The power game, p.13
The Power Game, p.13Thomas Keneally
‘I am not concerned about the men who are landing,’ snapped Elizabeth. Then she shook her head. ‘Forgive me, Mrs Mulrooney. It’s the tension, you see. Waiting, wondering whether … Whether … they will achieve their objective. Whatever that might be.’
‘Of course. But come away from the window, now. Your husband is unlikely to be the only one with a musket down there. I don’t know how far those pieces of shot can fly, but I would rather not find out.’
‘All right,’ Elizabeth said, and came back to her chair, only to leave it again a minute later and resume pacing.
‘This hasn’t happened before, then? Strange visitors with unknown desires rowing ashore in the dead of night?’
Elizabeth uttered a rather flat, mirthless sound. ‘No. No, the only boat we see is the Swift, the brig which brought Power to us. And of course our own cutter.’
‘Why don’t we take our minds off it,’ said Hannah. ‘I shall make you tea, shall I?’
Elizabeth strode over to Hannah, gripped both of her forearms. Hannah was surprised by the woman’s strength. ‘How can I think of tea when he is in danger?’ Elizabeth yelped.
It was not the first time Hannah had heard the high, strained tones of a woman whose wits were becoming jangled. This one was not trying to kill her, at least. Hannah took the same approach as she had with Rebecca Nelson. Calm. Practical. She hoped it would soothe Elizabeth, and herself.
‘I am sure your husband is in no danger at all. Don’t forget, he has a garrison here. No doubt he’s alerted them and they’re bearing down on our visitors right now.’
The reassurance did not seem to calm Elizabeth. Tears were beginning to skirt her high cheekbones. ‘He … Yes, of course, you’re right. Walter is still in the stores, but I’m sure he’ll have the sense to stay there.’ She seemed to make a conscious effort now to compose herself. ‘And tea would be lovely, if you’d be so kind.’
Hannah, who’d had to use every ounce of her self-control to avoid jumping out of the chair and running down to the ocean’s edge after Monsarrat, was happy to at least have a task to perform. She went to the kitchen and left Elizabeth to her pacing.
As she boiled the water and warmed the pot and measured the leaves, she told herself that naturally the ‘he’ Elizabeth was fretting about was her husband.
Monsarrat opened his mouth to cry out, to call Power back before the man did something foolish and irreparable. Brewster, though, clapped his hand on Monsarrat’s upper arm, gestured him to silence. ‘I want to see where he is going, what this is about,’ he whispered.
The air had given up its heat with the setting sun, but retained a moist heaviness which seemed to make Brewster’s words far louder than they should have been. They followed as quickly as they could while maintaining a degree of stealth. Power flew across the little bridge over the stream and was now nearly at the beach, showing no signs of slowing.
‘I’ll raise the garrison myself,’ whispered Brewster. ‘You go after him. I’ll fire my musket into the air when I want you to break cover, try to detain him. Hopefully the distraction will help.’
Monsarrat found himself oddly reluctant to chase after Power, to prevent him from escaping – because it seemed increasingly likely that what was occurring was an escape attempt. He understood all too well the impulse to find the world one lived in wanting, and to decide to take steps to change it; steps which would inevitably upset those in authority.
He did not consider such things a crime. Not necessarily. Not when one was redressing an imbalance, and trying to do so peacefully. But he knew that he had absolutely no choice in the matter. He must apprehend Power as part of his duties as a government representative.
So he sprinted down the hill, sacrificing stealth to speed. He was the taller of the two and had had more opportunities for exercise, so he gained quickly on Power.
He was very nearly not quick enough. By the time he made the beach, Power was already splashing into the sea, sending up great showers of salt water with each frenzied step. And the tender for the whaling boat was drawing closer. Within seconds it might be close enough for Power to climb aboard, and to slip away from this island off an island and into an unknown future.
Brewster, though, was as good as his word. As Monsarrat found himself splashing into the waves – gasping as the chill water gripped his legs, cursing not having time to remove his shoes, which would now be permanently ruined – he heard the startling crack of a musket.
The men in the boat slowed in their rowing, and Power stopped and looked around. He might not have been able to see the soldiers who were coming out of their barracks, some sleep-addled, others a little the worse for rum, one man holding playing cards. But he could certainly see Monsarrat. For an instant he tilted his head and fixed Monsarrat with a glance, as though he was considering a point someone had just made to him during a friendly debate in a gentlemen’s club. I thought we understood each other.
But both Power and his unknown friends soon recovered themselves, and the boat started moving more quickly towards the shore as a determined Power waded out. Power was not afraid, thought Monsarrat with grudging admiration.
Then another sound. A deep keening, gathering into a wail of such desolation it stilled the men who had been galloping towards the beach.
Monsarrat turned. The smudge that was Walter’s white shirt could be seen against the black outline of the commissary door. His voice bounced off the waves and seemed for a moment to paralyse those who heard it, as though he were some sort of disingenuous siren.
‘Thomas! Thomaaas! You said you wouldn’t go! You cannot leave! Do not leave me, Thomas. Please, my friend!’
The spell of his despair could not hold back the regiment for long. Behind him, Monsarrat heard the sound of running feet, of shouts. Soldiers were thundering down towards the sand.
Power, of course, heard the commotion too. He stopped again, stood, planted his feet against the waves which were lapping around his waist, and held his hands up to his mouth.
‘Turn!’ he yelled. ‘Turn, or be captured. Thank you, my friends. But you can see we are discovered. I shall not be coming with you tonight. I would not have you join me in captivity.’
The men in the boat were close enough for Monsarrat to see the outlines of their faces. They were also close enough to hear Power.
‘We’ll not leave,’ one yelled back. ‘We came here for you and we’ll leave with you!’
‘No,’ yelled Power. ‘You must turn. They will not treat you well. Turn, I beg you!’
Monsarrat continued to wade towards him, widening his stance, stopping whenever a wave came up against him, and then starting again, wondering whether he would need to dive below the waves and swim through the black water.
He was not the only one who was getting his feet wet in pursuit of the famous prisoner. He could hear splashes as others plunged in. He would be upon Power in a matter of moments and they would be seconds behind.
The men in the boat saw them too, as those on the ship must have – the sails were being unfurled, bright patches springing out of the darkness.
‘Your captain has more sense than you, my friends,’ Power was yelling now. ‘Turn back!’
And a thicket of oars rose in the air on one side of the boat, plunging into the water again and again until it was side-on to the shore, and then facing away from it, and then being rowed with almost unnatural haste towards its larger counterpart.
Power turned towards Monsarrat, held his hands in the air, and said, ‘I commend myself to your care, Mr Monsarrat. You may have the capture. I do hope, my friend, that it sits well with you.’
‘They were friends. That is all they were, and that is all I will say.’
If it was possible to lounge on the rudimentary benches jutting from the wall of the guardhouse while wearing wet clothes which were beginning to stiffen with salt, Thomas Power was managing it, as if it were beneath his notice to shiver. He had far more room behind t
‘And how did you communicate with these friends? By dolphin?’ Brewster said. ‘You surely don’t expect me to believe that a whaler was coincidentally in the area, that a rowing boat coincidentally came ashore as you ran down to meet it.’
‘Oh no, certainly not. But I’m afraid the rest will have to remain a private matter between myself and them. I have been, my friend, tortured in the past and have managed to keep information safely between my ears. I do not intend to change that habit.’
‘I am not your friend!’ said Brewster. ‘Nor am I a torturer. You may find, though, that there are those who will interrogate you in future who will not hesitate to stoop to such practices. I urge you, confess all to me now and it will go easier for you once you leave this island.’
Power stared up at the ceiling. Monsarrat was impressed by his composure at being recaptured. ‘I shall take my chances with whatever barbarian has decided to put on a red coat. And I regret it, Brewster. Not the attempt, but the position it has put you in. However, you will hear no more from me on it.’
‘Answer me this then. What in God’s name have you done with Ennis?’
Private Ennis had clearly not been at his post. Neither had he been among those to splash into the bay.
‘Oh, he is quite safe. Probably not conscious yet though. You will find him on my cot. You mustn’t think he had anything to do with this – a friendly lad, certainly, but a loyal one to the Crown and his masters. I have been taking a mild sleeping draught these past weeks, you see. At first I thought to use it for my own purposes – there’s little to do now except write and sleep, but the latter always seems to elude me. I’ve worn away more topsoil in my yard at three in the morning than at any other time. Chester is a rather wakeful man himself, and takes pity on those similarly afflicted.
‘But then I conceived another use for it – I offer Ennis some of my tea, from time to time. You really must feed those boys better, Brewster. He was always happy to accept it, and earlier tonight it contained a little more than tea. He will perhaps be somewhat groggy on waking, but no more so than some of those who ran into the water after me.’
Brewster turned to Lieutenant Holloway, who had been hovering by the door, unwilling to miss the spectacle of this most hated man being interrogated.
‘Check on Private Ennis, Holloway, please.’
‘He deserves to be harmed, sir, if I may say. Taking an inducement from a prisoner is what it is. If it hadn’t been for our vigilance, he would have a lot more to answer to.’
Holloway glared at Monsarrat as though angry at him for apprehending the man, and stalked off.
Monsarrat felt a pang of pity for Ennis. To be woken, head pounding, from a slumber to the sight of Holloway’s scowling face was something no young lad deserved.
After the lieutenant had gone Brewster seemed to deflate a little more. He sat in the chair near the rickety wooden table, the one on which the axe had rested, and slumped his shoulders forward.
‘Thomas … What are we going to do with you? You may well hang.’
‘And would you be there, James? Watching with a face of granite as I drop? Would you be the one to nod to the hangman?’ Power sighed, rubbed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry that our friendship was unable to survive what were – no, hear me out, I know I’ve said it before but I will say it again – baseless accusations from Harefield. But don’t trouble yourself with regard to my life. They won’t hang me. They don’t want to make a martyr. They fear that if word of me at the end of a rope gets back to Ireland, the country will rise again.’
‘There’s a difference between a martyr and a murderer! How like you to assume that the possibility of being made the former hides you from the consequences of being the latter! And why do you think your name still has the force it once did – across all those leagues of ocean?’
Power frowned. Perhaps, thought Monsarrat, he doubts he is still a favourite of progressive people all over the earth. And loss of that repute must be Power’s greatest fear.
‘It doesn’t matter what would happen in the eventuality of my execution. It’s enough that they think it might provoke a revolt. They are still stinging from the outrage after they hanged, drew and quartered Robert Emmet twenty years ago,’ said Power.
‘Thomas, for all your vanity, I never thought you a coward,’ said Brewster. ‘Yet you try to escape just as a murder of which you’re suspected is being investigated. What am I to make of that? Confess, and I will do my best to have any death sentence commuted.’
‘I happily confess to the crimes I own,’ said Power. ‘This is not one of them.’
Brewster walked up to the bars and pressed his face to them, so that his nose was inches from Power’s. ‘Then I will make it my business to secure your conviction and send you to hell, and not one Irish farmer will put down his loy and pick up a pike after you shit yourself on the gallows.’
He spat, and the gobbet landed on Power’s salt-stained shirt. Brewster hissed, ‘Your attempt at escape means I will now get hectoring letters from Hobart Town. Come Monsarrat!’
Power’s eyes had a febrile gleam. The excitement from the escape attempt had not yet been replaced by any despondency.
‘To be honest with you, commandant,’ said Monsarrat, ‘I am not feeling particularly restful after tonight’s events. Would you have any objection if I stayed for a short while?’
He leaned towards Brewster, and spoke quietly into his ear. ‘The man is a braggard, so I will see if I can make him brag.’
Brewster thought for a moment, then nodded. ‘Very well then. And you will report to me on the content of your conversation.’
‘I bid you goodnight. Mr Monsarrat, I hope that when you eventually come to it, you sleep well. Power, I hope you never sleep again.’
Through all the shouts, all the musket shots, Elizabeth Brewster had remained with her face glued to the window. There was no more musket fire, the yelling from the shore had died down and she had returned to her chair, a cup of cold tea on the side table beside her. She took a few sips and then left it.
Hannah tried not to mind. The woman was agitated. There were those for whom tea was a calming elixir, but Elizabeth was clearly not among them. Now she was staring into the fire, and had been doing so for so long, was so utterly still, that Hannah occasionally looked at her chest to make sure it was still rising and falling. The exhaustion of their hours-long vigil sat lightly on her, a woman whose features wore the pallor of a marble statue.
Elizabeth reanimated at the sound of the door opening. She stood quickly, smoothed her gown as though expecting a reprimand, laid a hand on the mantle, perhaps for support in the face of whatever news her husband brought. Perhaps tiredness had frayed the caution with which she usually addressed her husband, but Hannah was surprised by her strident tone.
‘I have been sitting here suffering through musket shots and shouting, not knowing whether to expect a group of men at the door, demanding God knows what. Tell me, right away, what happened?’
Brewster scowled for a moment. But as his wife had found her voice, he seemed to have lost his to the events of the night. He went to his seat near the fire. Hannah moved to a corner of the room and stood there, the position of the servant, never seen but always listening.
‘Power tried to escape,’ Brewster said. ‘A well-planned attempt, too. He has had help.’
Elizabeth was nodding, clearly willing him to get to the crux of the matter. ‘But what,’ she said, ‘happened? Did he succeed?’
‘No, he did not. He was recaptured when he was within twenty feet of the boat which was rowing ashore towards him. By Mr Monsarrat, actually. Speaking of which …’ He turned, looked towards Hannah. ‘You may go now.’
She stopped halfway out the door.
‘Sir, may I ask …’
‘Oh what, for God’s sake, what?’ he yelled. ‘I have had my fill of questions from women! Neither of you have the right to ask me anything.’
Hannah stepped back a pace. ‘Of course, sir. I simply wished to offer my services towards a particular endeavour …’
‘Christ and his saints. Very well, what?’
‘I would imagine, sir, that Mr Power will not be returning to his lodgings. That there will be a need to make them ready for new occupants. In exchange for the hospitality you have shown us, I would be delighted to take on this task.’
Brewster exhaled heavily through his nostrils, a provoked bull. He shook his head, and she thought for a moment he would order her out.
‘You might as well,’ he eventually said. ‘Hardly the most urgent task, but I suppose it’ll have to be done.’ He slashed his hand through the air in a gesture of dismissal.
Hannah bobbed again. She hated it, the hypocritical servility, the willing self-abasement. But she accepted it as a necessary part of her protective colouration.
‘Oh, and Mrs Mulrooney – any papers, any books, personal effects of any kind that you find are to be brought straight to me. Is that clear?’
‘Of course, sir,’ Hannah said, turning to leave before the man changed his mind. And she would keep her promise; she would send anything she found to him. Because Brewster had not said anything about forbidding her to peruse them first.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes