Here tragic reminiscences begin.
A persistent rumour, growing louder and louder with the fame of his successes (in London his plays were being acted in no less than three different theatres at the same time), attributed to Wilde strange habits, on hearing of which, some people tempered their indignation with a smile, while others were not in the least indignant. It was claimed, moreover, as regards these alleged [Pg 44]habits, that he concealed them little, and often on the other hand paraded them—some said courageously, others out of cynicism, and others for a pose. I was filled with astonishment when I heard these rumours. In no way, all the time that I had been intimate with him, had he given me the slightest ground for suspicion. But already out of prudence numbers of his old friends were deserting him. They did not yet actually cut him, but they no longer made a point of saying they had met him.
An extraordinary coincidence brought us together again. It was in January, 1895. I was travelling. A peevish disposition urged me on, and I sought solitude rather than novelty of scene. The weather was frightful. I had fled from Algiers to Blidah, and I was about to quit Blidah for Biskra. Just as I was leaving my hotel, I glanced, through idle curiosity, at the slate on which visitors' names [Pg 45]were inscribed. What did I see there? By the side of my own name, actually touching it, was Wilde's. I have said that I was thirsting to be alone, so I took the sponge and rubbed my name out. Before reaching the railway station, however, I was not quite sure that a little cowardice did not underlie that act, so at once retracing my steps I had my bag taken upstairs and wrote my name on the slate again.
In the three years since I had seen him—for I can hardly count a short meeting in Florence the year before—Wilde had certainly changed. One felt that there was less tenderness in his look, that there was something harsh in his laughter and a madness in his joy. He seemed, at the same time, to be more sure of pleasing and less ambitious to succeed therein. He had grown reckless, hardened, and conceited. Strangely enough, he no longer spoke in fables, and during [Pg 46]several days that I tarried there I was not once able to draw the shortest tale from him. My first impression was one of astonishment at finding him in Algeria.
'Oh,' he said to me, 'just now I am fleeing from art. I want only to adore the sun. Have you ever noticed how the sun detests thought? The sun always causes thought to withdraw itself and take refuge in the shade. Thought dwelt in Egypt originally, but the sun conquered Egypt; then it lived for a long time in Greece, and the sun conquered Greece, then in Italy, and then in France. Nowadays all thought is driven back as far as Norway and Russia, places where the sun never goes. The sun is jealous of art.'
To adore the sun, ah! that was—for him—to adore life. Wilde's lyrical adoration was fast becoming a frenzied madness. A fatality led him on; he could not and would not withdraw himself from [Pg 47]it. He seemed to devote all his zeal and all his worth to over-rating his destiny, and over-reaching himself. 'My special duty,' he used to say, 'is to plunge madly into amusement.' He used to make a point of searching for pleasure as one faces an appointed duty. Nietzsche surprised me less, on a later occasion, because I had heard Wilde say, 'No, not happiness! Certainly not happiness! Pleasure. One must always set one's heart upon the most tragic.'
He would walk about the streets of Algiers preceded, escorted, and followed by an extraordinary mob of young ruffians. He talked to them all, regarded them all with equal delight, and threw them money recklessly. 'I hope to have thoroughly demoralized this town,' he told me. I thought of Flaubert's saying when he was asked what kind of reputation he most desired—'that of being a demoralizer,' he replied. In the face of all [Pg 48]this I was filled with astonishment, admiration, and alarm. I knew of his shaky position, the enmities he had created, and the attacks which were being made upon him, and I knew what dark unrest lay hidden beneath his outward pretence of pleasure.
On one of those last evenings in Algiers, Wilde seemed to have made up his mind not to say a single serious word. At last I became somewhat annoyed at the exaggerated wit of his paradoxes, and I said to him, 'You have got something better to talk about than this nonsense; you are talking to me as if I were the public. You ought rather to talk to the public as you know so well how to talk to your friends. Why is it your plays are not better? The best that is in you, you talk; why do you not write it?' 'Oh, well,' he cried immediately, 'my plays are not good, I know, and I don't trouble about that, but if you only knew how much amusement they [Pg 49]afford! They are nearly all the results of a bet. So was Dorian Gray—I wrote that in a few days because a friend of mine declared that I could not write a novel. Writing bores me so.'
Then, turning suddenly towards me, he said, 'Would you like to know the great drama of my life? It is that I have put my genius into my life—I have put only my talent into my works.'
It was only too true. The best of his writing is but a poor reflection of his brilliant conversation. Those who have heard him talk find him disappointing to read. Dorian Gray in its conception was a wonderful story, far superior to La Peau de Chagrin, and far more significant! Alas! when written, what a masterpiece spoiled. In his most delightful tales literary influence makes itself too much felt. However graceful they may be, one notices too much literary effort; affectation and [Pg 50]delicacy of phrase conceal the beauty of the first conception of them. One feels in them, and one cannot help feeling in them, the three periods of their generation. The first idea contained in them is very beautiful, simple, profound, and certain to make itself heard; a kind of latent necessity holds the parts firmly together, but from that point the gift stops. The development of the parts is done in an artificial manner; there is a lack of arrangement about them, and when Wilde elaborates his sentences and endeavours to give them their full value, he does so by overloading them prodigiously with tiny conceits and quaint and trifling fancies. The result is that one's emotion is held at bay, and the dazzling of the surface so [Pg 51]blinds one's eyes and mind, that the deep central emotion is lost.
He spoke of returning to London, as a well-known peer was insulting him, challenging him, and taunting him with running away.
'But if you go back what will happen? 'I asked him. 'Do you know the risk you are running?'
'It is best never to know,' he answered. 'My friends are extraordinary—they beg me to be careful. Careful? but can I be careful? That would be a backward step. I must go on as far as possible. I cannot go much further. Something is bound to happen ... something else.'
Here he broke off, and the next day he left for England.
The rest of the story is well-known. That 'something else' was hard labour.
[I have invented nothing, nor altered anything, in the last few sentences I have quoted. Wilde's words are fixed in my [Pg 52]mind, and, I might almost say, in my ears. I do not say that Wilde clearly saw the prison opening to receive him, but I do assert that the great and unexpected event which astonished and upset London, suddenly changing Oscar Wilde from accuser into accused, did not cause him any surprise.
The newspapers, which chose to see in him only a buffoon, misrepresented, as far as they could, the position taken up for his defence, even to the extent of wresting all meaning from it. Perhaps some day in the far future it will be seemly to lift this dreadful trial out of the mire—but not yet.]
 An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket and The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James's. Possibly Lady Windermere's Fan or A Woman of No Importance was being played at a suburban theatre at the same time.
 M. Gide first wrote euphuisme but altered it to euphémisme on republishing his 'Study' in Prétextes. Euphuism or 'extreme nicety in language' seems to be more appropriate in the present case than euphemism or 'a softening of offensive expressions.'