Zuleika Dobson/Chapter 23
Twisting and turning in her flight, with wild eyes that fearfully retained the image of that small man gathering himself to spring, Zuleika found herself suddenly where she could no further go.
She was in that grim ravine by which you approach New College. At sight of the great shut gate before her, she halted, and swerved to the wall. She set her brow and the palms of her hands against the cold stones. She threw back her head, and beat the stones with her fists.
It was not only what she had seen, it was what she had barely saved herself from seeing, and what she had not quite saved herself from hearing, that she strove so piteously to forget. She was sorrier for herself, angrier, than she had been last night when the Duke laid hands on her. Why should every day have a horrible ending? Last night she had avenged herself. To-night's outrage was all the more foul and mean because of its certain immunity. And the fact that she had in some measure brought it on herself did but whip her rage. What a fool she had been to taunt the man! Yet no, how could she have foreseen that he would—do THAT? How could she have guessed that he, who had not dared seemly death for her in the gentle river, would dare—THAT?
She shuddered the more as she now remembered that this very day, in that very house, she had invited for her very self a similar fate. What if the Duke had taken her word? Strange! she wouldn't have flinched then. She had felt no horror at the notion of such a death. And thus she now saw Noaks' conduct in a new light—saw that he had but wished to prove his love, not at all to affront her. This understanding quickly steadied her nerves. She did not need now to forget what she had seen; and, not needing to forget it—thus are our brains fashioned—she was able to forget it.
But by removal of one load her soul was but bared for a more grievous other. Her memory harked back to what had preceded the crisis. She recalled those moments of doomed rapture in which her heart had soared up to the apocalyptic window—recalled how, all the while she was speaking to the man there, she had been chafed by the inadequacy of language. Oh, how much more she had meant than she could express! Oh, the ecstasy of that self-surrender! And the brevity of it! the sudden odious awakening! Thrice in this Oxford she had been duped. Thrice all that was fine and sweet in her had leapt forth, only to be scourged back into hiding. Poor heart inhibited! She gazed about her. The stone alley she had come into, the terrible shut gate, were for her a visible symbol of the destiny she had to put up with. Wringing her hands, she hastened along the way she had come. She vowed she would never again set foot in Oxford. She wished herself out of the hateful little city to-night. She even wished herself dead.
She deserved to suffer, you say? Maybe. I merely state that she did suffer.
Emerging into Catherine Street, she knew whereabouts she was, and made straight for Judas, turning away her eyes as she skirted the Broad, that place of mocked hopes and shattered ideals.
Coming into Judas Street, she remembered the scene of yesterday—the happy man with her, the noise of the vast happy crowd. She suffered in a worse form what she had suffered in the gallery of the Hall. For now—did I not say she was not without imagination?—her self-pity was sharpened by remorse for the hundreds of homes robbed. She realised the truth of what the poor Duke had once said to her: she was a danger in the world . . . Aye, and all the more dire now. What if the youth of all Europe were moved by Oxford's example? That was a horribly possible thing. It must be reckoned with. It must be averted. She must not show herself to men. She must find some hiding-place, and there abide. Were this a hardship? she asked herself. Was she not sickened for ever of men's homage? And was it not clear now that the absorbing need in her soul, the need to love, would never—except for a brief while, now and then, and by an unfortunate misunderstanding—be fulfilled?
So long ago that you may not remember, I compared her favourably with the shepherdess Marcella, and pleaded her capacity for passion as an excuse for her remaining at large. I hope you will now, despite your rather evident animus against her, set this to her credit: that she did, so soon as she realised the hopelessness of her case, make just that decision which I blamed Marcella for not making at the outset. It was as she stood on the Warden's door-step that she decided to take the veil.
With something of a conventual hush in her voice, she said to the butler, "Please tell my maid that we are leaving by a very early train to-morrow, and that she must pack my things to-night."
"Very well, Miss," said the butler. "The Warden," he added, "is in the study, Miss, and was asking for you."
She could face her grandfather without a tremour—now. She would hear meekly whatever reproaches he might have for her, but their sting was already drawn by the surprise she had in store for him.
It was he who seemed a trifle nervous. In his
"Well, did you come and peep down from the gallery?" there was a distinct tremour.
Throwing aside her cloak, she went quickly to him, and laid a hand on the lapel of his coat. "Poor grand-papa!" she said.
"Nonsense, my dear child," he replied, disengaging himself. "I didn't give it a thought. If the young men chose to be so silly as to stay away, I—I--"
"Grand-papa, haven't you been told YET?"
"Told? I am a Gallio for such follies. I didn't inquire."
"But (forgive me, grand-papa, if I seem to you, for the moment, pert) you are Warden here. It is your duty, even your privilege, to GUARD. Is it not? Well, I grant you the adage that it is useless to bolt the stable door when the horse has been stolen. But what shall be said of the ostler who doesn't know—won't even 'inquire' whether—the horse HAS been stolen, grand-papa?"
"You speak in riddles, Zuleika."
"I wish with all my heart I need not tell you the answers. I think I have a very real grievance against your staff—or whatever it is you call your subordinates here. I go so far as to dub them dodderers. And I shall the better justify that term by not shirking the duty they have left undone. The reason why there were no undergraduates in your Hall to-night is that they were all dead."
"Dead?" he gasped. "Dead? It is disgraceful that I was not told. What did they die of?"
"Yes. I am an epidemic, grand-papa, a scourge, such as the world has not known. Those young men drowned themselves for love of me."
He came towards her. "Do you realise, girl, what this means to me? I am an old man. For more than half a century I have known this College. To it, when my wife died, I gave all that there was of heart left in me. For thirty years I have been Warden; and in that charge has been all my pride. I have had no thought but for this great College, its honour and prosperity. More than once lately have I asked myself whether my eyes were growing dim, my hand less steady. 'No' was my answer, and again 'No.' And thus it is that I have lingered on to let Judas be struck down from its high eminence, shamed in the eyes of England—a College for ever tainted, and of evil omen." He raised his head. "The disgrace to myself is nothing. I care not how parents shall rage against me, and the Heads of other Colleges make merry over my decrepitude. It is because you have wrought the downfall of Judas that I am about to lay my undying curse on you."
"You mustn't do that!" she cried. "It would be a sort of sacrilege. I am going to be a nun. Besides, why should you? I can quite well understand your feeling for Judas. But how is Judas more disgraced than any other College? If it were only the Judas undergraduates who had—"
"There were others?" cried the Warden. "How many?"
"All. All the boys from all the Colleges."
The Warden heaved a deep sigh. "Of course," he said, "this changes the aspect of the whole matter. I wish you had made it clear at once. You gave me a very great shock," he said sinking into his arm-chair, "and I have not yet recovered. You must study the art of exposition."
"That will depend on the rules of the convent."
"Ah, I forgot that you were going into a convent. Anglican, I hope?"
Anglican, she supposed.
"As a young man," he said, "I saw much of dear old Dr. Pusey. It might have somewhat reconciled him to my marriage if he had known that my grand-daughter would take the veil." He adjusted his glasses, and looked at her. "Are you sure you have a vocation?"
"Yes. I want to be out of the world. I want to do no more harm."
He eyed her musingly. "That," he said, "is rather a revulsion than a vocation. I remember that I ventured to point out to Dr. Pusey the difference between those two things, when he was almost persuading me to enter a Brotherhood founded by one of his friends. It may be that the world would be well rid of you, my dear child. But it is not the world only that we must consider. Would you grace the recesses of the Church?"
"I could but try," said Zuleika.
"'You could but try' are the very words Dr. Pusey used to me. I ventured to say that in such a matter effort itself was a stigma of unfitness. For all my moods of revulsion, I knew that my place was in the world. I stayed there."
"But suppose, grand-papa"—and, seeing in fancy the vast agitated flotilla of crinolines, she could not forbear a smile—"suppose all the young ladies of that period had drowned themselves for love of you?"
Her smile seemed to nettle the Warden. "I was greatly admired," he said. "Greatly," he repeated.
"And you liked that, grand-papa?"
"Yes, my dear. Yes, I am afraid I did. But I never encouraged it."
"Your own heart was never touched?"
"Never, until I met Laura Frith."
"Who was she?"
"She was my future wife."
"And how was it you singled her out from the rest? Was she very beautiful?"
"No. It cannot be said that she was beautiful. Indeed, she was accounted plain. I think it was her great dignity that attracted me. She did not smile archly at me, nor shake her ringlets. In those days it was the fashion for young ladies to embroider slippers for such men in holy orders as best pleased their fancy. I received hundreds— thousands—of such slippers. But never a pair from Laura Frith."
"She did not love you?" asked Zuleika, who had seated herself on the floor at her grandfather's feet.
I concluded that she did not. It interested me very greatly. It fired me."
"Was she incapable of love?"
"No, it was notorious in her circle that she had loved often, but loved in vain."
"Why did she marry you?"
"I think she was fatigued by my importunities. She was not very strong. But it may be that she married me out of pique. She never told me. I did not inquire."
"Yet you were very happy with her?"
"While she lived, I was ideally happy."
The young woman stretched out a hand, and laid it on the clasped hands of the old man. He sat gazing into the past. She was silent for a while; and in her eyes, still fixed intently on his face, there were tears.
"Grand-papa dear"—but there were tears in her voice, too.
"My child, you don't understand. If I had needed pity—"
"I do understand—so well. I wasn't pitying you, dear, I was envying you a little."
"Me?—an old man with only the remembrance of happiness?"
"You, who have had happiness granted to you. That isn't what made me cry, though. I cried because I was glad. You and I, with all this great span of years between us, and yet—so wonderfully alike! I had always thought of myself as a creature utterly apart."
"Ah, that is how all young people think of themselves. It wears off. Tell me about this wonderful resemblance of ours."
He sat attentive while she described her heart to him. But when, at the close of her confidences, she said, "So you see it's a case of sheer heredity, grand-papa," the word "Fiddlesticks!" would out.
"Forgive me, my dear," he said, patting her hand. "I was very much interested. But I do believe young people are even more staggered by themselves than they were in my day. And then, all these grand theories they fall back on! Heredity . . . as if there were something to baffle us in the fact of a young woman liking to be admired! And as if it were passing strange of her to reserve her heart for a man she can respect and look up to! And as if a man's indifference to her were not of all things the likeliest to give her a sense of inferiority to him! You and I, my dear, may in some respects be very queer people, but in the matter of the affections we are ordinary enough."
"Oh grand-papa, do you really mean that?" she cried eagerly.
"At my age, a man husbands his resources. He says nothing that he does not really mean. The indifference between you and other young women is that which lay also between me and other young men: a special attractiveness . . . Thousands of slippers, did I say? Tens of thousands. I had hoarded them with a fatuous pride. On the evening of my betrothal I made a bonfire of them, visible from three counties. I danced round it all night." And from his old eyes darted even now the reflections of those flames.
"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.
"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."