My name is Edward Smith. I am a successful jeweller, and my wares are much in demand at the Court – I have even just completed a commission for King Harry himself – it will be a present to some lady, I am told. However, even though I am successful and rich, I am troubled in my mind. My success has not entirely been due to my own skills, but in large part to an event that happened over five years ago. As I cannot make sense of it, I have decided to put it down on paper.
I was a craftsman, working in metal in a market town. I would make bracelets and necklaces in copper, or occasionally silver, with enamelling for colour. It was a steady business, which I had inherited from my father, and it enabled me to support my good wife and daughter. We lived above the shop, in modest but comfortable conditions.
One hot summer’s day, I was sharing a pint of ale with my good friend John at the tavern, and exchanging the local gossip, and he asked me if I’d heard about the strange man in the next town, that everyone was talking about. I said I hadn’t.
“That’s surprising”, he said, “Because he was looking for a craftsman, who could make him something special in copper. He wouldn’t say what it was – and you’re the only person in this county making fine things in copper.”
I thought little more of it, until a few days later, a tall gaunt man stooped and came into my little shop. He seemed ill-at-ease. John was right that he was strange. He was perhaps around 30, and was wearing clothes such as a travelling tinker might wear, but clearly too small. He spoke English, but a very funny kind of English, with many words I didn’t recognise. He also had a strange odour about him. I remember noticing that first time that he was very clean-shaven, though later he grew a beard.
He asked to see some samples of my work, and seemed well pleased with what he saw, although he didn’t buy anything. He asked to speak in private, so I took him into the parlour at the back of the shop. Mary came down, curious to see who it was. He stood up and formally shook her hand, and said, “My name is Peter. I shall be doing private business with your husband. Please leave us, and see that we are not disturbed.”
The proposition that he then made to me seemed too good to be true. He would need me to make certain things for him, and to help him to assemble them. He would need a room in which to build his object, which would require some space. He would also need absolute secrecy – even from my family. If I could guarantee all of these things, and not ask questions, he would pay me in gold! He showed me a gold coin, with a queen on it, and said it would be mine, if I agreed, and that when the machine was completed, he would give me a bag of a hundred like it!
Well, as you can imagine, I didn’t hesitate! We shook hands on it straight away. He then said that he was very concerned not to attract attention, and that this gold was the only money he had. He would need me to melt it down, so that it couldn’t be identified, and he would need to ask me for some pennies and silver groats in return. I agreed, thinking I could say that I had a relative in Wales who had a gold mine.
I set aside the outbuilding at the back of the shop for our project. I closed the shop to customers. Every day, Peter would appear at first light, via the back lane, to avoid attracting attention. At dusk, he would leave. I found out from the village gossip that he had used the coins I had given him to rent a room above the baker’s further down the street.
He would give me shopping lists of materials to acquire – sheets of base metal and copper, large earthenware jars, a huge wooden bobbin the size of a small barrel, a piece of soft iron to go in the middle of it. The most astonishing thing he wanted was several furlongs of the thinnest copper wire that could be made. Normally, I use wire the thickness of a fingernail for jewellery, as that is the finest that can be bought, but several furlongs of this would need more than a horse and cart to carry it. However, over the course of a week of experimentation, Peter and I found a way to draw common wire out through a small hole in a piece of iron, and make it both thinner and longer. We wound it up on some wooden spools Mary normally used to keep wool on. When, after several weeks we had thirty or so spools filled with wire, Peter said that we had to coat the wire with Chinese lacquer. This seemed madness to me, but I did it anyway, draping the wire across the room, and running a paintbrush along it. It took a long time!
While Peter and I worked at these puzzling tasks, he would ask me questions about my life, and the way our society worked. There seemed many very simple things that he didn’t understand. He had absolutely no concept of how much things cost. He didn’t even know how to light a lamp! He even said he couldn’t ride a horse – though how someone could get to his age without being able to ride a horse beats me. However, when I tried to explore Peter’s background, I always got an evasive answer. Really, I never learned anything about him.
When we had all the materials that Peter said he needed, we started winding all the spools of wire onto the huge bobbin. First a few yards of thicker wire, and then the thin wire, spool after spool of it. As you may imagine, there were many breakages. Every time it broke, we had to scrape the lacquer, tie it together and then paint it again! It took us weeks!
By early Autumn, we had spent all our savings, and I had to make a trip to London, to sell some of the gold. It was only the second time I had ever been to London, and I was a bit nervous carrying my lumps of gold, but I managed it, and returned with enough coins to see us through to the Spring, without having to open the shop.
Once the bobbin was fully wound, Peter seemed to relax a bit. He had me make some other strange small metal items, from sketches he drew. Although he labelled some of the sketches, I couldn’t read his curly writing, and he had to spell it out in capital letters. We laid all the parts out on the table in the outbuilding, and Peter tied them together.
Finally, as Christmas approached, I sensed that this apparently senseless project was coming to its conclusion – though I still had no idea what that conclusion might be. On New Year’s Day, Peter asked me to help him to fill each of the earthenware jars with vinegar – why would anyone want to do that?? He also had me get a ladder and use the last bobbin of jewellery wire to hang outside, from the outbuilding to the gable of the house.
We now come to the most remarkable part of this whole story. Peter had arranged two pieces of wire a few inches apart, and tied to the bobbin. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. I had made him a metal lever, and when he tapped this lever, there was a crackle and a flash of lightning appeared between these two wires – somehow Peter had managed to capture the power of the gods in my outbuilding! This was all the more remarkable, as there seemed to be no sign of a thunderstorm outside. At first, I was really scared of this, but he laughed and dragged me back in to watch.
When he was satisfied that the machine was working properly, he shook my hand, thanked me, and gave me a large bag of gold pieces. I couldn’t believe my great fortune! However, he said that he might now need to use the machine for several months, and that absolute secrecy must still be maintained.
Now that my work for Peter was done, I opened the shop again. I made some small items using some of the gold, and sold them to the Lord of the Manor, for a good price. I made another trip to London, and exchanged some gold for precious stones.
But what became of Peter during this time? Every daylight hour, he would spend in my outbuilding, tapping irregularly on the lever I had made. He became withdrawn, and seemed reluctant to talk. Neighbours said that they had seen him outside on cloudless nights, looking heavenward.
Then suddenly, one day in late Spring, there was no sign of Peter. There was just a note on the machine, saying, “EDWARD, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR HELP. THE MACHINE YOU HELPED TO MAKE HAS DONE ITS JOB. GOODBYE AND BEST WISHES. PETER”
Over the months, I had found it almost impossible to keep my family from prying into what was going on in the outbuilding, so it was a real relief to be able to dismantle the machine and dispose of the parts, before awkward questions were asked.
And that really is all there is to tell. Having plenty of money meant that I could buy expensive raw materials, and make beautiful things that sold for high prices. My business prospered, and members of the nobility gave me commissions. I was able to move with my family to London, and to afford a shop in the City.
However, a small incident when I visited the Court this week reminded me of what had happened. As a regular visitor, I had become well acquainted with the Earl of Leicester, and as a result, I found myself sitting next to him at a banquet at which there were many famous people. A careless wench with whom he was becoming familiar managed to spill some wine on his shirt, and he became uncommonly distressed about this. He would not make light of this trivial incident, but insisted on leaving the table to go and wash the stain out. I went with him to assist.
As I helped him to remove the shirt, I realised that this was no common garment. I asked him where he had bought it. He said that he had had to pass judgement on a travelling tinker who had been accused of stealing it. The shirt had been of such quality, that after washing, he had decided to use it himself. As we rinsed the wine out of the cloth, I was able to inspect it closely. The design was indeed quite singular, the weave very fine, and the needlework the most regular and perfect I have ever seen. However, what puzzled me most was a small piece of material sewn into the collar. This had imprinted upon it some strange symbols I didn’t recognise at all, and the curious and enigmatic words, “Marks & Spencer”.