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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Page 6

Oscar Wilde


  [...43] It was long past noon when he awoke. His valet had creptseveral times into the room on tiptoe to see if he was stirring, andhad wondered what made his young master sleep so late. Finally hisbell sounded, and Victor came in softly with a cup of tea, and a pileof letters, on a small tray of old Sevres china, and drew back theolive-satin curtains, with their shimmering blue lining, that hung infront of the three tall windows.

  "Monsieur has well slept this morning," he said, smiling.

  "What o'clock is it, Victor?" asked Dorian Gray, sleepily.

  "One hour and a quarter, monsieur."

  How late it was! He sat up, and, having sipped some tea, turned overhis letters. One of them was from Lord Henry, and had been brought byhand that morning. He hesitated for a moment, and then put it aside.The others he opened listlessly. They contained the usual collectionof cards, invitations to dinner, tickets for private views, programmesof charity concerts, and the like, that are showered on fashionableyoung men every morning during the season. There was a [44] ratherheavy bill, for a chased silver Louis-Quinze toilet-set, that he hadnot yet had the courage to send on to his guardians, who were extremelyold-fashioned people and did not realize that we live in an age whenonly unnecessary things are absolutely necessary to us; and there wereseveral very courteously worded communications from Jermyn Streetmoney-lenders offering to advance any sum of money at a moment's noticeand at the most reasonable rates of interest.

  After about ten minutes he got up, and, throwing on an elaboratedressing-gown, passed into the onyx-paved bath-room. The cool waterrefreshed him after his long sleep. He seemed to have forgotten allthat he had gone through. A dim sense of having taken part in somestrange tragedy came to him once or twice, but there was the unrealityof a dream about it.

  As soon as he was dressed, he went into the library and sat down to alight French breakfast, that had been laid out for him on a small roundtable close to an open window. It was an exquisite day. The warm airseemed laden with spices. A bee flew in, and buzzed round theblue-dragon bowl, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, that stood in frontof him. He felt perfectly happy.

  Suddenly his eye fell on the screen that he had placed in front of theportrait, and he started.

  "Too cold for Monsieur?" asked his valet, putting an omelette on thetable. "I shut the window?"

  Dorian shook his head. "I am not cold," he murmured.

  Was it all true? Had the portrait really changed? Or had it beensimply his own imagination that had made him see a look of evil wherethere had been a look of joy? Surely a painted canvas could not alter?The thing was absurd. It would serve as a tale to tell Basil some day.It would make him smile.

  And, yet, how vivid was his recollection of the whole thing! First inthe dim twilight, and then in the bright dawn, he had seen the touch ofcruelty in the warped lips. He almost dreaded his valet leaving theroom. He knew that when he was alone he would have to examine theportrait. He was afraid of certainty. When the coffee and cigaretteshad been brought and the man turned to go, he felt a mad desire to tellhim to remain. As the door closed behind him he called him back. Theman stood waiting for his orders. Dorian looked at him for a moment."I am not at home to any one, Victor," he said, with a sigh. The manbowed and retired.

  He rose from the table, lit a cigarette, and flung himself down on aluxuriously-cushioned couch that stood facing the screen. The screenwas an old one of gilt Spanish leather, stamped and wrought with arather florid Louis-Quatorze pattern. He scanned it curiously,wondering if it had ever before concealed the secret of a man's life.

  Should he move it aside, after all? Why not let it stay there? Whatwas the use of knowing? If the thing was true, it was terrible. If itwas not true, why trouble about it? But what if, by some fate ordeadlier chance, other eyes than his spied behind, and saw the horriblechange? What should he do if Basil Hallward came and asked to look athis own picture? He would be sure to do that. No; the [45] thing hadto be examined, and at once. Anything would be better than thisdreadful state of doubt.

  He got up, and locked both doors. At least he would be alone when helooked upon the mask of his shame. Then he drew the screen aside, andsaw himself face to face. It was perfectly true. The portrait hadaltered.

  As he often remembered afterwards, and always with no small wonder, hefound himself at first gazing at the portrait with a feeling of almostscientific interest. That such a change should have taken place wasincredible to him. And yet it was a fact. Was there some subtleaffinity between the chemical atoms, that shaped themselves into formand color on the canvas, and the soul that was within him? Could it bethat what that soul thought, they realized?--that what it dreamed, theymade true? Or was there some other, more terrible reason? Heshuddered, and felt afraid, and, going back to the couch, lay there,gazing at the picture in sickened horror.

  One thing, however, he felt that it had done for him. It had made himconscious how unjust, how cruel, he had been to Sibyl Vane. It was nottoo late to make reparation for that. She could still be his wife.His unreal and selfish love would yield to some higher influence, wouldbe transformed into some nobler passion, and the portrait that BasilHallward had painted of him would be a guide to him through life, wouldbe to him what holiness was to some, and conscience to others, and thefear of God to us all. There were opiates for remorse, drugs thatcould lull the moral sense to sleep. But here was a visible symbol ofthe degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin menbrought upon their souls.

  Three o'clock struck, and four, and half-past four, but he did notstir. He was trying to gather up the scarlet threads of life, and toweave them into a pattern; to find his way through the sanguinelabyrinth of passion through which he was wandering. He did not knowwhat to do, or what to think. Finally, he went over to the table andwrote a passionate letter to the girl he had loved, imploring herforgiveness, and accusing himself of madness. He covered page afterpage with wild words of sorrow, and wilder words of pain. There is aluxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no oneelse has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest,that gives us absolution. When Dorian Gray had finished the letter, hefelt that he had been forgiven.

  Suddenly there came a knock to the door, and he heard Lord Henry'svoice outside. "My dear Dorian, I must see you. Let me in at once. Ican't bear your shutting yourself up like this."

  He made no answer at first, but remained quite still. The knockingstill continued, and grew louder. Yes, it was better to let Lord Henryin, and to explain to him the new life he was going to lead, to quarrelwith him if it became necessary to quarrel, to part if parting wasinevitable. He jumped up, drew the screen hastily across the picture,and unlocked the door.

  "I am so sorry for it all, my dear boy," said Lord Henry, coming in."But you must not think about it too much."

  [46] "Do you mean about Sibyl Vane?" asked Dorian.

  "Yes, of course," answered Lord Henry, sinking into a chair, and slowlypulling his gloves off. "It is dreadful, from one point of view, butit was not your fault. Tell me, did you go behind and see her afterthe play was over?"


  "I felt sure you had. Did you make a scene with her?"

  "I was brutal, Harry,--perfectly brutal. But it is all right now. Iam not sorry for anything that has happened. It has taught me to knowmyself better."

  "Ah, Dorian, I am so glad you take it in that way! I was afraid Iwould find you plunged in remorse, and tearing your nice hair."

  "I have got through all that," said Dorian, shaking his head, andsmiling. "I am perfectly happy now. I know what conscience is, tobegin with. It is not what you told me it was. It is the divinestthing in us. Don't sneer at it, Harry, any more,--at least not beforeme. I want to be good. I can't bear the idea of my soul beinghideous."

  "A very charming artistic basis for ethics, Dorian! I congratulate youon it. But how are you going to begin?"

/>   "By marrying Sibyl Vane."

  "Marrying Sibyl Vane!" cried Lord Henry, standing up, and looking athim in perplexed amazement. "But, my dear Dorian--"

  "Yes, Harry, I know what you are going to say. Something dreadfulabout marriage. Don't say it. Don't ever say things of that kind tome again. Two days ago I asked Sibyl to marry me. I am not going tobreak my word to her. She is to be my wife."

  "Your wife! Dorian! . . . Didn't you get my letter? I wrote to youthis morning, and sent the note down, by my own man."

  "Your letter? Oh, yes, I remember. I have not read it yet, Harry. Iwas afraid there might be something in it that I wouldn't like."

  Lord Henry walked across the room, and, sitting down by Dorian Gray,took both his hands in his, and held them tightly. "Dorian," he said,"my letter--don't be frightened--was to tell you that Sibyl Vane isdead."

  A cry of pain rose from the lad's lips, and he leaped to his feet,tearing his hands away from Lord Henry's grasp. "Dead! Sibyl dead! Itis not true! It is a horrible lie!"

  "It is quite true, Dorian," said Lord Henry, gravely. "It is in allthe morning papers. I wrote down to you to ask you not to see any onetill I came. There will have to be an inquest, of course, and you mustnot be mixed up in it. Things like that make a man fashionable inParis. But in London people are so prejudiced. Here, one should nevermake one's debut with a scandal. One should reserve that to give aninterest to one's old age. I don't suppose they know your name at thetheatre. If they don't, it is all right. Did any one see you goinground to her room? That is an important point."

  Dorian did not answer for a few moments. He was dazed with horror.Finally he murmured, in a stifled voice, "Harry, did you say aninquest? What did you mean by that? Did Sibyl--? Oh, [47] Harry, Ican't bear it! But be quick. Tell me everything at once."

  "I have no doubt it was not an accident, Dorian, though it must be putin that way to the public. As she was leaving the theatre with hermother, about half-past twelve or so, she said she had forgottensomething up-stairs. They waited some time for her, but she did notcome down again. They ultimately found her lying dead on the floor ofher dressing-room. She had swallowed something by mistake, somedreadful thing they use at theatres. I don't know what it was, but ithad either prussic acid or white lead in it. I should fancy it wasprussic acid, as she seems to have died instantaneously. It is verytragic, of course, but you must not get yourself mixed up in it. I seeby the Standard that she was seventeen. I should have thought she wasalmost younger than that. She looked such a child, and seemed to knowso little about acting. Dorian, you mustn't let this thing get on yournerves. You must come and dine with me, and afterwards we will look inat the Opera. It is a Patti night, and everybody will be there. Youcan come to my sister's box. She has got some smart women with her."

  "So I have murdered Sibyl Vane," said Dorian Gray, half tohimself,--"murdered her as certainly as if I had cut her little throatwith a knife. And the roses are not less lovely for all that. Thebirds sing just as happily in my garden. And to-night I am to dinewith you, and then go on to the Opera, and sup somewhere, I suppose,afterwards. How extraordinarily dramatic life is! If I had read allthis in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it. Somehow, nowthat it has happened actually, and to me, it seems far too wonderfulfor tears. Here is the first passionate love-letter I have everwritten in my life. Strange, that my first passionate love-lettershould have been addressed to a dead girl. Can they feel, I wonder,those white silent people we call the dead? Sibyl! Can she feel, orknow, or listen? Oh, Harry, how I loved her once! It seems years agoto me now. She was everything to me. Then came that dreadfulnight--was it really only last night?--when she played so badly, and myheart almost broke. She explained it all to me. It was terriblypathetic. But I was not moved a bit. I thought her shallow. Thensomething happened that made me afraid. I can't tell you what it was,but it was awful. I said I would go back to her. I felt I had donewrong. And now she is dead. My God! my God! Harry, what shall I do?You don't know the danger I am in, and there is nothing to keep mestraight. She would have done that for me. She had no right to killherself. It was selfish of her."

  "My dear Dorian, the only way a woman can ever reform a man is byboring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life.If you had married this girl you would have been wretched. Of courseyou would have treated her kindly. One can always be kind to peopleabout whom one cares nothing. But she would have soon found out thatyou were absolutely indifferent to her. And when a woman finds thatout about her husband, she either becomes dreadfully dowdy, or wearsvery smart bonnets that some other woman's husband has to [48] pay for.I say nothing about the social mistake, but I assure you that in anycase the whole thing would have been an absolute failure."

  "I suppose it would," muttered the lad, walking up and down the room,and looking horribly pale. "But I thought it was my duty. It is notmy fault that this terrible tragedy has prevented my doing what wasright. I remember your saying once that there is a fatality about goodresolutions,--that they are always made too late. Mine certainly were."

  "Good resolutions are simply a useless attempt to interfere withscientific laws. Their origin is pure vanity. Their result isabsolutely nil. They give us, now and then, some of those luxurioussterile emotions that have a certain charm for us. That is all thatcan be said for them."

  "Harry," cried Dorian Gray, coming over and sitting down beside him,"why is it that I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to? Idon't think I am heartless. Do you?"

  "You have done too many foolish things in your life to be entitled togive yourself that name, Dorian," answered Lord Henry, with his sweet,melancholy smile.

  The lad frowned. "I don't like that explanation, Harry," he rejoined,"but I am glad you don't think I am heartless. I am nothing of thekind. I know I am not. And yet I must admit that this thing that hashappened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simplylike a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terriblebeauty of a great tragedy, a tragedy in which I took part, but by whichI have not been wounded."

  "It is an interesting question," said Lord Henry, who found anexquisite pleasure in playing on the lad's unconscious egotism,--"anextremely interesting question. I fancy that the explanation is this.It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such aninartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, theirabsolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lackof style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give usan impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that.Sometimes, however, a tragedy that has artistic elements of beautycrosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the wholething simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we findthat we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Orrather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of thespectacle enthralls us. In the present case, what is it that hasreally happened? Some one has killed herself for love of you. I wishI had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love withlove for the rest of my life. The people who have adored me--therehave not been very many, but there have been some--have always insistedon living on, long after I had ceased to care for them, or they to carefor me. They have become stout and tedious, and when I meet them theygo in at once for reminiscences. That awful memory of woman! What afearful thing it is! And what an utter intellectual stagnation itreveals! One should absorb the color of life, but one should neverremember its details. Details are always vulgar.

  [49] "Of course, now and then things linger. I once wore nothing butviolets all through one season, as mourning for a romance that wouldnot die. Ultimately, however, it did die. I forget what killed it. Ithink it was her proposing to sacrifice the whole world for me. That isalways a dreadful moment. It fills one with the terror of eternity.Well,--would you believe it?--a week ago, at Lady Hampshire's, I foundmyself seated at dinner next
the lady in question, and she insisted ongoing over the whole thing again, and digging up the past, and rakingup the future. I had buried my romance in a bed of poppies. Shedragged it out again, and assured me that I had spoiled her life. I ambound to state that she ate an enormous dinner, so I did not feel anyanxiety. But what a lack of taste she showed! The one charm of thepast is that it is the past. But women never know when the curtain hasfallen. They always want a sixth act, and as soon as the interest ofthe play is entirely over they propose to continue it. If they wereallowed to have their way, every comedy would have a tragic ending, andevery tragedy would culminate in a farce. They are charminglyartificial, but they have no sense of art. You are more fortunate thanI am. I assure you, Dorian, that not one of the women I have knownwould have done for me what Sibyl Vane did for you. Ordinary womenalways console themselves. Some of them do it by going in forsentimental colors. Never trust a woman who wears mauve, whatever herage may be, or a woman over thirty-five who is fond of pink ribbons.It always means that they have a history. Others find a greatconsolation in suddenly discovering the good qualities of theirhusbands. They flaunt their conjugal felicity in one's face, as if itwas the most fascinating of sins. Religion consoles some. Itsmysteries have all the charm of a flirtation, a woman once told me; andI can quite understand it. Besides, nothing makes one so vain as beingtold that one is a sinner. There is really no end to the consolationsthat women find in modern life. Indeed, I have not mentioned the mostimportant one of all."

  "What is that, Harry?" said Dorian Gray, listlessly.

  "Oh, the obvious one. Taking some one else's admirer when one losesone's own. In good society that always whitewashes a woman. Butreally, Dorian, how different Sibyl Vane must have been from all thewomen one meets! There is something to me quite beautiful about herdeath. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen.They make one believe in the reality of the things that shallow,fashionable people play with, such as romance, passion, and love."

  "I was terribly cruel to her. You forget that."

  "I believe that women appreciate cruelty more than anything else. Theyhave wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, butthey remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They lovebeing dominated. I am sure you were splendid. I have never seen youangry, but I can fancy how delightful you looked. And, after all, yousaid something to me the day before yesterday that seemed to me at thetime to be merely fanciful, but that I see now was absolutely true, andit explains everything."

  [50] "What was that, Harry?"

  "You said to me that Sibyl Vane represented to you all the heroines ofromance--that she was Desdemona one night, and Ophelia the other; thatif she died as Juliet, she came to life as Imogen."

  "She will never come to life again now," murmured the lad, burying hisface in his hands.

  "No, she will never come to life. She has played her last part. Butyou must think of that lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simplyas a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy, as a wonderfulscene from Webster, or Ford, or Cyril Tourneur. The girl never reallylived, and so she has never really died. To you at least she wasalways a dream, a phantom that flitted through Shakespeare's plays andleft them lovelier for its presence, a reed through which Shakespeare'smusic sounded richer and more full of joy. The moment she touchedactual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away.Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordeliawas strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter ofBrabantio died. But don't waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She wasless real than they are."

  There was a silence. The evening darkened in the room. Noiselessly,and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden. The colorsfaded wearily out of things.

  After some time Dorian Gray looked up. "You have explained me tomyself, Harry," he murmured, with something of a sigh of relief. "Ifelt all that you have said, but somehow I was afraid of it, and Icould not express it to myself. How well you know me! But we will nottalk again of what has happened. It has been a marvellous experience.That is all. I wonder if life has still in store for me anything asmarvellous."

  "Life has everything in store for you, Dorian. There is nothing thatyou, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do."

  "But suppose, Harry, I became haggard, and gray, and wrinkled? Whatthen?"

  "Ah, then," said Lord Henry, rising to go,--"then, my dear Dorian, youwould have to fight for your victories. As it is, they are brought toyou. No, you must keep your good looks. We live in an age that readstoo much to be wise, and that thinks too much to be beautiful. Wecannot spare you. And now you had better dress, and drive down to theclub. We are rather late, as it is."

  "I think I shall join you at the Opera, Harry. I feel too tired to eatanything. What is the number of your sister's box?"

  "Twenty-seven, I believe. It is on the grand tier. You will see hername on the door. But I am sorry you won't come and dine."

  "I don't feel up to it," said Dorian, wearily. "But I am awfullyobliged to you for all that you have said to me. You are certainly mybest friend. No one has ever understood me as you have."

  "We are only at the beginning of our friendship, Dorian," answered LordHenry, shaking him by the hand. "Good-by. I shall see you beforenine-thirty, I hope. Remember, Patti is singing."

  As he closed the door behind him, Dorian Gray touched the bell, [51]and in a few minutes Victor appeared with the lamps and drew the blindsdown. He waited impatiently for him to go. The man seemed to take aninterminable time about everything.

  As soon as he had left, he rushed to the screen, and drew it back. No;there was no further change in the picture. It had received the newsof Sibyl Vane's death before he had known of it himself. It wasconscious of the events of life as they occurred. The vicious crueltythat marred the fine lines of the mouth had, no doubt, appeared at thevery moment that the girl had drunk the poison, whatever it was. Orwas it indifferent to results? Did it merely take cognizance of whatpassed within the soul? he wondered, and hoped that some day he wouldsee the change taking place before his very eyes, shuddering as hehoped it.

  Poor Sibyl! what a romance it had all been! She had often mimickeddeath on the stage, and at last Death himself had touched her, andbrought her with him. How had she played that dreadful scene? Had shecursed him, as she died? No; she had died for love of him, and lovewould always be a sacrament to him now. She had atoned for everything,by the sacrifice she had made of her life. He would not think any moreof what she had made him go through, that horrible night at thetheatre. When he thought of her, it would be as a wonderful tragicfigure to show Love had been a great reality. A wonderful tragicfigure? Tears came to his eyes as he remembered her child-like lookand winsome fanciful ways and shy tremulous grace. He wiped them awayhastily, and looked again at the picture.

  He felt that the time had really come for making his choice. Or hadhis choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that forhim,--life, and his own infinite curiosity about life. Eternal youth,infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wildersins,--he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear theburden of his shame: that was all.

  A feeling of pain came over him as he thought of the desecration thatwas in store for the fair face on the canvas. Once, in boyish mockeryof Narcissus, he had kissed, or feigned to kiss, those painted lipsthat now smiled so cruelly at him. Morning after morning he had satbefore the portrait wondering at its beauty, almost enamoured of it, asit seemed to him at times. Was it to alter now with every mood towhich he yielded? Was it to become a hideous and loathsome thing, tobe hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from the sunlight thathad so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of the hair?The pity of it! the pity of it!

  For a moment he thought of praying that the horrible sympathy thatexisted between him and the picture might cease. It had changed inan
swer to a prayer; perhaps in answer to a prayer it might remainunchanged. And, yet, who, that knew anything about Life, wouldsurrender the chance of remaining always young, however fantastic thatchance might be, or with what fateful consequences it might be fraught?Besides, was it really under his control? Had it indeed been prayerthat had produced the substitution? Might there not be some curiousscientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its [52]influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise aninfluence upon dead and inorganic things? Nay, without thought orconscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate inunison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom, in secretlove or strange affinity? But the reason was of no importance. Hewould never again tempt by a prayer any terrible power. If the picturewas to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closelyinto it?

  For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able tofollow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to himthe most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body,so it would reveal to him his own soul. And when winter came upon it,he would still be standing where spring trembles on the verge ofsummer. When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallidmask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood.Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse ofhis life would ever weaken. Like the gods of the Greeks, he would bestrong, and fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to thecolored image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything.

  He drew the screen back into its former place in front of the picture,smiling as he did so, and passed into his bedroom, where his valet wasalready waiting for him. An hour later he was at the Opera, and LordHenry was leaning over his chair.