Though there was already talk of the erection, inremote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," ofa new Opera House which should compete in costlinessand splendour with those of the great European capitals,the world of fashion was still content to reassembleevery winter in the shabby red and gold boxes ofthe sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished itfor being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping outthe "new people" whom New York was beginning todread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clungto it for its historic associations, and the musical for itsexcellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality inhalls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance thatwinter, and what the daily press had already learned todescribe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience" hadgathered to hear her, transported through the slippery,snowy streets in private broughams, in the spaciousfamily landau, or in the humbler but more convenient"Brown coupe" To come to the Opera in a Browncoupe was almost as honourable a way of arrivingas in one's own carriage; and departure by the samemeans had the immense advantage of enabling one(with a playful allusion to democratic principles) toscramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line,instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested noseof one's own coachman gleamed under the portico ofthe Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman'smost masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americanswant to get away from amusement even morequickly than they want to get to it.
When Newland Archer opened the door at the backof the club box the curtain had just gone up on thegarden scene. There was no reason why the young manshould not have come earlier, for he had dined atseven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingeredafterward over a cigar in the Gothic library withglazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairswhich was the only room in the house where Mrs.Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, NewYork was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that inmetropolises it was "not the thing" to arrive early atthe opera; and what was or was not "the thing" playeda part as important in Newland Archer's New York asthe inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destiniesof 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 hearta dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come oftengave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. Thiswas especially the case when the pleasure was a delicateone, as his pleasures mostly were; and on thisoccasion the moment he looked forward to was so rareand exquisite in quality that--well, if he had timed hisarrival in accord with the prima donna's stage-managerhe could not have entered the Academy at a moresignificant moment than just as she was singing: "Heloves me--he loves me not--HE LOVES ME!--" andsprinkling the falling daisy petals with notes as clear asdew.
She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he lovesme," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of themusical world required that the German text of Frenchoperas sung by Swedish artists should be translatedinto Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to NewlandArcher as all the other conventions on which his lifewas moulded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel topart his hair, and of never appearing in society withouta 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 andlifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance ofthe little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying,in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, tolook as pure and true as his artless victim.
Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the backof the club box, turned his eyes from the stage andscanned the opposite side of the house. Directly facinghim was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whosemonstrous obesity had long since made it impossiblefor her to attend the Opera, but who was alwaysrepresented on fashionable nights by some of the youngermembers of the family. On this occasion, the frontof the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs.Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; andslightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sata young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on thestagelovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilledout above the silent house (the boxes always stoppedtalking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mountedto the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of herfair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breastto the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastenedwith a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to theimmense bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley on her knee,and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tipstouch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfiedvanity and his eyes returned to the stage.
No expense had been spared on the setting, whichwas acknowledged to be very beautiful even by peoplewho shared his acquaintance with the Opera houses ofParis and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights,was covered with emerald green cloth. In the middledistance symmetrical mounds of woolly green mossbounded by croquet hoops formed the base of shrubsshaped like orange-trees but studded with large pinkand red roses. Gigantic pansies, considerably largerthan the roses, and closely resembling the floral pen-wipers made by female parishioners for fashionableclergymen, 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 MadameNilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin,a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellowbraids carefully disposed on each side of her muslinchemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul'simpassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehensionof his designs whenever, by word or glance, hepersuasively indicated the ground floor window of theneat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing.
"The darling!" thought Newland Archer, his glanceflitting 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 athrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculineinitiation was mingled with a tender reverence forher abysmal purity. "We'll read Faust together . . . bythe Italian lakes . . ." he thought, somewhat hazilyconfusing the scene of his projected honey-moon withthe masterpieces of literature which it would be hismanly privilege to reveal to his bride. It was only thatafternoon that May Welland had let him guess that she"cared" (New York's consecrated phrase of maidenavowal), and already his imagination, leaping ahead ofthe engagement ring, the betrothal kiss and the marchfrom Lohengrin, pictured her at his side in some sceneof old European witchery.
He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. NewlandArcher to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to hisenlightening companionship) to develop a social tactand readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own withthe most popular married women of the "younger set,"in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculinehomage while playfully discouraging it. If he hadprobed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimesnearly did) he would have found there the wish that hiswife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to pleaseas the married lady whose charms had held his fancythrough two mildly agitated years; without, of course,any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred thatunhappy being's life, and had disarranged his ownplans 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 nevertaken the time to think out; but he was content to holdhis view without analysing it, since he knew it was thatof all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other inthe club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him,and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle ofladies who were the product of the system. In mattersintellectual and artistic Newland Archer felt himselfdistinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of oldNew York gentility; he had probably read more, thoughtmore, and even seen a good deal more of the world,than any other man of the number. Singly they betrayedtheir inferiority; but grouped together they represented"New York," and the habit of masculine solidaritymade him accept their doctrine on all the issues calledmoral. He instinctively felt that in this respect it wouldbe troublesome--and also rather bad form--to strikeout 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 foremostauthority on "form" in New York. He had probablydevoted more time than any one else to the study ofthis intricate and fascinating question; but study alonecould not account for his complete and easy competence.One had only to look at him, from the slant ofhis bald forehead and the curve of his beautiful fairmoustache to the long patent-leather feet at the otherend of his lean and elegant person, to feel that theknowledge of "form" must be congenital in any onewho knew how to wear such good clothes so carelesslyand carry such height with so much lounging grace. Asa young admirer had once said of him: "If anybody cantell a fellow just when to wear a black tie with eveningclothes and when not to, it's Larry Lefferts." And onthe question of pumps versus patent-leather "Oxfords"his authority had never been disputed.
"My God!" he said; and silently handed his glass toold Sillerton Jackson.
Newland Archer, following Lefferts's glance, saw withsurprise that his exclamation had been occasioned bythe entry of a new figure into old Mrs. Mingott's box.It was that of a slim young woman, a little less tall thanMay Welland, with brown hair growing in close curlsabout her temples and held in place by a narrow bandof diamonds. The suggestion of this headdress, whichgave her what was then called a "Josephine look," wascarried out in the cut of the dark blue velvet gownrather theatrically caught up under her bosom by agirdle with a large old-fashioned clasp. The wearer ofthis unusual dress, who seemed quite unconscious ofthe attention it was attracting, stood a moment in thecentre of the box, discussing with Mrs. Welland thepropriety of taking the latter's place in the front right-hand corner; then she yielded with a slight smile, andseated herself in line with Mrs. Welland's sister-in-law,Mrs. Lovell Mingott, who was installed in the oppositecorner.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson had returned the opera-glass toLawrence Lefferts. The whole of the club turnedinstinctively, waiting to hear what the old man had tosay; for old Mr. Jackson was as great an authority on"family" as Lawrence Lefferts was on "form." He knewall the ramifications of New York's cousinships; andcould not only elucidate such complicated questions asthat of the connection between the Mingotts (throughthe Thorleys) with the Dallases of South Carolina, andthat of the relationship of the elder branch of PhiladelphiaThorleys to the Albany Chiverses (on no accountto be confused with the Manson Chiverses of UniversityPlace), but could also enumerate the leading characteristicsof each family: as, for instance, the fabulousstinginess of the younger lines of Leffertses (the LongIsland ones); or the fatal tendency of the Rushworthsto make foolish matches; or the insanity recurring inevery second generation of the Albany Chiverses, withwhom their New York cousins had always refused tointermarry--with the disastrous exception of poorMedora Manson, who, as everybody knew . . . butthen her mother was a Rushworth.
In addition to this forest of family trees, Mr. SillertonJackson carried between his narrow hollow temples,and under his soft thatch of silver hair, a register ofmost of the scandals and mysteries that had smoulderedunder the unruffled surface of New York societywithin the last fifty years. So far indeed did hisinformation extend, and so acutely retentive was hismemory, that he was supposed to be the only man whocould have told you who Julius Beaufort, the banker,really was, and what had become of handsome BobSpicer, old Mrs. Manson Mingott's father, who haddisappeared so mysteriously (with a large sum of trustmoney) less than a year after his marriage, on the veryday that a beautiful Spanish dancer who had beendelighting thronged audiences in the old Opera-houseon the Battery had taken ship for Cuba. But thesemysteries, and many others, were closely locked in Mr.Jackson's breast; for not only did his keen sense ofhonour forbid his repeating anything privately imparted,but he was fully aware that his reputation for discretionincreased his opportunities of finding out what hewanted to know.
The club box, therefore, waited in visible suspensewhile Mr. Sillerton Jackson handed back LawrenceLefferts's opera-glass. For a moment he silently scrutinisedthe attentive group out of his filmy blue eyesoverhung by old veined lids; then he gave his moustachea thoughtful twist, and said simply: "I didn'tthink the Mingotts would have tried it on."