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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 17

That decision of Fan's to remain at home had really come with a little surprise on Mrs. Churton; for although it was what she had hoped, the hope had been a faint one, and the pleasure it gave her was therefore all the greater. With this feeling another not altogether to her credit was mingled--a certain satisfaction at finding her company preferred to that of her daughter. For it could not be supposed that the girl experienced just then any eager desire after religious knowledge; she had just reported Miss Starbrow's scoffing words with such a curious simplicity, as if she looked on religion merely as a branch of learning, like mineralogy or astronomy, which was scarcely necessary to her, and might therefore very well be dispensed with. No, it was purely a matter of personal preference; and Mrs. Churton, albeit loving and thinking well of herself, as most people do, could not help finding it a little strange: for her daughter, notwithstanding that her mind was darkened by that evil spirit of unbelief, was outwardly a beautiful, engaging person, ready and eloquent of speech, and seemed in every way one who would easily win the unsuspecting regard of a simple-minded affectionate girl like Fan. It was strange and--providential. Yes, that explained the whole mystery, and so fully satisfied her religious mind that she was instantly relieved from the task of groping after any other cause.

While these thoughts were passing through her mind they were standing together before the open window, following Miss Churton's form with their eyes, as she went away in the direction of Eyethorne woods. But Fan had a very different feeling; she recalled that interview of the last evening in the orchard, the clear, tender eyes looking invitingly into hers, the touch of a warm caressing hand, the words in which her own strange feelings experienced for the first time had been so aptly described to her; and the thought gave her a dull pain--a vague sense of some great blessing missed, of something which had promised to make her unspeakably happy passing from her life.

It was some slight compensation that the scene of that first lesson in religious doctrine she had expressed herself willing to receive was in the garden, where they were soon comfortably seated under an acacia-tree; and that is a tree which does not shut out the heavenly gladness, like beech and elm and lime, but rather tempers the sunshine with its loose airy foliage, making a half-brightness that is pleasanter than shade.

By means of much gentle questioning, herself often suggesting the answers, Mrs. Churton gradually drew from the girl an account of all she knew and thought about sacred subjects. She was shocked and grieved to discover that this young lady from the metropolis was in a state of ignorance with regard to such subjects that would have surprised her in any cottage child among the poor she was accustomed to visit in the neighbourhood. The names of the Creator and of the Saviour were certainly familiar to Fan; from her earliest childhood she had heard them spoken with frequency in her old Moon Street home. But that was all. Her mother had taught her nothing--not even to lisp, when she was small, the childish rhyme:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

Her Scripture lessons at the Board School had powerfully impressed her, but in a confused and unpleasant way. Certain portions of the historical narrative affected her with their picturesque grandeur, and fragments remained in her memory; the Bible and religion generally came to be associated in her mind with dire wrath, and war, and the shedding of blood, with ruin of cities and tribulations without end. It was processional--a great confused host covered with clouds of dust, shields and spears, and brass and scarlet, and noise of chariot-wheels and blowing of trumpets--an awful pageant fascinating and terrifying to contemplate. And when she stood still, a little frightened, to see a horde of Salvationists surge past her in the street, with discordant shouting and singing, waving of red flags and loud braying of brass instruments, this seemed to her a kind of solemn representation of those ancient and confused doings she had read about; beyond that it had no meaning. Before her mother's death she had sometimes gone to St. Michael's Church on wet or cold or foggy winter evenings; for in better weather it was always overcrowded, and the vergers--a kind of mitigated policemen, Fan thought them--would hunt her away from the door. For in those days she was so ragged and such a sad-looking object, and they doubtless knew very well what motive she had in going there. She had gone there only because it was warm and dry, and the decorations and vestments, the singing and the incense, were sweet to her senses; but what she had heard had not enlightened her.

Mrs. Churton sighed. How unutterably sad it seemed to her that this girl, so lovely in her person, so sweet in disposition, with so pure and saint-like an expression, should be in this dark and heathenish condition! But there was infinite comfort in the thought that this precious soul to be saved had fallen into her hands, and not into those of some worldling like Miss Starbrow herself, or, worse still, of a downright freethinker like her own daughter. After having made her first survey of Fan's mind, finding nothing there except that queer farrago of Scripture lessons which had never been explained to her, and were now nearly forgotten, it seemed to Mrs. Churton that it was almost a blank with regard to spiritual things, like that proverbial clean sheet of paper on which anything good or bad may be written. It troubled her somewhat, and this was the one cloud on that fair prospect, that her daughter would have so much to do with Fan's mind. She was anxious to trust in her daughter's honour, yet felt, with her belief concerning the weakness of any merely human virtue, that it would scarcely be safe or right to trust her. She resolved to observe a middle course--to trust her, but not wholly, to pray but to watch as well, lest the fowls of the air should come in her absence and devour the sacred seed she was about to scatter.

These, and many more reflections of a like kind, occurred to her while she was occupied in turning over that pitiful rubbish, composed of broken fragments of knowledge, in the girl's mind; then she addressed herself fervently to the task of planting there the great elementary truth that we are all alike bad by nature, and that only by faith in the Son of God who died for our sins can we hope to save our souls alive. This was unspeakably bewildering to Fan, for in a vague kind of way her neglected mind had conceived a system of right and wrong of its own, which was entirely independent of any narrative or set of doctrines, and did not concern itself with the future of the soul. To her mind there were good people and bad people, besides others she could not classify, in whom the two opposite qualities were blended, or who were of a neutral moral tint. The good were those who loved their fellow-creatures, especially their relations, and were kind to them in word and deed. The bad were those who gave pain to others by their brutality and selfishness, by untruthfulness and deceit, and by speaking unkind and impure words.

Now to be told that this was all a vain delusion, mere fancy, that she was a child of sin, as unclean in the sight of Heaven as the worst person she had ever known--a Joe Harrod or a Captain Horton, for instance--and that God's anger would burn for ever against her unless she cast away her own filthy rags--Fan thought that these had been cast away a long time ago--and clothed herself with the divine righteousness--all that bewildered and surprised her at first. But being patient and docile she proved amenable to instruction, and as she unhesitatingly and at once yielded up every point which her instructress told her was wrong, there was nothing to hinder progress--if this rapid skimming along over the surface of a subject can be so described. And as the lesson progressed it seemed to Mrs. Churton that her pupil took an ever-increasing interest in it, that her mind became more and more receptive and her intelligence quicker.

The girl's shyness wore off by degrees, her tremulous voice grew firmer, her pallid cheeks flushed with a colour tender as that of the wild almond blossom, and her eyes, bright with a new-born confidence, were lifted more frequently to the other's face. Their hands touched often and lingered caressingly together, and when the elder lady smiled, a responsive smile shone in the girl's raised eyes and played on her delicately-moulded mouth--a smile that was like sunlight on clear water, revealing a nature so simple and candid; and deep down, trembling into light, the crystalline soul which had come without flaw from its Maker's hands, and in the midst of evil had caught no stain to dim its perfect purity. It seemed now to Mrs. Churton, as she expounded the sacred doctrines which meant so much to her, that she had not known so great a happiness since her daughter, white even to her lips at the thought of the cruel pain she was about to inflict, yet unable to conceal the truth, had come to her and said with trembling voice, "Mother, I no longer believe as you do." For how much grief had the children God had given her already caused her spirit! Two comely sons, her first and second-born, had after a time despised her teachings, and had grown up almost to manhood only to bring shame and poverty on their home; and had then drifted away beyond her ken to lose themselves in the wandering tribe of ne'er-do-wells in some distant colony. But her daughter had been left to her, the clear-minded thoughtful girl who would not be corrupted by the weakness and vices of a father, nor meet with such temptations as her brothers had been powerless to resist; and in loving this dear girl with the whole strength of her nature--this one child that was left to her to be with her in time and eternity--she had found consolation, and had been happy, until that dark day had arrived, and she heard the words that spoke to her heart

A deeper sorrow
Than the wail upon the dead.

It is true that she still hoped against hope; that she loved her daughter with passionate intensity, and clove to her, and was filled with a kind of terror at the thought of losing her, when Constance spoke, as she sometimes did, of leaving her home; but this love had no comfort, no sweetness, no joy in it, and it seemed to her more bitter than hate. It showed itself like hatred in her looks and words sometimes; for in spite of all her efforts to bear this great trial with the meekness her Divine Exemplar had taught, the bitter feeling would overcome her. "Mother, I know that you hate me!"--that was the reproach that was hardest to bear from her daughter's lips, the words that stung her to the quick. For although untrue, she felt that they were deserved; so cold did her anger and unhappiness make her seem to this rebellious child, so harsh and so bitter! And sometimes the reproach seemed to have the strange power of actually turning her love to the hatred she was charged with, and at such times she could scarcely refrain from crying out in her overmastering wrath to invoke a curse from the Almighty on her daughter's head, to reply that it was true, that she did hate her with a great hatred, but that her hatred was as nothing compared to that of her God, who would punish her for denying His existence with everlasting fire. Unable to hide her terrible agitation, she would fly to her room, her heart bursting with anguish, and casting herself on her knees cry out for deliverance from such distracting thoughts. After one of these stormy periods, followed by swift compunction, she would be able again to meet and speak to her daughter in a frame of mind which by contrast seemed strangely meek and subdued.

Now, sitting in the garden with Fan, all the old tender motherly feelings, and the love that had no pain in it, were coming back to her, and it was like the coming of spring after a long winter; and this girl, a stranger to her only yesterday, one who was altogether without that knowledge which alone can make the soul beautiful, seemed already to have filled the void in her heart.

On the other side it seemed to Fan, as she looked up to meet the grave tender countenance bent towards her, that it grew every moment dearer to her sight, It was a comely face still: Miss Churton's beauty was inherited from her mother--certainly not from her father. The features were regular, and perhaps that grey hair had once been golden, thought Fan--and the face now pallid and lined with care full of rich colour. Imagination lends a powerful aid to affection. She had found someone to love and was happy once more. For to her love was everything; "all thoughts, all feelings, all delights" were its ministers and "fed its sacred flame"; this was the secret motive ever inspiring her, and it was impossible for her to put any other, higher or lower, in its place. Not that sweet sickness and rage of the heart which is also called love, and which so enriches life that we look with a kind of contemptuous pity on those who have never experienced it, thinking that they have only a dim incomplete existence, and move through life ghost-like and sorrowful among their joyous brothers and sisters. Such a feeling had never yet touched or come near to her young heart; and her ignorance was so great, and the transition to her present life so recent, that she did not yet distinguish between the different kinds of that feeling--that which was wholly gross and animal, seen in foul faces and whispered in her ears by polluted lips, from which she had fled, trembling and terrified, through the dark lanes and streets of the City of Dreadful Night; and the same feeling as it appears, sublimed and beautified, in the refined and the virtuous. As yet she knew nothing about a beautiful love of that kind; but she had in the highest degree that purer, better affection which we prize as our most sacred possession, and even attribute to the immortals, since our earthly finite minds cannot conceive any more beautiful bond uniting them. It was this flame in her heart which had kept her like one alone, apart and unsoiled in the midst of squalor and vice, which had made her girlhood so unspeakably sad. Her soul had existed in a semi-starved condition on such affection as her miserable intemperate mother had bestowed on her, and, for the rest, the sight of love in which she had no part in some measure ministered to her wants and helped to sustain her.

One of the memories of her dreary life in Moon Street, which remained most vividly impressed on her mind, was of a very poor family whose head was an old man who mended broken-bottomed cane-chairs for a living; the others being a daughter, a middle-aged woman whose husband had forsaken her, and her three children. The eldest child was a stolid-looking round-faced girl about thirteen years old, who had the care of the little ones while her mother was away at work in a laundry. This family lodged in a house adjoining the one in which Fan lived, and for several weeks after they came there she used to shrink away in fear from the old grandfather whenever she saw him going out in the morning and returning in the evening. He was a tall spare old man, sixty-five or seventy years old, with clothes worn almost to threads, a broad-brimmed old felt hat on his head, and one of his knees stiff, so that he walked like a man with a wooden leg. But he was erect as a soldier, and always walked swiftly, even when returning, tired no doubt, from a long day's wandering and burdened with his bundle of cane and three or four old broken chairs--his day's harvest. But what a face was that old man's! He had long hair, almost white, a thin grey stern face with sharp aquiline features, and, set deep under his feather-like tufty eyebrows, blue eyes that looked cold and keen as steel. If he had walked in Pall Mall, dressed like a gentleman, the passer-by would have turned to look after him, and probably said, "There goes a leader of men--a man of action--a fighter of England's battles in some distant quarter of the globe." But he was only an old gatherer of broken chairs, and got sixpence for each chair he mended, and lived on it; an indomitable old man who lived bravely and would die bravely, albeit not on any burning plain or in any wild mountain pass, leading his men, but in a garret, where he would mend his last broken chair, and look up unflinching in the Destroyer's face. Whenever he came stumping rapidly past, and turned that swift piercing eagle glance on Fan, she would shrink aside as if she felt the sting of sleet or a gust of icy-cold wind on her face. That was at first. Afterwards she discovered that at a certain hour of the late afternoon the eldest girl would come down and take up her station in the doorway to wait his coming. When he appeared her eyes would sparkle and her whole face kindle with a glad excitement, and hiding herself in the doorway, she would wait his arrival, then suddenly spring out to startle him with a joyous cry. The sight of this daily meeting had such a fascination for Fan that she would always try to be there at the proper time to witness it; and after it was over she would go about for hours feeling a kind of reflected happiness in her heart at the love which gladdened these poor people's lives.

Afterwards, in Dawson Place, Mary's affection for her had made her inexpressibly happy, in spite of some very serious troubles, and now, when Mary's last warning words had made any close friendship with Miss Churton impossible, her heart turned readily to the mother. In this case there had been no prohibition; Mary's jealousy had not gone so far as that; Mrs. Churton was the one being in her new home to whom she could cling without offence, and who could satisfy her soul with the food for which it hungered.

They had been sitting together over two hours in the garden when Mrs. Churton at length rose from her seat.

"I hope that I have not tired you--I hope that you have liked your lesson," she said, taking the girl's hand.

"I have liked it so much," answered Fan. "I like to be with you so much, because"--she hesitated a little and then finished--"because I think that you like me."

"I like you very much, Fan," she returned, and stooping, kissed her on the forehead. "I can say that I love you dearly, although you have only been with us since yesterday. And if you can love me, Fan, and regard me as a mother, it will be a great comfort to me and a great help to both of us in our lessons."

Fan caressed the hand which still retained hers, but at the same time she cast down her eyes, over which a little shade of anxiety had come. She was thinking, perhaps, that this relationship of mother and daughter might not be an altogether desirable one.


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