I had been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk, and we were sitting in the library over our coffee and cigarettes, when the question of literary forgeries happened to turn up in conversation.
I cannot at present remember how it was that we struck upon this somewhat curious topic, as it was at that time, but I know we had a long discussion about Macpherson, Ireland, and Chatterton, and that with regard to the last I insisted that his so-called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem.
Erskine, who was a good deal older than I was, and had been listening to me with the amused deference of a man of forty, suddenly put his hand upon my shoulder and said to me, “What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it.
“Ah! that is quite a different matter,” I answered.
Erskine remained silent for a few moments, looking at the thin grey threads of smoke that were rising from his cigarette. “Yes,” he said, after a pause, “quite different.”
There was something in the tone of his voice, a slight touch of bitterness perhaps, that excited my curiosity. “Did you ever know anybody who did that?” I cried.
“Yes,” he answered, throwing his cigarette into the fire — “a great friend of mine, Cyril Graham. He was very fascinating, and very foolish, and very heartless. However, he left me the only legacy I ever received in my life.”
“What was that? ” I exclaimed laughing. Erskine rose from his seat, and going over to a tall inlaid cabinet that stood between the two windows, unlocked it, and came back to where I was sitting, carrying a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame.
It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped hair, one would have said that the face, with its dreamy, wistful eyes and its delicate scarlet lips, was the face of a girl. In manner, and especially in the treatment of the hands, the picture reminded one of Francois Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and the peacock-blue background against which it showed up so pleasantly, and from which it gained such luminous value of colour, were quite in Clouet’s style; and the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal had that hard severity of touch — so different from the facile grace of the Italians — which even at the Court of France the great Flemish master never completely lost, and which in itself has always been a characteristic of the northern temper.
“It is a charming thing,” I cried; “but who is this wonderful young man whose beauty Art has so happily preserved for us?”
“This is the portrait of Mr W. H.,” said Erskine, with a sad smile. It might have been a chance effect of light, but it seemed to me that his eyes were swimming with tears.
“Mr W. H.!” I repeated; “who was Mr W.H.?”
“Don’t you remember?” he answered; “look at the book on which his hand is resting.”
“I see there is some writing there, but I cannot make it out,” I replied.
“Take this magnifying-glass and try,” said Erskine, with the same sad smile still playing about his mouth.
I took the glass, and moving the lamp a little nearer, I began to spell out the crabbed sixteenth-century handwriting. “To The Onlie Begetter Of These Insuing Sonnets.” . . . “Good heavens!” I cried, “is this Shakespeare’s Mr W.H.?”
“Cyril Graham used to say so,” muttered Erskine.
“But it is not a bit like Lord Pembroke,” I rejoined. “I know the Wilton portraits very well. I was staying near there a few weeks ago.”
“Do you really believe then that the Sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke?” he asked.
“I am sure of it,” I answered. “Pembroke, Shakespeare, and Mrs Mary Fitton are the three personages of the Sonnets; there is no doubt at all about it.”
“Well, I agree with you,” said Erskine,” but I did not always think so. I used to believe — well, I suppose I used to believe in Cyril Graham and his theory.”
“And what was that?” I asked, looking at the wonderful portrait, which had already begun to have a strange fascination for me.
“It is a long story,” he murmured, taking the picture away from me — rather abruptly I thought at the time — “a very long story; but if you care to hear it, I will tell it to you.”
“I love theories about the Sonnets,” I cried; “but I don’t think I am likely to be converted to any new idea. The matter has ceased to be a mystery to any one. Indeed, I wonder that it ever was a mystery.”
“As I don’t believe in the theory, I am not likely to convert you to it,” said Erskine, laughing; “but it may interest you.”
“Tell it to me, of course,” I answered. “If it is half as delightful as the picture, I shall be more than satisfied.”
“Well,” said Erskine, lighting a cigarette, “I must begin by telling you about Cyril Graham himself. He and I were at the same house at Eton. I was a year or two older than he was, but we were immense friends, and did all our work and all our play together. There was, of course, a good deal more play than work, but I cannot say that I am sorry for that. It is always an advantage not to have received a sound commercial education, and what I learned in the playing fields at Eton has been quite as useful to me as anything I was taught at Cambridge. I should tell you that Cyril’s father and mother were both dead. They had been drowned in a horrible yachting accident off the Isle of Wight. His father had been in the diplomatic service, and had married a daughter, the only daughter, in fact, of old Lord Crediton, who became Cyril’s guardian after the death of his parents. I don’t think that Lord Crediton cared very much for Cyril. He had never really forgiven his daughter for marrying a man who had no title. He was an extraordinary old aristocrat, who swore like a costermonger, and had the manners of a farmer. I remember seeing him once on Speech-day. He growled at me, gave me a sovereign, and told me not to grow up a ‘damned Radical’ like my father. Cyril had very little affection for him, and was only too glad to spend most of his holidays with us in Scotland. They never really got on together at all. Cyril thought him a bear, and he thought Cyril effeminate. He was effeminate, I suppose, in some things, though he was a capital rider and a capital fencer. In fact he got the foils before he left Eton. But he was very languid in his manner, and not a little vain of his good looks, and had a strong objection to football, which he used to say was a game only suitable for the sons of the middle classes. The two things that really gave him pleasure were poetry and acting. At Eton he was always dressing up and reciting Shakespeare, and when we went up to Trinity he became a member of the A.D.C. his first term. I remember I was always very jealous of his acting. I was absurdly devoted to him; I suppose because we were so different in most things. I was a rather awkward, weakly lad, with huge feet, and horribly freckled. Freckles run in Scotch families just as gout does in English families. Cyril used to say that of the two he preferred the gout; but he always set an absurdly high value on personal appearance, and once read a paper before our Debating Society to prove that it was better to be good-looking than to be good. He certainly was wonderfully handsome. People who did not like him, Philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in his face than mere prettiness. I think he was the most splendid creature I ever saw,and nothing could exceed the grace of his movements, the charm of his manner. He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people who were not. He was often wilful and petulant, and I used to think him dreadfully insincere. It was due, I think, chiefly to his inordinate desire to please. Poor Cyril! I told him once that he was contented with very cheap triumphs, but he only tossed his head, and smiled. He was horribly spoiled. All charming people, I fancy, are spoiled. It is the secret of their attraction.
“However, I must tell you about Cyril’s acting. You know that no <actresses> [women] are allowed to play at the A.D.C. At least they were not in my time. I don’t know how it is now. Well, of course Cyril was always cast for the girls’ parts, and when ‘As You Like It’ was produced he played Rosalind. It was a marvellous performance. [You will laugh at me, but I assure you that] <In fact>, Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen. It would be impossible to describe to you the beauty, the delicacy, the refinement of the whole thing. It made an immense sensation, and the horrid little theatre, as it was then, was crowded every night. Even now when I read the play I can’t help thinking of Cyril<.>[;] <It> [the part] might have been written for him<.>[, he played it with such extraordinary grace and distinction.] The next term he took his degree, and came to London to read for the Diplomatic. But he never did any work. He spent his days in reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and his evenings at the theatre. He was, of course, wild to go on the stage. It was all that Lord Crediton and I could do to prevent him. Perhaps, if he had gone on the stage he would be alive now. It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal. I hope you will never fall into that error. If you do, you will be sorry for it.
“Well, to come to the real point of the story, one afternoon I got a letter from Cyril asking me to come round to his rooms that evening. He had charming chambers in Piccadilly overlooking the Green Park, and as I used to go to see him almost every day, I was rather surprised at his taking the trouble to write. Of course I went, and when I arrived I found him in a state of great excitement. He told me that he had at last discovered the true secret of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; that all the scholars and critics had been entirely on the wrong track; and that he was the first who, working purely by internal evidence, had found out who Mr W. H. really was. He was perfectly wild with delight, and for a long time would not tell me his theory. Finally, he produced a bundle of notes, took his copy of the Sonnets off the mantelpiece, and sat down and gave me a long lecture on the whole subject.
“He began by pointing out that the young man to whom Shakespeare addressed these strangely passionate poems must have been somebody who was a really vital factor in the development of his dramatic art, and that this could not be said of either Lord Pembroke or Lord Southampton. Indeed, whoever he was, he could not have been anybody of high birth, as was shown very clearly by Sonnet XXV, in which Shakespeare contrasts himself with men who are ‘great princes’ favourites‘; says quite frankly —
and ends the sonnet by congratulating himself on the mean state of him he so adored:
This sonnet Cyril declared would be quite unintelligible if we fancied that it was addressed to either the Earl of Pembroke or the Earl of Southampton, both of whom were men of the highest position in England and fully entitled to be called ‘great princes’; and he in corroboration of his view read me Sonnets CXXIV and CXXV, in which Shakespeare tells us that his love is not ‘the child of state,’ that it ‘suffers not in smiling pomp,” but is ‘builded far from accident.‘ I listened with a good deal of interest, for I don”t think the point had ever been made before; but what followed was still more curious, and seemed to me at the time to dispose entirely of Pembroke’s claim. We know from Meres that the Sonnets had been written before 1598, and Sonnet CIV informs us that Shakespeare’s friendship for Mr W. H. had been already in existence for three years. Now Lord Pembroke, who was born in 1580, did not come to London till he was eighteen years of age, that is to say till 1598, and Shakespeare’s acquaintance with Mr W. H. must have begun in 1594, or at the latest in 1595. Shakespeare, accordingly, could not have known Lord Pembroke till after the Sonnets had been written.
“Cyril pointed out also that Pembroke’s father did not die till 1601; whereas it was evident from the line,
that the father of Mr W. H. was dead in 1598; and laid great stress on the evidence afforded by the Wilton portraits which represent Lord Pembroke as a swarthy dark-haired man, while Mr W. H. was one whose hair was like spun gold, and whose face the meeting-place for the ‘lily’s white‘ and the ‘deep vermilion in the rose‘; being himself ‘fair,’ and ‘red,’ and ‘white and red,‘ and of beautiful aspect. Besides it was absurd to imagine that any publisher of the time, and the preface is from the publisher’s hand, would have dreamed of addressing William Herbert. Earl of Pembroke, as Mr W. H.; the case of Lord Buckhurst being spoken of as Mr Sackville being not really a parallel instance, as Lord Buckhurst, the first of that title, was plain Mr Sackville when he contributed to the ‘Mirror for Magistrates,’ while Pembroke, during his father’s lifetime, was always known as Lord Herbert. So far for Lord Pembroke, whose supposed claims Cyril easily demolished while I sat by in wonder. With Lord Southampton Cyril had even less difficulty. Southampton became at a very early age the lover of Elizabeth Vernon, so he needed no entreaties to marry; he was not beautiful; he did not resemble his mother, as Mr W. H. did —
“As for the other suggestions of unfortunate commentators, that Mr W. H. is a misprint for Mr W. S., meaning Mr William Shakespeare; that ‘Mr W. H. all’ should be read ‘Mr W. Hall’; that Mr W. H. is Mr William Hathaway; that Mr W. H. stands for Mr Henry Willobie, the young Oxford poet, with the initials of his name reversed; and that a full stop should be placed after ‘wisheth’ making Mr W. H. the writer and not the subject of the dedication,— Cyril got rid of them in a very short time; and it is not worth while to mention his reasons, though I remember he sent me off into a fit of laughter by reading to me, I am glad to say not in the original, some extracts from a German commentator called Barnstorff, who insisted that Mr W. H. was no less a person than ‘Mr William Himself.’ Nor would he allow for a moment that the Sonnets are mere satires on the work of Drayton and John Davies of Hereford. To him, as indeed to me, they were poems of serious and tragic import, wrung out of the bitterness of Shakespeare’s heart, and made sweet by the honey of his lips. Still less would he admit that they were merely a philosophical allegory, and that in them Shakespeare is addressing his Ideal Self, or Ideal Manhood, or the Spirit of Beauty, or the Reason, or the Divine Logos, or the Catholic Church. He felt, as indeed I think we all must feel, that the Sonnets are addressed to an individual, — to a particular young man whose personality for some reason seems to have filled the soul of Shakespeare with terrible joy and no less terrible despair.
“Having in this manner cleared the way, as it were, Cyril asked me to dismiss from my mind any preconceived ideas I might have formed on the subject, and to give a fair and unbiased hearing to his own theory. The problem he pointed out was this: Who was that young man of Shakespeare’s day who, without being of noble birth or even of noble nature, was addressed by him in terms of such passionate adoration that we can but wonder at the strange worship, and are almost afraid to turn the key that unlocks the mystery of the poet’s heart?
Who was he whose physical beauty was such that it became the very corner-stone of Shakespeare’s art; the very source of Shakespeare’s inspiration; the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s dreams? To look upon him as simply the object of certain love poems was to miss the whole meaning of the poems: for the art of which Shakespeare talks in the Sonnets is not the art of the Sonnets themselves, which indeed were to him but slight and secret things — it is the art of the dramatist to which he is always alluding; and he to whom Shakespeare said —
he to whom he promised immortality,
[he who was to him the tenth ‘muse’ and
was surely none other than the boy-actor for whom he created Viola and Imogen, Juliet and Rosalind, Portia and Desdemona, and Cleopatra herself.”
[“The boy-actor of Shakespeare’s plays?” I cried.
“Yes,” said Erskine.] “This was Cyril Graham’s theory, evolved as you see purely from the Sonnets themselves, and depending for its acceptance not so much on demonstrable proof or formal evidence, but on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense, by which alone he claimed could the true meaning of the poems be discerned. I remember his reading to me that fine sonnet
— and pointing out how completely it corroborated his view; and indeed he went through all the Sonnets carefully, and showed, or fancied that he showed, that, according to his new explanation of their meaning, things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.
“It is of course evident that there must have been in Shakespeare’s company some wonderful boy actor of great beauty, to whom he intrusted the presentation of his noble heroines; for Shakespeare was a practical theatrical manager as well as an imaginative poet; and Cyril Graham had actually discovered the boy-actor’s name. He was Will, or, as he preferred to call him, Willie Hughes. The Christian name he found of course in the punning sonnets, CXXXV}and CXLIII; the surname was, according to him, hidden in the eighth line of Sonnet XX, where Mr W. H. is described as —
“In the original edition of the Sonnets ‘Hews’ is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words ‘use‘ and ‘usury,’ [and from such lines as —
Of course I was converted at once, and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’ name from this list really corroborated the theory, as it was evident from Sonnet LXXXVI, that he had abandoned Shakespeare’s company to play at a rival theatre, probably in some of Chapman’s plays. It was in reference to this that in the great sonnet on Chapman Shakespeare said to Willie Hughes —
the expression ‘when your countenance filled up his line’ referring clearly to the beauty of the young actor giving life and reality and added charm to Chapman’s verse, the same idea being also put forward in Sonnet LXXIX:
and in the immediately preceding sonnet, where Shakespeare says,
the play upon words (use = Hughes) being of course obvious, and the phrase, ‘under thee their poesy disperse,’ meaning ‘by your assistance as an actor bring their plays before the people.”
“It was a wonderful evening, and we sat up almost till dawn reading and rereading the Sonnets. After some time, however, I began to see that before the theory could be placed before the world in a really perfected form, it was necessary to get some independent evidence about the existence of this young actor, Willie Hughes. If this could be once established, there could be no possible doubt about his identity with Mr W. H.; but otherwise the theory would fall to the ground. I put this forward very strongly to Cyril, who was a good deal annoyed at what he called my Philistine tone of mind, and indeed was rather bitter upon the subject. However, I made him promise that in his own interest he would not publish his discovery till he had put the whole matter beyond the reach of doubt; and for weeks and weeks we searched the registers of City churches, the Alleyn MSS. at Dulwich, the Record Office, the books of the Lord Chamberlain — everything, in fact, that we thought might contain some allusion to Willie Hughes. We discovered nothing, of course, and each day the existence of Willie Hughes seemed to me to become more problematical. Cyril was in a dreadful state, and used to go over the whole question again and again, entreating me to believe; but I saw the one flaw in the theory, and I refused to be convinced till the actual existence of Willie Hughes, a boy-actor of the Elizabethan stage, had been placed beyond the reach of doubt or cavil.
“One day Cyril left town to stay with his grandfather, I thought at the time, but I afterwards heard from Lord Crediton that this was not the case; and about a fortnight afterwards I received a telegram from him, handed in at Warwick, asking me to be sure to come and dine with him in his chambers, that evening at eight o’clock. When I arrived, he said to me, ‘The only apostle who did not deserve proof was St. Thomas, and St. Thomas was the only apostle who got it.’ I asked him what he meant. He answered that he had been able not merely to establish the existence in the sixteenth century of a boy-actor of the name of Willie Hughes, but to prove by the most conclusive evidence that he was the Mr W. H. of the Sonnets. He would not tell me anything more at the time; but after dinner he solemnly produced the picture I showed you, and told me that he had discovered it by the merest chance nailed to the side of an old chest that he had bought at a farmhouse in Warwickshire. The chest itself, which was a very fine example of Elizabethan work, and thoroughly authentic, he had, of course, brought with him, and in the centre of the front panel the initials W. H. were undoubtedly carved. It was this monogram that had attracted his attention, and he told me that it was not till he had had the chest in his possession for several days that he had thought of making any careful examination of the inside. One morning, however, he saw that the right-hand side of the chest was much thicker than the other,and looking more closely, he discovered that a framed panel was clamped against it. On taking it out, he found it was the picture that is now lying on the sofa. It was very dirty, and covered with mould; but he managed to clean it, and, to his great joy, saw that he had fallen by mere chance on the one thing for which he had been looking. Here was an authentic portrait of Mr W. H. with his hand resting on the dedicatory page of the Sonnets, and on the corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man himself written in gold uncial letters on the faded bleu de paon ground,
‘Master Will Hews.’
“Well, what was I to say? [It is quite clear from Sonnet XLVII that Shakespeare had a portrait of Mr W. H. in his possession, and it seemed to me more than probable that here we had the very ‘painted banquet’ on which he invited his eye to feast; the actual picture that awoke his heart ‘to heart’s and eye’s delight.‘] It never occurred to me for a moment that Cyril Graham was playing a trick on me, or that he was trying to prove his theory by means of a forgery.”
“But is it a forgery?” I asked.
“Of course it is,” said Erskine. “It is a very good forgery; but it is a forgery none the less. I thought at the time that Cyril was rather calm about the whole matter; but I remember he kept telling me that he himself required no proof of the kind, and that he thought the theory complete without it. I laughed at him, and told him that without it the entire theory would fall to the ground, and I warmly congratulated him on his marvellous discovery. We then arranged that the picture should be etched or facsimiled, and placed as the frontispiece to Cyril’s edition of the Sonnets; and for three months we did nothing but go over each poem line by line, till we had settled every difficulty of text or meaning. One unlucky day I was in a print-shop in Holborn, when I saw upon the counter some extremely beautiful drawings in silver-point. I was so attracted by them that I bought them; and the proprietor of the place, a man called Rawlings, told me that they were done by a young painter of the name of Edward Merton, who was very clever, but as poor as a church mouse. I went to see Merton some days afterwards, having got his address from the print-seller, and found a pale, interesting young man, with a rather common-looking wife, — his model, as I subsequently learned. I told him how much I admired his drawings, at which he seemed very pleased, and I asked him if he would show me some of his other work. As we were looking over a portfolio, full of really very lovely things, — for Merton had a most delicate and delightful touch, — I suddenly caught sight of a drawing of the picture of Mr W. H. There was no doubt whatever about it. It was almost a facsimile, — the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not lying on the floor at the young man’s feet, as they were in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands. ‘Where on earth did you get that?’ I asked. He grew rather confused, and said, — ‘Oh, that is nothing. I did not know it was in this portfolio. It is not a thing of any value.’ ‘It is what you did for Mr Cyril Graham,’ exclaimed his wife; ‘and if this gentleman wishes to buy it, let him have it.’ ‘For Mr Cyril Graham?’ I repeated. ‘Did you paint the picture of Mr W. H.?’ ‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ he answered, growing very red. Well, the whole thing was quite dreadful. The wife let it all out. I gave her five pounds when I was going away. I can’t bear to think of it, now; but of course I was furious. I went off at once to Cyril’s chambers, waited there for three hours before he came in, with that horrid lie staring me in the face, and told him I had discovered his forgery. He grew very pale, and said, — ‘I did it purely for your sake. You would not be convinced in any other way. It does not affect the truth of the theory.’ ‘The truth of the theory!’ I exclaimed; ‘the less we talk about that the better. You never even believed in it yourself. If you had, you would not have committed a forgery to prove it.’ High words passed between us; we had a fearful quarrel. I daresay I was unjust, and the next morning he was dead.”
“Dead!” I cried.
“Yes, he shot himself with a revolver. <Some of the blood splashed upon the frame of the picture, just where the name had been painted.> By the time I arrived, — his servant had sent for me at once, — the police were already there. He had left a letter for me, evidently written in the greatest agitation and distress of mind.”
“What was in it?” I asked.
“Oh, that he believed absolutely in Willie Hughes; that the forgery of the picture had been done simply as a concession to me, and did not in the slightest degree invalidate the truth of the theory; and that in order to show me how firm and flawless his faith in the whole thing was, he was going to offer his life as a sacrifice to the secret of the Sonnets. It was a foolish, mad letter. I remember he ended by saying that he intrusted to me the Willie Hughes theory, and that it was for me to present it to the world, and to unlock the secret of Shakespeare’s heart.”
“It is a most tragic story,” I cried, “but why have you not carried out his wishes?”
Erskine shrugged his shoulders. “Because it is a perfectly unsound theory from beginning to end,” he answered.
“My dear Erskine,” I exclaimed, getting up from my seat, “you are entirely wrong about the whole matter. It is the only perfect key to Shakespeare’s Sonnets that has ever been made. It is complete in every detail. I believe in Willie Hughes.”
“Don’t say that,” said Erskine, gravely; “I believe there is something fatal about the idea, and intellectually there is nothing to be said for it. I have gone into the whole matter, and I assure you the theory is entirely fallacious. It is plausible up to a certain point. Then it stops. For heaven’s sake, my dear boy, don’t take up the subject of Willie Hughes. You will break your heart over it.”
“Erskine,” I answered, “it is your duty to give this theory to the world. If you will not do it, I will. By keeping it back you wrong the memory of Cyril Graham, the youngest and the most splendid of all the martyrs of literature. I entreat you to do him this bare act of justice. He died for this thing, — don’t let his death be in vain.”
Erskine looked at me in amazement. “You are carried away by the sentiment of the whole story,” he said. “You forget that a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. I was devoted to Cyril Graham. His death was a horrible blow to me. I did not recover from it for years. I don’t think I have ever recovered from it. But Willie Hughes! There is nothing in the idea of Willie Hughes. No such person ever existed. As for bringing the matter before the world, — the world thinks that Cyril Graham shot himself by accident. The only proof of his suicide was contained in the letter to me, and of this letter the public never heard anything. To the present day Lord Crediton is under the impression that the whole thing was accidental.”
“Cyril Graham sacrificed his life to a great idea,” I answered; “and if you will not tell of his martyrdom, tell at least of his faith.”
“His faith,” said Erskine, “was fixed in a thing that was false, in a thing that was unsound, in a thing that no Shakespearian scholar would accept for a moment. The theory would be laughed at. Don’t make a fool of yourself, and don’t follow a trail that leads nowhere. You start by assuming the existence of the very person whose existence is the thing to be proved. Besides, everybody knows that the Sonnets were addressed to Lord Pembroke. The matter is settled once for all.”
“The matter is not settled,” I exclaimed. “I will take up the theory where Cyril Graham left it, and I will prove to the world that he was right.”
“Silly boy!” said Erskine. “Go home, it is after three, and don’t think about Willie Hughes any more. I am sorry I told you anything about it, and very sorry indeed that I should have converted you to a thing in which I don’t believe.”
“You have given me the key to the greatest mystery of modern literature,” I answered; “and I will not rest till I have made you recognise, till I have made everybody recognise, that Cyril Graham was the most subtle Shakespearian critic of our day.”
[I was about to leave the room when Erskine called me back. “My dear fellow,” he said, “let me advise you not to waste your time over the Sonnets. I am quite serious. After all, what do they tell us about Shakespeare? Simply that he was the slave of beauty.”
“Well, that is the condition of being an artist!” I replied.
There was a strange silence for a few moments. Then Erskine got up, and looking at me with half closed eyes, said, “Ah! how you remind me of Cyril!
He used to say just that sort of thing to me.” He tried to smile, but there was a note of poignant pathos in his voice that I remember to the present day, as one remembers the tone of a particular violin that has charmed one, the touch of a particular woman’s hand. The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal. Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. We reject the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them. But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us. In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions.]
As I walked home through St. James’s Park, the dawn was just breaking over London. The swans were lying asleep on the smooth surface of the polished lake, like white feathers fallen upon a mirror of black steel. The gaunt Palace looked purple against the pale green sky, and in the garden of Stafford House the birds were just beginning to sing. I thought of Cyril Graham, and my eyes filled with tears.