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)
Fan saw no more company after that evening, for which she was not sorry; but that had been a red-letter day to her--not soon, perhaps never, to be forgotten.
Great as the human adaptiveness is at the age at which Fan then was, that loving-kindness of her mistress--of one so proud and beautiful above all women, and, to the girl's humble ideas, so rich "beyond the dreams of avarice"--retained its mysterious, almost incredible, character to her mind, and was a continual cause of wonder to her, and at times of ill-defined but anxious thought. For what had she--a poor, simple, ignorant useless girl--to keep the affection of such a one as Miss Starbrow? And as the days and weeks went by, that vague anxiety did not leave her; for the more she saw of her mistress, the less did she seem like one of a steadfast mind, whose feelings would always remain the same. She was touchy, passionate, variable in temper; and if her stormy periods were short-lived, she also had cold and sullen moods, which lasted long, and turned all her sweetness sour; and at such times Fan feared to approach her, but sat apart distressed and sorrowful. And yet, whatever her mood was, she never spoke sharply to Fan, or seemed to grow weary of her. And once, during one of those precious half-hours, when they sat together at the bedroom fire before dinner, when Miss Starbrow in a tender mood again drew the girl to her side and kissed her, Fan, even while her heart was overflowing with happiness, allowed something of the fear that was mixed with it to appear in her words.
"Oh, Mary, if I could do something for you!" she murmured. "But I can do nothing--I can only love you. I wish--I wish you would tell me what to do to--to keep your love!"
Miss Starbrow's face clouded. "Perhaps your heart is a prophetic one, Fan," she said; "but you must not have those dismal forebodings, or if they will come, then pay as little heed to them as possible. Everything changes about us, and we change too--I suppose we can't help it. Let us try to believe that we will always love each other. Our food is not less
grateful to us because it is possible that at some future day we shall have to go hungry. Oh, poor Fan, why should such thoughts trouble your young heart? Take the goods the gods give you, and do not repine because we are not angels in Heaven, with an eternity to enjoy ourselves in. I love you now, and find it sweet to love you, as I have never loved anyone of my own sex before. Women, as a rule, I detest. You can do, and are doing, more than you know for me."
Fan did not understand it all; but something of it she did understand, and it had a reassuring effect on her mind.
Her life at this period was a solitary one. After breakfast she would go out for a walk, usually to Kensington Gardens, and returning by way of Westbourne Grove, to execute some small commissions for her mistress. Between dinner and tea the time was mostly spent in the back room on the first floor, which nobody else used; and when the weather permitted she sat with the window open, and read aloud to improve herself in the art, and practised writing and drawing, or read in some book Miss Starbrow had recommended to her. With all her time so agreeably filled she did not feel her loneliness, and the life of ease and plenty soon began to tell on her appearance. Her skin became more pure and transparent, although naturally pale; her eyes grew brighter, and could look glad as well as sorrowful; her face lost its painfully bony look, and was rounder and softer, and the straight lines and sharp angles of her girlish form changed to graceful curves from day to day. Miss Starbrow, regarding her with a curious and not untroubled smile, remarked:
"You are improving in your looks every day, Fan; by-and-by you will be a beautiful girl--and then!"
The attitude of the servants had not changed towards her, the cook continuing to observe a kind of neutrality which was scarcely benevolent, while the housemaid's animosity was still active; but it had ceased to trouble her very much. Since the evening on which Fan had baffled her by blowing out the candle, Rosie had not attempted to inflict corporal punishment beyond an occasional pinch or slap, but contented herself by mocking and jeering, and sometimes spitting at her.
Rosie is destined to disappear from the history of Fan's early life in the first third of this volume; but before that time her malice bore very bitter fruit, and for that and other reasons her character is deserving of some description.
She was decidedly pretty, short but well-shaped, with a small English slightly-upturned nose; small mouth with ripe red lips, which were never still except when she held them pressed with her sharp white teeth to make them look redder and riper than ever. Her brown fluffy hair was worn short like a boy's, and she looked not unlike a handsome high-spirited
boy, with brown eyes, mirthful and daring. She was extremely vivacious in disposition, and active--too active, in fact, for she got through her housemaid's work so quickly that it left her many hours of each day in which to listen to the promptings of the demon of mischief. It was only because she did her work so rapidly and so well that her mistress kept her on--"put up with her," as she expressed it--in spite of her faults of temper and tongue. But Rosie's heart was not in her work. She was romantic and ambitious, and her shallow little brain was filled with a thousand dreams of wonderful things to be. She was a constant and ravenous reader of Bow Bells, the London Journal, and one or two penny weeklies besides; and not satisfied with the half-hundred columns of microscopical letterpress they afforded her, she laid her busy hands on all the light literature left about by her mistress, and thought herself hardly treated because Miss Starbrow was a great reader of French novels. It was exceedingly tantalising to know that those yellow-covered books were so well suited to her taste, and not be able to read them. For someone had told her what nice books they were--someone with a big red moustache, who was as fond of pretty red lips as a greedy school-boy is of ripe cherries.
Many were the stolen interviews between the daring little housemaid and her gentleman lover; sometimes in the house itself, in a shaded part of the hall, or in one of the reception-rooms when a happy opportunity offered--and opportunities always come to those who watch for them; sometimes out of doors in the shadow of convenient trees in the neighbouring quiet street and squares after dark. But Rosie was not too reckless. There was a considerable amount of cunning in that small brain of hers, which prevented her from falling over the brink of the precipice on the perilous edge of which she danced like a playful kid so airily. It was very nice and not too naughty to be cuddled and kissed by a handsome gentleman, with a big moustache, fine eyes, and baritone voice! but she was not prepared to go further than that--just yet; only pretending that by-and-by--perhaps; firing his heart with languishing sighs, the soft unspoken "Ask me no more, for at a touch I yield"; and then she would
slip from his arms, and run away to put by the little present of sham jewellery, and think it all very fine fun. They were amusing themselves. His serious love-making was for her mistress. She--Rosie--had a future--a great splendid future, to which she must advance by slow degrees, step by step, sometimes even losing ground a little--and much had been lost since that starved white kitten had come into the house.
When Miss Starbrow, in a fit of anger, had dismissed her maid some months before, and then had accepted some little personal assistance in dressing for the play, and at other times, from her housemaid, Rosie at once imagined that she was winning her way to her mistress's heart, and her silly dream was that she would eventually get promoted to the vacant and desirable place of lady's-maid. The cast-off dresses, boots, pieces of finery, and many other things which would be her perquisites would be a little fortune to her, and greatly excited her cupidity. But there were other more important considerations: she would occupy a much higher position in the social scale, and dress well, her hands and skin would grow soft and white, and her appearance and conversation would be that of a lady; for to be a lady's-maid is, of course, the nearest thing to being a lady. And with her native charms, ambitious intriguing brain, what
might she not rise to in time? and she had been so careful, and, she imagined, had succeeded so well in ingratiating herself with her mistress; and by means of a few well-constructed lies had so filled Miss Starbrow with disgust at the ordinary lady's-maid taken ready-made out of a registry-office, that she had begun to look on the place almost as her own. She had quite overlooked the small fact that she was not qualified to fill it, and never would be. If she had proposed such an arrangement, Miss Starbrow would have laughed heartily, and sent the impudent minx away with a flea in her ear; but she had not yet ventured to broach the subject.
Fan's coming into the house had not only filled her with the indignation natural to one of her class and in her position at being compelled to wait on a girl picked up half-starved in the streets; but when it appeared that her mistress meant to keep Fan and make much of her, then
her jealousy was aroused, and she displayed as much spite and malice as she dared. She had not succeeded in frightening Fan into submission, and she had not dared to invent lies about her; and unable to use her only weapon, she felt herself for the time powerless. On the other hand, it
was evident that Fan had made no complaints.
"I'd like to catch the little beggar daring to tell tales of me!" she exclaimed, clenching her vindictive little fists in a fury. But when her mistress gave her any commands about Fan's meals, or other matters, her tone was so sharp and peremptory, and her eyes so penetrating, that Rosie knew that the hatred she cherished in her heart was no secret. The voice, the look seemed to say plainly, as if it had been expressed in words, "One word and you go; and when you send to me for a character, you shall have justice but no mercy."
This was a terrible state of things for Rosie. There was nothing she could do; and to sit still and wait was torture to one of her restless, energetic mind. When her mistress was out of the house she could give vent to her spite by getting into Fan's room and teasing her in every way
that her malice suggested. But Fan usually locked her out, and would not even open the door to take in her dinner when it was brought; then Rosie would wait until it was cold before leaving it on the landing.
When Miss Starbrow was in the house, and had Fan with her to comb her hair or read to her, Rosie would hang about, listening at keyholes, to find out how matters were progressing between "lady and lady's-maid." But nothing to give her any comfort was discovered. On the contrary, Miss Starbrow showed no signs of becoming disgusted at her own disgraceful
infatuation, and seemed more friendly towards the girl than ever. She took her to the dressmaker at the West End, and had a very pretty, dark green walking-dress made for her, in which Fan looked prettier than ever. She also bought her a new stylish hat, a grey fur cape, and long gloves, besides giving her small pieces of jewellery, and so many things besides that poor Rosie was green with envy. Then, as a climax, she ordered in a new pretty iron bed for the girl, and had it put in her own room.
"Fan will be so much warmer and more comfortable here than at the top of the house," she remarked to Rosie, as if she too had a little malice in her disposition, and was able to take pleasure in sprinkling powder on a raw sore.