A Printer’s Dream

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Amsterdam

September, 1633

 

Louis Elzevir noticed a shadow over his shoulder as he finished the last bit of goldwork on the exquisite, red-leather bound tome he had been laboring over for weeks. The twenty-nine-year-old journeyman had slaved over this volume; everything from the typesetting, to the printing of each page, to the bookbinding was by his own hand. Louis poured his soul into this order. It was designed to show the printers of Amsterdam that he was worthy to join their ranks. Louis wished to get married, set up his own shop, and start a family. He would need this book and many more like it to show that he was ready. Slowly, not sure who was casting the shadow, Louis turned around. The master of the shop, Willem Jansz Blaeui, was looking over Louis' shoulder at the newly finished book. Louis stepped aside as the book was picked up for inspection. The master turned the pages carefully examining the printing on the pages, several of the illustrations, and even tested the quality of the binding by opening the book well past flat. Blaeu's face was as inscrutable as a sphinx until he slowly and carefully set down the book and broke into a smile. "A fine work worthy of presentation to a distinguished customer, Louis. If your work continues like this, I will be happy to support your elevation to master when the time comes."

Louis practically strutted out of the shop that day. Blaeu was old and would need someone to take over the shop within the next few years. If Louis could take over Blaeu's business or even just a few of the more valuable contracts, like the one with the Athenaeum, his future was assured. He had come to Amsterdam only a few months before, lured by rumors of booming business and room for more masters. It was now all so close to his grasp. Louis caught the eye of a few of his fellow journeymen, and together they went to one of their favorite taverns to celebrate.

The next morning, Louis' head ached. Too much strong beer had passed between his lips the night before and now he had to drag himself into work. Louis struggled to get ready for the day, and then staggered out of his lodgings to visit his favorite cook shop for some breakfast to help soothe his hangover. The sun was shining far too brightly for Louis' liking and despite how pretty the day was starting out, everything seemed to pall. There were far fewer people on the streets than there should have been at this hour, and those that were on the streets were huddled in small groups. The past few days had been like this. Everyone was waiting on news of the Dutch fleet that had sailed out to meet the Spanish blockade. The Dutch fleet was unstoppable and was supported by the strong French and English fleets, but lately the world had been turned upside down by the odd new town in the Germanies. Nothing seemed to be certain anymore, including the strength of armies. An unstoppable Spanish army had been burnt to a crisp in the Wartburg, and the mighty Catholic army had suffered several defeats, including the loss of both Tilly and Wallenstein. Nothing seemed certain anymore.

Louis quickened his pace and swiftly reached the cook shop. Several of his friends were there already, looking much as Louis felt. The shop owner took one look at their table, ducked behind the counter, and pulled out an odd bluish-white box.

"Here, these are better than any other remedy I know for curing the effects of too much ale. They come from an up-time recipe using essence of willow bark and I guarantee they actually work," the shop owner wheedled.

He then opened the box and let Louis and his friends examine the contents of the box, some odd blue pellets. After some quick dickering over price, Louis bought two of the pills and his usual breakfast order.

Louis was only halfway through his meal when an acquaintance, Karel, burst into the shop carrying some barely dry broadsheets. Karel was trembling and his face was pallid.

"Karel, what's wrong? Here, come sit by me and calm down," Louis said and patted the bench beside him.

"Calm down?! The Dutch fleet has been destroyed!! Haarlem has fallen! The Spanish are at the doorsteps of The Hague and we are next! How can I be calm?! Get out of Amsterdam if you can!" Karel shrieked, throwing down the broadsheets on a table. Then Karel paused, as if struck by a horrible thought, and whimpered "Mother!" before rushing out the door.

Louis sat there frozen while one of his friends went and grabbed one of the broadsheets. It only took a quick glance at the broadsheet to confirm what Karel had said. Louis leapt up from the table, ran out the door, and beat a swift path back to his lodgings, sinking onto his bed once he entered his room. What should I do? I can go to work, but if the Spanish were coming, what is the point? The Spanish burned towns and people wholesale. They'd put everyone to the sword in Amsterdam. It would be worse than Magdeburg if I stay here, death by either starvation and disease or by a sword. I have no family in Amsterdam, no reason to stay, other than my dreams of opening a shop here. At the thought of family, Louis sprang up and started gathering up his meager possessions and cramming them into a rucksack. He would be a true journeyman once more and see what Amsterdam's fate would be.

****

 

Leiden

May, 1634

 

For almost nine months, Louis had lingered in Leiden, waiting for an opportunity to return to Amsterdam. Fortunately, his uncle and cousin had room for a journeyman in their shop, and it was interesting, for the first few months at least, to study the extensive collection of type his family owned, which covered everything from common typefaces for Latin and Greek, to exotic and rare ones like Syrian and Ethiopianii. When he wasn't assisting his cousin Abraham with the presses, he was helping his Uncle Bonaventure in the bookshop, binding the books to get them ready for sale. It was worthwhile work that increased his already extensive skill set, but there was no room for another master in Leiden. There was not enough demand for another person to set up a shop, and all of the master printers were in fairly good health or had a different successor in mind. Based on the newspapers and the occasional letter he received from friends stuck in the city, Louis thought the siege was a truly unusual one. There was no disease in either the city or the Spanish camp, goods and money were flowing into and out of the city, and the Prince of Orange was negotiating a settlement with the Spanish prince in charge of the siege. Louis was merely waiting for word that it was safe to return.

Louis had spent a long, hard day in the important job of beater, inking the type before it was pressed. It was a task that showed off his skills as a printer, but it felt pointless to show off when there was no room for further advancement and his kinsmen did not seem to notice when Louis produced exquisite pressings over and over, did some excellent work binding every page neat and straight, or other little things which showed off his skill, while the other journeymen seemed to show half his skill and be showered with praise. However, if the ink was fat when he was the beater, a page or two crooked either in a pressing or after binding, or he got caught playing quadratsiii, he received a harsher punishment and lecture than anyone else even if they were playing quadrats with him. He was family and was expected to be the best and set a good example. Louis couldn't wait to leave Leiden and return to Amsterdam where he would be seen as another senior journeyman, instead of "family" and held to an equal level with his peers instead of a ridiculously high standard no mortal could meet.

Finally, the long day was over. Louis and several of the other journeymen washed up and headed to their favorite tavern to grab some dinner. As soon as he entered, the publican waved him over to the bar and held out a letter. It had one of those new portraits on it to show the postage had been paid, this one in the colors of the House of Orange. It was from Karel, who had been unable to flee Amsterdam with his infirm mother and younger siblings, so he had endured the siege instead.

Full of anticipation, Louis tore open the wax seal and started reading Karel's slightly messy scrawl. The letter began promisingly; Karel was now the master of his own shop. The printers and booksellers who had stayed behind had decided to confiscate the shops of those who had fled and sold them at market price to the available journeymen. Lucky Karel, Louis thought jealously. Then there came the crushing blow, Karel wrote, "Although you are a great printer and bookmaker worthy of a shop anywhere and I would support your elevation here in Amsterdam, the rest of the guild is not ready to admit any journeyman who fled to the rank of master. I do not know if this will change eventually. You should be able to return now if you wish, but there is not a place here for you. I have heard that Grantville and Magdeburg have plenty of opportunities for journeymen to become masters. Maybe you should try there instead. They will welcome a printer and bookmaker of your skill."

Louis barely glanced at the rest of the letter. Karel prattled on about an up-time doctress treating his mother, the wonders of the Committee of Correspondence sanitation procedures, and other inanities. Louis' appetite was gone. A black depression was engulfing him. Amsterdam has no place for me anymore? That blasted whoreson! I fled when you warned me in such dire terms of the looming siege. Now you're a master and have the temerity to tell me that because I fled the siege, I am not welcome in Amsterdam? The only reason you didn't flee was because your mother couldn't travel fast enough to beat the Spanish army, otherwise you would have run from Amsterdam faster than I had. Curse you, Karel! Louis slumped onto a bench and tried to cure his woes with food, ale, and some ginever.

****

 

Leiden

June, 1634

 

Louis functioned in a fog. His dreams were dead. His work suffered from the black cloud surrounding him. Pages were crooked and smeared, bindings were poor, and Louis barely spoke and never smiled. Even his kinsmen seemed to be worried about him, barely chastising the sudden drop in the quality of his work and insisting Louis eat his breakfast and dinner with family instead of on his own. At each meal, he was subjected to an interrogation to find out what was wrong.

Sunday dinner at Abraham's residence had been the worst. The entire meal was uncomfortable, with Abraham asking prodding questions like "Louis, what is wrong with you? Your work is terrible of late and you attitude is detrimental to everyone around you. Do you want to be dismissed?"

Abraham's wife Marie made things even more painful by trying to coddle him with comments like "Now dear, don't push Louis. I'm sure Louis will tell us if anything is wrong when he is ready. He knows he can trust us, and we will do anything in our power to help him." Worst of all, Abraham's family was there including his eleven-year-old cousin Jean, drinking in the whole awkward scene.


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