Edith Wharton.

The Age of Innocence online

. (page 1 of 24)
Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Age of Innocence → online text (page 1 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Judith Boss and Charles Keller. HTML version by Al Haines.

The Age of Innocence


Edith Wharton

JTABLE 6 18 1

JTABLE 6 16 19

Book I


On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was
singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan
distances "above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should
compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European
capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every
winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy.
Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus
keeping out the "new people" whom New York was beginning to dread and
yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic
associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so
problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the
daily press had already learned to describe as "an exceptionally
brilliant audience" had gathered to hear her, transported through the
slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family
landau, or in the humbler but more convenient "Brown coupe." To come to
the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving
as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the
immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to
democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in
the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of
one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was
one of the great livery-stableman's most masterly intuitions to have
discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more
quickly than they want to get to it.

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the
curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why
the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven,
alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a
cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and
finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs.
Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was a
metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was "not the
thing" to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not "the
thing" played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the
inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his
forefathers thousands of years ago.

The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled
over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over
a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its
realisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was a
delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion the
moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in quality
that - well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima
donna's stage-manager he could not have entered the Academy at a more
significant moment than just as she was singing: "He loves me - he
loves me not - HE LOVES ME! - " and sprinkling the falling daisy petals
with notes as clear as dew.

She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me," since an
unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the
German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be
translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of
English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer
as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as the
duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue
enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a
flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

"M'ama ... non m'ama ..." the prima donna sang, and "M'ama!", with a
final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to
her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of
the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple
velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless

Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the back of the club box,
turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the
house. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott,
whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to
attend the Opera, but who was always represented on fashionable nights
by some of the younger members of the family. On this occasion, the
front of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lovell
Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind
these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically
fixed on the stagelovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out
above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the
Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow
to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her
breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a
single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of
lilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her
white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of
satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to be
very beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with the
Opera houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights,
was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distance
symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formed
the base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink
and red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger than the roses,
and closely resembling the floral pen-wipers made by female
parishioners for fashionable clergymen, sprang from the moss beneath
the rose-trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-branch
flowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr. Luther Burbank's far-off

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white
cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue
girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her
muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul's
impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his
designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the
ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from
the right wing.

"The darling!" thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the
young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. "She doesn't even guess what
it's all about." And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a
thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation
was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. "We'll
read Faust together ... by the Italian lakes ..." he thought, somewhat
hazily confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with the
masterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege to
reveal to his bride. It was only that afternoon that May Welland had
let him guess that she "cared" (New York's consecrated phrase of maiden
avowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead of the engagement
ring, the betrothal kiss and the march from Lohengrin, pictured her at
his side in some scene of old European witchery.

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a
simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to
develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own
with the most popular married women of the "younger set," in which it
was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully
discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he
sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife
should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady
whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years;
without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred
that unhappy being's life, and had disarranged his own plans for a
whole winter.

How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain
itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but
he was content to hold his view without analysing it, since he knew it
was that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated,
button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club
box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their
opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product
of the system. In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archer
felt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old
New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and even
seen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number.
Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together they
represented "New York," and the habit of masculine solidarity made him
accept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctively
felt that in this respect it would be troublesome - and also rather bad
form - to strike out for himself.

"Well - upon my soul!" exclaimed Lawrence Lefferts, turning his
opera-glass abruptly away from the stage. Lawrence Lefferts was, on
the whole, the foremost authority on "form" in New York. He had
probably devoted more time than any one else to the study of this
intricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not account
for his complete and easy competence. One had only to look at him,
from the slant of his bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fair
moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his lean
and elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of "form" must be
congenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes so
carelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace. As a
young admirer had once said of him: "If anybody can tell a fellow just
when to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it's
Larry Lefferts." And on the question of pumps versus patent-leather
"Oxfords" his authority had never been disputed.

"My God!" he said; and silently handed his glass to old Sillerton

Newland Archer, following Lefferts's glance, saw with surprise that his
exclamation had been occasioned by the entry of a new figure into old
Mrs. Mingott's box. It was that of a slim young woman, a little less
tall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about her
temples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds. The suggestion
of this headdress, which gave her what was then called a "Josephine
look," was carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rather
theatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a large
old-fashioned clasp. The wearer of this unusual dress, who seemed
quite unconscious of the attention it was attracting, stood a moment in
the centre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland the propriety of
taking the latter's place in the front right-hand corner; then she
yielded with a slight smile, and seated herself in line with Mrs.
Welland's sister-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in the
opposite corner.

Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass to Lawrence
Lefferts. The whole of the club turned instinctively, waiting to hear
what the old man had to say; for old Mr. Jackson was as great an
authority on "family" as Lawrence Lefferts was on "form." He knew all
the ramifications of New York's cousinships; and could not only
elucidate such complicated questions as that of the connection between
the Mingotts (through the Thorleys) with the Dallases of South
Carolina, and that of the relationship of the elder branch of
Philadelphia Thorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no account to be
confused with the Manson Chiverses of University Place), but could also
enumerate the leading characteristics of each family: as, for instance,
the fabulous stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the Long
Island ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths to make foolish
matches; or the insanity recurring in every second generation of the
Albany Chiverses, with whom their New York cousins had always refused
to intermarry - with the disastrous exception of poor Medora Manson,
who, as everybody knew ... but then her mother was a Rushworth.

In addition to this forest of family trees, Mr. Sillerton Jackson
carried between his narrow hollow temples, and under his soft thatch of
silver hair, a register of most of the scandals and mysteries that had
smouldered under the unruffled surface of New York society within the
last fifty years. So far indeed did his information extend, and so
acutely retentive was his memory, that he was supposed to be the only
man who could have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker, really
was, and what had become of handsome Bob Spicer, old Mrs. Manson
Mingott's father, who had disappeared so mysteriously (with a large sum
of trust money) less than a year after his marriage, on the very day
that a beautiful Spanish dancer who had been delighting thronged
audiences in the old Opera-house on the Battery had taken ship for
Cuba. But these mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr.
Jackson's breast; for not only did his keen sense of honour forbid his
repeating anything privately imparted, but he was fully aware that his
reputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding out
what he wanted to know.

The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspense while Mr. Sillerton
Jackson handed back Lawrence Lefferts's opera-glass. For a moment he
silently scrutinised the attentive group out of his filmy blue eyes
overhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustache a thoughtful
twist, and said simply: "I didn't think the Mingotts would have tried
it on."


Newland Archer, during this brief episode, had been thrown into a
strange state of embarrassment.

It 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!

But 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!

He 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.

Old 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.

Every 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

Mrs. 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?"

Newland 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.

Few 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.

"After all," he heard one of the younger men begin behind him
(everybody talked through the Mephistopheles-and-Martha scenes), "after
all, just WHAT happened?"

"Well - she left him; nobody attempts to deny that."

"He's 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

"The 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."

There was a general laugh, and the young champion said: "Well,
then - - ?"

"Well, then; she bolted with his secretary."

"Oh, I see." The champion's face fell.

"It 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."

"Perhaps," young Thorley hazarded, "she's too unhappy to be left at

This 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 "double entendre."

"Well - it's queer to have brought Miss Welland, anyhow," some one said
in a low tone, with a side-glance at Archer.

"Oh, that's part of the campaign: Granny's orders, no doubt," Lefferts
laughed. "When the old lady does a thing she does it thoroughly."

The 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.

As 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."

"You 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."

Miss 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."

She made way for him by pushing back her chair, and promptly, and a
little ostentatiously, with the desire that the whole house should see

Online LibraryEdith WhartonThe Age of Innocence → online text (page 1 of 24)