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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 16211

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Mention has been made of a whist-party at Dr. Bodkin's, to which Mrs. Errington announced her intention of going. It took place on the Thursday after that evening on which Mrs. Errington was first introduced to the reader: that is to say, on the second night following.

Whist-parties were almost the only social entertainment ever given amongst the genteel persons in Whitford. The Rev. Cyrus Bodkin, D.D., liked his rubber; so did Robert Smith, Esq., M.R.C.S., and Mr. Dockett, the attorney, and Miss Chubb, and one or two more cronies, who were frequently seen at the doctor's green card-tables.

The Bodkins lived in a gloomy stone house adjoining the grammar-school, of which, indeed, it formed part. The house was approached by a gravelled courtyard, surrounded by high stone walls. The garden at the back ran sloping down to a broad green meadow, which in turn was bounded by the little river Whit, all overhung with willows, and covered by a floating mass of broad water-lily leaves, just opposite the doctor's garden gate.

In the full summer time, the view from the back of the house was pretty and pastoral enough. But in autumn and winter the meadow was a swamp, whose vivid green looked poisonous-as indeed it was, exhaling ague and rheumatism from its plashy surface-and a white brooding mist trailed itself, morning and evening, along the sluggish Whit, like a fallen cloud, condemned by some angry prince of the air to crawl serpent-like on earth, instead of soaring and sailing in the empyrean.

Such fancies never came into Doctor Bodkin's head, however, nor into his wife's either-good, anxious, unselfish, sad, little woman! Into his daughter Minnie's brain all sorts of wild, fantastic notions would intrude as she lay on her sofa, looking out upon the garden, and the river, and the meadow, and the gnarled old willows, and the flying scud in the sky; but she very seldom spoke of her fancies to any one. She spoke of other matters, though, freely enough. She had many visitors, who came and sat around her couch, or beside the lounging-chair, on which, on her good days, she reclined. She was better acquainted with the news of Whitford than most of the people who could use their limbs to go abroad and see what was passing. She was interested in the progress of the boys at the grammar-school, and knew the names, and a good deal about the characters, of every one of them. She would chat, and laugh, and joke by the hour with the frequenters of her father's house; but of herself-of her own thoughts, feelings, and fancies-Minnie Bodkin said no word to them. Nor did she, in truth, ever speak much on that subject all her life. And there were days-black days in the calendar of her poor anxious little mother-when Minnie would remain shut into her room, refusing to see or speak with anyone, and suffering much pain of body, with a proud stoicism which rejected sympathy like a wall of granite.

There is no suggestion of granite about her now, however, as she lies, propped up by crimson cushions, on a sofa in her father's drawing-room. The room is bright and warm, despite the white kraken of mist that is coiled around the outer walls of the house. Wax-lights shine in tall, old-fashioned silver candlesticks on the mantelpiece, and on the centre table, and on a pianoforte, beside which stands a canterbury full of music-books. A great fire blazes in the grate, and makes its immediate neighbourhood too hot for the comfort of most people. But Minnie is apt to be chilly, and loves the heat. Some delicate ferns and hothouse plants adorn a stand between the windows. They are rather a rare luxury in Whitford; but Minnie loves flowers, and always has some choice ones about her. A still rarer luxury hangs on the wall opposite to her sofa, in the shape of a very fine copy-on a reduced scale-of Raphael's Madonna di San Sisto. Minnie had fallen in love with a print from that famous picture long ago, and the copy was procured for her at considerable pains and expense. The furniture of the room is of crimson and dark oak. Minnie delights in rich colours and picturesque combinations. In a word, there is not an inch of the apartment, from floor to ceiling, in the arrangement of which Minnie's tastes have not been consulted, and in which traces of Minnie's influence are not plainly to be seen by those who know that household.

Minnie has a face, which, if you saw it represented in time-darkened oil colours, and framed on the walls of a picture-gallery, you would pronounce strikingly beautiful. Such faces are sometimes seen in flesh and blood, and, strange to say, do by no means excite the same enthusiasm in ordinary beholders, who, for the most part, like the picturesque in a picture and nowhere else; and who, to paraphrase what was said of Voltaire's intellect, admire chiefly those women who have, more than other young ladies, the prettiness which all young ladies have.

Minnie's face is pale and rather sallow. Her skin is not transparent, but fine in texture, like fine vellum, and it seldom changes its hue from emotion. When it does, it grows dark-red or deadly-white. Pleasing blushes or pallors are never seen on it. She has dark, thick hair, worn short, and brushed away from a high, smooth, rounded forehead, in which shine a pair of bright brown eyes, under finely-arched eyebrows. But the beauty of the face lies in the perfection of its outlines: brow, cheeks, and chin are alike delicately moulded; her mouth-although the lips are too pale-is almost faultless, as are the white, small teeth she shows when she smiles. There is an indefinable air of sickness and suffering over this beautiful face, and dark traces beneath the eyes, and a pathetic, weary look in them sometimes; but, when she speaks or smiles, you forget all that.

There are people in this world whose intellects remind one of lamps too scantily supplied with oil. The little feeble flame in them burns and flickers, certainly, but it is but a dull sort of dead light after all. Now Minnie Bodkin's spirit-lamp, if the phrase may be permitted, illumined everything it shone upon, and there were some persons who found it a great deal too dazzling to be pleasant.

It is not at all too bright at this moment for Algernon Errington, who, seated close beside her couch, is giving her, sotto voce, a humorous imitation of the psalm-singing in old Max's parlour; and describing, with great relish, his mother's cool suggestion that the family prayers should be put off until she should be absent at a whist-party.

"Poor dear mother," says Algernon, smiling, "she can't forget that she is an Ancram; and sometimes comes out with one of her grande dame speeches, as if she were addressing my grandfather's Warwickshire tenantry forty years ago!" At which simple, candid words Minnie shoots out a queer, keen glance at the young fellow from under her eyelids.

"And the Methodist preacher-what is he like?" she asks. "Whitford is, or was, a little inclined to go crazed about him. I don't know whether the enthusiasm is burning itself out, as such fires of straw will do, but a few weeks ago I heard that the little Wesleyan chapel was crowded to overflowing whenever he preached; and that once or twice, when he addressed the people out of doors on Whit Meadow, there was such a multitude as never was seen there before. I was quite curious to see the man who could so move our sluggish Whitfordians."

Algernon had taken up a sheet of note-paper and a pen from Minnie's letter-writing table, whilst she was speaking. "Look here," he says, "here's the preacher!" And he holds out the paper on which he has drawn, with a few rapid strokes, a caricature of David Powell.

Minnie looks at it with raised eyebrows.

"Oh," says she, "is he like that? I am disappointed. This is the common, conventional, long-haired Methodist, that one sees in every comic print."

And in truth Algernon's portrait is not a good likeness, even for a caricature. He had drawn a lank, hook-nosed man, with long, black hair, expressed by two blots of ink falling on either side of

his face.

"He wears his hair just like that!" says Algy, contemplating his own work with a good deal of satisfaction.

The card playing has not yet begun. Mrs. Bodkin, small, thin, with a questioning, sharp, little nose, and a chin which narrows off too suddenly, and an odd resemblance altogether to a little melancholy fox, is presiding at a tea-table. Besides tea and coffee, it is furnished with substantial cakes of many various kinds. Whitford people, for the most part, dine early, so that they are ready for solid food again by about eight o'clock; and will, probably, sustain nature once more with sandwiches and mulled wine before they sleep.

It is not a large party. There is Mrs. Errington, majestic in a dyed silk, and a real lace cap, the latter a relic of the "better days" she is fond of reverting to; Miss Chubb, a stout spinster, with a languishing fat face as round as a full moon, and little rings of hair gummed down all over her forehead, and half-way down her plump cheeks; Mr. Smith, the surgeon, black-eyed, red-faced, and smiling; the Rev. Peter Warlock, curate of St. Chad's, a serious, ghoul-like young man, who rends great bits out of his muffin with his teeth, in a way to make you shudder if you happen to be nervous or fanciful; Mr. Dockett, the attorney, and his wife, each dressed in black, each with a huge double chin and smothered voice, and altogether comically like one another.

On the hearth-rug, with his back to the fire, and his coffee-cup in his hand, stands Dr. Bodkin. He is short and thick. He has an air of command. He looks at the world in general as if it were liable to an "imposition" of ever so many hundred lines of Latin poetry, and as if he were ready to enforce the penalty at brief notice. He is not a hard man at heart, but nature has made him conceited, and habit has made him a tyrant. The boys kotoo to him in the school, and his wife bends submissively to his will at home. There is only one person in the world who habitually opposes and sets aside his assumption of infallibility, and that person-his daughter Minnie-he loves and fears. He tramples on most other people, in the firm persuasion that it is for their good. He is bald, large-faced, with a long upper-lip, which he shoots out into a funnel shape when he talks. He is an honest man in his calling, has a fair share of routine learning, and imparts it laboriously to the boys under his tuition.

Presently the people seem to slacken in eating and drinking. "Another cup of tea, Mrs. Errington? Won't you try any of that pound cake, Mr. Warlock?" (N.B. He has eaten three muffins unassisted; but they do not prosper with him. He has a hungry glare.) "Mrs. Dockett? No?" Mrs. Bodkin looks round, and lifts her meek, foxy little nose interrogatively at each member of the circle. No one will eat or drink more. The doctor prepares to make up the tables.

The card-tables are always set out in an inner drawing-room, adjoining that in which our friends are taking tea. Dr. Bodkin hates to hear any noise when he is at his rubber, so there are thick curtains before the door of communication between the two rooms; and the door is shut, and the curtains drawn, whenever Minnie desires to have music on whist evenings.

The sound of the piano penetrates to the card-players, nevertheless. But Mrs. Bodkin declares that she can never hear a note, when she is in the little drawing-room, with the door shut, and the curtains drawn. And although the doctor wears a frown on his bald forehead, and is more than ordinarily severe on his partner whenever the piano begins to sound during a game, yet he never takes any step to have the instrument silenced.

The players file off in the wake of the host. There is a quartet at the doctor's table. At another, Mrs. Dockett, Mrs. Warlock, and Mr. Smith play dummy. Algernon Errington hates cards, and-naturally-doesn't play. The Rev. Peter Warlock also hates cards, but is wanted to make up the rubber, and-naturally-plays. Mrs. Bodkin hovers between the two rooms, and Minnie and Algernon are left almost tête-à-tête.

"And so you really, really think of going to London?" says Minnie gravely.

"To seek my fortune!" answers Algernon, with a smile. "Turn a-gain, Er-ring-ton-I don't know why that shouldn't be rung out on Bow Bells. You see my name has the same number of syllables as Whit-ting-ton! I declare that is a good omen!"

"Whittington made himself useful to the cook, and took care of his kitten. I wonder what you will do, Algy, to deserve fortune?"

"Do you think fortune favours the deserving? They paint her as a woman!" cries Master Algernon, with a saucy grimace.

"Algy, I like you. We are old chums. Have you considered this step? Have you any reasonable prospect of making your way, if you refuse the Bristol man's proposition."

Minnie seldom speaks so earnestly as she is speaking now; still seldomer volunteers any inquiry into other people's affairs. Algernon is sensible of the distinction, and flattered by it. He forthwith proceeds to lay his hopes and plans before her; that is to say, he talks a great deal with astonishing candour and fluency, and says wonderfully little. His mother is so anxious; these Seeleys are her people. It would vex the dear old lady so terribly, if he were to prefer the Bristol side of the house! Though, perhaps, that would be, selfishly speaking, the right policy.

"Ah, I see!" exclaims Minnie, sinking back among her cushions when he has done speaking.

By-and-by, one or two more guests drop in: young Pawkins, of Pudcombe Hall, some six miles from Whitford; Lieutenant-Colonel Whistler, on half-pay, with his two nieces, Rose and Violet McDougall; and with them Alethea Dockett, who is still a day-boarder at a girls' school in Whitford, and has been spending the afternoon with the Misses McDougall. The latter young ladies never play whist. Little Ally Dockett sometimes takes a hand, if need be, and acquits herself not discreditably; but sixteen rushes in where two-and-thirty fears to tread. Rose and Violet are on the doubtful border-land of life, and keep up a brisk skirmishing warfare with their enemy, Time. They would not give that wily old traitor the triumph of putting themselves at a whist-table for-for anything short of a bona fide offer of marriage, with a good settlement.

All those guests Minnie receives very graciously, with a sort of royal condescension. She is quite unconscious that the Misses McDougall (of whose intelligence she has, truth to say, a disdainful estimate) are alive to the fact that she thinks them fools, and that they take a good deal of credit to themselves for bearing with her airs, poor thing! But then she is so afflicted!

"Oh, Minnie, what's that? Do let me see! Is it one of your caricatures, you wicked thing?" cries Rose, darting on the portrait of David Powell.

"It's better drawn than Minnie can do," says Violet, with an air of having evidence wrung from her on oath.

"It may be that, and yet not very good," answers Minnie carelessly. "Mr. Errington has been trying to give me an idea of some one I've never seen, and probably never shall see."

"It's the Methodist preacher, by Jove!" says young Pawkins with his glass in his eye. "I heard him and saw him last summer on Whit Meadow."

Colonel Whistler, after holding the paper out at the utmost stretch of his arm, solemnly puts on a pair of gold spectacles and examines it.

"Monstrous good!" he pronounces. "Very well, Errington! That's just the cut of that kind of fellow."

"Have you seen him, colonel?" asks Minnie.

"No-no; I can't say I have seen him. Don't like these irregular practitioners, Miss Minnie. But I know the sort of fellow. That's just the cut of 'em!"

"I wish I could draw, Miss Bodkin," says a voice behind Minnie at the head of the sofa; "I would show you a better likeness of the man than that!"

Minnie puts her thin white hand over her shoulder to the new comer, whom she cannot see. "Mr. Diamond!" she exclaims very softly.

"How can you tell?"

"I know your voice."

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