Stroke by stroke, the great familiar monody of that incomparable curfew rose and fell in the stillness.
Nothing of Oxford lingers more surely than it in the memory of Oxford men; and to one revisiting these groves nothing is more eloquent of that scrupulous historic economy whereby his own particular past is utilised as the general present and future. "All's as it was, all's as it will be," says Great Tom; and that is what he stubbornly said on the evening I here record.
Stroke by measured and leisured stroke, the old euphonious clangour pervaded Oxford, spreading out over the meadows, along the river, audible in Iffley. But to the dim groups gathering and dispersing on either bank, and to the silent workers in the boats, the bell's message came softened, equivocal; came as a requiem for these dead.
Over the closed gates of Iffley lock, the water gushed down, eager for the sacrament of the sea. Among the supine in the field hard by, there was one whose breast bore a faint-gleaming star. And bending over him, looking down at him with much love and pity in her eyes, was the shade of Nellie O'Mora, that "fairest witch," to whose memory he had to-day atoned.
And yonder, "sitting upon the river-bank o'ergrown," with questioning eyes, was another shade, more habituated to these haunts—the shade known so well to bathers "in the abandoned lasher," and to dancers "around the Fyfield elm in May." At the bell's final stroke, the Scholar Gipsy rose, letting fall on the water his gathered wild-flowers, and passed towards Cumnor.
And now, duly, throughout Oxford, the gates of the Colleges were closed, and closed were the doors of the lodging-houses. Every night, for many years, at this hour precisely, Mrs. Batch had come out from her kitchen, to turn the key in the front-door. The function had long ago become automatic. To-night, however, it was the cue for further tears. These did not cease at her return to the kitchen, where she had gathered about her some sympathetic neighbours—women of her own age and kind, capacious of tragedy; women who might be relied on; founts of ejaculation, wells of surmise, downpours of remembered premonitions.
With his elbows on the kitchen table, and his knuckles to his brow, sat Clarence, intent on belated "prep." Even an eye-witness of disaster may pall if he repeat his story too often. Clarence had noted in the last recital that he was losing his hold on his audience. So now he sat committing to memory the names of the cantons of Switzerland, and waving aside with a harsh gesture such questions as were still put to him by the women.
Katie had sought refuge in the need for "putting the gentlemen's rooms straight," against the arrival of the two families to-morrow. Duster in hand, and by the light of a single candle that barely survived the draught from the open window, she moved to and fro about the Duke's room, a wan and listless figure, casting queerest shadows on the ceiling. There were other candles that she might have lit, but this ambiguous gloom suited her sullen humour. Yes, I am sorry to say, Katie was sullen. She had not ceased to mourn the Duke; but it was even more anger than grief that she felt at his dying. She was as sure as ever that he had not loved Miss Dobson; but this only made it the more outrageous that he had died because of her. What was there in this woman that men should so demean themselves for her? Katie, as you know, had at first been unaffected by the death of the undergraduates at large. But, because they too had died for Zuleika, she was bitterly incensed against them now. What could they have admired in such a woman? She didn't even look like a lady. Katie caught the dim reflection of herself in the mirror. She took the candle from the table, and examined the reflection closely. She was sure she was just as pretty as Miss Dobson. It was only the clothes that made the difference—the clothes and the behaviour. Katie threw back her head, and smiled brilliantly, hand on hip. She nodded reassuringly at herself; and the black pearl and the pink danced a duet. She put the candle down, and undid her hair, roughly parting it on one side, and letting it sweep down over the further eyebrow. She fixed it in that fashion, and posed accordingly. Now! But gradually her smile relaxed, and a mist came to her eyes. For she had to admit that even so, after all, she hadn't just that something which somehow Miss Dobson had. She put away from her the hasty dream she had had of a whole future generation of undergraduates drowning themselves, every one, in honour of her. She went wearily on with her work.
Presently, after a last look round, she went up the creaking stairs, to do Mr. Noaks' room.
She found on the table that screed which her mother had recited so often this evening. She put it in the waste-paper basket.
Also on the table were a lexicon, a Thucydides, and some note-books. These she took and shelved without a tear for the closed labours they bore witness to.
The next disorder that met her eye was one that gave her pause—seemed, indeed, to transfix her.
Mr. Noaks had never, since he came to lodge here, possessed more than one pair of boots. This fact had been for her a lasting source of annoyance; for it meant that she had to polish Mr. Noaks' boots always in the early morning, when there were so many other things to be done, instead of choosing her own time. Her annoyance had been all the keener because Mr. Noaks' boots more than made up in size for what they lacked in number. Either of them singly took more time and polish than any other pair imaginable. She would have recognised them, at a glance, anywhere. Even so now, it was at a glance that she recognised the toes of them protruding from beneath the window-curtain. She dismissed the theory that Mr. Noaks might have gone utterly unshod to the river. She scouted the hypothesis that his ghost could be shod thus. By process of elimination she arrived at the truth. "Mr. Noaks," she said quietly, "come out of there."
There was a slight quiver of the curtain; no more. Katie repeated her words. There was a pause, then a convulsion of the curtain. Noaks stood forth.
Always, in polishing his boots, Katie had found herself thinking of him as a man of prodigious stature, well though she knew him to be quite tiny. Even so now, at recognition of his boots, she had fixed her eyes to meet his, when he should emerge, a full yard too high. With a sharp drop she focussed him.
"By what right," he asked, "do you come prying about my room?"
This was a stroke so unexpected that it left Katie mute. It equally surprised Noaks, who had been about to throw himself on his knees and implore this girl not to betray him. He was quick, though, to clinch his advantage.
"This," he said, "is the first time I have caught you. Let it be the last."
Was this the little man she had so long despised, and so superciliously served? His very smallness gave him an air of concentrated force. She remembered having read that all the greatest men in history had been of less than the middle height. And—oh, her heart leapt—here was the one man who had scorned to die for Miss Dobson. He alone had held out against the folly of his fellows. Sole and splendid survivor he stood, rock-footed, before her. And impulsively she abased herself, kneeling at his feet as at the great double altar of some dark new faith.
"You are great, sir, you are wonderful," she said, gazing up to him, rapt. It was the first time she had ever called him "sir."
It is easier, as Michelet suggested, for a woman to change her opinion of a man than for him to change his opinion of himself. Noaks, despite the presence of mind he had shown a few moments ago, still saw himself as he had seen himself during the past hours: that is, as an arrant little coward—one who by his fear to die had put himself outside the pale of decent manhood. He had meant to escape from the house at dead of night and, under an assumed name, work his passage out to Australia—a land which had always made strong appeal to his imagination. No one, he had reflected, would suppose because his body was not retrieved from the water that he had not perished with the rest. And he had looked to Australia to make a man of him yet: in Encounter Bay, perhaps, or in the Gulf of Carpentaria, he might yet end nobly.
Thus Katie's behaviour was as much an embarrassment as a relief; and he asked her in what way he was great and wonderful.
"Modest, like all heroes!" she cried, and, still kneeling, proceeded to sing his praises with a so infectious fervour that Noaks did begin to feel he had done a fine thing in not dying. After all, was it not moral cowardice as much as love that had tempted him to die? He had wrestled with it, thrown it. "Yes," said he, when her rhapsody was over, "perhaps I am modest."
"And that is why you hid yourself just now?"
"Yes," he gladly said. "I hid myself for the same reason," he added, "when I heard your mother's footstep."
"But," she faltered, with a sudden doubt, "that bit of writing which Mother found on the table—"
"That? Oh, that was only a general reflection, copied out of a book."
"Oh, won't poor Mother be glad when she knows!"
"I don't want her to know," said Noaks, with a return of nervousness. "You mustn't tell any one. I—the fact is—"
"Ah, that is so like you!" the girl said tenderly. "I suppose it was your modesty that all this while blinded me. Please, sir, I have a confession to make to you. Never till to-night have I loved you."
Exquisite was the shock of these words to one who, not without reason, had always assumed that no woman would ever love him. Before he knew what he was doing, he had bent down and kissed the sweet upturned face. It was the first kiss he had ever given outside his family circle. It was an artless and a resounding kiss.
He started back, dazed. What manner of man, he wondered, was he? A coward, piling profligacy on poltroonery? Or a hero, claiming exemption from moral law? What was done could not be undone; but it could be righted. He drew off from the little finger of his left hand that iron ring which, after a twinge of rheumatism, he had to-day resumed.
"Wear it," he said.
"You mean—?" She leapt to her feet.
"That we are engaged. I hope you don't think we have any choice?"
She clapped her hands, like the child she was, and adjusted the ring.
"It is very pretty," she said.
"It is very simple," he answered lightly. "But," he added, with a change of tone, "it is very durable. And that is the important thing. For I shall not be in a position to marry before I am forty."
A shadow of disappointment hovered over Katie's clear young brow, but was instantly chased away by the thought that to be engaged was almost as splendid as to be married.
"Recently," said her lover, "I meditated leaving Oxford for Australia. But now that you have come into my life, I am compelled to drop that notion, and to carve out the career I had first set for myself. A year hence, if I get a Second in Greats—and I SHALL" he said, with a fierce look that entranced her—"I shall have a very good chance of an assistant-mastership in a good private school. In eighteen years, if I am careful—and, with you waiting for me, I SHALL be careful—my savings will enable me to start a small school of my own, and to take a wife. Even then it would be more prudent to wait another five years, no doubt. But there was always a streak of madness in the Noakses. I say 'Prudence to the winds!'"
"Ah, don't say that!" exclaimed Katie, laying a hand on his sleeve.
"You are right. Never hesitate to curb me. And," he said, touching the ring, "an idea has just occurred to me. When the time comes, let this be the wedding-ring. Gold is gaudy—not at all the thing for a schoolmaster's bride. It is a pity," he muttered, examining her through his spectacles, "that your hair is so golden. A schoolmaster's bride should—Good heavens! Those ear-rings! Where did you get THEM?"
"They were given to me to-day," Katie faltered. "The Duke gave me them."
"Please, sir, he gave me them as a memento."
"And that memento shall immediately be handed over to his executors."
"I should think so!" was on the tip of Noaks' tongue, but suddenly he ceased to see the pearls as trinkets finite and inapposite—saw them, in a flash, as things transmutable by sale hereafter into desks, forms, black-boards, maps, lockers, cubicles, gravel soil, diet unlimited, and special attention to backward pupils. Simultaneously, he saw how mean had been his motive for repudiating the gift. What more despicable than jealousy of a man deceased? What sillier than to cast pearls before executors? Sped by nothing but the pulse of his hot youth, he had wooed and won this girl. Why flinch from her unsought dowry?
He told her his vision. Her eyes opened wide to it. "And oh," she cried, "then we can be married as soon as you take your degree!"
He bade her not be so foolish. Who ever heard of a head-master aged three-and-twenty? What parent or guardian would trust a stripling? The engagement must run its course. "And," he said, fidgeting, "do you know that I have hardly done any reading to-day?"
"You want to read NOW—TO-NIGHT?"
"I must put in a good two hours. Where are the books that were on my table?"
Reverently—he was indeed a king of men—she took the books down from the shelf, and placed them where she had found them. And she knew not which thrilled her the more—the kiss he gave her at parting, or the tone in which he told her that the one thing he could not and would not stand was having his books disturbed.
Still less than before attuned to the lugubrious session downstairs, she went straight up to her attic, and did a little dance there in the dark. She threw open the lattice of the dormer-window, and leaned out, smiling, throbbing.
The Emperors, gazing up, saw her happy, and wondered; saw Noaks' ring on her finger, and would fain have shaken their grey heads.
Presently she was aware of a protrusion from the window beneath hers. The head of her beloved! Fondly she watched it, wished she could reach down to stroke it. She loved him for having, after all, left his books. It was sweet to be his excuse. Should she call softly to him? No, it might shame him to be caught truant. He had already chidden her for prying. So she did but gaze down on his head silently, wondering whether in eighteen years it would be bald, wondering whether her own hair would still have the fault of being golden. Most of all, she wondered whether he loved her half so much as she loved him.
This happened to be precisely what he himself was wondering. Not that he wished himself free. He was one of those in whom the will does not, except under very great pressure, oppose the conscience. What pressure here? Miss Batch was a superior girl; she would grace any station in life. He had always been rather in awe of her. It was a fine thing to be suddenly loved by her, to be in a position to over-rule her every whim. Plighting his troth, he had feared she would be an encumbrance, only to find she was a lever. But—was he deeply in love with her? How was it that he could not at this moment recall her features, or the tone of her voice, while of deplorable Miss Dobson, every lineament, every accent, so vividly haunted him? Try as he would to beat off these memories, he failed, and—some very great pressure here!—was glad he failed; glad though he found himself relapsing to the self-contempt from which Miss Batch had raised him. He scorned himself for being alive. And again, he scorned himself for his infidelity. Yet he was glad he could not forget that face, that voice—that queen. She had smiled at him when she borrowed the ring. She had said "Thank you." Oh, and now, at this very moment, sleeping or waking, actually she was somewhere—she! herself! This was an incredible, an indubitable, an all-magical fact for the little fellow.
From the street below came a faint cry that was as the cry of his own heart, uttered by her own lips. Quaking, he peered down, and dimly saw, over the way, a cloaked woman.
She—yes, it was she herself—came gliding to the middle of the road, gazing up at him.
"At last!" he heard her say. His instinct was to hide himself from the queen he had not died for. Yet he could not move.
"Or," she quavered, "are you a phantom sent to mock me? Speak!"
"Good evening," he said huskily.
"I knew," she murmured, "I knew the gods were not so cruel. Oh man of my need," she cried, stretching out her arms to him, "oh heaven-sent, I see you only as a dark outline against the light of your room. But I know you. Your name is Noaks, isn't it? Dobson is mine. I am your Warden's grand-daughter. I am faint and foot-sore. I have ranged this desert city in search of—of YOU. Let me hear from your own lips that you love me. Tell me in your own words—" She broke off with a little scream, and did not stand with forefinger pointed at him, gazing, gasping.
"Listen, Miss Dobson," he stammered, writhing under what he took to be the lash of her irony. "Give me time to explain. You see me here—"
"Hush," she cried, "man of my greater, my deeper and nobler need! Oh hush, ideal which not consciously I was out for to-night—ideal vouchsafed to me by a crowning mercy! I sought a lover, I find a master. I sought but a live youth, was blind to what his survival would betoken. Oh master, you think me light and wicked. You stare coldly down at me through your spectacles, whose glint I faintly discern now that the moon peeps forth. You would be readier to forgive me the havoc I have wrought if you could for the life of you understand what charm your friends found in me. You marvel, as at the skull of Helen of Troy. No, you don't think me hideous: you simply think me plain. There was a time when I thought YOU plain—you whose face, now that the moon shines full on it, is seen to be of a beauty that is flawless without being insipid. Oh that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek! You shudder at the notion of such contact. My voice grates on you. You try to silence me with frantic though exquisite gestures, and with noises inarticulate but divine. I bow to your will, master. Chasten me with your tongue."
"I am not what you think me," gibbered Noaks. "I was not afraid to die for you. I love you. I was on my way to the river this afternoon, but I—I tripped and sprained my ankle, and—and jarred my spine. They carried me back here. I am still very weak. I can't put my foot to the ground. As soon as I can—"
Just then Zuleika heard a little sharp sound which, for the fraction of an instant, before she knew it to be a clink of metal on the pavement, she thought was the breaking of the heart within her. Looking quickly down, she heard a shrill girlish laugh aloft. Looking quickly up, she descried at the unlit window above her lover's a face which she remembered as that of the land-lady's daughter.
"Find it, Miss Dobson," laughed the girl. "Crawl for it. It can't have rolled far, and it's the only engagement-ring you'll get from HIM," she said, pointing to the livid face twisted painfully up at her from the lower window. "Grovel for it, Miss Dobson. Ask him to step down and help you. Oh, he can! That was all lies about his spine and ankle. Afraid, that's what he was—I see it all now—afraid of the water. I wish you'd found him as I did—skulking behind the curtain. Oh, you're welcome to him."
"Don't listen," Noaks cried down. "Don't listen to that person. I admit I have trifled with her affections. This is her revenge—these wicked untruths—these—these—"
Zuleika silenced him with a gesture. "Your tone to me," she said up to Katie, "is not without offence; but the stamp of truth is on what you tell me. We have both been deceived in this man, and are, in some sort, sisters."
"Sisters?" cried Katie. "Your sisters are the snake and the spider, though neither of them wishes it known. I loathe you. And the Duke loathed you, too."
"What's that?" gasped Zuleika.
"Didn't he tell you? He told me. And I warrant he told you, too."
"He died for love of me: d'you hear?"
"Ah, you'd like people to think so, wouldn't you? Does a man who loves a woman give away the keepsake she gave him? Look!" Katie leaned forward, pointing to her ear-rings. "He loved ME," she cried. "He put them in with his own hands—told me to wear them always. And he kissed me—kissed me good-bye in the street, where every one could see. He kissed me," she sobbed. "No other man shall ever do that."
"Ah, that he did!" said a voice level with Zuleika. It was the voice of Mrs. Batch, who a few moments ago had opened the door for her departing guests.
"Ah, that he did!" echoed the guests.
"Never mind them, Miss Dobson," cried Noaks, and at the sound of his voice Mrs. Batch rushed into the middle of the road, to gaze up. "I love you. Think what you will of me. I—"
"You!" flashed Zuleika. "As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved to-day by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge."
"Shame on you, Mr. Noaks," said Mrs. Batch, "making believe you were dead—"
"Shame!" screamed Clarence, who had darted out into the fray.
"I found him hiding behind the curtain," chimed in Katie.
"And I a mother to him!" said Mrs. Batch, shaking her fist. "'What is life without love?' indeed! Oh, the cowardly, underhand—"
"Wretch," prompted her cronies.
"Let's kick him out of the house!" suggested Clarence, dancing for joy.
Zuleika, smiling brilliantly down at the boy, said "Just you run up and fight him!"
"Right you are," he answered, with a look of knightly devotion, and darted back into the house.
"No escape!" she cried up to Noaks. "You've got to fight him now. He and you are just about evenly matched, I fancy."
But, grimly enough, Zuleika's estimate was never put to the test. Is it harder for a coward to fight with his fists than to kill himself? Or again, is it easier for him to die than to endure a prolonged cross-fire of women's wrath and scorn? This I know: that in the life of even the least and meanest of us there is somewhere one fine moment—one high chance not missed. I like to think it was by operation of this law that Noaks had now clambered out upon the window-sill, silencing, sickening, scattering like chaff the women beneath him.
He was already not there when Clarence bounded into the room. "Come on!" yelled the boy, first thrusting his head behind the door, then diving beneath the table, then plucking aside either window-curtain, vowing vengeance.
Vengeance was not his. Down on the road without, not yet looked at but by the steadfast eyes of the Emperors, the last of the undergraduates lay dead; and fleet-footed Zuleika, with her fingers still pressed to her ears, had taken full toll now.