Thursday, December 25, 2014


What the Dickens
By David Castlewitz

Even when she annoyed him, August Fingerhut couldn’t stay angry with Maise Kendall. As Mr. Dickens’ typist, August sat astride an industry that would spawn new avenues to success and riches. Most people read the great writer’s work in book form, or discovered him in newspaper serials, but it was the Talker – a machine of vast potential – that would revolutionize the entertainment favored by millions.
“Daddy will never approve our marrying if you don’t come up in the world,” Maise whined from where she sat in a high-backed parlor chair, her face to the wall. August made her face away from his desk because the twinkle of her blue eyes, the dimples in her cheeks, and her heart shaped red lips distracted him.
Miss Poole, Maise’ maid, sitting on a padded bench next to the chair, lifted her dark eyes from the needlework on her lap, lifted her narrow face, and flicked a stray lock of auburn hair from her cheek. August couldn’t help but notice Poole’s raised skirt, which revealed a delicate, brown stocking-encased ankle.
He forced himself to glare at Maise’ back and the large white collar spanning her shoulders.
“I’ve seven more pages,” he said. “Then we’ll have our morning walk.”
“It’s nearly noon, Auggie! We’re to picnic with the Heathmores.” Maise sobbed, shoulders rising and falling, the bun of hair at the back of her head threatening to burst its knitted braids.
August turned to the typing machine and the piles of papers and stencils on his narrow desktop. If Maise hadn’t kept him at supper past midnight, he would’ve been up early as usual and there’d not be seven pages yet to go. And that was seven pages of tightly spaced script in Dickens’ own hand. He’d need to type a dozen stencils or more to feed the Talker.
He glanced over his shoulder at the door to his third floor workroom. Albert Cunningworth from Talks, Ltd. would barge in at any moment. August pictured that awkward and skinny man trudging up the back steps and the thought gave pause to his fingers poised above the typing machine’s ivory-inlaid keys.
With a loud sigh, he banished these distractions -- Albert’s impending arrival, Maise’s whines and Miss Poole’s ankle – and struck one key after the other, deftly completing a full paragraph with a single intake of breath. The thick stencil flapped about as it advanced against the rubber roller, its bright white face full of the pin-pricks, squiggly bumps and shallow valleys produced by the typing machine.
This stencil, when fed to the Talker, would generate a voice. Not Mr. Dickens’ voice, though the company’s advertisements led consumers to believe otherwise. But, rather, a flat and monotonous voice, though wall posters made it seem like the machine emitted a melodic and pleasing verbal rendition as full of bombast and significance as Dickens’ staged readings.
Still, August told himself, even a mechanical voice devoid of inflection was a star attraction in any home. Linked by belts and wheels and cogs to an underground assembly of gears and pinions and rollers, Talkers graced many of the city’s homes. Magazine ads showed happy families sitting around a tall and narrow closet, the children enraptured by the story seeping from the sounding boards, Fathers attentive to every word and Mothers relaxed and smiling and mending clothes while listening.
“When does Mr. Dickens return?” Maise asked.
“He’s aboard ship now, my dear. So, any day now, I presume.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could tell us? From aboard ship? Send a message, I mean.”
August snickered. “And how would that be?”
“A telegraph connected some way or other to the Talker.”
“How does a ship at sea connect to the telegraph cable?”
“They’d have to build something. Stations in the ocean, I think. Where ships could dock and important men like Mr. Dickens could send their messages. Then we’d hear it from the machine.”
August didn’t comment. As usual, Maise had no comprehension of technology, no appreciation for how these machines worked. Diligently, he typed, completing a handwritten page and another stencil.
The door swung open, the space filled by the housekeeper’s bulk. “Mr. Albert’s here for you,” she shouted.
“I can hear. No need to yell.”
“Y’not hear me over the noise of that typing machine.”
Albert squeezed past the housekeeper, his beanpole-of-a-body twist-turning snake-like through the space between the woman and the door frame. Hands in the pockets of his stiff overalls, a leather case tucked against his side, his whiskered face broke into a smile directed at Miss Poole.
“You got them stencils ready, Mr. August?”
Albert grinned as he lowered himself to the padded bench, not too close to Miss Poole, but near enough that he engaged her in whispered conversation.
August typed a few lines without looking up. He continued onto another stencil, his long neck bent, his sleeves turned up at the wrists and his stiff collar askew. His jacket lay across the back of his chair and he pictured Mr. Dickens looking askance at such improper attire.
“And wouldn’t it be magical,” Maise blurted, “if we could talk to that machine and send messages back?”
August kept his silence. Why, he wondered, would anyone want to talk back and forth by way of a machine? Why would anyone sit and listen to stories told by bouncing pins and padded hammers making artificial sound? How was any of this a viable future?
Don’t doubt, he told himself. Just type the stencils.
And quickly. So he could send Albert on his way and spend the afternoon with Maise, even if she had outlandish ideas and ankles not as well-turned as her maid’s.

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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, I have turned to my first love: SF and fantasy. I have published several stories in Weirdyear, Farther Stars Than These, Fast Forward Festival, Encounters and other online as well as print magazines. Search the web and you’ll even find some of my earlier military history articles. My longer work can be found at


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