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Zuleika Dobson

XIX

And now he had passed under the little arch between the eighth and the ninth Emperor, rounded the Sheldonian, and been lost to sight of Katie, whom, as he was equally glad and sorry he had kissed her, he was able to dismiss from his mind.

In the quadrangle of the Old Schools he glanced round at the familiar labels, blue and gold, over the iron-studded doors,—Schola Theologiae et Antiquae Philosophiae; Museum Arundelianum; Schola Musicae. And Bibliotheca Bodleiana—he paused there, to feel for the last time the vague thrill he had always felt at sight of the small and devious portal that had lured to itself, and would always lure, so many scholars from the ends of the earth, scholars famous and scholars obscure, scholars polyglot and of the most diverse bents, but none of them not stirred in heart somewhat on the found threshold of the treasure-house. "How deep, how perfect, the effect made here by refusal to make any effect whatsoever!" thought the Duke. Perhaps, after all... but no: one could lay down no general rule. He flung his mantle a little wider from his breast, and proceeded into Radcliffe Square.

Another farewell look he gave to the old vast horse-chestnut that is called Bishop Heber's tree. Certainly, no: there was no general rule. With its towering and bulging masses of verdure tricked out all over in their annual finery of catkins, Bishop Heber's tree stood for the very type of ingenuous ostentation. And who should dare cavil? who not be gladdened? Yet awful, more than gladdening, was the effect that the tree made to-day. Strangely pale was the verdure against the black sky; and the multitudinous catkins had a look almost ghostly. The Duke remembered the legend that every one of these fair white spires of blossom is the spirit of some dead man who, having loved Oxford much and well, is suffered thus to revisit her, for a brief while, year by year. And it pleased him to doubt not that on one of the topmost branches, next Spring, his own spirit would be.

"Oh, look!" cried a young lady emerging with her brother and her aunt through the gate of Brasenose.

"For heaven's sake, Jessie, try to behave yourself," hissed her brother. "Aunt Mabel, for heaven's sake don't stare." He compelled the pair to walk on with him. "Jessie, if you look round over your shoulder... No, it is NOT the Vice-Chancellor. It's Dorset, of Judas—the Duke of Dorset... Why on earth shouldn't he?... No, it isn't odd in the least... No, I'm NOT losing my temper. Only, don't call me your dear boy... No, we will NOT walk slowly so as to let him pass us... Jessie, if you look round..."

Poor fellow! However fond an undergraduate be of his womenfolk, at Oxford they keep him in a painful state of tension: at any moment they may somehow disgrace him. And if throughout the long day he shall have had the added strain of guarding them from the knowledge that he is about to commit suicide, a certain measure of irritability must be condoned.

Poor Jessie and Aunt Mabel! They were destined to remember that Harold had been "very peculiar" all day. They had arrived in the morning, happy and eager despite the menace of the sky, and—well, they were destined to reproach themselves for having felt that Harold was "really rather impossible." Oh, if he had only confided in them! They could have reasoned with him, saved him—surely they could have saved him! When he told them that the "First Division" of the races was always very dull, and that they had much better let him go to it alone,—when he told them that it was always very rowdy, and that ladies were not supposed to be there—oh, why had they not guessed and clung to him, and kept him away from the river?

Well, here they were, walking on Harold's either side, blind to fate, and only longing to look back at the gorgeous personage behind them. Aunt Mabel had inwardly calculated that the velvet of the mantle alone could not have cost less than four guineas a yard. One good look back, and she would be able to calculate how many yards there were... She followed the example of Lot's wife; and Jessie followed hers.

"Very well," said Harold. "That settles it. I go alone." And he was gone like an arrow, across the High, down Oriel Street.

The two women stood staring ruefully at each other.

"Pardon me," said the Duke, with a sweep of his plumed hat. "I observe you are stranded; and, if I read your thoughts aright, you are impugning the courtesy of that young runagate. Neither of you, I am very sure, is as one of those ladies who in Imperial Rome took a saucy pleasure in the spectacle of death. Neither of you can have been warned by your escort that you were on the way to see him die, of his own accord, in company with many hundreds of other lads, myself included. Therefore, regard his flight from you as an act not of unkindness, but of tardy compunction. The hint you have had from him let me turn into a counsel. Go back, both of you, to the place whence you came."

"Thank you SO much," said Aunt Mabel, with what she took to be great presence of mind. "MOST kind of you. We'll do JUST what you tell us. Come, Jessie dear," and she hurried her niece away with her.

Something in her manner of fixing him with her eye had made the Duke suspect what was in her mind. Well, she would find out her mistake soon enough, poor woman. He desired, however, that her mistake should be made by no one else. He would give no more warnings.

Tragic it was for him, in Merton Street, to see among the crowd converging to the meadows so many women, young and old, all imprescient, troubled by nothing but the thunder that was in the air, that was on the brows of their escorts. He knew not whether it was for their escorts or for them that he felt the greater pity; and an added load for his heart was the sense of his partial responsibility for what impended. But his lips were sealed now. Why should he not enjoy the effect he was creating?

It was with a measured tread, as yesterday with Zuleika, that he entered the avenue of elms. The throng streamed past from behind him, parting wide, and marvelling as it streamed. Under the pall of this evil evening his splendour was the more inspiring. And, just as yesterday no man had questioned his right to be with Zuleika, so to-day there was none to deem him caparisoned too much. All the men felt at a glance that he, coming to meet death thus, did no more than the right homage to Zuleika—aye, and that he made them all partakers in his own glory, casting his great mantle over all commorients. Reverence forbade them to do more than glance. But the women with them were impelled by wonder to stare hard, uttering sharp little cries that mingled with the cawing of the rooks overhead. Thus did scores of men find themselves shamed like our friend Harold. But this, you say, was no more than a just return for their behaviour yesterday, when, in this very avenue, so many women were almost crushed to death by them in their insensate eagerness to see Miss Dobson.

To-day by scores of women it was calculated not only that the velvet of the Duke's mantle could not have cost less than four guineas a yard, but also that there must be quite twenty-five yards of it. Some of the fair mathematicians had, in the course of the past fortnight, visited the Royal Academy and seen there Mr. Sargent's portrait of the wearer, so that their estimate now was but the endorsement of an estimate already made. Yet their impression of the Duke was above all a spiritual one. The nobility of his face and bearing was what most thrilled them as they went by; and those of them who had heard the rumour that he was in love with that frightfully flashy-looking creature, Zuleika Dobson, were more than ever sure there wasn't a word of truth in it.

As he neared the end of the avenue, the Duke was conscious of a thinning in the procession on either side of him, and anon he was aware that not one undergraduate was therein. And he knew at once—did not need to look back to know—why this was. SHE was coming.

Yes, she had come into the avenue, her magnetism speeding before her, insomuch that all along the way the men immediately ahead of her looked round, beheld her, stood aside for her. With her walked The MacQuern, and a little bodyguard of other blest acquaintances; and behind her swayed the dense mass of the disorganised procession. And now the last rank between her and the Duke was broken, and at the revealed vision of him she faltered midway in some raillery she was addressing to The MacQuern. Her eyes were fixed, her lips were parted, her tread had become stealthy. With a brusque gesture of dismissal to the men beside her, she darted forward, and lightly overtook the Duke just as he was turning towards the barges.

"May I?" she whispered, smiling round into his face.

His shoulder-knots just perceptibly rose.

"There isn't a policeman in sight, John. You're at my mercy. No, no; I'm at yours. Tolerate me. You really do look quite wonderful. There, I won't be so impertinent as to praise you. Only let me be with you. Will you?"

The shoulder-knots repeated their answer.

"You needn't listen to me; needn't look at me—unless you care to use my eyes as mirrors. Only let me be seen with you. That's what I want. Not that your society isn't a boon in itself, John. Oh, I've been so bored since I left you. The MacQuern is too, too dull, and so are his friends. Oh, that meal with them in Balliol! As soon as I grew used to the thought that they were going to die for me, I simply couldn't stand them. Poor boys! it was as much as I could do not to tell them I wished them dead already. Indeed, when they brought me down for the first races, I did suggest that they might as well die now as later. Only they looked very solemn and said it couldn't possibly be done till after the final races. And oh, the tea with them! What have YOU been doing all the afternoon? Oh John, after THEM, I could almost love you again. Why can't one fall in love with a man's clothes? To think that all those splendid things you have on are going to be spoilt—all for me. Nominally for me, that is. It is very wonderful, John. I do appreciate it, really and truly, though I know you think I don't. John, if it weren't mere spite you feel for me—but it's no good talking about that. Come, let us be as cheerful as we may be. Is this the Judas house-boat?"

"The Judas barge," said the Duke, irritated by a mistake which but yesterday had rather charmed him.

As he followed his companion across the plank, there came dully from the hills the first low growl of the pent storm. The sound struck for him a strange contrast with the prattle he had perforce been listening to.

"Thunder," said Zuleika over her shoulder.

"Evidently," he answered.

Half-way up the stairs to the roof, she looked round. "Aren't you coming?" she asked.

He shook his head, and pointed to the raft in front of the barge. She quickly descended.

"Forgive me," he said, "my gesture was not a summons. The raft is for men."

"What do you want to do on it?"

"To wait there till the races are over."

"But—what do you mean? Aren't you coming up on to the roof at all? Yesterday—"

"Oh, I see," said the Duke, unable to repress a smile. "But to-day I am not dressed for a flying-leap."

Zuleika put a finger to her lips. "Don't talk so loud. Those women up there will hear you. No one must ever know I knew what was going to happen. What evidence should I have that I tried to prevent it? Only my own unsupported word—and the world is always against a woman. So do be careful. I've thought it all out. The whole thing must be SPRUNG on me. Don't look so horribly cynical... What was I saying? Oh yes; well, it doesn't really matter. I had it fixed in my mind that you—but no, of course, in that mantle you couldn't. But why not come up on the roof with me meanwhile, and then afterwards make some excuse and—" The rest of her whisper was lost in another growl of thunder.

"I would rather make my excuses forthwith," said the Duke. "And, as the races must be almost due now, I advise you to go straight up and secure a place against the railing."

"It will look very odd, my going all alone into a crowd of people whom I don't know. I'm an unmarried girl. I do think you might—"

"Good-bye," said the Duke.

Again Zuleika raised a warning finger.

"Good-bye, John," she whispered. "See, I am still wearing your studs. Good-bye. Don't forget to call my name in a loud voice. You promised."

"Yes."

"And," she added, after a pause, "remember this. I have loved but twice in my life; and none but you have I loved. This, too: if you hadn't forced me to kill my love, I would have died with you. And you know it is true."

"Yes." It was true enough.

Courteously he watched her up the stairs.

As she reached the roof, she cried down to him from the throng, "Then you will wait down there to take me home afterwards?"

He bowed silently.

The raft was even more crowded than yesterday, but way was made for him by Judasians past and present. He took his place in the centre of the front row.

At his feet flowed the fateful river. From the various barges the last punt-loads had been ferried across to the towing-path, and the last of the men who were to follow the boats in their course had vanished towards the starting-point. There remained, however, a fringe of lesser enthusiasts. Their figures stood outlined sharply in that strange dark clearness which immediately precedes a storm.

The thunder rumbled around the hills, and now and again there was a faint glare on the horizon.

Would Judas bump Magdalen? Opinion on the raft seemed to be divided. But the sanguine spirits were in a majority.

"If I were making a book on the event," said a middle-aged clergyman, with that air of breezy emancipation which is so distressing to the laity, "I'd bet two to one we bump."

"You demean your cloth, sir," the Duke would have said, "without cheating its disabilities," had not his mouth been stopped by a loud and prolonged thunder-clap.

In the hush thereafter, came the puny sound of a gunshot. The boats were starting. Would Judas bump Magdalen? Would Judas be head of the river?

Strange, thought the Duke, that for him, standing as he did on the peak of dandyism, on the brink of eternity, this trivial question of boats could have importance. And yet, and yet, for this it was that his heart was beating. A few minutes hence, an end to victors and vanquished alike; and yet...

A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky. Then there was a consonance to split the drums of the world's ears, followed by a horrific rattling as of actual artillery—tens of thousands of gun-carriages simultaneously at the gallop, colliding, crashing, heeling over in the blackness.

Then, and yet more awful, silence; the little earth cowering voiceless under the heavens' menace. And, audible in the hush now, a faint sound; the sound of the runners on the towing-path cheering the crews forward, forward.

And there was another faint sound that came to the Duke's ears. It he understood when, a moment later, he saw the surface of the river alive with infinitesimal fountains.

Rain!

His very mantle was aspersed. In another minute he would stand sodden, inglorious, a mock. He didn't hesitate.

"Zuleika!" he cried in a loud voice. Then he took a deep breath, and, burying his face in his mantle, plunged.

Full on the river lay the mantle outspread. Then it, too, went under. A great roll of water marked the spot. The plumed hat floated.

There was a confusion of shouts from the raft, of screams from the roof. Many youths—all the youths there—cried "Zuleika!" and leapt emulously headlong into the water. "Brave fellows!" shouted the elder men, supposing rescue-work. The rain pelted, the thunder pealed. Here and there was a glimpse of a young head above water—for an instant only.

Shouts and screams now from the infected barges on either side. A score of fresh plunges. "Splendid fellows!"

Meanwhile, what of the Duke? I am glad to say that he was alive and (but for the cold he had caught last night) well. Indeed, his mind had never worked more clearly than in this swift dim underworld. His mantle, the cords of it having come untied, had drifted off him, leaving his arms free. With breath well-pent, he steadily swam, scarcely less amused than annoyed that the gods had, after all, dictated the exact time at which he should seek death.

I am loth to interrupt my narrative at this rather exciting moment—a moment when the quick, tense style, exemplified in the last paragraph but one, is so very desirable. But in justice to the gods I must pause to put in a word of excuse for them. They had imagined that it was in mere irony that the Duke had said he could not die till after the bumping-races; and not until it seemed that he stood ready to make an end of himself had the signal been given by Zeus for the rain to fall. One is taught to refrain from irony, because mankind does tend to take it literally. In the hearing of the gods, who hear all, it is conversely unsafe to make a simple and direct statement. So what is one to do? The dilemma needs a whole volume to itself.

But to return to the Duke. He had now been under water for a full minute, swimming down stream; and he calculated that he had yet another full minute of consciousness. Already the whole of his past life had vividly presented itself to him—myriads of tiny incidents, long forgotten, now standing out sharply in their due sequence. He had mastered this conspectus in a flash of time, and was already tired of it. How smooth and yielding were the weeds against his face! He wondered if Mrs. Batch had been in time to cash the cheque. If not, of course his executors would pay the amount, but there would be delays, long delays, Mrs. Batch in meshes of red tape. Red tape for her, green weeds for him—he smiled at this poor conceit, classifying it as a fair sample of merman's wit. He swam on through the quiet cool darkness, less quickly now. Not many more strokes now, he told himself; a few, only a few; then sleep. How was he come here? Some woman had sent him. Ever so many years ago, some woman. He forgave her. There was nothing to forgive her. It was the gods who had sent him—too soon, too soon. He let his arms rise in the water, and he floated up. There was air in that over-world, and something he needed to know there before he came down again to sleep.

He gasped the air into his lungs, and he remembered what it was that he needed to know.

Had he risen in mid-stream, the keel of the Magdalen boat might have killed him. The oars of Magdalen did all but graze his face. The eyes of the Magdalen cox met his. The cords of the Magdalen rudder slipped from the hands that held them; whereupon the Magdalen man who rowed "bow" missed his stroke.

An instant later, just where the line of barges begins, Judas had bumped Magdalen.

A crash of thunder deadened the din of the stamping and dancing crowd on the towing-path. The rain was a deluge making land and water as one.

And the conquered crew, and the conquering, both now had seen the face of the Duke. A white smiling face, anon it was gone. Dorset was gone down to his last sleep.

Victory and defeat alike forgotten, the crews staggered erect and flung themselves into the river, the slender boats capsizing and spinning futile around in a melley of oars.

From the towing-path—no more din there now, but great single cries of "Zuleika!"—leapt figures innumerable through rain to river. The arrested boats of the other crews drifted zigzag hither and thither. The dropped oars rocked and clashed, sank and rebounded, as the men plunged across them into the swirling stream.

And over all this confusion and concussion of men and man-made things crashed the vaster discords of the heavens; and the waters of the heavens fell ever denser and denser, as though to the aid of waters that could not in themselves envelop so many hundreds of struggling human forms.

All along the soaked towing-path lay strewn the horns, the rattles, the motor-hooters, that the youths had flung aside before they leapt. Here and there among these relics stood dazed elder men, staring through the storm. There was one of them—a grey-beard—who stripped off his blazer, plunged, grabbed at some live man, grappled him, was dragged under. He came up again further along stream, swam choking to the bank, clung to the grasses. He whimpered as he sought foot-hold in the slime. It was ill to be down in that abominable sink of death.

Abominable, yes, to them who discerned there death only; but sacramental and sweet enough to the men who were dying there for love. Any face that rose was smiling.

The thunder receded; the rain was less vehement: the boats and the oars had drifted against the banks. And always the patient river bore its awful burden towards Iffley.

As on the towing-path, so on the youth-bereft rafts of the barges, yonder, stood many stupefied elders, staring at the river, staring back from the river into one another's faces.

Dispeopled now were the roofs of the barges. Under the first drops of the rain most of the women had come huddling down for shelter inside; panic had presently driven down the rest. Yet on one roof one woman still was. A strange, drenched figure, she stood bright-eyed in the dimness; alone, as it was well she should be in her great hour; draining the lees of such homage as had come to no woman in history recorded.


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