The power game, p.26
The Power Game, p.26Thomas Keneally
‘All over you,’ said Hannah.
‘He’s a dear thing, Walter,’ said Elizabeth. ‘You can see it, I know. I have protected him since we were children – my father had so longed for a son, and when he got Walter – well, he couldn’t see his charm, couldn’t see past what he viewed as his deficiencies. And my mother – so hidebound, she was. She never defended him when my father raised his fists. It was my job to do that. I would stand between them, and my father stopped short of striking me. Usually. I suppose Walter thought it was his turn to protect me.’
‘And he did protect you.’
‘Yes. He stood there for a moment, looking at Harefield and the axe in his hands, and then he turned to me and started to cry. Wailed. I haven’t heard him make that sound since our father locked him in a stable overnight to punish him for his inability to ride a horse. And then he knelt, tried to take Harefield by the shoulder, shook him and said, “Wake up, wake up”. No one could have survived those blows, though. And Harefield’s shoulder was flopping backwards as Walter was shaking him. Then he said how sorry he was – that he hadn’t meant it, but he knew Harefield was going to hurt me.’
‘Poor Walter. And he must’ve been splattered with blood.’
‘Yes, he was. So was I. We were fortunate night was drawing in. We bundled his bloodied shirt up and took it back for burning. Then we dragged Harefield over to the edge.
‘I warned Walter he must never, ever tell anyone. And he’s not given rise to any suspicion as far as I know, until now. I can’t let him hang, Mrs Mulrooney.’
‘No, indeed. I can assure you I’ll do anything I can to help prevent it,’ said Hannah.
‘We are under guard, you say?’ said Elizabeth.
‘We are,’ said Hannah, ‘Private Ennis, who guarded Mr Power.’
‘Ennis. I wonder if he’d … Come sit with me, Mrs Mulrooney. We will avoid the side of the bed that I’ve managed to soil. I very much hope you will agree to grant me a favour.’
‘As you insist on invoking your status as the governor’s man, Mr Monsarrat, you may come with me while I interview Prisoner Gendron. I wouldn’t want you writing a report of obstruction.’
Prisoner Gendron. In those two words, Captain Brewster reduced his brother-in-law to another inconvenience which needed managing on an island full of inconveniences.
As Ellison made to follow Brewster to the commissary Brewster turned again, glaring at the magistrate. ‘Jones will be departing shortly and you will be with him,’ said Brewster. ‘There is very little point, magistrate, in you attending this interview.’
‘Do you not think you should have someone with legal training there? Simply for administrative proprietary?’ said Ellison. His tone was calm, almost casual, but his eyes were flicking from the commissary to the dock and back again.
‘I don’t think that will be necessary,’ Brewster said, walking away.
Monsarrat looked at Ellison, grimaced and turned to follow Brewster, but the magistrate called him back.
‘Mr Monsarrat, she will be taken care of, arrangements will be made. Please let her know, if you’re able to.’
At the commissary Brewster yanked open the door, gestured Monsarrat inside, closed it. Walter was at his usual place behind the desk, staring at the ledger. He stood when Brewster entered. ‘James! What a surprise to see you here. I was just going over our provisions. We have enough salt pork to last until next week, but the rice is running low. Do you think Jones could get some? I saw him getting the boat ready.’
‘Walter, sit down,’ said Brewster.
‘Let me just show you – over here – look, we have everything organised on the shelves now,’ Walter said, walking to the back of the room.
‘I said, sit down!’ Brewster yelled. In the confined quarters, his voice echoed off the timbers and the newly organised pots and barrels and crates, making Monsarrat start. He could not imagine how much more frightening it would be for Walter.
Walter did as he was told, moving his half-moon spectacles from his forehead to his nose, possibly to conceal the shining in his eyes.
Brewster leaned on the table, pushing his torso forward until his head was directly over Walter.
‘Why did you kill Bartholomew Harefield?’ he said.
Walter gasped. He opened his mouth, closed it again and shook his head. ‘Elizabeth said—’
‘Elizabeth can say what she likes. I will never again listen to her. Did you do it because he had found out about her friendship with Power?’
‘But you knew she was friends with him! You were too! So was I, and I still am!’ He inhaled sharply, and then shut his mouth in a firm line.
‘You did, didn’t you?’ hissed Brewster. ‘It must’ve been most inconvenient when Harefield found out about the liaison between those two.’
Walter had clearly decided that any reaction was going to be used by Brewster to build a case. He sat back like a petulant child, mouth shut, staring.
‘I wouldn’t have believed it of you, Walter. You are a very stupid man, yes, but I had always taken you for an honest one. Now I know that you have been part of this deception all along, it is not something I can forgive. And the taking of Harefield’s life is not something which can be forgiven by the courts, either. You are coming with me.’
‘I can’t, James! You know I can’t. I need to stay here, to run the commissary.’
‘Walter, you have never run the commissary. You have never done any such thing. It will be a relief to get someone qualified in here, someone who does not need your sister’s supervision, which is just as well, as she won’t be there to give it. You know, I assume, what an accomplice is.’
But Walter had decided on silence again, his lips pressed so firmly together that Monsarrat could hardly see them.
‘That is what your sister is. Your accomplice. When you hang for Harefield’s murder, she will hang with you. I shall not attend though. I have no love left for her, and I will be too busy preparing for my next posting. Stand up and come with me. It’s only fair that I give you some time to say goodbye.’
‘Please, a buachaill. I am not the one under arrest. I do hate to ask you to disregard the commandant’s orders but it’s crucial that I get out. I will be back within ten minutes.’
Private Ennis was shifting uneasily from one foot to the other. It was clear he did not understand why the housekeeper had been confined with Mrs Brewster. After all, why should she be protected from a convict who was stalking the commandant’s wife? Orders, though, were orders, no matter how inexplicable.
‘You heard him, missus. Were it up to me, you’d have the freedom of the island, but Captain Brewster said nobody out.’
‘But … but Mrs Brewster has been ill, you see. She has no clean nightclothes, no clean sheets. I must go down to the commissary to see if such things are available there. You surely wouldn’t begrudge a little comfort to an ill woman.’
The private was clearly at odds with himself, poor fellow, and she felt bad for putting him through it. His discomfort, though, was minimal compared to what she would suffer if Walter was executed.
Eventually Ennis exhaled through his nose like a young bull. ‘Ten minutes, Mrs Mulrooney. In thanks for the shortbread and the tea, and your company. After that, I will have no choice but to report your absence.’
Mrs Mulrooney grabbed the young man’s shoulders, stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. ‘That’s from your mother, you dear lad. Ten minutes. I will have returned before then, and the door will close behind me as though I was never gone.’ She lifted her skirt and began hobbling down the hill towards the dock, where a rotund figure in a black suit with a white bib paced.
She did not know which of the saints made sure she didn’t trip in her heedless rush, and resolved to light a candle for all of them when she was next in a position to do so. In the meantime, she sent into the air a quick prayer of thanks to St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, in the hope that hers would
She glanced about the dock to make sure Brewster was not prowling, and then scurried to the spot where Ellison was standing, looking across the water. She touched him on the shoulder, and he jumped and turned.
‘Mrs Mulrooney! I would have thought you’d be delighted to see me leave the island without any further talk between us.’
‘And so I would have been, I’ll be honest with you. But I’m here on behalf of Mrs Brewster.’
‘How is she?’
‘Fretting about her brother, but otherwise extraordinarily strong, given the circumstances.’
‘She’s fretting with good reason, I’m afraid,’ said Ellison. ‘The commandant is interviewing him as we speak. With your Mr Monsarrat.’
‘He will advocate for Walter. Will do his best, anyway,’ said Hannah. ‘But I doubt he can prevent Walter’s trial, his execution. Especially now that certain people have seen to it that Mr Monsarrat’s previous crimes have come to light.’
Ellison frowned. ‘I regret it. I regret nothing more, though, than showing Mrs Brewster’s letters to her husband. I did not recognise her hand – the messages always came from Power himself.’
‘You have made a number of mistakes, haven’t you?’
‘Yes. And damned if I know how to clean them up.’
‘I have been cleaning up messes for decades,’ said Hannah. ‘And I have a suggestion for you. From Mrs Brewster, actually.’
He nodded as she told him the plan, slowly, and then more emphatically.
‘There is always a chance Brewster will refuse to accept my authority,’ he said. ‘That he’ll throw me off the island – indeed as he is in the process of doing. But I do believe this is the best chance we have. And if it doesn’t work … well, I’ll consider it my duty to contrive a means of escape for them. A pity that there is no one to carry letters, or to signal the approach of a ship.’
‘Ah yes, the signal,’ said Hannah. ‘What was it, by the way? Tell me quickly! How did Mr Power know to run down to the sea?’
Ellison allowed himself a smile. ‘She became quite good at it, actually,’ he said. ‘She showed it off to me, once. She told me that she would go for long walks to practise until she felt her voice blended into the sounds of the island’s other creatures.’
‘But what sound was she making?’
‘That peculiar rasping honk of the geese. I couldn’t tell hers apart from one of the real ones in the end. Three of them, a five-second silence, and then another three. Anyone listening would have heard nothing but a creature making its annoyance felt.’
‘They have a use for something then,’ said Hannah, thinking of Grace O’Leary imitating an owl to warn her friends of a patrol. ‘Perhaps I won’t wring one of their necks, even if I get another opportunity.’
Ellison began to smile, but stopped when he spotted the commissary door opening. ‘Get behind me,’ he whispered, ‘Then move around behind those crates, when you can do so without being seen. I’ll do my best to get Brewster back inside, and you can follow the gully up the hill back to the cottage. Stay low. Because the necks of the geese are not the ones at risk now.’
Walter was openly sobbing.
‘I would hold you in the utmost contempt,’ James Brewster said, ‘but I do not believe you’re worth the exertion.’
He walked to the door, pulled it open, stepped outside. ‘Are you coming?’ he yelled back, without turning.
Walter got to his feet but didn’t move. Brewster looked as though he was going to open his mouth and launch another insult but he was interrupted by a call from the dock.
‘Commandant!’ Ellison’s voice was distant, but getting closer. ‘Commandant – please listen to me. I do believe I am in a position to save you from an embarrassing legal blunder.’
‘I doubt it, magistrate,’ Brewster called back. ‘I’ve told you to wait for Jones …’
But by now Ellison had gained the front steps of the commissary, had taken the commandant’s elbow and was attempting to steer him back inside. Brewster roughly shook his elbow out of Ellison’s grasp, but did walk back through the door.
‘I suggest we shut this,’ said Ellison. ‘I am sure you would wish this conversation to remain confidential.’
‘There seems to be very little that is confidential here anymore,’ said Brewster.
‘All the more reason to make sure we are faultless in how we manage things now.’
‘Faultless? Oh, I certainly am. I am about to take a murderous simpleton up to join his sister under house arrest.’
‘Yes, well, that’s just it,’ said Ellison. ‘House arrest, with only a handful of people who know the real reason. Do you know, James, there are those who would say you are refusing to follow due process just to save yourself embarrassment.’
‘If you’re accusing me—’
‘I’m doing no such thing, dear boy. I am simply telling you that sort of concealment could land you in a spot of legal bother. But if you were to allow the law to take its course – to bring the culprits to justice, regardless of who they are – there are some, many actually, who would say that that is a mark of a fellow of great integrity. I for one would certainly ensure that those whose opinions matter saw it in that light.’
Brewster paused. ‘What are you suggesting?’
‘The brig which will convey Power to Macquarie Harbour is due, am I correct?’
‘Yes, thank God.’
‘What if it were to take not one prisoner, but three? I would accompany Mrs Brewster and Mr Gendron – sorry, the prisoners – and on arrival in Triabunna I would escort them to Hobart, where they would be imprisoned and tried. While we are waiting, I would be more than willing to draft a report for Richard Marley and the lieutenant general. Emphasising your impartiality, your honesty. You may read it, if you like – change it, even. We can send it on ahead with Jones, so that it reaches their eyes before the prisoners arrive in Hobart.’
‘If word of this gets out, they’ll never stop laughing …’ said Brewster.
‘If you do not do as I suggest, and word of it gets out, you will be arrested. I assure you I will bend my efforts to that end, every bit as much as I will to the preservation of your reputation should you decide on the wise course of following my advice. And please don’t forget, my dear James, that I have seen the convicts you send across to work on your Orford house. I have noted their names, the dates when you sent them. Your conviction would be a simple matter.’
Brewster began to pace. His head was down and he bumped into one of the shelves. An earthenware pot fell off, shattering and spilling out tea leaves. He looked at it for a moment and resumed pacing.
‘You will write this report today, then. I will read it, change it should it need to be changed, and Jones, as soon as possible, will take it across the water.’
‘Of course, James,’ said Ellison. ‘The very course of action I was suggesting.’
Brewster sighed. ‘You had best start on that document, magistrate, if we are to have any hope of getting it to Hobart in good time.’
‘Naturally. I will begin at once. I must say though, such a missive would benefit greatly from a beautiful hand, and the speed at which we need to accomplish this precludes my own – I write appallingly when I’m rushing.’
Ellison turned to Monsarrat, smiled. ‘Mr Monsarrat, do you happen to know anyone with any experience as a clerk?’
Monsarrat and Ellison walked in silence up the hill, Monsarrat having to pause every now and then to allow Ellison to catch up.
‘I must say, I am better fitted to a life of the mind than of the body,’ Ellison said. ‘No, don’t wait. Walter won’t have any kind of life if we don’t hurry up.’
He sat down heavily at the table when they entered the magistrate’s cottage, looking around and then frowning as though he had expected Mrs Mulrooney to come in with a cup of tea.
Monsarrat laid out the papers, fetched his own pen and ink, and sat down. Into the night Ellison spoke eloquently
‘Making me a little bit nauseated, actually,’ he said to Monsarrat after a while. ‘I’m sorry for the fabrications.’
‘Just sorry for them? You are hauling a lad who might as well be innocent to Hobart for almost certain execution. I know murderers must be punished, but Walter …? It would be like hanging a child, as happened in the old, bad days.’
Ellison sighed. ‘Do you know, Mr Monsarrat, sometimes I think your housekeeper has more wits than you.’
‘Oh, I know she does.’
‘This was her idea,’ said Ellison.
‘To send them both to Hobart for trial?’
Ellison frowned at him. It was a look he knew well on the face of Mrs Mulrooney. Had Ellison had a cleaning cloth in his hand, Monsarrat would have ducked.
‘They will never get to Hobart, Mr Monsarrat, of that I assure you. They will spend the night – under my guard, as I told Brewster – at the inn at Triabunna. I will wake up in the morning with a painful but thankfully temporary wound on the back of my head, and they will be gone. They will have slid over the water early in the morning in a small boat, which will take them to a whaler bound for America.’
‘Well. That … does rather put a different complexion on things,’ said Monsarrat. He felt embarrassed for failing to look beneath the skin of the plan, and for failing to recognise Mrs Mulrooney’s marks all over it.
‘While we’re on the subject of apology, Mr Monsarrat. I do wish I hadn’t acquainted the commandant with your background.’
‘So do I. Presumably you wanted to destroy my credibility in case I accused you of working with Power.’
‘Yes, and that did work rather well, didn’t it?’ Ellison said, smiling.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes