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. Ballinger'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 footmen 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 of the kind 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 seemed most likely to
be of use in the comments of the others. Mrs. Roby alone had
abstained from profiting by the opportunity thus offered; 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
regions--the other ladies no longer took the trouble to remember
where--had been emphatically commended by the distinguished
biologist, Professor Foreland, as the most agreeable woman he had
ever met; and the members of the Lunch Club, awed 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
scientific 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 non-conductiveness 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 augmented 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
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
The picture evoked by this anecdote did not advance 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
"And does he interest you?" Mrs. Plinth inquired.
"He amuses me."
"Amusement," said Mrs. Plinth sententiously, "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--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
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 that 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 dread significance of her own meaning, has
mercifully veiled it--perhaps even from herself--as Apelles, in
representing the sacrifice of Iphigenia, veiled the face of
"What's that? Is it poetry?" whispered Mrs. Leveret nervously 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
"I was about to say," Miss Van Vluyck resumed, "that it must
always be a question whether a book CAN instruct unless it
"Oh--" murmured Mrs. Leveret, now feeling herself hopelessly
"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
"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 so when I read it of Prince Rupert's maniere 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. Ballinger 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 that 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 suddenly 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
Mrs. Leveret, on the eventful day, had 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 line she retained--CANST THOU DRAW OUT LEVIATHAN WITH A
HOOK?--was one she had never yet found the 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, 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
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
drawing-room 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
"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 naturally 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
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
absolutely 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 anxiously assented;
And at that instant, heralded by the fluttered parlour-maid,
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 correct this verdict.
It was passed by Osric Dane in the silent deglutition of Mrs.
Ballinger'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 deplorable delay in fixing 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 inquiry: "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 thoughtfully. "What do they represent?"
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
"For art--" Miss Glyde eagerly 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
"The object of our little club," Mrs. Ballinger continued, "is to
concentrate the highest tendencies of Hillbridge--to centralise
and focus its complex 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 stand for what 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
"We are eager to hear from you," Miss Van Vluyck continued, "if
the pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of your own
"Or merely," Miss Glyde hastily 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 inquired.
There was a flurried pause before Laura Glyde intensely murmured:
"In reading YOU we don't define, we feel."
Osric 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
"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 lately? 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
"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 unexpected 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 murmured, 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 there is 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 about your
own things, we really can't let you off from telling us exactly
what you think about Xingu; especially," she added, with a
persuasive smile, "as some people say that one of your last books
was simply 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 direct
assault. "May I ask," she faltered out in an embarrassed tone,
"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
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 deferential 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 breathed 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 in 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 tartly, "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
Mrs. Roby sent her a look of interest. "Ah--you always found it
Mrs. Ballinger hesitated. "Of course there are difficult
passages," she conceded modestly.
"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 smile. "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
"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 melted 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
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 energetically
"--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
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 her veil down over her frivolous
"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
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 deferentially
"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 . . ."
The incident had been so rapid that the door closed on the
departing pair before the other members had 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 an awkward 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 fluid 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 round-about satisfaction in
depreciating her savoir faire.
"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.
"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
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 defeat.
Miss Van Vluyck thoughtfully rubbed her spectacles. "What
surprised me most," she continued, "was that Fanny Roby should be
so up on Xingu."
This frank admission 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
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
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,
looked ironically at 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
"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
"I don't know on what you base that," said Miss Van Vluyck
"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 in a decisive tone: "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
"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
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
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 direct challenge to the
resources of Mrs. Ballinger's library, and the latter, after
glancing nervously toward the Books of the Day, returned in a
deprecating voice: "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 reinforce
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
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 curtly 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 dogmatically: "Excuse me if I
tell you that you're all mistaken. Xingu happens to be a
"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
"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
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
"Of course I have," replied Mrs. Ballinger indignantly; "but 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
"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
"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
"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."
"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 eagerly
"But it's too ridiculous! I--we--why we ALL remember studying
Xingu last year--or the year before last," Mrs. Ballinger
"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
"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 subjoined.
The idea worked its way more slowly through Mrs. Plinth's compact
resistances. "How could there be anything improper about a
river?" she inquired.
"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
"Well--and then didn't she tell Osric Dane that one of her books
was simply saturated with Xingu? Of course it was, if some 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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"--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
"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 unexpected outbreak of Mrs. Plinth's
"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--"
The End of Xingu