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The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust Burn to the socket.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
31 August 1889
On an afternoon ablaze with sunshine, at the very end of August 1889, a man in his mid-thirties tall, a little overweight, and certainly overdressed was admitted to a small terraced house in Cowley Street, in the City of Westminster, close by the Houses of Parliament.
The man was in a hurry and he was unaccustomed to hurrying. His face was flushed and his high forehead was beaded with perspiration. As he entered the house - No. 23 Cowley Street - he brushed past the woman who opened the door to him, immediately crossed the shallow hallway, and climbed the staircase to the first floor. There, facing him, across an uncarpeted landing, was a wooden door.
Momentarily, the man paused to smile, to catch his breath, to adjust his waistcoat, and, with both hands, to sweep back his wavy chestnut-coloured hair. Then, lightly, almost delicately, he knocked at the door and, without waiting for an answer, let himself into the room. It was dark, heavily curtained, hot as a furnace, and fragrant with incense. As the man adjusted his eyes to the gloom, he saw, by the light of half-a-dozen guttering candles, stretched out on the floor before him, the naked body of a boy of sixteen, his throat cut from ear to ear.
The man was Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright, and literary sensation of the age. The dead boy was Billy Wood, a male prostitute of no importance.
I was not there when Oscar discovered the butchered body of Billy Wood, but I saw him a few hours later, and I was the first to whom he gave an account of what he had seen that sultry afternoon in the curtained room in Cowley Street.
That evening my celebrated friend was having dinner with his American publisher, and I had arranged to meet up with him afterwards, at 10.30 p.m., at his club, the Albemarle, at 25 Albemarle Street, off Piccadilly. I call it "his" club when, in fact, it was mine as well. In those days the Albemarle encouraged young members young ladies over the age of eighteen indeed! and gentlemen of twenty-one and more. Oscar put me up for membership and, with the generosity that was typical of him, paid the eight guineas joining fee on my behalf and, then, year after year, until the very time of his imprisonment in 1895, the five guineas annual subscription. Whenever we met at the Albemarle, invariably, the cost of the drinks we drank and the food we ate was charged to his account. He called it "our club." I thought of it as his.
Oscar was late for our rendezvous that night, which was unlike him. He affected a languorous manner, he posed as an idler, but, as a rule, if he made an appointment with you, he kept it. He rarely carried a timepiece, but he seemed always to know the hour. "My friends should not be left wanting," he said, "or be kept waiting." As all who knew him will testify, he was a model of consideration, a man of infinite courtesy. Even at moments of greatest stress, his manners remained impeccable.
It was past eleven-fifteen when eventually he arrived. I was in the club smoking room, alone, lounging on the sofa by the fireplace. I had turned the pages of the evening paper at least four times, but not taken in a word. I was preoccupied. (This was the year that my first marriage ended: my wife, Marthe, had taken an exception to my friend Kaitlyn and now Kaitlyn had run off to Vienna! As Oscar liked to say, "Life is the nightmare that prevents one from sleeping.") When he swept into the room, I had almost forgotten I was expecting him. And when I looked up and saw him gazing down at me, I was taken aback by his appearance. He looked exhausted: there were dark, ochre circles beneath his hooded eyes. Evidently, he had not shaved since morning and, most surprisingly for one so fastidious, he had not changed for dinner. He was wearing his workaday clothes: a suit of his own design, cut from heavy blue serge, with a matching waistcoat buttoned right up to the large knot in his vermillion-coloured tie. By his standards, it was a comparatively conservative outfit, but it was striking because it was so inappropriate to the time of year.
"This is unpardonable, Robert," he said as he collapsed onto the sofa opposite mine. "I am almost an hour late and your glass is empty. Hubbard! Champagne for Mr. Sherard, if you please. Indeed, a bottle for us both." In life there are two types of people: those who catch the waiter's eye and those who don't. Whenever I arrived at the Albemarle, the club servants seemed to scatter instantly. Whenever Oscar appeared, they hovered attentively. They honoured him. He tipped like a prince and treated them as allies.
"You have had a busy day," I said, putting aside my paper and smiling at my friend.
"You are kind not to punish me, Robert," he said, smiling, too, sitting back and lighting a cigarette. He threw the dead match into the empty grate. "I have had a disturbing day," he went on. "I have known great pleasure today, and great pain."
"Tell me," I said. I tried to say it lightly. I knew him well. For a man ultimately brought down by gross indiscretion, he was remarkably discreet. He would share his secrets with you, but only if you did not press him to do so.
"I will tell you about the pleasure first," he said. "The pain will keep."
We fell silent as Hubbard brought us our wine. He served it with obsequious ceremony. (God, how he took his time!) When he had gone, and we were once more alone, I expected Oscar to pick up his story, but instead he simply raised his glass in my direction and gazed at me with world-weary, vacant eyes.
"How was dinner?" I asked. "How was your publisher?"
"Dinner," he said, returning from his reverie, "was at the new Langham Hotel, where the décor and the beef are both overdone. My publisher, Mr. Stoddart, is a delight. He is American, so the air around him is full of energy and praise. He is the publisher of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine."
"And he has given you a new commission?" I conjectured.
"Better still, he has introduced me to a new friend." I raised an eyebrow. "Yes, Robert, I have made a new friend tonight. You will like him."
I was accustomed to Oscar's sudden enthusiasms. "Am I to meet him?" I asked.
"Very shortly, if you can spare the time."
"Is he coming here?" I glanced at the clock on the fireplace.
"No, we shall be calling on him at breakfast. I need his advice."
"He is a doctor. And a Scotsman. From Southsea."
"No wonder you are disturbed, Oscar," I said, laughing. He laughed, too. He always laughed at the jokes of others. There was nothing mean about Oscar Wilde. "Why was he at the dinner?" I asked.
"He is an author, too a novelist. Have you read Micah Clarke? Seventeenth-century Scotland has never been so diverting."
"I've not read it, but I know exactly who you mean. There was a piece about him in the Times today. He is the coming man: Arthur Doyle."
"Arthur Conan Doyle. He is particular about that. He must be your age, I suppose, twenty-nine, thirty perhaps, though he has a gravitas about him that makes him appear older than everybody's papa. He is clearly brilliant a scientist who can play with words and rather handsome, if you can imagine the face beneath the walrus moustache. At first glance, you might think him a big-game hunter, newly returned from the Congo, but beyond his handshake, which is intolerable, there is nothing of the brute about him. He is as gentle as St. Sebastian and as wise as St. Augustine of Hippo."
I laughed again. "You are smitten, Oscar."
"And touched by envy," he replied. "Young Arthur has caused a sensation with his new creation."
" 'Sherlock Holmes,' " I said, " 'the consulting detective.' A Study in Scarlet that I have read. It is excellent."
"Stoddart thinks so, too. He wants the sequel. And between the soup and the fish course, Arthur promised him he should have it. Apparently, it is to be called The Sign of Four."
"And what about your story for Mr. Stoddart?"
"Mine will be a murder mystery, also. But somewhat different." His tone changed. "It will be about murder that lies beyond ordinary detection." The clock struck the quarter. Oscar lit a second cigarette. He paused and stared towards the empty grate. "We talked much of murder tonight," he said quietly. "Do you recall Marie Aguétant?"
"Of course," I said. She was not a lady one was likely to forget. She was, in her way, in her day, the most notorious woman in France. I met her with Oscar in Paris in '83 at the Eden Music Hall. We had supper together, the three of us oysters and champagne, followed by pâté de foie gras and Barsac and Oscar talked and talked and talked as I had never heard him talk before. He spoke in French in perfect French and spoke of love and death and poetry, and of the poetry of love-and-death. I marvelled at him, at his genius, and Marie Aguétant sat with her hands in his, transfixed. And then, a little drunk, suddenly, unexpectedly, he asked her to sleep with him. "O ? Quand? Combien?" he enquired. "Ici, ce soir, gratuit," she answered.
"I think of her often," he said, "and of that night. What animals we men are! She was a whore, Robert, but she had a heart that was pure. She was murdered, you know."
"I know," I said. "We have talked of it before."
"Arthur talked about the murders of those women in Whitechapel," he went on, not heeding me. "He talked about them in forensic detail. He is convinced that Jack the Ripper is a gentleman or, at least, a man of education. He was particularly interested in the case of Annie Chapman, the poor creature who was found at the back of Dr. Barnardo's children's asylum in Hanbury Street. He said Miss Chapman's womb had been removed from her body 'by an expert.' He was eager to show me a drawing he had of the wretched girl's eviscerated corpse, but I protested and then, somewhat foolishly, attempted to lighten the mood. I told him to amuse him of the forger Wainewright's response when reproached by a friend for a murder he had admitted to. 'Yes, it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles.' "
"Was he amused?" I asked.
"Arthur? He barely smiled, while Stoddart roared. And then, with great earnestness, he asked me if I believed I could ever commit a murder. 'Oh no,' I said. 'One should never do anything one cannot talk about at dinner.' "
"He laughed then, I trust?"
"Not at all. He became quite serious and said, 'Mr. Wilde, you make jests of all that you fear most in yourself. It is a dangerous habit. It will be your undoing.' It was in that moment that I realised he was my friend. It was in that moment that I wanted to tell him about what I had seen this afternoon...But I did not dare. Stoddart was there. Stoddart would not have understood." He drained his glass. "That, my dear Robert, is why we shall return to see my new friend in the morning. I must go now."
The club clocks were striking twelve. "But, Oscar," I cried, "you have not told me what you saw this afternoon."
He stood up. "I saw a canvas rent in two. I saw a thing of beauty destroyed by vandals."
"I don't understand."
"I saw Billy Wood in a room in Cowley Street."
"One of Bellotti's boys. He had been murdered. By candlelight. In an upstairs room. I need to know why. For what possible purpose? I need to know who has done this terrible thing." He took my hand in his. "Robert, I must go. It is midnight. I will tell you everything tomorrow. Let us meet at the Langham Hotel. At eight o'clock. The good doctor will be having his porridge. We will catch him. He will advise us what course to take. I have promised Constance I will be home tonight. Tite Street calls. You are no longer married, Robert, but I have my obligations. My wife, my children. I want to see them sleeping safely. I love them dearly. And I love you, too. Good-night, Robert. We have heard the chimes at midnight. We can at least say that."
And he was gone. He swept from the room with a flourish. He had arrived exhausted, but he appeared to depart refreshed. As I emptied the rest of the bottle into my glass, I pondered what he had told me, but could make no sense of it. Who was Billy Wood? Who was Bellotti? What upstairs room? Was this murder a fact or merely one of Oscar's fantastical allegories?
I finished the champagne and left the club. To my surprise, Hubbard was almost civil as he bade me good-night. There were cabs in the rank on Piccadilly and, as I had sold two articles that month, I was in funds, but the night was fine there was a brilliant August moon and the streets were quiet, so I decided to walk back to my room in Gower Street.
Twenty minutes later, on my way north towards Oxford Street, as I turned from a narrow side-alley into Soho Square, I stopped and drew myself back into the shadows. Across the deserted square, by the new church of St. Patrick, still encased in scaffolding, stood a hansom cab and, climbing into it, illuminated by a shaft of moonlight, were a man and a young woman. The man was Oscar: there was no doubt about that. But the young woman I did not recognise: her face was hideously disfigured and, from the way she held her shawl about her, I sensed she was gripped by a dreadful fear.
Copyright © 2007 by Gyles Brandreth