|Table of Contents|
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
It invariably happened in the same way.
Mrs. Julius Beaufort, on the night of her annual ball,
never failed to appear at the Opera; indeed, she always gave her ball on
an Opera night in order to emphasise her complete superiority to household
cares, and her possession of a staff of servants competent to organise
every detail of the entertainment in her absence.
The Beauforts' house was one of the few in New York
that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott's and
the Headly Chiverses'); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought
"provincial" to put a "crash" over the drawing-room
floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that
was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four
days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a
corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to
compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.
Mrs. Archer, who was fond of coining her social
philosophy into axioms, had once said:
"We all have our pet common people--" and though the
phrase was a daring one, its truth was secretly admitted in many an
exclusive bosom. But the
Beauforts were not exactly common; some people said they were even worse.
Mrs. Beaufort belonged indeed to one of America's most honoured
families; she had been the lovely Regina Dallas (of the South Carolina
branch), a penniless beauty introduced to New York society by her cousin,
the imprudent Medora Manson, who was always doing the wrong thing from the
right motive. When one was
related to the Mansons and the Rushworths one had a "droit de
cite" (as Mr. Sillerton Jackson, who had frequented the Tuileries,
called it) in New York society; but did one not forfeit it in marrying
The question was: who was Beaufort? He passed for an Englishman, was agreeable, handsome,
ill-tempered, hospitable and witty. He
had come to America with letters of recommendation from old Mrs. Manson
Mingott's English son-in-law, the banker, and had speedily made himself an
important position in the world of affairs; but his habits were dissipated,
his tongue was bitter, his antecedents were mysterious; and when Medora
Manson announced her cousin's engagement to him it was felt to be one more
act of folly in poor Medora's long record of imprudences.
But folly is as often justified of her children as
wisdom, and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort's marriage it was admitted
that she had the most distinguished house in New York.
No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished.
She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but
dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more
beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort's heavy brown-stone palace,
and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger.
The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the
servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house
flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the
guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife
wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately
performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and
hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the
detachment of an invited guest, and saying:
"My wife's gloxinias are a marvel, aren't they?
I believe she gets them out from Kew."
Mr. Beaufort's secret, people were agreed, was the way
he carried things off. It was
all very well to whisper that he had been "helped" to leave
England by the international banking-house in which he had been employed; he
carried off that rumour as easily as the rest--though New York's business
conscience was no less sensitive than its moral standard--he carried
everything before him, and all New York into his drawing- rooms, and for
over twenty years now people had said they were "going to the Beauforts'"
with the same tone of security as if they had said they were going to Mrs.
Manson Mingott's, and with the added satisfaction of knowing they would get
hot canvas-back ducks and vintage wines, instead of tepid Veuve Clicquot
without a year and warmed-up croquettes from Philadelphia.
Mrs. Beaufort, then, had as usual appeared in her box
just before the Jewel Song; and when, again as usual, she rose at the end of
the third act, drew her opera cloak about her lovely shoulders, and
disappeared, New York knew that meant that half an hour later the ball would
The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud
to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball.
The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own
their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own
footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and
the ball-room chairs. They had
also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in
the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess's bedroom and recurling
their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have
said that he supposed all his wife's friends had maids who saw to it that
they were properly coiffees when they left home.
Then the house had been boldly planned with a
ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to
it (as at the Chiverses') one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed
drawing- rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d'or), seeing from
afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and
beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns
arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.
Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position,
strolled in somewhat late. He
had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were
one of Beaufort's few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung
with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men
were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined
the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the
Archer was distinctly nervous.
He had not gone back to his club after the Opera (as the young bloods
usually did), but, the night being fine, had walked for some distance up
Fifth Avenue before turning back in the direction of the Beauforts' house.
He was definitely afraid that the Mingotts might be going too far;
that, in fact, they might have Granny Mingott's orders to bring the Countess
Olenska to the ball.
From the tone of the club box he had perceived how
grave a mistake that would be; and, though he was more than ever determined
to "see the thing through," he felt less chivalrously eager to
champion his betrothed's cousin than before their brief talk at the Opera.
Wandering on to the bouton d'or drawing-room (where
Beaufort had had the audacity to hang "Love Victorious," the
much-discussed nude of Bouguereau) Archer found Mrs. Welland and her
daughter standing near the ball-room door.
Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the
wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with
modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married
women's coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and
fresh glace gloves.
Miss Welland, evidently about to join the dancers, hung
on the threshold, her lilies-of-the-valley in her hand (she carried no other
bouquet), her face a little pale, her eyes burning with a candid excitement.
A group of young men and girls were gathered about her, and there was
much hand-clasping, laughing and pleasantry on which Mrs. Welland, standing
slightly apart, shed the beam of a qualified approval.
It was evident that Miss Welland was in the act of announcing her
engagement, while her mother affected the air of parental reluctance
considered suitable to the occasion.
Archer paused a moment.
It was at his express wish that the announcement had been made, and
yet it was not thus that he would have wished to have his happiness known.
To proclaim it in the heat and noise of a crowded ball-room was to
rob it of the fine bloom of privacy which should belong to things nearest
the heart. His joy was so deep that this blurring of the surface left its
essence untouched; but he would have liked to keep the surface pure too.
It was something of a satisfaction to find that May Welland shared
this feeling. Her eyes fled to
his beseechingly, and their look said:
"Remember, we're doing this because it's right."
No appeal could have found a more immediate response in
Archer's breast; but he wished that the necessity of their action had been
represented by some ideal reason, and not simply by poor Ellen Olenska.
The group about Miss Welland made way for him with significant
smiles, and after taking his share of the felicitations he drew his
betrothed into the middle of the ball-room floor and put his arm about her
"Now we shan't have to talk," he said,
smiling into her candid eyes, as they floated away on the soft waves of the
She made no answer.
Her lips trembled into a smile, but the eyes remained distant and
serious, as if bent on some ineffable vision.
"Dear," Archer whispered, pressing her to him: it was borne
in on him that the first hours of being engaged, even if spent in a
ball-room, had in them something grave and sacramental.
What a new life it was going to be, with this whiteness, radiance,
goodness at one's side!
The dance over, the two, as became an affianced couple,
wandered into the conservatory; and sitting behind a tall screen of
tree-ferns and camellias Newland pressed her gloved hand to his lips.
"You see I did as you asked me to," she said.
"Yes: I couldn't wait," he answered smiling.
After a moment he added: "Only
I wish it hadn't had to be at a ball."
"Yes, I know."
She met his glance comprehendingly. "But after all--even here
we're alone together, aren't we?"
"Oh, dearest--always!" Archer cried.
Evidently she was always going to understand; she was
always going to say the right thing. The
discovery made the cup of his bliss overflow, and he went on gaily:
"The worst of it is that I want to kiss you and I can't."
As he spoke he took a swift glance about the conservatory, assured
himself of their momentary privacy, and catching her to him laid a fugitive
pressure on her lips. To
counteract the audacity of this proceeding he led her to a bamboo sofa in a
less secluded part of the conservatory, and sitting down beside her broke a
lily-of-the-valley from her bouquet. She
sat silent, and the world lay like a sunlit valley at their feet.
"Did you tell my cousin Ellen?" she asked
presently, as if she spoke through a dream.
He roused himself, and remembered that he had not done
so. Some invincible repugnance
to speak of such things to the strange foreign woman had checked the words
on his lips.
"No--I hadn't the chance after all," he said,
looked disappointed, but gently resolved on gaining her point.
"You must, then, for I didn't either; and I shouldn't like her
"Of course not.
But aren't you, after all, the person to do it?"
She pondered on this.
"If I'd done it at the right time, yes: but now that there's
been a delay I think you must explain that I'd asked you to tell her at the
Opera, before our speaking about it to everybody here. Otherwise she might
think I had forgotten her. You
see, she's one of the family, and she's been away so long that she's
Archer looked at her glowingly.
"Dear and great angel! Of
course I'll tell her." He
glanced a trifle apprehensively toward the crowded ball-room. "But I haven't seen her yet. Has she come?"
"No; at the last minute she decided not to."
"At the last minute?" he echoed, betraying
his surprise that she should ever have considered the alternative possible.
awfully fond of dancing," the young girl answered simply.
"But suddenly she made up her mind that her dress wasn't smart
enough for a ball, though we thought it so lovely; and so my aunt had to
take her home."
"Oh, well--" said Archer with happy
indifference. Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more than her resolute
determination to carry to its utmost limit that ritual of ignoring the
"unpleasant" in which they had both been brought up.
"She knows as well as I do," he reflected,
"the real reason of her cousin's staying away; but I shall never let
her see by the least sign that I am conscious of there being a shadow of a
shade on poor Ellen Olenska's reputation."
|Table of Contents|