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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 13150

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Algernon Errington came gaily into the dim room bringing with him a gust of fresh, cold air. His first act was to stir the fire, which sent up a flickering blaze. The light played upon the tea-table and the two persons who sat at it; and also, of course, illuminated the new comer's face and form, which were such as to justify much of his mother's pride in his appearance. He was of middle height, with a singularly elegant figure, and finely-shaped hands and feet. His smooth, blooming face was, perhaps, somewhat too girlish-looking, but there was nothing effeminate in his bearing. All his movements were springy and elastic. His blue eyes-less large, but more bright than his mother's-were full of vivacity, and a smile of mischievous merriment played round his mouth.

"Mr. Diamond!" he exclaimed, as soon as he perceived who was the other occupant of the room besides his mother.

"You're late," said the tutor, pulling from his waistcoat-pocket a large silver watch, and examining the clumsy black figures on its face by the firelight.

"Why," said Algernon, "I had no idea you were here! I thought my mother had sent word to ask you to put off our reading this evening. You promised to write a note, mother. Didn't you send it?"

It appeared that Mrs. Errington had not sent a note, had not even written one, had forgotten all about it. Her mind was so full of other things! And then when Mr. Diamond appeared, she did not explain at once that Algernon would probably not come home in time for his lesson, because she wanted to have a little conversation with Mr. Diamond. And they began to talk, and the time slipped away: besides, she knew that Mr. Diamond had nothing to do of an evening, so it was not of much consequence, was it?

Algernon winced at this speech, and cast a quick, furtive look at his tutor, who, however, might have been deaf, for any sign he gave of having heard it. He rose from his chair, and addressing Mrs. Errington, declared with his usual brevity that, as no work was to be done, he must forthwith wish her "Good evening."

"Now, no nonsense!" said Mrs. Errington. "You'll do nothing of the kind! Stay and have a cup of tea with us for once in a way."

"Thank you, no; I never-it is not my habit--"

"Not your habit to be sociable! I know that; and it is a great pity. What would you be doing at home? Only poring over books until you got a headache! A little cheerful society would do you all the good in the world. You were all but dropping asleep just now: and no wonder! I'm sure, after teaching all day in a close school, full of boys buzzing like so many blue-bottles, one would feel as stupid as an owl oneself!"

"Perhaps I am peculiarly susceptible to stupefying influences," said Mr. Diamond, with a rueful shake of the head. And, as he spoke, there played round his mouth the faint flicker of a smile.

"Now put your hat down, and take your seat!" cried Mrs. Errington, authoritatively.

"I am very sorry to seem ungrateful, but--"

"I had asked little Rhoda to come up after tea and keep me company, thinking I should be alone. But you won't mind Rhoda. She knows her place."

Mr. Diamond paused in the act of buttoning his coat across his breast. "You are very kind," he murmured.

"There, sit down, and I will undertake to give you a cup of excellent tea. I hope you know good tea when you get it? There are some people who couldn't tell my fine Pekoe from sloe-leaves. Algy, bring me the kettle."

And Mrs. Errington betook herself to the business of making tea. To her it seemed perfectly natural-almost a matter of course-that Matthew Diamond should stay, since she was kind enough to press it. But Algernon, who knew his tutor better, could not refrain from expressing a little surprise at his yielding.

"Why, mother," said he, as he poured the boiling water into the tea-pot, "you may consider yourself singled out for high distinction. Mr. Diamond has consented at your request to stay after having said he would go! I don't believe there's another lady in Whitford who has been so honoured."

If Algernon had not been peering through the clouds of steam, to ascertain whether the tea-pot were full or not, he would have perceived an unwonted flush mount in Matthew Diamond's face up to the roots of his hair, and then slowly fade away.

"And how did you find the doctor and all of them?" asked Mrs. Errington of her son, when they were all seated at the tea-table.

"Oh, the doctor's all right. He only came in for a few minutes after morning school."

"What did he say to you, Algy?"

"Oh, I don't know: something about not altogether neglecting my studies now I had left school, whatever path in life I chose. He always says that sort of thing, you know," answered Algernon carelessly.

"And Mrs. Bodkin?"

"Oh, she's all right, too."

"And Minnie?"

"Oh, she's all-no; she was not quite so well as usual, I think. Mrs. Bodkin said she had had a bad attack of pain in the night. But Minnie didn't mention it. She never likes to be condoled with and pitied, you know. So of course I didn't say anything. It's so unpleasant to have to keep noticing people's health!"

"Poor thing!" said Mrs. Errington. "What a misfortune for that girl to be a helpless invalid for the rest of her life!"

"Is her disorder incurable?" asked Mr. Diamond.

"Oh, quite, I believe. Spine, you know. An accident. And they say that when a child she was such an active creature."

"Her brain is active enough now," observed Mr. Diamond musingly, with his eyes fixed on the fire. "I don't know a keener, quicker intellect."

"What, Minnie Bodkin?" exclaimed Algernon, pausing in the demolition of a stout pile of sliced bread and butter. "I should think so! She's as clever as a man! I mean," he added, reading and answering his tutor's satirically-raised eyebrows, as rapidly as though he were replying to an articulate observation, "I mean-of course I know she's a deuced deal cleverer than lots of men. But I mean that Minnie Bodkin is clever after a manly fashion. Not a bit Missish. By Jove! I wish I knew as much Greek as she does!"

"I do not at all approve of blue-stockings in general," said Mrs. Errington; "but in her case, poor thing, one must make allowances."

"I think she's pretty," announced Algernon, condescendingly.

"She would be if she didn't look so sickly. No complexion," said Mrs. Errington, intently observing her own florid face, unnaturally elongated, in the bowl of a spoon.

"Don't you think her pretty, sir?" asked Algernon, turning to Mr.

Diamond.

"A great deal more than pretty."

"You don't go there very often, I think?" said Mrs. Errington interrogatively.

"No, madam."

"Well, now, you really ought. I know you would be welcome. The doctor has more than once told me so. And Mrs. Bodkin is so very affable! I'm sure you need not hesitate about going there."

Algernon jumped up to replenish the tea-pot, with an unnecessary amount of bustle, and began to rattle out a volley of lively nonsense, with the view of diverting his mother's attention from the subject of Mr. Diamond's neglect of the Bodkin family. He dreaded some rejoinder on the part of the tutor which should offend his mother beyond forgiveness. He had had experience of some of Matthew Diamond's blunt speeches, of which Dr. Bodkin himself was supposed to be in some awe. It was clearly no business of Mrs. Errington's where Mr. Diamond chose to bestow his visits; neither could she in any degree be aware what reasons he might have for his conduct. "And the worst of it is, he's quite capable of telling my mother so, if she goes too far," reflected Algernon. So he chatted and laughed, as if from overflowing good spirits, until the peril was past. This young gentleman was so quick and flexible, and had so buoyant a temperament, that he was reputed more careless and thoughtless than was altogether the case. His mind moved rapidly, and he had an instinctive habit of uttering the result of its calculations, in the most impulsive way imaginable. You could not tell, by observing Algernon's manner, whether he were giving you his first thought or his second.

When the meal was over, Mrs. Errington rang to have the table cleared. A little prim servant-maid, in a coarse, clean apron and bib, appeared at the sound of the bell, and began to gather the tea-things together. Algernon sat down at the old harpsichord, and, after playing a few chords, commenced singing softly in a pleasant tenor voice some fragments of sentimental ballads in vogue at that day. (Does the reader ask, "and when was 'that day?'" He must content himself with the information that it was within a year or two of the year 1830.) Mr. Diamond walked to the window, and holding aside the blind, stood looking out at the dark sky.

All at once, when the servant opened the door to go out, there came up from the lower part of the house the sound of singing; slow, long-drawn, rather tuneless singing of a few voices, male and female.

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!" exclaimed Mrs. Errington, "Oh dear me, Sarah, how is this?"

Algernon made a comical face of disgust, and put his hands to his ears.

"It be as Mr. Powell's ha' come back, mum," said Sarah, with much gravity.

"Really! Really!" said Mrs. Errington, in the tone of one protesting against an utterly unjustifiable offence.

"Come back! Where has he been?" asked Algernon, carelessly.

"On 'is rounds, please, sir."

"I do wish Mr. Powell would choose some other time for his performances!" cried Mrs. Errington, when the servant had left the room. "Now Thursday-on Thursday, for instance, we are going to a whist party, at the Bodkins', and then he might squall out his psalms, and shout, and rave, without annoying anybody."

"He'd only annoy the neighbours," said Algernon, "and that wouldn't matter!"

He was smiling with a sort of contemptuous amusement, and touching random notes here and there on the harpsichord with one finger.

"There will be no getting Rhoda upstairs to-night," said Mrs. Errington. "Poor little thing! she's in for a whole evening of psalm-singing."

Algernon rose from the instrument with a clouded brow. His face wore the petulant look of a spoiled child, whose will has been unexpectedly crossed.

"Deuce take Mr. Powell, and all Welsh Methodists like him!" said he.

"My dear Algy! No, no; I cannot approve of that, though Mr. Powell is a Dissenter. Besides, such language in my presence is not respectful."

"Beg pardon, ma'am," said Algernon, laughing. And with the laughter, the cloud cleared from his brow. Clouds never rested there long.

"Will you have a game of cribbage with me, Mr. Diamond? This naughty boy will scarcely ever play with me. Or, if you prefer it, dummy whist--?"

"No whist for me," interposed Algernon, decisively. "It is such a botheration. And I play so atrociously that it would be cruel to ask Mr. Diamond to sit down with me."

With that he returned to the harpsichord, and began singing softly to himself in snatches.

"Cribbage then?" said Mrs. Errington in her mellow, measured tones.

Mr. Diamond let fall the blind from his hand so roughly that the wooden roller rattled against the wainscot, and advanced to the table where Mrs. Errington was already setting forth the cards and cribbage-board. He sat down without a word, cut the cards as she directed, shuffled, dealt, and played in a moody sort of silent manner; which, however, did not affect Mrs. Errington's nerves at all.

Meanwhile, there went on beneath Algernon's love-songs and the few utterances of the players which the game necessitated, a kind of accompanying "bourdon" of voices from downstairs. Sometimes one single voice would rise in passionate tones, almost as if in wrath. Then came singing again, which, softened by distance, had a wild, wailing character of ineffable melancholy. Algernon paused in his fitful playing and singing, as though unwilling to be in dissonance with those long-drawn sounds. Mrs. Errington calmly continued to exclaim, "Fifteen six," and "two for his heels," without regard to anything but her game.

When the rubber was at an end, Mr. Diamond rose to take his leave.

He lingered a little in doing so. He lingered in taking up his hat, and in buttoning his coat across his breast.

"Have you not anything warmer to put on?" said Mrs. Errington. "Dear me, it is very wrong to go out of this snug room into the air-and the wind has got up, too!-with no more wrap than you have been sitting in, here by the fire! Algy, lend him your great-coat."

"Thank you, no. Good night," said the tutor, and walked off without further ceremony.

He still lingered, however, in descending the stairs; and yet more in passing the door of a parlour, whence came a murmur of voices. Finally, he let himself out at the street-door, and encountering a bleak gust of wind, set off down the silent street at a round pace.

"What a fool you are, Matthew!" was his mental ejaculation, as he strode along with his head bent down, and his gloveless hands plunged deep into his pockets.

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