Short Stories

The Quill Pen Maker’s Apprentice

One of three runners-up in Waterstone’s first Perfectly Formed short story competition, Dee’s story The Quill Pen Maker’s Apprentice is set in early 19th century Bath. The narrator is the Quill Pen Maker who addresses his new apprentice, Samuel, at Marshall & Son, Milsom Street, Bath about the art of pen making and the nature of the business. Who will be Samuel’s first cusotmer?

Author, James McCreet, one of the judges, wrote,

A clear winner for me purely because I found the writing so thrillingly alive. It evoked in me the feeling I get when I write: the excitement and possibility of what you can do with a voice.’

‘Impressively assured in voice and tone’

‘The narrative techniques are multi-textured, brave and delightful.’

‘There is a beautiful subtlety to the subtext of the wage-slave entering a lifetime of drudgery that’s gilded by the employer’s rhetoric.’

Inspired by the City of Bath

The Quill Pen Maker’s Apprentice

Wanted an APPRENTICE in the BOOKSELLING and STATIONERY LINES connected with extensive Circulating Library. He must be an active youth, of good education and respectability. –As he will be treated as one of the Family a modest premium will be expected. Apply by letter, (post paid) to Messrs Marshall & Son, Booksellers, Milsom-Street, Bath.

You see, Samuel, if you work with diligence and patience you will reap benefits from the skills and knowledge you learn here at Marshall’s. My father, and his father before him, God rest his soul, were proud of this business. I have no son, Samuel, in spite of the words printed over the door, so I impart my learning to you in the hope, perhaps, one day. We will see. We will see. Such decisions are not mine alone, of course. Mrs Marshall, you understand. And Mrs Gamidge. You have not met Mrs Gamidge. She will be entertained this Michaelmas Sunday. The mother of Mrs Marshall. You will be introduced to the family and scrutinised, no doubt. As rigorously as a commander reviewing his troops, so will Mrs Gee do unto you.

No, no, nothing to fear, young man. You will pass muster. Now where was I? You may take to it like a duck to water–or should I say goose, or perhaps swan, as we are now in the quill section of the warehouse. Or you may flounder, well, like a flounder. That reminds me. Mrs Marshall has sent for a piece of fish for supper tonight. Baked nicely with butter and herbs. No, Mrs Gamidge does not dine weekdays with us. As I said, you will be introduced on Sunday. Now enough of flounders and fish for supper. Where were we? I shall try to maintain a dignified demeanour as suits a teacher imparting knowledge to his pupil.

Today we are in the workshop to concentrate on quill-dressing and pen-cutting. You are familiar now with types of parchment, paper and inks. What we need now are the writing implements in order to fulfil the requirements of the educated gentleman, who is our main customer. But, of course, there are the ladies. Lord, bless ‘em, I must not forget the ladies, who now seem to write as much in leisure as the gentlemen do in business.

Each time we make a pen we are presented with a choice. Note the different feathers available. Swan and goose are popular as are raven and crow. The ladies love crow. Such a fine line produced for writing a verse or billet-doux. Love letter, Samuel. Note the lengths and colours, the shafts varying from milky white to yellow and tan. The best are imported from Hamburg. Germany, Samuel. We also have feathers from St Petersburg. Yes, yes, Russia. Which are popular this season. See,the advertising wrapper declares ‘Esteemed the best, being harder than the rest’. Birds of our own? We do indeed have birds, English through and through but the Suffolk goose men, I fear, cannot keep up with the demand.

They say the strongest feathers are those plucked from living birds in the spring. I cannot vouch for or contradict this but hope that the birds do not suffer over much in their sacrifice to our nation’s appetite for writing books and diaries and letters. Where would our politicians be , Samuel, without our pens to sign their acts of parliament? The poet to express his love for Sylvia in a sonnet? Or the lawyer totalling his charges for a neighbour’s life-long dispute over a parcel of land? We may appear small cogs in a big machine but we keep it all working for the benefit of the science, literature and commerce of this nation. You can hold your head up, boy, when you walk the streets of Bath. To count yourself one of us here at Marshall’s.

Here in this quarter we trim and prepare the quills. We have a large and elegant assortment of superior dressed and undressed feathers at our disposal. Observe the curve, Samuel. Feathers plucked from the left wing, you know. Best for use by the right-handed. Yes, you are right-handed as is everyone. School masters are quick to forbid the use of the left hand. A regular rap on the knuckles of the left is a fierce but necessary reminder to their young charges. Sinister, Samuel. It is sinister. Sinister means left in Latin, and the devil’s work. No sinister pens here!

What we need are at least seven inches of good quill. We trim down the raw feather to the desired length. For many customers there is a decided preference for the untrimmed quill pen such as this one, the portable version. Some gentlemen like to tuck their pen in a pocket like so, or keep it in a wallet as demonstrated here. It is handy when out and about on their business. So we trim off the barbs. For those who like a flourish and a different balance, we keep the feathery part or trim away just an inch or two. Note this example.

Are you ready to start? Your apron is tied. Your hands are clean and dry of salts. Your penknife, sir. Show me. You have chosen well. Like mine, a surgeon would be at ease with it. Keep it ground only on the right side and its point sharp and always about your person, stowed in its leather sheath. Gainst accident. No blood-letting here, ha, ha! No barber-surgeon among the stationery stacks. Fear not. Any time, any place, a gentleman might call for his blunt nib to be re-trimmed. Indeed, as you say, for ladies too. You cannot stand by and allow the scratching of a nib to offend the sensitive ear of one of our fair helpmeets.

Now we are ready. Scrape your blade gently along the shaft. See how smooth it becomes. With the feather laid thus on the bench, cut off the tip, the writing end, of course. And clean the shaft within. For this I recommend a length of wire like this. No, not done yet. Less haste. We must soften the quill.

And how shall we soften the quill in order for it not to break as we prepare it for writing? Hot water, like in a bath? No, no. Dry heat and a bath of sand. Here in this tray. My preference is the fine sand from Lyme Regis Bay. I remember when Mrs Marshall and I were down at Lyme. Ahem! But no matter. Sand is sand. Observe as I heat it over the burner. The sand retains the heat but does not burn the feather.

We take a spoon and fill the shaft with hot sand and then bury the whole feather so. Leave it for five to ten minutes. Think of your mother’s baking, waiting for the bread to prove. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Your grandmother. So after a few minutes, when it is sufficiently baked, tap out the sand. Mind it is hot to the fingers. See how the colour has changed and the shaft more brittle. Better for writing. Listen. Can you hear? You try. Just like tapping one of your grandma’s loaves. Not dull but resonant. Yes, like a toy soldier’s drum.

Just as with freshly baked bread you can hardly resist cutting a slice, eh, young man, so now we will slice our loaf, I mean quill. Place it on the bench and make a cut here and then two there. Don’t be impatient. We are nearly done. Tidy that part. Trim that ragged tip. Be bold. Cut sharply at a right angle. Compare it with those on the bench.

We will stop there. Don’t run before you can walk. There are other skills to learn about cutting to suit the various occupations of calligraphy and drawing. Some men require their ink to last longer and I will show you how to make brass reservoirs for the nib. No, no, boy, for tiny droplets of ink not oceans of water. For remember, we are craftsmen. Let no man tell you otherwise. We are no labourers in a ditch nor tillers in the field. We craft and create.

All you have to do now, Samuel, is to repeat what I have shown you fifty times a day for the next month and then a hundred times a day for the month after. Then, me boy, you maybe on your way to becoming a master pen maker and seeing your name inscribed above the door.

First, however, I wish to see you make one. Make your first pen for me, Samuel, and then see to what heights you may rise.


Ah yes, Samuel, this order. You have responsibility for this particular one. For the Reverend gentleman. No sermons from him now, I believe. A retired gentleman who lives quietly with his family. This order should suffice for two or three months unless the Reverend has much correspondence to undertake or has great theological arguments to record. Or it is the ladies of the family who consume so many, busy with their quill pens. Ha, ha! That would be amusing if they were secretly penning sentimental ballads or romantic stories by the fire-side and want the time or inclination to trim their scratchy nibs.

I have heard that there are fashionable ladies who occupy themselves with such indulgences. When time hangs heavy, no balls at the Assembly Rooms to attend or friends to meet at the Ladies’ Coffee-house, the female mind turns to frivolities. There are ladies, Samuel, so they say, who write books and publish their work but feel unable to disclose their identity. ‘By a Lady’. That’s what they put on the cover. I’ll show you books we have on display in the shop. Books which sell in their dozens. However, I firmly believe that they are really penned by gentlemen. Surely, not ‘By a Lady’ but ‘By a Gentleman’. Adam masquerading as Eve. A serpent’s tale. Ha, ha! And an expensive one at 18 shillings.

For no decent woman, I affirm, would reveal her sentiments in books whether for a penny or a pound, that all the world might read and laugh or cry or censure. I do prefer her main occupation should remain with the broidering of a kerchief and the trimming of a bonnet. I cannot deny women are at their best when making a pretty turn at a dance or in a drawing room entertainment. I enjoy modesty and decorum in a lady. Yes, Mrs Marshall does display those attributes. You, Samuel, have many years before you need to express your preferences in the Fairer Sex.

See to the business now. Take pride, Samuel, in being the purveyor of writing accoutrements to all our customers. Not distinguishing between those who perform serious work, such as our Bath gentlemen of church, politics and commerce, and those who merely decorate the fine households, their wives, daughters and sisters.

You can deliver the order in person, along with a quire of best paper and two bottles of Original Indian Writing Ink. Take the instructions:

Delivery ONE BOX-two doz quill pens assorted
Rev George Austen
4 Sydney Place BATH

Dee La Vardera
Waterstones Perfectly Formed Short Story Competition, 2010