Roger Halsted looked a bit doleful and said, "I almost didn't get here tonight."

Geoffrey Avalon looked down at him from his straight - backed seventy - four inches and said, "Automobile accident?"

"Nothing so dramatic," said Halsted. "Alice was in one of her feminist moods this afternoon and objected rather strenuously to the fact that the Black Widowers Society is a stag organization."

"But she's known that from the start, hasn't she?" asked Avalon.

"Of course, and it's graveled her from the start, too," said Halsted. "Sometimes it's worse than other times, that's all. And today, well, she may have seen something on TV, read something in the newspapers, had a talk with a friend, or whatever. Anyway, she was upset, and the trouble is, I rather sympathize with her."

Emmanuel Rubin walked over from the other end of the room, where he had been exchanging insults with Mario Gonzalo, host at this month's Black Widowers banquet.

Rubin said, "Are you talking about your wife, Roger?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact."

"I could tell by the troubled look on your face. Bad form. Black Widowers don't have wives."

"Yes?" said Halsted sharply. "Have you told that to Jane?"

"I mean during the banquets, and you know that's what I mean."

"I've heard you mention Jane at the banquets and, besides, my own discussion is germane to the banquets. I would hate to have to give them up."

"Who can make you?" demanded Rubin scornfully, his scanty beard bristling.

Halsted said, "My own conscience, for one thing. And it's not worth breaking up a marriage over."

"Why should it break up a marriage?" said Rubin. "Even if we grant equality for women - political, economic, and social - why should that prevent me from spending one evening a month with friends of my own choosing who just happen to be male?"

Avalon said, "You know better than that, Manny. They don't just happen to be male. They are forbidden by the rules of the club to be anything but male."

"And anything but intelligent," said Rubin, "and anything but compatible. If any one of us takes a dislike to anyone proposed for membership, however trivial or even nonexistent the cause of that dislike might be, that potential member can be blackballed. Just one of us can do it, regardless of the wishes of the rest, and we don't have to explain either."

"Manny," said Avalon, "you're not usually so obtuse. A woman can't be blackballed, because she can't even be proposed for membership. Don't you see the difference? Whichever one of us is host for the evening can bring any guest he wishes, even one who would be instantly blackballed if he were proposed for membership. But the guest must be male. No woman can be brought. Don't you see the difference?"

"Exactly," said Halsted. "If it were a black that we ruled out, or a Jew, or an Irishman, that would be bigotry and not one of us could live with it. But since it's only women, we don't seem to mind. What moral blindness!"

"Well, then," said Rubin, "are you two suggesting that we permit women to join the society?"

"No," said Avalon and Halsted in quick and emphatic simultaneity.

"Then what are we arguing about?"

Halsted said, "I'm just pointing out that we ought to recognize the immorality of it."

"You mean as long as we know something is immoral, we are free to be immoral."

"Of course I don't," said Halsted. "I happen to think that hypocrisy aggravates any sin. Nothing is so male chauvinist as to say, 'I'm not a male chauvinist, but. . .' as I've heard Manny say."

Mario Gonzalo joined them and said with clear self - satisfaction, "I don't say, 'I'm not a male chauvinist, but . . .' I am a male chauvinist. I expect a woman to take care of me."

"That's just an admission you can't take care of yourself," said Rubin, "which is something I've always suspected, Mario."

Gonzalo looked over his shoulder hurriedly in the direction of his guest and then said, in a low voice, "Listen, keep talking feminism during the dinner, off and on. It's a stroke of luck you've started on your own."

"Why?" said Avalon in a voice that had not been hushed since its invention. "What dire plot are you . . ."

"Shh," said Gonzalo. "I want to draw out my guest. He's got something eating him he won't talk about. That's why I brought him. It could be interesting."

"Do you know what it is?" asked Halsted.

"Only in a general way . . ." said Gonzalo.

Henry, whose elegant service at the banquets ennobled the occasion, interrupted in his soft way. "If you don't mind, Mr. Gonzalo, dinner is served."

Gonzalo placed his guest immediately to his right and said, "Has everyone met Mr. Washburn now?"

There was a general murmur of agreement. Lionel Washburn was an almost classically handsome individual with a head of thick, dark hair cut neatly, with black - rimmed glasses, white shirt, dark - blue suit, and shiny black shoes. He looked dressed up without being uncomfortable. He did not yet seem to have passed his thirtieth birthday.

He said to Gonzalo somberly, "Is there some argument about whether the organization is to be stag, Mario? I heard . . ."

"No argument," said Gonzalo quickly. "It is stag. I invited you. I didn't suggest you bring a girlfriend."

"I don't have one," said Washburn, biting off each word. Then, more normally, "How long have you been stag?"

"From the start, but it's Jim's story. Jim, my guest would like to hear how the society got its start - if you don't mind, that is."

James Drake smiled and held his cigarette to one side so that he could see the other's face clearly. "I don't mind, though I'm sure the others are pretty sick of it. Still - any objections?"

Thomas Trumbull, who was cutting into his rack of lamb, said, "Plenty of objections, but you go ahead and I'll attend to the inner man. Henry, if you can scare up an extra helping of mint sauce, I would be infinitely appreciative. And Jim, I would suggest you get our personal Book of Genesis printed up and handed out at the start of each banquet to the guest. The rest of us can then be spared. Thank you. Henry."

Drake said, "Now that we have Tom out of the way, I'll go on. About thirty years ago, I married, but then we all make mistakes, don't we? I believe I was fascinated at the time, though I don't remember why. My friends, however, were not fascinated."

Avalon drew in his breath in a long, rumbling sniff. "We remember why."

"I'm sure you do," agreed Drake good - humoredly. "As a result, I found myself outcast. My friends fell away and I couldn't endure her friends or, after a time, her. It occurred to Ralph Ottur, then - he lives in California now, I'm sorry to say - to start a club for the sole purpose of seeing me without my wife. Naturally, this would only work if the club were stag. So there you are. We called it the Black Widowers because black widow spiders are quite apt to devour their mates, and we were determined to survive."

Washburn said, "And does your wife know the nature of the origin of the club?"

"She's not my wife," said Drake. "Anymore, that is. I divorced her after seven years."

"And were you all members at the start?"

Drake shook his head. "Geoff, Tom, and I are charter members. The others joined later. Some members have died or now live too far away to attend."

"But the reason for the men - only character of the club is gone. Why do you . . ."

"Because we want to," said Gonzalo quickly. "Because I like women in their place and I know exactly where that place is and here isn't it."

"That's a disgusting statement," said Halsted, with the slight stutter that came when he grew emotional.

Gonzalo said coolly, "You've got to say that because you're married and you're afraid that if you don't keep in practice, you'll let something chauvinistic, so - called, slip in front of your wife and then you'll be in trouble. I'm not married so I'm a free man. My girlfriends know where I stand, and if they don't like it, they can leave."

Avalon said, "There's an uncomfortable Don Juanism about that statement. Don't you care if they leave?"

"Sometimes," admitted Gonzalo, "but I'd care a lot more it they stayed and argued with me. And there are always others."

"Disgusting," said Halsted again.

"The truth usually is," said Gonzalo. "Why don't all you highly moral feminists tell me why you don't want women at these meetings and see if you can make the reason nonchauvinist?"

There was an uncomfortable silence about the table, and Gonzalo said, "Henry, you're a Black Widower, too, and I'm not letting you escape. Would you like to see women at these meetings?"

Henry's face crinkled into a pleasant smile. "No, Mr. Gonzalo, I would not."

"Aha," said Gonzalo. "Now, you're an honest man, Henry, unlike these Black Hypocriticers you wait on. Tell me why not."

Henry said, "Like you, Mr. Gonzalo, I am not married, but I'm afraid I lack your variegated experience with young women."

"What's that got to do with it?"

Henry said, "I was merely explaining the situation in case my theory on the subject should prove to be childishly foolish to other, more experienced men. It seems to me that most men during their childhood have had their mothers as their chief authority figures. Even when the father is held up as a mysterious and ogreish dispenser of punishments, it is, in fact, the mother whose outcries, yanks, pushes, and slaps perpetually stand in the way of what we want to do. And we never recover."

Rubin said, in a voice of deep, masculine disdain, "Come, Henry, are you trying to say that men are afraid of women?"

Henry said, "I believe many are. Certainly, many feel a sense of relief and freedom when in the company of men only and feel particularly free when women are not allowed to intrude. This society originated as a haven from women under the guise of being one from a particular woman. The particular woman is gone but the haven is still needed and still persists."

Avalon said, "Well, that is at least not an example of outright chauvinism.

"And totally untrue," said Rubin, his eyes flashing behind the thick lenses that covered them. "How many here are afraid of women?"

It was Washburn who intervened at this point. With his handsome face contorted into a mask of fury, he brought his fist down with a smash that rattled the dishes and caused Henry to pause in his task of pouring the coffee.

Washburn said, "You don't expect anyone to admit it, do you? Your waiter is correct, but he doesn't go far enough. Of course, we're afraid of women. Why shouldn't we be? They're man - eaters, cannibals, harpies. They're bound by no rules, no canons of sportsmanship. They're the ruin of men and of all that is decent and human. I don't care if I never see another one in my life."

He paused, drew a deep breath, then passed a hand over his forehead, which had dampened with perspiration and said, "Pardon me, gentlemen, I did not mean to lose my temper."

Trumbull said, "But why . . ." and stopped at Gonzalo's raised hand.

Gonzalo was grinning in triumph. "Later, Tom. It's almost grilling time and I'll choose you as inquisitor and you can ask your question."

And, indeed, it was not long before Gonzalo began the ritualistic tapping of the water glass as the brandy was being distributed. He said, "It's up to you, Tom."

Trumbull frowned ferociously under his white and crisply waved hair and said, "I will assume, Mr. Washburn, that Mario has explained to you that the payment, for what we hope you will agree is a fine dinner and at least partly edifying conversation, is a grilling. To our questions, you will be expected to answer fully and truthfully, even when that may be embarrassing. I must assure you that nothing said here ever leaves these four walls.

"With that preamble, let me say this. I am not a judge of masculine pulchritude, Mr. Washburn, but it seems to me that women would judge you to be handsome."

Washburn flushed and said, "I would not try to account for women's tastes. Still it is true that I have found that I can, on occasion, attract women."

"That's a very modest way of putting it," said Trumbull. "Does the converse hold as well? Do women attract you?"

For a moment, Washburn looked puzzled. Then he frowned and said, "Are you asking me if I am gay?"

Trumbull shrugged and said in a level voice, "In these times, it is a permissible question, and it is even permissible to answer in an open affirmative, if that should happen to be the case. I ask out of no personal interest, I assure you, but merely out of curiosity over your earlier angry remarks about women as a group."

Washburn relaxed. "I see your point. No, I'm interested in women. Far too interested. And it was not the sex as a whole that I was really berating. I was striking out at one! One woman! And myself!"

Trumbull hesitated. "The logical thing," he said, "would be to question you, Mr. Washburn, concerning this woman who so distresses you. Yet I hesitate. On the one hand, it is a peculiarly private matter, which I do not wish to probe and, on the other, if you don't mind my saying so, the details are likely to be peculiarly uninteresting. I suppose every one of us in our time . . ."

Avalon interrupted. "If you don't mind, Tom, you are displaying an uncommon combination of delicacy and insensitivity. I am prepared, with your permission, to take over the grilling."

"If you think you can do so, Geoff, within the bounds of good taste," said Trumbull huffily.

Avalon lifted his dense eyebrows to maximum and said, "I think highly of you, Tom, and yet have never considered you an arbiter of good taste. Mr. Washburn, I have no wish to probe wounds unnecessarily, but let me guess. Your outburst came during a discussion of the pros and cons of feminism. May we take it, then, that your unhappy experience, whatever it was, involved feminism?"

Washburn nodded and said, "It sure as hell did."

"Good! Now it may be superfluous to ask this, but was whatever it was that happened something that has happened to many others? Putting aside the great pain it may have caused you and the unique unhappiness you may consider you have felt, would you in your calmer moments think that it might be the common lot of male humanity?"

Washburn seemed lost in thought, and Avalon went on as gently as he could. "After all, millions have been jilted, millions have been sold out, millions have been betrayed by their lovers and their friends."

"What happened to me," said Washburn, between remarkably white and even teeth, "has in a way happened to very many, as you suggest. I recognize that. To lose the woman one loves is not so rare. To be laughed at and humiliated," he swallowed, "may be the lot of many. But in one respect, I have been ill used particularly. In one respect."

Avalon nodded. "Very good. I won't ask you any leading questions. Just tell us about that one respect."

Washburn bent his glance down to his brandy snifter and spoke in a hurried tone of voice. "I fell in love. It wasn't the first time. She was - she was not the most beautiful woman I have ever known - nor the pleasantest. In fact, we did not get along. Her company was always a maddening bumpy ride in a springless cart down a rough road. But, oh God, I couldn't help myself. I still can't seem to. Don't ask me to analyze it. All I can say is that I was caught, tangled, trapped, and I wanted her. And I couldn't get her.

"She acted as though she hated me. She acted as though she wanted me to want her, just so she could show the world I couldn't have her.

"She was a feminist. Her nerve endings stuck out six inches beyond her skin on that subject. She was successful. She was a magazine illustrator at the top of her field and commanded high fees. It wasn't enough, though. To make it right for her, I had to fail.

"And there was no way I could argue effectively with her. She won every time. Of course, she was an intellectual and I'm not - though I like to think I'm intelligent. . . ."

Rubin said, "Intelligence is the diamond and intellectualism only the facets. I've known many a beautifully faceted rhinestone. What do you do for a living?"

Washburn said, "I'm a stockbroker."

"Do you do well? I mean, as well as your feminist?"

Washburn flushed. "Yes. And I've inherited a rather sizable trust fund. She seemed to resent that."

"Let me guess," said Rubin dryly. "You make more money with less brains because you're a man. You get farther with less deserving because you're a man. You probably even inherited the trust fund because you were a man. Your sister would have gotten less."

"That's about it," said Washburn. "She said the way I dressed, the way I held myself, everything about me was designed to show my masculine wealth and power. She said I might as well wear a neon sign saying, 'I can buy women.'"

Trumbull said, "Did you ever try to defend yourself?"

"Sure," said Washburn, "and that meant a fight. I asked her why, if she thought she should be considered as a human being and as an intellectual, without being penalized for her sex, she insisted on emphasizing her sex? Why didn't she remove her makeup and meet the world with an unpainted face as men did? Why didn't she wear less revealing clothes, and accentuate her breasts and hips less? I said she might as well wear a neon sign saying, 'I sell for a high price.'"

"She must have loved that," muttered Rubin.

"You bet she didn't," said Washburn grimly. "She said a masculine society forced that on her in self - defense, and she wouldn't give up the only weapon they granted her. I said she needed no weapon with me. I said I would marry her without enticement or allure, straight out of the shower with wet hair and a pimple on her shoulder if she had one. And she said, 'To do what? To cook your dinner and clean your house for you?' And I said, 'I have a housekeeper for that.' And she said, 'Of course; another woman.'"

Halsted said, "What good would it have done you to marry her? You would have fought like that every day. It would have been a purgatory. Why not just walk away from that?"

"Why not?" said Washburn. "Sure, why not? Why not just kick the heroin habit? Why not just stop breathing if the air gets polluted? How do I know why not? It's not the sort of thing you can reason out. Maybe - maybe - if I had the chance, I could win her over."

"You wouldn't have," said Rubin flatly. "She's a ballbuster, and she'd stay one."

Halsted said, "That's a stupid phrase, Manny. It's part of the routine bigotry of the chauvinist. A man is ambitious; a woman is unscrupulous. A man is firm; a woman is stubborn. A man is witty; a woman is bitchy. A man is competitive; a woman is abrasive. A man is a hard - driving leader; a woman is a ballbuster."

Rubin said, "Call it what you want. Say she's a lily of the valley if you want. I say her ambition and occupation would have been to make our friend here wish he had never been born, and she would have succeeded."

Turning to Washburn, he said, "I assume from your early outburst, your failure with her was complete. If so, I congratulate you, and if I knew of a way to help you succeed, I would refuse to give it to you."

Washburn shook his head. "No fear. She's married someone else - a dumb creep - and the last I've heard she is cooking and cleaning house."

"Did she give up her career?" said Avalon in astonishment.

"No," said Washburn, "but she does the other, too. What I'll never understand is why him."

Trumbull said, "There's no accounting for the nature of attraction. Maybe this other fellow makes her laugh. Maybe he dominates her without bothering to argue the point. Maybe she likes the way he smells. How can you tell? How do you account for the way she attracts you? Nothing you've said makes her attractive to me."

"If she liked him better," said Washburn, fuming, "why not say so, for whatever reason - or for no reason? Why make it look like a straightforward test? Why humiliate me?"

"Test?" said Rubin. "What test?"

"That's what I referred to when I said earlier that in one way I had been particularly ill used. She said she would see if I were the kind of man she could live with. She dared me to give her a one - syllable middle name to represent what every schoolchild knew - and yet didn't know. She implied that she was giving the other fellow the same test. I knew about him and I didn't worry about him. My God, he was a stupid advertising copy writer who shambled about in turtleneck sweaters and drank beer."

Avalon said, "Surely, you couldn't believe a woman would choose one man over another according to whether he could solve a puzzle. That happens in fairytales perhaps; otherwise, not."

Washburn said, "I see that now. She married him, though. She said he had the answer. That idiot passed, she said, and I failed. Not getting her was bad enough, but she arranged to make me lose in a battle of wits to someone I despised - or at least she said I had lost. It wasn't a test. It was nonsense. Suppose you chose a middle name with one syllable - John, Charles, Ray, George - any one of them. Who's to say the answer is right or wrong, except her?

"If she were going to marry him anyway, she might have done that without going out of her way to make me look foolish in my own eyes."

Halsted said, "What if the question were a legitimate one? What if he had gotten the correct answer and you hadn't? Would that make you feel better?"

"I suppose so," said Washburn, "but the more I think of it, the more certain I am that it's a fake."

"Let's see now," said Halsted thoughtfully. "We need a one - syllable middle name that every schoolboy knows - and yet doesn't know."

"Schoolchild," growled Washburn. "Schoolboy is chauvinistic."

Gonzalo said, "Go ahead, Roger. You teach school. What does every schoolchild know - and yet not know?"

"In my class at the junior high school," said Halsted, gloomily, "every schoolchild knows he ought to know algebra, and what he doesn't know is algebra. If algebra were a one - syllable middle name that would be the answer."

Drake said, "Let's be systematic. Only people have middle names in the usual meaning of the word, so we can start with that. If we find a person whom every schoolchild knows - and yet doesn't know, then that person will have a middle name and that middle name will be the answer."

"And if you think that," said Washburn, "where does it get you? For one thing, how is it possible to know something or someone - and yet not know? And if it were possible, then it's quite impossible that this should be true of only one person. How would you pick out the correct person? No, that witch was playing games."

"Actually," said Avalon, "middle names are, on the whole, uncommon. Nowadays, everyone gets one, but they were much against the rule in the past, it seems to me. Think of some famous people - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, William Shakespeare - no middle names in the lot. The Greeks had only one name - Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes, Creon. It limits the field somewhat."

Halsted said, "There's Robert Louis Stevenson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gustavus Adolphus Vasa."

"Who's Gustavus Adolphus Vasa?" asked Gonzalo.

"A King of Sweden in the early 1600s," said Halsted.

Gonzalo said, "I suppose every Swedish schoolchild would know him, but we should stick to the knowledge of American schoolchildren."

"I agree," said Avalon.

Rubin said thoughtfully, "The Romans had three names as a matter of course. Julius Caesar was really Gaius Julius Caesar. His assassin, Cassius, was Gaius Cassius Longinus. Every American schoolchild would know the names Julius Caesar and Cassius from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, which every American schoolchild is put through. Yet he wouldn't know the names Gaius Julius Caesar and Gaius Cassius Longinus. He would think Julius was a first name and Cassius was a last name, but each would be a middle name. That would be the sort of thing we're after."

Avalon said, "Many cultures use patronymics as routine middle names. Every Russian has one. Peter I of Russia, or Peter the Great, as he's usually known, was really Peter Alexeievich Romanov. Every schoolchild knows Peter the Great and yet doesn't know his middle name, or even that he has one."

Rubin said, "There are other possibilities. Some middle names are treated as first names even for Americans. President Grover Cleveland was really Stephen Grover Cleveland. He dropped his first name and used his middle name, so every schoolchild knows Grover Cleveland and doesn't know Stephen Grover Cleveland. The same is true for Thomas Woodrow Wilson and John Calvin Coolidge.

"Then again, some middle names are lost in pen names. Mark Twain was really Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and Lewis Carroll was really Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Every schoolchild knows Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll but probably doesn't know Langhorne and Lutwidge."

Washburn said impatiently, "Pardon me, gentlemen, but what good is all this? How does it help with the problem? You can rattle off a million middle names, but which one did that female want?"

Avalon said solemnly, "We are merely outlining the dimensions of the problem, Mr. Washburn."

"And doing it all wrong," said Gonzalo. "Look, every middle name I've heard from Julius to Lutwidge has more than one syllable. Why not think of a one - syllable middle name and work backward? If we want to consider American Presidents, we can start with the letter 's.' You can't be more one - syllable than a single letter. Well, it was Harry S Truman; and the S was just S and stood for nothing. Every schoolchild has heard of Harry S Truman, but how many of them know S doesn't stand for anything?"

Drake said, "For that matter, every schoolchild knows Jimmy Carter; but his name really is James Earl Carter, Jr. The schoolchildren don't know about Earl, and that's one - syllable."

Washburn said, "You still have a million answers, and you don't have one."

Trumbull suddenly roared out angrily, "Damn it to hell, gentlemen, you're leaving out the third and crucial clue. I'm sitting here waiting for one of you to realize this fact, and you just run around in solemn pedantic circles."

"What third clue, Tom?" asked Avalon quietly.

"You need a one - syllable middle name; that's one. You need that rigmarole about schoolchildren; that's two. And you have the fact that the woman said that the puzzle was intended to indicate whether Washburn was a man she could live with. That's three. It means that the puzzle must somehow involve male chauvinism, since the woman is an ardent feminist. The implication is that a male chauvinist, such as she firmly believes Washburn to be, would not get the answer."

Rubin said, "Good Lord, Tom, you've made sense. What next? Don't tell me you've worked out the answer, too."

Trumbull shook his head. "Not exactly, but I suggest we confine ourselves to women's names. A feminist would argue that many women have played important roles in history but that male chauvinism tends to blot them out. Therefore every schoolchild should know them, but doesn't."

Halsted said, "No, Tom. That's not the clue. It's not something every schoolchild should know but doesn't. It's something every schoolchild knows and doesn't. That's different."

"Besides," said Rubin, "even if we confine ourselves to women, we have no clear route to the answer. If we stick to historic feminists, for instance, we have Susan Brownell Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Helen Gurley Brown, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan - who's got a one - syllable middle name?"

Drake said, "It needn't be a feminist." His little eyes seemed to peer thoughtfully into the middle distance. "It might just be a woman who contributed to history - like the one who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin and helped cause the Civil War, as Lincoln said."

"Harriet Beecher Stowe," said Rubin impatiently, "and Beecher has two syllables."

"Yes," said Drake, "but I merely mentioned it as an example. What about the woman who wrote 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' Julia Ward Howe? How many syllables in Ward?"

Avalon said, "How is that something every schoolchild knows and yet doesn't know?"

Drake said, "Every schoolchild knows, 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord' and yet doesn't know the author, because she's a woman. At least that's what a feminist might claim."

There was a confused outcry of objections, and Avalon's deep voice suddenly rose into an overtopping bellow, "How about Little Women, which was written by Louisa May Alcott? Which would the answer be: Ward or May?"

Washburn suddenly cut in sharply, "Neither one."

Drake said, "Why not? How do you know?"

Washburn said, "Because she sent me what she said was the answer when she wrote to say she was married. And it isn't either Ward or May."

Rubin said indignantly, "You've withheld information, sir."

"No, I haven't," said Washburn. "I didn't have that information when I tried to get the answer, and now that I have it, I still don't see why. I think she just chose an answer at random as a continuing part of her intention of making me feel like an idiot.

"Nor will I give you the solution now, since you'll be able to dream up a reason once you have the name, and that's not good. The point is to be able to get a solution and reason it out without knowing the answer in advance - though she did hand me a feminine name. I'll give Mr. Trumbull that much."

Gonzalo said, "If we can reason out the name she gave and tell you what it is and why, will you feel better?"

Washburn said gloomily, "I think so. At least I might imagine it was a fair test and that I might have had her if I were brighter, and she wasn't just laughing at me. But can anyone tell me what the middle name is?" He looked about the table and met six thoughtful stares.

Gonzalo said, "Do you have any ideas on the subject, Henry?"

The waiter, who was removing the brandy glasses, said, quietly, "Unless the middle name in question is Ann, Mr. Gonzalo, I'm afraid I am helpless."

Washburn let out an incoherent cry, pushed back his chair with a loud scraping noise, and jumped up.

"But it is Ann," he cried out. "How did you come to decide on that? Was it a guess or do you have a reason?"

He had reached out almost as though he were going to seize Henry by his shoulders and shake the answers out of him, but controlled himself with obvious difficulty.

Henry said, "The gentlemen of the Black Widowers supplied the pieces, sir. I needed only to put them together. Mr. Rubin said that a middle name might be hidden by a pseudonym, as in the case of Mark Twain. Mr. Trumbull pointed out that feminism was involved. It seemed to me quite possible that at times in history someone who was a woman might hide under a male pseudonym, and I pondered over whether there were such a case in connection with something every schoolchild would know.

"Surely, one book that schoolchildren have notoriously been required to read for decade after decade has been Silas Marner. Every schoolchild knows it, and the further fact that it was written by George Eliot. It seemed to me, though, that that was a pseudonym. I checked it in the encyclopedia on the reference shelf, while the discussion raged, and I found that Eliot's real name is Mary Ann Evans."

Washburn said, eyes big with wonder, "Then it was a fair question. I'm glad of that. But do you mean that the jerk she married figured it out?"

Henry said, "He may well have. I think it would be best for you, sir, to believe that he did."

"Middle Name" - Afterword

This story was written on a train trip to Richmond, Virginia, where I was slated to keynote a conference, and during my stay in Richmond.

The Trap Door Spiders and, therefore, the Black Widowers too, are indeed stag organizations. Only men can be members; only men can be guests. What s more, the Trap Door Spiders actually had their beginnings in the way attributed, in this story, to the Black Widowers.

Stag organizations are, of course, outmoded things in these days. I cannot speak for the other Trap Door Spiders, but my conscience hurts me over the matter. Janet, fortunately, is a very tolerant woman and is rather foolishly besotted with me so that she is willing to allow me to stay with not only one, but four, stag organizations, since she feels I enjoy them.

Well, I do enjoy them and I quiet my conscience by agitating from within in favor of open membership for women as well as men - but so far vainly in every case. Copyright 2016 - 2024