The power game, p.4
The Power Game, p.4Thomas Keneally
The fellow behind Brewster seemed intent on a cloud being herded across the sky by the same winds which had made the sea passage less than comfortable. Brewster turned towards him, ‘Walter, try to concentrate. We have guests.’
The man stepped forward, smiling broadly.
‘My wife’s brother, Walter Gendron.’ And then, and Monsarrat could have sworn there was mockery in his tone, Brewster said, ‘Also our new assistant storekeeper.’
‘New?’ asked Monsarrat, shaking the young man’s hand.
‘Assisting my wife, for the moment. A harmless fancy of hers, I suppose. We had some … administrative trouble with the old one,’ said Brewster, still with that edge of bitterness so hard to read. Could be hard man to live with, thought Monsarrat.
Mrs Mulrooney smiled at Walter, who beamed back.
‘You are the gentleman I’ll see about tea, then,’ she said.
‘Yes. Tea,’ Walter smiled. ‘We have plenty of it, I assure you. And I do love the stuff, although I wish the summers here weren’t too hot for the drinking of it.’
‘Walter, there will be plenty of time for discussion of tea later,’ said Brewster. ‘For now could you please follow Jones up the hill and make sure all is in readiness in the visiting magistrate’s cottage?’
‘I shouldn’t leave the store, though, you told me,’ Walter said.
‘It will be all right, just this once, Walter,’ Elizabeth Brewster said, in a high, clear voice. Walter smiled, nodded, and loped off.
‘A very hard worker, my brother,’ Elizabeth said. ‘Needs, perhaps, a little direction at times, but a man with a soul of his own; you’ll find none better.’
‘Depends on what you’re looking for,’ said Brewster. ‘Now, Monsarrat. You have heard of our special guest?’
‘Yes. Mr Marley acquainted me with the sensitivities.’
‘Not long ago, I wouldn’t have believed it of him. Killing on the field of battle, yes, I always knew he would do that in a heartbeat. But something more singularly violent – I would have thought it was beneath him. Now, though … well, you will see for yourself, of course.
All penal settlements had them – a commandant, a commissary, and some sort of official building bespeaking British authority rising from the earth. In Port Macquarie, it had been a church. Here, it was a hospital, though it was currently just a rectangle of foot-imprinted mud framed by a low wall of clay bricks. Convicts were moving aimlessly around. Some were engaged in the painfully slow process of adding brick to brick, others appeared to be shambling about in penal limbo. Monsarrat found it a dispiriting place and wondered if it would have the same impact on sturdy Mrs Mulrooney, who had yearned for land but not necessarily Maria Island.
He and Captain Brewster were being watched by a tall fellow – what Mrs Mulrooney would call a long streak of a man – in a red coat like Brewster’s, although this one had a full complement of buttons. Its owner’s blond hair was closely cropped and the fellow’s manner was less precise than his dress, alternating between barking commands and glaring.
‘Holloway!’ Brewster called as they approached. ‘I had hoped to see more progress.’
Holloway bowed, hinging himself at the hips in a gesture which seemed rusty from lack of use. ‘Yes, sir. However, a craftsman is only as good as his tools.’ He pointed at the collection of felons.
At this Brewster began stalking through the mud, yelling at those not obviously occupied. Most of them obeyed without any obvious sense of urgency. They began to pick up bricks and carry them from one side of the site to the other, or ambled down towards a pile of timbers next to the commissary to haul some up. One thing he could be sure of, Monsarrat knew with the convict side of his soul: Brewster was not a man happy within his skin.
One man gave the commandant a jaunty, gap-toothed smile. A small, whippety fellow who had perhaps just left his twenties behind. He was perched on the incomplete section of the wall.
‘Milliner!’ Holloway screamed. He had clearly decided to demonstrate his disciplinary skills to his commanding officer. ‘Get off that wall and start hauling some wood up here!’
‘I would, Lieutenant Holloway,’ Milliner said. ‘But I’ve been told not to. Dr Chester’s orders, sir. Have to wait for the wound on my foot to stop suppurating.’
‘What damn wound? First I’ve heard of it.’
‘Oh … well, I can show you, if you like,’ said Milliner, reaching down to unwrap a dirty cloth bandage and remove a shoe that was more hole than leather.
‘Never mind, never mind,’ said Brewster, clearly not anxious to see, or smell, a dirty foot with a rotting sore. ‘We’re on our way to Chester anyway, and I assure you we will check with him.’
‘Of course, sir,’ said Milliner, smiling and settling back onto the wall.
Brewster leaned conspiratorially towards Monsarrat. ‘Of course, we have to rely mostly on convicts for labour,’ he said. ‘The overseers, the baker, the tanner. Most of the positions here are held by convicts. Harefield was an exception. You wouldn’t give one of these men a boat.’
He turned to his subordinate. ‘Holloway!’ he barked. ‘We have a representative of the governor here, you know. Important to look efficient, even if you can’t make the actuality match the perception. Holloway will, naturally, give you any help you need, as will I.’
‘Naturally,’ said Holloway, a clipped word he choked out in the least natural way possible.
Brewster clapped his hands, as though the sharpness of the gesture could make the convicts move faster, took Monsarrat’s elbow and guided him to a crouching, earth-coloured tent on the perimeter of the building site. Monsarrat still felt the vertigo of being invoked as a man from a larger world whom Milliner should try to impress.
‘I shall now,’ Brewster said, ‘introduce you to the first person to examine Harefield after his death. And it may interest you to know that you have just met the last person to see him alive – apart from his killer, of course.’
‘Ah. I shall want to interview Holloway then.’
‘Time enough for that. First, though …’
Brewster pulled back the tent flap and gestured Monsarrat inside. His eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light, and took in the folding desk at the end of the room at which sat a man in his shirtsleeves, holding a paper up to a gap in the tent through which a weak beam of sunlight permeated. Monsarrat’s shoes squelched on the muddy ground beneath, covered by sodden straw that was beginning to sink into the mire together with the legs of two unoccupied cots in the middle of the room. The desk and its wooden chair were saved from a similar fate by a piece of canvas stained by wet, brown blotches.
‘Mr Monsarrat, this is Dr Chester,’ Brewster said. ‘Tries to keep them alive, and writes long reports when he fails.’
Chester stood, grasped Monsarrat’s hand, held it slightly longer than Holloway had.
‘I would offer you a seat, but, well …’ he said, looking around the room.
‘Quite all right,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I have been doing a lot of sitting on the journey here. Perhaps, though, we could walk?’
Chester needed no second invitation, immediately un folded himself from behind his desk and made for the tent flap.
‘Chester is not the only one with reports to write,’ said Brewster. ‘I shall return to mine, if you’ve no objection. I’m sure the doctor will make sure no harm comes to you.’
‘Why would any harm come to me?’ asked Monsarrat.
‘Why does harm come to anyone?’ asked Brewster. ‘But it came to Harefield.’ He dropped his voice. ‘For the sake of everyone’s composure, I have asserted that Harefield was clearly targeted by a murderer aggrieved with him, not the entire human population of this island. But how can we be sure? If Power is guilty of this …’ He left the confidence unfinished. ‘Later, I shall take you to see Thomas Power,’ he said, then nodded to both of them, turned and made his way back down the hill towards his office.
‘He says that so
‘You know him quite well, then?’ said Monsarrat.
‘We all know each other well here. Whether we wish to or not. The inevitable consequence of our confinement. I don’t want to sound ungrateful – the commandant and his wife have shown me nothing but consideration since I arrived here. It’s simply … well, there are few enough here who have not committed a crime.’
Interesting, Monsarrat thought. He was forming the impression that Chester would not have chosen Brewster’s company were the alternatives more plentiful. He also suspected Chester wanted him to know that.
They were walking down the hill with the white dot of Power’s cottage almost lost in the distance against the background of the convict and military barracks, and the looming massif of the island’s mountainous spine.
Chester nodded towards the cottage. ‘The United States Congress, the government of France, they are worrying about Thomas Power, about his welfare,’ he said. ‘You would not believe such a man could be contained in such a tiny cottage on such a tiny island at the limit of the earth. Like a goblin in a fairy story.’
‘Do you think he’s the one who killed Harefield?’
‘Sometimes I do. But then I ask myself, by day’s light, if I’m really convinced. You can ask him yourself.’
A line of convicts was now dribbling out of the barracks, prodded along by an overseer swearing at them. Some had that same shamble as the men at the hospital site, the gait of men who were dead but hadn’t yet realised it.
‘The convicts, are they generally a healthy lot?’ he asked. ‘There were no patients in your tent. And the worst injury at the hospital site was a man with a suppurating sore on his foot.’
Chester laughed. ‘Milliner? I believe that was self-inflicted. He created the wound somehow, and used it to get out of going up with the work gang to the reservoir. All his profits are in Darlington.’
‘For a group who are forbidden alcohol, the convicts manage to get drunk on a regular basis. I suspect Milliner had some sort of, shall we say, import arrangement with Harefield. He was transported for fencing stolen goods. Loves making a deal.’
‘And what of his infection?’
‘I believe it’s neither deliberate nor serious. I presume he told you he was resting on my orders.’
‘Milliner is rarely to be believed, except on the price of rum. The commandant turns a blind eye, but you can always tell what you will pay in Hobart by halving his price.’
‘Yes, these things do tend to go … unnoticed in penal settlements, where there is so much requiring noticing,’ said Monsarrat. ‘And I must say, in my experience sly grog and violence seem to co-exist. Particularly when there’s competition. Were Milliner and Harefield competitors, do you think?’
‘Associates, more probably,’ said Chester. ‘The rum didn’t swim here by itself.’
‘Perhaps Harefield wanted a greater share in the profits? A disagreement, something like that?’
Chester was still. ‘No,’ he said after a minute. ‘No, Milliner’s not the type.’
‘Everyone’s the type, given sufficient provocation,’ said Monsarrat. ‘At least, many have suggested that.’
‘Oh, yes, well, perhaps when it comes to killing. But as to how he was killed. Milliner’s too lazy for that type of exertion.’
‘One of the axe blows went through the deltoid and managed in one clean stroke, practised or otherwise, to sever the humerus. When they found him, that arm was hanging by a little gristle of biceps and skin. The other two blows cut the trapezoid and shattered the clavicle of both collarbones. Great passion or great strength in those blows. That’s at least three swings. Forceful ones. Hard to get Milliner to pick up a trowel, let alone an axe.’
‘And you are certain it was an axe?’ asked Monsarrat.
‘Yes, it was found on the headland. Bloodied, of course.’
‘I imagine there would be quite a few of his bones broken by the fall, given he was found at the bottom of a cliff,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Above all,’ said Chester, ‘his skull was fractured, frontal and parietal bones both in fragments. It might have been the intention of the murderer to fracture the skull with the axe, and the wounds to the clavicle on both sides might have been near misses. But the killer certainly got him in the end.’
‘Mind yourself around Power,’ said Brewster as they approached a wooden gate set into a whitewashed wall. ‘The man deals in half-truths, just enough veracity to take a person in, coated in the charm to make it go down easily. You wouldn’t be the first to be fooled.’
‘Oh?’ said Monsarrat. ‘Who has he deceived?’
‘Not me, certainly!’ Brewster barked, almost losing his footing. ‘Damn creatures here can’t stop digging holes.’
The gate, when they got there, did not look very sturdy, but the guard beside it did. The man stepped aside wordlessly as Brewster approached and extracted a ring of keys from his pocket.
‘He has not yet tried to rush the gate,’ Brewster said. ‘But it’s a possibility we need to be alive to.’
Indeed, no one hurled themselves at the gate. The only person beyond it did not seem inclined to hurl himself anywhere. He looked up, caught in the middle of pacing up and down the small, barren yard. He was dressed for a London spring, and a fashionable one at that, a well-cut coat in a fine fabric, a silk cravat of an extraordinary blue, and a waistcoat which looked to Monsarrat, who considered himself something of an authority on these matters, to be shot through with gold thread. He had a face which few women would describe as handsome but which an artist or draughtsman could not fault, so precise was the slope of the nose, the distance between the eyes. And his eyes were the most disconcertingly piercing shade of blue. Clearly, thought Monsarrat, the colour of the cravat was no coincidence. This was a man who wanted his eyes to be seen at best advantage, whether or not anyone was there to do the seeing.
‘My dear Brewster,’ he said, not moving towards them, perhaps fearing any attempt to do so would be misinterpreted. ‘You have brought me a guest. How kind.’
‘It’s not kindness which motivates me,’ Brewster said. ‘Not anymore. This is Mr Monsarrat from the governor’s office. He is here to investigate you.’
‘Well, investigate away, dear fellow,’ Power said. And then he did approach, took Monsarrat’s hand, put his other over it. ‘Just before you do, though, I have an important question to put to you.’
‘Of course,’ said Monsarrat, a little disconcerted by the man’s two-handed grip, and even more uneasy when Power leaned in so that his face and Monsarrat’s were inches apart.
‘Tell me,’ Power said. ‘Do you have any books?’
Brewster shut down the conversation about books before it could get started, leaving Monsarrat with the distinct impression that similar conversations in the past had gone on for rather a long time.
Power, at Brewster’s urging, showed them into his small cottage, a set of three adjoining rooms so that to reach the kitchen one had to walk through the sitting room from the bedroom. Power had a small fire in the tiny sitting room, with one chair in front of it, angled so its occupant could ignore the papers spilling over the edges of the desk in the corner. He offered it to Monsarrat, who declined.
‘Shall we all sit on the floor then?’ said Power. He did not appear to be joking.
‘I am happy to stand, thank you, Power,’ said Brewster. ‘As, I’m sure, is Mr Monsarrat.’
‘Of course. As you wish, gentlemen. Now, I imagine your time has many calls on it, Mr Monsarrat. So I expect you want to get started. I suppose you’re here to ask me about the bosun.’
‘Yes, as a matter of fact,’ said Monsarrat.
‘You believe I killed him.’
‘I believe nothing, at present.’
‘Yes,’ said Brewster. ‘I did, and look where it got me.’
‘My dear commandant,’ said Power. ‘I assure you, there was nothing—’
‘No, nor will there be if I can help it. And it’s not relevant, so let’s not discuss it.’
‘But my friend—’ said Power.
‘I am your jailer, not your friend, Mr Power.’
Brewster turned to Monsarrat. ‘Mr Monsarrat, should you have no objection, perhaps I had best get on with my administrative duties. I think you’re safe with Mr Power, but I would advise you again to apply the utmost scepticism to any word he utters.’
‘Yes,’ said Power, nodding solemnly. ‘Especially words like hello or thank you. It is very easy to imbue them with a double meaning.’
Brewster glared at Power and stalked out of the cottage.
‘I should not have done that, but I found it irresistible,’ said Power. ‘Still, it has angered him. Unwise to anger a small man with a large amount of authority.’
‘There has been … a disagreement between you?’
‘He doesn’t want it discussed, so I’d best not. At any rate, he’s right. It’s not relevant to your quest. Would you care to take a turn around the grounds with me?’
The grounds to which Power was referring was the twenty-square-foot patch of walled dirt, to which, opening a door, he now led Monsarrat. They strolled side by side, Monsarrat rather astonished to be in the great patriot’s company.
‘The island was just bearable when I could walk where I pleased,’ Power said. ‘Do you know, a little to the south there are some extraordinary cliffs? You can still see the indentations made in them by creatures of incredible age. Little shells and so forth. God knows how old they are, possibly millennia. And to the west are some more cliffs, ones with colours so artful it’s impossible to believe they weren’t put there by a brush. I am not a man made to be confined, Mr Monsarrat. And to be locked in this yard on this island is confinement within confinement, and almost intolerable.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes