The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 1 (April 1, 1936.)
Limited Night Entertainments — Part XI. The Impostor
Anyone who has had occasion to go to Tawatahi knows that the journey involves some roundabout travelling. Coming from one of the main centres you leave the cosy warmth of a main line carriage in the small hours, stand blinking and shivering on a bleak little platform while your last apparent link with civilisation vanishes round a bend, and then stumble with any other lost souls who may be present, across metals and signal wires in the direction of a dimly burning lamp. This turns out to be encased in an iron frame above the door of “Madison House,” which is set in the black overwhelming silence of the bush, and the next five hours are spent in peaceful slumber.
Breakfast at “Madison House” is at seven sharp, and at seven-thirty, still bound for Tawatahi, you take your seat in the “Wild Cat, which, on its outward journey, consists of several empty timber trucks and a guard's van, and traverses some twenty miles of what is really a glorified bush tramway. The line is privately-owned and it is said that the contractor who built it, being paid by the mile, did his best to improve the old axiom that the longest way round was, to him at any rate, the most profitable, if not the shortest way there.
To the traveller sitting on the bench on the rear platform of the guard's van and watching the serpentine convolutions of the track spinning out behind, it may seem that that old contractor went out of his way to prove his point; but if he be in no great hurry and has an eye for beauty he will also give thanks to his memory. Kowhais draw trembling fingers along the sides of the van, tawa and rimu stand sentinel at every turn, and on all sides undisturbed by the fussing of the little geared locomotive is the piping of tuis and bellbirds. All of which suggests that Tawatahi, when one reaches it, is fairly remote. And so it is. It also comes as something of a surprise. The trees sweep back abruptly and give place to stumps, here and there are belled cows grazing, and a hint of fence-line. Then a roadway forms up each side of the line, and unpainted cottages each side of the roadway, The “Wild Cat” screeches like her namesake, a general store rolls past, then a bank, two or three sawmills and a post office.
The railway ends at the post office, and it was here, one very hot morning in January, that there stood amongst the other vehicles drawn up against the arrival of the train, one of those battered and indestructible motor-cars capriciously known as “galloping bedsteads.” A bearded and deeply sunburnt man sat hunched over the wheel, apparently dozing under the brim of his cabbage tree hat, for he took no notice of the comings and goings of men busy with the unloading, but remained quite motionless until the last of them had gone away. Then he roused, and shuffled across to the open door of the guard's van.
“Any stuff for Baker's?” he demanded, and his voice was of a pattern with his gait and his dilapidated car. Joyless, rasping and querulous. The guard, busy in the interior gloom, turned and saw the shaggy head framed in the doorway.
“Why, hullo George!” he exclaimed cheerily, “I haven't seen you in a twelve-month. You and that young nephew of yours are as shy as a couple of wekas.”
The bearded man vouchsafed no reply but a surly grunt, and the guard turned to some packing cases and sacks that lay on the floor of the van.
“This is your stuff,” he said, “if you back your old bus over here I'll give you a hand to load it.”
The packages were duly transferred to the car, and the guard, who had a reputation as a wag to maintain, kept up a running commentary during the proceedings, but his shafts of wit fell blunted from the bearded man's armour of taciturnity. When all was done he shook his head sadly, saying, “You must have a riotous time out on that block of yours, George!”
“That ain't George,” said a voice, and the guard, turning from his contemplation of the car which was moaning and sagging as it crawled out of sight, looking like some pathetically round-eyed animal with a broken back, found the driver of the “Wild Cat” standing at his side.
“Certainly it's old George Baker,” he said “who else could it be?”
“His nephew, Johnny.”
“No chance, Johnny walks upright and he's clean shaven.”
“Well, it's a long time since I saw him, but I'll bet that's not old George.”
“Double or quits the ten bob I owe you.”
“Right,” said the guard, consulting his consignment note book. He was silent a moment, then: “Bet's off,” he said, “what do you make of that signature.”
“Looks like the mark on a Chinese laundry ticket,” said the engine driver.
A certain Mr. Phillips made the trip to Tawatahi in February. He was a square-built, brusque little man, whose first inclination to curse the “Wild Cat” for its dilatory wanderings was soon dispelled by the interest which he extracted from the conversation of his fellow passengers. In addition to the guard himself, there were three citizens of Tawatahi and their talk was all concerning the recent untimely end of “young” Johnny Baker.
Johnny it seemed had been unfortunate enough to be standing behind a falling tawa, which, splitting as it fell, lashed back with the force of a recoiling gun and practically decapitated him. The details which the company discussed at considerable length were unpleasant, and Mr. Phillips presently made an attempt to turn the conversation into less gruesome channels.
“How long,” he asked, “had this ‘young’ Johnny Baker been working in the bush?”
“About a year, in these parts,” replied the guard, “but he wasn't too young, you know—man about fifty I should say.”page 53
“And he wasn't working in the bush either,” chimed in one of the citizens of Tawatahi.
“What he means,” the guard jerked a deprecatory thumb in the direction of his interrupter, “is that him and old George Baker wasn't working for one of the mills.”
“I see,” said Mr. Phillips, “where were they working then?”
“On old George's place, and according to what he said afterwards they were cutting for firewood.”
“And they were alone at the time?” Mr. Phillips opined.
“They were always alone,” the guard answered, and Mr. Phillips nodded thoughtfully.
Shortly after this the “Wild Cat” ran into Tawatahi clearing, and Mr. Phillips walked straight from the train to the general store which, by means of an enamelled-iron sign, pronounced itself to be the local office of the Perennial Insurance Company.
The store-keeper was a talkative man with a glistening moon-like face, and he became more talkative and glistening than ever when Mr. Phillips, drawing him aside, introduced himself and came briskly to the point.
“I am here,” he said “to investigate the Baker claim on the Perennial Company.”
“Ah yes!” the store-keeper mopped his forehead, “very sad affair that, Mr. Phillips, but between you and me it is a cloud which has a silver lining—for the old man. What I mean to say is, it is fortunate for him being able to collect Johnny's £500 insurance as next of kin just at this time. Things haven't been too rosy up here lately and there has been talk of the mill people giving an extra turn to the screws of that mortgage they hold on the Baker block—though how the information got out I couldn't say—”
“Yes, yes, I know all that,” Mr. Phillips held up his hand impatiently, “what I'm chiefly concerned with, is establishing the identity of the claimant.”
“Who, old George Baker?” the storekeeper laughed incredulously, “Why, everyone knows of him.”
“Do they?” Mr. Phillips raised his eyebrows in a faint smile. “What do they know? What does he look like? How old is he, does he pay his bills?”
The store-keeper flapped absently with his handkerchief. “'Strewth ain't the flies crook,” he growled irrelevantly then, —“Old George well, he's a queer old chap, a bit simple as you might say, and he don't come to town more than once or twice in a year, but I know, and everyone knows, who he is and what he looks like right enough.”
Mr. Phillips nodded, “Then you will agree with me when I say that he is a short, stout man, clean shaven, looks ten years younger than his age, which is sixty-nine, and makes a dubious living as a bookmaker's tout.”
“Ha ha,” said the store-keeper, “I suppose you couldn't have got further from the mark if you had tried.”
“I didn't have to try,” Mr. Phillips retorted, “because the man I have just described recently produced at the Head Office of your company certain evidence that he was the Mr. George Baker to whom the money was payable.”
“How could he do that?” demanded the store-keeper, “old George couldn't have left the district without someone seeing him, and even if he had, he doesn't look like what you said.”
“We shall see,” said Mr. Phillips. He glanced at the watch upon his wrist, “how long does it take to get to Baker's block?”
“Two hours if nothing breaks; the track's terrible.”
It was. The storekeeper's car, another of the genus “bedstead.” jolted and bounced in and out of the pot holes, boiled and covered its occupants with a fine cloud of pumice dust, until just when Mr. Phillips felt that even devotion to duty could sustain him no longer, the country opened out into a grassy clearing, in one corner of which stood an iron whare with a wisp of smoke curling from its chimney. Half a dozen mangy dogs set up a clamour at their approach, and at the door of the whare appeared a bent and bewhiskered figure, who received them dourly until the magic name of the Perennial Insurance Company kindled a spark of interest in his suspicious eye.
“George,” said the store-keeper, “Mr. Philips here says that some spieler in the city is trying to get down on your insurance money by claiming that he's ‘young’ Johnny's uncle.”
“Johnny never had but one uncle,” replied the old man motioning them into the whare, “and that's me. I can prove that.”
“So can the other man,” said Mr. Phillips. He eyed with disfavour the dingy interior of the whare, and settled himself gingerly on the edge of a rickety chair, “But perhaps I had better tell you his story first. It seems that about twenty-five years ago when this district was first opened up for settlement, George Baker took up this block, and had as his partner a penniless man called Harry Blanchard. They worked away amicably for a year or so clearing the section and selling their millable timber to a small portable concern which was operating nearby. They had just about cleared themselves out, and were settling down to cultivate the land when a rival mill came in, and to get a start, offered a better price for timber.
“Baker and Blanchard were in need of money for seed and stock, and what must Baker do but go falling milltimber beyond the boundaries of their block, on land which happened to be leased to the proprietors of the first mill. Naturally, suspicion was aroused at this new source of Baker's wealth, and the owner of the pilfered timber came out to investigate. There was a fight, and Baker struck his opponent with a slab. Thinking he had killed him, he bolted and let it be thought that he was Blanchard.
“As it turned out the man did not die, he was not even seriously hurt, but the identities of the partners had become confused, and as the years went on some said that Baker was Blanchard and others that Blanchard was Baker. In the end Blanchard, perhaps because he felt he owed something to Baker, perhaps because—” Mr. Phillips did not finish his sentence, but looking meaningly at the store-keeper made a slight movement of his hand towards his head, “gave the mill people a lien over part of the property to pay for the stolen timber and the manager's cracked head, and became definitely identified in the district as George Baker.”
There was silence in the whare as Mr. Philips finished speaking, a heavy brooding silence into which crept the squeak of a straining wire fence. Old George Baker, who during the recital had sat apparently unheeding with downcast eyes, raised his head at the sound, frowned, and made as if to rise, then settled back in his chair again as Mr. Phillips resumed his story.
“Shortly after John Baker's unfortunate death we received a visit from a man who, as I have already told Mr. —er,” he waved towards the storekeeper, is fairly well known to the police in the city as an undesirable character. He had seen the notice of the accident in a copy of the local paper, which with the usual volubility of these journals, also printed the intelligence regarding the insurance moneys. He then produced proof in the shape of documents, records, and old photographs that he was the original George Baker.”
Mr. Phillips paused with a satirical smile. “The question to be settled, gentlemen, is, which is the true and authentic Mr. Baker?”
His question was directed at the bearded old man, but it was ignored, for at the same instant came once again that squeak of fence-wire followed immediately by a slithering crash and the terrified squawking of fowls. George Baker, or Harry Blanchard, whichever it might be, leapt to his feet with a lively stream of profanity, and still swearing charged out of the door and round the whare to where an aged and mulish draught-horse was standing amongst the wreckage of a flimsy leanto which, judging by its scattered contents had contained amongst other things several sacks of chaff.
Mr. Phillips and the storekeeper, watching him from the window, were amazed at the agility with which this erstwhile decrepit old man leaped over obstructions and cuffed and hounded the unfortunate animal back into its proper paddock. When he returned to the whare he walked erect with the stride of a man in his prime, and then, noticing the look of astonishment on the faces of the other two he stopped aghast, as he realised what he had done.
“I feel,” said Mr. Phillips facetiously, “that I have witnessed a miracle.”
The bearded man shrugged his shoulders in resignation.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose the jig was up anyway, with that precious uncle of mine turning up. Not that I had any idea old Blanchard wasn't George Baker, any more than you did,” he said to the store-keeper, “I certainly would not have tried it on if I had.”
“Tried what on?” asked the storekeeper
“Swindling the insurance company,” interposed Mr. Phillips. I believe I am right in assuming that it was Harry Blanchard who was struck by the falling tree and that you are John Baker.”
“You are, replied Baker. “And now that the cat's out of the bag, I may as well explain. I would never have had the idea if I had not gone to town for the stores last month. I had a touch of lumbago in the morning and the trip in the flivver didn't improve it, so that by the time I got in, I was nobody's friend, and couldn't straighten my back to save my bacon. The guard mistook me for old George, or Harry, I suppose it should be.
“I forgot all about it until the afternoon of the accident—and—poor old George, Harry I mean, might have been anyone after that tree had finished with him you see—”
“Yes, yes, I've heard all the details,” said Mr. Phillips.
“Well, then,” said ‘young’ Johnny, “it didn't seem to me I was doing anyone any particular harm in pretending to be the old man, and it would certainly have done me a bit of good.”
“I suppose it would,” remarked Mr. Phillips dryly. “Well,” he added, “we must be going Mr. —er—”
The store-keeper rose rather confusedly, and John Baker watched them in silence.
As they climbed into the car, he put his hand on the door.
“How am I going to get on?” he asked.
“That I can't say,” replied Mr. Phillips, “I'll do my best for you, but,” he added with a twinkle, “it will be a great disappointment to your uncle.”
“I can bear that,” said John Baker sourly.