ZULEIKA DOBSON

X

Sounds of a violin, drifting out through the open windows of the Hall, suggested that the second part of the concert had begun. All the undergraduates, however, except the few who figured in the programme, had waited outside till their mistress should re-appear. The sisters and cousins of the Judas men had been escorted back to their places and hurriedly left there.

It was a hushed, tense crowd.

"The poor darlings!" murmured Zuleika, pausing to survey them. "And oh," she exclaimed, "there won't be room for all of them in there!"

"You might give an 'overflow' performance out here afterwards," suggested the Duke, grimly.

This idea flashed on her a better. Why not give her performance here and now?--now, so eager was she for contact, as it were, with this crowd; here, by moonlight, in the pretty glow of these paper lanterns. Yes, she said, let it be here and now; and she bade the Duke make the announcement.

"What shall I say?" he asked. "'Gentlemen, I have the pleasure to announce that Miss Zuleika Dobson, the world-renowned She-Wizard, will now oblige'? Or shall I call them 'Gents,' tout court?"

She could afford to laugh at his ill-humour. She had his promise of obedience. She told him to say something graceful and simple.

The noise of the violin had ceased. There was not a breath of wind. The crowd in the quadrangle was as still and as silent as the night itself. Nowhere a tremour. And it was borne in on Zuleika that this crowd had one mind as well as one heart--a common resolve, calm and clear, as well as a common passion. No need for her to strengthen the spell now. No waverers here. And thus it came true that gratitude was the sole motive for her display.

She stood with eyes downcast and hands folded behind her, moonlit in the glow of lanterns, modest to the point of pathos, while the Duke gracefully and simply introduced her to the multitude. He was, he said, empowered by the lady who stood beside him to say that she would be pleased to give them an exhibition of her skill in the art to which she had devoted her life--an art which, more potently perhaps than any other, touched in mankind the sense of mystery and stirred the faculty of wonder; the most truly romantic of all the arts: he referred to the art of conjuring. It was not too much to say that by her mastery of this art, in which hitherto, it must be confessed, women had made no very great mark, Miss Zuleika Dobson (for such was the name of the lady who stood beside him) had earned the esteem of the whole civilised world. And here in Oxford, and in this College especially, she had a peculiar claim to--might he say?--their affectionate regard, inasmuch as she was the grand-daughter of their venerable and venerated Warden.

As the Duke ceased, there came from his hearers a sound like the rustling of leaves. In return for it, Zuleika performed that graceful act of subsidence to the verge of collapse which is usually kept for the delectation of some royal person. And indeed, in the presence of this doomed congress, she did experience humility; for she was not altogether without imagination. But, as she arose from her "bob," she was her own bold self again, bright mistress of the situation.

It was impossible for her to give her entertainment in full. Some of her tricks (notably the Secret Aquarium, and the Blazing Ball of Worsted) needed special preparation, and a table fitted with a "servante" or secret tray. The table for to-night's performance was an ordinary one, brought out from the porter's lodge. The MacQuern deposited on it the great casket. Zuleika, retaining him as her assistant, picked nimbly out from their places and put in array the curious appurtenances of her art--the Magic Canister, the Demon Egg- Cup, and the sundry other vessels which, lost property of young Edward Gibbs, had been by a Romanoff transmuted from wood to gold, and were now by the moon reduced temporarily to silver.

In a great dense semicircle the young men disposed themselves around her. Those who were in front squatted down on the gravel; those who were behind knelt; the rest stood. Young Oxford! Here, in this mass of boyish faces, all fused and obliterated, was the realisation of that phrase. Two or three thousands of human bodies, human souls? Yet the effect of them in the moonlight was as of one great passive monster.

So was it seen by the Duke, as he stood leaning against the wall, behind Zuleika's table. He saw it as a monster couchant and enchanted, a monster that was to die; and its death was in part his own doing. But remorse in him gave place to hostility. Zuleika had begun her performance. She was producing the Barber's Pole from her mouth. And it was to her that the Duke's heart went suddenly out in tenderness and pity. He forgot her levity and vanity--her wickedness, as he had inwardly called it. He thrilled with that intense anxiety which comes to a man when he sees his beloved offering to the public an exhibition of her skill, be it in singing, acting, dancing, or any other art. Would she acquit herself well? The lover's trepidation is painful enough when the beloved has genius--how should these clods appreciate her? and who set them in judgment over her? It must be worse when the beloved has mediocrity. And Zuleika, in conjuring, had rather less than that. Though indeed she took herself quite seriously as a conjurer, she brought to her art neither conscience nor ambition, in any true sense of those words. Since her debut, she had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The stale and narrow repertory which she had acquired from Edward Gibbs was all she had to offer; and this, and her marked lack of skill, she eked out with the self-same "patter" that had sufficed that impossible young man. It was especially her jokes that now sent shudders up the spine of her lover, and brought tears to his eyes, and kept him in a state of terror as to what she would say next. "You see," she had exclaimed lightly after the production of the Barber's Pole, "how easy it is to set up business as a hairdresser." Over the Demon Egg-Cup she said that the egg was "as good as fresh." And her constantly reiterated catch-phrase--"Well, this is rather queer!"--was the most distressing thing of all.

The Duke blushed to think what these men thought of her. Would love were blind! These her lovers were doubtless judging her. They forgave her--confound their impudence!--because of her beauty. The banality of her performance was an added grace. It made her piteous. Damn them, they were sorry for her. Little Noaks was squatting in the front row, peering up at her through his spectacles. Noaks was as sorry for her as the rest of them. Why didn't the earth yawn and swallow them all up?

Our hero's unreasoning rage was fed by a not unreasonable jealousy. It was clear to him that Zuleika had forgotten his existence. To-day, as soon as he had killed her love, she had shown him how much less to her was his love than the crowd's. And now again it was only the crowd she cared for. He followed with his eyes her long slender figure as she threaded her way in and out of the crowd, sinuously, confidingly, producing a penny from one lad's elbow, a threepenny-bit from between another's neck and collar, half a crown from another's hair, and always repeating in that flute-like voice of hers "Well, this is rather queer!" Hither and thither she fared, her neck and arms gleaming white from the luminous blackness of her dress, in the luminous blueness of the night. At a distance, she might have been a wraith; or a breeze made visible; a vagrom breeze, warm and delicate, and in league with death.

Yes, that is how she might have seemed to a casual observer. But to the Duke there was nothing weird about her: she was radiantly a woman; a goddess; and his first and last love. Bitter his heart was, but only against the mob she wooed, not against her for wooing it. She was cruel? All goddesses are that. She was demeaning herself? His soul welled up anew in pity, in passion.

Yonder, in the Hall, the concert ran its course, making a feeble incidental music to the dark emotions of the quadrangle. It ended somewhat before the close of Zuleika's rival show; and then the steps from the Hall were thronged by ladies, who, with a sprinkling of dons, stood in attitudes of refined displeasure and vulgar curiosity. The Warden was just awake enough to notice the sea of undergraduates. Suspecting some breach of College discipline, he retired hastily to his own quarters, for fear his dignity might be somehow compromised.

Was there ever, I wonder, an historian so pure as not to have wished just once to fob off on his readers just one bright fable for effect? I find myself sorely tempted to tell you that on Zuleika, as her entertainment drew to a close, the spirit of the higher thaumaturgy descended like a flame and found in her a worthy agent. Specious Apollyon whispers to me "Where would be the harm? Tell your readers that she cast a seed on the ground, and that therefrom presently arose a tamarind-tree which blossomed and bore fruit and, withering, vanished. Or say she conjured from an empty basket of osier a hissing and bridling snake. Why not? Your readers would be excited, gratified. And you would never be found out." But the grave eyes of Clio are bent on me, her servant. Oh pardon, madam: I did but waver for an instant. It is not too late to tell my readers that the climax of Zuleika's entertainment was only that dismal affair, the Magic Canister.

It she took from the table, and, holding it aloft, cried "Now, before I say good night, I want to see if I have your confidence. But you mustn't think this is the confidence trick!" She handed the vessel to The MacQuern, who, looking like an overgrown acolyte, bore it after her as she went again among the audience. Pausing before a man in the front row, she asked him if he would trust her with his watch. He held it out to her. "Thank you," she said, letting her fingers touch his for a moment before she dropped it into the Magic Canister. From another man she borrowed a cigarette-case, from another a neck-tie, from another a pair of sleeve-links, from Noaks a ring--one of those iron rings which are supposed, rightly or wrongly, to alleviate rheumatism. And when she had made an ample selection, she began her return-journey to the table.

On her way she saw in the shadow of the wall the figure of her forgotten Duke. She saw him, the one man she had ever loved, also the first man who had wished definitely to die for her; and she was touched by remorse. She had said she would remember him to her dying day; and already . . . But had he not refused her the wherewithal to remember him--the pearls she needed as the clou of her dear collection, the great relic among relics?

"Would you trust me with your studs?" she asked him, in a voice that could be heard throughout the quadrangle, with a smile that was for him alone.

There was no help for it. He quickly extricated from his shirt-front the black pearl and the pink. Her thanks had a special emphasis.

The MacQuern placed the Magic Canister before her on the table. She pressed the outer sheath down on it. Then she inverted it so that the contents fell into the false lid; then she opened it, looked into it, and, exclaiming "Well, this is rather queer!" held it up so that the audience whose intelligence she was insulting might see there was nothing in it.

"Accidents," she said, "will happen in the best-regulated canisters! But I think there is just a chance that I shall be able to restore your property. Excuse me for a moment." She then shut the canister, released the false lid, made several passes over it, opened it, looked into it and said with a flourish "Now I can clear my character!" Again she went among the crowd, attended by The MacQuern; and the loans-- priceless now because she had touched them--were in due course severally restored. When she took the canister from her acolyte, only the two studs remained in it.

Not since the night of her flitting from the Gibbs' humble home had Zuleika thieved. Was she a back-slider? Would she rob the Duke, and his heir-presumptive, and Tanville-Tankertons yet unborn? Alas, yes. But what she now did was proof that she had qualms. And her way of doing it showed that for legerdemain she had after all a natural aptitude which, properly trained, might have won for her an honourable place in at least the second rank of contemporary prestidigitators. With a gesture of her disengaged hand, so swift as to be scarcely visible, she unhooked her ear-rings and "passed" them into the canister. This she did as she turned away from the crowd, on her way to the Duke. At the same moment, in a manner technically not less good, though morally deplorable, she withdrew the studs and "vanished" them into her bosom.

Was it triumph, or shame, or of both a little that so flushed her cheeks as she stood before the man she had robbed? Or was it the excitement of giving a present to the man she had loved? Certain it is that the nakedness of her ears gave a new look to her face--a primitive look, open and sweetly wild. The Duke saw the difference, without noticing the cause. She was more adorable than ever. He blenched and swayed as in proximity to a loveliness beyond endurance. His heart cried out within him. A sudden mist came over his eyes.

In the canister that she held out to him, the two pearls rattled like dice.

"Keep them!" he whispered.

"I shall," she whispered back, almost shyly. "But these, these are for you." And she took one of his hands, and, holding it open, tilted the canister over it, and let drop into it the two ear-rings, and went quickly away.

As she re-appeared at the table, the crowd gave her a long ovation of gratitude for her performance--an ovation all the more impressive because it was solemn and subdued. She curtseyed again and again, not indeed with the timid simplicity of her first obeisance (so familiar already was she with the thought of the crowd's doom), but rather in the manner of a prima donna--chin up, eyelids down, all teeth manifest, and hands from the bosom flung ecstatically wide asunder.

You know how, at a concert, a prima donna who has just sung insists on shaking hands with the accompanist, and dragging him forward, to show how beautiful her nature is, into the applause that is for herself alone. And your heart, like mine, has gone out to the wretched victim. Even so would you have felt for The MacQuern when Zuleika, on the implied assumption that half the credit was his, grasped him by the wrist, and, continuing to curtsey, would not release him till the last echoes of the clapping had died away.

The ladies on the steps of the Hall moved down into the quadrangle, spreading their resentment like a miasma. The tragic passion of the crowd was merged in mere awkwardness. There was a general movement towards the College gate.

Zuleika was putting her tricks back into the great casket, The MacQuern assisting her. The Scots, as I have said, are a shy race, but a resolute and a self-seeking. This young chieftain had not yet recovered from what his heroine had let him in for. But he did not lose the opportunity of asking her to lunch with him to-morrow.

"Delighted," she said, fitting the Demon Egg-Cup into its groove. Then, looking up at him, "Are you popular?" she asked. "Have you many friends?" He nodded. She said he must invite them all.

This was a blow to the young man, who, at once thrifty and infatuate, had planned a luncheon a deux. "I had hoped--" he began.

"Vainly," she cut him short.

There was a pause. "Whom shall I invite, then?"

"I don't know any of them. How should I have preferences?" She remembered the Duke. She looked round and saw him still standing in the shadow of the wall. He came towards her. "Of course," she said hastily to her host, "you must ask HIM."

The MacQuern complied. He turned to the Duke and told him that Miss Dobson had very kindly promised to lunch with him to-morrow. "And," said Zuleika, "I simply WON'T unless you will."

The Duke looked at her. Had it not been arranged that he and she should spend his last day together? Did it mean nothing that she had given him her ear-rings? Quickly drawing about him some remnants of his tattered pride, he hid his wound, and accepted the invitation.

"It seems a shame," said Zuleika to The MacQuern, "to ask you to bring this great heavy box all the way back again. But--"

Those last poor rags of pride fell away now. The Duke threw a prehensile hand on the casket, and, coldly glaring at The MacQuern, pointed with his other hand towards the College gate. He, and he alone, was going to see Zuleika home. It was his last night on earth, and he was not to be trifled with. Such was the message of his eyes. The Scotsman's flashed back a precisely similar message.

Men had fought for Zuleika, but never in her presence. Her eyes dilated. She had not the slightest impulse to throw herself between the two antagonists. Indeed, she stepped back, so as not to be in the way. A short sharp fight--how much better that is than bad blood! She hoped the better man would win; and (do not misjudge her) she rather hoped this man was the Duke. It occurred to her--a vague memory of some play or picture--that she ought to be holding aloft a candelabra of lit tapers; no, that was only done indoors, and in the eighteenth century. Ought she to hold a sponge? Idle, these speculations of hers, and based on complete ignorance of the manners and customs of undergraduates. The Duke and The MacQuern would never have come to blows in the presence of a lady. Their conflict was necessarily spiritual.

And it was the Scotsman, Scots though he was, who had to yield. Cowed by something demoniac in the will-power pitted against his, he found himself retreating in the direction indicated by the Duke's forefinger.

As he disappeared into the porch, Zuleika turned to the Duke. "You were splendid," she said softly. He knew that very well. Does the stag in his hour of victory need a diploma from the hind? Holding in his hands the malachite casket that was the symbol of his triumph, the Duke smiled dictatorially at his darling. He came near to thinking of her as a chattel. Then with a pang he remembered his abject devotion to her. Abject no longer though! The victory he had just won restored his manhood, his sense of supremacy among his fellows. He loved this woman on equal terms. She was transcendent? So was he, Dorset. To- night the world had on its moonlit surface two great ornaments-- Zuleika and himself. Neither of the pair could be replaced. Was one of them to be shattered? Life and love were good. He had been mad to think of dying.

No word was spoken as they went together to Salt Cellar. She expected him to talk about her conjuring tricks. Could he have been disappointed? She dared not inquire; for she had the sensitiveness, though no other quality whatsoever, of the true artist. She felt herself aggrieved. She had half a mind to ask him to give her back her ear-rings. And by the way, he hadn't yet thanked her for them! Well, she would make allowances for a condemned man. And again she remembered the omen of which he had told her. She looked at him, and then up into the sky. "This same moon," she said to herself, "sees the battlements of Tankerton. Does she see two black owls there? Does she hear them hooting?"

They were in Salt Cellar now. "Melisande!" she called up to her window.

"Hush!" said the Duke, "I have something to say to you."

"Well, you can say it all the better without that great box in your hands. I want my maid to carry it up to my room for me." And again she called out for Melisande, and received no answer. "I suppose she's in the house-keeper's room or somewhere. You had better put the box down inside the door. She can bring it up later."

She pushed open the postern; and the Duke, as he stepped across the threshold, thrilled with a romantic awe. Re-emerging a moment later into the moonlight, he felt that she had been right about the box: it was fatal to self-expression; and he was glad he had not tried to speak on the way from the Front Quad: the soul needs gesture; and the Duke's first gesture now was to seize Zuleika's hands in his.

She was too startled to move. "Zuleika!" he whispered. She was too angry to speak, but with a sudden twist she freed her wrists and darted back.

He laughed. "You are afraid of me. You are afraid to let me kiss you, because you are afraid of loving me. This afternoon--here--I all but kissed you. I mistook you for Death. I was enamoured of Death. I was a fool. That is what YOU are, you incomparable darling: you are a fool. You are afraid of life. I am not. I love life. I am going to live for you, do you hear?"

She stood with her back to the postern. Anger in her eyes had given place to scorn. "You mean," she said, "that you go back on your promise?"

"You will release me from it."

"You mean you are afraid to die?"

"You will not be guilty of my death. You love me."

"Good night, you miserable coward." She stepped back through the postern.

"Don't, Zuleika! Miss Dobson, don't! Pull yourself together! Reflect! I implore you . . . You will repent . . ."

Slowly she closed the postern on him.

"You will repent. I shall wait here, under your window . . ."

He heard a bolt rasped into its socket. He heard the retreat of a light tread on the paven hall.

And he hadn't even kissed her! That was his first thought. He ground his heel in the gravel.

And he had hurt her wrists! This was Zuleika's first thought, as she came into her bedroom. Yes, there were two red marks where he had held her. No man had ever dared to lay hands on her. With a sense of contamination, she proceeded to wash her hands thoroughly with soap and water. From time to time such words as "cad" and "beast" came through her teeth.

She dried her hands and flung herself into a chair, arose and went pacing the room. So this was the end of her great night! What had she done to deserve it? How had he dared?

There was a sound as of rain against the window. She was glad. The night needed cleansing.

He had told her she was afraid of life. Life!--to have herself caressed by HIM; humbly to devote herself to being humbly doted on; to be the slave of a slave; to swim in a private pond of treacle--ugh! If the thought weren't so cloying and degrading, it would be laughable.

For a moment her hands hovered over those two golden and gemmed volumes encasing Bradshaw and the A.B.C. Guide. To leave Oxford by an early train, leave him to drown unthanked, unlooked at . . . But this could not be done without slighting all those hundreds of other men . . . And besides . . .

Again that sound on the window-pane. This time it startled her. There seemed to be no rain. Could it have been--little bits of gravel? She darted noiselessly to the window, pushed it open, and looked down. She saw the upturned face of the Duke. She stepped back, trembling with fury, staring around her. Inspiration came.

She thrust her head out again. "Are you there?" she whispered.

"Yes, yes. I knew you would come."

"Wait a moment, wait!"

The water-jug stood where she had left it, on the floor by the wash- stand. It was almost full, rather heavy. She bore it steadily to the window, and looked out.

"Come a little nearer!" she whispered.

The upturned and moonlit face obeyed her. She saw its lips forming the word "Zuleika." She took careful aim.

Full on the face crashed the cascade of moonlit water, shooting out on all sides like the petals of some great silver anemone.

She laughed shrilly as she leapt back, letting the empty jug roll over on the carpet. Then she stood tense, crouching, her hands to her mouth, her eyes askance, as much as to say "Now I've done it!" She listened hard, holding her breath. In the stillness of the night was a faint sound of dripping water, and presently of footsteps going away. Then stillness unbroken.

 



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