The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 6 (September 2, 1935)
The Limited Night Entertainments — Part IV
As the barrister had predicted, the train presently gained the top of the rise, and the beat of the wheels quickened until it attained its familiar galloping rhythm of speed and power.
The barrister flicked the ash from his cigarette—and began his story in the following manner:
A taxi of magpie hue was conspicuous for the manner in which it threaded its way through the traffic, that, towards seven o'clock of a summer evening, flowed in the direction of the railway station. It was driven with great skill and rapidity, but as it neared its destination it was inevitably slowed by the increasing crush of trams, carts, and lorries, which, laden with passengers and freight, converged from all parts of the city upon the Main Trunk terminus.
It contained but one occupant beside the driver—a young man of perhaps thirty years of age, who appeared to be somewhat ill at ease. His teeth were clamped tightly upon the stem of an empty pipe, his hat was pulled low over his forehead, and from the depths of shadow cast by its brim his eyes glanced anxiously from side to side.
It was patent, however, that he took little stock of the animated scene about him. The hurrying foot passengers, the shop fronts already aglow with light, even the news bills which proclaimed in six inch letters: “Escape of Dangerous Criminal — Desperate Man Hunt Through the Suburbs,” failed to rouse in him any emotion save perhaps that of an added irritation. For Richard Kemp was at the moment that most self-centred and irrational of mortals—a rejected lover!
From the welter of thoughts, angry, bitter and sentimental, which whirled about inside his head like a swarm of angry bees, there emerged at painfully clear intervals the recollection of a voice, Daphne's voice, very cold and matter of fact, as it issued from the receiver of a telephone.
“Don't bother to make any excuses,” she had said, “it would be unnecessary and embarrassing. I'm afraid we were both a little—shall we say—emotional, last night; so I am returning you your ring by registered post, and am going home by to-night's train.”
“Going home”!—and only last night she had told him that for her the word “home” had acquired a new meaning. “This is home now,” she had said softly, as they stood on a balcony looking down at a myriad of lights reflecting themselves in the waters of the harbour. “Because—well—they say that home is where the heart is, don't they—and you have my heart in your keeping, Dicky!”
And “Dicky” had slipped a very expensive diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand and promised that on the morrow he would take the day off from the office. They would inspect flats, they would select furnishings, poke their fingers into the stodgy bosoms of armchairs, and pretend they knew a lot about the pile of a carpet. They would lunch at the Van Dieman, and have tea in the most expensive place they could find; they would, in fact, spend one of those Elysian days that are the strict prerogative of the newly betrothed.
That was how they had planned it, but how differently it had turned out!
It seemed to Richard that he had hardly fallen asleep when his bedside telephone woke him with its hideous insistence. It was broad daylight, and from the other end of the wire came the voice of one Cockerell who played second to Richard's lead in the management of the advertising department of the importing firm of Murgatroyd and Co.
“Great news,” this mean bird crowed into Richard's sleepy ear, “The Old Man's arriving by the boat this morning—“
“So what?” growled Richard although he already sensed the dire import of the news.
“It's your turn to do poojah—You know what I mean.”
“Me? I can't—I've got to—“Richard's voice tailed away feebly.
“Exactly,” said Cockerell, “You've got to meet him and keep him suitably entertained till the office opens, and keep him from doing any serious damage when it does. Hard on you, I know, but a telegram came after you'd left last night. We couldn't get you at home, so Parker told me to ring you first thing this morning. Gather strength, my lad, from the thought of how grateful the staff will be—cheerio!”
For some moments after his friend had rung off Richard remained staring dejectedly at the counterpane of his bed and saw his plans for this day which was to have been devoted to Daphne scattered like chaff before the dreary blast of duty.
“The Old Man,” Mr. Murgatroyd junior (the sub-title was rigidly preserved although senior had been dead for a quarter of a century) was the head of the firm which provided Richard with his daily bread.
For the most part he was content to remain in his palatial office on the third floor of the Phoenix Building in Dunedin, but occasionally he would make a round of the branch offices for the purpose of what he called “gingering up those slackers.”
Undertaken in this spirit, of course, these “rounds” were vastly unpopular with the staffs concerned, but with a cunning born of the bitter memory of past visitations, they had contrived a system by which the Old Man could be rendered comparatively harmless. This consisted of providing him with a shock absorber. A departmental manager was selected for his tact and reliability—and it became his duty for as long as the visitation should last, to meet the Old Man's most exacting demands; be deferential to his bombast, and listen politely to the windy speeches which he was in the habit of making “in the interests of the firm's business.”page 42
Richard leaned over and looked at his watch which lay beside the telephone, and immediately leapt out of bed. Already the southern steamer would be backing into her berth and the Old Man, a gloomy figure which no beauty of sunflecked water or green hills could lighten, would be making his way down the gangway.
They met, Richard and Mr. Murgatroyd, in the lounge of the Van Dieman Hotel, a little before eight, and Mr. Murgatroyd, who always invested himself with a wholly fictitious atmosphere of bustle, announced that they must work fast because he wished to catch the express north that evening. Already they had lost forty minutes because Richard had not been at the boat; they would breakfast immediately.
Richard had a momentary impulse to telephone Daphne, it was clear that he was in for a bad day, but decided that it was too early, and Mr. Murgatroyd was in no mood to brook further delay.
After breakfast, which had been eaten to the accompaniment of a dissertation by Mr. Murgatroyd on the shortcomings of the younger generation, Richard had had a brief respite while Mr. Murgatroyd sent off a telegram. The Van Diemen had six telephone boxes in the hall, and five of them were engaged. Richard made a dash for the sixth, only to discover when he had dialled Daphne's number, that he had no pennies.
From then on it would seem that the stars in their courses fought against him. By the time he got change from the cash desk all the six boxes were not only engaged, but carrying at least one customer in reserve. Mr. Murgatroyd reappeared, and they went down to the office. It was five minutes to nine when they arrived and Richard excused himself and dialled Daphne's number again from the outer office. The only answer was that intermittent squawking which indicates a line engaged. He was to have met her at nine thirty at the Post Office and in desperation he rang at nine fifteen under Mr. Murgatroyd's basilisk stare—only to be told that she had already left the house!
And so it went on. Richard listened mechanically to Mr. Murgatroyd's heavy platitudes, and occasional outbursts of righteous indignation, as they went through the farcical routine of examining account sales and checking balance sheets which had already been audited by a competent firm of accountants, until the howl of the midday siren rose above the roar of traffic and Richard murmured something about lunch.
“No time,” said Mr. Murgatroyd, “we'll have some sandwiches sent in.”
“I'll go and order them,” said Richard eagerly.
“My dear Mr. Kemp,” Mr. Murgatroyd regarded him sourly, “you hold a position of trust and responsibility with the firm for which you draw a comfortable salary; I do not consider the expense entailed, were you to undertake such duties as running out for sandwiches, to be justified. Please be seated and ring for a junior.”
Richard slumped back in his chair, and the interminable day wore on.
The sun passed overhead and dust motes swam in the glare from the western windows.
Once more the siren howled, this time for five o'clock and the outer office staff discreetly closed their ledgers and went home. The Old Man seemed oblivious to the flight of time; precious moments which he squandered in a homily on the lack of esprit de corps amongst the staffs spread themselves into an hour and a half until at twenty minutes to seven the telephone bell rang sharply.
Mr. Murgatroyd frowned and lifted the receiver; he listened a moment, then “for you, I fancy,” he said, and handed it with a pout of disapproval, to Richard.
It was Daphne! But as we have already seen not the tender melting girl of the night before, but a Daphne who had waited at the Post Office from nine thirty till ten fifteen, a Daphne who had returned to the house and found all her friends gone out and had spent a thoroughly miserable day. A Daphne, in short, who was prepared to give no quarter.
As Richard listened, and attempted to give what was under the circumstances a somewhat feeble account of himself, his nerves, which all day had been stretching until they had reached an unbearable tension, seemed to snap, and he changed from a bedevilled, sweating underling, into a reckless young man with homicidal inclinations. He put the receiver down gently—and turned to Mr. Murgatroyd.
“You were saying, Sir?” he asked coldly.
“I was not saying anything at the moment of interruption,” replied Mr. Murtgatroyd, “but I was about to say—“
“A whole lot of rubbish about Miss Potter powdering her nose at seven minutes to five,” said Richard coolly.
Mr. Murgatroyd reddened. “Mr. Kemp—“he exploded—“have you taken leave of your senses?”
“Not at all,” said Richard. “I've just found them.”
“Mr. Kemp!” thundered Mr. Murgatroyd again.
“Shut up!” snapped Richard, “you've been talking for eleven hours, almost without intermission—and now it's my turn.”
“Eleven hours,” he repeated, shaking his head sadly, “eleven irretrievable hours I have had to listen to you. Eleven hours I have had to play up to your conceit—be the dutiful slave—the perfect ‘yes-man’—and with what result?”
“You have lost a very good job,” retorted Mr. Murgatroyd maliciously.
“I've lost more than that,” replied Richard savagely. “Do you know who that was that rang me up just now?”
“No—and I'm not in the least interested,” Mr. Murgatroyd started to rise. But Richard was too quick for him—he towered over the old man and pushed him back into his chair with a hand on each shoulder. “Suppose you were to die suddenly,” he said dispassionately, “the firm would still carry on, wouldn't it?”
“Take your hands off me!” blustered the old man in tones that were not quite steady, since he realised that he was alone in the building with this maniac.
“Answer my question!” repeated Richard grimly.
“Well—yes—“Mr. Murgatroyd answered in mollifying tones. “My page 43 trustees would administer the estate and the firm would continue to function as at present—but I assure you—“
“Very well,” Richard interjected, “I asked you that because I want, if possible, to impress upon you the falseness of your position. On your own admission the firm would not cease if you died, but would be carried on as usual by its faithful staff. That means that you are of no more individual use than any of the rest of us since it would make no ultimate difference if any one of us died, and yet you assume the right to stamp up and down the country calling honest people idlers and slackers—finding fault where none exists, and generally making a nuisance of yourself.”
“How dare you talk to me in this manner?” Mr. Murgatroyd returned to his bluster—he was on his feet now and felt more sure of himself.
“Which brings us back to the point where he sat in his taxi,” said the barrister, “and took no interest in all that went on about him, not even the newspaper headlines with their hue and cry of a desperate man at large.”
But the driver of the taxi did, and being for the moment disengaged from his duties he made to enter into conversation with his fare.
“Pretty game that convict-bloke,” he observed, “to make a break for it in broad daylight, with the warders taking pot shots at him through the scrub.”
Richard appeared to be listening, but uncommunicative.
“All that about a man-hunt in the suburbs is a lot of skite,” the man continued. “Somebody saw a wild man up in the Town Belt and called a couple of policemen. They pounced on him from behind a tree and found he was some poor old hobo in the dingbats. I reckon there'll be man-hunts all over the town for the next day or two.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” said Richard shortly, “but I wish you'd get a move on—we've only got seven minutes in which to catch that train.”
That was his one thought now, to get to the train before it should carry Daphne away. The idea of her leaving in her present unforgiving mood goaded him to a state of mind bordering on frenzy. It was so damned unfair! How could he have explained the unhappy sequence of events which had led to their misunderstanding with the Old Man sitting over him, glaring and blowing out his cheeks? If he could only get her alone for five minutes!
“Look here,” he cried suddenly to the taxi-man, “you're not trying—you could quite easily have dodged round the back of that tram,” and without more ado he opened the door and sprang into the roadway.
It was a bare three hundred yards to the station and he took it at a run, oblivious to the frenzied blowing of horns and the shouts of the taxi-driver, whose fare he had forgotten to pay. There was something exciting about his headlong flight, people stopped and stared, one or two cried “stop him,” a man attempted to collar him and was expertly and painfully handed off for his trouble.
At the station he dodged through the crowd like a hunted hare. The porter at the barrier demanded a ticket, but Richard never heard him, before his eyes was the long line of gleaming cars and somewhere amongst them—Daphne.
The station clock showed only three minutes to departure time, and Richard paused a moment at the step of the rearmost sleeper to see if by any chance he could catch sight of Daphne upon the platform.
In that moment there burst from behind the barrier his late taxi-driver and a citizen with a swollen eye who flourished a copy of the evening paper.
“There he is,” cried the former, and the pair bore down upon him.
“Oh! hullo!” said Richard to the taxi-driver. “I'd forgotten about you for the moment.”
“I bet you did!” cried the man with the swollen eye, “and you'd forgotten me, too, eh!”
“I don't think I've ever seen you before,” said Richard impatiently. “Wait for me here,” he added to the taxi-driver—“I've to find somebody on the train.”
“Not much,” retorted the taxi man. “I've heard that yarn before—besides we know who you are, mister,” he laid a hand on Richard's arm and the man with the swollen eye closed in on the other side.
Without knowing or caring what their motive might be, Richard was conscious only of a sudden flare of rage at this further delay. He flung off the taxi man's arm and planted a stinging right on his nose. The man with a swollen eye dived at his knees and the three of them rolled in the dust of the platform.
From the undignified melee that ensued he was presently hauled by the powerful arm of the policeman on platform duty and thrust against the side of the sleeping car—while two porters did likewise with the other combatants.
“Now,” said the policeman, “what's all this about?”
The man with the swollen eye had managed to retain his newspaper in the scuffle, and he thrust it under the policeman's nose. “Ere,” he cried, “that's ‘im.”
The paper was folded at the photographic page and displayed amongst other things a fairly presentable likeness of Richard Kemp—beneath which read the now familiar caption, “Desperate Criminal at Large.”
“Ah!” said the policeman, “well, you'd better all come along to the stationmaster's office.”
Up to this point a pretty girl who occupied a corner seat in the sleeping car had done her best to ignore the unpleasant happenings which were going on outside the corridor windows—but now, the voices growing louder, she glanced up and was horrified to see, dishevelled and escorted by a policeman—the man who last night had promised to marry her.page 44 page 45
A bell clanged loudly—the engine answered with a hoarse scream and all down the train went the sighing of released brakes. Almost imperceptibly the station buildings began to move backward. By the time the girl reached the end of the corridor they were slipping past at a steadily increasing speed, and an old gentleman who sprinted alongside was reaching for the handrail in a belated effort to board the train.
The girl jumped from the step and spoilt his chances and for a few moments they stood glaring breathlessly at each other while the sleeping car and the guard's van swept past them.
“Young woman,” gasped Mr. Murgatroyd, mopping his scarlet face, “you've made me miss my train.”
“Well, you nearly made me stay in it,” retorted Daphne, half laughing, half crying, “which would have been far more serious—imagine a maiden all forlorn prevented from changing her mind for a hundred miles at least and an innocent man sent to gaol in consequence. “Oh! forgive me,” she rallied a little, “I'm sorry about your train—was it very important?”
“Not so important,” Mr. Murgatroyd said gallantly, “as Beauty in distress.”
“That's nice of you,” said Daphne—“and I really am in distress. Do you see that man with the policeman and the other two—we've got to rescue him.”
“We?” queried Mr. Murgatroyd.
Daphne nodded and hurried him off in the direction of the stationmaster's office.
“God bless my soul,” said Mr. Murgatroyd when they arrived, “Mr. Kemp again—in custody too—no more than you deserve.”
Richard grinned. “Daphne!” he cried.
Mr. Murgatroyd turned his head in embarrassment. “What's the charge, officer?” he asked the policeman.
The policeman produced the newspaper. “Did you say his name is Kemp, Sir? Because, if so, then I don't see as there is rightly any charge—but he looks enough like that photograph to need identifying as you might say.”
Later that evening Mr. Murgatroyd, Daphne and Richard sat over liqueur glasses in the lounge of the Van Die-man and looked shyly at each other. Presently, Mr. Murgatroyd cleared his throat noisily.
“Mr. Kemp,” he said, “has it ever occurred to you that men grow old, and that when they do—they appear to the younger generation to stamp up and down the country calling honest people slackers, finding fault where none exists and generally making nuisances of themselves?”
“Yes,” replies Richard, “or rather no.”
Ere the barrister had fully finished his story the train had come to rest at twenty-two minutes after midnight, in Taumarunui station.
In the keen night air the little township, ringed about with bush-clad hills, presented a scene of bustling activity. Engines whistled and belched steam, baggage trucks rumbled, a wheel tapper went past with his cheery clangour, and all down the train passengers were bundling out of the cars in answer to the summons of the refreshment room bell.
Our four friends of the smoking car joined the throng and in the cheery atmosphere of coffee and sandwiches lose their identity as individual story tellers, and become one with the great brotherhood of travellers who nightly forgather in that most romantic of caravanserai the “Limited.” But every night their place is taken by other story tellers;—and all through the year—in winter and summer, from sun-set to dawn, in fair weather or foul, the great trains speed north and south, and the Limited Night Entertainments go on!