Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 3

Out of the Nest

A CERTAIN philosopher, whose name I cannot recall, has, I understand, discovered that there are several different kinds of time. He is not referring to those which are known to astronomers, such as sidereal mean or apparent time, which differ only in terms of measurement, but to time as it affects the young, the middle-aged and the old.

The discovery is not a new one. Shakespeare has told us that “Time travels in divers paces with divers persons “, and, for me, the poet’s statement is more to the point (and perhaps more true) than the philosopher’s. For I am thinking of one “who Time ambles withal “, or even “who he stands still withal”; to wit, myself in the capacity of Dr. Pope’s bottle-boy. That stage of my existence seemed, and still seems, looking back on it, to have lasted for half a life-time; whereas it occupied, in actual fact, but a matter of months.

It came to an end when I was about thirteen, principally by my own act. I had begun to feel that I was making unfair inroads on the family resources, for, though the school that I attended was an inexpensive one, it was not one of the cheapest. Aunt Judy had insisted that I should have a decent education and not mix with boys below our own class, and accordingly she had sent me to the school conducted by the clergy man of our parish, the Reverend Stephen Page, which was attended by the sons of the local shop-keepers and better-class working men. But modest as the school fees were, their payment entailed some sacrifice; for, though we were not poor, still Uncle Sam’s earnings as a journeyman cabinet-maker were only thirty shillings a week. Old Mr. Gollidge, who did light jobs in a carpenter’s shop, made a small contribution, and there was half-a-crown a week from my wages; but, when all was said, it was a tight fit and must have taxed Aunt Judy’s powers of management severely to maintain the standard of comfort in which we lived.

Moved by these considerations (and perhaps influenced by the monotonous alternation of school and bottle-basket), I ventured to put the case to Aunt Judy and was relieved to find that she took my suggestions seriously and was obviously pleased with me for making them.

“There is something in what you say, Nat,” she admitted. “But remember that your schooling has got to last you for life. It’s the foundation that you’ve got to build on, and it would be bad economy to skimp that.”

“Quite right,” Uncle Sam chimed in. “You can’t make a mahogany table out of deal. Save on the material at the start and you spoil the job.”

“Still,” I urged, “a penny saved is a penny earned,” at which Aunt Judy laughed and gave me a playful pat on the head.

“You are a queer, old-fashioned boy, Nat,” said she, “but perhaps you are none the worse for that. Well, I’ll see Mr. Page and ask him what he thinks about it, and I shall do exactly what he advises. Will that satisfy you?

I agreed readily enough, having the profoundest respect and admiration for my schoolmaster. For the Reverend Stephen Page, though he disdained not to teach the sons of working men, was a distinguished man in his way. He was a Master of Arts — though of what arts I never discovered — and a Senior Wrangler. That is what was stated on the School prospectus, so it must have been true; but I could never understand it, for a less quarrelsome or contentious man you could not imagine. At any rate, he was a most unmistakable gentleman, and, if he had taught us nothing else, his example of good manners, courtesy and kindliness would have been a liberal education in itself.

I was present at the interview, and very satisfactory I found it. Aunt Judy stated the problem and Mr. Page listened sympathetically. Then he pronounced judgement in terms that rather surprised me as coming from a schoolmaster.

“Education and schooling, Mrs. Gollidge, are not quite the same thing. When a boy leaves school to learn a trade, he is not ending his education. Some might say that he is only beginning it. At any rate, the knowledge and skill by which he will earn his living and maintain his family when he has one, and be a useful member of society, is the really indispensable knowledge. Our young friend has a good groundwork of what simple folk call book-learning, and, if he wants to increase it, there are books from which he can learn. Meanwhile, I don’t think that he is too young to begin the serious business of life.”

That question, then, was settled, and the next one was how the beginning was to be made. As a temporary measure, “while we were looking about”, Uncle Sam managed to plant me on his employer, Mr. Beeby, as workshop boy at a salary of five shillings a week. So it came about that I made my final round with the bottles, handed in the basket for the last time, drew my wages and, on the following morning, set forth in company with Uncle Sam en route for Mr. Beeby’s workshop in Broad Street. There was only one occupant when we arrived: a round-shouldered, beetle browed, elderly man with rolled-up shirt-sleeves, a linen apron and a square brown-paper cap such as work men commonly wore in those days, who was operating with a very small saw on a piece of wood that was clamped in the bench-vice. He looked up as we entered and remarked:

“So this is the young shaver, is it? There ain’t much of him. He’ll have to stand on six pennorth of coppers if he is going to work at a bench. Never mind, youngster. You’ll be a man before your mother,” and with this he returned to his work with intense concentration (I discovered, presently, that he was cutting the pins of a set of dovetails), and Uncle Sam, having provided me with a broom, set me to work at sweeping up the shavings, picking up the little pieces of waste wood and putting them into the large open box in which they were thriftily stored for use in odd jobs. Then he took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and put on his apron and paper cap; in which costume he seemed to me to be invested with a new dignity; and when he fell to work with a queer-looking, lean-bodied plane on the edge of a slab of mahogany, miraculously producing on it an elegant moulding, I felt that I had never properly appreciated him. Presently the third member of the staff arrived, a young journeyman named Will Foster. He had evidently heard of me, for he saluted me with a friendly grin and a few words of welcome while he was unrobing and getting into working trim. Then he, too, set to work with an air of business on his particular job, the carcase of a small chest of drawers; and I noticed that each of the three men was engaged on his own piece of work, independently of the others. And this I learned later was Mr. Beeby’s rule, so far as it was practicable. “If a man carries his own job right through,” he once explained to me, “and does it well, he gets all the credit; and if he does it badly, he takes all the blame.” It seemed a sensible rule. But that was an age of individualism.

I shall not follow in detail my experiences during the few months that I spent in Mr. Beeby’s workshop. My service there was but an interlude between school and my real start in life. But it was a useful interlude, and I have never regretted it. As I was not an apprentice, I received no formal instruction. But little was needed when I had the opportunity of watching three highly expert craftsmen and following their methods from the preliminary sketch to the finished work; and I did, in fact, get a good many useful tips besides the necessary instruction in my actual duties.

As to these, they gradually extended as time went on from mere sweeping, cleaning and tidying to more technical activities, but, from the first, the glue-pots were definitely assigned to me. Once for all, the whole art and mystery of the preparation and care of glue was imparted to me. Every night I emptied and cleaned the glue-pots and put the fresh glue in to soak, for Mr. Beeby would have nothing to do with stale glue; and every morning, as soon as I arrived, I set the pots of fresh glue on the workshop stove. Then, by degrees, I began to learn the use of tools; to saw along a pencil line, to handle a chisel and a jack-plane (with the aid of an improvised platform to bring my elbows to the bench level) and to use the marking gauge and the try-square, so that, presently, I became proficient enough to be given small, rough jobs of sawing and planing to save the time of the skilled workmen.

It was all very interesting (what creative work is not?), and I was happy enough in the workshop with its pleasant atmosphere of quiet, unhurried industry. I liked to watch these three skilful craftsmen doing difficult things with unconscious ease and a misleading appearance of leisureliness, and I learned that this apparently effortless precision was really the result of habitual concentration. The fact was expounded to me by Mr. Beeby on an appropriate occasion.

“You’ve given yourself the trouble, my lad, of doing that twice over. Now the way to work quickly is to work carefully. Attend to what you are doing and see that you make no mistakes.” It was a valuable precept, which I have never forgotten and have always tried to put into practice; indeed, I find myself, to this day, profiting from Mr. Beeby’s practical wisdom.

But though I was interested and happy in my work, my heart was not in cabinet-making. Clocks and watches still held my affections, and, on most evenings, the short interval between supper and bedtime was occupied in reading and rereading the books on horology that I possessed. I now had a quite respect able little library; for my good friend, Mr. Strutt, the Wardour Street bookseller, was wont to put aside for me any works on the subject that came into his hands, and I suspect that, in the matter of price, he frequently tempered the wind to the shorn lamb.

Thus, though I went about my work contentedly, there lurked always at the back of my mind the hope that some day a chance might present itself for me to get a start on the career of a clock-maker. Apprenticeship was not to be thought of, for the family resources were not equal to a premium. But there might be other ways. Meanwhile, I tended the glue-pots and cherished my dream in secret; and in due course, by very indirect means, the dream became a reality.

The chance came, all unperceived at first, on a certain morning in the sixth month of my servitude, when a burly, elderly man came into the workshop carrying a brown-paper parcel. I recognized him instantly as Mr. Abraham, the clock-maker, whose shop in Foubert’s Place had been familiar to me since my earliest childhood, and I cast an inquisitive eye on the parcel as he unfastened it on the bench, watched impassively by Mr. Beeby. To my disappointment, the unwrapping disclosed only an empty clock-case, and a mighty shabby one at that. Still, even an empty case had a faint horological flavour.

“Well,” said Mr. Beeby, turning it over disparagingly, “it’s a bit of a wreck. Shockingly knocked about, and some fool has varnished it with a brush. But it has been a fine case in its time, and it can be again. What do you want us to do with it? Make it as good as new, I suppose.”

“Better,” replied Mr. Abraham with a persuasive smile.

“Now, you mustn’t be unreasonable,” said Beeby. “That case was made by a first-class tradesman and no one could make it any better. No hurry for it, I suppose? May as well let us take our time over it.”

To this Mr. Abraham agreed, being a workman himself; and, after some brief negotiations as to the cost of the repairs, he took his departure. When he had gone, Mr. Beeby picked up the “wreck”, and, exhibiting it to Uncle Sam, remarked:

“It wants a lot of doing to it, but it will pay for a bit of careful work. Care to take it on when you’ve finished that table?”

Uncle Sam took it on readily, having rather a liking for renovations of good old work; and when he had clamped up some glued joints on his table, fell to work forthwith on the case, dismembering it, as a preliminary measure, with a thoroughness that rather horrified me, until it seemed to be reduced to little more than a collection of fragments. But I realized the necessity for the dismemberment when I saw him making the repairs and restorations on the separated parts, unhampered by their connections with the others.

I followed his proceedings from day to day with deep interest as the work grew; first, when all the old varnish had been cleaned off, the cutting away of damaged parts, then the artful insetting of new pieces and their treatment with stain until from staring patches they became indistinguishable from the old. So it went on, the battered old parts growing newer and smarter every day with no visible trace of the repairs, and, at last, when the fresh polish was hard, the separated parts were put together and the transformation was complete. The shabby old wreck had been changed into a brand-new case.

“Well, Sam,” said Mr. Beeby, looking at it critically as its restorer stood it on the newly finished table, “you’ve made a job of that. It’s good now for another hundred years. Ought to satisfy Abraham. Nat might as well run round presently and let him know that it’s finished.”

“Why shouldn’t he take it with him?” Uncle Sam suggested.

Mr. Beeby considered the suggestion and eventually, having admonished me to carry the case carefully, adopted it. Accordingly, the case was wrapped in one or two clean dusters and tied up with string, leaving the gilt top handle exposed for convenience of carrying, and I went forth all agog to see how Mr. Abraham would be impressed by Uncle Sam’s wizardry.

I found that gentleman seated at his counter writing on a card, and, as the inscription was in large Roman capitals, my eye caught at a glance the words, “Smart youth wanted.”. He rounded off the final D and then looked up at me and enquired: “You are Mr. Beeby’s apprentice, aren’t you? Is that the case?”

“This is the case, sir,” I replied, “but I am not an apprentice. I am the workshop boy.”

“Oh! “said he, “I thought you were an apprentice, as you were working at the bench. Well, let’s see what sort of a job they’ve made of the case. Bring it in here.”

He preceded me into a small room at the back of the shop which was evidently the place where he worked, and here, having cleared a space on a side bench, he took the case from me and untied the string. When the removal of the dusters revealed the case in all its magnificence, he regarded it with a chuckle of satisfaction.

“It looks a bit different from what it did when you saw it last, sir,” I ventured to remark.

He seemed a little surprised, for he gave me a quick glance before replying.

“You’re right, my boy; I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But there, every man to his trade, and Mr. Beeby is a master of his.”

“It was my uncle, Mr. Gollidge, that did the repairs, sir,” I informed him, bearing in mind Mr. Beeby’s rule that the doer of a good job should have the credit. Again Mr. Abraham looked at me, curiously, as he rejoined: “Then your uncle is a proper tradesman and I take my hat off to him.”

I thanked him for the compliment, the latter part of which was evidently symbolical, as he was bareheaded, and then asked: “Is that the clock that belongs to the case, sir?” and I pointed to a bracket clock with a handsome brass, silver-circled dial which stood on a shelf, supported by a movement-holder.

“You’re quite right,” he replied. “That’s the clock; all clean and bright and ready for fixing. Would you like to see it in its case? Because, if so, you may as well help me to put it in.”

I agreed, joyfully, and as he released the movement from the holder, I unlocked and opened the back door of the case and “stood by” for further instructions, watching intently every stage of the procedure. There was not much for me to do beyond steadying the case and fetching the screws and the screwdriver; but I was learning how a bracket clock was fixed into its case, and when, at last, the job was finished and the fine old clock stood complete in all its beauty and dignity, I had the feeling of:, at least, having been a collaborator in the achievement.

It had been a great experience. But all the time, a strong under-current of thought had been running at the back of my mind. “Smart youth wanted.” Was I a smart youth? Honest self-inspection compelled me to admit that I was not. But perhaps the smartness was only a rhetorical flourish, and in any case, it doesn’t do to be too modest. Eventually I plucked up courage to ask: “Were you wanting a boy, sir?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Do you know of one who wants a job?”

“I was wondering, sir, if I should be suitable.”

“You!” he exclaimed. “But you’ve got a place. Aren’t you satisfied with it?”

“Oh, yes, sir, I’m quite satisfied. Mr. Beeby is a very good master. But I’ve always wanted to get into the clock trade.”

He looked down at me with a broad smile. “My good boy,” said he, “cleaning a clockmaker’s window and sweeping a clockmaker’s floor won’t get you very far in the clock trade.”

It sounded discouraging, but I was not put off. Experience had taught me that there are boys and boys. As Dr. Pope’s bottle boy I had learned nothing and gained nothing but the weekly wage. As Mr. Beeby’s workshop boy I had learned the rudiments of cabinet-making and was learning more every day.

“It would be a start, sir, and I think I could make myself useful,” I protested.

“I daresay you could,” said he (he had seen me working at the bench), “and I would be willing to have you. But what about Mr. Beeby? If you suit him, it wouldn’t be right for me to take you away from him.”

“Of course, I should have to stay with him until he had got another boy.”

“And there is your uncle. Do you think he would let you make the change?”

“I don’t think he would stand in my way, sir. But I’ll ask him.”

“Very well,” said he. “You put it to him, and I’ll have a few words with Mr. Beeby when I call to settle up.”

“And you won’t put that card in the window, sir,” I urged.

He smiled at my eagerness but was not displeased; indeed, it was evident to me that he was well impressed and very willing to have me.

“No,” he agreed, “I’ll put that aside for the present.”

Much relieved, I thanked him and took my leave; and as I wended homeward to dinner I prepared myself a little nervously, for the coming conference.

But it went off more easily than I had expected. Uncle Sam, indeed, was strongly opposed to the change (“just as the boy had got his foot in and was beginning to learn the trade “), and he was disposed to enlarge on the subject of rolling stones. But Aunt Judy was more understanding.

“I don’t know, Sam,” said she, “but what the boy’s right. His heart is set on clocks, and he’ll be happier working among things that he likes than going on with the cabinet-making. But I’m afraid Mr. Beeby won’t be pleased.”

That was what I was afraid of. But here again my fears proved to be unfounded. On the principle of grasping the nettle, I attacked him as soon as we returned to the workshop after dinner; and certainly, as he listened to my proposal with his great eyebrows lowered in a frown of surprise, he seemed rather alarming, and I began to “look out for squalls”. But when I had finished my explanations, he addressed me so kindly and in such a fatherly manner that I was quite taken aback and almost regretful that I had thought of the change.

“Well, my son,” said he, “I shall be sorry to lose you. If you had stayed with me I would have given you your indentures free, because you have got the makings of a good workman. But if the clock trade is your fancy and you have a chance to get into it, you are wise to take that chance. A tradesman’s heart ought to be in his trade. You go to Mr. Abraham and I’ll give you a good character. And you needn’t wait for me. Take the job at once and get a start, but look us up now and again and tell us how you are getting on.”

I wanted to thank Mr. Beeby, but was too overcome to say much. However, he understood. And now — such is human perversity — I suddenly discovered an unsuspected charm in the workshop and an unwillingness to tear myself away from it; and when “knocking — off time” came and I stowed my little collection of tools in the rush basket to carry away, my eyes filled and I said my last “good night” in an absurd, tremulous squeak.

Nevertheless, I took Mr. Abraham’s shop in my homeward route and found it still open; a fact which I noted with slight misgivings as suggestive of rather long hours. As I entered, my prospective employer rose from the little desk at the end of the counter and confronted me with a look of enquiry; whereupon I informed him briefly of the recent developments and explained that I was now a free boy.

“Very well,” said he; “then I suppose you want the job. It’s five shillings a week and your tea — unless,” he added as an afterthought, “you’d rather run round and have it at home. Will that suit you? Because, if it will, you can come tomorrow morning at half-past eight and I will show you how to take down the shutters.”

Thus, informally, were my feet set upon the road which I was to tread all the days of my life; a road which was to lead me, through many a stormy passage, to the promised land which is now my secure abiding place.

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