False Dawn, by Edith Wharton


MR. RAYCIE did not die till nearly a year later; but New York agreed it was the affair of the pictures that had killed him.

The day after his first and only sight of them he sent for his lawyer, and it became known that he had made a new will. Then he took to his bed with a return of the gout, and grew so rapidly worse that it was thought “only proper” to postpone the party Mrs. Raycie was to have given that autumn to inaugurate the gallery. This enabled the family to pass over in silence the question of the works of art themselves; but outside of the Raycie house, where they were never mentioned, they formed, that winter, a frequent and fruitful topic of discussion.

Only two persons besides Mr. Raycie were known to have seen them. One was Mr. Donaldson Kent, who owed the privilege to the fact of having once been in Italy; the other, Mr. Reedy, the agent, who had unpacked the pictures. Mr. Reedy, beset by Raycie cousins and old family friends, had replied with genuine humility: “Why, the truth is, I never was taught to see any difference between one picture and another, except as regards the size of them; and these struck me as smallish . . . on the small side, I would say . . . ”

Mr. Kent was known to have unbosomed himself to Mr. Raycie with considerable frankness — he went so far, it was rumoured, as to declare that he had never seen any pictures in Italy like those brought back by Lewis, and begged to doubt if they really came from there. But in public he maintained that noncommittal attitude which passed for prudence, but proceeded only from timidity; no one ever got anything from him but the guarded statement: “The subjects are wholly inoffensive.”

It was believed that Mr. Raycie dared not consult the Huzzards. Young John Huzzard had just brought home a Raphael; it would have been hard not to avoid comparisons which would have been too galling. Neither to them, nor to anyone else, did Mr. Raycie ever again allude to the Raycie Gallery. But when his will was opened it was found that he had bequeathed the pictures to his son. The rest of his property was left absolutely to his two daughters. The bulk of the estate was Mrs. Raycie’s; but it was known that Mrs. Raycie had had her instructions, and among them, perhaps, was the order to fade away in her turn after six months of widowhood. When she had been laid beside her husband in Trinity church-yard her will (made in the same week as Mr. Raycie’s, and obviously at his dictation) was found to allow five thousand dollars a year to Lewis during his life-time; the residue of the fortune, which Mr. Raycie’s thrift and good management had made into one of the largest in New York, was divided between the daughters. Of these, the one promptly married a Kent and the other a Huzzard; and the latter, Sarah Ann (who had never been Lewis’s favourite), was wont to say in later years: “Oh, no, I never grudged my poor brother those funny old pictures. You see, we have a Raphael.”

The house stood on the corner of Third Avenue and Tenth Street. It had lately come to Lewis Raycie as his share in the property of a distant cousin, who had made an “old New York will” under which all his kin benefited in proportion to their consanguinity. The neighbourhood was unfashionable, and the house in bad repair; but Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Raycie, who, since their marriage, had been living in retirement at Tarrytown, immediately moved into it.

Their arrival excited small attention. Within a year of his father’s death, Lewis had married Treeshy Kent. The alliance had not been encouraged by Mr. and Mrs. Kent, who went so far as to say that their niece might have done better; but as that one of their sons who was still unmarried had always shown a lively sympathy for Treeshy, they yielded to the prudent thought that, after all, it was better than having her entangle Bill.

The Lewis Raycies had been four years married, and during that time had dropped out of the memory of New York as completely as if their exile had covered half a century. Neither of them had ever cut a great figure there. Treeshy had been nothing but the Kent’s Cinderella, and Lewis’s ephemeral importance, as heir to the Raycie millions, had been effaced by the painful episode which resulted in his being deprived of them.

So secluded was their way of living, and so much had it come to be a habit, that when Lewis announced that he had inherited Uncle Ebenezer’s house his wife hardly looked up from the baby-blanket she was embroidering.

“Uncle Ebenezer’s house in New York?”

He drew a deep breath. “Now I shall be able to show the pictures.”

“Oh, Lewis — ” She dropped the blanket. “Are we going to live there?”

“Certainly. But the house is so large that I shall turn the two corner rooms on the ground floor into a gallery. They are very suitably lighted. It was there that Cousin Ebenezer was laid out.”

“Oh, Lewis — ”

If anything could have made Lewis Raycie believe in his own strength of will it was his wife’s attitude. Merely to hear that unquestioning murmur of submission was to feel something of his father’s tyrannous strength arise in him; but with the wish to use it more humanely.

“You’ll like that, Treeshy? It’s been dull for you here, I know.”

She flushed up. “Dull? With YOU, darling. Besides, I like the country. But I shall like Tenth Street too. Only — you said there were repairs?”

He nodded sternly. “I shall borrow money to make them. If necessary — ” he lowered his voice — “I shall mortgage the pictures.”

He saw her eyes fill. “Oh, but it won’t be! There are so many ways still in which I can economize.”

He laid his hand on hers and turned his profile toward her, because he knew it was so much stronger than his full face. He did not feel sure that she quite grasped his intention about the pictures; was not even certain that he wished her to. He went in to New York every week now, occupying himself mysteriously and importantly with plans, specifications and other business transactions with long names; while Treeshy, through the hot summer months, sat in Tarrytown and waited for the baby.

A little girl was born at the end of the summer and christened Louisa; and when she was a few weeks old the Lewis Raycies left the country for New York.

“NOW!” thought Lewis, as they bumped over the cobblestones of Tenth Street in the direction of Cousin Ebenezer’s house.

The carriage stopped, he handed out his wife, the nurse followed with the baby, and they all stood and looked up at the house-front.

“Oh, Lewis — ” Treeshy gasped; and even little Louisa set up a sympathetic wail.

Over the door — over Cousin Ebenezer’s respectable, conservative and intensely private front-door — hung a large sign-board bearing, in gold letters on a black ground, the inscription:


Lewis saw his wife turn pale, and pressed her arm in his. “Believe me, it’s the only way to make the pictures known. And they MUST be made known,” he said with a thrill of his old ardour.

“Yes, dear, of course. But . . . to every one. Publicly?”

“If we showed them only to our friends, of what use would it be? Their opinion is already formed.”

She sighed her acknowledgment. “But the . . . the entrance fee . . . ”

“If we can afford it later, the gallery will be free. But meanwhile — ”

“Oh, Lewis, I quite understand!” And clinging to him, the still-protesting baby in her wake, she passed with a dauntless step under the awful sign-board.

“At last I shall see the pictures properly lighted!” she exclaimed, and turned in the hall to fling her arms about her husband.

“It’s all they need . . . to be appreciated,” he answered, aglow with her encouragement.

Since his withdrawal from the world it had been a part of Lewis’s system never to read the daily papers. His wife eagerly conformed to his example, and they lived in a little air-tight circle of aloofness, as if the cottage at Tarrytown had been situated in another and happier planet.

Lewis, nevertheless, the day after the opening of the Gallery of Christian Art, deemed it his duty to derogate from this attitude, and sallied forth secretly to buy the principal journals. When he re-entered his house he went straight up to the nursery where he knew that, at that hour, Treeshy would be giving the little girl her bath. But it was later than he supposed. The rite was over, the baby lay asleep in its modest cot, and the mother sat crouched by the fire, her face hidden in her hands. Lewis instantly guessed that she too had seen the papers.

“Treeshy — you mustn’t . . . consider this of any consequence . . .,” he stammered.

She lifted a tear-stained face. “Oh, my darling! I thought you never read the papers.”

“Not usually. But I thought it my duty — ”

“Yes; I see. But, as you say, what earthly consequence —?”

“None, whatever; we must just be patient and persist.”

She hesitated, and then, her arms about him, her head on his breast; “Only, dearest, I’ve been counting up again, ever so carefully; and even if we give up fires everywhere but in the nursery, I’m afraid the wages of the door-keeper and the guardian . . . especially if the gallery’s open to the public every day . . . ”

“I’ve thought of that already, too; and I myself shall hereafter act as doorkeeper and guardian.”

He kept his eyes on hers as he spoke. “This is the test,” he thought. Her face paled under its brown glow, and the eyes dilated in her effort to check her tears. Then she said gaily: “That will be . . . very interesting, won’t it, Lewis? Hearing what the people say . . . Because, as they begin to know the pictures better, and to understand them, they can’t fail to say very interesting things . . . can they?” She turned and caught up the sleeping Louisa. “Can they . . . oh, you darling — darling?”

Lewis turned away too. Not another woman in New York would have been capable of that. He could hear all the town echoing with this new scandal of his showing the pictures himself — and she, so much more sensitive to ridicule, so much less carried away by apostolic ardour, how much louder must that mocking echo ring in her ears! But his pang was only momentary. The one thought that possessed him for any length of time was that of vindicating himself by making the pictures known; he could no longer fix his attention on lesser matters. The derision of illiterate journalists was not a thing to wince at; once let the pictures be seen by educated and intelligent people, and they would speak for themselves — especially if he were at hand to interpret them.


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