"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.
I said that I was Clio's servant. And I felt, when I said it, that you looked at me dubiously, and murmured among yourselves.
Not that you doubted I was somewhat connected with Clio's household. The lady after whom I have named this book is alive, and well known to some of you personally, to all of you by repute. Nor had you finished my first page before you guessed my theme to be that episode in her life which caused so great a sensation among the newspaper-reading public a few years ago. (It all seems but yesterday, does it not? They are still vivid to us, those head-lines. We have hardly yet ceased to be edified by the morals pointed in those leading articles.) And yet very soon you found me behaving just like any novelist—reporting the exact words that passed between the protagonists at private interviews—aye, and the exact thoughts and emotions that were in their breasts. Little wonder that you wondered! Let me make things clear to you.
I have my mistress' leave to do this. At first (for reasons which you will presently understand) she demurred. But I pointed out to her that I had been placed in a false position, and that until this were rectified neither she nor I could reap the credit due to us.
Know, then, that for a long time Clio had been thoroughly discontented. She was happy enough, she says, when first she left the home of Pierus, her father, to become a Muse. On those humble beginnings she looks back with affection. She kept only one servant, Herodotus. The romantic element in him appealed to her. He died, and she had about her a large staff of able and faithful servants, whose way of doing their work irritated and depressed her. To them, apparently, life consisted of nothing but politics and military operations—things to which she, being a woman, was somewhat indifferent. She was jealous of Melpomene. It seemed to her that her own servants worked from without at a mass of dry details which might as well be forgotten. Melpomene's worked on material that was eternally interesting—the souls of men and women; and not from without, either; but rather casting themselves into those souls and showing to us the essence of them. She was particularly struck by a remark of Aristotle's, that tragedy was "more philosophic" than history, inasmuch as it concerned itself with what might be, while history was concerned with merely what had been. This summed up for her what she had often felt, but could not have exactly formulated. She saw that the department over which she presided was at best an inferior one. She saw that just what she had liked—and rightly liked—in poor dear Herodotus was just what prevented him from being a good historian. It was wrong to mix up facts and fancies. But why should her present servants deal with only one little special set of the variegated facts of life? It was not in her power to interfere. The Nine, by the terms of the charter that Zeus had granted to them, were bound to leave their servants an absolutely free hand. But Clio could at least refrain from reading the works which, by a legal fiction, she was supposed to inspire. Once or twice in the course of a century, she would glance into this or that new history book, only to lay it down with a shrug of her shoulders. Some of the mediaeval chronicles she rather liked. But when, one day, Pallas asked her what she thought of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" her only answer was "ostis toia echei en edone echei en edone toia" (For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like). This she did let slip. Generally, throughout all the centuries, she kept up a pretence of thinking history the greatest of all the arts. She always held her head high among her Sisters. It was only on the sly that she was an omnivorous reader of dramatic and lyric poetry. She watched with keen interest the earliest developments of the prose romance in southern Europe; and after the publication of "Clarissa Harlowe" she spent practically all her time in reading novels. It was not until the Spring of the year 1863 that an entirely new element forced itself into her peaceful life. Zeus fell in love with her.
To us, for whom so quickly "time doth transfix the flourish set on youth," there is something strange, even a trifle ludicrous, in the thought that Zeus, after all these years, is still at the beck and call of his passions. And it seems anyhow lamentable that he has not yet gained self-confidence enough to appear in his own person to the lady of his choice, and is still at pains to transform himself into whatever object he deems likeliest to please her. To Clio, suddenly from Olympus, he flashed down in the semblance of Kinglake's "Invasion of the Crimea" (four vols., large 8vo, half-calf). She saw through his disguise immediately, and, with great courage and independence, bade him begone. Rebuffed, he was not deflected. Indeed it would seem that Clio's high spirit did but sharpen his desire. Hardly a day passed but he appeared in what he hoped would be the irresistible form—a recently discovered fragment of Polybius, an advance copy of the forthcoming issue of "The Historical Review," the note-book of Professor Carl Voertschlaffen... One day, all-prying Hermes told him of Clio's secret addiction to novel-reading. Thenceforth, year in, year out, it was in the form of fiction that Zeus wooed her. The sole result was that she grew sick of the sight of novels, and found a perverse pleasure in reading history. These dry details of what had actually happened were a relief, she told herself, from all that make-believe.
One Sunday afternoon—the day before that very Monday on which this narrative opens—it occurred to her how fine a thing history might be if the historian had the novelist's privileges. Suppose he could be present at every scene which he was going to describe, a presence invisible and inevitable, and equipped with power to see into the breasts of all the persons whose actions he set himself to watch...
While the Muse was thus musing, Zeus (disguised as Miss Annie S. Swan's latest work) paid his usual visit. She let her eyes rest on him. Hither and thither she divided her swift mind, and addressed him in winged words. "Zeus, father of gods and men, cloud-compeller, what wouldst thou of me? But first will I say what I would of thee"; and she besought him to extend to the writers of history such privileges as are granted to novelists. His whole manner had changed. He listened to her with the massive gravity of a ruler who never yet has allowed private influence to obscure his judgment. He was silent for some time after her appeal. Then, in a voice of thunder, which made quake the slopes of Parnassus, he gave his answer. He admitted the disabilities under which historians laboured. But the novelists—were they not equally handicapped? They had to treat of persons who never existed, events which never were. Only by the privilege of being in the thick of those events, and in the very bowels of those persons, could they hope to hold the reader's attention. If similar privileges were granted to the historian, the demand for novels would cease forthwith, and many thousand of hard-working, deserving men and women would be thrown out of employment. In fact, Clio had asked him an impossible favour. But he might—he said he conceivably might—be induced to let her have her way just once. In that event, all she would have to do was to keep her eye on the world's surface, and then, so soon as she had reason to think that somewhere was impending something of great import, to choose an historian. On him, straightway, Zeus would confer invisibility, inevitability, and psychic penetration, with a flawless memory thrown in.
On the following afternoon, Clio's roving eye saw Zuleika stepping from the Paddington platform into the Oxford train. A few moments later I found myself suddenly on Parnassus. In hurried words Clio told me how I came there, and what I had to do. She said she had selected me because she knew me to be honest, sober, and capable, and no stranger to Oxford. Another moment, and I was at the throne of Zeus. With a majesty of gesture which I shall never forget, he stretched his hand over me, and I was indued with the promised gifts. And then, lo! I was on the platform of Oxford station. The train was not due for another hour. But the time passed pleasantly enough.
It was fun to float all unseen, to float all unhampered by any corporeal nonsense, up and down the platform. It was fun to watch the inmost thoughts of the station-master, of the porters, of the young person at the buffet. But of course I did not let the holiday-mood master me. I realised the seriousness of my mission. I must concentrate myself on the matter in hand: Miss Dobson's visit. What was going to happen? Prescience was no part of my outfit. From what I knew about Miss Dobson, I deduced that she would be a great success. That was all. Had I had the instinct that was given to those Emperors in stone, and even to the dog Corker, I should have begged Clio to send in my stead some man of stronger nerve. She had charged me to be calmly vigilant, scrupulously fair. I could have been neither, had I from the outset foreseen all. Only because the immediate future was broken to me by degrees, first as a set of possibilities, then as a set of probabilities that yet might not come off, was I able to fulfil the trust imposed in me. Even so, it was hard. I had always accepted the doctrine that to understand all is to forgive all. Thanks to Zeus, I understood all about Miss Dobson, and yet there were moments when she repelled me—moments when I wished to see her neither from without nor from within. So soon as the Duke of Dorset met her on the Monday night, I felt I was in duty bound to keep him under constant surveillance. Yet there were moments when I was so sorry for him that I deemed myself a brute for shadowing him.
Ever since I can remember, I have been beset by a recurring doubt as to whether I be or be not quite a gentleman. I have never attempted to define that term: I have but feverishly wondered whether in its usual acceptation (whatever that is) it be strictly applicable to myself. Many people hold that the qualities connoted by it are primarily moral—a kind heart, honourable conduct, and so forth. On Clio's mission, I found honour and kindness tugging me in precisely opposite directions. In so far as honour tugged the harder, was I the more or the less gentlemanly? But the test is not a fair one. Curiosity tugged on the side of honour. This goes to prove me a cad? Oh, set against it the fact that I did at one point betray Clio's trust. When Miss Dobson had done the deed recorded at the close of the foregoing chapter, I gave the Duke of Dorset an hour's grace.
I could have done no less. In the lives of most of us is some one thing that we would not after the lapse of how many years soever confess to our most understanding friend; the thing that does not bear thinking of; the one thing to be forgotten; the unforgettable thing. Not the commission of some great crime: this can be atoned for by great penances; and the very enormity of it has a dark grandeur. Maybe, some little deadly act of meanness, some hole-and-corner treachery? But what a man has once willed to do, his will helps him to forget. The unforgettable thing in his life is usually not a thing he has done or left undone, but a thing done to him—some insolence or cruelty for which he could not, or did not, avenge himself. This it is that often comes back to him, years after, in his dreams, and thrusts itself suddenly into his waking thoughts, so that he clenches his hands, and shakes his head, and hums a tune loudly—anything to beat it off. In the very hour when first befell him that odious humiliation, would you have spied on him? I gave the Duke of Dorset an hour's grace.
What were his thoughts in that interval, what words, if any, he uttered to the night, never will be known. For this, Clio has abused me in language less befitting a Muse than a fishwife. I do not care. I would rather be chidden by Clio than by my own sense of delicacy, any day.
Not less averse than from dogging the Duke was I from remaining another instant in the presence of Miss Dobson. There seemed to be no possible excuse for her. This time she had gone too far. She was outrageous. As soon as the Duke had had time to get clear away, I floated out into the night.
I may have consciously reasoned that the best way to forget the present was in the revival of memories. Or I may have been driven by a mere homing instinct. Anyhow, it was in the direction of my old College that I went. Midnight was tolling as I floated in through the shut grim gate at which I had so often stood knocking for admission.
The man who now occupied my room had sported his oak—my oak. I read the name on the visiting-card attached thereto—E. J. Craddock—and went in.
E. J. Craddock, interloper, was sitting at my table, with elbows squared and head on one side, in the act of literary composition. The oars and caps on my walls betokened him a rowing-man. Indeed, I recognised his somewhat heavy face as that of the man whom, from the Judas barge this afternoon, I had seen rowing "stroke" in my College Eight.
He ought, therefore, to have been in bed and asleep two hours ago. And the offence of his vigil was aggravated by a large tumbler that stood in front of him, containing whisky and soda. From this he took a deep draught. Then he read over what he had written. I did not care to peer over his shoulder at MS. which, though written in my room, was not intended for my eyes. But the writer's brain was open to me; and he had written "I, the undersigned Edward Joseph Craddock, do hereby leave and bequeath all my personal and other property to Zuleika Dobson, spinster. This is my last will and testament."
He gnawed his pen, and presently altered the "hereby leave" to "hereby and herewith leave." Fool!
I thereby and therewith left him. As I emerged through the floor of the room above—through the very carpet that had so often been steeped in wine, and encrusted with smithereens of glass, in the brave old days of a well-remembered occupant—I found two men, both of them evidently reading-men. One of them was pacing round the room. "Do you know," he was saying, "what she reminded me of, all the time? Those words—aren't they in the Song of Solomon?—'fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and... and...'"
"'Terrible as an army with banners,'" supplied his host—rather testily, for he was writing a letter. It began "My dear Father. By the time you receive this I shall have taken a step which..."
Clearly it was vain to seek distraction in my old College. I floated out into the untenanted meadows. Over them was the usual coverlet of white vapour, trailed from the Isis right up to Merton Wall. The scent of these meadows' moisture is the scent of Oxford. Even in hottest noon, one feels that the sun has not dried THEM. Always there is moisture drifting across them, drifting into the Colleges. It, one suspects, must have had much to do with the evocation of what is called the Oxford spirit—that gentlest spirit, so lingering and searching, so dear to them who as youths were brought into ken of it, so exasperating to them who were not. Yes, certainly, it is this mild, miasmal air, not less than the grey beauty and gravity of the buildings, that has helped Oxford to produce, and foster eternally, her peculiar race of artist-scholars, scholar-artists. The undergraduate, in his brief periods of residence, is too buoyant to be mastered by the spirit of the place. He does but salute it, and catch the manner. It is on him who stays to spend his maturity here that the spirit will in its fulness gradually descend. The buildings and their traditions keep astir in his mind whatsoever is gracious; the climate, enfolding and enfeebling him, lulling him, keeps him careless of the sharp, harsh, exigent realities of the outer world. Careless? Not utterly. These realities may be seen by him. He may study them, be amused or touched by them. But they cannot fire him. Oxford is too damp for that. The "movements" made there have been no more than protests against the mobility of others. They have been without the dynamic quality implied in their name. They have been no more than the sighs of men gazing at what other men had left behind them; faint, impossible appeals to the god of retrogression, uttered for their own sake and ritual, rather than with any intent that they should be heard. Oxford, that lotus-land, saps the will-power, the power of action. But, in doing so, it clarifies the mind, makes larger the vision, gives, above all, that playful and caressing suavity of manner which comes of a conviction that nothing matters, except ideas, and that not even ideas are worth dying for, inasmuch as the ghosts of them slain seem worthy of yet more piously elaborate homage than can be given to them in their heyday. If the Colleges could be transferred to the dry and bracing top of some hill, doubtless they would be more evidently useful to the nation. But let us be glad there is no engineer or enchanter to compass that task. Egomet, I would liefer have the rest of England subside into the sea than have Oxford set on a salubrious level. For there is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires—that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford. Oxford! The very sight of the word printed, or sound of it spoken, is fraught for me with most actual magic.
And on that moonlit night when I floated among the vapours of these meadows, myself less than a vapour, I knew and loved Oxford as never before, as never since. Yonder, in the Colleges, was the fume and fret of tragedy—Love as Death's decoy, and Youth following her. What then? Not Oxford was menaced. Come what might, not a stone of Oxford's walls would be loosened, nor a wreath of her vapours be undone, nor lost a breath of her sacred spirit.
I floated up into the higher, drier air, that I might, for once, see the total body of that spirit.
There lay Oxford far beneath me, like a map in grey and black and silver. All that I had known only as great single things I saw now outspread in apposition, and tiny; tiny symbols, as it were, of themselves, greatly symbolising their oneness. There they lay, these multitudinous and disparate quadrangles, all their rivalries merged in the making of a great catholic pattern. And the roofs of the buildings around them seemed level with their lawns. No higher the roofs of the very towers. Up from their tiny segment of the earth's spinning surface they stood negligible beneath infinity. And new, too, quite new, in eternity; transient upstarts. I saw Oxford as a place that had no more past and no more future than a mining-camp. I smiled down. O hoary and unassailable mushroom!... But if a man carry his sense of proportion far enough, lo! he is back at the point from which he started. He knows that eternity, as conceived by him, is but an instant in eternity, and infinity but a speck in infinity. How should they belittle the things near to him?... Oxford was venerable and magical, after all, and enduring. Aye, and not because she would endure was it the less lamentable that the young lives within her walls were like to be taken. My equanimity was gone; and a tear fell on Oxford.
And then, as though Oxford herself were speaking up to me, the air vibrated with a sweet noise of music. It was the hour of one; the end of the Duke's hour of grace. Through the silvery tangle of sounds from other clocks I floated quickly down to the Broad.
I had on the way a horrible apprehension. What if the Duke, in his agony, had taken the one means to forgetfulness? His room, I could see, was lit up; but a man does not necessarily choose to die in the dark. I hovered, afraid, over the dome of the Sheldonian. I saw that the window of the room above the Duke's was also lit up. And there was no reason at all to doubt the survival of Noaks. Perhaps the sight of him would hearten me.
I was wrong. The sight of Noaks in his room was as dismal a thing as could be. With his chin sunk on his breast, he sat there, on a rickety chair, staring up at the mantel-piece. This he had decked out as a sort of shrine. In the centre, aloft on an inverted tin that had contained Abernethy biscuits, stood a blue plush frame, with an inner rim of brass, several sizes too big for the picture-postcard installed in it. Zuleika's image gazed forth with a smile that was obviously not intended for the humble worshipper at this execrable shrine. On either side of her stood a small vase, one holding some geraniums, the other some mignonette. And just beneath her was placed that iron ring which, rightly or wrongly, Noaks supposed to alleviate rheumatism—that same iron ring which, by her touch to-night, had been charged for him with a yet deeper magic, insomuch that he dared no longer wear it, and had set it before her as an oblation.
Yet, for all his humility, he was possessed by a spirit of egoism that repelled me. While he sat peering over his spectacles at the beauteous image, he said again and again to himself, in a hollow voice, "I am so young to die." Every time he said this, two large, pear-shaped tears emerged from behind his spectacles, and found their way to his waistcoat. It did not seem to strike him that quite half of the undergraduates who contemplated death—and contemplated it in a fearless, wholesome, manly fashion—were his juniors. It seemed to seem to him that his own death, even though all those other far brighter and more promising lives than his were to be sacrificed, was a thing to bother about. Well, if he did not want to die, why could he not have, at least, the courage of his cowardice? The world would not cease to revolve because Noaks still clung to its surface. For me the whole tragedy was cheapened by his participation in it. I was fain to leave him. His squint, his short legs dangling towards the floor, his tear-sodden waistcoat, and his refrain "I am so young to die," were beyond measure exasperating. Yet I hesitated to pass into the room beneath, for fear of what I might see there.
How long I might have paltered, had no sound come from that room, I know not. But a sound came, sharp and sudden in the night, instantly reassuring. I swept down into the presence of the Duke.
He stood with his head flung back and his arms folded, gorgeous in a dressing-gown of crimson brocade. In animation of pride and pomp, he looked less like a mortal man than like a figure from some great biblical group by Paul Veronese.
And this was he whom I had presumed to pity! And this was he whom I had half expected to find dead.
His face, usually pale, was now red; and his hair, which no eye had ever yet seen disordered, stood up in a glistening shock. These two changes in him intensified the effect of vitality. One of them, however, vanished as I watched it. The Duke's face resumed its pallor. I realised then that he had but blushed; and I realised, simultaneously, that what had called that blush to his cheek was what had also been the signal to me that he was alive. His blush had been a pendant to his sneeze. And his sneeze had been a pendant to that outrage which he had been striving to forget. He had caught cold.
He had caught cold. In the hour of his soul's bitter need, his body had been suborned against him. Base! Had he not stripped his body of its wet vesture? Had he not vigorously dried his hair, and robed himself in crimson, and struck in solitude such attitudes as were most congruous with his high spirit and high rank? He had set himself to crush remembrance of that by which through his body his soul had been assailed. And well had he known that in this conflict a giant demon was his antagonist. But that his own body would play traitor—no, this he had not foreseen. This was too base a thing to be foreseen.
He stood quite still, a figure orgulous and splendent. And it seemed as though the hot night, too, stood still, to watch him, in awe, through the open lattices of his window, breathlessly. But to me, equipped to see beneath the surface, he was piteous, piteous in ratio to the pretension of his aspect. Had he crouched down and sobbed, I should have been as much relieved as he. But he stood seignorial and aquiline.
Painless, by comparison with this conflict in him, seemed the conflict that had raged in him yesternight. Then, it had been his dandihood against his passion for Zuleika. What mattered the issue? Whichever won, the victory were sweet. And of this he had all the while been subconscious, gallantly though he fought for his pride of dandihood. To-night in the battle between pride and memory, he knew from the outset that pride's was but a forlorn hope, and that memory would be barbarous in her triumph. Not winning to oblivion, he must hate with a fathomless hatred. Of all the emotions, hatred is the most excruciating. Of all the objects of hatred, a woman once loved is the most hateful. Of all deaths, the bitterest that can befall a man is that he lay down his life to flatter the woman he deems vilest of her sex.
Such was the death that the Duke of Dorset saw confronting him. Most men, when they are at war with the past, have the future as ally. Looking steadfastly forward, they can forget. The Duke's future was openly in league with his past. For him, prospect was memory. All that there was for him of future was the death to which his honour was pledged. To envisage that was to... no, he would NOT envisage it! With a passionate effort he hypnotised himself to think of nothing at all. His brain, into which, by the power Zeus gave me, I was gazing, became a perfect vacuum, insulated by the will. It was the kind of experiment which scientists call "beautiful." And yes, beautiful it was.
But not in the eyes of Nature. She abhors a vacuum. Seeing the enormous odds against which the Duke was fighting, she might well have stood aside. But she has no sense of sport whatsoever. She stepped in.
At first I did not realise what was happening. I saw the Duke's eyes contract, and the muscles of his mouth drawn down, and, at the same time, a tense upward movement of his whole body. Then, suddenly, the strain undone: a downward dart of the head, a loud percussion. Thrice the Duke sneezed, with a sound that was as the bursting of the dams of body and soul together; then sneezed again.
Now was his will broken. He capitulated. In rushed shame and horror and hatred, pell-mell, to ravage him.
What care now, what use, for deportment? He walked coweringly round and round his room, with frantic gestures, with head bowed. He shuffled and slunk. His dressing-gown had the look of a gabardine.
Shame and horror and hatred went slashing and hewing throughout the fallen citadel. At length, exhausted, he flung himself down on the window-seat and leaned out into the night, panting. The air was full of thunder. He clutched at his throat. From the depths of the black caverns beneath their brows the eyes of the unsleeping Emperors watched him.
He had gone through much in the day that was past. He had loved and lost. He had striven to recapture, and had failed. In a strange resolve he had found serenity and joy. He had been at the point of death, and had been saved. He had seen that his beloved was worthless, and he had not cared. He had fought for her, and conquered; and had pled with her, and—all these memories were loathsome by reason of that final thing which had all the while lain in wait for him.
He looked back and saw himself as he had been at a score of crucial moments in the day—always in the shadow of that final thing. He saw himself as he had been on the playing-fields of Eton; aye! and in the arms of his nurse, to and fro on the terrace of Tankerton—always in the shadow of that final thing, always piteous and ludicrous, doomed. Thank heaven the future was unknowable? It wasn't, now. To-morrow—to-day—he must die for that accursed fiend of a woman—the woman with the hyena laugh.
What to do meanwhile? Impossible to sleep. He felt in his body the strain of his quick sequence of spiritual adventures. He was dog-tired. But his brain was furiously out of hand: no stopping it. And the night was stifling. And all the while, in the dead silence, as though his soul had ears, there was a sound. It was a very faint, unearthly sound, and seemed to come from nowhere, yet to have a meaning. He feared he was rather over-wrought.
He must express himself. That would soothe him. Ever since childhood he had had, from time to time, the impulse to set down in writing his thoughts or his moods. In such exercises he had found for his self-consciousness the vent which natures less reserved than his find in casual talk with Tom, Dick and Harry, with Jane, Susan, and Liz. Aloof from either of these triads, he had in his first term at Eton taken to himself as confidant, and retained ever since, a great quarto volume, bound in red morocco and stamped with his coronet and cypher. It was herein, year by year, that his soul spread itself.
He wrote mostly in English prose; but other modes were not infrequent. Whenever he was abroad, it was his courteous habit to write in the language of the country where he was residing—French, when he was in his house on the Champs Elysees; Italian, when he was in his villa at Baiae; and so on. When he was in his own country he felt himself free to deviate sometimes from the vernacular into whatever language were aptest to his frame of mind. In his sterner moods he gravitated to Latin, and wrought the noble iron of that language to effects that were, if anything, a trifle over-impressive. He found for his highest flights of contemplation a handy vehicle in Sanscrit. In hours of mere joy it was Greek poetry that flowed likeliest from his pen; and he had a special fondness for the metre of Alcaeus.
And now, too, in his darkest hour, it was Greek that surged in him—iambics of thunderous wrath such as those which are volleyed by Prometheus. But as he sat down to his writing-table, and unlocked the dear old album, and dipped his pen in the ink, a great calm fell on him. The iambics in him began to breathe such sweetness as is on the lips of Alcestis going to her doom. But, just as he set pen to paper, his hand faltered, and he sprang up, victim of another and yet more violent fit of sneezing.
Disbuskined, dangerous. The spirit of Juvenal woke in him. He would flay. He would make Woman (as he called Zuleika) writhe. Latin hexameters, of course. An epistle to his heir presumptive... "Vae tibi," he began,
"Vae tibi, vae misero, nisi circumspexeris artes Femineas, nam nulla salus quin femina possit Tradere, nulla fides quin"—
"Quin," he repeated. In writing soliloquies, his trouble was to curb inspiration. The thought that he was addressing his heir-presumptive—now heir-only-too-apparent—gave him pause. Nor, he reflected, was he addressing this brute only, but a huge posthumous audience. These hexameters would be sure to appear in the "authorised" biography. "A melancholy interest attaches to the following lines, written, it would seem, on the very eve of"... He winced. Was it really possible, and no dream, that he was to die to-morrow—to-day?
Even you, unassuming reader, go about with a vague notion that in your case, somehow, the ultimate demand of nature will be waived. The Duke, until he conceived his sudden desire to die, had deemed himself certainly exempt. And now, as he sat staring at his window, he saw in the paling of the night the presage of the dawn of his own last day. Sometimes (orphaned though he was in early childhood) he had even found it hard to believe there was no exemption for those to whom he stood in any personal relation. He remembered how, soon after he went to Eton, he had received almost with incredulity the news of the death of his god-father, Lord Stackley, an octogenarian.... He took from the table his album, knowing that on one of the earliest pages was inscribed his boyish sense of that bereavement. Yes, here the passage was, written in a large round hand:
"Death knocks, as we know, at the door of the cottage and of the castle. He stalks up the front-garden and the steep steps of the semi-detached villa, and plies the ornamental knocker so imperiously that the panels of imitation stained glass quiver in the thin front-door. Even the family that occupies the topmost story of a building without a lift is on his ghastly visiting-list. He rattles his fleshless knuckles against the door of the gypsy's caravan. Into the savage's tent, wigwam, or wattled hut, he darts unbidden. Even on the hermit in the cave he forces his obnoxious presence. His is an universal beat, and he walks it with a grin. But be sure it is at the sombre portal of the nobleman that he knocks with the greatest gusto. It is there, where haply his visit will be commemorated with a hatchment; it is then, when the muffled thunder of the Dead March in 'Saul' will soon be rolling in cathedrals; it is then, it is there, that the pride of his unquestioned power comes grimliest home to him. Is there no withstanding him? Why should he be admitted always with awe, a cravenly-honoured guest? When next he calls, let the butler send him about his business, or tell him to step round to the servants' entrance. If it be made plain to him that his visits are an impertinence, he will soon be disemboldened. Once the aristocracy make a stand against him, there need be no more trouble about the exorbitant Duties named after him. And for the hereditary system—that system which both offends the common sense of the Radical, and wounds the Tory by its implied admission that noblemen are mortal—a seemly substitute will have been found."
Artless and crude in expression, very boyish, it seemed now to its author. Yet, in its simple wistfulness, it had quality: it rang true. The Duke wondered whether, with all that he had since mastered in the great art of English prose, he had not lost something, too.
"Is there no withstanding him?" To think that the boy who uttered that cry, and gave back so brave an answer, was within nine years to go seek death of his own accord! How the gods must be laughing! Yes, the exquisite point of the joke, for them, was that he CHOSE to die. But—and, as the thought flashed through him, he started like a man shot—what if he chose not to? Stay, surely there was some reason why he MUST die. Else, why throughout the night had he taken his doom for granted?... Honour: yes, he had pledged himself. Better death than dishonour. Was it, though? was it? Ah, he, who had come so near to death, saw dishonour as a tiny trifle. Where was the sting of it? Not he would be ridiculous to-morrow—to-day. Every one would acclaim his splendid act of moral courage. She, she, the hyena woman, would be the fool. No one would have thought of dying for her, had he not set the example. Every one would follow his new example. Yes, he would save Oxford yet. That was his duty. Duty and darling vengeance! And life—life!