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   Chapter 9 No.9

A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 14784

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Rhoda stood with her hand on the parlour-door for a minute or so. Little Sarah, the servant-maid, who had admitted her into the house, and had left the parlour in order to do so-for all the Maxfield household was held bound to join in these weekly prayer-meetings-told her that the hymn would be over directly. Rhoda felt shy of entering into the midst of the people assembled, and of encountering the questions and expressions of surprise which her unprecedented absence from the evening's devotions would certainly occasion.

Presently the singing ceased. Rhoda ran as quickly and noiselessly as she could along the passage, and half-way up the stairs. From her post there she heard the neighbours go away, and the street-door close heavily behind them. Now she might venture to slip down. Everyone was gone. The house was quite still. She ran into the parlour, and found herself face to face with David Powell.

Her Aunt Betty was piling the hymn-books in their place on the little table where they stood. There was no one else in the room.

"Where's father?" asked Rhoda, hastily. Then she recollected herself, and bade Mr. Powell "Good evening." He returned her salutation with his usual gentleness, but with more than his usual gravity.

"Oh!" exclaimed Betty Grimshaw, looking round from the books. "It's you, is it, Rhoda? Your father is gone with Mr. Gladwish to his house for a bit. They have some business together. He'll be back by supper."

It very seldom happened that Maxfield left his house after dark. Still such a thing had occurred once or twice. Mr. Gladwish, the shoemaker, was a steward of the Methodist society, and Maxfield not unfrequently had occasion to confer with him. Their business this evening was not so pressing but that it might have been deferred. But Maxfield did not choose to give Powell an opportunity of private conversation with himself at that time; he wanted to see his way clearer before he took the decided step of openly putting himself into opposition with the practice of his brethren, and the advice of the preacher; and he knew Powell well enough to be sure that evasions would not avail with him. Therefore he had gone out as soon as the prayers were at an end.

"I must see to the supper," said Betty, and bustled off without another word. Nothing would have kept her in Mr. Powell's society but the masterful influence of her brother-in-law. She escaped to her haven of refuge, the kitchen, where the moral atmosphere was not too rarefied for the comfortable breathing of ordinary folks.

David Powell and Rhoda were left alone together. Rhoda made a little half-timid, half-impatient movement of her shoulders. She wished Powell gone, more heartily than she had ever done before in the course of her acquaintance with him.

Powell stood, with his hands clasped and his eyes cast down, in deep meditation.

At length Rhoda took courage to murmur a word or two about going to take her cloak off. Aunt Betty would be back presently. If Mr. Powell didn't mind for a minute or two--She was gliding towards the door, when his voice stopped her.

"Tarry a little, Rhoda," said the preacher, looking up at her with his lustrous, earnest eyes. "I have something on my soul to say to you."

Rhoda's eyes fell before his, as they habitually did now. She felt as though he could read her heart; and she had something to hide in it. She did not seat herself, but stood, with one hand on the wooden mantelshelf, looking into the fire. In her other hand she held her straw bonnet by its violet ribbon, and her waving brown hair shone in the firelight.

"What is it, Mr. Powell?" she asked.

She spoke sharply, and her tones smote painfully on her hearer. He did not understand that the sharpness in it was born of fear.

"Rhoda," he began, "my spirit has been much exercised on your behalf."

He paused; but she did not speak, only bent her head a little lower, as she stood leaning in the same attitude.

"Rhoda, I fear your soul is unawakened. You are sweet and gentle, as a dove or a lamb is gentle; but you have not the root of the matter as a Christian hath it. The fabric is built on sand. Fair as it is, a breath may overthrow it. There is but one sure foundation whereon to lay our lives, and yours is not set upon it."

"I-I-try to be good," stammered Rhoda, in whom the consciousness of much truth in what Powell was saying, struggled with something like indignation at being thus reproved, with the sense of a painful shock from this jarring discord coming to close the harmonious impressions of her pleasant day, and with an inarticulate dread of what was yet in store for her. "I say my prayers, and-and I don't think I'm so very wicked, Mr. Powell. No one else thinks I am, but you."

"Oh, Rhoda! Oh, my child!" His voice grew tender as sad music, and, as he went on speaking, all trace of diffidence and hesitation fell away, and only the sincere purpose of the man shone in him clear as sunlight. "My heart yearns with compassion over you. Are those the words of a believing and repentant sinner? You 'try!' You 'say your prayers!' You are 'not so wicked!' Rhoda, behold, I have an urgent message for you, which you must hear!"

She started and looked round at him. He read her thought. "No earthly message, Rhoda, and from no earthly being. Ah, child, the eager look dies out of your eyes! Rhoda, do you ever think how much God loveth us? How much he loveth you, poor perishing little bird, fluttering blindly in the outer darkness of the world!-that darkness which comprehended not the light from the beginning."

Rhoda's tears were now dropping fast. Her lip trembled as she repeated once more, "I try-I do try to be good," with an almost peevish emphasis.

"Nay, Rhoda, I must speak. In His hand all instruments are alike good and serviceable. He has chosen me, even me, to call you to Him. However much you may despise the Messenger, the message is sure, and of unspeakable comfort."

"Oh, Mr. Powell, I don't despise you. Indeed I don't! I know you mean-I know you are good. But I don't think there's any such great harm in going to see a-a young lady who is too ill to go out. I'm sure she is a very good young lady. I'm sure I do try to be good."

That was the sum of Rhoda's eloquence. She held fast by those few words in a helpless way, which was at once piteous and irritating.

"Are you speaking in sincerity from the very bottom of your heart?" asked Powell, with the invincible, patient gentleness which is born of a strong will. "No, Rhoda; you know you are not. There is harm in following our own inclinations, rather than the voice of the spirit within us. There is harm in clinging to works-to anything we can do. There is harm in neglecting the service of our Master to pleasure any human being."

"I did forget that it was prayer-meeting night," admitted Rhoda, more humbly than before. Her natural sweetness of temper was regaining the ascendant, in proportion as her dread of what might be the subject of Powell's reproving admonition decreased. She could bear to be told that it was wrong to visit Minnie Bodkin. She should not like to be told so, and she should refuse to believe it, but she could bear it; and she began to believe that this visit was held to be the head and front of her offending. Powell's next words undeceived her, and startled her back into

a paroxysm of mistrust and agitation.

"But it is not of your absence from prayer to-night that I would speak now. You are entangling yourself in a snare. You are laying up stores of sorrow for yourself and others. You are listening to the sweet voice of temptation, and giving your conscience into the hand of the ungodly to ruin and deface!" He made a little gesture towards the room overhead with his hand, as he said that Rhoda was giving her conscience into the hands of the ungodly.

"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Powell. And I-I don't think it's charitable to speak so of a person-of persons that you know nothing of."

She was entirely taken off her guard. Her head felt as if it were whirling round, and the words she uttered seemed to come out of her mouth without her will. Between fear and anger she trembled like a leaf in the wind. She would have fled out of the room, but her strength failed her. Her heart was beating so fast that she could scarcely breathe. Her distress pained Powell to the heart; pained him so much, as to dismay him with a vivid glimpse of the temptation that continually lay in wait for him, to spare her, and soothe her, and cease from his painful probing of her conscience. "Oh, there is a bone of the old man in me yet!" he thought remorsefully. "Lord, Lord, strengthen me, or I fall!"

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

The remembrance of the lot he had drawn came into his mind, as an answer to his mental prayer. It was natural that the words should recur to him vividly at that moment, but he accepted their recurrence as an undoubted inspiration from Heaven. The belief in such direct and immediate communications was a vital part of his faith; and to have destroyed it would, in great part, have paralysed the impetuous energy, and quenched the burning enthusiasm, which carried away his hearers, and communicated something of his own exaltation to the most torpid spirits.

He murmured a few words of fervent thanksgiving for the clear leading which had been vouchsafed to him, and without an instant's hesitation addressed the tearful, trembling girl beside him. "Listen to me, Rhoda. If it be good for your soul's sake that I lay bare my heart before you, and suffer sore in the doing of it, shall I shrink? God forbid! By His help I will plentifully declare the thing as it is. I have watched you, and your feelings have not been hid from me. No; nor your fears, and sorrows, and hopes, and struggles. I have read them all so plainly, that I must believe the Lord has given me a special insight in your case, that I may call you unto Him with power. You are suffering, Rhoda, and sorry; but you have not thrown your burden upon the Lord. You have set up His creature as an idol in your soul, and have bowed down and worshipped it. And you fancy, poor unwary lamb, that such love as yours was never before felt by mortal, and that never did mortal so entirely deserve it! And you say in your heart, 'Lo, this man talks of what he knows not! It is easy for him!' Well-I tell you, Rhoda, that I too have a heart for human love. I have eyes to see what is fair and lovely; and fancies and desires, and passions. I love-there is a maiden whom I love above all God's creatures. But, by His grace, I have overcome that love, in so far as it perilled the higher love and the higher duty, which I owe to my father in Heaven. I have wrestled sore, God knoweth. And He hath helped me, as He always will help those who rely, not on their own strength, but on His!"

Rhoda was hurried out of herself, carried away by the rush of his eloquence, in whose powerful spell the mere words bore but a small part. Eyes, voice, and gesture expressed the most absolute, self-forgetting enthusiasm. The contagion of his burning sincerity drew a sincere utterance from his hearer.

"But you talk as if it were a crime! Does anyone call you wicked and godless, because you have human feelings? I never should call you so. And, I believe, we were meant to love."

"To love? Ah, yes, Rhoda! To love for evermore, and in a measure we can but faintly conceive here below. The young maiden I love is still dearer to me than any other human being-it may be that even the angels in Heaven know what it is to love one blessed spirit above the rest-but her soul is more precious to me than her beauty, or her sweet ways, or her happiness on earth. Oh, Rhoda, look upward! Yet a little while and the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest, and there cometh peace unspeakable. This earthly love is but a fleeting show. Can you say that you connect it with your hope of Heaven and your faith in God? Does he whom you love reverence the things you have been taught to hold sacred? Is he awakened to a sense of sin? No! no! A thousand times, no! Rhoda, for his sake-for the sake of that darkened soul, if not for your own-yield not to the temptation which makes you untrue in word and deed, and chills your worship, and weighs down the wings of your spirit! Tell this beloved one that, although he were the very life-blood of your heart, yet, if he seek not salvation, you will cast him from you."

Rhoda had sunk down, half-crouching, half-kneeling, with her arms upon a chair, and her face bowed down upon her hands. She was crying bitterly, but silently; but, at the preacher's last words, she moved her shoulders, like one in pain, and uttered a little inarticulate sound.

Powell bent forward, listening eagerly. "I speak not as one without understanding," he said, after an instant's pause. "I plentifully declare the thing as it is, and as I know it. Your love--! Rhoda, your little twinkling flame, compared to the passionate nature in me, is as the faint light of a taper to a raging fire-as a trickling water-brook to the deep, dreadful sea! Child, child, you know not the power of the Lord. His voice has said to my unquiet soul, 'Be still,' and it obeys Him. Shall He not speak peace to your purer, clearer spirit also? Shall He not carry you, as a lamb, in His bosom? Now-it may be even now, as I speak to you, that His angels are about you, moving your heart towards Him. Rhoda, Rhoda, will you grieve those messengers of mercy? Will you turn away from that unspeakable love?"

The girl suddenly lifted her face. It was a tear-stained, wistfully imploring face, and yet it wore a singular expression of timid obstinacy. She was struggling to ward off the impression his words were making on her. She was unwilling, and afraid to yield to it.

But when she looked up and saw his countenance so pale, so earnest, without one trace of anger or impatience, or any feeling save profoundest pity, and sweetness, and sorrow, her heart melted. The right chord was touched. She could not be moved by compassion for herself, but she was penetrated by sorrow for him.

In an impulse of pitying sympathy she exclaimed, "Oh, don't be so sorry for me, Mr. Powell! I will try! I will do what you say, if--"

The door opened, and her father stood in the room. Rhoda sprang from her knees, rushed past him, and out at the open door.

"Man, man, what have you done?" cried Powell, wringing his hands. Then he sat down and hid his face.

Jonathan Maxfield stood looking at him with a heavy frown. "We must have no more o' this," he said harshly.

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