Xingu, by Edith Wharton

III

The incident had been so rapid that the door closed on the departing pair before the other members had time to understand what was happening. Then a sense of the indignity put upon them by Osric Dane’s unceremonious desertion began to contend with the confused feeling that they had been cheated out of their due without exactly knowing how or why.

There was a silence, during which Mrs. Ballinger, with a perfunctory hand, rearranged the skilfully grouped literature at which her distinguished guest had not so much as glanced; then Miss Van Vluyck tartly pronounced: “Well, I can’t say that I consider Osric Dane’s departure a great loss.”

This confession crystallised the resentment of the other members, and Mrs. Leveret exclaimed: “I do believe she came on purpose to be nasty!”

It was Mrs. Plinth’s private opinion that Osric Dane’s attitude toward the Lunch Club might have been very different had it welcomed her in the majestic setting of the Plinth drawing-rooms; but not liking to reflect on the inadequacy of Mrs. Ballinger’s establishment she sought a roundabout satisfaction in depreciating her lack of foresight.

“I said from the first that we ought to have had a subject ready. It’s what always happens when you’re unprepared. Now if we’d only got up Xingu — ”

The slowness of Mrs. Plinth’s mental processes was always allowed for by the club; but this instance of it was too much for Mrs. Ballinger’s equanimity.

“Xingu!” she scoffed. “Why, it was the fact of our knowing so much more about it than she did — unprepared though we were — that made Osric Dane so furious. I should have thought that was plain enough to everybody!”

This retort impressed even Mrs. Plinth, and Laura Glyde, moved by an impulse of generosity, said: “Yes, we really ought to be grateful to Mrs. Roby for introducing the topic. It may have made Osric Dane furious, but at least it made her civil.”

“I am glad we were able to show her,” added Miss Van Vluyck, “that a broad and up-to-date culture is not confined to the great intellectual centres.”

This increased the satisfaction of the other members, and they began to forget their wrath against Osric Dane in the pleasure of having contributed to her discomfiture.

Miss Van Vluyck thoughtfully rubbed her spectacles. “What surprised me most,” she continued, “was that Fanny Roby should be so up on Xingu.”

This remark threw a slight chill on the company, but Mrs. Ballinger said with an air of indulgent irony: “Mrs. Roby always has the knack of making a little go a long way; still, we certainly owe her a debt for happening to remember that she’d heard of Xingu.” And this was felt by the other members to be a graceful way of cancelling once for all the club’s obligation to Mrs. Roby.

Even Mrs. Leveret took courage to speed a timid shaft of irony. “I fancy Osric Dane hardly expected to take a lesson in Xingu at Hillbridge!”

Mrs. Ballinger smiled. “When she asked me what we represented — do you remember? — I wish I’d simply said we represented Xingu!”

All the ladies laughed appreciatively at this sally, except Mrs. Plinth, who said, after a moment’s deliberation: “I’m not sure it would have been wise to do so.”

Mrs. Ballinger, who was already beginning to feel as if she had launched at Osric Dane the retort which had just occurred to her, turned ironically on Mrs. Plinth. “May I ask why?” she enquired.

Mrs. Plinth looked grave. “Surely,” she said, “I understood from Mrs. Roby herself that the subject was one it was as well not to go into too deeply?”

Miss Van Vluyck rejoined with precision: “I think that applied only to an investigation of the origin of the — of the — ”; and suddenly she found that her usually accurate memory had failed her. “It’s a part of the subject I never studied myself,” she concluded.

“Nor I,” said Mrs. Ballinger.

Laura Glyde bent toward them with widened eyes. “And yet it seems — doesn’t it? — the part that is fullest of an esoteric fascination?”

“I don’t know on what you base that,” said Miss Van Vluyck argumentatively.

“Well, didn’t you notice how intensely interested Osric Dane became as soon as she heard what the brilliant foreigner — he was a foreigner, wasn’t he? — had told Mrs. Roby about the origin — the origin of the rite — or whatever you call it?”

Mrs. Plinth looked disapproving, and Mrs. Ballinger visibly wavered. Then she said: “It may not be desirable to touch on the — on that part of the subject in general conversation; but, from the importance it evidently has to a woman of Osric Dane’s distinction, I feel as if we ought not to be afraid to discuss it among ourselves — without gloves — though with closed doors, if necessary.”

“I’m quite of your opinion,” Miss Van Vluyck came briskly to her support; “on condition, that is, that all grossness of language is avoided.”

“Oh, I’m sure we shall understand without that,” Mrs. Leveret tittered; and Laura Glyde added significantly: “I fancy we can read between the lines,” while Mrs. Ballinger rose to assure herself that the doors were really closed.

Mrs. Plinth had not yet given her adhesion. “I hardly see,” she began, “what benefit is to be derived from investigating such peculiar customs — ”

But Mrs. Ballinger’s patience had reached the extreme limit of tension. “This at least,” she returned; “that we shall not be placed again in the humiliating position of finding ourselves less up on our own subjects than Fanny Roby!”

Even to Mrs. Plinth this argument was conclusive. She peered furtively about the room and lowered her commanding tones to ask: “Have you got a copy?”

“A— a copy?” stammered Mrs. Ballinger. She was aware that the other members were looking at her expectantly, and that this answer was inadequate, so she supported it by asking another question. “A copy of what?”

Her companions bent their expectant gaze on Mrs. Plinth, who, in turn, appeared less sure of herself than usual. “Why, of — of — the book,” she explained.

“What book?” snapped Miss Van Vluyck, almost as sharply as Osric Dane.

Mrs. Ballinger looked at Laura Glyde, whose eyes were interrogatively fixed on Mrs. Leveret. The fact of being deferred to was so new to the latter that it filled her with an insane temerity. “Why, Xingu, of course!” she exclaimed.

A profound silence followed this challenge to the resources of Mrs. Ballinger’s library, and the latter, after glancing nervously toward the Books of the Day, returned with dignity: “It’s not a thing one cares to leave about.”

“I should think not!” exclaimed Mrs. Plinth.

“It is a book, then?” said Miss Van Vluyck.

This again threw the company into disarray, and Mrs. Ballinger, with an impatient sigh, rejoined: “Why — there is a book — naturally. . . . ”

“Then why did Miss Glyde call it a religion?”

Laura Glyde started up. “A religion? I never — ”

“Yes, you did,” Miss Van Vluyck insisted; “you spoke of rites; and Mrs. Plinth said it was a custom.”

Miss Glyde was evidently making a desperate effort to recall her statement; but accuracy of detail was not her strongest point. At length she began in a deep murmur: “Surely they used to do something of the kind at the Eleusinian mysteries — ”

“Oh — ” said Miss Van Vluyck, on the verge of disapproval; and Mrs. Plinth protested: “I understood there was to be no indelicacy!”

Mrs. Ballinger could not control her irritation. “Really, it is too bad that we should not be able to talk the matter over quietly among ourselves. Personally, I think that if one goes into Xingu at all — ”

“Oh, so do I!” cried Miss Glyde.

“And I don’t see how one can avoid doing so, if one wishes to keep up with the Thought of the Day — ”

Mrs. Leveret uttered an exclamation of relief. “There — that’s it!” she interposed.

“What’s it?” the President took her up.

“Why — it’s a — a Thought: I mean a philosophy.”

This seemed to bring a certain relief to Mrs. Ballinger and Laura Glyde, but Miss Van Vluyck said: “Excuse me if I tell you that you’re all mistaken. Xingu happens to be a language.”

“A language!” the Lunch Club cried.

“Certainly. Don’t you remember Fanny Roby’s saying that there were several branches, and that some were hard to trace? What could that apply to but dialects?”

Mrs. Ballinger could no longer restrain a contemptuous laugh. “Really, if the Lunch Club has reached such a pass that it has to go to Fanny Roby for instruction on a subject like Xingu, it had almost better cease to exist!”

“It’s really her fault for not being clearer,” Laura Glyde put in.

“Oh, clearness and Fanny Roby!” Mrs. Ballinger shrugged. “I daresay we shall find she was mistaken on almost every point.”

“Why not look it up?” said Mrs. Plinth.

As a rule this recurrent suggestion of Mrs. Plinth’s was ignored in the heat of discussion, and only resorted to afterward in the privacy of each member’s home. But on the present occasion the desire to ascribe their own confusion of thought to the vague and contradictory nature of Mrs. Roby’s statements caused the members of the Lunch Club to utter a collective demand for a book of reference.

At this point the production of her treasured volume gave Mrs. Leveret, for a moment, the unusual experience of occupying the centre front; but she was not able to hold it long, for Appropriate Allusions contained no mention of Xingu.

“Oh, that’s not the kind of thing we want!” exclaimed Miss Van Vluyck. She cast a disparaging glance over Mrs. Ballinger’s assortment of literature, and added impatiently: “Haven’t you any useful books?”

“Of course I have,” replied Mrs. Ballinger indignantly; “I keep them in my husband’s dressing-room.”

From this region, after some difficulty and delay, the parlour-maid produced the W-Z volume of an Encyclopaedia and, in deference to the fact that the demand for it had come from Miss Van Vluyck, laid the ponderous tome before her.

There was a moment of painful suspense while Miss Van Vluyck rubbed her spectacles, adjusted them, and turned to Z; and a murmur of surprise when she said: “It isn’t here.”

“I suppose,” said Mrs. Plinth, “it’s not fit to be put in a book of reference.”

“Oh, nonsense!” exclaimed Mrs. Ballinger. “Try X.”

Miss Van Vluyck turned back through the volume, peering short-sightedly up and down the pages, till she came to a stop and remained motionless, like a dog on a point.

“Well, have you found it?” Mrs. Ballinger enquired after a considerable delay.

“Yes. I’ve found it,” said Miss Van Vluyck in a queer voice.

Mrs. Plinth hastily interposed: “I beg you won’t read it aloud if there’s anything offensive.”

Miss Van Vluyck, without answering, continued her silent scrutiny.

“Well, what is it?” exclaimed Laura Glyde excitedly.

Do tell us!” urged Mrs. Leveret, feeling that she would have something awful to tell her sister.

Miss Van Vluyck pushed the volume aside and turned slowly toward the expectant group.

“It’s a river.”

“A river?

“Yes: in Brazil. Isn’t that where she’s been living?”

“Who? Fanny Roby? Oh, but you must be mistaken. You’ve been reading the wrong thing,” Mrs. Ballinger exclaimed, leaning over her to seize the volume.

“It’s the only Xingu in the Encyclopaedia; and she has been living in Brazil,” Miss Van Vluyck persisted.

“Yes: her brother has a consulship there,” Mrs. Leveret interposed.

“But it’s too ridiculous! I— we — why we all remember studying Xingu last year — or the year before last,” Mrs. Ballinger stammered.

“I thought I did when you said so,” Laura Glyde avowed.

“I said so?” cried Mrs. Ballinger.

“Yes. You said it had crowded everything else out of your mind.”

“Well you said it had changed your whole life!”

“For that matter. Miss Van Vluyck said she had never grudged the time she’d given it.”

Mrs. Plinth interposed: “I made it clear that I knew nothing whatever of the original.”

Mrs. Ballinger broke off the dispute with a groan. “Oh, what does it all matter if she’s been making fools of us? I believe Miss Van Vluyck’s right — she was talking of the river all the while!”

“How could she? It’s too preposterous,” Miss Glyde exclaimed.

“Listen.” Miss Van Vluyck had repossessed herself of the Encyclopaedia, and restored her spectacles to a nose reddened by excitement. “‘The Xingu, one of the principal rivers of Brazil, rises on the plateau of Mato Grosso, and flows in a northerly direction for a length of no less than one thousand one hundred and eighteen miles, entering the Amazon near the mouth of the latter river. The upper course of the Xingu is auriferous and fed by numerous branches. Its source was first discovered in 1884 by the German explorer von den Steinen, after a difficult and dangerous expedition through a region inhabited by tribes still in the Stone Age of culture.’”

The ladies received this communication in a state of stupefied silence from which Mrs. Leveret was the first to rally. “She certainly did speak of its having branches.”

The word seemed to snap the last thread of their incredulity. “And of its great length,” gasped Mrs. Ballinger.

“She said it was awfully deep, and you couldn’t skip — you just had to wade through,” Miss Glyde added.

The idea worked its way more slowly through Mrs. Plinth’s compact resistances. “How could there be anything improper about a river?” she enquired.

“Improper?”

“Why, what she said about the source — that it was corrupt?”

“Not corrupt, but hard to get at,” Laura Glyde corrected. “Some one who’d been there had told her so. I daresay it was the explorer himself — doesn’t it say the expedition was dangerous?”

“‘Difficult and dangerous,’” read Miss Van Vluyck.

Mrs. Ballinger pressed her hands to her throbbing temples. “There’s nothing she said that wouldn’t apply to a river — to this river!” She swung about excitedly to the other members. “Why, do you remember her telling us that she hadn’t read ‘The Supreme Instant’ because she’d taken it on a boating party while she was staying with her brother, and some one had ‘shied’ it overboard — ‘shied’ of course was her own expression.”

The ladies breathlessly signified that the expression had not escaped them.

“Well — and then didn’t she tell Osric Dane that one of her books was simply saturated with Xingu? Of course it was, if one of Mrs. Roby’s rowdy friends had thrown it into the river!”

This surprising reconstruction of the scene in which they had just participated left the members of the Lunch Club inarticulate. At length, Mrs. Plinth, after visibly labouring with the problem, said in a heavy tone: “Osric Dane was taken in too.”

Mrs. Leveret took courage at this. “Perhaps that’s what Mrs. Roby did it for. She said Osric Dane was a brute, and she may have wanted to give her a lesson.”

Miss Van Vluyck frowned. “It was hardly worth while to do it at our expense.”

“At least,” said Miss Glyde with a touch of bitterness, “she succeeded in interesting her, which was more than we did.”

“What chance had we?” rejoined Mrs. Ballinger.

“Mrs. Roby monopolised her from the first. And that, I’ve no doubt, was her purpose — to give Osric Dane a false impression of her own standing in the club. She would hesitate at nothing to attract attention: we all know how she took in poor Professor Foreland.”

“She actually makes him give bridge-teas every Thursday,” Mrs. Leveret piped up.

Laura Glyde struck her hands together. “Why, this is Thursday, and it’s there she’s gone, of course; and taken Osric with her!”

“And they’re shrieking over us at this moment,” said Mrs. Ballinger between her teeth.

This possibility seemed too preposterous to be admitted. “She would hardly dare,” said Miss Van Vluyck, “confess the imposture to Osric Dane.”

“I’m not so sure: I thought I saw her make a sign as she left. If she hadn’t made a sign, why should Osric Dane have rushed out after her?”

“Well, you know, we’d all been telling her how wonderful Xingu was, and she said she wanted to find out more about it,” Mrs. Leveret said, with a tardy impulse of justice to the absent.

This reminder, far from mitigating the wrath of the other members, gave it a stronger impetus.

“Yes — and that’s exactly what they’re both laughing over now,” said Laura Glyde ironically.

Mrs. Plinth stood up and gathered her expensive furs about her monumental form. “I have no wish to criticise,” she said; “but unless the Lunch Club can protect its members against the recurrence of such — such unbecoming scenes, I for one — ”

“Oh, so do I!” agreed Miss Glyde, rising also.

Miss Van Vluyck closed the Encyclopaedia and proceeded to button herself into her jacket “My time is really too valuable — ” she began.

“I fancy we are all of one mind,” said Mrs. Ballinger, looking searchingly at Mrs. Leveret, who looked at the others.

“I always deprecate anything like a scandal — ” Mrs. Plinth continued.

“She has been the cause of one to-day!” exclaimed Miss Glyde.

Mrs. Leveret moaned: “I don’t see how she could!” and Miss Van Vluyck said, picking up her note-book: “Some women stop at nothing.”

“ — but if,” Mrs. Plinth took up her argument impressively, “anything of the kind had happened in my house” (it never would have, her tone implied), “I should have felt that I owed it to myself either to ask for Mrs. Roby’s resignation — or to offer mine.”

“Oh, Mrs. Plinth — ” gasped the Lunch Club.

“Fortunately for me,” Mrs. Plinth continued with an awful magnanimity, “the matter was taken out of my hands by our President’s decision that the right to entertain distinguished guests was a privilege vested in her office; and I think the other members will agree that, as she was alone in this opinion, she ought to be alone in deciding on the best way of effacing its — its really deplorable consequences.”

A deep silence followed this outbreak of Mrs. Plinth’s long-stored resentment.

“I don’t see why I should be expected to ask her to resign — ” Mrs. Ballinger at length began; but Laura Glyde turned back to remind her: “You know she made you say that you’d got on swimmingly in Xingu.”

An ill-timed giggle escaped from Mrs. Leveret, and Mrs. Ballinger energetically continued “ — but you needn’t think for a moment that I’m afraid to!”

The door of the drawing-room closed on the retreating backs of the Lunch Club, and the President of that distinguished association, seating herself at her writing-table, and pushing away a copy of “The Wings of Death” to make room for her elbow, drew forth a sheet of the club’s note-paper, on which she began to write: “My dear Mrs. Roby — ”

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