Mr Polton Explains, by R. Austin Freeman

Chapter 9

Storm and Sunshine

OVER the events of the succeeding weeks I shall pass as lightly as possible. There is no temptation to linger or dwell in detail on these dismal recollections, which could be no more agreeable to read than to relate. Nevertheless, it is necessary that I should give at least a summary account of them, since they were directly connected with the most important event of my life.

But it was a miserable time, repeating in an intensified form all the distressing features of that wretched interregnum that followed Mr. Abraham’s death. For then I had at least begun my quest in hope, whereas now something like despair haunted me from the very beginning. I knew from the first how little chance I had of finding employment, especially since I could not venture to name my last employer; but that difficulty never arose, for no one ever entertained my application. The same old obstacle presented itself every time: I was not a qualified journeyman, but only a half-time apprentice.

Still I went on doggedly, day after day, trapesing the streets until I think I must have visited nearly every clockmaker in London and a number of optical — instrument makers as well; and as the days passed, I looked forward with ever-growing terror to the inevitable future towards which I was drifting. For my little store of money dwindled steadily. From the first I had cut my food down to an irreducible minimum.

Tea and butter I never tasted; but even a loaf of bread with an occasional portion of cheese, or a faggot or a polony, cost something; and there was the rent to pay at the end of every week. Each night, as I counted anxiously the shrinking remainder which stood between me and utter destitution, I saw the end drawing ever nearer and nearer.

Meanwhile, my distress of mind must have been aggravated by my bodily condition; for though the meagre scraps of food that I doled out to myself with miserly thrift were actually enough to support life, I was in a state of semi-starvation. The fact was obvious to me, not only from the slack way in which my clothes began to hang about me, but from the evident signs of bodily weakness. At first I had been able to tramp the streets for hours at a time without resting, but now I must needs seek, from time to time, some friendly doorstep or window-ledge to rest awhile before resuming my fruitless journeyings.

Occasionally, as I wandered through the streets, realizing the hopelessness of my quest, there passed through my mind vaguely the idea of seeking help from some of my friends: from Mr. Beeby or Mr. Cohen, or even Aunt Judy. But always I put it off as a desperate measure only to be considered when everything else had failed; and Aunt Judy I think I never considered at all. I had last written to her just after I had finished the calendar: a buoyant, hopeful letter, conveying to her the impression that a promising future was opening out to me, as I indeed believed. She would be quite happy about me, and I could not bear to think of the bitter disappointment and disillusionment that she would suffer if I were to disclose the dreadful reality. Besides, she and dear, honest Uncle Sam were but poor people, living decently, but with never a penny to spare. How could I burden them with my failure? It was not to be thought of.

But, in fact, as the time ran on, I seemed to become less capable of thought. My alarm at the approaching catastrophe gave place to a dull, fatalistic despair almost amounting to indifference. Even when I handed Mr. Stokes my last half-crown for rent — in advance — and knew that another week would see me without even a night’s shelter, I seemed unable clearly to envisage the position. There still remained an uncounted handful of coppers. I was not yet penniless.

But there was something more in my condition than mere mental dulness. At intervals I became aware of it myself. Not only did my thoughts tend to ramble in a confused, dreamlike fashion, mingling objective realities with things imagined; I was conscious of bodily sensations that made me suspect the onset of definite illness: a constant, distressing headache, with attacks of shivering (though the weather was warm) and a feeling as if a stream of icy water were being sprayed on my back. And now the gnawing hunger from which I had suffered gave place to an intense repugnance to food. On principle, I invested the last but one of my pence in a polony. But I could not eat it; and when I had ineffectively nibbled at one end, I gave up the attempt and put it in my pocket for future use. But I had a craving for a drink of tea, and my last penny was spent at a coffee-shop, where I sat long and restfully in the old-fashioned “pew” with a big mug of the steaming liquor before me.

That is my last connected recollection of this day. Whither I went after leaving the coffee-shop I have no idea. Hour after hour I must have wandered aimlessly through the streets, for the night had fallen when I found myself sitting on the high step of a sheltered doorway with my aching head supported by my hands. A light rain was pattering down on the pavement, and no doubt it was to escape this that I had crept into the doorway. But I do not remember. Indeed, my mind must have been in a very confused state, for I seemed to wake up as from a dream or a spell of unconsciousness when a light shone on me and a voice addressed me.

“Now, young fellow, you can’t sit there. You must move on.”

I raised my head and received the full glare of the lantern in my face, which caused me instantly to close my eyes. There was a short pause, and then the voice resumed, persuasively: “Come, now, my lad, up you get.”

With the aid of my hands on the step, I managed to rise a little way, but then sank down again with my back against the door. There was another pause, during which the policeman — now faintly visible — stooped over me for a closer inspection. Then a second voice interposed: “What’s this? He can’t be drunk, a kid like that.”

“No, he isn’t,” the first officer replied. He grasped my wrist, gently, in a very large hand, and exclaimed: “God! The boy’s red-hot. Just feel his wrist.”

The other man did so and brought his lantern to bear on me. Then they both stood up and held a consultation of which I caught only a few stray phrases such as, “Yes, Margaret’s is nearest,” and, finally, “All right. Run along to the stand and fetch one. Four-wheeler, of course.”

Here, one of the officers disappeared, and the other, leaning over me, asked in a kindly tone what my name was and where I lived. I managed to answer these questions, the replies to which the officer entered in a book, but the effort finished me, and I dropped forward again with my head in my hands. Presently a cab drew up opposite the doorway, and the two officers lifted me gently and helped me into it, when I saw by the light of its lamps that they were a sergeant and a constable. The latter got in with me and slammed the door with a bang that seemed like the blow of a hammer on my head, and the cab rattled away noisily, the jar of its iron tyres on the granite setts shaking me most abominably.

Of that journey I have but the haziest recollection. I know that I huddled in the corner with my teeth chattering, but I must have sunk into a sort of stupor, for I can recall nothing more than a muddled, dream like, consciousness of lights and people, of being lifted about and generally discommoded, of having my clothes taken off, and, finally, of being washed by a white-capped woman with a large sponge — a proceeding that made my teeth chatter worse than ever.

Thenceforward time ceased to exist for me. I must have lain in a dull, torpid condition with occasional intervals of more definite consciousness. I was dimly aware that I was lying in a bed in a large, light room in which there were other people, and which I recognized as a hospital ward. But mostly my mind was a blank, conscious only of extreme bodily discomfort and a dull headache that never left me a moment of ease.

How long I continued in this state, indifferent to, and hardly conscious of my surroundings, but always restless, weary and suffering, I have no idea (excepting from what I was told afterwards). Days and nights passed uncounted and unperceived, and the memory of that period which remains is that of a vague, interminable dream.

The awakening came, I think, somewhat suddenly. At any rate, I remember a day when I, myself, was conscious of a change. The headache and the restlessness had gone, and with them the muddled, confused state of mind. I was now clearly aware of what was going on around me, though too listless to take particular notice, lying still with my eyes closed or half-closed, in a state of utter exhaustion, with a sensation of sinking through the bed. Vaguely, the idea that I was dying presented itself; but it merely floated through my mind without arousing any interest. The effort even of thinking was beyond my powers.

In the afternoon of this day the physician made his periodical visit. I was aware of droning voices and the tread of many feet as he and the little crowd of students moved on from bed to bed, now passing farther away and now coming nearer. Presently they reached my bed, and I opened my eyes sleepily to look at them. The physician was a short, pink-faced gentleman with upstanding silky white hair and bright blue eyes. At the moment he was examining the chart and case paper and discussing them with a tall, handsome young man whom I recognized as one of the regular disturbers of my peace. I took no note of what they were saying until he handed the chart-board to a white-capped lady (another of the disturbers) with the remark: “Well, Sister, the temperature is beginning to remit, but he doesn’t seem to be getting any fatter.”

“No, indeed,” the sister replied. “He is an absolute skeleton, and he’s most dreadfully weak. But he seems quite sensible today.”

“H’m. Yes,” said the physician. Then, addressing the students, he continued: “A rather difficult question arises. We are in a dilemma. If we feed him too soon we may aggravate the disease and send his temperature up; if we don’t feed him soon enough we may — well, we may feed him too late. And in this case there is the complication that the patient was apparently in a state of semi-starvation when he was taken ill; so he had no physiological capital to start with. Now, what are we to do? Shall we take the opinion of the learned house physician?” He smiled up at the tall young gentleman and continued: “You’ve had him under observation, Thorndyke. Tell us what you’d do.”

“I should take what seems to be the lesser risk,” the house physician replied, promptly, “and begin feeding him at once.”

“There!” chuckled the physician. “The oracle has spoken, and I think we agree. We usually do agree with Mr. Thorndyke; and when we don’t, we’re usually wrong. Ha! ha! What? Very well, Thorndyke. He’s your patient, so you can carry out your own prescription.”

With this, the procession moved on to the next bed; and I closed my eyes and relapsed into my former state of dreamy half-consciousness. From this, however, I was presently aroused by a light touch on my shoulder and a feminine voice addressing me.

“Now, Number Six, wake up. I’ve brought you a little supper, and the doctor says you are to take the whole of it.”

I opened my eyes and looked sleepily at the speaker, a pleasant-faced, middle-aged nurse who held in one hand a glass bowl, containing a substance that looked like pomade, and in the other a spoon; and with the latter she began to insinuate very small quantities of the pomade into my mouth, smilingly ignoring my feeble efforts to resist. For though the taste of the stuff was agreeable enough, I still had an intense repugnance to food and only wanted to be left alone. But she was very patient and very persistent, giving me little rests and then rousing me up and coaxing me to make another effort. And so, I suppose, the pomade was at last finished; but I don’t know, for I must have fallen asleep and must have slept several hours, since it was night when I awoke and the ward was in semi-darkness. But the pomade had done its work. The dreadful sinking feeling had nearly gone and I felt sufficiently alive to look about me with a faintly-awakening interest; which I continued to do until the night sister espied me and presently bore down on me with a steaming bowl and a feeding cup.

“Well, Number Six,” said she, “you’ve had quite a fine, long sleep, and now you are going to have some nice, hot broth; and perhaps, when you have taken it, you’ll have another sleep.” Which turned out to be the case, for though I recall emptying the feeding-cup, I remember nothing more until I awoke to find the sun light streaming into the ward and the nurse and Mr. Thorndyke standing beside my bed.

“This is better, Number Six,” said the latter. “They tell me you have been sleeping like a dormouse. How do you feel this morning?”

I replied in a ridiculous whisper that I felt much better; at which he smiled, pleasantly, and remarked that it was the first time he had heard my voice, “if you can call it a voice,” he added. Then he felt my pulse, took my temperature, and, having made a few notes on the case-paper, departed with another smile and a friendly nod.

I need not follow my progress in detail. It was uninterrupted, though very slow. By the end of the following week my temperature had settled down and I was well on my way to recovery. But I was desperately weak and wasted to a degree of emaciation that I should have supposed to be impossible in a living man. However, this seemed to be a passing phase, for now, so far from feeling any repugnance to food, I hailed the appetizing little meals that were brought to me with voracious joy.

As my condition improved, Mr. Thorndyke’s visits tended to grow longer. When the routine business had been dispatched, he would linger for a minute or two to exchange a few words with me (very few on my side and mostly playful or facetious on his) before passing on to the next bed; and whenever, during the day or night, he had occasion to pass through the ward, if I were awake, he would always greet me, at least, with a smile and a wave of the hand. Not that he specially singled me out for these attentions, for every patient was made to feel that the house physician was interested in him as a man and not merely as a “case”.

Nevertheless, I think there was something about me that attracted his attention in a particular way, for on several occasions I noticed him looking me over in an appraising sort of fashion, and I thought that he seemed especially interested in my hands. And apparently I was right, as I learned one afternoon when, having finished his round, he came and sat down on the chair by my bedside to talk to me. Presently he picked up my right hand, and, holding it out before him, remarked:

“This is quite a lady-like hand, Polton;” (he had dropped “Number Six”) “very delicate and soft. And yet it is a good, serviceable hand, and I notice that you use it as if you were accustomed to do skilled work with it. Perhaps I am wrong; but I have been wondering what your occupation is. You are too small for any of the heavy trades.”

“I am a clockmaker, sir,” I replied, “but I have put in some time at cabinet-making and I have had a turn at making philosophical instruments, such as levels and theodolites. But clockmaking is my proper trade.”

“Then,” said he, “Providence must have foreseen that you were going to be a clockmaker and furnished you with exactly the right kind of hands. But you seem to have had a very varied experience, considering your age.”

“I have, sir, though it wasn’t all of my own choosing. I had to take the job that offered itself, and when no job offered, it was a case of wearing out shoe-leather.”

“Ha!” said he, “and I take it that you had been wearing out a good deal of shoe-leather at the time when you were taken ill.”

“Yes, sir. I had been having a very bad time.”

I suppose I spoke somewhat dismally, for it had suddenly dawned on me that I should leave the hospital penniless and with worse prospects than ever. He looked at me thoughtfully, and; after a short pause, asked: “Why were you not able to get work?”

I considered the question and found it difficult to answer; and yet I wanted to explain, for something told me that he would understand and sympathize with my difficulties, and we all like to pour our troubles into sympathetic ears.

“There were several reasons, sir, but the principal one was that I wasn’t able to finish my apprenticeship. But it’s rather a long story to tell to a busy gentleman.”

“I’m not a busy gentleman for the moment,” said he with a smile. “I’ve finished my work for the present; and I shall be a very interested gentleman if you care to tell me the story. But perhaps you would rather not recall those bad times.”

“Oh, it isn’t that, sir. I should like to tell you if it wouldn’t weary you.”

As he once more assured me of his interest in my adventures and misadventures, I began, shyly and awkwardly, to sketch out the history of my apprenticeship, with scrupulous care to keep it as short as possible. But there was no need. Not only did he listen with lively interest; but when I became unduly sketchy he interposed with questions to elicit fuller details, so that, becoming more at my ease, I told the little story of my life in a consecutive narrative, but still keeping to the more significant incidents. The last, disastrous, episode, however, I related at length — mentioning no names except that of Mr. Cohen — as it seemed necessary to be circumstantial in order to make my innocence perfectly clear; and I was glad that I did so, for my listener followed that tragedy of errors with the closest attention.

“Well, Polton,” he said when I had brought the narrative up to date, “you have had only a short life, but it has been a pretty full one — a little too full, at times. If experience makes men wise, you should be bursting with wisdom. But I do hope you have taken in your full cargo of that kind of experience.”

He looked at his watch, and, as he rose, remarked that he must be getting back to duty; and having thanked me for “my most interesting story,” walked quickly but silently out of the ward, leaving me with a curious sense of relief at having unburdened myself of my troubles to a confessor so kindly and sympathetic.

That, however, was not the last of our talks, for thenceforward he adopted the habit of making me little visits, sitting on the chair by my bedside and chatting to me quite familiarly without a trace of patronage. It was evident that my story had greatly interested him, for he occasionally put a question that showed a complete recollection of all that I had told him. But more commonly he drew me out on the subject of clocks and watches. He made me explain, with drawings, the construction and mode of working of a gravity escapement and the difference between a chronometer and a lever watch. Again, he was quite curious on the subject of locks and keys and of instruments such as theodolites, of which he had no experience; and though mechanism would seem to be rather outside the province of a doctor, I found him very quick in taking in mechanical ideas and quite keen on acquiring the little items of technical knowledge that I was able to impart.

But these talks, so delightful to me, came to a rather sudden end, at least for a time; for one afternoon, just as he was leaving me, he announced: “By the way, Polton, you will be handed over to a new house physician tomorrow. My term of office has come to an end.” Then, observing that I looked rather crestfallen, he continued: “However, we shan’t lose sight of each other. I am taking charge of the museum and laboratory for a week or two while the curator is away, and, as the laboratory opens on the garden, where you will be taking the air when you can get about, I shall be able to keep an eye on you.”

This was some consolation for my loss, and something to look forward to, and it begot in me a sudden eagerness to escape from bed and see what I could do in the way of walking. Apparently, I couldn’t do much; for when the sister, in response to my entreaties, wrapped me in a dressing-gown, and, with a nurse’s aid, helped me to totter to the nearest armchair, I sat down with alacrity, and, at the end of half an hour, was very glad to be conducted back to bed.

It was not a very encouraging start, but I soon improved on it. in a few days I was crawling about the ward unassisted, with frequent halts to rest in the armchair; and by degrees the rests grew shorter and less frequent, until I was able to pace up and down the ward quite briskly. And at last came the joyful day when the nurse produced my clothes (which appeared to have been cleaned since I last saw them) and help me to put them on; and, it being a warm, sunny morning, the sister graciously acceded to my request that I might take a little turn in the garden.

That was a red-letter day for me. Even now I recall with pleasure the delightful feeling of novelty with which I took my journey downwards in the lift, swathed in a dressing-gown over my clothes and fortified by a light lunch (which I devoured, wolfishly), and the joy with which I greeted the sunlit trees and flower-beds as the nurse conducted me along a path and deposited me on a seat. But better still was the sight of a tall figure emerging from the hospital and advancing with long strides along the path. At the sight of him my heart leaped, and I watched him anxiously lest he should take another path and pass without seeing me. My eagerness surprised me a little at the time; and now, looking back, I ask myself how it had come about that Mr. Thorndyke was to me so immeasurably different from all other men. Was it some prophetic sense which made me dimly aware of what was to be? Or could it be that I, an insignificant, ignorant lad, had somehow instinctively divined the intellectual and moral greatness of the man? I cannot tell. In a quiet, undemonstrative way he had been gracious, kindly and sympathetic; but beyond this there had seemed to be a sort of magnetism about him which attracted me, so that to the natural respect and admiration with which I regarded him was unaccountably added an actual personal devotion.

Long before he had drawn near, he saw me and came straight to my seat. “Congratulations, Polton,” he said, cheerfully, as he sat down beside me. “This looks like the beginning of the end. But we mustn’t be impatient, you know. We must take things easily and not try to force the pace.”

He stayed with me about five minutes, chatting pleasantly, but principally in a medical strain, advising me and explaining the dangers and pitfalls of convalescence from a severe and exhausting illness. Then he left me, to go about his business in the laboratory, and I followed him with my eyes as he entered the doorway of a range of low buildings. But in a few moments he reappeared, carrying a walking-stick, and, coming up to my seat, handed the stick to me.

“Here is a third leg for you, Polton,” said he; “a very useful aid when the natural legs are weak and unsteady. You needn’t return it. It is an ancient derelict that has been in the laboratory as long as I have known the place.”

I thanked him, and, as he returned to the laboratory, I rose and took a little walk to try the stick, and very helpful I found it; but even if I had not, I should still have prized the simple ash staff for the sake of the giver, as I have prized it ever since. For I have it to this day; and the silver band that I put on it bears the date on which it was given.

A few days later Mr. Thorndyke overtook me as I was hobbling along the path with the aid of my “third leg.”

“Why, Polton,” he exclaimed, “you are getting quite active and strong. I wonder if you would care to come and have a look at the laboratory.”

I grasped eagerly at the offer, and we walked together to the building and entered the open doorway — left open, I presumed when I was inside, to let out some of the smell. The premises consisted of the laboratory proper, a large room with a single long bench and a great number of shelves occupied by stoppered glass jars of all sizes, mostly filled with a clear liquid in which some very queer-looking objects were suspended (one, I was thrilled to observe, was a human hand). On the lower shelves were ranged great covered earthenware pots which I suspected to be the source of the curious, spirituous odour. Beyond the laboratory was a work room furnished with a lathe, two benches and several racks of tools.

When he had shown me round, Mr. Thorndyke seated me in a Windsor armchair close to the bench where he was working at the cutting, staining and mounting of microscopical sections for use in the medical school. When I had been watching him, for some time, he looked round at me with a smile.

“I suspect, Polton,” said he, “that you are itching to try your hand at section-mounting. Now, aren’t you?”

I had to confess that I was; whereupon he, most good-naturedly, provided me with a glass bowl of water and a pile of watch-glasses and bade me go ahead, which I did with the delight of a child with a new toy. Having cut the sections on the microtome and floated them off into the bowl, I carried out the other processes in as close imitation of his methods as I could, until I had a dozen slides finished.

“Well, Polton,” said he, “there isn’t much mystery about it, you see. But you are pretty quick at learning — quicker than some of the students whom I have to teach.”

He examined my slides with the microscope, and, to my joy, pronounced them good enough to go in with the rest; and he was just beginning to label them when I perceived, through the window, the nurse who had come to shepherd the patients in to dinner. So, with infinite regret, I tore myself away, but not until I had been rejoiced by an invitation to come again on the morrow.

The days that followed were among the happiest of my life. Every morning — and, later, every afternoon as well — I presented myself at the laboratory and was greeted with a friendly welcome. I was allowed to look on at, and even to help in, all kinds of curious, novel and fascinating operations. I assisted in the making of a plaster cast of a ricketty boy’s deformed legs; in the injecting with carmine gelatine of the blood-vessels of a kidney; and in the cutting and mounting of a section of a tooth. Every day I had a new experience and learned something fresh; and in addition was permitted and encouraged to execute repairs in the workroom on various invalid instruments and appliances. It was a delightful time. The days slipped past in a dream of tranquil happiness.

I have said “the days,” but I should rather have said the hours that I spent in the laboratory. They were hours of happiness unalloyed. But with my return to the ward came a reaction. Then I had to face the realities of life, to realize that a dark cloud was rising, ever growing darker and more threatening. For I was now convalescent; and this was a hospital, not an almshouse. My illness was over and it was nearly time for me to go. At any moment now I might get my discharge; and then — but I did not dare to think of what lay before me when I should go forth from the hospital door into the inhospitable streets.

At last the blow fell. I saw it coming when, instead of sending me out to the garden, the sister bade me stay by my bed when the physician was due to make his visit. So there I stood, watching the procession of students moving slowly round the ward with the feelings of a condemned man awaiting the approach of the executioner. Finally, it halted opposite my bed. The physician looked at me critically, spoke a few kindly words of congratulation, listened to the sister’s report, and, taking the chart-board from her, wrote a few words on the case paper, returned the board to her and moved on to the next bed!

“When do I go out, Sister?” I asked, anxiously, as she replaced the board on its peg.

She evidently caught and understood the note of anxiety, for she replied very gently, with a quick glance at my downcast face, “The day after tomorrow,” and turned away to rejoin the procession.

So the brief interlude of comfort and happiness was over and once more I must go forth to wander, a wretched Ishmaelite, through the cheerless wilderness. What I should do when I found myself cast out into the street, I had no idea. Nor did I try to form any coherent plan. The utter hopelessness of my condition induced a sort of mental paralysis, and I could only roam about the garden (whither I had strayed when sentence had been pronounced) in a state of vague, chaotic misery. Even the appetizing little supper was swallowed untasted, and, for the first time since the dawn of my convalescence, my sleep was broken and troubled.

On the following morning I presented myself as usual at the laboratory. But its magic was gone. I pottered about in the workroom to finish a repairing job that I had on hand, but even that could not distract me from the thought that I was looking my last on this pleasant and friendly place. Presently, Mr. Thorndyke came in to look at the instrument that I was repairing — it was a rocking microtome — but soon transferred his attention from the instrument to me.

“What’s the matter, Polton?” he asked: “You are looking mighty glum. Have you got your discharge?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I am going out tomorrow.”

“Ha!” said he, “and from what you have told me, I take it that you have nowhere to go.”

I admitted, gloomily, that this was the case.

“Very well,” said he. “Now I have a little proposal that I want you to consider. Come and sit down in the laboratory and I’ll tell you about it.”

He sat me in a Windsor armchair, and, seating himself on the bench stool, continued: “I am intending to set up in practice; not in an ordinary medical practice, but in that branch of medicine that is connected with the law and is concerned with expert medical and scientific evidence. For the purposes of my practice I shall have to have a laboratory, somewhat like this, with a workshop attached; and I shall want an assistant to help me with the experimental work. That assistant will have to be a skilled mechanic, capable of making any special piece of apparatus that may be required, and generally handy and adaptable. Now, from what you have told me and what I have seen for myself I judge that you would suit me perfectly. You have a working knowledge of three crafts, and I have seen that you are skilful, painstaking and quick to take an idea, so I should like to have you as my assistant. I can’t offer much of a salary at first, as I shall be earning nothing, myself, for a time, but I could pay you a pound a week to begin with, and, as I should provide you with food and a good, big bed sitting room, you could rub along until something better turned up. What do you say?”

I didn’t say anything. I was speechless with emotion, with the sudden revulsion from black despair to almost delirious joy. My eyes filled and a lump seemed to rise in my throat.

Mr. Thorndyke evidently saw how it was with me, and, by way of easing the situation, he resumed: “There is one other point. Mine will be a bachelor establishment. I want no servants; so that, if you come to me, you would have to render a certain amount of personal and domestic services. You would keep the little household in order and occasionally prepare a meal. In fact, you would be in the position of my servant as well as laboratory assistant. Would you object to that?”

Would I object! I could have fallen down that instant and kissed his boots. What I did say was that I should be proud to be his servant and only sorry that I was not more worthy of that honourable post.

“Then,” said he, “the bargain is struck; and each of us must do his best to make it a good bargain for the other.”

He then proceeded to arrange the details of my assumption of office, which included the transfer of five shillings “to chink in my pocket and pay the cabman,” and, when all was settled, I went forth, at his advice, to take a final turn in the garden; which I did with a springy step and at a pace that made the other patients stare.

As I entered the ward, the sister came up to me with a rather troubled face.

“When you go out tomorrow, Number Six, what are you going to do? Have you any home to go to?”

“Yes, Sister,” I replied, triumphantly. “Mr. Thorndyke had just engaged me as his servant.”

“Oh, I am so glad,” she exclaimed. “I have been rather worried about you. But I am quite happy now, for I know that you will have the very best of masters.”

She was a wise woman, was that sister.

I pass over the brief remainder of my stay in hospital. The hour of my discharge, once dreaded, but now hailed with joy, came in the middle of the forenoon; and, as my worldly goods were all on my person, no preparations were necessary. I made the round of the ward to say farewell to my fellow-patients, and, when the sister had given me a hearty handshake (I should have liked to kiss her), I was conducted by the nurse to the secretary’s office and there formally discharged. Then, pocketing my discharge ticket, I made my way to the main entrance and presented myself at the porter’s lodge.

“Ah!” said the porter when I had introduced myself “so you are Mr. Thorndyke’s young man. Well, I’ve got to put you into a hansom and see that you know where to go. Do you?”

“Yes,” I answered, producing the card that my master had given me and reading from it. “The address is ‘Dr. John Thorndyke, 5A King’s Bench Walk, Inner Temple, London, E.G.’”

“That’s right,” said he; “and remember that he’s Doctor Thorndyke now. We call him Mister because that’s the custom when a gentleman is on the junior staff, even if he is an M.D. Here’s a hansom coming in, so we shan’t have to fetch one.”

The cab came up the courtyard and discharged its passenger at the entrance, when the porter hailed the driver, and, having hustled me into the vehicle, sang out the address to which I was to be conveyed and waved his hand to me as we drove off and I returned his salutation by raising my hat.

I enjoyed the journey amazingly, surveying the busy streets over the low doors with a new pleasure and thinking how cheerful and friendly they looked. I had never been in a hansom before and I suppose I never shall again. For the hansom is gone; and we have lost the most luxurious and convenient passenger vehicle ever devised by the wit of man.

That cabman knew his business. Londoner as I was, the intricacies of his route bewildered me completely; and when he came to the surface, as it were, in Chancery Lane, which I recognized, he almost immediately finished me off by crossing Fleet Street and passing through a great gateway into a narrow lane bordered by ancient timber houses. Half-way down this lane he turned into another, at the entrance to which I read the name, “Crown Office Row,” and this ended in a great open square surrounded by tall houses. Here I was startled by a voice above my head demanding:

“You said Five A, didn’t you?”

I looked up, and was astonished to behold a face looking down on me through a square opening in the roof; but I promptly answered “Yes,” whereupon the face vanished and I saw and heard a lid shut down, and a few moments later the cab drew up opposite the portico of a house on the eastern side of the square. I hopped out, and, having verified the number, asked the cabman what there was to pay; to which he replied, concisely, “Two bob,” and, leaning down, held out his hand. It seemed a lot of money, but, of course, he knew what his fare was, so, having handed up the exact amount, I turned away and stepped into the entry, on the jamb of which was painted: “First pair, Dr. John Thorndyke.”

The exact meaning of this inscription was not quite clear to me, but as the ground floor was assigned to another person, I decided to explore the staircase; and having ascended to the first-floor landing, was reassured by observing the name “Dr. Thorndyke” painted in white lettering over a doorway, the massive, iron-bound door of which was open, revealing an inner door garnished by a small and very tarnished brass knocker. On this I struck a single modest rap, when the door was opened by Dr. Thorndyke, himself.

“Come in, Polton,” said he, smiling on me very kindly and shaking my hand. “Come into your new home — which is my home, too; and I hope it will be a happy one for us both. But it will be what we make it. Perhaps, if your journey hasn’t tired you, you would like me to show you over the premises.”

I said that I was not tired at all, so he led me forth at once and we started to climb the stairs, of which there were four flights to the third-floor landing.

“I have brought you to the top floor,” said the Doctor, “to introduce you to your own domain. The rest of the rooms you can explore at your leisure. This is your bedroom.”

He threw open a door, and when I looked in I was struck dumb with astonishment and delight. It was beyond my wildest dreams — a fine, spacious room with two windows, furnished in a style of which I had no previous experience. A handsome carpet covered the floor, the bed surpassed even the hospital beds, there were a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a set of book shelves, a large table by one of the windows and a small one beside the bed, a fine easy chair and two other chairs. It was magnificent. I had thought that only noblemen lived in such rooms. And yet it was a very picture of homely comfort.

I was struggling to express my gratitude when the Doctor hustled me down to the second floor to inspect the future laboratory and workshop. At present they were just large, empty rooms, but the kitchen was fully furnished and in going order, with a gas-cooker and a dresser filled with china, and the empty larder was ready for use.

“Now,” said the Doctor, “I must run off to the hospital in a few minutes, but there are one or two matters to settle. First, you will want some money to fit yourself out with clothes. I will advance you ten pounds for that purpose. Then, until we are settled down, you will have to get your meals at restaurants. I will give you a couple of pounds for those and any stores that you may lay in, and you will keep an account and let me know when you want any more money. And remember that you are a convalescent, and don’t stint your diet. I think that is all for the present except the latch-keys, which I had better give you now.”

He laid the money and the two keys on the table, and was just turning to go when it occurred to me to ask if I should get an evening meal prepared for him. He looked at me with a smile of surprise and replied: “You’re a very enterprising convalescent, Polton, but you mustn’t try to do too much at first. No, thank you. I shall dine in the board-room to-night and get home about half-past nine.”

When he had gone, I went out, and, having taken a substantial lunch at a restaurant near Temple Bar, proceeded to explore the neighbourhood with a view to household stores. Eventually I found in Fetter Lane enough suitable shops to enable me to get the kitchen and the larder provided for a start, and, having made my purchases, hurried home to await the delivery of the goods. Then I spent a delightful afternoon and evening rambling about the house, planning the work shop, paying repeated visits to my incomparable room, and inaugurating the kitchen by preparing myself an enormous high tea; after which, becoming extremely sleepy, I went down and paced up and down the Walk to keep myself awake.

When The Doctor came home I would have expounded my plans for the arrangement of the workshop. But he cut me short with the admonition that convalescents should be early birds, and sent me off to bed; where I sank at once into a delicious slumber and slept until it was broad daylight and a soft-toned bell informed me that it was seven o’clock.

This day is the last that I shall record; for it saw the final stage of that wonderful transformation that changed the old Nathaniel Polton, the wretched, friendless outcast, into the pampered favourite of Fortune.

When I had given the Doctor his breakfast (which he praised, warmly, but begged me to remember in future that he was only one man) and seen him launched on his way to the hospital, I consumed what he had left on the dish — one fried egg and a gammon rasher — and, having tidied up the Doctor’s bedroom and my own, went forth to wind up the affairs of Polton, the destitute, and inaugurate Polton, the opulent; to “ring out the old and ring in the new”. First, I visited a “gentlemen’s outfitters”, where I purchased a ready-made suit of a sober and genteel character (I heard the shopman whisper something about “medium boy’s size “) and other garments appropriate to it, including clerical grey socks, a pair of excellent shoes and a soft felt hat. The parcel being a large and heavy one I bought a strong rug-strap with which to carry it, and so was able, with an occasional rest, to convey it to Foubert’s Place, where I proposed to settle any arrears of rent that Mr. Stokes might claim. However, he claimed none, having let my room when I failed to return. But he had stored my property in an attic, from which he very kindly assisted me to fetch it, so that I had, presently, the satisfaction of seeing all my worldly goods piled up on the counter: the tool-chest that I had made in Mr. Beeby’s workshop, my whole collection of clockmaker’s tools, and my beloved books, including Mr. Denison’s invaluable monograph. When they were all assembled, I went out and chartered a four-wheeled cab, in which I stowed them all — chest, tools, books, and the enormous parcel from the out — fitters. Then I bade Mr. Stokes a fond farewell, gave the cabman the address (at which he seemed surprised; and I am afraid that I was a rather shabby little ragamuffin) shut myself in the cab and started for home.

Home! I had not known the word since Aunt Judy and Uncle Sam had flitted away out of my ken. But now, as the cab rattled over the stones until it made my teeth chatter, I had before me the vision of that noble room in the Temple which was my very own, to have and to hold in perpetuity, and the gracious friend and master whose presence would have turned a hovel into a mansion.

As soon as we arrived, I conveyed my goods — in relays — upstairs; and when I had paid off the cabman, I proceeded to dispose of them. The tools I deposited in the future workshop as the first instalment of its furnishing, the books and parcel I carried up to my own apartment. And there the final scene was enacted. When I had arranged my little library lovingly in the bookshelves, I opened the parcel and laid out its incredible contents on the bed. For a while I was so overcome by their magnificence that I could only gloat over them in ecstasy. I had never had such clothes before, and I felt almost shy at their splendour. However, they were mine, and I was going to wear them; and so reflecting, I proceeded boldly to divest myself of the threadbare, frayed and faded habiliments that had served me so long until I had stripped to the uttermost rag (and rag is the proper word). Then I inducted myself cautiously into the new garments, finishing up (in some discomfort) with a snowy and rather stiff collar, a silk neck-tie, and the sober but elegant black coat.

For quite a long time I stood before the mirror in the wardrobe door surveying, with something of amused surprise and a certain sense of unreality, the trimly-dressed gentleman who confronted me. At length, I turned away with a sigh of satisfaction, and, having carefully put away the discarded clothing for use in the workshop, went down to await the Doctor’s return.

And here I think I had better stop, leaving Dr. Jervis to relate the sequel. Gladly would I go on — having now got into my stride — to tell of my happy companionship with my beloved master, and how he and I fitted out the workshop, and then, working on our joiner’ bench, gradually furnished the laboratory with benches and shelves. But I had better not. My tale is told; and now I must lay down my pen and hold my peace. Yet still I love to look back on that wonderful morning in the hospital laboratory when a few magical words banished in an instant the night of my adversity and ushered in the dawn.

But it was not only the dawn; it was the sunrise. And the sun has never set. A benevolent Joshua has ordained that I shall live the days of my life in perpetual sunshine; and that Joshua’s name is John Thorndyke.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/freeman/raustin/mr-polton-explains/chapter9.html

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