"I suppose you have heard the news, Basil?" said Lord Henry thatevening as Hallward was shown into a little private room at the Bristolwhere dinner had been laid for three.
"No, Harry," answered the artist, giving his hat and coat to the bowingwaiter. "What is it? Nothing about politics, I hope! They don'tinterest me. There is hardly a single person in the House of Commonsworth painting, though many of them would be the better for a littlewhitewashing."
"Dorian Gray is engaged to be married," said Lord Henry, watching himas he spoke.
Hallward started and then frowned. "Dorian engaged to be married!" hecried. "Impossible!"
"It is perfectly true."
"To some little actress or other."
"I can't believe it. Dorian is far too sensible."
"Dorian is far too wise not to do foolish things now and then, my dearBasil."
"Marriage is hardly a thing that one can do now and then, Harry."
"Except in America," rejoined Lord Henry languidly. "But I didn't sayhe was married. I said he was engaged to be married. There is a greatdifference. I have a distinct remembrance of being married, but I haveno recollection at all of being engaged. I am inclined to think that Inever was engaged."
"But think of Dorian's birth, and position, and wealth. It would beabsurd for him to marry so much beneath him."
"If you want to make him marry this girl, tell him that, Basil. He issure to do it, then. Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, itis always from the noblest motives."
"I hope the girl is good, Harry. I don't want to see Dorian tied tosome vile creature, who might degrade his nature and ruin hisintellect."
"Oh, she is better than good—she is beautiful," murmured Lord Henry,sipping a glass of vermouth and orange-bitters. "Dorian says she isbeautiful, and he is not often wrong about things of that kind. Yourportrait of him has quickened his appreciation of the personalappearance of other people. It has had that excellent effect, amongstothers. We are to see her to-night, if that boy doesn't forget hisappointment."
"Are you serious?"
"Quite serious, Basil. I should be miserable if I thought I shouldever be more serious than I am at the present moment."
"But do you approve of it, Harry?" asked the painter, walking up anddown the room and biting his lip. "You can't approve of it, possibly.It is some silly infatuation."
"I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurdattitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to airour moral prejudices. I never take any notice of what common peoplesay, and I never interfere with what charming people do. If apersonality fascinates me, whatever mode of expression that personalityselects is absolutely delightful to me. Dorian Gray falls in love witha beautiful girl who acts Juliet, and proposes to marry her. Why not?If he wedded Messalina, he would be none the less interesting. Youknow I am not a champion of marriage. The real drawback to marriage isthat it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless.They lack individuality. Still, there are certain temperaments thatmarriage makes more complex. They retain their egotism, and add to itmany other egos. They are forced to have more than one life. Theybecome more highly organized, and to be highly organized is, I shouldfancy, the object of man's existence. Besides, every experience is ofvalue, and whatever one may say against marriage, it is certainly anexperience. I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife,passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly becomefascinated by some one else. He would be a wonderful study."
"You don't mean a single word of all that, Harry; you know you don't.If Dorian Gray's life were spoiled, no one would be sorrier thanyourself. You are much better than you pretend to be."
Lord Henry laughed. "The reason we all like to think so well of othersis that we are all afraid for ourselves. The basis of optimism issheer terror. We think that we are generous because we credit ourneighbour with the possession of those virtues that are likely to be abenefit to us. We praise the banker that we may overdraw our account,and find good qualities in the highwayman in the hope that he may spareour pockets. I mean everything that I have said. I have the greatestcontempt for optimism. As for a spoiled life, no life is spoiled butone whose growth is arrested. If you want to mar a nature, you havemerely to reform it. As for marriage, of course that would be silly,but there are other and more interesting bonds between men and women.I will certainly encourage them. They have the charm of beingfashionable. But here is Dorian himself. He will tell you more than Ican."
"My dear Harry, my dear Basil, you must both congratulate me!" said thelad, throwing off his evening cape with its satin-lined wings andshaking each of his friends by the hand in turn. "I have never been sohappy. Of course, it is sudden—all really delightful things are. Andyet it seems to me to be the one thing I have been looking for all mylife." He was flushed with excitement and pleasure, and lookedextraordinarily handsome.
"I hope you will always be very happy, Dorian," said Hallward, "but Idon't quite forgive you for not having let me know of your engagement.You let Harry know."
"And I don't forgive you for being late for dinner," broke in LordHenry, putting his hand on the lad's shoulder and smiling as he spoke."Come, let us sit down and try what the new chef here is like, and thenyou will tell us how it all came about."
"There is really not much to tell," cried Dorian as they took theirseats at the small round table. "What happened was simply this. AfterI left you yesterday evening, Harry, I dressed, had some dinner at thatlittle Italian restaurant in Rupert Street you introduced me to, andwent down at eight o'clock to the theatre. Sibyl was playing Rosalind.Of course, the scenery was dreadful and the Orlando absurd. But Sibyl!You should have seen her! When she came on in her boy's clothes, shewas perfectly wonderful. She wore a moss-coloured velvet jerkin withcinnamon sleeves, slim, brown, cross-gartered hose, a dainty littlegreen cap with a hawk's feather caught in a jewel, and a hooded cloaklined with dull red. She had never seemed to me more exquisite. Shehad all the delicate grace of that Tanagra figurine that you have inyour studio, Basil. Her hair clustered round her face like dark leavesround a pale rose. As for her acting—well, you shall see herto-night. She is simply a born artist. I sat in the dingy boxabsolutely enthralled. I forgot that I was in London and in thenineteenth century. I was away with my love in a forest that no manhad ever seen. After the performance was over, I went behind and spoketo her. As we were sitting together, suddenly there came into her eyesa look that I had never seen there before. My lips moved towards hers.We kissed each other. I can't describe to you what I felt at thatmoment. It seemed to me that all my life had been narrowed to oneperfect point of rose-coloured joy. She trembled all over and shooklike a white narcissus. Then she flung herself on her knees and kissedmy hands. I feel that I should not tell you all this, but I can't helpit. Of course, our engagement is a dead secret. She has not even toldher own mother. I don't know what my guardians will say. Lord Radleyis sure to be furious. I don't care. I shall be of age in less than ayear, and then I can do what I like. I have been right, Basil, haven'tI, to take my love out of poetry and to find my wife in Shakespeare'splays? Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered theirsecret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, andkissed Juliet on the mouth."
"Yes, Dorian, I suppose you were right," said Hallward slowly.
"Have you seen her to-day?" asked Lord Henry.
Dorian Gray shook his head. "I left her in the forest of Arden; Ishall find her in an orchard in Verona."
Lord Henry sipped his champagne in a meditative manner. "At whatparticular point did you mention the word marriage, Dorian? And whatdid she say in answer? Perhaps you forgot all about it."
"My dear Harry, I did not treat it as a business transaction, and I didnot make any formal proposal. I told her that I loved her, and shesaid she was not worthy to be my wife. Not worthy! Why, the wholeworld is nothing to me compared with her."
"Women are wonderfully practical," murmured Lord Henry, "much morepractical than we are. In situations of that kind we often forget tosay anything about marriage, and they always remind us."
Hallward laid his hand upon his arm. "Don't, Harry. You have annoyedDorian. He is not like other men. He would never bring misery uponany one. His nature is too fine for that."
Lord Henry looked across the table. "Dorian is never annoyed with me,"he answered. "I asked the question for the best reason possible, forthe only reason, indeed, that excuses one for asking anyquestion—simple curiosity. I have a theory that it is always thewomen who propose to us, and not we who propose to the women. Except,of course, in middle-class life. But then the middle classes are notmodern."
Dorian Gray laughed, and tossed his head. "You are quite incorrigible,Harry; but I don't mind. It is impossible to be angry with you. Whenyou see Sibyl Vane, you will feel that the man who could wrong herwould be a beast, a beast without a heart. I cannot understand how anyone can wish to shame the thing he loves. I love Sibyl Vane. I wantto place her on a pedestal of gold and to see the world worship thewoman who is mine. What is marriage? An irrevocable vow. You mock atit for that. Ah! don't mock. It is an irrevocable vow that I want totake. Her trust makes me faithful, her belief makes me good. When Iam with her, I regret all that you have taught me. I become differentfrom what you have known me to be. I am changed, and the mere touch ofSibyl Vane's hand makes me forget you and all your wrong, fascinating,poisonous, delightful theories."
"And those are ...?" asked Lord Henry, helping himself to some salad.
"Oh, your theories about life, your theories about love, your theoriesabout pleasure. All your theories, in fact, Harry."
"Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about," he answeredin his slow melodious voice. "But I am afraid I cannot claim my theoryas my own. It belongs to Nature, not to me. Pleasure is Nature'stest, her sign of approval. When we are happy, we are always good, butwhen we are good, we are not always happy."
"Ah! but what do you mean by good?" cried Basil Hallward.
"Yes," echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at LordHenry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in thecentre of the table, "what do you mean by good, Harry?"
"To be good is to be in harmony with one's self," he replied, touchingthe thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers."Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One's ownlife—that is the important thing. As for the lives of one'sneighbours, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flauntone's moral views about them, but they are not one's concern. Besides,individualism has really the higher aim. Modern morality consists inaccepting the standard of one's age. I consider that for any man ofculture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossestimmorality."
"But, surely, if one lives merely for one's self, Harry, one pays aterrible price for doing so?" suggested the painter.
"Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy thatthe real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing butself-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilegeof the rich."
"One has to pay in other ways but money."
"What sort of ways, Basil?"
"Oh! I should fancy in remorse, in suffering, in ... well, in theconsciousness of degradation."
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. "My dear fellow, mediaeval art ischarming, but mediaeval emotions are out of date. One can use them infiction, of course. But then the only things that one can use infiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact. Believe me,no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man everknows what a pleasure is."
"I know what pleasure is," cried Dorian Gray. "It is to adore someone."
"That is certainly better than being adored," he answered, toying withsome fruits. "Being adored is a nuisance. Women treat us just ashumanity treats its gods. They worship us, and are always bothering usto do something for them."
"I should have said that whatever they ask for they had first given tous," murmured the lad gravely. "They create love in our natures. Theyhave a right to demand it back."
"That is quite true, Dorian," cried Hallward.
"Nothing is ever quite true," said Lord Henry.
"This is," interrupted Dorian. "You must admit, Harry, that women giveto men the very gold of their lives."
"Possibly," he sighed, "but they invariably want it back in such verysmall change. That is the worry. Women, as some witty Frenchman onceput it, inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces and alwaysprevent us from carrying them out."
"Harry, you are dreadful! I don't know why I like you so much."
"You will always like me, Dorian," he replied. "Will you have somecoffee, you fellows? Waiter, bring coffee, and fine-champagne, andsome cigarettes. No, don't mind the cigarettes—I have some. Basil, Ican't allow you to smoke cigars. You must have a cigarette. Acigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite,and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? Yes, Dorian,you will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins youhave never had the courage to commit."
"What nonsense you talk, Harry!" cried the lad, taking a light from afire-breathing silver dragon that the waiter had placed on the table."Let us go down to the theatre. When Sibyl comes on the stage you willhave a new ideal of life. She will represent something to you that youhave never known."
"I have known everything," said Lord Henry, with a tired look in hiseyes, "but I am always ready for a new emotion. I am afraid, however,that, for me at any rate, there is no such thing. Still, yourwonderful girl may thrill me. I love acting. It is so much more realthan life. Let us go. Dorian, you will come with me. I am so sorry,Basil, but there is only room for two in the brougham. You must followus in a hansom."
They got up and put on their coats, sipping their coffee standing. Thepainter was silent and preoccupied. There was a gloom over him. Hecould not bear this marriage, and yet it seemed to him to be betterthan many other things that might have happened. After a few minutes,they all passed downstairs. He drove off by himself, as had beenarranged, and watched the flashing lights of the little brougham infront of him. A strange sense of loss came over him. He felt thatDorian Gray would never again be to him all that he had been in thepast. Life had come between them.... His eyes darkened, and thecrowded flaring streets became blurred to his eyes. When the cab drewup at the theatre, it seemed to him that he had grown years older.