Jessie's 'Reflections'

 
 
There had been torrential rains over the whole country, nothing like it for years; many rivers had been in flood and roads impassable for weeks and even railway bridges had Come to grief, including: that over the Hunyani river. The river itself stretched Some 100 yards on each side of the bridge, making it almost three times its normal width. The earth embankments forming the approaches to the bridge were washed away, leaving the railway track over the gap between the steel structure of the bridge and the bank, hanging in mid air rather like a sagging clothes lines, and it was days before the waters subsided sufficiently to enable repair work to be started. In these circumstances
four of us returning to bulawayo after a short trip to Salisbury, were very thrilled
by the fact that ours would be the first train to cross the Hunyani bridge after it had been repaired.
This train left Salisbury two hours earlier than usual, i.e. about 5 p.m. and the platform was crowded with well-wishers as we drew out. We reached Hunyani about sunset - a glorious sunset covering the sky with gold and pink clouds. Just before the engine reached the Hunyani bridge it stopped, was uncoupled and taken to the rear of the train, and while this was happening all passengers were told that no one was to leave the train for any purpose whatsoever - many of them were walking about nearby:. Every window had people looking out from it; the four of us kept going from side to side of the compartment, agog with excitement. There were numbers of natives all talking loudly and quite a few white men in the veld by the side of the train. I
I caught sight of a man I knew hurrying along followed by half a dozen boys and was told that he was the owner of the car that we could see stuck in the mud about twenty yards from the railway line and had borrowed these boys to help him out.
Our compartment Was about the middle of the train so we could see little of what was happening at the bridge, but we could see the lights of an engine on the other side of the river and were told that this engine was being attached to our front coaches by a long wire rope in order to tow us across, as it was not yet considered safe to let the bridge bear the weight of an engine as well as a train, though it was safe enough to take the weight of the coaches alone.
Every one was laughing and talking. A gentleman and lady were in the compartment next to us; she did not appear to be very interested but he was talking to someone outside the train and we heard him say,
"I have four bars of gold on this train, I hope it won't go to the bottom of the Hunyani", and soon after there was a very loud whistle and we began to move slowly, incredibly slowly. The river was about three feet below the bridge and it was too dusk by then really to see the water very clearly, but we were acutely aware of it rushing and swirling very close to us as we crawled along. It was a real thrill, but quite a relief when we were safely over.
At Norton there was a prolonged wait while coaches were being rearranged. Alongside our compartment was an empty train, in darkness.
We of course were well lighted and noticed that, reflected in the windows of the train alongside, we could plainly see what was happening in the compartment next door. Our spirits were high, we had belated sundowners brought along and Were so pleased that the steward who attended us was the same one who had been on our train on the journey up. He was a pleasant little man, quite chatty, spoke with a foreign accent and called a beer shandy a shandybeer. When we had arrived in Salisbury we had felt quite friendly towards him and now welcomed him again at Norton when he came for orders.
While drinking our sundowners we had noticed in the reflection of the windows of the train alongside that the lady' and gentleman next door were also going to partake of liquid refreshment; but they only produced an uninteresting looking thermos flask, arranged two cups and poured tea
Then the gentleman stood up to see to something on the top bunk and we saw the lady quickly drop a tablet into his cup of tea. “I expect the poor chap has got a headache worrying about his bars of gold", was someone's comment. Very soon after that they pulled up the shutters and we thought no more about them.
Next morning our train was three hours late arriving in Bulawayo, but we had all slept well and went happily to work, not dreaming that anything further was to come of our mild adventures that we had enjoyed so much.
The following morning, however, we had a bit of a shock for there were large headlines in the paper "Man Found Dead In Train: Foul Play Suspected. Gold stolen". There were photos of the man who had been in the next compartment to ours, who had been poisoned and, to our horror, our friendly steward had been arrested for the murder.
It appeared that the man in charge of the gold had had papers on him to enable him to dispose of it in Bulawayo - Someone had stolen those papers and had vanished, with the gold.
The body had not been discovered at once because it was lying on the top bunk and had not been noticed till some hours after the train arrived when a man cleaning out the compartment had done so and had reported the matter to the station officials, who in turn reported to the police.
Meanwhile, the police had also been notified of the non-arrival of the gold, and after various enquiries it was discovered that the steward had been the last to visit the Compartment and, it was alleged, had taken the papers and given them to a confederate at the station, though of course he emphatically denied this; he was detained in custody. There was no sign whatever of the gold - it had vanished into thin air.
We simply couldn't believe this about our steward, he was such a bright little fellow and looked absolutely honest - surely there must be some mistake. We were terribly worried about him, and while talking over the affair we suddenly remembered what we had seen in the compartment next to ours while our train waited at Norton. Could that have had anything to do with the case? We knew the man had the gold with him. Who was the woman, and was it poison that we saw her put into his tea'? In the account in the paper there was no mention of a lady, and yet she had been travelling with the Murdered man. It seemed rather strange, yet we hesitated to go to the police - they would probably imagine we just wanted publicity and the reflection story would simply sound fantastic.
 However, that afternoon we did see the Chief of Police and told him the story'. He was only just interested, said he would remember what we'd told him, but there was no knowledge of any lady.
Every effort was being made to trace the gold; the papers assured readers: that the police were 'on the track' of it and of the murderer; but after a day or two most people lost interest in the case. We didn't, however, and kept on thinking of the poor little steward in prison and wishing we could help him.
 Then came our chance. A phone call came through asking us to call at the Police Station as soon as possible - we lost no time in doing so.
The prisoner had asked if we could be contacted as he thought we might help him. The Chief received us in his office, then asked me to follow him to another room. Here were seated two ladies, one of whom. I recognised at once to be the lady who had travelled in the compartment next to ours. I was asked if I'd seen either of them before and I simply told what I knew. Then the others came in and identified the same lady. She said nothing during the interview, but as we left remarked, “ I also noticed the reflections and put up the shutters, but didn't realise that we had been spied on.”
We learnt later that the car in which the two "ladies" were taking the gold out of the country had skidded, struck a tree and had been wrecked. The police had lost no time in sending orders for all cars leaving the country to be searched, and had found the stranded ladies, the gold hidden under sacks and also, in one of the ladies’ handbags, some of the same poison that had been found in the body of the murdered man.
How glad we were to have been able to save the steward. We were able to arrange to meet him and told him how very glad we were to have helped him and promised to drink to his health that evening. His gratitude was quite pathetic and as we shook hands and wished him good luck he said he would tell his wife what good, kind ladies lived in Rhodesia
 

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