It was full dawn now. Gone was that faint, monotonous sound which had punctuated in his soul the horrors of his vigil. But, in reminder of those hours, his lamp was still burning. He extinguished it; and the going-out of that tarnished light made perfect his sense of release.
He threw wide his arms in welcome of the great adorable day, and of all the great adorable days that were to be his.
He leaned out from his window, drinking the dawn in. The gods had made merry over him, had they? And the cry of the hyena had made night hideous. Well, it was his turn now. He would laugh last and loudest.
And already, for what was to be, he laughed outright into the morning; insomuch that the birds in the trees of Trinity, and still more the Emperors over the way, marvelled greatly.
They had awaited thousands and innumerable thousands of daybreaks in the Broad, these Emperors, counting the long slow hours till the night were over. It is in the night especially that their fallen greatness haunts them. Day brings some distraction. They are not incurious of the lives around them—these little lives that succeed one another so quickly. To them, in their immemorial old age, youth is a constant wonder. And so is death, which to them comes not. Youth or death—which, they had often asked themselves, was the goodlier? But it was ill that these two things should be mated. It was ill-come, this day of days.
Long after the Duke was in bed and asleep, his peal of laughter echoed in the ears of the Emperors. Why had he laughed?
And they said to themselves "We are very old men, and broken, and in a land not our own. There are things that we do not understand."
Brief was the freshness of the dawn. From all points of the compass, dark grey clouds mounted into the sky. There, taking their places as though in accordance to a strategic plan laid down for them, they ponderously massed themselves, and presently, as at a given signal, drew nearer to earth, and halted, an irresistible great army, awaiting orders.
Somewhere under cover of them the sun went his way, transmitting a sulphurous heat. The very birds in the trees of Trinity were oppressed and did not twitter. The very leaves did not whisper.
Out through the railings, and across the road, prowled a skimpy and dingy cat, trying to look like a tiger.
It was all very sinister and dismal.
The hours passed. The Broad put forth, one by one, its signs of waking.
Soon after eight o'clock, as usual, the front-door of the Duke's lodgings was opened from within. The Emperors watched for the faint cloud of dust that presently emerged, and for her whom it preceded. To them, this first outcoming of the landlady's daughter was a moment of daily interest. Katie!—they had known her as a toddling child; and later as a little girl scampering off to school, all legs and pinafore and streaming golden hair. And now she was sixteen years old. Her hair, tied back at the nape of her neck, would very soon be "up." Her big blue eyes were as they had always been; but she had long passed out of pinafores into aprons, had taken on a sedateness befitting her years and her duties, and was anxious to be regarded rather as an aunt than as a sister by her brother Clarence, aged twelve. The Emperors had always predicted that she would be pretty. And very pretty she was.
As she came slowly out, with eyes downcast to her broom, sweeping the dust so seriously over the doorstep and then across the pavement, and anon when she reappeared with pail and scrubbing-brush, and abased herself before the doorstep, and wrought so vehemently there, what filled her little soul was not the dignity of manual labour. The duties that Zuleika had envied her were dear to her exactly as they would have been, yesterday morning, to Zuleika. The Emperors had often noticed that during vacations their little favourite's treatment of the doorstep was languid and perfunctory. They knew well her secret, and always (for who can be long in England without becoming sentimental?) they cherished the hope of a romantic union between her and "a certain young gentleman," as they archly called the Duke. His continued indifference to her they took almost as an affront to themselves. Where in all England was a prettier, sweeter girl than their Katie? The sudden irruption of Zuleika into Oxford was especially grievous to them because they could no longer hope against hope that Katie would be led by the Duke to the altar, and thence into the highest social circles, and live happily ever after. Luckily it was for Katie, however, that they had no power to fill her head with their foolish notions. It was well for her to have never doubted she loved in vain. She had soon grown used to her lot. Not until yesterday had there been any bitterness. Jealousy surged in Katie at the very moment when she beheld Zuleika on the threshold. A glance at the Duke's face when she showed the visitor up was enough to acquaint her with the state of his heart. And she did not, for confirming her intuition, need the two or three opportunities she took of listening at the keyhole. What in the course of those informal audiences did surprise her—so much indeed that she could hardly believe her ear—was that it was possible for a woman not to love the Duke. Her jealousy of "that Miss Dobson" was for a while swallowed up in her pity for him. What she had borne so cheerfully for herself she could not bear for her hero. She wished she had not happened to listen.
And this morning, while she knelt swaying and spreading over "his" doorstep, her blue eyes added certain tears to be scrubbed away in the general moisture of the stone. Rising, she dried her hands in her apron, and dried her eyes with her hands. Lest her mother should see that she had been crying, she loitered outside the door. Suddenly, her roving glance changed to a stare of acute hostility. She knew well that the person wandering towards her was—no, not "that Miss Dobson," as she had for the fraction of an instant supposed, but the next worst thing.
It has been said that Melisande indoors was an evidently French maid. Out of doors she was not less evidently Zuleika's. Not that she aped her mistress. The resemblance had come by force of propinquity and devotion. Nature had laid no basis for it. Not one point of form or colour had the two women in common. It has been said that Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Melisande, like most Frenchwomen, was strictly plain. But in expression and port, in her whole tournure, she had become, as every good maid does, her mistress' replica. The poise of her head, the boldness of her regard and brilliance of her smile, the leisurely and swinging way in which she walked, with a hand on the hip—all these things of hers were Zuleika's too. She was no conqueror. None but the man to whom she was betrothed—a waiter at the Cafe Tourtel, named Pelleas—had ever paid court to her; nor was she covetous of other hearts. Yet she looked victorious, and insatiable of victories, and "terrible as an army with banners."
In the hand that was not on her hip she carried a letter. And on her shoulders she had to bear the full burden of the hatred that Zuleika had inspired in Katie. But this she did not know. She came glancing boldly, leisurely, at the numbers on the front-doors.
Katie stepped back on to the doorstep, lest the inferiority of her stature should mar the effect of her disdain.
"Good-day. Is it here that Duke D'Orsay lives?" asked Melisande, as nearly accurate as a Gaul may be in such matters.
"The Duke of Dorset," said Katie with a cold and insular emphasis, "lives here." And "You," she tried to convey with her eyes, "you, for all your smart black silk, are a hireling. I am Miss Batch. I happen to have a hobby for housework. I have not been crying."
"Then please mount this to him at once," said Melisande, holding out the letter. "It is from Miss Dobson's part. Very express. I wait response."
"You are very ugly," Katie signalled with her eyes. "I am very pretty. I have the Oxfordshire complexion. And I play the piano." With her lips she said merely, "His Grace is not called before nine o'clock."
"But to-day you go wake him now—quick—is it not?"
"Quite out of the question," said Katie. "If you care to leave that letter here, I will see that it is placed on his Grace's breakfast-table, with the morning's post." "For the rest," added her eyes, "Down with France!"
"I find you droll, but droll, my little one!" cried Melisande.
Katie stepped back and shut the door in her face. "Like a little Empress," the Emperors commented.
The Frenchwoman threw up her hands and apostrophised heaven. To this day she believes that all the bonnes of Oxford are mad, but mad, and of a madness.
She stared at the door, at the pail and scrubbing-brush that had been shut out with her, at the letter in her hand. She decided that she had better drop the letter into the slit in the door and make report to Miss Dobson.
As the envelope fell through the slit to the door-mat, Katie made at Melisande a grimace which, had not the panels been opaque, would have astonished the Emperors. Resuming her dignity, she picked the thing up, and, at arm's length, examined it. It was inscribed in pencil. Katie's lips curled at sight of the large, audacious handwriting. But it is probable that whatever kind of handwriting Zuleika might have had would have been just the kind that Katie would have expected.
Fingering the envelope, she wondered what the wretched woman had to say. It occurred to her that the kettle was simmering on the hob in the kitchen, and that she might easily steam open the envelope and master its contents. However, her doing this would have in no way affected the course of the tragedy. And so the gods (being to-day in a strictly artistic mood) prompted her to mind her own business.
Laying the Duke's table for breakfast, she made as usual a neat rectangular pile of the letters that had come for him by post. Zuleika's letter she threw down askew. That luxury she allowed herself.
And he, when he saw the letter, allowed himself the luxury of leaving it unopened awhile. Whatever its purport, he knew it could but minister to his happy malice. A few hours ago, with what shame and dread it would have stricken him! Now it was a dainty to be dallied with.
His eyes rested on the black tin boxes that contained his robes of the Garter. Hateful had been the sight of them in the watches of the night, when he thought he had worn those robes for the last time. But now—!
He opened Zuleika's letter. It did not disappoint him.
"DEAR DUKE,—DO, DO forgive me. I am beyond words ashamed of the silly tomboyish thing I did last night. Of course it was no worse than that, but an awful fear haunts me that you MAY have thought I acted in anger at the idea of your breaking your promise to me. Well, it is quite true I had been hurt and angry when you hinted at doing that, but the moment I left you I saw that you had been only in fun, and I enjoyed the joke against myself, though I thought it was rather too bad of you. And then, as a sort of revenge, but almost before I knew what I was doing, I played that IDIOTIC practical joke on you. I have been MISERABLE ever since. DO come round as early as possible and tell me I am forgiven. But before you tell me that, please lecture me till I cry—though indeed I have been crying half through the night. And then if you want to be VERY horrid you may tease me for being so slow to see a joke. And then you might take me to see some of the Colleges and things before we go on to lunch at The MacQuern's? Forgive pencil and scrawl. Am sitting up in bed to write.—Your sincere friend,
"P.S.—Please burn this."
At that final injunction, the Duke abandoned himself to his mirth. "Please burn this." Poor dear young woman, how modest she was in the glare of her diplomacy! Why there was nothing, not one phrase, to compromise her in the eyes of a coroner's jury!... Seriously, she had good reason to be proud of her letter. For the purpose in view it couldn't have been better done. That was what made it so touchingly absurd. He put himself in her position. He pictured himself as her, "sitting up in bed," pencil in hand, to explain away, to soothe, to clinch and bind... Yes, if he had happened to be some other man—one whom her insult might have angered without giving love its death-blow, and one who could be frightened out of not keeping his word—this letter would have been capital.
He helped himself to some more marmalade, and poured out another cup of coffee. Nothing is more thrilling, thought he, than to be treated as a cully by the person you hold in the hollow of your hand.
But within this great irony lay (to be glided over) another irony. He knew well in what mood Zuleika had done what she had done to him last night; yet he preferred to accept her explanation of it.
Officially, then, he acquitted her of anything worse than tomboyishness. But this verdict for his own convenience implied no mercy to the culprit. The sole point for him was how to administer her punishment the most poignantly. Just how should he word his letter?
He rose from his chair, and "Dear Miss Dobson—no, MY dear Miss Dobson," he murmured, pacing the room, "I am so very sorry I cannot come to see you: I have to attend two lectures this morning. By contrast with this weariness, it will be the more delightful to meet you at The MacQuern's. I want to see as much as I can of you to-day, because to-night there is the Bump Supper, and to-morrow morning, alas! I must motor to Windsor for this wretched Investiture. Meanwhile, how can you ask to be forgiven when there is nothing whatever to forgive? It seems to me that mine, not yours, is the form of humour that needs explanation. My proposal to die for you was made in as playful a spirit as my proposal to marry you. And it is really for me to ask forgiveness of you. One thing especially," he murmured, fingering in his waistcoat-pocket the ear-rings she had given him, "pricks my conscience. I do feel that I ought not to have let you give me these two pearls—at any rate, not the one which went into premature mourning for me. As I have no means of deciding which of the two this one is, I enclose them both, with the hope that the pretty difference between them will in time reappear"... Or words to that effect... Stay! why not add to the joy of contriving that effect the greater joy of watching it? Why send Zuleika a letter? He would obey her summons. He would speed to her side. He snatched up a hat.
In this haste, however, he detected a certain lack of dignity. He steadied himself, and went slowly to the mirror. There he adjusted his hat with care, and regarded himself very seriously, very sternly, from various angles, like a man invited to paint his own portrait for the Uffizi. He must be worthy of himself. It was well that Zuleika should be chastened. Great was her sin. Out of life and death she had fashioned toys for her vanity. But his joy must be in vindication of what was noble, not in making suffer what was vile. Yesterday he had been her puppet, her Jumping-Jack; to-day it was as avenging angel that he would appear before her. The gods had mocked him who was now their minister. Their minister? Their master, as being once more master of himself. It was they who had plotted his undoing. Because they loved him they were fain that he should die young. The Dobson woman was but their agent, their cat's-paw. By her they had all but got him. Not quite! And now, to teach them, through her, a lesson they would not soon forget, he would go forth.
Shaking with laughter, the gods leaned over the thunder-clouds to watch him.
He went forth.
On the well-whitened doorstep he was confronted by a small boy in uniform bearing a telegram.
"Duke of Dorset?" asked the small boy.
Opening the envelope, the Duke saw that the message, with which was a prepaid form for reply, had been handed in at the Tankerton post-office. It ran thus:
Deeply regret inform your grace last night two black owls came and perched on battlements remained there through night hooting at dawn flew away none knows whither awaiting instructions Jellings
The Duke's face, though it grew white, moved not one muscle.
Somewhat shamed now, the gods ceased from laughing.
The Duke looked from the telegram to the boy. "Have you a pencil?" he asked.
"Yes, my Lord," said the boy, producing a stump of pencil.
Holding the prepaid form against the door, the Duke wrote:
Jellings Tankerton Hall Prepare vault for funeral Monday
His handwriting was as firmly and minutely beautiful as ever. Only in that he forgot there was nothing to pay did he belie his calm. "Here," he said to the boy, "is a shilling; and you may keep the change."
"Thank you, my Lord," said the boy, and went his way, as happy as a postman.
Humphrey Greddon, in the Duke's place, would have taken a pinch of snuff. But he could not have made that gesture with a finer air than the Duke gave to its modern equivalent. In the art of taking and lighting a cigarette, there was one man who had no rival in Europe. This time he outdid even himself.
"Ah," you say, "but 'pluck' is one thing, endurance another. A man who doesn't reel on receipt of his death-warrant may yet break down when he has had time to think it over. How did the Duke acquit himself when he came to the end of his cigarette? And by the way, how was it that after he had read the telegram you didn't give him again an hour's grace?"
In a way, you have a perfect right to ask both those questions. But their very pertinence shows that you think I might omit things that matter. Please don't interrupt me again. Am I writing this history, or are you?
Though the news that he must die was a yet sharper douche, as you have suggested, than the douche inflicted by Zuleika, it did at least leave unscathed the Duke's pride. The gods can make a man ridiculous through a woman, but they cannot make him ridiculous when they deal him a blow direct. The very greatness of their power makes them, in that respect, impotent. They had decreed that the Duke should die, and they had told him so. There was nothing to demean him in that. True, he had just measured himself against them. But there was no shame in being gravelled. The peripety was according to the best rules of tragic art. The whole thing was in the grand manner.
Thus I felt that there were no indelicacy, this time, in watching him. Just as "pluck" comes of breeding, so is endurance especially an attribute of the artist. Because he can stand outside himself, and (if there be nothing ignoble in them) take a pleasure in his own sufferings, the artist has a huge advantage over you and me. The Duke, so soon as Zuleika's spell was broken, had become himself again—a highly self-conscious artist in life. And now, standing pensive on the doorstep, he was almost enviable in his great affliction.
Through the wreaths of smoke which, as they came from his lips, hung in the sultry air as they would have hung in a closed room, he gazed up at the steadfast thunder-clouds. How nobly they had been massed for him! One of them, a particularly large and dark one, might with advantage, he thought, have been placed a little further to the left. He made a gesture to that effect. Instantly the cloud rolled into position. The gods were painfully anxious, now, to humour him in trifles. His behaviour in the great emergency had so impressed them at a distance that they rather dreaded meeting him anon at close quarters. They rather wished they had not uncaged, last night, the two black owls. Too late. What they had done they had done.
That faint monotonous sound in the stillness of the night—the Duke remembered it now. What he had thought to be only his fancy had been his death-knell, wafted to him along uncharted waves of ether, from the battlements of Tankerton. It had ceased at daybreak. He wondered now that he had not guessed its meaning. And he was glad that he had not. He was thankful for the peace that had been granted to him, the joyous arrogance in which he had gone to bed and got up for breakfast. He valued these mercies the more for the great tragic irony that came of them. Aye, and he was inclined to blame the gods for not having kept him still longer in the dark and so made the irony still more awful. Why had they not caused the telegram to be delayed in transmission? They ought to have let him go and riddle Zuleika with his scorn and his indifference. They ought to have let him hurl through her his defiance of them. Art aside, they need not have grudged him that excursion.
He could not, he told himself, face Zuleika now. As artist, he saw that there was irony enough left over to make the meeting a fine one. As theologian, he did not hold her responsible for his destiny. But as a man, after what she had done to him last night, and before what he had to do for her to-day, he would not go out of his way to meet her. Of course, he would not actually avoid her. To seem to run away from her were beneath his dignity. But, if he did meet her, what in heaven's name should he say to her? He remembered his promise to lunch with The MacQuern, and shuddered. She would be there. Death, as he had said, cancelled all engagements. A very simple way out of the difficulty would be to go straight to the river. No, that would be like running away. It couldn't be done.
Hardly had he rejected the notion when he had a glimpse of a female figure coming quickly round the corner—a glimpse that sent him walking quickly away, across the road, towards Turl Street, blushing violently. Had she seen him? he asked himself. And had she seen that he saw her? He heard her running after him. He did not look round, he quickened his pace. She was gaining on him. Involuntarily, he ran—ran like a hare, and, at the corner of Turl Street, rose like a trout, saw the pavement rise at him, and fell, with a bang, prone.
Let it be said at once that in this matter the gods were absolutely blameless. It is true they had decreed that a piece of orange-peel should be thrown down this morning at the corner of Turl Street. But the Master of Balliol, not the Duke, was the person they had destined to slip on it. You must not imagine that they think out and appoint everything that is to befall us, down to the smallest detail. Generally, they just draw a sort of broad outline, and leave us to fill it in according to our taste. Thus, in the matters of which this book is record, it was they who made the Warden invite his grand-daughter to Oxford, and invite the Duke to meet her on the evening of her arrival. And it was they who prompted the Duke to die for her on the following (Tuesday) afternoon. They had intended that he should execute his resolve after, or before, the boat-race of that evening. But an oversight upset this plan. They had forgotten on Monday night to uncage the two black owls; and so it was necessary that the Duke's death should be postponed. They accordingly prompted Zuleika to save him. For the rest, they let the tragedy run its own course—merely putting in a felicitous touch here and there, or vetoing a superfluity, such as that Katie should open Zuleika's letter. It was no part of their scheme that the Duke should mistake Melisande for her mistress, or that he should run away from her, and they were genuinely sorry when he, instead of the Master of Balliol, came to grief over the orange-peel.
Them, however, the Duke cursed as he fell; them again as he raised himself on one elbow, giddy and sore; and when he found that the woman bending over him was not she whom he dreaded, but her innocent maid, it was against them that he almost foamed at the mouth.
"Monsieur le Duc has done himself harm—no?" panted Melisande. "Here is a letter from Miss Dobson's part. She say to me 'Give it him with your own hand.'"
The Duke received the letter and, sitting upright, tore it to shreds, thus confirming a suspicion which Melisande had conceived at the moment when he took to his heels, that all English noblemen are mad, but mad, and of a madness.
"Nom de Dieu," she cried, wringing her hands, "what shall I tell to Mademoiselle?"
"Tell her—" the Duke choked back a phrase of which the memory would have shamed his last hours. "Tell her," he substituted, "that you have seen Marius sitting among the ruins of Carthage," and limped quickly away down the Turl.
Both his hands had been abraded by the fall. He tended them angrily with his handkerchief. Mr. Druce, the chemist, had anon the privilege of bathing and plastering them, also of balming and binding the right knee and the left shin. "Might have been a very nasty accident, your Grace," he said. "It was," said the Duke. Mr. Druce concurred.
Nevertheless, Mr. Druce's remark sank deep. The Duke thought it quite likely that the gods had intended the accident to be fatal, and that only by his own skill and lightness in falling had he escaped the ignominy of dying in full flight from a lady's-maid. He had not, you see, lost all sense of free-will. While Mr. Druce put the finishing touches to his shin, "I am utterly purposed," he said to himself, "that for this death of mine I will choose my own manner and my own—well, not 'time' exactly, but whatever moment within my brief span of life shall seem aptest to me. Unberufen," he added, lightly tapping Mr. Druce's counter.
The sight of some bottles of Cold Mixture on that hospitable board reminded him of a painful fact. In the clash of the morning's excitements, he had hardly felt the gross ailment that was on him. He became fully conscious of it now, and there leapt in him a hideous doubt: had he escaped a violent death only to succumb to "natural causes"? He had never hitherto had anything the matter with him, and thus he belonged to the worst, the most apprehensive, class of patients. He knew that a cold, were it neglected, might turn malignant; and he had a vision of himself gripped suddenly in the street by internal agonies—a sympathetic crowd, an ambulance, his darkened bedroom; local doctor making hopelessly wrong diagnosis; eminent specialists served up hot by special train, commending local doctor's treatment, but shaking their heads and refusing to say more than "He has youth on his side"; a slight rally at sunset; the end. All this flashed through his mind. He quailed. There was not a moment to lose. He frankly confessed to Mr. Druce that he had a cold.
Mr. Druce, trying to insinuate by his manner that this fact had not been obvious, suggested the Mixture—a teaspoonful every two hours. "Give me some now, please, at once," said the Duke.
He felt magically better for the draught. He handled the little glass lovingly, and eyed the bottle. "Why not two teaspoonfuls every hour?" he suggested, with an eagerness almost dipsomaniacal. But Mr. Druce was respectfully firm against that. The Duke yielded. He fancied, indeed, that the gods had meant him to die of an overdose.
Still, he had a craving for more. Few though his hours were, he hoped the next two would pass quickly. And, though he knew Mr. Druce could be trusted to send the bottle round to his rooms immediately, he preferred to carry it away with him. He slipped it into the breast-pocket of his coat, almost heedless of the slight extrusion it made there.
Just as he was about to cross the High again, on his way home, a butcher's cart dashed down the slope, recklessly driven. He stepped well back on the pavement, and smiled a sardonic smile. He looked to right and to left, carefully gauging the traffic. Some time elapsed before he deemed the road clear enough for transit.
Safely across, he encountered a figure that seemed to loom up out of the dim past. Oover! Was it but yesternight that Oover dined with him? With the sensation of a man groping among archives, he began to apologise to the Rhodes Scholar for having left him so abruptly at the Junta. Then, presto!—as though those musty archives were changed to a crisp morning paper agog with terrific head-lines—he remembered the awful resolve of Oover, and of all young Oxford.
"Of course," he asked, with a lightness that hardly hid his dread of the answer, "you have dismissed the notion you were toying with when I left you?"
Oover's face, like his nature, was as sensitive as it was massive, and it instantly expressed his pain at the doubt cast on his high seriousness. "Duke," he asked, "d'you take me for a skunk?"
"Without pretending to be quite sure what a skunk is," said the Duke, "I take you to be all that it isn't. And the high esteem in which I hold you is the measure for me of the loss that your death would be to America and to Oxford."
Oover blushed. "Duke" he said "that's a bully testimonial. But don't worry. America can turn out millions just like me, and Oxford can have as many of them as she can hold. On the other hand, how many of YOU can be turned out, as per sample, in England? Yet you choose to destroy yourself. You avail yourself of the Unwritten Law. And you're right, Sir. Love transcends all."
"But does it? What if I told you I had changed my mind?"
"Then, Duke," said Oover, slowly, "I should believe that all those yarns I used to hear about the British aristocracy were true, after all. I should aver that you were not a white man. Leading us on like that, and then—Say, Duke! Are you going to die to-day, or not?"
"As a matter of fact, I am, but—"
Oover wrung the Duke's hand, and was passing on. "Stay!" he was adjured.
"Sorry, unable. It's just turning eleven o'clock, and I've a lecture. While life lasts, I'm bound to respect Rhodes' intentions." The conscientious Scholar hurried away.
The Duke wandered down the High, taking counsel with himself. He was ashamed of having so utterly forgotten the mischief he had wrought at large. At dawn he had vowed to undo it. Undo it he must. But the task was not a simple one now. If he could say "Behold, I take back my word. I spurn Miss Dobson, and embrace life," it was possible that his example would suffice. But now that he could only say "Behold, I spurn Miss Dobson, and will not die for her, but I am going to commit suicide, all the same," it was clear that his words would carry very little force. Also, he saw with pain that they placed him in a somewhat ludicrous position. His end, as designed yesterday, had a large and simple grandeur. So had his recantation of it. But this new compromise between the two things had a fumbled, a feeble, an ignoble look. It seemed to combine all the disadvantages of both courses. It stained his honour without prolonging his life. Surely, this was a high price to pay for snubbing Zuleika... Yes, he must revert without more ado to his first scheme. He must die in the manner that he had blazoned forth. And he must do it with a good grace, none knowing he was not glad; else the action lost all dignity. True, this was no way to be a saviour. But only by not dying at all could he have set a really potent example.... He remembered the look that had come into Oover's eyes just now at the notion of his unfaith. Perhaps he would have been the mock, not the saviour, of Oxford. Better dishonour than death, maybe. But, since die he must, he must die not belittling or tarnishing the name of Tanville-Tankerton.
Within these bounds, however, he must put forth his full might to avert the general catastrophe—and to punish Zuleika nearly well enough, after all, by intercepting that vast nosegay from her outstretched hands and her distended nostrils. There was no time to be lost, then. But he wondered, as he paced the grand curve between St. Mary's and Magdalen Bridge, just how was he to begin?
Down the flight of steps from Queen's came lounging an average undergraduate.
"Mr. Smith," said the Duke, "a word with you."
"But my name is not Smith," said the young man.
"Generically it is," replied the Duke. "You are Smith to all intents and purposes. That, indeed, is why I address you. In making your acquaintance, I make a thousand acquaintances. You are a short cut to knowledge. Tell me, do you seriously think of drowning yourself this afternoon?"
"Rather," said the undergraduate.
"A meiosis in common use, equivalent to 'Yes, assuredly,'" murmured the Duke. "And why," he then asked, "do you mean to do this?"
"Why? How can you ask? Why are YOU going to do it?"
"The Socratic manner is not a game at which two can play. Please answer my question, to the best of your ability."
"Well, because I can't live without her. Because I want to prove my love for her. Because—"
"One reason at a time please," said the Duke, holding up his hand. "You can't live without her? Then I am to assume that you look forward to dying?"
"You are truly happy in that prospect?"
"Now, suppose I showed you two pieces of equally fine amber—a big one and a little one. Which of these would you rather possess?"
"The big one, I suppose."
"And this because it is better to have more than to have less of a good thing?"
"Do you consider happiness a good thing or a bad one?"
"A good one."
"So that a man would rather have more than less of happiness?"
"Then does it not seem to you that you would do well to postpone your suicide indefinitely?"
"But I have just said I can't live without her."
"You have still more recently declared yourself truly happy."
"Now, be careful, Mr. Smith. Remember, this is a matter of life and death. Try to do yourself justice. I have asked you—"
But the undergraduate was walking away, not without a certain dignity.
The Duke felt that he had not handled his man skilfully. He remembered that even Socrates, for all the popular charm of his mock-modesty and his true geniality, had ceased after a while to be tolerable. Without such a manner to grace his method, Socrates would have had a very brief time indeed. The Duke recoiled from what he took to be another pitfall. He almost smelt hemlock.
A party of four undergraduates abreast was approaching. How should he address them? His choice wavered between the evangelic wistfulness of "Are you saved?" and the breeziness of the recruiting sergeant's "Come, you're fine upstanding young fellows. Isn't it a pity," etc. Meanwhile, the quartet had passed by.
Two other undergraduates approached. The Duke asked them simply as a personal favour to himself not to throw away their lives. They said they were very sorry, but in this particular matter they must please themselves. In vain he pled. They admitted that but for his example they would never have thought of dying. They wished they could show him their gratitude in any way but the one which would rob them of it.
The Duke drifted further down the High, bespeaking every undergraduate he met, leaving untried no argument, no inducement. For one man, whose name he happened to know, he invented an urgent personal message from Miss Dobson imploring him not to die on her account. On another man he offered to settle by hasty codicil a sum of money sufficient to yield an annual income of two thousand pounds—three thousand—any sum within reason. With another he offered to walk, arm in arm, to Carfax and back again. All to no avail.
He found himself in the precincts of Magdalen, preaching from the little open-air pulpit there an impassioned sermon on the sacredness of human life, and referring to Zuleika in terms which John Knox would have hesitated to utter. As he piled up the invective, he noticed an ominous restiveness in the congregation—murmurs, clenching of hands, dark looks. He saw the pulpit as yet another trap laid for him by the gods. He had walked straight into it: another moment, and he might be dragged down, overwhelmed by numbers, torn limb from limb. All that was in him of quelling power he put hastily into his eyes, and manoeuvred his tongue to gentler discourse, deprecating his right to judge "this lady," and merely pointing the marvel, the awful though noble folly, of his resolve. He ended on a note of quiet pathos. "To-night I shall be among the shades. There be not you, my brothers."
Good though the sermon was in style and sentiment, the flaw in its reasoning was too patent for any converts to be made. As he walked out of the quadrangle, the Duke felt the hopelessness of his cause. Still he battled bravely for it up the High, waylaying, cajoling, commanding, offering vast bribes. He carried his crusade into the Loder, and thence into Vincent's, and out into the street again, eager, untiring, unavailing: everywhere he found his precept checkmated by his example.
The sight of The MacQuern coming out top-speed from the Market, with a large but inexpensive bunch of flowers, reminded him of the luncheon that was to be. Never to throw over an engagement was for him, as we have seen, a point of honour. But this particular engagement—hateful, when he accepted it, by reason of his love—was now impossible for the reason which had made him take so ignominiously to his heels this morning. He curtly told the Scot not to expect him.
"Is SHE not coming?" gasped the Scot, with quick suspicion.
"Oh," said the Duke, turning on his heel, "she doesn't know that I shan't be there. You may count on her." This he took to be the very truth, and he was glad to have made of it a thrust at the man who had so uncouthly asserted himself last night. He could not help smiling, though, at this little resentment erect after the cataclysm that had swept away all else. Then he smiled to think how uneasy Zuleika would be at his absence. What agonies of suspense she must have had all this morning! He imagined her silent at the luncheon, with a vacant gaze at the door, eating nothing at all. And he became aware that he was rather hungry. He had done all he could to save young Oxford. Now for some sandwiches! He went into the Junta.
As he rang the dining-room bell, his eyes rested on the miniature of Nellie O'Mora. And the eyes of Nellie O'Mora seemed to meet his in reproach. Just as she may have gazed at Greddon when he cast her off, so now did she gaze at him who a few hours ago had refused to honour her memory.
Yes, and many other eyes than hers rebuked him. It was around the walls of this room that hung those presentments of the Junta as focussed, year after year, in a certain corner of Tom Quad, by Messrs. Hills and Saunders. All around, the members of the little hierarchy, a hierarchy ever changing in all but youth and a certain sternness of aspect that comes at the moment of being immortalised, were gazing forth now with a sternness beyond their wont. Not one of them but had in his day handed on loyally the praise of Nellie O'Mora, in the form their Founder had ordained. And the Duke's revolt last night had so incensed them that they would, if they could, have come down from their frames and walked straight out of the club, in chronological order—first, the men of the 'sixties, almost as near in time to Greddon as to the Duke, all so gloriously be-whiskered and cravated, but how faded now, alas, by exposure; and last of all in the procession and angrier perhaps than any of them, the Duke himself—the Duke of a year ago, President and sole Member.
But, as he gazed into the eyes of Nellie O'Mora now, Dorset needed not for penitence the reproaches of his past self or of his forerunners. "Sweet girl," he murmured, "forgive me. I was mad. I was under the sway of a deplorable infatuation. It is past. See," he murmured with a delicacy of feeling that justified the untruth, "I am come here for the express purpose of undoing my impiety." And, turning to the club-waiter who at this moment answered the bell, he said "Bring me a glass of port, please, Barrett." Of sandwiches he said nothing.
At the word "See" he had stretched one hand towards Nellie; the other he had laid on his heart, where it seemed to encounter some sort of hard obstruction. This he vaguely fingered, wondering what it might be, while he gave his order to Barrett. With a sudden cry he dipped his hand into his breast-pocket and drew forth the bottle he had borne away from Mr. Druce's. He snatched out his watch: one o'clock!—fifteen minutes overdue. Wildly he called the waiter back. "A tea-spoon, quick! No port. A wine-glass and a tea-spoon. And—for I don't mind telling you, Barrett, that your mission is of an urgency beyond conjecture—take lightning for your model. Go!"
Agitation mastered him. He tried vainly to feel his pulse, well knowing that if he found it he could deduce nothing from its action. He saw himself haggard in the looking-glass. Would Barrett never come? "Every two hours"—the directions were explicit. Had he delivered himself into the gods' hands? The eyes of Nellie O'Mora were on him compassionately; and all the eyes of his forerunners were on him in austere scorn: "See," they seemed to be saying, "the chastisement of last night's blasphemy." Violently, insistently, he rang the bell.
In rushed Barrett at last. From the tea-spoon into the wine-glass the Duke poured the draught of salvation, and then, raising it aloft, he looked around at his fore-runners and in a firm voice cried "Gentlemen, I give you Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be." He drained his glass, heaved the deep sigh of a double satisfaction, dismissed with a glance the wondering Barrett, and sat down.
He was glad to be able to face Nellie with a clear conscience. Her eyes were not less sad now, but it seemed to him that their sadness came of a knowledge that she would never see him again. She seemed to be saying to him "Had you lived in my day, it is you that I would have loved, not Greddon." And he made silent answer, "Had you lived in my day, I should have been Dobson-proof." He realised, however, that to Zuleika he owed the tenderness he now felt for Miss O'Mora. It was Zuleika that had cured him of his aseity. She it was that had made his heart a warm and negotiable thing. Yes, and that was the final cruelty. To love and be loved—this, he had come to know, was all that mattered. Yesterday, to love and die had seemed felicity enough. Now he knew that the secret, the open secret, of happiness was in mutual love—a state that needed not the fillip of death. And he had to die without having ever lived. Admiration, homage, fear, he had sown broadcast. The one woman who had loved him had turned to stone because he loved her. Death would lose much of its sting for him if there were somewhere in the world just one woman, however lowly, whose heart would be broken by his dying. What a pity Nellie O'Mora was not really extant!
Suddenly he recalled certain words lightly spoken yesterday by Zuleika. She had told him he was loved by the girl who waited on him—the daughter of his landlady. Was this so? He had seen no sign of it, had received no token of it. But, after all, how should he have seen a sign of anything in one whom he had never consciously visualised? That she had never thrust herself on his notice might mean merely that she had been well brought-up. What likelier than that the daughter of Mrs. Batch, that worthy soul, had been well brought up?
Here, at any rate, was the chance of a new element in his life, or rather in his death. Here, possibly, was a maiden to mourn him. He would lunch in his rooms.
With a farewell look at Nellie's miniature, he took the medicine-bottle from the table, and went quickly out. The heavens had grown steadily darker and darker, the air more sulphurous and baleful. And the High had a strangely woebegone look, being all forsaken by youth, in this hour of luncheon. Even so would its look be all to-morrow, thought the Duke, and for many morrows. Well he had done what he could. He was free now to brighten a little his own last hours. He hastened on, eager to see the landlady's daughter. He wondered what she was like, and whether she really loved him.
As he threw open the door of his sitting-room, he was aware of a rustle, a rush, a cry. In another instant, he was aware of Zuleika Dobson at his feet, at his knees, clasping him to her, sobbing, laughing, sobbing.
For what happened a few moments later you must not blame him. Some measure of force was the only way out of an impossible situation. It was in vain that he commanded the young lady to let go: she did but cling the closer. It was in vain that he tried to disentangle himself of her by standing first on one foot, then on the other, and veering sharply on his heel: she did but sway as though hinged to him. He had no choice but to grasp her by the wrists, cast her aside, and step clear of her into the room.
Her hat, gauzily basking with a pair of long white gloves on one of his arm-chairs, proclaimed that she had come to stay.
Nor did she rise. Propped on one elbow, with heaving bosom and parted lips, she seemed to be trying to realise what had been done to her. Through her undried tears her eyes shone up to him.
He asked: "To what am I indebted for this visit?"
"Ah, say that again!" she murmured. "Your voice is music."
He repeated his question.
"Music!" she said dreamily; and such is the force of habit that "I don't," she added, "know anything about music, really. But I know what I like."
"Had you not better get up from the floor?" he said. "The door is open, and any one who passed might see you."
Softly she stroked the carpet with the palms of her hands. "Happy carpet!" she crooned. "Aye, happy the very women that wove the threads that are trod by the feet of my beloved master. But hark! he bids his slave rise and stand before him!"
Just after she had risen, a figure appeared in the doorway.
"I beg pardon, your Grace; Mother wants to know, will you be lunching in?"
"Yes," said the Duke. "I will ring when I am ready." And it dawned on him that this girl, who perhaps loved him, was, according to all known standards, extraordinarily pretty.
"Will—" she hesitated, "will Miss Dobson be—"
"No," he said. "I shall be alone." And there was in the girl's parting half-glance at Zuleika that which told him he was truly loved, and made him the more impatient of his offensive and accursed visitor.
"You want to be rid of me?" asked Zuleika, when the girl was gone.
"I have no wish to be rude; but—since you force me to say it—yes."
"Then take me," she cried, throwing back her arms, "and throw me out of the window."
He smiled coldly.
"You think I don't mean it? You think I would struggle? Try me." She let herself droop sideways, in an attitude limp and portable. "Try me," she repeated.
"All this is very well conceived, no doubt," said he, "and well executed. But it happens to be otiose."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you may set your mind at rest. I am not going to back out of my promise."
Zuleika flushed. "You are cruel. I would give the world and all not to have written you that hateful letter. Forget it, forget it, for pity's sake!"
The Duke looked searchingly at her. "You mean that you now wish to release me from my promise?"
"Release you? As if you were ever bound! Don't torture me!"
He wondered what deep game she was playing. Very real, though, her anguish seemed; and, if real it was, then—he stared, he gasped—there could be but one explanation. He put it to her. "You love me?"
"With all my soul."
His heart leapt. If she spoke truth, then indeed vengeance was his! But "What proof have I?" he asked her.
"Proof? Have men absolutely NO intuition? If you need proof, produce it. Where are my ear-rings?"
"Your ear-rings? Why?"
Impatiently she pointed to two white pearls that fastened the front of her blouse. "These are your studs. It was from them I had the great first hint this morning."
"Black and pink, were they not, when you took them?"
"Of course. And then I forgot that I had them. When I undressed, they must have rolled on to the carpet. Melisande found them this morning when she was making the room ready for me to dress. That was just after she came back from bringing you my first letter. I was bewildered. I doubted. Might not the pearls have gone back to their natural state simply through being yours no more? That is why I wrote again to you, my own darling—a frantic little questioning letter. When I heard how you had torn it up, I knew, I knew that the pearls had not mocked me. I telescoped my toilet and came rushing round to you. How many hours have I been waiting for you?"
The Duke had drawn her ear-rings from his waistcoat pocket, and was contemplating them in the palm of his hand. Blanched, both of them, yes. He laid them on the table. "Take them," he said.
"No," she shuddered. "I could never forget that once they were both black." She flung them into the fender. "Oh John," she cried, turning to him and falling again to her knees, "I do so want to forget what I have been. I want to atone. You think you can drive me out of your life. You cannot, darling—since you won't kill me. Always I shall follow you on my knees, thus."
He looked down at her over his folded arms,
"I am not going to back out of my promise," he repeated.
She stopped her ears.
With a stern joy he unfolded his arms, took some papers from his breast-pocket, and, selecting one of them, handed it to her. It was the telegram sent by his steward.
She read it. With a stern joy he watched her reading it.
Wild-eyed, she looked up from it to him, tried to speak, and swerved down senseless.
He had not foreseen this. "Help!" he vaguely cried—was she not a fellow-creature?—and rushed blindly out to his bedroom, whence he returned, a moment later, with the water-jug. He dipped his hand, and sprinkled the upturned face (Dew-drops on a white rose? But some other, sharper analogy hovered to him). He dipped and sprinkled. The water-beads broke, mingled—rivulets now. He dipped and flung, then caught the horrible analogy and rebounded.
It was at this moment that Zuleika opened her eyes. "Where am I?" She weakly raised herself on one elbow; and the suspension of the Duke's hatred would have been repealed simultaneously with that of her consciousness, had it not already been repealed by the analogy. She put a hand to her face, then looked at the wet palm wonderingly, looked at the Duke, saw the water-jug beside him. She, too, it seemed, had caught the analogy; for with a wan smile she said "We are quits now, John, aren't we?"
Her poor little jest drew to the Duke's face no answering smile, did but make hotter the blush there. The wave of her returning memory swept on—swept up to her with a roar the instant past. "Oh," she cried, staggering to her feet, "the owls, the owls!"
Vengeance was his, and "Yes, there," he said, "is the ineluctable hard fact you wake to. The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day your wish is to be fulfilled."
"The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day—oh, it must not be, John! Heaven have mercy on me!"
"The unerring owls have hooted. The dispiteous and humorous gods have spoken. Miss Dobson, it has to be. And let me remind you," he added, with a glance at his watch, "that you ought not to keep The MacQuern waiting for luncheon."
"That is unworthy of you," she said. There was in her eyes a look that made the words sound as if they had been spoken by a dumb animal.
"You have sent him an excuse?"
"No, I have forgotten him."
"That is unworthy of you. After all, he is going to die for you, like the rest of us. I am but one of a number, you know. Use your sense of proportion."
"If I do that," she said after a pause, "you may not be pleased by the issue. I may find that whereas yesterday I was great in my sinfulness, and to-day am great in my love, you, in your hate of me, are small. I may find that what I had taken to be a great indifference is nothing but a very small hate... Ah, I have wounded you? Forgive me, a weak woman, talking at random in her wretchedness. Oh John, John, if I thought you small, my love would but take on the crown of pity. Don't forbid me to call you John. I looked you up in Debrett while I was waiting for you. That seemed to bring you nearer to me. So many other names you have, too. I remember you told me them all yesterday, here in this room—not twenty-four hours ago. Hours? Years!" She laughed hysterically. "John, don't you see why I won't stop talking? It's because I dare not think."
"Yonder in Balliol," he suavely said, "you will find the matter of my death easier to forget than here." He took her hat and gloves from the arm-chair, and held them carefully out to her; but she did not take them.
"I give you three minutes," he told her. "Two minutes, that is, in which to make yourself tidy before the mirror. A third in which to say good-bye and be outside the front-door."
"If I refuse?"
"You will not."
"If I do?"
"I shall send for a policeman."
She looked well at him. "Yes," she slowly said, "I think you would do that."
She took her things from him, and laid them by the mirror. With a high hand she quelled the excesses of her hair—some of the curls still agleam with water—and knowingly poised and pinned her hat. Then, after a few swift touches and passes at neck and waist, she took her gloves and, wheeling round to him, "There!" she said, "I have been quick."
"Admirably," he allowed.
"Quick in more than meets the eye, John. Spiritually quick. You saw me putting on my hat; you did not see love taking on the crown of pity, and me bonneting her with it, tripping her up and trampling the life out of her. Oh, a most cold-blooded business, John! Had to be done, though. No other way out. So I just used my sense of proportion, as you rashly bade me, and then hardened my heart at sight of you as you are. One of a number? Yes, and a quite unlovable unit. So I am all right again. And now, where is Balliol? Far from here?"
"No," he answered, choking a little, as might a card-player who, having been dealt a splendid hand, and having played it with flawless skill, has yet—damn it!—lost the odd trick. "Balliol is quite near. At the end of this street in fact. I can show it to you from the front-door."
Yes, he had controlled himself. But this, he furiously felt, did not make him look the less a fool. What ought he to have SAID? He prayed, as he followed the victorious young woman downstairs, that l'esprit de l'escalier might befall him. Alas, it did not.
"By the way," she said, when he had shown her where Balliol lay, "have you told anybody that you aren't dying just for me?"
"No," he answered, "I have preferred not to."
"Then officially, as it were, and in the eyes of the world, you die for me? Then all's well that ends well. Shall we say good-bye here? I shall be on the Judas Barge; but I suppose there will be a crush, as yesterday?"
"Sure to be. There always is on the last night of the Eights, you know. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, little John—small John," she cried across her shoulder, having the last word.
He might not have grudged her the last word, had she properly needed it. Its utter superfluity—the perfection of her victory without it—was what galled him. Yes, she had outflanked him, taken him unawares, and he had fired not one shot. Esprit de l'escalier—it was as he went upstairs that he saw how he might yet have snatched from her, if not the victory, the palm. Of course he ought to have laughed aloud—"Capital, capital! You really do deserve to fool me. But ah, yours is a love that can't be dissembled. Never was man by maiden loved more ardently than I by you, my poor girl, at this moment."
And stay!—what if she really HAD been but pretending to have killed her love? He paused on the threshold of his room. The sudden doubt made his lost chance the more sickening. Yet was the doubt dear to him ... What likelier, after all, than that she had been pretending? She had already twitted him with his lack of intuition. He had not seen that she loved him when she certainly did love him. He had needed the pearls' demonstration of that.—The pearls! THEY would betray her. He darted to the fender, and one of them he espied there instantly—white? A rather flushed white, certainly. For the other he had to peer down. There it lay, not very distinct on the hearth's black-leading.
He turned away. He blamed himself for not dismissing from his mind the hussy he had dismissed from his room. Oh for an ounce of civet and a few poppies! The water-jug stood as a reminder of the hateful visit and of... He took it hastily away into his bedroom. There he washed his hands. The fact that he had touched Zuleika gave to this ablution a symbolism that made it the more refreshing.
Civet, poppies? Was there not, at his call, a sweeter perfume, a stronger anodyne? He rang the bell, almost caressingly.
His heart beat at sound of the clinking and rattling of the tray borne up the stairs. She was coming, the girl who loved him, the girl whose heart would be broken when he died. Yet, when the tray appeared in the doorway, and she behind it, the tray took precedence of her in his soul not less than in his sight. Twice, after an arduous morning, had his luncheon been postponed, and the coming of it now made intolerable the pangs of his hunger.
Also, while the girl laid the table-cloth, it occurred to him how flimsy, after all, was the evidence that she loved him. Suppose she did nothing of the kind! At the Junta, he had foreseen no difficulty in asking her. Now he found himself a prey to embarrassment. He wondered why. He had not failed in flow of gracious words to Nellie O'Mora. Well, a miniature by Hoppner was one thing, a landlady's live daughter was another. At any rate, he must prime himself with food. He wished Mrs. Batch had sent up something more calorific than cold salmon. He asked her daughter what was to follow.
"There's a pigeon-pie, your Grace."
"Cold? Then please ask your mother to heat it in the oven—quickly. Anything after that?"
"A custard pudding, your Grace."
"Cold? Let this, too, be heated. And bring up a bottle of champagne, please; and—and a bottle of port."
His was a head that had always hitherto defied the grape. But he thought that to-day, by all he had gone through, by all the shocks he had suffered, and the strains he had steeled himself to bear, as well as by the actual malady that gripped him, he might perchance have been sapped enough to experience by reaction that cordial glow of which he had now and again seen symptoms in his fellows.
Nor was he altogether disappointed of this hope. As the meal progressed, and the last of the champagne sparkled in his glass, certain things said to him by Zuleika—certain implied criticisms that had rankled, yes—lost their power to discommode him. He was able to smile at the impertinences of an angry woman, the tantrums of a tenth-rate conjurer told to go away. He felt he had perhaps acted harshly. With all her faults, she had adored him. Yes, he had been arbitrary. There seemed to be a strain of brutality in his nature. Poor Zuleika! He was glad for her that she had contrived to master her infatuation... Enough for him that he was loved by this exquisite meek girl who had served him at the feast. Anon, when he summoned her to clear the things away, he would bid her tell him the tale of her lowly passion. He poured a second glass of port, sipped it, quaffed it, poured a third. The grey gloom of the weather did but, as he eyed the bottle, heighten his sense of the rich sunshine so long ago imprisoned by the vintner and now released to make glad his soul. Even so to be released was the love pent for him in the heart of this sweet girl. Would that he loved her in return!... Why not?
"Prius insolentem Serva Briseis niveo colore Movit Achillem."
Nor were it gracious to invite an avowal of love and offer none in return. Yet, yet, expansive though his mood was, he could not pretend to himself that he was about to feel in this girl's presence anything but gratitude. He might pretend to her? Deception were a very poor return indeed for all her kindness. Besides, it might turn her head. Some small token of his gratitude—some trinket by which to remember him—was all that he could allow himself to offer... What trinket? Would she like to have one of his scarf-pins? Studs? Still more abs—Ah! he had it, he literally and most providentially had it, there, in the fender: a pair of ear-rings!
He plucked the pink pearl and the black from where they lay, and rang the bell.
His sense of dramatic propriety needed that the girl should, before he addressed her, perform her task of clearing the table. If she had it to perform after telling her love, and after receiving his gift and his farewell, the bathos would be distressing for them both.
But, while he watched her at her task, he did wish she would be a little quicker. For the glow in him seemed to be cooling momently. He wished he had had more than three glasses from the crusted bottle which she was putting away into the chiffonier. Down, doubt! Down, sense of disparity! The moment was at hand. Would he let it slip? Now she was folding up the table-cloth, now she was going.
"Stay!" he uttered. "I have something to say to you." The girl turned to him.
He forced his eyes to meet hers. "I understand," he said in a constrained voice, "that you regard me with sentiments of something more than esteem.—Is this so?"
The girl had stepped quickly back, and her face was scarlet.
"Nay," he said, having to go through with it now, "there is no cause for embarrassment. And I am sure you will acquit me of wanton curiosity. Is it a fact that you—love me?"
She tried to speak, could not. But she nodded her head.
The Duke, much relieved, came nearer to her.
"What is your name?" he asked gently.
"Katie," she was able to gasp.
"Well, Katie, how long have you loved me?"
"Ever since," she faltered, "ever since you came to engage the rooms."
"You are not, of course, given to idolising any tenant of your mother's?"
"May I boast myself the first possessor of your heart?"
"Yes." She had become very pale now, and was trembling painfully.
"And may I assume that your love for me has been entirely disinterested?... You do not catch my meaning? I will put my question in another way. In loving me, you never supposed me likely to return your love?"
The girl looked up at him quickly, but at once her eyelids fluttered down again.
"Come, come!" said the Duke. "My question is a plain one. Did you ever for an instant suppose, Katie, that I might come to love you?"
"No," she said in a whisper; "I never dared to hope that."
"Precisely," said he. "You never imagined that you had anything to gain by your affection. You were not contriving a trap for me. You were upheld by no hope of becoming a young Duchess, with more frocks than you could wear and more dross than you could scatter. I am glad. I am touched. You are the first woman that has loved me in that way. Or rather," he muttered, "the first but one. And she... Answer me," he said, standing over the girl, and speaking with a great intensity. "If I were to tell you that I loved you, would you cease to love me?"
"Oh your Grace!" cried the girl. "Why no! I never dared—"
"Enough!" he said. "The catechism is ended. I have something which I should like to give you. Are your ears pierced?"
"Yes, your Grace."
"Then, Katie, honour me by accepting this present." So saying, he placed in the girl's hand the black pearl and the pink. The sight of them banished for a moment all other emotions in their recipient. She forgot herself. "Lor!" she said.
"I hope you will wear them always for my sake," said the Duke.
She had expressed herself in the monosyllable. No words came to her lips, but to her eyes many tears, through which the pearls were visible. They whirled in her bewildered brain as a token that she was loved—loved by HIM, though but yesterday he had loved another. It was all so sudden, so beautiful. You might have knocked her down (she says so to this day) with a feather. Seeing her agitation, the Duke pointed to a chair, bade her be seated.
Her mind was cleared by the new posture. Suspicion crept into it, followed by alarm. She looked at the ear-rings, then up at the Duke.
"No," said he, misinterpreting the question in her eyes, "they are real pearls."
"It isn't that," she quavered, "it is—it is—"
"That they were given to me by Miss Dobson?"
"Oh, they were, were they? Then"—Katie rose, throwing the pearls on the floor—"I'll have nothing to do with them. I hate her."
"So do I," said the Duke, in a burst of confidence. "No, I don't," he added hastily. "Please forget that I said that."
It occurred to Katie that Miss Dobson would be ill-pleased that the pearls should pass to her. She picked them up.
"Only—only—" again her doubts beset her and she looked from the pearls to the Duke.
"Speak on," he said.
"Oh you aren't playing with me, are you? You don't mean me harm, do you? I have been well brought up. I have been warned against things. And it seems so strange, what you have said to me. You are a Duke, and I—I am only—"
"It is the privilege of nobility to condescend."
"Yes, yes," she cried. "I see. Oh I was wicked to doubt you. And love levels all, doesn't it? love and the Board school. Our stations are far apart, but I've been educated far above mine. I've learnt more than most real ladies have. I passed the Seventh Standard when I was only just fourteen. I was considered one of the sharpest girls in the school. And I've gone on learning since then," she continued eagerly. "I utilise all my spare moments. I've read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books. I collect ferns. I play the piano, whenever..." She broke off, for she remembered that her music was always interrupted by the ringing of the Duke's bell and a polite request that it should cease.
"I am glad to hear of these accomplishments. They do you great credit, I am sure. But—well, I do not quite see why you enumerate them just now."
"It isn't that I am vain," she pleaded. "I only mentioned them because ... oh, don't you see? If I'm not ignorant, I shan't disgrace you. People won't be so able to say you've been and thrown yourself away."
"Thrown myself away? What do you mean?"
"Oh, they'll make all sorts of objections, I know. They'll all be against me, and—"
"For heaven's sake, explain yourself."
"Your aunt, she looked a very proud lady—very high and hard. I thought so when she came here last term. But you're of age. You're your own master. Oh, I trust you; you'll stand by me. If you love me really you won't listen to them."
"Love you? I? Are you mad?"
Each stared at the other, utterly bewildered.
The girl was the first to break the silence. Her voice came in a whisper. "You've not been playing a joke on me? You meant what you said, didn't you?"
"What have I said?"
"You said you loved me."
"You must be dreaming."
"I'm not. Here are the ear-rings you gave me." She pinched them as material proof. "You said you loved me just before you gave me them. You know you did. And if I thought you'd been laughing at me all the time—I'd—I'd"—a sob choked her voice—"I'd throw them in your face!"
"You must not speak to me in that manner," said the Duke coldly. "And let me warn you that this attempt to trap me and intimidate me—"
The girl had flung the ear-rings at his face. She had missed her mark. But this did not extenuate the outrageous gesture. He pointed to the door. "Go!" he said.
"Don't try that on!" she laughed. "I shan't go—not unless you drag me out. And if you do that, I'll raise the house. I'll have in the neighbours. I'll tell them all what you've done, and—" But defiance melted in the hot shame of humiliation. "Oh, you coward!" she gasped. "You coward!" She caught her apron to her face and, swaying against the wall, sobbed piteously.
Unaccustomed to love-affairs, the Duke could not sail lightly over a flood of woman's tears. He was filled with pity for the poor quivering figure against the wall. How should he soothe her? Mechanically he picked up the two pearls from the carpet, and crossed to her side. He touched her on the shoulder. She shuddered away from him.
"Don't," he said gently. "Don't cry. I can't bear it. I have been stupid and thoughtless. What did you say your name was? 'Katie,' to be sure. Well, Katie, I want to beg your pardon. I expressed myself badly. I was unhappy and lonely, and I saw in you a means of comfort. I snatched at you, Katie, as at a straw. And then, I suppose, I must have said something which made you think I loved you. I almost wish I did. I don't wonder you threw the ear-rings at me. I—I almost wish they had hit me... You see, I have quite forgiven you. Now do you forgive me. You will not refuse now to wear the ear-rings. I gave them to you as a keepsake. Wear them always in memory of me. For you will never see me again."
The girl had ceased from crying, and her anger had spent itself in sobs. She was gazing at him woebegone but composed.
"Where are you going?"
"You must not ask that," said he. "Enough that my wings are spread."
"Are you going because of ME?"
"Not in the least. Indeed, your devotion is one of the things which make bitter my departure. And yet—I am glad you love me."
"Don't go," she faltered. He came nearer to her, and this time she did not shrink from him. "Don't you find the rooms comfortable?" she asked, gazing up at him. "Have you ever had any complaint to make about the attendance?"
"No," said the Duke, "the attendance has always been quite satisfactory. I have never felt that so keenly as I do to-day."
"Then why are you leaving? Why are you breaking my heart?"
"Suffice it that I cannot do otherwise. Henceforth you will see me no more. But I doubt not that in the cultivation of my memory you will find some sort of lugubrious satisfaction. See! here are the ear-rings. If you like, I will put them in with my own hands."
She held up her face side-ways. Into the lobe of her left ear he insinuated the hook of the black pearl. On the cheek upturned to him there were still traces of tears; the eyelashes were still spangled. For all her blondness, they were quite dark, these glistening eyelashes. He had an impulse, which he put from him. "Now the other ear," he said. The girl turned her head. Soon the pink pearl was in its place. Yet the girl did not move. She seemed to be waiting. Nor did the Duke himself seem to be quite satisfied. He let his fingers dally with the pearl. Anon, with a sigh, he withdrew them. The girl looked up. Their eyes met. He looked away from her. He turned away from her. "You may kiss my hand," he murmured, extending it towards her. After a pause, the warm pressure of her lips was laid on it. He sighed, but did not look round. Another pause, a longer pause, and then the clatter and clink of the outgoing tray.
Her actual offspring does not suffice a very motherly woman. Such a woman was Mrs. Batch. Had she been blest with a dozen children, she must yet have regarded herself as also a mother to whatever two young gentlemen were lodging under her roof. Childless but for Katie and Clarence, she had for her successive pairs of tenants a truly vast fund of maternal feeling to draw on. Nor were the drafts made in secret. To every gentleman, from the outset, she proclaimed the relation in which she would stand to him. Moreover, always she needed a strong filial sense in return: this was only fair.
Because the Duke was an orphan, even more than because he was a Duke, her heart had with a special rush gone out to him when he and Mr. Noaks became her tenants. But, perhaps because he had never known a mother, he was evidently quite incapable of conceiving either Mrs. Batch as his mother or himself as her son. Indeed, there was that in his manner, in his look, which made her falter, for once, in exposition of her theory—made her postpone the matter to some more favourable time. That time never came, somehow. Still, her solicitude for him, her pride in him, her sense that he was a great credit to her, rather waxed than waned. He was more to her (such are the vagaries of the maternal instinct) than Katie or Mr. Noaks: he was as much as Clarence.
It was, therefore, a deeply agitated woman who now came heaving up into the Duke's presence. His Grace was "giving notice"? She was sure she begged his pardon for coming up so sudden. But the news was that sudden. Hadn't her girl made a mistake, maybe? Girls were so vague-like nowadays. She was sure it was most kind of him to give those handsome ear-rings. But the thought of him going off so unexpected—middle of term, too—with never a why or a but! Well!
In some such welter of homely phrase (how foreign to these classic pages!) did Mrs. Batch utter her pain. The Duke answered her tersely but kindly. He apologised for going so abruptly, and said he would be very happy to write for her future use a testimonial to the excellence of her rooms and of her cooking; and with it he would give her a cheque not only for the full term's rent, and for his board since the beginning of term, but also for such board as he would have been likely to have in the term's remainder. He asked her to present her accounts forthwith.
He occupied the few minutes of her absence by writing the testimonial. It had shaped itself in his mind as a short ode in Doric Greek. But, for the benefit of Mrs. Batch, he chose to do a rough equivalent in English.
TO AN UNDERGRADUATE NEEDING ROOMS IN OXFORD
(A Sonnet in Oxfordshire Dialect)
Zeek w'ere thee will in t'Univursity, Lad, thee'll not vind nor bread nor bed that matches Them as thee'll vind, roight zure, at Mrs. Batch's...
I do not quote the poem in extenso, because, frankly, I think it was one of his least happily-inspired works. His was not a Muse that could with a good grace doff the grand manner. Also, his command of the Oxfordshire dialect seems to me based less on study than on conjecture. In fact, I do not place the poem higher than among the curiosities of literature. It has extrinsic value, however, as illustrating the Duke's thoughtfulness for others in the last hours of his life. And to Mrs. Batch the MS., framed and glazed in her hall, is an asset beyond price (witness her recent refusal of Mr. Pierpont Morgan's sensational bid for it).
This MS. she received together with the Duke's cheque. The presentation was made some twenty minutes after she had laid her accounts before him.
Lavish in giving large sums of his own accord, he was apt to be circumspect in the matter of small payments. Such is ever the way of opulent men. Nor do I see that we have a right to sneer at them for it. We cannot deny that their existence is a temptation to us. It is in our fallen nature to want to get something out of them; and, as we think in small sums (heaven knows), it is of small sums that they are careful. Absurd to suppose they really care about halfpence. It must, therefore, be about us that they care; and we ought to be grateful to them for the pains they are at to keep us guiltless. I do not suggest that Mrs. Batch had at any point overcharged the Duke; but how was he to know that she had not done so, except by checking the items, as was his wont? The reductions that he made, here and there, did not in all amount to three-and-sixpence. I do not say they were just. But I do say that his motive for making them, and his satisfaction at having made them, were rather beautiful than otherwise.
Having struck an average of Mrs. Batch's weekly charges, and a similar average of his own reductions, he had a basis on which to reckon his board for the rest of the term. This amount he added to Mrs. Batch's amended total, plus the full term's rent, and accordingly drew a cheque on the local bank where he had an account. Mrs. Batch said she would bring up a stamped receipt directly; but this the Duke waived, saying that the cashed cheque itself would be a sufficient receipt. Accordingly, he reduced by one penny the amount written on the cheque. Remembering to initial the correction, he remembered also, with a melancholy smile, that to-morrow the cheque would not be negotiable. Handing it, and the sonnet, to Mrs. Batch, he bade her cash it before the bank closed. "And," he said, with a glance at his watch, "you have no time to lose. It is a quarter to four." Only two hours and a quarter before the final races! How quickly the sands were running out!
Mrs. Batch paused on the threshold, wanted to know if she could "help with the packing." The Duke replied that he was taking nothing with him: his various things would be sent for, packed, and removed, within a few days. No, he did not want her to order a cab. He was going to walk. And "Good-bye, Mrs. Batch," he said. "For legal reasons with which I won't burden you, you really must cash that cheque at once."
He sat down in solitude; and there crept over him a mood of deep depression... Almost two hours and a quarter before the final races! What on earth should he do in the meantime? He seemed to have done all that there was for him to do. His executors would do the rest. He had no farewell-letters to write. He had no friends with whom he was on terms of valediction. There was nothing at all for him to do. He stared blankly out of the window, at the greyness and blackness of the sky. What a day! What a climate! Why did any sane person live in England? He felt positively suicidal.
His dully vagrant eye lighted on the bottle of Cold Mixture. He ought to have dosed himself a full hour ago. Well, he didn't care.
Had Zuleika noticed the bottle? he idly wondered. Probably not. She would have made some sprightly reference to it before she went.
Since there was nothing to do but sit and think, he wished he could recapture that mood in which at luncheon he had been able to see Zuleika as an object for pity. Never, till to-day, had he seen things otherwise than they were. Nor had he ever needed to. Never, till last night, had there been in his life anything he needed to forget. That woman! As if it really mattered what she thought of him. He despised himself for wishing to forget she despised him. But the wish was the measure of the need. He eyed the chiffonier. Should he again solicit the grape?
Reluctantly he uncorked the crusted bottle, and filled a glass. Was he come to this? He sighed and sipped, quaffed and sighed. The spell of the old stored sunshine seemed not to work, this time. He could not cease from plucking at the net of ignominies in which his soul lay enmeshed. Would that he had died yesterday, escaping how much!
Not for an instant did he flinch from the mere fact of dying to-day. Since he was not immortal, as he had supposed, it were as well he should die now as fifty years hence. Better, indeed. To die "untimely," as men called it, was the timeliest of all deaths for one who had carved his youth to greatness. What perfection could he, Dorset, achieve beyond what was already his? Future years could but stale, if not actually mar, that perfection. Yes, it was lucky to perish leaving much to the imagination of posterity. Dear posterity was of a sentimental, not a realistic, habit. She always imagined the dead young hero prancing gloriously up to the Psalmist's limit a young hero still; and it was the sense of her vast loss that kept his memory green. Byron!—he would be all forgotten to-day if he had lived to be a florid old gentleman with iron-grey whiskers, writing very long, very able letters to "The Times" about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Yes, Byron would have been that. It was indicated in him. He would have been an old gentleman exacerbated by Queen Victoria's invincible prejudice against him, her brusque refusal to "entertain" Lord John Russell's timid nomination of him for a post in the Government... Shelley would have been a poet to the last. But how dull, how very dull, would have been the poetry of his middle age!—a great unreadable mass interposed between him and us... Did Byron, mused the Duke, know what was to be at Missolonghi? Did he know that he was to die in service of the Greeks whom he despised? Byron might not have minded that. But what if the Greeks had told him, in so many words, that they despised HIM? How would he have felt then? Would he have been content with his potations of barley-water?... The Duke replenished his glass, hoping the spell might work yet.... Perhaps, had Byron not been a dandy—but ah, had he not been in his soul a dandy there would have been no Byron worth mentioning. And it was because he guarded not his dandyism against this and that irrelevant passion, sexual or political, that he cut so annoyingly incomplete a figure. He was absurd in his politics, vulgar in his loves. Only in himself, at the times when he stood haughtily aloof, was he impressive. Nature, fashioning him, had fashioned also a pedestal for him to stand and brood on, to pose and sing on. Off that pedestal he was lost.... "The idol has come sliding down from its pedestal"—the Duke remembered these words spoken yesterday by Zuleika. Yes, at the moment when he slid down, he, too, was lost. For him, master-dandy, the common arena was no place. What had he to do with love? He was an utter fool at it. Byron had at least had some fun out of it. What fun had HE had? Last night, he had forgotten to kiss Zuleika when he held her by the wrists. To-day it had been as much as he could do to let poor little Katie kiss his hand. Better be vulgar with Byron than a noodle with Dorset! he bitterly reflected... Still, noodledom was nearer than vulgarity to dandyism. It was a less flagrant lapse. And he had over Byron this further advantage: his noodledom was not a matter of common knowledge; whereas Byron's vulgarity had ever needed to be in the glare of the footlights of Europe. The world would say of him that he laid down his life for a woman. Deplorable somersault? But nothing evident save this in his whole life was faulty... The one other thing that might be carped at—the partisan speech he made in the Lords—had exquisitely justified itself by its result. For it was as a Knight of the Garter that he had set the perfect seal on his dandyism. Yes, he reflected, it was on the day when first he donned the most grandiose of all costumes, and wore it grandlier than ever yet in history had it been worn, than ever would it be worn hereafter, flaunting the robes with a grace unparalleled and inimitable, and lending, as it were, to the very insignia a glory beyond their own, that he once and for all fulfilled himself, doer of that which he had been sent into the world to do.
And there floated into his mind a desire, vague at first, soon definite, imperious, irresistible, to see himself once more, before he died, indued in the fulness of his glory and his might.
Nothing hindered. There was yet a whole hour before he need start for the river. His eyes dilated, somewhat as might those of a child about to "dress up" for a charade; and already, in his impatience, he had undone his neck-tie.
One after another, he unlocked and threw open the black tin boxes, snatching out greedily their great good splendours of crimson and white and royal blue and gold. You wonder he was not appalled by the task of essaying unaided a toilet so extensive and so intricate? You wondered even when you heard that he was wont at Oxford to make without help his toilet of every day. Well, the true dandy is always capable of such high independence. He is craftsman as well as artist. And, though any unaided Knight but he with whom we are here concerned would belike have doddered hopeless in that labyrinth of hooks and buckles which underlies the visible glory of a Knight "arraied full and proper," Dorset threaded his way featly and without pause. He had mastered his first excitement. In his swiftness was no haste. His procedure had the ease and inevitability of a natural phenomenon, and was most like to the coming of a rainbow.
Crimson-doubleted, blue-ribanded, white-trunk-hosed, he stooped to understrap his left knee with that strap of velvet round which sparkles the proud gay motto of the Order. He affixed to his breast the octoradiant star, so much larger and more lustrous than any actual star in heaven. Round his neck he slung that long daedal chain wherefrom St. George, slaying the Dragon, dangles. He bowed his shoulders to assume that vast mantle of blue velvet, so voluminous, so enveloping, that, despite the Cross of St. George blazing on it, and the shoulder-knots like two great white tropical flowers planted on it, we seem to know from it in what manner of mantle Elijah prophesied. Across his breast he knotted this mantle's two cords of gleaming bullion, one tassel a due trifle higher than its fellow. All these things being done, he moved away from the mirror, and drew on a pair of white kid gloves. Both of these being buttoned, he plucked up certain folds of his mantle into the hollow of his left arm, and with his right hand gave to his left hand that ostrich-plumed and heron-plumed hat of black velvet in which a Knight of the Garter is entitled to take his walks abroad. Then, with head erect, and measured tread, he returned to the mirror.