The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Chapter 19

“There is no use your telling me that you are going to be good,” cried Lord Henry, dipping his white fingers into a red copper bowl filled with rose-water. “You’re quite perfect. Pray, don’t change.”

Dorian Gray shook his head. “No, Harry, I have done too many dreadful things in my life. I am not going to do any more. I began my good actions yesterday.”

“Where were you yesterday?”

“In the country, Harry. I was staying at a little inn by myself.”

“My dear boy,” said Lord Henry, smiling, “anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilised. Civilisation is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate.”

“Culture and corruption,” echoed Dorian. “I have known something of both. It seems terrible to me now that they should ever be found together. For I have a new ideal, Harry. I am going to alter. I think I have altered.”

“You have not yet told me what your good action was. Or did you say you had done more than one?” asked his companion, as he spilt into his plate a little crimson pyramid of seeded strawberries, and through a perforated shell-shaped spoon snowed white sugar upon them.

“I can tell you, Harry. It is not a story I could tell to anyone else. I spared somebody. It sounds vain, but you understand what I mean. She was quite beautiful, and wonderfully like Sibyl Vane. I think it was that which first attracted me to her. You remember Sibyl, don’t you? How long ago that seems! Well, Hetty was not one of our own class, of course. She was simply a girl in a village. But I really loved her. I am quite sure that I loved her. All during this wonderful May that we have been having, I used to run down and see her two or three times a week. Yesterday she met me in a little orchard. The apple-blossoms kept tumbling down on her hair, and she was laughing. We were to have gone away together this morning at dawn. Suddenly I determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her.”

“I should think the novelty of the emotion must have given you a thrill of real pleasure, Dorian,” interrupted Lord Henry. “But I can finish your idyll for you. You gave her good advice, and broke her heart. That was the beginning of your reformation.”

“Harry, you are horrible! You mustn’t say these dreadful things. Hetty’s heart is not broken. Of course she cried, and all that. But there is no disgrace upon her. She can live, like Perdita, in her garden of mint and marigold.”

“And weep over a faithless Florizel,” said Lord Henry, laughing, as he leant back in his chair. “My dear Dorian, you have the most curiously boyish moods. Do you think this girl will ever be really contented now with anyone of her own rank? I suppose she will be married some day to a rough carter or a grinning ploughman. Well, the fact of having met you, and loved you, will teach her to despise her husband, and she will be wretched. From a moral point of view, I cannot say that I think much of your great renunciation. Even as a beginning, it is poor. Besides, how do you know that Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some star-lit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies round her, like Ophelia?”

“I can’t bear this, Harry! You mock at everything, and then suggest the most serious tragedies. I am sorry I told you now. I don’t care what you say to me. I know I was right in acting as I did. Poor Hetty! As I rode past the farm this morning, I saw her white face at the window, like a spray of jasmine. Don’t let us talk about it any more, and don’t try to persuade me that the first good action I have done for years, the first little bit of self-sacrifice I have ever known, is really a sort of sin. I want to be better. I am going to be better. Tell me something about yourself. What is going on in town? I have not been to the club for days.”

“The people are still discussing poor Basil’s disappearance.”

“I should have thought they had got tired of that by this time,” said Dorian, pouring himself out some wine, and frowning slightly.

“My dear boy, they have only been talking about it for six weeks, and the British public are really not equal to the mental strain of having more than one topic every three months. They have been very fortunate lately, however. They have had my own divorce-case, and Alan Campbell’s suicide. Now they have got the mysterious disappearance of an artist. Scotland Yard still insists that the man in the grey ulster who left for Paris by the midnight train on the ninth of November was poor Basil, and the French police declare that Basil never arrived in Paris at all. I suppose in about a fortnight we shall be told that he has been seen in San Francisco. It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world.”

“What do you think has happened to Basil?” asked Dorian, holding up his Burgundy against the light, and wondering how it was that he could discuss the matter so calmly.

“I have not the slightest idea. If Basil chooses to hide himself, it is no business of mine. If he is dead, I don’t want to think about him. Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.”

“Why?” said the younger man, wearily.

“Because,” said Lord Henry, passing beneath his nostrils the gilt trellis of an open vinaigrette box, “one can survive everything nowadays except that. Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away. Let us have our coffee in the music-room, Dorian. You must play Chopin to me. The man with whom my wife ran away played Chopin exquisitely. Poor Victoria! I was very fond of her. The house is rather lonely without her. Of course married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. But then one regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”

Dorian said nothing, but rose from the table and, passing into the next room, sat down to the piano and let his fingers stray across the white and black ivory of the keys. After the coffee had been brought in, he stopped, and, looking over at Lord Henry, said, “Harry, did it ever occur to you that Basil was murdered?”

Lord Henry yawned. “Basil was very popular, and always wore a Waterbury watch. Why should he have been murdered? He was not clever enough to have enemies. Of course he had a wonderful genius for painting. But a man can paint like Velasquez and yet be as dull as possible. Basil was really rather dull. He only interested me once, and that was when he told me, years ago, that he had a wild adoration for you, and that you were the dominant motive of his art.”

“I was very fond of Basil,” said Dorian, with a note of sadness in his voice. “But don’t people say that he was murdered?”

“Oh, some of the papers do. It does not seem to me to be at all probable. I know there are dreadful places in Paris, but Basil was not the sort of man to have gone to them. He had no curiosity. It was his chief defect.”

“What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” said the younger man. He watched him intently after he had spoken.

“I would say, my dear fellow, that you were posing for a character that doesn’t suit you. All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you, Dorian, to commit a murder. I am sorry if I hurt your vanity by saying so, but I assure you it is true. Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I don’t blame them in the smallest degree. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”

“A method of procuring sensations? Do you think, then, that a man who has once committed a murder could possibly do the same crime again? Don’t tell me that.”

“Oh! anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often,” cried Lord Henry, laughing. “That is one of the most important secrets of life. I should fancy, however, that murder is always a mistake. One should never do any thing that one cannot talk about after dinner. But let us pass from poor Basil. I wish I could believe that he had come to such a really romantic end as you suggest; but I can’t. I dare say he fell into the Seine off an omnibus, and that the conductor hushed up the scandal. Yes: I should fancy that was his end. I see him lying now on his back under those dull-green waters with the heavy barges floating over him, and long weeds catching in his hair. Do you know, I don’t think he would have done much more good work. During the last ten years his painting had gone off very much.”

Dorian heaved a sigh, and Lord Henry strolled across the room and began to stroke the head of a curious Java parrot, a large grey-plumaged bird, with pink crest and tail, that was balancing itself upon a bamboo perch. As his pointed fingers touched it, it dropped the white scurf of crinkled lids over black glass-like eyes, and began to sway backwards and forwards.

“Yes,” he continued, turning round, and taking his handkerchief out of his pocket; “his painting had quite gone off. It seemed to me to have lost something. It had lost an ideal. When you and he ceased to be great friends, he ceased to be a great artist. What was it separated you? I suppose he bored you. If so, he never forgave you. It’s a habit bores have. By the way, what has become of that wonderful portrait he did of you? I don’t think I have ever seen it since he finished it. Oh! I remember your telling me years ago that you had sent it down to Selby, and that it had got mislaid or stolen on the way. You never got it back? What a pity! It was really a masterpiece. I remember I wanted to buy it. I wish I had now. It belonged to Basil’s best period. Since then, his work was that curious mixture of bad painting and good intentions that always entitles a man to be called a representative British artist. Did you advertise for it? You should.”

“I forget,” said Dorian. “I suppose I did. But I never really liked it. I am sorry I sat for it. The memory of the thing is hateful to me. Why do you talk of it? It used to remind me of those curious lines in some play —‘Hamlet,’ I think — how do they run? —

   "‘Like the painting of a sorrow,

A face without a heart.’

Yes: that is what it was like.”

Lord Henry laughed. “If a man treats life artistically, his brain is his heart,” he answered, sinking into an arm-chair.

Dorian Gray shook his head, and struck some soft chords on the piano. “‘Like the painting of a sorrow,’” he repeated, “‘a face without a heart.’”

The elder man lay back and looked at him with half-closed eyes. “By the way, Dorian,” he said, after a pause, “‘what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose’— how does the quotation run? —‘his own soul’?”

The music jarred and Dorian Gray started, and stared at his friend. “Why do you ask me that, Harry?”

“My dear fellow,” said Lord Henry, elevating his eyebrows in surprise, “I asked you because I thought you might be able to give me an answer. That is all. I was going through the Park last Sunday, and close by the Marble Arch there stood a little crowd of shabby-looking people listening to some vulgar street-preacher. As I passed by, I heard the man yelling out that question to his audience. It struck me as being rather dramatic. London is very rich in curious effects of that kind. A wet Sunday, an uncouth Christian in a mackintosh, a ring of sickly white faces under a broken roof of dripping umbrellas, and a wonderful phrase flung into the air by shrill, hysterical lips — it was really very good in its way, quite a suggestion. I thought of telling the prophet that Art had a soul, but that man had not. I am afraid, however, he would not have understood me.”

“Don’t, Harry. The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned, or made perfect. There is a soul in each one of us. I know it.”

“Do you feel quite sure of that, Dorian?”

“Quite sure.”

“Ah! then it must be an illusion. The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true. That is the fatality of Faith, and the lesson of Romance. How grave you are! Don’t be so serious. What have you or I to do with the superstitions of our age? No: we have given up our belief in the soul. Play me something. Play me a nocturne, Dorian, and, as you play, tell me, in a low voice, how you have kept your youth. You must have some secret. I am only ten years older than you are, and I am wrinkled, and worn, and yellow. You are really wonderful, Dorian. You have never looked more charming than you do to-night. You remind me of the day I saw you first. You were rather cheeky, very shy, and absolutely extraordinary. You have changed, of course, but not in appearance. I wish you would tell me your secret. To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable. Youth! There is nothing like it. It’s absurd to talk of the ignorance of youth. The only people to whose opinions I listen now with any respect are people much younger than myself. They seem in front of me. Life has revealed to them her latest wonder. As for the aged, I always contradict the aged. I do it on principle. If you ask them their opinion on something that happened yesterday, they solemnly give you the opinions current in 1820, when people wore high stocks, believed in everything, and knew absolutely nothing. How lovely that thing you are playing is! I wonder did Chopin write it at Majorca, with the sea weeping round the villa, and the salt spray dashing against the panes? It is marvellously romantic. What a blessing it is that there is one art left to us that is not imitative! Don’t stop. I want music to-night. It seems to me that you are the young Apollo, and that I am Marsyas listening to you. I have sorrows, Dorian, of my own, that even you know nothing of. The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young. I am amazed sometimes at my own sincerity. Ah, Dorian, how happy you are! What an exquisite life you have had! You have drunk deeply of everything. You have crushed the grapes against your palate. Nothing has been hidden from you. And it has all been to you no more than the sound of music. It has not marred you. You are still the same.”

“I am not the same, Harry.”

“Yes: you are the same. I wonder what the rest of your life will be. Don’t spoil it by renunciations. At present you are a perfect type. Don’t make yourself incomplete. You are quite flawless now. You need not shake your head: you know you are. Besides, Dorian, don’t deceive yourself. Life is not governed by will or intention. Life is a question of nerves, and fibres, and slowly built-up cells in which thought hides itself and passion has its dreams. You may fancy yourself safe, and think yourself strong. But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a forgotten poem that you had come across again, a cadence from a piece of music that you had ceased to play — I tell you, Dorian, that it is on things like these that our lives depend. Browning writes about that somewhere; but our own senses will imagine them for us. There are moments when the odour of lilas blanc passes suddenly across me, and I have to live the strangest month of my life over again. I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshipped you. It always will worship you. You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”

Dorian rose up from the piano, and passed his hand through his hair. “Yes, life has been exquisite,” he murmured, “but I am not going to have the same life, Harry. And you must not say these extravagant things to me. You don’t know everything about me. I think that if you did, even you would turn from me. You laugh. Don’t laugh.”

“Why have you stopped playing, Dorian? Go back and give me the nocturne over again. Look at that great honey-coloured moon that hangs in the dusky air. She is waiting for you to charm her, and if you play she will come closer to the earth. You won’t? Let us go to the club, then. It has been a charming evening, and we must end it charmingly. There is some one at White’s who wants immensely to know you — young Lord Poole, Bournemouth’s eldest son. He has already copied your neckties, and has begged me to introduce him to you. He is quite delightful, and rather reminds me of you.”

“I hope not,” said Dorian, with a sad look in his eyes. “But I am tired to-night, Harry. I shan’t go to the club. It is nearly eleven, and I want to go to bed early.”

“Do stay. You have never played so well as to-night. There was something in your touch that was wonderful. It had more expression than I had ever heard from it before.”

“It is because I am going to be good,” he answered, smiling, “I am a little changed already.”

“You cannot change to me, Dorian,” said Lord Henry. “You and I will always be friends.”

“Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to any one. It does harm.”

“My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralise. You will soon be going about like the converted, and the revivalist, warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired. You are much too delightful to do that. Besides, it is no use. You and I are what we are, and will be what we will be. As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all. But we won’t discuss literature. Come round to-morrow. I am going to ride at eleven. We might go together, and I will take you to lunch afterwards with Lady Branksome. She is a charming woman, and wants to consult you about some tapestries she is thinking of buying. Mind you come. Or shall we lunch with our little Duchess? She says she never sees you now. Perhaps you are tired of Gladys? I thought you would be. Her clever tongue gets on one’s nerves. Well, in any case, be here at eleven.”

“Must I really come, Harry?”

“Certainly. The Park is quite lovely now. I don’t think there have been such lilacs since the year I met you.”

“Very well. I shall be here at eleven,” said Dorian. “Good-night, Harry.” As he reached the door he hesitated for a moment, as if he had something more to say. Then he sighed and went out.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30