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Chapter II

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 Catherine.

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

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 champion.

"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 home."

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

"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 what he was
doing, Archer seated himself at the Countess Olenska's

"We 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.

Agreeable 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."

"Oh, 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.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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