Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 15

The Queen vs. Wilde: The First Trial

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?”

“Yes, Frank.”

“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 mediæval 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 £2,500 with two other sureties for £1,250 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 Café 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 Café 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 £500 to £1,000. Thereupon Miss S—— sent him a cheque for £1,000, 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.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02