The power game, p.28
The Power Game, p.28Thomas Keneally
‘Knowing what you know, would you still alert the commandant to a whaler in the bay?’
‘You’re asking me nothing less than whether I would be a party to treason.’
‘I’m asking nothing of the sort, Mr Monsarrat. We are simply speaking hypothetically.’
‘Well, hypothetically … With the life of an innocent at stake … Oh, don’t preen, I’m not talking about you … I might find my eyesight was somewhat impaired in the gathering dusk.’
Power smiled. ‘I thought as much,’ he said. ‘You will always be a convict, Mr Monsarrat. Now please don’t take offence,’ as Monsarrat began to stand, to make for the door. ‘Those on whom justice has descended most heavily are the best placed to recognise what is truly just and what isn’t. Believe me, my friend, I intend it as a compliment. And I do hope that if you are ever in a position again to allow justice to be served through what we might call unconventional means, you will look to the convict for counsel, rather than to the functionary who is trying to bury him.’
Monsarrat did not tell Ellison of his conversation with Power. He told him that his message had been delivered and Ellison did not press for any further details.
After a few shared cups, Monsarrat was beginning to recognise the signs that Ellison had consumed more port than was wise. His eyes, which in sobriety darted about his surroundings, assessing each object for its threat or utility, became unfocused and roamed languidly from tree to cottage to goose. His shoulders would begin to slump and he would start taking Monsarrat on rambles through his past, a subject on which he never conversed while sober.
‘Do you know, Monsarrat, when I was a boy my father forced me to whip a tenant? He was bailiff to the local lord, you see, always thought I would continue in that line of work after him. This poor fellow, an old man who should have been taking his ease, had lost his son to a fever and was forced back into the fields. Wasn’t as good at it as he used to be, and was barely able to stand straight, so of course his returns would not cover his rent. Yet my father took none of that into consideration. He saw a tenant who was unable to pay and who deserved a whipping.’
This was the kind of story Monsarrat knew Mrs Mulrooney would be familiar with.
‘Presumably that’s why you pursued a career in law?’ he said. ‘So you could intervene in such disputes?’
He felt a small nick of jealousy as he asked the question. If he’d had the opportunity to legitimately pursue such a career, he would not have been transported for forging legal credentials. He pushed aside the thought that, legal or not, his desire to practise law had little to do with helping the oppressed.
‘Initially, yes,’ Ellison said. ‘But I found I was constrained. The law has provisions for many contingencies, but compassion is not among them. Whenever I ruled in disputes between tenants and landlords, and when my ruling did not favour the landlord, a more senior magistrate would soon be visiting me, informing me of the necessity to uphold the social order. That’s the thing about the rich, you see. The law is supposed to be blind, but if you can afford to invite it over to dine and get it blind-drunk instead, you can get any outcome you want.’
‘Did you adjust your rulings?’
‘A little, at first. Sometimes it was easy because on occasion the landlord was actually in the right. Not often, though, and I came to hate myself, went back to my old ways of interpreting the law, as though justice was the only principle that mattered.’
‘Must’ve made it difficult, then, to maintain a career.’
‘Oh, impossible. That’s why I am here. They found a place for me that was as far away from England as could possibly be conceived. I was reluctant to go, but of course I had no choice, not really. And it did turn out rather well. There is nobody here to prevent me from getting up to mischief. My nearest superior is in Hobart, and intervening with the magistracy down here would involve a lot of work, letters to the colonial secretary and so on. I have not made too much trouble – as far as they know – so they have let me be for the most part.’
He sighed and leaned against the bench, so that Monsarrat felt its back peel away slightly from his own. In the next instant, though, Ellison was sitting upright and then standing steadily, as alert as somebody who had not just put away the better part of a bottle of port.
‘Down there,’ he said, pointing to the bay.
Monsarrat looked. The ship which he had taken to be a whaler had not changed course and headed out to sea. It was continuing to bear down on Darlington Bay.
‘This is not a ship you need to alert the commandant to, Mr Monsarrat,’ Ellison said, as he swung his travelling bag. ‘He will be aware of it. That, if I am correct, is the brig which will take Power to Macquarie Harbour, and Elizabeth and Walter to true justice.’
Monsarrat stood on the beach with Ellison, watching as the new convicts were rowed ashore, veterans of sea voyages now, even the ones who had been born many days’ ride from the first whiff of salt air. Most kept their heads down – a survival tactic with which Monsarrat was well acquainted. Invisibility, here, was safety, and something within many of them would be whispering that if they could not see their tormentors, they themselves would remain unseen.
Others, though – the more recently arrived, perhaps, or convicts like himself who had managed to avoid the work gangs – looked around at the looming Bishop and Clerk saddle-back mountain which rose behind the settlement, and at the slice of sand which extended from one side of the dock. A few cast their glances in the direction of the small congregation of headstones on the other side of the dock. Wondering perhaps whether that was their ultimate destination.
The convicts were lined up on the shore to be harangued by Holloway. Ellison leaned over towards Monsarrat. ‘Now the processional starts,’ he whispered.
Brewster was not going to miss the opportunity of seeing Thomas Power being loaded onto the brig. He emerged from his office building, and walked straight-backed to the guardhouse.
The soldier opened the door, went inside and returned a minute later with Power, who was shackled.
‘Why on earth are they ironing him?’ asked Monsarrat. ‘What do they think he will do, fly away?’
‘Oh, Brewster has no fears about the security of the prisoner,’ said Ellison. ‘This is for show. The man who chained the unchainable. Had he the wherewithal, I wouldn’t doubt he would have commissioned an artist to sketch the event.’
With Power constrained, Brewster put his hand on the man’s back and shoved roughly, so that he stumbled over the chain between his legs. Power righted himself quickly enough though, straightened his shoulders and marched down to the dock at such a pace that Brewster had to hurry to keep up with him. As he passed Monsarrat and Ellison, he said out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Good day to you, gentlemen. I don’t anticipate seeing either of you again, but I will be happy to be proven wrong.’
And for the second time, Monsarrat watched Power wade into the water to a waiting tender.
Brewster drew alongside them, watching as one of the sailors helped Power to stand alongside the boat. ‘Look at that – His Majesty’s Navy is unable to resist treating the fellow with respect. Beyond me, truly.’
‘Yes, James,’ said Ellison. ‘I know it is.’
‘Hmm. Well, if you will both excuse me, I have some urgent tasks to attend to.’ And he turned and stalked up the beach.
‘He is not farewelling his wife?’ asked Monsarrat. ‘Not even watching her as she boards?’
‘Oh no. Treating Power as he did was a means of reminding anyone who cared to watch of his gallant capture of the man. He wishes to claim actions which belong to you – and which if I’m not mistaken you would prefer to disown. His wife, though – very few are aware of the circumstances surrounding her and Walter’s departure. But enough are. Enough to make him want to distance himself from her in the most emphatic way possible. I imagine he’s also arranged things so that Thomas Power, who’s pr
As soon as the commandant had disappeared, Power’s irons were taken off so he could board the tender that would take him to the brig without risk of drowning.
Perhaps Private Ennis had been instructed to watch from the cottage to make sure those inside did not emerge until the commandant was safely back in his office, his door closed, because a minute or so later Monsarrat could see Elizabeth and Walter make their way down the hill, Elizabeth leaning on her brother’s arm, and the very welcome sight of Mrs Mulrooney behind them.
While the commandant was not represented as the little party moved closer to the bay, others were. Dr Chester strode down from the hospital. Some of the kinder convict over seers could be seen lining the path to the bay, reaching out to pat Walter’s shoulder as he went, and bow their heads to Elizabeth Brewster. Walter smiled and waved at them, and Elizabeth nodded solemnly. Jones, who was temporarily redundant due to the presence of a much larger ship in what he considered to be his waters, was making his way from the boathouse.
And from the hospital site Milliner watched, completely still. The man would have months, years, to stare at the void of water as he tried to get out of work, tried to avoid being abandoned to Trainor’s tender mercy at the reservoir site, where he would stand beside Shanahan as another mule for whipping.
Monsarrat wondered if the Hatter would be watching when he and Mrs Mulrooney slid away from the island. He suddenly felt an odd and unjust remorse. He would be leaving men like Milliner to an obscure fate, to an existence in which the colonial seasons, upside down, blew July gales and brought withering heat in December, while they themselves stood still. But for his investigation the year before into the death of an innocent woman in Port Macquarie, Monsarrat knew that he would have been the one looking at an ocean as the days lengthened and shortened and lengthened again without the slightest regard for him.
Chester got down to the bay before the little party. ‘I do hope,’ he said to Ellison, ‘that the lady will not have further need of the type of assistance I provided to her recently.’
‘I believe, Dr Chester, that her removal from this place – and from the influence of its commandant – will guard against that eventuality,’ said Ellison.
Chester nodded. ‘We shall be diminished without her, though, and especially without Walter. Every settlement needs a young man who can see eternity in a raindrop.’
Jones, too, had drawn level with them. ‘It will be you, tomorrow, Mr Monsarrat. The commandant has given orders for me to take you first thing in the morning.’
‘I am not subject to the commandant’s orders regarding my movements,’ said Monsarrat, jealous as only a marginally free man could be about standing up for his own discretionary rights.’
‘Well,’ Jones conceded, ‘I must say, I don’t like the look of those clouds. See how they’re being smeared across the sky by the wind? They do not bode well. So you may have the opportunity to enjoy the commandant’s company for longer than you had imagined.’
‘I would rather avail myself of the opportunity to enjoy yours,’ said Monsarrat.
Jones chuckled. ‘In that case, if you have a fondness for card games, I happen to have a deck. Carry it with me everywhere – far better way to pass the time during a storm than being tossed about on a boat.’
‘And you’re familiar, Mr Monsarrat, with the location of my little cache,’ said Ellison. ‘I believe there is half a bottle left. If you and Jones do find yourselves playing cards while the wind howls about, please do avail yourselves of it.’
The little party from the cottage was upon them now. Elizabeth was casting anxious glances in the direction of her husband’s office, perhaps fearful he would burst out and drag her back. Her steps quickened when she saw the ship that would take her out of the orbit of her husband’s fists.
When Walter saw Jones, he broke into a galloping run.
‘Mr Jones, you will take care of things here, won’t you? Especially the seals, but the dolphins as well. They need watching, you know,’ said Walter.
‘Aye, lad, I give you my word. Although no one can keep them in line quite like you can.’
Walter nodded solemnly and then enfolded Jones in a broad-shouldered hug. When he stepped away, Monsarrat could see the tears on his cheeks, and pretended not to notice that Jones had started blinking rapidly.
‘I wish you the best, Mr Gendron. Look after that sister of yours,’ said Chester. And to Elizabeth, who had just reached them, he handed a packet. ‘A remedy for anxiety,’ he said. ‘Use it sparingly, and it is my wish that you don’t have to use it at all.’
‘I do believe the need for it will diminish with distance,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Thank you.’
The tender which had just rowed Power out to the brig was returning now, and a nimble young seaman jumped out to help drag it aground on the sand so that Elizabeth could board without ruining her skirts.
‘Good of him,’ said Ellison. ‘I know the consideration is the lady, but I’m glad of it nonetheless. I am not constructed to hop easily in and out of boats.’
Elizabeth started towards the boat, and then turned and walked towards Mrs Mulrooney, who had been hanging back from the group. She took both of the housekeeper’s hands, kissed her on both cheeks. Elizabeth was, Monsarrat thought, already recovering some of her colour, which seemed to increase as the time to board drew near. For the first time in days, he believed that if he squinted, he could convince himself she was Grace.
Walter clearly felt his sister’s farewell was too restrained, and lifted Mrs Mulrooney off her feet in a hug which must’ve driven the breath out of her lungs. Then he and Elizabeth turned and held each other’s hands as they walked towards the tender.
Ellison positioned himself at the back of the boat so that its nose rode slightly out of the water, making the work of the seamen who were rowing more difficult. While Elizabeth and Walter climbed the rope ladder onto the brig with ease, Ellison had to be half-pushed and half-pulled onto the deck.
Monsarrat looked sideways at Mrs Mulrooney, noticed that her face was wet. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘that they will find peace where they are going.’
‘I hope so, Mr Monsarrat,’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘Mrs Brewster – she isn’t Honora Shelborne, but then nobody is. But she is not the worst of them. And young Walter – there is a purity to him, and this colony makes it its business to snuff purity out. It is to be hoped that the place where they are going is kinder.’
‘Well, it is no longer a colony,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Perhaps in claiming their independence, the Americans have found room for a little more tolerance than can be found here … Oh, look.’
He pointed to the brig, where Ellison was waving. Monsarrat believed it was impossible to tell where the magistrate was aiming his eyes, but was certain that the wave was meant for only one person standing on the beach.
‘I know he treated you shamefully,’ said Monsarrat. ‘And it is inexcusable, but you must confess, he does have some redeeming qualities.’
‘I must do no such thing,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘Although … Walter would likely have hanged without his intervention, so I will refrain from praying for him to be afflicted by gout. Probably too late for my prayers, anyway.’
And she glared at the waving figure as the anchor of the ship rose, a look which Monsarrat thought Ellison must surely have felt. Perhaps he did, because the frantic movement of his arms slowed and then stopped.
Mrs Mulrooney began to smile, then to laugh. ‘Listen, Mr Monsarrat!’
The thickening clouds did nothing to impede the sound which travelled towards them. The sound of a goose, honking three times, stopping and honking again, and seemingly doing so from the middle of the bay, where no goose had any business being.
Jones was right about the weather. That afternoon the sky became increasingly crowded wi
Monsarrat extracted Ellison’s remaining bottle from the cache underneath the floorboards, and struggled through the nearly vertical rain to the boathouse. Jones turned out to be a skilled card player. It was fortunate they were not playing the kind of game which involved wages, or the small amount of money Monsarrat had brought with him to the island would have been completely depleted.
‘Do you know,’ said Jones, having to raise his voice over the sound of the rain against the boathouse shutters, ‘the commandant wanted me to take you back across the water today. Today!’
‘The sea could be completely flat for all we know,’ said Monsarrat. ‘You’d have to walk right to the end of the dock to see it.’
‘I did,’ said Jones, ‘and nearly got washed off. They’re standing up like an army, those waves. We would not make it a hundred feet. The wind is no respecter of persons and their good leather shoes. On the way back I saw my handcart rolling down the wharf. Looked like it was drunk, rolling from side to side until the wind pushed it into the sea. God knows where it is now – it might reach Hobart before you.’
‘Well, I’m grateful to you for declining the commandant.’
‘I have no more desire to drown than you do, Mr Monsarrat. He threatened to relieve me of my duties and I invited him to do just that. It must have occurred to him that any bosun is better than none at all, so he stalked off after yelling at me to get you gone at first light tomorrow.’
‘I’d best not drink too much port, then,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I’m not often taken ill at sea, but I imagine a bellyful of this stuff would contribute.’
‘It does, I can tell you that from experience,’ said Jones. ‘But we’ll see, will we? I’ll not be taking you and that dear woman across the ocean until it has decided to behave itself.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes