Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 1

The Young Horologist

“DRAT that clock!” exclaimed my Aunt Judy. “Saturday night, too. Of course, it would choose Saturday night to stop.”

She looked up malevolently at the stolid face and the motionless pendulum that hung straight down like a plumb-bob, and then, as she hopped up on a chair to lift the clock off its nail, she continued: “Get me the bellows, Nat.”

I extricated myself with some difficulty from the little arm-chair. For dear Uncle Gollidge had over looked the fact that boys grow and chairs do not, so that it was now a rather tight fit with a tendency to become, like a snail’s shell, a permanent attachment. The separation accomplished, I took the bellows from the hook beside the fire-place and went to my aunt’s assistance; she having, in her quick, brisk way, unhooked the pendulum and opened the little side doors of the case. Then I held the clock steady on the table while she plied the bellows with the energy of a village blacksmith, blowing out a most encouraging cloud of dust through the farther door-opening.

“We will see what that will do,” said she, slapping the little doors to, fastening the catches and hooking on the pendulum. Once more she sprang up on the chair, replaced the dock on its nail, gave the pendulum a persuasive pat, and descended.

“What is the time by your watch, Dad?” she asked. Old Mr. Gollidge paused in the story that he was telling and looked at her with mild reproach. A great story-teller was old Mr. Gollidge (he had been a ship’s carpenter), but Aunt Judy had a way of treating his interminable yarns as mere negligible sounds like the ticking of a clock or the dripping of a leaky tap, and she now repeated her question; whereupon the old gentleman, having contributed to a large spittoon at his side, stuck his pipe in his mouth and hauled a bloated silver watch from the depths of his pocket as if he were hoisting out cargo from the lower hold.

“Watch seems to say,” he announced, after looking at it with slight surprise, “as it’s a quarter past six.”

“Six!” shrieked Aunt Judy. “Why, I heard the church clock strike seven a full half-hour ago.”

“Then,” said the old gentleman, “‘twould seem to be about three bells, say half-past seven. Watch must have stopped.”

He confirmed the diagnosis by applying it to his ear, and then, having fished up from another pocket an old-fashioned bronze, crank-shaped key, opened the front glass of the watch, which had the winding-hole in the dial like a clock, inserted the key and proceeded to wind as if he were playing a little barrel-organ.

“Half-past seven, you say,” said he, transferring the key to the centre square preparatory to setting the hands.

Aunt Judy looked up at the clock, which was still sluggishly wagging its pendulum but uttering no tick, and shook her head impatiently.

“It’s no use guessing,” said she. “We shall want to know the time in the morning. If you put on your slipper, Nat, you can run round and have a look at Mr. Abraham’s clock. It isn’t far to go.”

The necessity for putting on my slipper arose from a blister on my heel which had kept me a bootless prisoner in the house. I began cautiously to insinuate my foot into the slipper and had nearly completed the operation when Aunt Judy suddenly interposed.

“Listen,” said she; and as we all froze into immobility, the silence was broken by the church clock striking eight. Then old Mr. Gollidge deliberately set the hands of his watch, put it to his ear to make sure that it was going, and lowered it into his pocket; and Aunt Judy, mounting the chair, set the clock to time, gave the pendulum a final pat, and hopped down.

“We’ll give it another chance,” she remarked, optimistically; but I knew that her optimism was unfounded when I listened for the tick and listened in vain; and, sure enough, the oscillations of the pendulum slowly died away until it hung down as motionless as the weight.

In the ensuing silence, old Mr. Gollidge took up the thread of his narrative.

“And then the boy comes up from the cuddy and says he seemed to hear a lot of water washin’ about down below. So the mate he tells me for to sound the well, which I did; and, of course, I found there was a foot or two of water in it. There always was. Reg’ler old basket, that ship was. Always a-drainin’ in, a-drainin’ in, and the pumps a-goin’ something crool.”

“Ought to have had a windmill,” said Uncle Gollidge, taking a very black clay pipe from his mouth and expectorating skilfully between the bars of the grate, “same as what the Dutchmen do in the Baltic timber trade.”

The old gentleman shook his head. “Windmills is all right,” said he, “if you’ve got a cargo of soft timber what’ll float anyway. But they won’t keep a leaky ship dry. Besides —”

“Now, Nat,” said Aunt Judy, hooking a Dutch oven on the bar of the grate, “bring your chair over and keep an eye on the black pudding; and you, Sam, just mind where you’re spitting.”

Uncle Sam, who rather plumed himself on his marksmanship, replied with a scornful grunt; I rose to my feet (the chair rising with me) and took up my station opposite the Dutch oven, the back flap of which I lifted to make an interested inspection of the slices of black pudding (longitudinal sections, as the Doctor would say) which were already beginning to perspire greasily, in the heat. Meanwhile, Aunt Judy whisked about the kitchen (also the general sitting-room) busily making ready for the morrow, and old Mr. Gollidge droned on tirelessly like the brook that goes on for ever.

Of the morrow’s doings I must say a few words, since they formed a milestone marking the first stage of my earthly pilgrimage. It had been arranged that the four of us should spend the Sunday with Aunt Judy’s younger Sister, a Mrs. Budgen, who lived with her husband in the country out Finchley way. But my unfortunate blistered heel put me out of the party, much to my regret, for these excursions were the bright spots in my rather drab existence. Aunt Budgen was a kindly soul who gave us the warmest of welcomes, as did her husband, a rather taciturn dairy — farmer. Then there was the glorious drive out of London on the front seat of the Finchley omnibus with its smart, white-hatted driver and the third horse stepping out gaily in front with jingling harness and swaying swingle-bar.

But the greatest delight of these visits was the meeting with my sister, Maggie, who had been adopted by Aunt Budgen at the time when Aunt Judy had taken me. These were the only occasions on which we met, and it was a joy to us both to ramble in the meadows, to call on the cows in the shippon, or to sit together on the brink of the big pond and watch the incredible creatures that moved about in its depths.

However, there were to be compensations. Aunt Judy expounded them to me as I superintended the black pudding, turning the Dutch oven when necessary to brown the opposite sides.

“I’m leaving you three pork sausages; they’re rather small ones, but you are rather a small boy; and there are some cold potatoes which you can cut into slices and fry with the sausages, and mind you don’t set the chimney on fire. Then there is a baked raisin pudding — you can hot that up in the oven — and a whole jar of raspberry jam. You can take as much of that as you like, so long as you don’t make yourself ill; and I’ve left the key in the book-cupboard, but you must wash your hands before you take any of the books out. I am sorry you can’t come with us, and Maggie will be disappointed, too; but I think you’ll be able to make yourself happy. I know you don’t mind being alone a bit.”

Aunt Judy was right. I was a rather solitary boy; a little given to day-dreaming and, consequently, partial to my own society. But she prophesied better than she knew. Not only was I able to make myself happy in my solitude; but that Sunday stands out as one of the red-letter days of my life.

To be sure, the day opened rather cheerlessly. As I stood on the doorstep with my single boot and bandaged foot, watching the departure, I was sensible of a pang of keen disappointment and of something approaching loneliness. I followed the receding figures wistfully with my eyes as they walked away down the street in their holiday attire, Aunt Judy gorgeous in her silk dress and gaily-flowered bonnet and the two men in stiff black broadcloth and tall hats, to which old Mr. Gollidge’s fine, silver-topped malacca gave an added glory. At the corner Aunt Judy paused to wave her hand to me; then she followed the other two and was lost to view.

I turned back sadly into the house, which, when I had shut the door, seemed dark and gloomy, and made my way to the kitchen. In view of the early start to catch the omnibus, I had volunteered to wash up the breakfast things, and I now proceeded to get this job off my hands; but as I dabbled at the big bowl in the scullery sink, my thoughts still followed the holiday makers. I saw them mounting the omnibus (it started from St. Martin’s Church), and visualized its pea-green body with the blessed word “Finchley” in big gold letters. I saw the driver gather up the reins and the conductor spring up to the monkey-board; and then away the omnibus rattled, and my thoughts went on ahead to the sweet countryside and to Maggie, waiting for me at the stile, and waiting in vain. That was the most grievous part of the affair, and it wrung my heart to think of it; indeed, if it had not been beneath the dignity of a young man of nine to shed tears, I think I should have wept.

When I had finished with the crockery, put the plates in the rack and hung the cups on their hooks, I tidied up the sink and then drifted through into the kitchen, where I looked about me vaguely, still feeling rather miserable and unsettled. From the kitchen I wandered into the parlour, or “best room”, where I unlocked the book cupboard and ran my eye along the shelves. But their contents had no attractions for me. I didn’t want books; I wanted to run in the fields with Maggie and look on all the things that were so novel and strange to a London boy. So I shut the cupboard and went back to the kitchen, where, once more, I looked about me, wondering what I should do to pass the time. It was too early to think of frying the sausages, and, besides, I was not hungry, having eaten a substantial breakfast.

It was at this moment that my wandering glance lighted on the clock. There it hung, stolid-faced, silent, and motionless. What, I wondered, could be the matter with it? Often enough before had it stopped, but Aunt Judy’s treatment with the bellows had always set it ticking again. Now the bellows seemed to have lost their magic and the clock would have to have something different done to it.

But what? Could it be just a matter of old age? Clocks, I realized, grow old like men; and, thinking of old Mr. Gollidge, I realized also that old age is not a condition that can be cured. But I was loth to accept this view and to believe that it had “stopped short, never to go again “, like Grandfather’s Clock in the song.

I drew up a high chair, and, mounting it, looked up earnestly at the familiar face. It was a pleasant old clock, comely and even beautiful in its homely way, reflecting the simple, honest outlook of the Black Forest peasants who had made it; the wooden dial painted white with a circle of fine bold hour-figures (“chapters” they call them in the trade), a bunch of roses painted on the arch above the dial, and each of the four corner-spaces, or spandrels, decorated with a sprig of flowers, all done quite skilfully and with the unerring good taste of the primitive artist.

From inspection I proceeded to experiment. A gentle pat at the pendulum set it swinging, but brought no sound of life from within; but when I turned the minute-hand, as I had seen Aunt Judy do, while the pendulum still swung, a faint tick was audible; halting and intermittent, but still a tick. So the clock was not dead. Then I tried a gentle pull at the chain which bore the weight, whereupon the tick became quite loud and regular, and went on for some seconds after I ceased to pull, when it once more died away. But now I had a clue to the mystery. The weight was not heavy enough to keep the clock going; but since the weight had not changed, the trouble must be something inside the clock, obstructing its movements. It couldn’t be dust because Aunt Judy had blown it out thoroughly. Then what could it be?

As I pondered this problem I was assailed by a great temptation. Often had I yearned to look into the clock and see what its mysterious “works” were really like, but beyond a furtive peep when the bellows were being plied, I had never had an opportunity. Now, here was a perfect opportunity. Aunt Judy, no doubt, would have disapproved, but she need never know; and, in any case, the clock wouldn’t go, so there could be no harm. Thus reasoning, I unhooked the weight from the chain and set it down on the chair, and then, not without difficulty, reached up, lifted the clock off its nail, and, descending cautiously with my prize, laid it tenderly on the table.

I began by opening the little side doors and the lifting them bodily off the brass hooks that served as hinges. Now I could see how to take off the pendulum, and, when I had done this, I carried the clock to the small table by the window, drew up a chair, and, seating myself, proceeded to study the interior at my ease. Not that there was much to study in its simple, artless mechanism. Unlike most of these “Dutch” clocks, it had no alarum (or perhaps this had been removed), and the actual “train” consisted of no more than three wheels and two pinions. Nothing more perfect for the instruction of the beginner could be imagined. There were, it is true, some mysterious wheels just behind the dial in a compartment by them selves and evidently connected with the hands, but these I disregarded for the moment, concentrating my attention on what I recognized as the clock, proper.

It was here that my natural mechanical aptitude showed itself, for by the time that I had studied the train in all its parts, considering each wheel in connection with the pinion to which it was geared, I had begun to grasp the principle on which the whole thing worked. The next proceeding was to elucidate the matter by experiment. If you want to know what effects a wheel produces when it turns, the obvious thing is to turn the wheel and see what happens. This I proceeded to do, beginning with the top wheel, as the most accessible, and turning it very gently with my finger. The result was extremely interesting. Of course, the next wheel turned slowly in the opposite direction, but, at the same time, the wire pendulum — crutch wagged rapidly to and fro.

This was quite a discovery. Now I understood what kept the pendulum swinging and what was cause of the tick; but, more than this, I now had a clear idea as to the function of the pendulum as the regulator of the whole movement. As to the rest of the mechanism, there was little to discover. I had already noticed the ratchet and pawl connected with the pulley, and now, when I drew the chain through, the reason why it moved freely in the one direction and was held immovable in the other was perfectly obvious; and this made clear the action of the weight in driving the clock.

There remained the group of wheels in the narrow space behind the dial. From their position they were less easy to examine, but when I turned the minute — hand and set them in motion, their action was quite easy to follow. There were three wheels and one small pinion, and when I moved the hand round they all turned. But not in the same direction. One wheel and the pinion turned in the opposite direction to the hand, while the other two wheels, a large one and a much smaller one, turned with the hand; and as the large one moved very slowly, being driven by the little pinion, whereas the small one turned at the same speed as the hand, I concluded that the small wheel belonged to the minute-hand, while the large wheel turned the hour-hand. And at this I had to leave it, since the actual connections could not be ascertained without taking the clock to pieces.

But now that I had arrived at a general understanding of the clock, the original problem reappeared. Why wouldn’t it go? I had ascertained that it was structurally complete and undamaged. But yet when it was started it refused to tick and the pendulum did nothing but wag passively and presently cease to do even that. When it had stopped on previous occasions, the bellows had set it going again. Evidently, then, the cause of the stoppage had been dust. Could it be that dust had at last accumulated beyond the powers of the bellows? The appearance of the inside of the clock (and my own fingers) lent support to this view. Wheels and case alike presented a dry griminess that seemed unfavourable to easy running. Perhaps the clock simply wanted cleaning.

Reflecting on this, and on the difficulty of getting at the wheels in the narrow space, it suddenly occurred to me that my tooth-brush would be the very thing for the purpose. Instantly, I hopped off to my little bedroom and was back in a few moments with this invaluable instrument in my hand. Pausing only to make up the fire, which was nearly out, I fell to work on the clock, scrubbing wheels and pinions and what ever the brush would reach, with visible benefit to everything, excepting the brush. When the worst of the grime had been removed, I blew out the dislodged dust with the bellows and began to consider how I should test the results of my efforts. There was no need to hang the clock on its nail (and, indeed, I was not disposed to part with it so soon), but it must be fixed up somehow so that the weight and the pendulum could hang free. Eventually, I solved the problem by drawing the small table towards the large one, leaving a space of about nine inches between them, and bridging the space with a couple of narrow strips of wood from a broken-up packing-case. On this bridge I seated the clock, with its chain and the rehung pendulum hanging down between the strips. Then I hooked on the weight and set the pendulum swinging.

The result was disappointing, but yet my labour had not been all in vain. Start of itself the clock would not, but a slight pull at the chain elicited the longed-for tick, and thereafter for a full minute it continued and I could see the scape wheel turning. But there was no enthusiasm. The pendulum swung in a dead-alive fashion, its excursions growing visibly shorter, until, at length, the ticking stopped and the wheel ceased to turn.

It was very discouraging. As I watched the pendulum and saw its movements slowly die away, I was sensible of a pang of keen disappointment. But still I felt that I had begun to understand the trouble and perhaps I might, by taking thought, hit upon some further remedy. I got up from my chair and wandered restlessly round the room, earnestly cogitating the problem. Something in the clock was resisting the pull of the weight. Now, what could it be? Why had the wheels become more difficult to turn?

So delightfully absorbed was I in seeking the solution of this mystery that all else had faded out of my mind. Gone was all my depression and loneliness. The Finchley omnibus was forgotten; Aunt Budgen was as if she had never been; the green meadows and the pond, and even dear Maggie, had passed clean out of my consciousness. The clock filled the field of my mental vision and the only thing in the world that mattered was the question, What was hindering the movement of its wheels?

Suddenly, in my peregrinations I received an illuminating hint. Stowed away in the corner was Aunt Judy’s sewing-machine. Now sewing-machines and clocks are not very much alike, but they both have wheels; and it was known to me that Aunt Judy had a little oil-can with which she used to anoint the machine. Why did she do that? Obviously, to make the wheels run more easily. But if the wheels of a sewing-machine needed oil, why should not those of a clock? The analogy seemed a reasonable one, and, in any case, there could be no harm in trying. Cautiously, and not without some qualms of conscience, I lifted the cover of the machine, and, having found the little, long-snouted oil-can, seized it and bore it away with felonious glee.

My proceedings with that oil-can will hardly bear telling; they would have brought tears to the eyes of a clock-maker. I treated my patient as if it had been an express locomotive with an unlimited thirst for oil. Impartially, I flooded every moving part, within and without: pallets, wheel-teeth, pivots, arbors, the chain-pulley, the “motion wheels” behind the dial, and the centres of the hands. I even oiled the pendulum rod as well as the crutch that held it. When I had finished, the whole interior of the clock seemed to have broken out into a greasy perspiration, and even the woodwork was dark and shiny. But my thoroughness had one advantage: if I oiled all the wrong places, I oiled the right ones as well.

At length, when there was not a dry spot left any where, I put down the oil-can, and “in trembling hope” proceeded to make a fresh trial; and even now, after all these years, I can hardly record the incident without emotion. A gentle push at the pendulum brought forth at once a clear and resonant tick, and, looking in eagerly, I could see the scape wheel turning with an air of purpose and the centre wheel below it moving steadily in the opposite direction. And it was no flash in the pan this time. The swing of the pendulum, instead of dying away as before, grew in amplitude and liveliness to an extent almost beyond belief. It seemed that, under the magical influence of the oil-can, the old clock had renewed its youth.

To all of us, I suppose, there have come in the course of our lives certain moments of joy which stand out as unique experiences. They never come a second time; for though the circumstances may seem to recur, the original ecstasy cannot be recaptured. Such a moment was this. As I sat and gazed in rapture at the old clock, called back to vigorous life by my efforts, I enjoyed the rare experience of perfect happiness. Many a time since have I known a similar joy, the joy of complete achievement (and there is no pleasure like it); but this was the first of its kind, and, in its perfection, could never be repeated.

Presently, there broke in upon my ecstasy the sound of the church clock, striking two. I could hardly believe it, so swiftly had the hours sped. And yet certain sensations of which I suddenly became conscious confirmed it. In short, I realized that I was ravenously hungry and that my dinner had yet to be cooked. I set the hands of the clock to the incredible time and rose to seek the frying-pan. But, hungry as I was, I could not tear myself away from my darling, and in the end I compromised by substituting the Dutch oven, which required less attention. Thus I alternated between cookery and horology, clapping the pudding in the large oven and then sitting down once more to watch the clock until an incendiary sausage, bursting into flame with mighty sputterings, recalled me suddenly to the culinary department.

My cookery was not equal to my horology, at least in its results; yet never have I so thoroughly enjoyed a meal. Black and brittle the sausages may have been and the potatoes sodden and greasy. It was no matter. Hunger and happiness imparted a savour beyond the powers of the most accomplished chef. With my eyes fixed adoringly on the clock (I had “laid my place” where I could conveniently watch the movement as I fed), I devoured the unprepossessing viands with a relish that a gourmet might have envied.

Of the way in which the rest of the day was spent my recollection is rather obscure. In the course of the afternoon I washed up the plates and cleaned the Dutch oven so that Aunt Judy should be free when she came home; but even as I worked at the scullery sink, I listened delightedly to the tick of the clock, wafted to my ear through the open doorway. Later, I made my tea and consumed it, to an obbligato accompaniment of raspberry jam, seated beside the clock; and, when I was satisfied unto repletion, I washed the tea-things (including the tea-pot) and set them out tidily in their places on the dresser. That occupied me until six o’clock, and left me with a full three hours to wait before Aunt Judy should return.

Incredibly long hours they were, in strange contrast to the swift-footed hours of the morning. With anxious eyes I watched the minute hand creeping sluggishly from mark to mark. I even counted the ticks (and found them ninety-six to the minute), and listened eagerly for the sound of the church clock, at once relieved and disappointed to find that it told the same tale. For now my mood had changed somewhat. The joy of achievement became mingled with impatience for its revelation. I was all agog to see Aunt Judy’s astonishment when she found the clock going and to hear what she would say. And now, in my mind’s eye, the progress of the Finchley omnibus began to present itself. I followed it from stage to stage, crawling ever nearer and nearer to St. Martin’s Church. With conscious futility I went out, again and again, to look up the street along which the revellers would approach, only to turn back for another glance at the inexorable minute-hand.

At length, the sound of the church clock striking eight admonished me that it was time to return the clock to its place on the wall. It was an anxious business, for, even when I had unhooked the weight, it was difficult for me, standing insecurely on the chair, to reach up to the nail and find the hole in the back — plate through which it passed. But at last, after much fumbling, with up-stretched arm and my heart in my mouth, I felt the clock supported, and, having started the pendulum, stepped down with a sigh of relief and hooked on the weight. Now, all that remained to do was to put away the oil-can, wash my tooth-brush at the scullery and take it back to my bedroom; and when I had done this and lit the gas, I resumed my restless fittings between the kitchen and the street door.

Nine had struck when, at long last, from my post on the doorstep, I saw the home-corners turn the corner and advance up the lamp-lighted street. Instantly, I darted back into the house to make sure that the clock was still going, and then, returning, met them almost on the threshold. Aunt Judy greeted me with a kindly smile and evidently misinterpreted my eagerness for their return, for, as she stooped to kiss me, she exclaimed: “Poor old Nat! I’m afraid it has been a long, dull day for you, and we were all sorry that you couldn’t come. However, there is something to make up for it. Uncle Alfred has sent you a shilling and Aunt Anne has sent you some pears; and Maggie has sent you a beautiful pocket-knife. She was dreadfully disappointed that she couldn’t give it to you herself, because she has been saving up her pocket-money for weeks to buy it, and you will have to write her a nice letter to thank her.”

Now this was all very gratifying, and when the big basket was placed on the kitchen table and the treasures unloaded from it, I received the gifts with proper acknowledgements. But they aroused no enthusiasm, not even the pocket-knife, for I was bursting with impatience for someone to notice the clock.

“You don’t seem so particularly grateful and pleased.” said Aunt Judy, looking at me critically; and then, as I fidgetted about restlessly, she exclaimed, “What’s the matter with the boy? He’s on wires!”

She gazed at me with surprise, and Uncle Sam and the old gentleman turned to look at me curiously. And then, in the momentary silence, Aunt Judy’s quick ear caught the tick of the clock. She looked up at it and then exclaimed: “Why, the clock’s going; going quite well, too. Did you start it, Nat? But, of course, you must have done. How did you get it to go?”

With my guilty consciousness of the tooth-brush and the borrowed oil-can, I was disposed to be evasive.

“Well, you see, Aunt Judy,” I explained, “it was rather dirty inside, so I just gave it a bit of a clean and put a little oil on the wheels. That’s all.”

Aunt Judy smiled grimly, but asked no further questions.

“I suppose,” said she, “I ought to scold you for meddling with the clock without permission, but as you’ve made it go we’ll say no more about it.”

“No,” agreed old Mr. Gollidge, “I don’t see as how you could scold the boy for doing a useful bit of work. The job does him credit and shows that he’s got some sense; and sense is what gets a man on in life.”

With this satisfactory conclusion to the adventure, I was free to enter into the enjoyment of my newly — acquired wealth; and, having sampled the edible portion of it and tested the knife on a stick of fire-wood, spent the short remainder of the evening in rapturous contemplation of my new treasures and the rejuvenated clock. I had never possessed a shilling before, and now, as I examined Uncle Alfred’s gift and polished it with my handkerchief visions of its immense potentialities floated vaguely through my mind; and continued to haunt me, in company with the clock, even when I had blown out my candle and snuggled down into my narrow bed.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06