By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

7. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 247-283

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)XVI-XVIII
The Duke is trying to figure out what to do about Zuleika's appearance in his room when Katie appears at the door to ask if he's planning to be there for lunch. "And it dawned on him that this girl, who perhaps loved him, was, according to all known standards, extraordinarily pretty." He says he will and, when she asks about "Miss Dobson," that he'll be dining alone. After Katie leaves, Zuleika says that if he wants her to leave he should throw her out the window.

He realizes that she loves him again, but asks her for proof that she does. She points to the pearls that fasten her blouse: They're his studs, she tells him, and when they turned white this morning she realized that he had stopped loving her, giving her leave to love him again. When she discovered the change, Mélisande had returned from delivering the first letter, whereupon she wrote the second one that the Duke tore up, unread. The Duke removes her earrings from his pocket: They, too, have turned white. When he tells her to take them, she refuses. "'I could never forget that once they were both black.' She flung them into the fender."

"I am not going back on my promise," he tells her, and shows her the telegram his steward had sent him about the ominous owls. "With a stern joy he watched her reading it. Wild-eyed, she looked up from it to him, tried to speak, and swerved down senseless." The Duke responds to her faint with a panicky attempt to rouse her by splashing water on her face until he "caught the horrible analogy." When she regains consciousness, "She, too, it seemed, had caught the analogy; for with a wan smile she said 'We are quits now, John, aren't we?'" Then she remembers why she fainted:
"Oh," she cried, staggering to her feet, "the owls, the owls!"
Vengeance was his, and "Yes, there," he said, "is the ineluctable hard fact you wake to. The owls have hooted. The gods have spoken. This day your wish is to be fulfilled." 
He reminds her of her lunch with The MacQuern: "After all, he is going to die for you, like the rest of us. I am but one of a number, you know. Use your sense of proportion." He gives her three minutes to prepare herself to leave. After she readies herself, she turns to him:
"You saw me putting on my hat; you did not see love taking on the crown of pity, and me bonneting her with it, tripping her up and trampling the life out of her. Oh, a most cold-blooded business, John! Had to be done, though. No other way out. So I just used my sense of proportion, as you rashly bade me, and then hardened my heart at sight of you as you are. One of a number? Yes, and a quite unlovable unit. So I am all right again." 
He follows her to the door, and realizes that she has won. He thinks that he should have taunted her back, should have proclaimed, "Never was man by maiden loved more ardently than I by you, my poor girl, at this moment." But then he wonders if she had been pretending to have fallen out of love with him. "She had already twitted him with his lack of intuition. He had not seen that she loved him when she certainly did love him."

Needing certainty, he looks for the pearls. They have become their original colors: one pink, the other black. He hears Katie arriving with the lunch tray. "She was coming, the girl who loved him, the girl whose heart would be broken when he died." He orders an enormous lunch: cold salmon, pigeon pie, custard pudding, a bottle of champagne, a bottle of port. "His was a head that had always hitherto defied the grape." He finishes the meal and the champagne. "Poor Zuleika! He was glad for her that she had contrived to master her infatuation. ... Enough for him that he was loved by this exquisite meek girl who had served him at the feast." He drinks a second glass of port and pours a third, thinking about Katie: "Would that he loved her in return!"

He decides to give Katie the earrings as a "small token of his gratitude -- some trinket by which to remember him." He rings for her and asks her if it's true that she loves him. Embarrassed, she admits that she does. He asks her name, and she tells him. He gets her to admit that she never dared to expect him to love her in return. But when he gives her the pearls and admits that they were Zuleika's, she throws them on the floor: "'I'll have nothing to do with them. I hate her.' 'So do I,' said the Duke, in a burst of confidence. 'No, I don't,' he added hastily. 'Please forget that I said that.'" But Katie realizes that accepting the pearls would be a way of getting back at Zuleika, so she picks them up again.

Then Katie begins to argue her case: She's educated, she's "read twenty-seven of the Hundred Best Books," she collects ferns and plays the piano. But the Duke is astonished to realize that she now thinks he's in love with her, and when he disabuses her of the notion, she flings the earrings in his face -- but misses. She calls him a coward and bursts into tears. The Duke picks up the pearls, apologizes for his awkwardness and explains, "I was unhappy and lonely, and I saw in you a means of comfort." Giving her the pearls again, he asks her to "Wear them always in memory of me. For you will never see me again." She's bewildered by this, but allows him to put the earrings into her ears, and afterward, "'You may kiss my hand,' he murmured, extending it toward her."

The news that the Duke is leaving brings Katie's mother, Mrs. Batch, to his room. He assures her that he will not only pay what he owes, but will also "give her a cheque for the full term's rent" as well as whatever board he might have had. He also writes her "testimonial to the excellence of her rooms and of her cooking," which he does so in the form of a sonnet in Oxfordshire dialect, which the narrator observes is "one of his least happily inspired works" but that "to Mrs. Batch the MS., framed and glazed in her hall, is an asset beyond price (witness her recent refusal of Mr. Pierpont Morgan's sensational bid for it)."

When he gives Mrs. Batch the check for the room and board, he remembers "with a melancholy smile, that to-morrow the cheque would not be negotiable" so "he bade her cash it before the bank closed." This makes him notice that it's a quarter to four and that there are only two and a quarter hours before the race. It is a gray and gloomy day, which makes him reflect, "What a climate! Why did any sane person live in England? He felt positively suicidal."

He has "nothing to do but sit and think," and drink more of the port. He consoles himself that he has already achieved perfection, and "Future years could but stale, if not actually mar, that perfection." After all, what would Byron have been like as "a florid old gentleman with iron-grey whiskers, writing very long, very able letters to 'The Times' about the Repeal of the Corn Laws"? Byron particularly appeals to him because of his dandyism.
Perhaps, had Byron not been a dandy -- but ah, had he not been in his soul a dandy there would have been no Byron worth mentioning. And it was because he guarded not his dandyism against this and that irrelevant passion, sexual or political, that he cut so annoyingly incomplete a figure. He was absurd in his politics, vulgar in his loves. Only in himself, at the times when he stood haughtily aloof, was he impressive. 
And the Duke realizes that "it was as a Knight of the Garter that he had set the perfect seal on his dandyism."  So he decides that wearing the splendid robes and accouterments of the Order of the Garter to his suicide is the fitting thing to do. "Crimson-doubleted, blue ribanded, white-trunk-hosed, he stooped to understrap his left knee with that strap of velvet round which sparkles the proud gay motto of the Order." (The narrator observes that John Singer Sargent's portrait of the Duke in his regalia is nothing to the real thing.) 
A dandy he had lived. In the full pomp and radiance of his dandyism he would die. His soul rose from calm to triumph. A smile lit his face, and he held his head higher than ever. He had brought nothing into this world and could take nothing out of it? Well, what he loved best he could carry with him to the very end; and in death they would not be divided. 
He sweeps downstairs where "Mrs. Batch and Katie, who had hurried out into the hall, were turned to some kind of stone at the sight of the descending apparition." And as he leaves, he kisses Katie, "very lightly, it is true, and on the upmost confines of the brow, but quite perceptibly."

[Illustration: Leopold of Belgium in the regalia of the Order of the Garter]

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