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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 7 (October 1, 1935)

Limited Night Entertainments — Part V

page 25

Limited Night Entertainments
Part V.

Some years ago I had occasion to spend several weeks in travelling up and down the North Island, and made the discovery that our trains are extremely cosmopolitan affairs. One expects to find such an atmosphere in big hotels or on board ship, for cities and the sea are themselves more of the world than of the country that claims them; but, somehow, the same idea does not immediately attach itself to travel by rail—not, at any rate, in New Zealand.

Everything beyond the windows is so familiar. We have grown up with the farms, the mountains, bush, and the rolling hills dotted with the forms of cattle and sheep, and the train has become, like them, a homely thing. It is easy enough in the circumstances to lose sight of the fact that the cars which thunder over the bridge by the old swimming-hole, carry more passengers than coast-wise steamers and accommodate every night twice as many travellers as the largest hotel. Passengers and travellers who have, in many instances, come from the ends of the earth, who are eager to learn all they can of the country they are passing through, and in exchange for such amenity, can often tell stories of romance and adventure in other lands.

Having made this discovery, I was able to extract much entertainment from it, by the simple expedient of drawing into conversation anybody who would be drawn, with the result that those journeys have become a sort of book of memories to which one may turn at idle moments and find many pages of interesting experience.

Here is a story which was told by a man who read a month-old copy of “Figaro” while the north-bound Limited rolled down the grade from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki. It was midsummer, and across the sea, spread motionless as a sheet of glass below us, Kapiti brooded, violet-shadowed in the waning afterglow.

Kapiti and “Figaro,” the swinging rhythm of wheels and the heady rush of speed: what better setting for a fantastic Limited night entertainment!

* * *

“As Raymond descended the cliff of San Sebastian, his foot slipped and projected him into the gulf below. It was a treacherous enough place, a narrow crumbling ledge with the Mediterranean creaming over sunken rocks a hundred feet down, and as his feet flew from their hold and his hands caught vainly at roots and frail grasses he realised that he must fall directly upon the vast floor of Pietro Negro—the Black Rock—a place of evil repute among the fisher folk.

“After the first shock, however, it seemed that his fall was not severe—the sky and cliff face spun but slowly before his eyes, and he had no sense of fear, for it was almost as though he floated downwards; moreover, as he neared the broad back of Pietro Negro, he saw that it was covered with a vast crowd of people.

“In an instant he was among them, unhurt and being carried irresistibly forward by their eagerness—an eagerness which was focussed upon a sinister shape, grimly black against the sparkling water—a guillotine. The guillotine worked by electricity, and made a not unmusical humming noise. Raymond was vastly interested in its mechanism, but could approach no closer for the press of people, and the broad blue-coated back of a lieutenant who stood immediately before him. Even from the distance, however, it was apparent that it was the last word in refinement of engines of its kind, and the executioner—who wore no mask, but was a sinister enough figure in a long black silken robe—was testing the machinery.

“As he moved the insulated handle to the first little copper disc of the switch, there began the musical humming of the motor—and very slowly the shining edge of the blade disintregated itself from the sheathing of the beam—stealthily it would seem—like some keen bright serpent advancing with cold unhurried menace upon its fascinated victim. Its momentum did not increase, but continued its downward course, steadily, remorselessly. Only the whine of the motor increased in pitch, as though watching, it screwed itself up to an intense fever of excitement. The sun flashed on the paper-thinness of the blade—the blue sea behind danced and glittered unheeding. Almost three-fourths of the way down now and a bare two feet to the block.

“Raymond started slightly — for the blade had vanished. The motor hummed a contented, self-satisfied song, and the executioner was putting back the switches. The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders and grunted in satisfaction; the blade was returning to its sheath with a swift soaring flight. Raymond pursed his lips and whistled silently.

“‘Electro magnetic principle,’ he muttered to himself, ‘what a machine!’

“The crowd were growing impatient, they tired of the executioner's practising upon an empty block. This was a holiday-fiesta — afterwards there would be much dancing and drinking of wine, reckless love-making when the full moon rose that night and made inky shadows crawl like jungle beasts beneath the cypresses. There would be fires flashing like jewels upon the hillsides. Mad revelry to regale the gods of bounty who had brought home the harvest of grapes. But first, Nailda and Rondo must die. It was high noon—the execution of page 26 page 27
“His foot slipped and projected him into the gulf below.”

“His foot slipped and projected him into the gulf below.”

political prisoners at high noon on the Fiesta of the Grape Harvest was tradition—a tradition jealously guarded by the populace.

“Raymond looked about him and back up at the town—white and terracotta, nestling on the hillside amongst olive groves—and the tall black cypresses beyond. It was generous of colour that town, basking there in the sunlight, its narrow streets blue splashed with shadow. One could almost sense its hushed silence of desertion—for all the people were here upon the rock that supported the guillotine, impatient with the lust for blood. Red blood must flow that noon—that red wine might flow that night. Raymond shuddered; he felt the desire to go—to run madly from this place. He cursed the misfortune which had made him one of the crowd. He turned about, but behind him was a solid mass of people—dark, eager faces, white teeth flashing in smiles that were vulpine snarls. Earrings of gold glinted beneath bright silken handkerchiefs. The air was heavy with musk and sweat, and the cloying sticky smell of ambrosia.

“But there came a stir—soldiers were forcing an entrance on the far side of the crowd, cries and curses greeted them as they used the butts of their rifles ruthlessly. Behind them on a white mule rode a high churchman—the governor of the town—and behind him again came the gaoler, an imposing figure with a red sash tied beneath his frock coat.

“More soldiers, and in their midst, the objects of much vituperation, catlike snarlings and spittings—the prisoners. Raymond cried out in dismay for they were a boy and a girl—no more — and fair-haired. As they marched to the scaffold above the dark yelling crowd they seemed like radiant beings from another world. Unafraid, too, thought Raymond, they held hands—and the boy smiled. The girl was grave, but the wind whipping at her short blue frock, made it dance like an echo of the brightness of the sea.

“Perhaps, afterwards, thought Raymond, her soul will indeed be one with the spirit of the sea and the wind and the bright flashing spray. He turned again, unable to face what must follow, but the crowd was hemming him in closer than ever.

“There were speeches now. First the gaoler, who was also prosecuting attorney, defamed them like a red-bellied buzzard. What infamies such innocents had committed! Was it possible these children could have jeopardised the State to such an extent? Raymond had difficulty in following the speech. It seemed they were leaders of a band of youngsters rebelling against the harsh traditions of Church and State—wayward children behaving as children have always done—and they were to die to appease the grape harvest madness of their countrymen. Die beneath that terrible crawling knife, flashing with incredible swiftness through its final stroke. Another man spoke, a man who wore the white bib of a lawyer; apparently he merely corroborated the words of the gaoler, speaking in a quick, jerky manner. The boy turned and smiled at the girl. Raymond sensed that the pressure of his hand grew tighter. Madness seized him—to destroy the mob—to tear down the guillotine—to stamp out this brutal festival—enthrone these children as the progenitors of a new race. Clear skinned and heroic as ancient Greeks. He could not even move his hands—he became faint—the sun swung in an inky sky. He rallied himself with the sweat pouring from his forehead.

“The little lawyer had retired, and another took his place. A big man, swarthy, and with crisp curling of hair, but his limbs were clean and straight and his shoulders broad. Beneath the olive of his complexion was a ruddy tinge. He towered above the executioner.

“As he spoke, and his voice was ringing and defiant, a change shook the crowd; something was wrong. He invoked an ancient law. The Fiesta was an ancient tradition, he argued. Had they forgotten that on that day not less than three persons could be executed! It was law—it had never been repealed. He urged the high churchman, who shifted uneasily in his scarlet saddle. The crowd began to murmur and then cry out. They were being cheated. The lieutenant scowled and looked about him, his heavy black brows meeting in a thunderous arch above his nose. Clamour arose on every side. Who was this upstart lawyer—was what he said the truth? A conclave formed around the guillotine—the tall ruddy lawyer could be seen dominating them. Soldiers closed in about the girl and boy. Raymond turned. The press was easier now and he felt sick and faint; he must get off the rock—out upon the hills where the cool winds might drive the fever from his brain.

“The lieutenant's voice spoke behind him in dialect. What was it he said? ‘Importunate foreigner’ — Raymond turned his head. A tall man wearing a homburg hat stood at the lieutenant's side. He fingered a tightly curled moustache. They both looked at him. Panic seized Raymond—he shouldered his way through the crowd. At the outskirts a soldier barred his way—long French pattern bayonet pointed at his breast. He turned about. He could not create a disturbance—the crowd was in a mood for anything. A foreigner was conspicuous—it would be easy to explain that he had caused a political uproar. From his new angle he could see the boy and girl—ringed about with soldiers, the crowd was howling like a pack of jackals.

“At this moment the soldier prodded him roughly between the shoulders, with the butt of his rifle. There was annoyance more than pain as he stumbled. His hat fell off, and while it flashed through his brain that it was
“In their midst … the prisoners.”

“In their midst … the prisoners.”

page 28 page 29 a deliberate attempt to provoke him—he had spun upon his heel and struck. The soldier—a bottle-nosed fellow with a heavy moustache, fell backward. Raymond seized his rifle and smashed his face with the butt. He turned upon the crowd, and dealt about him right and left—a man clapped hands to a broken jaw, another somersaulted like a shot rabbit. Raymond exulted. He was fighting his way to the guillotine—the crowd fell away from him like sticks before the wind, here was the lieutenant. He swung his weapon on high and the lieutenant drew his sword, and as he poised to deliver his blow the blade stung his left arm. He looked in surprise at his ragged coat sleeve, the blood streaming from severed sinews, and the rifle slipped from his grasp….

“He was standing by the boy and girl now, high above the crowd. There was peace all about and the sun shone brightly upon the dancing waves. Below him, expectant faces gazed upwards—the churchman droned in an interminable speech. He turned to look at the boy, and smiled faintly, the pain of his arm made him very sick. The youngster gave him a radiant smile—the girl smiled too. They were fellow voyagers now. The dancing blue frock filled him with a grave happiness.

“Presently the churchman would finish, and the whining motor would take up the strain. How cool the breeze was after the stench of the crowd! They would have their fiesta to-night, with the fires and the wild music, and the dancing.

“And now the moment had arrived—he lay upon his back gazing up at the crossbar of the guillotine—his neck snugged into the curve of the block. The executioner bent over him, his face filled the whole sky—blotting from his sight the boy and girl and the bright sunshine. But his eyes were anxious and a gentle sympathy softened the lines about his mouth.

“‘Senor,’ he called softly, ‘Senor,’ then turning his head, ‘See,’ he cried in excited patois, ‘he is not dead—he has had a terrible fall—but he lives!’

“Other faces drew near, faces that he knew, Mario, the padronne, Luigi Thejda, Alessandro Mulas—but the boy and girl were gone—also the guillotine and the savage crowd.

“He tried to rise, but the pain in his arm was excruciating and a dead weight seemed to press down his chest and shoulders.

“Mario gently restrained him. ‘Everything is splendid now,’ he said smiling, ‘soon we shall take you down to the village and Don Federico will set this broken arm and all the other bones which may be broken. Only you must lie still—one does not fall from the clouds every day.’

“‘But I don't understand,’ Raymond said, ‘the crowd,’ he added, and then painfully, with many halts and pauses
(Rly. Publicity photo.) Waiouru Station, on the Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand, on the verge of the National Park. (Waiouru is the highest station on the Main Trunk, being 2,660 feet above sea level.)

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Waiouru Station, on the Main Trunk Line, North Island, New Zealand, on the verge of the National Park. (Waiouru is the highest station on the Main Trunk, being 2,660 feet above sea level.)

of sweat-starting agony, he told them the story of the lawyers and the lieutenant, and the boy and girl and the guillotine. When he finished the kindly faces around him were sombre and apprehensive, and Mario crossed himself.

“‘The Senor has had a terrible fall,’ he muttered, and then as an afterthought portentously, ‘upon Pietro Negro’!”

Just as he emerged from the tobacconist's shop, with a fine new briar in his hand he bumped up against an old chum who greeted him cheerily with: “What ho!—another new pipe? Must cost you something for pipes, old sport!” “Oh, I don't know,” he said with a grin, “fact is my doctor has limited me to two smokes a day, so I've been buying a pipe with a decent sized bowl.” Both laughed heartily. “I know a trick worth two of that,” said his friend — “smoke ‘toasted.’ Next to no nicotine in it. The toasting works the oracle! No need to limit yourself with ‘toasted.’ You can smoke as many pipes of it a day as you like. And you simply can't match it for quality.” Thus he solved the riddle of how to smoke all he wanted, doctor's orders to the contrary, notwithstanding! Substitutes are sometimes offered for “toasted.” But there are no substitutes for Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold. They are unique!*

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