Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 13

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I never suspected Malcolmson of the cheap kind of military ardour which shows itself in the girding on of swords after the hour of danger is past. He is the kind of man who likes taking risks, and I have not the slightest doubt that if he had really known beforehand that the Government was “plotting” to invade Ulster he would have been found entrenched, with a loaded rifle beside him, on the north bank of the Boyne. What I did think, when he left London suddenly to place himself at the head of his men, was that he had been a little carried away by the excitement of the times; that he was moved, as many people are, when startling events happen, to do something, without any very distinct idea of what is to be done. But even that suspicion wronged Malcolmson. Either he or some one else had devised an effective counterplot; effective considered as a second act in a comic opera. Perhaps I ought not to say comic opera. There is a certain reasonableness in the schemes of every comic opera. Our affairs in the early part of 1914 were moving through an atmosphere like that of “Alice in Wonderland.” The Government was a sort of Duchess, affecting to regard Ulster as the baby which was beaten when it sneezed because it could if it chose thoroughly enjoy the pepper of Home Rule. The Opposition, on the other hand, with its eye also on Ulster, kept saying in tones of awestruck warning, “Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” Malcolmson seemed to be a kind of White Knight, lovable, simple-minded, chivalrous, but a little out of place in the world.

However, Malcolmson and his friends, considered as characters in “Alice in Wonderland,” were effective, far more effective than the poor White Knight ever was. They bought a lot of guns somewhere, perhaps in Hamburg. They hired a ship and loaded her with the guns. They sailed her into Larne Harbour and said to the Government, “Now, come on if you dare.”

The Government, having previously issued a solemn proclamation forbidding the importation of arms into Ireland, took up the attitude of Mr. Winkle and said it was just going to begin. It rolled up its sleeves and clenched its fists and said for the second time and with considerable emphasis that it was just going to begin, Malcolmson danced about, coat off, battle light in eye, and kept shouting: “Come on!” The Government, taking off its collar and tie, said: “Just you wait till I get at you.”

Gorman took a sane, though I think incorrect, view of the situation.

“The English people,” he said, “are hopeless fools. It’s almost impossible to deal with them. They are actually beginning to believe that Ulster is in earnest.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s only fair. They’ve been believing that you’re in earnest for quite a long time now. Ulster ought to have its turn.”

Gorman, though a politician, is essentially a just man. He admitted the truth of what I had said. He went further. He admitted that Malcolmson’s coup was exceedingly well conceived.

“It’s just the sort of thing,” he said, “which appeals to Englishmen. Reason is wasted on them.”

“Don’t be too hard on the English,” I said. “It’s the same everywhere in the world. Government through the people, of the people, by, with, from, to and for the people, is always unreasonable.”

“It’s the theatrical which pays,” said Gorman. “I didn’t think those fellows in Belfast had brains enough to grasp that fact, but apparently they have. I must say that this gun-running performance of theirs is good. It has the quality which Americans describe as ‘punch.’ It has stirred the popular imagination. It has got right across the footlights. It has fetched the audience.”

“Awkward situation for you,” I said.

“We’ll have to do something,” said Gorman.

“Arrest the ringleaders? Imprison Malcolmson?”

“Lord, no. We may be fools, but we’re not such fools as that.”

“Still,” I said, “he’s broken the law. After all, a party like yours in close alliance with the Government of the country must do something to maintain the majesty of the law.”

“Law be damned,” said Gorman. “What the devil does law matter to us or the Government either? What we’ve got to consider is popular opinion.”

“And that,” I said, “seems to be setting against you. According to the theory of democracy as I understand it, you’re bound to go the way popular opinion is blowing you. You can’t, without gross inconsistency, start beating to windward against it.”

“Winds sometimes change,” said Gorman.

“They do. This one has. It was all in your favour a fortnight ago. Now, what with your ‘plot’ and this really striking little episode in Larne——

“The art of government,” said Gorman, “consists in manipulating the wind, making it blow the way it’s wanted to. What we’ve got to do is to go one better than the Ulster men.”

“Ah,” I said, “they imported rifles. You might land a shipload of large cannons. Is that the idea?”

“They needn’t necessarily be real cannons. I don’t think our funds would run to real cannons. Besides, what good would they be when we had them? But you’ve got the main idea all right. Our game is to pull off something which will startle the blessed British public, impress it with the fact that we’re just as desperate as the other fellows.”

“What about the police?” I said. “The police have always had a down on your side. It’s a tradition in the force.”

“The police aren’t fools,” said Gorman. “They know jolly well that any policemen who attempted to interfere with our coup, whatever it may be, would simply be dismissed. After all, we’re not doing any harm. We’re not going to shoot any one. We’re simply going to influence public opinion. Every one has a right to do that. By the way, did I mention that my play is being revived? Talking of public opinion reminded me of it. It had quite a success when it was first put on.”

Gorman is charming. He never sticks to one subject long enough to be really tiresome.

“I’m delighted to hear it,” I said. “I hope it will do even better this time.”

“It ought to,” said Gorman. “We’ve got a capital press agent, and, of course, my name is far better known than it was. It isn’t every day the public gets a play written by a Member of Parliament.”

“Where is it to be produced?” “The Parthenon. Good big house.”

The Parthenon is one of the largest of the London Music Halls. Gorman’s play was, I suppose, to take its place in the usual way between an exhibition of pretty frocks with orchestral accompaniment and an imitation of the Russian dancers.

“I shall be there,” I said, “on the first night. You can count on my applause.”

It occurred to me after Gorman left me that the revival of his play offered me an excellent opportunity of entertaining the Aschers. Ascher had been exceedingly kind to me in giving me letters of introduction to all the leading bankers in South America. Mrs. Ascher had been steadily friendly to me. I owed them something and had some difficulty about the best way of paying the debt. I did not care to ask them to dinner in my rooms in Clarges Street. My landlord keeps a fairly good cook, and I could, I daresay, have bought some wine which Ascher would have drunk. But I could not have managed any kind of entertainment afterwards. I did not like to give them dinner at a restaurant without taking them on to the theatre; and the Aschers are rather superior to most plays. I had no way of knowing which they would regard as real drama. The revival of Gorman’s play solved my difficulty. I knew that Mrs. Ascher regarded him as an artist and that Ascher had the highest respect for his brilliant and paradoxical Irish mind. After luncheon I took a taxi and drove out to Hampstead. I owed a call at the house in any case and, if Mrs. Ascher happened to be at home, I could arrange the whole matter with her in the way that would suit her best.

Mrs. Ascher was at home. She was in the studio, a large bare room at the back of the house. Gorman was with her.

I saw at once that Mrs. Ascher was in a highly emotional condition. I suspected that Gorman had been talking to her about the latest wrong that had been done to Ireland, his Ireland, by the other part of Ireland which neither he nor Mrs. Ascher considered as Ireland at all. On the table in the middle of the room there was a little group on which Mrs. Ascher had been at work earlier in the day. A female figure stood with its right foot on the neck of a very disagreeable beast, something like a pig, but prick-eared and hairy. It had one horn in the middle of its forehead. The female figure was rather well conceived. It was appealing, with a sort of triumphant confidence, to some power above, heaven perhaps. The prick-eared pig looked sulky.

“Emblematic,” said Gorman, “symbolical.”

“The Irish party,” I said, “trampling on Belfast.”

“The spirit of poetry in Ireland,” said Mrs. Ascher, “defying materialism.”

“That,” I said, “is a far nicer way of putting it.”

I took another look at the spirit of poetry. Mrs. Ascher was evidently beginning to understand Ireland. Instead of being nude, or nearly nude, as spirits generally are, this one was draped from head to foot. In Ireland we are very particular about decency, and we like everything to have on lots of clothes.

“But now,” said Mrs. Ascher, tragically, “the brief dream is over. Materialism is triumphant, is armed, is mighty.”

I looked at Gorman for some sort of explanation.

“I’ve just been telling Mrs. Ascher,” he said, “about the gun-running at Larne.”

“The mailed fist,” said Mrs. Ascher, “will beat into the dust the tender shoots of poesy and all high imaginings; will crush the soul of Ireland, and why? Oh, why?”

“Perhaps it won’t,” I said. “My own idea is that Malcolmson doesn’t mean to use those guns aggressively. He’ll keep quite quiet unless the soul of poetry in Ireland goes for him in some way.”

“We can make no such compromise,” said Mrs. Ascher. “Art must be all or nothing, must be utterly triumphant or else perish with uncontaminated soul.”

“The exclusion of Ulster from the scope of the Bill,” said Gorman, “is the latest proposition; but we won’t agree to it.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s your affair, not mine. I mean to stay in London and keep safe; but I warn you that if the spirit of poesy attempts to triumph utterly over Malcolmson he’ll shoot at it. I know him and you don’t. You think he’s a long-eared pig, but that ought to make you all the more careful. Pigs are noted for their obstinacy.”

“What we’ve got to do,” said Gorman, “is devise some way of countering this new move. Something picturesque, something that newspapers will splash with big headlines.”

I do not think that Mrs. Ascher heard this. She was looking at the upper part of the window with a sort of rapt, Joan of Arc expression of face. I felt that she was meditating lofty things, probably trying to hit on some appropriate form of self-sacrifice.

“I shall go among the people,” she said, “your people, my people, for I am spiritually one of them. I shall go from cottage to cottage, from village to village, walking barefooted along the mountain roads, dressed in a peasant woman’s petticoat. They will take me for one of themselves and I shall sing war songs to them, the great inspiring chants of the heroes of old. I shall awake them to a sense of their high destiny. I shall set the young men’s feet marching, thousands and thousands of them. I shall fill the women’s hearts with pride.”

Then, for the first and only time since I have known him, Gorman’s patience gave way. I do not blame him. The thought of Mrs. Ascher as an Irish peasant, singing street ballads outside public houses, would have upset the temper of Job.

“That’s all very well,” he said, “but the other people have the guns.”

“We must have guns, too,” said Mrs. Ascher, “and shining swords and long spears tipped with light. Buy guns.”

With a really impressive gesture she dragged the rings from the fingers, first of one hand, then of the other, and flung them on the ground at Gorman’s feet. Even when working in her studio Mrs. Ascher wears a great many rings.

“Buy. Buy,” she said.

She unclasped the necklace which she wore and flung it down beside the rings. It was a pearl necklace, but not by any means the handsomest pearl necklace she owned.

“More,” she said, “you must have more.”

She pranced out of the room, stepping high, like an actress taking a part in one of Shakespeare’s plays or a well-bred carriage horse.

“Gorman,” I said, “you’re not going to take her wedding ring, are you? I don’t think you ought to. Ascher’s really fond of her and I’m sure he wouldn’t like it.”

“I wish to goodness,” said Gorman, “that she wouldn’t behave in this wild way. If she wants to subscribe to the party funds why doesn’t she write a cheque instead of shying jewellery at me? I should certainly be arrested on suspicion if I went to try and pawn those things. Nobody would believe that she gave them to me.”

He picked up the rings as he spoke and laid them in a row on the table.

“If we don’t get her stopped,” he said, “she’ll have everybody laughing at us.”

“Laughing at you, Gorman, not at me. I’ve nothing to do with the poetic soul of Ireland. It’s your property.”

“The English have no real sense of humour,” said Gorman.

“They’ve got quite enough to see this joke,” I said. “An owl would giggle if it saw Mrs. Ascher going barefoot about Ireland and you following her round carrying a long spear tipped with light in your hand.”

“We must stop her,” said Gorman. “Oh, damn! Here she is again.”

Mrs. Ascher came in carrying a large morocco leather covered box, her jewel case, I suppose. She was a little calmer than when she left us but still very determined.

“Take this,” she said. “Take all there is in it. I give it gladly—to Ireland.”

Gorman looked at the jewel case and then pulled himself together with an effort.

“Mrs. Ascher,” he said, “your gift is princely, but——

“I give it freely,” said Mrs. Ascher.

“And I shall receive it,” said Gorman, “receive it as the gift of a queen, given with queenly generosity. I shall receive it when the hour comes, but the time is not yet.”

Gorman rising to an occasion is a sight which fills me with admiration. That promise of a time to come was masterly. I should never have thought of it; but of course it came more easily to Gorman than it would to me. He is a politician and accustomed to draw cheques on rather distant futures.

“Our people,” said Gorman, “are as yet unprepared, not ready to face the crisis of their destiny. Keep these.” Gorman laid his hand on the jewel box as if giving it a sort of benediction, consecrating its contents to the service of Ireland. “Keep these as a sacred trust until the hour is upon us.”

I very nearly applauded. Mrs. Ascher seemed a little disappointed.

“Why not now?” she said. “Why should we delay any longer?”

“We must trust our leaders,” said Gorman. “They will tell us when the time for action comes.”

That would have been good enough for any ordinary constituency. It did not satisfy Mrs. Ascher. I saw her looking a little doubtfully at Gorman. She is a curious woman. She uses the very finest kind of language herself; but she always gets suspicious when any one else talks about sacred trusts and things of that kind. The fact is, I suppose, that she means what she says, lives, as well as talks, finely. Gorman and I do not—quite.

I felt that Gorman needed and deserved a little help. He had done well enough so far, but he scarcely understood how near to the edge of Mrs. Ascher’s credulity he had gone.

“What Mr. Gorman means,” I said, “is that you must have men, organised, you know, and drilled, before you can give them guns. Just at present there are very few volunteers in Mr. Gorman’s part of Ireland. He’s going to enroll a lot more. When he has them he’ll ask you for a subscription for the gun fund.”

I did not think that Mrs. Ascher was really satisfied. In the light of subsequent events I found out that she certainly was not. But she said no more at the moment and made no further effort to press her jewel case on Gorman. I did not feel that the moment was a good one for giving her the invitation I had planned. It is impossible, without something like indecency, to invite a woman to dinner in a restaurant while she is meditating a barefooted pilgrimage through the wild places of Holy Ireland.

Gorman and I left the house together. I hired a taxi to take us home so that we could talk comfortably.

“Extraordinary woman,” I said.

“Very, very. But don’t let’s talk about her. That was rather a good idea of yours. May be something in it.

“I didn’t know I had an idea,” I said. “Are you sure you’re not mixing me up with Mrs. Ascher? She has lots.”

“Not at all,” said Gorman. “It was you who suggested organising the National Volunteers.”

There was at that time in Ireland a small number of extreme patriots who rather admired Malcolmson because they thought he was going to fight against England, and despised Gorman because they knew he was not. These men had enrolled themselves in a semi-military organisation and called themselves the National Volunteers. Gorman and his friends did their best to suppress them and kept all mention of their existence out of the English papers as far as possible. It surprised me to hear him speak in a casual way of organising these declared enemies of his.

“You can’t do that,” I said. “Those fellows hate you like poison, worse than Malcolmson does. They’re—well, I should call them rebels. They certainly won’t do what you tell them.”

“Oh, yes, they will, if treated properly. My idea is to flood the organisation with reliable men, fellows we can trust. When we’ve got a majority of our own people enrolled we’ll tell them to elect their own leaders, democratic idea. Army choosing its own officers. Sure to catch on.”

“Sure to, and then?”

“Oh, then they’ll elect us. See? Every member of Parliament will be a colonel. We needn’t drill or anything; but there’s nothing to prevent our saying that we have 200,000 trained men. The Ulster fellows have gone no trumps on their 100,000——

“I should be inclined to say gone No Home Rule.”

Gorman grinned.

“Gone no something,” he said, “and we double them. I expect that will set English opinion swinging round again.”

“It ought to,” I said, “but why bother about all these preliminaries? Why put everybody in Ireland to the trouble of enrolling themselves in a new organisation and electing officers and all that? It’s just as easy to say you have 200,000 trained men before being made a colonel as afterwards.”

“You don’t understand politics,” said Gorman. “In politics there must be a foundation of some sort for every fact. It needn’t be much of a foundation, but there must be some.”

“Hard on the Irish people,” I said, “being put to all that trouble and bother just to make a foundation.”

“Not at all,” said Gorman. “They’ll like it. But I hope to goodness that fanatic woman won’t insist on our buying guns. It would be the devil and all if the fellows I’m thinking about got guns in their hands. You simply couldn’t tell what they’d do. You’ll have to try and keep Mrs. Ascher quiet.”

“I’m going to ask her to dine with me and go to see your play,” I said. “That may distract her mind from guns for a while.”

“You use your influence with her,” said Gorman. “I’ve the greatest belief in influence.”

He has.