A novel by
Spring 1882 - San Francisco, U.S.A.
" Lady Stephenson, may I introduce Mr. Oscar Wilde?"
The crimson plume on Wilde's wide-brimmed black hat swept the carpet just in front of the old lady's feet. She raised her finely arched eyebrows slightly, saying nothing. The grey-suited man standing beside him turned his own hat nervously round and round in his plump fingers and cleared his throat.
"Mr. Wilde, our city's most famous chiromantist, Lady Stephenson."
"I must say how charming it is of you to meet me at such short notice, Lady Stephenson," said Wilde in his rich, deep voice. "I did so want to meet you before I left your beautiful city - which, alas, I find I must do tomorrow."
"Ah, your lecture tour continues to keep you busy, I see." As she smiled, the startling green of her eyes seemed to grow even brighter, lighting up her whole face. She still held on to a quite striking beauty and dignity, despite her years. "It's most kind of you to find time to visit me. I trust you're enjoying your stay here in San Francisco, our ‘beautiful city’, as you call it."
Wilde handed his short black cape, hat and ebony cane to the manservant and watched him go out through the white double doors. "Well, of course, when I say 'beautiful city', I was speaking only comparatively," he said, brushing back his long, brown hair from his face. "One cannot really have a 'beautiful city', it's a negation in terms. Cities are horrid, noisy places, filled with smoke and metal, and the tragic consequence of this is that the ugliness of a city is always reflected in the faces of its' inhabitants. Take Pennsylvania, for example." He tutted and frowned. "A quite appallingly ugly city. I met a group of - coal-miners, I believe they were - there and, do you know, they were without exception, quite the ugliest people I have seen collected together in a single room for a long time. It made me feel quite drained." He turned back to Lady Stephenson smiling suddenly, "and that is the reason why I referred to your city as 'beautiful', Lady Stephenson, because I saw your beauty reflected in its' streets."
"Mr. Wilde, really." She turned to the other man in the grey suit. "Mr Fray, you didn't tell me that Englishmen were such flatterers."
Mr. Fray opened his mouth to speak, but Wilde interrupted him swiftly. "Ah, but I am not an Englishman, Lady Stephenson, I am an Irishman, and there is a world of difference between the two, as any Irishman - or woman - will tell you."
"Indeed, Mr. Wilde, I believe so, my mother was Irish."
"Really? Then I see that Fate has brought us together and is smiling down upon us in a most indecorous - one might even call it a presumptuous manner." Wilde glanced behind him irritably as Mr. Fray gave another nervous cough. "I do wish, Mr. Fray, that you would devise some other way of getting my attention, one that is not so grating upon one's nerves. What is it?"
Mr. Fray blushed crimson. He shuffled his feet as he hesitated. "It's just that… I… I really should be getting back now." He paused, expecting someone to speak, but no one did. "I'll… er, pick you up at five then."
"Let me see," Wilde frowned briefly, "upon what subject shall I be speaking tonight"
"'Beauty in the Modern World' I think, Mr. Wilde."
"Then five o'clock will allow me quite sufficient time to prepare myself. It would never do to be overdressed whilst speaking on such a delicate subject."
Mr. Fray hesitated again, then began to edge towards the door but he was brought to an abrupt halt by Wilde's voice, accompanied by his arm being raised authoritatively above his head. As he did so, the sunlight that fell through the long windows, slanted through the billowing sleeve of his white shirt.
"Mr. Fray! One more thing please, before you go." He paused. "Do make sure that you refrain from wearing anything patterned tonight. I myself will be wearing a striped waistcoat and the two designs would clash quite appallingly."
When Mr. Fray had closed the door behind him, Lady Stephenson turned to Wilde, trying to conceal her smile behind her hand.
"Poor Mr. Fray, I feel quite sorry for him. You are cruel, Mr. Wilde."
Wilde looked distressed.
"Oh, I hope not. It's just that, as my publicity agent, the man has no sense of style. Which, as you are probably aware, is true generally of publicity agents, they are a breed quite apart."
Gathering her skirts around her, the old lady sat down at one end of the embroidered couch which was set in front of the large bay windows, overlooking fields that led down to San Francisco Bay. The afternoon sunlight fell through the branches of the trees that lined the street, dappling her silver grey hair with golden highlights. "Do sit here, Mr. Wilde. It's a beautiful day, is it not?"
"Indeed, the day is quite charming. And what a splendid view you have from here! Yes…" He stood by the window for a moment, his hand on his hip, gazing out. "The way the sun is falling through those branches seems almost like a beautiful painting - perhaps of the French Impressionist school, almost I say. Nature, alas, is always to be found wanting." With a sigh he sat down next to Lady Stephenson. "And now that the tedious business of polite introductions is over, Lady Stephenson, perhaps we can turn to more interesting subjects."
"Of course, but only if you call me Elizabeth from now on."
"Alright, and here I suppose, I should say ‘and you must call me Oscar’… but I find that the name has a quite undignified ring to it today. Such a pity. Sometimes it has about it… almost a regal air." He slapped his hand irritably on the knee of his velvet breeches. "Ah, if only one could choose one's own name! Then, I feel quite sure we would be a race of artists, each in perfect control of his or her own destiny."
Elizabeth frowned briefly. "But do you really think names are so important?"
"Oh, certainly. Names are everything." Wilde paused. "Take you own profession for instance. Is it not true to say that the beauty of the word 'chiromantist' had something to do with your choice of career?"
"Well, I don't know about that. However, it is true to say that I would much rather be introduced as a 'chiromantist' than a 'palm reader', or worse still, a 'fortune teller'."
Wilde made a face.
"Quite demeaning," he agreed. "Names influence our Fate, I am certain…"
Elizabeth looked at him sharply. "Do you mean to say you believe in Fate, Mr. Wilde?"
"Most certainly I do." He paused, then added, "not however, to the extent that some people do."
"What do you mean?"
Standing up, he wandered over to the window and looked out for a moment. "Let me tell you of a gentleman whose faith in his own destiny knows no bounds," he continued. "Do you mind if I smoke, Elizabeth? I can concentrate so much better if I do."
Elizabeth waved her hand dismissively at him, shaking her head.
Turning back to the window, Wilde lit his cigarette slowly, then continued to gaze out towards the silver-blue stretch of the sea, silent for several moments.
"And so, Mr. Wilde, I do hope you are going to tell me what became of this fatalistic friend of yours. No, thank you," she added, declining the offered cigarette.
"I shall tell you then, the complete and tragic tale of the unnamed gentleman. It began with him having his palm read by a rather renowned chiromantist, who had such a commonplace name, that I have quite forgotten it. However, the essential fact is that the chiromantist, turning quite pale, told the gentleman that he saw in his palm, a terrible Fate - his destiny would be stained with murder!"
"I hope that the gentleman was wise enough to remain sceptical of this chiromantist."
"Alas my dear lady, I regret to say that he was a quite charming and well-bred person and therefore completely devoid of common sense. He took his destiny to be as unavoidable as sin; consequently he grew quite sick with worry and refused to marry the woman he loved, such was his conviction in the truth of the words of Mr… the chiromantist." Turning away from the window, he wandered slowly back over to the couch, pausing to examine the pictures on the wall, hangings, and furniture as he passed. "The tale concludes in a suitably tragic manner, the gentleman's Fate could not be avoided. Some time later, as he was walking along by the Thames, in a state of great agitation and despair, the gentleman recognised the chiromantist standing nearby. In a desperate bid to escape the chiromantist's prophesy, the gentleman pushed him from the bridge into the water below."
"Good gracious, Mr. Wilde, I hope this isn't a true story."
Resuming his seat next to the old lady, Wilde raised his forefinger. "It illustrates an abstract idea quite perfectly," he said. "Which is something a truth can never do"
Elizabeth leant forward, smoothing the folds of her soft, blue gown over her knees. "And what happened to the gentleman when he realised what he had done?"
"Why, nothing of course. He lived happily ever after with his beautiful wife in… West Kensington, I believe."
"But Mr. Wilde, you cannot have that, that is hardly fair."
"No, but it is beautiful, which is far more important."
The white double doors opened suddenly and Elizabeth's servant stepped into the room. "Shall I bring tea in here, Lady Stephenson?"
Elizabeth nodded, standing up. "Yes do, Francis, lay it on the table."
She turned back to Wilde, clasping her hands together. "You will take a cup of tea with me before you leave, Mr. Wilde? I should consider it most discourteous of you to refuse."
"And so should I!" Wilde exclaimed, looking around him for an ashtray. "Of course I shall stay, Elizabeth."
"Good - then we can continue our conversation," said Elizabeth, handing her guest an ashtray. "I admit that I found your tale quite fascinating, if somewhat… lacking in moral fibre."
"Ah, but morals are totally irrelevant to all matters concerning art." Wilde watched as the young Francis returned, bearing an ornate silver tray loaded with cups and saucers, teapot, milk-jug, sugar bowl and a plate of biscuits. He set down the tray on the table indicated, wheezing slightly. He was very thin and delicate looking; Wilde wondered if he had something wrong with his lungs. "Is that not right, Francis?" he asked.
Francis started and glanced nervously at Wilde. Then his eyes flickered away quickly. "I believe it is sir, yes," he muttered, barely audibly.
Wilde nodded slowly, he watched Elizabeth begin pouring the tea. Francis stood slightly behind her, his dark hair almost obscuring his eyes from view and giving him a sullen, petulant look.
"Tell me Francis," continued Wilde, brushing his own hair back from his face, "Is that your first or second name; Francis?"
"My second name, sir."
"And what is your Christian name?"
"Stephen! Well, that is quite charming. I can see that you are destined for great things. Fate has your future mapped out for you."
Francis continued to stare at the floor, saying nothing. Finally, glancing furtively at Elizabeth, who dismissed him with a wave of her hand, he hurried out of the room.
"Wilde turned to Elizabeth. "The boy is trying to run from his own destiny," he remarked with a slight smile.
Elizabeth wagged her finger at him, frowning. "The boy is painfully shy, Mr. Wilde. I don't think that you should tease him so." She sat down next to Wilde and sipped her tea in silence for a few moments. "But, do you know, I find myself quite disturbed by what you have just said concerning the nature of destiny."
"Really? I did not intend it to be so. But then, one is constantly finding oneself contradicting one's own intentions. Indeed, it is inevitable the moment they become established."
"Your views on the role played in one's own life imply a sort of distance from it, a sense of not really being involved."
"That Elizabeth, is a result of living in the nineteenth century, in such an absurd, narrow minded culture as that of England. I can see quite clearly that here, things are vastly different. The space between what one is and what one does is not nearly so great. Indeed, the distance appears to be almost negligible."
"Mr. Wilde, I should be most interested to read your palms. Would you allow me to?"
"I should be deeply honoured." Leaning forward and replacing his cup and saucer on the table, he laid both his large, pale hands palm upward on Elizabeth's knee. "It will be one of my most treasured memories of my stay in San Francisco."
Elizabeth made no reply, she was bent over Wilde's palms, examining the deeply embedded lines and curves which criss-crossed his flesh, moving in different directions, sweeping aside the debris of whatever he had left behind, pointing upwards, forwards, to his own destiny. The room was silent but for the clatter of a horse and cart going along the street outside and the gentle churning of the sea in the distance. Wilde gazed down at his outstretched palms and he had a sudden vision of himself, begging for money. Or was it really something so commonplace as money? Wasn't it something more? Punishment, perhaps? He glanced across at Elizabeth and saw that she was not examining his palms any longer but was staring out of the window, a frown covering her face. New, harsh lines appeared around the side of her mouth, the bright green of her eyes seeming dulled by her thoughts.
"What is it?" asked Wilde, trying not to allow the alarm he felt to creep into his voice. "What evil things does destiny have in store for me?"
Elizabeth stared at him, as if trying to remember who he was. "It is really very strange, Mr. Wilde." She shook her head slowly, returning her gaze to Wilde's palms, which were still resting upon her knees. With her forefinger she traced the surface of his right hand, then his left. "I cannot work it out at all."