The power game, p.15
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       The Power Game, p.15
 

           Thomas Keneally
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Someone who scatters papers like falling leaves, preserves his scrawl, but burns a page with copperplate handwriting, she thought. I may just have found a wrinkle.

  She went back in to load her pan, and this time watched carefully as she was doing it, feeling the grit clog up her eyes and forcing herself to keep them open. She was rewarded after a time with a third snippet of paper which the fire had declined to consume. It bore the end of one word, and the beginning of another: ‘nal wi’.

  Ennis would be back soon. As she moved towards the gate, listening for his footsteps, her eye snagged on a patch of grimed white. She picked it up, turned it over. A piece of cloth, embroidered with delicate blue flowers and green sprigs. Part of a dress maybe, or a handkerchief, and quite fine – or would have been before it had spent some time soaking up the dirt of Power’s yard. And it did not seem to have fallen there by accident. It was not torn, as though caught on a nail. It had been very deliberately cut into a narrow strip.

  While taking full documents would have been a betrayal of Ennis and insubordination in light of the commandant’s order, no one had said anything about scraps of charred paper or fragments of cloth. Still, Ennis must not see them. She cast around in her mind for a secure way of conveying them, then gingerly untied the string which was holding the collar of her shirt closed and secreted the snippets of paper into the neck of her shift.

  She had just tied her shirt again when she heard Ennis opening the gate. He was carrying a pail of water and a misshapen lump of soap. When he saw her he laughed. ‘We should use all of this on you instead of the plates,’ he said.

  She adopted a look of mock sternness. ‘And there will be no more of that from you, young Ennis, not if you want some tea later.’

  ‘Well, it’s clear you’re not to be trusted unsupervised, Mrs Mulrooney,’ he said. ‘And having a liking for tea – and I do understand your shortbread is quite fine as well – I’d better keep you under close supervision. Here, bring those plates out. I’ll make a start on them while you hunt down that dragon that’s breathed all over you in my absence.’

  Chapter 14

  Monsarrat held out very little hope of getting further information from Power. He knew Brewster intended to try, Holloway too. They would not have any more success than he had, but he was still hoping to be present. Perhaps a misdirected word, an odd look might put him on the right path. Because for now he was no closer to discovering the identity of Harefield’s murderer than he had been when he’d first set foot on the island. No closer to ascertaining who had sharpened a rusty axe, who had brought down the ladder, whether that ladder had had a man on it at the time. And hardly much closer to knowing why exactly Harefield had been put to death.

  Holloway and Brewster both clearly thought they knew the why of it, but that was little comfort to Monsarrat. The dispatch of an experienced mariner could only be a boon to any attempt to escape by sea, despite the fact that another had been engaged in the interim. And they clearly felt they had no need of a man from the rarefied reaches of the governor’s staff to make that conclusion official.

  Holloway was standing behind Brewster when Monsarrat arrived at the commandant’s office. Brewster was clutching a sheet of blank paper and holding a stick of graphite.

  ‘Good morning, commandant,’ Monsarrat said. ‘I presume you are on your way to the guardhouse?’

  ‘Mr Monsarrat,’ said Holloway, ‘you would do well to remember that the commandant’s movements are no concern of yours.’

  ‘Of course, Lieutenant Holloway. I merely wish to ascertain whether I could be of any assistance.’

  ‘Stop fighting over me like a pair of alleyway tarts,’ said Brewster. ‘Yes, Monsarrat, I am going to see Power again. Hoping for enough information from him to put into a report, one that doesn’t make me look like an ass.’

  ‘Sir, I have some experience in the taking of depositions and the like,’ said Monsarrat. ‘So that you can concentrate on your questioning, I would be more than happy to transcribe for you. It might make the whole process more seamless.’

  ‘We have no need of your assistance, Mr Monsarrat,’ said Holloway. ‘I will do the transcribing, and I assure you it will be perfectly adequate.’

  Monsarrat smiled, bowed slightly. ‘I have no doubt of it,’ he said. ‘In that case, Captain Brewster, I might prevail on you for permission to conduct some other enquiries. I would like to interview Mr Jones.’

  ‘Jones!’ said Holloway. ‘The man wasn’t even here when the murder occurred, you realise. You must really be casting around for busywork to want to talk to him.’

  ‘On the contrary, I feel it’s important to understand the type of people one encounters as the Maria Island bosun. It may lead us down interesting paths, ones we haven’t yet considered. Unless, of course, you prefer me to accompany you.’

  ‘No. Go and talk to Jones. ‘But I want an update. And I expect it to show progress, Mr Monsarrat.’

  ‘Of course, sir.’

  ‘Otherwise,’ said Holloway, ‘the commandant might be moved to write to Mr Marley about the ineffectiveness of the Sydney transplant.’

  ‘I see no reason to go that far, Holloway,’ said Brewster. ‘Yet, anyway. For now, Mr Monsarrat, I wish you good morning, and I assure you that I will fully brief you on anything that arises from our discussions which might have a bearing on your investigation. As for Jones, he left yesterday, to collect mail from the Hobart coach. I imagine he’ll be back sometime this morning, but I couldn’t say exactly when. The sea and those on it seem to operate to their own timetable.’

  They worked in silence for a while, Ennis attacking the crusted plates with a cloth which was getting progressively dirtier, dipping it into increasingly murky water, while Hannah made repeated trips with pans full of ash out from the fireplace, and then swept those which dribbled out onto the floor.

  ‘I wonder,’ she said, when they were nearly finished, ‘may I go to check on Mrs Brewster? Just to make sure she has no need of anything. Sometimes, a woman might confide something to another woman in matters about which her husband is ignorant.’

  ‘Of course,’ said Ennis. ‘I’ve already left my post once this morning, to do so again would be tempting providence a little too much, I feel.’

  ‘Good lad, then. I’ll just drop these dishes in at the store on my way – remarkable job you’ve done, I thought at one point that we might have to take a chisel to them. First, though, I’d best clean myself up. I suspect the geese will be waiting for me, and I’ve always considered a white apron the most effective form of armour.’

  He smiled, opened the gate for her and gave her a mock salute as she passed.

  Monsarrat found Mrs Mulrooney dunking her shirt in and out of a tub of grey water. She was dressed in an identical outfit, but the shirt she was wearing was starched and clean. Seeing the treatment its counterpart was receiving, the shirt no doubt hoped to avoid attracting the merest speck of dust.

  He could not resist smiling. ‘Mrs Mulrooney, I didn’t take you for the type of woman to let your clothes get into such a state.’

  She glared at him. ‘Nor am I, as you well know. But I’ve never seen such a mountain of ash in any grate as that which I found in Mr Power’s. I am lucky to have escaped without carrying half of it home in my lungs.’

  ‘And was it worth it?’

  ‘Well, I did find something. Whether it has any meaning, who’s to say?’

  She nodded towards the table, where she had laid out a few scraps of paper, little more than specks, none of them big enough to contain more than a word. And none of them did contain a full word.

  ‘“Nal” and “wi”’ said Monsarrat. ‘I’ll have to give this one some thought. I don’t have my dictionary here, curse it. But I will make it my business to write down every word I can think of that contains those letters.’

  ‘And there is this,’ said Mrs Mulrooney, tapping the fragment with the letter W on it. ‘A nice hand, I think. Whose, though?’

  ‘Not the comman
dant’s, that’s certain,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I’ve seen his hand. Yes, this one is quite well executed, and if Brewster’s reports are anything to go by, this would be beyond his capability.’

  Then she held up the small scrap of cloth, ingrained with dirt, which dulled the bright blue of the cornflowers covering it.

  ‘Could be anything, I suppose,’ said Monsarrat.

  ‘But rather feminine for a man like Power, don’t you think?’ said Mrs Mulrooney.

  ‘Perhaps a souvenir from his wife or … or another lady,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Shall I return it to him?’

  ‘I wouldn’t be doing that, Mr Monsarrat. If it was precious to him, he certainly wouldn’t have allowed it to become half-buried in the earth. Whether he deliberately placed it where I found it, or whether it was discarded and trampled, I don’t know. But it may yet mean something, and if it does we would be silly to let it go.’

  Monsarrat sat down at the table, picked up the fragments one by one, examined them again. ‘You’re remarkable, truly, to have discovered this much among the ashes and the dirt,’ he said. ‘And I know you want to find something. So do I. Nonetheless, it could be that these are simply leavings which carry no meaning.’

  ‘Why did he burn them, then?’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘You should have seen the state of the man’s desk – truly, Mr Monsarrat, you would never countenance it. He has papers there with so many scratchings-out that they cannot be of any further use to him, yet he has not thrown them away, or burned them, or done anything but leave them where they sit. If he has taken the trouble to walk over to the grate with these and placed them there, I would wager that they have some sort of bearing.’

  ‘But what?’

  ‘Mr Monsarrat, I know that you set great store by my powers of observation. But I cannot get any meaning out of these. Yet life sometimes turns on the smallest things, and these scraps may tell us more than the entire mess of documents which Power left so casually on his desk.’

  Walter was sitting at the commissary’s small desk when Hannah entered, having glared briefly at the sky to ensure it knew not to rain on her drying clothes. His elbows were on the table and his head was in his hands as he squinted at the ledger. His eyes, though, were fixed in one place, while the pen beside him showed no signs of having been used today.

  ‘What’s troubling you, young Mr Gendron?’ said Hannah, sitting in the chair opposite him. ‘I think you have read the same line in that ledger several times already.’

  Walter looked up, and she saw his eyes were red and swollen.

  ‘Power was my friend,’ he said.

  ‘And I wager he still is,’ said Hannah, ‘although you might find visiting him a little more difficult now.’

  ‘He wasn’t really my friend, though,’ said Walter, without seeming to notice the tear which was now rolling down his face. ‘If he was, he wouldn’t have tried to leave.’

  Hannah reached out, took one of the hands which had been propping up his chin.

  ‘Now I want you to stop that nonsense right away, Mr Gendron. What Thomas Power did last night had nothing to do with his regard for you, of that I am certain. He was escaping captivity. He was not escaping your friendship.’

  ‘He was treated well here though,’ said Walter. ‘I would measure his rations out myself – he got as much as the officers. And he got officers’ rations of fuel as well.’

  ‘Ah, men like Power, they don’t like to be constrained, do they. They have too many big plans to be forced into little boxes, no matter how well they’re fed. And he still believes that he has a role to play in liberating Ireland. That’s why he ran, my boy, and you should not take it to heart.’

  ‘He would not have been so constrained if it wasn’t for me,’ said Walter. ‘When I hugged him Harefield saw. He was a nasty man and I know it was because of him that after that James had Power restricted, stopped him going for walks. Do you think that is why he tried to run? Did he miss the walks?’

  ‘Possibly, and a lot more besides. But he didn’t run in the end. He is still here.’

  ‘He might as well not be. James says I can’t visit him, and Elizabeth doesn’t want to either,’ he said.

  ‘Well, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate anyhow for the commandant’s wife to go and sit with a felon who had just attempted escape. But why do you think she doesn’t want to? Is it because, as I understood, she is unwell today?’

  ‘She’s crying too,’ Walter said. ‘She’s been crying all morning, so badly that she could not even get out of bed.’

  ‘Perhaps she was sad, like you, that he had tried to leave.’

  ‘No, no, that’s not it. I did ask her. I went by there to check why she wasn’t at the commissary and I told her that she could cheer up because Power was still here. And you know what she did?’

  ‘I’m sure I couldn’t begin to guess.’

  ‘She threw a cushion at me! I mean, what is the point of throwing a cushion? If you are to throw something, surely it should be something heavy.’

  ‘Why on earth did she do that?’

  ‘She called me a fool,’ Walter said, and his eyes began to shine again. ‘She called me a fool, and she said that she wasn’t crying because Power had tried to leave. She was crying because he hadn’t succeeded.’

  Monsarrat was at a loss for something to do as he waited for Jones – an unaccustomed state for him, and one which he did not like at all. He knew he had to look occupied. If Holloway glanced out of the guardhouse and saw him wandering aimlessly up and down the dock waiting for Jones to return, he would no doubt say, ‘Look, here is a man who was sent to do a job we could have done, and he is idle.’

  Monsarrat was fairly certain he could talk his way out of that, but he’d rather not have to. Instead, he walked slowly up to the site where the hospital was trying to rise, and the tent next to it which served its purpose for now. Chester was there, of course. Having no orderly, he was called on to use his medical training not only for more complex procedures, but for bandaging, salving and the like.

  Right now, he was engaged in bandaging the ankle of Milliner, the convict Monsarrat had met on the day he arrived: the Hatter, through whom contraband reportedly flowed.

  Chester looked up, and nodded. ‘When I was at the Royal London Hospital, Mr Monsarrat, it never occurred to me that I might one day be asked to treat wombat injuries.’

  ‘Oh? I didn’t realise they were aggressive.’

  ‘They are not. But apparently the holes they dig are.’

  ‘They’ve been digging them where they know we walk, sir,’ Milliner said, a contrived breathlessness in his voice. ‘Just where a man would put his foot, but covered by bracken, so you don’t see it until it’s too late. You would think, if you didn’t know better, that they were trying to get us to leave.’

  ‘Yes, well,’ said Chester. ‘Fortunately we do know better, don’t we? There, that should help with any pain, although I have to say I can’t see any swelling, and I remember well, Milliner, treating you last month for a goose bite.’

  Milliner shook his head. ‘But they are vicious, those geese. They attack without any threat. They are on you before you know they’re there.’

  ‘How is it, then, that you are the only one to have succumbed?’

  ‘They go for the strong ones first, see,’ said Milliner.

  ‘And strong you must be,’ said Monsarrat, ‘for that suppurating wound on your foot to heal so fast. It looks as though it is back to building the hospital for you.’

  ‘Oh, I’ve been taken off the hospital,’ Milliner said. ‘The commandant felt my talents suited me for more refined work.’

  ‘Or perhaps he moved you because you weren’t doing any work of any kind,’ said Chester. Milliner ignored him and kept talking to Monsarrat. ‘Turning chair legs, now, sir. We make very fine ones, so I’m told. So they want me back, I imagine.’

  ‘I imagine they do,’ said Chester, ‘and I will take you.’

  ‘Doctor,’ said Monsarrat, seeing
a chance right in front of him for some investigating, ‘the matter I came to see you on wasn’t urgent. I’d be more than willing to escort Milliner.’

  ‘Now that, Mr Monsarrat, would be most welcome. Sometimes, you see, people get bitten by something more threatening than a goose. It’s the season for snakes, and I have been trying to make up and set aside sufficient stores of ointments which are known to be effective on snake bites. I do need get back to it, so thank you for your kind offer, I accept wholeheartedly.’

  ‘I’m not the only one who’s been away from his duties, Mr Monsarrat,’ Milliner said as they walked back to the workshop. ‘Young Ennis had a nap, I’ve heard.’

  ‘Have you indeed. Well, I don’t believe Private Ennis’s nap was, shall we say, voluntary.’

  ‘Oh, I know it wasn’t. Laudanum, rumour has it. God knows how Power got a hold of it.’

  ‘I couldn’t possibly say. So it didn’t run through your hands, then?’

  ‘Mine? Mr Monsarrat, I assure you, I’m not a trafficker.’

  Monsarrat raised an eyebrow. ‘I have not come here, Milliner, to investigate smuggling and trading in the convict barracks. Nor do I intend to make it my business – unless I am obstructed in some way.’

  ‘I am not obstructing you, Mr Monsarrat. What would I deal in? Where would I get it? Have you noticed the ocean surrounding us?’

  Said to the wrong person, words like that from a convict could see the man spending the night, or longer, with Power in the guardhouse. They could even result in some flesh being removed from his back. Milliner, thought Monsarrat, was good at quick assessments. Good at deciding who would be trusted and who couldn’t, at gauging how far he could go. And something about Monsarrat had clearly led him to conclude, as had Power, that Monsarrat was not a true figure of authority.

  ‘I know, Milliner,’ he said. ‘I know you deal in rum, tobacco. What I don’t know is what else you can get. In the absence of any other information, I may have to conclude the worst and report my findings to Commandant Brewster. And to Holloway, of course.’

 
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