The power game, p.9
The Power Game,
‘He shouldn’t be far, Mr Monsarrat,’ Elizabeth said, a little hazily, as if she actually had trouble imagining her husband at work. ‘Perhaps in his office – a little further down near the boat shed. I believe the correspondence from Marley and the lieutenant-governor is considerable. He could be up at the hospital site – he calls in on Chester each day. Given we have been denied livestock, we need to make sure that those on whose strong backs we rely are kept healthy for the purpose. And if we are responsible for their moral welfare, surely their physical welfare is ours too. Do you not agree?’
Monsarrat found James Brewster pacing the perimeter of the hospital site.
‘The hospital is one of my priorities,’ Brewster said, beside the fringe of convict-made bricks. ‘I always intended that if I was given charge of a penal settlement, it would be one of the first buildings constructed. I do not want to bring up children anywhere without the means to see to their health. And of course those who come after me will know who built it.’
‘I wasn’t aware that you had children,’ said Monsarrat.
Brewster frowned. ‘We don’t, not yet. I had thought, by now …’ He paused for a moment, straightened. ‘Elizabeth has enough to deal with as it is. Walter, you know.’
Hastily and somewhat awkwardly Monsarrat changed course and told Brewster about bringing Shanahan from the reservoir.
‘I would have preferred to be consulted, of course,’ said the commandant. ‘Not that there is a problem with using convict muscle to bring those crates in, but I would have chosen any convict except that one.’
‘Oh? Is he deficient in some way?’
‘Morally, yes. Was in thrall to Power; supposed to keep an eye on him, but failed to mention that he had once been the man’s father’s servant. He paid for that little omission with a month on bread and water. And a flogging, of course. He was lucky we need the labour – I restricted the lashing.’
‘Ah. Well of course there’s a maximum allowable.’
‘The new governor will change that rot. Macquarie was too soft. He didn’t have to deal with them on a daily basis. Those of us who do are paying the price for his leniency.’
‘Indeed. You needn’t worry, though – Mr Trainor insisted Shanahan return quickly to the reservoir, and I am under the impression that he metes out a fierce punishment when his orders are disobeyed.’
‘That he does. One of the more brutal overseers I’ve come across, but effective, as the brutal often are. He is judicious in the way he disciplines his men. Those who know that the punishment will be severe are more likely to stay loyal, and loyalty is important in a place like this, held together by the ocean and the mountains.’
‘As you say. That ocean and the mountains – I presume they’re as effective at constraining Thomas Power as anyone else. So I hope you see no risk in my visiting him again. I have a few more questions.’
‘All right. I suppose you may go this evening. He enjoys singing of an evening, and I’m getting sick of the sound of Irish rebel songs like “Boolavogue” floating over that wall. He can’t sing if he is talking to you. And if your investigation comes to a satisfactory conclusion, he will not be singing at all.’
Walter was standing on the beach as Monsarrat passed. Perhaps he was looking across the waters for the ripple of a seal’s fin. And indeed a few whaling boats were now to be seen between here and the distant bay. In Monsarrat’s experience of whalers, they did not make the effort to throw down anchor without a reasonable hope of return.
Mrs Mulrooney had come back to the cottage and was pacing up and down by the back steps. There was still an unsteadiness to her walk, but she appeared to be applying her preferred strategy of ignoring the pain and refusing to acknowledge any injury. She was glaring at a small group of large grey birds which had gathered nearby, and were glaring back.
‘I found one of them in the kitchen, Mr Monsarrat. I mustn’t’ve closed the door properly, and the creature was pecking away at some crumbs under the table. That I missed them is something for which I have reprimanded myself, you may be assured, so there’s no need for you to do it.’
‘I would not think to reprimand you, my friend,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I rather think it generally goes the other way, does it not? In any case, I’m aware you’re not feeling your best.’
‘It is the sea, Mr Monsarrat, and then this strange family we must deal with. And the idea I hear from some that Mr Power has done this savage thing.’
She narrowed her eyes, huffed, and closed the door with such vehemence that he almost expected her to drag a chair over to it to prevent it being battered down by the bills of the geese. She took her broom and tried to drop to her knees – prevented by her ankle from doing so with any fluidity – seeking to chase out any further crumbs which might precipitate another invasion.
‘Please,’ said Monsarrat, ‘leave that.’
She rose, glared at him again. ‘Of course, as you command, Mr Monsarrat,’ she said, forcing out the words in a resentful spit.
‘Now, why this? Why the petulance?’ said Monsarrat.
‘You call it petulance? You and herself, standing there discussing me like I was a chattel. I deserve better, Mr Monsarrat, truly I do.’
Her jaw was set and her lips tightly pressed together in a manner he rarely saw. He knew that in her it was a sign of strong emotion being contained. He was particularly concerned that she was making no attempt to swat him with her cleaning cloth. His infraction clearly transcended such a trivial punishment.
‘If I have offended you, I apologise,’ he said, sitting down and gesturing her to the other chair at the table. ‘You know, though, that we need to maintain the fiction.’
‘The pretence that I am your superior, while we both know that in actuality I am anything but.’
She sat back in her chair, hopefully somewhat mollified.
‘As to the matter of geese for dinner,’ he said, ‘they do look plump, and I would be delighted to consume anything which has upset you so; however, I fear the geese will have to remain unmolested for now. I am this evening going over to see Thomas Power.’
‘And I am to sit here and hold off the geese?’ she said.
‘If that’s what you really want to do,’ said Monsarrat, ducking when he saw her reaching for the cleaning cloth at her waist.
‘Of course it’s not what I want to do, eejit of a man. I have spent the day unpacking provisions with a woman who views me as a useful implement with the added advantage of conversation. I’ll tell you, though, I did notice something interesting.’
‘I suspected as much.’
‘Herself – Mrs Brewster. Seems quite annoyed at Power.’
‘I presume she is, along with her husband.’
‘Why, then, was she standing outside his enclosure, staring at the wall?’
‘Was she? Possibly to make sure he stays in there? Although one presumes that he has a guard for that.’
‘The guard wasn’t in evidence,’ said Hannah. ‘Not at first, anyway. He walked out a short time later, grinning until he saw her. She gave him the fright of his life, I think. And he her. She did not look like the wife of a commandant who had caught one of her husband’s subordinates being lax in his duties. She looked like somebody who had been caught out herself.’
‘And did you ask about it?’
‘Of course I didn’t! Not directly. You’ve heard them go on about Power. They’re not going to be answering any direct questions from the likes of me.’
‘Possibly not,’ agreed Monsarrat.
‘One thing I have ascertained is some sort of oddness between Power and Walter,’ Hannah went on. ‘The lad seems to idolise Power, but Captain Brewster speaks of him as though he were the devil incarnate.’
‘Ah, well there, I find myself in the unusual position of being able to tell you something. If convict gossip is to be believed, I’ve deduced that some people think something’s going on between Wa
‘Their friendship, you mean?’
‘A … a special friendship, if you take my meaning …’ He could not meet her eyes as he spoke, choosing to find himself suddenly fascinated with a patch of wall.
‘No need to blush, Mr Monsarrat,’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘I’ve lived among convicts and soldiers for more than twenty years now. I’m well aware of how some men tend to enjoy each other’s company. Do you believe it?’
‘I’m not entirely sure. I have also been assured that Power enjoys the company of ladies …’
‘There are some who enjoy the company of both, Mr Monsarrat. Don’t look so shocked, eejit of a man. You know that.’
‘Yes, well … Moving on. I was rather hoping you’d come with me tonight.’
‘To meet the man himself?’
‘Yes. Mr Power may reveal something he doesn’t intend to, in a manner which doesn’t involve words. And as far as that type of listening goes, no one can equal you.’
Private Ennis was again absent from his post.
‘If Captain Brewster finds out, I expect the lad will be in a deal of trouble,’ said Mrs Mulrooney.
‘Probably already is,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I suppose we should knock.’
Mrs Mulrooney looked at him with something between exasperation and pity. ‘What would be the point of appointing a guard if Power is able to open his own gate to visitors?’
‘True,’ Monsarrat said. ‘I don’t want to cause the man any trouble but I suppose I’d better go and find Brewster.’
‘He seems a good lad, though … very well then, we’ll knock, for all the good it will do.’
And she marched over to the slab of wood, pounding her little fist against it. To Monsarrat’s amazement, there was a rustling inside, and the gate was yanked open. The guard stepped out and closed it firmly behind him. He glanced at Monsarrat, and then smiled at Mrs Mulrooney.
‘Hello, missus. Geese leaving you alone?’
‘For now, yes, young Ennis. If they come back, though, I may have to borrow your bayonet.’
‘You’re the only one I would trust with it,’ he smiled. ‘Looking for Mrs Brewster?’
Monsarrat found himself oddly irritated. The young man was ignoring him entirely. He must be getting used to the deference which came with a supposedly unblemished past.
‘Why would she be looking for Mrs Brewster here?’ he asked.
Private Ennis glanced at Monsarrat, and then at the ground. ‘No reason. Mr Power receives few visitors.’
‘Yet you seem to have been visiting.’
‘Not visiting, bringing the prisoner his meal.’
‘Well, now that you’ve completed that task, you may perform another service and open the gate for us.’
Ennis, keeping his eyes on Monsarrat, reached backwards and pushed the gate open.
‘Unlocked, private?’ asked Monsarrat. ‘Somewhat careless, isn’t it?’
‘Where is he going to go, sir?’ said Private Ennis, spitting on the ground. ‘You need wings to leave here.’
The yard where Power had paced up and down the other day was empty now, although the ruts the man had worn in the ground were easy to see.
A moment later Power came racing out, waving a piece of paper. ‘Ennis!’ he cried, looking at the private. ‘You forgot your letter. After all the work we put into it, you don’t want to just leave it lying around here, surely.’
Private Ennis blushed, turned away. ‘Not my letter,’ he said. ‘You must be mistaken.’
‘Oh. Yes … Very well then, I suppose I am. In any case, thank you for the wonderful meal.’
‘I didn’t cook it,’ said Ennis, and slammed the gate behind him. Monsarrat could hear the pointed rattle of the key in the lock.
Power languidly smoothed the letter, held it up to the light, then slowly folded it and placed it in the breast pocket of his jacket. It was a garment Monsarrat could never have afforded, a light, fine blue wool with buttons which he suspected were real gold. Once Power had stowed the letter to his satisfaction, he turned to his guests.
‘Mr Monsarrat, what a delight. I was told you might be visiting again. And you have brought a friend. It is too long, I must say, since a female walked through that gate.’
‘This female will walk back through it if that kind of talk continues,’ said Mrs Mulrooney.
Power raised his eyebrows. ‘And a compatriot, my ears tell me.’
‘No compatriot of mine speaks in your accent,’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘Being born on the same soil does not make you my brother.’
Monsarrat stared at her, both in shock and in an attempt to convey a warning. Power, though, was nodding enthusiastically. ‘Quite right you are, quite right. I’d bet there are many who speak like me who’ve made it their business to try to deprive you of your liberty. The fact that you are here tells me they succeeded.’
Mrs Mulrooney’s glare intensified.
‘I shall make you a bargain,’ said Power.
‘Are you in a position to?’ Mrs Mulrooney said. ‘After all, one of us is free, one of us is not.’
Power smiled. It seemed genuine enough to Monsarrat – not the smile of a snake about to strike, not the smile he had seen on the faces of corrupt magistrates and clerical zealots and cruel soldiers.
‘I’m not sure whether I am in a position to or not, but I intend to anyway,’ Power said. ‘And the bargain is this – you agree to hear my story and to at least entertain the notion of hating me slightly less.’
‘And in return?’
‘If you are still intent on despising me afterwards, I will accept it wholeheartedly.’
Mrs Mulrooney was silent for a moment, then nodded.
‘I understand – I do – why my voice might make you ill-disposed towards me. Blame it on the English Jesuits who educated me. I can promise you, though, that I am as aware as any Irish-born man that my people have not been emancipated. Most of them are forbidden an education by law and prevented, by law as well, from holding public office – from being a lawyer, from serving above the rank of sergeant in the army which oppresses them. And naturally they are prohibited from being elected to Parliament. They live and die in the cracks and crannies of the Irish nation, and I am willing, under all the flippancy and vanity, to die to give them a better future.’
Mrs Mulrooney glared at him and then looked away. ‘You pay with words,’ she said. ‘Others have paid in blood.’
Power smiled. ‘I would never deny such a proposition, madam. I beg for the chance to tell you of my adventures in the cause of Irish freedom.’
Monsarrat had read some of Power’s speeches over the years, widely reported as they had been, even in the English press. And he had met such men before. If Power was permitted to dominate the conversation, they would have a long, entertaining and utterly fruitless evening.
‘I must say, Mr Power, this is a tale I look forward to hearing myself. And I do feel that we should allow it sufficient time for it to unfold. Sadly, I do not happen to possess time in that quantity at the minute. As well, I’m here on the indulgence of the commandant, who expects me to talk to you about … other matters.’
Power inclined his head, smiled again. ‘Of course, Mr Monsarrat. The commandant’s indulgence is not a thing one wishes to take for granted. Now, there is still the matter of me having only one chair. I used to have more, you know. That was when people were allowed to come and sit with me. Mrs Mulrooney, if I were to bring the chair outside, would you consent to sit in it?’
Mrs Mulrooney still looked stern, with all of the diffidence of somebody being asked for a favour they would rather not give. She looked into Power’s sitting room, and frowned. ‘Are you sure you can spare it, Mr Power? You may soon be without a desk, as it will surely collapse underneath all those papers.’
Power clapped his hands as though Mrs Mulrooney had just paid him an extravagant compliment. He darted inside, came back with the chair, which he set on the cottage’s small stone veranda, near
‘You can be our queen, and we shall be the acolytes at your feet,’ said Power, smiling as he put the chair in place and gently eased himself down onto one of the steps. Mrs Mulrooney glanced in Monsarrat’s direction, rolled her eyes, seemingly not caring whether Power saw her.
‘Before we get started,’ said Power, ‘May I ask, what prompted you to bring this marvellous woman here, Mr Monsarrat?’
‘Mrs Mulrooney is my housekeeper. And a woman of significant wisdom, whose opinions I value.’
‘Not that it’s any of your concern,’ said Mrs Mulrooney. ‘I might be the Queen of England and you would not have the right to ask.’
‘Ah, your housekeeper,’ Power said. ‘Yes, I have heard of arrangements such as this one.’
Mrs Mulrooney looked down at him from her seat. ‘I’m sure you mean arrangements where someone makes tea, sweeps out the grate.’
Power cleared his throat. ‘Of course. Forgive me. Do you know, since my movement was restricted – no more long rambles over the hills – it has played havoc with my imagination and on occasion I see things which aren’t there. It’s the stress of no longer being able to pretend that I am free, even if I could do so only by walking far enough not to be able to see Darlington.’
‘It is forgotten,’ said Monsarrat, although the expression on Mrs Mulrooney’s face indicated that it never would be.
‘Kind of you. Now, I’m presuming that you would like to discuss the murder of our unfortunate bosun.’
‘Yes. However, the most pressing issue at present is your relationship with Walter.’
Power looked startled but recovered himself quickly. ‘Walter Gendron?’ he said.
‘And is this island so lousy with Walters that you need to clarify his surname?’ Mrs Mulrooney said.
Monsarrat decided not to look at her, for fear of another eye roll, but if she was going to make her dislike so apparent, he may need to find an urgent errand for her.
‘Yes,’ said Monsarrat. ‘I am sure you, of all people, know what a crucible for gossip a small penal settlement is.’
The Power Game by Thomas Keneally / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes