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Literary Adventures

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)

Chapter 15

For the rest of the day peace reigned at Wood End House. Mr. Churton, whose absence at mealtime was never made the subject of remark, did not return to tea when the three ladies met again; for now, according to that proverb of the Peninsula which says "Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are," Fan had ceased to belong to the extensive genus Young Person, and might only be classified as Young Lady, at all events for so long as she remained on a footing of equality under the Churton roof-tree.

There was not much conversation. Miss Churton was rather pale and subdued in manner, speaking little. Fan was shy and ill at ease at this her first meal in the house. Mrs. Churton alone seemed inclined to talk, and looked serene and cheerful; but whether the late scene in the drawing-room had been more transient in its effects in her case, or her self-command was greater, she alone knew. After tea they all went out to sit in the garden for an hour; Miss Churton taking a book with her, which, however, she allowed to rest unread on her lap. Her mother had some knitting, which occupied her fingers while she talked to Fan. The girl, she perceived, was not yet feeling at home with them, and she tried to overcome her diffidence by keeping up an easy flow of talk which required no answer from the other, chiefly about their garden and its products--flowers, fruit, and vegetables.

Presently they had a visitor, who came out across the lawn to them unannounced. He shook hands with the Churtons, and then with Fan, to whom he was introduced as Mr. Northcott. A large and rather somewhat rough-looking young man was Mr. Northcott, in a clerical coat, for he was curate of the church at Eyethorne. His head was large, and the hair and a short somewhat disorderly beard and moustache brown in colour; the eyes were blue, deep-set, and habitually down-cast, and had a trick of looking suddenly up at anyone speaking to him. His nose was irregular, his mouth too heavy, and there was that general appearance of ruggedness about him which one usually takes as an outward sign of the stuff that makes the successful emigrant. To find him a curate going round among the ladies in a little rural parish in England seemed strange. He had as little of that professional sleekness of skin and all-for-the-best placidity of manner one expects to see in a clergyman of the Established Church as Mr. Churton had of that confident, all-knowing, self-assured look one would like to see in a barrister's countenance before entrusting him with a brief.

He at once entered into conversation with Mrs. Churton, replying to some question she put to him; and presently Fan began to listen with deep interest, for they were discussing the unhappy affairs of one of the Eyethorne poor--a bad man who was always getting drunk, fighting with his wife, and leaving his children to starve. The curate, however, did not seem deeply interested in the subject, and glanced not infrequently at Miss Churton, who had resumed her reading; but it was plain to see that she gave only a divided attention to her book.

Mrs. Churton was at length summoned to the house about some domestic matter; then, after a short silence, the curate began a fresh conversation with her daughter. He did not speak to her of parish affairs and of persons, but of books, of things of the mind, and it seemed that his heart was more in talk of this description. Or possibly the person rather than the subject interested him. Miss Churton was living under a cloud in her village, which was old-fashioned and pious; to be friendly with her was not fashionable; he alone, albeit a curate, wished not to be in the fashion. He even had the courage to approach personal questions.

"Fan, I know what you are thinking of," said Miss Churton, turning to the girl. "It is that you would like to go and caress the flowers again--you are such a flower-lover. Would you like to go and explore the orchard by yourself?"

Fan thanked her gladly, and going from them, soon disappeared among the trees.

"You live in too small a place, too remote from the world, and old-world in character, to be allowed to live your own life in peace," said the curate, at a later stage of the conversation. "Your set here is composed of barely half a dozen families, and they take their cue from the vicarage. In London, in any large town, one is allowed to think what one likes without the neighbours troubling their heads about it. Do you know, Miss Churton, it is strange to me that with your acquirements and talent you do not seek a wider and more congenial field."

She smiled. "You must forgive me, Mr. Northcott, for having included you among the troublers of my peace. It gives me a strange pleasure to tell you this; it makes me strong to feel that I have your friendship and sympathy."

"You certainly have that, Miss Churton."

"Thank you. I must tell you why I remain here. I am entirely dependent on my parents just now, and shrink from beginning a second dependent life--as a governess, for instance."

"There should be better things than that for you. You might get a good position in a young ladies' school."

"It would be difficult. But apart from that, I shrink from entering a profession which would absorb my whole time and faculties, and from which I should probably find myself powerless to break away. I have dreams and hopes of other things--foolish perhaps--time will show; but I am not in a hurry to find a position, to become a crystal. And I wish to live for myself as well as for others. I have now undertaken to teach Miss Affleck, who will remain one year at least with us. I am glad that this has given me an excuse for remaining where I am. I do not wish my departure to look like running away."

"I am glad that you have so brave a spirit."

"I did not feel very brave today," she replied, smiling sadly. "But a little sympathy serves to revive my courage. Do you remember that passage in Bacon, 'Mark what a courage a dog will put on when sustained by a nature higher than its own'? That is how it is with us women--those of the strong-minded tribe excepted; man is to us a kind of melior natura, without whose sustaining aid we degenerate into abject cowards."

A red flush came into Mr. Northcott's dull-hued cheeks. "I presume you are joking, Miss Churton; but if--"

"No, not joking," she quickly returned; "although I perhaps did not mean as much as I said. But I wish I could show my gratitude for the comfort you give me--for upholding me with your stronger nature."

"Do you, Miss Churton? Then I will be so bold as to make a request, although I am perhaps running the risk of offending you. Will you come to church next Sunday? I don't mean in the morning, but in the evening. Please don't think for a moment that I have any faith in my power to influence your mind in any way. I am not such a conceited ass as to imagine anything of the sort. My motive for making the request was quite independent of any such considerations. My experience is that those who lose faith in Christianity do not recover it. I speak, of course, of people who know their own minds."

"I know my own mind, Mr. Northcott."

"No doubt; and for that very reason I am not afraid to ask you this. You used occasionally to come to church, so that it can't be scruples of conscience that keep you away. As a rule, in London we always have a very fair sprinkling of agnostics in a congregation, and sometimes more than a sprinkling."

"I am not an agnostic, Mr. Northcott, if I know what that word means. But let that pass. In London the church-goer is in very many cases a stranger to the preacher; if he hears hard things spoken in the pulpit of those who have no creed, he does not take it as a personal attack. I absented myself from our church because the vicar in his sermon on unbelief preached against me. He said that those who rejected Christianity had no right to enter a church; that by doing so they insulted God and man; and that their only motive was to parade their bitter scornful infidelity before the world, and that they cherish a malignant hatred towards the faith which they have cast off, and much more in the same strain. Every person in the congregation had his or her eyes fixed on me, to see how I liked it, knowing that it was meant for me; and I dare say that what they saw gave them great pleasure. For a stronger nature than my own was not sustaining me then, but all were against me, and the agony of shame I suffered I shall never forget. I could only shut my eyes and try to keep still; but I felt that all the blood in my veins had rushed to my face and brain, and that my blood was like fire. I seemed to be able to see myself fiery red--redder than the setting sun--in the midst of all those shadowed faces that were watching me. I have hated that man since, much as it distresses me to have such a feeling against any fellow-creature."

"I remember the circumstance," said the curate, his face darkening. "I do not agree with my vicar about some things, and he had no warrant for what he said in the teachings of his Master. Since you have recalled this incident to my mind, Miss Churton, I can only apologise for having asked you to come on Sunday."

"I think I was wrong to let that sermon influence me so much," she returned. "I feel ashamed of keeping my resentment so long. Mr. Northcott, I will promise to go on Sunday evening, unless something happens to prevent me."

He thanked her warmly. "Whatever your philosophical beliefs may be, Miss Churton, you have the true Christian spirit," he said--saying perhaps too much. "I am glad for your sake that Miss Affleck has come to reside with you. Your life will be less lonely."

"Tell me, what do you think of her?"

"She has a rare delicate loveliness, and there is something indescribable in her eyes which seemed to reveal her whole past life to me. Do you know, Miss Churton, I often believe I have a strange faculty of reading people's past history in the expression of their faces?"

"Tell me what you read?"

"When I was talking to your mother about that drunken ruffian in the village, and his ill-treatment of his miserable children, I caught sight of the girl's eyes fixed on me, wide open, expressing wonder and pain. She had never, I feel sure, even heard of such things as I spoke about. I seemed to know in some mysterious way that she was an only child--the child, I believe, of a widowed father, who doted on her, and surrounded her with every luxury wealth could purchase, and permitted no breath of the world's misery to reach her, lest it should make her unhappy. Now, tell me, have I prophesied truly?"

She smiled, but had no desire to laugh at his little delusion about a mysterious faculty. It is one common enough, and very innocent. The girl was an orphan, and that, she told him, was all she knew of her history.

The curate went away with a feeling of strange elation; for how gracious she had been to him, how happy he was to have won her confidence, how sweet the tender music of her voice had seemed when she had freely told him the secrets of her heart! Poor man! his human nature was a stumbling-block in his way. By-and-by he would have to reflect that his sympathy with an unbeliever had led him almost to the point of speaking evil of dignities--of his vicar, to wit, who paid him seventy pounds a year for his services. That was about all Mr. Northcott had to live on; and yet--oh, folly!--a declaration of love, an offer of marriage, had been trembling on his lips throughout all that long conversation.

Miss Churton hurried off in search of Fan, surprised that she had kept out of sight so long; and as she walked through the orchard, looking for her on this side and that, she also felt surprised at her own light-heartedness. For how strangely happy she felt after a morning so full of contention and bitterness! Fan saw her coming--saw even at a distance in her bright face the reflection of a heartfelt gladness. But the girl did not move to meet her, nor did she watch her coming with responsive gladness; she stood motionless, her pale face seen in profile against the green cloud of a horse-chestnut tree that drooped its broad leaves to touch and mingle with the grass at her very feet. It seemed strange to Constance as she drew near, still glad, and yet with lingering footsteps so that the sight might be the longer enjoyed, that her pupil should have come at that precise period of the day to stand there motionless at that particular spot; that this pale city girl in her civilised dress should have in her appearance at that moment no suggestion of artificiality, but should seem a something natural and unadulterated as flowering tree and grass and sunshine, a part of nature, in absolute and perfect harmony with it. The point to which Fan had wandered was a little beyond the orchard, close to an old sunk fence or ha-ha separating it from the field beyond. The turf at her feet was white with innumerable daisies, and the only tree at that spot was the great chestnut beside which she stood, and against which, in her white dress and with her pallid face, she looked so strangely pure, so flower-like and yet ethereal, as if sprung from the daisies whitening the turf around her, and retaining something of their flower-like character, yet unsubstantial--a beautiful form that might at any moment change to mist and float away from sight. In the field beyond, where her eyes were resting, the lush grass was sprinkled with the gold of buttercups; and in the centre of the field stood a group of four or five majestic elm-trees; the sinking sun was now directly behind them, and shining level through the foliage filled the spaces between the leaves with ,i>a red light, which looked like misty fire. On the vast expanse of heaven there was no cloud; only low down in the east and south-east, near the horizon, there were pale vague shadows, which in another half-hour's time would take the rounded form of clouds, deepening to pearly grey and flushing red and purple in the setting beams. From the elms and fields, from the orchard, from other trees and fields further away, came up the songs of innumerable birds, making the whole air ring and quiver with the delicate music; so many notes, so various in tone and volume, had the effect of waves and wavelets and ripples, rising and running and intersecting each other at all angles, forming an intricate pattern, as it were, a network of sweetest melody. Loud and close at hand were heard the lusty notes of thrush and blackbird, chaffinch and blackcap; and from these there was a gradation of sounds, down to the faint lispings of the more tender melodists singing at a distance, reaching the sense like voices mysterious and spiritualised from some far unseen world. And at intervals came the fluting cry of the cuckoo, again and again repeated, so aerial, yet with such a passionate depth in it, as if the Spirit of Nature itself had become embodied, and from some leafy hiding-place cried aloud with mystic lips.

Listening to that rare melody Fan had stood for a long time, her heart feeling almost oppressed with the infinite sweetness of nature; so motionless that the yellow skippers and small blue-winged butterflies fluttered round her in play, and at intervals alighting on her dress, sat with spread wings, looking like strange yellow and blue gems on the snow-white drapery. Her mind was troubled at Miss Churton's approach; for it now seemed to her that human affection and sympathy were more to her than they had ever been; that a touch, a word, a look almost, would be sufficient to overcome her and make her fall from her loyalty to Mary. Even when the other was standing by her side, curiously regarding her still pale face, she made no sign, but after one troubled glance remained with eyes cast down.

"Are you not tired of being alone with nature yet, Fan?" said Miss Churton, with a smile, and placing her hand on the girl's neck.

"Oh no, Miss Churton; it is so--pleasant to be here!" she replied. But she spoke in a slow mechanical way, and seemed to the other strangely cold and irresponsive; she shivered a little, too, when the caressing hand touched her neck, as if the warm fingers had seemed icy cold.

"Then you were not sorry to be left so long alone?"

"No--I could not feel tired. I think--I could have stayed alone here until--until--" then her inability to express her thoughts confused her and she became silent.

"Yes, Fan, until--" said the other, taking her hand. But the hand she took rested cold and still in hers, and Fan was silent.

At length, reddening a little, she said:

"Miss Churton, I cannot say what I feel."

"Do you feel, Fan, that the sight of nature fills your heart with a strange new happiness, such as no pleasure in your London life ever gave, and at the same time a sadness for which you cannot imagine any cause?"

"Oh, do you feel that too, Miss Churton? Will you tell me what it is?"

The other smiled at the question. "If I could do that, Fan, I should be a very wise girl indeed. It is a feeling that we all have at times; and some day when we read the poets together you will find that they often speak of it. Keats says of the music of the nightingale that it makes his heart ache to hear it, but he does not know why it aches any more than we do. We can say what the feeling is which human love and sympathy give us --the touch of loving hands and lips, the words that are sweet to hear. This we can understand; but that mixed glad and melancholy feeling we have in nature we cannot analyse. How can anything in nature know our heart like a fellow-being--the sun, and wind, and trees, and singing birds? Yet it all seems to come in love to us--so great a love that we can hardly bear it. The sun and wind seem to touch us lovingly; the earth and sky seem to look on us with an affection deeper than man's--a meaning which we cannot fathom. But, oh, Fan, it is foolish and idle of me to try to put what we feel into words! Don't you think so?"

"I think I feel what you say, Miss Churton."

"And when you said just now that you could stand here alone, seeing and hearing, until--until--and then stopped, perhaps you wished to say that you could remain here until you understood it all, and knew the meaning of that mysterious pain in your heart?"

"Yes--I think I felt that"; and glancing up she met the other's eyes full on her own, so dark and full of affection, and with a mistiness rising in their clear depths. She was sorely tempted then to put her arms about her teacher's neck; the struggle was too much for her; she trembled, and covering her face with her hands burst into tears.

"Dearest Fan, you must not cry," said Miss Churton, tenderly caressing her; but there was no response, only that slight shivering of the frame once more, as if it pained her to be caressed, and she wondered at the girl's mood, which was so unlike that of the morning. A painful suspicion crossed her mind. Had her mother, in her anxiety about Fan's spiritual welfare, already taken the girl into her confidence, as she had taken others, or dropped some word of warning to prejudice her mind? Had she told this gentle human dove that she must learn the wisdom of the serpent from a serpent--a kind of Lamia who had assumed a beautiful female form for the purpose of instructing her? No, it could not be; there had been no opportunity for private conversation yet; and it was also hateful to her to think so hardly of her mother. But she made no further attempt just then to win her pupil's heart, and in a short time they returned to the house together.


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