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)
The next few days, although very sweet and full to Fan, were uneventful; then, early on a Wednesday evening, once more Miss Starbrow made her sit with her at her bedroom fire and talked to her for a long time.
"What did you tell me your name is?" she asked.
"I don't like it. I call it horrid. It was only your stepfather's name according to your account, and I must find you a different one. Do you know what your mother's name was--before she married, I mean?"
"Oh yes, ma'am; it was Margaret Affleck."
"Affleck. It is not common and not ugly. Frances Affleck--that sounds better. Yes, that will do; your name, as long as you live with me, shall be Affleck; you must not forget that."
"No, ma'am," Fan replied humbly. But she had some doubts, and after a while said, "But can you change my name, ma'am?"
"Change your name! Why, of course I can. It is just as easy to do that as to give you a new dress; easier in fact. And what do you know, Fan? What did they teach you at the Board School? Reading, I suppose; very well, take this book and read to me."
She took the book, but felt strangely nervous at this unexpected call to display her accomplishments, and began hurriedly reading in a low voice.
Miss Starbrow laughed.
"I can't stand that, Fan," she said. "You might be gabbling Dutch or Hindustani. And you are running on without a single pause. Even a bee hovering about the flowers has an occasional comma, or colon, or full stop in its humming. Try once more, but not so fast and a little louder."
The good-humoured tone in which she spoke served to reassure Fan; and knowing that she could do better, and getting over her nervousness, she began again, and this time Miss Starbrow let her finish the page.
"You can read, I find. Better, I think, than any of the maids I have had. You have a very nice expressive voice, and you will do better when you read a book through from the beginning, and feel interested in it. I shall let you read every day to me. What else did you learn--writing?"
"Yes, ma'am, I always got a high mark for that. And we had Scripture lessons, and grammar, and composition, and arithmetic, and geography; and when I was in the fifth form I had history and drawing."
"History and drawing--well, what next, I wonder! That's what we are taxed a shilling in the pound for, to give education to a--well, never mind. But can you really draw, Fan? Here's pencil and paper, just draw something for me."
"What shall I draw, ma'am?" she said, taking the pencil and feeling nervous again.
"Oh, anything you like."
Now it happened that her drawing lessons had always given her more pleasure than anything else at school, but owing to Joe Harrod's having taken her away as soon as he was allowed to do so, they had not continued long. Still, even in a short time she had made some progress; and even after leaving school she had continued to find a mournful pleasure in
depicting leaf and flower forms. Left to choose her own subject, she naturally began sketching a flower--a rosebud, half-open, with leaves.
"Don't hurry, Fan, as you did with your reading. The slower you are the better it will be," said Miss Starbrow, taking up a volume and beginning to read, or pretending to read, for her eyes were on the face of the girl most of the time.
Fan, happily unconscious of the other's regard, gave eight or ten minutes to her drawing, and then Miss Starbrow took it in her hands to examine it.
"This is really very well done," she said, "but what in goodness' name did they teach you drawing for!? What would be the use of it after leaving school? Well, yes, it might be useful in one way. It astonishes me to think how you were trying to live, Fan. You were certainly not fit for that hard rough work, and would have starved at it. You were made, body and mind, in a more delicate mould, and for something better. I think that with all you have learnt at school, and with your appearance, especially with those truthful eyes of yours and that sweet voice, you might have got a place as nursery governess, to teach small children, or something of that sort. Why did you go starving about the streets, Fan?"
"But no one would take me with such clothes, ma'am. They wouldn't look at me or speak to me even in the little shops where I went to ask for work."
Miss Starbrow uttered a curious little laugh.
"What a strange thing it seems," she said, "that a few shillings to buy decent clothes may alter a person's destiny. With the shillings--about as many as the man of God pays for his sirloin--shelter from the weather and temptations to evil, three meals a day, a long pleasant life, husband and children, perhaps, and at last--Heaven. And without them, rags and
starvation and the streets, and--well, this is a question for the mighty intellect of a man and a theologian, not for mine. I dare say you don't know what I'm talking about, Fan?"
"Not all, ma'am, but I think I understand a little."
"Very little, I should think. Don't try to understand too much, my poor girl. Perhaps before you are eighty, if you live so long, you will discover that you didn't even understand a little. Ah, Fan, you have been sadly cheated by destiny! Childhood without joy, and girlhood without hope. I wish I could give you happiness to make up for it all, but I can't be Providence to anyone."
"Oh, ma'am, you have made me so happy!" exclaimed Fan, the tears springing to her eyes.
Miss Starbrow frowned a little and turned her face aside. Then she said:
"Just because I fed and dressed and sheltered you, Fan--does happiness come so easily to you?"
"Oh no, ma'am, not that--it isn't that," with such keen distress that she could scarcely speak without a sob.
"How then have I made you happy? Will you not answer me? I took you because I believed that you would trust me, and always speak openly from your heart, and hide nothing."
"Oh, ma'am, I'm afraid to say it. I was so happy because I thought--because--" and here she sunk her voice to a trembling whisper--"I thought that you loved me."
Miss Starbrow put her arm round the girl's waist and drew her against her knees.
"Your instinct was not at fault, Fan," she said in a caressing tone. "I do love you, and loved you when I saw you in your rags, and it pained my heart when I told you to clean my doorsteps as if you had been my sister. No, not a sister, but something better and sweeter; my sisters I do not love at all. And do you know now what I meant, Fan, when I said that there was something you could do for me?"
"I think I know," returned Fan, still troubled in her mind and anxious. "It was that made me feel so happy. I thought--that you wanted me to love you."
"You are right, my dear girl; I think that I made no mistake when I took you in."
On that evening Fan had tea with her mistress, and afterwards, earlier than usual, was allowed to comb her hair out--a task which gave her the greatest delight. Miss Starbrow then put on an evening dress, which Fan now saw for the first time, and was filled with wonder at its richness and beauty. It was of saffron-coloured silk, trimmed with black lace; but
she wore no ornaments with it, except gold bracelets on her round shapely arms.
"What makes you stare so, Fan?" she said with a laugh, as she stood surveying herself in the tall glass, and fastening the bracelets on.
"Oh, ma'am, you do look so beautiful in that dress! Are you going to the theatre tonight?"
"No, Fan. On Wednesday evenings I always have a number of friends come in to see me--all gentlemen. I have very few lady friends, and care very little for them. And, now I think of it, you can sit up tonight until I tell you to go to bed."
Miss Starbrow was moving towards the door. Then she paused, and finally came back and sat down again, and drew Fan against her knee as before.
"Fan," she said, "when you speak about me to others, and to me in the presence of others, or of the servants, call me Miss Starbrow. I don't like to hear you call me ma'am, it wounds my ear. Do you understand?"
"But when we are alone together, as we are now, let me hear you call me Mary. That's my Christian name, and I should like to hear you speak it. Will you remember?"
"Yes"; and then from her lips trembled the name "Mary."
"It sounds very loving and sweet," said the other, and, drawing the girl closer, for the first time she kissed her.
With the memory of those tender words and the blissful sensation left by that unexpected kiss, Fan spent the evening alone, hearing, after her supper, the arrival of visitors, and the sound of conversation and laughter from the drawing-room, and then music and singing. Later in the evening the guests went to sup into the dining-room, and there they stayed playing cards until eleven o'clock or later, when she heard them leaving the house.
They were not all gone, however; three of Miss Starbrow's intimate friends still lingered, drinking whisky-and-water and talking. There was Captain Horton--captain by courtesy, since he was no longer in the army--a tall, fine-looking man, slightly horsy in his get-up, with a very large red moustache, reddish-brown hair, and keen blue eyes. He wore a cut-away coat, and was standing on the hearthrug, his hands thrust into his trousers pockets, and smiling as he talked to a young clerical gentleman near him--the Rev. Octavius Brown. The Rev. Octavius was curate of a neighbouring ritualistic church, but in his life he was not ascetic; he loved whisky-and-water not wisely but too well, and he was passionately devoted to the noble game of Napoleon. Mr. Brown had just won seven shillings, and was in very high spirits; for being poor he had a great dread of losing, and played carefully for very small stakes, and seldom won more than half-a-crown or three shillings. At some distance from them a young gentleman reclined in an easy-chair, smoking a cigarette, and apparently not listening to their conversation. This was Mr. Merton Chance, clerk in the Foreign Office, and supposed by his friends to be extremely talented. He was rather slight but well-formed, a little under the medium height, clean shaved, handsome, colourless as marble, with black hair and dark blue eyes that looked black.
Miss Starbrow, who had left the room a few minutes before, came in, and standing by the table listened to the curate.
"Miss Starbrow," said he, appealing to her, "is it not hard? Captain Horton either doubts my veracity or believes that I am only joking when I assure him that what I have just told him is plain truth."
"Well, let me hear the whole story," she replied, "and I'll act as umpire."
"I couldn't wish for a juster one--nor for a fairer," he replied with a weak smile. "What I said was that I had once attended a dinner to the clergy in Yorkshire, at which there were sixteen of us present, and the surnames of all were names of things--objects or offices or something--connected with a church."
"Well, what were the names?"
"You see he remembers only one--a Mr. Church," said Captain Horton.
"No, pardon me. A Mr. Church, and a Mr. Bishop, and a Mr. Priest, and a Mr. Cross, and--and oh, yes, Mr. Bell."
"Five of your sixteen," said Captain Horton, checking them off on his fingers.
"And a Mr. Graves, and a Mr. Sexton, and--and--of course, I can't remember all the names now. Can you expect it, Miss Starbrow?"
"No, of course not; but you have only named seven. If you can remember ten I shall decide in your favour."
"Thank you. There was a Mr. Church--"
"No, no, old man, we've had that already," cried the Captain.
"Mr. Tombs," he continued, and fell again to thinking.
"That makes eight," said Miss Starbrow. "Cheer up, Mr. Brown, you'll soon remember two others."
"Your own name makes nine, Mr. Brown," broke in Mr. Chance, "only I can't make out what connection it has with a church."
The other two laughed.
"I'm afraid it looks very bad for you," said Miss Starbrow.
"No, no, Miss Starbrow, please don't think that. Wait a minute and let me see if I can remember how that was," said the poor curate. "I think I said that all present at the table except myself--"
"No, there was no exception," interrupted Captain Horton. "Now, if you sixteen fellows had been Catholic priests instead of in the Established Church, and you were Scarlett by name instead of Brown--"
"Don't say any more--please!" cried the curate, lifting his hand. "You are going too far, Captain Horton. I like a little innocent fun well enough, but I draw the line at sacred subjects. Let us drop the subject."
"Oh, yes, of course, that's a good way of getting out of it. And as for jesting about sacred matters, I always understood that one couldn't prove his zeal for Protestantism better than by having a shot at the Roman business."
"I am happy to say that I do not class myself with Prots," said the curate, getting up from his chair very carefully, and then consulting his watch. "I must run away now--"
"You can't do it," interrupted the Captain.
Miss Starbrow laughed. "Don't go just yet, Mr. Brown," she said. "I wish you all to help me with your advice, or with an opinion at least. You know that I have taken in a young girl, and I have not yet decided what to do with her. I shall call her down for you to see her, as you are all three my very candid friends, and you shall tell me what you think of her appearance."
She then opened the door and called Fan down, and the poor girl was brought into the neighbourhood of the three gentlemen, and stood with eyes cast down, her pale face reddening with shame to find herself the centre of so much curiosity.
Miss Starbrow glanced at the Captain, who was keenly studying Fan's face, as he stood before the fire, stroking his red moustache.
"Well, if I'm to give a candid opinion," he said, "all I can say is that she looks an underfed little monkey."
"I think you are excessively rude!" returned Miss Starbrow, firing up. "She is too young to feel your words, perhaps, but they are nothing less than insulting to my judgment."
"Oh, confound it, Pollie, you are always flying out at me! I dare say she's a good girl--she looks it, but if you want me to say that she's good-looking, I can't be such a hypocrite even to please you."
Miss Starbrow flashed a keen glance at him, and then without replying turned to Mr. Brown.
"Really--honestly, Miss Starbrow," he said, "you couldn't have selected a more charming-looking girl. But your judgment is always--well, just what it should be; that goes without saying."
She turned impatiently from him and looked at Mr. Chance, still gracefully reclining in his chair.
"Is my poor opinion really worth anything to you?" he said, and rising he walked over to the girl and touched her hand, which made her start a little. "I wish to see your eyes--won't you look at me?" He spoke very gently.
Fan glanced up into his face for a moment.
"Thank you--just what I thought," said he, returning to his seat.
"Well?" said Miss Starbrow.
"Must I put it in words--those poor symbols?" he returned. "I know so well that you can understand without them."
"Perhaps I might if I tried very hard, but I choose not to try," she replied, with a slight toss of her head.
"It is a pleasure to obey; but the poor girl looks nervous and uncomfortable, and would be so glad not to hear my personal remarks."
"Oh yes, it was thoughtless of me to keep her here--thanks for reminding me," said Miss Starbrow, with a strange softening of her voice her friends were not accustomed to hear. "Run up to your room, Fan, and go to bed. I'm sorry I've kept you up so late, poor child."
And Fan, with a grateful look towards Mr. Chance, left the room gladly enough.
"When she first came into the room I wondered what had attracted you," said Mr. Chance. "I concluded that it must be something under those long drooping eyelashes, and when I looked there I found out the secret."
"Intelligent eyes--very intelligent eyes--I noticed that also," said Mr. Brown.
"Oh no, heaven forbid--I did not mean anything of the kind," said Mr. Chance. "Intelligence is a masculine quality which I do not love to see in a woman: it is suitable for us, like a rough skin and--moustachios," with a glance at Captain Horton, and touching his own clean-shaven upper lip. "The more delicate female organism has something finer and higher than intelligence, which however serves the same purpose--and other purposes besides."
"I don't quite follow you," said the curate, again preparing to take his leave. "I dare say it's all plain enough to some minds, but--well, Mr. Chance, you'll forgive me for saying that when you talk that way I don't know whether I'm standing on my head or my heels."
"Naturally, you wouldn't," said Captain Horton, with a mocking smile. "But don't go yet, Brown; have some more whisky-and-water."
"No, thanks, no more. I never exceed two or three glasses, you know. Thank you, my dear Miss Starbrow, for a most delightful evening." And after shaking hands he made his way to the door, bestowing a kindly touch on each chair in passing, and appearing greatly relieved when he reached the hall.
Captain Horton lit a cigarette and threw himself into an easy-chair. Mr. Chance lit another cigarette; if the other was an idle man, he (Chance) was in the Foreign Office, and privileged to sit up as late as he liked.
"On the whole," he said in a meditative way, "I am inclined to think that Brown is a rather clever fellow."
Miss Starbrow laughed: she was still standing. "You two appear to be taking it very quietly," she said. "It is one o'clock--why will you compel me to be rude?"
Then they started up, put on their coats, exchanged a few words at the door with their hostess, and walked down the street together. Presently a hansom came rattling along the quiet street.
"Keb, sir?" came the inevitable question, in a tone sharp as a whip-crack, as the driver pulled up near the kerb.
"Yes, two cabs," said Captain Horton. "I'll toss you for the first, Chance"; and pulling out a florin he sent it spinning up and deftly caught it as it fell. "Heads or tails?"
"Oh, take it yourself, and I'll find another."
"No, no, fair play," insisted the Captain.
"Very well then, heads."
"Tails!" cried the other, opening his hand. "Goodnight, old man, you're sure to find one in another minute. Oxford Terrace," he cried to the driver, jumping in. And the cabman, who had watched the proceedings with the deep interest and approval of a true sporting man, shook the reins, flicked the horse's ears with his whip, clicked with his tongue, and drove rapidly away.
Left to himself, Mr. Chance sauntered on in no hurry to get home, and finally stood still at a street corner, evidently pondering some matter of considerable import to him. "By heaven, I'm more than half resolved to try it!" he exclaimed at last. And after a little further reflection, he added, "And I shall--
"He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
Who dares not put it to the touch
To win or lose it all."
Then he turned and walked deliberately back to Dawson Place: coming to the house which he had lately quitted, he peered anxiously at windows and doors, and presently caught sight of a faint reflection from burning gas or candle within on the fanlight over the street door, which, he conjectured, came from the open dining-room.
"Fortune favours me," he said to himself. "'Faint heart never won fair lady.' A happy inspiration, I am beginning to think. Losing that toss will perhaps result in my winning a higher stake. There's a good deal of dash and devilry in that infernal blackguard Horton, and doubtless that is why he has made some progress here. Well then, she ought to appreciate my spirit in coming to her at this time of night, or morning, rather. There's a wild, primitive strain in her; she's not to be wooed and won in the usual silly mawkish way. More like one of the old Sabine women, who liked nothing better than being knocked down and dragged off by their
future lords. I suppose that a female of that antique type of mind can be knocked down and taken captive, as it were, with good vigorous words, just as formerly they were knocked down with the fist or the butt end of a spear."
His action was scarcely in keeping with the daring, resolute spirit of his language: instead of seizing the knocker and demanding admittance with thunderous racket, he went cautiously up the steps, rapped softly on the door with his knuckles, and then anxiously waited the result of his modest summons.
Miss Starbrow was in the dining-room, and heard the tapping. Her servants had been in bed two hours; and after the departure of her late guests she had turned off the gas at the chandelier, and was leaving the room, when seeing a Globe, left by one of her visitors, she took it up to glance at the evening's news. Something she found in the paper interested
her, and she continued reading until that subdued knocking attracted her attention. Taking up her candle she went to the door and unfastened it, but without letting down the chain. Her visitor hurriedly whispered his name, and asked to be admitted for a few minutes, as he had something very important to communicate.
She took down the chain and allowed him to come into the hall. "Why have you come back?" she demanded in some alarm. "Where is Captain Horton?--you left together."
"He went home in the first cab we found. We tossed for it, and he won, for which I thank the gods. Then, acting on the impulse of the moment, I came back to say something to you. A very unusual--very eccentric thing to do, no doubt. But when something involving great issues has to be done or said, I think the best plan is not to wait for a favourable
opportunity. Don't you agree with me?"
"I don't understand you, Mr. Chance, and am therefore unable to agree with you. I hope you are not going to keep me standing here much longer."
"Not for a moment! But will you not let me come inside to say the few words I have to say?"
"Oh yes, you may come in," she returned not very graciously, and leading the way to the dining-room, where decanters, tumblers, and cards scattered about the table, seen by the dim light of one candle, gave it a somewhat disreputable appearance. "What do you wish to say to me?" she asked a little impatiently, and seating herself.
He took a chair near her. "You are a little unkind to hurry me in this way," he said, trying to smile, "since you compel me to put my request in very plain blunt language. However, that is perhaps the best plan. Twice I have come to you intending to speak, and have been baffled by fate--"
"Then you might have written, or telegraphed," she interrupted, "if the matter was so important."
"Not very well," he returned, growing very serious. "You know that as well as I do. You must know, dear Miss Starbrow, that I have admired you for a long time. Perhaps you also know that I love you. Miss Starbrow, will you be my wife and make me happy? "
"No, Mr. Chance, I cannot be your wife and make you happy. I must decline your offer."
Her cold, somewhat ironical tone from the first had prepared him for this result, and he returned almost too quickly, "Oh, I see, you are offended with me for coming to you at this hour. I must suffer the consequences of my mistake, and study to be more cautious and proper in the future. I have always regarded you as an unconventional woman. That, to my mind, is one of your greatest charms; and when I say that I say a good deal. I never imagined that my coming to you like this would have prejudiced you against me."
She gave a little laugh, but there was an ominous cloud on her face as she answered: "You imagined it was the right thing to do to come at half-past one o'clock in the morning to offer me your hand! Your opinion of my conduct is not a subject I am the least interested in; but whether I am unconventional or not, I assure you, Mr. Chance, that I am not to be pushed or driven one step further than I choose to go."
"I should never dream of attempting such a thing, Miss Starbrow. But it would be useless to say much more; whatever line I take tonight only makes matters worse for me. But allow me to say one thing before bidding you good-night. The annoyance you feel at the present moment will not last. You have too much generosity, too much intellect, to allow it to rest long in your bosom; and deeply as I feel this rebuff, I am not going to be so weak as to let it darken and spoil my whole life. No, my hope is too strong and too reasonable to be killed so easily. I shall come to you again, and again, and again. For I know that with you for a wife and companion my life would be a happy one; and not happy only, for that is not everything. An ambitious man looks to other greater and perhaps better things."
The cloud was gone from her brows, and she sat regarding him as he spoke with a slight smile on her lips and a curious critical expression in her eyes. When he finished speaking she laughed and said, "But is my happiness of such little account--do you not propose to make me happy also, Mr. Chance?"
"No," he returned, his face clouding, and dropping his eyes before her mocking gaze. "You shall not despise me. Single or married, you must make your own happiness or misery. You know that; why do you wish to make me repeat the wretched commonplaces that others use?"
"I'm glad you have so good an opinion of yourself, Mr. Chance," she replied. "I was vexed with you at first, but am not so now. To watch the changes of your chameleon mind, not always successful in getting the right colour at the right moment, is just as good as a play. If you really mean to come again and again I shall not object--it will amuse me. Only do not come at two o'clock in the morning; it might compromise me, and, unconventional as I am, I should not forgive you a second time. But honestly, Mr. Chance, I don't believe you will come again. You know now that I know you, and you are too wise to waste your energies on me. I hope you will not give up visiting me--in the daytime. We admire each other, and I have always had a friendly feeling for you. That is a real feeling--not an artificial one like the love you spoke of."
He rose to go. "Time will show whether it is an artificial feeling or not," he said; and after bidding good-night and hearing the door close after him, he walked away towards Westbourne Grove. He had gone from her presence with a smile on his lips, but in the street it quickly vanished from his face, and breaking into a rapid walk and clenching his fists, he
exclaimed, between his set teeth, "Curse the jade!"
It was not a sufficient relief to his feelings, and yet he seemed unable to think of any other expression more suitable to the occasion, for after going a little further, he repeated, "Curse the jade!"
Then he walked on slower and slower, and finally stopped, and turning towards Dawson Place, he repeated for the third time, "Curse the jade!"