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OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF

LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
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Douglas Anchor
CHAPTER IX

NAPLES AND PARIS

WHEN Wilde came to the Villa Giudice he was in fair health and reasonable spirits. That he had eaten and drunk too much at Berneval he freely admitted, but on the whole he was in good physical condition. From the end of August to the middle of November he had the run of my villa as my guest, and I paid the whole of the housekeeping expenses, including the tradesmen's bills for food and wine, the servants' wages, and so forth, to which expenses Wilde never so much as contributed a farthing piece.


So far as I am aware, the life he lived here was perfectly proper and without reproach. He had brought with him from Berneval a rough draft of part of the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol," which he read to me. It has been stated on supposed authority that Wilde composed none of the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" during the time of his imprisonment. He told me that he had composed certain of the stanzas in prison and he added to them at Berneval. But there can be no question that the poem was completed at Naples. He laboured over it in a manner which I had never known him to labour before. Every word had to be considered; every rhyme and every cadence carefully pondered. I had ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" for breakfast, dinner and tea, and for many weeks it was almost our sole topic of conversation.


For my own part, I, too, was busy with literary work, and I wrote at Naples during this period some of my best sonnets, and occupied myself with various translations. We had not an idle week during the whole time we were together. It was one of the charges against me in the Ransome case that I hindered Wilde in his literary production, and that he never did anything worth doing when he was with me. How maliciously false these statements were may be gathered from the fact that he planned and wrote the whole of ''A Woman of No Importance" while we were together at Lady Mount-Temple's house at Babbacombe; that he wrote the whole of 'The Importance of Being Earnest" at Worthing, where we shared a house; and "The Ideal Husband" partly at Goring, where we shared a house, and partly in London, while we were continually together; while he composed and completed the final version of the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" whilst staying in my villa at Naples.


I have no desire to take credit to myself for another man's work, but many collaborations between authors have been acknowledged on much less slender grounds than it would be possible for me to set up in the matter of the aforesaid plays and of the aforesaid ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" if I were disposed to do so. In the ordinary course of events I would never have said a single word on the subject. It seemed to me perfectly natural that, as we were together, Wilde should show me what he was doing and read me what he was writing. And as he thereby invited advice and criticism, it seemed to be perfectly natural that I should give it, and that he should adopt it.


The truth is that Wilde consistently made free use of such gifts as I possessed, that I assisted him to many a piece of dialogue and many a gibe which has helped to make him famous, and that I gave him very material aid and counsel in the matter of the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol."


There are passages in this latter poem which he lifted holus-bolus from a poem of my own, and it must be remembered that, while up to the time that he left Reading Gaol, he had affected some scorn of the ballad form and knew next to nothing of its possibilities, I had given a great amount of attention to the study of that form and had produced the “Ballad of Perkin Warbeck" and the “Ballad of St. Vitus''—which latter Wilde read for the first time at Naples, and with which he was mightily impressed. It would be preposterous for me to claim more than my due as regards the literary side of our friendship, and I had perhaps better put the position this way : I have never denied that I learned things from Wilde and that, up to a certain point, I owe a good deal to him in the literary sense.


On the other hand, in view of what he said, it is necessary for me to point out that Wilde owes just as much to me as I owe to him and, for that matter, a great deal more. I have written neither plays nor poems which embody a single word or phrase of his, and I never took a literary hint from him in my life. He has done me the honour to use a great deal of Alfred Douglas, and he is perfectly welcome. All I ask is, that I may not be maligned in consequence. Although our life at the Villa Giudice was perfectly harmless and consisted mainly of fairly strenuous literary toil, the fact that we were together did not please certain of Wilde's friends, and the scandal-mongers were set busy again.


How easy it is to make scandal was prettily illustrated by no less a personage than Mr. Justice Darling during the course of the Ransome trial. ''Are you aware, Mr. Campbell," said his lordship to the defending counsel, ''are you aware of the reputation of Naples?"


Of course, Mr. Campbell shook his head in the most deprecatory manner, and the jury made a mental note that a villa at Naples meant the very lowest depths of wickedness and profligacy. Anybody who knows Europe at all, knows perfectly well that Naples was then, and is now, a resort of the most exclusive set of the Italian aristocracy, and that there is a large and highly respectable English colony there. My grandmother, the late Hon. Mrs. Alfred Montgomery, lived there for twenty years, and there was not a person of position in the place by whom I was not known or with whom I was not on calling terms if I cared to follow up my social duties.


There is nothing at all about the reputation of Naples to differentiate it from Rome or Genoa or Florence or Venice or any other Italian city. Many people of distinction whom Mr. Justice Darling might not be sorry to know continue to make a point of going there every season. Well, just as there were brave men before Agamemnon, so there were people who could ferret out scandal even from the most harmless method of life before Mr. Justice Darling. Wilde and I were together at Naples, and malice and leering gossip were abroad with their abominable insinuations before one had time to say ''jackknife." The reports naturally came to the ears of my people, who were much distressed and upset by them ; and it was pointed out to me that I was doing myself great damage by befriending this man and that I ought to send him about his business.



One of the attaches from the British Embassy at Rome, in which city I had spent the winter of 1896 with my mother, came to Naples, at the instigation of the Ambassador, expressly to see me, and to urge on me the advisability of dissociating myself from Wilde. He told me that the fact that I had Wilde as a guest in my house was causing all sorts of unpleasant gossip, and he even went so far as to say that it was not fair to them at the Embassy that I should persist in giving cause for such gossip, as they had all made a point of being civil and friendly to me when I was in Rome. I told him that I cared nothing for gossip and scandal, that I had asked Wilde to stay with me because he had nowhere else to go and was practically without means, and that it was unthinkable that in these circumstances I should turn him out of my house simply because evil-minded people chose to concern themselves with what was no affair of theirs. He was very insistent, and when he found that I was not to be moved he got annoyed with me, told me I was a ''quixotic fool" and that I should live to be very sorry for having befriended a ''beast like Wilde” who would get everything he could out of me and then probably turn round and abuse me.


I was very indignant at this prophetic pronouncement, and we parted in anger. I believed then—and I believe now—that my attitude was the right one, and the gentlemanly one, in the right sense of the word. I knew that Oscar Wilde was hard at work on his poem. I believed that his life was clean and that he had determined to keep from his old evil courses; and I knew that my life was just as proper as it always had been, and I consequently saw no reason for turning upon my friend. The world was welcome to shrug its shoulders if it cared to, and I proposed to leave it to its shrugging.


But the feeling amongst my friends in England, largely got up and fomented by my enemies, ultimately became so strong that it was proposed to stop my financial supplies unless I consented to a separation from Wilde. I was thus forced to capitulate; but I did not do so without a struggle and without making provision for the man who was dependent upon me. I arranged to leave him at the Villa Giudice, the rent of which had been paid in advance, and I arranged that my mother should send him two hundred pounds, which would enable him to live in comfort for a month or two; and I further arranged to let him have additional money as he wanted it. I make special reference to the sum of two hundred pounds because it is a payment which can be authenticated, and, in fact, was authenticated at the Ransome trial.


It is true that at the very moment when he was writing to me in acknowledgment of these sums and to express his gratitude for my kindness, he was complaining to Ross in a letter produced at the Ransome trial that I had deserted him because his money was done. But every one with the slightest knowledge of Wilde's affairs knows perfectly well that all the money Wilde had was the allowance of two pounds nineteen and odd which came to him weekly through his friends.


The general untrustworthiness of Wilde's accusation is obvious on the face of it. Any one acquainted with him would, moreover, have laughed at his impudence in saying that I expected him to raise money. I knew Wilde too well to expect him to raise money, even in his alleged palmy days; and that I should have been ass enough to suppose that when he came to me at Naples, an ex-convict, an undischarged bankrupt, and on a railway ticket that I had paid for, he could be financially useful to me is too ridiculous for words. Yet Ransome gets into ''the Critical Study" the following choice sentences:


''Soon after Wilde left Berneval for Naples, those who controlled the allowance that enabled him to live with his friend, purposely stopped it. His friend, as soon as there was no money, left him. 'It was,' said Wilde, 'a most bitter experience in a bitter life.' He went to Paris.''


The last sentence should have had an addendum: it should have read : "He went to Paris with two hundred pounds of Lord Alfred Douglas's money in his pocket, which had been sent to him per Mr. More Adey and the Marchioness of Queensberry." But it doesn't. Of course Wilde went to Paris—and he went the moment he heard I was proposing to live there. It was in December of 1897 that he came and took an apartment at a hotel in the Rue Marsollier. A few weeks later I came to Paris and became the tenant of a flat in the Avenue Kleber. He might just as well have lived at my flat for the use he made of his hotel except to sleep in. For a whole year—that is to say, down to the end of 1898 —he used my flat as though it were his own, invariably turning up at meal-times when he had nowhere else to lunch or dine, and never failing to extract from me a good deal more than I could, at that period, afford to give him in the way of money to tide him over his constant and ever-recurring "difficulties."


I believe that from time to time he picked up various sums of money on his own. In January or February of 1898 he published the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol” through Leonard Smithers; and later I believe he obtained some small advances of money from theatrical managers for plays which he was always going to write but of which he never produced a line. The rights of one of these he seems to have sold for sums varying from twenty to a hundred pounds to at least half a dozen different persons; and he also sold for small sums the plots of two plays and several short stories which have since been given to the public by another hand. But whatever money he got did him no good.


A couple of hundred francs would take him away from his dinner at the Avenue Kleber to do himself well with a roaring company of boulevardiers; but the next day he was back at lunch, full of complaints of the hardness of the world and full of groans over his difficulties. I speedily came to consider him in the light of a permanent pensioner, and my servants had instructions to give him food, and not infrequently lent him money in my absence. During 1899 and 1900 his condition went from bad to worse. At the end of 1899 I took a shooting-box in Scotland, jointly with my brother Douglas of Hawick, and I was in Scotland until the death of my father in January, 1900. I came into a considerable amount of money under my father's will, and the very first payment I made out of my inheritance was one hundred pounds, which I sent to Oscar Wilde in Paris.




Out of this money he took a trip to Switzerland. By the time he came back I was at the Hotel Conde in Chantilly, where I had acquired a racing stable. Of course, I was often in Paris, and whenever I was there I made a point of asking Wilde to lunch or dine, and I never left him without handing him sums of money. My passbooks show that in a single year after the death of my father I gave Wilde nearly four hundred pounds in cheques alone: the figures appear in my bank-book and were proved at the Ransome trial: and I must have given him twice as much in hard cash or notes. At the very least penny, he had from me that year quite a thousand pounds over and above more or less constant entertainment. It was almost impossible for me to take a meal with him and keep money in my pocket. He would come to the restaurant or hotel where we were to meet with a dejected and depressed look on him, as who should say: "Behold, how we are harassed and reduced, and in what pain of mind we exist." I would give him of the best to cheer and comfort him, but his spirits insisted on remaining damp, and it was only with difficulty that one could get a smile out of him.


When the time came for parting, if I put my hand in my pocket and handed him five or six hundred francs, well and good; if not, he would order another old brandy and open up a dreadful tale as to the condition of his bill at the hotel, the attitude of his landlord about it, and his own desperation and despair. In the end I got more or less into the habit of handing him what I proposed to give him before we proceeded to refresh ourselves. I found that by this means the old Oscar Wilde was brought to the front, and we could talk pleasantly together, as gentlemen should.


I remember a certain occasion on which one of our sittings had been prolonged until a very late hour. I had taken the precaution to hand him a note for a thousand francs before we sat down to dine. He took his usual abundant share of the good things, and we talked and laughed over our string of liqueurs and let dull care go his own way. When I called for the bill, Wilde suddenly pulled a long and piteous face. ''My dear boy," he said, ''money —ah !—money. I hate to distress you, but I really must have a thousand francs now. I cannot return to my hotel unless I have with me money to pay at least a part of the bill. I don't mind telling you that I am without a penny in the world, and if I do not go to the hotel to-night I shall be homeless”.


''But, my dear Oscar/' I said, "I have just given you a thousand francs, which you put in your pocket.'' He looked at me as one amazed and then burst into a fit of coughing laughter. I laughed too. Though he could have lived quite comfortably on what I gave him, and though he had, as we have seen, a weekly allowance which should at least have kept him from starvation, there can be no doubt that towards the end of his life Wilde underwent a certain amount of privation. He resorted to all sorts of desperate shifts to get money, and composed many very plausible begging letters; but, just as pretty well every decent door was shut to him, so people had begun to steel their hearts against him, especially as he was now drinking in a most reckless way and made no secret of the fact that he had once more given himself over to his old habits. He became a sort of show for the bohemians of Paris ; the sport and mock of the Boulevard and the reproach of English letters in the City of Light. He got his dinners on credit, and borrowed money from waiters. His health was on the down grade in consequence of the intensification by alcohol of a terrible disease he had contracted.


He took to weeping and cursing at the slightest provocation, and, though his wit would flame out and his learning remained with him to the last, it was a poor wreck and shadow of himself which I saw from time to time when I went to Paris on various occasions in the year 1900. All through my acquaintance with him after his release from prison it had required a good deal of pluck to be seen about with him. He was known and notorious wherever we went, and I have seen men leave cafes because he had entered, and heard lulls in conversation and unpleasant gibes when we have visited restaurants together. At some of the places which we frequented they would have turned him out had it not been for the fact that apparently they could not afford to turn me out. In his later period the feeling against him grew more and more pronounced. His companionships and resorts were of the vilest and his self-respect was almost entirely gone.


Of Wilde's life in Paris before he began to break up, the following is a good sample daily itinerary: He would rise late, say at half-past eleven or twelve o'clock, and walk from his hotel in the Latin Quarter, through the Louvre to the Cafe de la Paix, where he would sit and drink aperitifs before going to lunch. In the afternoon he would go on to the Grand Cafe, where he would drink till dinner-time. The evening he generally spent where his friends might lead him, and some of them led him to pretty dreadful places.


When I came to Paris from Chantilly, if I had not made an appointment with him beforehand I could always find him at the Grand Cafe or the Cafe de la Paix of a morning, or at the Cafe Jidien or the Calisaya Bar of an afternoon. So long as I remained in Paris he lunched and dined with me as a matter of course — Paillard's, Maire's, and the Cafe de la Paix being our chief resorts. At his meals he behaved always like a pleased child, provided, that is to say, you had put him into a decent humour with a present of money beforehand. He was the biggest eater I ever knew, and the only man I ever met in my life who could drink quantities of champagne at each meal and keep on doing it. He had a fine head for drink, and it was not until eighteen months or so before his death that he began to lose it.


Intoxication would come over him suddenly and without apparent warning. He would rise from his seat and say: ''My dear fellow, I am sorry, but I perceive that I am drunk.'' Then he would call loudly for a cab and stumble forth. He made a great joke about these drunken fits, and one day said to me: 'T have made a wonderful discovery: I find that alcohol taken persistently and in sufficiently large quantities produces all the effects of intoxication,'' and so it certainly did.


At Maire's there was a real 1800 brandy, which had originally been laid down at the Tuileries. Wilde had some of it after a dinner there, and immediately began to make Maire's his home. The stuff cost five or six francs a glass, but this was nothing to Wilde if he happened to have money or was the guest of somebody else. He used to compliment the maitre d'hotel on this “excellent brandy,'' and there was no getting him away from it.


Wilde had few friends other than myself who could be of use to him financially. Frank Harris used to come over occasionally and take him to dine at Durand's, and I know that Harris also obliged him with money. From time to time, too, he picked up odd acquaintances who had means and were disposed to show him kindness; but for the most part they were Americans, and their capacity for befriending the man whom one of them described as "England's premier poet-dramatist" exhibited a great want of staying power.


I was in Scotland shooting when I had a letter from Ross to say that Wilde was ill but that it was nothing serious. On the next day I got a telegram announcing that he was dead and asking what should be done in regard to his affairs. I went straight to Paris and to the Hotel d'Alsace, where Wilde lay dead. I there saw Ross and Turner. They told me that Wilde had no money. I promptly provided funds for the expenses of the moment and I paid for the funeral, at which Ross, Turner and myself were the only English mourners.


After the funeral Ross handed me a list of small debts of Wilde's, consisting of unpaid dinner-bills and sums he had borrowed from waiters and such-like, the amount being between twenty and thirty pounds. These obligations I paid. When Wilde had been dead three years I received from a M. Du Bouche, dentist of Paris, a letter in which he pointed out that Wilde had owed him six hundred francs for professional services, and that the account had never been paid. I wrote to M. Du Bouche, advising him to apply to Mr. Adrian Hope, who, I understood, was Wilde's trustee. Later Du Bouche wrote to tell me that he had applied to Mr. Adrian Hope, but that Mr. Hope professed to know nothing of Wilde's affairs or to be in any way responsible. In the face of this letter I paid M. Du Bouche six hundred francs in settlement of the account and got his receipt for it.


There was no question at that time of Ross being Wilde's legal representative. Wilde made no will, but over and over again before he died he said to me: ''Of course, if I die first, you will look after my literary affairs." Ross was made literary executor of Wilde's estate in 1906—six years after Wilde's death.


After the funeral he came to me and said : ''Wilde has left nothing but a tumble of old papers. I suppose you don't mind if I go through them?'' I told him to do what he thought best, and there the matter ended. Ross was a person whom Wilde and I found useful because he was always willing to attend to occasional matters of business for us which we were too indolent to attend to ourselves, and this was the light in which I regarded him when I acquiesced in the suggestion which he then made.



One would think from the continual references to Wilde's allowance being paid to him ''through Mr. Ross" that Wilde was in some way in a condition of tutelage to Ross. As a matter of fact, Wilde arranged for the payment through Ross simply to save himself the trouble and annoyance of corresponding with his wife's solicitors.