The Unusual Suspects – Episode 11

© Andrew Joyner 2001
© Andrew Joyner 2001

It’s New Year’s Day, 1901. Our narrator, Charles Bennett, and his friends Victor Trumper and Stella (Miles) Franklin have learnt of a plot to destroy Federation by assassinating a top politician, blaming it on Henry Lawson and his republicans, and imposing a military dictatorship. A document revealing details of the plot is hidden somewhere in Sydney. Gazing at some mermaids on a float in the Federation Day parade, Charles is suddenly able to make sense of clues provided by a train inspector named Angus Bruce, who had been taken to the plotters’ headquarters. Charles takes up the story …



“It has to be the Customs House where Angus Bruce was taken,” I shouted to Victor and Stella.
“I’ll explain as we go.” I gasped out my deductions as we charged through crowds of excited revellers, all winding their way towards the celebrations at Centennial Park. With the challenges of police ringing in our ears, we dashed through the Grand Procession, weaving between a regiment of mounted soldiers and the brass band following it, under the Agricultural and Wheat Arch on Bridge Street and then left at the Wool Arch. “Clearly, when Angus awoke, he was inside one of the city’s illuminated buildings. He clambered out a window and saw two demon fish and smelt a sulfurous smell.

The fish are that new sculpture that has been put on the front of the Customs House, and the smell is the ferries and tugs leaving Circular Quay. The moans he heard from below were no doubt tugboats sounding their horns. I have no doubt that the nausea he felt came from chloroform administered by his companion, the hooded man. Bruce was made unconscious, his uniform stolen so that the mystery man could pose as an inspector and steal the document back from Stella on the train. Bruce was dumped at the Domain, to stop us realising where he had been.”

We were now at Customs House. We charged upwards, forcing our way against a river of people heading to the festivities. On the second floor we reached a small locked door, which Victor split from its hinges. The first thing I noted was a set of false whiskers on the floor – obviously one of the disguises used by the plot leader. Of the scoundrel himself there was no sign. Stella found the letter and code book wedged in the windowsill. Besides a list of the traitors’ names, it revealed that the target of the assassination was Mr Edmund Barton, it being felt that without him the Victorians would refuse to join the Federation. He was to be shot from a grassy knoll in Centennial Park, and Lawson, kidnapped and rendered drunk, would have a pistol planted in his pocket so he could be made to take the blame. We commandeered one of the horseless carriages on display in the parade and, like the hounds of Hades, we flew towards Centennial Park. My ears sang as it reached speeds in excess of 11 miles per hour. At the park, Victor cleared a path through the 400 children forming the choir. Mr Barton was just about to speak. I looked for the grassy knoll and saw a glint in the sun – a pistol barrel! A veiled matron with a large bustle was taking aim. I threw my hat like a dinner plate, striking the assassin’s knuckles and forcing the shot wide. It went unnoticed, for the Carbineers simultaneously fired a 21-gun salute.

To my right I saw crowds clear as a staggering, drunken Lawson crooned his way through a music hall number while brandishing a pistol. As Stella rushed to his aid, I gave chase to the “matron”, who was trying to escape to a waiting carriage. I wrestled “her” to the ground and pulled away the veil. Now I knew why the eyes had been familiar. I recognised the face from sketches. It was Cecil Rhodes! “You!” I snarled. “What are you doing out of Africa?” “Yes, me,” he replied. “I gave my life for the greater glory of Britain and she has snubbed me. Together, under my absolute command, Australia and South Africa can become greater than Great Britain. Join me, whoever you are. I will fill your house with diamonds and riches untold.” “Alas, Rhodes,” I replied. “The man who sells out his country will always be poor.” It was at that point that an angry Stella joined us. “So, you want to be a woman, do you?” She begin twisting Rhodes’s nether regions till he cried out in pain. Two years later he was dead of a heart problem. I have always suspected this incident was its genesis.

That this event has remained secret until now was the wish of Mr Barton. When made aware of the villainous plot, he returned Rhodes to South Africa with the quote “all Rhodes lead to home”. Barton had feared that a public trial could cripple our young country. In a mood of national reconciliation, he pardoned all the plotters. Poor Lawson was never aware that he might have gone down in our history as a John Wilkes Booth, understanding only that he had had one hell of a New Year’s Eve.

Trumper became an even greater legend. Stella and I became good friends, though she persisted in declining my offers of marriage. And today, I am as happy as I could wish. For though I have had to wait some 14 years, just this morning I enlisted to fight the Hun in this Great War. Apparently we will be sent to a place in the Dardanelles called Gallipoli. I’m sure it will be a most exciting adventure. I can hardly wait.

Copyright © 2000, 2001 Dave Warner, David Dale & The Sydney Morning Herald, All rights reserved.