Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 22

“A Great Romantic Passion!”

“A GREAT ROMANTIC PASSION”

There is no more difficult problem for the writer, no harder task than to decide how far he should allow himself to go in picturing human weakness. We have all come from the animal and can all without any assistance from books imagine easily enough the effects of unrestrained self-indulgence. Yet it is instructive and pregnant with warning to remark that, as soon as the sheet anchor of high resolve is gone, the frailties of man tend to become master-vices. All our civilisation is artificially built up by effort; all high humanity is the reward of constant striving against natural desires.

In the fall of this year, 1898, I sold The Saturday Review to Lord Hardwicke and his friends, and as soon as the purchase was completed, I think in November, I wired to Oscar that I should be in Paris in a short time, and ready to take him to the South for his holiday. I sent him some money to pave the way.

A few days later I crossed and wired to him from Calais to dine with me at Durand’s, and to begin dinner if I happened to be late.

While waiting for dinner, I said:

“I want to stay two or three days in Paris to see some pictures. Would you be ready to start South on Thursday next?” It was then Monday, I think.

“On Thursday?” he repeated. “Yes, Frank, I think so.”

“There is some money for anything you may want to buy,” I said and handed him a cheque I had made payable to self and signed, for he knew where he could cash it.

“How good of you, Frank, I cannot thank you enough. You start on Thursday,” he added, as if considering it.

“If you would rather wait a little,” I said, “say so: I’m quite willing.”

“No, Frank, I think Thursday will do. We are really going to the South for the whole winter. How wonderful; how gorgeous it will be.”

We had a great dinner and talked and talked. He spoke of some of the new Frenchmen, and at great length of Pierre Louÿs, whom he described as a disciple:

“It was I, Frank, who induced him to write his ‘Aphrodite’ in prose.” He spoke, too, of the Grand Guignol Theatre.

“Le Grand Guignol is the first theatre in Paris. It looks like a nonconformist chapel, a barn of a room with a gallery at the back and a little wooden stage. There you see the primitive tragedies of real life. They are as ugly and as fascinating as life itself. You must see it and we will go to Antoine’s as well: you must see Antoine’s new piece; he is doing great work.”

We kept dinner up to an unconscionable hour. I had much to tell of London and much to hear of Paris, and we talked and drank coffee till one o’clock, and when I proposed supper Oscar accepted the idea with enthusiasm.

“I have often lunched with you from two o’clock till nine, Frank, and now I am going to dine with you from nine o’clock till breakfast tomorrow morning.”

“What shall we drink?” I asked.

“The same champagne, Frank, don’t you think?” he said, pulling his jowl; “there is no wine so inspiring as that dry champagne with the exquisite bouquet. You were the first to say my plays were the champagne of literature.”

When we came out it was three o’clock and I was tired and sleepy with my journey, and Oscar had drunk perhaps more than was good for him. Knowing how he hated walking I got a voiture de cercle and told him to take it, and I would walk to my hotel. He thanked me and seemed to hesitate.

“What is it now?” I asked, wanting to get to bed.

“Just a word with you,” he said, and drew me away from the carriage where the chasseur was waiting with the rug. When he got me three or four paces away he said, hesitatingly:

“Frank, could you . . . can you let me have a few pounds? I’m very hard up.”

I stared at him; I had given him a cheque at the beginning of the dinner: had he forgotten? Or did he perchance want to keep the hundred pounds intact for some reason? Suddenly it occurred to me that he might be without even enough for the carriage. I took out a hundred franc note and gave it to him.

“Thank you, so much,” he said, thrusting it into his waistcoat pocket, “it’s very kind of you.”

“You will turn up tomorrow at lunch at one?” I said, as I put him into the little brougham.

“Yes, of course, yes,” he cried, and I turned away.

Next day at lunch he seemed to meet me with some embarrassment:

“Frank, I want to ask you something. I’m really confused about last night; we dined most wisely, if too well. This morning I found you had given me a cheque, and I found besides in my waistcoat pocket a note for a hundred francs. Did I ask you for it at the end? ‘Tap’ you, the French call it,” he added, trying to laugh.

I nodded.

“How dreadful!” he cried. “How dreadful poverty is! I had forgotten that you had given me a cheque, and I was so hard up, so afraid you might go away without giving me anything, that I asked you for it. Isn’t poverty dreadful?”

I nodded; I could not say a word: the fact told so much.

The chastened mood of self-condemnation did not last long with him or go deep; soon he was talking as merrily and gaily as ever.

Before parting I said to him:

“You won’t forget that you are going on Thursday night?”

“Oh, really!” he cried, to my surprise, “Thursday is very near; I don’t know whether I shall be able to come.”

“What on earth do you mean?” I asked.

“The truth is, you know, I have debts to pay, and I have not enough.”

“But I will give you more,” I cried, “what will clear you?”

“Fifty more I think will do. How good you are!”

“I will bring it with me tomorrow morning.”

“In notes please, will you? French money. I find I shall want it to pay some little things at once, and the time is short.”

I thought nothing of the matter. The next day at lunch I gave him the money in French notes. That night I said to him:

“You know we are going away tomorrow evening: I hope you’ll be ready? I have got the tickets for the Train de Luxe.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” he cried, “I can’t be ready.”

“What is it now?” I asked.

“Well, it’s money. Some more debts have come in.”

“Why will you not be frank with me, and tell me what you owe? I will give you a cheque for it. I don’t want to drag it out of you bit by bit. Tell me a sum that will make you free, and I will give it to you. I want you to have a perfect six months, and how can you if you are bothered with debts?”

“How kind you are to me! Do you really mean it?”

“Of course I do.”

“Really?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, “tell me what it is.”

“I think, I believe . . . would another fifty be too much?”

“I will give it you tomorrow. Are you sure that will be enough?”

“Oh, yes, Frank; but let’s go on Sunday. Sunday is such a good day for travelling, and it’s always so dull everywhere, we might just as well spend it on the train. Besides, no one travels on Sunday in France, so we are sure to be able to take our ease in our train. Won’t Sunday do, Frank?”

“Of course it will,” I replied laughing; but a day or two later he was again embarrassed, and again told me it was money, and then he confessed to me that he was afraid at first I should not have paid all his debts, if I had known how much they were, and so he thought by telling me of them little by little, he would make sure at least of something. This pitiful, pitiable confession depressed me on his account. It showed practice in such petty tricks and all too little pride. Of course it did not alter my admiration of his qualities; nor weaken in any degree my resolve to give him a fair chance. If he could be saved, I was determined to save him.

We met at the Gare de Lyons on Sunday evening. I found he had dined at the buffet: there was a surprising number of empty bottles on the table; he seemed terribly depressed.

“Someone was dining with me, Frank, a friend,” he offered by way of explanation.

“Why did he not wait? I should like to have seen him.”

“Oh, he was no one you would have cared about, Frank,” he replied.

I sat with him and took a cup of coffee, whilst waiting for the train. He was wretchedly gloomy; scarcely spoke indeed; I could not make it out. From time to time he sighed heavily, and I noticed that his eyes were red, as if he had been crying.

“What is the matter?” I asked.

“I will tell you later, perhaps. It is very hard; parting is like dying,” and his eyes filled with tears.

We were soon in the train running out into the night. I was as light-hearted as could be. At length I was free of journalism, I thought, and I was going to the South to write my Shakespeare book, and Oscar would work, too, when the conditions were pleasant. But I could not win a single smile from him; he sat downcast, sighing hopelessly from time to time.

“What on earth’s the matter?” I cried. “Here you are going to the sunshine, to blue skies, and the wine-tinted Mediterranean, and you’re not content. We shall stop in a hotel near a little sun-baked valley running down to the sea. You walk from the hotel over a carpet of pine needles, and when you get into the open, violets and anemones bloom about your feet, and the scent of rosemary and myrtle will be in your nostrils; yet instead of singing for joy the bird droops his feathers and hangs his head as if he had the ‘pip.’”

“Oh, don’t,” he cried, “don’t,” and he looked at me with tears filling his eyes; “you don’t know, Frank, what a great romantic passion is.”

“Is that what you are suffering from?”

“Yes, a great romantic passion.”

“Good God!” I laughed; “who has inspired this new devotion?”

“Don’t make fun of me, Frank, or I will not tell you; but if you will listen I will try to tell you all about it, for I think you should know, besides, I think telling it may ease my pain, so come into the cabin and listen.

“Do you remember once in the summer you wired me from Calais to meet you at Maire’s restaurant, meaning to go afterwards to Antoine’s Theatre, and I was very late? You remember, the evening Rostand was dining at the next table. Well, it was that evening. I drove up to Maire’s in time, and I was just getting out of the victoria when a little soldier passed, and our eyes met. My heart stood still; he had great dark eyes and an exquisite olive-dark face — a Florentine bronze, Frank, by a great master. He looked like Napoleon when he was first Consul, only — less imperious, more beautiful. . . .

“I got out hypnotised, and followed him down the Boulevard as in a dream; the cocher came running after me, I remember, and I gave him a five franc piece, and waved him off; I had no idea what I owed him; I did not want to hear his voice; it might break the spell; mutely I followed my fate. I overtook the boy in a short time and asked him to come and have a drink, and he said to me in his quaint French way:

“‘Ce n’est pas de refus!’ (Too good to refuse.)

“We went into a café, and I ordered something, I forget what, and we began to talk. I told him I liked his face; I had had a friend once like him; and I wanted to know all about him. I was in a hurry to meet you, but I had to make friends with him first. He began by telling me all about his mother, Frank, yes, his mother.” Oscar smiled here in spite of himself.

“But at last I got from him that he was always free on Thursdays, and he would be very glad to see me then, though he did not know what I could see in him to like. I found out that the thing he desired most in the world was a bicycle; he talked of nickel-plated handle bars, and chains — and finally I told him it might be arranged. He was very grateful and so we made a rendezvous for the next Thursday, and I came on at once to dine with you.”

“Goodness!” I cried laughing. “A soldier, a nickel-plated bicycle and a great romantic passion!”

“If I had said a brooch, or a necklace, some trinket which would have cost ten times as much, you would have found it quite natural.”

“Yes,” I admitted, “but I don’t think I’d have introduced the necklace the first evening if there had been any romance in the affair, and the nickel-plated bicycle to me seems irresistibly comic.”

“Frank,” he cried reprovingly, “I cannot talk to you if you laugh; I am quite serious. I don’t believe you know what a great romantic passion is; I am going to convince you that you don’t know the meaning of it.”

“Fire away,” I replied, “I am here to be convinced. But I don’t think you will teach me that there is any romance except where there is another sex.”

“Don’t talk to me of the other sex,” he cried with distaste in voice and manner. “First of all in beauty there is no comparison between a boy and a girl. Think of the enormous, fat hips which every sculptor has to tone down, and make lighter, and the great udder breasts which the artist has to make small and round and firm, and then picture the exquisite slim lines of a boy’s figure. No one who loves beauty can hesitate for a moment. The Greeks knew that; they had the sense of plastic beauty, and they understood that there is no comparison.”

“You must not say that,” I replied; “you are going too far; the Venus of Milo is as fine as any Apollo, in sheer beauty; the flowing curves appeal to me more than your weedy lines.”

“Perhaps they do, Frank,” he retorted, “but you must see that the boy is far more beautiful. It is your sex-instinct, your sinful sex-instinct which prevents you worshipping the higher form of beauty. Height and length of limb give distinction; slightness gives grace; women are squat! You must admit that the boy’s figure is more beautiful; the appeal it makes far higher, more spiritual.”

“Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other,” I barked. “Your sculptor knows it is just as hard to find an ideal boy’s figure as an ideal girl’s; and if he has to modify the most perfect girl’s figure, he has to modify the most perfect boy’s figure as well. If he refines the girl’s breasts and hips he has to pad the boy’s ribs and tone down the great staring knee-bones and the unlovely large ankles; but please go on, I enjoy your special pleading and your romantic passion interests me; though you have not yet come to the romance, let alone the passion.”

“Oh, Frank,” he cried, “the story is full of romance; every meeting was an event in my life. You have no idea how intelligent he is; every evening we spent together he was different; he had grown, developed. I lent him books and he read them, and his mind opened from week to week like a flower, till in a short time, a few months, he became an exquisite companion and disciple. Frank, no girl grows like that; they have no minds, and what intelligence they have is all given to wretched vanities, and personal jealousies. There is no intellectual companionship possible with them. They want to talk of dress, and not of ideas, and how persons look and not of what they are. How can you have the flower of romance without a brotherhood of soul?”

“Sisterhood of soul seems to me infinitely finer,” I said, “but go on.”

“I shall convince you,” he declared; “I must be able to, because all reason is on my side. Let me give you one instance. Of course my boy had his bicycle; he used to come to me on it and go to and fro from the barracks on it. When you came to Paris in September, you invited me to dine one night, one Thursday night, when he was to come to me. I told him I had to go and dine with you. He didn’t mind; but was glad when I said I had an English editor for a friend, glad that I should have someone to talk to about London and the people I used to know. If it had been a woman I loved, I should have been forced to tell lies: she would have been jealous of my past. I told him the truth, and when I spoke about you he grew interested and excited, and at last he put a wish before me. He wanted to know if he might come and leave his bicycle outside and look through the window of the restaurant, just to see us at dinner. I told him there might possibly be women-guests. He replied that he would be delighted to see me in dress-clothes talking to gentlemen and ladies.

“Might he come?” he persisted.

“Of course I said he could come, and he came, but I never saw him.

“The next time we met he told me all about it; how he had picked you out from my description of you, and how he knew Baüer from his likeness to Dumas père, and he was delightful about it all.

“Now, Frank, would any girl have come to see you enjoying yourself with other people? Would any girl have stared through the window and been glad to see you inside amusing yourself with other men and women? You know there’s not a girl on earth with such unselfish devotion. There is no comparison, I tell you, between the boy and the girl; I say again deliberately, you don’t know what a great romantic passion is or the high unselfishness of true love.”

“You have put it with extraordinary ability,” I said, “as of course I knew you would. I think I can understand the charm of such companionship; but only from the young boy’s point of view, not from yours. I can understand how you have opened to him a new heaven and a new earth, but what has he given you? Nothing. On the other hand any finely gifted girl would have given you something. If you had really touched her heart, you would have found in her some instinctive tenderness, some proof of unselfish, exquisite devotion that would have made your eyes prickle with a sense of inferiority.

“After all, the essence of love, the finest spirit of that companionship you speak about, of the sisterhood of soul, is that the other person should quicken you, too; open to you new horizons, discover new possibilities; and how could your soldier boy help you in any way? He brought you no new ideas, no new feelings, could reveal no new thoughts to you. I can see no romance, no growth of soul in such a connection. But the girl is different from the man in all ways. You have as much to learn from her as she has from you, and neither of you can come to ideal growth in any other way: you are both half-parts of humanity — complements, and in need of each other.”

“You have put it very cunningly, Frank, as I expected you would, to return your compliment, but you must admit that with the boy, at any rate, you have no jealousy, no mean envyings, no silly inanities. There it is, Frank, some of us hate ‘cats.’ I can give reasons for my dislike, which to me are conclusive.”

“The boy who would beg for a bicycle is not likely to be without mean envyings,” I replied. “Now you have talked about romance and companionship,” I went on, “but can you really feel passion?”

“Frank, what a silly question! Do you remember how Socrates says he felt when the chlamys blew aside and showed him the limbs of Charmides? Don’t you remember how the blood throbbed in his veins and how he grew blind with desire, a scene more magical than the passionate love-lines of Sappho?

“There is no other passion to be compared with it. A woman’s passion is degrading. She is continually tempting you. She wants your desire as a satisfaction for her vanity more than anything else, and her vanity is insatiable if her desire is weak, and so she continually tempts you to excess, and then blames you for the physical satiety and disgust which she herself has created. With a boy there is no vanity in the matter, no jealousy, and therefore none of the tempting, not a tenth part of the coarseness; and consequently desire is always fresh and keen. Oh, Frank, believe me, you don’t know what a great romantic passion is.”

“What you say only shows how little you know women,” I replied. “If you explained all this to the girl who loves you, she would see it at once, and her tenderness would grow with her self-abnegation; we all grow by giving. If the woman cares more than the man for caresses and kindness, it is because she feels more tenderness, and is capable of intenser devotion.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about, Frank,” he retorted. “You repeat the old accepted commonplaces. The boy came to the station with me to-night. He knew I was going away for six months. His heart was like lead, tears gathered in his eyes again and again in spite of himself, and yet he tried to be gay and bright for my sake; he wanted to show me how glad he was that I should be happy, how thankful he was for all I had done for him, and the new mental life I had created in him. He did his best to keep my courage up. I cried, but he shook his tears away. ‘Six months will soon be over,’ he said, ‘and perhaps you will come back to me, and I shall be glad again.’ Meantime he will write charming letters to me, I’m sure.

“Would any girl take a parting like that? No; she would be jealous and envious, and wonder why you were enjoying yourself in the South while she was condemned to live in the rainy, cold North. Would she ask you to tell her of all the beautiful girls you met, and whether they were charming and bright, as the boy asked me to tell him of all the interesting people I should meet, so that he, too, might take an interest in them? A girl in his place would have been ill with envy and malice and jealousy. Again I repeat, you don’t know what a high romantic passion is.”

“Your argument is illogical,” I cried, “if the girl is jealous, it is because she has given herself more completely: her exclusiveness is the other side of her devotion and tenderness; she wants to do everything for you, to be with you and help you in every way, and in case of illness or poverty or danger, you would find how much more she had to give than your red-breeched soldier.”

“That’s merely a rude gibe and not an argument, Frank.”

“As good an argument as your ‘cats,’” I replied; “your little soldier boy with his nickel-plated bicycle only makes me grin,” and I grinned.

“You are unpardonable,” he cried, “unpardonable, and in your soul you know that all the weight of argument is on my side. In your soul you must know it. What is the food of passion, Frank, but beauty, beauty alone, beauty always, and in beauty of form and vigour of life there is no comparison. If you loved beauty as intensely as I do, you would feel as I feel. It is beauty which gives me joy, makes me drunk as with wine, blind with insatiable desire. . . . ”

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