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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 18556

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Mrs. Errington had lodged in Mr. Maxfield's house ever since she first came to Whitford. Jonathan Maxfield, commonly called "Old Max," kept a general shop in that town. The shop was underneath Mrs. Errington's sitting-room, and the great bow window, of which mention has been made, jutted out beyond the shop front, and overhung the street. The house was old, and larger than it appeared from the street, running back some distance. There was a private entrance-a point much insisted upon by Mr. Maxfield's sister-in-law and housekeeper in letting the lodgings to Mrs. Errington-and a long passage divided the shop entirely from the dwelling rooms on the ground-floor.

Old Max was reported to be somewhat of a miser (which report he rather encouraged than the reverse, finding that it had its conveniences), and to have amassed a large sum of money for one in his position in life.

"Old Max!" Whitford people would say. "Why, old Max could buy up half the town. Old Max might retire to-morrow. Old Max has no need ever to stand behind a counter again."

Old Max, however, continued to stand behind his counter day after day, as he had done for the last thirty or forty years, and would serve a child with a pennyworth of gingerbread, or a rich man's cook with stores of bacon and flour, in an impartially crabbed manner.

He was a grey man: grey from head to foot. He had grey hair, closely cropped; twinkling grey eyes; and a grey stubble on his shaven chin. He usually wore a suit of coarse grey clothes, with black calico sleeves tied on at the elbow. But even these had an iron-grey hue, from being more or less dusted with flour; as, indeed, were all his garments, and even his face.

When Mrs. Errington first came to live in Whitford, Jonathan Maxfield was a widower for the second time. He had two sons by his first wife; and, by his second, one daughter, whose birth cost her mother's life. The sister of his first wife had kept house for him ever since his second widowhood. This woman, Betty Grimshaw by name, had been servant in a great family; and at her master's death had received a legacy, which, together with her own savings, had sufficed to purchase a small annuity. She had been able to lay by the greater part of her annuity since she had lived in Whitford, and announced her intention of bequeathing her savings to her nephew James, Maxfield's second son. The elder son had married a farmer's daughter with some money, and turned farmer himself within a few miles of Whitford. Thus the family living at home on the autumn night on which our story opens, consisted of Jonathan Maxfield, Betty Grimshaw his sister-in-law, his son James, and his daughter Rhoda.

The sound of the street-door closing violently behind Mr. Diamond, startled this family party assembled in the parlour, together with Mr. David Powell, Methodist preacher.

They were all seated at a table, on which lay hymn-books and a large bible. Old Maxfield sat nearest to the fire, in his grey suit, just as he appeared in his shop, except that the black calico sleeves had been removed from his coat. He had a harsh face, a harsh voice, and a harsh manner. So much could be observed by any who exchanged ten words with him.

Next to him, on his left hand, sat his son James, a tall, sickly-looking young man, of six-and-twenty. He had a stoop in the shoulders, a pale face, with high cheek-bones, eyes deeply set, light eyebrows, which grew in thick irregular tufts, and hair of a reddish flaxen colour. There was a certain family likeness between him and his aunt, Mrs. Grimshaw, as she was called in Whitford, despite her spinsterhood. She too was tall, bony, and hard-featured; with a face which looked as if it had been painted and varnished, and reminded one, in its colour and texture, of those hollow wooden pears, full of tiny playthings, which used to be-and probably still are-sold at country fairs, and in toy-shops of a humble kind.

The preacher sat next to Betty Grimshaw. He seemed to belong to a different order of beings from the three persons already described.

A striking face this-dark, and full of fire. He had sharply-cut, handsome features, and eyes that seemed to blaze with inward light when he spoke earnestly. His raven-black hair was worn long, and fell straight on to his collar. But although this made his aspect strange, it could not render it either vulgar or ludicrous. The black locks set off his pale dark face, as in a frame of ebony. He was young, and seemed vigorous, though rather with nervous energy than muscular strength.

The last person in the group was Rhoda Maxfield-"little Rhoda," as Mrs. Errington had called her. But the epithet had been used to express rather her social insignificance, than her physical proportions. Rhoda was, in fact, rather tall. She was about nineteen years old, but scarcely looked her age. She had a broad and beautiful brow, on which the rich chestnut hair was smoothly parted; a sensitive mouth, not over-small; and bright hazel eyes, which looked out on the world with an open gaze, that was at once timid and confiding. Her skin was of remarkable delicacy, with a faint flush on the cheeks, which came and went frequently.

And yet Rhoda Maxfield was not much admired among her own compeers. There was something in her face which did not please the taste of the vulgar. And although, if you had asked Whitford persons "Is not Rhoda Maxfield wonderfully pretty?" most of those so addressed would have answered, "Yes, Rhoda is a pretty girl;" yet the assent would probably have been cold and uncertain.

Rhoda, at nineteen years old, had never been known to have a sweetheart. And this fact militated against the popular appreciation of her beauty; for a very cursory observation of the world will suffice to show that on the score of good looks, as on most other subjects, public opinion is apt to find nothing successful but success.

"What a wind there must be, to make the door bang like that!" exclaimed Betty Grimshaw, when the loud sound above recorded reached her ears.

"Who went out?" asked James.

"I suppose it would be that Mr. Diamond, the schoolmaster," replied his aunt.

They both spoke in a subdued voice, and cast furtive glances at Mr. Maxfield, as though fearful of being reprehended for interrupting the evening devotions; but, as they spoke, he closed his hymn-book, and drew his chair away from the table towards the fireside. Upon this signal, Betty Grimshaw rose and bustled out of the room, declaring that she must see about getting the supper; for that that little Sarah could never be trusted to see to the roasted potatoes alone. There was a suspicious alacrity in Betty's departure, suggestive that she experienced some sense of relief at the breaking-up of the devotions. James soon sauntered out of the room after his aunt. Mr. Powell rose.

"Good night," said he, holding out his hand to the old man.

"Nay; won't you stay and eat with us, Brother Powell? The supper will be ready directly."

Mr. Powell shook his head. "You know I never eat supper," he said, smiling.

"Well, well; perhaps you're in the right," responded old Max, very readily.

"And I am not clear," continued the preacher, "but that it would be better for you to leave off the habit."

"Me? Oh, no! I need it for my health's sake."

"But would it not suit your health better, to take your supper early? Say at six o'clock or so; so that you should not go to bed with a full stomach."

"No; it wouldn't," answered the old man, crabbedly.

David Powell stood meditating, with his hand to his chin. "I am not clear about it," he murmured. But Maxfield either did not hear, or chose to ignore the words.

"Father, may I go upstairs to Mrs. Errington?" asked Rhoda, softly; "I don't want any supper."

The old man grunted out an inarticulate sound, and seemed to hesitate. "Go upstairs to Mrs. Errington?" he said, answering his daughter, but looking sideways at the preacher. "Let's see; you promised, didn't you?"

"Yes; you gave me leave, and I promised before-before we knew that Mr. Powell would come to-night."

Rhoda was gifted with a sweet voice by nature, and she spoke with a purer accent, and expressed herself with greater propriety, than the other members of her family. Mrs. Errington had amused herself with teaching the motherless girl, who had been a lonely, shy, little child when their acquaintance first began. And Rhoda was a quick and apt scholar.

"Well-a promise-I can't have you break your word. Don't you stay late, mind. Not one minute after ten o'clock; do you mind, Rhoda?"

Rhoda, with a bright smile of pleasure on her face, promised to obey, and left the room with a step which it cost her an effort to make as staid as she knew would be approved by her father and Mr. Powell. When she got outside the door, they heard her run along the passage as light and as swift as a greyhound.

Maxfield turned to Mr. Powell, with a little constrained, apologetic air, and began expatiating on Mrs. Errington's fondness for Rhoda; and how kind she had always been to the girl; and how he thought it a duty almost, to let the good, widowed lady have as much of Rhoda's company as she could give her without neglecting duties.

"Betty Grimshaw is a worthy woman," he observed, drily; "but no companion for my Rhoda. Rhoda features her mother, and has her mother's nature very much."

Mr. Powell still stood in the same meditative attitude, with his hand to his chin.

"This Mrs. Errington is unconverted?" he said, without raising his eyes.

"Oh, Rhoda won't take much harm from that!"

"Much harm?" The dark lustrous eyes were upraised now, and fixed searchingly on the old man.

"Well, it won't do her any harm," the latter answered, testily. "I know Rhoda; and I have her welfare at heart, as, I suppose, you'll believe. I don't know who should have, if it isn't me!"

"Brother Maxfield," said the preacher, earnestly, "are you sure that you have a clear leading in this matter? Have you prayed for one?"

Maxfield shifted in his chair, and made no answer.

"Oh, consider what you do in trusting that tender soul among worldlings! I do not say that these are wicked people in a carnal sense; but are they such as can edify or strengthen a young girl like Rhoda, who is still in a seeking state, and has not yet that blessed assurance which we all supplicate for her?"

"I have laid the matter before the Lord," said Maxfield, almost sullenly.

Powell was silent for a minute, standing with his hands forcibly clasped together, as though to control them from vehement action, and when next he spoke, his voice had a tone in it which told of a strong effort of will to keep it in subdued monotony.

"Then, have you thought of it?" said he; "there is the young man Algernon."

"What of Algernon?" cried Maxfield, turning sharply to face the preacher.

"He is fair to look upon, and specious, and has those graces and talents which the world accounts lovely. May there not be a snare here for Rhoda? She who is so alive to all beauty and graciousness in God's world, and in God's creatures-may it not be very perilous for her to be thrown unguardedly into the society of this youth?"

Maxfield looked into the fire instead of at Powell, as he said, "What has been putting this into your head?"

"I have had a call to say it to you, for some time past. Before I went away this summer it was on my mind. I sinned in resisting the call, for-for reasons which matter to no one but myself. I sinned in putting any human reasons above my Master's service."

"It may be as you would have done better to resist speaking now," said Maxfield, slowly. "It may be as it was rather a temptation, than a leading from Heaven, made you speak at all."

Powell started back as if he had been struck. The blood rushed into his face, and then, suddenly receding, left him paler than before. But he answered after a moment in a low, sweet voice, and without a trace of anger, "You cannot mistrust me more than I mistrusted myself. But I have wrestled and prayed; and I am assured that I have spoken this thing with a single heart."

"Well, well, well, it may be as you say," said Maxfield, a shade less harshly than he had spoken before. "But you have neither wife, nor daughter, nor sister, and you cannot understand these matters as well as I do, who am more than double your years, and have had the guidance of this young maid from a baby upward."

"Nay," answered Powell, humbly; "it is not my own wisdom I am uttering! God forbid that I should set up my carnal judgment against a man of your years."

"That's very well said-very rightly said!" exclaimed Maxfield, nodding twice or thrice.

"Aye, but I must speak when my conscience bids me. I dare not resist that admonition for any human respect."

"Why, to be sure! But do you think yours is the only conscience to be listened to? I tell you I follow mine, young man. And you can ask any of our brethren here in Whitford, who have known me for the last thirty or forty years, whether I have gone far astray!"

Powell sighed wearily. "I have released my soul," he said.

"And just hearken," pursued old Maxfield, in a lowered voice, "don't say a word of this sort to Rhoda-nay, don't interrupt me! I've listened to your say, now let me have mine-because you might be putting something into her thoughts that wouldn't have come there of itself. And keep a discreet tongue before Betty and James. 'Least said, soonest mended.' And I'll tell you something more. If-observe I say 'if'-I saw that Rhoda's heart was strongly set upon anything, anything as wasn't wrong in itself, I should be very loath to thwart her."

David Powell turned a startled, attentive face on the old man, who proceeded with a sort of dogged monotony of voice and manner: "Christian charity teaches us there's good folks in all communions of believers. And there's different ranks and different orders in the world; some has one thing, and some has another. Some has fine family and great connections among the rulers of the land. Others has the goods of this world earned by honesty, and diligence, and frugality; and these three bring a blessing. Some is fitted to be gentlefolks by nature, let 'em be born where they will. Others, like my sister-in-law Betty, is born to serve. We are all the Lord's creatures, and we are in his hand but as clay in the hands of the potter. But there's different kinds of clay, you know. This kind is good for making coarse delf, and that kind is fit for fine porcelain. We'll just keep these words as have passed between you and me, to ourselves, if you please. And now, I I think, we may drop the subject."

"May the Lord give you his counsel!" said Powell, in a broken voice.

"Amen! I have had my share of wisdom, and have walked pretty straight for the last half century, thanks be to Him," observed old Max, drily.

"If it were His good pleasure, how gladly would I cease for evermore from speaking to you on this theme! But it matters nothing what I desire or shrink from. I must deliver my Master's message when it is borne in upon me to do so."

And with a solemnly uttered blessing on the household, the preacher departed.

The master of the house sat thinking, alone by his fireside. He began by thinking that he had a little over-encouraged David Powell. Maxfield considered praise from himself to be very encouraging, and calculated to uplift the heart. When Powell had first come among the Whitford Methodists, old Max had taken him by the hand, and had declared him to be the most awakening preacher they had had for many years. He was never tired of vaunting Powell's zeal, and diligence, and eloquence. Backsliders were brought again into the right way, sinners were awakened, believers were refreshed, under his ministry. The fame of Powell's preaching drew many unwonted auditors to the little chapel; and of those who came at first merely from curiosity, many were moved by his words to join the Wesleyan Connection. On all this Jonathan Maxfield looked with great satisfaction. The young man had been truly a burning and a shining light.

But now-might it not be that the preacher's heart had become puffed up with spiritual pride? Was he not unduly exalting himself, when he assumed a tone of censorship towards such a pillar of the community as Jonathan Maxfield? The old man had been for many years accustomed to much deference, alike from preachers and congregation. The exhortations and admonitions which were doubtless needful for his neighbours, were entirely out of place when addressed to himself. His piety and probity were established on a rock. And the Lord had, moreover, seen fit to gift him with so large a share of the wisdom of the serpent, as had enabled him to hold his own, and to thrive in the midst of worldlings. A dull fire of indignation against David Powell began to smoulder in the old man's heart, as he pondered these things.

Other thoughts, too, more or less disquieting, passed through his brain. He thought of Rhoda's mother-of that second wife whom he, a man past middle-life, had married for her fair young face and gentle ways, much to Betty Grimshaw's disgust, and the surprise of most people. He looked back on the long, dusty, dreary road of his life; and, in the whole landscape, the only spot on which the sun seemed to shine was that brief year of his second marriage. Not that he had been, or that he now was, an unhappy man. His life had satisfactions in it of a sober, sombre kind. He did not grow soft or sentimental in reviewing the past. He was accustomed to the chill, grey atmosphere in which he lived. But he had felt warm sunlight once, and remembered it. And he had a notion-inarticulate, indeed, and vague-that Rhoda needed more light and warmth in her life than was necessary for his own existence, or for James's, or Betty Grimshaw's, or, in fact, for most people's. There was no amount of hardness he could not be guilty of to "most people," and, indeed, he was hard enough to himself; but for Rhoda there was a soft place in his heart.

Nevertheless, there were many hopes, fears, speculations, and reflections connected with Rhoda just now, which had anything but a softening effect on Mr. Maxfield's demeanour; insomuch that Betty and James, coming in presently to supper, found the head of the family in so crabbed a temper, that they were glad to hurry through the meal in silence, and slink off to bed.

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