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)
Next day the friends met at Eden's club, and after lunching they had an hour's conversation in the smoking-room. But their characters of the previous evening now seemed to be reversed--Eden talked and the other listened. An inexplicable change had come over the loquacious man of letters; he listened and seemed to be on his guard, drinking little, and saying nothing about his plans and prospects. "Damn the fellow, I can't make him out at all," thought Eden, vexed that the other gave him no opportunity of introducing the subject he had been thinking so much about. He did not wish to introduce it himself, but in the end he was compelled to do so.
"By the way, Merton, before I forget it," he said at length, "tell me about Miss Affleck, whom I met at your house last evening."
Merton glanced at him and did not appear to be pleased at the question. "Oh, I see," thought his friend, "the subject is not one that he finds agreeable. I must know why."
"She is a friend of my wife's, but I have never seen much of her," replied Merton. "She is an orphan, without money or expectations, I believe." After an interval he added--"But I dare say you know as much as I can tell you about her, as you walked home or part of the way home with her last evening."
This of course was a mere guess on Merton's part.
"Yes, I did, but I didn't question her, and I wanted to know where her people came from, the Afflecks--"
"Oh, I can soon satisfy your curiosity on that point. That is really not her name. She was adopted or something by a lady who took an interest in her for some reason, or for no reason, and who thought proper to give her that name because Miss Affleck's real surname didn't please her."
"What was her real name?"
"I can't remember. Barnes, or Thompson, or Wilkins--one of those sort of names."
"And how came the lady to call her Affleck?"
"A mere fancy for an uncommon name, I believe, and because Frances Affleck sounded better than Frances Green or Black or anything she could think of. Of course she didn't really adopt the girl at all, but she brought her up and educated her."
Eden was not yet satisfied with what he had heard, and as Merton seemed inclined to drop the subject, which was not what he wanted, he remarked tentatively:
"How curious then that Miss Affleck should now be compelled to make her own living as a shop-assistant!"
"Oh, you got that out of her!" exclaimed Merton, in a tone of undisguised annoyance.
"Don't say I got it out of her," returned the other a little sharply. "I did not question her about her affairs, of course. She gave me that information quite spontaneously. I can't remember what it was that brought the subject up." Here he paused to reflect, remarking mentally, "This fellow is teaching me to be as great a liar as he is himself." Then he continued--"Ah, yes, I remember now; we were talking about books, and I asked her why she had not read all the popular novels I mentioned, and then she explained her position."
"Then," said Merton, transferring his resentment to Fan, "I think it would have shown better taste if she had been a little more reticent with a stranger about her private affairs; more especially with one she has met in my house. For she knows that she took to this life against our wishes and advice, and that by so doing she has placed a great distance between herself and Mrs. Chance."
"Perhaps you are right. It is certainly a rare thing in England to see a young lady in Miss Affleck's position so well suited in appearance and manner to mix with those who are better placed."
"Quite so. She was never intended for her present station in life. And since you know what you do know about her through her own want of discretion, you must let me explain how she comes to be a visitor in my house, and received as a friend by my wife. My wife's father, a retired
barrister living on a small and not very productive estate of his own in Wiltshire, consented to receive Miss Affleck to reside for a year in his house, and during that time my wife gave her instruction. Unhappily the lady who had made Miss Affleck her protegee, and who happens to be an extremely crotchety and violent-tempered woman, so full of fads and
fancies that she is more suited to be in a lunatic asylum than at large--"
"Old, I suppose?" remarked Eden, amused at this sudden flow of talk.
"Old? Well, yes; getting on, I should say. One of those bewigged and painted wretches that hate to be thought over forty. Well, for some unexplained reason,--probably because Miss Affleck was young and pretty and attracted too much admiration--she quarrelled with the poor girl and cast her off. It was a barbarous thing to do, and we would gladly have given her a home, and my wife's mother also offered to help her. But as she wished not to be dependent, Mrs. Chance was anxious to get her a place as governess or school-teacher. The girl, however, who is strangely obstinate, would not be persuaded, and eventually got this situation for herself. This explains what you have heard, and what must have surprised you very much. Out of pity for the girl, who had been hardly treated, and because of my wife's affection for her, I have allowed this thing to continue, and have not given her to understand that by taking her own course in opposition to our wishes, she has cut herself off from her friends."
Eden, as we know, had become possessed of the idea that Merton would not tell the truth if a lie could serve his purpose equally well, and he did not therefore attach much importance to what he had heard. Nevertheless, it pleased him. Merton was evidently ashamed at having a shop-girl received as an equal by his wife, and would be glad, like the bewigged and evil-tempered old woman he had spoken of, to cast her off. "His house!" thought Eden contemptuously; "a couple of wretched rooms in the shabby neighbourhood of Norland Square."
"Well," he said, rising and looking at his watch, "it is greatly to be regretted that she did not follow your wife's advice, as there is no question that she is too good for her present station in life."
Merton also rose; the fifty pounds were in his pocket (and his I O U in his friend's pocket), and there was nothing more to detain him.
"You seem to have been very much attracted by her," he said with a smile. "Perhaps you intend to cultivate her acquaintance."
Eden smiled also, for his friend's eyes were on his face. "She is a charming girl, Chance, and--I met her at your house. Unless I meet her there on some future occasion, I do not suppose that I shall ever see her again. She has chosen her own path in life, and I only hope that she may not find it unpleasant."
Then they shook hands and separated; Merton to attend to a little business matter, then to go home to his wife, with some new things to tell her. Eden's mental remark was, "I may see--I hope to see Miss Affleck again, not once, but scores and hundreds of times; but I shall
not grieve much, my veracious and noble-minded friend, if I should never again run against you in Piccadilly or any other thoroughfare."
From his visit to Eden, which, in different ways, had proved satisfactory to both gentlemen, Merton returned at six o'clock to dine with his wife, their usual midday meal having been put off until that hour to suit his convenience. He had brought a bottle of good wine with him; for with fifty pounds in his pocket he could afford to be free for once, and at table he made himself very entertaining.
"This has been a red-letter day," he said, "and I shall finish it by being as lazy as I like to be. I shouldn't care to sit down now to work after such a good dinner. Rest and be thankful is my motto for the moment, and perhaps by-and-by you will treat me to some of your music. Eden has rather a taste for music, and admires your playing greatly."
He was very lively, and chattered on in this strain until the wine was finished, and then Constance played and sung a few of his favourite pieces. But after the singing was over, and when she was doing a little needlework, she noticed that he had grown strangely silent, and sat
staring into the fire with clouded face; and thinking that there was perhaps something on his mind which he might like to speak about, she put down her work and went to him.
"What is it, Merton, dear?" she said; "are there any dead flies in that little pot of apothecary's ointment you brought home to-day?"
"No, not one--not even the proboscis of a fly has been left sticking in it. By the way, here it is, all but five pounds which I had to change today. Take it, Connie, and stick to it like old boots. No, dear, it was not that; I was thinking of something different--something that has vexed me a little. When is your friend Fan coming again?"
"Fan! I don't know. We made no arrangement. I am to write to let her know when to come. Has Fan anything to do with the vexation you speak of?"
"Yes, to some extent she has; but I really had no intention of speaking of it just now, as I know how sensitive you are on that point, and biased in her favour."
"Biased in her favour, Merton? What is there wrong in her?--how can she have vexed you?"
"She has done nothing intentionally to vex me. But, Connie, she is a very ignorant girl, and I cannot help regretting very much that she was here last evening when Eden came."
"You are not very complimentary to me when you call her ignorant, Merton."
"My dear girl, I don't mean ignorant in that sense. I dare say you taught her as much as most young ladies are supposed to know; perhaps more. But she is naturally ignorant of social matters, with an ignorance that is born in her and quite invincible."
"I am more puzzled than ever. I have taught her something--not very much, I confess, as I only had her for one year. But for the rest, it has always been my opinion that she possesses a natural refinement, such as one would expect from her appearance, and that there is a singular charm in her manner. Perhaps you do not think me capable of forming a right
judgment about such things."
"Don't say that, Connie; but you shall judge yourself whether I am right or wrong in what I have said when you hear the facts. It appears that Eden did not see her to the omnibus, but walked home with her last evening. He spoke of her this morning, and though he assumed an
indifferent tone, it was plain to see that he was very much surprised to find a shop-girl from Regent Street visiting and on terms of equality with my wife."
"How came your friend to know that she was a shopgirl in Regent Street?"
"That's just where the cause of vexation lies," said Merton. "She told him that herself, not in answer to any question from him, but simply because she thought proper to explain who and what she was. She did not think it was wrong, no doubt, but what can you do with such a person? Surely she must be ignorant to talk about her squalid affairs to a gentleman of Mr. Eden's standing after meeting him in our house! To tell you the truth, I think it was kind of Eden to mention the matter to me. It was as if he had said in so many words, 'If your visitors and dearest friends are chosen from the shop-girl class, you will find it a rather difficult matter to better your position in the world.' "
"I am very sorry you have been annoyed, Merton. But I could not very well speak to Fan about it. She would imagine, and it would be very natural, that we were getting a little too fastidious."
"You are right, she would, and I advise you to say nothing about it. A far better plan would be to break off this unequal friendship, which will only distress and be a hindrance to us in various ways, and would have to come to an end some day."
"Oh, Merton, that would be cruel to her and to me as well! Not only is she my dearest friend, but she is really the only friend I have got."
"Yes, I know; I have thought about that, but it will not be for long, Connie. You must not imagine that our life is to be spent in this or any other sordid suburb. The articles I am now engaged on cannot fail to bring me into notice and give us a fair start in life; and you may be sure, Connie, that society will very soon find out that you are one of the gifted ones, both physically and mentally. It will not be suitable for you to know one in Fan's position, and it will only be a kindness to the girl if you quietly drop her now."
Constance was not in the least affected by this glittering vision of the future; she made no reply, but with eyes cast down and a face expressing only pain she moved from his side, and sat down to her work once more. To be deprived of her beloved friend, whose friendship was so much to her in her solitary life, and whose place in her heart no other could take, and for so slight a cause, seemed very hard and very strange. Why did her husband consider her so little in this matter? This she asked herself, and a suspicion which had floated vaguely in her mind before began to take form. Was this slight cause the real cause of so harsh a determination? Since he loved her, and was invariably kind and tender, it seemed more like a pretext. She remembered that from the first he had depreciated Fan, and had sometimes shown irritation at her visiting them; did he fear that some disagreeable secret of his past life, known to Fan, might be betrayed by her? It was a painful suspicion and made her silent.
Merton was also silent; to himself he said, "I knew that it would grieve her a little at first, but she is not unreasonable, and in a short time she will come round to my opinion. The girl is well enough, but not a fit associate for my wife, and it is better to get rid of her now before
making new friends."
At half-past ten o'clock Constance, still silent, took her candle and went to her bedroom, still with that secret trouble gnawing at her heart.
Merton found a book and read until past twelve, and then came to the conclusion that the author was an ass. It happened that he knew something about the author; he knew, for instance, that he was a married man, and lived in a pretty house at Richmond, and gave garden-parties, to which a great many well-known people went. Well, if this scribbler could make enough by his twaddling books to live in that style, what might not he, Merton, make?
His wife's entrance just then interrupted his pleasant thoughts. She had risen from her bed after lying awake two or three hours, and came in with a light wrapper over her nightdress, and her hair unbound on her shoulders. "Is it not getting very late, Merton?" she asked.
"Connie, come here," he said, regarding her with some surprise, and then drawing her on to his knee. "My dear girl, you have been crying."
"Yes, ever since I went to bed. But I didn't think you would notice, I did not mean you to know it."
"Why not, darling? I am very sorry that what I said about Fan distresses you so much. But why should you hide any grief, little or great, from me, dearest?" he added, caressing her hair.
"I have never hidden anything from you, Merton, only tonight I felt strongly inclined to conceal what was in my mind. Let me tell you what it is; and will you, Merton, on your part, be as open with me and show the same confidence in my love that I have in yours?"
"Assuredly I will, Connie. We shall never be happy if we hide anything from each other."
"Then, Merton, I must tell you that your readiness in resenting that little fault of Fan's, and making it a cause for separating us, makes me suspect that there is something behind it which you have kept from me. Tell me, Merton, and do not be afraid to tell me if my suspicion is correct, is there anything in your past life you wished to keep from me and which is known to Fan, and might come to my knowledge through her?"
"No, Connie, there is absolutely nothing in my past that I would hesitate to tell you. If I had had any painful secret I should have told it to you when I asked you to be my wife, and I am surprised that such a suspicion should have entered your mind. But I am very glad that you have told me of it. You shall send for Fan and question her yourself, for I presume you have never done so before, and after that you will perhaps cease to doubt me."
"I do not doubt your word, Merton, and trust and believe that I never shall doubt the truth of what you say. To question Fan about you--that I could not do, even if the suspicion still lived, but it is over now, and you must forgive me for having entertained it."
"Perhaps it was not altogether strange, Connie, since you attach so little importance to these distinctions. But they are very important nevertheless, and in this keen struggle for life, and for something more than a bare subsistence, we cannot afford to hamper ourselves in any way. I am quite sure that, even if I had spoken no word, you would have discovered after a while that this is an inconvenient friendship. I have known it all along, but have not hitherto spoken about it for fear of paining you. But do not distress yourself any more tonight, Connie; let things remain as they are at present, if it is your wish."
"My wish, Merton! My chief wish is never to do anything of which you would disapprove. Do I need to remind you that I have never opposed a wish of mine to yours? I could not let things remain as they are at present while you think as you do. It will be a great grief to me to lose Fan, but while you are in this mind I would not ask her to come and see me again, even if you were a thousand miles from home."
"Then, dear wife, let us think it over for two or three days, and when I have got over this little vexation, if I see any reason to change my mind I shall let you know in good time."
And so for the moment the matter ended; but two or three days passed, and then two or three more, and Merton still kept silence on the subject.