It was annoying that the box which was thus attractingthe undivided attention of masculine New Yorkshould be that in which his betrothed was seatedbetween her mother and aunt; and for a moment hecould not identify the lady in the Empire dress, norimagine why her presence created such excitement amongthe initiated. Then light dawned on him, and with itcame a momentary rush of indignation. No, indeed; noone would have thought the Mingotts would have triedit on!
But they had; they undoubtedly had; for the low-toned comments behind him left no doubt in Archer'smind that the young woman was May Welland's cousin,the cousin always referred to in the family as "poorEllen Olenska." Archer knew that she had suddenlyarrived from Europe a day or two previously; he hadeven heard from Miss Welland (not disapprovingly)that she had been to see poor Ellen, who was stayingwith old Mrs. Mingott. Archer entirely approved offamily solidarity, and one of the qualities he mostadmired in the Mingotts was their resolute championshipof the few black sheep that their blameless stockhad produced. There was nothing mean or ungenerousin the young man's heart, and he was glad that hisfuture wife should not be restrained by false pruderyfrom being kind (in private) to her unhappy cousin; butto receive Countess Olenska in the family circle was adifferent thing from producing her in public, at theOpera of all places, and in the very box with the younggirl whose engagement to him, Newland Archer, wasto be announced within a few weeks. No, he felt as oldSillerton Jackson felt; he did not think the Mingottswould have tried it on!
He knew, of course, that whatever man dared (withinFifth Avenue's limits) that old Mrs. Manson Mingott,the Matriarch of the line, would dare. He had alwaysadmired the high and mighty old lady, who, in spite ofhaving been only Catherine Spicer of Staten Island,with a father mysteriously discredited, and neither moneynor position enough to make people forget it, hadallied herself with the head of the wealthy Mingott line,married two of her daughters to "foreigners" (an Italianmarquis and an English banker), and put the crowningtouch to her audacities by building a large house ofpale cream-coloured stone (when brown sandstoneseemed as much the only wear as a frock-coat in theafternoon) in an inaccessible wilderness near theCentral Park.
Old Mrs. Mingott's foreign daughters had become alegend. They never came back to see their mother, andthe latter being, like many persons of active mind anddominating will, sedentary and corpulent in her habit,had philosophically remained at home. But the cream-coloured house (supposed to be modelled on the privatehotels of the Parisian aristocracy) was there as avisible proof of her moral courage; and she throned init, among pre-Revolutionary furniture and souvenirs ofthe Tuileries of Louis Napoleon (where she had shonein her middle age), as placidly as if there were nothingpeculiar in living above Thirty-fourth Street, or in havingFrench windows that opened like doors instead ofsashes that pushed up.
Every one (including Mr. Sillerton Jackson) was agreedthat old Catherine had never had beauty--a gift which,in the eyes of New York, justified every success, andexcused a certain number of failings. Unkind peoplesaid that, like her Imperial namesake, she had won herway to success by strength of will and hardness ofheart, and a kind of haughty effrontery that was somehowjustified by the extreme decency and dignity of herprivate life. Mr. Manson Mingott had died when shewas only twenty-eight, and had "tied up" the moneywith an additional caution born of the general distrustof the Spicers; but his bold young widow went her wayfearlessly, mingled freely in foreign society, married herdaughters in heaven knew what corrupt and fashionablecircles, hobnobbed with Dukes and Ambassadors,associated familiarly with Papists, entertained Operasingers, and was the intimate friend of Mme. Taglioni;and all the while (as Sillerton Jackson was the first toproclaim) there had never been a breath on her reputation;the only respect, he always added, in which shediffered from the earlier Catherine.
Mrs. Manson Mingott had long since succeeded inuntying her husband's fortune, and had lived in affluencefor half a century; but memories of her earlystraits had made her excessively thrifty, and though,when she bought a dress or a piece of furniture, shetook care that it should be of the best, she could notbring herself to spend much on the transient pleasuresof the table. Therefore, for totally different reasons, herfood was as poor as Mrs. Archer's, and her wines didnothing to redeem it. Her relatives considered that thepenury of her table discredited the Mingott name, whichhad always been associated with good living; but peoplecontinued to come to her in spite of the "madedishes" and flat champagne, and in reply to theremonstrances of her son Lovell (who tried to retrieve thefamily credit by having the best chef in New York) sheused to say laughingly: "What's the use of two goodcooks in one family, now that I've married the girls andcan't eat sauces?"
Newland Archer, as he mused on these things, hadonce more turned his eyes toward the Mingott box. Hesaw that Mrs. Welland and her sister-in-law were facingtheir semicircle of critics with the Mingottian APLOMBwhich old Catherine had inculcated in all her tribe, andthat only May Welland betrayed, by a heightened colour(perhaps due to the knowledge that he was watchingher) a sense of the gravity of the situation. As forthe cause of the commotion, she sat gracefully in hercorner of the box, her eyes fixed on the stage, andrevealing, as she leaned forward, a little more shoulderand bosom than New York was accustomed to seeing,at least in ladies who had reasons for wishing to passunnoticed.
Few things seemed to Newland Archer more awfulthan an offence against "Taste," that far-off divinity ofwhom "Form" was the mere visible representative andvicegerent. Madame Olenska's pale and serious faceappealed to his fancy as suited to the occasion and toher unhappy situation; but the way her dress (whichhad no tucker) sloped away from her thin shouldersshocked and troubled him. He hated to think of MayWelland's being exposed to the influence of a youngwoman so careless of the dictates of Taste.
"After all," he heard one of the younger men beginbehind him (everybody talked through the Mephistopheles-and-Martha scenes), "after all, just WHAT happened?"
"Well--she left him; nobody attempts to deny that."
"He's an awful brute, isn't he?" continued the youngenquirer, a candid Thorley, who was evidently preparingto enter the lists as the lady's champion.
"The very worst; I knew him at Nice," saidLawrence Lefferts with authority. "A half-paralysed whitesneering fellow--rather handsome head, but eyes witha lot of lashes. Well, I'll tell you the sort: when hewasn't with women he was collecting china. Paying anyprice for both, I understand."
There was a general laugh, and the young championsaid: "Well, then----?"
"Well, then; she bolted with his secretary."
"Oh, I see." The champion's face fell.
"It didn't last long, though: I heard of her a fewmonths later living alone in Venice. I believe LovellMingott went out to get her. He said she was desperatelyunhappy. That's all right--but this parading herat the Opera's another thing."
"Perhaps," young Thorley hazarded, "she's toounhappy to be left at home."
This was greeted with an irreverent laugh, and theyouth blushed deeply, and tried to look as if he hadmeant to insinuate what knowing people called a "doubleentendre."
"Well--it's queer to have brought Miss Welland,anyhow," some one said in a low tone, with a side-glance at Archer.
"Oh, that's part of the campaign: Granny's orders,no doubt," Lefferts laughed. "When the old lady doesa thing she does it thoroughly."
The act was ending, and there was a general stir inthe box. Suddenly Newland Archer felt himselfimpelled to decisive action. The desire to be the first manto enter Mrs. Mingott's box, to proclaim to the waitingworld his engagement to May Welland, and to see herthrough whatever difficulties her cousin's anomaloussituation might involve her in; this impulse had abruptlyoverruled all scruples and hesitations, and sent himhurrying through the red corridors to the farther sideof the house.
As he entered the box his eyes met Miss Welland's,and he saw that she had instantly understood his motive,though the family dignity which both consideredso high a virtue would not permit her to tell him so.The persons of their world lived in an atmosphere offaint implications and pale delicacies, and the fact thathe and she understood each other without a wordseemed to the young man to bring them nearer thanany explanation would have done. Her eyes said: "Yousee why Mamma brought me," and his answered: "Iwould not for the world have had you stay away."
"You know my niece Countess Olenska?" Mrs. Wellandenquired as she shook hands with her future son-in-law. Archer bowed without extending his hand, aswas the custom on being introduced to a lady; andEllen Olenska bent her head slightly, keeping her ownpale-gloved hands clasped on her huge fan of eaglefeathers. Having greeted Mrs. Lovell Mingott, a largeblonde lady in creaking satin, he sat down beside hisbetrothed, and said in a low tone: "I hope you've toldMadame Olenska that we're engaged? I want everybodyto know--I want you to let me announce it thisevening at the ball."
Miss Welland's face grew rosy as the dawn, and shelooked at him with radiant eyes. "If you can persuadeMamma," she said; "but why should we change whatis already settled?" He made no answer but that whichhis eyes returned, and she added, still more confidentlysmiling: "Tell my cousin yourself: I give you leave. Shesays she used to play with you when you were children."
She made way for him by pushing back her chair,and promptly, and a little ostentatiously, with thedesire that the whole house should see what he wasdoing, Archer seated himself at the Countess Olenska'sside.
"We DID use to play together, didn't we?" she asked,turning her grave eyes to his. "You were a horrid boy,and kissed me once behind a door; but it was yourcousin Vandie Newland, who never looked at me, thatI was in love with." Her glance swept the horse-shoecurve of boxes. "Ah, how this brings it all back tome--I see everybody here in knickerbockers and pantalettes,"she said, with her trailing slightly foreign accent,her eyes returning to his face.
Agreeable as their expression was, the young manwas shocked that they should reflect so unseemly apicture of the august tribunal before which, at that verymoment, her case was being tried. Nothing could be inworse taste than misplaced flippancy; and he answeredsomewhat stiffly: "Yes, you have been away a verylong time."
"Oh, centuries and centuries; so long," she said,"that I'm sure I'm dead and buried, and this dear oldplace is heaven;" which, for reasons he could notdefine, struck Newland Archer as an even moredisrespectful way of describing New York society.