As he rang the dining-room bell, his eyes rested on the miniature of Nellie O’Mora. And the eyes of Nellie O’Mora seemed to meet his in reproach. Just as she may have gazed at Greddon when he cast her off, so now did she gaze at him who a few hours ago had refused to honour her memory.
Yes, and many other eyes than hers rebuked him. It was around the walls of this room that hung those presentments of the Junta as focussed, year after year, in a certain corner of Tom Quad, by Messrs. Hills and Saunders. All around, the members of the little hierarchy, a hierarchy ever changing in all but youth and a certain sternness of aspect that comes at the moment of being immortalised, were gazing forth now with a sternness beyond their wont. Not one of them but had in his day handed on loyally the praise of Nellie O’Mora, in the form their Founder had ordained. And the Duke’s revolt last night had so incensed them that they would, if they could, have come down from their frames and walked straight out of the club, in chronological order—first, the men of the ‘sixties, almost as near in time to Greddon as to the Duke, all so gloriously be-whiskered and cravated, but how faded now, alas, by exposure; and last of all in the procession and angrier perhaps than any of them, the Duke himself—the Duke of a year ago, President and sole Member.
But, as he gazed into the eyes of Nellie O’Mora now, Dorset needed not for penitence the reproaches of his past self or of his forerunners. “Sweet girl,” he murmured, “forgive me. I was mad. I was under the sway of a deplorable infatuation. It is past. See,” he murmured with a delicacy of feeling that justified the untruth, “I am come here for the express purpose of undoing my impiety.” And, turning to the club-waiter who at this moment answered the bell, he said “Bring me a glass of port, please, Barrett.” Of sandwiches he said nothing.
At the word “See” he had stretched one hand towards Nellie; the other he had laid on his heart, where it seemed to encounter some sort of hard obstruction. This he vaguely fingered, wondering what it might be, while he gave his order to Barrett. With a sudden cry he dipped his hand into his breast-pocket and drew forth the bottle he had borne away from Mr. Druce’s. He snatched out his watch: one o’clock!—fifteen minutes overdue. Wildly he called the waiter back. “A tea-spoon, quick! No port. A wine-glass and a tea-spoon. And—for I don’t mind telling you, Barrett, that your mission is of an urgency beyond conjecture—take lightning for your model. Go!”
Agitation mastered him. He tried vainly to feel his pulse, well knowing that if he found it he could deduce nothing from its action. He saw himself haggard in the looking-glass. Would Barrett never come? “Every two hours”—the directions were explicit. Had he delivered himself into the gods’ hands? The eyes of Nellie O’Mora were on him compassionately; and all the eyes of his forerunners were on him in austere scorn: “See,” they seemed to be saying, “the chastisement of last night’s blasphemy.” Violently, insistently, he rang the bell.
In rushed Barrett at last. From the tea-spoon into the wine-glass the Duke poured the draught of salvation, and then, raising it aloft, he looked around at his fore-runners and in a firm voice cried “Gentlemen, I give you Nellie O’Mora, the fairest witch that ever was or will be.” He drained his glass, heaved the deep sigh of a double satisfaction, dismissed with a glance the wondering Barrett, and sat down.
He was glad to be able to face Nellie with a clear conscience. Her eyes were not less sad now, but it seemed to him that their sadness came of a knowledge that she would never see him again. She seemed to be saying to him “Had you lived in my day, it is you that I would have loved, not Greddon.” And he made silent answer, “Had you lived in my day, I should have been Dobson-proof.” He realised, however, that to Zuleika he owed the tenderness he now felt for Miss O’Mora. It was Zuleika that had cured him of his aseity. She it was that had made his heart a warm and negotiable thing. Yes, and that was the final cruelty. To love and be loved—this, he had come to know, was all that mattered. Yesterday, to love and die had seemed felicity enough. Now he knew that the secret, the open secret, of happiness was in mutual love—a state that needed not the fillip of death. And he had to die without having ever lived. Admiration, homage, fear, he had sown broadcast. The one woman who had loved him had turned to stone because he loved her. Death would lose much of its sting for him if there were somewhere in the world just one woman, however lowly, whose heart would be broken by his dying. What a pity Nellie O’Mora was not really extant!
Suddenly he recalled certain words lightly spoken yesterday by Zuleika. She had told him he was loved by the girl who waited on him—the daughter of his landlady. Was this so? He had seen no sign of it, had received no token of it. But, after all, how should he have seen a sign of anything in one whom he had never consciously visualised? That she had never thrust herself on his notice might mean merely that she had been well brought-up. What likelier than that the daughter of Mrs. Batch, that worthy soul, had been well brought up?