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Literary Adventures

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)

Chapter 39

Two days later Fan returned to her apartments, and shortly after arriving there received a letter from Captain Horton, giving her an account of what he had been doing for her since their memorable meeting at Kingston. He had gone to work in a very systematic way, enlisting the services of a number of clergymen and other philanthropic workers at the East End to make inquiries for him; and it would be strange, he concluded, if the Chances escaped being discovered, unless they had quitted that part of London.

A few days later, about the middle of August, came a second letter, which made Fan's heart leap with joy. Captain Horton had found out that the Chances were living at Mile End, but did not know their address yet. He had come across a gentleman--a curate without a curacy, a kind of Christian free-lance--who lived in that neighbourhood and knew the persons sought for intimately, but declined to give their address or to say anything about them; but he had consented to meet Miss Eden at Captain Horton's office in the City and speak to her; and the meeting had been arranged to take place at two o'clock on the following day. Fan took care to be at the office punctually at two.

"Our friend has not yet arrived," said Captain Horton, after giving her a chair in the office, "but we can look for him soon, I think, as he did not seem like a person who would fail to keep an engagement. He is a very good fellow, I have heard, but seemed rather to resent being questioned about his mysterious friends, and was very reticent. Ah, here he is."

"Mr. Northcott!" exclaimed Fan, starting up with a face full of joy; for it was he, looking older, and with a pale, care-worn face, which, together with his somewhat rusty clerical coat and hat, seemed to show that the world had not gone well with him since he had left Eyethorne.

"Miss Affleck--if I had only imagined that it was you! How glad I am to meet you once more! How glad Mrs. Chance will be to hear from you," he said, taking her hand.

"But I wish to see her, Mr. Northcott--I must see her," said Fan; and the curate at once offered to conduct her to her friend's home at Mile End.

Leaving the office, they took a cab and set out for their destination; but during the drive Fan had little chance of hearing any details concerning her friend's life; for what with the noise of the streets and the rattling of the cab, it was scarcely possible to hear a word; and whenever there came a quieter interval the curate wished to hear how Fan had passed her time, and why she had been addressed as Miss Eden.

At length they got to their journey's end, the cab, for some reason, being dismissed at some distance from the house they had come to visit. It was one in a row of small, mean-looking tenements containing two floors each, and facing other houses of the same description on the opposite side of the narrow macadamised road, which, with the loose stones and other rubbish in it, presented a dirty, ill-kept appearance. At the tenth or eleventh house in the row Mr. Northcott stopped and knocked lightly at the low front door, warped and blistered by the sun which poured its intolerable heat full upon it.

A woman opened the door and greeted the curate with a smile; then casting a surprised look at his companion, stood aside to let them pass into the narrow, dark, stuffy hallway. "He'll be sleeping just now," said the woman, pointing up the stairs. "You can just go quietly up. She'll be there by herself doing of her writing."

"We must go up softly then," he said, turning to Fan. "Poor Chance is very ill, and sleeps principally in the daytime. That's why I got rid of the cab some distance from the house."

He led the way up the narrow creaking stairs to a door on the first landing standing partly open; before it hung a wet chintz curtain, preventing their seeing into the room. Her conductor tapped lightly on the doorframe, and presently the wet curtain was moved aside by Constance, who greeted her visitor with a glad smile while giving him her hand, but the darkness of the small landing, which had no light from above, prevented her from seeing Fan for some moments.

"Harold--at last!" she said, her hand still resting in his. "I have waited two days for you; but I was resolved not to send the manuscript till you had read it." Then she caught sight of Fan, standing a little behind him, and started back, a look of the greatest astonishment coming into her face.

"I have brought you an old friend, Constance," said the curate, stepping aside.

"Fan--my darling Fan!" she exclaimed, but still in a subdued voice, and in a moment the two friends were locked in a long and close embrace.

"Constance--what a change! Let me look at your dear face again. Oh, how unkind of you to keep your address from me all this time!"

The other raised her face, and for some moments they gazed into each other's eyes, wet with tears. She was indeed changed; and that rich brown tint, which had looked so beautiful, and made her so different from others, had quite faded from her pale thin face, so that she no longer looked like the Constance Churton of the old days. Even her hair had been affected by trouble and bad health; it was combed out and hanging loose on her back, and Fan noticed that the fine bronze glint had gone out of the heavy brown tresses like joy or hope from a darkened life. She was wearing a very simple cotton wrapper, and though evidently made of the very cheapest kind of stuff, it had faded almost white with many washings. Altogether it was plain to see that the Chances were very poor; and yet the expression on her friend's altered face was not a desponding one.

"You must forgive me for not writing, dearest Fan," she said at length. "There would have been things to tell which could not be told without pain. It was wrong--cowardly in me to keep silence, I know. And it grieved me to think that you too might be in trouble and want." Then, after surveying Fan's costume for some moments, she added with a smile. "But that was a false fear, I hope."

"Yes, dear. At any rate, for some time past I have had everything I could wish for, and dear friends to care for me. But that is a very long story, Constance, and I am anxious to hear how your husband is."

All this time the curate had been standing patiently by; he now took his departure, after arranging to return to see Fan as far west as the City on her way home at six o'clock in the evening.

Constance raised the wet curtain and led Fan into the sitting-room. It was small and mean enough, with a very low ceiling, dingy, discoloured wall-paper, and a few articles of furniture such as one sees in a working-man's lodging. Near the front window stood a small deal table, on which were pens, ink, and a pile of closely-written sheets of paper, showing how Constance had been employed. The two doors--one by which they had entered, and another leading to the bedroom--also the window, were open, and before them all wet pieces of chintz were hanging. This was done to mitigate the intense heat, Constance explained; the sun shining directly down on the slates made the low-roofed rooms like an oven, and the quickly evaporating moisture created a momentary coolness. Merton was asleep in the second room; his nights, she said, were so bad that he generally fell asleep during the day; he had not risen yet, and her whole study was to keep the rooms cool and quiet while he rested.

Fan took off her hat and settled down to have a long talk with her friend.

"Fan, dear," said the other, after returning from the bedroom to make sure that Merton still slept, "we must talk in as low a tone as possible, I mean without whispering. And we have so much to say to each other."

"Yes, indeed; I am dying to hear all about your life since you vanished from Notting Hill."

"But, Fan, my curiosity about your life is still greater--and no wonder! I have been constantly thinking about you--crying, too, sometimes--imagining all sorts of painful things--that you were destitute and friendless, perhaps, in this cruel London. And now here you are, I don't know how, like a vision of the West End, with that subtle perfume about you, and looking more beautiful than I have ever seen you, except on that one occasion; do you remember?--on that first evening in the orchard at dear old Eyethorne. Look at my dress, Fan, my second best! But how much more did it astound me to hear Harold--I call Mr. Northcott by his Christian name now--addressing you as Miss Eden when he left. What does it all mean? If he had called you Mrs. Eden I might have guessed what wonderful things had happened to you."

Fan was prepared for this. There were some things not to be revealed; she remembered that Mary had looked into her very soul when she had heard the strange story, and her quick apprehension and knowledge of human nature had no doubt supplied the links that were missing in it. Now by anticipation she had prepared a narrative which would run smoothly, and began it without further delay; and for half an hour Constance listened with intense interest, only interrupting to bestow a kiss and whisper a tender consoling word when her friend was at last compelled, with faltering speech, to confess that she was no legitimate child of her father.

"Oh, Fan, I am so glad that this has happened to you. So much more glad than if I had myself experienced some great good fortune. And your brother--oh, how nobly he has acted--how much you must love and admire him! I remember that evening so well when you met him; I thought then that I had never seen anyone with so charming a manner. And there was something so melodious and sympathetic in his voice; how strange that it never struck me as being like yours, and that he was like you in his eyes, and so many things!"

"But tell me about yourself, Constance."

"I could put it all in twenty words, but that would not be fair, and would not satisfy you. Since our marriage we have simply been drifting down the current, getting poorer and poorer, and also moving about from place to place--I mean since you lost sight of us. And at last it was impossible for us to go any lower, for we were destitute, and--it will shock you to hear it--obliged even to pledge our clothes to buy bread."

"And you would not write to me, Constance, nor even to your mother! I know that, because I wrote to her to ask for your address, and she replied that she did not know it, that I knew more about your movements in London than she did."

"I could not write to you, Fan, knowing that you barely had enough to keep yourself, and that it would only have distressed you. Nor could I write to them at home. Those poor fields they have to live on are mortgaged almost up to their value, and after paying interest they have little left for expenses in the house. Besides, Fan, we had already received help from Mr. Eden and other friends, and it had proved worse than useless. It only seemed to have the effect of making us less able to help ourselves."

"And your husband--was he not earning something with his lecturing and the articles he wrote?"

"Not with the lecturing, as you call it. With the articles, yes, but very little. They were political articles, you know, and were printed in socialistic papers, and not many of them were paid for. But after a while all his enthusiasm died out; he could not go on with it, and was not prepared with anything else. He grew to hate the whole thing at last, and was a little too candid with his former friends when he told them that they were a living proof of the judgment Carlyle had passed on his countrymen. It was hardly safe for him to walk about the streets among the people who had begun to expect great things from him. It is a dreadful thing to say, but it is the simple truth, that our next move would have been to the workhouse. And just then his illness began. He was out all night and met with some accident; it was a pouring wet night, and he was brought home in the morning bruised and injured, soaking wet, and the result was a fever and cough, which turned to something like consumption. He has suffered terribly, and I have sometimes despaired of his life; but he is better now, I think--I hope. Only this dreadful heat we are having keeps him so weak. You can't imagine how anxiously we are looking forward to a change in the weather; the cool days will so refresh him when they come."

"But, Constance, you haven't told me yet how you escaped what you were fearing when he first fell ill."

The other looked up, tears starting in her eyes, and a glow of warm colour coming into her pale cheeks. "Oh, Fan," she said, her voice trembling with emotion, "have you not yet guessed who came to us in our darkest hour and saved us from worse things than we had already known? Yes; Mr. Northcott, a poor unemployed clergyman, without any private income, struggling for his own subsistence, and frequently in bad health; but no rich and powerful man could have given us such help and comfort. How can I tell it all to you? He found us out after we left Norland Square. He had left Eyethorne shortly after we did, but not before he had heard from mother about my marriage, and my husband's name. He introduced himself to Merton one evening at a socialistic meeting, and after that he occasionally came to see us, and he and Merton had endless arguments, for he was not a socialist. But they became great friends, and he was always trying to persuade my husband to turn his talents to other things. He wished Merton to try his hand at little descriptive and character sketches, interspersed with incidents partly true and partly fictitious. He said that I would be able to help; and one day he related a little incident, minutely describing the actors in it, and begged us to write it out in the way he suggested, but unfortunately the idea never took with Merton. He thought it too trivial; or else he could not work. So I tried my hand alone at it; and Harold saw what I had done, and asked me to rewrite it, and make some alterations which he suggested. Then he sent me a rough sketch he had written and asked me to work it up in the same way as the first; and when I had finished it I sent him the two papers together. Shortly afterwards, when Merton was ill and I was at my wits' end, Harold came to say that he had sold the sketches to the editor of the Lady's Pictorial, who liked them so much that he wished to have more from the same hand. Imagine how glad I was to get the cheque Harold had brought me! But about the other sketches asked for, I told him that I could not write them because I had no materials. He had supplied me with incidents, characters, and descriptions of localities for the first time, and I could not go about to find fresh matter for myself. He said that he had thought of that, and that he was prepared to supply me with as much material as I required. He would give me facts, and my fancy would do the rest. He only laughed at the idea that I would be sucking his brains and depriving him of his own means of subsistence. He was always about among the poor, he said, and talking to people of all descriptions, and hearing and seeing things well worth being told in print, but he was without the special kind of talent and style of writing necessary to give literary form to such matter. His tastes lay in other directions, and the only writing he could do was of a very different kind. Then I gladly consented, and Merton was pleased also, and promised to help; but--poor fellow--he has not had the strength to do anything yet."

"Oh, Constance, how glad I am to hear this. But is it not terribly trying for you to do so much work in this close hot room, and attend to your husband at the same time? And you get no proper rest at night, I suppose. Is it not making you ill?"

"No, dear; it comes easier every week, and has made me better, I think. The heat is very trying, I must say; and I can only write when Merton is asleep, generally in the early part of the day. But do you know, Fan, that in spite of our poverty and my great and constant anxiety about Merton's health, I feel some happiness in my heart now. If I possessed a morbid mind or conscience I should probably call myself heartless for being able to feel happiness at such a time--happiness and pride at my success. But I am not morbid, thank goodness, or at war with my own nature--with the better part of my nature, I might say. And it is so sweet--oh, Fan, how unutterably sweet it is, to feel that I am doing something for him and for myself, that my life is not being wasted, that my brains are beginning to bear fruit at last!"

"I wonder whether I have ever seen any of your sketches, Constance? I have read some things, and cried and laughed over them, in the Pictorial, called 'Eastern Idylls.' "

"Yes, Fan, that is the title of my sketches. How strange that you should have seen them! How glad I am!"

Fan related the circumstances; then Constance paid another visit to the bedroom to listen to the invalid's breathing. Returning, she presently resumed, "Fan, is it not wonderful that we should experience such goodness from one who after all was no more than an acquaintance, and who has so little of life's good things? He has never offered to help us even with one shilling in money, and that only shows his delicacy. Had he been ever so rich and given us help in money there would have been a sting in it. And yet look how much more than money he gives us--how much time he spends, and what trouble he takes to keep me supplied with fresh matter for my writings. I'm sure he goes about with eyes and ears open to all he sees and hears more for our sakes than for his own. Is it not wonderful, Fan?"

"Yes; it is very sweet, but not strange, I think," said Fan, smiling; and after reflecting a few moments she was just about to add: "He has always loved you, since he knew you at Eyethorne, and he would do anything for you."

But at that moment Constance half turned her head to listen, and so the perilous words were not spoken. "Consideration like an angel came," and before the other turned to her to resume the conversation, Fan looked back on what she had just escaped with a feeling like that of the mariner who sees the half-hidden rock only after he has safely passed it.

They talked on for half an hour longer, when a low moan, followed by a fit of coughing in the adjoining room, made Constance start up and go to her husband. She returned in a few minutes, but only to say that she would be absent some time assisting Merton to dress; then giving Fan the proof of the last "Idyll" she had sent to the paper to read, she again left the room.


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