The title of this post is a phrase first attributed to Adam Smith in his economics book, The Wealth of Nations. The phrase was repeated in a derisive way by Napoleon to describe the United Kingdom: L’Agleterre es une nation de boutiquiers. Napoleon walked that back saying he simply meant the UK was a nation of commerce, the power that ran an Empire.
I mention this because I have a mystery in my own life dating back a few years to England and shopkeepers. I have still not solved it. So, here’s the story…
A few years ago, I was on a tour of England, Scotland,
and Wales, sponsored by a bank in our small
town. During our drive through Cambria in the Lake District, we stopped at a shop in the small town of Grasmere. The shop was terribly busy since two tour buses were there together, and it was hectic buying souvenirs and gifts. But one of my friends found a necklace we both liked. Unfortunately, it was the last one. Undaunted, the shopkeeper said I could pay him for the necklace, and he would ship it to me. Since I loved the necklace, and the shopkeeper seemed like an honest, helpful man, I agreed. Just call me gullible.
This is where I should describe this trinket which cost 54£ ($86.48 at the time.) It was made of a sixpence, a coin with a long history of good luck and tradition. On one side it has a black background with the cameo of Queen Elizabeth II, (a woman whose coronation I watched on television back in 1952 when I was six.) The sixpence (six pennies) was legal tender in the UK until June 30, 1980.
On the back side are the symbols of the countries of the UK: a thistle for Scotland, a garland with a rose for England, a shamrock for Northern Ireland, and a leek for Wales (a daffodil in Wales is known as “Peter’s leek.”) Also on the back is FI DEF which is Latin (fidei desfensor) for Defender of the Faith.
A sixpence is heavy on tradition, especially wedding superstitions. It used to be lucky to find a sixpence in the Christmas pudding if you were a little kid. A silver sixpence was put in a bride’s shoe by her father, wishing her prosperity, love, and happiness. The aircrews of the Royal Air Force sewed a sixpence behind their wings or brevets, a custom for luck beginning in WWII. So, this sixpence has quite a history, and since I love history, it was the perfect necklace for me.
The long and short of it: I paid for the necklace, signed a mailing label with my address, and went on my way, figuring I would see the necklace in a few weeks.
I waited, and waited, and waited. It never came. I was quite upset to think I had been taken advantage of, and I was just as naïve and trusting as the protagonist in my Endurance mysteries, Grace Kimball. I wrote it off as a lesson learned and felt sure I would never see my necklace.
Here is where the mystery comes in.
My long-awaited necklace came in the mail…ten months later. It looked like it had been through hell. The mailing pouch was totally crushed, and when I opened it, the box that contained the necklace was twisted into four parts and a hinge, all lying in the pouch. The paper saying, “With Compliments,” was ripped into several pieces.
But my necklace came through unscathed—a truly lucky sixpence.
Where had this necklace been all that time? Had it been caught in some demonic machine owned by the US Postal Service? The label was perfectly readable, so if someone found it, they were able to get it to me. I spoke to a supervisor at our local post office, and she noted the lack of bar code on the package. Now, the USPO bar codes everything, but at that time it wasn’t the case. She felt a package this small would not have been put through a machine. In all likelihood, it was left in someone’s mail pouch, recently found, and sent on its way. Could have been in the UK or in the USA. Because the box was all twisted, it might have been in a very warm place at some point, explaining its condition.
A mystery for the mystery writer. A piece of truth—the phrase should have read, “A nation of honest shopkeepers.”