They say success is one part talent, two parts application and three parts luck. Well until that dark November night I had no cause to believe otherwise, and every cause to bemoan my fate. I was a writer with talent in abundance, and a steady determination, but good fortune had at that point been as elusive as snow in summer.
I returned to my rooms late, having spent the evening in a tavern at the end of the road called, ironically, the Shakespeare, a name which was undoubtedly given to mock me. I had been moderately, pleasantly drunk until it became my turn to stand a round, and then, discovering that I had but one farthing to my name, had to suffer the ignominy of being thrown out onto the street by men I believed to be friends.
My attic room was up three flights of stairs and in my drunken state I had quite forgotten the creaking floorboard outside my landlady’s quarters. She must have been waiting for me to return, for she had her speech carefully planned.
“Mr. Humbolt, if I might have a word?”
My landlady was a comely widow not yet into middle age and normally a delight to gaze upon, but that evening I could not bear to face her. “It is very late, Mrs. Prentice.”
“It’s about the rent.”
“Tomorrow. It is far too late now.”
“So is the rent. And you promised it tomorrow three weeks ago.”
She was still talking as I slammed my door and struggled to remove my boots. Her subsequent knock was far from timid.
“When I sell my next story, Mrs. Prentice. Then you will have your rent.”
“Tomorrow, Mr. Humbolt,” she shouted through the thick wood. “Or you will need to find new lodgings.”
My fire had grown cold, grey coals barely glowing. I didn’t bother checking the pail for more. Those were the last. There was barely enough heat in them to light a taper for my candles. I shivered with the realization that these, too, needed to be rationed.
It had not always been that way. When I first came to London to seek out the great Mr. Dickens I felt my fortune was assured. My parents had predicted otherwise but I had not really believed my father when he said ‘come back a raging success or do not come back at all’. But my letters asking for support went unanswered and my fortunes became ever more precarious.
I first saw the great writer in a salon off the Charing Cross Road, giving a public reading of his most recent success, an oversentimental serialized tale called David Copperfield. I was mesmerized, and could barely summon the courage to approach him after his performance. I had hoped he would take me under his wing, but instead as soon as I announced myself a fellow writer his face took on a haunted look and he peered ostentatiously at his pocket watch. But I was dogged in my pursuit and eventually he offered me the crumb of an introduction to his editor, a redoubtable looking fellow by the name of John Forster, before departing hurriedly to his carriage, leaving the grim faced editor behind to respond to my entreaties.
Alas, Forster proved no judge of talent and my work was swiftly rejected. I was not to be deterred, however, and soon sent other work, and found other editors and sent them my stories too.
To no avail. So that chill evening I sat in fading candlelight contemplating eviction and disgrace. There was nothing more I could do.
There was, though, one more action I could take. I had often stood in the middle of Tower Bridge late into the evening looking out over the dirty water of the Thames and listened to the cold, siren cry of the murky eddies entreating the unwary and despairing to join them. Now I, too, was in that sorry state of desolation and hopelessness. My path was clear.