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Chapter VI

That evening, after Mr. Jackson had taken himself
away, and the ladies had retired to their chintz-
curtained bedroom, Newland Archer mounted thoughtfully
to his own study. A vigilant hand had, as usual,
kept the fire alive and the lamp trimmed; and the
room, with its rows and rows of books, its bronze and
steel statuettes of "The Fencers" on the mantelpiece
and its many photographs of famous pictures, looked
singularly home-like and welcoming.

As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes
rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which
the young girl had given him in the first days of their
romance, and which had now displaced all the other
portraits on the table. With a new sense of awe he
looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay
innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's
custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the
social system he belonged to and believed in, the young
girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked
back at him like a stranger through May Welland's
familiar features; and once more it was borne in on
him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had
been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.

The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up old
settled convictions and set them drifting dangerously
through his mind. His own exclamation: "Women should
be free--as free as we are," struck to the root of a
problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as
non-existent. "Nice" women, however wronged, would
never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-
minded men like himself were therefore--in the heat of
argument--the more chivalrously ready to concede it
to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a
humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that
tied things together and bound people down to the old
pattern. But here he was pledged to defend, on the part
of his betrothed's cousin, conduct that, on his own
wife's part, would justify him in calling down on her
all the thunders of Church and State. Of course the
dilemma was purely hypothetical; since he wasn't a
blackguard Polish nobleman, it was absurd to speculate
what his wife's rights would be if he WERE. But Newland
Archer was too imaginative not to feel that, in his case
and May's, the tie might gall for reasons far less gross
and palpable. What could he and she really know of
each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow,
to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable
girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for some
one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of
them, they should tire of each other, misunderstand or
irritate each other? He reviewed his friends' marriages--
the supposedly happy ones--and saw none that
answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender
comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation
with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture
presupposed, on her part, the experience, the
versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had
been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver
of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most
of the other marriages about him were: a dull association
of material and social interests held together by
ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.
Lawrence Lefferts occurred to him as the husband who
had most completely realised this enviable ideal. As
became the high-priest of form, he had formed a wife
so completely to his own convenience that, in the most
conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with
other men's wives, she went about in smiling
unconsciousness, saying that "Lawrence was so frightfully
strict"; and had been known to blush indignantly, and
avert her gaze, when some one alluded in her presence
to the fact that Julius Beaufort (as became a "foreigner"
of doubtful origin) had what was known in
New York as "another establishment."

Archer tried to console himself with the thought that
he was not quite such an ass as Larry Lefferts, nor May
such a simpleton as poor Gertrude; but the difference
was after all one of intelligence and not of standards.
In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world,
where the real thing was never said or done or even
thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary
signs; as when Mrs. Welland, who knew exactly why
Archer had pressed her to announce her daughter's
engagement at the Beaufort ball (and had indeed
expected him to do no less), yet felt obliged to simulate
reluctance, and the air of having had her hand forced,
quite as, in the books on Primitive Man that people of
advanced culture were beginning to read, the savage
bride is dragged with shrieks from her parents' tent.

The result, of course, was that the young girl who
was the centre of this elaborate system of mystification
remained the more inscrutable for her very frankness
and assurance. She was frank, poor darling, because
she had nothing to conceal, assured because she knew
of nothing to be on her guard against; and with no
better preparation than this, she was to be plunged
overnight into what people evasively called "the facts
of life."

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love.
He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed,
in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness
at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas
that she was beginning to develop under his guidance.
(She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing
the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of
Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.) She was straightforward,
loyal and brave; she had a sense of humour (chiefly
proved by her laughing at HIS jokes); and he suspected,
in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of
feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he
had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged
by the thought that all this frankness and innocence
were only an artificial product. Untrained human
nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the
twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt
himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity,
so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers
and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses,
because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what
he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his
lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of
snow.

There was a certain triteness in these reflections: they
were those habitual to young men on the approach of
their wedding day. But they were generally accompanied
by a sense of compunction and self-abasement of
which Newland Archer felt no trace. He could not
deplore (as Thackeray's heroes so often exasperated
him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his
bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to
give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if
he had been brought up as she had they would have
been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes
in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations,
see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected
with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of
masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been
allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Such questions, at such an hour, were bound to drift
through his mind; but he was conscious that their
uncomfortable persistence and precision were due to
the inopportune arrival of the Countess Olenska. Here
he was, at the very moment of his betrothal--a moment
for pure thoughts and cloudless hopes--pitchforked
into a coil of scandal which raised all the special problems
he would have preferred to let lie. "Hang Ellen
Olenska!" he grumbled, as he covered his fire and
began to undress. He could not really see why her fate
should have the least bearing on his; yet he dimly felt
that he had only just begun to measure the risks of the
championship which his engagement had forced upon
him.


A few days later the bolt fell.

The Lovell Mingotts had sent out cards for what was
known as "a formal dinner" (that is, three extra footmen,
two dishes for each course, and a Roman punch
in the middle), and had headed their invitations with
the words "To meet the Countess Olenska," in accordance
with the hospitable American fashion, which
treats strangers as if they were royalties, or at least as
their ambassadors.

The guests had been selected with a boldness and
discrimination in which the initiated recognised the
firm hand of Catherine the Great. Associated with such
immemorial standbys as the Selfridge Merrys, who were
asked everywhere because they always had been, the
Beauforts, on whom there was a claim of relationship,
and Mr. Sillerton Jackson and his sister Sophy (who
went wherever her brother told her to), were some of
the most fashionable and yet most irreproachable of
the dominant "young married" set; the Lawrence
Leffertses, Mrs. Lefferts Rushworth (the lovely widow),
the Harry Thorleys, the Reggie Chiverses and young
Morris Dagonet and his wife (who was a van der
Luyden). The company indeed was perfectly assorted,
since all the members belonged to the little inner group
of people who, during the long New York season,
disported themselves together daily and nightly with
apparently undiminished zest.

Forty-eight hours later the unbelievable had
happened; every one had refused the Mingotts' invitation
except the Beauforts and old Mr. Jackson and his sister.
The intended slight was emphasised by the fact that
even the Reggie Chiverses, who were of the Mingott
clan, were among those inflicting it; and by the
uniform wording of the notes, in all of which the writers
"regretted that they were unable to accept," without
the mitigating plea of a "previous engagement" that
ordinary courtesy prescribed.

New York society was, in those days, far too small,
and too scant in its resources, for every one in it
(including livery-stable-keepers, butlers and cooks) not
to know exactly on which evenings people were free;
and it was thus possible for the recipients of Mrs.
Lovell Mingott's invitations to make cruelly clear their
determination not to meet the Countess Olenska.

The blow was unexpected; but the Mingotts, as their
way was, met it gallantly. Mrs. Lovell Mingott
confided the case to Mrs. Welland, who confided it to
Newland Archer; who, aflame at the outrage, appealed
passionately and authoritatively to his mother; who,
after a painful period of inward resistance and outward
temporising, succumbed to his instances (as she always
did), and immediately embracing his cause with an
energy redoubled by her previous hesitations, put on
her grey velvet bonnet and said: "I'll go and see Louisa
van der Luyden."

The New York of Newland Archer's day was a small
and slippery pyramid, in which, as yet, hardly a fissure
had been made or a foothold gained. At its base was a
firm foundation of what Mrs. Archer called "plain
people"; an honourable but obscure majority of
respectable families who (as in the case of the Spicers or
the Leffertses or the Jacksons) had been raised above
their level by marriage with one of the ruling clans.
People, Mrs. Archer always said, were not as particular
as they used to be; and with old Catherine Spicer ruling
one end of Fifth Avenue, and Julius Beaufort the other,
you couldn't expect the old traditions to last much
longer.

Firmly narrowing upward from this wealthy but
inconspicuous substratum was the compact and dominant
group which the Mingotts, Newlands, Chiverses
and Mansons so actively represented. Most people imagined
them to be the very apex of the pyramid; but they
themselves (at least those of Mrs. Archer's generation)
were aware that, in the eyes of the professional genealogist,
only a still smaller number of families could lay
claim to that eminence.

"Don't tell me," Mrs. Archer would say to her
children, "all this modern newspaper rubbish about a New
York aristocracy. If there is one, neither the Mingotts
nor the Mansons belong to it; no, nor the Newlands or
the Chiverses either. Our grandfathers and great-
grandfathers were just respectable English or Dutch
merchants, who came to the colonies to make their
fortune, and stayed here because they did so well. One
of your great-grandfathers signed the Declaration, and
another was a general on Washington's staff, and
received General Burgoyne's sword after the battle of
Saratoga. These are things to be proud of, but they
have nothing to do with rank or class. New York has
always been a commercial community, and there are
not more than three families in it who can claim an
aristocratic origin in the real sense of the word."

Mrs. Archer and her son and daughter, like every
one else in New York, knew who these privileged beings
were: the Dagonets of Washington Square, who came
of an old English county family allied with the Pitts
and Foxes; the Lannings, who had intermarried with
the descendants of Count de Grasse, and the van der
Luydens, direct descendants of the first Dutch governor
of Manhattan, and related by pre-revolutionary
marriages to several members of the French and British
aristocracy.

The Lannings survived only in the person of two
very old but lively Miss Lannings, who lived cheerfully
and reminiscently among family portraits and Chippendale;
the Dagonets were a considerable clan, allied to
the best names in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but the
van der Luydens, who stood above all of them, had
faded into a kind of super-terrestrial twilight, from
which only two figures impressively emerged; those of
Mr. and Mrs. Henry van der Luyden.

Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had been Louisa Dagonet,
and her mother had been the granddaughter of Colonel
du Lac, of an old Channel Island family, who had
fought under Cornwallis and had settled in Maryland,
after the war, with his bride, Lady Angelica Trevenna,
fifth daughter of the Earl of St. Austrey. The tie
between the Dagonets, the du Lacs of Maryland, and
their aristocratic Cornish kinsfolk, the Trevennas, had
always remained close and cordial. Mr. and Mrs. van
der Luyden had more than once paid long visits to the
present head of the house of Trevenna, the Duke of St.
Austrey, at his country-seat in Cornwall and at St.
Austrey in Gloucestershire; and his Grace had frequently
announced his intention of some day returning their
visit (without the Duchess, who feared the Atlantic).

Mr. and Mrs. van der Luyden divided their time
between Trevenna, their place in Maryland, and Skuytercliff,
the great estate on the Hudson which had been one
of the colonial grants of the Dutch government to the
famous first Governor, and of which Mr. van der Luyden
was still "Patroon." Their large solemn house in Madison
Avenue was seldom opened, and when they came to town
they received in it only their most intimate friends.

"I wish you would go with me, Newland," his mother
said, suddenly pausing at the door of the Brown
coupe. "Louisa is fond of you; and of course it's on
account of dear May that I'm taking this step--and
also because, if we don't all stand together, there'll be
no such thing as Society left."





The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Category:
General Fiction
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