That evening, at eight-thirty, exquisitely dressed and wearing a largebutton-hole of Parma violets, Dorian Gray was ushered into LadyNarborough's drawing-room by bowing servants. His forehead wasthrobbing with maddened nerves, and he felt wildly excited, but hismanner as he bent over his hostess's hand was as easy and graceful asever. Perhaps one never seems so much at one's ease as when one has toplay a part. Certainly no one looking at Dorian Gray that night couldhave believed that he had passed through a tragedy as horrible as anytragedy of our age. Those finely shaped fingers could never haveclutched a knife for sin, nor those smiling lips have cried out on Godand goodness. He himself could not help wondering at the calm of hisdemeanour, and for a moment felt keenly the terrible pleasure of adouble life.
It was a small party, got up rather in a hurry by Lady Narborough, whowas a very clever woman with what Lord Henry used to describe as theremains of really remarkable ugliness. She had proved an excellentwife to one of our most tedious ambassadors, and having buried herhusband properly in a marble mausoleum, which she had herself designed,and married off her daughters to some rich, rather elderly men, shedevoted herself now to the pleasures of French fiction, French cookery,and French esprit when she could get it.
Dorian was one of her especial favourites, and she always told him thatshe was extremely glad she had not met him in early life. "I know, mydear, I should have fallen madly in love with you," she used to say,"and thrown my bonnet right over the mills for your sake. It is mostfortunate that you were not thought of at the time. As it was, ourbonnets were so unbecoming, and the mills were so occupied in trying toraise the wind, that I never had even a flirtation with anybody.However, that was all Narborough's fault. He was dreadfullyshort-sighted, and there is no pleasure in taking in a husband whonever sees anything."
Her guests this evening were rather tedious. The fact was, as sheexplained to Dorian, behind a very shabby fan, one of her marrieddaughters had come up quite suddenly to stay with her, and, to makematters worse, had actually brought her husband with her. "I think itis most unkind of her, my dear," she whispered. "Of course I go andstay with them every summer after I come from Homburg, but then an oldwoman like me must have fresh air sometimes, and besides, I really wakethem up. You don't know what an existence they lead down there. It ispure unadulterated country life. They get up early, because they haveso much to do, and go to bed early, because they have so little tothink about. There has not been a scandal in the neighbourhood sincethe time of Queen Elizabeth, and consequently they all fall asleepafter dinner. You shan't sit next either of them. You shall sit by meand amuse me."
Dorian murmured a graceful compliment and looked round the room. Yes:it was certainly a tedious party. Two of the people he had never seenbefore, and the others consisted of Ernest Harrowden, one of thosemiddle-aged mediocrities so common in London clubs who have no enemies,but are thoroughly disliked by their friends; Lady Ruxton, anoverdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose, who was alwaystrying to get herself compromised, but was so peculiarly plain that toher great disappointment no one would ever believe anything againsther; Mrs. Erlynne, a pushing nobody, with a delightful lisp andVenetian-red hair; Lady Alice Chapman, his hostess's daughter, a dowdydull girl, with one of those characteristic British faces that, onceseen, are never remembered; and her husband, a red-cheeked,white-whiskered creature who, like so many of his class, was under theimpression that inordinate joviality can atone for an entire lack ofideas.
He was rather sorry he had come, till Lady Narborough, looking at thegreat ormolu gilt clock that sprawled in gaudy curves on themauve-draped mantelshelf, exclaimed: "How horrid of Henry Wotton to beso late! I sent round to him this morning on chance and he promisedfaithfully not to disappoint me."
It was some consolation that Harry was to be there, and when the dooropened and he heard his slow musical voice lending charm to someinsincere apology, he ceased to feel bored.
But at dinner he could not eat anything. Plate after plate went awayuntasted. Lady Narborough kept scolding him for what she called "aninsult to poor Adolphe, who invented the menu specially for you," andnow and then Lord Henry looked across at him, wondering at his silenceand abstracted manner. From time to time the butler filled his glasswith champagne. He drank eagerly, and his thirst seemed to increase.
"Dorian," said Lord Henry at last, as the chaud-froid was being handedround, "what is the matter with you to-night? You are quite out ofsorts."
"I believe he is in love," cried Lady Narborough, "and that he isafraid to tell me for fear I should be jealous. He is quite right. Icertainly should."
"Dear Lady Narborough," murmured Dorian, smiling, "I have not been inlove for a whole week—not, in fact, since Madame de Ferrol left town."
"How you men can fall in love with that woman!" exclaimed the old lady."I really cannot understand it."
"It is simply because she remembers you when you were a little girl,Lady Narborough," said Lord Henry. "She is the one link between us andyour short frocks."
"She does not remember my short frocks at all, Lord Henry. But Iremember her very well at Vienna thirty years ago, and how decolleteeshe was then."
"She is still decolletee," he answered, taking an olive in his longfingers; "and when she is in a very smart gown she looks like anedition de luxe of a bad French novel. She is really wonderful, andfull of surprises. Her capacity for family affection is extraordinary.When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief."
"How can you, Harry!" cried Dorian.
"It is a most romantic explanation," laughed the hostess. "But herthird husband, Lord Henry! You don't mean to say Ferrol is the fourth?"
"Certainly, Lady Narborough."
"I don't believe a word of it."
"Well, ask Mr. Gray. He is one of her most intimate friends."
"Is it true, Mr. Gray?"
"She assures me so, Lady Narborough," said Dorian. "I asked herwhether, like Marguerite de Navarre, she had their hearts embalmed andhung at her girdle. She told me she didn't, because none of them hadhad any hearts at all."
"Four husbands! Upon my word that is trop de zele."
"Trop d'audace, I tell her," said Dorian.
"Oh! she is audacious enough for anything, my dear. And what is Ferrollike? I don't know him."
"The husbands of very beautiful women belong to the criminal classes,"said Lord Henry, sipping his wine.
Lady Narborough hit him with her fan. "Lord Henry, I am not at allsurprised that the world says that you are extremely wicked."
"But what world says that?" asked Lord Henry, elevating his eyebrows."It can only be the next world. This world and I are on excellentterms."
"Everybody I know says you are very wicked," cried the old lady,shaking her head.
Lord Henry looked serious for some moments. "It is perfectlymonstrous," he said, at last, "the way people go about nowadays sayingthings against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirelytrue."
"Isn't he incorrigible?" cried Dorian, leaning forward in his chair.
"I hope so," said his hostess, laughing. "But really, if you allworship Madame de Ferrol in this ridiculous way, I shall have to marryagain so as to be in the fashion."
"You will never marry again, Lady Narborough," broke in Lord Henry."You were far too happy. When a woman marries again, it is because shedetested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because headored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs."
"Narborough wasn't perfect," cried the old lady.
"If he had been, you would not have loved him, my dear lady," was therejoinder. "Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them,they will forgive us everything, even our intellects. You will neverask me to dinner again after saying this, I am afraid, Lady Narborough,but it is quite true."
"Of course it is true, Lord Henry. If we women did not love you foryour defects, where would you all be? Not one of you would ever bemarried. You would be a set of unfortunate bachelors. Not, however,that that would alter you much. Nowadays all the married men live likebachelors, and all the bachelors like married men."
"Fin de siecle," murmured Lord Henry.
"Fin du globe," answered his hostess.
"I wish it were fin du globe," said Dorian with a sigh. "Life is agreat disappointment."
"Ah, my dear," cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, "don'ttell me that you have exhausted life. When a man says that one knowsthat life has exhausted him. Lord Henry is very wicked, and Isometimes wish that I had been; but you are made to be good—you lookso good. I must find you a nice wife. Lord Henry, don't you thinkthat Mr. Gray should get married?"
"I am always telling him so, Lady Narborough," said Lord Henry with abow.
"Well, we must look out for a suitable match for him. I shall gothrough Debrett carefully to-night and draw out a list of all theeligible young ladies."
"With their ages, Lady Narborough?" asked Dorian.
"Of course, with their ages, slightly edited. But nothing must be donein a hurry. I want it to be what The Morning Post calls a suitablealliance, and I want you both to be happy."
"What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!" exclaimed LordHenry. "A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not loveher."
"Ah! what a cynic you are!" cried the old lady, pushing back her chairand nodding to Lady Ruxton. "You must come and dine with me soonagain. You are really an admirable tonic, much better than what SirAndrew prescribes for me. You must tell me what people you would liketo meet, though. I want it to be a delightful gathering."
"I like men who have a future and women who have a past," he answered."Or do you think that would make it a petticoat party?"
"I fear so," she said, laughing, as she stood up. "A thousand pardons,my dear Lady Ruxton," she added, "I didn't see you hadn't finished yourcigarette."
"Never mind, Lady Narborough. I smoke a great deal too much. I amgoing to limit myself, for the future."
"Pray don't, Lady Ruxton," said Lord Henry. "Moderation is a fatalthing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as afeast."
Lady Ruxton glanced at him curiously. "You must come and explain thatto me some afternoon, Lord Henry. It sounds a fascinating theory," shemurmured, as she swept out of the room.
"Now, mind you don't stay too long over your politics and scandal,"cried Lady Narborough from the door. "If you do, we are sure tosquabble upstairs."
The men laughed, and Mr. Chapman got up solemnly from the foot of thetable and came up to the top. Dorian Gray changed his seat and wentand sat by Lord Henry. Mr. Chapman began to talk in a loud voice aboutthe situation in the House of Commons. He guffawed at his adversaries.The word doctrinaire—word full of terror to the Britishmind—reappeared from time to time between his explosions. Analliterative prefix served as an ornament of oratory. He hoisted theUnion Jack on the pinnacles of thought. The inherited stupidity of therace—sound English common sense he jovially termed it—was shown to bethe proper bulwark for society.
A smile curved Lord Henry's lips, and he turned round and looked atDorian.
"Are you better, my dear fellow?" he asked. "You seemed rather out ofsorts at dinner."
"I am quite well, Harry. I am tired. That is all."
"You were charming last night. The little duchess is quite devoted toyou. She tells me she is going down to Selby."
"She has promised to come on the twentieth."
"Is Monmouth to be there, too?"
"Oh, yes, Harry."
"He bores me dreadfully, almost as much as he bores her. She is veryclever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm ofweakness. It is the feet of clay that make the gold of the imageprecious. Her feet are very pretty, but they are not feet of clay.White porcelain feet, if you like. They have been through the fire,and what fire does not destroy, it hardens. She has had experiences."
"How long has she been married?" asked Dorian.
"An eternity, she tells me. I believe, according to the peerage, it isten years, but ten years with Monmouth must have been like eternity,with time thrown in. Who else is coming?"
"Oh, the Willoughbys, Lord Rugby and his wife, our hostess, GeoffreyClouston, the usual set. I have asked Lord Grotrian."
"I like him," said Lord Henry. "A great many people don't, but I findhim charming. He atones for being occasionally somewhat overdressed bybeing always absolutely over-educated. He is a very modern type."
"I don't know if he will be able to come, Harry. He may have to go toMonte Carlo with his father."
"Ah! what a nuisance people's people are! Try and make him come. Bythe way, Dorian, you ran off very early last night. You left beforeeleven. What did you do afterwards? Did you go straight home?"
Dorian glanced at him hurriedly and frowned.
"No, Harry," he said at last, "I did not get home till nearly three."
"Did you go to the club?"
"Yes," he answered. Then he bit his lip. "No, I don't mean that. Ididn't go to the club. I walked about. I forget what I did.... Howinquisitive you are, Harry! You always want to know what one has beendoing. I always want to forget what I have been doing. I came in athalf-past two, if you wish to know the exact time. I had left mylatch-key at home, and my servant had to let me in. If you want anycorroborative evidence on the subject, you can ask him."
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. "My dear fellow, as if I cared!Let us go up to the drawing-room. No sherry, thank you, Mr. Chapman.Something has happened to you, Dorian. Tell me what it is. You arenot yourself to-night."
"Don't mind me, Harry. I am irritable, and out of temper. I shallcome round and see you to-morrow, or next day. Make my excuses to LadyNarborough. I shan't go upstairs. I shall go home. I must go home."
"All right, Dorian. I dare say I shall see you to-morrow at tea-time.The duchess is coming."
"I will try to be there, Harry," he said, leaving the room. As hedrove back to his own house, he was conscious that the sense of terrorhe thought he had strangled had come back to him. Lord Henry's casualquestioning had made him lose his nerve for the moment, and he wantedhis nerve still. Things that were dangerous had to be destroyed. Hewinced. He hated the idea of even touching them.
Yet it had to be done. He realized that, and when he had locked thedoor of his library, he opened the secret press into which he hadthrust Basil Hallward's coat and bag. A huge fire was blazing. Hepiled another log on it. The smell of the singeing clothes and burningleather was horrible. It took him three-quarters of an hour to consumeeverything. At the end he felt faint and sick, and having lit someAlgerian pastilles in a pierced copper brazier, he bathed his hands andforehead with a cool musk-scented vinegar.
Suddenly he started. His eyes grew strangely bright, and he gnawednervously at his underlip. Between two of the windows stood a largeFlorentine cabinet, made out of ebony and inlaid with ivory and bluelapis. He watched it as though it were a thing that could fascinateand make afraid, as though it held something that he longed for and yetalmost loathed. His breath quickened. A mad craving came over him.He lit a cigarette and then threw it away. His eyelids drooped tillthe long fringed lashes almost touched his cheek. But he still watchedthe cabinet. At last he got up from the sofa on which he had beenlying, went over to it, and having unlocked it, touched some hiddenspring. A triangular drawer passed slowly out. His fingers movedinstinctively towards it, dipped in, and closed on something. It was asmall Chinese box of black and gold-dust lacquer, elaborately wrought,the sides patterned with curved waves, and the silken cords hung withround crystals and tasselled in plaited metal threads. He opened it.Inside was a green paste, waxy in lustre, the odour curiously heavy andpersistent.
He hesitated for some moments, with a strangely immobile smile upon hisface. Then shivering, though the atmosphere of the room was terriblyhot, he drew himself up and glanced at the clock. It was twentyminutes to twelve. He put the box back, shutting the cabinet doors ashe did so, and went into his bedroom.
As midnight was striking bronze blows upon the dusky air, Dorian Gray,dressed commonly, and with a muffler wrapped round his throat, creptquietly out of his house. In Bond Street he found a hansom with a goodhorse. He hailed it and in a low voice gave the driver an address.
The man shook his head. "It is too far for me," he muttered.
"Here is a sovereign for you," said Dorian. "You shall have another ifyou drive fast."
"All right, sir," answered the man, "you will be there in an hour," andafter his fare had got in he turned his horse round and drove rapidlytowards the river.