The power game, p.19
The Power Game, p.19Thomas Keneally
The facts did not quite sit well together, did not mesh in the way they should. As she worried at them, she heard a noise, which she always resented at this time of morning. A footstep. Another soul laying claim to a part of the day that she considered hers alone.
Monsarrat was up even earlier than usual. He looked the worse for it. He had not shaved – unusual for him – and a dusting of whiskers was darkening the lower part of his face. His cravat was loose, and one waistcoat button was undone.
‘You need to take yourself in hand, so you do, Mr Monsarrat,’ she said. ‘This kind of laxity in the way you present yourself – what would Eveleigh think?’
‘He would be appalled, I have no doubt,’ said Monsarrat. ‘As I might be when I get sufficient rest to allow myself to care. I do, however, have a reasonable excuse. It was a late night.’
‘You never got into that drink with him, did you? You know you’ve not the head for it, Mr Monsarrat, nor the stomach neither. Asking for it, drinking that sort of stuff.’
Monsarrat straightened his shoulders, seemed slightly put out. ‘I didn’t, as it happens. And I think he was quite relieved about it, too. Do you know he had another bottle secreted under a floorboard near the hearth? We must’ve walked over it several dozen times. And by midnight last night there was nothing left of that either.’
‘He didn’t drink two bottles of port in one sitting!’
‘Oh, he did. And part of the reason I look the way I do this morning is that that much port can produce some quite remarkable snoring. But I made sure I put the time to good use. Ellison was kind enough to leave his papers on the kitchen table.’
‘Was he indeed? Considerate of him. Save you the trouble of riffling through papers that were put somewhere private. You can tell yourself that you saw whatever you saw by accident. A little easier on the conscience.’
‘That it is,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I still felt terrible going through them. Until I noticed something you might find interesting. Those fragments you found in Power’s grate – the letter W. It’s identical to the way Ellison writes it.’
Hannah pursed her lips. ‘Now that is of interest. Is it a common way of writing it, though? Is there a usual way of doing such things among clerks?’
‘There are a great many little rules, and I shan’t bore you with them all. But the way one forms letters should be neat, certainly; each should have a decorative element to it. Beyond that, there is a broad range of individual differences. And I have never seen anyone write a letter – even a simple W – in the same way as the next man.’
‘We know where the cloth came from too now,’ Hannah said. ‘I found the handkerchief it was torn from in Elizabeth Brewster’s wardrobe. How it got to Power’s yard, though …’
‘Will hopefully reveal itself. In the meantime, I’ve been searching my memory for an example of a situation where a magistrate would write to a prisoner. Unsuccessfully. Whatever Ellison’s reasons were for communicating with Power, it seems they were likely to be … unofficial.’
‘Yes … like his unofficial hoard under the floorboards …’ She turned towards the bay, which was beginning to sparkle now as the sun rose higher. ‘I wonder … Mr Monsarrat, while I’m trying to extract information from the commandant’s wife and pretend to enjoy the company of that sot Ellison, do you think you might like to do some work as well?’
‘I might. What did you have in mind?’
‘For an intelligent man, you can be idiotic, did you know that?’ she said. ‘The floorboards!’
‘The floorboards near the grate in Power’s old cottage. We might find something useful has been under our feet all along.’
Monsarrat could still hear the low growl of Ellison’s snoring when he padded to his trunk to collect a small, well-thumbed book. He did not know whether Brewster had risen in the barracks, but it was early yet and if he was to endure the anxiety which went with pretending to be something he wasn’t, he might as well use it to his advantage.
So when the young private who was stationed outside the guardhouse – and judging by his unfocused look had been so all night – was told to open the door in the governor’s name, he had no hesitation in doing so.
Mrs Mulrooney was a fierce advocate of approaching things side-on. But an oblique strategy, Monsarrat feared, would not work with Power. The man was skilled at building verbal snares himself, would not fall for whatever clumsy device Monsarrat could construct.
So being direct seemed the way. It might yield nothing – very probably wouldn’t – but it was the best he had. That, and a tactic which the uncharitable might describe as bribery.
‘I imagine this is becoming quite tedious,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I did put in a word with the commandant, the paper and so forth. I do hope he obliged you.’
Power sat up and winced – no doubt due to being forced to lie on a rough board all night.
‘Not yet,’ said Power. ‘Still, I am used to tedium now. I was in the process of constructing the next entry of my journal in my head – where I hope it will remain until I can transfer it to paper. Thank you for inquiring, by the way.’
‘Not at all. I imagine you’ll thank me rather more profusely when you see what I have for you,’ said Monsarrat.
He fished the small book out of his pocket, turned it side-on and passed it through the bars. Power was on his feet in an instant. If he was still stiff, he was ignoring it in his eagerness to see what was in Monsarrat’s hand.
‘Catullus! My dear fellow, you did mention his volume has a place of honour in your library, and it makes the gift all the more welcome. Catullus can always cheer a fellow up. I do thank you quite profusely.’
‘The only thanks I require, Mr Power, is that you not make the commandant or Mr Holloway aware that you possess this volume.’
‘You need not trouble yourself on that score, Mr Monsarrat.’ Power thumbed through the pages. ‘And in Latin. Neither Brewster nor Holloway would know what they were looking at.’
‘I must confess, neither do I,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Oh, not the book. Latin poses no problem for me – as a boy I translated these poems into English, you know. At least, those that were appropriate for a child’s eyes.’
‘Around a quarter of them, then,’ said Power, smiling.
‘Quite. So the Latin doesn’t confuse me, but something else does, and it’s a point on which you may be able to assist me.’
‘I shall do whatever I can. As long as it doesn’t turn on the issue of my escape and anyone else who may or may not have been involved.’
‘As to that – I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that you’ve been corresponding with Ellison. And it strikes me, as someone who is reasonably familiar with the workings of a penal settlement, as odd. I have never encountered a case where a magistrate would correspond with a felon.’
Power raised his eyebrows, walked slowly back to his bench and sat down, tucking Catullus into the breast pocket of his jacket and patting it. ‘This volume will be safe with me, Mr Monsarrat. As will any information regarding who I do or don’t correspond with. And as you say, it would be highly irregular for Ellison to be writing to me, or I to him. What on earth makes you think such a thing has occurred?’
‘A scrap of paper found in your fireplace, actually,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Bearing the letter W, written in an identical script to Ellison’s.’
‘You are basing this supposition on a single letter?’ Power chuckled.
‘That and a few others. Fragments of them, anyway. I’m not sure what the complete words were, but you really must be more careful to ensure that when you burn something, it burns fully. Together with the W, you left another scrap of paper. The words “nal” and “wi”. I have spent a lot of time, Mr Power, over the past day casting about the words which end in “nal”, and there is one I keep coming back to. Signal. And the other one – will? With? Whatever the rest said, those letters are identical to ones in a recent report by our friend Mr El
‘You do seem to be casting about, Mr Monsarrat. Those papers were innocent. From my brother, actually. Writing from Ireland to tell me how marginal the crops were this year, with the winter frost coming early. I burned them simply because my desk was getting crowded.’
‘You burn the letter from Ireland, but not the list and scratchings-out and first drafts of your journal that my housekeeper found on your desk?’
‘Reminders from home can be painful, as I’m sure you’re aware. Do not forget, Mr Monsarrat, that I know I am not the only one in this room to wear the sentence of the court. When I put that to you during our last interview, you did not deny it.’
Monsarrat couldn’t resist smiling at the facility, the ease and speed with which Power responded.
‘What I’m not entirely clear on, Mr Power, is how you got correspondence into Ellison’s hands, and vice versa. Of course I recall you helping young Ennis with a letter to his mother. Perhaps those bundles contained additional information, the kind you could no longer write on your own behalf?’
‘Well, you certainly seem to be enjoying your fantasy, so I’m not going to impede you in the spinning of it,’ said Power.
‘Very well then. Let me add another element to this story. A lady. One who somehow managed to get messages to you, even after you were placed under guard. One who could no longer risk being seen in open conversation with you, nor had the access even if she wanted it.’
Power clapped his hands. ‘Very good! All good stories need a lady, don’t you think?’
Monsarrat reached into his pocket again, pulled out the strip of fabric embroidered with little blue flowers, fiddled ostentatiously with it. ‘Perhaps this lady somehow managed to tie bundled messages up in strips of cloth and throw them over your wall.’
Power laughed. ‘Really, Mr Monsarrat. You struck me as an educated man. How can someone who’s been translating Catullus since boyhood not have a rudimentary grip of physical laws? I suggest you try such a feat yourself. I think you’ll find that no one, particularly here where the wind is present more often than absent, would be able to lob a small scrap of paper tied in a tiny strip of cloth all the way over a high wall.’
‘Is that what she did, then?’
‘No one did anything.’
Monsarrat stood. ‘Very well, Mr Power. I’m delighted to have entertained you, and now I will leave you to your dead Roman. I thought you might like to know, though – I’m planning a visit to your former lodging today. I thought the floorboards near that fireplace might bear closer inspection.’
He stood and walked to the door. He tried to do so without looking back, but was unable to resist a brief glance over his shoulder. And he saw the expression on Power’s face had slid, rearranging itself from its customary amused superiority into something close to fear.
Ellison was well and truly up and about by the time Monsarrat got back to the cottage. All the papers had been cleared away from the kitchen table, which was just as well, as Mrs Mulrooney promptly reclaimed the room, so that within half an hour Ellison was sitting in the small parlour, a cup of tea at his elbow.
‘This woman is a marvel,’ Ellison said as Mrs Mulrooney came in with a fresh pot. ‘And young Walter tells me that the stores are in better shape than they have been in some years.’
He turned to Hannah. ‘Mr Mulrooney is a fortunate man indeed,’ he said.
‘Mr Mulrooney is … no longer,’ Mrs Mulrooney said.
‘Oh, I am sorry,’ said Ellison, looking anything but. ‘I wonder, my dear – most irregular, I know – but would you join me in a port this evening?’
‘Kind of you, but I never touch it,’ she said. ‘In any case I am due at the stores.’
She was not, as far as Monsarrat knew.
‘Never mind,’ Ellison said, in a reassuring tone which gave the distinct impression that he saw Mrs Mulrooney’s dislike for alcohol as no impediment. ‘A cup of tea, then. And I have plenty to occupy myself while you set the commissary stores to rights.’
Mrs Mulrooney opened her mouth to utter what Monsarrat was sure was a refusal.
‘I would be delighted to have tea with you,’ she said quickly, looking anything but delighted, and Monsarrat had the sense she was forcing the words out before she could change her mind.
‘How wonderful! If you’ll excuse me for now, I’m going back down to Brewster’s office. I have some interesting conclusions from my conversations with Thomas Power to bring to light. I may also need to acquaint him with some other facts.’
When he had gone, Mrs Mulrooney tramped up to Monsarrat. ‘Do you know, I was about to make you shortbread? You’ll have none now. How dare you let me promise to have tea with such a rogue.’
Monsarrat was already feeling guilty. He knew she had volunteered to further the investigation. Mrs Mulrooney’s sentence had long expired, she had escaped the paper jail of tickets of leave and conditional pardons. She had nothing to lose should they fail to find the perpetrator of Harefield’s murder, but, for Monsarrat’s sake, had just agreed to tea with a man she no doubt found odious.
‘Ellison is right, you are a marvel. No, don’t hit me, I mean it. I’ve had less luck than you will hopefully have. I was unable to make any headway with Power. He did look a little alarmed at the prospect of me visiting his old cottage, but he scoffed at the idea of Elizabeth Brewster throwing messages over the wall to him tied in strips of cloth. He even suggested I try it, that I wouldn’t be able to get such a light object over a high wall.’
‘Try we should, nonetheless,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘But what makes you feel I’ll have better luck?’
‘I suspect, Mrs Mulrooney, that our magistrate may be something of a braggart after a little port. If you were to convince him to brag about helping Power …’
‘I shall see what I can do, so. Perhaps he has yet another bottle secreted under those floorboards.’
There was a surprising amount to do, running a store. In a place where the majority of people had been found guilty of criminal activity, particularly theft, everything had to be re-weighed and re-measured regularly if you wanted to avoid opening a sack only to find there was half as much as there should be. Hannah realised Elizabeth probably had a system which made sure none of the precious food slipped out the door, but if she had, it appeared she hadn’t shared it with her brother.
Hannah had first gone to find Captain Brewster in the barracks, where she had received a curt nod in response to her suggestion that she look in on the stores for the duration of his wife’s incapacity. Walter was there, of course. He may have only a nodding acquaintance with the administrative necessities of running a store, but he would never desert his post.
He was, though, doing nothing. At least, nothing towards getting the barrels and crates unpacked and in some sort of order. He was at his customary position behind the desk, flipping the broad ledger pages filled with crammed writing, looking for all the world as though he was searching for a particular entry.
‘Good morning, Mr Gendron,’ said Hannah.
Walter looked up. He wore half-moon spectacles, which Hannah suspected were an attempt to make him seem more authoritative, because he pushed them up on his forehead whenever he examined the ledger. He was frowning as she came in, and when he saw her he stood quickly, knocking over an ink pot in the process. The ink had been allowed to dry, so only a few black flecks spilled onto the desk.
‘Elizabeth … She’s not …’
‘Now sit yourself down, Mr Gendron. You mustn’t go assuming the worst. It’s the opposite, actually. She is recovering well – she is obviously a woman of strong constitution.’
‘Yes. She would be cross at me for saying this, but she can chop wood as fast as any man.’
‘I’ve no doubt of it, as I’m sure circumstances have called on her to do that many times in the past. While her body is recovering, though, her spirit seems to be flagging a little. There’s still a sadness to her.’
‘Why should she be sad about him? His escape was prevented, and her husband will no doubt receive some sort of commendation for it.’
Walter frowned. ‘He deserves no commendation.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘Thomas should be on his way to America now,’ Walter said. ‘I could have visited him there, seen him happy. I am angry with James about that. I’m not very pleased with your Mr Monsarrat, either.’
‘You mustn’t be cross at him, Mr Gendron. He did what he thought was right.’
‘But that’s all Thomas did too! Sometimes you do things for the best reasons. If they turn out to have the worst results, should you be punished?’
‘Well, I would say no … But it’s not really up to me.’
‘Nor to me. But he should have been let go. He should never have been here. All he did was try to free people who had committed no crime.’
‘I may – may – share your opinion on that, Mr Gendron, but it is a dangerous one. Who told you that? Was it Mr Power?’
‘No, it was Elizabeth. She said he has done no wrong, that he is being punished for wanting to give some freedom to people who don’t have any. They have more patience with that sort of thing in America, she said. And after he had gone …’
Walter gave a little start then, seemed to be hearing his words for the first time, as though they’d been spoken by someone else. He pushed the spectacles back on top of his head and returned his attention to the ledger.
‘After he had gone, Mr Gendron? What were you going to do then?’
‘Be happy, I suppose,’ said Walter. His eyes were flicking around the room, not settling on anything – he seemed on the verge of becoming distraught.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes