That evening, at eight-thirty, Dorian Gray was ushered into Lady Narborough’s drawing-room by bowing servants. He felt wildly excited, but his manner as he bent over his hostess’s hand was as easy and graceful as ever. Perhaps one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part.
It was a small party, got up rather in a hurry by Lady Narborough, who was a very clever woman. She had proved an excellent wife to one of our most tedious ambassadors, and having buried her husband properly in a marble mausoleum(1), which she had herself designed, and married off her daughters to some rich, rather elderly men, she devoted herself now to the pleasures of French fiction, French cookery, and French esprit(2) when she could get it.
Dorian was one of her especial favourites, and she always told him that she was extremely glad she had not met him in early life. “I know, my dear, I should have fallen madly in love with you,” she used to say, “and thrown my bonnet right over the mills for your sake. It is most fortunate that you were not thought of at the time.”
Her guests this evening were rather tedious. Two of the people Dorian had never seen before, and the others consisted of Lady Ruxton, an overdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose; Mrs. Erlynne, a pushing nobody, with a delightful lisp(3) and Venetian-red hair; Lady Alice Chapman, his hostess’s daughter, a dowdy dull girl, with one of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, are never remembered; and her husband.
He was rather sorry he had come, till Lady Narborough exclaimed: “How horrid of Henry Wotton to be so late! I sent round to him this morning on chance and he promised faithfully not to disappoint me.”
It was some consolation that Harry was to be there, and when the door opened and he heard his slow musical voice lending charm to some insincere apology, he ceased to feel bored.
But at dinner he could not eat anything. Plate after plate went away untasted. Lady Narborough kept scolding him, and now and then Lord Henry looked across at him, wondering at his silence and abstracted manner. From time to time the butler filled his glass with champagne. He drank eagerly, and his thirst seemed to increase.
“Dorian, what is the matter with you to-night? You are quite out of sorts.”
“I believe he is in love,” cried Lady Narborough, “and that he is afraid to tell me for fear I should be jealous. He is quite right. I certainly should.”
“Dear Lady Narborough,” murmured Dorian, smiling, “I have not been in love for a whole week—not, in fact, since Madame de Ferrol left town.”
“How you men can fall in love with that woman!” exclaimed the old lady. “She has remarried four times! But really, if you all worship Madame de Ferrol in this ridiculous way, I shall have to marry again so as to be in the fashion.”
“You will never marry again, Lady Narborough,” broke in Lord Henry. “You were far too happy. When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs.”
“Narborough wasn’t perfect,” cried the old lady.
“If he had been, you would not have loved him, my dear lady,” was the rejoinder. “Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects. You will never ask me to dinner again after saying this, I am afraid, Lady Narborough, but it is quite true.”
“Of course it is true, Lord Henry. If we women did not love you for your defects, where would you all be? Not one of you would ever be married. You would be a set of unfortunate bachelors. Not, however, that that would alter you much. Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.”
“Fin de siecle(4),” murmured Lord Henry.
“Fin du globe(5),” answered his hostess.
“I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.”
“Tut tut, Lord Henry, what are we to do with this misanthrope(6)? Well, we must look out for a suitable match for him. I shall go through Debrett carefully to-night and draw out a list of all the eligible(7) young ladies.”
“With their ages, Lady Narborough?” asked Dorian.
“Of course, with their ages, slightly edited. But nothing must be done in a hurry. I want it to be what The Morning Post calls a suitable alliance, and I want you both to be happy.”
“What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!” exclaimed Lord Henry. “A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.”
“Ah! what a cynic you are!” cried the old lady, pushing back her chair and nodding to Lady Ruxton. “You must come and dine with me soon again. You are really an admirable tonic(8).”
A smile curved Lord Henry’s lips, and he turned round and looked at Dorian.
“Are you better, my dear fellow?” he asked. “You seemed rather out of sorts at dinner.”
“I am quite well, Harry. I am tired. That is all.”
“You were charming last night. The little duchess is quite devoted to you. She tells me she is going down to Selby.”
“She has promised to come on the twentieth.”
“She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness. It is the feet of clay that make the image precious. Her feet are very pretty, but they are not feet of clay. White porcelain(9) feet, if you like. They have been through the fire, and what fire does not destroy, it hardens. She has had experiences.”
“How long has she been married?” asked Dorian.
“An eternity, she tells me. I believe, according to the peerage(10). By the way, Dorian, you ran off very early last night. You left before eleven. What did you do afterwards? Did you go straight home?”
Dorian glanced at him hurriedly and frowned.
“No, Harry,” he said at last, “I did not get home till nearly three.”
“Did you go to the club?”
“Yes,” he answered. Then he bit his lip. “No, I don’t mean that. I didn’t go to the club. I walked about. I forget what I did…. How inquisitive you are, Harry! You always want to know what one has been doing. I always want to forget what I have been doing. ”
Lord Henry shrugged his shoulders. “My dear fellow, as if I cared! Let us go up to the drawing-room. Something has happened to you, Dorian. Tell me what it is. You are not yourself to-night.”
“Don’t mind me, Harry. I am irritable(11), and out of temper. I shall come round and see you to-morrow, or next day. Make my excuses to Lady Narborough. I must go home.”
As he drove back to his own house, Dorian was conscious that the sense of terror he thought he had strangled had come back to him. Lord Henry’s casual questioning had made him lose his nerve for the moment.
It had to be done, he was sure of it. Not just Basil’s corpse, but his coat and shoes, had to be destroyed. He would do it that very night.
2/esprit(n): vividness of mind/wine
4/fin de siecle(French): the end of the (nineteenth) century
5/fin du globe(French): the end of the world
6/misanthrope(n): a person who hates humanity in general
7/eligible(Adj): desirable, fit for choice
8/tonic(n): a medicine that invigorates or strengthens
9/porcelain(n): a strong ceramic material
11/irritable(Adj): easily angered