or, AN OXFORD LOVE STORY
By Max Beerbohm
NOTE to the 1922 edition
I was in Italy when this book was first published. A year later (1912) I visited London, and I found that most of my friends and acquaintances spoke to me of Zu-like-a—a name which I hardly recognised and thoroughly disapproved. I had always thought of the lady as Zu-leek-a. Surely it was thus that Joseph thought of his Wife, and Selim of his Bride? And I do hope that it is thus that any reader of these pages will think of Miss Dobson.
M.B. Rapallo, 1922.
ILLI ALMAE MATRI
That old bell, presage of a train, had just sounded through Oxford station; and the undergraduates who were waiting there, gay figures in tweed or flannel, moved to the margin of the platform and gazed idly up the line. Young and careless, in the glow of the afternoon sunshine, they struck a sharp note of incongruity with the worn boards they stood on, with the fading signals and grey eternal walls of that antique station, which, familiar to them and insignificant, does yet whisper to the tourist the last enchantments of the Middle Age.
At the door of the first-class waiting-room, aloof and venerable, stood the Warden of Judas. An ebon pillar of tradition seemed he, in his garb of old-fashioned cleric. Aloft, between the wide brim of his silk hat and the white extent of his shirt-front, appeared those eyes which hawks, that nose which eagles, had often envied. He supported his years on an ebon stick. He alone was worthy of the background.
Came a whistle from the distance. The breast of an engine was descried, and a long train curving after it, under a flight of smoke. It grew and grew. Louder and louder, its noise foreran it. It became a furious, enormous monster, and, with an instinct for safety, all men receded from the platform's margin. (Yet came there with it, unknown to them, a danger far more terrible than itself.) Into the station it came blustering, with cloud and clangour. Ere it had yet stopped, the door of one carriage flew open, and from it, in a white travelling dress, in a toque a-twinkle with fine diamonds, a lithe and radiant creature slipped nimbly down to the platform.
A cynosure indeed! A hundred eyes were fixed on her, and half as many hearts lost to her. The Warden of Judas himself had mounted on his nose a pair of black-rimmed glasses. Him espying, the nymph darted in his direction. The throng made way for her. She was at his side.
"Grandpapa!" she cried, and kissed the old man on either cheek. (Not a youth there but would have bartered fifty years of his future for that salute.)
"My dear Zuleika," he said, "welcome to Oxford! Have you no luggage?"
"Heaps!" she answered. "And a maid who will find it."
"Then," said the Warden, "let us drive straight to College." He offered her his arm, and they proceeded slowly to the entrance. She chatted gaily, blushing not in the long avenue of eyes she passed through. All the youths, under her spell, were now quite oblivious of the relatives they had come to meet. Parents, sisters, cousins, ran unclaimed about the platform. Undutiful, all the youths were forming a serried suite to their enchantress. In silence they followed her. They saw her leap into the Warden's landau, they saw the Warden seat himself upon her left. Nor was it until the landau was lost to sight that they turned—how slowly, and with how bad a grace!—to look for their relatives.
Through those slums which connect Oxford with the world, the landau rolled on towards Judas. Not many youths occurred, for nearly all—it was the Monday of Eights Week—were down by the river, cheering the crews. There did, however, come spurring by, on a polo-pony, a very splendid youth. His straw hat was encircled with a riband of blue and white, and he raised it to the Warden.
"That," said the Warden, "is the Duke of Dorset, a member of my College. He dines at my table to-night."
Zuleika, turning to regard his Grace, saw that he had not reined in and was not even glancing back at her over his shoulder. She gave a little start of dismay, but scarcely had her lips pouted ere they curved to a smile—a smile with no malice in its corners.
As the landau rolled into "the Corn," another youth—a pedestrian, and very different—saluted the Warden. He wore a black jacket, rusty and amorphous. His trousers were too short, and he himself was too short: almost a dwarf. His face was as plain as his gait was undistinguished. He squinted behind spectacles.
"And who is that?" asked Zuleika.
A deep flush overspread the cheek of the Warden. "That," he said, "is also a member of Judas. His name, I believe, is Noaks."
"Is he dining with us to-night?" asked Zuleika.
"Certainly not," said the Warden. "Most decidedly not."
Noaks, unlike the Duke, had stopped for an ardent retrospect. He gazed till the landau was out of his short sight; then, sighing, resumed his solitary walk.
The landau was rolling into "the Broad," over that ground which had once blackened under the fagots lit for Latimer and Ridley. It rolled past the portals of Balliol and of Trinity, past the Ashmolean. From those pedestals which intersperse the railing of the Sheldonian, the high grim busts of the Roman Emperors stared down at the fair stranger in the equipage. Zuleika returned their stare with but a casual glance. The inanimate had little charm for her.
A moment later, a certain old don emerged from Blackwell's, where he had been buying books. Looking across the road, he saw, to his amazement, great beads of perspiration glistening on the brows of those Emperors. He trembled, and hurried away. That evening, in Common Room, he told what he had seen; and no amount of polite scepticism would convince him that it was but the hallucination of one who had been reading too much Mommsen. He persisted that he had seen what he described. It was not until two days had elapsed that some credence was accorded him.
Yes, as the landau rolled by, sweat started from the brows of the Emperors. They, at least, foresaw the peril that was overhanging Oxford, and they gave such warning as they could. Let that be remembered to their credit. Let that incline us to think more gently of them. In their lives we know, they were infamous, some of them—"nihil non commiserunt stupri, saevitiae, impietatis." But are they too little punished, after all? Here in Oxford, exposed eternally and inexorably to heat and frost, to the four winds that lash them and the rains that wear them away, they are expiating, in effigy, the abominations of their pride and cruelty and lust. Who were lechers, they are without bodies; who were tyrants, they are crowned never but with crowns of snow; who made themselves even with the gods, they are by American visitors frequently mistaken for the Twelve Apostles. It is but a little way down the road that the two Bishops perished for their faith, and even now we do never pass the spot without a tear for them. Yet how quickly they died in the flames! To these Emperors, for whom none weeps, time will give no surcease. Surely, it is sign of some grace in them that they rejoiced not, this bright afternoon, in the evil that was to befall the city of their penance.
The sun streamed through the bay-window of a "best" bedroom in the Warden's house, and glorified the pale crayon-portraits on the wall, the dimity curtains, the old fresh chintz. He invaded the many trunks which—all painted Z. D.—gaped, in various stages of excavation, around the room. The doors of the huge wardrobe stood, like the doors of Janus' temple in time of war, majestically open; and the sun seized this opportunity of exploring the mahogany recesses. But the carpet, which had faded under his immemorial visitations, was now almost ENTIRELY hidden from him, hidden under layers of fair fine linen, layers of silk, brocade, satin, chiffon, muslin. All the colours of the rainbow, materialised by modistes, were there. Stacked on chairs were I know not what of sachets, glove-cases, fan-cases. There were innumerable packages in silver-paper and pink ribands. There was a pyramid of bandboxes. There was a virgin forest of boot-trees. And rustling quickly hither and thither, in and out of this profusion, with armfuls of finery, was an obviously French maid. Alert, unerring, like a swallow she dipped and darted. Nothing escaped her, and she never rested. She had the air of the born unpacker—swift and firm, yet withal tender. Scarce had her arms been laden but their loads were lying lightly between shelves or tightly in drawers. To calculate, catch, distribute, seemed in her but a single process. She was one of those who are born to make chaos cosmic.
Insomuch that ere the loud chapel-clock tolled another hour all the trunks had been sent empty away. The carpet was unflecked by any scrap of silver-paper. From the mantelpiece, photographs of Zuleika surveyed the room with a possessive air. Zuleika's pincushion, a-bristle with new pins, lay on the dimity-flounced toilet-table, and round it stood a multitude of multiform glass vessels, domed, all of them, with dull gold, on which Z. D., in zianites and diamonds, was encrusted. On a small table stood a great casket of malachite, initialled in like fashion. On another small table stood Zuleika's library. Both books were in covers of dull gold. On the back of one cover BRADSHAW, in beryls, was encrusted; on the back of the other, A.B.C. GUIDE, in amethysts, beryls, chrysoprases, and garnets. And Zuleika's great cheval-glass stood ready to reflect her. Always it travelled with her, in a great case specially made for it. It was framed in ivory, and of fluted ivory were the slim columns it swung between. Of gold were its twin sconces, and four tall tapers stood in each of them.
The door opened, and the Warden, with hospitable words, left his grand-daughter at the threshold.
Zuleika wandered to her mirror. "Undress me, Melisande," she said. Like all who are wont to appear by night before the public, she had the habit of resting towards sunset.
Presently Melisande withdrew. Her mistress, in a white peignoir tied with a blue sash, lay in a great chintz chair, gazing out of the bay-window. The quadrangle below was very beautiful, with its walls of rugged grey, its cloisters, its grass carpet. But to her it was of no more interest than if it had been the rattling court-yard to one of those hotels in which she spent her life. She saw it, but heeded it not. She seemed to be thinking of herself, or of something she desired, or of some one she had never met. There was ennui, and there was wistfulness, in her gaze. Yet one would have guessed these things to be transient—to be no more than the little shadows that sometimes pass between a bright mirror and the brightness it reflects.
Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been. An anarchy of small curls was her chevelure, a dark upland of misrule, every hair asserting its rights over a not discreditable brow. For the rest, her features were not at all original. They seemed to have been derived rather from a gallimaufry of familiar models. From Madame la Marquise de Saint-Ouen came the shapely tilt of the nose. The mouth was a mere replica of Cupid's bow, lacquered scarlet and strung with the littlest pearls. No apple-tree, no wall of peaches, had not been robbed, nor any Tyrian rose-garden, for the glory of Miss Dobson's cheeks. Her neck was imitation-marble. Her hands and feet were of very mean proportions. She had no waist to speak of.
Yet, though a Greek would have railed at her asymmetry, and an Elizabethan have called her "gipsy," Miss Dobson now, in the midst of the Edwardian Era, was the toast of two hemispheres. Late in her 'teens she had become an orphan and a governess. Her grandfather had refused her appeal for a home or an allowance, on the ground that he would not be burdened with the upshot of a marriage which he had once forbidden and not yet forgiven. Lately, however, prompted by curiosity or by remorse, he had asked her to spend a week or so of his declining years with him. And she, "resting" between two engagements—one at Hammerstein's Victoria, N.Y.C., the other at the Folies Bergeres, Paris—and having never been in Oxford, had so far let bygones be bygones as to come and gratify the old man's whim.
It may be that she still resented his indifference to those early struggles which, even now, she shuddered to recall. For a governess' life she had been, indeed, notably unfit. Hard she had thought it, that penury should force her back into the school-room she was scarce out of, there to champion the sums and maps and conjugations she had never tried to master. Hating her work, she had failed signally to pick up any learning from her little pupils, and had been driven from house to house, a sullen and most ineffectual maiden. The sequence of her situations was the swifter by reason of her pretty face. Was there a grown-up son, always he fell in love with her, and she would let his eyes trifle boldly with hers across the dinner-table. When he offered her his hand, she would refuse it—not because she "knew her place," but because she did not love him. Even had she been a good teacher, her presence could not have been tolerated thereafter. Her corded trunk, heavier by another packet of billets-doux and a month's salary in advance, was soon carried up the stairs of some other house.
It chanced that she came, at length, to be governess in a large family that had Gibbs for its name and Notting Hill for its background. Edward, the eldest son, was a clerk in the city, who spent his evenings in the practice of amateur conjuring. He was a freckled youth, with hair that bristled in places where it should have lain smooth, and he fell in love with Zuleika duly, at first sight, during high-tea. In the course of the evening, he sought to win her admiration by a display of all his tricks. These were familiar to this household, and the children had been sent to bed, the mother was dozing, long before the seance was at an end. But Miss Dobson, unaccustomed to any gaieties, sat fascinated by the young man's sleight of hand, marvelling that a top-hat could hold so many goldfish, and a handkerchief turn so swiftly into a silver florin. All that night, she lay wide awake, haunted by the miracles he had wrought. Next evening, when she asked him to repeat them, "Nay," he whispered, "I cannot bear to deceive the girl I love. Permit me to explain the tricks." So he explained them. His eyes sought hers across the bowl of gold-fish, his fingers trembled as he taught her to manipulate the magic canister. One by one, she mastered the paltry secrets. Her respect for him waned with every revelation. He complimented her on her skill. "I could not do it more neatly myself!" he said. "Oh, dear Miss Dobson, will you but accept my hand, all these things shall be yours—the cards, the canister, the goldfish, the demon egg-cup—all yours!" Zuleika, with ravishing coyness, answered that if he would give her them now, she would "think it over." The swain consented, and at bed-time she retired with the gift under her arm. In the light of her bedroom candle Marguerite hung not in greater ecstasy over the jewel-casket than hung Zuleika over the box of tricks. She clasped her hands over the tremendous possibilities it held for her—manumission from her bondage, wealth, fame, power. Stealthily, so soon as the house slumbered, she packed her small outfit, embedding therein the precious gift. Noiselessly, she shut the lid of her trunk, corded it, shouldered it, stole down the stairs with it. Outside—how that chain had grated! and her shoulder, how it was aching!—she soon found a cab. She took a night's sanctuary in some railway-hotel. Next day, she moved into a small room in a lodging-house off the Edgware Road, and there for a whole week she was sedulous in the practice of her tricks. Then she inscribed her name on the books of a "Juvenile Party Entertainments Agency."
The Christmas holidays were at hand, and before long she got an engagement. It was a great evening for her. Her repertory was, it must be confessed, old and obvious; but the children, in deference to their hostess, pretended not to know how the tricks were done, and assumed their prettiest airs of wonder and delight. One of them even pretended to be frightened, and was led howling from the room. In fact, the whole thing went off splendidly. The hostess was charmed, and told Zuleika that a glass of lemonade would be served to her in the hall. Other engagements soon followed. Zuleika was very, very happy. I cannot claim for her that she had a genuine passion for her art. The true conjurer finds his guerdon in the consciousness of work done perfectly and for its own sake. Lucre and applause are not necessary to him. If he were set down, with the materials of his art, on a desert island, he would yet be quite happy. He would not cease to produce the barber's-pole from his mouth. To the indifferent winds he would still speak his patter, and even in the last throes of starvation would not eat his live rabbit or his gold-fish. Zuleika, on a desert island, would have spent most of her time in looking for a man's foot-print. She was, indeed, far too human a creature to care much for art. I do not say that she took her work lightly. She thought she had genius, and she liked to be told that this was so. But mainly she loved her work as a means of mere self-display. The frank admiration which, into whatsoever house she entered, the grown-up sons flashed on her; their eagerness to see her to the door; their impressive way of putting her into her omnibus—these were the things she revelled in. She was a nymph to whom men's admiration was the greater part of life. By day, whenever she went into the streets, she was conscious that no man passed her without a stare; and this consciousness gave a sharp zest to her outings. Sometimes she was followed to her door—crude flattery which she was too innocent to fear. Even when she went into the haberdasher's to make some little purchase of tape or riband, or into the grocer's—for she was an epicure in her humble way—to buy a tin of potted meat for her supper, the homage of the young men behind the counter did flatter and exhilarate her. As the homage of men became for her, more and more, a matter of course, the more subtly necessary was it to her happiness. The more she won of it, the more she treasured it. She was alone in the world, and it saved her from any moment of regret that she had neither home nor friends. For her the streets that lay around her had no squalor, since she paced them always in the gold nimbus of her fascinations. Her bedroom seemed not mean nor lonely to her, since the little square of glass, nailed above the wash-stand, was ever there to reflect her face. Thereinto, indeed, she was ever peering. She would droop her head from side to side, she would bend it forward and see herself from beneath her eyelashes, then tilt it back and watch herself over her supercilious chin. And she would smile, frown, pout, languish—let all the emotions hover upon her face; and always she seemed to herself lovelier than she had ever been.
Yet was there nothing Narcissine in her spirit. Her love for her own image was not cold aestheticism. She valued that image not for its own sake, but for sake of the glory it always won for her. In the little remote music-hall, where she was soon appearing nightly as an "early turn," she reaped glory in a nightly harvest. She could feel that all the gallery-boys, because of her, were scornful of the sweethearts wedged between them, and she knew that she had but to say "Will any gentleman in the audience be so good as to lend me his hat?" for the stalls to rise as one man and rush towards the platform. But greater things were in store for her. She was engaged at two halls in the West End. Her horizon was fast receding and expanding. Homage became nightly tangible in bouquets, rings, brooches—things acceptable and (luckier than their donors) accepted. Even Sunday was not barren for Zuleika: modish hostesses gave her postprandially to their guests. Came that Sunday night, notanda candidissimo calculo! when she received certain guttural compliments which made absolute her vogue and enabled her to command, thenceforth, whatever terms she asked for.
Already, indeed, she was rich. She was living at the most exorbitant hotel in all Mayfair. She had innumerable gowns and no necessity to buy jewels; and she also had, which pleased her most, the fine cheval-glass I have described. At the close of the Season, Paris claimed her for a month's engagement. Paris saw her and was prostrate. Boldini did a portrait of her. Jules Bloch wrote a song about her; and this, for a whole month, was howled up and down the cobbled alleys of Montmartre. And all the little dandies were mad for "la Zuleika." The jewellers of the Rue de la Paix soon had nothing left to put in their windows—everything had been bought for "la Zuleika." For a whole month, baccarat was not played at the Jockey Club—every member had succumbed to a nobler passion. For a whole month, the whole demi-monde was forgotten for one English virgin. Never, even in Paris, had a woman triumphed so. When the day came for her departure, the city wore such an air of sullen mourning as it had not worn since the Prussians marched to its Elysee. Zuleika, quite untouched, would not linger in the conquered city. Agents had come to her from every capital in Europe, and, for a year, she ranged, in triumphal nomady, from one capital to another. In Berlin, every night, the students escorted her home with torches. Prince Vierfuenfsechs-Siebenachtneun offered her his hand, and was condemned by the Kaiser to six months' confinement in his little castle. In Yildiz Kiosk, the tyrant who still throve there conferred on her the Order of Chastity, and offered her the central couch in his seraglio. She gave her performance in the Quirinal, and, from the Vatican, the Pope launched against her a Bull which fell utterly flat. In Petersburg, the Grand Duke Salamander Salamandrovitch fell enamoured of her. Of every article in the apparatus of her conjuring-tricks he caused a replica to be made in finest gold. These treasures he presented to her in that great malachite casket which now stood on the little table in her room; and thenceforth it was with these that she performed her wonders. They did not mark the limit of the Grand Duke's generosity. He was for bestowing on Zuleika the half of his immensurable estates. The Grand Duchess appealed to the Tzar. Zuleika was conducted across the frontier, by an escort of love-sick Cossacks. On the Sunday before she left Madrid, a great bull-fight was held in her honour. Fifteen bulls received the coup-de-grace, and Alvarez, the matador of matadors, died in the arena with her name on his lips. He had tried to kill the last bull without taking his eyes off la divina senorita. A prettier compliment had never been paid her, and she was immensely pleased with it. For that matter, she was immensely pleased with everything. She moved proudly to the incessant music of a paean, aye! of a paean that was always crescendo.
Its echoes followed her when she crossed the Atlantic, till they were lost in the louder, deeper, more blatant paean that rose for her from the shores beyond. All the stops of that "mighty organ, many-piped," the New York press, were pulled out simultaneously, as far as they could be pulled, in Zuleika's honour. She delighted in the din. She read every line that was printed about her, tasting her triumph as she had never tasted it before. And how she revelled in the Brobdingnagian drawings of her, which, printed in nineteen colours, towered between the columns or sprawled across them! There she was, measuring herself back to back with the Statue of Liberty; scudding through the firmament on a comet, whilst a crowd of tiny men in evening-dress stared up at her from the terrestrial globe; peering through a microscope held by Cupid over a diminutive Uncle Sam; teaching the American Eagle to stand on its head; and doing a hundred-and-one other things—whatever suggested itself to the fancy of native art. And through all this iridescent maze of symbolism were scattered many little slabs of realism. At home, on the street, Zuleika was the smiling target of all snap-shooters, and all the snap-shots were snapped up by the press and reproduced with annotations: Zuleika Dobson walking on Broadway in the sables gifted her by Grand Duke Salamander—she says "You can bounce blizzards in them"; Zuleika Dobson yawning over a love-letter from millionaire Edelweiss; relishing a cup of clam-broth—she says "They don't use clams out there"; ordering her maid to fix her a warm bath; finding a split in the gloves she has just drawn on before starting for the musicale given in her honour by Mrs. Suetonius X. Meistersinger, the most exclusive woman in New York; chatting at the telephone to Miss Camille Van Spook, the best-born girl in New York; laughing over the recollection of a compliment made her by George Abimelech Post, the best-groomed man in New York; meditating a new trick; admonishing a waiter who has upset a cocktail over her skirt; having herself manicured; drinking tea in bed. Thus was Zuleika enabled daily to be, as one might say, a spectator of her own wonderful life. On her departure from New York, the papers spoke no more than the truth when they said she had had "a lovely time." The further she went West—millionaire Edelweiss had loaned her his private car—the lovelier her time was. Chicago drowned the echoes of New York; final Frisco dwarfed the headlines of Chicago. Like one of its own prairie-fires, she swept the country from end to end. Then she swept back, and sailed for England. She was to return for a second season in the coming Fall. At present, she was, as I have said, "resting."
As she sat here in the bay-window of her room, she was not reviewing the splendid pageant of her past. She was a young person whose reveries never were in retrospect. For her the past was no treasury of distinct memories, all hoarded and classified, some brighter than others and more highly valued. All memories were for her but as the motes in one fused radiance that followed her and made more luminous the pathway of her future. She was always looking forward. She was looking forward now—that shade of ennui had passed from her face—to the week she was to spend in Oxford. A new city was a new toy to her, and—for it was youth's homage that she loved best—this city of youths was a toy after her own heart.
Aye, and it was youths who gave homage to her most freely. She was of that high-stepping and flamboyant type that captivates youth most surely. Old men and men of middle age admired her, but she had not that flower-like quality of shyness and helplessness, that look of innocence, so dear to men who carry life's secrets in their heads. Yet Zuleika WAS very innocent, really. She was as pure as that young shepherdess Marcella, who, all unguarded, roved the mountains and was by all the shepherds adored. Like Marcella, she had given her heart to no man, had preferred none. Youths were reputed to have died for love of her, as Chrysostom died for love of the shepherdess; and she, like the shepherdess, had shed no tear. When Chrysostom was lying on his bier in the valley, and Marcella looked down from the high rock, Ambrosio, the dead man's comrade, cried out on her, upbraiding her with bitter words—"Oh basilisk of our mountains!" Nor do I think Ambrosio spoke too strongly. Marcella cared nothing for men's admiration, and yet, instead of retiring to one of those nunneries which are founded for her kind, she chose to rove the mountains, causing despair to all the shepherds. Zuleika, with her peculiar temperament, would have gone mad in a nunnery. "But," you may argue, "ought not she to have taken the veil, even at the cost of her reason, rather than cause so much despair in the world? If Marcella was a basilisk, as you seem to think, how about Miss Dobson?" Ah, but Marcella knew quite well, boasted even, that she never would or could love any man. Zuleika, on the other hand, was a woman of really passionate fibre. She may not have had that conscious, separate, and quite explicit desire to be a mother with which modern playwrights credit every unmated member of her sex. But she did know that she could love. And, surely, no woman who knows that of herself can be rightly censured for not recluding herself from the world: it is only women without the power to love who have no right to provoke men's love.
Though Zuleika had never given her heart, strong in her were the desire and the need that it should be given. Whithersoever she had fared, she had seen nothing but youths fatuously prostrate to her—not one upright figure which she could respect. There were the middle-aged men, the old men, who did not bow down to her; but from middle-age, as from eld, she had a sanguine aversion. She could love none but a youth. Nor—though she herself, womanly, would utterly abase herself before her ideal—could she love one who fell prone before her. And before her all youths always did fall prone. She was an empress, and all youths were her slaves. Their bondage delighted her, as I have said. But no empress who has any pride can adore one of her slaves. Whom, then, could proud Zuleika adore? It was a question which sometimes troubled her. There were even moments when, looking into her cheval-glass, she cried out against that arrangement in comely lines and tints which got for her the dulia she delighted in. To be able to love once—would not that be better than all the homage in the world? But would she ever meet whom, looking up to him, she could love—she, the omnisubjugant? Would she ever, ever meet him?
It was when she wondered thus, that the wistfulness came into her eyes. Even now, as she sat by the window, that shadow returned to them. She was wondering, shyly, had she met him at length? That young equestrian who had not turned to look at her; whom she was to meet at dinner to-night... was it he? The ends of her blue sash lay across her lap, and she was lazily unravelling their fringes. "Blue and white!" she remembered. "They were the colours he wore round his hat." And she gave a little laugh of coquetry. She laughed, and, long after, her lips were still parted in a smile.
So did she sit, smiling, wondering, with the fringes of her sash between her fingers, while the sun sank behind the opposite wall of the quadrangle, and the shadows crept out across the grass, thirsty for the dew.
The clock in the Warden's drawing-room had just struck eight, and already the ducal feet were beautiful on the white bearskin hearthrug. So slim and long were they, of instep so nobly arched, that only with a pair of glazed ox-tongues on a breakfast-table were they comparable. Incomparable quite, the figure and face and vesture of him who ended in them.
The Warden was talking to him, with all the deference of elderly commoner to patrician boy. The other guests—an Oriel don and his wife—were listening with earnest smile and submissive droop, at a slight distance. Now and again, to put themselves at their ease, they exchanged in undertone a word or two about the weather.
"The young lady whom you may have noticed with me," the Warden was saying, "is my orphaned grand-daughter." (The wife of the Oriel don discarded her smile, and sighed, with a glance at the Duke, who was himself an orphan.) "She has come to stay with me." (The Duke glanced quickly round the room.) "I cannot think why she is not down yet." (The Oriel don fixed his eyes on the clock, as though he suspected it of being fast.) "I must ask you to forgive her. She appears to be a bright, pleasant young woman."
"Married?" asked the Duke.
"No," said the Warden; and a cloud of annoyance crossed the boy's face. "No; she devotes her life entirely to good works."
"A hospital nurse?" the Duke murmured.
"No, Zuleika's appointed task is to induce delightful wonder rather than to alleviate pain. She performs conjuring-tricks."
"Not—not Miss Zuleika Dobson?" cried the Duke.
"Ah yes. I forgot that she had achieved some fame in the outer world. Perhaps she has already met you?"
"Never," said the young man coldly. "But of course I have heard of Miss Dobson. I did not know she was related to you."
The Duke had an intense horror of unmarried girls. All his vacations were spent in eluding them and their chaperons. That he should be confronted with one of them—with such an one of them!—in Oxford, seemed to him sheer violation of sanctuary. The tone, therefore, in which he said "I shall be charmed," in answer to the Warden's request that he would take Zuleika into dinner, was very glacial. So was his gaze when, a moment later, the young lady made her entry.
"She did not look like an orphan," said the wife of the Oriel don, subsequently, on the way home. The criticism was a just one. Zuleika would have looked singular in one of those lowly double-files of straw-bonnets and drab cloaks which are so steadying a feature of our social system. Tall and lissom, she was sheathed from the bosom downwards in flamingo silk, and she was liberally festooned with emeralds. Her dark hair was not even strained back from her forehead and behind her ears, as an orphan's should be. Parted somewhere at the side, it fell in an avalanche of curls upon one eyebrow. From her right ear drooped heavily a black pearl, from her left a pink; and their difference gave an odd, bewildering witchery to the little face between.
Was the young Duke bewitched? Instantly, utterly. But none could have guessed as much from his cold stare, his easy and impassive bow. Throughout dinner, none guessed that his shirt-front was but the screen of a fierce warfare waged between pride and passion. Zuleika, at the foot of the table, fondly supposed him indifferent to her. Though he sat on her right, not one word or glance would he give her. All his conversation was addressed to the unassuming lady who sat on his other side, next to the Warden. Her he edified and flustered beyond measure by his insistent courtesy. Her husband, alone on the other side of the table, was mortified by his utter failure to engage Zuleika in small-talk. Zuleika was sitting with her profile turned to him—the profile with the pink pearl—and was gazing full at the young Duke. She was hardly more affable than a cameo. "Yes," "No," "I don't know," were the only answers she would vouchsafe to his questions. A vague "Oh really?" was all he got for his timid little offerings of information. In vain he started the topic of modern conjuring-tricks as compared with the conjuring-tricks performed by the ancient Egyptians. Zuleika did not even say "Oh really?" when he told her about the metamorphosis of the bulls in the Temple of Osiris. He primed himself with a glass of sherry, cleared his throat. "And what," he asked, with a note of firmness, "did you think of our cousins across the water?" Zuleika said "Yes;" and then he gave in. Nor was she conscious that he ceased talking to her. At intervals throughout the rest of dinner, she murmured "Yes," and "No," and "Oh really?" though the poor little don was now listening silently to the Duke and the Warden.
She was in a trance of sheer happiness. At last, she thought, her hope was fulfilled—that hope which, although she had seldom remembered it in the joy of her constant triumphs, had been always lurking in her, lying near to her heart and chafing her, like the shift of sackcloth which that young brilliant girl, loved and lost of Giacopone di Todi, wore always in secret submission to her own soul, under the fair soft robes and the rubies men saw on her. At last, here was the youth who would not bow down to her; whom, looking up to him, she could adore. She ate and drank automatically, never taking her gaze from him. She felt not one touch of pique at his behaviour. She was tremulous with a joy that was new to her, greater than any joy she had known. Her soul was as a flower in its opetide. She was in love. Rapt, she studied every lineament of the pale and perfect face—the brow from which bronze-coloured hair rose in tiers of burnished ripples; the large steel-coloured eyes, with their carven lids; the carven nose, and the plastic lips. She noted how long and slim were his fingers, and how slender his wrists. She noted the glint cast by the candles upon his shirt-front. The two large white pearls there seemed to her symbols of his nature. They were like two moons: cold, remote, radiant. Even when she gazed at the Duke's face, she was aware of them in her vision.
Nor was the Duke unconscious, as he seemed to be, of her scrutiny. Though he kept his head averse, he knew that always her eyes were watching him. Obliquely, he saw them; saw, too, the contour of the face, and the black pearl and the pink; could not blind himself, try as he would. And he knew that he was in love.
Like Zuleika herself, this young Duke was in love for the first time. Wooed though he had been by almost as many maidens as she by youths, his heart, like hers, had remained cold. But he had never felt, as she had, the desire to love. He was not now rejoicing, as she was, in the sensation of first love; nay, he was furiously mortified by it, and struggled with all his might against it. He had always fancied himself secure against any so vulgar peril; always fancied that by him at least, the proud old motto of his family—"Pas si bete"—would not be belied. And I daresay, indeed, that had he never met Zuleika, the irresistible, he would have lived, and at a very ripe old age died, a dandy without reproach. For in him the dandiacal temper had been absolute hitherto, quite untainted and unruffled. He was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring any one else. Different from Zuleika, he cared for his wardrobe and his toilet-table not as a means to making others admire him the more, but merely as a means through which he could intensify, a ritual in which to express and realise, his own idolatry. At Eton he had been called "Peacock," and this nick-name had followed him up to Oxford. It was not wholly apposite, however. For, whereas the peacock is a fool even among birds, the Duke had already taken (besides a particularly brilliant First in Mods) the Stanhope, the Newdigate, the Lothian, and the Gaisford Prize for Greek Verse. And these things he had achieved currente calamo, "wielding his pen," as Scott said of Byron, "with the easy negligence of a nobleman." He was now in his third year of residence, and was reading, a little, for Literae Humaniores. There is no doubt that but for his untimely death he would have taken a particularly brilliant First in that school also.
For the rest, he had many accomplishments. He was adroit in the killing of all birds and fishes, stags and foxes. He played polo, cricket, racquets, chess, and billiards as well as such things can be played. He was fluent in all modern languages, had a very real talent in water-colour, and was accounted, by those who had had the privilege of hearing him, the best amateur pianist on this side of the Tweed. Little wonder, then, that he was idolised by the undergraduates of his day. He did not, however, honour many of them with his friendship. He had a theoretic liking for them as a class, as the "young barbarians all at play" in that little antique city; but individually they jarred on him, and he saw little of them. Yet he sympathised with them always, and, on occasion, would actively take their part against the dons. In the middle of his second year, he had gone so far that a College Meeting had to be held, and he was sent down for the rest of term. The Warden placed his own landau at the disposal of the illustrious young exile, who therein was driven to the station, followed by a long, vociferous procession of undergraduates in cabs. Now, it happened that this was a time of political excitement in London. The Liberals, who were in power, had passed through the House of Commons a measure more than usually socialistic; and this measure was down for its second reading in the Lords on the very day that the Duke left Oxford, an exile. It was but a few weeks since he had taken his seat in the Lords; and this afternoon, for the want of anything better to do, he strayed in. The Leader of the House was already droning his speech for the bill, and the Duke found himself on one of the opposite benches. There sat his compeers, sullenly waiting to vote for a bill which every one of them detested. As the speaker subsided, the Duke, for the fun of the thing, rose. He made a long speech against the bill. His gibes at the Government were so scathing, so utterly destructive his criticism of the bill itself, so lofty and so irresistible the flights of his eloquence, that, when he resumed his seat, there was only one course left to the Leader of the House. He rose and, in a few husky phrases, moved that the bill "be read this day six months." All England rang with the name of the young Duke. He himself seemed to be the one person unmoved by his exploit. He did not re-appear in the Upper Chamber, and was heard to speak in slighting terms of its architecture, as well as of its upholstery. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister became so nervous that he procured for him, a month later, the Sovereign's offer of a Garter which had just fallen vacant. The Duke accepted it. He was, I understand, the only undergraduate on whom this Order had ever been conferred. He was very much pleased with the insignia, and when, on great occasions, he wore them, no one dared say that the Prime Minister's choice was not fully justified. But you must not imagine that he cared for them as symbols of achievement and power. The dark blue riband, and the star scintillating to eight points, the heavy mantle of blue velvet, with its lining of taffeta and shoulder-knots of white satin, the crimson surcoat, the great embullioned tassels, and the chain of linked gold, and the plumes of ostrich and heron uprising from the black velvet hat—these things had for him little significance save as a fine setting, a finer setting than the most elaborate smoking-suit, for that perfection of aspect which the gods had given him. This was indeed the gift he valued beyond all others. He knew well, however, that women care little for a man's appearance, and that what they seek in a man is strength of character, and rank, and wealth. These three gifts the Duke had in a high degree, and he was by women much courted because of them. Conscious that every maiden he met was eager to be his Duchess, he had assumed always a manner of high austerity among maidens, and even if he had wished to flirt with Zuleika he would hardly have known how to do it. But he did not wish to flirt with her. That she had bewitched him did but make it the more needful that he should shun all converse with her. It was imperative that he should banish her from his mind, quickly. He must not dilute his own soul's essence. He must not surrender to any passion his dandihood. The dandy must be celibate, cloistral; is, indeed, but a monk with a mirror for beads and breviary—an anchorite, mortifying his soul that his body may be perfect. Till he met Zuleika, the Duke had not known the meaning of temptation. He fought now, a St. Anthony, against the apparition. He would not look at her, and he hated her. He loved her, and he could not help seeing her. The black pearl and the pink seemed to dangle ever nearer and clearer to him, mocking him and beguiling. Inexpellible was her image.
So fierce was the conflict in him that his outward nonchalance gradually gave way. As dinner drew to its close, his conversation with the wife of the Oriel don flagged and halted. He sank, at length, into a deep silence. He sat with downcast eyes, utterly distracted.
Suddenly, something fell, plump! into the dark whirlpool of his thoughts. He started. The Warden was leaning forward, had just said something to him.
"I beg your pardon?" asked the Duke. Dessert, he noticed, was on the table, and he was paring an apple. The Oriel don was looking at him with sympathy, as at one who had swooned and was just "coming to."
"Is it true, my dear Duke," the Warden repeated, "that you have been persuaded to play to-morrow evening at the Judas concert?"
"Ah yes, I am going to play something."
Zuleika bent suddenly forward, addressed him. "Oh," she cried, clasping her hands beneath her chin, "will you let me come and turn over the leaves for you?"
He looked her full in the face. It was like seeing suddenly at close quarters some great bright monument that one has long known only as a sun-caught speck in the distance. He saw the large violet eyes open to him, and their lashes curling to him; the vivid parted lips; and the black pearl, and the pink.
"You are very kind," he murmured, in a voice which sounded to him quite far away. "But I always play without notes."
Zuleika blushed. Not with shame, but with delirious pleasure. For that snub she would just then have bartered all the homage she had hoarded. This, she felt, was the climax. She would not outstay it. She rose, smiling to the wife of the Oriel don. Every one rose. The Oriel don held open the door, and the two ladies passed out of the room.
The Duke drew out his cigarette case. As he looked down at the cigarettes, he was vaguely conscious of some strange phenomenon somewhere between them and his eyes. Foredone by the agitation of the past hour, he did not at once realise what it was that he saw. His impression was of something in bad taste, some discord in his costume ... a black pearl and a pink pearl in his shirt-front!
Just for a moment, absurdly over-estimating poor Zuleika's skill, he supposed himself a victim of legerdemain. Another moment, and the import of the studs revealed itself. He staggered up from his chair, covering his breast with one arm, and murmured that he was faint. As he hurried from the room, the Oriel don was pouring out a tumbler of water and suggesting burnt feathers. The Warden, solicitous, followed him into the hall. He snatched up his hat, gasping that he had spent a delightful evening—was very sorry—was subject to these attacks. Once outside, he took frankly to his heels.
At the corner of the Broad, he looked back over his shoulder. He had half expected a scarlet figure skimming in pursuit. There was nothing. He halted. Before him, the Broad lay empty beneath the moon. He went slowly, mechanically, to his rooms.
The high grim busts of the Emperors stared down at him, their faces more than ever tragically cavernous and distorted. They saw and read in that moonlight the symbols on his breast. As he stood on his doorstep, waiting for the door to be opened, he must have seemed to them a thing for infinite compassion. For were they not privy to the doom that the morrow, or the morrow's morrow, held for him—held not indeed for him alone, yet for him especially, as it were, and for him most lamentably?
The breakfast-things were not yet cleared away. A plate freaked with fine strains of marmalade, an empty toast-rack, a broken roll—these and other things bore witness to a day inaugurated in the right spirit.
Away from them, reclining along his window-seat, was the Duke. Blue spirals rose from his cigarette, nothing in the still air to trouble them. From their railing, across the road, the Emperors gazed at him.
For a young man, sleep is a sure solvent of distress. There whirls not for him in the night any so hideous a phantasmagoria as will not become, in the clarity of next morning, a spruce procession for him to lead. Brief the vague horror of his awakening; memory sweeps back to him, and he sees nothing dreadful after all. "Why not?" is the sun's bright message to him, and "Why not indeed?" his answer. After hours of agony and doubt prolonged to cock-crow, sleep had stolen to the Duke's bed-side. He awoke late, with a heavy sense of disaster; but lo! when he remembered, everything took on a new aspect. He was in love. "Why not?" He mocked himself for the morbid vigil he had spent in probing and vainly binding the wounds of his false pride. The old life was done with. He laughed as he stepped into his bath. Why should the disseizin of his soul have seemed shameful to him? He had had no soul till it passed out of his keeping. His body thrilled to the cold water, his soul as to a new sacrament. He was in love, and that was all he wished for... There, on the dressing-table, lay the two studs, visible symbols of his love. Dear to him, now, the colours of them! He took them in his hand, one by one, fondling them. He wished he could wear them in the day-time; but this, of course, was impossible. His toilet finished, he dropped them into the left pocket of his waistcoat.
Therein, near to his heart, they were lying now, as he looked out at the changed world—the world that had become Zuleika. "Zuleika!" his recurrent murmur, was really an apostrophe to the whole world.
Piled against the wall were certain boxes of black japanned tin, which had just been sent to him from London. At any other time he would certainly not have left them unopened. For they contained his robes of the Garter. Thursday, the day after to-morrow, was the date fixed for the investiture of a foreign king who was now visiting England: and the full chapter of Knights had been commanded to Windsor for the ceremony. Yesterday the Duke had looked keenly forward to his excursion. It was only in those too rarely required robes that he had the sense of being fully dressed. But to-day not a thought had he of them.
Some clock clove with silver the stillness of the morning. Ere came the second stroke, another and nearer clock was striking. And now there were others chiming in. The air was confused with the sweet babel of its many spires, some of them booming deep, measured sequences, some tinkling impatiently and outwitting others which had begun before them. And when this anthem of jealous antiphonies and uneven rhythms had dwindled quite away and fainted in one last solitary note of silver, there started somewhere another sequence; and this, almost at its last stroke, was interrupted by yet another, which went on to tell the hour of noon in its own way, quite slowly and significantly, as though none knew it.
And now Oxford was astir with footsteps and laughter—the laughter and quick footsteps of youths released from lecture-rooms. The Duke shifted from the window. Somehow, he did not care to be observed, though it was usually at this hour that he showed himself for the setting of some new fashion in costume. Many an undergraduate, looking up, missed the picture in the window-frame.
The Duke paced to and fro, smiling ecstatically. He took the two studs from his pocket and gazed at them. He looked in the glass, as one seeking the sympathy of a familiar. For the first time in his life, he turned impatiently aside. It was a new kind of sympathy he needed to-day.
The front door slammed, and the staircase creaked to the ascent of two heavy boots. The Duke listened, waited irresolute. The boots passed his door, were already clumping up the next flight. "Noaks!" he cried. The boots paused, then clumped down again. The door opened and disclosed that homely figure which Zuleika had seen on her way to Judas.
Sensitive reader, start not at the apparition! Oxford is a plexus of anomalies. These two youths were (odd as it may seem to you) subject to the same Statutes, affiliated to the same College, reading for the same School; aye! and though the one had inherited half a score of noble and castellated roofs, whose mere repairs cost him annually thousands and thousands of pounds, and the other's people had but one little mean square of lead, from which the fireworks of the Crystal Palace were clearly visible every Thursday evening, in Oxford one roof sheltered both of them. Furthermore, there was even some measure of intimacy between them. It was the Duke's whim to condescend further in the direction of Noaks than in any other. He saw in Noaks his own foil and antithesis, and made a point of walking up the High with him at least once in every term. Noaks, for his part, regarded the Duke with feelings mingled of idolatry and disapproval. The Duke's First in Mods oppressed him (who, by dint of dogged industry, had scraped a Second) more than all the other differences between them. But the dullard's envy of brilliant men is always assuaged by the suspicion that they will come to a bad end. Noaks may have regarded the Duke as a rather pathetic figure, on the whole.
"Come in, Noaks," said the Duke. "You have been to a lecture?"
"Aristotle's Politics," nodded Noaks.
"And what were they?" asked the Duke. He was eager for sympathy in his love. But so little used was he to seeking sympathy that he could not unburden himself. He temporised. Noaks muttered something about getting back to work, and fumbled with the door-handle.
"Oh, my dear fellow, don't go," said the Duke. "Sit down. Our Schools don't come on for another year. A few minutes can't make a difference in your Class. I want to—to tell you something, Noaks. Do sit down."
Noaks sat down on the edge of a chair. The Duke leaned against the mantel-piece, facing him. "I suppose, Noaks," he said, "you have never been in love."
"Why shouldn't I have been in love?" asked the little man, angrily.
"I can't imagine you in love," said the Duke, smiling.
"And I can't imagine YOU. You're too pleased with yourself," growled Noaks.
"Spur your imagination, Noaks," said his friend. "I AM in love."
"So am I," was an unexpected answer, and the Duke (whose need of sympathy was too new to have taught him sympathy with others) laughed aloud. "Whom do you love?" he asked, throwing himself into an arm-chair.
"I don't know who she is," was another unexpected answer.
"When did you meet her?" asked the Duke. "Where? What did you say to her?"
"Yesterday. In the Corn. I didn't SAY anything to her."
"Is she beautiful?"
"Yes. What's that to you?"
"Dark or fair?"
"She's dark. She looks like a foreigner. She looks like—like one of those photographs in the shop-windows."
"A rhapsody, Noaks! What became of her? Was she alone?"
"She was with the old Warden, in his carriage."
Zuleika—Noaks! The Duke started, as at an affront, and glared. Next moment, he saw the absurdity of the situation. He relapsed into his chair, smiling. "She's the Warden's niece," he said. "I dined at the Warden's last night."
Noaks sat still, peering across at the Duke. For the first time in his life, he was resentful of the Duke's great elegance and average stature, his high lineage and incomputable wealth. Hitherto, these things had been too remote for envy. But now, suddenly, they seemed near to him—nearer and more overpowering than the First in Mods had ever been. "And of course she's in love with you?" he snarled.
Really, this was for the Duke a new issue. So salient was his own passion that he had not had time to wonder whether it were returned. Zuleika's behaviour during dinner... But that was how so many young women had behaved. It was no sign of disinterested love. It might mean merely... Yet no! Surely, looking into her eyes, he had seen there a radiance finer than could have been lit by common ambition. Love, none other, must have lit in those purple depths the torches whose clear flames had leapt out to him. She loved him. She, the beautiful, the wonderful, had not tried to conceal her love for him. She had shown him all—had shown all, poor darling! only to be snubbed by a prig, driven away by a boor, fled from by a fool. To the nethermost corner of his soul, he cursed himself for what he had done, and for all he had left undone. He would go to her on his knees. He would implore her to impose on him insufferable penances. There was no penance, how bittersweet soever, could make him a little worthy of her.
"Come in!" he cried mechanically. Entered the landlady's daughter.
"A lady downstairs," she said, "asking to see your Grace. Says she'll step round again later if your Grace is busy."
"What is her name?" asked the Duke, vacantly. He was gazing at the girl with pain-shot eyes.
"Miss Zuleika Dobson," pronounced the girl.
"Show Miss Dobson up," he said.
Noaks had darted to the looking-glass and was smoothing his hair with a tremulous, enormous hand.
"Go!" said the Duke, pointing to the door. Noaks went, quickly. Echoes of his boots fell from the upper stairs and met the ascending susurrus of a silk skirt.
The lovers met. There was an interchange of ordinary greetings: from the Duke, a comment on the weather; from Zuleika, a hope that he was well again—they had been so sorry to lose him last night. Then came a pause. The landlady's daughter was clearing away the breakfast-things. Zuleika glanced comprehensively at the room, and the Duke gazed at the hearthrug. The landlady's daughter clattered out with her freight. They were alone.
"How pretty!" said Zuleika. She was looking at his star of the Garter, which sparkled from a litter of books and papers on a small side-table.
"Yes," he answered. "It is pretty, isn't it?"
"Awfully pretty!" she rejoined.
This dialogue led them to another hollow pause. The Duke's heart beat violently within him. Why had he not asked her to take the star and keep it as a gift? Too late now! Why could he not throw himself at her feet? Here were two beings, lovers of each other, with none by. And yet...
She was examining a water-colour on the wall, seemed to be absorbed by it. He watched her. She was even lovelier than he had remembered; or rather her loveliness had been, in some subtle way, transmuted. Something had given to her a graver, nobler beauty. Last night's nymph had become the Madonna of this morning. Despite her dress, which was of a tremendous tartan, she diffused the pale authentic radiance of a spirituality most high, most simple. The Duke wondered where lay the change in her. He could not understand. Suddenly she turned to him, and he understood. No longer the black pearl and the pink, but two white pearls!... He thrilled to his heart's core.
"I hope," said Zuleika, "you aren't awfully vexed with me for coming like this?"
"Not at all," said the Duke. "I am delighted to see you." How inadequate the words sounded, how formal and stupid!
"The fact is," she continued, "I don't know a soul in Oxford. And I thought perhaps you'd give me luncheon, and take me to see the boat-races. Will you?"
"I shall be charmed," he said, pulling the bell-rope. Poor fool! he attributed the shade of disappointment on Zuleika's face to the coldness of his tone. He would dispel that shade. He would avow himself. He would leave her no longer in this false position. So soon as he had told them about the meal, he would proclaim his passion.
The bell was answered by the landlady's daughter.
"Miss Dobson will stay to luncheon," said the Duke. The girl withdrew. He wished he could have asked her not to.
He steeled himself. "Miss Dobson," he said, "I wish to apologise to you."
Zuleika looked at him eagerly. "You can't give me luncheon? You've got something better to do?"
"No. I wish to ask you to forgive me for my behaviour last night."
"There is nothing to forgive."
"There is. My manners were vile. I know well what happened. Though you, too, cannot have forgotten, I won't spare myself the recital. You were my hostess, and I ignored you. Magnanimous, you paid me the prettiest compliment woman ever paid to man, and I insulted you. I left the house in order that I might not see you again. To the doorsteps down which he should have kicked me, your grandfather followed me with words of kindliest courtesy. If he had sped me with a kick so skilful that my skull had been shattered on the kerb, neither would he have outstepped those bounds set to the conduct of English gentlemen, nor would you have garnered more than a trifle on account of your proper reckoning. I do not say that you are the first person whom I have wantonly injured. But it is a fact that I, in whom pride has ever been the topmost quality, have never expressed sorrow to any one for anything. Thus, I might urge that my present abjectness must be intolerably painful to me, and should incline you to forgive. But such an argument were specious merely. I will be quite frank with you. I will confess to you that, in this humbling of myself before you, I take a pleasure as passionate as it is strange. A confusion of feelings? Yet you, with a woman's instinct, will have already caught the clue to it. It needs no mirror to assure me that the clue is here for you, in my eyes. It needs no dictionary of quotations to remind me that the eyes are the windows of the soul. And I know that from two open windows my soul has been leaning and signalling to you, in a code far more definitive and swifter than words of mine, that I love you."
Zuleika, listening to him, had grown gradually paler and paler. She had raised her hands and cowered as though he were about to strike her. And then, as he pronounced the last three words, she had clasped her hands to her face and with a wild sob darted away from him. She was leaning now against the window, her head bowed and her shoulders quivering.
The Duke came softly behind her. "Why should you cry? Why should you turn away from me? Did I frighten you with the suddenness of my words? I am not versed in the tricks of wooing. I should have been more patient. But I love you so much that I could hardly have waited. A secret hope that you loved me too emboldened me, compelled me. You DO love me. I know it. And, knowing it, I do but ask you to give yourself to me, to be my wife. Why should you cry? Why should you shrink from me? Dear, if there were anything... any secret... if you had ever loved and been deceived, do you think I should honour you the less deeply, should not cherish you the more tenderly? Enough for me, that you are mine. Do you think I should ever reproach you for anything that may have—"
Zuleika turned on him. "How dare you?" she gasped. "How dare you speak to me like that?"
The Duke reeled back. Horror had come into his eyes. "You do not love me!" he cried.
"LOVE you?" she retorted. "YOU?"
"You no longer love me. Why? Why?"
"What do you mean?"
"You loved me. Don't trifle with me. You came to me loving me with all your heart."
"How do you know?"
"Look in the glass." She went at his bidding. He followed her. "You see them?" he said, after a long pause. Zuleika nodded. The two pearls quivered to her nod.
"They were white when you came to me," he sighed. "They were white because you loved me. From them it was that I knew you loved me even as I loved you. But their old colours have come back to them. That is how I know that your love for me is dead."
Zuleika stood gazing pensively, twitching the two pearls between her fingers. Tears gathered in her eyes. She met the reflection of her lover's eyes, and her tears brimmed over. She buried her face in her hands, and sobbed like a child.
Like a child's, her sobbing ceased quite suddenly. She groped for her handkerchief, angrily dried her eyes, and straightened and smoothed herself.
"Now I'm going," she said.
"You came here of your own accord, because you loved me," said the Duke. "And you shall not go till you have told me why you have left off loving me."
"How did you know I loved you?" she asked after a pause. "How did you know I hadn't simply put on another pair of ear-rings?"
The Duke, with a melancholy laugh, drew the two studs from his waistcoat-pocket. "These are the studs I wore last night," he said.
Zuleika gazed at them. "I see," she said; then, looking up, "When did they become like that?"
"It was when you left the dining-room that I saw the change in them."
"How strange! It was when I went into the drawing-room that I noticed mine. I was looking in the glass, and"—She started. "Then you were in love with me last night?"
"I began to be in love with you from the moment I saw you."
"Then how could you have behaved as you did?"
"Because I was a pedant. I tried to ignore you, as pedants always do try to ignore any fact they cannot fit into their pet system. The basis of my pet system was celibacy. I don't mean the mere state of being a bachelor. I mean celibacy of the soul—egoism, in fact. You have converted me from that. I am now a confirmed tuist."
"How dared you insult me?" she cried, with a stamp of her foot. "How dared you make a fool of me before those people? Oh, it is too infamous!"
"I have already asked you to forgive me for that. You said there was nothing to forgive."
"I didn't dream that you were in love with me."
"What difference can that make?"
"All the difference! All the difference in life!"
"Sit down! You bewilder me," said the Duke. "Explain yourself!" he commanded.
"Isn't that rather much for a man to ask of a woman?"
"I don't know. I have no experience of women. In the abstract, it seems to me that every man has a right to some explanation from the woman who has ruined his life."
"You are frightfully sorry for yourself," said Zuleika, with a bitter laugh. "Of course it doesn't occur to you that I am at all to be pitied. No! you are blind with selfishness. You love me—I don't love you: that is all you can realise. Probably you think you are the first man who has ever fallen on such a plight."
Said the Duke, bowing over a deprecatory hand, "If there were to pass my window one tithe of them whose hearts have been lost to Miss Dobson, I should win no solace from that interminable parade."
Zuleika blushed. "Yet," she said more gently, "be sure they would all be not a little envious of YOU! Not one of them ever touched the surface of my heart. You stirred my heart to its very depths. Yes, you made me love you madly. The pearls told you no lie. You were my idol—the one thing in the wide world to me. You were so different from any man I had ever seen except in dreams. You did not make a fool of yourself. I admired you. I respected you. I was all afire with adoration of you. And now," she passed her hand across her eyes, "now it is all over. The idol has come sliding down its pedestal to fawn and grovel with all the other infatuates in the dust about my feet."
The Duke looked thoughtfully at her. "I thought," he said, "that you revelled in your power over men's hearts. I had always heard that you lived for admiration."
"Oh," said Zuleika, "of course I like being admired. Oh yes, I like all that very much indeed. In a way, I suppose, I'm even pleased that YOU admire me. But oh, what a little miserable pleasure that is in comparison with the rapture I have forfeited! I had never known the rapture of being in love. I had longed for it, but I had never guessed how wonderfully wonderful it was. It came to me. I shuddered and wavered like a fountain in the wind. I was more helpless and flew lightlier than a shred of thistledown among the stars. All night long, I could not sleep for love of you; nor had I any desire of sleep, save that it might take me to you in a dream. I remember nothing that happened to me this morning before I found myself at your door."
"Why did you ring the bell? Why didn't you walk away?"
"Why? I had come to see you, to be near you, to be WITH you."
"To force yourself on me."
"You know the meaning of the term 'effective occupation'? Having marched in, how could you have held your position, unless"—
"Oh, a man doesn't necessarily drive a woman away because he isn't in love with her."
"Yet that was what you thought I had done to you last night."
"Yes, but I didn't suppose you would take the trouble to do it again. And if you had, I should have only loved you the more. I thought you would most likely be rather amused, rather touched, by my importunity. I thought you would take a listless advantage, make a plaything of me—the diversion of a few idle hours in summer, and then, when you had tired of me, would cast me aside, forget me, break my heart. I desired nothing better than that. That is what I must have been vaguely hoping for. But I had no definite scheme. I wanted to be with you and I came to you. It seems years ago, now! How my heart beat as I waited on the doorstep! 'Is his Grace at home?' 'I don't know. I'll inquire. What name shall I say?' I saw in the girl's eyes that she, too, loved you. Have YOU seen that?"
"I have never looked at her," said the Duke.
"No wonder, then, that she loves you," sighed Zuleika. "She read my secret at a glance. Women who love the same man have a kind of bitter freemasonry. We resented each other. She envied me my beauty, my dress. I envied the little fool her privilege of being always near to you. Loving you, I could conceive no life sweeter than hers—to be always near you; to black your boots, carry up your coals, scrub your doorstep; always to be working for you, hard and humbly and without thanks. If you had refused to see me, I would have bribed that girl with all my jewels to cede me her position."
The Duke made a step towards her. "You would do it still," he said in a low voice.
Zuleika raised her eyebrows. "I would not offer her one garnet," she said, "now."
"You SHALL love me again," he cried. "I will force you to. You said just now that you had ceased to love me because I was just like other men. I am not. My heart is no tablet of mere wax, from which an instant's heat can dissolve whatever impress it may bear, leaving it blank and soft for another impress, and another, and another. My heart is a bright hard gem, proof against any die. Came Cupid, with one of his arrow-points for graver, and what he cut on the gem's surface never can be effaced. There, deeply and forever, your image is intagliated. No years, nor fires, nor cataclysm of total Nature, can efface from that great gem your image."
"My dear Duke," said Zuleika, "don't be so silly. Look at the matter sensibly. I know that lovers don't try to regulate their emotions according to logic; but they do, nevertheless, unconsciously conform with some sort of logical system. I left off loving you when I found that you loved me. There is the premiss. Very well! Is it likely that I shall begin to love you again because you can't leave off loving me?"
The Duke groaned. There was a clatter of plates outside, and she whom Zuleika had envied came to lay the table for luncheon.
A smile flickered across Zuleika's lips; and "Not one garnet!" she murmured.
Luncheon passed in almost unbroken silence. Both Zuleika and the Duke were ravenously hungry, as people always are after the stress of any great emotional crisis. Between them, they made very short work of a cold chicken, a salad, a gooseberry-tart and a Camembert. The Duke filled his glass again and again. The cold classicism of his face had been routed by the new romantic movement which had swept over his soul. He looked two or three months older than when first I showed him to my reader.
He drank his coffee at one draught, pushed back his chair, threw away the cigarette he had just lit. "Listen!" he said.
Zuleika folded her hands on her lap.
"You do not love me. I accept as final your hint that you never will love me. I need not say—could not, indeed, ever say—how deeply, deeply you have pained me. As lover, I am rejected. But that rejection," he continued, striking the table, "is no stopper to my suit. It does but drive me to the use of arguments. My pride shrinks from them. Love, however, is greater than pride; and I, John, Albert, Edward, Claude, Orde, Angus, Tankerton,* Tanville-Tankerton,** fourteenth Duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap, and Baron Wolock, in the Peerage of England, offer you my hand. Do not interrupt me. Do not toss your head. Consider well what I am saying. Weigh the advantages you would gain by acceptance of my hand. Indeed, they are manifold and tremendous. They are also obvious: do not shut your eyes to them. You, Miss Dobson, what are you? A conjurer, and a vagrant; without means, save such as you can earn by the sleight of your hand; without position; without a home; all unguarded but by your own self-respect. That you follow an honourable calling, I do not for one moment deny. I do, however, ask you to consider how great are its perils and hardships, its fatigues and inconveniences. From all these evils I offer you instant refuge. I offer you, Miss Dobson, a refuge more glorious and more augustly gilded than you, in your airiest flights of fancy, can ever have hoped for or imagined. I own about 340,000 acres. My town-residence is in St. James's Square. Tankerton, of which you may have seen photographs, is the chief of my country-seats. It is a Tudor house, set on the ridge of a valley. The valley, its park, is halved by a stream so narrow that the deer leap across. The gardens are estraded upon the slope. Round the house runs a wide paven terrace. There are always two or three peacocks trailing their sheathed feathers along the balustrade, and stepping how stiffly! as though they had just been unharnessed from Juno's chariot. Two flights of shallow steps lead down to the flowers and fountains. Oh, the gardens are wonderful. There is a Jacobean garden of white roses. Between the ends of two pleached alleys, under a dome of branches, is a little lake, with a Triton of black marble, and with water-lilies. Hither and thither under the archipelago of water-lilies, dart gold-fish—tongues of flame in the dark water. There is also a long strait alley of clipped yew. It ends in an alcove for a pagoda of painted porcelain which the Prince Regent—peace be to his ashes!—presented to my great-grandfather. There are many twisting paths, and sudden aspects, and devious, fantastic arbours. Are you fond of horses? In my stables of pine-wood and plated-silver seventy are installed. Not all of them together could vie in power with one of the meanest of my motor-cars."
*Pronounced as Tacton.
**Pronounced as Tavvle-Tacton.
"Oh, I never go in motors," said Zuleika. "They make one look like nothing on earth, and like everybody else."
"I myself," said the Duke, "use them little for that very reason. Are you interested in farming? At Tankerton there is a model farm which would at any rate amuse you, with its heifers and hens and pigs that are like so many big new toys. There is a tiny dairy, which is called 'Her Grace's.' You could make, therein, real butter with your own hands, and round it into little pats, and press every pat with a different device. The boudoir that would be yours is a blue room. Four Watteaus hang in it. In the dining-hall hang portraits of my forefathers—in petto, your forefathers-in-law—by many masters. Are you fond of peasants? My tenantry are delightful creatures, and there is not one of them who remembers the bringing of the news of the Battle of Waterloo. When a new Duchess is brought to Tankerton, the oldest elm in the park must be felled. That is one of many strange old customs. As she is driven through the village, the children of the tenantry must strew the road with daisies. The bridal chamber must be lighted with as many candles as years have elapsed since the creation of the Dukedom. If you came into it, there would be"—and the youth, closing his eyes, made a rapid calculation—"exactly three hundred and eighty-eight candles. On the eve of the death of a Duke of Dorset, two black owls come and perch on the battlements. They remain there through the night, hooting. At dawn they fly away, none knows whither. On the eve of the death of any other Tanville-Tankerton, comes (no matter what be the time of year) a cuckoo. It stays for an hour, cooing, then flies away, none knows whither. Whenever this portent occurs, my steward telegraphs to me, that I, as head of the family, be not unsteeled against the shock of a bereavement, and that my authority be sooner given for the unsealing and garnishing of the family-vault. Not every forefather of mine rests quiet beneath his escutcheoned marble. There are they who revisit, in their wrath or their remorse, the places wherein erst they suffered or wrought evil. There is one who, every Halloween, flits into the dining-hall, and hovers before the portrait which Hans Holbein made of him, and flings his diaphanous grey form against the canvas, hoping, maybe, to catch from it the fiery flesh-tints and the solid limbs that were his, and so to be re-incarnate. He flies against the painting, only to find himself t'other side of the wall it hangs on. There are five ghosts permanently residing in the right wing of the house, two in the left, and eleven in the park. But all are quite noiseless and quite harmless. My servants, when they meet them in the corridors or on the stairs, stand aside to let them pass, thus paying them the respect due to guests of mine; but not even the rawest housemaid ever screams or flees at sight of them. I, their host, often waylay them and try to commune with them; but always they glide past me. And how gracefully they glide, these ghosts! It is a pleasure to watch them. It is a lesson in deportment. May they never be laid! Of all my household-pets, they are the dearest to me. I am Duke of Strathsporran and Cairngorm, Marquis of Sorby, and Earl Cairngorm, in the Peerage of Scotland. In the glens of the hills about Strathsporran are many noble and nimble stags. But I have never set foot in my house there, for it is carpeted throughout with the tartan of my clan. You seem to like tartan. What tartan is it you are wearing?"
Zuleika looked down at her skirt. "I don't know," she said. "I got it in Paris."
"Well," said the Duke, "it is very ugly. The Dalbraith tartan is harmonious in comparison, and has, at least, the excuse of history. If you married me, you would have the right to wear it. You would have many strange and fascinating rights. You would go to Court. I admit that the Hanoverian Court is not much. Still, it is better than nothing. At your presentation, moreover, you would be given the entree. Is that nothing to you? You would be driven to Court in my statecoach. It is swung so high that the streetsters can hardly see its occupant. It is lined with rose-silk; and on its panels, and on its hammer-cloth, my arms are emblazoned—no one has ever been able to count the quarterings. You would be wearing the family-jewels, reluctantly surrendered to you by my aunt. They are many and marvellous, in their antique settings. I don't want to brag. It humiliates me to speak to you as I am speaking. But I am heart-set on you, and to win you there is not a precious stone I would leave unturned. Conceive a parure all of white stones—diamonds, white sapphires, white topazes, tourmalines. Another, of rubies and amethysts, set in gold filigree. Rings that once were poison-combs on Florentine fingers. Red roses for your hair—every petal a hollowed ruby. Amulets and ape-buckles, zones and fillets. Aye! know that you would be weeping for wonder before you had seen a tithe of these gauds. Know, too, Miss Dobson, that in the Peerage of France I am Duc d'Etretat et de la Roche Guillaume. Louis Napoleon gave the title to my father for not cutting him in the Bois. I have a house in the Champs Elysees. There is a Swiss in its courtyard. He stands six-foot-seven in his stockings, and the chasseurs are hardly less tall than he. Wherever I go, there are two chefs in my retinue. Both are masters in their art, and furiously jealous of each other. When I compliment either of them on some dish, the other challenges him. They fight with rapiers, next morning, in the garden of whatever house I am occupying. I do not know whether you are greedy? If so, it may interest you to learn that I have a third chef, who makes only souffles, and an Italian pastry-cook; to say nothing of a Spaniard for salads, an Englishwoman for roasts, and an Abyssinian for coffee. You found no trace of their handiwork in the meal you have just had with me? No; for in Oxford it is a whim of mine—I may say a point of honour—to lead the ordinary life of an undergraduate. What I eat in this room is cooked by the heavy and unaided hand of Mrs. Batch, my landlady. It is set before me by the unaided and—or are you in error?—loving hand of her daughter. Other ministers have I none here. I dispense with my private secretaries. I am unattended by a single valet. So simple a way of life repels you? You would never be called upon to share it. If you married me, I should take my name off the books of my College. I propose that we should spend our honeymoon at Baiae. I have a villa at Baiae. It is there that I keep my grandfather's collection of majolica. The sun shines there always. A long olive-grove secretes the garden from the sea. When you walk in the garden, you know the sea only in blue glimpses through the vacillating leaves. White-gleaming from the bosky shade of this grove are several goddesses. Do you care for Canova? I don't myself. If you do, these figures will appeal to you: they are in his best manner. Do you love the sea? This is not the only house of mine that looks out on it. On the coast of County Clare—am I not Earl of Enniskerry and Baron Shandrin in the Peerage of Ireland?—I have an ancient castle. Sheer from a rock stands it, and the sea has always raged up against its walls. Many ships lie wrecked under that loud implacable sea. But mine is a brave strong castle. No storm affrights it; and not the centuries, clustering houris, with their caresses can seduce it from its hard austerity. I have several titles which for the moment escape me. Baron Llffthwchl am I, and... and... but you can find them for yourself in Debrett. In me you behold a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Look well at me! I am Hereditary Comber of the Queen's Lap-Dogs. I am young. I am handsome. My temper is sweet, and my character without blemish. In fine, Miss Dobson, I am a most desirable parti."