Those who became acquainted with Wilde only in the latter years of his life form a wrong conception of the wonderful creature he formerly was, if they judge from the enfeebled and crushed being given back to us from prison, as Ernest Lajeunesse paints him, for instance, in the best or rather the only passable article on the great reprobate which any one has had the talent or the courage to write.
It was in 1891 that I met him for the first time. Wilde had then what Thackeray calls 'one of the [Pg 22]greatest of a great man's qualities'—success. His manner and his appearance were triumphant. His success was so assured that it seemed to go in front of him, and he had only to advance. His books were causing wonder and delight. All London was soon to rush to see his plays. He was rich, he was great, he was handsome, he was loaded with happiness and honours.
Some compared him to an Asiatic Bacchus, others to some Roman Emperor, and others again to Apollo himself,—in short, he was resplendent. [Pg 23]In Paris his name passed from mouth to mouth as soon as he arrived. Several absurd sayings went round concerning him, as that after all he was only the man who smoked gold-tipped cigarettes, and walked about the streets with a sunflower in his hand. For, skilful in misleading those who are the heralds of earthly fame, Wilde knew how to hide his real personality behind an amusing phantom, with which he humorously deluded the public.
I had heard him talked about at Stéphane Mallarmé's house, where he was described as a brilliant conversationalist, and I expressed a wish to know him, little hoping that I should ever do so. A happy chance, or rather a friend, gave me the opportunity, and to him I made known my desire. Wilde was invited to dinner. It was at a restaurant. We were a party of four, but three of us were content to listen. Wilde did not [Pg 24]converse—he told tales. During the whole meal he hardly stopped. He spoke in a slow, musical tone, and his very voice was wonderful. He knew French almost perfectly, but pretended, now and then, to hesitate a little for a word to which he wanted to call our attention. He had scarcely any accent, at least only what it pleased him to affect when it might give a somewhat new or strange appearance to a word—for instance, he used purposely to pronounce scepticisme as skepticisme. The stories he told us without a break that evening were not of his best. Uncertain of his audience he was testing us, for, in his wisdom, or perhaps in his folly, he never betrayed himself into saying anything which he thought would not be to the taste of his hearers; so he doled out food to each according to his appetite. Those who expected nothing from him got nothing, or only a little light froth, and as at first he used [Pg 25]to give himself up to the task of amusing, many of those who thought they knew him will have known him only as the amuser.
When dinner was over we went out. My two friends walking together, Wilde took me aside and said quite suddenly, 'You hear with your eyes; that is why I am going to tell you this story.'
'When Narcissus died, the Flowers of the Fields were plunged in grief, and asked the River for drops of water that they might mourn for him.
'"Oh," replied the River, "if all my drops of water were tears, I should not have enough to weep for Narcissus myself—I loved him."
'"How could you help loving Narcissus?" rejoined the Flowers, "so beautiful was he."
'"Was he beautiful?" asked the River.
'"And who should know that better than [Pg 26]yourself?" said the Flowers, "for, every day, lying on your bank, he would mirror his own beauty in your waters."'
Wilde stopped for a moment, and then went on:—
'"If I loved him," replied the River, "it is because when he hung over my waters I saw the reflection of my waters in his eyes."'
Then Wilde, drawing himself up, added with a strange outburst of laughter, 'That is called The Disciple.'
We had reached his door, and left him. He asked me to meet him again. During the course of that year and the next I saw him frequently and everywhere.
In the presence of others, as I have mentioned, Wilde would put on an air of showing off in order to astonish, or amuse, or even exasperate people. [Pg 27]He never listened to, and scarcely took any notice of an idea from the moment it was no longer purely his own. When he was no longer the only one to shine, he would shut himself up, and emerge again only when one found oneself alone with him once more. But as soon as we were alone again he would begin, 'Well, what have you been doing since yesterday?' Now, as at that time my life was passing uneventfully enough, the telling of what I had been doing was of no interest. So, to humour him, I began recounting some trifling incidents, and noticed while I was speaking that Wilde's face was growing gloomy.
'You really did that?' he said.
'Yes,' I answered.
'And you are speaking the truth?'
'Then why repeat it? You must see that it is not of the slightest importance. You must [Pg 28]understand that there are two worlds—the one exists and is never talked about; it is called the real world because there is no need to talk about it in order to see it. The other is the world of Art; one must talk about that, because otherwise it would not exist.'
Then he went on:—
'Once upon a time there was a man who was beloved in his village because he used to tell tales. Every morning he left the village, and when he returned in the evening all the labourers of the village who had been working all the day would crowd round him and say, "Come, now, tell us a tale. What have you seen to-day?"
'The man said, "I have seen in the forest a Faun playing on a flute and making a band of little wood-nymphs dance."
'"Go on with your story; what did you [Pg 29]see?" the men would say.
'"When I reached the sea-shore, I saw three mermaids beside the waves, combing their green hair with golden combs."
'And the villagers loved him because he used to tell them tales.
'One morning he left his village as usual, and when he reached the sea-shore he saw three mermaids at the water's edge combing their green hair with golden combs. And as he passed on his way he saw, near a wood, a Faun playing a flute to a band of wood-nymphs.
'That evening when he returned to his village the people said to him as they did every evening, "Come, tell us a tale: what have you seen?"
'And the man answered, "I have seen nothing."'
[Pg 30]Wilde stopped for a moment to allow the effect of the story to sink into me, and then he continued, 'I do not like your lips; they are quite straight, like the lips of a man who has never told a lie. I want you to learn to lie so that your lips may become beautiful and curved like the lips of an antique mask.
'Do you know what makes the work of art, and what makes the work of nature? Do you know what the difference is? For the narcissus is as beautiful as a work of art, so what distinguishes them cannot be merely beauty. Do you know what it is that distinguishes them? A work of art is always unique. Nature, who makes nothing durable, is ever repeating herself, so that nothing she makes may be lost. A single narcissus produces many blooms—that is why each one lives but a day. Every time Nature invents a new form she at once makes a replica. [Pg 31]A sea-monster in one sea knows that in another sea there is another monster like itself. When God creates in history a Nero, a Borgia or a Napoleon He puts another one on one side. No one knows it, but that does not matter; the important point is that one may be a success. For God makes man, and man makes the work of art.'
Forestalling what I was on the point of saying, he proceeded, 'Yes, I know ... one day a great restlessness fell upon the earth, as if, at last, Nature was going to create something unique, something quite unique, and Christ is born on earth. Yes, I know, quite well, but listen:—
'When Joseph of Arimathæa came down in the evening from Mount Calvary where Jesus had just died, he saw on a white stone a young man seated weeping. And Joseph went near to him and said, "I understand how great thy grief must be, for certainly [Pg 32]that Man was a just Man." But the young man made answer, "Oh, it is not for that that I am weeping. I am weeping because I, too, have wrought miracles. I also have given sight to the blind, I have healed the palsied, and I have raised the dead; I, too, have caused the barren fig-tree to wither away, and I have turned water into wine. And yet they have not crucified me."'
And that Oscar Wilde was convinced of his representative mission was made quite clear to me on more than one occasion.
The Gospel disturbed and troubled the pagan [Pg 33]Wilde. He could not forgive it its miracles. The pagan miracle lies in the work of Art; Christianity encroached on it. Every strong departure from realism in art demands a realism which is convinced in life. His most ingenious fables, his most alarming ironies were uttered with a view to confront the two moralities—I mean, pagan naturalism and Christian idealism, and to put the latter out of countenance in every respect. This is another of his stories:—
'When Jesus was minded to return to Nazareth, Nazareth was so changed that He no longer recognised His own city. The Nazareth where He had lived was full of lamentations and tears; this city was filled with outbursts of laughter and song. And Christ entering into the city saw some slaves laden with flowers, hastening towards the marble staircase of a house of white marble. [Pg 34]Christ entered into the house, and at the back of a hall of jasper He saw, lying on a purple couch, a man whose disordered locks were mingled with red roses, and whose lips were red with wine. Christ drew near to him, and laying His hand on his shoulder said to him, "Why dost thou lead this life?" The man turned round, recognized Him and said, "I was a leper once; Thou didst heal me. Why should I live another life? "
Christ went out of the house, and behold! in the street He saw a woman whose face and raiment were painted and whose feet were shod with pearls. And behind her walked a man who wore a cloak of two colours, and whose eyes were bright with lust. And Christ went up to the man and laid His hand on his shoulder, and said to him, "Tell Me why art thou following this woman, and [Pg 35]why dost thou look at her in such wise?" The man turning round recognized Him and said, "I was blind; Thou didst heal me; what else should I do with my sight?"
'And Christ drew near to the woman and said to her, "This road which thou art following is the pathway of sin; why follow it?" The woman recognized Him, and laughing said, "The way which I follow is a pleasant way, and Thou hast pardoned all my sins."
'Then Christ felt His heart filled with sadness, and He was minded to leave the city. But as He was going out of it He saw sitting by the bank of the moat of the city, a young man who was weeping. He drew near to him, and touching the locks of his hair, said to him, "Friend, why dost thou weep?" The young man raised his eyes, recognized Him [Pg 36]and made answer, "I was dead and Thou hast raised me to life. What else should I do with my life?"'
Let me tell this one story more, illustrating one of the strangest pitfalls into which the imagination can mislead a man, and let any one, who is able, understand the strange paradox which Wilde here makes use of:—
'Then there was a great silence in the Judgment Hall of God. And the Soul of the sinner stood naked before God.
'And God opened the Book of the life of the sinner and said, "Surely thy life hath been very evil. Thou hast" (there followed a wonderful, a marvellous list of sins). "Since thou hast done all this, surely I will send thee to Hell."
[Pg 37]'And the man cried out, "Thou canst not send me to Hell."
'And God said to the man, "Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell?"
'And the man made answer and said, "Because in Hell I have always lived."
'And there was a great silence in the Judgment Hall of God.
'And God spake and said to the man, "Seeing that I may not send thee to Hell, I am going to send thee to Heaven."
'"Thou canst not send me to Heaven."
'And God said to the man, "Wherefore can I not send thee to Heaven?"
'And the man said, "Because I have never been able to imagine it."
'And there was a great silence in the Judgment Hall of God.'
[Pg 38]One morning Wilde handed me an article in which a sufficiently dense critic congratulated him on 'knowing how to write pretty stories in which the better to clothe his thoughts.'
'They think,' began Wilde, 'that all thoughts come naked to the birth. They do not understand that I cannot think otherwise than in stories. The sculptor does not try to reproduce his thoughts in marble; he thinks in marble, straight away. Listen:—
'There was once a man who could think only in bronze. And this man one day had an idea, an idea of The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment. And he felt that he must give expression to it. But in the whole world there was but one single piece of bronze, for men had used it all up. And this man felt that he would go mad if he did not give expression to his idea. And he remembered a piece of [Pg 39]bronze on the tomb of his wife, a statue which he had himself fashioned to set on the tomb of his wife, the only woman he had ever loved. It was the image of The Sorrow that Endureth for Ever. And the man felt that he was becoming mad, because he could not give expression to his idea. Then he took this image of Sorrow, of the Sorrow that endureth for Ever, and broke it up and melted it and fashioned of it an Image of Pleasure, of the Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.'
Wilde was a believer in a certain fatality besetting the path of the artist, and that the Man is at the mercy of the Idea. 'There are,' he used to say, 'artists of two kinds: some supply answers, and others ask questions. It is necessary to know if one belongs to those who answer or to those who ask questions; for the one who asks questions is never the one who answers them. There are [Pg 40]certain works which wait for their interpretation for a long time. It is because they are giving answers to questions that have not yet been asked—for the question often comes a terribly long time after the answer.'
And he added further, 'The soul is born old in the body; it is to rejuvenate the soul that the body becomes old. Plato is Socrates young again.'
Then it was three years before I saw him again.
 In La Revue Blanche.
 Henry Esmond, Book II, chap. xi. Thackeray puts these words into the mouth of the famous Mr. Joseph Addison, who continues:—''T is the result of all the others; 't is a latent power in him which compels the favour of the gods, and subjugates fortune.'
 Oscar Wilde's first play, Lady Windermere's Fan, was produced at the St. James's Theatre on February 20, 1892. This was followed by A Woman of No Importance, April 19, 1893, and An Ideal Husband, January, 3, 1895, at Haymarket; and The Importance of Being Earnest, February 14, 1895, at the St. James's.
 This story appeared under the title of 'The Master' with other Poems in Prose in The Fortnightly Review for July, 1894. Two of them, 'The Disciple' and 'The House of Judgment,' were first published in The Spirit Lamp in 1893. This was a magazine published at Oxford under the editorship of Lord Alfred Douglas, who had recently bought it from the founder and changed its style and form. A complete set of the fifteen numbers is now exceedingly scarce.
 Henri Davray translated these 'Poems in Prose' in La Revue Blanche.
 Since Villiers de l'Isle-Adam has betrayed it, every one knows, alas! the great secret of the Church: There is no Purgatory!