an enigma wrapped in a schizophrenic (karabou) wrote in everydayreader,
an enigma wrapped in a schizophrenic
karabou
everydayreader

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, part 8


CHAPTER VIII

[...58] When his servant entered, he looked at him steadfastly, and
wondered if he had thought of peering behind the screen. The man was
quite impassive, and waited for his orders. Dorian lit a cigarette,
[59] and walked over to the glass and glanced into it. He could see
the reflection of Victor's face perfectly. It was like a placid mask
of servility. There was nothing to be afraid of, there. Yet he
thought it best to be on his guard.

Speaking very slowly, he told him to tell the housekeeper that he
wanted to see her, and then to go to the frame-maker's and ask him to
send two of his men round at once. It seemed to him that as the man
left the room he peered in the direction of the screen. Or was that
only his fancy?

After a few moments, Mrs. Leaf, a dear old lady in a black silk
dress, with a photograph of the late Mr. Leaf framed in a large gold
brooch at her neck, and old-fashioned thread mittens on her wrinkled
hands, bustled into the room.

"Well, Master Dorian," she said, "what can I do for you? I beg your
pardon, sir,"--here came a courtesy,--"I shouldn't call you Master
Dorian any more. But, Lord bless you, sir, I have known you since
you were a baby, and many's the trick you've played on poor old Leaf.
Not that you were not always a good boy, sir; but boys will be boys,
Master Dorian, and jam is a temptation to the young, isn't it, sir?"

He laughed. "You must always call me Master Dorian, Leaf. I will be
very angry with you if you don't. And I assure you I am quite as
fond of jam now as I used to be. Only when I am asked out to tea I
am never offered any. I want you to give me the key of the room at
the top of the house."

"The old school-room, Master Dorian? Why, it's full of dust. I must
get it arranged and put straight before you go into it. It's not fit
for you to see, Master Dorian. It is not, indeed."

"I don't want it put straight, Leaf. I only want the key."

"Well, Master Dorian, you'll be covered with cobwebs if you goes into
it. Why, it hasn't been opened for nearly five years,--not since his
lordship died."

He winced at the mention of his dead uncle's name. He had hateful
memories of him. "That does not matter, Leaf," he replied. "All I
want is the key."

"And here is the key, Master Dorian," said the old lady, after going
over the contents of her bunch with tremulously uncertain hands.
"Here is the key. I'll have it off the ring in a moment. But you
don't think of living up there, Master Dorian, and you so comfortable
here?"

"No, Leaf, I don't. I merely want to see the place, and perhaps
store something in it,--that is all. Thank you, Leaf. I hope your
rheumatism is better; and mind you send me up jam for breakfast."

Mrs. Leaf shook her head. "Them foreigners doesn't understand jam,
Master Dorian. They calls it 'compot.' But I'll bring it to you
myself some morning, if you lets me."

"That will be very kind of you, Leaf," he answered, looking at the
key; and, having made him an elaborate courtesy, the old lady left
the room, her face wreathed in smiles. She had a strong objection to
the French valet. It was a poor thing, she felt, for any one to be
born a foreigner.

[60] As the door closed, Dorian put the key in his pocket, and looked
round the room. His eye fell on a large purple satin coverlet
heavily embroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth-
century Venetian work that his uncle had found in a convent near
Bologna. Yes, that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing in. It
had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead. Now it was to hide
something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption
of death itself,--something that would breed horrors and yet would
never die. What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the
painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away
its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the
thing would still live on. It would be always alive.

He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told
Basil the true reason why he had wished to hide the picture away.
Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry's influence, and the
still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament.
The love that he bore him--for it was really love--had something
noble and intellectual in it. It was not that mere physical
admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when
the senses tire. It was such love as Michael Angelo had known, and
Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil
could have saved him. But it was too late now. The past could
always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do
that. But the future was inevitable. There were passions in him
that would find their terrible outlet, dreams that would make the
shadow of their evil real.

He took up from the couch the great purple-and-gold texture that
covered it, and, holding it in his hands, passed behind the screen.
Was the face on the canvas viler than before? It seemed to him that
it was unchanged; and yet his loathing of it was intensified. Gold
hair, blue eyes, and rose-red lips,--they all were there. It was
simply the expression that had altered. That was horrible in its
cruelty. Compared to what he saw in it of censure or rebuke, how
shallow Basil's reproaches about Sibyl Vane had been!--how shallow,
and of what little account! His own soul was looking out at him from
the canvas and calling him to judgment. A look of pain came across
him, and he flung the rich pall over the picture. As he did so, a
knock came to the door. He passed out as his servant entered.

"The persons are here, monsieur."

He felt that the man must be got rid of at once. He must not be
allowed to know where the picture was being taken to. There was
something sly about him, and he had thoughtful, treacherous eyes.
Sitting down at the writing-table, he scribbled a note to Lord Henry,
asking him to send him round something to read, and reminding him
that they were to meet at eight-fifteen that evening.

"Wait for an answer," he said, handing it to him, "and show the men
in here."

In two or three minutes there was another knock, and Mr. Ashton
himself, the celebrated frame-maker of South Audley Street, came in
with a somewhat rough-looking young assistant. Mr. Ashton was a
florid, red-whiskered little man, whose admiration for art was
considerably [61] tempered by the inveterate impecuniosity of most of
the artists who dealt with him. As a rule, he never left his shop.
He waited for people to come to him. But he always made an exception
in favor of Dorian Gray. There was something about Dorian that
charmed everybody. It was a pleasure even to see him.

"What can I do for you, Mr. Gray?" he said, rubbing his fat freckled
hands. "I thought I would do myself the honor of coming round in
person. I have just got a beauty of a frame, sir. Picked it up at a
sale. Old Florentine. Came from Fonthill, I believe. Admirably
suited for a religious picture, Mr. Gray."

"I am so sorry you have given yourself the trouble of coming round,
Mr. Ashton. I will certainly drop in and look at the frame,--though
I don't go in much for religious art,--but to-day I only want a
picture carried to the top of the house for me. It is rather heavy,
so I thought I would ask you to lend me a couple of your men."

"No trouble at all, Mr. Gray. I am delighted to be of any service to
you. Which is the work of art, sir?"

"This," replied Dorian, moving the screen back. "Can you move it,
covering and all, just as it is? I don't want it to get scratched
going up-stairs."

"There will be no difficulty, sir," said the genial frame-maker,
beginning, with the aid of his assistant, to unhook the picture from
the long brass chains by which it was suspended. "And, now, where
shall we carry it to, Mr. Gray?"

"I will show you the way, Mr. Ashton, if you will kindly follow me.
Or perhaps you had better go in front. I am afraid it is right at
the top of the house. We will go up by the front staircase, as it is
wider."

He held the door open for them, and they passed out into the hall and
began the ascent. The elaborate character of the frame had made the
picture extremely bulky, and now and then, in spite of the obsequious
protests of Mr. Ashton, who had a true tradesman's dislike of seeing
a gentleman doing anything useful, Dorian put his hand to it so as to
help them.

"Something of a load to carry, sir," gasped the little man, when they
reached the top landing. And he wiped his shiny forehead.

"A terrible load to carry," murmured Dorian, as he unlocked the door
that opened into the room that was to keep for him the curious secret
of his life and hide his soul from the eyes of men.

He had not entered the place for more than four years,--not, indeed,
since he had used it first as a play-room when he was a child and
then as a study when he grew somewhat older. It was a large, well-
proportioned room, which had been specially built by the last Lord
Sherard for the use of the little nephew whom, being himself
childless, and perhaps for other reasons, he had always hated and
desired to keep at a distance. It did not appear to Dorian to have
much changed. There was the huge Italian cassone, with its
fantastically-painted panels and its tarnished gilt mouldings, in
which he had so often hidden himself as a boy. There was the
satinwood bookcase filled with his dog-eared school-books. On the
wall behind it was hanging the same [62] ragged Flemish tapestry
where a faded king and queen were playing chess in a garden, while a
company of hawkers rode by, carrying hooded birds on their gauntleted
wrists. How well he recalled it all! Every moment of his lonely
childhood came back to him, as he looked round. He remembered the
stainless purity of his boyish life, and it seemed horrible to him
that it was here that the fatal portrait was to be hidden away. How
little he had thought, in those dead days, of all that was in store
for him!

But there was no other place in the house so secure from prying eyes
as this. He had the key, and no one else could enter it. Beneath
its purple pall, the face painted on the canvas could grow bestial,
sodden, and unclean. What did it matter? No one could see it. He
himself would not see it. Why should he watch the hideous corruption
of his soul? He kept his youth,--that was enough. And, besides,
might not his nature grow finer, after all? There was no reason that
the future should be so full of shame. Some love might come across
his life, and purify him, and shield him from those sins that seemed
to be already stirring in spirit and in flesh,--those curious
unpictured sins whose very mystery lent them their subtlety and their
charm. Perhaps, some day, the cruel look would have passed away from
the scarlet sensitive mouth, and he might show to the world Basil
Hallward's masterpiece.

No; that was impossible. The thing upon the canvas was growing old,
hour by hour, and week by week. Even if it escaped the hideousness
of sin, the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks would
become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow's-feet would creep round the
fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its
brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross,
as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat,
the cold blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in
the uncle who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picture
had to be concealed. There was no help for it.

"Bring it in, Mr. Ashton, please," he said, wearily, turning round.
"I am sorry I kept you so long. I was thinking of something else."

"Always glad to have a rest, Mr. Gray," answered the frame-maker, who
was still gasping for breath. "Where shall we put it, sir?"

"Oh, anywhere, Here, this will do. I don't want to have it hung up.
Just lean it against the wall. Thanks."

"Might one look at the work of art, sir?"

Dorian started. "It would not interest you, Mr. Ashton," he said,
keeping his eye on the man. He felt ready to leap upon him and fling
him to the ground if he dared to lift the gorgeous hanging that
concealed the secret of his life. "I won't trouble you any more now.
I am much obliged for your kindness in coming round."

"Not at all, not at all, Mr. Gray. Ever ready to do anything for
you, sir." And Mr. Ashton tramped down-stairs, followed by the
assistant, who glanced back at Dorian with a look of shy wonder in
his rough, uncomely face. He had never seen any one so marvellous.

When the sound of their footsteps had died away, Dorian locked [63]
the door, and put the key in his pocket. He felt safe now. No one
would ever look on the horrible thing. No eye but his would ever see
his shame.

On reaching the library he found that it was just after five o'clock,
and that the tea had been already brought up. On a little table of
dark perfumed wood thickly incrusted with nacre, a present from his
guardian's wife, Lady Radley, who had spent the preceding winter in
Cairo, was lying a note from Lord Henry, and beside it was a book
bound in yellow paper, the cover slightly torn and the edges soiled.
A copy of the third edition of the St. James's Gazette had been
placed on the tea-tray. It was evident that Victor had returned. He
wondered if he had met the men in the hall as they were leaving the
house and had wormed out of them what they had been doing. He would
be sure to miss the picture,--had no doubt missed it already, while
he had been laying the tea-things. The screen had not been replaced,
and the blank space on the wall was visible. Perhaps some night he
might find him creeping up-stairs and trying to force the door of the
room. It was a horrible thing to have a spy in one's house. He had
heard of rich men who had been blackmailed all their lives by some
servant who had read a letter, or overheard a conversation, or picked
up a card with an address, or found beneath a pillow a withered
flower or a bit of crumpled lace.

He sighed, and, having poured himself out some tea, opened Lord
Henry's note. It was simply to say that he sent him round the
evening paper, and a book that might interest him, and that he would
be at the club at eight-fifteen. He opened the St. James's
languidly, and looked through it. A red pencil-mark on the fifth
page caught his eye. He read the following paragraph:

"INQUEST ON AN ACTRESS.--An inquest was held this morning at the Bell
Tavern, Hoxton Road, by Mr. Danby, the District Coroner, on the body
of Sibyl Vane, a young actress recently engaged at the Royal Theatre,
Holborn. A verdict of death by misadventure was returned.
Considerable sympathy was expressed for the mother of the deceased,
who was greatly affected during the giving of her own evidence, and
that of Dr. Birrell, who had made the post-mortem examination of the
deceased."

He frowned slightly, and, tearing the paper in two, went across the
room and flung the pieces into a gilt basket. How ugly it all was!
And how horribly real ugliness made things! He felt a little annoyed
with Lord Henry for having sent him the account. And it was
certainly stupid of him to have marked it with red pencil. Victor
might have read it. The man knew more than enough English for that.

Perhaps he had read it, and had begun to suspect something. And,
yet, what did it matter? What had Dorian Gray to do with Sibyl
Vane's death? There was nothing to fear. Dorian Gray had not killed
her.

His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What
was it, he wondered. He went towards the little pearl-colored
octagonal stand, that had always looked to him like the work of some
[64] strange Egyptian bees who wrought in silver, and took the volume
up. He flung himself into an arm-chair, and began to turn over the
leaves. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the
strangest book he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite
raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world
were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly
dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had
never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being,
indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who
spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the
passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except
his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods
through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere
artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called
virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call
sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled
style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of
technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that
characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French
school of Décadents. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as
orchids, and as evil in color. The life of the senses was described
in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times
whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval
saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a
poisonous book. The heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its
pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences,
the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex
refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of
the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of revery, a
malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and
the creeping shadows.

Cloudless, and pierced by one solitary star, a copper-green sky
gleamed through the windows. He read on by its wan light till he
could read no more. Then, after his valet had reminded him several
times of the lateness of the hour, he got up, and, going into the
next room, placed the book on the little Florentine table that always
stood at his bedside, and began to dress for dinner.

It was almost nine o'clock before he reached the club, where he found
Lord Henry sitting alone, in the morning-room, looking very bored.

"I am so sorry, Harry," he cried, "but really it is entirely your
fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot what the
time was."

"I thought you would like it," replied his host, rising from his
chair.

"I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is
a great difference."

"Ah, if you have discovered that, you have discovered a great deal,"
murmured Lord Henry, with his curious smile. "Come, let us go in to
dinner. It is dreadfully late, and I am afraid the champagne will be
too much iced."
  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic
  • 1 comment