For the crimson flower of our life is eaten by the cankerworm
of truth.
And no hand can gather up the fallen withered petals
of the rose of youth.

[Pg 54]

[Pg 55]

As soon as he came out of prison, Oscar Wilde went back to France. At Berneval, a quiet little village near Dieppe, a certain 'Sebastian Melmoth' took up his abode. It was he. As I had been the last of his French friends to see him, I wanted to be the first to greet him on his return to liberty, and as soon as I could find out his address I hastened to him.

I arrived about midday without having previously announced my proposed visit. M. Melmoth, whom T——[1] with warm cordiality invited to [Pg 56]Dieppe fairly frequently, was not expected back till the evening. He did not return till midnight.

It was as cold as winter. The weather was atrocious. The whole day I wandered about the deserted beach in low spirits and bored to death. How could Wilde have chosen Berneval to live in, I wondered. It was positively mournful. Night came, and I went back to the hotel to engage a room, the same hotel where Melmoth was living—indeed it was the only one in the place. The hotel, which was clean and pleasantly situated, catered only for second-class boarders, inoffensive folk enough, with whom I had to dine. Rather poor company for Melmoth, I thought.

Fortunately I had a book to read, but it was a gloomy evening, and at eleven o'clock I was just going to abandon my intention of waiting up for him when I heard the rumbling of carriage wheels. [Pg 57]M. Melmoth had arrived, benumbed with cold. He had lost his overcoat on the way. And, now that he came to think of it, he remembered that a peacock's feather which his servant had brought him the previous evening was a bad omen, and had clearly foretold some misfortune about to befall him; luckily it was no worse. But as he was shivering with cold, the hotel was set busy to warm some whiskey for him. He hardly said 'How do you do?' to me. In the presence of others, at least, he did not wish to appear to be at all moved. And my own emotion was almost immediately stilled on finding Sebastian Melmoth so plainly like the Oscar Wilde of old—no longer the frenzied poet of Algeria, but the sweet Wilde of the days before the crisis; and I found myself taken back not two years, but four or five. There was the same dreamy look, the same amused smile, the same voice.

[Pg 58]He occupied two rooms, the best in the hotel, and he had arranged them with great taste. Several books lay on the table, and among them he showed me my own Nourritures Terrestres, which had been published lately. A pretty Gothic Virgin stood on a high pedestal in a dark corner.

Presently we sat down near the lamp, Wilde drinking his grog in little sips. I noticed, now that the light was better, that the skin of his face had become red and common looking, and his hands even more so, though they still bore the same rings—one to which he was especially attached had in a reversible bezel an Egyptian scarabæus in lapis lazuli. His teeth were dreadfully decayed.

We began chatting, and I reminded him of our last meeting in Algiers, and asked him if he remembered that I had almost foretold the approaching catastrophe.

[Pg 59]'Did you not know,' I said, 'almost for certain what was awaiting you in England? You saw the danger and rushed headlong into it, did you not?'

Here I think I cannot do better than copy out the pages on which I wrote shortly afterwards as much as I could remember of what he said.

'Oh, naturally,' he replied, 'of course I knew that there would be a catastrophe, either that or something else; I was expecting it. There was but one end possible. Just imagine—to go any further was impossible, and that state of things could not last. That is why there had to be some end to it, you see. Prison has completely changed me[2]. I was relying on it for that. —-is terrible. [Pg 60]He cannot understand that—he cannot understand that I am not taking up the same existence again. He accuses the others of having changed me—but one must never take up the same existence again. My life is like a work of art. An artist never begins the same work twice, or else it shows that he has not succeeded. My life before prison was as successful as possible. Now all that is finished and done with.'

He lighted a cigarette and went on: 'The public is so dreadful that it knows a man only by the last thing he has done. If I were to go back to Paris now, people would see in me only the convict. I do not want to show myself again before I have written a play. Till then I must be left alone and [Pg 61]undisturbed.' And he added abruptly, 'Did I not do well to come here? My friends wanted me to go to the South to recruit, because at first I was quite worn out. But I asked them to find me, in the North of France, a very small place at the seaside, where I should see no one, where it was very cold and there was hardly ever any sun. Did I not do well to come and live at Berneval? [Outside the weather was frightful.] Here every one is most good to me—the Curé especially. I am so fond of the little church, and, would you believe it, it is called Notre Dame de Liesse[3]! Now, is not that charming? And now I know that I can never leave Berneval, because only this morning the Curé offered me a perpetual seat in the choir-stalls.

And the Custom-house men, poor fellows, are so bored here with nothing to do, that I asked them if they had not anything to read, and now I am giving [Pg 62]them all the elder Dumas' novels. So I must stay here, you see. And the children, oh, the children they adore me. On the day of the Queen's Jubilee I gave a grand fête and a big dinner, when I had forty children from the school, all of them, and the schoolmaster, to celebrate it. Is not that absolutely charming? You know that I admire the Queen very much. I always have her portrait with me.'

And he showed me her portrait by Nicholson, pinned on the wall. I got up to look at it. A small bookshelf was close to it, and I began glancing at the books. I wanted to lead Wilde on to talk to me in a more serious vein. I sat down again, and rather timidly asked him if he had read Souvenirs de la Maison des Morts.

He gave me no direct answer, but began:—'Russian writers are extraordinary. What makes their books so great is the pity they put into [Pg 63]them. You know how fond I used to be of Madame Bovary, but Flaubert would not admit pity into his work, and that is why it has a petty and restrained character about it. It is sense of pity by means of which a work gains in expanse, and by which it opens up a boundless horizon. Do you know, my dear fellow, it was pity that prevented me from killing myself? During the first six months I was dreadfully unhappy, so utterly miserable that I wanted to kill myself, but what kept me from doing so was looking at the others, and seeing that they were as unhappy as I was, and feeling sorry for them. Oh, dear! what a wonderful thing pity is, and I never knew it.'

He was speaking in a low voice without any excitement.

'Have you ever learned how wonderful a thing pity is? For my part I thank God every night, yes, [Pg 64]on my knees I thank God for having taught it to me. I went into prison with a heart of stone, thinking only of my own pleasure, but now my heart is utterly broken—pity has entered into my heart. I have learned now that pity is the greatest and most beautiful thing in the world. And that is why I cannot bear ill-will towards those who caused my suffering and those who condemned me; no, nor to any one, because without them I should not have known all that. —— writes me terrible letters. He says he does not understand me, that he does not understand that I do not wish every one ill, and that every one has been horrid to me. No, he does not understand me. He cannot understand me any more. But I keep on telling him that in every letter: we cannot follow the same road. He has his, and it is beautiful—I have mine. His is that of Alcibiades; mine is now that of St. Francis of Assisi. Do [Pg 65]you know St. Francis of Assisi? A wonderful man! Would you like to give me a great pleasure? Send me the best life of St. Francis you can find.'

I promised it to him. He went on:

'Yes, afterwards we had a charming prison Governor, oh, quite a charming man, but for the first six months I was dreadfully unhappy. There was a Governor of the prison, a Jew, who was very harsh, because he was entirely lacking in imagination.'

This last expression, spoken very quickly, was irresistibly funny; and, as I laughed heartily, he laughed too, repeated it, and then said:

'He did not know what to imagine in order to make us suffer. Now, you shall see what a lack of imagination he showed. You must know that in prison we are allowed to go out only one hour a day; then, we walk in a courtyard, round and [Pg 66]round, one behind the other, and we are absolutely forbidden to say a word. Warders watch us, and there are terrible punishments for any one caught talking. Those who are in prison for the first time are spotted at once, because they do not know how to speak without moving their lips. I had already been in prison six weeks and I had not spoken a word to anyone—not to a soul[4].

'One evening we were walking as usual, one behind the other, during the hour's exercise, when suddenly behind me I heard my name called. It was the prisoner who followed me, and he said, [Pg 67]"Oscar Wilde, I pity you, because you must suffer more than we do." Then I made a great effort not to be noticed (I thought I was going to faint), and I said without turning round, "No, my friend, we all suffer alike." And from that day I no longer had a desire to kill myself. We talked in that way for several days. I knew his name and what he had done. His name was P——; he was such a good fellow; oh! so good. But I had not yet learned to speak without moving my lips, and one evening,—"C.3.3." (C.3.3. was myself), "C.3.3. and A.4.8. step out of the ranks."

'Then we stood out, and the warder said, "You will both have to go before the Governor." And as pity had already entered into my heart, my only fear was for him; in fact I was even glad that I might suffer for his sake. But the Governor was quite terrible. He had P—— in first; he was going to question us separately, because you [Pg 68]must know that the punishment is not the same for the one who speaks first, and for the one who answers; the punishment of the one who speaks first is double that of the other. As a rule the first has fifteen days' solitary confinement, and the second has eight days only. Then the Governor wanted to know which of us had spoken first, and naturally P——, good fellow that he was, said it was he. And afterwards when the Governor had me in to question me, I, of course, said it was I. Then the Governor got very red because he could not understand it. "But P—— also says that it was he who began it. I cannot understand it. I cannot understand it."

'Think of it, my dear fellow, he could not understand it. He became very much embarrassed and said, "But I have already given him fifteen days," and then he added, "Anyhow, if that is the [Pg 69]case, I shall give you both fifteen days." Is not that extraordinary? That man had not a spark of imagination[5].'

Wilde was vastly amused at what he was saying, and laughed—he was happy telling stories. 'And, of course,' he continued, 'after the fifteen days we were much more anxious to speak to one another than before. You do not know how sweet that is, to feel that one is suffering for another. Gradually, as we did not go in the same order each day, I was able to talk to each of the others, to all of them, every one of them. I knew each one's name and each one's history, and when each was due to be released. And to each one [Pg 70]I said, "When you get out of prison, the first thing you must do is to go to the Post Office, and there you will find a letter for you with some money." And so in that way I still know them, because I keep up my friendship with them. And there is something quite delightful in them. Would you believe it, already three of them have been to see me here? Is not that quite wonderful?'

'The successor of the harsh Governor was a very charming man—oh! remarkably so—and most considerate to me. You cannot imagine how much good it did me in prison that Salomé[6] was being played in Paris just at that time. In prison, it had been entirely forgotten that I was a literary person, but when they saw that my play was a success in Paris, they said to one another, "Well, but that is strange; he has talent, then." And from that moment they let me have all the [Pg 71]books I wanted to read[7]. I thought, at first, that what would please me most would be Greek literature, so I asked for Sophocles, but I could not get a relish for it. Then I thought of the Fathers of the Church, but I found them equally uninteresting. And suddenly I thought of Dante. Oh! Dante. I read Dante every day, in Italian, and all through, but neither the Purgatorio nor the Paradiso seemed written for me. It was his Inferno above all that I read; how could I help [Pg 72]liking it? Cannot you guess? Hell, we were in it—Hell, that was prison!'[8]

That same evening he told me a clever story about Judas, and of his proposed drama on Pharaoh. Next day he took me to a charming little house[9], about two hundred yards from the hotel, which he had rented and was beginning to furnish. It was there that he wanted to write his plays—his Pharoah first, and then one called Ahab and Jezebel (he pronounced it 'Isabelle'), which he related to me admirably.

The carriage which was to take me away was [Pg 73]waiting, and Wilde got into it to accompany me part of the way. He began talking to me again about my book, and praised it, though with some slight reserve, I thought. At last the carriage stopped; he bade me good-bye, and was just going to get out, when he suddenly said, 'Listen, my dear friend, you must promise me one thing. Your Nourritures Terrestres is good, very good, but promise me you will never write a capital "I" again.' And as I seemed scarcely to understand what he meant, he finished up by saying, 'In Art, you see, there is no first person.'

[1] A literary friend who, a few years later, in collaboration, with another, translated Dorian Gray into French.

[2] 'No more beautiful life has any man lived, no more beautiful life could any man live than Oscar Wilde lived during the short period I knew him in prison. He wore upon his face an eternal smile; sunshine was on his face, sunshine of some sort must have been in his heart. People say he was not sincere: he was the very soul of sincerity when I knew him. If he did not continue that life after he left prison, then the forces of evil must have been too strong for him. But he tried, he honestly tried, and in prison he succeeded.'—From a Letter written to the Translator.

[3] An archaic French word from the Latin laetitia.

[4] Within the last few years the stringency of this regulation has been somewhat relaxed, and it is in the discretion of the Governor to allow conversation at certain times. The Governor of Reading Prison, in the appendix to the Report of the Commissioners for the year ending March 31, 1901, stated: 'The privilege of talking at exercise is much appreciated by the prisoners. They walk and talk in a quiet and orderly manner, and there have been no reports for misbehaviour.'

[5] Solitary confinement does not mean in a dark cell. The prisoner still remains in his own cell, but is debarred from exercising with the other prisoners, or accompanying them to Divine Service. The confinement is not consecutive, but applies to every alternate day only—thus, a prisoner sentenced to seven days' bread and water, or solitary confinement, does but four days.

[6] Salome was played in Paris early in 1896.

[7] Oscar Wilde found the prison library quite unable to satisfy his wants, and he was allowed to receive books from outside. Such books are then added to the prison library. Magazines are forbidden, but novels allowed. In a letter written from prison early in 1897, Oscar Wilde said that he felt a horror of returning to the world without possessing a single volume of his own, and suggested that some of his friends might like to give him some books. 'You know what kind of books I want,' he says, 'Flaubert, Stevenson, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, Dumas père, Keats, Marlowe, Chatterton, Coleridge, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, Dante, and Goethe, and so on.'

[8] During the last three months or so of his imprisonment he did no work whatever beyond writing De Profundis and keeping his cell clean. He was allowed gas in his cell up to a late hour, when it was turned down but not turned out. As everything he wrote was examined by the Governor, naturally the prison system is not attacked with the same vehemence in De Profundis as it is in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

[9] This was the Chalet Bourbat where Wilde lived from July to October, 1897.

[Pg 74]

[Pg 75]

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