THE
COWARD DOES IT WITH A KISS by Rohase Piercy

And now let me
test your memory, Oscar. Let me see
whether I cannot conjure up your past for you better than you can
yourself. Voices in the drawing room –
Lionel Johnson’s, Robbie’s, John Gray’s, and yours; June sunlight in the
passageway outside; tinkling glasses, laughter, and the smell of Alexandrian
tobacco.

‘Oh! No, Oscar, this is too much.
How, after Dorian – it will be going from the sublime to the
ridiculous. Besides, you cannot base a
whole play upon the unrequited lust of an Israelite princess, not in this day
and age.’

‘Why ever not? The West End
Theatre, my dear Lionel, thrives on unrequited lust. Look at any play you care to mention, and you
will find that lust is the very pivot upon which the action turns!’

‘Yes, but a Biblical theme …’

‘Oh, lust is a very Biblical theme!
And anyway, I intend to make her Persian rather than Israelite. Poetic licence, my dear, the prerogative of
Genius. The Israelites had no
appreciation of sin.’

‘No, they quite disapproved of it, I’m told -‘

‘Whereas the Persians toasted the delights of the flesh in sugared
wine, offered in chalices of jade and silver by sloe-eyed boys with dusky skin
and rose-leaf lips …’

‘Robbie, what utter drivel.
What do you know of Persia?’

‘As much as you, I dare say, Dorian.
I was merely offering a humble tribute to the exquisite style and taste
of our host here.’

‘A very poor imitation then.
And please don’t call me Dorian.’

‘Mr Gray then, if we must be formal …’

‘Oh Oscar really, can’t you stop him?’

‘Stop him? But why? He is so charming with vine leaves in his
hair. At least he had the foresight to
arrive suitably arrayed in leafy clusters, whereas you and Lionel are both
constrained to borrow from me.’

‘At half past eleven in the morning?’

‘It is gone noon, I assure you.
Let us toast the glorious noon with some more of this golden
nectar. Lionel?’

‘Oscar, how can I refuse you?’

‘Never try. John?’

‘It is just gone half past eleven.
I looked at my watch not five minutes ago.’

‘I will not have to do with guests who consult their watches in my
presence. But if you insist, let us look
at mine – there, you see – the bawdy hand of the dial is e’en now upon the
prick of noon.’

‘Oh, really!’

‘The Immortal Bard’s words, not mine! And am I not right? You see how time flies when you are listening
to me? And now, are you going to drink
some more of my sherry?

‘Oh, very well …’

‘There’s no need to be so ungracious about it dear, just because I
was right and you were wrong. Petulance
does sometimes become you, but not today.
Today, let all be sweetness and light!
Robbie, my sweet goblin, what have you been doing this
morning? How came you thus to anticipate
us? Robert, it is too tiresome when you
giggle like that instead of replying to my questions. How can I discuss with you the delicious
wantonness of Salome when you sit there gurgling like an overflowing waste
pipe? I shall be forced to conclude that
you need the services of a plumber … oh really, what a vulgar sense of
humour. Do try and pull yourself
together dear, and let us converse about serious matters. What were we just discussing?’

‘Lust, Oscar.’

‘Oh, surely not!’

‘Persia. The West End
Theatre.’

‘The sins of both are the same …’

Hic sunt poma Sodomorum – your words, I believe Lionel –
ah, the Cities of the Plain! Yes, it was
just such a cradle that rocked Salome …’

‘I really don’t see why.
Dorian, perhaps, but a Persian princess?’

‘There is a little of the Persian princess in most of us, don’t you
think?’

‘Oh Oscar, how perceptive of you!
I’ve been trying to keep it a secret!’

‘Not in you, Robbie. A
Persian princess would have more dignity.
She certainly would not sit huddled at one end of a divan smirking
tipsily to herself at half past – whatever it is in the morning. And you have
never answered my question. Where have
you been?’

‘Nowhere! I arose from my
downy couch and came straight here to you.
Last night, however -‘

‘Ah, no, I don’t want to hear it.
Never refer to the night before!
That should be a golden rule amongst all who take pleasure seriously.’

Laughter. The chink of
glasses as more sherry is poured. You are determined to keep centre stage, as
always.

‘So now seriously, Oscar. You
have delighted us all with your subtlety in two wonderful stories which no-one
else would have had the audacity to write, let alone publish – I mean The
Portait of Mr W. H.
and Dorian,
or course – and now you announce that you will fling aside the mask of double
entrendre
to reveal – what? A wanton
girl and a reluctant prophet? Don’t you realise how you will have disappointed
us all?

‘I have no doubt that my Salome will be a great
disappointment to the shallow-minded, to those concerned only with the
particular and not with the delicious conglomeration of the universal.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning the sins of the flesh, dear boy! A veritable feast! The apples of Sodom and the apples of Eden,
served at the same banquet! There is the
rest of the human race to consider, after all.’

‘As to that, I really neither know nor care. That is an opinion on which we must part
company, I think.’

‘So soon? My poor John, you
have your whole life ahead of you, and you will find the world a hard,
inhospitable place when they expel you from Eden.’

‘You think I am going to change?
Or compromise my nature? Because
I can assure you, Oscar – ‘

‘No, no, I am merely saying that an artist must take his material
from the whole of human experience.
Especially if he is to produce West End plays.’

‘Ah, there you have it. You
compromise, in order to please the vulgar masses.’

‘Certainly I wish my talents to have universal acknowledgement. Genius cannot thrive in a backwater.’

‘A backwater! You disappoint
me, Oscar.’

‘What! Because I am reluctant to leave my house, my family, my Art,
and elope with you to some seedy little lair in Bayswater?’

‘There’s no need to refer to that.
I take back any such proposal. I
am disappointed because you mean to have your cake and eat it too.’

‘I most certainly do! I would
consider it foolish and unimaginative not to!’

‘Oh! So you consider us all
to be foolish, and unimaginative?’

‘Of course he does not, John, stop trying to provoke him. You are determined to create a deliberate
misunderstanding …’

‘Am I?’

‘Yes, and don’t adopt that peevish tone with me. Life is a rich tapestry, and Oscar is the
richer for bring blessed with children, and an understanding wife.’

‘Thank you Robbie. Your vine
leaves become you. I do consider myself blessed.’

‘But is Constance understanding? Is she not just docile, and rather ignorant?’

‘Constance, docile? You would
not say that if you knew her!’

There is a edge to your laughter; and I meanwhile am trembling with
rage. Beneath that golden exterior, John
Gray is every bit as ugly as his namesake’s hidden portrait. Docile and ignorant! And he so fawning and flattering to my face!

‘Oh, so she knows, does she, where you spend the nocturnal hours?’

‘I would consider it demeaning both to my wife and to myself to
discuss such matters. We have an
excellent understanding. She pursues her
interests, and I pursue mine.’

‘Oh come on, Oscar. You mean
that she consoles herself with good works in Whitechapel, and plays at Liberal
politics with eccentric old women!’

‘John.’

‘It is all right, Robbie dear.
It takes more than a little
petulance to upset me. I am not
Basil Hallward, and he is not Dorian, as he so rightly says. Now let us forget these petty quarrels and
speak of Salome. I can promise
you, you will not be disappointed, whatever you may think of the subject
matter. It is to be written in French …’

‘In French! Ah, so this is
the outcome of your sojourn in Paris!’

‘But of course! No artist can visit that delightful city without
bathing in the spring of inspiration that bubbles up from its very foundations
… ah, it is the cradle of Decadence.
Salome was conceived in Paris, and I shall return thither to attend her
birth.’

‘I thought you said she was rocked on the Cities of the Plain!’

‘And so she shall be, Lionel my dear. One generally rocks the baby after it
is born .. at least, that is my experience.
But as for the Cities of the Plain, surely Paris is one of them? Yes, I shall go back in the autumn.’

This is news to
me. I had hoped your long absences were
over for this year. The whole of
February and March, and most of May – and you did not write very often.

And yes, I already harbour suspicions as to where you spend the
‘nocturnal hours’. They are not the
suspicions I once harboured, and I have allowed myself to feel grateful for
that; to feel fortunate, even, in comparison with other neglected wives … Docile, and ignorant! Only Robbie has any true respect for me … why
can you not find another friend like him?

I have not been to Paris since our honeymoon.

I tread carefully on the stairs, past the half-open door, on my way to
the sanctuary of my room. The sunlight
has moved; a shadow steals across the upper landing. Just before I retreat from earshot, Lionel
Johnson is saying –

‘Oh by the way Oscar, there is a young cousin of mine who would very
much like to meet you. He’s just up at
Oxford from Winchester, and he claims to have read Dorian nine
times running! He’ll be in London for
part of the Summer vacation …’