Editor’s Note: While doing postdoctoral research for a project on Edith Wharton’s short fiction, Sarah Whitehead, an independent scholar in London, came across the typescript of an unpublished story, titled “A Granted Prayer,” in the Wharton archive at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. This satire of genteel stuffiness—which takes comic aim at contemporaneous debates about the role of environment, biology, and free will in human development—is set in Hillbridge, a fictional university town that features in at least four other Wharton stories and her novella The Touchstone, all written between 1898 and 1911. Whitehead dates “A Granted Prayer” to that same period, in the first half of a fiction-writing career that began in 1891 and continued until Wharton’s death in 1937. The original spelling and punctuation have been preserved.
The academic triumphs of Professor Augustus Merrick of Hillbridge University were offset by a painful domestic trial: his three sons had been a disappointment.
As each in turn emerged from the nursery chrysalis, he had been eagerly watched by an anxious father, an adoring elder sister, and a pair of tender and vigilant aunts; but not one had developed the least germ of artistic or intellectual feeling. Harold had early affirmed his intention of going into the Navy; Fred, after several years of golf and vacillation, had lapsed into marriage and a clerkship in a bank; and Armstrong, the youngest and most promising, had crowned a deplorable college career by becoming a successful stock-broker.
“I don’t understand it,” poor Lucy Merrick used to say to her aunts, as they “talked the boys over” in the quiet Hillbridge drawing-room, with its sad-coloured walls hung with photographs after Benozzo Gozzoli and Burne-Jones. “I shall never understand why, with all their opportunities, all three of the poor dear boys should be such failures. Of course one doesn’t love them any the less—” It was not set in Lucy Merrick’s heart to love anyone less; the only difference she knew how to make was to love more.
“Of course not,” the eldest Miss Arkell acquiesced. The Misses Arkell were Professor Merrick’s step-sisters, the offspring of his mother’s first marriage, but they embraced his views with an ardour that consanguinity does not always ensure. The second sister, Miss Candace Arkell (in that household the three syllables were insisted on) made a faint sound of dissent. She was even more zealous than her sister in her adhesion to Professor Merrick’s doctrines, and proportionately less disposed to condone his sons’ defection.
“I cannot agree that one does not love them any the less,” she said firmly. “Armstrong, especially, with his talent for drawing—I remember, when he was a tiny boy, how he used to ask me to tell him the stories of the Burne-Jones pictures.”
“I am afraid it was only the stories he cared for,” said Miss Arkell sighing. “And you know his drawings were all caricatures of the Professors.”
The three ladies joined in a chorus of sighs, and Lucy, always distressed by any sign of resentment toward her poor brothers, asked gently: “Shall I read you another chapter of Epictetus?”
The suggestion reminded her, as soon as she had spoken, of a painful occasion when Fred, being urged, in his undergraduate days, to bring some of his young friends home for five o’clock tea with his aunts, had protested rudely; “Five o’clock tea with Epictetus? Thanks a lot, but we’re breakfasting with him this term.”
The perusal of the great Stoic philosopher was one of Professor Merrick’s favourite pursuits, and in this, as in all his other intellectual excursions, the cluster of ladies under his roof followed him with dauntless devotion. They really did not mind Epictetus: he was easy to understand, and his axioms (though Lucy thought them terribly stern) helped them to bear the boys’ defection. But when the Professor suggested that they should take up Kant and Hegel they realized with painful intensity their mental limitations. They were only three poor, loving, puzzled women, who could never understand that obeying the categorical imperative was just what they were doing every day of their lives.
“Oh, if only one of the boys had cared!” Miss Candace lamented, one sultry afternoon when Lucy, roused by the suspiciously regular sound of Miss Arkell’s breathing, had laid down the Critique of Pure Reason.
“You see it’s of no use for us to read philosophy if we can’t talk about it intelligently to your poor father—and we can’t. I could see how bored he was yesterday at dinner when I tried to tell him about our afternoon’s reading; and when he asks any questions every idea goes out of my head! Of course we have had every intellectual advantage in living with your father, and hearing his conversation, and following his advice about our reading—but women’s minds are so hopelessly inferior that we shall never be the companions he needs.”
The sound of this outbreak roused the eldest Miss Arkell with a start. “That last paragraph was very striking, but a little obscure,” she murmured; and seeing her sister’s eyes fixed on her, she added guiltily: “At least it appeared so to me.”
Miss Candace pushed aside the book with impatience. “It wasn’t only to you, my poor Joanna. We might as well all have been asleep, for all the good it has done us!”
And Lucy, with her indefatigable patience, suggested: “Suppose we go back to Epictetus?”
After their disastrous encounter with German metaphysics, it became more and more evident to the poor ladies that there was an intellectual void in Professor Merrick’s life which it could never be their privilege to fill.
“If only the little boy had lived when your darling mother died!” Miss Candace sighed in confidence to Lucy; and Lucy, weeping, returned: “He would have been fourteen this January.”
“And he might have been a genius—who knows?”
“At least he might have been more like dear Papa.”
“It seems to me so cruel, Lucy, that with your father’s marvellous gifts for educating the young—his extraordinarily formative influence on his students—he should have failed so completely with his sons.”
“Oh, don’t be too hard on the poor boys, Aunt Candace!”
“I don’t mean to be, dear; but it makes me feel—I can’t exactly explain why—that the poor baby who died was intended to make it up to him.”
She was startled by the entrance of the Professor, a spare stooping man with carefully brushed grey hair and thin fastidious lips which could break into the most exquisite of smiles.
“My dear Candace—my dear Lucy—” he began, and sat down abruptly, with a gasp of distress.
The two women were upon him in an instant, hovering over him with little sounds of concern.
“Dear Papa”—“My dear Augustus, do speak—do relieve us!”
He held out a black-edged letter, tapping on it with an agitated hand.
“The most distressing news—the most unforeseen and painful—”
“Lucy, dear, open the window to give your father a little air; and run my dear, for the sherry—you’ll find the keys in your Aunt Joanna’s pocket.”
The Professor raised a protesting hand. “Nonsense, Candace: I do not require any artificial stimulant. Compose yourselves, and I will explain what has happened.”
The ladies obediently resumed their seats, and he adjusted a pair of gold-rimmed glasses to his high-bridged nose.
“I have just heard that my friend—my poor friend George Alsopp—has died very suddenly—”
Lucy sat silent, as though more surprised than distressed by this announcement, but Miss Candace broke in with a wail of sympathy. The Professor, however, raised his head and continued drily: “This fact is not, in itself, the immediate cause of my distress.”
“Oh—” murmured Miss Candace, blushing at her own precipitation.
“George Alsopp and I,” the Professor continued, “were college friends, as you know, and our friendship was maintained during his subsequent residence at Hillbridge; but when he was called to New York, to become a partner in his father’s banking-house, I realized that our interests had already diverged, and that only propinquity had served to hold us together. For poor George had already allowed himself to be mastered by a fatal vice—the passion for money-making—”
The ladies emitted a sympathetic groan, and the Professor impressively continued: “Once in New York, he yielded to the grossest excesses in the gratification of this vulgar propensity—I am told that ten millions would be a low figure to put on the result.”
“Ten millions—how dreadful!” Miss Candace shuddered.
“Perhaps we should not judge him too harshly,” pursued the Professor, who was always unsettling her by thus abruptly changing his ground, “for I am told that his wife—who has since died—not only abetted him in his deplorable weakness, but actually goaded him to fresh efforts by her own extravagance. Business connected with the University obliged me to dine with them during my last visit to New York, and the senseless profusion of their table was only equalled by the painful indigence of their talk.”
“To think that there are millions of our fellow-creatures being condemned to such a form of existence!” sighed Miss Candace, inflamed with missionary zeal.
“Oh, hardly millions,” Lucy gently corrected; but the Professor went on without heeding their comments: “In this state of mental empoverishment [sic] my poor friend has suddenly died, leaving to his wretched family absolutely nothing but the means of material subsistence.”
“Oh, it is too dreadful: I don’t wonder you feel it!” Miss Candace cried.
“Of whom does the family consist?” Lucy quietly ventured to ask; and referring to his letter the Professor replied: “Of two children: a daughter, the eldest, who is already married, and a son—a boy of fourteen—” He paused, and after again glancing at the letter, concluded impressively: “A boy of fourteen, named Augustus Merrick Alsopp, whom his father has committed to my care.”
Both ladies uttered a cry of surprise, and—“Oh, Papa—did you know he was named after you?” exclaimed Lucy, feeling herself thereby drawn to the stranger.
“It is a circumstance I remember deploring at the time, though of course past associations forbade my making any open objection.”
“I’m very glad you didn’t object. Perhaps the name has helped him—protected him.”
The Professor smiled tenderly on his daughter: where intellectual matters were not in question, there were treasures of sympathy between himself and Lucy.
“It is a vain hope, I fear; and the boy has always been called Gus.”
“But we must insist on calling him Augustus, if you are to be his guardian,” Miss Candace exclaimed, rousing herself to a practical sense of the situation; while Lucy murmured: “It is strange he should be just fourteen.”
“Too old to be greatly influenced I fear,” said the Professor, apparently unconscious of her allusion. “His father’s lawyer writes me that he already has his steam-launch and his motor.”
“But if he comes here, Augustus—” interposed Miss Candace, aghast.
The Professor eyed her solemnly. “If he comes here, Candace, we must all unite in ministering to his spiritual indigence.”
Augustus Merrick Alsopp came.
It was not in Professor Merrick to shirk a charge, however onerous, and Lucy was at his side to encourage him in all the valours of the heart. It appeared that the other guardian specified in Mr. Alsopp’s will was unable to offer the boy a home, so that the young Augustus, though possessed of such varied means of locomotion, was without a place in which he could come to a halt, unless the Hillbridge household took him in.
The Misses Arkell, at the prospect, passed through alternating crises of despondency and exaltation; but Lucy remained steadfastly hopeful. Lucy’s creed was so simple: if there was a kindness to do, one had to do it; and if one did it, the result was sure to be satisfactory. “And after all,” she reminded her aunts, “for the next three years, he’ll be here only for the holidays.”
“But how your poor father is going to stand another boy about the house—”
“It will be interesting for Papa to form his mind, Aunt Joanna.”
“But your poor father never could form his own sons’ minds—”
“Perhaps he will have better luck this time, Aunt Candace.”
“But think of the dreadful surroundings the youth comes from, Lucy!”
“That’s just it, you dears; for how on earth could we leave him in them?”
And this answer always temporarily convinced the aunts.
When Gus Alsopp came, however, all their apprehensions revived. He arrived with a servant and a gold-fitted dressing-bag. The ladies were confronted by these awful facts before they realized that the person thus ushered into their lives was a shy plain little boy with a shock head and spectacles. When they had acquainted themselves with these particulars, and with the fact that the young Augustus, while he absorbed his tea and bread-butter, kept his spectacled gaze obstinately fixed on the Burne-Jones above the mantle-piece, they began to feel more leniently toward him. When he had emptied his cup he approached the mantel-piece, and said timidly to Miss Arkell: “What is the subject of that picture?”
He listened attentively while she expounded the allegory, but she saw that he was lamentably deficient in the rudiments of classical mythology.
When she had finished, he asked with a blush if he might speak to Professor Merrick. The Professor, meanwhile, was closeted with Miss Candace, who was explaining with tears that the cook and the parlour-maid, women of spotless but untried virtue, both threatened to leave if there was “a man in the house”; while the laundress, more inured to temptation, valiantly declared that she’d “like to see him come into her laundry.”
The Professor was exasperated by this unexpected complication. “I daresay she would!” he exclaimed recklessly; and upon this subversive sentiment the young Augustus entered.
“I have come, sir,” he said, “to ask if it’s necessary for me to keep a valet.”
“Necessary—?” gasped the Professor; and his namesake eagerly continued: “I really like roughing it, you know; and I can dress a great deal quicker by myself.”
The valet was dismissed and the gold-topped toilet-articles were put away in tissue paper by Miss Candace. Augustus, who showed symptoms of a thrifty spirit, replaced them with a wooden brush and a celluloid comb; and though the departing valet left him a bottle of varnish, with tearful instructions how to use it, he preferred to have his boots blackened like the Professor’s.
Augustus had begun his education at a fashionable boarding-school, where muscular Christianity triumphed, and the studious boys formed a pale and neglected minority. He came to Hillbridge during the summer holidays, and before the beginning of the new term he had unbosomed himself on the subject of his education to the Professor.
“I don’t know anything,” he said, “and I never shall, as long as I stay at St Christopher’s. I’d never even heard of Perseus and Medea in that picture; I should like to go somewhere where a fellow can find out something besides cricket.”
It cannot be denied that the Professor was pleased. In season and out of season he had denounced the excesses of muscle-worship, and it was a wonderful opportunity to find one of its unwilling victims under his hand. Gus Alsopp was cited throughout Hillbridge as an instance of the intelligent reaction against an unmixed diet of athletics, and the Professor, in a burst of exaltation, decided to send him to an admirable day-school in the town itself, in order to keep him within reach of elevating influences throughout the year.
“It’s very beautiful of your father—if only Augustus doesn’t take to slamming doors when he’s more used to us!” exclaimed Miss Arkell, recalling a tumultuous year when Freddy, having been “dropped” from school, had kept the Burne-Joneses in the drawing-room perpetually bounding on their hooks.
Under the stimulus of this memory she ventured to take Augustus aside and entreat him to use the doors gently.
He stared at her through his spectacles with surprise. “There is nothing,” he said, “more unintelligent than a superfluous expenditure of energy,” and for an awful moment she thought he was taking off the Professor. But she soon realized that a profound veneration for his guardian had already led Augustus to acquire the Professor’s vocabulary, which he used unconsciously, and sometimes with startling effect, but never with the least intention of irony.
The uses of humour were in fact unknown to young Alsopp; and in a household where they were cultivated he might have been considered dull. But the Professor’s idea of humour was principally of a missile directed against himself or his most cherished convictions; and its absence from the mental make-up of his ward seemed to him, for the moment, another evidence of the latter’s exceptional promise. The Professor was already building great hopes on young Augustus; and Lucy, as she watched the airy structure rise, became more and more persuaded that the anthropomorphic Providence in whom her instincts incorrigibly trusted, had created Gus to “make up” for the deficiencies of her brothers.
For a while the aunts, less sanguine or more sceptical, had watched the new member of their household for some token of unregeneracy. If there was anything in “environment”—and why had they been made to plough through so many thick volumes on evolution if there were not?—then the poor boy seemed fated to show in some form the contaminating influences of his past. Miss Candace, in particular, was keen on the trail of these influences. She sniffed about his threshold for traces of cigarette-smoke, she watched his conversation for allusions to the race-course and the money-market, she even invented an excuse for rummaging his drawers in the search for French novels and cards. But Augustus made no allusion to his past; the only hidden literature she discovered among his underclothes consisted in Mill’s Logic and a volume of Haeckel; and every month he brought his allowance to the Professor and asked him to deposit it in the Savings Bank.
It never occurred to him to make any purchases, for books were the only things he cared to buy, and the Professor’s library furnished him with more than he had ever dreamed of as existing. As for his clothes, he would have let them fall apart if Miss Candace had not been there to prevent such a contingency; and when the housemaid’s needle could no longer hold them together, it was Miss Candace herself who had to suggest to the young millionaire that his wardrobe needed renewing.
Gus took the announcement rather helplessly. “Harris always got my things for me,” he said, making his first and only reference to the departed valet; and it ended in the Misses Arkell having to fit him out according to their own lights at the leading “ready-made” establishment of Hillbridge.
To Lucy’s eyes, which were more observant than her aunts’, Augustus looked a little odder than usual in the ties and collars of their selection; but he seemed unconscious of anything peculiar in his attire, beyond the discomfort of its newness, which in his case persisted longer than with most boys, because he did so little to endanger it.
In short, if Gus Alsopp caused any disappointment to his adopted family it was that secretly engendered by the discovery that he was so little in need of regeneration. The Misses Arkell had been prepared, as the Professor put it, to minister to his spiritual indigence; but while there was much to be done in the way of instruction, they were reluctantly obliged to admit that exhortation and admonition were superfluous. Gus was passionately eager to learn, and painfully conscious of his ignorance; but he learned so rapidly and remembered so well, that he was soon beyond the reach of any teaching but the Professor’s.
As to admonishing against the temptations of idleness and extravagance, or urging upon him the advantages of high thinking and sober living, it was as superfluous as recommending the water to a newly-hatched duck. Gus took to the development of the higher faculties as instinctively as the Professor’s sons had taken to sport and warfare and money-making; and if it had been in Lucy’s heart to feel untenderly toward any one, she would almost have resented the way in which his merits reflected on the failings of those unregenerate young men. But how could she fail to cherish any one so evidently predestined to console the Professor for his paternal disappointments? Her father’s happiness in Gus was all-sufficient to Lucy: if she herself felt in him a little dryness, a slight lack of effervescence of youth, she set it down to a wicked fear of his supplanting her brothers.
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