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Edith Wharton

Produced by David Widger


  By Edith Wharton

  Copyright, 1916, By Charles Scribner's Sons


  Mrs. Ballinger is one of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, asthough it were dangerous to meet alone. To this end she had foundedthe Lunch Club, an association composed of herself and several otherindomitable huntresses of erudition. The Lunch Club, after three or fourwinters of lunching and debate, had acquired such local distinction thatthe entertainment of distinguished strangers became one of its acceptedfunctions; in recognition of which it duly extended to the celebrated"Osric Dane," on the day of her arrival in Hillbridge, an invitation tobe present at the next meeting.

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

  Mrs. Plinth made no secret of sharing this view. She had always regardedit as one of her obligations to entertain the Lunch Club's distinguishedguests. Mrs. Plinth was almost as proud of her obligations as she wasof her picture-gallery; she was in fact fond of implying that the onepossession implied the other, and that only a woman of her wealthcould afford to live up to a standard as high as that which she had setherself. An all-round sense of duty, roughly adaptable to various ends,was, in her opinion, all that Providence exacted of the more humblystationed; but the power which had predestined Mrs. Plinth to keep afootman clearly intended her to maintain an equally specialized staff ofresponsibilities. It was the more to be regretted that Mrs. Ballinger,whose obligations to society were bounded by the narrow scope of twoparlour-maids, should have been so tenacious of the right to entertainOsric Dane.

  The question of that lady's reception had for a month past profoundlymoved the members of the Lunch Club. It was not that they feltthemselves unequal to the task, but that their sense of the opportunityplunged them into the agreeable uncertainty of the lady who weighs thealternatives of a well-stocked wardrobe. If such subsidiary members asMrs. Leveret were fluttered by the thought of exchanging ideas with theauthor of "The Wings of Death," no forebodings disturbed the consciousadequacy of Mrs. Plinth, Mrs. Ballinger and Miss Van Vluyck. "The Wingsof Death" had, in fact, at Miss Van Vluyck's suggestion, been chosen asthe subject of discussion at the last club meeting, and each member hadthus been enabled to express her own opinion or to appropriate whateversounded well in the comments of the others.

  Mrs. Roby alone had abstained from profiting by the opportunity; but itwas now openly recognised that, as a member of the Lunch Club, Mrs. Robywas a failure. "It all comes," as Miss Van Vluyck put it, "of acceptinga woman on a man's estimation." Mrs. Roby, returning to Hillbridge froma prolonged sojourn in exotic lands--the other ladies no longer tookthe trouble to remember where--had been heralded by the distinguishedbiologist, Professor Foreland, as the most agreeable woman he had evermet; and the members of the Lunch Club, impressed by an encomiumthat carried the weight of a diploma, and rashly assuming that theProfessor's social sympathies would follow the line of his professionalbent, had seized the chance of annexing a biological member. Theirdisillusionment was complete. At Miss Van Vluyck's first off-handmention of the pterodactyl Mrs. Roby had confusedly murmured: "I know solittle about metres--" and after that painful betrayal of incompetenceshe had prudently withdrawn from farther participation in the mentalgymnastics of the club.

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

  The dimensions of Miss Van Vluyck's dining-room having restricted themembership of the club to six, the nonconductiveness of one member wasa serious obstacle to the exchange of ideas, and some wonder had alreadybeen expressed that Mrs. Roby should care to live, as it were, on theintellectual bounty of the others. This feeling was increased by thediscovery that she had not yet read "The Wings of Death." She ownedto having heard the name of Osric Dane; but that--incredible as itappeared--was the extent of her acquaintance with the celebratednovelist. The ladies could not conceal their surprise; but Mrs.Ballinger, whose pride in the club made her wish to put even Mrs. Robyin the best possible light, gently insinuated that, though she had nothad time to acquaint herself with "The Wings of Death," she must atleast be familiar with its equally remarkable predecessor, "The SupremeInstant."

  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 bookat her brother's, when she was staying with him in Brazil, and had evencarried it off to read one day on a boating party; but they had allgot to shying things at each other in the boat, and the book had goneoverboard, so she had never had the chance--

  The picture evoked by this anecdote did not increase Mrs. Roby's creditwith 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 notfind much time for reading; but I should have thought you might at leasthave _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 ofTrollope's that--

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

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

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

  "He amuses me."

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

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

  "Was it _meant_ to be?" enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of askingquestions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. "Assuredlynot."

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

  Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the blackcap of condemnation. "I hardly see," she interposed, "how a book steepedin the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate however much it mayinstruct."

  "I meant, of course, to instruct," said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by theunexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to besynonymous. Mrs. Leveret's enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequentlymarred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the otherladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimestroubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It wasonly the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that savedher, 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'sthe one thing that matters. If they're parted it spoils my dinner."

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

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

  "What's that? Is it poetry?" whispered Mrs. Leveret to Mrs. Plinth,wh
o, 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 Imight easily have it done for me by the footman."

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

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

  "I don't know," said Mrs. Ballinger, scenting in Miss Van Vluyck's tonea tendency to depreciate the coveted distinction of entertaining OsricDane; "I don't know that such a question can seriously be raised as