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page 175


"There's a kind of vulgar lust in us all," said Bevis, strolling with Humphrey and Sigurd, "which can be satisfied only by this sort of thing."

He snuffed up the good homely smells of dried grass and heated horses, of stale spirits and meat sandwiches and bullocks and sweating men crowding about the punters who shouted their wares from gigs and tip-drays. He stopped to listen to the plump goodwives in stuff shortgowns and huge bonnets who in loud voices were discussing intimate matters; and had a word for Chrissy and Golly on the arms of Alsode Fremp, who was feeding them with liquorice.

"In this way one can study humanity without having to suffer its limitations," he said. But Humphrey, rubbing up his hot face with hotter hands, wouldn't agree to that.

"You can't study humanity unless you suffer with it. What do you really know about all that lot, for instance?"

They halted under a gum tree creamy-white with blossoms, to look back at the wagon where Henny and her blowsy female companions were camped with a handful of government men whose masters had allowed them by special favour to come to a public meeting. The two military police, like Shem and Ham in scarlet tunics, white trousers, and flat straw hats, walked by the wagon several times with sharp glances; but the men lay lazy in the sun, chewing nuggets of the best Virginia begged from the gentry, and the women sat up decently against the wagon wheels, drinking very politely in their turn from black bottles.

"You could study Henny all day and you'd know nothing of her," said Humphrey. He looked a little awed. "My Heaven! With convicts I always think what a whole ghastly world they know that we couldn't even dream of in nightmares."

To Henny the world was no nightmare now. She had come through it. She had been pretty at a time when even plain women were much sought after in the colony, and by the time that power had left her she had gained others. In this underground world she stood for infinitely more than the police could find out, whatever they guessed, and there were caves back in the page 176hills behind her hut that were full of unsuspected treasure yet. Collins had a heap of booty there when he made a mistake in sticking up Sylvester and ran his neck into the noose which finished most of them. She could have done a lot for that harnsome young painter who wanted to rouse the country. He could a'done it at that time, with her behind him. For the fiftieth time she asked: "Don't any one know what happened that theer Snow?"

But none knew nor cared. He had made no splash as Rocky Wheelan had, before they turned him off. And bush-ranging was not worth it now, they told Henny, with conditions improving all the time. Better run straight and get your ticket, be a free man.

"No guts left in the lot on yer," said Henny. "Rocky were the larst wi' guts. He did it proper. Ah, an' swung proper fur it, too."

A little man in a red nightcap gained some attention through having ridden for a while with Rocky, that Nero who slew old and young for the joy of it, and had been hanged at Hobart Town the year before. "Seen 'em hang seven blarsted blokes on the ole gallers, pokin' above the Pen," declared Barcelona Mike. "A tight fit fur seven, but I've heard as it were main comftubble fur six."

They laughed. Herein lay their native jests. A groom in corduroys and highlows turned his straw, saying: "They 'ung Rocky a bit forrarder back to the jail, but Hi seen 'im kickin' agin the sky. Hi were there."

"D'ye mind the auld gallows on New Town Hill?" asked a gentle Scotch shepherd. "It wadna be used in oor time, but when we were camped near by the wee chainies wud clank the nicht lang, and niver a stir o' wind."

A burly Northcountryman told a yarn in the unprintable prison slang. He reached a thick arm and drew his wife near, a scrap of a creature in a drab gown and big black stuff bonnet. "Aw reet, Betsy lass…. I been dustin' o' her jacket for she," he explained to the company. "But I got 'ee some black 'ile from the chimist for't. Eh, domned but I did."

Betsy wriggled her beaten back against him and grinned. And the young groom, moved thereby to his own amour, sought page 177Molly Hempson's hand and held it. There was a pause with the hot peace welling about them.

"Better'n the hulks, lass," murmured the Northcountryman.

"Yon's a pratty maid," said one, jerking a thumb as Jenny went by with Mab and Humphrey. Henny grunted. Then grinned. "Her name ain't Julia, though," she said. Had that wild Muster Mab ever shown Lady Berry the name Snow pricked on his breast, she wondered wickedly as she rose up her gaunt height and straightened her crazy bonnet. "Mebbe I'll go round and tell a fortune or two." She twitched her features into a cozening smile. "Cross me hand wiv silver, pretty genelmun, an' I'll tell ye …"

The men laughed. Molly said as she ambled off: "The old mare'll do the blarstedest things to fill her nose-bag…. Dave, I'll guv yer one on the nob if yer do that again."