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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 18521

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The time which elapsed between Rhoda's first visit to Minnie Bodkin and the beginning of February-February, which was to carry Algernon Errington away to the great metropolis-was a vexed and stormy one for the Maxfield household.

Jonathan Maxfield had come to a downright quarrel with the preacher-or to something as near to a quarrel as can be attained, where the violence and vituperation are all on one side-and had ordered Powell out of his house. This was a serious step, and was sure to be searchingly canvassed. Maxfield absented himself from the next class-meeting on the plea of ill-health. There was a general knowledge in the class and throughout the Society that there had been a breach, and many members began to take sides rather warmly.

Maxfield was not a personally popular man, but he had considerable influence amongst his fellow Wesleyans; the influence of wealth, and a strong will, and the long habit of being a leading personage. David Powell, on the other hand, was not heartily liked by many of the congregation.

The Whitford Methodists had slid into a sleepy, comfortable state of mind in their obscure little corner. They acquired no new members, and lost no old ones. Even the well-devised machinery of Methodism, so calculated to enforce movement and quicken attention, had grown somewhat rusty in Whitford. Frequent change of preachers is a powerful spur to sluggish hearers; but even this-among the fundamental peculiarities of Methodism-was very seldom applied to the Whitfordians. Circumstances, and their own apathy, had brought it to pass that two elderly preachers-steady, jog-trot old roadsters-had alternately succeeded each other in exhorting and preaching to this quiet flock for several years. There was, besides, Nick Green, foreman to Mr. Gladwish, the shoemaker, who enjoyed the rank of local preacher for a time, but who finally seceded from the main body, and drew with him half-a-dozen or so of the more zealous or excitable worshippers, who subscribed to hire a room over a corn-dealer's storehouse in Lady Lane, and by the stentorian vehemence of this Sunday devotion there speedily acquired the title of Ranters.

Into this sleepy, comfortable Whitford society David Powell had burst with his startling energy and fiery eloquence, and it was impossible to be sleepy and comfortable any longer. No one likes to be suddenly roused from a doze, and Powell had awakened Whitford as with the sound of a trumpet. Yet, after the effects of the first start and shock had subsided, the Methodists began to take pride in the attention which their preacher attracted. Their little chapel was crowded. His field-preaching drew throngs of people from all the country side. Instead of being merely an obscure little knot of Dissenters, about whom no outsider troubled himself, they felt themselves to be objects of general observation. Old men, who had heard Wesley preach half a century ago, declared that this Welshman had inherited the mantle of their founder.

But then came, by no slow or doubtful degrees, the discovery that David Powell had inherited more than the traditional eloquence of John Wesley; and that, like that wonderful man, he spared neither himself nor others in the service of his Master.

He set up a standard of conduct which dismayed many, even of the leading Methodists, who did not share that exaltation of spirit which supported Powell in his disdain of earthly comforts. And the awful sincerity of his character was found by many to be absolutely intolerable.

He made a strong effort to revive the early morning services, which had quite fallen into desuetude at Whitford. What! Go to pray in the cold little meeting-house at five o'clock on a winter's morning? There was scarcely one of the congregation whose health would allow of such a proceeding.

Then his matter-of-fact interpretations of much of the Gospel teaching was excessively startling. He would coolly expect you to deprive yourself not only of superfluities, but of necessaries-such, for instance, as three meals of flesh-meat a day, which are clearly indispensable for health-in order to give to the poor.

It must be owned that he practised his own precepts in this respect; and that he literally gave away all he had, beyond the trifling sum which was needful to clothe him with decency, and to feed him in a manner which the Whitfordians considered reprehensibly inadequate. Such asceticism savoured almost of monkery. It was really wrong. At least it was to be hoped that it was wrong; otherwise--!

So the awakening preacher by no means had all his flock on his side, when they suspected him to be in opposition to old Max.

Jonathan's mind had been, as he expressed it, greatly exercised respecting his daughter. He was drawn different ways by contending impulses.

To speak to Rhoda openly; to send her to Duckwell, out of Algernon's way; to let things go on as they were going; (for was not Rhoda's reception by the Bodkins manifestly a preliminary step to her permanent rise in the social scale?) to talk openly to Algernon, and demand his intentions: all these plans presented themselves to his mind in turn, and each in turn appeared the most desirable.

Jonathan was not an irresolute man in general, because he never doubted his own perfect competency to deal with circumstances as they arose in his life. But now he felt his ignorance. He did not understand the ways of gentlefolks. He might injure his daughter by his attempt to serve her. And although he had fits of self-assertion (during which he made much of the value of his own money and of Rhoda's merits), all did not avail to free his spirit from the subjection it was in to "gentlefolks."

Again, he was urged not to seem to distrust the Erringtons by a strong feeling of opposition to Powell. Powell had warned him against letting Rhoda associate with them. Powell had even gone so far as to reprehend him for having done so. To prove Powell wholly wrong and presumptuous, and himself wholly right and sagacious, was a very powerful motive with Maxfield.

Then, too, the one soft place in his heart contributed, no less than the above-mentioned feelings, to make him pause before coming to a decisive explanation with the Erringtons, which might-yes, he could not help seeing that it might-result in a total breach between his family and them, and this increased his hesitation as to the line of conduct he should pursue. For the conviction had been growing on him daily that Rhoda's happiness was seriously involved; and Rhoda's happiness was a tremendously high stake to play.

The discussion between himself and Powell did not trouble Maxfield so much. The world-his little world, as important to him as other little worlds are to the titled, or the rich, or the fashionable, or the famous-supposed him to be greatly chagrined and exercised in spirit on this account. And people sympathised with him, or blamed him, according to their prejudices, their passions, or-sometimes-their convictions. But the truth was, old Max cared little about being at odds with the preacher, or with the congregation, or with both.

He had been an important personage among the Whitford Methodists, all through the old comfortable days of sleepy concord. And was he now to become a less important personage in these new times of "awakening?" Better war than an ignominious peace!

Nay, there came at last to be a talk of expelling him from the Methodist Society, unless he would confess his fault towards the preacher, and amend it. Maxfield had no lack of partisans in Whitford, as has been stated; but then there was the superintendent! In those days the superintendent (or, as some old-fashioned Methodists continued to call him, in the original Wesleyan phrase, the assistant) of the circuit in which Whitford was situated, was a man of great zeal and sincere enthusiasm.

For those unacquainted with the mechanism of Methodism, it may be well briefly to state what were this person's functions.

Long before John Wesley's death, the whole country was divided into circuits, in which the itinerant preachers made their rounds; and of each circuit the whole spiritual and temporal business-so far as they were connected with the aims and interests of Methodism-was under the regulation of the assistant (afterwards styled the superintendent), whose office it was to admit or expel members, take lists of the society at Easter, hold quarterly meetings, visit the classes quarterly, preside at the love-feasts, and so forth.

The period for the superintendent's next visit to Whitford was rapidly approaching. Maxfield weighed the matter, and tried to forecast the result of a formal reference of the disagreement between himself and Powell to this man's judgment. Had this superintendent, Mr. John Bateson by name, been a Whitford man, one of the old, comfortable, narrow-minded tradesmen over whom "old Max" had exercised supremacy in things Methodistical for years, Maxfield would have felt no doubt but that the matter would have ended in an unctuous admonition to Powell to moderate his unseemly excess of zeal, and in the establishment of himself, more firmly than ever, in his place as leader of the congregation.

But Mr. Bateson could not be relied on to take this sensible view. He was one of the new-fangled, upsetting, meddling sort, and would doubtless declare David Powell to have been performing his bounden duty, in being instant in season and out of season.

"So that," thought Jonathan, "I should not be master in my own house!"

And if he included in the notion of being master in his own house the power of shutting out his fellow Methodists-preacher and all-from the knowledge of his most private family affairs, the conclusion was a pretty just one. Moreover, it was one to which the very constitution of Methodism pointed à priori. But old Maxfield had never in his life been brought into collision with any one who carried out his principles to their legitimate and logical results, as did David Powell.

Maxfield's creed was a thing to take out and air, and acknowledge at chapel, and prayer-meetings, and field-preachings, and such like occasions; whilst his practice was-well, it certainly was not "too bright or good for human nature's daily food."

David Powell's uncompromising interpretation of certain precepts was intolerable to many besides Maxfield. But the majority of the Whitford Methodists looked forward to Powell's removal to another sphere of action. His stay among them had already been longer than was usual with the itinerant preachers; but it was understood to have been specially prolonged, in consequence of the abundant fruits brought forth by his ministration in Whitford. Still he would go, sooner or later, and then there would be a relaxation of the strong tension in which men's minds and consciences had been strained by the strange influence of this preacher.

But old Maxfield thought it very probable that, before leaving Whitford, the preacher might compass his (Maxfield's) expulsion from the Methodist body.

Then he took a great resolution.

One Sunday, Jonathan, James, and Rhoda Maxfield, together with Elizabeth Grimshaw, were seen at the morning service in the abbey church of St. Chad's, and again in the afternoon.

Dr. Bodkin himself stared down from his pulpit at the Methodist family. Those of the congregation to whom they were known by sight-and these were the great majority-found their devotions quite disturbed by this unexpected addition to their number.

The Maxfields kept their eyes on their prayer-books, and, outwardly, took no heed of the attention they excited. Old Jonathan and his son James looked pretty much as usual; Rhoda trembled, and blushed, and looked painfully shy whenever the forms of the service required her to rise, so as to bring her face above the pew (those were the days of pews) and within easy range of the curious eyes of the congregation.

But Betty Grimshaw held her head aloft, and uttered the responses in a loud voice, and without glancing at her book, as one to whom the Church of England service was entirely familiar. Betty was heartily delighted with the family conversion from the errors of Methodism, and supported her brother-in-law in it with great warmth. Her Methodism had, in truth, been a mere piece of conformity, for "peace and quietness' sake," as she avowed with much candour. And she was fond of saying that she had been "bred up to the Church;" by which phrase it must not be understood that Betty intended to convey to her hearers that she had entered on an ecclesiastical career.

If the sensation created in the abbey church by the Maxfields' appearance there was great, the surprise and excitement caused by their absence from the Methodist chapel was still greater. By the afternoon of that same Sunday it was known to all the Wesleyans that old Max, with his family, had been seen at St. Chad's. No one deemed it strange that the whole family should have seceded in a body from their own place of worship. It appeared quite natural to all his old acquaintances that, whither Jonathan Maxfield went, his son, and his daughter, and his sister-in-law should follow him. It is probable that, had he turned Jew or Mohammedan, they would equally have taken it for granted that his conversion involved that of the rest of his family, which opinion was certainly complimentary to old Max's force of character.

And such force of character as consists in pursuing one's own way single-mindedly, old Max undoubtedly possessed. A good, solid belief in oneself, tempered by an inability to see more than one side of a question, will cleave its way through the world like a wedge. We have seen, however, that into Maxfield's mind a doubt of himself on one subject had entered. And, as doubt will do, it weakened his action very considerably as regarded that subject; but on all other matters he was himself, and perhaps infused an extra amount of obstinacy and self-assertion into his behaviour, as though to counterbalance the one weak point.

Towards his old co-religionists he showed himself inflexible. Mr. Bateson, the superintendent, duly arrived, but Jonathan refused to see him, and walked out of his shop when the superintendent walked into it. Maxfield was grimly triumphant, and kept out of the reach of any expression of displeasure from Mr. Bateson, if displeasure he felt.

His defection was undoubtedly a blow to the Methodist community in Whitford. And much indignation, not loud but deep, was aroused in consequence against Powell, who was looked upon as the prime cause of it. What if the preacher did possess awakening eloquence and burning zeal to save sinners? Here was Jonathan Maxfield, a warm man, a respectable and a thriving man, an ancient pillar of the Society, lost to it beyond recall by Powell's means!

And by whom did Powell seek to replace such a man as old Max? By Richard Gibbs, the groom-brother of Minnie Bodkin's maid-who had hitherto enjoyed a reputation for unmitigated blackguardism; by Sam Smith, the cobbler, once drunken, now drunken no longer; by stray vagrants who were converted at his field-preaching, and by the poorest poor, and wretchedest wretched, generally!

And the worst of it was, that one could not openly find fault with all this. David Powell would, with mild yet fervent earnestness, quote some New Testament text, which stopped one's mouth, if it didn't change one's opinion. As if the words ought to be interpreted in that literal way! Well, he would go away before long; that was some comfort.

The period during which this rift in the Methodist community was widening, was a time of peculiar pleasantness to some of our Whitford acquaintance. Of these was Minnie Bodkin. By degrees the habit had established itself among a few of her friends, of meeting every Saturday afternoon in Dr. Bodkin's drawing-room.

Mr. Diamond usually made one at these meetings. Saturday was a half-holiday at the Grammar School, and he was thus at leisure. He had grown more sociable of late, and Mrs. Errington was convinced that this change was entirely owing to her advice. There was Algernon, whose sparkling spirits made him invaluable. There was Mrs. Errington, who was made welcome, as other mothers sometimes are, in right of the merits of her offspring. There was Miss Chubb very often. There was the Reverend Peter Warlock, nearly always. And of all people in the world there would often be seen Rhoda Maxfield, modestly ensconced behind Minnie's couch, or half hidden by the voluminous folds of Mrs. Errington's gown.

No sooner had Mrs. Errington heard of Rhoda's first visit to Dr. Bodkin's house, than she took all the credit of the invitation to herself. She decided that it must certainly be due to her report of Rhoda. And-partly because she really wished to be kind to the girl, partly because it seemed pretty clear that Minnie was resolved to have her own way about seeing more of her new protégée, and Mrs. Errington was minded that this should come to pass with her co-operation, so as to retain her post of first patroness-the good lady fostered the intimacy by all means in her power. The Italians have a proverb, to the effect that there are persons who will take credit to themselves for the sunshine in July. Mrs. Errington would complacently have assumed the merit of the whole solar system.

Now, at these Saturdays, there grew and strengthened themselves many conflicting feelings, and hopes, and illusions. It was a game at cross purposes, to which none of the players held the key except Algernon.

That young gentleman's perceptions, unclouded and uncoloured by strong feeling, were pretty clear and accurate. However, the period of his departure was fast approaching, and, "after me, the deluge," might be taken to epitomise his sentiments in view of possible complications which threatened to arise among his own intimate circle of friends. To whatever degree the time might seem to be out of joint, Algy would never torment himself with the fancy that he was born to set it right. "If there is to be a mess, I am better out of it," was his ingenuous reflection.

Meanwhile, whatever thoughts might be flitting about under his bright curls, nothing, save the most winning good-humour, the most insouciant hilarity, ever peeped for an instant out of his frank, shining eyes. And the weeks went by, and February was at hand.

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