The Picture of Dorian Gray
The next day he did not leave the house, and, indeed, spent most of the time in his own room, sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself. The consciousness of being hunted, snared, tracked down, had begun to dominate him. If the tapestry did but tremble in the wind, he shook.
The dead leaves that were blown against the leaded panes seemed to him like his own wasted resolutions and wild regrets. When he closed his eyes, he saw again the sailor’s face peering through the mist-stained glass, and horror seemed once more to lay its hand upon his heart.
But perhaps it had been only his fancy that had called vengeance out of the night and set the hideous shapes of punishment before him. Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was the imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all.
Besides, had any stranger been prowling round the house, he would have been seen by the servants or the keepers. Had any foot-marks been found on the flower-beds, the gardeners would have reported it. Yes, it had been merely fancy. Sibyl Vane’s brother had not come back to kill him. He had sailed away in his ship to founder in some winter sea. From him, at any rate, he was safe. Why, the man did not know who he was, could not know who he was. The mask of youth had saved him.
And yet if it had been merely an illusion, how terrible it was to think that conscience could raise such fearful phantoms, and give them visible form, and make them move before one! What sort of life would his be if, day and night, shadows of his crime were to peer at him from silent corners, to mock him from secret places, to whisper in his ear as he sat at the feast, to wake him with icy fingers as he lay asleep!
As the thought crept through his brain, he grew pale with terror, and the air seemed to him to have become suddenly colder. Oh! in what a wild hour of madness he had killed his friend! How ghastly the mere memory of the scene! He saw it all again. Each hideous detail came back to him with added horror. Out of the black cave of time, terrible and swathed in scarlet, rose the image of his sin. When Lord Henry came in at six o’clock, he found him crying as one whose heart will break.
It was not till the third day that he ventured to go out. There was something in the clear, pine-scented air of that winter morning that seemed to bring him back his joyousness and his ardour for life. But it was not merely the physical conditions of environment that had caused the change. His own nature had revolted against the excess of anguish that had sought to maim and mar the perfection of its calm.
With subtle and finely wrought temperaments it is always so. Their strong passions must either bruise or bend. They either slay the man, or themselves die. Shallow sorrows and shallow loves live on. The loves and sorrows that are great are destroyed by their own plenitude. Besides, he had convinced himself that he had been the victim of a terror-stricken imagination, and looked back now on his fears with something of pity and not a little of contempt.
After breakfast, he walked with the duchess for an hour in the garden and then drove across the park to join the shooting-party. The crisp frost lay like salt upon the grass. The sky was an inverted cup of blue metal. A thin film of ice bordered the flat, reed-grown lake.
At the corner of the pine-wood he caught sight of Sir Geoffrey Clouston, the duchess’s brother, jerking two spent cartridges out of his gun. He jumped from the cart, and having told the groom to take the mare home, made his way towards his guest through the withered bracken and rough undergrowth.
“Have you had good sport, Geoffrey?” he asked.
“Not very good, Dorian. I think most of the birds have gone to the open. I dare say it will be better after lunch, when we get to new ground.”
Dorian strolled along by his side. The keen aromatic air, the brown and red lights that glimmered in the wood, the hoarse cries of the beaters ringing out from time to time, and the sharp snaps of the guns that followed, fascinated him and filled him with a sense of delightful freedom. He was dominated by the carelessness of happiness, by the high indifference of joy.
Suddenly from a lumpy tussock of old grass some twenty yards in front of them, with black-tipped ears erect and long hinder limbs throwing it forward, started a hare. It bolted for a thicket of alders. Sir Geoffrey put his gun to his shoulder, but there was something in the animal’s grace of movement that strangely charmed Dorian Gray, and he cried out at once, “Don’t shoot it, Geoffrey. Let it live.”
“What nonsense, Dorian!” laughed his companion, and as the hare bounded into the thicket, he fired. There were two cries heard, the cry of a hare in pain, which is dreadful, the cry of a man in agony, which is worse.
“Good heavens! I have hit a beater!” exclaimed Sir Geoffrey. “What an ass the man was to get in front of the guns! Stop shooting there!” he called out at the top of his voice. “A man is hurt.”
The head-keeper came running up with a stick in his hand.
“Where, sir? Where is he?” he shouted. At the same time, the firing ceased along the line.
“Here,” answered Sir Geoffrey angrily, hurrying towards the thicket. “Why on earth don’t you keep your men back? Spoiled my shooting for the day.”
Dorian watched them as they plunged into the alder-clump, brushing the lithe swinging branches aside. In a few moments they emerged, dragging a body after them into the sunlight. He turned away in horror. It seemed to him that misfortune followed wherever he went. He heard Sir Geoffrey ask if the man was really dead, and the affirmative answer of the keeper. The wood seemed to him to have become suddenly alive with faces. There was the trampling of myriad feet and the low buzz of voices. A great copper-breasted pheasant came beating through the boughs overhead.
After a few moments—that were to him, in his perturbed state, like endless hours of pain—he felt a hand laid on his shoulder. He started and looked round.
“Dorian,” said Lord Henry, “I had better tell them that the shooting is stopped for to-day. It would not look well to go on.”
“I wish it were stopped for ever, Harry,” he answered bitterly. “The whole thing is hideous and cruel. Is the man ...?”
He could not finish the sentence.
“I am afraid so,” rejoined Lord Henry. “He got the whole charge of shot in his chest. He must have died almost instantaneously. Come; let us go home.”
They walked side by side in the direction of the avenue for nearly fifty yards without speaking. Then Dorian looked at Lord Henry and said, with a heavy sigh, “It is a bad omen, Harry, a very bad omen.”
“What is?” asked Lord Henry. “Oh! this accident, I suppose. My dear fellow, it can’t be helped. It was the man’s own fault. Why did he get in front of the guns? Besides, it is nothing to us. It is rather awkward for Geoffrey, of course. It does not do to pepper beaters. It makes people think that one is a wild shot. And Geoffrey is not; he shoots very straight. But there is no use talking about the matter.”
Dorian shook his head. “It is a bad omen, Harry. I feel as if something horrible were going to happen to some of us. To myself, perhaps,” he added, passing his hand over his eyes, with a gesture of pain.
The elder man laughed.
“The only horrible thing in the world is ennui, Dorian. That is the one sin for which there is no forgiveness. But we are not likely to suffer from it unless these fellows keep chattering about this thing at dinner. I must tell them that the subject is to be tabooed. As for omens, there is no such thing as an omen. Destiny does not send us heralds. She is too wise or too cruel for that. Besides, what on earth could happen to you, Dorian? You have everything in the world that a man can want. There is no one who would not be delighted to change places with you.”
“There is no one with whom I would not change places, Harry. Don’t laugh like that. I am telling you the truth. The wretched peasant who has just died is better off than I am. I have no terror of death. It is the coming of death that terrifies me. Its monstrous wings seem to wheel in the leaden air around me. Good heavens! don’t you see a man moving behind the trees there, watching me, waiting for me?”
Lord Henry looked in the direction in which the trembling gloved hand was pointing. “Yes,” he said, smiling, “I see the gardener waiting for you. I suppose he wants to ask you what flowers you wish to have on the table to-night. How absurdly nervous you are, my dear fellow! You must come and see my doctor, when we get back to town.”
Dorian heaved a sigh of relief as he saw the gardener approaching. The man touched his hat, glanced for a moment at Lord Henry in a hesitating manner, and then produced a letter, which he handed to his master. “Her Grace told me to wait for an answer,” he murmured.
Dorian put the letter into his pocket. “Tell her Grace that I am coming in,” he said, coldly. The man turned round and went rapidly in the direction of the house.
“How fond women are of doing dangerous things!” laughed Lord Henry. “It is one of the qualities in them that I admire most. A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on.”
“How fond you are of saying dangerous things, Harry! In the present instance, you are quite astray. I like the duchess very much, but I don’t love her.”
“And the duchess loves you very much, but she likes you less, so you are excellently matched.”
“You are talking scandal, Harry, and there is never any basis for scandal.”
“The basis of every scandal is an immoral certainty,” said Lord Henry, lighting a cigarette.