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.
Invigorated by my new resolve, I decided to write a long note, which would no doubt be published to great acclaim posthumously, for what kind of writer would I be if I did not take the opportunity for one final flourish.
Alas my inkwell was dry. Frustrated, I began searching the drawers of my writing desk for fresh supplies, but to no avail. Was I to be denied the satisfaction of my final flourish simply because I had run out of ink?
I had a newfound determination though, now that I was on my final chapter. I recalled that it had been the fashion when this desk was built to include secret drawers and hidden compartments. I had not found any to date, but then, I had barely looked. Now, though, I examined the inlays in great detail. At the side, on the right, obscured by carved filigree, I found what I was looking for.
It opened with a slight push and clicked back, as if sprung. It was a thin shelf, capable of holding little more than a sheaf of letters. At first I thought it empty, but then I saw a faint gleam emanating from the very back of the drawer. I looked closely. It was a pen, with a smooth wooden shaft and bright, golden inlays. The gold encircled the pen and as I turned it I could make out the words ‘creatio ex nihilo’ in elaborate script.
I had no idea how the pen got there. I acquired the desk from a second hand emporium on the Portobello Road and could only surmise that it had been there all along, forgotten by the previous owner.
There was something else at the back of the drawer, wedged between bottom and top. A small bottle of ink. I could at last write my final note.
I filled my inkwell then paused. Perhaps, with a fine pen such as that, there was one more story within me. So with the resignation of repeated rejection I lifted the pen and dipped it in the ink. It was light to my touch, and as I began writing I felt my mood lighten as well. With all my previous stories I had needed copious notes beforehand, and hours of quiet contemplation in front of a roaring log fire, brandy in hand. This time, however, the words came immediately, and I found myself writing a fantastic story of supernatural intrigue, as worthy as anything from the pen of Mr. Poe or Mr. Hawthorne. Or even, if I may be immodest, Mr. Dickens himself.
I did not sleep that night. Instead, I filled page after page with thrilling prose and knew then that desperation had given me my muse. With restored spirits I dashed down the stairs, manuscript in hand, and ran out into the street.
It was barely eight o’clock when I arrived at the offices of Bentley’s Miscellany and I did not leave until well into the evening, when they had agreed to accept my story for a fee which exceeded my wildest expectations.
Elated, I ran half way across London back to my lodgings to tell Mrs. Prentice the good news. She was dubious at first, but with contract in hand I soon won her over and, with the added persuasion of a glass or two of Burgundy from my last remaining bottle, all talk of rent due was duly postponed.
The story was a huge success, and there were more to follow. With my pen in hand I spent my days writing feverishly, page upon page of mesmeric storytelling. I wrote of dark spirits and soaring battles, of men laid low by war and entranced by victory. I wrote of obsession and compulsion, great achievement and heart-breaking tragedy, and of a man, not unlike myself, achieving the greatness due to him and the respect and admiration of a grateful society.
In short, I had achieved all that I set out to do.
Perhaps that was why, one summer afternoon, I slumped exhausted in my seat and gazed longingly at the bright blue sky outside, wanting nothing more than to sit in St James’ Park staring at the ducks in the lake whilst drinking in the sunshine. I could do none of that, though, for my writing compulsion was too strong. Every day since I found the pen I had written page after page and, suddenly weary, I realized I needed a rest. Why not take some time to enjoy the rewards of success?
My hand moved across the page, spinning some yarn about a man constructing wings wide enough to fly to the heavens, but my heart was not in it. I willed myself to stop writing, but to no avail. Angrily I tore my hand away and in the violence of my movement, banged it hard against the edge of my heavy marble mantelpiece. I cried in pain, knowing instantly that something was broken, but that pain was tempered with elation as I realized I would not be able to write again for some time. I was released from my compulsion.
I headed for the door, eager to head for the park, but as I reached for the latch I heard a dull scratching behind me and, turning, saw the pen moving completely of its own volition across the paper!
I was stunned. As I watched, the pen continued my story, in my handwriting, as if I were guiding it myself. I concluded, as any sane man would, that the pain in my hand had dulled my perceptions and I was hallucinating. I needed medical treatment.
When I returned from the hospital in a state of euphoric sedation and with a heavily bandaged hand I noted with some detachment that the story was complete, and the pen was in the process of writing another.
The pen’s stories were every bit as lauded as my own. Indeed, I began to suspect that the tales I thought of as mine also sprang from the pen. Even after my hand had healed I had no need to pick up the pen. It seemed perfectly content to write on its own, provided I kept it supplied with paper and ink.
It was at that point that I started drinking absinthe hoping, perhaps, to gain an insight on those strange occurrences. The stories the pen was writing were undoubtedly the kind of tales I would have written, only better executed, and that realization hit me hard. I was redundant save as supplier of materials and delivery man to my publisher and although my fame was assured and growing, it began to feel increasingly hollow and fraudulent.
One night, on a chill November night not unlike the one in which I first discovered the hateful thing, in drunken delirium I became enraged by its incessant scratching, audible over the sound of the cracking flames from the fire. I snatched the almost completed manuscript and began reading.
It was a tale about a vain, arrogant man who believed himself to be more talented than he actually was, who stumbled on the kind of success others had to work hard for, and wasted that success on petty indulgences.
My hands shook. With fury I headed over to the fire with the intention of thrusting the odious story into the flames. But something drew my attention, just at the last moment. I turned to see the pen impossibly suspended in mid-air, and I imagined it looking at me as if in reproach. I pulled my arms back, ready to throw the sheaf of paper. But as I did so, the pen turned in the air until its nib pointed straight at me. It moved backwards, and, like a catapult bolt, flew across the room. Startled, I lost my footing as the pen impaled itself in my chest, digging deep into my heart.
As I lay dying I could hear the pen, ignoring me once more, scratching away.
Joshua Humbolt wrote this story posthumously, of course. Or, rather, I wrote it for him. I found in Mrs. Prentice a willing supplier of paper and patience, and unlike the unfortunate Mr. Humbolt she has no pretentions to talent of her own. Instead, she is content to let me draw stories from her, to be my inspiration and my public face. In return she is happy to reap the not inconsiderable rewards that brings. She no longer has to take in lodgers, and I am free to write. She does not have the same dark brooding arrogance that my Humbolt-tinged tales could project, but there is a ready market for stories flavored with hope and beauty, and I find the change of tone pleasing.
One day, of course, Mrs. Prentice will no longer be here and someone else will find me, in a drawer in a desk at a junkshop, just waiting to be picked up.
And then there will be new stories.
Mark writes in England surrounded by Victorian buildings, which inspires his taste for the gothic. He writes mainly science fiction with some fantasy and his work can be found at Perihelion, Nebula Rift, Every Day Fiction and elsewhere. He is currently working on a novel.