By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 23, 2010

8. Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm, pp. 284-358

Zuleika Dobson (Modern Library Paperbacks)XIX-XXIV
Splendidly arrayed, the Duke makes his way toward the boat race, attracting the attention of the sister and the aunt accompanying an undergraduate named Harold, who is embarrassed by their gawking. Jessie and Aunt Mabel "were destined to remember that Harold had been 'very peculiar' all day." The Duke doffs his plumed hat and says to them, "Neither of you can have been warned by your escort that you were on the way to see him die, of his own accord, in company with many hundreds of other lads, myself included.... Go back, both of you, to the place whence you came."

He continues on his way with the throngs of young men and the women they are escorting. The men, seeing his regalia, felt "that he made them all partakers in his own glory, casting his great mantle over all commorients." The women "calculated not only that the velvet of the Duke's mantle could not have cost less than four guineas a yard, but also that there must be quite twenty-five yards of it." Some of the women "who had heard the rumour that he was in love with that frightfully flashy-looking creature, Zuleika Dobson, were more than ever sure there wasn't a word of truth in it."

Now Zuleika herself appears, accompanied by The MacQuern "and a little bodyguard of other blest acquaintances." She breaks with that entourage to join the Duke, proclaiming them dull: "As soon as I grew used to the thought that they were going to die for me, I simply couldn't stand them. Poor boys! it was as much as I could do not to tell them I wished them dead already."

They reach the barge, where the Duke insists they separate: He is going onto the raft where women aren't allowed, and she must watch from the roof where they stood yesterday. They bid each other goodbye, and Zuleika reminds him, "Don't forget to call my name in a loud voice." He agrees, and she adds:
"I have loved but twice in my life; and none but you have I loved. This, too: if you hadn't forced me to kill my love, I would have died with you. And you know it is true."
"Yes." It was true enough.
As they wait for the boats to appear, there is thunder and "A sudden white vertical streak slid down the sky." It begins to rain. Realizing that his fine regalia was about to be ruined, the Duke decides not to wait for the boats to pass: "'Zuleika!' he cried in a loud voice. Then he took a deep breath, and, burying his face in his mantle, plunged." The other undergraduates in his vicinity follow suit, as some of the older men cheer what they suppose to be attempts to rescue the Duke.

The narrator explains that the gods had misread the Duke's intentions: Not taking seriously his plan to wait until after the race was settled, they assumed that he had signaled his intent to jump when he took his position on the raft, "and not until it seemed that he stood ready to make an end of himself had the signal been given by Zeus for the rain to fall."

So the Duke is still alive, swimming downstream, though losing consciousness, when he surfaces near the Magdalen boat, disrupting its stroke and giving the race to Judas. "And the conquered crew, and the conquering, both now had seen the face of the Duke. A white smiling face, anon it was gone. Dorset was gone down to his last sleep."

The crews join him, as do all the remaining undergraduates, as the storm reaches its peak. A man with a gray beard jumps in to try to rescue some of them, but finally gives up and pulls himself onto the shore: "He whimpered as he sought foot-hold in the slime. It was ill to be down in that abominable sink of death." Except that the suicides don't regard it as abominable: "Any face that rose was smiling."

As "the patient river bore its awful burden towards Iffley," the storm drives away the survivors on the shore.
Yet on one roof one woman still was. A strange, drenched figure, she stood bright-eyed in the dimness; alone, as it was well she should be in her great hour; draining the lees of such homage as had come to no woman in history recorded. 
It is Clarence Batch who brings the news to his mother and Katie: "The Duke, he's drowned himself." Katie faints, and when she recovers she insists that the Duke didn't do it because of Zuleika, pointing out the earrings and proclaiming, "He kissed me.... No other man shall ever do that." Even Clarence's report that he cried out "Zuleika!" as he jumped in the river won't convince her otherwise.

Mrs. Batch begins to consider what has to be done: The Duke's room must be seen to in anticipation of the arrival of his family. Then Clarence remembers to tell them that "hundred and hundreds" of students had follow the Duke's lead, and Mrs. Batch realizes that Mr. Noaks must have been among them. She goes up to his room to confirm it. Meanwhile, Katie, whose task has always been to sweep and then scrub down the doorstep, has gone out and painted it black. "She had expressed her mourning, as best she culd, there where she had been wont to express her love."

Zuleika is lying face-up on the surface of the water, her hair spread out around her. "Not Ophelia in the brook could have seemed more at peace." She's in a bathtub, of course, not the river, having returned from the scene of the suicides soaked by the rain. She goes downstairs to see her grandfather, expecting to talk about the day's events, but finds him strangely unaffected by them. He asks if the college won the race, and she stammers, "I -- I don't know grand-papa. There was so much happening. It -- I will tell you all about it at dinner."

But he tells her that tonight is the "bump-supper" and he has to preside in the college's dining hall. "Zuleika had forgotten there was to be a bump-supper, and, though she was not very sure what a bump-supper was, she felt it would be a mockery to-night." He tells her that she can look down at the supper from the gallery. "There is apt to be some measure of noise and racket, but all of it good-humoured and -- boys will be boys -- pardonable." When he leaves, "she hardly knew whether to laugh or cry."

In the quad the Warden is joined the Fellows, some of whom have heard the news but are skeptical about its truth. Even "the three or four dons who had been down at the river were now half ready to believe that there must, after all, be some mistake, and that in this world of illusions they had to-night been especially tricked." When the Warden asks "how did our boat acquit itself?" the Fellows decide to leave breaking the news up to the Sub-Warden. "'Well, really, Warden,' he said, 'we -- we hardly know,' and he ended with what can only be described as a giggle. He fell low in the esteem of his fellows."

They enter the Hall, where the three long tables are set and "ranged along either wall, was the usual array of scouts, motionless, with napkins across their arms." But there are no students present. "It became clear to the Warden that some organised prank or protest was afoot. Dignity required that he should take no heed whatsoever." And so the meal proceeds as if the Hall were full, except that in the absence of the Senior Scholar who is supposed to read the grace, it falls to Mr. Pedby, the Junior Fellow, to do so. He is a mathematician, not a Latinist, so his reading of the words is so comical that "the story of Pedby's grace would be told always. Here was a tradition that generations of dons yet unborn would cherish and chuckle over."

As the meal progresses, the food and the wine "helped to quicken in these men of thought the power to grapple with a reality," but when the Sub-Warden makes another effort to tell the Warden what has happened, the Warden has been so perplexed by his earlier behavior that "the Warden's eye met his with a suspicion so cruelly pointed that he again floundered and gave in."

Zuleika looks down on the scene from the gallery.
But there was no spark of triumph now in her eyes; only a deep melancholy; and in her mouth a taste of dust and ashes. She thought of last night, and of all the buoyant life that this Hall had held. Of the Duke she thought, and of the whole vivid and eager throng of his fellows in love. Her will, their will, had been done. But there rose to her lips the old, old question that withers victory -- "To what end?" ... She was utterly alone to-night in the midst of a vast indifference.

The Duke's body lies alongside others pulled from the river. "And bending over him, looking down at him with much love and pity in her eyes, was the shade of Nellie O'Mora, that 'fairest witch,' to whose memory he had to-day atoned."

I pause here to salute Beerbohm as a master ironist. If there are identifiable human characters in his tale, they are Zuleika and the Duke, to whom he here gives something approaching (but perhaps not reaching) a genuine pathos. But he sets Zuleika's state of mind and the Duke's death (not to mention the deaths of the lemming-like undergraduates) against the stuff of farce and parody -- the comic withholding of the truth from the Warden enabled by the ivory-tower detachment from reality of the dons. Does he undercut the pathos by doing so? Or does he, as I rather think, heighten it?

We return to the lodging-house, where Katie is sullenly tidying up the Duke's room. "She had not ceased to mourn the Duke; but it was even more anger than grief that she felt at his dying." The anger is largely directed at Zuleika, whom she tries to imitate by posing in front of the mirror in some of Zuleika's attitudes. But she gives up, realizing that "she hadn't just that something which somehow Miss Dobson had. She put away from her the hasty dream she had had of a whole future generation of undergraduates drowning themselves, every one, in honour of her. She went wearily on with her work."

Then she goes upstairs to see to Noaks's room and discovers him hiding behind the curtain. She's delighted: "here was the one man who had scorned to die for Miss Dobson." Noaks had been planning to run away to Australia in shame at his cowardice, but here is Katie hailing him as a hero, singing "his praises with a so infectious fervour that Noaks did begin to feel he had done a fine thing in not dying." And when she says she loves him, he gives her the iron ring that he wears because it's supposed to ward off rheumatism. He explains that he won't be able to afford to marry her until he's forty, however.

Then he notices that she's wearing Zuleika's earrings. When she says the Duke gave them to her, he is miffed and insists that they should be turned over to the executors of the Duke's estate. But on second thought he realizes their value. "Why flinch from her unsought dowry?" But, he warns her, they will still have to wait, and that he still has to study to get his degree, so she leaves him with his books and goes up to her room in the attic. She looks out of the window and sees, below her, Noaks's head, also looking out of the window.

Noaks hears a voice in the street and sees Zuleika approaching. She has been walking around Oxford, hoping to find an undergraduate who hasn't sacrificed himself for her. "Let me hear from your own lips that you love me," she pleads. But Noaks lies and says that the reason he is alive is that he sprained his ankle on the way to the river. Furious, Katie flings down his ring and tells Zuleika the truth about Noaks's cowardice.

Zuleika tells Katie, "We have both been deceived in this man, and are, in some sort, sisters." But Katie rejects the idea of sisterhood with the likes of Zuleika. She points out the earrings that the Duke gave her and tells her that he kissed her goodbye, a fact confirmed by her mother, who is standing at the street door. Noaks once again pleads his love for Zuleika.
"You!" flashed Zuleika. "As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved to-day by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge." 
A crowd that includes some of Mrs. Batch's friends and Clarence joins in the denunciation of Noaks, who climbs out onto the window-ledge and jumps. And so, "the last of the undergraduates lay dead; and fleet-footed Zuleika, with her fingers still pressed to her ears, had taken full toll now."

Chastened, Zuleika decides that her only recourse is to become a nun. She tells Mélisande to start packing and goes to tell her grandfather, whom she's surprised to find still unaware of what has happened today.
"The reason why there were no undergraduates in your Hall to-night is that they were all dead."
"Dead?" he gasped. "Dead? It is disgraceful that I was not told. What did they die of?"
"Of me." 
When she explains the full extent of the suicides, and that as a consequence she has decided to become a nun, he observes, "That ... is rather a revulsion than a vocation." She asks what he would have done if "all the young ladies of that period had drowned themselves for love of you?" And he observes that he was "greatly admired.... In those days it was the fashion for young ladies to embroider slippers for such men in holy orders as best pleased their fancy. I received hundreds -- thousands -- of such slippers." But he married the one woman who never embroidered a pair for him. He concluded that she didn't love him, and that "interested me greatly. It fired me."

Zuleika realizes that "it's a case of sheer heredity." But the Warden scoffs, "You and I, my dear, may in some respects be very queer people, but in the matter of the affections we are ordinary enough." He had hoarded the slippers -- "Thousands of slippers, did I say? Tens of thousands." -- and made a bonfire of them when he became engaged and "danced round it all night." Recognizing their kinship, Zuleika says to him, "I do believe you're a little proud of me." And he replies, "Heaven forgive me, I believe I am." She tells him she's going away, but not to a convent, and he invites her to come stay with him again. "'Not in term-time, though,' he added. 'No,' she echoed. 'not in term-time.'"

So she goes back to her room and tells Mélisande to go to the train station and order a special train tomorrow at 10 for Cambridge.

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