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Zuleika Dobson

XIV

They had awaited thousands and innumerable thousands of daybreaks in the Broad, these Emperors, counting the long slow hours till the night were over. It is in the night especially that their fallen greatness haunts them. Day brings some distraction. They are not incurious of the lives around them—these little lives that succeed one another so quickly. To them, in their immemorial old age, youth is a constant wonder. And so is death, which to them comes not. Youth or death—which, they had often asked themselves, was the goodlier? But it was ill that these two things should be mated. It was ill-come, this day of days.

Long after the Duke was in bed and asleep, his peal of laughter echoed in the ears of the Emperors. Why had he laughed?

And they said to themselves "We are very old men, and broken, and in a land not our own. There are things that we do not understand."

Brief was the freshness of the dawn. From all points of the compass, dark grey clouds mounted into the sky. There, taking their places as though in accordance to a strategic plan laid down for them, they ponderously massed themselves, and presently, as at a given signal, drew nearer to earth, and halted, an irresistible great army, awaiting orders.

Somewhere under cover of them the sun went his way, transmitting a sulphurous heat. The very birds in the trees of Trinity were oppressed and did not twitter. The very leaves did not whisper.

Out through the railings, and across the road, prowled a skimpy and dingy cat, trying to look like a tiger.

It was all very sinister and dismal.

The hours passed. The Broad put forth, one by one, its signs of waking.

Soon after eight o'clock, as usual, the front-door of the Duke's lodgings was opened from within. The Emperors watched for the faint cloud of dust that presently emerged, and for her whom it preceded. To them, this first outcoming of the landlady's daughter was a moment of daily interest. Katie!—they had known her as a toddling child; and later as a little girl scampering off to school, all legs and pinafore and streaming golden hair. And now she was sixteen years old. Her hair, tied back at the nape of her neck, would very soon be "up." Her big blue eyes were as they had always been; but she had long passed out of pinafores into aprons, had taken on a sedateness befitting her years and her duties, and was anxious to be regarded rather as an aunt than as a sister by her brother Clarence, aged twelve. The Emperors had always predicted that she would be pretty. And very pretty she was.

As she came slowly out, with eyes downcast to her broom, sweeping the dust so seriously over the doorstep and then across the pavement, and anon when she reappeared with pail and scrubbing-brush, and abased herself before the doorstep, and wrought so vehemently there, what filled her little soul was not the dignity of manual labour. The duties that Zuleika had envied her were dear to her exactly as they would have been, yesterday morning, to Zuleika. The Emperors had often noticed that during vacations their little favourite's treatment of the doorstep was languid and perfunctory. They knew well her secret, and always (for who can be long in England without becoming sentimental?) they cherished the hope of a romantic union between her and "a certain young gentleman," as they archly called the Duke. His continued indifference to her they took almost as an affront to themselves. Where in all England was a prettier, sweeter girl than their Katie? The sudden irruption of Zuleika into Oxford was especially grievous to them because they could no longer hope against hope that Katie would be led by the Duke to the altar, and thence into the highest social circles, and live happily ever after. Luckily it was for Katie, however, that they had no power to fill her head with their foolish notions. It was well for her to have never doubted she loved in vain. She had soon grown used to her lot. Not until yesterday had there been any bitterness. Jealousy surged in Katie at the very moment when she beheld Zuleika on the threshold. A glance at the Duke's face when she showed the visitor up was enough to acquaint her with the state of his heart. And she did not, for confirming her intuition, need the two or three opportunities she took of listening at the keyhole. What in the course of those informal audiences did surprise her—so much indeed that she could hardly believe her ear—was that it was possible for a woman not to love the Duke. Her jealousy of "that Miss Dobson" was for a while swallowed up in her pity for him. What she had borne so cheerfully for herself she could not bear for her hero. She wished she had not happened to listen.

And this morning, while she knelt swaying and spreading over "his" doorstep, her blue eyes added certain tears to be scrubbed away in the general moisture of the stone. Rising, she dried her hands in her apron, and dried her eyes with her hands. Lest her mother should see that she had been crying, she loitered outside the door. Suddenly, her roving glance changed to a stare of acute hostility. She knew well that the person wandering towards her was—no, not "that Miss Dobson," as she had for the fraction of an instant supposed, but the next worst thing.

It has been said that Melisande indoors was an evidently French maid. Out of doors she was not less evidently Zuleika's. Not that she aped her mistress. The resemblance had come by force of propinquity and devotion. Nature had laid no basis for it. Not one point of form or colour had the two women in common. It has been said that Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Melisande, like most Frenchwomen, was strictly plain. But in expression and port, in her whole tournure, she had become, as every good maid does, her mistress' replica. The poise of her head, the boldness of her regard and brilliance of her smile, the leisurely and swinging way in which she walked, with a hand on the hip—all these things of hers were Zuleika's too. She was no conqueror. None but the man to whom she was betrothed—a waiter at the Cafe Tourtel, named Pelleas—had ever paid court to her; nor was she covetous of other hearts. Yet she looked victorious, and insatiable of victories, and "terrible as an army with banners."

In the hand that was not on her hip she carried a letter. And on her shoulders she had to bear the full burden of the hatred that Zuleika had inspired in Katie. But this she did not know. She came glancing boldly, leisurely, at the numbers on the front-doors.

Katie stepped back on to the doorstep, lest the inferiority of her stature should mar the effect of her disdain.

"Good-day. Is it here that Duke D'Orsay lives?" asked Melisande, as nearly accurate as a Gaul may be in such matters.

"The Duke of Dorset," said Katie with a cold and insular emphasis, "lives here." And "You," she tried to convey with her eyes, "you, for all your smart black silk, are a hireling. I am Miss Batch. I happen to have a hobby for housework. I have not been crying."

"Then please mount this to him at once," said Melisande, holding out the letter. "It is from Miss Dobson's part. Very express. I wait response."

"You are very ugly," Katie signalled with her eyes. "I am very pretty. I have the Oxfordshire complexion. And I play the piano." With her lips she said merely, "His Grace is not called before nine o'clock."

"But to-day you go wake him now—quick—is it not?"

"Quite out of the question," said Katie. "If you care to leave that letter here, I will see that it is placed on his Grace's breakfast-table, with the morning's post." "For the rest," added her eyes, "Down with France!"

"I find you droll, but droll, my little one!" cried Melisande.

Katie stepped back and shut the door in her face. "Like a little Empress," the Emperors commented.

The Frenchwoman threw up her hands and apostrophised heaven. To this day she believes that all the bonnes of Oxford are mad, but mad, and of a madness.

She stared at the door, at the pail and scrubbing-brush that had been shut out with her, at the letter in her hand. She decided that she had better drop the letter into the slit in the door and make report to Miss Dobson.

As the envelope fell through the slit to the door-mat, Katie made at Melisande a grimace which, had not the panels been opaque, would have astonished the Emperors. Resuming her dignity, she picked the thing up, and, at arm's length, examined it. It was inscribed in pencil. Katie's lips curled at sight of the large, audacious handwriting. But it is probable that whatever kind of handwriting Zuleika might have had would have been just the kind that Katie would have expected.

Fingering the envelope, she wondered what the wretched woman had to say. It occurred to her that the kettle was simmering on the hob in the kitchen, and that she might easily steam open the envelope and master its contents. However, her doing this would have in no way affected the course of the tragedy. And so the gods (being to-day in a strictly artistic mood) prompted her to mind her own business.

Laying the Duke's table for breakfast, she made as usual a neat rectangular pile of the letters that had come for him by post. Zuleika's letter she threw down askew. That luxury she allowed herself.

And he, when he saw the letter, allowed himself the luxury of leaving it unopened awhile. Whatever its purport, he knew it could but minister to his happy malice. A few hours ago, with what shame and dread it would have stricken him! Now it was a dainty to be dallied with.

His eyes rested on the black tin boxes that contained his robes of the Garter. Hateful had been the sight of them in the watches of the night, when he thought he had worn those robes for the last time. But now—!

He opened Zuleika's letter. It did not disappoint him.

"DEAR DUKE,—DO, DO forgive me. I am beyond words ashamed of the silly tomboyish thing I did last night. Of course it was no worse than that, but an awful fear haunts me that you MAY have thought I acted in anger at the idea of your breaking your promise to me. Well, it is quite true I had been hurt and angry when you hinted at doing that, but the moment I left you I saw that you had been only in fun, and I enjoyed the joke against myself, though I thought it was rather too bad of you. And then, as a sort of revenge, but almost before I knew what I was doing, I played that IDIOTIC practical joke on you. I have been MISERABLE ever since. DO come round as early as possible and tell me I am forgiven. But before you tell me that, please lecture me till I cry—though indeed I have been crying half through the night. And then if you want to be VERY horrid you may tease me for being so slow to see a joke. And then you might take me to see some of the Colleges and things before we go on to lunch at The MacQuern's? Forgive pencil and scrawl. Am sitting up in bed to write.—Your sincere friend,

"Z. D.

"P.S.—Please burn this."

At that final injunction, the Duke abandoned himself to his mirth. "Please burn this." Poor dear young woman, how modest she was in the glare of her diplomacy! Why there was nothing, not one phrase, to compromise her in the eyes of a coroner's jury!... Seriously, she had good reason to be proud of her letter. For the purpose in view it couldn't have been better done. That was what made it so touchingly absurd. He put himself in her position. He pictured himself as her, "sitting up in bed," pencil in hand, to explain away, to soothe, to clinch and bind... Yes, if he had happened to be some other man—one whom her insult might have angered without giving love its death-blow, and one who could be frightened out of not keeping his word—this letter would have been capital.

He helped himself to some more marmalade, and poured out another cup of coffee. Nothing is more thrilling, thought he, than to be treated as a cully by the person you hold in the hollow of your hand.

But within this great irony lay (to be glided over) another irony. He knew well in what mood Zuleika had done what she had done to him last night; yet he preferred to accept her explanation of it.

Officially, then, he acquitted her of anything worse than tomboyishness. But this verdict for his own convenience implied no mercy to the culprit. The sole point for him was how to administer her punishment the most poignantly. Just how should he word his letter?

He rose from his chair, and "Dear Miss Dobson—no, MY dear Miss Dobson," he murmured, pacing the room, "I am so very sorry I cannot come to see you: I have to attend two lectures this morning. By contrast with this weariness, it will be the more delightful to meet you at The MacQuern's. I want to see as much as I can of you to-day, because to-night there is the Bump Supper, and to-morrow morning, alas! I must motor to Windsor for this wretched Investiture. Meanwhile, how can you ask to be forgiven when there is nothing whatever to forgive? It seems to me that mine, not yours, is the form of humour that needs explanation. My proposal to die for you was made in as playful a spirit as my proposal to marry you. And it is really for me to ask forgiveness of you. One thing especially," he murmured, fingering in his waistcoat-pocket the ear-rings she had given him, "pricks my conscience. I do feel that I ought not to have let you give me these two pearls—at any rate, not the one which went into premature mourning for me. As I have no means of deciding which of the two this one is, I enclose them both, with the hope that the pretty difference between them will in time reappear"... Or words to that effect... Stay! why not add to the joy of contriving that effect the greater joy of watching it? Why send Zuleika a letter? He would obey her summons. He would speed to her side. He snatched up a hat.

In this haste, however, he detected a certain lack of dignity. He steadied himself, and went slowly to the mirror. There he adjusted his hat with care, and regarded himself very seriously, very sternly, from various angles, like a man invited to paint his own portrait for the Uffizi. He must be worthy of himself. It was well that Zuleika should be chastened. Great was her sin. Out of life and death she had fashioned toys for her vanity. But his joy must be in vindication of what was noble, not in making suffer what was vile. Yesterday he had been her puppet, her Jumping-Jack; to-day it was as avenging angel that he would appear before her. The gods had mocked him who was now their minister. Their minister? Their master, as being once more master of himself. It was they who had plotted his undoing. Because they loved him they were fain that he should die young. The Dobson woman was but their agent, their cat's-paw. By her they had all but got him. Not quite! And now, to teach them, through her, a lesson they would not soon forget, he would go forth.

Shaking with laughter, the gods leaned over the thunder-clouds to watch him.

He went forth.

On the well-whitened doorstep he was confronted by a small boy in uniform bearing a telegram.

"Duke of Dorset?" asked the small boy.

Opening the envelope, the Duke saw that the message, with which was a prepaid form for reply, had been handed in at the Tankerton post-office. It ran thus:

Deeply regret inform your grace last night
two black owls came and perched on battlements
remained there through night hooting
at dawn flew away none knows whither
awaiting instructions Jellings

The Duke's face, though it grew white, moved not one muscle.

Somewhat shamed now, the gods ceased from laughing.

The Duke looked from the telegram to the boy. "Have you a pencil?" he asked.

"Yes, my Lord," said the boy, producing a stump of pencil.

Holding the prepaid form against the door, the Duke wrote:

Jellings Tankerton Hall
Prepare vault for funeral Monday

Dorset

His handwriting was as firmly and minutely beautiful as ever. Only in that he forgot there was nothing to pay did he belie his calm. "Here," he said to the boy, "is a shilling; and you may keep the change."

"Thank you, my Lord," said the boy, and went his way, as happy as a postman.


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