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Zuleika Dobson - or, An Oxford Love Story
by Max Beerbohm
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"Glorious!" whispered Zuleika. "But ah," she said, rising to her feet, "tell me no more of it—poor me! You see, it isn't a mere special attractiveness that I have. I am irresistible."

"A daring statement, my child—very hard to prove."

"Hasn't it been proved up to the hilt to-day?"

"To-day?... Ah, and so they did really all drown themselves for you?... Dear, dear!... The Duke—he, too?"

"He set the example."

"No! You don't say so! He was a greatly-gifted young man—a true ornament to the College. But he always seemed to me rather—what shall I say?—inhuman... I remember now that he did seem rather excited when he came to the concert last night and you weren't yet there... You are quite sure you were the cause of his death?"

"Quite," said Zuleika, marvelling at the lie—or fib, rather: he had been GOING to die for her. But why not have told the truth? Was it possible, she wondered, that her wretched vanity had survived her renunciation of the world? Why had she so resented just now the doubt cast on that irresistibility which had blighted and cranked her whole life?

"Well, my dear," said the Warden, "I confess that I am amazed—astounded." Again he adjusted his glasses, and looked at her.

She found herself moving slowly around the study, with the gait of a mannequin in a dress-maker's show-room. She tried to stop this; but her body seemed to be quite beyond control of her mind. It had the insolence to go ambling on its own account. "Little space you'll have in a convent cell," snarled her mind vindictively. Her body paid no heed whatever.

Her grandfather, leaning back in his chair, gazed at the ceiling, and meditatively tapped the finger-tips of one hand against those of the other. "Sister Zuleika," he presently said to the ceiling.

"Well? and what is there so—so ridiculous in"—but the rest was lost in trill after trill of laughter; and these were then lost in sobs.

The Warden had risen from his chair. "My dear," he said, "I wasn't laughing. I was only—trying to imagine. If you really want to retire from—"

"I do," moaned Zuleika.

"Then perhaps—"

"But I don't," she wailed.

"Of course, you don't, my dear."

"Why, of course?"

"Come, you are tired, my poor child. That is very natural after this wonderful, this historic day. Come dry your eyes. There, that's better. To-morrow—"

"I do believe you're a little proud of me."

"Heaven forgive me, I believe I am. A grandfather's heart—But there, good night, my dear. Let me light your candle."

She took her cloak, and followed him out to the hall table. There she mentioned that she was going away early to-morrow.

"To the convent?" he slyly asked.

"Ah, don't tease me, grand-papa."

"Well, I am sorry you are going away, my dear. But perhaps, in the circumstances, it is best. You must come and stay here again, later on," he said, handing her the lit candle. "Not in term-time, though," he added.

"No," she echoed, "not in term-time."



XXIV

From the shifting gloom of the stair-case to the soft radiance cast through the open door of her bedroom was for poor Zuleika an almost heartening transition. She stood awhile on the threshold, watching Melisande dart to and fro like a shuttle across a loom. Already the main part of the packing seemed to have been accomplished. The wardrobe was a yawning void, the carpet was here and there visible, many of the trunks were already brimming and foaming over... Once more on the road! Somewhat as, when beneath the stars the great tent had been struck, and the lions were growling in their vans, and the horses were pawing the stamped grass and whinnying, and the elephants trumpeting, Zuleika's mother may often have felt within her a wan exhilaration, so now did the heart of that mother's child rise and flutter amidst the familiar bustle of "being off." Weary she was of the world, and angry she was at not being, after all, good enough for something better. And yet—well, at least, good-bye to Oxford!

She envied Melisande, so nimbly and cheerfully laborious till the day should come when her betrothed had saved enough to start a little cafe of his own and make her his bride and dame de comptoir. Oh, to have a purpose, a prospect, a stake in the world, as this faithful soul had!

"Can I help you at all, Melisande?" she asked, picking her way across the strewn floor.

Melisande, patting down a pile of chiffon, seemed to be amused at such a notion. "Mademoiselle has her own art. Do I mix myself in that?" she cried, waving one hand towards the great malachite casket.

Zuleika looked at the casket, and then very gratefully at the maid. Her art—how had she forgotten that? Here was solace, purpose. She would work as she had never worked yet. She KNEW that she had it in her to do better than she had ever done. She confessed to herself that she had too often been slack in the matter of practice and rehearsal, trusting her personal magnetism to carry her through. Only last night she had badly fumbled, more than once. Her bravura business with the Demon Egg-Cup had been simply vile. The audience hadn't noticed it, perhaps, but she had. Now she would perfect herself. Barely a fortnight now before her engagement at the Folies Bergeres! What if—no, she must not think of that! But the thought insisted. What if she essayed for Paris that which again and again she had meant to graft on to her repertory—the Provoking Thimble?

She flushed at the possibility. What if her whole present repertory were but a passing phase in her art—a mere beginning—an earlier manner? She remembered how marvellously last night she had manipulated the ear-rings and the studs. Then lo! the light died out of her eyes, and her face grew rigid. That memory had brought other memories in its wake.

For her, when she fled the Broad, Noaks' window had blotted out all else. Now she saw again that higher window, saw that girl flaunting her ear-rings, gibing down at her. "He put them in with his own hands!"—the words rang again in her ears, making her cheeks tingle. Oh, he had thought it a very clever thing to do, no doubt—a splendid little revenge, something after his own heart! "And he kissed me in the open street"—excellent, excellent! She ground her teeth. And these doings must have been fresh in his mind when she overtook him and walked with him to the house-boat! Infamous! And she had then been wearing his studs! She drew his attention to them when—

Her jewel-box stood open, to receive the jewels she wore to-night. She went very calmly to it. There, in a corner of the topmost tray, rested the two great white pearls—the pearls which, in one way and another, had meant so much to her.

"Melisande!"

"Mademoiselle?"

"When we go to Paris, would you like to make a little present to your fiance?"

"Je voudrais bien, mademoiselle."

"Then you shall give him these," said Zuleika, holding out the two studs.

"Mais jamais de la vie! Chez Tourtel tout le monde le dirait millionaire. Un garcon de cafe qui porte au plastron des perles pareilles—merci!"

"Tell him he may tell every one that they were given to me by the late Duke of Dorset, and given by me to you, and by you to him."

"Mais—" The protest died on Melisande's lips. Suddenly she had ceased to see the pearls as trinkets finite and inapposite—saw them as things presently transmutable into little marble tables, bocks, dominos, absinthes au sucre, shiny black portfolios with weekly journals in them, yellow staves with daily journals flapping from them, vermouths secs, vermouths cassis...

"Mademoiselle is too amiable," she said, taking the pearls.

And certainly, just then, Zuleika was looking very amiable indeed. The look was transient. Nothing, she reflected, could undo what the Duke had done. That hateful, impudent girl would take good care that every one should know. "He put them in with his own hands." HER ear-rings! "He kissed me in the public street. He loved me"... Well, he had called out "Zuleika!" and every one around had heard him. That was something. But how glad all the old women in the world would be to shake their heads and say "Oh, no, my dear, believe me! It wasn't anything to do with HER. I'm told on the very best authority," and so forth, and so on. She knew he had told any number of undergraduates he was going to die for her. But they, poor fellows, could not bear witness. And good heavens! If there were a doubt as to the Duke's motive, why not doubts as to theirs?... But many of them had called out "Zuleika!" too. And of course any really impartial person who knew anything at all about the matter at first hand would be sure in his own mind that it was perfectly absurd to pretend that the whole thing wasn't entirely and absolutely for her... And of course some of the men must have left written evidence of their intention. She remembered that at The MacQuern's to-day was a Mr. Craddock, who had made a will in her favour and wanted to read it aloud to her in the middle of luncheon. Oh, there would be proof positive as to many of the men. But of the others it would be said that they died in trying to rescue their comrades. There would be all sorts of silly far-fetched theories, and downright lies that couldn't be disproved...

"Melisande, that crackling of tissue paper is driving me mad! Do leave off! Can't you see that I am waiting to be undressed?"

The maid hastened to her side, and with quick light fingers began to undress her. "Mademoiselle va bien dormir—ca se voit," she purred.

"I shan't," said Zuleika.

Nevertheless, it was soothing to be undressed, and yet more soothing anon to sit merely night-gowned before the mirror, while, slowly and gently, strongly and strand by strand, Melisande brushed her hair.

After all, it didn't so much matter what the world thought. Let the world whisper and insinuate what it would. To slur and sully, to belittle and drag down—that was what the world always tried to do. But great things were still great, and fair things still fair. With no thought for the world's opinion had these men gone down to the water to-day. Their deed was for her and themselves alone. It had sufficed them. Should it not suffice her? It did, oh it did. She was a wretch to have repined.

At a gesture from her, Melisande brought to a close the rhythmical ministrations, and—using no tissue paper this time—did what was yet to be done among the trunks.

"WE know, you and I," Zuleika whispered to the adorable creature in the mirror; and the adorable creature gave back her nod and smile.

THEY knew, these two.

Yet, in their happiness, rose and floated a shadow between them. It was the ghost of that one man who—THEY knew—had died irrelevantly, with a cold heart.

Came also the horrid little ghost of one who had died late and unseemly.

And now, thick and fast, swept a whole multitude of other ghosts, the ghosts of all them who, being dead, could not die again; the poor ghosts of them who had done what they could, and could do no more.

No more? Was it not enough? The lady in the mirror gazed at the lady in the room, reproachfully at first, then—for were they not sisters?—relentingly, then pityingly. Each of the two covered her face with her hands.

And there recurred, as by stealth, to the lady in the room a thought that had assailed her not long ago in Judas Street... a thought about the power of example...

And now, with pent breath and fast-beating heart, she stood staring at the lady of the mirror, without seeing her; and now she wheeled round and swiftly glided to that little table on which stood her two books. She snatched Bradshaw.

We always intervene between Bradshaw and any one whom we see consulting him. "Mademoiselle will permit me to find that which she seeks?" asked Melisande.

"Be quiet," said Zuleika. We always repulse, at first, any one who intervenes between us and Bradshaw.

We always end by accepting the intervention. "See if it is possible to go direct from here to Cambridge," said Zuleika, handing the book on. "If it isn't, then—well, see how to get there."

We never have any confidence in the intervener. Nor is the intervener, when it comes to the point, sanguine. With mistrust mounting to exasperation Zuleika sat watching the faint and frantic researches of her maid.

"Stop!" she said suddenly. "I have a much better idea. Go down very early to the station. See the station-master. Order me a special train. For ten o'clock, say."

Rising, she stretched her arms above her head. Her lips parted in a yawn, met in a smile. With both hands she pushed back her hair from her shoulders, and twisted it into a loose knot. Very lightly she slipped up into bed, and very soon she was asleep.

THE END

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