The Picture of Dorian Gray
At half-past twelve next day Lord Henry Wotton strolled from Curzon Street over to the Albany to call on his uncle, Lord Fermor, a genial if somewhat rough-mannered old bachelor, whom the outside world called selfish because it derived no particular benefit from him, but who was considered generous by Society as he fed the people who amused him.
His father had been our ambassador at Madrid when Isabella was young and Prim unthought of, but had retired from the diplomatic service in a capricious moment of annoyance on not being offered the Embassy at Paris, a post to which he considered that he was fully entitled by reason of his birth, his indolence, the good English of his dispatches, and his inordinate passion for pleasure.
The son, who had been his father’s secretary, had resigned along with his chief, somewhat foolishly as was thought at the time, and on succeeding some months later to the title, had set himself to the serious study of the great aristocratic art of doing absolutely nothing. He had two large town houses, but preferred to live in chambers as it was less trouble, and took most of his meals at his club. He paid some attention to the management of his collieries in the Midland counties, excusing himself for this taint of industry on the ground that the one advantage of having coal was that it enabled a gentleman to afford the decency of burning wood on his own hearth.
In politics he was a Tory, except when the Tories were in office, during which period he roundly abused them for being a pack of Radicals. He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him, and a terror to most of his relations, whom he bullied in turn. Only England could have 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 His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices.
When Lord Henry entered the room, he found his uncle sitting in a rough shooting-coat, smoking a cheroot and grumbling over The Times. “Well, Harry,” said the old gentleman, “what brings you out so early? I thought you dandies never got up till two, and were not visible till five.”
“Pure family affection, I assure you, Uncle George. I want to get something out of you.”
“Money, I suppose,” said Lord Fermor, making a wry face. “Well, sit down and tell me all about it. Young people, nowadays, imagine that money is everything.”
“Yes,” murmured Lord Henry, settling his button-hole in his coat; “and when they grow older they know it. But I don’t want money. It is only people who pay their bills who want that, Uncle George, and I never pay mine. Credit is the capital of a younger son, and one lives charmingly upon it. Besides, I always deal with Dartmoor’s tradesmen, and consequently they never bother me. What I want is information: not useful information, of course; useless information.”
“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 the Diplomatic, things were much better. But I hear they let them in now by examination. What can you expect? Examinations, sir, are pure humbug from beginning to end. If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”
“Mr. Dorian Gray does not belong to Blue Books, Uncle George,” said Lord Henry languidly.
“Mr. Dorian Gray? Who is he?” asked Lord Fermor, knitting his bushy white eyebrows.
“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 Margaret Devereux. I want you to tell me about his mother. What was she like? Whom did she marry? You have known nearly everybody in your time, so you might have known her. I am very much interested in Mr. Gray at present. I have only just met 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 an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux, and made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow—a mere nobody, sir, a subaltern in a foot regiment, or something of that kind. Certainly. I remember the whole thing as if it happened yesterday.
"The poor chap was killed in a duel 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 insult his son-in-law in public—paid him, sir, to do it, paid him—and that the fellow 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. He brought his daughter back with him, I was told, and she never spoke to him again. 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? If he 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 should have a pot of money waiting for him if Kelso did the right thing by him. His mother had money, too. All the Selby property came to her, through her grandfather. 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 Queen used to ask me about the English noble who was always quarrelling with the cabmen about their fares. They made quite a story of it. I didn’t dare show my face at Court for a month. I hope he treated his grandson better than he did the 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 mother was very beautiful?”
“Margaret Devereux was one of the loveliest creatures I ever saw, Harry. What on earth induced her to behave as she did, I never could understand. She could have married anybody she chose. Carlington was mad after her. She was romantic, 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. Told me so himself. She laughed at him, and there wasn’t a girl in London at the time who wasn’t after him. And by the way, Harry, talking about silly marriages, what is this humbug your father tells me about Dartmoor wanting to marry 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, striking the 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. They take 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 their parents, as English women are at concealing their past,” he said, rising to go.
“They are pork-packers, I suppose?”
“I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor’s sake. I am told that pork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, after politics.”
“Is she pretty?”
“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”
“Why can’t these American women stay in their own country? They are always telling us that it is the paradise for women.”
“It is. That is the reason why, like Eve, they are so excessively anxious to get out of it,” said Lord Henry. “Good-bye, Uncle George. I shall be late for lunch, if I stop any longer. Thanks for giving me the information I wanted. I always like to know everything about my new friends, and nothing about my old ones.”
“Where are you lunching, Harry?”
“At Aunt Agatha’s. I have asked myself and Mr. Gray. He is her latest protégé.”
“Humph! tell your Aunt Agatha, Harry, not to bother me any more with her charity appeals. I am sick of them. Why, the good woman thinks that I have nothing 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 distinguishing characteristic.”