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)
On the next morning, after a sharp frost, the sun shone brightly as in spring. Fan was up early and enjoyed her breakfast, notwithstanding the late supper, and not in the least disturbed by the scornful words flung at her by the housemaid when she brought up the tray. After breakfasting she went to Miss Starbrow's room, to find her still in bed and not inclined to get up.
"Put on your dress and go for a walk in Kensington Gardens," she said. "I think it is a fine day, for a wonder. You may stop out until one o'clock, if you like, and take my watch, so as to know the time. And if you wish to rest while out don't sit down on a bench, or you will be sure to have someone speak to you. According to the last census, or Registrar-General's report, or whatever it is, there are twenty thousand young
gentlemen loafers in London, who spend their whole time hanging about the parks and public places trying to make the acquaintance of young girls. Sit on a chair by yourself when you are tired--you can always find a chair even in winter--and give the chairman a penny when he comes to you."
"I haven't got a penny, Mary. But it doesn't matter; I'll not get tired."
"Then I must give you a purse and some money, and you must never go out without it, and don't mind spending a little money now and then, and giving away a penny when you feel inclined. Give me my writing desk and the keys."
She opened the desk and took out a small plush purse, then some silver and coppers to put in it, and finally a sovereign.
"The silver you can use, the sovereign you must not change, but keep it in case you should require money when I am not with you."
With all these fresh proofs of Mary's affection to make her happy, in her lovely new dress and hat, and the beautiful gold chain on her bosom, Fan went out for her walk feeling as light-hearted as a linnet. It was the last day of November, usually a dreary time in London, but never had the world looked so bright and beautiful to Fan as on that morning; and as she walked along with swift elastic tread she could hardly refrain from bursting bird-like into some natural joyous melody. Passing into the Gardens at the Queen's Road entrance, she went along the Broad Walk to the Round Pond, and then on to the Albert Memorial, shining with gold and brilliant colours in the sun like some fairy edifice. Running up the steps she walked round and round the sculptured base of the monument, studying the marble faces and reading the names, and above all admiring the figures there--blind old Homer playing on his harp, with Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and all the immortal sons of song, grouped about him listening. But nothing to her mind equalled the great group of statuary representing Asia at one of the four corners, with that colossal calm-faced woman seated on an elephant in the centre. What a great majestic face, and yet how placid and sweet it looked, reminding her a little of Mary in her kindly moods. But this noble face was of marble, and never changed; Mary's changed every hour, so that the soft expression when it came seemed doubly sweet. By-and-by she walked away towards the bridge over the Serpentine, and in the narrow path, thickly bordered with trees and shrubs and late flowers, she stepped aside to make room for a lady to pass, who held by the hand a little angel-faced, golden-haired child, dressed in a quaint pretty costume. The child stood still and looked up into Fan's face, and then she also involuntarily stopped, so taken was she with the little thing's beauty.
"Mammy," said the child, pointing to Fan, "I'se like to tiss the pretty laly."
"Well, my darling, perhaps the young lady will kiss you if you ask very nicely," said the mother.
"Oh, may I kiss her?" said Fan, reddening with pleasure, and quickly stooping she pressed her lips to the little cherub face.
"I loves you--what's your name?" said the child.
"No, darling, you must not ask questions. You've got your kiss and that ought to satisfy you"; and with a smile and nod to Fan she walked on.
Fan pursued her walk to the Serpentine, with a new delicious sensation in her heart. It was so strange and sweet to be spoken to by a lady, a stranger, and treated like an equal! And in the days that were not so long ago with what sad desire in her eyes had she looked at smiling beautiful faces, like this lady's face, and no smile and no gentle word had been bestowed on her, and no glance that did not express pity or contempt!
At the head of the Serpentine she stood for ten or fifteen minutes to watch the children and nursemaids feeding the swans and ducks. The swans were very stately and graceful, the ducks very noisy and contentious, and it was great fun to see them squabbling over the crumbs of bread. But after leaving the waterside she came upon a scene among the great elms and chestnuts close by which amused her still more. Some poor ragged children--three boys and a girl--were engaged in making a great heap of the old dead fallen leaves, gathering them in armfuls and bringing them to one spot. By-and-by the little girl came up with a fresh load, and as she stooped to put it on the pile, the boys, who had all gathered round,
pushed her over and covered her with a mass of old leaves; then, with a shout of laughter at their rough joke, they ran away. She struggled out and stood up half-choked with dust, her face covered with dirt, and dress and hair with the black half-rotten leaves. As soon as she got her breath she burst out in a prolonged howl, while the big tears rushed out, making channels on her grimy cheeks.
"Oh, poor little girl, don't cry," said Fan, going up to her, but the child only howled the louder. Then Fan remembered her money and Mary's words, and taking out a penny she offered it to the little girl. Instantly the crying ceased, the child clutched the penny in her dirty little fist, then stared at Fan, then at the penny, and finally turned and ran away as fast as she could run, past the fountains, out at the gate, and into the Bayswater Road.
When she was quite out of sight Fan resumed her walk, laughing a little, but with misty eyes, for it was the first time in her life that she had given a penny away, and it made her strangely happy. Before quitting the Gardens, however, one little incident occurred to interfere with her pleasure. Close to the Broad Walk she suddenly encountered Captain Horton walking with a companion in the opposite direction. There was no time to turn aside in order to avoid him; when she recognised him he was watching her face with a curious smile under his moustache which made her feel a little uncomfortable; then, raising his hat, he passed her without speaking.
"You know that pretty girl?" she heard his friend ask, as she hurried away a little frightened towards the Queen's Road gate.
Miss Starbrow appeared very much put out about this casual encounter in the Gardens when Fan related the incidents of her walk.
"I'll not walk there again, Mary, so as not to meet him," said Fan timidly.
"On the contrary, you shall walk there as often as you like--I had almost said whether you like it or not; and in the Grove, where you are still more likely to meet him." She spoke angrily; but after a while added, "He couldn't well have done less than notice you when he met you, and I do not think you need be afraid of anything. It is not likely that he would address you. He put an altogether false complexion on that affair yesterday--a cowardly thing to do, and caused us both a great deal of pain, and for that I shall never forgive him. Think no more about it, Fan."
It was pretty plain, however, that she permitted herself to think more about it; for during the next few days she was by no means cheerful, while her moody fits and bursts of temper were more frequent than usual. Then, one Wednesday evening, when Fan assisted her in dressing to receive her visitors, she seemed all at once to have recovered her spirits, and talked to the girl and laughed in a merry light-hearted way.
"Poor Fan, how dull it must always be for you on a Wednesday evening, sitting here so long by yourself," she said.
"Oh no, Mary, I always open the door and listen to the music; I like the singing so much."
"That reminds me," said Miss Starbrow. "Who do you think is coming this evening?"
"Captain Horton," she answered promptly.
Miss Starbrow laughed. "Yes; how quick you are at guessing. I must tell you all about it; and do you know, Fan, I find it very delightful to have a dear trusty girl to talk to. I suppose you have noticed how cross I have been all these days. It was all on account of that man. He offended me so much that day that I made up my mind never to speak to him again. But he is very sorry; besides, he looked on you as little more than a child, and really meant it only for a joke. And so I have half forgiven him, and shall let him visit me again, but only on Wednesday evenings when there will be others. I shall not allow him to come whenever he
likes, as he used to do." Fan was silent. Miss Starbrow, sitting before the glass, read the ill-concealed trouble in the girl's face reflected there.
"Now don't be foolish, Fan, and think no more about it," she said. "You are very young--not nearly sixteen yet, and gentlemen look on girls of that age as scarcely more than children, and think it no harm to kiss them. He's a thoughtless fellow, and doesn't always do what is right, but he certainly did not think any harm or he would not have acted that way in my house. That's what he says, and I know very well when I hear the truth."
After finishing her hair, Miss Starbrow, not yet satisfied that she had removed all disagreeable impression, turned round and said, "Now, my solemn-faced girl, why are you so silent? Are you going to be cross with me? Don't you think I know best what is right and believe what I tell
The tears came to the girl's eyes. "I do believe you know best, Mary," she said, in a distressed voice. "Oh, please don't think that I am cross. I am so glad you like to talk to me."
Miss Starbrow smiled and touched her cheek, and at length stooped and kissed her; and this little display of confidence and affection chased away the last remaining cloud, and made Fan perfectly happy.
The partial forgiveness extended to Captain Horton did not have exactly the results foretold. Miss Starbrow was fond of affirming that when her mind was once made up about anything it was not to be moved; but in this affair she had already yielded to persuasion, and had permitted the Captain to visit her again; and by-and-by the second resolution also proved weak, and his visits were not confined to Wednesday evenings. She had struggled against her unworthy feeling for him, and knowing that it was unworthy, that the strength she prided herself so much on was weakness where he was concerned, she was dissatisfied in mind and angry with herself for making these concessions. She really believed in the love he professed for her, and did not think much the worse of him for being a man without income or occupation, and a gambler to boot; but she feared that a marriage with him would only make her miserable, and between her love for him, which could not be concealed, and the fear that he would eventually win her consent to be his wife, her mind was in a constant state of anxiety and restlessness. The little indiscretion he had been guilty of with Fan she had forgiven in her heart: that he had actually conceived a fondness for this poor young girl she could not believe, for in that case he would have been very careful not to do anything to betray it to the woman he wished to marry; but though she had forgiven him, she was resolved not to let him know it just yet, and so continued to be a little distant and formal in her manner, never calling him by his christian name, "Jack," as formerly, and not allowing him to call her "Pollie."
All this was nothing to Fan, as she very rarely saw him, but on the few occasions when she accidentally met him, in the house or when out walking, he always had that curious smile on his lips, and studied her face with a bold searching look in his eyes, which made her uncomfortable and even a little afraid.
One day, about the middle of December, Miss Starbrow began to speak to her about her future.
"You have improved wonderfully, Fan, since you first came," she said, "but I fear that this kind of improvement will not be of much practical use, and my conscience is not quite satisfied about you. I have taken this responsibility on myself, and must not go on shutting my eyes to it. Some day it will be necessary for you to go out into the world to earn your own living; that is what we have got to think about. Remember that you can't have me always to take care of you; I might go abroad, or die, or get married, and then you would be left to your own resources. You couldn't make your living by simply looking pretty; you must be useful as well as ornamental; and I have taught you nothing--teaching is not in my line. It would be a thousand pities if you were ever to sink down to the servant-girl level: we must think of something better than that. A young lady generally aspires to be a governess. But then she must know everything--music, drawing, French, German, Latin, mathematics, algebra;
all that she must have at her finger-ends, and be able to gabble political economy, science, and metaphysics to boot. All that is beyond you--unattainable as the stars. But you needn't break your heart about it. She doesn't get much. Her wages are about equal to those of a kitchen-maid, who can't spell, but only peel potatoes. And the more learned she is, the more she is disliked and snubbed by her betters; and she never marries, in spite of what the Family Herald says, but goes on toiling until she is fifty, and then retires to live alone on fifteen shillings a week in some cheap lodging for the remnant of her dreary life. No, poor Fan, you can't hope to be anything as grand as a governess."
Fan laughed a little: she had grown accustomed to and understood this half-serious mocking style of speech in which her mistress often indulged.
"But," she continued, "you might qualify yourself for some other kind of employment less magnificent, but still respectable, and even genteel enough. That of a nursery-governess, for instance; you are fond of children, and could teach them their letters. Or you could be companion to a lady; some simple-minded, old-fashioned dame who stays at home, and would not require you to know languages. Or, better still perhaps, you
might go into one of the large West End shops. I do not think it would be very difficult for you to get a place of that kind, as your appearance is so much in your favour. I know that your ambition is not a very soaring one, and a few months ago you would not have ventured to dream of ever being a young lady in a shop like Jay's or Peter Robinson's. Yet for such a place you would not have to study for years and pass a stiff examination, as a poor girl is obliged to do before she can make her living by sitting behind a counter selling penny postage-stamps. Homely girls can succeed there: for the fine shop a pretty face, an elegant
figure, and a pleasing lady-like manner are greatly prized--more than a knowledge of archaeology and the higher mathematics; and you possess all these essentials to start with. But whether you are destined to go into a shop or private house, it is important that you should make a better use of your time just now, while you are with me, and learn something--dressmaking, let us say, and all kinds of needlework; then you will at least be able to make your own clothes."
"I should like to learn that very much," said Fan eagerly.
"Very well, you shall learn then. I have been making inquiries, and find that there is a place in Regent Street, where for a moderate premium they do really succeed in teaching girls such things in a short time. I shall take you there tomorrow, and make all arrangements."
Very soon after this conversation Fan commenced her new work of learning dressmaking, going every morning by omnibus to Regent Street, lunching where she worked, and returning to Dawson Place at four o'clock. After the preliminary difficulties, or rather strangeness inseparable from a new occupation, had been got over, she began to find her work very agreeable. It was maintained by the teachers in the establishment she was in that by means of their system even a stupid girl could be taught the mystery of dressmaking in a little while. And Fan was not stupid, although she had an extremely modest opinion of her own abilities, and was not regarded by others as remarkably intelligent; but she was diligent and painstaking, and above everything anxious to please her mistress, who had paid extra money to ensure pains being taken with her. So rapid was her progress, that before the end of January Miss Starbrow bought some inexpensive material, and allowed her to make herself a
couple of dresses to wear in the house; and these first efforts resulted so well that a better stuff was got for a walking-dress.
The winter had thus far proved a full and happy one to Fan; in February she was even more fully occupied, and, if possible, happier; for after leaving the establishment in Regent Street, Miss Starbrow sent her to the school of embroidery in South Kensington to take lessons in a new and still more delightful art. But at the end of that month Fan unhappily, and from no fault of her own, fell into serious disgrace. She had gone to the Exhibition Road with a sample of her work on the morning of a bright windy day which promised to be dry; a little later Miss Starbrow also went out. Before noon the weather changed, and a heavy continuous rain began to fall. At one o'clock Miss Starbrow came home in a cab, and as
she went into the house it occurred to her to ask the maid if Fan had got very wet or had come in a cab. She knew that Fan had not taken an umbrella.
"No, ma'am; she walked home, but didn't get wet. A young gentleman came with her, and I s'pose he kept her dry with his umbrella."
"A young gentleman--are you quite sure?"
"Yes, ma'am, quite sure," she returned, indignant at having her sacred word doubted. "He was with her on the steps when I opened the door, and shook hands with her just like an old friend when he went away; and she was quite dry."
Miss Starbrow said no more. She knew that the servant, though no friend to Fan, would not have dared to invent a story of this kind, and resolved to say nothing, but to wait for the girl to give her own account of the matter.
Fan said nothing about it. On leaving the school of embroidery, seeing how threatening the sky was, she was hurrying towards the park, when the rain came down, and in a few moments she would have been wet through if help had not come in the shape of an umbrella held over her head by an attentive young stranger. He kept at her side all the way across the Gardens to Dawson Place, and Fan felt grateful for his kindness; she conversed with him during the walk, and at the door she had not refused to shake hands when he offered his. In ordinary circumstances, she would have made haste to tell her mistress all about it, thinking no harm;
unfortunately it happened that for some days Miss Starbrow had been in one of her worst moods, and during these sullen irritable periods Fan seldom spoke unless spoken to.
When Miss Starbrow found the girl in her room on going there, she looked keenly and not too kindly at her, and imagined that poor Fan wore a look of guilt on her face, whereas it was nothing but distress at her own continued ill-temper which she saw.
"I shall give her till tomorrow to tell me," thought the lady, "and if she says nothing, I shall conclude that she has made friends out of doors and wishes to keep it from me."
Fan knew nothing of what was passing in the other's mind; she only saw that her mistress was even less gracious to her than she had been, and thought it best to keep out of her sight. For the rest of the day not one word passed between them.
Next morning Fan got ready to go to Kensington, but first came in to her mistress as was her custom. Miss Starbrow was also dressed in readiness to go out; she was sitting apparently waiting to speak to Fan before leaving the house.
"Are you going out, Mary?" said Fan, a little timidly.
"Yes, I am going out," she returned coldly, and then seemed waiting for something more to be said.
"May I go now?" said Fan.
"No," the other returned after some moments. "Change your dress again and stay at home today." Presently she added, "You are learning a little too much in Exhibition Road--more, I fancy, than I bargained for."
Fan was silent, not knowing what was meant.
Then Miss Starbrow went out, but first she called the maid and told her to remove Fan's bed and toilet requisites out of her room into the back room.
Greatly distressed and perplexed at the unkind way she had been spoken to, Fan changed her dress and sat down in the cold back room to do some work. After a while she heard a great noise as of furniture being dragged about, and presently Rosie came in with the separate pieces of her dismantled bed.
"What are you doing with my things?" exclaimed Fan in surprise.
"Your things!" retorted Rosie, with scorn. "What your mistress told me to do, you cheeky little beggar! Your things indeed! 'Put a beggar on horseback and he'll ride to the devil,' and that's what Miss Starbrow's beginning to find out at last. And quite time, too! Embroidery! That's what you're going to wear perhaps when you're back in the slums you came from! I thought it wouldn't last!" And Rosie, banging the things about, pounding the mattress with clenched fist, and shaking the pillows like a terrier with a rat, kept up this strain of invective until she had finished her task, and then went off, well pleased to think that the day of her triumph was not perhaps very far distant.
On that day, however, Rosie herself was destined to experience great trouble of mind, and an anxiety about her future even exceeding that of Fan, who was spending the long hours alone in that big, cold, fireless room, grieving in her heart at the great change in her beloved mistress, and dropping many a tear on the embroidery in her hands.
It was about three o'clock, and feeling her fingers quite stiff with cold, she determined to go quietly down to the drawing-room in the hope of finding a fire lighted there so as to warm her hands. Miss Starbrow had not returned, and the house was very still, and after standing a few moments on the landing, anxious not to rouse the maid and draw a fresh volley of abuse on herself, she went softly down the stairs, and opened the drawing-room door. For a moment or two she stood motionless, and then muttering some incoherent apology turned and fled back to her room. For there, very much at his ease, sat Captain Horton, with Rosie on his knees, her arms about his neck, and her lips either touching his or in
very close proximity to them.
Rosie slipped from her seat, and the Captain stood up, but the intruder had seen and gone, and their movements were too late.
"The spy! the cat!" snapped Rosie, grown suddenly pale with anger and
"It's very fine to abuse the girl," said the Captain; "but it was all through your infernal carelessness. Why didn't you lock the door?"
"Oh, you're going to blame me! That's like a man. Perhaps you're in love with the cat. I s'pose you think she's pretty."
"I'd like to twist her neck, and yours too, for a fool. If any trouble comes you will be to blame."
"Say what you like, I don't care. There'll be trouble enough, you may be sure."
"Do you mean to say that she will dare to tell?"
"Tell! She'll only be too glad of the chance. She'll tell everything to Miss Starbrow, and she hates me and hates you like poison. It would be very funny if she didn't tell."
He walked about the room fuming.
"It will be as bad for you as for me," he said.
"No, it won't. I can get another place, I s'pose."
"Oh, yes; very fine, and be a wretched slavey all your life, if you like that. You know very well that I have promised you two hundred pounds the day I marry your mistress."
"Yes; because I'm not a fool, and you can't help yourself. Don't think I want to marry you. Not me! Keep your love for Miss Starbrow, and much you'll get out of her!"
"You idiot!" he began; but seeing that she was half sobbing he said no more, and continued walking about the room. Presently he came back to her. "It's no use quarrelling," he said. "If anything can be done to get out of this infernal scrape it will only be by our acting together. Since this wretched Fan has been in the house, Miss Starbrow is harder than ever to get on with; and even if Fan holds her tongue about this--"
"She won't hold her tongue."
"But even if she should, we'll never do any good while she has that girl to amuse herself with. You know perfectly well, Rosie, that if there is anyone I really love it is you; but then we've both of us got to do the best we can for ourselves. I shall love you just the same after I am married, and if you still should like me, why then, Rosie, we might be able to enjoy ourselves very well. But if Fan tells at once what she saw just now, then it will be all over with us--with you, at any rate."
"She won't tell at once--not while her mistress is in her tantrums. The little cat keeps out of her way then. Not today, and perhaps not tomorrow; and the day after I think Miss Starbrow's going to visit her friends at Croydon. That's what she said; and if she goes, she'll be out all day."
"Oh!" ejaculated the Captain; then rising he carefully closed and locked the door before continuing the conversation. They were both very much interested in it; but when it was at last over, and the Captain took his departure, Rosie did not bounce away as usual with tumbled hair and merry flushed face. She left the drawing-room looking pale and a little scared perhaps, and for the rest of the day was unusually silent and subdued.