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Zuleika Dobson

XVIII

Her actual offspring does not suffice a very motherly woman. Such a woman was Mrs. Batch. Had she been blest with a dozen children, she must yet have regarded herself as also a mother to whatever two young gentlemen were lodging under her roof. Childless but for Katie and Clarence, she had for her successive pairs of tenants a truly vast fund of maternal feeling to draw on. Nor were the drafts made in secret. To every gentleman, from the outset, she proclaimed the relation in which she would stand to him. Moreover, always she needed a strong filial sense in return: this was only fair.

Because the Duke was an orphan, even more than because he was a Duke, her heart had with a special rush gone out to him when he and Mr. Noaks became her tenants. But, perhaps because he had never known a mother, he was evidently quite incapable of conceiving either Mrs. Batch as his mother or himself as her son. Indeed, there was that in his manner, in his look, which made her falter, for once, in exposition of her theory—made her postpone the matter to some more favourable time. That time never came, somehow. Still, her solicitude for him, her pride in him, her sense that he was a great credit to her, rather waxed than waned. He was more to her (such are the vagaries of the maternal instinct) than Katie or Mr. Noaks: he was as much as Clarence.

It was, therefore, a deeply agitated woman who now came heaving up into the Duke's presence. His Grace was "giving notice"? She was sure she begged his pardon for coming up so sudden. But the news was that sudden. Hadn't her girl made a mistake, maybe? Girls were so vague-like nowadays. She was sure it was most kind of him to give those handsome ear-rings. But the thought of him going off so unexpected—middle of term, too—with never a why or a but! Well!

In some such welter of homely phrase (how foreign to these classic pages!) did Mrs. Batch utter her pain. The Duke answered her tersely but kindly. He apologised for going so abruptly, and said he would be very happy to write for her future use a testimonial to the excellence of her rooms and of her cooking; and with it he would give her a cheque not only for the full term's rent, and for his board since the beginning of term, but also for such board as he would have been likely to have in the term's remainder. He asked her to present her accounts forthwith.

He occupied the few minutes of her absence by writing the testimonial. It had shaped itself in his mind as a short ode in Doric Greek. But, for the benefit of Mrs. Batch, he chose to do a rough equivalent in English.

TO AN UNDERGRADUATE NEEDING
ROOMS IN OXFORD

(A Sonnet in Oxfordshire Dialect)

Zeek w'ere thee will in t'Univursity,
Lad, thee'll not vind nor bread nor bed that
matches
Them as thee'll vind, roight zure, at Mrs.
Batch's...

I do not quote the poem in extenso, because, frankly, I think it was one of his least happily-inspired works. His was not a Muse that could with a good grace doff the grand manner. Also, his command of the Oxfordshire dialect seems to me based less on study than on conjecture. In fact, I do not place the poem higher than among the curiosities of literature. It has extrinsic value, however, as illustrating the Duke's thoughtfulness for others in the last hours of his life. And to Mrs. Batch the MS., framed and glazed in her hall, is an asset beyond price (witness her recent refusal of Mr. Pierpont Morgan's sensational bid for it).

This MS. she received together with the Duke's cheque. The presentation was made some twenty minutes after she had laid her accounts before him.

Lavish in giving large sums of his own accord, he was apt to be circumspect in the matter of small payments. Such is ever the way of opulent men. Nor do I see that we have a right to sneer at them for it. We cannot deny that their existence is a temptation to us. It is in our fallen nature to want to get something out of them; and, as we think in small sums (heaven knows), it is of small sums that they are careful. Absurd to suppose they really care about halfpence. It must, therefore, be about us that they care; and we ought to be grateful to them for the pains they are at to keep us guiltless. I do not suggest that Mrs. Batch had at any point overcharged the Duke; but how was he to know that she had not done so, except by checking the items, as was his wont? The reductions that he made, here and there, did not in all amount to three-and-sixpence. I do not say they were just. But I do say that his motive for making them, and his satisfaction at having made them, were rather beautiful than otherwise.

Having struck an average of Mrs. Batch's weekly charges, and a similar average of his own reductions, he had a basis on which to reckon his board for the rest of the term. This amount he added to Mrs. Batch's amended total, plus the full term's rent, and accordingly drew a cheque on the local bank where he had an account. Mrs. Batch said she would bring up a stamped receipt directly; but this the Duke waived, saying that the cashed cheque itself would be a sufficient receipt. Accordingly, he reduced by one penny the amount written on the cheque. Remembering to initial the correction, he remembered also, with a melancholy smile, that to-morrow the cheque would not be negotiable. Handing it, and the sonnet, to Mrs. Batch, he bade her cash it before the bank closed. "And," he said, with a glance at his watch, "you have no time to lose. It is a quarter to four." Only two hours and a quarter before the final races! How quickly the sands were running out!

Mrs. Batch paused on the threshold, wanted to know if she could "help with the packing." The Duke replied that he was taking nothing with him: his various things would be sent for, packed, and removed, within a few days. No, he did not want her to order a cab. He was going to walk. And "Good-bye, Mrs. Batch," he said. "For legal reasons with which I won't burden you, you really must cash that cheque at once."

He sat down in solitude; and there crept over him a mood of deep depression... Almost two hours and a quarter before the final races! What on earth should he do in the meantime? He seemed to have done all that there was for him to do. His executors would do the rest. He had no farewell-letters to write. He had no friends with whom he was on terms of valediction. There was nothing at all for him to do. He stared blankly out of the window, at the greyness and blackness of the sky. What a day! What a climate! Why did any sane person live in England? He felt positively suicidal.

His dully vagrant eye lighted on the bottle of Cold Mixture. He ought to have dosed himself a full hour ago. Well, he didn't care.

Had Zuleika noticed the bottle? he idly wondered. Probably not. She would have made some sprightly reference to it before she went.

Since there was nothing to do but sit and think, he wished he could recapture that mood in which at luncheon he had been able to see Zuleika as an object for pity. Never, till to-day, had he seen things otherwise than they were. Nor had he ever needed to. Never, till last night, had there been in his life anything he needed to forget. That woman! As if it really mattered what she thought of him. He despised himself for wishing to forget she despised him. But the wish was the measure of the need. He eyed the chiffonier. Should he again solicit the grape?

Reluctantly he uncorked the crusted bottle, and filled a glass. Was he come to this? He sighed and sipped, quaffed and sighed. The spell of the old stored sunshine seemed not to work, this time. He could not cease from plucking at the net of ignominies in which his soul lay enmeshed. Would that he had died yesterday, escaping how much!

Not for an instant did he flinch from the mere fact of dying to-day. Since he was not immortal, as he had supposed, it were as well he should die now as fifty years hence. Better, indeed. To die "untimely," as men called it, was the timeliest of all deaths for one who had carved his youth to greatness. What perfection could he, Dorset, achieve beyond what was already his? Future years could but stale, if not actually mar, that perfection. Yes, it was lucky to perish leaving much to the imagination of posterity. Dear posterity was of a sentimental, not a realistic, habit. She always imagined the dead young hero prancing gloriously up to the Psalmist's limit a young hero still; and it was the sense of her vast loss that kept his memory green. Byron!—he would be all forgotten to-day if he had lived to be a florid old gentleman with iron-grey whiskers, writing very long, very able letters to "The Times" about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Yes, Byron would have been that. It was indicated in him. He would have been an old gentleman exacerbated by Queen Victoria's invincible prejudice against him, her brusque refusal to "entertain" Lord John Russell's timid nomination of him for a post in the Government... Shelley would have been a poet to the last. But how dull, how very dull, would have been the poetry of his middle age!—a great unreadable mass interposed between him and us... Did Byron, mused the Duke, know what was to be at Missolonghi? Did he know that he was to die in service of the Greeks whom he despised? Byron might not have minded that. But what if the Greeks had told him, in so many words, that they despised HIM? How would he have felt then? Would he have been content with his potations of barley-water?... The Duke replenished his glass, hoping the spell might work yet.... Perhaps, had Byron not been a dandy—but ah, had he not been in his soul a dandy there would have been no Byron worth mentioning. And it was because he guarded not his dandyism against this and that irrelevant passion, sexual or political, that he cut so annoyingly incomplete a figure. He was absurd in his politics, vulgar in his loves. Only in himself, at the times when he stood haughtily aloof, was he impressive. Nature, fashioning him, had fashioned also a pedestal for him to stand and brood on, to pose and sing on. Off that pedestal he was lost.... "The idol has come sliding down from its pedestal"—the Duke remembered these words spoken yesterday by Zuleika. Yes, at the moment when he slid down, he, too, was lost. For him, master-dandy, the common arena was no place. What had he to do with love? He was an utter fool at it. Byron had at least had some fun out of it. What fun had HE had? Last night, he had forgotten to kiss Zuleika when he held her by the wrists. To-day it had been as much as he could do to let poor little Katie kiss his hand. Better be vulgar with Byron than a noodle with Dorset! he bitterly reflected... Still, noodledom was nearer than vulgarity to dandyism. It was a less flagrant lapse. And he had over Byron this further advantage: his noodledom was not a matter of common knowledge; whereas Byron's vulgarity had ever needed to be in the glare of the footlights of Europe. The world would say of him that he laid down his life for a woman. Deplorable somersault? But nothing evident save this in his whole life was faulty... The one other thing that might be carped at—the partisan speech he made in the Lords—had exquisitely justified itself by its result. For it was as a Knight of the Garter that he had set the perfect seal on his dandyism. Yes, he reflected, it was on the day when first he donned the most grandiose of all costumes, and wore it grandlier than ever yet in history had it been worn, than ever would it be worn hereafter, flaunting the robes with a grace unparalleled and inimitable, and lending, as it were, to the very insignia a glory beyond their own, that he once and for all fulfilled himself, doer of that which he had been sent into the world to do.

And there floated into his mind a desire, vague at first, soon definite, imperious, irresistible, to see himself once more, before he died, indued in the fulness of his glory and his might.

Nothing hindered. There was yet a whole hour before he need start for the river. His eyes dilated, somewhat as might those of a child about to "dress up" for a charade; and already, in his impatience, he had undone his neck-tie.

One after another, he unlocked and threw open the black tin boxes, snatching out greedily their great good splendours of crimson and white and royal blue and gold. You wonder he was not appalled by the task of essaying unaided a toilet so extensive and so intricate? You wondered even when you heard that he was wont at Oxford to make without help his toilet of every day. Well, the true dandy is always capable of such high independence. He is craftsman as well as artist. And, though any unaided Knight but he with whom we are here concerned would belike have doddered hopeless in that labyrinth of hooks and buckles which underlies the visible glory of a Knight "arraied full and proper," Dorset threaded his way featly and without pause. He had mastered his first excitement. In his swiftness was no haste. His procedure had the ease and inevitability of a natural phenomenon, and was most like to the coming of a rainbow.

Crimson-doubleted, blue-ribanded, white-trunk-hosed, he stooped to understrap his left knee with that strap of velvet round which sparkles the proud gay motto of the Order. He affixed to his breast the octoradiant star, so much larger and more lustrous than any actual star in heaven. Round his neck he slung that long daedal chain wherefrom St. George, slaying the Dragon, dangles. He bowed his shoulders to assume that vast mantle of blue velvet, so voluminous, so enveloping, that, despite the Cross of St. George blazing on it, and the shoulder-knots like two great white tropical flowers planted on it, we seem to know from it in what manner of mantle Elijah prophesied. Across his breast he knotted this mantle's two cords of gleaming bullion, one tassel a due trifle higher than its fellow. All these things being done, he moved away from the mirror, and drew on a pair of white kid gloves. Both of these being buttoned, he plucked up certain folds of his mantle into the hollow of his left arm, and with his right hand gave to his left hand that ostrich-plumed and heron-plumed hat of black velvet in which a Knight of the Garter is entitled to take his walks abroad. Then, with head erect, and measured tread, he returned to the mirror.

You are thinking, I know, of Mr. Sargent's famous portrait of him. Forget it. Tankerton Hall is open to the public on Wednesdays. Go there, and in the dining-hall stand to study well Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the eleventh Duke. Imagine a man some twenty years younger than he whom you there behold, but having some such features and some such bearing, and clad in just such robes. Sublimate the dignity of that bearing and of those features, and you will then have seen the fourteenth Duke somewhat as he stood reflected in the mirror of his room. Resist your impulse to pass on to the painting which hangs next but two to Lawrence's. It deserves, I know, all that you said about it when (at the very time of the events in this chronicle) it was hanging in Burlington House. Marvellous, I grant you, are those passes of the swirling brush by which the velvet of the mantle is rendered—passes so light and seemingly so fortuitous, yet, seen at the right distance, so absolute in their power to create an illusion of the actual velvet. Sheen of white satin and silk, glint of gold, glitter of diamonds—never were such things caught by surer hand obedient to more voracious eye. Yes, all the splendid surface of everything is there. Yet must you not look. The soul is not there. An expensive, very new costume is there, but no evocation of the high antique things it stands for; whereas by the Duke it was just these things that were evoked to make an aura round him, a warm symbolic glow sharpening the outlines of his own particular magnificence. Reflecting him, the mirror reflected, in due subordination, the history of England. There is nothing of that on Mr. Sargent's canvas. Obtruded instead is the astounding slickness of Mr. Sargent's technique: not the sitter, but the painter, is master here. Nay, though I hate to say it, there is in the portrayal of the Duke's attitude and expression a hint of something like mockery—unintentional, I am sure, but to a sensitive eye discernible. And—but it is clumsy of me to be reminding you of the very picture I would have you forget.

Long stood the Duke gazing, immobile. One thing alone ruffled his deep inward calm. This was the thought that he must presently put off from him all his splendour, and be his normal self.

The shadow passed from his brow. He would go forth as he was. He would be true to the motto he wore, and true to himself. A dandy he had lived. In the full pomp and radiance of his dandyism he would die.

His soul rose from calm to triumph. A smile lit his face, and he held his head higher than ever. He had brought nothing into this world and could take nothing out of it? Well, what he loved best he could carry with him to the very end; and in death they would not be divided.

The smile was still on his face as he passed out from his room. Down the stairs he passed, and "Oh," every stair creaked faintly, "I ought to have been marble!"

And it did indeed seem that Mrs. Batch and Katie, who had hurried out into the hall, were turned to some kind of stone at sight of the descending apparition. A moment ago, Mrs. Batch had been hoping she might yet at the last speak motherly words. A hopeless mute now! A moment ago, Katie's eyelids had been red with much weeping. Even from them the colour suddenly ebbed now. Dead-white her face was between the black pearl and the pink. "And this is the man of whom I dared once for an instant hope that he loved me!"—it was thus that the Duke, quite correctly, interpreted her gaze.

To her and to her mother he gave an inclusive bow as he swept slowly by. Stone was the matron, and stone the maid.

Stone, too, the Emperors over the way; and the more poignantly thereby was the Duke a sight to anguish them, being the very incarnation of what themselves had erst been, or tried to be. But in this bitterness they did not forget their sorrow at his doom. They were in a mood to forgive him the one fault they had ever found in him—his indifference to their Katie. And now—o mirum mirorum—even this one fault was wiped out.

For, stung by memory of a gibe lately cast at him by himself, the Duke had paused and, impulsively looking back into the hall, had beckoned Katie to him; and she had come (she knew not how) to him; and there, standing on the doorstep whose whiteness was the symbol of her love, he—very lightly, it is true, and on the upmost confines of the brow, but quite perceptibly—had kissed her.


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