False Dawn, by Edith Wharton

8.

FOR a week or two a great many people came to the gallery; but, even with Lewis as interpreter, the pictures failed to make themselves heard. During the first days, indeed, owing to the unprecedented idea of holding a paying exhibition in a private house, and to the mockery of the newspapers, the Gallery of Christian Art was thronged with noisy curiosity-seekers; once the astonished metropolitan police had to be invited in to calm their comments and control their movements. But the name of “Christian Art” soon chilled this class of sightseer, and before long they were replaced by a dumb and respectable throng, who roamed vacantly through the rooms and out again, grumbling that it wasn’t worth the money. Then these too diminished; and once the tide had turned, the ebb was rapid. Every day from two to four Lewis still sat shivering among his treasures, or patiently measured the length of the deserted gallery: as long as there was a chance of any one coming he would not admit that he was beaten. For the next visitor might always be the one who understood.

One snowy February day he had thus paced the rooms in unbroken solitude for above an hour when carriage-wheels stopped at the door. He hastened to open it, and in a great noise of silks his sister Sarah Anne Huzzard entered.

Lewis felt for a moment as he used to under his father’s glance. Marriage and millions had given the moon-faced Sarah some of the Raycie awfulness; but her brother looked into her empty eyes, and his own kept their level.

“Well, Lewis,” said Mrs. Huzzard with a simpering sternness, and caught her breath.

“Well, Sarah Anne — I’m happy that you’ve come to take a look at my pictures.”

“I’ve come to see you and your wife.” She gave another nervous gasp, shook out her flounces, and added in a rush: “And to ask you how much longer this . . . this spectacle is to continue . . . ”

“The exhibition?” Lewis smiled. She signed a flushed assent.

“Well, there has been a considerable falling-off lately in the number of visitors — ”

“Thank heaven!” she interjected.

“But as long as I feel that any one wishes to come . . . I shall be here . . . to open the door, as you see.”

She sent a shuddering glance about her. “Lewis — I wonder if you realize . . .?”

“Oh, fully.”

“Then WHY do you go on? Isn’t it enough — aren’t you satisfied?”

“With the effect they have produced?”

“With the effect YOU have produced — on your family and on the whole of New York. With a slur on poor Papa’s memory.”

“Papa left me the pictures, Sarah Anne.”

“Yes. But not to make yourself a mountebank about them.”

Lewis considered this impartially. “Are you sure? Perhaps, on the contrary, he did if for that very reason.”

“Oh, don’t heap more insults on our father’s memory! Things are bad enough without that. How your wife can allow it I can’t see. Do you ever consider the humiliation to HER?”

Lewis gave another dry smile. “She’s used to being humiliated. The Kents accustomed her to that.”

Sarah Anne reddened. “I don’t know why I should stay and be spoken to in this way. But I came with my husband’s approval.”

“Do you need that to come and see your brother?”

“I need it to — to make the offer I am about to make; and which he authorizes.”

Lewis looked at her in surprise, and she purpled up to the lace ruffles inside her satin bonnet.

“Have you come to make an offer for my collection?” he asked her humorously.

“You seem to take pleasure in insinuating preposterous things. But anything is better than this public slight on our name.” Again she ran a shuddering glance over the pictures. “John and I,” she announced, “are prepared to double the allowance mother left you on condition that this . . . this ends . . . for good. That that horrible sign is taken down tonight.”

Lewis seemed mildly to weigh the proposal. “Thank you very much, Sarah Anne,” he said at length. “I’m touched . . . touched and . . . and surprised . . . that you and John should have made this offer. But perhaps, before I decline it, you will accept MINE: simply to show you my pictures. When once you’ve looked at them I think you’ll understand — ”

Mrs. Huzzard drew back hastily, her air of majesty collapsing. “Look at the pictures? Oh, thank you . . . but I can see them very well from here. And besides, I don’t pretend to be a judge . . . ”

“Then come up and see Treeshy and the baby,” said Lewis quietly.

She stared at him, embarrassed. “Oh, thank you,” she stammered again; and as she prepared to follow him: “Then it’s NO, really no, Lewis? Do consider, my dear! You say yourself that hardly any one comes. What harm can there be in closing the place?”

“What — when tomorrow the man may come who understands?”

Mrs. Huzzard tossed her plumes despairingly and followed him in silence.

“What — Mary Adeline?” she exclaimed, pausing abruptly on the threshold of the nursery. Treeshy, as usual, sat holding her baby by the fire; and from a low seat opposite her rose a lady as richly furred and feathered as Mrs. Huzzard, but with far less assurance to carry off her furbelows. Mrs. Kent ran to Lewis and laid her plump cheek against his, while Treeshy greeted Sarah Anne.

“I had no idea you were here, Mary Adeline,” Mrs. Huzzard murmured. It was clear that she had not imparted her philanthropic project to her sister, and was disturbed at the idea that Lewis might be about to do so. “I just dropped in for a minute,” she continued, “to see that darling little pet of an angel child — ” and she enveloped the astonished baby in her ample rustlings and flutterings.

“I’m very glad to see you here, Sarah Anne,” Mary Adeline answered with simplicity.

“Ah, it’s not for want of wishing that I haven’t come before! Treeshy knows that, I hope. But the cares of a household like mine . . . ”

“Yes, and it’s been so difficult to get about in the bad weather,” Treeshy suggested sympathetically.

Mrs. Huzzard lifted the Raycie eyebrows. “Has it really? With two pairs of horses one hardly notices the weather . . . Oh, the pretty, pretty, PRETTY, baby! . . . Mary Adeline,” Sarah Anne continued, turning severely to her sister, “I shall be happy to offer you a seat in my carriage if you’re thinking of leaving.”

But Mary Adeline was a married woman too. She raised her mild head and her glance crossed her sister’s quietly. “My own carriage is at the door, thank you kindly, Sarah Anne,” she said; and the baffled Sarah Anne withdrew on Lewis’s arm. But a moment later the old habit of subordination reasserted itself. Mary Adeline’s gentle countenance grew as timorous as a child’s, and she gathered up her cloak in haste.

“Perhaps I was too quick . . . I’m sure she meant it kindly,” she exclaimed, overtaking Lewis as he turned to come up the stairs; and with a smile he stood watching his two sisters drive off together in the Huzzard coach.

He returned to the nursery, where Treeshy was still crooning over her daughter.

“Well, my dear,” he said, “what do you suppose Sarah Anne came for?” And, in reply to her wondering gaze: “To buy me off from showing the pictures!”

His wife’s indignation took just the form he could have wished. She simply went on with her rich cooing laugh and hugged the baby tighter. But Lewis felt the perverse desire to lay a still greater strain upon her loyalty.

“Offered to double my allowance, she and John, if only I’ll take down the sign!”

“No one shall touch the sign!” Treeshy flamed.

“Not till I do,” said her husband grimly.

She turned about and scanned him with anxious eyes. “Lewis . . . YOU?”

“Oh, my dear . . . they’re right . . . it can’t go on forever . . . ” He went up to her, and put his arm about her and the child. “You’ve been braver than an army of heroes; but it won’t do. The expenses have been a good deal heavier than I was led to expect. And I . . . I can’t raise a mortgage on the pictures. Nobody will touch them.”

She met this quickly. “No; I know. That was what Mary Adeline came about.”

The blood rushed angrily to Lewis’s temples. “Mary Adeline — how the devil did SHE hear of it?”

“Through Mr. Reedy, I suppose. But you must not be angry. She was kindness itself: she doesn’t want you to close the gallery, Lewis . . . that is, not as long as you really continue to believe in it . . . She and Donald Kent will lend us enough to go on with for a year longer. That is what she came to say.”

For the first time since the struggle had begun, Lewis Raycie’s throat was choked with tears. His faithful Mary Adeline! He had a sudden vision of her, stealing out of the house at High Point before daylight to carry a basket of scraps to the poor Mrs. Edgar Poe who was dying of a decline down the lane . . . He laughed aloud in his joy.

“Dear old Mary Adeline! How magnificent of her! Enough to give me a whole year more . . . ” He pressed his wet cheek against his wife’s in a long silence. “Well, dear,” he said at length, “it’s for you to say — do we accept?”

He held her off, questioningly, at arm’s length, and her wan little smile met his own and mingled with it.

“Of course we accept!”

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