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)
Not until the end of November did anything important occur to make a break in Fan's happy, and on the whole peaceful, life in Dawson Place; then came an eventful day, which rudely reminded her that she was living, if not on, at any rate in the neighbourhood of a volcano. One morning that was not wet nor foggy Miss Starbrow made up her mind to visit the West End to do a little shopping, and, to the maid's unbounded disgust, she took Fan with her. An hour after breakfast they started in a hansom and drove to the Marble Arch, where they dismissed the cab.
"Now," said Miss Starbrow, who was in high spirits, "we'll walk to Peter Robinson's and afterwards to Piccadilly Circus, looking at all the shops, and then have lunch at the St. James's Restaurant; and walk home along the parks. It is so beautifully dry underfoot today."
Fan was delighted with the prospect, and they proceeded along Oxford Street. The thoroughfares about the Marble Arch had been familiar to her in the old days, and yet they seemed now to have a novel and infinitely more attractive appearance--she did not know why. But the reason was very simple. She was no longer a beggar, hungry, in rags, ashamed, and feeling that she had no right to be there, but was herself a part of that pleasant world of men and women and children. An old Moon Street neighbour, seeing her now in her beautiful dress and with her sweet peaceful face, would not have recognised her.
At Peter Robinson's they spent about half an hour, Miss Starbrow making some purchases for herself, and, being in a generous mood, she also ordered a few things for Fan. As they came out at the door they met a Mr. Mortimer, an old friend of Miss Starbrow's, elderly, but dandified in his dress, and got up to look as youthful as possible. After warmly shaking
hands with Miss Starbrow, and bowing to Fan, he accompanied them for some distance up Regent Street. Fan walked a little ahead. Mr. Mortimer seemed very much taken with her, and was most anxious to find out all about her, and to know how she came to be in Miss Starbrow's company. The answers he got were short and not explicit; and whether he resented this, or merely took a malicious pleasure in irritating his companion, whose character he well knew, he continued speaking of Fan, protesting that he had not seen a lovelier girl for a long time, and begging Miss Starbrow to note how everyone--or every man, rather, since man only has eyes to see so exquisite a face--looked keenly at the girl in passing.
"My dear Miss Starbrow," he said, "I must congratulate you on your--ahem--late repentance. You know you were always a great woman-hater--a kind of she-misogynist, if such a form of expression is allowable. You must have changed indeed before bringing that fresh charming young girl out with you." He angered her and she did not conceal it, because she could not, though knowing that he was studying to annoy her from motives of revenge. For this man, who was old enough to be her father, and had spent the last decade trying to pick up a woman with money to mend his broken fortunes--this watery-eyed, smirking old beau, who wrote himself down young, going about Regent Street on a cold November day without overcoat or spectacles--this man had had the audacity to propose marriage to her! She had sent him about his business with a burst of scorn, which shook his
old, battered moral constitution like a tempest of wind and thunder, and he had not forgotten it. He chuckled at the successful result of his attack, not caring to conceal his glee; but this meeting proved very unfortunate for poor Fan. After dismissing her old lover with scant courtesy, Miss Starbrow caught up with the girl, and they walked on in silence, looking at no shop-windows now. One glance at the dark angry face was enough to spoil Fan's pleasure for the day and to make her shrink within herself, wondering much as to what had caused so great and sudden a change.
Arrived at Piccadilly Circus, Miss Starbrow called a cab.
"Get in, Fan," she said, speaking rather sharply. "I have a headache and am going home."
The headache seemed so like a fit of anger that Fan did not venture to speak one word of sympathy.
After reaching home, Miss Starbrow, without saying a word, went to her room. Fan ventured to follow her there.
"I wish to be left alone for the rest of the day," said her mistress. "Tell Rosie that I don't wish to be disturbed. After you have had your dinner go down to the drawing-room and sit there by the fire with your book. And--stay, if anyone calls to see me, say that I have a headache and do not wish to be disturbed."
Fan went sorrowfully away and had her dinner, and was mocked by Rosie when she delivered the message, and then taking her book she went to the drawing-room on the ground-floor. After she had been there half an hour she heard a knock, and presently the door was opened and Captain Horton walked in.
"What, alone, Miss Affleck! Tell me about Miss Starbrow," he said, advancing and taking her hand.
Fan explained that Miss Starbrow was lying down, suffering from a headache, and did not wish to be disturbed.
"I am sorry to hear it," he said. "But I can sit here and have a little conversation with you, Fan--your name is Fan, is it not?"
He sat down near the fire still keeping her hand in his, and when she tried gently to withdraw it, his grasp became firmer. His hand was very soft, as is usual with men who play cards much--and well; and it held tenaciously--again a characteristic of the card-playing hand.
"Oh, please, sir, let me go!" she said.
"Why, my dear child, don't you know it's the custom for a gentleman to hold a girl's hand in his when he talks to her? But you have always lived among the very poor--have you not?--where they have different customs. Never mind, Fan, you will soon learn. Now look up, Fan, and let me see those wonderful eyes of yours; yes, they are very pretty. You don't mind my teaching you a little, do you, Fan, so that you will know how to behave when you are with well-bred people?"
"No, sir; but please, sir, will you let me go?"
"Why, you foolish child, I am not going to hurt you. You don't take me for a dentist, do you?" he continued, trying to make her laugh. But his smile and the look in his eyes only frightened her. "Look here, Fan, I will teach you something else. Don't you know that it is the custom among ladies and gentlemen for a young girl to kiss a gentleman when he speaks kindly to her?"
"No," said Fan, reddening and trying again to free herself.
"Don't be so foolish, child, or you will never learn how to behave. Do you know that if you make a noise or fuss you'll disturb your mistress; and she will be very angry with you. Come now, be a good dear little girl."
And with gentle force he drew her between his knees and put his arm round her. Fan, afraid to cry out, struggled vainly to get free; he held her firmly and closely, and had just put his lips to her face when the door swung open, and Miss Starbrow sailed like a tragedy-queen into the room, her head thrown back, her face white as marble and her eyes gleaming.
The visitor instantly rose, while Fan, released from his grip, her face
crimson with shame, slunk away, trembling with apprehension.
"Captain Horton, what is the meaning of this?" demanded the lady.
"Why nothing--a mere trifle--a joke, Pollie. Your little girl doesn't mind being kissed by a friend of the family--that's all."
"Come here, Fan," she said, in a tone of concentrated rage; and the girl, frightened and hesitating, approached her. "This is the way you behave the moment my back is turned. You corrupt-minded little wretch! Take that!" and with her open hand she struck the girl's face a cruel blow, with force enough to leave the red print of her fingers on the pale cheek.
Fan, covering her face with her hands, shrunk back against the wall, sobbing convulsively.
"Oh, come, Pollie!" exclaimed Horton, "don't be so hard on the poor monkey--she's a mere child, you know, and didn't think any harm."
Miss Starbrow made no reply, but standing motionless looked at him--watched his face with a fierce, dangerous gleam in her half-closed eyes.
"Don't stand snivelling here," she spoke, turning to Fan. "Go up instantly to the back room, and stay there. I shall know how to trust a girl out of the slums another time."
Crying bitterly she left the room, and her mistress shut the door after her, remaining there with her lover.
Fan found the window of the back room open, but she did not feel cold; and kneeling on the sofa, with her face resting on her hands, and still crying, she remained there for a long time. A little wintry sunshine rested on the garden, brightening the brown naked branches of the trees and the dark green leaves of ivy and shrub, and gladdening the sparrows. By-and-by the shortlived sunshine died away, and the sparrows left. It was strangely quiet in the house; distinctly she heard Miss Starbrow come out of the drawing-room and up the stairs; she trembled a little then and felt a little rebellious stirring in her heart, thinking that her
mistress was coming up to her. But no, she went to her own room, and closed the door. Then Rosie came in, stealing up to her on tiptoe, and curiously peering into her face.
"Oh I say--something's happened!" she exclaimed, and tripped joyfully away. Half an hour later she came up with some tea.
"I've brought your la'ship a cup of tea. I'm sure it will do your head good," she said, advancing with mincing steps and affecting profound sympathy in her tone.
"Take it away--I shan't touch it!" returned Fan, becoming angry in her misery.
"Oh, but your la'ship's health is so important! Society will be so distressed when it hears that your la'ship is unwell! I'll leave the cup in the window in case your la'ship--"
Fan pushed cup and saucer angrily away, and over they went, falling outside down to the area, where they struck with a loud crash and were shivered to pieces.
Rosie laughed and clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, I'm so glad you've smashed it!" she exclaimed. "I'll tell Miss Starbrow, and then you'll see! That cup was the thing she valued most in the house. She bought it at a sale at Christie and Manson's and gave twenty-five guineas for it. Oh, how mad she'll be!<'f>"
Fan paid no heed to her words, knowing that there was no truth in them. While pushing it away she had noticed that it was an old kitchen cup, chipped and cracked and without a handle; the valuable curio had as a fact been fished out of a heap of rubbish that morning by the maid, who thought that it would serve very well for "her la'ship's tea."
Rosie got tired of tormenting her, and took herself off at last; then another hour went slowly by while it gradually grew dark; and as the lights faded her rebellious feelings left her, and she began to hope that Miss Starbrow would soon call her or come to her. And at length, unable
to bear the loneliness and suspense, she went to the bedroom door and softly knocked. There was no answer, and trying the door she found that it was locked. She waited outside the door for about half an hour, and then hearing her mistress moving in the room she tapped again, with the same result as before. Then she went back despairingly to the back room and her place beside the window. The night was starry and not very cold,
and to protect herself from the night air she put on her fur cape. Hour after hour she listened to the bells of St. Matthew's chiming the quarters, feeling a strange loneliness each time the chimes ceased; and then, after a few minutes' time, beginning again to listen for the next quarter. It was getting very late, and still no one came to her, not even Rosie with her supper, which she had made up her mind not to touch. Then she dropped her head on her hands, and cried quietly to herself. She had so many thoughts, and each one seemed sadder than the last. For the great tumult in her soul was over now, and she could think about it all, and of
all the individuals who had treated her cruelly. She felt very differently towards them. Captain Horton she feared and hated, and wished him dead with all her heart; and Rosie she also hated, but not so intensely, for the maid's enmity had not injured her. Against Mary she only felt a great anger, but no hatred; for Mary had been so kind, so loving, and she could not forget that, and all the sweetness it had given her life. Then she began to compare this new luxurious life in Dawson Place to the old wretched life in Moon Street, which now seemed so far back in time; and it seemed strange to her that, in spite of the great difference, yet tonight she felt more unhappy than she had ever felt in the old days. She remembered her poor degraded mother, who had never turned against her, and cried quietly again, leaning her face on the window-sill. Then she had a thought which greatly perplexed her, and she asked herself why it was in those old days, when hard words and unjust blows came to her, she only felt a fearful shrinking of the flesh, and wished like some poor hunted animal to fly away and hide herself from her tormentors, while now a spirit of resentment and rebellion was kindled in her and burnt in her heart with a strange fire. Was it wrong to feel like that, to wish that those who made her suffer were dead? That was a hard question which Fan put to herself, and she could not answer it.
Her long fast and the excitement she had experienced, with so many lonely hours of suspense after it, began to tell on her and make her sleepy. It was eleven o'clock; she heard the servants going round to fasten doors and turn off the gas, and finally they passed her landing on their way to bed. It was getting very cold, and giving up all hope of being called by
her mistress, she closed the window and, with an old table-cover for covering, coiled herself up on the sofa and went to sleep.
When she woke it was with a start; her face had grown very cold, and she felt a warm hand touching her cheek. The hand was quickly withdrawn when she woke, and looking round Fan saw someone seated by her, and although there was only the starlight from the window in the dim room, she knew that it was her mistress. She raised herself to a sitting position on the sofa, but without speaking. All her bitter, resentful feelings had suddenly rushed back to her heart.
"Well, you have condescended to wake at last," said Miss Starbrow. "Do you know that it is nearly one o'clock in the morning?"
"No," returned Fan.
"No! well then, I say yes. It is nearly one o'clock. Do you intend to keep me here waiting your pleasure all night, I wonder!"
"I don't want you to come here. I had no place to sleep because you locked me out of your room."
"And for an excellent reason," said the other sharply. "How could I admit you into my room after the outrageous scene I witnessed downstairs! You seem to think that you can behave just how you like in my house, and that it will make no difference."
Fan was silent.
"Oh, very well, Miss Fan, if you have nothing to say for yourself!"
"What do you want me to say?"
"Say! I wonder at the question. I want you to tell me the truth, of course. That is, if you can. How did it all happen--you must tell me everything just as it occurred, without concealment or prevarication."
Fan related the facts simply and clearly; she remembered every word the Captain had spoken only too well.
"I wish I knew whether you have told me the simple truth or not," said Miss Starbrow.
"May God strike me dead if I'm not telling the truth!" said Fan.
"There, that will do. A young lady is supposed to be able to answer a question with a simple yes or no, without swearing about it like a bargee on the Regent's Canal."
"Then why don't you believe me when I say yes and no, and--and why didn't you ask me before you struck me?"
"I shouldn't have struck you if I had not thought you were a little to blame. It is not likely. You ought to know that after all my kindness to you--but I dare say that is all forgotten. I declare I have been treated most shamefully!" And here she dropped her face into her hands and began crying.
But the girl felt no softening of the heart; that strange fire was still burning in her, and she could only think of the cruel words, the unjust blow.
Miss Starbrow suddenly ceased her crying. "I thought that you, at any rate, had a little gratitude and affection for me," she said. "But of course I was mistaken about that as I have been about everything else. If you had the faintest spark of sympathy in you, you would show a little feeling, and--and ask me why I cry, or say something."
For some moments Fan continued silent, then she moved and touched the other's hand, and said very softly, for now all her anger was melting away, "Why do you cry, Mary?"
"You know, Fan, because I love you, and am so sorry I struck you. What a brute I was to hurt you--a poor outcast and orphan, with no friend but me in the world. Forgive me, dear Fan, for treating you so cruelly!" Then she put her arms about the girl and kissed her, holding her close to her breast.
"Oh, Mary, dear," said Fan, now also crying; "you didn't hurt me very much. I only felt it because--because it was you."
"I know, Fan, and that's why I can't forgive myself. But I shall never, never hurt you again, for I know that you are truth itself, and that I can trust you. And now let us go down and have some supper together before going to bed. I know you've had nothing since lunch, and I couldn't touch a morsel, I was so troubled about that wretch of a man. I think I have been sitting here quite two hours waiting for you to wake."
Together they went down to the dining-room, where a delicate little supper, such as Miss Starbrow loved to find on coming home from the play, was laid out for them. For the first time Fan sat at table with her mistress; another new experience was the taste of wine. She had a glass of Sauterne, and thought it very nice.