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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 19135

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

All that she had heard of the Methodist preacher had taken strong hold of Minnie Bodkin's imagination. Mr. Diamond's description of him especially delighted her. It was in piquant contrast with her previous notions about Methodists, who were associated in her mind with ludicrous images. This man must be something entirely different-picturesque and interesting.

But there was a deeper feeling in her mind than the mere curiosity to see a remarkable person. Minnie was not happy; and her unhappiness was not solely due to the fact of her bodily infirmities. She often felt a yearning for a higher spiritual support and comfort than she had ever derived from her father's teachings. She passed in review the congregation of the parish church, most of whom were known to her, and she asked herself what good result in their lives or characters was produced by their weekly church-going. Was Mrs. Errington more truthful; Miss Chubb less vain; Mr. Warlock less gloomy; her father (for Minnie, in the pride of her keen intellect, spared no one) less arrogant and overbearing; she herself more patient, gentle, hopeful, and happy, than if the old bell of St. Chad's were silent, and the worm-eaten old doors shut, and the dusty old pulpit voiceless, for evermore? Yet there were said to be people on whom religion had a vital influence. She wished she could know such. She could judge, she thought, by seeing and conversing with them, whether or not there were any reality in their professions. Minnie seldom doubted the sufficiency of her own acumen and penetration.

No; she was not happy. And might it not be that this Methodist man had the secret of peace of mind? Was there in truth a physician who could minister to a suffering spirit? She thought of Powell with the feeling half of shame, half of credulity, with which an invalid hankers after a quack medicine.

Minnie had been taught to look upon Dissenters in general as quacks, and upon Methodists as arch-quacks. Dr. Bodkin professed himself a staunch Churchman and a hater of "cant." He considered that Protestantism, and the right of private judgment, had justly reached their extreme limits in the Church of England as by law established. He detested enthusiasm as a dangerous and disturbing element in human affairs, and he viewed with especial indignation the pretensions of unlearned persons to preach and proselytise. Although he had no leaning to Romanism, he would rather have admitted a Jesuit into his house than a Methodist. Indeed, he sometimes defined the latter to be the Jesuit of dissent-only, as he would take care to point out, a Jesuit without learning, culture, or authority.

"I can listen to a gentleman, although I may not agree with him," the Doctor would say (albeit, in truth, he had no great gift of listening to anyone who opposed his opinions), "but am I to be hectored and lectured by the cobbler and the tinker?"

Minnie had no taste for being hectored or lectured; but it seemed to her that what the cobbler and tinker said, was more important than the fact that it was they who said it. She thought, and pondered, and wondered about the Methodist preacher, and about her chance of ever seeing or hearing more of him, until a thought darted into her mind like an arrow. Little Rhoda! She was a Methodist born and bred, and knew this preacher, and--Minnie would send for little Rhoda.

When she announced this resolution to her mother, Mrs. Bodkin found several difficulties in the way of its fulfilment.

"What do you want with her, Minnie?"

"I want to see her. Mrs. Errington talks so much of her. I remember her coming here with a message once, when she was a child. I recollect only a little fair face and shy eyes, under a coal-scuttle straw bonnet. Don't you, mamma? And I want to talk to her about several things," added Minnie, with resolute truthfulness.

"Oh, dear me! What will your papa say?"

"I don't see how papa can object to my asking this nice little thing to come to me for an afternoon, when he doesn't mind your boring yourself to death with Goody Barton, whose snuff-taking would try the nerves of a rhinoceros, nor forbid my inviting the little Jobsons, who are unpleasant to look upon, and stupid beyond the wildest flights of imagination. He lets me have any one I like."

"Yes; but you teach the little Jobsons the alphabet, my dear. And that is a charitable work."

"And Rhoda will amuse me, and I'm sure that is a charitable work!"

Minnie would get her own way, of course. She always did.

That same evening Minnie said to her father, with her frank, bright smile, "Papa, may I not ask Rhoda Maxfield to take tea with me some afternoon?"

"Rhoda what?"

"Little Maxfield, the grocer's daughter, papa," said Minnie, boldly.

Mrs. Bodkin bent nervously over her knitting.

"What on earth for? Why do you want to associate with such folks? Have you not plenty of friends without--?"

"No, papa. But I don't ask her because I'm in want of friends."

"Oh, Minnie," said Mrs. Bodkin in the quick, low tones she habitually spoke in, "I'm sure nobody has more friends than you have! Everybody is so glad to come to you, always."

"You're my friend, mamma. And papa is my friend. Never mind the rest. I want to have little Maxfield to tea." Minnie laughed at herself, the moment after she had said the words, in the tone of a spoiled child.

Dr. Bodkin crossed and uncrossed his legs, kicked a footstool out of the way, and then got up and stood before the fire.

"If you want amusement, isn't there Miss Chubb or the McDougalls, or-or plenty more?" said he, shooting out his upper lip, and frowning uneasily.

"Now, papa, can you say in conscience that you find Miss Chubb and the McDougalls perennially amusing?" Then, with a sudden change of tone, "Besides, you know, the other people are playing their parts in life, and strutting about hither and thither on the stage, and they find it all more or less interesting. But I-I am like a child at a peep-show. I can but look on, and I sometimes long for a change in the scene and the puppets!"

The doctor began to poke the fire violently. "Laura," said he, addressing his wife, "that last tea you got is good for nothing. They brought me a cup just now in the study that was absolutely undrinkable. Is it Smith's tea? Well, try Maxfield's. You can have some ordered when the message is sent for the girl to come here."

In this way the doctor gave his permission.

The next day Minnie despatched her maid, Jane, with the following note to Mr. Maxfield:-

"Will Mr. Maxfield allow his daughter Rhoda to spend the afternoon with Miss Bodkin? Miss Bodkin is an invalid, and cannot often leave her room, and it would give her great pleasure to see Rhoda. The maid shall wait and accompany Rhoda if Mr. Maxfield permits, and Miss Bodkin undertakes to have her sent safely home again in the evening."

Old Max was scarcely more surprised than gratified on reading this invitation. He stood behind his counter holding the pink perfumed note between his floury finger and thumb, and turning over the contents of it in his mind, whilst his son James served the maid with some tea.

Miss Minnie was a much-looked-up-to personage in Whitford. And here was Miss Minnie inviting Rhoda just as though she had been a lady, and sending her own maid for her. This would be Algy's doing, the old man decided. Algy had more sense than his mother. Algy knew that Rhoda was fit to go anywhere, and could hold her own with the best. The young fellow was very thick with Dr. Bodkin's family, and had, no doubt, talked to Miss Minnie about Rhoda. All sorts of ideas thronged into old Max's head, which, nevertheless, looked as obstinately idealess a one as could well be imagined, as he stood conning the pink note, with his grey eyebrows knotted together, and his heavy under-lip pursed up. Perhaps not the feeblest element in his feeling of exultation was the sense of triumph over David Powell. Powell might approve or disapprove, but anyway, he would see that he was wrong in supposing the Erringtons did not think Rhoda good enough for them! If they introduced her about among their friends, that meant a good deal, eh, brother David? And that the invitation came by means of the Erringtons, Maxfield felt more and more convinced, the more he thought of it. So many years had passed, and Miss Minnie had taken no notice of Rhoda. Why should she now? Maxfield was at no loss to find the answer. Maybe old Mrs. Errington had talked for talk's sake more than she meant. Maybe her boasting was in order to drive a hard bargain, when Algy should come forward and offer to make Rhoda a lady.

The Erringtons' friends were going little by little to make acquaintance with Rhoda, in view of the promotion that awaited her. Well, Rhoda could stand the test. Rhoda was quite different from the likes of him.

He called his sister-in-law out of the kitchen, and in a few hurried words told her of the invitation, and bade her tell Rhoda to get ready without delay. He cut Betty Grimshaw short in her exclamations and inquiries. "I've no time to talk to you now," he said. "The maid is waiting. Bid Rhoda clothe herself in her best garments."

"What! her Sunday frock, Jonathan?" exclaimed Betty in shrill surprise.

"'Sh! woman!" answered Maxfield, and gripped her wrist fiercely. He did not want that family detail to come to the ears of Miss Bodkin's maid.

Rhoda was completely bewildered by the invitation, and by the breathless haste with which Betty announced

it to her, and hurried her preparations. "But I don't want to go!" murmured Rhoda plaintively. At the same time she suffered her clothes to be huddled on to her in Aunt Betty's rough fashion.

"Ah! tell that to your parent, my dear. I have the mark of his fingers on my wrist at this moment; he was in such a taking, and so-so uncumboundable." This latter was a word of Betty's own invention, and she frequently employed it with an air of great relish.

The idea of going amongst strangers was more terrible to Rhoda than can easily be conceived by those who have never lived so secluded a life as hers had been. Had she been able to say a word to Algernon, she thought she should have derived a little comfort and support from him. But he and his mother were both from home.

All the way from her own house to Dr. Bodkin's, Rhoda uttered no word, except to ask Jane timidly if she were sure Miss Minnie would be alone-quite alone?

The gloomy courtyard, and the stone entrance hall of the house struck her with awe. The old man-servant who opened the door seemed to look severely on her. She followed Jane with a beating heart up the wide staircase, whose thick carpet muffled her footsteps mysteriously, and then through a drawing-room full of furniture all covered with grey holland. There was the glitter of gilt picture-frames on the walls, and the shining of a great mirror, and of a large, dark, polished pianoforte at one end of the room. And there was a mingled smell of flowers and cedar-wood, and altogether the impression made upon Rhoda's senses, as she passed through the apartment, was one of perfume, and silence, and vague splendour. She had no time, even if she had had self-possession, to examine the details of what seemed to her so grand, for she was led across a passage and into a room opposite to the drawing-room, and found herself in Miss Bodkin's presence.

The room was Minnie's bedroom, but it did not look like a sleeping chamber, Rhoda thought. To be sure a little white-curtained bed stood in one corner, but all the toilet apparatus was hidden by a curtain which hung across a recess, and there were bookshelves full of books, and flowers on a stand, and a writing-table. On one side of the fireplace, in which a bright fire blazed, there was a curious sort of long chair, and in it, dressed in a loose crimson robe of soft woollen stuff, reclined Minnie Bodkin.

Rhoda was, as has been said, extremely sensitive to beauty, and Minnie's whole aspect struck her with admiration. The picturesque rich-coloured robe, the delicate white hands relieved upon it, the graceful languor of Minnie's attitude, and the air of refinement in the young lady and her surroundings, were all intensely appreciated by poor little Rhoda, who stood dumb and blushing before her hostess.

Minnie, on her part, was a good deal taken by surprise. She welcomed Rhoda with her sweetest smile, and thanked her for coming, and made her sit down by the fire opposite to herself; and when they were alone together, she talked on for some time with a sort of careless good-nature, which, little by little, succeeded in setting Rhoda somewhat at her ease. But careless as Minnie's manner was, she was scrutinising the other girl's looks and ways very keenly.

"She is absolutely lovely!" thought Minnie, "And so graceful, and-and-lady-like! Yes; positively that is the word. She is as shy as a fawn, but no more awkward than one. It is not what I expected."

Perhaps Minnie could scarcely have said what it was that she had expected. Probably a quiet, pretty-looking, well-behaved young person, like her maid Jane. Rhoda was something very different, and the young lady was charmed with her new protégée. Only she was obliged to admit, before the afternoon was over, that she had failed in the main object for which she had invited Rhoda to visit her. There was no clear and vivid account of Powell, his teaching, or his preaching, to be got from Rhoda.

Rhoda could not remember exactly what Mr. Powell said. Rhoda could not say what it was which made all the people cry and grow so excited at his preaching. Rhoda cried herself sometimes, but that was when he talked very pitifully about poor people, and little children, and things like that. Sometimes, too, she felt frightened at his preaching, but she supposed she was frightened because she had not got assurance. Many of the congregation had assurance. Yes; oh yes, the people said Mr. Powell was a wonderful man, and the most awakening preacher who had been in Whitford for fifty years.

Minnie looked at the simple, serious face, and marked the childlike demureness of manner with which Rhoda declared Mr. Powell to be "an awakening preacher." "I don't think he has awakened you to any very startling extent!" thought Minnie. "This girl seems to have received no strong influence from him."

That was in a great measure the fact; but also, Rhoda was held back from speaking freely, by the conviction that her Methodist phraseology would sound strange, and perhaps absurd, in the young lady's ears. Moreover, it did not help to put her at her ease, that she felt sundry uneasy pricks of conscience for not "bearing testimony" with more fervour. She knew that David Powell would have had her improve the occasion to the uttermost. But how could she run the risk of being disagreeable to Miss Minnie, who was so kind to her?

That was the form in which Rhoda mentally put the case. The truth was, hers was not one of those natures to which the invisible ever becomes more real and important than the visible. It was incomparably more necessary to her happiness to be in agreeable and smooth relations with the people around her, than to feel herself in higher spiritual communion with unseen powers.

When Minnie at length reluctantly desisted from questioning her on the subject of Powell, and her chapel-going, and her religious feelings, she was surprised to find how the girl's frigid, constrained manner thawed, and how her tongue was loosened.

She chatted freely enough about her visit to Llanryddan in the summer, and about Duckwell Farm, where her half-brother Seth lived, and, above all, about Mrs. Errington. Mrs. Errington had been so good to her, and had taught her, and talked to her; and did Miss Minnie know what a change it was for a lady like Mrs. Errington to live in such a poor place as theirs? For, although she had the best rooms, of course it was very poor, compared with the castle she was brought up in. About Algernon she said very little; but it slipped out that she was in the habit of being present when Mr. Diamond came to read with the young gentleman; and then Miss Minnie was very much interested in hearing what Mr. Diamond said to his pupil, and how Rhoda liked Mr. Diamond, and what she thought of him. And when it appeared that Rhoda had thought very little about him at all, but considered him a very clever, learned gentleman-perhaps a little stiff and grave, but not at all unkind-Miss Minnie smiled to herself and said, "He is a little stiff and grave, Rhoda. Not the kind of person to attract one very much, eh!"

And then tea was brought, and Rhoda sipped hers out of a delicate porcelain cup, like those which Mrs. Errington had in her corner cupboard. And there were some delicious cakes, which Rhoda was quite natural enough to own she liked very much. And then Mrs. Bodkin came in, and sat down beside her daughter; and finally, at Minnie's request, she took Rhoda into the drawing-room, and played to her on the grand piano.

"Rhoda likes music, she says, mamma. But she has never heard a good instrument. Do play her a bit of Mozart!"

"I am no great performer, my dear," said Mrs. Bodkin, opening the piano; "but I keep up my playing on my daughter's account. She is not strong enough to play for herself."

Minnie had her chair wheeled into the drawing-room, in order, as she whispered to her mother, to enjoy Rhoda's face when she should hear the music.

Rhoda sat by and listened, in a trance of delight, while Mrs. Bodkin made the keys of the instrument delicately sound a minuet of Mozart, and then give forth more volume of tone in "The Heavens are telling." This was different, indeed, from the tinkling old harpsichord at home! The music transported her. When it ceased she was breathing quickly, and her eyes were full of tears. "Oh, how beautiful!" she faltered out.

"Why, child, you are a capital audience!" said Mrs. Bodkin, smiling kindly.

Then it was time to go home. She was made to promise that she would come again and see Minnie whenever her father would let her. She left Dr. Bodkin's house in a very different frame of mind from that in which she had entered it. Yet she was as silent on her way home as she had been in the afternoon.

How happy gentlefolks must be, who always can have music, and flowers, and talk in such soft voices, and are so polite in their manners, and so dainty in their persons! She could not help contrasting the coarse, rough ways at home with the smoothness and softness of the life she had had a glimpse of at Dr. Bodkin's. She tried to hold fast in her memory the pleasant sights and sounds of the day.

In this mood, half-enjoying, half-regretful, she arrived at her father's house to find the little parlour full of people-besides her own family and Powell there were two or three neighbours who joined in the exercises-and a prayer-meeting just culminating in a long-drawn hymn, bawled out with more zeal than sweetness by the little assembly.

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