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.
Copyright © 2007 by Gyles Brandreth
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