At half-past twelve next day Lord Henry Wotton strolled from Curzon Stree_ver to the Albany to call on his uncle, Lord Fermor, a genial if somewha_ough-mannered old bachelor, whom the outside world called selfish because i_erived no particular benefit from him, but who was considered generous b_ociety as he fed the people who amused him. His father had been ou_mbassador at Madrid when Isabella was young and Prim unthought of, but ha_etired from the diplomatic service in a capricious moment of annoyance on no_eing offered the Embassy at Paris, a post to which he considered that he wa_ully entitled by reason of his birth, his indolence, the good English of hi_ispatches, and his inordinate passion for pleasure. The son, who had been hi_ather's secretary, had resigned along with his chief, somewhat foolishly a_as thought at the time, and on succeeding some months later to the title, ha_et himself to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doin_bsolutely nothing. He had two large town houses, but preferred to live i_hambers as it was less trouble, and took most of his meals at his club. H_aid some attention to the management of his collieries in the Midlan_ounties, excusing himself for this taint of industry on the ground that th_ne advantage of having coal was that it enabled a gentleman to afford th_ecency of burning wood on his own hearth. In politics he was a Tory, excep_hen the Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused them fo_eing a pack of Radicals. He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him, and _error to most of his relations, whom he bullied in turn. Only England coul_ave produced him, and he always said that the country was going to the dogs.
His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for hi_rejudices.
When Lord Henry entered the room, he found his uncle sitting in a roug_hooting-coat, smoking a cheroot and grumbling over The Times. "Well, Harry,"
said the old gentleman, "what brings you out so early? I thought you dandie_ever got up till two, and were not visible till five."
"Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to get somethin_ut of you."
"Money, I suppose," said Lord Fermor, making a wry face. "Well, sit down an_ell me all about it. Young people, nowadays, imagine that money i_verything."
"Yes," murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; "and whe_hey grow older they know it. But I don't want money. It is only people wh_ay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never pay mine. Credit i_he capital of a younger son, and one lives charmingly upon it. Besides, _lways deal with Dartmoor's tradesmen, and consequently they never bother me.
What I want is information: not useful information, of course; useles_nformation."
"Well, I can tell you anything that is in an English Blue Book, Harry, although those fellows nowadays write a lot of nonsense. When I was in th_iplomatic, things were much better. But I hear they let them in now b_xamination. What can you expect? Examinations, sir, are pure humbug fro_eginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he i_ot a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him."
"Mr. Dorian Gray does not belong to Blue Books, Uncle George," said Lord Henr_anguidly.
"Mr. Dorian Gray? Who is he?" asked Lord Fermor, knitting his bushy whit_yebrows.
"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 Margare_evereaux. I want you to tell me about his mother. What was she like? Whom di_he marry? You have known nearly everybody in your time, so you might hav_nown her. I am very much interested in Mr. Gray at present. I have only jus_et 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 a_xtraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux, and made all the me_rantic by running away with a penniless young fellow— a mere nobody, sir, _ubaltern in a foot regiment, or something of that kind. Certainly. I remembe_he whole thing as if it happened yesterday. The poor chap was killed in _uel at Spa a few months after the marriage. There was an ugly story about it.
They said Kelso got some rascally adventurer, some Belgian brute, to insul_is son-in-law in public—paid him, sir, to do it, paid him— and that th_ellow spitted his man as if he had been a pigeon. The thing was hushed up, but, egad, Kelso ate his chop alone at the club for some time afterwards. H_rought his daughter back with him, I was told, and she never spoke to hi_gain. 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? I_e is like his mother, he must be a good-looking chap."
"He is very good-looking," assented Lord Henry.
"I hope he will fall into proper hands," continued the old man. "He shoul_ave a pot of money waiting for him if Kelso did the right thing by him. Hi_other had money, too. All the Selby property came to her, through he_randfather. Her grandfather hated Kelso, thought him a mean dog. He was, too.
Came to Madrid once when I was there. Egad, I was ashamed of him. The Quee_sed to ask me about the English noble who was always quarrelling with th_abmen about their fares. They made quite a story of it. I didn't dare show m_ace at Court for a month. I hope he treated his grandson better than he di_he jarvies."
"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 mothe_as very beautiful?"
"Margaret Devereux was one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw, Harry. Wha_n earth induced her to behave as she did, I never could understand. She coul_ave married anybody she chose. Carlington was mad after her. She wa_omantic, 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. Tol_e so himself. She laughed at him, and there wasn't a girl in London at th_ime who wasn't after him. And by the way, Harry, talking about sill_arriages, what is this humbug your father tells me about Dartmoor wanting t_arry 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, strikin_he 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. The_ake 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 thei_arents, as English women are at concealing their past," he said, rising t_o.
"They are pork-packers, I suppose?"
"I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor's sake. I am told that pork-packing i_he most lucrative profession in America, after politics."
"Is she pretty?"
"She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secre_f their charm."
"Why can't these American women stay in their own country? They are alway_elling us that it is the paradise for women."
"It is. That is the reason why, like Eve, they are so excessively anxious t_et out of it," said Lord Henry. "Good-bye, Uncle George. I shall be late fo_unch, if I stop any longer. Thanks for giving me the information I wanted. _lways like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my ol_nes."
"Where are you lunching, Harry?"
"At Aunt Agatha's. I have asked myself and Mr. Gray. He is her lates_rotege."
"Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more with he_harity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinks that I hav_othing to do but to write cheques for her silly fads."
"All right, Uncle George, I'll tell her, but it won't have any effect.
Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is their distinguishin_haracteristic."
The old gentleman growled approvingly and rang the bell for his servant. Lor_enry passed up the low arcade into Burlington Street and turned his steps i_he direction of Berkeley Square.
So that was the story of Dorian Gray's parentage. Crudely as it had been tol_o him, it had yet stirred him by its suggestion of a strange, almost moder_omance. A beautiful woman risking everything for a mad passion. A few wil_eeks of happiness cut short by a hideous, treacherous crime. Months o_oiceless agony, and then a child born in pain. The mother snatched away b_eath, the boy left to solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man.
Yes; it was an interesting background. It posed the lad, made him mor_erfect, as it were. Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there wa_omething tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower migh_low… . And how charming he had been at dinner the night before, as wit_tartled eyes and lips parted in frightened pleasure he had sat opposite t_im at the club, the red candleshades staining to a richer rose the wakenin_onder of his face. Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin.
He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow… . There was somethin_erribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was lik_t. To project one's soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there fo_ moment; to hear one's own intellectual views echoed back to one with all th_dded music of passion and youth; to convey one's temperament into another a_hough it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy i_hat—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited an_ulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly commo_n its aims… . He was a marvellous type, too, this lad, whom by so curious _hance he had met in Basil's studio, or could be fashioned into a marvellou_ype, at any rate. Grace was his, and the white purity of boyhood, and beaut_uch as old Greek marbles kept for us. There was nothing that one could not d_ith him. He could be made a Titan or a toy. What a pity it was that suc_eauty was destined to fade! … And Basil? From a psychological point of view, how interesting he was! The new manner in art, the fresh mode of looking a_ife, suggested so strangely by the merely visible presence of one who wa_nconscious of it all; the silent spirit that dwelt in dim woodland, an_alked unseen in open field, suddenly showing herself, Dryadlike and no_fraid, because in his soul who sought for her there had been wakened tha_onderful vision to which alone are wonderful things revealed; the mere shape_nd patterns of things becoming, as it were, refined, and gaining a kind o_ymbolical value, as though they were themselves patterns of some other an_ore perfect form whose shadow they made real: how strange it all was! H_emembered something like it in history. Was it not Plato, that artist i_hought, who had first analyzed it? Was it not Buonarotti who had carved it i_he coloured marbles of a sonnet-sequence? But in our own century it wa_trange… . Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait. He woul_eek to dominate him—had already, indeed, half done so. He would make tha_onderful spirit his own. There was something fascinating in this son of lov_nd death.
Suddenly he stopped and glanced up at the houses. He found that he had passe_is aunt's some distance, and, smiling to himself, turned back. When h_ntered the somewhat sombre hall, the butler told him that they had gone in t_unch. He gave one of the footmen his hat and stick and passed into th_ining-room.
"Late as usual, Harry," cried his aunt, shaking her head at him.
He invented a facile excuse, and having taken the vacant seat next to her, looked round to see who was there. Dorian bowed to him shyly from the end o_he table, a flush of pleasure stealing into his cheek. Opposite was th_uchess of Harley, a lady of admirable good-nature and good temper, much like_y every one who knew her, and of those ample architectural proportions tha_n women who are not duchesses are described by contemporary historians a_toutness. Next to her sat, on her right, Sir Thomas Burdon, a Radical membe_f Parliament, who followed his leader in public life and in private lif_ollowed the best cooks, dining with the Tories and thinking with th_iberals, in accordance with a wise and well-known rule. The post on her lef_as occupied by Mr. Erskine of Treadley, an old gentleman of considerabl_harm and culture, who had fallen, however, into bad habits of silence, having, as he explained once to Lady Agatha, said everything that he had t_ay before he was thirty. His own neighbour was Mrs. Vandeleur, one of hi_unt's oldest friends, a perfect saint amongst women, but so dreadfully dowd_hat she reminded one of a badly bound hymn-book. Fortunately for him she ha_n the other side Lord Faudel, a most intelligent middle-aged mediocrity, a_ald as a ministerial statement in the House of Commons, with whom she wa_onversing in that intensely earnest manner which is the one unpardonabl_rror, as he remarked once himself, that all really good people fall into, an_rom which none of them ever quite escape.
"We are talking about poor Dartmoor, Lord Henry," cried the duchess, noddin_leasantly to him across the table. "Do you think he will really marry thi_ascinating 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, looking supercilious.
"My uncle has already suggested pork-packing Sir Thomas."
"Dry-goods! What are American dry-goods?" asked the duchess, raising her larg_ands in wonder and accentuating the verb.
"American novels," answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.
The duchess looked puzzled.
"Don't mind him, my dear," whispered Lady Agatha. "He never means anythin_hat he says."
"When America was discovered," said the Radical member— and he began to giv_ome wearisome facts. Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, h_xhausted his listeners. The duchess sighed and exercised her privilege o_nterruption. "I wish to goodness it never had been discovered at all!" sh_xclaimed. "Really, our girls have no chance nowadays. It is most unfair."
"Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered," said Mr. Erskine; "_yself would say that it had merely been detected."
"Oh! but I have seen specimens of the inhabitants," answered the duches_aguely. "I must confess that most of them are extremely pretty. And the_ress well, too. They get all their dresses in Paris. I wish I could afford t_o the same."
"They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris," chuckled Sir Thomas, who had a large wardrobe of Humour's cast-off clothes.
"Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?" inquired th_uchess.
"They go to America," murmured Lord Henry.
Sir Thomas frowned. "I am afraid that your nephew is prejudiced against tha_reat country," he said to Lady Agatha. "I have travelled all over it in car_rovided by the directors, who, in such matters, are extremely civil. I assur_ou that it is an education to visit it."
"But must we really see Chicago in order to be educated?" asked Mr. Erskin_laintively. "I don't feel up to the journey."
Sir Thomas waved his hand. "Mr. Erskine of Treadley has the world on hi_helves. We practical men like to see things, not to read about them. Th_mericans are an extremely interesting people. They are absolutely reasonable.
I think that is their distinguishing characteristic. Yes, Mr. Erskine, a_bsolutely reasonable people. I assure you there is no nonsense about th_mericans."
"How dreadful!" cried Lord Henry. "I can stand brute force, but brute reaso_s quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hittin_elow the intellect."
"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… ." rejoined the baronet.
"Was that a paradox?" asked Mr. Erskine. "I did not think so. Perhaps it was.
Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see i_n the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them."
"Dear me!" said Lady Agatha, "how you men argue! I am sure I never can mak_ut what you are talking about. Oh! Harry, I am quite vexed with you. Why d_ou try to persuade our nice Mr. Dorian Gray to give up the East End? I assur_ou he would be quite invaluable. They would love his playing."
"I want him to play to me," cried Lord Henry, smiling, and he looked down th_able and caught a bright answering glance.
"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, to_orrible, too distressing. There is something terribly morbid in the moder_ympathy with pain. One should sympathize with the colour, the beauty, the jo_f life. The less said about life's sores, the better."
"Still, the East End is a very important problem," remarked Sir Thomas with _rave shake of the head.
"Quite so," answered the young lord. "It is the problem of slavery, and we tr_o solve it by amusing the slaves."
The politician looked at him keenly. "What change do you propose, then?" h_sked.
Lord Henry laughed. "I don't desire to change anything in England except th_eather," he answered. "I am quite content with philosophic contemplation.
But, as the nineteenth century has gone bankrupt through an over-expenditur_f sympathy, I would suggest that we should appeal to science to put u_traight. The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and th_dvantage of science is that it is not emotional."
"But we have such grave responsibilities," ventured Mrs. Vandeleur timidly.
"Terribly grave," echoed Lady Agatha.
Lord Henry looked over at Mr. Erskine. "Humanity takes itself too seriously.
It is the world's original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, histor_ould have been different."
"You are really very comforting," warbled the duchess. "I have always fel_ather guilty when I came to see your dear aunt, for I take no interest at al_n the East End. For the future I shall be able to look her in the fac_ithout a blush."
"A blush is very becoming, Duchess," remarked Lord Henry.
"Only when one is young," she answered. "When an old woman like mysel_lushes, it is a very bad sign. Ah! Lord Henry, I wish you would tell me ho_o become young again."
He thought for a moment. "Can you remember any great error that you committe_n 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, on_as merely to repeat one's follies."
"A delightful theory!" she exclaimed. "I must put it into practice."
"A dangerous theory!" came from Sir Thomas's tight lips. Lady Agatha shook he_ead, but could not help being amused. Mr. Erskine listened.
"Yes," he continued, "that is one of the great secrets of life. Nowadays mos_eople die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is to_ate that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."
A laugh ran round the table.
He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air an_ransformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fanc_nd winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into _hilosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music o_leasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenu_or being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. He_hite feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seethin_rape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawle_n red foam over the vat's black, dripping, sloping sides. It was a_xtraordinary improvisation. He felt that the eyes of Dorian Gray were fixe_n him, and the consciousness that amongst his audience there was one whos_emperament he wished to fascinate seemed to give his wit keenness and to len_olour to his imagination. He was brilliant, fantastic, irresponsible. H_harmed his listeners out of themselves, and they followed his pipe, laughing.
Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him, but sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lips and wonder growing grave in hi_arkening eyes.
At last, liveried in the costume of the age, reality entered the room in th_hape of a servant to tell the duchess that her carriage was waiting. Sh_rung her hands in mock despair. "How annoying!" she cried. "I must go. I hav_o call for my husband at the club, to take him to some absurd meeting a_illis's Rooms, where he is going to be in the chair. If I am late he is sur_o be furious, and I couldn't have a scene in this bonnet. It is far to_ragile. 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 _on't know what to say about your views. You must come and dine with us som_ight. Tuesday? Are you disengaged 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 _hair 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 shoul_ike to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovely as a Persia_arpet and as unreal. But there is no literary public in England for anythin_xcept newspapers, primers, and encyclopaedias. Of all people in the world th_nglish have the least sense of the beauty of literature."
"I fear you are right," answered Mr. Erskine. "I myself used to have literar_mbitions, but I gave them up long ago. And now, my dear young friend, if yo_ill allow me to call you so, may I ask if you really meant all that you sai_o 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 anythin_appens to our good duchess, we shall all look on you as being primaril_esponsible. But I should like to talk to you about life. The generation int_hich I was born was tedious. Some day, when you are tired of London, com_own to Treadley and expound to me your philosophy of pleasure over som_dmirable Burgundy I am fortunate enough to possess."
"I shall be charmed. A visit to Treadley would be a great privilege. It has _erfect host, and a perfect library."
"You will complete it," answered the old gentleman with a courteous bow. "An_ow I must bid good-bye to your excellent aunt. I am due at the Athenaeum. I_s the hour when we sleep there."
"All of you, Mr. Erskine?"
"Forty of us, in forty arm-chairs. We are practising for an English Academy o_etters."
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 m_ome with you," he murmured.
"But I thought you had promised Basil Hallward to go and see him," answere_ord 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 wonderfull_s you do."
"Ah! I have talked quite enough for to-day," said Lord Henry, smiling. "All _ant now is to look at life. You may come and look at it with me, if you car_o."