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 tomorrow 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?”
I spoke at leisure, tasting each delight, looking for his gladness.
“Oh, Frank,” he cried, “how wonderful; but how impossible!”
“Impossible! don’t be absurd,” I retorted. “Do you see those lights yonder?” and I showed him some lights at the Park gate on the top of the hill in front of us.
“That’s a brougham,” I said, “with a pair of fast horses. It will take us for a midnight visit to the steam yacht in double-quick time. There’s a little library on board of French books and English; I’ve ordered supper in the cabin — lobster à l’Americaine and a bottle of Pommery. You’ve never seen the mouth of the Thames at night, have you? It’s a scene from wonderland; houses like blobs of indigo fencing you in; ships drifting past like black ghosts in the misty air, and the purple sky above never so dark as the river, the river with its shifting lights of ruby and emerald and topaz, like an oily, opaque serpent gliding with a weird life of its own. . . . Come; you must visit the yacht.”
I turned to him, but he was no longer by my side. I gasped; what had happened? The mist must have hidden him; I ran back ten yards, and there he was leaning against the railing, hung up with his head on his arm shaking.
“What’s the matter, Oscar?” I cried. “What on earth’s the matter?”
“Oh, Frank, I can’t go,” he cried, “I can’t. It would be too wonderful; but it’s impossible. I should be seized by the police. You don’t know the police.”
“Nonsense,” I cried, “the police can’t stop you and not a man of them will see you from start to finish. Besides, I have loose money for any I do meet, and none of them can resist a ‘tip.’ You will simply get out of the brougham and walk fifty yards and you will be on the yacht and free. In fact, if you like you shall not come out of the brougham until the sailors surround you as a guard of honour. On board the yacht no one will touch you. No warrant runs there. Come on, man!”
“Oh, Frank,” he groaned, “it’s impossible!”
“What’s impossible?” I insisted. “Let’s consider everything anew at breakfast tomorrow morning in France. If you want to come back, there’s nothing to prevent you. The yacht will take you back in twenty-four hours. You will not have broken your bail; you’ll have done nothing wrong. You can go to France, Germany or Siberia so long as you come back by the twentieth of May. Take it that I offer you a holiday in France for ten days. Surely it is better to spend a week with me than in that dismal house in Oakley Street, where the very door gives one the creeps.”
“Oh, Frank, I’d love to,” he groaned. “I see everything you say, but I can’t. I dare not. I’m caught, Frank, in a trap, I can only wait for the end.”
I began to get impatient; he was weaker than I had imagined, weaker a hundred times.
“Come for a trip, then, man,” I cried, and I brought him within twenty yards of the carriage; but there he stopped as if he had made up his mind.
“No, no, I can’t come. I could not go about in France feeling that the policeman’s hand might fall on my shoulder at any moment. I could not live a life of fear and doubt: it would kill me in a month.” His tone was decided.
“Why let your imagination run away with you?” I pleaded. “Do be reasonable for once. Fear and doubt would soon be over. If the police don’t get you in France within a week after the date fixed for the trial, you need have no further fear, for they won’t get you at all: they don’t want you. You’re making mountains out of molehills with nervous fancies.”
“I should be arrested.”
“Nonsense,” I replied, “who would arrest you? No one has the right. You are out on bail: your bail answers for you till the 20th. Money talks, man; Englishmen always listen to money. It’ll do you good with the public and the jury to come back from France to stand your trial. Do come,” and I took him by the arm; but he would not move. To my astonishment he faced me and said:
“And my sureties?”
“We’ll pay ’em,” I replied, “both of ’em, if you break your bail. Come,” but he would not.
“Frank, if I were not in Oakley Street to-night Willie would tell the police.”
“Your brother?” I cried.
“Yes,” he said, “Willie.”
“Good God!” I exclaimed; “but let him tell. I have not mentioned Erith or the steam yacht to a soul. It’s the last place in the world the police would suspect and before he talks we shall be out of reach. Besides they cannot do anything; you are doing nothing wrong. Please trust me, you do nothing questionable even till you omit to enter the Old Bailey on the 20th of May.”
“You don’t know Willie,” he continued, “he has made my solicitors buy letters of mine; he has blackmailed me.”
“Whew!” I whistled. “But in that case you’ll have no compunction in leaving him without saying ‘goodbye.’ Let’s go and get into the brougham.”
“No, no,” he repeated, “you don’t understand; I can’t go, I cannot go.”
“Do you mean it really?” I asked. “Do you mean you will not come and spend a week yachting with me?”
I drew him a few paces nearer the carriage: something of desolation and despair in his voice touched me: I looked at him. Tears were pouring down his face; he was the picture of misery, yet I could not move him.
“Come into the carriage,” I said, hoping that the swift wind in his face would freshen him up, give him a moment’s taste of the joy of living and sharpen the desire of freedom.
“Yes, Frank,” he said, “if you will take me to Oakley Street.”
“I would as soon take you to prison,” I replied; “but as you wish.”
The next moment we had got in and were swinging down Queen’s Gate. The mist seemed to lend keenness to the air. At the bottom of Queen’s Gate the coachman swept of himself to the left into the Cromwell Road; Oscar seemed to wake out of his stupor.
“No, Frank,” he cried, “no, no,” and he fumbled at the handle of the door, “I must get out; I will not go. I will not go.”
“Sit still,” I said in despair, “I’ll tell the coachman,” and I put my head out of the window and cried:
“Oakley Street, Oakley Street, Chelsea, Robert.”
I do not think I spoke again till we got to Oakley Street. I was consumed with rage and contemptuous impatience. I had done the best I knew and had failed. Why? I had no idea. I have never known why he refused to come. I don’t think he knew himself. Such resignation I had never dreamt of. It was utterly new to me. I used to think of resignation in a vague way as of something rather beautiful; ever since, I have thought of it with impatience: resignation is the courage of the irresolute. Oscar’s obstinacy was the obverse of his weakness. It is astonishing how inertia rules some natures. The attraction of waiting and doing nothing is intense for those who live in thought and detest action. As we turned into Oakley Street, Oscar said to me:
“You are not angry with me, Frank?” and he put out his hand.
“No, no,” I said, “why should I be angry? You are the master of your fate. I can only offer advice.”
“Do come and see me soon,” he pleaded.
“My bolt is shot,” I replied; “but I’ll come in two or three days’ time, as soon as I have anything of importance to say. . . . Don’t forget, Oscar, the yacht is there and will be there waiting until the 20th; the yacht will always be ready and the brougham.”
“Good night, Frank,” he said, “good night, and thank you.”
He got out and went into the house, the gloomy sordid house where the brother lived who would sell his blood for a price!
Three or four days later we met again, but to my amaze Oscar had not changed his mind. To talk of him as cast down is the precise truth; he seemed to me as one who had fallen from a great height and lay half conscious, stunned on the ground. The moment you moved him, even to raise his head, it gave him pain and he cried out to be left alone. There he lay prone, and no one could help him. It was painful to witness his dumb misery: his mind even, his sunny bright intelligence, seemed to have deserted him.
Once again he came out with me to lunch. Afterwards we drove through Regent’s Park as the quietest way to Hampstead and had a talk. The air and swift motion did him good. The beauty of the view from the heath seemed to revive him. I tried to cheer him up.
“You must know,” I said, “that you can win if you want to. You can not only bring the jury to doubt, but you can make the judge doubt as well. I was convinced of your innocence in spite of all the witnesses, and I knew more about you than they did. In the trial before Mr. Justice Charles, the thing that saved you was that you spoke of the love of David and Jonathan and the sweet affection which the common world is determined not to understand. There is another point against you which you have not touched on yet: Gill asked you what you had in common with those serving-men and stable boys. You have not explained that. You have explained that you love youth, the brightness and the gaiety of it, but you have not explained what seems inexplicable to most men, that you should go about with servants and strappers.”
“Difficult to explain, Frank, isn’t it, without the truth?” Evidently his mind was not working.
“No,” I replied, “easy, simple. Think of Shakespeare. How did he know Dogberry and Pistol, Bardolph and Doll Tearsheet? He must have gone about with them. You don’t go about with public school boys of your own class, for you know them; you have nothing to learn from them: they can teach you nothing. But the stable boy and servant you cannot sketch in your plays without knowing him, and you can’t know him without getting on his level, and letting him call you ‘Oscar’ and calling him ‘Charlie.’ If you rub this in, the judge will see that he is face to face with the artist in you and will admit at least that your explanation is plausible. He will hesitate to condemn you, and once he hesitates you’ll win.
“You fought badly because you did not show your own nature sufficiently; you did not use your brains in the witness box and alas —” I did not continue; the truth was I was filled with fear; for I suddenly realised that he had shown more courage and self-possession in the Queensberry trial than in the trial before Mr. Justice Charles when so much more was at stake; and I felt that in the next trial he would be more depressed still, and less inclined to take the initiative than ever. I had already learned too that I could not help him; that he would not be lifted out of that “sweet way of despair,” which so attracts the artist spirit. But still I would do my best.
“Do you understand?” I asked.
“Of course, Frank, of course, but you have no conception how weary I am of the whole thing, of the shame and the struggling and the hatred. To see those people coming into the box one after the other to witness against me makes me sick. The self-satisfied grin of the barristers, the pompous foolish judge with his thin lips and cunning eyes and hard jaw. Oh, it’s terrible. I feel inclined to stretch out my hands and cry to them, ‘Do what you will with me, in God’s name, only do it quickly; cannot you see that I am worn out? If hatred gives you pleasure, indulge it.’ They worry one, Frank, with ravening jaws, as dogs worry a rabbit. Yet they call themselves men. It is appalling.”
The day was dying, the western sky all draped with crimson, saffron and rosy curtains: a slight mist over London, purple on the horizon, closer, a mere wash of blue; here and there steeples pierced the thin veil like fingers pointing upward. On the left the dome of St. Paul’s hung like a grey bubble over the city; on the right the twin towers of Westminster with the river and bridge which Wordsworth sang. Peace and beauty brooding everywhere, and down there lost in the mist the “rat pit” that men call the Courts of Justice. There they judge their fellows, mistaking indifference for impartiality, as if anyone could judge his fellowman without love, and even with love how far short we all come of that perfect sympathy which is above forgiveness and takes delight in succouring the weak, comforting the broken-hearted.
The days went swiftly by and my powerlessness to influence him filled me with self-contempt. Of course, I said to myself, if I knew him better I should be able to help him. Would vanity do anything? It was his mainspring; I could but try. He might be led by the hope of making Englishmen talk of him again, talk of him as one who had dared to escape; wonder what he would do next. I would try, and I did try. But his dejection foiled me: his dislike of the struggle seemed to grow from day to day.
He would scarcely listen to me. He was counting the days to the trial: willing to accept an adverse decision; even punishment and misery and shame seemed better than doubt and waiting. He surprised me by saying:
“A year, Frank, they may give me a year? half the possible sentence: the middle course, that English Judges always take: the sort of compromise they think safe?” and his eyes searched my face for agreement.
I felt no such confidence in English Judges; their compromises are usually bargainings; when they get hold of an artist they give rein to their intuitive fear and hate.
But I would not discourage him. I repeated:
“You can win, Oscar, if you like:—” my litany to him. His wan dejected smile brought tears to my eyes.
“Don’t you want to make them all speak of you and wonder at you again? If you were in France, everyone would be asking: will he come back or disappear altogether? or will he manifest himself henceforth in some new comedies, more joyous and pagan than ever?”
I might as well have talked to the dead: he seemed numbed, hypnotised with despair. The punishment had already been greater than he could bear. I began to fear that prison, if he were condemned to it, would rob him of his reason; I sometimes feared that his mind was already giving way, so profound was his depression, so hopeless his despair.
The trial opened before Mr. Justice Wills on the 21st of May, 1895. The Treasury had sent Sir Frank Lockwood, Q.C., M.P., to lead Mr. C.F. Gill, Mr. Horace Avory, and Mr. Sutton. Oscar was represented by the same counsel as on the previous occasion.
The whole trial to me was a nightmare, and it was characterised from the very beginning by atrocious prejudice and injustice. The High Priests of Law were weary of being balked; eager to make an end. As soon as the Judge took his seat, Sir Edward Clarke applied that the defendants should be tried separately. As they had already been acquitted on the charge of conspiracy, there was no reason why they should be tried together.
The Judge called on the Solicitor–General to answer the application.
The Solicitor–General had nothing to say, but thought it was in the interests of the defendants to be tried together; for, in case they were tried separately, it would be necessary to take the defendant Taylor first.
Sir Edward Clarke tore this pretext to pieces, and Mr. Justice Wills brought the matter to a conclusion by saying that he was in possession of all the evidence that had been taken at the previous trials, and his opinion was that the two defendants should be tried separately.
Sir Edward Clarke then applied that the case of Mr. Wilde should be taken first as his name stood first on the indictment, and as the first count was directed against him and had nothing to do with Taylor. . . . “There are reasons present, I am sure, too, in your Lordship’s mind, why Wilde should not be tried immediately after the other defendant.”
Mr. Justice Wills remarked, with seeming indifference, “It ought not to make the least difference, Sir Edward. I am sure I and the jury will do our best to take care that the last trial has no influence at all on the present.”
Sir Edward Clarke stuck to his point. He urged respectfully that as Mr. Wilde’s name stood first on the indictment his case should be taken first.
Mr. Justice Wills said he could not interfere with the discretion of the prosecution, nor vary the ordinary procedure. Justice and fair play on the one side and precedent on the other: justice was waved out of court with serene indifference. Thereupon Sir Edward Clarke pressed that the trial of Mr. Oscar Wilde should stand over till the next sessions. But again Mr. Justice Wills refused. Precedent was silent now but prejudice was strong as ever.
The case against Taylor went on the whole day and was resumed next morning. Taylor went into the box and denied all the charges. The Judge summed up dead against him, and at 3.30 the jury retired to consider their verdict: in forty-five minutes they came into court again with a question which was significant. In answer to the judge the foreman stated that “they had agreed that Taylor had introduced Parker to Wilde, but they were not satisfied with Wilde’s guilt in the matter.”
Mr. Justice Wills: “Were you agreed as to the charge on the other counts?”
Foreman: “Yes, my Lord.”
Mr. Justice Wills: “Well, possibly it would be as well to take your verdict upon the other counts.”
Through the foreman the jury accordingly intimated that they found Taylor guilty with regard to Charles and William Parker.
In answer to his Lordship, Sir F. Lockwood said he would take the verdict given by the jury of “guilty” upon the two counts.
A formal verdict having been entered, the judge ordered the prisoner to stand down, postponing sentence. Did he postpone the sentence in order not to frighten the next jury by the severity of it? Other reason I could find none.
Sir Edward Clarke then got up and said that as it was getting rather late, perhaps after the second jury had disagreed as to Mr. Wilde’s guilt —
Sir F. Lockwood here interposed hotly: “I object to Sir Edward Clarke making these little speeches.”
Mr. Justice Wills took the matter up as well.
“You can hardly call it a disagreement, Sir Edward,” though what else he could call it, I was at a loss to imagine.
He then adjourned the case against Oscar Wilde till the next day, when a different jury would be impanelled. But whatever jury might be called they would certainly hear that their forerunners had found Taylor guilty and they would know that every London paper without exception had approved the finding. What a fair chance to give Wilde! It was like trying an Irish Secretary before a jury of Fenians.
The next morning, May 23d, Oscar Wilde appeared in the dock. The Solicitor–General opened the case, and then called his witnesses. One of the first was Edward Shelley, who in cross-examination admitted that he had been mentally ill when he wrote Mr. Wilde those letters which had been put in evidence. He was “made nervous from over-study,” he said.
Alfred Wood admitted that he had had money given him quite recently, practically blackmailing money. He was as venomous as possible. “When he went to America,” he said, “he told Wilde that he wanted to get away from mixing with him (Wilde) and Douglas.”
Charlie Parker next repeated his disgusting testimony with ineffable impudence and a certain exultation. Bestial ignominy could go no lower; he admitted that since the former trial he had been kept at the expense of the prosecution. After this confession the case was adjourned and we came out of court.
When I reached Fleet Street I was astonished to hear that there had been a row that same afternoon in Piccadilly between Lord Douglas of Hawick and his father, the Marquis of Queensberry. Lord Queensberry, it appears, had been writing disgusting letters about the Wilde case to Lord Douglas’s wife. Meeting him in Piccadilly Percy Douglas stopped him and asked him to cease writing obscene letters to his wife. The Marquis said he would not and the father and son came to blows. Queensberry it seems was exasperated by the fact that Douglas of Hawick was one of those who had gone bail for Oscar Wilde. One of the telegrams which the Marquis of Queensberry had sent to Lady Douglas I must put in just to show the insane nature of the man who could exult in a trial which was damning the reputation of his own son. The letter was manifestly written after the result of the Taylor trial:
Must congratulate on verdict, cannot on Percy’s appearance. Looks like a dug up corpse. Fear too much madness of kissing. Taylor guilty. Wilde’s turn tomorrow.
In examination before the magistrate, Mr. Hannay, it was stated that Lord Queensberry had been sending similar letters to Lady Douglas “full of the most disgusting charges against Lord Douglas, his wife, and Lord Queensberry’s divorced wife and her family.” But Mr. Hannay thought all this provocation was of no importance and bound over both father and son to keep the peace — an indefensible decision, a decision only to be explained by the sympathy everywhere shown to Queensberry because of his victory over Wilde, otherwise surely any honest magistrate would have condemned the father who sent obscene letters to his son’s wife — a lady above reproach. These vile letters and the magistrate’s bias, seemed to me to add the final touch of the grotesque to the horrible vileness of the trial. It was all worthy of the seventh circle of Dante, but Dante had never imagined such a father and such judges!
Next morning Oscar Wilde was again put in the dock. The evidence of the Queensberry trial was read and therewith the case was closed for the Crown.
Sir Edward Clarke rose and submitted that there was no case to go to the jury on the general counts. After a long legal argument for and against, Mr. Justice Wills said that he would reserve the question for the Court of Appeal. The view he took was that “the evidence was of the slenderest kind”; but he thought the responsibility must be left with the jury. To this judge “the slenderest kind” of evidence was worthful so long as it told against the accused.
Sir Edward Clarke then argued that the cases of Shelley, Parker and Wood failed on the ground of the absence of corroboration. Mr. Justice Wills admitted that Shelley showed “a peculiar exaltation” of mind; there was, too, mental derangement in his family, and worst of all there was no corroboration of his statements. Accordingly, in spite of the arguments of the Solicitor–General, Shelley’s evidence was cut out. But Shelley’s evidence had already been taken, had already prejudiced the jury. Indeed, it had been the evidence which had influenced Mr. Justice Charles in the previous trial to sum up dead against the defendant: Mr. Justice Charles called Shelley “the only serious witness.”
Now it appeared that Shelley’s evidence should never have been taken at all, that the jury ought never to have heard Shelley’s testimony or the Judge’s acceptance of it!
When the court opened next morning I knew that the whole case depended on Oscar Wilde, and the showing he would make in the box, but alas! he was broken and numbed. He was not a fighter, and the length of this contest might have wearied a combative nature. The Solicitor–General began by examining him on his letters to Lord Alfred Douglas and we had the “prose poem” again and the rest of the ineffable nonsensical prejudice of the middle-class mind against passionate sentiment. It came out in evidence that Lord Alfred Douglas was now in Calais. His hatred of his father was the causa causans of the whole case; he had pushed Oscar into the fight and Oscar, still intent on shielding him, declared that he had asked him to go abroad.
Sir Edward Clarke again did his poor best. He pointed out that the trial rested on the evidence of mere blackmailers. He would not quarrel with that and discuss it, but it was impossible not to see that if blackmailers were to be listened to and believed, their profession might speedily become a more deadly mischief and danger to society than it had ever been.
The speech was a weak one; but the people in court cheered Sir Edward Clarke; the cheers were immediately suppressed by the Judge.
The Solicitor–General took up the rest of the day with a rancorous reply. Sir Edward Clarke even had to remind him that law officers of the Crown should try to be impartial. One instance of his prejudice may be given. Examining Oscar as to his letters to Lord Alfred Douglas, Sir Frank Lockwood wanted to know whether he thought them “decent”?
The witness replied, “Yes.”
“Do you know the meaning of the word, sir?” was this gentleman’s retort.
I went out of the court feeling certain that the case was lost. Oscar had not shown himself at all; he had not even spoken with the vigour he had used at the Queensberry trial. He seemed too despairing to strike a blow.
The summing up of the Judge on May 25th was perversely stupid and malevolent. He began by declaring that he was “absolutely impartial,” though his view of the facts had to be corrected again and again by Sir Edward Clarke: he went on to regret that the charge of conspiracy should have been introduced, as it had to be abandoned. He then pointed out that he could not give a colourless summing up, which was “of no use to anybody.” His intelligence can be judged from one crucial point: he fastened on the fact that Oscar had burnt the letters which he bought from Wood, which he said were of no importance, except that they concerned third parties. The Judge had persuaded himself that the letters were indescribably bad, forgetting apparently that Wood or his associates had selected and retained the very worst of them for purposes of blackmail and that this Judge himself, after reading it, couldn’t attribute any weight to it; still he insisted that burning the letters was an act of madness; whereas it seemed to everyone of the slightest imagination the most natural thing in the world for an innocent man to do. At the time Oscar burnt the letters he had no idea that he would ever be on trial. His letters had been misunderstood and the worst of them was being used against him, and when he got the others he naturally threw them into the fire. The Judge held that it was madness, and built upon this inference a pyramid of guilt. “Nothing said by Wood should be believed, as he belongs to the vilest class of criminals; the strength of the accusation depends solely upon the character of the original introduction of Wood to Wilde as illustrated and fortified by the story with regard to the letters and their burning.”
A pyramid of guilt carefully balanced on its apex! If the foolish Judge had only read his Shakespeare! What does Henry VI say:
Proceed no straiter ‘gainst our uncle Gloucester
Than from true evidence of good esteem
He be approved in practice culpable.
There was no “true evidence of good esteem” against Wilde, but the Judge turned a harmless action into a confession of guilt.
Then came an interruption which threw light on the English conception of justice. The foreman of the jury wanted to know, in view of the intimate relations between Lord Alfred Douglas and the defendant, whether a warrant against Lord Alfred Douglas was ever issued.
Mr. Justice Wills: “I should say not; we have never heard of it.”
Foreman: “Or ever contemplated?”
Mr. Justice Wills: “That I cannot say, nor can we discuss it. The issue of such a warrant would not depend upon the testimony of the parties, but whether there was evidence of such act. Letters pointing to such relations would not be sufficient. Lord Alfred Douglas was not called, and you can give what weight you like to that.”
Foreman: “If we are to deduce any guilt from these letters, it would apply equally to Lord Alfred Douglas.”
Mr. Justice Wills concurred in that view, but after all he thought it had nothing to do with the present trial, which was the guilt of the accused.
The jury retired to consider their verdict at half past three. After being absent two hours they returned to know whether there was any evidence of Charles Parker having slept at St. James’s Place.
His Lordship replied, “No.”
The jury shortly afterwards returned again with the verdict of “Guilty” on all the counts.
It may be worth while to note again that the Judge himself admitted that the evidence on some of the counts was of “the slenderest kind”; but, when backed by his prejudiced summing up, it was more than sufficient for the jury.
Sir Edward Clarke pleaded that sentence should be postponed till the next sessions, when the legal argument would be heard.
Mr. Justice Wills would not be balked: sentence, he thought, should be given immediately. Then, addressing the prisoners, he said, and again I give his exact words, lest I should do him wrong:
“Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor, the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put stern restraint upon one’s self to prevent one’s self from describing in language which I would rather not use the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honour who has heard the details of these two terrible trials.
“That the jury have arrived at a correct verdict in this case I cannot persuade myself to entertain the shadow of a doubt; and I hope, at all events, that those who sometimes imagine that a Judge is half-hearted in the cause of decency and morality because he takes care no prejudice shall enter into the case may see that that is consistent at least with the utmost sense of indignation at the horrible charges brought home to both of you.
“It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worst case I have ever tried. . . . That you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men it is impossible to doubt.
“I shall under such circumstances be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this.
“The sentence of the court is that each of you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.”
The sentence hushed the court in shocked surprise.
Wilde rose and cried, “Can I say anything, my lord?”
Mr. Justice Wills waved his hand deprecatingly amid cries of “Shame” and hisses from the public gallery; some of the cries and hisses were certainly addressed to the Judge and well deserved. What did he mean by saying that Oscar was a “centre of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind”? No evidence of this had been brought forward by the prosecution. It was not even alleged that a single innocent person had been corrupted. The accusation was invented by this “absolutely impartial” Judge to justify his atrocious cruelty. The unmerited insults and appalling sentence would have disgraced the worst Judge of the Inquisition.
Mr. Justice Wills evidently suffered from the peculiar “exaltation” of mind which he had recognised in Shelley. This peculiarity is shared in a lesser degree by several other Judges on the English bench in all matters of sexual morality. What distinguished Mr. Justice Wills was that he was proud of his prejudice and eager to act on it. He evidently did not know, or did not care, that the sentence which he had given, declaring it was “totally inadequate,” had been condemned by a Royal Commission as “inhuman.” He would willingly have pushed “inhumanity” to savagery, out of sheer bewigged stupidity, and that he was probably well-meaning only intensified the revolt one felt at such brainless malevolence.
The bitterest words in Dante are not bitter enough to render my feeling:
“Non ragioniam di lor ma guarda e passa.”
The whole scene had sickened me. Hatred masquerading as justice, striking vindictively and adding insult to injury. The vile picture had its fit setting outside. We had not left the court when the cheering broke out in the streets, and when we came outside there were troops of the lowest women of the town dancing together and kicking up their legs in hideous abandonment, while the surrounding crowd of policemen and spectators guffawed with delight. As I turned away from the exhibition, as obscene and soul-defiling as anything witnessed in the madness of the French revolution, I caught a glimpse of Wood and the Parkers getting into a cab, laughing and leering.
These were the venal creatures Oscar Wilde was punished for having corrupted!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15