Death of No Importance
Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders (title in UK)
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance (Title in USA)
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From the previously unpublished memoirs of
My name is Robert Sherard, and I was a friend
of Oscar Wilde. We met in Paris in 1883, when he was twenty-eight
and already famous, and I was twenty-two and quite unknown. ‘You
must not call me “Wilde”,’ he said to me at that
first encounter. ‘If I am your friend, Robert, my name to
you is Oscar. If we are only strangers, I am Mr Wilde.’ We
were not strangers. Nor were we lovers. We were friends. And, after
his death, I became his first – and his most faithful –
I knew Oscar Wilde and I loved him. I was not
by him in the poor room of the poor inn where he died. I had not
the consolation of following to the nameless grave the lonely hearse
which had no flowers on its pall.
But, as many hundreds of miles away, I read of
his solitary death, and heard of the supreme abandonment of him
by those to whom also he had always been good, I determined to say
all the things that I knew of him, to tell people what he really
was, so that my story might help a little to a better understanding
of a man of rare heart and rarer genius.
I am writing this in the summer of 1939. The date
is Thursday the 31st of August. War looms, but it means nothing
to me. Who wins, who loses: I care not. I am an old man now, and
sick, and I have a tale I need to tell before I die. I want to complete
the record, ‘finish the portrait’, as best I can. As
in a forest of pine-trees in southern France there are great black,
burnt-up patches, so too in my memory. There is much that I have
forgotten, much that I have tried to forget, but what you will read
in the pages that follow I know to be true. In the years of our
friendship, I kept a journal of our times together. I promised Oscar
that for fifty years I would keep his secret. I have kept my word.
And now the time has come. I can break my silence. I must do it,
for I have the record. I was there. I am the witness.
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
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 – Number 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
"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?"
"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.
"Où? Quand? Combien?" he enquired.
"Içi, 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