False Dawn, by Edith Wharton


OF the Raycie family, which prevailed so powerfully in the New York of the ‘forties, only one of the name survived in my boyhood, half a century later. Like so many of the descendants of the proud little Colonial society, the Raycies had totally vanished, forgotten by everyone but a few old ladies, one or two genealogists and the sexton of Trinity Church, who kept the record of their graves.

The Raycie blood was of course still to be traced in various allied families: Kents, Huzzards, Cosbys and many others, proud to claim cousinship with a “Signer,” but already indifferent or incurious as to the fate of his progeny. These old New Yorkers who lived so well and spent their money so liberally, vanished like a pinch of dust when they disappeared from their pews and their dinner-tables.

If I happen to have been familiar with the name since my youth, it is chiefly because its one survivor was a distant cousin of my mother’s, whom she sometimes took me to see on days when she thought I was likely to be good because I had been promised a treat for the morrow.

Old Miss Alethea Raycie lived in a house I had always heard spoken of as “Cousin Ebenezer’s.” It had evidently, in its day, been an admired specimen of domestic architecture; but was now regarded as the hideous though venerable relic of a bygone age. Miss Raycie, being crippled by rheumatism, sat above stairs in a large cold room, meagrely furnished with beadwork tables, rosewood etageres and portraits of pale sad-looking people in odd clothes. She herself was large and saturnine, with a battlemented black lace cap, and so deaf that she seemed a survival of forgotten days, a Rosetta Stone to which the clue was lost. Even to my mother, nursed in that vanished tradition, and knowing instinctively to whom Miss Raycie alluded when she spoke of Mary Adeline, Sarah Anne or Uncle Doctor, intercourse with her was difficult and languishing, and my juvenile interruptions were oftener encouraged than reproved.

In the course of one of these visits my eye, listlessly roaming, singled out among the pallid portraits a three-crayon drawing of a little girl with a large forehead and dark eyes, dressed in a plaid frock and embroidered pantalettes, and sitting on a grass-bank. I pulled my mother’s sleeve to ask who she was, and my mother answered: “Ah, that was poor little Louisa Raycie, who died of a decline. How old was little Louisa when she died, Cousin Alethea?”

To batter this simple question into Cousin Alethea’s brain was the affair of ten laborious minutes; and when the job was done, and Miss Raycie, with an air of mysterious displeasure, had dropped a deep, “Eleven,” my mother was too exhausted to continue. So she turned to me to add, with one of the private smiles we kept for each other: “It was the poor child who would have inherited the Raycie Gallery.” But to a little boy of my age this item of information lacked interest, nor did I understand my mother’s surreptitious amusement.

This far-off scene suddenly came back to me last year, when, on one of my infrequent visits to New York, I went to dine with my old friend, the banker, John Selwyn, and came to an astonished stand before the mantelpiece in his new library. “Hal-LO!” I said, looking up at the picture above the chimney.

My host squared his shoulders, thrust his hands into his pockets, and affected the air of modesty which people think it proper to assume when their possessions are admired. “The Macrino d’Alba? Y-yes . . . it was the only thing I managed to capture out of the Raycie collection.”

“The only thing? Well — .”

“Ah, but you should have seen the Mantegna; AND the Giotto; AND the Piero della Francesca — hang it, one of the most beautiful Piero della Francescas in the world . . . A girl in profile, with her hair in a pearl net, against a background of columbines; THAT went back to Europe — the National Gallery I believe. And the Carpaccio, the most exquisite little St. George . . . that went to California . . . LORD!” He sat down with the sigh of a hungry man turned away from a groaning board. “Well, it nearly broke me buying THIS!” he murmured, as if at least that fact were some consolation.

I was turning over my early memories in quest of a clue to what he spoke of as the Raycie collection, in a tone which implied that he was alluding to objects familiar to all art-lovers.

Suddenly: “They weren’t poor little Louisa’s pictures, by any chance?” I asked, remembering my mother’s cryptic smile.

Selwyn looked at me perplexedly. “Who the deuce is poor little Louisa?” And without waiting for my answer, he went on: “They were that fool Netta Cosby’s until a year ago — and she never even knew it.”

We looked at each other interrogatively, my friend perplexed at my ignorance, and I now absorbed in trying to run down the genealogy of Netta Cosby. I did so finally. “Netta Cosby — you don’t mean Netta Kent, the one who married Jim Cosby?”

“That’s it. They were cousins of the Raycies’, and she inherited the pictures.”

I continued to ponder. “I wanted awfully to marry her, the year I left Harvard,” I said presently, more to myself than to my hearer.

“Well, if you had you’d have annexed a prize fool; AND one of the most beautiful collections of Italian Primitives in the world.”

“In the world?”

“Well — you wait till you see them; if you haven’t already. And I seem to make out that you haven’t? — that you can’t have. How long have you been in Japan? Four years? I thought so. Well, it was only last winter that Netta found out.

“Found out what?”

“What there was in old Alethea Raycie’s attic. You must remember the old Miss Raycie who lived in that hideous house in Tenth Street when we were children. She was a cousin of your mother’s, wasn’t she? Well, the old fool lived there for nearly half a century, with five millions’ worth of pictures shut up in the attic over her head. It seems they’d been there ever since the death of a poor young Raycie who collected them in Italy years and years ago. I don’t know much about the story; I never was strong on genealogy, and the Raycies have always been rather dim to me. They were everybody’s cousins, of course; but as far as one can make out that seems to have been their principal if not their only function. Oh — and I suppose the Raycie Building was called after them; only THEY didn’t build it!

“But there was this one young fellow — I wish I could find out more about him. All that Netta seems to know (or to care, for that matter) is that when he was very young — barely out of college — he was sent to Italy by his father to buy Old Masters — in the ‘forties, it must have been — and came back with this extraordinary, this unbelievable collection . . . a boy of that age! . . . and was disinherited by the old gentleman for bringing home such rubbish. The young fellow and his wife died ever so many years ago, both of them. It seems he was so laughed at for buying such pictures that they went away and lived like hermits in the depths of the country. There were some funny spectral portraits of them that old Alethea had up in her bedroom. Netta showed me one of them the last time I went to see her: a pathetic drawing of the only child, an anaemic little girl with a big forehead. Jove, but that must have been your little Louisa!”

I nodded. “In a plaid frock and embroidered pantalettes?”

“Yes, something of the sort. Well, when Louisa and her parents died, I suppose the pictures went to old Miss Raycie. At any rate, at some time or other — and it must have been longer ago than you or I can remember — the old lady inherited them with the Tenth Street house; and when SHE died, three or four years ago, her relations found she’d never even been upstairs to look at them.”

“Well —?”

“Well, she died intestate, and Netta Kent — Netta Cosby — turned out to be the next of kin. There wasn’t much to be got out of the estate (or so they thought) and, as the Cosby’s are always hard up, the house in Tenth Street had to be sold, and the pictures were very nearly sent off to the auction room with all the rest of the stuff. But nobody supposed they would bring anything, and the auctioneer said that if you tried to sell pictures with carpets and bedding and kitchen furniture it always depreciated the whole thing; and so, as the Cosbys had some bare walls to cover, they sent for the whole lot — there were about thirty — and decided to have them cleaned and hang them up. ‘After all,’ Netta said, ‘as well as I can make out through the cobwebs, some of them look like rather jolly copies of early Italian things.’ But as she was short of cash she decided to clean them at home instead of sending them to an expert; and one day, while she was operating on this very one before you, with her sleeves rolled up, the man called, who always DOES call on such occasions; the man who knows. In the given case, it was a quiet fellow connected with the Louvre, who’d brought her a letter from Paris, and whom she’d invited to one of her stupid dinners. He was announced, and she thought it would be a joke to let him see what she was doing; she has pretty arms, you may remember. So he was asked into the dining-room, where he found her with a pail of hot water and soap-suds, and THIS laid out on the table; and the first thing he did was to grab her pretty arm so tight that it was black and blue, while he shouted out: ‘God in heaven! Not HOT water!’”

My friend leaned back with a sigh of mingled resentment and satisfaction, and we sat silently looking up at the lovely “Adoration” above the mantelpiece.

“That’s how I got it a little cheaper — most of the old varnish was gone for good. But luckily for her it was the first picture she had attacked; and as for the others — you must see them, that’s all I can say . . . Wait; I’ve got the catalogue somewhere about . . . ”

He began to rummage for it, and I asked, remembering how nearly I had married Netta Kent: “Do you mean to say she didn’t keep a single one of them?”

“Oh, yes — in the shape of pearls and Rolls–Royces. And you’ve seen their new house in Fifth Avenue?” He ended with a grin of irony: “The best joke is that Jim was just thinking of divorcing her when the pictures were discovered.”

“Poor little Louisa!” I sighed.

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