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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 18687

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Parliament was to meet early in February. It seemed strange that that fact should have any interest for Rhoda Maxfield; nevertheless, so it was. Algernon was to go to London, but it was no use to be there unless Lord Seely, "our cousin," were there also; and my lord our cousin would not be in town before the meeting of parliament. Thus the assembling of the peers and commons of this realm at Westminster was an event on which poor Rhoda's thoughts were bent pretty often in the course of the twenty-four hours.

Mrs. Errington announced to the whole Maxfield family that Algernon was going away from Whitford, and accompanied the announcement with florid descriptions of the glory that awaited her son, in the highest Ancram style of embellishment.

"Well," said old Max, after listening awhile, "and will this lord get Mr. Algernon a place?"

Mrs. Errington could not answer this question very definitely. The future was vague, though splendid. But of course Algy would distinguish himself. That was a matter of course. Perhaps he might begin as Lord Seely's private secretary.

"A sekketary! Humph! I don't think much o' that!" grunted Mr. Maxfield.

"My dear man, you don't understand these things. How should you? Many noblemen's sons would only be too delighted to get the position of private secretary to Lord Seely. A man of such distinction! Hand and glove with the sovereign!"

Maxfield did not altogether dislike to hear his lodger hold forth in this fashion. He had a certain pleasure in contemplating the future grandeur of Mr. Algernon, whose ears he had boxed years ago, on the occasion of finding him enacting the battle of Waterloo, with a couple of schoolfellows, in the warehouse behind the shop, and attacking a Hougoumont of tea-chests and flour-barrels, so briskly, as to threaten their entire demolition.

Maxfield was weaving speculations in connection with the young man, of so wild and fanciful a nature as would have astonished his most familiar friends, could they have peeped into the brain inside his grizzled old head.

But this rose-coloured condition of things did not last.

One afternoon, Mrs. Errington looked into his little sitting-room, on her way upstairs, and finding him with an account-book, in which he was, not making, but reading entries, she stepped in, and began to chat; if any speech so laboriously condescending as hers to Mr. Maxfield may be thus designated. Her theme, of course, was her son, and her son's prospects.

"That'll be all very fine for Mr. Algernon, to be sure," said old Max, slowly, after some time, "but-it'll cost money."

"Not so much as you think for. Low persons who feel themselves in a false position, no doubt find it necessary to make a show. But a real gentleman can afford to be simple."

"But I take it he'll have to afford other things besides being simple! He'll have to afford clothes, and lodging, and maybe food. You aren't rich."

Mrs. Errington admitted the fact.

"Algernon ought to find a wife with a bit o' money," said the old man, looking straight and hard into the lady's eyes. Those round orbs sustained the gaze as unflinchingly as if they had been made of blue china.

"It is not at all a bad idea," Mrs. Errington said, graciously.

"But then he wouldn't just take the first ugly woman as had a fort'n."

"Oh dear no!"

"No; nor yet an old 'un."

"Good gracious, man! of course not!"

"Young, pretty, good, and a bit o' money. That's about his mark, eh?"

Mrs. Errington shook her head pathetically. "She ought to have birth, too," she said. "But the woman takes her husband's rank; unless," she added, correcting herself, and with much emphasis, "unless she happens to be the better born of the two."

"Oh, she does, eh? The woman takes her husband's rank? Ah! well, that's script'ral. I have never troubled my head about these vain worldly distinctions; but that is script'ral."

Mrs. Errington was not there to discuss her landlord's opinions or to listen to them; but he served as well as another to be the recipient of her talk about Algernon, which accordingly she resumed, and indulged in ever-higher flights of boasting. Her mendacity, like George Wither's muse,

As it made wing, so it made power.

"The fact is, there is more than one young lady on whom my connections in London have cast their eye for Algy. Miss Pickleham, only daughter of the great drysalter, who is such an eminent member of Parliament; Blanche Fitzsnowdon, Judge Whitelamb's lovely niece; one of Major-General Indigo's charming girls, all of them perfect specimens of the Eastern style of beauty-their mother was an Indian princess, and enormously wealthy. But I am in no hurry for my boy to bind himself in an engagement: it hampers a young man's career."

"Career!" broke out old Max, who had listened to all this, and much more, with an increasingly dismayed and lowering expression of countenance. "Why, what's his career to be? He's been brought up to do nothing! It 'ud be his only chance to get hold of a wife with a bit o' money. Then he might act the gentleman at his ease; and maybe his fine friends 'ud help him when they found he didn't want it. But as for career-it's my opinion as he'll never earn his salt!"

And with that the old man marched across the passage into the shop, taking no further notice of his lodger; and she heard him slam the little half-door, giving access to the storehouse, with such force as to set the jingling bell on it tinkling for full five minutes.

Mrs. Errington was so surprised by this sally, that she stood staring after him for some time before she was able to collect herself sufficiently to walk majestically upstairs.

"Maxfield's temper becomes more and more extraordinary," she said to her son, with an air of great solemnity. "The man really forgets himself altogether. Do you suppose that he drinks, Algy? or is he, do you think, a little touched?" She put her finger to her forehead. "Really I should not wonder. There has been a great deal of preaching and screeching lately, since this Powell came; and, you know, they do say that these Ranters and Methodists sometimes go raving mad at their field-meetings and love-feasts. You need not laugh, my dear boy; I have often heard your father say that nothing was more contagious than that sort of hysterical excitement. And your father was a physician; and certainly knew his profession if he didn't know the world, poor man!"

"Was old Max hysterical, ma'am?" asked Algernon, his whole face lighted up with mischievous amusement. And the notion so tickled him, that he burst out laughing at intervals, as it recurred to him, all the rest of the day.

Betty Grimshaw, and Sarah, the servant-maid, and James, helping his father to serve in the shop, and the customers who came to buy, all suffered from the unusual exacerbation of Maxfield's temper for some time after that conversation of his with Mrs. Errington.

It increased, also, the resentful feeling which had been growing in his mind towards David Powell. The young man's tone of rebuke, in speaking of Rhoda's associating with the Erringtons, had taken Maxfield by surprise at the time; and he had not, he afterwards thought, been sufficiently trenchant in his manner of putting down the presumptuous reprover. He blew up his wrath until it burned hot within him; and, the more so, inasmuch as he could give no vent to it in direct terms. To question and admonish was the acknowledged duty of a Methodist preacher. Conference made no exceptions in favour even of so select a vessel as Jonathan Maxfield. But Maxfield thought, nevertheless, that Powell ought to have had modesty and discernment to make the exception himself.

No inquisitor-no priest, sitting like a mysterious Eastern idol in the inviolate shrine of the confessional-ever exercised a more tremendous power over the human conscience than was laid in the hands of the Methodist preacher or leader according to Wesley's original conception of his functions. But besides the essential difference between the Romish and Methodist systems that the latter could bring no physical force to bear on the refractory, there was this important point to be noted: namely, that the inquisitor might be subjected to inquisition by his flock. The priest might be made to come forth from the confessional-box, and answer to a pressing catechism before all the congregation. In the band-meetings and select societies each individual bound himself to answer the most searching questions "concerning his state, sins, and temptations." It was a mutual inquisition, to which, of course, those who took part in it voluntarily submitted themselves.

But the spiritual power wielded by the chiefs was very great, as their own subordination to the conference was very complete. Its pernicious effects were, however, greatly kept in check by the system of itinerancy, which required the preachers to move frequently from place to place.

There are few human virtues or weaknesses to which, on one side or the other, Methodism in its primitive manifestations did not appeal. Benevolence, self-sacrifice, fervent piety, temperance, charity, were all called into play by its teachings. But so also were spiritual pride, narrow-mindedness, fanaticism, gloom, and pharisaical self-righteousness

. Only to the slothful, and such as loved their ease above all things, early Methodism had no seductions to offer.

Jonathan Maxfield's father and grandfather had been disciples of John Wesley. The grandfather was born in 1710, seven years before Wesley, and had been among the great preacher's earliest adherents in Bristol.

Traditions of John Wesley's sayings and doings were cherished and handed down in the family. They claimed kindred with Thomas Maxfield, Wesley's first preacher, and conveniently forgot or ignored-as greater families have done-those parts of their kinsman's career which ran counter to the present course of their creed and conduct. For Thomas Maxfield seceded from Wesley, but the grandfather and father of Jonathan continued true to Methodism all their lives. They married within the "society" (as was strictly enjoined at the first conference), and assisted the spread of its tenets throughout their part of the West of England.

In the third generation, however, the original fire of Methodism had nearly burnt itself out, and a few charred sticks remained to attest the brightness that had been. Never, perhaps, in the case of the Maxfields-a cramp-natured, harsh breed-had the fire become a hearth-glow to warm their homes with. It had rather been like the crackling of thorns under a pot. The dryest and sharpest will flare for a while.

Old Max, nevertheless, looked upon himself as an exemplary Methodist. He made no mental analyses of himself or of his neighbours. He merely took cognisance of facts as they appeared to him through the distorting medium of his prejudices, temper, ignorance, and the habits of a lifetime. When he did or said disagreeable things, he prided himself on doing his duty. And his self-approval was never troubled by the reflection that he did not altogether dislike a little bitter flavour in his daily life, as some persons prefer their wine rough.

But to do and say disagreeable things because it is your duty is a very different matter from accepting, or listening to, disagreeable things, because it is somebody else's duty to do and say them! It was not to be expected that Jonathan Maxfield should meekly endure rebuke from a young man like David Powell.

And now crept in the exasperating suspicion that the young man might have been right in his warning! Maxfield watched his daughter with more anxiety than he had ever felt about her in his life, looking to see symptoms of dejection at Algernon's approaching departure. He did not know that she had been aware of it before it was announced to himself.

One day her father said to her abruptly, "Rhoda, you're looking very pale and out o' sorts. Your eyes are heavy" (they were swollen with crying), "and your face is the colour of a turnip. I think I shall send you off to Duckwell for a bit of a change."

Duckwell Farm was owned by Seth, Maxfield's eldest son.

"I don't want a change, indeed, father," said the girl, looking up quickly and eagerly. "I had a headache this morning, but it is quite gone now. That's what made me look so pale."

From that time forward she exerted herself to appear cheerful, and to shake off the dull pain at the heart which weighed her down, until her father began to persuade himself that he had been mistaken, and over-anxious. She always declared herself to be quite well and free from care. "And I know she would not tell me a lie," thought the old man.

Alas, she had learned to lie in her words and her manner. She had, for the first time in her life, a motive for concealment, and she used the natural armour of the weak-duplicity.

Rhoda had been "good" hitherto, because her nature was gentle, and her impulses affectionate. She had no strong religious fervour, but she lived blamelessly, and prayed reverently, and was docile and humble-minded. She had never professed to have attained that sudden and complete regeneration of spirit which is the prime glory of Methodism. But then many good persons lived and died without attaining "assurance." Whenever Rhoda thought on the subject-which, to say the truth, was not often, for her nature, though sweet and pure, was not capable of much spiritual aspiration, and was altogether incapable of fervent self-searching and fiery enthusiasm-she hoped with simple faith that she should be saved if she did nothing wicked.

Her father and David Powell would have pointed out to her, that her "doing," or leaving undone, could have no influence on the matter. But their words bore small fruit in her mind. Her father's religious teaching had the dryness of an accustomed formality to her ears. It had been poured into them before she had sense to comprehend it, and had grown to be nearly meaningless, like the everyday salutation we exchange a hundred times, without expecting or thinking of the answer.

David Powell was certainly neither dry nor formal, but he frightened her. She shut her understanding against the disturbing influence of his words, as she would have pressed her fingers into her pretty ears to keep out the thunder. And then her dream of love had come and filled her life.

In most of us it wonderfully alters the focus of the mind's eye with its glamour, that dream. To Rhoda it seemed the one thing beautiful and desirable. And-to say all the truth-the pain of mind which she felt, other than that connected with her lover's going away, and which she attributed to remorse for the little deceptions and concealments she practised, was occasioned almost entirely by the latent dread, lest the time should come when she should sit lonely, looking at the cold ashes of Algy's burnt-out love. For she did mistrust his constancy, although no power would have forced the confession from her. This blind, obstinate clinging to the beloved was, perhaps, the only form in which self-esteem ever strongly manifested itself in that soft, timid nature.

There was one person who watched Rhoda more understandingly than her father did, and who had more serious apprehensions on her account. David Powell knew, as did nearly all Whitford by this time, that young Errington was going away; and he clearly saw that the change in Rhoda was connected with that departure. He marked her pallor, her absence of mind, her fits of silence, broken by forced bursts of assumed cheerfulness. Her feigning did not deceive him.

Albeit of almost equally narrow education with Jonathan Maxfield, Powell had gained, in his frequent changes of place and contact with many strange people, a wider knowledge of the world than the Whitford tradesman possessed. He perceived how unlikely it was, that people like the Erringtons should seriously contemplate allying themselves by marriage with "old Max;" but that was not the worst. To the preacher's mind, the girl's position was, in the highest degree, perilous; for he conceived that what would be accounted by the world the happiest possible solution to such a love as Rhoda's, would involve nothing less than the putting in jeopardy her eternal welfare. He could not look forward with any hope to a union between Rhoda and such a one as Algernon Errington.

"The son is a shallow-hearted, fickle youth, with the vanity of a boy and the selfishness of a man; the mother, a mere worldling, living in decent godlessness."

Such was David Powell's judgment. He reflected long and earnestly. What was his calling-his business in life? To save souls. He had no concern with anything else. He must seek out and help, not only those who needed him, but those who most needed him.

All conventional rules of conduct, all restraining considerations of a merely social or worldly kind, were as threads of gossamer to this man whensoever they opposed the higher commands which he believed to have been laid upon him.

Jonathan Maxfield was falling away from godliness. He, too evidently, was willing to give up his daughter into the tents of the heathen. The pomps and vanities of this wicked world had taken hold of the old man. Satan had ensnared and bribed him with the bait of worldly ambition. From Jonathan there was no real help to be expected.

In the little garret-chamber, where he lodged in the house of a widow-one of the most devout of the Methodist congregation-the preacher rose from his knees one midnight, and took from his breast the little, worn pocket-Bible, which he always carried. A bright cold moon shone in at the uncurtained window, but its beams did not suffice to enable him to read the small print of his Bible. He had no candle; but he struck a light with a match, and, by its brief flare, read these words, on which his finger had fallen as he opened the book:

"How hast thou counselled him that hath no wisdom? And how hast thou plentifully declared the thing as it is?

"To whom hast thou uttered words? and whose spirit came from thee?"

He had drawn a lot, and this was the answer. The leading was clear. He would speak openly with Rhoda himself. He would pray and wrestle; he would argue and exhort. He would awaken her spirit, lulled to sleep by the sweet voice of the tempter.

It would truly be little less than a miracle, should he succeed by the mere force of his earnest eloquence, in persuading a young girl like Rhoda to renounce her first love.

But, then, David Powell believed in miracles.

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