False Dawn, by Edith Wharton


IN spite of his enforced potations, Lewis Raycie was up the next morning before sunrise.

Unlatching his shutters without noise, he looked forth over the wet lawn merged in a blur of shrubberies, and the waters of the Sound dimly seen beneath a sky full of stars. His head ached but his heart glowed; what was before him was thrilling enough to clear a heavier brain than his.

He dressed quickly and completely (save for his shoes), and then, stripping the flowered quilt from his high mahogany bed, rolled it in a tight bundle under his arm. Thus enigmatically equipped he was feeling his way, shoes in hand, through the darkness of the upper story to the slippery oak stairs, when he was startled by a candle-gleam in the pitch-blackness of the hall below. He held his breath, and leaning over the stair-rail saw with amazement his sister Mary Adeline come forth, cloaked and bonneted, but also in stocking-feet, from the passage leading to the pantry. She too carried a double burden: her shoes and the candle in one hand, in the other a large covered basket that weighed down her bare arm.

Brother and sister stopped and stared at each other in the blue dusk: the upward slant of the candle-light distorted Mary Adeline’s mild features, twisting them into a frightened grin as Lewis stole down to join her.

“Oh — ” she whispered. “What in the world are you doing here? I was just getting together a few things for that poor young Mrs. Poe down the lane, who’s so ill — before mother goes to the store-room. You won’t tell, will you?”

Lewis signalled his complicity, and cautiously slid open the bolt of the front door. They durst not say more till they were out of ear-shot. On the doorstep they sat down to put on their shoes; then they hastened on without a word through the ghostly shrubberies till they reached the gate into the lane.

“But you, Lewis?” the sister suddenly questioned, with an astonished stare at the rolled-up quilt under her brother’s arm.

“Oh, I— . Look here Addy — ” he broke off and began to grope in his pocket — “I haven’t much about me . . . the old gentleman keeps me as close as ever . . . but here’s a dollar, if you think that poor Mrs. Poe could use it . . . I’d be too happy . . . consider it a privilege . . . ”

“Oh, Lewis, Lewis, how noble, how generous of you! Of course I can buy a few extra things with it . . . they never see meat unless I can bring them a bit, you know . . . and I fear she’s dying of a decline . . . and she and her mother are so fiery-proud . . . ” She wept with gratitude, and Lewis drew a breath of relief. He had diverted her attention from the bed-quilt.

“Ah, there’s the breeze,” he murmured, sniffing the suddenly chilled air.

“Yes; I must be off; I must be back before the sun is up,” said Mary Adeline anxiously, “and it would never do if mother knew — ”

“She doesn’t know of your visits to Mrs. Poe?”

A look of childish guile sharpened Mary Adeline’s undeveloped face. “She DOES, of course; but yet she doesn’t . . . we’ve arranged it so. You see, Mr. Poe’s an Atheist; and so father — ”

“I see,” Lewis nodded. “Well, we part here; I’m off for a swim,” he said glibly. But abruptly he turned back and caught his sister’s arm. “Sister, tell Mrs. Poe, please, that I heard her husband give a reading from his poems in New York two nights ago — ”

(“Oh, Lewis — YOU? But father says he’s a blasphemer!”)

“ — And that he’s a great poet — a Great Poet. Tell her that from me, will you, please, Mary Adeline?”

“Oh, brother, I couldn’t . . . we never speak of him,” the startled girl faltered, hurrying away.

In the cove where the Commodore’s sloop had ridden a few hours earlier a biggish rowing-boat took the waking ripples. Young Raycie paddled out to her, fastened his skiff to the moorings, and hastily clambered into the boat.

From various recesses in his pockets he produced rope, string, a carpet-layer’s needle, and other unexpected and incongruous tackle; then lashing one of the oars across the top of the other, and jamming the latter upright between the forward thwart and the bow, he rigged the flowered bed-quilt on this mast, knotted a rope to the free end of the quilt, and sat down in the stern, one hand on the rudder, the other on his improvised sheet.

Venus, brooding silverly above a line of pale green sky, made a pool of glory in the sea as the dawn-breeze plumped the lover’s sail . . .

On the shelving pebbles of another cove, two or three miles down the Sound, Lewis Raycie lowered his queer sail and beached his boat. A clump of willows on the shingle-edge mysteriously stirred and parted, and Treeshy Kent was in his arms.

The sun was just pushing above a belt of low clouds in the east, spattering them with liquid gold, and Venus blanched as the light spread upward. But under the willows it was still dusk, a watery green dusk in which the secret murmurs of the night were caught.

“Treeshy — Treeshy!” the young man cried, kneeling beside her — and then, a moment later: “My angel, are you sure that no one guesses —?”

The girl gave a faint laugh which screwed up her funny nose. She leaned her head on his shoulder, her round forehead and rough braids pressed against his cheek, her hands in his, breathing quickly and joyfully.

“I thought I should never get here,” Lewis grumbled, “with that ridiculous bed-quilt — and it’ll be broad day soon! To think that I was of age yesterday, and must come to you in a boat rigged like a child’s toy on a duck-pond! If you knew how it humiliates me — ”

“What does it matter, dear, since you’re of age now, and your own master?”

“But am I, though? He says so — but it’s only on his own terms; only while I do what he wants! You’ll see . . . I’ve a credit of ten thousand dollars . . . ten . . . thou . . . sand . . . d’you hear? . . . placed to my name in a London bank; and not a penny here to bless myself with meanwhile . . . Why, Treeshy darling, why, what’s the matter?”

She flung her arms about his neck, and through their innocent kisses he could taste her tears. “What IS it, Treeshy?” he implored her.

“I . . . oh, I’d forgotten it was to be our last day together till you spoke of London — cruel, cruel!” she reproached him; and through the green twilight of the willows her eyes blazed on him like two stormy stars. No other eyes he knew could express such elemental rage as Treeshy’s.

“You little spitfire, you!” he laughed back somewhat chokingly. “Yes, it’s our last day — but not for long; at our age two years are not so very long, after all, are they? And when I come back to you I’ll come as my own master, independent, free — come to claim you in face of everything and everybody! Think of that, darling, and be brave for my sake . . . brave and patient . . . as I mean to be!” he declared heroically.

“Oh, but you — you’ll see other girls; heaps and heaps of them; in those wicked old countries where they’re so lovely. My uncle Kent says the European countries are all wicked, even my own poor Italy . . . ”

“But YOU, Treeshy; you’ll be seeing cousins Bill and Donald meanwhile — seeing them all day long and every day. And you know you’ve a weakness for that great hulk of a Bill. Ah, if only I stood six-foot-one in my stockings I’d go with an easier heart, you fickle child!” he tried to banter her.

“Fickle? Fickle? ME— oh, Lewis!”

He felt the premonitory sweep of sobs, and his untried courage failed him. It was delicious, in theory, to hold weeping beauty to one’s breast, but terribly alarming, he found, in practice. There came a responsive twitching in his throat.

“No, no; firm as adamant, true as steel; that’s what we both mean to be, isn’t it, cara?”

“Caro, yes,” she sighed, appeased.

“And you’ll write to me regularly, Treeshy — long long letters? I may count on that, mayn’t I, wherever I am? And they must all be numbered, every one of them, so that I shall know at once if I’ve missed one; remember!”

“And, Lewis, you’ll wear them here?” (She touched his breast.) “Oh, not ALL,” she added, laughing, “for they’d make such a big bundle that you’d soon have a hump in front like Pulcinella — but always at least the last one, just the last one. Promise!”

“Always, I promise — as long as they’re kind,” he said, still struggling to take a spirited line.

“Oh, Lewis, they will be, as long as yours are — and long long afterward . . . ”

Venus failed and vanished in the sun’s uprising.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02