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.