The Pen-Wiper by Barry Pain

Story type: Literature

Eliza always works me some little pretty trifle for my birthday, and always has done so since the day when I led her to the hymeneal altar. But it is not done at all as a matter of course. During the days before my birthday, when she is working at the present, she keeps a clean handkerchief by her side, and flings it over the work to hide it when I enter the room. This makes it more of a surprise when the day comes. As a rule, I whistle a few bars in a careless way before entering the room, so as to give her plenty of time to get the work under the handkerchief. There is no definite arrangement about this. I merely do what good taste dictates. Last year, instead of the handkerchief, she kept a large table-napkin by her side when she was working. However, though I did not tell her so, this let the secret out. I knew that she must be doing me a pair of slippers.

* * * * *

This year, on my birthday, when I came down to breakfast, I found placed before me the hot-water plate with the tin cover to it–a very useful article when there happens to be an invalid in the house.

Eliza, bending down behind the tea-cosy to hide her smile, told me to be quick with my breakfast, in rather a censorious voice. I lifted the tin cover, and there on the plate was the pen-wiper which Eliza had made for me.

This rather graceful and amusing way of giving a present is not really Eliza’s own invention. I did it some years ago when I gave her a pincushion. As the pincushion was made to imitate a poached egg (and really very like), perhaps the humour in that instance had rather more point. However, I do not say this at all to find fault with Eliza. I am rather one to think of novelties, and if Eliza cares to copy any of them, so much the better.

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* * * * *

The top and bottom of the pen-wiper which Eliza had made for me were of black velvet, which always has a handsome look to my mind. On the top was worked in gold beads, “Kindly clean the pen.” The interior was composed of several folds of very pale shades of art muslin. Only the day before Messrs. Howlett & Bast had refused to send any more patterns, as the last lot sent had not been returned, though twice applied for. I understood that now.

However, it made a very good pen-wiper, in pleasant, simple taste, and I thanked Eliza for it several times most warmly. At my suggestion it was placed on the centre-table in the drawing-room. One never wrote there, but it seemed naturally to belong to the drawing-room.

* * * * *

So far, my birthday had gone happily enough. In the evening, when I returned from the city, I sat down to write a short, sharp note to Messrs. Howlett & Bast. I explained to them that by their impertinence they were running a grave risk of entirely losing my custom, and suggested to them that the lot of patterns to which they referred might very possibly have been lost in the post.

When I had finished the letter, I wiped my pen on the inside of my coat. This is my general custom. Some men wipe their pens on their hair,–not a very cleanly habit, in my opinion,–besides, unless the colour of the hair is exceptionally dark, the ink shows.

I had no sooner wiped my pen on the inside of my coat than I remembered Eliza’s present. Determined to show her that I appreciated it, I took a full dip of ink, stepped into the drawing-room, and wiped the pen on the new pen-wiper. Then I called up-stairs: “Eliza, I have just found your present very useful. Would you like to come and look?” She happened to be fastening something up the back at the time, but she came down a minute afterward.

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She picked up the pen-wiper, looked at it, exclaimed “Ruined!” and then walked rapidly out of the room. I followed her, and asked what was the matter.

It appeared that the words, “Kindly clean the pen,” meant that the pen was to be cleaned on a scrap of paper before the pen-wiper was used. Eliza said that I might have known that the pretty muslin was not intended to be a perfect mess of ink.

“Well,” I said, “I didn’t know. That’s all there is to say about it.”

But it was not, apparently, all that there was to say about it. In fact, the whole thing cast an unpleasant shade over the evening of my birthday. Finally I took a strong line, and refused to speak at all.

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