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Fiction Historical Fiction Speculative

A Certain Doctor Johnson Pops By.

   David kicked a piece of coal all through the familiar winding London alleys, he was walking to his new position and despite his father’s warning about tardiness, he was in no particular hurry to get there. He was glad of the opportunity, he wouldn’t want anyone doubting that it would serve him well he knew, but at 15 he was still a lad interested in kicking about with his mates. Hearing voices behind him he sped up his pace, he knew that the Mohocks gang was in the area and at five in the morning he was in no mood to be robbed, or worse. They had become a violent group raping women and killing men, taking their name from the savages in the new world of America but David doubted even Indians could be as vicious as the rumours about this London group.

         He saw the newspaper office just ahead and headed for it, his ears caught the voices fading towards the river, but he wanted to be inside and off the dirty London streets for a little while. ‘The Morning Chronicle’ had a sign hanging above the front door, and a newly clean entranceway. It was one of many newspapers that had sprung up near the Fleet River, the district that went from East to West from about Temple Bar where his granny lived to near Hampstead. David knew that with the increase of coffee houses and the populations’ interest in events both in England and abroad, more people were taking a paper in their own houses and businesses. With the most recent London population count at over half a million people, a number he still had problems grasping, it made for a lot of room in the city for more than one newspaper.

     As the bell jingled on the door, the owner looked up from his desk and smiled. He had a half wig of white over his black curly hair, silver framed glasses and a black moustache. Dressed in dark blue breeches and matching vest, he was a middle class educated man that had been away at university before starting his printing press in 1751, just three years ago. The gossip that David had heard his father share with his mother, when he assumed his son was long a slumber, was that Mr. Weatherby had been to several foreign shores between leaving school and starting the paper. It was said he had inherited from his uncle but it was actually handed over when the nephew paid off his uncles gambling debts. Whatever the truth, Andrew Weatherby had made a go of it. When he heard at the club from Mr. Allen that David needed an apprenticeship position they’d had a port together and came to an agreement. So here was David in front of his new employer wondering just what was in store for him in the next two years.

   As the first day of 1755 rolled through the garbage filled streets of London David shivered. He was sixteen now and had filled out a bit in the last 8 months, but the wind had picked up the cold from the ice on the edges of the Thames and found its way under his new heavy cotton shirt and breeches. He was enjoying his apprenticeship, his writing had improved as had his interview skills and he’d been allowed to clean the printing press just last week. As one of the first people to read the papers he was up to date on the current news. He had been reading about the Industrial Revolution as some were calling it, and he found it interesting as a reader but as a young man with a future in the newspaper business he didn’t see how it would come to affect him but was willing to admit it would change his home city in a big way. His boss would sometimes go to the local telegraph office and pick up news from a friend in New York, this brought the terrible missives about the beginning of conflicts in the Ohio Valley. David considered what would happen should the conflicts become a full-fledged war, Mr. Weatherby related sadly to David that no matter where he had travelled in the world he had seen human beings killing their own kind for a plot of land or belief in a different God. He shook his head and said that he didn’t see human beings changing in the immediate future. David began thinking of his family and his own future. He had begun courting a young woman the previous summer and their mutual feelings for each other had already gone to discussions between their fathers. David had another year to serve on his apprenticeship and would not have any money for a dowry for at least a year after that. The truth was that as pretty as Amy was, they were only a year past marrying age now. She would have years of childbearing ahead of her, even if they had to wait to call the banns.

As he strode through the front door unwrapping his new scarf, David noted the presence of a tall and robust man in the receiving hall. He stood a head and shoulder above himself and was clad in a black suit with a stained white ruffled shirt. His face was plagued by old scars and based on where they emerged from, it was deduced that they afflicted his body as well. David greeted him with a bow and asked his name and business.

“I am Doctor Samuel Johnson lad, I’ve come to see your master about the publication of some of my writing. Is he in for visitors?”

“I’ll just inquire your lordship, please be seated. It’s a busy news day and I cannot guarantee he’ll have time this day.” David backed away and through the door to the printing press chamber. His hazel eyes scanned the room for Mr. Weatherby and found him with one of the delivery lads. He approached and greeted them both. He had a cordial relationship with his fellow workers and he understood this made the work easier all around. When Albert had moved on, David stated his business. He saw the exasperated look on his masters face when he heard his visitors name.

“I pray that he won’t use too much time, there is a discussion in parliament today on the fate of William Pitt the Elder and I wanted to be there in person. Johnson’s manner of speaking is off-putting on a slow day. Come along then master David, let me introduce you to another of London’s new writers, not that there isn’t happening for everyone to scribble about.”

They went back through the heavy wooden door to the receiving hall to greet the visitor. As David approached he was startled by several sudden twitches on Doctor Johnson’s face. His hand as well had fluttered like a bird taking flight. David had seen several odd behaviors by his fellow Londoners in the streets and halls, but this was most odd as the Doctor didn’t seem to even notice or look ashamed.

“Ah, Mr. Weatherby, your servant sir.” The Doctor had bowed low at this greeting and the papers in his hands rustled at contact with his coat. David’s master returned the greeting and they began discussions about the proposal the doctor had come with and about the most recent degree that Mr. Johnson had been honored with.

“It does seem strange that just three months past I was a mere gentleman, now I have the advantage to present myself as a Doctor. I just pray that no one needs to consult me on a medical condition.” He laughed and his head shifted suddenly to the left three times in a row. David only just managed not to laugh aloud at the sight. He noted the hand-written notes that had been placed on the desk and begged permission to read them. The two men nodded towards him and he sat with the sheaf. As he read some of Johnson’s carefully worded comments about the current King he managed to overhear the conversation while appearing not to.

“A dictionary you say? Aren’t there already men who have published lists of familiar words?”

“My dear Weatherby, this has been a project of seven years, it’s not a mere list. I have been toiling on it through thick and thin, poor, and poorer, I even lost my sainted wife in the midst of it all. I still am that lost without her and it’s been three years now.” He took out a yellowing cloth and wiped an eye before replacing it in his sleeve. “In the meantime, as it won’t be ready until Spring this very year, I propose that I be introduced as a columnist in your newspaper. The odd commentary if you will sir.”

Weatherby turned and strolled to the other empty chair, he took out a pocket watch and mumbled something. Turning to David he said, “have you seen anything in there that you think would be publishable young man?”

“You want me to choose? With all respect sire I’m just a lad.”

“You came here because you wanted to be in the trade, you have a solid grasp of ideas and prose. I have faith that with my teachings have aided your abilities. You’ll honour me, I hold that belief. Don’t let me down lad. Now, I’m off to parliament. I pray that I’m back before end of the day. The delivery is set for two bells and the plates are set for today’s edition.”  He and Johnson left the office together.

David had chosen a piece from Doctor Johnson’s submissions, continuing to do so for the next eight weeks. At the end of March he had been sent a missive with the excuse of last-minute details to the Dictionary and there would be no more submissions until it was published. As April settled, the city was warmed with temperatures that had not been recorded in several decades. Courting couples were seen riding in the local parks, either horses or buggies side by side. Women sported brighter colours, in both their dresses and their cheeks, David had taken Amy for three walks already and it was only the second day of the month. With his parents and siblings at home and her house full of sisters, they didn’t have much time alone.

Mr. Weatherby appeared to be distracted of late and though the newspaper was doing well in subscriptions and money was being made, it was obvious to David that there was something amiss. He knew their professional relationship and age difference made personal conversation impossible, he still worried about the fellow who had brought him from a lad to a young man.

Three days later, a buggy pulled up outside the shop and as David peered through the dull glass windows he beheld a large man that he recognized as Doctor Johnson, accompanied by a tall slender fellow who was weighed down by his package. There were two boxes sized at about eighteen inches tall and twenty inches wide, the boxes were too heavy for the slight young man to carry with comfort. David rushed to open the door and the stranger plunked them onto the desk with a relieved sigh. While the pair were seated in the reception office David fled through the door to his masters’ office in the back of the printing press room.

“Sire, Doctor Johnson’s here again, he’s brought his new dictionary to present to you. Shall you come and greet him or shall I send him away?”

“No, young David, I sent a note to his dwellings earlier today. I dined with his publisher last evening and learned that the great tome is at last completed. I requested that I see it with my own eyes. Did you look at it yet?”

“No sire, he had them carried in by a boy, and inside a box so I have yet to lay my eyes on them personally sir.”

David was finishing his sentence as they strode back to the seating area. He hung back behind his master as his station demanded but wanted badly to be one of the first in England’s history to lay eyes on what was touted as being the future of the written word.

Doctor Johnson had several head twitches to the horror of the young driver named Tom standing near his chair. David noted that the lad had crossed his fingers behind his back but didn’t think Satan had anything to do with them. He turned his attention to the large boxes on the desk as Mr. Weatherby gently opened the first. The familiar odour of printing ink and clean sheaf of paper wafted out. It had become a smell that he favoured in the last year, next only to the slightly perfumed lass that he was engaged to of course.

As the book, in it’s folio edition was in two volumes, it would take anyone quite an effort to house it without shifting most of their library around he mused.

“Well Doctor, congratulations! May I be so forward as to ask you how much it cost to produce? I’m interested as a newsman and publisher, I don’t mean to intrude.”

“Well, that’s the devil of it, It cost £1,600. That’s a deuce more than I was paid to write the blasted thing. Pardon me lads. But just look at that face plate. My own design of course. Mr. Weatherby pulled out a glove from his pocket and donned it before turning to the first page. He observed to the room that it had some literary quotes by famous writers and asked Johnson if they were necessary to the average dictionary user. They had a discussion and it was during this that the author noted that there was to be a second edition being published later in the month, it was to be published in 165 weekly parts.

“Come closer David lad, this is history before us. Yes, touch the pages, that’s what books are for. It’s essential that literature is available to all classes. Can you see how all these words are broken down into all parts of a sentence. Verbs and nouns, Oh look at this! Doctor Johnson I see you have quite a sense of humour. Hear this David. ‘Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ That’s most amusing, unless you are a Scottish person that is.”

David was lighter in spirit to see Mr. Weatherby laughing. It had been far too long since he’d even smiled. Weatherby left David reading the definitions. As he perused both of the dictionaries, running his hand clad in his bosses’ other glove, he surreptitiously sought out words he’d heard in the streets and outside public houses. Some he didn’t manage to find, but a few he did to his shock. He furthered his search for terms his older brothers had used and blushed to note the references to women’s body parts.

Doctor Johnson wrapped up his murmured conversation by agreeing to leave the books overnight. They left the shop with Tom climbing to the driver’s seat. When they returned late the next day David presented a list of all the definitions he couldn’t find and the ones he did locate but didn’t make any sense. He didn’t have any intention of offending.

 It turned out the author was not amenable to his ‘suggestions,’ calling him an upstart and rascal for daring to question his definitions. David apologized profusely claiming an interest in the written word as a publishing apprentice. He bowed again and backed into the press room leaving his mentor and the author to discuss the issue. He was sure he had brought shame on the Chronicle and would be asked to vacate his position. After an hour of sweeping up the eternal bits of paper from the shop floor he was summoned to Weatherby’s office. It appeared that David would be completing his training as he was a popular and quick lad. As well, come next Spring there would be a full time posting here at the paper with a wage commensurate to his experience.

“What about Doctor Johnson sir, didn’t he want me fired for being an upstart?”

“I talked him around, I said what kind of glossary would it be if he were writing for the upper class alone?” David thanked his boss and decided to brave a question.

“Mr. Weatherby sir?” He looked up and saw the nod so pressed on. “I’ve noticed your melancholy, is there anything I can do? Only you’ve done so much for me.”

“I’m at a stall in my life lad, I yearn to travel again. When I see you established here, I’ll be away again. Just another year or so and I’ll have you running this place for me, that will get the smile back.

 “Yes sir, I’ll make you proud. Now, I’ll get back to sweeping, I’m not in charge yet.” He heard the loud hoot from behind the desk as he closed the door.

P.S.

The Abridged edition of Johnson’s dictionary came out in 1756 in two octavo volumes with entries abstracted from the folio edition by the author" it was laid out as two columns per page. The abridged version did not feature the literary quotes. This made it cheaper to produce and buy. It sold over a thousand copies a year for the next 30 years bringing "The Dictionary" to the reach of every literate home.

September 16, 2021 21:33

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7 comments

Ananya Voss
17:29 Sep 27, 2021

Very interesting story about the foundations of the dictionary. Dr Johnson lived on my estate near the common in sw London. I feel so lucky to be near where he took the evening air! Great read.

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20:33 Sep 27, 2021

That's great to have so much history so close by! I just went through an online search of 'celebrities' in London in the time period and up he came. Thank you for a lovely review as well.

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Deidra Lovegren
17:10 Sep 21, 2021

Maureen! What a treat. The Mohocks were just awful people (but weren't most of those overpampered boys)!! From an English teacher's point of view, there are a lot of grammatical errors -- mainly comma splices and some other minor issues. But you have a great command of characterization and pacing. Well done!!

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15:50 Sep 22, 2021

Thank you for your lovely review, comma splices are my natural enemy, I use an editorial program through Word and I don't understand how it doesn't catch those. Something I'll work on though, thank you.

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Amanda Fox
15:18 Sep 20, 2021

This was a fun story! Your prose has a lyrical quality that I very much enjoyed, though sometimes the sentences ran on a bit. I wasn't sure if that was a stylistic choice given the setting, though. Your title choice was excellent - I struggle with titling stories, but you picked one that was relevant and also intriguing. Thank you for sharing - I hope to see more of your work in the future!

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16:48 Sep 20, 2021

Thank you Fawn, Thank you very much for the lovely review, I too worried about the run on sentences but the program I'm using has an editorial option (which I always use) :) and it didn't correct them. I'm glad I discovered Reedsy contests.

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Amanda Fox
17:45 Sep 20, 2021

I'm glad to have discovered Reedsy, too - there is so much talent on this site!

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