Gutenberg's Apprentice

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Book: Read Gutenberg's Apprentice for Free Online
Authors: Alix Christie
Tags: Biographical, Fiction, Historical
how you do it, do it right.” Gutenberg curled his tall, spare body toward the older smith. “Don’t make me do it all myself, by damn.”
    Hans, absorbed in the examination of the damaged letter, grunted without looking up. “Just let me think.”
    The master bared his teeth and stalked away, flinging instructions. The new boy was to smelt. Keffer was to wipe that goddamned smirk off. Hans would scare up some more tin. Konrad better teach that press of his to kiss the letters and not crush them.
    Hans put the spoon and basin, pennyweight, and cupel into Peter’s hands. Up close, he wasn’t quite as ancient as he seemed. The leathered folds and burnished pate were just the residue of an eternity spent screwing up his face against the flames. A madman and a midget, yoked bizarrely, Peter thought. He took the vessels and started slowly toward the forge.
    “It’s not a blessed sacrament.” Gutenberg’s voice came wheeling at his back. “You’ll move your tail here, boy, or you’ll feel my hand.”
    Under the law, the master was his father from the moment Peter entered his employ. In loco parentis: as apprentice, he belonged now to this madman, just as surely as if he’d been born his child. Unless a master beat a poor apprentice senseless, used him sorely, or punished him without due cause, no soul on God’s green earth—not guild, not church, not even his own kin—could intervene.
    The man whom Peter served marked out his territory like a wolf: lifting his leg, baring his fangs, establishing who led the pack. There was a canine aspect to him, with his thin lifted lips, the glowing points of amber in his eyes. Keffer told him later the whole episode had been intended to impress on Peter his low place. Gutenberg had spent the day before grousing about the merchant’s son who had been forced on him. Bad enough to have to beg—he had to take the grocer’s spawn as well. He was the kind of man who could not abide being reminded that he depended on another soul in the whole world than his own, anointed self.
    The work those first few months was brutal, mindless, and dull, designed to crush the spirit or to breed a craving to rise up and find some other, lower soul to crush. Peter swept and scoured, lit fires that choked the throat and stung the eyes. He rose before dawn to clear the piles of ash; he lay and lit and banked the day’s new fire. And then he weighed the ores and ground them down. When he was finished with these tasks, the master found him others just as rote and stupid: sieving sand to mix with water to a paste inside the mold, cutting heaps of sheepskin into squares that they would use for printing off that Latin grammar.
    His thoughts revolved around a single word: escape. There had to be a way—more devious, perhaps, than he would normally have entertained. He did not feel he had a choice: he could not simply take his writing pouch and announce that he was going. His father would feel bound to cut him off and cast him out—pursue him, even, for a breach of contract. The only hope lay in some other work that might release him from this stinking Hades.
    Grede told him he should pray for patience. She knocked lightly on his door one night that first week when the household was asleep, saying she had seen his light beneath the door. “You do not rest,” she whispered. How could he? he responded. She sat upon the narrow bed, put her candle down, and frowned.
    “What I don’t understand is why he has to drag me into it. An idiot could work that forge.”
    She gave a quick shake of her head. “He needs you. He depends on you.” She watched him as he paced, creaking the floorboards, and put a warning finger to her lips. He stopped; they listened for an instant, but all was silent. “He trusts you, Peter.”
    “He said that in Paris too.” Not even half a year had passed since Johann Fust decreed that Peter ought to represent him there.
    “Things change.” She gave a little shrug. How satisfied

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