On that unseasonably warm November day at One Devonshire Terrace, Christmas was not in his head at all.
His cravat was loose, top button of his waistcoat undone, study windows flung open as far as they’d go. Chestnut curls bobbed over his dark slate eyes that brightened to each word he wrote: this one, no, that one, scribble and scratch, a raised brow, a tucked chin, a guffaw. Every expression was at the ready, every limb engaged in the urgent deed. Nothing else existed. Not hunger or thirst, not the thrumming of the household above and below—a wife about to give birth, five children already, four servants, two Newfoundlands, a Pomeranian, and the Master’s Cat, now pawing at his quill. Not time, neither past nor future, just the clear-eyed now, and words spilling out of him faster than he could think them.
The exhilaration of his night walk had led him straight to his writing chair by first morning without even his haddock and toast. He’d traversed twice the city in half his usual time, from Clerkenwell down Cheapside, across the Thames by way of Blackfriar’s Bridge, and back by Waterloo, propelled by a singular vision—the throng of devoted readers that very afternoon pressing their noses against the window of Mudie’s Booksellers, no doubt awaiting the new Chuzzlewit installment, with its flimsy green cover, thirty-three pages of letterpress, two illustrations, various advertisements, and the latest chapter of pure delight by the “Inimitable Boz” himself! Why, it was plain to him that humanity’s chief concern, now that Martin Chuzzlewit had sailed for America, was the fate of Tom Pinch and the Pecksniffs, and he considered it his sacred duty to tell them.
And so Charles Dickens didn’t hear the slap-bang of the door knocker downstairs that would alter the course of all his Christmases to come.
Like any man, he’d known a good share of knocks in his thirty-some years. Hard knocks at lesser doors, insistent rap-rap-raps on wind-bitten, rain-battered doors whose nails had lost all hope of holding. And with fame came gentler taps at better doors, pompous, pillared, and crowned thresholds in glazed indigo paint, like his own door two floors below, where the now-polite pounding was having no effect at all.
Because there are times in a man’s life when no knock on any door will divert him from the thing at hand, in particular when that thing is a goose-feather pen flying across the page, spitting ink.
When the fusee table clock on his desk struck straight-up three, a smallish groom (as was the fashion) with fiery red hair (as wasn’t the fashion at all) appeared at the study door with a tray of hot rolls, fancy bread, butter, and tea. Dickens dotted his final i, brandished his pages, and stood.
“Topping! I’ve just this moment finished the new number.”
“Wot good news, sir.”
Dickens took a roll and tore a bite out of it, his hunger returning. Everything—the whole house—seeped back into his awareness. Oh, glorious Devonshire Terrace, a house of great promise (at a great premium), undeniable situation, and excessive splendor. He was glad for the great garden outside, the clatter of crockery and clanging of tins in the kitchen downstairs, the chatter and play of his children somewhere above. And here was Topping right in front of him, vivid as ever, in his usual tie and clean shirtsleeves instead of a livery, with no sense of impropriety, and a kindly expression that asked what more he might do, because doing was what he liked best. He was the longest-lived of the household servants, and Dickens regarded him most like family of them all, something between the father he’d always wanted and the brother he wished his were.
“Oh, Topping.” He leaned in, clutching his pages. “I believe I have once again … stumbled upon perfection.”
Topping squinched his eyes as a way of smiling without showing his teeth, which went in every direction except straight up and down. Dickens felt a great affection for him, for everyone, even the handsome house itself, which had subdued itself all day in the service of his art. He was sure he had Topping to thank for it.
A sustained holler from the bedroom upstairs announced Catherine Dickens in the full tilt of a labor of her own. The two men looked up and held their breath until it stopped. Dickens smiled with one corner of his mouth, wistful. Another child was nearly born, he knew, if stubbornly resisting its arrival into the world.
“I suppose it altogether too much to think Catherine would hear it now,” he said with a playful frown.
Topping’s caterpillar brows arched and fell in ironic agreement. “Well, sir. Masters Chapman and Hall are downstairs.”
“Chapman and Hall, here?” Dickens returned the half-eaten roll to the tray and trusted his pages to Topping. He sprang for the mirror to quick-comb his hair, fasten his green velvet waistcoat, and fluff his blue satin cravat. “Apparently even my publishers cannot wait to know what happens next!”
“They do sit a bit on the edge of their seats, sir.”
“Splendid. I shall read it to them!”
Copyright © 2017 by Samantha Silva