"Like all good reputations, Gladys," interrupted Lord Henry. "Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity."
"Not with women," said the duchess, shaking her head; "and women rule the world. I assure you we can't bear mediocrities. We women, as some one says, love with our ears, just as you men love with your eyes, if you ever love at all."
"It seems to me that we never do anything else," murmured Dorian.
"Ah! then, you never really love, Mr. Gray," answered the duchess with mock sadness.
"My dear Gladys!" cried Lord Henry. "How can you say that? Romance lives by repetition, and repetition converts an appetite into an art. Besides, each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion. It merely intensifies it. We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible."
"Even when one has been wounded by it, Harry?" asked the duchess after a pause.
"Especially when one has been wounded by it," answered Lord Henry.
The duchess turned and looked at Dorian Gray with a curious expression in her eyes. "What do you say to that, Mr. Gray?" she inquired.
Dorian hesitated for a moment. Then he threw his head back and laughed. "I always agree with Harry, Duchess."
"Even when he is wrong?"
"Harry is never wrong, Duchess."
"And does his philosophy make you happy?"
"I have never searched for happiness. Who wants happiness? I have searched for pleasure."
"And found it, Mr. Gray?"
"Often. Too often."
The duchess sighed. "I am searching for peace," she said, "and if I don't go and dress, I shall have none this evening."
"Let me get you some orchids, Duchess," cried Dorian, starting to his feet and walking down the conservatory.
"You are flirting disgracefully with him," said Lord Henry to his cousin. "You had better take care. He is very fascinating."
"If he were not, there would be no battle."
"Greek meets Greek, then?"
"I am on the side of the Trojans. They fought for a woman."
"They were defeated."
"There are worse things than capture," she answered.
"You gallop with a loose rein."
"Pace gives life," was the riposte.
"I shall write it in my diary to-night."
"That a burnt child loves the fire."
"I am not even singed. My wings are untouched."
"You use them for everything, except flight."
"Courage has passed from men to women. It is a new experience for us."
"You have a rival."
He laughed. "Lady Narborough," he whispered. "She perfectly adores him."
"You fill me with apprehension. The appeal to antiquity is fatal to us who are romanticists."
"Romanticists! You have all the methods of science."
"Men have educated us."
"But not explained you."
"Describe us as a sex," was her challenge.
"Sphinxes without secrets."
She looked at him, smiling. "How long Mr. Gray is!" she said. "Let us go and help him. I have not yet told him the colour of my frock."
"Ah! you must suit your frock to his flowers, Gladys."
"That would be a premature surrender."
"Romantic art begins with its climax."
"I must keep an opportunity for retreat."
"In the Parthian manner?"
"They found safety in the desert. I could not do that."
"Women are not always allowed a choice," he answered, but hardly had he finished the sentence before from the far end of the conservatory came a stifled groan, followed by the dull sound of a heavy fall. Everybody started up. The duchess stood motionless in horror. And with fear in his eyes, Lord Henry rushed through the flapping palms to find Dorian Gray lying face downwards on the tiled floor in a deathlike swoon.
He was carried at once into the blue drawing-room and laid upon one of the sofas. After a short time, he came to himself and looked round with a dazed expression.
"What has happened?" he asked. "Oh! I remember. Am I safe here, Harry?" He began to tremble.
"My dear Dorian," answered Lord Henry, "you merely fainted. That was all. You must have overtired yourself. You had better not come down to dinner. I will take your place."
"No, I will come down," he said, struggling to his feet. "I would rather come down. I must not be alone."
He went to his room and dressed. There was a wild recklessness of gaiety in his manner as he sat at table, but now and then a thrill of terror ran through him when he remembered that, pressed against the window of the conservatory, like a white handkerchief, he had seen the face of James Vane watching him.