Maria Island, off the east coast of Van Diemen’s Land
Bart Harefield loved laughing at them. The ones who thought they had power. The ones who alighted from his boat without a nod or a glance. They were the ones who felt the carefully woven skein of half-truths tighten around them, choking their air of respect and reputation.
They did not know why it happened. They put it down to happenstance, a misunderstood word here or an odd look there. Then they stepped again onto the boat without any idea the agent of their downfall was piloting them over the pitted grey water. The officer sent away for a reputed affair with the daughter of an overseer. The reverend replaced thanks to rumours of his over-enthusiasm for a soprano in the convict women’s choir.
Harefield was particularly proud of his latest triumph: the commissary dismissed when the amount of rice and flour in the stores did not match the inventory. No one thought to look under the floorboards of the bosun’s hut for the missing supplies. And all it had taken was a whisper, which Harefield delivered to the Hatter along with a threat to withdraw supplies of contraband rum, a low mutter in the vicinity of a person known for gossip, a quick glance to check they weren’t being overheard.
None of them, from the commandant down, realised how completely they belonged to Harefield. He was the only person on Maria Island who could guide the little cutter through the sea’s worst moods, through scudding clouds and squalls, so that people and goods were able to continue passing between Maria and the larger island of Van Diemen’s Land it hung off.
With Harefield, things got done. Goods delivered, information traded, rumours started. Even better when the rumours were true, and profitable. Harefield kept quiet about the convicts he ferried over from the island to work on the commandant’s house in Orford, when the King would be expecting them to be working on roads and reservoirs. He would continue to keep the secret until it suited him to do otherwise.
On days like yesterday, though – when the wind stood the waves up in serried ranks and dared a sailor to try to smash through them – even a brave sailor like Harefield knew to stay in port, temporarily silencing the murmurings with which he crossed the water.
Harefield could read the sea. He had grown up on it. A boy with straggly hair and missing teeth grown to a wiry, pinched man whose childhood beatings had pushed him to master an element that was indifferent to force. He was no fool. And he would not be thanked for the loss of the small government cutter if he put to sea recklessly. The loss of a bosun was less of a problem. Flesh and muscle were easier to come by here than good timber and flax.
Those times he was stuck idle on the mainland because of maritime conditions could get dull – unless you had some reading. Harefield’s favourite cargo was letters. Most were mundane. They started and ended with ridiculous obsequiousness: ‘I have the honour to inform you’ and ‘your most obedient servant’. How any man could style himself thus, and remain standing upright from lack of hilarity, Harefield had no idea.
He forced himself to read them, though. Occasionally his persistence was rewarded. In recent times there had been one letter in particular. He’d been so entranced as he read it that he tipped his tallow candle over the page a little too far, sending a fat wax droplet onto it. It irritated him because he liked things clean. But it didn’t really matter. The intended recipient knew the letter had been read because Harefield himself had answered it.
On a piece of old parchment, he had scrawled: ‘I was very interested to hear of your plans. I believe those in authority would be even more so. I imagine they will also be fascinated to hear about a certain relationship that many would consider inappropriate. You may, if you wish, buy my silence, but I’m not certain you can afford it.’
Today the wind was a little less wild and abeam than it had been the night before, and Harefield decided to set out on the five miles of water between Triabunna and Maria Island.
The wind had brought with it a blinding rain, which saw him nearly tipped into the ocean as he was trying to tie up to the dock on his arrival. That simpleton was standing there and made no move towards him, did not reach a hand down to help Harefield up the slippery ladder. ‘Too much to hope you’ve come to help,’ Harefield snapped, as if the fool was even capable of it. ‘I thought I’d come down and see the storm,’ stuttered Walter, almost backing into the ocean.
‘Well, I hope it devours you and leaves the rest of us alone. At least then you’ll be of some use,’ said Harefield, carrying a sack of letters up towards the commissary.
He delivered them only after having secreted the most interesting-looking. Then he went back to the dock, telling himself it was too much to hope for that the halfwit had unloaded the rest of the goods from the boat.
Perhaps the man had a small amount of sense, as he was no longer on the dock. Harefield decided that one of the bottles of rum, which was to go to the Hatter and from there to those who were thirsty among the convicts, should instead accompany him to his hut.
The rum was rather too pleasant, and Harefield woke as the sun was beginning to sink, sitting upright and panting from the remnants of an already forgotten nightmare. He pulled on his coat and went back to the dock, to check that the boat had not been dashed against it.
Lieutenant Holloway intercepted him. Harefield had nothing on this one, not yet – a man who wore propriety like a corset, stiff with judgemental efficiency. Might be worthwhile making something up, though. Especially given the pursed lips and lifted chin with which Holloway communicated his distaste for the ragged boatman sodden with sea water.
Holloway was leaving the outbuilding the commandant used as an office. ‘Harefield, you are going to the light, yes?’ he asked.
As well as keeping the penal station supplied, Bart Harefield was responsible for a small light on an outcrop near the island’s chief inlet, Darlington Bay. Whales liked to frequent these waters, and as a result so did whalers. It wouldn’t do to have one sail directly into one of the island’s striated cliffs; nor, since some were Yankee whalers, to bring the taint of Yankee republicanism too close to the convict station.
‘It would be a difficult trip now, lieutenant,’ said Harefield.
‘Not the weather for it.’
‘Of course it’s not the bloody weather for it! That’s why we need it lit. If I do not see a glimmer from the headland within an hour, I may decide to visit your hut, see what I find there. I know that the commandant is myopic when it comes to some of your activities, but I assure you I am not.’
Holloway didn’t see the glare Harefield gave him from under the sodden felt brim of his hat. He turned, went to his hut to get rags and oil, and started the long trudge to the painted cliffs.
The light was housed in a square box of glass lenses designed to magnify passing shipping. This apparatus sat high, on top of a rickety latticework structure so it could be seen from as great a distance as possible. It required a long ladder to ascend, and a steady head to lean out and insert your hand through the base to coax the lamp into lighting.
The clouds were allowing only a glimmer of sun to seep through to the surface of the grey sea, and even that small ration had dwindled as the afternoon had worn on.
Halfway up the ladder Harefield heard a voice calling his name. He looked down, unable to resist a grin when desperation stared back at him from a familiar face. Desperate people were lucrative. This one, though, would have to wait.
He hauled himself up the ladder bit by bit. But the wind must’ve been stronger than he thought, for the ladder wobbled. He cursed, gripped onto the light’s frame. It didn’t help. The ladder shifted again and again.
When he looked down, he saw that the wind wasn’t responsible. The expression on the face looking up at him was grim now, perhaps a little frightened, but resolved. And the brows were drawn together in concentration as the hands around the ladder pulled again.
Finally it lost contact with the light’s frame and came plummeting down, with Harefield on it. The impact of hitting the ground knocked the breath out of him, and a snap accompanied by a jolt of pain told him that something had broken. But no one would be allowed to pull him down like that, not with impunity. He staggered to his feet, realising as he put weight on his right ankle that it had made the noise, but determined to give an answer for the insult.
He knew he must be careful in this low light if there was to be a scuffle. The cliff edge was very near and did not announce itself. His attacker, he saw now, was holding an axe. It was down, though, at the end of a slack arm that was having trouble lifting it. There was no delaying – Harefield knew that hesitation was death.
He lunged, knocking his attacker to the ground, falling heavy on the arm with the axe in it, sending the weapon flying. Grinning as a pleasant prospect suddenly occurred to him. Before he could take things further, though, he heard movement behind him. He turned his head and saw the flash of a bright line of metal, the edge of the rusted axe as it was hoisted – not as well as he would have done it, but well enough to be effective – and arced down towards him. He feared the edge was aimed for his throat and ducked, only to receive a blow on his shoulder. He felt such huge and deep pain that he tried to appease the person with the axe, wanted to utter an assurance that whatever grudge there was, he would attend to it. ‘Leave my head,’ he tried to say. He was shaken out of speech by two other great blows, and had an impulse to shout, ‘That’s not a square way to behave.’
But before he could even gurgle out the words, a final blow split his shoulder. By the time he hit the vicious rocks below the cliff top, he was well and truly dead.
Later, a convict sent by Holloway spotted Harefield’s body, which looked to be the victim of a fall. Only when a party had worked their way around to the cliff’s base was it found that the bosun’s right arm hung by a filament of flesh, that there were deep axe wounds in his shoulders, and that he had already been dead for several hours.