Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Tale of Dorian Kerry (Apologies to Oscar Wilde)

Setting: America, 21st century
Principal Characters:
Dorian Kerry: a vain, ambitious man.
Susan Ostrich: An evil influence on Dorian Kerry.
Julia Vane: The woman Dorian had once been married to.
Basil Botox: The magical, yet cynical, portrait painter.
Lord Kennedy: An old friend and evil influence on Dorian Kerry.
McAuliffe: One of Kerry's servants.
Garafalo: Kerry's maid.

Plot synopsis: Dorian Kerry a vain, ambitious man
seeks political office. When he was a young man he posed for a portrait painted by Basil Botox. The portrait is magic and keeps its subject appearing young and innocent while all his wicked acts and age are recorded in the portrait. Despising the truth, Kerry conceals the portrait from all as it is the only record of his true depravity.


It was a lovely night, so warm that he threw his coat over his arm and did not even put his silk scarf round his throat. As he strolled home, smoking his cigarette, two young men in evening dress passed him. He heard one of them whisper to the other,

"That is Dorian Kerry."

He remembered how pleased he used to be when he was pointed out, or stared at, or talked about. He was tired of hearing his own name now. Half the charm of the political campaign where he had traveled so often lately was that no one knew who he truly was. He had often told his first wife, in order to make her love him, that he was good, and she had believed him.

He had told her just once early on that he was very wicked, and she had laughed at him and answered that wicked people were always very old and very ugly. What a laugh she had!--just like a thrush singing. And how pretty she had been in her cotton dresses and her large hats! She knew nothing, but she had everything that he had lost.

When he reached home, he found his servants waiting up for him. He sent them to bed, and threw himself down on the sofa in the library, and began to think over some of the things that Lord Kennedy had said to him.

Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood-- his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Kennedy had once called it.

He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?

Ah! In what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that.

Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment.

Not "Forgive us our sins" but "Smite us for our iniquities" should be the prayer of man to a most just God.

The curiously carved mirror that Lord Kennedy had given to him, so many years ago now, was standing on the table, and the white-limbed Cupids laughed round it as of old. He took it up, as he had done on that night of horror when be had first noted the change in the fatal picture, and with wild, tear-dimmed eyes looked into its polished shield.

Once, some one who had terribly loved him had written to him a mad letter, ending with these idolatrous words:

"The world is changed because you have the most perfect hair. The curves of your lips rewrite history."

The phrases came back to his memory, and he repeated them over and over to himself. Then he loathed his own beauty, and flinging the mirror on the floor, crushed it into silver splinters beneath his heel.

It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the hair that he had prayed for. But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain. His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts. Why had he worn its livery? Youth had spoiled him.

It was better not to think of the past. Nothing could alter that. It was of himself, and of his own future, that he had to think. The truth was hidden in a nameless file cabinet in a DOD archives and 20 years of votes on the Senate floor, archived, but forgotten by most.

The excitement, such as it was, over Basil Botox's disappearance would soon pass away. It was already waning. He was perfectly safe there. Nor, indeed, was it the hiding away of Basil Botox that weighed most upon his mind. It was the living death of his own soul that troubled him.

Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life. He could not forgive him that. It was the portrait that had done everything. Basil had said things to him that were unbearable, and that he had yet borne with patience. His visit to Basil had been simply the madness of a moment. As for Swiftboat veterans, their defamation had been his own act. He had chosen to do it. It was nothing to him.

A new life and a new past! That was what he wanted. That was what he was waiting for. Surely he had begun it already. If he could spare some innocent troops, at any rate. He would never again wage war on terror. He would obey the UN.

As he thought of pulling the troops out of Iraq, he began to wonder if the portrait in the locked room had changed. Surely it was not still so horrible as it had been? Perhaps if his life became pure, he would be able to expel every sign of evil passion from the face. Perhaps the signs of evil had already gone away. He would go and look.

He took the lamp from the table and crept upstairs. As he unbarred the door, a smile of joy flitted across his strangely austere-looking face and lingered for a moment about his tiny lips. Yes, he would be good, and the hideous thing that he had hidden away would no longer be a terror to him. He felt as if the load had been lifted from him already.

He went in quietly, locking the door behind him, as was his custom, and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite.

The thing was still loathsome--more loathsome, if possible, than before--and the sneer that flexed the nostril seemed stronger, and more like contempt of all mankind. Then he trembled. Had it been merely vanity that had made him think this policy was some good deed? Or the desire to atone his past actions, as Lord Kennedy had hinted, with his mocking laugh?

Or that passion, that sometimes makes us think finer of ourselves than we are truly? Or, perhaps, all these? And why were the shadows of past dalliances clearer than they had been? They seemed to have crept like a horrible disease nearer the wrinkled fingers. Confess? Did it mean that he was to confess?

To confess his affairs and lose the election? He laughed. He felt that the idea was monstrous. Besides, even if he did confess, why should he? There was no trace of the relationships anywhere. Everything regarding them had been destroyed. He himself had burned letters and photos.

Susan Ostrich would personally shut him up if he persisted in his story. . . . Yet it was his duty to confess, to suffer public shame, and to make public atonement. There was a God who called upon men to tell their sins to earth as well as to heaven. Nothing that he could do would cleanse him till he had told his own sin. His sin? He shrugged his shoulders. The Basil Botox and his painting seemed abominable to him!

When he had been away, he had been filled with terror lest other eyes should look upon it. It had brought melancholy across his passions. Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it.

He looked round and saw the brush that had been used by Basil Botox. He had washed it many times, till there was no paint left upon it. It was soft, and supple with a carved ivory handle. As it had been used by the painter, so it could destroy the painter's work, and all that that meant.

It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the brush turned its hard ivory handle around in his hands, and with its pointed end stabbed the picture with it.

There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house.

They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.

"Whose house is that, officer?"
asked the elder of the two gentlemen.
"Mr. Dorian Kerry's, sir,"
answered the policeman. They looked at each other, as they walked away, and sneered. They had been two Vietnam veterans.

Inside, in the servants' part of the house, the half-clad domestics were talking in low whispers to each other. Old Mrs. Garafalo was crying and wringing her hands. McAuliffe was as pale as death.

After about a quarter of an hour, he got the chaffeur and one of the butlers and crept upstairs. They knocked, but there was no reply. They called out. Everything was still. Finally, after vainly trying to force the door, they got on the roof and dropped down on to the balcony. The windows yielded easily--their bolts were old.

When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite nobility and beauty. Lying on the floor was a politically dead man, in evening dress, weeping softly with a brush in his hand. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they looked at his hair that they recognized who it was.