It was the twenty-ninth of November, year 2000. The nonexistent upheavals of "Y2K" were a mere memory now, and milieu of the rue des Beaux-Arts was very, very different to the last time I'd been to the neighbourhood.
Little enough drew me to Paris these days; once the twentieth century had reached its midpoint, I was on the move, far and wide, pursuing many mysteries and solving few—and apart from one unfortunate errand, I continued to give the rest of the world the attention that others might have lavished on the City of Light. 1999 saw me back in London; if, as popular opinion had it, modern society was going to collapse when the technological foundation on which it was built crumbled away, I thought I might as well observe the apocalypse from the comfort of my old refuge in Mayfair.
But it didn't happen, and I suppose I might have continued to give Paris a wide berth, had not a word reached my ears of a gentleman who had reserved a very particular hotel room on the rue des Beaux-Arts, for a very particular occasion.
His name was Richard Douglas: a descendant of a cousin of the loathesome, empty-headed Bosie. Of course, as I soon realised, anyone with a connection to claim was throwing their oar in these days. The centenary of poor Oscar's death was drawing nigh, and Mr Douglas, a very wealthy media broker—whatever that was—had booked the Oscar Wilde suite at L'Hôtel Paris, née the Hôtel d'Alsace.
Well, naturally I couldn't let this pass without notice, and in short order I had booked passage to Paris. One got there much faster these days than in 1900, but I still stuck to the old Dover-Calais route—no Channel Tunnel for me, thank you. Once I'd arrived, I caught a cab, and in short order found myself deep within the rive gauche.
The Latin Quarter swarmed with beautiful young things—boys with green carnations in their lapels, girls in men's pinstripe suits—and on every gorgeous lip was the name Oscar Wilde.
Hadn't I told him so? "The world shall never forget Oscar Wilde," I'd told him, and he didn't believe me—and he had little enough reason to, so bitterly had he been treated, so willfully driven to obscurity. What would he think, I wondered, to hear himself fêted so, by so many—to know that the crime of which he'd been convicted was now being practiced all but in the open by pairs of beautiful boys whispering sweet nothings to one another at a café table just across from where he'd breathed his last?
As for the hotel itself: well, it had been made over in fine style indeed—finer, even, than the restoration that Oscar's reputation had sustained over the previous century. This was no longer a place where one went to disappear, oh no—one went here to be seen, and in the most luxurious of settings.
The renovations, I learned, had been rushed for the purpose of the centenary and were unfinished, and the half-dozen completed rooms were entirely booked. Still, a little extra money and the right words in the right ears can accomplish no end of wonders, and a charming willingness to endure an incompletely painted room sealed the deal.
And so I checked into L'Hôtel Paris, and settled into my room on the top floor. I suppose it would have been fitting if it had been the room where Madame Moreau met her disagreeable end, though for all I know it might have been. The renovation was incredibly thorough. Apart from the façade, it was all but unrecognisable within.
In my room, alone, I waited, half-expecting some greeting from the ancient horror that had once inhabited the place, but there was not a murmur. Perhaps it had gone with the wallpaper that Oscar had decried with words misquoted to this day. (And the misquote was so much less witty than Oscar himself; to hear it repeated was very nearly to hear the poor man expire all over again.) No, there was nothing dreadful at all about L'Hôtel Paris, save perhaps for some of the people staying there.
I watched them that evening, sitting alone at a table in the corner of the hotel's admittedly rather fine restaurant. Here was a tweedy academic, a massive, well-thumbed paperback bound in hideous pink paper open before him as he ate his filet of sole without tasting it. There was a couple in their early forties, she talking non-stop about the actor who'd played Bosie in the recent film of Oscar's life, he looking as if he'd rather be watching a football game. I wondered how they'd react if they knew who they shared the dining room with—me, the boy with the terrible portrait, Dorian Gray himself.
Probably they wouldn't believe it for an instant. At most I'd be a curiosity, a tall tale for a rambling blog-post. At worst? A madman, a liar, a tale-teller. No, better to keep my mouth shut and enjoy the rather excellent côtelette d'agneau.
And then in walked Mr Douglas himself. Surprisingly, it was hard not to see in his bulldog-like features the shade of Bosie's own brutal father—all he was missing were the regrettable side-whiskers. There was nothing at all of Bosie's petulant prettiness in the large, heavyset man who sat down at his table alone, and I expected the coarseness to continue into his speech and his food.
Imagine my surprise, then, at the soft-spoken lightness of his voice—so incongruous in a big man—and the delicacy with which he dismembered the roast woodcock that was set before him. He did not read, nor did his attention rove the dining room; he merely committed himself neatly to his meal, and indeed he appeared to enjoy it. I had, up to this point, been uncertain as to whether I would approach him, but my mind was now made up.
After he ate, he took a cup of coffee, at last reaching into his pocket and drawing out a small pocket-edition of Wilde's fairy-tales. The academic and the dull couple had left, I had finished my meal, and so I decided that now was the time to make my approach.
He looked up, clearly wondering if I was someone he knew. "May I help you?"
"I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. My name's Gray. John Gray."
His eyebrows went up in surprise and recognition—though not of me personally. "Like the poet? Wilde's friend—?"
"Yes, exactly like. He was my great-great-uncle, so family lore says," I said with a smile, as if I didn't believe it myself. It had amused me, back then, to borrow John's name when I set out on my travels, and I think doing so must have confounded more than a few graduate students seeking their PhD.
Douglas chuckled. "Fancy meeting you here, then. Alfred Douglas was a cousin of mine two or three times removed, I believe? But you must know that, since you approached me. Please, have a seat, Mr Gray."
I took the chair across from him. "I admit, I did know—I saw the article on CNN's web site, and I happened to be in France, so—" I shrugged, looked embarrassed. It wasn't completely an act. "I've always wanted to see the place, to be honest. My illustrious ancestor never came here, of course."
"Nor mine," Douglas said, and he frowned. "Not until it was far too late, of course, and he could play the mourner. Heaven forfend he should have lifted a finger in those last penurious days."
I hadn't expected the vehemence with which he spoke, though frankly I still shared it, after all these years. "It seems we the descendants have much to answer for," I said, trying to joke.
"We always do," he replied, and sighed heavily. "I beg your pardon. I'm afraid I'm all too aware that the Douglas family tree has borne some dreadful fruit." He paused a moment, then, seeming almost physically to shake off the thought, went on. "You read the article, did you? A silly thing, wasn't it? So I suppose you know about the room."
"It's true? You've rented it?"
"Yes. But what they didn't say was that I am not sleeping in it. I rented the room across from it as well, and that is where I am staying. No, Mr Gray, I rented the room not to sleep there, but to defend it against any ghouls who might have seen fit to impose themselves, on the one hundredth anniversary of the poor man's passing."
I was momentarily, unexpectedly speechless. Of all the motivations I could have conceived, Douglas's had never actually occurred to me. I was astonished and—incredibly—a little bit ashamed.
"I'm glad you've done that," I said. My throat felt tight and strange. "Yes, I suppose it could have been a really dreadful circus, couldn't it? That was ... very good of you."
He looked at me strangely and for one brief, mad moment I considered telling him who I was. Then he said, "Would you like to see it?"
"Oh. Oh, I couldn't impose—"
"Nonsense, it's no imposition. Particularly since, like me, you have your own distant family connection. No, not another word. A moment—" He summoned the waiter and signed for his dinner, and then escorted me upstairs.
I realised just then that his room was in fact next door to mine; we must have just missed one another earlier. We passed my door, then his, and then, rounding the atrium, came to the door of the Wilde suite. Room number 16.
"The original room was all but obliterated in the remodeling, it must be said," Douglas said as he unlocked the door. "They knocked down walls, put in all the modern conveniences. If there's anything left of it at all, there's perhaps a wall, long since painted over—"
"The wallpaper lost," I blurted out. Douglas looked back at me and laughed.
"Yes, in the end I suppose it did. Confound these key-cards—ah, here we go." He pushed the door open and stood aside. "After you, Mr Gray."
I don't know what I expected, exactly, but the lavishness—though perfectly in keeping with the rest of the hotel—took me aback. I certainly didn't recognise it. The present room was at least twice the size of the one I remembered, and the furnishings! The beautiful striped wallpaper, the dazzling peacock mural over the bed, the perfectly preserved Belle Epoque antique furniture—far richer than anything the old Hôtel d'Alsace could have ever mustered.
There was a writing desk by the window; I took a few stiff steps forward and saw there framed cartoons and drawings of my old friend, and a ghastly ceramic figurine molded in caricature of him. On the other side of the window, several documents hung in a frame on the wall. Letters, in his beautiful handwriting. A photograph.
For a few cents, one could buy a photograph of him ensconced in his coffin. For a dollar one could have a bloodstained wood-shaving from the floor of the very room where he was killed.
For a moment it was almost as if I heard him speak. I shuddered, though the room was warm, and found my breath coming quickly, as if I'd been running.
"Mr Gray? Are you quite all right?"
Douglas's hand on my shoulder. I pasted on a self-deprecating smile. "Sorry. Yes, yes, I'm fine. I didn't expect to be quite so overwhelmed."
"Yes," he said kindly, "it does that to one, doesn't it." Casually, as if brushing a mote of dust off my jacket, he handed me a handkerchief, and I realised then that there were tears on my cheeks.
I composed myself and said, "Thank you. You've been very generous." I moved toward the door, glancing back once at Oscar's photograph.
"Think nothing of it," Douglas said. "You look a bit shaken up, Gray. A drink, before we call it a night? I've a fine bottle of cognac in my room."
"A drink," I agreed, stepping out into the hall. Just then, as Douglas closed the door behind us, I heard it. A whispering. Voices. And just before the door shut entirely, I could swear that I saw the painted peacock on the wall move.
I couldn't inspect any further, though; Douglas was moving on, and I pointed out the proximity of our hotel rooms to one another. "Well then, you shan't have far to go if you overindulge," he said with a laugh.
It was very fine cognac; being a media broker apparently paid quite well, though Douglas admitted that it wasn't his true passion. He wanted to write, to paint—and then he quoted, or paraphrased, Oscar back to me—"My life has been my art!" he said, grandiosely—by now he'd had a few glasses of the cognac. "I have set myself to music, my days are my sonnets. Well, I should like to think so. All those parts of it that are not set in the office, at any rate."
I listened and felt a strange stirring of pity. Here was a man who by so many standards appeared to have all that he wanted—including, it transpired, a wife, who was in America with her family for a stay after the Thanksgiving holiday—and yet fancied himself unfulfilled, an artiste manqué. And, as the evening wore on, it became clear that he was unfulfilled in other ways as well.
I suppose I might have acquiesced, and it would have been funny, too—Dorian Gray himself and a two-or-three-times-removed cousin of Lord Alfred Douglas? In a strange way, I thought, it might have constituted a sweet, ironic revenge. But Oscar's room had shaken me too badly—and Douglas was not my type either, even if I had been in such a mood. He took my refusal politely, but drank even more after, and soon was nearly incapable. With some difficulty, I helped him to his bed; he tried to draw me down next to him, but I gently rebuffed his advances, and made sure he fell asleep on his side.
The key to the Room 16 was lying out on the table, and it would have taken a far stronger man than I to leave it. Besides, century-old misgivings were stirring, and I needed to investigate. I took both his own key card and the card to Room 16; I would return it as soon as I was done, and it wouldn't take long. Well, I hoped not.
In the hall, I paused and glanced at my watch. It was half past midnight—so, now the thirtieth of November, one hundred years to the day since Oscar had died. Not a day had passed that I hoped his departure had been peaceful—it was no small relief when I learned that Robbie had listened to what I said and found Father Cuthbert Dunne to offer the last rites.
Now, in the hallway, the hotel was quiet. Voices and footsteps drifted up from below as the staff and scant handful of other guests came and went, but there was no one else on this floor besides me and Douglas, and no one on the floor below. Not a sound came from Room 16.
I made my way to the door and opened it without difficulty. The room was nearly dark; the slim crescent moon had long since set, and on this floor only a little light from the street spilled in through the curtains. With the door shut, the room was perfectly silent.
I stood there for several minutes, feeling increasingly foolish. Finally, deciding that my imagination was simply being over-active, I turned and placed my hand on the doorknob.
I froze. "Who's there?
—dorian the boy without a soul
"That's not funny. Who—"
—been waiting for you dorian they're waiting for you we'd like to eat you up ourselves but you're not for us are you oh don't run dorian pretty dorian it doesn't matter
"What do you want?"
—you stopped us dorian you and your pretty mouth your big mouth you made him call for a priest and he got away from us
Oh God, they were still here! The things that had devoured Madame Moreau—they hadn't been banished after all! I looked at the peacock mural and in the dim light of the room, I could see it. It was no trick of the light—the peacock was moving, and it was looking straight at me.
—we'd chew you to bits for that but you're not for us no you're not though we wish you were but let us out dorian let us out and we'll feast on your friend
"He's not my friend! I barely know him, we've only just met!"
—then you won't care if we eat him will you it won't matter to you when did you care about anyone pretty dorian pretty soulless boy let us have him
"No. No, I won't—I'm going to fight you, and I'm going to beat you—"
Then, suddenly, a pounding at the door behind me. "Gray? Gray, that you? What the hell's going on in there?"
"Douglas! It's nothing, it—please, don't come in, it—"
—let him in dorian
"Damn it, Gray, I thought you were better than that! Let me in, you little fiend! You shouldn't even be there." A heavy thump as he threw his weight against the door.
—dooooorian let him in
"Gray, I'm warning you, if you don't open the door I'm going to break it open."
—open the door dorian
"You don't want that on your bill, Richard."
"The hell with my bill; I can pay any bill! I want you out of there—now!"
And with that the door burst open, knocking me to the floor. Douglas burst in and seized me by the arm, but before he could drag me to my feet, I saw it—and he did too.
The peacock wrenched itself off the wall and slithered through the air, descending on Douglas. He opened his mouth to scream, but it seemed to slide down his throat, choking him to silence. He released me, dropped to his knees, and fell, clutching at his throat.
What happened next was a blur. Somehow I seized a letter-opener off the desk; I leapt onto the bed and with a single stroke, slashed a deep gouge across the mural from left to right. The blade snapped in half and somehow I cut myself and began to bleed across the wall, but I kept slashing and gouging with the broken letter-opener until the thing screamed. It wasn't a sound heard with your ears; it was deep in the heart, in the stem of your brain. People across the Latin Quarter must have woken from hideous nightmares in that moment. The monster released Douglas, who collapsed instantly; it seemed to curl in on itself and then with one fierce cry—
—someday they'll get you dorian and we'll be waiting with them just you see
—it was gone.
The mural was ruined, gouged and scratched and smeared with my blood. The door was half off its hinges, and Richard Douglas—well, it was too late for him. I all but fell off the bed trying to reach him, but there was nothing I could do. His heart had stopped. I wondered if the creature had succeeded in what it wanted to do—taking him out of spite over having lost Oscar so long ago. I suppose I shall never know.
For the second time in the evening, I struggled to get Douglas back into his bed. Once he was there—where he would be found in the morning by the maid, his death attributed to a heart attack—I cleaned up after myself, wiping the fingerprints and leaving the key-cards on the nightstand. I returned to my room, hastily gathered my things, and slipped out into the night, leaving the hotel forever.
As I hurried away through the night streets of Paris, I was grateful for one infinitesimally small blessing: the thing had confirmed what I had always hoped. That in asking Robbie to get Oscar a priest, I had done the right thing, saved my friend's soul. A single check mark on the credit side of the ledger. But outweighed, so heavily outweighed by so many debts. Of which Richard Douglas was merely the most recent, and certainly not the last.