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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 1 (April 1, 1937)

The Iron Common-wheel

page 45

The Iron Common-wheel

Whilst the great train busied herself, with the wisdom of an athlete, in examination and test for her long wrestle with the muscular miles ahead, I watched with the melancholy pleasure of the solitary unattended traveller, the faces of those who had come, like composites of past pleasures, to burn their incense before the departure of their friends. By advice, anxiety and jest, each revealed the particular and peculiar trait which had endeared them to the departing, and obtained for them the honour of fusing their friendly values in farewell.

There was one fortunate man before whom glowed on the canvas of Night, Love nudged by Literature and Sport treading on the toes of both, beseeching him not to draw out too finely in his imagination the short glitter that might hang from the aery web of his fishing line, along those streams where willows like the ghosts of patient anglers dream and tremble to the tug of scaly jaws. That dark man in the dramatic cloak had mysterious Business to shake his hand and eye him like a neatly turned account. “If I were you,” he advised, “I should revert to the old arrangement and concentrate on prospects in and around D … ! The main thing is for you to go for your life and sell as many as you can before you go down South.” “Yes, I believe business will be better down there. Besides I always seem to feel brighter down South,” replied the dark romantic with vigour; but his entire frame seemed to grow soft and sleepy with the thought of all the ripe tinted beauty which that ardent point of the compass encourages. In the South I could not see that man in search of prospects. I could not see him going for his life or for anyone else's life. But I could see him being slowly metamorphosed into that body having organisation, but possessing neither sensation or voluntary motion, which we term “a vegetable.” And I could see him twined about a grape vine like a dryad, devouring this book which he held impatient to open, like a great but steadily diminishing sandwich, until the frost cocked its ears and began to smell around his heels for tender places.

Behind me sat two of the most beautiful people in the universe. They shook confetti from their hats and coat collars and were so transparent that I put them to my eye like a lorgnette and through them beheld an insignificant and envious world. The gloom of the dark corners was lightened by patriarchal beards which would, toward midnight, slope like spring avalanches on to their wearers' breasts; and, in the middle of the compartment, the widely travelled conversed in low calm tones, amused, I believe, to find that they had arrived at imperturbability so much earlier than the rest. For it would be hours yet before the excited emotional chatter of the younger travellers subsided into tones as calm, tired and matured as their own. “Wait!” their glances seemed to say. “Midnight … and miles!”

At the last moment a young husband and his beautiful wife were hurried into us by the fanfare of bells and whistles and All-aboards, and he, having ushered her into her seat, began to dispose of their luggage with those high flat palmed gestures reminiscent of putting the stone.

I sometimes feel that man is merely a tormented analogy between the flesh and spirit, or at best, is but the curious child of a serpent, ready to leap down the throat and into the energy of every sentient thing, from the horse with its back-turned lip delicately drinking to the right ear of a dog, full of delicious itch, being rubbed
(photo., N. A. Haddon, Palmeration North) A night scene at the Palmerston North station (North Island, New Zealand), showing the Wellington-Auckland “Limited” at the platform.

(photo., N. A. Haddon, Palmeration North)
A night scene at the Palmerston North station (North Island, New Zealand), showing the Wellington-Auckland “Limited” at the platform.

with joy along the grass. But myself, I never enter as thoroughly into any one of these masquerades of the spirit as I do into the soul of a man disposing of his luggage. He is at the one and same time (and consequently, so am I), the luggage with its smooth face fearful of a wiry scratch, the immense airy luggage rack and distrust of that rack and he is his wife's, or anyone else's apprenhensive head below. He is the protesting seams of his coat and he is a tottering limb bereft of the staff of equilibrium. Thank heaven when all is stowed away! I shoot my cuffs with him and drawing my coat together, begin to shame myself before the eyes of my wife with attentions to the false promises of early mastery held out by the window catch.

Meanwhile we were gliding sauvely from that Mecca of the wheel, the city. Her black escutcheon was emblazoned with golden cloves through which the train trod nobly, locomotive rampant. Having no literary sandwich to feed my eyes I began to beggar my neighbours privacy with polite glances. At his window the dark romantic man read deeply, occasionally glancing toward the mirror held by the flying night with a stare of covert love and despair at his own face. The confetti couple had sunk their voices to a well-like depth and their holy state forbade any hand touch the windlass. Time passed, and when the Procession of the Pillowy Potentates had intermingled with the passengers and its substance had deserted the pageant for heads of gold, black, brown and grey, all faces were turned to the wall, like the visages of sick kings, behind whom the courtly but malignant lights kept an even glow. (continued on p.47 .)

page 46

page 47
(From the W. W. Stewart collection) A suburban train leaving Wellington.

(From the W. W. Stewart collection) A suburban train leaving Wellington.

Did I sleep? I can't remember. Soon, the Lucifer-like rain fell from the sky in slow stealthy trails. On soft hands and knees crawling along the roof like some Persian Prince alighting from his wooden steed to come down into the blue midnight of the sleeping court and steal his star-ravished bride. Each stopping place was the ear of an awakening chamberlain, tensely listening to his dripping footsteps. Then, under us the wheels fled like deer, rose skyward like winged horses, crawled sinuously like a diamond spined serpent in the sea. Then again, it was exactly as though you were being carried on a pencil, which in Titian's hand was executing some mighty drawing. A great sweeping line flies unerringly from mind and hand. Ecco! Now some little detail here about a garment. Vabene! Now perhaps the pencil is in flight after a departing conception or shading in, with fine slow labour, the native damask of a face. All night long we are carried about the design, while in the warm dark we sleep or think or are aroused by the gentle voices of the considerate speaking to those whom they love. Toward morning when the stars shone with that last desperate brightness which augurs dawn, I looked out and saw thin black trees loaded like Hebridean fishing racks with the mesh of the mist in which struggled the thin shoals of light. And then came dawn, walking to the Emmaus of her zenith, with a tall cloud on either side. These, having bowed her farewell, stalked along the edge of the world, like two travellers who, not finding a bed in the tavern, had wandered with easy going minds into the yard to rest among the shrubs and the dew. When the sun, an early waiter came with their wine, they flushed with pleasure and stretching themselves out, talked with grand gestures of the East from whence they had come, and whilst they talked, their ship, with airy gallantry came into the tavern yard after them and bobbed in the rosy waves of their well-being. Nearby in the meadow, a cloudy scytheman curved his slow, bright hook, and into our tawny carriage the vigour of his life filtered awakening the sleepers.

I looked around. The dark romantic man gripped his book in lieu of a vine, but the young husband and wife still
(Rly. Publicity photo.) Christ church-Invercargrill express passing Caroline Bay, Timaru, South Island, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
Christ church-Invercargrill express passing Caroline Bay, Timaru, South Island, New Zealand.

sat charmed in deep pathetic slumber. His fair head was bowed above her in a dream and on his breast her head lay like that dream. Toward the east she turned a face as golden as the daughter of Midas and her pure thin lids were warmed by the travellers and their ship and their fantastic voyagi. which would land them by midday in the narrow bay of a flower. But none of this she saw, for soon the travellas took sail, the scytheman faded ere his meadows died and the sun, bereft of his patrons, awoke her, as blazing fiercely he went about his diurnal duties in the tavern of the Earth.

“There are some things I can do without at a pinch,” he told the tobacconist, “but ‘baccy's not one of them. I clinched smoking once for a month. Thought I might be better without it. I wasn't. After all, there's not so many joys in life, so why cut out one of the best of the bunch? Smoking gives me more solid comfort and enjoyment than anything else, and as I smoke ‘toasted’ (Cut Plug No. 10), I reckon I'm on the safe side.” “Too right, you are!” agreed the tobacconist heartily, “there's no harm in toasted because there's no nicotine in it to signify. Toasting does the trick! Why are Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Cavendish and Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog) in almost everybody's pipe? While Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold are reckoned the finest cigarette tobaccos going! In a word, ‘toasted's’ first favourite with smokers everywhere, and every year sees a huge advance in the factory output.” “You can't keep a good man down,” laughed the other chap, “and you can't keep a good thing down either.”