The Age of Innocence: Page1
Edith Wharton (1996)
Produced by Judith Boss and Charles Keller. HTML version by Al Haines.
The Age of Innocence
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On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson wassinging in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitandistances above the Forties, of a new Opera House which shouldcompete in costliness and splendour with those of the great Europeancapitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble everywinter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy.Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thuskeeping out the new people whom New York was beginning to dread andyet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historicassociations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always soproblematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what thedaily press had already learned to describe as an exceptionallybrilliant audience had gathered to hear her, transported through theslippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious familylandau, or in the humbler but more convenient Brown coupe. To come tothe Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arrivingas in one's own carriage; and departure by the same means had theimmense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion todemocratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance inthe line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose ofone's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It wasone of the great livery-stableman's most masterly intuitions to havediscovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even morequickly than they want to get to it.
When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box thecurtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason whythe young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven,alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over acigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases andfinial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs.Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was ametropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was not thething to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not thething played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as theinscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of hisforefathers thousands of years ago.
The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdledover his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking overa pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than itsrealisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was adelicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion themoment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in qualitythat--well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the primadonna's stage-manager he could not have entered the Academy at a moresignificant moment than just as she was singing: He loves me--heloves me not--HE LOVES ME!-- and sprinkling the falling daisy petalswith notes as clear as dew.
She sang, of course, M'ama! and not he loves me, since anunalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that theGerman text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should betranslated into Italian for the clearer understanding ofEnglish-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archeras all the other conventions on which his life was moulded: such as theduty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blueenamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without aflower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.
M'ama ... non m'ama ... the prima donna sang, and M'ama!, with afinal burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy toher lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance ofthe little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purplevelvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artlessvictim.
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 thehouse. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott,whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her toattend the Opera, but who was always represented on fashionable nightsby some of the younger members of the family. On this occasion, thefront of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. LovellMingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behindthese brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstaticallyfixed on the stagelovers. As Madame Nilsson's M'ama! thrilled outabove the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during theDaisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her browto the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of herbreast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with asingle gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet oflilies-of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw herwhite-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath ofsatisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.
No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to bevery beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with theOpera houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights,was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle distancesymmetrical mounds of woolly green moss bounded by croquet hoops formedthe base of shrubs shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pinkand red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger than the roses,and closely resembling the floral pen-wipers made by femaleparishioners for fashionable clergymen, sprang from the moss beneaththe rose-trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-branchflowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr. Luther Burbank's far-offprodigies.
In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in whitecashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a bluegirdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of hermuslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul'simpassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of hisdesigns whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated theground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely fromthe right wing.
The darling! thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to theyoung girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. She doesn't even guess whatit's all about. And he contemplated her absorbed young face with athrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiationwas mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. We'llread Faust together ... by the Italian lakes ... he thought, somewhathazily confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with themasterpieces of literature which it would be his manly privilege toreveal to his bride. It was only that afternoon that May Welland hadlet him guess that she cared (New York's consecrated phrase of maidenavowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead of the engagementring, the betrothal kiss and the march from Lohengrin, pictured her athis side in some scene of old European witchery.
He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be asimpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) todevelop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her ownwith the most popular married women of the younger set, in which itwas the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfullydiscouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as hesometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wifeshould be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married ladywhose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years;without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marredthat unhappy being's life, and had disarranged his own plans for awhole winter.
How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustainitself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; buthe was content to hold his view without analysing it, since he knew itwas that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated,button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the clubbox, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned theiropera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the productof the system. In matters intellectual and artistic Newland Archerfelt himself distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of oldNew York gentility; he had probably read more, thought more, and evenseen a good deal more of the world, than any other man of the number.Singly they betrayed their inferiority; but grouped together theyrepresented New York, and the habit of masculine solidarity made himaccept their doctrine on all the issues called moral. He instinctivelyfelt that in this respect it would be troublesome--and also rather badform--to strike out for himself.
Well--upon my soul! exclaimed Lawrence Lefferts, turning hisopera-glass abruptly away from the stage. Lawrence Lefferts was, onthe whole, the foremost authority on form in New York. He hadprobably devoted more time than any one else to the study of thisintricate and fascinating question; but study alone could not accountfor 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 fairmoustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other end of his leanand elegant person, to feel that the knowledge of form must becongenital in any one who knew how to wear such good clothes socarelessly and carry such height with so much lounging grace. As ayoung admirer had once said of him: If anybody can tell a fellow justwhen to wear a black tie with evening clothes and when not to, it'sLarry Lefferts. And on the question of pumps versus patent-leatherOxfords his authority had never been disputed.
My God! he said; and silently handed his glass to old SillertonJackson.
Newland Archer, following Lefferts's glance, saw with surprise that hisexclamation had been occasioned by the entry of a new figure into oldMrs. Mingott's box. It was that of a slim young woman, a little lesstall than May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls about hertemples and held in place by a narrow band of diamonds. The suggestionof this headdress, which gave her what was then called a Josephinelook, was carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown rathertheatrically caught up under her bosom by a girdle with a largeold-fashioned clasp. The wearer of this unusual dress, who seemedquite unconscious of the attention it was attracting, stood a moment inthe centre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland the propriety oftaking the latter's place in the front right-hand corner; then sheyielded with a slight smile, and seated herself in line with Mrs.Welland's sister-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in theopposite corner.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass to LawrenceLefferts. The whole of the club turned instinctively, waiting to hearwhat the old man had to say; for old Mr. Jackson was as great anauthority on family as Lawrence Lefferts was on form. He knew allthe ramifications of New York's cousinships; and could not onlyelucidate such complicated questions as that of the connection betweenthe Mingotts (through the Thorleys) with the Dallases of SouthCarolina, and that of the relationship of the elder branch ofPhiladelphia Thorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no account to beconfused with the Manson Chiverses of University Place), but could alsoenumerate the leading characteristics of each family: as, for instance,the fabulous stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the LongIsland ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths to make foolishmatches; or the insanity recurring in every second generation of theAlbany Chiverses, with whom their New York cousins had always refusedto 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 Jacksoncarried between his narrow hollow temples, and under his soft thatch ofsilver hair, a register of most of the scandals and mysteries that hadsmouldered under the unruffled surface of New York society within thelast fifty years. So far indeed did his information extend, and soacutely retentive was his memory, that he was supposed to be the onlyman who could have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker, reallywas, and what had become of handsome Bob Spicer, old Mrs. MansonMingott's father, who had disappeared so mysteriously (with a large sumof trust money) less than a year after his marriage, on the very daythat a beautiful Spanish dancer who had been delighting throngedaudiences in the old Opera-house on the Battery had taken ship forCuba. But these mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr.Jackson's breast; for not only did his keen sense of honour forbid hisrepeating anything privately imparted, but he was fully aware that hisreputation for discretion increased his opportunities of finding outwhat he wanted to know.
The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspense while Mr. SillertonJackson handed back Lawrence Lefferts's opera-glass. For a moment hesilently scrutinised the attentive group out of his filmy blue eyesoverhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustache a thoughtfultwist, and said simply: I didn't think the Mingotts would have triedit on.