- Published: 5 March 2019
- ISBN: 9780143790303
- Imprint: Vintage Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
The Ink Stain
Book 4, The Monsarrat Series
‘What’s it for this time, Mr Hallward? Trespassing again?’
As the chief warden of Sydney’s George Street Gaol, it was a question Frank Gleeson rarely needed to ask – he did not get many return visitors.
‘No, Frank. Trespassing was last time – at the church, remember? We’re back to criminal libel now.’
The prison stones gave Hallward’s deep voice a rumbling, ominous sound. The place had better acoustics than St Paul’s Cathedral. Frank should know – he’d heard enough moans bounce off the walls in his time as warden. He found it interesting that here, where the primary walls of the vast colonial penal system were made of water and wilderness, the stones still reproduced some of the echo, bulk and menace of a prison in the British counties.
Hallward, though, was an unusual prisoner. He was not a moaner. He was too busy writing. He was also one of Frank’s more frequent guests.
Frank was not above providing some additional comforts in exchange for a fee. He considered himself a practical warden. To those who robbed in the dead of night or forced themselves on women or stabbed rusty daggers into their friends, he gave nuggetty bread and brackish water and the occasional kick in the ribs. But to those who had done no more than stab a piece of paper with a pen – well, no harm in being lenient. Especially when they could pay.
They all, though, paid more than Hallward. Not that he knew it. Frank wanted to keep Hallward writing, so he charged him just enough to cover expenses, and let the man believe he was being genially swindled. At this remove from the British Parliament, the governor had the power of a king. There was no voting here, even for landowners; no boroughs, even rotten ones. The only voice people like Frank had came out of the mouths of people like Hallward.
‘Two shillings, then,’ said Frank.
Hallward looked up from the desk, which was covered in neat stacks of paper. Probably the finest item ever seen in this cell, the desk stood like a fantastical island in the middle of the grey ooze, the bare splintered boards, and the high, barred and grimed windows. During Hallward’s first few incarcerations he had paid handsomely to rent a desk, and Frank had procured him a new one each time. Now Frank kept just this one in a storeroom, knowing it would be needed again before long.
‘Price has gone up,’ said Hallward.
‘Risk has gone up. And the cost of bread. You know this yourself, champion of the common man that you are.’
Hallward chuckled, shaking his head. ‘I cannot fault your enterprising nature, Frank. Although many might charge more. As you say, the risk . . .’
‘Is worth it. Not all of us have friends in Government House. We need someone to speak for us.’
‘I don’t believe I’ve any friends at Government House either. The look on that charlatan Duchamp’s face when he poked his head into my cell could’ve curdled milk.’
‘I wish I could have given you some warning, but he arrived unannounced.’
‘The question is, why. But a question for another day. All right then. As soon as I’m out. You know I’m good for it. Peter – the new copyboy, you’ve not met him – will be here to collect all this while I’m in court.’
‘And it will be in tomorrow’s paper?’
‘If I’m allowed to continue writing it,’ Hallward said.
‘Is it something that might land you back in here?’
‘Or ensure I’ll never be back here again. Can’t tell you this time, Frank, sorry.’
‘You can trust me, though! You told me about the break-in story, the one you fought the duel over, and I didn’t breathe a word.’
‘I know, I know. But this one – I can feel the heat coming off it. It will cut that bastard Darling’s administration from neck to crotch. The information in these pages, Frank, is far more dangerous than any musket ball. I would not want to put you at undue risk.’
Frank looked nervously around and peered out the door to make sure Crowdy wasn’t listening. His deputy warden, a self-righteous man, was prone to eavesdropping. It would be a great risk to refer to the governor in such crass terms around Crowdy, even for an inveterate upsetter of applecarts like Hallward.
Crowdy couldn’t have heard, though, because Frank saw him now, walking down the long hallway towards the cell.
‘Time, is it?’ said Frank, when Crowdy arrived. ‘Already?’
‘According to the clock it is. You cannot argue with a clock,’ said Crowdy.
Frank shook his head. ‘I’m getting as bad as the inmates. They constantly moan that time loses meaning here. But they say it drags, not gallops, and the sun wasn’t yet in the corner of the yard when I came in.’
‘Well, no matter where the sun is, the cart’s here,’ said Crowdy. He looked at the desk, then at some chicken bones on a plate on the floor – the remains of Hallward’s most recent meal – and scowled. ‘Criminals are criminals,’ he said to Frank, ‘whatever weapon they use to commit their crime.’
‘I’ll sheath my weapon for now,’ said Hallward. He made a great show of stacking his papers, fastidiously smoothing their edges and risking a glance at Frank as he placed them in a drawer.
‘More sedition?’ Crowdy asked.
‘Not a bit of it. Letters to my parents. A few final demands to advertisers who have been less than prompt with their payments – the patent tonic people are the worst.’
Crowdy stepped forward, holding out a hand from which manacles dangled.
‘Surely not necessary, in this case,’ said Frank.
‘His Excellency was willing to chain soldiers who had fought for Britain,’ said Crowdy. ‘Don’t think he’d approve of leaving this one with his hands free.’
Hallward shrugged, putting his hands out for the manacles. ‘Must follow processes. Like a good soldier.’
Crowdy placed a rough hand on Hallward’s shoulder and shoved him towards the door. ‘You coming?’ Crowdy asked Frank.
‘In a minute. This one’s wily, so I’ll search the cell for contraband.’
Crowdy nodded, propelled Hallward through the cell door. When a prisoner’s hands were bound, Crowdy liked to make their owners move so fast that they risked tripping with no way to break their fall.
Frank waited for Crowdy’s and Hallward’s footsteps to recede, withdrew the papers from the desk drawer and stuffed them in his shirt. He would have to think of a pretext to stay behind and send Crowdy to guard Hallward in his place. Hallward had entrusted him with the documents in good faith, and when it came to faith, a career of speaking for the downtrodden – not to mention two shillings a day – bought a lot of it.
By the time Frank got outside, Crowdy was unlocking the prison cart. He was having a little trouble with the padlock given that he still had one hand on Hallward’s arm, although the prisoner was showing no signs of wishing to flee. Frank guessed that he did not want to provide entertainment for the inhabitants of the buildings that overlooked the prison yard.
‘You think he’s going to grow wings?’ Frank asked Crowdy. ‘Give it here.’
He had to admit that even with both hands, wrestling the padlock into submission was no easy task. The blasted thing was becoming increasingly disagreeable in protest at being rained on and infiltrated by the salty ocean breeze.
If Frank had managed to open the door a few seconds earlier, it might not have happened.
The crack of the shot, the shock of the disturbed air, sent Frank stumbling backwards to the ground. His skull connected with a rock. He shook his head to clear the encroaching fog, rubbed his eyes, and put his hand down into a puddle – odd, as it hadn’t rained for a week.
Odd, too, that the puddle was bright red, and even odder that this liquid was flowing from the ruined forehead of Henry Hallward. His hands, free or not, would have been useless in breaking this particular fall.
Frank was not the only one who stumbled at the shot. A boy, skirting the outer wall of the prison, jumped and landed awkwardly on a turned ankle. He leaned against the wall for a moment, listening to his breath gradually slow, looking at the sky as he often did when disturbed. The sky, at least, was free.
Between him and the blue was the open attic window of one of the taller houses that fringed the gaol. The window slowly began to close, but not before the boy saw a glint.
Others, he knew, thought of metal in terms of jewellery or finely wrought iron. But his short life in The Rocks had taught him that it more often took the form of a knife, or a gun.
By the time it occurred to him that someone would have to be there to close the window, and might have seen him in the process, he was already running.
At the time of the discovery of the astonishingly ancient Learned Man, some decades back, my friend Peter Jorgensen, a scientist from Melbourne, was testing dried lake basins and their sediments for records of ancient rainfall oscillations.
A long ocean voyage seems plentiful in small incidents at the time, but is remembered as a blur when it ends.
Sometimes I look at my dogs, their furry, clawy feet, their silly noses, their ridiculous tails, and I think, why?
Prologue Parramatta, November 1825 He really must do something about that door, he thought as he crossed the yard back to his quarters.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Her baby’s fingers look like small furled leaves and Louise lifts them to her lips to kiss.