"Oscar Wilde is most surprising, most charming, a wonderful talker."
At the same moment Mr. K. H—— came over to us. He was a man who went everywhere and knew everyone. He had quiet, ingratiating manners, always spoke in a gentle smiling way and had a good word to say for everyone, especially for women; he was a bachelor, too, and wholly unattached. He surprised me by taking up Grenfell's praise and breaking into a lyric:
"The best talker who ever lived," he said; "most extraordinary. I am so infinitely obliged to you for asking me to meet him—a new delight. He brings a supernal air into life. I am in truth indebted to you"—all this in an affected purring tone. I noticed for the first time that there was a touch of rouge on his face; Grenfell turned away from us rather abruptly I thought.
At this first roseate dawn of complete success and universal applause, new qualities came to view in Oscar. Praise gave him the fillip needed in order to make him surpass himself. His talk took on a sort of autumnal richness of colour, and assumed a new width of range; he now used pathos as well as humour and generally brought in a story or apologue to lend variety to the entertainment. His little weaknesses, too, began to show themselves and they grew rankly in the sunshine. He always wanted to do himself well, as the phrase goes, but now he began to eat and drink more freely than before. His vanity became defiant. I noticed one day that he had signed himself, Oscar O'Flahertie Wilde, I think under some verses which he had contributed years before to his College magazine. I asked him jokingly what the O'Flahertie stood for. To my astonishment he answered me gravely:
"The O'Flaherties were kings in Ireland, and I have a right to the name; I am descended from them."
I could not help it; I burst out laughing.
"What are you laughing at, Frank?" he asked with a touch of annoyance.
"It seems humorous to me," I explained, "that Oscar Wilde should want to be an O'Flahertie," and as I spoke a picture of the greatest of the O'Flaherties, with bushy head and dirty rags, warming enormous hairy legs before a smoking peat-fire, flashed before me. I think something of the sort must have occurred to Oscar, too, for, in spite of his attempt to be grave, he could not help laughing.
"It's unkind of you, Frank," he said. "The Irish were civilised and Christians when the English kept themselves warm with tattooings."
He could not help telling one in familiar talk of Clumber or some other great house where he had been visiting; he was intoxicated with his own popularity, a little surprised, perhaps, to find that he had won fame so easily and on the primrose path, but one could forgive him everything, for he talked more delightfully than ever.
It is almost inexplicable, but nevertheless true that life tries all of us, tests every weak point to breaking, and sets off and exaggerates our powers. Burns saw this when he wrote:
"Wha does the utmost that he can Will whyles do mair."
And the obverse is true: whoever yields to a weakness habitually, some day goes further than he ever intended, and comes to worse grief than he deserved. The old prayer: Lead us not into temptation, is perhaps a half-conscious recognition of this fact. But we moderns are inclined to walk heedlessly, no longer believing in pitfalls or in the danger of gratified desires. And Oscar Wilde was not only an unbeliever; but he had all the heedless confidence of the artist who has won world-wide popularity and has the halo of fame on his brow. With high heart and smiling eyes he went to his fate unsuspecting.
It was in the autumn of 1891 that he first met Lord Alfred Douglas. He was thirty-six and Lord Alfred Douglas a handsome, slim youth of twenty-one, with large blue eyes and golden-fair hair. His mother, the Dowager Lady Queensberry, preserves a photograph of him taken a few years before, when he was still at Winchester, a boy of sixteen with an expression which might well be called angelic.
When I met him, he was still girlishly pretty, with the beauty of youth, coloring and fair skin; though his features were merely ordinary. It was Lionel Johnson, the writer, a friend and intimate of Douglas at Winchester, who brought him to tea at Oscar's house in Tite Street. Their mutual attraction had countless hooks. Oscar was drawn by the lad's personal beauty, and enormously affected besides by Lord Alfred Douglas' name and position: he was a snob as only an English artist can be a snob; he loved titular distinctions, and Douglas is one of the few great names in British history with the gilding of romance about it. No doubt Oscar talked better than his best because he was talking to Lord Alfred Douglas. To the last the mere name rolled on his tongue gave him extraordinary pleasure. Besides, the boy admired him, hung upon his lips with his soul in his eyes; showed, too, rare intelligence in his appreciation, confessed that he himself wrote verses and loved letters passionately. Could more be desired than perfection perfected?
And Alfred Douglas on his side was almost as powerfully attracted; he had inherited from his mother all her literary tastes—and more: he was already a master-poet with a singing faculty worthy to be compared with the greatest. What wonder if he took this magical talker, with the luminous eyes and charming voice, and a range and play of thought beyond his imagining, for a world's miracle, one of the Immortals. Before he had listened long, I have been told, the youth declared his admiration passionately. They were an extraordinary pair and were complementary in a hundred ways, not only in mind, but in character. Oscar had reached originality of thought and possessed the culture of scholarship, while Alfred Douglas had youth and rank and beauty, besides being as articulate as a woman with an unsurpassable gift of expression. Curiously enough, Oscar was as yielding and amiable in character as the boy was self-willed, reckless, obstinate and imperious.
Years later Oscar told me that from the first he dreaded Alfred Douglas' aristocratic, insolent boldness:
"He frightened me, Frank, as much as he attracted me, and I held away from him. But he wouldn't have it; he sought me out again and again and I couldn't resist him. That is my only fault. That's what ruined me. He increased my expenses so that I could not meet them; over and over again I tried to free myself from him; but he came back and I yielded—alas!"
Though this is Oscar's later gloss on what actually happened, it is fairly accurate. He was never able to realise how his meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas had changed the world to him and him to the world. The effect on the harder fibre of the boy was chiefly mental: to Alfred Douglas, Oscar was merely a quickening, inspiring, intellectual influence; but the boy's effect on Oscar was of character and induced imitation. Lord Alfred Douglas' boldness gave Oscar outrecuidance, an insolent arrogance: artist-like he tried to outdo his model in aristocratic disdain. Without knowing the cause the change in Oscar astonished me again and again, and in the course of this narrative I shall have to notice many instances of it.
One other effect the friendship had of far-reaching influence. Oscar always enjoyed good living; but for years he had had to earn his bread: he knew the value of money; he didn't like to throw it away; he was accustomed to lunch or dine at a cheap Italian restaurant for a few shillings. But to Lord Alfred Douglas money was only a counter and the most luxurious living a necessity. As soon as Oscar Wilde began to entertain him, he was led to the dearest hotels and restaurants; his expenses became formidable and soon outran his large earnings. For the first time since I had known him he borrowed heedlessly right and left, and had, therefore, to bring forth play after play with scant time for thought.
Lord Alfred Douglas has declared recently:
"I spent much more in entertaining Oscar Wilde than he did in entertaining me"; but this is preposterous self-deception. An earlier confession of his was much nearer the truth: "It was a sweet humiliation to me to let Oscar Wilde pay for everything and to ask him for money."
There can be no doubt that Lord Alfred Douglas' habitual extravagance kept Oscar Wilde hard up, and drove him to write without intermission.
There were other and worse results of the intimacy which need not be exposed here in so many words, though they must be indicated; for they derived of necessity from that increased self-assurance which has already been recorded. As Oscar devoted himself to Lord Alfred Douglas and went about with him continually, he came to know his friends and his familiars, and went less into society so-called. Again and again Lord Alfred Douglas flaunted acquaintance with youths of the lowest class; but no one knew him or paid much attention to him; Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, was already a famous personage whose every movement provoked comment. From this time on the rumours about Oscar took definite form and shaped themselves in specific accusations: his enemies began triumphantly to predict his ruin and disgrace.
Everything is known in London society; like water on sand the truth spreads wider and wider as it gradually filters lower. The "smart set" in London has almost as keen a love of scandal as a cathedral town. About this time one heard of a dinner which Oscar Wilde had given at a restaurant in Soho, which was said to have degenerated into a sort of Roman orgy. I was told of a man who tried to get money by blackmailing him in his own house. I shrugged my shoulders at all these scandals, and asked the talebearers what had been said about Shakespeare to make him rave as he raved again and again against "back-wounding calumny"; and when they persisted in their malicious stories I could do nothing but show disbelief. Though I saw but little of Oscar during the first year or so of his intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, one scene from this time filled me with suspicion and an undefined dread.
I was in a corner of the Cafe Royal one night downstairs, playing chess, and, while waiting for my opponent to move, I went out just to stretch my legs. When I returned I found Oscar throned in the very corner, between two youths. Even to my short-sighted eyes they appeared quite common: in fact they looked like grooms. In spite of their vulgar appearance, however, one was nice looking in a fresh boyish way; the other seemed merely depraved. Oscar greeted me as usual, though he seemed slightly embarrassed. I resumed my seat, which was almost opposite him, and pretended to be absorbed in the game. To my astonishment he was talking as well as if he had had a picked audience; talking, if you please, about the Olympic games, telling how the youths wrestled and were scraped with strigulae and threw the discus and ran races and won the myrtle-wreath. His impassioned eloquence brought the sun-bathed palaestra before one with a magic of representment. Suddenly the younger of the boys asked:
"Did you sy they was niked?"
"Of course," Oscar replied, "nude, clothed only in sunshine and beauty."
"Oh, my," giggled the lad in his unspeakable Cockney way. I could not stand it.
"I am in an impossible position," I said to my opponent, who was the amateur chess player, Montagu Gattie. "Come along and let us have some dinner." With a nod to Oscar I left the place. On the way out Gattie said to me:
"So that's the famous Oscar Wilde."
"Yes," I replied, "that's Oscar, but I never saw him in such company before."
"Didn't you?" remarked Gattie quietly; "he was well known at Oxford. I was at the 'Varsity with him. His reputation was always rather—'high,' shall we call it?"
I wanted to forget the scene and blot it out of my memory, and remember my friend as I knew him at his best. But that Cockney boy would not be banned; he leered there with rosy cheeks, hair plastered down in a love-lock on his forehead, and low cunning eyes. I felt uncomfortable. I would not think of it. I recalled the fact that in all our talks I had never heard Oscar use a gross word. His mind, I said to myself, is like Spenser's, vowed away from coarseness and vulgarity: he's the most perfect intellectual companion in the world. He may have wanted to talk to the boys just to see what effect his talk would have on them. His vanity is greedy enough to desire even such applause as theirs.... Of course, that was the explanation—vanity. My affection for him, tormented by doubt, had found at length a satisfactory solution. It was the artist in him, I said to myself, that wanted a model.
But why not boys of his own class? The answer suggested itself; boys of his own class could teach him nothing; his own boyhood would supply him with all the necessary information about well-bred youth. But if he wanted a gutter-snipe in one of his plays, he would have to find a gutter-lad and paint him from life. That was probably the truth, I concluded. So satisfied was I with my discovery that I developed it to Gattie; but he would not hear of it.
"Gattie has nothing of the artist in him," I decided, "and therefore cannot understand." And I went on arguing, if Gattie were right, why two boys? It seemed evident to me that my reading of the riddle was the only plausible one. Besides it left my affection unaffected and free. Still, the giggle, the plastered oily hair and the venal leering eyes came back to me again and again in spite of myself.
There is a secret apprehension in man counselling sobriety and moderation, a fear born of expediency distinct from conscience, which is ethical; though it seems to be closely connected with conscience acting, as it does, by warnings and prohibitions. The story of Polycrates and his ring is a symbol of the instinctive feeling that extraordinary good fortune is perilous and can not endure.
A year or so after the first meeting between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas I heard that they were being pestered on account of some amorous letters which had been stolen from them. There was talk of blackmail and hints of an interesting exposure.
Towards the end of the year it was announced that Lord Alfred Douglas had gone to Egypt; but this "flight into Egypt," as it was wittily called, was gilded by the fact that a little later he was appointed an honorary attache to Lord Cromer. I regarded his absence as a piece of good fortune, for when he was in London, Oscar had no time to himself, and was seen in public with associates he would have done better to avoid. Time and again he had praised Lord Alfred Douglas to me as a charming person, a poet, and had grown lyrical about his violet eyes and honey-coloured hair. I knew nothing of Lord Alfred Douglas, and had no inkling of his poetic talent. I did not like several of Oscar's particular friends, and I had a special dislike for the father of Lord Alfred Douglas. I knew Queensberry rather well. I was a member of the old Pelican Club, and I used to go there frequently for a talk with Tom, Dick or Harry, about athletics, or for a game of chess with George Edwards. Queensberry was there almost every night, and someone introduced me to him. I was eager to know him because he had surprised me. At some play, I think it was "The Promise of May," by Tennyson, produced at the Globe, in which atheists were condemned, he had got up in his box and denounced the play, proclaiming himself an atheist. I wanted to know the Englishman who could be so contemptuous of convention. Had he acted out of aristocratic insolence, or was he by any possibility high-minded? To one who knew the man the mere question must seem ridiculous.
Queensberry was perhaps five feet nine or ten in height, with a plain, heavy, rather sullen face, and quick, hot eyes. He was a mass of self-conceit, all bristling with suspicion, and in regard to money, prudent to meanness. He cared nothing for books, but liked outdoor sports and under a rather abrupt, but not discourteous, manner hid an irritable, violent temper. He was combative and courageous as very nervous people sometimes are, when they happen to be strong-willed—the sort of man who, just because he was afraid of a bull and had pictured the dreadful wound it could give, would therefore seize it by the horns.
The insane temper of the man got him into rows at the Pelican more than once. I remember one evening he insulted a man whom I liked immensely. Haseltine was a stockbroker, I think, a big, fair, handsome fellow who took Queensberry's insults for some time with cheerful contempt. Again and again he turned Queensberry's wrath aside with a fair word, but Queensberry went on working himself into a passion, and at last made a rush at him. Haseltine watched him coming and hit out in the nick of time; he caught Queensberry full in the face and literally knocked him heels over head. Queensberry got up in a sad mess: he had a swollen nose and black eye and his shirt was all stained with blood spread about by hasty wiping. Any other man would have continued the fight or else have left the club on the spot; Queensberry took a seat at a table, and there sat for hours silent. I could only explain it to myself by saying that his impulse to fly at once from the scene of his disgrace was very acute, and therefore he resisted it, made up his mind not to budge, and so he sat there the butt of the derisive glances and whispered talk of everyone who came into the club in the next two or three hours. He was just the sort of person a wise man would avoid and a clever one would use—a dangerous, sharp, ill-handled tool.
Disliking his father, I did not care to meet Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar's newest friend.
I saw Oscar less frequently after the success of his first play; he no longer needed my editorial services, and was, besides, busily engaged; but I have one good trait to record of him. Some time before I had lent him L50; so long as he was hard up I said nothing about it; but after the success of his second play, I wrote to him saying that the L50 would be useful to me if he could spare it. He sent me a cheque at once with a charming letter.
He was now continually about again with Lord Alfred Douglas who, it appeared, had had a disagreement with Lord Cromer and returned to London. Almost immediately scandalous stories came into circulation concerning them: "Have you heard the latest about Lord Alfred and Oscar? I'm told they're being watched by the police," and so forth and so on interminably. One day a story came to me with such wealth of weird detail that it was manifestly at least founded on fact. Oscar was said to have written extraordinary letters to Lord Alfred Douglas: a youth called Alfred Wood had stolen the letters from Lord Alfred Douglas' rooms in Oxford and had tried to blackmail Oscar with them. The facts were so peculiar and so precise that I asked Oscar about it. He met the accusation at once and very fairly, I thought, and told me the whole story. It puts the triumphant power and address of the man in a strong light, and so I will tell it as he told it to me.
"When I was rehearsing 'A Woman of No Importance' at the Haymarket," he began, "Beerbohm Tree showed me a letter I had written a year or so before to Alfred Douglas. He seemed to think it dangerous, but I laughed at him and read the letter with him, and of course he came to understand it properly. A little later a man called Wood told me he had found some letters which I had written to Lord Alfred Douglas in a suit of clothes which Lord Alfred had given to him. He gave me back some of the letters and I gave him a little money. But the letter, a copy of which had been sent to Beerbohm Tree, was not amongst them.
"Some time afterwards a man named Allen called upon me one night in Tite Street, and said he had got a letter of mine which I ought to have.
"The man's manner told me that he was the real enemy. 'I suppose you mean that beautiful letter of mine to Lord Alfred Douglas,' I said. 'If you had not been so foolish as to send a copy of it to Mr. Beerbohm Tree, I should have been glad to have paid you a large sum for it, as I think it is one of the best I ever wrote.' Allen looked at me with sulky, cunning eyes and said:
"'A curious construction could be put upon that letter.'
"'No doubt, no doubt,' I replied lightly; 'art is not intelligible to the criminal classes.' He looked me in the face defiantly and said:
"'A man has offered me L60 for it.'
"'You should take the offer,' I said gravely; 'L60 is a great price. I myself have never received such a large sum for any prose work of that length. But I am glad to find that there is someone in England who will pay such a large sum for a letter of mine. I don't know why you come to me,' I added, rising, 'you should sell the letter at once.'
"Of course, Frank, as I spoke my body seemed empty with fear. The letter could be misunderstood, and I have so many envious enemies; but I felt that there was nothing else for it but bluff. As I went to the door Allen rose too, and said that the man who had offered him the money was out of town. I turned to him and said:
"'He will no doubt return, and I don't care for the letter at all.'
"At this Allen changed his manner, said he was very poor, he hadn't a penny in the world, and had spent a lot trying to find me and tell me about the letter. I told him I did not mind relieving his distress, and gave him half a sovereign, assuring him at the same time that the letter would shortly be published as a sonnet in a delightful magazine. I went to the door with him, and he walked away. I closed the door; but didn't shut it at once, for suddenly I heard a policeman's step coming softly towards my house—pad, pad! A dreadful moment, then he passed by. I went into the room again all shaken, wondering whether I had done right, whether Allen would hawk the letter about—a thousand vague apprehensions.
"Suddenly a knock at the street door. My heart was in my mouth, still I went and opened it: a man named Cliburn was there.
"'I have come to you with a letter of Allen's.'
"'I cannot be bothered any more,' I cried, 'about that letter; I don't care twopence about it. Let him do what he likes with it.'
"To my astonishment Cliburn said:
"'Allen has asked me to give it back to you,' and he produced it.
"'Why does he give it back to me?' I asked carelessly.
"'He says you were kind to him and that it is no use trying to "rent" you; you only laugh at us.'
"I looked at the letter; it was very dirty, and I said:
"'I think it is unpardonable that better care should not have been taken of a manuscript of mine.'
"He said he was sorry; but it had been in many hands. I took the letter up casually:
"'Well, I will accept the letter back. You can thank Mr. Allen for me.'
"I gave Cliburn half a sovereign for his trouble, and said to him:
"'I am afraid you are leading a desperately wicked life.'
"'There's good and bad in every one of us,' he replied. I said something about his being a philosopher, and he went away. That's the whole story, Frank."
"But the letter?" I questioned.
"The letter is nothing," Oscar replied; "a prose poem. I will give you a copy of it."
Here is the letter:
"MY OWN BOY,—Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim-gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. No Hyacinthus followed Love so madly as you in Greek days. Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there and cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things. Come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and only lacks you. Do go to Salisbury first. Always with undying love,
* * * * *
This letter startled me; "slim-gilt" and the "madness of kissing" were calculated to give one pause; but after all, I thought, it may be merely an artist's letter, half pose, half passionate admiration. Another thought struck me.
"But how did such a letter," I cried, "ever get into the hands of a blackmailer?"
"I don't know," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Lord Alfred Douglas is very careless and inconceivably bold. You should know him, Frank; he's a delightful poet."
"But how did he come to know a creature like Wood?" I persisted.
"How can I tell, Frank," he answered a little shortly; and I let the matter drop, though it left in me a certain doubt, an uncomfortable suspicion.
The scandal grew from hour to hour, and the tide of hatred rose in surges.
One day I was lunching at the Savoy, and while talking to the head waiter, Cesari, who afterwards managed the Elysee Palace Hotel in Paris, I thought I saw Oscar and Douglas go out together. Being a little short-sighted, I asked:
"Isn't that Mr. Oscar Wilde?"
"Yes," said Cesari, "and Lord Alfred Douglas. We wish they would not come here; it does us a lot of harm."
"How do you mean?" I asked sharply.
"Some people don't like them," the quick Italian answered immediately.
"Oscar Wilde," I remarked casually, "is a great friend of mine," but the super-subtle Italian was already warned.
"A clever writer, I believe," he said, smiling in bland acquiescence.
This incident gave me warning, strengthened again in me the exact apprehension and suspicion which the Douglas letter had bred. Oscar I knew was too self-centred, went about too continually with admirers to have any understanding of popular feeling. He would be the last man to realize how fiercely hate, malice and envy were raging against him. I wanted to warn him; but hardly knew how to do it effectively and without offence: I made up my mind to keep my eyes open and watch an opportunity.
A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.
"Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country," he said laughing, "so education is the curse of the acting classes."
Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous. The truth is that his extraordinarily receptive mind went with an even more abnormal receptivity of character: unlike most men of marked ability, he took colour from his associates. In this as in love of courtesies and dislike of coarse words he was curiously feminine. Intercourse with Beardsley, for example, had backed his humorous gentleness with a sort of challenging courage; his new intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, coming on the top of his triumph as a playwright, was lending him aggressive self-confidence. There was in him that [Greek: hubris] (insolent self-assurance) which the Greek feared, the pride which goeth before destruction. I regretted the change in him and was nervously apprehensive.
After dinner we all went out by the door which gives on the Embankment, for it was after 12.30. One of the party proposed that we should walk for a minute or two—at least as far as the Strand, before driving home. Oscar objected. He hated walking; it was a form of penal servitude to the animal in man, he declared; but he consented, nevertheless, under protest, laughing. When we were going up the steps to the Strand he again objected, and quoted Dante's famous lines:
"Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui; e com' e duro calle Lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale."
The impression made by Oscar that evening was not only of self-indulgence but of over-confidence. I could not imagine what had given him this insolent self-complacence. I wanted to get by myself and think. Prosperity was certainly doing him no good.
All the while the opposition to him, I felt, was growing in force. How could I verify this impression, I asked myself, so as to warn him effectually?
I decided to give a lunch to him, and on purpose I put on the invitations: "To meet Mr. Oscar Wilde and hear a new story." Out of a dozen invitations sent out to men, seven or eight were refused, three or four telling me in all kindness that they would rather not meet Oscar Wilde. This confirmed my worst fears: when Englishmen speak out in this way the dislike must be near revolt.
I gave the lunch and saw plainly enough that my forebodings were justified. Oscar was more self-confident, more contemptuous of criticism, more gross of body than ever, but his talk did not suffer; indeed, it seemed to improve. At this lunch he told the charming fable of "Narcissus," which is certainly one of his most characteristic short stories.
"When Narcissus died the Flowers of the Field were plunged in grief, and asked the River for drops of water that they might mourn for him.
"'Oh,' replied the River, 'if only my drops of water were tears, I should not have enough to weep for Narcissus myself—I loved him.'
"'How could you help loving Narcissus?' said the flowers, 'so beautiful was he.'
"'Was he beautiful?' asked the River.
"'Who should know that better than you?' said the flowers, 'for every day, lying on your bank, he would mirror his beauty in your waters.'"
Oscar paused here, and then went on:
"'If I loved him,' replied the River, 'it is because, when he hung over me, I saw the reflection of my own loveliness in his eyes.'"
After lunch I took him aside and tried to warn him, told him that unpleasant stories were being put about against him; but he paid no heed to me.
"All envy, Frank, and malice. What do I care? I go to Clumber this summer; besides I am doing another play which I rather like. I always knew that play-writing was my province. As a youth I tried to write plays in verse; that was my mistake. Now I know better; I'm sure of myself and of success."
Somehow or other in spite of his apparent assurance I felt he was in danger and I doubted his quality as a fighter. But after all it was not my business: wilful man must have his way.
It seems to me now that my mistrust dated from the second paper war with Whistler, wherein to the astonishment of everyone Oscar did not come off victorious. As soon as he met with opposition his power of repartee seemed to desert him and Whistler, using mere rudeness and man-of-the-world sharpness, held the field. Oscar was evidently not a born fighter.
I asked him once how it was he let Whistler off so lightly. He shrugged his shoulders and showed some irritation.
"What could I say, Frank? Why should I belabour the beaten? The man is a wasp and delights in using his sting. I have done more perhaps than anyone to make him famous. I had no wish to hurt him."
Was it magnanimity or weakness or, as I think, a constitutional, a feminine shrinking from struggle and strife. Whatever the cause, it was clear that Oscar was what Shakespeare called himself, "an unhurtful opposite."
It is quite possible that if he had been attacked face to face, Oscar would have given a better account of himself. At Mrs. Grenfell's (now Lady Desborough) he crossed swords once with the Prime Minister and came off victorious. Mr. Asquith began by bantering him, in appearance lightly, in reality, seriously, for putting many of his sentences in italics.
"The man who uses italics," said the politician, "is like the man who raises his voice in conversation and talks loudly in order to make himself heard."
It was the well-known objection which Emerson had taken to Carlyle's overwrought style, pointed probably by dislike of the way Oscar monopolised conversation.
Oscar met the stereotyped attack with smiling good-humour.
"How delightful of you, Mr. Asquith, to have noticed that! The brilliant phrase, like good wine, needs no bush. But just as the orator marks his good things by a dramatic pause, or by raising or lowering his voice, or by gesture, so the writer marks his epigrams with italics, setting the little gem, so to speak, like a jeweller—an excusable love of one's art, not all mere vanity, I like to think"—all this with the most pleasant smile and manner.
In measure as I distrusted Oscar's fighting power and admired his sweetness of nature I took sides with him and wanted to help him. One day I heard some talk at the Pelican Club which filled me with fear for him and quickened my resolve to put him on his guard. I was going in just as Queensberry was coming out with two or three of his special cronies.
"I'll do it," I heard him cry, "I'll teach the fellow to leave my son alone. I'll not have their names coupled together."
I caught a glimpse of the thrust-out combative face and the hot grey eyes.
"What's it all about?" I asked.
"Only Queensberry," said someone, "swearing he'll stop Oscar Wilde going about with that son of his, Alfred Douglas."
Suddenly my fears took form: as in a flash I saw Oscar, heedless and smiling, walking along with his head in the air, and that violent combative insane creature pouncing on him. I sat down at once and wrote begging Oscar to lunch with me the next day alone, as I had something important to say to him. He turned up in Park Lane, manifestly anxious, a little frightened, I think.
"What is it, Frank?"
I told him very seriously what I had heard and gave besides my impression of Queensberry's character, and his insane pugnacity.
"What can I do, Frank?" said Oscar, showing distress and apprehension. "It's all Bosie."
"Who is Bosie?" I asked.
"That is Lord Alfred Douglas' pet name. It's all Bosie's fault. He has quarrelled with his father, or rather his father has quarrelled with him. He quarrels with everyone; with Lady Queensberry, with Percy Douglas, with Bosie, everyone. He's impossible. What can I do?"
"Avoid him," I said. "Don't go about with Lord Alfred Douglas. Give Queensberry his triumph. You could make a friend of him as easily as possible, if you wished. Write him a conciliatory letter."
"But he'll want me to drop Bosie, and stop seeing Lady Queensberry, and I like them all; they are charming to me. Why should I cringe to this madman?"
"Because he is a madman."
"Oh, Frank, I can't," he cried. "Bosie wouldn't let me."
"'Wouldn't let you'? I repeated angrily. "How absurd! That Queensberry man will go to violence, to any extremity. Don't you fight other people's quarrels: you may have enough of your own some day."
"You're not sympathetic, Frank," he chided weakly. "I know you mean it kindly, but it's impossible for me to do as you advise. I cannot give up my friend. I really cannot let Lord Queensberry choose my friends for me. It's too absurd."
"But it's wise," I replied. "There's a very bad verse in one of Hugo's plays. It always amused me—he likens poverty to a low door and declares that when we have to pass through it the man who stoops lowest is the wisest. So when you meet a madman, the wisest thing to do is to avoid him and not quarrel with him."
"It's very hard, Frank; of course I'll think over what you say. But really Queensberry ought to be in a madhouse. He's too absurd," and in that spirit he left me, outwardly self-confident. He might have remembered Chaucer's words:
Beware also to spurne again a nall; Strive not as doeth a crocke with a wall; Deme thy selfe that demest others dede, And trouth thee shall deliver, it is no drede.
 "The Promise of May" was produced in November, 1882.
These two years 1893-4 saw Oscar Wilde at the very zenith of success. Thackeray, who always felt himself a monetary failure in comparison with Dickens, calls success "one of the greatest of a great man's qualities," and Oscar was not successful merely, he was triumphant. Not Sheridan the day after his marriage, not Byron when he awoke to find himself famous, ever reached such a pinnacle. His plays were bringing in so much that he could spend money like water; he had won every sort of popularity; the gross applause of the many, and the finer incense of the few who constitute the jury of Fame; his personal popularity too was extraordinary; thousands admired him, many liked him; he seemed to have everything that heart could desire and perfect health to boot. Even his home life was without a cloud. Two stories which he told at this time paint him. One was about his two boys, Vyvyan and Cyril.
"Children are sometimes interesting," he began. "The other night I was reading when my wife came and asked me to go upstairs and reprove the elder boy: Cyril, it appeared, would not say his prayers. He had quarrelled with Vyvyan, and beaten him, and when he was shaken and told he must say his prayers, he would not kneel down, or ask God to make him a good boy. Of course I had to go upstairs and see to it. I took the chubby little fellow on my knee, and told him in a grave way that he had been very naughty; naughty to hit his younger brother, and naughty because he had given his mother pain. He must kneel down at once, and ask God to forgive him and make him a good boy.
"'I was not naughty,' he pouted, 'it was Vyvyan; he was naughty.'
"I explained to him that his temper was naughty, and that he must do as he was told. With a little sigh he slipped off my knee, and knelt down and put his little hands together, as he had been taught, and began 'Our Father.' When he had finished the 'Lord's Prayer,' he looked up at me and said gravely, 'Now I'll pray to myself.'
"He closed his eyes and his lips moved. When he had finished I took him in my arms again and kissed him. 'That's right,' I said.
"'You said you were sorry,' questioned his mother, leaning over him, 'and asked God to make you a good boy?'
"'Yes, mother,' he nodded, 'I said I was sorry and asked God to make Vyvyan a good boy.'
"I had to leave the room, Frank, or he would have seen me smiling. Wasn't it delightful of him! We are all willing to ask God to make others good."
This story shows the lovable side of him. There was another side not so amiable. In April, 1893, "A Woman of No Importance" was produced by Herbert Beerbohm Tree at The Haymarket and ran till the end of the season, August 16th, surviving even the festival of St. Grouse. The astonishing success of this second play confirmed Oscar Wilde's popularity, gave him money to spend and increased his self-confidence. In the summer he took a house up the river at Goring, and went there to live with Lord Alfred Douglas. Weird stories came to us in London about their life together. Some time in September, I think it was, I asked him what was the truth underlying these reports.
"Scandals and slanders, Frank, have no relation to truth," he replied.
"I wonder if that's true," I said, "slander often has some substratum of truth; it resembles the truth like a gigantic shadow; there is a likeness at least in outline."
"That would be true," he retorted, "if the canvas, so to speak, on which the shadows fall were even and true; but it is not. Scandals and slander are related to the hatred of the people who invent them and are not in any shadowy sense even, effigies or images of the person attacked."
"Much smoke, then," I queried, "and no fire?"
"Only little fires," he rejoined, "show much smoke. The foundation for what you heard is both small and harmless. The summer was very warm and beautiful, as you know, and I was up at Goring with Bosie. Often in the middle of the day we were too hot to go on the river. One afternoon it was sultry-close, and Bosie proposed that I should turn the hose pipe on him. He went in and threw his things off and so did I. A few minutes later I was seated in a chair with a bath towel round me and Bosie was lying on the grass about ten yards away, when the vicar came to pay us a call. The servant told him that we were in the garden, and he came and found us there. Frank, you have no idea the sort of face he pulled. What could I say?"
"'I am the vicar of the parish,' he bowed pompously.
"'I'm delighted to see you,' I said, getting up and draping myself carefully, 'you have come just in time to enjoy a perfectly Greek scene. I regret that I am scarcely fit to receive you, and Bosie there'—and I pointed to Bosie lying on the grass. The vicar turned his head and saw Bosie's white limbs; the sight was too much for him; he got very red, gave a gasp and fled from the place.
"I simply sat down in my chair and shrieked with laughter. How he may have described the scene, what explanation he gave of it, what vile gloss he may have invented, I don't know and I don't care. I have no doubt he wagged his head and pursed his lips and looked unutterable things. But really it takes a saint to suffer such fools gladly."
I could not help smiling when I thought of the vicar's face, but Oscar's tone was not pleasant.
The change in him had gone further than I had feared. He was now utterly contemptuous of criticism and would listen to no counsel. He was gross, too, the rich food and wine seemed to ooze out of him and his manner was defiant, hard. He was like some great pagan determined to live his own life to the very fullest, careless of what others might say or think or do. Even the stories which he wrote about this time show the worst side of his paganism:
"When Jesus was minded to return to Nazareth, Nazareth was so changed that He no longer recognised His own city. The Nazareth where he had lived was full of lamentations and tears; this city was filled with outbursts of laughter and song....
"Christ went out of the house and, behold, in the street he saw a woman whose face and raiment were painted and whose feet were shod with pearls, and behind her walked a man who wore a cloak of two colours, and whose eyes were bright with lust. And Christ went up to the man and laid His hand on his shoulder, and said to him, 'Tell me, why art thou following this woman, and why dost thou look at her in such wise?' The man turned round, recognised Him and said, 'I was blind; Thou didst heal me; what else should I do with my sight?'"
The same note is played on in two or three more incidents, but the one I have given is the best, and should have been allowed to stand alone. It has been called blasphemous; it is not intentionally blasphemous; as I have said, Oscar always put himself quite naively in the place of any historical character.
The disdain of public opinion which Oscar now showed not only in his writings, but in his answers to criticism, quickly turned the public dislike into aggressive hatred. In 1894 a book appeared, "The Green Carnation," which was a sort of photograph of Oscar as a talker and a caricature of his thought. The gossipy story had a surprising success, altogether beyond its merits, which simply testified to the intense interest the suspicion of extraordinary viciousness has for common minds. Oscar's genius was not given in the book at all, but his humour was indicated and a malevolent doubt of his morality insisted upon again and again. Rumour had it that the book was true in every particular, that Mr. Hichens had taken down Oscar's talks evening after evening and simply reproduced them. I asked Oscar if this was true.
"True enough, Frank," he replied with a certain contempt which was foreign to him. "Hichens got to know Bosie Douglas in Egypt. They went up the Nile together, I believe with 'Dodo' Benson. Naturally Bosie talked a great deal about me and Hichens wanted to know me. When they returned to town, I thought him rather pleasant, and saw a good deal of him. I had no idea that he was going to play reporter; it seems to me a breach of confidence—ignoble."
"It is not a picture of you," I said, "but there is a certain likeness."
"A photograph is always like and unlike, Frank," he replied; "the sun too, when used mechanically, is merely a reporter, and traduces instead of reproducing you."
"The Green Carnation" ruined Oscar Wilde's character with the general public. On all sides the book was referred to as confirming the worst suspicions: the cloud which hung over him grew continually darker.
During the summer of 1894 he wrote the "Ideal Husband," which was the outcome of a story I had told him. I had heard it from an American I had met in Cairo, a Mr. Cope Whitehouse. He told me that Disraeli had made money by entrusting the Rothschilds with the purchase of the Suez Canal shares. It seemed to me strange that this statement, if true, had never been set forth authoritatively; but the story was peculiarly modern, and had possibilities in it. Oscar admitted afterwards that he had taken the idea and used it in "An Ideal Husband."
It was in this summer also that he wrote "The Importance of Being Earnest," his finest play. He went to the seaside and completed it, he said, in three weeks, and, when I spoke of the delight he must feel at having two plays performed in London at the same time, he said:
"Next year, Frank, I may have four or five; I could write one every two months with the greatest ease. It all depends on money. If I need money I shall write half a dozen plays next year."
His words reminded me of what Goethe had said about himself: in each of the ten years he spent on his "Theory of Light" he could have written a couple of plays as good as his best. The land of Might-have-been is peopled with these gorgeous shadow-shapes.
Oscar had already found his public, a public capable of appreciating the very best he could do. As soon as "The Importance of Being Earnest" was produced it had an extraordinary success, and success of the best sort. Even journalist critics had begun to cease exhibiting their own limitations in foolish fault-finding, and now imitated their betters, parroting phrases of extravagant laudation.
Oscar took the praise as he had taken the scandal and slander, with complacent superiority. He had changed greatly and for the worse: he was growing coarser and harder every year. All his friends noticed this. Even M. Andre Gide, who was a great admirer and wrote, shortly after his death, the best account of him that appeared, was compelled to deplore his deterioration. He says:
"One felt that there was less tenderness in his looks, that there was something harsh in his laughter, and a wild madness in his joy. He seemed at the same time to be sure of pleasing, and less ambitious to succeed therein. He had grown reckless, hardened and conceited. Strangely enough he no longer spoke in fables...."
His brother Willie made a similar complaint to Sir Edward Sullivan. Sir Edward writes:
"William Wilde told me, when Oscar was in prison, that the only trouble between him and his brother was caused by Oscar's inordinate vanity in the period before his conviction. 'He had surrounded himself,' William said, 'with a gang of parasites who praised him all day long, and to whom he used to give his cigarette-cases, breast pins, etc., in return for their sickening flattery. No one, not even I, his brother, dared offer any criticism on his works without offending him.'"
If proof were needed both of his reckless contempt for public opinion and the malignancy with which he was misjudged, it could be found in an incident which took place towards the end of 1894. A journal entitled The Chameleon was produced by some Oxford undergraduates. Oscar wrote for it a handful of sayings which he called "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young." His epigrams were harmless enough; but in the same number there appeared a story entitled "The Priest and the Acolyte" which could hardly be defended. The mere fact that his work was printed in the same journal called forth a storm of condemnation though he had never seen the story before it was published nor had he anything to do with its insertion.
Nemesis was following hard after him. Late in this year he spoke to me of his own accord about Lord Queensberry. He wanted my advice:
"Lord Queensberry is annoying me," he said; "I did my best to reconcile him and Bosie. One day at the Cafe Royal, while Bosie and I were lunching there, Queensberry came in and I made Bosie go over and fetch his father and bring him to lunch with us. He was half friendly with me till quite recently; though he wrote a shameful letter to Bosie about us. What am I to do?"
I asked him what Lord Queensberry objected to.
"He objects to my friendship with Bosie."
"Then why not cease to see Bosie?" I asked.
"It is impossible, Frank, and ridiculous; why should I give up my friends for Queensberry?"
"I should like to see Queensberry's letter," I said. "Is it possible?"
"I'll bring it to you, Frank, but there's nothing in it." A day or two later he showed me the letter, and after I had read it he produced a copy of the telegram which Lord Alfred Douglas had sent to his father in reply. Here they both are; they speak for themselves loudly enough:
It is extremely painful for me to have to write to you in the strain I must; but please understand that I decline to receive any answers from you in writing in return. After your recent hysterical impertinent ones I refuse to be annoyed with such, and I decline to read any more letters. If you have anything to say do come here and say it in person. Firstly, am I to understand that, having left Oxford as you did, with discredit to yourself, the reasons of which were fully explained to me by your tutor, you now intend to loaf and loll about and do nothing? All the time you were wasting at Oxford I was put off with an assurance that you were eventually to go into the Civil Service or to the Foreign Office, and then I was put off with an assurance that you were going to the Bar. It appears to me that you intend to do nothing. I utterly decline, however, to just supply you with sufficient funds to enable you to loaf about. You are preparing a wretched future for yourself, and it would be most cruel and wrong for me to encourage you in this. Secondly, I come to the more painful part of this letter—your intimacy with this man Wilde. It must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it. With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression. Never in my experience have I ever seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are. Also I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you not know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These Christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up.
Your disgusted so-called father,
In reply to this letter Lord Alfred Douglas telegraphed:
"What a funny little man you are! ALFRED DOUGLAS."
This telegram was excellently calculated to drive Queensberry frantic with rage. There was feminine cunning in its wound to vanity.
A little later Oscar told me that Queensberry accompanied by a friend had called on him.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I said to him, 'I suppose, Lord Queensberry, you have come to apologise for the libellous letter you wrote about me?'
"'No,' he replied, 'the letter was privileged; it was written to my son.'
"'How dared you say such a thing about your son and me?'
"'You were both kicked out of The Savoy Hotel for disgusting conduct,' he replied.
"'That's untrue,' I said, 'absolutely untrue.'
"'You were blackmailed too for a disgusting letter you wrote my son,' he went on.
"'I don't know who has been telling you all these silly stories,' I replied, 'but they are untrue and quite ridiculous.'
"He ended up by saying that if he caught me and his son together again he would thrash me.
"'I don't know what the Queensberry rules are,' I retorted, 'but my rule is to shoot at sight in case of personal violence,' and with that I told him to leave my house."
"Of course he defied you?" I questioned.
"He was rude, Frank, and preposterous to the end."
As Oscar was telling me the story, it seemed to me as if another person were speaking through his mouth. The idea of Oscar "standing up" to Queensberry or "shooting at sight" was too absurd. Who was inspiring him? Alfred Douglas?
"What has happened since?" I enquired.
"Nothing," he replied, "perhaps he will be quiet now. Bosie has written him a terrible letter; he must see now that, if he goes on, he will only injure his own flesh and blood."
"That won't stop him," I replied, "if I read him aright. But if I could see what Alfred Douglas wrote, I should be better able to judge of the effect it will have on Queensberry."
A little later I saw the letter: it shows better than words of mine the tempers of the chief actors in this squalid story:
"As you return my letters unopened, I am obliged to write on a postcard. I write to inform you that I treat your absurd threats with absolute indifference. Ever since your exhibition at O.W.'s house, I have made a point of appearing with him at many public restaurants such as The Berkeley, Willis's Rooms, the Cafe Royal, etc., and I shall continue to go to any of these places whenever I choose and with whom I choose. I am of age and my own master. You have disowned me at least a dozen times, and have very meanly deprived me of money. You have therefore no right over me, either legal or moral. If O.W. was to prosecute you in the Central Criminal Court for libel, you would get seven years' penal servitude for your outrageous libels. Much as I detest you, I am anxious to avoid this for the sake of the family; but if you try to assault me, I shall defend myself with a loaded revolver, which I always carry; and if I shoot you or if he shoots you, we shall be completely justified, as we shall be acting in self-defence against a violent and dangerous rough, and I think if you were dead many people would not miss you.—A.D."
This letter of the son seemed to me appalling. My guess was right; it was he who was speaking through Oscar; the threat of shooting at sight came from him. I did not then understand all the circumstances; I had not met Lady Queensberry. I could not have imagined how she had suffered at the hands of her husband—a charming, cultivated woman, with exquisite taste in literature and art; a woman of the most delicate, aspen-like sensibilities and noble generosities, coupled with that violent, coarse animal with the hot eyes and combative nature. Her married life had been a martyrdom. Naturally the children had all taken her side in the quarrel, and Lord Alfred Douglas, her especial favourite, had practically identified himself with her, which explains to some extent, though nothing can justify, the unnatural animosity of his letter. The letter showed me that the quarrel was far deeper, far bitterer than I had imagined—one of those dreadful family quarrels, where the intimate knowledge each has of the other whips anger to madness. All I could do was to warn Oscar.
"It's the old, old story," I said. "You are putting your hand between the bark and the tree, and you will suffer for it." But he would not or could not see it.
"What is one to do with such a madman?" he asked pitiably.
"Avoid him," I replied, "as you would avoid a madman, who wanted to fight with you; or conciliate him; there is nothing else to do."
He would not be warned. A little later the matter came up again. At the first production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" Lord Queensberry appeared at the theatre carrying a large bouquet of turnips and carrots. What the meaning was of those vegetables only the man himself and his like could divine. I asked Oscar about the matter. He seemed annoyed but on the whole triumphant.
"Queensberry," he said, "had engaged a stall at the St. James's Theatre, no doubt to kick up a row; but as soon as I heard of it I got Alick (George Alexander) to send him back his money. On the night of the first performance Queensberry appeared carrying a large bundle of carrots. He was refused admittance at the box-office, and when he tried to enter the gallery the police would not let him in. He must be mad, Frank, don't you think? I am glad he was foiled."
"He is insanely violent," I said, "he will keep on attacking you."
"But what can I do, Frank?"
"Don't ask for advice you won't take," I replied. "There's a French proverb I've always liked: 'In love and war don't seek counsel.' But for God's sake, don't drift. Stop while you can."
But Oscar would have had to take a resolution and act in order to stop, and he was incapable of such energy. The wild horses of Fate had run away with the light chariot of his fortune, and what the end would be no one could foresee. It came with appalling suddenness.
One evening, in February, '95, I heard that the Marquis of Queensberry had left an insulting card for Oscar at the Albemarle Club. My informant added gleefully that now Oscar would have to face the music and we'd all see what was in him. There was no malice in this, just an Englishman's pleasure in a desperate fight, and curiosity as to the issue.
A little later I received a letter from Oscar, asking me if he could call on me that afternoon. I stayed in, and about four o'clock he came to see me.
At first he used the old imperious mask, which he had lately accustomed himself to wear.
"I am bringing an action against Queensberry, Frank," he began gravely, "for criminal libel. He is a mere wild beast. My solicitors tell me that I am certain to win. But they say some of the things I have written will be brought up against me in court. Now you know all I have written. Would you in your position as editor of The Fortnightly come and give evidence for me, testify for instance that 'Dorian Gray' is not immoral?"
"Yes," I replied at once, "I should be perfectly willing, and I could say more than that; I could say that you are one of the very few men I have ever known whose talk and whose writings were vowed away from grossness of any sort."
"Oh! Frank, would you? It would be so kind of you," he cried out. "My solicitors said I ought to ask you, but they were afraid you would not like to come: your evidence will win the case. It is good of you." His whole face was shaken; he turned away to hide the tears.
"Anything I can do, Oscar," I said, "I shall do with pleasure, and, as you know, to the uttermost; but I want you to consider the matter carefully. An English court of law gives me no assurance of a fair trial or rather I am certain that in matters of art or morality an English court is about the worst tribunal in the civilised world."
He shook his head impatiently.
"I cannot help it, I cannot alter it," he said.
"You must listen to me," I insisted. "You remember the Whistler and Ruskin action. You know that Whistler ought to have won. You know that Ruskin was shamelessly in fault; but the British jury and the so-called British artists treated Whistler and his superb work with contempt. Take a different case altogether, the Belt case, where all the Academicians went into the witness box, and asserted honestly enough that Belt was an impostor, yet the jury gave him a verdict of L5,000, though a year later he was sent to penal servitude for the very frauds which the jury in the first trial had declared by their verdict he had not committed. An English law court is all very well for two average men, who are fighting an ordinary business dispute. That's what it's made for, but to judge a Whistler or the ability or the immorality of an artist is to ask the court to do what it is wholly unfit to do. There is not a judge on the bench whose opinion on such a matter is worth a moment's consideration, and the jury are a thousand years behind the judge."
"That may be true, Frank; but I cannot help it."
"Don't forget," I persisted, "all British prejudices will be against you. Here is a father, the fools will say, trying to protect his young son. If he has made a mistake, it is only through excess of laudable zeal; you would have to prove yourself a religious maniac in order to have any chance against him in England."
"How terrible you are, Frank. You know it is Bosie Douglas who wants me to fight, and my solicitors tell me I shall win."
"Solicitors live on quarrels. Of course they want a case that will bring hundreds if not thousands of pounds into their pockets. Besides they like the fight. They will have all the kudos of it and the fun, and you will pay the piper. For God's sake don't be led into it: that way madness lies."
"But, Frank," he objected weakly, "how can I sit down under such an insult. I must do something."
"That's another story," I replied. "Let us by all means weigh what is to be done. But let us begin by putting the law-courts out of the question. Don't forget that you are challenged to mortal combat. Let us consider how the challenge should be met, but we won't fight under Queensberry rules because Queensberry happens to be the aggressor. Don't forget that if you lose and Queensberry goes free, everyone will hold that you have been guilty of nameless vice. Put the law courts out of your head. Whatever else you do, you must not bring an action for criminal libel against Queensberry. You are sure to lose it; you haven't a dog's chance, and the English despise the beaten—vae victis! Don't commit suicide."
Nothing was determined when the time came to part.
This conversation took place, I believe, on the Friday or Saturday. I spent the whole of Sunday trying to find out what was known about Oscar Wilde and what would be brought up against him. I wanted to know too how he was regarded in an ordinary middle-class English home.
My investigations had appalling results. Everyone assumed that Oscar Wilde was guilty of the worst that had ever been alleged against him; the very people who received him in their houses condemned him pitilessly and, as I approached the fountain-head of information, the charges became more and more definite; to my horror, in the Public Prosecutor's office, his guilt was said to be known and classified.
All "people of importance" agreed that he would lose his case against Queensberry; "no English jury would give Oscar Wilde a verdict against anyone," was the expert opinion.
"How unjust!" I cried.
A careless shrug was the only reply.
I returned home from my enquiries late on Sunday afternoon, and in a few minutes Oscar called by appointment. I told him I was more convinced than ever that he must not go on with the prosecution; he would be certain to lose. Without beating about the bush I declared that he had no earthly chance.
"There are letters," I said, "which are infinitely worse than your published writings, which will be put in evidence against you."
"What letters do you mean, Frank?" he questioned. "The Wood letters to Lord Alfred Douglas I told you about? I can explain all of them."
"You paid blackmail to Wood for letters you had written to Douglas," I replied, "and you will not be able to explain that fact to the satisfaction of a jury. I am told it is possible that witnesses will be called against you. Take it from me, Oscar, you have not a ghost of a chance."
"Tell me what you mean, Frank, for God's sake," he cried.
"I can tell you in a word," I replied; "you will lose your case. I have promised not to say more."
I tried to persuade him by his vanity.
"You must remember," I said, "that you are a sort of standard bearer for future generations. If you lose you will make it harder for all writers in England; though God knows it is hard enough already; you will put back the hands of the clock for fifty years."
I seemed almost to have persuaded him. He questioned me:
"What is the alternative, Frank, the wisest thing to do in your opinion? Tell me that."
"You ought to go abroad," I replied, "go abroad with your wife, and let Queensberry and his son fight out their own miserable quarrels; they are well-matched."
"Oh, Frank," he cried, "how can I do that?"
"Sleep on it," I replied; "I am going to, and we can talk it all over in a day or two."
"But I must know," he said wistfully, "to-morrow morning, Frank."
"Bernard Shaw is lunching with me to-morrow," I replied, "at the Cafe Royal."
He made an impatient movement of his head.
"He usually goes early," I went on, "and if you like to come after three o'clock we can have a talk and consider it all."
"May I bring Bosie?" he enquired.
"I would rather you did not," I replied, "but it is for you to do just as you like. I don't mind saying what I have to say, before anyone," and on that we parted.
Somehow or other next day at lunch both Shaw and I got interested in our talk, and we were both at the table when Oscar came in. I introduced them, but they had met before. Shaw stood up and proposed to go at once, but Oscar with his usual courtesy assured him that he would be glad if he stayed.
"Then, Oscar," I said, "perhaps you won't mind Shaw hearing what I advise?"
"No, Frank, I don't mind," he sighed with a pitiful air of depression.
I am not certain and my notes do not tell me whether Bosie Douglas came in with Oscar or a little later, but he heard the greater part of our talk. I put the matter simply.
"First of all," I said, "we start with the certainty that you are going to lose the case against Queensberry. You must give it up, drop it at once; but you cannot drop it and stay in England. Queensberry would probably attack you again and again. I know him well; he is half a savage and regards pity as a weakness; he has absolutely no consideration for others.
"You should go abroad, and, as ace of trumps, you should take your wife with you. Now for the excuse: I would sit down and write such a letter as you alone can write to The Times. You should set forth how you have been insulted by the Marquis of Queensberry, and how you went naturally to the Courts for a remedy, but you found out very soon that this was a mistake. No jury would give a verdict against a father, however mistaken he might be. The only thing for you to do therefore is to go abroad, and leave the whole ring, with its gloves and ropes, its sponges and pails, to Lord Queensberry. You are a maker of beautiful things, you should say, and not a fighter. Whereas the Marquis of Queensberry takes joy only in fighting. You refuse to fight with a father under these circumstances."
Oscar seemed to be inclined to do as I proposed. I appealed to Shaw, and Shaw said he thought I was right; the case would very likely go against Oscar, a jury would hardly give a verdict against a father trying to protect his son. Oscar seemed much moved. I think it was about this time that Bosie Douglas came in. At Oscar's request, I repeated my argument and to my astonishment Douglas got up at once, and cried with his little white, venomous, distorted face:
"Such advice shows you are no friend of Oscar's."
"What do you mean?" I asked in wonderment; but he turned and left the room on the spot. To my astonishment Oscar also got up.
"It is not friendly of you, Frank," he said weakly. "It really is not friendly."
I stared at him: he was parrotting Douglas' idiotic words.
"Don't be absurd," I said; but he repeated:
"No, Frank, it is not friendly," and went to the door and disappeared.
Like a flash I saw part at least of the truth. It was not Oscar who had ever misled Douglas, but Lord Alfred Douglas who was driving Oscar whither he would.
I turned to Shaw.
"Did I say anything in the heat of argument that could have offended Oscar or Douglas?"
"Nothing," said Shaw, "not a word: you have nothing to reproach yourself with."
Left to myself I was at a loss to imagine what Lord Alfred Douglas proposed to himself by hounding Oscar on to attack his father. I was still more surprised by his white, bitter face. I could not get rid of the impression it left on me. While groping among these reflections I was suddenly struck by a sort of likeness, a similarity of expression and of temper between Lord Alfred Douglas and his unhappy father. I could not get it out of my head—that little face blanched with rage and the wild, hating eyes; the shrill voice, too, was Queensberry's.
 I am very glad that Bernard Shaw has lately put in print his memory of this conversation. The above account was printed, though not published, in 1911, and in 1914 Shaw published his recollection of what took place at this consultation. Readers may judge from the comparison how far my general story is worthy of credence. In the Introduction to his playlet, "The Dark Lady of the Sonnets," Shaw writes:
"Yet he (Harris) knows the taste and the value of humour. He was one of the few men of letters who really appreciated Oscar Wilde, though he did not rally fiercely to Wilde's side until the world deserted Oscar in his ruin. I myself was present at a curious meeting between the two when Harris on the eve of the Queensberry trial prophesied to Wilde with miraculous precision exactly what immediately afterwards happened to him and warned him to leave the country. It was the first time within my knowledge that such a forecast proved true. Wilde, though under no illusion as to the folly of the quite unselfish suit-at-law he had been persuaded to begin, nevertheless so miscalculated the force of the social vengeance he was unloosing on himself that he fancied it could be stayed by putting up the editor of The Saturday Review (as Mr. Harris then was) to declare that he considered Dorian Gray a highly moral book, which it certainly is. When Harris foretold him the truth, Wilde denounced him as a faint-hearted friend who was failing him in his hour of need and left the room in anger. Harris's idiosyncratic power of pity saved him from feeling or showing the smallest resentment; and events presently proved to Wilde how insanely he had been advised in taking the action, and how accurately Harris had gauged the situation."
It was weakness in Oscar and not strength that allowed him to be driven to the conflict by Lord Alfred Douglas; it was his weakness again which prevented him from abandoning the prosecution, once it was begun. Such a resolution would have involved a breaking away from his associates and from his friends; a personal assertion of will of which he was incapable. Again and again he answered my urging with:
"I can't, Frank, I can't."
When I pointed out to him that the defence was growing bolder—it was announced one morning in the newspapers that Lord Queensberry, instead of pleading paternal privilege and minimising his accusation, was determined to justify the libel and declare that it was true in every particular—Oscar could only say weakly:
"I can't help it, Frank, I can't do anything; you only distress me by predicting disaster."
The fibres of resolution, never strong in him, had been destroyed by years of self-indulgence, while the influence whipping him was stronger than I guessed. He was hurried like a sheep to the slaughter.
Although everyone who cared to think knew that Queensberry would win the case, many persons believed that Oscar would make a brilliant intellectual fight, and carry off the honours, if not the verdict.
The trial took place at the Central Criminal Court on April 3rd, 1895. Mr. Justice Collins was the judge and the case was conducted at first with the outward seemliness and propriety which are so peculiarly English. An hour before the opening of the case the Court was crowded, not a seat to be had for love or money: even standing room was at a premium.
The Counsel were the best at the Bar; Sir Edward Clarke, Q.C., Mr. Charles Mathews, and Mr. Travers Humphreys for the prosecution; Mr. Carson, Q.C., Mr. G.C. Gill and Mr. A. Gill for the defence. Mr. Besley, Q.C., and Mr. Monckton watched the case, it was said, for the brothers, Lord Douglas of Hawick and Lord Alfred Douglas.
While waiting for the judge, the buzz of talk in the court grew loud; everybody agreed that the presence of Sir Edward Clarke gave Oscar an advantage. Mr. Carson was not so well known then as he has since become; he was regarded as a sharp-witted Irishman who had still his spurs to win. Some knew he had been at school with Oscar, and at Trinity College was as high in the second class as Oscar was in the first. It was said he envied Oscar his reputation for brilliance.
Suddenly the loud voice of the clerk called for silence.
As the judge appeared everyone stood up and in complete stillness Sir Edward Clarke opened for the prosecution. The bleak face, long upper lip and severe side whiskers made the little man look exactly like a nonconformist parson of the old days, but his tone and manner were modern—quiet and conversational. The charge, he said, was that the defendant had published a false and malicious libel against Mr. Oscar Wilde. The libel was in the form of a card which Lord Queensberry had left at a club to which Mr. Oscar Wilde belonged: it could not be justified unless the statements written on the card were true. It would, however, have been possible to have excused the card by a strong feeling, a mistaken feeling, on the part of a father, but the plea which the defendant had brought before the Court raised graver issues. He said that the statement was true and was made for the public benefit. There were besides a series of accusations in the plea (everyone held his breath), mentioning names of persons, and it was said with regard to these persons that Mr. Wilde had solicited them to commit a grave offence and that he had been guilty with each and all of them of indecent practices...." My heart seemed to stop. My worst forebodings were more than justified. Vaguely I heard Clarke's voice, "grave responsibility ... serious allegations ... credible witnesses ... Mr. Oscar Wilde was the son of Sir William Wilde ..." the voice droned on and I awoke to feverish clearness of brain. Queensberry had turned the defence into a prosecution. Why had he taken the risk? Who had given him the new and precise information? I felt that there was nothing before Oscar but ruin absolute. Could anything be done? Even now he could go abroad—even now. I resolved once more to try and induce him to fly.
My interest turned from these passionate imaginings to the actual. Would Sir Edward Clarke fight the case as it should be fought? He had begun to tell of the friendship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas; the friendship too between Oscar Wilde and Lady Queensberry, who on her own petition had been divorced from the Marquis; would he go on to paint the terrible ill-feeling that existed between Lord Alfred Douglas and his father, and show how Oscar had been dragged into the bitter family squabble? To the legal mind this had but little to do with the case.
We got, instead, a dry relation of the facts which have already been set forth in this history. Wright, the porter of the Albemarle Club, was called to say that Lord Queensberry had handed him the card produced. Witness had looked at the card; did not understand it; but put it in an envelope and gave it to Mr. Wilde.
Mr. Oscar Wilde was then called and went into the witness box. He looked a little grave but was composed and serious. Sir Edward Clarke took him briefly through the incidents of his life: his successes at school and the University; the attempts made to blackmail him, the insults of Lord Queensberry, and then directed his attention to the allegations in the plea impugning his conduct with different persons. Mr. Oscar Wilde declared that there was no truth in any of these statements. Hereupon Sir Edward Clarke sat down. Mr. Carson rose and the death duel began.
Mr. Carson brought out that Oscar Wilde was forty years of age and Lord Alfred Douglas twenty-four. Down to the interview in Tite Street Lord Queensberry had been friendly with Mr. Wilde.
"Had Mr. Wilde written in a publication called The Chameleon?"
"Had he written there a story called 'The Priest and the Acolyte'?"
"Was that story immoral?"
Oscar amused everyone by replying:
"Much worse than immoral, it was badly written," but feeling that this gibe was too light for the occasion he added:
"It was altogether offensive and perfect twaddle."
He admitted at once that he did not express his disapproval of it; it was "beneath him to concern himself with the effusions of an illiterate undergraduate."
"Did Mr. Wilde ever consider the effect in his writings of inciting to immorality?"
Oscar declared that he aimed neither at good nor evil, but tried to make a beautiful thing. When questioned as to the immorality in thought in the article in The Chameleon, he retorted "that there is no such thing as morality or immorality in thought." A hum of understanding and approval ran through the court; the intellect is profoundly amoral.
Again and again he scored in this way off Mr. Carson.
"No work of art ever puts forward views; views belong to the Philistines and not to artists."...
"What do you think of this view?"
"I don't think of any views except my own."
All this while Mr. Carson had been hitting at a man on his own level; but Oscar Wilde was above him and not one of his blows had taken effect. Every moment, too, Oscar grew more and more at his ease, and the combat seemed to be turning completely in his favour. Mr. Carson at length took up "Dorian Gray" and began cross-examining on passages in it.
"You talk about one man adoring another. Did you ever adore any man?"
"No," replied Oscar quietly, "I have never adored anyone but myself."
The Court roared with laughter. Oscar went on:
"There are people in the world, I regret to say, who cannot understand the deep affection that an artist can feel for a friend with a beautiful personality."
He was then questioned about his letter (already quoted here) to Lord Alfred Douglas. It was a prose-poem, he said, written in answer to a sonnet. He had not written to other people in the same strain, not even to Lord Alfred Douglas again: he did not repeat himself in style.
Mr. Carson read another letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, which paints their relations with extraordinary exactness. Here it is:
SAVOY HOTEL, VICTORIA EMBANKMENT, LONDON.
DEAREST OF ALL BOYS,—
Your letter was delightful, red and yellow wine to me; but I am sad and out of sorts. Bosie, you must not make scenes with me. They kill me, they wreck the loveliness of life. I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion. I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me. I would sooner ('here a word is indecipherable,' Mr. Carson went on, 'but I will ask the witness')—than have you bitter, unjust, hating.... I must see you soon. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of genius and beauty; but I don't know how to do it. Shall I come to Salisbury? My bill here is L49 for a week. I have also got a new sitting-room.... Why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy? I fear I must leave—no money, no credit, and a heart of lead.
YOUR OWN OSCAR.
Oscar said that it was an expression of his tender admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas.
"You have said," Mr. Carson went on, "that all the statements about persons in the plea of justification were false. Do you still hold to that assertion?"
Mr. Carson then paused and looked at the Judge. Justice Collins shuffled his papers together and announced that the cross-examination would be continued on the morrow. As the Judge went out, all the tongues in the court broke loose. Oscar was surrounded by friends congratulating him and rejoicing.
I was not so happy and went away to think the matter out. I tried to keep up my courage by recalling the humorous things Oscar had said during the cross-examination. I recalled too the dull commonplaces of Mr. Carson. I tried to persuade myself that it was all going on very well. But in the back of my mind I realised that Oscar's answers, characteristic and clever as many of them were, had not impressed the jury, were indeed rather calculated to alienate them. He had taken the purely artistic standpoint, had not attempted to go higher and reach a synthesis which would conciliate the Philistine jurymen as well as the thinking public, and the Judge.
Mr. Carson was in closer touch with the jury, being nearer their intellectual level, and there was a terrible menace in his last words. To-morrow, I said to myself, he will begin to examine about persons and not books. He did not win on the literary question, but he was right to bring it in. The passages he had quoted, and especially Oscar's letters to Lord Alfred Douglas, had created a strong prejudice in the minds of the jury. They ought not to have had this effect, I thought, but they had. My contempt for Courts of law deepened: those twelve jurymen were anything but the peers of the accused: how could they judge him?
* * * * *
The second day of the trial was very different from the first. There seemed to be a gloom over the Court. Oscar went into the box as if it had been the dock; he had lost all his spring. Mr. Carson settled down to the cross-examination with apparent zest. It was evident from his mere manner that he was coming to what he regarded as the strong part of his case. He began by examining Oscar as to his intimacy with a person named Taylor.
"Has Taylor been to your house and to your chambers?"
"Have you been to Taylor's rooms to afternoon tea parties?"
"Did Taylor's rooms strike you as peculiar?"
"They were pretty rooms."
"Have you ever seen them lit by anything else but candles even in the day time?"
"I think so. I'm not sure."
"Have you ever met there a young man called Wood?"
"On one occasion."
"Have you ever met Sidney Mavor there at tea?"
"It is possible."
"What was your connection with Taylor?"
"Taylor was a friend, a young man of intelligence and education: he had been to a good English school."
"Did you know Taylor was being watched by the police?"
"Did you know that Taylor was arrested with a man named Parker in a raid made last year on a house in Fitzroy Square?"
"I read of it in the newspaper."
"Did that cause you to drop your acquaintance with Taylor?"
"No; Taylor explained to me that he had gone there to a dance, and that the magistrate had dismissed the case against him."
"Did you get Taylor to arrange dinners for you to meet young men?"
"No; I have dined with Taylor at a restaurant."
"How many young men has Taylor introduced to you?"
"Five in all."
"Did you give money or presents to these five?"