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 making her peace with Fan, there remained for Constance the heavy task of informing her mother. She found her engaged with her needle in the dining-room.
"Mother," she began, "I have got something very unpleasant to tell you. Miss Starbrow has written to Fan, casting her off. She tells her to remain here until her year is up, and then to take care of herself, as she, Miss Starbrow, will have nothing more to do with her. It is a cold, heartless letter; and what poor Fan is to do I don't know."
Mrs. Churton made no reply for some time, but the news disturbed her greatly. Much as she felt for Fan, she could not help thinking also of her own sad case; for after the last quarter had come, with no word from Miss Starbrow, she had taken it for granted that Fan was to stay another year with her. And the money had been a great boon, enabling her to order her house better, and even to pay off a few old accounts, and interest on the mortgage which weighed so heavily on her little property.
Constance, guessing what was passing in her mind, pitied her, but waited without saying more for her to speak; and at length when she did speak it was to put the question which Constance had been expecting with some apprehension.
"What is Miss Starbrow's reason for casting Fan off?" she said.
The other still considered a little before replying.
"Mother," she spoke at length, "will you read Miss Starbrow's letter for yourself? It is not very easy to see from it what she has to quarrel with Fan about. Her reason is perhaps only an excuse, it seems so fantastical. You must judge for yourself."
"I suppose you can tell me whether her quarrel with Fan--you say that there is a quarrel--is because the girl has been taught things she disapproves."
"No, nothing of the kind. She writes briefly, and, as I said, heartlessly. Not one word of affection for Fan or of regret at parting with her, and no allusion to the subject of her studies with you or me. Not a word of thinks to us--"
"That I never expected," said Mrs. Churton. "I could not look for such a thing from a person of Miss Starbrow's description. A kind word or message from her would have surprised me very much."
While she was speaking Fan had entered the room unnoticed. She was pale and looked sad, but calmer now, and the traces of tears had been washed away. Her face flushed when she heard Mrs. Churton's words, and she advanced and stood so that they could not help seeing her.
"Fan, I am deeply grieved to hear this," said Mrs. Churton. "I cannot tell you, my poor child, how much I feel this trouble that has come on you so early in life. But before I can speak fully about it I must know something more. I am in the dark yet--Constance has not told me why Miss Starbrow has seen fit to act in such a way. Will you let me see her letter?" and with trembling fingers she began to wipe her glasses, which had grown dim.
"I am very sorry, Mrs. Churton, but I cannot show you the letter."
They both looked at her, Constance becoming more and more convinced that there was a strength in Fan's character which she had never suspected; while in Mrs. Churton anxiety and sorrow for a moment gave place to a different feeling.
"You surprise me very much, Fan," she returned. "I understand that you have already shown the letter to Constance."
"Yes, but I am sorry now. I did it without thinking, and I cannot show it again."
"Fan, what is the meaning of this? It is only right and natural that you should confide in me about such a serious matter; and I cannot understand your motives in refusing to let me see a letter the contents of which are known to my daughter."
"Mother," said Constance, "I think I can guess her motives, which make it painful for her to show the letter, and will explain what I think they are. Fan, dear, will you leave us for a while, and let me tell mother why Miss Starbrow will not take you back?"
"You can say what you like, Constance, because I can't prevent you," said Fan, still speaking with that decision in her tone which seemed so strange in her. "But I said I was sorry that I let you read Mary's letter, and if you say anything about it, it will be against my wish."
These words, although spoken in rebuke, were a relief to Constance, for however "fantastical" she might consider Miss Starbrow's motives to be, she very much doubted that her mother would take the same view; and she knew that her mother, though entitled to know the whole matter, would never ask her to reveal a secret of Fan's.
But Mrs. Churton had not finished yet. "Fan, dear, come to me," she said, and putting her arm about the girl's waist, drew her to her side. "I think I have cause to be offended with your treatment of me, but I shall not be offended, because you are probably only doing what you think is right. But, dear child, you must allow me to judge for you in some things, and I am convinced that you are making a great mistake. I have been a great deal to you during all these months that you have been with us, and since you received this letter I have become more to you. You must not imagine that in a little time, in another two months, we must separate; you are too young, too weak yet to go out into the world, to face its temptations and struggle for your own livelihood. I have been a mother to you; look on me as a mother still, a natural protector, whose home is your home also. It might very well be that Miss Starbrow's motives for casting you off would be of no assistance to me in the future--I can hardly think that they could be; for I do not believe that she has any valid reason for treating you as she has done. Nor is it from mere curiosity that I ask you to show me her letter; but it is best that you should do so for various reasons, and chiefly because it will prove that you love me, and trust me, and are willing to be guided by me."
The tears rose to Fan's eyes, her strange self-collected mood seemed to be gone. "Dear Mrs. Churton," she said, with trembling voice, "please--please don't think me ungrateful! ... You have made me so happy ... oh, what can I do to show how much I love you ... that I do trust you?"
The girl was conquered, so they thought, mother and daughter; and Constance, with a little internal sigh and a twinge of shame at her cowardice, waited to see the letter read and to save Fan the pain of answering the searching questions which her mother would be sure to ask.
"Dear Fan, let me see the letter," said Mrs. Churton.
"Oh, dear Mrs. Churton, anything but that! I can't let you see it--I am so sorry! When Constance read it and began to speak angrily of Mary, I said to myself that no one should ever see it again."
"Have you then destroyed it?"
"Oh, no," she replied, involuntarily touching her bosom with her hand, "but I cannot show it."
"Very well, Fan, let us say no more about it," returned the other coldly, and withdrawing her arm from the girl's waist. And after a few moments of painful silence she rose and left the room.
Fan looking up met her friend's eyes fixed on her face. "Do you think Mrs. Churton is very angry with me, Constance?" she asked sadly.
"I think that she is offended. And surprised too, I believe." Then she came nearer and took the girl's hand. "You have surprised me a great deal, I know. I am not yet quite sure that I understand your motives for refusing to show the letter. Perhaps your only reason was that you would not allow Miss Starbrow to be blamed at all--I am not questioning you. In any case you make me feel ashamed of myself. You have made me feel such a coward, and--it was a poor spiteful thing to say that I would tear up the
notes and send them back to the giver."
Fan made no reply, but stood with eyes cast down as if thinking of something else; and before long she made some excuse to go to her room, where she spent the rest of the day shut up by herself.
From that day a cloud rested on the ladies of Wood End House. Just when Nature called them to rejoice, when the sun laughed at the storm, and the blackbird fluted so loud in the orchard, and earth knew once more the glory of flowers, this great trouble had come on Fan, dimming the sweet visible world with a mist of tears. The poverty and toil which she must
now face meant so much to her; day and night, at all times, the thought of it forced itself on her--the perpetual toiling for a bare subsistence, for bread to satisfy the cravings of hunger; the mean narrow, sordid, weary life, day after day, with no hope, no dream of joy to come; and worse than all, the evil things which she had seen and heard and were associated in her mind with the thought of poverty, all the things which made her old life seem like a hideous nightmare to her! The sunshine and flowers and the fluting of the blackbird, that would soon flute no more for her, could not drive this care from her heart; she was preoccupied,
and silent, and sad, and Constance was sad from pure sympathy. Mrs. Churton, although still kind and even motherly in her manner, could not help showing that Fan's offence had not been forgotten; yet she loved the girl so well that she could not but feel the deepest pity for her and anxiety about her future. And she even still hoped to win her confidence.
"Fan," she said one evening, when bidding her good-night, "you must not think that what passed the other day between us makes any difference with regard to my plans about your future. What I said to you then still holds good, and my home while I have one is your home."
Fan knew very well that she might not accept this offer; she knew that the Churtons were poor and burdened with debt; and that even if it had not been so, after taking up an independent position in opposition to Mrs. Churton, she had no right to remain a day beyond the time for which payment had been made. All this in a faltering way she tried to explain to her kind friend, and Mrs. Churton confessed to herself that the girl took the right view. She made no further attempt to win her confidence or to make her change her mind; towards both Fan and her daughter she thereafter observed a somewhat cold and distant manner, grieving in her own heart, yearning over them in secret, but striving to hide it all from
A fortnight after the receipt of Miss Starbrow's letter, one afternoon the girls came in from their walk, and Constance, seeing her mother at work in the dining-room, remained standing at the door until Fan went upstairs. Then she went inside and sat down near her mother. Mrs. Churton glanced at her with a swift startled glance, then bent her eyes on her work again. But her heart fluttered in her breast, for she knew that she was about to hear some new and perhaps painful thing.
"Mother," Constance began presently, "Fan has made up her mind to go back to London when her time is up with us. She is going to look for a situation."
"A situation--what do you mean, Constance?"
"Her own idea is that she would like best to be a shop-girl in some large London shop."
"Then all I can say is that it is very shocking. Does the poor child know what it means to be a shop-girl in a great city, where she has no home or friends, where she will associate with ignorant and vulgar people, and worse perhaps, and be exposed to the most terrible temptations? But what can I say, Constance, that will have the slightest weight with either Fan or you?"
"I should like it very much better if Fan could do something different--if she could find some more ladylike occupation. But nothing will move her. If she cannot get into a shop, she says that she must be a servant, because she must earn her own living, and she will not believe herself capable of anything higher. To be a shop-girl, or a nursery-governess, or failing that a nursemaid, is as high as her ambition goes; and though I am sorry that it must be so, I can't help admiring her independence and resolution."
"I am glad that there is anything in it all to be admired; it only makes me sad, and just now I can say no more about it. I only hope that before the time comes she will think better of it."
"I have something else to say to you, mother," said Constance, after a rather long interval of silence. "I have made up my mind to accompany Fan to London."
"What do you mean, Constance?" the other asked, with a tremor in her voice.
"To live in London, I mean. It has long been my wish, and I am surely as well able to earn my living now as I ever shall be. When Fan goes I shall not be needed at home any longer. And we are not happy together, mother."
"I know that, Constance; but you must put this idea of going to London out of your head. I cannot consent to it--I shall never consent to it."
"Why not, mother?"
"Do not ask me. I cannot say--I scarcely know myself. I dare not think of such a thing; it is too dreadful. You must not, you cannot go. Do not speak of it again."
The other's task was all the harder because she knew the reason of her mother's reluctance, and understood her feeling so well--the terrible grief which only a mother can feel at the thought of an eternal separation from her child. She rose to her feet, but instead of going
from the room remained standing, hesitating, twisting and untwisting her fingers together, and at length she moved to a chair close to her mother and sat down again.
"I must tell you something else, mother," she said. "I do not quite belong to myself now, but to another; and if the man I have promised to marry were to come for me tomorrow, or to send for me to go to him, I could no longer remain with you. As it happens, we are not going to be married soon--not for a year at least, perhaps not for two. Before that time comes I wish to know what it is to live by my own work.... He is a worker, working with his mind in London: I think it would be a good preparation for my future, that it would make me a better companion for him, if I were also to work now and be independent.... If you can only give me a little money--enough to pay my expenses for a short time--a few weeks in London, until I begin to make enough to keep myself!"
"And who is this person you speak of, Constance, of whose existence I now hear for the first time?"
"I have been for some months in correspondence with him, but our engagement is only recent, and that is why you have not heard of it before. He is a clerk in the Foreign Office, and from that you will know that he is a gentleman. He also employs his leisure time in literary work. I can show you his photograph if you would like to see it, mother."
"And have you, Constance, engaged yourself to a person you have not even seen?"
"No, mother, I have of course seen him."
"Here, in Eyethorne. Last August, when I was walking in the woods with Fan, we met him, and he recognised Fan, whom he had met in London at Miss Starbrow's house, and spoke to her. We had a long conversation on that day, and I met him again and talked with him the next day, and after that we kept up the acquaintance by letter."
"And you and Fan together met this man and never mentioned it to me! Let me ask you one question more, Constance. Is this person you are engaged to a Christian or an infidel?"
"Mother, it is not fair to put the question in that way. You call me an infidel, but I am not an infidel--I do not call myself one."
"Do not let us go into hair-splitting distinctions, Constance. I ask you again this simple question--Is he a Christian?"
"Not in the way that you understand it. He is not a Christian."
The other turned her face away, a little involuntary moan of pain escaping her lips; and for the space of two or three minutes there was silence between them, the daughter repenting that she had vainly given her confidence, and the mother revolving all she had heard in her mind, her grief changing gradually into the old wrath and bitterness. And at length she spoke.
"I don't know why you have condescended to tell me of this engagement. Was it only to show me how utterly you put aside and despise a mother's authority--a mother's right to be consulted before taking so important a step? But that is the principle you have acted on all along--to ignore and treat with silent contempt your mother's words and wishes. And you have succeeded in making Fan as bad as yourself. I can see it all better now. Your example, your teaching, has drawn her away from me, and I am as little to her now as to you. She would never have entered into these secret doings and plottings if you had not corrupted her. You have made her what she is; take her and go where you like together, and ruin yourself in any way that pleases you best, for I have no longer any influence over either of you. Only do not ask me to sanction what you do, or to give you any assistance."
Constance rose and moved away, but before reaching the door she turned and spoke. "Mother, I cannot pay any attention to such wild, unfounded accusations. If I must leave home without a shilling in my purse after teaching Fan for a year, I can only say that you are treating me with the greatest injustice, and that a stranger would have treated me better." Then she left the room, and for several days after no word passed between mother and daughter.
Nevertheless Mrs. Churton was keenly alive and deeply interested in all that was passing around her. She noted that the hours of study were very much shortened now, and that the girls were continually together in the house, and from their bedroom sweepings and stray threads clinging to their dresses, and the snipping sound of scissors, she judged that they were busy with their preparations. Fan had gone back to her ancient but happily not lost art of dressmaking, and was making Constance a dress from a piece of stuff which the latter had kept by her for some time. Mrs. Churton had continued hoping against hope, but the discovery that this garment was being made convinced her at last that her daughter's resolution was not to be shaken, and that the dreaded separation was very near.
At length one morning, just after receiving a letter from London, and when only one week of Fan's time at Wood End House remained, she spoke to her daughter, calling her into her own room.
"Constance," she said, speaking in a constrained tone and with studied words, "I fully deserved your reproach the other day. I should not have let you go from home without a shilling in your purse. I spoke hastily, in anger, that day, and I hope you will forgive me. Miss Starbrow's agent has just sent the eighteen pounds for the last quarter; I cannot do less than hand it over to you, and only wish that I had it in my power to give you more."
"Thank you, mother; but I would much rather that you kept part of it. I do not require as much as that."
"You will find it little enough--in London among strangers. We need not speak any more about it, and you owe me no thanks. It is only right that you should have one quarter's money of the four I have received." After an interval of silence, and when her daughter was about to leave the room, she continued, "Before you go, Constance, let me ask a favour of you. If you are going away soon this will be our last conversation."
"Our last! What favour, mother?"
"When you go, do so without coming to say goodbye to me. I do not feel very strong, and--would prefer it if you went away quietly without any leave-takings."
"If that is your wish, mother," she returned, and then remained standing, her face full of distress. Then she moved a little nearer and said, "Mother, if there is to be no good-bye, will you let me kiss you?"
Mrs. Churton's lips moved but made no sound. Constance after a moment's hesitation came nearer still, and bending forward kissed her cheek, not in a perfunctory way, but with a lingering, loving kiss; and after the kiss she still lingered close, so that the breath from her lips came warm and fragrant on the other's cold pale cheek. But her mother spoke no word, and remained cold and motionless as a statue, until with a slight sigh and lingering step the other left the room. Scarcely had she gone before the unhappy mother dropped on to a chair, and covering her face with her hands began to shed tears. Why, why, she asked herself again and again, had she not returned that loving kiss, and clasped her lost daughter once more to her heart? Too late! too late! She had restrained her heart and made herself cold as stone, and now that last caress, that sweet consolation was lost for ever! Ah, if her cold cheek might keep for all the remaining days of her life the sensation of those warm caressing lips, of that warm sweet breath! But her bitter tears of regret were in vain; that dread eternal parting was now practically over, and out of the infinite depths of her love no last tender word had risen to her lips!