Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 5

Mr. Parrish

IT has been remarked, rather obviously, that it is an ill wind that blows nobody good, and also that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The application of these samples of proverbial wisdom to this history is in the respective effects of a severe attack of bronchitis upon Mr. Abraham and me. The bronchitis was his, with all its attendant disadvantages, an unmitigated evil, whereas to me it was the determining factor of a beneficial change.

While he was confined to his bed, under the care of the elderly Jewess who customarily “did for him “, my daily procedure was, when I had shut up the shop, to carry the contents of the till with the day-book to his bedroom that he might compare them and check the day’s takings; and it was on one of these occasions, when he was beginning to mend, that the change in my prospects came into view.

“I have been thinking about you, Nat,” said he. “You’re an industrious lad, and you’ve done your duty by me since I’ve been ill, and I think I ought to do something for you in return. Now, you’re set on being a clock-maker, but you can’t get into the trade without serving an apprenticeship in the regular way. Supposing I were willing to take you on as my apprentice, how would you like that?”

I jumped at the offer, but suggested that there might be difficulties about the premium.

“There wouldn’t be any premium,” said he. “I should give you your indentures free and pay the lawyer’s charges. Think it over, Nat, and see what your uncle and aunt have to say about it.”

It didn’t require much thinking over on my part, nor, when I arrived home in triumph and announced my good fortune, was there any difference of opinion as to the practical issue, though the respective views were differently expressed. Uncle Sam thought it “rather handsome of the old chap” (Mr. Abraham was about fifty-five), but Aunt Judy was inclined to sniff.

“He hasn’t done badly all these months,” said she, “with a competent journeyman for five shillings a week; and he’d be pretty well up a tree if Nat left him to get another job. Oh, he knows which side his bread’s buttered.”

There may have been some truth in Aunt Judy’s comment, but I thought there was more wisdom in old Mr. Gollidge’s contribution to the debate.

“It may be a good bargain for Mr. Abraham,” said he, “but that don’t make it a worse bargain for Nat. It’s best that both parties should be suited.”

In effect, it was agreed that the offer should be accepted; and when I conveyed this decision to Mr. Abraham, the necessary arrangements were carried through forthwith. The indentures were drawn up, on Mr. Abraham’s instructions, by his solicitor, a Mr. Cohen, who brought them to the shop by appointment; and when they had been submitted to and approved by Aunt Judy, they were duly signed by both parties on a small piece of board laid on the invalid’s bed, and I was then and there formally bound apprentice for the term of seven years to “the said David Abraham hereinafter called the Master”, who, for his part, undertook to instruct me in the art and mystery of clock-making. I need not recite the terms of the indenture in detail, but I think Aunt Judy found them unexpectedly liberal. To my surprise, I was to be given board and lodging; I was to receive five shillings a week for the first year and my wages were to increase by half-a-crown annually, so that in my last year I should be receiving the full wage of a junior journeyman, or improver.

These were great advantages; for henceforth not only would Aunt Judy be relieved of the cost of maintaining me, but she would now have an additional room to dispose of profitably. But beyond these material benefits there were others that I appreciated even more. Now, as an apprentice, I was entitled to instruction in that part of the “art and mystery” which was concerned with the purchase of stock and material. It is true that, at the time, I did not fully realize the glorious possibilities contained in this provision. Only when, a week or so later, Mr. Abraham (hereinafter called the Master) was sufficiently recovered to descend to the shop, did they begin to dawn on me.

“We seem to be getting short of material,” said he after an exploratory browse round the workshop. “I am not well enough to go out yet, so you’ll have to run down to Clerkenwell and get the stuff. We’d better draw up a list of what we want.”

We made out the list together, and then “the Master” gave me the addresses of the various dealers with full directions as to the route, adding, as I prepared to set forth: “Don’t be any longer than you can help, Nat. I’m still feeling a bit shaky.”

The truth of the latter statement was so evident that I felt morally compelled to curtail my explorations to the utmost that was possible. But it was a severe trial. For as I hurried along Clerkenwell Road I found myself in a veritable Tom Tiddler’s Ground. By sheer force of will, I had to drag myself past those amazing shop windows that displayed — better and more precious than gold and silver — all the wonders of the clock-maker’s art. I hardly dared to look at them. But even the hasty glance that I stole as I hurried past gave me an indelible picture of those unbelievable treasures that I can recall to this day. I see them now, though the years have made familiar the subjects of that first, ecstatic, impression: the entrancing tools and gauges, bench-drills and wheel-cutters, the lovely little watch maker’s lathe, fairer to me than the Rose of Sharon or the Lily of the Valley, the polishing heads with their buffs and brushes, the assembled movements, and the noble regulator with its quicksilver pendulum, dealing with seconds as common clocks do with hours. I felt that I could have spent eternity in that blessed street.

However, my actual business, though it was but with dealers in “sundries”, gave me the opportunity for more leisured observations. Besides Clerkenwell Road, it carried me to St. John’s Gate and Clerkenwell Green; from which, at last, I tore myself away and set forth at top speed towards Holborn to catch the omnibus for Regent Circus (now, by the way, called Oxford Circus). But all the way, as my carriage rumbled sleepily westward, the vision of those Aladdin caves floated before my eyes and haunted me until I entered the little shop and dismissed my master to his easy-chair in the sitting — room. Then I unpacked my parcels, distributed their contents in the proper receptacles, put away the precious price-lists that I had collected for future study, and set about the ordinary business of the day.

I do not propose to follow in detail the course of my life as Mr. Abraham’s apprentice. There would, in deed, be little enough to record; for the days and months slipped by unreckoned, spent with placid contentment in the work which was a pleasure to do and a satisfaction when done. But apart from the fact that there would be so little to tell, the mere circumstances of my life are not the actual subject of this history. Its purpose is, as I have explained, to trace the antecedents of certain events which occurred many years later when I was able to put my finger on the one crucial fact that was necessary to disclose the nature and authorship of a very singular crime. With the discovery of that crime, the foregoing chapters have had at least some connection; and in what follows I shall confine myself to incidents that were parts of the same train of causation.

Of these, the first was concerned with my Uncle Sam. By birth he was a Kentish man, and he had served his time in a small workshop at Maidstone, conducted by a certain James Wright. When his apprenticeship had come to an end, he had migrated to London; but he had always kept in touch with his old master and paid him occasional visits. Now, about the end of my third year, Mr. Wright, who was getting too old to carry on alone, had offered to take him into partnership; and the offer being obviously advantageous, Uncle Sam had accepted and forthwith made preparations for the move.

It was a severe blow to me, and I think also to Aunt Judy. For though I had taken up my abode with Mr. Abraham, hardly an evening had passed which did not see me seated in the familiar kitchen (but not in my original chair) facing the old Dutch clock and listening to old Mr. Gollidge’s interminable yarns. That kitchen had still been my home as it had been since my infancy. I had still been a member, not only of the family, but of the household, absent, like Uncle Sam, only during working hours. But henceforth I should have no home — for Mr. Abraham’s house was a mere lodging; no family circle, and, worst of all, no Aunt Judy.

It was a dismal prospect. With a sinking heart I watched the preparations for the departure and counted the days as they slid past, all too quickly; and when the last of the sands had run out and I stood on the platform with my eyes fixed on the receding train, from a window of which Aunt Judy’s arm protruded, waving her damp handkerchief, I felt as might have felt some marooned mariner following with despairing gaze the hull of his ship sinking below the horizon. As the train disappeared round a curve, I turned away and could have blubbered aloud; but I was now a young man of sixteen, and a railway station is not a suitable place for the display of the emotions.

But in the days that followed, my condition was very desolate and lonely; and yet, as I can now see, viewing events with a retrospective eye, this shattering misfortune was for my ultimate good. Indeed, it yielded certain immediate benefits. For, casting about for some way of disposing of the solitary evenings, I discovered an institution known as the Working Men’s College, then occupying a noble old house in Great Ormond Street; whereby it came about that the homely kitchen was replaced by austere but pleasant class rooms, and the voice of old Mr. Gollidge recounting the mutiny on the Mar’ Jane by those of friendly young graduates explaining the principles of algebra and geometry, of applied mechanics and machine — drawing.

The next incident, trivial as it will appear in the telling, had an even more profound effect in the shaping of my destiny; indeed, but for that trifling occurrence, this history could never have been written. So I proceed without further apologies.

On a certain morning at the beginning of the fourth year of my apprenticeship, my master and I were in the shop together reviewing the stock when a rather irate-looking elderly gentleman entered, and, fixing a truculent eye on Mr. Abraham, demanded:

“Do you know anything about equatorial clocks?” Now, I suspect that Mr. Abraham had never heard of an equatorial clock, all his experience having been in the ordinary trade. But it would never do to say so. Accordingly he temporized.

“Well, sir, they don’t, naturally, come my way very often. Were you wanting to purchase one?”

“No, I wasn’t, but I’ve got one that needs some slight repair or adjustment. I am a maker of philosophical instruments and I have had an equatorial sent to me for overhaul. But the clock won’t budge; won’t start at all. Now, clocks are not philosophical instruments and I don’t pretend to know anything about ’em. Can you come round and see what’s the matter with the thing?”

This was, for me, a rather disturbing question. For our visitor was none other than the gentleman who had accused me of having stolen his pocket-book. I had recognized him at the first glance as he entered, and had retired discreetly into the background lest he should recognize me. But now I foresaw that I should be dragged forth into the light of day. And so it befell.

“I am afraid,” Mr. Abraham said, apologetically, “that I can’t leave my business just at the moment. But my assistant can come round with you and see what is wrong with your equa — with your clock.”

Our customer looked at me, disparagingly, and my heart sank. But either I had changed more than I had supposed in the five years that had elapsed, or the gentleman’s eyesight was not very acute (it turned out that he was distinctly near-sighted). At any rate, he showed no sign of recognition, but merely replied gruffly: “I don’t want any boys monkeying about with that clock. Can’t you come yourself?”

“I am afraid I really can’t. But my assistant is a perfectly competent workman, and I take full responsibility for what he does.”

The customer grunted and scowled at me.

“Very well,” he said, with a very bad grace. “I hope he’s better than he looks. Can you come with me now?”

I replied that I could; and, having collected from the workshop the few tools that I was likely to want, I went forth with him, keeping slightly in the rear and as far as possible out of his field of view. But, to my relief, he took no notice of me, trudging on doggedly and looking straight before him.

We had not far to go, for, when we had passed half way down a quiet street in the neighbourhood of Oxford Market, he halted at a door distinguished by a brass plate bearing the inscription, “W. Parrish, Philosophical Instrument Maker,”, and, inserting a latch-key, admitted himself and me. Still ignoring my existence, he walked down a long passage ending in what looked like a garden door but which, when he opened it, proved to be the entrance to a large workshop in which were a lathe and several fitted benches, but, at the moment, no human occupants other than ourselves.

“There,” said he, addressing me for the first time, but still not looking at me, “that’s the clock. Just have a look at it, and mind you don’t do any damage. I’ve got a letter to write, but I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

With this he took himself off, much to my satisfaction, and I proceeded forthwith to make a preliminary inspection. The “patient” was a rather large telescope mounted on a cast-iron equatorial stand. I had never seen an equatorial before except in the form of a book-illustration, but from this I was able easily to recognize the parts and also the clock, which was perched on the iron base with its winding-handle within reach of the observer. This handle I tried, but found it fully wound (it was a spring-driven clock, fitted with governor balls and a fly, or fan), and I then proceeded to take off the loose wooden case so as to expose the movement. A leisurely inspection of this disclosed nothing structurally amiss, but it had an appearance suggesting long disuse and was desperately in need of cleaning.

Suspecting that the trouble was simply dirt and dry pivots, I produced from my bag a little bottle of clock — oil and an oiler and delicately applied a small drop of the lubricant to the empty and dry oil-sinks and to every point that was exposed to friction. Then I gave the ball-governor a cautious turn or two, whereupon my diagnosis was immediately confirmed; for the governor, after a few sluggish revolutions as the oil worked into the bearings, started off in earnest, spinning cheerfully and in an obviously normal fashion.

This was highly satisfactory. But now my curiosity was aroused as to the exact effect of the clock on the telescope. The former was geared by means of a long spindle to the right ascension circle, and on this was a little microscope mounted opposite the index. To the eyepiece of this microscope I applied my eye, and was thrilled to observe the scale of the circle creeping almost imperceptibly past the vernier. It was a great experience. I had read of these things in the optical text books, but here was this delightful mechanism made real and active before my very eyes. I was positively en tranced as I watched that slow, majestic motion; in fact I was so preoccupied that I was unaware of Mr. Parrish’s reentry until I heard his voice; when I sprang up with a guilty start.

“Well,” he demanded, gruffly, “have you found out — Oh, but I see you have.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, eagerly, “it’s running quite well now, and the right ascension circle is turning freely, though, of course, I haven’t timed it.”

“Ho, you haven’t, hey?” said he. “Hm. Seem to know all about it, young fellow. What was the matter with the clock?”

“It only wanted a little adjustment,” I replied, evasively, for I didn’t like to tell him that it was only a matter of oil. “But,” I added, “it really ought to be taken to pieces and thoroughly cleaned.”

“Ha!” said he, “I’ll let the owner do that. If it goes, that is all that matters to me. You can tell your master to send me the bill.”

He still spoke gruffly, but there was a subtle change in his manner. Evidently, my rapid performance had impressed him, and I thought it best to take the undeserved credit though I was secretly astonished that he, a practical craftsman, had not been able to do the job himself.

But I had impressed him more than I realized at the time. In fact, he had formed a ridiculously excessive estimate of my abilities, as I discovered some weeks later when he brought a watch to our shop to be cleaned and regulated, and stipulated that I should do the work myself “and not let the old fellow meddle with it”. I assured him that Mr. Abraham (who was fortunately absent) was a really skilful watchmaker, but he only grunted incredulously.

“I want the job done properly,” he insisted, “and I want you to do it yourself.”

Evidently Mr. Abraham’s evasions in the matter of equatorial clocks had been noted and had made an unfavourable impression. It was unreasonable — but Mr. Parrish was an unreasonable man — and, like most unreasonable beliefs, it was unshakable. Nor did he make any secret of his opinion when, on subsequent occasions during the next few months, he brought in various little repairs and renovations and sometimes interviewed my principal. For Mr. Parrish had no false delicacy — nor very much of any other kind. But Mr. Abraham took no offence. He knew (as Aunt Judy had observed) which side his bread was buttered; and as he was coming more and more to rely on me, he was willing enough that my merits should be recognized.

So, through those months, my relations with Mr. Parrish continued to grow closer and my future to shape itself invisibly. Little did I guess at the kind of grist that the Mills of God were grinding.

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