For some reason or other, the house was crowded that night, and the fatJew manager who met them at the door was beaming from ear to ear withan oily tremulous smile. He escorted them to their box with a sort ofpompous humility, waving his fat jewelled hands and talking at the topof his voice. Dorian Gray loathed him more than ever. He felt as ifhe had come to look for Miranda and had been met by Caliban. LordHenry, upon the other hand, rather liked him. At least he declared hedid, and insisted on shaking him by the hand and assuring him that hewas proud to meet a man who had discovered a real genius and gonebankrupt over a poet. Hallward amused himself with watching the facesin the pit. The heat was terribly oppressive, and the huge sunlightflamed like a monstrous dahlia with petals of yellow fire. The youthsin the gallery had taken off their coats and waistcoats and hung themover the side. They talked to each other across the theatre and sharedtheir oranges with the tawdry girls who sat beside them. Some womenwere laughing in the pit. Their voices were horribly shrill anddiscordant. The sound of the popping of corks came from the bar.
"What a place to find one's divinity in!" said Lord Henry.
"Yes!" answered Dorian Gray. "It was here I found her, and she isdivine beyond all living things. When she acts, you will forgeteverything. These common rough people, with their coarse faces andbrutal gestures, become quite different when she is on the stage. Theysit silently and watch her. They weep and laugh as she wills them todo. She makes them as responsive as a violin. She spiritualizes them,and one feels that they are of the same flesh and blood as one's self."
"The same flesh and blood as one's self! Oh, I hope not!" exclaimedLord Henry, who was scanning the occupants of the gallery through hisopera-glass.
"Don't pay any attention to him, Dorian," said the painter. "Iunderstand what you mean, and I believe in this girl. Any one you lovemust be marvellous, and any girl who has the effect you describe mustbe fine and noble. To spiritualize one's age—that is something worthdoing. If this girl can give a soul to those who have lived withoutone, if she can create the sense of beauty in people whose lives havebeen sordid and ugly, if she can strip them of their selfishness andlend them tears for sorrows that are not their own, she is worthy ofall your adoration, worthy of the adoration of the world. Thismarriage is quite right. I did not think so at first, but I admit itnow. The gods made Sibyl Vane for you. Without her you would havebeen incomplete."
"Thanks, Basil," answered Dorian Gray, pressing his hand. "I knew thatyou would understand me. Harry is so cynical, he terrifies me. Buthere is the orchestra. It is quite dreadful, but it only lasts forabout five minutes. Then the curtain rises, and you will see the girlto whom I am going to give all my life, to whom I have given everythingthat is good in me."
A quarter of an hour afterwards, amidst an extraordinary turmoil ofapplause, Sibyl Vane stepped on to the stage. Yes, she was certainlylovely to look at—one of the loveliest creatures, Lord Henry thought,that he had ever seen. There was something of the fawn in her shygrace and startled eyes. A faint blush, like the shadow of a rose in amirror of silver, came to her cheeks as she glanced at the crowdedenthusiastic house. She stepped back a few paces and her lips seemedto tremble. Basil Hallward leaped to his feet and began to applaud.Motionless, and as one in a dream, sat Dorian Gray, gazing at her.Lord Henry peered through his glasses, murmuring, "Charming! charming!"
The scene was the hall of Capulet's house, and Romeo in his pilgrim'sdress had entered with Mercutio and his other friends. The band, suchas it was, struck up a few bars of music, and the dance began. Throughthe crowd of ungainly, shabbily dressed actors, Sibyl Vane moved like acreature from a finer world. Her body swayed, while she danced, as aplant sways in the water. The curves of her throat were the curves ofa white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory.
Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when hereyes rested on Romeo. The few words she had to speak—
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss—
with the brief dialogue that follows, were spoken in a thoroughlyartificial manner. The voice was exquisite, but from the point of viewof tone it was absolutely false. It was wrong in colour. It took awayall the life from the verse. It made the passion unreal.
Dorian Gray grew pale as he watched her. He was puzzled and anxious.Neither of his friends dared to say anything to him. She seemed tothem to be absolutely incompetent. They were horribly disappointed.
Yet they felt that the true test of any Juliet is the balcony scene ofthe second act. They waited for that. If she failed there, there wasnothing in her.
She looked charming as she came out in the moonlight. That could notbe denied. But the staginess of her acting was unbearable, and grewworse as she went on. Her gestures became absurdly artificial. Sheoveremphasized everything that she had to say. The beautiful passage—
Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night—
was declaimed with the painful precision of a schoolgirl who has beentaught to recite by some second-rate professor of elocution. When sheleaned over the balcony and came to those wonderful lines—
Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say, "It lightens." Sweet, good-night!
This bud of love by summer's ripening breath
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet—
she spoke the words as though they conveyed no meaning to her. It wasnot nervousness. Indeed, so far from being nervous, she was absolutelyself-contained. It was simply bad art. She was a complete failure.
Even the common uneducated audience of the pit and gallery lost theirinterest in the play. They got restless, and began to talk loudly andto whistle. The Jew manager, who was standing at the back of thedress-circle, stamped and swore with rage. The only person unmoved wasthe girl herself.
When the second act was over, there came a storm of hisses, and LordHenry got up from his chair and put on his coat. "She is quitebeautiful, Dorian," he said, "but she can't act. Let us go."
"I am going to see the play through," answered the lad, in a hardbitter voice. "I am awfully sorry that I have made you waste anevening, Harry. I apologize to you both."
"My dear Dorian, I should think Miss Vane was ill," interruptedHallward. "We will come some other night."
"I wish she were ill," he rejoined. "But she seems to me to be simplycallous and cold. She has entirely altered. Last night she was agreat artist. This evening she is merely a commonplace mediocreactress."
"Don't talk like that about any one you love, Dorian. Love is a morewonderful thing than art."
"They are both simply forms of imitation," remarked Lord Henry. "Butdo let us go. Dorian, you must not stay here any longer. It is notgood for one's morals to see bad acting. Besides, I don't suppose youwill want your wife to act, so what does it matter if she plays Julietlike a wooden doll? She is very lovely, and if she knows as littleabout life as she does about acting, she will be a delightfulexperience. There are only two kinds of people who are reallyfascinating—people who know absolutely everything, and people who knowabsolutely nothing. Good heavens, my dear boy, don't look so tragic!The secret of remaining young is never to have an emotion that isunbecoming. Come to the club with Basil and myself. We will smokecigarettes and drink to the beauty of Sibyl Vane. She is beautiful.What more can you want?"
"Go away, Harry," cried the lad. "I want to be alone. Basil, you mustgo. Ah! can't you see that my heart is breaking?" The hot tears cameto his eyes. His lips trembled, and rushing to the back of the box, heleaned up against the wall, hiding his face in his hands.
"Let us go, Basil," said Lord Henry with a strange tenderness in hisvoice, and the two young men passed out together.
A few moments afterwards the footlights flared up and the curtain roseon the third act. Dorian Gray went back to his seat. He looked pale,and proud, and indifferent. The play dragged on, and seemedinterminable. Half of the audience went out, tramping in heavy bootsand laughing. The whole thing was a fiasco. The last act was playedto almost empty benches. The curtain went down on a titter and somegroans.
As soon as it was over, Dorian Gray rushed behind the scenes into thegreenroom. The girl was standing there alone, with a look of triumphon her face. Her eyes were lit with an exquisite fire. There was aradiance about her. Her parted lips were smiling over some secret oftheir own.
When he entered, she looked at him, and an expression of infinite joycame over her. "How badly I acted to-night, Dorian!" she cried.
"Horribly!" he answered, gazing at her in amazement. "Horribly! Itwas dreadful. Are you ill? You have no idea what it was. You have noidea what I suffered."
The girl smiled. "Dorian," she answered, lingering over his name withlong-drawn music in her voice, as though it were sweeter than honey tothe red petals of her mouth. "Dorian, you should have understood. Butyou understand now, don't you?"
"Understand what?" he asked, angrily.
"Why I was so bad to-night. Why I shall always be bad. Why I shallnever act well again."
He shrugged his shoulders. "You are ill, I suppose. When you are illyou shouldn't act. You make yourself ridiculous. My friends werebored. I was bored."
She seemed not to listen to him. She was transfigured with joy. Anecstasy of happiness dominated her.
"Dorian, Dorian," she cried, "before I knew you, acting was the onereality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. Ithought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night and Portia theother. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordeliawere mine also. I believed in everything. The common people who actedwith me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world.I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came—oh, mybeautiful love!—and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me whatreality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I sawthrough the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant inwhich I had always played. To-night, for the first time, I becameconscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that themoonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, andthat the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were notwhat I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, somethingof which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand whatlove really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life!I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can everbe. What have I to do with the puppets of a play? When I came onto-night, I could not understand how it was that everything had gonefrom me. I thought that I was going to be wonderful. I found that Icould do nothing. Suddenly it dawned on my soul what it all meant.The knowledge was exquisite to me. I heard them hissing, and I smiled.What could they know of love such as ours? Take me away, Dorian—takeme away with you, where we can be quite alone. I hate the stage. Imight mimic a passion that I do not feel, but I cannot mimic one thatburns me like fire. Oh, Dorian, Dorian, you understand now what itsignifies? Even if I could do it, it would be profanation for me toplay at being in love. You have made me see that."
He flung himself down on the sofa and turned away his face. "You havekilled my love," he muttered.
She looked at him in wonder and laughed. He made no answer. She cameacross to him, and with her little fingers stroked his hair. She kneltdown and pressed his hands to her lips. He drew them away, and ashudder ran through him.
Then he leaped up and went to the door. "Yes," he cried, "you havekilled my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don't evenstir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you becauseyou were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because yourealized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to theshadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow andstupid. My God! how mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been!You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will neverthink of you. I will never mention your name. You don't know what youwere to me, once. Why, once ... Oh, I can't bear to think of it! Iwish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance ofmy life. How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art!Without your art, you are nothing. I would have made you famous,splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, and youwould have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress witha pretty face."
The girl grew white, and trembled. She clenched her hands together,and her voice seemed to catch in her throat. "You are not serious,Dorian?" she murmured. "You are acting."
"Acting! I leave that to you. You do it so well," he answeredbitterly.
She rose from her knees and, with a piteous expression of pain in herface, came across the room to him. She put her hand upon his arm andlooked into his eyes. He thrust her back. "Don't touch me!" he cried.
A low moan broke from her, and she flung herself at his feet and laythere like a trampled flower. "Dorian, Dorian, don't leave me!" shewhispered. "I am so sorry I didn't act well. I was thinking of youall the time. But I will try—indeed, I will try. It came so suddenlyacross me, my love for you. I think I should never have known it ifyou had not kissed me—if we had not kissed each other. Kiss me again,my love. Don't go away from me. I couldn't bear it. Oh! don't goaway from me. My brother ... No; never mind. He didn't mean it. Hewas in jest.... But you, oh! can't you forgive me for to-night? I willwork so hard and try to improve. Don't be cruel to me, because I loveyou better than anything in the world. After all, it is only once thatI have not pleased you. But you are quite right, Dorian. I shouldhave shown myself more of an artist. It was foolish of me, and yet Icouldn't help it. Oh, don't leave me, don't leave me." A fit ofpassionate sobbing choked her. She crouched on the floor like awounded thing, and Dorian Gray, with his beautiful eyes, looked down ather, and his chiselled lips curled in exquisite disdain. There isalways something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one hasceased to love. Sibyl Vane seemed to him to be absurdly melodramatic.Her tears and sobs annoyed him.
"I am going," he said at last in his calm clear voice. "I don't wishto be unkind, but I can't see you again. You have disappointed me."
She wept silently, and made no answer, but crept nearer. Her littlehands stretched blindly out, and appeared to be seeking for him. Heturned on his heel and left the room. In a few moments he was out ofthe theatre.
Where he went to he hardly knew. He remembered wandering through dimlylit streets, past gaunt, black-shadowed archways and evil-lookinghouses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called afterhim. Drunkards had reeled by, cursing and chattering to themselveslike monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upondoor-steps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts.
As the dawn was just breaking, he found himself close to Covent Garden.The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky holloweditself into a perfect pearl. Huge carts filled with nodding liliesrumbled slowly down the polished empty street. The air was heavy withthe perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him ananodyne for his pain. He followed into the market and watched the menunloading their waggons. A white-smocked carter offered him somecherries. He thanked him, wondered why he refused to accept any moneyfor them, and began to eat them listlessly. They had been plucked atmidnight, and the coldness of the moon had entered into them. A longline of boys carrying crates of striped tulips, and of yellow and redroses, defiled in front of him, threading their way through the huge,jade-green piles of vegetables. Under the portico, with its grey,sun-bleached pillars, loitered a troop of draggled bareheaded girls,waiting for the auction to be over. Others crowded round the swingingdoors of the coffee-house in the piazza. The heavy cart-horses slippedand stamped upon the rough stones, shaking their bells and trappings.Some of the drivers were lying asleep on a pile of sacks. Iris-neckedand pink-footed, the pigeons ran about picking up seeds.
After a little while, he hailed a hansom and drove home. For a fewmoments he loitered upon the doorstep, looking round at the silentsquare, with its blank, close-shuttered windows and its staring blinds.The sky was pure opal now, and the roofs of the houses glistened likesilver against it. From some chimney opposite a thin wreath of smokewas rising. It curled, a violet riband, through the nacre-coloured air.
In the huge gilt Venetian lantern, spoil of some Doge's barge, thathung from the ceiling of the great, oak-panelled hall of entrance,lights were still burning from three flickering jets: thin blue petalsof flame they seemed, rimmed with white fire. He turned them out and,having thrown his hat and cape on the table, passed through the librarytowards the door of his bedroom, a large octagonal chamber on theground floor that, in his new-born feeling for luxury, he had just haddecorated for himself and hung with some curious Renaissance tapestriesthat had been discovered stored in a disused attic at Selby Royal. Ashe was turning the handle of the door, his eye fell upon the portraitBasil Hallward had painted of him. He started back as if in surprise.Then he went on into his own room, looking somewhat puzzled. After hehad taken the button-hole out of his coat, he seemed to hesitate.Finally, he came back, went over to the picture, and examined it. Inthe dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-coloured silkblinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. Theexpression looked different. One would have said that there was atouch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.
He turned round and, walking to the window, drew up the blind. Thebright dawn flooded the room and swept the fantastic shadows into duskycorners, where they lay shuddering. But the strange expression that hehad noticed in the face of the portrait seemed to linger there, to bemore intensified even. The quivering ardent sunlight showed him thelines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been lookinginto a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing.
He winced and, taking up from the table an oval glass framed in ivoryCupids, one of Lord Henry's many presents to him, glanced hurriedlyinto its polished depths. No line like that warped his red lips. Whatdid it mean?
He rubbed his eyes, and came close to the picture, and examined itagain. There were no signs of any change when he looked into theactual painting, and yet there was no doubt that the whole expressionhad altered. It was not a mere fancy of his own. The thing washorribly apparent.
He threw himself into a chair and began to think. Suddenly thereflashed across his mind what he had said in Basil Hallward's studio theday the picture had been finished. Yes, he remembered it perfectly.He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and theportrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and theface on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; thatthe painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering andthought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and lovelinessof his then just conscious boyhood. Surely his wish had not beenfulfilled? Such things were impossible. It seemed monstrous even tothink of them. And, yet, there was the picture before him, with thetouch of cruelty in the mouth.
Cruelty! Had he been cruel? It was the girl's fault, not his. He haddreamed of her as a great artist, had given his love to her because hehad thought her great. Then she had disappointed him. She had beenshallow and unworthy. And, yet, a feeling of infinite regret came overhim, as he thought of her lying at his feet sobbing like a littlechild. He remembered with what callousness he had watched her. Whyhad he been made like that? Why had such a soul been given to him?But he had suffered also. During the three terrible hours that theplay had lasted, he had lived centuries of pain, aeon upon aeon oftorture. His life was well worth hers. She had marred him for amoment, if he had wounded her for an age. Besides, women were bettersuited to bear sorrow than men. They lived on their emotions. Theyonly thought of their emotions. When they took lovers, it was merelyto have some one with whom they could have scenes. Lord Henry had toldhim that, and Lord Henry knew what women were. Why should he troubleabout Sibyl Vane? She was nothing to him now.
But the picture? What was he to say of that? It held the secret ofhis life, and told his story. It had taught him to love his ownbeauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever lookat it again?
No; it was merely an illusion wrought on the troubled senses. Thehorrible night that he had passed had left phantoms behind it.Suddenly there had fallen upon his brain that tiny scarlet speck thatmakes men mad. The picture had not changed. It was folly to think so.
Yet it was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruelsmile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyesmet his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for thepainted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already, andwould alter more. Its gold would wither into grey. Its red and whiteroses would die. For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleckand wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. The picture, changed orunchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience. He wouldresist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more—would not, atany rate, listen to those subtle poisonous theories that in BasilHallward's garden had first stirred within him the passion forimpossible things. He would go back to Sibyl Vane, make her amends,marry her, try to love her again. Yes, it was his duty to do so. Shemust have suffered more than he had. Poor child! He had been selfishand cruel to her. The fascination that she had exercised over himwould return. They would be happy together. His life with her wouldbe beautiful and pure.
He got up from his chair and drew a large screen right in front of theportrait, shuddering as he glanced at it. "How horrible!" he murmuredto himself, and he walked across to the window and opened it. When hestepped out on to the grass, he drew a deep breath. The fresh morningair seemed to drive away all his sombre passions. He thought only ofSibyl. A faint echo of his love came back to him. He repeated hername over and over again. The birds that were singing in thedew-drenched garden seemed to be telling the flowers about her.