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Zuleika Dobson

III

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?


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