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)
After Merton's departure from Eyethorne things drifted back to their old state at Wood End House, the slight change in Constance becoming less and less perceptible, until the time came when Fan began to think, with a secret feeling of relief, that the visitor had after all made only a passing impression, which was already fading out of her teacher's mind. But by-and-by there came from London a letter and a packet of books and periodicals for Constance, and Fan remarked the glad excitement in her friend's face when she carried her treasures away to her room, and her subsequent silence on the subject. And after that Constance was again
much occupied with her own thoughts, which, to judge from her countenance, were happy ones; and Fan quickly came to the conclusion that the books and letter were from Merton. Mrs. Churton, who knew nothing about this new acquaintance, imagined only that her daughter had sucked out all the impiety contained in the books she already possessed, and had sent for a fresh supply. For, she argued, if there had been nothing wrong in the books Constance would have allowed her to read or see them. She made herself very unhappy over it, and was more incensed than ever against her sinful daughter, but she said nothing, and only showed her dissatisfaction in her cold, distrustful manner.
Another bitterness in her cup at this period was her inability to revive Fan's interest in sacred things, for she had begun to notice an increasing indifference in the girl. All the religious teaching, over which she had spent so much time and labour, seemed to have failed of its effect. She had planted, apparently in the most promising soil, and the vicar and the vicar's wife had watered, and God had not given the increase. This was a new mystery which she could not understand, in spite of much pondering over it, much praying for light, and many conversations on the subject with her religious friends. So sweet and good and pure-hearted and pliant a girl; but alas! alas! it was only that ephemeral fictitious kind of goodness which springs from temper or disposition, which has no value in the eyes of Heaven, cannot stand the shocks of time and circumstance. It was not through any remissness of her own; she had never ceased her efforts, yet now after many months she was fain to confess that this young girl, who had promised such great things, seemed further than at the beginning from that holiness which is not of the earth, and which delights only in the contemplation of heavenly things. She could see it now with what painful clearness! for her eyes in such matters were preternaturally sharp, like those of a sailor who has followed the sea all his life with regard to atmospheric changes; no
sooner would the lesson begin than all brightness would fade from that too expressive countenance, and the girl would listen with manifest effort, striving to keep her attention from wandering, striving to understand and to respond; but there was no response from the heart, and in spite of striving her thoughts, her soul, were elsewhere, and her eyes wore a distant wistful look. And Mrs. Churton was hot-tempered; in all the years of her self-discipline she had never been able to wring from her heart that one drop of black blood; and sometimes when she talked to Fan, and read and prayed with her, and noticed that impassive look coming
over her face to quench its brightness like a cloud, her old enemy would get the best of her, and she would start up and hurriedly leave the room without a word, lest it should betray her into passionate expression.
"Yes, I have also noticed this in Miss Affleck," the vicar said to her one day when she had been speaking to him on the subject. "She seemed at one time so docile, so teachable, so easy to be won, and now it is impossible not to see that there is something at work neutralising all our efforts and making her impervious to instruction. But, my dear Mrs. Churton, we know the reason of this; Miss Affleck is too young, too ignorant and impressible not to fall completely under the influence of your daughter."
"But my daughter has promised me and has given me her word of honour that nothing has been said or will be said or done to alienate her pupil's mind from religious subjects. And we know, Mr. Long, that even those who are without God may still be trusted to speak the truth--that they have that natural morality written on their hearts of which St. Paul speaks."
"Yes, that's all very well, and I don't say for a moment that your daughter has deliberately set herself to undo your work and win her pupil to her own pernicious views. But is it possible for her, even if she wished it, to conceal them altogether from one who is not only her pupil but her intimate friend and constant companion? Her whole life--thoughts, acts, words, and even looks--must be leavened with the evil leaven; how can Miss Affleck live with her in that intimate way without catching some of that spirit from her? You know that so long as they were not thus intimate this girl was everything that could be desired, that from the time they became close friends she began to change, and that religion is now becoming as distasteful to her as it is to her teacher."
Poor woman! she had gone for comfort and counsel to her pastor, and this was all she got. He was a good hater, and regarded Miss Churton with a feeling that to his way of thinking was a holy one. "Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate Thee? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them mine enemies." As for separating two inseparable things, the sinner and the sin (matter and an affection of matter), and loving one and hating the other, that was an intellectual feat altogether beyond his limited powers, although he considered it one which Mr. Northcott might be able to accomplish. He had made it impossible for his enemy to do any injury in the parish; she had been dropped by Eyethorne "society," and she did not go among the poor; but this was not enough to satisfy him, and the sermon he had preached against her, which drove her from the church, had been deliberately prepared with the object of driving her from the parish. He had failed in his object, and now he was angry because he could not separate Fan from her, and, unjust and even cruel in his anger, he turned on the unhappy mother.
To his words Mrs. Churton could only reply, "What can I do--what can I do?" And as he refused to answer her, having said his last word, she rose and went home more unhappy than ever, more angry with Fan, and embittered against her daughter; for that the vicar had truly shown her the reason of her failure she could not doubt.
They were both entirely wrong, although the mistake was a very natural one, and, in the circumstances, almost unavoidable. Constance had scrupulously observed the compact. Nothing could be further from her mind than any desire to win others to her way of thinking. The religious instinct was strong in her, and could flourish without the support of creed or doctrine; at the same time she recognised the fact that in others--in a very large majority of persons, perhaps--it is a frail creeping plant that trails along the ground to perish trodden in the dust without extraneous support.
Fan, on her side, had drifted into her present way of thinking, or not thinking, independently of her teacher, and entirely uninfluenced by her. At the beginning she responded readily to Mrs. Churton's motherly teaching; but only because the teaching was motherly, and intimately associated with those purely human feelings which were everything to her. Afterwards when others, who were strangers and not dear to her, began to take part in her instruction, then gradually these two things--human and divine--separated themselves in her mind, and she clung to the one and lost her interest in the other. It was pleasant to go to church, to take part in singing and praying with the others, and to sit with half-closed eyes among well-dressed people during sermon-time, and think of other things, chiefly of Mary and Constance. But when religion came to be more than that, it began to oppress her like a vain show, and it was a relief to escape from all thoughts on the subject. So low and so earthly, in one sense, was Fan's mind. While she was in this frame that visit to the carpenter's cottage occurred, and the carpenter's words had taken a strong hold on her and could not be forgotten; for they fitted her case so exactly, and seemed so clearly to express all that she had had in her mind, and all that it was necessary for her to have, that it had the effect of making her spirit deaf to all other and higher teachings. If she could have explained it all to Mrs. Churton it would have been better, at all events for Constance, but she was incapable of such a thing, even if she had possessed the courage, and so she kept silence, although she could see that her want of interest was distressing to her kind friend.
Another great bitterness in Mrs. Churton's cup resulted from the conduct of her irreclaimable husband. Even Fan, who had never regarded any living soul with contempt, had soon enough learned to experience such a feeling towards this man. But it was a kindly contempt, for after repulsing him two or three times when he had attempted to conduct himself in too fatherly a manner, he had ceased to trouble her in any way. He was very unobtrusive in the house, except at intervals, when he would rebel against his wife and say shocking things and screech at her. But when cold weather came, then poor Mr. Churton took an extra amount of alcohol for warmth, and the spirit and cold combined brought on a variety of ailments which sometimes confined him for days to his bedroom. At such times he would be deeply penitent, and beg his wife to sit with him and read the Bible, which she was always ready to do. Never again would he seek oblivion from pain in the cup that cheers, and, alas, inebriates, or do anything to make his beloved wife grieve; thus would he protest, kissing her hand and shedding weak tears. But as soon as she had nursed him back into better health he would seize the first opportunity when she was out of the way to slip off "for a constitutional," which would
invariably end at the inn in the High Street; and in the evening he would return quarrelsome and abusive, or else groaning and ready to take to bed again.
Mr. Northcott, who might have melted into thin air for all we have seen or heard of him lately, was also unhappy in his mind at this period. He loved, and yet when it had almost seemed to him that he had not loved in vain, partly from prudential motives and partly because his religion stood in the way of his desire, he had refrained from speaking. Now it seemed to him that he had let his chance go by, and that Miss Churton, although still as friendly as any person not actually enamoured of her could have wished, was not so sympathetic, not so near to him, as formerly. Nevertheless, he still sought her out at every opportunity, and engaged her in long conversations which led to nothing; for they barely touched on the borders of those subjects which both felt most deeply about, and that other subject which he alone felt they never approached. His resolution had in some measure recovered its "native hue," but too late, alas! and at length one day his vicar took him to task about this inconvenient friendship.
"Mr. Northcott," he said very unexpectedly at the end of a conversation they had been having, "may I ask you whether you still hope to be able to win back Miss Churton to a more desirable frame of mind?"
The curate flushed a little, and glancing up encountered the suspicious eyes of his superior fixed on him.
"I regret that I am compelled to answer with a negative," he returned.
"Then," said the other, "you will not take it amiss if I warn you that your partiality for Miss Churton's society has been made the subject of remark among the ladies in the neighbourhood. That your motives are of the highest I do not question; at the same time, if they are misunderstood and if your efforts are futile, it would be prudent, I fancy, not to let it appear that you prefer this lady's company to that of others."
This about motives did not sound quite sincere; but the vicar was suave in manner, stroking his curate very kindly with soft velvet hand, only waiting for some slight movement before unsheathing the sharp hidden claws. One word of protest and of indignant remonstrance would have been enough; the reply was on his tongue, "Then, Mr. Northcott, I regret that we must part company."
But he made no movement such as the other had expected, perhaps even desired, for we are all cruel, even the best of us--so Bain says, and therefore it must be true. On the contrary, he took it with strange meekness--for which he did not fail afterwards to despise himself with his whole heart--regretting that anything had been said, and thanking the vicar for telling him. Nevertheless he was very indignant at this gossip of "a set of malignant old scandal-mongers," as he called the Eyethorne ladies in his wrath, and bitterly resented the interference of the vicar in his affairs. Only the hopeless passion that preyed on him, which made the prospect of a total separation from Miss Churton seem intolerable, kept him from severing his connection with Eyethorne. But after that warning he was more circumspect, and gave the ladies, old and young, less reason for ill-natured remarks.
All these troubles and griefs, real and imaginary, of which they were indirectly the cause, affected the two young friends not at all. They did not see these things, or saw them only dimly at a distance: they were perfectly happy in each other, and almost invariably together both in and out of doors. The Eyethorne woods still attracted them almost daily; for although the trees were barren of leaves and desolate, the robin still made blithe music there, and the wren and thrush were sometimes heard, and even the mournful cawing of the rooks, and the weird melodies of the wind in the naked trees inspired their hearts with a mysterious gladness.
And on days when the sun shone--the February days when winter "wears on its face a dream of spring"--they never tired of talking about how they were going to spend their time out of doors during the coming vernal and summer months. For that Fan would remain another year at Eyethorne was now looked upon as practically settled, since three-quarters of the first year had gone by and Miss Starbrow had said no word in her letters about taking her away. They were going to watch every opening leaf and every tender plant as it sprouted from the soil, and Fan was to learn the names, vulgar and scientific, and the special beauty and fragrance, and all the secrets of "every herb that sips the dew." And the birds were also to be watched and listened to, and the peculiar melody of each kind noted on its arrival from beyond the sea.
One circumstance only interfered with Fan's happiness during the winter months. The letters she received from Mary, which came to her from various continental addresses, were few and short, growing fewer and shorter as time went on, and contained no allusion to many things in the long fortnightly epistles which, the girl imagined, required an answer. But one day, about the middle of March, when there had been no word for about six weeks, and Fan had begun to feel a vague anxiety, a letter came for her. It came while she was with Constance during study hours, and taking it she ran up to her own room to enjoy it in solitude.
Constance had also received a letter from London by the same post, and was well pleased to be left to read it by herself; and after reading and re-reading it, she continued sitting before the fire, the letter still in her hand and occupied with very pleasant thoughts. At length, glancing at
the clock, she was surprised to find that half an hour had gone by since Fan left the room, and wondering at her delay, she went to look for her. Fan was sitting beside her bed, her cheek, wet with recent tears, resting on her arms on the coverlid; but she did not move when the other entered the room.
"Fan, dearest Fan, what have you heard?" exclaimed Constance in alarm.
For only reply the girl put a letter she was holding in her hand towards the other, and Constance, taking it, read as follows:
Since I wrote last I have had several letters from you, one or two since I returned to England, but there was nothing in them calling for an immediate reply.
I do not wish you to answer this, or to write to me again at any time.
After so much travelling about I feel disinclined to settle down in London, or even in England at present, and have made up my mind to re-let the house in Dawson Place--that is, if the present tenants should have any wish to give it up.
My brother and I separated some time ago, and he has gone, or is going, to India, and will be away two or three years, as, I believe, he also intends visiting Australia, China, and America. I am therefore quite alone now, and shall probably go over to France for a few months, perhaps
to remain permanently abroad.
But so far as you are concerned, it does not matter in the least whether I go or stay, since I cannot take you back to live with me, or have anything more to do with you.
The clothes you have will, I dare say, last you some time longer, and I have instructed my agent in London to send you a small sum of money (£25) to start you with. You must in future take care of yourself, and I suppose that with all the knowledge you have acquired from Miss Churton, you will be able to get a situation of some kind.
You have until the middle of next May--I forget the exact date--to prepare for your new life; and you can mention to Mrs. Churton that my agent will send her the money for the last quarter before your time at Eyethorne expires.
I suppose you do not require to be told the reason of the determination I have come to. You cannot have forgotten the fair warning I gave you when we parted, and you must know, Fan, if you know me at all, that when I say a thing I distinctly mean it.
You must take this as my very last word to you.
"Oh, what a cruel thing to do! What a heartless letter! What a barbarous woman!" cried Constance, tears of keenest distress starting to her eyes, as she hastened to Fan's side, holding out her hands.
But Fan would not be caressed; she started as if stung to her feet, her kindling eyes and flushed cheeks showing that her grief and despondence had all at once been swallowed up in some other feeling.
"Give me the letter back," she demanded, holding out her hand for it, and then, when the other hesitated, astonished at her changed manner, snatched it from her hand, and began carefully smoothing and refolding it, for Constance had crumpled it up in her indignation.
"Fan, what has come over you? Are you going to quarrel with me because that unfeeling, purse-proud, half-mad woman has treated you so badly? Ah, poor Fan, to have been at the mercy of such a creature! I would tear her bank-notes into shreds and send them back to her agent--"
"<9>Leave me!" screamed Fan at her, stamping on the floor in her rage.
Constance stood staring at her, mute and motionless with astonishment, so utterly unexpected was this tempest of anger, and so strange in one who had seemed incapable of any such violent feeling.
"Very well, Fan, I shall leave you if you wish it," she said at length with some dignity, but in a pained voice. "I did not understand this outburst at first. I had almost lost sight of the fact that I am in a sense to blame for your misfortune. I regret it very bitterly, but that is no comfort to you, and it is only natural that you should begin to hate me now."
"I do not hate you, Constance," said Fan, recovering her usual tone, but still speaking with a tremor in her voice. "Why do you say that?--it is a cruel thing to say. Do you not know that it is false? I shall never blame you for what has happened. You are not to blame. I have lost Mary, but she is not what you say. You do not know her--what right have you to call her bad names? I would go away this moment and never see you again rather than hear you talk in that way of her, much as I love you."
This speech explained the mystery, but it astonished her as much as the previous passionate outbreak. That the girl could be so just to her, so free from the least trace of bitterness against her for having indirectly caused that great unhappiness, and at the same time so keenly resent her sympathy, which she could not easily express without speaking indignantly of Miss Starbrow--this seemed so strange, so almost incongruous and contradictory, that if the case had not been so sad she would have burst into a laugh. As it was she only burst into tears, and threw her arms round the girl's neck.
"Darling Fan," she said, "I understand you now--at last; and shall say nothing to wound your feelings again. But I hope--with all my heart I hope that I shall one day meet this--meet Miss Starbrow, to have the satisfaction of telling her--"
"Telling her what?" exclaimed Fan, the bright resentful red returning to her pale cheeks.
"Of telling her what she has lost. That she never really knew you, and what an affection you had for her."
There was no comfort in this to Fan. Her loss--the thought that she would never see Mary again--surged back to her heart, and turning away, she went back to her seat and covered her face again from the other's sight.