Mrs. Julius Beaufort, on the night of her annualball, never failed to appear at the Opera; indeed, shealways gave her ball on an Opera night in order toemphasise her complete superiority to household cares,and her possession of a staff of servants competent toorganise every detail of the entertainment in her absence.
The Beauforts' house was one of the few in NewYork that possessed a ball-room (it antedated evenMrs. Manson Mingott's and the Headly Chiverses');and at a time when it was beginning to be thought"provincial" to put a "crash" over the drawing-roomfloor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession ofa ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and leftfor three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year toshuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in acorner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubtedsuperiority was felt to compensate for whatever wasregrettable in the Beaufort past.
Mrs. Archer, who was fond of coining her socialphilosophy into axioms, had once said: "We all haveour pet common people--" and though the phrase wasa daring one, its truth was secretly admitted in manyan exclusive bosom. But the Beauforts were not exactlycommon; some people said they were even worse. Mrs.Beaufort belonged indeed to one of America's mosthonoured families; she had been the lovely Regina Dallas(of the South Carolina branch), a penniless beautyintroduced to New York society by her cousin, theimprudent Medora Manson, who was always doing thewrong thing from the right motive. When one wasrelated to the Mansons and the Rushworths one had a"droit de cite" (as Mr. Sillerton Jackson, who hadfrequented the Tuileries, called it) in New York society;but did one not forfeit it in marrying Julius Beaufort?
The question was: who was Beaufort? He passed foran Englishman, was agreeable, handsome, ill-tempered,hospitable and witty. He had come to America withletters of recommendation from old Mrs. MansonMingott's English son-in-law, the banker, and had speedilymade himself an important position in the world ofaffairs; but his habits were dissipated, his tongue wasbitter, his antecedents were mysterious; and whenMedora Manson announced her cousin's engagementto him it was felt to be one more act of folly in poorMedora's long record of imprudences.
But folly is as often justified of her children aswisdom, and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort's marriageit was admitted that she had the most distinguishedhouse in New York. No one knew exactly how themiracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive,the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like anidol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonderand more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort'sheavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the worldthere without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowingpeople said it was Beaufort himself who trained theservants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardenerswhat hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-tableand the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed theafter-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wifewrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activitieswere privately performed, and he presented to the worldthe appearance of a careless and hospitable millionairestrolling into his own drawing-room with the detachmentof an invited guest, and saying: "My wife's gloxiniasare a marvel, aren't they? I believe she gets themout from Kew."
Mr. Beaufort's secret, people were agreed, was theway he carried things off. It was all very well to whisperthat he had been "helped" to leave England by theinternational banking-house in which he had beenemployed; he carried off that rumour as easily as therest--though New York's business conscience was noless sensitive than its moral standard--he carriedeverything before him, and all New York into his drawing-rooms, and for over twenty years now people had saidthey were "going to the Beauforts'" with the sametone of security as if they had said they were going toMrs. Manson Mingott's, and with the added satisfactionof knowing they would get hot canvas-back ducksand vintage wines, instead of tepid Veuve Clicquotwithout a year and warmed-up croquettes from Philadelphia.
Mrs. Beaufort, then, had as usual appeared in herbox just before the Jewel Song; and when, again asusual, she rose at the end of the third act, drew heropera cloak about her lovely shoulders, and disappeared,New York knew that meant that half an hourlater the ball would begin.
The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers wereproud to show to foreigners, especially on the night ofthe annual ball. The Beauforts had been among thefirst people in New York to own their own red velvetcarpet and have it rolled down the steps by their ownfootmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring itwith the supper and the ball-room chairs. They hadalso inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies taketheir cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up tothe hostess's bedroom and recurling their hair with theaid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to havesaid that he supposed all his wife's friends had maidswho saw to it that they were properly coiffees whenthey left home.
Then the house had been boldly planned with aball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrowpassage to get to it (as at the Chiverses') onemarched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d'or),seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected inthe polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of aconservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched theircostly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.
Newland Archer, as became a young man of hisposition, strolled in somewhat late. He had left hisovercoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockingswere one of Beaufort's few fatuities), had dawdleda while in the library hung with Spanish leather andfurnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few menwere chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, andhad finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufortwas receiving on the threshold of the crimsondrawing-room.
Archer was distinctly nervous. He had not gone backto his club after the Opera (as the young bloods usuallydid), but, the night being fine, had walked for somedistance up Fifth Avenue before turning back in thedirection of the Beauforts' house. He was definitelyafraid that the Mingotts might be going too far; that,in fact, they might have Granny Mingott's orders tobring the Countess Olenska to the ball.
From the tone of the club box he had perceived howgrave a mistake that would be; and, though he wasmore than ever determined to "see the thing through,"he felt less chivalrously eager to champion his betrothed'scousin than before their brief talk at the Opera.
Wandering on to the bouton d'or drawing-room(where Beaufort had had the audacity to hang "LoveVictorious," the much-discussed nude of Bouguereau)Archer found Mrs. Welland and her daughter standingnear the ball-room door. Couples were already glidingover the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fellon revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed withmodest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornamentsof the young married women's coiffures, and onthe glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glacegloves.
Miss Welland, evidently about to join the dancers,hung on the threshold, her lilies-of-the-valley in herhand (she carried no other bouquet), her face a littlepale, her eyes burning with a candid excitement. Agroup of young men and girls were gathered about her,and there was much hand-clasping, laughing and pleasantryon which Mrs. Welland, standing slightly apart,shed the beam of a qualified approval. It was evidentthat Miss Welland was in the act of announcing herengagement, while her mother affected the air of parentalreluctance considered suitable to the occasion.
Archer paused a moment. It was at his express wishthat the announcement had been made, and yet it wasnot thus that he would have wished to have his happinessknown. To proclaim it in the heat and noise of acrowded ball-room was to rob it of the fine bloom ofprivacy which should belong to things nearest the heart.His joy was so deep that this blurring of the surface leftits essence untouched; but he would have liked to keepthe surface pure too. It was something of a satisfactionto find that May Welland shared this feeling. Her eyesfled to his beseechingly, and their look said: "Remember,we're doing this because it's right."
No appeal could have found a more immediate responsein Archer's breast; but he wished that the necessityof their action had been represented by some idealreason, and not simply by poor Ellen Olenska. Thegroup about Miss Welland made way for him withsignificant smiles, and after taking his share of thefelicitations he drew his betrothed into the middle ofthe ball-room floor and put his arm about her waist.
"Now we shan't have to talk," he said, smiling intoher candid eyes, as they floated away on the soft wavesof the Blue Danube.
She made no answer. Her lips trembled into a smile,but the eyes remained distant and serious, as if bent onsome ineffable vision. "Dear," Archer whispered, pressingher to him: it was borne in on him that the firsthours of being engaged, even if spent in a ball-room,had in them something grave and sacramental. What anew life it was going to be, with this whiteness,radiance, goodness at one's side!
The dance over, the two, as became an affiancedcouple, wandered into the conservatory; and sittingbehind a tall screen of tree-ferns and camellias Newlandpressed her gloved hand to his lips.
"You see I did as you asked me to," she said.
"Yes: I couldn't wait," he answered smiling. After amoment he added: "Only I wish it hadn't had to be ata ball."
"Yes, I know." She met his glance comprehendingly."But after all--even here we're alone together, aren'twe?"
"Oh, dearest--always!" Archer cried.
Evidently she was always going to understand; shewas always going to say the right thing. The discoverymade the cup of his bliss overflow, and he went ongaily: "The worst of it is that I want to kiss you and Ican't." As he spoke he took a swift glance about theconservatory, assured himself of their momentary privacy,and catching her to him laid a fugitive pressureon her lips. To counteract the audacity of this proceedinghe led her to a bamboo sofa in a less secluded partof the conservatory, and sitting down beside her brokea lily-of-the-valley from her bouquet. She sat silent, andthe world lay like a sunlit valley at their feet.
"Did you tell my cousin Ellen?" she asked presently,as if she spoke through a dream.
He roused himself, and remembered that he had notdone so. Some invincible repugnance to speak of suchthings to the strange foreign woman had checked thewords on his lips.
"No--I hadn't the chance after all," he said, fibbinghastily.
"Ah." She looked disappointed, but gently resolvedon gaining her point. "You must, then, for I didn'teither; and I shouldn't like her to think--"
"Of course not. But aren't you, after all, the personto do it?"
She pondered on this. "If I'd done it at the righttime, yes: but now that there's been a delay I think youmust explain that I'd asked you to tell her at theOpera, before our speaking about it to everybody here.Otherwise she might think I had forgotten her. Yousee, she's one of the family, and she's been away solong that she's rather--sensitive."
Archer looked at her glowingly. "Dear and greatangel! Of course I'll tell her." He glanced a trifleapprehensively toward the crowded ball-room. "But I haven'tseen her yet. Has she come?"
"No; at the last minute she decided not to."
"At the last minute?" he echoed, betraying hissurprise that she should ever have considered the alternativepossible.
"Yes. She's awfully fond of dancing," the young girlanswered simply. "But suddenly she made up her mindthat her dress wasn't smart enough for a ball, thoughwe thought it so lovely; and so my aunt had to take herhome."
"Oh, well--" said Archer with happy indifference.Nothing about his betrothed pleased him more thanher resolute determination to carry to its utmost limitthat ritual of ignoring the "unpleasant" in which theyhad both been brought up.
"She knows as well as I do," he reflected, "the realreason of her cousin's staying away; but I shall neverlet her see by the least sign that I am conscious of therebeing a shadow of a shade on poor Ellen Olenska'sreputation."