The Portrait of Mr. W. H.
by Oscar Wilde
‘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 quite bright with tears.
‘Mr. W. H.!’ I exclaimed; ‘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 answered. ‘I know the Penshurst 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,’ said Erskine, 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 not a 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.