Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book I
A visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always an amusing episode to the young man. The house in itself was already an historic document, though not, of course, as venerable as certain other old family houses in University Place and lower Fifth Avenue. Those were of the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs. Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of the Second Empire. It was her habit to sit in a window of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her solitary doors. She seemed in no hurry to have them come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence. She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences as stately as her own—perhaps (for she was an impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble-stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people reported having seen in Paris. Meanwhile, as everyone she cared to see came to her (and she could fill her rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not suffer from her geographic isolation.
The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.
The burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s flesh had long since made it impossible for her to go up and down stairs, and with characteristic independence she had made her reception rooms upstairs and established herself (in flagrant violation of all the New York proprieties) on the ground floor of her house; so that, as you sat in her sitting-room window with her, you caught (through a door that was always open, and a looped-back yellow damask portière) the unexpected vista of a bedroom with a huge low bed upholstered like a sofa, and a toilet-table with frivolous lace flounces and a gilt-framed mirror.
Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality such as the simple American had never dreamed of. That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their novels described. It amused Newland Archer (who had secretly situated the love-scenes of Monsieur de Camors in Mrs. Mingott’s bedroom) to picture her blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman would have had him too.
To the general relief the Countess Olenska was not present in her grandmother’s drawing-room during the visit of the betrothed couple. Mrs. Mingott said she had gone out; which, on a day of such glaring sunlight, and at the “shopping hour,” seemed in itself an indelicate thing for a compromised woman to do. But at any rate it spared them the embarrassment of her presence, and the faint shadow that her unhappy past might seem to shed on their radiant future. The visit went off successfully, as was to have been expected. Old Mrs. Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which, being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been carefully passed upon in family council; and the engagement ring, a large thick sapphire set in invisible claws, met with her unqualified admiration.
“It’s the new setting: of course it shows the stone beautifully, but it looks a little bare to old-fashioned eyes,” Mrs. Welland had explained, with a conciliatory side-glance at her future son-in-law.
“Old-fashioned eyes? I hope you don’t mean mine, my dear? I like all the novelties,” said the ancestress, lifting the stone to her small bright orbs, which no glasses had ever disfigured. “Very handsome,” she added, returning the jewel; “very liberal. In my time a cameo set in pearls was thought sufficient. But it’s the hand that sets off the ring, isn’t it, my dear Mr. Archer?” and she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointed nails and rolls of aged fat encircling the wrist like ivory bracelets. “Mine was modelled in Rome by the great Ferrigiani. You should have May’s done: no doubt he’ll have it done, my child. Her hand is large—it’s these modern sports that spread the joints—but the skin is white.—And when’s the wedding to be?” she broke off, fixing her eyes on Archer’s face.
“Oh—” Mrs. Welland murmured, while the young man, smiling at his betrothed, replied: “As soon as ever it can, if only you’ll back me up, Mrs. Mingott.”
“We must give them time to get to know each other a little better, mamma,” Mrs. Welland interposed, with the proper affectation of reluctance; to which the ancestress rejoined: “Know each other? Fiddlesticks! Everybody in New York has always known everybody. Let the young man have his way, my dear; don’t wait till the bubble’s off the wine. Marry them before Lent; I may catch pneumonia any winter now, and I want to give the wedding-breakfast.”
These successive statements were received with the proper expressions of amusement, incredulity and gratitude; and the visit was breaking up in a vein of mild pleasantry when the door opened to admit the Countess Olenska, who entered in bonnet and mantle followed by the unexpected figure of Julius Beaufort.
There was a cousinly murmur of pleasure between the ladies, and Mrs. Mingott held out Ferrigiani’s model to the banker. “Ha! Beaufort, this is a rare favour!” (She had an odd foreign way of addressing men by their surnames.)
“Thanks. I wish it might happen oftener,” said the visitor in his easy arrogant way. “I’m generally so tied down; but I met the Countess Ellen in Madison Square, and she was good enough to let me walk home with her.”
“Ah—I hope the house will be gayer, now that Ellen’s here!” cried Mrs. Mingott with a glorious effrontery. “Sit down—sit down, Beaufort: push up the yellow armchair; now I’ve got you I want a good gossip. I hear your ball was magnificent; and I understand you invited Mrs. Lemuel Struthers? Well—I’ve a curiosity to see the woman myself.”
She had forgotten her relatives, who were drifting out into the hall under Ellen Olenska’s guidance. Old Mrs. Mingott had always professed a great admiration for Julius Beaufort, and there was a kind of kinship in their cool domineering way and their short-cuts through the conventions. Now she was eagerly curious to know what had decided the Beauforts to invite (for the first time) Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the widow of Struthers’s Shoe-polish, who had returned the previous year from a long initiatory sojourn in Europe to lay siege to the tight little citadel of New York. “Of course if you and Regina invite her the thing is settled. Well, we need new blood and new money—and I hear she’s still very good-looking,” the carnivorous old lady declared.
In the hall, while Mrs. Welland and May drew on their furs, Archer saw that the Countess Olenska was looking at him with a faintly questioning smile.
“Of course you know already—about May and me,” he said, answering her look with a shy laugh. “She scolded me for not giving you the news last night at the Opera: I had her orders to tell you that we were engaged—but I couldn’t, in that crowd.”
The smile passed from Countess Olenska’s eyes to her lips: she looked younger, more like the bold brown Ellen Mingott of his boyhood. “Of course I know; yes. And I’m so glad. But one doesn’t tell such things first in a crowd.” The ladies were on the threshold and she held out her hand.
“Good-bye; come and see me some day,” she said, still looking at Archer.
In the carriage, on the way down Fifth Avenue, they talked pointedly of Mrs. Mingott, of her age, her spirit, and all her wonderful attributes. No one alluded to Ellen Olenska; but Archer knew that Mrs. Welland was thinking: “It’s a mistake for Ellen to be seen, the very day after her arrival, parading up Fifth Avenue at the crowded hour with Julius Beaufort—” and the young man himself mentally added: “And she ought to know that a man who’s just engaged doesn’t spend his time calling on married women. But I daresay in the set she’s lived in they do—they never do anything else.” And, in spite of the cosmopolitan views on which he prided himself, he thanked heaven that he was a New Yorker, and about to ally himself with one of his own kind.