Ep. 6: Xingu by Edith Wharton

In This Episode

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Xingu
By Edith Wharton

I

NARRATOR. 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; 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

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duty, 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.
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
recognized that, as a member of the Lunch Club, Mrs.
Roby was a failure.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. It all comes,

NARRATOR. ...as Miss Van Vluyck put it,

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MISS VAN VLUYCK. ...of accepting a woman on a man’s
estimation.

NARRATOR. 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, 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:

MRS. ROBY. I know so little about metres.

NARRATOR. ...and after that painful betrayal of
incompetence she had prudently withdrawn from farther
participation in the mental gymnastics of the club.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I suppose she flattered him; or else
it’s the way she does her hair.

NARRATOR. 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

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to having heard the name of Osric Dane; but that, 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:

MRS. PLINTH. 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.

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

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MRS. BALLINGER. —No one reads Trollope now.

MRS. ROBY. I’m only just beginning.

MRS. PLINTH. And does he interest you?

MRS. ROBY. He amuses me.

MRS. PLINTH. Amusement is hardly what I look for in my
choice of books.

MRS. LEVERET. Oh, certainly ‘The Wings of Death’ is not
amusing.

NARRATOR. ...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.

MRS. PLINTH. “Was it meant to be?”

NARRATOR. ...enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking
questions that she permitted no one but herself to
answer.

MRS. PLINTH. “Assuredly not.”

MRS. LEVERET. Assuredly not. That is what I was going to
say. It was meant to... to elevate.

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NARRATOR. Mrs. Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as
though they were the black cap of condemnation.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I hardly see how a book steeped in the
bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate however much
it may instruct.

MRS. LEVERET. I meant of course, to instruct.

NARRATOR. ...said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the unexpected
distinction between two terms which she had supposed to
be synonymous. Not knowing her own value to the other
ladies, Mrs. Leveret 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.

MRS. ROBY. Do they get married in the end?

NARRATOR. ...Mrs. Roby interposed.

THE LUNCH CLUB. They... who?

MRS. ROBY. 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.

NARRATOR. Mrs. Plinth and Mrs. Ballinger exchanged
scandalized glances, and the latter said:

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MRS. BALLINGER. 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 anyone
can find time for those that are merely “amusing”.

MISS GLYDE. The beautiful part of it,

NARRATOR. Laura Glyde murmured,

MISS GLYDE. ...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
of Agamemnon.

MRS. LEVERET. What’s that? Is it poetry?

MRS. PLINTH. You should look it up. I always make it a
point to look things up. Though I might easily have it
done for me by the footman.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I was about to say, that it must always
be a question whether a book can instruct unless it
elevates.

MRS. LEVERET. Oh--

NARRATOR. ...murmured Mrs. Leveret, now feeling herself
hopelessly astray.

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MRS. BALLINGER. I don’t know. 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’.

MISS GLYDE. Oh, but don’t you see, 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 color-values so intensely...

MRS. LEVERET. Who is he? Someone she’s met abroad?

(PAUSE)
MRS. BALLINGER. The wonderful part of the book 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.’

MRS. PLINTH. I’m told that Osric Dane spent ten years in
preparatory studies before beginning to write it. 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.

MRS. ROBY. And what do you think of ‘The Wings of Death’?

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NARRATOR. ...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? 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

NARRATOR. 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. Today,
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

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reassurance. It was an admirable little volume, compiled
to meet all the social emergencies; so that 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. Today 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 recognize 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

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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
seas of knowledge to be breathlessly traversed in Mrs.
Ballinger’s wake.
But today, 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.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Well, my dear, what subjects are we to
discuss today?

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MRS. BALLINGER. I hardly know. Perhaps we had better
leave that to circumstances.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Circumstances? That means, I suppose,
that Laura Glyde will take the floor as usual, and we
shall be deluged with literature.

NARRATOR. Mrs. Plinth, at this moment appeared.

MRS. PLINTH. Literature? But this is perfectly
unexpected. I understood we were to talk of Osric Dane’s
novel.

MRS. BALLINGER. We can hardly make that our chief
subject--at least not too intentionally. 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.

MRS. PLINTH. It may be difficult, 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

13
that I should know beforehand what is to be talked about;
then I feel sure of being able to say the proper thing.

MRS. BALLINGER. I quite agree with you, but--

NARRATOR. --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. As Mrs. Leveret said afterward to her
sister:

MRS. LEVERET. She had a way of looking at you that made
you feel as if there was something wrong with your hat.

NARRATOR. 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:
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:

MRS. ROBY. What a brute she is!

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NARRATOR. The hour about the table did not tend to revise
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
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.

MRS. BALLINGER. Is this your first visit to Hillbridge?

MISS GLYDE. It is a very small place indeed.

NARRATOR. Mrs. Plinth bristled at this.

MRS. PLINTH. We have a great many representative people.

NARRATOR. Osric Dane turned to her.

OSRIC DANE. What do they represent?

NARRATOR. 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.

15

MRS. BALLINGER. Why, as a community I hope it is not too
much to say that we stand for culture.

MISS GLYDE. For art--

MRS. BALLINGER. For art and literature--

MISS VAN VLUYCK. And for sociology, I trust.

MRS. PLINTH. We have a standard.

NARRATOR. ...said Mrs. Plinth, feeling herself suddenly
secure on the vast expanse of a generalization; and Mrs.
Leveret, thinking there must be room for more than one
on so broad a statement, took courage to murmur:

MRS. LEVERET. Oh, certainly; we have a standard.

MRS. BALLINGER. The object of our little club is to
concentrate the highest tendencies of Hillbridge-- to
centralize and focus its intellectual effort. We aspire
to be in touch with whatever is highest in art,
literature, and ethics.

OSRIC DANE. What ethics?

NARRATOR. 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

16
it was different. 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:

MISS GLYDE. You must excuse us, Mrs. Dane, for not being
able, just at present, to talk of anything but ‘The Wings
of Death’.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Yes, we are so anxious to know the exact
purpose you had in mind in writing your wonderful book.

MRS. PLINTH. You will find that we are not superficial
readers.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. We are eager to hear from you, if the
pessimistic tendency of the book is an expression of
your own convictions or--

MISS GLYDE. --Or merely a somber background brushed in
to throw your figures into more vivid relief. Are you
not primarily plastic?

MRS. BALLINGER. I have always maintained, that you
represent the purely objective method--

NARRATOR. --Osric Dane helped herself critically to
coffee.

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OSRIC DANE. How do you define objective?

MISS GLYDE. In reading you we don’t define, we feel.

NARRATOR. Osric Dane smiled.

OSRIC DANE. The cerebellum is not infrequently the seat
of the literary emotions.

NARRATOR. And she took a second lump of sugar.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Ah, the cerebellum. The club took a
course in psychology last winter.

OSRIC DANE. Which psychology?

NARRATOR. There was an agonizing 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:

MRS. BALLINGER. Well, really, you know, it was last year
that we took psychology, and this winter we have been so
absorbed in--

NARRATOR. She broke off. Her faculties seemed to be
paralyzed by the petrifying stare of Osric Dane. Mrs.

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Ballinger, with a vague purpose of gaining time, repeated
slowly:

MRS. BALLINGER. We’ve been so intensely absorbed in--

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

MRS. ROBY. In Xingu?

NARRATOR. 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. Mrs. Plinth, after a moment’s hasty
adjustment, almost implied that it was she who had given
the word to Mrs. Ballinger.

MRS. BALLINGER. Xingu, of course!

NARRATOR. ...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

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before she could dissemble these momentary signs of
weakness, Mrs. Roby, turning to her with a deferential
smile, said:

MRS. ROBY. And we’ve been so hoping that today you would
tell us just what you think of it.

NARRATOR. 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.

OSRIC DANE. Xingu--

NARRATOR. Mrs. Roby continued to press her.

MRS. ROBY. 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. I am glad to hear that you make one
exception.

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MRS. ROBY. Oh, of course, 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 as some
people say that one of your last books was saturated
with it.

NARRATOR. 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.

OSRIC DANE. May I ask,

NARRATOR. ...she faltered,

OSRIC DANE. ...to which of my books you refer?

NARRATOR. Mrs. Roby did not falter.

MRS. ROBY. That’s just what I want you to tell us;
because, though I was present, I didn’t actually take
part.

OSRIC DANE. Present at what?

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MRS. ROBY. At the discussion, of course. And so we’re
dreadfully anxious to know just how it was that you went
into the Xingu.

OSRIC DANE. Ah... you say the Xingu, do you?

MRS. ROBY. 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. They probably think, as I do,
that nothing really matters except the thing itself--
except Xingu.

MRS. BALLINGER. Surely everyone must feel that about
Xingu.

MISS GLYDE. I have known cases where it has changed a
whole life.

MRS. LEVERET. It has done me worlds of good.

NARRATOR. ...Said Mrs. Leveret, seeming to remember that
she had either taken it... or read it the winter before.

MRS. ROBY. Of course, the difficulty is that one must
give up so much time to it. It’s very long.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I can’t imagine grudging the time given
to such a subject.

MRS. ROBY. And deep in places.

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NARRATOR. ...Mrs. Roby pursued. (So then it was a book!)

MRS. ROBY. And it isn’t easy to skip.

MRS. PLINTH. I never skip,

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

MRS. BALLINGER. I should hardly call it wading.

MRS. ROBY. Ah-- you always found it went swimmingly?

MRS. BALLINGER. ...Of course there are difficult passages...

MRS. ROBY. Yes; some are not at all clear, even if one
is familiar with the original.

OSRIC DANE. As I suppose you are?

MRS. ROBY. 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.

MRS. PLINTH. Have you ever tried?

MRS. ROBY. No. But a friend of mine did; a very brilliant
man; and he told me it was best for women... not to...

23

NARRATOR. A shudder ran around the room. Mrs. Leveret
coughed so that the parlor-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 someone 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:

OSRIC DANE. Did he really? And-- did you find he was
right?

NARRATOR. Mrs. Ballinger could not consent to Mrs. Roby
being allowed by such dubious means, to monopolize 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.

MRS. BALLINGER. We must not forget that absorbing as
Xingu is to us, it may be less interesting to--

OSRIC DANE. --Oh, no, on the contrary, I assure you.

MRS. BALLINGER. --to others and we must not allow our
little meeting to end without persuading Mrs. Dane to

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say a few words to us on a subject which, today, is much
more present in all our thoughts. I refer, of course, to
‘The Wings of Death’.

THE LUNCH CLUB. Oh, yes, you really must talk to us a
little about your book.

NARRATOR. Mrs. Roby had risen from her seat, and was
pulling down her veil over her frivolous nose.

MRS. ROBY. I’m so sorry, 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.

NARRATOR. 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

25
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.

OSRIC DANE. Oh wait-- do wait, and I’ll go with you!

NARRATOR. ...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.

OSRIC DANE. I’m so sorry-- I’d quite forgotten--

NARRATOR. ...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:

OSRIC DANE. If you’ll let me walk a little way with you,
I should so like to ask you a few more questions about
Xingu....

III

NARRATOR. 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

26
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 skillfully grouped literature at
which her distinguished guest had not so much as glanced;
then Miss Van Vluyck tartly pronounced:

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Well, I can’t say that I consider Osric
Dane’s departure a great loss.

MRS. LEVERET. I do believe she came on purpose to be
nasty!

MRS. PLINTH. 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--

MRS. BALLINGER. Xingu! 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!

MISS GLYDE. 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.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I am glad we were able to show her that
a broad and up-to-date culture is not confined to the

27
great intellectual centers. What surprised me most was
that Fanny Roby should be so up on Xingu.

MRS. BALLINGER. 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.

NARRATOR. 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.

MRS. LEVERET. I fancy Osric Dane hardly expected to take
a lesson in Xingu at Hillbridge!

MRS. BALLINGER. When she asked me what we represented--
do you remember?-- I wish I’d simply said we represented
Xingu!

MRS. PLINTH. I’m not sure it would have been wise to do
so.

MRS. BALLINGER. May I ask why?

MRS. PLINTH. Surely, I understood from Mrs. Roby herself
that the subject was one it was as well not to go into
too deeply?

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I think that applied only to an
investigation of the origin of the... of the... It’s a part
of the subject I never studied myself.

28

MRS. BALLINGER. Nor I.

MISS GLYDE. And yet it seems, doesn’t it? ...the part that
is fullest of an esoteric fascination?

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I don’t know on what you base that.

MISS GLYDE. 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. 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.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. I’m quite of your opinion, on condition,
that is, that all grossness of language is avoided.

MRS. LEVERET. Oh, I’m sure we shall understand without
that.

MISS GLYDE. I fancy we can read between the lines.

29
NARRATOR. Mrs. Ballinger rose to assure herself that the
doors were really closed.

MRS. PLINTH. I hardly see what benefit is to be derived
from investigating such peculiar customs--

MRS. BALLINGER. --This at least, that we shall not be
placed again in the humiliating position of finding
ourselves less up on our own subjects than Fanny Roby!

NARRATOR. Even to Mrs. Plinth this argument was
conclusive. She peered furtively about the room and
lowered her commanding tones to ask:

MRS. PLINTH. Have you got a copy?

MRS. BALLINGER. A... a copy? A copy of what?

MRS. PLINTH. Why, of... of the book.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. What book?

MRS. LEVERET. Why, Xingu, of course!

NARRATOR. 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:

MRS. BALLINGER. It’s not a thing one cares to leave about.

30

MRS. PLINTH. I should think not!

MISS VAN VLUYCK. It is a book, then?

NARRATOR. This again threw the company into disarray,
and Mrs. Ballinger, with an impatient sigh, rejoined:

MRS. BALLINGER. Why... there is a book. Naturally...

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Then why did Miss Glyde call it a
religion?

MISS GLYDE. A religion? I never--

MISS VAN VLUYCK. --Yes, you did. You spoke of rites; and
Mrs. Plinth said it was a custom.

MISS GLYDE. Surely, they used to do something of the
kind at the Eleusinian mysteries--

MRS. PLINTH. I understood there was to be no indelicacy!

MRS. BALLINGER. 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—

MISS GLYDE. --Oh, so do I!

31
MRS. BALLINGER. --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. There-- that’s it!

MRS. BALLINGER. What’s it?

MRS. LEVERET. Why-- it’s a... a thought: I mean a philosophy.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Excuse me if I tell you that you’re all
mistaken. Xingu happens to be a language.

THE LUNCH CLUB. A language!

MISS VAN VLUYCK. 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. 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!

MISS GLYDE. It’s really her fault for not being clearer.

MRS. BALLINGER. Oh, clearness and Fanny Roby! I daresay
we shall find she was mistaken on almost every point.

32

MRS. PLINTH. Why not look it up?

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

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Oh, that’s not the kind of thing we
want! Haven’t you any useful books?

MRS. BALLINGER. I keep them in my husband’s dressing-
room.

NARRATOR. From this region, after some difficulty and
delay, the parlour-maid produced the W through Z volume
of an Encyclopedia 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:

Mrs. Van Vluyck. It isn’t here.

MRS. PLINTH. I suppose it’s not fit to be put in a book
of reference.

MRS. BALLINGER. Oh, nonsense! Try X.

33
NARRATOR. Miss Van Vluyck turned back through the volume,
peering shortsightedly up and down the pages, till she
came to a stop and remained motionless, like a dog on a
point.

MRS. BALLINGER. Well, have you found it?

Mrs. Van Vluyck. Yes. I’ve found it.

MRS. PLINTH. I beg you won’t read it aloud if there’s
anything offensive.

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

MISS GLYDE. Well, what is it?

MRS. LEVERET. Do tell us!

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

MISS VAN VLUYCK. It’s a river.

THE LUNCH CLUB. A river?

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Yes. In Brazil. Isn’t that where she’s
been living?

34
MRS. BALLINGER. Who? Fanny Roby? Oh, but you must be
mistaken. You’ve been reading the wrong thing.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. It’s the only Xingu in the Encyclopedia;
and she has been living in Brazil.

MRS. LEVERET. Yes, her brother has a consulship there.

MRS. BALLINGER. But it’s too ridiculous! I-- we-- why we
all remember studying Xingu last year... or the year before
last.

MISS GLYDE. I thought I did when you said so.

MRS. BALLINGER. I said so?

MISS GLYDE. Yes. You said it had crowded everything else
out of your mind.

MRS. BALLINGER. Well you said it had changed your whole
life!

MISS GLYDE. For that matter, Miss Van Vluyck said she
had never grudged the time she’d given it.

MRS. PLINTH. I made it clear that I knew nothing whatever
of the original.

35
MRS. BALLINGER. 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!

MISS GLYDE. How could she? It’s too preposterous.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Listen: ‘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.’

MRS. LEVERET. She certainly did speak of its having
branches.

MRS. BALLINGER. And of its great length.

MISS GLYDE. She said it was awfully deep, and you
couldn’t skip... you just had to wade through.

MRS. PLINTH. How could there be anything improper about
a river?

MISS GLYDE. Improper?

36
MRS. PLINTH. Why, what she said about the source-- that
it was corrupt?

MISS GLYDE. Not corrupt, but hard to get at. Someone
who’d been there had told her so. I daresay it was the
explorer himself-- doesn’t it say the expedition was
dangerous?

MISS VAN VLUYCK. ‘Difficult and dangerous.’

MRS. BALLINGER. There’s nothing she said that wouldn’t
apply to a river-- to this river! 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 someone had ‘shied’ it
overboard-- ‘shied’ of course was her own expression.
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!

NARRATOR. 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 laboring with the problem, said in a heavy tone:

MRS. PLINTH. Osric Dane was taken in too.

37
MRS. LEVERET. 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. It was hardly worthwhile to do it at
our expense.

MISS GLYDE. At least she succeeded in interesting her,
which was more than we did.

MRS. BALLINGER. What chance had we?

MISS GLYDE. Mrs. Roby monopolized 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.

MRS. LEVERET. She actually makes him give bridge-teas
every Thursday

MISS GLYDE. Why, this is Thursday, and it’s there she’s
gone, of course; and taken Osric with her!

MRS. BALLINGER. And they’re shrieking over us at this
moment.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. She would hardly dare confess the
imposture to Osric Dane.

38
MRS. LEVERET. Well, you know, we’d all been telling her
how wonderful Xingu was, and she said she wanted to find
out more about it.

MISS GLYDE. Yes, and that’s exactly what they’re both
laughing over now.

NARRATOR. Mrs. Plinth stood up and gathered her expensive
furs about her monumental form.

MRS. PLINTH. I have no wish to criticize, but unless the
Lunch Club can protect its members against the recurrence
of such... such unbecoming scenes, I for one--

MISS GLYDE. --Oh, so do I!

NARRATOR. Miss Van Vluyck closed the Encyclopedia and
proceeded to button herself into her jacket.

MISS VAN VLUYCK. My time is really too valuable--

MRS. BALLINGER. --I fancy we are all of one mind.

MRS. PLINTH. I always deprecate anything like a scandal.

MISS GLYDE. She has been the cause of one today!

MRS. LEVERET. I don’t see how she could!

MISS VAN VLUYCK. Some women stop at nothing.

MRS. BALLINGER. My dear Mrs. Roby...

39
MRS. PLINTH. If anything of the kind had happened in my
house, I should have felt that I owed it to myself either
to ask for Mrs. Roby’s resignation... or to offer mine.
Fortunately for me, 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.

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

MRS. BALLINGER. I don’t see why I should be expected to
ask her to resign—

MISS GLYDE. You know she made you say that you’d got on
swimmingly in Xingu.

MRS. BALLINGER. --but you needn’t think for a moment
that I’m afraid to!

NARRATOR. 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:

Hillbridge, 1916: The ladies of the local lunch club have invited the celebrated novelist of their latest read to be their guest. However, their own internal competition and inferiority complexes send the meticulously planned afternoon of literary discussion wildly off the rails.

Cast (in speaking order):

  • HARRIET HARRIS as The Narrator
  • ANNA DEAVERE SMITH as Miss Van Vluyck
  • MICHELLE WILLIAMS as Fanny Roby
  • BLAIR BROWN as Mrs. Plinth
  • CHARLES BUSCH as Mrs. Ballinger
  • BRIDGET EVERETT as Mrs. Leveret
  • KATHRYN GRODY as Laura Glyde
  • EVA MARIE SAINT as Osric Dane
  • with SAM TSOUTSOUVAS, the voice of RPR

 

Piano excerpts performed by JOSEPH THALKEN

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