The power game, p.5
The Power Game,
‘I can imagine it must also be tedious,’ said Monsarrat.
‘Oh, indeed. I have my journals, and I write in them when I can – musings, and so on. But they get a little repetitive after a while, and what have I to write about beyond the contents of my own head? If I were to focus on the external, there would be a long list of entries saying things like, I awoke, rose, washed, and paced around the yard 256 times. Books, when I can get them, they’re the ticket; the only things that keep me from losing my wits. Which brings me back to my first question – do you have any?’
‘Is Catullus to your taste?’
‘Anything is, by now. And, yes, especially Catullus – naughty boy that he was, eh? Had I his skill, I would do exactly as he did – send threats and dinner invitations and promissory notes in verse. If you can bear to part with it, Mr Monsarrat, I would be most grateful to give your volume a temporary home here.’
‘I may be just about able to bear it, for a few nights, yes,’ said Monsarrat, unable to resist smiling. ‘And I have some Blackstones Quarterlys.’
‘Oh, the Tory rubbish in those. I took you for a man of intellect, Mr Monsarrat. Tell me you’re not polluting your spirit with such bile.’
‘If I am, it’s only for the pleasure of disagreeing with it. I find the Edinburgh Review more to my taste.’
‘Ah! Yes, as would I in your circumstances. In any circumstances, really. I don’t suppose you have some with you? I’ll even take a Blackstones, if you’re willing. Yes, these are the depths I have sunk to.’
He chuckled, an oddly satisfied sound from a man who had just completed his umpteenth circuit of the small yard.
‘Tell me, Mr Power,’ said Monsarrat. ‘It’s my understanding you’re confined to this yard as a result of being too friendly with the commandant, for being too much at liberty here. If I may say so, though, the commandant appears to share the view that this is where you belong.’
‘Yes, he does now. Wasn’t always the case. Ultimately, though, the dinner invitations stopped. I imagine the Brewsters must be terribly bored now. The wombats, I hate to tell you, are not very good conversationalists.’
‘Well, if I may, I’d like to call on you again, once I’ve found out a little more about the murder of Mr Harefield. In the meantime, I must ask one question.’
‘Did I kill the bosun? No, sir.’
And it was hard to believe he had, though Monsarrat recalled Mr Marley’s words. Indeed, while in conversation with roguish Power, it was hard for Monsarrat to remember he was on a search for the bosun’s killer.
Monsarrat was ill-prepared, then, to feel a jab in the back from a forearm and to be rammed by Power’s left arm. The political prisoner had him in a vice-like hold, leaving Monsarrat without breath.
‘Do you feel I have dominance over you?’ Power hissed in Monsarrat’s ear.
The man is mad, thought Monsarrat. He managed to find the air to affirm this was the case. ‘Yes. You have … dominance.’
‘Do you feel I could easily finish you?’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you could,’ Monsarrat gasped.
‘At the battle of Boyacá, seven thousand feet up in the Andes, Bolívar ordered my Irish in on the flank of the Spanish royalists. When my sword broke, I was forced to strangle a Spanish officer who was trying to kill me. Do you think I could strangle you?’
Pulsing with unfamiliar fear, Monsarrat murmured, ‘I’m hopeful you won’t try, Mr Power.’
He was released. He stood before a smiling Power and felt light as a feather.
‘Why do you think I’ll not do it?’ asked Power.
‘Well,’ Monsarrat said. ‘Unlike the Spaniard, I’ve got no ambition to kill you.’
‘Forgive me,’ said Power. ‘I was just making a point. And you seem to have grasped it. Nor did I kill Harefield. Why would I, any more than I would have you, when I look forward to freedom and have a future to plan? But I bore Harefield no love, that I will tell you.’
‘Oh? Any particular reason for that?’
‘The man possessed a nasty vicious soul. This place is so isolated, and in those circumstances someone with knowledge of everyone else’s affairs can do well if they use that knowledge immorally. Harefield understood the value of mean intelligence and set about collecting it and using it at every opportunity.’
‘And who did he use it against?’
‘Who didn’t he? Anyone whom he felt wasn’t being respectful enough, for a start. Who didn’t appreciate his skills. He upset a fair few people. If you wish to find his killer, you will have to cast the net a lot wider than my small yard. I hope that whatever crimes I commit are directed at unjust rulers, not at bosuns.’
It took Hannah Mulrooney no time to find the stores. It was hardly possible, anyway, to get lost among the works of man here, few as they were.
That said, there were those who seemed intent on trying. Men walking with the assurance of those who were used to these paths would glance at her and suddenly quicken their pace. The works of nature looked to be another matter entirely. One presented itself as she picked her way down the hill. She took it for a log until it moved. The flat-faced dollop of brown fur meandered slowly across the grass, pulling tufts up noisily by the roots, methodically covering the patches of sustenance the hill had to offer. Beside it, a smaller version, about the size of a loaf of bread, tried to do likewise, but had not yet developed the ability to crop the grass to its roots.
She had seen these creatures before from time to time. Occasionally they would appear out of the trees in Port Macquarie before scuttling away, and every few months she would come across one by a roadside, although they seemed to prefer to keep to the woods. This one, though, seemed far too intent on its meal to be scared off.
She tried to call the creature’s name to mind, and couldn’t. Whatever they were, they showed no interest in moving. She made her way around them and continued down to the two-storey building near the dock.
She was surprised to see Mrs Brewster, as well as Walter, behind the counter. They were bent over a ledger, and Mrs Brewster was making marks in it while Walter looked on. She looked up and smiled as Hannah entered.
‘The Sydney servant,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, but we were never introduced. I am Elizabeth Brewster, although I suppose you could hear that perfectly well for yourself on the dock.’
‘Hannah Mulrooney, ma’am,’ said Hannah, remembering to show appropriate deference by bobbing a curtsey. She hid her surprise at Mrs Brewster’s friendliness. Few in her position would have wasted the breath.
‘And how can we assist you, Mrs Mulrooney?’
Hannah looked around the room, long and high-ceilinged, neatly arranged, with sacks of flour and kegs along the walls and shelves above them holding sugar and pitch and any number of substances in jars.
‘I was hoping, ma’am, to be able to procure some tea. Perhaps some butter, flour and sugar, too. I am told my shortbread is rather fine so I thought to make some for yourself and your family.’
Walter looked up from the ledger. ‘I myself am partial to shortbread,’ he said.
‘As are we all, of course,’ said Mrs Brewster. ‘And with such a lovely offer, how can I refuse? Walter, would you?’ she said, as he moved along the shelves, running his fingers across each of the earthenware containers.
He nodded, set about getting the supplies ready.
‘Where’s the flour?’ he called over his shoulder.
‘Second barrel over,’ Mrs Brewster called back. ‘I think.’ She turned and smiled at Hannah. ‘We are new to this, Walter and I,’ she said. ‘The commissary needed to be replaced rather urgently.’
‘No … in any case, we are getting better at it day by day. Keeps us occupied here where occupation can be difficult to find. Tell me, Mrs Mulrooney, in addition to shortbread, has your employer any particular likes or dislikes with regard to food?’
‘He is grateful for anything.’
‘As is anyone who appreciates the bounty of the Lord,’ Hannah added quickly.
‘Well, I am glad to hear it. I had thought to have him to dine tonight. We have only mutton at present, I’m afraid, but some fine carrots have come in from the vegetable garden, and potatoes in great number. Is there anything you could do with those ingredients?’
‘Quite a number of things, and every one of them palatable,’ said Hannah.
‘Excellent! Could you cook for us tonight? We have a convict usually do it, a former ship’s cook, but he is rather heavy-handed and unused to cooking fresh things. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.
‘Walter, would you please be kind enough to help Mrs Mulrooney carry her provisions up to the visiting magistrate’s cottage?’ Mrs Brewster continued. ‘I assure you I will manage the stores well in your absence. I shan’t let anything get out of place.’
Walter turned to Hannah and smiled. ‘Very important that nothing is out of place,’ he said, nodding to himself. He handed Hannah the pot containing the tea, holding the other two in the crooks of his arms.
‘It’s a responsible job, that of the commissary,’ said Hannah as they crossed the little bridge over a small creek which flowed to the ocean, making their way back up the hill.
‘Oh yes. I’m assistant commissary to my sister, just until they send a new man from Hobart. And I’m very good at it. Elizabeth says so all the time.’
‘It must be true, so,’ Hannah said.
He nodded emphatically.
‘Mr Gendron,’ she said, ‘I wonder, could you tell me the name of those creatures?’
There was another pair of them down in the reeds which fringed the beach, the mother munching loudly and the young one nibbling happily away.
‘Wombats,’ he said. ‘Funny, aren’t they? They have very rough fur, you know. I wouldn’t recommend patting them – I tried it once and it gave me fleas. I was hoping to take one as a pet – I had a little dog, back in Devon, you see. Sweet little fellow, would always run to catch anything I threw. I’ve thrown a stick to a wombat, and he ignored it. I think they just want to be left alone.’
‘Well, leave them alone I shall, then,’ Hannah said.
Walter stopped suddenly, turned and looked at her with a strange intensity. ‘You mustn’t be frightened of them, though,’ he said. ‘They won’t hurt you, not unless you’re a blade of grass. It’s important to save your fear for those things that deserve it, otherwise you might not have enough left over when you need it.’
‘I think that a very fine suggestion, Mr Gendron. Although I never until recently thought of fear as something that could be rationed.’
‘Everything has to be rationed,’ said Walter. ‘And fear keeps you safe.’
They started up the pathway to the twin cottages in silence, before Walter stopped again. ‘Of course, you might want to practise.’
‘And what should I be practising, Mr Gendron?’
‘Being afraid,’ he said. ‘Not enough to wear it out, just enough so you can call on it when you need it.’
‘Thank you, Mr Gendron, but I don’t need any practice,’ she said. The image of flames leaping up around a grinning woman with a lighted branch still projected itself onto the inside of her eyelids at night. That fire was still more present to her than the threat of a madman with an axe.
Monsarrat walked slowly away from the little cottage in which Power had no doubt gone back to scribbling on the mountains of paper on his desk. Monsarrat kept his head down, given the enthusiasm for digging displayed by some of the animals here, so he didn’t notice Lieutenant Holloway until the man passed him.
Monsarrat scrambled to catch up, nearly tripping in the process, so that by the time he reached the soldier, he was feeling rattled and put a hand on the man’s shoulder rather than calling his name.
Holloway turned instantly, eyes wide and nostrils flaring, offended at the contact. ‘Mr Monsarrat! May I ask what the urgency is, that you feel the only appropriate course of action is to grab me?’
‘I do apologise, lieutenant, but might I speak to you for just a moment?’
‘Very well. A moment.’
‘I understand you were the last to see Harefield alive.’
‘What are you saying?’ said Holloway.
‘Nothing. Nothing at all. I simply wanted to get your views.’
‘My views? Views are of no use. Evidence is what we need, and that’s what you’re here to get.’
‘And that’s what I am in the process of doing. But it would help if people refrained from making assumptions. Simply because Power is who he is, it does not automatically make him a murderer.’
‘Does it not?’ said Holloway. ‘Even if he’s not guilty of this crime – and who’s to say he’s not – he is guilty of others. People admire him, of course. He has the words for it. But words don’t feed a person. They did not feed me, when a group of Luddites burned down my father’s mill after listening to someone like Power. These men, they bear responsibility for acts committed in their name, but it is a responsibility they are not forced to take.’
‘Surely you want the right person to be held responsible for Harefield’s death? The one who wielded the axe.’
‘And you last saw Harefield … when, exactly?’
‘I sent him to the light. Didn’t want to see the cliffs decorated with dead whalers.’
‘Just before he died, then. And you saw nothing of concern?’
‘Do you not think I would have shared that information, if I had?’
‘Of course, of course. If I may ask, though, for an indulgence …’
‘Yes, you seem the type for indulgences,’ said Holloway. ‘Parramatta is a town with many diversions, I’m sure. You must find it somewhat sparse here.’
If only you knew, thought Monsarrat. ‘I would very much like to see the axe which was used,’ he said aloud. ‘I understand it is in your custody?’
‘Yes. However, I can’t see what you would gain by looking at it.’
‘Well, I don’t suppose I shall know either until I do. By the way, who owns it?’
‘Mr Monsarrat, I really can’t be expected to know the owner of every implement in the settlement. An individual tool might be issued one day to one man, the next to someone else. You should look to build a path between Harefield’s body and Thomas Power, rather than asking to see axes which have no mouths and cannot speak.’
Mrs Mulrooney had done a remarkable job on the little kitchen. She’d found the fireplace colonised by a group of possums, whom she’d gently relocated to a comfortable tuft of grass outside. The fireplace was swept out, the cobwebs banished, and the utensils thoroughly scrubbed and then frowned at until they knew it was in their interests to behave. These activities seemed to cheer Mrs Mulrooney, make the island more of a home to her.
‘Will you be comfortable tonight?’ Monsarrat asked her.
‘Of course,’ she said, as if to dismiss the question. ‘I have a strong scream if needed, and the magistrate’s room has a lock on it.’
Mrs Mulrooney was spotless though Monsarrat noticed a stained shirt and smudged pinafore soaking in a copper in the corner of the room. Between utterances, Hannah Mulrooney murmured her displeasure at a hairline crack in the only mixing bowl she’d been able to find, stirring the butter, flour, sugar together with the handle of a ladle, as no wooden spoon was in evidence.
‘Is it within the realms of possibility that I may actually receive a small share of that shortbread?’ Monsarrat said.
‘Perhaps. It’s for the Brewsters and Mr Gendron, though. Big lad that he is, there may not be any left.’
Monsarrat tried not to show his irritation. He was forever missing out on Mrs Mulrooney’s shortbread.
‘And I won’t be able to make any more after this, not today anyway,’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘I’m to make the Brewsters’ dinner tonight, and yours as well since you’ll
She spread the shortbread out in a battered but intact pan, and set about boiling water. ‘Mrs Brewster was kind enough to come by. Said she thought I would need a tea pot and some cups. Good of her.’
‘Yes. Encouraging that she’s so friendly. Her husband is a slightly different proposition. I hope, for all our sakes, we can get this business concluded as quickly as possible. Power is charming, as we were promised, and desperate for reading material. I’m lending him my Catullus. In Latin and English translation. Not that he needs the English.’
‘And yet you won’t let me read it in its English form!’
‘Some of the verses are hardly, shall we say, seemly.’
Mrs Mulrooney was a recent addition to the world of readers. She had been taught her letters by Monsarrat a few months previously and had made remarkable progress. He was proud of her, but the whole business did have an unwanted consequence. She attempted to read everything she could get her hands on – from other people’s lists to Catullus to correspondence Monsarrat brought home with him. She took any attempt to hide the written word from her as a personal affront.
‘Mr Monsarrat, I’ve seen the arms blown off men by Spanish grapeshot, and you think I’m too squeamish for a dead Roman?’
‘Very well, you may read Catullus when I am able to taste some of your shortbread.’
It was then that Monsarrat discovered that Mrs Brewster had also provided Mrs Mulrooney with a cleaning cloth, which in an instant was flicked against his temple.
‘Please don’t scar me before dinner tonight,’ he said. ‘There is a matter concerning the Brewsters and Power that I need to investigate, and this is an investigation which I suspect will be unwelcome.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes