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)
Fan was up early next morning--the ringing concert of the orchard, so different from the dull rumble of the streets, had chased away sleep, and all desire to sleep--and punctually at eight o'clock she came down to breakfast. Mr. Churton alone was in the room, looking as usual intensely respectable in his open frock-coat, large collar, and well-brushed grey hair. He was standing before the open window looking out, humming or croaking a little tune, and jingling his chain and seals by way of accompaniment.
"Ha, my dear, looking fresh as a flower--and as pretty!" he said, turning round and taking her hand; then, after two or three irresolute glances at her face, he drew her towards him, and was about to imprint a kiss on her forehead (let us hope), when, for some unaccountable reason, she shrank back from him and defeated his purpose.
"Why, why, my dear child, you surely can't object to being kissed! You must look on me as--ahem--it is quite the custom here--surely, my dear--"
Just then Mrs. Churton entered the room, and her husband encountering her quick displeased look instantly dropped the girl's hand.
"My dear," he said, addressing his wife, "I have just been pointing out the view from the windows to Miss Affleck, and telling her what charming walks there are in the neighbourhood. I think that as we are so near the end of the week it would be just as well to postpone all serious studies until Monday morning and show our guest some of the beauties of Eyethorne."
"Perhaps it would, Nathaniel," she returned, with a slight asperity. "But I should prefer it if you would leave all arrangements to me."
"Certainly, my dear; it was merely a suggestion made on the spur of the moment. I am sure Miss Affleck will be charmed with the--the scenery, whenever it can conveniently be shown to her."
His wife made no reply, but proceeded to open a Bible and read a few verses, after which she made a short prayer--a ceremony which greatly surprised Fan. The three then sat down to breakfast, Miss Churton not yet having appeared. It was a moderately small table, nearly square, and each person had an entire side to himself. They were thus placed not too far apart and not too near.
Presently Miss Churton appeared, not from her room but from an early walk in the garden, and bringing with her a small branch of May jewelled with red blossoms. She stood for a few moments on the threshold looking at Fan, a very bright smile on her lips. How beautiful she looked to the girl, more beautiful now than on the previous day, as if her face had caught something of the dewy freshness of earth and of the tender morning sunlight. Then she came in, walking round the table to Fan's side, and bidding her parents "Good morning," but omitting the usual custom of kissing father and mother. Stopping at the girl's side she stooped and touched her forehead with her lips, then placed the branch of May by the side of her plate.
"This is for you," she said. "I know what a flower-worshipper you are."
"Constance, you ought not to say that!" said her mother, reprovingly.
"Why not?" said the other, going to her place and sitting down, a red flush on her face. "It is a common and very innocent expression, I fancy."
"That may be your opinion. The expression you use so lightly has only one and a very solemn meaning for me."
Fan glanced wonderingly from one to the other, then dropped her eyes on her flowers. In a vague way she began to see that her new friends did not exist in happy harmony together, and it surprised and troubled her. The bright sunny look had gone from Miss Churton's face, and the meal proceeded almost in silence to the end.
And yet father, mother, and daughter all felt that there was an improvement in their relations, that the restraint caused by the presence of this shy, silent girl would make their morning and midday meetings at meal-time less a burden than they had hitherto been. To Miss Churton especially that triangle of three persons, each repelling and repelled by the two others, had often seemed almost intolerable. Husband and wife had long ceased to have one interest, one thought, one feeling in common; while the old affection between mother and daughter had now so large an element of bitterness mingled with it that all its original sweetness
seemed lost. As for her degenerate, weak-minded, tippling father, Miss Churton regarded him with studied indifference. She never spoke of him, and tried never to think of him when he was out of the way; when she saw him, she looked through him at something beyond, as if he had no more substance than one of Ossian's ghosts, through whose form one might see the twinkling of the stars. It was better, she wisely thought, to ignore him, to forget his existence, than to be vexed with feelings of contempt and hostility.
Mr. Churton, after finishing his breakfast, retired to his "study," with the air of a person who has letters to write. His study was really only a garret which his wife had fitted up as a comfortable smoking den, where he was privileged to blow the abhorrent tobacco-cloud with impunity, since the pestilent vapour flew away heavenwards from the open window; moreover, while smoking at home he was safe, and not fuddling his weak brains and running up a long bill at the "King William" in the village.
Miss Churton finished her coffee and rose from the table.
"Constance," said her mother, "I think that as it is Friday today it might be as well to defer your lessons until Monday, and give Miss Affleck a little time to look about her and get acquainted with her new home."
"If you think it best, mother," she returned; and then after an interval added, "Have you formed any plans for today--I mean with reference to Fan?"
"Why do you say Fan?"
"Because she asked me to do so," returned the other a little coldly.
Fan was again looking at them. When they spoke they were either constrained and formal or offending each other. It was something to marvel at, for towards herself they had shown such sweet kindliness in their manner; and she had felt that if it were only lawful she could love them both dearly, as one loves mother and sister.
With a little hesitation she turned to Mrs. Churton and said, "Will you please call me Fan too? I like it so much better than Miss Affleck."
"Yes, certainly, if you wish it," said the lady, smiling on her. After a while she continued--"Fan, my dear child, before we settle about how the day will be spent, I must tell you that we have arranged to share the task of teaching you between us." Her daughter looked at her surprised. "I mean," she continued, correcting herself, "that it will be arranged in that way. Did Miss Starbrow speak to you about it in the garden before she left?"
Fan answered in the negative: she had a painfully vivid recollection of what Miss Starbrow had said in the garden.
"Well, this is to be the arrangement, which Miss Starbrow has sanctioned. There are several things for you to study, and Miss Churton will undertake them all except one. It will be for me to instruct you in religion."
Fan glanced at her with a somewhat startled expression in her eyes.
"Do you not think you would like me to teach you?" asked Mrs. Churton, noticing the look.
She answered that she would like it; then remembering certain words of Mary's, added a little doubtfully, "Mrs. Churton, Mary--I mean Miss Starbrow--said she hoped I would not learn to be religious in the country."
Mrs. Churton heard this with an expression of pain, then darted a quick glance at her daughter's face; but she did not see the smile of the scoffer there; it was a face which had grown cold and impassive, and she knew why it was impassive, and was as much offended, perhaps, as if the expected smile had met her sight. To Fan she answered:
"I am very sorry she said that. But you know, Fan, that we sometimes say things without quite meaning them, or thinking that they will perhaps be remembered for a long time, and do harm. I am sure--at least I trust that Miss Starbrow did not really mean that, because I spoke to her about giving you instruction in religious subjects, and she consented, and left it to me to do whatever I thought best."
Fan wondered whether Mary "did not quite mean it" when she told her what the consequences would be if she allowed herself to love Miss Churton. No, alas! she must have meant that very seriously from the way she spoke.
"You must not be afraid that we are going to make you study too much, Fan," the lady continued; "that is not Miss Starbrow's wish. I shall only give you a short simple lesson every day, and try to explain it, so that I hope you will find it both easy and pleasant to learn of me. And now, my dear girl, you shall choose for yourself today whether you will go out for a walk in the woods with Miss Churton, or remain with me and let me speak with you and explain what I wish you to learn."
The proposed walk in the woods was a sore temptation; she would gladly have chosen that way of spending the morning, but the secret trouble in her heart caused by Mary's warning words made her shrink from the prospect of being alone with Miss Churton so soon again; and it only increased the feeling to see her beautiful young teacher's eyes eagerly fixed on her face. With that struggle still going on in her breast, and compelled to make her choice, she said at length, "I think I should like to stay with you, Mrs. Churton."
The lady smiled and said she was glad.
Miss Churton moved towards the door, then paused and spoke coldly: "Do you wish me to understand, mother, that Miss Affleck is to devote her mornings to you, and that I shall only have the late hours to teach her in?"
"No, Constance; I am surprised that you should understand it in that way. Only for these two days Miss Affleck will be with me in the morning. I know very well that the early part of the day is the best time for study, when the intellect is fresh and clear; and when you begin teaching her she will of course devote the morning to her lessons."
After hearing this explanation her daughter left the room without more words. In a few minutes she came down again with hat and gloves on, a book in her hand, and went away by herself, feeling far from happy in her mind. She had so confidently looked forward to a morning with her pupil, and had proposed to go somewhat further than she had ventured on the previous evening in a study of her character. For it seemed to her at first so simple a character, so affectionate and clinging, reflecting itself so transparently in her expressive face, and making itself known so clearly in her voice and manner. Then that mystifying change had occurred in the orchard, when her words had been eagerly listened to, and had seemed to find an echo in the girl's heart, while her advances had met with no response, and her affectionate caresses had been shrunk from, as though they had given pain. Then the suspicion about her mother had come to disturb her mind; but she had been anxious not to judge hastily and without sufficient cause, and had succeeded in putting it from her as an unworthy thought. Now it came back to her, and remained and rooted itself in her mind. Now she understood why her mother, with an ostentatious pretence of fairness, even of generosity, towards her daughter, had left it to Fan to decide whether she would walk in the woods or spend the morning receiving religious instruction at home. Now she understood why Fan, a lover of flowers and of the singing of birds, had preferred the house and the irksome lessons. Her mother, in her fanatical zeal, had been too quick for her, and had prejudiced the girl's mind against her, acting with a meanness and treachery which filled her with the greatest resentment and scorn.
We know that her judgment was at fault; and her anger was perhaps unreasonable. All anger is said to be unreasonable by some wise people, which makes one wonder why this absurd, perverse, and superfluous affection was ever thrust into our souls. But the feeling in her was natural, for her mother had indirectly inflicted much unhappiness on her already, in her mistaken efforts to do her good; and when we suffer an injury from some unknown hand, we generally jump to the conclusion that it comes from the enemy we wot of; and, very often, the surmise is a correct one. She, Miss Churton, certainly regarded this thing as a personal injury. She had anticipated much pleasure from the society of her pupil, and after that first conversation in the garden had resolved to win her love, and be to her friend and sister as well as teacher. Now it seemed that the girl was to be nothing to her and everything to her mother, and naturally she was disappointed and angry. We have all seen women--some of them women who read books, listen to lectures, and even take degrees, and must therefore be classed with rational beings--who will cry out and weep, and only stop short of tearing their raiment and putting ashes on their heads, at the loss of a pet dog, or cat, or canary; and Miss Churton had promised herself a greater pleasure from her intercourse with this girl, who had so won her heart with her pale delicate beauty and her feeling for nature, than it is possible for a
rational being to derive from the companionship of any dumb brute--even of such a paragon among four-footed things as a toy-terrier, or pug, or griffon. All through her walk in the shady woods, and when she sat in a sequestered spot under her favourite tree with her book lying unread on her lap, she could only think of her mother's supposed treachery, and of that look of triumph on her face when Fan had decided to remain in the house with her--rejoicing, no doubt, at her daughter's defeat. All this seemed hard to endure uncomplainingly; but she was strong and proud, and before quitting her sylvan retreat she resolved to submit quietly and with a good grace to the new position of affairs, though brought about by such unworthy means. She would make no petulant complaints nor be sullen, nor drop any spiteful or scornful words to spoil her mother's satisfaction; nor would she make any overt attempts to supplant her mother in the girl's confidence, or to win even a share of her affection. She would hide her own pain, and faithfully perform the dry, laborious task of instruction assigned her, unrelieved by any such feelings of a personal kind, and looking for no reward beyond the approval of her own conscience. It was impossible, she said to herself with bitterness, that she should ever stoop, even in self-defence, to use one of those weapons which were to be found in her mother's armoury--the little underhand doings, hypocrisies, and whispered insinuations which her religion sanctified.