The Third Owner – London, 1793
It had a steady hand, this automaton.
Edwin’s hands had shook and shook like he’d just come in from the cold since he was a young boy. He was an intelligent lad –eloquent, curious, creative – but the finest tutors in the country could not improve his penmanship. His letters looked more like a child’s scribbles than a nobleman’s screed and were barely comprehensible. His father, thusly, wrote his letters for him although didn’t always take his dictation word for word.
“What will you do when I’m gone?” his father would say, “A man of your standing can’t get by without writing letters. Not in the company you’ll keep, no.”
“My lady had gorgeous writing, father. You’ve seen it,” Edwin said, “She said she’ll always write for me.”
“She’s got gorgeous writing because she has to, boy, she is a trained assistant, a mere servant. She’s not the one for you,” his father said.
“Please write her for me, father, and I’m sure you’ll be as charmed as I am,” said Edwin.
“Not that girl – I’ll never write her in your name or mine!” his father said.
But the mechanical boy was a wonder. Absolutely perfect penmanship every time, over and over and over. If his paper wasn’t moved and the letters weren’t changed it would write over it again, as perfect as the time before. Edwin knew he must have it the moment he saw it – his love was so far away, as were his sister, his uncle, his dear grandmother. How he’d love to write them all in his own words, in writing better than his father’s. How he’d love to borrow this automaton’s hands.
And so he acquired it, after much pleading with his father and winning his mother over. It took him a while to arrange the message he desired – it was difficult to manipulate such tiny pieces with his large, unsteady hands – but he refused help. These messages would be his and his alone.
His and the mechanized hands he borrowed.
In the end, he finished two notes and sealed them in an envelope addressed to his lady love:
DO NOT WORRY MY LOVE IT WILL NOT BE LONG
I SHALL BE COMING FOR YOU SOME TIME SOON
The disappearance of the couple not a month after the letters were sent puzzled their families for years to come, although it was assumed they eloped somewhere and remained hidden from judging eyes. His father remembered the last time he saw Edwin: he looked calm and his hands seemed so steady.
The Fifth Owner – Scotland, 1822
A young girl needed friends, but friends were difficult to come by when you were so secluded. Eight year old Nellie lived in a secluded mansion miles away from anyone else. She was born much later than her siblings, the youngest of which was ten years older than her. Her closest friend was her nanny, who taught her to sew clothes for her dolls and identify all the different birds and bugs and mammals outdoors. But, of friends her own age she really had none to speak of.
She talked to her dolls a lot. She was lonely, and had a vivid imagination and no one saw a reason to question her imaginary friends. Her excitement when the Writer arrived was immediate, until she was warned firmly that it was a valuable machine and not a plaything, and that she should never touch it, especially not any of the moving parts in the back which could injure her.
And yet, when she was home alone sometimes she heard the scratching of a pen on paper. She’d go to where the Writer was seated in the house and carefully, without touching him, remove the paper, read it, and with a squeal of delight run to tuck it underneath her pillow. She told her mother what they said, but was simply warned again not to touch it if she insisted on having these fantasies.
“Look, mother,” she said one day, holding one of the small paper cards with writing on it, “It’s not true, is it?”
Her mother snatched the card from her hand, “Nellie, I told you not to touch it!”
She looked down at the card.
YOUR BROTHER IS NEVER GOING TO COME BACK
“And why would you write something so horrible?” she said.
“I didn’t write it, it was what he gave me,” Nellie said.
“Don’t be silly. Your pretend games have gone too far now, of course your brother’s coming home. He probably just got sidetracked with those friends of his again. They’re a bad influence, I say, but I’m sure we’ll get a letter soon,” she said, “Now go to your room.”
“Wait,” Nellie said, “There’s one more thing.”
“He told me to say goodbye to you.”
The Eighth Owner – France, 1857
Marie lived alone. Her husband had passed on years ago and her kids were all full-grown and had long since moved away. She didn’t mind, however – she had taken to enjoying the simple pleasures of being alone. Long walks in the morning and evening, visits with friends, the ability to stay out all day with no one depending on your presence at home.
She loved getting to know her new house. She had given her house – a large house out in the country – to one of her children, and moved into an apartment in the city. It suited her much better, she thought, she was always a city girl at heart.
The floorboards in the kitchen creaked when stepped on. The window in the living room got stuck about half way up when she tried to open it. There were cracks in the floral wallpaper that sometimes made interesting patterns. All of these things she found some degree of charm in.
At night when she tucked herself into bed she could hear the sound of scratching, like clawing at the floorboards from the attic but off somehow. This particular quirk she found less than charming, but was afraid to investigate out of the fear that some live, sickly animal was trapped up there waiting to lunge at anything that might look tasty. But what animal made a noise like that?
She brought the issue up to one of her friends who happened to have a nephew living with her – a young man with a penchant for hunting small creatures. He agreed to investigate, but couldn’t find a thing. Nothing alive, at least: some shelves with dusty old books, a trunk full of moth-eaten clothes, and a doll half-covered with a blanket holding a pen.
Yet, the noise continued. Perhaps it could be something outside the house: a nocturnal bird on the roof, perhaps, or a squirrel running up and down the side of the house. Eventually her discomfort ceased and she hardly remembered it was there.
The holidays rolled around and Marie decided to write her children and try to make plans together. She dipped her pen in the ink and began to write, but was startled by a familiar noise.
The sound of pen on paper – the sound of scratching.
The Tenth Owner – Switzerland, 1873
“It’s truly remarkable, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s hard to believe it’s changed hands so many times. I know a few people who’d love to get a good look at its insides; you should hold onto it.”
“I’m not planning on parting with it.”
“Neither would I. You know, I didn’t believe it could write almost anything – I figured there were a few set phrases – which don’t get me wrong, would have been impressive enough – but the fact that it can write words of your choosing or complete gibberish if you wished is incredible. Thank you for letting me look at it.”
“You’d know more than I would. You’re the expert.”
“It’s really quite simple once you get a good look at it; or rather, I shouldn’t say simple because it has so many pieces, all so intricate and complex, but they fit together so perfectly you can really see how it works. A masterpiece, truly. I’ll explain it over dinner, if I can stay.”
“There’s just one thing I can’t figure out, though.”
“You? You must be joking.”
“I’m afraid not. Something involving sound and vibrations, I think.”
“What do you mean?”
“The eyes – how can they follow you around the room like that? I suppose there are things beyond even my comprehension. I don’t suppose you’d let me open the head up and take a better look at it?”