The power game, p.7
The Power Game, p.7Thomas Keneally
‘Indeed I shall, and we are still left with the fact – one which I’m certain I didn’t mishear – that there was some sort of damaging rumour involving Power. On an island this small, everyone surely would know about it, whatever it is.’
‘They probably do, Mr Monsarrat. You just have to ask the right person in the right way.’
‘And the right way would be?’
‘You have to do it side-on,’ she said. ‘Meander up to them, find a way in through conversation about anything else, or nothing in particular.’
‘Well, I’m to see the overseer soon. I will try to take your advice and – how did you put it? Approach him side-on.’
Oliver Trainor, Monsarrat realised, was not the sort of fellow one approached side-on.
He was a sturdy man who didn’t seem to have sides, with a barrel torso resting on top of muscular legs. His head, almost entirely bald, was covered in lesions caused by years of blistering under the unforgiving sun. Monsarrat was fascinated – it seemed clear Trainor had been elevated to the position of overseer because of the very air of threat that had got him transported in the first place. A man who must do enough hard-knuckled disciplining to keep the commandant happy, but not so much as to motivate his charges to kill him; a man caught between criminality and the state. But then, Monsarrat knew, he himself was such a being. A ticket-of-leaver who was an investigator even of his betters – not that the betters here knew it.
To reach Trainor, Monsarrat was directed by Captain Brewster to follow a small path, which had been gouged by the feet that had trod it before him and by the wheels of stone-carrying carts. The path cut through the thick trunks of the venerable gums and the sweet green undergrowth, into which some wombats were attempting to make headway. Occasionally a brown waterfowl would scutter across the path, and once or twice Monsarrat saw a subtler movement at the edge of the track, a cylindrical writhing which he tried to ignore.
Having come from a crowded penal settlement by way of a thriving town, Monsarrat was unused to the absence of the sounds of humans. He indulged himself on the walk, imagining he was alone on the island, that he would always be so, that there was no longer any point in pretending as there was no one to pretend for. He found the thought oddly comforting.
He was also comforted by the sight of the reservoir. The snakes (if that’s what they were – and at this latitude he thought it was possible there were creatures yet to be seen by the colonists) would probably try to avoid this place: men swearing, rocks dropping one on another as the reservoir slowly began to encircle the waterhole it was being built to tame, would surely have scared them off.
Monsarrat identified Trainor not only by what he had heard of his size but also by his constant yelling. Monsarrat walked up, introduced himself and held his hand out but Trainor ignored it, glancing down and muttering, ‘I don’t think your shoes will survive here.’
Monsarrat feared he was right. The leather which he took care to shine each night was covered in mud, and no doubt absorbing much moisture.
‘I care little for the state of my shoes at the minute. I’m more interested in finding out what befell your friend.’
‘My friend? Harefield? I wouldn’t call him friend. I suspect few here would.’
‘I was given to understand that you and he were on cordial terms, Trainor.’
It felt odd, still, to address someone else as a subordinate, to rob them of a given name or an honorific, and thereby part of their humanity. But if Monsarrat was to pass himself off as somebody used to power, it was essential.
‘We never fought,’ said Trainor. ‘I helped him when I could, but we did not seek each other’s company. Neither of us much felt the need for companionship, except for the female variety, which is not readily available to us here, although I suspect Harefield did his best to rectify that on his trips.’
‘You must have envied him those trips. You are a convict yourself, yes?
‘As it happens.’
Trainor looked down again. ‘Your sentence, man!’ said Monsarrat, trying still to play the role of a man in authority.
‘Fourteen years, attempted murder,’ Trainor said sullenly.
‘I see. And what was your trade?’
The overseer hesitated. ‘Woodcutter. I was a woodcutter,’ he said finally.
‘Ah. Now that is interesting. I imagine the implement you used in your crime was an axe, then?’
‘It was, as it happens. But I pulled myself up in time and the man lived. With a few broken bones and a limp.’
‘So you have some skill in wielding such a weapon.’
‘I did not kill Harefield, if that’s what you think. No reason to, and plenty of reason not to. In any case, not much skill needed for an axe. Just the right amount of heft, and the right timing. A child could kill with an axe if they swung it at the right angle.’
‘Indeed? And you were doing what at the time of the murder?’
‘Back in the barracks. Anyone here will tell you that.’
Trainor turned, and the convicts who had been working at as slow a pace as possible to enable them to listen suddenly redoubled their efforts.
‘Did Harefield get along with anyone else?’
‘Only the Hatter, really.’
‘Milliner. His little joke. Harefield brought rum for the Hatter to sell the convicts, took a cut of the profit. There were more rum lately for me, but it all had to go through Mill—Oi! You want to go and quarry one to replace that?’
Trainor was striding towards the source of a loud crack. Two convicts were standing above a split slab of rock which had proved too heavy for them. With the gaze of their overseer diverted, Monsarrat noticed that some of the other men had slowed in their work again. One of them, in fact, had stopped entirely and was staring at Monsarrat with an avidity he found disturbing. He quickly averted his eyes, telling himself he did not want the fellow to come to the notice of the overseer. If he was honest, though, the man was making him uncomfortable. His fierce, unmoderated gaze transmitted an indiscriminate hunger which had nothing to do with conventional behaviour.
Such a person might be dangerous. But they might also be useful.
‘I shall let you get back to your work,’ said Monsarrat as Trainor stalked back to him. ‘It seems your supervision is required. Might I ask, though – I would like to take one of your men back to Darlington with me. Some heavy lifting which needs doing.’
‘And plenty in Darlington to do it. I can’t spare you anyone.’
‘I see,’ said Monsarrat, casting around for a pretext and remembering the crates outside the commissary. ‘Well, I suppose Mr Gendron will have his afternoon mapped out for him, then. An awful lot of baggage still needs to be moved into the commissary.’
‘It’s Mr Gendron what needs help?’ asked Trainor.
‘Yes. But, as you say, plenty in Darlington to give it. I’m sure if I told the commandant that none of your lads could be spared, he’d find someone.’
‘If it’s Mr Gendron … I believe he’s owed some help. I can spare a man for him. But he needs to be back here after the dinner break, mind. Take your pick.’
Monsarrat turned to the man who had been staring at him. ‘This fellow here looks good enough.’
‘Shanahan!’ yelled Trainor. ‘Go with this gent here, and make sure you’re back in time or you’ll be the worse for it.’
The man nodded and walked towards Monsarrat, still staring. He looked to be around Monsarrat’s age, with shoulders which seemed to run naturally to narrowness, but for the constant lifting he must have to suffer. Narrow-hipped, he moved with a surprising grace – the kind of movement one would suppose required thought.
‘Come on then, Shanahan,’ Monsarrat said. ‘We best make haste if we are to have you back before the dinner bell.’
There was so little to do here. It was enough to drive a woman out of her wits. And Hannah had slept u
By mid-morning she had swept the grate out three times, and imposed her usual fierce scrubbing on the table, a rickety specimen which had seen little use from the visiting magistrate and was not accustomed to the attention. She had made bread and shaken the crumbs off the bread pan out of the back door.
There was now really nothing at all to do. This was a problem. She noticed her injury more when she was bored and, when her mind was too quiet, she sometimes fancied she could see smoke curling its way up from her ankle, nipping at her skirts.
But pretence – a skill which had saved her life in Ireland and many times since – was always a distraction. Perhaps if she offered help, she might have an excuse to stay long enough to learn something at the commissary.
The cottage door complained a bit, not used to being opened and closed with such frequency, and she had to take care to sit it in its frame as she was leaving. Probably a wasted effort, she thought – anyone with the propensity to steal from the hut would simply get some clothes and an empty teapot.
Those with theft on their records were hard at work now anyway, and five miles of erratic sea raged between them and escape, with the coastal mountains of Van Diemen’s Land standing out blackly against the sky, offering little succour.
Leaving the cottage, Hannah noticed two things. The breadcrumbs were gone. And in their place stood a large grey bird with the long neck of a goose and a short green beak. The creature had its head side-on to her, taking her in with an accusing gaze, although what she could be accused of she couldn’t guess.
‘Hoi!’ she said, clapping her hands. Such behaviour would be enough to see off any geese she had met in the past, from those of County Wexford to their cousins in Parramatta. The creature, however, did not move. It opened its green beak and let out a harsh, echoing sound, its own aggressive version of a honk.
‘Hoi! Away with you! I won’t have your droppings fouling this step. I’ve already washed it this morning.’ She clapped her hands again, twice.
The goose did move now. It didn’t scramble away with protesting honks, as she had expected it to; it turned and very slowly walked towards her until it was standing right at her feet. Then it bent and pecked her shoes.
She felt herself oddly disinclined to kick the thing – coming from a background where those more powerful kicked without thought, she felt it was incumbent on her to behave better towards this odd bird than others had behaved towards her. Instead she stamped her feet up and down and yelled again. ‘If you don’t stop that and leave, I will be serving you to Mr Monsarrat for dinner tonight!’
Her words had the desired effect, to a point. But instead of the satisfying flapping and fleeing she had expected, the goose simply straightened its neck, emitted an offended glare, turned and waddled off.
‘The animals here need to be taught some manners, so they do,’ she muttered to herself, making her way down the hill towards the commissary, where she assumed she would find Elizabeth Brewster.
She found her rather sooner than expected. There was no guard outside the gate leading into Thomas Power’s area of confinement, but Elizabeth Brewster stood there, staring up at the walls, utterly still.
Hannah walked slowly, quietly, telling herself it was because she didn’t wish to startle the woman. But Elizabeth was startled soon enough when the gate opened and a private emerged. He stopped when he saw Elizabeth. ‘Mrs Brewster … I’m sure your husband would be pleased to know that the prisoner is secure. I too was checking.’
‘Naturally, Ennis,’ she said. ‘As I would expect. And I was …’
Hannah was scant feet away by now. She took the remaining steps which separated them. ‘Waiting for me, she was,’ she said to Ennis, then turned to Elizabeth. ‘I am so sorry for keeping you, Mrs Brewster. I don’t move, I fear, as quickly as I once did. And I was bailed up by a goose.’
Elizabeth and the soldier both laughed.
‘The geese are more likely to bail someone up than any bushranger I’ve heard of,’ said Ennis, in an accent which would not have been out of place in Hannah’s childhood. He winked at her and she smiled. ‘I’m keeping an eye on Mr Power,’ he went on. ‘He didn’t have a guard until the recent death. Had the run of the island.’
Ennis looked very young. He had allowed some stubble to darken his chin. It could have been out of laxity, Hannah thought, but his uniform was clean, no old stains or missing buttons. More likely stubble was a new experience for him, one he associated with virility. He would be reluctant to shave off such evidence of manhood.
‘Please don’t trouble yourself, Mrs Mulrooney,’ Elizabeth said. ‘However, we should now make haste. To …’
‘The commissary, Mrs Brewster,’ Hannah said. ‘You required some assistance there, as I recall.’
‘Yes, the commissary. Good day, Ennis. I will ensure my husband is aware of your conscientiousness.’
They walked down towards the bridge over the small creek, startling a wallaby which had been examining the grass at its edges. ‘I must thank you, Mrs Mulrooney. I was lost in thought.’
‘No trouble at all. I get lost in thought at times myself. Sometimes a woman just needs to be turned and set on the right path.’
‘Quite so,’ said Elizabeth. ‘May I ask, while we’re on the subject, where you were bound?’
‘Well, I was going where I said I was. I have scrubbed every corner of the visiting magistrate’s house, and I’m sure the man will be glad of it when he is next here; however, I don’t like to be idle and I thought that perhaps some assistance might be welcome.’
‘As indeed it would. Walter will be there, of course. And a highly intelligent man he is too, in the channels in which his mind runs.’
Walter was not in fact in the store, but scouring the vista – they saw his broad back down on the dock. He appeared to be talking to Jones.
Elizabeth fished in her pocket for some keys. ‘Mrs Mulrooney, I wonder, would you be kind enough to fetch him? I don’t wish to leave the store unattended, particularly with all these crates still outside to be unpacked – they shouldn’t have been left here this long.’
Hannah picked her way through tufts of grass and the holes dug by the industrious grey-furred denizens of the island towards the dock, meeting Jones as he was walking up it.
‘All well with Mr Gendron?’ she asked.
Jones smiled. ‘Ah, yes. I get things for him from time to time. Interesting bits of wood. Shells, that kind of thing. He likes them. Nice to be able to bring someone joy.’
Walter seemed not to hear Hannah approach. He was staring out across to the arm of earth and rock which protected the bay, absently fiddling with a striped shell.
‘You have a new trifle, I see,’ she said gently, more as a means of getting his attention than from any curiosity about the shell.
He didn’t seem surprised to see her in the least. ‘Do you know,’ he said, still staring at the dark shapes playing under the surface of the water, ‘something used to live in this?’
He held the shell up to the sun, squinted at it. ‘They’re like young pups, aren’t they?’ he said.
‘No! No, the seals,’ he said, nodding at some splashes a little way out to sea. ‘They were closer in this morning and I was hoping they might be this afternoon as well. They’ll pop their little heads up and dart around. Sometimes I go for a swim and they will come and say hello to me, then duck down back under the water as though expecting me to chase them. Poor things, they don’t know anything outside their own experience, don’t know I have not the lungs for it. But I do enjoy them.’
‘Well, they sound charming to me, Mr Gendron, and I’m sure I’d enjoy them as much as you, had I the chance to see them. That is if I didn’t have an abiding fear of the ocean.’
‘Ah, you must not fear the
From anyone else, the impropriety of this suggestion would have made Hannah walk away instantly. But there was an innocence about Walter. He did not know that an offer to take a woman – even one old enough to be his mother – into the ocean for a swim was the height of bad manners. He simply wished to introduce her to his friends.
‘That’s kind of you, Mr Gendron. However, I must decline. I’m not much of a swimmer, have survived this long without being one and expect I’ll survive however long the Lord has apportioned me in a similar state of ignorance as to the mechanics of moving through the water. But I’m afraid I need to draw your attention to less interesting matters – chiefly, the crates to be unpacked outside the commissary store.’
For a moment, Walter looked stricken. ‘I was planning to get to them, I was. I just wanted to give the seals a chance to come closer. It seems, though, they have let me down, so I might as well get to it.’
‘If I may, Mr Gendron, I would like to make you a proposal.’
Walter giggled, a sound she had rarely heard from a man, one more childish than girlish, and oddly disarming.
‘It’s been a long time since anyone made me a proposal,’ he said.
Another woman might have blushed. But Hannah, accustomed to those who needed organising, recognised someone who simply needed a little nudge, not derision or reprimand.
‘Mr Gendron, one must take care not to laugh at other people’s comments.’
Walter’s face immediately rearranged itself into an expression of concern. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I meant no offence.’
‘And none has been taken,’ said Hannah. ‘I would like to think that you may rely on me to speak honestly with you, and you may do likewise in the assurance that I will never take offence when none is intended.’
He frowned for a moment, and then nodded. ‘That sounds like a reasonable bargain,’ he said.
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes