By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 19, 2010

4. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 97-146

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)VII-VIII
The Duke is beginning to take pleasure in the thought of his impending death: "Perhaps she would devote her life to mourning him." And he settles on the means of his demise: "Drowning (he had often heard) was a rather pleasant sensation." But when he realizes that it's half past four and the first race will be over, he proposes that they go back to his rooms and have tea before the next one. He explains that they will be meeting a crowd of people on the way back from the race.

This, however, makes Zuleika the more determined to go on: "Let us meet them." And so they confront "a dense procession of youths -- youths interspersed with maidens whose parasols were as flotsam and jetsam on a seething current of straw hats. Zuleika neither quickened nor slackened her advance. But brightlier and brightlier shone her eyes."

Of course, it's a triumph for Zuleika: "Nothing at all like her had ever been seen in Oxford." There were girls at the university now, "but beauty and the lust for learning have yet to be allied." And as for the wives and daughters of dons, "the indignant shade of shade of celibacy seems to have called down on the dons a Nemesis which precludes them from either marrying beauty or begetting it." And here we have the explanation for the Warden's animosity toward Zuleika's parents: His son, "that unhappy curate," had married a circus-rider from whom Zuleika had inherited her beauty.

The result of fronting the crowd of returnees from the race is that "Not only was the whole throng of youths drawing asunder before her: much of it, as she passed, was forming up in her wake." So they are followed but not touched by the eddy they create in the crowd. They arrive at and board the Judas College barge where they take tea. Among the Judas men who have also made it onto the barge are the two with whom the Duke had talked earlier. "Zuleika was aware of the special persistence of their gaze," so she asks to have them introduced to her. The Duke refuses: "That I shall not do. I am your victim: not your pander. Those two men stand on the threshold of a possibly useful and agreeable career. I am not going to trip them up for you."

Zuleika scoffs at his reluctance. She doesn't believe that her charms can be fatal: "Certainly a young man doesn't waste away for love of some particular young woman. He very soon makes love to some other one.... All the most ardent my past adorers have married." The Duke is astonished that she hasn't learned of "the love that corrodes, the love that ruins" from "the Greek pastoral poets" or "the Elizabethan sonneteers." She replies, "You will think me lamentably crude: my experience of life has been drawn from life itself." When he protests that her "way of speech has what is called 'the literary flavor,'" she explains that it's "an unfortunate trick which I caught from a writer, a Mr. Beerbohm, who once sat next to me at dinner somewhere."

The Duke begins to savor the irony of his still-secret plan: "While she chattered on, without an inkling that he was no ordinary lover, and coaxing him to present two quite ordinary young men to her, he held over her the revelation that he for love of her was about to die." He proclaims, "So long as I live, ... you will address no one but me." She replies that his last moment must be at hand, and when he vows that it is, she begins to suspect what he's up to. He contemplates the river in which he plans to drown, and believes that his death will serve as a deterrent to other young men's infatuation with her. "He was glad that his death would be a public service to the University."

When he asks if she will mourn him, her suspicions grow stronger, but she continues to reply that she can't love him. "The black pearl and the pink, quivering, gave stress to her ultimatum. But the violet of her eyes was all but hidden by the dilation of her pupils." She protests that she would never forgive herself for his death and would mourn him, and pleads with him to reconsider. "She only didn't say she could love him. She never hinted that."

As he prepares to take the plunge, the sound of the starting gun for the next race causes her to grab at his arm. He tries to get her to loosen her grip, telling her that perhaps as the boats pass over his head, he "shall be able to gurgle a cheer for Judas." She has had men say they would die for her, but none of them had. "But she knew that now he must not die -- not yet!" She urges him, "to-morrow, if you will. Not yet!" And he gives in to her wish as the boats pass the barge.
"So be it!" he cried into Zuleika's ear -- cried loudly, for it seemed as though all the Wagnerian orchestras of Europe, with the Straussian ones thrown in, were here to clash in unison the full volume of right music for the glory of the reprieve. 
As for Zuleika, "It was as if she stood alone with her lover on some silent pinnacle of the world. It was as if she were a little girl with a brand-new and very expensive doll which had banished all the little other old toys from her mind." But the sight of her standing there holding tightly to the Duke puzzles the crowd. "For already the news that the Duke loved Zuleika, and that she loved him not, and would stoop to no man who loved her, had spread like wild-fire among the undergraduates."

She invites him to dine with her and her grandfather, but he tells her that he has to dine at his club, the Junta, to which he can't take a woman, "not even if, as she suggested, she dressed herself up as a man." Anyway, he has invited a guest, and when she protests that he didn't think about his guest when he was about to kill himself, he replies that he did: "Death cancels all engagements." When they part, she makes him promise that he will spend all of tomorrow with her.

Wearing "a mulberry-coloured coat, with brass buttons" and a black pearl and a pink on in his shirtfront, the Duke goes to his dinner with the Junta. The club has only two other members, but each is allowed to bring a guest. When the Duke was elected to it at the end of his second term, there were four other members, but they left at the end of the summer term, leaving him the sole member of the club. And because he blackballed the two members he had both proposed and seconded, the next year he had been the sole member. He lowered his standards for the third year and "elected The MacQuern, of Balliol, and Sir John Marraby, of Brasenose." Tonight The MacQuern has brought Mr. Trent-Garby, of Christ Church, and Sir John's guest is Lord Sayes, of Magdalen. When "A Herculean figure filled the doorway," the Duke's guest has arrived. He is Mr. Abimelech V. Oover, of Trinity, an American Rhodes Scholar.

The Duke's courtesy to Rhodes Scholars is a matter of noblesse oblige.
He found these Scholars, good fellows though they were, rather oppressive. They had not -- how could they have? -- the undergraduate's virtue of taking Oxford as a matter of course. The Germans loved it too little, the Colonials too much. The Americans were, to a sensitive observer, the most troublesome -- as being the most troubled -- of the whole lot.... They were so awfully afraid of having their strenuous native characters undermined by their delight in the place. They held that the future was theirs, a glorious asset, far more glorious than the past.
They also had a "constant fear that they are being corrupted."

A gathering of the Junta is, of course, a matter of following antique rituals, and also of "drinking rather more champagne than was good for [them]. Maybe, these youths sowed in themselves, on this night, the seeds of lifetime intemperance. We cannot tell. They did not live long enough for us to know."

Watching over the six men is a ghost, Humphrey Greddon, "founder and first president of the club." His portrait hangs in the room along with a miniature of Nellie O'Mora, who "drowned herself in a millpond" when Humphrey broke her heart. The Junta always toasted her memory after dinner: "Here's to Nellie O'Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be!" But when Mr. Oover hears her story, he denounces Humphrey Greddon as "an unmitigated scoundrel. I say he was not a white man." The enraged ghost of Humphrey Greddon seizes his sword and runs Mr. Oover through, but then "remembered he was only a ghost impalpable, impotent, of no account. 'But I shall meet you in Hell to-morrow,' he hissed in Oover's face. And there he was wrong. It is quite certain that Oover went to Heaven."

The ghost departs "With a volley of the most appalling eighteenth-century oaths" before the Junta joins the first of the night's tradition toasts, "Gentlemen, I give you Church and State." All honor the toast, "none with a richer reverence than ... Oover, despite his passionate mental reservation in favour of Pittsburg-Anabaptism and the Republican Ideal." But then the Duke shocks the company by refusing to propose the toast to Nellie O'Mora, which is his duty as the club's president. He thereby resigns his position and announces that The MacQuern is president and should propose the toast. The MacQuern, too, declines, leaving it to Marraby, who, having proclaimed that he won't lie, violates tradition and cries, "I give you Zuleika Dobson, the fairest witch that ever was or will be!" All join in the toast.

Fortunately, there is also a rule that "a member of the Junta can do no wrong," so the grave offense to tradition goes unpunished. But they all feel rather guilty about it, even Oover:
All the antiquarian in him deplored the sudden rupture of a fine old Oxford tradition. All the chivalrous American in him resented the slight on that fair victim of the feudal system, Miss O'Mora. And at the same time, all the Abimelech V. in him rejoiced at having honoured by word and act the one woman in the world.
Realizing that here were five other men "deeply under the spell of Zuleika," the Duke knows he must do something to save them. He tries to convince them of the hopelessness of their situation, but he is unsuccessful. They vow that they will love her nonetheless, Oover proclaiming, "We love her, and -- shall, and -- will, Sir, with -- our latest breath." The Duke observes that "the noise you have just made around this table was very like to the noise made on the verge of the Boer War." But what if, "on the verge of the aforesaid war, some orator had said to the British people 'It is going to be a walk-over for our enemy in the field.'... [I]s it possible that Britannia would have thrown her helmet in the air, shrieking 'Slavery for ever'?" He has been enslaved by Zuleika, he tells them. "Your fetters have not galled you yet. My wrists, my ankles, are excoriated.... The sun mocks me. The moon titters in my face. I can stand it no longer. I will no more of it. To-morrow I die."

He assures them that he is serious and that Zuleika knows of his intent. "Take warning by me. Muster all your will-power, and forget Miss Dobson. ... Put all Oxford on its guard against this woman who can love no lover." But they reject his counsel, and all five vow that they will die, too.

Then the Duke realizes that it's time for the concert in which he is performing and at which he will see Zuleika. in his hurry, he jumps out of the window. "(The façade of the house is called, to this day, Dorset's Leap.)" Oover follows suit, demolishing a window-box in his leap, and the others crowd around the window -- except for The MacQuern, who, blocked by the crowd, runs downstairs. Marraby, who twists his ankle in the leap, is followed by Lord Sayes and then by Trent-Garby, "who, catching his foot in the ruined flower-box, fell headlong, and was, I regret to say, killed." The survivors race to the concert.

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