False Dawn, by Edith Wharton


THE crucial moment, Lewis had always known, would not be that of his farewell to Treeshy, but of his final interview with his father.

On that everything hung: his immediate future as well as his more distant prospects. As he stole home in the early sunlight, over the dew-drenched grass, he glanced up apprehensively at Mr. Raycie’s windows, and thanked his stars that they were still tightly shuttered.

There was no doubt, as Mrs. Raycie said, that her husband’s “using language” before ladies showed him to be in high good humour, relaxed and slippered, as it were — a state his family so seldom saw him in that Lewis had sometimes impertinently wondered to what awful descent from the clouds he and his two sisters owed their timorous being.

It was all very well to tell himself, as he often did, that the bulk of the money was his mother’s, and that he could turn her round his little finger. What difference did that make? Mr. Raycie, the day after his marriage, had quietly taken over the management of his wife’s property, and deducted, from the very moderate allowance he accorded her, all her little personal expenses, even to the postage-stamps she used, and the dollar she put in the plate every Sunday. He called the allowance her “pin-money,” since, as he often reminded her, he paid all the household bills himself, so that Mrs. Raycie’s quarterly pittance could be entirely devoted, if she chose, to frills and feathers.

“And will be, if you respect my wishes, my dear,” he always added. “I like to see a handsome figure well set-off, and not to have our friends imagine, when they come to dine, that Mrs. Raycie is sick above-stairs, and I’ve replaced her by a poor relation in allapacca.” In compliance with which Mrs. Raycie, at once flattered and terrified, spent her last penny in adorning herself and her daughters, and had to stint their bedroom fires, and the servants’ meals, in order to find a penny for any private necessity.

Mr. Raycie had long since convinced his wife that this method of dealing with her, if not lavish, was suitable, and in fact “handsome”; when she spoke of the subject to her relations it was with tears of gratitude for her husband’s kindness in assuming the management of her property. As he managed it exceedingly well, her hard-headed brothers (glad to have the responsibility off their hands, and convinced that, if left to herself, she would have muddled her money away in ill-advised charities) were disposed to share her approval of Mr. Raycie; though her old mother sometimes said helplessly: “When I think that Lucy Ann can’t as much as have a drop of gruel brought up to her without his weighing the oatmeal . . . ” But even that was only whispered, lest Mr. Raycie’s mysterious faculty of hearing what was said behind his back should bring sudden reprisals on the venerable lady to whom he always alluded, with a tremor in his genial voice, as “my dear mother-in-law — unless indeed she will allow me to call her, more briefly but more truly, my dear mother.”

To Lewis, hitherto, Mr. Raycie had meted the same measure as to the females of the household. He had dressed him well, educated him expensively, lauded him to the skies — and counted every penny of his allowance. Yet there was a difference; and Lewis was as well aware of it as any one.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr. Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition. No one was louder than he in praise of the democratic institutions under which he lived; but he never thought of them as affecting that more private but more important institution, the Family; and to the Family all his care and all his thoughts were given. The result, as Lewis dimly guessed, was, that upon his own shrinking and inadequate head was centred all the passion contained in the vast expanse of Mr. Raycie’s breast. Lewis was his very own, and Lewis represented what was most dear to him; and for both these reasons Mr. Raycie set an inordinate value on the boy (a quite different thing, Lewis thought from loving him).

Mr. Raycie was particularly proud of his son’s taste for letters. Himself not a wholly unread man, he admired intensely what he called the “cultivated gentleman” — and that was what Lewis was evidently going to be. Could he have combined with this tendency a manlier frame, and an interest in the few forms of sport then popular among gentlemen, Mr. Raycie’s satisfaction would have been complete; but whose is, in this disappointing world? Meanwhile he flattered himself that, Lewis being still young and malleable, and his health certainly mending, two years of travel and adventure might send him back a very different figure, physically as well as mentally. Mr. Raycie had himself travelled in his youth, and was persuaded that the experience was formative; he secretly hoped for the return of a bronzed and broadened Lewis, seasoned by independence and adventure, and having discreetly sown his wild oats in foreign pastures, where they would not contaminate the home crop.

All this Lewis guessed; and he guessed as well that these two wander-years were intended by Mr. Raycie to lead up to a marriage and an establishment after Mr. Raycie’s own heart, but in which Lewis was not to have even a consulting voice.

“He’s going to give me all the advantages — for his own purpose,” the young man summed it up as he went down to join the family at the breakfast table.

Mr. Raycie was never more resplendent than at that moment of the day and season. His spotless white duck trousers, strapped under kid boots, his thin kerseymere coat, and drab piqué waistcoat crossed below a snowy stock, made him look as fresh as the morning and as appetizing as the peaches and cream banked before him.

Opposite sat Mrs. Raycie, immaculate also, but paler than usual, as became a mother about to part from her only son; and between the two was Sarah Anne, unusually pink, and apparently occupied in trying to screen her sister’s empty seat. Lewis greeted them, and seated himself at his mother’s right.

Mr. Raycie drew out his guillochee repeating watch, and detaching it from its heavy gold chain laid it on the table beside him.

“Mary Adeline is late again. It is a somewhat unusual thing for a sister to be late at the last meal she is to take — for two years — with her only brother.”

“Oh, Mr. Raycie!” Mrs. Raycie faltered.

“I say, the idea is peculiar. Perhaps,” said Mr. Raycie sarcastically, “I am going to be blessed with a PECULIAR daughter.”

“I’m afraid Mary Adeline is beginning a sick headache, sir. She tried to get up, but really could not,” said Sarah Anne in a rush.

Mr. Raycie’s only reply was to arch ironic eyebrows, and Lewis hastily intervened: “I’m sorry, sir; but it may be my fault — ”

Mrs. Raycie paled, Sarah Anne, purpled, and Mr. Raycie echoed with punctilious incredulity: “Your — fault?”

“In being the occasion, sir, of last night’s too-sumptuous festivity — ”

“Ha — ha — ha!” Mr. Raycie laughed, his thunders instantly dispelled.

He pushed back his chair and nodded to his son with a smile; and the two, leaving the ladies to wash up the teacups (as was still the habit in genteel families) betook themselves to Mr. Raycie’s study.

What Mr. Raycie studied in this apartment — except the accounts, and ways of making himself unpleasant to his family — Lewis had never been able to discover. It was a small bare formidable room; and the young man, who never crossed the threshold but with a sinking of his heart, felt it sink lower than ever. “NOW!” he thought.

Mr. Raycie took the only easy-chair, and began.

“My dear fellow, our time is short, but long enough for what I have to say. In a few hours you will be setting out on your great journey: an important event in the life of any young man. Your talents and character — combined with your means of improving the opportunity — make me hope that in your case it will be decisive. I expect you to come home from this trip a man — ”

So far, it was all to order, so to speak; Lewis could have recited it beforehand. He bent his head in acquiescence.

“A man,” Mr. Raycie repeated, “prepared to play a part, a considerable part, in the social life of the community. I expect you to be a figure in New York; and I shall give you the means to be so.” He cleared his throat. “But means are not enough — though you must never forget that they are essential. Education, polish, experience of the world; these are what so many of our men of standing lack. What do they know of Art or Letters? We have had little time here to produce either as yet — you spoke?” Mr. Raycie broke off with a crushing courtesy.

“I— oh, no,” his son stammered.

“Ah; I thought you might be about to allude to certain blasphemous penny-a-liners whose poetic ravings are said to have given them a kind of pothouse notoriety.”

Lewis reddened at the allusion but was silent, and his father went on:

“Where is our Byron — our Scott — our Shakespeare? And in painting it is the same. Where are our Old Masters? We are not without contemporary talent; but for works of genius we must still look to the past; we must, in most cases, content ourselves with copies . . . Ah, here I know, my dear boy, I touch a responsive chord! Your love of the arts has not passed unperceived; and I mean, I desire, to do all I can to encourage it. Your future position in the world — your duties and obligations as a gentleman and a man of fortune — will not permit you to become, yourself, an eminent painter or a famous sculptor; but I shall raise no objection to your dabbling in these arts as an amateur — at least while you are travelling abroad. It will form your taste, strengthen your judgment, and give you, I hope, the discernment necessary to select for me a few masterpieces which shall NOT be copies. Copies,” Mr. Raycie pursued with a deepening emphasis, “are for the less discriminating, or for those less blessed with this world’s goods. Yes, my dear Lewis, I wish to create a gallery: a gallery of Heirlooms. Your mother participates in this ambition — she desires to see on our walls a few original specimens of the Italian genius. Raphael, I fear, we can hardly aspire to; but a Domenichino, an Albano, a Carlo Dolci, a Guercino, a Carlo Maratta — one or two of Salvator Rosa’s noble landscapes . . . you see my idea? There shall be a Raycie Gallery; and it shall be your mission to get together its nucleus.” Mr. Raycie paused, and mopped his flowing forehead. “I believe I could have given my son no task more to his liking.”

“Oh, no, sir, none indeed!” Lewis cried, flushing and paling. He had in fact never suspected this part of his father’s plan, and his heart swelled with the honour of so unforeseen a mission. Nothing, in truth, could have made him prouder or happier. For a moment he forgot love, forgot Treeshy, forgot everything but the rapture of moving among the masterpieces of which he had so long dreamed, moving not as a mere hungry spectator but as one whose privilege it should at least be to single out and carry away some of the lesser treasures. He could hardly take in what had happened, and the shock of the announcement left him, as usual, inarticulate.

He heard his father booming on, developing the plan, explaining with his usual pompous precision that one of the partners of the London bank in which Lewis’s funds were deposited was himself a noted collector, and had agreed to provide the young traveller with letters of introduction to other connoisseurs, both in France and Italy, so that Lewis’s acquisitions might be made under the most enlightened guidance.

“It is,” Mr. Raycie concluded, “in order to put you on a footing of equality with the best collectors that I have placed such a large sum at your disposal. I reckon that for ten thousand dollars you can travel for two years in the very best style; and I mean to place another five thousand to your credit” — he paused, and let the syllables drop slowly into his son’s brain: “five thousand dollars for the purchase of works of art, which eventually — remember — will be yours; and will be handed on, I trust, to your sons’ sons as long as the name of Raycie survives” — a length of time, Mr. Raycie’s tone seemed to imply, hardly to be measured in periods less extensive than those of the Egyptian dynasties.

Lewis heard him with a whirling brain. FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS! The sum seemed so enormous, even in dollars, and so incalculably larger when translated into any continental currency, that he wondered why his father, in advance, had given up all hope of a Raphael . . . “If I travel economically,” he said to himself, “and deny myself unnecessary luxuries, I may yet be able to surprise him by bringing one back. And my mother — how magnanimous, how splendid! Now I see why she has consented to all the little economies that sometimes seemed so paltry and so humiliating . . . ”

The young man’s eyes filled with tears, but he was still silent, though he longed as never before to express his gratitude and admiration to his father. He had entered the study expecting a parting sermon on the subject of thrift, coupled with the prospective announcement of a “suitable establishment” (he could even guess the particular Huzzard girl his father had in view); and instead he had been told to spend his princely allowance in a princely manner, and to return home with a gallery of masterpieces. “At least,” he murmured to himself, “it shall contain a Correggio.”

“Well, sir?” Mr. Raycie boomed.

“Oh, sir — ” his son cried, and flung himself on the vast slope of the parental waistcoat.

Amid all these accumulated joys there murmured deep down in him the thought that nothing had been said or done to interfere with his secret plans about Treeshy. It seemed almost as if his father had tacitly accepted the idea of their unmentioned engagement; and Lewis felt half guilty at not confessing to it then and there. But the gods are formidable even when they unbend; never more so, perhaps, than at such moments . . .


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