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 couple of days after the funeral Fan, accompanied by her friend, returned to London, and the rooms she had occupied in Quebec Street. Fortunately for her young lodger's peace of mind, now less inclined for delicate feeding than ever, Mrs. Fay had gone off on her annual holiday. Not that her health required change of air, nor because she took any delight in the sublime and beautiful as seen in the ocean and nature generally, but because it was a great pleasure to her to taste of many strange dishes, and criticise mentally and gloat over the abominable messes which other lodging--and boarding-house keepers are accustomed to
put before their unhappy guests. And as the woman left in charge of the establishment knew not Francatelli, and never rose above the rude simplicity of "plain" cookery--depressing word!--and was only too glad when nothing was required beyond the homely familiar chop, with a vegetable spoiled in the usual way, dinner at Quebec Street, if no longer a pleasure, was not a burden.
That strange quietude, tearless and repellent, concerning which Fan had spoken in her letter, still had possession of Constance. But it was not the quietude experienced by the overwrought spirit when the struggle is over, and the reaction comes--the healing apathy which nature sometimes gives to the afflicted. It was not that, nor anything like it. The struggle had been prolonged and severe; he was gone in whom all her hopes and affections had been centred, and life seemed colourless without him; but she knew that it would not always be so, that the time would come when she would again take pleasure in her work, when the applause of other lips than those now cold would seem sweet to her. The quietude was only on the surface; under it smouldered a sullen fire of rebellion and animosity against God and man, because Merton had perished and had not lived to justify his existence; and if the thought ever entered her soul--and how often it was there to torture her!--that the world had judged him rightly and she falsely, it only served to increase her secret bitterness.
When spoken to by those around her, she would converse, unsmilingly, neither sad nor cheerful, with but slight interest in the subject started; it was plain to see that she preferred to be left alone, even by her two dearest friends, Fan and the curate, who had attended the funeral and had come afterwards two or three times to see her. After a few days Fan had proposed moving to town, and Constance had at once consented. In her present frame of mind the solitude of London seemed preferable to that of the country. For two or three days Fan almost feared that the move had been a mistake; for now Constance spent more time than ever in silence and seclusion, never going out of the house, and remaining most of the time in her own room. Even when they were together she would sit silent and apathetic unless forced to talk; and the effect was that Fan grew more and more reluctant to address her, although her heart was overcharged with its unexpressed love and sympathy. Only once, a few days after their return to town, did Constance give way to her poignant feelings, and that was on the occasion of a visit from Mr. Northcott to their rooms. She saw him reluctantly, and was strangely cold and irresponsive in her manner, and as it quickly discouraged him when his kindly efforts met with no appreciation, the conversation they had was soon over. When taking his leave he spoke a few kind sympathetic words to her, to which she made no reply, but her hand trembled in his, and she averted her face. Not that she had tears to hide; on the contrary, it seemed to Fan, who was watching her face, that the rising colour and brightening eyes expressed something like resentment at the words he had spoken. When he had gone she remained standing in the middle of the room, but presently glancing up and encountering her friend's eyes fixed wonderingly on her face, she turned away, and dropping into a chair burst into a passion of tears.
Fan moved to her side. "Dear Constance," she said, putting a hand on the other's shoulder, "it is better to cry than to be as you have been all these days."
But Constance, mastering her sobs with a great effort, rose to her feet and put her friend's hand aside.
"Do you think tears are a relief to me?" she said with bitterness. "You are mistaken. They are caused by his words--his pretended grief and sympathy with me for what he calls my great loss. But; I know that he never understood and never appreciated my husband--I know that in his heart of hearts he thinks, as you think, Fan, that my loss is a gain. I understood him as you and Harold never could. You knew only his weakness, which he would have outgrown, not the hidden strength behind it. I know what I have lost, and prefer to be left alone, and to hear no condolences from anyone." Then, bursting into tears again, she left the room.
This was unspeakably painful to Fan--chiefly because the words Constance had spoken were true. They were cruel words to come from her friend's lips, but she considered that they had been spoken hastily, in a sudden passion of grief, and she felt no resentment, and only hoped that in time kindlier feelings would prevail. Her manner lost nothing of its loving gentleness, but she no longer tried to persuade Constance to go out with her; it was best, she thought, to obey her wish and leave her alone. She herself, loving exercise, and taking an inexhaustible delight in the life and movement of the streets, spent more time than ever out of doors. Her
walks almost invariably ended in Hyde Park, where she would sit and rest for half an hour under the grateful shade of the elms and limes; and then, coming out into the Bayswater Road, she would stand irresolute, or walk on for a little distance into Oxford Street, with downcast eyes and with slower and slower steps. For at home there would be Constance, sitting solitary in her room and indisposed for any communion except that with her own sorrow-burdened heart; while on the other hand, within a few minutes' drive, there was Dawson Place--bright with flowers and pleasant memories--and above all, Mary, who was always glad to see her, and would perhaps be wishing for her and expecting her even now. And while
considering, hesitating, the welcome tingling "Keb!" uttered sharp and clear like the cry of some wild animal, would startle her. For that principal league-long thoroughfare of London is "always peopled with a great multitude of"--no, not "vanities," certainly not! but loitering hansoms, and cabby's sharp eye is quick to spot a person hesitating where to go (and able to pay for a ride), as the trained rapacious eye of the hawk is to spy out a wounded or sickly bird. Then the swift wheels would be drawn up in tempting proximity to the kerb, and after a moment's
hesitation Fan would say "Dawson Place," and step inside, and in less than twenty minutes she would be in her friend's arms.
These flying improvised visits to her friend were very dear to her, and always ended with the promise given to repeat the visit very soon--"perhaps tomorrow"; then she would hurry home, feeling a little guilty at her own happiness while poor Constance was so lonely and so unhappy.
But one day there seemed to be a change for the better. Constance talked with Fan, for some time, asking questions about Miss Starbrow, of the books she had been reading, and showing a return of interest in life. When she was about to leave the room Fan came to her side and put an arm round her neck.
"Constance," she said, "I have been waiting anxiously to ask you when you are going to begin your sketches again? I think--I'm sure it would be good for you if you could write a little every day."
Constance cast down her eyes and reflected for a few moments.
"I could never take that up again," she said.
"I am so sorry," was all that Fan could say in reply, and then the other without more words left her.
But in the evening she returned to the subject of her own accord.
"Fan, dear," she said, "I must ask your forgiveness for the way I have acted towards you since we have been here together. It would not have been strange if you had resented it--if you had judged me ungrateful. But you never changed; your patience was so great. And now that he has gone you are more to me than ever. Not only because you have acted towards me like a very dear sister, but also because you did that for him which I was powerless to do. Your taking us away out of that hot place made his last days easier and more peaceful. And you were with him at the last, Fan. Now I can speak of that--I must speak of it! Death seemed cruel to him, coming thus suddenly, when hope was so strong and the earth looked so bright. And how cruel it has seemed to me--the chance that took me from his side when that terrible moment was so near! How cruel that his dying eyes should not have looked on me, that he should not have felt my arms sustaining him! So hard has this seemed to me that I have thought little about you--of the agony of pain and suspense you suffered, of the strength and courage which enabled you to sustain him and yourself until it was all over."
She was crying now, and ceased speaking. She had not told, nor would she ever tell, the chief cause of the bitterness she felt at the circumstances attending her husband's death. It was because Fan, and no other, had been with him, sustaining him--Fan, who had always been depreciated by him, and treated so hardly at the last; for she could not remember that he had treated any other human creature with so little justice. It had been hard to endure when the girl they had left, hiding themselves from her, ashamed to know her, had found them in their
depressed and suffering condition, only to heap coals of fire on their heads. Hard to endure that her husband seemed to have forgotten everything, and readily took every good thing from her hands, as if it had been only his due. But that final scene among the garden trees had seemed to her less like chance than the deliberately-planned action of some unseen power, that had followed them in all their wanderings, and had led the meek spirit they had despised to their hiding-place, to give it at last a full and perfect, yea, an angelic revenge.
After a while, drying her eyes, she resumed:
"But I particularly wish to speak about what you said this morning. I could not possibly go back to those East-End sketches of life--even the name of the paper I wrote them for is so painfully associated in my mind with all that Merton and I went through. I was struggling so hard--oh, so hard to keep our heads above water, and seemed to be succeeding. I was so hopeful that better days were in store for us, and the end seemed to come so suddenly ... and my striving had been in vain ... and the fight was lost. I know that I must rouse myself, that I have to work for a living, only just now I seem to have lost all desire to do anything, all energy. But I know, Fan, that this will not last. Grief for the dead does not endure long--never long enough. I must work, and there is nothing I shall ever care to do for a living except literary work. I have felt and shall feel again that a garret for shelter and dry bread for food would be dearer to me earned in that way than every comfort and luxury got by any other means. During the last day or two, while I have been sitting by myself, an idea has slowly been taking shape in my mind, which will make a fairly good story, I think, if properly worked out. But that will take time, and just now I could not put pen to paper, even to save myself from starving. For a little longer, dear, I must be contented to live on your charity."
"My charity, Constance! It was better a little while ago when you said that I had been like a very dear sister to you. But now you make me think that you did not mean that, that there is some bitterness in your heart because you have accepted anything at my hands."
"Darling, don't make that mistake. The word was not well-chosen. Let me say your love, Fan--the love which has fed and sheltered my body, and has done so much to sustain my soul."
And once more they kissed and were reconciled. From that day the improvement for which Fan had been waiting began to show itself. Constance no longer seemed strange and unlike her former self; and she no longer refused to go out for a walk every day. But she would not allow her walks with Fan to interfere with the latter's visits to Miss Starbrow. "She must be more to you than I can ever be," she would insist. "Well, dear, she cannot be less, and while she and you are in town it is only natural that you should be glad to see each other every day." And so after a walk in the morning she would persuade Fan to go later in the day to Dawson Place.
One evening as they sat together talking before going to bed, Fan asked her friend if she had written to inform Mrs. Churton of Merton's death.
"Yes," replied Constance. "A few days after his death I wrote to mother; it was a short letter, and the first I have sent since I wrote to tell her that I was married. She replied, also very briefly, and coldly I think. She expressed the hope that my husband had left some provision for me, so that she knows nothing about how I am situated."
After a while she spoke again.
"How strange that you should have asked me this tonight, Fan! All day I have been thinking of home, and had made up my mind to say something to you about it--something I wish to do, but I had not yet found courage to speak."
"Tell me now, Constance."
"I think I ought to write again and tell mother just how I am left, and ask her to let me go home for a few weeks or months. I have no wish to go and stay there permanently; but just now I think it would be best to go to her--that is, if she will have me. I think the quiet of the country would suit me, and that I might be able to start my writing there. And, Fan--you must not take offence at this--I do not think it would be right to live on here entirely at your expense. But if I should find it impossible to remain any time at home, perhaps I shall be glad to ask you to shelter me again on my return to town."
She looked into Fan's eyes, but her apprehensions proved quite groundless.
"I am so glad you have thought of your home just now," Fan replied. "Perhaps after all you have gone through it will be different with your mother. But, Constance, may I go with you?"
"With me! And leave Miss Starbrow?"
"Yes, I must leave her for a little while. I was going to ask you to go with me to the seaside for a few weeks, but it will be so much better at Eyethorne. Perhaps Mrs. Churton still feels a little offended with me, but I hope she will not refuse to let me go with you--if you will consent, I mean."
"There is nothing that would please me better. I shall write at once and ask her to receive us both, Fan."
"If you will, Constance; but I must also write and ask her for myself. I cannot go to live on them, knowing that they are poor, and I must ask her to let me pay her a weekly sum."
Constance reflected a little before answering.
"Do you mind telling me, Fan, what you are going to offer to pay? You must know that I can only go as my mother's guest, that if you accompany me you must not pay more than for one."
"Yes, I know that. I think that if I ask her to take me for about two guineas a week it will be very moderate. It costs me so much more now in London. And the money I am spending besides in cabs and finery--I am afraid, Constance, that I am degenerating because I have this money, and that I am forgetting how many poor people are in actual want."
The result of this conversation was that the two letters were written and sent off the following day.
In the afternoon Fan went to Dawson Place, and Mary received her gladly, but had no sooner heard of the projected visit to Wiltshire than a change came.
"You knew very well," she said, "that I wanted you to go with me to the seaside, or somewhere; and now that Mrs. Chance is going home you might have given a little of your time to me. But of course I was foolish to imagine that you would leave your friend for my society."
"I can't very well leave her now, Mary--I scarcely think it would be right."
"Of course it wouldn't, since you prefer to be with her," interrupted the other. "I am never afraid to say that I do a thing because it pleases me, but you must call it duty, or by some other fine name."
She got up and moved indignantly about the room, pushing a chair out of her way.
"I'm sorry you take it in that way," said Fan. "I was going to ask you to do something to please me, but after what you said have--"
"Oh, that needn't deter you," said Mary, tossing her head, but evidently interested. "If it would be pleasing to you I would of course do it. I mean if it would be pleasing to me as well. I am not quite so crazy as to do things for which I have no inclination solely to please some other person."
"Not even to please me--when we are such dear friends?"
"Certainly not, since our friendship is to be such a one-sided affair. If I had any reason to suppose that you really cared as much for me as you say, then everything that pleased you would please me, and I should not mind putting myself out in any way to serve you. Before I promise anything I must know what you want."
"Before I tell you, Mary, let me explain why I wish to go to Eyethorne. You know how Constance has been left, and that she is my guest. Well, I had meant to take her with me to the seaside for a few weeks when she said this about going home. It is the best thing she could do, but you know from what I have told you before that she cannot count on much sympathy from her parents, that she will perhaps be worse off under their roof than if she were to go among strangers. If all she has gone through since her marriage should have no effect in softening Mrs. Churton towards her, then her home will be a very sad place, and it is for this reason I wish to accompany her, for it may be that she will want a friend to help her. Don't you think I am right, Mary?"
"You must not ask me," said the other. "I shall not interfere with anything that concerns Mrs. Chance. She is your friend and not mine, and I would prefer not to hear anything about her. And now you can go on to the other matter."
"I can't very well do that, since it concerns Constance, and you forbid me to speak of her."
"Oh, it concerns Constance!" exclaimed Mary, and half averting her face to conceal the disappointment she felt. "Then I'm pretty sure that I shall not be able to please you, Fan. But you may say what you like."
Fan moved near to her--near enough to put her hand on the other's arm.
"Mary, it seems very strange and unnatural that you two--you and Constance--should be dear to me, and that you should not also know and love each other."
"You are wasting your words, Fan. I shall never know her, and we should not love each other. I have seen her once, and have no wish to see her again. Oil and vinegar will not mix."
"It is not a question of oil and vinegar, Mary, but of two women--"
"So much the worse--I hate women."
"Two women, both beautiful, both clever, and yet so different! Which do you think sweetest and most beautiful--rose or stephanotis?"
"Don't be a silly flatterer, Fan. She is beautiful, I know, because I saw her; and I was not mistaken when I knew that her beauty would enslave you."
"She was beautiful, Mary, and I hope that she will be so again. Now she is only a wreck of the Constance you saw at Eyethorne. But more beautiful than you she never was, Mary."
"Flattery, flattery, flattery!"
"Which of those two flowers are you like, and which is she like? Let me tell you what I think. You are most like the rose, Mary--that is to me the sweetest and most beautiful of all flowers."
Mary turned away, shaking the caressing hand off with a gesture of scorn.
"And I, Mary, between two such flowers, what am I?" continued Fan. "Someone once called me a flower, but he must have been thinking of some poor scentless thing--a daisy, perhaps."
"Say a heart's-ease, Fan," said Mary, turning round again to her friend with a little laugh.
"But I haven't finished yet. Both so proud and high-spirited, and yet with such loving, tender hearts."
"That is the most arrant nonsense, Fan. You must be a goose, or what is almost as bad, a hypocrite, to say that I have any love or tenderness in me. I confess that I did once have a little affection for you, but that is pretty well over now."
Fan laughed incredulously, and put her arms round her friend's neck.
"No," said the other resolutely, "you are not going to wheedle me in that way. I hate all women, I think, but especially those that have any resemblance to me in character."
"She is your exact opposite in everything," said Fan boldly. "Darling Mary, say that you will see her just to please me<. And if you can't like her then, you needn't see her a second time."
Mary wavered, and at length said:
"You can call with her, if you like, Fan."
"No, Mary, I couldn't do that. You are both proud, but you are rich and she is poor--too poor to dress well, but too proud to take a dress as a present from me."
"Then, Fan, I shall make no promise at all. I am not going out of my way to cultivate the acquaintance of a person I care nothing about and do not wish to know merely to afford you a passing pleasure." After a while she added, "At the same time it is just possible that some day, if the fancy takes me, I may call at your rooms. If I happen to be in that neighbourhood, I mean. If I should not find you in so much the better, but you will not be able to say that I refused to do what you asked. And now let's talk of something else."
The words had not sounded very gracious, but Fan was well satisfied, and looked on her object as already gained. The discovery which she made, that she had a great deal of power over Mary, had moreover given her a strange happiness, exhilarating her like wine.