For what happened a few moments later you must not blame him. Some measure of force was the only way out of an impossible situation. It was in vain that he commanded the young lady to let go: she did but cling the closer. It was in vain that he tried to disentangle himself of her by standing first on one foot, then on the other, and veering sharply on his heel: she did but sway as though hinged to him. He had no choice but to grasp her by the wrists, cast her aside, and step clear of her into the room.
Her hat, gauzily basking with a pair of long white gloves on one of his arm-chairs, proclaimed that she had come to stay.
Nor did she rise. Propped on one elbow, with heaving bosom and parted lips, she seemed to be trying to realise what had been done to her. Through her undried tears her eyes shone up to him.
He asked: "To what am I indebted for this visit?"
"Ah, say that again!" she murmured. "Your voice is music."
He repeated his question.
"Music!" she said dreamily; and such is the force of habit that "I don't," she added, "know anything about music, really. But I know what I like."
"Had you not better get up from the floor?" he said. "The door is open, and any one who passed might see you."
Softly she stroked the carpet with the palms of her hands. "Happy carpet!" she crooned. "Aye, happy the very women that wove the threads that are trod by the feet of my beloved master. But hark! he bids his slave rise and stand before him!"
Just after she had risen, a figure appeared in the doorway.
"I beg pardon, your Grace; Mother wants to know, will you be lunching in?"
"Yes," said the Duke. "I will ring when I am ready." And it dawned on him that this girl, who perhaps loved him, was, according to all known standards, extraordinarily pretty.
"Will—" she hesitated, "will Miss Dobson be—"
"No," he said. "I shall be alone." And there was in the girl's parting half-glance at Zuleika that which told him he was truly loved, and made him the more impatient of his offensive and accursed visitor.
"You want to be rid of me?" asked Zuleika, when the girl was gone.
"I have no wish to be rude; but—since you force me to say it—yes."
"Then take me," she cried, throwing back her arms, "and throw me out of the window."
He smiled coldly.
"You think I don't mean it? You think I would struggle? Try me." She let herself droop sideways, in an attitude limp and portable. "Try me," she repeated.
"All this is very well conceived, no doubt," said he, "and well executed. But it happens to be otiose."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you may set your mind at rest. I am not going to back out of my promise."
Zuleika flushed. "You are cruel. I would give the world and all not to have written you that hateful letter. Forget it, forget it, for pity's sake!"
The Duke looked searchingly at her. "You mean that you now wish to release me from my promise?"
"Release you? As if you were ever bound! Don't torture me!"
He wondered what deep game she was playing. Very real, though, her anguish seemed; and, if real it was, then—he stared, he gasped—there could be but one explanation. He put it to her. "You love me?"
"With all my soul."
His heart leapt. If she spoke truth, then indeed vengeance was his! But "What proof have I?" he asked her.
"Proof? Have men absolutely NO intuition? If you need proof, produce it. Where are my ear-rings?"
"Your ear-rings? Why?"
Impatiently she pointed to two white pearls that fastened the front of her blouse. "These are your studs. It was from them I had the great first hint this morning."
"Black and pink, were they not, when you took them?"
"Of course. And then I forgot that I had them. When I undressed, they must have rolled on to the carpet. Melisande found them this morning when she was making the room ready for me to dress. That was just after she came back from bringing you my first letter. I was bewildered. I doubted. Might not the pearls have gone back to their natural state simply through being yours no more? That is why I wrote again to you, my own darling—a frantic little questioning letter. When I heard how you had torn it up, I knew, I knew that the pearls had not mocked me. I telescoped my toilet and came rushing round to you. How many hours have I been waiting for you?"
The Duke had drawn her ear-rings from his waistcoat pocket, and was contemplating them in the palm of his hand. Blanched, both of them, yes. He laid them on the table. "Take them," he said.
"No," she shuddered. "I could never forget that once they were both black." She flung them into the fender. "Oh John," she cried, turning to him and falling again to her knees, "I do so want to forget what I have been. I want to atone. You think you can drive me out of your life. You cannot, darling—since you won't kill me. Always I shall follow you on my knees, thus."
He looked down at her over his folded arms,
"I am not going to back out of my promise," he repeated.
She stopped her ears.
With a stern joy he unfolded his arms, took some papers from his breast-pocket, and, selecting one of them, handed it to her. It was the telegram sent by his steward.
She read it. With a stern joy he watched her reading it.
Wild-eyed, she looked up from it to him, tried to speak, and swerved down senseless.
He had not foreseen this. "Help!" he vaguely cried—was she not a fellow-creature?—and rushed blindly out to his bedroom, whence he returned, a moment later, with the water-jug. He dipped his hand, and sprinkled the upturned face (Dew-drops on a white rose? But some other, sharper analogy hovered to him). He dipped and sprinkled. The water-beads broke, mingled—rivulets now. He dipped and flung, then caught the horrible analogy and rebounded.
It was at this moment that Zuleika opened her eyes. "Where am I?" She weakly raised herself on one elbow; and the suspension of the Duke's hatred would have been repealed simultaneously with that of her consciousness, had it not already been repealed by the analogy. She put a hand to her face, then looked at the wet palm wonderingly, looked at the Duke, saw the water-jug beside him. She, too, it seemed, had caught the analogy; for with a wan smile she said "We are quits now, John, aren't we?"
Her poor little jest drew to the Duke's face no answering smile, did but make hotter the blush there. The wave of her returning memory swept on—swept up to her with a roar the instant past. "Oh," she cried, staggering to her feet, "the owls, the owls!"
Vengeance was his, and "Yes, there," he said, "is the ineluctable hard fact you wake to. The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day your wish is to be fulfilled."
"The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day—oh, it must not be, John! Heaven have mercy on me!"
"The unerring owls have hooted. The dispiteous and humorous gods have spoken. Miss Dobson, it has to be. And let me remind you," he added, with a glance at his watch, "that you ought not to keep The MacQuern waiting for luncheon."
"That is unworthy of you," she said. There was in her eyes a look that made the words sound as if they had been spoken by a dumb animal.
"You have sent him an excuse?"
"No, I have forgotten him."
"That is unworthy of you. After all, he is going to die for you, like the rest of us. I am but one of a number, you know. Use your sense of proportion."
"If I do that," she said after a pause, "you may not be pleased by the issue. I may find that whereas yesterday I was great in my sinfulness, and to-day am great in my love, you, in your hate of me, are small. I may find that what I had taken to be a great indifference is nothing but a very small hate... Ah, I have wounded you? Forgive me, a weak woman, talking at random in her wretchedness. Oh John, John, if I thought you small, my love would but take on the crown of pity. Don't forbid me to call you John. I looked you up in Debrett while I was waiting for you. That seemed to bring you nearer to me. So many other names you have, too. I remember you told me them all yesterday, here in this room—not twenty-four hours ago. Hours? Years!" She laughed hysterically. "John, don't you see why I won't stop talking? It's because I dare not think."
"Yonder in Balliol," he suavely said, "you will find the matter of my death easier to forget than here." He took her hat and gloves from the arm-chair, and held them carefully out to her; but she did not take them.
"I give you three minutes," he told her. "Two minutes, that is, in which to make yourself tidy before the mirror. A third in which to say good-bye and be outside the front-door."
"If I refuse?"
"You will not."
"If I do?"
"I shall send for a policeman."
She looked well at him. "Yes," she slowly said, "I think you would do that."
She took her things from him, and laid them by the mirror. With a high hand she quelled the excesses of her hair—some of the curls still agleam with water—and knowingly poised and pinned her hat. Then, after a few swift touches and passes at neck and waist, she took her gloves and, wheeling round to him, "There!" she said, "I have been quick."
"Admirably," he allowed.
"Quick in more than meets the eye, John. Spiritually quick. You saw me putting on my hat; you did not see love taking on the crown of pity, and me bonneting her with it, tripping her up and trampling the life out of her. Oh, a most cold-blooded business, John! Had to be done, though. No other way out. So I just used my sense of proportion, as you rashly bade me, and then hardened my heart at sight of you as you are. One of a number? Yes, and a quite unlovable unit. So I am all right again. And now, where is Balliol? Far from here?"
"No," he answered, choking a little, as might a card-player who, having been dealt a splendid hand, and having played it with flawless skill, has yet—damn it!—lost the odd trick. "Balliol is quite near. At the end of this street in fact. I can show it to you from the front-door."
Yes, he had controlled himself. But this, he furiously felt, did not make him look the less a fool. What ought he to have SAID? He prayed, as he followed the victorious young woman downstairs, that l'esprit de l'escalier might befall him. Alas, it did not.
"By the way," she said, when he had shown her where Balliol lay, "have you told anybody that you aren't dying just for me?"
"No," he answered, "I have preferred not to."
"Then officially, as it were, and in the eyes of the world, you die for me? Then all's well that ends well. Shall we say good-bye here? I shall be on the Judas Barge; but I suppose there will be a crush, as yesterday?"
"Sure to be. There always is on the last night of the Eights, you know. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, little John—small John," she cried across her shoulder, having the last word.