The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August 1, 1935)
One Limited Night — Entertainments — Part III
The Banker, large of paunch and broad of shoulder, spoke slowly, punctuating his utterances with frequent pauses which lent them a certain dramatic effect.
“On the 29th of April each year,” said he, “I find myself sickening for an indisposition which will keep me from work for three days at least.
“Its early symptoms take the form of hallucinations; the figures in a ledger become blurred, grow wings and fly away—the pens in my inkstand wave about like reeds; and I am assailed with noises in the head like the banging of shotguns.
“I have become so used to this annual visitation that I do not attempt to combat it; but on arriving home look up the time of the first train which will take me to Te Rangi. This in itself is no more than a pleasant ritual (like taking hot whisky for a cold) because the train has always left at the same time and it is also part of the ritual, that arriving at the station I should see a number of other men of substance slipping through the gathering dusk. They are all a little furtive and carry extra large suitcases, which, while one knows they contain the dismembered portions of fowling pieces, are proclaimed by their bearers to be no more than the indispensable adjuncts to an urgent business trip to the South.
“However that may be, the odds are very much in favour of one's finding the same gentlemen the next morning in the breakfast room of the little Junction Hotel gulping down bacon and eggs before setting off to their respective haunts in the Marshes, where they will await the dawn of the glorious first in a mai-mai.
“I myself, as I have said, am always bound for Te Rangi; which is the home of my friend Dennis O'Brien. This is a fine property of 2,000 acres which lies beyond the rail-head at Taneatua, within sound of the mile-long surges of the Pacific Ocean. You come upon it quite suddenly in a turn of the road; a strip of bright green among the sombre masses of surrounding hills—warm red roofs half-hidden among orchard trees. There is a riotous welcome of barking dogs, two great red setters come bounding across the lawn, and in the air the sweet tang of tawa smoke.
“Dennis himself is a man of about forty, a genial giant, who, in addition to being a fine sportsman and a passionate lover of horses, has inherited much of the romanticism of his ancestors—factors which all but brought him to, and, in the end, saved him from obliteration, in the early days of the Great Depression!”
“Perhaps there is no better time at Te Rangi,” continued the Banker musingly, “than the close of an autumn day, when the horses are stabled and the sound of their munching and the occasional clink of a halter chain make sweet music in the pearly mist that comes creeping up from the dam.
“It is a time that should bring that infinite sense of peace and contentment which is born of a day's work well done—but to Dennis O'Brien as he stood at the harness room door, there was no peace, only bitterness and rancour, as he moodily surveyed the line of stalls and loose boxes, and gave rein to the weary round of his thoughts.
“All that he worked for during the past twenty years had slipped from him by the mere stroke of a pen. The rough pasture that had grown to rich paddocks under his loving care, the shelter trees he had planted and watched grow from foot high seedlings—the original where, which, added to bit by bit, had become a real home, rambling, full of odd corners, but beloved and worthy of the lady who lived therein. All these things were in danger because somebody was juggling with the price of produce—produce for which they had never worked and would scarcely recognise if they saw.
“And by way of consolation they had told him he had been foolhardy and improvident, they who had been most eager when times were good to accommodate him with a loan, and who now shook their heads lugubriously, saying:
“All those hunters and polo ponies, eating good corn and paying no rent—all those dogs—all the good-for-nothings who owe you money and instead of paying it come and sit and talk—drinking your whisky and smoking your tobacco until the larks spring out of the grass and the ducks on the dam go wheeling into the grey light of dawn. These things won't pay the interest on our loan!”
“And into not one of their meagre little souls,” said Dennis aloud, “can enter the joy that lives in the thunder of young hoofs or the clamour of the kennels on a frosty morning!”
“As though his uttered thoughts had taken concrete form, there broke out at this instant a frenzied barking from the kennels beneath the windbreak, an uproar which could only mean the presence of a stranger within the gates. Dennis, stepping into the stable-yard to where he could obtain a view of the drive-way, made out the figure of a man approaching—a man who, in the uncertain light appeared monstrous and misshapen.
“As he drew nearer, however, his deformity revealed itself as nothing more than a blanket tightly rolled and strapped to his back, with a tucker-bag and billy hanging from it. He stepped lightly without any appearance of fatigue, in spite of the fact that he was, as Dennis now saw, a man well past middle age, and he combined a certain neatness of appearance and gentility of manner that was somewhat at variance with the character of a swagger.
He gave Dennis a genial “Good Evening!” as he reached the yard rails and looked about him with an air of satisfaction.
“I'm neither footsore nor weary,” he said, rather surprisingly, “but old page 47 flesh is poor protection against the frost. Have you a truss of hay in the loft where I might pass the night?”
“There is hay in the loft,” replied Dennis, “but there are valuable horses in the stalls below—a careless man might set fire to his bed and burn the place down.”
The old man did not seem to be listening; instead, his eyes, deep-set and unwinking, appeared held by some object in the stables, and Dennis, turning his head, saw that a lantern, which hung upon the end post of a stall, threw into high relief the whisking tail and sleek quarters of a chestnut colt.
“If I were forty years younger,” said the old man, “and on the other side of the world, I would lay a thousand to one that that was the famous Kerry stallion ‘Glendalough’!”
“And even at those odds you'd have had a job to get your money covered,” replied Dennis with a smile, “for the colt you're looking at is ‘Danny Boy’ out of ‘Dodo’ by ‘Archer,’ whose great great grand-dam ‘Wide Awake’ was landed at Tauranga, in 1893, in foal to the ‘Glendalough’ himself!”
“He's a real ‘Glendalough’ horse this one,” he rambled on crossing the yard while the old man squeezed through the rails after him, “a direct throw-back to the old sire—look at the shoulders on him and the depth of girth. In a month or two there won't be a two-year-old in the country to hold a candle to him.”
“Go easy,” he warned, “as you enter the stall, for like all his breed he's touchy, and apt to shake hands with a stranger!”
The old man leant against the wall and regarded the colt with half-closed eyes.
“He's a bit lighter in the bone perhaps,” he mused, “but then the ‘Glendalough,’ altho' he was Kerry bred was raised on the Curragh—otherwise the resemblance is remarkable.”
“But the ‘Wide Awake’ mare of which you spoke just now,” he continued, “she belonged to a man called O'Brien of Kenmare. There was some trouble between him and the Fenians and O'Brien's place was burned down the' he himself escaped. They say he rode half across the county that night—a wild man all charred and bloody on a great black mare that went like the wind over the ditches and walls, so that the folk in the cabins crossed themselves and bolted their doors for fear it was the devil himself that rode.
“Some say he got clear away and went to foreign parts; others that he perished in the bogs; but however it was, neither he nor the ‘Wide Awake’ mare was ever heard of in Kerry again!”
“O'Brien was my father,” cried Dennis in amazement. “I never heard the rights or wrongs of the story, for he would never speak of it. But I do know that he eventually shipped both himself and the mare from Queenstown, and he had enough money when he eventually landed in New Zealand to buy a part of the northern end of this place.
“It was not long before he married and my earliest recollections are of being hoisted in front of him astride the old mare's withers, and as we rode the hills, hearing queer, fantastic stories about O'Donoghue of the glens, the Devil's Punch Bowl and the poteen brewers out in the bogs.
“He was a strange moody man, my father,” said Dennis thoughtfully, “for after his wildest flights of fancy he would often seem half ashamed of himself and grow morose and sad. Sometimes he would say that when there were no more Kerry horses there would be no more O'Briens, and I don't know but what I'm half inclined to believe him—anyway, there have always been horses of the Glendalough strain in the stables here!”
It was some minutes before either spoke again. The old man seemed lost in contemplation of the colt, and Dennis turned away to busy himself in the harness room. Presently when he emerged the brooding was gone from his eyes.
“Come,” he said, taking the lantern from its hook, “wherever you sleep, you must eat first of all, and since it is not every day that an old man comes from God-knows-where to tell me my family history it must be at my table.”
He halted a moment to adjust the straps of the colt's rug, and the old man noticed the uneasy way in which the animal continually lifted its feet.
“It's no more than a sensitiveness of the skin I believe,” said Dennis, “but it makes them awkward for anyone to handle.”
“And so the old man who came out of the mist dined in style that night with Dennis and his wife,” said the Banker. “And if he had appeared an unusual kind of a swagger out there in the stable-yard he was doubly so now, that, mellowed with good food and companionship, he stood clad in an old suit of his host's that fitted him nowhere, with his back to the fire and clasped his bony hands about a liqueur glass of brandy. It was evident that he was a man of wide horizons, presenting to his listeners many facets of experience and character—as a diamond turned between the fingers flashes with the fires of many minerals. Now he would show something of the stiffness of the soldier, now a bluffness of the sea, or the grace of a country gentleman. Again, there were the cruder, more primitive hues of the homeless vagabond, the showman—the gold seeker.
“It was this last that manifested itself when Dennis asked casually how it was he came to be tramping the roads in so haphazard a manner; for the old man immediately launched into a vivid recital of his pursuit of the precious will-o'-the-wisp, in which, apparently, he had been engaged off and on for the past twenty years.
“It was a story of trial and hardship through which ran a feverish undercurrent of unrest. He told of blizzards and frozen diggings, of wilting heat and sudden floods sweeping down mountain gorges to carry away camps and equipment and men.
“He told of crazy men who lived among the empty shacks of deserted mining towns and believed that the grass grown roadways still resounded with the clamour and excitement of bygone days.
“Of a tortured valley where no birds sang and the earth groaned and trembled the whole night through.
“And where now?” asked Dennis. “The Coromandel? You'll find it well staked.”
The old man shook his head.
“Some years ago,” he said, “I joined up with a party who were bound on a prospecting trip into the Urewera. Oh, you may smile—we encountered plenty of smiles at the time, when our object became known.page 48
“There's no gold there,” people told us; “parties have gone in before and came back full of grief—the creeks do pan gold at times but they only lead you further and further into a tangle of vines and scrub, and then suddenly dive underground, so that the devil himself couldn't tell where lies the reef from which they get their colour.
And so we found it. One night we would camp under a log and talk in millions. By noon next day the colour would have petered out and we would be retracing our steps, panning each little tributary to find out where it had gone. And invariably we would end up at a spring, or underground creek, that might have come from a thousand feet above us or a mile below.
“We stayed in there a month until the rain came and washed us out, and a sorry looking crew we were—half starved, creaking with rheumatism, our clothes torn to shreds and swearing to a man that never again would we be tempted into the Urewera. But the following summer I was back again, this time with a man who claimed to be a diviner, and for weeks the two of us clawed our way through the scrub up and down those creeks, living like savages on what we could shoot and filling up the corners with imagining what we would eat when we struck it rich.
“And in the end we did strike it.” The old man's voice ceased abruptly, and he knitted his brows as if in pain, then dropped his hands to his sides with a helpless gesture.
“What happened,” asked Dennis presently.
“That,” said the old man dully, “is what I can't remember. There are only fragments, like the disconnected portions of a film. I can see a huge old kahikatea tree and an outcrop of rock. I can recall a sensation of excitement and fear, and feel the sun hot upon the back of my neck. I can see a hawk circling far below me.
“After that there is just blankness—shot through with vivid flashes of pain and a sensation of walking—walking—endlessly and infinitely slowly—until I awoke to full consciousness on the floor of a Maori whare and saw an old woman who sat smoking hour after hour, while a light patch of sunlight wheeled about her in the doorway.
“They could tell me little, these good people, beyond the fact that they had nursed me through a week of unconsciousness. Two pakehas had appeared one evening at sunset one of whom was apparently sick, and was being half carried by the other. He had had a bad fall, so his companion said, and asked if he could be left in their care until he returned. But that was a week ago, and he had not returned.
“And he never did,” said the old man. “I stayed a week longer until I was well enough to travel and though I searched and made inquiries for him through half a year, I never heard of him again.”
“And you never returned to the Urewera?” asked Dennis.
“What's the use?” said the old man. “I can't remember. There is only one man who knows where that gold is, and, as I have told you, he has vanished.”
The Banker paused in his story to refill and light his pipe, and for some minutes until it was drawing to his satisfaction, he lay back and watched the blue smoke go curling up to the faintly vibrating lights overhead.
“Nothing, you must understand,” he continued at length, “but a miracle could have saved Dennis at this time from losing his farm, and, as it sometimes happens, it was just at this juncture that a miracle occurred. If it had not,” he shrugged, “there would have been no story to tell.
“Nobody knows quite how it happened, but there is no doubt that the Glendalough breeding — that touchy, nervous temperament, which the chestnut colt showed so strongly—was the cause of it. Early next morning when Dennis went to the stables, he found the old man lying unconscious in the gutter behind ‘Danny Boy's’ stall.”
It was some hours after they had got him over to the house and into bed before he came to, and then he showed great surprise at his surroundings.
“I thought I was a goner that time,” he said, sitting up in bed and looking at Dennis as though he was a complete stranger. “But I never did have much of a head for heights and seeing Frank out there on the ledge waving his arms about like a lunatic with near a thousand feet of space below fairly made me dizzy. He dropped his tobacco tin and it went sailing away down for hours it seemed to me before it vanished among the tree tops below, and I'm blowed if a hawk didn't go swooping down after it—must have thought it was a new kind of bird, I suppose!”
At the mention of the hawk, Dennis's eyes lit with the dawn of understanding.
“What where you doing on the ledge?” he asked gently.
The old man gave a triumphant chuckle.
“There are a good many people who would like to know that,” he said. “Where's Frank?”
“Don't you remember—anything?” asked Dennis.
“Remember—'course I remember,” cried the old man. “We've been following a creek for days until it went underground by the big kahikatea—and Frank got to work with his divining-rod and led us over the bluff.
“He yelled out that he'd struck the reef, just before I slipped—where is Frank?”
Dennis shook his head.
“All that happened a long time ago—more than a year—“ he said.
The old man's eyes suddenly blazed. “None of that!” he cried, scrambling from the bed. He reeled and would have fallen had Dennis not caught him. “You're holding out on me young man!” he gasped. “I've seen it done before; but it won't work. You bring Frank to me!”
He lay back gasping and in evident distress, though he still glared bale-fully at Dennis. It took all the latter's tact and patience during the next hour to explain the old man's situation to him, and it was not until he had lifted him bodily from the bed and carried him to where he could see from the window the mellow farm lands about him, that he was finally convinced that he was eighty miles and as many weeks distant from the foot of the bluff.
The doctor arrived soon after this and pronounced the old man's physical injuries slight. With the exception of a fine horseshoe bruise on his ribs and a lump on the back of his head, there was little the matter with him. But of his mental condition he could give no explanation except the somewhat vague generality—“it sometimes happens—.”page 49
A week saw the old man mended bodily, but his mind still refused to traverse the gap in time, and for him the events of eighteen months ago were but a week old. So much so that he talked incessantly of them. Again and again he described the way the creek welled out of the mountain side at the foot of the kahikatea. The tortuous path that Frank's quivering rod led them by roots and tangled scrub and outcrops of rock until they almost fell over the brow of the unsuspected bluff. How they lay for awhile staring down its precipitous flank into the chasm torn in the earth millions of years ago by some gigantic convulsion. So deep it was that the tall timber growing in its depths appeared smoky blue and scarcely bigger than ferns. Then began the perilous descent—step by step to the ledge where Frank began feverishly scrambling at the roots and rubble with his bare hands.
“But how do you know,” Dennis often asked him, “that this chap Frank what's-his-name, really had found the reef?”
“What else could he have found?” the old man would counter testily, and immediately plunge once again into his tirade.
This went on for some days until the old man abruptly announced his departure—to the Urewera.
Naturally Dennis expostulated. How could he ever hope to come out alive—an old man with no equipment, and at the wrong time of the year.
“Well,” said the old man, “why don't you come with me?”
“And that,” said the Banker, “is really the end of the story.”
“Do you mean,” asked the Barrister, “that Dennis went back with the old man and found the gold, paid off his debts and lived happily ever afterwards?”
“You know,” said the Barrister, as the Banker finished his story, “I often feel that our lives are set to a certain tempo—rhythm—or whatever you like to call it, that is as compelling as an accompaniment of music.
“I can say this,” he added, “without any fear of being laughed at because the idea is a very old one. Listening to you fellows has given me the thought that perhaps your stories were subconsciously governed by the rhythm of our environment.” He stopped and held up his hand, and in the silence came the measured click of the wheels with the steady coughing of the locomotive as it breasted a gradient rising above it. “There's your rhythm, Mr. Banker,” he said, “romantic, a little fantastic, and as complex as the threads of life which can cross and re-cross until the temperament of a stallion in the south-west of Ireland fifty years ago can have a direct bearing upon your annual duck shooting to-day!”
He laughed and leaned back. He was the youngest of the four travellers by perhaps ten years.
“Presently,” he said, “we shall be on the top of the grade and in less than half an hour in Taumarunui. I shall try to set my story to a quicker rhythm—almost to jazz—of city lights and tar-paved streets, and the quick play of human emotions among them!”
(To be continued)
Non-smokers are getting so scarce that the few remaining specimens ought to be stuffed and sent to a museum. When one is discovered he is generally of opinion that people who smoke ought to be executed or something. He can no more understand the fascination that good tobacco has for the smoker than the chap who has no “ear” can understand good music or a blind person can appreciate a fine oil painting. Smoking makes his angry passions rise, and he deplores the cold-drawn truth that the consumption of the weed is growing by leaps and bounds every year. Especially marked is the enormously increased demand for the genuine “toasted,” partly due to its splendid quality, and partly to the fact that being toasted and consequently practically free from nicotine this matchless tobacco is so harmless. Its daily use affords keen enjoyment to smokers everywhere, some of whose joys are few and far between, and who find in Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold the comfort and solace they crave.*