Edith Wharton (1862–1937). The Age of Innocence. 1920.Book I
Mrs. Archer was a shy woman and shrank from society; but she liked to be well-informed as to its doings. Her old friend Mr. Sillerton Jackson applied to the investigation of his friends’ affairs the patience of a collector and the science of a naturalist; and his sister, Miss Sophy Jackson, who lived with him, and was entertained by all the people who could not secure her much-sought-after brother, brought home bits of minor gossip that filled out usefully the gaps in his picture.
Therefore, whenever anything happened that Mrs. Archer wanted to know about, she asked Mr. Jackson to dine; and as she honoured few people with her invitations, and as she and her daughter Janey were an excellent audience, Mr. Jackson usually came himself instead of sending his sister. If he could have dictated all the conditions, he would have chosen the evenings when Newland was out; not because the young man was uncongenial to him (the two got on capitally at their club) but because the old anecdotist sometimes felt, on Newland’s part, a tendency to weigh his evidence that the ladies of the family never showed.
Mr. Jackson, if perfection had been attainable on earth, would also have asked that Mrs. Archer’s food should be a little better. But then New York, as far back as the mind of man could travel, had been divided into the two great fundamental groups of the Mingotts and Mansons and all their clan, who cared about eating and clothes and money, and the Archer-Newland-van-der-Luyden tribe, who were devoted to travel, horticulture and the best fiction, and looked down on the grosser forms of pleasure.
You couldn’t have everything, after all. If you dined with the Lovell Mingotts you got canvas-back and terrapin and vintage wines; at Adeline Archer’s you could talk about Alpine scenery and “The Marble Faun”; and luckily the Archer Madeira had gone round the Cape. Therefore when a friendly summons came from Mrs. Archer, Mr. Jackson, who was a true eclectic, would usually say to his sister: “I’ve been a little gouty since my last dinner at the Lovell Mingotts’—it will do me good to diet at Adeline’s.”
Mrs. Archer, who had long been a widow, lived with her son and daughter in West Twenty-eighth Street. An upper floor was dedicated to Newland, and the two women squeezed themselves into narrower quarters below. In an unclouded harmony of tastes and interests they cultivated ferns in Wardian cases, made macramé lace and wool embroidery on linen, collected American revolutionary glazed ware, subscribed to “Good Words,” and read Ouida’s novels for the sake of the Italian atmosphere. (They preferred those about peasant life, because of the descriptions of scenery and the pleasanter sentiments, though in general they liked novels about people in society, whose motives and habits were more comprehensible, spoke severely of Dickens, who “had never drawn a gentleman,” and considered Thackeray less at home in the great world than Bulwer—who, however, was beginning to be thought old-fashioned.)
Mrs. and Miss Archer were both great lovers of scenery. It was what they principally sought and admired on their occasional travels abroad; considering architecture and painting as subjects for men, and chiefly for learned persons who read Ruskin. Mrs. Archer had been born a Newland, and mother and daughter, who were as like as sisters, were both, as people said, “true Newlands”; tall, pale, and slightly round-shouldered, with long noses, sweet smiles and a kind of drooping distinction like that in certain faded Reynolds portraits. Their physical resemblance would have been complete if an elderly embonpoint had not stretched Mrs. Archer’s black brocade, while Miss Archer’s brown and purple poplins hung, as the years went on, more and more slackly on her virgin frame.
Mentally, the likeness between them, as Newland was aware, was less complete than their identical mannerisms often made it appear. The long habit of living together in mutually dependent intimacy had given them the same vocabulary, and the same habit of beginning their phrases “Mother thinks” or “Janey thinks,” according as one or the other wished to advance an opinion of her own; but in reality, while Mrs. Archer’s serene unimaginativeness rested easily in the accepted and familiar, Janey was subject to starts and aberrations of fancy welling up from springs of suppressed romance.
Mother and daughter adored each other and revered their son and brother; and Archer loved them with a tenderness made compunctious and uncritical by the sense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secret satisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thing for a man to have his authority respected in his own house, even if his sense of humour sometimes made him question the force of his mandate.
On this occasion the young man was very sure that Mr. Jackson would rather have had him dine out; but he had his own reasons for not doing so.
Of course old Jackson wanted to talk about Ellen Olenska, and of course Mrs. Archer and Janey wanted to hear what he had to tell. All three would be slightly embarrassed by Newland’s presence, now that his prospective relation to the Mingott clan had been made known; and the young man waited with an amused curiosity to see how they would turn the difficulty.
They began, obliquely, by talking about Mrs. Lemuel Struthers.
“It’s a pity the Beauforts asked her,” Mrs. Archer said gently. “But then Regina always does what he tells her; and Beaufort—”
“Certain nuances escape Beaufort,” said Mr. Jackson, cautiously inspecting the broiled shad, and wondering for the thousandth time why Mrs. Archer’s cook always burnt the roe to a cinder. (Newland, who had long shared his wonder, could always detect it in the older man’s expression of melancholy disapproval.)
“Oh, necessarily; Beaufort is a vulgar man,” said Mrs. Archer. “My grandfather Newland always used to say to my mother: ‘Whatever you do, don’t let that fellow Beaufort be introduced to the girls.’ But at least he’s had the advantage of associating with gentlemen; in England too, they say. It’s all very mysterious—” She glanced at Janey and paused. She and Janey knew every fold of the Beaufort mystery, but in public Mrs. Archer continued to assume that the subject was not one for the unmarried.
“But this Mrs. Struthers,” Mrs. Archer continued; “what did you say she was, Sillerton?”
“Out of a mine: or rather out of the saloon at the head of the pit. Then with Living Wax-Works, touring New England. After the police broke that up, they say she lived—” Mr. Jackson in his turn glanced at Janey, whose eyes began to bulge from under her prominent lids. There were still hiatuses for her in Mrs. Struthers’s past.
“Then,” Mr. Jackson continued (and Archer saw he was wondering why no one had told the butler never to slice cucumbers with a steel knife), “then Lemuel Struthers came along. They say his advertiser used the girl’s head for the shoe-polish posters; her hair’s intensely black, you know—the Egyptian style. Anyhow, he—eventually—married her.” There were volumes of innuendo in the way the “eventually” was spaced, and each syllable given its due stress.
“Oh, well—at the pass we’ve come to nowadays, it doesn’t matter,” said Mrs. Archer indifferently. The ladies were not really interested in Mrs. Struthers just then; the subject of Ellen Olenska was too fresh and too absorbing to them. Indeed, Mrs. Struthers’s name had been introduced by Mrs. Archer only that she might presently be able to say: “And Newland’s new cousin—Countess Olenska? Was she at the ball too?”
There was a faint touch of sarcasm in the reference to her son, and Archer knew it and had expected it. Even Mrs. Archer, who was seldom unduly pleased with human events, had been altogether glad of her son’s engagement. (“Especially after that silly business with Mrs. Rushworth,” as she had remarked to Janey, alluding to what had once seemed to Newland a tragedy of which his soul would always bear the scar.) There was no better match in New York than May Welland, look at the question from whatever point you chose. Of course such a marriage was only what Newland was entitled to; but young men are so foolish and incalculable—and some women so ensnaring and unscrupulous—that it was nothing short of a miracle to see one’s only son safe past the Siren Isle and in the haven of a blameless domesticity.
All this Mrs. Archer felt, and her son knew she felt; but he knew also that she had been perturbed by the premature announcement of his engagement, or rather by its cause; and it was for that reason—because on the whole he was a tender and indulgent master—that he had stayed at home that evening. “It’s not that I don’t approve of the Mingotts’ esprit de corps; but why Newland’s engagement should be mixed up with that Olenska woman’s comings and goings I don’t see,” Mrs. Archer grumbled to Janey, the only witness of her slight lapses from perfect sweetness.
She had behaved beautifully—and in beautiful behaviour she was unsurpassed—during the call on Mrs. Welland; but Newland knew (and his betrothed doubtless guessed) that all through the visit she and Janey were nervously on the watch for Madame Olenska’s possible intrusion; and when they left the house together she had permitted herself to say to her son: “I’m thankful that Augusta Welland received us alone.”
These indications of inward disturbance moved Archer the more that he too felt that the Mingotts had gone a little too far. But, as it was against all the rules of their code that the mother and son should ever allude to what was uppermost in their thoughts, he simply replied: “Oh, well, there’s always a phase of family parties to be gone through when one gets engaged, and the sooner it’s over the better.” At which his mother merely pursed her lips under the lace veil that hung down from her grey velvet bonnet trimmed with frosted grapes.
Her revenge, he felt—her lawful revenge—would be to “draw” Mr. Jackson that evening on the Countess Olenska; and, having publicly done his duty as a future member of the Mingott clan, the young man had no objection to hearing the lady discussed in private—except that the subject was already beginning to bore him.
Mr. Jackson had helped himself to a slice of the tepid filet which the mournful butler had handed him with a look as sceptical as his own, and had rejected the mushroom sauce after a scarcely perceptible sniff. He looked baffled and hungry, and Archer reflected that he would probably finish his meal on Ellen Olenska.
Mr. Jackson leaned back in his chair, and glanced up at the candlelit Archers, Newlands and van der Luydens hanging in dark frames on the dark walls.
“Ah, how your grandfather Archer loved a good dinner, my dear Newland!” he said, his eyes on the portrait of a plump full-chested young man in a stock and a blue coat, with a view of a white-columned country-house behind him. “Well—well—well … I wonder what he would have said to all these foreign marriages!”
Mrs. Archer ignored the allusion to the ancestral cuisine and Mr. Jackson continued with deliberation: “No, she was not at the ball.”
“Ah—” Mrs. Archer murmured, in a tone that implied: “She had that decency.”
“Perhaps the Beauforts don’t know her,” Janey suggested, with her artless malice.
Mr. Jackson gave a faint sip, as if he had been tasting invisible Madeira. “Mrs. Beaufort may not—but Beaufort certainly does, for she was seen walking up Fifth Avenue this afternoon with him by the whole of New York.”
“Mercy—” moaned Mrs. Archer, evidently perceiving the uselessness of trying to ascribe the actions of foreigners to a sense of delicacy.
“I wonder if she wears a round hat or a bonnet in the afternoon,” Janey speculated. “At the Opera I know she had on dark blue velvet, perfectly plain and flat—like a night-gown.”
“Janey!” said her mother; and Miss Archer blushed and tried to look audacious.
“It was, at any rate, in better taste not to go to the ball,” Mrs. Archer continued.
A spirit of perversity moved her son to rejoin: “I don’t think it was a question of taste with her. May said she meant to go, and then decided that the dress in question wasn’t smart enough.”
Mrs. Archer smiled at this confirmation of her inference. “Poor Ellen,” she simply remarked; adding compassionately: “We must always bear in mind what an eccentric bringing-up Medora Manson gave her. What can you expect of a girl who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?”
“Ah—don’t I remember her in it!” said Mr. Jackson; adding: “Poor girl!” in the tone of one who, while enjoying the memory, had fully understood at the time what the sight portended.
“It’s odd,” Janey remarked, “that she should have kept such an ugly name as Ellen. I should have changed it to Elaine.” She glanced about the table to see the effect of this.
Her brother laughed. “Why Elaine?”
“I don’t know; it sounds more—more Polish,” said Janey, blushing.
“It sounds more conspicuous; and that can hardly be what she wishes,” said Mrs. Archer distantly.
“Why not?” broke in her son, growing suddenly argumentative. “Why shouldn’t she be conspicuous if she chooses? Why should she slink about as if it were she who had disgraced herself? She’s ‘poor Ellen’ certainly, because she had the bad luck to make a wretched marriage; but I don’t see that that’s a reason for hiding her head as if she were the culprit.”
“That, I suppose,” said Mr. Jackson, speculatively, “is the line the Mingotts mean to take.”
The young man reddened. “I didn’t have to wait for their cue, if that’s what you mean, sir. Madame Olenska has had an unhappy life: that doesn’t make her an outcast.”
“There are rumours,” began Mr. Jackson, glancing at Janey.
“Oh, I know: the secretary,” the young man took him up. “Nonsense, mother; Janey’s grown-up. They say, don’t they,” he went on, “that the secretary helped her to get away from her brute of a husband, who kept her practically a prisoner? Well, what if he did? I hope there isn’t a man among us who wouldn’t have done the same in such a case.”
Mr. Jackson glanced over his shoulder to say to the sad butler: “Perhaps … that sauce … just a little, after all—”; then, having helped himself, he remarked: “I’m told she’s looking for a house. She means to live here.”
“I hear she means to get a divorce,” said Janey boldly.
“I hope she will!” Archer exclaimed.
The word had fallen like a bombshell in the pure and tranquil atmosphere of the Archer dining-room. Mrs. Archer raised her delicate eye-brows in the particular curve that signified: “The butler—” and the young man, himself mindful of the bad taste of discussing such intimate matters in public, hastily branched off into an account of his visit to old Mrs. Mingott.
After dinner, according to immemorial custom, Mrs. Archer and Janey trailed their long silk draperies up to the drawing-room, where, while the gentlemen smoked below stairs, they sat beside a Carcel lamp with an engraved globe, facing each other across a rosewood work-table with a green silk bag under it, and stitched at the two ends of a tapestry band of field-flowers destined to adorn an “occasional” chair in the drawing-room of young Mrs. Newland Archer.
While this rite was in progress in the drawing-room, Archer settled Mr. Jackson in an armchair near the fire in the Gothic library and handed him a cigar. Mr. Jackson sank into the armchair with satisfaction, lit his cigar with perfect confidence (it was Newland who bought them), and stretching his thin old ankles to the coals, said: “You say the secretary merely helped her to get away, my dear fellow? Well, he was still helping her a year later, then; for somebody met ’em living at Lausanne together.”
Newland reddened. “Living together? Well, why not? Who had the right to make her life over if she hadn’t? I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots.”
He stopped and turned away angrily to light his cigar. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson stretched his ankles nearer the coals and emitted a sardonic whistle.
“Well,” he said after a pause, “apparently Count Olenski takes your view; for I never heard of his having lifted a finger to get his wife back.”