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A Charming Fellow, Volume I (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 24319

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

David Powell sat in his garret chamber. The fast waning light of a February afternoon fell on him as he sat close to the lattice in the sloping roof. He had placed himself there to be able to read the small print of his pocket-bible. But the light was already too dim for that. It was dusk in the garret. The strip of grey cloud, visible from the window, was beginning to turn red at its lower edge as the sun sank. It was the angry flaring red, which is often seen at the close of a cold and cloudy day, and had no suggestion of genial warmth in its deep flush. Such a snow-laden, crimson-bordered wrack of fleecy cloud, as Powell's eyes rested on, might have hung over a Lapland waste. There was no fire in the room, nor any means of making one. It was bitterly cold. The preacher's face looked white and bloodless, as if it were frozen. But he sat still, staring out at the red sunset light on the strip of sky within his view. From his seat on an old chest, which he had drawn close under the window, he could see nothing but the sky. Not one of the roofs or chimneys of Whitford was visible to him. A black wavering line moved slowly across his field of vision. It was a flight of rooks on their way home to the tall leafless elm-trees in Pudcombe Park. Nothing else moved, except the red flare creeping upward by slow and imperceptible degrees.

Suddenly the little Bible fell from Powell's numbed right hand on to the carpetless floor, and, with a start, he turned his head and looked around him. By contrast with the wintry light without, the garret appeared quite dark to him, and it was not until after a few seconds that his eye became sufficiently accustomed to its gloom, to perceive the book lying almost at his feet. He picked it up, and began to chafe his numbed fingers, rising at the same time, and walking up and down the room.

His thoughts had been straying idly as he sat at the window, with his eyes fixed on the sky. They had gone back to the days of his boyhood, and in memory he had seen the wild Welsh valley where he was born, and heard the bleat of sheep from the hills, as he had listened to it many a summer morning, sitting ragged and barefoot on the turf. And with these recollections the image of Rhoda Maxfield was strangely mingled, appearing and disappearing, like a face in a dream. Indeed, he had been dreaming open-eyed in his solitude, unconscious of the cold and the gathering dusk.

Now, such aimless, vagrant wanderings of the fancy were considered reprehensible by earnest Methodists; and by none were they more strongly disapproved of than by David Powell himself. His life was guided, as nearly as might be, in conformity with the rules laid down by John Wesley himself for the helpers, as his first lay-preachers were called. And among these rules, diligence-unflagging, unfaltering-diligence and the strenuous employment of every minute, so that no fragment of time should be wasted, were emphatically insisted upon. Powell had ceased to read when the daylight waned, and remained in his place by the window, intending to devote a few minutes of the twilight to the rigid self-examination which was his daily habit. And instead, behold! his mind had strayed and wandered in idle recollections and unsanctified imaginings.

Presently he began to mutter to himself, as he paced up and down the chill bare room.

"What have I to do with these things," he said aloud, "when I should be about my Master's business? Where is the comfortable assurance of old days-the bright light which used to shine within my soul, turning its darkness to noon-day? I have lost my first love;[1] I have fallen from grace; and the enemy finds a ready entrance for any idle thoughts he wills to put into my mind. And yet-have I not striven? Have I not searched my own heart with sincerity?"

All at once, stopping short in his walk across the garret floor, he threw himself on his knees beside the bed, and, burying his face in his hands, began to pray aloud. The sound of his own voice rising ever higher, as his supplications grew more fervent, hid from his ears the noise of a tap at the door, which was repeated twice or thrice. At length, the person who had knocked pushed the door gently open a little way, and called him by his name, "Mr. Powell! Mr. Powell!"

"Who calls me?" asked the preacher, lifting his head, but not rising at once from his knees.

"It's me, sir; Mrs. Thimbleby. I have made you a cup of herb tea accordin' to the directions in the Primitive Physic,[2] and there is a handful of fire in the kitchen grate, whilst here it is downright freezing. Dear, dear Mr. Powell, I can't think it right for you to set for hours up here by yourself in the cold!"

The good widow-a gentle, loquacious woman, with mild eyes and a humble manner-had advanced into the room by this time, and stood holding up a lighted candle in one hand, whilst with the other she drew her scanty black shawl closer round her shoulders.

"I will come, Mrs. Thimbleby," answered Powell. "Do you go downstairs, and I will follow you forthwith."

"Well, it is a miracle of the Lord if he don't catch his death of cold," muttered the widow as she redescended the steep, narrow staircase. "But there! he is a select vessel, if ever there was one; and a burning and a shining light. And I suppose the Lord will take care of His own, in His own way."

Mrs. Thimbleby sat down by her own clean-swept hearth, in which a small fire was burning brightly. The little kitchen was wonderfully clean. Not a speck of rust marked the bright pewter and tin vessels that hung over the dresser. Not an atom of dust lay on any visible object in the place. There was no sound to be heard save the ticking of the old eight-day clock, and, now and then, the dropping of a coal on to the hearth. As soon as she heard her lodger's step on the stairs, Mrs. Thimbleby bestirred herself to pour out the herb tea of which she had spoken.

"I wish it was China tea, Mr. Powell," she said, when he entered the kitchen. "But you won't take that, so I know it's no good to offer it to you. Else I have a cup here as is really good, and came out of my new lodger's pot."

"You do not surely take of what is not your own!" cried Powell, looking quickly round at her.

"Lord forbid, sir! No, but the gentleman drinks a sight of tea. And last evening he would have some fresh made, and I say to him"-Mrs. Thimbleby's narrative style was chiefly remarkable for its simplification of the English syntax, by means of omitting all past tenses, and thus getting rid of any difficulty attendant on the conjugation of irregular verbs-"I say, 'Won't you have none of that last as was made for breakfast, as is beautiful tea, and only wants warming up again?' But he refuse; and then I ask him if I may use it myself, seeing I look on it as a sin to waste anything; and he only just look up from his book and nod his head, and say, 'Do what you like with it, ma'am,' and wave his hand as much as to say I may go. He is not much of a one to talk, but he paid the first week punctual, and is as quiet as quiet, and-there he is! I hear his key in the door."

A quick, firm step came along the passage, and Matthew Diamond appeared at the door of the kitchen. "Will you be good enough to give me a light?" he said, addressing the landlady. Then he saw David Powell standing near the fire, and looked at him curiously. Powell did not turn, nor seem to observe the new comer. His head was bent down, and the firelight partially illumined his profile, which was presented to anyone standing at the door. Mr. Diamond silently formed the word "Preacher?" with his lips, at the same time nodding towards Powell, and raising his eyebrows interrogatively. Mrs. Thimbleby answered aloud with alacrity, well pleased to begin a conversation with her taciturn lodger.

"Yes, sir; it is our preacher, Mr. Powell, as is one of our shiningest lights, and an awakening caller of sinners to repentance. You've maybe heard him preach, sir? A many of the unconverted-ahem!-a many as does not belong to the connexion has come to hear him in Whitford Wesleyan Chapel, and on Whit Meadow. And we have had seasons of abundant blessing and refreshment."

Powell had turned round at the beginning of Mrs. Thimbleby's speech, and was looking earnestly at Mr. Diamond. The latter, who had seen the preacher only in the full tide of his eloquence and the excitement of addressing a crowded audience, was struck by the change in the face now before him. It was much thinner, haggard, and deadly pale. There were lines round the mouth, which expressed anxiety and suffering; and the eyes were sunk in their orbits, and startlingly bright. Diamond was, in fact, startled out of his usual silent reserve by the glance which met his own, and exclaimed, impulsively, "I'm afraid you are ill, Mr. Powell!"

"No," returned the other at once, and without hesitation. "I have no bodily ailment. I have seen you at the house of Jonathan Maxfield, have I not?"

"Yes; I have been in the habit of going there to read with a young gentleman. My name is Diamond-Matthew Diamond."

"I know it," answered Powell. "I should like, if you are willing, to say a few words to you privately."

Diamond was a good deal surprised, and a little displeased, at this proposition. He had been interested in the Methodist preacher, and the thought had more than once crossed his mind that he should like to see more of the man, whose whole personality was so striking and uncommon. But Mr. Diamond had felt his wish just as he might have wished to have Paganini with his violin all to himself for an evening; or to learn viva voce from Edmund Kean how he produced his great effects. To be the object and subject of a private sermon from this Methodist enthusiast (for Diamond could conceive no other reason for the preacher's desiring an interview with him than zeal for converting) was, however, a different matter; and Diamond had half a mind to decline the private communication. He was a man peculiarly averse to outspokenness about his own feelings. Nor was he given to be frank and diffusive on topics of mere intellectual speculation; although, occasionally, he could exchange thoughts on such matters with a congenial mind. But he knew well enough that, with the Methodists in general, an excited state of feeling, which might do duty for conviction, was the aim and end of their teaching and preaching.

"This man is ignorant and enthusiastic, and will make himself absurd and me uncomfortable, and I shall have to offend him, which I don't wish to do," thought Mr. Diamond, standing stiff and grave with the candle in his hand. But once more the sight of Powell's haggard, suffering face and bright wistful eyes touched him; and once more the resolute Matthew Diamond suffered himself to be swayed by an impulse of sympathy with this man.

"Oh," said he, "well, you can come into my sitting-room."

The invitation was not very graciously given, but Powell did not seem to heed that at all. Mrs. Thimbleby stood in admiring astonishment as her two lodgers left the kitchen together.

The two young men, so strangely contrasted in all outward circumstances, entered the small parlour, which served as dining-room, sitting-room, and study to Matthew Diamond, and seated themselves at a table almost covered with books, one corner of which had been cleared to admit of a little tea-tray being placed upon it.

"Will you share my tea, Mr. Powell?" asked Diamond, as he filled a cup with the strong brown liquid.

"No; I thank you for proffering it to me, but I do not drink tea."

"I am sorry for that, for I am afraid I have no other refreshment to offer you. I don't indulge in wine or spirits."

Diamond threw into his manner a certain determined commonplaceness, as though to quench any tendency to excitement or exaltation which might show itself in the preacher. Although he would have expressed it in different terms, Matthew Diamond had at the bottom of his mind a feeling akin to that in Miss Chubb's, when she declared her dread of the Maxfield family "going into convulsion

s" in the parish church of St. Chad.

"I will take a cup of tea myself, if you have no objection," said Diamond, suiting the action to the word, and stretching out his legs, so as to bring them within reach of the warmth from the fire. "Won't you draw nearer to the hearth, Mr. Powell?"

Powell sat looking fixedly into the fire with an abstracted air. His hands were joined loosely, and rested on his knees. The firelight shone on his wan, clearly-cut face, but seemed to be absorbed and quenched in the blackness of his hair, which hung down in two straight, thick locks behind his ears. He did not accept Mr. Diamond's invitation to draw nearer to the warm hearth, but, after a pause, turned his face to his companion, and said, "It is on behalf of the young maiden, Rhoda Maxfield, that I would speak with you, sir."

He could scarcely have said anything more thoroughly unexpected and disconcerting to Matthew Diamond. The latter did not start or stare, or make any strong demonstration of surprise, but he could not help a sudden flush mounting to his face, much to his annoyance.

"About Miss Rhoda Maxfield?" he returned coldly; "I do not understand what concern either you or I can have with any private conversation about that young lady."

"My concern with Rhoda is that of one who has had it laid upon him to lead a tender soul out of the darkness into the light, and who suddenly finds himself divided from that precious charge, even at the moment when he hoped the goal was reached. Her father has left our Society, and has thus carried Rhoda away from the reach of my exhortations."

"By Jove!" thought Diamond to himself, as he turned his keen grey eyes on the preacher, "this is a specimen of spiritual conceit on a colossal scale!" Then he said aloud, "You must console yourself with the hope that the exhortations she will hear in the parish church will differ from your own rather in manner than matter, Mr. Powell. There really are some very decent people among the congregation of St. Chad's."

"Nay," answered Powell, with simple gentleness, "do you think I doubt it? It has been the boast of Methodism that it receives into its bosom all denominations of Christians, without distinction. The Churchman and the Dissenter, the Presbyterian and the Independent, are alike welcome to us, and are free alike to follow their own method of worship. In the words of John Wesley himself, 'one condition, and one only, is required-a real desire to save their souls. Where this is, it is enough; they desire no more. They lay stress upon nothing else. They ask only, Is thy heart herein as my heart? If it be, give me thy hand.'"

"Methodism has changed somewhat since the days of John Wesley," said Diamond, drily.

"Not Methodism, but perhaps-Methodists. But it was not of Methodism that I had it on my mind to speak to you now."

Diamond controlled his face and his attitude to express civil indifference; but-his pulse was quickened, and he hid his mouth with his hand. Powell went on: "I have turned the matter in my mind, many ways. And I have sought for guidance on it with much wrestling of the spirit. But I had not received a clear leading until this evening. When I saw you standing in the doorway, it was borne in upon me that you could be an instrument of help in this matter. And the leading was the more assured to me, because that to-day, having opened my Bible after due supplication, mine eyes fell at once on the words, 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eyes seeth thee.' Now these words were dark to me until just now, when you seemed to appear as the explanation and interpretation thereof."

Diamond could not but acknowledge to himself that all the scriptural phraseology, and the technicalities of sectarianism, which he found merely grotesque or disgusting in men of common, vulgar natures, came from this man's lips with as much ease and propriety as if he had been a Hebrew of old time uttering his native idiom. Indeed, the impression of there being something oriental about David Powell, which Diamond had received on first seeing him, was deepened on further acquaintance. This black-haired Welshman was picturesque and poetic, despite his threadbare cloth suit, made in the ungraceful mode of the day; and impressive, despite his equally threadbare phrases. It is possible to make a wonderful difference in the effect both of clothes and words, by putting something earnest and unaffected inside them.

"What is the help you seek? And how can I help you?" asked Diamond, with grave directness.

"You are acquainted with the daughter of the principal of the grammar school here--"

"Miss Bodkin?"

"Yes. Do you think that, if you carried to her a request that I might be permitted to see and speak with her, she would admit me?"

"I-I don't know," answered Diamond, greatly taken aback.

There was a pause. Each man was busy with his own thoughts. "Rhoda is beyond my reach now," said Powell at length. "I can neither see nor speak with her. Nor do I know of any of those who see her familiarly who would be likely to influence her for good, except Miss Bodkin. I am told that she is a lady of much ability and power of mind; and I hear, moreover, of her doing many acts of charity and kindness. You know her well, do you not?"

"I know her. Yes."

"Would you consent to carry such a request from me?"

Diamond hesitated. "Why not prefer the request yourself?" he said. "If you have any good reason for desiring an interview with Miss Bodkin, I believe she would grant it."

"I had thought of doing so. I had thought, even, of writing all that I have to say. But, for many reasons, I believe it would be more profitable for me to see her face to face. I am no penman. I am indeed, as you perceive, a man very ignorant in the world's learning and the world's ways."

Diamond suspected a covert boast under this humble speech, and answered in his coolest tones, "The first is a disadvantage-or an advantage, as you choose to consider it-which you share with a good many of your brethren, Mr. Powell. As to the latter kind of ignorance-Methodists are generally thought to have worldly wisdom enough for their needs."

Powell bent his head. "I would fain have more learning," he said in a low voice, "but only as a means, not as an end-not as an end."

"But," said Diamond, in a constrained voice, "it seems to me hardly worth while to trouble Miss Bodkin, by asking for an interview on any such grounds. Since you are charitable enough to believe that Miss Maxfield's spiritual welfare is not imperilled by going to St. Chad's, I don't see what need there is for you to be uneasy about her!"

"I am uneasy; but not for the reasons you suppose. Rhoda is very guileless, and I would shield her from peril."

Diamond looked at the preacher sternly. "I don't understand you," he said. "And to say the truth, Mr. Powell, I disapprove of meddling in other people's affairs. Miss Maxfield is a young lady for whom I have the very highest respect."

For the first time a flame of quick anger flashed from Powell's dark eyes, as he answered, "Your high respect would teach you to stand aside and let the innocent maiden pine under a delusion which might spoil her life and peril her soul; mine prompts me to step forward and awaken her to the truth, never heeding what figure I make in the matter."

The sudden passion in the man's face and figure was like a material illumination. Diamond had grown pale, and looked at him attentively, and in silence.

"Do you think," proceeded Powell, his thin hands working nervously, and his eyes blazing, "that I do not understand how pure a creature she is-how innocent, confiding, and devoid of all suspicion of guile? Yea, and even, therefore, the more in need of warning! But because I am a man still young in years, and neither the maiden's brother, nor any kin to her, I must stand silent and withhold my help, lest the world should say I am transgressing its rules, and bid me mind my own affairs, or deride me for a fanatical fool! Do you think I do not foresee all this? or do you think that, foreseeing it, I heed it? I have broken harder bonds than that; I have fought with strong impulses, to which such motives are as cobwebs--" Then, with a sudden check and change of tone which a grain of affectation would have sufficed to render ludicrous, but which, in its simplicity, was almost touching, he added, in a low voice, "I ask pardon for my vehemence; I speak too much of myself. I have had some suffering in this matter, and am not always able to control my words. I have had strange visitings of the old Adam of late. It is only by much striving after grace, and by strong wrestling in prayer, that I have not wandered utterly from the right way."

He had risen from his chair at the beginning of his speech, and now sank down again on it wearily, with drooping head.

Matthew Diamond sat and looked at him still with the same earnest attention; but blended, now, with a look of compassion. He was thinking to himself what must be the force of enthusiastic faith, which could so subdue the fiery nature of this man, and how he must suffer in the conflict. Presently, he said aloud, "I am ready to admit, Mr. Powell, that you are actuated by conscientious motives; I am sure that you are. But your conscience cannot be a rule for all the rest of the world. Mine may counsel me differently, you know."

"Oh, sir, we are neither of us left to our own guidance, thanks be to God! There is a sure counsellor that can never fail us. I have searched diligently, and I have received a clear leading which I cannot mistrust. I do not feel free to tell you more particularly the grounds of my anxiety respecting Rhoda Maxfield. But I do assure you, with all sincerity and solemnity, that I have her welfare wholly at heart, and that I would not injure her by the least shadow of blame in the opinion of any human being."

There was silence for some minutes. Diamond leant his head on his hand, and reflected. Then at length he said, "Look here, Mr. Powell; I believe, if you had pitched on anyone else in all Whitford to speak to about Miss Rhoda Maxfield, I should have declined to assist you. But Miss Bodkin is so superior in sense and goodness to most other folks here, that I am sure whatever you may say to her confidentially will be sacred. And then, she may be able to set you right, if you are wrong. She has the woman's tact and insight which we lack. And, besides, she is fond of Rhoda." He coloured a little as he said the name, and dropped his voice.

"You confirm all that I have heard of this lady. She is abundantly blessed with good gifts."

"Well, then, Mr. Powell, I will write to Miss Bodkin to-morrow, telling her merely that you desire to speak with her, and entreat her good offices on behalf of one who needs them."

Powell sprang up from his seat eagerly. "I thank you, sir, from a full heart," he said. "You are doing a good action. Farewell."

Diamond held out his hand, which the preacher grasped in his own. The two hands were as strongly contrasted as the owners of them. Diamond's was broad, muscular, and yet smooth-a strong young hand, full of latent power. Powell's was slender, nervous, showing the corded veins, and with long emaciated fingers. It, too, indicated force; but force of a different kind. The one hand might have driven a plough, or written out a mathematical problem; the other might have wielded a scimitar in the service of the Prophet, or held up a crucifix in the midst of persecuting savages. As they stood for a second thus hand in hand, Powell's mouth broke into a wonderfully sweet and radiant smile, and he said, "You see, sir, I was right to have faith in my counsellor. You have helped me."

Diamond sat musing late that night, and was roused by the cold to find his fire gone out and his watch marking half-past twelve o'clock. "I wonder," he thought to himself, "if Powell has any foundation for his hints, and if any scoundrel is playing false with her. If there be, I should like to shoot him like a dog!"

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