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)
The Monday morning, to which Fan had been looking forward with considerable apprehension, brought no new and frightful experience: she was not caught up and instantly plunged fathoms down beyond her depth into that great cold ocean of knowledge; on the contrary, Miss Churton merely took her for a not unpleasant ramble along the margin--that old familiar margin where she had been accustomed to stray and dabble and paddle in the safe shallows. Miss Churton was only making herself acquainted with her pupil's mind, finding out what roots of knowledge already existed there on which to graft new branches; and we know that the time Fan had spent in the Board School had not been wasted. Miss Churton was not shocked nor disappointed as her mother had been: the girl had made some progress, and what she had learnt had not been wholly forgotten.
If this easy going over old ground was a relief to Fan, she experienced another and even a greater relief in her teacher's manner towards her. She was gentle, patient, unruffled, explaining things so clearly, so forcibly, so fully, as they had never been explained before, so that learning became almost a delight; but with it all there was not the slightest approach to that strange tenderness in speech and manner which Fan had expected and had greatly feared. Feared, because she felt now that she could not have resisted it; and how strange it seemed that her finest quality, her best virtue, had become in this instance her greatest enemy, and had to be fought against, just as some fight against the evil that is in them.
But Miss Churton never changed. That first morning when she had, so to speak, looked over her pupil's mind, seeking to discover her natural aptitudes, was a type of all the succeeding days when they were together at their studies. The girl's fears were quickly allayed; while Mrs. Churton more slowly and little by little got over her unjust suspicions. And the result was that with the exception of little petulant or passionate outbreaks on the part of Mr. Churton, mere tempests in a tea-cup, a novel and very welcome peace reigned at Wood End House. Between mother and daughter there was only one quarrel more--the last battle fought at the end of a long war. For a few days after that evening when Constance had accompanied her to church, the poor woman almost succeeded in persuading herself that a long-desired change was coming, that the quiet curate, who had all learning, ancient and modern, at his finger-ends, had succeeded at last in touching her daughter's hard heart, and in at least partially lifting the scales that darkened her eyes. For he was always seeking her out, conversing with her, and it was evident to her mind that he had set himself to bring back that wanderer to the fold. But the very next Sunday brought a great disillusion. As usual her daughter did not go to church in the morning, but when the bells were calling to evening service, and she stood with Fan ready to leave the house, she still lingered, looking very pale, her hands trembling a little with her agitation, afraid to go out too soon lest Constance should also be coming. With sinking heart she at last came out, but before walking a dozen yards she left Fan and went back to the house, and going up to her daughter's bedroom, tapped at the door.
Constance opened it at once; her hat was on, and she had a book in her hand.
"Are you not coming to church with us, Constance?" said the mother, speaking low as if to conceal the fact that her heart was beating fast.
"No mother, I am only going to the garden to read."
Mrs. Churton turned aside, and then stood for some moments in doubt. There was such a repelling coldness in her daughter's voice, but it was hard to have all her sweet hopes shattered again!
"Is it because I have expected it this evening, Constance, and have asked you to go? Then how unkind you are to me! Last Sunday evening you went unsolicited."
"You are mistaken," returned the other quietly. "I am not and never have been unkind. All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret, has been on your side. That you know, mother. And I did not go unasked last Sunday. Do you wish to know why I went?"
"Why did you go?"
"Only to please Mr. Northcott, and because he asked me. He knew, I suppose, as well as I did myself, that it makes no difference, but I could not do less than go when he wished it, when he is the only person here who treats me unlike a Christian."
"Unlike a Christian! Constance, what do you mean?"
"I mean that he has treated me kindly, as one human being should treat another, however much they may differ about speculative matters."
"May God forgive you for your wicked words, Constance."
"Leave me, mother; Fan is waiting, and you will be late at church. I have not interfered with you in any way about the girl. Teach her what you like, make much of her, and let her be your daughter. In return I only ask to be left alone with my own thoughts."
Then Mrs. Churton went down and joined Fan, deeply disappointed, wounded to the core and surprised as well. For hitherto in all their contests she, the mother, had been the aggressor, as she could not help confessing to herself, while Constance had always been singularly placable and had spoken but little, and that only in self-defence. Now her own gentle and kind words had been met with a concentrated bitterness of resentment which seemed altogether new and strange. "What," she asked herself, "was the cause of it?" Was this mysterious poison of unbelief doing its work and changing a heart naturally sweet and loving into a home of all dark thoughts and evil passions? Her words had been blasphemous, and it was horrible to reflect on the condition of this unhappy lost soul.
But these distressing thoughts did not continue long. Mr. Northcott happened that evening to say a great deal about kindness and its effects in his sermon; and Mrs. Churton, while she listened, again and again recalled those words which her daughter had spoken, and which had seemed so wild and unjust--"All the unkindness and the enmity, open and secret, has been on your side." Had she in her inconsiderate zeal given any reason for such a charge? For if Constance really believed such a thing it would account for her excessive bitterness. Then she remembered how Fan had been mysteriously won over to her own side; to herself the girl's action had seemed mysterious, but doubtless it had not seemed so to Constance; she had set it down to her mother's secret enmity; and though that reproach had been undeserved, it was not strange that she had made it.
In the evening when Miss Churton, who had recovered her placid manner, said good-night and left the room, her mother rose and followed her out, and called softly to her.
Constance came slowly down the stairs, looking a little surprised.
"Constance, forgive me if I have been unkind to you," said the mother, with trembling voice.
"Yes, mother; and forgive me if I said too much this evening--I did say too much."
"I have already forgiven you," returned her mother; and then for a few moments they remained standing together without speaking.
"Good-night, mother," said Constance at length, and offering her hand.
Her mother took it, and after a moment's hesitation drew the girl to her and kissed her, after which they silently separated.
That mutual forgiveness and kiss signified that they were now both willing to lay aside their vain dissensions, but nothing more. That it would mark the beginning of a closer union and confidence between them was not for a moment imagined. Mrs. Churton had been disturbed in her mind; her conscience accused her of indiscretion, which had probably given rise to painful suspicions; she could not do less than ask her enemy's forgiveness. Constance, on her side, was ready to meet any advance, since she only desired to be left in possession of the somewhat melancholy peace her solitary life afforded her.
Meanwhile Fan was happily ignorant of the storm her coming to the house had raised, and that these two ladies, both so dear to her, one loved openly and the other secretly, had been fighting for her possession, and that the battle was lost and won, one taking her as a lawful prize, while the other had retired, defeated, but calmly, without complaint. Her new life and surroundings--the noiseless uneventful days, each with its little cares and occupations, and simple natural pleasures, the world of verdure and melody of birds and wide expanse of sky--seemed strangely in harmony with her spirit: it soon became familiar as if she had been born to it; the town life, the streets she had known from infancy, had never seemed so familiar, so closely joined to her life. And as the days and weeks and months went by, her London life, when she recalled it, began to seem immeasurably remote in time, or else unreal, like a dream or a story heard long ago; and the people she had known were like imaginary people. Only Mary seemed real and not remote--a link connecting that old and shadowy past with the vivid living present.
Her mornings, from nine till one o'clock, were spent with her teacher, and occasionally they went for a walk after dinner; but as a rule they were not together during the last half of the day. After school hours Miss Churton would hand over her pupil, not unwillingly, to her mother, and, if the state of the weather did not prevent, she would go away alone with her book to Eyethorne woods.
A strangely solitary and unsocial life, it seemed to Fan; and yet she felt convinced in her mind that her teacher was warm-hearted, a lover of her fellow-creatures, and glad to be with them; and that she should seem so lonely and friendless, so apart even in her own home, puzzled her
greatly. A mystery, however, it was destined to remain for a long time; for no word to enlighten her ever fell from Mrs. Churton's lips, who seldom even mentioned her daughter's name, and never without a shade coming over her face, as if the name suggested some painful thought. All this troubled the girl's mind, but it was a slight trouble; and by-and-by, when she had got over her first shyness towards strangers, she formed fresh acquaintances, and found new interests and occupations which filled her leisure time. Mrs. Churton often took her when going to call on the few friends she had in the neighbourhood--friends who, for some unexplained reason, seldom returned her visits. At the vicarage, where they frequently went, Fan became acquainted with Mr. Long the vicar, a large, grey-haired, mild-mannered man; and Mrs. Long, a round energetic woman, with reddish cheeks and keen eyes; and the three Miss Longs, who were not exactly good-looking nor exactly young. Before very long it was
discovered that she was clever with her needle, and, better still, that she had learnt the beautiful art of embroidery at South Kensington, and was fond of practising it. These talents were not permitted to lie folded up in a napkin. A new altar-cloth was greatly needed, and there were garments for the children of the very poor, and all sorts of things to be made; it was arranged that she should spend two afternoons each week at the vicarage assisting her new friends in their charitable work.
But more to her than these friends were the very poor, whose homes, sometimes made wretched by want or sickness or intemperance, she visited in Mrs. Churton's company. The lady of Wood End House was not without faults, as we have seen; but they were chiefly faults of temper--and her temper was very sorely tried. She could not forget her lost sons, nor shut her eyes to her husband's worthlessness. But the passive resistance her daughter always opposed to her efforts, her dogged adherence to a resolution never to discuss religious questions or give a reason for her unbelief, had a powerfully irritating, almost a maddening, effect on her, and made her at times denunciatory and violent. Her daughter's motive for keeping her lips closed was a noble one, only Mrs. Churton did not know what it was. But she was conscious of her own failings, and never ceased struggling to overcome them; and she was tolerant of faults in others, except that one fatal fault of infidelity in her daughter, which was too great, too terrible, to be contemplated with calm. In spite of these small blemishes she was in every sense a Christian, whose religion was a tremendous reality, and whose whole life was one unceasing and consistent endeavour to follow in the footsteps of her Divine Master. To go about doing good, to minister to the sick and suffering and comfort the afflicted--that was like the breath of life to her; there was not a cottage--hardly a room in a cottage--within the parish of Eyethorne where her kindly face was not as familiar as that of any person outside of its own little domestic circle. Mrs. Churton soon made the discovery that she could not give Fan a greater happiness than to take her when making her visits to the poor; to have the gentle girl she had learnt to love and look on almost as a daughter with her was such a comfort and pleasure, that she never failed to take her when it was practicable. At first Fan was naturally stared at, a little rudely at times, and addressed in that profoundly respectful manner the poor sometimes use to uninvited visitors of a class higher than themselves, in which the words border on servility while the tone suggests resentment. How inappropriate and even unnatural this seemed to her! For these were her own people--the very poor, and all the privations and sufferings peculiar to their condition were known to her, and she had not outgrown her sympathy with them. Only she could not tell them that, and it would have been a great mistake if she had done so. For no one loves a deserter--a renegade; and a beggar-girl who blossoms into a lady is to those who are beggars still a renegade of the worst description. But the keen interest she manifested in her shy way in their little domestic troubles and concerns, and above all her fondness for little children, smoothed the way, and before long made her visits welcome. She would kneel and take the staring youngster by its dirty hand--so perfectly unconscious of its dirtiness, which seemed very wonderful in one so dainty-looking--and start a little independent child's gossip with it, away from Mrs. Churton and the elders of the cottage. And she would win the little bucolic heart, and kiss its lips, sweet and fragrant to her in spite of the dirt surrounding them; and by-and-by the mother's sharp expression would soften when she met the tender grey eyes; and thereafter there would be a new happiness when Fan appeared, and if Mrs. Churton came without her, there would be sullen looks from the little one, and inquiries from its mother after "your beautiful young lady from London."
All this was inexpressibly grateful to Mrs. Churton, all the more grateful when she noticed that these visits they made together to the very poor seemed to have the effect of drawing the girl more and more to her. To her mind, all this signified that her religious teachings were sinking into the girl's heart, that her own lofty ideal was becoming increasingly beautiful to that young mind.
But she was making a great mistake--one which is frequently made by those who do not know how easily some Christian virtues and qualities are simulated by the unregenerate. All the doctrinal religion she had imparted to Fan remained on the surface, and had not, and, owing to some defect in her or for some other cause, perhaps could not sink down to become rooted in her heart. After Mrs. Churton had, as she imagined, utterly and for ever smashed and pulverised all Fan's preconceived and wildly erroneous ideas about right and wrong, the girl's mind for some time had been in a state of chaos with regard to such matters. But gradually, by means of a kind of spiritual chemistry, the original elements of her peculiar system came together, and crystallised again in the old form. Her mental attitude was not like that of the downright and doggedly-conservative Jan Coggan, who scorned to turn his back on "his
own old ancient doctrines merely for the sake of getting to heaven." There was nothing stubborn or downright in her disposition, and she was hardly conscious of the change going on in her--the reversion to her own past. She assented readily to everything she was told by so good a woman as Mrs. Churton, and in a way she believed it all, and read her Bible and several pious books besides, and got the whole catechism by heart. It was all in her memory--many beautiful things, with others too dreadful to think about; but it could not make her life any different, or supplant her old simple beliefs, and she could never grasp the idea that a living
faith in all these things was absolutely essential, or that they were really more than ornamental. Her lively sympathy for those of her own class was the only reason for the pleasure she took in going among the poor, and it also explained her natural unconstrained manner towards them, which so quickly won their hearts. During these visits she often recalled her own sad condition in that distant time when she lived in Moon Street; thinking that it would have made a great difference if some gracious lady had come to her there, with help in her hands and words of comfort on her lips. It was this memory, this thought, which filled her with love and reverence for her companion; it was gratitude for friendship to the poor, but nothing loftier.
This was a quiet and uneventful period in Fan's life; a time of growth, mental and physical, and of improvement; but as we have seen, the new conditions she found herself in had not so far wrought any change in her character. Those who knew her at Eyethorne, both gentle and simple, would have been surprised to hear that she was not a lady by birth; in her soul she was still the girl who had begged for pence in the Edgware Road, who had run crying through the dark streets after the cab that conveyed her drunken and fatally-injured mother to St. Mary's Hospital. Let them disbelieve who know not Fan, who have never known one like her.