False Dawn, by Edith Wharton

5.

IT was in a tiny Venetian church, no more than a chapel, that Lewis Raycie’s eyes had been unsealed — in a dull-looking little church not even mentioned in the guide-books. But for his chance encounter with the young Englishman in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Lewis would never have heard of the place; but then what else that was worth knowing would he ever have heard of, he wondered?

He had stood a long time looking at the frescoes, put off at first — he could admit it now — by a certain stiffness in the attitudes of the people, by the childish elaboration of their dress (so different from the noble draperies which Sir Joshua’s Discourses on Art had taught him to admire in the great painters), and by the innocent inexpressive look in their young faces — for even the gray-beards seemed young. And then suddenly his gaze had lit on one of these faces in particular: that of a girl with round cheeks, high cheek-bones and widely set eyes under an intricate head-dress of pearl-woven braids. Why, it was Treeshy — Treeshy Kent to the life! And so far from being thought “plain,” the young lady was no other than the peerless princess about whom the tale revolved. And what a fairy-land she lived in — full of lithe youths and round-faced pouting maidens, rosy old men and burnished blackamoors, pretty birds and cats and nibbling rabbits — and all involved and enclosed in golden balustrades, in colonnades of pink and blue, laurel-garlands festooned from ivory balconies, and domes and minarets against summer seas! Lewis’s imagination lost itself in the scene; he forgot to regret the noble draperies, the exalted sentiments, the fuliginous backgrounds, of the artists he had come to Italy to admire — forgot Sassoferrato, Guido Reni, Carlo Dolce, Lo Spagnoletto, the Carracci, and even the Transfiguration of Raphael, though he knew it to be the greatest picture in the world.

After that he had seen almost everything else that Italian art had to offer; had been to Florence, Naples, Rome; to Bologna to study the Eclectic School, to Parma to examine the Correggios and the Giulio Romanos. But that first vision had laid a magic seed between his lips; the seed that makes you hear what the birds say and the grasses whisper. Even if his English friend had not continued at his side, pointing out, explaining, inspiring. Lewis Raycie flattered himself that the round face of the little Saint Ursula would have led him safely and confidently past all her rivals. She had become his touchstone, his star: how insipid seemed to him all the sheep-faced Virgins draped in red and blue paint after he had looked into her wondering girlish eyes and traced the elaborate pattern of her brocades! He could remember now, quite distinctly, the day when he had given up even Beatrice Cenci . . . and as for that fat naked Magdalen of Carlo Dolce’s, lolling over the book she was not reading, and ogling the spectator in the good old way . . . faugh! Saint Ursula did not need to rescue him from HER . . .

His eyes had been opened to a new world of art. And this world it was his mission to reveal to others — he, the insignificant and ignorant Lewis Raycie, as “but for the grace of God,” and that chance encounter on Mont Blanc, he might have gone on being to the end! He shuddered to think of the army of Neapolitan beggar-boys, bituminous monks, whirling prophets, languishing Madonnas and pink-rumped amorini who might have been travelling home with him in the hold of the fast new steam-packet.

His excitement had something of the apostle’s ecstasy. He was not only, in a few hours, to embrace Treeshy, and be reunited to his honoured parents; he was also to go forth and preach the new gospel to them that sat in the darkness of Salvator Rosa and Lo Spagnoletto . . .

The first thing that struck Lewis was the smallness of the house on the Sound, and the largeness of Mr. Raycie.

He had expected to receive the opposite impression. In his recollection the varnished Tuscan villa had retained something of its impressiveness, even when compared to its supposed originals. Perhaps the very contrast between their draughty distances and naked floors, and the expensive carpets and bright fires of High Point, magnified his memory of the latter — there were moments when the thought of its groaning board certainly added to the effect. But the image of Mr. Raycie had meanwhile dwindled. Everything about him, as his son looked back, seemed narrow, juvenile, almost childish. His bluster about Edgar Poe, for instance — true poet still to Lewis, though he had since heard richer notes; his fussy tyranny of his womenkind; his unconscious but total ignorance of most of the things, books, people, ideas, that now filled his son’s mind; above all, the arrogance and incompetence of his artistic judgments. Beyond a narrow range of reading — mostly, Lewis suspected, culled in drowsy after-dinner snatches from Knight’s “Half-hours with the Best Authors” — Mr. Raycie made no pretence to book-learning; left THAT, as he handsomely said, “to the professors.” But on matters of art he was dogmatic and explicit, prepared to justify his opinions by the citing of eminent authorities and of market-prices, and quite clear, as his farewell talk with his son had shown, as to which Old Masters should be privileged to figure in the Raycie collection.

The young man felt no impatience of these judgements. America was a long way from Europe, and it was many years since Mr. Raycie had travelled. He could hardly be blamed for not knowing that the things he admired were no longer admirable, still less for not knowing why. The pictures before which Lewis had knelt in spirit had been virtually undiscovered, even by art-students and critics, in his father’s youth. How was an American gentleman, filled with his own self-importance, and paying his courier the highest salary to show him the accredited “Masterpieces” — how was he to guess that whenever he stood rapt before a Sassoferrato or a Carlo Dolce one of those unknown treasures lurked near by under dust and cobwebs?

No; Lewis felt only tolerance and understanding. Such a view was not one to magnify the paternal image; but when the young man entered the study where Mr. Raycie sat immobilized by gout, the swathed leg stretched along his sofa seemed only another reason for indulgence . . .

Perhaps, Lewis thought afterward, it was his father’s prone position, the way his great bulk billowed over the sofa, and the lame leg reached out like a mountain-ridge, that made him suddenly seem to fill the room; or else the sound of his voice booming irritably across the threshold, and scattering Mrs. Raycie and the girls with a fierce: “And now, ladies, if the hugging and kissing are over, I should be glad of a moment with my son.” But it was odd that, after mother and daughters had withdrawn with all their hoops and flounces, the study seemed to grow even smaller, and Lewis himself to feel more like a David without the pebble.

“Well, my boy,” his father cried, crimson and puffing, “here you are at home again, with many adventures to relate, no doubt; and a few masterpieces to show me, as I gather from the drafts on my exchequer.”

“Oh, as to the masterpieces, sir, certainly,” Lewis simpered, wondering why his voice sounded so fluty, and his smile was produced with such a conscious muscular effort.

“Good — good,” Mr. Raycie approved, waving a violet hand which seemed to be ripening for a bandage. “Reedy carried out my orders, I presume? Saw to it that the paintings were deposited with the bulk of your luggage in Canal Street?”

“Oh, yes, sir; Mr. Reedy was on the dock with precise instructions. You now he always carries out your orders,” Lewis ventured with a faint irony.

Mr. Raycie stared. “Mr. Reedy,” he said, “does what I tell him, if that’s what you mean; otherwise he would hardly have been in my employ for over thirty years.”

Lewis was silent, and his father examined him critically. “You appear to have filled out; your health is satisfactory? Well . . . well . . . Mr. Robert Huzzard and his daughters are dining here this evening, by the way, and will no doubt be expecting to see the latest French novelties in stocks and waistcoats. Malvina has become a very elegant figure, your sisters tell me.” Mr. Raycie chuckled, and Lewis thought: “I KNEW it was the oldest Huzzard girl!” while a slight chill ran down his spine.

“As to the pictures,” Mr. Raycie pursued with growing animation, “I am laid low, as you see, by this cursed affliction, and till the doctors get me up again, here must I lie and try to imagine how your treasures will look in the new gallery. And meanwhile, my dear boy, I need hardly say that no one is to be admitted to see them till they have been inspected by me and suitably hung. Reedy shall begin unpacking at once; and when we move to town next month Mrs. Raycie, God willing, shall give the handsomest evening party New York has yet seen, to show my son’s collection, and perhaps . . . eh, well? . . . to celebrate another interesting event in his history.”

Lewis met this with a faint but respectful gurgle, and before his blurred eyes rose the wistful face of Treeshy Kent.

“Ah, well, I shall see her tomorrow,” he thought, taking heart again as soon as he was out of his father’s presence.

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