Oscar Wilde and The Ring of Death
(title in UK)
Oscar Wilde and A Game Called Murder (title in USA)
| Reading Group
Guide | Q
& A with Gyles
The Fortune Teller
It was Sunday May 1, 1892, a cold day, as I remember.
And I do remember. (And if I did not, I have my journal at my side
to remind me.) The day was cold, though the sun was bright. I recall
in particular the way in which a brilliant shaft of afternoon sunlight
filtered through the first-floor front window of Number 16 Tite
Street, Chelsea – the London home of Oscar and Constance Wilde
– and perfectly illuminated two figures sitting close together
at a small window table, apparently holding hands.
One was a woman, a widow, in her early forties, with
a pleasing figure, well-held, and a narrow, kindly face –
a little lined, but not care-worn – and large, knowing eyes.
She was dressed all in black silk and on her head, which she held
high, she wore a turban of black velvet featuring a single, startling,
silver and turquoise peacock’s feather. The colour of the
feather matched the colour of her hair.
The other figure seated at the table was quite as
striking. He was a large man, aged thirty-seven, tall, over-fleshed,
with a fine head of thick deep-chestnut hair, large, slightly drooping
eyes, and full lips that opened to reveal a wide mouth crowded with
ungainly teeth. His skin was pale and pasty, blotched with freckles.
He was dressed in a sand-coloured linen suit of his own design.
At his neck, he sported a loose-fitting linen tie of Lincoln green
and, in his buttonhole, a fresh amaryllis, the colour of coral.
The woman was Mrs Robinson, clairvoyant to the Prince
of Wales among others. The man was Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright,
and literary sensation of the age.
Slowly, with gloved fingers, Mrs Robinson caressed
Oscar Wilde’s right hand. Repeatedly, she brushed the side
of her little finger across his palm. With her right thumb and forefinger
she took each of his fingers in turn and, gently, pulled it straight.
For a long while, she gazed intently at his open hand, saying nothing.
Eventually, she lifted his palm to her cheek and held it there.
She sighed and closed her eyes and whispered, ‘I see a sudden
death in this unhappy hand. A cruel death, unexpected and unnatural.
Is it murder? Is it suicide?’
‘Or is it the palmist trying to earn her guinea
by adding a touch of melodrama to her reading?’ Oscar withdrew
his hand from Mrs Robinson’s tender grasp and slapped it on
the table, with a barking laugh.
‘You go too far, dear lady,’ he exclaimed.
‘This is a tea party and the Thane of Cawdor is not expected.
There are children present. You are here to entertain the guests,
Mrs Robinson, not terrify them.’
Mrs Robinson tilted her bird-like head to one side
and smiled. ‘I see what I see,’ she said, without rancour.
Oscar was smiling also. He turned from the table and
looked beyond the pool of sunlight to a young man of military bearing
who was standing alone, a yard away, observing the scene. ‘Come
to my rescue, Arthur,’ he called. ‘Mrs Robinson has
seen “a sudden death” in my “unhappy hand”.
You’re a medical man. I need a second opinion.’
Arthur Conan Doyle was then three weeks away from
his thirty-third birthday and already something of a national hero.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was one of the most popular books
in the land. Doyle himself, in appearance, was more Watson than
Holmes. He was a handsome fellow, sturdy and broad-shouldered, with
a hearty handshake, beady eyes and a genial smile that he kept hidden
beneath a formidable walrus moustache. He was the best of men, and
a true friend to Oscar, in good times and bad.
‘I’m no longer practising medicine, Oscar,
as you know,’ he said, moving towards the window table, ‘but
if you want my honest opinion, you should steer well clear of this
kind of tomfoolery. It can be dangerous. It leads you know not where.’
He bowed a little stiffly towards Mrs Robinson. ‘No offence
intended, Madam,’ he said.
‘None taken,’ she replied, graciously.
‘The creator of Sherlock Holmes can do no wrong in my eyes.’
Doyle’s cheeks turned scarlet. He blushed readily.
‘You are too kind,’ he mumbled awkwardly.
‘You are too ridiculous, Arthur. Pay no attention
to him, Mrs R. He’s all over the place. I’m not surprised.
He’s moved to South Norwood – wherever that may be.’
‘It’s not far,’ Doyle protested.
‘It’s a world away, Arthur, and you know
it. That’s why you were late.’
‘I was late because I was completing something.’
‘Your sculpture. Yes, I know. Sculpture is your
Conan Doyle stood back from the table. ‘How
do you know that?’ he exclaimed. ‘I have mentioned it
to no one – to no one at all.’
‘Oh come now, Arthur,’ said Oscar, getting
to his feet, smiling and inclining his head to Mrs Robinson as he
left the table. ‘I heard you telling my wife about the spacious
hut at the end of your new garden and the happy hours you are intending
to spend there, “in the cold and the damp”. Only a sculptor
loves a cold, damp room: it’s ideal for keeping his clay moist.’
‘You amaze me, Oscar.’
‘Mrs Robinson would have uncovered your secret
too – by the simple expedient of examining your fingernails.
Look at them, Arthur. They give the whole game away!’
‘You are extraordinary, Oscar. I marvel at you.
You know that I plan to include you in one of my stories –
as Sherlock Holmes’s older brother.’
‘Yes, you have told me – he is to be obese
and indolent, as I recall. I’m flattered.’
Conan Doyle laughed and slapped Oscar on the shoulder
with disconcerting force. ‘I’m glad I came to your party,
my friend,’ he said, ‘– despite the company you
‘It is not my party, Arthur. It is Constance’s
party. The guests are all alarmingly respectable and the cause is
The party – for about forty guests, men, women
and children – was a fund-raiser in aid of one of Constance
Wilde’s favourite charities, the Rational Dress Society. The
organisation, inspired by the example of Amelia Bloomer in the United
States, was dedicated to promoting fashions for women that did not
‘deform the body or endanger it’. The Society believed
that no woman should be forced to endure the discomfort and risk-to-health
of overly tight-laced and restrictive corsetry nor be obliged to
wear, in total, more than seven pounds of undergarments. Constance
spoke poignantly of the plight of so many women – scores of
them each year: young and old, serving girls and ladies of rank
– who were either maimed or burned to death when their voluminous
skirts, petticoats and underpinnings accidentally caught on a candle
or brushed by a hearth and were set alight.
Oscar and Arthur stood together looking about the
room. Conan Doyle leant forward, resting his hands on the back of
one of the Wildes’ black-and-white bamboo chairs. ‘The
cause is indeed a good one,’ he said. ‘Rest assured:
I have subscribed.’ He smiled at Oscar, adding, ‘I remain
to be convinced, however, about the complete respectability of the
guests. For example, who are those two?’ He nodded towards
‘Ah,’ said Oscar, ‘Miss Bradley
and Miss Cooper.’
‘They look like chimney-sweeps.’
‘Yes,’ said Oscar, squinting at the ladies.
‘They do appear to have come en travestie. I think the costumes
are deliberate. They probably wanted to bring us luck. They are
not chimney-sweeps by trade. They are poetesses. Or, rather, I should
say, “they are a poet”. They write together, under a
single name. They call themselves “Michael Field”.’
‘I observed them in the hallway, smoking cigarettes,
and kissing one another, upon the lips.’
‘Extraordinary,’ said Oscar, shaking his
head wanly, ‘especially when you consider the amount of influenza
sweeping through Chelsea this spring.’
‘And what about the unhealthy-looking gentleman
over there? He has the appearance of a dope-fiend, Oscar.’
‘George Daubeney?’ exclaimed Oscar. ‘The
Hon the Reverend George Daubeney? He’s a clergyman, Arthur,
and the son of an earl.’
‘Is he now?’ replied Doyle, chuckling.
‘Why do I recognise the name?’
‘It has been in all the papers, alas. The Reverend
George was sued for breach of promise. It was a messy business.
He lost the case and his entire fortune with it.’
‘He has a weak mouth,’ said Conan Doyle.
‘And a stern father who declines to bail him
out, I’m afraid. I like him, however. He is assistant chaplain
at the House of Commons and part-time padre to Astley’s Circus
on the south side of Westminster Bridge.’
‘No wonder you like him, Oscar! You cannot resist
Now it was Oscar’s turn to chuckle. He touched
Conan Doyle on the elbow and invited his friend to scan the room.
‘Look about you, Arthur. You are a man who has seen the world,
the best and worst of it. You have journeyed to the Arctic in a
whaler. You have lived in Southsea out of season. You are familiar
with all types and conditions of men. Consider the assorted individuals
gathered in this drawing-room this afternoon and tell me which one
of them, to you, looks to be the most incontrovertibly “respectable”.'
Doyle was entertained by the challenge. He stepped
back and stood, arms akimbo, fists on hips. He pursed his lips and
narrowed his eyes and, slowly, carefully, surveyed the scene before
him. Constance had gathered a motley crowd to her charitable tea
party. ‘What precisely am I looking for Oscar?’
‘The acme of respectability,’ said Oscar.
‘The face, the figure, the demeanour, the look that says to
you, “This chap is sound, no doubt about it.”’
‘Mm,’ growled Doyle, taking in the faces
around him, turn by turn. ‘They all look a bit doubtful, don’t
they?’ He looked beyond where the Reverend George Daubeney
and I were standing, to the doorway, where Charles Brooke –
the English Rajah of Sarawak, a particular friend of Constance –
was holding court. ‘Brooke has the look of a leader about
him, doesn’t he? I know him slightly. He’s sound. He’s
Oscar raised his forefinger and waved it admonishingly.
‘No, no, Arthur. Don’t tell me about people you already
know. I want you to make a judgment entirely on appearance. Look
about this room and pick out the one person who strikes you as having
about him an air of absolute respectability.’
‘I have him!’ cried Doyle triumphantly.
‘There!’ He indicated a sandy-haired young man of medium
build and medium height who was standing with Constance Wilde at
the far end of the room. Constance’s older boy, her six-year
old, Cyril, was at her side with his arms clasped around her skirt.
Her younger son, Vyvyan, then four-and-a-half, was seated happily
on the young man’s shoulders tugging at his sandy-coloured
‘He’s your man, Oscar,’ said Conan
Doyle. ‘He’s easy with children – and children
are easy with him. That’s a good sign.’
‘He is Vyvyan’s godfather,’ said
‘I’m not surprised. You chose well. He
has the air of a thoroughly dependable fellow. What’s his
‘Edward Heron-Allen,’ said Oscar.
‘A sound name,’ said Conan Doyle, with
‘Indeed,’ said Oscar, smiling.
‘A respectable name.’
‘And his profession, Oscar? He’s a professional
man - you can tell at a glance.’
‘He is a solicitor. And the son of a solicitor.’
‘Of course he is. I might have guessed. Look
at his open face – it’s a face you can trust. It’s
the face of a good-hearted, clean-living, respectable young man.
How old is he? Do you know?’
‘About thirty, I imagine.’
‘And how old is The Hon the Reverend George
Daubeney, may I ask?’
‘About the same, I suppose.’
‘But Daubeney,’ said Doyle, his eyes darting
from Oscar to Constance, ‘looks ten years the older of the
two, does he not? Daubeney’s face, I fear, speaks of a life
of dissipation. My man’s face speaks of The Great Outdoors.
He has colour in his cheeks. His jaw is clean-cut, his eyes sparkle,
his conscience is clear.’
‘My, my, Arthur, you are taken with him.’
Conan Doyle laughed. ‘I’m only doing as
you asked, Oscar – judging by appearance. Edward Heron-Allen’s
appearance is wholly reassuring. You cannot deny it. Look at his
‘The tailoring is unexceptional.’
‘Precisely. The man is not a dandy. He is a
gentleman. His suit is sober – it’s exactly the sort
of suit you’d expect a solicitor to wear on a Sunday –
and his tie, I think, tells us he went to Harrow.’
‘He did indeed,’ said Oscar, grinning
broadly, ‘and played cricket for the First XI.’
Conan Doyle caught sight of Oscar’s wide and
wicked smile and, suddenly, with a clenched fist began to beat his
own forehead. ‘Oh, Oscar, Oscar,’ he growled ruefully,
‘Have I taken your bait? Have I fallen headlong into an elephant
trap? Are you about to reveal to me that my supposed model of respectability
is, in fact, the greatest bounder in the room?’
‘No,’ said Oscar, lightly, ‘Not
at all. But we all have our secrets, Arthur, do we not?’
‘What’s his? Has he embezzled all his
‘He is in love with Constance.’
Conan Doyle looked concerned. He was a loyal and conscientious
husband. His own young wife, Louisa, known as ‘Touie’,
was a victim of tuberculosis. Doyle went out and about without her,
but she was never far from his thoughts. Arthur Conan Doyle was
that old-fashioned thing, a man of honour. His marriage vows counted
with him. He tugged at his moustache. ‘This fellow, Heron-Allen,
being in love with your wife, Oscar - does it trouble you?’
‘No,’ said Oscar, ‘not at all.’
‘And Mrs Wilde?’ asked Doyle, ‘How
does she feel?’
‘It does not trouble Mrs Wilde.’ Oscar
smiled. ‘Mrs Heron-Allen, however, may find it a touch perturbing.’
‘Ah,’ said Arthur frowning, ‘the
fellow’s married, is he? He doesn’t look like a married
‘I agree with you there, Arthur. He looks totally
care-free, does he not?’
‘He looks quite ordinary to me,’ said
Conan Doyle. ‘That’s why I picked him when you started
me off on this absurd game. I shouldn’t have indulged you,
‘Edward Heron-Allen is anything but ordinary,
Arthur. He cultivates asparagus. He makes violins. He speaks fluent
Persian. And he is a world authority on necrophilia, bestiality,
pederasty, and the trafficking of child prostitutes.’
‘Good grief.’ Arthur Conan Doyle blanched
and gazed towards Edward Heron-Allen in horror. The young solicitor
was lifting Vyvyan Wilde from his shoulders. He kissed the top of
the boy’s head as he lowered him safely to the ground. ‘Good
grief,’ repeated Conan Doyle.
‘I’ve seated you next to him at dinner,
Arthur. You’ll find him fascinating. He’s another chiromancer
– like Mrs Robinson. Let him read your palm between courses
and he’ll advise you whether to plump for the lamb or the
‘I’m speechless, Oscar,’ said Conan
Doyle, still staring fixedly in the direction of Edward Heron-Allen
and Constance Wilde. ‘I’m quite lost for words.’
‘No matter,’ said Oscar blithely, ‘Heron-Allen
can do the talking. He has a great deal to say and you’ll
find all of it’s worth hearing.’
‘Are you serious, Oscar?’ Doyle protested.
‘Is that man really joining us for dinner?’
Oscar chuckled. ‘Why not? He looks respectable
enough to me. In fact, he’s my particular guest tonight. Sherard
is bringing the Hon the Reverend George Daubeney. Who is your guest
Conan Doyle was now blowing his nose noisily on a
large, red handkerchief. ‘Willie . . . Willie Hornung,’
he said, hesitating to name the name. ‘You don’t know
him. He’s a young journalist, an excellent fellow, one of
the sweetest-natured and most delicate-minded men I ever knew.’
‘Hornung . . . Willie Hornung.’ Oscar
rolled the name around his mouth, as though it was an unfamiliar
Doyle returned his handkerchief to his pocket and
looked Oscar in the eye. ‘Perhaps I should advise Hornung
to stay away. Willie’s not what you’d call a man of
‘Don’t be absurd, Arthur. How old is he?’
‘I don’t know. Twenty-six? Twenty-seven?’
‘Keats was dead at twenty-six, Arthur. It’ll
do Mr Hornung good to live a little dangerously, take life as he
finds it. It’s the possibility of the pearl or the poison
in the oyster that make the prospect of opening it so enticing.
Besides, we have to have him or we’ll be thirteen at table.’
‘Is Lord Alfred Douglas coming?’
‘Bosie? Of course.’ Oscar threw his head
back and brushed his hands through his hair. ‘Bosie is coming,
very much so. And he’s bringing his older brother, Francis
Douglas, Lord Drumlanrig, with him. You’ll like Drumlanrig,
Arthur. He’s about the same age as your young friend, Hornung,
and sweet-natured, too. I’m all for feasting with panthers,
but it’s good to have a few delicate-minded lambs at the trough
as well. One can have too much of a bad thing.’ He looked
around the room. ‘Where is Bosie? He should be here by now.’
The Wildes’ drawing room was beginning to empty.
Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the poetesses dressed as chimney-sweeps,
were standing by the doorway blowing kisses towards Oscar. Miss
Bradley, the taller of the two, had taken a huge bulrush out of
a vase by the fireplace. She called to Oscar: ‘I’m stealing
this, dearest one. I hope you don’t mind. Moses and Rebecca
Salaman are coming to supper. This will make them feel so at home.’
Oscar nodded obligingly. Charles Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, was
handing Constance a cheque and grandiloquently saluting her for
her charitable endeavours on behalf of humankind in general and
the Rational Dress Society in particular. His wife, Margaret, a
plain and patient woman, was pulling at his arm. ‘Will he
ever stop talking?’ she asked.
‘Only if we start listening,’ answered
Constance, with a kindly laugh, kissing her friend on the cheek.
‘Thank you both for coming. And thank you, Charles, for your
generosity. Every one has been so kind, so good.’
‘It’s you, Mrs Wilde,’ said Edward
Heron-Allen, stepping toward his hostess and lifting her hand to
his lips. ‘You inspire us.’
Conan Doyle spluttered into his red handkerchief and
whispered to Oscar, ‘The man’s intolerable.’
‘You inspire our devotion,’ Heron-Allen
continued, still holding Constance’s hand and looking into
her eyes. ‘We love you. It’s as simple as that.’
‘We love Oscar, too,’ said a voice from
the landing, ‘But that’s more complicated, of course.’
‘Ah,’ said Oscar, clapping his hands,
‘Bosie is upon us.’
Lord Alfred Douglas appeared in the doorway of the
Wildes’ drawing-room and held his pose. Bosie was an arrestingly
good-looking boy. I use the word ‘boy’ advisedly. He
was twenty-one at the time, but he looked no more than a child.
Indeed, he told me that, later that same summer, a society matron
was quite put out when she invited him to her children’s tea
party and discovered her mistake. Even at thirty-one, people would
enquire whether he was still at school. Oscar used to say, ‘Bosie
contained the very essence of youth. He never lost it. That is why
I loved him.’
Oscar did indeed love Lord Alfred Douglas and made
no bones about it. Slender as a reed, with a well-proportioned face,
gently curling hair the colour of ripe corn and the complexion of
a white peach, Bosie was an Adonis – even Conan Doyle and
I could not deny that. Oscar loved him for his looks. He loved him
for his intellect, also. Bosie had a good mind, a ready wit –
he liked to claim credit for originating some of Oscar’s choicest
quips – and a way with words and language that I envied. He
was intelligent, but indolent. He left Oxford without a degree.
(But so did I. And so did Shelley and Swinburne. Bosie’s poetry
may not rank alongside theirs, but, nonetheless, the best of it
has stood the test of time.)
Oscar Wilde also loved Lord Alfred Douglas because
of who he was. Though he made wry remarks to suggest otherwise,
Oscar was a snob. He liked a title. He was pleased to be on ‘chatting
terms’ with the Prince of Wales. He was happy that his acquaintance
encompassed at least a dozen dukes. And he was charmed to find that
Bosie Douglas (with his perfect profile and manners to match) was
the third son of an eighth marquess – albeit a marquess with
Even in 1892, Bosie’s father, John Sholto Douglas,
8th Marquess of Queensberry, was notorious. Ill-favoured, squat,
hot-tempered, aggressive, Lord Queensberry was a brute, a bully,
a spendthrift and a womaniser. His one strength was that he was
fearless. His one unsullied claim to fame was that, with a university
friend, John Graham Chambers, he had codified the rules of conduct
for the sport of boxing. He was himself a light-weight boxer of
tenacity and skill. He was also a daring and determined jockey (he
rode his own horses in the Grand National) and a huntsman noted
for ruthlessness in the field. He was said to use his whip with
equal ease on his horses, his dogs and his women. In 1887, Lady
Queensberry, the mother of his five children, divorced him on the
grounds of his adultery.
Bosie despised his father and adored his mother. In
Bosie’s eyes, Sybil Queensberry could do no wrong. ‘My
father has given me nothing,’ he said. ‘My mother has
given me everything, including my name.’ Lady Queensberry
had called him ‘Boysie’ when he was a baby. Oscar called
him ‘my own dear boy’ from the moment they met, early
in the summer of 1891. They became firm friends almost at once.
By the summer of 1892, they were near inseparable. Where Oscar went,
Bosie came too. I liked him. Constance liked him, also. Conan Doyle
had his reservations.
As he stood, posed, in the drawing-room doorway, with
his head thrown to one side, like a martyred saint upon a cross,
Bosie looked straight towards Constance. ‘Mrs Wilde,’
he cried, ‘Peccavi. I have missed your party and I didn’t
want to miss it for the world. Will you forgive me?’ From
behind his back he produced a small bunch of primroses tied together
with blue ribbon. He stepped forward and presented them to her.
She kissed him, as she might have done a child, and said, ‘What
a sweet thought, Bosie. Thank you. I’m glad you’re here.
I’m sure Oscar was getting anxious.’
Bosie, nodding to Edward Heron-Allen, went over to
Oscar and Conan Doyle. George Daubeney and I joined them. ‘I
apologise, Oscar,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a damnable
afternoon. Arguing about money. With my father. He’s been
through £400,000 you know and won’t advance me fifty.
The man’s a monster. I’d like to murder him.’
Arthur Conan Doyle raised an eyebrow and sucked on
‘I mean it,’ said Bosie seriously. ‘I’d
like to murder him, in cold blood.’
‘Well, you can’t, Bosie,’ said Oscar,
‘ – leastways, not tonight.’
‘Why not?’ demanded Bosie petulantly.
‘It’s Sunday, Bosie,’ said Oscar,
‘and a gentleman never murders his father on a Sunday. You
should know that. Did they teach you nothing at Winchester? Besides,
it’s the first Sunday in the month and we are going to dinner
at the Cadogan. You can’t have forgotten, surely?’
Copyright © 2007-2008 by Gyles Brandreth