New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton

I

“She was BAD . . . always. They used to meet at the Fifth Avenue Hotel,” said my mother, as if the scene of the offence added to the guilt of the couple whose past she was revealing. Her spectacles slanted on her knitting, she dropped the words in a hiss that might have singed the snowy baby-blanket which engaged her indefatigable fingers. (It was typical of my mother to be always employed in benevolent actions while she uttered uncharitable words.)

“THEY USED TO MEET AT THE FIFTH AVENUE HOTEL”; how the precision of the phrase characterized my old New York! A generation later, people would have said, in reporting an affair such as Lizzie Hazeldean’s with Henry Prest: “They met in hotels” — and today who but a few superannuated spinsters, still feeding on the venom secreted in their youth, would take any interest in the tracing of such topographies?

Life has become too telegraphic for curiosity to linger on any given point in a sentimental relation; as old Sillerton Jackson, in response to my mother, grumbled through his perfect “china set”: “Fifth Avenue Hotel? They might meet in the middle of Fifth Avenue nowadays, for all that anybody cares.”

But what a flood of light my mother’s tart phrase had suddenly focussed on an unremarked incident of my boyhood!

The Fifth Avenue Hotel . . . Mrs. Hazeldean and Henry Prest . . . the conjunction of these names had arrested her darting talk on a single point of my memory, as a search-light, suddenly checked in its gyrations, is held motionless while one notes each of the unnaturally sharp and lustrous images it picks out.

At the time I was a boy of twelve, at home from school for the holidays. My mother’s mother, Grandmamma Parrett, still lived in the house in West Twenty-third Street which Grandpapa had built in his pioneering youth, in days when people shuddered at the perils of living north of Union Square — days that Grandmamma and my parents looked back to with a joking incredulity as the years passed and the new houses advanced steadily Park-ward, outstripping the Thirtieth Streets, taking the Reservoir at a bound, and leaving us in what, in my school-days, was already a dullish back-water between Aristocracy to the south and Money to the north.

Even then fashion moved quickly in New York, and my infantile memory barely reached back to the time when Grandmamma, in lace lappets and creaking ‘moire,’ used to receive on New Year’s day, supported by her handsome married daughters. As for old Sillerton Jackson, who, once a social custom had dropped into disuse, always affected never to have observed it, he stoutly maintained that the New Year’s day ceremonial had never been taken seriously except among families of Dutch descent, and that that was why Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had clung to it, in a reluctant half-apologetic way, long after her friends had closed their doors on the first of January, and the date had been chosen for those out-of-town parties which are so often used as a pretext for absence when the unfashionable are celebrating their rites.

Grandmamma, of course, no longer received. But it would have seemed to her an exceedingly odd thing to go out of town in winter, especially now that the New York houses were luxuriously warmed by the new hot-air furnaces, and searchingly illuminated by gas chandeliers. No, thank you — no country winters for the chilblained generation of prunella sandals and low-necked sarcenet, the generation brought up in unwarmed and unlit houses, and shipped off to die in Italy when they proved unequal to the struggle of living in New York! Therefore Grandmamma, like most of her contemporaries, remained in town on the first of January, and marked the day by a family reunion, a kind of supplementary Christmas — though to us juniors the absence of presents and plum-pudding made it but a pale and moonlike reflection of the Feast.

Still, the day was welcome as a lawful pretext for over-eating, dawdling, and looking out of the window: a Dutch habit still extensively practised in the best New York circles. On the day in question, however, we had not yet placed ourselves behind the plate-glass whence it would presently be so amusing to observe the funny gentlemen who trotted about, their evening ties hardly concealed behind their overcoat collars, darting in and out of chocolate-coloured house-fronts on their sacramental round of calls. We were still engaged in placidly digesting around the ravaged luncheon table when a servant dashed in to say that the Fifth Avenue Hotel was on fire.

Oh, then the fun began — and what fun it was! For Grandmamma’s house was just opposite the noble edifice of white marble which I associated with such deep-piled carpets, and such a rich sultry smell of anthracite and coffee, whenever I was bidden to “step across” for a messenger-boy, or to buy the evening paper for my elders.

The hotel, for all its sober state, was no longer fashionable. No one, in my memory, had ever known any one who went there; it was frequented by “politicians” and “Westerners,” two classes of citizens whom my mother’s intonation always seemed to deprive of their vote by ranking them with illiterates and criminals.

But for that very reason there was all the more fun to be expected from the calamity in question; for had we not, with infinite amusement, watched the arrival, that morning, of monumental “floral pieces” and towering frosted cakes for the New Year’s day reception across the way? The event was a communal one. All the ladies who were the hotel’s “guests” were to receive together in the densely lace-curtained and heavily chandeliered public parlours, and gentlemen with long hair, imperials and white gloves had been hastening since two o’clock to the scene of revelry. And now, thanks to the opportune conflagration, we were going to have the excitement not only of seeing the Fire Brigade in action (supreme joy of the New York youngster), but of witnessing the flight of the ladies and their visitors, staggering out through the smoke in gala array. The idea that the fire might be dangerous did not mar these pleasing expectations. The house was solidly built; New York’s invincible Brigade was already at the door, in a glare of polished brass, coruscating helmets and horses shining like table-silver; and my tall cousin Hubert Wesson, dashing across at the first alarm, had promptly returned to say that all risk was over, though the two lower floors were so full of smoke and water that the lodgers, in some confusion, were being transported to other hotels. How then could a small boy see in the event anything but an unlimited lark?

Our elders, once reassured, were of the same mind. As they stood behind us in the windows, looking over our heads, we heard chuckles of amusement mingled with ironic comment.

“Oh, my dear, look — here they all come! The New Year ladies! Low neck and short sleeves in broad daylight, every one of them! Oh, and the fat one with the paper roses in her hair . . . they ARE paper, my dear . . . off the frosted cake, probably! Oh! Oh! Oh! OH!”

Aunt Sabina Wesson was obliged to stuff her lace handkerchief between her lips, while her firm poplin-cased figure rocked with delight.

“Well, my dear,” Grandmamma gently reminded her, “in my youth we wore low-necked dresses all day long and all the year round.”

No one listened. My cousin Kate, who always imitated Aunt Sabina, was pinching my arm in an agony of mirth. “Look at them scuttling! The parlours must be full of smoke. Oh, but this one is still funnier; the one with the tall feather in her hair! Granny, did you wear feathers in your hair in the daytime? Oh, don’t ask me to believe it! And the one with the diamond necklace! And all the gentlemen in white ties! Did Grandpapa wear a white tie at two o’clock in the afternoon?” Nothing was sacred to Kate, and she feigned not to notice Grandmamma’s mild frown of reproval.

“Well, they do in Paris, to this day, at weddings — wear evening clothes and white ties,” said Sillerton Jackson with authority. “When Minnie Transome of Charleston was married at the Madeleine to the Duc de . . . ”

But no one listened even to Sillerton Jackson. One of the party had abruptly exclaimed: “Oh, there’s a lady running out of the hotel who’s not in evening dress!”

The exclamation caused all our eyes to turn toward the person indicated, who had just reached the threshold; and someone added, in an odd voice: “Why, her figure looks like Lizzie Hazeldean’s — ”

A dead silence followed. The lady who was not in evening dress paused. Standing on the door-step with lifted veil, she faced our window. Her dress was dark and plain — almost conspicuously plain — and in less time than it takes to tell she had put her hand to her closely-patterned veil and pulled it down over her face. But my young eyes were keen and far-sighted; and in that hardly perceptible interval I had seen a vision. Was she beautiful — or was she only someone apart? I felt the shock of a small pale oval, dark eyebrows curved with one sure stroke, lips made for warmth, and now drawn up in a grimace of terror; and it seemed as if the mysterious something, rich, secret and insistent, that broods and murmurs behind a boy’s conscious thoughts, had suddenly peered out at me . . . As the dart reached me her veil dropped.

“But it IS Lizzie Hazeldean!” Aunt Sabina gasped. She had stopped laughing, and her crumpled handkerchief fell to the carpet.

“Lizzie — LIZZIE?” The name was echoed over my head with varying intonations of reprobation, dismay and half-veiled malice.

Lizzie Hazeldean? Running out of the Fifth Avenue Hotel on New Year’s day with all those dressed-up women? But what on earth could she have been doing there? No; nonsense! It was impossible . . .

“There’s Henry Prest with her,” continued Aunt Sabina in a precipitate whisper.

“With her?” someone gasped; and “OH— ” my mother cried with a shudder.

The men of the family said nothing, but I saw Hubert Wesson’s face crimson with surprise. Henry Prest! Hubert was forever boring us youngsters with his Henry Prest! That was the kind of chap Hubert meant to be at thirty: in his eyes Henry Prest embodied all the manly graces. Married? No, thank you! That kind of man wasn’t made for the domestic yoke. Too fond of ladies’ society, Hubert hinted with his undergraduate smirk; and handsome, rich, independent — an all-round sportsman, good horseman, good shot, crack yachtsman (had his pilot’s certificate, and always sailed his own sloop, whose cabin was full of racing trophies); gave the most delightful little dinners, never more than six, with cigars that beat old Beaufort’s; was awfully decent to the younger men, chaps of Hubert’s age included — and combined, in short, all the qualities, mental and physical, which make up, in such eyes as Hubert’s that oracular and irresistible figure, the man of the world. “Just the fellow,” Hubert always solemnly concluded that I should go straight to if ever I got into any kind of row that I didn’t want the family to know about”; and our blood ran pleasantly cold at the idea of our old Hubert’s ever being in such an unthinkable predicament.

I felt sorry to have missed a glimpse of this legendary figure; but my gaze had been enthralled by the lady, and now the couple had vanished in the crowd.

The group in our window continued to keep an embarrassed silence. They looked almost frightened; but what struck me even more deeply was that not one of them looked surprised. Even to my boyish sense it was clear that what they had just seen was only the confirmation of something they had long been prepared for. At length one of my uncles emitted a whistle, was checked by a severe glance from his wife, and muttered: “I’ll be damned”; another uncle began an unheeded narrative of a fire at which he had been present in his youth, and my mother said to me severely: “You ought to be at home preparing your lessons — a big boy like you!” — a remark so obviously unfair that it served only to give the measure of her agitation.

“I don’t believe it,” said Grandmamma, in a low voice of warning, protest and appeal. I saw Hubert steal a grateful look at her.

But nobody else listened: every eye still strained through the window. Livery-stable “hacks,” of the old blue-curtained variety, were driving up to carry off the fair fugitives; for the day was bitterly cold, and lit by one of those harsh New York suns of which every ray seems an icicle. Into these ancient vehicles the ladies, now regaining their composure, were being piled with their removable possessions, while their kid-gloved callers (“So like the White Rabbit!” Kate exulted) appeared and reappeared in the doorway, gallantly staggering after them under bags, reticules, bird-cages, pet dogs and heaped-up finery. But to all this — as even I, a little boy, was aware — nobody in Grandmamma’s window paid the slightest attention. The thoughts of one and all, with a mute and guarded eagerness, were still following the movements of those two who were so obviously unrelated to the rest. The whole business — discovery, comment, silent visual pursuit — could hardly, all told, have filled a minute, perhaps not as much; before the sixty seconds were over, Mrs. Hazeldean and Henry Prest had been lost in the crowd, and, while the hotel continued to empty itself into the street, had gone their joint or separate ways. But in my grandmother’s window the silence continued unbroken.

“Well, it’s over: here are the firemen coming out again,” someone said at length.

We youngsters were all alert at that; yet I felt that the grown-ups lent but a half-hearted attention to the splendid sight which was New York’s only pageant: the piling of scarlet ladders on scarlet carts, the leaping up on the engine of the helmeted flame-fighters, and the disciplined plunge forward of each pair of broad-chested black steeds, as one after another the chariots of fire rattled off.

Silently, almost morosely, we withdrew to the drawing-room hearth; where, after an interval of languid monosyllables, my mother, rising first, slipped her knitting into its bag, and turning on me with renewed severity, said: “This racing after fire-engines is what makes you too sleepy to prepare your lessons:— a comment so wide of the mark that once again I perceived, without understanding, the extent of the havoc wrought in her mind by the sight of Mrs. Hazeldean and Henry Prest coming out of the Fifth Avenue Hotel together.

It was not until many years later that chance enabled me to relate this fugitive impression to what had preceded and what came after it.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30