This page will take you into pieces of literature that are carefully selected for their great content at the literary, scientific, or philosophical level. A short selection will be presented in full. A long one will be divided into sections that will be refreshed regularly. Emphasis and highlights are mostly ours, not made by the original author.
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Fan, the Story of a Young Girl's Life (1892)
by Henry Harford (W.H. Hudson)
That troubled evening was followed by a quiet period, lasting from Wednesday to Saturday, during which there were no brawls indoors, and Fan was free of the hateful task of going out to collect pence in the streets. Joe had been offered a three or four days' job; he had accepted it gratefully because it was only for three or four days, and for that period he would be the sober, stolid, British workman. The pleasures of the pot-house would claim him on Saturday, when he would have money in his pockets and the appetite that comes from abstention.
On Saturday morning after he had left the house at six o'clock, Fan started up from her cot and came to her mother's side at the table.
"Mother, may I go out to the fields today?" she asked. "I know if I go straight along the Edgware Road I'll come to them soon. And I'll be home early."
"No, Fan, don't you try it. It's too far and'll tire you, and you'd be hungry and maybe get lost."
"Can't I take some bread, mother? Do let me go! It will be so nice to see the fields and trees, and they say it isn't far to walk."
"You're not fit to be seen walking, Fan. Wait till you've got proper shoes to your feet, and a dress to wear. Perhaps I'll git you one next week."
"But if I wait I'll never go! He'll finish his work today and spend the money, and on Monday he'll send me out just the same as before."
And as she continued to plead, almost with tears, so intent was she on this little outing, her mother at length gave her consent. She even got her scissors to cut off the ragged fringing from the girl's dress to make her look more trim, and mended her torn shoes with needle and thread; then cut her a hunk of bread for her dinner.
"I never see a girl so set on the country," she said, when Fan was about to start, her thin pale face brightening with anticipation. "It's a long tramp up the Edgware Road, and not much to see when you git to the fields."
There would be much to see, Fan thought, as she set out on her expedition. She had secretly planned it in her mind, and had thought about it by day and dreamed about it by night--how much there would be to see!
But the way was long; so long that before she got out of London--out of that seemingly endless road with shops on either hand--she began to be very tired. Then came that wide zone surrounding London, of uncompleted streets and rows of houses partly occupied, separated by wide spaces with brick-fields, market-gardens, and waste grounds. Here she might have turned aside to rest in one of the numerous huge excavations, their bottoms weedy and grass-grown, showing that they had been long abandoned; but this was not the country, the silent green woods and fields she had come so far to seek, and in spite of weariness she trudged determinedly on.
At first the day had promised to be fine; now a change came over it, the sky was overcast with grey clouds, and a keen wind from the north-west blew in her face and made her shiver with cold. Many times during that long walk she drew up beside some gate or wooden fence, and leaned against it, feeling almost too tired and dispirited to proceed further; but she could not sit down there to rest, for people were constantly passing in traps, carts and carriages, and on foot, and not one passed without looking hard at her; and by-and-by, overcoming her weakness, she would trudge on again, all the time wishing herself back in the miserable room in Moon Street once more.
At last she got beyond the builders' zone, into the country; from an elevated piece of ground over which the road passed she was able to see the prospect for miles ahead, and the sight made her heart sink within her. The few trees visible were bare of foliage, and the fields, shut within their brown ragged hedges, were mostly ploughed and black, and the green fields were as level as the ploughed, and there was no shelter from the cold wind, no sunshine on the pale damp sward. It was in the middle of October; the foliage and beauty of summer had long vanished; she had seen the shed autumn leaves in Hyde Park many days ago, yet she had walked all the weary distance from Moon Street, cheered with the thought that in the country it would be different, that there would still be sunshine and shadow there, and green trees and flowers. It was useless to go on, and impossible in her weak exhausted condition to attempt to return at once. The only thing left for her to do was to creep aside and lie down under the shelter of some hedge, and get through the time in the best way she could. Near the road, some distance ahead, there was a narrow lane with a rough thorny hedge on either side, and thither she now went in quest of a shelter of some kind from the rain which was beginning to fall. The lane was on the east side of the road, and under the hedge on one hand there was an old ditch overgrown with grass and weeds; here Fan crouched down under a bush until the shower was over, then got out
and walked on again. Presently she discovered a gap in the hedge large enough to admit her body, and after peering cautiously through and seeing no person about, she got into the field. It was small, and the hedge all round shut out the view on every side; nevertheless it was a relief to be there, safe out of sight of all men for a little while. She walked on, still keeping close to the hedge, until she came to a dwarf oak tree, with a deep hollow in the ground between its trunk and the hedge; the hollow was half filled with fallen dead leaves, and Fan, turning them with her foot, found that under the surface they were dry, and this spot being the most tempting one she had yet seen, she coiled herself up in the leafy bed to rest. And lying there in the shelter, after eating her bread, she very soon fell asleep, in spite of the cold.
From her sleep, which lasted for some hours, she woke stiff and chilled to the marrow. It was late in the day, and the occasional watery gleams the sun shot through the grey clouds came from low down in the western sky. She started up, and scarcely able at first to use her sore, cramped limbs, set out on her return. She was hungry and thirsty and sore--sore also in mind at her disappointment--and the gusty evening wind blew chill, and more than one shower of rain fell to wet her; but she reached Paddington at last. In the Edgware Road the Saturday evening market was in full progress when she passed, too tired and miserable to take any interest in the busy bustling scene. And by-and-by the dense moving crowds, noise of bawling costermongers, and glare of gas and naphtha torches were left behind, when she reached the welcome gloom and comparative quiet of her own squalid street. There was also welcome quiet in the top room when she entered, for her parents were out. A remnant of
fire was in the grate, and the teapot had been left on the fender to keep warm. Fan poured herself out some tea and drank it thirstily; then hanging her dress over a chair to dry by the heat of the embers, and nestling into her rickety bed in the corner, she very quickly fell asleep. From her sleep she was at length roused by Mrs. Clark, the landlady, who with her husband and children inhabited the ground-floor.
"When did you come in, Fan?" she asked.
"I think it was half-past seven," said the girl.
"Well, your mother went out earlier than that, and now it's half-past ten, and she not in yet. It's a shame for them always to stay out like that when they've got a bit of money. I think you'd better go and see if you can find her, and make her come in. She went to buy the dinner, and look for Joe in Crawford Street. That's where you'll find her, I'm thinking."
Fan rose obediently, shivering with cold, her eyes still heavy with sleep, and putting on her damp things went out into the streets again. In a few minutes she was in Crawford Street. It is long, narrow, crooked, and ill-paved; full of shops, but of a meaner description than those in the adjacent thoroughfare, with a larger proportion of fishmongers, greengrocers, secondhand furniture and old clothes sellers. Here also was a Saturday evening market, an overflow from the Edgware Road, composed chiefly of the poorer class of costermongers--the vendors of cheap damaged fruits and vegetables, of haddock and herring, shell-fish, and rabbits, the skins dangling in clusters at each end of the barrow. Public-houses were numerous here; on the pavement before them groups of men were standing, pipe in mouth, idly talking; these were men who had already got rid of their week's earnings, or of that portion they had reserved for their own pleasures, but were not yet prepared to go home, and so miss the chance of a last half-pint of beer from some passing still solvent acquaintance. There were other larger groups and little
crowds gathered round the street auctioneers, minstrels, quacks, and jugglers, whose presence in the busier thoroughfare was not tolerated by the police.
It was late now, and the money spending and getting nearly over; costermongers, some with half their goods still unsold, were leaving; the groups were visibly thinning, the doors of the public-houses swinging to and fro less frequently. As Fan hurried anxiously along, she peeped carefully through the clouded window-panes into the "public bar" department of each drinking place in search of her mother, and paused for a few moments whenever she came to a group of spectators gathered round some object of curiosity at a street corner. After satisfying herself that her mother was not in the crowd, she would remain for a few moments looking on with the others.
At one spot her attention was painfully held by a short, dark, misshapen man with no hands nor arms, but only the stump of an arm, with a stick tied to it. Before him on a rough stand was a board, with half a dozen thick metal wires stretched across it. Rapidly moving his one poor stump, he struck on the wires with his stick and so produced a succession of sounds that roughly resembled a tune. Poor man, how she pitied him; how much more miserable seemed his life than hers! It was cold and damp, yet the perspiration stood in great drops on his sallow, wasted face as he violently wriggled his deformed body about, playing without hands on his rude instrument--all to make a few pence to save himself from starvation, or from that living tomb into which, with a humanity more cruel than Nature's cruelty, we thrust the unfit ones away out of our sight! No one
gave him anything for his music, and with a pang in her heart she hurried away on her quest.
Not all the street scenes were ghastly or painful. She came to one crowd, ranged motionless and silent before a large, fat, dignified-looking man, in good broad-cloth garments, white tie, and wearing a fez; he was calmly sitting on a camp-stool, and held a small phial in one hand. Not a word did he speak for a long time. At length one of the onlookers, a tipsy working-man, becoming impatient, addressed him:
"Ain't you going to do nothing, mister? Here I've been a-waiting with these other ladies and gentl'men more'n ten minutes, and you ain't done nothing yet, nor yet said nothing."
The fat man placed a hand on his broad shirt-front, rolled up his eyes, and solemnly shook his head.
"Fools, fools!" he said, as if speaking to himself. "But what does it matter to me if they won't be saved--if they'd rather die of their complaints? In the East it's different, because I'm known there. I've been to Constantinople, and Morocco, and everywhere. Let them ask the heathen what I have done for them. Do they think I cure them for the sake of their dirty pence? No, no; those that like gold, and jewels, and elephants to ride on, can have it all in the East, and I came away from there. Because why? I care more for these. I don't ask them what's the matter with them! Is there such a thing as a leper in this crowd? Let them bring me a leper here, and I'll cure him for nothing, just to show them what this medicine is. As for rheumatics, consumption, toothache, palpitations of the 'art--what you like, that's all nothing. One drop and it's gone. Sarsaparilla, and waters this, and pills that, what they give their pence for, and expect it's going to do them good. Rubbish, I call it. They buy it, as much as they can put in their insides, and die just the same. This is different. Twenty years in the East, and this is what I got. Doctors! I laugh at such people."
Here, with a superior smile, he cast down his eyes again and relapsed into silence.
No one laughed. Then Fan heard someone near her remark: "He has book-learning, that's what he has"; to which another voice replied, "Ah, you may say it, and he has more'n that."
Next to Fan stood a gaunt, aged woman, miserably dressed, and she, too, listened to these remarks; and presently she pushed her way to the wise man of the East, and began, "Oh, sir, my heart's that bad--"
"Hush, hush! don't say another word," he interrupted with a majestic wave of his hand. "You needn't tell me what you have. I saw it all before you spoke."
He uncorked the phial. "One drop on your tongue will make you whole for ever. Poor woman! poor woman! how much you have suffered. I know it all. Sixpence first, if you please. If you were rich I would say a hundred pounds; but you are poor, and your sixpence shall be more to you in the Day of Judgment than the hundred pounds of the rich man."
With trembling fingers she brought out her money and counted out fivepence-halfpenny.
"It's ahl I have," she sorrowfully said, offering it to him.
He shook his head, and she was about to retire when someone came forward and placed a halfpenny in her hand. He took his fee, and then all pressed closer round to watch with intense interest while a drop of brown liquid was poured on to the poor woman's tongue, thrust far out so that none of that balsam of life should be lost. After witnessing this scene, Fan hurried on once more.
At length, near Blandford Square, she came against a crowd so large that nothing short of a fight, or the immediate prospect of one, could have caused it to collect at that late hour. A temporary opening of the crowd enabled her to see into the middle of it, and there, in a small space which had been made for them, two women stood defiantly facing each other. The dim light from the windows of the public-house they had been drinking in fell on their heads, and she instantly recognised them both: one was her mother, excited by alcohol and anger; the other a tall, pale-faced, but brawny-looking woman, known in the place as "Long 'Liza," a noted brawler, once a neighbour of the Harrods in Moon Street, but now
just out of prison and burning to pay off old scores. In vain Fan struggled to reach her mother; the ring of people closed up again; she was flung roughly back and no regard paid to her piteous appeals and sobs.
It was anguish to her to have to stand there powerless on the outer edge of the ring of people, to listen to the frantic words of the insult and challenge of the two women and the cries and cheers of the excited crowd. But it was plain that a war of words was not enough to satisfy the onlookers, that they were bent on making the women come to blows. The crowd increased every moment; she was pushed further and further back, and in the hubbub could only catch portions of what the two furious women were saying.
"No, you won't fight, you ----; that's not your way, but wait till one's down, and then.... And if you got six weeks with hard, it's a pity, I say, as it wasn't six months.... But if I was a ---- blab like you I could say worse things of you than you and your ---- Moon Street crew can say of me any day.... And you'll out with it if you don't want your head knocked on the stones for nothing.... Not by you, you ----; I'm ready, if you want to try your strength with me, then we'll see whose head 'ull be knocked on the stones.... Yes, I'll fight you fast enough, but first.... If you'll have it, where's the girl you send into the streets to beg? You and your man to git drunk on the coppers she gits! More too if you'd like to hear it.... But you can't say more, nor that neither, you ----.... Smash my teeth, then! Who was her father, or did the poor fool marry you off the streets when he was drunk?"
With a scream and a curse her antagonist sprang at her, and in a moment they were striking and tearing at each other like a couple of enraged wild animals. With a burst of cheering the people pressed closer round, but after a few moments they interposed and forcibly pulled the combatants apart. Not that there was any ruth in their hearts, any compassionate desire to shield these two miserable women of their own class from their insane fury; their only fear was that the fighters would exhaust themselves too soon, encumbered as they were with their jackets and shawls. Not one in the throng remembered that he had an old mother, a
pale-faced wife and little children at home, and sisters, working-girls perhaps. For the working-man has a sporting instinct as well as his betters; he cannot gratify it by seeing stripped athletic men pounding each other with their fists at Pelican Clubs; he has only the occasional street fight to delight his soul, and the spectacle of two maddened women tearing each other is not one to be ungrateful for.
Having pulled off their hats and stripped them to their corsets, their friends and backers released them with encouraging words and slaps on the back, just as dog-fighters set their dogs on each other. Again there were yells and curses, tearing of hair and garments, and a blind, mad rain of blows; until Long 'Liza, striking her foot on the curb, measured her length on the stones, and instantly her adversary was down on her chest, pounding her face with clenched fists.
Groans and shouts of protest arose from the onlookers, and then several of them rushed in and dragged her off, after which the two women were set on their feet and encouraged to renew the fight. Round after round was fought with unabated fury, invariably ending by one going down, to be stamped on, beaten, and kicked by her opponent until rescued by the spectators, who wished only to prolong the contest. But the last round ended more disastrously; locked in a close tussle, 'Liza exerted her whole strength to lift her antagonist from the ground and hurl her down, and succeeded, falling heavily on her, then quickly disengaging herself she jumped on her as if with the object of trampling her life out, when once more the spectators rushed in and dragged her off, still struggling and yelling with baffled rage. But the fallen woman could not be roused; the back of her head had struck the edge of the kerbstone; she was senseless, and her loosened hair becoming saturated with fast-flowing blood.
Fan, sobbing and pressing her hands together in anguish and terror, was no longer kept back; as if by magic the crowd had dissipated, while half a dozen men and women surrounded 'Liza and hurried her, still struggling and cursing, from the ground. Fan was on her knees beside the fallen woman, trying to raise her; but presently she was pushed roughly aside by
two policemen who had just arrived on the scene. Of the crowd, numbering about a hundred and fifty persons, only a dozen or twenty men still lingered on the spot, and some of these assisted the policemen in raising the woman and bathing her head with cold water. Then, finding that she was seriously injured, they put her into a four-wheeler and drove off to St. Mary's Hospital.
Left alone, Fan stood for a few moments not knowing what to do, then she set off running after the cab, crying as she ran; but it went too fast for her, and before she got to the end of Crawford Street it was out of sight. Still she kept on, and at last, crossing Edgware Road, plunged into a wilderness of narrow dark streets, still hoping to reach St. Mary's not long after the cab. But though well acquainted with the hospital, and all the streets leading to it, on this occasion she became bewildered, and after wandering about for some time, and feeling utterly worn-out with her long fatiguing day and the painful emotions she had experienced, she sat down on a doorstep in a lonely dark street, not knowing where she had got to.
Then a poor woman came by and was able to direct her, and she hurried on once more; but when close to the gate she met her father, who asked her in a surly tone what she did there at that late hour. He had witnessed the whole fight to the end, only keeping well in the background to escape observation, and was just returning from the hospital when he met Fan. Hearing that she was going to see her mother, he ordered her home, saying that at the hospital they would admit no one at that hour, and that she must go in the morning to inquire. Sick with grief and misery, she followed him back to Moon Street, which they reached at about half-past twelve.