The Early Short Fiction of Edith Wharton Part Two
Part 2 out of 3
And without pausing to hear his answer she waved him a swift
farewell and turned back toward the threshold.
"Will my husband come soon?" she asked the Spirit of Life.
"That you are not destined to know," the Spirit replied.
"No matter," she said, cheerfully; "I have all eternity to wait
And still seated alone on the threshold, she listens for the
creaking of his boots.
The End of The Fulness of Life
A VENETIAN NIGHT'S ENTERTAINMENT
This is the story that, in the dining-room of the old Beacon
Street house (now the Aldebaran Club), Judge Anthony Bracknell,
of the famous East India firm of Bracknell & Saulsbee, when the
ladies had withdrawn to the oval parlour (and Maria's harp was
throwing its gauzy web of sound across the Common), used to
relate to his grandsons, about the year that Buonaparte marched
"Him Venice!" said the Lascar with the big earrings; and Tony
Bracknell, leaning on the high gunwale of his father's East
Indiaman, the Hepzibah B., saw far off, across the morning sea, a
faint vision of towers and domes dissolved in golden air.
It was a rare February day of the year 1760, and a young Tony,
newly of age, and bound on the grand tour aboard the crack
merchantman of old Bracknell's fleet, felt his heart leap up as
the distant city trembled into shape. VENICE! The name, since
childhood, had been a magician's wand to him. In the hall of the
old Bracknell house at Salem there hung a series of yellowing
prints which Uncle Richard Saulsbee had brought home from one of
his long voyages: views of heathen mosques and palaces, of the
Grand Turk's Seraglio, of St. Peter's Church in Rome; and, in a
corner--the corner nearest the rack where the old flintlocks
hung--a busy merry populous scene, entitled: ST. MARK'S SQUARE IN
VENICE. This picture, from the first, had singularly taken
little Tony's fancy. His unformulated criticism on the others
was that they lacked action. True, in the view of St. Peter's an
experienced-looking gentleman in a full-bottomed wig was pointing
out the fairly obvious monument to a bashful companion, who had
presumably not ventured to raise his eyes to it; while, at the
doors of the Seraglio, a group of turbaned infidels observed with
less hesitancy the approach of a veiled lady on a camel. But in
Venice so many things were happening at once--more, Tony was
sure, than had ever happened in Boston in a twelve-month or in
Salem in a long lifetime. For here, by their garb, were people
of every nation on earth, Chinamen, Turks, Spaniards, and many
more, mixed with a parti-coloured throng of gentry, lacqueys,
chapmen, hucksters, and tall personages in parsons' gowns who
stalked through the crowd with an air of mastery, a string of
parasites at their heels. And all these people seemed to be
diverting themselves hugely, chaffering with the hucksters,
watching the antics of trained dogs and monkeys, distributing
doles to maimed beggars or having their pockets picked by
slippery-looking fellows in black--the whole with such an air of
ease and good-humour that one felt the cut-purses to be as much a
part of the show as the tumbling acrobats and animals.
As Tony advanced in years and experience this childish mumming
lost its magic; but not so the early imaginings it had excited.
For the old picture had been but the spring-board of fancy, the
first step of a cloud-ladder leading to a land of dreams. With
these dreams the name of Venice remained associated; and all that
observation or report subsequently brought him concerning the
place seemed, on a sober warranty of fact, to confirm its claim
to stand midway between reality and illusion. There was, for
instance, a slender Venice glass, gold-powdered as with lily-
pollen or the dust of sunbeams, that, standing in the corner
cabinet betwixt two Lowestoft caddies, seemed, among its lifeless
neighbours, to palpitate like an impaled butterfly. There was,
farther, a gold chain of his mother's, spun of that same sun-
pollen, so thread-like, impalpable, that it slipped through the
fingers like light, yet so strong that it carried a heavy pendant
which seemed held in air as if by magic. MAGIC! That was the
word which the thought of Venice evoked. It was the kind of
place, Tony felt, in which things elsewhere impossible might
naturally happen, in which two and two might make five, a paradox
elope with a syllogism, and a conclusion give the lie to its own
premiss. Was there ever a young heart that did not, once and
again, long to get away into such a world as that? Tony, at
least, had felt the longing from the first hour when the axioms
in his horn-book had brought home to him his heavy
responsibilities as a Christian and a sinner. And now here was
his wish taking shape before him, as the distant haze of gold
shaped itself into towers and domes across the morning sea!
The Reverend Ozias Mounce, Tony's governor and bear-leader, was
just putting a hand to the third clause of the fourth part of a
sermon on Free-Will and Predestination as the Hepzibah B.'s
anchor rattled overboard. Tony, in his haste to be ashore, would
have made one plunge with the anchor; but the Reverend Ozias, on
being roused from his lucubrations, earnestly protested against
leaving his argument in suspense. What was the trifle of an
arrival at some Papistical foreign city, where the very churches
wore turbans like so many Moslem idolators, to the important fact
of Mr. Mounce's summing up his conclusions before the Muse of
Theology took flight? He should be happy, he said, if the tide
served, to visit Venice with Mr. Bracknell the next morning.
The next morning, ha!--Tony murmured a submissive "Yes, sir,"
winked at the subjugated captain, buckled on his sword, pressed
his hat down with a flourish, and before the Reverend Ozias had
arrived at his next deduction, was skimming merrily shoreward in
the Hepzibah's gig.
A moment more and he was in the thick of it! Here was the very
world of the old print, only suffused with sunlight and colour,
and bubbling with merry noises. What a scene it was! A square
enclosed in fantastic painted buildings, and peopled with a
throng as fantastic: a bawling, laughing, jostling, sweating mob,
parti-coloured, parti-speeched, crackling and sputtering under
the hot sun like a dish of fritters over a kitchen fire. Tony,
agape, shouldered his way through the press, aware at once that,
spite of the tumult, the shrillness, the gesticulation, there was
no undercurrent of clownishness, no tendency to horse-play, as in
such crowds on market-day at home, but a kind of facetious
suavity which seemed to include everybody in the circumference of
one huge joke. In such an air the sense of strangeness soon wore
off, and Tony was beginning to feel himself vastly at home, when
a lift of the tide bore him against a droll-looking bell-ringing
fellow who carried above his head a tall metal tree hung with
The encounter set the glasses spinning and three or four spun off
and clattered to the stones. The sherbet-seller called on all
the saints, and Tony, clapping a lordly hand to his pocket,
tossed him a ducat by mistake for a sequin. The fellow's eyes
shot out of their orbits, and just then a personable-looking
young man who had observed the transaction stepped up to Tony and
said pleasantly, in English:
"I perceive, sir, that you are not familiar with our currency."
"Does he want more?" says Tony, very lordly; whereat the other
laughed and replied: "You have given him enough to retire from
his business and open a gaming-house over the arcade."
Tony joined in the laugh, and this incident bridging the
preliminaries, the two young men were presently hobnobbing over a
glass of Canary in front of one of the coffee-houses about the
square. Tony counted himself lucky to have run across an
English-speaking companion who was good-natured enough to give
him a clue to the labyrinth; and when he had paid for the Canary
(in the coin his friend selected) they set out again to view the
town. The Italian gentleman, who called himself Count Rialto,
appeared to have a very numerous acquaintance, and was able to
point out to Tony all the chief dignitaries of the state, the men
of ton and ladies of fashion, as well as a number of other
characters of a kind not openly mentioned in taking a census of
Tony, who was not averse from reading when nothing better
offered, had perused the "Merchant of Venice" and Mr. Otway's
fine tragedy; but though these pieces had given him a notion that
the social usages of Venice differed from those at home, he was
unprepared for the surprising appearance and manners of the great
people his friend named to him. The gravest Senators of the
Republic went in prodigious striped trousers, short cloaks and
feathered hats. One nobleman wore a ruff and doctor's gown,
another a black velvet tunic slashed with rose-colour; while the
President of the dreaded Council of Ten was a terrible strutting
fellow with a rapier-like nose, a buff leather jerkin and a
trailing scarlet cloak that the crowd was careful not to step on.
It was all vastly diverting, and Tony would gladly have gone on
forever; but he had given his word to the captain to be at the
landing-place at sunset, and here was dusk already creeping over
the skies! Tony was a man of honour; and having pressed on the
Count a handsome damascened dagger selected from one of the
goldsmiths' shops in a narrow street lined with such wares, he
insisted on turning his face toward the Hepzibah's gig. The
Count yielded reluctantly; but as they came out again on the
square they were caught in a great throng pouring toward the
doors of the cathedral.
"They go to Benediction," said the Count. "A beautiful sight,
with many lights and flowers. It is a pity you cannot take a
peep at it."
Tony thought so too, and in another minute a legless beggar had
pulled back the leathern flap of the cathedral door, and they
stood in a haze of gold and perfume that seemed to rise and fall
on the mighty undulations of the organ. Here the press was as
thick as without; and as Tony flattened himself against a pillar,
he heard a pretty voice at his elbow:--"Oh, sir, oh, sir, your
He turned at sound of the broken English, and saw a girl who
matched the voice trying to disengage her dress from the tip of
his scabbard. She wore one of the voluminous black hoods which
the Venetian ladies affected, and under its projecting eaves her
face spied out at him as sweet as a nesting bird.
In the dusk their hands met over the scabbard, and as she freed
herself a shred of her lace flounce clung to Tony's enchanted
fingers. Looking after her, he saw she was on the arm of a
pompous-looking graybeard in a long black gown and scarlet
stockings, who, on perceiving the exchange of glances between the
young people, drew the lady away with a threatening look.
The Count met Tony's eye with a smile. "One of our Venetian
beauties," said he; "the lovely Polixena Cador. She is thought
to have the finest eyes in Venice."
"She spoke English," stammered Tony.
"Oh--ah--precisely: she learned the language at the Court of
Saint James's, where her father, the Senator, was formerly
accredited as Ambassador. She played as an infant with the royal
princes of England."
"And that was her father?"
"Assuredly: young ladies of Donna Polixena's rank do not go
abroad save with their parents or a duenna."
Just then a soft hand slid into Tony's. His heart gave a foolish
bound, and he turned about half-expecting to meet again the merry
eyes under the hood; but saw instead a slender brown boy, in some
kind of fanciful page's dress, who thrust a folded paper between
his fingers and vanished in the throng. Tony, in a tingle,
glanced surreptitiously at the Count, who appeared absorbed in
his prayers. The crowd, at the ringing of a bell, had in fact
been overswept by a sudden wave of devotion; and Tony seized the
moment to step beneath a lighted shrine with his letter.
"I am in dreadful trouble and implore your help. Polixena"--he
read; but hardly had he seized the sense of the words when a hand
fell on his shoulder, and a stern-looking man in a cocked hat,
and bearing a kind of rod or mace, pronounced a few words in
Tony, with a start, thrust the letter in his breast, and tried to
jerk himself free; but the harder he jerked the tighter grew the
other's grip, and the Count, presently perceiving what had
happened, pushed his way through the crowd, and whispered hastily
to his companion: "For God's sake, make no struggle. This is
serious. Keep quiet and do as I tell you."
Tony was no chicken-heart. He had something of a name for
pugnacity among the lads of his own age at home, and was not the
man to stand in Venice what he would have resented in Salem; but
the devil of it was that this black fellow seemed to be pointing
to the letter in his breast; and this suspicion was confirmed by
the Count's agitated whisper.
"This is one of the agents of the Ten.--For God's sake, no
outcry." He exchanged a word or two with the mace-bearer and
again turned to Tony. "You have been seen concealing a letter
about your person--"
"And what of that?" says Tony furiously.
"Gently, gently, my master. A letter handed to you by the page
of Donna Polixena Cador.--A black business! Oh, a very black
business! This Cador is one of the most powerful nobles in
Venice--I beseech you, not a word, sir! Let me think--
His hand on Tony's shoulder, he carried on a rapid dialogue with
the potentate in the cocked hat.
"I am sorry, sir--but our young ladies of rank are as jealously
guarded as the Grand Turk's wives, and you must be answerable for
this scandal. The best I can do is to have you taken privately
to the Palazzo Cador, instead of being brought before the
Council. I have pleaded your youth and inexperience"--Tony
winced at this--"and I think the business may still be arranged."
Meanwhile the agent of the Ten had yielded his place to a sharp-
featured shabby-looking fellow in black, dressed somewhat like a
lawyer's clerk, who laid a grimy hand on Tony's arm, and with
many apologetic gestures steered him through the crowd to the
doors of the church. The Count held him by the other arm, and in
this fashion they emerged on the square, which now lay in
darkness save for the many lights twinkling under the arcade and
in the windows of the gaming-rooms above it.
Tony by this time had regained voice enough to declare that he
would go where they pleased, but that he must first say a word to
the mate of the Hepzibah, who had now been awaiting him some two
hours or more at the landing-place.
The Count repeated this to Tony's custodian, but the latter shook
his head and rattled off a sharp denial.
"Impossible, sir," said the Count. "I entreat you not to insist.
Any resistance will tell against you in the end."
Tony fell silent. With a rapid eye he was measuring his chances
of escape. In wind and limb he was more than a mate for his
captors, and boyhood's ruses were not so far behind him but he
felt himself equal to outwitting a dozen grown men; but he had
the sense to see that at a cry the crowd would close in on him.
Space was what he wanted: a clear ten yards, and he would have
laughed at Doge and Council. But the throng was thick as glue,
and he walked on submissively, keeping his eye alert for an
opening. Suddenly the mob swerved aside after some new show.
Tony's fist shot out at the black fellow's chest, and before the
latter could right himself the young New Englander was showing a
clean pair of heels to his escort. On he sped, cleaving the
crowd like a flood-tide in Gloucester bay, diving under the first
arch that caught his eye, dashing down a lane to an unlit water-
way, and plunging across a narrow hump-back bridge which landed
him in a black pocket between walls. But now his pursuers were
at his back, reinforced by the yelping mob. The walls were too
high to scale, and for all his courage Tony's breath came short
as he paced the masonry cage in which ill-luck had landed him.
Suddenly a gate opened in one of the walls, and a slip of a
servant wench looked out and beckoned him. There was no time to
weigh chances. Tony dashed through the gate, his rescuer slammed
and bolted it, and the two stood in a narrow paved well between
The servant picked up a lantern and signed to Tony to follow her.
They climbed a squalid stairway of stone, felt their way along a
corridor, and entered a tall vaulted room feebly lit by an oil-
lamp hung from the painted ceiling. Tony discerned traces of
former splendour in his surroundings, but he had no time to
examine them, for a figure started up at his approach and in the
dim light he recognized the girl who was the cause of all his
She sprang toward him with outstretched hands, but as he advanced
her face changed and she shrank back abashed.
"This is a misunderstanding--a dreadful misunderstanding," she
cried out in her pretty broken English. "Oh, how does it happen
that you are here?"
"Through no choice of my own, madam, I assure you!" retorted
Tony, not over-pleased by his reception.
"But why--how--how did you make this unfortunate mistake?"
"Why, madam, if you'll excuse my candour, I think the mistake was
--"in sending me a letter--"
--"by a simpleton of a lad, who must needs hand it to me under
your father's very nose--"
The girl broke in on him with a cry. "What! It was YOU who
received my letter?" She swept round on the little maid-servant
and submerged her under a flood of Venetian. The latter volleyed
back in the same jargon, and as she did so, Tony's astonished eye
detected in her the doubleted page who had handed him the letter
in Saint Mark's.
"What!" he cried, "the lad was this girl in disguise?"
Polixena broke off with an irrepressible smile; but her face
clouded instantly and she returned to the charge.
"This wicked, careless girl--she has ruined me, she will be my
undoing! Oh, sir, how can I make you understand? The letter was
not intended for you--it was meant for the English Ambassador, an
old friend of my mother's, from whom I hoped to obtain
assistance--oh, how can I ever excuse myself to you?"
"No excuses are needed, madam," said Tony, bowing; "though I am
surprised, I own, that any one should mistake me for an
Here a wave of mirth again overran Polixena's face. "Oh, sir,
you must pardon my poor girl's mistake. She heard you speaking
English, and--and--I had told her to hand the letter to the
handsomest foreigner in the church." Tony bowed again, more
profoundly. "The English Ambassador," Polixena added simply, "is
a very handsome man."
"I wish, madam, I were a better proxy!"
She echoed his laugh, and then clapped her hands together with a
look of anguish. "Fool that I am! How can I jest at such a
moment? I am in dreadful trouble, and now perhaps I have brought
trouble on you also-- Oh, my father! I hear my father coming!"
She turned pale and leaned tremblingly upon the little servant.
Footsteps and loud voices were in fact heard outside, and a
moment later the red-stockinged Senator stalked into the room
attended by half-a-dozen of the magnificoes whom Tony had seen
abroad in the square. At sight of him, all clapped hands to
their swords and burst into furious outcries; and though their
jargon was unintelligible to the young man, their tones and
gestures made their meaning unpleasantly plain. The Senator,
with a start of anger, first flung himself on the intruder; then,
snatched back by his companions, turned wrathfully on his
daughter, who, at his feet, with outstretched arms and streaming
face, pleaded her cause with all the eloquence of young distress.
Meanwhile the other nobles gesticulated vehemently among
themselves, and one, a truculent-looking personage in ruff and
Spanish cape, stalked apart, keeping a jealous eye on Tony. The
latter was at his wit's end how to comport himself, for the
lovely Polixena's tears had quite drowned her few words of
English, and beyond guessing that the magnificoes meant him a
mischief he had no notion what they would be at.
At this point, luckily, his friend Count Rialto suddenly broke in
on the scene, and was at once assailed by all the tongues in the
room. He pulled a long face at sight of Tony, but signed to the
young man to be silent, and addressed himself earnestly to the
Senator. The latter, at first, would not draw breath to hear
him; but presently, sobering, he walked apart with the Count, and
the two conversed together out of earshot.
"My dear sir," said the Count, at length turning to Tony with a
perturbed countenance, "it is as I feared, and you are fallen
into a great misfortune."
"A great misfortune! A great trap, I call it!" shouted Tony,
whose blood, by this time, was boiling; but as he uttered the
word the beautiful Polixena cast such a stricken look on him that
he blushed up to the forehead.
"Be careful," said the Count, in a low tone. "Though his
Illustriousness does not speak your language, he understands a
few words of it, and--"
"So much the better!" broke in Tony; "I hope he will understand
me if I ask him in plain English what is his grievance against
The Senator, at this, would have burst forth again; but the
Count, stepping between, answered quickly: "His grievance against
you is that you have been detected in secret correspondence with
his daughter, the most noble Polixena Cador, the betrothed bride
of this gentleman, the most illustrious Marquess Zanipolo--" and
he waved a deferential hand at the frowning hidalgo of the cape
"Sir," said Tony, "if that is the extent of my offence, it lies
with the young lady to set me free, since by her own avowal--"
but here he stopped short, for, to his surprise, Polixena shot a
terrified glance at him.
"Sir," interposed the Count, "we are not accustomed in Venice to
take shelter behind a lady's reputation."
"No more are we in Salem," retorted Tony in a white heat. "I was
merely about to remark that, by the young lady's avowal, she has
never seen me before."
Polixena's eyes signalled her gratitude, and he felt he would
have died to defend her.
The Count translated his statement, and presently pursued: "His
Illustriousness observes that, in that case, his daughter's
misconduct has been all the more reprehensible."
"Her misconduct? Of what does he accuse her?"
"Of sending you, just now, in the church of Saint Mark's, a
letter which you were seen to read openly and thrust in your
bosom. The incident was witnessed by his Illustriousness the
Marquess Zanipolo, who, in consequence, has already repudiated
his unhappy bride."
Tony stared contemptuously at the black Marquess. "If his
Illustriousness is so lacking in gallantry as to repudiate a lady
on so trivial a pretext, it is he and not I who should be the
object of her father's resentment."
"That, my dear young gentleman, is hardly for you to decide.
Your only excuse being your ignorance of our customs, it is
scarcely for you to advise us how to behave in matters of
It seemed to Tony as though the Count were going over to his
enemies, and the thought sharpened his retort.
"I had supposed," said he, "that men of sense had much the same
behaviour in all countries, and that, here as elsewhere, a
gentleman would be taken at his word. I solemnly affirm that the
letter I was seen to read reflects in no way on the honour of
this young lady, and has in fact nothing to do with what you
As he had himself no notion what the letter was about, this was
as far as he dared commit himself.
There was another brief consultation in the opposing camp, and
the Count then said:--"We all know, sir, that a gentleman is
obliged to meet certain enquiries by a denial; but you have at
your command the means of immediately clearing the lady. Will
you show the letter to her father?"
There was a perceptible pause, during which Tony, while appearing
to look straight before him, managed to deflect an interrogatory
glance toward Polixena. Her reply was a faint negative motion,
accompanied by unmistakable signs of apprehension.
"Poor girl!" he thought, "she is in a worse case than I imagined,
and whatever happens I must keep her secret."
He turned to the Senator with a deep bow. "I am not," said he,
"in the habit of showing my private correspondence to strangers."
The Count interpreted these words, and Donna Polixena's father,
dashing his hand on his hilt, broke into furious invective, while
the Marquess continued to nurse his outraged feelings aloof.
The Count shook his head funereally. "Alas, sir, it is as I
feared. This is not the first time that youth and propinquity
have led to fatal imprudence. But I need hardly, I suppose,
point out the obligation incumbent upon you as a man of honour."
Tony stared at him haughtily, with a look which was meant for the
Marquess. "And what obligation is that?"
"To repair the wrong you have done--in other words, to marry the
Polixena at this burst into tears, and Tony said to himself: "Why
in heaven does she not bid me show the letter?" Then he
remembered that it had no superscription, and that the words it
contained, supposing them to have been addressed to himself, were
hardly of a nature to disarm suspicion. The sense of the girl's
grave plight effaced all thought of his own risk, but the Count's
last words struck him as so preposterous that he could not
repress a smile.
"I cannot flatter myself," said he, "that the lady would welcome
The Count's manner became increasingly ceremonious. "Such
modesty," he said, "becomes your youth and inexperience; but even
if it were justified it would scarcely alter the case, as it is
always assumed in this country that a young lady wishes to marry
the man whom her father has selected."
"But I understood just now," Tony interposed, "that the gentleman
yonder was in that enviable position."
"So he was, till circumstances obliged him to waive the privilege
in your favour."
"He does me too much honour; but if a deep sense of my
unworthiness obliges me to decline--"
"You are still," interrupted the Count, "labouring under a
misapprehension. Your choice in the matter is no more to be
consulted than the lady's. Not to put too fine a point on it, it
is necessary that you should marry her within the hour."
Tony, at this, for all his spirit, felt the blood run thin in his
veins. He looked in silence at the threatening visages between
himself and the door, stole a side-glance at the high barred
windows of the apartment, and then turned to Polixena, who had
fallen sobbing at her father's feet.
"And if I refuse?" said he.
The Count made a significant gesture. "I am not so foolish as to
threaten a man of your mettle. But perhaps you are unaware what
the consequences would be to the lady."
Polixena, at this, struggling to her feet, addressed a few
impassioned words to the Count and her father; but the latter put
her aside with an obdurate gesture.
The Count turned to Tony. "The lady herself pleads for you--at
what cost you do not guess--but as you see it is vain. In an
hour his Illustriousness's chaplain will be here. Meanwhile his
Illustriousness consents to leave you in the custody of your
He stepped back, and the other gentlemen, bowing with deep
ceremony to Tony, stalked out one by one from the room. Tony
heard the key turn in the lock, and found himself alone with
The girl had sunk into a chair, her face hidden, a picture of
shame and agony. So moving was the sight that Tony once again
forgot his own extremity in the view of her distress. He went
and kneeled beside her, drawing her hands from her face.
"Oh, don't make me look at you!" she sobbed; but it was on his
bosom that she hid from his gaze. He held her there a breathing-
space, as he might have clasped a weeping child; then she drew
back and put him gently from her.
"What humiliation!" she lamented.
"Do you think I blame you for what has happened?"
"Alas, was it not my foolish letter that brought you to this
plight? And how nobly you defended me! How generous it was of
you not to show the letter! If my father knew I had written to
the Ambassador to save me from this dreadful marriage his anger
against me would be even greater."
"Ah--it was that you wrote for?" cried Tony with unaccountable
"Of course--what else did you think?"
"But is it too late for the Ambassador to save you?"
"From YOU?" A smile flashed through her tears. "Alas, yes."
She drew back and hid her face again, as though overcome by a
fresh wave of shame.
Tony glanced about him. "If I could wrench a bar out of that
window--" he muttered.
"Impossible! The court is guarded. You are a prisoner, alas.--
Oh, I must speak!" She sprang up and paced the room. "But
indeed you can scarce think worse of me than you do already--"
"I think ill of you?"
"Alas, you must! To be unwilling to marry the man my father has
chosen for me--"
"Such a beetle-browed lout! It would be a burning shame if you
"Ah, you come from a free country. Here a girl is allowed no
"It is infamous, I say--infamous!"
"No, no--I ought to have resigned myself, like so many others."
"Resigned yourself to that brute! Impossible!"
"He has a dreadful name for violence--his gondolier has told my
little maid such tales of him! But why do I talk of myself, when
it is of you I should be thinking?"
"Of me, poor child?" cried Tony, losing his head.
"Yes, and how to save you--for I CAN save you! But every moment
counts--and yet what I have to say is so dreadful."
"Nothing from your lips could seem dreadful."
"Ah, if he had had your way of speaking!"
"Well, now at least you are free of him," said Tony, a little
wildly; but at this she stood up and bent a grave look on him.
"No, I am not free," she said; "but you are, if you will do as I
Tony, at this, felt a sudden dizziness; as though, from a mad
flight through clouds and darkness, he had dropped to safety
again, and the fall had stunned him.
"What am I to do?" he said.
"Look away from me, or I can never tell you."
He thought at first that this was a jest, but her eyes commanded
him, and reluctantly he walked away and leaned in the embrasure
of the window. She stood in the middle of the room, and as soon
as his back was turned she began to speak in a quick monotonous
voice, as though she were reciting a lesson.
"You must know that the Marquess Zanipolo, though a great noble,
is not a rich man. True, he has large estates, but he is a
desperate spendthrift and gambler, and would sell his soul for a
round sum of ready money.--If you turn round I shall not go on!--
He wrangled horribly with my father over my dowry--he wanted me
to have more than either of my sisters, though one married a
Procurator and the other a grandee of Spain. But my father is a
gambler too--oh, such fortunes as are squandered over the arcade
yonder! And so--and so--don't turn, I implore you--oh, do you
begin to see my meaning?"
She broke off sobbing, and it took all his strength to keep his
eyes from her.
"Go on," he said.
"Will you not understand? Oh, I would say anything to save you!
You don't know us Venetians--we're all to be bought for a price.
It is not only the brides who are marketable--sometimes the
husbands sell themselves too. And they think you rich--my father
does, and the others--I don't know why, unless you have shown
your money too freely--and the English are all rich, are they
not? And--oh, oh--do you understand? Oh, I can't bear your
She dropped into a chair, her head on her arms, and Tony in a
flash was at her side.
"My poor child, my poor Polixena!" he cried, and wept and clasped
"You ARE rich, are you not? You would promise them a ransom?"
"To enable you to marry the Marquess?"
"To enable you to escape from this place. Oh, I hope I may never
see your face again." She fell to weeping once more, and he drew
away and paced the floor in a fever.
Presently she sprang up with a fresh air of resolution, and
pointed to a clock against the wall. "The hour is nearly over.
It is quite true that my father is gone to fetch his chaplain.
Oh, I implore you, be warned by me! There is no other way of
"And if I do as you say--?"
"You are safe! You are free! I stake my life on it."
"And you--you are married to that villain?"
"But I shall have saved you. Tell me your name, that I may say
it to myself when I am alone."
"My name is Anthony. But you must not marry that fellow."
"You forgive me, Anthony? You don't think too badly of me?"
"I say you must not marry that fellow."
She laid a trembling hand on his arm. "Time presses," she
adjured him, "and I warn you there is no other way."
For a moment he had a vision of his mother, sitting very upright,
on a Sunday evening, reading Dr. Tillotson's sermons in the best
parlour at Salem; then he swung round on the girl and caught both
her hands in his. "Yes, there is," he cried, "if you are
willing. Polixena, let the priest come!"
She shrank back from him, white and radiant. "Oh, hush, be
silent!" she said.
"I am no noble Marquess, and have no great estates," he cried.
"My father is a plain India merchant in the colony of
Massachusetts--but if you--"
"Oh, hush, I say! I don't know what your long words mean. But I
bless you, bless you, bless you on my knees!" And she knelt
before him, and fell to kissing his hands.
He drew her up to his breast and held her there.
"You are willing, Polixena?" he said.
"No, no!" She broke from him with outstretched hands. "I am not
willing. You mistake me. I must marry the Marquess, I tell
"On my money?" he taunted her; and her burning blush rebuked him.
"Yes, on your money," she said sadly.
"Why? Because, much as you hate him, you hate me still more?"
She was silent.
"If you hate me, why do you sacrifice yourself for me?" he
"You torture me! And I tell you the hour is past."
"Let it pass. I'll not accept your sacrifice. I will not lift a
finger to help another man to marry you."
"Oh, madman, madman!" she murmured.
Tony, with crossed arms, faced her squarely, and she leaned
against the wall a few feet off from him. Her breast throbbed
under its lace and falbalas, and her eyes swam with terror and
"Polixena, I love you!" he cried.
A blush swept over her throat and bosom, bathing her in light to
the verge of her troubled brows.
"I love you! I love you!" he repeated.
And now she was on his breast again, and all their youth was in
their lips. But her embrace was as fleeting as a bird's poise
and before he knew it he clasped empty air, and half the room was
She was holding up a little coral charm and laughing. "I took it
from your fob," she said. "It is of no value, is it? And I
shall not get any of the money, you know."
She continued to laugh strangely, and the rouge burned like fire
in her ashen face.
"What are you talking of?" he said.
"They never give me anything but the clothes I wear. And I shall
never see you again, Anthony!" She gave him a dreadful look.
"Oh, my poor boy, my poor love--'I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU,
He thought she had turned light-headed, and advanced to her with
soothing words; but she held him quietly at arm's length, and as
he gazed he read the truth in her face.
He fell back from her, and a sob broke from him as he bowed his
head on his hands.
"Only, for God's sake, have the money ready, or there may be foul
play here," she said.
As she spoke there was a great tramping of steps outside and a
burst of voices on the threshold.
"It is all a lie," she gasped out, "about my marriage, and the
Marquess, and the Ambassador, and the Senator--but not, oh, not
about your danger in this place--or about my love," she breathed
to him. And as the key rattled in the door she laid her lips on
The key rattled, and the door swung open--but the black-cassocked
gentleman who stepped in, though a priest indeed, was no votary
of idolatrous rites, but that sound orthodox divine, the Reverend
Ozias Mounce, looking very much perturbed at his surroundings,
and very much on the alert for the Scarlet Woman. He was
supported, to his evident relief, by the captain of the Hepzibah
B., and the procession was closed by an escort of stern-looking
fellows in cocked hats and small-swords, who led between them
Tony's late friends the magnificoes, now as sorry a looking
company as the law ever landed in her net.
The captain strode briskly into the room, uttering a grunt of
satisfaction as he clapped eyes on Tony.
"So, Mr. Bracknell," said he, "you have been seeing the Carnival
with this pack of mummers, have you? And this is where your
pleasuring has landed you? H'm--a pretty establishment, and a
pretty lady at the head of it." He glanced about the apartment
and doffed his hat with mock ceremony to Polixena, who faced him
like a princess.
"Why, my girl," said he, amicably, "I think I saw you this
morning in the square, on the arm of the Pantaloon yonder; and as
for that Captain Spavent--" and he pointed a derisive finger at
the Marquess--"I've watched him drive his bully's trade under the
arcade ever since I first dropped anchor in these waters. Well,
well," he continued, his indignation subsiding, "all's fair in
Carnival, I suppose, but this gentleman here is under sailing
orders, and I fear we must break up your little party."
At this Tony saw Count Rialto step forward, looking very small
and explanatory, and uncovering obsequiously to the captain.
"I can assure you, sir," said the Count in his best English,
"that this incident is the result of an unfortunate
misunderstanding, and if you will oblige us by dismissing these
myrmidons, any of my friends here will be happy to offer
satisfaction to Mr. Bracknell and his companions."
Mr. Mounce shrank visibly at this, and the captain burst into a
"Satisfaction?" says he. "Why, my cock, that's very handsome of
you, considering the rope's at your throats. But we'll not take
advantage of your generosity, for I fear Mr. Bracknell has
already trespassed on it too long. You pack of galley-slaves,
you!" he spluttered suddenly, "decoying young innocents with that
devil's bait of yours--" His eye fell on Polixena, and his voice
softened unaccountably. "Ah, well, we must all see the Carnival
once, I suppose," he said. "All's well that ends well, as the
fellow says in the play; and now, if you please, Mr. Bracknell,
if you'll take the reverend gentleman's arm there, we'll bid
adieu to our hospitable entertainers, and right about face for
The End of A Venetian Night's Entertainment
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!"
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