"I may have done."
"Did they give you anything?"
"Among the five men Taylor introduced you to, was one named Parker?"
"Did you get on friendly terms with him?"
"Did you call him 'Charlie' and allow him to call you 'Oscar'?"
"How old was Parker?"
"I don't keep a census of people's ages. It would be vulgar to ask people their age."
"Where did you first meet Parker?"
"I invited Taylor to Kettner's on the occasion of my birthday, and told him to bring what friends he liked. He brought Parker and his brother."
"Did you know Parker was a gentleman's servant out of work, and his brother a groom?"
"No; I did not."
"But you did know that Parker was not a literary character or an artist, and that culture was not his strong point?"
"What was there in common between you and Charlie Parker?"
"I like people who are young, bright, happy, careless and original. I do not like them sensible, and I do not like them old; I don't like social distinctions of any kind, and the mere fact of youth is so wonderful to me that I would sooner talk to a young man for half an hour than be cross examined by an elderly Q.C."
Everyone smiled at this retort.
"Had you chambers in St. James's Place?"
"Yes, from October, '93, to April, '94."
"Did Charlie Parker go and have tea with you there?"
"Did you give him money?"
"I gave him three or four pounds because he said he was hard up."
"What did he give you in return?"
"Did you give Charlie Parker a silver cigarette case at Christmas?"
"Did you visit him one night at 12:30 at Park Walk, Chelsea?"
"I did not."
"Did you write him any beautiful prose-poems?"
"I don't think so."
"Did you know that Charlie Parker had enlisted in the Army?"
"I have heard so."
"When you heard that Taylor was arrested what did you do?"
"I was greatly distressed and wrote to tell him so."
"When did you first meet Fred Atkins?"
"In October or November, '92."
"Did he tell you that he was employed by a firm of bookmakers?"
"He may have done."
"Not a literary man or an artist, was he?"
"What age was he?"
"Nineteen or twenty."
"Did you ask him to dinner at Kettner's?"
"I think I met him at a dinner at Kettner's."
"Was Taylor at the dinner?"
"He may have been."
"Did you meet him afterwards?"
"Did you call him 'Fred' and let him call you 'Oscar'?"
"Did you go to Paris with him?"
"Did you give him money?"
"Was there ever any impropriety between you?"
"When did you first meet Ernest Scarfe?"
"In December, 1893."
"Who introduced him to you?"
"Scarfe was out of work, was he not?"
"He may have been."
"Did Taylor bring Scarfe to you at St. James's Place?"
"Did you give Scarfe a cigarette case?"
"Yes: it was my custom to give cigarette cases to people I liked."
"When did you first meet Mavor?"
"Did you give him money or a cigarette case?"
"A cigarette case."
"Did you know Walter Grainger?"... and so on till the very air in the court seemed peopled with spectres.
On the whole Oscar bore the cross-examination very well; but he made one appalling slip.
Mr. Carson was pressing him as to his relations with the boy Grainger, who had been employed in Lord Alfred Douglas' rooms in Oxford.
"Did you ever kiss him?" he asked.
Oscar answered carelessly, "Oh, dear, no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it."
"Was that the reason why you did not kiss him?"
"Oh, Mr. Carson, you are pertinently insolent."
"Did you say that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?"
"No. It is a childish question."
But Carson was not to be warded off; like a terrier he sprang again and again:
"Why, sir, did you mention that this boy was extremely ugly?"
"For this reason. If I were asked why I did not kiss a door-mat, I should say because I do not like to kiss door-mats."...
"Why did you mention his ugliness?"
"It is ridiculous to imagine that any such thing could have occurred under any circumstances."
"Then why did you mention his ugliness, I ask you?"
"Because you insulted me by an insulting question."
"Was that a reason why you should say the boy was ugly?"
(Here the witness began several answers almost inarticulately and finished none of them. His efforts to collect his ideas were not aided by Mr. Carson's sharp staccato repetition: "Why? why? why did you add that?") At last the witness answered:
"You sting me and insult me and at times one says things flippantly."
Then came the re-examination by Sir Edward Clarke, which brought out very clearly the hatred of Lord Alfred Douglas for his father. Letters were read and in one letter Queensberry declared that Oscar had plainly shown the white feather when he called on him. One felt that this was probably true: Queensberry's word on such a point could be accepted.
In the re-examination Sir Edward Clarke occupied himself chiefly with two youths, Shelley and Conway, who had been passed over casually by Mr. Carson. In answer to his questions Oscar stated that Shelley was a youth in the employ of Mathews and Lane, the publishers. Shelley had very good taste in literature and a great desire for culture. Shelley had read all his books and liked them. Shelley had dined with him and his wife at Tite Street. Shelley was in every way a gentleman. He had never gone with Charlie Parker to the Savoy Hotel.
A juryman wanted to know at this point whether the witness was aware of the nature of the article, "The Priest and the Acolyte," in The Chameleon.
"I knew nothing of it; it came as a terrible shock to me."
This answer contrasted strangely with the light tone of his reply to the same question on the previous day.
The re-examination did not improve Oscar's position. It left all the facts where they were, and at least a suspicion in every mind.
Sir Edward Clarke intimated that this concluded the evidence for the prosecution, whereupon Mr. Carson rose to make the opening speech for the defence. I was shivering with apprehension.
He began by admitting the grave responsibility resting on Lord Queensberry, who accepted it to the fullest. Lord Queensberry was justified in doing all he could do to cut short an acquaintance which must be disastrous to his son. Mr. Carson wished to draw the attention of the jury to the fact that all these men with whom Mr. Wilde went about were discharged servants and grooms, and that they were all about the same age. He asked the jury also to note that Taylor, who was the pivot of the whole case, had not yet been put in the box. Why not? He pointed out to the jury that the very same idea that was set forth in "The Priest and the Acolyte" was contained in Oscar Wilde's letters to Lord Alfred Douglas, and the same idea was to be found in Lord Alfred Douglas' poem, "The Two Loves," which was published in The Chameleon. He went on to say that when, in the story of "The Priest and the Acolyte," the boy was discovered in the priest's bed, the priest made the same defence as Mr. Wilde had made, that the world does not understand the beauty of this love. The same idea was found again in "Dorian Gray," and he read two or three passages from the book in support of this statement. Mr. Wilde had described his letter to Lord Alfred Douglas as a prose sonnet. He would read it again to the court, and he read both the letters. "Mr. Wilde says they are beautiful," he went on, "I call them an abominable piece of disgusting immorality."
At this the Judge again shuffled his papers together and whispered in a quiet voice that the court would sit on the morrow, and left the room.
The honours of the day had all been with Mr. Carson. Oscar left the box in a depressed way. One or two friends came towards him, but the majority held aloof, and in almost unbroken silence everyone slipped out of the court. Strange to say in my mind there was just a ray of hope. Mr. Carson was still laying stress on the article in The Chameleon and scattered passages in "Dorian Gray"; on Oscar's letters to Lord Alfred Douglas and Lord Alfred Douglas' poems in The Chameleon. He must see, I thought, that all this was extremely weak. Sir Edward Clarke could be trusted to tear all such arguments, founded on literary work, to shreds. There was room for more than reasonable doubt about all such things.
Why had not Mr. Carson put some of the young men he spoke of in the box? Would he be able to do that? He talked of Taylor as "the pivot of the case," and gibed at the prosecution for not putting Taylor in the box. Would he put Taylor in the box? And why, if he had such witnesses at his beck and call, should he lay stress on the flimsy, weak evidence to be drawn from passages in books and poems and letters? One thing was clear: if he was able to put any of the young men in the box about whom he had examined Oscar, Oscar was ruined. Even if he rested his defence on the letters and poems he'd win and Oscar would be discredited, for already it was clear that no jury would give Oscar Wilde a verdict against a father trying to protect his son. The issue had narrowed down to terrible straits: would it be utter ruin to Oscar or merely loss of the case and reputation? We had only sixteen hours to wait; they seemed to me to hold the last hope.
I drove to Tite Street, hoping to see Oscar. I was convinced that Carson had important witnesses at his command, and that the outcome of the case would be disastrous. Why should not Oscar even now, this very evening, cross to Calais, leaving a letter for his counsel and the court abandoning the idiotic prosecution.
The house at Tite Street seemed deserted. For some time no one answered my knocking and ringing, and then a man-servant simply told me that Mr. Wilde was not in: he did not know whether Mr. Wilde was expected back or not; did not think he was coming back. I turned and went home. I thought Oscar would probably say to me again:
"I can do nothing, Frank, nothing."
* * * * *
The feeling in the court next morning was good tempered, even jaunty. The benches were filled with young barristers, all of whom had made up their minds that the testimony would be what one of them called "nifty." Everyone treated the case as practically over.
"But will Carson call witnesses?" I asked.
"Of course he will," they said, "but in any case Wilde does not stand a ghost of a chance of getting a verdict against Queensberry; he was a bally fool to bring such an action."
"The question is," said someone, "will Wilde face the music?"
My heart leapt. Perhaps he had gone, fled already to France to avoid this dreadful, useless torture. I could see the hounds with open mouths, dripping white fangs, and greedy eyes all closing in on the defenceless quarry. Would the huntsman give the word? We were not left long in doubt.
Mr. Carson continued his statement for the defence. He had sufficiently demonstrated to the jury, he thought, that, so far as Lord Queensberry was concerned, he was absolutely justified in bringing to a climax in the way he had, the connection between Mr. Oscar Wilde and his son. A dramatic pause.
A moment later the clever advocate resumed: unfortunately he had a more painful part of the case to approach. It would be his painful duty to bring before them one after the other the young men he had examined Mr. Wilde about and allow them to tell their tales. In no one of these cases were these young men on an equality in any way with Mr. Wilde. Mr. Wilde had told them that there was something beautiful and charming about youth which led him to make these acquaintances. That was a travesty of the facts. Mr. Wilde preferred to know nothing of these young men and their antecedents. He knew nothing about Wood; he knew nothing about Parker; he knew nothing about Scarfe, nothing about Conway, and not much about Taylor. The truth was Taylor was the procurer for Mr. Wilde and the jury would hear from this young man Parker, who would have to tell his unfortunate story to them, that he was poor, out of a place, had no money, and unfortunately fell a victim to Mr. Wilde. (Sir Edward Clarke here left the court.)
On the first evening they met, Mr. Wilde called Parker "Charlie" and Parker called Mr. Wilde "Oscar." It may be a very noble instinct in some people to wish to break down social barriers, but Mr. Wilde's conduct was not ordered by generous instincts. Luxurious dinners and champagne were not the way to assist a poor man. Parker would tell them that, after this first dinner, Mr. Wilde invited him to drive with him to the Savoy Hotel. Mr. Wilde had not told them why he had that suite of rooms at the Savoy Hotel. Parker would tell them what happened on arriving there. This was the scandal Lord Queensberry had referred to in his letter as far back as June or July last year. The jury would wonder not at the reports having reached Lord Queensberry's ears, but that Oscar Wilde had been tolerated in London society as long as he had been. Parker had since enlisted in the Army, and bore a good character. Mr. Wilde himself had said that Parker was respectable. Parker would reluctantly present himself to tell his story to the jury.
All this time the court was hushed with awe and wonder; everyone was asking what on earth had induced Wilde to begin the prosecution; what madness had driven him and why had he listened to the insane advice to bring the action when he must have known the sort of evidence which could be brought against him.
After promising to produce Parker and the others Mr. Carson stopped speaking and began looking through his papers; when he began again, everyone held his breath; what was coming now? He proceeded in the same matter-of-fact and serious way to deal with the case of the youth, Conway. Conway, it appeared, had known Mr. Wilde and his family at Worthing. Conway was sixteen years of age.... At this moment Sir Edward Clarke returned with Mr. Charles Mathews, and asked permission of the judge to have a word or two with Mr. Carson. At the close of a few minutes' talk between the counsel, Sir Edward Clarke rose and told the Judge that after communicating with Mr. Oscar Wilde he thought it better to withdraw the prosecution and submit to a verdict of "not guilty."
He minimised the defeat. He declared that, in respect to matters connected with literature and the letters, he could not resist the verdict of "not guilty," having regard to the fact that Lord Queensberry had not used a direct accusation, but the words "posing as," etc. Besides, he wished to spare the jury the necessity of investigating in detail matter of the most appalling character. He wished to make an end of the case—and he sat down.
Why on earth did Sir Edward Clarke not advise Oscar in this way weeks before? Why did he not tell him his case could not possibly be won?
I have heard since on excellent authority that before taking up the case Sir Edward Clarke asked Oscar Wilde whether he was guilty or not, and accepted in good faith his assurance that he was innocent. As soon as he realised, in court, the strength of the case against Oscar he advised him to abandon the prosecution. To his astonishment Oscar was eager to abandon it. Sir Edward Clarke afterwards defended his unfortunate client out of loyalty and pity, Oscar again assuring him of his innocence.
Mr. Carson rose at once and insisted, as was his right, that this verdict of "not guilty" must be understood to mean that Lord Queensberry had succeeded in his plea of justification.
Mr. Justice Collins thought that it was not part of the function of the Judge and jury to insist on wading through prurient details, which had no bearing on the matter at issue, which had already been decided by the consent of the prosecutors to a verdict of "not guilty." Such a verdict meant of course that the plea of justification was proved. The jury having consulted for a few moments, the Clerk of Arraigns asked:
"Do you find the plea of justification has been proved or not?"
"You say that the defendant is 'not guilty,' and that is the verdict of you all?"
Foreman: "Yes, and we also find that it is for the public benefit."
The last kick to the dead lion. As the verdict was read out the spectators in the court burst into cheers.
Mr. Carson: "Of course the costs of the defence will follow?"
Mr. Justice Collins: "Yes."
Mr. C.F. Gill: "And Lord Queensberry may be discharged?"
Mr. Justice Collins: "Certainly."
The Marquis of Queensberry left the dock amid renewed cheering, which was taken up again and again in the street.
 The words which Mr. Carson could not read were: "I would sooner be rented than, etc." Rent is a slang term for blackmail.
 A famous Italian restaurant in Soho: it had several "private rooms."
 This early poem of Lord Alfred Douglas is reproduced in the Appendix at the end of this book together with another poem by the same author, which was also mentioned in the course of the trial.
 Mr. Carson here made a mistake; there is no such incident in the story: the error merely shows how prejudiced his mind was.
The English are very proud of their sense of justice, proud too of their Roman law and the practice of the Courts in which they have incorporated it. They boast of their fair play in all things as the French boast of their lightness, and if you question it, you lose caste with them, as one prejudiced or ignorant or both. English justice cannot be bought, they say, and if it is dear, excessively dear even, they rather like to feel they have paid a long price for a good article. Yet it may be that here, as in other things, they take outward propriety and decorum for the inward and ineffable grace. That a judge should be incorruptible is not so important as that he should be wise and humane.
English journalists and barristers were very much amused at the conduct of the Dreyfus case; yet, when Dreyfus was being tried for the second time in France, two or three instances of similar injustice in England were set forth with circumstance in one of the London newspapers, but no one paid any effective attention to them. If Dreyfus had been convicted in England, it is probable that no voice would ever have been raised in his favour; it is absolutely certain that there would never have been a second trial. A keen sense of abstract justice is only to be found in conjunction with a rich fount of imaginative sympathy. The English are too self-absorbed to take much interest in their neighbours' affairs, too busy to care for abstract questions of right or wrong.
Before the trial of Oscar Wilde I still believed that in a criminal case rough justice would be done in England. The bias of an English judge, I said to myself, is always in favour of the accused. It is an honourable tradition of English procedure that even the Treasury barristers should state rather less than they can prove against the unfortunate person who is being attacked by all the power and authority of the State. I was soon forced to see that these honourable and praiseworthy conventions were as withes of straw in the fire of English prejudice. The first thing to set me doubting was that the judge did not try to check the cheering in Court after the verdict in favour of Lord Queensberry. English judges always resent and resist such popular outbursts: why not in this case? After all, no judge could think Queensberry a hero: he was too well known for that, and yet the cheering swelled again and again, and the judge gathered up his papers without a word and went his way as if he were deaf. A dreadful apprehension crept over me: in spite of myself I began to realise that my belief in English justice might be altogether mistaken. It was to me as if the solid earth had become a quaking bog, or indeed as if a child had suddenly discovered its parent to be shameless. The subsequent trials are among the most painful experiences of my life. I shall try to set down all the incidents fairly.
One peculiarity had first struck me in the conduct of the case between Oscar Wilde and Lord Queensberry that did not seem to occur to any of the numberless journalists and writers who commented on the trial. It was apparent from his letter to his son (which I published in a previous chapter), and from the fact that he called at Oscar Wilde's house that Lord Queensberry at the beginning did not believe in the truth of his accusations; he set them forth as a violent man sets forth hearsay and suspicion, knowing that as a father he could do this with impunity, and accordingly at first he pleaded privilege. Some time between the beginning of the prosecution and the trial, he obtained an immense amount of unexpected evidence. He then justified his libel and gave the names of the persons whom he intended to call to prove his case. Where did he get this new knowledge?
I have spoken again and again in the course of this narrative of Oscar's enemies, asserting that the English middle-class as puritans detested his attitude and way of life, and if some fanatic or representative of the nonconformist conscience had hunted up evidence against Wilde and brought him to ruin there would have been nothing extraordinary in a vengeance which might have been regarded as a duty. Strange to say the effective hatred of Oscar Wilde was shown by a man of the upper class who was anything but a puritan. It was Mr. Charles Brookfield, I believe, who constituted himself private prosecutor in this case and raked Piccadilly to find witnesses against Oscar Wilde. Mr. Brookfield was afterwards appointed Censor of Plays on the strength apparently of having himself written one of the "riskiest" plays of the period. As I do not know Mr. Brookfield, I will not judge him. But his appointment always seemed to me, even before I knew that he had acted against Wilde, curiously characteristic of English life and of the casual, contemptuous way Englishmen of the governing class regard letters. In the same spirit Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister made a journalist Poet Laureate simply because he had puffed him for years in the columns of The Standard. Lord Salisbury probably neither knew nor cared that Alfred Austin had never written a line that could live. One thing Mr. Brookfield's witnesses established: every offence alleged against Oscar Wilde dated from 1892 or later—after his first meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas.
But at the time all such matters were lost for me in the questions: would the authorities arrest Oscar? or would they allow him to escape? Had the police asked for a warrant? Knowing English custom and the desire of Englishmen to pass in silence over all unpleasant sexual matters, I thought he would be given the hint to go abroad and allowed to escape. That is the ordinary, the usual English procedure. Everyone knows the case of a certain lord, notorious for similar practices, who was warned by the police that a warrant had been issued against him: taking the hint he has lived for many years past in leisured ease as an honoured guest in Florence. Nor is it only aristocrats who are so favoured by English justice: everyone can remember the case of a Canon of Westminster who was similarly warned and also escaped. We can come down the social scale to the very bottom and find the same practice. A certain journalist unwittingly offended a great personage. Immediately he was warned by the police that a warrant issued against him in India seventeen years before would at once be acted upon if he did not make himself scarce. For some time he lived in peaceful retirement in Belgium. Moreover, in all these cases the warrants had been issued on the sworn complaints of the parties damnified or of their parents and guardians: no one had complained of Oscar Wilde. Naturally I thought the dislike of publicity which dictated such lenience to the lord and the canon and the journalist would be even more operative in the case of a man of genius like Oscar Wilde. In certain ways he had a greater position than even the son of a duke: the shocking details of his trial would have an appalling, a world-wide publicity.
Besides, I said to myself, the governing class in England is steeped in aristocratic prejudice, and particularly when threatened by democratic innovations, all superiorities, whether of birth or wealth, or talent, are conscious of the same raison d'etre and have the same self-interest. The lord, the millionaire and the genius have all the same reason for standing up for each other, and this reason is usually effective. Everyone knows that in England the law is emphatically a respecter of persons. It is not there to promote equality, much less is it the defender of the helpless, the weak and the poor; it is a rampart for the aristocracy and the rich, a whip in the hands of the strong. It is always used to increase the effect of natural and inherited inequality, and it is not directed by a high feeling of justice; but perverted by aristocratic prejudice and snobbishness; it is not higher than democratic equality, but lower and more sordid.
The case was just a case where an aristocratic society could and should have shown its superiority over a democratic society with its rough rule of equality. For equality is only half-way on the road to justice. More than once the House of Commons has recognised this fundamental truth; it condemned Clive but added that he had rendered "great and distinguished services to his country"; and no one thought of punishing him for his crimes.
Our time is even more tolerant and more corrupt. For a worse crime than extortion Cecil Rhodes was not even brought to trial, but honoured and feted, while his creatures, who were condemned by the House of Commons Committee, were rewarded by the Government.
Had not Wilde also rendered distinguished services to his country? The wars waged against the Mashonas and Matabeles were a doubtful good; but the plays of Oscar Wilde had already given many hours of innocent pleasure to thousands of persons, and were evidently destined to benefit tens of thousands in the future. Such a man is a benefactor of humanity in the best and truest sense, and deserves peculiar consideration.
To the society favourite the discredit of the trial with Lord Queensberry was in itself a punishment more than sufficient. Everyone knew when Oscar Wilde left the court that he left it a ruined and disgraced man. Was it worth while to stir up all the foul mud again, in order to beat the beaten? Alas! the English are pedants, as Goethe saw; they think little of literary men, or of merely spiritual achievements. They love to abide by rules and pay no heed to exceptions, unless indeed the exceptions are men of title or great wealth, or "persons of importance" to the Government. The majority of the people are too ignorant to know the value of a book and they regard poetry as the thistle-down of speech. It does not occur to Englishmen that a phrase may be more valuable and more enduring in its effects than a long campaign and a dozen victories. Yet, the sentence, "Let him that is without sin among you first cast the stone," or Shakespeare's version of the same truth: "if we had our deserts which of us would escape whipping?" is likely to outlast the British Empire, and prove of more value to humanity.
The man of genius in Great Britain is feared and hated in exact proportion to his originality, and if he happens to be a writer or a musician he is despised to boot. The prejudice against Oscar Wilde showed itself virulently on all hands. Mr. Justice Collins did not attempt to restrain the cheering of the court that greeted the success of Lord Queensberry. Not one of the policemen who stood round the door tried to stop the "booing" of the crowd who pursued Oscar Wilde with hootings and vile cries when he left the court. He was judged already and condemned before being tried.
The police, too, acted against him with extraordinary vigour. It has been stated by Mr. Sherard in his "Life" that the police did not attempt to execute the warrant against Wilde, "till after the last train had left for Dover," and that it was only Oscar's obstinacy in remaining in London that necessitated his arrest. This idea is wholly imaginary.
It is worth while to know exactly what took place at this juncture. From Oscar's conduct in this crisis the reader will be able to judge whether he has been depicted faithfully or not in this book. He has been described as amiable, weak, of a charming disposition—easily led in action, though not in thought: now we shall see how far we were justified, for he is at one of those moments which try the soul. Fortunately every incident of that day is known: Oscar himself told me generally what happened and the minutest details of the picture were filled in for me a little later by his best friend, Robert Ross.
In the morning Mr. Mathews, one of Oscar's counsel, came to him and said: "If you wish it, Clarke and I will keep the case going and give you time to get to Calais."
Oscar refused to stir. "I'll stay," was all he would say. Robert Ross urged him to accept Mathew's offer; but he would not: why? I am sure he had no reason, for I put the question to him more than once, and even after reflecting, he had no explanation to give. He stayed because to stay was easier than to make an immediate decision and act on it energetically. He had very little will power to begin with and his mode of life had weakened his original endowment.
After the judgment had been given in favour of Queensberry, Oscar drove off in a brougham, accompanied by Alfred Douglas, to consult with his solicitor, Humphreys. At the same time he gave Ross a cheque on his bank in St. James's Street. At that moment he intended to fly.
Ross noticed that he was followed by a detective. He drew about L200 from the bank and raced off to meet Oscar at the Cadogan Hotel, in Sloane Street, where Lord Alfred Douglas had been staying for the past four or five weeks. Ross reached the Cadogan Hotel about 1.45 and found Oscar there with Reggie Turner. Both of them advised Oscar to go at once to Dover and try to get to France; but he would only say, "the train has gone; it is too late." He had again lapsed into inaction.
He asked Ross to go to see his wife and tell her what had occurred. Ross did this and had a very painful scene: Mrs. Wilde wept and said, "I hope Oscar is going away abroad."
Ross returned to the Cadogan Hotel and told Oscar what his wife had said, but even this didn't move him to action.
He sat as if glued to his chair, and drank hock and seltzer steadily in almost unbroken silence. About four o'clock George Wyndham came to see his cousin, Alfred Douglas; not finding him, he wanted to see Oscar, but Oscar, fearing reproaches, sent Ross instead. Wyndham said it was a pity that Bosie Douglas should be with Oscar, and Ross immediately told him that Wilde's friends for years past had been trying to separate them and that if he, Wyndham, would keep his cousin away, he would be doing Oscar the very greatest kindness. At this Wyndham grew more civil, though still "frightfully agitated," and begged Ross to get Oscar to leave the country at once to avoid scandal. Ross replied that he and Turner had been trying to bring that about for hours. In the middle of the conversation Bosie, having returned, burst into the room with: "I want to see my cousin," and Ross rejoined Oscar. In a quarter of an hour Bosie followed him to say that he was going out with Wyndham to see someone of importance.
About five o'clock a reporter of the Star newspaper came to see Oscar, a Mr. Marlowe, who is now editor of The Daily Mail, but again Oscar refused to see him and sent Ross. Mr. Marlowe was sympathetic and quite understood the position; he informed Ross that a tape message had come through to the paper saying that a warrant for Oscar Wilde had already been issued. Ross immediately went into the other room and told Oscar, who said nothing, but "went very grey in the face."
A moment later Oscar asked Ross to give him the money he had got at the bank, though he had refused it several times in the course of the day. Ross gave it to him, naturally taking it for a sign that he had at length made up his mind to start, but immediately afterwards Oscar settled down in his chair and said, "I shall stay and do my sentence whatever it is"—a man evidently incapable of action.
For the next hour the trio sat waiting for the blow to fall. Once or twice Oscar asked querulously where Bosie was, but no one could tell him.
At ten past six the waiter knocked at the door and Ross answered it. There were two detectives. The elder entered and said, "We have a warrant here, Mr. Wilde, for your arrest on a charge of committing indecent acts." Wilde wanted to know whether he would be given bail; the detective replied:
"That is a question for the magistrate."
Oscar then rose and asked, "Where shall I be taken?"
"To Bow Street," was the reply.
As he picked up a copy of the Yellow Book and groped for his overcoat, they all noticed that he was "very drunk" though still perfectly conscious of what he was doing.
He asked Ross to go to Tite Street and get him a change of clothes and bring them to Bow Street. The two detectives took him away in a four-wheeler, leaving Ross and Turner on the curb.
Ross hurried to Tite Street. He found that Mrs. Oscar Wilde had gone to the house of a relative and there was only Wilde's man servant, Arthur, in the house, who afterwards went out of his mind, and is still, it is said, in an asylum. He had an intense affection for Oscar. Ross found that Mrs. Oscar Wilde had locked up Oscar's bedroom and study. He burst open the bedroom door and, with the help of Arthur, packed up a change of things. He then hurried to Bow Street, where he found a howling mob shouting indecencies. He was informed by an inspector that it was impossible to see Wilde or to leave any clothes for him.
Ross returned at once to Tite Street, forced open the library door and removed a certain number of letters and manuscripts of Wilde's; but unluckily he couldn't find the two MSS. which he knew had been returned to Tite Street two days before, namely, "A Florentine Tragedy" and the enlarged version of "The Portrait of Mr. W.H."
Ross then drove to his mother's and collapsed. Mrs. Ross insisted that he should go abroad, and in order to induce him to do it gave L500 for Oscar's defence. Ross went to the Terminus Hotel at Calais, where Bosie Douglas joined him a little later. They both stayed there while Oscar was being tried before Mr. Justice Charles and one day George Wyndham crossed the Channel to see Bosie Douglas.
There is of course some excuse to be made for the chief actor. Oscar was physically tired and morally broken. He had pulled the fair building of reputation and success down upon his own head, and, with the "booing" of the mob still in his ears, he could think of nothing but the lost hours when he ought to have used his money to take him beyond the reach of his pursuers.
His enemies, on the other hand, had acted with the utmost promptitude. Lord Queensberry's solicitor, Mr. Charles Russell, had stated that it was not his client's intention to take the initiative in any criminal prosecution of Mr. Oscar Wilde, but, on the very same morning when Wilde withdrew from the prosecution, Mr. Russell sent a letter to the Hon. Hamilton Cuffe, the Director of Public Prosecutions, with a copy of "all our witnesses' statements, together with a copy of the shorthand notes of the trial."
The Treasury authorities were at least as eager. As soon as possible after leaving the court Mr. C.F. Gill, Mr. Angus Lewis, and Mr. Charles Russell waited on Sir John Bridge at Bow Street in his private room and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Oscar Wilde, which was executed, as we have seen, the same evening.
The police showed him less than no favour. About eight o'clock Lord Alfred Douglas drove to Bow Street and wanted to know if Wilde could be bailed out, but was informed that his application could not be entertained. He offered to procure comforts for the prisoner: this offer also was peremptorily refused by the police inspector just as Ross's offer of night clothes had been refused. It is a common belief that in England a man is treated as innocent until he has been proved guilty, but those who believe this pleasant fiction, have never been in the hands of the English police. As soon as a man is arrested on any charge he is at once treated as if he were a dangerous criminal; he is searched, for instance, with every circumstance of indignity. Before his conviction a man is allowed to wear his own clothes; but a change of linen or clothes is denied him, or accorded in part and grudgingly, for no earthly reason except to gratify the ill-will of the gaolers.
The warrant on which Oscar Wilde was arrested charged him with an offence alleged to have been committed under Section xi. of the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885; in other words, he was arrested and tried for an offence which was not punishable by law ten years before. This Act was brought in as a result of the shameful and sentimental stories (evidently for the most part manufactured) which Mr. Stead had published in The Pall Mall Gazette under the title of "Modern Babylon." In order to cover and justify their prophet some of the "unco guid" pressed forward this so-called legislative reform, by which it was made a criminal offence to take liberties with a girl under thirteen years of age—even with her own consent. Intimacy with minors under sixteen was punishable if they consented or even tempted. Mr. Labouchere, the Radical member, inflamed, it is said, with a desire to make the law ridiculous, gravely proposed that the section be extended, so as to apply to people of the same sex who indulged in familiarities or indecencies. The Puritan faction had no logical objection to the extension, and it became the law of the land. It was by virtue of this piece of legislative wisdom, which is without a model and without a copy in the law of any other civilised country, that Oscar Wilde was arrested and thrown into prison.
His arrest was the signal for an orgy of Philistine rancour such as even London had never known before. The puritan middle class, which had always regarded Wilde with dislike as an artist and intellectual scoffer, a mere parasite of the aristocracy, now gave free scope to their disgust and contempt, and everyone tried to outdo his neighbour in expressions of loathing and abhorrence. This middle class condemnation swept the lower class away in its train. To do them justice, the common people, too, felt a natural loathing for the peculiar vice attributed to Wilde; most men condemn the sins they have no mind to; but their dislike was rather contemptuous than profound, and with customary humour they soon turned the whole case into a bestial, obscene joke. "Oscar" took the place of their favourite word as a term of contempt, and they shouted it at each other on all sides; bus-drivers, cabbies and paper sellers using it in and out of season with the keenest relish. For the moment the upper classes lay mum-chance and let the storm blow over. Some of them of course agreed with the condemnation of the Puritans, and many of them felt that Oscar and his associates had been too bold, and ought to be pulled up.
The English journals, which are nothing but middle-class shops, took the side of their patrons. Without a single exception they outdid themselves in condemnation of the man and all his works. You might have thought to read their bitter diatribes that they themselves lived saintly lives, and were shocked at sensual sin. One rubbed one's eyes in amazement. The Strand and Fleet Street, which practically belong to this class and have been fashioned by them, are the haunt of as vile a prostitution as can be found in Europe; the public houses which these men frequent are low drinking dens; yet they all lashed Oscar Wilde with every variety of insult as if they themselves had been above reproach. The whole of London seemed to have broken loose in a rage of contempt and loathing which was whipped up and justified each morning by the hypocritical articles of the "unco guid" in the daily this and the weekly that. In the streets one heard everywhere the loud jests of the vulgar, decked out with filthy anecdotes and punctuated by obscene laughter, as from the mouth of the Pit.
In spite of the hatred of the journalists pandering to the prejudice of their paymasters, one could hope still that the magistrate would show some regard for fair play. The expectation, reasonable or unreasonable, was doomed to disappointment. On Saturday morning, the 6th, Oscar Wilde, "described as a gentleman," the papers said in derision, was brought before Sir John Bridge. Mr. C.F. Gill, who had been employed in the Queensberry trial, was instructed by Mr. Angus Lewis of the Treasury, and conducted the prosecution; Alfred Taylor was placed in the dock charged with conspiracy with Oscar Wilde. The witnesses have already been described in connection with the Queensberry case. Charles Parker, William Parker, Alfred Wood, Sidney Mavor and Shelley all gave evidence.
After lasting all day the case was adjourned till the following Thursday.
Mr. Travers Humphreys applied for bail for Mr. Wilde, on the ground that he knew the warrant against him was being applied for on Friday afternoon, but he made no attempt to leave London. Sir John Bridge refused bail.
On Thursday, the 11th, the case was continued before Sir John Bridge, and in the end both the accused were committed for trial. Again Mr. Humphreys applied for bail, and again the magistrate refused to accept bail.
Now to refuse bail in cases of serious crime may be defended, but in the case of indecent conduct it is usually granted. To run away is regarded as a confession of guilt, and what could one wish for more than the perpetual banishment of the corrupt liver, consequently there is no reason to refuse bail. But in this case, though bail was offered to any amount, it was refused peremptorily in spite of the fact that every consideration should have been shown to an accused person who had already had a good opportunity to leave the country and had refused to budge. Moreover, Oscar Wilde had already been criticised and condemned in a hundred papers. There was widespread prejudice against him, no risk to the public in accepting bail, and considerable injury done to the accused in refusing it. His affairs were certain to be thrown into confusion; he was known not to be rich and yet he was deprived of the power to get money together and to collect evidence just when the power which freedom confers was most needed by him.
The magistrate was as prejudiced as the public; he had no more idea of standing for justice and fair play than Pilate; probably, indeed, he never gave himself the trouble to think of fairness in the matter. A large salary is paid to magistrates in London, L1,500 a year, but it is rare indeed that any of them rises above the vulgarest prejudice. Sir John Bridge not only refused bail but he was careful to give his reasons for refusing it: he had not the slightest scruple about prejudicing the case even before he had heard a word of the defence. After hearing the evidence for the prosecution he said:
"The responsibility of accepting or refusing bail rests upon me. The considerations that weigh with me are the gravity of the offences and the strength of the evidence. I must absolutely refuse bail and send the prisoners for trial."
Now these reasons, which he proffered voluntarily, and especially the use of the word "absolutely," showed not only prejudice on the part of Sir John Bridge, but the desire to injure the unfortunate prisoner in the public mind and so continue the evil work of the journalists.
The effect of this prejudice and rancour on the part of the whole community had various consequences.
The mere news that Oscar Wilde had been arrested and taken to Holloway startled London and gave the signal for a strange exodus. Every train to Dover was crowded; every steamer to Calais thronged with members of the aristocratic and leisured classes, who seemed to prefer Paris, or even Nice out of the season, to a city like London, where the police might act with such unexpected vigour. The truth was that the cultured aesthetes whom I have already described had been thunderstruck by the facts which the Queensberry trial had laid bare. For the first time they learned that such houses as Taylor's were under police supervision, and that creatures like Wood and Parker were classified and watched. They had imagined that in "the home of liberty" such practices passed unnoticed. It came as a shock to their preconceived ideas that the police in London knew a great many things which they were not supposed to concern themselves with, and this unwelcome glare of light drove the vicious forth in wild haste.
Never was Paris so crowded with members of the English governing classes; here was to be seen a famous ex-Minister; there the fine face of the president of a Royal society; at one table in the Cafe de la Paix, a millionaire recently ennobled, and celebrated for his exquisite taste in art; opposite to him a famous general. It was even said that a celebrated English actor took a return ticket for three or four days to Paris, just to be in the fashion. The mummer returned quickly; but the majority of the migrants stayed abroad for some time. The wind of terror which had swept them across the Channel opposed their return, and they scattered over the Continent from Naples to Monte Carlo and from Palermo to Seville under all sorts of pretexts.
The gravest result of the magistrate's refusal to accept bail was purely personal. Oscar's income dried up at the source. His books were withdrawn from sale; no one went to see his plays; every shop keeper to whom he owed a penny took immediate action against him. Judgments were obtained and an execution put into his house in Tite Street. Within a month, at the very moment when he most needed money to fee counsel and procure evidence, he was beggared and sold up, and because of his confinement in prison the sale was conducted under such conditions that, whereas in ordinary times his effects would have covered the claims against him three times over, all his belongings went for nothing, and the man who was making L4,000 or L5,000 a year by his plays was adjudicated a bankrupt for a little over L1,000. L600 of this sum were for Lord Queensberry's costs which the Queensberry family—Lord Douglas of Hawick, Lord Alfred Douglas and their mother—had promised in writing to pay, but when the time came, absolutely refused to pay. Most unfortunately many of Oscar's MSS. were stolen or lost in the disorder of the sheriff's legal proceedings. Wilde could have cried, with Shylock, "You take my life when you do take away the means whereby I live." But at the time nine Englishmen out of ten applauded what was practically persecution.
A worse thing remains to be told. The right of free speech which Englishmen pride themselves on had utterly disappeared, as it always does disappear in England when there is most need of it. It was impossible to say one word in Wilde's defence or even in extenuation of his sin in any London print. At this time I owned the greater part of the Saturday Review and edited it. Here at any rate one might have thought I could have set forth in a Christian country a sane and liberal view. I had no wish to minimise the offence. No one condemned unnatural vice more than I, but Oscar Wilde was a distinguished man of letters; he had written beautiful things, and his good works should have been allowed to speak in his favour. I wrote an article setting forth this view. My printers immediately informed me that they thought the article ill-advised, and when I insisted they said they would prefer not to print it. Yet there was nothing in it beyond a plea to suspend judgment and defer insult till after the trial. Messrs. Smith and Sons, the great booksellers, who somehow got wind of the matter (through my publisher, I believe), sent to say that they would not sell any paper that attempted to defend Oscar Wilde; it would be better even, they added, not to mention his name. The English tradesman-censors were determined that this man should have Jedburg justice. I should have ruined the Saturday Review by the mere attempt to treat the matter fairly.
In this extremity I went to the great leader of public opinion in England. Mr. Arthur Walter, the manager of The Times, had always been kind to me; he was a man of balanced mind, who had taken high honours at Oxford in his youth, and for twenty years had rubbed shoulders with the leading men in every rank of life. I went down to stay with him in Berkshire, and I urged upon him what I regarded as the aristocratic view. In England it was manifest that under the circumstances there was no chance of a fair trial, and it seemed to me the duty of The Times to say plainly that this man should not be condemned beforehand, and that if he were condemned his merits should be taken into consideration in his punishment, as well as his demerits.
While willing to listen to me, Mr. Walter did not share my views. A man who had written a great poem or a great play did not rank in his esteem with a man who had won a skirmish against a handful of unarmed savages, or one who had stolen a piece of land from some barbarians and annexed it to the Empire. In his heart he held the view of the English landed aristocracy, that the ordinary successful general or admiral or statesman was infinitely more important than a Shakespeare or a Browning. He could not be persuaded to believe that the names of Gladstone, Disraeli, Wolseley, Roberts, and Wood, would diminish and fade from day to day till in a hundred years they would scarcely be known, even to the educated; whereas the fame of Browning, Swinburne, Meredith, or even Oscar Wilde, would increase and grow brighter with time, till, in one hundred or five hundred years, no one would dream of comparing pushful politicians like Gladstone or Beaconsfield with men of genius like Swinburne or Wilde. He simply would not see it and when he perceived that the weight of argument was against him he declared that if it were true, it was so much the worse for humanity. In his opinion anyone living a clean life was worth more than a writer of love songs or the maker of clever comedies—Mr. John Smith worth more than Shakespeare!
He was as deaf as only Englishmen can be deaf to the plea for abstract justice.
"You don't even say Wilde's innocent," he threw at me more than once.
"I believe him to be innocent," I declared truthfully, "but it is better that a hundred guilty men go free than that one man should not have a fair trial. And how can this man have a fair trial now when the papers for weeks past have been filled with violent diatribes against him and his works?"
One point, peculiarly English, he used again and again.
"So long as substantial justice is done," he said, "it is all we care about."
"Substantial justice will never be done," I cried, "so long as that is your ideal. Your arrow can never go quite so high as it is aimed." But I got no further.
If Oscar Wilde had been a general or a so-called empire builder, The Times might have affronted public opinion and called attention to his virtues, and argued that they should be taken in extenuation of his offences; but as he was only a writer no one seemed to owe him anything or to care what became of him.
Mr. Walter was fair-minded in comparison with most men of his class. There was staying with him at this very time an Irish gentleman, who listened to my pleading for Wilde with ill-concealed indignation. Excited by Arthur Walter's obstinacy to find fresh arguments, I pointed out that Wilde's offence was pathological and not criminal and would not be punished in a properly constituted state.
"You admit," I said, "that we punish crime to prevent it spreading; wipe this sin off the statute book and you would not increase the sinners by one: then why punish them?"
"Oi'd whip such sinners to death, so I would," cried the Irishman; "hangin's too good for them."
"You only punished lepers," I went on, "in the middle ages, because you believed that leprosy was catching: this malady is not even catching."
"Faith, Oi'd punish it with extermination," cried the Irishman.
Exasperated by the fact that his idiot prejudice was hurting my friend, I said at length with a smile:
"You are very bitter: I'm not; you see, I have no sexual jealousy to inflame me."
On this Mr. Walter had to interfere between us to keep the peace, but the mischief was done: my advocacy remained without effect.
It is very curious how deep-rooted and enduring is the prejudice against writers in England. Not only is no attempt made to rate them at their true value, at the value which posterity puts upon their work; but they are continually treated as outcasts and denied the most ordinary justice. The various trials of Oscar Wilde are to the thinker an object lesson in the force of this prejudice, but some may explain the prejudice against Wilde on the score of the peculiar abhorrence with which the offence ascribed to him is regarded in England.
Let me take an example from the papers of to-day—I am writing in January, 1910. I find in my Daily Mail that at Bow Street police court a London magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen, ordered the destruction of 272 volumes of the English translation of Balzac's "Les Contes Drolatiques" on the ground that the book was obscene. "Les Contes Drolatiques" is an acknowledged masterpiece, and is not nearly so free spoken as "Lear" or "Hamlet" or "Tom Jones" or "Anthony and Cleopatra." What would be thought of a French magistrate or a German magistrate who ordered a fair translation of "Hamlet" or of "Lear" to be burnt, because of its obscenity? He would be regarded as demented. One can only understand such a judgment as an isolated fact. But in England this monstrous stupidity is the rule. Sir A. de Rutzen was not satisfied with ordering the books to be burnt and fining the bookseller; he went on to justify his condemnation and praise the police:
"It is perfectly clear to my mind that a more foul and filthy black spot has not been found in London for a long time, and the police have done uncommonly well in bringing the matter to light. I consider that the books are likely to do a great deal of harm."
Fancy the state of mind of the man who can talk such poisonous nonsense; who, with the knowledge of what Piccadilly is at night in his mind, can speak of the translation of a masterpiece as one of the "most filthy black spots" to be found in London. To say that such a man is insane is, I suppose, going too far; but to say that he does not know the value or the meaning of the words he uses, to say that he is driven by an extraordinary and brainless prejudice, is certainly the modesty of truth.
It is this sort of perversity on the part of Sir A. de Rutzen and of nine out of ten Englishmen that makes Frenchmen, Germans and Italians speak of them as ingrained hypocrites. But they are not nearly so hypocritical as they are uneducated and unintelligent, rebellious to the humanising influence of art and literature. The ordinary Englishman would much prefer to be called an athlete than a poet. The Puritan Commonwealth Parliament ordered the pictures of Charles I. to be sold, but such of them as were indecent to be burnt; accordingly half a dozen Titians were solemnly burnt and the nucleus of a great national gallery destroyed. One can see Sir A. de Rutzen solemnly assisting at this holocaust and devoutly deciding that all the masterpieces which showed temptingly a woman's beautiful breasts were "foul and filthy black spots" and must be burnt as harmful. Or rather one can see that Sir A. de Rutzen has in two and a half centuries managed to get a little beyond this primitive Puritan standpoint: he might allow a pictorial masterpiece to-day to pass unburnt, but a written masterpiece is still to him anathema.
A part of this prejudice comes from the fact that the English have a special dislike for every form of sexual indulgence. It is not consistent with their ideal of manhood, and, like the poor foolish magistrate, they have not yet grasped the truth, which one might have thought the example of the Japanese would have made plain by now to the dullest, that a nation may be extraordinarily brave, vigorous and self-sacrificing and at the same time intensely sensuous, and sensitive to every refinement of passion. If the great English middle class were as well educated as the German middle class, such a judgment as this of Sir A. de Rutzen would be scouted as ridiculous and absurd, or rather would be utterly unthinkable.
In Anglo-Saxon countries both the artist and the sexual passion are under a ban. The race is more easily moved martially than amorously and it regards its overpowering combative instincts as virtuous just as it is apt to despise what it likes to call "languishing love." The poet Middleton couldn't put his dream city in England—a city of fair skies and fairer streets:
And joy was there; in all the city's length I saw no fingers trembling for the sword; Nathless they doted on their bodies' strength, That they might gentler be. Love was their lord.
Both America and England to-day offer terrifying examples of the despotism of an unenlightened and vulgar public opinion in all the highest concerns of man—in art, in literature and in religion. There is no despotism on earth so soul-destroying to the artist: it is baser and more degrading than anything known in Russia. The consequences of this tyranny of an uneducated middle class and a barbarian aristocracy are shown in detail in the trial of Oscar Wilde and in the savagery with which he was treated by the English officers of justice.
As soon as I heard that Oscar Wilde was arrested and bail refused, I tried to get permission to visit him in Holloway. I was told I should have to see him in a kind of barred cage; and talk to him from the distance of at least a yard. It seemed to me too painful for both of us, so I went to the higher authorities and got permission to see him in a private room. The Governor met me at the entrance of the prison: to my surprise he was more than courteous; charmingly kind and sympathetic.
"We all hope," he said, "that he will soon be free; this is no place for him. Everyone likes him, everyone. It is a great pity."
He evidently felt much more than he said, and my heart went out to him. He left me in a bare room furnished with a small square deal table and two kitchen chairs. In a moment or two Oscar came in accompanied by a warder. In silence we clasped hands. He looked miserably anxious and pulled down and I felt that I had nothing to do but cheer him up.
"I am glad to see you," I cried. "I hope the warders are kind to you?"
"Yes, Frank," he replied in a hopeless way, "but everyone else is against me: it is hard."
"Don't harbour that thought," I answered; "many whom you don't know, and whom you will never know, are on your side. Stand for them and for the myriads who are coming afterwards and make a fight of it."
"I'm afraid I'm not a fighter, Frank, as you once said," he replied sadly, "and they won't give me bail. How can I get evidence or think in this place of torture? Fancy refusing me bail," he went on, "though I stayed in London when I might have gone abroad."
"You should have gone," I cried in French, hot with indignation; "why didn't you go, the moment you came out of the court?"
"I couldn't think at first," he answered in the same tongue; "I couldn't think at all: I was numbed."
"Your friends should have thought of it," I insisted, not knowing then that they had done their best.
At this moment the warder, who had turned away towards the door, came back.
"You are not allowed, sir, to talk in a foreign language," he said quietly. "You will understand we have to obey the rules. Besides, the prisoner must not speak of this prison as a place of torture. I ought to report that; I'm sorry."
The misery of it all brought tears to my eyes: his gaolers even felt sorry for him. I thanked the warder and turned again to Oscar.
"Don't let yourself fear at all," I exclaimed. "You will have your chance again and must take it; only don't lose heart and don't be witty next time in court. The jury hate it. They regard it as intellectual superiority and impudence. Treat all things seriously and with grave dignity. Defend yourself as David would have defended his love for Jonathan. Make them all listen to you. I would undertake to get free with half your talent even if I were guilty; a resolution not to be beaten is always half the battle.... Make your trial memorable from your entrance into the court to the decision of the jury. Use every opportunity and give your real character a chance to fight for you."
I spoke with tears in my eyes and rage in my heart.
"I will do my best, Frank," he said despondingly, "I will do my best. If I were out of this place, I might think of something, but it is dreadful to be here. One has to go to bed by daylight and the nights are interminable."
"Haven't you a watch?" I cried.
"They don't allow you to have a watch in prison," he replied.
"But why not?" I asked in amazement. I did not know that every rule in an English prison is cunningly devised to annoy and degrade the unfortunate prisoner.
Oscar lifted his hands hopelessly:
"One may not smoke; not even a cigarette; and so I cannot sleep. All the past comes back; the golden hours; the June days in London with the sunshine dappling the grass and the silken rustling of the wind in the trees. Do you remember Wordsworth speaks 'of the wind in the trees'? How I wish I could hear it now, breathe it once again. I might get strength then to fight."
"Is the food good?" I asked.
"It's all right; I get it from outside. The food doesn't matter. It is the smoking I miss, the freedom, the companionship. My mind will not act when I'm alone. I can only think of what has been and torment myself. Already I've been punished enough for the sins of a lifetime."
"Is there nothing I can do for you, nothing you want?" I asked.
"No, Frank," he answered, "it was kind of you to come to see me, I wish I could tell you how kind."
"Don't think of it," I said; "if I'm any good send for me at any moment: a word will bring me. They allow you books, don't they?"
"I wish you would get the 'Apologia of Plato'," I said, "and take a big draught of that deathless smiling courage of Socrates."
"Ah, Frank, how much more humane were the Greeks. They let his friends see him and talk to him by the hour, though he was condemned to death. There were no warders there to listen, no degrading conditions."
"Quite true," I cried, suddenly realising how much better Oscar Wilde would have been treated in Athens two thousand years ago. "Our progress is mainly change; we don't shed our cruelty; even Christ has not been able to humanise us."
He nodded his head. At first he seemed greatly distressed; but I managed to encourage him a little, for at the close of the talk he questioned me:
"Do you really think I may win, Frank?"
"Of course you'll win," I replied. "You must win: you must not think of being beaten. Take it that they will not want to convict you. Say it to yourself in the court; don't let yourself fear for a moment. Your enemies are merely stupid, unhappy creatures crawling about for a few miserable years between earth and sun; fated to die and leave no trace, no memory. Remember you are fighting for all of us, for every artist and thinker who is to be born into the English world.... It is better to win like Galileo than to be burnt like Giordano Bruno. Don't let them make another martyr. Use all your brains and eloquence and charm. Don't be afraid. They will not condemn you if they know you."
"I have been trying to think," he said, "trying to make up my mind to bear one whole year of this life. It's dreadful, Frank, I had no idea that prison was so dreadful."
The warder again drew down his brows. I hastened to change the subject.
"That's why you must resolve not to have any more of it," I said; "I wish I had seen you when you came out of court, but I really thought you didn't want me; you turned away from me."
"Oh, Frank, how could I?" he cried. "I should have been so grateful to you."
"I'm very shortsighted," I rejoined, "and I thought you did. It is our foolish little vanities which prevent us acting as we should. But let me know if I can do anything for you. If you want me, I'll come at any moment."
I said this because the warder had already given me a sign; he now said:
"Time is up."
Once again we clasped hands.
"You must win," I said; "don't think of defeat. Even your enemies are human. Convert them. You can do it, believe me," and I went with dread in my heart, and pity and indignation.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season: Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.
The Governor met me almost at the door.
"It is terrible," I exclaimed.
"This is no place for him," he answered. He has nothing to do with us here. Everyone likes him and pities him: the warders, everyone. Anything I can do to make his stay tolerable shall be done."
We shook hands. I think there were tears in both our eyes as we parted. This humane Governor had taught me that Oscar's gentleness and kindness—his sweetness of nature—would win all hearts if it had time to make itself known. Yet there he was in prison. His face and figure came before me again and again: the unshaven face; the frightened, sad air; the hopeless, toneless voice. The cleanliness even of the bare hard room was ugly; the English are foolish enough to degrade those they punish. Revolt was blazing in me.
As I went away I looked up at the mediaeval castellated gateway of the place, and thought how perfectly the architecture suited the spirit of the institution. The whole thing belongs to the middle ages, and not to our modern life. Fancy having both prison and hospital side by side; indeed a hospital even in the prison; torture and lovingkindness; punishment and pity under the same roof. What a blank contradiction and stupidity. Will civilisation never reach humane ideals? Will men always punish most severely the sins they do not understand and which hold for them no temptation? Did Jesus suffer in vain?
* * * * *
Oscar Wilde was committed on the 19th of April; a "true bill" was found against him by the grand jury on the 24th; and, as the case was put down for trial at the Old Bailey almost immediately, a postponement was asked for till the May sessions, on the ground first that the defence had not had time to prepare their case and further, that in the state of popular feeling at the moment, Mr. Wilde would not get a fair and impartial trial. Mr. Justice Charles, who was to try the case, heard the application and refused it peremptorily: "Any suggestion that the defendant would not have a fair trial was groundless," he declared; yet he knew better. In his summing up of the case on May 1st he stated that "for weeks it had been impossible to open a newspaper without reading some reference to the case," and when he asked the jury not to allow "preconceived opinions to weigh with them" he was admitting the truth that every newspaper reference was charged with dislike and contempt of Oscar Wilde. A fair trial indeed!
The trial took place at the Old Bailey, three days later, April 27th, 1895, before Mr. Justice Charles. Mr. C.F. Gill and A. Gill with Mr. Horace Avory appeared for the Public Prosecutor. Mr. Wilde was again defended by Sir Edward Clarke, Mr. Charles Mathews and Mr. Travers Humphreys, while Mr. J.P. Grain and Mr. Paul Taylor were counsel for the other prisoner. The trial began on a Saturday and the whole of the day was taken up with a legal argument. I am not going to give the details of the case. I shall only note the chief features of it and the unfairness which characterised it.
Sir Edward Clarke pointed out that there was one set of charges under the Criminal Law Amendment Act and another set of charges of conspiracy. He urged that the charges of conspiracy should be dropped. Under the counts alleging conspiracy, the defendants could not be called on as witnesses, which put the defence at a disadvantage. In the end the Judge decided that there were inconveniences; but he would not accede to Sir Edward Clarke's request. Later in the trial, however, Mr. Gill himself withdrew the charges of conspiracy, and the Judge admitted explicitly in his summing up that, if he had known the evidence which was to be offered, he would not have allowed these charges of conspiracy to be made. By this confession he apparently cleared his conscience just as Pilate washed his hands. But the wrong had already been done. Not only did this charge of conspiracy embarrass the defence, but if it had never been made, as it should never have been made, then Sir Edward Clarke would have insisted and could have insisted properly that the two men should be tried separately, and Wilde would not have been discredited by being coupled with Taylor, whose character was notorious and who had already been in the hands of the police on a similar charge.
This was not the only instance of unfairness in the conduct of the prosecution. The Treasury put a youth called Atkins in the box, thus declaring him to be at least a credible witness; but Atkins was proved by Sir Edward Clarke to have perjured himself in the court in the most barefaced way. In fact the Treasury witnesses against Wilde were all blackmailers and people of the lowest character, with two exceptions. The exceptions were a boy named Mavor and a youth named Shelley. With regard to Mavor the judge admitted that no evidence had been offered that he could place before the jury; but in his summing up he was greatly affected by the evidence of Shelley. Shelley was a young man who seemed to be afflicted with a species of religious mania. Mr. Justice Charles gave great weight to his testimony. He invited the jury to say that "although there was, in his correspondence which had been read, evidence of excitability, to talk of him as a young man who did not know what he was saying was to exaggerate the effect of his letters." He went on to ask with much solemnity: "Why should this young man have invented a tale, which must have been unpleasant to him to present from the witness box?"
In the later trial before Mr. Justice Wills the Judge had to rule out the evidence of Shelley in toto, because it was wholly without corroboration. If the case before Mr. Justice Charles had not been confused with the charges of conspiracy, there is no doubt that he too would have ruled out the evidence of Shelley, and then his summing up must have been entirely in favour of Wilde.
The singular malevolence of the prosecution also can be estimated by their use of the so-called "literary argument." Wilde had written in a magazine called The Chameleon. The Chameleon contained an immoral story, with which Wilde had nothing to do, and which he had repudiated as offensive. Yet the prosecution tried to make him responsible in some way for the immorality of a writing which he knew nothing about.
Wilde had said two poems of Lord Alfred Douglas were "beautiful." The prosecution declared that these poems were in essence a defence of the vilest immorality, but is it not possible for the most passionate poem, even the most vicious, to be "beautiful"? Nothing was ever written more passionate than one of the poems of Sappho. Yet a fragment has been selected out and preserved by the admiration of a hundred generations of men. The prosecution was in the position all the time of one who declared that a man who praised a nude picture must necessarily be immoral. Such a contention would be inconceivable in any other civilised country. Even the Judge was on much the same intellectual level. It would not be fair, he admitted, to condemn a poet or dramatic writer by his works and he went on:
"It is unfortunately true that while some of our greatest writers have passed long years in writing nothing but the most wholesome literature—literature of the highest genius, and which anybody can read, such as the literature of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens; it is also true that there were other great writers, more especially in the eighteenth century, perfectly noble-minded men themselves, who somehow or other have permitted themselves to pen volumes which it is painful for persons of ordinary modesty and decency to read."
It would have been more honest and more liberal to have brushed away the nonsensical indictment in a sentence. Would the Treasury have put Shakespeare on trial for "Hamlet" or "Lear," or would they have condemned the writer of "The Song of Solomon" for immorality, or sent St. Paul to prison for his "Epistle to the Corinthians"?
Middle-class prejudice and hypocritic canting twaddle from Judge and advocate dragged their weary length along for days and days. On Wednesday Sir Edward Clarke made his speech for the defence. He pointed out the unfairness of the charges of conspiracy which had tardily been withdrawn. He went on to say that the most remarkable characteristic of the case was the fact that it had been the occasion for conduct on the part of certain sections of the press which was disgraceful, and which imperilled the administration of justice, and was in the highest degree injurious to the client for whom he was pleading. Nothing, he concluded, could be more unfair than the way Mr. Wilde had been criticised in the press for weeks and weeks. But no judge interfered on his behalf.
Sir Edward Clarke evidently thought that to prove unfairness would not even influence the minds of the London jury. He was content to repudiate the attempt to judge Mr. Wilde by his books or by an article which he had condemned, or by poems which he had not written. He laid stress on the fact that Mr. Wilde had himself brought the charge against Lord Queensberry which had provoked the whole investigation: "on March 30th, Mr. Wilde," he said, "knew the catalogue of accusations"; and he asked: did the jury believe that, if he had been guilty, he would have stayed in England and brought about the first trial? Insane would hardly be the word for such conduct, if Mr. Wilde really had been guilty. Moreover, before even hearing the specific accusations, Mr. Wilde had gone into the witness box to deny them.
Clarke's speech was a good one, but nothing out of the common: no new arguments were used in it; not one striking illustration. Needless to say the higher advocacy of sympathy was conspicuous by its absence.
Again, the interesting part of the trial was the cross-examination of Oscar Wilde.
Mr. Gill examined him at length on the two poems which Lord Alfred Douglas had contributed to The Chameleon, which Mr. Wilde had called "beautiful." The first was in "Praise of Shame," the second was one called "Two Loves." Sir Edward Clarke, interposing, said:
"That's not Mr. Wilde's, Mr. Gill."
Mr. Gill: "I am not aware that I said it was."
Sir Edward Clarke: "I thought you would be glad to say it was not."
Mr. Gill insisted that Mr. Wilde should explain the poem in "Praise of Shame."
Mr. Wilde said that the first poem seemed obscure, but, when pressed as to the "love" described in the second poem, he let himself go for the first time and perhaps the only time during the trial; he said:
"The 'love' that dare not speak its name in this century is such a great affection of an older for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very base of his philosophy and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare—a deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect, and dictates great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo and those two letters of mine, such as they are, and which is in this century misunderstood—so misunderstood that, on account of it, I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful; it is fine; it is the noblest form of affection. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life. That it should be so the world does not understand. It mocks at it and sometimes puts one into the pillory for it."
At this stage there was loud applause in the gallery of the court, and the learned Judge at once said: "I shall have the Court cleared if there is the slightest manifestation of feeling. There must be complete silence preserved."
Mr. Justice Charles repressed the cheering in favour of Mr. Oscar Wilde with great severity, though Mr. Justice Collins did not attempt to restrain the cheering which filled his court and accompanied the dispersing crowd into the street on the acquittal of Lord Queensberry.
In spite, however, of the unfair criticisms of the press; in spite of the unfair conduct of the prosecution, and in spite of the manifest prejudice and Philistine ignorance of the Judge, the jury disagreed.
Then followed the most dramatic incident of the whole trial. Once more Sir Edward Clarke applied for bail on behalf of Oscar Wilde. "After what has happened," he said, "I do not think the Crown will make any objection to this application." The Crown left the matter to the Judge, no doubt in all security; for the Judge immediately refused the application. Sir Edward Clarke then went on to say that, in the case of a re-trial, it ought not to take place immediately. He continued:
"The burden of those engaged in the case is very heavy, and I think it only right that the Treasury should have an opportunity between this and another session of considering the mode in which the case should be presented, if indeed it is presented at all."
Mr. Gill immediately rose to the challenge.
"The case will certainly be tried again," he declared, "whether it is to be tried again at once or in the next sessions will be a matter of convenience. Probably the most desirable course will be for the case to go to the next sessions. That is the usual course."
Mr. Justice Charles: "If that is the usual course, let it be so."
The next session of the Central Criminal Court opened on the 20th of the same month.
Not three weeks' respite, still it might be enough: it was inconceivable that a Judge in Chambers would refuse to accept bail: fortunately the law allows him no option.
* * * * *
The application for bail was made in due course to a Judge in Chambers, and in spite of the bad example of the magistrate, and of Mr. Justice Charles, it was granted and Wilde was set free in his own recognizance of L2,500 with two other sureties for L1,250 each. It spoke volumes for the charm and fascination of the man that people were found to undertake this onerous responsibility. Their names deserve to be recorded; one was Lord Douglas of Hawick, the other a clergyman, the Rev. Stewart Headlam. I offered to be one bail: but I was not a householder at the time and my name was, therefore, not acceptable. I suppose the Treasury objected, which shows, I am inclined to think, some glimmering of sense on its part.
As soon as the bail was accepted I began to think of preparations for Oscar's escape. It was high time something was done to save him from the wolves. The day after his release a London morning journal was not ashamed to publish what it declared was a correct analysis of the voting of the jury on the various counts. According to this authority, ten jurors were generally for conviction and two against, in the case of Wilde; the statement was widely accepted because it added that the voting was more favourable to Taylor than to Wilde, which was so unexpected and so senseless that it carried with it a certain plausibility: Credo quia incredible.
I had seen enough of English justice and English judges and English journals to convince me that Oscar Wilde had no more chance of a fair trial than if he had been an Irish "Invincible." Everyone had made up his mind and would not even listen to reason: he was practically certain to be convicted, and if convicted perfectly certain to be punished with savage ferocity. The judge would probably think he was showing impartiality by punishing him for his qualities of charm and high intelligence. For the first time in my life I understood the full significance of Montaigne's confession that if he were accused of stealing the towers of Notre Dame, he would fly the kingdom rather than risk a trial, and Montaigne was a lawyer. I set to work at once to complete my preparations.
I did not think I ran any risk in helping Oscar to get away. The newspapers had seized the opportunity of the trials before the magistrate and before Mr. Justice Charles and had overwhelmed the public with such a sea of nauseous filth and impurity as could only be exposed to the public nostrils in pudibond England. Everyone, I thought, must be sick of the testimony and eager to have done with the whole thing. In this I may have been mistaken. The hatred of Wilde seemed universal and extraordinarily malignant.
I wanted a steam yacht. Curiously enough on the very day when I was thinking of running down to Cowes to hire one, a gentleman at lunch mentioned that he had one in the Thames. I asked him could I charter it?
"Certainly," he replied, "and I will let you have it for the bare cost for the next month or two."
"One month will do for me," I said.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
I don't know why, but a thought came into my head: I would tell him the truth, and see what he would say. I took him aside and told him the bare facts. At once he declared that the yacht was at my service for such work as that without money: he would be too glad to lend it to me: it was horrible that such a man as Wilde should be treated as a common criminal.
He felt as Henry VIII felt in Shakespeare's play of that name:
"... there's some of ye, I see, More out of malice than integrity, Would try him to the utmost, ..."
It was not the generosity in my friend's offer that astonished me, but the consideration for Wilde; I thought the lenity so singular in England that I feel compelled to explain it. Though an Englishman born and bred my friend was by race a Jew—a man of the widest culture, who had no sympathy whatever with the vice attributed to Oscar. Feeling consoled because there was at least one generous, kind heart in the world, I went next day to Willie Wilde's house in Oakley Street to see Oscar. I had written to him on the previous evening that I was coming to take Oscar out to lunch.
Willie Wilde met me at the door; he was much excited apparently by the notoriety attaching to Oscar; he was volubly eager to tell me that, though we had not been friends, yet my support of Oscar was most friendly and he would therefore bury the hatchet. He had never interested me, and I was unconscious of any hatchet and careless whether he buried it or blessed it. I repeated drily that I had come to take Oscar to lunch.
"I know you have," he said, "and it's most kind of you; but he can't go."
"Why not?" I asked as I went in.
Oscar was gloomy, depressed, and evidently suffering. Willie's theatrical insincerity had annoyed me a little, and I was eager to get away. Suddenly I saw Sherard, who has since done his best for Oscar's memory. In his book there is a record of this visit of mine. He was standing silently by the wall.
"I've come to take you to lunch," I said to Oscar.
"But he cannot go out," cried Willie.
"Of course he can," I insisted, "I've come to take him."
"But where to?" asked Willie.
"Yes, Frank, where to?" repeated Oscar meekly.
"Anywhere you like," I said, "the Savoy if you like, the Cafe Royal for choice."
"Oh, Frank, I dare not," cried Oscar.
"No, no," cried Willie, "there would be a scandal; someone'll insult him and it would do harm; set people's backs up."
"Oh, Frank, I dare not," echoed Oscar.
"No one will insult him. There will be no scandal," I replied, "and it will do good."
"But what will people say?" cried Willie.
"No one ever knows what people will say," I retorted, "and people always speak best of those who don't care a damn what they do say."
"Oh, Frank, I could not go to a place like the Savoy where I am well known," objected Oscar.
"All right," I agreed, "you shall go where you like. All London is before us. I must have a talk with you, and it will do you good to get out into the air, and sun yourself and feel the wind in your face. Come, there's a hansom at the door."
It was not long before I had conquered his objections and Willie's absurdities and taken him with me. Scarcely had we left the house when his spirits began to lift, and he rippled into laughter.
"Really, Frank, it is strange, but I do not feel frightened and depressed any more, and the people don't boo and hiss at me. Is it not dreadful the way they insult the fallen?"
"We are not going to talk about it," I said; "we are going to talk of victories and not of defeats."
"Ah, Frank, there will be no more victories for me."
"Nonsense," I cried; "now where are we going?"
"Some quiet place where I shall not be known."
"You really would not like the Cafe Royal?" I asked. "Nothing will happen to you, and I think you would probably find that one or two people would wish you luck. You have had a rare bad time, and there must be some people who understand what you have gone through and know that it is sufficient punishment for any sin."
"No, Frank," he persisted, "I cannot, I really cannot."
At length we decided on a restaurant in Great Portland Street. We drove there and had a private room.
I had two purposes in me, springing from the one root, the intense desire to help him. I felt sure that if the case came up again for trial he would only be convicted through what I may call good, honest testimony. The jury with their English prejudice; or rather I should say with their healthy English instincts would not take the evidence of vile blackmailers against him; he could only be convicted through untainted evidence such as the evidence of the chambermaids at the Savoy Hotel, and their evidence was over two years old and was weak, inasmuch as the facts, if facts, were not acted upon by the management. Still their testimony was very clear and very positive, and, taken together with that of the blackmailers, sufficient to ensure conviction. After our lunch I laid this view before Oscar. He agreed with me that it was probably the chambermaids' testimony which had weighed most heavily against him. Their statement and Shelley's had brought about the injurious tone in the Judge's summing up. The Judge himself had admitted as much.
"The chambermaids' evidence is wrong," Oscar declared. "They are mistaken, Frank. It was not me they spoke about at the Savoy Hotel. It was ——. I was never bold enough. I went to see —— in the morning in his room."
"Thank God," I said, "but why didn't Sir Edward Clarke bring that out?"
"He wanted to; but I would not let him. I told him he must not. I must be true to my friend. I could not let him."
"But he must," I said, "at any rate if he does not I will. I have three weeks and in that three weeks I am going to find the chambermaid. I am going to get a plan of your room and your friend's room, and I'm going to make her understand that she was mistaken. She probably remembered you because of your size: she mistook you for the guilty person; everybody has always taken you for the ringleader and not the follower."
"But what good is it, Frank, what good is it?" he cried. "Even if you convinced the chambermaid and she retracted; there would still be Shelley, and the Judge laid stress on Shelley's evidence as untainted."
"Shelley is an accomplice," I cried, "his testimony needs corroboration. You don't understand these legal quibbles; but there was not a particle of corroboration. Sir Edward Clarke should have had his testimony ruled out. 'Twas that conspiracy charge," I cried, "which complicated the matter. Shelley's evidence, too, will be ruled out at the next trial, you'll see."
"Oh, Frank," he said, "you talk with passion and conviction, as if I were innocent."
"But you are innocent," I cried in amaze, "aren't you?"
"No, Frank," he said, "I thought you knew that all along."
I stared at him stupidly. "No," I said dully, "I did not know. I did not believe the accusation. I did not believe it for a moment."
I suppose the difference in my tone and manner struck him, for he said, timidly putting out his hand:
"This will make a great difference to you, Frank?"
"No," I said, pulling myself together and taking his hand; and after a pause I went on: "No: curiously enough it has made no difference to me at all. I do not know why; I suppose I have got more sympathy than morality in me. It has surprised me, dumbfounded me. The thing has always seemed fantastic and incredible to me and now you make it exist for me; but it has no effect on my friendship; none upon my resolve to help you. But I see that the battle is going to be infinitely harder than I imagined. In fact, now I don't think we have a chance of winning a verdict. I came here hoping against fear that it could be won, though I always felt that it would be better in the present state of English feeling to go abroad and avoid the risk of a trial. Now there is no question: you would be insane, as Clarke said, to stay in England. But why on earth did Alfred Douglas, knowing the truth, ever wish you to attack Queensberry?"
"He's very bold and obstinate, Frank," said Oscar weakly.
"Well, now I must play Crito," I resumed, smiling, "and take you away before the ship comes from Delos."
"Oh, Frank, that would be wonderful; but it's impossible, quite impossible. I should be arrested before I left London, and shamed again in public: they would boo at me and shout insults.... Oh, it is impossible; I could not risk it."
"Nonsense," I replied, "I believe the authorities would be only too glad if you went. I think Clarke's challenge to Gill was curiously ill-advised. He should have let sleeping dogs lie. Combative Gill was certain to take up the gauntlet. If Clarke had lain low there might have been no second trial. But that can't be helped now. Don't believe that it's even difficult to get away; it's easy. I don't propose to go by Folkestone or Dover."
"But, Frank, what about the people who have stood bail for me? I couldn't leave them to suffer; they would lose their thousands."
"I shan't let them lose," I replied, "I am quite willing to take half on my own shoulders at once and you can pay the other thousand or so within a very short time by writing a couple of plays. American papers would be only too glad to pay you for an interview. The story of your escape would be worth a thousand pounds; they would give you almost any price for it.
"Leave everything to me, but in the meantime I want you to get out in the air as much as possible. You are not looking well; you are not yourself."
"That house is depressing, Frank. Willie makes such a merit of giving me shelter; he means well, I suppose; but it is all dreadful."
My notes of this talk finish in this way, but the conversation left on me a deep impression of Oscar's extraordinary weakness or rather extraordinary softness of nature backed up and redeemed by a certain magnanimity: he would not leave the friends in the lurch who had gone bail for him; he would not give his friend away even to save himself; but neither would he exert himself greatly to win free. He was like a woman, I said to myself in wonder, and my pity for him grew keener. He seemed mentally stunned by the sudden fall, by the discovery of how violently men can hate. He had never seen the wolf in man before; the vile brute instinct that preys upon the fallen. He had not believed that such exultant savagery existed; it had never come within his ken; now it appalled him. And so he stood there waiting for what might happen without courage to do anything but suffer. My heart ached with pity for him, and yet I felt a little impatient with him as well. Why give up like that? The eternal quarrel of the combative nature with those who can't or won't fight.
Before getting into the carriage to drive back to his brother's, I ascertained that he did not need any money. He told me that he had sufficient even for the expenses of a second trial: this surprised me greatly, for he was very careless about money; but I found out from him later that a very noble and cultured woman, a friend of both of us, Miss S——, a Jewess by race tho' not by religion, had written to him asking if she could help him financially, as she had been distressed by hearing of his bankruptcy, and feared that he might be in need. If that were the case she begged him to let her be his banker, in order that he might be properly defended. He wrote in reply, saying that he was indeed in uttermost distress, that he wanted money, too, to help his mother as he had always helped her, and that he supposed the expenses of the second trial would be from L500 to L1,000. Thereupon Miss S—— sent him a cheque for L1,000, assuring him that it cost her little even in self-sacrifice, and declaring that it was only inadequate recognition of the pleasure she had had through his delightful talks. Such actions are beyond praise; it is the perfume of such sweet and noble human sympathy that makes this wild beasts' cage of a world habitable for men.
Before parting we had agreed to meet a few nights afterwards at Mrs. Leverson's, where he had been invited to dinner, and where I also had been invited. By that time, I thought to myself, all my preparations would be perfected.
Looking back now I see clearly that my affection for Oscar Wilde dates from his confession to me that afternoon. I had been a friend of his for years; but what had bound us together had been purely intellectual, a community of literary tastes and ambitions. Now his trust in me and frankness had thrown down the barrier between us; and made me conscious of the extraordinary femininity and gentle weakness of his nature, and, instead of condemning him as I have always condemned that form of sexual indulgence, I felt only pity for him and a desire to protect and help him. From that day on our friendship became intimate: I began to divine him; I knew now that his words would always be more generous and noble than his actions; knew too that I must take his charm of manner and vivacity of intercourse for real virtues, and indeed they were as real as the beauty of flowers; and I was aware as by some sixth sense that, where his vanity was concerned, I might expect any injustice from him. I was sure beforehand, however, that I should always forgive him, or rather that I should always accept whatever he did and love him for the charm and sweetness and intellect in him and hold myself more than recompensed for anything I might be able to do, by his delightful companionship.
In spite of the wit of the hostess and her exquisite cordiality, our dinner at Mrs. Leverson's was hardly a success. Oscar was not himself; contrary to his custom he sat silent and downcast. From time to time he sighed heavily, and his leaden dejection gradually infected all of us. I was not sorry, for I wanted to get him away early; by ten o'clock we had left the house and were in the Cromwell Road. He preferred to walk: without his noticing it I turned up Queen's Gate towards the park. After walking for ten minutes I said to him:
"I want to speak to you seriously. Do you happen to know where Erith is?"
"It is a little landing place on the Thames," I went on, "not many miles away: it can be reached by a fast pair of horses and a brougham in a very short time. There at Erith is a steam yacht ready to start at a moment's notice; she has steam up now, one hundred pounds pressure to the square inch in her boilers; her captain's waiting, her crew ready—a greyhound in leash; she can do fifteen knots an hour without being pressed. In one hour she would be free of the Thames and on the high seas—(delightful phrase, eh?)—high seas indeed where there is freedom uncontrolled.
"If one started now one could breakfast in France, at Boulogne, let us say, or Dieppe; one could lunch at St. Malo or St. Enogat or any place you like on the coast of Normandy, and one could dine comfortably at the Sables d'Olonne, where there is not an Englishman to be found, and where sunshine reigns even in May from morning till night.
"What do you say, Oscar, will you come and try a homely French bourgeois dinner to-morrow evening at an inn I know almost at the water's edge? We could sit out on the little terrace and take our coffee in peace under the broad vine leaves while watching the silver pathway of the moon widen on the waters. We could smile at the miseries of London and its wolfish courts shivering in cold grey mist hundreds of miles away. Does not the prospect tempt you?"