A cold rain began to fall, and the blurred street-lamps looked ghastlyin the dripping mist. The public-houses were just closing, and dim menand women were clustering in broken groups round their doors. Fromsome of the bars came the sound of horrible laughter. In others,drunkards brawled and screamed.
Lying back in the hansom, with his hat pulled over his forehead, DorianGray watched with listless eyes the sordid shame of the great city, andnow and then he repeated to himself the words that Lord Henry had saidto him on the first day they had met, "To cure the soul by means of thesenses, and the senses by means of the soul." Yes, that was thesecret. He had often tried it, and would try it again now. There wereopium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where thememory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that werenew.
The moon hung low in the sky like a yellow skull. From time to time ahuge misshapen cloud stretched a long arm across and hid it. Thegas-lamps grew fewer, and the streets more narrow and gloomy. Once theman lost his way and had to drive back half a mile. A steam rose fromthe horse as it splashed up the puddles. The sidewindows of the hansomwere clogged with a grey-flannel mist.
"To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means ofthe soul!" How the words rang in his ears! His soul, certainly, wassick to death. Was it true that the senses could cure it? Innocentblood had been spilled. What could atone for that? Ah! for that therewas no atonement; but though forgiveness was impossible, forgetfulnesswas possible still, and he was determined to forget, to stamp the thingout, to crush it as one would crush the adder that had stung one.Indeed, what right had Basil to have spoken to him as he had done? Whohad made him a judge over others? He had said things that weredreadful, horrible, not to be endured.
On and on plodded the hansom, going slower, it seemed to him, at eachstep. He thrust up the trap and called to the man to drive faster.The hideous hunger for opium began to gnaw at him. His throat burnedand his delicate hands twitched nervously together. He struck at thehorse madly with his stick. The driver laughed and whipped up. Helaughed in answer, and the man was silent.
The way seemed interminable, and the streets like the black web of somesprawling spider. The monotony became unbearable, and as the mistthickened, he felt afraid.
Then they passed by lonely brickfields. The fog was lighter here, andhe could see the strange, bottle-shaped kilns with their orange,fanlike tongues of fire. A dog barked as they went by, and far away inthe darkness some wandering sea-gull screamed. The horse stumbled in arut, then swerved aside and broke into a gallop.
After some time they left the clay road and rattled again overrough-paven streets. Most of the windows were dark, but now and thenfantastic shadows were silhouetted against some lamplit blind. Hewatched them curiously. They moved like monstrous marionettes and madegestures like live things. He hated them. A dull rage was in hisheart. As they turned a corner, a woman yelled something at them froman open door, and two men ran after the hansom for about a hundredyards. The driver beat at them with his whip.
It is said that passion makes one think in a circle. Certainly withhideous iteration the bitten lips of Dorian Gray shaped and reshapedthose subtle words that dealt with soul and sense, till he had found inthem the full expression, as it were, of his mood, and justified, byintellectual approval, passions that without such justification wouldstill have dominated his temper. From cell to cell of his brain creptthe one thought; and the wild desire to live, most terrible of allman's appetites, quickened into force each trembling nerve and fibre.Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real,became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the onereality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence ofdisordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were morevivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the graciousshapes of art, the dreamy shadows of song. They were what he neededfor forgetfulness. In three days he would be free.
Suddenly the man drew up with a jerk at the top of a dark lane. Overthe low roofs and jagged chimney-stacks of the houses rose the blackmasts of ships. Wreaths of white mist clung like ghostly sails to theyards.
"Somewhere about here, sir, ain't it?" he asked huskily through thetrap.
Dorian started and peered round. "This will do," he answered, andhaving got out hastily and given the driver the extra fare he hadpromised him, he walked quickly in the direction of the quay. Here andthere a lantern gleamed at the stern of some huge merchantman. Thelight shook and splintered in the puddles. A red glare came from anoutward-bound steamer that was coaling. The slimy pavement looked likea wet mackintosh.
He hurried on towards the left, glancing back now and then to see if hewas being followed. In about seven or eight minutes he reached a smallshabby house that was wedged in between two gaunt factories. In one ofthe top-windows stood a lamp. He stopped and gave a peculiar knock.
After a little time he heard steps in the passage and the chain beingunhooked. The door opened quietly, and he went in without saying aword to the squat misshapen figure that flattened itself into theshadow as he passed. At the end of the hall hung a tattered greencurtain that swayed and shook in the gusty wind which had followed himin from the street. He dragged it aside and entered a long low roomwhich looked as if it had once been a third-rate dancing-saloon. Shrillflaring gas-jets, dulled and distorted in the fly-blown mirrors thatfaced them, were ranged round the walls. Greasy reflectors of ribbedtin backed them, making quivering disks of light. The floor wascovered with ochre-coloured sawdust, trampled here and there into mud,and stained with dark rings of spilled liquor. Some Malays werecrouching by a little charcoal stove, playing with bone counters andshowing their white teeth as they chattered. In one corner, with hishead buried in his arms, a sailor sprawled over a table, and by thetawdrily painted bar that ran across one complete side stood twohaggard women, mocking an old man who was brushing the sleeves of hiscoat with an expression of disgust. "He thinks he's got red ants onhim," laughed one of them, as Dorian passed by. The man looked at herin terror and began to whimper.
At the end of the room there was a little staircase, leading to adarkened chamber. As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, theheavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and hisnostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man withsmooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thinpipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner.
"You here, Adrian?" muttered Dorian.
"Where else should I be?" he answered, listlessly. "None of the chapswill speak to me now."
"I thought you had left England."
"Darlington is not going to do anything. My brother paid the bill atlast. George doesn't speak to me either.... I don't care," he addedwith a sigh. "As long as one has this stuff, one doesn't want friends.I think I have had too many friends."
Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in suchfantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, thegaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew inwhat strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells wereteaching them the secret of some new joy. They were better off than hewas. He was prisoned in thought. Memory, like a horrible malady, waseating his soul away. From time to time he seemed to see the eyes ofBasil Hallward looking at him. Yet he felt he could not stay. Thepresence of Adrian Singleton troubled him. He wanted to be where noone would know who he was. He wanted to escape from himself.
"I am going on to the other place," he said after a pause.
"On the wharf?"
"That mad-cat is sure to be there. They won't have her in this placenow."
Dorian shrugged his shoulders. "I am sick of women who love one.Women who hate one are much more interesting. Besides, the stuff isbetter."
"Much the same."
"I like it better. Come and have something to drink. I must havesomething."
"I don't want anything," murmured the young man.
Adrian Singleton rose up wearily and followed Dorian to the bar. Ahalf-caste, in a ragged turban and a shabby ulster, grinned a hideousgreeting as he thrust a bottle of brandy and two tumblers in front ofthem. The women sidled up and began to chatter. Dorian turned hisback on them and said something in a low voice to Adrian Singleton.
A crooked smile, like a Malay crease, writhed across the face of one ofthe women. "We are very proud to-night," she sneered.
"For God's sake don't talk to me," cried Dorian, stamping his foot onthe ground. "What do you want? Money? Here it is. Don't ever talkto me again."
Two red sparks flashed for a moment in the woman's sodden eyes, thenflickered out and left them dull and glazed. She tossed her head andraked the coins off the counter with greedy fingers. Her companionwatched her enviously.
"It's no use," sighed Adrian Singleton. "I don't care to go back.What does it matter? I am quite happy here."
"You will write to me if you want anything, won't you?" said Dorian,after a pause.
"Good night, then."
"Good night," answered the young man, passing up the steps and wipinghis parched mouth with a handkerchief.
Dorian walked to the door with a look of pain in his face. As he drewthe curtain aside, a hideous laugh broke from the painted lips of thewoman who had taken his money. "There goes the devil's bargain!" shehiccoughed, in a hoarse voice.
"Curse you!" he answered, "don't call me that."
She snapped her fingers. "Prince Charming is what you like to becalled, ain't it?" she yelled after him.
The drowsy sailor leaped to his feet as she spoke, and looked wildlyround. The sound of the shutting of the hall door fell on his ear. Herushed out as if in pursuit.
Dorian Gray hurried along the quay through the drizzling rain. Hismeeting with Adrian Singleton had strangely moved him, and he wonderedif the ruin of that young life was really to be laid at his door, asBasil Hallward had said to him with such infamy of insult. He bit hislip, and for a few seconds his eyes grew sad. Yet, after all, what didit matter to him? One's days were too brief to take the burden ofanother's errors on one's shoulders. Each man lived his own life andpaid his own price for living it. The only pity was one had to pay sooften for a single fault. One had to pay over and over again, indeed.In her dealings with man, destiny never closed her accounts.
There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, orfor what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fibre ofthe body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearfulimpulses. Men and women at such moments lose the freedom of theirwill. They move to their terrible end as automatons move. Choice istaken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives atall, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience itscharm. For all sins, as theologians weary not of reminding us, aresins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star ofevil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that he fell.
Callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind, and soul hungry forrebellion, Dorian Gray hastened on, quickening his step as he went, butas he darted aside into a dim archway, that had served him often as ashort cut to the ill-famed place where he was going, he felt himselfsuddenly seized from behind, and before he had time to defend himself,he was thrust back against the wall, with a brutal hand round histhroat.
He struggled madly for life, and by a terrible effort wrenched thetightening fingers away. In a second he heard the click of a revolver,and saw the gleam of a polished barrel, pointing straight at his head,and the dusky form of a short, thick-set man facing him.
"What do you want?" he gasped.
"Keep quiet," said the man. "If you stir, I shoot you."
"You are mad. What have I done to you?"
"You wrecked the life of Sibyl Vane," was the answer, "and Sibyl Vanewas my sister. She killed herself. I know it. Her death is at yourdoor. I swore I would kill you in return. For years I have soughtyou. I had no clue, no trace. The two people who could have describedyou were dead. I knew nothing of you but the pet name she used to callyou. I heard it to-night by chance. Make your peace with God, forto-night you are going to die."
Dorian Gray grew sick with fear. "I never knew her," he stammered. "Inever heard of her. You are mad."
"You had better confess your sin, for as sure as I am James Vane, youare going to die." There was a horrible moment. Dorian did not knowwhat to say or do. "Down on your knees!" growled the man. "I give youone minute to make your peace—no more. I go on board to-night forIndia, and I must do my job first. One minute. That's all."
Dorian's arms fell to his side. Paralysed with terror, he did not knowwhat to do. Suddenly a wild hope flashed across his brain. "Stop," hecried. "How long ago is it since your sister died? Quick, tell me!"
"Eighteen years," said the man. "Why do you ask me? What do yearsmatter?"
"Eighteen years," laughed Dorian Gray, with a touch of triumph in hisvoice. "Eighteen years! Set me under the lamp and look at my face!"
James Vane hesitated for a moment, not understanding what was meant.Then he seized Dorian Gray and dragged him from the archway.
Dim and wavering as was the wind-blown light, yet it served to show himthe hideous error, as it seemed, into which he had fallen, for the faceof the man he had sought to kill had all the bloom of boyhood, all theunstained purity of youth. He seemed little more than a lad of twentysummers, hardly older, if older indeed at all, than his sister had beenwhen they had parted so many years ago. It was obvious that this wasnot the man who had destroyed her life.
He loosened his hold and reeled back. "My God! my God!" he cried, "andI would have murdered you!"
Dorian Gray drew a long breath. "You have been on the brink ofcommitting a terrible crime, my man," he said, looking at him sternly."Let this be a warning to you not to take vengeance into your ownhands."
"Forgive me, sir," muttered James Vane. "I was deceived. A chanceword I heard in that damned den set me on the wrong track."
"You had better go home and put that pistol away, or you may get intotrouble," said Dorian, turning on his heel and going slowly down thestreet.
James Vane stood on the pavement in horror. He was trembling from headto foot. After a little while, a black shadow that had been creepingalong the dripping wall moved out into the light and came close to himwith stealthy footsteps. He felt a hand laid on his arm and lookedround with a start. It was one of the women who had been drinking atthe bar.
"Why didn't you kill him?" she hissed out, putting haggard face quiteclose to his. "I knew you were following him when you rushed out fromDaly's. You fool! You should have killed him. He has lots of money,and he's as bad as bad."
"He is not the man I am looking for," he answered, "and I want no man'smoney. I want a man's life. The man whose life I want must be nearlyforty now. This one is little more than a boy. Thank God, I have notgot his blood upon my hands."
The woman gave a bitter laugh. "Little more than a boy!" she sneered."Why, man, it's nigh on eighteen years since Prince Charming made mewhat I am."
"You lie!" cried James Vane.
She raised her hand up to heaven. "Before God I am telling the truth,"she cried.
"Strike me dumb if it ain't so. He is the worst one that comes here.They say he has sold himself to the devil for a pretty face. It's nighon eighteen years since I met him. He hasn't changed much since then.I have, though," she added, with a sickly leer.
"You swear this?"
"I swear it," came in hoarse echo from her flat mouth. "But don't giveme away to him," she whined; "I am afraid of him. Let me have somemoney for my night's lodging."
He broke from her with an oath and rushed to the corner of the street,but Dorian Gray had disappeared. When he looked back, the woman hadvanished also.