The power game, p.25
The Power Game, p.25Thomas Keneally
Chester was silent for a moment. Perhaps taking time to formulate a careful response to a man who needed careful handling.
‘I do hope that’s the case, sir; however, surely I should look at her, to make certain.’
‘That will not be necessary.’
‘Mrs Mulrooney is similarly injured, although not as severely,’ said Chester, unable to keep a growing anger out of his voice. ‘Was it a simultaneous slip by both ladies? May I at least send her to care for your wife?’
‘No, you may send no one. I am standing here until arrangements can be made for a more permanent guard.’
‘Your wife does not need a guard, commandant,’ said Monsarrat. ‘She needs a doctor.’
‘Oh, but there was never anyone so worthy of being guarded, Mr Monsarrat,’ said Brewster. ‘You see, I have achieved what you have been unable to, despite all the advantages of your position on the governor’s staff. My wife, gentlemen, is under house arrest. For the murder of Bartholomew Harefield.’
On her cot in the empty hospital tent, Hannah felt around the inside of her cheek with her tongue, wincing at the sting as it found a gash. She would usually never spit, but she was not fond of the taste of blood, and she was alone. She stood and spattered a red, watery mouthful onto the earth outside the tent.
She was surprised at herself, actually. Surprised she was still here, had not followed Monsarrat up the hill. She was, she realised with a shock, afraid.
Stop being an eejit of a woman, she said to herself. March on out there, down the hill and up the other one, as you always do. Show them some sense, make them behave. But she was not now dealing with unruly geese; she had come face to face with a vindictive and, she suspected, unhinged man who was the ultimate authority on this island.
Still, it was no excuse for cowardice, she thought. Colm would have been appalled. And at the thought of him, and his death at the hands of someone like Captain Brewster, she stood and after cleaning up her face as best she could, she set off.
She was beaten to the cottage by Lieutenant Holloway, whom she saw scurrying from the direction of the barracks. By the time she was close enough to hear, Brewster was already barking orders at him.
‘No one in, no one out. My wife will have the cottage to herself.’
Holloway nodded, ran back towards the barracks, no doubt to fetch a more permanent guard for the commandant’s wife.
Hannah stood, assessing the scene. Ellison and Monsarrat emerged. Despite his earlier ardour, Ellison seemed not to notice her.
‘Commandant, you should at least let the doctor look her over,’ he said. ‘I’m sure all is well – but news of these things travels, doesn’t it? You and I know how quickly rumours fly across the seas, faster than any boat. If word of this reached Hobart – your imprisonment of your wife and your refusal to allow her a doctor – it would seem as though you had lost control here. And I assure you that such an impression will not get you another commission.’
Brewster frowned. ‘You will note, gentlemen, that I did not tell Holloway precisely why my wife was to be guarded. Nor do I intend to.’
‘Very wise, very wise indeed,’ said Ellison. ‘If I might suggest, perhaps you should allude to a threat to her safety – a convict who has taken a liking to her, who you feel will break in and molest her? Allow that to be put about and no one would question the presence of the guard at your door. Particularly if you allow her medical treatment. And a companion. Mrs Mulrooney can sleep in her room and attend her. After all, if this is merely a matter of protecting her virtue, what possible reason could there be for denying her these things?’
Brewster nodded slowly. ‘Very well then. Things will come out eventually, of course, but until then … Yes. There is no point in Marley being alerted to all of this, unless it is us alerting him, and then with a very carefully constructed tale. Dr Chester, you may go in and attend to my wife. Mulrooney – you too.’
Hannah bowed – more important than ever to observe the niceties now. She froze, though, when he grabbed her by the elbow as she passed him, and saw Monsarrat’s look of alarm.
‘Once you go in, you will not be permitted out again. Can’t have any more messages carried.’ Brewster turned to Ellison. ‘Clearly it was my wife, rather than you, Henry, responsible for helping Power plan his escape. I must apologise for entertaining the notion of your guilt.’
Ellison had the grace to look slightly uncomfortable, but nodded his thanks.
Monsarrat walked Hannah to the door. ‘Does it hurt very much?’ he asked. In that moment he held himself in the highest contempt. He should be making Brewster bleed in the dirt, and he badly wanted to.
‘I probably won’t be eating anything hard for a time, but otherwise it’s not too bad. Certainly nowhere near as bad as Elizabeth Brewster’s injury.’
‘I will walk by the window a couple of times a day. If you need me, rap on it. I hope they send a guard who is reasonable. Private Ennis would do nicely, but you can never tell,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry, Mr Monsarrat. I am being confined in a comfortable cottage – seems to me that I am getting off more lightly than I have in the past.’
He smiled, squeezed her elbow. ‘You are braver than any soul I’ve ever met,’ he said.
‘Ah, it’s not bravery, Mr Monsarrat. If I let her flounder, if she suffocates under the weight of a husband’s fists … Well, I fear the shade of another young woman would not approve.’
Chester was squinting in the dying light, looking at the wound on Elizabeth’s temple when Hannah walked in. Elizabeth had her eyes open but they were glazed, staring at the wall as if it bore a painting only she could see.
‘I think she’ll be all right, thankfully,’ said Chester, without turning around. ‘Here, Mrs Mulrooney – you might find this useful at some point. Come and look.’
She moved over to the bed. Chester drew one of Elizabeth’s eyelids closed, and then opened it gently again with his thumb. She did not seem to notice the manipulation.
‘Look, here, see? Notice how her pupil is getting smaller? That is good. When that fails to happen, it is a matter of great concern,’ he said.
‘What needs doing for her?’ asked Hannah.
‘Nothing that you have not been doing already. Well, almost. I must stress how important it is that you keep talking to her. Trying to draw her out. Don’t let her slip into such a deep sleep that we might have trouble rousing her, or even be unable to. Beyond that, simply do as you have been doing. Tea and so on. If you have the wherewithal here to make broth, that might be useful as well. I shall see if Walter can send something up from the stores that you can use.’
‘Walter … he doesn’t know. Dr Chester, I fear if he understood the reality of the situation, he might do something … something foolish. Something which cannot be compensated for. It is probably better to let him believe the fiction that Brewster has made up – that she was under threat from a crazed convict but is perfectly safe now that she’s being guarded.’
Chester nodded. ‘You’re probably right about Walter, poor lad. Devoted to his sister. And with Power incarcerated, Mrs Brewster injured and you, dear lady, cooped up here, I do worry for the lad, Mrs Mulrooney. It is a dangerous enough world for those equipped to deal with it. Without protection, I fear Walter will flounder.’
Brewster had worn the beginnings of a groove into the dirt beside his front step by the time Lieutenant Holloway returned with Private Ennis.
‘There is a need to protect my wife from molestation, private. I will not go into details, nor will you enquire. But you will guard this door through the night and allow no one in – or out – without my express approval.’
Ennis nodded, and then remembered himself and saluted, before taking up his position at the door.
Chester emerged shortly afterwards, opened his mouth to speak. No words were allowed to escape, though, before Brewster said, ‘Dr Chester, Ellison. My office, if you please.’
Brewster turned, when he realised that those in his train included Monsarrat. ‘Your presence is not required, Mr Monsarrat.’
‘Yet I will be accompanying you, commandant, required or not,’ Monsarrat said, reverting to a bluntness he did not often get to use. ‘I would prefer not to write a report on how information was withheld from me, and how a suspicion of murder was covered up to save your reputation. But I will do so if you leave me no other choice.’
Brewster looked at Monsarrat for a moment. It was not the glare he was expecting. It was a cold, assessing look. Monsarrat had the uncomfortable impression he was being measured in some way.
‘Very well then, damn you,’ said Brewster.
There was barely room to shut the door in the small outbuilding with the five of them in there. But it was clear the door must be shut in the commandant’s view. They had a deception to discuss – or so Monsarrat thought.
‘Chester,’ Brewster said, settling himself behind the desk. ‘What is your opinion of my wife’s strength?’
Chester was caught off guard by the question, failed to hide his surprise in time.
‘Would you not like me to discuss your wife’s current condition?’ he asked.
‘I would like you to answer my question.’
‘As you know, your wife is in frail health at the moment,’ said Chester. ‘Exacerbated, if I may say, by the hit to the head she took during her … stumble.’
‘Her assisted stumble,’ said Monsarrat.
Chester shot him a warning look. ‘She is confused, disoriented, but it is my hope that the condition’s not permanent,’ he said. ‘She needs rest.’
‘I did not ask you to tell me of her needs, doctor. Is she, do you think, a strong woman when in health?’
‘Possibly stronger than many, given her involvement in the life of the settlement,’ said Chester.
‘But is she as strong as a man?’
‘I would say not,’ said Chester. He was frowning now, probably trying to look ahead for further protruding branches on the path Brewster was leading him down.
‘And you told me, doctor, when you examined Harefield’s body, that the wound to his shoulder would have required a significant amount of force.’
‘I … Yes, I did,’ said Chester.
‘Strong lad, that Walter,’ Brewster said.
‘Commandant,’ said Monsarrat, ‘I have only been here a short time, and have not managed to discover as much as I would like. One thing I have learned, though, is that Walter is among the gentlest souls I have known.’
‘You see it too, then,’ said Brewster. ‘You must, if you are trying to dissuade me from forming an opinion which I haven’t yet articulated.’
There was an intake of breath from Ellison. ‘Commandant,’ he said, ‘this is madness. You know Walter isn’t capable of violence.’
‘I know no such thing. What I do know is the regard in which he holds his sister. It would be most convenient if I were correct. A murderess for a wife – the stain of that would never leave me. This would be my last command. But a strong young man known to not be in full possession of his wits – such a circumstance, while regrettable, would be unlikely to pose much of an impediment to my advancement.’
‘Your advancement at the cost of Walter’s life,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Do you know, Mr Monsarrat, how long I have had to drag that fool around with me? How many tasks I have had to find for him in each settlement so that he might feel useful, so that he might continue to enjoy the wages that come with an official position like commissary without having to do any of the work associated with it? I assure you, I would be more than happy to give that burden up. My wife would be devastated, but she can wail all the way to her own trial.’
‘You mustn’t do this,’ said Ellison. ‘It is a mistake which cannot be unmade.’
‘You have not the authority, magistrate, to tell me what to do and what not to do. I thought to bring this matter before you, in the fullness of time, but it is apparent you would not give it your objective consideration. You may return to the mainland at your earliest convenience. I will tell Jones to have the boat ready within the hour. In the meantime, we have some questions to ask my brother-in-law.’
Elizabeth’s eyes were beginning to focus, her gaze snagging on one object after another as she seemed to be trying to ascertain how she had come to be back in bed.
When she tried to sit up, though, she let out a low complaint which brought Hannah to her side.
‘You have hurt your head, Mrs Brewster. Do not try to sit up, not yet,’ she said.
Elizabeth either didn’t hear, or ignored her. She braced herself against her hands, pushed herself upright and was immediately sick over the coverlet.
Hannah expected her to flag, and ran to the kitchen to get a bowl of water and some rags to clean up the pungent mess. When she got back, Elizabeth was standing. She was not doing so without effort, holding onto the brass bedstead. But she seemed alert enough, and in no danger of immediately tumbling.
‘Sit here, at the dressing table,’ said Hannah. ‘I’ll change your bed for you. Then you can lie back down.’
‘I have no intention of lying back down, Mrs Mulrooney,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I need to go and find my brother. Would you fetch me some clothes?’
‘If that’s your wish, but you will not be able to go in search of Mr Gendron.’
‘Why ever not? You will assist me, won’t you? I must confess, I would welcome an arm to lean on.’
‘And you would have it. But you and I, we are not permitted to leave. You are under guard.’
‘Under guard? How ridiculous! On whose authority?’
‘On your husband’s. Do you remember, he …’
‘He struck me, yes,’ she said calmly. ‘Has done so before, at times of stress. Not for a while, now. He realised that such behaviour demonstrated a lack of control which would not impress his superiors.’
It was odd to hear her speaking of it as a simple transaction, thought Hannah. But she knew that such things happened, and frequently. There were very few courses of action open to women thus abused. Her regard for Elizabeth Brewster swelled in that moment. To bend every waking thought to preventing such treatment, as a means of protecting not only herself but her brother’s position here, must have been extraordinarily exhausting.
‘Mrs Brewster, did you confess to the murder of Bartholomew Harefield?’
‘I did. And will do so again, before any magistrate my husband likes.’
Hannah could not help stepping backwards.
‘You need not worry, Mrs Mulrooney, said Elizabeth. ‘I am no danger to you.’
‘And don’t I know that,’ said Hannah. ‘As does Mr Brewster. While he is using your confession as an excuse to hold you here, I fear he knows that Walter is the one responsible.’
Elizabeth blanched, then grabbed hold of the bed head to stop herself falling. ‘Do you know what he intends to do?’ she whispered.
‘I do not. But I very much fear he intends to take things forward. Could he be right in believing Walter guilty of such a crime?’ asked Hannah.
‘Yes,’ Elizabeth said, quietly. ‘God help me, it was for my protection.’
‘Because Harefield was threatening to expose you?’
‘Partly. He saw Walter embrace Power, of course. But I sent Walter off very quickly. Feared that the gesture might be misinterpreted – as it was. I didn’t know Harefield was watching. So I added my own embrace before following Walter back down to the commissary. Some days later I found a note wedged in the pages of the commissary ledger. Unsigned, but I knew who it was from. There was no chance of my acceding to his request – it might have led to my own incarceration. But I thought if I could talk to him, offer to intercede with my husband for better pay, more rations, something along those lines, perhaps it might have been enough.’
‘You followed him to the
‘Yes, as little as I wanted to.’
‘This is a rough man who assaulted your brother. Were you not frightened he might do the same to you? There would have been no help to hand, not in the middle of that bush.’
‘Oh, I was terrified,’ Elizabeth said. ‘But if Harefield made good on his threats it would kill me anyway. This was my only path to survival. I was not unarmed though. I had the axe. It was next to useless – and Harefield knew it too – he had borrowed it once and returned it, saying the spoon from my kitchen would have been of more use. And had he seen it in my hands, seen me trying to wield it against him, he would have laughed. So I sharpened it. There’s a whetstone behind the commissary, you know. It was put to good use. I even rubbed some oil into the blade so that Harefield would be in no doubt that the implement I carried was capable of significant damage. But I did not intend to use it.’
‘I am assuming Harefield did not accept your terms,’ said Hannah.
‘He would not even speak to me. Just climbed the ladder as though I wasn’t there. I grabbed hold of it, shook it. Simply to get his attention. But I must have used more force than I believed I was capable of, because he came crashing down. That’s when he lunged at me, sent me sprawling to the ground, knocked the axe out of my hand, pinned me by the shoulders. And he had the most horrible grin on his face. The man’s breath, good Lord, I could smell the teeth as they rotted out of his head. I closed my eyes, and then I felt his weight suddenly come down on me. I was certain he was going to …’
Elizabeth paused, looked down. Hannah patted her hand. ‘You must not worry about speaking of such things in front of me,’ she said. ‘It is a tale of the kind I’ve heard before, and very much fear I will again in future.’
Elizabeth was breathing quickly now, and Hannah gave her a cup of water and stroked her hair.
‘I should have screamed but my throat was dry. There was no point anyway – no one would have heard me. I waited, waited for him to do what he was going to do. He didn’t move. I opened my eyes and Walter was standing there, an axe in his hand, and Harefield was bleeding.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes