|Table of Contents|
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
was a crowded night at Wallack's theatre.
play was "The Shaughraun," with Dion Boucicault in the title
role and Harry Montague and Ada Dyas as the lovers.
The popularity of the admirable English company was at its height,
and the Shaughraun always packed the house.
In the galleries the enthusiasm was unreserved; in the stalls and
boxes, people smiled a little at the hackneyed sentiments and clap- trap
situations, and enjoyed the play as much as the galleries did.
was one episode, in particular, that held the house from floor to ceiling.
It was that in which Harry Montague, after a sad, almost
monosyllabic scene of parting with Miss Dyas, bade her good-bye, and
turned to go. The actress,
who was standing near the mantelpiece and looking down into the fire, wore
a gray cashmere dress without fashionable loopings or trimmings, moulded
to her tall figure and flowing in long lines about her feet. Around her neck was a narrow black velvet ribbon with the
ends falling down her back.
her wooer turned from her she rested her arms against the mantel-shelf and
bowed her face in her hands. On
the threshold he paused to look at her; then he stole back, lifted one of
the ends of velvet ribbon, kissed it, and left the room without her
hearing him or changing her attitude.
And on this silent parting the curtain fell.
was always for the sake of that particular scene that Newland Archer went to
see "The Shaughraun." He thought the adieux of Montague and Ada
Dyas as fine as anything he had ever seen Croisette and Bressant do in
Paris, or Madge Robertson and Kendal in London; in its reticence, its dumb
sorrow, it moved him more than the most famous histrionic outpourings.
the evening in question the little scene acquired an added poignancy by
reminding him--he could not have said why--of his leave-taking from Madame
Olenska after their confidential talk a week or ten days earlier.
would have been as difficult to discover any resemblance between the two
situations as between the appearance of the persons concerned.
Newland Archer could not pretend to anything approaching the young
English actor's romantic good looks, and Miss Dyas was a tall red-haired
woman of monumental build whose pale and pleasantly ugly face was utterly
unlike Ellen Olenska's vivid countenance. Nor were Archer and Madame Olenska two lovers parting in
heart-broken silence; they were client and lawyer separating after a talk
which had given the lawyer the worst possible impression of the client's
case. Wherein, then, lay the
resemblance that made the young man's heart beat with a kind of
retrospective excitement? It
seemed to be in Madame Olenska's mysterious faculty of suggesting tragic and
moving possibilities outside the daily run of experience.
She had hardly ever said a word to him to produce this impression,
but it was a part of her, either a projection of her mysterious and
outlandish background or of something inherently dramatic, passionate and
unusual in herself. Archer had
always been inclined to think that chance and circumstance played a small
part in shaping people's lots compared with their innate tendency to have
things happen to them. This
tendency he had felt from the first in Madame Olenska.
The quiet, almost passive young woman struck him as exactly the kind
of person to whom things were bound to happen, no matter how much she shrank
from them and went out of her way to avoid them.
The exciting fact was her having lived in an atmosphere so thick with
drama that her own tendency to provoke it had apparently passed unperceived.
It was precisely the odd absence of surprise in her that gave him the
sense of her having been plucked out of a very maelstrom: the things she
took for granted gave the measure of those she had rebelled against.
had left her with the conviction that Count Olenski's accusation was not
unfounded. The mysterious
person who figured in his wife's past as "the secretary" had
probably not been unrewarded for his share in her escape.
The conditions from which she had fled were intolerable, past
speaking of, past believing: she was young, she was frightened, she was
desperate-- what more natural than that she should be grateful to her
rescuer? The pity was that her
gratitude put her, in the law's eyes and the world's, on a par with her
abominable husband. Archer had
made her understand this, as he was bound to do; he had also made her
understand that simplehearted kindly New York, on whose larger charity she
had apparently counted, was precisely the place where she could least hope
have to make this fact plain to her--and to witness her resigned acceptance
of it--had been intolerably painful to him.
He felt himself drawn to her by obscure feelings of jealousy and
pity, as if her dumbly- confessed error had put her at his mercy, humbling
yet endearing her. He was glad
it was to him she had revealed her secret, rather than to the cold scrutiny
of Mr. Letterblair, or the embarrassed gaze of her family. He immediately
took it upon himself to assure them both that she had given up her idea of
seeking a divorce, basing her decision on the fact that she had understood
the uselessness of the proceeding; and with infinite relief they had all
turned their eyes from the "unpleasantness" she had spared them.
was sure Newland would manage it," Mrs. Welland had said proudly of her
future son-in-law; and old Mrs. Mingott, who had summoned him for a
confidential interview, had congratulated him on his cleverness, and added
impatiently: "Silly goose! I told her myself what nonsense it was. Wanting to pass herself off as Ellen Mingott and an old maid,
when she has the luck to be a married woman and a Countess!"
These incidents had made the memory of his last talk with Madame
Olenska so vivid to the young man that as the curtain fell on the parting of
the two actors his eyes filled with tears, and he stood up to leave the
doing so, he turned to the side of the house behind him, and saw the lady of
whom he was thinking seated in a box with the Beauforts, Lawrence Lefferts
and one or two other men. He
had not spoken with her alone since their evening together, and had tried to
avoid being with her in company; but now their eyes met, and as Mrs.
Beaufort recognised him at the same time, and made her languid little
gesture of invitation, it was impossible not to go into the box.
and Lefferts made way for him, and after a few words with Mrs. Beaufort, who
always preferred to look beautiful and not have to talk, Archer seated
himself behind Madame Olenska. There
was no one else in the box but Mr. Sillerton Jackson, who was telling Mrs.
Beaufort in a confidential undertone about Mrs. Lemuel Struthers's last
Sunday reception (where some people reported that there had been dancing).
Under cover of this circumstantial narrative, to which Mrs. Beaufort
listened with her perfect smile, and her head at just the right angle to be
seen in profile from the stalls, Madame Olenska turned and spoke in a low
you think," she asked, glancing toward the stage, "he will send
her a bunch of yellow roses tomorrow morning?"
reddened, and his heart gave a leap of surprise. He had called only twice on Madame Olenska, and each time he
had sent her a box of yellow roses, and each time without a card.
She had never before made any allusion to the flowers, and he
supposed she had never thought of him as the sender.
Now her sudden recognition of the gift, and her associating it with
the tender leave-taking on the stage, filled him with an agitated pleasure.
was thinking of that too--I was going to leave the theatre in order to take
the picture away with me," he said.
his surprise her colour rose, reluctantly and duskily. She looked down at
the mother-of-pearl opera-glass in her smoothly gloved hands, and said,
after a pause: "What do you do while May is away?"
stick to my work," he answered, faintly annoyed by the question.
obedience to a long-established habit, the Wellands had left the previous
week for St. Augustine, where, out of regard for the supposed susceptibility
of Mr. Welland's bronchial tubes, they always spent the latter part of the
winter. Mr. Welland was a mild
and silent man, with no opinions but with many habits. With these habits
none might interfere; and one of them demanded that his wife and daughter
should always go with him on his annual journey to the south. To preserve an
unbroken domesticity was essential to his peace of mind; he would not have
known where his hair-brushes were, or how to provide stamps for his letters,
if Mrs. Welland had not been there to tell him.
all the members of the family adored each other, and as Mr. Welland was the
central object of their idolatry, it never occurred to his wife and May to
let him go to St. Augustine alone; and his sons, who were both in the law,
and could not leave New York during the winter, always joined him for Easter
and travelled back with him.
was impossible for Archer to discuss the necessity of May's accompanying her
father. The reputation of the
Mingotts' family physician was largely based on the attack of pneumonia
which Mr. Welland had never had; and his insistence on St. Augustine was
therefore inflexible. Originally,
it had been intended that May's engagement should not be announced till her
return from Florida, and the fact that it had been made known sooner could
not be expected to alter Mr. Welland's plans.
Archer would have liked to join the travellers and have a few weeks
of sunshine and boating with his betrothed; but he too was bound by custom
and conventions. Little arduous
as his professional duties were, he would have been convicted of frivolity
by the whole Mingott clan if he had suggested asking for a holiday in
mid-winter; and he accepted May's departure with the resignation which he
perceived would have to be one of the principal constituents of married
was conscious that Madame Olenska was looking at him under lowered lids.
"I have done what you wished--what you advised," she said
glad," he returned, embarrassed by her broaching the subject at such a
understand--that you were right," she went on a little breathlessly;
"but sometimes life is difficult . . . perplexing. . ."
I wanted to tell you that I DO feel you were right; and that I'm grateful to
you," she ended, lifting her opera-glass quickly to her eyes as the
door of the box opened and Beaufort's resonant voice broke in on them.
stood up, and left the box and the theatre.
the day before he had received a letter from May Welland in which, with
characteristic candour, she had asked him to "be kind to Ellen" in
their absence. "She likes
you and admires you so much--and you know, though she doesn't show it, she's
still very lonely and unhappy. I
don't think Granny understands her, or uncle Lovell Mingott either; they
really think she's much worldlier and fonder of society than she is. And I
can quite see that New York must seem dull to her, though the family won't
admit it. I think she's been
used to lots of things we haven't got; wonderful music, and picture shows,
and celebrities--artists and authors and all the clever people you admire.
Granny can't understand her wanting anything but lots of dinners and
clothes--but I can see that you're almost the only person in New York who
can talk to her about what she really cares for."
wise May--how he had loved her for that letter! But he had not meant to act
on it; he was too busy, to begin with, and he did not care, as an engaged
man, to play too conspicuously the part of Madame Olenska's champion.
He had an idea that she knew how to take care of herself a good deal
better than the ingenuous May imagined.
She had Beaufort at her feet, Mr. van der Luyden hovering above her
like a protecting deity, and any number of candidates (Lawrence Lefferts
among them) waiting their opportunity in the middle distance. Yet he never
saw her, or exchanged a word with her, without feeling that, after all,
May's ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination.
Ellen Olenska was lonely and she was unhappy.
|Table of Contents|