The Age of Innocence HTML version

Chapter 1
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in
Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances
"above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness
and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion
was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of
the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and
inconvenient, and thus keeping out the "new people" whom New York was
beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its
historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so
problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the daily press
had already learned to describe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience" had
gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private
broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient
"Brown coupe" To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as
honourable a way of arriving as in one's own carriage; and departure by the
same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion
to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line,
instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one's own coachman
gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-
stableman's most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to
get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.
When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the curtain
had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man
should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother
and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with
glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room
in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New
York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was "not the
thing" to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not "the thing" played a
part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors
that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.
The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his
cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come
often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This was especially the
case when the pleasure was a delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and
on this occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in
quality that--well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima donna's