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)
Fan read the sketch, but her mind was too much occupied with all she had just heard, in addition to the joy she felt at having recovered her friend, to pay much attention to it. Moreover the increasing heat began to oppress her; she marvelled that Constance, accustomed all her life to the freedom and cool expanse of the country, should find it possible to work in such an atmosphere and amidst such surroundings.
At length, Merton, who had been coughing a great deal while dressing, came in assisted by his wife, but quite exhausted with the exertion of walking from one room to the other; and after shaking hands with their visitor he sunk into his easy-chair, not yet able to talk. She was
greatly shocked at the change in him; the once fine, marble-like face was horribly wasted, so that the sharp unsightly bones looked as if they would cut their way through the deadly dry parchment-yellow skin that covered them; and the deep blue eyes now looked preternaturally large and bright--all the brighter for the dark purple stains beneath them. He was low indeed, nigh unto death perhaps; yet he did not appear cast down in the least, but even while he sat breathing laboriously, still unable to speak, the eyes had a pleased hopeful look as they rested on their visitor's face. A smile, too, hovered about the corners of his mouth as his glance wandered over her costume. For, in spite of feeling the heat a great deal, she looked cool in her light-hued summer dress, with its dim blue pattern on a cream-coloured ground. The loose fashion in which it was made, the tints, and light frosting of fine lace on neck and sleeves, harmonised well with the grey tender eyes, the pure delicate skin, and golden hair.
"You could not have chosen a fitter costume to visit us in," said Merton at length. "I can hardly believe that you come to us from some other part of this same foul, hot, dusty London. To my fever-parched fancy you seem rather to have come from some distant unpolluted place, where green leaves flutter in the wind and cast shadows on the ground; where crystal showers fall, and the vision of the rainbow is sometimes seen."
Constance came to his side and bent over him.
"You must not be tyrannical, Connie," he said. "I really must talk. Even a bird in prison sings its song after a fashion, and why not I?"
And seeing him so anxious to begin she made no further objection, contenting herself with giving him a draught from his medicine bottle. She had already told him Fan's story, and he had heard it with some interest. He congratulated the girl on having found a brother in his old school-fellow, Arthur Eden, and took some merit to himself for having brought them together. But he did not make the remark that truth was stranger than fiction. It was evident that he was impatient to get to other more important matters.
"You have doubtless heard from my wife," he said, "that I have parted company with those misguided people that call themselves socialists. Well, Miss Affleck, the fact is--"
"Eden," corrected Constance with a smile. She was quietly moving about the room in her list slippers, engaged in remoistening the hangings, which had now grown dry and hot.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Eden. Yes, thanks--Fan; that will be better still among such old friends as we are. What I wish to say is, that my mind was never really carried away with their fantastical theories--their dreams of a social condition where all men will be equally far removed from want and excessive wealth. I could have told them at once that they were overlooking the first and greatest law of organic nature, that the stone which the builders despised would fall on them and grind them to powder. At the same time my feelings were engaged on their side, I am bound to confess; I did think it possible to educe some good out of this general ferment and dissatisfaction with the conditions of life. For, after all, this ferment--this great clamour and shouting and hurrying to and fro--represents force--blind brute force, no doubt, like that of waves dashing themselves to pieces on the rocks, or of the tempest let
loose on the world. A tempest unhappily without an angel to guide it; for I look upon the would-be angels--the Burnses--Morrises--Champions--Hyndmans--merely as so many crows, rooks, and jackdaws, who have incontinently rushed in to swell the noise with their outrageous cawing, and to be tossed and blown about, hither and thither, among the dust, sticks, old newspapers, and pieces of rotten wood stirred up by the wind. Good would have come of it if it had been possible to introduce a gleam of sense and reason into the foggy brains of these wretched men. But that was impossible. I am ashamed to have to confess that I ever believed it
possible--that I assumed, when planning their welfare, that they were not absolutely irrational. I have not only thrown the whole thing up, but the disgust, the revulsion of feeling I have experienced, has had the effect of making me perfectly indifferent as to the ultimate fate of these people. If some person were to come to me tomorrow to say that all the East-enders, from Bishopsgate Street to Bow, had been seized with a kind of frenzy, like that which from time to time takes possession of the Norway marmots, or bandicoots, or whatever they are called--"
"Lemmings," said Constance.
"Yes, lemmings. Thanks, Connie, you are a perfect walking encyclopaedia. And--like these Norway lemmings--had rushed into the Thames at Tilbury, men, women, and children, and been drowned, I should say, 'I am very pleased to hear it.' For to my mind these people are no more worthy of being saved than a migrating horde of Norway rats, or than the Gadarene swine that ran down the steep and were drowned in the sea."
Fan listened with astonishment, and turned to Constance, wondering what would be the effect of such dreadful sentiments on her, and not without recalling some of those "Idylls," inspired by a spirit so loving and gentle and Christian. But she seemed to be paying little attention to the matter of her husband's discourse, to be concerned only at the state of his health.
"Merton, dear," she said, "if you talk so much at a stretch you will bring on another fit of coughing."
"Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me. Let me have another sip of that mixture. Then I shall speak of other more hopeful things. And the sweetness of hope shall be like that rosy honey, rose-scented, to soften my throat, made dry and harsh with barren themes. After all, Connie,
these troubles which have tried us so severely have only proved blessings in disguise. Yes, Fan, we have been driven hither and thither about the sea, encountering terrible storms, and sometimes fearing that our bark was about to founder; but they have at last driven us into a haven more sweet and restful than storm-tossed mariners ever entered before. And looking back we can even feel grateful to the furious wind, and the hateful dark blue wave that brought us to such a goal."
All this figurative language, which was like the prelude to a solemn piece of music, gave Fan the idea that something of very great importance was about to follow. But, alas! the mixture, and the rose-honey sweetness of hope, failed to prevent the attack which Constance had feared, and he coughed so long and so violently that Fan, after being a distressed spectator for some time, grew positively alarmed. By-and-by, glancing at her friend's face as she stood bending over the sufferer, holding his bowed head between her palms, she concluded that it was no more than an everyday attack, and that no fatal results need be feared. Relieved of her apprehension, she began to think less of the husband and more of the wife; for what resignation, what courage and strength she had shown since her unhappy marriage, and what self-sacrificing devotion to her weak unworthy life-partner! Or was it a mistake, she now asked herself, to
regard him as weak and unworthy? Had not Constance, with a finer insight--her superior in this as in most things--seen the unapparent strength, the secret hidden virtue, that was in him, and which would show itself when the right time came? No, Fan could not believe that. Tom Starbrow and the poor pale-faced curate in his rusty coat were true strong men, and the woman that married either of them would not lean on a reed that would break and pierce her to the quick; and Captain Horton was also a strong man, although he had certainly been a very bad one. But this man, in spite of his nimble brains and eloquent tongue, was weak and unstable,
hopelessly--fatally. The suffering and the poverty which had come to these two, which in the wife's case only made the innate virtue of her spirit to shine forth with starlike lustre, would make and could make no difference to him. Words were nothing to Fan; not because of his words had she forgiven Captain Horton his crime; and if Merton had spoken with the eloquence of a Ruskin, or an angel, it would have had no effect on her. She considered his life only, and it failed to satisfy her.
Recovered from his attack, Merton sat resting languidly in his chair, his half-closed eyes looking straight before him.
"Ah, to lead men," he said, speaking in a low voice, with frequent pauses, as if soliloquising. "Not higher in their sense--what they with minds darkened with a miserable delusion call higher.... Up and still up, and higher still, through ways that grow stonier, where vegetation shrivels in the bleak winds, and animal life dies for lack of nourishment. Will they find the Promised Land there, when their toil is finished, when they have reached their journey's end? A vast plateau of sand and rock; a Central Asian desert; a cavern blown in by icy winds for
only inn; a 'gaunt and taciturn host' to receive them; and at last, to perform the last offices, the high-soaring vulture, and the wild wind scattering dust and sleet on their bones.... Ah, to make them see--to make them know!... Poor dumb brutish cattle, consumed with fever of thirst, bellowing with rage, trampling each other down in a pen too small to hold them! Ah, to show them the gate--the wide-open gate--to make them lie down in green pastures, to lead them beside the still waters!... Better for me, if I cannot lead, to leave them; to go away and dwell alone! to seek in solitary places, as others have done, some wild bitter root to heal their distemper; to come back with something in my hands;... to consider by what symbols to address them; to send them from time to time a message, to be scoffed at by most and heard with kindling hope by those whose souls are not wholly darkened."
After a long silence he spoke again to ask his wife to get him a book from his bedroom, which he had been reading that morning, to find in it many sweet comforting things. She had been seated at some distance from him, apparently paying no attention to his enigmatical words, but now quickly put down her work and got the book for him from the next room.
"Thanks," he said, taking it. "Yes, here it is. I wish to read you this passage, Connie: 'Now they began to go down the hill into the Valley of Humiliation. It was a steep hill, and their way was slippery, but they were very careful, so they got down pretty well. Then said Mr. Great-heart, We need not be afraid in this Valley, for here is nothing to hurt us, unless we procure it for ourselves. It is true that Christian did here meet with Apollyon, with whom he also had a sore combat; but that fray was the fruit of those slips that he got in his going down the hill; for they that get slips there must look for combats here.' Do you see what I mean, Connie?"
"Yes, dear," she replied, very quietly.
Then he continued, "'For the common people, when they hear that some frightful thing has befallen such a one in such a place, are of an opinion that that place is haunted with some foul fiend or evil spirit, when, alas! it is for the fruit of their own doing that such things do
befall them there!' Listen, Connie: 'No disparagement to Christian, more than to many others, whose hap and lot was his; for it is easier going up than down this hill, and that can be said but of few hills in all these parts of the world. But we will leave the good man, he is at rest, he also had a brave victory over his enemy; let Him grant that dwelleth above that we fare no worse, when we come to be tried, than he. But we will come again to this Valley of Humiliation. It is fat ground, and, as you see, consisteth much in meadows, and if a man was to come here in the summer-time, as we do now, and if he also delighted himself in the sight of his eyes, he might see that that would be delightful to him. Behold how green this Valley is, also how beautiful with lilies. Some have also wished that the next way to their Father's house were here, that they might be no more troubled with hills and mountains to go over, but the way is the way, and there is an end.
"'Now, as they were going along and talking, they espied a boy feeding his father's sheep. The boy was in very mean clothes, but of a very fresh and well-favoured countenance; and as he sat by himself he sang. Then said the guide, Do you hear him? I will dare to say, that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called heart's-ease in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet. Here a man shall be free from noise and the hurryings of this life. All states are full of noise and confusion, only the Valley of Humiliation is that empty and solitary place. Here a man shall not be so hindered in his contemplation, as in other places he is apt to be. This is a valley that nobody walks in but those that love a pilgrim's life; and I must tell you that in former times men have met with angels here, have found pearls here, and here in
this place found the words of life.'"
He closed the book and swallowed some more of the mixture, which Constance, standing at his side, had been holding in readiness for him.
Fan by this time had come to the conclusion that Merton had become religious, although the scornful way in which he had spoken of the inhabitants of East London scarcely seemed to favour such an idea. But she knew that he had been reading from The Pilgrim's Progress, a
book which Mrs. Churton had put in her hands, and helped her to understand. She did not know that he was putting an interpretation of his own on the allegory which might have made the glorious Bedford tinker clench his skeleton fist and hammer a loud "No--no!" on his mouldy coffin-lid.
"Fan, my dear girl," he said, after a while, "I cannot expect you to understand what I am talking about. You must be satisfied to wait many days longer before it is all made plain. I have a thousand things to say which will be said in good time. A thousand thousand things. Books to write--volume following volume; so much to do for poor humanity that the
very thought of it would make my heart fail were it not for the great faith that is in me. But the paper is still white, and the pen lies idle waiting for this unnerved hand to gain strength to hold it. For you must know that in my descent into this valley I have met with many a slip and
fall, and have suffered the consequences: Apollyon has come forth to bar my way, and I have not done with him yet, nor he with me. I have answered all his sophistical arguments, have resisted all his temptations, and it has come to a life-and-death struggle between us. With what deadly fury his thrusts and cuts are made, my poor wife will tell you. My days are comparatively peaceful; I feel that I am near the green meadows, beautiful with lilies, and can almost hear the singing of the light-hearted shepherd-boy. But at night the shadows come again; the shouts and
vauntings of my adversary are heard; I can see his crimson eyeballs, full of malignant rage, glaring at me. To drop metaphor, my dear girl, my nights are simply hellish. But I shall conquer yet; my time will come. Only, to me, a sufferer turning on his bed and wishing for the dawn, how long the time delays its coming! If I could only feel the fresh breeze in my lungs once more; if instead of this loathsome desert of squalid streets and slums I could look on the cool green leafy earth again, and listen to nature's sounds, bidding me be of good courage, then these dark days would be shortened and the new and better life begin."
This was something easy to understand, even to Fan's poor intellect, and she had begun to listen to his words attentively. Here was matter for her practical mind to work upon, and her reply followed quick on his speech. "It must be dreadful for you to remain here all through the hot weather, Mr. Chance. I wish--I wish----" But at this moment the face of Constance, who had drawn near and was bending over her husband's chair, caught her eye, and she became silent, for the face had suddenly clouded at her words.
"What were you going to say, Fan--what is it that you wish?" said Merton, with a keener interest than he usually manifested in other people's words.
"I wish that--that you and Constance would accompany me to some place a little way out of town--not too far--where you would be out of this dreadful heat and smoke, and stand----" She was about to add, stand a better chance of recovery, but at this stage she broke off again and cast down her eyes, fearing that she had offended her friend.
"Most willingly we will go with you, my dear girl, if you will only ask us," said Merton, finding that she was unable to finish her speech.
"Oh, I should be so glad--so very glad!" returned Fan, in her excitement and relief rising from her seat. "Dear Constance, what do you say?"
But the other did not answer at once. This sudden proposal had come on her as a painful surprise. For the last few weeks she had, even in the midst of anxiety and suffering, rejoiced that she was self-dependent at last, and had proudly imagined that her strength and talents would now be sufficient to keep them in health and in sickness. And now, alas! her husband had eagerly clutched at this offer of outside help; and, most galling of all, from the very girl who, a short time before when she was poor and friendless, he had found not good enough to be his wife's associate.
At length she raised her head and spoke, but there was a red flush on her cheek, and a tone of pain, if not of displeasure, in her voice. "Fan," she said, "I am so sorry you have made us this offer. It is very, very kind of you; but, dearest, we cannot, cannot accept it."
"And for what reason, Connie?" said her husband.
She looked down on his upturned face, and for a moment was sorely tempted to stoop and whisper the true reason in his ear, to reply that it would be dishonourable--a thing to be remembered after with a burning sense of shame--to accept any good gift at the hands of this girl, who had been thrown over and left by them without explanation or excuse a short time
before, only because circumstances had made her for a time their inferior--their inferior, that is, according to a social code, which they might very well have ignored in this case, since it related to a society they had never been privileged to enter since their marriage, which knew and cared nothing for them. But as she looked down, the yellow skin and sunken cheek and the hollow glittering eyes that met her own made her heart relent, and she could not say the cruel words. She kept silence for a few moments, and then only said, "How can we go, Merton? We cannot move without money, and besides, we have nothing fit to wear."
"Pshaw, Connie, do you put such trifles in the scale? Have you so little faith in our future as to shrink from this small addition to our debt? Fan, of course, knows our circumstances and just what we would require. Why, a paltry two or three pounds would take us out of London; and as for clothes--well, you know how much we raised on them--a few miserable shillings. You are proud, I know, but you mustn't forget that Fan is Arthur Eden's sister--my old school-fellow and familiar friend; and also that she is your old pupil, and--as I have heard you say times without number--the dearest friend you have on earth."
He did not see the effect of these words, and that her face had reddened again with anger and shame, and a feeling that was almost like scorn. Fan, seeing her distress, half-guessing its cause, went to her side and put her arm round her.
"Constance dear," she said, "you only need a little help at first, and I shall be very careful and economical, and some day, when things improve, you shall repay me every shilling I spend now. Oh, you don't know how hard it is for me to say this to you! For I know, Constance, that if our places were changed you would wish to act as a sister to me, and--and you will not let me be a sister to you."
The other kissed her and turned aside to hide her tears. Merton smiled, and taking Fan's hand in his, stroked and caressed it.
"My dear girl," he said, "I cannot express to you all I feel now; but away out of this stifling atmosphere, this nightmare of hot bricks and slates and smoking chimney-pots, in some quiet little green retreat where you will take us, I shall be able to speak of it. What a blessing this visit you have made us will prove! It refreshed my soul only to see you; with that clear loveliness on which the evil atmosphere and life of this great city has left no mark or stain, and in this dress with its tender tints and its perfume, you appeared like a messenger of returning peace and hope from the great Mother we worship, and who is always calling to us when we go astray and forget her. How appropriate, how natural, how almost expected, this kind deed of yours then seems to me!"
Constance, seeing him so elated at the prospect of the change, made no further objection, but waited Mr. Northcott's return before discussing details. The curate when he at last appeared suggested that it would be well to consult a young practitioner in the neighbourhood who had been attending Merton; and in the end he went off to look for him. While he was gone the two girls talked about the proposed removal in a quiet practical way, and Merton, quite willing to leave the subject of ways and means to his wife and her friend, took no part in the conversation. Then the curate returned with the doctor's opinion, which was that the change
of air would be beneficial, if Merton could stand being removed; but that the journey must be short and made easy: he suggested a well-covered van, with a bed to lie on, and protected from draughts, as better than the railroad.
Fan at once promised to find a van as well as a house near East London to go to, and after she had prevailed on Constance to accept a loan of a few pounds for necessary expenses, she set out with Mr. Northcott on her return to the West End.