[A tribute to ‘Frank Richards.’]
Harry Wharton looked at the letter in disbelief. His hopes for Christmas had been shattered.
My dear Harry, we most deeply regret to inform you that we are currently undergoing extensive renovations at Wharton Lodge and that they will not be completed in time for Christmas. So, your dear mother and I shall have to spend Christmas on a cruise to the tropics. Alas, funds do not allow for you to accompany us, dear boy, so, unfortunately, you will have to spend Christmas at Greyfriars School.
Mr Quelch has kindly agreed to stay on over the holidays to look after you and give you extra Latin tuition, very good of him, I’m sure you’ll agree.
We realise this may be somewhat disappointing and have sent you a substantial postal order and a Fortnum and Mason’s hamper, in the hope that some of your friends may be able to visit you over the Christmas hols.
A Very Merry Christmas from your loving pater and mater.
Harry felt his eyes wet with disappointment. Stuck here on his own with Quelch! And as for extra Latin drills, they were something he needed like a hole in the head!
Just then there was a knock at the door, and before he’d had time to answer, it crashed open, revealing the person who was presently least welcome – Bunter!
“I say old chap,” Bunter blinked furiously, “I’m starving, you know. I was expecting a postal order from my pater but … but it must have been delayed. I haven’t any food, old man. Could you … I mean, could you spare a bit of nosh, I mean, just a few, I mean quite a few, slices of ham perhaps, a loaf … or two, maybe a few cans of beans?”
Just then Hurree Jamset Ram Singh and Frank Nugent popped their heads in. “Hello Harry, is Bunter getting on your nerves?” Then, seeing the distress on Harry’s face. “I say, old man, are you OK?”
Harry’s face was red with rage. “Clear off, Bunter, I’ve got more important things to think about than feeding your fat face!”
“Oh, I say, Wharton, that’s not very generous of you, old chap!”
“The generousfulness is not terrific!” laughed Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“I’ll give you three seconds to get out, Bunter. One.”
“I say, Wharton.”
“Just a pork pie … or two, perhaps?”
“I could manage them without mustard. Yarooh!”
A patent-leather shoe tip connected with Bunter’s customary yellow pants, stretched to the limit by his fatness. “Ow, wow, I say, ow, Yarooh!”
“Kick Bunter!” encouraged Frank Nugent.
“The kickfulness is terrific,” laughed the dusky-faced Nabob of Bhanipur, as Bunter was pursued down the corridor by the combined shoe tips of Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
“Hic, hec, hoc, hunc, hanc, hoc,” intoned Mr Quelch, whilst the other half of his mind was preoccupied with ecstatic thoughts of the marvellous works – as he thought – of Virgil, Horace and Ovid.
Harry Wharton stared through the window at the eddying snowflakes, trying to stay awake. What had he done to deserve this? He’d always been decent to the other fellows, perhaps not so much to Bunter, but then the Fat Owl had deserved it, but whilst the other fellows were at home with their loved ones, the Christmas crackers, roast turkey, gift-crammed stockings hung above roaring fires, and presents stacked high beneath sparkling Christmas trees, here he was, being drilled in Latin, in isolation, by probably the least popular master at Greyfriars; Mr Horace Henry Samuel Quelch!
“Possim, possis, possit, possimus, possitis, possint …”
Harry felt his eyes begin to close. It seemed frightfully warm. His pen ground to a halt.
Harry jerked awake, “Oh, y-yes s-sir?”
Mr Quelch’s tone changed to a more sympathetic one. After all, he’d been young once. Or had he? He couldn’t remember happy school days any more than he could remember not being a master at Greyfriars. “Look, Wharton, I know it’s not your idea of fun being stuck on your own here at Greyfriars, but your father’s a friend of mine. It’s not so long ago he was where you are now, swotting up on his Latin conjugations and declensions, and bending over for ‘six of the best’ on more than one occasion too, I can tell you!”
“And I’ve given my word to look after you and give you a boost in Latin. I daresay Matron will be doing something special for us on Christmas Day too!”
“Y-yes sir, th-thank you.”
“Now, I want you to write out every tense of habeo, video and venio whilst I attend to matters in my study. All right, boy?”
“Yes, sir.” Harry resolved to do his best.
When Mr Quelch had gone, he put down his pen and went to the arched, leaded windows, looking out at the snowflakes swirling in the quad. There was an outside light and Harry was reminded of a snow globe he’d had when younger. He smiled at the thought of his former childish pleasure, shaking it and watching the snow falling onto a little Christmas scene – Santa and a reindeer standing outside a lighted cottage amongst pine trees.
Suddenly he gasped and rubbed his eyes. Outside, a procession of monks was heading across the quad! What the dickens were they doing in Greyfriars?
Although he didn’t remember how he got there, Harry found himself outside. All was completely silent. It had stopped snowing and a heavy layer covered the ground. He realised he was wearing no shoes or socks, he could feel the soft, cold snow between his toes, hear it squeaking. In front of him, the line of monks proceeded, whilst his breath blew out like steam in the chilly night air.
Harry shivered and looked around. There were no lights on anywhere now, but a bright half-moon in the sky above, shining down on the crisp snow, gave an eerie light to the scene. He looked around at the dark, empty windows of the ancient school buildings. Nowhere was there any sign of life. Now he became aware of a soft chanting. He listened attentively, feeling a tear in his eye at the emotive words.
Salve festa dies toto venerabilis aevo
Qua Deus infernum vicit et astra tenet ….’
The last monks were passing now and Harry felt emboldened. “Hey, excuse me.” He approached the last monk. “Where are you from?”
But the monk ignored him, continuing to intone the chant until he disappeared from sight, seemingly headed for the ruined chapel beyond the cloisters. Harry stopped and stared in amazement. The snow ahead was pristine, with no footprints anywhere!
“Harry, Harry?” It was the soft, friendly voice of matron. The room swam into view.
“H-hello matron, what … what’s going on?” It seemed an effort to speak.
“Mr Quelch found you outside in the snow! You’d fainted. Thank goodness you hadn’t been out there long, you could have frozen to death! You’ve been suffering from a fever. You’ve been in the infirmary for two days!”
Harry gazed down to see he was wearing pyjamas. “But … but I don’t remember. Just, just the … monks.”
“Monks?” Matron looked surprised, then looked up at Mr Quelch who had entered the room with someone very familiar.
“Harry my boy! How are you?”
“Hello father, I’m OK, tired.”
“Yes, you will be. You’ve been quite ill, my boy. Matron tells me that you must have been suffering from a fever when you went outside, to take your shoes and socks off like that! Thank heavens Mr Quelch here found you when he did!”
“Yes, you had a lucky escape, Wharton,” said Mr Quelch, “and I don’t mean from conjugating those verbs I set you!” He smiled a rare smile.
Harry’s father continued. “Anyway, I’ve got some good news, Harry. The reparations at Wharton Lodge were finished much sooner than expected, so your mother and I have cancelled our cruise and we’ve come to take you home!”
Harry smiled for the first time in a week and a weight lifted from his young shoulders.
The sound of laughter filled the drawing room at Wharton Lodge. A roaring fire blazed in the hearth and the mantlepiece was covered with Christmas cards. In a corner, a Christmas tree towered up to the ceiling. It was covered in gold and silver baubles, tinsel, and twinkling lights. Underneath, lay an untidy pile of presents, wrapped in red, green, gold and silver, and with the names of the recipients inscribed on small gift tags.
“I say, Wharton, tell us that story about the monks again!” laughed Robert Cherry, his cheeks living up to his surname.
Harry’s mother entered. “Come on, Robert, I think Harry’s told all there is to tell already! And he’s still not completely recovered from that fever, remember? Anyway, boys, the cook has just told me that dinner will be served in half an hour. There’s a huge turkey, sausages, stuffing, roast potatoes, roast parsnips and … what else? Oh, yes, lots of vegetables!”
There was a groan from Frank Nugent.
“You need to eat your greens, you’re growing lads!” laughed Mrs. Wharton.
Frank Nugent, Robert Cherry, and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh had been invited to join the Whartons for Christmas and now sat at a table playing cards, drinking lemonade and waiting for the much-anticipated call to dinner.
Outside a motor car door slammed and the doorbell rang.
“That’s odd, we’re not expecting anyone else, are we Mother?” said Harry.
“Not as far as I know.”
“I’ll go.” He walked down the long hallway and past the grandfather clock, opening the door to a scene reminiscent of his snow globe, but the figure standing in the billowing snow wasn’t Father Christmas but … Bunter!
“I, I say, Wharton, old chap. I mean, can … can I come in?”
“What, which, why?” Harry laughed.
“Don’t be a beast, Wharton! It’s snowing for one thing. Look, Wharton, Bunter Court’s flooded. Some pipes froze and burst. Mother and father have gone on a walking holiday in Africa and I’m stuck on my own!” Fallen snow now covered Bunter’s short wiry black hair, making him look like an albino.
“Well, thanks for calling and letting me know, Bunter, I’m sure you’ll find something to eat in the pantry at Bunter Court. Merry Christmas!” He went to shut the door to find it wouldn’t close. Bunter’s fat foot was in the way!
“I say, H-Harry, old man, you … you wouldn’t shove an old school chum out into the snow at Christmas?”
Harry thought of his own narrow escape. At that very moment, he could be eating Christmas dinner with Quelch and Matron in Greyfriars refectory, listening to Quelch telling boring stories of ex-pupils, and quoting Virgil! “Oh, all right, come on in, Bunter, I daresay we can find you some Christmas grub!”
Bunter came in, wiping his wig of snow off onto the hall carpet. “Oh, I say, that … that’s good of you, Wharton. I wouldn’t want much, just a slice or two of turkey, well maybe three or five, and some roast spuds wouldn’t go amiss, and …”
“Don’t worry Bunter, I think cook’s done enough to feed the five thousand!”
Just then a car hooted.
“Oh, sorry, Wharton, old chap, you couldn’t lend me a few shillings for the taxi fare could you, old man, well perhaps a quid or two?”
“The cheekfulness is terrific,” laughed The Nabob of Bhanipur, who had just appeared. He handed Bunter a five-pound note. “Give this to the taxi driver, all of it, mind! Wish him a Very Merry Christmas from us all!” He stood at the door watching to make sure Bunter did as instructed, as the Fat Owl trudged back to the cab in the whirling snow, whilst Harry joined the rest of his chums and family in the warmth and laughter of the drawing room. Even with the unanticipated presence of one William George Bunter, it looked like it was going to be a happy Christmas after all!
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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