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.
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Fan, the Story of a Young Girl's Life (1892)
by Henry Harford (W.H. Hudson)
At the last moment, when all the preparations were complete, Miss Starbrow determined to accompany Fan to her new home, and, after dropping her there, to pay a long-promised visit before leaving England to an old friend of her girlhood, who was now married and living at Salisbury. Eyethorne took her some distance out of her way; and at the small country station where they alighted, which was two and a half miles from the village, she found from the time-table that her interview with the Churtons would have to be a short one, as there was only one train which would take her to Salisbury so as to arrive there at a reasonably early hour in the evening. At the station they took a fly, and the drive to Eyethorne brought before Fan's eyes a succession of charming scenes--green hills, broad meadows yellow with buttercups, deep shady lanes, and old farm-houses. The spring had been cold and backward; but since the
beginning of May there had been days of warm sunshine with occasional gentle rains, and the trees, both shade and fruit, had all at once rushed into leaf and perfect bloom. Such vivid and tender greens as the foliage showed, such a wealth of blossom on every side, such sweet fragrance filling the warm air, Fan had never imagined; and yet how her prophetic heart had longed for the sweet country!
A sudden turn of the road brought them in full sight of the village, sheltered on the east side by low green hills; and beyond the village, at some distance, a broad belt of wood, the hills on one hand and green meadowland on the other. Five minutes after leaving the village they drew
up at the gate of Wood End House, which was at some distance back from the road almost hidden from sight by the hedge and trees, and was approached by a short avenue of elms. Arrived at the house, they were received by Mr. and Mrs. Churton, and ushered into a small drawing-room on the ground floor; a room which, with its heavy-looking, old-fashioned furniture, seemed gloomy to them on coming in from the bright sunshine.
Mrs. Churton was rather large, approaching stoutness in her figure, grey-haired with colourless face, and a somewhat anxious expression; but she seemed very gentle and motherly, and greeted Fan with a kindliness in her voice and manner which served in a great measure to remove the girl's nervousness on coming for the first time as an equal among gentlefolks.
Mr. Churton had not, in a long married life, grown like his spouse in any way, nor she like him. He was small, with a narrow forehead, irregular face and projecting under-lip, which made him ugly. His eyes were of that common no-colour type, and might or might not have been pigmented, and classifiable as brown or blue--Dr. Broca himself would not have been able to decide. But the absence of any definite colour was of less account than the lack of any expression, good or bad. One wondered, on seeing his face, how he could be a retired barrister, unless it meant merely that in the days of his youth he had made some vague and feeble efforts at entering such a profession, ending in nothing. Possibly he was himself
conscious that his face lacked a quality found in others, and failed to inspire respect and confidence; for he had a trick of ostentatiously clearing his throat, and looking round and speaking in a deliberate and somewhat consequential manner, as if by these little arts to counterbalance the weakness in the expression. His whole get-up also suggested the same thought--could anyone believe the jewel to be missing from a casket so elaborately chased? His grey hair was brushed sprucely up on each side of his head, the ends of the locks forming a
supplementary pair of ears above the crown. He was scrupulously dressed in black cloth and spotless linen, with a very large standing-up collar. In manner he was gushingly amiable and polite towards Miss Starbrow, and as he stood bowing and smiling and twirling the cord of his gold-rimmed glasses about his finger, he talked freely to that lady of the lovely weather, the beauty of the country, the pleasures of the spring season, and in fact of everything except the business which had brought her there. Presently she cut short his flow of inconsequent talk by remarking that her time was short, and inquiring if Miss Churton were in.
Mrs. Churton quickly replied that she was expecting her every moment; that she had gone out for a short walk, and had not perhaps seen the fly arrive. No doubt, she added a little nervously, Miss Starbrow would like to see and converse with Miss Affleck's future teacher and companion.
"Oh, no, not at all!" promptly replied the other, with the habitual curling of the lip. "I came to-day by the merest chance, as everything had been arranged by correspondence, and I am quite satisfied that Miss Affleck will be in good hands." At which Mr. Churton bowed, and turning bestowed a fatherly smile on Fan. "It is not at all necessary for me to
see Miss Churton," continued Miss Starbrow, "but there is one thing I wish to speak to you about, which I omitted to mention in my letters to you."
Mr. and Mrs. Churton were all attention, but before the other had begun to speak Miss Churton came in, her hat on, and with a sunshade in one hand and a book in the other.
"Here is my daughter," said the mother. "Constance, Miss Starbrow and Miss Affleck."
Miss Churton advanced to the first lady, but did not give her hand as she had meant to do; for the moment she appeared in the room and her name was mentioned a cloud had come over the visitor's face, and she merely bowed distantly without stirring from her seat.
For the real Miss Churton offered a wonderful contrast to that portrait of her which the other had drawn from her imagination. She might almost be called tall, her height being little less than that of the dark-browed lady who sat before her, regarding her with cold critical eyes; but in figure she was much slimmer, and her light-coloured dress, which was
unfashionable in make, was pretty and became her. She was, in fact, only twenty-two years old. There were no lines of deep thought on her pure white forehead when she removed her hat; and no dimness from much reading of books in her clear hazel eyes, which seemed to Fan the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen, so much sweet sympathy did they show, and so much confidence did they inspire. In colour she was very rich, her skin being of that tender brown one occasionally sees in the face of a young lady in the country, which seems to tell of a pleasant leisurely life in woods and fields; while her abundant hair was of a tawny brown tint with bronze reflections. She was very beautiful, and when, turning from Miss Starbrow, she advanced to Fan and gave her hand, the girl almost trembled
with the new keen sensation of pleasure she experienced. Miss Churton was so different from that unlovely mental picture of her! She imagined for a moment, poor girl, that Mary would show her feelings of relief and pleasure; but she quickly perceived that something had brought a sudden cloud over Mary's face, and it troubled her, and she wondered what it meant.
Before Miss Churton had finished welcoming Fan, Miss Starbrow, looking at her watch and directly addressing the elder lady, said in a cold voice:
"I think it would be as well if Miss Affleck could leave us for a few minutes, and I will then finish what I had begun to say."
Miss Churton looked inquiringly at her, then turned again to Fan.
"Will you come with me to the garden?" she said.
Fan rose and followed her through a back door opening on to a grassy lawn, beyond which were the garden and orchard. After crossing the lawn and going a little way among the shrubs and flowers they came in sight of a large apple-tree white with blossoms.
"Oh, can we go as far as that tree?" asked the girl after a little delighted exclamation at the sight. When they reached the tree she went under it and gazed up into the beautiful flowery cloud with wide-open eyes, and lips half-parted with a smile of ineffable pleasure.
Miss Churton stood by and silently watched her face for some moments.
"Do you think you will like your new home, Miss Affleck?" she asked.
"Oh, how lovely it all is--the flowers!" she exclaimed. "I didn't know that there was any place in the world so beautiful as this! I should like to stay here for ever!"
"But have you never been in the country before?" said the other with some surprise.
"Yes. Only once, for a few days, years ago. But it was not like this. It was very beautiful in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, but this--"
She could find no words to express her feeling; she could only stand gazing up, and touching the white and pink clustering blossoms with her finger-tips, as if they were living things to be gently caressed. "Oh, it is so sweet," she resumed. "I have always so wished to be in the country, but before Miss Starbrow took me to live with her, and before--they--
mother died, we lived in a very poor street, and were always so poor and --" Then she reddened and cast down her eyes and was silent, for she had suddenly remembered that Miss Starbrow had warned her never to speak of her past life.
Miss Churton smiled slightly, but with a strange tenderness in her eyes as she watched the girl's face.
"I hope we shall get on well together, and that you will like me a little," she said.
"Oh, yes, I know I shall like you if--if you will not think me very stupid. I know so little, and you know so much. Must you always call me Miss Affleck?"
"Not if you would prefer me to call you Frances. I should like that better."
"That would seem so strange, Miss Churton. I have always been called Fan."
Just then the others were seen coming out to the garden, and Miss Churton and Fan went back to meet them. Mr. Churton, polite and bare-headed, hovered about his visitor, smiling, gesticulating, chattering, while she answered only in monosyllables, and was blacker-browed than ever. Mrs. Churton, silent and pale, walked at her side, turning from time to time a
troubled look at the dark proud face, and wondering what its stormy expression might mean.
"Fan," said Miss Starbrow, without even a glance at the lady at Fan's
side, "my time is nearly up, and I wish to have three or four minutes alone with you before saying good-bye."
The others at once withdrew, going back to the house, while Miss Starbrow sat down on a garden bench and drew the girl to her side. "Well, my child, what do you think of your new teacher?" she began.
"I like her so much, Mary, I'm sure--I know she will be very kind to me; and is she not beautiful?"
"I am not going to talk about that, Fan. I haven't time. But I want to say something very serious to you. You know, my girl, that when I took you out of such a sad, miserable life to make you happy, I said that it was not from charity, and because I loved my fellow-creatures or the poor better than others; but solely because I wanted you to love me, and your affection was all the payment I ever expected or expect. But now I foresee that something will happen to make a change in you--"
"I can never change, or love you less than now, Mary!"
"So you imagine, but I can see further. Do you know, Fan, that you cannot give your heart to two persons; that if you give your whole heart to this lady you think so beautiful and so kind, and who will be paid for her kindness, that her gain will be my loss?"
Fan, full of strange trouble, put her trembling hand on the other's hand. "Tell me how it will be your loss, Mary," she said. "I don't think I understand."
"I was everything to you before, Fan. I don't want a divided affection, and I shall not share your affection with this woman, however beautiful and kind she may be; or, rather, I shall not be satisfied with what is over after you have begun to worship her. Your love is a kind of worship, Fan, and you cannot possibly have that feeling for more than one person, although you will find it easy enough to transfer it from one to another. If you do not quite understand me yet, you must think it over and try to find out what I mean. But I warn you, Fan, that if ever you transfer the affection you have felt for me to this woman, or this girl, then you shall cease to be anything to me. You shall be no more to me than you were before I first saw you and felt a strange wish to take you to my heart; when you were in rags and half-starved, and without one friend in the world."
The tears started to the girl's eyes, and she threw her arms round the other's neck. "Oh, Mary, nothing, nothing will ever make me love you less! Will you not believe me, Mary?"
"Yes, dear Fan, don't cry. Good-bye, my darling. Write to me at least once every fortnight, and when you want money or anything let me know, and you shall have it. And when May comes round again let me see you unchanged in heart, but with an improved mind and a little colour in your dear pale face."
After Miss Starbrow's departure Fan was shown to her room, where her luggage had already been taken by the one indoor servant, a staid, middle-aged woman. It was a light, prettily furnished apartment on the first floor, with a large window looking on to the garden at the back. There were flowers on the dressing-table--Miss Churton had placed them there, she thought--and the warm fragrant air coming in at the open window seemed to bring nature strangely near to her. Looking away, where the trees did not intercept the view, it was all green country--gently-sloping hills, and the long Eyethorne wood, and rich meadow-land, where sleepy-looking cows stood in groups or waded knee-deep in the pasture. It
was like an earthly paradise to her senses, but just now her mind was clouded with a great distress. Mary's strange words to her, and the warning that she would be cast out of Mary's heart, that it would be again with her as it had been before entering into this new life of
beautiful scenes and sweet thoughts and feelings, if she allowed herself to love her new teacher and companion, filled her with apprehension. She sat by the window looking out, but with a dismayed expression in her young eyes; and then she remembered how Mary, in a sudden tempest of rage, had once struck her, and how her heart had almost burst with grief at that unjust blow; and now it seemed to her that Mary's words if not her hand had dealt her a second blow, which was no less unjust; and covering her face with her hands she cried silently to herself. Then she remembered how quickly Mary had repented and had made amends, loving her more tenderly after having ill-treated her in her anger. It consoled her to think that Mary had so great an affection for her; and perhaps, she thought, the warning was necessary; perhaps if she allowed her heart to have its way, and to give all that this lovely and loving girl seemed to
ask, Mary would be less to her than she had been. She resolved that she would strive religiously to obey Mary's wishes, that she would keep a watch over herself, and not allow any such tender feelings as she had experienced in the garden to overcome her again. She would be Miss Churton's pupil, but not the intimate, loving friend and companion she had hoped to be after first seeing her.
While Fan sat by herself, occupied with her little private trouble, which did not seem little to her, downstairs in the small drawing-room there was another trouble.
"Before you go up to your room I wish to speak to you, Constance," said her mother.
Miss Churton stood swinging her straw hat by its ribbon, silently waiting to hear the rest.
"All right, Jane," said Mr. Churton to his wife. "I am just going to run up to the village for an hour. You don't require me any more, do you?"
"I think you should remain here until this matter is settled, and Constance is made clearly to understand what Miss Starbrow's wishes are. My wishes, which will be considered of less moment, I have no doubt, shall be stated afterwards."
"Very well, my dear, I will do anything you like. At the same time, I think I really must be going. I have been kept in all day, you know, and should like to take a little--ahem--constitutional."
"Yes, Nathaniel, I have no doubt you would. But consider me a little in this. I have succeeded in getting this girl, and you know how much the money will be to us. Do you think it too much to keep away from your favourite haunt in the village for a single day?"
"Oh, come, come, Jane. It's all right, my dear. I'm sure Miss Starbrow was greatly pleased at everything. You can settle all the rest with Constance. I think she's quite intelligent enough to understand the matter without my presence." And here Mr. Churton gave vent to a slight
"I insist on your staying here, Nathaniel. You know how little regard our daughter has for my wishes or commands; and as Miss Starbrow has spoken to us both, you cannot do less than remain to corroborate what I have to tell Constance."
Her daughter reddened at this speech, but remained silent.
"Well, well, my dear, if you will only come to the point!" he exclaimed impatiently.
"Constance, will you give me your attention?" said her mother, turning to her.
"Yes, mother, I am attending."
"Miss Starbrow has informed us that Miss Affleck, although of gentle birth on her father's side, was unhappily left to be brought up in a very poor quarter of London, among people of a low class. She has had little instruction, except that of the Board School, and never had the advantage of associating with those of a better class until this lady rescued her from her unfortunate surroundings. She is of a singularly sweet, confiding disposition, Miss Starbrow says, and has many other good qualities which only require a suitable atmosphere to be developed. Miss Starbrow will value at its proper worth the instruction you will give her; and as to subjects, she has added nothing to what she had written to us, except that she does not wish you to force any study on the girl to which she may show a disinclination, but rather to find out for yourself any natural aptitude she may possess. And what she particularly requests of us is, that no questions shall be put to her and no reference made to her early life in London. She wishes the girl to forget, if possible, her suffering and miserable childhood."
"I shall be careful not to make any allusion to it," replied the other, her face brightening with new interest. "Poor girl! She began to say something to me about her early life in London when we were in the garden, and then checked herself. I dare say Miss Starbrow has told her not to speak of it."
"Then I suppose you had already begun to press her with questions about it?" quickly returned Mrs. Churton.
"No; she spoke quite spontaneously. The flowers, the garden, the beauty of the country, so strangely different to her former surroundings--that suggested what she said, I think."
Her mother looked unconvinced. "Will you remember, Constance, that it is Miss Starbrow's wish that such subjects are not to be brought up and encouraged in your conversations with Miss Affleck? I cannot command you. It would be idle to expect obedience to any command of mine from you. I can only appeal to your interest, or whatever it is you now regard as your higher law."
"I have always obeyed you, mother," returned Miss Churton with warmth. "I shall, as a matter of course, respect Miss Starbrow's and your wishes in this instance. You know that you can trust me, or ought to know, and there is no occasion to insult me."
"Insult you, Constance! How can you have the face to say such a thing, when you know that your whole life is one continual act of disobedience to me! Unhappy girl that you are, you disobey your God and Creator, and are in rebellion against Him--how little a thing then must disobedience to your mother seem!"
Miss Churton's face grew red and pale by turns. "Mother," she replied, with a ring of pain in her voice, "I have always respected your opinions and feelings, and shall continue to do so, and try my best to please you. But it is hard that I should have to suffer these unprovoked attacks; and it seems strange that the girl's coming should be made the occasion for one, for I had hoped that her presence in the house would have made my life more bearable."
"You refer to Miss Affleck's coming," said her mother, without stopping to reply to anything else, "and I am glad of it, for it serves to remind me that I have not yet told you my wishes with regard to your future intercourse with her."
At this point Mr. Churton, unnoticed by his wife, stole quietly to the door, and stepping cautiously out into the hall made his escape.
"You need not trouble to explain your wishes, mother," said Miss Churton, with flushing cheeks. "I can very well guess what they are, and I promise you at once that I shall say nothing to cause you any uneasiness, or to make any further mention of the subject necessary."
"No, Constance, I have a sacred duty to perform, and our respective relations towards Miss Affleck must be made thoroughly clear, once for all."
"Why should you wish to make it clear after telling me that you cannot trust me to obey your wishes, or even to speak the truth? Mother, I shall not listen to you any longer!"
"You shall listen to me!" exclaimed the other; and rising and hurrying past her daughter, she closed the door and stood before it as if to prevent escape.
Miss Churton made no reply; she walked to a chair, and sitting down dropped her hat on the floor and covered her face with her hands. How sad she looked in that attitude, how weary of the vain conflict, and how despondent! For a little while there was silence in the room, but the
girl's bowed head moved with her convulsive breathing, and there was a low sound presently as of suppressed sobbing.
"Would to God the tears you are shedding came from a contrite and repentant heart," said the mother, with a tremor in her voice. "But they are only rebellious and passing drops, and I know that your stony heart is untouched."
Miss Churton raised her pale face, and brushed her tears away with an angry gesture. "Forgive me, mother, for such an exhibition of weakness. I sometimes forget that you have ceased to love me. Please say what you wish, make things clear, add as many reproaches as you think necessary, and then let me go to my room."
Mrs. Churton checked an angry reply which rose to her lips, and sat down. She too was growing tired of this unhappy conflict, and her daughter's tears and bitter words had given her keen pain. "Constance, you would not say that I do not love you if you could see into my heart. God knows how much I love you; if it were not so I should have ceased to strive with you before now. I know that it is in vain, that I can only beat the air, and that only that Spirit which is sharper than a two-edged sword, and pierceth even to the dividing of the bones and marrow, can ever rouse you to a sense of your great sin and fearful peril. I know it all only too well. I shall say no more about it. But I must speak to you further about this young girl, who has been entrusted to my care. When I replied to the advertisement respecting her, I thought too much about our worldly affairs and the importance of this money to us in our position, and without sufficiently reflecting on the danger of bringing a girl at so impressible an age under your influence. The responsibility rests with me, and I cannot help having some very sad apprehensions. Wait, Constance, you must let me finish. I have settled what to do, and I have Miss Starbrow's authority to take on myself the guidance of the girl in all spiritual matters. I spoke to her about it, and regret to have to say that she seems absolutely indifferent about religion. I was deeply shocked to hear that Miss Affleck has never been taught to say a prayer, and, so far as Miss Starbrow knows, has never entered a church. Miss Starbrow seemed very haughty and repellent in her manner, and declined, almost rudely, to discuss the subject of religious teaching with me, but would leave it entirely to me, she said, to teach the girl what I liked about such things. It is terrible to me to think how much it may and will be in your power to write on the mind of one so young and ignorant, and who has been brought up without God. Constance, I will not attempt to command, I will ask you to promise not to say things to her to destroy the effect of my teaching, and of the religious influence I shall bring to bear on her. I am ready to go down on my knees to you, my daughter, to implore you, by whatever you may yet hold dear and sacred, not to bring so terrible a grief on me as the loss of this young soul would be. For into my charge she has been committed, and from me her Maker and Father will require her at the last day!"
"There is no occasion for you to go on your knees to me, mother. I repeat that I will obey your wishes in everything. Surely you must know that, however we may differ about speculative matters, I am not immoral, and that you can trust me. And oh, mother, let us live in peace together. It is so unspeakably bitter to have these constant dissensions between us. I will not complain that you have been the cause of so much unhappiness to me, and made me a person to be avoided by the few people we know, if only--if only you will treat me kindly."
"My poor girl, do you not know that it is more bitter to me, a thousand times, than to you? Oh, Constance, will you promise me one thing?--promise me that you will go back to the Bible and read the words of Christ, putting away your pride of mind, your philosophy and critical spirit; promise that you will read one chapter--one verse even--every day, and read it with a prayer in your heart that the Spirit who inspired it will open your eyes and enable you to see the truth."
"No, mother, I cannot promise you that, even to save myself from greater unhappiness than you have caused me. It is so hard to have to go over the old ground again and again."
"I have, I hope, made you understand my wishes," returned her mother coldly. "You can go to your room, Constance."
The other rose and walked to the door, where she stood hesitating for a few moments, glancing back at her mother; but Mrs. Churton's face had grown cold and irresponsive, and finally Constance, with a sigh, left the room and went slowly up the stairs.