The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 3 (June 1, 1935)
The Limited Night Entertainments
A Doctor, a barrister, a banker and an engineer boarded the Limited together at Auckland with gun cases, fishing rods and bags labelled “National Park.”
As far as Frankton Junction they played some very solid bridge, but after leaving that station, the doctor, who was a merry looking little man with ruddy cheeks and snow white hair, trumped his partner's perfectly good nine and endeavoured to conciliate that gentleman's wrath by explaining that he was thinking of something else!
This seemed to the others a good enough reason for relaxing—and after some good-natured chaff at the doctor's expense—urged him to divulge whatever it was that had so engrossed him.
But the doctor had a better plan. He admitted that he could probably tell a yarn or two—but his modesty forbade his being the only performer, and he suggested that they should each in turn recount some incident or happening, and, to make it more interesting, cut the cards to decide the order in which they should do so. The pack was shuffled accordingly and each member of the party cut for himself, the doctor calling “Aces low.”
The barrister drew a knave, the banker an eight, the engineer an ace, and the doctor a three.
The engineer was a burly grizzled man of perhaps sixty-five and having drawn the lowest card, it fell to him to tell the first story. For some moments he gazed out of the window, straining to catch the fleeting forms of trees inky black against the receding lights of Te Awamutu—and then, turning his head, regarded first the card in his hand and then the faces of his companions with an enigmatical smile.
“The Ace of Diamonds,” he mused. “I'll tell you a story of how the ace of diamonds saved perhaps a whole train-load of people from disaster—months before the first train ran right through from Auckland to Wellington—nearly thirty years ago.”
The Engineer's Story.
“Raining - raining - raining - always—well raining
From early in the mor-or-ning—till … .”
The singer, who framed his words to a well-known hymn tune, stamped his feet upon the floor of the running-shed locker room to rid them of the thick paste of clay and cinders that stuck all round his boots.
“You can cut that right out,” remarked the Loco. Foreman, appearing suddenly from nowhere, “and clear that mess outside. Everything has to be in apple-pie order round here tonight.”
The singer—who was that humblest of creatures, a junior cleaner—silently obeyed, and the foreman strolled past him to the doorway where he remained some minutes gazing out into the streaming darkness.
There was certainly some truth in young Simmonds' ditty for it seemed as though the rain had made up its mind to go on for ever. Day after day it had pelted down almost incessantly—bringing down slips, washing out ballast where culverts had blocked and turning streams into roaring torrents which battered at bridge piles with great boulders and the trunks of up-rooted trees.
No one could say with any certainty when trains would arrive or depart—all up and down the new line station yards were blocked with delayed freight, loops were congested and everywhere distraught railwaymen were battling day and night to preserve schedules, the track, and the tempers of marooned passengers.
Such a state of affairs naturally had its repercussions in the running shed—but Morgan, the foreman, whose routine was completely thrown out of gear by engines which arrived at odd hours all round the clock, looking as though they had been ploughing, felt it was a little hard that it should coincide with the visit of the engineer. And the engineer in his turn felt it was a little hard that such a state of affairs should coincide with the travels of a certain Very Important Personage who was passing through on his way south that very evening in an ornate car that would be tacked on to the rear of the little Public Works train, thus bringing the train up to a weight which, in this weather, necessitated an extra engine to work it over the heavy grades to Taumarunui.
“And where the deuce,” growled the engineer, “am I to find an extra engine at this time of night?”
The train was due out at 7 p.m., and at 6 o'clock the stationmaster telephoned the running shed to say that a ballast train from the north, from which they could filch the engine would arrive in half an hour. The engine, he added, was old 123.
The engineer groaned, but conceded that it might be worse—an opinion which was almost immediately confirmed when the hospital rang up to say that McAhster, the senior driver, who might have driven No. 123, had just been admitted with a broken leg which he had sustained at the South Road cattle stops.
“Who else is there?” snapped the engineer.
“Ordinary times,” replied Morgan, “there would be two relief drivers—but these ain't ordinary times, and they may be doing anything at this moment—even digging themselves out of a slip or playing three-handed poker with a goods guard in some God-forsaken siding up in the bush.”
“Well the driver of No. 123—who is he?”
“Jack Randall—well he's only a junior,” said the foreman evasively—the engineer caught the tone.
“Anything wrong with him?”
“No—no—of course not,” answered Morgan hastily.
As Morgan stood watching him pick his way across the tracks to the station he thought of Jack Randall's kid. A little golden-haired, blue-eyed imp who used to play with his own youngsters on the hill-side at the bottom end of South Road. She didn't play any more now, but lay very quiet in a cot on the verandah watching with wistful eyes the little blight-birds and occasional fantails that tumbled in and out of the foliage of big clumps of tree lucerne.
They had told Jack Randall a lot of long-winded terms up at the hospital; but it didn't really mean anything but lack of money—money to send her away to the high country and a sanatorium where they could massage some life back into those pretty limbs. Money that in the circumstances was as far out of reach as the moon.
That was why he had tried to save Jack from extra duty—for he knew the fever the big fellow was always in to get home—hoping against hope—that there might be some change—that by some miracle she would be standing up, holding out her arms to him as he entered the gate.
His thoughts were interrupted by a whistle which sounded beyond the South Road crossing—and peering from the window he saw the blurred beam of an oil headlight moving slowly beyond the sidings. He listened intently—it was a train beyond doubt—but which (and what was more important) who drove it, he could not say.
He hurried across the yard and arrived at the crossing as the engine lumbered off the main line into the siding—and swung himself aboard.
Joe Allen was at the throttle, grey and haggard, with 24 hours' stubble on his chin and seams of grime in the tense lines about his mouth.
“Joe,” said the Loco. Foreman, “would you assist the regular back to Taumarunui with old 123?”
“Like hell, I would!” retorted the driver—“I've been sixteen hours on the road now—I'll tell you what it is,” he cried angrily, “a man needs to be a wooden god with a master mariner's ticket to drive a train these days—” “I know—I know—“said Morgan conciliatingly—and as Allen, shutting off steam, turned to face him—told him how things stood with Jack Rand-all and the extra duty.
But Allen though sympathetic was obdurate—“It's not a fair buck”—he protested—“I'm sorry for Jack, we all are, but a man can't go on for ever. For two whole shifts I've been punching this old ‘P’ over a journey that ought to take five hours. I've been blocked and side-tracked, stuck in the mud and nearly starved to death, and now when I just manage to get in, with no water in the tender and hardly enough steam left to whistle with, you want me to turn round and do it all over again with a train of nabobs!”
As they argued, the ballast train from the north rattled in on the far side of the station— “There's Jack now,” said Morgan dropping through the gangway, “I'll see you over at the shed.”
Twenty minutes later when Allen backed his engine alongside the coaling ramp he found Jack Randall and the foreman waiting for him. Randall was a tall athletic looking man—but under the gas lamps that lit the ramp, there seemed to be a weary stoop to his shoulders and his step lacked spring. He greeted Allen diffidently.
“You got nothing on me,” remarked that worthy as he descended from the cab of the “P”—“I wouldn't take your old engine out to-night for Father Peter.”
“Now listen Joe,” said Morgan, leading the way to his office. “Just put yourself in my position for a minute. I've always given you boys as fair a deal as I could and it's up to you to help me now.
“You've been out sixteen hours Joe, but it hasn't been all driving. Jack's been out ten, and he's got a wife and sick kid to worry about. You're both the same grade and I'll leave it to you—or rather to chance!” He grinned faintly and produced an old pack of patience cards from a drawer.
“You cut,” he said to Allen “aces low.”
“Aces low,” echoed Joe and cut the ten of spades. Randall, bit his lips, and, with a hand that trembled slightly, cut—the ace of diamonds.
Something like a spasm of pain passed over his features, but he pushed back his cap with a short laugh.
“Here,” cried Allen impetuously, “I'll go—you get home, Jack.”
“No chance,” responded the other, “but you can lend me your push bike—I'll leave it at your place on the way back.”
“For the love of Mike don't be late,” cried the foreman, “you've only got half an hour!”
But Randall over in the siding and 123 hardly noticed it. His thoughts were back in the spotless kitchen where his wife sat waiting over the glowing range, tired out, but too anxious to sleep—and the little form beneath the blankets in the day cot, whose solemn, dark eyes roved the ceiling restlessly.
The engineer came crunching down the clinkers, his oilskin flapping.
“Come on!” he cried clambering up, “get a move on—we'll hook on to the ‘W.F.’ out at the tanks and back down together”—he glanced at the driver sharply.
“Feel al—right?” he demanded.
Randall was freshly shaved and in clean overalls, but his face showed dead white beneath the visor of his cap.
“Sure—I'm alright,” he replied, tugging at the throttle lever.
But he felt far from alright when, with “W.F.” behind him straining like a wiry terrier, they snaked the old four-wheeled cars complete with the V.I.P.'s coach, out of the station and gingerly threaded the points at the South Road crossing.
Out ahead, beyond the vast bulk of old 123's diamond funnel, the rain came down in a steady slanting stream shutting out sight and sound of everything except the twin threads of the rails; objects leapt out of the gloom with startling suddenness—white painted farm gates—the twisted arms of a dead tree.
“Take it easy,” said the engineer kindly, “let the other feller do the pulling—just keep off him till we strike the grades,” and then as 123 settled into her stride and began licking up the miles, he talked easily and kindly, telling Randall that Morgan had told him of his trouble and how he had been unlucky enough to cut out. “Life's like that,” he said, “seems to take a delight in piling things on us, until we feel we can't stand it any longer, and then blowing them all away in dust.”
Randall nodded, easier now. “It's a funny thing about that ace though,” he said, “if there's one card I can depend upon to let me down it's the ace of diamonds—not once, but dozens of times. I've seen it drawn to fill up an ace-high straight when I was sitting on three cards. I've seen it drawn to make three card hands and full houses—and the funny part of it is that it is always the deciding card—it's never there beforehand. But if it's in the pack and I'm anywhere near it always turns up to put me in a bad spot.”
For an hour or more they drove steadily across the lowlands and then the track began to rise, twisting right and left between high banks and cuttings as they reached the foothills.
There were evidences of storm havoc on either hand now, and talk died away as they peered through the streaming cab windows at rubble and tangled fence wires and the watercourses bubbling with yellow froth.
At the top of the ridge they spied flares and with steam shut off drifted through a little knot of bedraggled men toiling to clear a mass of earth and tumbled roots that spread fanwise from the top of a bluff almost to the edge of the rails.
From the top of the ridge began a long switchback of twenty miles which led at last down through bush clad slopes to a limestone cutting and the river, spanned by a wooden bridge.
It was a difficult piece of track at the best of times and under adverse conditions it became a veritable nightmare, for as they drew nearer the river, patches of fog hung in the hollows beneath the dripping trees.
Twice at the bottom of a grade Randall checked violently with the air, and the second time the engineer asked what the deuce he thought he was doing.
“I thought I saw a red flare, shining through the fog,” said Randall sheepishly.
Once they were across the river matters would be simpler—it was all straight-forward pulling then through solid rock cuttings. It was this sliding downhill through sodden greasy country that might be expected to cave in at any moment that tried a man's nerves. So thought the engineer, and the next instant pitched forward against the back of the firebox. Randall, with his left hand frozen to the air-brake and with his right working the lever into reverse, was leaning back in his seat as though by the very backward thrust of his body he could bring his engine to an earlier stop.
The engineer, rubbing his nose, came over and stared through the glass on the driver's side.
“If this is another of your fantasies,” he foamed, “I'll put you back on the cranes for ever.”
“Why, blow me Jack, if it isn't your ace of diamonds!”
At last, with much grinding and squealing of brake-gear, they brought the train to a stand, and remained for some moments staring out ahead.
They were in the mile-long limestone cutting that led down to the bridge, and wreaths and whirls of fog were rolling up it like steam from the mouth of a volcano. Every now and again as it lifted, a queer red gleam shone out—low down on the left hand side—and there could be no doubt that it did resemble a diamond in shape.
The engineer quickly dropped to the ballast and Jack and the fireman followed him. As they did so, they became immediately aware of the sullen roar of the river rising above the hiss of steam like the menacing roll of distant artillery.
The red gleam, as they hurried down the track seemed to recede will-o'-the-wisp fashion before them, but it was almost immediately forgotten in the peculiar behaviour of the permanent way as they approached the bridgehead. It writhed and quivered, the new ballast seeping and chuckling, and oozing gouts of mud.
A fog wraith enveloped them and they halted, lost in a clamorous, unstable world of damp vapour, and then froze in horror as it suddenly cleared and they saw, vaguely, the bridge.
Where the decking and rails should have been there raced a yellow flood that foamed against the struts and bows like an angry sea; and the struts and bows themselves were not the firm, upright supports they should have been—for the whole bridge was adrift and rocking. It heaved and groaned with each fresh onslaught—canting alarmingly and rolling back like a ship in a gale.
They stood fascinated by its contortions for some minutes, and then became aware of the small crowd who were making their way down the cutting. The fireman off the “W.F.,” the guard, drowsy passengers; and, rather enjoying it all with a macintosh over his pyjamas and ridiculous pumps flopping and slapping in the mud, the Very Important Personage himself.
It was the latter who, while the rest of the crowd gaped and shuddered and pretended to laugh, buttonholed the engineer and asked him some very pertinent questions, and presently seeking out Jack Randall, congratulated him, and walked back slowly with him to the engine.
They stood for a moment in front of the cowcatcher and looking back towards the crowd at the bridge saw the ace of diamonds wink slyly at them from the cutting wall.
Randall started, then raising his eyes, regarded intently the old-fashioned oil head-lamp that burned steadily above their heads.
Just off the centre of the glass, where the metal reflector at the back would concentrate the beam, appeared a dark smear. Randall climbed quickly over the buffer beam and examined it more closely—“it's blood, I think,” he said, and stooping, picked a broken feathered body from the plate below the smokebox door. Reaching up, he rubbed his finger over the smear—and looking forward again found the ace of diamonds had vanished from the white glistening wall of the limestone cutting.
“It all ended very happily,” concluded the engineer. “We backed the train out of the cutting and spent the rest of the night in the bush. I had to go back and be entertained in the V.I.P.'s private car, and somehow or other, for we all became very matey, as people do in those sort of circumstances—the story of Randall's kid must have leaked out—because not long afterwards he got a letter all done up with seals and things, with a pretty useful sort of cheque inside it.”
“He is driving this train to-night,” he added glancing at his watch and listening a moment to the beat of the wheels, “and in an hour or so his big ‘K’ will be crossing the steel bridge that was built on the site of the old wooden one, and Jack's kid married the son of the engineer who built it!”
His story finished, the engineer relaxed into his seat and the steady rhythm of the train rose like a sonorous accompaniment in the silence. Presently from out ahead came the deep-toned baying of the locomotive and a tremor ran through the car as the Westinghouse brakes gently checked the full rush of speed—pinpoints of light flickered in the gloom beyond the windows.
“Te Kuiti,” observed the engineer. “I can do with a well-earned cup of tea. And it will give you time to think up your yarn, Doc.—it's your turn next.”