three weeks had elapsed, I determined to make a strong appeal
to Erskine to do justice to the memory of Cyril Graham, and to
give to the world his marvellous interpretation of the Sonnets
the only interpretation that thoroughly explained the problem.
I have not any copy of my letter, I regret to say, nor have I
been able to lay my hand upon the original; but I remember that
I went over the whole ground, and covered sheets of paper with
passionate reiteration of the arguments and proofs that my study
had suggested to me. It seemed to me that I was not merely restoring
Cyril Graham to his proper place in literary history, but rescuing
the honour of Shakespeare himself from the tedious memory of
a commonplace intrigue. I put into the letter all my enthusiasm.
I put into the letter all my faith.
No sooner, in fact, had I sent
it off than a curious reaction came over me. It seemed to me
that I had given away my capacity for belief in the Willie Hughes
theory of the Sonnets, that something had gone out of me, as
it were, and that I was perfectly indifferent to the whole subject.
What was it that had happened? It is difficult to say. Perhaps,
by finding perfect expression for a passion, I had exhausted
the passion itself. Emotional forces, like the forces of physical
life, have their positive limitations. Perhaps the mere effort
to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation
of the power of credence. Perhaps I was simply tired of the whole
thing, and, my enthusiasm having burnt out, my reason was left
to its own unimpassioned judgment. However it came about, and
I cannot pretend to explain it, there was no doubt that Willie
Hughes suddenly became to me a mere myth, an idle dream, the
boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was
more anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced.
As I had said some very unjust
and bitter things to Erskine in my letter, I determined to go
and see him at once, and to make my apologies to him for my behaviour.
Accordingly, the next morning I drove down to Birdcage Walk,
and found Erskine sitting in his library, with the forged picture
of Willie Hughes in front of him.
'My dear Erskine!' I cried, 'I
have come to apologise to you.'
'To apologise to me?' he said.
'For my letter,' I answered.
'You have nothing to regret in
your letter,' he said. 'On the contrary, you have done me the
greatest service in your power. You have shown me that Cyril
Graham's theory is perfectly sound.'
'You don't mean to say that you
believe in Willie Hughes?' I exclaimed.
'Why not?' he rejoined. 'You
have proved the thing to me. Do you think I cannot estimate the
value of evidence?'
'But there is no evidence at
all,' I groaned, sinking into a chair. 'When I wrote to you I
was under the influence of a perfectly silly enthusiasm. I had
been touched by the story of Cyril Graham's death, fascinated
by his romantic theory, enthralled by the wonder and novelty
of the whole idea. I see now that the theory is based on a delusion.
The only evidence for the existence of Willie Hughes is that
picture in front of you, and the picture is a forgery. Don't
be carried away by mere sentiment in this matter. Whatever romance
may have to say about the Willie Hughes theory, reason is dead
'I don't understand you,' said
Erskine, looking at me in amazement. 'Why, you yourself have
convinced me by your letter that Willie Hughes is an absolute
reality. Why have you changed your mind? Or is all that you have
been saying to me merely a joke?'
'I cannot explain it to you,'
I rejoined, 'but I see now that there is really nothing to be
said in favour of Cyril Graham's interpretation. The Sonnets
are addressed to Lord Pembroke. For heaven's sake don't waste
your time in a foolish attempt to discover a young Elizabethan
actor who never existed, and to make a phantom puppet the centre
of the great cycle of Shakespeare's Sonnets.'
'I see that you don't understand
the theory,' he replied.
'My dear Erskine,' I cried, 'not
understand it! Why, I feel as if I had invented it. Surely my
letter shows you that I not merely went into the whole matter,
but that I contributed proofs of every kind. The one flaw in
the theory is that it presupposes the existence of the person
whose existence is the subject of dispute. If we grant that there
was in Shakespeare's company a young actor of the name of Willie
Hughes, it is not difficult to make him the object of the Sonnets.
But as we know that there was no actor of this name in the company
of the Globe Theatre, it is idle to pursue the investigation
'But that is exactly what we
don't know,' said Erskine. 'It is quite true that his name does
not occur in the list given in the first folio; but, as Cyril
pointed out, that is rather a proof in favour of the existence
of Willie Hughes than against it, if we remember his treacherous
desertion of Shakespeare for a rival dramatist.'
We argued the matter over for
hours, but nothing that I could say could make Erskine surrender
his faith in Cyril Graham's interpretation. He told me that he
intended to devote his life to proving the theory, and that he
was determined to do justice to Cyril Graham's memory. I entreated
him, laughed at him, begged of him, but it was of no use. Finally
we parted, not exactly in anger, but certainly with a shadow
between us. He thought me shallow, I thought him foolish. When
I called on him again his servant told me that he had gone to
Two years afterwards, as I was
going into my club, the hall-porter handed me a letter with a
foreign postmark. It was from Erskine, and written at the Hotel
d'Angleterre, Cannes. When I had read it I was filled with horror,
though I did not quite believe that he would be so mad as to
carry his resolve into execution. The gist of the letter was
that he had tried in every way to verify the Willie Hughes theory,
and had failed, and that as Cyril Graham had given his life for
this theory, he himself had determined to give his own life also
to the same cause. The concluding words of the letter were these:
'I still believe in Willie Hughes; and by the time you receive
this, I shall have died by my own hand for Willie Hughes's sake:
for his sake, and for the sake of Cyril Graham, whom I drove
to his death by my shallow scepticism and ignorant lack of faith.
The truth was once revealed to you, and you rejected it. It comes
to you now stained with the blood of two lives,
do not turn away from it.'
It was a horrible moment. I felt
sick with misery, and yet I could not believe it. To die for
one's theological beliefs is the worst use a man can make of
his life, but to die for a literary theory! It seemed impossible.
I looked at the date. The letter
was a week old. Some unfortunate chance had prevented my going
to the club for several days, or I might have got it in time
to save him. Perhaps it was not too late. I drove off to my rooms,
packed up my things, and started by the night-mail from Charing
Cross. The journey was intolerable. I thought I would never arrive.
As soon as I did I drove to the Hotel l'Angleterre. They told
me that Erskine had been buried two days before in the English
cemetery. There was something horribly grotesque about the whole
tragedy. I said all kinds of wild things, and the people in the
hall looked curiously at me.
Suddenly Lady Erskine, in deep
mourning, passed across the vestibule. When she saw me she came
up to me, murmured something about her poor son, and burst into
tears. I led her into her sitting-room. An elderly gentleman
was there waiting for her. It was the English doctor.
We talked a great deal about
Erskine, but I said nothing about his motive for committing suicide.
It was evident that he had not told his mother anything about
the reason that had driven him to so fatal, so mad an act. Finally
Lady Erskine rose and said, George left you something as a memento.
It was a thing he prized very much. I will get it for you.
As soon as she had left the room
I turned to the doctor and said, 'What a dreadful shock it must
have been to Lady Erskine! I wonder that she bears it as well
as she does.'
'Oh, she knew for months past
that it was coming,' he answered.
'Knew it for months past!' I
cried. 'But why didn't she stop him? Why didn't she have him
watched? He must have been mad.'
The doctor stared at me. 'I don't
know what you mean,' he said.
'Well,' I cried, 'if a mother
knows that her son is going to commit suicide '
'Suicide!' he answered. 'Poor
Erskine did not commit suicide. He died of consumption. He came
here to die. The moment I saw him I knew that there was no hope.
One lung was almost gone, and the other was very much affected.
Three days before he died he asked me was there any hope. I told
him frankly that there was none, and that he had only a few days
to live. He wrote some letters, and was quite resigned, retaining
his senses to the last.'
At that moment Lady Erskine entered
the room with the fatal picture of Willie Hughes in her hand.
'When George was dying he begged me to give you this,' she said.
As I took it from her, her tears fell on my hand.
The picture hangs now in my library,
where it is very much admired by my artistic friends. They have
decided that it is not a Clouet, but an Oudry. I have never cared
to tell them its true history. But sometimes, when I look at
it, I think that there is really a great deal to be said for
the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
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Oscar Wilde Collection