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Produced by David Widger





XINGU

By Edith Wharton

Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons




I

Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as
though it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had founded
the Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several other
indomitable huntresses of erudition. The Lunch Club, after three or four
winters of lunching and debate, had acquired such local distinction that
the entertainment of distinguished strangers became one of its accepted
functions; in recognition of which it duly extended to the celebrated
"Osric Dane," on the day of her arrival in Hillbridge, an invitation to
be present at the next meeting.

The club was to meet at Mrs. Bellinger's. The other members, behind
her back, were of one voice in deploring her unwillingness to cede
her rights in favor of Mrs. Plinth, whose house made a more impressive
setting for the entertainment of celebrities; while, as Mrs. Leveret
observed, there was always the picture-gallery to fall back on.

Mrs. Plinth made no secret of sharing this view. She had always regarded
it as one of her obligations to entertain the Lunch Club's distinguished
guests. Mrs. Plinth was almost as proud of her obligations as she was
of her picture-gallery; she was in fact fond of implying that the one
possession implied the other, and that only a woman of her wealth
could afford to live up to a standard as high as that which she had set
herself. An all-round sense of duty, roughly adaptable to various ends,
was, in her opinion, all that Providence exacted of the more humbly
stationed; but the power which had predestined Mrs. Plinth to keep a
footman clearly intended her to maintain an equally specialized staff of
responsibilities. It was the more to be regretted that Mrs. Ballinger,
whose obligations to society were bounded by the narrow scope of two
parlour-maids, should have been so tenacious of the right to entertain
Osric Dane.

The question of that lady's reception had for a month past profoundly
moved the members of the Lunch Club. It was not that they felt
themselves unequal to the task, but that their sense of the opportunity
plunged them into the agreeable uncertainty of the lady who weighs the
alternatives of a well-stocked wardrobe. If such subsidiary members as
Mrs. Leveret were fluttered by the thought of exchanging ideas with the
author of "The Wings of Death," no forebodings disturbed the conscious
adequacy of Mrs. Plinth, Mrs. Ballinger and Miss Van Vluyck. "The Wings
of Death" had, in fact, at Miss Van Vluyck's suggestion, been chosen as
the subject of discussion at the last club meeting, and each member had
thus been enabled to express her own opinion or to appropriate whatever
sounded well in the comments of the others.

Mrs. Roby alone had abstained from profiting by the opportunity; but it
was now openly recognised that, as a member of the Lunch Club, Mrs. Roby
was a failure. "It all comes," as Miss Van Vluyck put it, "of accepting
a woman on a man's estimation." Mrs. Roby, returning to Hillbridge from
a prolonged sojourn in exotic lands - the other ladies no longer took
the trouble to remember where - had been heralded by the distinguished
biologist, Professor Foreland, as the most agreeable woman he had ever
met; and the members of the Lunch Club, impressed by an encomium
that carried the weight of a diploma, and rashly assuming that the
Professor's social sympathies would follow the line of his professional
bent, had seized the chance of annexing a biological member. Their
disillusionment was complete. At Miss Van Vluyck's first off-hand
mention of the pterodactyl Mrs. Roby had confusedly murmured: "I know so
little about metres - " and after that painful betrayal of incompetence
she had prudently withdrawn from farther participation in the mental
gymnastics of the club.

"I suppose she flattered him," Miss Van Vluyck summed up - "or else it's
the way she does her hair."

The dimensions of Miss Van Vluyck's dining-room having restricted the
membership of the club to six, the nonconductiveness of one member was
a serious obstacle to the exchange of ideas, and some wonder had already
been expressed that Mrs. Roby should care to live, as it were, on the
intellectual bounty of the others. This feeling was increased by the
discovery that she had not yet read "The Wings of Death." She owned
to having heard the name of Osric Dane; but that - incredible as it
appeared - was the extent of her acquaintance with the celebrated
novelist. The ladies could not conceal their surprise; but Mrs.
Ballinger, whose pride in the club made her wish to put even Mrs. Roby
in the best possible light, gently insinuated that, though she had not
had time to acquaint herself with "The Wings of Death," she must at
least be familiar with its equally remarkable predecessor, "The Supreme
Instant."

Mrs. Roby wrinkled her sunny brows in a conscientious effort of memory,
as a result of which she recalled that, oh, yes, she _had_ seen the book
at her brother's, when she was staying with him in Brazil, and had even
carried it off to read one day on a boating party; but they had all
got to shying things at each other in the boat, and the book had gone
overboard, so she had never had the chance -

The picture evoked by this anecdote did not increase Mrs. Roby's credit
with the club, and there was a painful pause, which was broken by Mrs.
Plinth's remarking:

"I can understand that, with all your other pursuits, you should not
find much time for reading; but I should have thought you might at least
have _got up_ 'The Wings of Death' before Osric Dane's arrival."

Mrs. Roby took this rebuke good-humouredly. She had meant, she owned,
to glance through the book; but she had been so absorbed in a novel of
Trollope's that -

"No one reads Trollope now," Mrs. Ballinger interrupted.

Mrs. Roby looked pained. "I'm only just beginning," she confessed.

"And does he interest you?" Mrs. Plinth enquired.

"He amuses me."

"Amusement," said Mrs. Plinth, "is hardly what I look for in my choice
of books."

"Oh, certainly, 'The Wings of Death' is not amusing," ventured Mrs.
Leveret, whose manner of putting forth an opinion was like that of an
obliging salesman with a variety of other styles to submit if his first
selection does not suit.

"Was it _meant_ to be?" enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking
questions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. "Assuredly
not."

"Assuredly not - that is what I was going to say," assented Mrs. Leveret,
hastily rolling up her opinion and reaching for another. "It was meant
to - to elevate."

Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the black
cap of condemnation. "I hardly see," she interposed, "how a book steeped
in the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate however much it may
instruct."

"I meant, of course, to instruct," said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the
unexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to be
synonymous. Mrs. Leveret's enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequently
marred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the other
ladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimes
troubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It was
only the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that saved
her, from a sense of hopeless inferiority.

"Do they get married in the end?" Mrs. Roby interposed.

"They - who?" the Lunch Club collectively exclaimed.

"Why, the girl and man. It's a novel, isn't it? I always think that's
the one thing that matters. If they're parted it spoils my dinner."

Mrs. Plinth and Mrs. Ballinger exchanged scandalised glances, and the
latter said: "I should hardly advise you to read 'The Wings of Death'
in that spirit. For my part, when there are so many books one _has_
to read; I wonder how any one can find time for those that are merely
amusing."

"The beautiful part of it," Laura Glyde murmured, "is surely just
this - that no one can tell how 'The Wings of Death' ends. Osric Dane,
overcome by the awful significance of her own meaning, has mercifully
veiled it - perhaps even from herself - as Apelles, in representing the
sacrifice of Iphigenia, veiled the face or Agamemnon."

"What's that? Is it poetry?" whispered Mrs. Leveret to Mrs. Plinth,
who, disdaining a definite reply, said coldly: "You should look it up.
I always make it a point to look things up." Her tone added - "though I
might easily have it done for me by the footman."

"I was about to say," Miss Van Vluyck resumed, "that it must always be a
question whether a book _can_ instruct unless it elevates."

"Oh - " murmured Mrs. Leveret, now feeling herself hopelessly astray.

"I don't know," said Mrs. Ballinger, scenting in Miss Van Vluyck's tone
a tendency to depreciate the coveted distinction of entertaining Osric
Dane; "I don't know that such a question can seriously be raised as to a
book which has attracted more attention among thoughtful people than any
novel since 'Robert Elsmere.'"

"Oh, but don't you see," exclaimed Laura Glyde, "that it's just the
dark hopelessness of it all - the wonderful tone-scheme of black on
black - that makes it such an artistic achievement? It reminded me when
I read it of Prince Rupert's _manière noire_...the book is etched, not
painted, yet one feels the colour-values so intensely...."

"Who is he?" Mrs. Leveret whispered to her neighbour. "Some one she's
met abroad?"

"The wonderful part of the book," Mrs. Bellinger conceded, "is that it
may be looked at from so many points of view. I hear that as a study of
determinism Professor Lupton ranks it with 'The Data of Ethics.'"

"I'm told that Osric Dane spent ten years in preparatory studies
before beginning to write it," said Mrs. Plinth. "She looks up
everything - verifies everything. It has always been my principle, as
you know. Nothing would induce me, now, to put aside a book before I'd
finished it, just because I can buy as many more as I want."

"And what do _you_ think of 'The Wings of Death'?" Mrs. Roby abruptly
asked her.

It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the
ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such
a breach of discipline. They all knew there was nothing Mrs. Plinth so
much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written
to read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned
in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an
outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. The
club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth's. Such
opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her
house, was furnished with monumental "pieces" that were not meant to
be disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of the Lunch Club
that, within her own province, each member's habits of thought should be
respected. The meeting therefore closed with an increased sense, on the
part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby's hopeless unfitness to be one of
them.




II

Mrs. Leveret, on the eventful day, arrived early at Mrs. Ballinger's,
her volume of Appropriate Allusions in her pocket.

It always flustered Mrs. Leveret to be late at the Lunch Club: she liked
to collect her thoughts and gather a hint, as the others assembled, of
the turn the conversation was likely to take. To-day, however, she
felt herself completely at a loss; and even the familiar contact of
Appropriate Allusions, which stuck into her as she sat down, failed to
give her any reassurance. It was an admirable little volume, compiled
to meet all the social emergencies; so that, whether on the occasion
of Anniversaries, joyful or melancholy (as the classification ran),
of Banquets, social or municipal, or of Baptisms, Church of England
or sectarian, its student need never be at a loss for a pertinent
reference. Mrs. Leveret, though she had for years devoutly conned its
pages, valued it, however, rather for its moral support than for its
practical services; for though in the privacy of her own room she
commanded an army of quotations, these invariably deserted her at the
critical moment, and the only phrase she retained - _Canst thou draw out
leviathan with a hook_? - was one she had never yet found occasion to
apply.

To-day she felt that even the complete mastery of the volume would
hardly have insured her self-possession; for she thought it probable
that, even if she _did_, in some miraculous way, remember an Allusion,
it would be only to find that Osric Dane used a different volume (Mrs.
Leveret was convinced that literary people always carried them), and
would consequently not recognise her quotations.

Mrs. Leveret's sense of being adrift was intensified by the appearance
of Mrs. Ballinger's drawing-room. To a careless eye its aspect was
unchanged; but those acquainted with Mrs. Ballinger's way of
arranging her books would instantly have detected the marks of recent
perturbation. Mrs. Ballinger's province, as a member of the Lunch Club,
was the Book of the Day. On that, whatever it was, from a novel to
a treatise on experimental psychology, she was confidently,
authoritatively "up." What became of last year's books, or last week's
even; what she did with the "subjects" she had previously professed with
equal authority; no one had ever yet discovered. 'Her mind was an hotel
where facts came and went like transient lodgers, without leaving their
address behind, and frequently without paying for their board. It was
Mrs. Ballinger's boast that she was "abreast with the Thought of the
Day," and her pride that this advanced position should be expressed by
the books on her table. These volumes, frequently renewed, and almost
always damp from the press, bore names generally unfamiliar to Mrs.
Leveret, and giving her, as she furtively scanned them, a disheartening
glimpse of new fields of knowledge to be breathlessly traversed in Mrs.
Ballinger's wake. But to-day a number of maturer-looking volumes were
adroitly mingled with the _primeurs_ of the press - Karl Marx jostled
Professor Bergson, and the "Confessions of St. Augustine" lay beside
the last work on "Mendelism"; so that even to Mrs. Leveret's fluttered
perceptions it was clear that Mrs. Ballinger didn't in the least know
what Osric Dane was likely to talk about, and had taken measures to be
prepared for anything. Mrs. Leveret felt like a passenger on an ocean
steamer who is told that there is no immediate danger, but that she had
better put on her life-belt.

It was a relief to be roused from these forebodings by Miss Van Vluyck's
arrival.

"Well, my dear," the new-comer briskly asked her hostess, "what subjects
are we to discuss to-day?"

Mrs. Ballinger was furtively replacing a volume of Wordsworth by a copy
of Verlaine. "I hardly know," she said, somewhat nervously. "Perhaps we
had better leave that to circumstances."

"Circumstances?" said Miss Van Vluyck drily. "That means, I suppose,
that Laura Glyde will take the floor as usual, and we shall be deluged
with literature."

Philanthropy and statistics were Miss Van Vluyck's province, and she
resented any tendency to divert their guest's attention from these
topics.

Mrs. Plinth at this moment appeared.

"Literature?" she protested in a tone of remonstrance. "But this is
perfectly unexpected. I understood we were to talk of Osric Dane's
novel."

Mrs. Ballinger winced at the discrimination, but let it pass. "We can
hardly make that our chief subject - at least not _too_ intentionally,"
she suggested. "Of course we can let our talk _drift_ in that direction;
but we ought to have some other topic as an introduction, and that is
what I wanted to consult you about. The fact is, we know so little
of Osric Dane's tastes and interests that it is difficult to make any
special preparation."

"It may be difficult," said Mrs. Plinth with decision, "but it is
necessary. I know what that happy-go-lucky principle leads to. As I told
one of my nieces the other day, there are certain emergencies for which
a lady should always be prepared. It's in shocking taste to wear colours
when one pays a visit of condolence, or a last year's dress when there
are reports that one's husband is on the wrong side of the market; and
so it is with conversation. All I ask is that I should know beforehand
what is to be talked about; then I feel sure of being able to say the
proper thing."

"I quite agree with you," Mrs. Ballinger assented; "but - "

And at that instant, heralded by the fluttered parlourmaid, Osric Dane
appeared upon the threshold.

Mrs. Leveret told her sister afterward that she had known at a glance
what was coming. She saw that Osric Dane was not going to meet them
half way. That distinguished personage had indeed entered with an air of
compulsion not calculated to promote the easy exercise of hospitality.
She looked as though she were about to be photographed for a new edition
of her books.

The desire to propitiate a divinity is generally in inverse ratio to its
responsiveness, and the sense of discouragement produced by Osric Dane's
entrance visibly increased the Lunch Club's eagerness to please her. Any
lingering idea that she might consider herself under an obligation to
her entertainers was at once dispelled by her manner: as Mrs. Leveret
said afterward to her sister, she had a way of looking at you that made
you feel as if there was something wrong with your hat. This evidence
of greatness produced such an immediate impression on the ladies that a
shudder of awe ran through them when Mrs. Roby, as their hostess led
the great personage into the dining-room, turned back to whisper to the
others: "What a brute she is!"

The hour about the table did not tend to revise this verdict. It was
passed by Osric Dane in the silent deglutition of Mrs. Bollinger's menu,
and by the members of the club in the emission of tentative platitudes
which their guest seemed to swallow as perfunctorily as the successive
courses of the luncheon.

Mrs. Ballinger's reluctance to fix a topic had thrown the club into a
mental disarray which increased with the return to the drawing-room,
where the actual business of discussion was to open. Each lady waited
for the other to speak; and there was a general shock of disappointment
when their hostess opened the conversation by the painfully commonplace
enquiry. "Is this your first visit to Hillbridge?"

Even Mrs. Leveret was conscious that this was a bad beginning; and a
vague impulse of deprecation made Miss Glyde interject: "It is a very
small place indeed."

Mrs. Plinth bristled. "We have a great many representative people," she
said, in the tone of one who speaks for her order.

Osric Dane turned to her. "What do they represent?" she asked.

Mrs. Plinth's constitutional dislike to being questioned was intensified
by her sense of unpreparedness; and her reproachful glance passed the
question on to Mrs. Ballinger.

"Why," said that lady, glancing in turn at the other members, "as a
community I hope it is not too much to say that we stand for culture."

"For art - " Miss Glyde interjected.

"For art and literature," Mrs. Ballinger emended.

"And for sociology, I trust," snapped Miss Van Vluyck.

"We have a standard," said Mrs. Plinth, feeling herself suddenly secure
on the vast expanse of a generalisation; and Mrs. Leveret, thinking
there must be room for more than one on so broad a statement, took
courage to murmur: "Oh, certainly; we have a standard."

"The object of our little club," Mrs. Ballinger continued, "is to
concentrate the highest tendencies of Hillbridge - to centralise and
focus its intellectual effort."

This was felt to be so happy that the ladies drew an almost audible
breath of relief.

"We aspire," the President went on, "to be in touch with whatever is
highest in art, literature and ethics."

Osric Dane again turned to her. "What ethics?" she asked.

A tremor of apprehension encircled the room. None of the ladies required
any preparation to pronounce on a question of morals; but when they
were called ethics it was different. The club, when fresh from
the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," the "Reader's Handbook" or Smith's
"Classical Dictionary," could deal confidently with any subject; but
when taken unawares it had been known to define agnosticism as a heresy
of the Early Church and Professor Froude as a distinguished histologist;
and such minor members as Mrs. Leveret still secretly regarded ethics as
something vaguely pagan.

Even to Mrs. Ballinger, Osric Dane's question was unsettling, and there
was a general sense of gratitude when Laura Glyde leaned forward to say,
with her most sympathetic accent: "You must excuse us, Mrs. Dane, for
not being able, just at present, to talk of anything but 'The Wings of
Death."'

"Yes," said Miss Van Vluyck, with a sudden resolve to carry the war into
the enemy's camp. "We are so anxious to know the exact purpose you had
in mind in writing your wonderful book."

"You will find," Mrs. Plinth interposed, "that we are not superficial
readers."

"We are eager to hear from you," Miss Van Vluyck continued, "if
the pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of your own
convictions or - "

"Or merely," Miss Glyde thrust in, "a sombre background brushed in
to throw your figures into more vivid relief. _Are_ you not primarily
plastic?"

"I have always maintained," Mrs. Ballinger interposed, "that you
represent the purely objective method - "

Osric Dane helped herself critically to coffee. "How do you define
objective?" she then enquired.

There was a flurried pause before Laura Glyde intensely murmured: "In
reading _you_ we don't define, we feel."

Otsric Dane smiled. "The cerebellum," she remarked, "is not infrequently
the seat of the literary emotions." And she took a second lump of sugar.

The sting that this remark was vaguely felt to conceal was almost
neutralised by the satisfaction of being addressed in such technical
language.

"Ah, the cerebellum," said Miss Van Vluyck complacently. "The club took
a course in psychology last winter."

"Which psychology?" asked Osric Dane.

There was an agonising pause, during which each member of the club
secretly deplored the distressing inefficiency of the others. Only Mrs.
Roby went on placidly sipping her chartreuse. At last Mrs. Ballinger
said, with an attempt at a high tone: "Well, really, you know, it was
last year that we took psychology, and this winter we have been so
absorbed in - "

She broke off, nervously trying to recall some of the club's
discussions; but her faculties seemed to be paralysed by the petrifying
stare of Osric Dane. What _had_ the club been absorbed in? Mrs.
Ballinger, with a vague purpose of gaining time, repeated slowly: "We've
been so intensely absorbed in - "

Mrs. Roby put down her liqueur glass and drew near the group with a
smile.

"In Xingu?" she gently prompted.

A thrill ran through the other members. They exchanged confused
glances, and then, with one accord, turned a gaze of mingled relief
and interrogation on their rescuer. The expression of each denoted
a different phase of the same emotion. Mrs. Plinth was the first to
compose her features to an air of reassurance: after a moment's hasty
adjustment her look almost implied that it was she who had given the
word to Mrs. Ballinger.

"Xingu, of course!" exclaimed the latter with her accustomed promptness,
while Miss Van Vluyck and Laura Glyde seemed to be plumbing the depths
of memory, and Mrs. Leveret, feeling apprehensively for Appropriate
Allusions, was somehow reassured by the uncomfortable pressure of its
bulk against her person.

Osric Dane's change of countenance was no less striking than that of
her entertainers. She too put down her coffee-cup, but with a look of
distinct annoyance; she too wore, for a brief moment, what Mrs. Roby
afterward described as the look of feeling for something in the back
of her head; and before she could dissemble these momentary signs of
weakness, Mrs. Roby, turning to her with a deferential smile, had said:
"And we've been so hoping that to-day you would tell us just what you
think of it."

Osric Dane received the homage of the smile as a matter of course; but
the accompanying question obviously embarrassed her, and it became clear
to her observers that she was not quick at shifting her facial scenery.
It was as though her countenance had so long been set in an expression
of unchallenged superiority that the muscles had stiffened, and refused


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Online LibraryEdith WhartonXingu, and other stories → online text (page 1 of 3)