The power game, p.20
The Power Game,
‘Well, do you know what makes me happy?’ Hannah said. ‘Tidying up. And there appears to be a good amount of it to do here, if I may say so, Mr Gendron. Why don’t you and I get some of these crates open, get everything measured out? We nearly lost one of the inhabitants of this island; to lose some of the provisions as well would be the height of carelessness.’
Walter hauled the crates and barrels that Hannah pointed to, fetched the containers she asked for, got the scales and clocked them onto the desk so that they rattled alarmingly, sending a rat which Hannah pretended not to notice scurrying to the door.
‘You’re very … very calming to be around, Mr Gendron, if I may say,’ said Hannah. ‘Your sister must be looking forward to getting back here with you.’
‘I think she’d rather be with Thomas,’ said Walter.
‘No, Thomas,’ he said simply, looking at her intently, crinkling his brow with concern. ‘Are you tired, Mrs Mulrooney? You don’t usually mishear things.’
‘I am that, now you mention it,’ said Hannah. ‘In between looking after Mr Monsarrat, Mr Ellison, and your sister – delighted to be of service, of course – but yes, I suppose I am a little fatigued. I have one more task ahead, though, before I rest tonight. We are running low on logs for the fire, and Magistrate Ellison does like to stay up late.’
‘I can ask James to send a convict with some wood?’
‘Not a bit of it. Aren’t they all busy building this settlement? No, like your sister, I’m able to handle an axe when the situation demands it. The only problem is, I currently don’t have one. I don’t suppose there’s one here I could avail myself of?’
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Mulrooney. There was one – not much of a one, either. It is not here now. Elizabeth may have thrown it out. The head was all wobbly anyway.’
Power was right – it was impossible to launch a small piece of paper and an insubstantial scrap of cloth over a high wall. Nor was Monsarrat about to test his challenge, and risk questions should anyone see him throwing snippets of paper and cloth into the air. But if there was one commodity Maria Island had in abundance, it was forest and rocks and stones. A piece of paper crumpled around a good-sized stone, and tied with the strip of cloth, sailed easily enough over the wall.
He must think I am dim, thought Monsarrat. Yet when Monsarrat had mentioned the floorboards near the hearth, Power had looked as worried as Monsarrat had ever seen him. Of course, Monsarrat was supposed to be investigating the murder of the bosun, not how Thomas Power had received a signal that the means of his escape was near. Monsarrat could not help feeling, though, that the two were connected.
There was no guard on duty now that there was no one to guard. The gate was not even locked.
Once he was through it, Monsarrat stooped to pick up the wrapped-up stone he had flung over the wall. It would be hard to explain if it was discovered.
The cottage was empty and clean now. Some of the flag-stones surrounding the fireplace still bore the shadows of months of ash, and if Mrs Mulrooney couldn’t eradicate them they would be there until doomsday. He knelt and one of the boards creaked underneath his knee. He rapped on each of them in turn until one rewarded him with a hollow sound.
They were not, as it turned out, nailed down. Monsarrat was able to lift them for the price of a few splinters under his fingernails. The smell of damp was overwhelming – the cottage had been constructed by men who were not trained for the job and the floorboards were scant inches from the ground, so it was easy to see the small bundle of oilcloth resting on the bare earth.
Given the damp, it seemed quite extraordinary that the papers had not rotted. Perhaps they hadn’t been there long. Some of the older ones were beginning to display roses of mould, but these hadn’t obliterated the script. The letters were in a delicate hand. A feminine one, fancied Monsarrat. They were unsigned and undated. Some were a little florid – they spoke of finding joy where none was expected, and the even greater joy in developing what the writer referred to as a ‘deep regard’ for a man who had risked so much for the sake of his people. The pages at the top of the pile bristled with febrile excitement, speaking of America and the contentment that might be found in a place where the writer’s earlier marriage would be easy to deny and the recipient’s revolutionary activities celebrated. The letters further into the collection were more mournful, distressed at the truncation of the writer and recipient’s contact.
And interleaved with these letters was one in a different hand. It described an inappropriate relationship, and the price that needed to be paid for silence.
There was little doubt in Monsarrat’s mind from whom these had come.
‘Doesn’t surprise me, you know. I told you she had a grip you’d expect to find on a labourer.’
‘I still find it hard to imagine,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Her sharpening the axe, stalking Harefield all the way up to that place, pulling him down from the ladder. And making a substantial dent on his shoulder before throwing him off the cliff.’
‘Mr Monsarrat, you are being – what’s the word you like to use? – obtuse. You find it hard to imagine because she is a woman. Need I remind you of Rebecca Nelson?’
She was right, Monsarrat thought. He would not have thought Rebecca Nelson capable of driving an awl into the eye of the man who had tormented her, and engineering a plan to have Mrs Mulrooney die in her place.
‘I think we can safely assume – yes, I know you don’t like it but we can – that the relationship Harefield was threatening to expose was between Elizabeth Brewster and Thomas Power.’
‘And there’s something that I need to tell you,’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘The axe that killed Harefield. It came from the stores.’
‘Did it indeed?’
‘Yes. And the person who liberated it from its place in the corner was not James Brewster, but Elizabeth.’
‘You think we may have been looking in the right house, but at the wrong person?’ Monsarrat asked.
‘Well, she chops her own wood – she could have taken it for that. Then, if our other theory is to be tested, it would have been a simple matter for the commandant to get hold of it.’
‘It is difficult, as I said, to see Elizabeth trudging her way to the light through the darkness, carrying an axe. Even to get some respite from her husband. But I agree that we must consider it.’
‘Yes. Although something is troubling me. She was upset, certainly. But murderous? We are missing something, Mr Monsarrat.’
‘Perhaps there is nothing to miss.’
‘We need to find out if she did drink the poison on purpose.’
‘You are the one best placed to do that. Perhaps you should simply ask her. And Ellison had a hand in all this too, I am certain. Jones says he often left mail with Ellison to put on the Hobart coach. It would be a small matter for Power to conceal messages in other correspondence.’
‘And I should just ask him? Whether he was conspiring with Thomas Power in the man’s escape? I’m sure my charms are such that he will confess immediately.’
‘Yes, I see your point. But my friend, if there is anyone who can see the wrinkles in whatever he says, it is you.’
‘I must say, this is wonderful stuff,’ said Ellison, dabbing some crumbs from the side of his mouth. ‘I always thought my late wife made the best shortbread in the colony, but you may well have surpassed her – I should whisper that, in case her shade can hear me and decides to pay a reproachful visit.’
He chuckled. Oh yes, Hannah thought. The passing of your wife, poor woman, must be a source of endless amusement.
‘Would you care for some more tea?’ she said, wondering if he would notice that her smile was stiff and fixed.
‘Yes, I should think so,’ he said. ‘More of that special tea, if you’d be kind enough. Don’t think I didn’t taste the rum in it, dear lady.’
‘He lifted the newly filled teacup, pouring the contents down his throat in one gulp
‘Were you always free, my dear?’
I am not your dear, thought Hannah.
‘No, as a matter of fact,’ she said.
‘Bread, was it? Cabbage, perhaps? To feed your beloved mother?’ Bread and cabbage thieves with hungry mothers must have come before him on a reasonably regular basis in the course of his work.
‘My mother stopped requiring food on the day I was born,’ she said, unable to keep her anger at his casual treatment of suffering out of her tone. ‘And it was butter. To sell so I could feed my son.’
‘Ah yes, it’s always something like that.’
He looked at her then, perhaps noticed the thunder on her face. ‘You must not think me hardened,’ he said, suddenly quiet. ‘I hear the same story over and over, and yes, some are fabricating mothers or children, but most aren’t, and I have seen their suffering.’
Perhaps the rum was doing its work. If so, she would allow it to continue to do so. It would be a small price to pay if there was to be a useful, drunken revelation at the end of it.
‘I got my ticket twenty years ago,’ she said. ‘My time is long since served.’
‘Good God, twenty years! And am I correct in presuming you were transported for seven?’
‘So that would mean you left Ireland … late last century?’
‘Early in this one, by the time the courts ran their course.’
‘So you were in Ireland for the revolution?’
‘Yes. A time I would prefer not to discuss.’
‘Of course. And when you were trying to feed your son, where was Mr Mulrooney?’
‘In his grave. Put there by the British.’
It was technically true. The only real Mr Mulrooney – her father, Padraig – was a victim of the British, every bit as much as the man who, had he lived, would have become Hannah’s husband. She apologised to both of their ghosts for using their memory in such a deception.
‘What extraordinary experiences you must’ve had! How exciting, to be party to such history.’
‘It was horrifying. It nearly killed my soul as well as my body. It was not exciting,’ she said. She remembered to attach the smile back onto her face. It was bad enough being questioned by Power on the subject, but to hear a magistrate talk with such apparent fervour of an event which the government viewed as treason was even more disconcerting. Nonetheless, she did not want to discourage him from taking further steps down the indiscreet path he was on.
‘You seem to know a lot about it,’ she said. ‘Most don’t speak of it, on either side.’
‘Oh yes, you might say I’ve made a study of it. How a disorganised force of gentlemen, priests and farmhands nearly overthrew the might of the British government. Extraordinary, and revelatory.’
‘Why study such things? So you can prevent them from occurring again?’
‘It won’t happen here, not on any grand scale,’ he said. ‘Place is too big, the majority of the population are in chains of one kind or another. No, my interest is this: liberty is like water – it finds a way through. Do we build the wall against it until it punches a hole and breaks through, destroying everything in its path? Or do we allow it just enough space to move at a trickle?’
‘Thomas Power might well agree with you,’ said Hannah.
‘Oh, I’m not like Power. Never been found guilty of treason, for a start. Can’t help but admire the man, though. There is a felon with imagination.’
And imagination, thought Hannah, is easy to come by on a full stomach.
‘You must think it a dreadful shame that he is confined where his imagination can benefit the wombats and the geese but very few others.’
‘A shame? He did break the law, of course. But I don’t imagine for a moment that this is where he will die. I am sure that at some point he will be back out in the world, letting his imagination gallop on.’
‘Were you disappointed that he was unable to escape?’
‘I would say disappointed is a strong word, Mrs Mulrooney.’
‘He must have had help. From the mainland. Unless you can train one of these geese to carry messages to a whaler.’
Ellison chuckled, held out his cup for some more of that noxious brew that she was forcing herself to serve him. ‘I am imagining he must’ve. But it is imagination again, you see.’
‘All the imagination in the world can’t get a letter across the ocean,’ Hannah said.
‘No, it can’t. Do you know who is good at it though? That fellow Jones. He’s a ticket-of-leave man, I’d wager. A few of you ticketed convicts around. Do you carry your papers with you in case someone checks?
‘I don’t. But we were asked to leave Parramatta quickly. Mine are in my trunk at home, but I assure you they exist.’
If ever a man deserved flicking with the cleaning cloth …
‘And tell me, my dear – do you know anyone else in possession of such documents?’
‘Here? As you say, perhaps Jones is one. Beyond that … No, I can’t think of anyone.’
Ellison looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Yes, Jones. Far better than the last bosun. Actually tries to avoid the worst of the waves. I swear, sometimes Harefield took delight in terrifying me as much as possible on the crossing. Brewster has chosen well this time.’
Hannah recognised an attempt to change the subject when she heard it. ‘Seems a nice enough fellow, that Jones,’ she said. ‘What little I’ve seen of him – which is usually when he’s on his way into or out of the boat.’
‘Yes, he makes a run nearly every day. We were lucky to get Harefield to do it once a week.’
‘The commandant, of course,’ Ellison said.
‘Of course. Well, I would prefer never to have to cross an ocean again. I can’t imagine doing it daily.’
‘Ah, you have to be born to it. It certainly helps if there is a charming woman on the other side of the crossing …’ As he spoke, Ellison stood unsteadily. And suddenly he was on her, moving far more quickly than she would have believed possible, clamping his arms around her waist. She turned her head just in time to avoid his lips landing on hers, instead receiving a wet, open-mouthed kiss on the cheek, which made her feel ill.
Barely thinking about it, she followed some advice her father had once given her should she be the recipient of unwanted male admiration: she brought her knee up as hard as she could between the magistrate’s legs.
He yelped loudly and in an instant was bent over gasping with his hands on his knees.
‘What a terrible man you are, forcing yourself on a woman like that! And a magistrate! Imagine if word got around! Remember, my employer has the ear of the governor’s secretary.’
He looked up at Hannah through eyes which were watering, opened his mouth and closed it again, putting her in mind of a fish. She took his arm, helped him back to his chair, waited while he recovered himself.
‘Now, kindly explain yourself,’ she said.
‘I am terribly sorry,’ he said, still short of breath. ‘I was under the impression you would welcome it.’
‘You were under the wrong impression, then.’
‘In that case, I must beg your forgiveness.’
Hannah stayed silent.
Ellison straightened and took a gulp of tea. ‘And now, my charming friend, if you will excuse me, I feel it is time to retire.’
He pushed back his chair, letting it scrape along the floor rather than lifting it, stood and bowed. Hannah hoped for a moment he would lose his balance and topple over. He didn’t; he straightened again, smiled at her and weaved his way out of the kitchen. Just before he reached the door, he turned to Hannah and said, ‘I do ask you to pardon my rudeness. And might I ask you a great favour? That the events of this afternoon remain between the two of us?’
‘He knows,’ she said, keeping her eyes on the bay. ‘Knows, or at least suspects.’
‘I’m afraid you will have to give me a little more information, my friend. Who knows what?’
‘Ellison has suspicions. About you. I’m certain of it – about your coming here as a convict.’
She turned to look at him then, saw that his lower jaw was slightly thrust out, a habit of his when he was trying to disguise some sort of internal upheaval.
‘And do you think he intends to use that information?’
‘If he does, he risks me talking about his attack on me.’
‘His attack?’ Monsarrat was on his feet, was about to stride toward the building. Mrs Mulrooney grabbed his arm and dragged him back down to the bench. ‘Don’t trouble yourself with it. He tried to kiss me’ – Monsarrat grimaced and opened his mouth to speak, but she held up a hand to hush him – ‘which was indeed disgusting, but at least does mean we now have information he would prefer wasn’t aired. And unlike his collusion in Power’s escape, we can prove it.’
Monsarrat sat again, slowly. ‘Yes. We have only the flimsiest of evidence that he actually wrote to Power.’
‘I wouldn’t be sure, Mr Monsarrat. Mr Ellison appears to lack a head for rum – very possibly he is used to drinking port. After a few measures of the stronger stuff, he did express a fair amount of admiration for Thomas Power. And more than a little sympathy with his views.’
‘Well, if you set those letter fragments beside such statements, it does make a more compelling case, doesn’t it?’
‘Let’s make the case, then, shall we?’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘Before Ellison can waddle up from the dock with a letter confirming his suspicions about you.’
‘They are suspicions, by the way, that I think our friend Power, that lover of equality between men, might have put in his head. But I will give him one last opportunity to explain himself. The letters I found under his floorboards. I will put them to him, see what he says.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes