MoboReader > Literature > Phoebe, Junior

   Chapter 2 THE LEADING MEMBER.

Phoebe, Junior By Mrs. Oliphant Characters: 18385

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Mr. Copperhead, to whom so much allusion has been made, was a well-known man in other regions besides that of the Crescent Chapel. His name, indeed, may be said to have gone to the ends of the earth, from whence he had conducted lines of railway, and where he had left docks, bridges, and light-houses to make him illustrious. He was one of the greatest contractors for railways and other public works in England, and, by consequence, in the world. He had no more than a very ordinary education, and no manners to speak of; but at the same time he had that kind of faculty which is in practical work what genius is in literature, and, indeed, in its kind is genius too, though it neither refines nor even (oddly enough) enlarges the mind to which it belongs. He saw the right track for a road through a country with a glance of his eye; he mastered all the points of nature which were opposed to him in the rapidest survey, though scientifically he was great in no branch of knowledge. He could rule his men as easily as if they were so many children; and, indeed, they were children in his hands. All these gifts made it apparent that he must have been a remarkable and able man; but no stranger would have guessed as much from his appearance or his talk. There were people, indeed, who knew him well, and who remained incredulous and bewildered, trying to persuade themselves that his success must be owing to pure luck, for that he had nothing else to secure it. The cause of this, perhaps, was that he knew nothing about books, and was one of those jeering cynics who are so common under one guise or another. Fine cynics are endurable, and give a certain zest often to society, which might become too civil without them; but your coarse cynic is not pleasant. Mr. Copperhead's eye was as effectual in quenching emotion of any but the coarsest kind as water is against fire. People might be angry in his presence-it was the only passion he comprehended; but tenderness, sympathy, sorrow, all the more generous sentiments, fled and concealed themselves when this large, rich, costly man came by. People who were brought much in contact with him became ashamed of having any feelings at all; his eye upon them seemed to convict them of humbug. Those eyes were very light grey, prominent, with a jeer in them which was a very powerful moral instrument. His own belief was that he could "spot" humbug wherever he saw it, and that nothing could escape him; and, I suppose, so much humbug is there in this world that his belief was justified. But there are few more awful people than those ignoble spectators whose jeer arrests the moisture in the eye, and strangles the outcry on their neighbour's lip.

Mr. Copperhead had risen from the ranks; yet not altogether from the ranks. His father before him had been a contractor, dealing chiefly with canals and roads, and the old kind of public works; a very rough personage indeed, but one to whose fingers gold had stuck, perhaps because of the clay with which they were always more or less smeared. This ancestor had made a beginning to the family, and given his son a name to start with. Our Mr. Copperhead had married young, and had several sons, who were all in business, and all doing well; less vigorous, but still moderately successful copies of their father. When, however, he had thus done his duty to the State, the first Mrs. Copperhead having died, he did the only incomprehensible action of his life-he married a second time, a feeble, pretty, pink-and-white little woman, who had been his daughter's governess; married her without rhyme or reason, as all his friends and connections said. The only feasible motive for this second union seemed to be a desire on Mr. Copperhead's part to have something belonging to him which he could always jeer at, and in this way the match was highly successful. Mrs. Copperhead the second was gushing and susceptible, and as good a butt as could be imagined. She kept him in practice when nobody else was at hand. She was one of those naturally refined but less than half-educated, timid creatures who are to be found now and then painfully earning the bread which is very bitter to them in richer people's houses, and preserving in their little silent souls some fetish in the shape of a scrap of gentility, which is their sole comfort, or almost their sole comfort. Mrs. Copperhead's fetish was the dear recollection that she was "an officer's daughter;" or rather this had been her fetish in the days when she had nothing, and was free to plume herself on the reflected glory. Whether in the depths of her luxurious abode, at the height of her good fortune, she still found comfort in the thought, it would be hard to tell. Everybody who had known her in her youth thought her the most fortunate of women. Her old school companions told her story for the encouragement of their daughters, as they might have told a fairy tale. To see her rolling in her gorgeous carriage, or bowed out of a shop where all the daintiest devices of fashion had been placed at her feet, filled passers-by with awe and envy. She could buy whatever she liked, festoon herself with finery, surround herself with the costliest knick-knacks; the more there were of them, and the costlier they were, the better was Mr. Copperhead pleased. She had everything that heart could desire. Poor little woman! What a change from the governess-chrysalis who was snubbed by her pupil and neglected by everybody! and yet I am not sure that she did not-so inconsistent is human nature-look back to those melancholy days with a sigh.

This lady was the mother of Clarence Copperhead, the young man who was at Oxford, her only child, upon whom (of course) she doted with the fondest folly; and whom his father jeered at more than at any one else in the world, more even than at his mother, yet was prouder of than of all his other sons and all his possessions put together. Clarence, whom I will not describe, as he will, I trust, show himself more effectually by his actions, was like his mother in disposition, or so, at least, she made herself happy by thinking; but by some freak of nature he was like his father in person, and carried his mouse's heart in a huge frame, somewhat hulking and heavy-shouldered, with the same roll which distinguished Mr. Copperhead, and which betrayed something of the original navvy who was the root of the race. He had his father's large face too, and a tendency towards those demonstrative and offensive whiskers which are the special inheritance of the British Philistine. But instead of the large goggle eyes, always jeering and impudent, which lighted up the paternal countenance, Clarence had a pair of mild brown orbs, repeated from his mother's faded face, which introduced the oddest discord into his physiognomy generally. In the family, that is to say among the step-brothers and step-sisters who formed Mr. Copperhead's first family, the young fellow bore no other name than that of the curled darling, though, indeed, he was as far from being curled as any one could be. He was not clever; he had none of the energy of his race, and promised to be as useless in an office as he would have been in a cutting or a yard full of men. I am not sure that this fact did not increase secretly his father's exultation and pride in him. Mr. Copperhead was fond of costly and useless things; he liked them for their cost, with an additional zest in his sense of the huge vulgar use and profit of most things in his own life. This tendency, more than any appreciation of the beautiful, made him what is called a patron of art. It swelled his personal importance to think that he was able to hang up thousands of pounds, so to speak, on his walls, knowing all the time that he could make thousands more by the money had he invested it in more useful ways. The very fact that he could afford to refrain from investing it, that he could let it lie there useless, hanging by so many cords and ribbons, was sweet to him. And so also it was sweet to him to possess a perfectly useless specimen of humanity, which had cost him a great deal, and promised to cost him still more. He had plenty of useful sons as he had of useful money. The one who was of no use was the apex and glory of the whole.

But these three made up a strange enough family party, as may be supposed. The original Copperheads, the first family, who were all of the same class and nature, would have made a much noisier, less peaceable household; but they would have been a much jollier and really more harmonious one. Mr. Copperhead himself somewhat despised his elder sons, who were like himself, only less rich, less vigorous, and less self-assertive. He saw, oddly enough, the coarseness of their manners, and even of their ways of thinking; but yet he was a great deal more comfortable, more at his ease among them, than he was when seated opposite his trembling, deprecating, frightened little wife, or that huge youth who cost him so much and returned him so little. Now and then, at regular periodical intervals, the head of the family would go down to Blackheath to dine and spend the night with his son Joe, the se

cond and the favourite, where there were romping children and a portly, rosy young matron, and loud talk about City dinners, contracts, and estimates. This refreshed him, and he came home with many chuckles over the imperfections of the family.

"My sons buy their wives by the hundred-weight," he would say jocularly at breakfast the day after; "thirteen stone if she is a pound, is Mrs. Joe. Expensive to keep up in velvet and satin, not to speak of mutton and beef. Your mother comes cheap," he would add aside to Clarence, with a rolling laugh. Thus he did not in the least exempt his descendants from the universal ridicule which he poured on all the world; but when he sat down opposite his timid little delicate wife, and by his University man, who had very little on the whole to say for himself, Mr. Copperhead felt the increase in gentility as well as the failure in jollity. "You are a couple of ghosts after Joe and his belongings, you two. Speak louder, I say, young fellow. You don't expect me to hear that penny-whistle of yours," he would say, chuckling at them, with a mixture of pride and disdain. They amused him by their dulness and silence, and personal awe of him. He was quite out of his element between these two, and yet the very fact pleasantly excited his pride.

"I speak as gentlemen generally speak," said Clarence, who was sometimes sullen when attacked, and who knew by experience that his father was rarely offended by such an argument.

"And I am sure, dear, your papa would never wish you to do otherwise," said anxious Mrs. Copperhead, casting a furtive frightened glance at her husband. He rolled out a mighty laugh from the head of the table where he was sitting. He contemplated them with a leer that would have been insulting, had he not been the husband of one and the father of the other. The laugh and the look called forth some colour on Mrs. Copperhead's cheek, well as she was used to them; but her son was less susceptible, and ate his breakfast steadily, and did not care.

"A pretty pair you are," said Mr. Copperhead. "I like your gentility. How much foie gras would you eat for breakfast, I wonder, my lad, if you had to work for it? Luckily for you, I wasn't brought up to talk, as you say, like a gentleman. I'd like to see you managing a field of navvies with that nice little voice of yours-ay, or a mob before the hustings, my boy. You're good for nothing, you are; a nice delicate piece of china for a cupboard, like your mother before you. However, thank Heaven, we've got the cupboard," he said with a laugh, looking round him; "a nice big 'un, too, well painted and gilded; and the time has come, through not talking like a gentleman, that I can afford you. You should hear Joe. When that fellow talks, his house shakes. Confounded bad style of house, walls like gingerbread. How the boards don't break like pie-crust under Mrs. Joe's fairy foot, I can't make out. By Jove, ma'am, one would think I starved you, to see you beside your daughter-in-law. Always had a fine healthy appetite had Mrs. Joe."

There was nothing to answer to this speech, and therefore a dead silence ensued. When the master of the house is so distinctly the master, silence is apt to ensue after his remarks. Mrs. Copperhead sipped her tea, and Clarence worked steadily through his breakfast, and the head of the family crumpled the Times, which he read at intervals. All sorts of jokes had gone on at Joe's table the morning before, and there had been peals of laughter, and Mrs. Joe had even administered a slap upon her husband's ruddy cheek for some pleasantry or other. Mr. Copperhead, as he looked at his son and his wife, chuckled behind the Times. When they thought he was occupied they made a few gentle remarks to each other. They had soft voices, with that indescribable resemblance in tone which so often exists between mother and son. Dresden china; yes, that was the word; and to see his own resemblance made in that delicate pate, and elevated into that region of superlative costliness, tickled Mr. Copperhead, and in the most delightful way.

"How about your ball?" was his next question, "or Clarence's ball, as you don't seem to take much interest in it, ma'am? You are afraid of being brought in contact with the iron pots, eh? You might crack or go to pieces, who knows, and what would become of me, a wretched widower." Mr. Copperhead himself laughed loudly at this joke, which did not excite any mirth from the others, and then he repeated his question, "How about the ball?"

"The invitations are all sent out, Mr. Copperhead; ninety-five-I-I mean a hundred and thirty-five. I-I beg your pardon, they were in two lots," answered the poor woman nervously. "A hundred and thirty-eight-and there is-a few more-"

"Take your time, ma'am, take your time, we'll get at the truth at last," said her husband; and he laid down his paper and looked at her. He was not angry nor impatient. The twinkle in his eye was purely humorous. Her stumblings amused him, and her nervousness. But oddly enough, the most furious impatience could not have more deeply disconcerted her.

"There are a few more-some old friends of mine," she went on, confused. "They were once rather-kind-took an interest; that is-"

"Oh, the baronet and his daughters," said Mr. Copperhead, "by all means let's have the baronet and his daughters. Though as for their taking an interest-if you had not been a rich man's wife, ma'am, living in a grand house in Portland Place-"

"It was not now," she said, hurriedly. "I do not suppose that any one takes an interest-in me now-"

Mr. Copperhead laughed, and nodded his head. "Not many, ma'am, I should think-not many. You women must make up your minds to that. It's all very well to take an interest in a pretty girl; but when you come to a certain age-Well, let's proceed, the baronet-"

"And his two girls-"

"Ah, there's two girls! that's for you, Clarence, my boy. I thought there must be a motive. Think that fellow a good parti, eh? And I would not say they were far wrong if he behaves himself. Make a note of the baronet's daughter, young man. Lord, what a world it is!" said Mr. Copperhead, reflectively. "I should not wonder if you had been scheming, too."

"I would not for the world!" cried the poor little woman, roused for once. "I would not for anything interfere with a marriage. That is the last thing you need fear from me. Whether it was a girl I was fond of, or a girl I disliked-so long as she was Clarence's choice. Oh, I know the harm that is done by other people's meddling-nothing, nothing, would induce me to interfere."

Mr. Copperhead laid down his paper, and looked at her. I suppose, however little a man may care for his wife, he does not relish the idea that she married him for anything but love. He contemplated her still with amused ridicule, but with something fiercer in his eyes. "Oh-h!" he said, "you don't like other people to interfere? not so much as to say, it's a capital match, eh? You'll get so and so, and so and so, that you couldn't have otherwise-carriages perhaps, and plenty of money in your pocket (which it may be you never had in your life before), and consideration, and one of the finest houses in London, let us say in Portland Place. You don't like that amount of good advice, eh? Well, I do-I mean to interfere with my son, to that extent at least-you can do what you like. But as you're a person of prodigious influence, and strong will, and a great deal of character, and all that," Mr. Copperhead broke out with a rude laugh, "I'm afraid of you, I am-quite afraid."

Fortunately, just at this moment his brougham came round, and the great man finished his coffee at a gulp, and got up. "You look out for the baronet's daughters, then-" he said, "and see all's ready for this ball of yours; while I go and work to pay the bills, that's my share. You do the ornamental, and I do the useful, ha, ha! I'll keep up my share."

It was astonishing what a difference came upon the room the moment he disappeared. Somehow it had been out of harmony. His voice, his look, his heavy person, even his whiskers had been out of character. Now the air seemed to flutter after the closing of the door like water into which something offensive has sunk, and when the ripples of movement were over the large handsome room had toned down into perfect accord with its remaining inhabitants. Mrs. Copperhead's eyes were rather red-not with tears, but with the inclination to shed tears, which she carefully restrained in her son's presence. He still continued to eat steadily-he had an admirable appetite. But when he had finished everything on his plate, he looked up and said, "I hope you don't mind, mamma; I don't suppose you do; but I don't like the way my father speaks to you."

"Oh, my dear!" cried the mother, with an affected little smile, "why should I mind? I ought to know by this time that it's only your papa's way."

"I suppose so-but I don't like it," said the young man, decisively. He did not notice, however, as after second thoughts he returned to the game-pie, that his mother's eyes were redder than ever.

* * *

Top

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares