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)
One afternoon, returning from Westbourne Grove, where she had been out to buy flowers for the table, on coming into the hall, Fan was surprised to hear Miss Starbrow in the dining-room talking to a stranger, with a cheerful ring in her voice, which had not been heard for many weeks. She was about to run upstairs to her room, when her mistress called out, "Is that you, Fan? Come in here; I want you."
Miss Starbrow and her visitor were sitting near the window. How changed she looked, with her cheeks so full of rich red colour, and her dark eyes sparkling with happy, almost joyous excitement! But she did not speak when Fan, blushing a little with shyness, advanced into the room and stood before them, her eyes cast down in a pretty confusion. Smiling, she
watched the girl's face, then the face of her guest, her eyes bright and mirthful glancing from one to the other. Fan, looking up, saw before her a tall broad-shouldered young man with good features, hair almost black; no beard, but whiskers and moustache, very dark brown; and, in strange contrast, grey-blue eyes. Over these eyes, too light in colour to match the hair, the eyelids drooped a little, giving to them that partially-closed sleepy appearance which is often deceptive. Just now they were studying the girl standing before him with very keen interest. A slender girl, not quite sixteen years old, in a loose and broad-sleeved olive-green dress, and yellow scarf at the neck; brown straw hat trimmed with spring flowers; flowers also in her hand, yellow and white, and ferns, in a great loose bunch; and her golden hair hanging in a braid on her back. But the face must be imagined, white and delicate and indescribably lovely in its tender natural pallor.
"Fan," said Miss Starbrow at last, and speaking with a merry smile, "this is my brother Tom, from Manchester, you have so often heard me speak of. Tom, this is Fan."
"Well," exclaimed Miss Starbrow, after he had shaken hands with Fan and sat down again, "what do you think of my little girl? You have heard all about her, and now you have seen her, and I am waiting to hear your opinion."
"Do you remember the old days at home, Mary, when we were all together? How you do remind me of them now!"
"Oh, bother the old days! You know how I hated them, and I--why don't you answer my question, Tom?"
"That's just it," he returned. "It was always the same: you always wanted an answer before the question was out of your mouth. Now, it was quite different with the rest of us."
"Yes, you were a slow lot. Do you remember Jacob?--it always took him fifteen minutes to say yes or no. There's an animal--I forget what it's called--rhinoceros or something--at the Zoo that always reminds me of him; he was so fearfully ponderous."
"Yes, that's all very well, Mary, but I fancy he's more than doubled the fortune the gov'nor left him; so he has been ponderous to some purpose."
"Has he? how? But what do I care! Tom, you'll drive me crazy--why can't you answer a simple question instead of going off into fifty other things?"
"Well, Mary, if you'll kindly explain which of all the questions you have asked me during the last minute or two, I'll try my best."
She frowned, made an impatient gesture, then laughed.
"Go upstairs and take off your things, Fan," she said. "Well?" she continued, turning to her brother again, and finding his eyes fixed on her face. "Do you tell me, Mary, that this white girl was born and bred in a London slum, that her drunken mother was killed in a street fight, and that she had no other life but that until you picked her up?"
"Can't you say Mon Dieu, Tom? Your north-country expressions sound rather shocking to London ears."
He rose, and coming to her side put his arm about her and kissed her cheek very heartily.
"You were always a good old girl, Mary," he said, "and you are one still, in spite of your vagaries."
"Thank you for your very equivocal compliments," she returned, administering a slight box on his ear. "And now tell me what you think of Fan?"
"I'll tell you presently, if you have not guessed already; but I'd like to know first what you are going to do with her."
"I don't know; I can't bother about it just now. There's plenty of time to think of that. Perhaps I'll make a lady's-maid of her, though it doesn't seem quite the right thing to do."
"No, it doesn't. Don't go and spoil what you have done by any such folly as that."
"Do you want me to make a lady of her--or what?"
"A lady? Well that is a difficult question to answer; but I have heard that sometimes ladies, like poets, are born, not made. At all events, it would not be right, I fancy, to keep the girl here. It might give rise to disagreeable complications, as you always have a parcel of fellows hanging about you."
Her face darkened with a frown.
"Now, Mary, don't get into a tantrum; it is best for us to be frank. And I say frankly that you never did a better thing in your life than when you took this girl into your house, if my judgment is worth anything. My advice is, send her away for a time--for a year or two, say. She is young, and would be better for a little more teaching. There are poor gentlefolks all over the country who are only too glad to take a girl when they can get one, and give her a pleasant home and instruction for a moderate sum. Find out some such place, and give her a year of it at least; and then if you should have her back she would be more of a companion for you, and, if not, she would be better able to earn her own living. Take my advice, Mary, and finish a good work properly."
"A good work! You have nearly spoilt the effect of everything you said by that word. I never have done and never will do good works. It is not my nature, Tom. What I have done for Fan is purely from selfish motives. The fact is I fell in love with the girl, and my reward is in being loved by her and seeing her happy. It would be ridiculous to call that benevolence."
He smiled and shook his head. "You can abuse yourself if you like, Mary; we came from Dissenters, and that's a fashion of theirs--"
"Cant and hypocrisy is a fashion of theirs, if you like," she interrupted. "You are not going the right way about it if you wish me to pay any attention to your advice."
"Come, Mary, don't let us quarrel. I'll agree with you that we are all a lot of selfish beggars; and I'll even confess that I have a selfish motive in advising you to send the girl away to the country for a time."
"What is your motive?" she asked.
"Well, I hate going slap-dash into the middle of a thing without any preface; I like to approach it in my own way."
"Yes, I know; your way of approaching a subject is to walk in a circle round it. But please dash into the middle of it for once."
"Well, then, to tell you the plain truth, I am beginning to think that money-getting is not the only thing in life--"
"What a discovery for a Manchester man to make! The millennium must have dawned at last on your smoky old town!"
He laughed at her words, but refused to go on with the subject.
"I was only teasing you a little," he said. "It gladdens me even to see you put yourself in a temper, Mary--it brings back old times when we were always such good friends, and sometimes had such grand quarrels."
Mary also laughed, and rang the bell for afternoon tea. She was curious to hear about the "selfish motive," but remembered the family failing, and forbore to press him.
According to his own accounts, Mr. Tom Starbrow was up in town on business; apparently the business was not of a very pressing nature, as most of his time during the next few days was spent at Dawson Place, where he and his sister had endless conversations about old times. Then he would go with Fan to explore Whiteley's, which seemed to require a
great deal of exploring; and from these delightful rambles they would return laden with treasures--choice bon-bons, exotic flowers and hot-house grapes at five or six shillings a pound; quaint Japanese knick-knacks; books and pictures, and photographs of celebrated men--great beetle-browed philosophers, and men of blood and thunder; also of women still more celebrated, on and off the stage. Mr. Starbrow would have nothing sent; the whole fun of the thing, he assured Fan, was in carrying all their purchases home themselves; and so, laden with innumerable small parcels, they would return chatting and laughing like the oldest and best of friends, happy and light-hearted as children.
At last one day Mr. Starbrow went back to the old subject. "Mary, my girl," he said, "have you thought over the advice I gave you about this white child of yours?"
"No, certainly not; we were speaking of it when you broke off in the middle of a sentence, if you remember. You can finish the sentence now if you like, but don't be in a hurry."
"Well then, to come at once to the very pith of the whole matter, I think I've been sticking to the mill long enough--for the present. And it may come to pass that some day I shall be married, and then----"
"Your second state will be worse than your first."
"That will be according to how it turns out. I was only going to say that a married man finds it more difficult to do some things."
"To flirt with pretty young girls, for instance?"
"No, no. But I haven't finished yet. I haven't even come to the matter at all."
"Oh, you haven't! How strange!"
He smiled and was silent.
"I hope, Tom, you'll marry a big strong woman."
"Because you want an occasional good shaking."
"You see, my difficulty is this," he began again, without noticing the last speech. "When I tell you what I want, I'm afraid you'll only laugh at me and refuse my request."
"It won't hurt you much, poor old Tom, if I do laugh."
"No, perhaps not--I never thought of that." Then he proceeded to explain that he had made up his mind to spend two or three years in seeing the world, or at all events that portion of it to be found outside of England; and the first year he wished to spend on the Continent. Alone he feared that he would have a miserable time of it; but if his sister would only consent to accompany him, then he thought it would be most enjoyable; for he would have her society, and her experience of travel, and knowledge of German and French, would also smooth the way. "Now, Mary," he concluded--it had taken him half an hour to say this--"don't say No just yet. I know I shall be an awful weight for you to drag about, I'll be so helpless at hotels and stations and such places. But there will perhaps be one advantage to you. I know you spend rather freely, and your income is not too large, and I dare say you have exceeded it a little. Now, if you will give a year to me, and have your house shut up or let in the meantime, there would be a year's income saved to put you straight again."
"That means, Tom, that you would pay all my expenses while we were abroad?"
"Well, sis, I couldn't well take you away from your own life and pleasures and ask you to pay your own. That would be a strangely one-sided proposal to make."
"I must take time to think about it."
"That's a good girl. And, Mary, what would it cost to put this girl with some family where she would have a pleasant home and be taught for a year?"
"About sixty or seventy pounds, I suppose. Then there would be her clothing, and pocket-money, and incidental expenses--altogether a hundred pounds, I dare say."
"And you would let me pay this also?"
"No indeed, Tom. Three or four months would be quite time enough to put me straight; and if I consent to go, it must be understood that there are to be no presents, and nothing except travelling expenses."
"All right, Mary; you haven't consented yet definitely, but it is a great relief that you do not scout the idea, and tell me to go and buy a ticket at Ludgate Circus."
"Well, no, I couldn't well say that, considering that you are the only one of the family who has treated me rightly, and that I care anything about." She laughed a little, and presently continued: "I dare say the others are all well enough in their way; they are all honest men, of
course, and someone says, 'An honest man's the noblest work of God.' For my part, I think it His poorest work. Fancy dull, slow old calculating Jacob being the noblest work of the Being that created--what shall I say?--this violet, or--"
"Fan," suggested her brother.
"Yes, Fan if you like. By the way, Tom, before I forget to mention it, I think you are a little in love with Fan."
Tom, taken off his guard, blushed hotly, which would not have mattered if his sister's keen eyes had not been watching his face.
"What nonsense you talk!" he exclaimed a little too warmly. "In love with a child!"
"Yes, I know she's but a lassie yet," replied his sister with a mocking laugh.
It was too much for his Starbrow temper, and taking up his hat he rose and marched angrily out of the room--angry as much with himself as with his sister. But in a moment she was after him, and before he could open the hall door her arms were round his neck.
"Oh, Tom, you foolish fellow, can't you take a little joke good-humouredly?" she said. "I'm afraid our year on the Continent will be a very short one if you are going to be so touchy."
"Then you will consent?" he said, glad to change the subject and be friendly again.
And a day or two later she did finally consent to accompany him. His proposal had come at an opportune moment, when she was heartsore, and restless, and anxious to escape from the painful memories and associations of the past month.
One of her first steps was to advertise in the papers for a home with tuition for a girl under sixteen, in a small family residing in a rural district in the west or south-west of England. The answers were to be addressed to her newspaper agent, who was instructed not to forward them to her in driblets, but deliver them all together.
Mr. Starbrow stayed another week in town, and during that time he went somewhere every day with his sister and Fan; they drove in the Park, went to picture galleries, to morning concerts, and then, if not tired, to a theatre in the evening. It was consequently a very full week to Fan, who now for the first time saw something of the hidden wonders and glories of London. And she was happy; but this novel experience--the sight of all that unimagined wealth of beauty--was even less to her than Mary's perfect affection, which was now no longer capricious, bursting forth at rare intervals like sunshine out of a stormy sky. Then that week in fairyland was over, and Tom Starbrow went back to Manchester to arrange his affairs; but before going he presented Fan with a very beautiful lady's watch and chain, the watch of chased gold with blue enamelled face.
"I do not wish you to forget me, Fan," he said, holding her hand in his, and looking into her young face smilingly, yet with a troubled expression in his eyes, "and there is nothing like a watch to remind you of an absent friend; sometimes it will even repeat his words if you listen attentively to its little ticking language. It is something like the sea-shell that whispers about the ocean waves when you hold it to your ear."
That pretty little speech only served to make the gift seem more precious to Fan; for she was not critical, and it did not sound in the least studied to her. It was delivered, however, when Mary was out of the room; when she returned and saw the watch, after congratulating the girl she threw a laughing and somewhat mocking glance at her brother; for which Tom was prepared, and so he met it bravely, and did not blush or lose his temper.
In due time the answers to the advertisement arrived--in a sack, for they numbered about four hundred.
"Oh, how will you ever be able to read them all!" exclaimed Fan, staring in a kind of dismay at the pile, where Miss Starbrow had emptied them on the carpet.
"I have no such mad intention," said the other with a laugh, and turning them over with her pretty slippered foot. "As a rule people that answer advertisements--especially women--are fools. If you advertise for a piece of old point lace, about a thousand people who have not got such a thing will write to say that they will sell you wax flowers, old books, ostrich feathers, odd numbers of Myra's Journal, or any rubbish they may have by them; I dare say that most of the writers of these letters are just as wide of the mark. Sit here at my feet, Fan; and you shall open the letters for me and read the addresses. No, not that way with your fingers. If you stop to tear them to pieces, like a hungry cat tearing its meat, it will take too long. Use the paper-knife, and open them neatly and quickly."
Fan began her task, and found scores of letters from the suburbs of London and all parts of the kingdom, from Land's End to the north of Scotland; and in nine cases out of ten after reading the address her mistress would say, "Tear it twice across, and throw it into the basket, Fan."
It seemed a pity to Fan to tear them up unread; for some were so long and so beautifully written, with pretty little crests at the top of the page; but Mary knew her own mind, and would not relent so far as even to look at one of these wasted specimens of calligraphic art. In less than an hour's time the whole heap had been disposed of, with the exception of fifteen or twenty letters selected for consideration on account of their addresses. These Miss Starbrow carefully went over, and finally selecting one she read it aloud to Fan. It was from a Mrs. Churton, an elderly lady, residing with her husband, a retired barrister, and her daughter, in their own house at a small place called Eyethorne, in Wiltshire. She offered to take the girl into her house, treat her as her own child, and give her instruction, for seventy pounds a year. The tuition would be undertaken by the daughter, who was well qualified for such a task, and could teach languages--Latin, German, and French were mentioned; also mathematics, geology, history, music, drawing, and a great many other
branches of knowledge, both useful and ornamental.
Fan listened to this part of the letter with a look of dismay on her face, which made Miss Starbrow laugh.
"Why, my child, what more can you want?" she said.
"Don't you think it a little too much, Mary?" she returned with some distress, which made the other laugh again.
"Well, my poor girl, you needn't study Greek and archaeology and logarithms unless you feel inclined. But if you ever take a fancy for such subjects it will always be a comfort to know that you may dive down as deeply as you like without knocking your head on the bottom. I mean that you will never get to know too much for Miss Churton, who knows more than all the professors put together."
"Do you think she will be nice?" said Fan, wandering from the subject.
"Nice! That depends on your own taste. I fancy I can draw a picture of what she is like. A tall thin lady of an uncertain age. Thin across here"--placing her hands on her own shoulders. "And very flat here," --touching her own well-developed bust.
"But I should like to know about her face."
"Should you? I'm afraid that it is not a very bright smiling face, that it is rather yellow in colour, that the hair is rather dead-looking, of the door-mat tint, and smoothed flat down. The eyes are dim, no doubt, from much reading, and the nose long, straddled with a pair of spectacles, and red at the end from dyspepsia and defective circulation. But never mind, Fan, you needn't look so cast down about it. Miss Churton will be your teacher, and I wish you joy, but you will have plenty of time for play, and other things to think of besides study. When your lessons are over you can chase butterflies and gather flowers if you like. Luckily Miss Churton has not included botany and entomology in the long list of her acquirements."
Fan did not quite understand all this; her mistress was always mocking at something, she knew; she only asked if it was really in the country where she would live.
Miss Starbrow took up the letter and read the remaining portion, which contained a description of Wood End House--the Churtons' residence--and its surroundings. The house, the writer said, was small, but pretty and comfortable; and there was a nice garden and a large orchard with fruit in abundance. There were also some fields and meadows, her own property, let to neighbouring farmers. East of the house, and within fifteen minutes walk, was the old picturesque village of Eyethorne, sheltered by a range of grassy hills; also within a few minutes' walk began the extensive Eyethorne woods, celebrated for their beauty.
Nothing could have been more charming than this, and the picture of garden and orchard, green meadows and hills and shady woods, almost reconciled Fan to the prospect of spending a whole year in the society of an aged and probably ailing couple, and a lady of uncertain age, deeply learned and of unprepossessing appearance--for she could not rid her mind of the imaginary portrait drawn by Mary.
For some mysterious reason, or for no reason, Miss Starbrow resolved to close at once with the Churtons; and as if fearing that her mind might alter, she immediately tore up the other letters, although in some of them greater advantages had been held out, lower terms, and the companionship of girls of the same age as Fan. And in a very few days, after a little further correspondence, everything was settled to the entire satisfaction of everyone concerned, and it was arranged that Fan should go down to Eyethorne on the 10th of May, which was now very near.
"I shall have one good dress made for you," said Miss Starbrow, "and you can take the material to make a second for yourself; you are growing just now, Fan. A nice dress for Sundays; down in the country most people go to church. And, by the way, Fan, have you ever been inside a church in your life?"
She seemed not to know how to answer this question, but at length spoke, a little timidly. "Not since I have lived with you, Mary."
"Is that intended for a sarcasm, Fan? But never mind, I know what you mean. When you are at Eyethorne you must still bear that in mind, and even if questioned about it, never speak of that old life in Moon Street. I suppose I must get you a prayer-book, and--show you how to use it. But about dress. Your body is very much more important than your soul, and
how to clothe it decently and prettily must be our first consideration. We must go to Whiteley's and select materials for half a dozen pretty summer dresses. Blue, I fancy, suits you best, but you can have other colours as well."
"Oh, Mary," said the girl with strange eagerness, "will you let me choose one myself? I have so long wished to wear white! May I have one white dress?f>"
"White? You are so white yourself. Don't you think you look simple and innocent enough as it is? But please yourself, Fan, you shall have as many white dresses as you like."
So overjoyed was Fan at having this long-cherished wish at last gratified that, for the first time she had ever ventured to do such a thing, she threw her arms round Mary's neck and kissed her. Then starting back a little frightened, she exclaimed, "Mary, was it wrong for me to kiss you without being told?"
"No, dear, kiss me as often as you like. We have had a rather eventful year together, have we not? Clouds and storms and some pleasant sunshine. For these few remaining days there must be no clouds, but only perfect love and peace. The parting will come quickly enough, and who knows--who knows what changes another year will bring?"