John Brent/Chapter XXX
Short’s Cut-off shut out all oilier subjects from my head next morning.
It was an innovation, a revolution. Mankind objects to both. It came from America, and though America has given tobacco, woman’s rights, the potato, model yachts, model States, and trotting horses to the Old World, that World still distrusts our work as boyish. We in turn deem the Old World a mere child, and our youth based on a completer maturity than they will attain for half a millennium.
Short’s Cut-off was so simple that it puzzled everybody.
I consulted half a dozen eminent engineers.
“Very pretty, indeed!” they said, and at once turned the conversation to the explosions on Western rivers. “Had I ever been blown up? How did it feel?”
But as to Short’s Cut-off, they only thought it a neat contrivance, but evidently by a person who did not comprehend intricate machinery.
I took it to a man of another order. England is the world’s machine-shop; he was England’s chief engineer. A great man he was, dead, alas! now. A freeman, who recognized the world as his country, and genius everywhere as his brother.
He understood Short’s Cut-off at a glance.
How I wish old Short could have been there, to see this great man’s eye glow with enthusiasm as he said: “Admirable! This is what we have all been waiting for, Padiham must see this. We must have it in every engine in England. Command my services to aid in making it known.”
“Can you recommend me,” said I, presently, “a thorough mechanic. I want some more models made of these valves and machinery, to illustrate their action.”
“You must go to Padiham, the best artisan I know in all England.”
“Worth seeing for himself, as the man whom you name best among these millions of craftsmen.”
“Padiham is the man.’’
“He ought to have name and fame.”
“He might if he chose.”
“Worth knowing, again, for this rare abnegation.”
“He is an oddity. Some unlucky mode of life stunted him, mind and body, until he was a mature man. He is dwarfed in person, and fancies his mind suffers too. It makes him a little gruff to feel that he is a man of tools, and not of principles, — a mechanic, not a philosopher. There is nothing of morbidness or disappointment in him. Only he underrates himself, and fancies his powers blunted by his deformity. He keeps out of the way, and works alone in a little shop. He will only do special jobs for me and one or two others. He says he would be our equal, if he were full-grown. We deem him our peer, and treat him as such; but he will not come out and take the place he could have at once before the world. I thought of him, and wished him to see this Cut-off, as soon as you showed it to me. You must tell him I sent you, or he may be surly at first, and so drive you away, or perhaps refuse to do your work.”
“I think I can make my way with such a person; but if not, I will use your name. Where is he to be found?”
“This is his address. An out-of-the-way place, you see, if you know London. A by-street on the Surrey side of the Thames. He is well to do; but lives there for a special economy. He has a method of charity, which is like himself thoroughly original. More good he does in his odd way than any man I know. He owns the whole house over his shop, and uses it as a private hospital or hospice for poor but worthy sick and broken-down people.”
“His own dwarfishness makes him sympathetic?”
“Yes; instead of souring, it softens him to the feeble. He may perhaps feel a transitory resentment at big, strong fellows like you and me; but he is always tender to the weak. His wonderful knowledge of machinery comes into play in his hospital. From the machines man makes, he has passed to a magical knowledge of the finest machine of all.”
“The human body?”
“The machine that invents and executes machines, the human body, — the most delicate mechanism of all, the type of all its own inventions. Padiham achieves magical cures. He is working by practice, and lately by study, into profound surgical skill. There is no man in England whom I would trust to mend me if I broke, as I would Padiham.”
“He avenges himself upon Nature for not perfecting him, by restoring her breakages. Why do you not suggest to him to become a professed repairer of mankind?”
“I have suggested it. He says he must take his own way. Besides, mechanics can hardly spare him. Many of my own inventions would have stayed in embryo in my brain, if Padiham had not played Vulcan, and split a passage for them. I talk over my schemes to him; he catches the idea and puts it into form at once.”
“You interest me very much,” said I. “I must see the man and know him, for my own sake as well as for Short’s Cut-off.”
“Take care he does not drive you away in a huff. You’ll find him a rough-hewn bit.”
I went at once. A man who had warred with Pikes at the Foolonner Mine, to say nothing of other ruder characters, was not to be baffled, so he trusted, by a surly genius.
As I walked through the crush of the streets, again there came to me that vision of the old man and his daughter lost in the press, — more sadly lost, more vainly seeking refuge here, than m the desert solitudes where we had found them.
Every one familiar with great cities knows of strange rencounters there, and at every turn I looked narrowly about, fancying that I should see the forms I sought, just vanishing, but leaving me a clew of pursuit. This expectation grew so intense, that I exaggerated slight resemblances of costume or of port, and often found myself excitedly hurrying quite out of my way, and shouldering through huddles of people, to come at some figure in the distance. But when I overtook the old man of feeble step, or the young woman moving fearlessly amid the pitiless crowd, or the pair I had followed, and stared at them eagerly, strange and offended looks met me instead of the familiar, perhaps the welcome, look I had hoped; and I turned away forlornly exaggerating the disappointment as I had the fancy.
I cooled at last from this flurry. Nothing but blanks in the lottery. It was folly to be wasting my energy in this way. Trusting Providence, or rather this semblance of Providence, this mere chance, was thin basis for action. So I resumed my proper course, and turned my steps quietly toward Padiham’s shop.
But when presently I stood upon London Bridge, between two cities of men, between the millions I had escaped and the million I was to plunge among, a great despair grew heavier and heavier upon me.
This terrible throng, here as everywhere hurrying by me! And I compelled to note every man and every woman, and to say to myself, “This is not he,” — “This is not she,”— “These are not they! “All the while this stream of negatives rushing by, and every one bearing a little fraction of hope away.
In that great city — in its nests and its prisons — were people who had been living side by side for a life-time, and yet had never had one glimpse of each other’s form or feature; who were, each to each, but a name on a door, a step overhead, a tread on the stair, a moan of anguish, a laugh, or a curse. There were parallel streets, too, whose tenants moved parallel and never met, and never would meet. There were neighborhoods farther distant than Cornhill is from Cairo, or Pimlico from Patagonia. It was a dark den — that monster city — for any one who loved to lurk, or be buried away from sight of friend or foe; it was a maze, a clewless labyrinth for one who sought a foe to punish or a friend to save.
Evening was approaching. I must consider Short and his Cut-off, and all England wasting steam at the rate of millions of pounds a year (enough to save the income tax) until that Cut-off should be applied. In that populous realm were ten thousand cylinders devouring one third more steam than was healthy working allowance; and I was halting on London Bridge, staring like a New-Zealander at the passers, a mere obstacle to progress, a bad example, a stationary nuisance now, as I had been a mobile and intrusive one before.
I had some little difficulty in finding Padiham’s retiring-place. I had already dissected it out on the map, identified it by its neighborhood to a certain artery and its closer neighborhood to a certain ganglion. It was Lamely Court, a quiet retreat in a busy region. It looked, indeed, as if it had never taken a very active part in the world, or as if, when it offered itself to bustle and traffic, more enterprising localities had hustled it aside, and bade it decline into a lethargy. The withered brick houses had the air and visage of people who have seen better days, and subsided into the desponding by-ways, apart from the thoroughfares of the bold and sturdy. Mean misery and squalor did not abide there. It was not a den for the ragged, but a shy retreat for the patched, — for the decent and decorous poor.
Half-way down the court, on the sunny side, I found Padiham’s house. It was quietly, not obtrusively, neater and fresher than its neighbors. Its bricks had a less worm-eaten look, and its window-panes were all of glass and none of newspaper. The pot roses in an upper story window were in bloom, and had life enough to welcome the June sunshine, while sister plants in other garrets all about the court were too far blighted ever to dream of gayer product than some poor jaundiced bud. These roses up in Padiham’s window cheered the whole neighborhood greatly, with their lively coloring. It was as if some pretty maiden, with rosy cheeks and riper rosy lips, were looking down into that forlorn retreat, and warming every old, faded soul, within every shabby tenement, with bright reminiscence of days when life was in its perfume and its flower.
Such was the aspect of Padiham’s abode. His shop lurked in the basement.