In a day or two, however, the clouds lifted and the sun shone as brilliantly as ever. Oscar’s spirits could not be depressed for long: he took a child’s joy in living and in every incident of life. When I left him in Paris a week or so later, in midsummer, he was full of gaiety and humour, talking as delightfully as ever with a touch of cynicism that added piquancy to his wit. Shortly after I arrived in London he wrote saying he was ill, and that I really ought to send him some money. I had already paid him more than the amount we had agreed upon at first for his scenario, and I was hard up and anything but well. I had chronic bronchitis which prostrated me time and again that autumn. Having heard from mutual friends that Oscar’s illness did not hinder him from dining out and enjoying himself, I received his plaints and requests with a certain impatience, and replied to him curtly. His illness appeared to me to be merely a pretext. When my play was accepted his demands became as insistent as they were extravagant.
Finally I went back to Paris in September to see him, persuaded that I could settle everything amicably in five minutes’ talk: he must remember our agreement.
I found him well in health, but childishly annoyed that my play was going to be produced and resolved to get all the money he could from me by hook or by crook. I never met such persistence in demands. I could only settle with him decently by paying him a further sum, which I did.
In the course of this bargaining and begging I realised that contrary to my previous opinion he was not gifted as a friend, and did not attribute any importance to friendship. His affection for Bosie Douglas even had given place to hatred: indeed his liking for him had never been founded on understanding or admiration; it was almost wholly snobbish: he loved the title, the romantic name — Lord Alfred Douglas. Robert Ross was the only friend of whom he always spoke with liking and appreciation: “One of the wittiest of men,” he used to call him and would jest at his handwriting, which was peculiarly bad, but always good-naturedly; “a letter merely shows that Bobbie has something to conceal”; but he would add, “how kind he is, how good,” as if Ross’s devotion surprised him, as in fact it did. Ross has since told me that Oscar never cared much for him. Indeed Oscar cared so little for anyone that an unselfish affection astonished him beyond measure: he could find in himself no explanation of it. His vanity was always more active than his gratitude, as indeed it is with most of us. Now and then when Ross played mentor or took him to task, he became prickly at once and would retort: “Really, Bobbie, you ride the high horse so well, and so willingly, it seems a pity that you never tried Pegasus”— not a sneer exactly, but a rap on the knuckles to call his monitor to order. Like most men of charming manners, Oscar was selfish and self-centred, too convinced of his own importance to spend much thought on others; yet generous to the needy and kind to all.
After my return to London he kept on begging for money by almost every post. As soon as my play was advertised I found myself dunned and persecuted by a horde of people who declared that Oscar had sold them the scenario he afterwards sold to me.53 Several of them threatened to get injunctions to prevent me staging my play, “Mr. and Mrs. Daventry,” if I did not first settle with them. Naturally, I wrote rather sharply to Oscar for having led me into this hornets’ nest.
It was in the midst of all this unpleasantness that I heard from Turner, in October, I believe, that Oscar was seriously ill, and that if I owed him money, as he asserted, it would be a kindness to send it, as he was in great need. The letter found me in bed. I could not say now whether I answered it or not: it made me impatient; his friends must have known that I owed Oscar nothing; but later I received a telegram from Ross saying that Oscar was not expected to live. I was ill and unable to move, or I should have gone at once to Paris. As it was I sent for my friend, Bell, gave him some money and a cheque, and begged him to go across and let me know if Oscar were really in danger, which I could hardly believe. As luck would have it, the next afternoon, when I hoped Bell had started, his wife came to tell me that he had had a severe asthmatic attack, but would cross as soon as he dared.
I was too hard up myself to wire money that might not be needed, and Oscar had cried “wolf” about his health too often to be a credible witness. Yet I was dissatisfied with myself and anxious for Bell to start.
Day after day passed in troubled doubts and fears; but it was not long when a period was put to all my anxiety. A telegram came telling me he was dead. I could hardly believe my eyes: it seemed incredible — the fount of joy and gaiety; the delightful source of intellectual vivacity and interest stilled forever. The world went greyer to me because of Oscar Wilde’s death.
Months afterwards Robert Ross gave me the particulars of his last illness.
Ross went to Paris in October: as soon as he saw Oscar, he was shocked by the change in his appearance: he insisted on taking him to a doctor; but to his surprise the doctor saw no ground for immediate alarm: if Oscar would only stop drinking wine and a fortiori spirits, he might live for years: absinthe was absolutely forbidden. But Oscar paid no heed to the warning and Ross could only take him for drives whenever the weather permitted and seek to amuse him harmlessly.
The will to live had almost left Oscar: so long as he could live pleasantly and without effort he was content; but as soon as ill-health came, or pain, or even discomfort, he grew impatient for deliverance.
But to the last he kept his joyous humour and charming gaiety. His disease brought with it a certain irritation of the skin, annoying rather than painful. Meeting Ross one morning after a day’s separation he apologised for scratching himself:
“Really,” he exclaimed, “I’m more like a great ape than ever; but I hope you’ll give me a lunch, Bobbie, and not a nut.”
On one of the last drives with this friend he asked for champagne and when it was brought declared that he was dying as he had lived, “beyond his means”— his happy humour lighting up even his last hours.
Early in November Ross left Paris to go down to the Riviera with his mother: for Reggie Turner had undertaken to stay with Oscar. Reggie Turner describes how he grew gradually feebler and feebler, though to the end flashes of the old humour would astonish his attendants. He persisted in saying that Reggie, with his perpetual prohibitions, was qualifying for a doctor. “When you can refuse bread to the hungry, Reggie,” he would say, “and drink to the thirsty, you can apply for your diploma.”
Towards the end of November Reggie wired for Ross and Ross left everything and reached Paris next day.
When all was over he wrote to a friend giving him a very complete account of the last hours of Oscar Wilde; that account he generously allows me to reproduce and it will be found word for word in the Appendix; it is too long and too detailed to be used here.
Ross’s letter should be read by the student; but several touches in it are too timid; certain experiences that should be put in high relief are slurred over: in conversation with me he told more and told it better.
For example, when talking of his drives with Oscar, he mentions casually that Oscar “insisted on drinking absinthe,” and leaves it at that. The truth is that Oscar stopped the victoria at almost the first café, got down and had an absinthe. Two or three hundred yards further on, he stopped the carriage again to have another absinthe: at the next stoppage a few minutes later Ross ventured to remonstrate:
“You’ll kill yourself, Oscar,” he cried, “you know the doctors said absinthe was poison to you!”
Oscar stopped on the sidewalk:
“And what have I to live for, Bobbie?” he asked gravely. And Ross looking at him and noting the wreck — the symptoms of old age and broken health — could only bow his head and walk on with him in silence. What indeed had he to live for who had abandoned all the fair uses of life?
The second scene is horrible: but is, so to speak, the inevitable resultant of the first, and has its own awful moral. Ross tells how he came one morning to Oscar’s death-bed and found him practically insensible: he describes the dreadful loud death-rattle of his breath, and says: “terrible offices had to be carried out.”
The truth is still more appalling. Oscar had eaten too much and drunk too much almost habitually ever since the catastrophe in Naples. The dreadful disease from which he was suffering, or from the after effects of which he was suffering, weakens all the tissues of the body, and this weakness is aggravated by drinking wine and still more by drinking spirits. Suddenly, as the two friends sat by the bedside in sorrowful anxiety, there was a loud explosion: mucus poured out of Oscar’s mouth and nose, and —
Even the bedding had to be burned.
If it is true that all those who draw the sword shall perish by the sword, it is no less certain that all those who live for the body shall perish by the body, and there is no death more degrading.
One more scene, and this the last, and I shall have done.
When Robert Ross was arranging to bury Oscar at Bagneux he had already made up his mind as soon as he could to transfer his body to Père Lachaise and erect over his remains some worthy memorial. It became the purpose of his life to pay his friend’s debts, annul his bankruptcy, and publish his books in suitable manner; in fine to clear Oscar’s memory from obloquy while leaving to his lovable spirit the shining raiment of immortality. In a few years he had accomplished all but one part of his high task. He had not only paid off all Oscar Wilde’s debts; but he had managed to remit thousands of pounds yearly to his children, and had established his popularity on the widest and surest foundation.
He crossed to Paris with Oscar’s son, Vyvyan, to render the last service to his friend. When preparing the body for the grave years before Ross had taken medical advice as to what should be done to make his purpose possible. The doctors told him to put Wilde’s body in quicklime, like the body of the man in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” The quicklime, they said, would consume the flesh and leave the white bones — the skeleton — intact, which could then be moved easily.
To his horror, when the grave was opened, Ross found that the quicklime, instead of destroying the flesh, had preserved it. Oscar’s face was recognisable, only his hair and beard had grown long. At once Ross sent the son away, and when the sextons were about to use their shovels, he ordered them to desist, and descending into the grave, moved the body with his own hands into the new coffin in loving reverence.
Those who hold our mortal vesture in respect for the sake of the spirit will know how to thank Robert Ross for the supreme devotion he showed to his friend’s remains: in his case at least love was stronger than death.
One can be sure, too, that the man who won such fervid self-denying tenderness, had deserved it, called it forth by charm of companionship, or magic of loving intercourse.
53 See Appendix: p. 589 and especially p. 592.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02