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)
Fan did not fail to be at Dawson Place at the time, or a little before the time, appointed. "Oh, I hope that girl won't open the door when I ring," she said to herself, giving the door-bell a little hesitating pull. But the summons was promptly answered by the undesirable person in question, and she greeted the visitor with a mocking curtsey. She had little time, however, in which to make Fan miserable, for Miss Starbrow was quickly on the scene, looking very gracious and very beautiful in a dark red morning gown.
"Come here and sit down," she said, placing herself in one hall chair and making Fan take the other. "Now listen. Would you like to come and live here as my servant? You are not fit for such a place, I know--at all events, not at present; and I should not put you with the other servants, and upstairs you could do nothing. However that does not signify. The thing is this. If you would like to come and live with me you must stay here now, and never go back to those places where you have lived, and try if possible to forget all about them."
"Oh yes, ma'am, I promise!" she replied, trembling with joy at the very thought of escaping from that life of bitter want and anxiety.
"Very well, that's settled then. Come this way with me."
She then led the way to a large bath-room, a few steps above the first-floor landing.
"Now," she said, "undress yourself, and put all your clothes and hat and shoes in a bundle in the corner--they are shocking to look at, and must be taken away--and give yourself a hot bath. See, I am turning on the water for you. That will be enough. And stay in as long as you like, or can, and try not only to wash off all the dirt on your skin, but all
thought and recollection of Moon Street and Harrow Road and doorsteps, and all the foul evil things you have seen and heard in your life; and when you have washed all that off, Fan, and dried yourself, wrap this shawl around you, and run into that open room you see facing the bath."
Left to herself, Fan proceeded to obey the instructions she had received. It was a great luxury to be in that smooth enamelled basin, where she could lie at full length and move her limbs freely about, experiencing the delicious sensation of the hot water over her whole body at the same time.
In the dressing-room she found her mistress waiting for her. There were clothes there ready for her, and now, for the first time in her life, she dressed herself in new, clean, sweet garments, over all a gown of a soft grey material, loose at the waist, and reaching nearly to the ankles--a kind of "Maid Marian" costume. There were also black stockings and new shoes. Everything fitted well, although they had all been made the day before by guess in Westbourne Grove.
Miss Starbrow made her stand in the middle of the room, and turned her round, while Fan glanced shyly at her own reflection in the tall cheval-glass, almost wondering "if this be I."
"Yes, that will do well enough for the present," said her mistress. "But your hair is all uneven, Fan, and such lovely hair to be spoilt by barbarous neglect. Let me cut it even for you, and by-and-by we'll find out how to arrange it. Well, no; just now it looks best hanging loose on your back. When it grows long again, we'll put it up. Now come here to the light, and let me, see what you're like. Nearly fifteen years old, and pale and very thin, poor girl, which makes you look tall. Golden hair, good features, and a very pure skin for a girl who has lived a grimy life. And your eyes--don't be afraid to show them, Fan. If you had not looked at me yesterday with those eyes, I should have thought no more about you. Long lashes. Eyes grey--yes, grey decidedly, though at times they look almost sapphire blue; but the pupils are so large--that is perhaps the secret of their pathetic expression. That will do. You think it strange, do you not, Fan? that I should take you into my house and clothe you--a poor homeless girl; for I don't suppose that you can do anything for me, and you will therefore only be an extra expense. A great piece of folly, my friends would probably say. But don't be afraid, I care nothing for what others say. What I do, I do only to please myself, and not others. If I am disappointed in you, and find you different from what I imagine, I shall not keep you, and there will be an end of it all. Now don't look so cast-down; I believe that you are at heart a good, pure, truthful girl. I think I can see that much in your eyes, Fan. And there is, after all, something you can do for me--something which few can do, or do so well, which will be sufficient payment for all I am doing for you."
"Oh, ma'am, will you please tell me what it is?" exclaimed Fan, her voice trembling with eagerness.
"Perhaps you will do it without my telling you, Fan. I shall leave you to think about it and find out what it is for yourself. I must only tell you this; I have not taken you into my house because I am charitable and like doing good to the poor. I am not charitable, and care nothing about the poor. I have taken you in for my own pleasure; and as I think well of
you, I am going to trust you implicitly. You may stay in this room when I am out, or go into the back room on this floor, where you can look out on the garden, and amuse yourself with the books and pictures till I come back. I am going out now, and at one o'clock Rosie will give you some dinner. Take no notice of her if she teases you. Mind me, and not the
servants--they are nothing."
Miss Starbrow then changed her dress and went out, leaving Fan to her own devices, wondering what it was that she could do for her mistress, and feeling a little trouble about the maid who would give her her dinner at one o'clock; and after a while she went to explore that apartment at the back Miss Starbrow had spoken of. It was a large room, nearly square, with cream-coloured walls and dark red dado, and a polished floor, partly covered with a Turkish carpet; but there was very little furniture in it, and the atmosphere seemed chill and heavy, for it was the old unrenewed air of a room that was never used. On a large centre table a number of artistic objects were lying together in a promiscuous jumble: Japanese knick-knacks; an ivory card-case that had lost its cover, and a broken-bladed paper-knife; glove and collar and work-boxes of sandal-wood, mother-of-pearl, and papier-mache, with broken hinges; faded fans and chipped paper-weights; gorgeous picture-books with loosened covers, and a magnificent portrait-album which had been deflowered and had nothing left in it but the old and ugly, the commonplace middle-aged, and the vapid young; with many other things besides, all more or less defective.
This round table seemed like an asylum and last resting-place of things which had never been useful, and had ceased to be ornamental, which were yet not quite bad enough to be thrown into the dust-bin. To Fan it was a sort of South Kensington Museum, where she was permitted to handle things freely, and for some time she continued inspecting these rich treasures, after which she once more began to glance round the room. Such a stately room, large enough to shelter two or three families, so richly decorated with its red and cream colours, yet silent and cold and dusty and untenanted! On the mantelpiece of grey marble stood a large ornamental clock, which ticked not and the hands of which were stationary, supported on each side by bronzes--a stalwart warrior in a coat of mail in the act of drawing his sword, and a long-haired melancholy minstrel playing on a guitar. A few landscapes in oil were also hanging on the walls--representations of that ideal world of green shade and peace which was so often in Fan's mind. Facing the fireplace stood a tall bookcase, and opening it she selected a book full of poetry and pictures, and took it to an old sofa, or couch, to read. The sofa was under the large window, which had panes of coloured glass, and remembering that Miss Starbrow had told her that it looked on to the garden, she got on to the sofa and pushed the heavy sash up.
There was a good-sized garden without, and trees in it--poplar, lime, and thorn, now nearly leafless; but it was very pleasant to see them and to feel the mild autumn air on her face, so pleasant that Fan thought no more about her book. Ivy grew in abundance against the walls of the garden, and there were laurel and other evergreen shrubs in it, and a few China asters--white, red, and purple--still blooming. No sound came to her at that quiet back window, except the loud glad chirruping of the sparrows that had their home there. How still and peaceful it seemed! The pale October sunshine--pale, but never had sunshine seemed so divine, so like a glory shining on earth from the far heavenly throne--fell lighting up the dark leaves of ivy and laurel, stiff and green and motionless as if cut out of malachite, and the splendid red and purple shields of the asters; and filling the little dun-coloured birds with such joy that their loud chirping grew to a kind of ringing melody.
Oh, that dark forsaken room in Moon Street, full of bitter memories of miserable years! Oh, poor dead mother lying for ever silent and cold in the dark earth! Oh, poor world-weary woman in Dudley Grove, and all the countless thousands that lived toiling, hungry, hopeless lives in squalid London tenements--why had she, Fan, been so favoured as to be carried away from it all into this sweet restful place? Why--why? Then, even while she asked, wondering, thinking that it was all like a strange beautiful dream, unable yet to realise it, suddenly as by inspiration the meaning of the words Miss Starbrow had spoken to her flashed into her mind; and the thought made her tremble, the blood rushed to her face, and she felt her eyes growing dim with tears of joy. Was it true, could it be true, that this proud, beautiful lady--how much more beautiful now to Fan's mind than all other women!--really loved her, and that to be loved was all she desired in return? She was on her knees on the sofa, her arms resting on the window-sill, and forgetful now of the sunshine and leaves and flowers, and of the birds on the brown twigs talking together in their glad ringing language, she closed her eyes and resigned herself wholly to this delicious thought.
"Oh, here you are, sly little cat! Who said you might come into this room?"
Fan, starting up in alarm, found herself confronted with the pretty housemaid. But the pretty eyes were sparkling vindictively, the breath coming short and quick, and the pretty face was white with resentment.
"The lady told me to come here," returned Fan, still a little frightened.
"Oh, did she! and pray what else did she tell you? And don't lie, because I shall find you out if you do."
Fan was silent.
"You won't speak, you little sneak! When your mistress is out you must mind me--do you hear? Go instantly and take your filthy rags to the dust-bin, and ask cook for a bottle of carbolic acid to throw over them. We don't want any of your nasty infectious fevers brought here, if you please."
Fan hesitated a few moments, and then replied, "I'll only do what the lady tells me."
"You'll only do what the lady tells you!" she repeated, with a mocking whine. Then, in unconscious imitation of the scornful caterpillar in the wonderful story of Alice, she added, "You! And who are you! Shall I tell you what you are? A filthy, ragged little beggar picked out of the gutter, a sneaking area thief, put into the house for a spy! You vile cat, you! A starving mangy cur! Yes, I'll give you your dinner; I'll feed you on swill and dog-biscuits, and that's better than you ever had in your life. You, a diseased, pasty-faced little street-walker, too bad even for the slums, to keep you, to be dressed up and waited on by respectable servants! How dare you come into this house! I'd like to wring your miserable sick-chicken's neck for you!"
She was in a boiling rage, and stamped her foot and poured out her words so rapidly that they almost ran into each other; but Fan's whole previous life had served to make her indifferent to hard words, however unjust, and the housemaid's torrent of abuse had not the least effect.
Rosie, on her side, finding that her rage was wasted, sat down to recover herself, and then began to jeer at her victim, criticising her appearance, and asking her for the cast-off garments--"for which your la'ship will have no further use." Finding that her ridicule was received in the same silent passive way, she became more demonstrative. "Somebody's been trimming you," she said. "I s'pose Miss Starbrow was your barber--a nice thing for a lady! Well, I never! But there's one thing she forgot. Here's a pair of scissors. Now, little sick monkey, sit still while I trim your eyelashes. It'll be a great improvement, I'm sure. Oh, you won't! Well, then I'll soon make you." And putting the pair of small scissors between her lips, she seized Fan by the arms and tried to force her down on the sofa. Fan resisted silently and with all her strength, but her strength was by no means equal to Rosie's, and after a
desperate struggle she was overcome and thrown on to the couch.
"Now, will you be quiet and let me trim you!" said the maid.
In speaking, Rosie had dropped the scissors from her mouth, and not being able to use her hands occupied in holding her victim down, she could do nothing worse than make faces, thrust out her tongue, and finally spit at Fan. Then she thought of something better. "If you won't be quiet and let me trim you," she said, "I'll pinch your arms till they're black and blue."
No reply being given, she proceeded to carry out her threat, and Fan set her teeth together and turned her face away to hide the tears. At length the other, tired of the struggle, released her. Fan bared her arm, displaying a large discoloration, and moistened it with her mouth to soothe the pain. She had a good deal of experience in bruises. "It'll be black by-and-by," she said, "and I'll show it to the lady when she comes back."
"Oh, you'll show it to her, you little tell-tale sneak! Then I'll be even with you and put rat's-bane in your dinner."
"Why don't you leave me alone, then?" said Fan.
Rosie considered for some time, and finally said, "I'll leave you alone if you'll tell me what you are here for--everything about yourself, mind, and no lies; and what Miss Starbrow is going to do with you."
"I don't know, and I sha'n't say a word more," returned Fan, whereupon Rosie slapped her face and ran out of the room.
In spite of the rough handling she had been subjected to, and the pain in her arm, Fan very soon recovered her composure. Her happiness was too great to be spoiled by so small a matter, and very soon she returned to her place at the open window and to her pleasant thoughts.
About midday the maid came again bringing a tray. "Here's your food, starved puppy; lap it up, and may it choke you," she said, and left the room.
After she had been gone a few minutes, Fan, beginning to feel hungry, went to the table, and found a plate of stewed meat and vegetables, with bread and cheese, and a glass of ale. But over it all Rosie had carefully sprinkled ashes, and had also dropped a few pinches into the ale, making it thick and muddy. Now, although on any previous day of her hungry orphaned existence she would have wiped off the ashes and eaten the food, on this occasion she determined not to touch it. Her new surroundings and dress, and the thought that she was no longer without someone to care for her, had served to inspire in her a pride which was stronger than hunger. Presently she noticed that the door had a key to it, and in her indignation at the maid's persecution she ran and locked it, resolved to let the dinner remain there untasted until Miss Starbrow should return.
Presently Rosie came back, and finding the door locked, began knocking and calling. "Open, you cat!" she cried. "I must take the things down, now you've gobbled up your pig's food. Open, you spiteful little devil!"
"I haven't touched the dinner, and I sha'n't open the door till the lady comes," she answered, and would say no more.
After a good deal more abuse, Rosie in despair went away; but presently the cook came up, and Fan opened to her. She had a second supply of food and beer, without any ashes in it this time, and put it on the table. "Now, have your dinner, miss," she said, with mock humility. She was taking away the first tray, but at the door she paused and, looking back,
said, "You won't say nothing to the missus, will you, miss?"
"If she'll let me be I'll not say anything," said Fan.
"Very well, miss, she won't trouble you no more. But, lors, she don't mean no harm; it's only her little funny ways." And having thus explained and smoothed matters over, she went off to the kitchen.
About five o'clock Miss Starbrow came in and found Fan still sitting by the open window in the darkening room.
"Why, my poor girl, you must be half frozen," she said, coming to the sofa.
But how little Fan felt the chill evening air, when she started up at the kind greeting, her eyes brightening and her face flushing with that strange new happiness now warming her blood and making her heart beat quick!
"Oh no, ma'am, I'm not a bit cold," she said.
The other pulled off her glove and touched the girl's cheek with her fingers.
"Your skin feels cold enough, anyhow," she returned. "Come into my room; it is warmer there."
Fan followed into the adjoining large bedroom, where a bright fire was burning in the grate; and Miss Starbrow, taking off her hat and cloak, sat down. After regarding the girl for some time in silence, she said with a little laugh, "What can I do with you, Fan?"
Fan was troubled at this, and glanced anxiously at the other's face, only to drop her eyes abashed again; but at last, plucking up a little courage, she said:
"Will you please let me do something in the house, ma'am?" And after a few moments she added, "I wish I could do something, and--and be your servant."
Miss Starbrow laughed again, and then frowned a little and sat silent for some time.
"The fact is," she said at length, "now that you are here I don't quite know what to do with you. However, that doesn't signify. I took you for my own pleasure, and it doesn't make much difference to have you in the house, and if it did I shouldn't care. But you must look after yourself for the present, as I have just got rid of one servant and there are only two to do everything. They are anxious for me not to engage a third just now, and prefer to do all the work themselves, which means, I suppose, that there will be more plunder to divide between them."
"And can't I help, ma'am?" said Fan, whose last words had not yet been answered.
"I fancy you would look out of place doing housework," said Miss Starbrow. "It strikes me that you are not suited for that sort of thing. If it hadn't been so, I shouldn't have noticed you. The only way in which I should care to employ you would be as lady's maid, and for that you are unfit. Perhaps I shall have you taught needlework and that kind of thing
by-and-by, but I am not going to bother about it just now. For the present we must jog along just how we can, and you must try to make yourself as happy as you can by yourself."
Just then the housemaid came up with tea for her mistress.
"Get me another cup--a large one, and some more bread-and-butter," said Miss Starbrow.
"The young person's tea is in the back room, ma'am," returned Rosie, with a tremor in her voice.
Miss Starbrow looked at her, but without speaking; the maid instantly retired to obey the order, and when she set the cup and plate of bread-and-butter on the tray her hand trembled, while her mistress, with a slight smile on her lips, watched her face, white with suppressed rage.
After tea, during which Miss Starbrow had been strangely kind and gentle to the girl, she said:
"Perhaps you can help me take off my dress, Fan, and comb out my hair."
This was strange work for Fan, but her intense desire to do something for her mistress partly compensated for her ignorance and awkwardness, and after a little while she found that combing those long rich black tresses was an easy and very delightful task. Miss Starbrow sat with eyes half-closed before the glass, only speaking once or twice to tell Fan not to hurry.
"The longer you are with my hair the better I like it," she said.
Fan was only too glad to prolong the task; it was such a pleasure to feel the hair of this woman who was now so much to her; if the glass had not been before them--the glass in which from time to time she saw the half-closed eyes studying her face--she would more than once have touched the dark tresses she held in her hand to her lips.
Miss Starbrow, however, spoke no more to her, but finishing her dressing went down to her seven o'clock dinner, leaving Fan alone by the fire. After dinner she came up again and sat by the bedroom fire in the dark room. Then Rosie came up to her.
"Captain Horton is in the drawing-room, ma'am," she said.
Miss Starbrow rose to go to her visitor.
"You can stay where you are, Fan, until bed-time," she said. "And by-and-by the maid will give you some supper in the back room. Is Rosie impudent to you--how has she been treating you to-day?"
Fan was filled with distress, remembering her promise, and cast down her eyes.
"Very well, say nothing; that's the best way, Fan. Take no notice of what anyone says to you. Servants are always vile, spiteful creatures, and will act after their kind. Good-night, my girl," and with that she went downstairs.
Fan sat there for half an hour longer in the grateful twilight and warmth of that luxurious room, and then Rosie's voice startled her crying at the door:
"Doggie! doggie! come and have its supper."
Fan got up and went to the next room, where her supper and a lighted lamp were on the centre table. Rosie followed her.
"Can you tell the truth?" she said.
"Yes," returned Fan.
"Well, then, have you told Miss Starbrow?"
"Did she ask you anything?"
"Yes, and I didn't tell her."
"Oh, how very kind!" said Rosie; and giving her a box on the ear, ran out of the room.
Not much hurt, and not caring much, Fan sat down to her supper. Returning to the bedroom she heard the sound of the piano, and paused on the landing to listen. Then a fine baritone voice began singing, and was succeeded by a woman's voice, a rich contralto, for they were singing a duet; and voice following voice, and anon mingling in passionate harmony, the song floated out loud from the open door, and rose and seemed to fill the whole house, while Fan stood there listening, trembling with joy at the sound.
The singing and playing continued for upwards of an hour, and Fan still kept her place, until the maid came up with a candle to show her to her bedroom. They went up together to the next floor into a small neatly-furnished room which had been prepared for her.
"Here's your room," said Rosie, setting down the candle on the table, "and now I'm going to give you a good spanking before you go to bed."
"If you touch me again I'll scream and tell Miss Starbrow everything," said Fan, plucking up a spirit.
Rosie shut and locked the door. "Now you can scream your loudest, cat, and she'll not hear a sound."
For a few moments Fan did not know what to do to save herself; then all at once the memory of some old violent wrangle came to her aid, and springing forward she blew out the candle and softly retreated to a corner of the room, where she remained silent and expectant.
"You little wretch!" exclaimed the other. "Speak, or I'll kill you!" But there was no answer. For some time Rosie stumbled about until she found the door, and after some jeering words retreated downstairs, leaving Fan in the dark.
She had defeated her enemy this time, and quickly locking the door, went to bed without a light.