At half-past twelve next day Lord Henry Wotton strolled from CurzonStreet over to the Albany to call on his uncle, Lord Fermor, a genialif somewhat rough-mannered old bachelor, whom the outside world calledselfish because it derived no particular benefit from him, but who wasconsidered generous by Society as he fed the people who amused him.His father had been our ambassador at Madrid when Isabella was youngand Prim unthought of, but had retired from the diplomatic service in acapricious moment of annoyance on not being offered the Embassy atParis, a post to which he considered that he was fully entitled byreason of his birth, his indolence, the good English of his dispatches,and his inordinate passion for pleasure. The son, who had been hisfather's secretary, had resigned along with his chief, somewhatfoolishly as was thought at the time, and on succeeding some monthslater to the title, had set himself to the serious study of the greataristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing. He had two large townhouses, but preferred to live in chambers as it was less trouble, andtook most of his meals at his club. He paid some attention to themanagement of his collieries in the Midland counties, excusing himselffor this taint of industry on the ground that the one advantage ofhaving coal was that it enabled a gentleman to afford the decency ofburning wood on his own hearth. In politics he was a Tory, except whenthe Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused themfor being a pack of Radicals. He was a hero to his valet, who bulliedhim, and a terror to most of his relations, whom he bullied in turn.Only England could have produced him, and he always said that thecountry was going to the dogs. His principles were out of date, butthere was a good deal to be said for his prejudices.
When Lord Henry entered the room, he found his uncle sitting in a roughshooting-coat, smoking a cheroot and grumbling over The Times. "Well,Harry," said the old gentleman, "what brings you out so early? Ithought you dandies never got up till two, and were not visible tillfive."
"Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to getsomething out of you."
"Money, I suppose," said Lord Fermor, making a wry face. "Well, sitdown and tell me all about it. Young people, nowadays, imagine thatmoney is everything."
"Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "andwhen they grow older they know it. But I don't want money. It is onlypeople who pay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never paymine. Credit is the capital of a younger son, and one lives charminglyupon it. Besides, I always deal with Dartmoor's tradesmen, andconsequently they never bother me. What I want is information: notuseful information, of course; useless information."
"Well, I can tell you anything that is in an English Blue Book, Harry,although those fellows nowadays write a lot of nonsense. When I was inthe Diplomatic, things were much better. But I hear they let them innow by examination. What can you expect? Examinations, sir, are purehumbug from beginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quiteenough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him."
"Mr. Dorian Gray does not belong to Blue Books, Uncle George," saidLord Henry languidly.
"Mr. Dorian Gray? Who is he?" asked Lord Fermor, knitting his bushywhite eyebrows.
"That is what I have come to learn, Uncle George. Or rather, I knowwho he is. He is the last Lord Kelso's grandson. His mother was aDevereux, Lady Margaret Devereux. I want you to tell me about hismother. What was she like? Whom did she marry? You have known nearlyeverybody in your time, so you might have known her. I am very muchinterested in Mr. Gray at present. I have only just met him."
"Kelso's grandson!" echoed the old gentleman. "Kelso's grandson! ...Of course.... I knew his mother intimately. I believe I was at herchristening. She was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, MargaretDevereux, and made all the men frantic by running away with a pennilessyoung fellow—a mere nobody, sir, a subaltern in a foot regiment, orsomething of that kind. Certainly. I remember the whole thing as ifit happened yesterday. The poor chap was killed in a duel at Spa a fewmonths after the marriage. There was an ugly story about it. Theysaid Kelso got some rascally adventurer, some Belgian brute, to insulthis son-in-law in public—paid him, sir, to do it, paid him—and thatthe fellow spitted his man as if he had been a pigeon. The thing washushed up, but, egad, Kelso ate his chop alone at the club for sometime afterwards. He brought his daughter back with him, I was told,and she never spoke to him again. Oh, yes; it was a bad business. Thegirl died, too, died within a year. So she left a son, did she? I hadforgotten that. What sort of boy is he? If he is like his mother, hemust be a good-looking chap."
"He is very good-looking," assented Lord Henry.
"I hope he will fall into proper hands," continued the old man. "Heshould have a pot of money waiting for him if Kelso did the right thingby him. His mother had money, too. All the Selby property came toher, through her grandfather. Her grandfather hated Kelso, thought hima mean dog. He was, too. Came to Madrid once when I was there. Egad,I was ashamed of him. The Queen used to ask me about the English noblewho was always quarrelling with the cabmen about their fares. Theymade quite a story of it. I didn't dare show my face at Court for amonth. I hope he treated his grandson better than he did the jarvies."
"I don't know," answered Lord Henry. "I fancy that the boy will bewell off. He is not of age yet. He has Selby, I know. He told me so.And ... his mother was very beautiful?"
"Margaret Devereux was one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw,Harry. What on earth induced her to behave as she did, I never couldunderstand. She could have married anybody she chose. Carlington wasmad after her. She was romantic, though. All the women of that familywere. The men were a poor lot, but, egad! the women were wonderful.Carlington went on his knees to her. Told me so himself. She laughedat him, and there wasn't a girl in London at the time who wasn't afterhim. And by the way, Harry, talking about silly marriages, what isthis humbug your father tells me about Dartmoor wanting to marry anAmerican? Ain't English girls good enough for him?"
"It is rather fashionable to marry Americans just now, Uncle George."
"I'll back English women against the world, Harry," said Lord Fermor,striking the table with his fist.
"The betting is on the Americans."
"They don't last, I am told," muttered his uncle.
"A long engagement exhausts them, but they are capital at asteeplechase. They take things flying. I don't think Dartmoor has achance."
"Who are her people?" grumbled the old gentleman. "Has she got any?"
Lord Henry shook his head. "American girls are as clever at concealingtheir parents, as English women are at concealing their past," he said,rising to go.
"They are pork-packers, I suppose?"
"I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor's sake. I am told thatpork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, afterpolitics."
"Is she pretty?"
"She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It isthe secret of their charm."
"Why can't these American women stay in their own country? They arealways telling us that it is the paradise for women."
"It is. That is the reason why, like Eve, they are so excessivelyanxious to get out of it," said Lord Henry. "Good-bye, Uncle George.I shall be late for lunch, if I stop any longer. Thanks for giving methe information I wanted. I always like to know everything about mynew friends, and nothing about my old ones."
"Where are you lunching, Harry?"
"At Aunt Agatha's. I have asked myself and Mr. Gray. He is her latestprotege."
"Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more withher charity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinksthat I have nothing to do but to write cheques for her silly fads."
"All right, Uncle George, I'll tell her, but it won't have any effect.Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is theirdistinguishing characteristic."
The old gentleman growled approvingly and rang the bell for hisservant. Lord Henry passed up the low arcade into Burlington Streetand turned his steps in the direction of Berkeley Square.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray's parentage. Crudely as it hadbeen told to him, it had yet stirred him by its suggestion of astrange, almost modern romance. A beautiful woman risking everythingfor a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by ahideous, treacherous crime. Months of voiceless agony, and then achild born in pain. The mother snatched away by death, the boy left tosolitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man. Yes; it was aninteresting background. It posed the lad, made him more perfect, as itwere. Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was somethingtragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower mightblow.... And how charming he had been at dinner the night before, aswith startled eyes and lips parted in frightened pleasure he had satopposite to him at the club, the red candleshades staining to a richerrose the wakening wonder of his face. Talking to him was like playingupon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of thebow.... There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise ofinfluence. No other activity was like it. To project one's soul intosome gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one'sown intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music ofpassion and youth; to convey one's temperament into another as thoughit were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy inthat—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limitedand vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, andgrossly common in its aims.... He was a marvellous type, too, this lad,whom by so curious a chance he had met in Basil's studio, or could befashioned into a marvellous type, at any rate. Grace was his, and thewhite purity of boyhood, and beauty such as old Greek marbles kept forus. There was nothing that one could not do with him. He could bemade a Titan or a toy. What a pity it was that such beauty wasdestined to fade! ... And Basil? From a psychological point of view,how interesting he was! The new manner in art, the fresh mode oflooking at life, suggested so strangely by the merely visible presenceof one who was unconscious of it all; the silent spirit that dwelt indim woodland, and walked unseen in open field, suddenly showingherself, Dryadlike and not afraid, because in his soul who sought forher there had been wakened that wonderful vision to which alone arewonderful things revealed; the mere shapes and patterns of thingsbecoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind of symbolical value,as though they were themselves patterns of some other and more perfectform whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was! Heremembered something like it in history. Was it not Plato, that artistin thought, who had first analyzed it? Was it not Buonarotti who hadcarved it in the coloured marbles of a sonnet-sequence? But in our owncentury it was strange.... Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Graywhat, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashionedthe wonderful portrait. He would seek to dominate him—had already,indeed, half done so. He would make that wonderful spirit his own.There was something fascinating in this son of love and death.
Suddenly he stopped and glanced up at the houses. He found that he hadpassed his aunt's some distance, and, smiling to himself, turned back.When he entered the somewhat sombre hall, the butler told him that theyhad gone in to lunch. He gave one of the footmen his hat and stick andpassed into the dining-room.
"Late as usual, Harry," cried his aunt, shaking her head at him.
He invented a facile excuse, and having taken the vacant seat next toher, looked round to see who was there. Dorian bowed to him shyly fromthe end of the table, a flush of pleasure stealing into his cheek.Opposite was the Duchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature andgood temper, much liked by every one who knew her, and of those amplearchitectural proportions that in women who are not duchesses aredescribed by contemporary historians as stoutness. Next to her sat, onher right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a Radical member of Parliament, whofollowed his leader in public life and in private life followed thebest cooks, dining with the Tories and thinking with the Liberals, inaccordance with a wise and well-known rule. The post on her left wasoccupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerablecharm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence,having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that hehad to say before he was thirty. His own neighbour was Mrs. Vandeleur,one of his aunt's oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women, but sodreadfully dowdy that she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book.Fortunately for him she had on the other side Lord Faudel, a mostintelligent middle-aged mediocrity, as bald as a ministerial statementin the House of Commons, with whom she was conversing in that intenselyearnest manner which is the one unpardonable error, as he remarked oncehimself, that all really good people fall into, and from which none ofthem ever quite escape.
"We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry," cried the duchess,nodding pleasantly to him across the table. "Do you think he willreally marry this fascinating young person?"
"I believe she has made up her mind to propose to him, Duchess."
"How dreadful!" exclaimed Lady Agatha. "Really, some one shouldinterfere."
"I am told, on excellent authority, that her father keeps an Americandry-goods store," said Sir Thomas Burdon, looking supercilious.
"My uncle has already suggested pork-packing, Sir Thomas."
"Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?" asked the duchess, raisingher large hands in wonder and accentuating the verb.
"American novels," answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.
The duchess looked puzzled.
"Don't mind him, my dear," whispered Lady Agatha. "He never meansanything that he says."
"When America was discovered," said the Radical member—and he began togive some wearisome facts. Like all people who try to exhaust asubject, he exhausted his listeners. The duchess sighed and exercisedher privilege of interruption. "I wish to goodness it never had beendiscovered at all!" she exclaimed. "Really, our girls have no chancenowadays. It is most unfair."
"Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered," said Mr.Erskine; "I myself would say that it had merely been detected."
"Oh! but I have seen specimens of the inhabitants," answered theduchess vaguely. "I must confess that most of them are extremelypretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses inParis. I wish I could afford to do the same."
"They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris," chuckled SirThomas, who had a large wardrobe of Humour's cast-off clothes.
"Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?" inquired theduchess.
"They go to America," murmured Lord Henry.
Sir Thomas frowned. "I am afraid that your nephew is prejudicedagainst that great country," he said to Lady Agatha. "I have travelledall over it in cars provided by the directors, who, in such matters,are extremely civil. I assure you that it is an education to visit it."
"But must we really see Chicago in order to be educated?" asked Mr.Erskine plaintively. "I don't feel up to the journey."
Sir Thomas waved his hand. "Mr. Erskine of Treadley has the world onhis shelves. We practical men like to see things, not to read aboutthem. The Americans are an extremely interesting people. They areabsolutely reasonable. I think that is their distinguishingcharacteristic. Yes, Mr. Erskine, an absolutely reasonable people. Iassure you there is no nonsense about the Americans."
"How dreadful!" cried Lord Henry. "I can stand brute force, but brutereason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use.It is hitting below the intellect."
"I do not understand you," said Sir Thomas, growing rather red.
"I do, Lord Henry," murmured Mr. Erskine, with a smile.
"Paradoxes are all very well in their way...." rejoined the baronet.
"Was that a paradox?" asked Mr. Erskine. "I did not think so. Perhapsit was. Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To testreality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities becomeacrobats, we can judge them."
"Dear me!" said Lady Agatha, "how you men argue! I am sure I never canmake out what you are talking about. Oh! Harry, I am quite vexed withyou. Why do you try to persuade our nice Mr. Dorian Gray to give upthe East End? I assure you he would be quite invaluable. They wouldlove his playing."
"I want him to play to me," cried Lord Henry, smiling, and he lookeddown the table and caught a bright answering glance.
"But they are so unhappy in Whitechapel," continued Lady Agatha.
"I can sympathize with everything except suffering," said Lord Henry,shrugging his shoulders. "I cannot sympathize with that. It is toougly, too horrible, too distressing. There is something terriblymorbid in the modern sympathy with pain. One should sympathize withthe colour, the beauty, the joy of life. The less said about life'ssores, the better."
"Still, the East End is a very important problem," remarked Sir Thomaswith a grave shake of the head.
"Quite so," answered the young lord. "It is the problem of slavery,and we try to solve it by amusing the slaves."
The politician looked at him keenly. "What change do you propose,then?" he asked.
Lord Henry laughed. "I don't desire to change anything in Englandexcept the weather," he answered. "I am quite content with philosophiccontemplation. But, as the nineteenth century has gone bankruptthrough an over-expenditure of sympathy, I would suggest that we shouldappeal to science to put us straight. The advantage of the emotions isthat they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it isnot emotional."
"But we have such grave responsibilities," ventured Mrs. Vandeleurtimidly.
"Terribly grave," echoed Lady Agatha.
Lord Henry looked over at Mr. Erskine. "Humanity takes itself tooseriously. It is the world's original sin. If the caveman had knownhow to laugh, history would have been different."
"You are really very comforting," warbled the duchess. "I have alwaysfelt rather guilty when I came to see your dear aunt, for I take nointerest at all in the East End. For the future I shall be able tolook her in the face without a blush."
"A blush is very becoming, Duchess," remarked Lord Henry.
"Only when one is young," she answered. "When an old woman like myselfblushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tellme how to become young again."
He thought for a moment. "Can you remember any great error that youcommitted in your early days, Duchess?" he asked, looking at her acrossthe table.
"A great many, I fear," she cried.
"Then commit them over again," he said gravely. "To get back one'syouth, one has merely to repeat one's follies."
"A delightful theory!" she exclaimed. "I must put it into practice."
"A dangerous theory!" came from Sir Thomas's tight lips. Lady Agathashook her head, but could not help being amused. Mr. Erskine listened.
"Yes," he continued, "that is one of the great secrets of life.Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, anddiscover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets areone's mistakes."
A laugh ran round the table.
He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air andtransformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescentwith fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he wenton, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, andcatching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, herwine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over thehills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fledbefore her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the hugepress at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose roundher bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam overthe vat's black, dripping, sloping sides. It was an extraordinaryimprovisation. He felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixed on him,and the consciousness that amongst his audience there was one whosetemperament he wished to fascinate seemed to give his wit keenness andto lend colour to his imagination. He was brilliant, fantastic,irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and theyfollowed his pipe, laughing. Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him,but sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lipsand wonder growing grave in his darkening eyes.
At last, liveried in the costume of the age, reality entered the roomin the shape of a servant to tell the duchess that her carriage waswaiting. She wrung her hands in mock despair. "How annoying!" shecried. "I must go. I have to call for my husband at the club, to takehim to some absurd meeting at Willis's Rooms, where he is going to bein the chair. If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn'thave a scene in this bonnet. It is far too fragile. A harsh wordwould ruin it. No, I must go, dear Agatha. Good-bye, Lord Henry, youare quite delightful and dreadfully demoralizing. I am sure I don'tknow what to say about your views. You must come and dine with us somenight. Tuesday? Are you disengaged Tuesday?"
"For you I would throw over anybody, Duchess," said Lord Henry with abow.
"Ah! that is very nice, and very wrong of you," she cried; "so mind youcome"; and she swept out of the room, followed by Lady Agatha and theother ladies.
When Lord Henry had sat down again, Mr. Erskine moved round, and takinga chair close to him, placed his hand upon his arm.
"You talk books away," he said; "why don't you write one?"
"I am too fond of reading books to care to write them, Mr. Erskine. Ishould like to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovelyas a Persian carpet and as unreal. But there is no literary public inEngland for anything except newspapers, primers, and encyclopaedias.Of all people in the world the English have the least sense of thebeauty of literature."
"I fear you are right," answered Mr. Erskine. "I myself used to haveliterary ambitions, but I gave them up long ago. And now, my dearyoung friend, if you will allow me to call you so, may I ask if youreally meant all that you said to us at lunch?"
"I quite forget what I said," smiled Lord Henry. "Was it all very bad?"
"Very bad indeed. In fact I consider you extremely dangerous, and ifanything happens to our good duchess, we shall all look on you as beingprimarily responsible. But I should like to talk to you about life.The generation into which I was born was tedious. Some day, when youare tired of London, come down to Treadley and expound to me yourphilosophy of pleasure over some admirable Burgundy I am fortunateenough to possess."
"I shall be charmed. A visit to Treadley would be a great privilege.It has a perfect host, and a perfect library."
"You will complete it," answered the old gentleman with a courteousbow. "And now I must bid good-bye to your excellent aunt. I am due atthe Athenaeum. It is the hour when we sleep there."
"All of you, Mr. Erskine?"
"Forty of us, in forty arm-chairs. We are practising for an EnglishAcademy of Letters."
Lord Henry laughed and rose. "I am going to the park," he cried.
As he was passing out of the door, Dorian Gray touched him on the arm."Let me come with you," he murmured.
"But I thought you had promised Basil Hallward to go and see him,"answered Lord Henry.
"I would sooner come with you; yes, I feel I must come with you. Dolet me. And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talksso wonderfully as you do."
"Ah! I have talked quite enough for to-day," said Lord Henry, smiling."All I want now is to look at life. You may come and look at it withme, if you care to."