The power game, p.3
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       The Power Game, p.3
 

           Thomas Keneally

  He seemed to relax as the boat was tied up to the dock, but walked stiffly ashore, his eyes fixed on the door of the pub.

  Monsarrat was tempted to let him walk past, to be another man among the inn’s many who were here for trade or whaling or any number of other purposes. But the opportunity to talk to someone who had recently been on Maria Island was too great. He stood suddenly to get the man’s attention, and bowed. ‘Forgive me, sir, but you have come from Maria Island?’

  ‘Yes, well, it would be difficult to imagine where else I could have come from,’ the man said, not slowing as he made his way in towards the warmth behind the inn’s doors.

  ‘I am sorry to bother you, sir,’ Monsarrat said. ‘But I am bound there myself, you see.’

  The man stopped. ‘I do apologise for my discourtesy,’ he said. ‘Sea journeys always put me in a bad frame of mind.’

  ‘Yes, I happen to know someone of the same temperament,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Please don’t trouble about it.’

  The man held out his hand. ‘Henry Ellison,’ he said. ‘I have the honour to occupy the position of visiting magistrate to Maria Island, and a great many other places in Van Diemen’s Land.’

  ‘Ah. So you will have been exercised, I’m sure, by recent events,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Forgive me, I don’t speak out of prurience. I’ve been sent from Sydney to investigate the slaying of the bosun on Maria Island.’

  ‘Oh! Marley told me they were sending someone from the governor’s office.’ Ellison was silent for a moment, and then said, ‘May I suggest that you join me? I find myself in need of port, and would be most amenable to continuing our conversation once I have one in front of me.’

  ‘I must say, it’s odd,’ said Ellison.

  ‘Odd?’

  ‘That Marley felt the need to send for assistance from Sydney. Not that I begrudge your presence, sir.’

  ‘Indeed. But my understanding, having spoken to Mr Marley, is that the case is somewhat delicate.’

  ‘Ah, yes. Thomas Power. They will do anything to avoid publicity being attached to that name, unless they are able to proffer unassailable proof of his complicity in a crime worse even than the high treason he was sent here for.’

  ‘Like murder.’

  ‘Yes … like murder.’

  ‘Were you on the island when it occurred?’ said Monsarrat.

  ‘No,’ said Ellison. ‘I only visit every month or so. Deal with anything a little bit thornier than a fistfight or the theft of rations. Not this thorny, though.’

  ‘You’re acquainted with Power?’

  ‘Oh yes. He used to have more freedom than he does now, you know. Used to enjoy company, conversation. Quite a charming fellow, actually. And whether you believe his revolutionary leanings are right or wrong, the man certainly has the courage of his convictions.’

  Monsarrat was surprised. True, magistrates could be a diverse group – back in Parramatta their number had once included the humane Samuel Cruden, the corrupt Socrates McAllister, and the zealous and unyielding Reverend Horace Bulmer. But to hear a legal officer do what Marley proclaimed some gentlemen did, and gloss over the treason which had sent Power over here – that was extraordinary.

  ‘You admire the man?’ Monsarrat asked.

  Ellison straightened, squared his shoulders like a schoolboy who had suddenly remembered he was supposed to be paying attention.

  ‘Oh, I don’t admire the attempt of an uprising he was involved with in Ireland. Though there is some suggestion that he was among the voices calling for moderation. And in any case, the man has honour. I suppose you know he was offered a ticket of leave in exchange for a promise not to escape, and he refused?’

  ‘But surely that means he is intending to escape?’ said Monsarrat.

  ‘Oh, not a bit of it,’ said Ellison, rather quickly. ‘He simply says that he does not recognise the right of the state to constrain his liberty for doing what he did, so he intends to refuse any kind of bargain which might legitimise his sentence. No, I think he is quite content on Maria Island. Well, perhaps content is too strong a word, but he is well aware of conditions at places like Macquarie Harbour, knows he has a comparatively comfortable imprisonment. I’d be amazed if he tried to escape, particularly when you look at the question of where he would go. America, yes. Or to South America perhaps, where he has a name in places like Colombia and Venezuela. But we’re a long way from anywhere here, Mr Monsarrat.’

  Another man was approaching them, dressed in sturdy canvas, a neckerchief and a broad brimmed hat tied underneath his chin with some rough cord.

  ‘Ah, Jones,’ said Ellison. ‘Thank you for making the journey as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.’

  ‘My pleasure, sir,’ said Jones, in an accent of rounded consonants which sounded like they might have come from Cornwall. ‘I am hoping for better weather tomorrow.’

  He turned to Monsarrat. ‘Jeremiah Jones, sir. I assume you’re the man from Sydney? The one I am to convey to Maria Island?’

  ‘Yes. How long will the trip take, do you think? I’m not concerned about heavy weather, but my housekeeper deplores it.’

  ‘I’ll tell you a secret, sir,’ said Jones. ‘All of us do. We just get used to it. But no one relishes sailing into a wave which is taller than the commandant’s house, and there are a few of them out there today. Might take some hours to cross in these conditions, and they’ll feel like days to your housekeeper. Best, I think, to leave the sea to exhaust itself. And there is usually a cup of tea awaiting me in the kitchens here. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll avail myself of it.’

  Ellison seemed delighted to have a companion to drink port with, even though he was the only one doing any drinking. After his third glass, he said, ‘Do you think, Mr Monsarrat, that a good revolutionary needs charm? I used to believe that the most defining characteristics of the revolutionary, or of anyone who manages to convince a large number of people of something, were intelligence and conviction. Now, though, I wonder if it is not a magnetic capacity to attract volunteers.’

  ‘Well, I imagine intelligence and conviction are necessary,’ said Monsarrat. ‘But that magnetic capacity you mention might help a fellow bring people along with him.’

  ‘Quite right, too. I’ve not much of it myself … No, no, please don’t object, it’s the truth. Might be why my wife, God rest her, did not feel compelled to come when I made these trips.’ He laughed at his self-disparagement. ‘But Power – he is one of those people, you know, who seems to be able to say precisely the right thing at the right moment. If he wasn’t a revolutionary he could have been prime minister, especially with his high birth.’

  ‘Yes, I’ve heard he’s some sort of nobleman.’

  Ellison nodded. ‘A baronet. Has a wife and seven children waiting for him in a castle in southern Ireland. Was a Member of Parliament, too, at the time he led his attack in Cork. Tried to plead the Irish case there but, well, you can imagine the good it did him.’

  ‘I understand there was some sort of friendship between him and the commandant.’

  ‘Well,’ said Ellison, ‘I’m not sure Brewster has what you might call friends. But it suited him, for a time, to entertain the man. And Power couldn’t have refused if he’d wanted to. Brewster doesn’t allow refusals to pass without retribution.’

  Ellison picked up his port, drained the rest of it in one gulp, and stood, wobbling slightly on the way up.

  ‘I fear, Mr Monsarrat, that I’m going to have an even more uncomfortable journey back to Hobart than usual, given the state my head will be in tomorrow. I do apologise if I’ve rambled, but it’s been a pleasure to pass the evening with you. Those of us who spend our lives surrounded by convicts appreciate some intelligent conversation.’

  Ellison turned, and then turned back so quickly he almost fell. ‘Oh, I imagine they’ll accommodate you in the cottage they keep for my use,’ he said. ‘Mind the floorboards in front of the hearth. They’re a little rotten. And take care not to anger the
geese.’

  ‘The geese?’

  ‘Yes, you’ll see.’

  And he tottered towards the stairs, leaving Monsarrat wondering how he was to conceal his own past crimes, investigate those of someone else, avoid falling under Power’s enchantment, and placate both the geese and Mrs Mulrooney.

  ‘They’ve tea, don’t trouble yourself about that,’ said Jones, deftly avoiding even the smallest of watery ridges in deference to one of his passenger’s naked alarm. ‘The stores are well run. The last storekeeper was told to leave – thought to be dishonest. Not sure who he was going to trade stolen goods with. The wombats don’t have anything anyone wants.’

  Jones looked at Hannah Mulrooney, gave what was clearly intended to be a comforting smile, which brought her no comfort at all – anyone who felt the need to smile like that knew something quite alarming was in prospect.

  This was correct, as it turned out. The arms of the bay had been providing them with a measure of protection. But the sea’s height was increasing as they inched further out, and when the bow poked out from behind the protection of a crumbling grey arm of land, bristling with blackened tree stumps, the full force of the ocean hit them.

  Hannah knew she looked terrified, and realised her white hands were clenching the bench. Now this is not the way you behave, she told herself. You can’t have the man thinking you’re a silly weak woman. You might need him to think well of you before this is out.

  He did seem to believe she needed some distraction. ‘Missus, would you do me a service?’ he said to Hannah. ‘There’s an oilcloth under the bench there. It has a new dress for the commandant’s wife, and a new shirt for her brother. I’d as soon not see them soak – would you mind holding them on our way over?’

  As she clutched the parcel, she determined to visit her place of greatest comfort. ‘Have they a well-appointed kitchen, there?’ she asked.

  ‘I daresay the commandant and his wife do. The rest of us, we cook our own food. Not that they are uncharitable. When I arrived a few weeks ago, I was invited to dine with the Brewsters. The doctor is there once a week, and Magistrate Ellison whenever he’s over. I suppose it’s the isolation, you see. You wouldn’t believe how it affects people, for good or ill, when they’re cut off from the rest of civilisation.’

  ‘Oh, I think I would,’ said Hannah. ‘You see a lot of odd behaviour then, on Maria Island?’

  Jones looked out to sea for a moment. ‘People are different when they think they’re not watched. Or when they think those doing the watching don’t matter.’ He turned to her and smiled. ‘Now, you’re not to worry about the voyage,’ he said, as the cutter’s nose pierced a wave, which broke over the boat, dousing them efficiently enough that Hannah thought Monsarrat would have to remove his jacket and wring it out once they landed. ‘We’re nearly there, look.’ Jones nodded ahead through the air which still shimmered slightly with suspended droplets of water.

  The dark shape of a considerable island with notable peaks and coastal cliffs crouched on the horizon, sway-backed and brooding, its arms stretched out in front of it, its middle providing shelter for a small crescent of white sand, almost perfect but for the grey, wooden tongue of the pier which protruded out from it. It looked too credibly a place where murder might occur.

  ‘That’s Darlington,’ said Jones.

  Hannah squinted, saw a utilitarian, rectangular two-storey building, a few smaller outbuildings, and some cottages slightly further up the hill, which rose at the back of the bay.

  ‘Darlington? Behind those trees the other side of that building, you mean?’ Monsarrat asked.

  ‘No, nothing behind the trees, except more trees,’ said Jones. ‘That’s all of it. Unless you count the commandant’s house, and Ellison’s cottage. They’re over there.’

  He pointed to a hill which rose on the southern side of the bay, from which two buildings had unimpeded views of the entire settlement.

  ‘The island itself is fifteen miles long. There’s room to build more,’ said Jones in tones of amusement.

  Now they were close to the dock, Hannah felt her reason returning, and with it a question.

  ‘Were a soul to wish to get a letter out, how would they do it?’

  ‘I can take one for you, missus,’ said Jones. ‘Put it on the coach to Hobart with the others. And if I miss the coach, Magistrate Ellison will mind the mail until the next one arrives. He likes to see it anyway – look at the convict letters for any criminal or rebellious sentiments.’

  ‘Only the convicts’ letters?’ asked Monsarrat.

  ‘Oh yes, he wouldn’t dream of opening anything else.’

  ‘In that case, would you be kind enough to take a letter for me?’ asked Monsarrat, looking almost embarrassed when Mrs Mulrooney smiled at him. If he was writing to Grace O’Leary, he knew she’d be willing to swim back to Triabunna with the letter in her teeth. Grace was a far better prospect than that vapid Stark woman of Parramatta he had once been enamoured of, a woman Monsarrat had considered marrying until it became apparent that her hunger for social advancement would never be satisfied by a former convict.

  Jones managed to avoid another drenching and gain the small bay, tying the boat to a ladder which led up to the dock.

  While the wind had been a bother on the crossing, the day was clear, the low clouds of Van Diemen’s Land having lifted, so Hannah and Monsarrat had no trouble seeing the three people who were walking down past the buildings towards their landing place.

  One was wearing a red coat, almost a copy of the ones Hannah had seen each day in Port Macquarie, but with black facings instead of buff ones. Probably the commandant, judging by the fact that he was striding ahead. His coat was missing a button, something Port Macquarie’s commandant would never have countenanced. He was a small man, thinning dark hair and thick eyebrows, and almost swamped by the expansive red fabric, but walking with his shoulders back so that his rounded belly was thrust forward, a smile on his face as he made his way down the dock.

  Just behind him was a woman about the same height, plainly dressed in faded muslin, and she was an exceptional sight for such a remote place, her face almost perfectly symmetrical, grey intelligent eyes rolling curiously over the visitors, honey curls escaping undisciplined from her bonnet. It seemed miraculous to find such a creature here, an unadorned beauty in a place of squalls and rough men.

  Hannah had almost resolved to tell Monsarrat off later for staring, but she took pity on him. This woman was a vision of possibility. Apart from her height, she looked very much as Grace O’Leary would had she enough food and a respite from the brutality of Parramatta’s Female Factory.

  Trailing behind both of them, looking around him, was a taller, broader man, younger than everyone else. His long dark hair was not tied back, and his cravat was loose. He did not wear a coat and his waistcoat was buttoned unevenly. At one point he became so engrossed in the path a pelican was making across the water that he nearly walked off the side of the wharf, and had to be pulled back and gently admonished by the woman.

  The officer held out his hand before he reached the small group, propelling it into Monsarrat’s grasp. ‘I have to say, I am relieved Marley is taking this seriously,’ the man said with an economical smile. ‘Calls for more than the usual amount of tact, you know. Certainly more than the average constable out here possesses. And a man of Governor Darling’s staff – when I heard, I was gratified. I knew things would be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. We named the town after him, you know. Darlington. Do you think that helped?’

  Monsarrat had to remind himself that the governor’s name was no longer Thomas Brisbane, but Ralph Darling, a man Monsarrat had yet to meet: Darling had stopped in Van Diemen’s Land on his way to take office, and had only reached Sydney as Monsarrat left. In fact Monsarrat could be considered ‘a man of Governor Darling’s’, but when should he admit that he was a ticket-of-leave man, if at all?

  ‘I am certain he was most flattered,’ said Monsarrat, ‘How
ever, I doubt he could be swayed in either direction by such honour.’

  ‘Of course, of course. A man above reproach, I’m sure. As must you be, naturally.’

  For the third time, Monsarrat cursed Eveleigh for omitting any mention of his convict past, prejudicial as it might have been in the minds of people like Marley. Now he was faced with two equally unpalatable choices: conceal a crucial piece of information about himself, or risk losing the trust of the ranking man on this small outcrop, a trust he would need to bring any investigation to a satisfactory conclusion.

  He chose the former. Eveleigh must have had his reasons, mustn’t he?

  While still treating Monsarrat’s arm as though it were a pump handle, the man said, ‘I, by the way, am James Brewster. Captain. And commandant here, obviously.’

  He looked expectantly over Monsarrat’s shoulder.

  ‘Ah,’ said Monsarrat. ‘This is Mrs Mulrooney, a member of my household staff.’ He hoped the man did not see him wince – Monsarrat knew immediately there would be a payment extracted for such a description.

  ‘How sensible to travel with a servant, especially to a place as remote as this, although I assure you, your needs would have been well looked after regardless. Thankfully there is a small room to accommodate her in the visiting magistrate’s cottage. He is not visiting at the moment, you see, I feel sure he’d not begrudge his lodgings. A ticket-of-leave woman, I take it?’

  Mrs Mulrooney, who had never subscribed to the convention of being seen and not heard, stepped forward. ‘Yes, sir, ticketed twenty years now and in honest labour since then.’

  The commandant nodded absently, seemed to remember there were others waiting to be introduced. He turned to gesture the woman forward, sweeping his arm in an arc which made her flinch, though she was some feet away. ‘My wife, Elizabeth,’ he said.

  Elizabeth stepped forward and smiled at Monsarrat, who feared he was beaming back in a most unclerical manner. She also sent a brief, welcoming nod in the direction of Mrs Mulrooney, earning her a frown from her husband. Perhaps, Monsarrat thought, Brewster saw pleasantries as a commodity, and not to be wasted on the servants. Monsarrat could see a tension in Elizabeth’s face that had not been visible from a distance, a discontent dragging at the corners of her mouth.

 
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