Oscar Wilde discovers America : a novel /

Main Author: Edwards, Louis, 1962-
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New York : Scribner, 2003.
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Chapter One: New York Blood, coursing through William with a curious heat, burned his cheeks. Baxter was going to Europe tomorrow, and he was not. Just as, four years earlier, Baxter had gone to Harvard, and he had not. William brought his hands up to his face and felt the warmth of his envy pulsing there. Such emotion would have ruddied the face of a fairer man -- Baxter would have been blushing -- exposing his fury, but William, sitting across from his observant, judgmental father, enjoyed the refuge of his brown mask. Had William's gloom a glow and had Henry Traquair detected the source of his son's malaise, he would have, no doubt, lectured William about the perils of self-pity. His father, with the lone exception of pride, had never displayed, at least in William's presence, any interest in matters of the self at all. Perhaps this trait, William allowed, was an acquired one, the result of Mr. Traquair's life's work as a servant attending to the needs of others, a hazard of the job, as it were, like a coal miner's cough or a cotton picker's crouch. For as long as William could remember, his father, who was now stylishly interrupting his own chatter (what was he talking about anyway -- a Mr. Vail -- who was this Vail and why should William care about him?) with perfectly timed double puffs of his cigarette, had been the senior servant in the household of Mr. Charles Gable, owner of a small but very profitable bank in New York City. Mr. Gable was a widower; William had no recollection of Mrs. Gable, though his own mother, Gloria, who was the only other full-time worker in the Gable household, occasionally spoke of her. A large portrait of Mrs. Gable hung in the grand entrance to the home, a three-story townhouse at 141 East Nineteenth Street in Gramercy Park -- the only home William had ever known. Baxter, who was just a few months younger than William, was the Gables' only child. As boys growing up together in the same household, Baxter and William had been inseparable, sharing meals, mischief, punishment, and private tutors, who had taken them from simple addition through the mysteries of pi and beyond, from the English alphabet to Latin grammar, from the Greeks to Milton. They had found Hawthorne, Poe, and other more recent authors on their own; the tutors had evidently had a low opinion of American literature. William and Baxter had remained close even when they had gone away to separate colleges, Baxter, as expected, to Harvard, William to Bowdoin. (Mr. Gable had arranged William's matriculation to the Maine school, after having had no success in convincing his connections in Cambridge to accept William's application.) William still had the first of many letters Baxter had sent to him during their years of separation: 14 September 1877 Billy Boy, You wouldn't like it here. It seems no one believes in Plato at the moment. But I hear next semester that could change. Do classroom desks bother you as much as they do me? We students seem rather like sitting ducks -- and, oh, how the professors do take aim. Terribly, shamefully happy, Ever yours, Baxy Boy William had written back a letter of equal brevity and with just as delicate an admission of betrayal, because he, too, had settled in for four years of ecstasy. Yes, the initial disappointment at having been denied Massachusetts had been swept away early in his freshman year when a rolling wave had splashed him as he had stood on the rocky Maine coastline near Brunswick. The splatter of leaping and diving droplets had anticipated or possibly even precipitated his tears for the aggressive beauty of the great sea that had jumped up with such impetuosity to kiss the face of his youth. What a kiss! He could have retreated from the shore in time to save himself from a second dousing, but he had let the tide wash over him once more. Standing there in the arms of the Atlantic, he felt he had just learned what he might, in the future, expect of love -- surprise and swiftness...and love of him -- surrender. And college had been as breezy and romantic as that late summer day. But now those four years were done, and William had no idea where to turn for a pleasure that would match the stimulation, the intellectual and visceral orgy, that was academia and its environs. Baxter had an easy answer: he was off to England, then France, Italy, Spain, and Germany -- a yearlong adventure across the Continent. But William was expected to move to the South and become a teacher or to stay at home and become his father. He didn't feel inclined to do either, not because he feared failure, but because he dreaded success. They were such easy options. He knew he could manage either of them with little effort. He felt he had a certain aptitude for teaching. As a college senior he had assisted one of the best professors on campus with his survey course of American History. Logic told him he would become a teacher soon enough. But not yet. Not now. He needed a challenge. When he had left Bowdoin to come back to New York City, he had felt the classic depression of the recent undergraduate. The battle with adolescence essentially won, the confident, dangerously armed adult seeks a real war. When none is declared, a civil war as inevitable and debilitating as any other (was it the head versus the heart?) substitutes. Baxter had his war; he was off to conquer Europe. But what about me? William had moped, sighing like Sumter. Where is my continent? And now, weary for the moment from the frustration that came of contemplating his predicament, William attempted to focus on the blurry image of his father in the small room at the back of the house that Mr. Traquair had long ago appropriated as his office and study. If his father refused to acknowledge the complexity of himself, William vowed he would try to see the man whole. Through a droopy-eyed gaze, across the smoke-filled room, he saw his father -- puff, puff -- sitting comfortably in his burgundy-colored leather chair behind his grand polished oak desk. William knew this pose photographically, could have painted it from memory had he the skill. But it struck him that he actually knew very little about his father. He knew the man's habits and his disposition. But who was he, really? A handsome fifty-year-old butler who had made a career out of studying, learning, and attending to his employer's needs? Was he simply that? Of course not. But their countless, seemingly intimate conversations over the years had always resulted in William telling all and his father telling nothing. Lately he had begun to sense an annoying calculation in the way his father deftly guided their discussions away from himself. A father-boy relationship might have warranted such manipulation, William allowed, but a father and a young man, his son, must play by different rules. Yet even this understanding -- that he and his father would soon essentially be equals -- fresh as it was, had much more to say about William than about Mr. Traquair, so successful had his father been in maintaining the mystery of his being. Prompted by a volume of poems positioned prominently on Mr. Traquair's desk, William remembered something of substance that he knew about his father: his favorite poet was Phillis Wheatley, the brilliant slave girl. William found his father's affection for Miss Wheatley displeasing -- Phillis Wheatley: a poet held captive. The hopelessness of her circumstances both sickened and bored him, but apparently her situation and her achievement impressed his father. In the bitter tone of his dark state, William thought that Mr. Traquair adored Phillis Wheatley the way the oppressed always love their struggle and the symbols of it, with passion. But the idea of an enslaved poet, an imprisoned artistic soul, plunged William even farther downward, and he sank, as if through a trapdoor, to his depression's new, unsuspected bottom. Poets should be free! "I said, 'William, why aren't you listening to what I'm saying?' That's what I just said to you," Mr. Traquair said. William wondered, Did I just ask him what he had said to me? "I am listening, Father," he said, improving his posture. "Yes, now you have my attention." "Do I need to begin again? Has even the gist of my words penetrated the mist of your meditation?" Mr. Traquair sounded more stern than usual. He was not a forceful man, merely a rigid one. William had always found the bass in his voice disconcerting, too strong for the delicately composed words he spoke through white teeth and perfectly shaped lips. The large size of his head, a bolder version of William's, also hinted at an aggression that William knew was not in his father's nature. In less melancholy moments, William had noted how his father's silver and black matted crown rested gently upon his head, accenting a regality that defied his station. "Something about a Mr. Vail." William feigned interest. "Right, right. Well, as I was saying, he came for a visit yesterday. Gable has known him since he was a child, possibly some relationship by marriage, though I remembered nothing of the young man when I met him. At any rate, I walked into the library to serve the brandy, and as I did, Gable says, 'Fine timing, Henry, right on cue.' And, of course, I'm thinking, Why should my timing not be fine after more than twenty years! I know how and when he likes his brandy served, what does he mean, my timing, why, I'm a veritable -- why, were I a timepiece, my brand would be Gable. He must have sensed some confusion on my face and, I must say, he recovered nicely. 'We need your advice,' he said. A nice phrase to hear, my boy. 'We need your advice.' Listen for it in your lifetime, and try to be ready to answer its call. Not that I, mind you, held any conceit that I could truly be of much help to the gentlemen, but I stood ready to try. 'Mr. Vail,' he said, 'is in a bit of a fix. He's got a distinguished Englishman due to dock in New York harbor the day after New Year's, and the valet he had rounded up to attend to the man has mysteriously disappeared.' "'Disappeared?' I asked. "'Quite,' Vail said. 'Though not before my eyes. That reminds me of a ghost story I heard the other day -- ' "Gable cut him off, thank goodness. Can you imagine? A ghost story? In the middle of my being asked for advice? 'Henry,' Gable said to me, 'we're wondering if you can suggest some good young man who'd be willing to look after the Englishman while he's here in the States. There will be some travel involved; no one's sure at this point how much. Right, James?' "To which Vail says, 'Yes, we're hoping for a long tour, but there's no guarantee. Of course, there is a guarantee, but I'm not discussing that now. This is Mr. D'Oyly Carte's affair, as managed here by Colonel Morse.' "'Yes, of course,' says Gable, 'but that's more information than Henry needs. Can you think of anyone, Henry, any young man who might fill this position?' "'Yes, old boy,' says Vail to me, 'it seems I'm really in quite the spot.' "I was really in quite the spot myself, son." Mr. Traquair paused here. William, suddenly understanding what his father was intimating, said, "Father, you didn't!" He sprang up from his chair, hoping to display an appropriate sense of the shock he was experiencing. "You will be seated," Mr. Traquair said firmly, and his son demurred. "Now, what I did was to make a suggestion that you, should you choose, be considered for the position." "A valet, Father? Is that what you really think I'm suited to be?" "A valet suits others. If you are to climb a mountain, at least have some idea of its height. Know your mission before accepting it." "I don't need to know this mission because I'm not accepting it." Mr. Traquair drew once, slowly, upon his cigarette and then spoke calmly and confidently. "William, in answer to your question, I don't know what you're suited for. And, frankly, neither do you. This mood you've been in lately is not attractive. And just what are you going to do when Baxter leaves tomorrow? He's backed up your foolishness through the summer and the fall, even put off his trip to keep you company -- oh, I know these things, don't look at me that way. I should have said something long before now. I'm sorry I did not. When Baxter leaves tomorrow, you'll be very much alone. And your presence in this household, given your aversion to domestic duties, will amount to loitering. What will you do then?" "Your suggestion is a rather extreme answer to that question." "Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it is, nevertheless, an answer. Your response is as of yet forthcoming. It seems to me that you have joined me and Mr. Vail in being in quite the spot." "What is it they say about misery and its company?" "It would benefit us both if you would remember that misery is said to feel about its company the way I feel about you." "You've got an interesting way of showing it. I'm not an indentured servant, you know. And didn't the war put an end to the other thing?" Mr. Traquair's face grew dark at this remark, and he responded, "Mr. Gable's involved. Of course you'll be well compensated." "But how is he involved? I thought you said this was Mr. Vail's affair." "It is. What I mean is -- and I suppose I should have said this earlier -- upon my proposal that Vail consider you, Mr. Gable accepted the position in your name." "Surely not, Father!" "Well...at my suggestion that he do so. I didn't want Vail to find someone else and have you miss this opportunity. It has real possibilities. It's not permanent, but there is the chance for you to travel. Vail says maybe all across the country -- if his man is successful with his lectures. I'd like to do that myself, some traveling. I did not imagine that you would object so strongly." "Your imagination has never been your strong suit." "True -- but my reputation has ever been. And it is that which you are threatening now with your obstinacy. I gave Mr. Gable my word, and that -- despite your high-and-mighty stance and your sense of self-importance, neither of which you would possess and be able to throw in my face at this moment were it not for my reputation and Mr. Gable's money, which sent you to college -- well, I gave my word, and that, young man, will decide this matter." "Father, you don't seem to understand my position." "Don't qualify my inability to understand nonsense with the word 'seem.' I don't understand your position." Upon hearing this statement, William paused and then suddenly found himself laughing. It occurred to him that he had gotten his own sensitivity to language directly from the man before him. Surely he had known this about his father and himself, an important trait they had in common. Maybe there was something more to Phillis Wheatley than he thought. Maybe he should look at her verses again. Maybe it wasn't her servitude, her suffering, that mattered to his linguistically perceptive and inventive father, who also just happened to be a servant. Maybe it was her poetry, her words. These four maybe's equaled one perfect squint through which his father, for the first time this afternoon, gained focus in William's eyes. With resignation and more than a little admiration, William sat back in his chair. "I'm not agreeing, Father. But tell me about this Englishman. Who is he, the man I am to serve -- I mean, the man whom, in deference to your stellar reputation, I am considering serving?" "A young man by the name of Oscar Wilde. I only know that -- " "The Oscar Wilde!" William leaned forward, balancing himself against his father's desk, fingers pressed firmly along its polished front edge. "The? Well, he's certainly an Oscar Wilde. I don't know that he's the only one." "No, Father, he's the one! I'm sure. The papers have him arriving in three days' time. Don't you know who he is!" "I suppose you'd know I was lying now if I pretended that I do know, so, no, I don't know who he is." "He's the one. In Patience. The play. Gilbert and Sullivan. Oh, you never keep up with these things." Then he sang: "'Twenty love-sick maidens we.'" His father still offered no countenance or gesture of recognition. "He's the aesthete. He's Bunthorne. But, what's more, he's a poet!" "Oh, a poet," Mr. Traquair said with detachment. "At last a word with which I'm familiar. Am I mistaken, or are you excited about this act of betrayal by your tyrannical father?" "You are mistaken. I'm not merely excited. I am ecstatic! Wait till Baxter finds out. He'll be mad with envy. Surely, he'll want to shoot me. I can't imagine anything better than that he'll want to shoot me." "What nonsense you two talk," Mr. Traquair said. "I must go up and tell him now. Excuse me, please, Father." William stood up quickly and was halfway through the door when his father's voice stopped him. "Now, son, there are details to be considered." "I know, Father. I promise I'll be right back down to discuss matters more thoroughly." "Fine...fine," his father said, and William started on his way again. "William..." His father spoke more softly this time. "Yes." William pushed his head back into the room. "I only wanted to say..." Mr. Traquair could not finish. He turned his head away from William, who understood the poignancy of the moment. Finally his father said, "You should be sure to take care in talking to your mother about this matter. You know how she was when you first left for school. And, you know, she's gotten attached again since you've been back home." "Of course. Does she know about my appointment?" "Oh, yes. She's already been out this morning to buy you some undergarments and a hat, I think." "She's really the one, isn't she! I'll be, shall we say, less enthusiastic with her." "Well -- your enthusiasm is always welcome here, you know. Now off with you!" As William dashed up the back stairs, he heard his own laughter, a sound that jolted him into perplexed contemplation of how quickly he had risen from the depths to the heights. All of his whining about Baxter's going to Europe without him was suddenly revealed as the childish complaint that it was. One would have thought it was his life's greatest tragedy -- as if there were anything tragic about his life at all. Why, his whole life had been one privilege after another. Fine family, fine home, fine school. He'd known no real adversity. His entire existence had been, and something told him would be, the work of the better hand of Providence. The same for Baxter. They were the same, really, he and Baxter, in so many ways. They talked the same language, liked the same clothing (tweed in winter, linen in summer), had read the same books, wanted to meet Henry James, had confided in the other an overwhelming hunger for fame, possessed a modesty completely inconsistent with this desire, had confided in the other a wish to be in love, possessed a naivete that would complicate such emotion. Yes, they were the same -- save the minor advantage or disadvantage (circumstances decided the matter) of the ability to blush. And William, as jubilant as the winner of a game of chance, rejoiced at the notion that now both he and Baxter had their own missions. Completing a strategy in his mind for maximizing the drama of his news, he burst into Baxter's room. His friend, who was packing a small bag of books, sketch pads, pencils, and paintbrushes for his trip, started from the violence of William's entrance, dropping a book to the floor as a result. "Good God, Billy!" Baxter said, bending to pick up the volume, his long brown locks slithering from behind his ears as he leaned forward. "Melville might have broken my foot. What's got into you?" He stood up, waving the thick book in one hand and curling his hair back into place with the other. "Oh, I don't know -- let's just say I'm feeling too too utterly utter," William said, imitating the language from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. Baxter laughed with recognition of the reference, his honey-colored eyes twinkling, brightening his handsome face. "Yes, that is a funny, funny bit, I agree. The cry of the aesthetes. I'll have to write you from London and tell you if any of it's for real." "And when I write you in return, maybe I'll send you petals from a sunflower sniffed by the King of the Aesthetes himself." "Oh, Billy Boy, do promise me you won't run around banging elbows with the crude hordes trying to get a glimpse of the Wilde man. What on earth could be more embarrassing?" "Oh, I don't know -- being his valet, perhaps?" Baxter raised bushy eyebrows and let his slender frame go slack with puzzlement. "Well, I suppose you've got me there." "Truth be told," William mused as he strutted around the room in a bouncy fashion, implying a superior but rarely used athleticism, "I should like more than anything to be his valet as he travels all over the country talking about art and making a complete spectacle of himself. It would be as much fun as anything I've done in my entire life." "It might be at that," Baxter, flippantly changing his mind, agreed. "And -- it would certainly simplify your gathering those sunflower petals." He laughed again and looked up at William, who had stopped his strutting and was smiling and nodding. "But, no, Billy!" Baxter said, understanding at last the truth hidden in William's jest. "But, yes." "But, how?" Baxter asked. "It's all too, well, too too utterly bizarre." "It's the work of the two masters, Gable and Traquair. Of course, it's all a great big accident that they stumbled on to anything so bizarre, as you say -- and so wonderful!" "But it can't be true. Are you to know him, really?" William cleared his throat for effect. "To suit him, my father would correct you." "If one doesn't come to know a man while dressing him, 'intimacy' must be redefined." As if inspired by his own remark, Baxter drew closer to William, and the two, laughing, engaged in one of their frequent moments of conspiratorial affection. William needed only whisper his response. "I don't know about definitions," he began, before adding with a touch of solemnity, "but I think it may be meaning that I'm after." "I must postpone my trip!" Baxter shouted. "No, Baxter. No more. I'm on my own now. You're on your own. Besides, you can't keep Europe waiting. You've often said that she's the girl of your dreams. No doubt you're right. And while a long engagement may have the advantage of making the wedding night seem a week, it makes the marriage seem an eternity." "Wilde?" Baxter asked. "Traquair." "Keep practicing, old boy. I don't envy you there, trying to measure up. They say he is quite the wit. You'll have to keep his knee breeches pressed, you know. I envy that even less. Whatever you do, you must promise to steal me a scarf. Some bright silk thing. Promise?" "As good as done." "And write to me all of his secrets, and years from now people will find the letters and there'll be posthumous scandals about us all." "I shall steal a scarf and I shall write -- that is all that I'll promise, Baxter. And you will write." "I shall write, but my letters will surely be nothing compared to yours. You and Oscar Wilde, dashing all over the place, discovering America." With that remark, William suddenly realized the larger implications of his impending association with Wilde. Together, they might be touring the entire country; that was what his father had said. The papers all but confirmed it as well. For the past few months, he had been yearning for a continent of his own, one to offer him the mystery and adventure Europe promised Baxter, and here, he understood now, it had lain before him all along -- or even behind him, he considered, for hadn't it been the very thing that had pressed against his back, the thing that had propped him up when he had stood on that rock four years ago learning those first lessons of love as he kissed the coast of Maine? How unexplored is the familiar continent one calls home. Baxter had named her for him. America, William pondered. Might she be the girl of my dreams? "Now mind that you don't trouble him too much," Vail said to William as they rode in the carriage on their way to the Grand Hotel at Thirty-first and Broadway to meet the poet the entire country was waiting to see. "These reporters have all but worn him to a frazzle, I suspect. There are probably some at the hotel right now. Even though his place of lodging is supposed to be a secret, word gets around. So be alert and ready to clear the room if necessary. You're a good size. That will help immensely. But I haven't prepared him for you. What I mean is, he knows only that you are a valet." "As opposed to knowing that I am an inexperienced valet?" William asked with a smile, teasing Vail. "No, he's aware of that. Let's just say that he'll be better informed once he's seen you. I know you'll be fine with him. As I've told you, Mr. Gable has spoken very highly of you. Once we get you settled in, I'm confident all will be well." Vail was only a couple of years older than William, twenty-four or twenty-five, but he had a nervous quality about him that made him seem older. He made William a bit uncomfortable with his habit of twitching his thin reddish mustache, and with the way he was constantly consulting his watch and tugging at the vest of his ill-fitting suit. "Was Mr. Wilde expecting us before now?" William asked, referring to Vail's time-conscious anxiety. "A bit. I do wish the driver would move this buggy along." There was a brief quiet moment before Vail, still fidgeting, began again. "Have you seen the papers? 'The Apostle of Art,' they are calling him. They don't know whether they love him or hate him. He's in for a round or two of joshing, that's certain. When the Arizona came into the harbor two evenings ago, those scribblers chartered a tug to go out to meet Wilde before he was even out of quarantine. That's when he told them he was disappointed with the Atlantic or some such thing. Disappointed with an entire ocean! How silly. Can you imagine that?" "Indeed, I can," William responded contrarily, instinctively defending Oscar Wilde, sublimating his own affection for the Atlantic in order to counter the palpable dullness of Vail. "An entire ocean, as you stress, has the tremendous burden of sustaining one's attention. Its size, the best of its features, is also its handicap. Mere volume without substance is the very definition of 'vacuity.'" Vail looked at William with curiosity. "Well...," he said. "An apostle of the apostle. That should appease him. A tremendous egotist, you know. Did you see what he said at customs yesterday? The papers quoted it. It's gone all over the world by now. When the officer at the gate asked what he had to declare, Wilde said, 'I have nothing to declare other than my genius.'" Vail laughed loudly and elbowed William, who, having already read and appreciated the remark, was less overcome by Vail's clumsy restatement of it. "He gives them what they want. It's all good for this Aesthetic Movement, one must believe. And that means it's good for Patience. Colonel Morse tells me that Mr. D'Oyly Carte is thrilled to hear of all the publicity. He couldn't have done anything smarter than to book Wilde in America for this lecture tour to coincide with the opera. Patience is destined to run even longer now in New York and get proper treatment in other parts of the country as well. And Wilde won't do so badly himself. Ah, here we are at last." As they exited the cab, William began to exhibit an anxiety akin to Vail's, slapping at the knees of his pants for no good reason. The new gray tweed suit he was wearing was flawlessly pressed; his mother had seen to that. He touched his cold face and hoped that the January chill had not dried his skin too badly. Why hadn't Vail informed Wilde that a large Negro would be assisting him while he traveled! Why shock the man -- no doubt still weary from his voyage -- any more than New York itself was bound to have already shocked him? But William, his legitimate apprehension about meeting Wilde notwithstanding, knew there was nothing overwhelming about his appearance, nothing other than something that might actually matter to Wilde. As he removed his hat, he caught a glimpse of himself in one of the many spotless mirrors in the hotel lobby, and he quietly acknowledged the stark truth of his reflection: William was beautiful. He had never dwelled on this fact, but he was aware of it. With an honesty that exposed the humble roots of vanity, he stared at his large, dark head, which was slightly dimpled at the temples, accentuating his forehead, forecasting his intelligence and relieving the rest of his face (ovular, wondrous eyes; the flaring, breathy nose; the full, ponderous lips; and the pointy, cheery, unchallenged cheeks -- never cuffed, never kissed) of the burden of attending to all but one collective charge -- beauty. Since childhood he had been praised as adorable; then handsome; now striking. Other adjectives, including pretty, had left him embarrassed throughout his life. Men and women alike had noticed his face, his form. (From the time he reached fifteen his shoulders, filling the breadth of the mirror into which he was gazing right now, had been as wide as his father's.) His appearance had always worked to his advantage; people simply responded to his unusual physical attributes with a remarkable attentiveness and kindness. Occasionally he had received slightly higher marks in college than he truly deserved; he had made friends easily all of his life despite possessing what he considered only a moderately friendly personality; in stores he was often served, out of turn, before others, and in restaurants more generously. He understood the shallowness of this feature of human nature -- the granting of special privileges to people because of the way they looked -- but he thought there was something deep and complex about the prejudice as well. A calm came over him now as he rested the weight of his anxiety upon the crutch of his comeliness. If Oscar Wilde, he reasoned, was indeed the great aesthete, the great admirer and champion of beautiful things, then William had nothing to be nervous about at all. Wilde's two-room suite was on the first floor, rooms 142 and 143. Vail and William walked in through the door to 142 and were engulfed by smoke and laughter. Looking past the coatrack in the entrance hall and into the parlor, William saw at least twelve reporters busily penciling their pads between guffaws. All the men were standing and gazing down into the open, lamplit end of their semicircular cluster where, William presumed, Wilde was seated. He left Vail fumbling with the door and moved toward the crowd. As the laughter died, a voice rose up from the spot that was commanding the reporters' attention. William glided to its slow, rhythmic accompaniment. "Genius is always ostentatious," he heard the voice say, lingering suggestively on the adjective. "It is by its nature so. Even a genius of subtlety is destined to show off that shyest, most demure of aesthetic traits. One of the marks of true genius is that it announces itself." "Mr. Wilde, why are you wasting your time and your genius in America talking about art, when you could be at home in England creating it?" The question had come from the right side of the room, though William, whose eyes were shifting quickly in every direction, could not actually see the person who had asked it. "Fair question. While I may be wasting artistic time here in America, I am, nevertheless, exercising my genius in the name of art. The only misuse of genius is the disuse of genius." "Is there nothing that is impossible for the genius, Mr. Wilde?" another disembodied voice asked. "An average man accepts the impossible. The dreamer ponders it perpetually. The genius dismantles it and keeps its useful parts." The crowd chuckled. William, an umbral presence, had moved unnoticed farther into the dimly lit room. He reached the back of the crowd and waited for a thick puff of cigar smoke to pass and for Wilde to come into view. The man next to William turned to him with a look of confusion, and William wasn't sure if the look had been induced by his own sudden appearance or by what Wilde had just said. He turned to look back in Wilde's direction, but now someone's head was blocking his line of vision. "But, Mr. Wilde, can't a man practice his way to perfection, as is rumored?" a reporter wanted to know. "Perhaps. But what is practice if not ritual? And ritual is the religion of redundancy. Besides, I can assure you that practice achieves perfection with far less frequency than does even the most indolent form of genius. Listen, gentlemen, enough on this issue. It's getting tedious. Let's say, for the record, that I've declared my genius in the name of Aestheticism, in the name of art. Rather like America declaring her independence in the name of Democracy, I'm anticipating the necessary struggle to establish the legitimacy of my claim. America, through force, had to persuade England of her position. I, with wit and no other weapons, am out to convince America of mine. I can't promise that there will be any less blood shed. Some of you have already started firing -- I've read the morning papers." There was another round of laughter. William was excited by Wilde's cleverness and his grace. As he considered these two of his own most prominent characteristics, he felt that Wilde, in defending himself, was also somehow defending him. Who were these unrefined men to challenge Wilde, his elegance, and his mission to make America more artful? The cigar smoker next to William cleared his throat and shouted toward Wilde, "I say, Mr. Wilde, how about taking a question from back here? I have one for you. They say you Ass-thetes are keen on flowers. Sunflowers, lilies, roses, and the like. Well, my editor was hoping you could define a flower for us." "Define a flower, sir? I did not endure the Atlantic to be transformed into the dictionary of an anonymous newspaper editor." Several reporters groaned. Then someone up front said above the others, "Oh, give it a go, Mr. Wilde. It'll make good copy. I can see it now: WILDE DEFINES 'ROSE.' The ladies will adore you for it. Don't define just any flower. Define a rose. Can you define a rose? What is a rose, Mr. Wilde?" The entire room was silent, awaiting Wilde's response to this challenge. The smoker next to William who had first asked this silly question smirked, as if he'd defeated Wilde. William looked back toward the poet, whom he'd yet to set clearly in his sights, and he saw -- just over a short man's shoulder, in a small space between the hips of two other men, then through the akimbo triangle of yet another -- that Wilde was in the process of rising from his seated position. The crowd swayed back on its heels to make room for him. He was as tall as William, over six feet. His long black hair hung in fat curls almost to his shoulders. The face -- its chin shocking in prominence -- had the strange quality of a mask, as if it were ridiculously too large or attached a bit askew, covering somehow the countenance of the real Wilde. Perhaps this was why William concentrated on trying to see Wilde's eyes (which he could not) and why he was so eagerly awaiting the sound of Wilde's voice again. Wilde was smiling when he said, as he concluded his ascent, "A rose is...arose is what I did this morning." The reporters erupted with delight. They had their quote. The smoker, triumphant just a moment ago, began a coughing fit, and both William -- who could hardly contain his own laughter -- and the man standing on the opposite side of the choking man rapped his back a few times. Vail motioned for William to open the door and usher everyone out. William jumped quickly down the short hall, waved all of the men toward him and, one by one, guided them out. He leaned back against the heavy door as it swung and rattled itself shut and locked. The metallic agitation passed into him, and his timidity returned, slowing his walk back to meet Oscar. When he reached the edge of the main room, he stopped and intentionally shied himself out of conspicuous view. Wilde had again reclined casually on the sofa. "I was so hoping to have this day to myself," he was saying to Vail. "As you know, I need time alone to finish writing out my lecture. If I don't get it done, I might be forced to improvise. And as you may or may not know, Mr. Vail, improvisation requires twice the preparation of recitation. Yes, willful spontaneity requires great premeditation and tremendous effort -- which is to say, it's certainly out of the question. So I was about to get out my papers, when suddenly there they were, banging on the door. It is probably difficult to believe, but the banging was worse than their actual presence. Needless to say, it was impressive banging." "Yes, I suspected they might find you out," Vail responded. "Secrets always cause such trouble." "I should certainly hope so," said Wilde. "Otherwise, what good would they be?" "Not to contradict you, Mr. Wilde, but is trouble a good thing?" "Trouble, taken in moderation, is indeed a very good thing, Mr. Vail. Contradiction is a troublesome thing, which, of course, makes it a good thing as well -- if also experienced at properly spaced intervals." "Agreed..." said Vail, with something in his tone that sounded to William more like disagreement or possibly mere confusion. In this state, Vail turned and faced him. "William, do come in and stop languishing there in the shadows. Let's have Mr. Wilde get a good look at you." William slowly stepped into the light of the room, and Vail said, "Mr. Wilde, your valet, William Traquair." William made an effort to stand erect, wanting to appear taller. He had been fretting about his size when he had exited the carriage, but now after having seen Wilde's impressive stature, he knew his own unusual height would not be imposing. William bowed his head slightly in the direction of Wilde, whose own head, William noticed with anticipation, was rising. Thinking he saw disappointment in the drop of Wilde's jaw, he was about to attempt to say something witty to win him over, but then Oscar Wilde said his name: "William Traquair. William Traquair, you are quite perfect!" Wilde turned quickly to Vail. "William Traquair is perfect, Mr. Vail. He is a veritable fortress. Why, if you'd had him here an hour earlier, as you promised, I think none of those reporters would have gotten past him to me. Would any of those reporters have dared to try to cross your guard, William Traquair?" "They might have dared, Mr. Wilde, but if I am perfect, as you say, they would never have succeeded." "Perfection!" Wilde stood up and moved to shake William's hand. "Vail, why did you not get him to me sooner?" Vail began reaching into his vest pocket. "This watch has been the source of much consternation for me lately. It needs fixing. I can't tell you the trouble it has given me." Then, trying to recover, he added, "But trouble is good, is it not?" "With your recent contradiction you've already met your trouble quota for the hour," said Wilde. William smiled and nodded gently at this remark, taking Wilde's contentiousness as confirmation of the righteousness of his own playful confrontation with Vail earlier. When Vail gave him a disapproving look, William waved his hand in mock apology. "Well, he is here now," Vail said, "and being paid a wage I consider worthy of at least perfection, so I suggest you put him to work." "I would wager this is work," Wilde countered. "And if it is not work it is certainly laborious, standing here being talked about while one is present. It is much more like fun to be talked about behind one's back. But to please Mr. Vail, Traquair, perhaps you should help me unpack the rest of my things and sort them out. My trunks are in the bedroom, the only proper place for sorting things out. Follow me, Traquair." William followed Wilde into the next room. "Traquair. That's an odd name. Do you like it much?" "I suppose so. I have not given it much thought," William said. "Well, Traquair is an odd name, but I say oddity becomes you," said Wilde, glancing back over his shoulder. "Vail said only that you were a special case. What do you suppose he meant by that, a special case?" "I don't know. It sounds rather as if I were some sort of exceptional portmanteau." "True," said Wilde, laughing. "And while is it perfectly fine being thought exceptional, being referred to as luggage is, simply put, dehumanizing. I won't hear of your being considered a special case, unless, of course, it pleases you." They stopped at the foot of the bed, where two tin Saratoga trunks and several bags were gathered. Wilde whispered, "If Vail had any poetry in him, I might guess that he was preparing me for your appearance -- your eyes, your cheekbones, your elegant manner of dress. But that young man is not poetry. He is all improperly punctuated prose. He meant something else." "I think he might have meant that I have been somewhat privileged in my upbringing and also in my education, where I was fortunate to have excelled. I'm certain he would think that I am special on that account. But I don't feel it, really. Special, that is." "Then you must work at it. Not to feel is always a mistake. I am special, and I feel it intensely. Generally, it is this understanding that gets me through the day. If you have difficulty feeling anything, you should begin with this phrase: 'I sense a sensation that defies the senses.' Say that." "I sense...a sensation...that defies the senses," William spoke slowly and tentatively. "Now look at me when you say it," Wilde said. Standing only about two feet from him, William looked Oscar Wilde in the eyes for the first time. He was astonished and amused to note, first of all, that Wilde's eyes, like the soul of the country he had come to conquer, were blue but with a haunting infusion of gray. The eyes seemed in possession, like the man himself, of a language, a message, a story, even, that could be spoken or at least read. But they seemed, too, like all eyes, immutably mute, pained by their silence, as if they belonged to a man quite the opposite of Wilde, a genius not of language but of gesture. As William prepared to repeat Wilde's words -- a strange phrase that magically endowed the unfeelable, the insensible, with power -- he thought the eyes emblems of the idea Wilde had commanded him to utter. Something in him trembled, but his voice was steadier this time. "I sense a sensation that defies the senses." "Yes," said Wilde, breaking their visual connection. "The more you say it, the closer you will come to comprehending the evasive sensation -- whatever it is -- and, failing that, you will at minimum conjure boredom, which, while unpleasant, is not the same as or as bad as numbness." William hummed the sentence to himself again. "Here is one of my trunks. You must come to know it intimately. I suppose if you do have even the slightest hint of portmanteau within you, it should come in handy in these relations. Carry on. Now I'm off to entertain Vail, which is to say, I shall be right back." Alone in front of Oscar Wilde's trunk, William felt thoroughly inadequate. Oh, his father would know what to do now, but William did not. (He was suddenly penitent, thinking of his recent impertinence toward his father.) He had enjoyed the contact with Wilde and even with the lively, raucous group of reporters; he was certain he would be satisfied with those benefits of the job. But this unpacking and tending to the wardrobe would take some getting used to. He stooped and turned the key in the trunk's lock. When he lifted the lid, he was met with splendor. A sea of color, the contents of the trunk belonged to a man who would disparage -- if it proved too calm, too monotonous -- something as wondrous as an ocean. William saw greens, purples, yellows, dark reds, and blacks mingling in the forms of silks, velvets, and satins. Looking at the garments, which seemed to writhe in their collective sensuality, he felt as if he were eavesdropping on some pagan orgy -- no, as if he had been called to officiate the proceedings and disengage the bodies. He closed the lid. Wilde, not expecting those reporters, must have rifled through the trunk earlier to find that gray-green scarf he was wearing and that black velvet coat lined with a fabric of pink flowers against a dark red background (William had noticed), leaving behind the entangled mass of shirts, stockings, and the unrecognizable rest of what he had just beheld. Or maybe things had simply been tousled about during the trip. He knew his job was, as Wilde had said, to "sort" these things out, and he believed he could accomplish that; he had always kept a well-managed wardrobe of his own when he was away at school. Lifting the lid for a second time, he found that he was less startled by the spectral blur. Feeling more motivated and more hopeful, he decided upon a course of action. He let his hand sink into the mix of clothes and removed the first thing he felt -- a yellow scarf. Remembering his promise to Baxter, he smiled. He would gather all of the scarves together on the bed and then find a drawer for them in the dresser against the wall to his right. Wilde rushed back into the room. "I told you I would return soon and here I am -- a tribute to Vail's predictability, not my own. That man views everything through a sheath, a veil of business and money. My l'art pour l'art is in a battle with his l'art pour l'argent. Vail. More like Veil, V-e-i-l. The man is a walking homophone. But then, so am I. What about you, Traquair?" "I was just starting to gather the scarves." "No, your name." "Oh, well, my given name is William." "A name you share with both my father and my brother. The former is dead, and the latter continually rejects my insistence that he live. As I am hoping for better luck with you, I shall call you by your surname. Traquair. Henceforth, you shall be Traquair. I hope you are prepared to assist me in every way. We are up against a mighty mountain of ignorance, I fear." "I..." said Traquair, "shall do my best. But judging from your handling of those newspapermen, you will require very little support." "There are but few men who can withstand the force of real eloquence, and they are the few who happen to possess it themselves. None, other than myself, was in the room today. Or if he was, he chose silence. But then the truly eloquent never choose silence. Quiet rooms fear me. I know this. I suppose it is moral support that I am asking of you. 'Moral support.' That phrase is a near oxymoron, what with much of accepted morality being so shockingly insupportable and so much of the support one truly desires being widely considered immoral." "I believe in your cause, if that is what you mean. I took this appointment mainly because I admire your poetry and agree with your position on the importance of the arts." "I'm glad to hear that. I should hate to be attended by a known enemy -- it so spoils the subsequent surprise of treachery." "I can assure you of my loyalty, Mr. Wilde." "You know only my poetry and my reputation -- fabrications, both. Swear your allegiance after you have heard me lecture." "But I already have -- here, this afternoon, in the short time I have known you. All that you say has the ring of pronouncement. Life seems your lectern." Wilde squinted, as if to examine his valet much more closely than he had until this moment. Then he smiled and said, "I have a feeling we are to be great friends, Traquair. How about you, are you feeling anything as of yet? Have you been chanting?" "Yes, and yes again." "You say that well. The affirmative must taste good upon your tongue. But then, there is no word as sweet as yes -- except, of course, no. The proof is in the phrasing of the question. We shall talk more later, and I shall try to ask you only questions that will offer your tongue the pleasure of answering sweetly. But at the moment, I must get on with writing my lecture -- my actual lecture, the one that people are paying to hear me deliver less than a week from now. Chickering Hall has no seats remaining, Vail has just informed me. Now they are selling standing room -- which will increase the revenues, but diminish the mystique. I shall offer the hungry American masses 'The English Renaissance.' Let us hope they have had a bite before arriving at the theater. If you need me, I shall be at the desk in the front parlor. You are getting on nicely with those scarves. Don't mind if they wrinkle. I always tie them anyway." Traquair stopped his work and stood erect -- it seemed the valetlike thing to do. "Thank you, Mr. Wilde," he said. "Oscar" was the reply. Copyright (c) 2003 by Louis Edwards Excerpted from Oscar Wilde Discovers America: A Novel by Louis Edwards All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.