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)
Before Fan's visit came to an end, the Travers gave a dinner to some of their Kingston friends and neighbours. The hour was seven, and all the guests, save one, arrived at the right time, and after fifteen minutes' grace had been allowed, Mrs. Travers discovered to her dismay that they would sit down thirteen at table. She was superstitious, in the restricted sense in which her husband used the word, and was plainly distressed. Two or three of the ladies, including Fan, who were in the secret, were discussing this grave matter with her.
"I shall not dine, Mrs. Travers; do please let me stop out!" said Fan.
"No, my dear Miss Eden, I couldn't think of such a thing," said Mrs. Travers.
Then another lady offered to eat her dinner standing, for so long as they did not sit down thirteen "it would be all right," she said. But it was one of those unfortunate remarks which sound personal, the obliging lady being very tall and slender, while her short and stout hostess did not look much higher when standing than when seated.
"It is really too bad of him!" was her sole remark.
"Is he nice?" asked another lady.
"Not very, I think, if he makes us sit down thirteen, and leaves Miss Eden with no one to take her in. But you can judge for yourself, for here he is--I am so glad!"
The late guest advancing to them was now shaking hands with his hostess, and apologising for being the last to arrive; while Fan, who had suddenly turned very pale, shrank back as if anxious to avoid being seen by him. It was Captain Horton, not much changed in appearance, but thinner and somewhat care-worn and jaded. Mrs. Travers at once proceeded to introduce him to Fan, and asked him to take her in to dinner, and being preoccupied she did not notice the girl's altered and painfully distressed appearance. He bowed and offered his arm, but he started perceptibly when first glancing at her face. Fan, barely resting her fingers on his sleeve, moved on by his side, her eyes cast down, as they followed the
other guests, both keeping silence. At the table, their neighbours on either side being deeply engaged in conversation with their respective partners, Captain Horton found himself placed in an exceedingly trying position, but until he had finished his soup, which he ate but did not taste, he made no attempt to speak. The name of Eden mystified him, and more than once his eyes wandered to that portrait hanging on the wall opposite to where he was sitting, to find its grey eyes watching him; yet he had no doubt in his mind that the young lady by his side was the girl he had known at Dawson Place as Fan Affleck. At length, to avoid attracting attention, he felt compelled to say something, and made some commonplace remarks about the weather--its excessive heat and dryness; it had not been so hot for years. "At noon in the City today," he said, "the thermometer marked eighty-nine degrees in the shade."
Fan's monosyllabic replies were scarcely audible; she was very pale, and kept her eyes religiously fixed on the table before her. At length she ventured to glance at him, and could not help noticing, in spite of her distress, that he seemed as ill at ease as herself. He crumbled his bread to powder on the cloth, and when he raised his glass to drink, which he did often enough to fill up the time, his hand shook so as almost to spill his wine. Seeing him so nervous, she began to experience a kind of pity for him--some such complex feeling as a very humane person might have for a reptile he has been taught to loathe and fear when seeing it in pain--and at length surprised him by asking if he lived in Kingston. He replied that he usually spent the summer months there for the sake of the boating; and then, as if afraid that they would drop into silence again, he put the same question to her. Fan replied that she was only staying for a few days with her friends the Travers. A few vapid remarks about Kingston and the river was all they could find to say after that, and it was an immense relief when the ladies at length rose and left the room.
Mrs. Travers led the way through the drawing-room to the garden, but when all her guests, except Fan, who came last, had passed out, she came back to speak alone to the girl.
"I am afraid you are not feeling well, my dear," she said. "You look as pale as a ghost, and I noticed that you scarcely ate anything at dinner, and were very silent.
"Please don't think anything of it, Mrs. Travers. I feel quite well now--perhaps it was the heat."
"It was hot, but it never seems like dinner unless we have the gas lighted and draw the curtains."
"I suppose I must have seemed very stupid to--the gentleman who took me in," remarked Fan. "Can you tell me something about him, Mrs. Travers? Is he a friend of yours and Mr. Travers?"
"Are you really interested in him, Miss Eden?" said the other, with a disconcerting smile.
The girl's face flushed painfully. After a little reflection she said:
"I was so silent at table, hardly answering a word when he spoke--perhaps he thought me very strange and shy." She paused, blushing again at her own disingenuousness. "I must have felt nervous, or frightened, at something in him. Do you know him well--is he a bad man, Mrs. Travers?"
"My dear child, what a shocking thing to say--and of a gentleman you have scarcely spoken to! You shall hear his whole biography, since you are so curious about him. We have known him a long time: he is a nephew of an old friend of ours--Mr. George Horton, a stockbroker, very wealthy. Captain Horton had a small fortune left to him, but he ran through with it, and so--had to leave the army. He was a sporting man, and had the misfortune to lose; that, I think, is the worst that can be said of him. About two years ago he went to his uncle and begged to be taken on in the office; he was sick of an idle life, he said. His uncle did not believe that he would do any good in the City, but consented to give him a trial. Since then he has been as much absorbed in the business as if he had been in it all his life. His uncle thinks him wonderfully clever, and I dare say will make him a partner in the firm before very long. And now, my dear Miss Eden, you must get rid of that fancy about him, because it is
wrong; and later in the evening when you hear him sing--you are so fond of music!--you will like him as much as we do."
After this little discourse the good woman took her station at a table in the garden to pour out the coffee.
But there was a tumult in the girl's heart, a strange feeling she could not analyse. It was not fear--she feared him no longer; nor hate, since, as she had said, her happiness had taken from her the power to hate anyone; yet it was strong as these, importunate, and its object was clear to her soul, but how to give it expression she knew not.
The hum of conversation suddenly grew loud in the dining-room; the gentlemen had finished their wine, if not their discussion; they had risen, and were about to join the ladies in the garden. The impulse in her was so strong that it was an anguish, and she could not resist it.
Coming to the side of her hostess, she spoke hesitatingly:
"Mrs. Travers, when they come out, I must talk to him--to Captain Horton, I mean, and--and try to do away with the bad impression I must have made. He must think me so shy and silent. Will it seem strange if I should ask him to go with me round the garden to see the roses?"
"Strange! no, indeed," returned the other with a little laugh. "He will be very glad to look at the roses with you, I should think."
Fan kept her place by the table when the gentlemen came out. Captain Horton's eyes studiously avoided her face.
"Mrs. Travers," he said, taking a cup of coffee from her hand, "I hope you will not think worse of me than you already do if I leave you at once. Unfortunately for me, I have an appointment which must be kept."
"Oh that is really too bad of you," said the lady. "We were anticipating so much pleasure from your singing this evening. And here is Miss Eden just waiting to take you round the garden to show you our roses--perhaps you can spare ten minutes to see them?"
He glanced at the girl's pale, troubled face.
"I shall be very pleased to look at the roses with Miss Eden," he returned, setting down his cup with a somewhat unsteady hand.
His voice, however, expressed no pleasure, but only surprise, and while speaking he anxiously consulted his watch. Fan came round to his side at once, and together they moved towards the lower end of the grounds.
"Do you admire flowers?" She spoke mechanically.
"Yes, I do."
After an interval she spoke again.
"Mr. Travers takes great pride in his roses. They are very lovely."
He made no reply.
Then at last, in a kind of despair, she added:
"But it was not to show you the roses that I asked you to come with me."
He inclined his head slightly, but said nothing.
"You remember me--do you not?" she asked after a while.
He considered the question for a few moments, then answered, "Yes, Miss Eden."
"Perhaps it surprised you to hear me called by that name. It was my father's name, and I have now taken it in obedience to my brother's wish."
At this mention of father and brother he involuntarily glanced at her face--that same pure delicate face to which he had once brought so terrified a look and a pallor as of death.
For some minutes more they paced the walks at the end of the garden in silence, he waiting for her to speak, she unable to say anything.
"Allow me to remind you," he said at length, looking again at his watch, "that I am a little pressed for time. I understood, or imagined, that you had something to say to me--not about roses."
"I am so sorry--I can say nothing," she murmured in reply. Then after an interval, with an effort, "But perhaps it will be the same if you know what I came out for--if you can guess."
"Perhaps I can guess only too well," he returned bitterly. "You were kindly going to warn me that you intend bringing some damning accusation against me to the Travers. You need not have troubled yourself about it; you might have spared yourself, and me, the misery of this interview. It surprised me very much to meet you here, as I had no desire to cross your path. I shall not enter this house again, and Kingston will soon see the last of me. It would have been better, I think--more maidenly, if you will allow me to say so--to have met me as a perfect stranger and made no sign."
"I could not do that," she answered, with a ring of pain in her voice. "You speak angrily, and take it for granted that I am going to do you some injury. Oh, what a mistake you are making! Nothing would ever induce me to breathe one word to the Travers, nor to anyone, of what I know of you."
He looked surprised and relieved. "Then, in heaven's name, why not try and forget all about it? You have friends and relations now, and seem to have made the best of your opportunities. Is there anything to be gained by stirring up the past?"
"I do not know. I thought so, but perhaps I was wrong."
He looked at her again, openly, and with growing interest. He had hated her memory, had cursed her a thousand times, for having come between him and the woman he wanted to marry; but it made a wonderful difference in his feelings towards her just at present to find that she was not his enemy. "Will you sit down here, Miss Eden," he said, speaking now not only without animosity but gently, "and let me hear what you wished to say? I beg your pardon for the injustice I did you a minute ago, but I am still in the dark as to your motive in seeking this interview."
She sat down on a garden seat, under the shade of a wide-branching lime; he a little apart. But she could say nothing, albeit so much was in her heart, and her impulse had been so strong; so far as her power to express that strange emotion went, in the dark he would have to remain. She could not say to him--it was a feeling, not a thought--that her clear soul had taken some turbidness that was foreign to it from his; that when she forgot the past and his existence it settled and left her pure again; she could not say--the thought existed without form in her mind--that it would have been better if he had never been born because he had offended; but that just because the offence had been against herself, something of the guilt seemed to attach itself to her, causing her to know remorse and shrink from herself; that it was somehow in his power--he having performed this miracle--to deliver her.
From time to time her companion glanced at her pale face; he did not press her to speak, he could see that she was powerless; but he was thinking of many things, and it was borne in on him that if he could bring about a change in her feelings towards him, it might be well for
him--not in any spiritual sense; he was only thinking of Mary and his passion for her, which had never filled his heart until the moment of that separation which had promised to be eternal. In a vague way he comprehended something of the feeling that was in the girl's heart; for it was plain that to be near him was unspeakably painful to her, and yet--strange contradiction!--she had now put herself in his way. He dropped a few tentative words that seemed to express regret for the past, and when he remarked that she listened eagerly, and waited for more, he knew that he was on safe and profitable ground. Safe, and how easy to walk on! At a moment's notice he had accepted this new, apparently unsuitable part, and its strange passion at once grew familiar to him, and could be expressed easily. Perhaps he even deceived himself, for a few minutes or for half an hour while the process of deceiving another lasted, that he had actually felt as he said--that his changed manner of life had resulted from this feeling. "If I have not known remorse," he said, "I pity the poor fellows who do." And much more he said, speaking not fluently, but brokenly, with intervals of silence, as if something that had long remained hidden had at last been wrung from him.
All this time Fan had said nothing, nor did she speak when he had finished his story. Nor did he wish it; the strange trouble and pallor had passed away, and there was a tender light in her eyes that was better than speech.
They rose and moved slowly towards the house. The drawing-room was lighted, and the guests were now gathering there to listen to a lady at the piano singing. They could hear her plainly enough, for her voice, said to be soprano, was exceedingly shrill, and she was singing, Tell me, my heart--a difficult thing, all flourishes, and she rendered it like an automaton lark with its internal machinery gone wrong.
"Shall we go in?" said Fan.
"Yes, Miss Eden, if you wish; but don't you think we can hear this song best where we are? I find it hard to ask you a question I have had in my mind for some minutes, but I must ask it. Are you still with Miss Starbrow?"
"Oh, no; we separated a long time ago, and for very long--nearly eighteen months--I never heard from her."
"I hope you will not think it an impertinent question; but--there must have been some very serious reason to have kept you apart so long?"
"No, scarcely that. I have always felt the same towards her. She did so much for me. It was only a misunderstanding."
"Now I am so glad to say that it is all over, and that she is my dearest friend."
"And is she still living at Dawson Place--and single?"
"Yes." But after a few moments she said, "You had one question more to ask, Captain Horton, had you not?"
"Yes," he returned. "You must know what it is."
"But it is hard to answer. She mentioned your name once--lately; but her feelings are just as bitter against you."
"I could not expect it to be otherwise," he returned, and they walked on towards the house.
Before they reached it Mrs. Travers appeared to them. "Still looking at the roses?" she said with a laugh. "How fond of flowers you two must be! Can you spare us another ten minutes before keeping your appointment, Captain Horton, and sing us one of your songs?"
"As many as you like, Mrs. Travers," he returned. "You see, after going to see the roses it was too late to keep the appointment. And I am very glad it was, for I have had a very pleasant conversation with Miss Eden, about flowers, and the beauties of Kingston, and of the Stock Exchange, and a dozen things besides."
Fan, sitting a little apart and beside the open window, listened with a strange pleasure to that fine baritone voice which she now heard again after so long a time, and wondered to herself whether it would ever again be joined with Mary's in that rich harmony to which she had so often listened standing on the stairs.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Captain Horton found an opportunity to speak to her again. "Miss Eden," he said, dropping into a seat next to her, "I am anxious to say one--no, two things, before leaving you. One is that I know that after this evening I shall be a happier man. The other is this: if I should ever be able to serve you in any way--if you could ever bring yourself to ask my assistance in any way, it would give me a great happiness. But perhaps it is a happiness I have no right to expect."
Before he had finished speaking her wish to find Constance, and Mr. Travers' failure, came to her mind, and she eagerly caught at his offer.
"I am so glad you did not leave me before saying this," she replied. "You can help me in something now, I think."
"How glad I am to hear you say that, Miss Eden! I am entirely at your service; tell me what I can do for you."
She told him about the marriage of his former friend, Merton Chance, with Constance, and about their disappearance, and her anxiety to find her friend.
Captain Horton, after hearing all the particulars, promised to write to her on her return to Quebec Street to let her know the result of the inquiries he would begin making on the morrow.