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)
A fortnight went by. Fan, occupied in her shop and happy enough, except once when she encountered the grisly manager's terrible eyes on her: then she trembled and glanced down at her dress, fearing that it had looked rusty or out of shape to him; for in that establishment a heavy fine or else dismissal would be the lot of any girl who failed to look well-dressed. Constance, for the most part sitting solitary at home, trying in vain to write something that would meet the views of some editor. Merton, busy running about, full to overflowing of all the things he intended doing. Eden, doing nothing: only thinking, which, in his case at all events, was "but an idle waste of thought." So inactive was he at this period, and so much tobacco did he consume to assist his mental processes, that he grew languid and pale. His friends remarked that he was looking seedy. This made him angry--very angry for so slight a cause; and he thought that of all the intolerable things that have to be put up with this was the worst--that people should remark to a man that he is looking seedy, when the seediness is in the soul, and the cause of it a secret of which he is ashamed.
At the end of the fortnight he became convinced that his feeling for the delicate girl with the pathetic grey eyes was no passing fancy, but a passion that stirred him as he had never been stirred before, and he resolved to possess her in spite of the fact that he had met her in his friend's house.
"Let the great river bear me to the main," he said; although bad, he was too honest to quote the other line, feeling that he had not striven against the stream.
Having got so far, he began to consider what the first step was to be in this enterprise of great pith and moment. For although the insanity of passionate desire possessed him, he was not going to spoil his chances by acting in a hurry, or doing anything without the most careful consideration. The desire to see her again was very insistent, and by strolling up the street in which she lived in the evening he might easily have met her, by chance as it were, returning from her shop, but he would not do that. An enterprise of this kind seemed to him like one of those puzzle-games in which if a right move is made at first the game may be won, however many blundering moves may follow; but if the first move is wrong, then by no possible skill and care can the desired end be reached.
He recalled their conversation about novels, and remembered the titles of five popular works he had mentioned which Miss Affleck had not read. These works he ordered in the six-shilling form, and then spent the best part of a day cutting the leaves and knocking the books about to give them the appearance of having been used. He also wrote his name in them, in each case with some old date; and finally, to make the deception complete, spilt a little ink over the cover of one volume, dropped some cigar-ash between the leaves of a second, and concealed a couple of old foreign letters on thin paper in a third. Then he tied them up together and sent them to her by a messenger with the following letter:
DEAR MISS AFFLECK,
I have just been looking through my bookshelves, and was pleased to find that I had some of the novels we spoke about the other evening, which, if I remember rightly, you said that you had not read. It was lucky I had so many, as my friends have a habit of carrying off my books and forgetting to return them. If you will accept the loan of them, do not be in a hurry to return them; they will be safer in your keeping than in mine, and one or two, I think, are almost worth a second perusal.
I must not let slip this opportunity, as another might not occur for a long time, of saying something about our friends at Norland Square. I saw Merton the day after meeting you, but not since; nor have I heard from him. I know now that he lost his appointment at the Foreign Office through his own folly, and that most of his friends have dropped him. I do honestly think that Mrs. Chance has made a terrible mistake; I pity her very much. But things may not after all turn out altogether badly, and if Merton has any good in him he ought to show it now, when he has such a woman as your friend for a wife and companion. At all events, I have made up my mind--and this is another secret, Miss Affleck--to forget all about the past and do what I can to assist him. Not only for auld lang syne, for we were great friends at school, but also for his wife's sake. My only fear is that he will keep out of my sight, but perhaps I am doing him an injustice in thinking so. But as you will continue to see your friend, may I ask you to let me know should they at any time be in very straitened circumstances, or in any trouble, or should they go away from Norland Square? I do hope you will be able to promise me this.
Believe me, dear Miss Affleck,
To this letter, the writing of which, it is only right to say, actually caused Mr. Eden to blush once or twice, Fan at once replied, thanking him for the parcel of books. "I must also thank you," the letter said, "for telling me to keep them so long, as there is so much to read in them, and my reading time is only when I am at leisure in the evening. I shall take
great care of them, as I think from their look that you like to keep your books very clean." In answer to the second part of his letter she wrote: "I scarcely know what to reply to what you say about the Chances. Constance and I are such great friends that I am almost ashamed to discuss her affairs with anyone else, as I am sure that she would be very
much hurt if she knew it. And yet I must promise to do what you ask. I do not think it would be right to refuse after what you have said, and I am very glad that Mr. Chance has one kind friend left in you."
Eden was well satisfied at the result of his first move. There would have to be a great many more moves before the pretty game ended, but he now had good reason to hope for a happy ending.
She had accepted his offer of his friendship, the loan of his books, and had written him a letter which he liked so much that he read it several times. It was a sunshiny April morning, and after breakfasting he went out for a stroll, feeling a strange lightness of heart--a sensation like that which a good man experiences after an exercise of benevolence. And the feeling actually did take the form of benevolence, and no single pair of hungry wistful eyes met his in vain during that morning's walk until he had expended the whole of his small change. "Poor wretches!" he thought, "I couldn't have imagined there was so much misery and starvation about." His heart was overflowing with happiness and love for
the entire human race. "After all," he continued, "I don't think I'm half as bad as that impudent conscience of mine sometimes tries to make out. I know lots of fellows who sink any amount of money in betting and other things and never think to give sixpence to a beggar. Of course no one can be perfect, everyone must have some vice. But I don't quite look on mine as a vice. Some wise man has called it an amiable weakness--that's about as good a description as we can have."
Passing along a quiet street where the houses were separated from the pavement by gardens and stone balustrades, he noticed a black cat seated on the top of a pillar, its head thrown far back, and its wide-open eyes, looking like balls of yellow fire, fixed on a sparrow perched high above on the topmost twig of a tall slender tree. "Puss, puss," said Eden,
speaking to the animal almost unconsciously, and without pausing in his walk. Down instantly leapt the cat, inside the wall, and dashing through the shrubbery, shot ahead of him, and springing on to the balustrade thrust its head forward to catch a passing caress. He touched the soft black head with his fingers, and passed on with a little laugh. "An instance of the magical effect of kindness," he soliloquised. "That cat sees more enemies than friends among the passers-by--the boy whose soul delights in persecuting a strange cat, and the young man with that most insolent and aggressive little beast a fox-terrier at his heels. And yet quick as lightning it understood the tone I spoke to it in, although the voice was strange, and shot past me and came out just for a pat on the head. A very sagacious cat; and yet I really felt no particular kindness towards it; the tone was only assumed. Its statuesque figure attracted me, as it sat there like a cat carved out of ebony, with two fiery splendid gems for eyes. I admired the beauty of the thing, that was all. And as with cats so it is with women. Let them once think that you are kind, and you have a great advantage. You may do almost anything after that; your kindness covers it all.... What an impudent juggler, and what an outrageous fibber, this confounded conscience is! I may not have felt any great kindness for black pussy when I spoke to her, but between that and carrying her home under my coat to vivisect her at leisure there is a vast difference. If I am ever unkind in act or word or deed to that sweet girl--no, the idea is too absurd! I can feel nothing but kindness for her, and if I felt convinced that I could not make her happy, then I would resign her at once, hard as that would be."
That same evening Eden received a second letter from Fan, but very short, enclosing the two foreign letters, which she had just found in one of his books. This was only what he had expected. He replied, also briefly, thanking her for sending the letters, and for the promise she had given, and there for the moment he allowed the affair to rest.
Meanwhile Fan was every day expecting an invitation to Norland Square, and she was deeply disappointed and surprised when a whole week passed with no letter from Constance. Then a long letter came, which troubled her a good deal, for she was not asked to go to Norland Square, and no meeting was arranged, but, on the contrary, she was left to infer that there would be no meeting for some time to come. A photograph and a postal order for five shillings were enclosed in the letter, and about these Constance wrote: "I send you the photo you have so often expressed a wish to have, and I think you ought to feel flattered, for I have not been taken before since I was fifteen years old; I don't like the operation. I think it flatters me, and Merton says that it does not do me justice, so that it cannot be quite like me, but it will serve well enough to refresh your memory of me when we are separated for any length of time. But it is so painful to me to think of losing sight of you altogether that I have no heart to say more about that just now. Only I must have your photo: I cannot wait long for it, and you must
forgive me, dearest Fan, for sending the money to have it taken at once. I know, dear, that you cannot very well afford to spend money on pictures, even of yourself, and so please don't be vexed with me, but do as I wish; for since I cannot have you always near me I wish at least to have your counterfeit presentment. I should like it cabinet size if you can get it for the money, if not I must have a small vignette, and I hope you will go to a good man and have it well done, and above all that you will send it soon."
There was much more in the letter; a sweeter Fan had never received from her friend, so much affection did it express; but it also expressed sadness, and the vague hints of probable changes to come, and a long separation in it, mystified and troubled her.
Before many days the photograph, which cost half-a-guinea, was finished and sent to Constance, with a letter in which Fan begged her friend to appoint a day for them to meet.
In the meantime at Norland Square Merton was preparing for a fresh change in his life, and as usual with a light heart; but in this instance his wife for the first time had taken the lead. After breakfast one morning he was getting ready to go to Fleet Street to the office of a journal there, when Constance asked if she might go with him.
"Yes, dear, certainly, if you wish to see a little of the life and bustle of London."
"I haven't seen much of London yet, and I should so like to have a little peep at the East End we hear and read so much about just now. Can't you manage, after your business is finished at the office, to go with me there on a little exploring expedition?"
"That's not a bad idea," he returned. "But I shall be lost in that wilderness, and not know which way to go and what to look for."
"Then I shall be your guide," she said with a smile. "I've been studying the map, and reading a book about that part of London, and have marked out a route for us to follow."
"All right, Connie, get ready as soon as you like, and we'll have a day of adventures in the East."
And as Constance had dressed herself with a view to the journey, she had only to put on her hat and gloves, and they started at once, taking an omnibus in the Uxbridge Road to Chancery Lane. From Fleet Street they went on to Whitechapel, where their travels in a strange region were to begin. Constance wished in the first place to get some idea of the extent of that vast district so strangely called East End, as if it formed but a small part of the great city. The population and number of tenements, and of miles of streets, were mere rows of figures on a page, and no help to the mind. Only by seeing it all would she be able to form any conception of it: she saw a great deal of it in the course of the day from the tops of omnibuses, and travelled for hours in those long thoroughfares that seemed to stretch away into infinitude, so that one finds it hard to believe that nature lies beyond, and fields where flowers bloom, and last night's dew lies on the untrodden grass. Nor was she satisfied with only seeing it, or a part of it, in this hasty superficial way; at various points they left the thoroughfare to stroll about the streets, and in some of the streets they visited, which were
better than those inhabited by the very poor, Constance entered several of the houses on the old pretext of seeking lodgings, and made many minute inquiries about the cost of living from the women she talked with.
It was seven o'clock in the evening when they got home; and after dining Merton lit a cigar and stretched himself out on the sofa of their sitting-room to recover from his fatigue. His wife was also too tired to do anything, and settled herself near him in the easy-chair.
"Well, Connie," he said with a smile, "what is to be the outcome of the day's adventures? Of course you had an object in dragging one through that desert desolate."
"Yes, I had," she answered with a glance at his face. "Can you guess it?"
"Perhaps I can. But let me hear it. I shall be so sorry if I have to nip your scheme in the bud."
"I think, Merton, it would be a good plan for us to go and live there for a time. It is better to move about a little and see some of the things that are going on in this world of London. I am getting a little tired of the monotony here; besides, just now when we are so poor it would be a great advantage. I found out to-day that we can get better rooms than these for about half the sum we are paying. Provisions and everything we require are also much cheaper there."
"Yes, dear, that may be, but you forget that the man who aspires to rise in London must have an address he is not ashamed of. Norland Square is a poor enough place, but there is at any rate a W. after it. I fancy it would be very bad economy in the end, just to save a few shillings a week, to go where there would be an E."
"I don't quite agree with you, Merton. When we have friends to correspond with and to visit us, then we can think more about where we live; I have no desire to settle permanently or for any long time in the east district. But I have not yet told you the principal reason I have for wishing to go and live in that part of London for a few months--weeks if you like."
"Well, what is it?"
"I think it will be a great advantage to you, Merton. You will be able to see and hear for yourself. You speak about East End socialism in the papers you are writing, but you speak of it, as others do, in a vague way, as a thing contemptible and yet dangerous to civilisation, or which might develop into something dangerous. It strikes me that something is to be gained by studying it more closely, but just now you are dependent on others for your facts."
"And you think I could see things better than others?" he said, not ill pleased.
"You can at all events see them with your own eyes, and that will be better than looking at them through other people's spectacles. Besides, it is a period of rapid transitions, and the picture painted yesterday, however faithful to nature the artist may have been, no longer represents things as they exist to-day."
"You are right there."
"And if you go to the East End with the avowed object of studying certain phenomena and ascertaining certain facts for yourself, to use in your articles, I don't think that your residence there would prejudice you in any way."
"No, of course not. Why, the thing is done every day by well-known men--brilliant writers some of them--men who are run after by Mr. Knowles. It is a good idea, Connie, and I am glad you suggested it. The spread of socialism in London is a grand subject. Of course I know all about the arguments of the wretched crew of demagogues engaged in this propaganda. I could easily, to quote De Quincey's words, 'bray their fungous heads to powder with a lady's fan, and throttle them between heaven and earth with my finger and thumb.' But we want to know just how far their doctrines, or whatever they call their crack-brained fantasies, have taken root in the minds of the people, and what the minds are like, and what the outcome of it all is to be. If we go to the East End, and I don't see why we shouldn't, as soon as we find ourselves settled there I shall begin to go about a great deal among the people, and attend the meetings of the social democrats, and listen to the wild words of their orators, and note
the effect of what they say on their hearers. What do you say, Connie?"
"I shall be ready to pack up and follow you any day, Merton. And I think that I might assist you a little; at all events I shall try, and go about among the women and listen to what they say while you are listening to the men."
Merton was delighted. "You have a prophetic soul, Connie," he said, "and I shall be as much astonished as yourself if something grand doesn't come of this. A great thing in my favour is that I can generally manage to get at the pith of a thing, while most people can do nothing but sniff in a hopeless sort of way at the rind. Of course you have noticed that in me, Connie. I sometimes regret that I am not a barrister, for I possess the qualities that lead to success in that profession. At the same time it is a profession that has a very narrowing effect on the mind--the issues are really in most cases so paltry. Your barrister never can be a statesman; he has looked at things so closely, to study the little details, that his eagle vision has changed into the short sight of the owl. And, by the way, now I think of it, I must have a little brandy in tonight to drink success to our new scheme."
"Do you really need brandy, Merton? I thought--"
"Yes, I really do--tonight. I feel so thoroughly knocked up, Connie; and now my brain is in such a state of activity that a little brandy will have no more effect than so much water. Do you know, it is an ascertained fact in science that alcohol taken when you are active--either physically or mentally active--does not go off nor remain in the tissues, but is oxygenised and becomes food. Besides this, I fancy, will be about the last bottle I shall allow myself, I know that you are a Sir Wilfred Lawsonite, and I am determined to respect all your little prepossessions. Not that you have much to thank me for in this case, for I really care very little about strong waters."
He rang the bell, and gave the servant-girl six shillings to get a bottle of Hennessy's brandy. With that bottle of brandy looking very conspicuous on the table, and her husband more talkative and in need of her companionship than ever, Constance could not go away to her room, as she would have liked to do, to be alone with that dull pain at her heart--the
sorrow and sense of shame--or perhaps to forget it in sleep. She sat on with him into the small hours, while that oxygenising process was going on, listening, smiling at the right time, entering into all his plans, and even assisting him to find a startling title for the series of brilliant articles on the true condition of the East End, about which all London would no doubt soon be talking.