leaned slightly forward, thinking about anything except where he was putting his feet. Power, despite his constraints, seemed intent on eating up as much ground as he possibly could, and on letting the earth know he was there by planting his feet solidly with every step. She had the odd sense that they were engaged in some sort of foot race.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes