Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 7

Introduces a Key and a Calendar

WHEN I entered the workshop which was to be the scene of my labours for the next few months, I found in it two other occupants: an elderly workman who was engaged at a lathe and a youth of about my own age who was filing up some brass object that was fixed in a vice. They both stopped work when I appeared, and looked at me with evident curiosity, and both greeted me in their respective ways; the workman with a dry “good morning”, and the other with a most peculiar grin.

“You’re the new hand, I suppose,” the former suggested, adding, “I don’t know what sort of a hand you are. Can you file flat?”

I replied that I could, whereupon he produced a rough plate of brass and handed it to me.

“There,” said he, “that casting has got to be filed smooth and true and then it’s got to be polished. Let’s see what you can do with it.”

Evidently, he had no extravagant expectations as to my skill, for he watched me critically as I put my tool-bag on the bench and selected a suitable file from my collection (but I could see that he viewed the bag with approval); and every few minutes he left his work to see how I was getting on. Apparently, the results of his observations were reassuring, for his visits gradually became less frequent, and finally he left me to finish the job alone.

During that first day I saw Mr. Parrish only once, for he did his own work in a small private workshop, which was always kept locked in his absence, as it contained a very precious dividing machine, with which he engraved the graduations on the scales of measuring instruments such as theodolites and sextants. This, with some delicate finishing and adjusting, was his province in the business, the larger, constructive work being done by his workmen. But on this occasion he came into the main workshop just before” knocking-off time” to hear the report on my abilities.

“Well, Kennet,” he demanded in his gruff way, “How has your new hand got on? Any good?”

Mr. Kennet regarded me, appraisingly, and after a brief consideration, replied: “Yes, I think he’ll do.”

It was not extravagant praise; but Mr. Kennet was a man of few words. That laconic verdict established me as a permanent member of the staff.

In the days that followed, a quiet friendliness grew up between us. Not that Mr. Kennet was a specially prepossessing person. Outwardly a grey-haired, shrivel led, weasel-faced little man, dry and taciturn in manner and as emotionless as a potato, he had his kindly impulses, though they seldom came to the surface. But he was a first-class craftsman who knew his trade from A to Z, and measured the worth of other men in terms of their knowledge and skill. The liking that, from the first, he took to me, arose, I think, from his observation of my interest in my work and my capacity for taking pains. At any rate, in his undemonstrative way, he made me aware of his friendly sentiments, principally by letting me into the mysteries and secrets of the trade and giving me various useful tips from the storehouse of his experience.

My other companion in the workshop was the youth whom I have mentioned, who was usually addressed and referred to as Gus, which I took to represent Augustus. His surname was Haire, and I understood that he was some kind of relation of Mr. Parrish’s; apparently a nephew, as he always spoke of Mr. Parrish as his uncle, though he addressed him as “Sir.” His position in the workshop appeared to be that of a pupil, learning the business — as I gathered from him — with a view to partnership and succession. He lived on the premises, though he frequently went away for the week-ends to his home, which was at Malden in Essex.

The mutual liking of Mr. Kennet and myself found no counterpart in the case of Gus Haire. I took an instant distaste of him at our first meeting; which is rather remarkable, since I am not in the least addicted to taking sudden likes or dislikes. It may have been his teeth, but I hope not; for it would be unpardonable to allow a mere physical defect to influence one’s judgment of a man’s personal worth. But they were certainly rather unpleasant teeth and most peculiar. I have never seen anything like them, before or since. They were not decayed. Apparently, they were quite sound and strong, but they were covered with brown spots and mottlings which made them look like tortoise-shell. They were also rather large and prominent; which was unfortunate, as Gus was distinctly sensitive about them. Whence the remarkable grin which had so impressed me when we first met. It was habitual with him, and it startled me afresh every time. It began as a fine broad grin displaying the entire outfit of tortoise-shell. Then suddenly, he became conscious of his teeth, and in an instant the grin was gone. The effect was extraordinary, and not by any means agreeable.

Still, as I have said, I hope it was not the teeth that prejudiced me against him. There were other, and much better, reasons for my disliking him. But these developed later. My initial distaste of him may have been premonitory. In some unimaginable way, I seemed instinctively to have recognized an enemy.

As to his hardly-concealed dislike of me, I took it to be merely jealousy of Kennet’s evident preference. For that thorough-going craftsman had no use for Gus. The lad was lazy, inattentive, and a superlatively bad workman; faults enough to damn him in Kennet’s eyes. But there were other matters, which will transpire in their proper place.

In these early days I was haunted by constant anxiety as to the security of my position. There was really not enough for me to do. Mr. Parrish was getting on in years and some of his methods were rather obsolete. Newer firms with more up-to-date plant were attracting orders that would formerly have come to him, so that his business was not what it had been. But even of the work that was being done I could, at first, take but a small share. Later, when I had learned more of the trade, Kennet was able to turn over to me a good deal of his own work, so that I became, in effect, something like a competent journeyman. But in the first few weeks I often found myself with nothing to do, and was terrified lest Mr. Parrish should think that I was not earning my wage.

It was a dreadful thought. The idea of being set adrift once more to tramp the streets, hungry and despairing, became a sort of permanent nightmare. I worked with intense care and effort to learn my new trade and felt myself making daily progress. But still “Black Care rode behind the horseman”. Something had to be done to fill up the hours of idleness and make me seem to be worth my pay. But what?

I began by taking down the workshop clock and cleaning it. Then I took off the lock of the workshop door, which had ceased to function, and made it as good as new; which seemed at the time to be a fortunate move, for, just as I was finishing it, Mr. Parrish came into the workshop and stopped to watch my proceedings.

“Ha!” said he, “so you are a locksmith, too. That’s lucky, because I have got a job for you. The key of my writing-table has broken in the lock and I can’t get the drawer open. Come and see what you can do with it.”

I picked up my tool-bag and followed him to his workshop (which also served as an office), where he showed me the closed drawer with the stem of the broken key projecting about a quarter of an inch.

“There must be something wrong with the lock,” said he, “for the key wouldn’t turn, and when I gave it an extra twist it broke off. Flaw in the key, I expect.”

I began by filing a small flat on the projecting stump, and then, producing a little hand-vice from my bag, applied it to the stump and screwed it up tight. With this I was able to turn the key a little backwards and forwards, but there was evidently something amiss with the lock, as it would turn no further. With my oiler, I insinuated a touch of oil on to the bit of the key and as much of the levers as I could reach and continued to turn the key to and fro, watched intently by Mr. Parrish and Gus (who had left his work to come and look on). At last, when I ventured to use a little more force, the resistance gave way and the key made a complete turn with an audible click of the lock.

As I withdrew the key, Mr. Parrish pulled out the drawer, which, as I saw, contained, among other things, a wooden bowl half-filled with a most untidy collection of mixed money: shillings, half-crowns, coppers, and at least two half-sovereigns. I looked with surprise at the disorderly heap and thought how it would have shocked poor Mr. Abraham.

“Well,” said Mr. Parrish, “what’s to be done? Can you make a new key?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, “or I could braze the old one together.”

“No,” he replied, “I’ve had enough of that key. And what about the lock?”

“I shall have to take that off in any case, because the ironmonger won’t sell me a key-blank unless I show the lock. But it will have to be repaired.”

“Very well,” he agreed. “Take it off and get the job done as quickly as you can. I don’t want to leave my cash-drawer unlocked.”

I had the lock off in a few moments and took it away, with the broken key, to the workshop, where I spent a pleasant half-hour taking it to pieces, cleaning it, and doing the trifling repairs that it needed; and all the time, Gus Haire watched me intently, following me about like a dog and plying me with questions. I had never known him to be so interested in anything. He even accompanied me to the ironmonger’s and looked on with concentrated attention while I selected the blank. Apparently, locksmithing was more to his taste than the making of philosophical instruments.

But the real tit-bit of the entertainment for him was the making of the new key. His eyes fairly bulged as he followed the details of the operation. I had in my bag a tin box containing a good-sized lump of stiff moulding — wax, which latter I took out, and, laying it on the bench, rolled it out flat with a file-handle. Then, on the flat surface, I made two impressions of the broken key, one of the profile of the bit and the other of the end, showing the hole in the “pipe”; and, having got my pattern, I fell to work on the blank. First, I drilled out the bore of the pipe, then I filed up the blank roughly to the dimensions with the aid of callipers, and, when I had brought it to the approximate size, I began carefully to shape the bit and cut out the “steps” for the levers, testing the result from time to time by fitting it into the impressions.

At length, when it appeared to fit both impressions perfectly, I tried it in the lock and found that it entered easily and turned freely to and fro, moving the bolt and levers without a trace of stiffness. Naturally, I was quite pleased at having got it right at the first trial. But my satisfaction was nothing compared with that of my watcher, who took the lock from me and turned the key to and fro with as much delight as if he had made it himself. Even Kennett, attracted by Gus’s exclamations, left his work (he was making a reflecting level — just a simple mirror with a hole through it, mounted in a suspension frame) to come and see what it was all about.

But Gus’s curiosity seemed now to be satisfied, for, when I took the lock and the new key to Mr. Parrish’s workroom, he did not accompany me. Apparently, he was not interested in the mere refixing of the lock; whereas Mr. Parrish watched that operation with evident relief. When I had finished, he tried the key several times, first with the drawer open and then with it closed, finally locking the drawer and pocketing the key with a grunt of satisfaction.

“Where’s the broken key?” he demanded as I prepared to depart. “I’d better have that.”

I ran back to the workshop, where I found Gus back at his vice, industriously filing something, and Kennet still busy with his level. The latter looked round at me as I released the key from the hand-vice, and I explained that I had forgotten to give the broken key to Mr. Parrish. He nodded and still watched me as I retired with it in my hand to return it to its owner; and when I came back to the workshop he put down his level and strolled across to my bench, apparently to inspect the slab of wax. I, also, inspected it, and saw at once that it was smaller than when I had left it; and I had no doubt that the ingenious Gus had “pinched” a portion of it for the purpose of making some private experiments. But I made no remark; and, having obliterated the key-impressions with my thumb, I peeled the wax off the bench, squeezed it up into a lump, and put it into my bag. Whereupon Kennet went back to his level without a word.

But my suspicions of Master Gus’s depredations were confirmed a few days later when, Kennet and I happening to be alone in the workshop, he came close to me and asked, in a low tone: “Did you miss any of that wax of yours the other day?”

“Yes, I did; and I’m afraid I suspected that Gus had helped himself to a bit.”

“You were right,” said Kennet. “He cut a piece off and pocketed it. But before he cut it off, he made two impressions of the key on it. I saw him. He thought I didn’t, because my back was turned to him. But I was working on that level, and I was able to watch him in the mirror.”

I didn’t much like this, and said so.

“More don’t I,” said Kennet. “I haven’t said anything about it, because it ain’t my concern. But it may be yours. So you keep a look-out. And remember that I saw him do it.”

With this and a significant nod he went back to the lathe and resumed his work.

The hardly-veiled hint that “it might be my concern” was not very comfortable to reflect on, but there was nothing to be done beyond keeping my tool-bag locked and the key in my pocket, which I was careful to do; and as the weeks passed, and nothing unusual happened, the affair gradually faded out of my mind.

Meanwhile, conditions were steadily improving. I had now learned to use the lathe and even to cut a quite respectable screw, and, as my proficiency in creased, and with it my value as a workman, I began to feel my position more secure. And even when there was nothing for me to do in the workshop, Mr. Parrish found me odd jobs about the house, repairing locks, cleaning his watch, and attending to the various clocks, so that I was still earning my modest wage. In this way I came by a piece of work which interested me immensely at the time and which had such curious consequences later that I venture to describe it in some detail.

It was connected with a long-case, or “grandfather” clock, which stood in Mr. Parrish’s workroom a few feet from his writing-table. I suspect that it had not been cleaned within the memory of man, and, naturally, there came a time when dirt and dry pivots brought it to a standstill. Even then, a touch of oil would probably have kept it going for a month or two, but I made no such suggestion. I agreed emphatically with Mr. Parrish’s pronouncement that the clock needed a thorough overhaul.

“And while you’ve got it to pieces,” he continued, “perhaps you could manage to fit it with a calendar attachment. Do you think that would be possible?”

I pointed out that it had a date disc, but he dismissed that with contempt.

“Too small. Want a microscope to see it. No, no, I mean a proper calendar with the day of the week and the day of the month in good bold characters that I can read when I am sitting at the table. Can you do that?”

I suggested that the striking work would be rather in the way, but he interrupted: “Never mind the striking work. I never use it. I hate a jangling noise in my room. Take it off if it’s in the way. But I should like a calendar if you could manage it.”

Of course, there was no difficulty. A modification of the ordinary watch-calendar movement would have answered. But when I described it, he raised objections.

“How long does it take to change?” he asked.

“About half an hour, I should think. It changes during the night.”

“That’s no use,” said he. “The date changes in an instant, on the stroke of midnight. A minute to twelve is, say, Monday; a minute after twelve is Tuesday. That ought to be possible. You make a clock strike at the right moment; why couldn’t you do the same with a calendar? It must be possible.”

It probably was; but no calendar movement known to me would do it. I should have to invent one on an entirely different principle if my powers were equal to the task. It was certainly a problem; but the very difficulty of it was an attraction, and in the end I promised to turn it over in my mind, and meanwhile I proceeded to take the clock out of its case and bear it away to the workshop. There, under the respectful observation of Gus and Mr. Kennet, I quickly took it down and fell to work on the cleaning operations; but the familiar routine hardly occupied my attention. As I worked, my thoughts were busy with the problem that I had to solve, and gradually my ideas began to take a definite shape. I saw, at once, that the mechanism required must be in the nature of an escapement; that is to say, that there must be a constant drive and a periodical release. I must not burden the reader with mechanical details, but it is necessary that I should give an outline of the arrangement at which I arrived after much thought and a few tentative pencil drawings.

Close to the top of the door of the case I cut two small windows, one to show the date numbers and the other the days of the week. Below these was a third window for the months, the names of which were painted in white on a band of black linen which travelled on a pair of small rollers. But these rollers were turned by hand and formed no part of the mechanism. There was no use in complicating the arrangements for the sake of a monthly change.

And now for the mechanism itself! The names of the days were painted in white on a black drum, or roller, three inches in diameter, and the date numbers were painted on an endless black ribbon which was carried by another drum of the same thickness but narrower. This drum had at each edge seven little pins, or pegs; and the ribbon had, along each edge, a series of small eyelet holes which fitted loosely on the pins, so that, as the drum turned, it carried the ribbon along for exactly the right distance. Both drums were fixed friction-tight on a long spindle, which also carried at its middle a star wheel with seven long, slender teeth, and at its end a ratchet pulley over which ran a cord carrying the small driving-weight. Thus the calendar movement had its own driving-power and made no demands on that of the clock.

So much for the calendar itself; and now for its connection with the clock. The mechanism “took off” from the hour-wheel which carries the hour-hand and makes a complete turn in twelve hours, and which, in this clock, had forty teeth. Below this, and gearing with it, I fixed another wheel, which had eighty teeth, and consequently turned once in twenty-four hours. I will call this “the day-wheel.” On this wheel I fixed, friction-tight, so that it could be moved round to adjust it, what clockmakers call a “snail”; which is a flat disc cut to a spiral shape, so that it looks like the profile of a snail’s shell. Connecting the snail with the calendar was a flat, thin steel bar (I actually made it from the blade of a hack saw) which I will call” the pallet-bar.” It moved on a pivot near its middle and had at its top end a small pin which rested against the edge of the snail and was pressed against it by a very weak spring. At its lower end it had an oblong opening with two small ledges, or pallets, for the teeth of the star-wheel to rest on. I hope I have made this fairly clear. And now let us see how it worked.

We will take the top end first. As the clock “went,” it turned the snail round slowly (half as fast as the hour-hand); and as the snail turned, it gradually pushed the pin of the pallet-bar, which was resting against it, farther and farther from its centre, until the end of the spiral was reached. A little further turn and the pin dropped off the end of the spiral (“the step”) down towards the centre. Then the pushing-away movement began again. Thus it will be seen that the rotation of the snail (once in twenty-four hours) caused the top end of the pallet-bar to move slowly outwards and then drop back with a jerk.

Now let us turn to the lower end of the pallet-bar. Here, as I have said, was an oblong opening, interrupted by two little projecting ledges, or pallets. Through this opening the star-wheel projected, one of its seven teeth resting (usually) on the upper pallet, and held there by

the power of the little driving weight. As the snail turned and pushed the top end of the pallet-bar outwards, the lower end moved in the opposite directtion, and the pallet slid along under the tooth of the wheel. When the tooth reached the end of the upper pallet, it dropped off on to the lower pallet and remained there for a few minutes. Then, when the pin dropped into the step of the snail, the lower pallet was suddenly withdrawn from under the tooth, which left the wheel free to turn until the next tooth was stopped by the upper pallet. Thus the wheel made the seventh of a revolution; but so, also, did the two drums which were on the same spindle, with the result that a new day and date number were brought to their respective windows; and the change occupied less than a second.

The above is only a rough sketch of the mechanism, omitting the minor mechanical details, and I hope it has not wearied the reader. To me, I need not say, the work was a labour of love which kept me supremely happy. But it also greatly added to my prestige in the workshop. Kennet was deeply impressed by it, and Gus followed the construction with the keenest interest and with a display of mechanical intelligence that rather surprised me. Even Mr. Parrish looked into the workshop from time to time and observed my progress with an approving grunt.

When the construction was finished, I brought the case into the workshop and there set the clock up — at first without the dial — to make the final adjustments. I set the snail to discharge at twelve noon, as midnight was not practicable, and the three of us used to gather round the clock as the appointed hour approached, for the gratification of seeing the day and date change in an instant at the little windows. When the adjustment was perfect, I stopped the clock at ten in the morning and we carried it in triumph to its usual abiding place, where, when I had tried the action to see that the tick was even, I once more stopped the pendulum and would have left it to the care of its owner. But Mr. Parrish insisted that I should come in in the evening and start it myself and further, that I should stay until midnight and see that the date did actually change at the correct moment. To which I agreed very readily; whereby I not only gained a supper that was a banquet compared with my customary diet and had the satisfaction of seeing the date change on the very stroke of midnight, but I received such commendations from my usually undemonstrative employer that I began seriously to consider the possibility of an increase in my wages in the not too distant future.

But, alas! the future had something very different in store for me.

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