Read The Ghost of Waterloo Online
Authors: Robin Adair
The Ghost of Waterloo
Veteran Sydney journalist Robin Adair has had a wide and colourful career at the
Australian Financial Review
and the ABC. For many years he reflected on the lighter side of life in a humorous column for the
Australian Women’s Weekly
. He has been a lifelong student of early colonial history, especially police, pubs, crime and punishment. One of his ancestors was an early Sydney police superintendent; he believes another was a London judge who sent many convicts to Australia. His first novel,
Death and the Running Patterer
, won the inaugural Penguin’s Most Wanted competition for new Australian crime fiction.
For my daughters, Kristin and Sherry.
And for my favourite Brian, not O’Bannion, but my brother.
An Intriguing Murder Mystery
an imprint of
And, after all, what is a lie? ’Tis but
The truth in masquerade…
– Lord Byron, ‘Don Juan’ (1819–24)
The Principal Players
Nicodemus Dunne* – his gaol-time almost up, the news-hawking ex-policeman tackles mass murder – and the devil!
Brian O’Bannion* – an Irish paroled prisoner, at peace with the world; and his brother…
Cornelius O’Bannion* – a man eager to serve new-found friends.
Governor Ralph Darling – forget the French and the Irish: the coffee here is even more revolting!
Captain Francis Nicholas Rossi – British to the bootstraps. Or is he a secret Corsican ‘brother’?
John Macarthur – rich and ruthless: a bad man to cross.
The Reverend Samuel Marsden – the unforgiving ‘Flogging Parson’, throwing his weight around as usual.
William King – the Flying Pieman: remittance man, scholar, pedlar, champion athlete.
Josiah Bagley* – a secret he’s nursed for ten years could be the death of him.
Obadiah Dawks* – garrulous journalist whose last scoop is deadly dangerous.
The Reverend Laurence Hynes Halloran – his knowledge of Nelson pays off.
Dr Thomas Owens* – as ever, up to his armpits in gore and clever clues.
Barnett Levey – impresario in the Governor’s bad books.
Miss Susannah Hathaway* – a much-travelled songbird who Yanks at heartstrings (and battles an axis of evil).
Signor Cesare Bello* – a castrato, but he hits an all-time low.
Munito – the talking dog: either a genius or barking mad. His master is…
Dominic Keynes* – a man trying to escape old habits.
James Dingle, Thomas Turner, ‘Sudden Solomon’ Blackstone,
George Farrell, John Creighton and Valentine Rourke – robbers with a robust view on making bank withdrawals.
THE MONEY MEN
Samuel Terry – the ex-con with the most money.
Thomas McVitie – who receives no applause for his bank’s balancing act.
Joseph Hyde Potts – another banker, who sees the hole in his rival’s figures.
MEN ABOUT TOWN
Captain Fiddle* – a good soldier who couldn’t help turning a blind eye.
Thomas Hughes – an out-of-work hangman, for whom no noose isn’t good news.
Alexander Harris – old soldier who helps keep Dunne in one piece.
Billy Blue – the famous harbour ferryman, who takes the Patterer for a ride.
Bungaree – a ‘King’, steering a path between his two realms, black and white.
John Shan* – a market gardener; in the great manure debate, he would not accept a point of ordure.
Mr William Balcombe, his wife, Jane, and the next generation – friends with the Emperor on St Helena.
THE OTHER LADIES, BLESS ’EM
Norah Robinson* – it’s a worry when her husband interrupts her amorous secret life.
Mrs Elizabeth Macarthur – with a friend like John, who needs enemas?
Prosper Mendoza* – a cliffhanger: did he fall or was he pushed?
And, of course, Napoleon Bonaparte – is he a memory, a phantom or alive and kicking?
are imaginary; other principals are real people, who would hopefully forgive some liberties taken with their lusty actual lives.
Sydney, Australia – Spring, 1828
O, that a man might know
The end of this day’s business, ere it come!
But it sufficeth, that the day will end,
And then the end is known.
– William Shakespeare,
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’
No, those words had an agreeable ring, but would not quite serve. Very well, how about ‘It had been the worst of days and the best of nights’? Nicodemus Dunne nodded to himself as he walked to his home and his bed along a George Street lit by a moon that peered fitfully between scudding clouds.
was a telling phrase, Dunne was pleased to acknowledge (banishing any false modesty), a stirring sentiment he could well adapt to announce his regular public readings of daily news in his role as the convict colony’s Running Patterer.
He sighed. What a pity he was 16000 miles from home and England – civilisation would probably never hear such fine words. And his self-satisfaction was completely shattered as he stumbled over a rock lurking in the poor light.
some street lamps, and the taverns – of which there were scores – had orders to hang lanterns at their doors, but too many streets were too frequently dark, the whale oil often stolen from their lamps. Only one lamp, at a Pitt Street shop, was lit, after the new fashion in London, by coal gas. This amorphous fuel was of no interest to thieves. The Patterer knew, however, that a certain senior soldier of the town believed gas could power an aerial machine!
He cast his mind back. The worst of the daytime just departed had not been taking pennies and small silver in return for passing on distasteful and depressing intelligence about brutal bull-baiting at Brickfield village, or the calamitous drought, or a deadly pneumonic epidemic, or drunken rioting, or duels and robbery.
No, the saddest part had been having to describe the execution of a soldier from the 39th Regiment. The garrison private had discharged his piece at a sergeant. No one seemed to know why: the soldier’s jaw had been broken when he was being subdued and he could not read or write a reason.
The sergeant was unharmed but the sentence was still death by firing squad. This had puzzled the Patterer; being shot to death was an unusual punishment – here soldiers guilty of capital crimes were usually hanged, like civilians.
The condemned man’s company had paraded to witness the killing. The six brothers-in-arms chosen by ballot could not miss as they faced him at dawn on the green sward at Lieutenant Dawes’ Point. They stood within the effective accurate range of their Brown Bess muskets – fifty yards – and the orders rang out: ‘Load!’ and ‘Present!’ With the erratic Brown Bess there was no order in the manual of arms for ‘Aim!’ In battle its effectiveness relied on devastating rolling volleys.
Perhaps the prisoner had had time, before he was blindfolded, to take a last look across Sydney Cove towards the sea that had carried him to this foreign fate. He certainly would have seen the open coffin beside the freshly dug grave at his feet.
He had struggled and made strangled cries until the last order came: ‘Fire!’
The band played the soldiers back to barracks in the heart of town. The fifes and drums were part of the rules of punishment. But then some bitter comrades began to chant their own version of an old ballad:
Let me have length
and breadth enough,
And under my head a sod;
That they may say
When I am dead,
A sojer’s gone to God.
‘Pick it up. Close up. Shut up!’ shouted a sergeant. ‘Or yer backs get scratched!’ By which he meant flogged.
The men fell silent. Their thoughts turned to another ritual, to come after the evening stew. It was called ‘settlement’, at which the dead man’s possessions would be auctioned, including his woman, if she agreed. But perhaps no one wanted her, in which case she might have to cook, sew or launder (at a penny a pound weight, dry) for single men. Or become a prostitute. There were few options for a camp follower without her soldier. The proceeds of the auction would never amount to much for either messmates or ‘widow’.
The Patterer’s thoughts had been otherwise as he left the killing field. Beyond his stark memory of the savagery of the shooting, he was still naggingly puzzled by the odd method of dispatch. This had not faded completely, even as the echoes of the musket fire and of the carpenter nailing down the coffin lid had died away.