Xingu, by Edith Wharton

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 to obey her orders.

“Xingu — ” she said, as if seeking in her turn to gain time.

Mrs. Roby continued to press her. “Knowing how engrossing the subject is, you will understand how it happens that the club has let everything else go to the wall for the moment. Since we took up Xingu I might almost say — were it not for your books — that nothing else seems to us worth remembering.”

Osric Dane’s stern features were darkened rather than lit up by an uneasy smile. “I am glad to hear that you make one exception,” she gave out between narrowed lips.

“Oh, of course,” Mrs. Roby said prettily; “but as you have shown us that — so very naturally! — you don’t care to talk of your own things, we really can’t let you off from telling us exactly what you think about Xingu; especially,” she added, with a still more persuasive smile, “as some people say that one of your last books was saturated with it.”

It was an it, then — the assurance sped like fire through the parched minds of the other members. In their eagerness to gain the least little clue to Xingu they almost forgot the joy of assisting at the discomfiture of Mrs. Dane.

The latter reddened nervously under her antagonist’s challenge. “May I ask,” she faltered out, “to which of my books you refer?”

Mrs. Roby did not falter. “That’s just what I want you to tell us; because, though I was present, I didn’t actually take part.”

“Present at what?” Mrs. Dane took her up; and for an instant the trembling members of the Lunch Club thought that the champion Providence had raised up for them had lost a point. But Mrs. Roby explained herself gaily: “At the discussion, of course. And so we’re dreadfully anxious to know just how it was that you went into the Xingu.”

There was a portentous pause, a silence so big with incalculable dangers that the members with one accord checked the words on their lips, like soldiers dropping their arms to watch a single combat between their leaders. Then Mrs. Dane gave expression to their inmost dread by saying sharply: “Ah — you say the Xingu, do you?”

Mrs. Roby smiled undauntedly. “It is a shade pedantic, isn’t it? Personally, I always drop the article; but I don’t know how the other members feel about it.”

The other members looked as though they would willingly have dispensed with this appeal to their opinion, and Mrs. Roby, after a bright glance about the group, went on: “They probably think, as I do, that nothing really matters except the thing itself — except Xingu.”

No immediate reply seemed to occur to Mrs. Dane, and Mrs. Ballinger gathered courage to say: “Surely every one must feel that about Xingu.”

Mrs. Plinth came to her support with a heavy murmur of assent, and Laura Glyde sighed out emotionally: “I have known cases where it has changed a whole life.”

“It has done me worlds of good,” Mrs. Leveret interjected, seeming to herself to remember that she had either taken it or read it the winter before.

“Of course,” Mrs. Roby admitted, “the difficulty is that one must give up so much time to it. It’s very long.”

“I can’t imagine,” said Miss Van Vluyck, “grudging the time given to such a subject.”

“And deep in places,” Mrs. Roby pursued; (so then it was a book!) “And it isn’t easy to skip.”

“I never skip,” said Mrs. Plinth dogmatically.

“Ah, it’s dangerous to, in Xingu. Even at the start there are places where one can’t. One must just wade through.”

“I should hardly call it wading,” said Mrs. Ballinger sarcastically.

Mrs. Roby sent her a look of interest. “Ah — you always found it went swimmingly?”

Mrs. Ballinger hesitated. “Of course there are difficult passages,” she conceded.

“Yes; some are not at all clear — even,” Mrs. Roby added, “if one is familiar with the original.”

“As I suppose you are?” Osric Dane interposed, suddenly fixing her with a look of challenge.

Mrs. Roby met it by a deprecating gesture. “Oh, it’s really not difficult up to a certain point; though some of the branches are very little known, and it’s almost impossible to get at the source.”

“Have you ever tried?” Mrs. Plinth enquired, still distrustful of Mrs. Roby’s thoroughness.

Mrs. Roby was silent for a moment; then she replied with lowered lids: “No — but a friend of mine did; a very brilliant man; and he told me it was best for women — not to. . . . ”

A shudder ran around the room. Mrs. Leveret coughed so that the parlour-maid, who was handing the cigarettes, should not hear; Miss Van Vluyck’s face took on a nauseated expression, and Mrs. Plinth looked as if she were passing some one she did not care to bow to. But the most remarkable result of Mrs. Roby’s words was the effect they produced on the Lunch Club’s distinguished guest. Osric Dane’s impassive features suddenly softened to an expression of the warmest human sympathy, and edging her chair toward Mrs. Roby’s she asked: “Did he really? And — did you find he was right?”

Mrs. Ballinger, in whom annoyance at Mrs. Roby’s unwonted assumption of prominence was beginning to displace gratitude for the aid she had rendered, could not consent to her being allowed, by such dubious means, to monopolise the attention of their guest. If Osric Dane had not enough self-respect to resent Mrs. Roby’s flippancy, at least the Lunch Club would do so in the person of its President.

Mrs. Ballinger laid her hand on Mrs. Roby’s arm. “We must not forget,” she said with a frigid amiability, “that absorbing as Xingu is to us, it may be less interesting to — ”

“Oh, no, on the contrary, I assure you,” Osric Dane intervened.

“ — to others,” Mrs. Ballinger finished firmly; “and we must not allow our little meeting to end without persuading Mrs. Dane to say a few words to us on a subject which, to-day, is much more present in all our thoughts. I refer, of course, to ‘The Wings of Death.’”

The other members, animated by various degrees of the same sentiment, and encouraged by the humanised mien of their redoubtable guest, repeated after Mrs. Ballinger: “Oh, yes, you really must talk to us a little about your book.”

Osric Dane’s expression became as bored, though not as haughty, as when her work had been previously mentioned. But before she could respond to Mrs. Ballinger’s request, Mrs. Roby had risen from her seat, and was pulling down her veil over her frivolous nose.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, advancing toward her hostess with outstretched hand, “but before Mrs. Dane begins I think I’d better run away. Unluckily, as you know, I haven’t read her books, so I should be at a terrible disadvantage among you all, and besides, I’ve an engagement to play bridge.”

If Mrs. Roby had simply pleaded her ignorance of Osric Dane’s works as a reason for withdrawing, the Lunch Club, in view of her recent prowess, might have approved such evidence of discretion; but to couple this excuse with the brazen announcement that she was foregoing the privilege for the purpose of joining a bridge-party was only one more instance of her deplorable lack of discrimination.

The ladies were disposed, however, to feel that her departure — now that she had performed the sole service she was ever likely to render them — would probably make for greater order and dignity in the impending discussion, besides relieving them of the sense of self-distrust which her presence always mysteriously produced. Mrs. Ballinger therefore restricted herself to a formal murmur of regret, and the other members were just grouping themselves comfortably about Osric Dane when the latter, to their dismay, started up from the sofa on which she had been seated.

“Oh wait — do wait, and I’ll go with you!” she called out to Mrs. Roby; and, seizing the hands of the disconcerted members, she administered a series of farewell pressures with the mechanical haste of a railway-conductor punching tickets.

“I’m so sorry — I’d quite forgotten — ” she flung back at them from the threshold; and as she joined Mrs. Roby, who had turned in surprise at her appeal, the other ladies had the mortification of hearing her say, in a voice which she did not take the pains to lower: “If you’ll let me walk a little way with you, I should so like to ask you a few more questions about Xingu. . . . ”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30