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)
For several months after that hasty and somewhat inauspicious marriage--"unsanctified," Mrs. Churton would have said--it seemed as if the course of events had effectually parted the two girls, and that their close friendship was destined to be less a reality than a memory, so seldom were they able to meet. From their honeymoon the Chances came back to London only to settle down at Putney for the remainder of the warm
season; and this was far from Marylebone, and Fan was only able to go there occasionally on a Sunday. But in September they moved to Chelsea, and for a few weeks the friends met more often, and Constance frequently called at the Regent Street shop to see and speak with Fan for two or three minutes. This, however, did not last. Suddenly the Chances moved
again, this time to a country town over fifty miles from London. Merton had made the discovery that journalism and not literature was his proper vocation, and had been taken on the staff of a country weekly newspaper, of which he hoped one day to be editor. The girls were now further apart than ever, and for months there was no meeting. But during all this time they corresponded, scarcely a week passing without an exchange of letters, and this correspondence was at this period the greatest pleasure in Fan's life. For Constance, next to Mary, who was lost to her, was the being she loved most on earth; nor did she feel love only. She was filled with gratitude because her friend, although married to such a soul-filling person as Merton Chance, was not forgetful of her humble existence, but constantly thought of her and sent her long delightful letters, and was always wishing and hoping to be near her again. And yet, strange contradiction! in her heart of hearts she greatly pitied her friend. Sometimes Constance would write glowing accounts of her husband's triumphs--an article accepted perhaps, a flattering letter from a magazine editor, a favourable notice in a newspaper, or some new scheme which would bring them fame and fortune. But if she had written to say
that Merton actually had become famous, that all England was ringing with his praise, that publishers and editors were running after him with blank cheques in their hands, imploring him to give them a book, an article, she would still have pitied her friend. For that was Fan's nature. When a thing once entered into her mind there was no getting it out again. Mary to others might be a fantastical woman, heartless, a fiend incarnate if they liked, but the simple faith in her goodness, the old idolatrous affection still ruled in her heart. The thoughts and feelings which had swayed her in childhood swayed her still; and the gospel of the carpenter
Cawood was the only gospel she knew. And as to Merton, the contemptuous judgment Mary had passed on him had become her judgment; the words she had heard of him in the train were absolutely true; he had deceived his wife with lies; he was weak and vain and fickle, one it was a disaster to love and lean upon. Love, gratitude, and pity stirred her heart when she thought of Constance, and while the pity was kept secret the love was freely and frequently expressed, and from week to week she told the story of her life to her sympathetic friend--all its little incidents, trials, and successes.
There was little to break the monotony of her life out of business hours at this period; and it was perhaps fortunate for her that she usually came home tired in the evening, wishing for rest rather than for distraction. There was nothing in that part of London to make walking attractive. The Regent's Park was close by, it is true, and thither she was accustomed to go for a walk on Sundays, except when one or other of her new acquaintances in the shop, living with her own people, invited her to dinner or tea. But on weekdays, especially in winter, when the streets were sloppy, and the atmosphere grey and damp, there was no inducement to take her out. In such conditions Marylebone is as depressing a district as any in London. The streets have a dull monotonous appearance, and the ancient unvenerable houses are grimy to blackness with the accumulation of soot on them. The inhabitants, especially in that portion of Marylebone where Fan lived, form a strange mixture. Artists, men of letters, sober tradesmen, artisans, day labourers, students, shop-assistants, and foreigners--dynamiters, adventurers, and waiters waiting for places--may all be found living in
one short street. Bohemianism, vice, respectability, wealth and poverty, are jumbled together as in no other district in London. The modest wife, coming out of her door at ten in the morning to do her marketing, meets, face to face, her next neighbour standing at her door, a jug in her hand, waiting for some late milkman to pass--a slovenly dame in a dressing-gown with half the buttons off, primrose-coloured hair loose on her back, and a porcelain complexion hastily dabbed on a yellow dissipated face. The Maryleboners (or -bonites) being a Happy Family, in the menagerie sense, do not vex their souls about this condition of things; the well-fed and the hungry, the pure and the impure, are near together, but in soul they are just as far apart as elsewhere.
Nevertheless, to a young girl like Fan, living alone, and beautiful to the eye, the large amount of immorality around her was a serious trouble, and she never ventured out in the evening, even to go a short distance, without trepidation and a fast-beating heart, so strong was that old loathing and horror the leering looks and insolent advances of dissolute men inspired in her. And in no part of London are such men more numerous. When the shadows of evening fall their thoughts "lightly turn" to the tired shop-girl, just released from her long hours of standing and serving, and the surveillance perhaps of a tyrannical shop-walker who makes her life a burden. Her cheap black dress, pale face, and wistful eyes betray her. She is so tired, so hungry for a little recreation, something to give a little brightness and colour to her grey life, so unprotected and weak to resist--how easy to compass her destruction! The
long evenings were lonely in her room, but it was safe there, and sitting before her fire writing to Constance, or thinking of her, and reading again one of the small collection of books she had brought from Eyethorne, the hours would pass not too slowly.
At length when the long cold season was drawing to an end, when the mud in the streets dried into fine dust for the mad March winds to whirl about, and violets and daffodils were cheap enough for Fan to buy, and she looked eagerly forward to walks in the grassy park at the end of each day, during those long summer evenings when the sun hangs low and does not set, the glad tidings reached her that the Chances were coming back to London. Journalism, in a country town at all events, had proved a failure, and Merton, with some new scheme in his brain, was once more about to return to the great intellectual centre, which, he now said, he ought never to have left.
"Most men when they want something done," he remarked, "have a vile way of getting the wrong person to do it. Here have I been wasting my flowers on this bovine public--whole clusters every week to those who have no sense of smell and no eye for form and colour. What they want is ensilage--a coarse fare suited to ruminants."
A few days afterwards Constance wrote from Norland Square in Notting Hill asking Fan to visit her as soon as convenient. Fan got the letter on a Saturday morning, and when the shop closed at two she hastened home to change her dress, and then started for Norland Square, where she arrived about half-past three o'clock.
There is no greater happiness on earth, and we can imagine no greater in heaven, than that which is experienced by two loving friends on meeting again after a long separation; that is, when the reunion has not been too long delayed. If new interests and feelings have not obscured the old, if Time has written no "strange defeatures" on the soul, and the image treasured by memory corresponds with the reality, then the communion of heart with heart seems sweeter than it ever seemed before its interruption. And this happiness, this rapture of the soul which makes life seem angelic for a season, the two friends now experienced in full measure. For an hour they sat together, holding each other's hands, feeling a strange inexpressible pleasure in merely listening to the sound of each other's voices, noting the familiar tones, the old expressions, the rippling laughter so long unheard, and in gazing into each other's eyes, bright with the lustre of joy, and tender with love almost to tears.
"Fan," said her friend, holding her a little away in order to see her better, "I have been distressing myself about you in vain. I could not help thinking that there would be one change after all this time, that your skin would lose that delicacy which makes you look so unfitted for work of any kind. There would be, I thought, a little of that unwholesome pallor and the tired look one so often sees in girls who are confined in shops and have to stand all day on their feet. But you have the same fresh look and pure delicate skin; nothing alters you. I do believe that you will never change at all, however long you may live, and never grow old."
"Or clever and wise like you," laughed the other.
The result of Fan's inspection of her friend's face was not equally satisfactory; for although Constance had not lost her rich colour nor grown thin, there was a look of trouble in the clear hazel eyes--the shadow which had first come there when the girls had overheard a conversation about Merton in the train, only the shadow was more persistent now.
"I expect Merton home at five," she said, "and then we'll have tea." Fan noticed that when she spoke of her husband that shadow of trouble did not grow less. And by-and-by, putting her arm round the other's neck, she spoke.
"Dearest Constance, shall I tell you one change I see in you? You are unhappy about something. Why will you not let me share your trouble? We were such dear friends always, ever since that day in the woods when you asked me why I disliked you. Must it be different now because you are married?"
"It must be a little different in some things," she replied gravely, and averting her eyes. "I love you as much as I ever did, and shall never have another friend like you in the world. But, Fan, a husband must have the first place in a wife's heart, and no friend, however dear, can be fully taken into their confidence. We are none of us quite happy, or have
everything we desire in our lives; and the only difference now is that I can't tell you quite all my little secret troubles, as I hope you will always tell me yours until you marry. Do you not see that it must be so?"
"If it must be, Constance. But it seems hard, and--I am not sure that you are right."
"I have, like everyone else, only my own feelings of what is right to guide me. And now let us talk of something else--of dear old Eyethorne again."
It was curious to note the change that had come over her mind with regard to Eyethorne; and how persistently she returned to the subject of her life there, appearing to find a melancholy pleasure in dwelling on it. How she had despised its narrowness then--its stolid ignorances and prejudices, the dull, mean virtues on which it prided itself, the malicious gossip in which it took delight--and had chafed at the thought of her wasted years! Now all those things that had vexed her seemed trivial and even unreal. She thought less of men and women and more of nature, the wide earth, so tender and variable in its tints, yet so stable, the far-off dim horizon and infinite heaven, the procession of the seasons, the everlasting freshness and glory. It was all so sweet and peaceful, and the years had not been wasted which had been spent in dreaming. What beautiful dreams had kept her company there--dreams of the future, of all she would accomplish in life, of all life's possibilities! Oh no, not possibilities; for there was nothing in actual life to correspond with those imaginings. Not more unlike were those Turner canvases, daubed over with dull earthy paint, to the mysterious shadowy depths, the crystal purity, the evanescent splendours of nature at morn
and noon and eventide, than was this married London life to the life she had figured in her dreams. That was the reality, the true life, and this that was called reality only a crude and base imitation. They were still talking of Eyethorne when Merton returned; but not alone, for he brought a friend with him, a young gentleman whom he introduced as Arthur Eden. He had not expected to find Fan with his wife, and a shade of annoyance passed over his face when he saw her. But in a moment it was gone, and seizing her hand he greeted her with exaggerated cordiality.
Constance welcomed her unexpected guest pleasantly, yet his coming disturbed her a good deal; for they were poor, living in a poor way, their only sitting-room where they took their meals being small and musty and mean-looking, with its rickety chairs and sofa covered with cheap washed-out cretonne, its faded carpet and vulgar little gimcrack ornaments on the mantelpiece. And this friend gave one the idea that her husband had fallen from a somewhat better position in life than he was now in. There was an intangible something about him which showed him to be one of those favoured children of destiny who are placed above the need of a "career," who dress well and live delicately, and have nothing to do in life but to extract all the sweetness there is in it. Very good-looking was this Mr. Eden, with an almost feminine beauty. Crisp brown hair, with a touch of chestnut in it, worn short and parted in the middle; low forehead, straight, rather thin nose, refined mouth and fine grey eyes. The face did not lack intelligence, but the predominant expression was indolent good-nature; it was colourless, and looked jaded and blase for one so young, his age being about twenty-four. The most agreeable thing in him was his voice, which, although subdued, had that quality of tenderness and resonance more common in Italy than in our moist, thick-throated island; and it was pleasant to hear his light ready laugh, musical as a woman's. In his voice and easy quiet manner he certainly contrasted very favourably with his friend. Merton was loud and incessant in his talk, and walked about and gesticulated, and spoke with an unnecessary emphasis, a sham earnestness, which more than once called an anxious look to his wife's expressive face.
"What do you think, Connie!" he cried. "In Piccadilly I ran against old Eden after not having seen him for over five years! I was never so overjoyed at meeting anyone in my life! We were at school together at Winchester, you know, and then he went to Cambridge--lucky dog! And I--but what does it matter where I went?--to some wretched crammer, I suppose. Since I lost sight of him he has been all over the world--India, Japan, America--no end of places, enjoying life and enlarging his mind, while I was wasting the best years of my life at that confounded Foreign Office."
"I shouldn't mind wasting the rest of my life in it," said his friend with a slight laugh.
"Now just listen to me," said Merton, squaring himself before the other, and prepared to launch out concerning the futility of life in the Foreign Office; but Constance at that moment interposed to say that tea was waiting. She had herself taken the tea-things from the general servant, who had brought them to the door, and was a slatternly girl, not presentable.
"I must tell you, Connie," began Merton, as soon as they were seated, for he had forgotten all about the other subject by this time, "that when I met Eden this afternoon he at once agreed to accompany me home to make your acquaintance, and take pot-luck with us. Of course I have told him all about our present circumstances, that we are not settled yet, and living in a kind of Bohemian fashion."
Eden on his side made several attempts to converse with the ladies, but they were not very successful, for Merton, although engaged in consuming cold mutton and pickles with great zest, would not allow them to wander off from his own affairs.
"I have something grand to tell you, Arthur" he went on, not noticing his wife's uncomfortable state of mind, and frequent glances in his direction. "You know all about what I am doing just now. Not bad stuff, I believe. The editors who know me will take as much of it as I care to give them. But I am not going to settle down into a mere magazine writer, although just at present it serves my purpose to scatter a few papers about among the periodicals. But in a short time I intend to make a new departure. I dare say it will rather astonish you to hear about it."
His grand idea, he proceeded to say, was to write a story--the first of a series--that would be no story at all in the ordinary sense, since it would have no plot or plan or purpose of any kind. Nor would there be analysis and description--nothing to skip, in fact. The people of his brain would do nothing and say nothing--at all events there would be no dialogue. The characters would be mere faint pencil-marks--something less than shadows.
Tea was over by the time this subject was exhausted; Eden's curiosity about his friend's projected novel, described so far by negatives only, had apparently subsided, for he managed to turn the conversation to some other subject; and presently Constance was persuaded to sit down to the piano. She played under difficulties on the dismal old lodging-house instrument, but declined to sing, alleging a cold, of which there was no evidence. Merton turned the music for her, and for the first time his friend found an opportunity of exchanging a few words with Fan. When first introduced to her their eyes had met for a moment, and his had brightened with an expression of agreeable surprise; afterwards during tea, when the flow of Merton's inconsequent chatter had made conversation impossible, his eyes had wandered frequently to her face as if they found it pleasant to rest there.
"Mrs. Chance plays skilfully," he said. "Merton is fortunate in such a wife."
"Yes; but I like her singing best. I am sorry she can't sing this evening, as it is always such a treat to me to listen to her."
"But you will sing presently, Miss Affleck, will you not? I have been waiting to ask you."
"I neither sing nor play, Mr. Eden. In music, as in everything else that requires study and taste, I am a perfect contrast to my friend."
"I fancy you are depreciating yourself too much. But it surprises me to hear that you don't sing. I always fancy that I can distinguish a musical person in a crowd, and you, in the expression of your face, in your movements, and most of all in your voice, seemed to reveal the musical soul."
"Did you really imagine all that?" returned Fan, reddening a little. "I am so sorry you were mistaken, for I do love music so much." And then as he said nothing, but continued regarding her with some curiosity, she added naively, "I'm afraid, Mr. Eden, that I have very little intellect."
He laughed and answered, "You must let me judge for myself about that."
Mr. Eden was musical himself, although his constitutional indolence had prevented him from becoming a proficient in the art. Still, he could sing a limited number of songs correctly, accompanying himself, and he was heard at his best in a room in which the four walls were not too far apart, as his voice lacked strength, while good in quality.
About nine o'clock Fan came in from the next room with her hat and jacket on to say good-bye. Mr. Eden started up with alacrity and begged her to let him see her home.
"Oh, thank you, Mr. Eden, but you need not trouble," she returned. "I am going to take an omnibus close by in the Uxbridge Road."
"Then you must let me see you safely in it," he said; and as he insisted that it was time for him to go she could no longer refuse. The door closed behind them after many jocular words of farewell from Merton, and husband and wife were left to finish their evening in privacy.
"Is it far to your home?" asked Eden.
"I live in Marylebone," she replied, giving a rather wide address.
"But is that too far to walk? I fancy I know where Marylebone is--north of Oxford Street. Will it tire you very much to walk?"
"Oh no, I love walking, but at night I couldn't walk that distance by myself, and so must ride."
"Then do let me see you home. You are an intimate friend of the Chances, and I am so anxious, now that I have met Merton, to hear something more about them. Perhaps you would not mind telling me what you know about their life and prospects."
"I will walk if you wish, Mr. Eden," she returned after a moment's hesitation. "Mrs. Chance is my friend, and she was my teacher for a year in the country, before she married. But I couldn't tell you anything about their prospects, I know so little."
"Still, you know a great deal more about them than I do, and my only motive in seeking information is--well, not a bad one. I might be able to give them a little help in their struggles. It strikes me that Merton is not going quite the right way to work to get on in life, and that his wife is not too happy. Do you think I am right?"
And the conversation thus begun continued very nearly to the end of their long walk, Fan, little by little unfolding the story of her friend's life in the country, of the journey to London, the sudden marriage; but concerning Merton, his occupations and prospects, she could tell him next to nothing, and her secret thoughts about him were not disclosed, in spite of many ingenious little attempts on her companion's part to pry into her mind.
"Miss Affleck," he said at length, "I feel the greatest respect for your motives in concealing what you do from me, for I know there is more to tell if you chose to tell it. But I am not blind; I can see a great deal for myself. I fear that your friend has made a terrible mistake in tying herself to Merton. At school he was considered a clever fellow, and afterwards when he got his clerkship, his friends--he had some friends then--would have backed him to win in the race of life. But he has fallen off greatly since then. It is plain to see that he drinks, and he has also become an incorrigible liar--"
"Mr. Eden!" exclaimed Fan.
"Do you imagine, Miss Affleck, that there is one atom of truth in all he says about his interest with editors, and his forthcoming books, and the rest? Do you think it really the truth that he was insane enough to throw up his clerkship at the Foreign Office which would have kept want from him, at all events, and from his wife?"
"I cannot say--I do not know," answered Fan; then added, somewhat illogically, "But it is so very sad for Constance! I don't want to judge him, I only want to hope."
"I wish to hope too--and to help if I can. I have tried to help him today, but now I fear that I have made a mistake, and that his wife will not thank me."
"What have you done, Mr. Eden? Is it a secret, or something you can tell me?"
He did not answer at once; the question, although it pleased him, required a little rapid consideration. He had been greatly attracted by Fan, and had observed her keenly all the evening, and had arrived at the conclusion that she was deeply attached to her friend Mrs. Chance, but was by no means a believer in or an admirer of Mr. Chance. All this provided him with an excellent subject of conversation during their long walk; for in some vague way he had formed the purpose of touching the heart-strings of this rare girl with grey pathetic eyes. Accordingly he affected an interest, which he was far from feeling, in his friend's affairs, expressing indignation at his conduct, and sympathy with his wife, and everything he said found a ready echo in the girl's heart. In this way he had gone far towards winning her confidence, and establishing a kind of friendly feeling between them. That little tentative speech about his mistake had produced the right effect and had made her anxious; it would serve his purpose best, he concluded, to satisfy her curiosity.
"Perhaps I had no right to say what I did," he answered at length, "as it is a secret. But I will tell it to you all the same, because I feel sure that I can trust you, and because we are both friends of the Chances and interested in their welfare, and anxious about them. When I met Merton today I was a little surprised at his manner and conversation, but in the end I set it down to excitement at meeting with an old friend. I was anxious not to believe that he had been drinking, and I did not know that most of the things he told me were rank falsehoods. He said that he was doing very well as a writer, and that he required fifty pounds to make up a sum to purchase an interest in a weekly paper, and asked me to lend it to him, which I did. I am now convinced that what he told me was not the truth, and that in lending him fifty pounds I have gone the wrong way about helping him, and fear very much--please don't think me cynical for
saying it--that he will keep out of my sight as much as he can. I regret it for his wife's sake. He might have known that I could have helped him in other and better ways."
Fan made no remark, and presently he continued:
"But let us talk of something else now. Are you fond of reading novels, Miss Affleck?--if it is not impertinent in me to speak on such a subject just after we have heard Merton's harangue on the subject."
Of novels they accordingly talked for the next half-hour; but Fan, rather to his surprise, had read very few of the books of the day about which he spoke.
They were near the end of their walk now.
"Let me say one thing more about our friends before we separate," he said. "I do not believe that I shall see much of Merton now, as I said before. But I shall be very anxious to know how they get on, and you of course will know. Will you allow me to call at your house and see you sometimes?"
"That would be impossible, Mr. Eden."
"Why?" he asked in surprise.
"I must tell you, Mr. Eden--I wish Mr. Chance had told you to prevent mistakes--that I am only a very poor girl. I am in a shop in Regent Street, and have only one room in the house where I lodge. I have no relations in the world, and no friends except Constance."
"Is that so?" he said, his tone betraying his surprise. And with the surprise he felt was mingled disgust--disgust with himself for having so greatly mistaken her position, and with Destiny for having placed her so low. But the disgust very quickly passed away, and was succeeded by a different feeling--one of satisfaction if not of positive elation.
"This is my door, Mr. Eden," said Fan, pausing before one of the dark, grimy-looking houses in the monotonous street they had entered.
"I am sorry to part with you so soon," he returned. "I do hope that we shall meet again some day, and I should be so glad, Miss Affleck, if in future you could think that Mrs. Chance is not your only friend in the world. Whether we are destined to meet or not again, I should so like you to think that I am also your friend."
"Thank you, Mr. Eden, I shall be glad to think of you as a friend," she replied with simple frankness.
That speech and the glance of shy pleasure which accompanied it almost tempted him to say more, but he hesitated, and finally concluded not to go further just then; and after opening the door for her with her humble latchkey, he shook hands and said good-night.