The Age of Innocence HTML version

Chapter 6
That evening, after Mr. Jackson had taken himself away, and the ladies had
retired to their chintz- curtained bedroom, Newland Archer mounted thoughtfully
to his own study. A vigilant hand had, as usual, kept the fire alive and the lamp
trimmed; and the room, with its rows and rows of books, its bronze and steel
statuettes of "The Fencers" on the mantelpiece and its many photographs of
famous pictures, looked singularly home-like and welcoming.
As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large
photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days
of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the
table. With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes
and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul's custodian he was to
be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in,
the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him
like a stranger through May Welland's familiar features; and once more it was
borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to
think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.
The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up old settled convictions and set
them drifting dangerously through his mind. His own exclamation: "Women
should be free--as free as we are," struck to the root of a problem that it was
agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. "Nice" women, however wronged,
would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous- minded men like
himself were therefore--in the heat of argument--the more chivalrously ready to
concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging
disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people
down to the old pattern. But here he was pledged to defend, on the part of his
betrothed's cousin, conduct that, on his own wife's part, would justify him in
calling down on her all the thunders of Church and State. Of course the dilemma
was purely hypothetical; since he wasn't a blackguard Polish nobleman, it was
absurd to speculate what his wife's rights would be if he WERE. But Newland
Archer was too imaginative not to feel that, in his case and May's, the tie might
gall for reasons far less gross and palpable. What could he and she really know
of each other, since it was his duty, as a "decent" fellow, to conceal his past from
her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal? What if, for
some one of the subtler reasons that would tell with both of them, they should tire
of each other, misunderstand or irritate each other? He reviewed his friends'
marriages-- the supposedly happy ones--and saw none that answered, even
remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his
permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture
presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of
judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver