"The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." At any rate, the sinner has a better chance than the saint of being hereafter remembered. We, in whom original sin preponderates, find him easier to understand. He is near to us, clear to us. The saint is remote, dim. A very great saint may, of course, be remembered through some sheer force of originality in him; and then the very mystery that involves him for us makes him the harder to forget: he haunts us the more surely because we shall never understand him. But the ordinary saints grow faint to posterity; whilst quite ordinary sinners pass vividly down the ages.
Of the disciples of Jesus, which is he that is most often remembered and cited by us? Not the disciple whom Jesus loved; neither of the Boanerges, nor any other of them who so steadfastly followed Him and served Him; but the disciple who betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver. Judas Iscariot it is who outstands, overshadowing those other fishermen. And perhaps it was by reason of this precedence that Christopher Whitrid, Knight, in the reign of Henry VI., gave the name of Judas to the College which he had founded. Or perhaps it was because he felt that in a Christian community not even the meanest and basest of men should be accounted beneath contempt, beyond redemption.
At any rate, thus he named his foundation. And, though for Oxford men the savour of the name itself has long evaporated through its local connexion, many things show that for the Founder himself it was no empty vocable. In a niche above the gate stands a rudely carved statue of Judas, holding a money-bag in his right hand. Among the original statutes of the College is one by which the Bursar is enjoined to distribute in Passion Week thirty pieces of silver among the needier scholars "for saike of atonynge." The meadow adjoining the back of the College has been called from time immemorial "the Potter's Field." And the name of Salt Cellar is not less ancient and significant.
Salt Cellar, that grey and green quadrangle visible from the room assigned to Zuleika, is very beautiful, as I have said. So tranquil is it as to seem remote not merely from the world, but even from Oxford, so deeply is it hidden away in the core of Oxford's heart. So tranquil is it, one would guess that nothing had ever happened in it. For five centuries these walls have stood, and during that time have beheld, one would say, no sight less seemly than the good work of weeding, mowing, rolling, that has made, at length, so exemplary the lawn. These cloisters that grace the south and east sides--five centuries have passed through them, leaving in them no echo, leaving on them no sign, of all that the outer world, for good or evil, has been doing so fiercely, so raucously.
And yet, if you are versed in the antiquities of Oxford, you know that this small, still quadrangle has played its part in the rough-and- tumble of history, and has been the background of high passions and strange fates. The sun-dial in its midst has told the hours to more than one bygone King. Charles I. lay for twelve nights in Judas; and it was here, in this very quadrangle, that he heard from the lips of a breathless and blood-stained messenger the news of Chalgrove Field. Sixty years later, James, his son, came hither, black with threats, and from one of the hind-windows of the Warden's house--maybe, from the very room where now Zuleika was changing her frock--addressed the Fellows, and presented to them the Papist by him chosen to be their Warden, instead of the Protestant whom they had elected. They were not of so stern a stuff as the Fellows of Magdalen, who, despite His Majesty's menaces, had just rejected Bishop Farmer. The Papist was elected, there and then, al fresco, without dissent. Cannot one see them, these Fellows of Judas, huddled together round the sun-dial, like so many sheep in a storm? The King's wrath, according to a contemporary record, was so appeased by their pliancy that he deigned to lie for two nights in Judas, and at a grand refection in Hall "was gracious and merrie." Perhaps it was in lingering gratitude for such patronage that Judas remained so pious to his memory even after smug Herrenhausen had been dumped down on us for ever. Certainly, of all the Colleges none was more ardent than Judas for James Stuart. Thither it was that young Sir Harry Esson led, under cover of night, three- score recruits whom he had enlisted in the surrounding villages. The cloisters of Salt Cellar were piled with arms and stores; and on its grass--its sacred grass!--the squad was incessantly drilled, against the good day when Ormond should land his men in Devon. For a whole month Salt Cellar was a secret camp. But somehow, at length--woe to "lost causes and impossible loyalties"--Herrenhausen had wind of it; and one night, when the soldiers of the white cockade lay snoring beneath the stars, stealthily the white-faced Warden unbarred his postern--that very postern through which now Zuleika had passed on the way to her bedroom--and stealthily through it, one by one on tip-toe, came the King's foot-guards. Not many shots rang out, nor many swords clashed, in the night air, before the trick was won for law and order. Most of the rebels were overpowered in their sleep; and those who had time to snatch arms were too dazed to make good resistance. Sir Harry Esson himself was the only one who did not live to be hanged. He had sprung up alert, sword in hand, at the first alarm, setting his back to the cloisters. There he fought calmly, ferociously, till a bullet went through his chest. "By God, this College is well-named!" were the words he uttered as he fell forward and died.
Comparatively tame was the scene now being enacted in this place. The Duke, with bowed head, was pacing the path between the lawn and the cloisters. Two other undergraduates stood watching him, whispering to each other, under the archway that leads to the Front Quadrangle. Presently, in a sheepish way, they approached him. He halted and looked up.
"I say," stammered the spokesman.
"Well?" asked the Duke. Both youths were slightly acquainted with him; but he was not used to being spoken to by those whom he had not first addressed. Moreover, he was loth to be thus disturbed in his sombre reverie. His manner was not encouraging.
"Isn't it a lovely day for the Eights?" faltered the spokesman.
"I conceive," the Duke said, "that you hold back some other question."
The spokesman smiled weakly. Nudged by the other, he muttered "Ask him yourself!"
The Duke diverted his gaze to the other, who, with an angry look at the one, cleared his throat, and said "I was going to ask if you thought Miss Dobson would come and have luncheon with me to-morrow?"
"A sister of mine will be there," explained the one, knowing the Duke to be a precisian.
"If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her," said the Duke. "If you are not--" The aposiopesis was icy.
"Well, you see," said the other of the two, "that is just the difficulty. I AM acquainted with her. But is she acquainted with ME? I met her at breakfast this morning, at the Warden's."
"So did I," added the one.
"But she--well," continued the other, "she didn't take much notice of us. She seemed to be in a sort of dream."
"Ah!" murmured the Duke, with melancholy interest.
"The only time she opened her lips," said the other, "was when she asked us whether we took tea or coffee."
"She put hot milk in my tea," volunteered the one, "and upset the cup over my hand, and smiled vaguely."
"And smiled vaguely," sighed the Duke.
"She left us long before the marmalade stage," said the one.
"Without a word," said the other.
"Without a glance?" asked the Duke. It was testified by the one and the other that there had been not so much as a glance.
"Doubtless," the disingenuous Duke said, "she had a headache . . . Was she pale?"
"Very pale," answered the one.
"A healthy pallor," qualified the other, who was a constant reader of novels.
"Did she look," the Duke inquired, "as if she had spent a sleepless night?"
That was the impression made on both.
"Yet she did not seem listless or unhappy?"
No, they would not go so far as to say that.
"Indeed, were her eyes of an almost unnatural brilliance?"
"Quite unnatural," confessed the one.
"Twin stars," interpolated the other.
"Did she, in fact, seem to be consumed by some inward rapture?"
Yes, now they came to think of it, this was exactly how she HAD seemed.
It was sweet, it was bitter, for the Duke. "I remember," Zuleika had said to him, "nothing that happened to me this morning till I found myself at your door." It was bitter-sweet to have that outline filled in by these artless pencils. No, it was only bitter, to be, at his time of life, living in the past.
"The purpose of your tattle?" he asked coldly.
The two youths hurried to the point from which he had diverted them. "When she went by with you just now," said the one, "she evidently didn't know us from Adam."
"And I had so hoped to ask her to luncheon," said the other.
"Well, we wondered if you would re-introduce us. And then perhaps . . ."
There was a pause. The Duke was touched to kindness for these fellow- lovers. He would fain preserve them from the anguish that beset himself. So humanising is sorrow.
"You are in love with Miss Dobson?" he asked.
"Then," said he, "you will in time be thankful to me for not affording you further traffic with that lady. To love and be scorned--does Fate hold for us a greater inconvenience? You think I beg the question? Let me tell you that I, too, love Miss Dobson, and that she scorns me."
To the implied question "What chance would there be for you?" the reply was obvious.
Amazed, abashed, the two youths turned on their heels.
"Stay!" said the Duke. "Let me, in justice to myself, correct an inference you may have drawn. It is not by reason of any defect in myself, perceived or imagined, that Miss Dobson scorns me. She scorns me simply because I love her. All who love her she scorns. To see her is to love her. Therefore shut your eyes to her. Strictly exclude her from your horizon. Ignore her. Will you do this?"
"We will try," said the one, after a pause.
"Thank you very much," added the other.
The Duke watched them out of sight. He wished he could take the good advice he had given them . . . Suppose he did take it! Suppose he went to the Bursar, obtained an exeat, fled straight to London! What just humiliation for Zuleika to come down and find her captive gone! He pictured her staring around the quadrangle, ranging the cloisters, calling to him. He pictured her rustling to the gate of the College, inquiring at the porter's lodge. "His Grace, Miss, he passed through a minute ago. He's going down this afternoon."
Yet, even while his fancy luxuriated in this scheme, he well knew that he would not accomplish anything of the kind--knew well that he would wait here humbly, eagerly, even though Zuleika lingered over her toilet till crack o' doom. He had no desire that was not centred in her. Take away his love for her, and what remained? Nothing--though only in the past twenty-four hours had this love been added to him. Ah, why had he ever seen her? He thought of his past, its cold splendour and insouciance. But he knew that for him there was no returning. His boats were burnt. The Cytherean babes had set their torches to that flotilla, and it had blazed like match-wood. On the isle of the enchantress he was stranded for ever. For ever stranded on the isle of an enchantress who would have nothing to do with him! What, he wondered, should be done in so piteous a quandary? There seemed to be two courses. One was to pine slowly and painfully away. The other . . .
Academically, the Duke had often reasoned that a man for whom life holds no chance of happiness cannot too quickly shake life off. Now, of a sudden, there was for that theory a vivid application.
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer" was not a point by which he, "more an antique Roman than a Dane," was at all troubled. Never had he given ear to that cackle which is called Public Opinion. The judgment of his peers--this, he had often told himself, was the sole arbitrage he could submit to; but then, who was to be on the bench? Peerless, he was irresponsible--the captain of his soul, the despot of his future. No injunction but from himself would he bow to; and his own injunctions--so little Danish was he--had always been peremptory and lucid. Lucid and peremptory, now, the command he issued to himself.
"So sorry to have been so long," carolled a voice from above. The Duke looked up. "I'm all but ready," said Zuleika at her window.
That brief apparition changed the colour of his resolve. He realised that to die for love of this lady would be no mere measure of precaution, or counsel of despair. It would be in itself a passionate indulgence--a fiery rapture, not to be foregone. What better could he ask than to die for his love? Poor indeed seemed to him now the sacrament of marriage beside the sacrament of death. Death was incomparably the greater, the finer soul. Death was the one true bridal.
He flung back his head, spread wide his arms, quickened his pace almost to running speed. Ah, he would win his bride before the setting of the sun. He knew not by what means he would win her. Enough that even now, full-hearted, fleet-footed, he was on his way to her, and that she heard him coming.
When Zuleika, a vision in vaporous white, came out through the postern, she wondered why he was walking at so remarkable a pace. To him, wildly expressing in his movement the thought within him, she appeared as his awful bride. With a cry of joy, he bounded towards her, and would have caught her in his arms, had she not stepped nimbly aside.
"Forgive me!" he said, after a pause. "It was a mistake--an idiotic mistake of identity. I thought you were . . ."
Zuleika, rigid, asked "Have I many doubles?"
"You know well that in all the world is none so blest as to be like you. I can only say that I was over-wrought. I can only say that it shall not occur again."
She was very angry indeed. Of his penitence there could be no doubt. But there are outrages for which no penitence can atone. This seemed to be one of them. Her first impulse was to dismiss the Duke forthwith and for ever. But she wanted to show herself at the races. And she could not go alone. And except the Duke there was no one to take her. True, there was the concert to-night; and she could show herself there to advantage; but she wanted ALL Oxford to see her--see her NOW.
"I am forgiven?" he asked. In her, I am afraid, self-respect outweighed charity. "I will try," she said merely, "to forget what you have done." Motioning him to her side, she opened her parasol, and signified her readiness to start.
They passed together across the vast gravelled expanse of the Front Quadrangle. In the porch of the College there were, as usual, some chained-up dogs, patiently awaiting their masters. Zuleika, of course, did not care for dogs. One has never known a good man to whom dogs were not dear; but many of the best women have no such fondness. You will find that the woman who is really kind to dogs is always one who has failed to inspire sympathy in men. For the attractive woman, dogs are mere dumb and restless brutes--possibly dangerous, certainly soulless. Yet will coquetry teach her to caress any dog in the presence of a man enslaved by her. Even Zuleika, it seems, was not above this rather obvious device for awaking envy. Be sure she did not at all like the look of the very big bulldog who was squatting outside the porter's lodge. Perhaps, but for her present anger, she would not have stooped endearingly down to him, as she did, cooing over him and trying to pat his head. Alas, her pretty act was a failure. The bulldog cowered away from her, horrifically grimacing. This was strange. Like the majority of his breed, Corker (for such was his name) had ever been wistful to be noticed by any one--effusively grateful for every word or pat, an ever-ready wagger and nuzzler, to none ineffable. No beggar, no burglar, had ever been rebuffed by this catholic beast. But he drew the line at Zuleika.
Seldom is even a fierce bulldog heard to growl. Yet Corker growled at Zuleika.
The Duke did not try to break the stony silence in which Zuleika walked. Her displeasure was a luxury to him, for it was so soon to be dispelled. A little while, and she would be hating herself for her pettiness. Here was he, going to die for her; and here was she, blaming him for a breach of manners. Decidedly, the slave had the whip-hand. He stole a sidelong look at her, and could not repress a smile. His features quickly composed themselves. The Triumph of Death must not be handled as a cheap score. He wanted to die because he would thereby so poignantly consummate his love, express it so completely, once and for all . . . And she--who could say that she, knowing what he had done, might not, illogically, come to love him? Perhaps she would devote her life to mourning him. He saw her bending over his tomb, in beautiful humble curves, under a starless sky, watering the violets with her tears.
Shades of Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel and other despicable maunderers! He brushed them aside. He would be practical. The point was, when and how to die? Time: the sooner the better. Manner: . . less easy to determine. He must not die horribly, nor without dignity. The manner of the Roman philosophers? But the only kind of bath which an undergraduate can command is a hip-bath. Stay! there was the river. Drowning (he had often heard) was a rather pleasant sensation. And to the river he was even now on his way.
It troubled him that he could swim. Twice, indeed, from his yacht, he had swum the Hellespont. And how about the animal instinct of self- preservation, strong even in despair? No matter! His soul's set purpose would subdue that. The law of gravitation that brings one to the surface? There his very skill in swimming would help him. He would swim under water, along the river-bed, swim till he found weeds to cling to, weird strong weeds that he would coil round him, exulting faintly . . .
As they turned into Radcliffe Square, the Duke's ear caught the sound of a far-distant gun. He started, and looked up at the clock of St. Mary's. Half-past four! The boats had started.
He had heard that whenever a woman was to blame for a disappointment, the best way to avoid a scene was to inculpate oneself. He did not wish Zuleika to store up yet more material for penitence. And so "I am sorry," he said. "That gun--did you hear it? It was the signal for the race. I shall never forgive myself."
"Then we shan't see the race at all?" cried Zuleika.
"It will be over, alas, before we are near the river. All the people will be coming back through the meadows."
"Let us meet them."
"Meet a torrent? Let us have tea in my rooms and go down quietly for the other Division."
"Let us go straight on."
Through the square, across the High, down Grove Street, they passed. The Duke looked up at the tower of Merton, "os oupot authis alla nyn paunstaton." Strange that to-night it would still be standing here, in all its sober and solid beauty--still be gazing, over the roofs and chimneys, at the tower of Magdalen, its rightful bride. Through untold centuries of the future it would stand thus, gaze thus. He winced. Oxford walls have a way of belittling us; and the Duke was loth to regard his doom as trivial.
Aye, by all minerals we are mocked. Vegetables, yearly deciduous, are far more sympathetic. The lilac and laburnum, making lovely now the railed pathway to Christ Church meadow, were all a-swaying and a-nodding to the Duke as he passed by. "Adieu, adieu, your Grace," they were whispering. "We are very sorry for you--very sorry indeed. We never dared suppose you would predecease us. We think your death a very great tragedy. Adieu! Perhaps we shall meet in another world-- that is, if the members of the animal kingdom have immortal souls, as we have."
The Duke was little versed in their language; yet, as he passed between these gently garrulous blooms, he caught at least the drift of their salutation, and smiled a vague but courteous acknowledgment, to the right and the left alternately, creating a very favourable impression.
No doubt, the young elms lining the straight way to the barges had seen him coming; but any whispers of their leaves were lost in the murmur of the crowd returning from the race. Here, at length, came the torrent of which the Duke had spoken; and Zuleika's heart rose at it. Here was Oxford! From side to side the avenue was filled with a dense procession of youths--youths interspersed with maidens whose parasols were as flotsam and jetsam on a seething current of straw hats. Zuleika neither quickened nor slackened her advance. But brightlier and brightlier shone her eyes.
The vanguard of the procession was pausing now, swaying, breaking at sight of her. She passed, imperial, through the way cloven for her. All a-down the avenue, the throng parted as though some great invisible comb were being drawn through it. The few youths who had already seen Zuleika, and by whom her beauty had been bruited throughout the University, were lost in a new wonder, so incomparably fairer was she than the remembered vision. And the rest hardly recognised her from the descriptions, so incomparably fairer was the reality than the hope.
She passed among them. None questioned the worthiness of her escort. Could I give you better proof the awe in which our Duke was held? Any man is glad to be seen escorting a very pretty woman. He thinks it adds to his prestige. Whereas, in point of fact, his fellow-men are saying merely "Who's that appalling fellow with her?" or "Why does she go about with that ass So-and-So?" Such cavil may in part be envy. But it is a fact that no man, howsoever graced, can shine in juxtaposition to a very pretty woman. The Duke himself cut a poor figure beside Zuleika. Yet not one of all the undergraduates felt she could have made a wiser choice.
She swept among them. Her own intrinsic radiance was not all that flashed from her. She was a moving reflector and refractor of all the rays of all the eyes that mankind had turned on her. Her mien told the story of her days. Bright eyes, light feet--she trod erect from a vista whose glare was dazzling to all beholders. She swept among them, a miracle, overwhelming, breath-bereaving. Nothing at all like her had ever been seen in Oxford.
Mainly architectural, the beauties of Oxford. True, the place is no longer one-sexed. There are the virguncules of Somerville and Lady Margaret's Hall; but beauty and the lust for learning have yet to be allied. There are the innumerable wives and daughters around the Parks, running in and out of their little red-brick villas; but the indignant shade of celibacy seems to have called down on the dons a Nemesis which precludes them from either marrying beauty or begetting it. (From the Warden's son, that unhappy curate, Zuleika inherited no tittle of her charm. Some of it, there is no doubt, she did inherit from the circus-rider who was her mother.)
But the casual feminine visitors? Well, the sisters and cousins of an undergraduate seldom seem more passable to his comrades than to himself. Altogether, the instinct of sex is not pandered to in Oxford. It is not, however, as it may once have been, dormant. The modern importation of samples of femininity serves to keep it alert, though not to gratify it. A like result is achieved by another modern development--photography. The undergraduate may, and usually does, surround himself with photographs of pretty ladies known to the public. A phantom harem! Yet the houris have an effect on their sultan. Surrounded both by plain women of flesh and blood and by beauteous women on pasteboard, the undergraduate is the easiest victim of living loveliness--is as a fire ever well and truly laid, amenable to a spark. And if the spark be such a flaring torch as Zuleika?-- marvel not, reader, at the conflagration.
Not only was the whole throng of youths drawing asunder before her: much of it, as she passed, was forming up in her wake. Thus, with the confluence of two masses--one coming away from the river, the other returning to it--chaos seethed around her and the Duke before they were half-way along the avenue. Behind them, and on either side of them, the people were crushed inextricably together, swaying and surging this way and that. "Help!" cried many a shrill feminine voice. "Don't push!" "Let me out!" "You brute!" "Save me, save me!" Many ladies fainted, whilst their escorts, supporting them and protecting them as best they could, peered over the heads of their fellows for one glimpse of the divine Miss Dobson. Yet for her and the Duke, in the midst of the terrific compress, there was space enough. In front of them, as by a miracle of deference, a way still cleared itself. They reached the end of the avenue without a pause in their measured progress. Nor even when they turned to the left, along the rather narrow path beside the barges, was there any obstacle to their advance. Passing evenly forward, they alone were cool, unhustled, undishevelled.
The Duke was so rapt in his private thoughts that he was hardly conscious of the strange scene. And as for Zuleika, she, as well she might be, was in the very best of good humours.
"What a lot of house-boats!" she exclaimed. "Are you going to take me on to one of them?"
The Duke started. Already they were alongside the Judas barge. "Here," he said, "is our goal."
He stepped through the gate of the railings, out upon the plank, and offered her his hand.
She looked back. The young men in the vanguard were crushing their shoulders against the row behind them, to stay the oncoming host. She had half a mind to go back through the midst of them; but she really did want her tea, and she followed the Duke on to the barge, and under his auspices climbed the steps to the roof.
It looked very cool and gay, this roof, under its awning of red and white stripes. Nests of red and white flowers depended along either side of it. Zuleika moved to the side which commanded a view of the bank. She leaned her arms on the balustrade, and gazed down.
The crowd stretched as far as she could see--a vista of faces upturned to her. Suddenly it hove forward. Its vanguard was swept irresistibly past the barge--swept by the desire of the rest to see her at closer quarters. Such was the impetus that the vision for each man was but a lightning-flash: he was whirled past, struggling, almost before his brain took the message of his eyes.
Those who were Judas men made frantic efforts to board the barge, trying to hurl themselves through the gate in the railings; but they were swept vainly on.
Presently the torrent began to slacken, became a mere river, a mere procession of youths staring up rather shyly.
Before the last stragglers had marched by, Zuleika moved away to the other side of the roof, and, after a glance at the sunlit river, sank into one of the wicker chairs, and asked the Duke to look less disagreeable and to give her some tea.
Among others hovering near the little buffet were the two youths whose parley with the Duke I have recorded.
Zuleika was aware of the special persistence of their gaze. When the Duke came back with her cup, she asked him who they were. He replied, truthfully enough, that their names were unknown to him.
"Then," she said, "ask them their names, and introduce them to me."
"No," said the Duke, sinking into the chair beside her. "That I shall not do. I am your victim: not your pander. Those two men stand on the threshold of a possibly useful and agreeable career. I am not going to trip them up for you."
"I am not sure," said Zuleika, "that you are very polite. Certainly you are foolish. It is natural for boys to fall in love. If these two are in love with me, why not let them talk to me? It were an experience on which they would always look back with romantic pleasure. They may never see me again. Why grudge them this little thing?" She sipped her tea. "As for tripping them up on a threshold-- that is all nonsense. What harm has unrequited love ever done to anybody?" She laughed. "Look at ME! When I came to your rooms this morning, thinking I loved in vain, did I seem one jot the worse for it? Did I look different?"
"You looked, I am bound to say, nobler, more spiritual."
"More spiritual?" she exclaimed. "Do you mean I looked tired or ill?"
"No, you seemed quite fresh. But then, you are singular. You are no criterion."
"You mean you can't judge those two young men by me? Well, I am only a woman, of course. I have heard of women, no longer young, wasting away because no man loved them. I have often heard of a young woman fretting because some particular young man didn't love her. But I never heard of her wasting away. Certainly a young man doesn't waste away for love of some particular young woman. He very soon makes love to some other one. If his be an ardent nature, the quicker his transition. All the most ardent of my past adorers have married. Will you put my cup down, please?"
"Past?" echoed the Duke, as he placed her cup on the floor. "Have any of your lovers ceased to love you?"
"Ah no, no; not in retrospect. I remain their ideal, and all that, of course. They cherish the thought of me. They see the world in terms of me. But I am an inspiration, not an obsession; a glow, not a blight."
"You don't believe in the love that corrodes, the love that ruins?"
"No," laughed Zuleika.
"You have never dipped into the Greek pastoral poets, nor sampled the Elizabethan sonneteers?"
"No, never. You will think me lamentably crude: my experience of life has been drawn from life itself."
"Yet often you talk as though you had read rather much. Your way of speech has what is called 'the literary flavour'."
"Ah, that is an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr. Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at dinner somewhere. I can't break myself of it. I assure you I hardly ever open a book. Of life, though, my experience has been very wide. Brief? But I suppose the soul of man during the past two or three years has been much as it was in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and of--whoever it was that reigned over the Greek pastures. And I daresay the modern poets are making the same old silly distortions. But forgive me," she added gently, "perhaps you yourself are a poet?"
"Only since yesterday," answered the Duke (not less unfairly to himself than to Roger Newdigate and Thomas Gaisford). And he felt he was especially a dramatic poet. All the while that she had been sitting by him here, talking so glibly, looking so straight into his eyes, flashing at him so many pretty gestures, it was the sense of tragic irony that prevailed in him--that sense which had stirred in him, and been repressed, on the way from Judas. He knew that she was making her effect consciously for the other young men by whom the roof of the barge was now thronged. Him alone she seemed to observe. By her manner, she might have seemed to be making love to him. He envied the men she was so deliberately making envious--the men whom, in her undertone to him, she was really addressing. But he did take comfort in the irony. Though she used him as a stalking-horse, he, after all, was playing with her as a cat plays with a mouse. While she chattered on, without an inkling that he was no ordinary lover, and coaxing him to present two quite ordinary young men to her, he held over her the revelation that he for love of her was about to die.
And, while he drank in the radiance of her beauty, he heard her chattering on. "So you see," she was saying, "it couldn't do those young men any harm. Suppose unrequited love IS anguish: isn't the discipline wholesome? Suppose I AM a sort of furnace: shan't I purge, refine, temper? Those two boys are but scorched from here. That is horrid; and what good will it do them?" She laid a hand on his arm. "Cast them into the furnace for their own sake, dear Duke! Or cast one of them, or," she added, glancing round at the throng, "any one of these others!"
"For their own sake?" he echoed, withdrawing his arm. "If you were not, as the whole world knows you to be, perfectly respectable, there might be something in what you say. But as it is, you can but be an engine for mischief; and your sophistries leave me unmoved. I shall certainly keep you to myself."
"I hate you," said Zuleika, with an ugly petulance that crowned the irony.
"So long as I live," uttered the Duke, in a level voice, "you will address no man but me."
"If your prophecy is to be fulfilled," laughed Zuleika, rising from her chair, "your last moment is at hand."
"It is," he answered, rising too.
"What do you mean?" she asked, awed by something in his tone.
"I mean what I say: that my last moment is at hand." He withdrew his eyes from hers, and, leaning his elbows on the balustrade, gazed thoughtfully at the river. "When I am dead," he added, over his shoulder, "you will find these fellows rather coy of your advances."
For the first time since his avowal of his love for her, Zuleika found herself genuinely interested in him. A suspicion of his meaning had flashed through her soul. --But no! surely he could not mean THAT! It must have been a metaphor merely. And yet, something in his eyes . . . She leaned beside him. Her shoulder touched his. She gazed questioningly at him. He did not turn his face to her. He gazed at the sunlit river.
The Judas Eight had just embarked for their voyage to the starting- point. Standing on the edge of the raft that makes a floating platform for the barge, William, the hoary bargee, was pushing them off with his boat-hook, wishing them luck with deferential familiarity. The raft was thronged with Old Judasians--mostly clergymen--who were shouting hearty hortations, and evidently trying not to appear so old as they felt--or rather, not to appear so startlingly old as their contemporaries looked to them. It occurred to the Duke as a strange thing, and a thing to be glad of, that he, in this world, would never be an Old Judasian. Zuleika's shoulder pressed his. He thrilled not at all. To all intents, he was dead already.
The enormous eight young men in the thread-like skiff--the skiff that would scarce have seemed an adequate vehicle for the tiny "cox" who sat facing them--were staring up at Zuleika with that uniformity of impulse which, in another direction, had enabled them to bump a boat on two of the previous "nights." If to-night they bumped the next boat, Univ., then would Judas be three places "up" on the river; and to-morrow Judas would have a Bump Supper. Furthermore, if Univ. were bumped to-night, Magdalen might be bumped to-morrow. Then would Judas, for the first time in history, be head of the river. Oh tremulous hope! Yet, for the moment, these eight young men seemed to have forgotten the awful responsibility that rested on their over-developed shoulders. Their hearts, already strained by rowing, had been transfixed this afternoon by Eros' darts. All of them had seen Zuleika as she came down to the river; and now they sat gaping up at her, fumbling with their oars. The tiny cox gaped too; but he it was who first recalled duty. With piping adjurations he brought the giants back to their senses. The boat moved away down stream, with a fairly steady stroke.
Not in a day can the traditions of Oxford be sent spinning. From all the barges the usual punt-loads of young men were being ferried across to the towing-path--young men naked of knee, armed with rattles, post-horns, motor-hooters, gongs, and other instruments of clangour. Though Zuleika filled their thoughts, they hurried along the towing-path, as by custom, to the starting-point.
She, meanwhile, had not taken her eyes off the Duke's profile. Nor had she dared, for fear of disappointment, to ask him just what he had meant.
"All these men," he repeated dreamily, "will be coy of your advances." It seemed to him a good thing that his death, his awful example, would disinfatuate his fellow alumni. He had never been conscious of public spirit. He had lived for himself alone. Love had come to him yesternight, and to-day had waked in him a sympathy with mankind. It was a fine thing to be a saviour. It was splendid to be human. He looked quickly round to her who had wrought this change in him.
But the loveliest face in all the world will not please you if you see it suddenly, eye to eye, at a distance of half an inch from your own. It was thus that the Duke saw Zuleika's: a monstrous deliquium a-glare. Only for the fraction of an instant, though. Recoiling, he beheld the loveliness that he knew--more adorably vivid now in its look of eager questioning. And in his every fibre he thrilled to her. Even so had she gazed at him last night, this morning. Aye, now as then, her soul was full of him. He had recaptured, not her love, but his power to please her. It was enough. He bowed his head; and "Moriturus te saluto" were the words formed silently by his lips. He was glad that his death would be a public service to the University. But the salutary lesson of what the newspapers would call his "rash act" was, after all, only a side-issue. The great thing, the prospect that flushed his cheek, was the consummation of his own love, for its own sake, by his own death. And, as he met her gaze, the question that had already flitted through his brain found a faltering utterance; and "Shall you mourn me?" he asked her.
But she would have no ellipses. "What are you going to do?" she whispered.
"Do you not know?"
"Once and for all: you cannot love me?"
Slowly she shook her head. The black pearl and the pink, quivering, gave stress to her ultimatum. But the violet of her eyes was all but hidden by the dilation of her pupils.
"Then," whispered the Duke, "when I shall have died, deeming life a vain thing without you, will the gods give you tears for me? Miss Dobson, will your soul awaken? When I shall have sunk for ever beneath these waters whose supposed purpose here this afternoon is but that they be ploughed by the blades of these young oarsmen, will there be struck from that flint, your heart, some late and momentary spark of pity for me?"
"Why of course, of COURSE!" babbled Zuleika, with clasped hands and dazzling eyes. "But," she curbed herself, "it is--it would--oh, you mustn't THINK of it! I couldn't allow it! I--I should never forgive myself!"
"In fact, you would mourn me always?"
"Why yes! . . Y-es-always." What else could she say? But would his answer be that he dared not condemn her to lifelong torment?
"Then," his answer was, "my joy in dying for you is made perfect."
Her muscles relaxed. Her breath escaped between her teeth. "You are utterly resolved?" she asked. "Are you?"
"Nothing I might say could change your purpose?"
"No entreaty, howsoever piteous, could move you?"
Forthwith she urged, entreated, cajoled, commanded, with infinite prettiness of ingenuity and of eloquence. Never was such a cascade of dissuasion as hers. She only didn't say she could love him. She never hinted that. Indeed, throughout her pleading rang this recurrent motif: that he must live to take to himself as mate some good, serious, clever woman who would be a not unworthy mother of his children.
She laid stress on his youth, his great position, his brilliant attainments, the much he had already achieved, the splendid possibilities of his future. Though of course she spoke in undertones, not to be overheard by the throng on the barge, it was almost as though his health were being floridly proposed at some public banquet --say, at a Tenants' Dinner. Insomuch that, when she ceased, the Duke half expected Jellings, his steward, to bob up uttering, with lifted hands, a stentorian "For-or," and all the company to take up the chant: "he's--a jolly good fellow." His brief reply, on those occasions, seemed always to indicate that, whatever else he might be, a jolly good fellow he was not. But by Zuleika's eulogy he really was touched. "Thank you--thank you," he gasped; and there were tears in his eyes. Dear the thought that she so revered him, so wished him not to die. But this was no more than a rush-light in the austere radiance of his joy in dying for her.
And the time was come. Now for the sacrament of his immersion in infinity.
"Good-bye," he said simply, and was about to swing himself on to the ledge of the balustrade. Zuleika, divining his intention, made way for him. Her bosom heaved quickly, quickly. All colour had left her face; but her eyes shone as never before.
Already his foot was on the ledge, when hark! the sound of a distant gun. To Zuleika, with all the chords of her soul strung to the utmost tensity, the effect was as if she herself had been shot; and she clutched at the Duke's arm, like a frightened child. He laughed. "It was the signal for the race," he said, and laughed again, rather bitterly, at the crude and trivial interruption of high matters.
"The race?" She laughed hysterically.
"Yes. 'They're off'." He mingled his laughter with hers, gently seeking to disengage his arm. "And perhaps," he said, "I, clinging to the weeds of the river's bed, shall see dimly the boats and the oars pass over me, and shall be able to gurgle a cheer for Judas."
"Don't!" she shuddered, with a woman's notion that a jest means levity. A tumult of thoughts surged in her, all confused. She only knew that he must not die--not yet! A moment ago, his death would have been beautiful. Not now! Her grip of his arm tightened. Only by breaking her wrist could he have freed himself. A moment ago, she had been in the seventh-heaven . . . Men were supposed to have died for love of her. It had never been proved. There had always been something--card-debts, ill-health, what not--to account for the tragedy. No man, to the best of her recollection, had ever hinted that he was going to die for her. Never, assuredly, had she seen the deed done. And then came he, the first man she had loved, going to die here, before her eyes, because she no longer loved him. But she knew now that he must not die--not yet!
All around her was the hush that falls on Oxford when the signal for the race has sounded. In the distance could be heard faintly the noise of cheering--a little sing-song sound, drawing nearer.
Ah, how could she have thought of letting him die so soon? She gazed into his face--the face she might never have seen again. Even now, but for that gun-shot, the waters would have closed over him, and his soul, maybe, have passed away. She had saved him, thank heaven! She had him still with her.
Gently, vainly, he still sought to unclasp her fingers from his arm.
"Not now!" she whispered. "Not yet!"
And the noise of the cheering, and of the trumpeting and rattling, as it drew near, was an accompaniment to her joy in having saved her lover. She would keep him with her--for a while! Let all be done in order. She would savour the full sweetness of his sacrifice. Tomorrow--to-morrow, yes, let him have his heart's desire of death. Not now! Not yet!
"To-morrow," she whispered, "to-morrow, if you will. Not yet!"
The first boat came jerking past in mid-stream; and the towing-path, with its serried throng of runners, was like a live thing, keeping pace. As in a dream, Zuleika saw it. And the din was in her ears. No heroine of Wagner had ever a louder accompaniment than had ours to the surging soul within her bosom.
And the Duke, tightly held by her, vibrated as to a powerful electric current. He let her cling to him, and her magnetism range through him. Ah, it was good not to have died! Fool, he had meant to drain off- hand, at one coarse draught, the delicate wine of death. He would let his lips caress the brim of the august goblet. He would dally with the aroma that was there.
"So be it!" he cried into Zuleika's ear--cried loudly, for it seemed as though all the Wagnerian orchestras of Europe, with the Straussian ones thrown in, were here to clash in unison the full volume of right music for the glory of the reprieve.
The fact was that the Judas boat had just bumped Univ., exactly opposite the Judas barge. The oarsmen in either boat sat humped, panting, some of them rocking and writhing, after their wholesome exercise. But there was not one of them whose eyes were not upcast at Zuleika. And the vocalisation and instrumentation of the dancers and stampers on the towing-path had by this time ceased to mean aught of joy in the victors or of comfort for the vanquished, and had resolved itself into a wild wordless hymn to the glory of Miss Dobson. Behind her and all around her on the roof of the barge, young Judasians were venting in like manner their hearts through their lungs. She paid no heed. It was as if she stood alone with her lover on some silent pinnacle of the world. It was as if she were a little girl with a brand-new and very expensive doll which had banished all the little other old toys from her mind.
She simply could not, in her naive rapture, take her eyes off her companion. To the dancers and stampers of the towing-path, many of whom were now being ferried back across the river, and to the other youths on the roof of the barge, Zuleika's air of absorption must have seemed a little strange. For already the news that the Duke loved Zuleika, and that she loved him not, and would stoop to no man who loved her, had spread like wild-fire among the undergraduates. The two youths in whom the Duke had deigned to confide had not held their peace. And the effect that Zuleika had made as she came down to the river was intensified by the knowledge that not the great paragon himself did she deem worthy of her. The mere sight of her had captured young Oxford. The news of her supernal haughtiness had riveted the chains.
"Come!" said the Duke at length, staring around him with the eyes of one awakened from a dream. "Come! I must take you back to Judas."
"But you won't leave me there?" pleaded Zuleika. "You will stay to dinner? I am sure my grandfather would be delighted."
"I am sure he would," said the Duke, as he piloted her down the steps of the barge. "But alas, I have to dine at the Junta to-night."
"The Junta? What is that?"
"A little dining-club. It meets every Tuesday."
"But--you don't mean you are going to refuse me for that?"
"To do so is misery. But I have no choice. I have asked a guest."
"Then ask another: ask me!" Zuleika's notions of Oxford life were rather hazy. It was with difficulty that the Duke made her realise that he could not--not even if, as she suggested, she dressed herself up as a man--invite her to the Junta. She then fell back on the impossibility that he would not dine with her to-night, his last night in this world. She could not understand that admirable fidelity to social engagements which is one of the virtues implanted in the members of our aristocracy. Bohemian by training and by career, she construed the Duke's refusal as either a cruel slight to herself or an act of imbecility. The thought of being parted from her for one moment was torture to him; but "noblesse oblige," and it was quite impossible for him to break an engagement merely because a more charming one offered itself: he would as soon have cheated at cards.
And so, as they went side by side up the avenue, in the mellow light of the westering sun, preceded in their course, and pursued, and surrounded, by the mob of hoarse infatuate youths, Zuleika's face was as that of a little girl sulking. Vainly the Duke reasoned with her. She could NOT see the point of view.
With that sudden softening that comes to the face of an angry woman who has hit on a good argument, she turned to him and asked "How if I hadn't saved your life just now? Much you thought about your guest when you were going to dive and die!"
"I did not forget him," answered the Duke, smiling at her casuistry. "Nor had I any scruple in disappointing him. Death cancels all engagements."
And Zuleika, worsted, resumed her sulking. But presently, as they neared Judas, she relented. It was paltry to be cross with him who had resolved to die for her and was going to die so on the morrow. And after all, she would see him at the concert to-night. They would sit together. And all to-morrow they would be together, till the time came for parting. Hers was a naturally sunny disposition. And the evening was such a lovely one, all bathed in gold. She was ashamed of her ill-humour.
"Forgive me," she said, touching his arm. "Forgive me for being horrid." And forgiven she promptly was. "And promise you will spend all to-morrow with me." And of course he promised.
As they stood together on the steps of the Warden's front-door, exalted above the level of the flushed and swaying crowd that filled the whole length and breadth of Judas Street, she implored him not to be late for the concert.
"I am never late," he smiled.
"Ah, you're so beautifully brought up!"
The door was opened.
"And--oh, you're beautiful besides!" she whispered; and waved her hand to him as she vanished into the hall.
A few minutes before half-past seven, the Duke, arrayed for dinner, passed leisurely up the High. The arresting feature of his costume was a mulberry-coloured coat, with brass buttons. This, to any one versed in Oxford lore, betokened him a member of the Junta. It is awful to think that a casual stranger might have mistaken him for a footman. It does not do to think of such things.
The tradesmen, at the doors of their shops, bowed low as he passed, rubbing their hands and smiling, hoping inwardly that they took no liberty in sharing the cool rosy air of the evening with his Grace. They noted that he wore in his shirt-front a black pearl and a pink. "Daring, but becoming," they opined.
The rooms of the Junta were over a stationer's shop, next door but one to the Mitre. They were small rooms; but as the Junta had now, besides the Duke, only two members, and as no member might introduce more than one guest, there was ample space.
The Duke had been elected in his second term. At that time there were four members; but these were all leaving Oxford at the end of the summer term, and there seemed to be in the ranks of the Bullingdon and the Loder no one quite eligible for the Junta, that holy of holies. Thus it was that the Duke inaugurated in solitude his second year of membership. From time to time, he proposed and seconded a few candidates, after "sounding" them as to whether they were willing to join. But always, when election evening--the last Tuesday of term-- drew near, he began to have his doubts about these fellows. This one was "rowdy"; that one was over-dressed; another did not ride quite straight to hounds; in the pedigree of another a bar-sinister was more than suspected. Election evening was always a rather melancholy time. After dinner, when the two club servants had placed on the mahogany the time-worn Candidates' Book and the ballot-box, and had noiselessly withdrawn, the Duke, clearing his throat, read aloud to himself "Mr. So-and-So, of Such-and-Such College, proposed by the Duke of Dorset, seconded by the Duke of Dorset," and, in every case, when he drew out the drawer of the ballot-box, found it was a black-ball that he had dropped into the urn. Thus it was that at the end of the summer term the annual photographic "group" taken by Messrs. Hills and Saunders was a presentment of the Duke alone.
In the course of his third year he had become less exclusive. Not because there seemed to be any one really worthy of the Junta; but because the Junta, having thriven since the eighteenth century, must not die. Suppose--one never knew--he were struck by lightning, the Junta would be no more. So, not without reluctance, but unanimously, he had elected The MacQuern, of Balliol, and Sir John Marraby, of Brasenose.
To-night, as he, a doomed man, went up into the familiar rooms, he was wholly glad that he had thus relented. As yet, he was spared the tragic knowledge that it would make no difference.*
* The Junta has been reconstituted. But the apostolic line was
broken, the thread was snapped; the old magic is fled.
The MacQuern and two other young men were already there.
"Mr. President," said The MacQuern, "I present Mr. Trent-Garby, of Christ Church."
"The Junta is honoured," said the Duke, bowing.
Such was the ritual of the club.
The other young man, because his host, Sir John Marraby, was not yet on the scene, had no locus standi, and, though a friend of The MacQuern, and well known to the Duke, had to be ignored.
A moment later, Sir John arrived. "Mr. President," he said, "I present Lord Sayes, of Magdalen."
"The Junta is honoured," said the Duke, bowing.
Both hosts and both guests, having been prominent in the throng that vociferated around Zuleika an hour earlier, were slightly abashed in the Duke's presence. He, however, had not noticed any one in particular, and, even if he had, that fine tradition of the club--"A member of the Junta can do no wrong; a guest of the Junta cannot err"--would have prevented him from showing his displeasure.
A Herculean figure filled the doorway.
"The Junta is honoured," said the Duke, bowing to his guest.
"Duke," said the newcomer quietly, "the honour is as much mine as that of the interesting and ancient institution which I am this night privileged to inspect."
Turning to Sir John and The MacQuern, the Duke said "I present Mr. Abimelech V. Oover, of Trinity."
"The Junta," they replied, "is honoured."
"Gentlemen," said the Rhodes Scholar, "your good courtesy is just such as I would have anticipated from members of the ancient Junta. Like most of my countrymen, I am a man of few words. We are habituated out there to act rather than talk. Judged from the view-point of your beautiful old civilisation, I am aware my curtness must seem crude. But, gentlemen, believe me, right here--"
"Dinner is served, your Grace."
Thus interrupted, Mr. Oover, with the resourcefulness of a practised orator, brought his thanks to a quick but not abrupt conclusion. The little company passed into the front room.
Through the window, from the High, fading daylight mingled with the candle-light. The mulberry coats of the hosts, interspersed by the black ones of the guests, made a fine pattern around the oval table a-gleam with the many curious pieces of gold and silver plate that had accrued to the Junta in course of years.
The President showed much deference to his guest. He seemed to listen with close attention to the humorous anecdote with which, in the American fashion, Mr. Oover inaugurated dinner.
To all Rhodes Scholars, indeed, his courtesy was invariable. He went out of his way to cultivate them. And this he did more as a favour to Lord Milner than of his own caprice. He found these Scholars, good fellows though they were, rather oppressive. They had not--how could they have?--the undergraduate's virtue of taking Oxford as a matter of course. The Germans loved it too little, the Colonials too much. The Americans were, to a sensitive observer, the most troublesome--as being the most troubled--of the whole lot. The Duke was not one of those Englishmen who fling, or care to hear flung, cheap sneers at America. Whenever any one in his presence said that America was not large in area, he would firmly maintain that it was. He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr. Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford. They were so awfully afraid of having their strenuous native characters undermined by their delight in the place. They held that the future was theirs, a glorious asset, far more glorious than the past. But a theory, as the Duke saw, is one thing, an emotion another. It is so much easier to covet what one hasn't than to revel in what one has. Also, it is so much easier to be enthusiastic about what exists than about what doesn't. The future doesn't exist. The past does. For, whereas all men can learn, the gift of prophecy has died out. A man cannot work up in his breast any real excitement about what possibly won't happen. He cannot very well help being sentimentally interested in what he knows has happened. On the other hand, he owes a duty to his country. And, if his country be America, he ought to try to feel a vivid respect for the future, and a cold contempt for the past. Also, if he be selected by his country as a specimen of the best moral, physical, and intellectual type that she can produce for the astounding of the effete foreigner, and incidentally for the purpose of raising that foreigner's tone, he must--mustn't he?--do his best to astound, to exalt. But then comes in this difficulty. Young men don't like to astound and exalt their fellows. And Americans, individually, are of all people the most anxious to please. That they talk overmuch is often taken as a sign of self-satisfaction. It is merely a mannerism. Rhetoric is a thing inbred in them. They are quite unconscious of it. It is as natural to them as breathing. And, while they talk on, they really do believe that they are a quick, businesslike people, by whom things are "put through" with an almost brutal abruptness. This notion of theirs is rather confusing to the patient English auditor.
Altogether, the American Rhodes Scholars, with their splendid native gift of oratory, and their modest desire to please, and their not less evident feeling that they ought merely to edify, and their constant delight in all that of Oxford their English brethren don't notice, and their constant fear that they are being corrupted, are a noble, rather than a comfortable, element in the social life of the University. So, at least, they seemed to the Duke.
And to-night, but that he had invited Oover to dine with him, he could have been dining with Zuleika. And this was his last dinner on earth. Such thoughts made him the less able to take pleasure in his guest. Perfect, however, the amenity of his manner.
This was the more commendable because Oover's "aura" was even more disturbing than that of the average Rhodes Scholar. To-night, besides the usual conflicts in this young man's bosom, raged a special one between his desire to behave well and his jealousy of the man who had to-day been Miss Dobson's escort. In theory he denied the Duke's right to that honour. In sentiment he admitted it. Another conflict, you see. And another. He longed to orate about the woman who had his heart; yet she was the one topic that must be shirked.
The MacQuern and Mr. Trent-Garby, Sir John Marraby and Lord Sayes, they too--though they were no orators--would fain have unpacked their hearts in words about Zuleika. They spoke of this and that, automatically, none listening to another--each man listening, wide- eyed, to his own heart's solo on the Zuleika theme, and drinking rather more champagne than was good for him. Maybe, these youths sowed in themselves, on this night, the seeds of lifelong intemperance. We cannot tell. They did not live long enough for us to know.
While the six dined, a seventh, invisible to them, leaned moodily against the mantel-piece, watching them. He was not of their time. His long brown hair was knotted in a black riband behind. He wore a pale brocaded coat and lace ruffles, silken stockings, a sword. Privy to their doom, he watched them. He was loth that his Junta must die. Yes, his. Could the diners have seen him, they would have known him by his resemblance to the mezzotint portrait that hung on the wall above him. They would have risen to their feet in presence of Humphrey Greddon, founder and first president of the club.
His face was not so oval, nor were his eyes so big, nor his lips so full, nor his hands so delicate, as they appeared in the mezzotint. Yet (bating the conventions of eighteenth-century portraiture) the likeness was a good one. Humphrey Greddon was not less well-knit and graceful than the painter had made him, and, hard though the lines of the face were, there was about him a certain air of high romance that could not be explained away by the fact that he was of a period not our own. You could understand the great love that Nellie O'Mora had borne him.
Under the mezzotint hung Hoppner's miniature of that lovely and ill- starred girl, with her soft dark eyes, and her curls all astray from beneath her little blue turban. And the Duke was telling Mr. Oover her story--how she had left her home for Humphrey Greddon when she was but sixteen, and he an undergraduate at Christ Church; and had lived for him in a cottage at Littlemore, whither he would ride, most days, to be with her; and how he tired of her, broke his oath that he would marry her, thereby broke her heart; and how she drowned herself in a mill-pond; and how Greddon was killed in Venice, two years later, duelling on the Riva Schiavoni with a Senator whose daughter he had seduced.
And he, Greddon, was not listening very attentively to the tale. He had heard it told so often in this room, and he did not understand the sentiments of the modern world. Nellie had been a monstrous pretty creature. He had adored her, and had done with her. It was right that she should always be toasted after dinner by the Junta, as in the days when first he loved her--"Here's to Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be!" He would have resented the omission of that toast. But he was sick of the pitying, melting looks that were always cast towards her miniature. Nellie had been beautiful, but, by God! she was always a dunce and a simpleton. How could he have spent his life with her? She was a fool, by God! not to marry that fool Trailby, of Merton, whom he took to see her.
Mr. Oover's moral tone, and his sense of chivalry, were of the American kind: far higher than ours, even, and far better expressed. Whereas the English guests of the Junta, when they heard the tale of Nellie O'Mora, would merely murmur "Poor girl!" or "What a shame!" Mr. Oover said in a tone of quiet authority that compelled Greddon's ear "Duke, I hope I am not incognisant of the laws that govern the relations of guest and host. But, Duke, I aver deliberately that the founder of this fine old club; at which you are so splendidly entertaining me to-night, was an unmitigated scoundrel. I say he was not a white man."
At the word "scoundrel," Humphrey Greddon had sprung forward, drawing his sword, and loudly, in a voice audible to himself alone, challenged the American to make good his words. Then, as this gentleman took no notice, with one clean straight thrust Greddon ran him through the heart, shouting "Die, you damned psalm-singer and traducer! And so die all rebels against King George!"* Withdrawing the blade, he wiped it daintily on his cambric handkerchief. There was no blood. Mr. Oover, with unpunctured shirt-front, was repeating "I say he was not a white man." And Greddon remembered himself--remembered he was only a ghost, impalpable, impotent, of no account. "But I shall meet you in Hell to-morrow," he hissed in Oover's face. And there he was wrong. It is quite certain that Oover went to Heaven.
* As Edward VII. was at this time on the throne, it must have been
to George III. that Mr. Greddon was referring.
Unable to avenge himself, Greddon had looked to the Duke to act for him. When he saw that this young man did but smile at Oover and make a vague deprecatory gesture, he again, in his wrath, forgot his disabilities. Drawing himself to his full height, he took with great deliberation a pinch of snuff, and, bowing low to the Duke, said "I am vastly obleeged to your Grace for the fine high Courage you have exhibited in the behalf of your most Admiring, most Humble Servant." Then, having brushed away a speck of snuff from his jabot, he turned on his heel; and only in the doorway, where one of the club servants, carrying a decanter in each hand, walked straight through him, did he realise that he had not spoilt the Duke's evening. With a volley of the most appalling eighteenth-century oaths, he passed back into the nether world.
To the Duke, Nellie O'Mora had never been a very vital figure. He had often repeated the legend of her. But, having never known what love was, he could not imagine her rapture or her anguish. Himself the quarry of all Mayfair's wise virgins, he had always--so far as he thought of the matter at all--suspected that Nellie's death was due to thwarted ambition. But to-night, while he told Oover about her, he could see into her soul. Nor did he pity her. She had loved. She had known the one thing worth living for--and dying for. She, as she went down to the mill-pond, had felt just that ecstasy of self-sacrifice which he himself had felt to-day and would feel to-morrow. And for a while, too--for a full year--she had known the joy of being loved, had been for Greddon "the fairest witch that ever was or will be." He could not agree with Oover's long disquisition on her sufferings. And, glancing at her well-remembered miniature, he wondered just what it was in her that had captivated Greddon. He was in that blest state when a man cannot believe the earth has been trodden by any really beautiful or desirable lady save the lady of his own heart.
The moment had come for the removal of the table-cloth. The mahogany of the Junta was laid bare--a clear dark lake, anon to reflect in its still and ruddy depths the candelabras and the fruit-cradles, the slender glasses and the stout old decanters, the forfeit-box and the snuff-box, and other paraphernalia of the dignity of dessert. Lucidly, and unwaveringly inverted in the depths these good things stood; and, so soon as the wine had made its circuit, the Duke rose and with uplifted glass proposed the first of the two toasts traditional to the Junta. "Gentlemen, I give you Church and State."
The toast having been honoured by all--and by none with a richer reverence than by Oover, despite his passionate mental reservation in favour of Pittsburg-Anabaptism and the Republican Ideal--the snuff-box was handed round, and fruit was eaten.
Presently, when the wine had gone round again, the Duke rose and with uplifted glass said "Gentlemen, I give you--" and there halted. Silent, frowning, flushed, he stood for a few moments, and then, with a deliberate gesture, tilted his glass and let fall the wine to the carpet. "No," he said, looking round the table, "I cannot give you Nellie O'Mora."
"Why not?" gasped Sir John Marraby.
"You have a right to ask that," said the Duke, still standing. "I can only say that my conscience is stronger than my sense of what is due to the customs of the club. Nellie O'Mora," he said, passing his hand over his brow, "may have been in her day the fairest witch that ever was--so fair that our founder had good reason to suppose her the fairest witch that ever would be. But his prediction was a false one. So at least it seems to me. Of course I cannot both hold this view and remain President of this club. MacQuern--Marraby--which of you is Vice-President?"
"He is," said Marraby.
"Then, MacQuern, you are hereby President, vice myself resigned. Take the chair and propose the toast."
"I would rather not," said The MacQuern after a pause.
"Then, Marraby, YOU must."
"Not I!" said Marraby.
"Why is this?" asked the Duke, looking from one to the other.
The MacQuern, with Scotch caution, was silent. But the impulsive Marraby--Madcap Marraby, as they called him in B.N.C.--said "It's because I won't lie!" and, leaping up, raised his glass aloft and cried "I give you Zuleika Dobson, the fairest witch that ever was or will be!"
Mr. Oover, Lord Sayes, Mr. Trent-Garby, sprang to their feet; The MacQuern rose to his. "Zuleika Dobson!" they cried, and drained their glasses.
Then, when they had resumed their seats, came an awkward pause. The Duke, still erect beside the chair he had vacated, looked very grave and pale. Marraby had taken an outrageous liberty. But "a member of the Junta can do no wrong," and the liberty could not be resented. The Duke felt that the blame was on himself, who had elected Marraby to the club.
Mr. Oover, too, looked grave. All the antiquarian in him deplored the sudden rupture of a fine old Oxford tradition. All the chivalrous American in him resented the slight on that fair victim of the feudal system, Miss O'Mora. And, at the same time, all the Abimelech V. in him rejoiced at having honoured by word and act the one woman in the world.
Gazing around at the flushed faces and heaving shirt-fronts of the diners, the Duke forgot Marraby's misdemeanour. What mattered far more to him was that here were five young men deeply under the spell of Zuleika. They must be saved, if possible. He knew how strong his influence was in the University. He knew also how strong was Zuleika's. He had not much hope of the issue. But his new-born sense of duty to his fellows spurred him on. "Is there," he asked with a bitter smile, "any one of you who doesn't with his whole heart love Miss Dobson?"
Nobody held up a hand.
"As I feared," said the Duke, knowing not that if a hand had been held up he would have taken it as a personal insult. No man really in love can forgive another for not sharing his ardour. His jealousy for himself when his beloved prefers another man is hardly a stronger passion than his jealousy for her when she is not preferred to all other women.
"You know her only by sight--by repute?" asked the Duke. They signified that this was so. "I wish you would introduce me to her," said Marraby.
"You are all coming to the Judas concert tonight?" the Duke asked, ignoring Marraby. "You have all secured tickets?" They nodded. "To hear me play, or to see Miss Dobson?" There was a murmur of "Both-- both." "And you would all of you, like Marraby, wish to be presented to this lady?" Their eyes dilated. "That way happiness lies, think you?"
"Oh, happiness be hanged!" said Marraby.
To the Duke this seemed a profoundly sane remark--an epitome of his own sentiments. But what was right for himself was not right for all. He believed in convention as the best way for average mankind. And so, slowly, calmly, he told to his fellow-diners just what he had told a few hours earlier to those two young men in Salt Cellar. Not knowing that his words had already been spread throughout Oxford, he was rather surprised that they seemed to make no sensation. Quite flat, too, fell his appeal that the syren be shunned by all.
Mr. Oover, during his year of residence, had been sorely tried by the quaint old English custom of not making public speeches after private dinners. It was with a deep sigh of satisfaction that he now rose to his feet.
"Duke," he said in a low voice, which yet penetrated to every corner of the room, "I guess I am voicing these gentlemen when I say that your words show up your good heart, all the time. Your mentality, too, is bully, as we all predicate. One may say without exaggeration that your scholarly and social attainments are a by-word throughout the solar system, and be-yond. We rightly venerate you as our boss. Sir, we worship the ground you walk on. But we owe a duty to our own free and independent manhood. Sir, we worship the ground Miss Z. Dobson treads on. We have pegged out a claim right there. And from that location we aren't to be budged--not for bob-nuts. We asseverate we squat--where--we--squat, come--what--will. You say we have no chance to win Miss Z. Dobson. That--we--know. We aren't worthy. We lie prone. Let her walk over us. You say her heart is cold. We don't pro-fess we can take the chill off. But, Sir, we can't be diverted out of loving her--not even by you, Sir. No, Sir! We love her, and--shall, and-- will, Sir, with--our--latest breath."
This peroration evoked loud applause. "I love her, and shall, and will," shouted each man. And again they honoured in wine her image. Sir John Marraby uttered a cry familiar in the hunting-field. The MacQuern contributed a few bars of a sentimental ballad in the dialect of his country. "Hurrah, hurrah!" shouted Mr. Trent-Garby. Lord Sayes hummed the latest waltz, waving his arms to its rhythm, while the wine he had just spilt on his shirt-front trickled unheeded to his waistcoat. Mr. Oover gave the Yale cheer.
The genial din was wafted down through the open window to the passers- by. The wine-merchant across the way heard it, and smiled pensively. "Youth, youth!" he murmured.
The genial din grew louder.
At any other time, the Duke would have been jarred by the disgrace to the Junta. But now, as he stood with bent head, covering his face with his hands, he thought only of the need to rid these young men, here and now, of the influence that had befallen them. To-morrow his tragic example might be too late, the mischief have sunk too deep, the agony be life-long. His good breeding forbade him to cast over a dinner- table the shadow of his death. His conscience insisted that he must. He uncovered his face, and held up one hand for silence.
"We are all of us," he said, "old enough to remember vividly the demonstrations made in the streets of London when war was declared between us and the Transvaal Republic. You, Mr. Oover, doubtless heard in America the echoes of those ebullitions. The general idea was that the war was going to be a very brief and simple affair--what was called 'a walk-over.' To me, though I was only a small boy, it seemed that all this delirious pride in the prospect of crushing a trumpery foe argued a defect in our sense of proportion. Still, I was able to understand the demonstrators' point of view. To 'the giddy vulgar' any sort of victory is pleasant. But defeat? If, when that war was declared, every one had been sure that not only should we fail to conquer the Transvaal, but that IT would conquer US--that not only would it make good its freedom and independence, but that we should forfeit ours--how would the cits have felt then? Would they not have pulled long faces, spoken in whispers, wept? You must forgive me for saying that the noise you have just made around this table was very like to the noise made on the verge of the Boer War. And your procedure seems to me as unaccountable as would have seemed the antics of those mobs if England had been plainly doomed to disaster and to vassalage. My guest here to-night, in the course of his very eloquent and racy speech, spoke of the need that he and you should preserve your 'free and independent manhood.' That seemed to me an irreproachable ideal. But I confess I was somewhat taken aback by my friend's scheme for realising it. He declared his intention of lying prone and letting Miss Dobson 'walk over' him; and he advised you to follow his example; and to this counsel you gave evident approval. Gentlemen, suppose that on the verge of the aforesaid war, some orator had said to the British people 'It is going to be a walk-over for our enemy in the field. Mr. Kruger holds us in the hollow of his hand. In subjection to him we shall find our long-lost freedom and independence'--what would have been Britannia's answer? What, on reflection, is yours to Mr. Oover? What are Mr. Oover's own second thoughts?" The Duke paused, with a smile to his guest.
"Go right ahead, Duke," said Mr. Oover. "I'll re-ply when my turn comes."
"And not utterly demolish me, I hope," said the Duke. His was the Oxford manner. "Gentlemen," he continued, "is it possible that Britannia would have thrown her helmet in the air, shrieking 'Slavery for ever'? You, gentlemen, seem to think slavery a pleasant and an honourable state. You have less experience of it than I. I have been enslaved to Miss Dobson since yesterday evening; you, only since this afternoon; I, at close quarters; you, at a respectful distance. Your fetters have not galled you yet. MY wrists, MY ankles, are excoriated. The iron has entered into my soul. I droop. I stumble. Blood flows from me. I quiver and curse. I writhe. The sun mocks me. The moon titters in my face. I can stand it no longer. I will no more of it. Tomorrow I die."
The flushed faces of the diners grew gradually pale. Their eyes lost lustre. Their tongues clove to the roofs of their mouths.
At length, almost inaudibly, The MacQuern asked "Do you mean you are going to commit suicide?"
"Yes," said the Duke, "if you choose to put it in that way. Yes. And it is only by a chance that I did not commit suicide this afternoon."
"You--don't--say," gasped Mr. Oover.
"I do indeed," said the Duke. "And I ask you all to weigh well my message."
"But--but does Miss Dobson know?" asked Sir John.
"Oh yes," was the reply. "Indeed, it was she who persuaded me not to die till to-morrow."
"But--but," faltered Lord Sayes, "I saw her saying good-bye to you in Judas Street. And--and she looked quite--as if nothing had happened."
"Nothing HAD happened," said the Duke. "And she was very much pleased to have me still with her. But she isn't so cruel as to hinder me from dying for her to-morrow. I don't think she exactly fixed the hour. It shall be just after the Eights have been rowed. An earlier death would mark in me a lack of courtesy to that contest . . . It seems strange to you that I should do this thing? Take warning by me. Muster all your will-power, and forget Miss Dobson. Tear up your tickets for the concert. Stay here and play cards. Play high. Or rather, go back to your various Colleges, and speed the news I have told you. Put all Oxford on its guard against this woman who can love no lover. Let all Oxford know that I, Dorset, who had so much reason to love life--I, the nonpareil--am going to die for the love I bear this woman. And let no man think I go unwilling. I am no lamb led to the slaughter. I am priest as well as victim. I offer myself up with a pious joy. But enough of this cold Hebraism! It is ill-attuned to my soul's mood. Self-sacrifice--bah! Regard me as a voluptuary. I am that. All my baffled ardour speeds me to the bosom of Death. She is gentle and wanton. She knows I could never have loved her for her own sake. She has no illusions about me. She knows well I come to her because not otherwise may I quench my passion."
There was a long silence. The Duke, looking around at the bent heads and drawn mouths of his auditors, saw that his words had gone home. It was Marraby who revealed how powerfully home they had gone.
"Dorset," he said huskily, "I shall die too."
The Duke flung up his hands, staring wildly.
"I stand in with that," said Mr. Oover.
"So do I!" said Lord Sayes. "And I!" said Mr. Trent-Garby; "And I!" The MacQuern.
The Duke found voice. "Are you mad?" he asked, clutching at his throat. "Are you all mad?"
"No, Duke," said Mr. Oover. "Or, if we are, you have no right to be at large. You have shown us the way. We--take it."
"Just so," said The MacQuern, stolidly.
"Listen, you fools," cried the Duke. But through the open window came the vibrant stroke of some clock. He wheeled round, plucked out his watch--nine!--the concert!--his promise not to be late!--Zuleika!
All other thoughts vanished. In an instant he dodged beneath the sash of the window. From the flower-box he sprang to the road beneath. (The facade of the house is called, to this day, Dorset's Leap.) Alighting with the legerity of a cat, he swerved leftward in the recoil, and was off, like a streak of mulberry-coloured lightning, down the High.
The other men had rushed to the window, fearing the worst. "No," cried Oover. "That's all right. Saves time!" and he raised himself on to the window-box. It splintered under his weight. He leapt heavily but well, followed by some uprooted geraniums. Squaring his shoulders, he threw back his head, and doubled down the slope.
There was a violent jostle between the remaining men. The MacQuern cannily got out of it, and rushed downstairs. He emerged at the front- door just after Marraby touched ground. The Baronet's left ankle had twisted under him. His face was drawn with pain as he hopped down the High on his right foot, fingering his ticket for the concert. Next leapt Lord Sayes. And last of all leapt Mr. Trent-Garby, who, catching his foot in the ruined flower-box, fell headlong, and was, I regret to say, killed. Lord Sayes passed Sir John in a few paces. The MacQuern overtook Mr. Oover at St. Mary's and outstripped him in Radcliffe Square. The Duke came in an easy first.
Across the Front Quadrangle, heedless of the great crowd to right and left, Dorset rushed. Up the stone steps to the Hall he bounded, and only on the Hall's threshold was he brought to a pause. The doorway was blocked by the backs of youths who had by hook and crook secured standing-room. The whole scene was surprisingly unlike that of the average College concert.
"Let me pass," said the Duke, rather breathlessly. "Thank you. Make way please. Thanks." And with quick-pulsing heart he made his way down the aisle to the front row. There awaited him a surprise that was like a douche of cold water full in his face. Zuleika was not there! It had never occurred to him that she herself might not be punctual.
The Warden was there, reading his programme with an air of great solemnity. "Where," asked the Duke, "is your grand-daughter?" His tone was as of a man saying "If she is dead, don't break it gently to me."
"My grand-daughter?" said the Warden. "Ah, Duke, good evening."
"She's not ill?"
"Oh no, I think not. She said something about changing the dress she wore at dinner. She will come." And the Warden thanked his young friend for the great kindness he had shown to Zuleika. He hoped the Duke had not let her worry him with her artless prattle. "She seems to be a good, amiable girl," he added, in his detached way.
Sitting beside him, the Duke looked curiously at the venerable profile, as at a mummy's. To think that this had once been a man! To think that his blood flowed in the veins of Zuleika! Hitherto the Duke had seen nothing grotesque in him--had regarded him always as a dignified specimen of priest and scholar. Such a life as the Warden's, year following year in ornamental seclusion from the follies and fusses of the world, had to the Duke seemed rather admirable and enviable. Often he himself had (for a minute or so) meditated taking a fellowship at All Souls and spending here in Oxford the greater part of his life. He had never been young, and it never had occurred to him that the Warden had been young once. To-night he saw the old man in a new light--saw that he was mad. Here was a man who--for had he not married and begotten a child?--must have known, in some degree, the emotion of love. How, after that, could he have gone on thus, year by year, rusting among his books, asking no favour of life, waiting for death without a sign of impatience? Why had he not killed himself long ago? Why cumbered he the earth?
On the dais an undergraduate was singing a song entitled "She Loves Not Me." Such plaints are apt to leave us unharrowed. Across the footlights of an opera-house, the despair of some Italian tenor in red tights and a yellow wig may be convincing enough. Not so, at a concert, the despair of a shy British amateur in evening dress. The undergraduate on the dais, fumbling with his sheet of music while he predicted that only when he were "laid within the church-yard cold and grey" would his lady begin to pity him, seemed to the Duke rather ridiculous; but not half so ridiculous as the Warden. This fictitious love-affair was less nugatory than the actual humdrum for which Dr. Dobson had sold his soul to the devil. Also, little as one might suspect it, the warbler was perhaps expressing a genuine sentiment. Zuleika herself, belike, was in his thoughts.
As he began the second stanza, predicting that when his lady died too the angels of heaven would bear her straight to him, the audience heard a loud murmur, or subdued roar, outside the Hall. And after a few bars the warbler suddenly ceased, staring straight in front of him as though he saw a vision. Automatically, all heads veered in the direction of his gaze. From the entrance, slowly along the aisle, came Zuleika, brilliant in black.
To the Duke, who had rapturously risen, she nodded and smiled as she swerved down on the chair beside him. She looked to him somehow different. He had quite forgiven her for being late: her mere presence was a perfect excuse. And the very change in her, though he could not define it, was somehow pleasing to him. He was about to question her, but she shook her head and held up to her lips a black-gloved forefinger, enjoining silence for the singer, who, with dogged British pluck, had harked back to the beginning of the second stanza. When his task was done and he shuffled down from the dais, he received a great ovation. Zuleika, in the way peculiar to persons who are in the habit of appearing before the public, held her hands well above the level of her brow, and clapped them with a vigour demonstrative not less of her presence than of her delight.
"And now," she asked, turning to the Duke, "do you see? do you see?"
"Something, yes. But what?"
"Isn't it plain?" Lightly she touched the lobe of her left ear. "Aren't you flattered?"
He knew now what made the difference. It was that her little face was flanked by two black pearls.
"Think," said she, "how deeply I must have been brooding over you since we parted!"
"Is this really," he asked, pointing to the left ear-ring, "the pearl you wore to-day?"
"Yes. Isn't it strange? A man ought to be pleased when a woman goes quite unconsciously into mourning for him--goes just because she really does mourn him."
"I am more than pleased. I am touched. When did the change come?"
"I don't know. I only noticed it after dinner, when I saw myself in the mirror. All through dinner I had been thinking of you and of-- well, of to-morrow. And this dear sensitive pink pearl had again expressed my soul. And there was I, in a yellow gown with green embroideries, gay as a jacamar, jarring hideously on myself. I covered my eyes and rushed upstairs, rang the bell and tore my things off. My maid was very cross."
Cross! The Duke was shot through with envy of one who was in a position to be unkind to Zuleika. "Happy maid!" he murmured. Zuleika replied that he was stealing her thunder: hadn't she envied the girl at his lodgings? "But I," she said, "wanted only to serve you in meekness. The idea of ever being pert to you didn't enter into my head. You show a side of your character as unpleasing as it was unforeseen."
"Perhaps then," said the Duke, "it is as well that I am going to die." She acknowledged his rebuke with a pretty gesture of penitence. "You may have been faultless in love," he added; "but you would not have laid down your life for me."
"Oh," she answered, "wouldn't I though? You don't know me. That is just the sort of thing I should have loved to do. I am much more romantic than you are, really. I wonder," she said, glancing at his breast, "if YOUR pink pearl would have turned black? And I wonder if YOU would have taken the trouble to change that extraordinary coat you are wearing?"
In sooth, no costume could have been more beautifully Cimmerian than Zuleika's. And yet, thought the Duke, watching her as the concert proceeded, the effect of her was not lugubrious. Her darkness shone. The black satin gown she wore was a stream of shifting high-lights. Big black diamonds were around her throat and wrists, and tiny black diamonds starred the fan she wielded. In her hair gleamed a great raven's wing. And brighter, brighter than all these were her eyes. Assuredly no, there was nothing morbid about her. Would one even (wondered the Duke, for a disloyal instant) go so far as to say she was heartless? Ah no, she was merely strong. She was one who could tread the tragic plane without stumbling, and be resilient in the valley of the shadow. What she had just said was no more than the truth: she would have loved to die for him, had he not forfeited her heart. She would have asked no tears. That she had none to shed for him now, that she did but share his exhilaration, was the measure of her worthiness to have the homage of his self-slaughter.
"By the way," she whispered, "I want to ask one little favour of you. Will you, please, at the last moment to-morrow, call out my name in a loud voice, so that every one around can hear?"
"Of course I will."
"So that no one shall ever be able to say it wasn't for me that you died, you know."
"May I use simply your Christian name?"
"Yes, I really don't see why you shouldn't--at such a moment."
"Thank you." His face glowed.
Thus did they commune, these two, radiant without and within. And behind them, throughout the Hall, the undergraduates craned their necks for a glimpse. The Duke's piano solo, which was the last item in the first half of the programme, was eagerly awaited. Already, whispered first from the lips of Oover and the others who had come on from the Junta, the news of his resolve had gone from ear to ear among the men. He, for his part, had forgotten the scene at the Junta, the baleful effect of his example. For him the Hall was a cave of solitude --no one there but Zuleika and himself. Yet almost, like the late Mr. John Bright, he heard in the air the beating of the wings of the Angel of Death. Not awful wings; little wings that sprouted from the shoulders of a rosy and blindfold child. Love and Death--for him they were exquisitely one. And it seemed to him, when his turn came to play, that he floated, rather than walked, to the dais.
He had not considered what he would play tonight. Nor, maybe, was he conscious now of choosing. His fingers caressed the keyboard vaguely; and anon this ivory had voice and language; and for its master, and for some of his hearers, arose a vision. And it was as though in delicate procession, very slowly, listless with weeping, certain figures passed by, hooded, and drooping forasmuch as by the loss of him whom they were following to his grave their own hold on life had been loosened. He had been so beautiful and young. Lo, he was but a burden to be carried hence, dust to be hidden out of sight. Very slowly, very wretchedly they went by. But, as they went, another feeling, faint at first, an all but imperceptible current, seemed to flow through the procession; and now one, now another of the mourners would look wanly up, with cast-back hood, as though listening; and anon all were listening on their way, first in wonder, then in rapture; for the soul of their friend was singing to them: they heard his voice, but clearer and more blithe than they had ever known it--a voice etherealised by a triumph of joy that was not yet for them to share. But presently the voice receded, its echoes dying away into the sphere whence it came. It ceased; and the mourners were left alone again with their sorrow, and passed on all unsolaced, and drooping, weeping.
Soon after the Duke had begun to play, an invisible figure came and stood by and listened; a frail man, dressed in the fashion of 1840; the shade of none other than Frederic Chopin. Behind whom, a moment later, came a woman of somewhat masculine aspect and dominant demeanour, mounting guard over him, and, as it were, ready to catch him if he fell. He bowed his head lower and lower, he looked up with an ecstasy more and more intense, according to the procedure of his Marche Funebre. And among the audience, too, there was a bowing and uplifting of heads, just as among the figures of the mourners evoked. Yet the head of the player himself was all the while erect, and his face glad and serene. Nobly sensitive as was his playing of the mournful passages, he smiled brilliantly through them.
And Zuleika returned his gaze with a smile not less gay. She was not sure what he was playing. But she assumed that it was for her, and that the music had some reference to his impending death. She was one of the people who say "I don't know anything about music really, but I know what I like." And she liked this; and she beat time to it with her fan. She thought her Duke looked very handsome. She was proud of him. Strange that this time yesterday she had been wildly in love with him! Strange, too, that this time to-morrow he would be dead! She was immensely glad she had saved him this afternoon. To-morrow! There came back to her what he had told her about the omen at Tankerton, that stately home: "On the eve of the death of a Duke of Dorset, two black owls come always and perch on the battlements. They remain there through the night, hooting. At dawn they fly away, none knows whither." Perhaps, thought she, at this very moment these two birds were on the battlements.
The music ceased. In the hush that followed it, her applause rang sharp and notable. Not so Chopin's. Of him and his intense excitement none but his companion was aware. "Plus fin que Pachmann!" he reiterated, waving his arms wildly, and dancing.
"Tu auras une migraine affreuse. Rentrons, petit coeur!" said George Sand, gently but firmly.
"Laisse-moi le saluer," cried the composer, struggling in her grasp.
"Demain soir, oui. Il sera parmi nous," said the novelist, as she hurried him away. "Moi aussi," she added to herself, "je me promets un beau plaisir en faisant la connaissance de ce jeune homme."
Zuleika was the first to rise as "ce jeune homme" came down from the dais. Now was the interval between the two parts of the programme. There was a general creaking and scraping of pushed-back chairs as the audience rose and went forth into the night. The noise aroused from sleep the good Warden, who, having peered at his programme, complimented the Duke with old-world courtesy and went to sleep again. Zuleika, thrusting her fan under one arm, shook the player by both hands. Also, she told him that she knew nothing about music really, but that she knew what she liked. As she passed with him up the aisle, she said this again. People who say it are never tired of saying it.
Outside, the crowd was greater than ever. All the undergraduates from all the Colleges seemed now to be concentrated in the great Front Quadrangle of Judas. Even in the glow of the Japanese lanterns that hung around in honour of the concert, the faces of the lads looked a little pale. For it was known by all now that the Duke was to die. Even while the concert was in progress, the news had spread out from the Hall, through the thronged doorway, down the thronged steps, to the confines of the crowd. Nor had Oover and the other men from the Junta made any secret of their own determination. And now, as the rest saw Zuleika yet again at close quarters, and verified their remembrance of her, the half-formed desire in them to die too was hardened to a vow.
You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost--he becomes just an unit in unreason. If any one of the undergraduates had met Miss Dobson in the desert of Sahara, he would have fallen in love with her; but not one in a thousand of them would have wished to die because she did not love him. The Duke's was a peculiar case. For him to fall in love was itself a violent peripety, bound to produce a violent upheaval; and such was his pride that for his love to be unrequited would naturally enamour him of death. These other, these quite ordinary, young men were the victims less of Zuleika than of the Duke's example, and of one another. A crowd, proportionately to its size, magnifies all that in its units pertains to the emotions, and diminishes all that in them pertains to thought. It was because these undergraduates were a crowd that their passion for Zuleika was so intense; and it was because they were a crowd that they followed so blindly the lead given to them. To die for Miss Dobson was "the thing to do." The Duke was going to do it. The Junta was going to do it. It is a hateful fact, but we must face the fact, that snobbishness was one of the springs to the tragedy here chronicled.
We may set to this crowd's credit that it refrained now from following Zuleika. Not one of the ladies present was deserted by her escort. All the men recognised the Duke's right to be alone with Zuleika now. We may set also to their credit that they carefully guarded the ladies from all knowledge of what was afoot.
Side by side, the great lover and his beloved wandered away, beyond the light of the Japanese lanterns, and came to Salt Cellar.
The moon, like a gardenia in the night's button-hole--but no! why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else--usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance? . . . The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavour to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn. Never, except once, late one night in the eighteenth century, when the toper who was Sub-Warden had spent an hour in trying to set his watch here, had she received the slightest encouragement. Still she wanly persisted. And this was the more absurd in her because Salt Cellar offered very good scope for those legitimate effects of hers which we one and all admire. Was it nothing to her to have cut those black shadows across the cloisters? Was it nothing to her that she so magically mingled her rays with the candle-light shed forth from Zuleika's bedroom? Nothing, that she had cleansed the lawn of all its colour, and made of it a platform of silver-grey, fit for fairies to dance on?
If Zuleika, as she paced the gravel path, had seen how transfigured-- how nobly like the Tragic Muse--she was just now, she could not have gone on bothering the Duke for a keepsake of the tragedy that was to be.
She was still set on having his two studs. He was still firm in his refusal to misappropriate those heirlooms. In vain she pointed out to him that the pearls he meant, the white ones, no longer existed; that the pearls he was wearing were no more "entailed" than if he had got them yesterday. "And you actually DID get them yesterday," she said. "And from me. And I want them back."
"You are ingenious," he admitted. "I, in my simple way, am but head of the Tanville-Tankerton family. Had you accepted my offer of marriage, you would have had the right to wear these two pearls during your life-time. I am very happy to die for you. But tamper with the property of my successor I cannot and will not. I am sorry," he added.
"Sorry!" echoed Zuleika. "Yes, and you were 'sorry' you couldn't dine with me to-night. But any little niggling scruple is more to you than I am. What old maids men are!" And viciously with her fan she struck one of the cloister pillars.
Her outburst was lost on the Duke. At her taunt about his not dining with her, he had stood still, clapping one hand to his brow. The events of the early evening swept back to him--his speech, its unforeseen and horrible reception. He saw again the preternaturally solemn face of Oover, and the flushed faces of the rest. He had thought, as he pointed down to the abyss over which he stood, these fellows would recoil, and pull themselves together. They had recoiled, and pulled themselves together, only in the manner of athletes about to spring. He was responsible for them. His own life was his to lose: others he must not squander. Besides, he had reckoned to die alone, unique; aloft and apart . . . "There is something--something I had forgotten," he said to Zuleika, "something that will be a great shock to you"; and he gave her an outline of what had passed at the Junta.
"And you are sure they really MEANT it?" she asked in a voice that trembled.
"I fear so. But they were over-excited. They will recant their folly. I shall force them to."
"They are not children. You yourself have just been calling them 'men.' Why should they obey you?"
She turned at sound of a footstep, and saw a young man approaching. He wore a coat like the Duke's, and in his hand he dangled a handkerchief. He bowed awkwardly, and, holding out the handkerchief, said to her "I beg your pardon, but I think you dropped this. I have just picked it up."
Zuleika looked at the handkerchief, which was obviously a man's, and smilingly shook her head.
"I don't think you know The MacQuern," said the Duke, with sulky grace. "This," he said to the intruder, "is Miss Dobson."
"And is it really true," asked Zuleika, retaining The MacQuern's hand, "that you want to die for me?"
Well, the Scots are a self-seeking and a resolute, but a shy, race; swift to act, when swiftness is needed, but seldom knowing quite what to say. The MacQuern, with native reluctance to give something for nothing, had determined to have the pleasure of knowing the young lady for whom he was to lay down his life; and this purpose he had, by the simple stratagem of his own handkerchief, achieved. Nevertheless, in answer to Zuleika's question, and with the pressure of her hand to inspire him, the only word that rose to his lips was "Ay" (which may be roughly translated as "Yes").
"You will do nothing of the sort," interposed the Duke.
"There," said Zuleika, still retaining The MacQuern's hand, "you see, it is forbidden. You must not defy our dear little Duke. He is not used to it. It is not done."
"I don't know," said The MacQuern, with a stony glance at the Duke, "that he has anything to do with the matter."
"He is older and wiser than you. More a man of the world. Regard him as your tutor."
"Do YOU want me not to die for you?" asked the young man.
"Ah, _I_ should not dare to impose my wishes on you," said she, dropping his hand. "Even," she added, "if I knew what my wishes were. And I don't. I know only that I think it is very, very beautiful of you to think of dying for me."
"Then that settles it," said The MacQuern.
"No, no! You must not let yourself be influenced by ME. Besides, I am not in a mood to influence anybody. I am overwhelmed. Tell me," she said, heedless of the Duke, who stood tapping his heel on the ground, with every manifestation of disapproval and impatience, "tell me, is it true that some of the other men love me too, and--feel as you do?"
The MacQuern said cautiously that he could answer for no one but himself. "But," he allowed, "I saw a good many men whom I know, outside the Hall here, just now, and they seemed to have made up their minds."
"To die for me? To-morrow?"
"To-morrow. After the Eights, I suppose; at the same time as the Duke. It wouldn't do to leave the races undecided."
"Of COURSE not. But the poor dears! It is too touching! I have done nothing, nothing to deserve it."
"Nothing whatsoever," said the Duke drily.
"Oh HE," said Zuleika, "thinks me an unredeemed brute; just because I don't love him. YOU, dear Mr. MacQuern--does one call you 'Mr.'? 'The' would sound so odd in the vocative. And I can't very well call you 'MacQuern'--YOU don't think me unkind, do you? I simply can't bear to think of all these young lives cut short without my having done a thing to brighten them. What can I do?--what can I do to show my gratitude?"
An idea struck her. She looked up to the lit window of her room. "Melisande!" she called.
A figure appeared at the window. "Mademoiselle desire?"
"My tricks, Melisande! Bring down the box, quick!" She turned excitedly to the two young men. "It is all I can do in return, you see. If I could dance for them, I would. If I could sing, I would sing to them. I do what I can. You," she said to the Duke, "must go on to the platform and announce it."
"Why, that I am going to do my tricks! All you need say is 'Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure to--' What is the matter now?"
"You make me feel slightly unwell," said the Duke.
"And YOU are the most d-dis-disobliging and the unkindest and the b-beastliest person I ever met," Zuleika sobbed at him through her hands. The MacQuern glared reproaches at him. So did Melisande, who had just appeared through the postern, holding in her arms the great casket of malachite. A painful scene; and the Duke gave in. He said he would do anything--anything. Peace was restored.
The MacQuern had relieved Melisande of her burden; and to him was the privilege of bearing it, in procession with his adored and her quelled mentor, towards the Hall.
Zuleika babbled like a child going to a juvenile party. This was the great night, as yet, in her life. Illustrious enough already it had seemed to her, as eve of that ultimate flattery vowed her by the Duke. So fine a thing had his doom seemed to her--his doom alone--that it had sufficed to flood her pink pearl with the right hue. And now not on him alone need she ponder. Now he was but the centre of a group--a group that might grow and grow--a group that might with a little encouragement be a multitude . . . With such hopes dimly whirling in the recesses of her soul, her beautiful red lips babbled.
Sounds of a violin, drifting out through the open windows of the Hall, suggested that the second part of the concert had begun. All the undergraduates, however, except the few who figured in the programme, had waited outside till their mistress should re-appear. The sisters and cousins of the Judas men had been escorted back to their places and hurriedly left there.
It was a hushed, tense crowd.
"The poor darlings!" murmured Zuleika, pausing to survey them. "And oh," she exclaimed, "there won't be room for all of them in there!"
"You might give an 'overflow' performance out here afterwards," suggested the Duke, grimly.
This idea flashed on her a better. Why not give her performance here and now?--now, so eager was she for contact, as it were, with this crowd; here, by moonlight, in the pretty glow of these paper lanterns. Yes, she said, let it be here and now; and she bade the Duke make the announcement.
"What shall I say?" he asked. "'Gentlemen, I have the pleasure to announce that Miss Zuleika Dobson, the world-renowned She-Wizard, will now oblige'? Or shall I call them 'Gents,' tout court?"
She could afford to laugh at his ill-humour. She had his promise of obedience. She told him to say something graceful and simple.
The noise of the violin had ceased. There was not a breath of wind. The crowd in the quadrangle was as still and as silent as the night itself. Nowhere a tremour. And it was borne in on Zuleika that this crowd had one mind as well as one heart--a common resolve, calm and clear, as well as a common passion. No need for her to strengthen the spell now. No waverers here. And thus it came true that gratitude was the sole motive for her display.
She stood with eyes downcast and hands folded behind her, moonlit in the glow of lanterns, modest to the point of pathos, while the Duke gracefully and simply introduced her to the multitude. He was, he said, empowered by the lady who stood beside him to say that she would be pleased to give them an exhibition of her skill in the art to which she had devoted her life--an art which, more potently perhaps than any other, touched in mankind the sense of mystery and stirred the faculty of wonder; the most truly romantic of all the arts: he referred to the art of conjuring. It was not too much to say that by her mastery of this art, in which hitherto, it must be confessed, women had made no very great mark, Miss Zuleika Dobson (for such was the name of the lady who stood beside him) had earned the esteem of the whole civilised world. And here in Oxford, and in this College especially, she had a peculiar claim to--might he say?--their affectionate regard, inasmuch as she was the grand-daughter of their venerable and venerated Warden.
As the Duke ceased, there came from his hearers a sound like the rustling of leaves. In return for it, Zuleika performed that graceful act of subsidence to the verge of collapse which is usually kept for the delectation of some royal person. And indeed, in the presence of this doomed congress, she did experience humility; for she was not altogether without imagination. But, as she arose from her "bob," she was her own bold self again, bright mistress of the situation.
It was impossible for her to give her entertainment in full. Some of her tricks (notably the Secret Aquarium, and the Blazing Ball of Worsted) needed special preparation, and a table fitted with a "servante" or secret tray. The table for to-night's performance was an ordinary one, brought out from the porter's lodge. The MacQuern deposited on it the great casket. Zuleika, retaining him as her assistant, picked nimbly out from their places and put in array the curious appurtenances of her art--the Magic Canister, the Demon Egg- Cup, and the sundry other vessels which, lost property of young Edward Gibbs, had been by a Romanoff transmuted from wood to gold, and were now by the moon reduced temporarily to silver.
In a great dense semicircle the young men disposed themselves around her. Those who were in front squatted down on the gravel; those who were behind knelt; the rest stood. Young Oxford! Here, in this mass of boyish faces, all fused and obliterated, was the realisation of that phrase. Two or three thousands of human bodies, human souls? Yet the effect of them in the moonlight was as of one great passive monster.
So was it seen by the Duke, as he stood leaning against the wall, behind Zuleika's table. He saw it as a monster couchant and enchanted, a monster that was to die; and its death was in part his own doing. But remorse in him gave place to hostility. Zuleika had begun her performance. She was producing the Barber's Pole from her mouth. And it was to her that the Duke's heart went suddenly out in tenderness and pity. He forgot her levity and vanity--her wickedness, as he had inwardly called it. He thrilled with that intense anxiety which comes to a man when he sees his beloved offering to the public an exhibition of her skill, be it in singing, acting, dancing, or any other art. Would she acquit herself well? The lover's trepidation is painful enough when the beloved has genius--how should these clods appreciate her? and who set them in judgment over her? It must be worse when the beloved has mediocrity. And Zuleika, in conjuring, had rather less than that. Though indeed she took herself quite seriously as a conjurer, she brought to her art neither conscience nor ambition, in any true sense of those words. Since her debut, she had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The stale and narrow repertory which she had acquired from Edward Gibbs was all she had to offer; and this, and her marked lack of skill, she eked out with the self-same "patter" that had sufficed that impossible young man. It was especially her jokes that now sent shudders up the spine of her lover, and brought tears to his eyes, and kept him in a state of terror as to what she would say next. "You see," she had exclaimed lightly after the production of the Barber's Pole, "how easy it is to set up business as a hairdresser." Over the Demon Egg-Cup she said that the egg was "as good as fresh." And her constantly reiterated catch-phrase--"Well, this is rather queer!"--was the most distressing thing of all.
The Duke blushed to think what these men thought of her. Would love were blind! These her lovers were doubtless judging her. They forgave her--confound their impudence!--because of her beauty. The banality of her performance was an added grace. It made her piteous. Damn them, they were sorry for her. Little Noaks was squatting in the front row, peering up at her through his spectacles. Noaks was as sorry for her as the rest of them. Why didn't the earth yawn and swallow them all up?
Our hero's unreasoning rage was fed by a not unreasonable jealousy. It was clear to him that Zuleika had forgotten his existence. To-day, as soon as he had killed her love, she had shown him how much less to her was his love than the crowd's. And now again it was only the crowd she cared for. He followed with his eyes her long slender figure as she threaded her way in and out of the crowd, sinuously, confidingly, producing a penny from one lad's elbow, a threepenny-bit from between another's neck and collar, half a crown from another's hair, and always repeating in that flute-like voice of hers "Well, this is rather queer!" Hither and thither she fared, her neck and arms gleaming white from the luminous blackness of her dress, in the luminous blueness of the night. At a distance, she might have been a wraith; or a breeze made visible; a vagrom breeze, warm and delicate, and in league with death.
Yes, that is how she might have seemed to a casual observer. But to the Duke there was nothing weird about her: she was radiantly a woman; a goddess; and his first and last love. Bitter his heart was, but only against the mob she wooed, not against her for wooing it. She was cruel? All goddesses are that. She was demeaning herself? His soul welled up anew in pity, in passion.
Yonder, in the Hall, the concert ran its course, making a feeble incidental music to the dark emotions of the quadrangle. It ended somewhat before the close of Zuleika's rival show; and then the steps from the Hall were thronged by ladies, who, with a sprinkling of dons, stood in attitudes of refined displeasure and vulgar curiosity. The Warden was just awake enough to notice the sea of undergraduates. Suspecting some breach of College discipline, he retired hastily to his own quarters, for fear his dignity might be somehow compromised.
Was there ever, I wonder, an historian so pure as not to have wished just once to fob off on his readers just one bright fable for effect? I find myself sorely tempted to tell you that on Zuleika, as her entertainment drew to a close, the spirit of the higher thaumaturgy descended like a flame and found in her a worthy agent. Specious Apollyon whispers to me "Where would be the harm? Tell your readers that she cast a seed on the ground, and that therefrom presently arose a tamarind-tree which blossomed and bore fruit and, withering, vanished. Or say she conjured from an empty basket of osier a hissing and bridling snake. Why not? Your readers would be excited, gratified. And you would never be found out." But the grave eyes of Clio are bent on me, her servant. Oh pardon, madam: I did but waver for an instant. It is not too late to tell my readers that the climax of Zuleika's entertainment was only that dismal affair, the Magic Canister.
It she took from the table, and, holding it aloft, cried "Now, before I say good night, I want to see if I have your confidence. But you mustn't think this is the confidence trick!" She handed the vessel to The MacQuern, who, looking like an overgrown acolyte, bore it after her as she went again among the audience. Pausing before a man in the front row, she asked him if he would trust her with his watch. He held it out to her. "Thank you," she said, letting her fingers touch his for a moment before she dropped it into the Magic Canister. From another man she borrowed a cigarette-case, from another a neck-tie, from another a pair of sleeve-links, from Noaks a ring--one of those iron rings which are supposed, rightly or wrongly, to alleviate rheumatism. And when she had made an ample selection, she began her return-journey to the table.
On her way she saw in the shadow of the wall the figure of her forgotten Duke. She saw him, the one man she had ever loved, also the first man who had wished definitely to die for her; and she was touched by remorse. She had said she would remember him to her dying day; and already . . . But had he not refused her the wherewithal to remember him--the pearls she needed as the clou of her dear collection, the great relic among relics?
"Would you trust me with your studs?" she asked him, in a voice that could be heard throughout the quadrangle, with a smile that was for him alone.
There was no help for it. He quickly extricated from his shirt-front the black pearl and the pink. Her thanks had a special emphasis.
The MacQuern placed the Magic Canister before her on the table. She pressed the outer sheath down on it. Then she inverted it so that the contents fell into the false lid; then she opened it, looked into it, and, exclaiming "Well, this is rather queer!" held it up so that the audience whose intelligence she was insulting might see there was nothing in it.
"Accidents," she said, "will happen in the best-regulated canisters! But I think there is just a chance that I shall be able to restore your property. Excuse me for a moment." She then shut the canister, released the false lid, made several passes over it, opened it, looked into it and said with a flourish "Now I can clear my character!" Again she went among the crowd, attended by The MacQuern; and the loans-- priceless now because she had touched them--were in due course severally restored. When she took the canister from her acolyte, only the two studs remained in it.
Not since the night of her flitting from the Gibbs' humble home had Zuleika thieved. Was she a back-slider? Would she rob the Duke, and his heir-presumptive, and Tanville-Tankertons yet unborn? Alas, yes. But what she now did was proof that she had qualms. And her way of doing it showed that for legerdemain she had after all a natural aptitude which, properly trained, might have won for her an honourable place in at least the second rank of contemporary prestidigitators. With a gesture of her disengaged hand, so swift as to be scarcely visible, she unhooked her ear-rings and "passed" them into the canister. This she did as she turned away from the crowd, on her way to the Duke. At the same moment, in a manner technically not less good, though morally deplorable, she withdrew the studs and "vanished" them into her bosom.
Was it triumph, or shame, or of both a little that so flushed her cheeks as she stood before the man she had robbed? Or was it the excitement of giving a present to the man she had loved? Certain it is that the nakedness of her ears gave a new look to her face--a primitive look, open and sweetly wild. The Duke saw the difference, without noticing the cause. She was more adorable than ever. He blenched and swayed as in proximity to a loveliness beyond endurance. His heart cried out within him. A sudden mist came over his eyes.
In the canister that she held out to him, the two pearls rattled like dice.
"Keep them!" he whispered.
"I shall," she whispered back, almost shyly. "But these, these are for you." And she took one of his hands, and, holding it open, tilted the canister over it, and let drop into it the two ear-rings, and went quickly away.
As she re-appeared at the table, the crowd gave her a long ovation of gratitude for her performance--an ovation all the more impressive because it was solemn and subdued. She curtseyed again and again, not indeed with the timid simplicity of her first obeisance (so familiar already was she with the thought of the crowd's doom), but rather in the manner of a prima donna--chin up, eyelids down, all teeth manifest, and hands from the bosom flung ecstatically wide asunder.
You know how, at a concert, a prima donna who has just sung insists on shaking hands with the accompanist, and dragging him forward, to show how beautiful her nature is, into the applause that is for herself alone. And your heart, like mine, has gone out to the wretched victim. Even so would you have felt for The MacQuern when Zuleika, on the implied assumption that half the credit was his, grasped him by the wrist, and, continuing to curtsey, would not release him till the last echoes of the clapping had died away.
The ladies on the steps of the Hall moved down into the quadrangle, spreading their resentment like a miasma. The tragic passion of the crowd was merged in mere awkwardness. There was a general movement towards the College gate.
Zuleika was putting her tricks back into the great casket, The MacQuern assisting her. The Scots, as I have said, are a shy race, but a resolute and a self-seeking. This young chieftain had not yet recovered from what his heroine had let him in for. But he did not lose the opportunity of asking her to lunch with him to-morrow.
"Delighted," she said, fitting the Demon Egg-Cup into its groove. Then, looking up at him, "Are you popular?" she asked. "Have you many friends?" He nodded. She said he must invite them all.
This was a blow to the young man, who, at once thrifty and infatuate, had planned a luncheon a deux. "I had hoped--" he began.
"Vainly," she cut him short.
There was a pause. "Whom shall I invite, then?"
"I don't know any of them. How should I have preferences?" She remembered the Duke. She looked round and saw him still standing in the shadow of the wall. He came towards her. "Of course," she said hastily to her host, "you must ask HIM."
The MacQuern complied. He turned to the Duke and told him that Miss Dobson had very kindly promised to lunch with him to-morrow. "And," said Zuleika, "I simply WON'T unless you will."
The Duke looked at her. Had it not been arranged that he and she should spend his last day together? Did it mean nothing that she had given him her ear-rings? Quickly drawing about him some remnants of his tattered pride, he hid his wound, and accepted the invitation.
"It seems a shame," said Zuleika to The MacQuern, "to ask you to bring this great heavy box all the way back again. But--"
Those last poor rags of pride fell away now. The Duke threw a prehensile hand on the casket, and, coldly glaring at The MacQuern, pointed with his other hand towards the College gate. He, and he alone, was going to see Zuleika home. It was his last night on earth, and he was not to be trifled with. Such was the message of his eyes. The Scotsman's flashed back a precisely similar message.
Men had fought for Zuleika, but never in her presence. Her eyes dilated. She had not the slightest impulse to throw herself between the two antagonists. Indeed, she stepped back, so as not to be in the way. A short sharp fight--how much better that is than bad blood! She hoped the better man would win; and (do not misjudge her) she rather hoped this man was the Duke. It occurred to her--a vague memory of some play or picture--that she ought to be holding aloft a candelabra of lit tapers; no, that was only done indoors, and in the eighteenth century. Ought she to hold a sponge? Idle, these speculations of hers, and based on complete ignorance of the manners and customs of undergraduates. The Duke and The MacQuern would never have come to blows in the presence of a lady. Their conflict was necessarily spiritual.
And it was the Scotsman, Scots though he was, who had to yield. Cowed by something demoniac in the will-power pitted against his, he found himself retreating in the direction indicated by the Duke's forefinger.
As he disappeared into the porch, Zuleika turned to the Duke. "You were splendid," she said softly. He knew that very well. Does the stag in his hour of victory need a diploma from the hind? Holding in his hands the malachite casket that was the symbol of his triumph, the Duke smiled dictatorially at his darling. He came near to thinking of her as a chattel. Then with a pang he remembered his abject devotion to her. Abject no longer though! The victory he had just won restored his manhood, his sense of supremacy among his fellows. He loved this woman on equal terms. She was transcendent? So was he, Dorset. To- night the world had on its moonlit surface two great ornaments-- Zuleika and himself. Neither of the pair could be replaced. Was one of them to be shattered? Life and love were good. He had been mad to think of dying.
No word was spoken as they went together to Salt Cellar. She expected him to talk about her conjuring tricks. Could he have been disappointed? She dared not inquire; for she had the sensitiveness, though no other quality whatsoever, of the true artist. She felt herself aggrieved. She had half a mind to ask him to give her back her ear-rings. And by the way, he hadn't yet thanked her for them! Well, she would make allowances for a condemned man. And again she remembered the omen of which he had told her. She looked at him, and then up into the sky. "This same moon," she said to herself, "sees the battlements of Tankerton. Does she see two black owls there? Does she hear them hooting?"
They were in Salt Cellar now. "Melisande!" she called up to her window.
"Hush!" said the Duke, "I have something to say to you."
"Well, you can say it all the better without that great box in your hands. I want my maid to carry it up to my room for me." And again she called out for Melisande, and received no answer. "I suppose she's in the house-keeper's room or somewhere. You had better put the box down inside the door. She can bring it up later."
She pushed open the postern; and the Duke, as he stepped across the threshold, thrilled with a romantic awe. Re-emerging a moment later into the moonlight, he felt that she had been right about the box: it was fatal to self-expression; and he was glad he had not tried to speak on the way from the Front Quad: the soul needs gesture; and the Duke's first gesture now was to seize Zuleika's hands in his.
She was too startled to move. "Zuleika!" he whispered. She was too angry to speak, but with a sudden twist she freed her wrists and darted back.
He laughed. "You are afraid of me. You are afraid to let me kiss you, because you are afraid of loving me. This afternoon--here--I all but kissed you. I mistook you for Death. I was enamoured of Death. I was a fool. That is what YOU are, you incomparable darling: you are a fool. You are afraid of life. I am not. I love life. I am going to live for you, do you hear?"
She stood with her back to the postern. Anger in her eyes had given place to scorn. "You mean," she said, "that you go back on your promise?"
"You will release me from it."
"You mean you are afraid to die?"
"You will not be guilty of my death. You love me."
"Good night, you miserable coward." She stepped back through the postern.
"Don't, Zuleika! Miss Dobson, don't! Pull yourself together! Reflect! I implore you . . . You will repent . . ."
Slowly she closed the postern on him.
"You will repent. I shall wait here, under your window . . ."
He heard a bolt rasped into its socket. He heard the retreat of a light tread on the paven hall.
And he hadn't even kissed her! That was his first thought. He ground his heel in the gravel.
And he had hurt her wrists! This was Zuleika's first thought, as she came into her bedroom. Yes, there were two red marks where he had held her. No man had ever dared to lay hands on her. With a sense of contamination, she proceeded to wash her hands thoroughly with soap and water. From time to time such words as "cad" and "beast" came through her teeth.
She dried her hands and flung herself into a chair, arose and went pacing the room. So this was the end of her great night! What had she done to deserve it? How had he dared?
There was a sound as of rain against the window. She was glad. The night needed cleansing.
He had told her she was afraid of life. Life!--to have herself caressed by HIM; humbly to devote herself to being humbly doted on; to be the slave of a slave; to swim in a private pond of treacle--ugh! If the thought weren't so cloying and degrading, it would be laughable.
For a moment her hands hovered over those two golden and gemmed volumes encasing Bradshaw and the A.B.C. Guide. To leave Oxford by an early train, leave him to drown unthanked, unlooked at . . . But this could not be done without slighting all those hundreds of other men . . . And besides . . .
Again that sound on the window-pane. This time it startled her. There seemed to be no rain. Could it have been--little bits of gravel? She darted noiselessly to the window, pushed it open, and looked down. She saw the upturned face of the Duke. She stepped back, trembling with fury, staring around her. Inspiration came.
She thrust her head out again. "Are you there?" she whispered.
"Yes, yes. I knew you would come."
"Wait a moment, wait!"
The water-jug stood where she had left it, on the floor by the wash- stand. It was almost full, rather heavy. She bore it steadily to the window, and looked out.
"Come a little nearer!" she whispered.
The upturned and moonlit face obeyed her. She saw its lips forming the word "Zuleika." She took careful aim.
Full on the face crashed the cascade of moonlit water, shooting out on all sides like the petals of some great silver anemone.
She laughed shrilly as she leapt back, letting the empty jug roll over on the carpet. Then she stood tense, crouching, her hands to her mouth, her eyes askance, as much as to say "Now I've done it!" She listened hard, holding her breath. In the stillness of the night was a faint sound of dripping water, and presently of footsteps going away. Then stillness unbroken.