"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 decor 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."
Copyright © 2007 by Gyles Brandreth
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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