The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.
As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face, and seemed about to linger there. But he suddenly started up, and closing his eyes, placed his fingers upon the lids, as though he sought to imprison within his brain some curious dream from which he feared he might awake.
“It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done,” said Lord Henry languidly. “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.”
“I don’t think I shall send it anywhere,” he answered, tossing his head back in that odd way that used to make his friends laugh at him at Oxford. “No, I won’t send it anywhere.”
Lord Henry elevated his eyebrows and looked at him in amazement through the thin blue wreaths of smoke that curled up in such fanciful whorls from his heavy, opium-tainted cigarette. “Not send it anywhere? My dear fellow, why? Have you any reason? What odd chaps you painters are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A portrait like this would set you far above all the young men in England, and make the old men quite jealous, if old men are ever capable of any emotion.”
“I know you will laugh at me,” he replied, “but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it.”
Lord Henry stretched himself out on the divan and laughed.
“Yes, I knew you would; but it is quite true, all the same.”
“Too much of yourself in it! Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful. Your mysterious young friend, whose name you have never told me, but whose picture really fascinates me, never thinks. I feel quite sure of that. He is some brainless beautiful creature who should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at, and always here in summer when we want something to chill our intelligence. Don’t flatter yourself, Basil: you are not in the least like him.”
“You don’t understand me, Harry,” answered the artist. “Of course I am not like him. I know that perfectly well. Indeed, I should be sorry to look like him. You shrug your shoulders? I am telling you the truth. There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be different from one’s fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live—undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are—my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks—we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.”
“Dorian Gray? Is that his name?” asked Lord Henry, walking across the studio towards Basil Hallward.
“Yes, that is his name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.”
“But why not?”
“Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure. It is a silly habit, I dare say, but somehow it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life. I suppose you think me awfully foolish about it?”
“Not at all,” answered Lord Henry, “not at all, my dear Basil. You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet—we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s—we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. My wife is very good at it—much better, in fact, than I am. She never gets confused over her dates, and I always do. But when she does find me out, she makes no row at all. I sometimes wish she would; but she merely laughs at me.”
“I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harry,” said Basil Hallward, strolling towards the door that led into the garden. “I believe that you are really a very good husband, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.”
“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” cried Lord Henry, laughing; and the two young men went out into the garden together and ensconced themselves on a long bamboo seat that stood in the shade of a tall laurel bush. The sunlight slipped over the polished leaves. In the grass, white daisies were tremulous.
After a pause, Lord Henry pulled out his watch. “I am afraid I must be going, Basil,” he murmured, “and before I go, I insist on your answering a question I put to you some time ago.”
“What is that?” said the painter, keeping his eyes fixed on the ground.
“You know quite well.”
“I do not, Harry.”
“Well, I will tell you what it is. I want you to explain to me why you won’t exhibit Dorian Gray’s picture. I want the real reason.”
“I told you the real reason.”
“No, you did not. You said it was because there was too much of yourself in it. Now, that is childish.”
“Harry,” said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”
Lord Henry laughed. “And what is that?” he asked.
“I will tell you,” said Hallward; but an expression of perplexity came over his face.
“I am all expectation, Basil,” continued his companion, glancing at him.
“Oh, there is really very little to tell, Harry,” answered the painter; “and I am afraid you will hardly understand it. Perhaps you will hardly believe it.”
Lord Henry smiled, and leaning down, plucked a pink-petalled daisy from the grass and examined it. “I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, gazing intently at the little golden, white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”
The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming.
“The story is simply this,” said the painter after some time. “Two months ago I went to a crush at Lady Brandon’s. You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized. Well, after I had been in the room about ten minutes, talking to huge overdressed dowagers and tedious academicians, I suddenly became conscious that some one was looking at me. I turned half-way round and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harry, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray. Then—but I don’t know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid and turned to quit the room. It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice. I take no credit to myself for trying to escape.”
“Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Basil. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.”
“I don’t believe that, Harry, and I don’t believe you do either. However, whatever was my motive—and it may have been pride, for I used to be very proud—I certainly struggled to the door. There, of course, I stumbled against Lady Brandon. ‘You are not going to run away so soon, Mr. Hallward?’ she screamed out. You know her curiously shrill voice?”
“Yes; she is a peacock in everything but beauty,” said Lord Henry, pulling the daisy to bits with his long nervous fingers.
“I could not get rid of her. She brought me up to royalties, and people with stars and garters, and elderly ladies with gigantic tiaras and parrot noses. She spoke of me as her dearest friend. I had only met her once before, but she took it into her head to lionize me. I believe some picture of mine had made a great success at the time, at least had been chattered about in the penny newspapers, which is the nineteenth-century standard of immortality. Suddenly I found myself face to face with the young man whose personality had so strangely stirred me. We were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again. It was reckless of me, but I asked Lady Brandon to introduce me to him. Perhaps it was not so reckless, after all. It was simply inevitable. We would have spoken to each other without any introduction. I am sure of that. Dorian told me so afterwards. He, too, felt that we were destined to know each other.”
“And how did Lady Brandon describe this wonderful young man?” asked his companion. “I know she goes in for giving a rapid precis of all her guests. I remember her bringing me up to a truculent and red-faced old gentleman covered all over with orders and ribbons, and hissing into my ear, in a tragic whisper which must have been perfectly audible to everybody in the room, the most astounding details. I simply fled. I like to find out people for myself. But Lady Brandon treats her guests exactly as an auctioneer treats his goods. She either explains them entirely away, or tells one everything about them except what one wants to know.”
“Poor Lady Brandon! You are hard on her, Harry!” said Hallward listlessly.
“My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant. How could I admire her? But tell me, what did she say about Mr. Dorian Gray?”
“Oh, something like, ‘Charming boy—poor dear mother and I absolutely inseparable. Quite forget what he does—afraid he—doesn’t do anything—oh, yes, plays the piano—or is it the violin, dear Mr. Gray?’ Neither of us could help laughing, and we became friends at once.”
“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one,” said the young lord, plucking another daisy.
Hallward shook his head. “You don’t understand what friendship is, Harry,” he murmured—”or what enmity is, for that matter. You like every one; that is to say, you are indifferent to every one.”
“How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. “Yes; horribly unjust of you. I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all men of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.”
“I should think it was, Harry. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.”
“My dear old Basil, you are much more than an acquaintance.”
“And much less than a friend. A sort of brother, I suppose?”
“Oh, brothers! I don’t care for brothers. My elder brother won’t die, and my younger brothers seem never to do anything else.”
“Harry!” exclaimed Hallward, frowning.
“My dear fellow, I am not quite serious. But I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves. I quite sympathize with the rage of the English democracy against what they call the vices of the upper orders. The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property, and that if any one of us makes an ass of himself, he is poaching on their preserves. When poor Southwark got into the divorce court, their indignation was quite magnificent. And yet I don’t suppose that ten per cent of the proletariat live correctly.”
“I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”
Lord Henry stroked his pointed brown beard and tapped the toe of his patent-leather boot with a tasselled ebony cane. “How English you are Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman—always a rash thing to do—he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices. However, I don’t propose to discuss politics, sociology, or metaphysics with you. I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world. Tell me more about Mr. Dorian Gray. How often do you see him?”
“Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me.”
“How extraordinary! I thought you would never care for anything but your art.”
“He is all my art to me now,” said the painter gravely. “I sometimes think, Harry, that there are only two eras of any importance in the world’s history. The first is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also. What the invention of oil-painting was to the Venetians, the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Dorian Gray will some day be to me. It is not merely that I paint from him, draw from him, sketch from him. Of course, I have done all that. But he is much more to me than a model or a sitter. I won’t tell you that I am dissatisfied with what I have done of him, or that his beauty is such that art cannot express it. There is nothing that art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life. But in some curious way—I wonder will you understand me?—his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before. ‘A dream of form in days of thought’—who is it who says that? I forget; but it is what Dorian Gray has been to me. The merely visible presence of this lad—for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty—his merely visible presence—ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body—how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void. Harry! if you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me! You remember that landscape of mine, for which Agnew offered me such a huge price but which I would not part with? It is one of the best things I have ever done. And why is it so? Because, while I was painting it, Dorian Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for and always missed.”
“Basil, this is extraordinary! I must see Dorian Gray.”
Hallward got up from the seat and walked up and down the garden. After some time he came back. “Harry,” he said, “Dorian Gray is to me simply a motive in art. You might see nothing in him. I see everything in him. He is never more present in my work than when no image of him is there. He is a suggestion, as I have said, of a new manner. I find him in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours. That is all.”
“Then why won’t you exhibit his portrait?” asked Lord Henry.
“Because, without intending it, I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never cared to speak to him. He knows nothing about it. He shall never know anything about it. But the world might guess it, and I will not bare my soul to their shallow prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope. There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry—too much of myself!”
“Poets are not so scrupulous as you are. They know how useful passion is for publication. Nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions.”
“I hate them for it,” cried Hallward. “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.”
“I think you are wrong, Basil, but I won’t argue with you. It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue. Tell me, is Dorian Gray very fond of you?”
The painter considered for a few moments. “He likes me,” he answered after a pause; “I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said. As a rule, he is charming to me, and we sit in the studio and talk of a thousand things. Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”
“Days in summer, Basil, are apt to linger,” murmured Lord Henry. “Perhaps you will tire sooner than he will. It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place. The thoroughly well-informed man—that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value. I think you will tire first, all the same. Some day you will look at your friend, and he will seem to you to be a little out of drawing, or you won’t like his tone of colour, or something. You will bitterly reproach him in your own heart, and seriously think that he has behaved very badly to you. The next time he calls, you will be perfectly cold and indifferent. It will be a great pity, for it will alter you. What you have told me is quite a romance, a romance of art one might call it, and the worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic.”
“Harry, don’t talk like that. As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me. You can’t feel what I feel. You change too often.”
“Ah, my dear Basil, that is exactly why I can feel it. Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.” And Lord Henry struck a light on a dainty silver case and began to smoke a cigarette with a self-conscious and satisfied air, as if he had summed up the world in a phrase. There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. How pleasant it was in the garden! And how delightful other people’s emotions were!—much more delightful than their ideas, it seemed to him. One’s own soul, and the passions of one’s friends—those were the fascinating things in life. He pictured to himself with silent amusement the tedious luncheon that he had missed by staying so long with Basil Hallward. Had he gone to his aunt’s, he would have been sure to have met Lord Goodbody there, and the whole conversation would have been about the feeding of the poor and the necessity for model lodging-houses. Each class would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken on the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour. It was charming to have escaped all that! As he thought of his aunt, an idea seemed to strike him. He turned to Hallward and said, “My dear fellow, I have just remembered.”
“Remembered what, Harry?”
“Where I heard the name of Dorian Gray.”
“Where was it?” asked Hallward, with a slight frown.
“Don’t look so angry, Basil. It was at my aunt, Lady Agatha’s. She told me she had discovered a wonderful young man who was going to help her in the East End, and that his name was Dorian Gray. I am bound to state that she never told me he was good-looking. Women have no appreciation of good looks; at least, good women have not. She said that he was very earnest and had a beautiful nature. I at once pictured to myself a creature with spectacles and lank hair, horribly freckled, and tramping about on huge feet. I wish I had known it was your friend.”
“I am very glad you didn’t, Harry.”
“I don’t want you to meet him.”
“You don’t want me to meet him?”
“Mr. Dorian Gray is in the studio, sir,” said the butler, coming into the garden.
“You must introduce me now,” cried Lord Henry, laughing.
The painter turned to his servant, who stood blinking in the sunlight. “Ask Mr. Gray to wait, Parker: I shall be in in a few moments.” The man bowed and went up the walk.
Then he looked at Lord Henry. “Dorian Gray is my dearest friend,” he said. “He has a simple and a beautiful nature. Your aunt was quite right in what she said of him. Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvellous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses: my life as an artist depends on him. Mind, Harry, I trust you.” He spoke very slowly, and the words seemed wrung out of him almost against his will.
“What nonsense you talk!” said Lord Henry, smiling, and taking Hallward by the arm, he almost led him into the house.
As they entered they saw Dorian Gray. He was seated at the piano, with his back to them, turning over the pages of a volume of Schumann’s “Forest Scenes.” “You must lend me these, Basil,” he cried. “I want to learn them. They are perfectly charming.”
“That entirely depends on how you sit to-day, Dorian.”
“Oh, I am tired of sitting, and I don’t want a life-sized portrait of myself,” answered the lad, swinging round on the music-stool in a wilful, petulant manner. When he caught sight of Lord Henry, a faint blush coloured his cheeks for a moment, and he started up. “I beg your pardon, Basil, but I didn’t know you had any one with you.”
“This is Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian, an old Oxford friend of mine. I have just been telling him what a capital sitter you were, and now you have spoiled everything.”
“You have not spoiled my pleasure in meeting you, Mr. Gray,” said Lord Henry, stepping forward and extending his hand. “My aunt has often spoken to me about you. You are one of her favourites, and, I am afraid, one of her victims also.”
“I am in Lady Agatha’s black books at present,” answered Dorian with a funny look of penitence. “I promised to go to a club in Whitechapel with her last Tuesday, and I really forgot all about it. We were to have played a duet together—three duets, I believe. I don’t know what she will say to me. I am far too frightened to call.”
“Oh, I will make your peace with my aunt. She is quite devoted to you. And I don’t think it really matters about your not being there. The audience probably thought it was a duet. When Aunt Agatha sits down to the piano, she makes quite enough noise for two people.”
“That is very horrid to her, and not very nice to me,” answered Dorian, laughing.
Lord Henry looked at him. Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him.
“You are too charming to go in for philanthropy, Mr. Gray—far too charming.” And Lord Henry flung himself down on the divan and opened his cigarette-case.
The painter had been busy mixing his colours and getting his brushes ready. He was looking worried, and when he heard Lord Henry’s last remark, he glanced at him, hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Harry, I want to finish this picture to-day. Would you think it awfully rude of me if I asked you to go away?”
Lord Henry smiled and looked at Dorian Gray. “Am I to go, Mr. Gray?” he asked.
“Oh, please don’t, Lord Henry. I see that Basil is in one of his sulky moods, and I can’t bear him when he sulks. Besides, I want you to tell me why I should not go in for philanthropy.”
“I don’t know that I shall tell you that, Mr. Gray. It is so tedious a subject that one would have to talk seriously about it. But I certainly shall not run away, now that you have asked me to stop. You don’t really mind, Basil, do you? You have often told me that you liked your sitters to have some one to chat to.”
Hallward bit his lip. “If Dorian wishes it, of course you must stay. Dorian’s whims are laws to everybody, except himself.”
Lord Henry took up his hat and gloves. “You are very pressing, Basil, but I am afraid I must go. I have promised to meet a man at the Orleans. Good-bye, Mr. Gray. Come and see me some afternoon in Curzon Street. I am nearly always at home at five o’clock. Write to me when you are coming. I should be sorry to miss you.”
“Basil,” cried Dorian Gray, “if Lord Henry Wotton goes, I shall go, too. You never open your lips while you are painting, and it is horribly dull standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant. Ask him to stay. I insist upon it.”
“Stay, Harry, to oblige Dorian, and to oblige me,” said Hallward, gazing intently at his picture. “It is quite true, I never talk when I am working, and never listen either, and it must be dreadfully tedious for my unfortunate sitters. I beg you to stay.”
“But what about my man at the Orleans?”
The painter laughed. “I don’t think there will be any difficulty about that. Sit down again, Harry. And now, Dorian, get up on the platform, and don’t move about too much, or pay any attention to what Lord Henry says. He has a very bad influence over all his friends, with the single exception of myself.”
Dorian Gray stepped up on the dais with the air of a young Greek martyr, and made a little moue of discontent to Lord Henry, to whom he had rather taken a fancy. He was so unlike Basil. They made a delightful contrast. And he had such a beautiful voice. After a few moments he said to him, “Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?”
“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”
“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion—these are the two things that govern us. And yet—”
“Just turn your head a little more to the right, Dorian, like a good boy,” said the painter, deep in his work and conscious only that a look had come into the lad’s face that he had never seen there before.
“And yet,” continued Lord Henry, in his low, musical voice, and with that graceful wave of the hand that was always so characteristic of him, and that he had even in his Eton days, “I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also. You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame—”
“Stop!” faltered Dorian Gray, “stop! you bewilder me. I don’t know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don’t speak. Let me think. Or, rather, let me try not to think.”
For nearly ten minutes he stood there, motionless, with parted lips and eyes strangely bright. He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to him to have come really from himself. The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him—words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with wilful paradox in them—had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.
Music had stirred him like that. Music had troubled him many times. But music was not articulate. It was not a new world, but rather another chaos, that it created in us. Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Yes; there had been things in his boyhood that he had not understood. He understood them now. Life suddenly became fiery-coloured to him. It seemed to him that he had been walking in fire. Why had he not known it?
With his subtle smile, Lord Henry watched him. He knew the precise psychological moment when to say nothing. He felt intensely interested. He was amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced, and, remembering a book that he had read when he was sixteen, a book which had revealed to him much that he had not known before, he wondered whether Dorian Gray was passing through a similar experience. He had merely shot an arrow into the air. Had it hit the mark? How fascinating the lad was!
Hallward painted away with that marvellous bold touch of his, that had the true refinement and perfect delicacy that in art, at any rate comes only from strength. He was unconscious of the silence.
“Basil, I am tired of standing,” cried Dorian Gray suddenly. “I must go out and sit in the garden. The air is stifling here.”
“My dear fellow, I am so sorry. When I am painting, I can’t think of anything else. But you never sat better. You were perfectly still. And I have caught the effect I wanted—the half-parted lips and the bright look in the eyes. I don’t know what Harry has been saying to you, but he has certainly made you have the most wonderful expression. I suppose he has been paying you compliments. You mustn’t believe a word that he says.”
“He has certainly not been paying me compliments. Perhaps that is the reason that I don’t believe anything he has told me.”
“You know you believe it all,” said Lord Henry, looking at him with his dreamy languorous eyes. “I will go out to the garden with you. It is horribly hot in the studio. Basil, let us have something iced to drink, something with strawberries in it.”
“Certainly, Harry. Just touch the bell, and when Parker comes I will tell him what you want. I have got to work up this background, so I will join you later on. Don’t keep Dorian too long. I have never been in better form for painting than I am to-day. This is going to be my masterpiece. It is my masterpiece as it stands.”
Lord Henry went out to the garden and found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine. He came close to him and put his hand upon his shoulder. “You are quite right to do that,” he murmured. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
The lad started and drew back. He was bareheaded, and the leaves had tossed his rebellious curls and tangled all their gilded threads. There was a look of fear in his eyes, such as people have when they are suddenly awakened. His finely chiselled nostrils quivered, and some hidden nerve shook the scarlet of his lips and left them trembling.
“Yes,” continued Lord Henry, “that is one of the great secrets of life—to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul. You are a wonderful creation. You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”
Dorian Gray frowned and turned his head away. He could not help liking the tall, graceful young man who was standing by him. His romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested him. There was something in his low languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. His cool, white, flowerlike hands, even, had a curious charm. They moved, as he spoke, like music, and seemed to have a language of their own. But he felt afraid of him, and ashamed of being afraid. Why had it been left for a stranger to reveal him to himself? He had known Basil Hallward for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him. Suddenly there had come some one across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life’s mystery. And, yet, what was there to be afraid of? He was not a schoolboy or a girl. It was absurd to be frightened.
“Let us go and sit in the shade,” said Lord Henry. “Parker has brought out the drinks, and if you stay any longer in this glare, you will be quite spoiled, and Basil will never paint you again. You really must not allow yourself to become sunburnt. It would be unbecoming.”
“What can it matter?” cried Dorian Gray, laughing, as he sat down on the seat at the end of the garden.
“It should matter everything to you, Mr. Gray.”
“Because you have the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having.”
“I don’t feel that, Lord Henry.”
“No, you don’t feel it now. Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? … You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile…. People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…. Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season…. The moment I met you I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, of what you really might be. There was so much in you that charmed me that I felt I must tell you something about yourself. I thought how tragic it would be if you were wasted. For there is such a little time that your youth will last—such a little time. The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
Dorian Gray listened, open-eyed and wondering. The spray of lilac fell from his hand upon the gravel. A furry bee came and buzzed round it for a moment. Then it began to scramble all over the oval stellated globe of the tiny blossoms. He watched it with that strange interest in trivial things that we try to develop when things of high import make us afraid, or when we are stirred by some new emotion for which we cannot find expression, or when some thought that terrifies us lays sudden siege to the brain and calls on us to yield. After a time the bee flew away. He saw it creeping into the stained trumpet of a Tyrian convolvulus. The flower seemed to quiver, and then swayed gently to and fro.
Suddenly the painter appeared at the door of the studio and made staccato signs for them to come in. They turned to each other and smiled.
“I am waiting,” he cried. “Do come in. The light is quite perfect, and you can bring your drinks.”
They rose up and sauntered down the walk together. Two green-and-white butterflies fluttered past them, and in the pear-tree at the corner of the garden a thrush began to sing.
“You are glad you have met me, Mr. Gray,” said Lord Henry, looking at him.
“Yes, I am glad now. I wonder shall I always be glad?”
“Always! That is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last for ever. It is a meaningless word, too. The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”
As they entered the studio, Dorian Gray put his hand upon Lord Henry’s arm. “In that case, let our friendship be a caprice,” he murmured, flushing at his own boldness, then stepped up on the platform and resumed his pose.
Lord Henry flung himself into a large wicker arm-chair and watched him. The sweep and dash of the brush on the canvas made the only sound that broke the stillness, except when, now and then, Hallward stepped back to look at his work from a distance. In the slanting beams that streamed through the open doorway the dust danced and was golden. The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.
After about a quarter of an hour Hallward stopped painting, looked for a long time at Dorian Gray, and then for a long time at the picture, biting the end of one of his huge brushes and frowning. “It is quite finished,” he cried at last, and stooping down he wrote his name in long vermilion letters on the left-hand corner of the canvas.
Lord Henry came over and examined the picture. It was certainly a wonderful work of art, and a wonderful likeness as well.
“My dear fellow, I congratulate you most warmly,” he said. “It is the finest portrait of modern times. Mr. Gray, come over and look at yourself.”
The lad started, as if awakened from some dream.
“Is it really finished?” he murmured, stepping down from the platform.
“Quite finished,” said the painter. “And you have sat splendidly to-day. I am awfully obliged to you.”
“That is entirely due to me,” broke in Lord Henry. “Isn’t it, Mr. Gray?”
Dorian made no answer, but passed listlessly in front of his picture and turned towards it. When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure. A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time. He stood there motionless and in wonder, dimly conscious that Hallward was speaking to him, but not catching the meaning of his words. The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before. Basil Hallward’s compliments had seemed to him to be merely the charming exaggeration of friendship. He had listened to them, laughed at them, forgotten them. They had not influenced his nature. Then had come Lord Henry Wotton with his strange panegyric on youth, his terrible warning of its brevity. That had stirred him at the time, and now, as he stood gazing at the shadow of his own loveliness, the full reality of the description flashed across him. Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.
As he thought of it, a sharp pang of pain struck through him like a knife and made each delicate fibre of his nature quiver. His eyes deepened into amethyst, and across them came a mist of tears. He felt as if a hand of ice had been laid upon his heart.
“Don’t you like it?” cried Hallward at last, stung a little by the lad’s silence, not understanding what it meant.
“Of course he likes it,” said Lord Henry. “Who wouldn’t like it? It is one of the greatest things in modern art. I will give you anything you like to ask for it. I must have it.”
“It is not my property, Harry.”
“Whose property is it?”
“Dorian’s, of course,” answered the painter.
“He is a very lucky fellow.”
“How sad it is!” murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June…. If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
“You would hardly care for such an arrangement, Basil,” cried Lord Henry, laughing. “It would be rather hard lines on your work.”
“I should object very strongly, Harry,” said Hallward.
Dorian Gray turned and looked at him. “I believe you would, Basil. You like your art better than your friends. I am no more to you than a green bronze figure. Hardly as much, I dare say.”
The painter stared in amazement. It was so unlike Dorian to speak like that. What had happened? He seemed quite angry. His face was flushed and his cheeks burning.
“Yes,” he continued, “I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver Faun. You will like them always. How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose. I know, now, that when one loses one’s good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. Your picture has taught me that. Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.”
Hallward turned pale and caught his hand. “Dorian! Dorian!” he cried, “don’t talk like that. I have never had such a friend as you, and I shall never have such another. You are not jealous of material things, are you?—you who are finer than any of them!”
“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day—mock me horribly!” The hot tears welled into his eyes; he tore his hand away and, flinging himself on the divan, he buried his face in the cushions, as though he was praying.
“This is your doing, Harry,” said the painter bitterly.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “It is the real Dorian Gray—that is all.”
“It is not.”
“If it is not, what have I to do with it?”
“You should have gone away when I asked you,” he muttered.
“I stayed when you asked me,” was Lord Henry’s answer.
“Harry, I can’t quarrel with my two best friends at once, but between you both you have made me hate the finest piece of work I have ever done, and I will destroy it. What is it but canvas and colour? I will not let it come across our three lives and mar them.”
Dorian Gray lifted his golden head from the pillow, and with pallid face and tear-stained eyes, looked at him as he walked over to the deal painting-table that was set beneath the high curtained window. What was he doing there? His fingers were straying about among the litter of tin tubes and dry brushes, seeking for something. Yes, it was for the long palette-knife, with its thin blade of lithe steel. He had found it at last. He was going to rip up the canvas.
With a stifled sob the lad leaped from the couch, and, rushing over to Hallward, tore the knife out of his hand, and flung it to the end of the studio. “Don’t, Basil, don’t!” he cried. “It would be murder!”
“I am glad you appreciate my work at last, Dorian,” said the painter coldly when he had recovered from his surprise. “I never thought you would.”
“Appreciate it? I am in love with it, Basil. It is part of myself. I feel that.”
“Well, as soon as you are dry, you shall be varnished, and framed, and sent home. Then you can do what you like with yourself.” And he walked across the room and rang the bell for tea. “You will have tea, of course, Dorian? And so will you, Harry? Or do you object to such simple pleasures?”
“I adore simple pleasures,” said Lord Henry. “They are the last refuge of the complex. But I don’t like scenes, except on the stage. What absurd fellows you are, both of you! I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. I am glad he is not, after all—though I wish you chaps would not squabble over the picture. You had much better let me have it, Basil. This silly boy doesn’t really want it, and I really do.”
“If you let any one have it but me, Basil, I shall never forgive you!” cried Dorian Gray; “and I don’t allow people to call me a silly boy.”
“You know the picture is yours, Dorian. I gave it to you before it existed.”
“And you know you have been a little silly, Mr. Gray, and that you don’t really object to being reminded that you are extremely young.”
“I should have objected very strongly this morning, Lord Henry.”
“Ah! this morning! You have lived since then.”
There came a knock at the door, and the butler entered with a laden tea-tray and set it down upon a small Japanese table. There was a rattle of cups and saucers and the hissing of a fluted Georgian urn. Two globe-shaped china dishes were brought in by a page. Dorian Gray went over and poured out the tea. The two men sauntered languidly to the table and examined what was under the covers.
“Let us go to the theatre to-night,” said Lord Henry. “There is sure to be something on, somewhere. I have promised to dine at White’s, but it is only with an old friend, so I can send him a wire to say that I am ill, or that I am prevented from coming in consequence of a subsequent engagement. I think that would be a rather nice excuse: it would have all the surprise of candour.”
“It is such a bore putting on one’s dress-clothes,” muttered Hallward. “And, when one has them on, they are so horrid.”
“Yes,” answered Lord Henry dreamily, “the costume of the nineteenth century is detestable. It is so sombre, so depressing. Sin is the only real colour-element left in modern life.”
“You really must not say things like that before Dorian, Harry.”
“Before which Dorian? The one who is pouring out tea for us, or the one in the picture?”
“I should like to come to the theatre with you, Lord Henry,” said the lad.
“Then you shall come; and you will come, too, Basil, won’t you?”
“I can’t, really. I would sooner not. I have a lot of work to do.”
“Well, then, you and I will go alone, Mr. Gray.”
“I should like that awfully.”
The painter bit his lip and walked over, cup in hand, to the picture. “I shall stay with the real Dorian,” he said, sadly.
“Is it the real Dorian?” cried the original of the portrait, strolling across to him. “Am I really like that?”
“Yes; you are just like that.”
“How wonderful, Basil!”
“At least you are like it in appearance. But it will never alter,” sighed Hallward. “That is something.”
“What a fuss people make about fidelity!” exclaimed Lord Henry. “Why, even in love it is purely a question for physiology. It has nothing to do with our own will. Young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless, and cannot: that is all one can say.”
“Don’t go to the theatre to-night, Dorian,” said Hallward. “Stop and dine with me.”
“I can’t, Basil.”
“Because I have promised Lord Henry Wotton to go with him.”
“He won’t like you the better for keeping your promises. He always breaks his own. I beg you not to go.”
Dorian Gray laughed and shook his head.
“I entreat you.”
The lad hesitated, and looked over at Lord Henry, who was watching them from the tea-table with an amused smile.
“I must go, Basil,” he answered.
“Very well,” said Hallward, and he went over and laid down his cup on the tray. “It is rather late, and, as you have to dress, you had better lose no time. Good-bye, Harry. Good-bye, Dorian. Come and see me soon. Come to-morrow.”
“You won’t forget?”
“No, of course not,” cried Dorian.
“And … Harry!”
“Remember what I asked you, when we were in the garden this morning.”
“I have forgotten it.”
“I trust you.”
“I wish I could trust myself,” said Lord Henry, laughing. “Come, Mr. Gray, my hansom is outside, and I can drop you at your own place. Good-bye, Basil. It has been a most interesting afternoon.”
As the door closed behind them, the painter flung himself down on a sofa, and a look of pain came into his face.
At half-past twelve next day Lord Henry Wotton strolled from Curzon Street over to the Albany to call on his uncle, Lord Fermor, a genial if somewhat rough-mannered old bachelor, whom the outside world called selfish because it derived no particular benefit from him, but who was considered generous by Society as he fed the people who amused him. His father had been our ambassador at Madrid when Isabella was young and Prim unthought of, but had retired from the diplomatic service in a capricious moment of annoyance on not being offered the Embassy at Paris, a post to which he considered that he was fully entitled by reason of his birth, his indolence, the good English of his dispatches, and his inordinate passion for pleasure. The son, who had been his father’s secretary, had resigned along with his chief, somewhat foolishly as was thought at the time, and on succeeding some months later to the title, had set himself to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing. He had two large town houses, but preferred to live in chambers as it was less trouble, and took most of his meals at his club. He paid some attention to the management of his collieries in the Midland counties, excusing himself for this taint of industry on the ground that the one advantage of having coal was that it enabled a gentleman to afford the decency of burning wood on his own hearth. In politics he was a Tory, except when the Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused them for being a pack of Radicals. He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him, and a terror to most of his relations, whom he bullied in turn. Only England could have produced him, and he always said that the country was going to the dogs. His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices.
When Lord Henry entered the room, he found his uncle sitting in a rough shooting-coat, smoking a cheroot and grumbling over The Times. “Well, Harry,” said the old gentleman, “what brings you out so early? I thought you dandies never got up till two, and were not visible till five.”
“Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to get something out of you.”
“Money, I suppose,” said Lord Fermor, making a wry face. “Well, sit down and tell me all about it. Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything.”
“Yes,” murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; “and when they grow older they know it. But I don’t want money. It is only people who pay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never pay mine. Credit is the capital of a younger son, and one lives charmingly upon it. Besides, I always deal with Dartmoor’s tradesmen, and consequently they never bother me. What I want is information: not useful information, of course; useless information.”
“Well, I can tell you anything that is in an English Blue Book, Harry, although those fellows nowadays write a lot of nonsense. When I was in the Diplomatic, things were much better. But I hear they let them in now by examination. What can you expect? Examinations, sir, are pure humbug from beginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”
“Mr. Dorian Gray does not belong to Blue Books, Uncle George,” said Lord Henry languidly.
“Mr. Dorian Gray? Who is he?” asked Lord Fermor, knitting his bushy white eyebrows.
“That is what I have come to learn, Uncle George. Or rather, I know who he is. He is the last Lord Kelso’s grandson. His mother was a Devereux, Lady Margaret Devereux. I want you to tell me about his mother. What was she like? Whom did she marry? You have known nearly everybody in your time, so you might have known her. I am very much interested in Mr. Gray at present. I have only just met him.”
“Kelso’s grandson!” echoed the old gentleman. “Kelso’s grandson! … Of course…. I knew his mother intimately. I believe I was at her christening. She was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux, and made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow—a mere nobody, sir, a subaltern in a foot regiment, or something of that kind. Certainly. I remember the whole thing as if it happened yesterday. The poor chap was killed in a duel at Spa a few months after the marriage. There was an ugly story about it. They said Kelso got some rascally adventurer, some Belgian brute, to insult his son-in-law in public—paid him, sir, to do it, paid him—and that the fellow spitted his man as if he had been a pigeon. The thing was hushed up, but, egad, Kelso ate his chop alone at the club for some time afterwards. He brought his daughter back with him, I was told, and she never spoke to him again. Oh, yes; it was a bad business. The girl died, too, died within a year. So she left a son, did she? I had forgotten that. What sort of boy is he? If he is like his mother, he must be a good-looking chap.”
“He is very good-looking,” assented Lord Henry.
“I hope he will fall into proper hands,” continued the old man. “He should have a pot of money waiting for him if Kelso did the right thing by him. His mother had money, too. All the Selby property came to her, through her grandfather. Her grandfather hated Kelso, thought him a mean dog. He was, too. Came to Madrid once when I was there. Egad, I was ashamed of him. The Queen used to ask me about the English noble who was always quarrelling with the cabmen about their fares. They made quite a story of it. I didn’t dare show my face at Court for a month. I hope he treated his grandson better than he did the jarvies.”
“I don’t know,” answered Lord Henry. “I fancy that the boy will be well off. He is not of age yet. He has Selby, I know. He told me so. And … his mother was very beautiful?”
“Margaret Devereux was one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw, Harry. What on earth induced her to behave as she did, I never could understand. She could have married anybody she chose. Carlington was mad after her. She was romantic, though. All the women of that family were. The men were a poor lot, but, egad! the women were wonderful. Carlington went on his knees to her. Told me so himself. She laughed at him, and there wasn’t a girl in London at the time who wasn’t after him. And by the way, Harry, talking about silly marriages, what is this humbug your father tells me about Dartmoor wanting to marry an American? Ain’t English girls good enough for him?”
“It is rather fashionable to marry Americans just now, Uncle George.”
“I’ll back English women against the world, Harry,” said Lord Fermor, striking the table with his fist.
“The betting is on the Americans.”
“They don’t last, I am told,” muttered his uncle.
“A long engagement exhausts them, but they are capital at a steeplechase. They take things flying. I don’t think Dartmoor has a chance.”
“Who are her people?” grumbled the old gentleman. “Has she got any?”
Lord Henry shook his head. “American girls are as clever at concealing their parents, as English women are at concealing their past,” he said, rising to go.
“They are pork-packers, I suppose?”
“I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor’s sake. I am told that pork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, after politics.”
“Is she pretty?”
“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”
“Why can’t these American women stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is the paradise for women.”
“It is. That is the reason why, like Eve, they are so excessively anxious to get out of it,” said Lord Henry. “Good-bye, Uncle George. I shall be late for lunch, if I stop any longer. Thanks for giving me the information I wanted. I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.”
“Where are you lunching, Harry?”
“At Aunt Agatha’s. I have asked myself and Mr. Gray. He is her latest protege.”
“Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more with her charity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinks that I have nothing to do but to write cheques for her silly fads.”
“All right, Uncle George, I’ll tell her, but it won’t have any effect. Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is their distinguishing characteristic.”
The old gentleman growled approvingly and rang the bell for his servant. Lord Henry passed up the low arcade into Burlington Street and turned his steps in the direction of Berkeley Square.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray’s parentage. Crudely as it had been told to him, it had yet stirred him by its suggestion of a strange, almost modern romance. A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by a hideous, treacherous crime. Months of voiceless agony, and then a child born in pain. The mother snatched away by death, the boy left to solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man. Yes; it was an interesting background. It posed the lad, made him more perfect, as it were. Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower might blow…. And how charming he had been at dinner the night before, as with startled eyes and lips parted in frightened pleasure he had sat opposite to him at the club, the red candleshades staining to a richer rose the wakening wonder of his face. Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…. There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims…. He was a marvellous type, too, this lad, whom by so curious a chance he had met in Basil’s studio, or could be fashioned into a marvellous type, at any rate. Grace was his, and the white purity of boyhood, and beauty such as old Greek marbles kept for us. There was nothing that one could not do with him. He could be made a Titan or a toy. What a pity it was that such beauty was destined to fade! … And Basil? From a psychological point of view, how interesting he was! The new manner in art, the fresh mode of looking at life, suggested so strangely by the merely visible presence of one who was unconscious of it all; the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryadlike and not afraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was! He remembered something like it in history. Was it not Plato, that artist in thought, who had first analyzed it? Was it not Buonarotti who had carved it in the coloured marbles of a sonnet-sequence? But in our own century it was strange…. Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait. He would seek to dominate him—had already, indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own. There was something fascinating in this son of love and death.
Suddenly he stopped and glanced up at the houses. He found that he had passed his aunt’s some distance, and, smiling to himself, turned back. When he entered the somewhat sombre hall, the butler told him that they had gone in to lunch. He gave one of the footmen his hat and stick and passed into the dining-room.
“Late as usual, Harry,” cried his aunt, shaking her head at him.
He invented a facile excuse, and having taken the vacant seat next to her, looked round to see who was there. Dorian bowed to him shyly from the end of the table, a flush of pleasure stealing into his cheek. Opposite was the Duchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature and good temper, much liked by every one who knew her, and of those ample architectural proportions that in women who are not duchesses are described by contemporary historians as stoutness. Next to her sat, on her right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a Radical member of Parliament, who followed his leader in public life and in private life followed the best cooks, dining with the Tories and thinking with the Liberals, in accordance with a wise and well-known rule. The post on her left was occupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerable charm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that he had to say before he was thirty. His own neighbour was Mrs. Vandeleur, one of his aunt’s oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women, but so dreadfully dowdy that she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book. Fortunately for him she had on the other side Lord Faudel, a most intelligent middle-aged mediocrity, as bald as a ministerial statement in the House of Commons, with whom she was conversing in that intensely earnest manner which is the one unpardonable error, as he remarked once himself, that all really good people fall into, and from which none of them ever quite escape.
“We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry,” cried the duchess, nodding pleasantly to him across the table. “Do you think he will really marry this fascinating young person?”
“I believe she has made up her mind to propose to him, Duchess.”
“How dreadful!” exclaimed Lady Agatha. “Really, some one should interfere.”
“I am told, on excellent authority, that her father keeps an American dry-goods store,” said Sir Thomas Burdon, looking supercilious.
“My uncle has already suggested pork-packing, Sir Thomas.”
“Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?” asked the duchess, raising her large hands in wonder and accentuating the verb.
“American novels,” answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.
The duchess looked puzzled.
“Don’t mind him, my dear,” whispered Lady Agatha. “He never means anything that he says.”
“When America was discovered,” said the Radical member—and he began to give some wearisome facts. Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. The duchess sighed and exercised her privilege of interruption. “I wish to goodness it never had been discovered at all!” she exclaimed. “Really, our girls have no chance nowadays. It is most unfair.”
“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered,” said Mr. Erskine; “I myself would say that it had merely been detected.”
“Oh! but I have seen specimens of the inhabitants,” answered the duchess vaguely. “I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford to do the same.”
“They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,” chuckled Sir Thomas, who had a large wardrobe of Humour’s cast-off clothes.
“Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the duchess.
“They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry.
Sir Thomas frowned. “I am afraid that your nephew is prejudiced against that great country,” he said to Lady Agatha. “I have travelled all over it in cars provided by the directors, who, in such matters, are extremely civil. I assure you that it is an education to visit it.”
“But must we really see Chicago in order to be educated?” asked Mr. Erskine plaintively. “I don’t feel up to the journey.”
Sir Thomas waved his hand. “Mr. Erskine of Treadley has the world on his shelves. We practical men like to see things, not to read about them. The Americans are an extremely interesting people. They are absolutely reasonable. I think that is their distinguishing characteristic. Yes, Mr. Erskine, an absolutely reasonable people. I assure you there is no nonsense about the Americans.”
“How dreadful!” cried Lord Henry. “I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.”
“I do not understand you,” said Sir Thomas, growing rather red.
“I do, Lord Henry,” murmured Mr. Erskine, with a smile.
“Paradoxes are all very well in their way….” rejoined the baronet.
“Was that a paradox?” asked Mr. Erskine. “I did not think so. Perhaps it was. Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them.”
“Dear me!” said Lady Agatha, “how you men argue! I am sure I never can make out what you are talking about. Oh! Harry, I am quite vexed with you. Why do you try to persuade our nice Mr. Dorian Gray to give up the East End? I assure you he would be quite invaluable. They would love his playing.”
“I want him to play to me,” cried Lord Henry, smiling, and he looked down the table and caught a bright answering glance.
“But they are so unhappy in Whitechapel,” continued Lady Agatha.
“I can sympathize with everything except suffering,” said Lord Henry, shrugging his shoulders. “I cannot sympathize with that. It is too ugly, too horrible, too distressing. There is something terribly morbid in the modern sympathy with pain. One should sympathize with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life. The less said about life’s sores, the better.”
“Still, the East End is a very important problem,” remarked Sir Thomas with a grave shake of the head.
“Quite so,” answered the young lord. “It is the problem of slavery, and we try to solve it by amusing the slaves.”
The politician looked at him keenly. “What change do you propose, then?” he asked.
Lord Henry laughed. “I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather,” he answered. “I am quite content with philosophic contemplation. But, as the nineteenth century has gone bankrupt through an over-expenditure of sympathy, I would suggest that we should appeal to science to put us straight. The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional.”
“But we have such grave responsibilities,” ventured Mrs. Vandeleur timidly.
“Terribly grave,” echoed Lady Agatha.
Lord Henry looked over at Mr. Erskine. “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different.”
“You are really very comforting,” warbled the duchess. “I have always felt rather guilty when I came to see your dear aunt, for I take no interest at all in the East End. For the future I shall be able to look her in the face without a blush.”
“A blush is very becoming, Duchess,” remarked Lord Henry.
“Only when one is young,” she answered. “When an old woman like myself blushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me how to become young again.”
He thought for a moment. “Can you remember any great error that you committed in your early days, Duchess?” he asked, looking at her across the table.
“A great many, I fear,” she cried.
“Then commit them over again,” he said gravely. “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.”
“A delightful theory!” she exclaimed. “I must put it into practice.”
“A dangerous theory!” came from Sir Thomas’s tight lips. Lady Agatha shook her head, but could not help being amused. Mr. Erskine listened.
“Yes,” he continued, “that is one of the great secrets of life. Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
A laugh ran round the table.
He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat’s black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinary improvisation. He felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixed on him, and the consciousness that amongst his audience there was one whose temperament he wished to fascinate seemed to give his wit keenness and to lend colour to his imagination. He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing. Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him, but sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lips and wonder growing grave in his darkening eyes.
At last, liveried in the costume of the age, reality entered the room in the shape of a servant to tell the duchess that her carriage was waiting. She wrung her hands in mock despair. “How annoying!” she cried. “I must go. I have to call for my husband at the club, to take him to some absurd meeting at Willis’s Rooms, where he is going to be in the chair. If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it. No, I must go, dear Agatha. Good-bye, Lord Henry, you are quite delightful and dreadfully demoralizing. I am sure I don’t know what to say about your views. You must come and dine with us some night. Tuesday? Are you disengaged Tuesday?”
“For you I would throw over anybody, Duchess,” said Lord Henry with a bow.
“Ah! that is very nice, and very wrong of you,” she cried; “so mind you come”; and she swept out of the room, followed by Lady Agatha and the other ladies.
When Lord Henry had sat down again, Mr. Erskine moved round, and taking a chair close to him, placed his hand upon his arm.
“You talk books away,” he said; “why don’t you write one?”
“I am too fond of reading books to care to write them, Mr. Erskine. I should like to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovely as a Persian carpet and as unreal. But there is no literary public in England for anything except newspapers, primers, and encyclopaedias. Of all people in the world the English have the least sense of the beauty of literature.”
“I fear you are right,” answered Mr. Erskine. “I myself used to have literary ambitions, but I gave them up long ago. And now, my dear young friend, if you will allow me to call you so, may I ask if you really meant all that you said to us at lunch?”
“I quite forget what I said,” smiled Lord Henry. “Was it all very bad?”
“Very bad indeed. In fact I consider you extremely dangerous, and if anything happens to our good duchess, we shall all look on you as being primarily responsible. But I should like to talk to you about life. The generation into which I was born was tedious. Some day, when you are tired of London, come down to Treadley and expound to me your philosophy of pleasure over some admirable Burgundy I am fortunate enough to possess.”
“I shall be charmed. A visit to Treadley would be a great privilege. It has a perfect host, and a perfect library.”
“You will complete it,” answered the old gentleman with a courteous bow. “And now I must bid good-bye to your excellent aunt. I am due at the Athenaeum. It is the hour when we sleep there.”
“All of you, Mr. Erskine?”
“Forty of us, in forty arm-chairs. We are practising for an English Academy of Letters.”
Lord Henry laughed and rose. “I am going to the park,” he cried.
As he was passing out of the door, Dorian Gray touched him on the arm. “Let me come with you,” he murmured.
“But I thought you had promised Basil Hallward to go and see him,” answered Lord Henry.
“I would sooner come with you; yes, I feel I must come with you. Do let me. And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so wonderfully as you do.”
“Ah! I have talked quite enough for to-day,” said Lord Henry, smiling. “All I want now is to look at life. You may come and look at it with me, if you care to.”
One afternoon, a month later, Dorian Gray was reclining in a luxurious arm-chair, in the little library of Lord Henry’s house in Mayfair. It was, in its way, a very charming room, with its high panelled wainscoting of olive-stained oak, its cream-coloured frieze and ceiling of raised plasterwork, and its brickdust felt carpet strewn with silk, long-fringed Persian rugs. On a tiny satinwood table stood a statuette by Clodion, and beside it lay a copy of Les Cent Nouvelles, bound for Margaret of Valois by Clovis Eve and powdered with the gilt daisies that Queen had selected for her device. Some large blue china jars and parrot-tulips were ranged on the mantelshelf, and through the small leaded panes of the window streamed the apricot-coloured light of a summer day in London.
Lord Henry had not yet come in. He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time. So the lad was looking rather sulky, as with listless fingers he turned over the pages of an elaborately illustrated edition of Manon Lescaut that he had found in one of the book-cases. The formal monotonous ticking of the Louis Quatorze clock annoyed him. Once or twice he thought of going away.
At last he heard a step outside, and the door opened. “How late you are, Harry!” he murmured.
“I am afraid it is not Harry, Mr. Gray,” answered a shrill voice.
He glanced quickly round and rose to his feet. “I beg your pardon. I thought—”
“You thought it was my husband. It is only his wife. You must let me introduce myself. I know you quite well by your photographs. I think my husband has got seventeen of them.”
“Not seventeen, Lady Henry?”
“Well, eighteen, then. And I saw you with him the other night at the opera.” She laughed nervously as she spoke, and watched him with her vague forget-me-not eyes. She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church.
“That was at Lohengrin, Lady Henry, I think?”
“Yes; it was at dear Lohengrin. I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage, don’t you think so, Mr. Gray?”
The same nervous staccato laugh broke from her thin lips, and her fingers began to play with a long tortoise-shell paper-knife.
Dorian smiled and shook his head: “I am afraid I don’t think so, Lady Henry. I never talk during music—at least, during good music. If one hears bad music, it is one’s duty to drown it in conversation.”
“Ah! that is one of Harry’s views, isn’t it, Mr. Gray? I always hear Harry’s views from his friends. It is the only way I get to know of them. But you must not think I don’t like good music. I adore it, but I am afraid of it. It makes me too romantic. I have simply worshipped pianists—two at a time, sometimes, Harry tells me. I don’t know what it is about them. Perhaps it is that they are foreigners. They all are, ain’t they? Even those that are born in England become foreigners after a time, don’t they? It is so clever of them, and such a compliment to art. Makes it quite cosmopolitan, doesn’t it? You have never been to any of my parties, have you, Mr. Gray? You must come. I can’t afford orchids, but I spare no expense in foreigners. They make one’s rooms look so picturesque. But here is Harry! Harry, I came in to look for you, to ask you something—I forget what it was—and I found Mr. Gray here. We have had such a pleasant chat about music. We have quite the same ideas. No; I think our ideas are quite different. But he has been most pleasant. I am so glad I’ve seen him.”
“I am charmed, my love, quite charmed,” said Lord Henry, elevating his dark, crescent-shaped eyebrows and looking at them both with an amused smile. “So sorry I am late, Dorian. I went to look after a piece of old brocade in Wardour Street and had to bargain for hours for it. Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
“I am afraid I must be going,” exclaimed Lady Henry, breaking an awkward silence with her silly sudden laugh. “I have promised to drive with the duchess. Good-bye, Mr. Gray. Good-bye, Harry. You are dining out, I suppose? So am I. Perhaps I shall see you at Lady Thornbury’s.”
“I dare say, my dear,” said Lord Henry, shutting the door behind her as, looking like a bird of paradise that had been out all night in the rain, she flitted out of the room, leaving a faint odour of frangipanni. Then he lit a cigarette and flung himself down on the sofa.
“Never marry a woman with straw-coloured hair, Dorian,” he said after a few puffs.
“Because they are so sentimental.”
“But I like sentimental people.”
“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”
“I don’t think I am likely to marry, Harry. I am too much in love. That is one of your aphorisms. I am putting it into practice, as I do everything that you say.”
“Who are you in love with?” asked Lord Henry after a pause.
“With an actress,” said Dorian Gray, blushing.
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “That is a rather commonplace debut.”
“You would not say so if you saw her, Harry.”
“Who is she?”
“Her name is Sibyl Vane.”
“Never heard of her.”
“No one has. People will some day, however. She is a genius.”
“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”
“Harry, how can you?”
“My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rougeand esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can’t be admitted into decent society. However, tell me about your genius. How long have you known her?”
“Ah! Harry, your views terrify me.”
“Never mind that. How long have you known her?”
“About three weeks.”
“And where did you come across her?”
“I will tell you, Harry, but you mustn’t be unsympathetic about it. After all, it never would have happened if I had not met you. You filled me with a wild desire to know everything about life. For days after I met you, something seemed to throb in my veins. As I lounged in the park, or strolled down Piccadilly, I used to look at every one who passed me and wonder, with a mad curiosity, what sort of lives they led. Some of them fascinated me. Others filled me with terror. There was an exquisite poison in the air. I had a passion for sensations…. Well, one evening about seven o’clock, I determined to go out in search of some adventure. I felt that this grey monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners, and its splendid sins, as you once phrased it, must have something in store for me. I fancied a thousand things. The mere danger gave me a sense of delight. I remembered what you had said to me on that wonderful evening when we first dined together, about the search for beauty being the real secret of life. I don’t know what I expected, but I went out and wandered eastward, soon losing my way in a labyrinth of grimy streets and black grassless squares. About half-past eight I passed by an absurd little theatre, with great flaring gas-jets and gaudy play-bills. A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt. ‘Have a box, my Lord?’ he said, when he saw me, and he took off his hat with an air of gorgeous servility. There was something about him, Harry, that amused me. He was such a monster. You will laugh at me, I know, but I really went in and paid a whole guinea for the stage-box. To the present day I can’t make out why I did so; and yet if I hadn’t—my dear Harry, if I hadn’t—I should have missed the greatest romance of my life. I see you are laughing. It is horrid of you!”
“I am not laughing, Dorian; at least I am not laughing at you. But you should not say the greatest romance of your life. You should say the first romance of your life. You will always be loved, and you will always be in love with love. A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do. That is the one use of the idle classes of a country. Don’t be afraid. There are exquisite things in store for you. This is merely the beginning.”
“Do you think my nature so shallow?” cried Dorian Gray angrily.
“No; I think your nature so deep.”
“How do you mean?”
“My dear boy, the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect—simply a confession of failure. Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up. But I don’t want to interrupt you. Go on with your story.”
“Well, I found myself seated in a horrid little private box, with a vulgar drop-scene staring me in the face. I looked out from behind the curtain and surveyed the house. It was a tawdry affair, all Cupids and cornucopias, like a third-rate wedding-cake. The gallery and pit were fairly full, but the two rows of dingy stalls were quite empty, and there was hardly a person in what I suppose they called the dress-circle. Women went about with oranges and ginger-beer, and there was a terrible consumption of nuts going on.”
“It must have been just like the palmy days of the British drama.”
“Just like, I should fancy, and very depressing. I began to wonder what on earth I should do when I caught sight of the play-bill. What do you think the play was, Harry?”
“I should think ‘The Idiot Boy’, or ‘Dumb but Innocent’. Our fathers used to like that sort of piece, I believe. The longer I live, Dorian, the more keenly I feel that whatever was good enough for our fathers is not good enough for us. In art, as in politics, les grandperes ont toujours tort.”
“This play was good enough for us, Harry. It was Romeo and Juliet. I must admit that I was rather annoyed at the idea of seeing Shakespeare done in such a wretched hole of a place. Still, I felt interested, in a sort of way. At any rate, I determined to wait for the first act. There was a dreadful orchestra, presided over by a young Hebrew who sat at a cracked piano, that nearly drove me away, but at last the drop-scene was drawn up and the play began. Romeo was a stout elderly gentleman, with corked eyebrows, a husky tragedy voice, and a figure like a beer-barrel. Mercutio was almost as bad. He was played by the low-comedian, who had introduced gags of his own and was on most friendly terms with the pit. They were both as grotesque as the scenery, and that looked as if it had come out of a country-booth. But Juliet! Harry, imagine a girl, hardly seventeen years of age, with a little, flowerlike face, a small Greek head with plaited coils of dark-brown hair, eyes that were violet wells of passion, lips that were like the petals of a rose. She was the loveliest thing I had ever seen in my life. You said to me once that pathos left you unmoved, but that beauty, mere beauty, could fill your eyes with tears. I tell you, Harry, I could hardly see this girl for the mist of tears that came across me. And her voice—I never heard such a voice. It was very low at first, with deep mellow notes that seemed to fall singly upon one’s ear. Then it became a little louder, and sounded like a flute or a distant hautboy. In the garden-scene it had all the tremulous ecstasy that one hears just before dawn when nightingales are singing. There were moments, later on, when it had the wild passion of violins. You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Sibyl Vane are two things that I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow. Why should I not love her? Harry, I do love her. She is everything to me in life. Night after night I go to see her play. One evening she is Rosalind, and the next evening she is Imogen. I have seen her die in the gloom of an Italian tomb, sucking the poison from her lover’s lips. I have watched her wandering through the forest of Arden, disguised as a pretty boy in hose and doublet and dainty cap. She has been mad, and has come into the presence of a guilty king, and given him rue to wear and bitter herbs to taste of. She has been innocent, and the black hands of jealousy have crushed her reedlike throat. I have seen her in every age and in every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century. No glamour ever transfigures them. One knows their minds as easily as one knows their bonnets. One can always find them. There is no mystery in any of them. They ride in the park in the morning and chatter at tea-parties in the afternoon. They have their stereotyped smile and their fashionable manner. They are quite obvious. But an actress! How different an actress is! Harry! why didn’t you tell me that the only thing worth loving is an actress?”
“Because I have loved so many of them, Dorian.”
“Oh, yes, horrid people with dyed hair and painted faces.”
“Don’t run down dyed hair and painted faces. There is an extraordinary charm in them, sometimes,” said Lord Henry.
“I wish now I had not told you about Sibyl Vane.”
“You could not have helped telling me, Dorian. All through your life you will tell me everything you do.”
“Yes, Harry, I believe that is true. I cannot help telling you things. You have a curious influence over me. If I ever did a crime, I would come and confess it to you. You would understand me.”
“People like you—the wilful sunbeams of life—don’t commit crimes, Dorian. But I am much obliged for the compliment, all the same. And now tell me—reach me the matches, like a good boy—thanks—what are your actual relations with Sibyl Vane?”
Dorian Gray leaped to his feet, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes. “Harry! Sibyl Vane is sacred!”
“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian,” said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. “But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance. You know her, at any rate, I suppose?”
“Of course I know her. On the first night I was at the theatre, the horrid old Jew came round to the box after the performance was over and offered to take me behind the scenes and introduce me to her. I was furious with him, and told him that Juliet had been dead for hundreds of years and that her body was lying in a marble tomb in Verona. I think, from his blank look of amazement, that he was under the impression that I had taken too much champagne, or something.”
“I am not surprised.”
“Then he asked me if I wrote for any of the newspapers. I told him I never even read them. He seemed terribly disappointed at that, and confided to me that all the dramatic critics were in a conspiracy against him, and that they were every one of them to be bought.”
“I should not wonder if he was quite right there. But, on the other hand, judging from their appearance, most of them cannot be at all expensive.”
“Well, he seemed to think they were beyond his means,” laughed Dorian. “By this time, however, the lights were being put out in the theatre, and I had to go. He wanted me to try some cigars that he strongly recommended. I declined. The next night, of course, I arrived at the place again. When he saw me, he made me a low bow and assured me that I was a munificent patron of art. He was a most offensive brute, though he had an extraordinary passion for Shakespeare. He told me once, with an air of pride, that his five bankruptcies were entirely due to ‘The Bard,’ as he insisted on calling him. He seemed to think it a distinction.”
“It was a distinction, my dear Dorian—a great distinction. Most people become bankrupt through having invested too heavily in the prose of life. To have ruined one’s self over poetry is an honour. But when did you first speak to Miss Sibyl Vane?”
“The third night. She had been playing Rosalind. I could not help going round. I had thrown her some flowers, and she had looked at me—at least I fancied that she had. The old Jew was persistent. He seemed determined to take me behind, so I consented. It was curious my not wanting to know her, wasn’t it?”
“No; I don’t think so.”
“My dear Harry, why?”
“I will tell you some other time. Now I want to know about the girl.”
“Sibyl? Oh, she was so shy and so gentle. There is something of a child about her. Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power. I think we were both rather nervous. The old Jew stood grinning at the doorway of the dusty greenroom, making elaborate speeches about us both, while we stood looking at each other like children. He would insist on calling me ‘My Lord,’ so I had to assure Sibyl that I was not anything of the kind. She said quite simply to me, ‘You look more like a prince. I must call you Prince Charming.'”
“Upon my word, Dorian, Miss Sibyl knows how to pay compliments.”
“You don’t understand her, Harry. She regarded me merely as a person in a play. She knows nothing of life. She lives with her mother, a faded tired woman who played Lady Capulet in a sort of magenta dressing-wrapper on the first night, and looks as if she had seen better days.”
“I know that look. It depresses me,” murmured Lord Henry, examining his rings.
“The Jew wanted to tell me her history, but I said it did not interest me.”
“You were quite right. There is always something infinitely mean about other people’s tragedies.”
“Sibyl is the only thing I care about. What is it to me where she came from? From her little head to her little feet, she is absolutely and entirely divine. Every night of my life I go to see her act, and every night she is more marvellous.”
“That is the reason, I suppose, that you never dine with me now. I thought you must have some curious romance on hand. You have; but it is not quite what I expected.”
“My dear Harry, we either lunch or sup together every day, and I have been to the opera with you several times,” said Dorian, opening his blue eyes in wonder.
“You always come dreadfully late.”
“Well, I can’t help going to see Sibyl play,” he cried, “even if it is only for a single act. I get hungry for her presence; and when I think of the wonderful soul that is hidden away in that little ivory body, I am filled with awe.”
“You can dine with me to-night, Dorian, can’t you?”
He shook his head. “To-night she is Imogen,” he answered, “and to-morrow night she will be Juliet.”
“When is she Sibyl Vane?”
“I congratulate you.”
“How horrid you are! She is all the great heroines of the world in one. She is more than an individual. You laugh, but I tell you she has genius. I love her, and I must make her love me. You, who know all the secrets of life, tell me how to charm Sibyl Vane to love me! I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter and grow sad. I want a breath of our passion to stir their dust into consciousness, to wake their ashes into pain. My God, Harry, how I worship her!” He was walking up and down the room as he spoke. Hectic spots of red burned on his cheeks. He was terribly excited.
Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from the shy frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward’s studio! His nature had developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame. Out of its secret hiding-place had crept his soul, and desire had come to meet it on the way.
“And what do you propose to do?” said Lord Henry at last.
“I want you and Basil to come with me some night and see her act. I have not the slightest fear of the result. You are certain to acknowledge her genius. Then we must get her out of the Jew’s hands. She is bound to him for three years—at least for two years and eight months—from the present time. I shall have to pay him something, of course. When all that is settled, I shall take a West End theatre and bring her out properly. She will make the world as mad as she has made me.”
“That would be impossible, my dear boy.”
“Yes, she will. She has not merely art, consummate art-instinct, in her, but she has personality also; and you have often told me that it is personalities, not principles, that move the age.”
“Well, what night shall we go?”
“Let me see. To-day is Tuesday. Let us fix to-morrow. She plays Juliet to-morrow.”
“All right. The Bristol at eight o’clock; and I will get Basil.”
“Not eight, Harry, please. Half-past six. We must be there before the curtain rises. You must see her in the first act, where she meets Romeo.”
“Half-past six! What an hour! It will be like having a meat-tea, or reading an English novel. It must be seven. No gentleman dines before seven. Shall you see Basil between this and then? Or shall I write to him?”
“Dear Basil! I have not laid eyes on him for a week. It is rather horrid of me, as he has sent me my portrait in the most wonderful frame, specially designed by himself, and, though I am a little jealous of the picture for being a whole month younger than I am, I must admit that I delight in it. Perhaps you had better write to him. I don’t want to see him alone. He says things that annoy me. He gives me good advice.”
Lord Henry smiled. “People are very fond of giving away what they need most themselves. It is what I call the depth of generosity.”
“Oh, Basil is the best of fellows, but he seems to me to be just a bit of a Philistine. Since I have known you, Harry, I have discovered that.”
“Basil, my dear boy, puts everything that is charming in him into his work. The consequence is that he has nothing left for life but his prejudices, his principles, and his common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.”
“I wonder is that really so, Harry?” said Dorian Gray, putting some perfume on his handkerchief out of a large, gold-topped bottle that stood on the table. “It must be, if you say it. And now I am off. Imogen is waiting for me. Don’t forget about to-morrow. Good-bye.”
As he left the room, Lord Henry’s heavy eyelids drooped, and he began to think. Certainly few people had ever interested him so much as Dorian Gray, and yet the lad’s mad adoration of some one else caused him not the slightest pang of annoyance or jealousy. He was pleased by it. It made him a more interesting study. He had been always enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others. Human life—that appeared to him the one thing worth investigating. Compared to it there was nothing else of any value. It was true that as one watched life in its curious crucible of pain and pleasure, one could not wear over one’s face a mask of glass, nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams. There were poisons so subtle that to know their properties one had to sicken of them. There were maladies so strange that one had to pass through them if one sought to understand their nature. And, yet, what a great reward one received! How wonderful the whole world became to one! To note the curious hard logic of passion, and the emotional coloured life of the intellect—to observe where they met, and where they separated, at what point they were in unison, and at what point they were at discord—there was a delight in that! What matter what the cost was? One could never pay too high a price for any sensation.
He was conscious—and the thought brought a gleam of pleasure into his brown agate eyes—that it was through certain words of his, musical words said with musical utterance, that Dorian Gray’s soul had turned to this white girl and bowed in worship before her. To a large extent the lad was his own creation. He had made him premature. That was something. Ordinary people waited till life disclosed to them its secrets, but to the few, to the elect, the mysteries of life were revealed before the veil was drawn away. Sometimes this was the effect of art, and chiefly of the art of literature, which dealt immediately with the passions and the intellect. But now and then a complex personality took the place and assumed the office of art, was indeed, in its way, a real work of art, life having its elaborate masterpieces, just as poetry has, or sculpture, or painting.
Yes, the lad was premature. He was gathering his harvest while it was yet spring. The pulse and passion of youth were in him, but he was becoming self-conscious. It was delightful to watch him. With his beautiful face, and his beautiful soul, he was a thing to wonder at. It was no matter how it all ended, or was destined to end. He was like one of those gracious figures in a pageant or a play, whose joys seem to be remote from one, but whose sorrows stir one’s sense of beauty, and whose wounds are like red roses.
Soul and body, body and soul—how mysterious they were! There was animalism in the soul, and the body had its moments of spirituality. The senses could refine, and the intellect could degrade. Who could say where the fleshly impulse ceased, or the psychical impulse began? How shallow were the arbitrary definitions of ordinary psychologists! And yet how difficult to decide between the claims of the various schools! Was the soul a shadow seated in the house of sin? Or was the body really in the soul, as Giordano Bruno thought? The separation of spirit from matter was a mystery, and the union of spirit with matter was a mystery also.
He began to wonder whether we could ever make psychology so absolute a science that each little spring of life would be revealed to us. As it was, we always misunderstood ourselves and rarely understood others. Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes. Moralists had, as a rule, regarded it as a mode of warning, had claimed for it a certain ethical efficacy in the formation of character, had praised it as something that taught us what to follow and showed us what to avoid. But there was no motive power in experience. It was as little of an active cause as conscience itself. All that it really demonstrated was that our future would be the same as our past, and that the sin we had done once, and with loathing, we would do many times, and with joy.
It was clear to him that the experimental method was the only method by which one could arrive at any scientific analysis of the passions; and certainly Dorian Gray was a subject made to his hand, and seemed to promise rich and fruitful results. His sudden mad love for Sibyl Vane was a psychological phenomenon of no small interest. There was no doubt that curiosity had much to do with it, curiosity and the desire for new experiences, yet it was not a simple, but rather a very complex passion. What there was in it of the purely sensuous instinct of boyhood had been transformed by the workings of the imagination, changed into something that seemed to the lad himself to be remote from sense, and was for that very reason all the more dangerous. It was the passions about whose origin we deceived ourselves that tyrannized most strongly over us. Our weakest motives were those of whose nature we were conscious. It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves.
While Lord Henry sat dreaming on these things, a knock came to the door, and his valet entered and reminded him it was time to dress for dinner. He got up and looked out into the street. The sunset had smitten into scarlet gold the upper windows of the houses opposite. The panes glowed like plates of heated metal. The sky above was like a faded rose. He thought of his friend’s young fiery-coloured life and wondered how it was all going to end.
When he arrived home, about half-past twelve o’clock, he saw a telegram lying on the hall table. He opened it and found it was from Dorian Gray. It was to tell him that he was engaged to be married to Sibyl Vane.
“Mother, Mother, I am so happy!” whispered the girl, burying her face in the lap of the faded, tired-looking woman who, with back turned to the shrill intrusive light, was sitting in the one arm-chair that their dingy sitting-room contained. “I am so happy!” she repeated, “and you must be happy, too!”
Mrs. Vane winced and put her thin, bismuth-whitened hands on her daughter’s head. “Happy!” she echoed, “I am only happy, Sibyl, when I see you act. You must not think of anything but your acting. Mr. Isaacs has been very good to us, and we owe him money.”
The girl looked up and pouted. “Money, Mother?” she cried, “what does money matter? Love is more than money.”
“Mr. Isaacs has advanced us fifty pounds to pay off our debts and to get a proper outfit for James. You must not forget that, Sibyl. Fifty pounds is a very large sum. Mr. Isaacs has been most considerate.”
“He is not a gentleman, Mother, and I hate the way he talks to me,” said the girl, rising to her feet and going over to the window.
“I don’t know how we could manage without him,” answered the elder woman querulously.
Sibyl Vane tossed her head and laughed. “We don’t want him any more, Mother. Prince Charming rules life for us now.” Then she paused. A rose shook in her blood and shadowed her cheeks. Quick breath parted the petals of her lips. They trembled. Some southern wind of passion swept over her and stirred the dainty folds of her dress. “I love him,” she said simply.
“Foolish child! foolish child!” was the parrot-phrase flung in answer. The waving of crooked, false-jewelled fingers gave grotesqueness to the words.
The girl laughed again. The joy of a caged bird was in her voice. Her eyes caught the melody and echoed it in radiance, then closed for a moment, as though to hide their secret. When they opened, the mist of a dream had passed across them.
Thin-lipped wisdom spoke at her from the worn chair, hinted at prudence, quoted from that book of cowardice whose author apes the name of common sense. She did not listen. She was free in her prison of passion. Her prince, Prince Charming, was with her. She had called on memory to remake him. She had sent her soul to search for him, and it had brought him back. His kiss burned again upon her mouth. Her eyelids were warm with his breath.
Then wisdom altered its method and spoke of espial and discovery. This young man might be rich. If so, marriage should be thought of. Against the shell of her ear broke the waves of worldly cunning. The arrows of craft shot by her. She saw the thin lips moving, and smiled.
Suddenly she felt the need to speak. The wordy silence troubled her. “Mother, Mother,” she cried, “why does he love me so much? I know why I love him. I love him because he is like what love himself should be. But what does he see in me? I am not worthy of him. And yet—why, I cannot tell—though I feel so much beneath him, I don’t feel humble. I feel proud, terribly proud. Mother, did you love my father as I love Prince Charming?”
The elder woman grew pale beneath the coarse powder that daubed her cheeks, and her dry lips twitched with a spasm of pain. Sybil rushed to her, flung her arms round her neck, and kissed her. “Forgive me, Mother. I know it pains you to talk about our father. But it only pains you because you loved him so much. Don’t look so sad. I am as happy to-day as you were twenty years ago. Ah! let me be happy for ever!”
“My child, you are far too young to think of falling in love. Besides, what do you know of this young man? You don’t even know his name. The whole thing is most inconvenient, and really, when James is going away to Australia, and I have so much to think of, I must say that you should have shown more consideration. However, as I said before, if he is rich …”
“Ah! Mother, Mother, let me be happy!”
Mrs. Vane glanced at her, and with one of those false theatrical gestures that so often become a mode of second nature to a stage-player, clasped her in her arms. At this moment, the door opened and a young lad with rough brown hair came into the room. He was thick-set of figure, and his hands and feet were large and somewhat clumsy in movement. He was not so finely bred as his sister. One would hardly have guessed the close relationship that existed between them. Mrs. Vane fixed her eyes on him and intensified her smile. She mentally elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt sure that the tableau was interesting.
“You might keep some of your kisses for me, Sibyl, I think,” said the lad with a good-natured grumble.
“Ah! but you don’t like being kissed, Jim,” she cried. “You are a dreadful old bear.” And she ran across the room and hugged him.
James Vane looked into his sister’s face with tenderness. “I want you to come out with me for a walk, Sibyl. I don’t suppose I shall ever see this horrid London again. I am sure I don’t want to.”
“My son, don’t say such dreadful things,” murmured Mrs. Vane, taking up a tawdry theatrical dress, with a sigh, and beginning to patch it. She felt a little disappointed that he had not joined the group. It would have increased the theatrical picturesqueness of the situation.
“Why not, Mother? I mean it.”
“You pain me, my son. I trust you will return from Australia in a position of affluence. I believe there is no society of any kind in the Colonies—nothing that I would call society—so when you have made your fortune, you must come back and assert yourself in London.”
“Society!” muttered the lad. “I don’t want to know anything about that. I should like to make some money to take you and Sibyl off the stage. I hate it.”
“Oh, Jim!” said Sibyl, laughing, “how unkind of you! But are you really going for a walk with me? That will be nice! I was afraid you were going to say good-bye to some of your friends—to Tom Hardy, who gave you that hideous pipe, or Ned Langton, who makes fun of you for smoking it. It is very sweet of you to let me have your last afternoon. Where shall we go? Let us go to the park.”
“I am too shabby,” he answered, frowning. “Only swell people go to the park.”
“Nonsense, Jim,” she whispered, stroking the sleeve of his coat.
He hesitated for a moment. “Very well,” he said at last, “but don’t be too long dressing.” She danced out of the door. One could hear her singing as she ran upstairs. Her little feet pattered overhead.
He walked up and down the room two or three times. Then he turned to the still figure in the chair. “Mother, are my things ready?” he asked.
“Quite ready, James,” she answered, keeping her eyes on her work. For some months past she had felt ill at ease when she was alone with this rough stern son of hers. Her shallow secret nature was troubled when their eyes met. She used to wonder if he suspected anything. The silence, for he made no other observation, became intolerable to her. She began to complain. Women defend themselves by attacking, just as they attack by sudden and strange surrenders. “I hope you will be contented, James, with your sea-faring life,” she said. “You must remember that it is your own choice. You might have entered a solicitor’s office. Solicitors are a very respectable class, and in the country often dine with the best families.”
“I hate offices, and I hate clerks,” he replied. “But you are quite right. I have chosen my own life. All I say is, watch over Sibyl. Don’t let her come to any harm. Mother, you must watch over her.”
“James, you really talk very strangely. Of course I watch over Sibyl.”
“I hear a gentleman comes every night to the theatre and goes behind to talk to her. Is that right? What about that?”
“You are speaking about things you don’t understand, James. In the profession we are accustomed to receive a great deal of most gratifying attention. I myself used to receive many bouquets at one time. That was when acting was really understood. As for Sibyl, I do not know at present whether her attachment is serious or not. But there is no doubt that the young man in question is a perfect gentleman. He is always most polite to me. Besides, he has the appearance of being rich, and the flowers he sends are lovely.”
“You don’t know his name, though,” said the lad harshly.
“No,” answered his mother with a placid expression in her face. “He has not yet revealed his real name. I think it is quite romantic of him. He is probably a member of the aristocracy.”
James Vane bit his lip. “Watch over Sibyl, Mother,” he cried, “watch over her.”
“My son, you distress me very much. Sibyl is always under my special care. Of course, if this gentleman is wealthy, there is no reason why she should not contract an alliance with him. I trust he is one of the aristocracy. He has all the appearance of it, I must say. It might be a most brilliant marriage for Sibyl. They would make a charming couple. His good looks are really quite remarkable; everybody notices them.”
The lad muttered something to himself and drummed on the window-pane with his coarse fingers. He had just turned round to say something when the door opened and Sibyl ran in.
“How serious you both are!” she cried. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing,” he answered. “I suppose one must be serious sometimes. Good-bye, Mother; I will have my dinner at five o’clock. Everything is packed, except my shirts, so you need not trouble.”
“Good-bye, my son,” she answered with a bow of strained stateliness.
She was extremely annoyed at the tone he had adopted with her, and there was something in his look that had made her feel afraid.
“Kiss me, Mother,” said the girl. Her flowerlike lips touched the withered cheek and warmed its frost.
“My child! my child!” cried Mrs. Vane, looking up to the ceiling in search of an imaginary gallery.
“Come, Sibyl,” said her brother impatiently. He hated his mother’s affectations.
They went out into the flickering, wind-blown sunlight and strolled down the dreary Euston Road. The passersby glanced in wonder at the sullen heavy youth who, in coarse, ill-fitting clothes, was in the company of such a graceful, refined-looking girl. He was like a common gardener walking with a rose.
Jim frowned from time to time when he caught the inquisitive glance of some stranger. He had that dislike of being stared at, which comes on geniuses late in life and never leaves the commonplace. Sibyl, however, was quite unconscious of the effect she was producing. Her love was trembling in laughter on her lips. She was thinking of Prince Charming, and, that she might think of him all the more, she did not talk of him, but prattled on about the ship in which Jim was going to sail, about the gold he was certain to find, about the wonderful heiress whose life he was to save from the wicked, red-shirted bushrangers. For he was not to remain a sailor, or a supercargo, or whatever he was going to be. Oh, no! A sailor’s existence was dreadful. Fancy being cooped up in a horrid ship, with the hoarse, hump-backed waves trying to get in, and a black wind blowing the masts down and tearing the sails into long screaming ribands! He was to leave the vessel at Melbourne, bid a polite good-bye to the captain, and go off at once to the gold-fields. Before a week was over he was to come across a large nugget of pure gold, the largest nugget that had ever been discovered, and bring it down to the coast in a waggon guarded by six mounted policemen. The bushrangers were to attack them three times, and be defeated with immense slaughter. Or, no. He was not to go to the gold-fields at all. They were horrid places, where men got intoxicated, and shot each other in bar-rooms, and used bad language. He was to be a nice sheep-farmer, and one evening, as he was riding home, he was to see the beautiful heiress being carried off by a robber on a black horse, and give chase, and rescue her. Of course, she would fall in love with him, and he with her, and they would get married, and come home, and live in an immense house in London. Yes, there were delightful things in store for him. But he must be very good, and not lose his temper, or spend his money foolishly. She was only a year older than he was, but she knew so much more of life. He must be sure, also, to write to her by every mail, and to say his prayers each night before he went to sleep. God was very good, and would watch over him. She would pray for him, too, and in a few years he would come back quite rich and happy.
The lad listened sulkily to her and made no answer. He was heart-sick at leaving home.
Yet it was not this alone that made him gloomy and morose. Inexperienced though he was, he had still a strong sense of the danger of Sibyl’s position. This young dandy who was making love to her could mean her no good. He was a gentleman, and he hated him for that, hated him through some curious race-instinct for which he could not account, and which for that reason was all the more dominant within him. He was conscious also of the shallowness and vanity of his mother’s nature, and in that saw infinite peril for Sibyl and Sibyl’s happiness. Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
His mother! He had something on his mind to ask of her, something that he had brooded on for many months of silence. A chance phrase that he had heard at the theatre, a whispered sneer that had reached his ears one night as he waited at the stage-door, had set loose a train of horrible thoughts. He remembered it as if it had been the lash of a hunting-crop across his face. His brows knit together into a wedge-like furrow, and with a twitch of pain he bit his underlip.
“You are not listening to a word I am saying, Jim,” cried Sibyl, “and I am making the most delightful plans for your future. Do say something.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Oh! that you will be a good boy and not forget us,” she answered, smiling at him.
He shrugged his shoulders. “You are more likely to forget me than I am to forget you, Sibyl.”
She flushed. “What do you mean, Jim?” she asked.
“You have a new friend, I hear. Who is he? Why have you not told me about him? He means you no good.”
“Stop, Jim!” she exclaimed. “You must not say anything against him. I love him.”
“Why, you don’t even know his name,” answered the lad. “Who is he? I have a right to know.”
“He is called Prince Charming. Don’t you like the name. Oh! you silly boy! you should never forget it. If you only saw him, you would think him the most wonderful person in the world. Some day you will meet him—when you come back from Australia. You will like him so much. Everybody likes him, and I … love him. I wish you could come to the theatre to-night. He is going to be there, and I am to play Juliet. Oh! how I shall play it! Fancy, Jim, to be in love and play Juliet! To have him sitting there! To play for his delight! I am afraid I may frighten the company, frighten or enthrall them. To be in love is to surpass one’s self. Poor dreadful Mr. Isaacs will be shouting ‘genius’ to his loafers at the bar. He has preached me as a dogma; to-night he will announce me as a revelation. I feel it. And it is all his, his only, Prince Charming, my wonderful lover, my god of graces. But I am poor beside him. Poor? What does that matter? When poverty creeps in at the door, love flies in through the window. Our proverbs want rewriting. They were made in winter, and it is summer now; spring-time for me, I think, a very dance of blossoms in blue skies.”
“He is a gentleman,” said the lad sullenly.
“A prince!” she cried musically. “What more do you want?”
“He wants to enslave you.”
“I shudder at the thought of being free.”
“I want you to beware of him.”
“To see him is to worship him; to know him is to trust him.”
“Sibyl, you are mad about him.”
She laughed and took his arm. “You dear old Jim, you talk as if you were a hundred. Some day you will be in love yourself. Then you will know what it is. Don’t look so sulky. Surely you should be glad to think that, though you are going away, you leave me happier than I have ever been before. Life has been hard for us both, terribly hard and difficult. But it will be different now. You are going to a new world, and I have found one. Here are two chairs; let us sit down and see the smart people go by.”
They took their seats amidst a crowd of watchers. The tulip-beds across the road flamed like throbbing rings of fire. A white dust—tremulous cloud of orris-root it seemed—hung in the panting air. The brightly coloured parasols danced and dipped like monstrous butterflies.
She made her brother talk of himself, his hopes, his prospects. He spoke slowly and with effort. They passed words to each other as players at a game pass counters. Sibyl felt oppressed. She could not communicate her joy. A faint smile curving that sullen mouth was all the echo she could win. After some time she became silent. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of golden hair and laughing lips, and in an open carriage with two ladies Dorian Gray drove past.
She started to her feet. “There he is!” she cried.
“Who?” said Jim Vane.
“Prince Charming,” she answered, looking after the victoria.
He jumped up and seized her roughly by the arm. “Show him to me. Which is he? Point him out. I must see him!” he exclaimed; but at that moment the Duke of Berwick’s four-in-hand came between, and when it had left the space clear, the carriage had swept out of the park.
“He is gone,” murmured Sibyl sadly. “I wish you had seen him.”
“I wish I had, for as sure as there is a God in heaven, if he ever does you any wrong, I shall kill him.”
She looked at him in horror. He repeated his words. They cut the air like a dagger. The people round began to gape. A lady standing close to her tittered.
“Come away, Jim; come away,” she whispered. He followed her doggedly as she passed through the crowd. He felt glad at what he had said.
When they reached the Achilles Statue, she turned round. There was pity in her eyes that became laughter on her lips. She shook her head at him. “You are foolish, Jim, utterly foolish; a bad-tempered boy, that is all. How can you say such horrible things? You don’t know what you are talking about. You are simply jealous and unkind. Ah! I wish you would fall in love. Love makes people good, and what you said was wicked.”
“I am sixteen,” he answered, “and I know what I am about. Mother is no help to you. She doesn’t understand how to look after you. I wish now that I was not going to Australia at all. I have a great mind to chuck the whole thing up. I would, if my articles hadn’t been signed.”
“Oh, don’t be so serious, Jim. You are like one of the heroes of those silly melodramas Mother used to be so fond of acting in. I am not going to quarrel with you. I have seen him, and oh! to see him is perfect happiness. We won’t quarrel. I know you would never harm any one I love, would you?”
“Not as long as you love him, I suppose,” was the sullen answer.
“I shall love him for ever!” she cried.
“For ever, too!”
“He had better.”
She shrank from him. Then she laughed and put her hand on his arm. He was merely a boy.
At the Marble Arch they hailed an omnibus, which left them close to their shabby home in the Euston Road. It was after five o’clock, and Sibyl had to lie down for a couple of hours before acting. Jim insisted that she should do so. He said that he would sooner part with her when their mother was not present. She would be sure to make a scene, and he detested scenes of every kind.
In Sybil’s own room they parted. There was jealousy in the lad’s heart, and a fierce murderous hatred of the stranger who, as it seemed to him, had come between them. Yet, when her arms were flung round his neck, and her fingers strayed through his hair, he softened and kissed her with real affection. There were tears in his eyes as he went downstairs.
His mother was waiting for him below. She grumbled at his unpunctuality, as he entered. He made no answer, but sat down to his meagre meal. The flies buzzed round the table and crawled over the stained cloth. Through the rumble of omnibuses, and the clatter of street-cabs, he could hear the droning voice devouring each minute that was left to him.
After some time, he thrust away his plate and put his head in his hands. He felt that he had a right to know. It should have been told to him before, if it was as he suspected. Leaden with fear, his mother watched him. Words dropped mechanically from her lips. A tattered lace handkerchief twitched in her fingers. When the clock struck six, he got up and went to the door. Then he turned back and looked at her. Their eyes met. In hers he saw a wild appeal for mercy. It enraged him.
“Mother, I have something to ask you,” he said. Her eyes wandered vaguely about the room. She made no answer. “Tell me the truth. I have a right to know. Were you married to my father?”
She heaved a deep sigh. It was a sigh of relief. The terrible moment, the moment that night and day, for weeks and months, she had dreaded, had come at last, and yet she felt no terror. Indeed, in some measure it was a disappointment to her. The vulgar directness of the question called for a direct answer. The situation had not been gradually led up to. It was crude. It reminded her of a bad rehearsal.
“No,” she answered, wondering at the harsh simplicity of life.
“My father was a scoundrel then!” cried the lad, clenching his fists.
She shook her head. “I knew he was not free. We loved each other very much. If he had lived, he would have made provision for us. Don’t speak against him, my son. He was your father, and a gentleman. Indeed, he was highly connected.”
An oath broke from his lips. “I don’t care for myself,” he exclaimed, “but don’t let Sibyl…. It is a gentleman, isn’t it, who is in love with her, or says he is? Highly connected, too, I suppose.”
For a moment a hideous sense of humiliation came over the woman. Her head drooped. She wiped her eyes with shaking hands. “Sibyl has a mother,” she murmured; “I had none.”
The lad was touched. He went towards her, and stooping down, he kissed her. “I am sorry if I have pained you by asking about my father,” he said, “but I could not help it. I must go now. Good-bye. Don’t forget that you will have only one child now to look after, and believe me that if this man wrongs my sister, I will find out who he is, track him down, and kill him like a dog. I swear it.”
The exaggerated folly of the threat, the passionate gesture that accompanied it, the mad melodramatic words, made life seem more vivid to her. She was familiar with the atmosphere. She breathed more freely, and for the first time for many months she really admired her son. She would have liked to have continued the scene on the same emotional scale, but he cut her short. Trunks had to be carried down and mufflers looked for. The lodging-house drudge bustled in and out. There was the bargaining with the cabman. The moment was lost in vulgar details. It was with a renewed feeling of disappointment that she waved the tattered lace handkerchief from the window, as her son drove away. She was conscious that a great opportunity had been wasted. She consoled herself by telling Sibyl how desolate she felt her life would be, now that she had only one child to look after. She remembered the phrase. It had pleased her. Of the threat she said nothing. It was vividly and dramatically expressed. She felt that they would all laugh at it some day.
“I suppose you have heard the news, Basil?” said Lord Henry that evening as Hallward was shown into a little private room at the Bristol where dinner had been laid for three.
“No, Harry,” answered the artist, giving his hat and coat to the bowing waiter. “What is it? Nothing about politics, I hope! They don’t interest me. There is hardly a single person in the House of Commons worth painting, though many of them would be the better for a little whitewashing.”
“Dorian Gray is engaged to be married,” said Lord Henry, watching him as he spoke.
Hallward started and then frowned. “Dorian engaged to be married!” he cried. “Impossible!”
“It is perfectly true.”
“To some little actress or other.”
“I can’t believe it. Dorian is far too sensible.”
“Dorian is far too wise not to do foolish things now and then, my dear Basil.”
“Marriage is hardly a thing that one can do now and then, Harry.”
“Except in America,” rejoined Lord Henry languidly. “But I didn’t say he was married. I said he was engaged to be married. There is a great difference. I have a distinct remembrance of being married, but I have no recollection at all of being engaged. I am inclined to think that I never was engaged.”
“But think of Dorian’s birth, and position, and wealth. It would be absurd for him to marry so much beneath him.”
“If you want to make him marry this girl, tell him that, Basil. He is sure to do it, then. Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.”
“I hope the girl is good, Harry. I don’t want to see Dorian tied to some vile creature, who might degrade his nature and ruin his intellect.”
“Oh, she is better than good—she is beautiful,” murmured Lord Henry, sipping a glass of vermouth and orange-bitters. “Dorian says she is beautiful, and he is not often wrong about things of that kind. Your portrait of him has quickened his appreciation of the personal appearance of other people. It has had that excellent effect, amongst others. We are to see her to-night, if that boy doesn’t forget his appointment.”
“Are you serious?”
“Quite serious, Basil. I should be miserable if I thought I should ever be more serious than I am at the present moment.”
“But do you approve of it, Harry?” asked the painter, walking up and down the room and biting his lip. “You can’t approve of it, possibly. It is some silly infatuation.”
“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices. I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people do. If a personality fascinates me, whatever mode of expression that personality selects is absolutely delightful to me. Dorian Gray falls in love with a beautiful girl who acts Juliet, and proposes to marry her. Why not? If he wedded Messalina, he would be none the less interesting. You know I am not a champion of marriage. The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless. They lack individuality. Still, there are certain temperaments that marriage makes more complex. They retain their egotism, and add to it many other egos. They are forced to have more than one life. They become more highly organized, and to be highly organized is, I should fancy, the object of man’s existence. Besides, every experience is of value, and whatever one may say against marriage, it is certainly an experience. I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife, passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly become fascinated by some one else. He would be a wonderful study.”
“You don’t mean a single word of all that, Harry; you know you don’t. If Dorian Gray’s life were spoiled, no one would be sorrier than yourself. You are much better than you pretend to be.”
Lord Henry laughed. “The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. We think that we are generous because we credit our neighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be a benefit to us. We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account, and find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spare our pockets. I mean everything that I have said. I have the greatest contempt for optimism. As for a spoiled life, no life is spoiled but one whose growth is arrested. If you want to mar a nature, you have merely to reform it. As for marriage, of course that would be silly, but there are other and more interesting bonds between men and women. I will certainly encourage them. They have the charm of being fashionable. But here is Dorian himself. He will tell you more than I can.”
“My dear Harry, my dear Basil, you must both congratulate me!” said the lad, throwing off his evening cape with its satin-lined wings and shaking each of his friends by the hand in turn. “I have never been so happy. Of course, it is sudden—all really delightful things are. And yet it seems to me to be the one thing I have been looking for all my life.” He was flushed with excitement and pleasure, and looked extraordinarily handsome.
“I hope you will always be very happy, Dorian,” said Hallward, “but I don’t quite forgive you for not having let me know of your engagement. You let Harry know.”
“And I don’t forgive you for being late for dinner,” broke in Lord Henry, putting his hand on the lad’s shoulder and smiling as he spoke. “Come, let us sit down and try what the new chef here is like, and then you will tell us how it all came about.”
“There is really not much to tell,” cried Dorian as they took their seats at the small round table. “What happened was simply this. After I left you yesterday evening, Harry, I dressed, had some dinner at that little Italian restaurant in Rupert Street you introduced me to, and went down at eight o’clock to the theatre. Sibyl was playing Rosalind. Of course, the scenery was dreadful and the Orlando absurd. But Sibyl! You should have seen her! When she came on in her boy’s clothes, she was perfectly wonderful. She wore a moss-coloured velvet jerkin with cinnamon sleeves, slim, brown, cross-gartered hose, a dainty little green cap with a hawk’s feather caught in a jewel, and a hooded cloak lined with dull red. She had never seemed to me more exquisite. She had all the delicate grace of that Tanagra figurine that you have in your studio, Basil. Her hair clustered round her face like dark leaves round a pale rose. As for her acting—well, you shall see her to-night. She is simply a born artist. I sat in the dingy box absolutely enthralled. I forgot that I was in London and in the nineteenth century. I was away with my love in a forest that no man had ever seen. After the performance was over, I went behind and spoke to her. As we were sitting together, suddenly there came into her eyes a look that I had never seen there before. My lips moved towards hers. We kissed each other. I can’t describe to you what I felt at that moment. It seemed to me that all my life had been narrowed to one perfect point of rose-coloured joy. She trembled all over and shook like a white narcissus. Then she flung herself on her knees and kissed my hands. I feel that I should not tell you all this, but I can’t help it. Of course, our engagement is a dead secret. She has not even told her own mother. I don’t know what my guardians will say. Lord Radley is sure to be furious. I don’t care. I shall be of age in less than a year, and then I can do what I like. I have been right, Basil, haven’t I, to take my love out of poetry and to find my wife in Shakespeare’s plays? Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth.”
“Yes, Dorian, I suppose you were right,” said Hallward slowly.
“Have you seen her to-day?” asked Lord Henry.
Dorian Gray shook his head. “I left her in the forest of Arden; I shall find her in an orchard in Verona.”
Lord Henry sipped his champagne in a meditative manner. “At what particular point did you mention the word marriage, Dorian? And what did she say in answer? Perhaps you forgot all about it.”
“My dear Harry, I did not treat it as a business transaction, and I did not make any formal proposal. I told her that I loved her, and she said she was not worthy to be my wife. Not worthy! Why, the whole world is nothing to me compared with her.”
“Women are wonderfully practical,” murmured Lord Henry, “much more practical than we are. In situations of that kind we often forget to say anything about marriage, and they always remind us.”
Hallward laid his hand upon his arm. “Don’t, Harry. You have annoyed Dorian. He is not like other men. He would never bring misery upon any one. His nature is too fine for that.”
Lord Henry looked across the table. “Dorian is never annoyed with me,” he answered. “I asked the question for the best reason possible, for the only reason, indeed, that excuses one for asking any question—simple curiosity. I have a theory that it is always the women who propose to us, and not we who propose to the women. Except, of course, in middle-class life. But then the middle classes are not modern.”
Dorian Gray laughed, and tossed his head. “You are quite incorrigible, Harry; but I don’t mind. It is impossible to be angry with you. When you see Sibyl Vane, you will feel that the man who could wrong her would be a beast, a beast without a heart. I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves. I love Sibyl Vane. I want to place her on a pedestal of gold and to see the world worship the woman who is mine. What is marriage? An irrevocable vow. You mock at it for that. Ah! don’t mock. It is an irrevocable vow that I want to take. Her trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good. When I am with her, I regret all that you have taught me. I become different from what you have known me to be. I am changed, and the mere touch of Sibyl Vane’s hand makes me forget you and all your wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories.”
“And those are …?” asked Lord Henry, helping himself to some salad.
“Oh, your theories about life, your theories about love, your theories about pleasure. All your theories, in fact, Harry.”
“Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about,” he answered in his slow melodious voice. “But I am afraid I cannot claim my theory as my own. It belongs to Nature, not to me. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”
“Ah! but what do you mean by good?” cried Basil Hallward.
“Yes,” echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at Lord Henry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in the centre of the table, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbours, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are not one’s concern. Besides, individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.”
“But, surely, if one lives merely for one’s self, Harry, one pays a terrible price for doing so?” suggested the painter.
“Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.”
“One has to pay in other ways but money.”
“What sort of ways, Basil?”
“Oh! I should fancy in remorse, in suffering, in … well, in the consciousness of degradation.”
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, mediaeval art is charming, but mediaeval emotions are out of date. One can use them in fiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me, no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is.”
“I know what pleasure is,” cried Dorian Gray. “It is to adore some one.”
“That is certainly better than being adored,” he answered, toying with some fruits. “Being adored is a nuisance. Women treat us just as humanity treats its gods. They worship us, and are always bothering us to do something for them.”
“I should have said that whatever they ask for they had first given to us,” murmured the lad gravely. “They create love in our natures. They have a right to demand it back.”
“That is quite true, Dorian,” cried Hallward.
“Nothing is ever quite true,” said Lord Henry.
“This is,” interrupted Dorian. “You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”
“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change. That is the worry. Women, as some witty Frenchman once put it, inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces and always prevent us from carrying them out.”
“Harry, you are dreadful! I don’t know why I like you so much.”
“You will always like me, Dorian,” he replied. “Will you have some coffee, you fellows? Waiter, bring coffee, and fine-champagne, and some cigarettes. No, don’t mind the cigarettes—I have some. Basil, I can’t allow you to smoke cigars. You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? Yes, Dorian, you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.”
“What nonsense you talk, Harry!” cried the lad, taking a light from a fire-breathing silver dragon that the waiter had placed on the table. “Let us go down to the theatre. When Sibyl comes on the stage you will have a new ideal of life. She will represent something to you that you have never known.”
“I have known everything,” said Lord Henry, with a tired look in his eyes, “but I am always ready for a new emotion. I am afraid, however, that, for me at any rate, there is no such thing. Still, your wonderful girl may thrill me. I love acting. It is so much more real than life. Let us go. Dorian, you will come with me. I am so sorry, Basil, but there is only room for two in the brougham. You must follow us in a hansom.”
They got up and put on their coats, sipping their coffee standing. The painter was silent and preoccupied. There was a gloom over him. He could not bear this marriage, and yet it seemed to him to be better than many other things that might have happened. After a few minutes, they all passed downstairs. He drove off by himself, as had been arranged, and watched the flashing lights of the little brougham in front of him. A strange sense of loss came over him. He felt that Dorian Gray would never again be to him all that he had been in the past. Life had come between them…. His eyes darkened, and the crowded flaring streets became blurred to his eyes. When the cab drew up at the theatre, it seemed to him that he had grown years older.
For some reason or other, the house was crowded that night, and the fat Jew manager who met them at the door was beaming from ear to ear with an oily tremulous smile. He escorted them to their box with a sort of pompous humility, waving his fat jewelled hands and talking at the top of his voice. Dorian Gray loathed him more than ever. He felt as if he had come to look for Miranda and had been met by Caliban. Lord Henry, upon the other hand, rather liked him. At least he declared he did, and insisted on shaking him by the hand and assuring him that he was proud to meet a man who had discovered a real genius and gone bankrupt over a poet. Hallward amused himself with watching the faces in the pit. The heat was terribly oppressive, and the huge sunlight flamed like a monstrous dahlia with petals of yellow fire. The youths in the gallery had taken off their coats and waistcoats and hung them over the side. They talked to each other across the theatre and shared their oranges with the tawdry girls who sat beside them. Some women were laughing in the pit. Their voices were horribly shrill and discordant. The sound of the popping of corks came from the bar.
“What a place to find one’s divinity in!” said Lord Henry.
“Yes!” answered Dorian Gray. “It was here I found her, and she is divine beyond all living things. When she acts, you will forget everything. These common rough people, with their coarse faces and brutal gestures, become quite different when she is on the stage. They sit silently and watch her. They weep and laugh as she wills them to do. She makes them as responsive as a violin. She spiritualizes them, and one feels that they are of the same flesh and blood as one’s self.”
“The same flesh and blood as one’s self! Oh, I hope not!” exclaimed Lord Henry, who was scanning the occupants of the gallery through his opera-glass.
“Don’t pay any attention to him, Dorian,” said the painter. “I understand what you mean, and I believe in this girl. Any one you love must be marvellous, and any girl who has the effect you describe must be fine and noble. To spiritualize one’s age—that is something worth doing. If this girl can give a soul to those who have lived without one, if she can create the sense of beauty in people whose lives have been sordid and ugly, if she can strip them of their selfishness and lend them tears for sorrows that are not their own, she is worthy of all your adoration, worthy of the adoration of the world. This marriage is quite right. I did not think so at first, but I admit it now. The gods made Sibyl Vane for you. Without her you would have been incomplete.”
“Thanks, Basil,” answered Dorian Gray, pressing his hand. “I knew that you would understand me. Harry is so cynical, he terrifies me. But here is the orchestra. It is quite dreadful, but it only lasts for about five minutes. Then the curtain rises, and you will see the girl to whom I am going to give all my life, to whom I have given everything that is good in me.”
A quarter of an hour afterwards, amidst an extraordinary turmoil of applause, Sibyl Vane stepped on to the stage. Yes, she was certainly lovely to look at—one of the loveliest creatures, Lord Henry thought, that he had ever seen. There was something of the fawn in her shy grace and startled eyes. A faint blush, like the shadow of a rose in a mirror of silver, came to her cheeks as she glanced at the crowded enthusiastic house. She stepped back a few paces and her lips seemed to tremble. Basil Hallward leaped to his feet and began to applaud. Motionless, and as one in a dream, sat Dorian Gray, gazing at her. Lord Henry peered through his glasses, murmuring, “Charming! charming!”
The scene was the hall of Capulet’s house, and Romeo in his pilgrim’s dress had entered with Mercutio and his other friends. The band, such as it was, struck up a few bars of music, and the dance began. Through the crowd of ungainly, shabbily dressed actors, Sibyl Vane moved like a creature from a finer world. Her body swayed, while she danced, as a plant sways in the water. The curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory.
Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo. The few words she had to speak—
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss—
with the brief dialogue that follows, were spoken in a thoroughly artificial manner. The voice was exquisite, but from the point of view of tone it was absolutely false. It was wrong in colour. It took away all the life from the verse. It made the passion unreal.
Dorian Gray grew pale as he watched her. He was puzzled and anxious. Neither of his friends dared to say anything to him. She seemed to them to be absolutely incompetent. They were horribly disappointed.
Yet they felt that the true test of any Juliet is the balcony scene of the second act. They waited for that. If she failed there, there was nothing in her.
She looked charming as she came out in the moonlight. That could not be denied. But the staginess of her acting was unbearable, and grew worse as she went on. Her gestures became absurdly artificial. She overemphasized everything that she had to say. The beautiful passage—
Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night—
was declaimed with the painful precision of a schoolgirl who has been taught to recite by some second-rate professor of elocution. When she leaned over the balcony and came to those wonderful lines—
Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, “It lightens.” Sweet, good-night!
This bud of love by summer’s ripening breath
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet—
she spoke the words as though they conveyed no meaning to her. It was not nervousness. Indeed, so far from being nervous, she was absolutely self-contained. It was simply bad art. She was a complete failure.
Even the common uneducated audience of the pit and gallery lost their interest in the play. They got restless, and began to talk loudly and to whistle. The Jew manager, who was standing at the back of the dress-circle, stamped and swore with rage. The only person unmoved was the girl herself.
When the second act was over, there came a storm of hisses, and Lord Henry got up from his chair and put on his coat. “She is quite beautiful, Dorian,” he said, “but she can’t act. Let us go.”
“I am going to see the play through,” answered the lad, in a hard bitter voice. “I am awfully sorry that I have made you waste an evening, Harry. I apologize to you both.”
“My dear Dorian, I should think Miss Vane was ill,” interrupted Hallward. “We will come some other night.”
“I wish she were ill,” he rejoined. “But she seems to me to be simply callous and cold. She has entirely altered. Last night she was a great artist. This evening she is merely a commonplace mediocre actress.”
“Don’t talk like that about any one you love, Dorian. Love is a more wonderful thing than art.”
“They are both simply forms of imitation,” remarked Lord Henry. “But do let us go. Dorian, you must not stay here any longer. It is not good for one’s morals to see bad acting. Besides, I don’t suppose you will want your wife to act, so what does it matter if she plays Juliet like a wooden doll? She is very lovely, and if she knows as little about life as she does about acting, she will be a delightful experience. There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating—people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing. Good heavens, my dear boy, don’t look so tragic! The secret of remaining young is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming. Come to the club with Basil and myself. We will smoke cigarettes and drink to the beauty of Sibyl Vane. She is beautiful. What more can you want?”
“Go away, Harry,” cried the lad. “I want to be alone. Basil, you must go. Ah! can’t you see that my heart is breaking?” The hot tears came to his eyes. His lips trembled, and rushing to the back of the box, he leaned up against the wall, hiding his face in his hands.
“Let us go, Basil,” said Lord Henry with a strange tenderness in his voice, and the two young men passed out together.
A few moments afterwards the footlights flared up and the curtain rose on the third act. Dorian Gray went back to his seat. He looked pale, and proud, and indifferent. The play dragged on, and seemed interminable. Half of the audience went out, tramping in heavy boots and laughing. The whole thing was a fiasco. The last act was played to almost empty benches. The curtain went down on a titter and some groans.
As soon as it was over, Dorian Gray rushed behind the scenes into the greenroom. The girl was standing there alone, with a look of triumph on her face. Her eyes were lit with an exquisite fire. There was a radiance about her. Her parted lips were smiling over some secret of their own.
When he entered, she looked at him, and an expression of infinite joy came over her. “How badly I acted to-night, Dorian!” she cried.
“Horribly!” he answered, gazing at her in amazement. “Horribly! It was dreadful. Are you ill? You have no idea what it was. You have no idea what I suffered.”
The girl smiled. “Dorian,” she answered, lingering over his name with long-drawn music in her voice, as though it were sweeter than honey to the red petals of her mouth. “Dorian, you should have understood. But you understand now, don’t you?”
“Understand what?” he asked, angrily.
“Why I was so bad to-night. Why I shall always be bad. Why I shall never act well again.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “You are ill, I suppose. When you are ill you shouldn’t act. You make yourself ridiculous. My friends were bored. I was bored.”
She seemed not to listen to him. She was transfigured with joy. An ecstasy of happiness dominated her.
“Dorian, Dorian,” she cried, “before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also. I believed in everything. The common people who acted with me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came—oh, my beautiful love!—and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played. To-night, for the first time, I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, and that the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life! I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can ever be. What have I to do with the puppets of a play? When I came on to-night, I could not understand how it was that everything had gone from me. I thought that I was going to be wonderful. I found that I could do nothing. Suddenly it dawned on my soul what it all meant. The knowledge was exquisite to me. I heard them hissing, and I smiled. What could they know of love such as ours? Take me away, Dorian—take me away with you, where we can be quite alone. I hate the stage. I might mimic a passion that I do not feel, but I cannot mimic one that burns me like fire. Oh, Dorian, Dorian, you understand now what it signifies? Even if I could do it, it would be profanation for me to play at being in love. You have made me see that.”
He flung himself down on the sofa and turned away his face. “You have killed my love,” he muttered.
She looked at him in wonder and laughed. He made no answer. She came across to him, and with her little fingers stroked his hair. She knelt down and pressed his hands to her lips. He drew them away, and a shudder ran through him.
Then he leaped up and went to the door. “Yes,” he cried, “you have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid. My God! how mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name. You don’t know what you were to me, once. Why, once … Oh, I can’t bear to think of it! I wish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance of my life. How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art! Without your art, you are nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face.”
The girl grew white, and trembled. She clenched her hands together, and her voice seemed to catch in her throat. “You are not serious, Dorian?” she murmured. “You are acting.”
“Acting! I leave that to you. You do it so well,” he answered bitterly.
She rose from her knees and, with a piteous expression of pain in her face, came across the room to him. She put her hand upon his arm and looked into his eyes. He thrust her back. “Don’t touch me!” he cried.
A low moan broke from her, and she flung herself at his feet and lay there like a trampled flower. “Dorian, Dorian, don’t leave me!” she whispered. “I am so sorry I didn’t act well. I was thinking of you all the time. But I will try—indeed, I will try. It came so suddenly across me, my love for you. I think I should never have known it if you had not kissed me—if we had not kissed each other. Kiss me again, my love. Don’t go away from me. I couldn’t bear it. Oh! don’t go away from me. My brother … No; never mind. He didn’t mean it. He was in jest…. But you, oh! can’t you forgive me for to-night? I will work so hard and try to improve. Don’t be cruel to me, because I love you better than anything in the world. After all, it is only once that I have not pleased you. But you are quite right, Dorian. I should have shown myself more of an artist. It was foolish of me, and yet I couldn’t help it. Oh, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.” A fit of passionate sobbing choked her. She crouched on the floor like a wounded thing, and Dorian Gray, with his beautiful eyes, looked down at her, and his chiselled lips curled in exquisite disdain. There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love. Sibyl Vane seemed to him to be absurdly melodramatic. Her tears and sobs annoyed him.
“I am going,” he said at last in his calm clear voice. “I don’t wish to be unkind, but I can’t see you again. You have disappointed me.”
She wept silently, and made no answer, but crept nearer. Her little hands stretched blindly out, and appeared to be seeking for him. He turned on his heel and left the room. In a few moments he was out of the theatre.
Where he went to he hardly knew. He remembered wandering through dimly lit streets, past gaunt, black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by, cursing and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon door-steps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts.
As the dawn was just breaking, he found himself close to Covent Garden. The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky hollowed itself into a perfect pearl. Huge carts filled with nodding lilies rumbled slowly down the polished empty street. The air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him an anodyne for his pain. He followed into the market and watched the men unloading their waggons. A white-smocked carter offered him some cherries. He thanked him, wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly. They had been plucked at midnight, and the coldness of the moon had entered into them. A long line of boys carrying crates of striped tulips, and of yellow and red roses, defiled in front of him, threading their way through the huge, jade-green piles of vegetables. Under the portico, with its grey, sun-bleached pillars, loitered a troop of draggled bareheaded girls, waiting for the auction to be over. Others crowded round the swinging doors of the coffee-house in the piazza. The heavy cart-horses slipped and stamped upon the rough stones, shaking their bells and trappings. Some of the drivers were lying asleep on a pile of sacks. Iris-necked and pink-footed, the pigeons ran about picking up seeds.
After a little while, he hailed a hansom and drove home. For a few moments he loitered upon the doorstep, looking round at the silent square, with its blank, close-shuttered windows and its staring blinds. The sky was pure opal now, and the roofs of the houses glistened like silver against it. From some chimney opposite a thin wreath of smoke was rising. It curled, a violet riband, through the nacre-coloured air.
In the huge gilt Venetian lantern, spoil of some Doge’s barge, that hung from the ceiling of the great, oak-panelled hall of entrance, lights were still burning from three flickering jets: thin blue petals of flame they seemed, rimmed with white fire. He turned them out and, having thrown his hat and cape on the table, passed through the library towards the door of his bedroom, a large octagonal chamber on the ground floor that, in his new-born feeling for luxury, he had just had decorated for himself and hung with some curious Renaissance tapestries that had been discovered stored in a disused attic at Selby Royal. As he was turning the handle of the door, his eye fell upon the portrait Basil Hallward had painted of him. He started back as if in surprise. Then he went on into his own room, looking somewhat puzzled. After he had taken the button-hole out of his coat, he seemed to hesitate. Finally, he came back, went over to the picture, and examined it. In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.
He turned round and, walking to the window, drew up the blind. The bright dawn flooded the room and swept the fantastic shadows into dusky corners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that he had noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to be more intensified even. The quivering ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.
He winced and, taking up from the table an oval glass framed in ivory Cupids, one of Lord Henry’s many presents to him, glanced hurriedly into its polished depths. No line like that warped his red lips. What did it mean?
He rubbed his eyes, and came close to the picture, and examined it again. There were no signs of any change when he looked into the actual painting, and yet there was no doubt that the whole expression had altered. It was not a mere fancy of his own. The thing was horribly apparent.
He threw himself into a chair and began to think. Suddenly there flashed across his mind what he had said in Basil Hallward’s studio the day the picture had been finished. Yes, he remembered it perfectly. He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood. Surely his wish had not been fulfilled? Such things were impossible. It seemed monstrous even to think of them. And, yet, there was the picture before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.
Cruelty! Had he been cruel? It was the girl’s fault, not his. He had dreamed of her as a great artist, had given his love to her because he had thought her great. Then she had disappointed him. She had been shallow and unworthy. And, yet, a feeling of infinite regret came over him, as he thought of her lying at his feet sobbing like a little child. He remembered with what callousness he had watched her. Why had he been made like that? Why had such a soul been given to him? But he had suffered also. During the three terrible hours that the play had lasted, he had lived centuries of pain, aeon upon aeon of torture. His life was well worth hers. She had marred him for a moment, if he had wounded her for an age. Besides, women were better suited to bear sorrow than men. They lived on their emotions. They only thought of their emotions. When they took lovers, it was merely to have some one with whom they could have scenes. Lord Henry had told him that, and Lord Henry knew what women were. Why should he trouble about Sibyl Vane? She was nothing to him now.
But the picture? What was he to say of that? It held the secret of his life, and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again?
No; it was merely an illusion wrought on the troubled senses. The horrible night that he had passed had left phantoms behind it. Suddenly there had fallen upon his brain that tiny scarlet speck that makes men mad. The picture had not changed. It was folly to think so.
Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, and would alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience. He would resist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more—would not, at any rate, listen to those subtle poisonous theories that in Basil Hallward’s garden had first stirred within him the passion for impossible things. He would go back to Sibyl Vane, make her amends, marry her, try to love her again. Yes, it was his duty to do so. She must have suffered more than he had. Poor child! He had been selfish and cruel to her. The fascination that she had exercised over him would return. They would be happy together. His life with her would be beautiful and pure.
He got up from his chair and drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it. “How horrible!” he murmured to himself, and he walked across to the window and opened it. When he stepped out on to the grass, he drew a deep breath. The fresh morning air seemed to drive away all his sombre passions. He thought only of Sibyl. A faint echo of his love came back to him. He repeated her name over and over again. The birds that were singing in the dew-drenched garden seemed to be telling the flowers about her.