'The Penance', a story of Saki, is about a dead cat. I am trying to understand a phrase in the following sentence from that story:

That same evening when twilight was deepening into darkness Octavian took up his position as penitent under the lone oak-tree, having first carefully undressed the part. Clad in a zephyr shirt, which on this occasion thoroughly merited its name, he held in one hand a lighted candle and in the other a watch, into which the soul of a dead plumber seemed to have passed.

What is the meaning of the phrase 'dead plumber' in this context?

  • 1
    I don't think there is a way to reply to your question without reading the full story.
    – user140086
    Nov 17, 2015 at 5:15
  • Octavian had pulled his 2yr old from the muck of the pigpen, while wearing his normal attire - including a pocket watch, apparently. Doing his penance for the death of the tabby, he wore only a muslin thin cotton shirt (zephyr) which the wind (zephyr) blew through, and held his watch which had not been cleaned yet, and so smelled like a sewer - the workplace of plumbers.
    – Engineer
    Nov 17, 2015 at 7:27

1 Answer 1


"Dead plumber" isn't a typical English saying.

I'm guessing that he means the watch was unreliable in the way that a tradesman (plumber) was unreliable in the time that they would turn up.

In modern English - say a a watch inhabited by the "soul of a dead cable company customer support staff"

  • 1
    Close -- but I think the expression alludes to the plumber's s l o w n e s s rather than his unreliability. Octavian's penance has a duration: "For a long, long time?" "For half an hour," said Octavian. There was an anxious ring in his voice as he named the time-limit; was there not the precedent of a German king who did open-air penance for several days and nights at Christmas-time clad only in his shirt? Fortunately the children did not appear to have read German history, and half an hour seemed long and goodly in their eyes. But your updated example is exquisite. Nov 12, 2016 at 1:39

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