Crouched over the great red fire of gum logs crackling half-way up the chimney, Henny was being very sulky with her guests. Robert Snow would have her in trouble yet over this business of Mr. Comyn, and so she had told him last night. "I said I wouldn't have you harm Comyn," she had told him. "Any more o't and I peaches on yer. So now yer knows." But Robert Snow had looked at her with his still eyes and his small crooked smile, and clinked a few gold pieces in his hand, and … well, an old woman has to live, and there was no money in the lot who came to the road-house now. Besides, it was her pride that she had never yet peached on a client.
A poor lot who patronized her now. Terrible, she thought them, unguessing that they thought her terrible, too. No more they came to Henny's, the lusty young stockmen and shearers and bullockies. They were all grown too proud. All over the colonies now many whom the system had set free were slowly making good, working out the taint, building up their triumphs out of their tragedies. Henny's patrons were the old lags in these days. Bleared grey-headed derelicts which the country had finally cast out. For years they and their kind had hampered her; but now, authors of her being although they were, she had her foot on them at last. They were the homeless ones, the irredeemables; tramping the Main Road, men and women together; lying together at night in such foul-smelling hovels as Henny's.
Huddled in the warmth, they mumbled their smutty stories in the half-forgotten slang of the prisons, or dozed about the fire in the harsh smoke of square-fig tobacco and the stale odour of dirty bodies and the sharp reek of overproof spirits. Henny regarded them sourly. No gentlemen come to buy a dog of a well-set-up stockman now. Only red nightcaps on grizzled hair; only old Stony's toothless mouth dropping; only Betty Harker's page 299battered and mincing face decked about with ragged feathers and scraps of torn ribbon.
The glory of her road-house was departed, she forlornly felt; and then heard at her door the step that was not the dragging step of discouraged age, heard a voice that was a gentleman's voice although it was not Snow's. Never did she want to see that Snow again, him that shot at Comyn who never did harm to no man. But when Brevis came lightly in, kicking damp fern mould from his riding-boots, nodding to one another, stretching his hands to the fire as he smiled his dark fine smile at Henny, she felt a sudden sickening of her whole body. Everyone knew young Mr. Keyes who did things with the law and was so clever he could have her into Port Arthur yet if he liked. And everyone knew that he had been hurt when Snow's Gang got the Comyn gold.
But as the one-time favourite of long-dead gallant gentlemen Henny met this gentleman bravely, croaking welcome under her moth-eaten bonnet.
"A stranger yer've been to one as allers wished yer well, Mr. Brevis, dear. Take a sip o' suthin' warm, honey. Ah, t'ain't much old Henny's got to offer yer now. All the gels is gone, huntin' suthin' better than these ole lags. But I got a drop 0' fine sperrit yet."
"That's good. Drinks all round, Henny." Brevis pulled up a stool and put his boot-soles to the fire. "So old Braxey's gone, Henny?"
"Ah. Unwoun' his sins, he did, till thar warn't none left. 'That's done at larst,' he said, an' went out like a cannle. The saints come fur him, I reckon. He were a good man."
"Just so. Do you know if he had any relatives, Henny? There's money waiting for them. Left by someone he once worked for."
The fish snapped exactly as Brevis had expected. Henny's rapacious eyes gleamed. "Well, my love, I wun't deceive yer. Ole Braxey he were my brother."
"Really? Now, that is going to save me much trouble. You won't object to coming down to Trienna court-house next Thursday, will you? A few formalities to be gone through before paying it over, you know."
She objected with terrified violence, and this he had also page 300expected. He pushed the logs with his toe, pretending to consider. "I might manage to arrange it, if … but they can't harm you, you know. They have already asked you about Snow's Gang, haven't they?"
"Hundreds of 'em. And I don't know nothin'. I swear I don't know nothin'," she repeated, thrusting the cranky bonnet back on her grizzled locks and staring at him.
"They were fools if they expected you to sell him … or anyone. Never sold a pal in your life, did you, Henny?"
"Never did, s'elp me Gord. Ah, I'd be a rich woman now if I had!"
"But surely they shared with you, didn't they?"
His innocence disarmed her. Besides, this was a life-grievance.
"Mighty poor pickin's I ever had from ary one of em, and so I tell yer, Mr. Keyes, sir. An' all that stuff Collins had hid in the caves back there an' went off to be hung never tellin' me, an' though I've looked an' looked …" Caution returned suddenly, although Brevis was merely poking idly at the fire with a stick. "I never been in no caves," she muttered. "I was jest talkin'."
"Well, that was too bad of them. But if you won't come to the court-house I don't know what I can do to make you more comfortable." He flashed a sudden smile at her. "I'd like to get you that money of Braxey's, too. Since he's gone, it is certainly yours as I see it."
She twisted her withered hands together; lifted one to pluck nervously at her withered throat.
"I could do w'it. I could do wi't fine. I'm near clemmed, times. But I ain't never sold a pal yet. Dun't ask me to do it, Mr. Keyes, sir, fur I'm almighty damned if I ever will."
Her bleared old eyes had another look now. Loyalty. Honour among thieves. Pride…. What a hound I am, thought Brevis, proceeding to tangle her dazed brain in sophistries.
"Don't we all know that? There was Mr. Sorley's reward, and a dozen behind that; and you'd sooner starve than touch them. A great record, Henny. I doubt if there's another in the country one could say it of."
After so many years of being cursed by those she served, Henny was not proof against this. She glanced round hastily, but all her page 301ancient patrons were drowsed into slumber over the drink and the fire. Then in a fervent patter larded with prison slang she let Brevis into the secrets of an amazing life, brutal, terrible, and yet strangely streaked with light, for through it all ran her Thief's Litany: But I ain't never sold a pal yet. No, quite clearly she never had, although they had battened on her, bullied her, neglected her, these lawless ruffians who had been content to leave their lives in her hand. No, not even now, although she cursed Snow for shooting Mab Comyn, although it had come nearly to a choice between betraying him and going "on the road." "I dun't wan' to die on the road, Mr. Brevis. Not unner a haystack, I dun't. But the stockin's main empty these days."
A gallant old sinner, Henny; but Brevis was here with his mother-wit and his youthful cruelty to make her false to her creed at the last. He led up to it by skilful sympathies, careless questions. Then: "Well, I try to get Braxey's money for you, Henny. But it will take time and expense. I'd like you just to tell me where those caves are so that we might discover Collins's cache. You know he stole valuable jewels and things from most of the big houses."
"I been up an' looked dozens o' nights, Mr. Brevis, but I never carn't find nothin'."
"Good Lord! They must be quite close," thought Brevis. "Well, suppose we go up and have a look to-night, Henny."
"No, no. Not to-night. To-morrer … or maybe next night."
"Snow's there," thought Brevis. "Why not to-night, Henny? It only takes about half an hour, you know."
"Na, na. Near an hour wi' these ole legs. The stones in the watercourse is main bad, though the hosses go up a'reet. An' there's that bog at the top where the spring makes 'i the ferns, an' then down t'rough the water inside …" She stopped, her face suddenly gone wild. "I've told yer! Dom yer bloody eyes; I've told yer!"
"Well," he said easily, "and what if you have? Collins don't want his cache any more, and if you and I find anything I'll see that you get something out of it. I'll be back on Friday night if you can take me then. Will that be all right?"
He saw her consider, her old jaws munching together, her page 302rheumy eyes restless…. She's wondering if she can get Snow away in time, the old bitch, he thought…. Then suddenly she laid her dirty crooked hand upon his knee.
"Mr. Keyes, sir, what I jes' tole yer … It ain't sellin' nobody, are it, seein' as I dun't take the reward?"
Her muddled old brain! Not clearly knowing what it was saying, but clinging still to one shred of honour! Brevis reassured her; but his face was burning and he could not look at her eyes. He had tricked her as he had tricked so many people, but he could not trick himself. This was one of the victories of which he would never be proud. He promised to be back on Friday night, and rode away through the dark twisting bush tracks to Trienna. He knew the place now. They would all know it. They had all seen the stream that ran back from the bog into the hill. But it was a desperate man who first thought of riding down that dark watery gut. Bushmen might have done it, but it would be to their interest to keep quiet in case they some day needed the shelter themselves. Police and military had neither the soul nor the skill of bushmen.
By George, it's not a place to storm, he thought, putting his horse to a gallop along the Main Road. They could pick us off one by one. But because Henny would certainly go dragging her faithful old weary body up there at once, Brevis must have the place surrounded if possible within the hour…. I wonder what Snow will do to Henny. Probably shoot her, he thought, and pulled up before the red blank face of Trienna Barracks.