Authors: Oscar Wilde
“This is Lady Henry Wotton, Helen. She is a dear friend of mine. I have just been telling her what a wonderful sitter you are,” said Rosemary, and, feeling her face heat up as she went in for a joke, she said, “And now you stand and spoil your fine reputation!”
Nobody laughed. Helen made a sad, faint
“You have not spoiled my pleasure in meeting you, Mr. Gray,” said Helen, stepping forward and extending her hand. “My aunt has often spoken to me about you. You are one of her favorites, and, I am afraid, one of her victims also.”
Dorian looked as if his eyes could pop out of his skull. It was likely he had never heard a woman speak so boldly beforeâand surely not one as peculiarly beautiful as Helen. He regained his repose, and then appeared the wickedly playful smile Rosemary had so anticipated.
“I am in your Aunt Agatha's black books at present,” said Dorian, with a funny look of penitence. Rosemary wondered with a quick, needling pain in her breast what such a look meant. Dorian went on. “I promised to go to play a piano duet with her in a show last Tuesday, and I really forgot all about it. This isn't the first time I've been so negligent. I am far too frightened to call.”
Helen tilted her head back in a laugh. Rosemary marveled at her. She was so expert in her movements. If Rosemary were to laugh like that, she would probably make a foul snorting sound.
Helen continued. “Oh, I will make your peace with my aunt. She is quite devoted to you. And I don't think it matters about your not showing. The audience probably thought it was a duet. When Aunt Agatha sits down to the piano, she makes quite enough noise for two people.”
“That is very horrid to her, and not very nice to me,” answered Dorian, laughing. Rosemary beamed with pride. He was a fair match to Helen's wits, to say the least. And what a beautiful laugh he had!
Rosemary read in Helen's eyes as they gazed at Dorian that she was not only finding amusement in Gray's bold wit, but was also rushing to take in his beauty. He was just wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his deep gray eyes, his silky gold hair. All the candor of youth was there in him, as well as all of youth's passionate purity. There was something in his face that made one want to get to know him at once, and to be seen by him. Rosemary felt it so strongly. If he wouldn't hold her, he would behold her: She would exist so much more vividly if it was before his eyes.
“Shall we head to the studio?” asked Rosemary, feeling her role reduced to merely that of a painter now that the gorgeous and scene-stealing Helen was present.
“Oh, I am tired of sitting,” said Dorian.
Rosemary frowned. “I'm nearly finished,” she said.
Dorian shrugged and turned away like a spoiled child. He really could be incorrigible, Rosemary noted with some reassuring sense of disapproval.
, she thought.
I must remember his negative qualities and how unpleasant he can be
She rose to lead the way through the hall to the studio. Helen barged in front of her, summoning Dorian's arm, which she grabbed with manhandling brute. Rosemary reminded herself to not take it personally, as Helen insisted on being the center of attention no matter who the audience. But Dorian Gray was hers. No, he was not hers in the way Helen was infamous for having men, but he was as much hers as she'd ever dreamed anyone could be. She could be happy within their limitations.
Back in the studio, Helen flung herself into a large wicker armchair, restlessly folding and unfolding her legsâprobably to sneak Dorian a glimpse of her upscale undergarments. Her beauty was strange . . . almost masculine. She was strikingly tall and broad-shouldered, with an imposing posture Rosemary had never known in a woman. She stained her lips a satiny red and wore a peachy rouge on her cheeks, which were always shielded in a diaphanous powder. Her hair was a dark blonde; it was thick and unruly and she never wore it down, keeping it always back in a taut bun. Frizzy tendrils stuck out of the sides, easily engaged with a room's static electricity. Lady Henry Wotton could certainly afford new shoesâboxes of themâbut she wore the same dirt-caked Adelaide boots she'd donned for years.
“You are too charming to go in for philanthropy, Mr. Grayâfar too charming,” Helen was going on in her throaty know-it-all drawl. She opened her cigarette case and offered Dorian a smoke. He politely declined. Rosemary smiled at him.
“And Rosemary, of course, would never smoke,” Helen added. “So many things she would never do.” It was a pointless jab. Rosemary pretended not to be bothered, tending diligently to mixing colors and preparing brushes. But if Helen kept this up, it would be impossible to work. Was she planning on staying all day? Did she not recognize how precious these final moments with Dorian were? Rosemary imagined Dorian hearing her thoughts and spanking her promptly on her trembling wrist. Of
Helen didn't recognize such a thing. No one but Rosemary knew how treasured her times were with Dorian. She had to put up a fight of some kind. She hesitated for a moment and then said firmly to Helen, “Dorian and I agreed to complete our sessions today, and I'm afraid your effortless charms are very distracting.”
Helen cocked her head like an exotic parrot who can't fathom what words it is being asked to repeat.
Rosemary looked at Dorian for guidance, but he was looking at Helen with sustained intrigue.
“Helen,” Rosemary continued, opting for a bolder position. “Would you think it awfully rude of me if I asked you to go away?”
Now it was Helen's eyes that looked about to pop out. Rosemary had never spoken so bravely.
“I'm very sorry,” started Rosemary, but Helen shushed her with a disregarding wave. Sucking languidly from her cigarette, she nodded once at Rosemary, then addressed Dorian.
“Am I to go, Mr. Gray?” she asked.
Dorian glanced hopefully at Rosemary, as if she was his mother and Helen a new friend with whom he could meddle in grown-up affairs. What to make of their dynamic?
“It's whatever you wish, Dorian,” Rosemary said, frowning.
“Please don't go, Helen,” said Dorian. Rosemary had never heard him so earnest. Was he already in love with Helen? Rosemary had an urge to warn him that Helen would eat him alive, would suck him down like one of her drugged cigarettes.
“I want you to tell me why I should not go into philanthropy,” Dorian said to Helen.
“I don't know that I shall tell you that, Mr. Gray,” started Helen. “It is so tedious a subject that one would have to talk seriously about it. But I certainly shall not run away, now that you have asked me to stop. You don't really mind, Rosemary, do you?” Helen shot a poisonous dart of a look at Rosemary. “You have often told me that you like your sitters to have someone to chat to,” she said.
Rosemary bit her lipâshe did so whenever she was flustered, which was so often now that Dorian was in her life. She felt Dorian's cold gaze upon her as she bit, and so she held her teeth for just a moment, so the blood flushed to the surface. It was well known between them that this innocent habit of hers maddened him. Ah, it was not so innocent anymore!
“If Dorian wishes it, of course you must stay,” said Rosemary, gaining confidence now that she had Dorian's eyes on her. “And, of course, so long as your husband does not mind waiting.”
Helen was quick to retort, replying dryly. “We had a very long engagement.”
Dorian chuckled. Rosemary gagged. She had never made Dorian laugh with a witty remarkâonly when she tripped on a stray piece of cord or committed some other act of clumsiness.
He stepped up on the dais with the air of a young Greek martyr. He abhorred having to stay still for so long.
“Rosemary has told me much about you,” he said to Helen, speaking like a ventriloquist, his lips hardly moving. “Are you as terrible an influence as she says?”
“Splendid!” Rosemary complimented Dorian on his pose. It wasn't perfectâin fact, it was a bit sloppy, but she was compelled to get back into a zone of one-on-one conversation and put up a window that Helen could only press her nose against. Her jealousy radiated outward like a merciless sun. She began to paint with fevered urgency. Only a few touch-ups to make, she thought, then I'm done with himâwith this entire obsessionâforever! A second, cruel voice within her chimed in:
And then what will life consist of? Who are you, Rosemary Hall, without Dorian Gray?
Rosemary swallowed both voices and persisted with her work.
Ever delighted by her notoriety, Helen was reveling in the fact that Rosemary had alluded to her as a dangerous woman. “People are so afraid of themselves, nowadays,” she carried on. “They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self. Of course, they are charitable. They feed the hungry and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve and are naked.”
Rosemary blushed at the word “naked” and felt Dorian's eyes on her. There they were, gray as wolves and just as predatory. The heat that had been jealousy gave way to a throbbing desire. How he seized the opportunity to make her squirm. It was as difficult to look him in the eyes as it was to resist them. The heat in Rosemary rose to a stifling degree as Dorian smiled suggestively at her, then ran his eyes down her bodice, following the swell of her breasts. Rosemary's nipples grew erect as his gaze held, then lowered down her corseted waist, then below . . . searching sinfully in the folds of her petticoats. Helen went on talking, but Rosemary was no longer listening and, it seemed, neither was Dorian. Last night's dream played in Rosemary's mind. Instead of fearing the crude acts, Rosemary wanted to re-enact them. Now. With him. Of course, she could not, she would not. This was not the kind of situation for which she'd been saving her maidenhead.
“The finishing touches are nearly complete,” she said, breaking the spell between herself and Dorian. “Dorian, could you turn your head a little more to the right?”
Dorian obliged. The repositioning resulted in him looking again at Helen, a perplexingly comfortable misfortune for Rosemary, for the less her eyes had to do with his, the better off she was.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” said Helen. “Resist it and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. You, Mr. Gray, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, daydreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame.”
Although Helen's words were directed at Dorian, they rang with terrifying truth in Rosemary's mind.
“Helen, stop trying to scare my guest,” she said, trying for a carefree laugh. It sounded like a noise in a zoo.
“The only person scared in this room right now is you, Rosemary,” Helen said coldly.
, thought Rosemary.
Was Dorian really going to team up with Helen now in ridiculing her?
Her heart sank.
The only thing to do, she resolved, was to continue painting as if people were of no consequence to her. Work, she knew, would always save her from the heartache humans could bring; that was why she had fought so hard for this solitary life of art. Her father, widowed and childless save for his bright, beautiful, stubborn daughter, had pleaded with her to reconsider. Never had Rosemary considered any of the young men her father had brought her way. She was rude to them outright, for they stood in her way, tripped up her path like so many pebbles.
She painted away and away, while Helen and Dorian conversed on and on.
“You don't frighten me,” said Dorian to Helen, “but you do bewilder me. I don't know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don't speak. Let me think. Or, rather, let me try not to think.”
Helen, in appreciation of the beguiling effect she had on Dorian, was quiet for a moment, letting him stew in the juices of her sinister logic. She knew the precise psychological moment when to say nothing.
Was she really so evil?
wondered Rosemary. As her friend, she was obliged to think not. Moreover, she felt sorry for her. Though she only alluded to it in dry self-deprecation, Rosemary knew it to be fact that Helen was barren. Being that she was nearing thirty now, and had given her husband no children in their twelve years of marriage, Rosemary deduced that Helen relied on cruelty as a manner of defense. Where God had denied her womanly softness, she had grown hard. And it was no secret that her husband was wildly unfaithful and frequented brothels without shame.
Rosemary carried on with her painting, but Dorian's posture was caving ever so slightly. Helen's words were coaxing him.
“Rosemary, I am tired of standing,” he said. “I must go out and sit in the garden.”
“My dear Dorian, I am so sorry. When I am painting, I can't think of anything else,” said Rosemary.
Only since meeting him was that statement untrue
, she thought. “You never sat better,” she said, though her affect was bland. Really she was just complimenting him to avoid the distress of Helen. “You were perfectly still. And I have caught the effect I wantedâthe half-parted lips and the bright look in the eyes. I suppose whatever compliments Helen has been paying you have been effective. But you mustn't believe a word she says.”
“She has certainly not been paying me compliments,” Dorian asserted. “Perhaps that is the reason that I don't believe anything she has told me.”
Rosemary laughedâtoo loudlyâsuch racket the relief in her heart in seeing Dorian doubt Helen. But Helen was not going to let the mood stay in Rosemary's favor. She looked up with dreamy, languorous eyes.
“I will go out into the garden with you,” she offered. “It is horribly hot in the studio. Rosemary, why don't you fix us something iced to drink? Something with strawberries in it?”