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)
The result of Fan's second day's search for employment proved no more promising than the first. She wandered about the Westbourne Park district, going as far west as Ladbroke Grove Road, still avoiding the streets, gardens, and squares of the larger houses. But she was
apparently not good enough for even the humbler class of dwellings, for no one would so much as ask her what she could do, or condescend to speak to her, except in one house, to which she had been directed by a woman in a greengrocer's shop; there she was scoffingly asked if she had a "character" and decent clothes to wear.
When the woman who had given her shelter on the previous evening returned at five o'clock from her work, she found Fan in Dudley Grove, for that was the beautiful name of the slum she lived in, standing, as before, beside the lamp-post; and after a few words of greeting took her to her room. While preparing the tea she noticed the girl's weak and starved
condition, for Fan had eaten nothing all day, and went out and presently returned with a better supply of food--brawn, and salt butter, and a bundle of water-cress--quite a variety.
As on the evening before, they sat for a while by the small fire after their meal, speaking a few words, and those not very hopeful ones, and then presently they went to bed, and to sleep as soon as their heads touched the pillow. After their modest breakfast next morning the woman said:
"Are you going back to your friends to-day?"
Fan glanced at her in sudden fear and cast down her eyes.
"You was tired and had nothing to eat yesterday, and couldn't git nothing to do. Didn't it make you wish to go back to them again?"
"No, I'll not go back. I've no friends," said Fan; and then she added timidly, "You don't want me to come back here no more?"
"Yes; you come back if you don't find nothing. The tea and bread ain't much, and I don't mind it, and it's company to me to have you."
And without more words they went out together, separating in the Harrow Road.
On this morning Fan took a different route, and going south soon found herself in wide, clean streets, among very big stuccoed and painted houses. It was useless to seek for anything there, she thought, and yet presently something happened in this place to put a new hope into her heart. It was very early, and at some of the houses the cooks or kitchen-maids were cleaning the doorsteps, and while passing one of these doors she was accosted by the woman and asked if she would clean the steps. She consented gladly enough, and received a penny in payment. Then she remembered that she had often seen poor girls, ill-dressed as herself, cleaning the steps of large houses, and had heard that the usual payment was one penny for the task. After walking about for some time she began timidly ringing the area bells of houses where the steps had not yet been cleaned, and asking if a girl was wanted to do them. Almost invariably she was sent away with an emphatic "No!" from a servant angry at being
disturbed; but twice again during that day she received a penny for step-cleaning, so that she had earned threepence. After midday, finding she could get no more work, and feeling faint with hunger, she bought a penny loaf, and going to a shelter facing the fountains in Kensington Gardens, made her modest dinner, and rested afterwards until it was time to return to Dudley Grove.
In the evening as she sat by the fire after tea she gave an account of her success, and exhibited the two remaining pence, offering them to the poor woman who had sheltered her.
She only shook her head. "You'll maybe want something to eat to-morrow," she said; and presently continued, "Step-cleaning ain't no good. There's too many at it. And you a growing girl, and always hungry, you'd starve at it. Saturdays is not bad, because there's many houses where they only clean the steps once a week, and they has a girl to do it. You might make sixpence or a shilling on a Saturday. But other days is bad. You can't live at it. There's nothing you can do to live."
Fan was profoundly discouraged; but thinking over the subject, she remembered that she had seen other girls out on the same quest as herself that day, and though all of them had a dirty draggled look, as was natural considering the nature of the work, some of them, at all events,
looked well-fed, healthy, and not unhappy, and this had made her more hopeful. At last she said:
"If other girls get their living at it, why can't I? If I could make sixpence a day, couldn't I live on that?"
"No, nor yet on ninepence, nor yet on a shilling. You're a tall growing girl, and you ain't strong, and you are hungry, and want your dinner in the middle of the day; and if you don't get it, you'll be down ill, and then what'll you do? You can't do it on sixpence, nor yet on a shilling,
because you've got no home to go to, and must pay for a room; and no one to find you clothes and shoes, you must buy them. Them girls you see are stronger than you, and have homes to go to, and don't go about like you to find steps to clean, but go to the houses they know, where they always clean the steps. And they don't get only a penny; they get tuppence, and
make a shilling a day--some of them as knows many houses; and on Saturdays they make more'n three shillings. But you can't do it, because you don't know nobody, and have no clothes and no home, and there's too many before you."
It looked as if this poor woman had worked at step-cleaning herself for a living, she was so pessimistic about it, and appeared to be so very familiar with the whole subject. People never believe that a fortune is to be made at any business in which they have been unsuccessful themselves.
Fan was discouraged, but there was nothing else for her to do, and it was hard for her to give up this one chance.
"Won't you let me try just a few days?" she asked at length.
"Yes, you can try; but it ain't no use, there's so many at it. In a few days your clothes'll be dropping off you, and then what'll you do? It's rough work, and not fit for a girl like you. I don't mind, because your tea don't cost much, and it's company to have you here, as it ain't all giving, but it's give-and-take like between us."
The same dreary words were repeated evening after evening, when Fan returned from her daily peregrinations; but still the poor girl hoped against hope, and clung desperately to the only occupation she had been able to discover. It was a hard miserable life, and each succeeding day only seemed to bring her nearer to the disastrous end prophesied by the mournful laundrywoman of Dudley Grove. How weary she often was with walking hour after hour, sometimes feeling so famished that she could hardly refrain from picking up the orange-peels from the street to appease the cruel pangs of hunger! And when she was more lucky and had steps to clean, then the wet and grime of the hearthstone made her poor gown more worn and soiled and evil-looking than ever, while her shoes were in such a state that it was hard, by much mending every evening, to keep them from falling to pieces. Every day seemed to bring her nearer to the end, when she would be compelled to sit down and say "I can do no more--I must starve"; yet with the little renewal of strength which the evening meal and drearily-expressed sympathy of her friend and the night's rest would bring her, she would go forth each morning to wander about for another day.
Ten or twelve days had gone by in this way, and acting on a little practical advice given by the poor laundrywoman, she had forsaken the neighbourhood of squares and big houses close to Hyde Park to go further afield into the district lying west of Westbourne Grove, where the houses were smaller, and fewer servants were kept in them.
About ten o'clock one morning she stopped before a house in Dawson Place, a wide clean street of pretty detached, moderate-sized houses, each with a garden in front and a larger garden and trees behind. The house had a trim well-kept appearance, and five or six broad white steps led up to the front door, which was painted deep blue. Fan, looking critically at the steps, could not make out whether they had been already cleaned or not, so white and clean, yet dry, did they look. And the steps of all the houses in Dawson Place had the same white look, so that there seemed no chance of anything for her to do there; but she felt tired already, and stood resting beside the area gate, not venturing to ring.
By-and-by the front door opened and a lady came out and down the steps, and on reaching the pavement stood still and looked hard at Fan. She was tall, and had a round shapely figure, a well-developed bust, and looked about five-and-twenty years old. Fan thought her marvellously beautiful, but felt a little frightened in her presence, she was so tall and stately, and her face had such a frowning, haughty expression. Beautiful women-faces had always had a kind of fascination for her--the gentle, refined face, on which she would gaze with a secret intense pleasure, and a longing to hear some loving word addressed to herself from a sister with sweet lips, so strong that it was like a sharp pain at her heart. The proud masterful expression of this beautiful face affected her differently--she feared as well as admired.
The lady was fashionably dressed, and wore a long dark blue velvet jacket, deeply trimmed with brown fur, and under the shadow of a rather broad fur hat her hair looked very black and glossy; her straight eyebrows were also black, and her eyes very dark, full and penetrating. Her skin was of that beautiful rich red colour not often seen in London ladies, and more common in Ireland than in England. Her features were fine, the nose slightly aquiline, the red lips less full, and the mouth smaller than is usual in faces of so luxuriant a type; a shapely, beautiful mouth, which would have been very sweet but for its trick of looking scornful.
"What do you want?" she said in a sharp imperative tone--just the tone one would have expected from so imperious-looking a dame.
"Please, do you want the steps cleaned?" Fan asked very timidly.
"No, of course not. What an absurd little goose you must be to ask such a thing! Servants are kept for such a purpose."
For a few moments Fan still remained standing there, her eyes cast down, then shyly glanced up at that richly-coloured beautiful face, and encountered the dark strong eyes intently watching her.
"Yes, you may clean them," said the lady. "When you have finished go down to the kitchen, and tell the cook to pay you and give you something to eat." Then she walked away, but after going about a dozen yards, came back and sharply rang the area-bell to bring out the cook, and repeated the order to her.
"Very well, ma'am," said the cook, wiping her hands on her apron; but she did not return at once to her kitchen, for her mistress was still standing there watching Fan.
"Never mind, cook, you needn't pay her," said the lady, speaking again. "Let her wait in the kitchen till I return. I am going to the Grove, and shall be back in half an hour."
Then she walked away, her head well up, and with that stately bird-like gait seen in some women. When Fan had finished the steps she went into the kitchen, and the cook gave her some bread and cheese and a glass of ale, which revived her and made her more strong and hopeful than she had felt for many a day. Then she began to wonder what the fine lady was going to say to her, and whether she would give her twopence instead of the usual penny. Or perhaps it was intended to present her with an old gown or pair of boots. Such things had happened, she knew, and the thought that such a thing might happen again, and to her, made her heart beat fast; and though it was so pleasant resting there in that bright
warm kitchen, she began to wish for the lady's return, so that her suspense might end. And while she sat there occupied with her thoughts, the cook, a staid-looking woman of about forty--the usual age of the London cook--made up her fire and went about doing a variety of things, taking no notice of her guest.
Then the housemaid came running down the stairs singing into the kitchen, dusting-brush and dust-pan in her hands--a pretty girl with dark merry bright eyes, and her brown hair worn frizzled on her forehead.
"My!" she exclaimed, starting back at seeing Fan. And after surveying her for some time with a mocking smile playing about the corners of her pretty ripe mouth, she said, "Is this one of your poor relations, Mrs. Topping?"
"No, Rosie; that she ain't. The missus gave her the steps to clean, and told her to wait here till she got back."
The maid burst into a ringing peal of laughter. "Fancy, Miss Starbrow!" she exclaimed. "Where do you come from?" she continued, addressing Fan. "Whitechapel? Seven Dials?"
Fan reddened with shame and anger, and refused to reply: stubborn silence was her only shield against those who scoffed at her extreme poverty; and that this pretty girl was mocking her she knew very well. Then the maid sat down and stared at her, and amused herself and fellow-servant with malicious comments on Fan's dress.
"May I ask you, miss, where you got that lovely hat?" she said. "From Madame Elise? Why, of course, how could I ask! I assure you it is most charmingly becoming. I shall try to get one like it, but I'm afraid I can't go beyond six guineas. And your shawl--a Cashmere, I see. A present from her Majesty, no doubt."
"Oh, do be quiet, Rosie; you'll kill me!" cried the cook, overcome with laughter at such exquisite wit. But Rosie, seeing the effects of it, only became more lively and satirical, until Fan, goaded beyond endurance, started up from her seat, determined to make her escape. Fortunately at that moment the lady of the house returned, and the maid scampered off to open the door to her. Soon she returned and dropped Fan a mocking
curtsey. "Please follow me this way," she said. "Miss Starbrow regrets that she has been detained so long, and is now quite ready to receive you."
Fan followed her up the kitchen stairs to the hall, where Miss Starbrow, with her hat on as she had come in, stood waiting to see her. She looked keenly at the girl's flushed and tearful face, and turned to Rosie for an explanation; but that lively damsel, foreseeing storms, had already vanished up the stairs.
"Has she been teasing you?" said the lady. "Well, never mind, don't think any more about it. She's an impudent hussy, I know--they all are, and one has to put up with them. Now sit down here and tell me your name, and where you live, and all about yourself, and why you go out cleaning steps for a living."
Then she also sat down and listened patiently, aiding with an occasional question, while the girl in a timid, hesitating way related the principal events in her unhappy life.
"Poor girl!" was Miss Starbrow's comment when the narrative was finished. She had drawn off her glove and now took Fan's hand in hers. "How can you do that hard rough work with such poor thin little hands?" she said. "Let me look at your eyes again--it is so strange that you should have such eyes! You don't seem like a child of such people as your parents were."
Fan glanced timidly at her again, her eyes brightening, a red colour flushing her pale cheeks, and her lips quivering.
"You have an eloquent face--what do you wish to say?" asked the lady.
Fan still hesitated.
"Trust me, my poor girl, and I shall help you. Then is something in your mind you would like to say."
Then Fan, losing all fear, said:
"He was not my father--the man that married mother. My father was a gentleman, but I don't know his name."
"I can very well believe it. Especially when I look at your eyes."
"Mother said my eyes were just like my father's," said Fan, with growing confidence and a touch of pride.
"Perhaps they are like his in one way, my poor girl," said the other, a little frown clouding her forehead. "In another way they are very different, I should think. No one who ever did a cruel thing could have had that expression in his eyes."
After sitting in silence for some time, still with that frown on her beautiful face, her eyes resting thoughtfully on the tessellated floor, she roused herself, and taking out her purse, gave Fan half-a-crown.
"Go home now," she said, "and come again to-morrow at the same hour."
Fan went from the door with a novel sense of happiness filling her heart. At intervals she took out the half-crown from her pocket to look at it. What a great broad noble coin it looked to her eyes! It was old--nearly seventy years old--and the lines on it were blurred, and yet it seemed wonderfully bright and beautiful to Fan; even the face of George the Third on it, which had never been called beautiful, now really seemed so to her. But very soon she ceased thinking about the half-crown and all that it represented; it was not that which caused the strange happiness in her heart, but the gentle compassionate words that the proud-looking lady had spoken to her. Never before had so sweet an experience come to her; how long it would live in her memory--the strange tender words, the kindly expression of the eyes, the touch of the soft white hand--to refresh her like wine in days of hunger and weariness!
It was early still in the day, and many hours before she could return to Dudley Grove; and so she continued roaming about, and found another doorstep to clean, and received threepence for cleaning it, to her surprise. With the threepence she bought all the food she required. The half-crown she would not break into; that must be shown to the poor washer-woman just as she had received it. When the woman saw it in the evening she was very much astonished, and expressed the feeling, if it be not a contradiction to say so, by observing a long profound silence. But like the famous parrot she "thought the more," and at length she gave it as her opinion that the lady intended taking Fan as a servant in her house.
"Oh, do you really think so?" exclaimed Fan, becoming excited at the prospect of such happiness. And after a while she added, "Then I'll leave you the half-crown for all you've done for me."
The poor woman would not listen to such a proposal; but next morning she consented to take charge of it, promising, if Fan should not return, to use it.