" '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 Aguatant?"
"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 pate 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 Aguatant sat with her hands in his, transfixed. And then, a little drunk, suddenly, unexpectedly, he asked her to sleep with him. "Ou? 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."
Copyright © 2007 by Gyles Brandreth
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