Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 25

The Last Hope Lost

“The Gods are just and of our pleasant vices

Make instruments to plague us.”

It was full summer before I met Oscar again; he had come back to Paris and taken up his old quarters in the mean little hotel in the Rue des Beaux Arts. He lunched and dined with me as usual. His talk was as humorous and charming as ever, and he was just as engaging a companion. For the first time, however, he complained of his health:

“I ate some mussels and oysters in Italy, and they must have poisoned me; for I have come out in great red blotches all over my arms and chest and back, and I don’t feel well.”

“Have you consulted a doctor?”

“Oh, yes, but doctors are no good: they all advise you differently; the best of it is they all listen to you with an air of intense interest when you are talking about yourself — which is an excellent tonic.”

“They sometimes tell one what’s the matter; give a name and significance to the unknown,” I interjected.

“They bore me by forbidding me to smoke and drink. They are worse than M— — who grudged me his wine.”

“What do you mean?” I asked in wonder.

“A tragi-comic history, Frank. You were so right about M—— and I was mistaken in him. You know he wanted me to stay with him at Gland in Switzerland, begged me to come, said he would do everything for me. When the weather got warm at Genoa I went to him. At first he seemed very glad to see me and made me welcome. The food was not very good, the drink anything but good, still I could not complain, and I put up with the discomforts. But in a week or two the wine disappeared, and beer took its place, and I suggested I must be going. He begged me so cordially not to go that I stayed on; but in a little while I noticed that the beer got less and less in quantity, and one day when I ventured to ask for a second bottle at lunch he told me that it cost a great deal and that he could not afford it. Of course I made some decent pretext and left his house as soon as possible. If one has to suffer poverty, one had best suffer alone. But to get discomforts grudgingly and as a charity is the extremity of shame. I prefer to look on it from the other side; M—— grudging me his small beer belongs to farce.”

He spoke with bitterness and contempt, as he used never to speak of anyone.

I could not help sympathising with him, though visibly the cloth was wearing threadbare. He asked me now at once for money, and a little later again and again. Formerly he had invented pretexts; he had not received his allowance when he expected it, or he was bothered by a bill and so forth; but now he simply begged and begged, railing the while at fortune. It was distressing. He wanted money constantly, and spent it as always like water, without a thought.

I asked him one day whether he had seen much of his soldier boy since he had returned to Paris.

“I have seen him, Frank, but not often,” and he laughed gaily. “It’s a farce-comedy; sentiment always begins romantically and ends in laughter — tabulae solvuntur risu. I taught him so much, Frank, that he was made a corporal and forthwith a nursemaid fell in love with his stripes. He’s devoted to her: I suppose he likes to play teacher in his turn.”

“And so the great romantic passion comes to this tame conclusion?”

“What would you, Frank? Whatever begins must also end.”

“Is there anyone else?” I asked, “or have you learned reason at last?”

“Of course there’s always someone else, Frank: change is the essence of passion: the reason you talk of is merely another name for impotence.”

“Montaigne declares,” I said, “that love belongs to early youth, ‘the next period after infancy,’ is his phrase, but that is at the best a Frenchman’s view of it. Sophocles was nearer the truth when he called himself happy in that age had freed him from the whip of passion. When are you going to reach that serenity?”

“Never, Frank, never, I hope: life without desire would not be worth living to me. As one gets older one is more difficult to please: but the sting of pleasure is even keener than in youth and far more egotistic.

“One comes to understand the Marquis de Sade and that strange, scarlet story of de Retz — the pleasure they got from inflicting pain, the curious, intense underworld of cruelty —”

“That’s unlike you, Oscar,” I broke in. “I thought you shrank from giving pain always: to me it’s the unforgivable sin.”

“To me, also,” he rejoined instantly, “intellectually one may understand it; but in reality it’s horrible. I want my pleasure unembittered by any drop of pain. That reminds me: I read a terrible, little book the other day, Octave Mirbeau’s ‘Le Jardin des Supplices’; it is quite awful, a sadique joy in pain pulses through it; but for all that it’s wonderful. His soul seems to have wandered in fearsome places. You with your contempt of fear, will face the book with courage — I—”

“I simply couldn’t read it,” I replied; “it was revolting to me, impossible —”

“A sort of grey adder,” he summed up and I nodded in complete agreement.

I passed the next winter on the Riviera. A speculation which I had gone in for there had caused me heavy loss and much anxiety. In the spring I returned to Paris, and of course, asked him to meet me. He was much brighter than he had been for a long time. Lord Alfred Douglas, it appeared, had come in for a large legacy from his father’s estate and had given him some money, and he was much more cheerful. We had a great lunch at Durand’s and he was at his very best. I asked him about his health.

“I’m all right, Frank, but the rash continually comes back, a ghostly visitant, Frank: I’m afraid the doctors are in league with the devil. It generally returns after a good dinner, a sort of aftermath of champagne. The doctors say I must not drink champagne, and must stop smoking, the silly people, who regard pleasure as their natural enemies; whereas it is our pleasures which provide them with a living!”

He looked fairly well, I thought; he was a little fatter, his skin a little dingier than of old, and he had grown very deaf, but in every other way he seemed at his best, though he was certainly drinking too freely — spirits between times as well as wine at meals.

I had heard on the Riviera during the winter that Smithers had tried to buy a play from him, so one day I brought up the subject.

“By the way, Smithers says that you have been working on your play; you know the one I mean, the one with the great screen scene in it.”

“Oh, yes, Frank,” he remarked indifferently.

“Won’t you tell me what you’ve done?” I asked. “Have you written any of it?”

“No, Frank,” he replied casually, “it’s the scenario Smithers talked about.”

A little while afterwards he asked me for money. I told him I could not afford any at the moment, and pressed him to write his play.

“I shall never write again, Frank,” he said. “I can’t, I simply can’t face my thoughts. Don’t ask me!” Then suddenly: “Why don’t you buy the scenario and write the play yourself?”

“I don’t care for the stage,” I replied; “it’s a sort of rude encaustic work I don’t like; its effects are theatrical!”

“A play pays far better than a book, you know —”

But I was not interested. That evening thinking over what he had said, I realised all at once that a story I had in mind to write would suit “the screen scene” of Oscar’s scenario; why shouldn’t I write a play instead of a story? When we met next day I broached the idea to Oscar:

“I have a story in my head,” I said, “which would fit into that scenario of yours, so far as you have sketched it to me. I could write it as a play and do the second, third and fourth acts very quickly, as all the personages are alive to me. Could you do the first act?”

“Of course I could, Frank.”

“But,” I said, “will you?”

“What would be the good, you could not sell it, Frank.”

“In any case,” I went on, “I could try; but I would infinitely prefer you to write the whole play if you would; then it would sell fast enough.”

“Oh, Frank, don’t ask me.”

The idea of the collaboration was a mistake; but it seemed to me at the moment the best way to get him to do something. Suddenly he asked me to give him £50 for the scenario at once, then I could do what I liked with it.

After a good deal of talk I consented to give him the £50 if he would promise to write the first act; he promised and I gave him the money.48

A little later I noticed a certain tension in his relations with Lord Alfred Douglas. One day he told me frankly that Lord Alfred Douglas had come into a fortune of £15,000 or £20,000, “and,” he added, “of course he’s always able to get money. He’ll marry an American millionairess or some rich widow” (Oscar’s ideas of life were nearly all conventional, derived from novels and plays); “and I wanted him to give me enough to make my life comfortable, to settle enough on me to make a decent life possible to me. It would only have cost him two or three thousand pounds, perhaps less. I get £150 a year and I wanted him to make it up to £300.49 I lost that through going to him at Naples. I think he ought to give me that at the very least, don’t you? Won’t you speak to him, Frank?”

“I could not possibly interfere,” I replied.

“I gave him everything,” he went on, in a depressed way. “When I had money, he never had to ask for it; all that was mine was his. And now that he is rich, I have to beg from him, and he gives me small sums and puts me off. It is terrible of him; it is really very, very wrong of him.”

I changed the subject as soon as I could; there was a note of bitterness which I did not like, which indeed I had already remarked in him.

I was destined very soon to hear the other side. A day or two later Lord Alfred Douglas told me that he had bought some racehorses and was training them at Chantilly; would I come down and see them?

“I am not much of a judge of racehorses,” I replied, “and I don’t know much about racing; but I should not mind coming down one evening. I could spend the night at an hotel, and see the horses and your stable in the morning. The life of the English stable lads in France must be rather peculiar.”

“It is droll,” he said, “a complete English colony in France. There are practically no French jockeys or trainers worth their salt; it is all English, English slang, English ways, even English food and of course English drinks. No French boy seems to have nerve enough to make a good rider.”

I made an arrangement with him and went down. I missed my train and was very late; I found that Lord Alfred Douglas had dined and gone out. I had my dinner, and about midnight went up to my room. Half an hour later there came a knocking at the door. I opened it and found Lord Alfred Douglas.

“May I come in?” he asked. “I’m glad you’ve not gone to bed yet.”

“Of course,” I said, “what is it?” He was pale and seemed extraordinarily excited.

“I have had such a row with Oscar,” he jerked out, nervously moving about (I noticed the strained white face I had seen before at the Café Royal), “such a row, and I wanted to speak to you about it. Of course you know in the old days when his plays were being given in London he was rich and gave me some money, and now he says I ought to settle a large sum on him; I think it ridiculous, don’t you?”

“I would rather not say anything about it,” I replied; “I don’t know enough about the circumstances.”

He was too filled with a sense of his own injuries; too excited to catch my tone or understand any reproof in my attitude.

“Oscar is really too dreadful,” he went on; “he is quite shameless now; he begs and begs and begs, and of course I have given him money, have given him hundreds, quite as much as he ever gave me: but he is insatiable and recklessly extravagant besides. Of course I want to be quite fair to him: I’ve already given him back all he gave me. Don’t you think that is all anyone can ask of me?”

I looked at him in astonishment.

“That is for you and Oscar,” I said, “to decide together. No one else can judge between you.”

“Why not?” he snapped out in his irritable way, “you know us both and our relations.”

“No,” I replied, “I don’t know all the obligations and the interwoven services. Besides, I could not judge fairly between you.”

He turned on me angrily, though I had spoken with as much kindness as I could.

“He seemed to want to make you judge between us,” he cried. “I don’t care who’s the judge. I think if you give a man back what he has given you, that is all he can ask. It’s a d —— d lot more than most people get in this world.”

After a pause he started off on a new line of thought:

“The first time I ever noticed any fault in Oscar was over that ‘Salome’ translation. He’s appallingly conceited. You know I did the play into English. I found that his choice of words was poor, anything but good; his prose is wooden. . . .

“Of course he’s not a poet,” he broke off contemptuously, “even you must admit that.”

“I know what you mean,” I replied; “though I should have to make a vast reservation in favour of the man who wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’”

“One ballad doesn’t make a man a poet,” he barked; “I mean by poet one to whom verse lends power: in that sense he’s not a poet and I am.” His tone was that of defiant challenge.

“You are certainly,” I replied.

“Well, I did the translation of ‘Salome’ very carefully, as no one else could have done it,” and he flushed angrily, “and all the while Oscar kept on altering it for the worse. At last I had to tell him the truth, and we had a row. He imagines he’s the greatest person in the world, and the only person to be considered. His conceit is stupid. . . . I helped50 him again and again with that ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ you’re always praising: I suppose he’d deny that now.

“He’s got his money back; what more can he want? He disgusts me when he begs.”

I could not contain myself altogether.

“He seems to blame you,” I said quietly, “for egging him on to that insane action against your father which brought him to ruin.”

“I’ve no doubt he’d find some reason to blame me,” he whipped out. “How did I know how the case would go? . . . Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest. . . . He’s simply disgusting now; he’s getting fat and bloated, and always demanding money, money, money, like a daughter of the horse-leech — just as if he had a claim to it.”

I could not stand it any longer; I had to try to move him to kindness.

“Sometimes one gives willingly to a man one has never had anything from. Misery and want in one we like and admire have a very strong claim.”

“I do not see that there is any claim at all,” he cried bitterly, as if the very word maddened him, “and I am not going to pamper him any more. He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything. He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable. I thought when he kept asking me for that money to-night, he was like an old prostitute.”

“Good God!” I cried. “Good God! Has it come to that between you?”

“Yes,” he repeated, not heeding what I said, “he was just like an old fat prostitute,” and he gloated over the word, “and I told him so.”

I looked at the man but could not speak; indeed there was nothing to be said. Surely at last, I thought, Oscar Wilde has reached the lowest depth. I could think of nothing but Oscar; this hard, small, bitter nature made Oscar’s suffering plain to me.

“As I can do no good,” I said, “do you mind letting me sleep? I’m simply tired to death.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking for his hat; “will you come out in the morning and see the ‘gees’?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied, “I’m incapable of a resolution now, I’m so tired I would rather sleep. I think I’ll go up to Paris in the morning. I have something rather urgent to do.”

He said “Good night” and went away.

I lay awake, my eyes prickling with sorrow and sympathy for poor Oscar, insulted in his misery and destitution, outraged and trodden on by the man he had loved, by the man who had thrust him into the Pit. . . . 51

I made up my mind to go to Oscar at once and try to comfort him a little. After all, I thought, another fifty pounds or so wouldn’t make a great deal of difference to me, and I dwelt on the many delightful hours I had passed with him, hours of gay talk and superb intellectual enjoyment.

I went up by the morning train to Paris, and drove across the river to Oscar’s hotel.

He had two rooms, a small sitting-room and a still smaller bedroom adjoining. He was lying half-dressed on the bed as I entered. The rooms affected me unpleasantly. They were ordinary, mean little French rooms, furnished without taste; the usual mahogany chairs, gilt clock on the mantelpiece and a preposterous bilious paper on the walls. What struck me was the disorder everywhere; books all over the round table; books on the chairs; books on the floor and higgledy-piggledy, here a pair of socks, there a hat and cane, and on the floor his overcoat. The sense of order and neatness which he used to have in his rooms at Tite Street was utterly lacking. He was not living here, intent on making the best of things; he was merely existing without plan or purpose.

I told him I wanted him to come to lunch. While he was finishing dressing it came to me that his clothes had undergone much the same change as his dwelling. In his golden days in London he had been a good deal of a dandy; he usually wore white waistcoats at night; was particular about the flowers in his buttonhole, his gloves and cane. Now he was decently dressed and that was all; as far below the average as he had been above it. Clearly, he had let go of himself and no longer took pleasure in the vanities: it seemed to me a bad sign.

I had always thought of him as very healthy, likely to live till sixty or seventy; but he had no longer any hold on himself and that depressed me; some spring of life seemed broken in him. Bosie Douglas’ second betrayal had been the coup de grâce.

In the carriage he was preoccupied, out of sorts, and immediately began to apologise.

“I shall be poor company, Frank,” he warned me with quivering lips.

The fragrant summer air in the Champs Elysées seemed to revive him a little, but he was evidently lost in bitter reflections and scarcely noticed where he was going. From time to time he sighed heavily as if oppressed. I talked as well as I could of this and that, tried to lure him away from the hateful subject that I knew must be in his mind; but all in vain. Towards the end of the lunch he said gravely:

“I want you to tell me something, Frank; I want you to tell me honestly if you think I am in the wrong. I wish I could think I was. . . . You know I spoke to you the other day about Bosie; he is rich now and he is throwing his money away with both hands in racing.

“I asked him to settle £1,500 or £2,000 on me to buy me an annuity, or to do something that would give me £150 a year. You said you did not care to ask him, so I did. I told him it was really his duty to do it at once, and he turned round and lashed me savagely with his tongue. He called me dreadful names. Said dreadful things to me, Frank. I did not think it was possible to suffer more than I suffered in prison, but he has left me bleeding . . . ” and the fine eyes filled with tears. Seeing that I remained silent, he cried out:

“Frank, you must tell me for our friendship’s sake. Is it my fault? Was he wrong or was I wrong?”

His weakness was pathetic, or was it that his affection was still so great that he wanted to blame himself rather than his friend?

“Of course he seems to me to be wrong,” I said, “utterly wrong.” I could not help saying it and I went on:

“But you know his temper is insane; if he even praises himself, as he did to me lately, he gets into a rage in order to do it, and perhaps unwittingly you annoyed him by the way you asked. If you put it to his generosity and vainglory you would get it easier than from his sense of justice and right. He has not much moral sense.”

“Oh, Frank,” he broke in earnestly, “I put it to him as well as I could, quite quietly and gently. I talked of our old affection, of the good and evil days we had passed together: you know I could never be harsh to him, never.

“There never was,” he burst out, in a sort of exaltation, “there never was in the world such a betrayal. Do you remember once telling me that the only flaw you could find in the perfect symbolism of the gospel story was that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, the foreigner from Kerioth, when he should have been betrayed by John, the beloved disciple; for it is only those we love who can betray us? Frank, how true, how tragically true that is! It is those we love who betray us with a kiss.”

He was silent for some time and then went on wearily, “I wish you would speak to him, Frank, and show him how unjust and unkind he is to me.”

“I cannot possibly do that, Oscar,” I said, “I do not know all the relations between you and the myriad bands that unite you: I should only do harm and not good.”

“Frank,” he cried, “you do know, you must know that he is responsible for everything, for my downfall and my ruin. It was he who drove me to fight with his father. I begged him not to, but he whipped me to it; asked me what his father could do; pointed out to me contemptuously that he could prove nothing; said he was the most loathsome, hateful creature in the world, and that it was my duty to stop him, and that if I did not, everyone would be laughing at me, and he could never care for a coward. All his family, his brother and his mother, too, begged me to attack Queensberry, all promised me their support and afterwards —

“You know, Frank, in the Café Royal before the trial how Bosie spoke to you, when you warned me and implored me to drop the insane suit and go abroad; how angry he got. You were not a friend of mine, he said. You know he drove me to ruin in order to revenge himself on his father, and then left me to suffer.

“And that’s not the worst of it, Frank: I came out of prison determined not to see him any more. I promised my poor wife I would not see him again. I had forgiven him; but I did not want to see him. I had suffered too much by him and through him, far too much. And then he wrote and wrote of his love, crying it to me every hour, begging me to come, telling me he only wanted me, in order to be happy, me in the whole world. How could I help believing him, how could I keep away from him? At last I yielded and went to him, and as soon as the difficulties began he turned on me in Naples like a wild beast, blaming me and insulting me.

“I had to fly to Paris, having lost everything through him — wife and income and self-respect, everything; but I always thought that he was at least generous as a man of his name should be: I had no idea he could be stingy and mean; but now he is comparatively rich, he prefers to squander his money on jockeys and trainers and horses, of which he knows nothing, instead of lifting me out of my misery. Surely it is not too much to ask him to give me a tenth when I gave him all? Won’t you ask him?”

“I think he ought to have done what you want, without asking,” I admitted, “but I am certain my speaking would not do any good. He shows me hatred already whenever I do not agree with him. Hate is nearer to him always than sympathy: he is his father’s son, Oscar, and I can do nothing. I cannot even speak to him about it.”

“Oh, Frank, you ought to,” said Oscar.

“But suppose he retorted and said you led him astray, what could I answer?”

“Led him astray!” cried Oscar, starting up, “you cannot believe that. You know better than that. It is not true. It is he who always led, always dominated me; he is as imperious as a Cæsar. It was he who began our intimacy: he who came to me in London when I did not want to see him, or rather, Frank, I wanted to but I was afraid; at the very beginning I was afraid of what it would all lead to, and I avoided him; the desperate aristocratic pride in him, the dreadful bold, imperious temper in him terrified me. But he came to London and sent for me to come to him, said he would come to my house if I didn’t. I went, thinking I could reason with him; but it was impossible. When I told him we must be very careful, for I was afraid of what might happen, he made fun of my fears, and encouraged me. He knew that they’d never dare to punish him; he’s allied to half the peerage and he did not care what became of me. . . .

“He led me first to the street, introduced me to the male prostitution in London. From the beginning to the end he has driven me like the Oestrum of which the Greeks wrote, which drove the ill-fated to disaster.

“And now he says he owes me nothing; I have no claim, I who gave to him without counting; he says he needs all his money for himself: he wants to win races and to write poetry, Frank, the pretty verses which he thinks poetry.

“He has ruined me, soul and body, and now he puts himself in the balance against me and declares he outweighs me. Yes, Frank, he does; he told me the other day I was not a poet, not a true poet, and he was, Alfred Douglas greater than Oscar Wilde.

“I have not done much in the world,” he went on hotly, “I know it better than anyone, not a quarter of what I should have done, but there are some things I have done which the world will not forget, can hardly forget. If all the tribe of Douglas from the beginning and all their achievements were added together and thrown into the balance, they would not weigh as dust in comparison. Yet he reviled me, Frank, whipped me, shamed me. . . . He has broken me, he has broken me, the man I loved; my very heart is a cold weight in me,” . . . and he got up and moved aside with the tears pouring down his cheeks.

“Don’t take it so much to heart,” I said in a minute or two, going after him, “the loss of affection I cannot help, but a hundred or so a year is not much; I will see that you get that every year.”

“Oh, Frank, it is not the money; it is his denial, his insults, his hate that kills me; the fact that I have ruined myself for someone who cares nothing; who puts a little money before me; it is as if I were choked with mud. . . .

“Once I thought myself master of my life; lord of my fate, who could do what I pleased and would always succeed. I was as a crowned king till I met him, and now I am an exile and outcast and despised.

“I have lost my way in life; the passers-by all scorn me and the man whom I loved whips me with foul insults and contempt. There is no example in history of such a betrayal, no parallel. I am finished. It is all over with me now — all! I hope the end will come quickly,” and he moved away to the window, his tears falling heavily.

48 The rest of this story concerns me chiefly and I have therefore relegated it to the Appendix for those who care to read it.

49 Oscar was already getting £300 a year from his wife and Robert Ross, to say nothing of the hundreds given to him from time to time by other friends.

50 The truth about this I have already stated.

51 Though I have reported this conversation as faithfully as I can and have indeed softened the impression Lord Alfred Douglas made upon me at the time; still I am conscious that I may be doing him some injustice. I have never really been in sympathy with him and it may well be that in reporting him here faithfully I am showing him at his worst. I am aware that the incident does not reveal him at his best. He has proved since in his writings and notably in some superb sonnets that he had a real affection and admiration for Oscar Wilde. If I have been in any degree unfair to him I can best correct it, I think, by reproducing here the noble sonnet he wrote on Oscar after his death: in sheer beauty and sincerity of feeling it ranks with Shelley’s lament for Keats:

The Dead Poet52

I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face

All radiant and unshadowed of distress,

And as of old, in music measureless,

I heard his golden voice and marked him trace

Under the common thing the hidden grace,

And conjure wonder out of emptiness,

Till mean things put on beauty like a dress

And all the world was an enchanted place.

And then methought outside a fast locked gate

I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,

Forgotten tales and mysteries half said

Wonders that might have been articulate,

And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing birds

And so I woke and knew that he was dead.

52 In the Appendix I have published the first sketch of this fine sonnet: lovers of poetry will like to compare them.


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