Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 14

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That evening I wrote my invitation to the Aschers. They immediately accepted it, expressing the greatest pleasure at the prospect of seeing Gorman’s play again.

I arranged to have dinner at the Berkeley and ordered it with some care, avoiding as far as I could the more sumptuous kinds of restaurant food, and drawing on my recollection of the things Ascher used to eat when Gorman ordered his dinner for him on the Cunard steamer. With the help of the head waiter I chose a couple of wines and hoped that Ascher would drink them. As it turned out he preferred Perrier water. But that was not my fault. No restaurant in London could have supplied the delicate Italian white wines which Ascher drinks in his own house.

We dawdled over dinner and I lengthened the business out as well as I could by smoking three cigarettes afterwards, very slowly. I did not want to reach the Parthenon in time for the musical display of new frocks. I could not suppose that Ascher was interested in seeing a number of young women parading along a platform through the middle of the theatre even though they wore the latest creations of Paris fancy in silks and lingerie. I knew that Mrs. Ascher would feel it her duty to make some sort of protest against the music of the orchestra.

Gorman had told me the hour at which his play might be expected to begin and my object was to hit off the time exactly. Unfortunately I miscalculated and got to the theatre too soon. The last of the young women was waving a well-formed leg at the audience as we entered the box I had engaged. I realised that we should have to sit through a whole tune from the orchestra before the curtain went up again for Gorman’s play. I expected trouble and was pleasantly surprised when none came. Mrs. Ascher had a cold. I daresay that made her slightly deaf and mitigated the torture of the music.

She sat forward in the box and looked round at the audience with some show of interest. The audience looked at her with very great interest. Her clothes that night were more startling than any I have ever seen her wear. A young man in the stalls stared at her for some time, and then, just when I thought he had fully taken her in, bowed to her. She turned to Ascher.

“Who is that?” she said. “The man in the fifth row, three seats from the end, yes, there. He has a lady with him.”

I saw the man distinctly, a well-set-up young fellow with a carefully waxed, fair moustache. The way his hair was brushed and something about the cut of his clothes made me sure that he was not an Englishman. The lady with him was, quite obviously, not a lady in the old-fashioned sense of the word. She seemed to me the kind of woman who would have no scruples about forming a temporary friendship with a man provided he would give her dinner, wine, and some sort of entertainment.

Ascher fumbled for his pince-nez, which he carries attached to a black silk ribbon. He fixed them on his nose and took a good look at the young man.

“Ah,” he said, “my nephew, Albrecht von Richter. You remember him. He dined with us two or three times when we were in Berlin in 1912. I did not know he was in London.”

I somehow got the impression that Ascher was not particularly pleased to see his nephew Albrecht. Ascher was not looking very well. I had not seen him for some time, and I noticed even at dinner that his face was pale and drawn. In the theatre he seemed worse and I thought that the sudden appearance of his nephew had annoyed him. The young man whispered something to his companion and left his seat. The orchestra was still thrashing its way through its tune and there seemed no immediate prospect of the curtain going up.

A few minutes later there was a tap at the door of our box and Von Richter came in. Mrs. Ascher held out her hand to him. He bent over it and kissed it with very pretty courtesy. He shook hands with Ascher who introduced him to me.

“Captain von Richter—Sir James Digby.”

Von Richter bowed profoundly. I nodded.

“Have you been long in London?” said Ascher. “You did not let me know that you were here.”

“I arrived here this afternoon,” said Von Richter, “only this afternoon, at five o’clock.”

He spoke English remarkably well, with no more than a trace of foreign accent.

“I’ve been in Ireland,” he said, “for six weeks.”

“Indeed!” said Ascher. “In Ireland?”

He was looking at his nephew without any expression of surprise, apparently without any suggestion of inquiry; but I could not help noticing that his fingers were fidgeting with the ribbon of his pince-nez. Ascher, as a rule, does not fidget. He has his nerves well under control.

Mrs. Ascher was frankly excited when she heard that Von Richter had been in Ireland.

“Tell me,” she said, “all about Ireland. About the people, what they are saying and thinking.”

“We are all,” I said, “tremendously interested in Irish politics at present.”

“Alas!” said Von Richter, “and I can tell you nothing. My business was dull. I saw very little. I was in Dublin and Belfast, not in the picturesque and beautiful parts of that charming country. I was buying horses. Oh, there is no secret about it. I was buying horses for my Government.”

It is certainly possible to buy horses in Dublin and Belfast; but I was slightly surprised to hear that Von Richter had not been further afield. Any one who understood horse-buying in Ireland would have gone west to County Galway or south to County Cork.

The band showed signs of getting to the end of its tune. Von Richter laid his hand on the door of the box.

“Shall I see you to-morrow?” said Ascher.

“Unfortunately,” said Von Richter, “I leave London early to-morrow morning. Back to Berlin and the drill yard.” He kissed Mrs. Ascher’s hand again. “We poor soldiers have to work hard.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “you can join us at the Carlton after the play. Mr. and Mrs. Ascher have promised to have supper there with me. If you are not engaged——?”

I glanced at the lady in the stalls. I was not going to ask her to supper.

“I shall be delighted,” said Von Richter. “I have no engagement of any importance.”

The lady in the stalls was evidently the sort of lady who could be dismissed without trouble.

“Good,” I said, “we leave directly this play is over; but you may want to see the rest of the performance. The dancing is good I am told. Join us at the Carlton as soon as you’re tired of this entertainment.”

Von Richter slipped away. The curtain went up almost immediately.

Gorman came in to receive our congratulations as soon as his play was over. I asked him to join our supper party but he had an engagement of his own, a supper at the Savoy. I do not blame him. The lady who acted the principle part in his play had been very charming. She deserved any supper that Gorman could give her.

We reached the Carlton very early, long before the rush of supper parties began. Von Richter joined us as we sat down at the table. He was an intelligent, agreeable young man with plenty of tact. He listened and was apparently interested while Mrs. Ascher poured out her hopes and fears for Ireland’s future. When she came, as she did in the end, to her own plan of buying guns for the Nationalist Volunteers Von Richter became almost enthusiastic.

“You Americans,” he said. “You are always on the side of the oppressed. Alone among the nations of the earth you have a pat for the head of the bottom dog.”

Von Richter’s English is not only correct, it is highly idiomatic. Mrs. Ascher bridled with pleasure. It pleased her to think that she was patting the bottom dog’s head. I did not remind her that in the group which she had just modelled the Spirit of Irish Poetry, for whose benefit she intended to buy guns, had got its foot firmly planted on the pig. That animal—and I still believed it to represent Belfast—was the one which a tender-hearted American ought to have patted.

“Perhaps I may be able to assist you,” said Von Richter, “I know something of rifles. That is my trade, you know. If I can be of any help—there is a firm in Hamburg——

He was glancing at Ascher as he spoke. He wondered, I suppose, how far Ascher was committed to the scheme of arming Gorman’s constituents. But Ascher did not appear to be listening to him. He had allowed me to pour out some champagne for him and sat fingering the stem of his glass without drinking.

No one was eating or drinking much. I proposed that we should leave the supper room and have our coffee in the hall outside. I felt slightly uncomfortable at the turn the conversation was taking. Mrs. Ascher was very much in earnest about Ireland. Von Richter, I suppose, really knew where to buy guns. I entirely agreed with Gorman that the distribution of firearms in Ireland was a most undesirable thing.

“I always think,” I said, “that one of the things to do in London is to watch the people going in and out of the supper room here. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. It is the best example there is of the pride of life, ‘superbia vitae.’ I forget the Greek words at the moment; but a bishop whom I happen to know once told me that they mean the exultation of living. You know the sort of thing—gems and glitter, colour, scent, beauty, stateliness, strength. ‘The pride of heraldry, the pomp of power.’”

I made way for Mrs. Ascher and followed her as she moved among the tables towards the staircase at the end of the room. Von Richter hooked his arm in Ascher’s and spoke a few sentences to him rapidly in German. He spoke without making any attempt to lower his voice. He evidently did not think it likely that any one within earshot, except Ascher, would understand German. We reached the hall and secured comfortable seats, from which we could watch the long procession of men and women which was already beginning to stream towards the supper room. I ordered coffee, brandy and tobacco, cigars for Von Richter and myself, a box of cigarettes for Mrs. Ascher. Ascher refused to smoke and did not touch his brandy.

Our little party divided itself into halves. I do not know how it happened but Von Richter managed to get himself placed beside Mrs. Ascher in such a way that his back was partly turned to me. General conversation became impossible. Von Richter and Mrs. Ascher talked to each other eagerly and somehow seemed to get further away from Ascher and me. They were still discussing the landing of guns in Ireland, in Connaught, I think. After a while I could no longer hear what they said. Ascher began to talk to me.

A party, two young women and one older one with three men behind them, passed us and ascended the staircase to the supper room.

“There is something very fine,” said Ascher, “about the insolence of well-bred Englishwomen. You see how they walk and how they look, straight in front of them. It is not an easy thing to walk well across a long brightly lighted space with many eyes watching.” I am not sure that I like Ascher’s word “insolence.” I recognise the quality which he intended to describe, which is, I think, the peculiar possession of English women of a certain class; but I should not call it insolence.

Another party fluttered past us, a man and a woman.

“There,” said Ascher, “is a French woman. She is Madame de Berthier, the wife of one of the Ministers in the last Government, a very prominent woman in Paris. I know her pretty well, but even if I did not know her I should recognise her as French. You see that she is conscious all the time that she is a woman and therefore that men’s eyes are on her. She does not escape from that consciousness. If a German lady were to pass us we should see that she also is sex conscious; but she would be aware that she is only a woman, the inferior of the men with her. The Englishwoman does not admit, does not feel, that she has any superiors and she can walk as if she did not care whether people looked at her and admired her or not. Even the American woman cannot or does not do that. She wants to please and is always trying to please. The Englishwoman is not indifferent to admiration and she tries to please if she thinks it worth while. But she has learnt to bear herself as if she does not care; as if the world and all that is in it were hers of right.”

Two men—one of them almost forty years of age, the other much younger—walked slowly up the hall looking to right and left of them. They failed to find the friends whom they sought. The elder spoke a few words and they sat down opposite to us, probably to wait until the rest of their party should arrive.

“The men of your English upper classes,” said Ascher, “are physically very splendid, the sons of the women we have been looking at are sure to be that. They possess a curious code of honour, very limited, very irrational, but certainly very fine as far as it goes. And I think they are probably true to it.”

“I should have said,” I replied, “that the idea of honour had almost disappeared, what used to be called the honour of a gentleman.”

“You do not really think that,” said Ascher. “Or perhaps you may. In a certain sense honour has disappeared among your upper classes. It is no longer displayed. To the outsider it is scarcely noticeable. It is covered up by affectation of cynicism, of greed, of selfishness. To pose as cynical and selfish is for the moment fashionable. But the sense of honour—of that singular arbitrary English honour—is behind the pose, is the reality. Look at those two men opposite us. They are probably—but perhaps I offend you in talking this way. You yourself belong to the same class as those men.”

“You do not offend me in the least,” I said. “I’m not an Englishman for one thing. Gorman won’t let me call myself Irish, but I stick to it that I’m not English. Please go on with what you were saying.”

“Those men,” said Ascher slowly, “are probably self indulgent. Their morality—sex morality—is most likely very low. We may suppose that they have many prejudices and very few ideas. They—I do not know those two personally. I take them simply as types of their class. They are wholly indifferent to, even a little contemptuous of art and literature. But if it happened that a duty claimed them, a duty which they recognised, they would not fail to obey the call. I can believe for instance that they would fight, would suffer the incredible hardships of a soldier’s life, would endure pain and would die, without any heroics or fuss or shouting. Men of my class and my training could not do those things without great effort. Those men would do them simply, naturally.”

“Ascher,” I said, “I have a confession to make to you. I understand German. I happen to know the language, learned it as a boy.” Ascher looked at me curiously for a moment. I do not think that he was much surprised at what I said or that my confession made him uneasy.

“Ah! You are thinking of what my nephew said to me as we left the supper room. You heard?”

“Yes,” I said, “I felt like an eavesdropper, but I couldn’t help myself. He spoke quite loudly.”

“And you understood?”

As a matter of fact I had not understood at the moment. Von Richter said very little, and what little he said concerned Ascher’s business and had nothing to do with me. He told Ascher to move very cautiously, to risk as little as possible, to keep the money of his firm within reach for a few months. That, as well as I can remember, was all he said; but he repeated it. “Your money should be realisable at a moment’s notice.”

“You understood?” said Ascher, patiently persistent.

“I don’t understand yet,” I said, “but what you have just said about Englishmen being capable of fighting has put thoughts into my mind. Did Captain von Richter mean——?”

“He meant to warn me,” said Ascher, “that what I have always looked forward to with horror and dread is imminent—a great war. You remember a talk we had long ago in New York; the night we were at the circus and saw the trapeze swingers. Well, if my nephew is right, the whole delicate balance of that performance is going to be upset. There will be a crash, inevitably.”

“And you?”

Ascher smiled faintly.

“For me as well as for the others,” he said. “The fact that my affairs are greater than those of most men will only make my fall the worse.”

“But you have been warned in time.”

“I scarcely needed the warning. I was aware of the danger. My nephew only told me what I knew. His warning, coming from him, an officer who stands high in the German military service—it confirms my fears, no more.”

“But you can save yourself and your business,” I said. “Knowing what is before you, you can—you need not lend money, accept obligations. You can gradually draw out of the stream of credit in which your fortune is involved, get into a backwater for a while. You have time enough. I am expressing myself all wrong; but you know what I mean.”

“I know. And you think I ought to do that?”

“There is no ‘ought’ about it,” I said. “It is the natural thing to do.”

“You were a soldier once. I think you told me so.”

I nodded.

“Suppose,” said Ascher, “that this warning had come to you then, while you were still a soldier. Suppose that you had known what your brother officers did not know, or the men under you, that war was coming, you would have resigned your commission. Is it so?”

“No,” I said, “I shouldn’t.”

“It would have been, from my point of view—for I am a coward—it would have been the natural thing to do.”

“It wouldn’t have been natural to me,” I said. “I couldn’t have done it. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t. I’m not professing to be particularly brave or chivalrous or anything of that sort. But to resign under those circumstances——! Well, one doesn’t do it.”

“Nor do I know why,” said Ascher, “but I cannot do it either. It is, you see, the same thing. I must, of course, go on; just as you would have felt yourself obliged to go on. The warning makes no difference.”

The idea that a banker feels about his business as a soldier does about his profession was new to me. But I understood more or less what Ascher meant. If he had that kind of sense of obligation there was clearly no more to be said about the point.

“And England?” I said. “Is she to be in it?”

“Who knows? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I hope not. The disaster will be far less terrible if England is able to remain at peace.”

“Tell me this,” I said, “or if I am impertinent, say so, and I shall not ask again. What was Captain von Richter doing in Ireland?”

“I do not know. I can only guess.”

“Not buying horses?”

“I do not suppose he went there to buy horses though he may have bought some. He went to see, to learn, to understand. That is what I guess. I do not know.”

“He has probably made up his mind,” I said, “that in the course of the next couple of months England will find herself with her hands full, so full with Irish affairs that it will be impossible for her to act elsewhere. A civil war in Ireland——

“My nephew,” said Ascher, “is not very clever. He may think that. He is, I believe, an excellent soldier. But if he were a banker I should not employ him to find out things for me. I should not rely on the reports he brought me. He lacks intelligence. Very likely he believes what you have said.” “But you don’t?”

“No. I do not. I do not believe that Irish affairs will be in such a state that they will determine England’s action. You see I have the privilege of knowing Gorman.”

“You don’t know Malcolmson,” I said, “and he’s a most important factor in the problem. He’s like your nephew, an excellent soldier, but lacking in intelligence. You don’t realise what Malcolmson is capable of.”

“I do not know Colonel Malcolmson personally,” said Ascher. “I am right, am I not, in styling him Colonel Malcolmson?”

“Yes. He retired some years ago as Colonel of my old regiment”

“Does a man retire from his loyalty,” said Ascher, “when he retires from his regiment? Will your friend give up his honour because he has given up his command? Will he aid the enemies of England?”

“Of course,” I said, “if you put it to Malcolmson in that way—— He’s a positive fanatic on the subject of loyalty. But he doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand. He hasn’t had the warning that your nephew has just given you.”

“You are an Irishman,” said Ascher, “and you ought to know your countrymen better than I do. But it will surprise me very much if England finds herself hampered by Ireland when the crisis comes.”

It was Von Richter who broke up our party. He pleaded the necessity for early rising next morning as his excuse for going away before the hour at which the law obliges people to stop eating supper in restaurants. I wondered whether he and Mrs. Ascher had made a satisfactory plan for running guns into Galway. According to Ascher it did not make much difference whether the Irish peasants had rifles in their hands or not. It was soothing, though humbling, to feel that, guns or no guns, Volunteers or no Volunteers, Ireland would not matter in the least.