For what happened a few moments later you must not blame him. Some measure of force was the only way out of an impossible situation. It was in vain that he commanded the young lady to let go: she did but cling the closer. It was in vain that he tried to disentangle himself of her by standing first on one foot, then on the other, and veering sharply on his heel: she did but sway as though hinged to him. He had no choice but to grasp her by the wrists, cast her aside, and step clear of her into the room.
Her hat, gauzily basking with a pair of long white gloves on one of his arm-chairs, proclaimed that she had come to stay.
Nor did she rise. Propped on one elbow, with heaving bosom and parted lips, she seemed to be trying to realise what had been done to her. Through her undried tears her eyes shone up to him.
He asked: "To what am I indebted for this visit?"
"Ah, say that again!" she murmured. "Your voice is music."
He repeated his question.
"Music!" she said dreamily; and such is the force of habit that "I don't," she added, "know anything about music, really. But I know what I like."
"Had you not better get up from the floor?" he said. "The door is open, and any one who passed might see you."
Softly she stroked the carpet with the palms of her hands. "Happy carpet!" she crooned. "Aye, happy the very women that wove the threads that are trod by the feet of my beloved master. But hark! he bids his slave rise and stand before him!"
Just after she had risen, a figure appeared in the doorway.
"I beg pardon, your Grace; Mother wants to know, will you be lunching in?"
"Yes," said the Duke. "I will ring when I am ready." And it dawned on him that this girl, who perhaps loved him, was, according to all known standards, extraordinarily pretty.
"Will--" she hesitated, "will Miss Dobson be--"
"No," he said. "I shall be alone." And there was in the girl's parting half-glance at Zuleika that which told him he was truly loved, and made him the more impatient of his offensive and accursed visitor.
"You want to be rid of me?" asked Zuleika, when the girl was gone.
"I have no wish to be rude; but--since you force me to say it--yes."
"Then take me," she cried, throwing back her arms, "and throw me out of the window."
He smiled coldly.
"You think I don't mean it? You think I would struggle? Try me." She let herself droop sideways, in an attitude limp and portable. "Try me," she repeated.
"All this is very well conceived, no doubt," said he, "and well executed. But it happens to be otiose."
What do you mean?"
"I mean you may set your mind at rest. I am not going to back out of my promise."
Zuleika flushed. "You are cruel. I would give the world and all not to have written you that hateful letter. Forget it, forget it, for pity's sake!"
The Duke looked searchingly at her. "You mean that you now wish to release me from my promise?"
"Release you? As if you were ever bound! Don't torture me!"
He wondered what deep game she was playing. Very real, though, her anguish seemed; and, if real it was, then--he stared, he gasped--there could be but one explanation. He put it to her. "You love me?"
"With all my soul."
His heart leapt. If she spoke truth, then indeed vengeance was his! But "What proof have I?" he asked her.
"Proof? Have men absolutely NO intuition? If you need proof, produce it. Where are my ear-rings?"
"Your ear-rings? Why?"
Impatiently she pointed to two white pearls that fastened the front of her blouse. "These are your studs. It was from them I had the great first hint this morning."
"Black and pink, were they not, when you took them?"
"Of course. And then I forgot that I had them. When I undressed, they must have rolled on to the carpet. Melisande found them this morning when she was making the room ready for me to dress. That was just after she came back from bringing you my first letter. I was bewildered. I doubted. Might not the pearls have gone back to their natural state simply through being yours no more? That is why I wrote again to you, my own darling--a frantic little questioning letter. When I heard how you had torn it up, I knew, I knew that the pearls had not mocked me. I telescoped my toilet and came rushing round to you. How many hours have I been waiting for you?"
The Duke had drawn her ear-rings from his waistcoat pocket, and was contemplating them in the palm of his hand. Blanched, both of them, yes. He laid them on the table. "Take them," he said.
"No," she shuddered. "I could never forget that once they were both black." She flung them into the fender. "Oh John," she cried, turning to him and falling again to her knees, "I do so want to forget what I have been. I want to atone. You think you can drive me out of your life. You cannot, darling--since you won't kill me. Always I shall follow you on my knees, thus."
He looked down at her over his folded arms,
"I am not going to back out of my promise," he repeated.
She stopped her ears.
With a stern joy he unfolded his arms, took some papers from his breast-pocket, and, selecting one of them, handed it to her. It was the telegram sent by his steward.
She read it. With a stern joy he watched her reading it.
Wild-eyed, she looked up from it to him, tried to speak, and swerved down senseless.
He had not foreseen this. "Help!" he vaguely cried--was she not a fellow-creature?--and rushed blindly out to his bedroom, whence he returned, a moment later, with the water-jug. He dipped his hand, and sprinkled the upturned face (Dew-drops on a white rose? But some other, sharper analogy hovered to him). He dipped and sprinkled. The water-beads broke, mingled--rivulets now. He dipped and flung, then caught the horrible analogy and rebounded.
It was at this moment that Zuleika opened her eyes. "Where am I?" She weakly raised herself on one elbow; and the suspension of the Duke's hatred would have been repealed simultaneously with that of her consciousness, had it not already been repealed by the analogy. She put a hand to her face, then looked at the wet palm wonderingly, looked at the Duke, saw the water-jug beside him. She, too, it seemed, had caught the analogy; for with a wan smile she said "We are quits now, John, aren't we?"
Her poor little jest drew to the Duke's face no answering smile, did but make hotter the blush there. The wave of her returning memory swept on--swept up to her with a roar the instant past. "Oh," she cried, staggering to her feet, "the owls, the owls!"
Vengeance was his, and "Yes, there," he said, "is the ineluctable hard fact you wake to. The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day your wish is to be fulfilled."
"The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day--oh, it must not be, John! Heaven have mercy on me!"
"The unerring owls have hooted. The dispiteous and humorous gods have spoken. Miss Dobson, it has to be. And let me remind you," he added, with a glance at his watch, "that you ought not to keep The MacQuern waiting for luncheon."
"That is unworthy of you," she said. There was in her eyes a look that made the words sound as if they had been spoken by a dumb animal.
"You have sent him an excuse?"
"No, I have forgotten him."
"That is unworthy of you. After all, he is going to die for you, like the rest of us. I am but one of a number, you know. Use your sense of proportion."
"If I do that," she said after a pause, "you may not be pleased by the issue. I may find that whereas yesterday I was great in my sinfulness, and to-day am great in my love, you, in your hate of me, are small. I may find that what I had taken to be a great indifference is nothing but a very small hate . . . Ah, I have wounded you? Forgive me, a weak woman, talking at random in her wretchedness. Oh John, John, if I thought you small, my love would but take on the crown of pity. Don't forbid me to call you John. I looked you up in Debrett while I was waiting for you. That seemed to bring you nearer to me. So many other names you have, too. I remember you told me them all yesterday, here in this room--not twenty-four hours ago. Hours? Years!" She laughed hysterically. "John, don't you see why I won't stop talking? It's because I dare not think."
"Yonder in Balliol," he suavely said, "you will find the matter of my death easier to forget than here." He took her hat and gloves from the arm-chair, and held them carefully out to her; but she did not take them.
"I give you three minutes," he told her. "Two minutes, that is, in which to make yourself tidy before the mirror. A third in which to say good-bye and be outside the front-door."
"If I refuse?"
"You will not."
"If I do?"
"I shall send for a policeman."
She looked well at him. "Yes," she slowly said, "I think you would do that."
She took her things from him, and laid them by the mirror. With a high hand she quelled the excesses of her hair--some of the curls still agleam with water--and knowingly poised and pinned her hat. Then, after a few swift touches and passes at neck and waist, she took her gloves and, wheeling round to him, "There!" she said, "I have been quick."
"Admirably," he allowed.
"Quick in more than meets the eye, John. Spiritually quick. You saw me putting on my hat; you did not see love taking on the crown of pity, and me bonneting her with it, tripping her up and trampling the life out of her. Oh, a most cold-blooded business, John! Had to be done, though. No other way out. So I just used my sense of proportion, as you rashly bade me, and then hardened my heart at sight of you as you are. One of a number? Yes, and a quite unlovable unit. So I am all right again. And now, where is Balliol? Far from here?"
"No," he answered, choking a little, as might a card-player who, having been dealt a splendid hand, and having played it with flawless skill, has yet--damn it!--lost the odd trick. "Balliol is quite near. At the end of this street in fact. I can show it to you from the front-door."
Yes, he had controlled himself. But this, he furiously felt, did not make him look the less a fool. What ought he to have SAID? He prayed, as he followed the victorious young woman downstairs, that l'esprit de l'escalier might befall him. Alas, it did not.
"By the way," she said, when he had shown her where Balliol lay, "have you told anybody that you aren't dying just for me?"
"No," he answered, "I have preferred not to."
"Then officially, as it were, and in the eyes of the world, you die for me? Then all's well that ends well. Shall we say good-bye here? I shall be on the Judas Barge; but I suppose there will be a crush, as yesterday?"
"Sure to be. There always is on the last night of the Eights, you know. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, little John--small John," she cried across her shoulder, having the last word.
He might not have grudged her the last word, had she properly needed it. Its utter superfluity--the perfection of her victory without it-- was what galled him. Yes, she had outflanked him, taken him unawares, and he had fired not one shot. Esprit de l'escalier--it was as he went upstairs that he saw how he might yet have snatched from her, if not the victory, the palm. Of course he ought to have laughed aloud-- "Capital, capital! You really do deserve to fool me. But ah, yours is a love that can't be dissembled. Never was man by maiden loved more ardently than I by you, my poor girl, at this moment."
And stay!--what if she really HAD been but pretending to have killed her love? He paused on the threshold of his room. The sudden doubt made his lost chance the more sickening. Yet was the doubt dear to him . . . What likelier, after all, than that she had been pretending? She had already twitted him with his lack of intuition. He had not seen that she loved him when she certainly did love him. He had needed the pearls' demonstration of that.--The pearls! THEY would betray her. He darted to the fender, and one of them he espied there instantly-- white? A rather flushed white, certainly. For the other he had to peer down. There it lay, not very distinct on the hearth's black-leading.
He turned away. He blamed himself for not dismissing from his mind the hussy he had dismissed from his room. Oh for an ounce of civet and a few poppies! The water-jug stood as a reminder of the hateful visit and of . . . He took it hastily away into his bedroom. There he washed his hands. The fact that he had touched Zuleika gave to this ablution a symbolism that made it the more refreshing.
Civet, poppies? Was there not, at his call, a sweeter perfume, a stronger anodyne? He rang the bell, almost caressingly.
His heart beat at sound of the clinking and rattling of the tray borne up the stairs. She was coming, the girl who loved him, the girl whose heart would be broken when he died. Yet, when the tray appeared in the doorway, and she behind it, the tray took precedence of her in his soul not less than in his sight. Twice, after an arduous morning, had his luncheon been postponed, and the coming of it now made intolerable the pangs of his hunger.
Also, while the girl laid the table-cloth, it occurred to him how flimsy, after all, was the evidence that she loved him. Suppose she did nothing of the kind! At the Junta, he had foreseen no difficulty in asking her. Now he found himself a prey to embarrassment. He wondered why. He had not failed in flow of gracious words to Nellie O'Mora. Well, a miniature by Hoppner was one thing, a landlady's live daughter was another. At any rate, he must prime himself with food. He wished Mrs. Batch had sent up something more calorific than cold salmon. He asked her daughter what was to follow.
"There's a pigeon-pie, your Grace."
"Cold? Then please ask your mother to heat it in the oven--quickly. Anything after that?"
"A custard pudding, your Grace."
"Cold? Let this, too, be heated. And bring up a bottle of champagne, please; and--and a bottle of port."
His was a head that had always hitherto defied the grape. But he thought that to-day, by all he had gone through, by all the shocks he had suffered, and the strains he had steeled himself to bear, as well as by the actual malady that gripped him, he might perchance have been sapped enough to experience by reaction that cordial glow of which he had now and again seen symptoms in his fellows.
Nor was he altogether disappointed of this hope. As the meal progressed, and the last of the champagne sparkled in his glass, certain things said to him by Zuleika--certain implied criticisms that had rankled, yes--lost their power to discommode him. He was able to smile at the impertinences of an angry woman, the tantrums of a tenth-rate conjurer told to go away. He felt he had perhaps acted harshly. With all her faults, she had adored him. Yes, he had been arbitrary. There seemed to be a strain of brutality in his nature. Poor Zuleika! He was glad for her that she had contrived to master her infatuation . . . Enough for him that he was loved by this exquisite meek girl who had served him at the feast. Anon, when he summoned her to clear the things away, he would bid her tell him the tale of her lowly passion. He poured a second glass of port, sipped it, quaffed it, poured a third. The grey gloom of the weather did but, as he eyed the bottle, heighten his sense of the rich sunshine so long ago imprisoned by the vintner and now released to make glad his soul. Even so to be released was the love pent for him in the heart of this sweet girl. Would that he loved her in return! . . . Why not?
Serva Briseis niveo colore
Nor were it gracious to invite an avowal of love and offer none in return. Yet, yet, expansive though his mood was, he could not pretend to himself that he was about to feel in this girl's presence anything but gratitude. He might pretend to her? Deception were a very poor return indeed for all her kindness. Besides, it might turn her head. Some small token of his gratitude--some trinket by which to remember him--was all that he could allow himself to offer . . . What trinket? Would she like to have one of his scarf-pins? Studs? Still more abs-- Ah! he had it, he literally and most providentially had it, there, in the fender: a pair of ear-rings!
He plucked the pink pearl and the black from where they lay, and rang the bell.
His sense of dramatic propriety needed that the girl should, before he addressed her, perform her task of clearing the table. If she had it to perform after telling her love, and after receiving his gift and his farewell, the bathos would be distressing for them both.
But, while he watched her at her task, he did wish she would be a little quicker. For the glow in him seemed to be cooling momently. He wished he had had more than three glasses from the crusted bottle which she was putting away into the chiffonier. Down, doubt! Down, sense of disparity! The moment was at hand. Would he let it slip? Now she was folding up the table-cloth, now she was going.
"Stay!" he uttered. "I have something to say to you." The girl turned to him.
He forced his eyes to meet hers. "I understand," he said in a constrained voice, "that you regard me with sentiments of something more than esteem.--Is this so?"
The girl had stepped quickly back, and her face was scarlet.
"Nay," he said, having to go through with it now, "there is no cause for embarrassment. And I am sure you will acquit me of wanton curiosity. Is it a fact that you--love me?"
She tried to speak, could not. But she nodded her head.
The Duke, much relieved, came nearer to her.
"What is your name?" he asked gently.
"Katie," she was able to gasp.
"Well, Katie, how long have you loved me?"
"Ever since," she faltered, "ever since you came to engage the rooms."
"You are not, of course, given to idolising any tenant of your mother's?"
"May I boast myself the first possessor of your heart?"
"Yes." She had become very pale now, and was trembling painfully.
"And may I assume that your love for me has been entirely disinterested? . . . You do not catch my meaning? I will put my question in another way. In loving me, you never supposed me likely to return your love?"
The girl looked up at him quickly, but at once her eyelids fluttered down again.
"Come, come!" said the Duke. "My question is a plain one. Did you ever for an instant suppose, Katie, that I might come to love you?"
"No," she said in a whisper; "I never dared to hope that."
"Precisely," said he. "You never imagined that you had anything to gain by your affection. You were not contriving a trap for me. You were upheld by no hope of becoming a young Duchess, with more frocks than you could wear and more dross than you could scatter. I am glad. I am touched. You are the first woman that has loved me in that way. Or rather," he muttered, "the first but one. And she . . . Answer me," he said, standing over the girl, and speaking with a great intensity. "If I were to tell you that I loved you, would you cease to love me?"
"Oh your Grace!" cried the girl. "Why no! I never dared--"
"Enough!" he said. "The catechism is ended. I have something which I should like to give you. Are your ears pierced?"
"Yes, your Grace."
"Then, Katie, honour me by accepting this present." So saying, he placed in the girl's hand the black pearl and the pink. The sight of them banished for a moment all other emotions in their recipient. She forgot herself. "Lor!" she said.
"I hope you will wear them always for my sake," said the Duke.
She had expressed herself in the monosyllable. No words came to her lips, but to her eyes many tears, through which the pearls were visible. They whirled in her bewildered brain as a token that she was loved--loved by HIM, though but yesterday he had loved another. It was all so sudden, so beautiful. You might have knocked her down (she says so to this day) with a feather. Seeing her agitation, the Duke pointed to a chair, bade her be seated.
Her mind was cleared by the new posture. Suspicion crept into it, followed by alarm. She looked at the ear-rings, then up at the Duke.
"No," said he, misinterpreting the question in her eyes, "they are real pearls."
"It isn't that," she quavered, "it is--it is--"
"That they were given to me by Miss Dobson?"
"Oh, they were, were they? Then"--Katie rose, throwing the pearls on the floor--"I'll have nothing to do with them. I hate her."
"So do I," said the Duke, in a burst of confidence. "No, I don't," he added hastily. "Please forget that I said that."
It occurred to Katie that Miss Dobson would be ill-pleased that the pearls should pass to her. She picked them up.
"Only--only--" again her doubts beset her and she looked from the pearls to the Duke.
"Speak on," he said.
"Oh you aren't playing with me, are you? You don't mean me harm, do you? I have been well brought up. I have been warned against things. And it seems so strange, what you have said to me. You are a Duke, and I--I am only--"
"It is the privilege of nobility to condescend."
"Yes, yes," she cried. "I see. Oh I was wicked to doubt you. And love levels all, doesn't it? love and the Board school. Our stations are far apart, but I've been educated far above mine. I've learnt more than most real ladies have. I passed the Seventh Standard when I was only just fourteen. I was considered one of the sharpest girls in the school. And I've gone on learning since then," she continued eagerly. "I utilise all my spare moments. I've read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books. I collect ferns. I play the piano, whenever . . ." She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke's bell and a polite request that it should cease.
"I am glad to hear of these accomplishments. They do you great credit, I am sure. But--well, I do not quite see why you enumerate them just now."
"It isn't that I am vain," she pleaded. "I only mentioned them because . . . oh, don't you see? If I'm not ignorant, I shan't disgrace you. People won't be so able to say you've been and thrown yourself away."
"Thrown myself away? What do you mean?"
"Oh, they'll make all sorts of objections, I know. They'll all be against me, and--"
"For heaven's sake, explain yourself."
"Your aunt, she looked a very proud lady--very high and hard. I thought so when she came here last term. But you're of age. You're your own master. Oh, I trust you; you'll stand by me. If you love me really you won't listen to them."
"Love you? I? Are you mad?"
Each stared at the other, utterly bewildered.
The girl was the first to break the silence. Her voice came in a whisper. "You've not been playing a joke on me? You meant what you said, didn't you?"
"What have I said?"
"You said you loved me."
"You must be dreaming."
"I'm not. Here are the ear-rings you gave me." She pinched them as material proof. "You said you loved me just before you gave me them. You know you did. And if I thought you'd been laughing at me all the time--I'd--I'd"--a sob choked her voice--"I'd throw them in your face!"
"You must not speak to me in that manner," said the Duke coldly. "And let me warn you that this attempt to trap me and intimidate me--"
The girl had flung the ear-rings at his face. She had missed her mark. But this did not extenuate the outrageous gesture. He pointed to the door. "Go!" he said.
"Don't try that on!" she laughed. "I shan't go--not unless you drag me out. And if you do that, I'll raise the house. I'll have in the neighbours. I'll tell them all what you've done, and--" But defiance melted in the hot shame of humiliation. "Oh, you coward!" she gasped. "You coward!" She caught her apron to her face and, swaying against the wall, sobbed piteously.
Unaccustomed to love-affairs, the Duke could not sail lightly over a flood of woman's tears. He was filled with pity for the poor quivering figure against the wall. How should he soothe her? Mechanically he picked up the two pearls from the carpet, and crossed to her side. He touched her on the shoulder. She shuddered away from him.
"Don't," he said gently. "Don't cry. I can't bear it. I have been stupid and thoughtless. What did you say your name was? 'Katie,' to be sure. Well, Katie, I want to beg your pardon. I expressed myself badly. I was unhappy and lonely, and I saw in you a means of comfort. I snatched at you, Katie, as at a straw. And then, I suppose, I must have said something which made you think I loved you. I almost wish I did. I don't wonder you threw the ear-rings at me. I--I almost wish they had hit me . . . You see, I have quite forgiven you. Now do you forgive me. You will not refuse now to wear the ear-rings. I gave them to you as a keepsake. Wear them always in memory of me. For you will never see me again."
The girl had ceased from crying, and her anger had spent itself in sobs. She was gazing at him woebegone but composed.
"Where are you going?"
"You must not ask that," said he. "Enough that my wings are spread."
"Are you going because of ME?"
"Not in the least. Indeed, your devotion is one of the things which make bitter my departure. And yet--I am glad you love me."
"Don't go," she faltered. He came nearer to her, and this time she did not shrink from him. "Don't you find the rooms comfortable?" she asked, gazing up at him. "Have you ever had any complaint to make about the attendance?"
"No," said the Duke, "the attendance has always been quite satisfactory. I have never felt that so keenly as I do to-day."
"Then why are you leaving? Why are you breaking my heart?"
"Suffice it that I cannot do otherwise. Henceforth you will see me no more. But I doubt not that in the cultivation of my memory you will find some sort of lugubrious satisfaction. See! here are the ear- rings. If you like, I will put them in with my own hands."
She held up her face side-ways. Into the lobe of her left ear he insinuated the hook of the black pearl. On the cheek upturned to him there were still traces of tears; the eyelashes were still spangled. For all her blondness, they were quite dark, these glistening eyelashes. He had an impulse, which he put from him. "Now the other ear," he said. The girl turned her head. Soon the pink pearl was in its place. Yet the girl did not move. She seemed to be waiting. Nor did the Duke himself seem to be quite satisfied. He let his fingers dally with the pearl. Anon, with a sigh, he withdrew them. The girl looked up. Their eyes met. He looked away from her. He turned away from her. "You may kiss my hand," he murmured, extending it towards her. After a pause, the warm pressure of her lips was laid on it. He sighed, but did not look round. Another pause, a longer pause, and then the clatter and clink of the outgoing tray.
Her actual offspring does not suffice a very motherly woman. Such a woman was Mrs. Batch. Had she been blest with a dozen children, she must yet have regarded herself as also a mother to whatever two young gentlemen were lodging under her roof. Childless but for Katie and Clarence, she had for her successive pairs of tenants a truly vast fund of maternal feeling to draw on. Nor were the drafts made in secret. To every gentleman, from the outset, she proclaimed the relation in which she would stand to him. Moreover, always she needed a strong filial sense in return: this was only fair.
Because the Duke was an orphan, even more than because he was a Duke, her heart had with a special rush gone out to him when he and Mr. Noaks became her tenants. But, perhaps because he had never known a mother, he was evidently quite incapable of conceiving either Mrs. Batch as his mother or himself as her son. Indeed, there was that in his manner, in his look, which made her falter, for once, in exposition of her theory--made her postpone the matter to some more favourable time. That time never came, somehow. Still, her solicitude for him, her pride in him, her sense that he was a great credit to her, rather waxed than waned. He was more to her (such are the vagaries of the maternal instinct) than Katie or Mr. Noaks: he was as much as Clarence.
It was, therefore, a deeply agitated woman who now came heaving up into the Duke's presence. His Grace was "giving notice"? She was sure she begged his pardon for coming up so sudden. But the news was that sudden. Hadn't her girl made a mistake, maybe? Girls were so vague- like nowadays. She was sure it was most kind of him to give those handsome ear-rings. But the thought of him going off so unexpected-- middle of term, too--with never a why or a but! Well!
In some such welter of homely phrase (how foreign to these classic pages!) did Mrs. Batch utter her pain. The Duke answered her tersely but kindly. He apologised for going so abruptly, and said he would be very happy to write for her future use a testimonial to the excellence of her rooms and of her cooking; and with it he would give her a cheque not only for the full term's rent, and for his board since the beginning of term, but also for such board as he would have been likely to have in the term's remainder. He asked her to present her accounts forthwith.
He occupied the few minutes of her absence by writing the testimonial. It had shaped itself in his mind as a short ode in Doric Greek. But, for the benefit of Mrs. Batch, he chose to do a rough equivalent in English.
TO AN UNDERGRADUATE NEEDING
ROOMS IN OXFORD
(A Sonnet in Oxfordshire Dialect)
Zeek w'ere thee will in t'Univursity,
Lad, thee'll not vind nor bread nor bed that
Them as thee'll vind, roight zure, at Mrs.
Batch's . . .
I do not quote the poem in extenso, because, frankly, I think it was one of his least happily-inspired works. His was not a Muse that could with a good grace doff the grand manner. Also, his command of the Oxfordshire dialect seems to me based less on study than on conjecture. In fact, I do not place the poem higher than among the curiosities of literature. It has extrinsic value, however, as illustrating the Duke's thoughtfulness for others in the last hours of his life. And to Mrs. Batch the MS., framed and glazed in her hall, is an asset beyond price (witness her recent refusal of Mr. Pierpont Morgan's sensational bid for it).
This MS. she received together with the Duke's cheque. The presentation was made some twenty minutes after she had laid her accounts before him.
Lavish in giving large sums of his own accord, he was apt to be circumspect in the matter of small payments. Such is ever the way of opulent men. Nor do I see that we have a right to sneer at them for it. We cannot deny that their existence is a temptation to us. It is in our fallen nature to want to get something out of them; and, as we think in small sums (heaven knows), it is of small sums that they are careful. Absurd to suppose they really care about halfpence. It must, therefore, be about us that they care; and we ought to be grateful to them for the pains they are at to keep us guiltless. I do not suggest that Mrs. Batch had at any point overcharged the Duke; but how was he to know that she had not done so, except by checking the items, as was his wont? The reductions that he made, here and there, did not in all amount to three-and-sixpence. I do not say they were just. But I do say that his motive for making them, and his satisfaction at having made them, were rather beautiful than otherwise.
Having struck an average of Mrs. Batch's weekly charges, and a similar average of his own reductions, he had a basis on which to reckon his board for the rest of the term. This amount he added to Mrs. Batch's amended total, plus the full term's rent, and accordingly drew a cheque on the local bank where he had an account. Mrs. Batch said she would bring up a stamped receipt directly; but this the Duke waived, saying that the cashed cheque itself would be a sufficient receipt. Accordingly, he reduced by one penny the amount written on the cheque. Remembering to initial the correction, he remembered also, with a melancholy smile, that to-morrow the cheque would not be negotiable. Handing it, and the sonnet, to Mrs. Batch, he bade her cash it before the bank closed. "And," he said, "with a glance at his watch, "you have no time to lose. It is a quarter to four." Only two hours and a quarter before the final races! How quickly the sands were running out!
Mrs. Batch paused on the threshold, wanted to know if she could "help with the packing." The Duke replied that he was taking nothing with him: his various things would be sent for, packed, and removed, within a few days. No, he did not want her to order a cab. He was going to walk. And "Good-bye, Mrs. Batch," he said. "For legal reasons with which I won't burden you, you really must cash that cheque at once."
He sat down in solitude; and there crept over him a mood of deep depression . . . Almost two hours and a quarter before the final races! What on earth should he do in the meantime? He seemed to have done all that there was for him to do. His executors would do the rest. He had no farewell-letters to write. He had no friends with whom he was on terms of valediction. There was nothing at all for him to do. He stared blankly out of the window, at the greyness and blackness of the sky. What a day! What a climate! Why did any sane person live in England? He felt positively suicidal.
His dully vagrant eye lighted on the bottle of Cold Mixture. He ought to have dosed himself a full hour ago. Well, he didn't care.
Had Zuleika noticed the bottle? he idly wondered. Probably not. She would have made some sprightly reference to it before she went.
Since there was nothing to do but sit and think, he wished he could recapture that mood in which at luncheon he had been able to see Zuleika as an object for pity. Never, till to-day, had he seen things otherwise than they were. Nor had he ever needed to. Never, till last night, had there been in his life anything he needed to forget. That woman! As if it really mattered what she thought of him. He despised himself for wishing to forget she despised him. But the wish was the measure of the need. He eyed the chiffonier. Should he again solicit the grape?
Reluctantly he uncorked the crusted bottle, and filled a glass. Was he come to this? He sighed and sipped, quaffed and sighed. The spell of the old stored sunshine seemed not to work, this time. He could not cease from plucking at the net of ignominies in which his soul lay enmeshed. Would that he had died yesterday, escaping how much!
Not for an instant did he flinch from the mere fact of dying to-day. Since he was not immortal, as he had supposed, it were as well he should die now as fifty years hence. Better, indeed. To die "untimely," as men called it, was the timeliest of all deaths for one who had carved his youth to greatness. What perfection could he, Dorset, achieve beyond what was already his? Future years could but stale, if not actually mar, that perfection. Yes, it was lucky to perish leaving much to the imagination of posterity. Dear posterity was of a sentimental, not a realistic, habit. She always imagined the dead young hero prancing gloriously up to the Psalmist's limit a young hero still; and it was the sense of her vast loss that kept his memory green. Byron!--he would be all forgotten to-day if he had lived to be a florid old gentleman with iron-grey whiskers, writing very long, very able letters to "The Times" about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Yes, Byron would have been that. It was indicated in him. He would have been an old gentleman exacerbated by Queen Victoria's invincible prejudice against him, her brusque refusal to "entertain" Lord John Russell's timid nomination of him for a post in the Government . . . Shelley would have been a poet to the last. But how dull, how very dull, would have been the poetry of his middle age!--a great unreadable mass interposed between him and us . . . Did Byron, mused the Duke, know what was to be at Missolonghi? Did he know that he was to die in service of the Greeks whom he despised? Byron might not have minded that. But what if the Greeks had told him, in so many words, that they despised HIM? How would he have felt then? Would he have been content with his potations of barley-water? . . . The Duke replenished his glass, hoping the spell might work yet. . . . Perhaps, had Byron not been a dandy--but ah, had he not been in his soul a dandy there would have been no Byron worth mentioning. And it was because he guarded not his dandyism against this and that irrelevant passion, sexual or political, that he cut so annoyingly incomplete a figure. He was absurd in his politics, vulgar in his loves. Only in himself, at the times when he stood haughtily aloof, was he impressive. Nature, fashioning him, had fashioned also a pedestal for him to stand and brood on, to pose and sing on. Off that pedestal he was lost. . . . "The idol has come sliding down from its pedestal" --the Duke remembered these words spoken yesterday by Zuleika. Yes, at the moment when he slid down, he, too, was lost. For him, master- dandy, the common arena was no place. What had he to do with love? He was an utter fool at it. Byron had at least had some fun out of it. What fun had HE had? Last night, he had forgotten to kiss Zuleika when he held her by the wrists. To-day it had been as much as he could do to let poor little Katie kiss his hand. Better be vulgar with Byron than a noodle with Dorset! he bitterly reflected . . . Still, noodledom was nearer than vulgarity to dandyism. It was a less flagrant lapse. And he had over Byron this further advantage: his noodledom was not a matter of common knowledge; whereas Byron's vulgarity had ever needed to be in the glare of the footlights of Europe. The world would say of him that he laid down his life for a woman. Deplorable somersault? But nothing evident save this in his whole life was faulty . . . The one other thing that might be carped at--the partisan speech he made in the Lords--had exquisitely justified itself by its result. For it was as a Knight of the Garter that he had set the perfect seal on his dandyism. Yes, he reflected, it was on the day when first he donned the most grandiose of all costumes, and wore it grandlier than ever yet in history had it been worn, than ever would it be worn hereafter, flaunting the robes with a grace unparalleled and inimitable, and lending, as it were, to the very insignia a glory beyond their own, that he once and for all fulfilled himself, doer of that which he had been sent into the world to do.
And there floated into his mind a desire, vague at first, soon definite, imperious, irresistible, to see himself once more, before he died, indued in the fulness of his glory and his might.
Nothing hindered. There was yet a whole hour before he need start for the river. His eyes dilated, somewhat as might those of a child about to "dress up" for a charade; and already, in his impatience, he had undone his neck-tie.
One after another, he unlocked and threw open the black tin boxes, snatching out greedily their great good splendours of crimson and white and royal blue and gold. You wonder he was not appalled by the task of essaying unaided a toilet so extensive and so intricate? You wondered even when you heard that he was wont at Oxford to make without help his toilet of every day. Well, the true dandy is always capable of such high independence. He is craftsman as well as artist. And, though any unaided Knight but he with whom we are here concerned would belike have doddered hopeless in that labyrinth of hooks and buckles which underlies the visible glory of a Knight "arraied full and proper," Dorset threaded his way featly and without pause. He had mastered his first excitement. In his swiftness was no haste. His procedure had the ease and inevitability of a natural phenomenon, and was most like to the coming of a rainbow.
Crimson-doubleted, blue-ribanded, white-trunk-hosed, he stooped to understrap his left knee with that strap of velvet round which sparkles the proud gay motto of the Order. He affixed to his breast the octoradiant star, so much larger and more lustrous than any actual star in heaven. Round his neck he slung that long daedal chain wherefrom St. George, slaying the Dragon, dangles. He bowed his shoulders to assume that vast mantle of blue velvet, so voluminous, so enveloping, that, despite the Cross of St. George blazing on it, and the shoulder-knots like two great white tropical flowers planted on it, we seem to know from it in what manner of mantle Elijah prophesied. Across his breast he knotted this mantle's two cords of gleaming bullion, one tassel a due trifle higher than its fellow. All these things being done, he moved away from the mirror, and drew on a pair of white kid gloves. Both of these being buttoned, he plucked up certain folds of his mantle into the hollow of his left arm, and with his right hand gave to his left hand that ostrich-plumed and heron-plumed hat of black velvet in which a Knight of the Garter is entitled to take his walks abroad. Then, with head erect, and measured tread, he returned to the mirror.
You are thinking, I know, of Mr. Sargent's famous portrait of him. Forget it. Tankerton Hall is open to the public on Wednesdays. Go there, and in the dining-hall stand to study well Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the eleventh Duke. Imagine a man some twenty years younger than he whom you there behold, but having some such features and some such bearing, and clad in just such robes. Sublimate the dignity of that bearing and of those features, and you will then have seen the fourteenth Duke somewhat as he stood reflected in the mirror of his room. Resist your impulse to pass on to the painting which hangs next but two to Lawrence's. It deserves, I know, all that you said about it when (at the very time of the events in this chronicle) it was hanging in Burlington House. Marvellous, I grant you, are those passes of the swirling brush by which the velvet of the mantle is rendered--passes so light and seemingly so fortuitous, yet, seen at the right distance, so absolute in their power to create an illusion of the actual velvet. Sheen of white satin and silk, glint of gold, glitter of diamonds--never were such things caught by surer hand obedient to more voracious eye. Yes, all the splendid surface of everything is there. Yet must you not look. The soul is not there. An expensive, very new costume is there, but no evocation of the high antique things it stands for; whereas by the Duke it was just these things that were evoked to make an aura round him, a warm symbolic glow sharpening the outlines of his own particular magnificence. Reflecting him, the mirror reflected, in due subordination, the history of England. There is nothing of that on Mr. Sargent's canvas. Obtruded instead is the astounding slickness of Mr. Sargent's technique: not the sitter, but the painter, is master here. Nay, though I hate to say it, there is in the portrayal of the Duke's attitude and expression a hint of something like mockery-- unintentional, I am sure, but to a sensitive eye discernible. And--but it is clumsy of me to be reminding you of the very picture I would have you forget.
Long stood the Duke gazing, immobile. One thing alone ruffled his deep inward calm. This was the thought that he must presently put off from him all his splendour, and be his normal self.
The shadow passed from his brow. He would go forth as he was. He would be true to the motto he wore, and true to himself. A dandy he had lived. In the full pomp and radiance of his dandyism he would die.
His soul rose from calm to triumph. A smile lit his face, and he held his head higher than ever. He had brought nothing into this world and could take nothing out of it? Well, what he loved best he could carry with him to the very end; and in death they would not be divided.
The smile was still on his face as he passed out from his room. Down the stairs he passed, and "Oh," every stair creaked faintly, "I ought to have been marble!"
And it did indeed seem that Mrs. Batch and Katie, who had hurried out into the hall, were turned to some kind of stone at sight of the descending apparition. A moment ago, Mrs. Batch had been hoping she might yet at the last speak motherly words. A hopeless mute now! A moment ago, Katie's eyelids had been red with much weeping. Even from them the colour suddenly ebbed now. Dead-white her face was between the black pearl and the pink. "And this is the man of whom I dared once for an instant hope that he loved me!"--it was thus that the Duke, quite correctly, interpreted her gaze.
To her and to her mother he gave an inclusive bow as he swept slowly by. Stone was the matron, and stone the maid.
Stone, too, the Emperors over the way; and the more poignantly thereby was the Duke a sight to anguish them, being the very incarnation of what themselves had erst been, or tried to be. But in this bitterness they did not forget their sorrow at his doom. They were in a mood to forgive him the one fault they had ever found in him--his indifference to their Katie. And now--o mirum mirorum--even this one fault was wiped out.
For, stung by memory of a gibe lately cast at him by himself, the Duke had paused and, impulsively looking back into the hall, had beckoned Katie to him; and she had come (she knew not how) to him; and there, standing on the doorstep whose whiteness was the symbol of her love, he--very lightly, it is true, and on the upmost confines of the brow, but quite perceptibly--had kissed her.
And now he had passed under the little arch between the eighth and the ninth Emperor, rounded the Sheldonian, and been lost to sight of Katie, whom, as he was equally glad and sorry he had kissed her, he was able to dismiss from his mind.
In the quadrangle of the Old Schools he glanced round at the familiar labels, blue and gold, over the iron-studded doors,--Schola Theologiae et Antiquae Philosophiae; Museum Arundelianum; Schola Musicae. And Bibliotheca Bodleiana--he paused there, to feel for the last time the vague thrill he had always felt at sight of the small and devious portal that had lured to itself, and would always lure, so many scholars from the ends of the earth, scholars famous and scholars obscure, scholars polyglot and of the most diverse bents, but none of them not stirred in heart somewhat on the found threshold of the treasure-house. "How deep, how perfect, the effect made here by refusal to make any effect whatsoever!" thought the Duke. Perhaps, after all . . . but no: one could lay down no general rule. He flung his mantle a little wider from his breast, and proceeded into Radcliffe Square.
Another farewell look he gave to the old vast horse-chestnut that is called Bishop Heber's tree. Certainly, no: there was no general rule. With its towering and bulging masses of verdure tricked out all over in their annual finery of catkins, Bishop Heber's tree stood for the very type of ingenuous ostentation. And who should dare cavil? who not be gladdened? Yet awful, more than gladdening, was the effect that the tree made to-day. Strangely pale was the verdure against the black sky; and the multitudinous catkins had a look almost ghostly. The Duke remembered the legend that every one of these fair white spires of blossom is the spirit of some dead man who, having loved Oxford much and well, is suffered thus to revisit her, for a brief while, year by year. And it pleased him to doubt not that on one of the topmost branches, next Spring, his own spirit would be.
"Oh, look!" cried a young lady emerging with her brother and her aunt through the gate of Brasenose.
"For heaven's sake, Jessie, try to behave yourself," hissed her brother. "Aunt Mabel, for heaven's sake don't stare." He compelled the pair to walk on with him. "Jessie, if you look round over your shoulder . . . No, it is NOT the Vice-Chancellor. It's Dorset, of Judas--the Duke of Dorset . . . Why on earth shouldn't he? . . . No, it isn't odd in the least . . . No, I'm NOT losing my temper. Only, don't call me your dear boy . . . No, we will NOT walk slowly so as to let him pass us . . . Jessie, if you look round . . ."
Poor fellow! However fond an undergraduate be of his womenfolk, at Oxford they keep him in a painful state of tension: at any moment they may somehow disgrace him. And if throughout the long day he shall have had the added strain of guarding them from the knowledge that he is about to commit suicide, a certain measure of irritability must be condoned.
Poor Jessie and Aunt Mabel! They were destined to remember that Harold had been "very peculiar" all day. They had arrived in the morning, happy and eager despite the menace of the sky, and--well, they were destined to reproach themselves for having felt that Harold was "really rather impossible." Oh, if he had only confided in them! They could have reasoned with him, saved him--surely they could have saved him! When he told them that the "First Division" of the races was always very dull, and that they had much better let him go to it alone,--when he told them that it was always very rowdy, and that ladies were not supposed to be there--oh, why had they not guessed and clung to him, and kept him away from the river?
Well, here they were, walking on Harold's either side, blind to fate, and only longing to look back at the gorgeous personage behind them. Aunt Mabel had inwardly calculated that the velvet of the mantle alone could not have cost less than four guineas a yard. One good look back, and she would be able to calculate how many yards there were . . . She followed the example of Lot's wife; and Jessie followed hers.
"Very well," said Harold. "That settles it. I go alone." And he was gone like an arrow, across the High, down Oriel Street.
The two women stood staring ruefully at each other.
"Pardon me," said the Duke, with a sweep of his plumed hat. "I observe you are stranded; and, if I read your thoughts aright, you are impugning the courtesy of that young runagate. Neither of you, I am very sure, is as one of those ladies who in Imperial Rome took a saucy pleasure in the spectacle of death. Neither of you can have been warned by your escort that you were on the way to see him die, of his own accord, in company with many hundreds of other lads, myself included. Therefore, regard his flight from you as an act not of unkindness, but of tardy compunction. The hint you have had from him let me turn into a counsel. Go back, both of you, to the place whence you came."
"Thank you SO much," said Aunt Mabel, with what she took to be great presence of mind. "MOST kind of you. We'll do JUST what you tell us. Come, Jessie dear," and she hurried her niece away with her.
Something in her manner of fixing him with her eye had made the Duke suspect what was in her mind. Well, she would find out her mistake soon enough, poor woman. He desired, however, that her mistake should be made by no one else. He would give no more warnings.
Tragic it was for him, in Merton Street, to see among the crowd converging to the meadows so many women, young and old, all imprescient, troubled by nothing but the thunder that was in the air, that was on the brows of their escorts. He knew not whether it was for their escorts or for them that he felt the greater pity; and an added load for his heart was the sense of his partial responsibility for what impended. But his lips were sealed now. Why should he not enjoy the effect he was creating?
It was with a measured tread, as yesterday with Zuleika, that he entered the avenue of elms. The throng streamed past from behind him, parting wide, and marvelling as it streamed. Under the pall of this evil evening his splendour was the more inspiring. And, just as yesterday no man had questioned his right to be with Zuleika, so to-day there was none to deem him caparisoned too much. All the men felt at a glance that he, coming to meet death thus, did no more than the right homage to Zuleika--aye, and that he made them all partakers in his own glory, casting his great mantle over all commorients. Reverence forbade them to do more than glance. But the women with them were impelled by wonder to stare hard, uttering sharp little cries that mingled with the cawing of the rooks overhead. Thus did scores of men find themselves shamed like our friend Harold. But this, you say, was no more than a just return for their behaviour yesterday, when, in this very avenue, so many women were almost crushed to death by them in their insensate eagerness to see Miss Dobson.
To-day by scores of women it was calculated not only that the velvet of the Duke's mantle could not have cost less than four guineas a yard, but also that there must be quite twenty-five yards of it. Some of the fair mathematicians had, in the course of the past fortnight, visited the Royal Academy and seen there Mr. Sargent's portrait of the wearer, so that their estimate now was but the endorsement of an estimate already made. Yet their impression of the Duke was above all a spiritual one. The nobility of his face and bearing was what most thrilled them as they went by; and those of them who had heard the rumour that he was in love with that frightfully flashy-looking creature, Zuleika Dobson, were more than ever sure there wasn't a word of truth in it.
As he neared the end of the avenue, the Duke was conscious of a thinning in the procession on either side of him, and anon he was aware that not one undergraduate was therein. And he knew at once-- did not need to look back to know--why this was. SHE was coming.
Yes, she had come into the avenue, her magnetism speeding before her, insomuch that all along the way the men immediately ahead of her looked round, beheld her, stood aside for her. With her walked The MacQuern, and a little bodyguard of other blest acquaintances; and behind her swayed the dense mass of the disorganised procession. And now the last rank between her and the Duke was broken, and at the revealed vision of him she faltered midway in some raillery she was addressing to The MacQuern. Her eyes were fixed, her lips were parted, her tread had become stealthy. With a brusque gesture of dismissal to the men beside her, she darted forward, and lightly overtook the Duke just as he was turning towards the barges.
"May I?" she whispered, smiling round into his face.
His shoulder-knots just perceptibly rose.
"There isn't a policeman in sight, John. You're at my mercy. No, no; I'm at yours. Tolerate me. You really do look quite wonderful. There, I won't be so impertinent as to praise you. Only let me be with you. Will you?"
The shoulder-knots repeated their answer.
"You needn't listen to me; needn't look at me--unless you care to use my eyes as mirrors. Only let me be seen with you. That's what I want. Not that your society isn't a boon in itself, John. Oh, I've been so bored since I left you. The MacQuern is too, too dull, and so are his friends. Oh, that meal with them in Balliol! As soon as I grew used to the thought that they were going to die for me, I simply couldn't stand them. Poor boys! it was as much as I could do not to tell them I wished them dead already. Indeed, when they brought me down for the first races, I did suggest that they might as well die now as later. Only they looked very solemn and said it couldn't possibly be done till after the final races. And oh, the tea with them! What have YOU been doing all the afternoon? Oh John, after THEM, I could almost love you again. Why can't one fall in love with a man's clothes? To think that all those splendid things you have on are going to be spoilt--all for me. Nominally for me, that is. It is very wonderful, John. I do appreciate it, really and truly, though I know you think I don't. John, if it weren't mere spite you feel for me--but it's no good talking about that. Come, let us be as cheerful as we may be. Is this the Judas house-boat?"
"The Judas barge," said the Duke, irritated by a mistake which but yesterday had rather charmed him.
As he followed his companion across the plank, there came dully from the hills the first low growl of the pent storm. The sound struck for him a strange contrast with the prattle he had perforce been listening to.
"Thunder," said Zuleika over her shoulder.
"Evidently," he answered.
Half-way up the stairs to the roof, she looked round. "Aren't you coming?" she asked.
He shook his head, and pointed to the raft in front of the barge. She quickly descended.
"Forgive me," he said, "my gesture was not a summons. The raft is for men."
"What do you want to do on it?"
"To wait there till the races are over."
"But--what do you mean? Aren't you coming up on to the roof at all? Yesterday--"
"Oh, I see," said the Duke, unable to repress a smile. "But to-day I am not dressed for a flying-leap."
Zuleika put a finger to her lips. "Don't talk so loud. Those women up there will hear you. No one must ever know I knew what was going to happen. What evidence should I have that I tried to prevent it? Only my own unsupported word--and the world is always against a woman. So do be careful. I've thought it all out. The whole thing must be SPRUNG on me. Don't look so horribly cynical . . . What was I saying? Oh yes; well, it doesn't really matter. I had it fixed in my mind that you-- but no, of course, in that mantle you couldn't. But why not come up on the roof with me meanwhile, and then afterwards make some excuse and--" The rest of her whisper was lost in another growl of thunder.
"I would rather make my excuses forthwith," said the Duke. "And, as the races must be almost due now, I advise you to go straight up and secure a place against the railing."
"It will look very odd, my going all alone into a crowd of people whom I don't know. I'm an unmarried girl. I do think you might--"
"Good-bye," said the Duke.
Again Zuleika raised a warning finger.
"Good-bye, John," she whispered. "See, I am still wearing your studs. Good-bye. Don't forget to call my name in a loud voice. You promised."
"And," she added, after a pause, "remember this. I have loved but twice in my life; and none but you have I loved. This, too: if you hadn't forced me to kill my love, I would have died with you. And you know it is true."
"Yes." It was true enough.
Courteously he watched her up the stairs.
As she reached the roof, she cried down to him from the throng, "Then you will wait down there to take me home afterwards?"
He bowed silently.
The raft was even more crowded than yesterday, but way was made for him by Judasians past and present. He took his place in the centre of the front row.
At his feet flowed the fateful river. From the various barges the last punt-loads had been ferried across to the towing-path, and the last of the men who were to follow the boats in their course had vanished towards the starting-point. There remained, however, a fringe of lesser enthusiasts. Their figures stood outlined sharply in that strange dark clearness which immediately precedes a storm.
The thunder rumbled around the hills, and now and again there was a faint glare on the horizon.
Would Judas bump Magdalen? Opinion on the raft seemed to be divided. But the sanguine spirits were in a majority.
"If I were making a book on the event," said a middle-aged clergyman, with that air of breezy emancipation which is so distressing to the laity, "I'd bet two to one we bump."
"You demean your cloth, sir," the Duke would have said, "without cheating its disabilities," had not his mouth been stopped by a loud and prolonged thunder-clap.
In the hush thereafter, came the puny sound of a gunshot. The boats were starting. Would Judas bump Magdalen? Would Judas be head of the river?
Strange, thought the Duke, that for him, standing as he did on the peak of dandyism, on the brink of eternity, this trivial question of boats could have importance. And yet, and yet, for this it was that his heart was beating. A few minutes hence, an end to victors and vanquished alike; and yet . . .
A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky. Then there was a consonance to split the drums of the world's ears, followed by a horrific rattling as of actual artillery--tens of thousands of gun-carriages simultaneously at the gallop, colliding, crashing, heeling over in the blackness.
Then, and yet more awful, silence; the little earth cowering voiceless under the heavens' menace. And, audible in the hush now, a faint sound; the sound of the runners on the towing-path cheering the crews forward, forward.
And there was another faint sound that came to the Duke's ears. It he understood when, a moment later, he saw the surface of the river alive with infinitesimal fountains.
His very mantle was aspersed. In another minute he would stand sodden, inglorious, a mock. He didn't hesitate.
"Zuleika!" he cried in a loud voice. Then he took a deep breath, and, burying his face in his mantle, plunged.
Full on the river lay the mantle outspread. Then it, too, went under. A great roll of water marked the spot. The plumed hat floated.
There was a confusion of shouts from the raft, of screams from the roof. Many youths--all the youths there--cried "Zuleika!" and leapt emulously headlong into the water. "Brave fellows!" shouted the elder men, supposing rescue-work. The rain pelted, the thunder pealed. Here and there was a glimpse of a young head above water--for an instant only.
Shouts and screams now from the infected barges on either side. A score of fresh plunges. "Splendid fellows!"
Meanwhile, what of the Duke? I am glad to say that he was alive and (but for the cold he had caught last night) well. Indeed, his mind had never worked more clearly than in this swift dim underworld. His mantle, the cords of it having come untied, had drifted off him, leaving his arms free. With breath well-pent, he steadily swam, scarcely less amused than annoyed that the gods had, after all, dictated the exact time at which he should seek death.
I am loth to interrupt my narrative at this rather exciting moment--a moment when the quick, tense style, exemplified in the last paragraph but one, is so very desirable. But in justice to the gods I must pause to put in a word of excuse for them. They had imagined that it was in mere irony that the Duke had said he could not die till after the bumping-races; and not until it seemed that he stood ready to make an end of himself had the signal been given by Zeus for the rain to fall. One is taught to refrain from irony, because mankind does tend to take it literally. In the hearing of the gods, who hear all, it is conversely unsafe to make a simple and direct statement. So what is one to do? The dilemma needs a whole volume to itself.
But to return to the Duke. He had now been under water for a full minute, swimming down stream; and he calculated that he had yet another full minute of consciousness. Already the whole of his past life had vividly presented itself to him--myriads of tiny incidents, long forgotten, now standing out sharply in their due sequence. He had mastered this conspectus in a flash of time, and was already tired of it. How smooth and yielding were the weeds against his face! He wondered if Mrs. Batch had been in time to cash the cheque. If not, of course his executors would pay the amount, but there would be delays, long delays, Mrs. Batch in meshes of red tape. Red tape for her, green weeds for him--he smiled at this poor conceit, classifying it as a fair sample of merman's wit. He swam on through the quiet cool darkness, less quickly now. Not many more strokes now, he told himself; a few, only a few; then sleep. How was he come here? Some woman had sent him. Ever so many years ago, some woman. He forgave her. There was nothing to forgive her. It was the gods who had sent him--too soon, too soon. He let his arms rise in the water, and he floated up. There was air in that over-world, and something he needed to know there before he came down again to sleep.
He gasped the air into his lungs, and he remembered what it was that he needed to know.
Had he risen in mid-stream, the keel of the Magdalen boat might have killed him. The oars of Magdalen did all but graze his face. The eyes of the Magdalen cox met his. The cords of the Magdalen rudder slipped from the hands that held them; whereupon the Magdalen man who rowed "bow" missed his stroke.
An instant later, just where the line of barges begins, Judas had bumped Magdalen.
A crash of thunder deadened the din of the stamping and dancing crowd on the towing-path. The rain was a deluge making land and water as one.
And the conquered crew, and the conquering, both now had seen the face of the Duke. A white smiling face, anon it was gone. Dorset was gone down to his last sleep.
Victory and defeat alike forgotten, the crews staggered erect and flung themselves into the river, the slender boats capsizing and spinning futile around in a melley of oars.
From the towing-path--no more din there now, but great single cries of "Zuleika!"--leapt figures innumerable through rain to river. The arrested boats of the other crews drifted zigzag hither and thither. The dropped oars rocked and clashed, sank and rebounded, as the men plunged across them into the swirling stream.
And over all this confusion and concussion of men and man-made things crashed the vaster discords of the heavens; and the waters of the heavens fell ever denser and denser, as though to the aid of waters that could not in themselves envelop so many hundreds of struggling human forms.
All along the soaked towing-path lay strewn the horns, the rattles, the motor-hooters, that the youths had flung aside before they leapt. Here and there among these relics stood dazed elder men, staring through the storm. There was one of them--a grey-beard--who stripped off his blazer, plunged, grabbed at some live man, grappled him, was dragged under. He came up again further along stream, swam choking to the bank, clung to the grasses. He whimpered as he sought foot-hold in the slime. It was ill to be down in that abominable sink of death.
Abominable, yes, to them who discerned there death only; but sacramental and sweet enough to the men who were dying there for love. Any face that rose was smiling.
The thunder receded; the rain was less vehement: the boats and the oars had drifted against the banks. And always the patient river bore its awful burden towards Iffley.
As on the towing-path, so on the youth-bereft rafts of the barges, yonder, stood many stupefied elders, staring at the river, staring back from the river into one another's faces.
Dispeopled now were the roofs of the barges. Under the first drops of the rain most of the women had come huddling down for shelter inside; panic had presently driven down the rest. Yet on one roof one woman still was. A strange, drenched figure, she stood bright-eyed in the dimness; alone, as it was well she should be in her great hour; draining the lees of such homage as had come to no woman in history recorded.
Artistically, there is a good deal to be said for that old Greek friend of ours, the Messenger; and I dare say you blame me for having, as it were, made you an eye-witness of the death of the undergraduates, when I might so easily have brought some one in to tell you about it after it was all over . . . Some one? Whom? Are you not begging the question? I admit there were, that evening in Oxford, many people who, when they went home from the river, gave vivid reports of what they had seen. But among them was none who had seen more than a small portion of the whole affair. Certainly, I might have pieced together a dozen of the various accounts, and put them all into the mouth of one person. But credibility is not enough for Clio's servant. I aim at truth. And so, as I by my Zeus-given incorporeity was the one person who had a good view of the scene at large, you must pardon me for having withheld the veil of indirect narration.
"Too late," you will say if I offer you a Messenger now. But it was not thus that Mrs. Batch and Katie greeted Clarence when, lamentably soaked with rain, that Messenger appeared on the threshold of the kitchen. Katie was laying the table-cloth for seven o'clock supper. Neither she nor her mother was clairvoyante. Neither of them knew what had been happening. But, as Clarence had not come home since afternoon-school, they had assumed that he was at the river; and they now assumed from the look of him that something very unusual had been happening there. As to what this was, they were not quickly enlightened. Our old Greek friend, after a run of twenty miles, would always reel off a round hundred of graphic verses unimpeachable in scansion. Clarence was of degenerate mould. He collapsed on to a chair, and sat there gasping; and his recovery was rather delayed than hastened by his mother, who, in her solicitude, patted him vigorously between the shoulders.
"Let him alone, mother, do," cried Katie, wringing her hands.
"The Duke, he's drowned himself," presently gasped the Messenger.
Blank verse, yes, so far as it went; but delivered without the slightest regard for rhythm, and composed in stark defiance of those laws which should regulate the breaking of bad news. You, please remember, were carefully prepared by me against the shock of the Duke's death; and yet I hear you still mumbling that I didn't let the actual fact be told you by a Messenger. Come, do you really think your grievance against me is for a moment comparable with that of Mrs. and Miss Batch against Clarence? Did you feel faint at any moment in the foregoing chapter? No. But Katie, at Clarence's first words, fainted outright. Think a little more about this poor girl senseless on the floor, and a little less about your own paltry discomfort.
Mrs. Batch herself did not faint, but she was too much overwhelmed to notice that her daughter had done so.
"No! Mercy on us! Speak, boy, can't you?"
"The river," gasped Clarence. "Threw himself in. On purpose. I was on the towing-path. Saw him do it."
Mrs. Batch gave a low moan.
"Katie's fainted," added the Messenger, not without a touch of personal pride.
"Saw him do it," Mrs. Batch repeated dully. "Katie," she said, in the same voice, "get up this instant." But Katie did not hear her.
The mother was loth to have been outdone in sensibility by the daughter, and it was with some temper that she hastened to make the necessary ministrations.
"Where am I?" asked Katie, at length, echoing the words used in this very house, at a similar juncture, on this very day, by another lover of the Duke.
"Ah, you may well ask that," said Mrs. Batch, with more force than reason. "A mother's support indeed! Well! And as for you," she cried, turning on Clarence, "sending her off like that with your--" She was face to face again with the tragic news. Katie, remembering it simultaneously, uttered a loud sob. Mrs. Batch capped this with a much louder one. Clarence stood before the fire, slowly revolving on one heel. His clothes steamed briskly.
"It isn't true," said Katie. She rose and came uncertainly towards her brother, half threatening, half imploring.
"All right," said he, strong in his advantage. "Then I shan't tell either of you anything more."
Mrs. Batch through her tears called Katie a bad girl, and Clarence a bad boy.
"Where did you get THEM?" asked Clarence, pointing to the ear-rings worn by his sister.
"HE gave me them," said Katie. Clarence curbed the brotherly intention of telling her she looked "a sight" in them.
She stood staring into vacancy. "He didn't love HER," she murmured. "That was all over. I'll vow he didn't love HER."
"Who d'you mean by her?" asked Clarence.
"That Miss Dobson that's been here."
"What's her other name?"
"Zuleika," Katie enunciated with bitterest abhorrence.
"Well, then, he jolly well did love her. That's the name he called out just before he threw himself in. 'Zuleika!'--like that," added the boy, with a most infelicitous attempt to reproduce the Duke's manner.
Katie had shut her eyes, and clenched her hands.
"He hated her. He told me so," she said.
"I was always a mother to him," sobbed Mrs. Batch, rocking to and fro on a chair in a corner. "Why didn't he come to me in his trouble?"
"He kissed me," said Katie, as in a trance. "No other man shall ever do that."
"He did?" exclaimed Clarence. "And you let him?"
"You wretched little whipper-snapper!" flashed Katie.
"Oh, I am, am I?" shouted Clarence, squaring up to his sister. "Say that again, will you?"
There is no doubt that Katie would have said it again, had not her mother closed the scene with a prolonged wail of censure.
"You ought to be thinking of ME, you wicked girl," said Mrs. Batch. Katie went across, and laid a gentle hand on her mother's shoulder. This, however, did but evoke a fresh flood of tears. Mrs. Batch had a keen sense of the deportment owed to tragedy. Katie, by bickering with Clarence, had thrown away the advantage she had gained by fainting. Mrs. Batch was not going to let her retrieve it by shining as a consoler. I hasten to add that this resolve was only sub-conscious in the good woman. Her grief was perfectly sincere. And it was not the less so because with it was mingled a certain joy in the greatness of the calamity. She came of good sound peasant stock. Abiding in her was the spirit of those old songs and ballads in which daisies and daffodillies and lovers' vows and smiles are so strangely inwoven with tombs and ghosts, with murders and all manner of grim things. She had not had education enough to spoil her nerve. She was able to take the rough with the smooth. She was able to take all life for her province, and death too.
The Duke was dead. This was the stupendous outline she had grasped: now let it be filled in. She had been stricken: now let her be racked. Soon after her daughter had moved away, Mrs. Batch dried her eyes, and bade Clarence tell just what had happened. She did not flinch. Modern Katie did.
Such had ever been the Duke's magic in the household that Clarence had at first forgotten to mention that any one else was dead. Of this omission he was glad. It promised him a new lease of importance. Meanwhile, he described in greater detail the Duke's plunge. Mrs. Batch's mind, while she listened, ran ahead, dog-like, into the immediate future, ranging around: "the family" would all be here to-morrow, the Duke's own room must be "put straight" to-night, "I was of speaking" . . .
Katie's mind harked back to the immediate past--to the tone of that voice, to that hand which she had kissed, to the touch of those lips on her brow, to the door-step she had made so white for him, day by day . . .
The sound of the rain had long ceased. There was the noise of a gathering wind.
"Then in went a lot of others," Clarence was saying. "And they all shouted out 'Zuleika!' just like he did. Then a lot more went in. First I thought it was some sort of fun. Not it!" And he told how, by inquiries further down the river, he had learned the extent of the disaster. "Hundreds and hundreds of them--ALL of them," he summed up. "And all for the love of HER," he added, as with a sulky salute to Romance.
Mrs. Batch had risen from her chair, the better to cope with such magnitude. She stood with wide-spread arms, silent, gaping. She seemed, by sheer force of sympathy, to be expanding to the dimensions of a crowd.
Intensive Katie recked little of all these other deaths. "I only know," she said, "that he hated her."
"Hundreds and hundreds--ALL," intoned Mrs. Batch, then gave a sudden start, as having remembered something. Mr. Noaks! He, too! She staggered to the door, leaving her actual offspring to their own devices, and went heavily up the stairs, her mind scampering again before her. . . . If he was safe and sound, dear young gentleman, heaven be praised! and she would break the awful news to him, very gradually. If not, there was another "family" to be solaced; "I'm a mother myself, Mrs. Noaks" . . .
The sitting-room door was closed. Twice did Mrs. Batch tap on the panel, receiving no answer. She went in, gazed around in the dimness, sighed deeply, and struck a match. Conspicuous on the table lay a piece of paper. She bent to examine it. A piece of lined paper, torn from an exercise book, it was neatly inscribed with the words "What is Life without Love?" The final word and the note of interrogation were somewhat blurred, as by a tear. The match had burnt itself out. The landlady lit another, and read the legend a second time, that she might take in the full pathos of it. Then she sat down in the arm- chair. For some minutes she wept there. Then, having no more, tears, she went out on tip-toe, closing the door very quietly.
As she descended the last flight of stairs, her daughter had just shut the front-door, and was coming along the hall.
"Poor Mr. Noaks--he's gone," said the mother.
"Has he?" said Katie listlessly.
"Yes he has, you heartless girl. What's that you've got in your hand? Why, if it isn't the black-leading! And what have you been doing with that?"
"Let me alone, mother, do," said poor Katie. She had done her lowly task. She had expressed her mourning, as best she could, there where she had been wont to express her love.