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Zuleika Dobson

II

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.


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