Humphrey Greddon, in the Duke's place, would have taken a pinch of snuff. But he could not have made that gesture with a finer air than the Duke gave to its modern equivalent. In the art of taking and lighting a cigarette, there was one man who had no rival in Europe. This time he outdid even himself.
"Ah," you say, "but 'pluck' is one thing, endurance another. A man who doesn't reel on receipt of his death-warrant may yet break down when he has had time to think it over. How did the Duke acquit himself when he came to the end of his cigarette? And by the way, how was it that after he had read the telegram you didn't give him again an hour's grace?"
In a way, you have a perfect right to ask both those questions. But their very pertinence shows that you think I might omit things that matter. Please don't interrupt me again. Am I writing this history, or are you?
Though the news that he must die was a yet sharper douche, as you have suggested, than the douche inflicted by Zuleika, it did at least leave unscathed the Duke's pride. The gods can make a man ridiculous through a woman, but they cannot make him ridiculous when they deal him a blow direct. The very greatness of their power makes them, in that respect, impotent. They had decreed that the Duke should die, and they had told him so. There was nothing to demean him in that. True, he had just measured himself against them. But there was no shame in being gravelled. The peripety was according to the best rules of tragic art. The whole thing was in the grand manner.
Thus I felt that there were no indelicacy, this time, in watching him. Just as "pluck" comes of breeding, so is endurance especially an attribute of the artist. Because he can stand outside himself, and (if there be nothing ignoble in them) take a pleasure in his own sufferings, the artist has a huge advantage over you and me. The Duke, so soon as Zuleika's spell was broken, had become himself again—a highly self-conscious artist in life. And now, standing pensive on the doorstep, he was almost enviable in his great affliction.
Through the wreaths of smoke which, as they came from his lips, hung in the sultry air as they would have hung in a closed room, he gazed up at the steadfast thunder-clouds. How nobly they had been massed for him! One of them, a particularly large and dark one, might with advantage, he thought, have been placed a little further to the left. He made a gesture to that effect. Instantly the cloud rolled into position. The gods were painfully anxious, now, to humour him in trifles. His behaviour in the great emergency had so impressed them at a distance that they rather dreaded meeting him anon at close quarters. They rather wished they had not uncaged, last night, the two black owls. Too late. What they had done they had done.
That faint monotonous sound in the stillness of the night—the Duke remembered it now. What he had thought to be only his fancy had been his death-knell, wafted to him along uncharted waves of ether, from the battlements of Tankerton. It had ceased at daybreak. He wondered now that he had not guessed its meaning. And he was glad that he had not. He was thankful for the peace that had been granted to him, the joyous arrogance in which he had gone to bed and got up for breakfast. He valued these mercies the more for the great tragic irony that came of them. Aye, and he was inclined to blame the gods for not having kept him still longer in the dark and so made the irony still more awful. Why had they not caused the telegram to be delayed in transmission? They ought to have let him go and riddle Zuleika with his scorn and his indifference. They ought to have let him hurl through her his defiance of them. Art aside, they need not have grudged him that excursion.
He could not, he told himself, face Zuleika now. As artist, he saw that there was irony enough left over to make the meeting a fine one. As theologian, he did not hold her responsible for his destiny. But as a man, after what she had done to him last night, and before what he had to do for her to-day, he would not go out of his way to meet her. Of course, he would not actually avoid her. To seem to run away from her were beneath his dignity. But, if he did meet her, what in heaven's name should he say to her? He remembered his promise to lunch with The MacQuern, and shuddered. She would be there. Death, as he had said, cancelled all engagements. A very simple way out of the difficulty would be to go straight to the river. No, that would be like running away. It couldn't be done.
Hardly had he rejected the notion when he had a glimpse of a female figure coming quickly round the corner—a glimpse that sent him walking quickly away, across the road, towards Turl Street, blushing violently. Had she seen him? he asked himself. And had she seen that he saw her? He heard her running after him. He did not look round, he quickened his pace. She was gaining on him. Involuntarily, he ran—ran like a hare, and, at the corner of Turl Street, rose like a trout, saw the pavement rise at him, and fell, with a bang, prone.
Let it be said at once that in this matter the gods were absolutely blameless. It is true they had decreed that a piece of orange-peel should be thrown down this morning at the corner of Turl Street. But the Master of Balliol, not the Duke, was the person they had destined to slip on it. You must not imagine that they think out and appoint everything that is to befall us, down to the smallest detail. Generally, they just draw a sort of broad outline, and leave us to fill it in according to our taste. Thus, in the matters of which this book is record, it was they who made the Warden invite his grand-daughter to Oxford, and invite the Duke to meet her on the evening of her arrival. And it was they who prompted the Duke to die for her on the following (Tuesday) afternoon. They had intended that he should execute his resolve after, or before, the boat-race of that evening. But an oversight upset this plan. They had forgotten on Monday night to uncage the two black owls; and so it was necessary that the Duke's death should be postponed. They accordingly prompted Zuleika to save him. For the rest, they let the tragedy run its own course—merely putting in a felicitous touch here and there, or vetoing a superfluity, such as that Katie should open Zuleika's letter. It was no part of their scheme that the Duke should mistake Melisande for her mistress, or that he should run away from her, and they were genuinely sorry when he, instead of the Master of Balliol, came to grief over the orange-peel.
Them, however, the Duke cursed as he fell; them again as he raised himself on one elbow, giddy and sore; and when he found that the woman bending over him was not she whom he dreaded, but her innocent maid, it was against them that he almost foamed at the mouth.
"Monsieur le Duc has done himself harm—no?" panted Melisande. "Here is a letter from Miss Dobson's part. She say to me 'Give it him with your own hand.'"
The Duke received the letter and, sitting upright, tore it to shreds, thus confirming a suspicion which Melisande had conceived at the moment when he took to his heels, that all English noblemen are mad, but mad, and of a madness.
"Nom de Dieu," she cried, wringing her hands, "what shall I tell to Mademoiselle?"
"Tell her—" the Duke choked back a phrase of which the memory would have shamed his last hours. "Tell her," he substituted, "that you have seen Marius sitting among the ruins of Carthage," and limped quickly away down the Turl.
Both his hands had been abraded by the fall. He tended them angrily with his handkerchief. Mr. Druce, the chemist, had anon the privilege of bathing and plastering them, also of balming and binding the right knee and the left shin. "Might have been a very nasty accident, your Grace," he said. "It was," said the Duke. Mr. Druce concurred.
Nevertheless, Mr. Druce's remark sank deep. The Duke thought it quite likely that the gods had intended the accident to be fatal, and that only by his own skill and lightness in falling had he escaped the ignominy of dying in full flight from a lady's-maid. He had not, you see, lost all sense of free-will. While Mr. Druce put the finishing touches to his shin, "I am utterly purposed," he said to himself, "that for this death of mine I will choose my own manner and my own—well, not 'time' exactly, but whatever moment within my brief span of life shall seem aptest to me. Unberufen," he added, lightly tapping Mr. Druce's counter.
The sight of some bottles of Cold Mixture on that hospitable board reminded him of a painful fact. In the clash of the morning's excitements, he had hardly felt the gross ailment that was on him. He became fully conscious of it now, and there leapt in him a hideous doubt: had he escaped a violent death only to succumb to "natural causes"? He had never hitherto had anything the matter with him, and thus he belonged to the worst, the most apprehensive, class of patients. He knew that a cold, were it neglected, might turn malignant; and he had a vision of himself gripped suddenly in the street by internal agonies—a sympathetic crowd, an ambulance, his darkened bedroom; local doctor making hopelessly wrong diagnosis; eminent specialists served up hot by special train, commending local doctor's treatment, but shaking their heads and refusing to say more than "He has youth on his side"; a slight rally at sunset; the end. All this flashed through his mind. He quailed. There was not a moment to lose. He frankly confessed to Mr. Druce that he had a cold.
Mr. Druce, trying to insinuate by his manner that this fact had not been obvious, suggested the Mixture—a teaspoonful every two hours. "Give me some now, please, at once," said the Duke.
He felt magically better for the draught. He handled the little glass lovingly, and eyed the bottle. "Why not two teaspoonfuls every hour?" he suggested, with an eagerness almost dipsomaniacal. But Mr. Druce was respectfully firm against that. The Duke yielded. He fancied, indeed, that the gods had meant him to die of an overdose.
Still, he had a craving for more. Few though his hours were, he hoped the next two would pass quickly. And, though he knew Mr. Druce could be trusted to send the bottle round to his rooms immediately, he preferred to carry it away with him. He slipped it into the breast-pocket of his coat, almost heedless of the slight extrusion it made there.
Just as he was about to cross the High again, on his way home, a butcher's cart dashed down the slope, recklessly driven. He stepped well back on the pavement, and smiled a sardonic smile. He looked to right and to left, carefully gauging the traffic. Some time elapsed before he deemed the road clear enough for transit.
Safely across, he encountered a figure that seemed to loom up out of the dim past. Oover! Was it but yesternight that Oover dined with him? With the sensation of a man groping among archives, he began to apologise to the Rhodes Scholar for having left him so abruptly at the Junta. Then, presto!—as though those musty archives were changed to a crisp morning paper agog with terrific head-lines—he remembered the awful resolve of Oover, and of all young Oxford.
"Of course," he asked, with a lightness that hardly hid his dread of the answer, "you have dismissed the notion you were toying with when I left you?"
Oover's face, like his nature, was as sensitive as it was massive, and it instantly expressed his pain at the doubt cast on his high seriousness. "Duke," he asked, "d'you take me for a skunk?"
"Without pretending to be quite sure what a skunk is," said the Duke, "I take you to be all that it isn't. And the high esteem in which I hold you is the measure for me of the loss that your death would be to America and to Oxford."
Oover blushed. "Duke" he said "that's a bully testimonial. But don't worry. America can turn out millions just like me, and Oxford can have as many of them as she can hold. On the other hand, how many of YOU can be turned out, as per sample, in England? Yet you choose to destroy yourself. You avail yourself of the Unwritten Law. And you're right, Sir. Love transcends all."
"But does it? What if I told you I had changed my mind?"
"Then, Duke," said Oover, slowly, "I should believe that all those yarns I used to hear about the British aristocracy were true, after all. I should aver that you were not a white man. Leading us on like that, and then—Say, Duke! Are you going to die to-day, or not?"
"As a matter of fact, I am, but—"
Oover wrung the Duke's hand, and was passing on. "Stay!" he was adjured.
"Sorry, unable. It's just turning eleven o'clock, and I've a lecture. While life lasts, I'm bound to respect Rhodes' intentions." The conscientious Scholar hurried away.
The Duke wandered down the High, taking counsel with himself. He was ashamed of having so utterly forgotten the mischief he had wrought at large. At dawn he had vowed to undo it. Undo it he must. But the task was not a simple one now. If he could say "Behold, I take back my word. I spurn Miss Dobson, and embrace life," it was possible that his example would suffice. But now that he could only say "Behold, I spurn Miss Dobson, and will not die for her, but I am going to commit suicide, all the same," it was clear that his words would carry very little force. Also, he saw with pain that they placed him in a somewhat ludicrous position. His end, as designed yesterday, had a large and simple grandeur. So had his recantation of it. But this new compromise between the two things had a fumbled, a feeble, an ignoble look. It seemed to combine all the disadvantages of both courses. It stained his honour without prolonging his life. Surely, this was a high price to pay for snubbing Zuleika... Yes, he must revert without more ado to his first scheme. He must die in the manner that he had blazoned forth. And he must do it with a good grace, none knowing he was not glad; else the action lost all dignity. True, this was no way to be a saviour. But only by not dying at all could he have set a really potent example.... He remembered the look that had come into Oover's eyes just now at the notion of his unfaith. Perhaps he would have been the mock, not the saviour, of Oxford. Better dishonour than death, maybe. But, since die he must, he must die not belittling or tarnishing the name of Tanville-Tankerton.
Within these bounds, however, he must put forth his full might to avert the general catastrophe—and to punish Zuleika nearly well enough, after all, by intercepting that vast nosegay from her outstretched hands and her distended nostrils. There was no time to be lost, then. But he wondered, as he paced the grand curve between St. Mary's and Magdalen Bridge, just how was he to begin?
Down the flight of steps from Queen's came lounging an average undergraduate.
"Mr. Smith," said the Duke, "a word with you."
"But my name is not Smith," said the young man.
"Generically it is," replied the Duke. "You are Smith to all intents and purposes. That, indeed, is why I address you. In making your acquaintance, I make a thousand acquaintances. You are a short cut to knowledge. Tell me, do you seriously think of drowning yourself this afternoon?"
"Rather," said the undergraduate.
"A meiosis in common use, equivalent to 'Yes, assuredly,'" murmured the Duke. "And why," he then asked, "do you mean to do this?"
"Why? How can you ask? Why are YOU going to do it?"
"The Socratic manner is not a game at which two can play. Please answer my question, to the best of your ability."
"Well, because I can't live without her. Because I want to prove my love for her. Because—"
"One reason at a time please," said the Duke, holding up his hand. "You can't live without her? Then I am to assume that you look forward to dying?"
"You are truly happy in that prospect?"
"Now, suppose I showed you two pieces of equally fine amber—a big one and a little one. Which of these would you rather possess?"
"The big one, I suppose."
"And this because it is better to have more than to have less of a good thing?"
"Do you consider happiness a good thing or a bad one?"
"A good one."
"So that a man would rather have more than less of happiness?"
"Then does it not seem to you that you would do well to postpone your suicide indefinitely?"
"But I have just said I can't live without her."
"You have still more recently declared yourself truly happy."
"Now, be careful, Mr. Smith. Remember, this is a matter of life and death. Try to do yourself justice. I have asked you—"
But the undergraduate was walking away, not without a certain dignity.
The Duke felt that he had not handled his man skilfully. He remembered that even Socrates, for all the popular charm of his mock-modesty and his true geniality, had ceased after a while to be tolerable. Without such a manner to grace his method, Socrates would have had a very brief time indeed. The Duke recoiled from what he took to be another pitfall. He almost smelt hemlock.
A party of four undergraduates abreast was approaching. How should he address them? His choice wavered between the evangelic wistfulness of "Are you saved?" and the breeziness of the recruiting sergeant's "Come, you're fine upstanding young fellows. Isn't it a pity," etc. Meanwhile, the quartet had passed by.
Two other undergraduates approached. The Duke asked them simply as a personal favour to himself not to throw away their lives. They said they were very sorry, but in this particular matter they must please themselves. In vain he pled. They admitted that but for his example they would never have thought of dying. They wished they could show him their gratitude in any way but the one which would rob them of it.
The Duke drifted further down the High, bespeaking every undergraduate he met, leaving untried no argument, no inducement. For one man, whose name he happened to know, he invented an urgent personal message from Miss Dobson imploring him not to die on her account. On another man he offered to settle by hasty codicil a sum of money sufficient to yield an annual income of two thousand pounds—three thousand—any sum within reason. With another he offered to walk, arm in arm, to Carfax and back again. All to no avail.
He found himself in the precincts of Magdalen, preaching from the little open-air pulpit there an impassioned sermon on the sacredness of human life, and referring to Zuleika in terms which John Knox would have hesitated to utter. As he piled up the invective, he noticed an ominous restiveness in the congregation—murmurs, clenching of hands, dark looks. He saw the pulpit as yet another trap laid for him by the gods. He had walked straight into it: another moment, and he might be dragged down, overwhelmed by numbers, torn limb from limb. All that was in him of quelling power he put hastily into his eyes, and manoeuvred his tongue to gentler discourse, deprecating his right to judge "this lady," and merely pointing the marvel, the awful though noble folly, of his resolve. He ended on a note of quiet pathos. "To-night I shall be among the shades. There be not you, my brothers."
Good though the sermon was in style and sentiment, the flaw in its reasoning was too patent for any converts to be made. As he walked out of the quadrangle, the Duke felt the hopelessness of his cause. Still he battled bravely for it up the High, waylaying, cajoling, commanding, offering vast bribes. He carried his crusade into the Loder, and thence into Vincent's, and out into the street again, eager, untiring, unavailing: everywhere he found his precept checkmated by his example.
The sight of The MacQuern coming out top-speed from the Market, with a large but inexpensive bunch of flowers, reminded him of the luncheon that was to be. Never to throw over an engagement was for him, as we have seen, a point of honour. But this particular engagement—hateful, when he accepted it, by reason of his love—was now impossible for the reason which had made him take so ignominiously to his heels this morning. He curtly told the Scot not to expect him.
"Is SHE not coming?" gasped the Scot, with quick suspicion.
"Oh," said the Duke, turning on his heel, "she doesn't know that I shan't be there. You may count on her." This he took to be the very truth, and he was glad to have made of it a thrust at the man who had so uncouthly asserted himself last night. He could not help smiling, though, at this little resentment erect after the cataclysm that had swept away all else. Then he smiled to think how uneasy Zuleika would be at his absence. What agonies of suspense she must have had all this morning! He imagined her silent at the luncheon, with a vacant gaze at the door, eating nothing at all. And he became aware that he was rather hungry. He had done all he could to save young Oxford. Now for some sandwiches! He went into the Junta.
As he rang the dining-room bell, his eyes rested on the miniature of Nellie O'Mora. And the eyes of Nellie O'Mora seemed to meet his in reproach. Just as she may have gazed at Greddon when he cast her off, so now did she gaze at him who a few hours ago had refused to honour her memory.
Yes, and many other eyes than hers rebuked him. It was around the walls of this room that hung those presentments of the Junta as focussed, year after year, in a certain corner of Tom Quad, by Messrs. Hills and Saunders. All around, the members of the little hierarchy, a hierarchy ever changing in all but youth and a certain sternness of aspect that comes at the moment of being immortalised, were gazing forth now with a sternness beyond their wont. Not one of them but had in his day handed on loyally the praise of Nellie O'Mora, in the form their Founder had ordained. And the Duke's revolt last night had so incensed them that they would, if they could, have come down from their frames and walked straight out of the club, in chronological order—first, the men of the 'sixties, almost as near in time to Greddon as to the Duke, all so gloriously be-whiskered and cravated, but how faded now, alas, by exposure; and last of all in the procession and angrier perhaps than any of them, the Duke himself—the Duke of a year ago, President and sole Member.
But, as he gazed into the eyes of Nellie O'Mora now, Dorset needed not for penitence the reproaches of his past self or of his forerunners. "Sweet girl," he murmured, "forgive me. I was mad. I was under the sway of a deplorable infatuation. It is past. See," he murmured with a delicacy of feeling that justified the untruth, "I am come here for the express purpose of undoing my impiety." And, turning to the club-waiter who at this moment answered the bell, he said "Bring me a glass of port, please, Barrett." Of sandwiches he said nothing.
At the word "See" he had stretched one hand towards Nellie; the other he had laid on his heart, where it seemed to encounter some sort of hard obstruction. This he vaguely fingered, wondering what it might be, while he gave his order to Barrett. With a sudden cry he dipped his hand into his breast-pocket and drew forth the bottle he had borne away from Mr. Druce's. He snatched out his watch: one o'clock!—fifteen minutes overdue. Wildly he called the waiter back. "A tea-spoon, quick! No port. A wine-glass and a tea-spoon. And—for I don't mind telling you, Barrett, that your mission is of an urgency beyond conjecture—take lightning for your model. Go!"
Agitation mastered him. He tried vainly to feel his pulse, well knowing that if he found it he could deduce nothing from its action. He saw himself haggard in the looking-glass. Would Barrett never come? "Every two hours"—the directions were explicit. Had he delivered himself into the gods' hands? The eyes of Nellie O'Mora were on him compassionately; and all the eyes of his forerunners were on him in austere scorn: "See," they seemed to be saying, "the chastisement of last night's blasphemy." Violently, insistently, he rang the bell.
In rushed Barrett at last. From the tea-spoon into the wine-glass the Duke poured the draught of salvation, and then, raising it aloft, he looked around at his fore-runners and in a firm voice cried "Gentlemen, I give you Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be." He drained his glass, heaved the deep sigh of a double satisfaction, dismissed with a glance the wondering Barrett, and sat down.
He was glad to be able to face Nellie with a clear conscience. Her eyes were not less sad now, but it seemed to him that their sadness came of a knowledge that she would never see him again. She seemed to be saying to him "Had you lived in my day, it is you that I would have loved, not Greddon." And he made silent answer, "Had you lived in my day, I should have been Dobson-proof." He realised, however, that to Zuleika he owed the tenderness he now felt for Miss O'Mora. It was Zuleika that had cured him of his aseity. She it was that had made his heart a warm and negotiable thing. Yes, and that was the final cruelty. To love and be loved—this, he had come to know, was all that mattered. Yesterday, to love and die had seemed felicity enough. Now he knew that the secret, the open secret, of happiness was in mutual love—a state that needed not the fillip of death. And he had to die without having ever lived. Admiration, homage, fear, he had sown broadcast. The one woman who had loved him had turned to stone because he loved her. Death would lose much of its sting for him if there were somewhere in the world just one woman, however lowly, whose heart would be broken by his dying. What a pity Nellie O'Mora was not really extant!
Suddenly he recalled certain words lightly spoken yesterday by Zuleika. She had told him he was loved by the girl who waited on him—the daughter of his landlady. Was this so? He had seen no sign of it, had received no token of it. But, after all, how should he have seen a sign of anything in one whom he had never consciously visualised? That she had never thrust herself on his notice might mean merely that she had been well brought-up. What likelier than that the daughter of Mrs. Batch, that worthy soul, had been well brought up?
Here, at any rate, was the chance of a new element in his life, or rather in his death. Here, possibly, was a maiden to mourn him. He would lunch in his rooms.
With a farewell look at Nellie's miniature, he took the medicine-bottle from the table, and went quickly out. The heavens had grown steadily darker and darker, the air more sulphurous and baleful. And the High had a strangely woebegone look, being all forsaken by youth, in this hour of luncheon. Even so would its look be all to-morrow, thought the Duke, and for many morrows. Well he had done what he could. He was free now to brighten a little his own last hours. He hastened on, eager to see the landlady's daughter. He wondered what she was like, and whether she really loved him.
As he threw open the door of his sitting-room, he was aware of a rustle, a rush, a cry. In another instant, he was aware of Zuleika Dobson at his feet, at his knees, clasping him to her, sobbing, laughing, sobbing.