The power game, p.16
The Power Game, p.16Thomas Keneally
Milliner shrugged. ‘I confess to rum,’ he said. ‘Tobacco, sometimes. But laudanum? Not much call for it, and no way of laying my hands on it even if I did get an order. No way of laying my hands on anything for anyone, at the moment.’
‘I will simply say that Jones is a reputable bosun, but that others who have held his position have not been above taking their own share. An importer’s fee, you might say.’
‘Might you indeed. And someone so motivated would surely be able to lay their hands on laudanum.’
‘Perhaps, had they been asked to. But they weren’t. The only laudanum on the island resides in the commissary, watched over by the commandant’s missus and her less than watchful brother.’
‘You have little affection for Walter, then.’
‘Actually, I am interested in commodities, and he’s a kind lad, and a puzzle – will give with no hope of receiving. Gave me some tea, once, when I was coughing up catarrh. I don’t understand it, but I welcome it. Come to that, Mr Monsarrat, do you think you could ask the commandant to assign me to the stores? I’m not made for hard labour.’
‘Woodworking is hard labour?’
‘To men like you and me. Those of us with something of a brain. Businessmen.’
‘I am not a businessman.’
‘Yes, you are, for have we not just made a business agreement? You have given me information, in exchange for your pledge not to notice any … unconventional activity.’
Monsarrat sighed. He did not want to be part of any pact with the Hatter. ‘I could renege,’ he said.
‘Ah, but you won’t. You understand the … the niceties of it. I can tell.’ And he winked, smiled and covered the rest of the distance to the woodworking shop at a skip which should not have been possible for someone who had recently fallen victim to a deliberately placed wombat hole.
Hannah knocked gently on the door of the Brewster cottage. She had noticed that Elizabeth tended to snap if she was in a delicate condition. She didn’t want to give her any excuse.
There was no response. She risked a transit to the side of the house, where she could peer into the small window which showed her a partial slice of the parlour. Elizabeth was in her chair, a cup of tea next to her, her head slumped forward so that her chin rested on her chest.
She sees me, Hannah thought, as a convict servant. Convict servants don’t rap on windows. Not if they want to remain unseen, able to stand in the corner and hear things. But she would not be hearing anything from Mrs Brewster in her current state.
She tapped her callused knuckles against the pane of glass which protected the cottage’s living room from the enthusiastic blasts of wind rushing up the hill from the beach. She looked for a starting, a slight lift of the head, any indication that Mrs Brewster had heard her. But the woman remained still, and slumped and, Hannah thought, terrifyingly pale.
Hannah felt the malevolent tickle, the tightening in her chest which accompanied the realisation that something may be very wrong. She did not know whether she had time to run down to the commandant’s office, raise the alarm, or whether time had already elapsed. She raced around to the front of the cottage, trying the door with such force that she fell forward into the hallway when it opened without complaint.
Why, she thought, would Elizabeth Brewster leave her door unlocked in a settlement full of convicts, with an unknown murderer among the few people here?
It was a question Hannah would have to tuck away in the corner of her mind for later though. For now, she let the force of her stumble through the door propel her into living room, knelt beside Elizabeth, gently tapped her cold cheeks. If the woman had been conscious, she would surely have lashed out at such insults, but there was no indication that she was receptive to any amount of tapping.
The teacup, half full, sat on top of a small silver tray. Hannah yanked it off the saucer. Mr Monsarrat had told her how the Parramatta police superintendent had checked whether she herself was breathing after the murderous Rebecca Nelson nearly took her life. She held the silver up to Elizabeth’s mouth and checked it. There was a thin film of mist. She grabbed the woman’s shoulders and shook, but Elizabeth’s head lolled backwards and forwards in an alarming manner.
Hannah ran to the door, looked towards the barracks. She ran down the hill, nearly colliding with Ennis as he emerged.
‘Ennis!’ she screeched, scouring her throat as she did so. ‘Ennis, run! Get Dr Chester, ask him to hurry. It’s Mrs Brewster!’
Ennis looked up to where the sound was coming from, shielded his eyes with his hand so he could see her.
‘Why? What’s happened?’
‘Just go, and tell Chester to run as he never has before.’
As he bolted off, she murmured: ‘That graveyard is getting crowded. We don’t want another plot dug there.’
Turning away from the woodworking shop, Monsarrat could see a small slice of canvas framed against the crumbling headland that enclosed the bay. By the time he got down to the dock, Jones and his boat were close enough for Monsarrat to see that another man had joined him for the return journey. A man dressed in black with a white bib, like a cleric. Or a magistrate.
Monsarrat was waiting at the end of the dock when Jones drew alongside. His passenger stood unsteadily, moved his way over to the small wooden ladder which extended down from the dock, and began to climb. Monsarrat put his hand out to haul the man up the last few steps.
‘Magistrate Ellison. An unexpected pleasure. You mentioned you wouldn’t be here for another month.’
‘Nor did I expect to be, Mr … Monsarrat, yes? But Jones here has given me to understand that a rather interesting event has taken place. I thought some legal expertise might not go amiss.’
‘Very generous of you. I fear the commandant has lodged us in your cottage. I’m sure we can make arrangements to stay elsewhere.
‘Not a bit of it, sir. You are more than welcome to share my cottage, although it rather lacks in the comforts one might expect in the more populous parts of the colony. For now, though, why don’t you tell me what you know of the escape attempt?’
Monsarrat did, and in the process realised how little of it was clear. ‘How Power knew the vessel was coming, what signal there was, who gave it, how he communicated – nothing has been found to shed any light on any of these aspects, and Mr Power himself is utterly silent on the matter,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Ah, but you are the one who raised the alarm, and the first to lay hands on him, how wonderful! I’m sure there will ultimately be an appropriate reward for you, sir.’
‘I require no reward, magistrate, but thank you. The whole business has rather overshadowed my purpose for being here, and I would as soon quickly resolve the matter of Harefield’s killer and return to Parramatta.’
To where, he hoped, his letter was winging its way to Grace O’Leary, whose face once more floated to the forefront of his mind as Parramatta was mentioned.
‘Well, I will do everything possible to ensure that happens with all haste,’ Ellison said. ‘May I ask, though, where is Power now?’
‘He is being held in the guardhouse. Being interviewed by the commandant and Lieutenant Holloway at present, I understand.’
‘Best get me there, then. The sooner Power claps eyes on me and realises the gravity of the situation, the better, wouldn’t you agree?’
Monsarrat was not overjoyed at the idea of returning to the guardhouse, only to be rebuffed again by the noxious Holloway. With a magistrate in tow, however – and one who had travelled wearing his magisterial garb – Monsarrat felt a little more confident of gaining entry.
Outside the guardhouse Ellison lifted his hand to the door and pounded on it three times. Holloway appeared, his mouth already in a snarl. Monsarrat expected the expression to change when Holloway saw Ellison. And the scowl did slip. But it was evident that Holloway was very unhappy to be interrupted.
The magistrate nodded briefly at h
‘Captain Brewster, you have had a busy few days, I understand. May I come in?’
Brewster looked up from the pages he’d been scribbling on, grimaced distractedly and stepped outside to greet them.
‘We’ll all have to breathe in. Henry, we weren’t expecting you for another few weeks, were we? I’m afraid I’ve rather given away your house.’
‘Yes, so I’ve heard, but don’t trouble yourself over it. You’re right, it was another three weeks before I was due to return. But the news of the activities of our friend here has positively flown across the water, and I thought you might have need of somebody with some judicial authority.’
‘No trial needed,’ said Holloway. ‘He attempted escape. That is the beginning and the end of it.’
‘Ah, yes, so he did. And of course he will be punished for it. There remains the matter of the bosun’s death. While those two vortices are swirling around in proximity to one another, there is potential for things to get muddled. Legally speaking. I am here to prevent that.’
‘And grateful we are,’ said Brewster. ‘I tell you, if you can get something out of him, I’ll give you my own cottage. He is resolutely silent on the matter of whom he planned this escape with.’
‘Need there have been accomplices?’
Holloway snorted. ‘You are not, surely, suggesting that a whaler happened to make its way to Darlington Bay, where no whaler has come in so close, and then decided to lower a rowboat over the side and make for the shore at the precise moment Mr Power was running down to the beach?’
‘Yes, well, I take your point. Still, these things are often not as one initially believes. May I?’
Holloway stood aside and Ellison edged himself into the door. He went over to the guardhouse bars and looked steadily at Power, who turned his head on the bench and returned the gaze, smiling.
‘I will do what I can, gentlemen,’ Ellison said. ‘Because if there’s one thing that I can assure you of, it’s that Mr Power knows exactly what he should say.’
Power and Ellison continued to stare at each other in silence for a few moments. If they had still been talking, Monsarrat might have missed the sound of running feet on the gravel outside the building.
It was impossible, though, to miss Ennis as he tried to push the door flat against the wall, sandwiching Holloway behind it.
‘Oh for God’s sake!’ said Holloway. ‘Is there no end to the interruptions? Private, you are confined to barracks for the next twenty-four hours.’
Ennis nodded briefly. ‘As you wish, sir, but perhaps we can discuss my punishment later. It’s your wife, captain. You need to come at once. She has been taken gravely ill.’
By the time Brewster had sprinted up the hill to his cottage, his wife was lying on her side next to a pool of vomit. Her eyelids were fluttering and she emitted the occasional cough, ejecting more dribbles down her chin. She showed no inclination to move away from the substance she had just coughed up. It was, Hannah thought, the most beautiful ugliness she had ever seen – a woman of such loveliness, with the pallor of the grave, covered in her own muck and alive because of it.
When Dr Chester had arrived, Hannah was holding Elizabeth’s hand, shaking her, dragging her eyelids open and doing anything else she could think of which might elicit a response.
Chester had dragged Elizabeth onto the ground and placed her on her side. He shoved his fingers down her throat, jabbing in and out. For a moment, it seemed hopeless, even disrespectful. The defilement of a corpse. But then she convulsed once, twice, opened her mouth and let fourth a watery stream. Chester was unable to withdraw his hand in time but he didn’t seem to mind. He inserted his fingers again and allowed another foul-smelling torrent to wash over them.
Hannah was ineffectually dabbing Elizabeth’s forehead with a damp cloth when her husband entered.
‘For the love of God, man, what is happening?’
The doctor was kneeling by Elizabeth’s side, with one of his trouser legs soaking up some of her emissions. He had her wrist in the fingers of one hand, his pocket watch in the other.
‘Still thready,’ he said. ‘Too much so. But I do detect a slight stabilisation. She may, and I stress may, be recovering. Not quickly enough for my liking, mind, but there is hope, commandant.’
‘Hope … But what could have done this? What possible disease? Are we facing a plague?’
‘No plague, commandant,’ said Chester. ‘Some sort of poison, I suspect.’
Brewster moved around his wife until he was standing at her head. He did not stoop to stroke her forehead or pat her shoulder. Of course there wasn’t much room, with Hannah mopping the woman’s brow and Dr Chester still tending to her.
‘But who would have poisoned her?’ Brewster asked.
The doctor cleared his throat. ‘Well, clearly that is something to be ascertained in due course. But you must prepare yourself, Captain Brewster, for the possibility that there was no third party involved.’
‘No third party? You don’t mean …’
Hannah had had quite enough of this useless prattle over a woman’s body. ‘Can I suggest, gentlemen,’ she said, barely controlling the quaver in her voice, ‘that we leave the hows and whys until after the lady has been attended to. Doctor, can she be moved?’
‘Yes. However, she will need someone with her. We do not want to have brought her this far back into life only to have her choke should she vomit again.’
Hannah looked at Captain Brewster. Waited for him to say he would not leave his wife’s side, would not even blink until she had recovered her strength.
Instead he glanced at Hannah. ‘Mrs Mulrooney, would you be kind enough? Perhaps another woman … Well, she will need to be cleaned, I expect.’
‘Very important that she be in a state of cleanliness at this juncture,’ Hannah said, immediately chastising herself for the sarcasm. But truly, the man was the living end. He was quickly beginning to rival Thomas Power as the island’s most maddening denizen. He might, if he kept at it, even surpass the geese.
‘Of course, sir,’ she said, slathering her words with as much civility as she could bear. ‘I would be delighted to do whatever is needed for Mrs Brewster as she recovers.’
Brewster merely nodded. Chester stood, seeming not to notice the vomit which was now dribbling down the leg of his trousers. ‘Good woman,’ he said. ‘I will look in on you in a short while. Keep the cool cloth on her forehead. Make sure she’s still responsive, that her breathing is steady. And fetch a basin from the kitchen. It’s likely we haven’t seen the last of …’ He looked down at his trousers.
‘There’s a canvas cloth drop sheet in the boot room, Mrs Mulrooney,’ Brewster said. ‘Fetch it, if you please. That way the coverlet will be protected.’
He turned away immediately, and it was probably just as well. Hannah didn’t know whether he would have noticed the unrestrained contempt in her gaze.
Chester and Brewster carried Elizabeth into the bedroom, laid her on top of the canvas Hannah had grudgingly placed there. Elizabeth was beginning to moan now.
‘I hope she’s not in any pain,’ said Hannah.
‘No, no, that’s a good sign,’ said Chester. ‘It means she’s beginning to recover.’
‘Commandant, where are her nightclothes kept?’ she asked.
‘There in that dresser,’ said Brewster, waving his hand in the general direction of the corner of the room. ‘If she seems quiet, could you clean whatever that is on the floor of the parlour.’
‘Sir, she really should not be left even for a moment,’ said Chester.
‘Oh, I’m sure a few minutes won’t hurt. You’re efficient, aren’t you, Mrs Mulrooney? Now, Chester,’ Brewster said, steering him towards the door, ‘I would like to talk to you in private.’
As soon as Ennis had brought the news, those in the guardhouse had jostled to be the first one out and on their way
Monsarrat was left standing there with Ellison and Lieutenant Holloway in a puddle of frustrated expectations. Eventually Holloway said, ‘I best get back to the prisoner.’
Ellison reached out his hand to touch Holloway’s forearm, a gesture which Holloway tolerated without any answering move.
‘Lieutenant, I applaud you for your conscientiousness. However, there are certain legal conventions to be observed here. Perhaps it would be best, with your approval, of course, if I spent some time with him myself.’
Monsarrat could see the conflict playing out in Holloway’s face – the desire to assert his reflected authority at war with the soldier’s love for regulation, for the observation of statute.
The hidebound soldier won.
‘As you wish, magistrate,’ he said. ‘I will join you in half an hour, with your approval. I have, as it happens, another matter to attend to in the interim.’
‘Of course, lieutenant. I look forward to seeing you.’
Monsarrat did not quite know what to do with himself. He could see Jones struggling to hoist some crates from the stern of his little cutter up to the dock, his task made more formidable by the lack of cooperation from the tides, which were now at their lowest ebb.
‘Almost done, but uncommon of a gent like yourself to offer, thank you,’ said Jones, after Monsarrat had gone down and offered him help.
‘You’re lucky Power didn’t take this boat,’ said Monsarrat.
‘How could he do that from the guardhouse?’
‘During his escape, I mean.’
‘Oh. Well, he couldn’t have, Mr Monsarrat. It wasn’t here. Neither was I. Regular mail trip, you see. I often stay over.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes