ZULEIKA DOBSON

XX

Artistically, there is a good deal to be said for that old Greek friend of ours, the Messenger; and I dare say you blame me for having, as it were, made you an eye-witness of the death of the undergraduates, when I might so easily have brought some one in to tell you about it after it was all over . . . Some one? Whom? Are you not begging the question? I admit there were, that evening in Oxford, many people who, when they went home from the river, gave vivid reports of what they had seen. But among them was none who had seen more than a small portion of the whole affair. Certainly, I might have pieced together a dozen of the various accounts, and put them all into the mouth of one person. But credibility is not enough for Clio's servant. I aim at truth. And so, as I by my Zeus-given incorporeity was the one person who had a good view of the scene at large, you must pardon me for having withheld the veil of indirect narration.

"Too late," you will say if I offer you a Messenger now. But it was not thus that Mrs. Batch and Katie greeted Clarence when, lamentably soaked with rain, that Messenger appeared on the threshold of the kitchen. Katie was laying the table-cloth for seven o'clock supper. Neither she nor her mother was clairvoyante. Neither of them knew what had been happening. But, as Clarence had not come home since afternoon-school, they had assumed that he was at the river; and they now assumed from the look of him that something very unusual had been happening there. As to what this was, they were not quickly enlightened. Our old Greek friend, after a run of twenty miles, would always reel off a round hundred of graphic verses unimpeachable in scansion. Clarence was of degenerate mould. He collapsed on to a chair, and sat there gasping; and his recovery was rather delayed than hastened by his mother, who, in her solicitude, patted him vigorously between the shoulders.

"Let him alone, mother, do," cried Katie, wringing her hands.

"The Duke, he's drowned himself," presently gasped the Messenger.

Blank verse, yes, so far as it went; but delivered without the slightest regard for rhythm, and composed in stark defiance of those laws which should regulate the breaking of bad news. You, please remember, were carefully prepared by me against the shock of the Duke's death; and yet I hear you still mumbling that I didn't let the actual fact be told you by a Messenger. Come, do you really think your grievance against me is for a moment comparable with that of Mrs. and Miss Batch against Clarence? Did you feel faint at any moment in the foregoing chapter? No. But Katie, at Clarence's first words, fainted outright. Think a little more about this poor girl senseless on the floor, and a little less about your own paltry discomfort.

Mrs. Batch herself did not faint, but she was too much overwhelmed to notice that her daughter had done so.

"No! Mercy on us! Speak, boy, can't you?"

"The river," gasped Clarence. "Threw himself in. On purpose. I was on the towing-path. Saw him do it."

Mrs. Batch gave a low moan.

"Katie's fainted," added the Messenger, not without a touch of personal pride.

"Saw him do it," Mrs. Batch repeated dully. "Katie," she said, in the same voice, "get up this instant." But Katie did not hear her.

The mother was loth to have been outdone in sensibility by the daughter, and it was with some temper that she hastened to make the necessary ministrations.

"Where am I?" asked Katie, at length, echoing the words used in this very house, at a similar juncture, on this very day, by another lover of the Duke.

"Ah, you may well ask that," said Mrs. Batch, with more force than reason. "A mother's support indeed! Well! And as for you," she cried, turning on Clarence, "sending her off like that with your--" She was face to face again with the tragic news. Katie, remembering it simultaneously, uttered a loud sob. Mrs. Batch capped this with a much louder one. Clarence stood before the fire, slowly revolving on one heel. His clothes steamed briskly.

"It isn't true," said Katie. She rose and came uncertainly towards her brother, half threatening, half imploring.

"All right," said he, strong in his advantage. "Then I shan't tell either of you anything more."

Mrs. Batch through her tears called Katie a bad girl, and Clarence a bad boy.

"Where did you get THEM?" asked Clarence, pointing to the ear-rings worn by his sister.

"HE gave me them," said Katie. Clarence curbed the brotherly intention of telling her she looked "a sight" in them.

She stood staring into vacancy. "He didn't love HER," she murmured. "That was all over. I'll vow he didn't love HER."

"Who d'you mean by her?" asked Clarence.

"That Miss Dobson that's been here."

"What's her other name?"

"Zuleika," Katie enunciated with bitterest abhorrence.

"Well, then, he jolly well did love her. That's the name he called out just before he threw himself in. 'Zuleika!'--like that," added the boy, with a most infelicitous attempt to reproduce the Duke's manner.

Katie had shut her eyes, and clenched her hands.

"He hated her. He told me so," she said.

"I was always a mother to him," sobbed Mrs. Batch, rocking to and fro on a chair in a corner. "Why didn't he come to me in his trouble?"

"He kissed me," said Katie, as in a trance. "No other man shall ever do that."

"He did?" exclaimed Clarence. "And you let him?"

"You wretched little whipper-snapper!" flashed Katie.

"Oh, I am, am I?" shouted Clarence, squaring up to his sister. "Say that again, will you?"

There is no doubt that Katie would have said it again, had not her mother closed the scene with a prolonged wail of censure.

"You ought to be thinking of ME, you wicked girl," said Mrs. Batch. Katie went across, and laid a gentle hand on her mother's shoulder. This, however, did but evoke a fresh flood of tears. Mrs. Batch had a keen sense of the deportment owed to tragedy. Katie, by bickering with Clarence, had thrown away the advantage she had gained by fainting. Mrs. Batch was not going to let her retrieve it by shining as a consoler. I hasten to add that this resolve was only sub-conscious in the good woman. Her grief was perfectly sincere. And it was not the less so because with it was mingled a certain joy in the greatness of the calamity. She came of good sound peasant stock. Abiding in her was the spirit of those old songs and ballads in which daisies and daffodillies and lovers' vows and smiles are so strangely inwoven with tombs and ghosts, with murders and all manner of grim things. She had not had education enough to spoil her nerve. She was able to take the rough with the smooth. She was able to take all life for her province, and death too.

The Duke was dead. This was the stupendous outline she had grasped: now let it be filled in. She had been stricken: now let her be racked. Soon after her daughter had moved away, Mrs. Batch dried her eyes, and bade Clarence tell just what had happened. She did not flinch. Modern Katie did.

Such had ever been the Duke's magic in the household that Clarence had at first forgotten to mention that any one else was dead. Of this omission he was glad. It promised him a new lease of importance. Meanwhile, he described in greater detail the Duke's plunge. Mrs. Batch's mind, while she listened, ran ahead, dog-like, into the immediate future, ranging around: "the family" would all be here to-morrow, the Duke's own room must be "put straight" to-night, "I was of speaking" . . .

Katie's mind harked back to the immediate past--to the tone of that voice, to that hand which she had kissed, to the touch of those lips on her brow, to the door-step she had made so white for him, day by day . . .

The sound of the rain had long ceased. There was the noise of a gathering wind.

"Then in went a lot of others," Clarence was saying. "And they all shouted out 'Zuleika!' just like he did. Then a lot more went in. First I thought it was some sort of fun. Not it!" And he told how, by inquiries further down the river, he had learned the extent of the disaster. "Hundreds and hundreds of them--ALL of them," he summed up. "And all for the love of HER," he added, as with a sulky salute to Romance.

Mrs. Batch had risen from her chair, the better to cope with such magnitude. She stood with wide-spread arms, silent, gaping. She seemed, by sheer force of sympathy, to be expanding to the dimensions of a crowd.

Intensive Katie recked little of all these other deaths. "I only know," she said, "that he hated her."

"Hundreds and hundreds--ALL," intoned Mrs. Batch, then gave a sudden start, as having remembered something. Mr. Noaks! He, too! She staggered to the door, leaving her actual offspring to their own devices, and went heavily up the stairs, her mind scampering again before her. . . . If he was safe and sound, dear young gentleman, heaven be praised! and she would break the awful news to him, very gradually. If not, there was another "family" to be solaced; "I'm a mother myself, Mrs. Noaks" . . .

The sitting-room door was closed. Twice did Mrs. Batch tap on the panel, receiving no answer. She went in, gazed around in the dimness, sighed deeply, and struck a match. Conspicuous on the table lay a piece of paper. She bent to examine it. A piece of lined paper, torn from an exercise book, it was neatly inscribed with the words "What is Life without Love?" The final word and the note of interrogation were somewhat blurred, as by a tear. The match had burnt itself out. The landlady lit another, and read the legend a second time, that she might take in the full pathos of it. Then she sat down in the arm- chair. For some minutes she wept there. Then, having no more, tears, she went out on tip-toe, closing the door very quietly.

As she descended the last flight of stairs, her daughter had just shut the front-door, and was coming along the hall.

"Poor Mr. Noaks--he's gone," said the mother.

"Has he?" said Katie listlessly.

"Yes he has, you heartless girl. What's that you've got in your hand? Why, if it isn't the black-leading! And what have you been doing with that?"

"Let me alone, mother, do," said poor Katie. She had done her lowly task. She had expressed her mourning, as best she could, there where she had been wont to express her love.

 



Back | Next | Contents