The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Book I, I.

On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine
Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of
Music in New York.

Though there was already talk of the erection, in
remote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," of
a new Opera House which should compete in costliness
and splendour with those of the great European capitals,
the world of fashion was still content to reassemble
every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of
the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it
for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out
the "new people" whom New York was beginning to
dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung
to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its
excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in
halls built for the hearing of music.

It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that
winter, and what the daily press had already learned to
describe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience" had
gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery,
snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious
family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient
"Brown coupe" To come to the Opera in a Brown
coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving
as in one's own carriage; and departure by the same
means had the immense advantage of enabling one
(with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to
scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line,
instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose
of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of
the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman's
most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans
want to get away from amusement even more
quickly than they want to get to it.

When Newland Archer opened the door at the back
of the club box the curtain had just gone up on the
garden scene. There was no reason why the young man
should not have come earlier, for he had dined at
seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered
afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with
glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs
which was the only room in the house where Mrs.
Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New
York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in
metropolises it was "not the thing" to arrive early at
the opera; and what was or was not "the thing" played
a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as
the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies
of his forefathers thousands of years ago.

The second reason for his delay was a personal one.
He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart
a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often
gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This
was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate
one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this
occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare
and exquisite in quality that--well, if he had timed his
arrival in accord with the prima donna's stage-manager
he could not have entered the Academy at a more
significant moment than just as she was singing: "He
loves me--he loves me not--HE LOVES ME!--" and
sprinkling the falling daisy petals with notes as clear as

She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves
me," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the
musical world required that the German text of French
operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated
into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-
speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland
Archer as all the other conventions on which his life
was moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-
backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to
part his hair, and of never appearing in society without
a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

"M'ama . . . non m'ama . . . " the prima donna sang,
and "M'ama!", with a final burst of love triumphant,
as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and
lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of
the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying,
in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to
look as pure and true as his artless victim.

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 the house. Directly facing
him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose
monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible
for her to attend the Opera, but who was always
represented on fashionable nights by some of the younger
members of the family. On this occasion, the front
of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs.
Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and
slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat
a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the
stagelovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled
out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped
talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted
to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her
fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast
to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened
with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the
immense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee,
and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips
touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied
vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.

No expense had been spared on the setting, which
was acknowledged to be very beautiful even by people
who shared his acquaintance with the Opera houses of
Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights,
was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middle
distance symmetrical mounds of woolly green moss
bounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubs
shaped like orange-trees but studded with large pink
and red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably larger
than the roses, and closely resembling the floral pen-
wipers made by female parishioners for fashionable
clergymen, sprang from the moss beneath the rose-
trees; and here and there a daisy grafted on a rose-
branch flowered with a luxuriance prophetic of Mr.
Luther Burbank's far-off prodigies.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame
Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin,
a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow
braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin
chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul's
impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension
of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he
persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the
neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing.

"The darling!" thought Newland Archer, his glance
flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-
valley. "She doesn't even guess what it's all about."
And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a
thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine
initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for
her abysmal purity. "We'll read Faust together . . . by
the Italian lakes . . ." he thought, somewhat hazily
confusing the scene of his projected honey-moon with
the masterpieces of literature which it would be his
manly privilege to reveal to his bride. It was only that
afternoon that May Welland had let him guess that she
"cared" (New York's consecrated phrase of maiden
avowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead of
the engagement ring, the betrothal kiss and the march
from Lohengrin, pictured her at his side in some scene
of old European witchery.

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland
Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his
enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact
and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with
the most popular married women of the "younger set,"
in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine
homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had
probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes
nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his
wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please
as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy
through two mildly agitated years; without, of course,
any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that
unhappy being's life, and had disarranged his own
plans for a whole winter.

How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created,
and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never
taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold
his view without analysing it, since he knew it was that
of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-
hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in
the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him,
and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of
ladies who were the product of the system. In matters
intellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himself
distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old
New York gentility; he had probably read more, thought
more, and even seen a good deal more of the world,
than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayed
their inferiority; but grouped together they represented
"New York," and the habit of masculine solidarity
made him accept their doctrine on all the issues called
moral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it would
be troublesome--and also rather bad form--to strike
out for himself.

"Well--upon my soul!" exclaimed Lawrence Lefferts,
turning his opera-glass abruptly away from the stage.
Lawrence Lefferts was, on the whole, the foremost
authority on "form" in New York. He had probably
devoted more time than any one else to the study of
this intricate and fascinating question; but study alone
could not account for 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 fair
moustache to the long patent-leather feet at the other
end of his lean and elegant person, to feel that the
knowledge of "form" must be congenital in any one
who knew how to wear such good clothes so carelessly
and carry such height with so much lounging grace. As
a young admirer had once said of him: "If anybody can
tell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with evening
clothes and when not to, it's Larry Lefferts." And on
the question of pumps versus patent-leather "Oxfords"
his authority had never been disputed.

"My God!" he said; and silently handed his glass to
old Sillerton Jackson.

Newland Archer, following Lefferts's glance, saw with
surprise that his exclamation had been occasioned by
the entry of a new figure into old Mrs. Mingott's box.
It was that of a slim young woman, a little less tall than
May Welland, with brown hair growing in close curls
about her temples and held in place by a narrow band
of diamonds. The suggestion of this headdress, which
gave her what was then called a "Josephine look," was
carried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gown
rather theatrically caught up under her bosom by a
girdle with a large old-fashioned clasp. The wearer of
this unusual dress, who seemed quite unconscious of
the attention it was attracting, stood a moment in the
centre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland the
propriety of taking the latter's place in the front right-
hand corner; then she yielded with a slight smile, and
seated herself in line with Mrs. Welland's sister-in-law,
Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in the opposite

Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass to
Lawrence Lefferts. The whole of the club turned
instinctively, waiting to hear what the old man had to
say; for old Mr. Jackson was as great an authority on
"family" as Lawrence Lefferts was on "form." He knew
all the ramifications of New York's cousinships; and
could not only elucidate such complicated questions as
that of the connection between the Mingotts (through
the Thorleys) with the Dallases of South Carolina, and
that of the relationship of the elder branch of Philadelphia
Thorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no account
to be confused with the Manson Chiverses of University
Place), but could also enumerate the leading characteristics
of each family: as, for instance, the fabulous
stinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the Long
Island ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworths
to make foolish matches; or the insanity recurring in
every second generation of the Albany Chiverses, with
whom their New York cousins had always refused to
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
Jackson carried between his narrow hollow temples,
and under his soft thatch of silver hair, a register of
most of the scandals and mysteries that had smouldered
under the unruffled surface of New York society
within the last fifty years. So far indeed did his
information extend, and so acutely retentive was his
memory, that he was supposed to be the only man who
could have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker,
really was, and what had become of handsome Bob
Spicer, old Mrs. Manson Mingott's father, who had
disappeared so mysteriously (with a large sum of trust
money) less than a year after his marriage, on the very
day that a beautiful Spanish dancer who had been
delighting thronged audiences in the old Opera-house
on the Battery had taken ship for Cuba. But these
mysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr.
Jackson's breast; for not only did his keen sense of
honour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted,
but he was fully aware that his reputation for discretion
increased his opportunities of finding out what he
wanted to know.

The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspense
while Mr. Sillerton Jackson handed back Lawrence
Lefferts's opera-glass. For a moment he silently scrutinised
the attentive group out of his filmy blue eyes
overhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustache
a thoughtful twist, and said simply: "I didn't
think the Mingotts would have tried it on."
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