Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 1

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CHAPTER I.

For that mercy,” said Gorman, “you may thank with brief thanksgiving whatever gods there be.” We were discussing, for perhaps the twentieth time, the case of poor Ascher. Gorman had reminded me, as he often does, that I am incapable of understanding Ascher or entering into his feelings, because I am a man of no country and therefore know nothing of the emotion of patriotism. This seems a curious thing to say to a man who has just had his leg mangled in a battle; but I think Gorman is quite right about his fact I went out to the fight, when the fight came on, but only because I could not avoid going. I never supposed that I was fighting for my country. But Gorman is wrong in his inference. I have no country, but I believe I can understand Ascher quite as well as Gorman does. Nor am I sure that I ought to be thankful for my immunity from the fever of patriotism. Ascher suffered severely because at a critical moment in his life a feeling of loyalty to his native land gripped him hard. I have also suffered, a rending of the body at least comparable to Ascher’s rending of the soul. But I have not the consolation of feeling that I am a hero.

I have often told Gorman that if he were as thorough-going as he pretends to be he would call himself O’Gorabhain or at the very least, O’Gorman. He is an Irishman by birth, sympathy and conviction. He is a Member of Parliament, pledged to support the cause of Ireland, and this in spite of the fact that he has brains. He might have been a brilliant, perhaps even a successful and popular novelist. He wrote two stories which critics acclaimed, which are still remembered and even occasionally read. He might have risen to affluence as a dramatist. He was the author of one single-act play which made the fortune of a very charming actress ten years ago. He has made a name for himself as a journalist, and his articles are the chief glory of a leading weekly paper. But the business to which he has really devoted himself is that of an Irish patriot. He says amazingly foolish things in public and, in private, is always quite ready to laugh at his own speeches. He is a genuine lover of Ireland, an inheritor of that curious tradition of Irish patriotism which has survived centuries of disappointed hopes, and, a much stranger thing, has never been quite asphyxiated by its own gases.

I happen to belong to that unfortunate class of Irishmen whom neither Gorman nor any one else will recognise as being Irish at all. I owned, at one time, a small estate in Co. Cork. I sold it to my tenants and became a man of moderate income, encumbered with a baronetcy of respectable antiquity and occupied chiefly in finding profitable investments for my capital. By way of recreation I interest myself in my neighbours and acquaintances, in the actual men and women rather than in their affairs. No definition of the Irish people has yet been framed which would include me, though I am indubitably a person—I take “person” to be the singular of people which is a noun of multitude—and come of a family which held on to an Irish property for 300 years. My religion consists chiefly of a dislike of the Roman Catholic Church and an instinctive distrust of the priests of all churches. My father was an active Unionist, and I have no political opinions of any sort. I am therefore cut off, both by religion and politics, from any chance of taking part in Irish affairs. On the other hand I cannot manage to feel myself an Englishman. Even now, though I have fought in their army without incurring the reproach of cowardice, I cannot get out of the habit of looking at Englishmen from a distance. This convinces me that I am not one of them.

I am thus—Gorman is quite right about this—a man of no country. But I understand Ascher as well as Gorman does; though I take a different view of Ascher’s ultimate decision.

I met Gorman first on board a Cunard steamer in the autumn of 1913.

I was on my way to Canada. My excuse, the reason I gave to myself for the journey, was the necessity of looking into the affairs of certain Canadian companies in which I had invested money. There were rumours current in England at that time which led me to suspect that the boom in Canadian securities had reached its height and was about to subside. I did not really believe that I was likely to find out anything of value by stopping in an hotel at Montreal or travelling in a train to Vancouver. But I was tired of London and thought the trip might be pleasant. I went to Canada by way of New York, partly because the big Cunarders are comfortable steamers, partly because I find New York an agreeable city. I have several friends there and I like the life of the place—for a fortnight at a time. I do not know whether I should like it for a longer time because I have never had money enough to live in New York for more than a fortnight. As a regular place of residence it might be too stimulating for me; but I shall probably never know how I should feel about it at the end of six weeks.

It was Gorman who took the initiative on board the steamer. I do not think that I should ever have made his acquaintance if he had not forced himself on me. He accosted me, introduced himself, carried the acquaintance through to an intimacy by sheer force of personality, and ended by inducing me to like him. He began his attack on me during that very uncomfortable time just before the ship actually starts. It is never possible to settle down to the ordinary routine of life at sea until the screw begins to revolve. There is an hour or two, after the passengers have embarked, which is disquieting and fussy. Mail bags, so I understand, are being put on board. Stewards, carrying cabin trunks, swarm in the corridors. Passengers wander restlessly about or hurry, with futile energy, from place to place. Pushing men hustle each other at the windows of the purser’s office, under pretence of expecting letters or despatching telegrams. Women passengers eye other women passengers with suspicion and distrust. It is very interesting to notice how people who scowl at each other on the first day of a voyage exchange cards and promise to pay each other visits after six days as fellow travellers. At the end of another six days—such is the usual unfortunate experience—the cards are lost and the promises forgotten. A poet and, following him, a novelist have compared human intercourse to the “speaking” of ships that pass in the night. They would have found a more forcible, though perhaps less poetic, illustration of their idea in the friendships formed by passengers in the same steamer. They are intimate, but they are as a rule utterly transitory. However I have no right to complain. The friendship which Gorman forced on me has lasted eighteen months and shows no sign yet of wearing thin.

He caught me in the smoking room. I had settled down quietly in a comfortable chair, and was wondering, as I always do in that smoking room, at the grain of the wood in the panel above the fireplace. There was no one else in the room except a steward who hovered near the door which leads to the bar. Experience has taught me that the smoking room, the most populous part of the ship during the voyage, is generally empty during the two hours before the start. I thought I should have the place to myself. I was half way through my cigar and had failed to decide whether the panel is a fake or a natural curiosity when Gorman entered. He is a big man and fat. He is clean shaved and has bushy grey eyebrows. Heavy rolls of skin hang down from his jaws. He wears an unusually large gold signet ring. His appearance is not attractive. He sat down beside me and addressed me at once.

“Sir James Digby?” he said.

That is my name. I admitted it by nodding.

“I was glancing over the passenger list,” he said, “and saw you were on board. The purser told me you were up here somewhere. My name’s Gorman, Michael Gorman.”

The name gave me no information beyond the fact that the speaker was an Irishman. There must be several thousand Gormans in Ireland and I could not remember that I was acquainted with any one of them. I nodded again.

“I don’t suppose you remember me,” said Gorman, “but you used to see me pretty frequently once, about twenty-five years ago. My father kept the only shop in Curraghbeg, and you used to come in and buy sweets, a penny worth at a time. You were a small boy then. I was a bit older, fifteen or sixteen perhaps.”

Curraghbeg is a miserable village standing in the middle of the tract of land which used to be my property. It is close to Curraghbeg House, where my father kept up such state as befitted an Irish gentleman of his day. I believe I was born there. If I thought of any place in the world as home I suppose it would be Curraghbeg; but I have no feeling for the place except a mild dislike. The House is now a nunnery, in better repair, but almost certainly more gauntly hideous than when I owned it. The village, I expect, is still as sordid as when I saw it last. I remembered Gorman’s shop, a dirty little public house, where sacks of flour, tea and sugar candy were sold, as well as whisky and emigration tickets. I also remembered my father’s opinion of Gorman, old Dan Gorman, the father of the man beside me. He was “one of the worst blackguards in the county, mixed up with every kind of League and devilment.” Those were the days when the land agitation was at its height and Irish gentlemen—they were fighting for their existence as a class—felt rather strongly about the leaders of the people.

Of any younger Gorman I had no recollection whatever. Nor did I at that moment, or for some time afterwards, connect the son of the ruffianly old publican with the journalist and politician of whom I had heard a good deal.

“Funny thing,” he said, “running into you like this. Let’s have a drink of some sort.”

He snapped his fingers to attract the attention of the steward.

I am not, I fear, thoroughly modernised. Though I like American social life I have never been able to accept the theory of the wickedness of class distinctions. As a political system democracy seems to me extraordinarily foolish, but I would not go out of my way to protest against it. My servant is, so far as I am concerned, welcome to as many votes as he can get. I would very gladly make mine over to him if I could. I do not suppose that it matters much in reality whether laws are made by dukes or cornerboys, but I like, as far as possible, to associate with gentlemen in private life. I was not prepared to sit drinking with the son of old Dan Gorman if I could help it.

I intended to say so, as politely as such a thing can be said. The man’s face made me pause. He was looking at me with a curious smile, half innocent, half whimsical. His eyes expressed friendliness of a perfectly simple, unaffected kind. I realised that he was not a snob, that he was not trying to push himself on me for the sake of my position and title, the position of a disinherited Irish landlord and a title which, for all any one could tell by hearing it, might be the reward of a successful provincial doctor. I realised also, with an uncomfortable shiver, that he understood my feeling and was slightly amused at it. It struck me suddenly that I, and not Gorman, was the snob.

The steward stood at his elbow.

“Whisky and soda?” said Gorman. “We are still in English waters. Or shall I say cocktails, as we’re on our way to America?”

I am a temperate man and have made it a rule not to drink before luncheon. But I was so much ashamed of my first feeling about Gorman that I thought it well to break my rule. I should, under the circumstances, have considered myself justified in breaking a temperance pledge, on the principle, once explained to me by an archdeacon, that charity is above rubrics. I gave my vote for whisky and soda as the more thorough-going drink of the two. A cocktail is seldom more than a mouthful. Gorman gave the order.

“Don’t you think,” he said, “that it would be rather a good plan for us to sit together at meals? I’ll make arrangements with the steward and have a table reserved for us in the upper saloon. I can manage it all right. I often cross on this boat and everybody knows me.”

Again he looked at me and again smiled in his fascinating childlike way.

“I’m A-1 at ordering meals,” he said, “and it really does make a difference on these ships if you know how to get the best that’s going.”

That was the one attempt he made to justify himself in forcing his company on me. But it was not the hope of better dinners, though I like good dinners, which led me to agree to his proposal. I was captivated by his smile. Besides, I had not, so far as I knew, a single acquaintance among the passengers. I should be better off with Gorman as messmate than set down beside some chance stranger who might smile in a disagreeable way, or perhaps not smile at all.

“Very well,” I said. “You arrange it.”

“It would be pleasant,” he said, “if we could get hold of a couple of other interesting people, and make four at our table.”

I do not deny that Gorman is an interesting person, but I did not see what right he had to put me in that select class. I could only hope that the other interesting people would regard me as he did. He pulled a passenger list out of his pocket and turned over the pages.

“What about the Aschers?” he said.

He handed the list to me. There was a pencil mark opposite the name of Mr. Carl Ascher. Immediately below it was “Mrs. Ascher and maid.”

“I don’t know him,” I said. “Who is he? Has he done anything particular?”

“Heavens above!” said Gorman. “Who is Ascher! But perhaps you don’t recognise him apart from the rest of the firm. Ever heard of Ascher, Stutz & Co.?”

I recognised the name then. Ascher is a banker, one of those international financiers who manage, chiefly from London offices, a complicated kind of business which no ordinary man understands anything about, a kind of foreign business which for some reason very few Englishmen undertake.

“If the man’s a millionaire,” I said, “he won’t care to dine with us—and he’s probably a Jew—not that I’ve any particular prejudice against Jews.”

“He’s not a Jew,” said Gorman. “He’s an Englishman. At least he’s as English as any man with a name like that can be. I expect he’ll jump at the chance of feeding with us. We’re the only people on board the least likely to interest him.”

I admire Gorman’s splendid self-confidence, but I do not share it. I shrank from seeking the friendship of a millionaire.

“He has his wife with him,” I said. “Perhaps she——

I meant to suggest that Mrs. Ascher might not care to be thrown with a couple of stray men of whom she knew nothing. Gorman thought I meant something quite different.

“She’s an American,” he said, “or was before she married Ascher. I hear she goes in for music and pictures and literature and all that sort of thing, which may be boring. But I daresay we shan’t see very much of her. She’ll probably be seasick the whole time.”

I have often wondered where Gorman gets all his astonishingly accurate information about people whom he does not know. He was very nearly right about Mrs. Ascher. She was seasick for four out of the six days of our voyage.

“Anyhow,” he went on, “we must put up with her if we want to get hold of the husband. And I should like to do that. I’ve never had a chance before of being intimate with one of the big bugs of finance. I want to know what it is that those fellows really do.”

When Gorman put it to me that way I withdrew all my objections to his plan. I very much want to know “what those fellows really do.” I am filled with curiosity and I want to know what every kind of fellow really does. I want to have a long talk with a Parisian dressmaker, one of the men who settles what shape women are to be for the next six months. I want to get at the mind of a railway manager. I want to know how a detective goes about the job of catching criminals. Of course I want to understand international banking.

“Besides,” said Gorman, “a millionaire is a very useful kind of man to know.”

Millionaires are useful acquaintances because there is always a chance of getting money from them.

“Don’t count on me as a bridge player,” I said. “I’m no good at the game and never play for high points. You wouldn’t win anything worth while with me as one of the party.”

“I wasn’t thinking of bridge,” said Gorman.

He was not. He was thinking, I fancy, of his brother. But we did not get to Gorman’s brother for more than a week.

Having got my consent, Gorman went off to “set” Ascher. I use the word “set” deliberately, for Gorman, when bent on getting anything done, reminds me of a well-trained sporting dog. He ranges, quarters the ground in front of him and finally—well, he set me as if I had been a grouse. He set Ascher, I have no doubt, in the same way.

I did not think it likely that he would secure the Aschers. Millionaires are usually shy birds, well accustomed to being pursued by all sorts of ordinary men. They develop, I suppose, a special cunning in avoiding capture, a cunning which the rest of us never achieve. However Ascher’s cunning was no use to him in this case. Gorman is an exceedingly clever dog.

The trumpet, bugle, cornet, or whatever the instrument is which announces meals at sea, was blaring out its luncheon tune when Gorman returned to me. He was in high triumph. He had captured the Aschers, reserved the nicest table in the upper saloon and secured the exclusive service of the best table steward in the ship. I think he had interviewed the head cook. I began to appreciate Gorman’s qualities as a travelling companion. His handling of the servants of the Cunard Company during the voyage was masterly. I never was so well looked after before, though I always make it a practice to tip generously.

Gorman proposed that we should have another whisky and soda before going down to luncheon. He is a genial soul. No churl would want to drink two glasses of whisky in the early part of one day. When I refused he looked disappointed.

On the way down to luncheon he asked the lift boy how his mother had got over her operation. It would never have occurred to me that the lift boy had a mother. If I had thought the matter out carefully I might have reached the conclusion that there must be or at one time have been a mother for every lift boy in the world. But Gorman did not reason. He simply knew, and knew too that this particular lift boy’s mother had been in a Liverpool hospital, a fact which no method of reasoning known to me would have enabled him to arrive.

The lift boy loved Gorman. His grins of delight showed that. Our table steward, a very competent young man, adored him. The head cook—I judged by the meals we had sent up to us—had a very strong personal affection for Gorman. I do not wonder. I am myself fond of Gorman now. So is Ascher. Mrs. Ascher goes further still. She respects and admires Gorman. But Mrs. Ascher is a peculiar woman. She respects people whom the rest of us only like.