The power game, p.22
The Power Game, p.22Thomas Keneally
‘Did he know she was there?’ asked Monsarrat.
‘Didn’t look like it. He was a fair way ahead, and she seemed to be taking pains to move quietly. She must’ve been bending all her will to that, because she didn’t notice she was being followed herself.’
‘Who on earth would have been following her?’
‘Who do you think? Who follows her around like a dog all day long? Walter was not about to let his sister go plunging into the bushes at dusk by herself, was he?’
As she trudged down to the stores, in wooded ground beneath the mountains named – in a place where there was not even a parson – Bishop and Clerk, Hannah was aware of being followed by several pairs of broad webbed feet, their owners honking in irritation, no doubt asking her why it had been so long since she had made shortbread. She turned, and some of them walked around her until they were on the other side. ‘All right, you have me surrounded,’ she said. ‘Now what are you going to do?’
One of them looked up staring, its irritated red button eyes at her. The creature opened its beak and gave a harsh honk.
‘You may very well say that,’ Hannah said. ‘But I’ve been too busy to make shortbread, let alone for the likes of you to nibble up. You’ll just have to wait like everybody else, and that’s an end to it.’ And she marched straight at the geese blocking her path, who wisely waddled out of her way.
‘I thought I heard them,’ said Walter, as Hannah opened the door to the commissary. ‘The geese. They’re outside?’
‘No, Mr Gendron, please don’t trouble yourself on their account, eejit birds that they are. I shooed them off.’
‘They might come back, though,’ Walter said. He went to the door, opened it a crack, looked out and closed it quickly.
‘Stupid big feathery lumps, even if they were to pay you a visit, it would surely be no concern.’
‘You don’t know what they’re like,’ said Walter. ‘Not really. They can surround a person. You know what happens when people get surrounded, don’t you?’
Hannah nodded but was not sure how to answer. It was a frightening but perhaps, in the end, harmless experience to be surrounded by those angry, inquisitive beaks.
‘My father used to tell me that everything in nature operates on the same principle. No matter what kind of bird you’re looking at, they fly because of the way their wings move in the air. No matter what kind of tree, they will need sunlight to survive. And I have found another principle. Whenever things surround you, they mean to do you harm.’
‘What things surrounded you?’ Hannah asked.
Walter inhaled, held his breath for a moment, and opened his mouth. Before he could speak, however, the door of the commissary was thrust open.
Hannah was reasonably certain Jones had not intended to push it with such force but had been assisted by a gust of strong wind blowing up from the bay. When she looked out over his shoulder, she could see lines of white froth punctuating the great expanse between Darlington Bay and the main island.
‘A rough crossing for you, was it?’ she said.
‘One of the rougher ones, missus,’ said Jones. He was scratching his skin through the bristles of his dark beard, which was flecked in parts with dried salt. ‘Had to stay at the inn last night – there was no chance of attempting it then, not with the light failing. And the wind – she couldn’t decide yesterday which direction to go in. It would have been waves from all sides. At least now they’re mostly from the north. Easier to manage when you know what to expect.’
‘I don’t know how you do it, young Jones, I truly don’t,’ said Hannah. ‘As you know, I’ve a mortal terror of the sea, even when it’s pretending to be good, flat as a table.’
Jones chuckled. ‘Not a pretence it indulges in much, not here anyway,’ he said. ‘But there will be some who will be cross at me for not taking the risk. Some here are wanting their mail. Ellison was there. Holloway too. Pardon, missus, if Mr Ellison is a friend of yours, but neither of them made any attempt to help with the other cargo. I handed them their letters and off they trotted. I tried to call Holloway back – there was a letter for the commandant as well, and I thought he might do me a favour and deliver it – but he was already opening his own and reading it; didn’t seem to hear me above the wind. Lucky it didn’t snatch his out of his hands and commit it to the ocean. On the subject of letters … I was hoping to find Mrs Brewster recovered and at her post, but I see she is not.’
‘Sadly, no. She is recovering well, but she must preserve her strength.’
Jones nodded. ‘Well, if you see her, wish her a fast recovery from me. I shall deliver these letters myself, then.’ He was unable to stop his shoulders slumping at the prospect.
‘I am … assisting Mr Gendron, at Mrs Brewster’s request,’ said Hannah. ‘With the approval of the commandant. If making sure letters reach their destination was one of her tasks, I am sure that Mr Gendron and I can accomplish it.’ She patted Jones on the shoulder. ‘And you, Mr Jones – after all the letters have found their recipients, I shall bring you some tea. If you don’t mind my saying, you look done-in.’
He nodded. ‘I am, at that. No bed for me last night, so I was in the stables. If you wouldn’t mind …’
Walter had been listening to the two of them talk, and had straightened, flicking his spectacles back down onto his nose. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I know precisely where they need to go, every last one of them.’
Jones smiled. ‘Good lad, Walter. Will I take you fishing later?’
Walter beamed. ‘Anything I catch, you can have for your supper,’ he said.
‘I will most certainly take you fishing then! We’ll just wait for the sea to settle down a bit first though, shall we?’
After Jones left, holding the door firmly as he closed it so that the wind didn’t slam it, Hannah spread out the letters. ‘Now tell me, Mr Gendron, where should I take these?’
‘A few for surgeon Chester,’ said Walter, tapping the envelopes. ‘These names here – Jackson, O’Reilly – they’re convicts, I believe. Not official correspondence, I wouldn’t think – no envelope, just folded with the names written on the front. Mothers, sweethearts. They have to go to the convict barracks. There should be an overseer there. And these are for James.’
‘Indeed, Mr Gendron, and I shall make sure they get to him.’
‘I can deliver them if you like. James might be pleased with me if I did.’
‘Ah, no, Mr Gendron. You are needed here, so you are. Such a tempting target, this place must be, with all the food within its walls. We need someone with broad shoulders like yourself to guard it.’
Walter nodded, stood straighter. ‘You may rely on me, Mrs Mulrooney, I assure you,’ he said. ‘I always do the right thing.’
Hannah set out with the parcel of letters. She did not turn towards the outbuilding where James Brewster had his office, or to the convict barracks to find Trainor. She went up the hill, ignoring the occasional complaint from her ankle, towards the two little cottages in which the island’s power was concentrated in the persons of the commandant and the magistrate.
She had thought to walk into the visiting magistrate’s cottage for all the world as though she expected no one to be there, to see if Ellison was poring over a letter. She might sit opposite him, enquire whether he would like a cup of tea. Shortly after she had acquired the skill of reading, she had taught herself to do so upside down. If he were perusing a letter and laid the pages on the table, she might be fortunate enough to get a glimpse of its contents.
Instead, on her way up she paused outside the wall of Thomas Power’s former home. She wondered whether it were possible that the letter addressed to James Brewster had something to do with Power. Equally, it could be a manifest of the next ship to bring a batch of convicts to the island. But if Power’s fate rested on the contents of this letter, she would very much like to know. Of course, it was the height of bad manners to read someone else’s mail. In this circumstance, very possibly against
There was no wax seal, thankfully. Hannah knew Monsarrat had some ability forging them, although it was an art he had not practised for some time as far as she knew. But there would be no time to create a replacement for this one.
She moved around to the uphill side of the building before she opened Brewster’s letter, and ran her eyes down to the bottom before starting at the top. The signature, slanted and spiky but legible – unlike some she had seen – was Robert Marley’s. And the letter itself informed James Brewster – and Hannah Mulrooney – of the approach of a brig which was to convey Thomas Power to the penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour.
Hannah folded the letter, shuffled it in between some of the others so that if she was seen on her rounds it would not be obvious. She thought for a moment of taking it directly to James Brewster, handing it over, making no further mention of it. But there was a woman lying in a bed, scared even to press her feet to the floor for fear of what the world outside the walls might hold. This letter very probably contained confirmation of Elizabeth Brewster’s worst fears. Hannah wondered whether it would be a cruelty or a kindness to tell her.
Whatever she decided, she could not be seen to have knowledge of the contents of the letter before the commandant did. She walked slowly back down the hill, telling herself she was trying to avoid wombat holes, giving herself as much time as she could to make a decision.
There was no answer at first when she knocked softly on the door of the commandant’s office. Perhaps he was used to larger fists pounding on the wood. She tried again with more force, earning herself a small splinter in one of her knuckles and a response from inside. ‘Very well! Come, if you must.’
The captain was writing as she entered and likely did not realise who his visitor was. When he looked up he frowned for a moment, as though trying to decide whether she really was who she appeared to be. ‘Mrs Mulrooney. I was expecting …’
She waited for a moment, until it became apparent he was not going to finish his sentence.
‘I’m helping in the commissary, sir. At your command, of course, if you recall.’
‘I understand that one of your wife’s tasks was to deliver the mail, so I’ve taken that on as well. There’s a letter for you.’ She extracted it from the middle of the pile, held it out to him. He snatched it, frowned at it.
‘I have also looked in on your wife this morning,’ she said.
He looked up again. ‘You don’t expect me to read this in front of you, do you?’ he said.
‘Of course not, sir,’ she said, making the bobbing movement she had come to hate and backing out of the room.
She felt compelled to redress the imbalance caused by Brewster’s indifference and go and check on Elizabeth again. She should, she thought, be grateful to the commandant. He had helped her come to a decision. Because apart from Chester and Walter, as far as she knew, only one man on this island had shown any concern for Elizabeth’s recovery. And he was sitting not in the commandant’s office, but in the cell of the guardhouse.
Monsarrat had never wanted to speak to Mrs Mulrooney more. On the walk back from the reservoir, he turned Trainor’s revelations over in his mind. Chester had said that the wound to Harefield’s shoulder was deep enough to have been made by someone with significant strength. It was one of the factors which had made Monsarrat hesitate to believe that Elizabeth Brewster was capable of the crime.
But if Elizabeth had just gone to confront Harefield – even, perhaps, to ask what the price for silence was – that made more sense. And if she was followed there without her knowledge by a man to whom she was as much a mother as a sister, a man who saw his former attacker now turning his aggression on a woman most precious to him, would he not defend her?
It all needed more investigation, of course. But the details fitted together, a solution that made Monsarrat uncomfortable, and failed to give him any feeling of success. He had no wish to see Walter hanging for the murder, or to hear that Elizabeth had tried again to drink a fatally strong cup of tea and this time it had succeeded in taking her life.
Once more he cursed Eveleigh for sending him to this isolated post and making his position doubly difficult by failing to reveal his background. And now he faced a terrible choice: reveal what he knew and see an innocent choking at the end of a rope, or stay silent, say he was unable to discover the culprit, that he was returning to Parramatta, and risk finding not only that his ticket of leave had been revoked for his failure but also that Elizabeth might be accused of the murder. If she was, he suspected she would willingly go to the gallows in Walter’s place, and her death would be equally obscene.
Monsarrat did not know whether he could survive another penal stretch, and while convicts could marry other convicts, there was certainly a chance that an alliance between him and Grace O’Leary would be prevented if he threw away the credit that would be due to him were he to solve Harefield’s murder.
Nonetheless, he would lose what was left of his soul if he revealed what he knew. Some would see it as justice. But justice was not its own entity. Its meaning was determined by those who were authorised to interpret it – and they always did so to serve their own ends.
Monsarrat decided then to serve a justice which would not end with him watching the confused look on a good lad’s face as an execution hood was dragged down over his eyes. He felt sure Mrs Mulrooney would agree with him. But he wanted to hear her anoint his decision with her hard-won approval, to hear her tell him that he was an eejit of a man but that he was, for once, right.
At least there was one thing he need no longer worry about – if he was stripped of his freedom, he would know that she was taken care of. She was a woman of independent means now. She need not rely on his employment or anything else.
There was, he realised, one hand he could play. One revelation which might partially redeem him and see justice done. Brewster would no doubt think Ellison should be punished for aiding Power’s attempted escape. Monsarrat felt he should be punished for his lurch at Mrs Mulrooney. Whatever the crime, the result would be the same.
He hoped Mrs Mulrooney had not returned to the cottage that morning after her shabby treatment at the hands of Ellison.
In fact, she was on the path between the two. As he rounded the corner where the trees stopped, he could see her striding purposefully up the path and letting herself into the commandant’s cottage. He was at a loss then. He chided himself for it – even as a false lawyer he had once in Exeter held courtrooms enthralled, or at least not utterly bored, and as the convict clerk to the commandant at Port Macquarie he had proved himself an indispensable part of the administration. Why, then, did he feel he needed the blessing of an Irishwoman who could not read this time last year, before taking action?
He knew the answer, was ashamed of himself for even asking the question. Mrs Mulrooney was a far better person than him.
‘Mr Monsarrat! You look as though you were the one who spent the morning trying to avoid the worst waves on the way from the mainland.’
Jones was walking up towards the military barracks, where he had a cot along with the soldiers. He was ruddy from sun and wind, but the shadows under his eyes told of his broken night’s sleep.
‘Jones, hello. Yes, I suppose I must look frightful. I ran to the reservoir, and walked fairly swiftly back.’
‘In that case, I’m surprised you don’t look worse. But if you’re after some restorative tea from your housekeeper, you might have to wait. She has been delivering the mail. The type who is never happier than when she has a task, by the looks of it.’
‘Yes, you’ve described her exactly.’
‘And please don’t take offence, Mr Monsarrat,’ Jones said. ‘I am very happy that the only mirror on the island is attached to Mrs Brewster’s dressing table. I myself probab
‘A difficult crossing?’
‘Aye, and a difficult job unloading at the end of it, with the boat bucking, and two able-bodied men standing on the dock choosing not to assist me.’
‘Holloway, naturally. He believes his commission should exempt him from anything as menial as unloading boats. And Ellison was too engrossed in his letter. Nearly walked off the dock at one point.
‘I see. Well, Jones, I shan’t keep you. One thing, though – do you know where Ellison is to be found?’
‘In his cottage, I believe. He headed up there almost immediately and I haven’t seen him come down since.’
It took some time after Jones had gone for Monsarrat to work up the will to move. His legs were complaining about their abuse. But even if they hadn’t been, he wasn’t sure where to tell them to take him. Up the hill to confront Ellison or down it to expose him.
If the letter contained confirmation of Monsarrat’s convict past, as soon as its contents were shown to Captain Brewster, anything Monsarrat said would carry no weight. So it seemed best for Monsarrat to put his case to Brewster and hope that he had enough time to make it compelling before Ellison walked in waving a piece of paper which would ensure Brewster stopped listening to anything Monsarrat said.
Hannah had managed to convince Elizabeth out of her bed and into a chair while she straightened the covers and shook the pillows. The back which had sat so straight at dinner when they first arrived was now bent and slumped, as though Elizabeth lacked the will to keep it straight, and the once luminous skin was now dull and unnaturally pale. Hannah thought that perhaps she might take the news slightly better if she felt more comfortable.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes