Mrs. Beaufort always goes to the Opera on the night of her annual ball in order to prove that her servants are good enough to do everything without her. The Beauforts’ house is one of the few with a ballroom, and the superiority of having such a room that is only used one day of the year makes up for any scandals in the Beauforts’ past. The Beauforts are seen as somewhat common. Mrs. Beaufort was a South Carolina beauty related to some high society families, but her marriage to Julius Beaufort overruled these privileges. No one is quite sure who Beaufort is, though he came from England with recommendations from Mrs. Mingott’s son-in-law.
The Beauforts are a prime example of how money can spare people the taint of possible moral impurities. Though money is not often discussed directly in this book, the adoration of the Beauforts’ ballroom is a reminder that money is actually the basis of everything in high society. Finally, Beaufort is always recognized as a foreigner, which is often used to explain his actions.
Even so, Mrs. Beaufort somehow manages to run the most distinguished house in New York. She’s essentially boring and lazy, but she dresses her beauty lavishly and everyone comes to her house. People say that Beaufort runs all of the domestic activities, but he acts perfectly carefree in the house. Despite a rumor that the international banking-house where he was employed in England “helped” him leave the country, people go to his house with a sense of social security and know they’ll get better food than at Mrs. Mingott’s.
The hypocrisy of New York society is evident in the fact that people don’t really respect Mrs. Beaufort, and yet everyone comes to their house for the sake of socializing and good food. The rumors about Beaufort’s shady professional dealings in the past foreshadow the failure of his bank later in the book.
When Mrs. Beaufort leaves the Opera after the third act, the audience knows that the ball will begin in half an hour. New Yorkers are proud to show the Beaufort house to foreigners. They have their own red carpet and awning, and they let ladies take their cloaks off in the hall instead of in the hostess’s bedroom. The ballroom is at the end of a series of beautiful drawing rooms.
The New Yorkers’ pride in showing off the Beauforts’ house and customs to foreigners suggests that they feel a sense of inferiority to Europeans, and need to prove that they, too, are wealthy and socially refined. This insecurity might contribute to the New Yorkers’ hostility towards foreigners.
Archer arrives fashionably late. After dawdling in the library with a few men, he joins the line of guests to be received. He’s nervous that the Mingotts might go too far and bring Ellen Olenska to the ball. He knows this would be a terrible mistake, and he’s feeling less inclined to defend her since speaking to her.
Archer’s first interaction with Ellen has turned him off from her due to her nonchalance about New York society. He’s worried most of all about keeping up proper appearances.
Mrs. Welland and May are standing by the ballroom door. Couples are dancing beyond them. May is holding lilies-of-the-valley and standing with a group of young people, to whom she is revealing her engagement. Archer wishes that she hadn’t announced it in such a public place, because the matter is so close to his heart, but when May looks at him he can tell that she feels the same regret. Archer wishes that Ellen Olenska hadn’t made this announcement necessary. The group congratulates him, and he takes May onto the floor to dance. He thinks how different life will be with her always beside him.
Archer and May seem to understand each other better at this point than at any other in the book, able to communicate volumes just by glances. This is likely because they both still subscribe unquestioningly to the same set of values. May is holding the white flowers that symbolize purity, drawing attention to the fact that she is a marriageable virgin. The book starts with the beginning of May and Archer’s relationship, and it will trace its entire course.
When the dance ends, Archer and May go sit in the conservatory. They say how they wish the announcement hadn’t had to be at the ball, but at least they’re alone together. Archer is overjoyed to think that she’ll always understand him. He says he wants to kiss her but can’t, then he makes sure they’re alone and does kiss her. He brings her to a less secluded sofa and takes a lily-of-the-valley from her bouquet.
This scene emphasizes the prudishness of New York and the social rules that guard a girl’s innocence. By taking a flower from May after kissing her, Archer symbolically takes some of her innocence, a reminder that he will also take her virginity in marriage before long.
May asks whether Archer told Ellen of their engagement, and he realizes that he didn’t. They debate which of them should tell her and decide that Archer must. He asks whether she’s at the ball. May says that she decided not to come at the last minute because she thought her dress wasn’t nice enough. Archer is very pleased with May’s constant determination to ignore anything unpleasant. He thinks May knows exactly why Ellen really didn’t come, but he’ll never let May see that he knows Ellen has a bad reputation.
Archer thinks that Ellen isn’t at the ball because she’s aware of society’s attitude towards her, but he will later find out that she’s actually oblivious to the situation. Though he likes it now, Archer will eventually grow exasperated with May’s dedication to ignoring unpleasantness (which is a tendency she shares with society overall). For the moment, however, he takes the same approach to Ellen’s reputation.