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.
Here is our current selection:
Fan, the Story of a Young Girl's Life (1892)
by Henry Harford (W.H. Hudson)
Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday passed sadly and slowly enough, and at five o'clock on the evening of the last day Fan was told at St. Mary's--that Margaret Harrod was dead. During those three miserable days of suspense she had spent most of her time hanging about the doors of the hospital, going timidly at intervals to inquire, and to ask to be allowed to see her mother. But her request was refused. Her mother was suffering from concussion of the brain, besides other serious injuries, and continued unconscious; nothing was to be gained by seeing her.
Without a word, without a tear, she turned away from the dreary gates and walked slowly back to Moon Street; and at intervals on her homeward walk she paused to gaze about her in a dazed way, like a person who had wandered unknowingly into some distant place where everything wore a strange look. The old familiar streets and buildings were there, the big shop-windows full of cheap ticketed goods, the cab-stand and the drinking-fountain, the omnibuses and perpetual streams of' foot-passengers on the broad pavement. She knew it all so well, yet now it looked so unfamiliar. She was a stranger, lost and alone there in that place and everywhere. She was walking there like one in a dream, from which there would be no more waking to the old reality; no more begging pence from careless passers-by in the street; no more shrinking away and hiding herself with an unutterable sense of shame and degradation from the sight of some neighbour or old school acquaintance; no more going about in terror of the persecution and foul language of the gangs of grown-up boys and girls that spent their evenings in horse-play in the streets; no more going home to the one being she loved, and who loved her, whose affection supplied the food for which her heart hungered.
Arrived at her home, she did not go up as was her custom to her dreary room at the top, but remained standing in the passage near the landlady's door; and presently Mrs. Clark, coming out, discovered her there.
"Well, Fan, how's mother now?" she asked in a kind voice.
"She's dead," returned Fan, hanging her head.
"Dead! I thought it 'ud be that! Dear, dear! poor Margy, so strong as she was only last Saturday, and dead! Poor Margy, poor dear--we was always friendly"--here she wiped away a tear--"as good a soul as ever breathed! That she was, though she did die like that; but she never had a chance, and went to the bad all on account of him. Dead, and he on the drink--Lord only knows where he gits it--and lying there asleep in his room, and his poor wife dead at the hospital, and never thinking how he's going to pay the rent. I've stood it long enough for poor Margy, poor dear, because we was friends like, and she'd her troubles the same as me, but I ain't going to stand it from him. That I'll let him know fast enough; and now she's dead he can take himself off, and good riddance. But how're you going to live--begging about the street? A big girl like you--I'm ashamed of such goings on, and ain't going to have it in my house."
Fan shook her head: the slow tears were beginning to fall now. "I'd do
anything for mother," she said, with a half sob, "but she's dead, and I'll never beg more."
"That's a good girl, Fan. But you always was a good girl, I must say, only they didn't do what's right by you. Now don't cry, poor dear, but run up to your room and lie down; you're dead tired."
"I can't go there any more," murmured Fan, in a kind of despairing way.
"And what are you going to do? He'll do nothing for you, but 'll only make you beg and abuse you. I know Joe Harrod, and only wish he'd got his head broke instead of poor Margy. Ain't you got no relation you know of to go to? She was country-bred, Margy was; she come from Norfolk, I often heard her say."
"I've got no one," murmured Fan.
"Well, don't cry no more. Come in here; you look starved and tired to death. When my man comes in you'll have tea with us, and I'll let you sleep in my room. But, Fan, if Joe won't keep you and goes off and leaves you, you'll have to go into the House, because I couldn't keep you, if I wanted ever so."
Fan followed her into her room on the ground-floor: there was a fire in the grate, which threw a dim flickering light on the dusty-looking walls and ceiling and the old shabby furniture, but it was very superior to the Harrods' bare apartment, and to the poor girl it seemed a perfect haven of rest. Retreating to a corner she sat down, and began slowly pondering over the words the landlady had spoken. The "House" she had always been taught to look on as a kind of prison where those who were unfit to live, and could not live, and yet would not die, were put away out of sight. For those who went to gaol for doing wrong there was hope; not so for the penniless, friendless incapables who drifted or were dragged into the dreary refuge of the "House." They might come out again when the weather was warm, and try to renew the struggle in which they had suffered defeat; but their case would be then like that of the fighter who has been felled to the earth, and staggers up, half stunned and blinded with blood, to renew the combat with an uninjured opponent. And yet the words she had heard, while persistently remaining in her mind, did not impress her very much then. She was tired and dazed, and had nothing to live for, and was powerless to think and plan for herself: she was ready to go wherever she was bidden, and ask no questions and make no trouble. So she went and sat down in a dark corner, without making any reply. With eyes closed and her tired head resting against the wall, she remained for half an hour in that impassive state, saying no word in answer to Mrs. Clark's occasional remarks, as she moved about preparing the six o'clock meal.
Then the husband came in, and being a silent man, said nothing when his wife told him that Margaret was dead at the hospital. When she proceeded to add that Joe would sell the sticks and go off, leaving Fan on their hands, and that Fan would have to go to the House, he only nodded his head and went on with his tea.
Fan drank her tea and ate her bread-and-butter, and then once more
returned to her seat, and after some time she fell asleep, leaning her head against the wall. She woke with a start two hours later to find herself alone in the room, but there was still some fire in the grate, and a candle burning on the table. The heavy steps of a man on the stairs had woke her, and she knew that Joe Harrod was coming down from his room. He came and knocked at the door.
"Is Fan here?" he called huskily. "Where's the girl got to, I'd like to know?"
She remained silent, shrinking back trembling in her corner; and after waiting a while and getting no answer he went grumbling away, and presently she heard him go out at the street door. Then she sprang to her feet, and stood for a while intently listening, with a terror and hatred of this man stronger than she had ever felt before urging her to fly and place herself for ever beyond his reach. Somewhere in this great city she might find a hiding-place; it was so vast; in all directions the great thoroughfares stretched away into the infinite distance, bright all night with the flaring gas and filled with crowds of people and the noise of traffic; and branching off from the thoroughfares there were streets, hundreds and thousands of streets, leading away into black silent lanes and quiet refuges, in the shadow of vast silent buildings, and arches, and gateways, where she might lie down and rest in safety. So strong on her was this sudden impulse to fly, that she would have acted on it had not Mrs. Clark returned at that moment to the room.
"Come, Fan, I've made you up a bed in my room, and if he comes bothering for you to-night, I'll soon send him about his business. Don't you fear, my girl."
Fan followed her silently to the adjoining room, where a bed of rugs and blankets had been made for her on four or five chairs. For the present she felt safe; but she could not sleep much, even on a bed made luxurious by warmth, for thinking of the morrow; and finally she resolved to slip away in the morning and make her escape.
At six o'clock next morning the Clarks were up, one to go to his work, the other to make him his breakfast. When they had left the bedroom Fan also got up and dressed herself in all haste, and after waiting till she heard the man leave the house, she went into the next room, and Mrs. Clark gave her some coffee and bread, and expressed surprise at seeing her up so early. Fan answered that she was going out to look for something to do.
"It's not a bit of use," said the other. "They won't look at you with them things on. Just you stop in quiet, and I'll see he don't worry you; but by-and-by you'll have to go to the House, for Joe Harrod's not the man to take care of you. They'll feed you and give you decent clothes, and that's something; and perhaps they'll send you to some place where they take girls to learn them to be housemaids and kitchen-maids, and things like that. Don't you go running about the streets, because it'll come to no good, and I won't have it."
Fan had intended to ask her to let her go out and try just once, and when once clear of the neighbourhood, to remain away, but Mrs. Clark had spoken so sharply at the last, that she only hung her head and remained silent.
But presently the opportunity came when the woman went away to look after some domestic matter, and Fan, stealing softly to the door, opened it, and finding no person in sight, made her escape in the direction of Norfolk Crescent. Skirting the neighbourhood of squares and gardens and large houses, she soon reached Praed Street, and then the Harrow Road, along which she hurriedly walked; and when it began to grow light and the shopkeepers were taking down their shutters, she had crossed the Regent's Canal, and found herself in a brick-and-mortar wilderness entirely unknown to her.
Here she felt perfectly safe for the time, for the Clarks, she felt sure, would trouble themselves no further about her, for she was nothing to them; and as for Joe Harrod, she had heard them say that he would be called that day to identify his wife's body at the inquest, and give his evidence about the way in which she had met her death.
About these unknown streets Fan wandered for hours in an aimless kind of way, not seeking work nor speaking to anyone; for the words Mrs. Clark had spoken about the uselessness of seeking employment dressed as she was still weighed on her mind and made her ashamed of addressing any person. Towards noon hunger and fatigue began to make her very faint; and by-and-by the short daylight would fail, and there would be no food and no shelter for the night. This thought spurred her into action. She went into a small side street of poor mean-looking houses and a few shops scattered here and there among the private dwellings. Into one of these --a small oil-shop, where she saw a woman behind the counter--she at last ventured.
"What for you?" said the woman, the moment she put her foot inside the door.
"Please do you want a girl to help with work--?"
"No, I don't want a girl, and don't know anyone as does," said the woman sharply; then turned away, not well pleased that this girl was no buyer of an honest bundle of wood, a a'porth of treacle, or a half-ounce of one-and-four tea; for out of the profits of such small transactions she had to maintain herself and children.
Fan went out; but by-and-by recovering a little courage, and urged by need, she went into other shops, into all the shops in that mean little street at last, but nobody wanted her, and in one or two instances she was ordered out in sharp tones and followed by sharp eyes lest she should carry off something concealed under her shawl.
Then she wandered on again, and at length finding a quiet spot, she sat down to rest on a doorstep. The pale October sunshine which had been with her up till now deserted her; it was growing cold and grey, and at last, shivering and faint, she got up and walked aimlessly on once more, resolving to go into the next shop she should come to, and to speak to
the next woman she should see standing at her door, with the hope of finding someone at last to take her in and give her food and a place to lie down in. But on coming to the shop she would pass on; and when she saw a woman standing outside her door, with keen hard eyes looking her from head to foot, she would drop her own and walk on; and at last, through very weariness, she began to lose that painful apprehension of the cold night spent out of doors; even her hunger seemed to leave her; she wanted only to sit down and fall asleep and remember no more. By-and-by she found herself again in the Harrow Road, but her brain was confused, so that she did not know whether she was going east or west. It was growing colder now and darker, and a grey mist was forming in the air, and she could find no shelter anywhere from the cold and mud and mist, and from the eyes of the passers-by that seemed to look so pitilessly at her. The sole of one of her shoes was worn through, and the cold flag-stones of the footway and the mud of the streets made her foot numb, so that she could scarcely lift it. Near Paddington Green--for she had been for some time walking back towards the Edgware Road--she paused at the entrance of a short narrow street, running up to the canal. It had a very squalid appearance, and a number of ragged children were running about shouting at their play in it, but it was better than the thoroughfare to rest in, and advancing a few yards, she paused on the edge of the pavement and leant against a lamp-post. A few of the dirty children came near and stared at her, then returned to their noisy sports with the others. A little further on women were standing at their doors exchanging remarks. Presently a thin sad-looking woman, in a rusty black gown, carrying something wrapped in a piece of newspaper in her hand, came by from the thoroughfare. She paused near Fan, looked at her once or twice, and said:
"What name be you looking for? The numbers is mostly rubbed off the doors. Maybe they never had none."
"I wasn't looking for anyone," said Fan.
"I thought you was, seeing you standing as if you didn't know where to go, like."
Fan shook her head, feeling too tired to say anything. She had no friend, no one she knew even in these poor tenements, and only wished to rest a little there out of sight of the passing people. The woman was still standing still, but not watching her.
"Maybe you're waiting for someone?" she suggested.
"No? you're not." And after a further interval she began studying the little loosely-wrapped parcel in her hand; and finally, with slow deliberation, she unfolded it. It contained a bloater: she felt it carefully as though to make sure that it had a soft roe, and then smelt it to make sure that it was good, after which she slowly wrapped it up again. "Maybe you've no home to go to," she remarked tentatively, looking away from Fan as if speaking to some imaginary person.
"No, I haven't," said Fan.
"You don't look a bad 'un. P'r'aps they treated you badly and you ran away."
"And you've no place to go to, and no money?"
Again the woman's eyes wandered absently away; then she began studying the parcel, and appeared about to unfold it once more, then thought better of it, and at last said, still speaking in the same absent mournful tone: "I've got a room to myself up there," indicating the upper end of the street. "You can come and sleep along with me, if you like. One bloater ain't much for two, but there's tea and bread, and that'll do you good."
"Thank you, I'll come," said Fan, and moving along at her side they walked about forty yards further on to an open door, before which stood a dirty-looking woman with bare folded arms. She moved aside to let them pass, and going in they went up to a top room, small and dingy, furnished with a bed, a small deal table, one chair, and a deal box, which served as a washing-stand. But there was a fire burning in the small grate, with a kettle on; and a cottage loaf, an earthenware teapot with half its spout broken off, and one cup and saucer, also a good deal damaged, were on the table, the poor woman having made all preparations for her tea before going out to buy her bloater.
"Take off your hat and sit here," she said, drawing her one cane-bottomed chair near the fire.
Fan obeyed, putting her hat on the bed, and then sat warming herself, too tired and sad to think of anything.
Meanwhile her hostess took off her boots and began quietly moving about the room, which was uncarpeted, finishing her preparations for tea. The herring was put down to toast before the coals and the tea made; then she went downstairs and returned with a second cup. Finally she drew the little table up to the bed, which would serve as a second seat. It was all so strangely quiet there, with no sound except the kettle singing, and the hissing and sputtering of the toasting herring, that the unaccustomed silence had the effect of rousing the girl, and she glanced at the woman moving so noiselessly about the room. She was not yet past middle age, but had the coarsened look and furrowed skin of one whose lot in life had been hard; her hair was thin and lustreless, sprinkled with grey, and there was a faraway look of weary resignation in her dim blue eyes. Fan pitied her, and remembering that but for this poor woman's sympathy she would have been still out in the cold streets, with no prospect of a shelter for the night, she bent down her face and began to cry quietly.
The woman took no notice, but continued moving about in her subdued way, until all was ready, and then going to the window she stood there gazing out into the mist and darkness. Only when Fan had finished crying she came back to the fireside, and they sat down to their tea. It was a silent meal, but when it was over, and the few things washed and put away, she drew the deal box up to the fire and sat down by Fan. Then they talked a little: Fan told her that her mother was just dead, that she was homeless and trying to find something to do for a living. The woman, on her side, said she worked at a laundry close by. "But they don't want no more hands there," she added, in a desponding way. "And you ain't fit for
such work neither. You must try to find something for yourself to-morrow, and if you can't find nothing, which I don't think you will, come back and sleep with me. It don't cost much to give you tea, and I ain't owing any rent now, and it's company for me, so you needn't mind."
After this short conversation they went to bed and to sleep, for they were both tired.