THE LENT LILY
Lady Amelia Cotgrave-Stuart had been making preparations all morning for her garden party. Since the loss of her husband Major Sir Andrew Cotgrave-Stuart thirteen years ago she had thrown herself into social engagements and was very fond of entertaining guests who were on the social ascendancy. The Cotgrave-Stuarts had been a much devoted couple and the Major’s death was a great blow dealt to her Ladyship for they had had the perfect arrangement for a marriage – he served in his Regiment abroad and she was the perfect and most dutiful wife in England, seeing each other twice a year. The unlikely product of this perfect union was a son, namely Aloysius Nightingale Cotgrave-Stuart in his eleventh year. It was a gloriously sunny morning and the birds were singing in the trees as spring had arrived uncommonly early in Chiswick.Lady Amelia’s first guests to arrive were the celebrated poet Oscar Wilde and his good friend Lord Alfred Douglas, whom Wilde referred to as ‘Bosie’. Lady Amelia greeted Mr. Wilde and his companion cordially and invited them into the drawing-room with its huge French windows overlooking the garden and she turned to Oscar,
‘Mr. Wilde, I hope it won’t be to your displeasure but I have invited the curate, Reverend Thomas Steadman, are you familiar with him?’
‘Indeed I have had the misfortune madam,’ Wilde replied, ‘for I was once asked reluctantly to attend one of his abominable sermons. It was a splendid tirade if I remember and I recall that Reverend Steadman is the only “man of the cloth” with the ability to make the glorious Passion of Christ sound like the cloying death of “Little Nell”! It brought tears to my eyes, not tears of emotion and sadness but tears of laughter! And more recently I was asked to attend the Church Fete and give a talk on “Art and Aesthetics” and once more I was brought to tears, tears of joy in fact, for the good Reverend had left undone that which a gentleman never leaves undone, in the trouser region madam! I had to escort myself from the Church Hall for I was quite purple in the face in floods of uproarious laughter!’
‘How disgraceful!’ said Bosie.
‘Yes, well, and what do you do Lord Alfred?’ enquired Lady Amelia.
‘As little as possible as often as possible! In fact, I am rather strict about my daily regimen – I spend enormous hours exercising my ability to be completely idle and doing absolutely nothing!’ said the handsome Bosie.
‘Lord Alfred’s attitude is very common amongst the young I’m afraid Lady Cotgrave-Stuart, he pleads abject poverty to anyone who will listen to him and his father the Marques of Queensbury boasts of his exorbitant wealth to anyone who will listen to him, though they never speak or listen to each other!’ explained Wilde.
‘That is a great shame Lord Alfred! Mr Wilde’, said Lady Amelia turning to Oscar, ‘they tell me you are the wealthiest man in all of
‘That is incorrect madam’ answered the clean-shaven bard, ‘for that auspicious displeasure falls upon the awful obnoxious head of that poisonous impostor Mr. George Bernard Shaw who delights in advertising his remarkable and vulgar wealth as if he were of papal occupation; he tirelessly parades his theatrical inability all across London! I make it a point, in fact a religious oath, to never see any of his tedious plays and to cut him dead whenever I am unfortunate to be in his presence. It is the least one can do for the sake of art!’
‘Money is the root of all evil’ retorted Bosie’ ‘and when Oscar comes into his inheritance he intends to be thoroughly wicked with it!’
Her Ladyship escorted the two gentlemen into the garden and pointed out the spring beds and borders. ‘What a charming and delightful garden you have your Ladyship! Such beautiful flowers! I often wish that I were green-fingered you know!’
‘Are you fond of horticulture Mr. Wilde?’
‘Only at a safe distance madam and in small doses, for nature can be truly horrific; I find nature invariably falls short of one’s idea of perfection – only man achieves absolute perfection!’
The young boy Aloysius had been busy chasing Lady Amelia’s cat Clytemnestra when he suddenly stopped and walked up to Mr. Wilde and said ‘they tell me you are a poet sir!’
‘Who is spreading such vicious lies and rumours about me?’ retorted Oscar fiercely, ‘I shall bring charges against them!’
‘It is common knowledge’ answered Aloysius ‘and public opinion says that…’
‘I never repeat any knowledge which purports to be common’ interrupted Oscar, ‘and I never listen to public opinion! It is invariably wrong in its judgements and vastly exaggerated! No, I am in fact what is known as a “living and breathing poem” which is what all great poets strive to achieve but fail utterly to accomplish! Are you fond of poetry my young Narcissus?’
The boy looked quizzical and answered with perfect nonchalance – ‘No, I find it is a lot of nonsense about something and nothing all wrapped-up in fancy words!’
‘What a delightful and perceptive young thing you are! Bosie, I fear the boy’s young eyes have been exposed too soon to that old satanic show-off Swinburne for to form such an opinion of poetry he must be truly damaged beyond belief and the precious bloom of his ignorance has disappeared irretrievably! Tell me, who is this charming yet somewhat melancholy Aristotle?’ said Wilde, turning to Lady Amelia.
‘That Mr. Wilde is my son Aloysius’.
‘Does he bite?’ expressed Bosie.
‘More to the point’ continued Wilde ‘is he housetrained madam? Remind me Bosie to inform dear Mr. Dowson that his eager public anxiously awaits his next volume of “nonsense about something and nothing!”’ Lady Amelia frowned as Wilde continued,
‘He is wise beyond his years and a great credit to you Lady Amelia!’
‘Thank you Mr. Wilde, he really is the most well-behaved young man in all of
‘How unfortunate Lady Amelia! That will all change when he comes of age, do not be despondent madam!’ Wilde said, bowing his head towards the little gentleman.
‘He has great prospects,’ gushed Lady Amelia to Oscar, ‘he is at
‘Many a flowering mind has been crushed and ruined by an Oxbridge education and
The group walked a little further down the garden and came to a chair with a man seated upon a cushion, ‘what have we here Lady Amelia, a rare bloom indeed?’
‘My father gentlemen, may I present Lord Rothwell!’ Lord Rothwell was oblivious to the intrusion and unable to greet the company. ‘You must forgive his Lordship’ said Lady Amelia, ‘he is meditating!’
‘Does he often snore when he meditates?’ enquired Mr. Wilde.
‘Continuously, for I find the deeper the trance, the louder the snore!’ returned Lady Amelia.
‘I often find the same thing happening in Church, for the pews are filled with people busy meditating; they must attain a very high level of spiritual enlightenment for the snoring is positively cacophonous!’
Lady Amelia took Bosie aside and asked him if it is true that Mr. Wilde is truly a genius. ‘But of course’, Bosie answered, ‘he would take great delight in stating the fact, as he does, often, but between you and me, the man is all surface and no substance, for it is I who am the real inspiration behind his genius and without me he would surely starve! Society craves men of genius and Oscar craves society’. Just then Oscar pushed his quivering smooth chin between Lady Amelia and Bosie and having nonchalantly lit his cigarette, which was a true artistic endeavour in itself, paused and said ‘did I hear mention of “society”? It is to my eternal shame that society is so simple to enter, yet so very difficult to exit – much like marriage!’ Lady Amelia found this amusing and said so which in turn amused Bosie for he was so easily amused.
‘Have you never thought Mr. Wilde’ asked Lady Amelia ‘of growing a moustache, you would look so distinguished!’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t the energy or the patience for such matters madam – elegance must be instantaneous or not at all; I am not prepared to wait for nature to produce what art can do immediately!’
‘There is nothing “instant” or “immediate” about your appearance Oscar, for it is the result of a life-long obsession with your own vanity!’ Bosie declared.
‘Nonsense’ spouted Wilde, ‘in fact, I make it a strict rule to spend a minimum of three hours in the morning, not a minute less, on my attire, a rule which I repeat in the afternoon and again in the evening before dinner! To return to the moustache madam, I find it is the last refuge of a man with something to hide!’
‘But the curate has a moustache!’ Lady Amelia said.
‘I rest my case!’ Wilde said gleefully.
‘And so did my late husband, God rest him!’ her Ladyship said, through pursed lips.
There was an uneasy silence which was broken by the tea things which were brought out into the garden by the maid and a plate of delicious looking scones with cream and jam were laid on the table. As well as the tea accoutrements there was a decanter of Sherry which the two gentlemen accepted instead of the tea! The maid then informed her Ladyship that the curate had arrived and was ‘securing his bicycle to the railings for Chiswick is a notorious hotspot for bicycle thieves’ as the curate had said and ‘one can’t be too careful can one?’
‘Do help your selves’ gentlemen!’ said Lady Amelia as she and Aloysius went off to greet the curate. Oscar and Bosie confided together before her Ladyship and the curate joined them – ‘Did you ever meet the Major?’ enquired Bosie of Oscar. ‘Unfortunately not, I am told he was an excellent conversationalist when not in the company of his dear wife, which was more often than not!’
‘The boy is quite exquisite is he not, a fallen angel in the making don’t you think?’ Bosie suggested, adding ‘strange that he is only eleven years old and the Major passed thirteen years ago! Surely there is some discrepancy there?’
‘Yes, a fair Ganymede indeed! There have been rumours in that location as to his origins, some say he is the result of an illicit liaison; it is an age-old predicament whereby the aristocracy fall for the romantic entanglements of the lower classes. Vulgarity is a trait exclusive to the upper classes and poverty is a condition peculiar to the lower classes – both are exceedingly ugly! As to the boy, the matter is never mentioned!’ Oscar poured himself another Sherry.
‘I do hope you become exceedingly drunk Oscar’, said Bosie, grinning, ‘you’re always brilliant when you’re wonderfully tight!’
Lady Amelia and the curate followed by the angelic Aloysius joined Wilde and Bosie and following introductions they all sat down to tea.
‘Mr. Wilde’ said the curate, ‘I have been reading your poems and I must say they really are quite beautiful!’
‘Ah curate’ intoned Wilde, ‘if I want flattery I go to my tailor for he seems to be under the false impression and outrageous misconception that flattery will result in my paying my tailor’s bill! Of course it is quite the opposite for the more he flatters me the more I spend and the longer the unpaid bill becomes! No, for the sake of dignity curate, you simply must read Baudelaire!’
‘Are you a religious man Mr. Wilde?’ enquired the curate.
‘With no disrespect to your good self sir, the foundation of the church was built upon hypocrisy! I consider myself a lapsed pagan for I have lost my faith in nature! But I suppose one could call me an apostle of aestheticism!’
‘Oscar’s a true heathen curate, whereas I have a great admiration for the finer points of Catholicism!’ Bosie declared.
‘May I tempt you to one of my cucumber sandwiches Mr. Wilde?’ said Lady Amelia pushing a plateful under Oscar’s nose.
‘Usually I yield to temptation madam, it is much simpler than resisting it but on this occasion I shall refrain!’ Wilde stated.
‘Dear Oscar suffers chronic indigestion with cucumbers, in fact; he has an abhorrence of anything green when served upon a plate before him!’ Bosie informed her Ladyship.
‘Quite true Bosie, in fact I react outrageously when presented with anything limp and green and edible because it so reminds me of all the hideous defects in nature! Salad and attempting to read Wordsworth bring me out in ghastly boils so I swore before the Almighty Ruskin never to digest either! The only green I am able to appreciate are jade stone, my green carnation and Absinthe which my physician prescribes and strictly insists I take before, after and instead of meals!’ Lady Amelia was uncertain as to what direction the conversation was turning and offered the curate her sandwiches one of which he took just to show that he did not prescribe to Wilde’s outlandish notion of nature! ‘I don’t think you are being quite sincere Mr. Wilde’ said the curate ‘and I think perhaps you are making fun of me and my profession!’
‘Not at all curate’ Wilde said brushing the curate’s arm with his hand, ‘I am being quite serious. If one is virtuous one doesn’t seem to get a look-in with the Church but the minute one starts sinning it’s like a red rag to a bull and one can’t move for dog collars and cassocks making claims upon the soul! Once one breaks beyond the bastion of the ecclesiastical dog collar, you will find a guilty man taking refuge! The Anglicans are very good at pointing out the wrongdoings of their congregation and the Roman Catholics have cornered the market in suffering! The sad fact is the crucifixion has been done to death!’
‘You are a most conceited man Mr. Wilde and no doubt that is part of your charm!’ exclaimed the curate.
‘A man whose charm is always on the offensive is to his own detriment most offensive!’ Wilde said joyfully!
‘I really must agree’ interjected Lady Amelia ‘I don’t believe I have ever met such a conceited man!’
‘She has a point Oscar!’ said the tipsy Lord Alfred who had been filling his glass several times from the Sherry decanter.
‘At last, chivalry rears its unwanted and vastly overrated head!’ Wilde said with a nod and a wink towards Bosie and then turned to Lady Amelia - ‘Nonsense your Ladyship for I have it on good authority that only last season you entertained that old rascal Dickens and a more conceited man never walked the earth!’ Mr. Wilde sat back in his chair quite content with the verbal jousting.
‘I must say’ Wilde said slowly, ‘there is no greater time in all the year which equals Eastertide, everything seems so new and delicate! Do you not agree curate?’
‘I concur fully Mr. Wilde yet it is indeed a busy time for the church!’ the curate snorted helping himself to a jam scone.
‘Lent has such a curious fascination for me. Do you know the story of the Lent Lily?’
‘No!’ said Lady Amelia, ‘do tell it!’
‘It was a time of great bloodshed when the Roman army occupied
‘I’m not sure that’s quite true Mr. Wilde, at least I have never heard that story before!’ the curate said with a playful smile upon his face, as if his leg were being not just pulled but twisted into the bargain too!
‘Tell me’ continued Lady Amelia, ‘aren’t you afraid of being found out?’
‘Madam I am always being “found out” by bill collectors – my only fear is that one day I shall be “found in” and expected to honour one’s debts!’
Just then the maid returned to inform her Ladyship that Mrs. Harribel-Jones had arrived. Mrs. Harribel-Jones was an inveterate gossip and had been rather looking forward to meeting the famous Mr. Wilde.
‘I hate to inform you Mr. Wilde’ said her Ladyship rising to greet Mrs. Harribel-Jones and taking him aside ‘and I would not mention it in front of the others, but you have a spot of jam decorating your necktie!’
‘I am aware of it madam for I put it there myself with my own fair hands. Don’t you think its colour exceptional, like the blood of Christ glistening in the sunlight! Think nothing of it madam, it is a mere affectation; it shall be “all the thing” next season!’
Mrs. Harribel-Jones, a large ‘un-corseted’ lady with the complexion of thistles joined the party and was delighted to be introduced to the great Mr. Wilde.
‘You must forgive me Mr. Wilde for being a little late as I had an appointment with my oculist!’ explained Mrs. Harribel-Jones.
‘Are you a practitioner of the dark arts madam?’ enquired Mr. Wilde.
‘I think you are mistaking my oculist for “occultist” sir!’ Mrs. Harribel-Jones said a little confused yet triumphantly.
‘Forgive me madam’ Wilde said courteously, ‘as it is such an easy mistake to make, for the one opens one’s eyes to the glories of irreligious immorality and the other turns a blind eye to pious respectability!’ Mrs. Harribel-Jones delighted in Wilde’s company and they talked a little on Shakespeare, declaring that if he had taken more consideration over his plays he may have become more well-known and that Huysman was ‘positively all the rage in Bohemia!’
The subject turned towards literary criticism and Mrs. Harribel-Jones asked Mr. Wilde if he would kindly look over her unpublished memoirs and review them with a design on publication.
‘Thank you madam’ said Mr. Wilde, ‘but I do not receive manuscripts. I am positively besieged by requests for my thoughts upon this book or my artistic impression of that play – it takes a certain order of being, malevolent by nature and of a tired, drab appearance, tarnished by the mud of ruined reputations to really do it injustice! These monsters are known in the theatrical trade and no doubt throughout all artistic avenues as “hypo-crits”!
‘Another more familiar name is “parasite”!’ suggested Bosie, ‘and let us not forget “philistine”!’ he added.
‘I really must disagree’ erupted the curate, ‘for where would we be without the careful eye watching over the intricacies of artistic expression to make sure it is suitable for society!’
‘God willing we would undoubtedly have “The Yellow Book” sir, and when I speak of God I am of course referring to Mr. Walter Pater!’ intoned Wilde.
‘Society should learn to mind its own business and to blazes with it!’ defended Bosie. The curate looked decidedly unsettled as Wilde whispered to Bosie ‘ah, the coup de grace!’
‘You must excuse my young friend here curate’, said Wilde steadying Lord Alfred, ‘he doesn’t normally react this way with Sherry, I think he has been mixing his metaphors again!
‘I think it is most inappropriate especially with Easter on the horizon and the good Lord on the cusp of once more shedding the darkness and flooding the world with light again!’ the curate said with his delicate, soft hands joined in prayer before him.
‘I quite agree it’s absolutely outrageous!’ Wilde said with a contemptuous look often found in pulpits. ‘I often read the lives of the Saints’ he continued, ‘and delight in their chaste and pious existence – they are such defining examples to us!’ Suddenly the curate warmed to Mr. Wilde for here was a subject that he knew well and was gracious to extend upon. ‘The Liturgy’ the curate began, ‘is filled with righteousness and suggests ways in which to live a fulfilling and worthy life sharing God’s word and…’
‘Yes quite’, interrupted Wilde, ‘but where is the story of Saint Judas? Why do we not hear about this neglected Saint? After all, he was one of the apostles and he was also doing God’s work as foretold by Christ when he turned Christ over to the Romans! That kiss of betrayal, man has been repeating it ever since! The fact that he died by his own hand should surely strengthen the case for Sainthood for he must have felt the guilt of the world upon him to take such steps and here we are almost two thousand years later calling him a “bad man” – forever condemned as a distrustful monster; he is a byword for everything disloyal and greedy, yet in my opinion he was the only apostle that truly loved Christ because he did not shirk from abandoning Christ even when Christ knew what he was about and forgave him for it! A chaque saint sa chandelle!’ The curate sat wide-eyed and without explanation. It was Lady Amelia who came to the rescue: ‘Attend to me Mr. Wilde’ said Lady Amelia, and after Mr. Wilde excused himself they walked together through the garden, leaving Bosie and the curate staring bemused at each other, and Mrs. Harribel-Jones feeding the ever unsatisfied stomach of Mrs. Harribel-Jones!
‘I am a little out of sorts Mr. Wilde for I received bad news this morning concerning an Aunt of mine who passed in the night and I was considering cancelling the garden party!’
‘How inconsiderate of the good Lady that she could not postpone the inevitable, Death is such an ill-mannered and unexpected guest! You have my sincere condolences madam!’
‘Thank you Mr. Wilde. It falls upon me of course to make the necessary arrangements as she never married and lived a quiet and simple life in
‘I find death and
‘Talking of marriage Mr. Wilde, I have been contemplating that monumental position myself but I have many obstacles to overcome in deciding.’ Lady Amelia said discreetly.
‘Is there someone special madam?’ enquired Wilde.
‘No, not particularly; but I am unsure as to the period of widowhood and the question: have I made a good show of grieving my late husband the Major as to not upset society?’
Wilde looked a little quizzical and said ‘Madam I was not aware that there was a strict period of widowhood and I should think thirteen years quite sufficient to the memory of your dearly departed husband! Sometimes the oldest tree bears the softest fruit and we must not forget that we are living in an age of dignified splendour beneath a veneer of respectability that constrains the ordinary impulses; the world is changing madam and although Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whom I might add has set a precedence upon mourning, still darkens the throne and bathes England in a sea of black crepe and crinoline, there is an air of indifference and we are on a new threshold – Society must change with it or get left behind by it!’
‘I am glad to have your mind on the subject Mr. Wilde; I am not disappointed by your thoughts!’
Mr. Wilde and Lady Amelia walked back towards the company and Wilde could see that Bosie had slumped into a chair and was joining Lord Rothwell in his meditation, snoring very loudly indeed!
‘I am sorry your Ladyship but I think it is time my young friend and I departed for he has made a thorough exhibition of himself, much to the curate’s dismay and if it were not for the genteel ladies (and the charming Aloysius) we would have outstayed our welcome in the first few minutes of introduction! Come Bosie, once again your radiance has outshone me and there is nothing I hate more than being second best!’ Following the exit of the great man and the brilliant Bosie the garden party broke up, the curate went off to prepare yet another ‘abominable’ sermon, Aloysius ran off and chased her Ladyship’s cat Clytemnestra; Mrs. Harribel-Jones just managed a couple more scones before leaving and Lady Amelia Cotgrave-Stuart was left to contemplate the prospect of marriage!