Zuleika Dobson/Chapter 9

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Across the Front Quadrangle, heedless of the great crowd to right and left, Dorset rushed. Up the stone steps to the Hall he bounded, and only on the Hall's threshold was he brought to a pause. The doorway was blocked by the backs of youths who had by hook and crook secured standing-room. The whole scene was surprisingly unlike that of the average College concert.

"Let me pass," said the Duke, rather breathlessly. "Thank you. Make way please. Thanks." And with quick-pulsing heart he made his way down the aisle to the front row. There awaited him a surprise that was like a douche of cold water full in his face. Zuleika was not there! It had never occurred to him that she herself might not be punctual.

The Warden was there, reading his programme with an air of great solemnity. "Where," asked the Duke, "is your grand-daughter?" His tone was as of a man saying "If she is dead, don't break it gently to me."

"My grand-daughter?" said the Warden. "Ah, Duke, good evening."

"She's not ill?"

"Oh no, I think not. She said something about changing the dress she wore at dinner. She will come." And the Warden thanked his young friend for the great kindness he had shown to Zuleika. He hoped the Duke had not let her worry him with her artless prattle. "She seems to be a good, amiable girl," he added, in his detached way.

Sitting beside him, the Duke looked curiously at the venerable profile, as at a mummy's. To think that this had once been a man! To think that his blood flowed in the veins of Zuleika! Hitherto the Duke had seen nothing grotesque in him—had regarded him always as a dignified specimen of priest and scholar. Such a life as the Warden's, year following year in ornamental seclusion from the follies and fusses of the world, had to the Duke seemed rather admirable and enviable. Often he himself had (for a minute or so) meditated taking a fellowship at All Souls and spending here in Oxford the greater part of his life. He had never been young, and it never had occurred to him that the Warden had been young once. To-night he saw the old man in a new light—saw that he was mad. Here was a man who—for had he not married and begotten a child?—must have known, in some degree, the emotion of love. How, after that, could he have gone on thus, year by year, rusting among his books, asking no favour of life, waiting for death without a sign of impatience? Why had he not killed himself long ago? Why cumbered he the earth?

On the dais an undergraduate was singing a song entitled "She Loves Not Me." Such plaints are apt to leave us unharrowed. Across the footlights of an opera-house, the despair of some Italian tenor in red tights and a yellow wig may be convincing enough. Not so, at a concert, the despair of a shy British amateur in evening dress. The undergraduate on the dais, fumbling with his sheet of music while he predicted that only when he were "laid within the church-yard cold and grey" would his lady begin to pity him, seemed to the Duke rather ridiculous; but not half so ridiculous as the Warden. This fictitious love-affair was less nugatory than the actual humdrum for which Dr. Dobson had sold his soul to the devil. Also, little as one might suspect it, the warbler was perhaps expressing a genuine sentiment. Zuleika herself, belike, was in his thoughts.

As he began the second stanza, predicting that when his lady died too the angels of heaven would bear her straight to him, the audience heard a loud murmur, or subdued roar, outside the Hall. And after a few bars the warbler suddenly ceased, staring straight in front of him as though he saw a vision. Automatically, all heads veered in the direction of his gaze. From the entrance, slowly along the aisle, came Zuleika, brilliant in black.

To the Duke, who had rapturously risen, she nodded and smiled as she swerved down on the chair beside him. She looked to him somehow different. He had quite forgiven her for being late: her mere presence was a perfect excuse. And the very change in her, though he could not define it, was somehow pleasing to him. He was about to question her, but she shook her head and held up to her lips a black-gloved forefinger, enjoining silence for the singer, who, with dogged British pluck, had harked back to the beginning of the second stanza. When his task was done and he shuffled down from the dais, he received a great ovation. Zuleika, in the way peculiar to persons who are in the habit of appearing before the public, held her hands well above the level of her brow, and clapped them with a vigour demonstrative not less of her presence than of her delight.

"And now," she asked, turning to the Duke, "do you see? do you see?"

"Something, yes. But what?"

"Isn't it plain?" Lightly she touched the lobe of her left ear. "Aren't you flattered?"

He knew now what made the difference. It was that her little face was flanked by two black pearls.

"Think," said she, "how deeply I must have been brooding over you since we parted!"

"Is this really," he asked, pointing to the left ear-ring, "the pearl you wore to-day?"

"Yes. Isn't it strange? A man ought to be pleased when a woman goes quite unconsciously into mourning for him—goes just because she really does mourn him."

"I am more than pleased. I am touched. When did the change come?"

"I don't know. I only noticed it after dinner, when I saw myself in the mirror. All through dinner I had been thinking of you and of— well, of to-morrow. And this dear sensitive pink pearl had again expressed my soul. And there was I, in a yellow gown with green embroideries, gay as a jacamar, jarring hideously on myself. I covered my eyes and rushed upstairs, rang the bell and tore my things off. My maid was very cross."

Cross! The Duke was shot through with envy of one who was in a position to be unkind to Zuleika. "Happy maid!" he murmured. Zuleika replied that he was stealing her thunder: hadn't she envied the girl at his lodgings? "But I," she said, "wanted only to serve you in meekness. The idea of ever being pert to you didn't enter into my head. You show a side of your character as unpleasing as it was unforeseen."

"Perhaps then," said the Duke, "it is as well that I am going to die." She acknowledged his rebuke with a pretty gesture of penitence. "You may have been faultless in love," he added; "but you would not have laid down your life for me."

"Oh," she answered, "wouldn't I though? You don't know me. That is just the sort of thing I should have loved to do. I am much more romantic than you are, really. I wonder," she said, glancing at his breast, "if YOUR pink pearl would have turned black? And I wonder if YOU would have taken the trouble to change that extraordinary coat you are wearing?"

In sooth, no costume could have been more beautifully Cimmerian than Zuleika's. And yet, thought the Duke, watching her as the concert proceeded, the effect of her was not lugubrious. Her darkness shone. The black satin gown she wore was a stream of shifting high-lights. Big black diamonds were around her throat and wrists, and tiny black diamonds starred the fan she wielded. In her hair gleamed a great raven's wing. And brighter, brighter than all these were her eyes. Assuredly no, there was nothing morbid about her. Would one even (wondered the Duke, for a disloyal instant) go so far as to say she was heartless? Ah no, she was merely strong. She was one who could tread the tragic plane without stumbling, and be resilient in the valley of the shadow. What she had just said was no more than the truth: she would have loved to die for him, had he not forfeited her heart. She would have asked no tears. That she had none to shed for him now, that she did but share his exhilaration, was the measure of her worthiness to have the homage of his self-slaughter.

"By the way," she whispered, "I want to ask one little favour of you. Will you, please, at the last moment to-morrow, call out my name in a loud voice, so that every one around can hear?"

"Of course I will."

"So that no one shall ever be able to say it wasn't for me that you died, you know."

"May I use simply your Christian name?"

"Yes, I really don't see why you shouldn't—at such a moment."

"Thank you." His face glowed.

Thus did they commune, these two, radiant without and within. And behind them, throughout the Hall, the undergraduates craned their necks for a glimpse. The Duke's piano solo, which was the last item in the first half of the programme, was eagerly awaited. Already, whispered first from the lips of Oover and the others who had come on from the Junta, the news of his resolve had gone from ear to ear among the men. He, for his part, had forgotten the scene at the Junta, the baleful effect of his example. For him the Hall was a cave of solitude —no one there but Zuleika and himself. Yet almost, like the late Mr. John Bright, he heard in the air the beating of the wings of the Angel of Death. Not awful wings; little wings that sprouted from the shoulders of a rosy and blindfold child. Love and Death—for him they were exquisitely one. And it seemed to him, when his turn came to play, that he floated, rather than walked, to the dais.

He had not considered what he would play tonight. Nor, maybe, was he conscious now of choosing. His fingers caressed the keyboard vaguely; and anon this ivory had voice and language; and for its master, and for some of his hearers, arose a vision. And it was as though in delicate procession, very slowly, listless with weeping, certain figures passed by, hooded, and drooping forasmuch as by the loss of him whom they were following to his grave their own hold on life had been loosened. He had been so beautiful and young. Lo, he was but a burden to be carried hence, dust to be hidden out of sight. Very slowly, very wretchedly they went by. But, as they went, another feeling, faint at first, an all but imperceptible current, seemed to flow through the procession; and now one, now another of the mourners would look wanly up, with cast-back hood, as though listening; and anon all were listening on their way, first in wonder, then in rapture; for the soul of their friend was singing to them: they heard his voice, but clearer and more blithe than they had ever known it—a voice etherealised by a triumph of joy that was not yet for them to share. But presently the voice receded, its echoes dying away into the sphere whence it came. It ceased; and the mourners were left alone again with their sorrow, and passed on all unsolaced, and drooping, weeping.

Soon after the Duke had begun to play, an invisible figure came and stood by and listened; a frail man, dressed in the fashion of 1840; the shade of none other than Frederic Chopin. Behind whom, a moment later, came a woman of somewhat masculine aspect and dominant demeanour, mounting guard over him, and, as it were, ready to catch him if he fell. He bowed his head lower and lower, he looked up with an ecstasy more and more intense, according to the procedure of his Marche Funebre. And among the audience, too, there was a bowing and uplifting of heads, just as among the figures of the mourners evoked. Yet the head of the player himself was all the while erect, and his face glad and serene. Nobly sensitive as was his playing of the mournful passages, he smiled brilliantly through them.

And Zuleika returned his gaze with a smile not less gay. She was not sure what he was playing. But she assumed that it was for her, and that the music had some reference to his impending death. She was one of the people who say "I don't know anything about music really, but I know what I like." And she liked this; and she beat time to it with her fan. She thought her Duke looked very handsome. She was proud of him. Strange that this time yesterday she had been wildly in love with him! Strange, too, that this time to-morrow he would be dead! She was immensely glad she had saved him this afternoon. To-morrow! There came back to her what he had told her about the omen at Tankerton, that stately home: "On the eve of the death of a Duke of Dorset, two black owls come always and perch on the battlements. They remain there through the night, hooting. At dawn they fly away, none knows whither." Perhaps, thought she, at this very moment these two birds were on the battlements.

The music ceased. In the hush that followed it, her applause rang sharp and notable. Not so Chopin's. Of him and his intense excitement none but his companion was aware. "Plus fin que Pachmann!" he reiterated, waving his arms wildly, and dancing.

"Tu auras une migraine affreuse. Rentrons, petit coeur!" said George Sand, gently but firmly.

"Laisse-moi le saluer," cried the composer, struggling in her grasp.

"Demain soir, oui. Il sera parmi nous," said the novelist, as she hurried him away. "Moi aussi," she added to herself, "je me promets un beau plaisir en faisant la connaissance de ce jeune homme."

Zuleika was the first to rise as "ce jeune homme" came down from the dais. Now was the interval between the two parts of the programme. There was a general creaking and scraping of pushed-back chairs as the audience rose and went forth into the night. The noise aroused from sleep the good Warden, who, having peered at his programme, complimented the Duke with old-world courtesy and went to sleep again. Zuleika, thrusting her fan under one arm, shook the player by both hands. Also, she told him that she knew nothing about music really, but that she knew what she liked. As she passed with him up the aisle, she said this again. People who say it are never tired of saying it.

Outside, the crowd was greater than ever. All the undergraduates from all the Colleges seemed now to be concentrated in the great Front Quadrangle of Judas. Even in the glow of the Japanese lanterns that hung around in honour of the concert, the faces of the lads looked a little pale. For it was known by all now that the Duke was to die. Even while the concert was in progress, the news had spread out from the Hall, through the thronged doorway, down the thronged steps, to the confines of the crowd. Nor had Oover and the other men from the Junta made any secret of their own determination. And now, as the rest saw Zuleika yet again at close quarters, and verified their remembrance of her, the half-formed desire in them to die too was hardened to a vow.

You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved, by this time, some real progress towards civilisation. Segregate him, and he is no fool. But let him loose among his fellows, and he is lost—he becomes just an unit in unreason. If any one of the undergraduates had met Miss Dobson in the desert of Sahara, he would have fallen in love with her; but not one in a thousand of them would have wished to die because she did not love him. The Duke's was a peculiar case. For him to fall in love was itself a violent peripety, bound to produce a violent upheaval; and such was his pride that for his love to be unrequited would naturally enamour him of death. These other, these quite ordinary, young men were the victims less of Zuleika than of the Duke's example, and of one another. A crowd, proportionately to its size, magnifies all that in its units pertains to the emotions, and diminishes all that in them pertains to thought. It was because these undergraduates were a crowd that their passion for Zuleika was so intense; and it was because they were a crowd that they followed so blindly the lead given to them. To die for Miss Dobson was "the thing to do." The Duke was going to do it. The Junta was going to do it. It is a hateful fact, but we must face the fact, that snobbishness was one of the springs to the tragedy here chronicled.

We may set to this crowd's credit that it refrained now from following Zuleika. Not one of the ladies present was deserted by her escort. All the men recognised the Duke's right to be alone with Zuleika now. We may set also to their credit that they carefully guarded the ladies from all knowledge of what was afoot.

Side by side, the great lover and his beloved wandered away, beyond the light of the Japanese lanterns, and came to Salt Cellar.

The moon, like a gardenia in the night's button-hole—but no! why should a writer never be able to mention the moon without likening her to something else—usually something to which she bears not the faintest resemblance? . . . The moon, looking like nothing whatsoever but herself, was engaged in her old and futile endeavour to mark the hours correctly on the sun-dial at the centre of the lawn. Never, except once, late one night in the eighteenth century, when the toper who was Sub-Warden had spent an hour in trying to set his watch here, had she received the slightest encouragement. Still she wanly persisted. And this was the more absurd in her because Salt Cellar offered very good scope for those legitimate effects of hers which we one and all admire. Was it nothing to her to have cut those black shadows across the cloisters? Was it nothing to her that she so magically mingled her rays with the candle-light shed forth from Zuleika's bedroom? Nothing, that she had cleansed the lawn of all its colour, and made of it a platform of silver-grey, fit for fairies to dance on?

If Zuleika, as she paced the gravel path, had seen how transfigured— how nobly like the Tragic Muse—she was just now, she could not have gone on bothering the Duke for a keepsake of the tragedy that was to be.

She was still set on having his two studs. He was still firm in his refusal to misappropriate those heirlooms. In vain she pointed out to him that the pearls he meant, the white ones, no longer existed; that the pearls he was wearing were no more "entailed" than if he had got them yesterday. "And you actually DID get them yesterday," she said. "And from me. And I want them back."

"You are ingenious," he admitted. "I, in my simple way, am but head of the Tanville-Tankerton family. Had you accepted my offer of marriage, you would have had the right to wear these two pearls during your life-time. I am very happy to die for you. But tamper with the property of my successor I cannot and will not. I am sorry," he added.

"Sorry!" echoed Zuleika. "Yes, and you were 'sorry' you couldn't dine with me to-night. But any little niggling scruple is more to you than I am. What old maids men are!" And viciously with her fan she struck one of the cloister pillars.

Her outburst was lost on the Duke. At her taunt about his not dining with her, he had stood still, clapping one hand to his brow. The events of the early evening swept back to him—his speech, its unforeseen and horrible reception. He saw again the preternaturally solemn face of Oover, and the flushed faces of the rest. He had thought, as he pointed down to the abyss over which he stood, these fellows would recoil, and pull themselves together. They had recoiled, and pulled themselves together, only in the manner of athletes about to spring. He was responsible for them. His own life was his to lose: others he must not squander. Besides, he had reckoned to die alone, unique; aloft and apart . . . "There is something—something I had forgotten," he said to Zuleika, "something that will be a great shock to you"; and he gave her an outline of what had passed at the Junta.

"And you are sure they really MEANT it?" she asked in a voice that trembled.

"I fear so. But they were over-excited. They will recant their folly. I shall force them to."

"They are not children. You yourself have just been calling them 'men.' Why should they obey you?"

She turned at sound of a footstep, and saw a young man approaching. He wore a coat like the Duke's, and in his hand he dangled a handkerchief. He bowed awkwardly, and, holding out the handkerchief, said to her "I beg your pardon, but I think you dropped this. I have just picked it up."

Zuleika looked at the handkerchief, which was obviously a man's, and smilingly shook her head.

"I don't think you know The MacQuern," said the Duke, with sulky grace. "This," he said to the intruder, "is Miss Dobson."

"And is it really true," asked Zuleika, retaining The MacQuern's hand, "that you want to die for me?"

Well, the Scots are a self-seeking and a resolute, but a shy, race; swift to act, when swiftness is needed, but seldom knowing quite what to say. The MacQuern, with native reluctance to give something for nothing, had determined to have the pleasure of knowing the young lady for whom he was to lay down his life; and this purpose he had, by the simple stratagem of his own handkerchief, achieved. Nevertheless, in answer to Zuleika's question, and with the pressure of her hand to inspire him, the only word that rose to his lips was "Ay" (which may be roughly translated as "Yes").

"You will do nothing of the sort," interposed the Duke.

"There," said Zuleika, still retaining The MacQuern's hand, "you see, it is forbidden. You must not defy our dear little Duke. He is not used to it. It is not done."

"I don't know," said The MacQuern, with a stony glance at the Duke, "that he has anything to do with the matter."

"He is older and wiser than you. More a man of the world. Regard him as your tutor."

"Do YOU want me not to die for you?" asked the young man.

"Ah, _I_ should not dare to impose my wishes on you," said she, dropping his hand. "Even," she added, "if I knew what my wishes were. And I don't. I know only that I think it is very, very beautiful of you to think of dying for me."

"Then that settles it," said The MacQuern.

"No, no! You must not let yourself be influenced by ME. Besides, I am not in a mood to influence anybody. I am overwhelmed. Tell me," she said, heedless of the Duke, who stood tapping his heel on the ground, with every manifestation of disapproval and impatience, "tell me, is it true that some of the other men love me too, and—feel as you do?"

The MacQuern said cautiously that he could answer for no one but himself. "But," he allowed, "I saw a good many men whom I know, outside the Hall here, just now, and they seemed to have made up their minds."

"To die for me? To-morrow?"

"To-morrow. After the Eights, I suppose; at the same time as the Duke. It wouldn't do to leave the races undecided."

"Of COURSE not. But the poor dears! It is too touching! I have done nothing, nothing to deserve it."

"Nothing whatsoever," said the Duke drily.

"Oh HE," said Zuleika, "thinks me an unredeemed brute; just because I don't love him. YOU, dear Mr. MacQuern—does one call you 'Mr.'? 'The' would sound so odd in the vocative. And I can't very well call you 'MacQuern'—YOU don't think me unkind, do you? I simply can't bear to think of all these young lives cut short without my having done a thing to brighten them. What can I do?—what can I do to show my gratitude?"

An idea struck her. She looked up to the lit window of her room. "Melisande!" she called.

A figure appeared at the window. "Mademoiselle desire?"

"My tricks, Melisande! Bring down the box, quick!" She turned excitedly to the two young men. "It is all I can do in return, you see. If I could dance for them, I would. If I could sing, I would sing to them. I do what I can. You," she said to the Duke, "must go on to the platform and announce it."

"Announce what?"

"Why, that I am going to do my tricks! All you need say is 'Ladies and gentlemen, I have the pleasure to—' What is the matter now?"

"You make me feel slightly unwell," said the Duke.

"And YOU are the most d-dis-disobliging and the unkindest and the b-beastliest person I ever met," Zuleika sobbed at him through her hands. The MacQuern glared reproaches at him. So did Melisande, who had just appeared through the postern, holding in her arms the great casket of malachite. A painful scene; and the Duke gave in. He said he would do anything—anything. Peace was restored.

The MacQuern had relieved Melisande of her burden; and to him was the privilege of bearing it, in procession with his adored and her quelled mentor, towards the Hall.

Zuleika babbled like a child going to a juvenile party. This was the great night, as yet, in her life. Illustrious enough already it had seemed to her, as eve of that ultimate flattery vowed her by the Duke. So fine a thing had his doom seemed to her—his doom alone—that it had sufficed to flood her pink pearl with the right hue. And now not on him alone need she ponder. Now he was but the centre of a group—a group that might grow and grow—a group that might with a little encouragement be a multitude . . . With such hopes dimly whirling in the recesses of her soul, her beautiful red lips babbled.