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 pebble for your thoughts, Constance," said Mary, tossing one to her feet. "But I can guess them--for so many sisters is there not one brother?"
"Are you so sorry that they have all left us?" returned the other, smiling and coming back from the realms of fancy.
"I'm sure I am," said Fan, looking up from her book. "It was so delightful to have them with us at this distance from London."
"But why at this distance from London?" objected Mary. "According to that, our pleasure would have been greater if we had met them at the Canary Islands, and greater still at Honolulu or some spot in Tasmania. Imagine what it would be to meet them in one of the planets; but if the meeting were to take place in the furthest fixed star the delight would be almost too much for us. At that distance, Sidmouth would seem little further from London than Richmond or Croydon.>"
Fan bent her eyes resolutely on her book.
"<>You have not yet answered my question, Mary," said Constance.
"Nor you mine, which has the right of priority. But I am not a stickler for my rights. Listen, both of you, to a confession. I don't feel sorry at being left alone with you two, much as I have been amused, especially by Arthur, who has a merrier soul than his demure little sister.>"
"Why will you call me little, Mary? I am five feet six inches and a half, and Arthur says that's as tall as a woman ought to be."
"A sneer at me because I am two inches taller! What other disparaging things did he say, I wonder?"
"You don't say that seriously, Mary--you are so seldom serious about anything! You know, I dare say, that he is always praising you."
"That's pleasant to hear. But what did he say--can't you remember something?"
"Well, for one thing, he said you had a sense of humour--and that covers a multitude of sins."
The others laughed. "A propos of what did he pay me that pretty compliment?" asked Mary.
Fan, reddening a little at being laughed at, returned somewhat defiantly, "He was comparing you to me--to your advantage, of course--and said that I had no sense of humour. I answered that you were always mocking at something, and if that was what he meant by a sense of humour, I was very pleased to be without it."
"Oh, traitress! it was you then who abused me behind my back."
"And what about me?" asked Constance. "Did he say that I had any sense of humour?"
"I asked him that," said Fan, not joining in the laugh. "He said that women have a sense of humour of their own, quite different from man's; that it shows in their conversation, but can't be written. What they put in their books is a kind of imitation of man's humour, and very bad. He said that George Eliot was a very mannish woman, but that even her humour made him melancholy."
"Oh, then I shall be in very good company if I am so fortunate as to make this clever young gentleman melancholy.>"
"I quite agree with him," said Mary, wishing to tease Constance. "fsomething very depressing about a woman's writing when she wishes to be amusing."
But the other would not be teased. "Do you know, Mary," she said, returning to the first subject, "I was in hopes that you were going to make a much more important confession. I'm sure we both expected it."
"You must speak for yourself about a confession," said Fan. "But I did feel sorry to see how cast down poor Captain Horton looked before going away."
"The more I see of him," continued Constance, heedless of Mary's darkening brow, "the better I like him. He is the very type of what a man should be--strong and independent, yet gentle, so patient when his patience is tried. It was easy to see that he was not happy, and that the cause of it was the coldness of one Mary Starbrow."
"Why not your coldness, or Fan's coldness?" snapped the other.
"I was not, and could not, be cold to him, and as to Fan----"
"Why, he was constantly with me; we were the best of friends, as you know very well, Mary."
"So handsome too, and he has such a fine voice," continued Constance. "Sometimes when he and Mary sang duets together, and when he seemed so grateful for her graciousness, I thought what a splendid couple they would make. Didn't you think the same, Fan?"
"Yes," she replied a little doubtfully.
"Yes!" mocked Mary. "It would be a great pleasure to me to duck you in the sea for slavishly echoing everything Constance says."
"Thank you, Mary, but I'm not so fond of getting wet as you are," said Fan, with a somewhat troubled smile.
Constance went on pitilessly:
Oh, he was the half part of a better man
Left to be finished by such as she;
And she a fair divided excellence
Whose fullness of perfection was in him.
"And pray what are you, Constance?" retorted the other. "A fair divided excellence or an excellence all by yourself, or what? If you find pleasure in contemplating a deep romantic attachment, think a little more of Mr. Northcott. He is the type of a gentleman, if you like--brave and gentle, and without stain. And how was he rewarded for his devotion? At all events he did not look quite like a conquering hero when he went away."
Constance reddened. "He is everything you say, Mary--you can't say more in praise of him than he deserves; but you have no right to assume what you do, and if you can't keep such absurd fancies out of your head, I think you might refrain from expressing them."
"But, Constance dear, what harm can there be in expressing them?" said Fan. "They are not absurd fancies any more than what you were saying just now. I am quite sure that Mr. Northcott is very fond of you."
"That is your opinion, Fan; but I would rather you found some other subject of conversation."
"No doubt," said Mary, not disposed to let her off so easily; "but let me warn you first that unless you treat Mr. Northcott better in future there will be a split in the Cabinet, and Fan, I think, will be on my side."
"I certainly shall," said Fan.
"In that case," said Constance with dignity, "I shall try to bear it."
"We'll boycott you," said Mary.
"And refuse to read your books," said Fan.
"And tell everyone that the creator of tender-hearted heroines is anything but tender-hearted herself."
"This amuses you, Mary," said Constance, "but you don't seem to reflect that it gives me pain."
"I'm sorry, Constance, if anything I have said has given you pain," spoke Fan. "At the same time I can't understand why it should: it must surely be a good thing to be--loved by a good man."
"Then, Fan, you must feel very happy," retorted the other, suddenly changing her tactics.
"I don't know what you mean, Constance."
"What sweet simplicity! Do you imagine that we are so blind, Fan, as not to see how devoted Mr. Starbrow is to you?"
The girl reddened and darted a look at Mary, who only smiled, observing strict neutrality.
"You are wrong, Constance, and most unkind to say such a thing. You say it only to turn the conversation from yourself. No one noticed such a thing; but about Mr. Northcott it was quite different--everybody saw it."
"I beg you will not allude to that subject again. When I have distinctly told you that it is annoying--that it is painful to me, you should have a little more consideration."
"This grows interesting," broke in Mary. "The conspirators have quarrelled among themselves, and I shall now perhaps discover in whose breast the evil thought was first hatched."
The others were silent, a little abashed; Fan still blushing and agitated after her hot protest, fearing perhaps that it had failed of its effect.
Mary went on: "Are we then to hear no more of these delightful revelations? Considering that the Mr. Starbrow whose name has been brought into the case happens to be my brother--"
She said no more, for just then Fan burst into tears.
"Oh, you are unkind, both of you, to say such things, when you know--when you know--"
"That there is no truth in them?" interrupted Mary. "Then, my dear girl, why take it to heart?"
"You brought it on yourself, Fan," said Constance.
"No, Constance, it was all your doing. Even Mary never said a word till you began it."
"Even Mary--who is not as a rule responsible for her words," said that lady vindictively.
"I shall not stay here any longer," exclaimed Fan, picking up her book and attempting to rise.
But the others put out their arms and prevented her.
"Dear Fan," said Constance, "let us say no more to vex each other; the remark I made was a very harmless one. And you forget, dear, that I am different to you and Mary--that words about some things, though spoken in jest, may hurt me very much." After a while she continued hesitatingly--"I am sure that neither of you will return to the subject when you know how I feel about it. I shall never love again. To others my husband is dead, but not to me; his place can be taken by no other."
Fan, who had recovered her composure, although still a little "teary about the lashes," answered:
"And I am equally sure that I shall never want to--change my name. I have Arthur to love and--and to think of, and that will be enough to make me happy."
"And I shall get a cat," said Mary, in a broken voice, and ostentatiously wiping her eyes, "and devote myself to it, and love it with all the strength of my ardent nature, and that will be enough to make me happy. I shall name it Constance Fan, out of compliment to you two, and feed it on the most expensive canaries. Of course it will be a very beautiful cat and very intelligent, with opinions of its own about the sense of humour and other deep questions."
Constance looked offended, while Fan laughed uncomfortably. Mary was satisfied; she had turned the tables on her persecutor and provoked a little tempest to vary the monotony of life at the seaside. Without saying more they got up and moved towards the town, it being near their luncheon hour. Fan lagged behind reading, or pretending to read, as she walked.
"Oh, let's stay and see this race," said Mary, pausing beside a bench on the beach near an excited group of idlers, mostly boys, with one white-headed old man in the midst, who was arranging a racing contest between one youngster mounted on a small, sleepy-looking, longhaired donkey, and his opponent, dirty as to his face and argumentative, seated on one of
those archaeological curiosities commonly called "bone-shakers," which are occasionally to be seen at remote country places. But the preliminaries were not easily settled, and Constance grew impatient.
"I can't stay," she said. "I have a letter to write before lunch."
"All right, go on," said Mary, "and I'll wait for that lazy-bones Fan."
As soon as Constance had gone Fan quickened her steps.
"Mary," she spoke, coming to the other's side, "will you promise me something?"
"What is it, dear?" said her friend, looking into her face, surprised to see how flushed it was.
"I suppose that Constance was only joking when she said that to me; but promise, Mary, that you will never speak to Mr. Starbrow about such a thing?"
"Promise, Mary--do promise," pleaded the girl.
"But, Fan, I have already talked to him more than once on that same dreadful subject."
"Oh, how could you do it, Mary! You had no right to speak to him of such a thing."
"You must not blame me, Fan. He spoke to me first about it."
"He did! I can hardly believe it. Was it right of him to speak of such a thing to you?"
"And not to you first, Fan? Poor Tom spoke to me because he was afraid to speak to you--afraid that you had no such feeling for him as he wished you to have. He wanted sympathy and advice, and so the poor fellow came to me."
"And what did you say, Mary?"
"Of course I told him the simple truth about you. I said that you were cold and stern in disposition, very strong-minded and despotic; but that at some future time, if he would wait patiently, you might perhaps condescend to make him happy and take him just for the pleasure of possessing a man to tyrannise over."
Fan did not laugh nor reply. Her face was bent down, and when the other stooped and looked into it, there were tears in her eyes.
"Crying! Oh, you foolish, sensitive child! Was it true, then, that you did not know--never even suspected that Tom loved you?"
"No; I think I have known it for some time. But it was so hard to hear it spoken of in that way. I have felt so sorry; I thought it would never be noticed--never be known--that he would see that it could never be, and forget it. Why did you say that to him, Mary--that some day I might feel as he wished? Don't you know that it can never be?"
"But why can't it be, Fan? You are so young, and your feelings may change. And he is my brother--would you not like to have me for a sister?"
"You are my sister, Mary--more than a sister. If Arthur had had sisters it would have made no difference. But about Tom, you must believe me, Mary; he is just like a brother to me, and I know I shall never change about that."
"Ah, yes; we are all so wise about such things," returned the other with a slight laugh, and then a long silence followed.
There was excuse for it, for just then, the arguments about the conditions of the race had waxed loud, degenerating into mere clamour. It almost looked as if the more excited ones were about to settle their differences with their flourishing fists. But Mary was scarcely conscious of what was passing before her; she was mentally occupied recalling certain things which she had heard two or three days ago; also things she had seen without attention. Fan, Tom, and Arthur had told her about that day spent in Exeter. At their destination their party had been increased to four by Arthur's clerical friend, Frank Arnold. This young gentleman had acted as guide to the cathedral, and had also entertained them at luncheon, which proved a very magnificent repast to be given by a young curate in apartments. It was all a dull wretched affair, according to Tom; the young fellow had never left off making himself agreeable to Fan until she had got into her carriage to return to Sidmouth. And yet Fan had scarcely mentioned Mr. Arnold, only saying that she had passed a
happy day. How happy it must have been, thought Mary, a new light dawning on her mind, for the sparkle of it to have lasted so long!
"Shall you meet your brother's friend, Mr. Arnold, again?" she asked a little suddenly.
"I--I think so--yes," returned Fan, a little confused. "He is coming to London next month, and will be a great deal with Arthur, and--of course I shall see him. Why do you ask, Mary?"
But Mary was revolving many things in her mind, and kept silent.
"What are you thinking about, Mary?" persisted the other.
"Oh, about all kinds of things; mysteries, for instance, and about how little we know of what's going on in each other's minds. You are about as transparent a person as one could have, and yet half the time, now I come to think of it, I don't seem to know what you would be at. A little while ago you joined with Constance in that attack on me. I am just asking myself, 'Would it have been pleasant to you if Jack had gone away yesterday happy and triumphant--if I had promised him my hand?'"
"Your hand, Mary--how can you ask such a question? How could you imagine such a thing?"
"Does it seem so dreadful a thing? Have you not worked on me to make me forgive and think well of him? You do not think his repentance all a sham; you have forgotten the past, are his friend, and trust him. Do you, in spite of it all, still think evil of him and separate him from other men? Was the thief on the cross who repented a less welcome guest at that supper he was invited to because of his evil deeds? And is this man, in whose repentance you really believe, less a child of God than other men, that you make this strange distinction?"
The girl cast down her eyes and was silent for some time.
"Mary," she spoke at length, "I can't explain it, but I do feel that there is a difference--that it is not wrong to make such a distinction. It is in us already made, and we can't unmake it. I know that I feel everything you have said about him, and I am very, very glad that you too have forgiven him and are his friend. But it would have been horrible if you had felt for him again as you did once."
Mary turned her face away, her eyes growing dim with tears of mingled pain and happiness; for how long it had taken her to read the soul that was so easy to read, so crystalline, and how much it would have helped her if she could have understood it sooner! But now the shameful cup had passed for ever from her, and the loved girl at her side had never discovered, never suspected, how near to her lips it had been.
And while she stood thus, while Fan waited for her to turn her face, hard by there sounded a great clatter and rattling of the old ramshackle machine, and pounding of the donkey's hoofs on the gravel, and vigorous thwacks from sticks and hands and hats on his rump by his backers, accompanied with much noise of cheering and shouting.
"Oh, look; it is all over!" cried Mary. "What a shame to miss it after all--what could we have been thinking about! Come, let's go and find out who won. I shall give sixpence to the winner, just to encourage local sport."
"And I," said Fan, "shall give a shilling to the loser--to encourage--"
In her haste she did not say what.