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The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
Archer, during this brief episode, had been thrown into a strange state of
was annoying that the box which was thus attracting the undivided
attention of masculine New York should be that in which his betrothed was
seated between her mother and aunt; and for a moment he could not identify
the lady in the Empire dress, nor imagine why her presence created such
excitement among the initiated. Then
light dawned on him, and with it came a momentary rush of indignation. No, indeed; no one would have thought the Mingotts would have
tried it on!
they had; they undoubtedly had; for the low- toned comments behind him
left no doubt in Archer's mind that the young woman was May Welland's
cousin, the cousin always referred to in the family as "poor Ellen
Olenska." Archer knew
that she had suddenly arrived from Europe a day or two previously; he had
even heard from Miss Welland (not disapprovingly) that she had been to see
poor Ellen, who was staying with old Mrs. Mingott.
Archer entirely approved of family solidarity, and one of the
qualities he most admired in the Mingotts was their resolute championship
of the few black sheep that their blameless stock had produced.
There was nothing mean or ungenerous in the young man's heart, and
he was glad that his future wife should not be restrained by false prudery
from being kind (in private) to her unhappy cousin; but to receive
Countess Olenska in the family circle was a different thing from producing
her in public, at the Opera of all places, and in the very box with the
young girl whose engagement to him, Newland Archer, was to be announced
within a few weeks. No, he
felt as old Sillerton Jackson felt; he did not think the Mingotts would
have tried it on!
knew, of course, that whatever man dared (within Fifth Avenue's limits)
that old Mrs. Manson Mingott, the Matriarch of the line, would dare.
He had always admired the high and mighty old lady, who, in spite
of having been only Catherine Spicer of Staten Island, with a father
mysteriously discredited, and neither money nor position enough to make
people forget it, had allied herself with the head of the wealthy Mingott
line, married two of her daughters to "foreigners" (an Italian
marquis and an English banker), and put the crowning touch to her
audacities by building a large house of pale cream-coloured stone (when
brown sandstone seemed as much the only wear as a frock-coat in the
afternoon) in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.
Mrs. Mingott's foreign daughters had become a legend. They never came back to see their mother, and the latter
being, like many persons of active mind and dominating will, sedentary and
corpulent in her habit, had philosophically remained at home. But the cream- coloured house (supposed to be modelled on the
private hotels of the Parisian aristocracy) was there as a visible proof of
her moral courage; and she throned in it, among pre-Revolutionary furniture
and souvenirs of the Tuileries of Louis Napoleon (where she had shone in her
middle age), as placidly as if there were nothing peculiar in living above
Thirty-fourth Street, or in having French windows that opened like doors
instead of sashes that pushed up.
one (including Mr. Sillerton Jackson) was agreed that old Catherine had
never had beauty--a gift which, in the eyes of New York, justified every
success, and excused a certain number of failings.
Unkind people said that, like her Imperial namesake, she had won her
way to success by strength of will and hardness of heart, and a kind of
haughty effrontery that was somehow justified by the extreme decency and
dignity of her private life. Mr.
Manson Mingott had died when she was only twenty-eight, and had "tied
up" the money with an additional caution born of the general distrust
of the Spicers; but his bold young widow went her way fearlessly, mingled
freely in foreign society, married her daughters in heaven knew what corrupt
and fashionable circles, hobnobbed with Dukes and Ambassadors, associated
familiarly with Papists, entertained Opera singers, and was the intimate
friend of Mme. Taglioni; and all the while (as Sillerton Jackson was the
first to proclaim) there had never been a breath on her reputation; the only
respect, he always added, in which she differed from the earlier Catherine.
Manson Mingott had long since succeeded in untying her husband's fortune,
and had lived in affluence for half a century; but memories of her early
straits had made her excessively thrifty, and though, when she bought a
dress or a piece of furniture, she took care that it should be of the best,
she could not bring herself to spend much on the transient pleasures of the
table. Therefore, for totally
different reasons, her food was as poor as Mrs. Archer's, and her wines did
nothing to redeem it. Her
relatives considered that the penury of her table discredited the Mingott
name, which had always been associated with good living; but people
continued to come to her in spite of the "made dishes" and flat
champagne, and in reply to the remonstrances of her son Lovell (who tried to
retrieve the family credit by having the best chef in New York) she used to
say laughingly: "What's
the use of two good cooks in one family, now that I've married the girls and
can't eat sauces?"
Archer, as he mused on these things, had once more turned his eyes toward
the Mingott box. He saw that
Mrs. Welland and her sister-in-law were facing their semicircle of critics
with the Mingottian APLOMB which old Catherine had inculcated in all her
tribe, and that only May Welland betrayed, by a heightened colour (perhaps
due to the knowledge that he was watching her) a sense of the gravity of the
situation. As for the cause of
the commotion, she sat gracefully in her corner of the box, her eyes fixed
on the stage, and revealing, as she leaned forward, a little more shoulder
and bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing, at least in ladies who had
reasons for wishing to pass unnoticed.
things seemed to Newland Archer more awful than an offence against
"Taste," that far-off divinity of whom "Form" was the
mere visible representative and vicegerent.
Madame Olenska's pale and serious face appealed to his fancy as
suited to the occasion and to her unhappy situation; but the way her dress
(which had no tucker) sloped away from her thin shoulders shocked and
troubled him. He hated to think
of May Welland's being exposed to the influence of a young woman so careless
of the dictates of Taste.
all," he heard one of the younger men begin behind him (everybody
talked through the Mephistopheles- and-Martha scenes), "after all, just
left him; nobody attempts to deny that."
an awful brute, isn't he?" continued the young enquirer, a candid
Thorley, who was evidently preparing to enter the lists as the lady's
very worst; I knew him at Nice," said Lawrence Lefferts with authority.
"A half-paralysed white sneering fellow--rather handsome head,
but eyes with a lot of lashes. Well,
I'll tell you the sort: when he wasn't with women he was collecting china.
Paying any price for both, I understand."
was a general laugh, and the young champion said: "Well, then----?"
then; she bolted with his secretary."
I see." The champion's
didn't last long, though: I heard of her a few months later living alone in
Venice. I believe Lovell
Mingott went out to get her. He
said she was desperately unhappy. That's
all right--but this parading her at the Opera's another thing."
young Thorley hazarded, "she's too unhappy to be left at home."
was greeted with an irreverent laugh, and the youth blushed deeply, and
tried to look as if he had meant to insinuate what knowing people called a
queer to have brought Miss Welland, anyhow," some one said in a low
tone, with a side- glance at Archer.
that's part of the campaign: Granny's orders, no doubt," Lefferts
laughed. "When the old
lady does a thing she does it thoroughly."
act was ending, and there was a general stir in the box. Suddenly Newland Archer felt himself impelled to decisive
action. The desire to be the
first man to enter Mrs. Mingott's box, to proclaim to the waiting world his
engagement to May Welland, and to see her through whatever difficulties her
cousin's anomalous situation might involve her in; this impulse had abruptly
overruled all scruples and hesitations, and sent him hurrying through the
red corridors to the farther side of the house.
he entered the box his eyes met Miss Welland's, and he saw that she had
instantly understood his motive, though the family dignity which both
considered so high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so. The persons
of their world lived in an atmosphere of faint implications and pale
delicacies, and the fact that he and she understood each other without a
word seemed to the young man to bring them nearer than any explanation would
have done. Her eyes said: "You see why Mamma brought me," and his answered:
"I would not for the world have had you stay away."
know my niece Countess Olenska?" Mrs. Welland enquired as she shook
hands with her future son- in-law. Archer
bowed without extending his hand, as was the custom on being introduced to a
lady; and Ellen Olenska bent her head slightly, keeping her own pale-gloved
hands clasped on her huge fan of eagle feathers. Having greeted Mrs. Lovell Mingott, a large blonde lady in
creaking satin, he sat down beside his betrothed, and said in a low tone:
"I hope you've told Madame Olenska that we're engaged?
I want everybody to know--I want you to let me announce it this
evening at the ball."
Welland's face grew rosy as the dawn, and she looked at him with radiant
eyes. "If you can persuade
Mamma," she said; "but why should we change what is already
settled?" He made no
answer but that which his eyes returned, and she added, still more
confidently smiling: "Tell
my cousin yourself: I give you leave. She
says she used to play with you when you were children."
made way for him by pushing back her chair, and promptly, and a little
ostentatiously, with the desire that the whole house should see what he was
doing, Archer seated himself at the Countess Olenska's side.
DID use to play together, didn't we?" she asked, turning her grave eyes
to his. "You were a horrid
boy, and kissed me once behind a door; but it was your cousin Vandie
Newland, who never looked at me, that I was in love with."
Her glance swept the horse-shoe curve of boxes.
"Ah, how this brings it all back to me--I see everybody here in
knickerbockers and pantalettes," she said, with her trailing slightly
foreign accent, her eyes returning to his face.
as their expression was, the young man was shocked that they should reflect
so unseemly a picture of the august tribunal before which, at that very
moment, her case was being tried. Nothing
could be in worse taste than misplaced flippancy; and he answered somewhat
stiffly: "Yes, you have
been away a very long time."
centuries and centuries; so long," she said, "that I'm sure I'm
dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven;" which, for reasons
he could not define, struck Newland Archer as an even more disrespectful way
of describing New York society.
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