Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 11

The Threatening Cloud Draws Nearer

There is a secret apprehension in man counselling sobriety and moderation, a fear born of expediency distinct from conscience, which is ethical; though it seems to be closely connected with conscience acting, as it does, by warnings and prohibitions. The story of Polycrates and his ring is a symbol of the instinctive feeling that extraordinary good fortune is perilous and can not endure.

A year or so after the first meeting between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas I heard that they were being pestered on account of some amorous letters which had been stolen from them. There was talk of blackmail and hints of an interesting exposure.

Towards the end of the year it was announced that Lord Alfred Douglas had gone to Egypt; but this “flight into Egypt,” as it was wittily called, was gilded by the fact that a little later he was appointed an honorary attaché to Lord Cromer. I regarded his absence as a piece of good fortune, for when he was in London, Oscar had no time to himself, and was seen in public with associates he would have done better to avoid. Time and again he had praised Lord Alfred Douglas to me as a charming person, a poet, and had grown lyrical about his violet eyes and honey-coloured hair. I knew nothing of Lord Alfred Douglas, and had no inkling of his poetic talent. I did not like several of Oscar’s particular friends, and I had a special dislike for the father of Lord Alfred Douglas. I knew Queensberry rather well. I was a member of the old Pelican Club, and I used to go there frequently for a talk with Tom, Dick or Harry, about athletics, or for a game of chess with George Edwards. Queensberry was there almost every night, and someone introduced me to him. I was eager to know him because he had surprised me. At some play,10 I think it was “The Promise of May,” by Tennyson, produced at the Globe, in which atheists were condemned, he had got up in his box and denounced the play, proclaiming himself an atheist. I wanted to know the Englishman who could be so contemptuous of convention. Had he acted out of aristocratic insolence, or was he by any possibility high-minded? To one who knew the man the mere question must seem ridiculous.

Queensberry was perhaps five feet nine or ten in height, with a plain, heavy, rather sullen face, and quick, hot eyes. He was a mass of self-conceit, all bristling with suspicion, and in regard to money, prudent to meanness. He cared nothing for books, but liked outdoor sports and under a rather abrupt, but not discourteous, manner hid an irritable, violent temper. He was combative and courageous as very nervous people sometimes are, when they happen to be strong-willed — the sort of man who, just because he was afraid of a bull and had pictured the dreadful wound it could give, would therefore seize it by the horns.

The insane temper of the man got him into rows at the Pelican more than once. I remember one evening he insulted a man whom I liked immensely. Haseltine was a stockbroker, I think, a big, fair, handsome fellow who took Queensberry’s insults for some time with cheerful contempt. Again and again he turned Queensberry’s wrath aside with a fair word, but Queensberry went on working himself into a passion, and at last made a rush at him. Haseltine watched him coming and hit out in the nick of time; he caught Queensberry full in the face and literally knocked him heels over head. Queensberry got up in a sad mess: he had a swollen nose and black eye and his shirt was all stained with blood spread about by hasty wiping. Any other man would have continued the fight or else have left the club on the spot; Queensberry took a seat at a table, and there sat for hours silent. I could only explain it to myself by saying that his impulse to fly at once from the scene of his disgrace was very acute, and therefore he resisted it, made up his mind not to budge, and so he sat there the butt of the derisive glances and whispered talk of everyone who came into the club in the next two or three hours. He was just the sort of person a wise man would avoid and a clever one would use — a dangerous, sharp, ill-handled tool.

Disliking his father, I did not care to meet Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar’s newest friend.

I saw Oscar less frequently after the success of his first play; he no longer needed my editorial services, and was, besides, busily engaged; but I have one good trait to record of him. Some time before I had lent him £50; so long as he was hard up I said nothing about it; but after the success of his second play, I wrote to him saying that the £50 would be useful to me if he could spare it. He sent me a cheque at once with a charming letter.

He was now continually about again with Lord Alfred Douglas who, it appeared, had had a disagreement with Lord Cromer and returned to London. Almost immediately scandalous stories came into circulation concerning them: “Have you heard the latest about Lord Alfred and Oscar? I’m told they’re being watched by the police,” and so forth and so on interminably. One day a story came to me with such wealth of weird detail that it was manifestly at least founded on fact. Oscar was said to have written extraordinary letters to Lord Alfred Douglas: a youth called Alfred Wood had stolen the letters from Lord Alfred Douglas’ rooms in Oxford and had tried to blackmail Oscar with them. The facts were so peculiar and so precise that I asked Oscar about it. He met the accusation at once and very fairly, I thought, and told me the whole story. It puts the triumphant power and address of the man in a strong light, and so I will tell it as he told it to me.

“When I was rehearsing ‘A Woman of No Importance’ at the Haymarket,” he began, “Beerbohm Tree showed me a letter I had written a year or so before to Alfred Douglas. He seemed to think it dangerous, but I laughed at him and read the letter with him, and of course he came to understand it properly. A little later a man called Wood told me he had found some letters which I had written to Lord Alfred Douglas in a suit of clothes which Lord Alfred had given to him. He gave me back some of the letters and I gave him a little money. But the letter, a copy of which had been sent to Beerbohm Tree, was not amongst them.

“Some time afterwards a man named Allen called upon me one night in Tite Street, and said he had got a letter of mine which I ought to have.

“The man’s manner told me that he was the real enemy. ‘I suppose you mean that beautiful letter of mine to Lord Alfred Douglas,’ I said. ‘If you had not been so foolish as to send a copy of it to Mr. Beerbohm Tree, I should have been glad to have paid you a large sum for it, as I think it is one of the best I ever wrote.’ Allen looked at me with sulky, cunning eyes and said:

“‘A curious construction could be put upon that letter.’

“‘No doubt, no doubt,’ I replied lightly; ‘art is not intelligible to the criminal classes.’ He looked me in the face defiantly and said:

“‘A man has offered me £60 for it.’

“‘You should take the offer,’ I said gravely; ‘£60 is a great price. I myself have never received such a large sum for any prose work of that length. But I am glad to find that there is someone in England who will pay such a large sum for a letter of mine. I don’t know why you come to me,’ I added, rising, ‘you should sell the letter at once.’

“Of course, Frank, as I spoke my body seemed empty with fear. The letter could be misunderstood, and I have so many envious enemies; but I felt that there was nothing else for it but bluff. As I went to the door Allen rose too, and said that the man who had offered him the money was out of town. I turned to him and said:

“‘He will no doubt return, and I don’t care for the letter at all.’

“At this Allen changed his manner, said he was very poor, he hadn’t a penny in the world, and had spent a lot trying to find me and tell me about the letter. I told him I did not mind relieving his distress, and gave him half a sovereign, assuring him at the same time that the letter would shortly be published as a sonnet in a delightful magazine. I went to the door with him, and he walked away. I closed the door; but didn’t shut it at once, for suddenly I heard a policeman’s step coming softly towards my house — pad, pad! A dreadful moment, then he passed by. I went into the room again all shaken, wondering whether I had done right, whether Allen would hawk the letter about — a thousand vague apprehensions.

“Suddenly a knock at the street door. My heart was in my mouth, still I went and opened it: a man named Cliburn was there.

“‘I have come to you with a letter of Allen’s.’

“‘I cannot be bothered any more,’ I cried, ‘about that letter; I don’t care twopence about it. Let him do what he likes with it.’

“To my astonishment Cliburn said:

“‘Allen has asked me to give it back to you,’ and he produced it.

“‘Why does he give it back to me?’ I asked carelessly.

“‘He says you were kind to him and that it is no use trying to “rent” you; you only laugh at us.’

“I looked at the letter; it was very dirty, and I said:

“‘I think it is unpardonable that better care should not have been taken of a manuscript of mine.’

“He said he was sorry; but it had been in many hands. I took the letter up casually:

“‘Well, I will accept the letter back. You can thank Mr. Allen for me.’

“I gave Cliburn half a sovereign for his trouble, and said to him:

“‘I am afraid you are leading a desperately wicked life.’

“‘There’s good and bad in every one of us,’ he replied. I said something about his being a philosopher, and he went away. That’s the whole story, Frank.”

“But the letter?” I questioned.

“The letter is nothing,” Oscar replied; “a prose poem. I will give you a copy of it.”

Here is the letter:

“MY OWN BOY — Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim-gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. No Hyacinthus followed Love so madly as you in Greek days. Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there and cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things. Come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and only lacks you. Do go to Salisbury first. Always with undying love,

Yours,

OSCAR.”

* * * * *

This letter startled me; “slim-gilt” and the “madness of kissing” were calculated to give one pause; but after all, I thought, it may be merely an artist’s letter, half pose, half passionate admiration. Another thought struck me.

“But how did such a letter,” I cried, “ever get into the hands of a blackmailer?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Lord Alfred Douglas is very careless and inconceivably bold. You should know him, Frank; he’s a delightful poet.”

“But how did he come to know a creature like Wood?” I persisted.

“How can I tell, Frank,” he answered a little shortly; and I let the matter drop, though it left in me a certain doubt, an uncomfortable suspicion.

The scandal grew from hour to hour, and the tide of hatred rose in surges.

One day I was lunching at the Savoy, and while talking to the head waiter, Cesari, who afterwards managed the Elysée Palace Hotel in Paris, I thought I saw Oscar and Douglas go out together. Being a little short-sighted, I asked:

“Isn’t that Mr. Oscar Wilde?”

“Yes,” said Cesari, “and Lord Alfred Douglas. We wish they would not come here; it does us a lot of harm.”

“How do you mean?” I asked sharply.

“Some people don’t like them,” the quick Italian answered immediately.

“Oscar Wilde,” I remarked casually, “is a great friend of mine,” but the super-subtle Italian was already warned.

“A clever writer, I believe,” he said, smiling in bland acquiescence.

This incident gave me warning, strengthened again in me the exact apprehension and suspicion which the Douglas letter had bred. Oscar I knew was too self-centred, went about too continually with admirers to have any understanding of popular feeling. He would be the last man to realize how fiercely hate, malice and envy were raging against him. I wanted to warn him; but hardly knew how to do it effectively and without offence: I made up my mind to keep my eyes open and watch an opportunity.

A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.

“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”

Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous. The truth is that his extraordinarily receptive mind went with an even more abnormal receptivity of character: unlike most men of marked ability, he took colour from his associates. In this as in love of courtesies and dislike of coarse words he was curiously feminine. Intercourse with Beardsley, for example, had backed his humorous gentleness with a sort of challenging courage; his new intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, coming on the top of his triumph as a playwright, was lending him aggressive self-confidence. There was in him that [Greek: hubris] (insolent self-assurance) which the Greek feared, the pride which goeth before destruction. I regretted the change in him and was nervously apprehensive.

After dinner we all went out by the door which gives on the Embankment, for it was after 12.30. One of the party proposed that we should walk for a minute or two — at least as far as the Strand, before driving home. Oscar objected. He hated walking; it was a form of penal servitude to the animal in man, he declared; but he consented, nevertheless, under protest, laughing. When we were going up the steps to the Strand he again objected, and quoted Dante’s famous lines:

“Tu proverai si come sa di sale

Lo pane altrui; e com’ è duro calle

Lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale.”

The impression made by Oscar that evening was not only of self-indulgence but of over-confidence. I could not imagine what had given him this insolent self-complacence. I wanted to get by myself and think. Prosperity was certainly doing him no good.

All the while the opposition to him, I felt, was growing in force. How could I verify this impression, I asked myself, so as to warn him effectually?

I decided to give a lunch to him, and on purpose I put on the invitations: “To meet Mr. Oscar Wilde and hear a new story.” Out of a dozen invitations sent out to men, seven or eight were refused, three or four telling me in all kindness that they would rather not meet Oscar Wilde. This confirmed my worst fears: when Englishmen speak out in this way the dislike must be near revolt.

I gave the lunch and saw plainly enough that my forebodings were justified. Oscar was more self-confident, more contemptuous of criticism, more gross of body than ever, but his talk did not suffer; indeed, it seemed to improve. At this lunch he told the charming fable of “Narcissus,” which is certainly one of his most characteristic short stories.

“When Narcissus died the Flowers of the Field were plunged in grief, and asked the River for drops of water that they might mourn for him.

“‘Oh,’ replied the River, ‘if only my drops of water were tears, I should not have enough to weep for Narcissus myself — I loved him.’

“‘How could you help loving Narcissus?’ said the flowers, ‘so beautiful was he.’

“‘Was he beautiful?’ asked the River.

“‘Who should know that better than you?’ said the flowers, ‘for every day, lying on your bank, he would mirror his beauty in your waters.’”

Oscar paused here, and then went on:

“‘If I loved him,’ replied the River, ‘it is because, when he hung over me, I saw the reflection of my own loveliness in his eyes.’”

After lunch I took him aside and tried to warn him, told him that unpleasant stories were being put about against him; but he paid no heed to me.

“All envy, Frank, and malice. What do I care? I go to Clumber this summer; besides I am doing another play which I rather like. I always knew that play-writing was my province. As a youth I tried to write plays in verse; that was my mistake. Now I know better; I’m sure of myself and of success.”

Somehow or other in spite of his apparent assurance I felt he was in danger and I doubted his quality as a fighter. But after all it was not my business: wilful man must have his way.

It seems to me now that my mistrust dated from the second paper war with Whistler, wherein to the astonishment of everyone Oscar did not come off victorious. As soon as he met with opposition his power of repartee seemed to desert him and Whistler, using mere rudeness and man-of-the-world sharpness, held the field. Oscar was evidently not a born fighter.

I asked him once how it was he let Whistler off so lightly. He shrugged his shoulders and showed some irritation.

“What could I say, Frank? Why should I belabour the beaten? The man is a wasp and delights in using his sting. I have done more perhaps than anyone to make him famous. I had no wish to hurt him.”

Was it magnanimity or weakness or, as I think, a constitutional, a feminine shrinking from struggle and strife. Whatever the cause, it was clear that Oscar was what Shakespeare called himself, “an unhurtful opposite.”

It is quite possible that if he had been attacked face to face, Oscar would have given a better account of himself. At Mrs. Grenfell’s (now Lady Desborough) he crossed swords once with the Prime Minister and came off victorious. Mr. Asquith began by bantering him, in appearance lightly, in reality, seriously, for putting many of his sentences in italics.

“The man who uses italics,” said the politician, “is like the man who raises his voice in conversation and talks loudly in order to make himself heard.”

It was the well-known objection which Emerson had taken to Carlyle’s overwrought style, pointed probably by dislike of the way Oscar monopolised conversation.

Oscar met the stereotyped attack with smiling good-humour.

“How delightful of you, Mr. Asquith, to have noticed that! The brilliant phrase, like good wine, needs no bush. But just as the orator marks his good things by a dramatic pause, or by raising or lowering his voice, or by gesture, so the writer marks his epigrams with italics, setting the little gem, so to speak, like a jeweller — an excusable love of one’s art, not all mere vanity, I like to think”— all this with the most pleasant smile and manner.

In measure as I distrusted Oscar’s fighting power and admired his sweetness of nature I took sides with him and wanted to help him. One day I heard some talk at the Pelican Club which filled me with fear for him and quickened my resolve to put him on his guard. I was going in just as Queensberry was coming out with two or three of his special cronies.

“I’ll do it,” I heard him cry, “I’ll teach the fellow to leave my son alone. I’ll not have their names coupled together.”

I caught a glimpse of the thrust-out combative face and the hot grey eyes.

“What’s it all about?” I asked.

“Only Queensberry,” said someone, “swearing he’ll stop Oscar Wilde going about with that son of his, Alfred Douglas.”

Suddenly my fears took form: as in a flash I saw Oscar, heedless and smiling, walking along with his head in the air, and that violent combative insane creature pouncing on him. I sat down at once and wrote begging Oscar to lunch with me the next day alone, as I had something important to say to him. He turned up in Park Lane, manifestly anxious, a little frightened, I think.

“What is it, Frank?”

I told him very seriously what I had heard and gave besides my impression of Queensberry’s character, and his insane pugnacity.

“What can I do, Frank?” said Oscar, showing distress and apprehension. “It’s all Bosie.”

“Who is Bosie?” I asked.

“That is Lord Alfred Douglas’ pet name. It’s all Bosie’s fault. He has quarrelled with his father, or rather his father has quarrelled with him. He quarrels with everyone; with Lady Queensberry, with Percy Douglas, with Bosie, everyone. He’s impossible. What can I do?”

“Avoid him,” I said. “Don’t go about with Lord Alfred Douglas. Give Queensberry his triumph. You could make a friend of him as easily as possible, if you wished. Write him a conciliatory letter.”

“But he’ll want me to drop Bosie, and stop seeing Lady Queensberry, and I like them all; they are charming to me. Why should I cringe to this madman?”

“Because he is a madman.”

“Oh, Frank, I can’t,” he cried. “Bosie wouldn’t let me.”

“‘Wouldn’t let you’? I repeated angrily. “How absurd! That Queensberry man will go to violence, to any extremity. Don’t you fight other people’s quarrels: you may have enough of your own some day.”

“You’re not sympathetic, Frank,” he chided weakly. “I know you mean it kindly, but it’s impossible for me to do as you advise. I cannot give up my friend. I really cannot let Lord Queensberry choose my friends for me. It’s too absurd.”

“But it’s wise,” I replied. “There’s a very bad verse in one of Hugo’s plays. It always amused me — he likens poverty to a low door and declares that when we have to pass through it the man who stoops lowest is the wisest. So when you meet a madman, the wisest thing to do is to avoid him and not quarrel with him.”

“It’s very hard, Frank; of course I’ll think over what you say. But really Queensberry ought to be in a madhouse. He’s too absurd,” and in that spirit he left me, outwardly self-confident. He might have remembered Chaucer’s words:

Beware also to spurne again a nall;

Strive not as doeth a crocke with a wall;

Deme thy selfe that demest others dede,

And trouth thee shall deliver, it is no drede.

10 “The Promise of May” was produced in November, 1882.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30