The power game, p.17
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       The Power Game, p.17

           Thomas Keneally
 
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  ‘Regular. So he knew there was a good chance you wouldn’t be here?’

  ‘I suppose so. Hardly a secret.’

  ‘Hmm. Much mail this week, by the way? I am hoping to receive a letter from Sydney.’

  ‘No. There often isn’t a lot. Mr Ellison occasionally gives me a letter for the commandant. He tells me he usually writes to Mrs Brewster, too, after a visit. She always tries to make sure he’s comfortable, well fed. He likes to thank her.’

  ‘And who collects the mail here? Do you bring it around yourself?’

  ‘No, I just bring it to Mrs Brewster. I think Walter takes anything which needs taking to the commandant, the surgeon and the barracks.’

  He looked behind Monsarrat’s shoulder, raised his eyebrows as Holloway came thumping down the dock as though he was about to prevent another escape.

  ‘Anything?’ he asked Jones.

  ‘Mr Holloway, I only took that letter for you four days ago. I would not be expecting an answer for another few days yet.’

  Holloway glared at Jones, then turned to Monsarrat.

  ‘And you have nothing to occupy you in the investigation of the death of Jones’s predecessor?’

  ‘I remind you, Mr Holloway, that I am not part of your staff and not yours to command, as I’m not a soldier.’

  Holloway ostentatiously drew his eyes from Monsarrat’s toes all the way up to his face. ‘No, you’re not, are you? You’re not of the stuff for it. The question is, what stuff are you made of, Mr Monsarrat? That is something I would very much like to know the answer to.’

  As Holloway stalked off to the barracks, Monsarrat found himself pitying whichever subordinate he encountered in such a temper.

  Monsarrat spotted Dr Chester, who was walking quickly down the hill, stumbling on the rutted ground as he went. By the time he caught up with Chester, the doctor had his hand on the commissary door.

  ‘Is all well, doctor?’

  Chester turned sharply, opened his mouth, closed it. Looked at the door and back to Monsarrat, and stepped towards him.

  ‘To be honest,’ he said, almost whispering, ‘everything’s a long way from well. Mrs Brewster has … well, she’s suffering. Thank God she has your Mrs Mulrooney with her.’

  ‘And Mrs Mulrooney – she is well?’

  Monsarrat knew what nursing the young Honora Shelborne in Port Macquarie had cost his friend. He did not know whether she could pay such a price a second time, after all that had happened since.

  Chester nodded. ‘And coping admirably. You may have to do without her for a while, though.’

  ‘Of course, if it will be of assistance to Mrs Brewster and the commandant.’

  At the mention of the commandant Chester snorted derisively. ‘Forgive me, Mr Monsarrat. The whole thing seems to have stripped away my circumspection.’

  ‘I thought you and the commandant were on good terms?’

  ‘It is a very small island, Mr Monsarrat, and one which contains few people whom James Brewster considers even vaguely appropriate to socialise with. I happen to be one of them.’

  ‘You don’t care for him?’

  Chester jammed his lips together for a moment, then shook his head. ‘When I came here, Mr Monsarrat, I had thoughts of improving the health of this island. Nutrition, sanitation, that sort of thing. I laid a plan in front of Brewster. Do you know what he said? These prisoners weren’t worth it. I was to stitch them up when needed and … how did he say it … save my more libertarian impulses for my return to Sydney. I dine with him on occasion because I can’t avoid it. And for Walter. I always leave as soon as is polite.’

  ‘For Walter? You have concerns?’

  ‘The boy is an innocent, frequently he finds himself catching the edge of the commandant’s tongue. Perhaps worse – who knows.’

  Elizabeth was breathing evenly now. She was clean, in a nightdress, and Hannah had removed the insulting canvas from the bed so that Elizabeth could lie where she belonged.

  There was a rocking chair next to the bed, which Hannah sat in, listening to the occasional complaint from the geese outside, the shouting of men on the hospital site. Watching the light change as the day wore on. And checking for any sound from the woman nearby. She was thinking a lot of her last vigil by the bedside of a commandant’s wife, one that had also resulted from poison. That poison had been administered by a beautiful young man with an ugly wound which could only be salved by the death of Honora – who had done him no wrong. But Elizabeth Brewster had tipped the poison down her throat willingly if Dr Chester’s hunch was to be believed. And while Hannah had no quarrel with Chester, whether or not it was to be believed was a matter on which she had yet to settle her mind.

  The occasional baleful honk of the geese was replaced by a crescendo of them, all honking at someone approaching the house, someone with the temerity to do so without bearing shortbread.

  The door to the outer room opened, and then the door to the bedroom. Chester, wearing a different set of trousers, craned his head around the door frame. ‘Feels odd, don’t you know, letting myself into the commandant’s bedroom like this.’

  ‘I am sure Mrs Brewster wouldn’t mind,’ said Hannah. ‘You are here for her, after all.’

  Chester approached the bed, ran his eyes over the woman in it. ‘I perceive some colour. I will be sure to report that to Walter – he’s distressed, as you can imagine. You are to be commended, Mrs Mulrooney. She looks clean and comfortable, and that dreadful canvas is gone. Has she woken? Said anything?’

  ‘Nothing anyone could understand,’ said Hannah. ‘A few mumblings, that’s all.’

  ‘Mumbling is better than nothing,’ said Chester, picking up her wrist. ‘Her pulse is stronger. She seems to be out of immediate danger.’

  ‘I’m sure the commandant will be delighted to hear it,’ said Hannah.

  ‘Yes … I wonder, Mrs Mulrooney, would you bring him the word? He is back in his office now. Some urgent dispatches needed writing, apparently. I don’t believe constant watching is required now, and the commandant might have another task for you while his wife is incapacitated – assuming Mr Monsarrat can spare you, of course.’

  ‘Oh, I’m sure Mr Monsarrat will do what’s needed for the greater good,’ said Hannah.

  ‘Yes. He does seem the type. In fact, have him call on me later, if you please. There is a matter I would like to discuss with him.’

  Hannah stood, bobbed and left Mrs Brewster in the care of the doctor. Perhaps, she thought as she walked down to the bay, she was being uncharitable towards Captain Brewster. Perhaps he was every bit as shaken as he should be but had adopted the practice of some men, who saw emotion as weakness, burying it in clipped orders and blank faces. Perhaps now he was pouring his agitation out into reports.

  He emitted a flat ‘come’ when she knocked.

  ‘Commandant, the doctor bids me inform you that your wife is recovering. She is still not awake, but it seems she is no longer in imminent danger of death.’

  Brewster raised one eyebrow. ‘Thank you,’ he said and went back to his document.

  She had hoped he would jump from his desk, race up the hill, take his wife’s hand and kiss it. But she had known, really, that he wouldn’t.

  ‘Sir … The doctor suggested I ask you whether there is any service I may perform as your wife recovers.’

  Brewster leaned back in his chair, massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, and exhaled slowly. ‘I have had Walter in here twice today. Asking about where the sugar is kept, whether there is enough salt pork. Will probably inquire about the location of his own backside next. I understand you assisted in the commissary before. Can you keep an eye on him again tomorrow? And clean yourself up a bit. Your apron looks disgraceful.’

  Hannah nodded, murmured a platitude about her hopes for his wife’s recovery, and backed out. As she was closing the door, she saw he had already gone back to his document. She was about to turn towards the commissary when she noticed a fa
miliar dark figure on the dock, leaning slightly forward as he walked, hands clasped behind his back. She went down to meet him. He looked up, smiled distractedly when he saw her. ‘How fares Mrs Brewster?’

  ‘She will live, by the looks. I have to say, Mr Monsarrat, sitting beside a woman in a bed, dealing with the scorn of an officer who hates convicts … It’s all feeling a little like Port Macquarie.’

  ‘As would any isolated penal settlement, I imagine,’ he said. ‘A large group of people who wear a criminal stain, and a smaller group of people who are tasked with making sure that they don’t escape, kill each other, or rebel, and you will get a similar result, wherever you go. But this is not altogether like Port Macquarie, Mrs Mulrooney. This place is in the grip of a man who seems incapable of feeling. And this time he’s in charge.’

  ‘Yes. The commandant is proving an odd one, that’s for certain.’

  ‘As a matter of fact, I was speaking of Thomas Power.’

  Hannah sighed. ‘Oh, he’s not such a bad man in himself,’ she said. She could see Monsarrat adjusting himself to her new tolerance of Power. ‘I would not take up a pike for him and go to the barricades,’ she assured him.

  They walked back up past the commandant’s cottage, along the small track which had taken Monsarrat to the light, towards those extraordinary striated cliffs. Hannah told him about the scene at the Brewster’s house, the detachment of the commandant, but soon felt herself running out of the strength needed to entice any more words out of her mouth.

  ‘You are quiet, my friend,’ said Monsarrat.

  Hannah looked sideways at him. ‘You forget. The weight of it. The way it chokes you, to be in a small place like this, in this case knowing that the only law is administered by a man who seems almost criminally uninterested in his wife. Tell me, do you feel the commandant has given you everything you need? Has he opened all doors for you as you pursue this murderer?’

  Now Monsarrat was quiet for a while. Eventually he spoke. ‘To a point. He has not put any overt impediments in my way, but I suppose you could say that he has been less than accommodating in some regards.’

  ‘And why, tell me, do you think that is?’

  ‘I had thought that he was used to running things at his own pace here, that he saw the insertion of a man from Sydney into this settlement as no reason to change his way of doing things.’

  ‘Perhaps, Mr Monsarrat, you need to think again. Because an odd idea is beginning to take hold of me, one that refuses to go away, even when I call it nonsense. I am wondering whether our killer is currently sitting in his office, scratching away at reports on the flax crop.’

  Chapter 17

  If the suggestion had come from anyone else, Monsarrat would have dismissed it immediately. Brewster was revealing himself to be a lacklustre administrator, someone whose preferred response to a terrible event seemed to be a desire to pass the issue onto a visitor like Monsarrat, and then complain of lack of immediate progress. He was not, Monsarrat would have thought, the type to take matters into his own hands in such an emphatic way as committing murder himself.

  But the notion was coming from Mrs Mulrooney. A woman who, Monsarrat had to admit, was probably more intelligent than him.

  ‘Very well then,’ he said. Neither of them felt like sitting and both found comfort in movement. The falling night meant they couldn’t go far, but they were pacing back and forth along the first stages of the path which led to the light. ‘I suppose you had better tell me why you think the commandant himself might be responsible.’

  ‘Well,’ she said, with the excited air of somebody about to indulge in their favourite pastime, ‘first of all, I’d better tell you who else I suspect of wrongdoing.’

  ‘It is an island full of convicts. Fertile ground, I would have thought.’

  ‘Do not make a jest of this, Mr Monsarrat, clever as you think yourself. A woman’s life nearly ended because of it.’

  The smile left Monsarrat’s face, and he nodded solemnly. ‘I am sorry. It has been a confusing few days, and sometimes making light is the only way to convince myself of my ability to survive it. Go on. Who are the malefactors in your view?’

  ‘Using big words will not make me think you any more intelligent, either,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘What would that mind of yours say to the suggestion that Elizabeth Brewster and Thomas Power were … closer than one might expect?’

  ‘By closer, you mean …’

  ‘As close as it is possible to be.’

  ‘Lovers? Why?’

  ‘I told you, I have seen her standing by the wall surrounding his cottage, staring at it. When I visited him the day before he tried to escape, remember he asked me about her. And she was very agitated the night of the escape.’

  ‘Well, her husband was conceivably in danger. None of us knew whether those in the boat had a musket.’

  ‘Yes, I assumed the same, at first. But her upset could also have been because of Power’s recapture. Walter says she was crying because Power hadn’t succeeded.’

  ‘But if Elizabeth was in love with Power, wouldn’t she want him to stay?’

  ‘Perhaps not. Perhaps she knew where he was bound, was planning to join him.’

  ‘And if they were involved,’ said Monsarrat, ‘I wonder if she …’

  ‘Was responsible for signalling that the ship was near? I would say so. She was just coming in when we went to the cottage to warn the commandant. Neither of us heard a bell or a shot, or saw a light. But Power must’ve had some means of knowing when to make his dash down to the beach. And she could easily have had a hand in making sure messages went back and forth, although how … Well, I haven’t worked it out yet. But I am increasingly certain that she was complicit in his escape.’

  ‘I will grant you, it does sound plausible,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Jones tells me she often takes the mail and delivers it. But how does this convince you that her husband is our killer?’

  Mrs Mulrooney stopped for a moment to allow a large wombat and its child to trundle across the path, the baby with its nose to its mother’s rear. They were close to a clearing where some felled trees littered an open, grassed area with a view of the ocean. She made to sit down on one of the logs, patted the vacant section next to her. Monsarrat would have preferred not to sit, actually. When one’s legs were so inconveniently long, sitting on a log was rather uncomfortable, with the choice between bringing your knees up to your chin or stretching out ridiculously. But he knew better than to disobey when Mrs Mulrooney beckoned.

  ‘Now, this is where I get a little uncertain,’ she said. ‘This is where I make assumptions, which I detest. But assumptions are all we have right now, so here are mine. Brewster, somehow, discovered the liaison. It was he who was responsible for poisoning his wife.’

  ‘But even the doctor suggested there was no one else involved, and the lady herself can’t tell us.’

  ‘Not at the moment. But she may yet.’

  ‘And why would Brewster have killed Harefield?’

  ‘Perhaps he suspected Harefield of carrying messages for Power. Perhaps Harefield had also discovered the liaison and was threatening to expose it. Let’s not forget that the man had already been spreading speculation about another romance. If another scandal he spread were to become common knowledge, what would that mean for Brewster’s advancement?’

  ‘I see your point.’

  ‘And ask yourself, Mr Monsarrat, who knew where Harefield was likely to be? Who could avail himself of any axe in the settlement? Who is the only person who would not be questioned over his whereabouts if he was not where he was expected to be for an hour or two?’

  ‘The path you are leading us down, my friend, is the most tangled on this island.’

  Mrs Mulrooney smiled. She walked over to the edge of the clearing closest to the cliff. Monsarrat followed, dragged as always by the force of her personality.

  ‘It will make Brewster look good, I should think, to have prevented Power from sailing off,’ she said.
Let’s assume for a moment that he found out about Power’s escape. That he knew when it was to be, the manner in which it was to take place. Which would look better in his report? Increasing security to prevent it? Or bravely charging down the hill, musket in hand, leading his men as they splashed into the water after the miscreant?’

  ‘Actually, I was the first in the water.’

  ‘Well, I would be amazed if your involvement made it into the official report.’

  ‘Why then did he not come immediately when we pounded on his door?’

  ‘That I don’t know. Perhaps he knew he had time, thought it couldn’t hurt to pretend to be ignorant of the situation.’

  Monsarrat was silent for a moment. ‘It’s an interesting story,’ he said, finally. ‘One which has possibilities.’

  ‘And they will remain just that unless we are able to find something else, something stronger. Because at the moment we’ve built a very pretty framework, and we’ve managed to drape the facts over it so that they fit quite nicely. But the whole thing might collapse with the first puff of wind.’

  Magistrate Ellison’s arrival had caused all sorts of upheaval. It had of course upset Holloway. His was no longer the second-most authoritative voice on the island, and he had potential competition when it came to influencing the commandant. Monsarrat did not know yet if the magistrate had been able to extract anything from Power. He thought not, and Holloway would be crouched in wait for a misstep. But the disruption extended to more prosaic matters as well. Chiefly, where Ellison was to sleep.

  Brewster had come up with a solution. When Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney returned, Brewster and Ellison were standing on the patch of grass between the two cottages overlooking the bay. The soil here was heavy with moisture, swelling and opening fissures between patches of grass, objecting to these structures which stood where the wombats had once grazed. The two men were looking out to sea and Brewster was gesturing wildly, drawing his arm in a slash down from the cottages, past Power’s old enclosure to the bay, no doubt describing the escape attempt and its frustration at his gallant hands.

 
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