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Zuleika Dobson

XIII

I had on the way a horrible apprehension. What if the Duke, in his agony, had taken the one means to forgetfulness? His room, I could see, was lit up; but a man does not necessarily choose to die in the dark. I hovered, afraid, over the dome of the Sheldonian. I saw that the window of the room above the Duke's was also lit up. And there was no reason at all to doubt the survival of Noaks. Perhaps the sight of him would hearten me.

I was wrong. The sight of Noaks in his room was as dismal a thing as could be. With his chin sunk on his breast, he sat there, on a rickety chair, staring up at the mantel-piece. This he had decked out as a sort of shrine. In the centre, aloft on an inverted tin that had contained Abernethy biscuits, stood a blue plush frame, with an inner rim of brass, several sizes too big for the picture-postcard installed in it. Zuleika's image gazed forth with a smile that was obviously not intended for the humble worshipper at this execrable shrine. On either side of her stood a small vase, one holding some geraniums, the other some mignonette. And just beneath her was placed that iron ring which, rightly or wrongly, Noaks supposed to alleviate rheumatism—that same iron ring which, by her touch to-night, had been charged for him with a yet deeper magic, insomuch that he dared no longer wear it, and had set it before her as an oblation.

Yet, for all his humility, he was possessed by a spirit of egoism that repelled me. While he sat peering over his spectacles at the beauteous image, he said again and again to himself, in a hollow voice, "I am so young to die." Every time he said this, two large, pear-shaped tears emerged from behind his spectacles, and found their way to his waistcoat. It did not seem to strike him that quite half of the undergraduates who contemplated death—and contemplated it in a fearless, wholesome, manly fashion—were his juniors. It seemed to seem to him that his own death, even though all those other far brighter and more promising lives than his were to be sacrificed, was a thing to bother about. Well, if he did not want to die, why could he not have, at least, the courage of his cowardice? The world would not cease to revolve because Noaks still clung to its surface. For me the whole tragedy was cheapened by his participation in it. I was fain to leave him. His squint, his short legs dangling towards the floor, his tear-sodden waistcoat, and his refrain "I am so young to die," were beyond measure exasperating. Yet I hesitated to pass into the room beneath, for fear of what I might see there.

How long I might have paltered, had no sound come from that room, I know not. But a sound came, sharp and sudden in the night, instantly reassuring. I swept down into the presence of the Duke.

He stood with his head flung back and his arms folded, gorgeous in a dressing-gown of crimson brocade. In animation of pride and pomp, he looked less like a mortal man than like a figure from some great biblical group by Paul Veronese.

And this was he whom I had presumed to pity! And this was he whom I had half expected to find dead.

His face, usually pale, was now red; and his hair, which no eye had ever yet seen disordered, stood up in a glistening shock. These two changes in him intensified the effect of vitality. One of them, however, vanished as I watched it. The Duke's face resumed its pallor. I realised then that he had but blushed; and I realised, simultaneously, that what had called that blush to his cheek was what had also been the signal to me that he was alive. His blush had been a pendant to his sneeze. And his sneeze had been a pendant to that outrage which he had been striving to forget. He had caught cold.

He had caught cold. In the hour of his soul's bitter need, his body had been suborned against him. Base! Had he not stripped his body of its wet vesture? Had he not vigorously dried his hair, and robed himself in crimson, and struck in solitude such attitudes as were most congruous with his high spirit and high rank? He had set himself to crush remembrance of that by which through his body his soul had been assailed. And well had he known that in this conflict a giant demon was his antagonist. But that his own body would play traitor—no, this he had not foreseen. This was too base a thing to be foreseen.

He stood quite still, a figure orgulous and splendent. And it seemed as though the hot night, too, stood still, to watch him, in awe, through the open lattices of his window, breathlessly. But to me, equipped to see beneath the surface, he was piteous, piteous in ratio to the pretension of his aspect. Had he crouched down and sobbed, I should have been as much relieved as he. But he stood seignorial and aquiline.

Painless, by comparison with this conflict in him, seemed the conflict that had raged in him yesternight. Then, it had been his dandihood against his passion for Zuleika. What mattered the issue? Whichever won, the victory were sweet. And of this he had all the while been subconscious, gallantly though he fought for his pride of dandihood. To-night in the battle between pride and memory, he knew from the outset that pride's was but a forlorn hope, and that memory would be barbarous in her triumph. Not winning to oblivion, he must hate with a fathomless hatred. Of all the emotions, hatred is the most excruciating. Of all the objects of hatred, a woman once loved is the most hateful. Of all deaths, the bitterest that can befall a man is that he lay down his life to flatter the woman he deems vilest of her sex.

Such was the death that the Duke of Dorset saw confronting him. Most men, when they are at war with the past, have the future as ally. Looking steadfastly forward, they can forget. The Duke's future was openly in league with his past. For him, prospect was memory. All that there was for him of future was the death to which his honour was pledged. To envisage that was to... no, he would NOT envisage it! With a passionate effort he hypnotised himself to think of nothing at all. His brain, into which, by the power Zeus gave me, I was gazing, became a perfect vacuum, insulated by the will. It was the kind of experiment which scientists call "beautiful." And yes, beautiful it was.

But not in the eyes of Nature. She abhors a vacuum. Seeing the enormous odds against which the Duke was fighting, she might well have stood aside. But she has no sense of sport whatsoever. She stepped in.

At first I did not realise what was happening. I saw the Duke's eyes contract, and the muscles of his mouth drawn down, and, at the same time, a tense upward movement of his whole body. Then, suddenly, the strain undone: a downward dart of the head, a loud percussion. Thrice the Duke sneezed, with a sound that was as the bursting of the dams of body and soul together; then sneezed again.

Now was his will broken. He capitulated. In rushed shame and horror and hatred, pell-mell, to ravage him.

What care now, what use, for deportment? He walked coweringly round and round his room, with frantic gestures, with head bowed. He shuffled and slunk. His dressing-gown had the look of a gabardine.

Shame and horror and hatred went slashing and hewing throughout the fallen citadel. At length, exhausted, he flung himself down on the window-seat and leaned out into the night, panting. The air was full of thunder. He clutched at his throat. From the depths of the black caverns beneath their brows the eyes of the unsleeping Emperors watched him.

He had gone through much in the day that was past. He had loved and lost. He had striven to recapture, and had failed. In a strange resolve he had found serenity and joy. He had been at the point of death, and had been saved. He had seen that his beloved was worthless, and he had not cared. He had fought for her, and conquered; and had pled with her, and—all these memories were loathsome by reason of that final thing which had all the while lain in wait for him.

He looked back and saw himself as he had been at a score of crucial moments in the day—always in the shadow of that final thing. He saw himself as he had been on the playing-fields of Eton; aye! and in the arms of his nurse, to and fro on the terrace of Tankerton—always in the shadow of that final thing, always piteous and ludicrous, doomed. Thank heaven the future was unknowable? It wasn't, now. To-morrow—to-day—he must die for that accursed fiend of a woman—the woman with the hyena laugh.

What to do meanwhile? Impossible to sleep. He felt in his body the strain of his quick sequence of spiritual adventures. He was dog-tired. But his brain was furiously out of hand: no stopping it. And the night was stifling. And all the while, in the dead silence, as though his soul had ears, there was a sound. It was a very faint, unearthly sound, and seemed to come from nowhere, yet to have a meaning. He feared he was rather over-wrought.

He must express himself. That would soothe him. Ever since childhood he had had, from time to time, the impulse to set down in writing his thoughts or his moods. In such exercises he had found for his self-consciousness the vent which natures less reserved than his find in casual talk with Tom, Dick and Harry, with Jane, Susan, and Liz. Aloof from either of these triads, he had in his first term at Eton taken to himself as confidant, and retained ever since, a great quarto volume, bound in red morocco and stamped with his coronet and cypher. It was herein, year by year, that his soul spread itself.

He wrote mostly in English prose; but other modes were not infrequent. Whenever he was abroad, it was his courteous habit to write in the language of the country where he was residing—French, when he was in his house on the Champs Elysees; Italian, when he was in his villa at Baiae; and so on. When he was in his own country he felt himself free to deviate sometimes from the vernacular into whatever language were aptest to his frame of mind. In his sterner moods he gravitated to Latin, and wrought the noble iron of that language to effects that were, if anything, a trifle over-impressive. He found for his highest flights of contemplation a handy vehicle in Sanscrit. In hours of mere joy it was Greek poetry that flowed likeliest from his pen; and he had a special fondness for the metre of Alcaeus.

And now, too, in his darkest hour, it was Greek that surged in him—iambics of thunderous wrath such as those which are volleyed by Prometheus. But as he sat down to his writing-table, and unlocked the dear old album, and dipped his pen in the ink, a great calm fell on him. The iambics in him began to breathe such sweetness as is on the lips of Alcestis going to her doom. But, just as he set pen to paper, his hand faltered, and he sprang up, victim of another and yet more violent fit of sneezing.

Disbuskined, dangerous. The spirit of Juvenal woke in him. He would flay. He would make Woman (as he called Zuleika) writhe. Latin hexameters, of course. An epistle to his heir presumptive... "Vae tibi," he began,

"Vae tibi, vae misero, nisi circumspexeris artes
Femineas, nam nulla salus quin femina possit
Tradere, nulla fides quin"—

"Quin," he repeated. In writing soliloquies, his trouble was to curb inspiration. The thought that he was addressing his heir-presumptive—now heir-only-too-apparent—gave him pause. Nor, he reflected, was he addressing this brute only, but a huge posthumous audience. These hexameters would be sure to appear in the "authorised" biography. "A melancholy interest attaches to the following lines, written, it would seem, on the very eve of"... He winced. Was it really possible, and no dream, that he was to die to-morrow—to-day?

Even you, unassuming reader, go about with a vague notion that in your case, somehow, the ultimate demand of nature will be waived. The Duke, until he conceived his sudden desire to die, had deemed himself certainly exempt. And now, as he sat staring at his window, he saw in the paling of the night the presage of the dawn of his own last day. Sometimes (orphaned though he was in early childhood) he had even found it hard to believe there was no exemption for those to whom he stood in any personal relation. He remembered how, soon after he went to Eton, he had received almost with incredulity the news of the death of his god-father, Lord Stackley, an octogenarian.... He took from the table his album, knowing that on one of the earliest pages was inscribed his boyish sense of that bereavement. Yes, here the passage was, written in a large round hand:

"Death knocks, as we know, at the door of the cottage and of the castle. He stalks up the front-garden and the steep steps of the semi-detached villa, and plies the ornamental knocker so imperiously that the panels of imitation stained glass quiver in the thin front-door. Even the family that occupies the topmost story of a building without a lift is on his ghastly visiting-list. He rattles his fleshless knuckles against the door of the gypsy's caravan. Into the savage's tent, wigwam, or wattled hut, he darts unbidden. Even on the hermit in the cave he forces his obnoxious presence. His is an universal beat, and he walks it with a grin. But be sure it is at the sombre portal of the nobleman that he knocks with the greatest gusto. It is there, where haply his visit will be commemorated with a hatchment; it is then, when the muffled thunder of the Dead March in 'Saul' will soon be rolling in cathedrals; it is then, it is there, that the pride of his unquestioned power comes grimliest home to him. Is there no withstanding him? Why should he be admitted always with awe, a cravenly-honoured guest? When next he calls, let the butler send him about his business, or tell him to step round to the servants' entrance. If it be made plain to him that his visits are an impertinence, he will soon be disemboldened. Once the aristocracy make a stand against him, there need be no more trouble about the exorbitant Duties named after him. And for the hereditary system—that system which both offends the common sense of the Radical, and wounds the Tory by its implied admission that noblemen are mortal—a seemly substitute will have been found."

Artless and crude in expression, very boyish, it seemed now to its author. Yet, in its simple wistfulness, it had quality: it rang true. The Duke wondered whether, with all that he had since mastered in the great art of English prose, he had not lost something, too.

"Is there no withstanding him?" To think that the boy who uttered that cry, and gave back so brave an answer, was within nine years to go seek death of his own accord! How the gods must be laughing! Yes, the exquisite point of the joke, for them, was that he CHOSE to die. But—and, as the thought flashed through him, he started like a man shot—what if he chose not to? Stay, surely there was some reason why he MUST die. Else, why throughout the night had he taken his doom for granted?... Honour: yes, he had pledged himself. Better death than dishonour. Was it, though? was it? Ah, he, who had come so near to death, saw dishonour as a tiny trifle. Where was the sting of it? Not he would be ridiculous to-morrow—to-day. Every one would acclaim his splendid act of moral courage. She, she, the hyena woman, would be the fool. No one would have thought of dying for her, had he not set the example. Every one would follow his new example. Yes, he would save Oxford yet. That was his duty. Duty and darling vengeance! And life—life!

It was full dawn now. Gone was that faint, monotonous sound which had punctuated in his soul the horrors of his vigil. But, in reminder of those hours, his lamp was still burning. He extinguished it; and the going-out of that tarnished light made perfect his sense of release.

He threw wide his arms in welcome of the great adorable day, and of all the great adorable days that were to be his.

He leaned out from his window, drinking the dawn in. The gods had made merry over him, had they? And the cry of the hyena had made night hideous. Well, it was his turn now. He would laugh last and loudest.

And already, for what was to be, he laughed outright into the morning; insomuch that the birds in the trees of Trinity, and still more the Emperors over the way, marvelled greatly.


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