By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 17, 2010

2. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 31-62

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)III-IV
Zuleika is late coming down to dinner, where besides the Duke, the guests include "an Oriel don and his wife." While they are waiting, the Warden explains that his granddaughter has "devoted her life entirely to good works." When the Duke asks if she's a nurse, the Warden replies that "Zuleika's appointed task is to induce delightful wonder rather than to alleviate pain. She performs conjuring-tricks." The Duke is startled to learn that the Warden's granddaughter is the famous Zuleika Dobson.

"The Duke had an intense horror of unmarried girls," the result of having to elude so many of them. But when she enters, clad in "flamingo silk, and ... liberally festooned with emeralds," he falls for her "Instantly, utterly."  Zuleika is wearing a back pearl in her right ear and a pink pearl in her left, "and their difference gave an odd, bewildering witchery to the little face between." But the Duke maintains his cold composure: "Throughout dinner, none guessed that his shirtfront was but the screen of a fierce warfare waged between pride and passion."

The effect of the Duke's apparent indifference sends Zuleika into "a trance of sheer happiness. At last, she thought, her hope was fulfilled -- that hope which, although she had seldom remembered it in the joy of her constant triumphs, had always been lurking in her." She is so stunned that all she can do is gaze at the Duke while responding to the conversation of the don with "'Yes,' and 'No,' and 'Oh really?'" long after the don has given up and "was not listening silently to the Duke and the Warden."

The Duke is conscious that her attention is focused on him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw "the contour of the face, and the black pearl and the pink; could not blind himself, try as he would. And he knew that he was in love." He had always been "too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring anyone else.... At Eton he had been called 'Peacock,' and this nick-name had followed him up to Oxford." Yet he had always excelled academically. "There is no doubt that but for his untimely death he would have taken a particularly brilliant First in that school also." Thus, as with the sweating stone emperors, Beerbohm slips a little dark foreboding into the lightness of the narrative.

So stunning have the Duke's achievements been that, after he makes his maiden speech in the House of Lords, leading to the defeat of a "measure more than usually socialist" that had been passed in the House of Commons, he has been named to the Order of the Garter, "the only undergraduate on whom this Order had ever been conferred." He continued to tend to "that perfection of aspect which the gods had given him."
He knew well, however, that women care little for a man's appearance, and that what they seek in a man is strength of character, and rank, and wealth. These three gifts the Duke had in a high degree, and he was by women much courted because of them.... It was imperative that he should banish her from his mind, quickly. He must not surrender to any passion his dandihood. The dandy must be celibate, cloistral; is, indeed, but a monk with a mirror for beads and breviary -- an anchorite, mortifying his soul that his body may be perfect.
He therefore continues to resist Zuleika. When the Warden mentions that the Duke is to play something at the Judas concert, she eagerly offers to turn the pages for him. He replies that he always plays from memory, a snub that thrills Zuleika. She rises and leaves the room with the don's wife. When she has gone, the Duke looks down and discovers that the two white pearls in his shirtfront have been replaced with a black pear and a pink pearl. "Just for a moment, absurdly over-estimating poor Zuleika's skill, he supposed himself a victim of legerdemain. Another moment, and the import of the studs revealed itself." He says that he's feeling faint and quickly leaves. As he reaches his rooming-house, "The high grim busts of the Emperors stared down at him, their faces more than ever tragically cavernous and distorted. ... For were they not privy to the doom that the morrow, or the morrow's morrow, held for him -- held not indeed for him alone, yet for him especially, as it were, and for him most lamentably?"

The next morning, in his rooms, he yields to the realization that he is in love. "There, on the dressing-table, lay the two studs, visible symbols of his love. Dear to him, now, the colours of them!" He ignores the boxes that "contained his robes of the Garter," which he was to wear on the day after tomorrow at Windsor for the investiture of a visiting foreign king. The bells sound noon, and he hears the footsteps of Noaks on the stairs. "It was the Duke's whim to condescend further in the direction of Noaks than of any other.... Noaks, for his part, regarded the Duke with feelings mingled of idolatry and disapproval." The Duke calls Noaks in to his rooms and asks if he has ever been in love. Noaks confesses his love for the woman he saw with the Warden the day before, and the Duke tells him, "She's the Warden's niece [sic] ... I dined at the Warden's last night." Noaks is stirred to resentment "of the Duke's great elegance and average stature, his high lineage and incomputable wealth.... 'And of course she's in love with you?' he snarled."

Noaks's question makes the Duke realize that he hadn't even considered whether Zuleika might return his affection. She had shown every sign of it but he had snubbed her. "To the nethermost corner of his soul, he cursed himself for what he had done, and for all he had left undone." At that moment, the landlady's daughter announces that Zuleika is there to see him. He sends Noaks away. Zuleika enters, and there are some moments of awkwardness between them. He observes, "Something had given to her a graver, nobler beauty.... Suddenly she turned to him, and he understood. No longer the black pearl and the pink, but two white pearls!"

He declares his love, but "Zuleika, listening to him, had grown gradually paler and paler. She had raised her hands and cowered, as though he were about to strike her." And he realizes with horror that she doesn't love him anymore. He has her look at her pearls in the mirror.
"They were white when you came to me," he sighed. "They were white because you loved me. From them it was that I knew you loved me even as I loved you. But their old colours have come back to them. That is how I know that your love for me is dead."
He shows her the studs that he had worn that night and explains that he had noticed their change when she left the dining room. She says that she noticed the change in hers when she went into the drawing room, and asks why he behaved so coldly if he was in love with her all the time.
"Because I was a pedant. I tried to ignore you, as pedants always do try to ignore any fact they cannot fit into their pet system. The basis of my pet system was celibacy. I don't mean the mere state of being a bachelor. I mean celibacy of the soul -- egoism, in fact. You ahve converted me from that. I am now a confirmed tuist." 
(A "tuist" seems to be a practitioner of "tuism," a word that was apparently coined by Coleridge, given that his is the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, as an opposite to "egoism." It means devotion to another.)

Zuleika explains that she did love him, but she can't do so any longer. "You were so different from any man I had ever seen except in my dreams. You did not make a fool of yourself.... And now, ... it is all over. The idol has come sliding down its pedestal to fawn and grovel with all the other infatuates in the dust about my feet." She admits that she likes being admired, but "what a little miserable pleasure that is in comparison with the rapture I have forfeited!" She wanted him to dally with her and break her heart, "I desired nothing better than that." She noticed that the landlord's daughter was in love with him. "'I have never looked at her,' said the Duke. 'No wonder, then, that she loves you,' sighed Zuleika." She even considered bribing the girl with her jewels to let her serve him, "to black your boots, carry up your coals, scrub your doorstep." Now, she swears, she wouldn't offer the girl a single garnet for the opportunity.

He vows that he will make her love him, but she scoffs, "Is it likely that I shall begin to love you again because you can't leave off loving me?" As the sound of the landlord's daughter bringing his luncheon plates is heard, "A smile flickered across Zuleika's lips; and 'Not one garnet!' she murmured."

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