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A Charming Fellow, Volume II (of 3) By Frances Eleanor Trollope Characters: 25779

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


No Jupiter, rainy or thunderous, lent his assistance to account for the extraordinary phenomenon of Rhoda Maxfield's driving up to the garden-gate of Ivy Lodge instead of arriving there on foot. On the contrary, it was a fine autumn evening, with a serene sky where the sunset tints still lingered.

Rhoda alighted hurriedly from the carriage, and walked up the few feet of gravel path, between the garden fence and the house, with a beating heart. "You can go away now, Sally," she said, being very anxious to dismiss the "Blue Bell" equipage before the door should be opened. But Sally was not in such a hurry. Her master had told her that she was to wait and see Miss Rhoda safe into the house, and then she might come back in the carriage as far as the "Blue Bell." And Sally was not averse to have her new promotion to the dignity of "riding in a coach" witnessed by Mrs. Algernon Errington's Polly, with whom she had a slight acquaintance. So Miss Maxfield's equipage was seen by the servant who opened the door, and stared at from the front parlour window by two pairs of eyes, belonging respectively to Miss Chubb and Mrs. Errington.

"You can go into the parlour, miss," said Polly. "Master and missis are still at dinner. But the old lady's in there and Miss Chubb."

That they should be still at dinner, at half-past six o'clock in the evening, seemed a strange circumstance to Rhoda, and was one that she had not reckoned on. But she supposed it was according to the customs of the high folks Mrs. Algernon had been used to live among. The innovation was not accepted so meekly by most of the Whitfordians, whom, indeed, it seemed to irritate in a greater degree than more serious offences. But it is true of most of us, that we are never more angry than when we are unable to explain the reasons for our anger.

"I am afraid I'm too early," said Rhoda, when she had entered the parlour and greeted her old friends, "but father said he thought it was the right time to come."

"Mr. and Mrs. Ancram Errington dine late, my dear. Castalia has not yet got broken of the habits of her own class, as I have had to be. Indeed, she will probably never need to relinquish them. But it is no matter, Rhoda. You can make yourself comfortable here with us for half an hour or so. Miss Chubb called in to see me at my place, and I brought her down here with me. I knew Mrs. Ancram Errington would be happy to see her if she dropped in in an informal way."

"I never can get used to the name of Ancram instead of Algernon," said the spinster, raising her round red face from her woolwork. "It isn't half so pretty. Nine times out of ten I call your son 'Algy' plump and plain. I'm very sorry if it's improper, but I can't help it."

Mrs. Errington smiled with an air of lofty toleration. "Not at all improper," she said. "Algernon is the last creature in the world to be distant towards an old friend. But as to the name of Ancram, why it was, from the first, his appellation among the Seelys. And Castalia always calls him so. You see 'Ancram' was a familiar name in the circles she lived in; like Howard, or Seymour, or any of the great old family names, you know. It came naturally to her."

"Well, I should think that one's husband's Christian-name would come natural to one, even if it were only plain Tom, Dick, or Harry."

"He didn't begin by being her husband, my dear!"

Rhoda had nestled herself down in a corner behind a small table, and was turning over an album and one or two illustrated annuals. She hoped that the discussion as to Algernon's name would effectually divert the attention of the two elder ladies from the unprecedented fact that she had been brought to Ivy Lodge in a carriage. But she was not to be let off altogether. Miss Chubb, folding up her work, declared that it was growing too dark to distinguish the colours, and observed, "I was standing by the window to catch the last daylight, when you drove up, Rhoda. I couldn't think who it was arriving in such style."

"That was the 'Blue Bell' fly you were in, Rhoda," said Mrs. Errington. "I believe it to be the same vehicle that my daughter-in-law uses occasionally. She complains of it sadly. But I tell her she cannot expect to find her Aunt Seely's luxurious, well-hung carriages in a little provincial place like this."

Miss Chubb was about to make what she considered a severe retort, but she stifled it down. Mrs. Errington's airs were very provoking, to be sure; but there were reasons why Miss Chubb was more inclined to bear with her now than formerly. If it pleased this widowed mother to soften her disappointments about Algy's career and Algy's wife (it began to be considered in Whitford that both would prove to be failures!) by an extra flourish or two, why should any one put her--"No!" said Miss Chubb to herself, as the question was half-framed in her mind, "that is not the right word, certainly. I defy the world to put Mrs. Errington out of conceit with herself! But why should one snub and snap at the poor woman?"

Indeed, Miss Chubb never snapped, and rarely attempted to snub. She had a fund of benevolence hidden under a heap of frothy vanities and absurdities, like the solid cake at the bottom of a trifle.

"Well," said she, smiling good-temperedly, "I'm sure Rhoda doesn't quarrel with the 'Blue Bell' fly, do you, Rhoda?"

"I shouldn't have wished to use it, myself, but father said, 'It is rather a long way,' and father thought--"

"Oh, my dear, there is no need to excuse yourself, or to look shy on the subject. We should all of us be glad enough of a coach to ride in, now and then, if we could afford it. I'm sure I should, and I don't mind saying so."

Mrs. Errington did not approve of the coach quite so unreservedly. She observed, with some solemnity, that she was no friend to extravagance; and that, above all things, persons ought to guard against ostentation, or a thrusting of themselves into positions unsuited to that station in life to which it had pleased Providence to call them. And, in conclusion, she announced her intention of availing herself of the circumstance that Rhoda had a carriage at her disposal for the evening, to drive back with her as far as Mrs. Thimbleby's door-"which," said she, "is only a street and a half away from your house, Rhoda; and it will not make any difference to your father in point of expense."

Castalia found her three guests chatting in the twilight; or rather she found Mrs. Errington holding forth in her rich pleasant voice, whilst the others listened, and threw in a word or two now and then, just sufficient to show that they were attending to the good lady's harangue. In Rhoda's case, indeed, this appearance of attention was fallacious, for, although she said "Yes," and "No," and "Indeed!" at due intervals, her thoughts were wandering back to old days, which seemed suddenly to have receded into a far-distant past.

Castalia shook hands languidly with Miss Chubb and condescendingly with Rhoda. "I'm very glad you've come," she said to the latter, which was a speech of unusual warmth for her. And it had the merit, moreover, of being true. Castalia was not given to falsehood in her speech. She was too supercilious to care much what impression she made on people in general; and if they bored her, she took no pains to conceal the fact. Weariness of spirit and discontent had begun to assail her once more. They were old enemies. Her marriage had banished them for a time; but they gathered again, like clouds which a transient gleam of wintry sunshine has temporarily dispersed, and shadowed her life with an increasing gloom. This young Rhoda Maxfield offered some chance of brightness and novelty. She was certainly different from the rest of the Whitford world, and the pursuit of her society had been beset with some little difficulties that gave it zest.

A lamp was brought into the room, and then Castalia sat down beside Rhoda, unceremoniously leaving the other ladies to entertain each other as best they might. She examined her guest's dress; the quality of the lace frill at her throat; the arrangement of her chestnut curls; the delicate little gold chain that shone upon the pearl-grey gown; the neatly-embroidered letters R. M. worked on a corner of the handkerchief that lay in her lap, with as much unreserve and coolness as though Rhoda had been some daintily-furred rabbit, or any other pet animal. On her part, Rhoda took cognisance of every detail in Castalia's appearance, attire, and manner; she marked every inflection of her voice, and every turn of her haughty, languid head. And, perhaps, her scrutiny was the keener and more complete of the two, notwithstanding that it was made with timidly-veiled eyes and downcast head.

"What an odd man your father is!" said the Honourable Mrs. Ancram Errington, by way of opening the conversation.

Rhoda found it impossible to reply to this observation. She coloured, and twisted her gold chain round her fingers, and was silent. But it did not seem that Mrs. Ancram Errington expected, or wished for a reply. She went on with scarcely a pause: "I thought at first he would refuse to let you come here. But he gave his consent at last. I was quite amused with his odd way of doing it, though. He must be quite a 'character.' He's very rich, isn't he?"

"I don't know, ma'am," stammered Rhoda.

"Well, he says so himself; or, at least, he informed me that you were, or would be, which comes to the same thing. And don't call me 'ma'am.' It makes me feel a hundred years old. You and I must be great friends."

"Where is Algernon?" asked Mrs. Errington from the other side of the room.

"He will come presently, when he has finished his wine. Do you know we found that stuff from the 'Blue Bell,' that you recommended us to try, quite undrinkable! Ancram was obliged to get Jack Price to send him down a case of claret, from his own wine-merchant in town."

"Most extraordinary!" exclaimed Mrs. Errington, and began to recapitulate all the occasions on which the wine supplied to her from the "Blue Bell" inn had been pronounced excellent by the first connoisseurs. But Castalia made small pretence of listening to or believing her statements. Indeed, I am sorry to say that obstinate incredulity was this young woman's habitual tone of mind with regard to almost every word that her mother-in-law uttered; whereby the Honourable Mrs. Castalia occasionally fell into mistakes.

"Could you not try Dr. Bodkin's wine-merchant?" suggested Miss Chubb. "I am no judge myself, but I feel sure that the doctor would not put bad wine on his table."

"Oh, I don't know. I don't suppose there is any first-rate wine to be got in this place. Ancram prefers dealing with the London man."

And then Castalia dismissed the subject with an expressive shrug. "Who are your chief friends here?" she asked of Rhoda, who had sat with her eyes fixed on a smart illustrated volume, scarcely seeing it, and feeling a confused sort of pain and mortification, at the tone in which the younger Mrs. Errington treated the elder.

"My chief friends?"

"Yes; you must know a great many people. You have lived here all your life, have you not?"

"Yes; but-father never cared that I should make many acquaintances out of doors."

"You were Methodists, were you not? I remember Ancram telling me of the psalm-singing that used to go on downstairs. He can imitate it wonderfully. Do tell me about how you lived, and what you did! I never knew any Methodists, nor any people who kept a shop."

The na?ve curiosity with which this was said might have moved some minds to mirth, and others to indignation. In Rhoda it produced only confusion and distress, and such an access of shyness as made her for a few moments literally dumb. She murmured at length some unintelligible sentences, of which "I'm sure I don't know" were the only words that Castalia could make out. She did not on this account desist from her inquiries, but threw them into the more particular form of a catechism, as, "Were you let to read anything except the Bible on Sundays?" "I suppose you never went to a ball in your life?" "How did you learn to do your own hair?" "Do the Methodist preachers really rant and shriek as much as people say?"

Algernon, coming quietly into the room, beheld his wife and Rhoda seated side by side on a sofa behind the little Pembroke table, and engaged, apparently, in confidential conversation. They were so near together, and Castalia was bending down so low to hear Rhoda's faintly-uttered answers, as to give an air of intimacy to the group.

He lingered in the doorway looking at them, until Miss Chubb crying, "Oh, there you are, sir!" called the attention of the others to him, when he advanced and shook hands with Rhoda, whose fingers were icy cold as he touched them with his wa

rm, white, exquisitely-cared-for hand. Then he bent to kiss his mother, and seated himself between her and his old friend Miss Chubb, in a low chair, stretching out his legs, and leaning back his head, as he contemplated the neatly-shod feet that were carelessly crossed in front of him.

"You did not expect to see Rhoda, did you, my dear boy?" said Mrs. Errington.

"Yes; I believe Castalia said something about having asked her. It is a new freak of Castalia's. I think she had better have left it alone. The old man is highly impracticable, and is just one of those persons whom it is prudent to keep at arm's length."

"I think so, too!" assented Mrs. Errington, emphatically. "Indeed, I almost wonder at his letting his daughter come here."

Algernon quite wondered at it. But he said nothing.

"Of course," pursued Mrs. Errington, "letting her come to me is a very different matter."

"Why?" asked Miss Chubb, bluntly.

"Because, my dear, the girl herself is so devotedly attached to me that I believe she would fret herself into an illness if she were forbidden to see me occasionally. And I believe old Maxfield is fond of his child, in his way, and would not wish to grieve her. But, of course, Rhoda can have no particular desire to visit Castalia. Indeed, I have offered to bring her more than once, and she has not availed herself of the opportunity."

"Old Max is ambitious for his daughter, they say," observed Miss Chubb, "and likes to get her into genteel company. Perhaps he thinks she will find a husband out of her own sphere. I'm told that old Max is quite rich, and that she will have all his money. But I think Rhoda is pretty enough to get well married, even without a fortune."

Then, when Mrs. Errington moved away to speak to her daughter-in-law, Miss Chubb whispered slily to Algernon, "You were a little bit smitten with our pretty Rhoda, once upon a time, sir, weren't you? Oh, it's no use your protesting and looking so unconscious! La, dear me; well, it was very natural! Calf-love, of course. But I'll tell you, between you and me, who is smitten with her, and pretty seriously too-and that's Mr. Diamond!"

"Diamond!"

"Well, you needn't look so astonished. He's a young man, for all his grave ways, and she is a pretty girl. And, upon my word, I think it might do capitally."

"You look tired, Algernon," said Mrs. Errington to her son a little later in the evening. It must have been a very marked expression of fatigue which could have attracted the good lady's attention in any other human being.

"Oh, I've been bored and worried at that confounded post-office."

"What a shame!" cried Mrs. Errington. "Positively some representation ought to be made to Government about it."

"Oh, it's disgusting!" said Castalia, with a shrug of her lean shoulders, and in the fretful drawl, which conveyed the idea that she would be actively angry if any sublunary matters could be important enough to overcome her habitual languor.

"I don't remember hearing that Mr. Cooper found the work so hard," said Miss Chubb, innocently. Mr. Cooper had been the Whitford postmaster next before Algernon.

"It isn't the work, Miss Chubb," said Algernon, a little ashamed of the amount of sympathy and compassion his words had evoked. "That is to say, it is not the quantity of the work, but the kind of it, that bores one. Cooper, I believe, was a steady, jog-trot old fellow, who did his daily task like a horse in a mill. But I can't take to it so comfortably. It is as if you, with your taste for elegant needlework, were set to hem dusters all day long!" Algernon laughed, in his old, frank way, as he made the comparison.

"Well, I shouldn't like that, certainly. But, after all, dusters are very useful things. And then, you see, I do the fancy work to amuse myself; but I should be paid for the dusters, and that makes a difference!"

"Paid!" screamed Castalia. "Why, you don't imagine that Ancram's twopenny salary can pay him! Good gracious, it seems to me scarcely enough to buy food with. It's quite horrible to think how poor we are!"

"Come," said Algernon, "I don't think this conversation is particularly lively or entertaining. Suppose we change the subject. There is Rho-Miss Maxfield looking as if she expected to see us all expire of inanition on the spot!"

And, in truth, Rhoda was gazing from one to the other with a pale, distressed face, and a look of surprise and compassion in her soft brown eyes.

Mrs. Errington did not approve of her daughter-in-law's unscrupulous confession of poverty. Castalia lacked the Ancram gift of embellishing disadvantageous circumstances. And the elder lady took occasion to remark to Miss Chubb that everything was comparative; and that means which might appear ample to persons of inferior rank were very trivial and inadequate in the eyes of the Honourable Mrs. Ancram Errington. "She has been her uncle's pet for many years. My lord denied her nothing. And I needn't tell you, my dear Miss Chubb, that the emoluments of Algernon's official post are by no means the whole and sole income of our young couple here. There are private resources"-here Mrs. Errington waved her hands majestically, as though to indicate the ample nature of the resources-"which, to many persons, would seem positive affluence. But Castalia's measure is a high one. I scold her sometimes, I assure you. 'My dear child,' I say to her, 'look at me! Bred amidst the feudal splendours of Ancram Park, I have accommodated myself to very different scenes and very different associates;' for, of course, my dear soul, although I have a great regard for my Whitford friends, and am very sensible of their kind feelings for me, yet, as a mere matter of fact, it would be absurd to pretend that the society I now move in is equal, in point of rank, to that which surrounded my girlish years. And then Castalia's perhaps partial estimate of her husband's talents (you know she has witnessed the impression they made in the most brilliant circles of the Metropolis) makes her impatient of his present position. For myself, feeling sure, as I do, that this post-office business is merely temporary, I can look at matters with more philosophy."

"Ouf!" panted Miss Chubb, and began to fan herself with her pocket-handkerchief.

"Anything the matter, Miss Chubb?" asked Algernon, raising his eyebrows and looking at her with a smile.

"Nothing particular, Algy. I find it a little oppressive, that's all."

"This little room is so stuffy with more than two or three people in it!" said Castalia.

"I'll do my part towards making it less stuffy," said Miss Chubb, jumping up, and beginning to shake hands all round. "I daresay my old Martha is there. I told her to come for me at nine o'clock. Oh, never mind, thank you," in answer to Castalia's suggestion that she should stay and have a cup of coffee, which would be brought in presently. "Never mind the coffee. I have no doubt I shall find a bit of supper ready at home." And with that she departed.

"I hope it wasn't too severe, that hit about the supper," said the good little woman to herself as she trotted homeward, accompanied by the faithful Martha. "But really-offering one a cup of coffee at nine o'clock at night! And as to Mrs. Errington, I am sorry for her, and can make allowances for her: but she did so go beyond all bounds to-night that, if I had not come away when I did, I think I should have choked."

"Is the little woman affronted at anything?" asked Algernon of his wife, when Miss Chubb's footsteps had ceased to be heard pattering down the gravel path outside the house.

"Eh? What little woman? Oh, the Chubb? No; I don't know. I suppose not."

"No, no; not at all," said Mrs. Errington, decisively. "But you know her ways of old. She has no savoir faire. A good little creature, poor soul! Oh, by-the-way, Castalia, you know the patterns for autumn mantles you asked me to look at? Well, I went into Ravell and Sarsnet's yesterday, and they told me--" And then the worthy matron and her daughter-in-law entered into an earnest discussion in an undertone; the common interest in autumn mantles supplying that "touch of nature" which made them kin more effectually than the matrimonial alliance that united their families.

"I'm afraid you must have had a very dull evening," said the master of the house, looking down on Rhoda as he stood near her, leaning with his back against the tiny mantel-shelf.

"No, thank you."

"I'm afraid you must! There was no amusement for you at all."

"My evenings are not generally very amusing. I daresay you, who have been accustomed to such different things, would find them very dull."

This was not the humble, simple, childlike Rhoda whom he had parted from two years ago. It was not that she had now no humility or simplicity, but the humility was mingled with dignity, the simplicity with an easier grace. Rhoda was more self-possessed at this moment than she had been all the evening before. The weakest creatures are not without some means of self-defence; and, if she be but pure-hearted, the most inexperienced girl in the world can put on an armour of maiden pride over her hurt feelings that has been known to puzzle even very intelligent individuals of the opposite sex; and has perhaps given rise to one or two of the numerous impassioned complaints that have been uttered from time to time as to the inscrutable duplicity of women. In like manner if a man scalds his finger, or gets a bullet in his flesh, he endeavours to bear the pain without screaming.

So little Rhoda Maxfield sat there with a placid face, talking to her old love, turning over the leaves of a picture-book, and scarcely looking at him as she talked.

Now, if Algernon had been consulted beforehand as to what line of conduct he would wish Rhoda to adopt when they should meet, he would, doubtless, have said, "Let us meet pleasantly and frankly as old friends, and behave as if all our old love-making had been the mere amusement of our childhood!" And yet, somehow, it a little disconcerted him to see her so calm.

"You-don't you-don't you go out much in the evening?" he said, feeling (to his own surprise) considerably at a loss what to say.

"Go out much in the evening? No, indeed; where should I go to?" Rhoda actually gave a little laugh as she answered him.

"Oh, I thought my mother mentioned that you were a good deal at the Bodkins."

"Yes; I go to see Miss Minnie sometimes. They are all very good to me."

"And my mother says, too, that you are growing quite a blue-stocking! You have lessons in French, and music, and I don't know what besides."

"Father can afford to have me taught now, and so I have begun to learn a few of the things that girls are taught when they are little children, if they happen to be the children of gentlefolks," answered Rhoda, with considerable spirit.

"I'm sure there is no reason why you should not learn them."

"I hope not. But, of course, I am clumsy, and shall never succeed so well as if I had begun earlier. I am getting very old, you know!"

"Oh, very old, indeed! Your birthday, I remember, falls--" he checked himself with a sudden recollection of the last birthday he had spent with Rhoda, and of the bunch of late roses he had been at the pains to procure for her on that occasion from the gardener at Pudcombe Hall. And, on the whole, he felt positively relieved when Slater came to announce, with her chronic air of resentful gentility, that "Miss Maxfield's young woman was waiting for her in the hall."

"And are you off too, mother?" he asked.

"Yes, my dear Algernon. I am going to drive home with Rhoda."

"Drive! Oh, so you are indulging in the extravagance of a fly, madam! I am glad of it, though you did give me a lecture on the subject of economy only last week!"

"You know that I always do, and always did, disapprove of extravagance, Algernon. A genteel economy is compatible with the highest breeding. But-the fact is, that Rhoda has a coach to go home in, and I'm about to take advantage of it."

There was something in the situation which Algernon felt to be embarrassing, as he gave his arm to his mother to lead her to the carriage. But Mrs. Errington had at least one quality of a great lady-she was not easily disconcerted. She marched majestically down the garden path, entered the vehicle which old Max's money was to pay for, with an air of proprietorship, and invited Rhoda to take her place beside her with a most condescending wave of the hand.

"You must come again soon," Castalia had said to her new acquaintance when they bade each other "Good night."

But Algernon did not support his wife's invitation by a single word, though he smiled very persistently as he stood bare-headed in the moonlight, watching his mother and Rhoda drive away.

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