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   Chapter 4 A COUNTRY PARTY.

Phoebe, Junior By Mrs. Oliphant Characters: 13073

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"Very funny, now," said Sir Robert. "I don't know that such a thing ever happened to me before. Give you my word for it, I didn't know a single soul, not one; and there must have been a couple of hundred or so there. Jove! I never thought there were as many people in England that I didn't know."

"How could you know Mr. Copperhead's friends?" said Sophy Dorset. "What I wonder is, that she should have asked us. Not but that it was amusing enough, once in a way, just to see how such people look."

"They looked very much like other people, my dear. Finer, though. I haven't seen so many jewels at an evening party for ages. Very much like other people. Fatter, perhaps, the men, but not the women. I notice," said Sir Robert, who himself was spare, "that City men generally have a tendency to fat."

"They are so rich," said Miss Dorset, with gentle disgust.

She was the quiet one, never saying much. Sophy, who was lively, conducted the conversation. They were all seated at breakfast, later than usual, on the morning after the Copperheads' ball. It was a hazy morning, and the party were seated in a large sitting-room in the "very central" locality of Suffolk Street, looking down that straight little street upon the stream of carriages and omnibuses in the foggy distance. It was not for pleasure that this country party had come to London. Sir Robert's second son, who was in India, had sent his eldest children home to the care of his father and sisters. They were expected at Portsmouth daily, and the aunts, somewhat excited by the prospect of their charge, had insisted upon coming to town to receive them. As for Ursula May, who was a poor relation on the late Lady Dorset's side, as Mrs. Copperhead had been a poor relation on Sir Robert's, London at any season was a wonder and excitement to her, and she could not sufficiently thank the kind relations who had given her this holiday in her humdrum life. She was the daughter of a poor clergyman in the little town of Carlingford, a widower with a large family. Ursula was the eldest daughter, with the duties of a mother on her much burdened hands; and she had no special inclination towards these duties, so that a week's escape from them was a relief to her at any time. And a ball! But the ball had not been so beatific as Ursula hoped. In her dark blue serge dress, close up to the throat and down to the wrists, she did not look so pale as she had done in her snow-white garments on the previous night; but she was at the best of times a shadowy little person, with soft, dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and no more colour than the faintest of wild rose tints; but the youthfulness, and softness, and roundness of the girl showed to full advantage beside the more angular development of the Miss Dorsets, who were tall, and had lost the first smooth curves of youth. To Ursula, not yet twenty, these ladies looked very mature, almost aged, being one of them ten, and the other eight years older than herself. She looked up to them with great respect; but she felt, all the same-how could she help it?-that in some things, though the Miss Dorsets were her superiors, it was best to be Ursula May.

"Poor Clara!" said Sir Robert. "She was always a frightened creature. When I recollect her, a poor little governess, keeping behind backs at the nursery parties-and to see her in all her splendour now!"

"She would keep behind backs still, if she could," said Miss Dorset.

"Think of that, Ursula," cried Sophy; "there is an example for you. She was a great deal worse off than you are; and to see her now, as papa says! You may have a house in Portland Place too, and ask us to balls, and wear diamonds. Think of that! Though last night you looked as frightened as she."

"Don't put such demoralizing ideas into the child's head. How it is that girls are not ruined," said Miss Dorset, shaking her head, "ruined! by such examples, I cannot tell. They must have stronger heads than we think. As poor as Cinderella one day, and the next as rich as the Queen-without any merit of theirs, all because some chance man happens to take a fancy to them."

"Quite right," said Sir Robert; "quite right, my dear. It is the natural course of affairs."

Miss Dorset shook her head. She went on shaking her head as she poured out the tea. She was not given to eloquence, but the subject inspired her.

"Don't think of it, Ursula; it is not the sort of thing that good girls ought to think of," and the elder sister made signs to Sophy, who was reckless, and did not mind the moral effect of the suggestion.

"Poor Mrs. Copperhead! I shall never have a house in Portland Place, nor any diamonds, except Aunt Mary's old brooch. I shall live and die an old maid, and nobody will waste a thought upon me," said Sophy, who made this prophecy at her ease, not expecting it to come true; "but I don't envy poor Clara, and if you marry such a man as Mr. Copperhead, though I shall admire you very much, Ursula, I shan't envy you."

"Is young Mr. Copperhead as bad as his father?" said Ursula, simply.

She was so far from thinking what meaning could be attached to her words, that she stopped and looked, wondering, from one to another when they laughed.

"Ha! ha! ha!" said Sir Robert; "not so bad, either!"

Poor Ursula was extremely serious. She turned with relief to Miss Dorset, who was serious too.

"My dear, we don't know much about Clarence; he is a heavy young man. I don't think he is attractive. Have you had a letter from the Parsonage this morning?" said Anne Dorset, with a very grave face; and as it turned out that Ursula had a letter, Miss Dorset immediately plunged into discussion of it. The girl did not understand why the simple little epistle should be so interesting, nor did she perceive yet what the laughter was about. To tell the truth, Ursula, who was not clever, had thought young Mr. Copperhead very nice. He had asked her to dance when nobody else did; he had talked to her as much as he could have talked to Sophy Dorset herself. He had rehabilitated her in her own eyes after the first disappointment and failure of the evening, and she was prepared to think, whatever might be said about the father, that the son was "very kind" and very agreeable. Why should they laugh? Ursula concluded that there must be some private joke of their own about Clarence (what a pretty, interesting, superior name Clarence was!) which she could not be permitted to know.

"If you talk like that," said Anne Dorset to Sophy, "you

will set her little head afloat about good matches, and spoil her too."

"And a very good thing," said Sophy. "If you had put the idea into my head, I should not be Sophy Dorset now. Why shouldn't she think of a good match? Can she live there for ever in that dreadful Parsonage, among all those children whom she does not know how to manage? Don't be absurd, Anne; except an elder daughter like you here and there, you know, girls must marry if they are to be of any consequence in the world. Let them get it into their heads; we can't change what is the course of nature, as papa says."

"Oh, Sophy! it is so unwomanly."

"Never mind; when a man chuckles and jeers at me because I am unmarried, I think it is unmanly; but they all do it, and no one finds any fault."

"Not all surely; not near all."

"Don't they? Not to our faces, perhaps; but whenever they write, whenever they speak in public. When men are so mean, why should we train girls up to unnatural high-mindedness? Why, that is the sort of girl who ought to make a good marriage; to 'catch' somebody, or have somebody 'hooked' for her. She is pretty, and soft, and not very wise. I am doing the very best thing in the world for her, when I laugh at love and all that nonsense, and put a good match into her mind."

Miss Dorset turned away with a sigh, and shook her head. It was all she could do. To encounter Sophy in argument was beyond her power, and if it had not been beyond her power, what would have been the good of it? Sophy had a story which, unfortunately, most people knew. She had been romantic, and she had been disappointed. Five or six years before, she had been engaged to a clergyman, who, finding that the good living he was waiting for in order to marry was not likely to come through Sir Robert's influence, intimated to his betrothed his serious doubt whether they were likely to be happy together, and broke off the engagement. He married somebody else in six months, and Sophy was left to bear the shame as she might. To be sure, a great many people were highly indignant with him at the moment; his sin, however, was forgotten long ago, so far as he was concerned; but nobody forgot that Sophy had been jilted, and she did not forget it herself, which was worse. Therefore Miss Dorset attempted no argument with her sister. She shook her gentle head, and said nothing. Anne was the elder sister born, the maiden-mother, who is a clearly defined type of humanity, though rare, perhaps, like all the finer sorts. She resolved in her own mind to take private means for the fortification and preservation of Ursula, whose position, as elder sister of a motherless family, interested her especially as being like her own; but Anne owned within herself that she had never been so young as little Ursula May.

Ursula, for her part, thought very little about the question which had thus moved her cousins. She thought Mr. Clarence Copperhead was very nice, and that if she had but known as many people, and had as many partners as that young lady in black, she would have enjoyed the ball very much. After all, now that it was over, she felt that she had enjoyed it. Three dances were a great deal better than none at all, and to have that pretty white frock given to her by Sir Robert was no small matter. Besides, for in this as in other things the uses of adversity are sometimes sweet, the pretty dress, which no doubt would have been torn and crumpled had she danced much, was almost quite fresh now, and would do very well at Carlingford if there should be any balls there-events which happened occasionally, though Ursula had never been lucky enough to go to any of them. And Cousin Sophy had given her a set of Venetian beads and Cousin Anne a bracelet. This good fortune was quite enough to fill her mind with satisfaction, and prevent any undue meditation upon good matches or the attentions of Clarence Copperhead. Ursula was as different as possible from Ph?be Beecham. She had no pretensions to be intellectual. She preferred the company even of her very smallest brothers and sisters to the conversation of her papa, though he was known to be one of the most superior men in the diocese. Even when her elder brother Reginald, of whom she was very fond, came home from college, Ursula was more than indifferent to the privileged position of elder sister, by which she was permitted to sit up and assist at the talks which were carried on between him and his father. Reginald was very clever too; he was making his own way at the university by means of scholarships, the only way in which a son of Mr. May's was likely to get to the university at all, and to hear him talk with his father about Greek poetry and philosophy was a very fine thing indeed; how Ph?be Beecham, if the chance had been hers, would have prized it; but Ursula did not enjoy the privilege. She preferred a pantomime, or the poorest performance in a theatre, or even Madame Tussuad's exhibition. She preferred even to walk about the gay streets with Miss Dorset's maid, and look into the shop-windows and speculate what was going to be worn next season. Poor little girl! with such innocent and frivolous tastes, it may be supposed she did not find her position as elder sister and housekeeper a very congenial one. Her father was no more than Incumbent of St. Roque, an old perpetual curacy merged in a district church, which was a poor appointment for an elderly man with a family; he was very clever and superior, but not a man who got on, or who did much to help his children to get on; and had Ursula been of the kind of those who suffer and deny themselves by nature, she would have had her hands full, and abundant opportunity afforded her to exercise those faculties. But she was not of this frame of mind. She did what she was obliged to do as well as time and opportunity permitted; but she did not throw herself with any enthusiasm into her duties. To keep seven children in good condition and discipline in a small house, on a small income, is more, it must be allowed, than most girls of twenty are equal to; only enthusiasm and self-devotion could make such a task possible, and these qualifications poor little Ursula did not possess. Oh! how glad she was to get away from it all, from having to think of Janey and Johnny, and Amy and little Robin. She was not anxious about how things might be going on in her absence, as kind Miss Dorset thought she must be. The happiness of escaping was first and foremost in her thoughts.

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