The Sluga

29 Oct

“Who wants to work as a house sluga anymore?” asked the urban correspondent for the Beograd Herald. “It is difficult to find capable household servants in our time,” stated Pero Radic, a wrinkled veteran of the Serbian capital. “Here we are in 1936 already, and the modern twentieth century is beginning to show us its darker, shadier side. No one any longer wishes to move here to our great metropolis on the Sava and Danube to work at simple but necessary tasks for our middle-class residents and professionals.

“No, we are starting to suffer a sluga shortage here. Even young women from the rural hinterland do not wish to serve as sluzhanke to the ladies of Beograd. These fortunate wives cannot find the cooks and maids that used to be plentiful. There are jobs available, but no willing applicants today. What is Serbia coming to, Bojan?”

The short, small watchmaker seemed distant. His brown eyes were clouded and faraway for several long moments, until he answered his close friend from the world of Beograd journalism.

“Yes, that appears to be a serious problem, the dearth of available house servants to work for our upper and even middle circles. But what can anyone do? Those who come here from the country can find employment in industry and commerce that will pay them much better. After all, they are not rob-slaves, but free citizens of the Kingdom of Serbia. Who can blame them for wishing to better themselves?”

The tall, skinny Pero gave a sudden, unexpected laugh. “You and your fellow-casovnicari must put together some modern mechanizmi that will do the labor that human beings no longer wish to carry out, my friend. That’s what Serbia needs in the future: aparati that can move about and replace the traditional sluga class that did the household work of those who could afford them in the past.

“We need the invention of an izum, a mech who will be our servant and never ask us for wages of any sort. Get to work on that as soon as you can, Bojan!”

The two old comrades shared an understanding laugh at the impossible daydream of a seemingly impossible clockwork sluga for the well-to-do families of the capital on the Danube.

Bojan lived in rooms above his clock and watch repair shop on Zhelezhnichka Street in the downtown Terazije section. This business area held stores of all sorts, but Bojan had located where he was years ago, in the years before the World War. He had found his wife, Mara, in 1921 and brought her to his combined home and shop. She had had to adjust to their unusual living arrangement as best she could.

A short, energetic housewife devoted to her duties upstairs, she allowed her husband to spend his time in his repair and assembly work in his large rear workroom downstairs. She knew that he was involved in complicated construction work on his own, putting together new clocks and watches that he hoped to sell eventually to Beograd customers.

Mara had learned not to ask him too many questions about what he was engaged in, but guessed that her spouse was making clockwork inventions of some sort. She saw his tinkering as a kind of innocent but expensive hobby that kept him at home. But Mara waited for Bojan to report and explain his activities when he himself chose to do so.

It was a shadowy December evening outside when he came upstairs for a late supper with her. All at once, as he began to eat at their kitchen table, Bojan started to outline the unusual project he was busy with in his downstairs workshop.

“My dear, I have some very good news to provide for you tonight,” he announced with a surprising smile. “We will no longer be alone in our home. You shall have a sluga of your own to complete all the house work that you now carry out. How does that sound to you?”

Mara looked across at him with shocked curiosity in her dark olive eyes. “What do you mean, what are you talking about, Bojan?”

The latter stopped his smiling “As you have seen, I have been working during the night and all my spare daylight hours on a difficult project back in my repair chamber. I have not described for you what I was engaged in, because it would have been difficult to explain in all its complicated details. But now I have something definite, a working apparat that does what I planned. Some might have considered all of this a crazy fantasy, a preposterous impossibility, but I achieved what I have dreamed of for many years.

“Mara, I have constructed a living, moving sluzhbenik, an operating mechanical servant that can walk and fulfill the physical tasks of a house worker. It will clean and sweep, it will lift and carry. My plan is for you to train this sluga of ours how to do the cooking here in the kitchen. Won’t that be miraculous? The prospects are incredible.

“I am going to visit the banks in downtown Beograd and ask for investment loans from them. There must be the purchase of some factory building to permit me to manufacture more of these inventions of mine. There will be an enormous, probably infinite demand for such serving mechs. These machines will satisfy the scarcity of house servants that plagues all of Serbia, especially Beograd.

“What do you say to this, my dear? Are you ready to begin training our sluga what to do for you? It is downstairs in the workroom, ready to climb up the stairs and go to work for you. There is nothing in our home that it cannot be taught how to do. You will be able to sit, rest, and direct the labors of our new house servant. It will be as if we possessed our very own slave, but one that operates like the clocks that I work on. The sluga is my izum, and I created this invention in order to give you something that no one else in the world has, Mara.

Shaken and breathless, she gazed in silence into his coffee brown eyes, dilated with a mad-like enthusiasm.

“Can you bring this thing up here this evening so that I can see it?” she said in a trembling voice.

“Of course, dear,” he murmured, rising to his feet and rushing toward the stairs to the ground floor.

Pero stared at the petite metal object that its creator characterized as a mechanical sluga that was able to walk and work as an independent but commanded entity.

“The body is made of stained steel, and the single eye operates as a miniature camera apparat,” explained the pronalazac who had invented and assembled it. “The sprava receives its energy from a special crystal battery that I myself developed. It has taken me over ten years, but I finally have what I have dreamed of all my life.

“The sluga moves because if its internal system of opruga springs and tochak gears. I have adapted what I place into clocks and watches for this uredaj. They fit into this relatively small body because I have miniatured all the components as much as is possible.”

Bojan proceeded to speak about the mainsprings, bushings, weighted gears, balance wheels, escarpments, rotors, gear trains, pendulum keys, and oscillators that made the sluga mobile.

Pero, a journalist with limited knowledge of physics or mechanics, sensed his mind whirling in confusion. “You mentioned that you invented a new kind of battery to provide power for the aparat?”

The watchmaker grinned with self-satisfaction. “My izum runs on what is called piezoelectricity, what common people call the friction variety. It can be generated by certain natural crystals found out in the countryside. As far as I can tell, I am the only individual who has come across and identified this source of electric power.”

“And you claim that this sluga of yours can perform certain simple housekeeping tasks it is ordered to carry out?”

“I have placed a control panel upon the back shoulders of its body. It is a secret mechanism that only I know how to use, at least so far.” The clockmaker beamed with pride and confidence. “The apparat is an extremely obedient and controllable machine, believe me, my friend.”

The two men looked at each other in silence for a short while.

“I have tried to talk to several bankers about future production of such mechanisms, but they are not interested in extending any loans,” said Bojan. “They are dubious and even refuse to have a look of the sluga I have constructed.”

“You have something that could turn out to be revolutionary,” muttered Pero in a slow, careful tone. “I know an iron and steel top executive who I think might have interest in developing and producing such a sluzhbenik for the market. Could I talk to him about what I have seen and what you have told me about your invention?”

“Certainly,” nodded Bojan. “It would be wonderful if this house sluga could be produced here in Beograd. All of Yugoslavia, all of Europe and the world would be interested in such an aide and helper to the housekeeping housewife, I believe.”

Milan Protic was one of the handful of major leaders in Yugoslavia’s industrial landscape in 1940. He was president of the Serbian Joint Stock Mining and Smelting Combine. Its main facilities were in Smerderevo on the Danube, to the west of Beograd.

Protic, who supervised forges, furnaces, foundries, and rolling mills spent much of his time in the capital, where he made his home in the elite Kalemegdan District.

Pero had the good fortune to be a close acquaintance of the busy, powerful corporate executive, a giant within the field of metals. He telephoned the office of Protic in order to arrange an appointment with him. “He can see you tomorrow at eleven in the morning,” said the industrialist’s secretary. “Can you be here at that time?”

The correspondent said that he could, smiling to himself at the potential opportunity that loomed ahead for him.

Milan Protic was an impressive bearlike figure in an expensive blue serge suit. He rose and shook his visitor’s hand with his own gigantic right one. “Let us sit down and talk together, my friend,” suggested the towering executive with a radiant, beaming grin.

When they were seated across from each other, Pero went directly to his business in coming to see his old acquaintance.

“I have seen with my own eyes an incredibly advanced mechanism, an artificial person that is able to accomplish many of the tasks of a household sluga. It was created by a clockmaker I know. He must be a genius to have made such an izum. He is an inventor of the same rank and nature as Serbia’s Nikola Tesla.

“You must see it for yourself to judge and evaluate the stainless steel sluga. This invention has the potential of providing a whole new market of infinite size for the metal products of your company and its mills.

“Are you willing to have a look at the movements and actions of this artificial servant that the inventor has assembled?”

“Of course, I can inspect what you are talking about, Pero. What do I have to lose?”

The correspondent promised that he would call back to tell him when he could see for himself the new sluga made of steel.

Pero visited the clock shop, climbing up into the living apartment of the clockmaker and his wife.

He spoke to them in a joyful, elevated tone. “I was successful in convincing the steel industrialist, Milan Protic, to come here this coming Saturday to witness the sluga for himself. He seemed very interested, even enthusiastic, about the izum if it proves itself to him.

“This is a wonderful victory for us, I think. He is an influential figure on the field of our industries that deal in metals. Mr. Protic will be a powerful promoter of the mechanism if we can win his favor.

“You must show the sluga with all its gifts and capacities, Bojan. Everything depends on success in having this man on our side. He can guarantee the future of your invention, my friend.”

Bojan turned to his wife and spoke directly to her.

“That will be our immediate mission, Mara. We must convince this steel-maker to back the future of our servant serving sluga.”

Once Pero had left, Bojan at once sensed an emotion on the face of his wife. “What is it, my dear?” he asked her in a soft, gentle tone.

Still seated in her favorite sofa chair, she glared with unconcealed fury at him.

“Why did you agree to allow this stranger to come here and see the sluga we use? Are we so hungry to make more money that we have to sell what we have serving us in our private home?

“I don’t see any benefit that would fall to us if something from the outside attempted to make additional versions of the model that we now have. My fear is that we will somehow lose our own sluga and what it does for us every day.

“It does not make sense to me if we take a gamble with this maker of iron and steel. I have what I want with the first mechanism, which is the only one that at present exists in Beograd and the entire world.

“I do not want you to take dangerous risks with additional ones. The sluga that you made for us in our own home will be enough.

“We should stop with what we already have, the one that completes all our house work for us.”

At a loss as to how to reply, Bojan seemed to be searching for breath. He spoke only when he became certain what he had to say to Mara.

“This important person, Mr. Protic, may be our only chance to find a protector for the izum. You know how long I had to work to construct it. You realize the time and effort I invested it making it real. Am I now to throw away all that I dreamed of and labored on? Do you wish me to turn my back on the most important project I have ever taken on?

“How can you do such a thing to me, Mara? Don’t you have any sympathy for me and what I sacrificed in order to make an operating sluga like what now does our housework?”

Fuming with anger, she shot up from her chair. Her mouth opened as she stared at Bojan, but no sound came from her.

Her husband looked down at the floor as Mara stalked out of the room, heading for the kitchen where the sluga stood unmoving, in a state of inertia, in one corner that had become its place of rest when not actively at work of some kind.

Milan Protic arrived for his Saturday appointment in his chauffeur-driven Marcedes-Benz. The vehicle remained a small distance away on Zheleznichska Street while the enormous figure of the industrial titan saundered down to where stood the clock and watch shop of Bojan Dedic.

Pero Radic had thought it best that he not be present for this demonstration of the izum. It would be up to the inventor to run the sluga through the physical exercises that would prove the claims made for the mechanical house servant.

The industrialist introduced himself to Bojan once he entered the front entrance of the shop. The two shook hands, then the clockmaker spoke to the visitor.

“My wife is upstairs in the kitchen of our living quarters with the sluga, and they are waiting there for us to go up so that you can see for yourself how the mechanism that I created works and acts.

“Shall we take the stairs? I will lead the way up, sir.”

Protic gave a nod and the pair then made their way up to the second storey of the store building.

Bojan entered the living room with the other following him. The two traversed the small dining room, then entered the kitchen.

Here they came upon Mara sitting at a round table. Bojan introduced them to each other, then invited their guest to take a chair at the table, across from his wife. The inventor remained standing, half way between the other two.

Protic kept his eyes glued on the short figure of the stainless steel sluga, standing erect in the far back corner of the kitchen.

Bojan began to speak after a significant pause so that the visitor could become accustomed to the sight of the creation standing motionless across the room.

“I shall no go forward and initiate the motions of the mechanism by adjusting the control buttons on the rear of our sluga’s shoulders. This will take me only seconds to complete.”

He moved slowly over to the metal figure and bent down over it to reach the panel with the directing knobs and levers.

He pressed the top button, the one that initiated the inner piezoelectric system and set the powering crystal into action.

The first try did not have any effect on the sluga, compelling him to press the master button once more.

A second failure occurred, followed by a third.

What had gone wrong? the puzzled clockmaker asked himself with rising frustration and ire. Why was the simple process of starting not happening the way it was expected to?

Bojan wrinkled his brow in irritation. This was the important, decisive moment when it was vital to initiate movement in the aparat, but nothing could be seen by any of the three persons in the kitchen.

Finally, the large industrialist asked a question as Bojan began to tinker about with the other control buttons and levers.

“What has gone wrong with this machine of yours?” he said in a rough, gruff tone of voice. “I can’t stay here forever. The thing does not seem to be in any working order at all, and you do not appear to be able to fix it quickly at all.

“I am very sorry, but we are wasting our time here today. I have other business on my schedule, even though it is Saturday.

“You will have to contact me some time next week, when the thing is in good operating order. I shall have to leave. My auto and my driver are waiting for me down the street.” He rose to his feet and spoke directly to Mara.

“You must excuse me for leaving, Mrs. Dedic, but I do not have the time to stay any longer. Excuse me, I will find my own way out. Good-bye to both of you. Thank you.”

It took several moments for the visiting executive to find the stairs in the living room, climb down to the ground floor, and exit the shop.

Bojan had taken a screwdriver and removed the large back panel of the sluga.

He looked over at his wife, sitting at the kitchen table.

“The power crystal is gone,” he shouted at her. “It must have been you who removed it. Where is it? Why did you do such a thing to me, Mara?”

She looked at him with a smile-like grimace on her stolid face.

“I told you what I wanted. You made the sluga for me and I do not want to share it with anyone else anywhere. Yes, I disabled it and I hid the crystal so you cannot have it back till you promise me not to allow others to have what you created for me.

“The sluga was for me, and only for me. Do you understand me now?”

Bojan humbly nodded his head. “Yes, I think I understand,” he mumbled in defeat.

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