The power game, p.14
The Power Game, p.14Thomas Keneally
Power seemed to force himself to some animation when he was alone with Monsarrat. He swung his legs off the bench, sat up and turned his cornflower gaze on Monsarrat.
‘Don’t suppose you have a water skin,’ he said.
‘Oddly enough, Mr Power, I did not have time to provision myself before running down to the beach to recapture you.’
There was a small rumble in Power’s throat, a sound which might have developed into a grim chuckle. ‘And I must say, Mr Monsarrat, you pursued dutifully, but rather … What’s the word …? Hesitantly.’
‘My ruined shoes give the lie to that,’ Monsarrat said. ‘And I was the one who raised the alarm.’
‘Yes, before you knew what alarm you were raising. Oh, you waded in. Didn’t have any choice, of course. Did what was asked of you,’ said Power. ‘But when it came time to lay hands on me – well. There was a second’s hesitation. And I do believe I understand why.’
‘You understand little about me, Mr Power.’
‘That may be, but it’s still more than you would credit. I know what you are, Mr Monsarrat.’
Monsarrat could not resist the offer of a character assessment from Power, even though it might not be flattering. ‘What I … What I am? And what might I be, in your estimation?’
‘Mr Monsarrat, I have spent a significant proportion of my life agitating for liberty, and another significant proportion of it deprived of my own. I know the marks, the signs, of one who has been similarly deprived. The eyes which find the ground too readily. The deferential way of speaking, even as a representative of the governor addressing the commandant of a small penal settlement. The caution. And, I flatter myself, the only lightly veiled sympathy for a fellow exile.’
He looked at Monsarrat, clearly expecting some sort of confirmation. He will get nothing from me, thought Monsarrat.
‘No, I wouldn’t respond either,’ said Power, after a moment. ‘You have done well, I think, to rise to such a position. Only one thing concerns me, Mr Monsarrat. I set much store by honesty. I did not lie even about my intention to try to escape. Why, then, would you conceal something so fundamental?’
Monsarrat’s intention not to allow Power the satisfaction of a confession from him, when he was the one supposed to be seeking the confession, melted in front of the slight. The man could question his background all he wanted, but when he questioned his integrity something needed to be done.
‘As it happens, the decision was made for me,’ said Monsarrat. ‘It was obviously felt by the man who sent me that providing knowledge of my past would impede my ability to do my job. A job, I might remind you, which involves investigating Harefield’s murder. A murder which now looks even more likely to be laid at your door, as whoever dispatched the man killed the only person on the island capable of giving chase, had you been able to get to that whaler of yours.’
‘And yet I didn’t escape before they got a new bosun, did I? Did not even try. Would you not think I would have done it the night after the man’s death, perhaps?’
‘Perhaps you were not able to arrange it in time. Can’t have been easy.’
‘No. And in killing Harefield, I remind you, I would also have removed my only method of communication.’
‘On the subject of communication … How did you manage it?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you on that score, Mr Monsarrat. But Harefield was not part of it.’
‘Those letters you wrote for Ennis, the ones to his mother …’
‘Nice lad, he is,’ said Power. ‘Misses her too, and no doubt the feeling’s returned from across the seas. He has images of her sobbing by the fire for him. So he writes only of cheerful things, which requires no small amount of imagination in a place such as this.’
‘In those pages for Mrs Ennis, were any other letters concealed? Ones never intended to get to England?’ asked Monsarrat.
Power smiled, but said nothing. The man’s self-assurance, his urbanity even in a guardhouse on an island as remote from civilisation as the moon, was irritating, coming from that rarest of convicts – someone with the means and connections to secure a passage home after his sentence expired. Power would eventually have everything he had lost in the pursuit of liberty restored to him, as long as he was not convicted of Harefield’s murder.
‘There is one question you have not asked me,’ said Power. ‘An obvious one. I’m surprised we haven’t discussed it by now.’
‘You refer to the axe?’ said Monsarrat. ‘To how you might have procured it, and how you might have left your enclosure long enough to use it.’
‘Precisely so,’ said Power. ‘Hard as this may be to believe, Mr Brewster is not in the habit of leaving me with weapons.’
‘Yet you managed to leave your enclosure to run down to the ocean, by drugging the young man you said you liked so much.’
‘Yes, I suppose I should regret that. No permanent harm will come to him though, and far better he be unconscious and therefore incapable of being implicated. In any case, that’s a trick which would only work once. Ennis might lack the imagination to frame the letters to his mother in a way which will allay her fears. But he is smart enough to realise that if he finds himself losing consciousness around me on a regular basis, there is probably more than exhaustion at work.’
‘You do realise that there are more than a few who will say your escape attempt puts your guilt beyond doubt. And they’ll point to your treatment of Ennis as evidence of your depravity.’
‘And I can offer them no proof to the contrary, not the kind that would satisfy them, anyway,’ said Power. ‘I can simply lie here, examining the ceiling, wishing it was the deck of a whaler that was taking me to America.’
‘Quite a journey,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Why America?’
‘Friends there,’ said Power. ‘Together with a certain anti-authoritarian streak which would make me welcome.’
‘You know, of course, that having attempted and failed, you are unlikely to get a second opportunity,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Oh yes, well aware. My only escape now lies within my mind. On that, Mr Monsarrat, I wonder if I might ask you a favour. I have a treatise on public administration to finish. Would you be kind enough to drop in some pens and paper when you’re next passing? Because without those I really will be imprisoned.’
It was only a few hours from dawn by the time Monsarrat made his way back up the hill. He expected to find the cottage cold, the fire out. It was still burning, however, and had been set to the task of heating the kettle while Mrs Mulrooney moved quickly from shelf to table to stove, scrubbing imaginary blemishes. Within minutes she had a cup of tea in front of him.
‘We have a real mystery on our hands now,’ she said.
‘Oh, that’s a relief, because the one about who killed the bosun was getting rather boring,’ said Monsarrat, picking up his teacup to avoid a swat – she would never risk spilling the sacred liquid.
‘Should we think more,’ she said, ‘about the friendship between Power and the Brewsters?’
He sighed. ‘We know Power was accused of some sort of romantic activity with the lad. You know how protective Mrs Brewster is of her brother, and her husband’s advancement would be threatened if such word got out.’
‘Yes, yes, we know all that. What we don’t know, Mr Monsarrat, and I feel we very much need to, is the nature of the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr Power.’
‘You can’t be suggesting …’
‘I’m not sure what I’m suggesting. All I know is that there’s something worth suggesting, something that at least bears a second look. Her staring at his wall. Her reaction when she heard about the failure of his escape – she was upset, Mr Monsarrat, and Brewster thought it was out of relief at his return, but it may not have been. Power asked me about her too, of course.’
Monsarrat set down the cup, slightly too loudly against saucer so that the noise drew one of Mrs Mulrooney’s worst glares.
‘And how many distractions have we come across that turn out to be central after all?’
Monsarrat inclined his head, an acknowledgement that she may have a point. ‘How, though, does that help us?’ he said. ‘How does that advance things, so that we can deal with the matter and return to Parramatta? I know you’re not eager for another sea journey, my friend, but I think we are both in rather a hurry to get back.’
Mrs Mulrooney frowned. ‘I do wonder how young Helen is coping. Whether the hearth fire’s behaving itself – and I know fire bears watching, now more than ever. If there have been any letters from Padraig. And I’m fully aware, Mr Monsarrat, that a certain Female Factory convict will be free soon.’
Why, Hannah wondered, had the man left his papers out?
Thomas Power certainly must not believe that an ordered desk made an ordered mind – and there was some doubt in hers as to whether his mind was ordered anyway. But he had known he was about to leave the island, or try to. He had known the ship was coming. Yet here on his small desk, moving slightly in the morning breeze, were pages in various states of completion. Some neatly written in a hand of which Monsarrat would have approved, some scrawled and crossed out, and some little more than receptacles for ink blotches. The pen rested in an ink pot in which the pigment was beginning to dry and crack. She had never seen Monsarrat treat a pen with such disrespect. His were not made to spend the night marinating in ink, were always cleaned and put away.
Perhaps Power hadn’t known precisely when to expect his salvation. Perhaps there had been a signal. But he couldn’t have seen it here in his enclosure, and there had been no cannon shot or bell.
At any rate, as the pages had been left here Hannah saw no reason not to peruse them. Ennis hadn’t come into the cottage with her, had instead opted to stand, very visibly, outside the gate through which he had failed to prevent Power escaping.
‘I’m embarrassed, to be honest with you,’ he’d said to Hannah after he had collected her from the visiting magistrate’s cottage that morning. ‘To let any prisoner escape … But Thomas Power!’
‘You’ve got no cause for embarrassment,’ Hannah said. ‘The man drugged you. Betrayed your trust.’
Ennis had frowned. ‘There is that … He knows a lot about me, you know, that man. Every thought I have sent to my mother has gone through his hands. But the fact remains – I should not have accepted tea from him. I’ll get a dressing-down from the commandant. Or a nasty punishment, if he gets Lieutenant Holloway to take care of me. In the meantime, I’d best not let you leave with anything tucked away in your pockets.’
‘I promise that the only papers leaving here will be doing so with you, not me. And while I’d warn you against accepting anything from Power, if you’ll take a cup of tea from me after we are finished here I’d be delighted.’
He had smiled and waved her in.
After staring at the untidy man’s desk for a few moments, Hannah turned her attention to his grate, and immediately felt despair. Was no one here capable of keeping a fireplace clean and swept? And really, what else had the man to do with his time? But she knew why Power had not taken pains over the cleanliness of his cottage. He had grown from infancy with staff paid to do everything for him. And while he may preach liberty and equality, those sentiments clearly did not extend to cleaning up after himself.
She set the pan and brush she had brought down near the fireplace, defeated for a moment by its squalor. The desk, then, first. It might yield something to cheer her.
The first page she picked up appeared to be a letter to an unknown confidant. No salutation, no address, no polite inquiries into the recipient’s health. Instead the page was full of Power’s own despair.
‘I confess, the deprivation of movement has affected me most grievously,’ he wrote. ‘It has coincided with a malaise of spirit of which I cannot rid myself. My captivity is now evident from morning to night, amplified by my small rooms and the walls within which I am permitted to move. I no longer have the luxury of walking until I can see nothing of the works of men, and imagining myself free, perhaps even alone on this island. The restrictions on my reading materials and writing paper are also weighing heavily.’
Self-indulgent tripe, Hannah thought. But not the letter of a man who expected to escape.
She sifted through the other papers. There was one titled A Treatise on the Colour of Magpie Feathers, which Power seemed to have largely made up. Below the title, he had written, ‘for Mr W. Gendron, natural scientist’.
She set aside those she could make sense of. Hannah had only recently come to reading, with Mr Monsarrat as her teacher. She had, he claimed, made remarkable progress, and he seemed as proud as if the achievement was his own. She didn’t begrudge him – she was willing to admit in a small and quiet corner of her mind that she could at times be difficult to teach.
Still, the first documents she had read had been transcribed in Monsarrat’s neat hand. Some of Power’s writing was a different proposition altogether, wandering drunkenly across the page and ending in a splash of ink. Many of the pages seem to be musings on the trip here and his treatise on public administration. Hannah could hardly imagine a drier subject, but she supposed his recent confinement had left him with little option. Certainly, when she looked around the small room, there was a distinct absence of the books she would expect from someone of Power’s education and inclinations.
She stacked all the papers, put them to one side of the desk. She would have to impose a severe scrubbing on it. The man clearly did not use a blotter, and ink had seeped through countless pages, pooling on the wood and then soaking into it in roseate blotches. His careless use did not, however, account for the smell from the corner of the room, where a stack of tin dishes stood, the remnants of past meals. It was apparent they had not been collected in some days, and chicken bones picked clean of flesh told her that his rations were significantly better than those of most convicts. He did not appear to appreciate vegetables or soup, though, some of which had crusted over and were beginning to putrefy and grow lovely lozenges of mould.
She snorted. It was one thing to think cleaning beneath yourself. It was another to have so little regard that you allowed food to fester in front of you.
The grate was the next task – there was no getting away from it now and she was dreading it: it cradled what must be several weeks’ worth of ash and the charred stubs of logs and twigs, and she knew from experience that the stone of the hearth would be irreparably stained from being smothered so long. She also knew she would likely walk back out of the gate wearing some of the ash.
She went to the gate, rapped on it, and Ennis’s face appeared around it.
‘You don’t look like a fellow who would desert his post,’ she said.
‘Neither am I, missus.’
‘Nevertheless, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to do exactly that for a short while. Have you seen the way the man lives! Does he always keep ancient food in the corner of the room? Perhaps he enjoys the colours it creates as it rots.’
Ennis chuckled. ‘Difficult not to notice, with the smell,’ he said. ‘I would amuse myself sometimes by thinking that my mother would have his hide if he behaved like that under her roof. I would have told her about it, let her know I was better raised than a nobleman, but, well, I couldn’t ask himself to write that!’
‘A sensible woman, your ma sounds,’ said Hannah. ‘But even though our friend is no longer here, we still need to clean up after him. And I don’t think anything less than a good soaking will work on those plates. Would you go and fetch a bucket of water and some soap from Mrs Brewster at the stores?’
Ennis looked hesitant.
‘I promise, a buachaill, that you will not be chastised for it. The commandant himself has asked me to carry out this task, and I’m sure he would wish you to assist
He sighed, shook his head. ‘All right. In the interests of the greater good of the Empire, through making a corner of it a little less putrid.’
‘Good man yourself,’ she said, smiling.
She was tempted to secrete some of the less legible documents inside her waistband during Ennis’s absence. It would feel like a betrayal, though, of a lad who had already been betrayed.
She had resigned herself to giving her pinafore a thorough soaking later, when it would be covered in smuts from the fireplace, and now knelt before the hearth with the pan and brush she had brought, startling a little at the creak of inexpertly laid floorboards beneath her knees. She inhaled what was likely to be her last breath of untainted air, and made a start.
As she had expected, billows of ash rose every time she disturbed the stratified remains of past fires. Her pan was full quickly, and she suddenly realised she had given no thought to what to do with its contents. She had noticed some holes dug by unknown night-time creatures underneath the foundations of the cottage and resolved to empty her pan there, where they would go unnoticed and rain would wash them away.
She tipped the contents out carefully, trickling them down so they didn’t fly back up in her face. As she did so, she noticed that the grey mass of ash was not uniform.
During her frantic sweeping inside, her eyes half closed against the grit, she had failed to notice a few flecks of cream-coloured parchment. She set the pan down and picked them out. There were two. One was no larger than the pad of her thumb, and had part of a letter inscribed on it. Possibly a ‘W’, although what she could see of it did not match the jagged rush of Power’s hand. It was more similar to Mr Monsarrat’s writing, precise and flourished. The other fragment was larger and contained a part of a single word, ‘nal’, perhaps written by the same hand that had written the ‘W’ on the first fragment. It had the same evenness, with the loops on the ‘L’ giving it a little flamboyance.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes