Authors: Oscar Wilde
He flung the rich pall over the picture and wondered where he could stow the painting. It came to him at once: the attic. He had not entered the place for more than four yearsâwhen he had arranged it as a study. It was a large, well-proportioned room, which had been specially set aside by his Uncle Kelso for the use of the little nephew whom, for his strange likeness to his mother, he had always hated and desired to keep at a distance.
“Victor!” called Dorian, thinking up some way to get him out of the house.
The servant came meekly out of the shadows.
“Monsieur,” he said.
“It's to be terribly hot tomorrow,” said Dorian. It was the only excuse he could muster. Victor was exorbitantly attentive to the garden.
“The poppies are in bad need of watering and I don't want to risk them getting singed in the heat.”
“Oh, but Monsieur,” started Victor, with his helpful, servile air. “I checked the garden this morning, and the beds were still quite soiled from the storm. There is actually a bit of a mud problem, the ground is so very wet.”
“Victor,” said Dorian, sternly, “I have been sowing poppies all my life. They were my mother's favorite flower! She died when I was an infant, and so sowing poppies is a way of remembering her. I don't want to take any risks with them. Now, please. I appreciate your advice, but I do not request it. Please go fill the tin and water the poppies.”
“Yes, I am very sorry,” said Victor. He bowed graciously and exited. Dorian waited to hear the front doors shut, then ran upstairs past his bedroom. Up above, at the end of the long hallway, hung the rusty chain to the attic door. He yanked and down came a dark, mildewed staircase.
The room was little changed. There was the huge Italian chest, with its fantastically painted panels and its tarnished gilt moldings in which he had so often hidden himself as a boy. There, the satinwood book-case filled with his dog-eared schoolbooks. On the wall behind it was hanging the same ragged Flemish tapestry on which 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 remembered it all! Every moment of his lonely childhood came back to him as he looked around. He recalled 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 simple 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. 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 youthâthat was enough. And, besides, might not his nature grow finer, after all, since he was to devote his life to the love of another? Couldn't that love purify him? Of course, he and Rosemary would have to work out the aging predicament, given that she would likely prune up and hollow out while he remained forever in the healthy prime of youth, but they would form a strong family with sons and daughters and maybe even a few hounds. That would ease the pain of her deterioration somewhat. And modern medicine, why, it was always up to something scientifically miraculous, and there would probably be types of cures for aging, albeit none as potent as corrupting one's soul and deflecting the corruption onto a paintingâbut still, there would be something. There was no reason that the future should be so full of shame. Perhaps, some day, the cruel look would pass away from the scarlet, sensitive mouth, and he might show to the world his beloved's masterpiece.
He shut the attic back up, satisfied that no one would have any reason to go up there, then returned to his bedroom, where he started a letter to Rosemary, asking her to meet him the following day. He needed to know why she was angry with him. Had he not made satisfying love to her? It had been agony not to grab her neck and squeeze life from her while he was reaching what could have been an exquisite ejaculation in which he touched the Sun. He had restrained, and his orgasm had been lesser because of itâhe'd merely touched a hazy horizon of an earthly sky.
As he was sealing the envelope, he noticed the brown package Helen had sent him the morning after their night of squalor at the theater. He had never opened itâindeed, forgotten all about it just as he'd tried to forget about Sybil Vane and the violent prints he'd left on her neck. He'd put it aside on the nightstand table yet here it lay in plain view on the bureau. The wrapping was ripped, revealing a thick yellow book with old, crumbling pages clinging within its flaps. Dorian grabbed it and a piece of paper fell out. It contained Helen's swift, exact handwriting. He picked it up, his hand weighted with dread. He knew that if it didn't lead back to the portrait, Rosemary's agitation led to Helen. All agitation in the life he shared with Rosemary traced back to Helen. As he read, he felt as if he'd swallowed a goblet of ice.
My Dear Dorian
Last night was a fantastic thrill! I hope you have found your way after a long sleep into a fresh and convivial mood, and that you are not suffering any soppy repercussions of moral guilt. This book I have enclosed will help you to escape that caped madman who so boldly wrecks lives under the grim guise “Conscience.” Consider this novel your Bible. It is only in fiction that fact can speak without fear
I have been withholding some information from you, my cherished beauty, and I wholeheartedly apologize. I have promised to always tell you the truth, and I will keep that promise until my last breath (and beyond, if I do wind up in that lowly Heaven so ineptly termed Hell by the scared and sanctimonious)! The only reason I have tarried in sharing this with you is because I wanted you to have this book in your hands. . .
Dorian, if you marry Rosemary Hall you will become wretched. As you know, I do not champion marriage, and am certain that should you marry anyone you will become unselfish, and unselfish people are colorless. But Rosemary, in particular, is not a woman to call your wife. She is, in your case and yours alone, to be called your sister
Before your mother fled to America and met your father, she bore a daughter with an Englishman to whom she was still legally married when she ran off with Mr. Sheldon “Skip” Gray, your father. The man's name is Edmund Hall. Your Uncle Kelso, in a miserly move to both protect you from and deny you the truth (notice how often those two gestures join in one stone's throw of deceit!), created the fantasy that this daughter died during infancy. She, in fact, grew up as you did, in perfect health, just a few miles from you. . . . Now you see where this story is going. Her name was, and is, Rosemary. She paints a fine portrait
I imagine this news is not met with elation, but I believe that in time, you will see its poetic fascinations. It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly, we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or, rather, we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us. In the present case, what is it that has really happened? Someone you loved as a wife has been revealed to be your sister. I wish that I had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love with love for the rest of my life. Life is seldom so interesting as yours has had the fortune of being! And love nearly never is
Remember what I once said to you: If one doesn't talk about a thing, it as if it has never happened. Telling any of this to Rosemary would create a great violence in her mind. I wonder whether the little lamb could even handle such a blow. But I leave that matter up to you
Do not waste your tears. You will have new passions, new thoughts, new ideas
PS: We may thank my voluble Aunt Agatha for relaying this information to me
After some time, Dorian looked up. The evening had darkened in the room. Noiselessly, and with silver feet, shadows crept in from the garden. The colors faded wearily out of things. Dorian dropped the letter. He felt it should crack and bleed when it hit the ground, but it just skimmed the lacquered wood and curled up like any leaf of paper.
oor Rosemary! What a romance it had all been, and, oh, what more it could yet be had only Truth not shed its burning light, striking their love down. What would become of her? Tears came to his eyes as he remembered her childlike look when he had first sat her on his bed, the red towel under her legs. He thought of how serious and inventive she became when she was at her easel. Gone was her shy, tremulous manner as she stood an earnest disciple of a superior grace. He brushed his tears away and, with them, thoughts of Rosemary, and looked again at the picture.
He felt that the time had really come for making his choice. Or had his choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that for himâlife, and his own infinite curiosity about its orgiastic elements. Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sinsâhe was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: That was all.
A feeling of pain crept over him as he thought of the desecration that was in store for the fair face on the canvas. Was it to become a monstrous and loathsome thing, to be hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from the sunlight that had so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of its hair? The pity of it!
If he changed his ways and resorted to a commonplace life based on virtues that society chose for him, perhaps the portrait would escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age would be in store for it no matter what, Dorian figured. Hour by hour, week after week, it would grow old. The cheeks would become hollow and 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. . . . And what if he did live the “good” life? If he took a wifeâ a wife he either didn't love at all or loved only in a pathetic imitation of his love for Rosemaryâand forced himself into a fidelity with her? It sickened him to think of it. Surely the painting would be covered in vomit within a year or two of that scenario.
He thought of praying that the horrible bond that existed between him and the picture might be broken. It had changed in answer to a prayer; perhaps in answer to a prayer, it might stop its bewitched course. But then who, that knew anything about life, would surrender the chance of remaining always young, however fantastic that chance might be or with what fateful consequences it might be fraught? Besides, was it really under his control?
Had it indeed been prayer that had produced the substitution? Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all? If thought could exercise its influence upon a living organism, might not thought exercise an influence upon dead and inorganic things? No, without thought or conscious desire, might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love, or strange affinity?
But in the end, the reason was of no importance. Dorian would never again tempt by a prayer any terrible power. If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it?
A rare occurrence this was, and so maybe a rare opportunity he would be idiotic to deny himself. There could be a real philosophical pleasure in watching the portrait, to track it as it descended into his soul's secret places. He could study it over time. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own sexually ravenous body, so it would reveal to him his own sexually ravaged soul. And when winter came upon it, he would still be standing where summer trembles on the verge of autumn. When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood. Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse of his life would ever weaken. Like a Greek god, he would be strong, and fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to the colored image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything.
He took up the mysterious yellow book Helen had sent him. The author was listed as anonymous, and it appeared to be as old as books themselves. The leaves hung perilously from the spine, and he had to take care, as he flung himself into an armchair to read, not to tear them. After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book he had ever encountered. As he read, it seemed to him that in exquisite garbs, 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 made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.
It was a novel that, much like life, contained no plot and so felt all the more true. It was called
The Passions of Alphonse Gris
. There was only one character of interest: a young Parisian, Alphonse Gris, 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. Alphonse Gris fucked anything that walkedâincluding a dastardly cripple who, despite her mashed legs and thieving intentions, had a pretty face and an exotically long tongue whose way with the male member was unparalleled.