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At the Opera
High society in New York in the early 1870s was a very small world. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. They all went out in the evenings, dressed in their finest clothes, to attend the theater, the ballet, or the opera; to visit people and to be seen. They gossiped about upcoming marriages and recent scandals. The ladies approved or disapproved of one another’s dresses and hairstyles. Hundreds of pairs of eyes watched out for something irregular, something scandalous or ridiculous, and hundreds of tongues were ready to talk about it.
One January evening, Newland Archer went to the opera. The famous soprano Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the New York Academy of Music. Everyone was there. As Madame Nilsson was singing a passionate love song, Newland looked over at Mrs Manson Mingott’s box. Mrs Mingott herself was far too old and fat to go to the opera, but her family used the box. Tonight her daughter Augusta Welland was there beside her sister-in-law, Mrs Lovell Mingott. Behind them sat a young woman in a white dress. This was Mrs Welland’s daughter, May. She was staring at the love scene on the stage. Her eyes were bright, and she was blushing, as the blonde soprano sang out “Mama!” triumphantly.
“The darling!” thought Newland with pride and satisfaction. “She doesn’t even know what it’s all about. When we’re married, we’ll read Faust together by the Italian lakes.” That afternoon, he and May had told each other their feelings. They were now engaged to be married, although they hadn’t yet made a formal announcement. He was glad that May was innocent, but once they were married he’d educate her. When she was his wife, he’d teach her to be charming and sophisticated, like the married woman who had fascinated him for two years. He wanted May to have all that woman’s charm but none of her weaknesses. Newland looked back at the stage, where Madame Nilsson was reaching the climax of her love song.
Larry Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson were standing next to Newland. Mr Jackson was an old society gossip: he knew the secrets and scandals of all of New York society for the past fifty years. Lefferts was an elegant young gentleman, an expert on what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in New York high society. “How’s the law, Archer?” Lefferts asked a little ironically. Newland was a lawyer in a distinguished New York law firm, but everyone knew that he didn’t care much about his work.
“It’s all right,” said Newland. “A little dull, but a gentleman must do something, so I go to Mr Letterblair’s office every morning.”
Suddenly, Lefferts, who had been looking at the people in the boxes opposite, said, “My God!”
Newland saw that he was staring at Mrs Mingott’s box. Another lady had just entered it - a slim young woman wearing a band of diamonds in her dark hair and a very elegant Empire-style dress. Everyone in the opera house was looking at that dress. “Augusta Welland shouldn’t have brought her here,” said Lefferts.
Newland said nothing but in his heart he agreed. He was a generous young man, and he was glad that May and her family were kind to her unfortunate cousin Countess Olenska. But being kind to her at home was one thing: bringing her to the opera was another thing entirely. Mrs Welland shouldn’t have done it.
“What happened to the Countess?” asked a young man close by. “Everyone says that she’s ‘unfortunate’, but I’ve never heard her story.”
“She left her husband,” replied Lefferts.
“I heard her husband was horrible,” said the young man, who obviously wanted to defend the lady.
“Yes, he was,’ Lefferts agreed.
The young man looked satisfied, but then Lefferts added, “She ran away with his secretary.’
“Oh dear!” said the young man.
“It didn’t last long, though,” said Mr Jackson. “Last month she was living alone in Venice. Lovell Mingott went there and brought her home. That’s fine - a family should take care of its unfortunate members - but bringing her to the opera is a mistake.”
“Especially with Miss Welland,” said Lefferts.
Newland suddenly wanted to go to Mrs Mingott’s box, to show the world that he was engaged to May, and to protect her from any difficulties she might have as a result of her cousin’s scandalous reputation. He hurried through the red corridors to the other side of the opera house. When he entered the box, his eyes met May’s, and he saw that she instantly understood his motive.
“Do you know my niece, Countess Olenska?” asked Augusta Welland.
Newland had not seen the Countess since she was little Ellen Mingott - a lively, pretty child of nine. Ellen’s parents had liked traveling. When Ellen was little, they took her all over Europe. They died when she was nine, and her aunt Mrs Medora Manson took care of her after that. Mrs Manson was also a traveler. Occasionally she came back to New York with a new husband. Shortly after the death of Ellen’s parents, Mrs Manson brought her niece to New York. New York society was shocked to see that the little girl wasn’t wearing black, even though her parents had died recently. Instead she wore bright red silk and amber beads.
For a few months, Newland had seen her often in the houses of her aunts or his, but then Mrs Medora Manson had taken her back to Europe. Nothing was heard of them for ten years, then there was news: Ellen had married a very rich Polish nobleman she had met at a ball in Paris. Apparently the Count had beautiful houses in Paris, Nice, and Florence.
Newland sat next to the Countess. He did this so that everybody at the opera could see him.
“We used to play together when we were children,” said Countess Olenska. “You were a horrible boy. You kissed me once behind a door, but I was in love with your cousin Vandie Newland, who never looked at me.” She looked around the opera house and said, “Yes. Being here brings back all the old memories. I can imagine everybody here in children’s clothing just like long ago.”
Newland was shocked by the flippant way she referred to New York high society, which, at that very moment, was judging her.
“You’ve been away a very long time,” he said.
“Oh yes,” replied the lady. “Centuries and centuries; so long that I feel as if I’m dead and buried, and this dear old place is heaven.”
To Newland, her way of speaking seemed very strange. He didn’t like her tone - it was too European, too subtle. He thanked God that he was an honest New Yorker and that he was about to marry one of his own kind.
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