Luncheon passed in almost unbroken silence. Both Zuleika and the Duke were ravenously hungry, as people always are after the stress of any great emotional crisis. Between them, they made very short work of a cold chicken, a salad, a gooseberry-tart and a Camembert. The Duke filled his glass again and again. The cold classicism of his face had been routed by the new romantic movement which had swept over his soul. He looked two or three months older than when first I showed him to my reader.
He drank his coffee at one draught, pushed back his chair, threw away the cigarette he had just lit. "Listen!" he said.
Zuleika folded her hands on her lap.
"You do not love me. I accept as final your hint that you never will love me. I need not say—could not, indeed, ever say—how deeply, deeply you have pained me. As lover, I am rejected. But that rejection," he continued, striking the table, "is no stopper to my suit. It does but drive me to the use of arguments. My pride shrinks from them. Love, however, is greater than pride; and I, John, Albert, Edward, Claude, Orde, Angus, Tankerton,* Tanville-Tankerton,** fourteenth Duke of Dorset, Marquis of Dorset, Earl of Grove, Earl of Chastermaine, Viscount Brewsby, Baron Grove, Baron Petstrap, and Baron Wolock, in the Peerage of England, offer you my hand. Do not interrupt me. Do not toss your head. Consider well what I am saying. Weigh the advantages you would gain by acceptance of my hand. Indeed, they are manifold and tremendous. They are also obvious: do not shut your eyes to them. You, Miss Dobson, what are you? A conjurer, and a vagrant; without means, save such as you can earn by the sleight of your hand; without position; without a home; all unguarded but by your own self-respect. That you follow an honourable calling, I do not for one moment deny. I do, however, ask you to consider how great are its perils and hardships, its fatigues and inconveniences. From all these evils I offer you instant refuge. I offer you, Miss Dobson, a refuge more glorious and more augustly gilded than you, in your airiest flights of fancy, can ever have hoped for or imagined. I own about 340,000 acres. My town-residence is in St. James's Square. Tankerton, of which you may have seen photographs, is the chief of my country-seats. It is a Tudor house, set on the ridge of a valley. The valley, its park, is halved by a stream so narrow that the deer leap across. The gardens are estraded upon the slope. Round the house runs a wide paven terrace. There are always two or three peacocks trailing their sheathed feathers along the balustrade, and stepping how stiffly! as though they had just been unharnessed from Juno's chariot. Two flights of shallow steps lead down to the flowers and fountains. Oh, the gardens are wonderful. There is a Jacobean garden of white roses. Between the ends of two pleached alleys, under a dome of branches, is a little lake, with a Triton of black marble, and with water-lilies. Hither and thither under the archipelago of water-lilies, dart gold-fish—tongues of flame in the dark water. There is also a long strait alley of clipped yew. It ends in an alcove for a pagoda of painted porcelain which the Prince Regent—peace be to his ashes!—presented to my great-grandfather. There are many twisting paths, and sudden aspects, and devious, fantastic arbours. Are you fond of horses? In my stables of pine-wood and plated-silver seventy are installed. Not all of them together could vie in power with one of the meanest of my motor-cars."
*Pronounced as Tacton.
**Pronounced as Tavvle-Tacton.
"Oh, I never go in motors," said Zuleika. "They make one look like nothing on earth, and like everybody else."
"I myself," said the Duke, "use them little for that very reason. Are you interested in farming? At Tankerton there is a model farm which would at any rate amuse you, with its heifers and hens and pigs that are like so many big new toys. There is a tiny dairy, which is called 'Her Grace's.' You could make, therein, real butter with your own hands, and round it into little pats, and press every pat with a different device. The boudoir that would be yours is a blue room. Four Watteaus hang in it. In the dining-hall hang portraits of my forefathers—in petto, your forefathers-in-law—by many masters. Are you fond of peasants? My tenantry are delightful creatures, and there is not one of them who remembers the bringing of the news of the Battle of Waterloo. When a new Duchess is brought to Tankerton, the oldest elm in the park must be felled. That is one of many strange old customs. As she is driven through the village, the children of the tenantry must strew the road with daisies. The bridal chamber must be lighted with as many candles as years have elapsed since the creation of the Dukedom. If you came into it, there would be"—and the youth, closing his eyes, made a rapid calculation—"exactly three hundred and eighty-eight candles. On the eve of the death of a Duke of Dorset, two black owls come and perch on the battlements. They remain there through the night, hooting. At dawn they fly away, none knows whither. On the eve of the death of any other Tanville-Tankerton, comes (no matter what be the time of year) a cuckoo. It stays for an hour, cooing, then flies away, none knows whither. Whenever this portent occurs, my steward telegraphs to me, that I, as head of the family, be not unsteeled against the shock of a bereavement, and that my authority be sooner given for the unsealing and garnishing of the family-vault. Not every forefather of mine rests quiet beneath his escutcheoned marble. There are they who revisit, in their wrath or their remorse, the places wherein erst they suffered or wrought evil. There is one who, every Halloween, flits into the dining-hall, and hovers before the portrait which Hans Holbein made of him, and flings his diaphanous grey form against the canvas, hoping, maybe, to catch from it the fiery flesh-tints and the solid limbs that were his, and so to be re-incarnate. He flies against the painting, only to find himself t'other side of the wall it hangs on. There are five ghosts permanently residing in the right wing of the house, two in the left, and eleven in the park. But all are quite noiseless and quite harmless. My servants, when they meet them in the corridors or on the stairs, stand aside to let them pass, thus paying them the respect due to guests of mine; but not even the rawest housemaid ever screams or flees at sight of them. I, their host, often waylay them and try to commune with them; but always they glide past me. And how gracefully they glide, these ghosts! It is a pleasure to watch them. It is a lesson in deportment. May they never be laid! Of all my household-pets, they are the dearest to me. I am Duke of Strathsporran and Cairngorm, Marquis of Sorby, and Earl Cairngorm, in the Peerage of Scotland. In the glens of the hills about Strathsporran are many noble and nimble stags. But I have never set foot in my house there, for it is carpeted throughout with the tartan of my clan. You seem to like tartan. What tartan is it you are wearing?"
Zuleika looked down at her skirt. "I don't know," she said. "I got it in Paris."
"Well," said the Duke, "it is very ugly. The Dalbraith tartan is harmonious in comparison, and has, at least, the excuse of history. If you married me, you would have the right to wear it. You would have many strange and fascinating rights. You would go to Court. I admit that the Hanoverian Court is not much. Still, it is better than nothing. At your presentation, moreover, you would be given the entree. Is that nothing to you? You would be driven to Court in my statecoach. It is swung so high that the streetsters can hardly see its occupant. It is lined with rose-silk; and on its panels, and on its hammer-cloth, my arms are emblazoned—no one has ever been able to count the quarterings. You would be wearing the family-jewels, reluctantly surrendered to you by my aunt. They are many and marvellous, in their antique settings. I don't want to brag. It humiliates me to speak to you as I am speaking. But I am heart-set on you, and to win you there is not a precious stone I would leave unturned. Conceive a parure all of white stones—diamonds, white sapphires, white topazes, tourmalines. Another, of rubies and amethysts, set in gold filigree. Rings that once were poison-combs on Florentine fingers. Red roses for your hair—every petal a hollowed ruby. Amulets and ape-buckles, zones and fillets. Aye! know that you would be weeping for wonder before you had seen a tithe of these gauds. Know, too, Miss Dobson, that in the Peerage of France I am Duc d'Etretat et de la Roche Guillaume. Louis Napoleon gave the title to my father for not cutting him in the Bois. I have a house in the Champs Elysees. There is a Swiss in its courtyard. He stands six-foot-seven in his stockings, and the chasseurs are hardly less tall than he. Wherever I go, there are two chefs in my retinue. Both are masters in their art, and furiously jealous of each other. When I compliment either of them on some dish, the other challenges him. They fight with rapiers, next morning, in the garden of whatever house I am occupying. I do not know whether you are greedy? If so, it may interest you to learn that I have a third chef, who makes only souffles, and an Italian pastry-cook; to say nothing of a Spaniard for salads, an Englishwoman for roasts, and an Abyssinian for coffee. You found no trace of their handiwork in the meal you have just had with me? No; for in Oxford it is a whim of mine—I may say a point of honour—to lead the ordinary life of an undergraduate. What I eat in this room is cooked by the heavy and unaided hand of Mrs. Batch, my landlady. It is set before me by the unaided and—or are you in error?—loving hand of her daughter. Other ministers have I none here. I dispense with my private secretaries. I am unattended by a single valet. So simple a way of life repels you? You would never be called upon to share it. If you married me, I should take my name off the books of my College. I propose that we should spend our honeymoon at Baiae. I have a villa at Baiae. It is there that I keep my grandfather's collection of majolica. The sun shines there always. A long olive-grove secretes the garden from the sea. When you walk in the garden, you know the sea only in blue glimpses through the vacillating leaves. White-gleaming from the bosky shade of this grove are several goddesses. Do you care for Canova? I don't myself. If you do, these figures will appeal to you: they are in his best manner. Do you love the sea? This is not the only house of mine that looks out on it. On the coast of County Clare—am I not Earl of Enniskerry and Baron Shandrin in the Peerage of Ireland?—I have an ancient castle. Sheer from a rock stands it, and the sea has always raged up against its walls. Many ships lie wrecked under that loud implacable sea. But mine is a brave strong castle. No storm affrights it; and not the centuries, clustering houris, with their caresses can seduce it from its hard austerity. I have several titles which for the moment escape me. Baron Llffthwchl am I, and... and... but you can find them for yourself in Debrett. In me you behold a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Look well at me! I am Hereditary Comber of the Queen's Lap-Dogs. I am young. I am handsome. My temper is sweet, and my character without blemish. In fine, Miss Dobson, I am a most desirable parti."
"But," said Zuleika, "I don't love you."
The Duke stamped his foot. "I beg your pardon," he said hastily. "I ought not to have done that. But—you seem to have entirely missed the point of what I was saying."
"No, I haven't," said Zuleika.
"Then what," cried the Duke, standing over her, "what is your reply?"
Said Zuleika, looking up at him, "My reply is that I think you are an awful snob."
The Duke turned on his heel, and strode to the other end of the room. There he stood for some moments, his back to Zuleika.
"I think," she resumed in a slow, meditative voice, "that you are, with the possible exception of a Mr. Edelweiss, THE most awful snob I have ever met."
The Duke looked back over his shoulder. He gave Zuleika the stinging reprimand of silence. She was sorry, and showed it in her eyes. She felt she had gone too far. True, he was nothing to her now. But she had loved him once. She could not forget that.
"Come!" she said. "Let us be good friends. Give me your hand!" He came to her, slowly. "There!"
The Duke withdrew his fingers before she unclasped them. That twice-flung taunt rankled still. It was monstrous to have been called a snob. A snob!—he, whose readiness to form what would certainly be regarded as a shocking misalliance ought to have stifled the charge, not merely vindicated him from it! He had forgotten, in the blindness of his love, how shocking the misalliance would be. Perhaps she, unloving, had not been so forgetful? Perhaps her refusal had been made, generously, for his own sake. Nay, rather for her own. Evidently, she had felt that the high sphere from which he beckoned was no place for the likes of her. Evidently, she feared she would pine away among those strange splendours, never be acclimatised, always be unworthy. He had thought to overwhelm her, and he had done his work too thoroughly. Now he must try to lighten the load he had imposed.
Seating himself opposite to her, "You remember," he said, "that there is a dairy at Tankerton?"
"A dairy? Oh yes."
"Do you remember what it is called?"
Zuleika knit her brows.
He helped her out. "It is called 'Her Grace's'."
"Oh, of course!" said Zuleika.
"Do you know WHY it is called so?"
"Well, let's see... I know you told me."
"Did I? I think not. I will tell you now... That cool out-house dates from the middle of the eighteenth century. My great-great-grandfather, when he was a very old man, married en troisiemes noces a dairy-maid on the Tankerton estate. Meg Speedwell was her name. He had seen her walking across a field, not many months after the interment of his second Duchess, Maria, that great and gifted lady. I know not whether it was that her bonny mien fanned in him some embers of his youth, or that he was loth to be outdone in gracious eccentricity by his crony the Duke of Dewlap, who himself had just taken a bride from a dairy. (You have read Meredith's account of that affair? No? You should.) Whether it was veritable love or mere modishness that formed my ancestor's resolve, presently the bells were ringing out, and the oldest elm in the park was being felled, in Meg Speedwell's honour, and the children were strewing daisies on which Meg Speedwell trod, a proud young hoyden of a bride, with her head in the air and her heart in the seventh heaven. The Duke had given her already a horde of fine gifts; but these, he had said, were nothing—trash in comparison with the gift that was to ensure for her a perdurable felicity. After the wedding-breakfast, when all the squires had ridden away on their cobs, and all the squires' ladies in their coaches, the Duke led his bride forth from the hall, leaning on her arm, till they came to a little edifice of new white stone, very spick and span, with two lattice-windows and a bright green door between. This he bade her enter. A-flutter with excitement, she turned the handle. In a moment she flounced back, red with shame and anger—flounced forth from the fairest, whitest, dapperest dairy, wherein was all of the best that the keenest dairy-maid might need. The Duke bade her dry her eyes, for that it ill befitted a great lady to be weeping on her wedding-day. 'As for gratitude,' he chuckled, 'zounds! that is a wine all the better for the keeping.' Duchess Meg soon forgot this unworthy wedding-gift, such was her rapture in the other, the so august, appurtenances of her new life. What with her fine silk gowns and farthingales, and her powder-closet, and the canopied bed she slept in—a bed bigger far than the room she had slept in with her sisters, and standing in a room far bigger than her father's cottage; and what with Betty, her maid, who had pinched and teased her at the village-school, but now waited on her so meekly and trembled so fearfully at a scolding; and what with the fine hot dishes that were set before her every day, and the gallant speeches and glances of the fine young gentlemen whom the Duke invited from London, Duchess Meg was quite the happiest Duchess in all England. For a while, she was like a child in a hay-rick. But anon, as the sheer delight of novelty wore away, she began to take a more serious view of her position. She began to realise her responsibilities. She was determined to do all that a great lady ought to do. Twice every day she assumed the vapours. She schooled herself in the mysteries of Ombre, of Macao. She spent hours over the tambour-frame. She rode out on horse-back, with a riding-master. She had a music-master to teach her the spinet; a dancing-master, too, to teach her the Minuet and the Triumph and the Gaudy. All these accomplishments she found mighty hard. She was afraid of her horse. All the morning, she dreaded the hour when it would be brought round from the stables. She dreaded her dancing-lesson. Try as she would, she could but stamp her feet flat on the parquet, as though it had been the village-green. She dreaded her music-lesson. Her fingers, disobedient to her ambition, clumsily thumped the keys of the spinet, and by the notes of the score propped up before her she was as cruelly perplexed as by the black and red pips of the cards she conned at the gaming-table, or by the red and gold threads that were always straying and snapping on her tambour-frame. Still she persevered. Day in, day out, sullenly, she worked hard to be a great lady. But skill came not to her, and hope dwindled; only the dull effort remained. One accomplishment she did master—to wit, the vapours: they became for her a dreadful reality. She lost her appetite for the fine hot dishes. All night long she lay awake, restless, tearful, under the fine silk canopy, till dawn stared her into slumber. She seldom scolded Betty. She who had been so lusty and so blooming saw in her mirror that she was pale and thin now; and the fine young gentlemen, seeing it too, paid more heed now to their wine and their dice than to her. And always, when she met him, the Duke smiled the same mocking smile. Duchess Meg was pining slowly and surely away... One morning, in Spring-time, she altogether vanished. Betty, bringing the cup of chocolate to the bedside, found the bed empty. She raised the alarm among her fellows. They searched high and low. Nowhere was their mistress. The news was broken to their master, who, without comment, rose, bade his man dress him, and presently walked out to the place where he knew he would find her. And there, to be sure, she was, churning, churning for dear life. Her sleeves were rolled above her elbows, and her skirt was kilted high; and, as she looked back over her shoulder and saw the Duke, there was the flush of roses in her cheeks, and the light of a thousand thanks in her eyes. 'Oh,' she cried, 'what a curtsey I would drop you, but that to let go the handle were to spoil all!' And every morning, ever after, she woke when the birds woke, rose when they rose, and went singing through the dawn to the dairy, there to practise for her pleasure that sweet and lowly handicraft which she had once practised for her need. And every evening, with her milking-stool under her arm, and her milk-pail in her hand, she went into the field and called the cows to her, as she had been wont to do. To those other, those so august, accomplishments she no more pretended. She gave them the go-by. And all the old zest and joyousness of her life came back to her. Soundlier than ever slept she, and sweetlier dreamed, under the fine silk canopy, till the birds called her to her work. Greater than ever was her love of the fine furbelows that were hers to flaunt in, and sharper her appetite for the fine hot dishes, and more tempestuous her scolding of Betty, poor maid. She was more than ever now the cynosure, the adored, of the fine young gentlemen. And as for her husband, she looked up to him as the wisest, kindest man in all the world."
"And the fine young gentlemen," said Zuleika, "did she fall in love with any of them?"
"You forget," said the Duke coldly, "she was married to a member of my family."
"Oh, I beg your pardon. But tell me: did they ALL adore her?"
"Yes. Every one of them, wildly, madly."
"Ah," murmured Zuleika, with a smile of understanding. A shadow crossed her face, "Even so," she said, with some pique, "I don't suppose she had so very many adorers. She never went out into the world."
"Tankerton," said the Duke drily, "is a large house, and my great-great-grandfather was the most hospitable of men. However," he added, marvelling that she had again missed the point so utterly, "my purpose was not to confront you with a past rival in conquest, but to set at rest a fear which I had, I think, roused in you by my somewhat full description of the high majestic life to which you, as my bride, would be translated."
"A fear? What sort of a fear?"
"That you would not breathe freely—that you would starve (if I may use a somewhat fantastic figure) among those strawberry-leaves. And so I told you the story of Meg Speedwell, and how she lived happily ever after. Nay, hear me out! The blood of Meg Speedwell's lord flows in my veins. I think I may boast that I have inherited something of his sagacity. In any case, I can profit by his example. Do not fear that I, if you were to wed me, should demand a metamorphosis of your present self. I should take you as you are, gladly. I should encourage you to be always exactly as you are—a radiant, irresistible member of the upper middle-class, with a certain freedom of manner acquired through a life of peculiar liberty. Can you guess what would be my principal wedding-gift to you? Meg Speedwell had her dairy. For you, would be built another outhouse—a neat hall wherein you would perform your conjuring-tricks, every evening except Sunday, before me and my tenants and my servants, and before such of my neighbours as might care to come. None would respect you the less, seeing that I approved. Thus in you would the pleasant history of Meg Speedwell repeat itself. You, practising for your pleasure—nay, hear me out!—that sweet and lowly handicraft which—"
"I won't listen to another word!" cried Zuleika. "You are the most insolent person I have ever met. I happen to come of a particularly good family. I move in the best society. My manners are absolutely perfect. If I found myself in the shoes of twenty Duchesses simultaneously, I should know quite well how to behave. As for the one pair you can offer me, I kick them away—so. I kick them back at you. I tell you—"
"Hush," said the Duke, "hush! You are over-excited. There will be a crowd under my window. There, there! I am sorry. I thought—"
"Oh, I know what you thought," said Zuleika, in a quieter tone. "I am sure you meant well. I am sorry I lost my temper. Only, you might have given me credit for meaning what I said: that I would not marry you, because I did not love you. I daresay there would be great advantages in being your Duchess. But the fact is, I have no worldly wisdom. To me, marriage is a sacrament. I could no more marry a man about whom I could not make a fool of myself than I could marry one who made a fool of himself about me. Else had I long ceased to be a spinster. Oh my friend, do not imagine that I have not rejected, in my day, a score of suitors quite as eligible as you."
"As eligible? Who were they?" frowned the Duke.
"Oh, Archduke this, and Grand Duke that, and His Serene Highness the other. I have a wretched memory for names."
"And my name, too, will soon escape you, perhaps?"
"No. Oh, no. I shall always remember yours. You see, I was in love with you. You deceived me into loving you..." She sighed. "Oh, had you but been as strong as I thought you... Still, a swain the more. That is something." She leaned forward, smiling archly. "Those studs—show me them again."
The Duke displayed them in the hollow of his hand. She touched them lightly, reverently, as a tourist touches a sacred relic in a church.
At length, "Do give me them," she said. "I will keep them in a little secret partition of my jewel-case." The Duke had closed his fist. "Do!" she pleaded. "My other jewels—they have no separate meanings for me. I never remember who gave me this one or that. These would be quite different. I should always remember their history... Do!"
"Ask me for anything else," said the Duke. "These are the one thing I could not part with—even to you, for whose sake they are hallowed."
Zuleika pouted. On the verge of persisting, she changed her mind, and was silent.
"Well!" she said abruptly, "how about these races? Are you going to take me to see them?"
"Races? What races?" murmured the Duke. "Oh yes. I had forgotten. Do you really mean that you want to see them?"
"Why, of course! They are great fun, aren't they?"
"And you are in a mood for great fun? Well, there is plenty of time. The Second Division is not rowed till half-past four."
"The Second Division? Why not take me to the First?"
"That is not rowed till six."
"Isn't this rather an odd arrangement?"
"No doubt. But Oxford never pretended to be strong in mathematics."
"Why, it's not yet three!" cried Zuleika, with a woebegone stare at the clock. "What is to be done in the meantime?"
"Am not I sufficiently diverting?" asked the Duke bitterly.
"Quite candidly, no. Have you any friend lodging with you here?"
"One, overhead. A man named Noaks."
"A small man, with spectacles?"
"Very small, with very large spectacles."
"He was pointed out to me yesterday, as I was driving from the Station ... No, I don't think I want to meet him. What can you have in common with him?"
"One frailty, at least: he, too, Miss Dobson, loves you."
"But of course he does. He saw me drive past. Very few of the others," she said, rising and shaking herself, "have set eyes on me. Do let us go out and look at the Colleges. I do need change of scene. If you were a doctor, you would have prescribed that long ago. It is very bad for me to be here, a kind of Cinderella, moping over the ashes of my love for you. Where is your hat?"
Looking round, she caught sight of herself in the glass. "Oh," she cried, "what a fright I do look! I must never be seen like this!"
"You look very beautiful."
"I don't. That is a lover's illusion. You yourself told me that this tartan was perfectly hideous. There was no need to tell me that. I came thus because I was coming to see you. I chose this frock in the deliberate fear that you, if I made myself presentable, might succumb at second sight of me. I would have sent out for a sack and dressed myself in that, I would have blacked my face all over with burnt cork, only I was afraid of being mobbed on the way to you."
"Even so, you would but have been mobbed for your incorrigible beauty."
"My beauty! How I hate it!" sighed Zuleika. "Still, here it is, and I must needs make the best of it. Come! Take me to Judas. I will change my things. Then I shall be fit for the races."
As these two emerged, side by side, into the street, the Emperors exchanged stony sidelong glances. For they saw the more than normal pallor of the Duke's face, and something very like desperation in his eyes. They saw the tragedy progressing to its foreseen close. Unable to stay its course, they were grimly fascinated now.