A Letter

Dear Cleric,

Please forgive my failure to address this letter to any specific position within Church ranks. I am no connoisseur of religion; as such I am unfamiliar with the complex apparatus of ritual and authority to which you adhere. Nevertheless, the Vatican’s alleged intimacy with the supernatural, combined with its notoriously well-funded and swift execution of its will, selects this institution above all other holy orders as the most suited recipient of the plea contained herein. Yes, this letter is scratched onto these pages by the hand of a heretic, but I beg you: do not discard it. The content of my testimony has, irreverent of the soullessness which is a fact of nature, shaken me straight through to that very spectral part of my being.

Years ago, by my friendship with the painter Basil Hallward, I came into the acquaintance of his favourite sitting model, a startlingly innocent and still blossoming young man by the name of Dorian Gray. Basil was quite in love with Dorian’s visage, in ways I am certain would cause my reader to blush either in pleasure or offense were I to offer them in detail, but I was more fascinated with his mind, and he with mine. In a short time we developed a lasting friendship.

Dorian Gray has since acquired a splendid and artful intellect. Miraculously, despite his middling age and the envious rumors churning with growing intensity in disparagement of his moral character, he has maintained the same boyish face he wore the day I met him. Completely unmarred by the trials and trivialities of life, he looks just like the portrait Hallward painted that day, and it is this portrait which is the central concern of my letter. Would that Basil had not disappeared I could take the matter to him, but vanished he has, likely by some railway accident between London and France which remains officially unsolved, and so I am compelled to forward this matter to you.

Of late, Dorian has developed a certain moodiness and tendency to faint. A week ago, in accordance with his plea for company and with an intellectual interest in the recent plague upon his constitution, I lingered in his home well past mindnight. Upon dismissing his staff for the evening he insisted that we share the last of the gin he had on hand. We finished it while discussing, with great soulful concern, nothing of any importance and little of any interest. By my estimate he took three drinks for every one of mine while I smoked three cigarettes for every one of his, and by two o’clock he had slumped to sleep, drooling like a napping child, over the arm of his chair.

It was at this point that my gnawing curiosity posessed me fully. Several times that evening, once in the middle of one of his own sentences which he then forgot, and with a far-away look, Dorian had rushed upstairs under the pretense of attending the lavatory, despite the presence of his nicest and most accessible on his main floor. I did not question him so as not to alert his suspicions, but once he was asleep the question gripped me with unrelenting ferocity: what had Dorian truly been doing?

The stairs cried out in alarm at every one of my footfalls. I must have spent a quarter of an hour climbing them, an unlit candle and set of matches in one hand while my other put as much of my weight as possible upon the silent banister. The doors of the second floor were many, and as I passed them in the dark, testing their handles with a ghost’s touch, I found all of them locked except one, the second to last. This was surely the secret I sought, for in addition to the skeleton key tellingly protruding below the knob, an iron gate had been affixed to the door’s frame. No man alive would be strong enough nor woman thin enough to pass through those bars, yet this fact served to inform rather than to impede, as on its oiled hinges the iron gate swung wide open to the whims of my inquiry.

I lit the candle after passing through and, as it sputtered to life, I discovered that the room it filled with shadows was an abandoned nursery, with old schoolbooks at long rest upon the shelves, a simple tapestry, a chalkboard and a threadbare rug. A thick layer of dust lay like late November snow in all areas, with the exception of a somewhat cleaner desk and its chair. One object in the room attracted no dust at all: a rich violet cloth, embroidered in gold, which dangled drunkenly from the corners of a hanging picture frame as though thrown atop with more haste than care.

I plucked the cloth from the frame’s corners and draped it over my arm to protect it from the filth of the floor, yet upon looking back to the painting I nearly set that cloth alight with my candle, so intense was my startle. It was the picture that Basil had painted so many years ago, as you may have surmised. It bore Hallward’s signature in the corner and hung within a frame of Basil’s own design, yet the countenance was not that of any Dorian Gray that I had ever known. It was so hideous, and somehow fancifully so, that I reacted physically in ways which compounded upon themselves and nearly shot me from the room, so unused was I to art of any kind affecting me upon any plane but the pleasantly cerebral.

This image of Dorian Gray looked his age or slightly older, which was strange in itself, but the source of my dismay lay more in the whole mood of the thing. The lines circling the chapped mouth and gouging the outer corners of the eyes drew an image of cruelty, of desire, of selfish hypocrisy. From one side of the lips and down the chin flowed an outbreak of inflamed sores. One of the eyelids drooped with intoxication while that same eye’s inner corner pinched with want. Dorian, Dorian. This could not be. Was it a second painting? A farsical forgery? No: I remembered the exact splay of golden curls flirting with Gray’s forehead, the exact shine in his sapphire iris. I played my fingers delicately along these elements without touching the textured surface.

Was this disturbing work the root from which Dorian’s recent miseries stemmed, or was it the flower, or the fruit? Could it be the true reflection of the self-image of a secretly sickened mind? Had Gray been on a long descent to madness all this time? Had he been stealing away that very evening to inspect his details, or even add to them? I studied the painting, nose to brushstroke, corner to corner and over again, searching for evidence that in a fit of sinister artistic madness Dorian Gray had taken a brush of his own to Basil’s painting and added these nightmarish touches himself, having sifted them from a mind addled with imagined grotesqueries.

Alas, I found nothing to support my suspicion. Basil’s exquisite fondness of color and light, his soulful instillation of form with loves both erotic and pure which breathed the essential thrum and throb of life into abstraction, remained unmarred. Silly of me to suspect otherwise, I confess. Dorian has no training in the arts. His only art is his life itself. Never has he confused the matter by taking up a creative vocation. Surely that is what has kept him so beautiful.

I digress. The relevant part is that any edit Gray attempted to make of Hallward’s work would have amounted to clownish vandalism. Furthermore, the painting had been varnished long ago, which would render any additon of fresh paint immediately evident. Indeed, the painting looked as though the alterations had come from beneath, as though they had seeped forth from unimaginably precise stains in mouldy canvas, or from a case of rot in the neglected wall. I tilted the painting to peer behind it. Slivers of moonlight crept from the tall window into the crevasse between. Both the wall and the reverse of the canvas were perfectly unmarred.

Given up on the painting itself and at a loss, I betrayed my own conclusions, as is central to any healthy intellect, and searched the room for paints, for brushes, for a palette. I was disappointed. I set my candle upon the mantle, took the room’s only chair and stared at the painting. I would wait for Dorian. I would wait until dawn, or noon, or later if need be. He would explain it. I would listen to every enthralling word and I would ask him to repeat them all, to ensure that I had committed everything to memory with perfect accuracy. Already I believed I had never encountered a more fascinating man in my life, nor would I; and as I sat, staring into that remarkably hideous and disturbing expression, I became convinced that neither had all of London, nor perhaps the entire world, ever met such a fascinating human specimen as Dorian Gray.

After some time, but before the breath of dawn had begun to grace the sky beyond the high London rooftops, I was shaken by a slam so loud that I leapt from my chair. The front door. Dorian had left, and in some rush. Perhaps he was in want of opium, a habit for which I fault him not, as I fault him nothing. When he returned, then, I would speak to him, but for the time I would continue to look upon this masterful work.

The painting had begun to haunt me, thrilling me with the priceless lifeblood of creeping fear that is so rarely accessed by the ineffectual busybodies of high society. I fell in love with it by sunrise. I could not help myself. Impossibly, the painting married vulgar realism with breathtaking beauty. It was a revolutionary work. Whomever had painted it (even if the Devil himself had painted it, I thought), I had to have it. Upon hearing Dorian’s story I would buy it from him.

The rising sun brought to my attention an element of the painting which, so enamoured was I with the face, I had failed to notice by candlelight: the foremost hand had been covered in glistening blood. It looked absolutely real. The painter had even added two spots to the painted shoe to imply that the hand was so drenched as to drip. How ghastly. How brilliant. What a scandal. I would include in my offer the promise never to show the painting to anyone else, not solely for Dorian’s protection, but to protect the painting as well. In holding such potential for offense it became an even greater treasure, providing it would be kept secret; moralizers flock to public airings of offensive artwork as starving scavengers to leave only the most boring skeletons in their wake.

That moment, as I thought the above to myself, the inconceivable occurred. I will be forever changed, albeit the full nature and extent of the change I as yet cannot fathom. The liquid upon the bloodied hand welled at the tip of the thumb, then dripped. I found three drops upon the shoe, not two, and the third seemed to shine with the reflected light of my candle stub as though it were the fresher one. I rubbed my eyes. I beat my cheek with my hand. I pulled at my beard. There it was! A welling of the liquid blood, a bulbous drop; I saw it fall in a blur over the trouser leg before it slapped silently to the toe of the shoe. It could not be. I knew it could not be. But there it was, another drop and another, seven, eight, ten, falling with increasing frequency even as I dared touch the dry surface in a futile blockade, until the blood fully streamed from nowhere, a torrent splattering in silence to drown the shoe and pool upon the painted floor.

Certain that my next breath would be my dying one, certain that a scream would abduct the very essence of my life as it escaped my body, I ran from the house having only just remembered to hang the violet cloth back in place over the painting. I did not hail a hansom. I could not speak. I ran the whole way home, choking on my fear and housing the sensation of a knife in my side. I have been suffocating on the same fear in fits these last days, in this empty home of mine as, gradually, I have come to accept an impossible truth, a truth which motivates the writing of this letter, to this recipient.

The picture of Dorian Gray has painted itself. It continues to paint itself at this moment, and if left alone it will paint itself long into the future. I have avoided Dorian Gray completely. What would I say to him? How could I look at him? I already owe him several excuses, which I lack the fortitude to concoct. I am exhausted. The agony of pressing self-contradiction burdens my very existence. I may never fully adjust to this Satanic miracle.

I can not imagine what you might do to help, but please send it. Please send help.

Yours in confusion and terror, in which I am aware the Church revels and is hence fully prepared to manage,

Lord Henry Wotton

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