I started to write a piece for Michael’s monthly Short story competition, but quickly realized that I was never going to fit it into 500 words, but by then it was too late. Thanks Michael for the inspiration,a nd I’ll have to have another go at the 500 word story.
The Elixir of Life
… A Steampunk Tale
I carry the machine into my workshop, rather gingerly, and place it on the bench with the sort of extreme care.
A strange man had entered my pawn shop earlier, looking for money. The man was clearly a thief, but times were hard and the business was at an all-time low. I couldn’t afford to take the moral high ground, but still, you could never be too cautious. The man looked like an opium smoker, and I’d heard that they could be dangerous if aggravated.
Initially, he had placed a gold watch on the counter.
“I’m not interested,” I responded. Pointing over to the rack of timepieces I added, “I’ve watches coming out of my ears.”
Digging into his swag bag, the man produced a wonderfully crafted jewelled tiara. I was tempted, but kept my face poker straight. “That looks more interesting, but the gems are probably fake.”
“They’re the real deal,” he protested. “Belonged to my dear departed grandmotha!”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Look, I’d never be able to sell it on. You’d need specialist jewellers to shift that sort of gear. I couldn’t give you a decent price for it.”
The guy sighed and started emptying his loot on the counter: rings, necklaces, earrings, you name it.
“Jeez! What are you playing at?” I protested, glancing out of the shop window. The last thing I needed was a peeler to be walking by right then.
That’s when he pulled the machine out of the bottom of his bag. “What about this?” he asked. “How much ya give me for this?”
My first thought was what is it, but I wasn’t daft enough to let my ignorance show. “Does it still work?” I asked.
“Course it bleedin’ works. Look at it! It’s brand spankin’!”
The device did indeed look well looked after, all shiny brass and polished glass. Whatever it was, it clearly was worth a small fortune, to the right person. The problem was who would I sell it to?
“How much are you looking for?” I asked. Let the thief decide its worth, and then I’d haggle him down from there.
“It’s gotta be worf a ton, at least!”
“You’re having me on!” I scoffed.
“I think you’re wasting my time,” I replied, though the shop was empty. It had been all morning.
I sighed. “Throw the whole lot in and I’ll go as far as twenty Pounds.”
I shrugged indifferently, all the while eyeing the strange machine out of the corner of my eye.
“Not a shilling more,” I pressed, sensing his desperation was greater than mine. Twenty big ones would feed his family for at least a year.
To tip him over the edge, I opened the till and started counting out the notes. I barely had twenty of them in there.
“Curse you!” he replied, but it didn’t take him long to snatch up the notes.
I waited until he was gone and then closed up shop. Placing the stolen goods in the safe, I lifted up the device and headed for the back room.
Selecting an eyepiece, I examined the machine in greater detail, looking for any engravings that might indicate its maker or its purpose. It was surprisingly heavy.
The thing was the size of a large hatbox. The base was ebony, with brass corners. The box was clearly hollow and contained multiple switches and dials. Anchored to the box was a brass casing, which held a large glass vial. More dials and wires surrounded the piece.
Looking closer, I could see many tiny cogs and wheels within the glass casing.
I understood little of the strange device, although I knew enough to recognise a pressure gauge when I saw one. Whatever its purpose, the device needed steam to power it.
The ebony box contained two large wells, similar in shape to the type you might store ink in on a writing desk, only slightly larger. Their brass lids were engraved with symbols.
The first one was easy to decipher; H2O. Water.
The second had me baffled, C2H6O. After a little study in various science pamphlets I figured that one out too. It was the chemical symbol for alcohol.
I poured water into the first, and then filled the second with brandy, having no pure alcohol on the premises.
A little nervously, I cranked the handle on the side of the box. Whooomph! A tiny burner ignited, and soon, the glass jar started to fill up with steam.
The device rattled and shook on my bench, and a strange gurgling sound filled the room.
I waited anxiously.
I couldn’t switch the thing off even if I’d wanted to. I didn’t know how, so I sat there, waited, and watched.
It didn’t take long before the room filled with a rich earth scent. It was an unusual smell, but strangely, I liked it.
Somewhere within the mechanism a chime sounded, and within moments the machine started to settle down. A minute later and the machine sat quite still on the bench, as if waiting for me.
As the steam cleared, I noticed that the inside of the glass vial was now half-filled with a rich dark liquid.
But what did it do?
It was then that I noticed the clever cantilever on the far side of the box.
I carefully activated the lever, and the glass vial rose up from its seat and tilted over. Too late, I realised my error and reversed the lever, but not before I’d splashed hot liquid all over my brogues.
I looked around the room for a suitable vessel to capture the liquid and my eyes alighted on a disused porcelain cup. It was greasy and had sat on the edge of the work table for some time, but it would have to do. I grabbed the teacup, discarding the mouldy tea leaves within and rinsed it out.
I really needed to clean up the mess in my workshop more often, but whenever I came in here I was soon engrossed in my studies and forgot everything else.
Carefully, I tilted the lever again and gathered the small amount of the hot liquid that remained within the device.
The smell was stronger now, filling the entire room with a heady mystical aroma.
I sniffed at the teacup, inhaling the earthy scent of the potion within.
Whatever was in the cup was obviously some sort of magic, but what did it do?
There was only one way to find out.
I took a sip of the steamy liquid.
It had cooled slightly, so didn’t scald my tongue, but the taste was extremely bitter. Even my Aunt Ethel’s nettle tea was less stewed than this, and she boiled the stuff on the stove all day long.
I winced at the strong taste and pulled a face, before swallowing.
Maybe a little honey would help, I thought, but I had none in the workshop. Grimacing, I downed the remains of the strange brew. Whatever magic it held, I would only find out by experimentation. Only the brave win the day, as my father often preached.
At first, nothing happened.
I waited, but felt no ill effects from the magical potion.
Eventually, I grew bored with waiting, and started to clean up the workshop. Three hours passed, I found myself frantically polishing a mirror in the store.
I’d never been one for physical labour, but suddenly I was cleaning and polishing as if my life depended on it.
If my mother could see me now, she’d have turned in her grave. “Put that down at once Jeremy! Cleaning is for the servants,” I could almost hear her say.
I couldn’t help myself. I had to do something! Anything.
Looking at the clock, I realized that the evening had flown by, but I wasn’t the least bit tired; despite the hours spend polishing anything that came to hand.
My new found energy was clearly linked to the potion that I had drunk earlier. I had my first inkling of what the device did. It revitalised you. I had found the legendary Elixir of Life.
What should I call my magical device?
The Holy Grail? No … that was far too pretentious.
Then it dawned on me. I would call it … The Percolator!
I felt confident that with careful management, I could make a fortune in London with such a device.