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)
The next few days were devoted to sightseeing under Merton's guidance, and a better-informed cicerone they could not well have had. The little cloud between the girls had quite passed away; and Fan, who was not always abnormally drowsy after dark, listened to her friend's story and entered into all her plans. Then a visit to the National Gallery was arranged for a day when Merton would only have a few hours of the afternoon to spare: he was now devoting his energies to the business of climbing. At three o'clock they were to meet at Piccadilly Circus, but the girls were early on the scene, as they wished to have an hour first
in Regent Street. To unaccustomed country eyes the art treasures displayed in the shop-windows there are as much to be admired as the canvases in Trafalgar Square. They passed a large drapery establishment with swinging doors standing open, and the sight of the rich interior seemed to have a fascinating effect on Fan. She lingered behind her companion, gazing wistfully in--a poor, empty-handed peri at the gates of Paradise. Long room succeeded long room, until they appeared to melt away in the dim distance; the floors were covered with a soft carpet of a dull green tint, and here and there were polished red counters, and on every side were displayed dresses and mantles artistically arranged, and textures of all kinds and in all soft beautiful colours. Within a few ladies were visible, moving about, or seated; but it was the hour of luncheon, when little shopping was done, and the young ladies of the establishment, the assistants, seemed to have little to occupy them. They were very fine-looking girls, all dressed alike in black, but their dresses were better in cut and material than shop-girls usually wear, even in the most fashionable establishments. At length Fan withdrew her longing eyes, and turned away, remarking with a sigh, "Oh, how I should like to be in such a place!"
"Should you?" said Constance. "Well, let's go in and ask if there is a vacancy. You must make a beginning, you know."
"But, Constance, we can't do that! I don't know how to begin, but I'm sure you can't get a place by going into a grand shop and asking in that way."
"Possibly not; but there's no harm in asking. Come, and I'll be spokesman, and take all the dreadful consequences on my own head. Come, Fan."
And in she walked, boldly enough, and after a moment's hesitation the other followed. When they had proceeded a dozen or twenty steps a young man, a shop-walker, came treading softly to them, and with profoundest respect in his manner, and in a voice trained to speak so low that at a distance of about twenty-five inches it would have been inaudible, begged to know to which department he could have the pleasure of directing them. He was a very good-looking, or perhaps it would be more correct to say a very beautiful young man, with raven-black hair, glossy and curled, and parted down the middle of his shapely head, and a beautiful small moustache to match. His eyes were also dark and fine, and all his
features regular. His figure was as perfect as his face; many a wealthy man, made ugly by that mocker Nature, would have gladly given half his inheritance in exchange for such a physique; and his coat of finest cloth fitted him to perfection, and had evidently been built by some tailor as celebrated for his coats as Morris for his wall-papers, and Leighton for his pictures of ethereal women.
Constance, a little surprised at being obsequiously addressed by so exquisite a person, stated the object of their visit. He looked surprised, and, losing his obsequiousness, replied that he was not aware that an assistant had been advertised for. She explained that they had seen no advertisement, but had merely come in to inquire, as her friend wished to get a situation in a shop. He smiled at her innocence--he even smiled superciliously--and, with no deference left in his manner, told them shortly that they had made a great mistake, and was about to show them out, when, wonderful to relate, all at once a great change came over his beautiful countenance, and he stood rooted to the spot, cringing, confused, crimson to the roots of his raven ringlets. His sudden collapse had been caused by the sight of a pair of cold, keen grey eyes, with an expression almost ferocious in them, fixed on his face. They belonged to
an elderly man with a short grizzly beard and podgy nose; a short, square, ugly man, who had drawn near unperceived with cat-like steps, and was attentively listening to the shop-walker's words, and marking his manner. He was the manager.
"I am sorry I made a mistake," said Constance a little stiffly, and turned to go.
The young man made no reply. The manager, still keeping his basilisk eyes on him, nodded sharply, as if to say, "Go and have your head taken off." Then he turned to the girls.
"One moment, young ladies," he said. "Kindly step this way, and let me know just what you want."
They followed him into a small private office, where he placed chairs for them, and then allowed Constance to repeat what he had already heard, and to add a few particulars about Fan's history. He appeared to be paying but little attention to what she said; while she spoke he was keenly studying their faces--first hers, then Fan's.
"There is no vacancy at present," he replied at length. "Besides, when there is one, which is not often, we usually have the names of several applicants who are only waiting to be engaged by us. We have always plenty to choose from, and of course select the one that offers the greatest advantages--experience, for instance; and you say that your friend has no experience. The fact is," he continued, expanding still more, "our house is so well known that scores of young ladies would be glad at any moment to throw up the places they have in other establishments to be taken on here."
Constance rose from her seat.
"It was hardly necessary," she said, with some dignity, "to bring us into your private office to tell us all this, since we already knew that we had made a mistake in coming."
"Wait a minute," he returned, with a grim smile. "Please sit down again. I understand that it is for your friend and not for yourself. Well, I find it hard to say--" and here with keenly critical eyes he looked first at her, then at Fan, making little nods and motions with his head, and moving his lips as if very earnestly talking to himself. "All I can say is this," he continued, "if this young lady is willing to come for a month without pay to learn the business, and afterwards, should she suit us, to remain at a salary of eighteen shillings a week and her board for the first six months, why, then I might be willing to engage her. You can give a reference, I suppose?"
Both girls were fairly astonished at the sudden turn the affair had taken, and could scarcely credit their own senses, so illogically did this keen grim man seem to act. They did not know his motive.
Not to make a secret of a very simple matter, he thought a great deal more than most men in his way of life about personal appearance. He made it an object to have only assistants with fine figures and pretty faces, with the added advantage of a pleasing manner. When he discovered that these two young ladies with graceful figures and refined, beautiful faces had not come into the shop to purchase anything, but in quest of an engagement for one of them, he instantly resolved not to let slip so good an opportunity of adding to his collection of fair women. It was not that he had any soft spot in his heart with regard to pretty women: so long as his assistants did their duty, he treated them all with the strictest impartiality, blonde or brunette, grave or gay, and was somewhat stern in his manner towards them, and had an eagle's eye to detect their faults, which were never allowed to go unpunished. He worshipped nothing but his shop, and he had pretty girls in it for the same reason that he had
Adonises for shop-walkers, artistically-dressed windows, and an aristocratic-looking old commissionaire at the door--namely, to make it more attractive.
It is true that some great dames, with thin lips, oblique noses, green complexions, and clay-coloured eyes, hate to be served by a damsel wearing that effulgent unbought crown of beauty which makes all other crowns seem such pitiful tinsel gewgaws to the sick soul. That was one
disadvantage, but it was greatly overweighed by a general preference for beauty over ugliness. The flower-girl with beautiful eyes stands a better chance than her squinting sister of selling a penny bunch of violets to the next passer-by. If a girl ceased to look ornamental, however intelligent or trustworthy she might be, he got rid of her at once without scruple. His seeming hesitation when he spoke to the girls before making his offer was due simply to the fact that he was mentally occupied in comparing them together. Both so perfect in figure, face, manner--which would he have taken if he had had the choice given him?
For some moments he half regretted that it was not the more developed, richer-coloured girl with the bronzed tresses who had aspired to join his staff. Then he shook his head: that exquisite brown tint would not last for ever in the shade, and the bearing was also just a shade too proud. He considered the other, with the slimmer figure, the far more delicate skin, the more eloquent eyes, and he concluded that he had got the best of the pair.
"I should so like to come," said Fan, for they were both waiting for her to speak, "but am afraid that I can give no reference."
"Oh, Fan, surely you can!" said the other.
"I have no friend but you, Constance; I could not write to Mary now."
The other considered a little.
"Oh, yes; there is Mr. Northcott," she said, then turning to the manager asked, "Will the name of a clergyman in the country place where Miss Affleck has spent the last year be sufficient?"
"Yes, that will do very well," he said, giving her pencil and paper to write the name and address. Then he asked a few questions about Fan's attainments, and seemed pleased to hear that she had learnt dressmaking and embroidery. "So much the better," he said. "You can come tomorrow to receive instructions about your dress, and to hear when your attendance will begin. The hours are from half-past eight to half-past six. Saturdays we close at two. You have breakfast when you come in, dinner at twelve or one, tea at four. You must find your own lodgings, and it will be better not to get them too far away."
"May I ask you not to write about Miss Affleck until tomorrow?" Constance said. "I must write today first to Mr. Northcott to inform him. He will be a little surprised, I suppose, that Miss Affleck is going into a shop, but he will tell you all about her disposition, and"--with a pause and a hot blush--"her respectability."
He smiled again grimly.
"I have no doubt that Miss Affleck is a lady by birth," he said. "But do not run away with the idea that she is doing anything peculiar. There are several daughters of gentlemen in our house, as she will probably discover when she comes to associate with them."
"I am glad," said Constance, rising to go.
He was turning the paper with the address on in his hand. "You need not trouble to write to this gentleman," he said. "I shall not write to him. If you are fairly intelligent, Miss Affleck, and anxious to do your best, you will do very well, I dare say. References are of little use to me; I prefer to use my own judgment. But you must understand clearly that for every dereliction there is a fine, which is deducted from the salary. A printed copy of the rules will be given you. And you may be discharged at a moment's notice at any time."
"Only for some grave fault, I suppose?" said Constance.
"Not necessarily," he returned.
"That seems hard."
"I do not trouble myself about that. The business is of more consequence than any individual in it," he replied; and then walked to the door with them and bowed them out with some ceremony.
For the rest of the day Fan was in a state of bewilderment at her own great good fortune; for this engagement meant so much to her. That horrible phantom, the fear of abject poverty, would follow her no more. With £20 in hand and all Mary's presents, and eighteen shillings a week in prospect, she considered herself rich; and with her evenings, her Sundays and holidays to spend how she liked, and Constance always near, how happy she would be! But why, when crowds of experienced girls were waiting and anxiously wishing to get into this establishment, had she, utterly ignorant of business, been taken in this sudden off-hand way? It was a mystery to her, and a mystery also to the clever Constance, and to the still more clever Merton when he was told about it. Unknowingly she had submitted herself to a competitive examination in which useless knowledge was not considered, and in which those who possessed pretty faces and fine figures scored the most marks. After this she was scarcely in the right frame to appreciate the works of art they went on to see. That long interior in Regent Street, with its costly goods and pretty elegantly-dressed girls, and perfumed glossy shop-walker, and ugly bristling fierce-eyed manager, continually floated before her mental vision, even when she looked on the most celebrated canvases--even on those painted by Turner.
These same celebrated pieces startled Constance somewhat, although she had come prepared by a childlike faith in Ruskin's infallibility to worship them. She was, however, too frank to attempt to conceal her real impressions, and then Merton consolingly informed her that no person could appreciate a Turner before seeing it many times. One's first impression is, that over this canvas the artist has dashed a bucket of soap-suds, and over that a pot of red and yellow ochre. Well, after all, what was a snowstorm but a bucket of soap-suds on a big scale! Call it suds, a mad smudge, anything you like, but it was a miracle of art all the same if it produced the effect aimed at, and gave one some idea of that darkness and whiteness, and rush and mad mingling of elements, and sublime confusion of nature.
"But my trouble is," objected Constance, "that, the effect does not seem right--that it is not really like nature."
"No, certainly not. Nature is nature, and you cannot create another nature in imitation of it, any more than you can comprehend infinity. This is only art, the highest thing, in this particular direction, which the poor little creature man has been able to attain. You have doubtless heard the story of the old lady who said to the painter of these scenes, 'Oh, Mr. Turner, I never saw such lights and colours in nature as you paint!' 'No, don't you wish you could?' replied the artist. Now the old lady was perfectly right. You cannot put white quivering tropical heat on a canvas, but Turner dashes unnatural vermilion over his scene and the picture is not ridiculous; the effect of noonday heat is somehow produced. Look at those sunsets! In one sense they are failures, every one of them; but what a splendid audacity the man had, and what a genius, to attempt to portray nature in those special moments when it shines with a glory that seems unearthly, and not to have failed more signally! Failures they are, but nobler works than other men's successes. You are perfectly right, Connie, but when you look at a great picture do not forget to remember that art is long and life short. That is what the old lady didn't know, and what Turner should have told her instead of making
that contemptuous speech."
Constance was comforted, and continued to listen delightedly as he led them from room to room, pointing out the most famous pictures and expatiating on their beauties.
From the Gallery they went to Marshall's in the Strand and drank tea; then Merton put them in an Underground train at Charing Cross and said goodbye, being prevented by an engagement from seeing them home. He had put them into a compartment of a first-class carriage which was empty, but after the train had started the door was opened, and in jumped two young gentlemen, almost tumbling against the girls in their hurry.
"Just saved it!" exclaimed one, throwing himself with a laugh into the seat.
"It was a close shave," said the other. "Did you see that young fellow standing near the edge of the platform? I caught him on the side and sent him spinning like a top."
"Why, that was Chance--didn't you know him? I was in too much of a hurry even to give the poor devil a nod."
"Good gracious, was that Chance--that madman that threw up his clerkship at the F.O.!"
"No, he didn't," his friend replied. "That's what he says, but the truth is he got mixed up in a disreputable affair and had to resign. No doubt he has been going to the 'demnition bow-bows,' as Mr. Mantalini says, but he wasn't so mad as to throw away his bread just to have the pleasure of starving. He hasn't a ha'penny."
"Well, I don't care," said the other with a laugh, and then went on to talk of other things.
During this colloquy Fan had glanced frequently at her companion, but Constance, who had grown deathly pale, kept her face averted and her eyes fixed on the window, as if some wide prospect, and not the rayless darkness of the tunnel, had been before them. From their station they walked rapidly and in silence home, and when inside, Constance spoke for the first time, and in a tone of studied indifference.
"So much going about has given me a headache, Fan," she said. "I shall lie down in my room and have a little sleep, and don't call me, please, when you have supper. I am sorry to leave you alone all the evening, but you will have something pleasant to think about as you have been so successful today."
She was about to move away, when Fan came to her side and caught her hand.
"Don't go just yet, dear Constance," she said. "Why do you try to--shut me out of your heart? Oh, if you knew how much--how very much I feel for you!"
"What about?" said the other a little sharply, and drawing herself back.
"What about! We are both thinking of the same thing."
"Yes, very likely, but what of that? Is it such a great thing that you need to distress yourself so much about it?"
"How can I help being distressed at such a thing; it has changed everything, and will make you so unhappy. You know that you can't marry Mr. Chance now after he has deceived you in that way."
"Can't marry Mr. Chance!" exclaimed Constance, putting her friend from her. "Do you imagine that the wretched malicious gossip of those two men in the train will have the slightest effect on me! What a mistake you are making!"
"But you know it is true," returned Fan with strange simplicity; and this imprudent speech quickly brought on her a tempest of anger. When the heart is burdened with a great anguish which cannot be expressed there is nothing like a burst of passion to relieve it. Tear-shedding is a weak ineffectual remedy compared with this burning counter-irritant of the mind.
"I do not know that it is true!" she exclaimed. "What right have you to say such a thing, as if you knew Merton so well, and had weighed him in an infallible balance and found him wanting! I have heard nothing but malicious tittle-tattle, a falsehood beneath contempt, set afloat by some enemy of Merton's. If I could have thought it true for one moment I should never cease to despise myself. Have you forgotten how you blazed out against me for speaking my mind about Miss Starbrow when she cast you off? Yet you did not know her as I know Merton, and how paltry a thing is the feeling you have for her compared with that which I have for my future husband! What does it matter to me what they said?--I know him better. But you have been prejudiced against him from the beginning, for
no other reason but because I loved him. Nothing but selfishness was at the bottom of that feeling. You imagined that marriage would put an end to our friendship, and thought nothing about my happiness, but only of your own."
"Do you believe that of me, Constance?" said Fan, greatly distressed. "Ah, I remember when we had that trouble about Mary's letter at Eyethorne, you said that you had not known me until that day. You do not know me now if you think that your happiness is nothing to me--if you think that it is less to me than my own."
Her words, her look, the tone of her voice touched Constance to the heart.
"Oh, Fan, why then do you provoke me to say harsh things?" and then, turning aside, burst into a passion of weeping and sobs which shook her whole frame. But when the sobs were exhausted she recovered her serenity: those violent remedies--anger and tears--had not failed of their beneficent effect on her mind.
On the following day she seemed even cheerful, as if the whole painful matter had been forgotten. Merton, at all events, seemed to detect no change in her when he came to take her to the park in the afternoon. Only to Fan there appeared a shadow in the clear hazel eyes, and a note of trouble in the voice which had not been there before.
In a short time after this incident Fan was taken into the great Regent Street establishment, and had her mind very fully occupied with her new duties. One afternoon at the end of her first week the manager came up and spoke to her.
"Are you living with friends?" he said.
"I am living with Miss Churton--the lady who came here with me," she replied. "But she is going to be married soon, and I must find another place nearer Regent Street."
"Ah, this then will perhaps be a help to you," and he handed her a card. "That is the address of a woman who keeps a very quiet respectable lodging-house. We have known her for years, and if she has a vacancy you could not do better than go to her."
She thanked him, and took the card gladly. That little act of thoughtfulness made her feel very happy, and believe that he had a kind heart in spite of his stern despotic manner. To continue in that belief, however, required faith on her part, which is the evidence of things not seen, for he did not go out of his way again to show her any kindness.
Next day being Sunday, the girls were able to go together to see the lodging-house, which was in Charlotte Street in Marylebone, and found the landlady, Mrs. Grierson, a very fat and good-tempered woman. She took them to the top floor to show the only vacant room she had; it was fairly large for a top room, and plainly and decently furnished, and the rent asked was six-and-sixpence a week. But the good woman was so favourably impressed with Fan's appearance, and so touched at the flattering recommendation given by the manager, that at once, and before they had said a word, she reduced the price to five shillings, and then said that she would be glad to let it to the young lady for four-and-sixpence a week. The room was taken there and then, and a few days later the friends separated, one to settle down in her lonely lodging, the other to be quietly married at a registry office, without relation or friend to witness the ceremony; after which the newly-married couple went away to spend their honeymoon at a distance from London.