When his servant entered, he looked at him steadfastly and wondered ifhe had thought of peering behind the screen. The man was quiteimpassive and waited for his orders. Dorian lit a cigarette and walkedover to the glass and glanced into it. He could see the reflection ofVictor's face perfectly. It was like a placid mask of servility.There was nothing to be afraid of, there. Yet he thought it best to beon his guard.
Speaking very slowly, he told him to tell the house-keeper that hewanted to see her, and then to go to the frame-maker and ask him tosend two of his men round at once. It seemed to him that as the manleft the room his eyes wandered in the direction of the screen. Or wasthat merely his own fancy?
After a few moments, in her black silk dress, with old-fashioned threadmittens on her wrinkled hands, Mrs. Leaf bustled into the library. Heasked her for the key of the schoolroom.
"The old schoolroom, Mr. Dorian?" she exclaimed. "Why, it is full ofdust. I must get it arranged and put straight before you go into it.It is not fit for you to see, sir. It is not, indeed."
"I don't want it put straight, Leaf. I only want the key."
"Well, sir, you'll be covered with cobwebs if you go into it. Why, ithasn't been opened for nearly five years—not since his lordship died."
He winced at the mention of his grandfather. He had hateful memoriesof him. "That does not matter," he answered. "I simply want to seethe place—that is all. Give me the key."
"And here is the key, sir," said the old lady, going over the contentsof her bunch with tremulously uncertain hands. "Here is the key. I'llhave it off the bunch in a moment. But you don't think of living upthere, sir, and you so comfortable here?"
"No, no," he cried petulantly. "Thank you, Leaf. That will do."
She lingered for a few moments, and was garrulous over some detail ofthe household. He sighed and told her to manage things as she thoughtbest. She left the room, wreathed in smiles.
As the door closed, Dorian put the key in his pocket and looked roundthe room. His eye fell on a large, purple satin coverlet heavilyembroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth-centuryVenetian work that his grandfather had found in a convent near Bologna.Yes, that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing in. It had perhapsserved often as a pall for the dead. Now it was to hide something thathad a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of deathitself—something that would breed horrors and yet would never die.What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted imageon the canvas. They would mar its beauty and eat away its grace. Theywould defile it and make it shameful. And yet the thing would stilllive on. It would be always alive.
He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told Basilthe true reason why he had wished to hide the picture away. Basilwould have helped him to resist Lord Henry's influence, and the stillmore poisonous influences that came from his own temperament. The lovethat he bore him—for it was really love—had nothing in it that wasnot noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admirationof beauty that is born of the senses and that dies when the sensestire. It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, andWinckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him.But it was too late now. The past could always be annihilated.Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future wasinevitable. There were passions in him that would find their terribleoutlet, dreams that would make the shadow of their evil real.
He took up from the couch the great purple-and-gold texture thatcovered it, and, holding it in his hands, passed behind the screen.Was the face on the canvas viler than before? It seemed to him that itwas unchanged, and yet his loathing of it was intensified. Gold hair,blue eyes, and rose-red lips—they all were there. It was simply theexpression that had altered. That was horrible in its cruelty.Compared to what he saw in it of censure or rebuke, how shallow Basil'sreproaches about Sibyl Vane had been!—how shallow, and of what littleaccount! His own soul was looking out at him from the canvas andcalling him to judgement. A look of pain came across him, and he flungthe rich pall over the picture. As he did so, a knock came to thedoor. He passed out as his servant entered.
"The persons are here, Monsieur."
He felt that the man must be got rid of at once. He must not beallowed to know where the picture was being taken to. There wassomething sly about him, and he had thoughtful, treacherous eyes.Sitting down at the writing-table he scribbled a note to Lord Henry,asking him to send him round something to read and reminding him thatthey were to meet at eight-fifteen that evening.
"Wait for an answer," he said, handing it to him, "and show the men inhere."
In two or three minutes there was another knock, and Mr. Hubbardhimself, the celebrated frame-maker of South Audley Street, came inwith a somewhat rough-looking young assistant. Mr. Hubbard was aflorid, red-whiskered little man, whose admiration for art wasconsiderably tempered by the inveterate impecuniosity of most of theartists who dealt with him. As a rule, he never left his shop. Hewaited for people to come to him. But he always made an exception infavour of Dorian Gray. There was something about Dorian that charmedeverybody. It was a pleasure even to see him.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Gray?" he said, rubbing his fat freckledhands. "I thought I would do myself the honour of coming round inperson. I have just got a beauty of a frame, sir. Picked it up at asale. Old Florentine. Came from Fonthill, I believe. Admirablysuited for a religious subject, Mr. Gray."
"I am so sorry you have given yourself the trouble of coming round, Mr.Hubbard. I shall certainly drop in and look at the frame—though Idon't go in much at present for religious art—but to-day I only want apicture carried to the top of the house for me. It is rather heavy, soI thought I would ask you to lend me a couple of your men."
"No trouble at all, Mr. Gray. I am delighted to be of any service toyou. Which is the work of art, sir?"
"This," replied Dorian, moving the screen back. "Can you move it,covering and all, just as it is? I don't want it to get scratchedgoing upstairs."
"There will be no difficulty, sir," said the genial frame-maker,beginning, with the aid of his assistant, to unhook the picture fromthe long brass chains by which it was suspended. "And, now, whereshall we carry it to, Mr. Gray?"
"I will show you the way, Mr. Hubbard, if you will kindly follow me.Or perhaps you had better go in front. I am afraid it is right at thetop of the house. We will go up by the front staircase, as it iswider."
He held the door open for them, and they passed out into the hall andbegan the ascent. The elaborate character of the frame had made thepicture extremely bulky, and now and then, in spite of the obsequiousprotests of Mr. Hubbard, who had the true tradesman's spirited dislikeof seeing a gentleman doing anything useful, Dorian put his hand to itso as to help them.
"Something of a load to carry, sir," gasped the little man when theyreached the top landing. And he wiped his shiny forehead.
"I am afraid it is rather heavy," murmured Dorian as he unlocked thedoor that opened into the room that was to keep for him the curioussecret of his life and hide his soul from the eyes of men.
He had not entered the place for more than four years—not, indeed,since he had used it first as a play-room when he was a child, and thenas a study when he grew somewhat older. It was a large,well-proportioned room, which had been specially built by the last LordKelso for the use of the little grandson whom, for his strange likenessto his mother, and also for other reasons, he had always hated anddesired to keep at a distance. It appeared to Dorian to have butlittle changed. There was the huge Italian cassone, with itsfantastically painted panels and its tarnished gilt mouldings, in whichhe had so often hidden himself as a boy. There the satinwood book-casefilled with his dog-eared schoolbooks. On the wall behind it washanging the same ragged Flemish tapestry where a faded king and queenwere playing chess in a garden, while a company of hawkers rode by,carrying hooded birds on their gauntleted wrists. How well heremembered it all! Every moment of his lonely childhood came back tohim as he looked round. He recalled the stainless purity of his boyishlife, and it seemed horrible to him that it was here the fatal portraitwas to be hidden away. How little he had thought, in those dead days,of all that was in store for him!
But there was no other place in the house so secure from prying eyes asthis. He had the key, and no one else could enter it. Beneath itspurple pall, the face painted on the canvas could grow bestial, sodden,and unclean. What did it matter? No one could see it. He himselfwould not see it. Why should he watch the hideous corruption of hissoul? He kept his youth—that was enough. And, besides, might nothis nature grow finer, after all? There was no reason that the futureshould be so full of shame. Some love might come across his life, andpurify him, and shield him from those sins that seemed to be alreadystirring in spirit and in flesh—those curious unpictured sins whosevery mystery lent them their subtlety and their charm. Perhaps, someday, the cruel look would have passed away from the scarlet sensitivemouth, and he might show to the world Basil Hallward's masterpiece.
No; that was impossible. Hour by hour, and week by week, the thingupon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness ofsin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks wouldbecome hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow's feet would creep round thefading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose itsbrightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross,as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, thecold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in thegrandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picturehad to be concealed. There was no help for it.
"Bring it in, Mr. Hubbard, please," he said, wearily, turning round."I am sorry I kept you so long. I was thinking of something else."
"Always glad to have a rest, Mr. Gray," answered the frame-maker, whowas still gasping for breath. "Where shall we put it, sir?"
"Oh, anywhere. Here: this will do. I don't want to have it hung up.Just lean it against the wall. Thanks."
"Might one look at the work of art, sir?"
Dorian started. "It would not interest you, Mr. Hubbard," he said,keeping his eye on the man. He felt ready to leap upon him and flinghim to the ground if he dared to lift the gorgeous hanging thatconcealed the secret of his life. "I shan't trouble you any more now.I am much obliged for your kindness in coming round."
"Not at all, not at all, Mr. Gray. Ever ready to do anything for you,sir." And Mr. Hubbard tramped downstairs, followed by the assistant,who glanced back at Dorian with a look of shy wonder in his roughuncomely face. He had never seen any one so marvellous.
When the sound of their footsteps had died away, Dorian locked the doorand put the key in his pocket. He felt safe now. No one would everlook upon the horrible thing. No eye but his would ever see his shame.
On reaching the library, he found that it was just after five o'clockand that the tea had been already brought up. On a little table ofdark perfumed wood thickly incrusted with nacre, a present from LadyRadley, his guardian's wife, a pretty professional invalid who hadspent the preceding winter in Cairo, was lying a note from Lord Henry,and beside it was a book bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly tornand the edges soiled. A copy of the third edition of The St. James'sGazette had been placed on the tea-tray. It was evident that Victor hadreturned. He wondered if he had met the men in the hall as they wereleaving the house and had wormed out of them what they had been doing.He would be sure to miss the picture—had no doubt missed it already,while he had been laying the tea-things. The screen had not been setback, and a blank space was visible on the wall. Perhaps some night hemight find him creeping upstairs and trying to force the door of theroom. It was a horrible thing to have a spy in one's house. He hadheard of rich men who had been blackmailed all their lives by someservant who had read a letter, or overheard a conversation, or pickedup a card with an address, or found beneath a pillow a withered floweror a shred of crumpled lace.
He sighed, and having poured himself out some tea, opened Lord Henry'snote. It was simply to say that he sent him round the evening paper,and a book that might interest him, and that he would be at the club ateight-fifteen. He opened The St. James's languidly, and looked throughit. A red pencil-mark on the fifth page caught his eye. It drewattention to the following paragraph:
INQUEST ON AN ACTRESS.—An inquest was held this morning at the BellTavern, Hoxton Road, by Mr. Danby, the District Coroner, on the body ofSibyl Vane, a young actress recently engaged at the Royal Theatre,Holborn. A verdict of death by misadventure was returned.Considerable sympathy was expressed for the mother of the deceased, whowas greatly affected during the giving of her own evidence, and that ofDr. Birrell, who had made the post-mortem examination of the deceased.
He frowned, and tearing the paper in two, went across the room andflung the pieces away. How ugly it all was! And how horribly realugliness made things! He felt a little annoyed with Lord Henry forhaving sent him the report. And it was certainly stupid of him to havemarked it with red pencil. Victor might have read it. The man knewmore than enough English for that.
Perhaps he had read it and had begun to suspect something. And, yet,what did it matter? What had Dorian Gray to do with Sibyl Vane'sdeath? There was nothing to fear. Dorian Gray had not killed her.
His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What wasit, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonalstand that had always looked to him like the work of some strangeEgyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flunghimself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After afew minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he hadever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to thedelicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumbshow before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenlymade real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were graduallyrevealed.
It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being,indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian whospent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all thepassions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except hisown, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods throughwhich the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mereartificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue,as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. Thestyle in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vividand obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technicalexpressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the workof some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes.There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle incolour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mysticalphilosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading thespiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessionsof a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour ofincense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. Themere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, sofull as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated,produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter,a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious ofthe falling day and creeping shadows.
Cloudless, and pierced by one solitary star, a copper-green sky gleamedthrough the windows. He read on by its wan light till he could read nomore. Then, after his valet had reminded him several times of thelateness of the hour, he got up, and going into the next room, placedthe book on the little Florentine table that always stood at hisbedside and began to dress for dinner.
It was almost nine o'clock before he reached the club, where he foundLord Henry sitting alone, in the morning-room, looking very much bored.
"I am so sorry, Harry," he cried, "but really it is entirely yourfault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how thetime was going."
"Yes, I thought you would like it," replied his host, rising from hischair.
"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is agreat difference."
"Ah, you have discovered that?" murmured Lord Henry. And they passedinto the dining-room.