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Chapter III

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 Julius Beaufort?

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 begin.

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 crimson

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

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 waist.

"Now we shan't have to talk," he said, smiling into
her candid eyes, as they floated away on the soft waves
of the Blue Danube.

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

"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, fibbing

"Ah." She looked disappointed, but gently resolved
on gaining her point. "You must, then, for I didn't
either; and I shouldn't like her to think--"

"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 rather--sensitive."

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

"Yes. She's 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

"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

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
General Fiction
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