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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 18853

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The manifestations of maternal vanity are apt to appear monotonous to the indifferent spectator; but, in Mrs. Errington such manifestations were, at least, not open to that reproach. Beethoven himself never surpassed her in the power of producing variations on one simple theme. And this surprising fertility of hers prevented her from being a mere commonplace bore. She never told a story twice alike. There was always an element of unexpectedness in her conversation, albeit the groundwork and foundation of it varied but little. In the overflowing gratification of her heart at Algernon's prospects, and under the excitement of his imminent departure, she would fain have bestowed some of her eloquence even on old Max, with whom her relations had been decidedly cool, since the outbreak of rude temper on his part which has been recorded. But old Max continued to be surly and taciturn for a while; he had been bitterly mortified by Mrs. Errington's talk about the marriage her son would be able to make, whenever it should please him to select a wife.

But then, after that, had come Miss Bodkin's frequent invitations to Rhoda, which had greatly mollified the old man. And presently it appeared as if Mrs. Errington had forgotten all about General Indigo's daughters, and the heiress of the eminent drysalter. At all events, she said no more on the subject of those ladies. And old Max gradually, and not slowly, recurred to his former persuasion that the Erringtons would be very glad to secure Rhoda's hand for Algernon, being well aware that her money would balance her birth and connections. True, the young man had, as yet, said nothing explicit. But, of course, he would feel it necessary to have some settled prospect before asking permission to engage himself formally to Rhoda.

"He is connected with the great ones of the earth, to be sure!" reflected Mr. Maxfield, with some exultation. "And he is a comely young chap to look upon, and full of all kinds of book-learning and accomplishments-talks foreign tongues, and sings, and plays upon instruments, and draws pictures!"

An uneasy thought crossed his mind at this point, that David Powell would consider these things as leading to reprehensible frivolity and worldliness; and that, moreover, most of his (Maxfield's) old friends would agree with the preacher in so deeming. It was not to be expected that the thoughts and habits of a lifetime could be so eradicated from old Max's mind by the mere fact of going to worship at St. Chad's, as to leave his conscience absolutely free on these and similar points. But the ultimate effect of such inward feelings was always to embitter the old man against Powell, and to make him clutch eagerly at any circumstance which should tend to prove that Powell had been wrong and himself right in their differing views of the Erringtons' intentions. He was inexpressibly loath to consider himself mistaken. Indeed, for him to be mistaken seemed to argue a general dislocation and turning topsy-turvy of things, and a terrible unchaining of the powers of darkness. If, after walking all his life in the paths of wisdom and prosperity, he were to find himself suddenly astray, and blundering on a point which nearly concerned the only tender feelings of his nature, such a phenomenon must clearly be due to the direct interposition of Satan. However, as he stood one evening in his storehouse, tying up a great parcel of sugar in blue paper, Jonathan Maxfield was feeling neither discontented nor self-distrustful. Mrs. Errington had just been speaking to Rhoda in his presence, and had said:

"Well, little one, you have quite made a conquest of Mrs. Bodkin, as well as Miss Minnie. She was praising you up to me the other day. She particularly remarked your nice manners, and attributed them to my influence--"

"I'm sure, ma'am, if there is anything nice in my manners, it was you who taught it to me," Rhoda had said simply. Upon which Mrs. Errington had been very gracious, and, without at all disclaiming the credit of Rhoda's nice manners, had mellifluously assured Mr. Maxfield that his little girl was wonderfully teachable, and had become a general favourite amongst her (Mrs. Errington's) friends.

Now all this had seemed to Maxfield to be of good augury, and an additional testimony-if any such were needed-to his own sagacity and prudent behaviour.

"It'll come right, as I foresaw," thought he triumphantly. "Another man might have been over hasty, and spoiled matters like a fool. But not me!"

Some one pushed the half-door between the shop and the storehouse, and set the bell jingling. Maxfield looked up and saw Algernon Errington, bright, smiling, and debonair, as usual.

The ordinary expression of old Max's face was not winning; and now, as he looked up with his grey eyebrows drawn into a shaggy frown, and his jaws clenched so as to hold the end of a string which he had just drawn into a knot round the parcel of sugar, he presented a countenance ill-calculated to reassure a stranger or invite his confidence. But Algy was not a stranger, and did not intend to bestow any confidence, so he came forward with the graceful self-possession which sat so well on him, and said, "How are you, Mr. Maxfield? I have not seen you for ever so long!"

"It doesn't seem very long ago to me, since we spoke together," returned old Max, tugging at the string of his parcel.

"You know I'm off to-morrow, Mr. Maxfield?"

The old man shot a hard keen glance at him from beneath the shaggy eyebrows, and nodded.

"I go by the early coach in the morning, so I must say all my farewells to-day."

Maxfield gave a sound like a grunt, and nodded again.

"It's a wonderful piece of luck, Lord Seely's taking me up so, isn't it?"

"Ah! if he means to do anything for you in earnest. So far as I can learn, his taking you up hasn't cost him much yet."

Algernon laughed frankly. "Not a bit of it, Mr. Maxfield!" he cried. "And, after all, why should he do anything that would cost him much, for a poor devil like me? No; the beauty of it is, that he can do great things for me which shall cost him nothing! He is hand and glove with the present ministry, and a regular big-wig at court, and all that sort of thing. The fact of my having good blood in my veins, and being called Ancram Errington, is no merit of mine, of course-just an accident; but it's a deuced lucky accident. I daresay Lord Seely is a stupid old hunks, but then he is Lord Seely, you see. I don't mind saying all this to you, Mr. Maxfield, because you know the world, and you and I are old friends."

It was certainly rather hard on Lord Seely to be spoken of as a stupid old hunks by this lively young gentleman, who knew little more of him than of his great-grandfather, deceased a century ago. But his lordship did not hear the artless little speech, so it did not annoy him; whereas old Max did hear it, and it gratified him considerably for several reasons. It gratified him to be addressed confidentially as one who knew the world; it gratified him to be called an old friend by this relation of the great Lord Seely. And, oddly enough, whilst he was mentally bowing down before the aristocratic magnificence of that nobleman, it gratified him to be told that the bowing down was being performed to a "stupid old hunks," altogether devoid of that wisdom which had been so largely bestowed on himself, the Whitford grocer.

Pleasant and unaffected as was the young fellow's manner to his landlord, there was a nonchalance about it which conveyed that he was quite aware of the social distance between them. And this assumption of superiority-never coarse or ponderous, like his mother's, but worn with the airiest lightness-was far from displeasing to old Max. The more of a gentleman born and bred Algernon Errington showed himself to be, the higher would Rhoda's position be, if-but old Max had almost discarded that form of presenting the future to his own mind; and was apt to say to himself, "when Rhoda marries young Errington." And then the solid advantages of the position were, so far at least, on old Max's side. Wealth and wisdom made a powerful combination, he reflected. And he was not at all afraid of being borne down or overwhelmed by any amount of gentility. Nevertheless, his spirit was in some subjection to this patrician youth, who sat opposite to him on a tea-chest, swinging his legs so affably.

There was a pause. At length Maxfield said, "And how long do you think o' being away? Or are you going to say good-bye to Whitford for evermore?"

"Indeed I hope not!"

"Oh! Then there is some folks here as you would care to see again?" said Maxfield slowly, beginning to tie up another parcel with sedulous care, and not raising his eyes from it.

"Of course there are! I-I should think you must know that, Mr. Maxfield! But I want to put myself in a better position with the world before I can-before I come back to the people I most care for."

"Very good. But it's like to be some time first, I'm afraid."

"As to seeing dear old Whitford again, you know I mean to run down here in the summer; or at least early in the autumn, when Parliament rises."

"Oh, you do?"

"To be sure! And then I hope to-to settle several things."

"Ah!"

"To a man of your experience, Mr. Maxfield, I needn't say how important it is for me to go to Lord Seely, ready and willing

to undertake any employment he may offer me."

"Ah!"

"I mean, of course, that I should be absolutely free and unfettered, and ready to-to-to avail myself of opportunities. You see that, of course?"

Maxfield looked sage, and nodded. But he also looked a little glum. The conversation had not taken the turn he expected.

"Once let me get something definite-a Government post, you know, such as my cousin could get for me as easily as you could take an apprentice-and then I may please myself. I may consider myself on the first round of the ladder. And there won't be the same necessity for deferring to this person and that person. But I don't know why I'm saying all this to you, Mr. Maxfield. You understand the whole matter better than I do. By Jove, I wish I'd some of your ballast in my noddle. I'm such a feather-headed fellow!"

"You are young, Algernon, you are young," returned old Max, from whose brow the frown had cleared away entirely. "I have had a special gift of wisdom vouchsafed to me for many years past. It has been, I believe, a peculiar grace, and it is the Lord's doing, thanks be! I am not easy deceived."

"I shouldn't like to try it on, that's all I know!" exclaimed Algernon, pleasantly smiling and nodding his head.

"Albeit there is some as mistrust my judgment; young and raw men without much gift of clear-headedness, and puffed up with spiritual pride."

"Are there, really?" said Algernon, feeling somewhat at a loss what to say.

"Yes, there are. I should like such to be convinced of error. It would be a wholesome lesson."

"Not a doubt of it."

"I should like such to know-for their own soul's sake, and to teach 'em Christian humility-as you and I quite understand each other, my young friend; and as all is clear between us."

Algernon had a constitutional dislike to "clear understandings," except such as were limited to his clear understanding of other people. So he broke in at this point with one of his impulsive speeches about his prospects, and his conviction of Mr. Maxfield's wisdom, and his regrets at leaving Whitford, and his settled purpose to come back at the end of the summer and have a look at the dear old place, and the one or two persons in it who were still dearer to him. And he contrived-"contrived," indeed, is too cold-blooded and Machiavelian a word to express Algy's rapid mental process-to convey to old Max the idea that he was on the high road to fortune; that he had a warm and constant attachment to a certain person whom it was needless to name, seeing that the certain person could be no other than his playmate, pretty Rhoda; and that Mr. Jonathan Maxfield was so sagacious and keen-sighted a personage as to require no wordy explanations such as might have been needful for feebler intelligences. And then Algy said, with a rueful sort of candour, and arching those fair childlike eyebrows of his: "I say, Mr. Maxfield, I shall be awfully short of cash just at first!"

The two hands of Jonathan Maxfield, which had been laid open, and palm downwards, on the counter before him, as he listened, instinctively doubled themselves into fists. He put them one on the top of the other, and rested his chin on them.

"I don't bother my mother about it, poor dear soul, because I know she has done all she can already. Of course, if I were to hint anything to my cousin-to Lord Seely, you know-I might get helped directly. But I don't want to begin with that, exactly."

"H'm! It 'ud be a test of how much he really does mean, though!"

"Yes; but you know what you said about Lord Seely's doing great things for me which shall cost him nothing. And I felt how true your view was, directly. By George, if I want any advice between now and next August, I shall be tempted to write and ask you for it!"

Maxfield gave a little rasping cough.

"Of course I know the manners and customs of high-bred people well enough. A fellow who comes of an old family like mine seems to suck all that in with his mother's milk, somehow. But that's a mere surface knowledge, after all. And some circumstance might turn up in which I should want a more solid judgment to help my own."

Maxfield coughed again, a little less raspingly. One of his doubled-up hands unclasped itself, and he began to pass it across his stubbly chin.

"By-the-by-what an ass I was not to think of that before-would you mind lending me twenty pounds till August, Mr. Maxfield?"

"I-I'm not given to lending, Algernon; nor to borrowing either, I thank the Lord."

"Borrowing! No; you're one of the lucky folks of this world, who can grant favours instead of asking them. But it really is of small consequence, after all; I'll manage somehow, if you have any objection. I believe I have a nabob of a godfather, General Indigo, as yellow as a guinea and as rich as a Jew. My mother was talking of him the other day, and, perhaps, it would be better to ask such a little favour of one's own people. I'll look up the nabob, Mr. Maxfield."

It must not be supposed that Algy, in bringing out the name of General Indigo, had any thought of the three lovely Miss Indigos in his mind. He was quite unconscious of the existence of those young ladies; if, indeed, they were not entirely the figments of Mrs. Errington's fertile fancy. Algy had laid no deep plans. He was simply quick at seizing opportunity. The opportunity had presented itself, of dazzling old Max with his nabob godfather, and of-perhaps-inducing the stingy old fellow to lend him what he wanted, by dint of conveying that he did not want it particularly. Algy had availed himself of the opportunity, and the shot had told very effectually.

Old Max never swore. Had he been one of the common and profane crowd of worldlings, it may be that some imprecation on General Indigo would have issued from his lips; for the mention of that name made him very angry. But old Max had a settled conviction of the probable consignment to perdition of the rich nabob-who was doubtless a purse-proud, tyrannous, godless old fellow-which far surpassed, in its comforting power, the ephemeral satisfaction of an oath. He struck his clenched hand on the counter, and said, testily, "You have not heard what I had it in my mind to say! You are too rash, young man, and broke in on my discourse before it was finished!"

"I beg pardon. Did I?"

"I say that I am not given to lending nor to borrowing; and it is most true. But I have not said that I will refuse to assist you. This is a special case, and must be judged of specially as between you and me."

"Why, of course, I would rather be obliged to you than to the general, who is a stranger to me, in fact, though he is my godfather."

"There's nearer ties than godfathers, Algernon."

Algernon burst into a peal of genuine laughter. "Why, yes," said he, wiping his eyes, "I hope so!"

Old Max did not move a muscle of his face. "What was the sum you named?" he asked, solemnly.

"Oh, I don't know-twenty or thirty pounds would do. Something just to keep me going until my mother's next quarter's money comes in."

"I will lend you twenty pounds, Algernon, for which you will write me an acknowledgment."

"Certainly!"

"Being under age, your receipt is valueless in law. But I wish to have it as between you and me."

"Of course; as between you and me."

Maxfield unlocked a strong-box let into the wall. Algernon-who had often gazed at the outside of it rather wistfully-peeped into it with some eagerness when it was opened; but its contents were chiefly papers and a huge ledger. There was, however, in one corner a well-stuffed black leather pocket-book, from which old Max slowly extracted a crisp, fresh Bank of England note for twenty pounds.

"I'm sure I'm ever so much obliged to you, Mr. Maxfield," said Algernon, taking the note. He spoke without any over-eagerness, but the gleam of boyish delight in his eyes would not be suppressed.

"And now come into the parlour with me, and write the acknowledgment."

"I say, Mr. Maxfield," said Algernon, when the receipt had been duly written and signed, "you won't say anything to my mother about this?"

"Do you mean to keep it a secret?" asked the old man, sharply.

"Oh, of course I don't mind all the world knowing, as far as I'm concerned. But the dear old lady might worry herself at not being able to do more for me. Let it be just simply as between you and me," said Algernon, repeating Maxfield's words, but, truth to say, without attaching any very definite meaning to them. The old man pursed up his mouth and nodded.

"Aye, aye," he said, "as between you and me, Algernon; as between you and me."

* * *

"Upon my word, that formula of old Max's seems to be a kind of open sesame to purses and strong-boxes and cheque-books! 'As between you and me.' I wonder if it would answer with Lord Seely? Who'd have thought of old Max doing the handsome thing? Well, it's all right enough. I do mean to stick to little Rhoda, especially since her father seems to hint his approbation so very plainly. But it wouldn't do to bind myself just now-for her sake, poor little pet! 'As between you and me!' What a character the old fellow is! I wish he'd made it fifty while he was about it!"

Such was Algernon's mental soliloquy as he walked jauntily down the street, with his hand in his pocket, and the crisp bank-note between his finger and thumb.

* * *

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