Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1164
Left an orphan, lovely Zuleika Dobson becomes a governess. Because the older brothers of her charges always fall in love with her, however, she loses one position after another. She moves unhappily from job to job until one enamored elder son teaches her a few simple magic tricks. She then becomes an entertainer at children’s parties, where she interests older men if not the children. Before long, she receives an offer to go on the stage, and during a lengthy European stage tour, she crowns success with success. Paris raves over her. Grand dukes ask her to marry them. The pope issues a bull against her. A Russian prince has some of her magic devices, such as the demon egg cup, cast in pure gold. Later, she travels to the United States and is pursued by a fabulous millionaire. Zuleika, however, ignores her admirers. She wants to find a man who is impervious to her charms, feeling that with someone like that she could be happy.
Between theatrical seasons, Zuleika visits her grandfather, the Warden of Judas College at Oxford, where, as usual, every man who sees her falls in love with her. One night, joining Zuleika and her grandfather at dinner is the wealthy, proud, handsome duke of Dorset. He, too, falls in love with Zuleika at first sight, but his pride and good manners keep him from showing his true feelings. During dinner, he is only casually attentive and on one occasion actually rude. Zuleika is captivated. Thinking that the duke does not love her, she falls in love for the first time in her life. Later that evening, the duke discovers that his shirt studs have turned the same colors as Zuleika’s earrings—one black, the other pink. Abashed, the duke flees.
The next morning, Zuleika pays a visit to his flat, where she is let in by his landlady’s daughter, Katie Batch. When the duke, unable to restrain himself, confesses his love, Zuleika is disappointed. On her arrival, she had envied Katie the chance to be near him; now she can never feel the same toward him again. The Duke is astounded by her strange attitude and tries to induce her to marry him by reciting his titles and listing his estates, houses, and servants. He tells her of the ghosts that haunt his ancestral home and of the mysterious birds that always appear the day before one of his family is to die. His recital fails to impress Zuleika; in fact, she calls him a snob. The Duke is chagrined when he realizes that Zuleika does not want him as a husband. He is cheered, however, by the fact that she expects him to take her to the boat races that afternoon.
On their way to the races, the duke and Zuleika meet many people. The men immediately fall in love with Zuleika, and the duke, whose good looks have always attracted attention, passes unnoticed. Piqued by his inability to keep Zuleika to himself, the duke threatens to commit suicide. The idea charms Zuleika; no man has ever killed himself for her. As the duke climbs the railing of the barge, however, she changes her mind. Catching his arm, she begs him to wait until the next day. If he will spend the day with her, she will try to make up her mind and give him an answer to his proposal.
The Duke cannot see her that night, for he is to preside at a dinner held by an ancient Oxford club called the Junta, which is so exclusive that for almost two years the duke has been the only member. Each year, he has faithfully nominated and seconded prospective members, only to find each time a blackball in the ballot box. To keep the club from becoming extinct, he has finally voted in two more members. That night, the club is having guests, and the duke does not feel that he can miss the dinner.
The Junta was founded by a man named Greddon, whose lovely mistress was named Nellie O’Mora. At each meeting, Nellie is toasted as the most bewitching person who ever lived or ever will. Rising to propose the toast at that night’s dinner, the duke is overcome by confusion. Unwilling to break with tradition or to slight his opinion of Zuleika, he resigns his position as club president. His resignation is a wasted gesture, as neither the other members nor the guests can offer the toast, for they are also in love with Zuleika. The Duke then confesses that he intends to die for her the next day. Not to be outdone and wishing to imitate the duke in all things, the others decide to die with him.
Later that night, when the duke meets Zuleika on the street, he is overcome by love and catches her in his arms, saying that he wants to live to be with her. She chides him for breaking his promise. Still later, he returns and stands under her window. She empties a pitcher of water on him, and the drenching convinces the duke that he is no longer bound by his promise.
As news of the intended suicides spreads swiftly through the colleges, the other undergraduates also become determined to die for Zuleika. The next morning, the duke tries to dissuade them, particularly his friend Noaks, a rough and unattractive boy whom Zuleika had noticed when she first came to Oxford. To keep his friends from dying, the duke is ready to change his own plans, but then a telegram arrives from his old butler, telling him that the birds had appeared the night before. The Duke is now convinced that he must die. The moment finally comes that afternoon at the boat races. Calling out Zuleika’s name, the duke jumps from the barge into the river. Immediately, hundreds of young men run, jump, fall, and totter into the water, calling her name as they go under.
That night, Oxford is empty except for elderly officials and dons. Zuleika hopes that perhaps there is one man who does not love her, that perhaps one young man is left in Oxford. Noaks is still in his room because he had been afraid to die with the others. Zuleika finds him hiding in his room, ashamed, whereupon he becomes engaged to Katie Batch, who before had loved only the duke. Katie embarrasses Zuleika by telling her that the duke died only to keep his ducal promise and not for love of Zuleika, because it was Katie he had really loved. Noaks, humiliated by Zuleika’s charge of cowardice, jumps from the window. The last undergraduate in Oxford has perished.
Discouraged because she can find no man insensible to her charms, Zuleika returns to her grandfather’s house. Then, struck by a sudden idea, she orders a special train to take her to Cambridge. Perhaps there will be another chance at another university.