The power game, p.8
The Power Game,
‘Indeed it is. So my suggestion – you will note I have not used proposal, as it clearly gave you such amusement – is this. You will accompany me back to the commissary, where your sister is waiting. You will offer to do whatever she asks, and once we get a bit done you may then come back here and resume your vigil for the seals, and I’ll finish what needs finishing. How does that sound?’
Walter nodded. ‘Wonderful,’ he said. ‘Although I can’t help thinking I’m getting the best end of the bargain.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Hannah. ‘You are saving me from almost certain death, either from boredom, or from geese.’
Monsarrat found that silence could often be quite an effective cudgel. He decided to employ it now, for a full five minutes as he trudged through the bush with the odd, staring man at his side. After a while, though, the silence began to disconcert even Monsarrat. Without turning or looking at the fellow, he asked, ‘What’s your name, again?’
‘Begging your pardon. Shanahan, sir.’
‘Thank you. But I was actually in pursuit of a Christian name.’
‘Niall. Niall Shanahan.’
‘Niall Shanahan. And tell me, Niall Shanahan, what brings you here?’
‘Several boats, sir,’ said Shanahan, and chuckled, though Monsarrat did not see the joke.
Monsarrat stopped in his tracks. Shanahan took a few paces ahead before he realised he was now walking alone. He could have kept walking towards the settlement, following his orders and displaying a contempt for Monsarrat at the same time. But Monsarrat was betting he wouldn’t. It was a bet he hoped he didn’t lose.
His gamble paid off. Shanahan turned and walked back to Monsarrat. ‘A laugh, it’s a rare thing here. I could not resist the opportunity. I beg your pardon.’
‘My pardon is given,’ said Monsarrat, hating himself for the high-handed language and beginning to think Shanahan an honest fellow. ‘And if I may ask the question again, and get a serious answer this time, what brought you here?’
‘A pig, sir. I stole a pig, from my father’s landlord because we had nought to sell for oatmeal. We was hungry with what they call in Ireland “the summer famine”.’
‘I see. Yet there are many who are hungry who do not steal.’
Monsarrat shocked himself to hear the words coming from his mouth. They were the arguments of the likes of Socrates McAllister, the crooked and moralistic magistrate who ruled from the bench in Parramatta. I must, he thought, not allow myself to be fooled by the fiction Eveleigh has foisted on me.
‘That’s true, as it goes, sir,’ said Shanahan. ‘But I can only plead the evidence of my own belly, and those of my sisters and brothers. None of them would have continued much longer without feeding.’
‘Very well, the evidence of your belly is accepted, for now,’ said Monsarrat. ‘Another question, then. Why on God’s earth were you staring at me earlier?’
Shanahan stopped, thought for a moment. ‘It’s rare to see anyone new here, you see,’ he said. ‘Simple as that.’
‘Hmm. So you must know everyone on the island, then.’
‘I thought I did, sir,’ said Shanahan. ‘Didn’t think there was anyone that handy with an axe though. I’ve probably passed him that killed Harefield, spoken to him. So have you. Makes us all a bit uneasy, in case the axeman has set himself against others still living. We’re all watchful, I tell you.’
‘Not many women here, sir. You may have noticed.’
‘Hm. You must be talking about the murder, all of you.’
‘Well, most are happy he’s gone – a lot of people have run foul of him at one time or another. None of us had an opportunity to do anything about it, though.’
‘I see. And let me ask you something else. What do you know of Thomas Power?’
Shanahan inhaled deeply. ‘It’s not true, what they say, sir.’
‘And what do they say?’
‘That he was using me. As a messenger. They were a little bit kinder to him than they are at present. And when he saw me, you see, he clapped his hands and insisted. Insisted I become a member of his retinue, as he calls it.’
‘Why would Mr Power insist on you, particularly?’
‘Because I worked for his father, you see. For a time, before I took up farming. As a groom, in the stables of Scarforth Castle in Kerry. He said it was wonderful to see a face from home, and he would be delighted if I could join him, help him with his reminiscences, that sort of thing.’
‘And the commandant agreed to this?’
‘Yes, and let it run for some months. I got Power hot water, tea, whatever he wanted. Provided conversation, when he asked for it, reminiscences of Scarforth Castle and the glory of his father. But the commandant wouldn’t let it continue after … well, after.’
‘After what, Shanahan?’
‘The commandant hasn’t told you, sir?’
‘Yes, he has, of course. I am simply after your own recollection, and do not wish to pollute it with anyone else’s.’
‘Well, after the business with Captain Brewster’s brother-in-law. It was Harefield who put it about, you know. It wouldn’t have been given any credence but for him. He’d give rum to those who could pay, and Power is the richest man on the island. Harefield said he saw the … incident with his own eyes. I heard he withheld the rum for a while until his customers would say that they saw something too.’
‘Can you imagine your patron then committing so savage a killing? Such primitive work with an axe?’
‘I can’t imagine that, sir. But the damage the bosun could do was of the kind to stir up a big anger. I’m not saying it is Power. But it’s startling what a man can do in anger.’
‘Why did you lose your position with Power?’
‘The commandant said the business must’ve been going on for a long time, even as far back as Ireland. That I must’ve been aware of it, even participated in it. I most certainly did nothing of the kind. I like women, so I do, as few of them as I get to see. And so does Mr Power, I can swear. At least, if his pursuit of the maids at Scarforth Castle is anything to go by, he is the same as everyone else. But there are those who can’t help it, you see. Perhaps they can’t help seeing sin where there is none. So when it happened, well, Harefield decided to put things about. That there was, you know, something indecent going on. More indecent than the usual, that is.’
‘And by something indecent, I presume you mean …’
‘Yes. That Power and Walter were having some kind of tryst.’
‘But Mrs Mulrooney said I could go and look at the seals again,’ said Walter.
‘Now, Mr Gendron, you know I said no such thing. I said that perhaps if we got some good work done now you may go and see what creatures decided to visit you.’
Elizabeth Brewster, to Mrs Mulrooney’s surprise, was smiling. ‘Mrs Mulrooney is quite right, Walter,’ she said. ‘There is work to be done, here, you know. You must justify the money His Majesty gives you.’
‘Of course I will! I would hate to disappoint His Majesty. But, well, the seals will be disappointed if I’m no longer there,’ Walter said. ‘And Mrs Mulrooney … thank you, my kind friend, and you must let me know if I’m ever in a position to repay you.’
‘I assure you, Mr Gendron, I shall. For now though, you can repay me by dragging in one of those crates so that we can get started on unpacking it.’
Walter nodded solemnly and almost sprinted to the door.
They worked in silence for a while. Walter opened the crate and stared at it; Hannah and Elizabeth extracted the parcels of meat and sacks of grain.
‘It’s stupid of them, you know,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Those in Hobart. If they just gave us the livestock we asked for, we would not need to rely on them for provisions as much.’
‘What is it you need?’ asked Hannah.
‘Well, James asked for two working bullocks t
Hannah, who had no idea whether a few bullocks and some sheep represented a reasonable request or not, had to stop herself laughing at the flash of an image – the bullocks sitting in the small boat, bunching their hooves together so that they could fit on the benches, weighing it down so that it was almost vertical.
‘The request was denied?’ she said.
‘Yes. They pointed out that the penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour over on the west coast of Van Diemen’s Land relies on manpower only. But the penal settlement at Macquarie Harbour is also a lot closer to shore. They cannot expect a self-sufficient settlement without giving us the means for that sufficiency, but that’s what they appear to want.’
‘You are not well disposed towards Marley and his like?’ said Hannah.
‘I didn’t say that,’ said Elizabeth a little sharply. Then she sighed. ‘But, for a man whose title is comptroller of convicts, he has little control and even less interest. Certainly no appreciation of the challenges of building and running a settlement such as this one.’
Hannah was surprised to hear Elizabeth speaking so plainly. But she reminded herself that perhaps conversation which involved another female voice was welcome.
‘This is not your first posting, then?’ she asked.
‘Oh, Sydney for a while. But nothing like here. If a commissary had been … indisposed, another would have taken his place before a morning had passed. Here, though … Well, we make do.’
Hannah nodded. This woman would not have acknowledged her had they passed in the street in Parramatta, but class fell away in the face of the need to make do.
‘It must have been worrisome to be without an experienced boatman even for that short time before Jones arrived, especially needing all these provisions. Do any of the convicts have any nautical skill?’ she asked.
‘Some of them. But we would never consider giving them charge of the boat – we would never see it again. As it is, they’ve proved reasonably adept at escaping. A few months ago, five of them built a bark canoe. They were found over at Orford a few days later. The poor fellow who stumbled on them stumbled away again with a lighter purse. They’ve taken to the bush now. Haven’t been seen since. They may already have starved for all we know, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are willing to make the crossing in the flimsiest of vessels. If we gave them a sturdy cutter like ours, they might sail all the way to Sydney.’
‘Well,’ said Hannah. ‘Myself, I don’t hold with the sea, even when it’s calm. I can’t imagine wanting to trust myself to a sheet of bark lashed onto some sticks.’
‘Nor I. And really, it is not nearly as bad here as some other penal settlements. The stories that come out of Macquarie Harbour … Some of them here are rotten to the core, it’s true. But others, well, they’re just misguided. I’d hate to see them taken in by the more hardened lags, caught in an escape attempt and then submitted to the kind of punishment they dish out over there.’
‘Yes, your prisoners certainly do seem to be treated well. Mr Power, I’m given to understand, is particularly comfortable.’
‘Not as comfortable as he was, nor does he deserve to be,’ said Elizabeth. ‘But – you are Irish, of course.’
‘He must be something of a hero to you, then.’
‘Well, he has fought for you.’
‘Others have fought for me died for me,’ Hannah said, more harshly than she intended. ‘I have fought for myself.’
Elizabeth frowned for a moment, no doubt unused to being addressed so baldly by a domestic.
‘Mmm,’ she said after a while, ‘we must all fight for ourselves, after our own fashion.’
‘If you don’t need me, further, Elizabeth, I’d just as soon go back to the seals,’ Walter said. He had been watching them as they talked.
‘Very well then, Walter,’ Elizabeth said, in a tight, clipped voice.
‘I might also look in on Thomas. I haven’t seen him lately. I know you say he’s well treated, but he must be missing his books.’
Elizabeth gave him a sharp look. ‘On no account are you to visit Mr Power.’
‘Elizabeth, I’m not sure you are entirely in a position to tell me what to do.’
Elizabeth exhaled, picking distractedly at a thin splinter from the crate which had lodged itself in the side of her hand.
‘You know yourself it is James’s command that Mr Power receive no visits from us.’
‘Elizabeth. I’m not a stupid man. They say I’m simple. They say I’m worse than that, too. And it is all a lot more bearable when one has a friend.’
‘You do your friend no service by keeping the attention of the settlement on him even more than it would be otherwise,’ said Elizabeth.
Walter’s brows drew together and then sprang apart, his eyes narrowing as he tried to determine his sister’s meaning, and widening when he apprehended an insult.
‘I should like to be your friend, Walter,’ said Hannah quickly. ‘When Mr Monsarrat and Mrs Brewster can spare me, I would very much enjoy it if you could show me some of the places where you walk, tell me about the seals and the dolphins, perhaps introduce me to a few wombats. Maybe even help me understand how to vanquish those dreadful geese. Would that be all right? With your sister’s permission, of course.’
The muscles of Elizabeth’s face seemed to relax a little. ‘I am sure there would be no harm,’ she said.
‘Excellent,’ said Walter. ‘It will be lovely to be able to show something to someone. Elizabeth, may I …?’
‘Yes, yes, off you go.’
He grinned and walked quickly towards the door, as though afraid he might be called back.
‘Thank you, Mrs Mulrooney,’ said Elizabeth after he had gone. ‘I fear that with too much time on his hands, our Walter goes wandering to places he shouldn’t. It will be nice to know that a steady person such as yourself has charge of him.’
‘I will get as much out of it as he does,’ said Hannah.
‘You will certainly get a great number of outlandish stories. I might say, it’s important to remember that’s what they are – stories. Walter is right, he is not a stupid man. He is, though, an imaginative one, and sometimes lacks the ability to tell the difference between the real and the fabricated. Please bear that in mind.’
They continued unpacking the crates, Elizabeth making inconsequential conversation about how dear the baby wombats were, and the impossibility of getting a tea set sent to the island without at least one item emerging cracked from the sawdust packing.
‘We seem to be reaching the bottom of this crate,’ she said after a time. ‘I’ll need to call Walter back to haul in another one.’
She was saved the trouble. A few minutes later, as Hannah was positioning a small container of tea on the shelf, the commissary door opened gently.
Say what you will about Mr Monsarrat, thought Hannah. He knows how to treat a door. Doesn’t go slamming them against the wall like some I’ve known. At the thought her breath stopped briefly in her throat, as she remembered a now dead laughing man who’d had a habit of abusing doors.
Monsarrat was followed into the room by a wiry, sunburnt convict with a grimy face.
‘Shanahan!’ Elizabeth exclaimed. ‘He was sent to the reservoir,’ she said to Hannah. ‘Explain your presence here, if you please.’
Shanahan looked alarmed, his eyes flicking from Monsarrat to Elizabeth.
‘I do beg your pardon, Mrs Brewster,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I hope I have not unwittingly caused a problem. I went to the reservoir to speak to the overseer and noticed the crates outside the commissary. I asked him for the use of one of his men to move them inside for you. I do hope you don’t find me presumptuous.’
‘Well … As you say, the crates do need moving. I will forgive you, Mr Monsarrat, as your intentions were clearly the best. However, I would beg you not to take such an a
Monsarrat bowed. ‘Forgive me. But since he’s here, shall we put him to work? Mr Trainor is expecting him back at the reservoir by the dinner bell.’
Elizabeth nodded to the convict, who moved outside and started shifting the crates.
‘I must say, Mr Monsarrat,’ said Elizabeth, ‘you have quite a treasure here in Mrs Mulrooney. She has volunteered to assist me in the commissary, and it is assistance of which I very much stand in need, I can tell you.’
‘I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment, Mrs Brewster.’
‘It’s rare, don’t you think?’ said Elizabeth. ‘To find a convict, or a former convict, who seeks out work rather than avoiding it?’
Hannah, standing behind Elizabeth, felt her jaw clench. She knew she should be used to being spoken of as though she wasn’t there, or as though she was insensitive to praise or criticism. She should be, but she wasn’t, and she deplored a world where one needed to make such accommodations.
She saw Monsarrat glance at her, raise his eyebrows in warning to stay silent.
‘I have always found Mrs Mulrooney to be the most conscientious of workers,’ he said. ‘And as it is only me in the magistrate’s cottage, she will be available to provide you with as much assistance as you need.’
‘The assistance and the company will both be welcome. As for you, Mr Monsarrat, how do your investigations go?’
‘Slowly, at present, madam, I fear.’
‘It was one of the convicts, no doubt,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Harefield had certain … well … unorthodox commercial relationships with some of them. James turned a blind eye, most of the time. But when a disagreement over money erupts between such people, blood is often shed. You must know that.’
‘As soon as I find the evidence to support that certainty, madam, I can assure you I will bring it forward. However, I do need to interview Power again. And of course I take your point about operating without your husband’s permission. I don’t suppose you know where I can find Captain Brewster?’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes