The power game, p.18
The Power Game, p.18Thomas Keneally
I must stop thinking like this, thought Monsarrat. I must not assume that he is motivated by sloth and glory. An odd combination, to be sure, but not an unknown one. There were those whose aversion to work was only matched by their hunger for glory. These warring impulses could create an odd tension. Who knew what someone in their grip might do?
For now, it seemed Brewster was actually doing something. ‘Ah, Monsarrat. We have a few matters of logistics to discuss. Night will be upon us soon, and we now have an additional guest.’
‘Naturally, I will cede the cottage to the magistrate himself,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Perhaps a bunk could be found for me in the soldiers’ barracks. Mrs Mulrooney, though …’
‘Everything is arranged. I will spend the night in the barracks,’ said Brewster. ‘Mrs Mulrooney can stay in our cottage with Elizabeth. As for the magistrate, he will indeed stay in his cottage, with you.’
Mrs Mulrooney had managed to procure some salt beef from the commisary, and had given Jones a coin in exchange for a plump bream. Brewster was dining with his officers in the mess, probably reliving the glory of Power’s aborted bolt for the horizon, so Monsarrat and Ellison ate a meal prepared by Mrs Mulrooney before she went to the cottage next door to take up her vigil.
‘Not married, are you, Mr Monsarrat?’ said Ellison, after they had been eating in silence for a few minutes. ‘I can tell, you know. You are perfectly comfortable with yourself, not used to being an appendage.’
‘As it happens, no, I’m not. That may change, though.’
Was he right? It was the first time he had heard the words come out of his own mouth. It was time, he supposed, to either marry or make an equally strong commitment to confirmed bachelorhood. Had he not met Hannah Mulrooney and Grace O’Leary, had he not in them found an affirmation that mankind was not perpetually venal and grasping, he might have opted for the latter. Now, though, he felt he would not mind a companion, even if it did mean he had two women instead of one telling him what to do.
‘Power is married, you said?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes. Seven children. Before Marley cracked down, Power wrote his wife long, rambling letters, you know. Criticised everything about this place, said he was treated deplorably, told her the convicts here were of the worst possible description. Can you imagine if he was at Macquarie Harbour?
‘You know a lot about him,’ said Monsarrat.
‘I make it my business to know a lot about everyone.’
‘And no female companionship during his long exile,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Must be difficult.’
‘Ah, well, he manages …’
‘Manages? On an island so full of men?’
‘What I meant,’ said Ellison quickly, ‘is that he manages to survive without.’
‘Candidate for the sainthood, I’d say.’
Ellison smiled. ‘I’ve heard Mr Power called many things, Mr Monsarrat, but that’s the first time I’ve ever heard him called a saint.’
Ellison took a surprisingly healthy pull on his glass of port, drawn from a bottle which was now nearly empty.
‘As for marriage, I would not be in such a hurry if I were you,’ he said. ‘My wife – God rest her soul – was a wonderful woman. But, and I feel a little disloyal saying this, life has become less complicated since her departure. One can get very used to pleasing only oneself. And, if you forgive me, at your age you’ve had a lot of time to get used to it.’
After another draught of port, he leaned across and patted Monsarrat’s knee companionably.
‘Your housekeeper seems a sensible woman. Nice face, too. Is she married? Silly question, of course – she would hardly be called Mrs Mulrooney if she wasn’t.’
‘She is currently unattached. Although a very busy woman,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Of course, of course. Not frivolous, though, by the looks. The frivolous, they don’t do well here.’
Mrs Mulrooney shuffled in just then to clear away the plates.
‘I’ve some shortbread, if that’s of interest to you,’ she said. ‘Together with tea, of course. Magistrate, if you don’t mind my saying, adding a little tea to that port you’ve been drinking might not be the worst of ideas.’
Ellison threw his head back and laughed. ‘You are quite right, my dear. Tea and shortbread would be delightful, thank you.’
Mrs Mulrooney looked over his head to Monsarrat and raised her eyebrows, and Monsarrat responded with an almost imperceptible shrug.
She deposited the shortbread in front of them a few minutes later, and carried in a tray with the tea things.
‘I’ll have to leave you gentlemen to pour for yourselves, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Dr Chester is with Mrs Brewster and is expecting me just as soon as I can get there.’
‘Very good of you,’ said Ellison. ‘You must go, of course. Do not fret, Monsarrat and I will be able to take care of ourselves, and we promise not to burn the place down.’
Mrs Mulrooney cast a sideways glance in Monsarrat’s direction, a look which told him she wasn’t reassured.
After she had scurried into the darkness of the commandant’s house, Ellison turned and clapped Monsarrat on the shoulder. ‘Well, dear boy,’ he said, with an avuncular familiarity made possible by the better part of a bottle of port. ‘I hope you’ll excuse me, but I do need to attend to some paperwork this evening. Perhaps, if you’ve no use for the kitchen table …’
He leaned towards Monsarrat, the fumes on his breath hazing the air between them. ‘Should you ever want a hiding place whilst you’re here, there’s a loose floorboard near the hearth,’ he said. ‘You will find secreted there another bottle of fine port. I would offer you a glass, dear chap, but you’ve already told me that you don’t indulge. Might I prevail on you to help me retrieve it? I believe it might be a long night.’
Brewster and Chester were on their way out of the cottage when Hannah got around to the front. ‘If there is any change in Mrs Brewster’s condition,’ the doctor said, ‘please send for me at once.’
‘Of course, doctor. And shall I send to the barracks for you as well, Captain Brewster?’
Brewster let out a short bark of a laugh. ‘I have no medical training, I would be worse than useless. I am sure you and Dr Chester between you can manage.’
Hannah bobbed, all of her conscious mind bent towards preventing the contempt she felt making itself apparent in her face. ‘Very good, gentlemen. Have a pleasant evening.’
She turned and walked away without waiting to be dismissed.
Hannah had hardly thought about the wealth which awaited her in Sydney since she’d landed on Maria Island. Here it seemed irrelevant. No amount of money would make the geese leave her alone, or bring Elizabeth any more quickly back to health, or soothe Walter’s troubled mind.
But she thought of it now. All of those men I’ve heard you send to work on that house you believe no one knows about, she thought. All the lumber, and all the labour. I could probably pay for it many times over.
She made straight for the bedroom where Elizabeth lay, still in the nightgown she had worn the day before. The woman’s pallor made her fine features look as though they were carved from blue-veined marble. Her eyes were open.
‘Mrs Brewster, your husband sent me to take care of you. I hope you don’t mind if I come in,’ Hannah said.
Elizabeth contorted her mouth in what might have been attempted smile. ‘I am grateful to have you here, Mrs Mulrooney. You are far more capable of attending to me than my husband.’
‘I shall certainly do my best, madam. Now, to start, shall we get you into a clean nightdress? You have been wearing this one for far too long.’
Elizabeth inched herself backwards, so that she was sitting up, and Hannah put some pillows behind her head. ‘Just over there,’ Elizabeth said, waving her hand towards the side of the room. ‘In the … oh. I suppose it would have been too much to expect …’
The wardrobe was in a dark corner of the room and of dark w
‘He always does this,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Never occurs to him to put back what he’s taken.’
Her eyes, Hannah noticed, were beginning to shine, and her jaw was set from the effort of preventing tears emerging.
‘Don’t distress yourself, now,’ Hannah said. ‘This is easily fixed. I’ll get you a nightdress, we’ll get you washed and later I’ll set the wardrobe to rights.’
The next half-hour was taken up with delicate negotiations over how Elizabeth was to bathe. While she said she yearned to be clean, she was not inclined to reveal herself to anyone, even another woman.
‘Dr Chester says you’re not to be by yourself,’ Hannah said.
‘Yet I’ve been by myself for most of the afternoon and seem to have survived the experience.’
‘All right, so,’ she said. ‘I will make you a bargain.’
‘Will you now?’ Elizabeth said. She smiled, not unkindly. The gesture showed Hannah she needed to expand the terms she was about to offer.
‘Forgive me, Mrs Brewster, but your teeth – they could use some attention. I’ll give you the privacy you want to attend to them, wash and dress. But I will be on the other side of the door and if I hear anything – the thump, say, of you falling to the floor – I’ll be coming straight in. Without knocking.’
So Hannah stood against the blank-faced wood and listened, encouraged by sounds of gentle movement and the occasional drip of water.
‘You can come back in,’ Elizabeth called.
Her hair was wet but brushed, and she must have scrubbed her cheeks because they were a healthier shade of pink. She lay on top of the bed in her clean nightdress.
‘And now – tea,’ said Hannah. ‘It has healing properties, you know.’
She started to smile at Elizabeth, but faltered when she remembered the woman had very nearly died from drinking a substance out of a teacup. Once more, in Elizabeth Brewster she could not help seeing the shade of Honora Shelborne, and she started to cry.
Hannah Mulrooney was not a crier, and prided herself on not being so. But the memory of the deaths of two young people always squeezed the air out of her lungs. Honora was one of those people. Even in Parramatta her ghost could be called forth by the sight of a passionfruit vine or a woman on horseback. Here, as Hannah stood by the bedside of this other beautiful wife of a commandant, there were three women in the room.
It would never have occurred to Elizabeth to find out anything about the life of a woman she viewed as a loaned servant. That was the difference between her and Honora. If the situations were reversed, Honora would have made it her business to know about Elizabeth.
The small degree of callousness which sat between them, though, was not enough to inure Elizabeth entirely to another woman’s tears, particularly as they were springing from someone she viewed as practical above all else. Elizabeth pushed her hands down onto the mattress and hoisted herself further back so that she was sitting straighter than she had in more than a day.
‘Whatever is the matter?’ she said. ‘The wardrobe, surely, isn’t that much of a mess.’
Hannah smiled weakly, acknowledging the attempt at a joke. ‘It’s nothing, forgive me,’ she said. ‘I was remembering something … someone, but it is passing.’
‘It can rush in on you, can’t it? Grief,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Especially here. The isolation magnifies it. There are too few other souls to absorb it, so it is able to turn its full attention on you.’
Hannah risked the familiarity of patting Elizabeth’s knee. Elizabeth took her hand and squeezed.
‘I find,’ said Hannah, ‘that speaking of grief can help. Can’t make it go away, of course. But giving a small piece of it to someone else can make the difference between … well …’
Elizabeth took her hand away, smiled to show it was not a rebuke. ‘There is truth in what you say,’ she said. ‘But some grief is all of a piece. You can’t break chunks off and give them away. There is still solace to be had, though. You mentioned tea?’
Hannah patted the bed briskly, stood. ‘Indeed I did, and it will be with you shortly,’ she said.
She found a bud vase in the kitchen and snipped a small gardenia off from those growing outside the cottage. On the tray, with its teacup and pot covered in matching blue cornflowers, it looked rather pretty, she thought.
So did Elizabeth when she brought it in. ‘This is lovely!’ she said. ‘The wonder of having someone else make the tea … You have no idea.’
Hannah went and knelt by the wardrobe door, folding clothes and putting them back where she hoped they went. Trousers and chemises and pillow slips. And, in one corner, hand kerchiefs. She knew women who saw no point in folding handkerchiefs. She herself saw the unwillingness to fold a handkerchief as the beginning of the end of civilisation. So she picked them up and transformed them into neat little squares. The last one she picked up had a strip or two torn from it. And a design that Hannah had seen before. It was covered in blue cornflowers.
She had just made tea in a service covered in the same flowers, obviously a favourite of Elizabeth Brewster’s. But that was not the first time she had seen the design. The first time was on the snippet of cloth she had found in Thomas Power’s yard.
After Monsarrat had said good night to the magistrate, who had already made a reasonable dent in the bottle of port from under the floorboards, he went into the small servant’s room, where his nightshirt had been laid on the cot by Mrs Mulrooney before she left. He didn’t change into it though. He lay down, fully clothed, and waited. He had no idea how long he would have to wait – some men could hold their liquor far better than others – but wait he would. It was not gentlemanly, he told himself, to riffle through another man’s possessions, even if that man’s bloodstream was so awash with port there was almost no chance of discovery.
There was something concerning about the magistrate. He appeared to harbour sympathies for Power, and certainly seemed to know a lot about him. Odd, too, that a magistrate whose jurisdiction covered not only Maria Island but also townships like Orford and Triabunna would race to the dock to make the journey over on such short notice.
There was probably nothing in it. But the situation seemed what Mrs Mulrooney might call wrinkly. And he would rather see those wrinkles smoothed out, one way or the other.
He nearly fell asleep himself, his waistcoat buttoned and his cravat tied. His eyelids kept drooping, and it took increasing strength of will to haul them open again. He did not have to struggle for consciousness, however, when he heard unsteady footsteps making their way towards the bedroom. Half an hour, he thought, and then I will chance it.
And it seemed he had chosen well, because when he opened the door of his room some time later, the snores could be heard throughout the house. Of course, the man may well have taken his papers to bed with him. But this was his house, and there was a chance he might feel comfortable enough, and be drunk enough, to leave things out.
Monsarrat had judged the situation correctly. Ellison had gone rolling off to his room, leaving his pen, ink and papers where they lay. The snores were still reaching Monsarrat, so he felt safe enough to pick up a page and read it. It was mundane, a letter from Ellison to his valet. He hoped to conclude his business here speedily, he wrote, and he would be home as quickly as he could. The next page was equally mundane, the paperwork of a functionary in a remote outpost. Crimes committed, sentences imposed. Samuel Johnson, for example, had been given one hundred lashes for stealing food from his master’s larder. Harriet Wells, one week in the Cascades Female Factory for drunkenness. Crimes which could have been committed in Parramatta, or in Port Macquarie, and sentences which were neither extreme nor lenient.
But Monsarrat noticed that Ellison used a slightly different hand for the more official documents. The letter to his servant was written in a serviceable hand, c
Monsarrat reached into his pocket, withdrew the scrap of paper containing the letter W which Mrs Mulrooney had found in Thomas Power’s fireplace and held it against the same letter on a report to the lieutenant governor. One sentence started: ‘Whereas Henry Dunkin, convict, has appeared before me on charges of …’
The letters were, as close as they could possibly be, identical.
Hannah Mulrooney liked to be up by dawn. She enjoyed the feeling of getting a significant chunk of the day’s business done before anyone else was about. Monsarrat considered himself an early riser, but she saw him as an amateur, a trier.
As the sun was rising she looked in on Elizabeth Brewster, who was sleeping peacefully now, the room as neat as it had ever been, her clothes safely contained behind the wooden doors of the wardrobe, together with a small scrap of torn blue-and-white fabric.
Elizabeth’s colour had returned to the point where Hannah thought she could justify a trip outdoors, watching the day seep in from a bench outside the magistrate’s hut, the same one from which she and Monsarrat had seen the whaler coming in. There was, Hannah thought, a held breath while the sun was in the process of getting itself fully aloft. A slight pause between the birds who yelled themselves hoarse at the first of the light, and the men and women who greeted it slightly later. It was at this time of day she could think best.
And she had a lot to think about.
She was already reasonably certain that Power and Elizabeth had been lovers. But if the strip of cloth was a token, why had it been discarded? And why would she not have given him a more meaningful object? Perhaps she felt it would be discovered, but it would be an easy thing to give him something like a ribbon from her hair. If it had been found by James Brewster, Power could easily have claimed it belonged to his own wife, that he’d carried it all this way across the seas.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes