The power game, p.6
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Power Game, p.6

           Thomas Keneally

  He told Mrs Mulrooney about the tension between Brewster and Power.

  ‘They both refused to talk about it. Power said it’s not relevant,’ said Monsarrat. ‘But I would rather judge that for myself. Especially as Power has shown me, perhaps unknowingly, that he is not always able to restrain himself. He bared his teeth at me, you see. Not intending to use them, just to show me he had them.’

  Mrs Mulrooney smiled. ‘We are finally teaching you to think, aren’t we?’ she said.

  ‘Actually, I was rather good at it previously.’

  ‘But you’re better at it now,’ she said, with the same certainty with which someone would discuss the direction from which the sun rose. ‘Have you an avenue of approach in mind?’

  ‘Not yet. Perhaps dinner will be illuminating. And you? Tell me more about the commandant’s wife and brother-in-law.’

  ‘He’s an odd one, that lad. Very sweet, I think. And I wouldn’t say he was simple-minded; in fact, some of his conversation is intelligent. But he doesn’t slot into the world the way most people do. It doesn’t seem to agree with him. And Mr Monsarrat, he’s frightened.’

  ‘What of?’

  ‘Well, he said that in the past he wasn’t frightened when he should have been.’

  ‘Could be anything. Or nothing.’

  ‘Or it could be everything, eejit of a man,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘And we don’t know until we know. So keep half an ear out at dinner for anything anyone says which might nudge you in the right direction.’

  I must urge you, my dear, to try not to provoke anyone. It is perhaps futile to beg you to stay silent in the shadows, but I am being selfish. I have seen the ease with which they can lengthen a sentence. I know the superintendent is less depraved than the last one, but even the most upright administrators allow atrocities to occur, and I can’t bear to think of it.

  I hope you’re in good spirits. I well remember how time began to slow when my own freedom drew near, and I hope it is sitting more lightly on your shoulders than it did on mine.

  Monsarrat folded the paper, paused before writing the address on it. He knew, in a cooler part of his mind, that to build a little structure of expectation involving a future with Grace was foolish of him. Yes, she could be assigned to him as his wife, as was a colonial practice (and a source of many jokes, domestic and earthy), yet he only maintained his liberty at Ralph Eveleigh’s pleasure. But such dreams should be the entitlement of a free man, and he was, however marginally, free. He was tempted to send the letter via Eveleigh, but the man might read it, and Monsarrat would feel he had exposed more of his soul than he should. He had an irrational fear that the message would lose potency if other eyes saw it. So he dipped his pen in the inkpot and wrote: ‘Grace O’Leary, Female Factory, Parramatta, New South Wales’.

  Whether it would convince Grace, he had no idea. He rather doubted it, and it was unlikely that it would reach Parramatta much before he did. Still, the act of setting it on paper felt almost like a prayer, and he hoped the words would call the reality into being.

  Mrs Mulrooney had done her best with limited ingredients, which she served before retiring to the corner of the room, for all the world the waiting servant. She had a way with potatoes, and Monsarrat would be willing to bet that the mash in the tureen in front of him was as smooth as any to be found on the dining table of Government House.

  Elizabeth Brewster was wearing a blue silk gown which would have been considered plain in London but must have been by far the finest garment ever worn on this island. Her height, her heart-shaped face, her odd air of command tempered by caution – he squinted and allowed himself to believe, for a moment, that he was looking at a future incarnation of another woman, one who had yet to wear silk.

  Elizabeth’s eyes were flicking between her husband and her brother, and she would hurry to correct Walter’s small infractions before Captain Brewster noticed them – laying a warning hand on his arm when he tried to attack his dinner before grace was said, mopping up splashed gravy before it could be fully absorbed by the tablecloth.

  The china had a fussy floral design, gold leaf that had worn away in places, and small chips on the edges of some of the plates which spoke of a journey every bit as rough as Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney’s. Monsarrat saw how gentle Chester was when he placed his knife or fork onto the plate. He sat on the other side of Walter, occasionally leaning in to listen to an excited account of the latest visitors to the bay, a pod of dolphins.

  ‘I must say,’ said Elizabeth, looking to Monsarrat. ‘Lovely to have another person at the table. Particularly an educated fellow like yourself. We do tend to get quite inward-looking here. Odd to think of it, but I sometimes wonder whether there is anything left at all overseas. England and France might’ve started another war, might’ve blown each other out of existence for all I know. My only war here is against tedium.’

  ‘Together with certain ideological battles you insist on engaging in,’ said her husband. ‘Which can be just as dangerous as any battlefield skirmish.’

  Elizabeth, who – Monsarrat suspected – was a woman of spirit, did not choose to fight the proposition. Yet Monsarrat was glad not to be in a position to intercept the look James Brewster gave his wife as he spoke. She met his eyes with an initial challenge which melted into wariness under his stare.

  She recovered herself to turn to Monsarrat and smile. ‘I do differ, it is true, from those who believe in a divinely dictated order of society,’ she said. ‘I have seen nothing which proves to me that one class of person is inherently inferior to another. A misfortune of birth is all the difference between a lord and a labourer, in my opinion.

  ‘Doctor, you see men in all kinds of states. Are they truly that different once all the social trappings are stripped away?’

  Chester cleared his throat, glancing at Brewster. Monsarrat felt for him. The commandant might treat the doctor as an equal, but he was all-powerful here.

  ‘Well,’ said Chester, after a short pause, ‘convicts do tend to die sooner … but with poorer nutrition and hard work it’s to be expected.’

  ‘That fact is certainly to be regretted,’ said Elizabeth, and her glance wavered a second towards her husband. ‘But you don’t believe they’re fundamentally different. That they’re flawed from birth?’

  ‘I’ve seen nothing to suggest …’

  ‘Thomas Power is certainly different,’ Brewster interrupted, slamming an open hand down on the table so that Monsarrat feared for the china. ‘His brand of treason comes with a thin coating of manners and palaver. Just enough to make his self-worship palatable for those of a gullible mind.’ This time he avoided looking at his wife, a determination which seemed every bit as aggressive as a naked stare.

  Elizabeth straightened her shoulders, flared her nostrils in a way Monsarrat had seen Mrs Mulrooney do when anxious but trying to cover it. ‘Well, one has a chance to think here,’ she said. ‘And my thoughts, I assure you, are my own.’

  There was silence, for a moment. I should, Monsarrat thought, fulfil the ancient duty of the dinner guest. To change the subject following an argument between hosts.

  ‘My housekeeper mentioned that the commissary keeps you rather busy,’ he said to Walter. ‘Hard to think of a more important job, feeding an entire settlement.’

  Elizabeth and Brewster looked at each other while Walter reached his fork over to Elizabeth’s plate to spear a neglected carrot.

  ‘A responsible job, as you say,’ said Brewster. ‘And one we had to fill rather quickly. Hence the unusual arrangements.’

  ‘And, I wondered … why the haste to find a new commissary?’

  ‘Well, there were, as I said, some administrative irregularities,’ said Brewster, his tone making it clear that he felt irregularity deserved a place among the seven deadly sins.

  ‘They think the commissary was stealing,’ said Walter, speaking with his mouth full. ‘Some supplies went missing, and Mr Harefield said it was the commissary’s fault, and suddenly
everyone was saying it.’

  Brewster glared at Walter. ‘Enough!’ he hissed. ‘Elizabeth, if you can’t control him, I swear …’

  He looked around then, realising that the only eyes which weren’t on him were those looking away in embarrass ment. Walter’s were beginning to fill, the corners of his mouth sagging.

  Brewster regained his composure. ‘You persuaded me, Elizabeth, to appoint your brother acting commissary. Perhaps you should think how that reflects on me.’

  But, Monsarrat complained internally, you let yourself be talked into it.

  Walter looked stricken, his mouth agape, and there was a pause before Elizabeth reached out and made reassuring pats on his arm and then decided to try to scoop up the ruins of the conversation.

  ‘I must say, your housekeeper is quite remarkable. She would not be out of place in a grand house,’ she said to Monsarrat. ‘Wherever did you find her?’

  ‘She was part of the staff of the commandant of a settlement north of Sydney. As was I.’

  ‘You’re a military man, then?’ asked Brewster.

  Beside him, Monsarrat could feel Chester relax, no doubt relieved to be out of the commandant’s line of vision for a while.

  ‘No, I was … on the civil staff,’ he said. ‘The man’s secretary.’

  ‘You do seem to have a very precise manner, if I may say, Mr Monsarrat,’ Brewster said. ‘May I ask how it served you in your conversation with Mr Power?’

  Elizabeth’s smile disappeared and Walter, who had sought comfort in his dinner, slowed in his chewing.

  ‘The fellow is rather skilled at managing a conversation, and leading it in the direction he wants,’ said Monsarrat, determined by powerful instinct to omit all reference to Power’s manhandling of him. ‘Which would be ideal if one were looking for an entertaining chat. Not so much if one is looking for straightforward answers. He claims that he has too many future plans to have killed Harefield.’

  Walter looked wide-eyed around the room.

  ‘But do you believe he’s guilty?’ asked Brewster.

  ‘I do not yet have sufficient information to form an opinion,’ Monsarrat said. ‘But I would say he does have plans. That he’d hang for a spectacular cause but not for the sake of a mere personal grudge.’

  ‘He would like you to think that,’ said Brewster disdainfully. ‘Don’t be fooled by him, Monsarrat.’

  ‘I shall be vigilant, Captain Brewster,’ Monsarrat felt it was wise to assure his host.

  ‘Well, he’s not the only convict on this island. Tomorrow I will introduce you to Oliver Trainor, the overseer I’ve been trying to keep away from Darlington. He knew Harefield well. They occasionally decided to dispense their own justice rather than waiting for mine.’

  ‘Oh? Harefield was violent?’

  ‘Harefield was … a rough man,’ said Brewster. ‘Fit for his purpose, you could say, but not one for graces – to be expected, I suppose, for who would he use them on in the normal run of things? Elizabeth didn’t care for him.’

  ‘It’s not a matter of caring for him or otherwise,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I just thought he was a brute.’

  ‘I must say,’ Chester said, ‘I’ve tended to more than a few wounds caused by him.’

  ‘He didn’t like me,’ said Walter, suddenly. ‘Said I was useless. And … and other things.’

  Elizabeth smiled. ‘You are worth ten of him, dearest,’ she said, her words suddenly choked. ‘He didn’t appreciate your intellect.’

  ‘And I didn’t appreciate his fists,’ Walter said.

  ‘His fists?’ Monsarrat said. ‘He never assaulted you, did he?’

  Walter nodded, but James Brewster shook his head.

  ‘Not quite,’ he said. ‘He got a little frustrated with Walter once – there were some dolphins off the beach, you see. Walter was gazing at them just as Harefield was trying to unload a sack. He yelled at Walter to get out of the way, otherwise he’d …’

  ‘Flatten me,’ Walter interrupted. ‘He said he’d flatten me, and he—’

  ‘Yes, well, there you are then,’ said Brewster.

  ‘Harefield,’ said Elizabeth, ‘was as much of a bigot as those who believe the poor are born deficient and destined to stay that way. Anyone incapable of hoisting a barrel on one shoulder was useless, according to him. He failed to appreciate strength if it didn’t reside in the muscles. You know, Mr Monsarrat, Walter can do very complicated sums in his head, and in a fraction of a second. It’s a skill which is useful in the administration of a penal colony.’

  ‘I’m sure that’s the case,’ said Monsarrat. ‘May I ask, if you bore Mr Harefield no love, how many others felt the same way?’

  ‘Harefield was difficult to like,’ Brewster said. ‘He dealt in rumours, true or not, spent words like money. People enjoyed his gossip until they were the subject of it. Some of the overseers and convicts made time for him. It was rumoured he supplied rum to be sold on, to a fellow called Milliner.’

  ‘So Dr Chester told me,’ said Monsarrat, smiling at the doctor. ‘Did you not demand to inspect Harefield’s boat, captain? Or his quarters?’

  ‘It is a small community, Mr Monsarrat. I wouldn’t expect you to understand the way things work. Mr Harefield had the ability to take us across the water. I didn’t begrudge him and some of the rest of them a drink from time to time. As long as it didn’t lead to violence or vandalism, and it didn’t. Command means taking these kinds of decisions.’

  ‘A sore head won’t help them work any faster on the reservoir,’ said Elizabeth, ‘but rum might ease some of their less easily eradicated pain.’

  ‘In any case,’ Brewster said, ‘it is one thing to follow orders on the running of a penal settlement, another to make it continue to function from day to day. Sometimes it requires an approach which is a little, shall we say, imaginative.’

  ‘Tell me, Captain, and forgive me for speaking so plainly, but you’ll appreciate the need for efficiency,’ Monsarrat said. ‘Am I correct in assuming that you have been on friendlier terms with Power in the past?’

  Brewster frowned awkwardly, cleared his throat. ‘Well … he was good company for a time, as I’m sure you can imagine,’ he said. ‘But he began behaving in a singularly inappropriate manner, an –’

  Elizabeth held up a hand. ‘Forgive us, Mr Monsarrat,’ she said, ‘but in places as isolated as this, rumours can be fatal and must not be given life through repetition.’

  She turned to her brother, smiled, put a hand on his arm. ‘Otherwise they become grotesque monsters from which the innocent need protection. And I will always protect the innocent.’

  Brewster pursed his lips, considered his hand and nodded sourly.

  The fire must have died some time during the darkness. It had been a warm enough summer’s day, but the night had brought a chill unknown in these months in Port Macquarie or Parramatta. It was a long while, Hannah thought, since she had withdrawn her feet from the paving stones of the bedroom floor, unwilling to press them to such a cold surface.

  She forced herself to wash, even so. It was one area where she would allow herself no compromise. If she behaved like a convict, lost all regard for personal hygiene, she was far more likely to be treated like one.

  Despite her sturdy boasts to Monsarrat, Hannah did not like being transplanted. She could not draw strength from the hearth when the hearth kept changing, and she would likely feel ill at ease until the kitchen and everything in it had been organised into submission.

  Clearly she hadn’t banked the fire up enough, she thought, or else the wood here burned differently. She shivered at she thought of fires misbehaving. At least this one was obviously just lazy. She had coaxed it back to a semblance of life, enough to apply some heat to the bottom of the kettle by the time Mr Monsarrat walked in.

  ‘You’ll be expecting tea, I imagine,’ she said.

  ‘I expect nothing, but I’m grateful for anything,’ he said. ‘It was chilly last night, wasn’t it?’

It’s nothing compared to what we both felt before we made the long journey to the new land all those years back. We’ve gone soft, the pair of us,’ she said.

  Monsarrat smiled. ‘I’m sure you’re right. I have only very dim memories of the properties of snow. I suppose I might not see it again for some time.’

  ‘Well, Mr Monsarrat, if the past years have taught me anything, it’s the dangers of supposing. So tell me, what did you make of your evening?’

  ‘There’s obviously the issue of these rumours, what ever they are,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Interesting that a martinet like Brewster ignored Harefield’s sly grog trade. Can’t believe no one searched the man’s hut.’

  ‘Well, young Jeremiah’s in there now,’ said Hannah.


  ‘Jeremiah Jones, the boatman! Pay attention, Mr Monsarrat. Perhaps he might like some tea.’

  ‘Anything for the man who got you across that sea,’ said Monsarrat.

  ‘Who might not object to having his lodgings searched.’

  ‘What about the fact that Mrs Brewster does seem rather keen to protect her brother – and more than a little nervous of her husband? As you say, that must be why she works alongside her brother in the stores.’

  ‘Oh, you’d be mistaken to underestimate Walter,’ said Hannah.

  ‘Hm. He is, though … unusual.’

  ‘Yes, he is. That’s a supposition I will allow you, though, as I’ve already told you, Walter is no fool. So don’t make the mistake of assuming he has nothing of use to say.’

  She realised she sounded like a schoolmistress upbraiding a refractory student, and Monsarrat bristled slightly. ‘Very well then – what am I missing?’

  ‘Do you remember what Mrs Brewster said on the subject of rumours?’

  ‘Yes, that she would do anything to protect her brother from them.’

  ‘Eejit of a man. She said no such thing. She said “the innocent”.’

  ‘Well, if anyone’s innocent … and who else would she have been talking about?’

  ‘I don’t know. Perhaps no one. But your recollection of the conversation is flawed. Take care to hear what is said in future.’

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up




Other author's books:

Add comment

Add comment