He says he is fighting a duel to the death with his wallpaper. He says he is dying beyond his means. His body is bloated and toxic. It is evening. Fever rises. Delirium, to wander in mind. He is young, wearing his wonderful fur-lined coat, watching from in trains the great suns and moons of the United States of America. Arriving in Leadville, Colorado on a snowy winter’s night, to lecture, in a stuffy hall smelling of kerosene, on good taste. Admiring miners, in their clean mornings of blue lindsays, wide-brimmed hats, colorful bandannas, high leather boots, and above all, the elegant drapery of their unusual cloaks. When life imitates art, all is well, for the secret of life is in art. Thanking his audience.
The horrible Old Man, dressed in linoleum plaid. A Scottish accent, still. Handing him drinks, all right. Not drinking along much, not all right. After the reception steering him to the best Leadville brothel, where the ladies are at least honest, laughing at his vowels and his knickers, his drunken quoting of the New Testament in Greek, but listening quietly to his poem about Jesus and the Whore, Your lovers are not dead I know, they will rise up and hear your voice and clash their cymbals and rejoice and run to kiss your mouth, have no fear, only one God has ever died, only one God has ever let his side be pierced by the soldier’s spear. The Old Man in plaid, coarse but sensible, hides behind these whores until both men are very very drunk, then makes his advance, they could get out of there together. The firm reply No thank you. Surprise, Plaid takes in good grace, is helpful steering them both back to the hotel, still coarse and sardonic but something else as well. Handshakes, goodbyes and a final word, wait a few minutes before you go to bed, then no more Old Man, but a knock on the door those few minutes later, and a very handsome young one, as it were delivered there, the sardonic old man’s tribute and farewell.
He is a boy of hard work and aging quickly. But still very beautiful, straw yellow hair, long arms, a sensitive mouth. What to do, in Leadville, Colorado, on a winter’s night, a continent and an ocean away from London.
Good evening, says boy. Good evening, says Oscar.
Mind if I join you?—the gentleman sent me—Oscar, right? Right. He thought we might like a drink together, I have a bottle of champagne and these glasses. Pour. Cheers. Cheers, you must sip, or you will choke. I’m not used to champagne. I see that, how much did the gentleman pay you to come here? Five dollars, he thought you might give me another five, will you? Perhaps. Everything’s all right, nobody knows I’m here. I know you’re here. Don’t you want me here? First I want to know why you’re here. For you. Your eyes are red.
I’ve been rubbing them. You’ve been crying. Yes. Why? Somebody died. Who? A friend. A waiter in the hotels or a bartender in the saloons or a miner in the mines or a cowboy on the plains, how old are you? Twenty-five. Please. Twenty. Stop it. I’m fifteen. Have you ever gone to bed with a man before? Sure. I will be more delicate, have you ever gone to bed with anyone before? Of course! Here is my five dollars, for the truth. Well women, some. Do you want to go to bed with me, truth now. No. What do you want to do? I want to keep the ten dollars! You’re in trouble. Yes. Steal something? No. Afraid of someone? No. Well, then, is your heart broken? Yes. Do you need five more dollars to tell me why? My sister died. Really?We grew up together. When? Three days ago. Funeral? Yesterday. Did you cry yesterday? No. I did, when my sister died, wept, couldn’t stop. You had a sister who died? I was twelve, she was ten, here is a lock of her hair, see it? Yes. Do you want to cry now? Yes. Why don’t you?I’m working! For ten dollars. Yes. When my sister died I wrote a poem about her; would you like to hear it? Poem? Yes, poem. Maybe, what was your sister’s name? Isola, what was your sister’s name? Sally. To Sally and to Isola, tread lightly she is near under the snow, speak gently she can hear the flowers grow, all her bright golden hair tarnished with rust she that was young and fair fallen to dust, coffin-board heavy stone lie on her breast I vex my heart alone she is at rest, peace, peace, she cannot hear lyre or sonnet, all my life’s buried here, heap earth upon it.
Oh. Do you see? What’s a lyre? A harp. Do you see, for those who really love, there is only art, not immortality, do you see? Oh. Yes, cry, and take this. This is a hundred dollars. Goodnight.
Thank you. Thank you. You are a good and kind gentleman. I hope people always treat you the way you’ve treated me.
That is a brilliant line for an exit, I will remember it when I write a play.
Delirium, to wander in mind. Colorado and its suns and moons, the vast United States across which the young Oscar so bravely and shrewdly traveled, folds up and goes away into clouds as he lies, the ex-convict morally impure abuser of youth, rash ridden on his deathbed in the Hotel D’Alsace, dying beyond his means, fighting to the death with his wallpaper. Now the coat is on his mind, and he feels, with a shudder, the wonderful weight and trim of it, lost with all his other possessions when he went into Reading Gaol, and which, try as he might two years later, he could never recover. The few decent garments he was able to put on his back never fit, were never as they should have been, how he regrets that as now his death rattle begins, he has minutes to live, he puts on a dreadfully plain brown cloth overcoat, finds himself walking again into the odd party for French farm children he paid for with a surprise check, giving each child a small present, thinking of his sons as lost to him as the wonderful coat. Moving again, walking who knows where but walking in this final delirium away from the party with French children singing “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon,” which soothes the stabbing abscess in his ear, a hot memory of singing children calming his death agony.
He sees a small café, like one painted against a street not he thinks in Paris but perhaps near Normandy where he had to live, and here he arrives, feverish and ashamed of his coat. He looks around. Something, he knows, is going to happen.
A young gentleman, quite nicely turned out, sits at a table in front of the café, not as if a man painted there, no, quite solid. He wears a softly splendid dove gray coat, matching felt gloves lie on the table next to an orange tinted hat next to a slim black cane with a touch of silver on its ivory knob. He has straw yellow hair, long arms and a sensitive mouth.
Good afternoon, says young gentleman. Good afternoon, says Oscar. Mr. Melmoth? Yes.
The children sing, his fever rages, as the young gentleman smiles at him in an astonishingly familiar but most engaging way, without a trace of suggestion. He feels he should know this young man but knows he doesn’t. The young man waves gently at another chair at his table, and Oscar, a minute from death, sits there with him, wondering where he is and with whom.
The young gentleman just nods, sits there with Oscar as the two share a quiet moment together, then as easily as rain, with Oscar’s ferocious, final and Almighty Death looming over him, this young man begins a most civilized conversation.
What a pleasant day. Perfectly charming. Perhaps a little chilly. The children warm it up. They were singing for you? For the Queen of England, you seem very intelligent, I approve of that coat. I wanted to look my best. You are meeting someone? Yes. You aren’t French or English, yet you remind me of many young gentlemen I knew. I am from the East. Ah, then no further question but one, do you have any money? You’d like a drink? I would. Then you must have one.
A bottle of absinthe appears on the table in front of the café that looks like a painting. Two glasses appear beside it. The young gentleman pours and asks Oscar to make a toast. He does.
To another country. England? Ever been there? Once or twice. Approve of it? I like the lawns and the cheerfulness. And the hard work. And the carols. Bookbinding? Yes, first rate. Music?Some. Architecture? Not always. Bit chilling? Often. They get so angry sometimes, they did at me. Anger is not a productive state for an artist. Are you an artist? I do many things. Artists make nothing good out of hatred, they must love the world no matter what it does to them. Or they to it. That is exceedingly well put. Thank you.
Oscar can’t understand what this strange young man is doing with him in this strange café but he knows it should be done.
Do we know each other?—you seem very familiar. Well, I think in stories, like you, we have that in common. Who are you? Someone like you. My name is not Melmoth. I know what your name is, I have often seen you about, with another young man, who looks something like me, but who isn’t. No, he is very wicked. Doesn’t he love you? He tries, but he goes into rages, since I have no money now, calls me an old whore, and leaves me. Do you still love him? Forever. In spite of what he did to you? Or because of it, do you understand what it is to be betrayed? It is a part of my charm, as it is of yours. Then were you betrayed, too? Once. You loved like I do? Oh, yes. Who did you love? You. I beg your pardon? Among others. And were you betrayed as I was? I told you, once, but that once was spectacular.
Through the fever, through the suffering and deadly chagrin, it comes, finally, delightfully right.
l am very drunk, this absinthe, you are so charming, are you Jesus Christ? I am. This is absurd, really? Positively, none other, I assure you. It would be just like me, when I lie dying, to presume that I meet you in a dream, that I have known you before somewhere, when I loved the gospels at Oxford, or perhaps when I met young men who looked like you here and there. Does it matter, if it’s me? Not at all, in that case, how do you do? Very well, thank you. Why are you here, waiting for me, may I ask that? As a dying artist sees heaven, you see me, we both like stories. I’m dying now? Yes. Dead yet? Not quite. I hate to seem inquisitive, but exactly when do I die? When you stop dreaming. You’re not being precise, I see you clearly, we sit, we talk, dreams jump about. Not the last one, a final dream you of all men see as a story, this is your last story. Meeting Jesus in a fifth-rate café, is that a good story? I like it. Is that all there is? No, you will ask for me, a friend will bring a priest, you will raise your hand, and be received into the Catholic Church, which will please me, shall we finish this bottle?—here. Oh, thank you so much.
They drink all the absinthe together.
What will happen to my sons? One will try to forget you, become a soldier and die bravely in war, the other will try to remember you, have a son of his own and write fine books about being yours. What will happen to me? You will die where you are now, in a fifth-rate hotel, where one or two and even the owner of the hotel have you in their arms, just as I do. Why do they, why do you? You did not lose all your friends in life, you will make many others after death. Oh. Come now, wouldn’t it be boring if I came for the righteous? It would be tedious. Should not those who love more than most, be forgiven more than most? That is perfectly charming.
Death comes now, through everything. The rattle, the choking convulsions, the spewing of bile, the final agony of a swollen body that could refuse itself nothing.
The young gentleman stands up. He puts on his elegant gloves and bravely tinted hat, takes up his cane and puts one hand on Oscar’s shoulder.
It will only be a moment. I can’t breathe! Then don’t.
I feel so much better! Are you quite ready? When you are.
Then Oscar and a young gentleman he dreamed was Jesus Christ, arm in arm, saw opening before them what they wanted life to be, and they walked toward it together.