Authors: Oscar Wilde
“Some of them are nice,” he said to Helen.
“Nice?” said Helen. She yawned loudly.
“Well, there are some beautiful ones,” considered Dorian, continuing to roam the audience through the optical lenses. It felt wrong to be looking at decent women this way, like they were pets that were up for purchase.
“What about the one in the yellow dress with the red hair?” said Helen, then murmured in his ear, “Don't be afraid to skip past the ugly ones. The old and tired had their time. They've been plucked and now can only wither. Like every fruit and flower, humans, too, go bad and rot.”
Dorian frowned through the glasses. There was more than one redhead, but he couldn't spot any in a yellow dress . . . and then there she was. A tall, slender girl with a surprisingly curvy physique and hair as fiery as a burning sun. He recognized her at once.
“Ah, I know that one!” he exclaimed.
“Ah, you do?” said Helen with some intrigue. “She's a magnificent-looking creature. Where did you come across her?”
“I will tell you, Helen, but you mustn't be unsympathetic about it,” he warned, for she could get very jealous when she was excluded from anything that bore even a taste of the libidinous.
“After all,” he went on. “It never would have happened if I had not met you. You filled me with a wild desire to know everything about life. For days after I met you, something seemed to throb in my veins. I had a passion for sensations. . . . Well, one evening at about seven o'clock, I was determined to go out in search of some adventure. I felt that this gray monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners, and its splendid sins, as you once phrased it, must have something in store for me. I fancied a thousand things. The mere danger gave me a sense of delight. I remembered what you had said to me on that wonderful evening when we first dined together, about the search for beauty being the real secret of life. I don't know what I expected, but I went out and wandered eastward, soon losing my way in a labyrinth of grimy streets and black grassless squares. About half past eight I passed by an absurd little theater, with great flaring gas jets and gaudy playbills. You will laugh at me, I know, but I really went in and paid a whole guinea for the stage box. But, oh, the night I had! It was so worth remembering that I vowed to forget it immediately lest I tarnish its luster.”
As he spoke, Helen watched him with a look of pride on her face, like a mother whose son has come home after a long time away to deliver her his riches. She could take credit for all the changes in him. His nature had developed like a flower, had born blossoms of scarlet flame. He was no longer the restrained, inexperienced boy that Helen had met in Rosemary's studio. Out of its hiding place had crept his soul, and desire had come to meet it on the way. That pleased Helen, which in part pleased Dorian, given that he felt oddly compelled to obey her, as if she were a Goddess who would ruin him if he didn't earn her enchantments.
But since the incident with Rosemary, he'd felt conflicted. There was great fun in being sinful, in sucking from the nectar of youth before it ran out, but at what cost? He'd been cruel to Rosemary, deflowered her in a rage of greed, taking advantage of her vulnerable love for him. And yet, curiously enough, he'd felt a love for her, too. As he started making love to her, he'd wanted to excite and fulfill her. It wasn't until the end of their lovemaking that a darkness had roused in him and he heard Helen's maddening orders to punish without mercy.
She sighed with contentment.
“There are exquisite things in store for you,” said Helen.
“This is merely the beginning. Tell me, who is the divine redhead?”
“Her name is Sybil Vane.”
“Never heard of her,” said Helen.
“I'm afraid it may remain that way,” said Dorian. “She's a mediocre actressâtoo mediocre to be terrible, in fact. She merely blends in with the dreadful scenery.”
Helen laughed at the sound of her own wisdom coming out of Dorian's mouth. Like any disease looking to thrive, it was good news to be contagious.
“My dear,” she began. “No tawdry girl like that could be anything but mediocre. She's designed to be a decorative sex object. Girls like her never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.”
Dorian considered Helen's words. He thought of how beautiful Rosemary was, with eyes so blue they could color the sky; her bashful smile; her chestnut hair that fell like dark leaves around her pale, heart-shaped face. There was something of the fawn in her shy grace and startled eyes. The curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her cool, ivory hands around his hard cock had been so delicate and willing to learn.
“There are beautiful women who are also geniuses,” said Dorian, returning the glasses to Helen's lap. “Do you think my nature so shallow?”
“No, I think your nature so deep. My dear Dorian, I am analyzing women at present for the very motive of your pleasure. But you seem to gaze upon these gazelles as potential players in actual conversation. For that sport, there are only a few women in London worth talking to, and you're talking to one of them now.”
“What about Rosemary?” he asked. “Would you relegate her to the lowly majority, or does she get residence in your high quarters?”
“Rosemary is a fine painter,” Helen said. “She can articulate a paintbrush wondrously. But she puts everything that is charming in her into her work. The consequence is that she has nothing left for life but her prejudices, her principles, and her pitifully common sense. The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently, are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of secondrate sonnets makes one quite irresistible. Such a person lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize. Rosemary is no exception. Why, the picture she painted of you! All her desires turned to oil.”
Dorian shook his head. To hear of Rosemary discussed this way was maddening. He couldn't remember ever having felt so defensive ofânor intrigued byâsomeone. He thought of Rosemary's little animal screams as he plunged into her, and how she'd writhed under his mouth when he feasted between her thighs, moving her closer and closer to oblivion. How sweet she had tasted. And what desires she hadâturned to oil, perhaps, but also to sexual juices that had run down his lips and chin. Helen had no idea!
“Rosemary has not merely art in her, but she has personality also, and you have often told me that it is personalities, not principles, that move the age.”
“Yes, that does sound like something I would say,” said Helen. She was distracted, fishing around in her reticule. She withdrew a plump cigarette.
“You fucked her, didn't you?” said Helen.
Dorian felt his mouth drop open. Well, she had some idea, alright.
“Oh, the scandal of it all,” mocked Helen. She lit the cigarette and sucked with a hiss. The musky smell of opium enveloped them.
“You must have a cigarette,” continued Helen. “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.”
She held the case out to him.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“You haven't learned how to keep a secret yet,” she said.
Dorian frowned. “I didn't say a word to anyone.”
Helen smirked and held a finger to his lips. “Not here,” she said. “Here,” and dabbed the middle of his forehead with two pointed fingers. “Your eyes say it all.”
Dorian was dumbfounded. Helen offered the cigarette case to him again.
“Your cigarettes are always a bit dangerous,” said Dorian, not wanting to become as obliterated as he had the last time he'd been to see Sybil Vane perform. “May I have one that is just tobacco?”
“I'm sorry, but when I go to the theater, I prepare for the greatest of boredoms. You'll have to make do with these. Here, take this oneâit's thin.”
Dorian accepted. Before making Helen's acquaintance, he never much cared for smoking, but now he ardently enjoyed it. Within the first inhalation, he felt a fuzzy calm lay into his brain. The touch of opium made clay of his senses, rolling them into a sluggish blob.
“Tell me about the actress,” Helen said, making no secret of the fact that hearing such flattering talk about Rosemary disagreed with her. “Was she worth the trouble? Would you like to try her again?”
“I didn't try her at all,” Dorian said, agitation managing to poke its way through the haze. “After the performance, I took up with a group of charming monsters and by the time I parted with them I was so addled with opium that I had trouble collecting myself for pursuit. When I got to her dressing room, she was gone.”
“Hmm,” considered Helen. “She is beautiful, and the initial sight of her ignited in me a wicked curiosity. I must say, my dear, I'm craving a taste of her.”
Dorian had to agreeâshe was lovely to behold. A faint blush, like the shadow of a rose in a mirror of silver, came to her cheeks as she glanced at the crowded enthusiastic house. She stepped back a few paces, and her lips seemed to tremble.
The scene was the hall of Capulet's house, and Romeo in his pilgrim's dress had entered with Mercutio and his other friends. The band struck up a few bars of music, and the dance began. Through the crowd of ungainly, shabbily dressed actors, Sybil Vane moved like a creature from a finer world. Her body swayed while she danced, as a plant sways in the water.
“She is quite beautiful, Dorian,” murmured Helen.
“Mm-hmm,” said Dorian with a slight nod. Dimly, he thought of what he would like to do to her, but his thoughtsâthe things beneath the haze, calling him back to himselfâwere only of Rosemary. It could be that she would never see or speak to him again. What could he do? For starters, he would hang the painting above the mantle, as she'd wished. Yes, it was the perfect place for it. Why had he been so stubborn? He was ill with a hangover that day, and so many poisons had yet to leave his system when she'd shown up looking like she'd broken out of a madhouse. Ah, but still, she had been beautiful and had moved him to new heights of feeling.
As it were, Sybil Vane moved much finer than she acted. As an actress, she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo. The staginess of her acting was unbearable, and grew worse as she went on. Her gestures became absurdly artificial. She overemphasized everything she had to say. The other actors weren't much better, and ultimately, the play was a fiasco that just dragged on and on interminably. To concentrate on the scenes being painfully doled out onstage was to risk brain damage, and so Dorian smoked another laced cigarette, this one of medium width.
Half of the audience that left during intermission never returned, tramping out in heavy boots and laughing. The last act was played to almost empty benches. The curtain went down on a titter and some groans.
“Ha!” laughed Helen, amused. “What a farce!”
“Yes, I guess she actually is terrible, in fact,” said Dorian. He was feeling tired and removed from his surroundings. He longed to be at home. His wish to hang up the painting, to honor Rosemary's fine work, had persisted.
“I suppose I should like to go home now,” he said to Helen, knowing she would be displeased. “I've some things I'd like to take care of.”
Helen scoffed. “And miss the best part of the play?”
“Pardon?” said Dorian.
“Dorian,” said Helen, reaching her arm around him with authority. “The best part of the play is when the play is over. Now don't be daft. Let's go get some Sybil Vane.” Dorian laughed. The theater swirled around him. He was more affected by the opium than he'd thought. Helen's eyes seemed very large, and very black. All the various greens and browns and golds of her irises had fallen into her expansive pupils.
“Are you serious?” asked Dorian.
“I hope to never be serious, Dorian,” she said, then laughed. “What does it matter if she plays Juliet like a wooden doll? She is very lovely, and if she knows as little about life as she does about acting, she will be a delightful experience for us. There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”
Dorian shrugged. He wasn't wholly convinced, but perhaps Helen had a point. They were already out, after all, and they'd just sat through two hours of worthless performances.
“In our play, she won't be so dreadful, I assure you,” said Helen.
Dorian chuckled. It was all just a play, wasn't it? He looked around the empty theater. The audience had merely left one play for another, that of their own lives.
“Well?” said Helen, losing patience. “Do you not believe a most entertaining play can be arranged?”
“I have total faith in your boldness, Helen,” said Dorian, shaking his head and smiling. The barking of his conscience had finally ceased.
“Terrific,” said Helen. “Now, let's eat! Oh, I know, I know, you think we had a full meal before we came here. Ha!” She slapped his hand. “That was only a starter course!”
ackstage, the air was thick with smoke and rumbling with loud, divergent chatter. Everyone seemed to be talking at once and to no one in particular. It was randomness and chaos and every now and again a perfect harmony was born of it. Dorian was excited to be a member of such a late-night choir of dissonance, in which sex and sordidness felt both the origin and the destination. Helen was an expert in navigating the crowd. She hooked arms with Dorian, and together they slithered through the crowd like eels.