Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 6

Fickle Fortune

“THE best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.” The oft-quoted words were only too apposite in their application to the plans laid by poor Mr. Abraham for the future conduct of his own affairs and mine. Gradually, as the years had passed, it had become understood between us that, when the period of my apprenticeship should come to an end, I should become his partner and he should subside into the partial retirement suitable to his increasing age.

It was an excellent plan, advantageous to us both. To him it promised a secure and restful old age, to me an assured livelihood, and we both looked forward hope fully to the time, ever growing nearer, when it should come into effect.

But, alas! it was never to be. Towards the end of my fourth year, his old enemy, bronchitis, laid its hand on him and sent him, once more, to his bedroom. But this was not the customary sub-acute attack. From the first it was evident that it was something much more formidable. I could see that for myself; and the doctor’s grave looks and evasive answers to my questions confirmed my fears. Nor was evasion possible for long. On the fifth day of the illness, the ominous word “pneumonia” was spoken, and Miriam Goldstein, Mr. Abraham’s housekeeper, was directed to summon the patient’s relatives.

But, promptly as they responded to the call, they were too late for anything more than whispered and tearful farewells. When they arrived, with Mr. Cohen the solicitor, and I conducted them up to the sick room, my poor master was already blue-faced and comatose; and it was but a few hours later, when they passed out through the shop with their handkerchiefs to their eyes, that Mr. Cohen halted to say to me in a husky under tone, “You can put up the shutters, Polton,” and then hurried away with the others.

I shall not dwell on the miserable days that followed, when I sat alone in the darkened shop, vaguely meditating on this calamity, or creeping silently up the stairs to steal a glance at the shrouded figure on the bed. Of all the mourners, none was more sincere than I. Quiet and undemonstrative as our friendship had been, a genuine affection had grown up between my master and me. And not without reason. For Mr. Abraham was not only a kindly man; he was a good man, just and fair in all his dealings, scrupulously honest, truthful and punctual, and strict in the discharge of his religious duties. I respected him deeply and he knew it; and he knew that in me he had a faithful friend and a dependable comrade. Our association had been of the happiest and we had looked forward to many years of pleasant and friendly collaboration. And now he was gone, and our plans had come to nought.

In those first days I gave little thought to my own concerns. It was my first experience of death, and my mind was principally occupied by the catastrophe itself, and by sorrow for the friend whom I had lost. But on the day after the funeral I was suddenly made aware of the full extent of the disaster as it affected me. The bearer — sympathetic enough — of the ill tidings was Mr. Cohen, who had called to give me my instructions.

“This is a bad look-out for you, Polton,” said he. “Mr. Abraham ought to have made some provision on your behalf, and I think he meant to. But it was all so sudden. It doesn’t do to put off making your will or drafting a new one.”

“Then, how do I stand, sir?” I asked.

“The position is that your apprenticeship is dissolved by your master’s death, and I, as the executor, have to sell the business as a going concern, according to the provisions of the will, which was made before you were apprenticed. Of course, I shall keep you on, if you are willing, to run the business until it is sold; perhaps the purchaser may agree to take over your indentures or employ you as assistant. Meanwhile, I will pay you a pound a week. Will that suit you?”

I agreed, gladly enough, and only hoped that the purchaser might not make too prompt an appearance. But in this I was disappointed, for, at the end of the third week, Mr. Cohen notified me that the business was sold, and on the following day brought the new tenant to the premises; a rather raffish middle-aged man who smelt strongly of beer and bore the name of Stokes.

“I have explained matters to Mr. Stokes,” said Mr. Cohen, “and have asked him if he would care to take over your indentures; but I am sorry to say that he is not prepared to. However, I leave you to talk the matter over with him. Perhaps you can persuade him to change his mind. Meanwhile, here are your wages up to the end of the week, and I wish you good luck.”

With this he departed, and I proceeded, forthwith, to try my powers of persuasion on Mr. Stokes. “It would pay you to take me on, sir,” I urged. “You’d get a very cheap assistant. For, though I am only an apprentice, I have a good knowledge of the trade. I could do all the repairs quite competently. I can take a watch down and clean it; in fact, Mr. Abraham used to give me all the watches to clean.”

I thought that would impress him, but it didn’t. It merely amused him.

“My good lad,” he chuckled, “you are all behind the times. We don’t take watches down, nowadays, to clean ’em. We just take off the dial, wind ’em up, wrap ’em in a rag soaked in benzine, and put ’em in a tin box and let ’em clean, themselves.”

I gazed at him in horror. “That doesn’t seem a very good way, sir,” I protested. “Mr. Abraham always took a watch down to clean it.”

“Ha!” Mr. Stokes replied with a broad grin, “of course he would. That’s how they used to do ’em at Ur of the Chaldees when he was serving his time. Hey? Haw haw! No, my lad. My wife and I can run this business. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a billet.”

“And about my bedroom, sir. Could you arrange to let me keep it for the present? I don’t mean for nothing, of course.”

“You can have it for half-a-crown a week until you have found another place. Will that do?”

I thanked him and accepted his offer; and that concluded our business, except that I spent an hour or two showing him where the various things were kept, and in stowing my tools and other possessions in my bedroom. Then I addressed myself to the problem of finding a new employer; and that very afternoon I betook myself to Clerkenwell and began a round of all the dealers and clock-makers to whom I was known.

It was the first of many a weary pilgrimage, and its experiences were to be repeated in them all. No one wanted a half-finished apprentice. My Clerkenwell friends were all master craftsmen and they employed only experienced journeymen, and the smaller tradesmen to whom the dealers referred me were mostly able to conduct their modest establishments without assistance. It was a miserable experience which, even now, I look back on with discomfort. Every morning I set out, with dwindling hope, to search unfamiliar streets for clockmakers’ shops or to answer obviously inapplicable advertisements in the trade journals; and every evening I wended — not homewards, for I had no home — but to the hospitable common room of the Working Men’s College, where, for a few pence, I could get a large cup of tea and a slab of buttered toast to supplement the scanty scraps of food that I had allowed myself during the day’s wanderings. But presently even this was beyond my means, and I must needs, for economy, buy myself a half-quartern” household” loaf to devour in my cheerless bedroom to the accompaniment of a draught from the water-jug.

In truth, my condition was becoming desperate. My tiny savings — little more than a matter of shillings — were fast running out in spite of an economy in food which kept me barely above the starvation level. For I had to reserve the rent for my bedroom, that I might not be shelterless as well as famished, so long as any fraction of my little hoard remained. But as I counted the pitiful collection of shillings and sixpences at the bottom of my money-box — soon they needed no counting — I saw that even this was coming to an end and that I was faced by sheer destitution. Now and again the idea of applying for help to Aunt Judy or to Mr. Beeby drifted through my mind; but either from pride or obstinacy or some more respectable motive, I always put it away from me. I suppose that, in the end, I should have had to pocket my pride, or whatever it was, and make the appeal; but it was ordained otherwise.

My capital had come down to four shillings and sixpence, which included the rent for my bedroom due in five days’ time, when I took a last survey of my position. The end seemed to be fairly in sight. In five days I should be penniless and starving, without even a night’s shelter. I had sought work in every likely and unlikely place and failed ever to come within sight of it. Was there anything more to be done? Any possibility of employment that I had overlooked? As I posed the question again and again, I could find no answer but a hopeless negative. And then, suddenly, I thought of Mr. Parrish. He at least knew that I was a workman. Was it possible that he might find me something to do?

It was but a forlorn hope; for he was not a clock — maker, and of his trade I knew nothing. Nevertheless, no sooner had the idea occurred to me than I proceeded to give effect to it. Having smartened myself up as well as I could, I set forth for Oxford Market as briskly as if I had a regular appointment; and having the good luck to find him at home, put my case to him as persuasively as I was able in a few words.

He listened to me with his usual frown of impatience, and, when I had finished, replied in his customary gruff manner:

“But, my good lad, what do you expect of me? I am not a clock-maker and you are not an instrument-maker. You’d be no use to me.”

My heart sank, but I made one last, despairing effort. “Couldn’t you give me some odd jobs, sir, such as filing and polishing, to save the time of the skilled men? I shouldn’t want much in the way of wages.”

He began to repeat his refusal, more gruffly than before. And then, suddenly, he paused; and my heart thumped with almost agonized hope.

“I don’t know,” he said, slowly and with a considering air. “Perhaps I might be able to find you a job. I’ve just lost one of my two workmen and I’m rather short-handed at the moment. If you can use a file and know how to polish brass, I might give you some of the rough work to do. At any rate, I’ll give you a trial and see what you can do. But I can’t pay you a workman’s wages. You’ll have to be satisfied with fifteen shillings a week. Will that do for you?”

Would it do! It was beyond my wildest hopes. I could have fallen on his neck and kissed his boots (not simultaneously, though I was fairly supple in the joints in those days). Tremulously and gratefully, I accepted his terms, and would have said more, but he cut me short.

“Very well. You can begin work tomorrow morning at nine, and you’ll get your wages when you knock off on Saturday. That’s all. Off you go.”

I wished him “good morning!” and off I went, in an ecstasy of joy and relief reflecting incredulously on my amazing good fortune. Fifteen shillings a week! I could hardly believe that my ears had not deceived me. It was a competence. It was positive affluence.

But it was prospective affluence. My actual possessions amounted to four shillings and sixpence; but it was all my own, for the half-crown that had been ear marked for rent was now available for food. Still, this was Monday morning and wages were payable on Saturday night, so I should have to manage on nine pence a day until then. Well, that was not so bad. In those days, you could get a lot of food for ninepence if you weren’t too particular and knew where to go. At the cook’s shop in Carnaby Street where I used to buy Mr. Abraham’s mid-day meal and my own, we often fed sumptuously on sixpence apiece; and now the recollection of those simple banquets sent me hurrying thither, spurred on by ravenous hunger and watering at the mouth as imagination pictured that glorious, steamy window.

As I turned into Great Marlborough Street, I en countered Mr. Cohen, just emerging from the Police Court, where he did some practice as advocate. He stopped to ask what I was doing; and, when I had announced my joyful tidings, he went on to cross — examine me on my experiences of the last few weeks, listening attentively to my account of them and looking at me very earnestly.

“Well, Polton,” he said, “you haven’t been putting on a great deal of flesh. How much money have you got?

I told him, and he rapidly calculated the possibilities of expenditure.

“Ninepence a day. You won’t fatten a lot on that. Where did you get the money?”

“I used to put by a little every week when I was at work, sir,” I explained; and I could see that my thrift commended itself to him.

“Wise lad,” said he, in his dry, legal way. “The men who grow rich are the men who spend less than they earn. Come and have a bit of dinner with me. I’ll pay,” he added, as I hesitated.

I thanked him most sincerely, for I was famished, as I think he had guessed, and together we crossed the road to a restaurant kept by a Frenchman named Paragot. I had never been in it, but had sometimes looked in with awe through the open doorway at the sybarites within, seated at tables enclosed in pews and consuming unimaginable delicacies. As we entered, Mr. Cohen paused for a few confidential words with the proprietor’s sprightly and handsome daughter, the purport of which I guessed when the smiling damsel deposited our meal on the table and I contrasted Mr. Cohen’s modest helping with the Gargantuan pile of roast beef. Yorkshire pudding and baked potatoes which fairly bulged over the edge of my plate.

“Have a drop of porter,” said Mr. Cohen. “Do you good once in a way;” and, though I would sooner have had water, I thought it proper to accept. But if the taste of the beer was disagreeable, the pleasant pewter tankard in which it was served was a refreshment to the eye. And I think it really did me good. At any rate, when we emerged into Great Marlborough Street, I felt like a giant refreshed; which is something to say for a young man of four feet eleven.

As we stood for a moment outside the restaurant, Mr. Cohen put his hand in his pocket and produced a half sovereign.

“I’m going to lend you ten shillings, Polton,” said he. “Better take it. You may want it. You can pay me back a shilling a week. Pay at my office. If I am not there, give it to my clerk and make him give you a receipt. There you are. That’s all right. Wish you luck in your new job. So long.”

With a flourish of the hand, he bustled off in the direction of the Police Court, leaving me grasping the little gold coin and choking with gratitude to this — I was going to say “Good Samaritan”, but I suppose that would be a rather left-handed compliment to an orthodox Jew with the royal name of Cohen.

I spent a joyous afternoon rambling about the town and looking in shop windows, and, as the evening closed in, I repaired to a coffee-shop in Holborn and consumed a gigantic cup of tea and two thick slices of bread and butter (“pint of tea and two doorsteps “, in the vernacular). Then I turned homeward, if I may use the expression in connection with a hired bedroom, resolving to get a long night’s rest so as to be fresh for the beginning of my new labours in the morning.

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