I said that I was Clio's servant. And I felt, when I said it, that you looked at me dubiously, and murmured among yourselves.
Not that you doubted I was somewhat connected with Clio's household. The lady after whom I have named this book is alive, and well known to some of you personally, to all of you by repute. Nor had you finished my first page before you guessed my theme to be that episode in her life which caused so great a sensation among the newspaper-reading public a few years ago. (It all seems but yesterday, does it not? They are still vivid to us, those head-lines. We have hardly yet ceased to be edified by the morals pointed in those leading articles.) And yet very soon you found me behaving just like any novelist--reporting the exact words that passed between the protagonists at private interviews --aye, and the exact thoughts and emotions that were in their breasts. Little wonder that you wondered! Let me make things clear to you.
I have my mistress' leave to do this. At first (for reasons which you will presently understand) she demurred. But I pointed out to her that I had been placed in a false position, and that until this were rectified neither she nor I could reap the credit due to us.
Know, then, that for a long time Clio had been thoroughly discontented. She was happy enough, she says, when first she left the home of Pierus, her father, to become a Muse. On those humble beginnings she looks back with affection. She kept only one servant, Herodotus. The romantic element in him appealed to her. He died, and she had about her a large staff of able and faithful servants, whose way of doing their work irritated and depressed her. To them, apparently, life consisted of nothing but politics and military operations--things to which she, being a woman, was somewhat indifferent. She was jealous of Melpomene. It seemed to her that her own servants worked from without at a mass of dry details which might as well be forgotten. Melpomene's worked on material that was eternally interesting--the souls of men and women; and not from without, either; but rather casting themselves into those souls and showing to us the essence of them. She was particularly struck by a remark of Aristotle's, that tragedy was "more philosophic" than history, inasmuch as it concerned itself with what might be, while history was concerned with merely what had been. This summed up for her what she had often felt, but could not have exactly formulated. She saw that the department over which she presided was at best an inferior one. She saw that just what she had liked--and rightly liked --in poor dear Herodotus was just what prevented him from being a good historian. It was wrong to mix up facts and fancies. But why should her present servants deal with only one little special set of the variegated facts of life? It was not in her power to interfere. The Nine, by the terms of the charter that Zeus had granted to them, were bound to leave their servants an absolutely free hand. But Clio could at least refrain from reading the works which, by a legal fiction, she was supposed to inspire. Once or twice in the course of a century, she would glance into this or that new history book, only to lay it down with a shrug of her shoulders. Some of the mediaeval chronicles she rather liked. But when, one day, Pallas asked her what she thought of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" her only answer was "ostis toia echei en edone echei en edone toia" (For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like). This she did let slip. Generally, throughout all the centuries, she kept up a pretence of thinking history the greatest of all the arts. She always held her head high among her Sisters. It was only on the sly that she was an omnivorous reader of dramatic and lyric poetry. She watched with keen interest the earliest developments of the prose romance in southern Europe; and after the publication of "Clarissa Harlowe" she spent practically all her time in reading novels. It was not until the Spring of the year 1863 that an entirely new element forced itself into her peaceful life. Zeus fell in love with her.
To us, for whom so quickly "time doth transfix the flourish set on youth," there is something strange, even a trifle ludicrous, in the thought that Zeus, after all these years, is still at the beck and call of his passions. And it seems anyhow lamentable that he has not yet gained self-confidence enough to appear in his own person to the lady of his choice, and is still at pains to transform himself into whatever object he deems likeliest to please her. To Clio, suddenly from Olympus, he flashed down in the semblance of Kinglake's "Invasion of the Crimea" (four vols., large 8vo, half-calf). She saw through his disguise immediately, and, with great courage and independence, bade him begone. Rebuffed, he was not deflected. Indeed it would seem that Clio's high spirit did but sharpen his desire. Hardly a day passed but he appeared in what he hoped would be the irresistible form--a recently discovered fragment of Polybius, an advance copy of the forthcoming issue of "The Historical Review," the note-book of Professor Carl Voertschlaffen . . . One day, all-prying Hermes told him of Clio's secret addiction to novel-reading. Thenceforth, year in, year out, it was in the form of fiction that Zeus wooed her. The sole result was that she grew sick of the sight of novels, and found a perverse pleasure in reading history. These dry details of what had actually happened were a relief, she told herself, from all that make-believe.
One Sunday afternoon--the day before that very Monday on which this narrative opens--it occurred to her how fine a thing history might be if the historian had the novelist's privileges. Suppose he could be present at every scene which he was going to describe, a presence invisible and inevitable, and equipped with power to see into the breasts of all the persons whose actions he set himself to watch . . .
While the Muse was thus musing, Zeus (disguised as Miss Annie S. Swan's latest work) paid his usual visit. She let her eyes rest on him. Hither and thither she divided her swift mind, and addressed him in winged words. "Zeus, father of gods and men, cloud-compeller, what wouldst thou of me? But first will I say what I would of thee"; and she besought him to extend to the writers of history such privileges as are granted to novelists. His whole manner had changed. He listened to her with the massive gravity of a ruler who never yet has allowed private influence to obscure his judgment. He was silent for some time after her appeal. Then, in a voice of thunder, which made quake the slopes of Parnassus, he gave his answer. He admitted the disabilities under which historians laboured. But the novelists--were they not equally handicapped? They had to treat of persons who never existed, events which never were. Only by the privilege of being in the thick of those events, and in the very bowels of those persons, could they hope to hold the reader's attention. If similar privileges were granted to the historian, the demand for novels would cease forthwith, and many thousand of hard-working, deserving men and women would be thrown out of employment. In fact, Clio had asked him an impossible favour. But he might--he said he conceivably might--be induced to let her have her way just once. In that event, all she would have to do was to keep her eye on the world's surface, and then, so soon as she had reason to think that somewhere was impending something of great import, to choose an historian. On him, straightway, Zeus would confer invisibility, inevitability, and psychic penetration, with a flawless memory thrown in.
On the following afternoon, Clio's roving eye saw Zuleika stepping from the Paddington platform into the Oxford train. A few moments later I found myself suddenly on Parnassus. In hurried words Clio told me how I came there, and what I had to do. She said she had selected me because she knew me to be honest, sober, and capable, and no stranger to Oxford. Another moment, and I was at the throne of Zeus. With a majesty of gesture which I shall never forget, he stretched his hand over me, and I was indued with the promised gifts. And then, lo! I was on the platform of Oxford station. The train was not due for another hour. But the time passed pleasantly enough.
It was fun to float all unseen, to float all unhampered by any corporeal nonsense, up and down the platform. It was fun to watch the inmost thoughts of the station-master, of the porters, of the young person at the buffet. But of course I did not let the holiday- mood master me. I realised the seriousness of my mission. I must concentrate myself on the matter in hand: Miss Dobson's visit. What was going to happen? Prescience was no part of my outfit. From what I knew about Miss Dobson, I deduced that she would be a great success. That was all. Had I had the instinct that was given to those Emperors in stone, and even to the dog Corker, I should have begged Clio to send in my stead some man of stronger nerve. She had charged me to be calmly vigilant, scrupulously fair. I could have been neither, had I from the outset foreseen all. Only because the immediate future was broken to me by degrees, first as a set of possibilities, then as a set of probabilities that yet might not come off, was I able to fulfil the trust imposed in me. Even so, it was hard. I had always accepted the doctrine that to understand all is to forgive all. Thanks to Zeus, I understood all about Miss Dobson, and yet there were moments when she repelled me--moments when I wished to see her neither from without nor from within. So soon as the Duke of Dorset met her on the Monday night, I felt I was in duty bound to keep him under constant surveillance. Yet there were moments when I was so sorry for him that I deemed myself a brute for shadowing him.
Ever since I can remember, I have been beset by a recurring doubt as to whether I be or be not quite a gentleman. I have never attempted to define that term: I have but feverishly wondered whether in its usual acceptation (whatever that is) it be strictly applicable to myself. Many people hold that the qualities connoted by it are primarily moral--a kind heart, honourable conduct, and so forth. On Clio's mission, I found honour and kindness tugging me in precisely opposite directions. In so far as honour tugged the harder, was I the more or the less gentlemanly? But the test is not a fair one. Curiosity tugged on the side of honour. This goes to prove me a cad? Oh, set against it the fact that I did at one point betray Clio's trust. When Miss Dobson had done the deed recorded at the close of the foregoing chapter, I gave the Duke of Dorset an hour's grace.
I could have done no less. In the lives of most of us is some one thing that we would not after the lapse of how many years soever confess to our most understanding friend; the thing that does not bear thinking of; the one thing to be forgotten; the unforgettable thing. Not the commission of some great crime: this can be atoned for by great penances; and the very enormity of it has a dark grandeur. Maybe, some little deadly act of meanness, some hole-and-corner treachery? But what a man has once willed to do, his will helps him to forget. The unforgettable thing in his life is usually not a thing he has done or left undone, but a thing done to him--some insolence or cruelty for which he could not, or did not, avenge himself. This it is that often comes back to him, years after, in his dreams, and thrusts itself suddenly into his waking thoughts, so that he clenches his hands, and shakes his head, and hums a tune loudly--anything to beat it off. In the very hour when first befell him that odious humiliation, would you have spied on him? I gave the Duke of Dorset an hour's grace.
What were his thoughts in that interval, what words, if any, he uttered to the night, never will be known. For this, Clio has abused me in language less befitting a Muse than a fishwife. I do not care. I would rather be chidden by Clio than by my own sense of delicacy, any day.
Not less averse than from dogging the Duke was I from remaining another instant in the presence of Miss Dobson. There seemed to be no possible excuse for her. This time she had gone too far. She was outrageous. As soon as the Duke had had time to get clear away, I floated out into the night.
I may have consciously reasoned that the best way to forget the present was in the revival of memories. Or I may have been driven by a mere homing instinct. Anyhow, it was in the direction of my old College that I went. Midnight was tolling as I floated in through the shut grim gate at which I had so often stood knocking for admission.
The man who now occupied my room had sported his oak--my oak. I read the name on the visiting-card attached thereto--E. J. Craddock--and went in.
E. J. Craddock, interloper, was sitting at my table, with elbows squared and head on one side, in the act of literary composition. The oars and caps on my walls betokened him a rowing-man. Indeed, I recognised his somewhat heavy face as that of the man whom, from the Judas barge this afternoon, I had seen rowing "stroke" in my College Eight.
He ought, therefore, to have been in bed and asleep two hours ago. And the offence of his vigil was aggravated by a large tumbler that stood in front of him, containing whisky and soda. From this he took a deep draught. Then he read over what he had written. I did not care to peer over his shoulder at MS. which, though written in my room, was not intended for my eyes. But the writer's brain was open to me; and he had written "I, the undersigned Edward Joseph Craddock, do hereby leave and bequeath all my personal and other property to Zuleika Dobson, spinster. This is my last will and testament."
He gnawed his pen, and presently altered the "hereby leave" to "hereby and herewith leave." Fool!
I thereby and therewith left him. As I emerged through the floor of the room above--through the very carpet that had so often been steeped in wine, and encrusted with smithereens of glass, in the brave old days of a well-remembered occupant--I found two men, both of them evidently reading-men. One of them was pacing round the room. "Do you know," he was saying, "what she reminded me of, all the time? Those words--aren't they in the Song of Solomon?--'fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and . . . and . . .'"
"'Terrible as an army with banners,'" supplied his host--rather testily, for he was writing a letter. It began "My dear Father. By the time you receive this I shall have taken a step which . . ."
Clearly it was vain to seek distraction in my old College. I floated out into the untenanted meadows. Over them was the usual coverlet of white vapour, trailed from the Isis right up to Merton Wall. The scent of these meadows' moisture is the scent of Oxford. Even in hottest noon, one feels that the sun has not dried THEM. Always there is moisture drifting across them, drifting into the Colleges. It, one suspects, must have had much to do with the evocation of what is called the Oxford spirit--that gentlest spirit, so lingering and searching, so dear to them who as youths were brought into ken of it, so exasperating to them who were not. Yes, certainly, it is this mild, miasmal air, not less than the grey beauty and gravity of the buildings, that has helped Oxford to produce, and foster eternally, her peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists. The undergraduate, in his brief periods of residence, is too buoyant to be mastered by the spirit of the place. He does but salute it, and catch the manner. It is on him who stays to spend his maturity here that the spirit will in its fulness gradually descend. The buildings and their traditions keep astir in his mind whatsoever is gracious; the climate, enfolding and enfeebling him, lulling him, keeps him careless of the sharp, harsh, exigent realities of the outer world. Careless? Not utterly. These realities may be seen by him. He may study them, be amused or touched by them. But they cannot fire him. Oxford is too damp for that. The "movements" made there have been no more than protests against the mobility of others. They have been without the dynamic quality implied in their name. They have been no more than the sighs of men gazing at what other men had left behind them; faint, impossible appeals to the god of retrogression, uttered for their own sake and ritual, rather than with any intent that they should be heard. Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action. But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday. If the Colleges could be transferred to the dry and bracing top of some hill, doubtless they would be more evidently useful to the nation. But let us be glad there is no engineer or enchanter to compass that task. Egomet, I would liefer have the rest of England subside into the sea than have Oxford set on a salubrious level. For there is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires--that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford. Oxford! The very sight of the word printed, or sound of it spoken, is fraught for me with most actual magic.
And on that moonlit night when I floated among the vapours of these meadows, myself less than a vapour, I knew and loved Oxford as never before, as never since. Yonder, in the Colleges, was the fume and fret of tragedy--Love as Death's decoy, and Youth following her. What then? Not Oxford was menaced. Come what might, not a stone of Oxford's walls would be loosened, nor a wreath of her vapours be undone, nor lost a breath of her sacred spirit.
I floated up into the higher, drier air, that I might, for once, see the total body of that spirit.
There lay Oxford far beneath me, like a map in grey and black and silver. All that I had known only as great single things I saw now outspread in apposition, and tiny; tiny symbols, as it were, of themselves, greatly symbolising their oneness. There they lay, these multitudinous and disparate quadrangles, all their rivalries merged in the making of a great catholic pattern. And the roofs of the buildings around them seemed level with their lawns. No higher the roofs of the very towers. Up from their tiny segment of the earth's spinning surface they stood negligible beneath infinity. And new, too, quite new, in eternity; transient upstarts. I saw Oxford as a place that had no more past and no more future than a mining-camp. I smiled down. O hoary and unassailable mushroom! . . . But if a man carry his sense of proportion far enough, lo! he is back at the point from which he started. He knows that eternity, as conceived by him, is but an instant in eternity, and infinity but a speck in infinity. How should they belittle the things near to him? . . . Oxford was venerable and magical, after all, and enduring. Aye, and not because she would endure was it the less lamentable that the young lives within her walls were like to be taken. My equanimity was gone; and a tear fell on Oxford.
And then, as though Oxford herself were speaking up to me, the air vibrated with a sweet noise of music. It was the hour of one; the end of the Duke's hour of grace. Through the silvery tangle of sounds from other clocks I floated quickly down to the Broad.
I had on the way a horrible apprehension. What if the Duke, in his agony, had taken the one means to forgetfulness? His room, I could see, was lit up; but a man does not necessarily choose to die in the dark. I hovered, afraid, over the dome of the Sheldonian. I saw that the window of the room above the Duke's was also lit up. And there was no reason at all to doubt the survival of Noaks. Perhaps the sight of him would hearten me.
I was wrong. The sight of Noaks in his room was as dismal a thing as could be. With his chin sunk on his breast, he sat there, on a rickety chair, staring up at the mantel-piece. This he had decked out as a sort of shrine. In the centre, aloft on an inverted tin that had contained Abernethy biscuits, stood a blue plush frame, with an inner rim of brass, several sizes too big for the picture-postcard installed in it. Zuleika's image gazed forth with a smile that was obviously not intended for the humble worshipper at this execrable shrine. On either side of her stood a small vase, one holding some geraniums, the other some mignonette. And just beneath her was placed that iron ring which, rightly or wrongly, Noaks supposed to alleviate rheumatism--that same iron ring which, by her touch to-night, had been charged for him with a yet deeper magic, insomuch that he dared no longer wear it, and had set it before her as an oblation.
Yet, for all his humility, he was possessed by a spirit of egoism that repelled me. While he sat peering over his spectacles at the beauteous image, he said again and again to himself, in a hollow voice, "I am so young to die." Every time he said this, two large, pear-shaped tears emerged from behind his spectacles, and found their way to his waistcoat. It did not seem to strike him that quite half of the undergraduates who contemplated death--and contemplated it in a fearless, wholesome, manly fashion--were his juniors. It seemed to seem to him that his own death, even though all those other far brighter and more promising lives than his were to be sacrificed, was a thing to bother about. Well, if he did not want to die, why could he not have, at least, the courage of his cowardice? The world would not cease to revolve because Noaks still clung to its surface. For me the whole tragedy was cheapened by his participation in it. I was fain to leave him. His squint, his short legs dangling towards the floor, his tear-sodden waistcoat, and his refrain "I am so young to die," were beyond measure exasperating. Yet I hesitated to pass into the room beneath, for fear of what I might see there.
How long I might have paltered, had no sound come from that room, I know not. But a sound came, sharp and sudden in the night, instantly reassuring. I swept down into the presence of the Duke.
He stood with his head flung back and his arms folded, gorgeous in a dressing-gown of crimson brocade. In animation of pride and pomp, he looked less like a mortal man than like a figure from some great biblical group by Paul Veronese.
And this was he whom I had presumed to pity! And this was he whom I had half expected to find dead.
His face, usually pale, was now red; and his hair, which no eye had ever yet seen disordered, stood up in a glistening shock. These two changes in him intensified the effect of vitality. One of them, however, vanished as I watched it. The Duke's face resumed its pallor. I realised then that he had but blushed; and I realised, simultaneously, that what had called that blush to his cheek was what had also been the signal to me that he was alive. His blush had been a pendant to his sneeze. And his sneeze had been a pendant to that outrage which he had been striving to forget. He had caught cold.
He had caught cold. In the hour of his soul's bitter need, his body had been suborned against him. Base! Had he not stripped his body of its wet vesture? Had he not vigorously dried his hair, and robed himself in crimson, and struck in solitude such attitudes as were most congruous with his high spirit and high rank? He had set himself to crush remembrance of that by which through his body his soul had been assailed. And well had he known that in this conflict a giant demon was his antagonist. But that his own body would play traitor--no, this he had not foreseen. This was too base a thing to be foreseen.
He stood quite still, a figure orgulous and splendent. And it seemed as though the hot night, too, stood still, to watch him, in awe, through the open lattices of his window, breathlessly. But to me, equipped to see beneath the surface, he was piteous, piteous in ratio to the pretension of his aspect. Had he crouched down and sobbed, I should have been as much relieved as he. But he stood seignorial and aquiline.
Painless, by comparison with this conflict in him, seemed the conflict that had raged in him yesternight. Then, it had been his dandihood against his passion for Zuleika. What mattered the issue? Whichever won, the victory were sweet. And of this he had all the while been subconscious, gallantly though he fought for his pride of dandihood. To-night in the battle between pride and memory, he knew from the outset that pride's was but a forlorn hope, and that memory would be barbarous in her triumph. Not winning to oblivion, he must hate with a fathomless hatred. Of all the emotions, hatred is the most excruciating. Of all the objects of hatred, a woman once loved is the most hateful. Of all deaths, the bitterest that can befall a man is that he lay down his life to flatter the woman he deems vilest of her sex.
Such was the death that the Duke of Dorset saw confronting him. Most men, when they are at war with the past, have the future as ally. Looking steadfastly forward, they can forget. The Duke's future was openly in league with his past. For him, prospect was memory. All that there was for him of future was the death to which his honour was pledged. To envisage that was to . . . no, he would NOT envisage it! With a passionate effort he hypnotised himself to think of nothing at all. His brain, into which, by the power Zeus gave me, I was gazing, became a perfect vacuum, insulated by the will. It was the kind of experiment which scientists call "beautiful." And yes, beautiful it was.
But not in the eyes of Nature. She abhors a vacuum. Seeing the enormous odds against which the Duke was fighting, she might well have stood aside. But she has no sense of sport whatsoever. She stepped in.
At first I did not realise what was happening. I saw the Duke's eyes contract, and the muscles of his mouth drawn down, and, at the same time, a tense upward movement of his whole body. Then, suddenly, the strain undone: a downward dart of the head, a loud percussion. Thrice the Duke sneezed, with a sound that was as the bursting of the dams of body and soul together; then sneezed again.
Now was his will broken. He capitulated. In rushed shame and horror and hatred, pell-mell, to ravage him.
What care now, what use, for deportment? He walked coweringly round and round his room, with frantic gestures, with head bowed. He shuffled and slunk. His dressing-gown had the look of a gabardine.
Shame and horror and hatred went slashing and hewing throughout the fallen citadel. At length, exhausted, he flung himself down on the window-seat and leaned out into the night, panting. The air was full of thunder. He clutched at his throat. From the depths of the black caverns beneath their brows the eyes of the unsleeping Emperors watched him.
He had gone through much in the day that was past. He had loved and lost. He had striven to recapture, and had failed. In a strange resolve he had found serenity and joy. He had been at the point of death, and had been saved. He had seen that his beloved was worthless, and he had not cared. He had fought for her, and conquered; and had pled with her, and--all these memories were loathsome by reason of that final thing which had all the while lain in wait for him.
He looked back and saw himself as he had been at a score of crucial moments in the day--always in the shadow of that final thing. He saw himself as he had been on the playing-fields of Eton; aye! and in the arms of his nurse, to and fro on the terrace of Tankerton--always in the shadow of that final thing, always piteous and ludicrous, doomed. Thank heaven the future was unknowable? It wasn't, now. To-morrow-- to-day--he must die for that accursed fiend of a woman--the woman with the hyena laugh.
What to do meanwhile? Impossible to sleep. He felt in his body the strain of his quick sequence of spiritual adventures. He was dog- tired. But his brain was furiously out of hand: no stopping it. And the night was stifling. And all the while, in the dead silence, as though his soul had ears, there was a sound. It was a very faint, unearthly sound, and seemed to come from nowhere, yet to have a meaning. He feared he was rather over-wrought.
He must express himself. That would soothe him. Ever since childhood he had had, from time to time, the impulse to set down in writing his thoughts or his moods. In such exercises he had found for his self- consciousness the vent which natures less reserved than his find in casual talk with Tom, Dick and Harry, with Jane, Susan, and Liz. Aloof from either of these triads, he had in his first term at Eton taken to himself as confidant, and retained ever since, a great quarto volume, bound in red morocco and stamped with his coronet and cypher. It was herein, year by year, that his soul spread itself.
He wrote mostly in English prose; but other modes were not infrequent. Whenever he was abroad, it was his courteous habit to write in the language of the country where he was residing--French, when he was in his house on the Champs Elysees; Italian, when he was in his villa at Baiae; and so on. When he was in his own country he felt himself free to deviate sometimes from the vernacular into whatever language were aptest to his frame of mind. In his sterner moods he gravitated to Latin, and wrought the noble iron of that language to effects that were, if anything, a trifle over-impressive. He found for his highest flights of contemplation a handy vehicle in Sanscrit. In hours of mere joy it was Greek poetry that flowed likeliest from his pen; and he had a special fondness for the metre of Alcaeus.
And now, too, in his darkest hour, it was Greek that surged in him-- iambics of thunderous wrath such as those which are volleyed by Prometheus. But as he sat down to his writing-table, and unlocked the dear old album, and dipped his pen in the ink, a great calm fell on him. The iambics in him began to breathe such sweetness as is on the lips of Alcestis going to her doom. But, just as he set pen to paper, his hand faltered, and he sprang up, victim of another and yet more violent fit of sneezing.
Disbuskined, dangerous. The spirit of Juvenal woke in him. He would flay. He would make Woman (as he called Zuleika) writhe. Latin hexameters, of course. An epistle to his heir presumptive . . . "Vae tibi," he began,
"Vae tibi, vae misero, nisi circumspexeris artes
Femineas, nam nulla salus quin femina possit
Tradere, nulla fides quin"--
"Quin," he repeated. In writing soliloquies, his trouble was to curb inspiration. The thought that he was addressing his heir-presumptive-- now heir-only-too-apparent--gave him pause. Nor, he reflected, was he addressing this brute only, but a huge posthumous audience. These hexameters would be sure to appear in the "authorised" biography. "A melancholy interest attaches to the following lines, written, it would seem, on the very eve of" . . . He winced. Was it really possible, and no dream, that he was to die to-morrow--to-day?
Even you, unassuming reader, go about with a vague notion that in your case, somehow, the ultimate demand of nature will be waived. The Duke, until he conceived his sudden desire to die, had deemed himself certainly exempt. And now, as he sat staring at his window, he saw in the paling of the night the presage of the dawn of his own last day. Sometimes (orphaned though he was in early childhood) he had even found it hard to believe there was no exemption for those to whom he stood in any personal relation. He remembered how, soon after he went to Eton, he had received almost with incredulity the news of the death of his god-father, Lord Stackley, an octogenarian. . . . He took from the table his album, knowing that on one of the earliest pages was inscribed his boyish sense of that bereavement. Yes, here the passage was, written in a large round hand:
"Death knocks, as we know, at the door of the cottage and of the castle. He stalks up the front-garden and the steep steps of the semi-detached villa, and plies the ornamental knocker so imperiously that the panels of imitation stained glass quiver in the thin front- door. Even the family that occupies the topmost story of a building without a lift is on his ghastly visiting-list. He rattles his fleshless knuckles against the door of the gypsy's caravan. Into the savage's tent, wigwam, or wattled hut, he darts unbidden. Even on the hermit in the cave he forces his obnoxious presence. His is an universal beat, and he walks it with a grin. But be sure it is at the sombre portal of the nobleman that he knocks with the greatest gusto. It is there, where haply his visit will be commemorated with a hatchment; it is then, when the muffled thunder of the Dead March in 'Saul' will soon be rolling in cathedrals; it is then, it is there, that the pride of his unquestioned power comes grimliest home to him. Is there no withstanding him? Why should he be admitted always with awe, a cravenly-honoured guest? When next he calls, let the butler send him about his business, or tell him to step round to the servants' entrance. If it be made plain to him that his visits are an impertinence, he will soon be disemboldened. Once the aristocracy make a stand against him, there need be no more trouble about the exorbitant Duties named after him. And for the hereditary system--that system which both offends the common sense of the Radical, and wounds the Tory by its implied admission that noblemen are mortal--a seemly substitute will have been found."
Artless and crude in expression, very boyish, it seemed now to its author. Yet, in its simple wistfulness, it had quality: it rang true. The Duke wondered whether, with all that he had since mastered in the great art of English prose, he had not lost something, too.
"Is there no withstanding him?" To think that the boy who uttered that cry, and gave back so brave an answer, was within nine years to go seek death of his own accord! How the gods must be laughing! Yes, the exquisite point of the joke, for them, was that he CHOSE to die. But--and, as the thought flashed through him, he started like a man shot--what if he chose not to? Stay, surely there was some reason why he MUST die. Else, why throughout the night had he taken his doom for granted? . . . Honour: yes, he had pledged himself. Better death than dishonour. Was it, though? was it? Ah, he, who had come so near to death, saw dishonour as a tiny trifle. Where was the sting of it? Not he would be ridiculous to-morrow--to-day. Every one would acclaim his splendid act of moral courage. She, she, the hyena woman, would be the fool. No one would have thought of dying for her, had he not set the example. Every one would follow his new example. Yes, he would save Oxford yet. That was his duty. Duty and darling vengeance! And life-- life!
It was full dawn now. Gone was that faint, monotonous sound which had punctuated in his soul the horrors of his vigil. But, in reminder of those hours, his lamp was still burning. He extinguished it; and the going-out of that tarnished light made perfect his sense of release.
He threw wide his arms in welcome of the great adorable day, and of all the great adorable days that were to be his.
He leaned out from his window, drinking the dawn in. The gods had made merry over him, had they? And the cry of the hyena had made night hideous. Well, it was his turn now. He would laugh last and loudest.
And already, for what was to be, he laughed outright into the morning; insomuch that the birds in the trees of Trinity, and still more the Emperors over the way, marvelled greatly.
They had awaited thousands and innumerable thousands of daybreaks in the Broad, these Emperors, counting the long slow hours till the night were over. It is in the night especially that their fallen greatness haunts them. Day brings some distraction. They are not incurious of the lives around them--these little lives that succeed one another so quickly. To them, in their immemorial old age, youth is a constant wonder. And so is death, which to them comes not. Youth or death-- which, they had often asked themselves, was the goodlier? But it was ill that these two things should be mated. It was ill-come, this day of days.
Long after the Duke was in bed and asleep, his peal of laughter echoed in the ears of the Emperors. Why had he laughed?
And they said to themselves "We are very old men, and broken, and in a land not our own. There are things that we do not understand."
Brief was the freshness of the dawn. From all points of the compass, dark grey clouds mounted into the sky. There, taking their places as though in accordance to a strategic plan laid down for them, they ponderously massed themselves, and presently, as at a given signal, drew nearer to earth, and halted, an irresistible great army, awaiting orders.
Somewhere under cover of them the sun went his way, transmitting a sulphurous heat. The very birds in the trees of Trinity were oppressed and did not twitter. The very leaves did not whisper.
Out through the railings, and across the road, prowled a skimpy and dingy cat, trying to look like a tiger.
It was all very sinister and dismal.
The hours passed. The Broad put forth, one by one, its signs of waking.
Soon after eight o'clock, as usual, the front-door of the Duke's lodgings was opened from within. The Emperors watched for the faint cloud of dust that presently emerged, and for her whom it preceded. To them, this first outcoming of the landlady's daughter was a moment of daily interest. Katie!--they had known her as a toddling child; and later as a little girl scampering off to school, all legs and pinafore and streaming golden hair. And now she was sixteen years old. Her hair, tied back at the nape of her neck, would very soon be "up." Her big blue eyes were as they had always been; but she had long passed out of pinafores into aprons, had taken on a sedateness befitting her years and her duties, and was anxious to be regarded rather as an aunt than as a sister by her brother Clarence, aged twelve. The Emperors had always predicted that she would be pretty. And very pretty she was.
As she came slowly out, with eyes downcast to her broom, sweeping the dust so seriously over the doorstep and then across the pavement, and anon when she reappeared with pail and scrubbing-brush, and abased herself before the doorstep, and wrought so vehemently there, what filled her little soul was not the dignity of manual labour. The duties that Zuleika had envied her were dear to her exactly as they would have been, yesterday morning, to Zuleika. The Emperors had often noticed that during vacations their little favourite's treatment of the doorstep was languid and perfunctory. They knew well her secret, and always (for who can be long in England without becoming sentimental?) they cherished the hope of a romantic union between her and "a certain young gentleman," as they archly called the Duke. His continued indifference to her they took almost as an affront to themselves. Where in all England was a prettier, sweeter girl than their Katie? The sudden irruption of Zuleika into Oxford was especially grievous to them because they could no longer hope against hope that Katie would be led by the Duke to the altar, and thence into the highest social circles, and live happily ever after. Luckily it was for Katie, however, that they had no power to fill her head with their foolish notions. It was well for her to have never doubted she loved in vain. She had soon grown used to her lot. Not until yesterday had there been any bitterness. Jealousy surged in Katie at the very moment when she beheld Zuleika on the threshold. A glance at the Duke's face when she showed the visitor up was enough to acquaint her with the state of his heart. And she did not, for confirming her intuition, need the two or three opportunities she took of listening at the keyhole. What in the course of those informal audiences did surprise her--so much indeed that she could hardly believe her ear--was that it was possible for a woman not to love the Duke. Her jealousy of "that Miss Dobson" was for a while swallowed up in her pity for him. What she had borne so cheerfully for herself she could not bear for her hero. She wished she had not happened to listen.
And this morning, while she knelt swaying and spreading over "his" doorstep, her blue eyes added certain tears to be scrubbed away in the general moisture of the stone. Rising, she dried her hands in her apron, and dried her eyes with her hands. Lest her mother should see that she had been crying, she loitered outside the door. Suddenly, her roving glance changed to a stare of acute hostility. She knew well that the person wandering towards her was--no, not "that Miss Dobson," as she had for the fraction of an instant supposed, but the next worst thing.
It has been said that Melisande indoors was an evidently French maid. Out of doors she was not less evidently Zuleika's. Not that she aped her mistress. The resemblance had come by force of propinquity and devotion. Nature had laid no basis for it. Not one point of form or colour had the two women in common. It has been said that Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Melisande, like most Frenchwomen, was strictly plain. But in expression and port, in her whole tournure, she had become, as every good maid does, her mistress' replica. The poise of her head, the boldness of her regard and brilliance of her smile, the leisurely and swinging way in which she walked, with a hand on the hip--all these things of hers were Zuleika's too. She was no conqueror. None but the man to whom she was betrothed--a waiter at the Cafe Tourtel, named Pelleas--had ever paid court to her; nor was she covetous of other hearts. Yet she looked victorious, and insatiable of victories, and "terrible as an army with banners."
In the hand that was not on her hip she carried a letter. And on her shoulders she had to bear the full burden of the hatred that Zuleika had inspired in Katie. But this she did not know. She came glancing boldly, leisurely, at the numbers on the front-doors.
Katie stepped back on to the doorstep, lest the inferiority of her stature should mar the effect of her disdain.
"Good-day. Is it here that Duke D'Orsay lives?" asked Melisande, as nearly accurate as a Gaul may be in such matters.
"The Duke of Dorset," said Katie with a cold and insular emphasis, "lives here." And "You," she tried to convey with her eyes, "you, for all your smart black silk, are a hireling. I am Miss Batch. I happen to have a hobby for housework. I have not been crying."
"Then please mount this to him at once," said Melisande, holding out the letter. "It is from Miss Dobson's part. Very express. I wait response."
"You are very ugly," Katie signalled with her eyes. "I am very pretty. I have the Oxfordshire complexion. And I play the piano." With her lips she said merely, "His Grace is not called before nine o'clock."
"But to-day you go wake him now--quick--is it not?"
"Quite out of the question," said Katie. "If you care to leave that letter here, I will see that it is placed on his Grace's breakfast- table, with the morning's post." "For the rest," added her eyes, "Down with France!"
"I find you droll, but droll, my little one!" cried Melisande.
Katie stepped back and shut the door in her face. "Like a little Empress," the Emperors commented.
The Frenchwoman threw up her hands and apostrophised heaven. To this day she believes that all the bonnes of Oxford are mad, but mad, and of a madness.
She stared at the door, at the pail and scrubbing-brush that had been shut out with her, at the letter in her hand. She decided that she had better drop the letter into the slit in the door and make report to Miss Dobson.
As the envelope fell through the slit to the door-mat, Katie made at Melisande a grimace which, had not the panels been opaque, would have astonished the Emperors. Resuming her dignity, she picked the thing up, and, at arm's length, examined it. It was inscribed in pencil. Katie's lips curled at sight of the large, audacious handwriting. But it is probable that whatever kind of handwriting Zuleika might have had would have been just the kind that Katie would have expected.
Fingering the envelope, she wondered what the wretched woman had to say. It occurred to her that the kettle was simmering on the hob in the kitchen, and that she might easily steam open the envelope and master its contents. However, her doing this would have in no way affected the course of the tragedy. And so the gods (being to-day in a strictly artistic mood) prompted her to mind her own business.
Laying the Duke's table for breakfast, she made as usual a neat rectangular pile of the letters that had come for him by post. Zuleika's letter she threw down askew. That luxury she allowed herself.
And he, when he saw the letter, allowed himself the luxury of leaving it unopened awhile. Whatever its purport, he knew it could but minister to his happy malice. A few hours ago, with what shame and dread it would have stricken him! Now it was a dainty to be dallied with.
His eyes rested on the black tin boxes that contained his robes of the Garter. Hateful had been the sight of them in the watches of the night, when he thought he had worn those robes for the last time. But now--!
He opened Zuleika's letter. It did not disappoint him.
"DEAR DUKE,--DO, DO forgive me. I am beyond words ashamed of the silly tomboyish thing I did last night. Of course it was no worse than that, but an awful fear haunts me that you MAY have thought I acted in anger at the idea of your breaking your promise to me. Well, it is quite true I had been hurt and angry when you hinted at doing that, but the moment I left you I saw that you had been only in fun, and I enjoyed the joke against myself, though I thought it was rather too bad of you. And then, as a sort of revenge, but almost before I knew what I was doing, I played that IDIOTIC practical joke on you. I have been MISERABLE ever since. DO come round as early as possible and tell me I am forgiven. But before you tell me that, please lecture me till I cry--though indeed I have been crying half through the night. And then if you want to be VERY horrid you may tease me for being so slow to see a joke. And then you might take me to see some of the Colleges and things before we go on to lunch at The MacQuern's? Forgive pencil and scrawl. Am sitting up in bed to write.-- Your sincere friend,
"Z. D. "P.S.--Please burn this."
At that final injunction, the Duke abandoned himself to his mirth. "Please burn this." Poor dear young woman, how modest she was in the glare of her diplomacy! Why there was nothing, not one phrase, to compromise her in the eyes of a coroner's jury! . . . Seriously, she had good reason to be proud of her letter. For the purpose in view it couldn't have been better done. That was what made it so touchingly absurd. He put himself in her position. He pictured himself as her, "sitting up in bed," pencil in hand, to explain away, to soothe, to clinch and bind . . . Yes, if he had happened to be some other man-- one whom her insult might have angered without giving love its death-blow, and one who could be frightened out of not keeping his word--this letter would have been capital.
He helped himself to some more marmalade, and poured out another cup of coffee. Nothing is more thrilling, thought he, than to be treated as a cully by the person you hold in the hollow of your hand.
But within this great irony lay (to be glided over) another irony. He knew well in what mood Zuleika had done what she had done to him last night; yet he preferred to accept her explanation of it.
Officially, then, he acquitted her of anything worse than tomboyishness. But this verdict for his own convenience implied no mercy to the culprit. The sole point for him was how to administer her punishment the most poignantly. Just how should he word his letter?
He rose from his chair, and "Dear Miss Dobson--no, MY dear Miss Dobson," he murmured, pacing the room, "I am so very sorry I cannot come to see you: I have to attend two lectures this morning. By contrast with this weariness, it will be the more delightful to meet you at The MacQuern's. I want to see as much as I can of you to-day, because to-night there is the Bump Supper, and to-morrow morning, alas! I must motor to Windsor for this wretched Investiture. Meanwhile, how can you ask to be forgiven when there is nothing whatever to forgive? It seems to me that mine, not yours, is the form of humour that needs explanation. My proposal to die for you was made in as playful a spirit as my proposal to marry you. And it is really for me to ask forgiveness of you. One thing especially," he murmured, fingering in his waistcoat-pocket the ear-rings she had given him, "pricks my conscience. I do feel that I ought not to have let you give me these two pearls--at any rate, not the one which went into premature mourning for me. As I have no means of deciding which of the two this one is, I enclose them both, with the hope that the pretty difference between them will in time reappear" . . . Or words to that effect . . . Stay! why not add to the joy of contriving that effect the greater joy of watching it? Why send Zuleika a letter? He would obey her summons. He would speed to her side. He snatched up a hat.
In this haste, however, he detected a certain lack of dignity. He steadied himself, and went slowly to the mirror. There he adjusted his hat with care, and regarded himself very seriously, very sternly, from various angles, like a man invited to paint his own portrait for the Uffizi. He must be worthy of himself. It was well that Zuleika should be chastened. Great was her sin. Out of life and death she had fashioned toys for her vanity. But his joy must be in vindication of what was noble, not in making suffer what was vile. Yesterday he had been her puppet, her Jumping-Jack; to-day it was as avenging angel that he would appear before her. The gods had mocked him who was now their minister. Their minister? Their master, as being once more master of himself. It was they who had plotted his undoing. Because they loved him they were fain that he should die young. The Dobson woman was but their agent, their cat's-paw. By her they had all but got him. Not quite! And now, to teach them, through her, a lesson they would not soon forget, he would go forth.
Shaking with laughter, the gods leaned over the thunder-clouds to watch him.
He went forth.
On the well-whitened doorstep he was confronted by a small boy in uniform bearing a telegram.
"Duke of Dorset?" asked the small boy.
Opening the envelope, the Duke saw that the message, with which was a prepaid form for reply, had been handed in at the Tankerton post- office. It ran thus:
Deeply regret inform your grace last night
two black owls came and perched on battlements
remained there through night hooting
at dawn flew away none knows whither
awaiting instructions Jellings
The Duke's face, though it grew white, moved not one muscle.
Somewhat shamed now, the gods ceased from laughing.
The Duke looked from the telegram to the boy. "Have you a pencil?" he asked.
"Yes, my Lord," said the boy, producing a stump of pencil.
Holding the prepaid form against the door, the Duke wrote:
Jellings Tankerton Hall
Prepare vault for funeral Monday
His handwriting was as firmly and minutely beautiful as ever. Only in that he forgot there was nothing to pay did he belie his calm. "Here," he said to the boy, "is a shilling; and you may keep the change."
"Thank you, my Lord," said the boy, and went his way, as happy as a postman.
Humphrey Greddon, in the Duke's place, would have taken a pinch of snuff. But he could not have made that gesture with a finer air than the Duke gave to its modern equivalent. In the art of taking and lighting a cigarette, there was one man who had no rival in Europe. This time he outdid even himself.
"Ah," you say, "but 'pluck' is one thing, endurance another. A man who doesn't reel on receipt of his death-warrant may yet break down when he has had time to think it over. How did the Duke acquit himself when he came to the end of his cigarette? And by the way, how was it that after he had read the telegram you didn't give him again an hour's grace?"
In a way, you have a perfect right to ask both those questions. But their very pertinence shows that you think I might omit things that matter. Please don't interrupt me again. Am _I_ writing this history, or are you?
Though the news that he must die was a yet sharper douche, as you have suggested, than the douche inflicted by Zuleika, it did at least leave unscathed the Duke's pride. The gods can make a man ridiculous through a woman, but they cannot make him ridiculous when they deal him a blow direct. The very greatness of their power makes them, in that respect, impotent. They had decreed that the Duke should die, and they had told him so. There was nothing to demean him in that. True, he had just measured himself against them. But there was no shame in being gravelled. The peripety was according to the best rules of tragic art. The whole thing was in the grand manner.
Thus I felt that there were no indelicacy, this time, in watching him. Just as "pluck" comes of breeding, so is endurance especially an attribute of the artist. Because he can stand outside himself, and (if there be nothing ignoble in them) take a pleasure in his own sufferings, the artist has a huge advantage over you and me. The Duke, so soon as Zuleika's spell was broken, had become himself again--a highly self-conscious artist in life. And now, standing pensive on the doorstep, he was almost enviable in his great affliction.
Through the wreaths of smoke which, as they came from his lips, hung in the sultry air as they would have hung in a closed room, he gazed up at the steadfast thunder-clouds. How nobly they had been massed for him! One of them, a particularly large and dark one, might with advantage, he thought, have been placed a little further to the left. He made a gesture to that effect. Instantly the cloud rolled into position. The gods were painfully anxious, now, to humour him in trifles. His behaviour in the great emergency had so impressed them at a distance that they rather dreaded meeting him anon at close quarters. They rather wished they had not uncaged, last night, the two black owls. Too late. What they had done they had done.
That faint monotonous sound in the stillness of the night--the Duke remembered it now. What he had thought to be only his fancy had been his death-knell, wafted to him along uncharted waves of ether, from the battlements of Tankerton. It had ceased at daybreak. He wondered now that he had not guessed its meaning. And he was glad that he had not. He was thankful for the peace that had been granted to him, the joyous arrogance in which he had gone to bed and got up for breakfast. He valued these mercies the more for the great tragic irony that came of them. Aye, and he was inclined to blame the gods for not having kept him still longer in the dark and so made the irony still more awful. Why had they not caused the telegram to be delayed in transmission? They ought to have let him go and riddle Zuleika with his scorn and his indifference. They ought to have let him hurl through her his defiance of them. Art aside, they need not have grudged him that excursion.
He could not, he told himself, face Zuleika now. As artist, he saw that there was irony enough left over to make the meeting a fine one. As theologian, he did not hold her responsible for his destiny. But as a man, after what she had done to him last night, and before what he had to do for her to-day, he would not go out of his way to meet her. Of course, he would not actually avoid her. To seem to run away from her were beneath his dignity. But, if he did meet her, what in heaven's name should he say to her? He remembered his promise to lunch with The MacQuern, and shuddered. She would be there. Death, as he had said, cancelled all engagements. A very simple way out of the difficulty would be to go straight to the river. No, that would be like running away. It couldn't be done.
Hardly had he rejected the notion when he had a glimpse of a female figure coming quickly round the corner--a glimpse that sent him walking quickly away, across the road, towards Turl Street, blushing violently. Had she seen him? he asked himself. And had she seen that he saw her? He heard her running after him. He did not look round, he quickened his pace. She was gaining on him. Involuntarily, he ran--ran like a hare, and, at the corner of Turl Street, rose like a trout, saw the pavement rise at him, and fell, with a bang, prone.
Let it be said at once that in this matter the gods were absolutely blameless. It is true they had decreed that a piece of orange-peel should be thrown down this morning at the corner of Turl Street. But the Master of Balliol, not the Duke, was the person they had destined to slip on it. You must not imagine that they think out and appoint everything that is to befall us, down to the smallest detail. Generally, they just draw a sort of broad outline, and leave us to fill it in according to our taste. Thus, in the matters of which this book is record, it was they who made the Warden invite his grand- daughter to Oxford, and invite the Duke to meet her on the evening of her arrival. And it was they who prompted the Duke to die for her on the following (Tuesday) afternoon. They had intended that he should execute his resolve after, or before, the boat-race of that evening. But an oversight upset this plan. They had forgotten on Monday night to uncage the two black owls; and so it was necessary that the Duke's death should be postponed. They accordingly prompted Zuleika to save him. For the rest, they let the tragedy run its own course--merely putting in a felicitous touch here and there, or vetoing a superfluity, such as that Katie should open Zuleika's letter. It was no part of their scheme that the Duke should mistake Melisande for her mistress, or that he should run away from her, and they were genuinely sorry when he, instead of the Master of Balliol, came to grief over the orange-peel.
Them, however, the Duke cursed as he fell; them again as he raised himself on one elbow, giddy and sore; and when he found that the woman bending over him was not she whom he dreaded, but her innocent maid, it was against them that he almost foamed at the mouth.
"Monsieur le Duc has done himself harm--no?" panted Melisande. "Here is a letter from Miss Dobson's part. She say to me 'Give it him with your own hand.'"
The Duke received the letter and, sitting upright, tore it to shreds, thus confirming a suspicion which Melisande had conceived at the moment when he took to his heels, that all English noblemen are mad, but mad, and of a madness.
"Nom de Dieu," she cried, wringing her hands, "what shall I tell to Mademoiselle?"
"Tell her--" the Duke choked back a phrase of which the memory would have shamed his last hours. "Tell her," he substituted, "that you have seen Marius sitting among the ruins of Carthage," and limped quickly away down the Turl.
Both his hands had been abraded by the fall. He tended them angrily with his handkerchief. Mr. Druce, the chemist, had anon the privilege of bathing and plastering them, also of balming and binding the right knee and the left shin. "Might have been a very nasty accident, your Grace," he said. "It was," said the Duke. Mr. Druce concurred.
Nevertheless, Mr. Druce's remark sank deep. The Duke thought it quite likely that the gods had intended the accident to be fatal, and that only by his own skill and lightness in falling had he escaped the ignominy of dying in full flight from a lady's-maid. He had not, you see, lost all sense of free-will. While Mr. Druce put the finishing touches to his shin, "I am utterly purposed," he said to himself, "that for this death of mine I will choose my own manner and my own --well, not 'time' exactly, but whatever moment within my brief span of life shall seem aptest to me. Unberufen," he added, lightly tapping Mr. Druce's counter.
The sight of some bottles of Cold Mixture on that hospitable board reminded him of a painful fact. In the clash of the morning's excitements, he had hardly felt the gross ailment that was on him. He became fully conscious of it now, and there leapt in him a hideous doubt: had he escaped a violent death only to succumb to "natural causes"? He had never hitherto had anything the matter with him, and thus he belonged to the worst, the most apprehensive, class of patients. He knew that a cold, were it neglected, might turn malignant; and he had a vision of himself gripped suddenly in the street by internal agonies--a sympathetic crowd, an ambulance, his darkened bedroom; local doctor making hopelessly wrong diagnosis; eminent specialists served up hot by special train, commending local doctor's treatment, but shaking their heads and refusing to say more than "He has youth on his side"; a slight rally at sunset; the end. All this flashed through his mind. He quailed. There was not a moment to lose. He frankly confessed to Mr. Druce that he had a cold.
Mr. Druce, trying to insinuate by his manner that this fact had not been obvious, suggested the Mixture--a teaspoonful every two hours. "Give me some now, please, at once," said the Duke.
He felt magically better for the draught. He handled the little glass lovingly, and eyed the bottle. "Why not two teaspoonfuls every hour?" he suggested, with an eagerness almost dipsomaniacal. But Mr. Druce was respectfully firm against that. The Duke yielded. He fancied, indeed, that the gods had meant him to die of an overdose.
Still, he had a craving for more. Few though his hours were, he hoped the next two would pass quickly. And, though he knew Mr. Druce could be trusted to send the bottle round to his rooms immediately, he preferred to carry it away with him. He slipped it into the breast- pocket of his coat, almost heedless of the slight extrusion it made there.
Just as he was about to cross the High again, on his way home, a butcher's cart dashed down the slope, recklessly driven. He stepped well back on the pavement, and smiled a sardonic smile. He looked to right and to left, carefully gauging the traffic. Some time elapsed before he deemed the road clear enough for transit.
Safely across, he encountered a figure that seemed to loom up out of the dim past. Oover! Was it but yesternight that Oover dined with him? With the sensation of a man groping among archives, he began to apologise to the Rhodes Scholar for having left him so abruptly at the Junta. Then, presto!--as though those musty archives were changed to a crisp morning paper agog with terrific head-lines--he remembered the awful resolve of Oover, and of all young Oxford.
"Of course," he asked, with a lightness that hardly hid his dread of the answer, "you have dismissed the notion you were toying with when I left you?"
Oover's face, like his nature, was as sensitive as it was massive, and it instantly expressed his pain at the doubt cast on his high seriousness. "Duke," he asked, "d'you take me for a skunk?"
"Without pretending to be quite sure what a skunk is," said the Duke, "I take you to be all that it isn't. And the high esteem in which I hold you is the measure for me of the loss that your death would be to America and to Oxford."
Oover blushed. "Duke" he said "that's a bully testimonial. But don't worry. America can turn out millions just like me, and Oxford can have as many of them as she can hold. On the other hand, how many of YOU can be turned out, as per sample, in England? Yet you choose to destroy yourself. You avail yourself of the Unwritten Law. And you're right, Sir. Love transcends all."
"But does it? What if I told you I had changed my mind?"
"Then, Duke," said Oover, slowly, "I should believe that all those yarns I used to hear about the British aristocracy were true, after all. I should aver that you were not a white man. Leading us on like that, and then--Say, Duke! Are you going to die to-day, or not?"
"As a matter of fact, I am, but--"
Oover wrung the Duke's hand, and was passing on. "Stay!" he was adjured.
"Sorry, unable. It's just turning eleven o'clock, and I've a lecture. While life lasts, I'm bound to respect Rhodes' intentions." The conscientious Scholar hurried away.
The Duke wandered down the High, taking counsel with himself. He was ashamed of having so utterly forgotten the mischief he had wrought at large. At dawn he had vowed to undo it. Undo it he must. But the task was not a simple one now. If he could say "Behold, I take back my word. I spurn Miss Dobson, and embrace life," it was possible that his example would suffice. But now that he could only say "Behold, I spurn Miss Dobson, and will not die for her, but I am going to commit suicide, all the same," it was clear that his words would carry very little force. Also, he saw with pain that they placed him in a somewhat ludicrous position. His end, as designed yesterday, had a large and simple grandeur. So had his recantation of it. But this new compromise between the two things had a fumbled, a feeble, an ignoble look. It seemed to combine all the disadvantages of both courses. It stained his honour without prolonging his life. Surely, this was a high price to pay for snubbing Zuleika . . . Yes, he must revert without more ado to his first scheme. He must die in the manner that he had blazoned forth. And he must do it with a good grace, none knowing he was not glad; else the action lost all dignity. True, this was no way to be a saviour. But only by not dying at all could he have set a really potent example. . . . He remembered the look that had come into Oover's eyes just now at the notion of his unfaith. Perhaps he would have been the mock, not the saviour, of Oxford. Better dishonour than death, maybe. But, since die he must, he must die not belittling or tarnishing the name of Tanville-Tankerton.
Within these bounds, however, he must put forth his full might to avert the general catastrophe--and to punish Zuleika nearly well enough, after all, by intercepting that vast nosegay from her outstretched hands and her distended nostrils. There was no time to be lost, then. But he wondered, as he paced the grand curve between St. Mary's and Magdalen Bridge, just how was he to begin?
Down the flight of steps from Queen's came lounging an average undergraduate.
"Mr. Smith," said the Duke, "a word with you."
"But my name is not Smith," said the young man.
"Generically it is," replied the Duke. "You are Smith to all intents and purposes. That, indeed, is why I address you. In making your acquaintance, I make a thousand acquaintances. You are a short cut to knowledge. Tell me, do you seriously think of drowning yourself this afternoon?"
"Rather," said the undergraduate.
"A meiosis in common use, equivalent to 'Yes, assuredly,'" murmured the Duke. "And why," he then asked, "do you mean to do this?"
"Why? How can you ask? Why are YOU going to do it?"
"The Socratic manner is not a game at which two can play. Please answer my question, to the best of your ability."
"Well, because I can't live without her. Because I want to prove my love for her. Because--"
"One reason at a time please," said the Duke, holding up his hand. "You can't live without her? Then I am to assume that you look forward to dying?"
"You are truly happy in that prospect?"
"Now, suppose I showed you two pieces of equally fine amber--a big one and a little one. Which of these would you rather possess?"
"The big one, I suppose."
"And this because it is better to have more than to have less of a good thing?"
"Do you consider happiness a good thing or a bad one?"
"A good one."
"So that a man would rather have more than less of happiness?"
"Then does it not seem to you that you would do well to postpone your suicide indefinitely?"
"But I have just said I can't live without her."
"You have still more recently declared yourself truly happy."
"Now, be careful, Mr. Smith. Remember, this is a matter of life and death. Try to do yourself justice. I have asked you--"
But the undergraduate was walking away, not without a certain dignity.
The Duke felt that he had not handled his man skilfully. He remembered that even Socrates, for all the popular charm of his mock-modesty and his true geniality, had ceased after a while to be tolerable. Without such a manner to grace his method, Socrates would have had a very brief time indeed. The Duke recoiled from what he took to be another pitfall. He almost smelt hemlock.
A party of four undergraduates abreast was approaching. How should he address them? His choice wavered between the evangelic wistfulness of "Are you saved?" and the breeziness of the recruiting sergeant's "Come, you're fine upstanding young fellows. Isn't it a pity," etc. Meanwhile, the quartet had passed by.
Two other undergraduates approached. The Duke asked them simply as a personal favour to himself not to throw away their lives. They said they were very sorry, but in this particular matter they must please themselves. In vain he pled. They admitted that but for his example they would never have thought of dying. They wished they could show him their gratitude in any way but the one which would rob them of it.
The Duke drifted further down the High, bespeaking every undergraduate he met, leaving untried no argument, no inducement. For one man, whose name he happened to know, he invented an urgent personal message from Miss Dobson imploring him not to die on her account. On another man he offered to settle by hasty codicil a sum of money sufficient to yield an annual income of two thousand pounds--three thousand--any sum within reason. With another he offered to walk, arm in arm, to Carfax and back again. All to no avail.
He found himself in the precincts of Magdalen, preaching from the little open-air pulpit there an impassioned sermon on the sacredness of human life, and referring to Zuleika in terms which John Knox would have hesitated to utter. As he piled up the invective, he noticed an ominous restiveness in the congregation--murmurs, clenching of hands, dark looks. He saw the pulpit as yet another trap laid for him by the gods. He had walked straight into it: another moment, and he might be dragged down, overwhelmed by numbers, torn limb from limb. All that was in him of quelling power he put hastily into his eyes, and manoeuvred his tongue to gentler discourse, deprecating his right to judge "this lady," and merely pointing the marvel, the awful though noble folly, of his resolve. He ended on a note of quiet pathos. "To- night I shall be among the shades. There be not you, my brothers."
Good though the sermon was in style and sentiment, the flaw in its reasoning was too patent for any converts to be made. As he walked out of the quadrangle, the Duke felt the hopelessness of his cause. Still he battled bravely for it up the High, waylaying, cajoling, commanding, offering vast bribes. He carried his crusade into the Loder, and thence into Vincent's, and out into the street again, eager, untiring, unavailing: everywhere he found his precept checkmated by his example.
The sight of The MacQuern coming out top-speed from the Market, with a large but inexpensive bunch of flowers, reminded him of the luncheon that was to be. Never to throw over an engagement was for him, as we have seen, a point of honour. But this particular engagement--hateful, when he accepted it, by reason of his love--was now impossible for the reason which had made him take so ignominiously to his heels this morning. He curtly told the Scot not to expect him.
"Is SHE not coming?" gasped the Scot, with quick suspicion.
"Oh," said the Duke, turning on his heel, "she doesn't know that I shan't be there. You may count on her." This he took to be the very truth, and he was glad to have made of it a thrust at the man who had so uncouthly asserted himself last night. He could not help smiling, though, at this little resentment erect after the cataclysm that had swept away all else. Then he smiled to think how uneasy Zuleika would be at his absence. What agonies of suspense she must have had all this morning! He imagined her silent at the luncheon, with a vacant gaze at the door, eating nothing at all. And he became aware that he was rather hungry. He had done all he could to save young Oxford. Now for some sandwiches! He went into the Junta.
As he rang the dining-room bell, his eyes rested on the miniature of Nellie O'Mora. And the eyes of Nellie O'Mora seemed to meet his in reproach. Just as she may have gazed at Greddon when he cast her off, so now did she gaze at him who a few hours ago had refused to honour her memory.
Yes, and many other eyes than hers rebuked him. It was around the walls of this room that hung those presentments of the Junta as focussed, year after year, in a certain corner of Tom Quad, by Messrs. Hills and Saunders. All around, the members of the little hierarchy, a hierarchy ever changing in all but youth and a certain sternness of aspect that comes at the moment of being immortalised, were gazing forth now with a sternness beyond their wont. Not one of them but had in his day handed on loyally the praise of Nellie O'Mora, in the form their Founder had ordained. And the Duke's revolt last night had so incensed them that they would, if they could, have come down from their frames and walked straight out of the club, in chronological order--first, the men of the 'sixties, almost as near in time to Greddon as to the Duke, all so gloriously be-whiskered and cravated, but how faded now, alas, by exposure; and last of all in the procession and angrier perhaps than any of them, the Duke himself --the Duke of a year ago, President and sole Member.
But, as he gazed into the eyes of Nellie O'Mora now, Dorset needed not for penitence the reproaches of his past self or of his forerunners. "Sweet girl," he murmured, "forgive me. I was mad. I was under the sway of a deplorable infatuation. It is past. See," he murmured with a delicacy of feeling that justified the untruth, "I am come here for the express purpose of undoing my impiety." And, turning to the club- waiter who at this moment answered the bell, he said "Bring me a glass of port, please, Barrett." Of sandwiches he said nothing.
At the word "See" he had stretched one hand towards Nellie; the other he had laid on his heart, where it seemed to encounter some sort of hard obstruction. This he vaguely fingered, wondering what it might be, while he gave his order to Barrett. With a sudden cry he dipped his hand into his breast-pocket and drew forth the bottle he had borne away from Mr. Druce's. He snatched out his watch: one o'clock!-- fifteen minutes overdue. Wildly he called the waiter back. "A tea- spoon, quick! No port. A wine-glass and a tea-spoon. And--for I don't mind telling you, Barrett, that your mission is of an urgency beyond conjecture--take lightning for your model. Go!"
Agitation mastered him. He tried vainly to feel his pulse, well knowing that if he found it he could deduce nothing from its action. He saw himself haggard in the looking-glass. Would Barrett never come? "Every two hours"--the directions were explicit. Had he delivered himself into the gods' hands? The eyes of Nellie O'Mora were on him compassionately; and all the eyes of his forerunners were on him in austere scorn: "See," they seemed to be saying, "the chastisement of last night's blasphemy." Violently, insistently, he rang the bell.
In rushed Barrett at last. From the tea-spoon into the wine-glass the Duke poured the draught of salvation, and then, raising it aloft, he looked around at his fore-runners and in a firm voice cried "Gentlemen, I give you Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be." He drained his glass, heaved the deep sigh of a double satisfaction, dismissed with a glance the wondering Barrett, and sat down.
He was glad to be able to face Nellie with a clear conscience. Her eyes were not less sad now, but it seemed to him that their sadness came of a knowledge that she would never see him again. She seemed to be saying to him "Had you lived in my day, it is you that I would have loved, not Greddon." And he made silent answer, "Had you lived in my day, I should have been Dobson-proof." He realised, however, that to Zuleika he owed the tenderness he now felt for Miss O'Mora. It was Zuleika that had cured him of his aseity. She it was that had made his heart a warm and negotiable thing. Yes, and that was the final cruelty. To love and be loved--this, he had come to know, was all that mattered. Yesterday, to love and die had seemed felicity enough. Now he knew that the secret, the open secret, of happiness was in mutual love--a state that needed not the fillip of death. And he had to die without having ever lived. Admiration, homage, fear, he had sown broadcast. The one woman who had loved him had turned to stone because he loved her. Death would lose much of its sting for him if there were somewhere in the world just one woman, however lowly, whose heart would be broken by his dying. What a pity Nellie O'Mora was not really extant!
Suddenly he recalled certain words lightly spoken yesterday by Zuleika. She had told him he was loved by the girl who waited on him--the daughter of his landlady. Was this so? He had seen no sign of it, had received no token of it. But, after all, how should he have seen a sign of anything in one whom he had never consciously visualised? That she had never thrust herself on his notice might mean merely that she had been well brought-up. What likelier than that the daughter of Mrs. Batch, that worthy soul, had been well brought up?
Here, at any rate, was the chance of a new element in his life, or rather in his death. Here, possibly, was a maiden to mourn him. He would lunch in his rooms.
With a farewell look at Nellie's miniature, he took the medicine- bottle from the table, and went quickly out. The heavens had grown steadily darker and darker, the air more sulphurous and baleful. And the High had a strangely woebegone look, being all forsaken by youth, in this hour of luncheon. Even so would its look be all to-morrow, thought the Duke, and for many morrows. Well he had done what he could. He was free now to brighten a little his own last hours. He hastened on, eager to see the landlady's daughter. He wondered what she was like, and whether she really loved him.
As he threw open the door of his sitting-room, he was aware of a rustle, a rush, a cry. In another instant, he was aware of Zuleika Dobson at his feet, at his knees, clasping him to her, sobbing, laughing, sobbing.