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Chapter 4


IV.

In the course of the next day the first of the usual
betrothal visits were exchanged.  The New York
ritual was precise and inflexible in such matters; and in
conformity with it Newland Archer first went with his
mother and sister to call on Mrs. Welland, after which
he and Mrs. Welland and May drove out to old Mrs.
Manson Mingott's to receive that venerable ancestress's
blessing.

A visit to Mrs. Manson Mingott was always an
amusing episode to the young man.  The house in itself
was already an historic document, though not, of course,
as venerable as certain other old family houses in
University Place and lower Fifth Avenue.  Those were of
the purest 1830, with a grim harmony of cabbage-
rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched
fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense
glazed book-cases of mahogany; whereas old Mrs.
Mingott, who had built her house later, had bodily cast
out the massive furniture of her prime, and mingled
with the Mingott heirlooms the frivolous upholstery of
the Second Empire.  It was her habit to sit in a window
of her sitting-room on the ground floor, as if watching
calmly for life and fashion to flow northward to her
solitary doors.  She seemed in no hurry to have them
come, for her patience was equalled by her confidence.
She was sure that presently the hoardings, the quarries,
the one-story saloons, the wooden green-houses in ragged
gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed
the scene, would vanish before the advance of residences
as stately as her own--perhaps (for she was an
impartial woman) even statelier; and that the cobble-
stones over which the old clattering omnibuses bumped
would be replaced by smooth asphalt, such as people
reported having seen in Paris.  Meanwhile, as every one
she cared to see came to HER (and she could fill her
rooms as easily as the Beauforts, and without adding a
single item to the menu of her suppers), she did not
suffer from her geographic isolation.

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended
on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed
city had changed her from a plump active little woman
with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as
vast and august as a natural phenomenon.  She had
accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her
other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded
by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled
expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the
centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if
awaiting excavation.  A flight of smooth double chins led
down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled
in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature
portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below,
wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges
of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised
like gulls on the surface of the billows.

The burden of Mrs. Manson Mingott's flesh had
long since made it impossible for her to go up and
down stairs, and with characteristic independence she
had made her reception rooms upstairs and established
herself (in flagrant violation of all the New York
proprieties) on the ground floor of her house; so that, as
you sat in her sitting-room window with her, you caught
(through a door that was always open, and a looped-
back yellow damask portiere) the unexpected vista of a
bedroom with a huge low bed upholstered like a sofa,
and a toilet-table with frivolous lace flounces and a
gilt-framed mirror.

Her visitors were startled and fascinated by the
foreignness of this arrangement, which recalled scenes in
French fiction, and architectural incentives to immorality
such as the simple American had never dreamed of.
That was how women with lovers lived in the wicked
old societies, in apartments with all the rooms on one
floor, and all the indecent propinquities that their
novels described.  It amused Newland Archer (who had
secretly situated the love-scenes of "Monsieur de
Camors" in Mrs. Mingott's bedroom) to picture her
blameless life led in the stage-setting of adultery; but he
said to himself, with considerable admiration, that if a
lover had been what she wanted, the intrepid woman
would have had him too.

To the general relief the Countess Olenska was not
present in her grandmother's drawing-room during the
visit of the betrothed couple.  Mrs. Mingott said she
had gone out; which, on a day of such glaring sunlight,
and at the "shopping hour," seemed in itself an indelicate
thing for a compromised woman to do.  But at any
rate it spared them the embarrassment of her presence,
and the faint shadow that her unhappy past might
seem to shed on their radiant future.  The visit went off
successfully, as was to have been expected.  Old Mrs.
Mingott was delighted with the engagement, which,
being long foreseen by watchful relatives, had been
carefully passed upon in family council; and the
engagement ring, a large thick sapphire set in invisible
claws, met with her unqualified admiration.

"It's the new setting: of course it shows the stone
beautifully, but it looks a little bare to old-fashioned
eyes," Mrs. Welland had explained, with a conciliatory
side-glance at her future son-in-law.

"Old-fashioned eyes?  I hope you don't mean mine,
my dear?  I like all the novelties," said the ancestress,
lifting the stone to her small bright orbs, which no
glasses had ever disfigured.  "Very handsome," she added,
returning the jewel; "very liberal.  In my time a cameo
set in pearls was thought sufficient.  But it's the hand
that sets off the ring, isn't it, my dear Mr. Archer?"
and she waved one of her tiny hands, with small pointed
nails and rolls of aged fat encircling the wrist like ivory
bracelets.  "Mine was modelled in Rome by the great
Ferrigiani.  You should have May's done: no doubt he'll
have it done, my child.  Her hand is large--it's these
modern sports that spread the joints--but the skin is
white.--And when's the wedding to be?" she broke off,
fixing her eyes on Archer's face.

"Oh--" Mrs. Welland murmured, while the young
man, smiling at his betrothed, replied:  "As soon as ever
it can, if only you'll back me up, Mrs. Mingott."

"We must give them time to get to know each other
a little better, mamma," Mrs. Welland interposed, with
the proper affectation of reluctance; to which the
ancestress rejoined:  "Know each other?  Fiddlesticks!
Everybody in New York has always known everybody.
Let the young man have his way, my dear; don't wait
till the bubble's off the wine.  Marry them before Lent;
I may catch pneumonia any winter now, and I want to
give the wedding-breakfast."

These successive statements were received with the
proper expressions of amusement, incredulity and gratitude;
and the visit was breaking up in a vein of mild
pleasantry when the door opened to admit the Countess
Olenska, who entered in bonnet and mantle followed
by the unexpected figure of Julius Beaufort.

There was a cousinly murmur of pleasure between
the ladies, and Mrs. Mingott held out Ferrigiani's model
to the banker.  "Ha!  Beaufort, this is a rare favour!"
(She had an odd foreign way of addressing men by
their surnames.)

"Thanks.  I wish it might happen oftener," said the
visitor in his easy arrogant way.  "I'm generally so tied
down; but I met the Countess Ellen in Madison Square,
and she was good enough to let me walk home with
her."

"Ah--I hope the house will be gayer, now that
Ellen's here!" cried Mrs. Mingott with a glorious
effrontery.  "Sit down--sit down, Beaufort: push up the yellow
armchair; now I've got you I want a good gossip.  I
hear your ball was magnificent; and I understand you
invited Mrs. Lemuel Struthers?  Well--I've a curiosity
to see the woman myself."

She had forgotten her relatives, who were drifting
out into the hall under Ellen Olenska's guidance.  Old
Mrs. Mingott had always professed a great admiration
for Julius Beaufort, and there was a kind of kinship in
their cool domineering way and their short-cuts through
the conventions.  Now she was eagerly curious to know
what had decided the Beauforts to invite (for the first
time) Mrs. Lemuel Struthers, the widow of Struthers's
Shoe-polish, who had returned the previous year from
a long initiatory sojourn in Europe to lay siege to the
tight little citadel of New York.  "Of course if you and
Regina invite her the thing is settled.  Well, we need
new blood and new money--and I hear she's still very
good-looking," the carnivorous old lady declared.

In the hall, while Mrs. Welland and May drew on
their furs, Archer saw that the Countess Olenska was
looking at him with a faintly questioning smile.

"Of course you know already--about May and me,"
he said, answering her look with a shy laugh.  "She
scolded me for not giving you the news last night at the
Opera: I had her orders to tell you that we were
engaged--but I couldn't, in that crowd."

The smile passed from Countess Olenska's eyes to
her lips: she looked younger, more like the bold brown
Ellen Mingott of his boyhood.  "Of course I know; yes.
And I'm so glad.  But one doesn't tell such things first in
a crowd."  The ladies were on the threshold and she
held out her hand.

"Good-bye; come and see me some day," she said,
still looking at Archer.

In the carriage, on the way down Fifth Avenue, they
talked pointedly of Mrs. Mingott, of her age, her spirit,
and all her wonderful attributes.  No one alluded to
Ellen Olenska; but Archer knew that Mrs. Welland
was thinking:  "It's a mistake for Ellen to be seen, the
very day after her arrival, parading up Fifth Avenue at
the crowded hour with Julius Beaufort--" and the young
man himself mentally added:  "And she ought to know
that a man who's just engaged doesn't spend his time
calling on married women.  But I daresay in the set
she's lived in they do--they never do anything else."
And, in spite of the cosmopolitan views on which he
prided himself, he thanked heaven that he was a New
Yorker, and about to ally himself with one of his own
kind.


Edith Wharton