Original by Oscar Wilde
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which she was lying, smoking, as was her custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lady Harriet Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making her think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young woman of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist herself, Bella Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement and gave rise to so many strange conjectures.
As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form she had so skilfully mirrored in her art, a smile of pleasure passed across her face, and seemed about to linger there. But she suddenly started up, and closing her eyes, placed her fingers upon the lids, as though she sought to imprison within her brain some curious dream from which she feared she might awake.
“It is your best work, Bella, the best thing you have ever done,” said Lady Harriet languidly. “You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have been either so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.”
“I don’t think I shall send it anywhere,” she answered, tossing her head back in that odd way that used to make her friends laugh at her at Oxford. “No, I won’t send it anywhere.”
Lady Harriet elevated her eyebrows and looked at her in amazement through the thin blue wreaths of smoke that curled up in such fanciful whorls from her heavy, opium-tainted cigarette. “Not send it anywhere? My dear girl, why? Have you any reason? What odd people you painters are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away. It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A portrait like this would set you far above all the young women in England, and make the old women quite jealous, if old women are ever capable of any emotion.”
“I know you will laugh at me,” she replied, “but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it.”
Lady Harriet stretched herself out on the divan and laughed.
“Yes, I knew you would; but it is quite true, all the same.”
“Too much of yourself in it! Upon my word, Bella, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Venus, who looks as if she was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Bella, she is a Narcissa, and you – well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful women in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are! Except, of course, in the Church. But then in the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what she was told to say when she was a girl of eighteen, and as a natural consequence she always looks absolutely delightful. Your mysterious young friend, whose name you have never told me, but whose picture really fascinates me, never thinks. I feel quite sure of that. She is some brainless beautiful creature who should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at, and always here in summer when we want something to chill our intelligence. Don’t flatter yourself, Bella: you are not in the least like her.”
“You don’t understand me, Harriet,” answered the artist. “Of course I am not like her. I know that perfectly well. Indeed, I should be sorry to look like her. You shrug your shoulders? I am telling you the truth. There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of queens. It is better not to be different from one’s fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live–undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Harriet; my brains, such as they are–my art, whatever it may be worth; Daria Gray’s good looks–we shall all suffer for what the goddesses have given us, suffer terribly.”
“Daria Gray? Is that her name?” asked Lady Harriet, walking across the studio towards Bella Hallward.
“Yes, that is her name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.”
“But why not?”
“Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town now I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure. It is a silly habit, I dare say, but somehow it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life. I suppose you think me awfully foolish about it?”
“Not at all,” answered Lady Harriet, “not at all, my dear Bella. You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my husband is, and my husband never knows what I am doing. When we meet–we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s – we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. My husband is very good at it – much better, in fact, than I am. He never gets confused over his dates, and I always do. But when he does find me out, he makes no row at all. I sometimes wish he would; but he merely laughs at me.”
“I hate the way you talk about your married life, Harriet,” said Bella Hallward, strolling towards the door that led into the garden. “I believe that you are really a very good wife, but that you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary woman. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.”
“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” cried Lady Harriet, laughing; and the two young women went out into the garden together and ensconced themselves on a long bamboo seat that stood in the shade of a tall laurel bush. The sunlight slipped over the polished leaves. In the grass, white daisies were tremulous.
After a pause, Lady Harriet pulled out her watch. “I am afraid I must be going, Bella,” she murmured, “and before I go, I insist on your answering a question I put to you some time ago.”
“What is that?” said the painter, keeping her eyes fixed on the ground.
“You know quite well.”
“I do not, Harriet.”
“Well, I will tell you what it is. I want you to explain to me why you won’t exhibit Daria Gray’s picture. I want the real reason.”
“I told you the real reason.”
“No, you did not. You said it was because there was too much of yourself in it. Now, that is childish.”
“Harriet,” said Bella Hallward, looking her straight in the face, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not she who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals herself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.”
Lady Harriet laughed. “And what is that?” she asked.
“I will tell you,” said Bella; but an expression of perplexity came over her face.
“I am all expectation, Bella,” continued her companion, glancing at her.
“Oh, there is really very little to tell, Harriet,” answered the painter; “and I am afraid you will hardly understand it. Perhaps you will hardly believe it.”
Lady Harriet smiled, and leaning down, plucked a pink-petalled daisy from the grass and examined it. “I am quite sure I shall understand it,” she replied, gazing intently at the little golden, white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”
The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lady Harriet felt as if she could hear Bella Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming.
“The story is simply this,” said the painter after some time. “Two months ago I went to a crush at Lord Brandon’s. You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized. Well, after I had been in the room about ten minutes, talking to huge overdressed earls and tedious academicians, I suddenly became conscious that some one was looking at me. I turned half-way round and saw Daria Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. I did not want any external influence in my life. You know yourself, Harriet, how independent I am by nature. I have always been my own mistress; had at least always been so, till I met Daria Gray. Then – but I don’t know how to explain it to you. Something seemed to tell me that I was on the verge of a terrible crisis in my life. I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows. I grew afraid and turned to quit the room. It was not conscience that made me do so: it was a sort of cowardice. I take no credit to myself for trying to escape.”
“Conscience and cowardice are really the same things, Bella. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm. That is all.”
“I don’t believe that, Harriet, and I don’t believe you do either. However, whatever was my motive–and it may have been pride, for I used to be very proud–I certainly struggled to the door. There, of course, I stumbled against Lord Brandon. ‘You are not going to run away so soon, Miss Hallward?’ he screamed out. You know his curiously shrill voice?”
“Yes; he is a peacock in everything but beauty,” said Lady Harriet, pulling the daisy to bits with her long nervous fingers.
“I could not get rid of him. He brought me up to royalties, and people with stars and garters, and elderly lords with gigantic tiaras and parrot noses. He spoke of me as his dearest friend. I had only met him once before, but he took it into his head to lionize me. I believe some picture of mine had made a great success at the time, at least had been chattered about in the penny newspapers, which is the nineteenth-century standard of immortality. Suddenly I found myself face to face with the young woman whose personality had so strangely stirred me. We were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again. It was reckless of me, but I asked Lord Brandon to introduce me to her. Perhaps it was not so reckless, after all. It was simply inevitable. We would have spoken to each other without any introduction. I am sure of that. Daria told me so afterwards. She, too, felt that we were destined to know each other.”
“And how did Lord Brandon describe this wonderful young woman?” asked her companion. “I know he goes in for giving a rapid précis of all his guests. I remember his bringing me up to a truculent and red-faced old lady covered all over with orders and ribbons, and hissing into my ear, in a tragic whisper which must have been perfectly audible to everybody in the room, the most astounding details. I simply fled. I like to find out people for myself. But Lord Brandon treats his guests exactly as an auctioneer treats her goods. He either explains them entirely away, or tells one everything about them except what one wants to know.”
“Poor Lord Brandon! You are hard on him, Harriet!” said Hallward listlessly.
“My dear fellow, he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant. How could I admire him? But tell me, what did he say about Miss Daria Gray?”
“Oh, something like, ‘Charming girl – poor dear father and I absolutely inseparable. Quite forget what she does – afraid she – doesn’t do anything – oh, yes, plays the piano – or is it the violin, dear Miss Gray?’ Neither of us could help laughing, and we became friends at once.”
“Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one,” said the young lady, plucking another daisy.
Miss Hallward shook her head. “You don’t understand what friendship is, Harriet,” she murmured–”or what enmity is, for that matter. You like every one; that is to say, you are indifferent to every one.”
“How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lady Harriet, tilting her hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. “Yes; horribly unjust of you. I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A woman cannot be too careful in the choice of her enemies. I have not got one who is a fool. They are all women of some intellectual power, and consequently they all appreciate me. Is that very vain of me? I think it is rather vain.”
“I should think it was, Harriet. But according to your category I must be merely an acquaintance.”
“My dear old Bella, you are much more than an acquaintance.”
“And much less than a friend. A sort of sister, I suppose?”
“Oh, sisters! I don’t care for sisters. My elder sister won’t die, and my younger sisters seem never to do anything else.”
“Harriet!” exclaimed Miss Hallward, frowning.
“My dear fellow, I am not quite serious. But I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves. I quite sympathize with the rage of the English democracy against what they call the vices of the upper orders. The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property, and that if any one of us makes an ass of herself, she is poaching on their preserves. When poor Lady Southwark got into the divorce court, their indignation was quite magnificent. And yet I don’t suppose that ten per cent of the proletariat live correctly.”
“I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harriet, I feel sure you don’t either.”
Lady Harriet stroked her brown hair and tapped the toe of her patent-leather boot with a tasselled ebony cane. “How English you are, Bella! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishwoman – always a rash thing to do – she never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing she considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the woman who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the woman is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either her wants, her desires, or her prejudices. However, I don’t propose to discuss politics, sociology, or metaphysics with you. I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world. Tell me more about Miss Daria Gray. How often do you see her?”
“Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see her every day. She is absolutely necessary to me.”
“How extraordinary! I thought you would never care for anything but your art.”
“She is all my art to me now,” said the painter gravely. “I sometimes think, Harriet, that there are only two eras of any importance in the world’s history. The first is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also. What the invention of oil-painting was to the Venetians, the face of Antinousa was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Daria Gray will some day be to me. It is not merely that I paint from her, draw from her, sketch from her. Of course, I have done all that. But she is much more to me than a model or a sitter. I won’t tell you that I am dissatisfied with what I have done of her, or that her beauty is such that art cannot express it. There is nothing that art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done, since I met Daria Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life. But in some curious way–I wonder will you understand me?–her personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before. ‘A dream of form in days of thought’–who is it who says that? I forget; but it is what Daria Gray has been to me. The merely visible presence of this girl – for she seems to me little more than a girl, though she is really over twenty – her merely visible presence – ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously she defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body- – how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void. Harriet! if you only knew what Daria Gray is to me! You remember that landscape of mine, for which Miss Agnew offered me such a huge price but which I would not part with? It is one of the best things I have ever done. And why is it so? Because, while I was painting it, Daria Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from her to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for and always missed.”
“Bella, this is extraordinary! I must see Daria Gray.”
Miss Hallward got up from the seat and walked up and down the garden. After some time she came back. “Harriet,” she said, “Daria Gray is to me simply a motive in art. You might see nothing in her. I see everything in her. She is never more present in my work than when no image of her is there. She is a suggestion, as I have said, of a new manner. I find her in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours. That is all.”
“Then why won’t you exhibit her portrait?” asked Lady Harriet.
“Because, without intending it, I have put into it some expression of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never cared to speak to her. She knows nothing about it. She shall never know anything about it. But the world might guess it, and I will not bare my soul to their shallow prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under their microscope. There is too much of myself in the thing, Harriet – too much of myself!”
“Poets are not so scrupulous as you are. They know how useful passion is for publication. Nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions.”
“I hate them for it,” cried Miss Hallward. “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of her own life into them. We live in an age when women treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Daria Gray.”
“I think you are wrong, Bella, but I won’t argue with you. It is only the intellectually lost who ever argue. Tell me, is Daria Gray very fond of you?”
The painter considered for a few moments. “She likes me,” she answered after a pause; “I know she likes me. Of course I flatter her dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to her that I know I shall be sorry for having said. As a rule, she is charming to me, and we sit in the studio and talk of a thousand things. Now and then, however, she is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then I feel, Harriet, that I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in her coat, a bit of decoration to charm her vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”
“Days in summer, Bella, are apt to linger,” murmured Lady Harriet. “Perhaps you will tire sooner than she will. It is a sad thing to think of, but there is no doubt that genius lasts longer than beauty. That accounts for the fact that we all take such pains to over-educate ourselves. In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill our minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place. The thoroughly well-informed woman – that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed woman is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value. I think you will tire first, all the same. Some day you will look at your friend, and she will seem to you to be a little out of drawing, or you won’t like her tone of colour, or something. You will bitterly reproach her in your own heart, and seriously think that she has behaved very badly to you. The next time she calls, you will be perfectly cold and indifferent. It will be a great pity, for it will alter you. What you have told me is quite a romance, a romance of art one might call it, and the worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic.”
“Harriet, don’t talk like that. As long as I live, the personality of Daria Gray will dominate me. You can’t feel what I feel. You change too often.”
“Ah, my dear Bella, that is exactly why I can feel it. Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.” And Lady Harriet struck a light on a dainty silver case and began to smoke a cigarette with a self-conscious and satisfied air, as if she had summed up the world in a phrase. There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. How pleasant it was in the garden! And how delightful other people’s emotions were! – much more delightful than their ideas, it seemed to her. One’s own soul, and the passions of one’s friends – those were the fascinating things in life. She pictured to herself with silent amusement the tedious luncheon that she had missed by staying so long with Bella Hallward. Had she gone to her uncle’s, she would have been sure to have met Lady Goodbody there, and the whole conversation would have been about the feeding of the poor and the necessity for model lodging-houses. Each girl would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken on the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour. It was charming to have escaped all that! As she thought of her uncle, an idea seemed to strike her. She turned to Hallward and said, “My dear fellow, I have just remembered.”
“Remembered what, Harriet?”
“Where I heard the name of Daria Gray.”
“Where was it?” asked Hallward, with a slight frown.
“Don’t look so angry, Bella. It was at my uncle, Lord Anthony’s. He told me he had discovered a wonderful young woman who was going to help him in the East End, and that her name was Daria Gray. I am bound to state that he never told me she was good-looking. Men have no appreciation of good looks; at least, good men have not. He said that she was very earnest and had a beautiful nature. I at once pictured to myself a creature with spectacles and lank hair, horribly freckled, and tramping about on huge feet. I wish I had known it was your friend.”
“I am very glad you didn’t, Harriet.”
“I don’t want you to meet her.”
“You don’t want me to meet her?”
“Miss Daria Gray is in the studio, sir,” said the butler, coming into the garden.
“You must introduce me now,” cried Lady Harriet, laughing.
The painter turned to her servant, who stood blinking in the sunlight. “Ask Miss Gray to wait, Parker: I shall be in in a few moments.” The woman bowed and went up the walk.
Then she looked at Lady Harriet. “Daria Gray is my dearest friend,” she said. “She has a simple and a beautiful nature. Your uncle was quite right in what he said of her. Don’t spoil her. Don’t try to influence her. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvellous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses: my life as an artist depends on her. Mind, Harriet, I trust you.” She spoke very slowly, and the words seemed wrung out of her almost against her will.
“What nonsense you talk!” said Lady Harriet, smiling, and taking Miss Hallward by the arm, she almost led her into the house.