The power game, p.21
The Power Game, p.21Thomas Keneally
‘And what if he sheds a light on nothing at all?’ said Hannah. ‘What will you do then?’
‘We are now in possession of a lot of information, all of it highly suggestive. I’ve been trying to make the facts behave themselves, make them light up a path to a inevitable an conclusion. I have failed in that, so to be honest I don’t know what I’ll do.’
‘I do,’ said Hannah.
‘Of course you do.’
‘You will go to Captain Brewster. Remember, the person who reaches the commandant’s ear first is the most likely to be believed.’
‘I’m sure you’re right. And he will probably remind me – if he doesn’t arrest me – that I was brought here to solve a murder, not to reveal co-conspirators in a failed escape attempt. And what do I say to that?’
Hannah frowned. She should, really, tell him to turn everything over to Brewster. Including the letters from his wife. But she did not wish to cause anyone pain. Brewster’s pride would be wounded, which meant Elizabeth’s suffering was likely to be far longer, and her unhappiness would compound Walter’s.
‘You say,’ she said, ‘that you are close to proving the identity of the killer and you do not wish to compromise the investigation by giving any further details. He will squawk, of course, but if you hold that line there is little he can do.’
‘Sounds reasonable. Except from that point on he will ask me every few hours whether I’m yet able to tell him who the killer is.’
‘It’s my hope, Mr Monsarrat, that you will be.’
‘That is my personal correspondence, Mr Monsarrat. You should not have read it, and I most certainly will not be commenting on it.’
Power turned away from the bars towards the corner of the cell. He was a man of exquisitely tuned gestures, so his movement could not be accidental.
‘It ceased to become personal correspondence when you tried to escape, Mr Power,’ said Monsarrat. In that moment, he despised himself every bit as much as Power did. He sounded like the functionary he had pretended to be since that first interview with Marley in Hobart. But this interview seemed likely to be the last chance he would have to extract any information from Thomas Power.
‘How long,’ asked Monsarrat, ‘have you and Mrs Brewster been … friends?’
‘I don’t believe I named a lady,’ Power said, still looking at the wall. ‘Nor has she fixed her signature to those letters.’
‘She doesn’t need to.’
Power turned around, went to his bench and sat. ‘Why are you here, Mr Monsarrat? Do you wish to add further credence to your distasteful fantasies about me and the commandant’s wife?’
The accusation of prurience stung. ‘I harbour no such fantasies, Mr Power. As a matter of fact, I have come to do you a kindness.’
Power snorted. ‘It would need to be quite a kindness to make up for my continued presence here on this island.’
‘Well, as it happens, I wanted to give you news of Elizabeth Brewster’s condition.’
Power leaned forward, his hands on his knees. ‘This is, Mr Monsarrat, a kindness indeed, and I will accept it as such.’
‘Mrs Brewster recovers well. She is sitting, taking food and water and the occasional turn about the gardens in the company of my housekeeper. She is expected to be back at the commissary within a few days.’
Power lowered his head for a moment. When he looked up, he was blinking. ‘And Walter?’ he asked. ‘Is he … is he safe?’
‘He was distressed by his sister’s incapacity. And, surprisingly, by your failure to escape – nearly as much as he would have been had you succeeded. But why would he not be safe?’
‘Mr Monsarrat, there are on this island those who believe that anyone without a strong back and a strong mind has no business consuming air and rations.’
‘I see. And you fear some of those might take it upon themselves to stop Walter consuming either?’
‘I would like to think not but I commonly find that there is a large gap between what I would like to think and reality. You will have noted the presence of rum in large quantities on this island, despite the fact that it is forbidden to the convicts.’
‘Yes. The Hatter’s doing, I understand, with not a little help from Harefield before he was put to death?’
‘Those men would have put even the great smuggler Black Humphrey and his brethren to shame. They were not, though, responsible for what happens when the rum hits the stomachs of some of the worst convicts. And when some of them drink, they think on how much they enjoy eating – and how little they get to do so.’
‘And they blame Walter for that?’
‘Well, he’s a convenient scapegoat. And then he started running the stores, nominally at least. And they do not see him doing the consistent labour which they believe is the only currency that should buy food.’
‘There are always convicts who believe they have a greater right to resources than anyone else,’ said Monsarrat. Oh Lord, thought Monsarrat, I’m speaking like a Sydney Tory!
‘Ah, yes, but rarely do they have such an easy target. Walter does not have the protective red coat, nor the quick fists which might earn respect from some of them. And he is a trusting soul. It would occur to him too late that when a group of men is circling him, they are doing so for less than friendly reasons.’
‘Has he been attacked? Surely they wouldn’t dare – not someone so closely connected to the commandant’s household?’
‘Would they not? James does enjoy observing the proprieties when there is pomp involved. But when it comes to making some things plain – such as the fact that his brother-in-law is under his protection – he verges on negligent. And, as I said, they were drunk.’
‘Do you know who they were?’
‘Yes. They were unwise enough to mount an ambush just outside my gate. That they were also in sight of the commandant’s house tells you all you need to know about the level of protection Walter could expect from that source. And these were in the days when I had the run of the island. I was coming back from a walk and saw a knot of arms and legs rolling around, getting wombat ordure smeared all over them. At first I thought it was a convict brawl. They happen, as you know, with alarming regularity. But then I heard the sobbing from underneath the bodies. I yelled at them to get off him. They obeyed. Walter was at the bottom of the pile.’
‘Was he badly injured?’
‘No. Some bruises, a few cuts, nothing severe. But he was terribly frightened. It turned out he had been threatened with injury if he did not accede to their demands – one of them would arrive at the commissary at dawn every morning to collect some extra rations.’
‘Would they have been able to get out of the convict barracks to do that?’ asked Monsarrat.
‘One of them didn’t need to sneak out of the convict barracks,’ said Power. ‘Because one of them wasn’t a convict. One of them was Harefield.’
‘Harefield? For God’s sake, why didn’t Walter report him to the commandant? Why didn’t you?’
‘Well. You have read my correspondence, Mr Monsarrat. You know the answer. It is contained in the only letter not written by a lady.’
‘The inappropriate relationship. Harefield was blackmailing you and Mrs Brewster.’
‘I did not name a woman, you will note.’
‘You didn’t need to, Mr Power. Whether or not his accusations are true, though … Why would Brewster take Harefield’s word over his own wife’s?’
‘Harefield made it his business to demonstrate his mastery over the back and forth of information on this island,’ said Power. ‘He was good at it, too. Believe me, Mr Monsarrat, I know better than most how important it is to keep a story going in the public mind, and the skill required to do so. I have done it, even from here. In my case, the public is in England and Ireland. In Harefield’s, it was here. He needed to show me that he could make any story he chose take root and grow.’
‘His rumours about you and Walter,’ said Monsarrat. ‘T
‘Indeed. As you know, the embrace actually happened – Walter’s way of thanking me for Walladmoor. And really Harefield’s rumour-mongering was horribly clever. He isolated me from the Brewsters, and made it more likely that I would be executed.’
‘Executed? On a charge of sodomy? I know it’s a capital offence, but if everyone who was the subject of some sort of rumour of wrongdoing was convicted, the gaols and the graveyards would be more crowded than ever.’
‘I don’t think his intention was to have me tried and convicted of sodomy. Not in a court, at least. Mr Monsarrat, do you know why they haven’t killed me yet? And let me assure you, they would dearly love to.’
‘Presumably because they do not wish to make you a martyr.’
‘Precisely. But they only run that risk if my supporters across the seas continue to view me as a hero. It is one of the reasons I continue to write to the papers, to send tracts back for publication. If whispers skim over the waters and find their way into the ears of the more loquacious society matrons, or into the pages of the newspaper, I will be a distant degenerate, easily dismissed and forgotten. And just as easily dispatched, without the risk of revolutionaries rallying around my corpse.’
‘Was Harefield that sophisticated?’
‘Possibly not, but he had an instinctive ability to twist information to suit his ends, and he wanted me to know that he was able to use it, and to devastating effect. So I’m afraid the assault on Walter went unreported and unpunished. For the most part.’
‘The most part?’
‘Well … there was Milliner.’
‘Oh yes, the Hatter. Rum middleman and skiver.’
‘Like Harefield, he recognises when a weapon has been put into his hand, and does not hesitate to use it. He likes Walter – innocence in the body of a man is a rare thing here. So he retaliated by letting it be known that no more rum would be available – because Harefield was refusing to supply it. Suddenly those who had been Harefield’s accomplices in the assault on Walter looked at him a little differently.’
Monsarrat recalled Shanahan’s words about Harefield with-holding rum. ‘And I presume Milliner extracted a price for making rum available again.’
‘Yes. He made Harefield swear to leave Walter alone. He gave advantageous rates to those who were willing to keep an eye on the lad, and he refused to sell to those who had been party to the attack on him.’
‘So who were they?’
‘Men like Trainor. Harefield attracted a coterie of lesser intellects to whom he seemed the most knowing man of all. Most of them are working on the reservoir, where their strength can be put to good use and their amorality is less likely to infect Darlington. But I would not recommend that you try to speak to any of them on the matter. Tickets of leave have been offered to those with information which leads to the identity of the murderer and no one has come forward. And they have a particular brand of justice: if they are not afraid of beating the brother-in-law of the commandant, God knows what they would do to a stranger from Sydney. As you will have noted, people here run the risk of falling off cliffs.’
Elizabeth was still lying in her bed, subdued and propped up on a sea of pillows. Hannah could think of nothing worse than lying in bed all day, the smell of heated dust drifting around, watching the sunlight through grimed glass. Elizabeth, however, seemed desperate to stay where she was, inside her cocoon where events on the island could move along without her, leaving her untouched.
‘I don’t wish to rush my recovery,’ she said. ‘Yes, I am doing well. But if one takes these things too fast, one can relapse. At least, that’s what Dr Chester says.’
Hannah was sure she had been there nearly every time Dr Chester had examined Mrs Brewster and she couldn’t recall him saying anything of the sort. But arguing was a waste of energy which could be better used elsewhere.
‘As you wish, of course,’ she said. ‘It’s just that … Well, the garrison like to see you about. I think they have more faith in their command when they see what a fine woman he married.’
One he doesn’t deserve, she thought.
‘And Walter,’ Hannah said, ‘misses you terribly. I’m doing my best, helping at the stores. But he wants you back there.’
Elizabeth groaned, then, sank back into her hillock of pillows. ‘Would you be so kind as to go and see him again today?’ she asked. ‘I trust you to keep an eye on him.’
‘Mrs Brewster, I would like to speak plainly.’
‘Of course,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I doubt I could stop you even if I wanted to.’
‘Well, I am sorry to ask you, but I feel I must. What is it that you fear? What is such a horrendous prospect that you confine yourself here? What is keeping you now to your bed?’
Elizabeth frowned, and then sat straight up, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin. ‘I fear nothing, Mrs Mulrooney. Kindly do not speak to me in such a personal fashion again.’
Hannah was annoyed at herself for pushing things too far.
‘As you wish,’ she said, curtseyed, and left the room.
She had no intention, of course, of leaving it alone. She would simply have to take her own advice and find a way to approach things side-on.
Monsarrat hurried along, this time careless of avoiding tree roots or trying to distinguish branches from snakes on his way to the reservoir. His shirt was sticking to his body underneath his wool coat. Why do we do this to ourselves, he thought. Dress for an English winter in a colonial summer. He flung it into the bushes at the side of the path as he ran. He thought of Trainor, the trunk-necked overseer. A rare ally of Harefield. The man had mentioned his access to rum had recently improved. If that was true, presumably he was also among those who had been denied rum in the wake of the attack. So one possible reason for his new rum supply was that he had made it clear he knew something, and needed his silence bought by liquor.
Trainor wasn’t even watching the men on his work crew when Monsarrat stumbled into the clearing, his shirt soaked through with sweat, and a nasty scratch from an overhanging branch on his cheek. The overseer was casually barking orders over his shoulder, not checking whether they were being carried out or not, seemingly more intent on picking his teeth than getting the reservoir built. He looked up briefly at Monsarrat, seemingly almost without registering him, then to the sky, and jammed his dirty fingernail back into his mouth.
Monsarrat walked up. ‘Mr Trainor. A word, if you please.’
‘You look as though you’ve been in a fight, Mr Monsarrat.’
‘I imagine you would know a reasonable amount about fighting yourself. Tell me, did you enjoy beating a man who is unequipped to defend himself?’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.’
‘Deny it as much as you like. I understand your mate Harefield was holding some information over Mrs Brewster. You, on the other hand, have nothing to hold over me. So unless you would like me to acquaint the comptroller of convicts in Hobart with your situation, you would be best advised to cooperate with me.’
‘That depends on what you mean by cooperation,’ said Trainor after a pause.
Even now, the man was far too cocky, especially for a convict. Perhaps being isolated out at the reservoir, where he was the undisputed authority, had given him a false sense of the scope of that authority. He needed some perspective.
‘Were any of you offered tickets of leave in exchange for information which might have led to the apprehension of Harefield’s killer?’
‘No. Wouldn’t have accepted them if we were, either – tickets have been offered before, you know, and oddly enough have never come into being. Don’t suppose you’re offering one?’
‘Oh, I’m offering something quite different. A chance to get to know Thomas Power in the guardhouse.’
‘You? You’ve not the authority!’
‘I have all the authority in the world, Trainor, as a representative of the
‘Who says he did?’
‘You said yourself – there had been more rum lately. Milliner had been holding it back from you, thanks to your role in beating Walter. He obviously had a change of heart. He is a businessman, is the Hatter – at least he seems to be. It does not strike me as the type of thing you would do out of sheer loving kindness.’
‘You don’t know him, and you don’t know me.’
‘I know convicts,’ said Monsarrat. ‘And I know a transaction when I see one.’
Trainor pursed his lips. Monsarrat could see the man’s tongue probing his cheeks.
‘People say things all the time here,’ he said, eventually. He exhaled slowly, seemed to almost enjoy the process of letting the air leak out of his lungs. Then he clapped the palms of his hands decisively on the top of his thighs. ‘It is possible that someone like the Hatter might have … let’s say, relaxed certain of his rules. It’s the kind of thing he would do if somebody saw something he would rather they had not seen.’
‘And what might somebody have seen to earn such consideration?’ Monsarrat asked.
‘Harefield on his way to the light.’
‘Not an unusual sight, I would have thought.’
‘No, but it was the last time anyone saw him.’
Monsarrat paused. If the answer to his next question was yes, he was closer than he had thought to identifying the murderer.
‘You saw him on the day he died?’
‘Yes. But I saw the commandant’s wife, too, following him. She was holding an axe.’
Even though Elizabeth Brewster’s guilt was a possibility Monsarrat had discussed with Mrs Mulrooney, he still found it jarring to hear this so plainly, from the mouth of a man who exhaled more brutishness in each breath than Monsarrat would have thought Mrs Brewster capable of in a lifetime. And yet in bodily strength she was not of such delicacy that she could not wield an axe, and her love of Walter was so intense that one could possibly imagine her wielding it with emotional and physical force. Monsarrat found it a credible but appalling image.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes