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Zuleika Dobson

XXI

And Zuleika? She had done a wise thing, and was where it was best that she should be.

Her face lay upturned on the water's surface, and round it were the masses of her dark hair, half floating, half submerged. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted. Not Ophelia in the brook could have seemed more at peace.

"Like a creature native and indued
Unto that element,"
tranquil Zuleika lay.

Gently to and fro her tresses drifted on the water, or under the water went ever ravelling and unravelling. Nothing else of her stirred.

What to her now the loves that she had inspired and played on? the lives lost for her? Little thought had she now of them. Aloof she lay.

Steadily rising from the water was a thick vapour that turned to dew on the window-pane. The air was heavy with scent of violets. These are the flowers of mourning; but their scent here and now signified nothing; for Eau de Violettes was the bath-essence that Zuleika always had.

The bath-room was not of the white-gleaming kind to which she was accustomed. The walls were papered, not tiled, and the bath itself was of japanned tin, framed in mahogany. These things, on the evening of her arrival at the Warden's, had rather distressed her. But she was the better able to bear them because of that well-remembered past when a bath-room was in itself a luxury pined for—days when a not-large and not-full can of not-hot water, slammed down at her bedroom door by a governess-resenting housemaid, was as much as the gods allowed her. And there was, to dulcify for her the bath of this evening, the yet sharper contrast with the plight she had just come home in, sopped, shivering, clung to by her clothes. Because this bath was not a mere luxury, but a necessary precaution, a sure means of salvation from chill, she did the more gratefully bask in it, till Melisande came back to her, laden with warmed towels.

A few minutes before eight o'clock she was fully ready to go down to dinner, with even more than the usual glow of health, and hungry beyond her wont.

Yet, as she went down, her heart somewhat misgave her. Indeed, by force of the wide experience she had had as a governess, she never did feel quite at her ease when she was staying in a private house: the fear of not giving satisfaction haunted her; she was always on her guard; the shadow of dismissal absurdly hovered. And to-night she could not tell herself, as she usually did, not to be so silly. If her grandfather knew already the motive by which those young men had been actuated, dinner with him might be a rather strained affair. He might tell her, in so many words, that he wished he had not invited her to Oxford.

Through the open door of the drawing room she saw him, standing majestic, draped in a voluminous black gown. Her instinct was to run away; but this she conquered. She went straight in, remembering not to smile.

"Ah, ah," said the Warden, shaking a forefinger at her with old-world playfulness. "And what have you to say for yourself?"

Relieved, she was also a trifle shocked. Was it possible that he, a responsible old man, could take things so lightly?

"Oh, grand-papa," she answered, hanging her head, "what CAN I say? It is—it is too, too, dreadful."

"There, there, my dear. I was but jesting. If you have had an agreeable time, you are forgiven for playing truant. Where have you been all day?"

She saw that she had misjudged him. "I have just come from the river," she said gravely.

"Yes? And did the College make its fourth bump to-night?"

"I—I don't know, grand-papa. There was so much happening. It—I will tell you all about it at dinner."

"Ah, but to-night," he said, indicating his gown, "I cannot be with you. The bump-supper, you know. I have to preside in Hall."

Zuleika had forgotten there was to be a bump-supper, and, though she was not very sure what a bump-supper was, she felt it would be a mockery to-night.

"But grand-papa—" she began.

"My dear, I cannot dissociate myself from the life of the College. And, alas," he said, looking at the clock, "I must leave you now. As soon as you have finished dinner, you might, if you would care to, come and peep down at us from the gallery. There is apt to be some measure of noise and racket, but all of it good-humoured and—boys will be boys—pardonable. Will you come?"

"Perhaps, grand-papa," she said awkwardly. Left alone, she hardly knew whether to laugh or cry. In a moment, the butler came to her rescue, telling her that dinner was served.

As the figure of the Warden emerged from Salt Cellar into the Front Quadrangle, a hush fell on the group of gowned Fellows outside the Hall. Most of them had only just been told the news, and (such is the force of routine in an University) were still sceptical of it. And in face of these doubts the three or four dons who had been down at the river were now half ready to believe that there must, after all, be some mistake, and that in this world of illusions they had to-night been specially tricked. To rebut this theory, there was the notable absence of undergraduates. Or was this an illusion, too? Men of thought, agile on the plane of ideas, devils of fellows among books, they groped feebly in this matter of actual life and death. The sight of their Warden heartened them. After all, he was the responsible person. He was father of the flock that had strayed, and grandfather of the beautiful Miss Zuleika.

Like her, they remembered not to smile in greeting him.

"Good evening, gentlemen," he said. "The storm seems to have passed."

There was a murmur of "Yes, Warden."

"And how did our boat acquit itself?"

There was a shuffling pause. Every one looked at the Sub-Warden: it was manifestly for him to break the news, or to report the hallucination. He was nudged forward—a large man, with a large beard at which he plucked nervously.

"Well, really, Warden," he said, "we—we hardly know,"* and he ended with what can only be described as a giggle. He fell low in the esteem of his fellows.

*Those of my readers who are interested in athletic sports will
remember the long controversy that raged as to whether Judas had
actually bumped Magdalen; and they will not need to be minded that
it was mainly through the evidence of Mr. E. T. A. Cook, who had
been on the towing-path at the time, that the O. U. B. C. decided
the point in Judas' favour, and fixed the order of the boats for
the following year accordingly.

Thinking of that past Sub-Warden whose fame was linked with the sun-dial, the Warden eyed this one keenly.

"Well, gentlemen," he presently said, "our young men seem to be already at table. Shall we follow their example?" And he led the way up the steps.

Already at table? The dons' dubiety toyed with this hypothesis. But the aspect of the Hall's interior was hard to explain away. Here were the three long tables, stretching white towards the dais, and laden with the usual crockery and cutlery, and with pots of flowers in honour of the occasion. And here, ranged along either wall, was the usual array of scouts, motionless, with napkins across their arms. But that was all.

It became clear to the Warden that some organised prank or protest was afoot. Dignity required that he should take no heed whatsoever. Looking neither to the right nor to the left, stately he approached the dais, his Fellows to heel.

In Judas, as in other Colleges, grace before meat is read by the Senior Scholar. The Judas grace (composed, they say, by Christopher Whitrid himself) is noted for its length and for the excellence of its Latinity. Who was to read it to-night? The Warden, having searched his mind vainly for a precedent, was driven to create one.

"The Junior Fellow," he said, "will read grace."

Blushing to the roots of his hair, and with crablike gait, Mr. Pedby, the Junior Fellow, went and unhooked from the wall that little shield of wood on which the words of the grace are carven. Mr. Pedby was—Mr. Pedby is—a mathematician. His treatise on the Higher Theory of Short Division by Decimals had already won for him an European reputation. Judas was—Judas is—proud of Pedby. Nor is it denied that in undertaking the duty thrust on him he quickly controlled his nerves and read the Latin out in ringing accents. Better for him had he not done so. The false quantities he made were so excruciating and so many that, while the very scouts exchanged glances, the dons at the high table lost all command of their features, and made horrible noises in the effort to contain themselves. The very Warden dared not look from his plate.

In every breast around the high table, behind every shirt-front or black silk waistcoat, glowed the recognition of a new birth. Suddenly, unheralded, a thing of highest destiny had fallen into their academic midst. The stock of Common Room talk had to-night been re-inforced and enriched for all time. Summers and winters would come and go, old faces would vanish, giving place to new, but the story of Pedby's grace would be told always. Here was a tradition that generations of dons yet unborn would cherish and chuckle over. Something akin to awe mingled itself with the subsiding merriment. And the dons, having finished their soup, sipped in silence the dry brown sherry.

Those who sat opposite to the Warden, with their backs to the void, were oblivious of the matter that had so recently teased them. They were conscious only of an agreeable hush, in which they peered down the vistas of the future, watching the tradition of Pedby's grace as it rolled brighter and ever brighter down to eternity.

The pop of a champagne cork startled them to remembrance that this was a bump-supper, and a bump-supper of a peculiar kind. The turbot that came after the soup, the champagne that succeeded the sherry, helped to quicken in these men of thought the power to grapple with a reality. The aforesaid three or four who had been down at the river recovered their lost belief in the evidence of their eyes and ears. In the rest was a spirit of receptivity which, as the meal went on, mounted to conviction. The Sub-Warden made a second and more determined attempt to enlighten the Warden; but the Warden's eye met his with a suspicion so cruelly pointed that he again floundered and gave in.

All adown those empty other tables gleamed the undisturbed cutlery, and the flowers in the pots innocently bloomed. And all adown either wall, unneeded but undisbanded, the scouts remained. Some of the elder ones stood with closed eyes and heads sunk forward, now and again jerking themselves erect, and blinking around, wondering, remembering.

And for a while this scene was looked down on by a not disinterested stranger. For a while, her chin propped on her hands, Zuleika leaned over the rail of the gallery, just as she had lately leaned over the barge's rail, staring down and along. But there was no spark of triumph now in her eyes; only a deep melancholy; and in her mouth a taste as of dust and ashes. She thought of last night, and of all the buoyant life that this Hall had held. Of the Duke she thought, and of the whole vivid and eager throng of his fellows in love. Her will, their will, had been done. But, there rose to her lips the old, old question that withers victory—"To what end?" Her eyes ranged along the tables, and an appalling sense of loneliness swept over her. She turned away, wrapping the folds of her cloak closer across her breast. Not in this College only, but through and through Oxford, there was no heart that beat for her—no, not one, she told herself, with that instinct for self-torture which comes to souls in torment. She was utterly alone to-night in the midst of a vast indifference. She! She! Was it possible? Were the gods so merciless? Ah no, surely...

Down at the high table the feast drew to its close, and very different was the mood of the feasters from that of the young woman whose glance had for a moment rested on their unromantic heads. Generations of undergraduates had said that Oxford would be all very well but for the dons. Do you suppose that the dons had had no answering sentiment? Youth is a very good thing to possess, no doubt; but it is a tiresome setting for maturity. Youth all around prancing, vociferating, mocking; callow and alien youth, having to be looked after and studied and taught, as though nothing but it mattered, term after term—and now, all of a sudden, in mid-term, peace, ataraxy, a profound and leisured stillness. No lectures to deliver to-morrow; no "essays" to hear and criticise; time for the unvexed pursuit of pure learning...

As the Fellows passed out on their way to Common Room, there to tackle with a fresh appetite Pedby's grace, they paused, as was their wont, on the steps of the Hall, looking up at the sky, envisaging the weather. The wind had dropped. There was even a glimpse of the moon riding behind the clouds. And now, a solemn and plangent token of Oxford's perpetuity, the first stroke of Great Tom sounded.


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