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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 42

Miss Starbrow did not leave London after all, but day followed day only to find her in the same unsettled mind as at first. Having no one else to quarrel with, she quarrelled with and mocked at herself. "I shall wait till the heats are over," she said, "and then stay on to see the end of the November fogs; then I can go north to winter at Aberdeen or some such delightful place." But these late London days, while her mind was in this unsatisfactory state, studying to deceive itself, had one great pleasure --the letters which came at intervals of two or three days from her loved friend. Even to her eyes they looked beautiful. The girl of the period, when she writes to her friend, usually dips the handle of her sunshade in a basin of ink, and scrawls characters monstrous in size and form, an insult to the paper-maker's art and shocking to man's aesthetic feelings. Now from the first Fan had spontaneously written a small hand, with fine web-like lines and flourishes, which gave it a very curious and delicate appearance; for, unlike the sloping prim Italian hand, it was all irregular, and the longer curves and strokes crossed and recrossed through words above and beneath, so that, while easy enough to read, at first sight it looked less like writing than an intricate pattern on the paper, as if a score of polar gnats had been figure-skating on the surface with inked skates. To her complaint that she was not clever, not musical, like other girls, Mary had once said:

"Ah, yes; all your cleverness and originality has gone into your handwriting."

"It is such a comfort, such a pleasure," said Fan in one of her letters, "to have you to write to and put Mary--Mary--Mary twenty times over in a single letter, wondering whether it gives you the same pleasure to see your name written by me as you often say it is to hear it from my lips. Do you remember that when I promised to write everything you sneered and told me not to forget to make the usual mental reservations? That is the way you always talk to me, Mary; but I make no reservation, I tell you everything, really and truly--everything I see and hear and think. I know very well that Constance will never tell me any of her secrets--that she will never open her heart to anyone, as one friend does to another, except her husband; so that it was quite safe for me to make you that promise."

Again she wrote: "For some hidden reason Constance consented very reluctantly to take Merton out of town, and I feel convinced that it was not on account of the risk there would be in moving him, nor because they were too poor to move away from Mile End. There was some other reason, and I feel pretty sure that if the proposal had come from some other person, even a stranger, instead of from me, it would not have given the same feeling. That it should give her pain was a surprise to me, and has puzzled me a great deal, because I know that Constance loves me as much as she ever did, and that she would gladly do as much and more for me if it were in her power at any time. Perhaps she thinks, poor Constance, that when she and her husband suddenly went away from Netting Hill and left no address, and never wrote to me again, although she knew that I had no other friend in London at that time, that she had treated me badly. Once or twice, since we have been together here, she has mentioned that going away, so sadly, almost with tears, speaking as if circumstances had compelled her to act unkindly, but without giving any explanation. I do not believe, I cannot believe, she left me in that way of her own will; I can only guess the reason, but shall probably never really know; but I feel that this has brought a shadow into our friendship, and that while we are as dear as ever to each other, we both feel that there is something that keeps us apart."

Another letter spoke more particularly of Merton: "I am sure you would like to know what I think of him now, after living under the same roof for the first time, and seeing so much of him every day. I cannot say what I think of him. As a rule he is out in the garden after eleven o'clock; and then he sends Constance away. 'You have had enough of me now,' he says, 'and if I wish to talk, I can talk to Fan--she is a good listener.' This reminds me of one thing which is a continual vexation to me. He does not seem to appreciate her properly. He does not believe, I think, that she has any talent, or, at any rate, anything worthy of being called talent compared with his own. Just fancy, she is usually up all night, fearing to sleep lest he should need something; and then when he comes out, and is made comfortable on the garden-seat, he tells her to go and have an hour if she likes at her 'idyllic pastimes,' as he calls her writing; and if he mentions her literary work at all, he speaks of it just as another person would of a little piece of crochet-work or netting, or something of that sort.

"After she goes in he talks to me, for an hour sometimes, and when it is over I always feel that I am very little wiser, and what he has said comes back to me in such an indistinct or disconnected way that it would be impossible for me to set it down on paper. I do wish, Mary, that you could come and sit next to me--invisible to him, I mean--and listen for half an hour, and then tell me what it all means."

Mary laughed. "Tell you, sweet simple child? I wish Fan, that you could come here and sit down next to me for half an hour and read out a chapter from Alice in Wonderland, and then tell me what it all means. It was Sir Isaac Newton, I think, who said of poetry that it was a 'beautiful kind of nonsense'; at all events, if he did not say it he thought it, being a scientific man. And that is the best description I can give of Merton's talk. That's his merit, his one art, which he has cultivated and is proficient in. He reminds me of those street performers who swallow match-boxes and tie themselves up with fifty knots and then wriggle out of the rope, and keep a dozen plates, balls, and knives and forks all flying about at one time in the air. The mystery is how a woman like his wife--who is certainly clever, judging from the sketches I have read, and beautiful, as I have good reason to remember--should have thrown herself away on such a charlatan. Love is blind, they say, but I never imagined it to be quite so blind as that!"

Here Miss Starbrow suddenly remembered the case of another woman, also clever and beautiful; and with a scornful glance at her own image in the glass, she remarked, "Thou fool, first pluck the beam out of thine own eye!"

Then she returned to the letter: "Another thing that seems strange to me is his cheerfulness, for he is really very bad, and Constance is in great fear lest his cough should bring on consumption; and it is sometimes so violent that it frightens me to hear it. Yet he is always so lively and even gay, and sometimes laughs like a child at the things he says himself; and I sometimes know from the way Constance receives them that they can't be very amusing, for I do not often see the point myself. He firmly believes that he will soon throw his illness off, and that when he is well he will do great things. The world, he says, knows nothing of its greatest men, and he will be satisfied to be an obscurity, even a laughing-stock, for the next thirty or thirty-five years. But when he is old, and has a beard, like Darwin's, covering his breast and whiter than snow, then his name will be great on the earth. Then it will be said that of all leaders of men he is greatest; for whereas others led men into a barren wilderness without end, to be destroyed therein by dragons and men-eating monsters, he led them back to that path which they in their blind eager hurry had missed, and by which alone the Promised Land could be reached.

"Perhaps you will think, Mary, from my telling you all this, that I am beginning to change my mind about him, that I am beginning to think that there is something more in him than in others, and that it will all come out some day. But it would be a mistake; what I have always thought I think still."

"Sensible girl," said Mary, putting the letter down with a smile.

And thus did these two not infallible women, seeing that which appeared on the surface--empty quick--vanishing froth and iridescent bubbles--pass judgment on Merton Chance.

One afternoon, coming in from a walk, Mary found a letter from Fan on the hall table, and taking it up was startled to see a superfluous black seal over the fastening. Guessing the news it contained, she carried it up to her bedroom before opening it. "It is all over," the letter ran; "Merton died this morning, and it was so unexpected, so terribly sudden; and I was with him at the last moment. How shall I tell you about it? It is anguish to think of it, and yet think of it I must, and of nothing else; and now at ten o'clock at night I feel that I cannot rest until I have described it all to you, and imagined what you will feel and say tomorrow when you read my letter.

"For the last two or three days he had seemed so much better; but this morning after breakfasting he coughed violently for a long time, and seemed so shaken after it that we tried to persuade him not to go out. But he would not be persuaded; and it was such a lovely morning, he said, and would do him good; and he felt more hopeful and happy than ever--a sure sign that he had reached the turning-point and was already on the way to recovery. So we came out, he leaning on our arms, to a garden-seat under the trees at the end of a walk, quite near to the house. When he had settled himself comfortably on the seat with some rugs and cushions we had got with us, he said, 'Now, Connie, you can go back if you like and leave me to talk to Fan. She is our guardian angel, and will watch over me, and keep away all ugly phantoms and crawling many-legged things--spiders, slugs, and caterpillars. And I shall repay her angelic guardianship with wise, instructive speech.'

"'But an angel looks for no instruction--no reward,' said Constance.

"'Not so,' he replied. 'An angel is not above being taught even by a creature of earth. And in Fan there is one thing lacking, angel though she be, and this I shall point out to her. I can find no mysticism in her: what she knows she knows, and with the unknowable, which may yet be known, she concerns herself not. Who shall say of the seed I scatter that it will not germinate in this fair garden without weeds and tares, and strike root and blossom at last? For why should she not be a mystic like others?'

"Constance laughed and answered, 'Can an angel be a mystic?'

"'Yes, certainly,' he said. 'An angel need not necessarily be a mystic, else Fan were no angel, but even to angels it adds something. It is not that splendour of virtue and immortality which makes their faces shine like lightning and gives whiteness to their raiment; but it is the rainbow tint on their wings, the spiritual melody which they eternally make, which the old masters symbolised by placing harps and divers strange instruments in their hands--that melody which faintly rises even from our own earthly hearts.'

"Constance smiled and looked at me--at the white dress I had on--shall I ever wear white again?--and answered that she had first liked me in white, and thought it suited me best, and would have to see the rainbow tints before saying that they would be an improvement.

"Then she went back to the house, and from the end of the walk turned round and gave us a smile, and Merton threw her a kiss.

"Then he turned to me and said, 'Fan, do you hear that robin--that little mystic robin-redbreast? Listen, he will sing again in less than twenty seconds.' And almost before he had finished speaking, while I was looking at him, a change came over him, and his face was of the colour of ashes; and he said, with a kind of moan and so low that I could scarcely catch the last words, 'Oh, this is cruel, cruel!' And almost at the same moment there came a rush of blood from his mouth, and he started forward and would have fallen to the ground had I not caught him and held him in my arms. I called to Constance, over and over again, but she did not hear me--no one in the house heard me. Oh, how horrible it was--for I knew that he was dying--to hear the sounds of the house, voices talking and the maid singing, and a boy whistling not far off, and to call and call and not be heard! Then a dreadful faintness came over me, and I could call no more; I shivered like a leaf and closed my eyes, and my heart seemed to stand still, and still I held him, his head on my breast--held him so that he did not fall. Then at last I was able to call again, and someone must have heard, for in a few moments I saw Constance coming along the walk running with all her speed, and the others following. But I knew that he was already dead, for he had grown quite still, and his clenched hand opened and dropped like a piece of lead on my knee.

"After that I only remember that Constance was kneeling before him, calling out so pitifully, 'Oh, Merton, my darling, what is it? Merton, Merton, speak to me--speak to me--one word, only one word!' Then I fainted. When I recovered my senses I was lying on a sofa in the house, with some of them round me doing what they could for me; and they told me that they had sent for a doctor, and that Merton was dead.

"But how shall I tell you about Constance? I have done nothing but cry all day, partly from grief, and partly from a kind of nervous terror which makes me imagine that I am still covered with those red stains, although I took off all my things, even my shoes and stockings, and made the servant-girl take them away out of my sight. But she does not shed a tear, and is so quiet, occupied all the time arranging everything about the corpse. And there is such a still, desolate look on her face; her eyes seem to have lost all their sweetness; I am afraid to speak to her--afraid that if I should attempt to speak one word of comfort she would look at me almost with hatred. This afternoon I was in the room where they have laid him, and he looked so different, younger, and his face so much clearer than it has been looking, that it reminded me of the past and of the first time I saw him, when he spoke so gently to me at Dawson Place, and asked me to look up to show my eyes to him. I could not restrain my sobs. And at last Constance said, 'Fan, if you go on in this way you will make me cry for very sympathy.' I could not bear it and left the room. It was so strange for her to say that! Perhaps I am wrong to think it, but I almost believe from her tone and expression that all her love for me has turned to bitterness because I, and not she, was with him at the end, and heard his last word, and held him in my arms when he died.

"She has refused to sleep in my room, and now that the whole house is quiet I am almost terrified at being alone, and to think that I must spend the night by myself. I know that if I sleep I shall start up from some dreadful dream, that I shall feel something on my hands, after so many washings, and shall think of that last look on his ashen face, and his last bitter words when he knew that the end had so suddenly come to him. I wish, I wish, Mary, that I had you with me tonight, that I could rest with your arms about me, to gain strength with your strength, for you are so strong and brave, I so weak and cowardly. But I am alone in my room, and can only try to persuade myself that you are thinking of me, that when you sleep you will be with me in your dreams."

Having finished reading the letter, Mary covered her eyes with her hand and cried to herself quietly for a while. Cried for despised Merton Chance; and remembered, no longer with mocking laughter, some fragments of the "beautiful nonsense" which he had spoken to her in bygone days. For in that bright sunshine of the late summer, among the garden trees, the Black Angel had come without warning to him, and with one swift stroke of his weapon had laid him, with all his dreams and delusions, in the dust; and its tragic ending had given a new dignity, a touch of mournful glory, and something of mystery, to the vain and wasted life.

After a while, drying her eyes, she rose and went out again, and in Westbourne Grove ordered a wreath for Merton's coffin, and instructed the florist to send it on the following day to the house of mourning.

That mention of her first meeting with Merton in the girl's letter had brought up the past very vividly to Mary's mind; at night, after partially undressing, as she sat combing out her dark hair before the glass, she thought of the old days when Fan had combed it for her, and of her strange mixed feelings, when she had loved the poor girl she had rescued from misery, and had studied to hide the feeling, being ashamed of it, and at the same time had scorned herself for feeling shame--for being not different from others in spite of her better instincts and affected independence of a social code meant for meaner slavish natures. How well she remembered that evening when Merton had amused her with his pretty paradoxes about women not being reasonable beings, and had come back later to make her an offer of marriage; and how before going to bed she had looked at herself in the glass, proud of her beauty and strength and independence, and had laughed scornfully and said that to no Merton Chance would she give her hand; but that to one who, although stained with vice, had strength of character, and loved her with a true and not a sham love, she might one day give it. And thus thinking the blood rushed to her face and dyed it red; even her neck, shoulders, and bosom changed from ivory white to bright rose, and she turned away, startled and ashamed at seeing her own shame so vividly imaged before her. And moving to the bedside, while all that rich colour faded away, she dropped languidly into a chair, and throwing her white arms over the coverlid, laid her cheek on them with a strange self-abandonment, "Do you call me strong and brave, Fan?" she murmured sadly. "Ah, poor child, what a mistake! I am the weak and cowardly one, since I dare not tell you this shameful secret, and ask you to save me. Oh, how falsely I put it to you when I said that there are things in every heart which cannot be told, even to the nearest and dearest! when I hinted to you that you had not told me all the story of your acquaintance with Arthur Eden. That which you kept back was his secret as well as yours. This is mine, only mine, and I have no courage to tell you that you are only working my ruin--that the heart you are trying to soften has no healthy hardness in it. I shall never tell you. Only to one being in the whole world could I tell it--to my brother Tom. But to think of him is futile; for I shall keep my word, and never address him again unless he first begs my forgiveness for insulting me at Ravenna, when he called me a demon. Never, never, and he will not do that, and there is no hope of help from him. You shall know the result of your work one day, Fan, and how placable this heart is. And it will perhaps grieve you when you know that your own words, your own action, gave me back this sickness of the soul--this old disease which had still some living rootlet left in me when I thought myself well and safe at last. How glad I shall be to see you again, Fan! And you will not know that under that open healthy gladness there will be another gladness, secret and base. That I shall eagerly listen again to hear the name my false lips forbade you to speak--to hear it spoken with some sweet word of praise. And in a little while I shall sink lower, and be glad to remember that my courage was so small; and lower still, and give, reluctantly and with many protests, the forgiveness which will prove to you--poor innocent child!--that I have a very noble spirit in me. How sweet it is to think of it, and how I loathe myself for the thought! And I know what the end will be. I shall gain my desire, but my gain will be small and my loss too great to be measured. And then farewell to you, Fan, for ever; for I shall never have the courage to look into your eyes again, and the pure soul that is in them. I shall be a coward still. Just as all that is weak and unworthy in me makes me a coward now, so whatever there is that is good in me will make me a coward then."


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