Fenwick Major’s Little ‘un by S R Crockett
Story type: Literature
A short to-day,
And no to-morrow:
A winsome wife,
And a mickle sorrow–
Then done was the May
Of my love and my life.
[ Edinburgh student lodgings of usual type. ROGER CHIRNSIDE, M.A.; with many books about him, seated at table. JO BENTLEY and “TAD” ANDERSON squabbling by the fireplace.]
Loquitur ROGER CHIRNSIDE.
Look here, you fellows, if you can’t be quiet, I’ll kick you out of this! How on earth is a fellow to get up “headaches” for his final, if you keep making such a mischief of a row? By giving me a fine one for a sample, do you say? I’ll take less of your sauce, Master Tad, or you’ll get shown out of here mighty quick. Now, not another word out of the heads of you!
[ Chirnside attacks his books again, murmuring intermittently as the others subside for the time.
CHIRNSIDE. Migraine–artery–decussate–wonder what this other fool says ( rustling leaves ). They all contradict one another, and old Rutherland will never believe you when you tell him so.
[ A new quarrel arises at the upper end of the room between Jo Bentley and Tad.
CHIRNSIDE ( starting to his feet ). Lay down that book, Bentley! Do you hear? I know Tad is a fool, and needs his calf’s head broken. But do it with another book–Calderhead’s Mind and Matter, or T. and T. –anything but that. Take the poker or anything! But lay down that book. Do you hear me, Bentley?
[ The book is laid down.
CHIRNSIDE ( continuing ). What am I in such a funk about? No, it’s not because it is a Bible, though a Bible never makes a good missile. I always keep an Oliver and Boyd on purpose–one of the old leather-backed kind that never wears out, even when half the leaves are ripped out for pipe-lights.
[ Tad Anderson asks a question.
Why am I so stung up about that book? Tell you fellows? Well, I don’t mind knocking off a bit and giving you the yarn. That Bible belonged to Fenwick Major. Never heard of Fenwick Major! What blessed ignorant chickens you must be! Where were you brought up?
[ Chirnside slowly lights his pipe before speaking again.
Well–I entered with Fenwick Major when I came up as a first year’s man in Arts. I was green as grass, or as you fellows last year. Not that you know much yet, by the way.
Now, drop that Medical Ju, Bentley! Hand me the Lancet. It makes good pipe-lights–about all it’s good for. Oh–Fenwick Major? Well ( puff-puff-puff ), he came up to college with me. Third-class carriage–our several maters at the door weeping–you know the kind of thing. Fenwick’s governor prowling about in the background with a tenner in an envelope to stick in through the window. His mother with a new Bible and his name on the first leaf. I had no governor and no blooming tenner. Only my old mater told me to spend my bursary as carefully as I could, and not to disgrace my father’s memory. Then something took me, and I wanted to go over to the other side of the compartment and look out at the window. Good old lady, mine, as ever they make them. Ever felt that way, fellows?
[ Chirnside’s pipe goes out. Jo Bentley and Tad shift their legs uneasily and cross them the other way.
So we came up. Fenwick Major’s name stands next to mine on the University books. You know the style. Get your money all ready. Make out your papers–What is your place of birth? Have you had the small-pox? If so, how often and where? And shove the whole biling across the counter to the fellow with the red head and the uncertain temper. You’ve been there?
[ Bentley and Tad Anderson nod. They had been there.
Well, you fellows, Fenwick Major and I got through our first session together. We were lonely, of course, and we chummed some. First go off, we lodged together. But Fenwick had hordes of chips and I had only my bursary, and none too much of that. Fenwick wanted a first floor. I preferred the attic, and thought a sitting-room unnecessary. So we parted. Fenwick Major used to drop in after that, and show me his new suits and the latest thing in sticks–nobby things, with a silver band round them and his name. Then he got a terrier, and learned to be knowing as to bars. I envied, but luckily had no money. Besides, that’s all skittles any way, and you’ve to pay for it sweetly through the nose in the long-run. Now mind me, you fellows!
[ Bentley and Tad mind Chirnside.
Oh, certainly, I’ll get on with my apple-cart and tell you about the book.
Well, the short and the long of it is that Fenwick Major began to go to the dogs, the way you and I have seen a many go. Oh, it’s a gay road–room inside, and a penny all the way. But there’s always the devil to pay at the far end. I’m not preaching, fellows; only, you take my word for it and keep clear.
Yet, in spite of the dogs, there was no mistake but Fenwick Major could work. His father was a parson–white hair on his shoulders, venerable old boy, all that sort of thing. Had coached Fenwick till he was full as a sheep-tick. So he got two medals that session, and the fellows–his own set–gave him a supper–whisky-toddy, and we’ll not go home till morning–that style! But most of them wouldn’t even go home when it was morning. They went down to the Royal and tried to break in with sticks–young fools! The bobbies scooped them by couples and ran them in. They were all in court the next day. Most of the fellows gave their right enough names, but they agreed to lie about Fenwick’s for his father’s sake and his medals. Most of them were colonial medicals anyway. It didn’t matter a toss-up to them. So Fenwick went home all right with his two medals. His father met him at the station, proud as Punch. His mother took possession of the medals; and when she thought that Fenwick Major was out of the way, she took them all round the parish in her black reticule basket, velvet cases and all, and showed them to the goodwives.
Fenwick Minor was home from school, and went about like a dog worshipping his big brother. This is all about Fenwick Minor.
But Greenbrae parish and its humble, poor simpletons of folk did not content Fenwick Major long. He went back to Edinburgh, as he told his father, to read during the summer session; and when we came up again in November, Fenwick Major was going it harder than ever.
[ Jo Bentley and Tad Anderson look at each other. They know all about that.
CHIRNSIDE ( continues ). Then he gave up attending class much, only turning up for examinations. He had fits of grinding like fire at home. Again he would chuck the whole thing, and lounge all day and most of the night about shops in the shady lanes back of the Register. So we knew that Fenwick Major was burning his fingers. Then he cut classes and grinds altogether, and when I met him next, blest if he didn’t cut me. That wasn’t much, of course, and maybe showed his good taste. But it was only a year since we chummed–and I knew his people, you know.
Fact was, we felt somebody ought to speak to Fenwick–so all the fellows said. But of course, when it came to the point, they pitched on me, and stuck at me till they made me promise.
So I met him and said to him: “Now, look here, Fenwick, this is playing it pretty low down on the old man at home and your mother. Better let up on this drinking and cutting round loose. It’s skittles anyway, and will come to no good!” Just as I would say to you fellows.
I think Fenwick Major was first of all a bit staggered at my speaking to him. Later he came to himself, and told me where to go for a meddling young hypocrite.
“Who are you to come preaching to me, any way?” he said.
And I admitted that I was nobody. But I told him all the same that he had better listen to what I said.
“You are playing the fool, and you’ll come an awful cropper,” I went on. “Not that it matters so much for you, but you’ve got a father and a mother to think about.”
What Fenwick Major said then about his father and mother I am not going to tell you. He had maybe half a dozen “wets” on board, so we won’t count him responsible.
But after that Fenwick Major never looked the way I was on. He drank more than ever, till you could see the shakes on him from the other side of the street. And there was the damp, bleached look about his face that you see in some wards up at the Infirmary.
[ Jo Bentley and Tad Anderson nod. Their heads are bent eagerly towards Chirnside.
But I heard from other fellows that he still tried to work. He would come out of a bad turn. Then he would doctor himself, Turkish-bath himself, diet himself, and go at his books. But, as I am alive, fellows, he had got himself into such a state that what he learned the night before, he had forgotten the next morning. Ay, even the book he had been reading and the subject he was cramming. Talk about no hell, fellows! Don’t you believe ’em. I know four knocking about Edinburgh this very moment.
But right at the close of the session we heard that the end had come. So, at least, we thought. Fenwick Major had married a barmaid or something like that. “What a fool!” said some. I was only thankful that I had not to tell his mother.
But his mother was told, and his father came to Edinburgh to find Fenwick Major. He did not find the prodigal son, who was said to have gone to London. At any rate, his father went home, and in a fortnight there was a funeral–two in a month. Mother went first, then the old man. I went down to both, and cursed Fenwick Major and his barmaid with all the curses I knew. And I was a second-year medical at the time.
I never thought to hear more of him. Did not want to. He was lost. He had married a barmaid, and I knew where his father and mother lay under the sod. And my own old mater kept flowers on the two graves summer and winter.
One night I was working here late–green tea, towel round my head–oral next morning. There was a knock at the door. The landlady was in bed, so I went. There was a laddie there, bare-legged and with a voice like a rip-saw.
“If ye please, there’s a man wants awfu’ to see ye at Grant’s Land at the back o’ the Pleasance.”
I took my stick and went out into the night. It was just coming light, and the gas-jets began to look foolish. I stumbled up to the door, and the boy showed me in. It was a poor place–of the poorest. The stair was simply filthy.
But the room into which I was shown was clean, and there on a bed, with the gas and the dawn from the east making a queer light on his face, sat Fenwick Major.
He held out his hand.
“How are you, Chirnside? Kind of you to come. This is the little wife!” was what he said, but I can tell you he looked a lot more.
At the word a girl in black stole silently out of the shadow, in which I had not noticed her.
She had a white, drawn face, and she watched Fenwick Major as a mother watches a sick child that is going to be taken from her up at the hospital.
“I wanted to see you, old chap, before I went–you know. It’s a long way to go, and there’s no use in hanging back even if I could. But the little wife says she knows the road, and that I won’t find it dark. She can’t read much, the little wife–education neglected and all that. Precious lot I made of mine, medals and all! But she’s a trump. She made a man of me. Worked for me, nursed me. Yes, you did, Sis, and I shall say it. It won’t hurt me to say it. Nothing will hurt me now, Sis.”
“James, do not excite yourself!” said the little wife just then.
I had forgotten his name was James. He was only Fenwick Major to me.
“Now, little wife,” he said, “let me tell Chirnside how I’ve been a bad fellow, but the Little ‘Un pulled me through. It was the best day’s work I ever did when I married Sis!”
“James!” she said again, warningly.
“Look here, Chirnside,” Fenwick went on, “the Little ‘Un can’t read; but, do you know, she sleeps with my old mother’s Bible under her pillow. I can’t read either, though you would hardly know it. I lost my sight the year I married (my own fault, of course), and I’ve been no better than a block ever since. I want you to read me a bit out of the old Book.”
“Why didn’t you send for a minister, Fenwick?” I said. “He could talk to you better than I can.”
“Don’t want anybody to speak to me. Little ‘Un has done all that. But I want you to read. And, see here, Chirnside, I was a brute beast to you once–quarrelled with you years ago–“
“Don’t think of that, Fenwick Major!” I said. “That’s all right!”
“Well, I won’t,” he said; “for what’s the use? But Little ‘Un said, ‘Don’t let the sun go down upon your wrath.’ ‘And no more I will, Little ‘Un,’ says I. So I sent a boy after you, old man.”
Now, you fellows, don’t laugh; but there and then I read three or four chapters of the Bible–out of Fenwick’s mother’s Bible–the one she handed in at the carriage window that morning he and I set off for college. I actually did and this is the Bible.
[ Bentley and Tad Anderson do not laugh.
When I had finished, I said–“Fenwick, I’m awfully sorry, but fact is–I can’t pray.”
“Never mind about that, old man!” said he; “Little ‘Un can pray!”
And Little ‘Un did pray; and I tell you what, fellows, I never heard any such prayer. That little girl was a brick.
Then Fenwick Major put out fingers like pipe-staples, and said–
“Old man, you’ll give Little ‘Un a hand–after–you know.”
I don’t know that I said anything. Then he spoke again, and very slowly–
“It’s all right, old boy. Sun hasn’t gone down on our wrath, has it?”
And even as he smiled and held a hand of both of us, the sun went down.
Little brick, wasn’t she? Good little soul as ever was! Three cheers for the little wife, I say. What are you fellows snuffling at there? Why can’t you cheer?