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   Chapter 3 MR. COPPERHEAD'S BALL.

Phoebe, Junior By Mrs. Oliphant Characters: 25343

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


This ball was an event, not only in Mr. Copperhead's household, but even in the connection itself, to which the idea of balls, as given by leading members of the flock, was somewhat novel. Not that the young people were debarred from that amusement, but it was generally attained in a more or less accidental manner, and few professing Christians connected with the management of the chapel had gone the length of giving such an entertainment openly and with design. Mr. Copperhead, however, was in a position to triumph over all such prejudices. He was so rich that any community would have felt it ought to extend a certain measure of indulgence to such a man. Very wealthy persons are like spoilt children, their caprices are allowed to be natural, and even when we are angry with them we excuse the vagaries to which money has a right. This feeling of indulgence goes a very great way, especially among the classes engaged in money-making, who generally recognize a man's right to spend, and feel the sweetness of spending more acutely than the hereditary possessors of wealth. I do not believe that his superior knowledge of the best ways of using money profitably ever hinders a money-making man from lavish expenditure; but it gives him a double zest in spending, and it makes him, generally, charitable towards the extravagances of persons still richer than himself. A ball, there was no doubt, was a worldly-minded entertainment, but still, the chapel reflected, it is almost impossible not to be a little worldly-minded when you possess such a great share of the world's goods, and that, of course, it could not be for himself that Mr. Copperhead was doing this, but for his son. His son, these amiable casuists proceeded, was being brought up to fill a great position, and no doubt society did exact something, and as Mr. Copperhead had asked all the chief chapel people, his ball was looked upon with very indulgent eyes. The fact that the minister and his family were going staggered some of the more particular members a little, but Mr. Beecham took high ground on the subject and silenced the flock. "The fact that a minister of religion is one of the first persons invited, is sufficient proof of the way our friend means to manage everything," said the pastor. "Depend upon it, it would be good for the social relations of the country if your pastors and teachers were always present. It gives at once a character to all the proceedings." This, like every other lofty assertion, stilled the multitude. Some of the elder ladies, indeed, groaned to hear, even at the prayer-meetings, a whisper between the girls about this ball and what they were going to wear; but still it was Christmas, and all the newspapers, and a good deal of the light literature which is especially current at that season, persistently represented all the world as in a state of imbecile joviality, and thus, for the moment, every objection was put down.

To nobody, however, was the question, what to wear, more interesting than to Ph?be, junior, who was a very well-instructed young woman, and even on the point of dress had theories of her own. Ph?be had, as her parents were happy to think, had every advantage in her education. She had possessed a German governess all to herself, by which means, even Mr. Beecham himself supposed, a certain amount of that philosophy which Germans communicate by their very touch must have got into her, besides her music and the language which was her primary study. And she had attended lectures at the ladies' college close by, and heard a great many eminent men on a great many different subjects. She had read, too, a great deal. She was very well got up in the subject of education for women, and lamented often and pathetically the difficulty they lay under of acquiring the highest instruction; but at the same time she patronized Mr. Ruskin's theory that dancing, drawing, and cooking were three of the higher arts which ought to be studied by girls. It is not necessary for me to account for the discrepancies between those two systems, in the first place because I cannot, and in the second place, because there is in the mind of the age some ineffable way of harmonizing them which makes their conjunction common. Ph?be was restrained from carrying out either to its full extent. She was not allowed to go in for the Cambridge examinations because Mr. Beecham felt the connection might think it strange to see his daughter's name in the papers, and, probably, would imagine he meant to make a schoolmistress of her, which he thanked Providence he had no need to do. And she was not allowed to educate herself in the department of cooking, to which Mrs. Beecham objected, saying likewise, thank Heaven, they had no need of such messings; that she did not wish her daughter to make a slave of herself, and that Cook would not put up with it. Between these two limits Ph?be's noble ambition was confined, which was a "trial" to her. But she did what she could, bating neither heart nor hope. She read Virgil at least, if not Sophocles, and she danced and dressed though she was not allowed to cook.

As she took the matter in this serious way, it will be understood that the question of dress was not a mere frivolity with her. A week before the ball she stood in front of the large glass in her mother's room, contemplating herself, not with that satisfaction which it is generally supposed a pretty young woman has in contemplating her own image. She was decidedly a pretty young woman. She had a great deal of the hair of the period, nature in her case, as (curiously, yet very truly) in so many others, having lent herself to the prevailing fashion. How it comes about I cannot tell, but it is certain that there does exist at this present moment, a proportion of golden-haired girls which very much exceeds the number we used to see when golden hair had not become fashionable-a freak of nature which is altogether independent of dyes and auriferous fluid, and which probably has influenced fashion unawares. To be sure the pomades of twenty years ago are, Heaven be praised! unknown to this generation, and washing also has become the fashion, which accounts for something. Anyhow, Ph?be, junior, possessed in perfection the hair of the period. She had, too, the complexion which goes naturally with those sunny locks-a warm pink and white, which, had the boundaries between the pink and the white been a little more distinct, would have approached perfection too. This was what she was thinking when she looked at herself in her mother's great glass. Mrs. Beecham stood behind her, more full-blown and more highly-coloured than she, but very evidently the rose to which this bud would come in time. Ph?be looked at her own reflection, and then at her mother's, and sighed such a profound sigh as only lungs in the most excellent condition could produce.

"Mamma," she said, with an accent of despair, "I am too pink, a great deal too pink! What am I to do?"

"Nonsense, my pet," said Mrs. Beecham; "you have a lovely complexion;" and she threw a quantity of green ribbons which lay by over her child's hair and shoulders. A cloud crossed the blooming countenance of Ph?be, junior. She disembarrassed herself of the ribbons with another sigh.

"Dear mamma," she said, "I wish you would let me read with you now and then, about the theory of colours, for instance. Green is the complementary of red. If you want to bring out my pink and make it more conspicuous than ever, of course you will put me in a green dress. No, mamma, dear, not that-I should look a fright; and though I dare say it does not matter much, I object to looking a fright. Women are, I suppose, more ornamental than men, or, at least, everybody says so; and in that case it is our duty to keep it up."

"You are a funny girl, with your theories of colour," said Mrs. Beecham. "In my time, fair girls wore greens and blues, and dark girls wore reds and yellows. It was quite simple. Have a white tarlatan, then; every girl looks well in that."

"You don't see, mamma," said Ph?be, softly, suppressing in the most admirable manner the delicate trouble of not being understood, "that a thing every girl looks well in, is just the sort of thing that no one looks very well in. White shows no invention. It is as if one took no trouble about one's dress."

"And neither one ought, Ph?be," said her mother. "That is very true. It is sinful to waste time thinking of colours and ribbons, when we might be occupied about much more important matters."

"That is not my opinion at all," said Ph?be. "I should like people to think I had taken a great deal of trouble. Think of all the trouble that has to be taken to get up this ball!"

"I fear so, indeed; and a great deal of expense," said Mrs. Beecham, shaking her head. "Yes, when one comes to think of that. But then, you see, wealth has its duties. I don't defend Mr. Copperhead-"

"I don't think he wants to be defended, mamma. I think it is all nonsense about wasting time. What I incline to, if you won't be shocked, is black."

"Black!" The suggestion took away Mrs. Beecham's breath. "As if you were fifty! Why, I don't consider myself old enough for black."

"It is a pity," said Ph?be, with a glance at her mother's full colours; but that was really of so much less importance. "Black would throw me up," she added seriously, turning to the glass. "It would take off this pink look. I don't mind it in the cheeks, but I am pink all over; my white is pink. Black would be a great deal the best for both of us. It would tone us down," said Ph?be, decisively, "and it would throw us up."

"But for you, a girl under twenty, my dear-"

"Mamma, what does it matter? The question is, am I to look my best? which I think is my duty to you and to Providence; or am I just," said Ph?be, with indignation, "to look a little insipidity-a creature with no character-a little girl like everybody else?"

The consequence of this solemn appeal was that both the Ph?bes went to Mr. Copperhead's ball in black; the elder in velvet, with Honiton lace (point, which Ph?be, with her artistic instincts, would have much preferred, being unattainable); the younger in tulle, flounced to distraction, and largely relieved with blue. And the consequence of this toilette, and of the fact that Ph?be did her duty by her parents and by Providence, and looked her very best, was that Clarence Copperhead fell a hopeless victim to her fascinations, and scarcely could be induced to leave her side all night. The ball was about as remarkable a ball as could have been seen in London. The son of the house had contemplated with absolute despair the list of invitations. He had deprecated the entertainment altogether. He had said, "We know nobody," with a despairing impertinence which called forth one of his father's roars of laughter. And though Mr. Copperhead had done all he could to assume the position of that typical Paterfamilias who is condemned to pay for those pleasures of his family which are no pleasure to him, yet common-sense was too much for him, and everybody felt that he was in reality the giver and enjoyer of the entertainment. It was Mr., not Mrs. Copperhead's ball. It was the first of the kind which had ever taken place in his house; the beginning of a new chapter in his social existence. Up to this moment he had not shown any signs of being smitten with that craze for "Society," which so often and so sorely affects the millionnaire. He had contented himself hitherto with heavy and showy dinners, costing Heaven knows how much a head (Mr. Copperhead knew, and swelled visibly in pride and pleasure as the cost increased), which he consumed in company with twenty people or so of kindred tastes to himself, who appreciated the cost and understood his feelings. On such people, however, his Dresden china was thrown away. Joe and Mrs. Joe were much more in their way than the elegant University man and the well-bred mother, who was "a poor little dowdy," they all said. Therefore the fact had been forced upon Mr. Copperhead that his circle must be widened and advanced, if his crowning glories were to be appreciated as they deserved.

The hunger of wealth for that something above wealth which the bewildered rich man only discovers the existence of when he has struggled to the highest pinnacle of advancement in his own way, began to seize this wealthy neophyte. To be sure, in this first essay, the company which he assembled in his fine rooms in Portland Place, to see all his fine things and celebrate his glory, was not a fine company, but they afforded more gra

tification to Mr. Copperhead than if they had been ever so fine. They were people of his own class, his old friends, invited to be dazzled, though standing out to the utmost of their power, and refusing, so far as in them lay, to admit how much dazzled they were. It was a more reasonable sort of vanity than the commoner kind, which aims at displaying its riches to great personages, people who are not dazzled by any extent of grandeur, and in whose bosoms no jealousy is excited towards the giver of the feast. Mr. Copperhead's friends had much more lively feelings; they walked about through the great rooms, with their wives on their arms, in a state of semi-defiance, expressing no admiration, saying to each other, "This must have cost Copperhead a pretty penny," as they met in doorways; while the ladies put their flowery and jewelled heads together and whispered, "Did you ever see such extravagance? And what a dowdy she is with it all!" This was the under-current of sentiment which flowed strong in all the passages, and down the rapids of the great staircase; a stream of vigorous human feeling, the existence of which was as deeply gratifying to the entertainer as the sweetest flattery. The lord and the ladies who might have been tempted to his great house would not have had a thought to spare for Mr. Copperhead; but the unwilling applause of his own class afforded him a true triumph.

Amid this throng of people, however, there could be little doubt that the one young lady who attracted his son was the least eligible person there, being no other than Ph?be Beecham, the pastor's daughter. Almost the only other utterly ineligible girl was a pale little maiden who accompanied Sir Robert Dorset and his daughters, and who was supposed to be either their governess or their humble companion. The Dorsets were the only people who had any pretensions to belong to "society," in all those crowded rooms. They were distantly related to Mrs. Copperhead, and had been, she gratefully thought, kind to her in her youth, and they had no particular objection to be kind to her now that she was rich, though the Baronet, as Mr. Copperhead always called him, winced at so rampant a specimen of wealth, and "the girls" did not see what good it was to keep up relations with a distant cousin, who though so prodigiously rich was of no possible use, and could neither make parties for them, nor chaperon them to the houses of the great. When they had received her present invitation, they had accepted it with surprise and hesitation. Chance only had brought them to London at that time of the year, the most curious time surely to choose for a ball, but convenient enough as affording a little amusement at a season when little amusement was ordinarily to be had. Sir Robert had consented to go, as a man with no occupation elsewhere might consent to go to the Cannibal Islands, to see how the savages comported themselves. And little Ursula May, another poor relative on the other side of the house, whom they had charitably brought up to town with them, might go too, they decided, to such a gathering. There was no Lady Dorset, and the girls were "girls" only by courtesy, having passed the age to which that title refers. Such good looks as they had were faded, and they were indifferently dressed. This last circumstance arose partly from the fact that they never dressed very well, and partly because they did not think it necessary to put themselves to much trouble for poor Mrs. Copperhead's ball. Their little companion, Ursula, was in a white frock, the sort of dress which Ph?be had rebelled against. She was all white and had never been to a ball before. This little party, which represented the aristocracy at the Copperhead's ball, went to the entertainment with a little expectation in their minds: What sort of people would be there? Would they be "frights?" They were not likely to be interesting in any other way, the Miss Dorsets knew; but to little Ursula a ball was a ball, and meant delight and glory she was aware, though she did not quite know how. The expectations of the party, however, were strangely disappointed. Instead of being "a set of frights," Mrs. Copperhead's guests were found to be resplendent in toilette. Never, even under a ducal roof, had these ladies found themselves in such a gorgeous assembly, and never before, perhaps, even at the Duchess's grandest receptions, had they been unable to discover a single face they knew. Sir Robert was even more appalled by this discovery than his daughters were. He put up his glass and peered more and more wistfully into the crowd. "Don't know a soul," he repeated at intervals. Poor Sir Robert! he had not thought it possible that such an event could happen to him within the four seas. Accordingly the Dorsets clung, somewhat scared, to Mrs. Copperhead's side, and Ursula along with them, who looked at the crowd still more wistfully than Sir Robert did, and thought how nice it would be to know somebody. Unfortunately the Miss Dorsets were not attractive in personal appearance. Clarence Copperhead, though he was not indifferent to a baronet, was yet not sufficiently devoted to the aristocracy to do more than dance once, as was his bounden duty, with each of the sisters. "It seems so strange not to know any one," these ladies said. "Isn't it?" said Clarence. "I don't know a soul." But then he went off and danced with Ph?be Beecham, and the Miss Dorsets stood by Mrs. Copperhead, almost concealing behind them the slight little snow-white figure of little Ursula May.

Clarence was a very well-behaved young man on the whole. He knew his duty, and did it with a steady industry, working off his dances in the spirit of his navvy forefather. But he returned between each duty dance to the young lady in black, who was always distinguishable among so many young ladies in white, and pink, and green, and blue. The Miss Dorsets and Ursula looked with interest and something like envy at that young lady in black. She had so many partners that she scarcely knew how to manage them all, and the son of the house returned to her side with a pertinacity that could not pass unremarked. "Why should one girl have so much and another girl so little?" Ursula said to herself; but, to be sure, she knew nobody, and the young lady in black knew everybody. On the whole, however, it became evident to Ursula that a ball was not always a scene of unmixed delight.

"It is very kind of you to remember what old friends we are," said Ph?be. "But, Mr. Clarence, don't be more good to me than you ought to be. I see your mother looking for you, and Mr. Copperhead might not like it. Another time, perhaps, we shall be able to talk of old days."

"There is no time like the present," said the young man, who liked his own way. I do not mean to say that it was right of Ph?be to dance with him, especially dances she had promised to other people. But he was the personage of the evening, and that is a great temptation. Mr. Copperhead himself came up to them more than once, with meaning in his eyes.

"Don't be too entertaining, Miss Ph?be," he said; for he saw no reason why he should not speak plainly in his own house, especially to the minister's daughter. "Don't be too entertaining. This is Clarence's ball, and he ought to be civil to other people too."

"Oh, please go away!" cried Ph?be, after this admonition. But Clarence was sullen, and stood his ground.

"We are going to have our waltz out," he said. "It is not my ball a bit-let him entertain his people himself. How should I know such a set of guys? I know nobody but you and the Dorset girls, who are in society. Parents are a mistake," said the young man, half rebellious, half sullen, "they never understand. Perhaps you don't feel that, but I should think girls must see it sometimes as well as men."

"Girls don't use such strong expressions," said Ph?be, smiling, as they flew off in the uncompleted waltz. She danced very well, better than most of the ladies present, and that was the reason Clarence assigned to his mother for his preference of her. But when Mr. Copperhead saw that his remonstrance was unheeded by the young people, he went up to Mrs. Beecham, with a rich man's noble frankness and courage. "I am delighted to see you here, ma'am, and I hope you have remarked how well Miss Ph?be is entertaining my boy. Do you see them dancing? She's been away from you a long time, Mrs. Beecham, as girls will when they get hold of somebody that pleases them. Shouldn't you like me to go and fetch her back?" Mrs. Beecham, with cheeks that were very full blown indeed, and required a great deal of fanning, called back her child to her side at the end of that dance. She scolded Ph?be behind her fan, and recalled her to a sense of duty. "A pastor's daughter has to be doubly particular," she said; "what if your poor papa was to get into trouble through your thoughtlessness?"

"I was not thoughtless, mamma; forgive me for answering back," said Ph?be, very meekly; and she showed no signs of sulkiness, though Clarence was carried off and kept from approaching her again.

Unfortunately, however, when Clarence was removed from Ph?be, he fell into still greater peril. The eldest Miss Dorset and her mother, both of them with equally benevolent intentions, introduced him simultaneously to Ursula May. "The poor little girl has not danced once," Mrs. Copperhead, who had recollections of standing by herself for a whole evening, unnoticed, whispered in his ear, and Miss Dorset spoke to him still more plainly. "We brought her," she said, "but I cannot get her partners, for I don't know anybody." And what could Clarence do but offer himself? And Ursula, too, was a good dancer, and very pretty-far prettier than Ph?be.

"Confound him! there he is now for ever with that girl in white," said his father to himself, with great rage. Dozens of good partners in pink and blue were going about the room. What did the boy mean by bestowing himself upon the two poor ones, the black and the white. This disturbed Mr. Copperhead's enjoyment, as he stood in the doorway of the ball-room, looking round upon all the splendour that was his, and feeling disposed, like Nebuchadnezzar, to call upon everybody to come and worship him. He expanded and swelled out with pride and complacency, as he looked round upon his own greatness, and perceived the effect made upon the beholders. When that effect did not seem sufficiently deep, he called here and there upon a lingerer for applause. "That's considered a very fine Turner," he said, taking one of them into a smaller room. "Come along here, you know about that sort of thing-I don't. I should be ashamed to tell you how much I gave for it; all that money hanging there useless, bringing in nothing! But when I do buy anything I like it to be the very best that is to be had."

"I'd as soon have a good chromo," said the person addressed, "which costs a matter of a five-pound note, and enough too, to hang up against a wall. But you can afford it, Copperhead. You've the best right of any man I know to be a fool if you like."

The great man laughed, but he scarcely liked the compliment. "I am a fool if you like," he said, "the biggest fool going. I like a thing that costs a deal, and is of no use. That's what I call luxury. My boy, Clarence, and my big picture, they're dear; but I can afford 'em, if they were double the price."

"If I were you," said his friend, "I wouldn't hang my picture in this little bit of a hole, nor let my boy waste his time with all the riff-raff in the room. There's Smith's girl and Robinson's niece, both of them worth a cool hundred thousand; and you leave him to flourish about all over the place with a chit in a white frock, and another in a black one. I call that waste, not luxury, for my part."

"I don't want to sell either the boy or the picture," said the rich man, with a laugh. But nevertheless he was annoyed that his son should be such an ass. Miss Smith and Miss Robinson were as fine as their milliners could make them. The first of these ladies had an emerald locket almost as big as a warming-pan, and Miss Robinson's pearls were a little fortune in themselves; but the chosen objects of that young idiot's attentions wore nothing but trumpery twopenny-halfpenny trinkets, and gowns which had been made at home for all Mr. Copperhead knew. Confound him! the father breathed hotly to himself. Thus it will be seen that unmixed pleasure is not to be had in this world, even in the midst of envious friends and the most splendid entertainment which money could supply.

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