At half-past twelve next day Lord Henry Wotton strolled from Curzon Street over to the Albany to call on his uncle, Lord Fermor, a genial(1) if somewhat rough-mannered old bachelor, whom the outside world called selfish because it derived(2) no particular benefit from him, but who was considered generous by Society as he fed the people who amused him. His father had been our ambassador at Madrid, but had retired from the diplomatic service.
When Lord Henry entered the room, he found his uncle sitting in a rough shooting-coat, smoking and grumbling over The Times. “Well, Harry,” said the old gentleman, “what brings you out so early? I thought you dandies(3) never got up till two, and were not visible till five.”
“Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to get something out of you.”
“Money, I suppose,” said Lord Fermor. “Well, sit down and tell me all about it. Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything.”
“Yes,” murmured Lord Henry, “and when they grow older they know it. But I don’t want money. It is only people who pay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never pay mine. What I want is information: not useful information, of course; useless information.”
“Well, I can tell you anything.”
“How about Mr. Dorian Gray, Uncle George?” said Lord Henry languidly.
“Mr. Dorian Gray? Who is he?” asked Lord Fermor, knitting his bushy white eyebrows.
“That is what I have come to learn, Uncle George. Or rather, I know who he is. He is the last Lord Kelso’s grandson. His mother was a Devereux, Lady Margaret Devereux. I want you to tell me about his mother. What was she like? Whom did she marry? You have known nearly everybody in your time, so you might have known her. I am very much interested 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 her christening. She was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux, and made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow—a mere nobody, sir. Certainly. I remember the whole thing as if it happened yesterday. The poor chap was killed in a duel at Spa a few months after the marriage. There was an ugly story about it. They said Kelso got some rascally(4) adventurer, some Belgian brute, to insult his son-in-law in public, that the fellow spitted his man as if he had been a pigeon. The thing was hushed up. He brought his daughter back with him, I was told, and she never spoke to him again. Oh, yes; it was a bad business. The girl died, too, died within a year. So she left a son, did she? I had forgotten that. What sort of boy is he? If he is like his mother, he must be a good-looking chap.”
“He is very good-looking,” agreed Lord Henry.
“I hope he will fall into proper hands,” continued the old man. “He should have a pot of money waiting for him if Kelso did the right thing by him. His mother had money, too. All the Selby property came to her, through her grandfather. Her grandfather hated Kelso, thought him a mean dog. He was, too. Came to Madrid once when I was there. Egad(5), I was ashamed of him.”
“I don’t know,” answered Lord Henry. “I fancy that the boy will be well 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(6) her to behave as she did, I never could understand. She could have married anybody she chose. Carlington was mad after her. She was romantic, though. All the women of that family were. The men were a poor lot, but, egad! the women were wonderful. Carlington went on his knees to her. Told me so himself. She laughed at him, and there wasn’t a girl in London at the time who wasn’t after him. And by the way, Harry, talking about silly marriages, what is this humbug your father tells me about Dartmoor wanting to marry an American? 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 a steeplechase. They take things flying. I don’t think Dartmoor has a chance.”
“Who are her people?” grumbled the old gentleman. “Has she got any?”
Lord Henry shook his head. “American girls are as clever at concealing their parents, as English women are at concealing their past,” he said, rising to go.
“Is she pretty?”
“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”
“Why can’t these American women stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is the paradise for women.”
“It is. That is the reason why they are so excessively(7) anxious 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 me the information I wanted. I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.”
“Where are you lunching, Harry?”
“At Aunt Agatha’s. I have asked myself and Mr. Gray..”
The old gentleman growled and rang the bell for his servant. Lord Henry exited the house and turned his steps in the direction of Berkeley Square.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray’s parentage. A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wild weeks of happiness cut short by a hideous crime. Months of voiceless agony(8), and then a child born in pain. The mother snatched away by death, the boy left to the tyranny of an old and loveless man. Yes; it was an interesting background. It made Dorian more perfect, as it were. Behind every beautiful thing that existed, there was something tragic. He was a marvellous type, too, this lad, whom by so curious a chance he had met in Basil’s studio, or could be fashioned into a marvellous type, at any rate. Grace was his, and the white purity of boyhood, and beauty such as old Greek marbles kept for us. There was nothing that one could not do with him. He could be made a Titan or a toy. What a pity it was that such beauty was destined to fade! … And so easily influenced! Yes, Lord Henry had decided that he would try 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 had passed his aunt’s some distance, and, smiling to himself, turned back. When he entered the somewhat sombre hall, the butler told him that they had gone in to lunch. He gave one of the footmen his hat and stick and passed into the dining-room.
“Late as usual, Harry,” cried his aunt, shaking her head at him.
He invented an excuse, and having taken the vacant(9) seat next to her, looked round to see who was there. Dorian bowed to him shyly from the end of the table. Opposite was the Duchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature and good temper, much liked by every one who knew her. Next to her sat, on her right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a member of Parliament. The seat on her left was occupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerable charm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that he had to say before he was thirty. His own neighbour was Mrs. Vandeleur, one of his aunt’s oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women. He could never stand her.
“We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry,” cried the duchess, nodding pleasantly to him across the table. “Do you think he will really 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 should interfere.”
“I am told, on excellent authority, that her father keeps an American dry-goods store,” said Sir Thomas Burdon.
“My uncle has already suggested pork-packing, Sir Thomas.”
“Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?” asked the duchess, raising her large hands in wonder and accentuating the verb.
“American novels,” answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail(10).
The duchess looked puzzled.
“Don’t mind him, my dear,” whispered Lady Agatha. “He never means anything that he says.”
“When America was discovered,” said the parliament member—and he began to give some wearisome facts. The duchess sighed and cut in “I wish to goodness it never had been discovered at all!” she exclaimed. “Really, our girls have no chance nowadays. 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 the duchess vaguely. “I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And they dress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford to do the same.”
“They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,” chuckled Sir Thomas.
“Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the duchess.
“They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry.
Sir Thomas frowned. “I am afraid that your nephew is prejudiced against that great country,” he said to Lady Agatha. “I have travelled all over it and 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(11). “I don’t feel up to the journey.”
Sir Thomas waved his hand. ” The Americans are an extremely interesting people. They are absolutely reasonable. I think that is their special characteristic. Yes, Mr. Erskine, an absolutely reasonable people. I assure you there is no nonsense about the Americans.”
“How dreadful!” cried Lord Henry.
“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….” said the baronet.
“Was that a paradox?” asked Mr. Erskine. “I did not think so. Perhaps it was”
“Dear me!” said Lady Agatha, “how you men argue! I am sure I never can make out what you are talking about. Oh! Harry, I am quite vexed(12) with you. Why do you try to persuade our nice Mr. Dorian Gray to give up the East End? I assure you he would be quite invaluable. They would love his playing.”
“I want him to play to me,” cried Lord Henry, smiling.
“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 too ugly, too horrible, too distressing. There is something terribly morbid(13) in the modern sympathy with pain. One should sympathize with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life. The less said about life’s sores, the better.”
“Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me how to become young again.” the duchess changed the topic.
He thought for a moment. “Can you remember any great error that you committed in your early days, Duchess?” he asked, looking at her across the table.
“A great many, I fear,” she cried.
“Then commit them over again,” he said gravely. “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies(14).”
“A delightful theory!” she exclaimed. “I must put it into practice.”
“A dangerous theory!” came from Sir Thomas’s tight lips. Lady Agatha shook 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, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
A laugh ran round the table.
Lord Henry felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixed on him.He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. He charmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his ideas, laughing. Dorian Gray sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lips and wonder growing grave in his darkening eyes.
At last, liveried(15) in the costume of the age, reality entered the room in the shape of a servant to tell the duchess that her carriage was waiting. She wrung her hands in mock despair. “How annoying!” she cried. “I must go. I have to call for my husband at the club, to take him to some absurd meeting at Willis’s Rooms, where he is going to be in the chair. If I am late he is sure to be furious, and I couldn’t have a scene in this bonnet(16). It is far too fragile. A harsh word would ruin it. No, I must go, dear Agatha. Good-bye, Lord Henry, you are quite delightful and dreadfully demoralizing. I am sure I don’t know what to say about your views. You must come and dine with us some night. Tuesday?”
“For you I would throw over anybody, Duchess,” said Lord Henry with a bow.
“Ah! that is very nice, and very wrong of you,” she cried; “so mind you come”; and she swept out of the room, followed by Lady Agatha and the other ladies.
When Lord Henry had sat down again, Mr. Erskine moved round, and taking a 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. I should like to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovely as a Persian carpet and as unreal. But there is no literary public in England for anything except newspapers and encyclopaedias(17). Of all people in the world the English have the least sense of the beauty of literature.”
“I fear you are right,” answered Mr. Erskine. “I myself used to have literary ambitions, but I gave them up long ago. And now, my dear young friend, if you will allow me to call you so, may I ask if you really 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 if anything happens to our good duchess, we shall all look on you as being primarily(18) responsible. But I should like to talk to you about life. The generation into which I was born was tedious. Some day, when you are tired of London, come down to Treadley and expound(19) to me your philosophy of pleasure over some admirable Burgundy(20) I am fortunate enough 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 courteous bow. “And now I must bid good-bye to your excellent aunt.”
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. Do let me. And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so 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 with me, if you care to.”
1)genial (adj): amiable, friendly
2)derive (v):obtain something from (a specified source)
3)rascally (adj): being, characteristic of, or befitting a rascal (a mean, unprincipled, or dishonest person)
4)dandy(n): a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance
5)egad (exclamation): expressing surprise, anger, or affirmation
7)excessively(adv): to a greater degree or in greater amounts than is necessary, normal
9)vacant(adj): empty, unoccupied
10)quail(n):a small, short-tailed Old World game bird resembling a small partridge
11)plaintively(adv):in a sad or mournful way
12)vexed (adj): annoyed, frustrated, or worried
13)morbid (adj): characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease
14)folly (n): a stupid, silly mistake that betrays lack of good sense
15)livery (n, v): (dressed in a) special uniform worn by a servant or official
16)bonnet(n): a woman’s or child’s hat tied under the chin, typically with a brim framing the face
17)encyclopaedia(n): a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject and typically arranged alphabetically
18)primarily(adv) :for the most part; mainly
19)expound(v):resent and explain (a theory or idea) systematically and in detail
20)Burgundy(n): a wine from Burgundy, usually red in color