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The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
the course of the next day the first of the usual betrothal visits were
exchanged. The New York
ritual was precise and inflexible in such matters; and in conformity with
it Newland Archer first went with his mother and sister to call on Mrs.
Welland, after which he and Mrs. Welland and May drove out to old Mrs.
Manson Mingott's to receive that venerable ancestress's blessing.
visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always an amusing episode to the young
man. The house in itself was
already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as
certain other old family houses in University Place and lower Fifth
Avenue. Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of
cabbage- rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched
fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of
mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had
bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the
Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire.
It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the
ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward
to her solitary doors. She
seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her
confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the
one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the
rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance
of residences as stately as her own--perhaps (for she was an impartial
woman) even statelier; and that the cobble- stones over which the old
clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as
people reported having seen in Paris.
Meanwhile, as every one she cared to see came to HER (and she could
fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single
item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic
immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like
a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active
little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast
and august as a natural phenomenon. She
had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials,
and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an
almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of
which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation.
A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a
still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a
miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave
after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious
armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of
burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott's flesh had long since made it impossible for
her to go up and down stairs, and with characteristic independence she had
made her reception rooms upstairs and established herself (in flagrant
violation of all the New York proprieties) on the ground floor of her house;
so that, as you sat in her sitting-room window with her, you caught (through
a door that was always open, and a looped- back yellow damask portiere) the
unexpected vista of a bedroom with a huge low bed upholstered like a sofa,
and a toilet-table with frivolous lace flounces and a gilt-framed mirror.
visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this
arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural
incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of.
That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in
apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent
propinquities that their novels described.
It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes
of "Monsieur de Camors" in Mrs. Mingott's bedroom) to picture her
blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself,
with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the
intrepid woman would have had him too.
the general relief the Countess Olenska was not present in her grandmother's
drawing-room during the visit of the betrothed couple.
Mrs. Mingott said she had gone out; which, on a day of such glaring
sunlight, and at the "shopping hour," seemed in itself an
indelicate thing for a compromised woman to do.
But at any rate it spared them the embarrassment of her presence, and
the faint shadow that her unhappy past might seem to shed on their radiant
future. The visit went off
successfully, as was to have been expected.
Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which, being long
foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family
council; and the engagement ring, a large thick sapphire set in invisible
claws, met with her unqualified admiration.
the new setting: of course it shows the stone beautifully, but it looks a
little bare to old-fashioned eyes," Mrs. Welland had explained, with a
conciliatory side-glance at her future son-in-law.
eyes? I hope you don't mean
mine, my dear? I like all the
novelties," said the ancestress, lifting the stone to her small bright
orbs, which no glasses had ever disfigured.
"Very handsome," she added, returning the jewel; "very
liberal. In my time a cameo set
in pearls was thought sufficient. But
it's the hand that sets off the ring, isn't it, my dear Mr. Archer?"
and she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointed nails and rolls of
aged fat encircling the wrist like ivory bracelets.
"Mine was modelled in Rome by the great Ferrigiani.
You should have May's done: no doubt he'll have it done, my child.
Her hand is large--it's these modern sports that spread the
joints--but the skin is white.--And when's the wedding to be?" she
broke off, fixing her eyes on Archer's face.
Mrs. Welland murmured, while the young man, smiling at his betrothed,
replied: "As soon as ever
it can, if only you'll back me up, Mrs. Mingott."
must give them time to get to know each other a little better, mamma,"
Mrs. Welland interposed, with the proper affectation of reluctance; to which
the ancestress rejoined: "Know
each other? Fiddlesticks!
Everybody in New York has always known everybody. Let the young man have his
way, my dear; don't wait till the bubble's off the wine.
Marry them before Lent; I may catch pneumonia any winter now, and I
want to give the wedding-breakfast."
successive statements were received with the proper expressions of
amusement, incredulity and gratitude; and the visit was breaking up in a
vein of mild pleasantry when the door opened to admit the Countess Olenska,
who entered in bonnet and mantle followed by the unexpected figure of Julius
was a cousinly murmur of pleasure between the ladies, and Mrs. Mingott held
out Ferrigiani's model to the banker. "Ha!
Beaufort, this is a rare favour!" (She had an odd foreign way of
addressing men by their surnames.)
I wish it might happen oftener," said the visitor in his easy
arrogant way. "I'm
generally so tied down; but I met the Countess Ellen in Madison Square, and
she was good enough to let me walk home with her."
hope the house will be gayer, now that Ellen's here!" cried Mrs.
Mingott with a glorious effrontery. "Sit
down--sit down, Beaufort: push up the yellow armchair; now I've got you I
want a good gossip. I hear your
ball was magnificent; and I understand you invited Mrs. Lemuel Struthers?
Well--I've a curiosity to see the woman myself."
had forgotten her relatives, who were drifting out into the hall under Ellen
Olenska's guidance. Old Mrs.
Mingott had always professed a great admiration for Julius Beaufort, and
there was a kind of kinship in their cool domineering way and their
short-cuts through the conventions. Now
she was eagerly curious to know what had decided the Beauforts to invite
(for the first time) Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the widow of Struthers's
Shoe-polish, who had returned the previous year from a long initiatory
sojourn in Europe to lay siege to the tight little citadel of New York.
"Of course if you and Regina invite her the thing is settled.
Well, we need new blood and new money--and I hear she's still very
good-looking," the carnivorous old lady declared.
the hall, while Mrs. Welland and May drew on their furs, Archer saw that the
Countess Olenska was looking at him with a faintly questioning smile.
course you know already--about May and me," he said, answering her look
with a shy laugh. "She
scolded me for not giving you the news last night at the Opera: I had her
orders to tell you that we were engaged--but I couldn't, in that
smile passed from Countess Olenska's eyes to her lips: she looked younger,
more like the bold brown Ellen Mingott of his boyhood. "Of course I know; yes. And I'm so glad.
But one doesn't tell such things first in a crowd."
The ladies were on the threshold and she held out her hand.
come and see me some day," she said, still looking at Archer.
the carriage, on the way down Fifth Avenue, they talked pointedly of Mrs.
Mingott, of her age, her spirit, and all her wonderful attributes.
No one alluded to Ellen Olenska; but Archer knew that Mrs. Welland
was thinking: "It's a
mistake for Ellen to be seen, the very day after her arrival, parading up
Fifth Avenue at the crowded hour with Julius Beaufort--" and the young
man himself mentally added: "And
she ought to know that a man who's just engaged doesn't spend his time
calling on married women. But I
daresay in the set she's lived in they do--they never do anything
else." And, in spite of the cosmopolitan views on which he prided
himself, he thanked heaven that he was a New Yorker, and about to ally
himself with one of his own kind.
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