Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 11

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I intended to call on the Aschers as soon as I could after I returned to London. I owed Ascher some thanks for his kindness in providing me with letters of introduction for my tour. However, they heard that I was home again before I managed to pay my visit. I daresay Gorman told them. He sees Mrs. Ascher two or three times a week and he must get tired talking about Ireland. A little item of gossip, like the news of my return, would come as a relief to Gorman, and perhaps even to Mrs. Ascher, after a long course of poetic politics mixed with art.

I had a note from Mrs. Ascher, in which she invited me to dinner.

“Very quietly,” she said. “I know my husband would like to have a talk with you, so I shall not ask any one to meet you. Please fix your own night. We have no engagements this week.”

I got the note on Monday and fixed Wednesday for our dinner. I could not think that Ascher really wanted to talk to me. I did not see what he had to talk to me about; but I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to tell him about my tour and to give him some idea of the effect which my glimpse at his business had produced on my mind. I also wanted to find out what he thought about Irish affairs. I had heard a good deal more talk about the Ulster situation. Malcolmson got at me nearly every day, and several other men, much more level-headed than Malcolmson, seemed to regard the situation as serious. I heard it hinted that the Army would not relish the idea of shooting the Ulstermen. I understood the feeling. If I were still in the Army I should not like to be told to kill Malcolmson. He was my brother officer at one time, and I found him a good comrade. The same feeling must exist among the rank and file. Northeast Ulster was, at one time, a favourite recruiting ground for the Guards. Malcolmson’s volunteer army was leavened with old Guardsmen, reservists, many of them quite well known to the men still serving in the Brigade.

I could not, of course, expect Ascher to be much interested in Irish affairs. Ireland is the one country in the world over which financiers have not cast their net, possibly because they would catch next to nothing there. So we, who escaped the civilisation of Roman law, almost escaped the philosophy of the mediæval church, were entirely untouched by the culture of the Renaissance, remained a kind of Gideon’s fleece when the dew of the industrial system of the 19th century was moistening Europe, are now left untouched by the new civilisation of international finance. Yet Ascher, if not personally interested in our destiny, has a cool and unprejudiced mind. His opinion on Irish affairs would be of the greatest interest to me. I was not satisfied with Gorman’s reading of the situation. Nor did I feel sure that Malcolmson, though he was certainly in earnest, quite understood what a big thing he was letting himself in for.

The Aschers live near Golders Hill, a part of London totally unknown to me. They have a large old-fashioned house with a considerable amount of ground round it. Some day when Ascher is dead the house will be pulled down and the grounds cut up into building plots. In the meanwhile Ascher holds it. I suppose it suits him. Neither he nor Mrs. Ascher cares for fashionable life, and a Mayfair address has no attraction for them. The few artistic and musical people whom they wish to know are quite willing to go to Hampstead. Every one else who wants to see Ascher, and a good many people do, calls at his office or dines with him in a club. Ascher knows most of the chief men in the political world, for instance, but even Prime Ministers are not often invited to the house at Golders Hill. If Ascher really controls them, as Gorman says, he does so without allowing them to interfere with his private life.

The house and its appointments impressed me greatly. The architecture was Georgian, a style familiar to any one who has lived much in Dublin. It gave me a feeling of spaciousness and dignity. The men who built these houses knew what it was to live like gentlemen. I can imagine them guilty of various offences against the code of Christian morality, but I do not think they can ever have been either fussy or mean. There is a restlessness about our fashionable imitations of the older kinds of English domestic architecture. Our picturesque gables, dormer windows and rooms with all sorts of odd angles, our finicky windows stuck high up in unexpected parts of walls, our absurd leaded diamond panes and crooked metal fastenings, all make for fussiness of soul. Nor can I believe that people who live under ceilings which they can almost touch ever attain a great and calm outlook upon life.

There was nothing “artistic” about Ascher’s house. This surprised me at first. I did not, of course, expect that Mrs. Ascher would have surrounded herself with the maddening kind of furniture which is distinguished by its crookedness and is designed by men who find their inspiration by remembering the things which they see in nightmares. Nor did I think it likely that she would have crammed her rooms with those products of the east which are imported into this country by house furnishers with reputations for æstheticism. I knew that she had passed that stage of culture. But I did expect to find the house full of heavily embroidered copes of mediæval bishops, hung on screens; candlesticks looted from Spanish monasteries, standing on curiously carved shelves; chairs and cabinets which were genuine relics of the age of Louis XV.; and pictures by artists who lived in Italy before the days when Italians learned to paint.

I found myself in a house which was curiously bare of furniture. There were a few pictures in each of the rooms I entered, modern pictures, and I suppose good, but I am no judge of such things. There were scarcely any ornaments to be seen and very few tables and chairs. My own feeling is that a house should be furnished in such a way as to be thoroughly comfortable. I like deep soft chairs and sofas to sit on. I like to have many small tables on which to lay down books, newspapers and pipes. I like thick carpets and curtains which keep out draughts. I would not live in Ascher’s house, even if I were paid for doing so by being given Ascher’s fortune. But I would rather live in Ascher’s house than in one of those overcrowded museums which are the delight of very wealthy New York Jews. I should, in some moods, find a pleasure in the fine proportions of the rooms which Ascher refuses to spoil. I could never, I know, be happy in a place where I ran the risk of dropping tobacco ashes on thirteenth century tapestry and dared not move suddenly lest I should knock over some priceless piece of china.

We ate at a small table set at one end of a big dining-room, a dining-room in which, I suppose, thirty people could have sat down together comfortably. There was no affectation of shaded lights and gloomy, mysterious spaces. Ascher had aimed at and achieved something like a subdued daylight by means of electric lamps, shaded underneath, which shone on the ceiling. I could see all the corners of the room, the walls with their pictures and the broad floor across which the servants passed. The dinner itself was very short and simple. If I had been actually hungry, as I am in the country after shooting, I should have called the dinner meagre. For a London appetite there was enough, but not more than enough. I might, a younger and more vigorous man would, have got up from the table hungry. But the food was exquisite. The cook must be a descendant of one of those artists whom Lord Beaconsfield described in “Tancred,” and he has found in Ascher’s house a situation which ought to satisfy him. Ascher does not care for sumptuousness or abundance; but he knows how to eat well. We had one wine, a very delicately flavoured white Italian wine, perhaps from Capri, the juice of some rare crops of grapes in that sunny island.

“We found ourselves in a little difficulty,” said Ascher, “when you fixed on to-night for your visit to us.”

“I hope,” I said, “that I haven’t lit on an inconvenient evening. Had you any other engagement?”

I was eating a very small piece of fish when he spoke to me, and was trying to guess what the sauce was flavoured with. It occurred to me suddenly that I might have broken in upon some sort of private anniversary, a day which Ascher and his wife observed as one of abstinence. There was, I could scarcely fail to notice it, a sense of subdued melancholy about our proceedings.

“Oh, no,” said Ascher, “but on Wednesdays we always have some music. I was inclined to think that you might have preferred to spend the evening talking, but my wife——

He looked at Mrs. Ascher. I should very much have preferred talk to music. It was chiefly in order to hear Ascher talk that I had accepted the invitation.

“I know,” said Mrs. Ascher, “that Sir James likes music.”

She laid a strong emphasis on the word “know,” and I felt that she was paying me a nice compliment. What she said was true enough. I do like music, some kinds of music. I had heard for the first time the night before a song, then very popular, with a particularly attractive chorus. It began to run through my head the moment Ascher mentioned music. “I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it.” I liked that song. I was not sure that I should like the Aschers’ music equally well. However, I had no intention of contradicting Mrs. Ascher.

“I’m passionately fond of music,” I said.

Ascher is a singularly guileless man. I cannot imagine how any one so unsuspicious as he is can ever have succeeded as a financier, unless indeed people are far honester about money than they are about anything else. I do not think Mrs. Ascher believed that I am passionately fond of music. Her husband did. The little shadow of anxiety which had rested on his face cleared away. He became almost cheerful.

“To-night,” he said, “we are going to hear some of the work of——

He said a name, but I utterly failed to catch it. I had never heard it before, and it sounded foreign, very foreign indeed, possibly Kurdish.

——,” said Ascher, “is one of the new Russian composers.”

I heard the name that time, but I can make no attempt, phonetic or other, to spell it. I suppose it can be spelled, but the letters must be given values quite new to me. The alphabet I am accustomed to is incapable of representing that man’s name.

“I daresay you know him,” said Mrs. Ascher.

I strongly suspected that she was trying to entrap me. I have never been quite sure of Mrs. Ascher since the day she discovered that I was talking nonsense about the statuette of Psyche. Sometimes she appears to be the kind of foolish woman to whom anything may be said without fear. Sometimes she displays most unexpected intelligence. I looked at her before I answered. Her narrow, pale-green eyes expressed nothing but innocent inquiry. She might conceivably think that I had already made a careful study of the music of the new Russian composer. On the other hand, she might be luring me on to say that I knew music which was to be played in her house that night for the first time. I made up my mind to be safe.

“No,” I said, “I never even heard of him.”

Then Ascher began to talk about the man and his music. He became more animated than I had ever seen him. It was evident that Russian music interested Ascher far more than finance did; that it was a subject which was capable of wakening real enthusiasm in him. I listened, eating from time to time the delicate morsels of food offered to me and sipping the delicious wine. I did not understand anything Ascher said, and all the names he mentioned were new to me; but for a time I was content to sit in a kind of half-conscious state, hypnotised by the sound of his voice and the feeling that Mrs. Ascher’s eyes were fixed on me.

Not until dinner was nearly over did I make an effort to assert myself.

“I was talking to Gorman the other day,” I said, “about Irish affairs and especially about the Ulster situation. I have also been hearing Malcolmson’s views. Malcolmson is a colonel and an Ulsterman. You know the sort of views an Ulster Colonel would have.”

Ascher smiled faintly. He seemed no more than slightly amused at the turn Irish affairs were taking. After all neither international finance nor Russian music was likely to be profoundly affected by the Ulster rebellion. (Malcolmson will not use the word rebellion, but I must. There is no other word to describe the actions he contemplates.) No wonder Ascher takes small interest in the matter. On the other hand, Mrs. Ascher was profoundly moved by the mention of Ulster. I could see genuine passion in her eyes.

“Belfast,” she said, “stands for all that is vilest and most hateful in the world. It is worse than Glasgow, worse than Manchester, worse than Birmingham.”

Belfast is, no doubt, the main difficulty. If there were no Belfast the resistance of the rest of Ulster would be inconsiderable. I admired the political instinct which enabled Mrs. Ascher to go straight to the very centre of the situation. But, in all probability, Gorman gave her the hint. Gorman does not seem to understand how real the Ulster opposition is, but he has intelligence enough to grasp the importance of Belfast. What puzzled me first was the extreme bitterness with which Mrs. Ascher spoke.

“What has Belfast ever given to the world?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “ships are built there, and of course there’s linen. I believe they manufacture tobacco, and——

“That,” said Ascher, “is not quite what my wife means. The gifts which a city or a country give to the world must be of a more permanent kind if they are to be of real value. Ships, linen, tobacco, we use them, and in using we destroy them. They have their value, but it is not a permanent value. Ultimately a city will be judged not by its perishable products, but by——

“Art,” said Mrs. Ascher.

I might have known it. Mrs. Ascher would be sure to judge cities, as she judges men, by their achievement in that particular line. I was bound to admit that the reputation of Belfast falls some way short of that of Athens as a centre of literature and art.

“Or thought,” said Ascher, “or criticism. It is curious that a community which is virile and fearless, which is able to look at the world and life through its own eyes, which is indifferent to the general consensus of opinion——

“Belfast is all that,” I said. “I never knew any one who cared less what other people said and thought than Malcolmson.”

“Yet,” said Ascher, “Belfast has done nothing, thought nothing, seen nothing. But perhaps that is all to come. The future may be, indeed I think must be, very different.”

Ascher will never be a real leader of men. His habit of seeing two sides of every question is an incurable weakness in him. Mrs. Ascher does not suffer in that way. She saw no good whatever in Belfast, nor any hope for its future.

“Never,” she said, “never. A people who have given themselves over to material things, who accept frankly, without even the hypocrite’s tribute to virtue, the money standard of value, who ask ‘Does it pay?’ and ask nothing else—— Have you ever been in Belfast?”

“Yes,” I said, “often. The churches are ugly, decidedly ugly, though comfortable.”

Mrs. Ascher shuddered.

“Comfortable!” she said. “Yes. Comfortable! Think of it. Churches, comfort! Irredeemable hideousness and the comfort of congregations as a set-off to it.”

Mrs. Ascher panted. I could see the front of her dress—she wore a very floppy scarlet teagown—rising and falling rapidly in the intensity of her passion. I understood more or less what she felt. If God is at all what we think He is, sublime, then there is something a little grotesque about requiring a cushioned pew, a good system of heating and a nice fat footstool as aids to communion with Him. Yet I am not convinced that man is incapable of the highest emotion when his body is at ease. Some degree of physical comfort seems to be required if the excursions of the soul are to be successful. I cannot, for instance, enjoy the finest kinds of poetry when I am very thirsty; nor have I ever met any one who found real pleasure in a statue when he had toothache. There is something to be said for the theory of the sceptical bishop in Browning’s poem, that the soul is only free to muse of lofty things

“When body gets its sop and holds its noise.”

“The whole Irish question,” said Mrs. Ascher, and she spoke with the most tremendous vehemence, “is a struggle not between political parties—what are political parties?”

“Rotten things,” I said. “I quite agree with you there.”

“Not between conceptions of religion—— What is religion but the blind gropings of the human soul after some divine perfection vaguely guessed?”

That is not what religion is in Ireland. There is nothing either dim or vague about it there, and nobody gropes. Every one, from the infant school child to the greatest of our six archbishops, is perfectly clear and definite in his religious beliefs and suffers no doubts of any kind. That is why Ireland is recognised everywhere as an island of saints. But of course Mrs. Ascher could not be expected to know that.

“It is a struggle,” she said, getting back to the Irish question as the subject of her sentence, “between a people to whom art is an ideal and a people who have accepted materialism and money for their gods, an atheist people.”

It has been the great misfortune of my life that I have never been able to escape from the Irish question. It was discussed round my cradle by a nurse whom my parents selected for her sound Protestant principles. The undertaker will give his views of the Irish question to his assistant while he drives the nails into the lid of my coffin. I should not have supposed that any one could have hit on an aspect of it wholly new to me. But Mrs. Ascher did. Never before had I heard the problem stated as she stated it.

“That,” I said, “is an extraordinarily interesting way of looking at it. The only difficulty I see is——

“It is true,” said Mrs. Ascher.

That was precisely my difficulty. It was not true. I went back to my recollections of old Dan Gorman, a man as intensely interested in the struggle as ever any one was. I remembered his great pot belly, his flabby skin, his whisky-sodden face. I remembered his grasping meanness, his relentless hardness in dealing with those in his power. The most thoroughly materialised business man in Belfast has more spirituality about him than old Dan Gorman ever had. Nor did I believe that his son, Michael Gorman, would have accepted Mrs. Ascher’s account of his position. He would have winked, humourously appreciative of an excellent joke, if any one had told him that he was a crusader, out to wrest the sacred sepulchre of art from the keeping of the Saracens of Ulster.

I did not, of course, attempt to reason with Mrs. Ascher. There is nothing in the world more foolish than trying to reason with a woman who is possessed by a cause. No good ever comes of it. But Mrs. Ascher is quite clever enough to understand a man even if he does not speak. She felt that I should have been glad to argue with her if I had not been afraid. She entered on a long defence of her position.

She began with the Irish Players, and the moment she mentioned them I knew what she was going to say.

“The one instance,” she said, “the single example in the modern world of peasant art, from the soil, of the soil, redolent, fragrant of the simple life of men and women, in direct touch with the primal forces of nature itself. There is nothing else quite like those players and their plays. They are the self-revelation, of the peasant soul. From the whitewashed cabins of the country-side, from the streets of tiny, world-forgotten villages, from the islands where the great Atlantic thunders ceaselessly, these have come to call us back to the realities of life, to express again the external verities of art.”

That is all very well. I agreed with Mrs. Ascher thoroughly about the art of Synge’s plays, and Lady Gregory’s and Yeats’, and the art of the players. But it is merely silly to talk about the soil and whitewashed cottages, and self-revelation of peasant souls. Neither the dramatists nor the players are peasants or ever were. They are very clever, sometimes more than clever, members of the educated classes, who see the peasants from outside just as I see them, as Mrs. Ascher would see them if she ever got near enough to what she calls the soil to see a peasant at all.

When Mrs. Ascher had finished with the Irish Players she went on, still in a white heat of excitement, to the attempt to revive the Irish language.

“Where else,” she said, “will you find such devotion to a purely spiritual ideal? Here you have a people rising enthusiastically to fight for the preservation of the national language. And its language is the soul of a nation. These splendid efforts are made in defiance of materialism, without the remotest hope of gain, just to keep, to save from destruction, a possession felt instinctively to be the most precious thing of all, far above gold and rubies in price.”

“The only flaw in that theory,” I said, “is that the people who still have this most precious possession don’t want to keep it in the least. Nobody ever heard of the Irish-speaking peasants taking the smallest interest in their language. The whole revival business is the work of an English-speaking middle class, who never stop asking the Government to pay them for doing it.”

That was the second occasion on which I came near quarrelling with Mrs. Ascher. Yet I am not a man who quarrels easily. Like St. Paul’s friends at Corinth, I can suffer fools gladly. But Mrs. Ascher is not a fool. She is a clever woman with a twist in her mind. That is why I find myself saying nasty things to her now and then. I suppose it was Gorman who taught her to be an Irish patriot. If she had been content to follow him as an obedient disciple, I should have put up with all she said politely. But, once started by Gorman, she thought out Ireland for herself and arrived at this amazing theory of hers, her artistic children of light in death grips with mercantile and manufacturing materialists. No wonder she irritated me.

Ascher saved us from a heated argument. Dinner was over. He had smoked his half cigarette. He rose from his chair.

“I expect Mr. Wendall is waiting for us,” he said to Mrs. Ascher.

Her face softened as he spoke. The look of fanatical enthusiasm passed out of her eyes. She got up quietly and left the room. Ascher held the door open for her and motioned me to follow her. He took my arm as we passed together down a long corridor.

“Mr. Wendall,” he said, “is a young musician who comes to play to us every week. He is a man with a future before him. I think you will enjoy his playing. We are going to the music room.”

We went through a small sitting-room, more fully furnished than any other in Ascher’s house. It looked as if it were meant to be inhabited by ordinary human beings. It was reserved, so I learned afterwards, for the use of Ascher’s guests. We ascended a short flight of stairs and entered the music room. Unlike the dining-room it was only partially lit. A single lamp stood on a little table near the fireplace, and there were two candles on a grand piano in the middle of the room. These made small spots of light in a space of gloom. I felt rather than saw that the room was a large one. I discerned the shapes of four tall, curtainless windows. I saw that except the piano and a few seats near the fireplace there was no furniture. As we entered I heard the sound of an organ, played very softly, somewhere above me.

“Mr. Wendall is here,” said Ascher.

He led me over to the fireplace and put me in a deep soft chair. He laid a box of cigarettes beside me and set a vase of spills at my right hand. I gathered that I might smoke, so long as I lit my tobacco noiselessly, with spills kindled in the fire; but that I must not make scratchy sounds by striking matches. Mrs. Ascher sank down in a corner of a large sofa. She lay there with parted lips and half-closed eyes, like some feline creature expectant of sensuous delight. The light from the lamp behind her and the flickering fire played a strange game of shadow-making and shadow-chasing among the folds of her scarlet gown. Ascher sat down beside her.

The organ was played very softly. I found out that it was placed in a gallery above the door by which we had entered. I saw the pipes, like a clump of tall spears, barely discernible in the gloom. There was no light in the gallery. Mr. Wendall was no doubt there and was able to play without seeing a printed score. I supposed that he was playing the music of the new Russian composer. Whatever he played he failed to catch my attention, though the sounds were vaguely soothing. I found myself thinking that Mrs. Ascher had no right to be furiously angry with the people of Belfast for making their churches comfortable. This was her form of worship, and never were any devotees more luxuriously placed than we were. If her soul can soar to spiritual heights from the depths of silken cushions, surely a linen-draper may find it possible to pray in a cushioned pew.

I was mistaken about the music I was listening to. Mr. Wendall was only soothing his nerves with organ sounds while he waited for us. When he discovered our presence he left the gallery and descended to the room in which we sat, by a narrow stairway. No greeting of any kind passed between him and the Aschers. He went straight to the piano without giving any sign that he knew of our presence. I lit a cigarette and prepared to endure what was in store for me.

At first the new Russian music struck me as merely noisy. I found no sense or rhythm in it. Then I began to feel slightly excited. The excitement grew on me in a curious way. I looked at the Aschers. He was sitting nearly bolt upright, very rigid, in a corner on the sofa. She lay back, as she had lain before, with her hands on her lap. The only change that I noted in her attitude was that her fists were clenched tightly. Mr. Wendall stopped playing abruptly. There was a short interval of silence, through which I seemed to feel the last chord that was struck vibrating in my spine.

Then he began to play again. Once more the feeling of excitement came on me. I am far from being a Puritan, but I suppose I have inherited from generations of sternly Protestant ancestors some kind of moral prejudice. I felt, as the excitement grew intenser, that I had discovered a new, supremely delightful kind of sin. There came to my memory the names of ancient gods and goddesses denounced by the prophets of Israel: Peor and Baalim, Milcom, Moloch, Ashtaroth. I knew why the people loved to worship them. I remembered that Milton had rejoiced in the names of these half-forgotten deities, and that Milton loved music. No doubt he, too, understood this way of sinning and, very rightly, he placed the gods of it in hell. Wendall, at the piano, stopped and began again. He did this many times. His music was loud sometimes, sometimes soft, but it did not fail to create the sense of passionate deliciousness and, for a time, a longing for more of it.

After a while my senses grew numb, sated I suppose. I looked over at the Aschers. She still lay as she had lain at first, but her fists were no longer clenched. All her muscles seemed to be relaxed. Ascher had crept over close to her. He lay back beside her, and I saw that he held one of her hands clasped in his. His eyes were fixed intently on hers, and even as I watched I saw her lids droop before his gaze. She gave a long, soft sigh of satisfaction.

I realised that Ascher and his wife were lovers still, though they had been married for a score or more of years. That strange emotion, which touches human life with romance for a year or two and then fades into a tolerant companionship, had endured with them. In some way altogether unknown to me the music and all the art in which they delighted had the power of stimulating afresh or re-creating again and again the passion which drew them together. Under the influence of art they enjoyed a mystical communion with each other, not wholly spiritual, but like all mysticism, a mixture of the physical, the ecstasy of contact, actual or imagined, with yearnings and emotions in which the body has no part.

I suppose the music had its effect on me, too, gave me for a few moments a power of sympathy not usually mine. I understood Ascher as I had never understood him before. I knew that the man I had hitherto seen, austere, calm, intellectual, the great financier whom the world sought, was a man with a mask before his face; that accident and the excitement of the music had enabled me to see the face behind the mask. I understood, or supposed I understood, Mrs. Ascher, too. All her foolish fine phrases and absurd enthusiasms were like cries in which tortured creatures find some kind of relief from pain, or the low, crooning laughter of a young mother with her baby at her breast. They were the inevitable, almost hysterical gaspings of a spirit wrought upon over highly and over often by the passion of romantic love. A mask hid the man’s face. The woman was not strong enough to wear it.