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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 21

A fortnight later, one hot afternoon, Fan was reading beside the open window of the dining-room. After dinner Mrs. Churton had given her The Pleasures of Hope, in a slim old octavo volume, to read, and for the last hour she had been poring over it. Greatly did she admire it, it was so fine, so grand; but all that thunderous roll of rhetoric--the whiskered Pandoors and the fierce Hussars, and Freedom's shriek when Kosciusko fell, and flights of bickering comets through illimitable space--a kind of celestial fireworks on a stupendous scale--and all the realms of ether wrapped in flames--all this had produced a slight headache, a confusion or giddiness, like that which is experienced by a person looking down over a precipice, or when carried too high in a swing.

Constance came down from her room with her hat on and a book in her hand.

"Are you going for a walk, Constance?" asked her mother, who was also sitting by the open window.

"Yes, only to the woods, where I can sit and read in the shade."

Mrs. Churton glanced suspiciously at the book in her daughter's hand--a thick volume bound in dark-green cloth. There was nothing in its appearance to alarm anyone, but she did not like these thick green-bound books that were never by any chance found lying about for one to see what was in them. However, she only answered:

"Then I wish you would persuade Fan to go with you. She is looking pale, it strikes me."

"I shall be glad if Fan will go," she answered, a slight accent of surprise in her tone.

Fan ran up to get her hat and sunshade, and when she returned to them her pallor and headache had well-nigh vanished at the prospect of an afternoon spent in the shady woodland paradise. Mrs. Churton, with a prayer in her heart, watched them going away together--two lovely girls; it made her anxious when her eyes rested on the portly green volume her daughter carried, but it struck her as a good augury when she noticed that the younger girl in her white dress had The Pleasures of Hope in her hand.

For now a new thought, a hope that was very beautiful, had come into Mrs. Churton's heart. All her life long she had had the delusion that "spiritual pride" was her besetting sin; and against this imaginary enemy she was perpetually fighting. And yet if some shining being had come down to tell her that her prayers for others had been heard, that all the worthless and vicious people she wished to carry to heaven with her would be saved, and all of them, even the meanest, set above her in that place where the first is last and the last first, joy at such tidings would have slain her. She had as little spiritual pride as a ladybird or an ant. Now the new thought had come into her mind that her daughter would be saved; not in her way, nor by her means, but in a way that would at the same time be a rebuke to her spiritual pride, her impatience and bitterness of spirit, and zeal not according to knowledge. Not she, but this young girl, herself so ignorant of spiritual things a short time ago, would be the chosen instrument. She remembered how the girl had taken to her from the first, but had not taken to her daughter; how in spite of this distance between them, and of her infidelity, her daughter had continued to love the girl--to Mrs. Churton it was plain that she loved her--and to hunger for her love in return. It was all providential and ordered by One

Who moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.

"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength," she murmured, praising God who had put this gladness in her heart, the Christian's and the mother's love filling her eyes with tears. Up till now it had been her secret aim to keep the girls as much apart as possible out of school hours; >i?now it seemed best to let them come together; and on this August afternoon, as we have seen, she went so far as to encourage a greater intimacy between them. Poor woman!

After they had entered the wood Fan began straying at short intervals from the path to gather flowers and grasses, or to look more closely at a butterfly at rest and sunning its open brightly-patterned wings.

"I think I shall sit down on the grass here to read," said Constance at length. "You can ramble about and gather flowers if you like, and you'll know where to find me."

They had now reached a spot to which Constance was in the habit of resorting almost daily, where the ground was free from underwood, and thickly carpeted with grass not yet wholly dry, and where an oak-tree shaded a wide space with its low horizontal branches.

Fan thanked her, and dropping her book rambled off by herself, happy in her flower-hunting, and forgetting all about the magnificent things she had been reading. Two or three times she returned to the spot where Constance sat reading, with her hands full of flowers and grasses, and after depositing them on the turf went away to gather more. Finally she sat down on the grass, took off her hat and gloves, and set to work arranging her spoils. This took her a long time, and after making them up two or three times in various ways she still seemed dissatisfied. At length she tried a fresh plan, and discarding all the red, yellow, and purple flowers, she made a loose bunch of the blue and white only, using only those fine open grass-spears with hair-like stems and minute flowers that look like mist on the grass. The effect this time was very pretty, and when she had finished her work she sat for some time admiring it, her head a little on one side and holding the bunch well away from her. She did not know how beautiful she herself looked at that moment, how the blue and white flowers and misty grasses had lent, as it were, a new grace to her form and countenance--a flower-like expression that was sweet to see. Looking up all at once she encountered her companion's eyes fixed earnestly on her face. It was so unexpected that it confused her a little, and she reddened and dropped her eyes.

"Forgive me, Fan, for watching your face," said Constance. "When I looked at you I wondered whether it would not be best to tell you what I was thinking of--something about you."

"About me? Will you tell me, Miss Churton?" returned Fan, a half-suppressed eagerness in her voice, as if this approach to confidence had fluttered her heart with pleasure.

"But if I tell you what was in my mind, Fan, I should have to finish by asking you a question; and perhaps you would not like to be asked."

"I think I can answer any question, Miss Churton, unless it is about--how we lived at home before Miss Starbrow took me to live with her. She wishes me not to speak of that, but to forget it.<"

Constance listened with softening eyes, wondering what that sorrowful past had been, which had left no trace on the sweet young face.

"I know that, Fan," she replied, "and should be very sorry to question you about such matters. It saddens me to think that your childhood was unhappy, and if I could help you to forget that period of your life I would gladly do so. The question I should have to ask would be about something recent. Can you not guess what it is?"

"No, Miss Churton--at least I don't think I can. Will you not tell me?"

"You know that my life here is not a happy one."

"Is it not? I am so sorry."

"When I first saw you I imagined that it would be different, that your coming would make me much better off. I had been wondering so much what you were like, knowing that we should be so much together. When I at length saw you it was with a shock of pleasure, for I saw more than I had dared to hope. A first impression is almost infallible, I think, and to this day I have never for a single moment doubted that the impression I received was a right one. But I was greatly mistaken when I imagined that in your friendship I should find compensation for the coldness of others; for very soon you put a distance between us, as you know, and it has lasted until now. That is what was passing through my mind a little while ago when I watched your face; and now, Fan, can you tell me why you took a dislike to me?"

"Oh, Miss Churton, I have never disliked you! I like you very, very much --I cannot say how much!" But even while this assurance sprang spontaneously from her lips, she remembered Mary's warning words, and her heart was secretly troubled, for that old danger which she had ceased to fear had now unexpectedly returned.

"Do you really like me so much, Fan?" said Constance, taking the girl's hand and holding it against her cheek. "I have thought as much sometimes --I have almost been sure of it. But you fear me for some reason; you are shy and reticent when with me, and out of lesson-time you avoid my company. You imagine that it would be wrong to love me, or that if you cannot help liking me you must hide the feeling in your heart."

It startled Fan to find that her companion was so well able to read her thoughts, but she assented unhesitatingly to what the other had said. This approach to confidence began to seem strangely sweet to her, all the sweeter perhaps because so perilous; and that contact of her hand with the other's soft warm cheek gave her an exquisite pleasure.

"And will you not tell me why you fear me?" asked Constance again.

"I should like you to know so much ... but perhaps it would not be right for me to say it ... I wish I knew--I wish I knew."

"I know, Fan--I am perfectly sure that I know, and will save you the trouble and pain of telling it. Shall I tell you? and then perhaps I shall be able to convince you that you have no reason to be afraid of me."

"I wish you would," eagerly returned Fan.

"My mother has prejudiced you against me, Fan. She imagines that if we were intimate and friendly together my influence would be injurious, that it would destroy the effect of the religious instruction she gives."

"I do not understand you," said Fan, looking unmistakably puzzled.

"No? And yet I thought it so plain. My mother has told you that I am not religious--in her way, that is--that I am not a Christian. She does not know really; I do not go about telling people what I believe or disbelieve, and prefer to say nothing about religion for fear of hurting any person's feelings. But that is not her way, and through what she has said at the vicarage, and elsewhere about me I am now looked upon as one to be avoided. I see you are reading The Pleasures of Hope. Let me have it. Do you see this passage with pencil-marks against it, and all the words underscored?

"Ah me! the laurel wreath that Murder rears,
Blood-nursed, and watered by the widow's tears,
Seems not so foul, so tainted, and so dread,
As waves the nightshade round the sceptic head.

"These words were marked for my benefit--this is what she thinks of me--her own daughter--because I cannot agree with her in everything she believes!" And here she flung the volume disdainfully on the grass. "When I agreed to be your teacher I never imagined that such things would have been put into your head. Her anxiety about your spiritual welfare made it seem right in her eyes to do so, I suppose. But I should not have harmed you, my dear girl, or interfered with your religion in any way; she might have given me that much credit. When she knew how lonely my life was, and how much your affection would have been to me, it was unkind of her to set you also against me from the first."

All this came as a complete surprise on her listener, who now for the first time began to understand the reason of the estrangement of mother and daughter. But Constance was allowed to finish her speech without interruption. She said more than she had meant to say, but her feelings had carried her away, and when she finished it was with a half-suppressed sob.

"Dear Miss Churton, I am so sorry you are unhappy," said Fan at length, taking her hand. "I did not know you were not a Christian, nor why it was that you and Mrs. Churton were always so cold to each other. But it would have made no difference if I had known, because--I am not religious."

Constance looked at her.

"What do you mean by that, Fan?" she said. "It is my turn now, it seems, to say that I do not understand you."

The other hesitated; then she remembered the carpenter's words, and began a little doubtfully:

"I mean that I do not think that going to church and--reading the Bible, and praying, and all that, make any difference. I think we can be good without that--don't you, Miss Churton? I wish I could tell you better--it seems so hard to say it. But Mrs. Churton never said anything to me about you--in that way--I mean about your religion."

Constance listened to all this with the greatest surprise. That this very simple-minded girl, impressible as soft wax as it seemed to her, should think independently about such a subject as religion, and that she should hold views so opposed to those which Mrs. Churton had for several months been diligently instilling into her mind, seemed almost incredible. The second statement was nearly as surprising, so sure had she been that her suspicions were well-founded.

"Then I have been very unjust to my mother in this instance," she said, "and am very sorry I spoke so warmly about older things which should be forgotten."

After an interval of silence she continued, withdrawing her hand from the other,

"I can make no further guess, Fan; and if you have any secret reason for keeping apart from me you must forgive me for speaking to you and trying to win your confidence."

Fan was more distressed than ever now, and the tears started to her eyes as she felt that the distance was once more widening between them, and that it all depended on herself whether she was to drink from this sweet cup or set it down again scarcely tasted.

"I must tell you, Miss Churton," she said at length; and then, not without much hesitation and difficulty, she explained Miss Starbrow's views with regard to the impossibility of a woman, or of a girl like her, loving more than one person, or having more than one friend.

Constance gave a laugh, which, however, she quickly checked.

"Dear Fan," she said, "does not your own heart tell you that it is all a mistake? And if you feel that you do love me, do you not know from your own experience, whether you hide the feeling or not, that your love for others, and chiefly for so dear a friend as Miss Starbrow, remains just as strong as before?"

Fan gladly answered in the affirmative.

"We are all liable to strange errors about different things, and Miss Starbrow is certainly in error about this. Besides, my dear girl, we can't always love or not love as we like; the feeling comes to us spontaneously, like the wind that blows where it listeth. Be sure that we are not such poor creatures that we cannot love more than one person at a time. But Miss Starbrow is not singular in her opinion--if it is her opinion. I have heard men say that although a man's large heart can harbour many friendships, a woman is incapable of having more than one friendship at any time. That is a man's opinion, and therefore it is not strange that it should be a wrong one, since only a woman can know the things of a woman. How strange that Miss Starbrow should have so mean an opinion of her own sex!"

Fan then remembered something which she imagined might throw some light on this dark subject.

"I know," she said, "that she always prefers men to women for friends. I have heard her say that she hates women."

Constance laughed again.

"She does not hate herself--that is impossible; and that she did not hate you, Fan, is very evident. Don't you think that, intimate as you were with Miss Starbrow, you did not always quite understand her way of speaking, that you took her words too literally? You know now that she did not really mean it when she spoke of hating women, and perhaps she did not really mean what she said about your being unable to love more than one person."

"Yes; I think you are right. I know that she does not always mean what she says. I am sure you are right."

"And will you be my friend then, and love me a little?"

"You know that I love you dearly, and it makes me so happy to think that we are friends. But tell me, dear Miss Churton--"

"If we are really friends now you must call me Constance."

"Oh, I shall like that best. Dear Constance, do you think when I write to Mary that I must tell her all we have talked about?"

"No," said the other, after a moment's reflection. "It is not necessary, and would not be fair to me, as we have been speaking about her. But you must be just as open about everything, as I suppose it is your nature to be, and conceal nothing about your feelings towards others. I do not think for a moment that you will offend her by being good friends with your teacher."

That assurance and advice removed the last shadow of anxiety from Fan's mind, and after some more conversation they returned home, both feeling very much happier than when they had started for this eventful walk.


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