Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 15

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Gorman’s play achieved a second success. The Parthenon was crammed every night, and it was the play, not the pretty dresses or the dancing, which filled the house. Gorman made money, considerable sums of money. I know this because he called on me one morning in the middle of July and told me so. He did more. He offered me a very substantial and quite unanswerable proof that he felt rich.

“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’d like to pay you whatever you’ve spent on this new invention of Tim’s.”

“I haven’t spent anything,” I said. “I’ve invested a little. I believe in Tim’s new cinematograph. I expect to get back every penny I’ve advanced to him and more.”

This did not satisfy Gorman. He got out his cheque book and a fountain pen.

“There was the hundred pounds you gave him to buy looking glasses,” he said. “You didn’t give him more than that, did you?”

“Not so much,” I said. “The bill for those mirrors was only £98-7-6; and I made the man knock off the seven and sixpence as discount for cash. I’m learning to be a business man by degrees.”

Gorman wrote down £98 on the cover of his cheque book.

“And the hire of the hall?” he said. “What will that come to?”

I had hired a small hall for the exhibition of Tim’s moving picture ghosts. I had invited about a hundred people to witness the show. Gorman himself, a brother of the inventor, had promised to preside over the gathering and to make a few introductory remarks on the progress of science or anything else that occurred to him as appropriate to such an occasion. But I could not possibly allow him to pay for the entertainment.

“My dear Gorman,” I said, “it’s my party. The people are my friends. At least some of them are. The invitations have gone out in my name. You might just as well propose to pay for the tea I mean to offer them to drink as for the hire of the room in which I am going to receive them.”

“Will £150 cover the whole show?” said Gorman.

“If you insist on heaping insults on my head,” I said, “I shall retire into a nursing home and cancel all the invitations.”

“You’re an obstinate man,” said Gorman.

“Very. In matters of this kind.”

“All the same,” said Gorman, “I’ll get rid of that money. I don’t consider it’s mine. I ought to have paid for Tim, and I would, only that I hadn’t a penny at the time.”

“If you like to give £150 to a charity,” I said, “that’s your affair.”

“That,” said Gorman, “would be waste. I rather think I’ll give a party myself.”

He slipped his cheque book back into his pocket.

“Invite me to meet the lady who acts in your play,” I said.

“Miss Gibson?” said Gorman. “Right. Who else shall we have?”

“Why have anybody else?”

“There are difficulties,” said Gorman, “about the rest of the party. You wouldn’t care to meet my friends.”

“Oh, yes, I would.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I know you. You don’t consider Irish Nationalists fit to associate with. We’re not respectable.”

That was putting it too strongly; but it is a fact that I do not know, or particularly want to know, any of Gorman’s political associates.

“And your friends,” said Gorman, “wouldn’t know me.”

Again Gorman was guilty of over-statement; but my friends are, for the most part, of conservative and slightly military tastes. They would not get on well with Gorman.

“I’ll think it over,” said Gorman, “and let you know.”

Two days later I got my invitation. Gorman, in the excitement of sudden great possessions, had devised an expensive kind of party. The invited guests were Mr. and Mrs. Ascher, Miss Gibson, Tim and myself. We were to voyage off from Southampton in a motor yacht, hired by Gorman, to see the Naval Review at Spithead. We were to start at ten o’clock from Waterloo station in a saloon carriage reserved for our party.

“We have to be back in time for Miss Gibson to go to the theatre,” Gorman wrote, “so we must start early. I believe the show is to be worth seeing. British Navy at its best. King there. Royal salutes from Dreadnoughts. Rank, fashion and beauty in abundance.”

The week was to be one of exciting festivities. Gorman had fixed his party for the day before my exhibition of Tim’s new invention.

I was shaving—shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Gorman’s party—when my servant came into my room.

“I beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but there’s a young man waiting in the hall, says that he wants to see you.”

It seemed odd that any one should want to see me at that hour.

“Who is he?” I said.

“Don’t know, sir. Gives his name as Gorman. But he’s not our Mr. Gorman.”

“It may be Tim,” I said. “Does he look as if he had an artistic soul?”

“Couldn’t say, sir. Might have, sir. Artists is very various. Doesn’t seem to me, sir, as if his man looked after his clothes proper.”

“Must be Tim,” I said. “Show him in.”

“In here, sir?”

“Yes. And have an extra kidney cooked for breakfast.”

Tim came in very shyly and sat down on a chair near the door. He certainly did not look as if his clothes had been properly cared for. He was wearing the blue suit which I suspected was the best he owned. It was even more crumpled and worse creased than when I saw it down in Hertfordshire.

“I hope you don’t mind my coming here,” he said. “I didn’t like to go to Mr. Ascher, and I was afraid to go to Michael. He’d have been angry with me.”

“Has anything gone wrong with your apparatus? Smashed a mirror?” Tim brightened up at the mention of his apparatus.

“Oh, no,” he said. “That’s all right. In fact I’ve been able to improve it greatly. You remember the trouble I had with the refraction from the second prism. The adjustment of the angles—— The way the light fell——

I could not, especially before breakfast, argue about prisms. “If your machinery’s all right,” I said, “what’s the matter with you?”

“It’s this party of Michael’s,” he said. “I forgot all about it till yesterday afternoon.”

“Well, you remembered it then. If you’d forgotten it till this afternoon it would have been a much more serious matter.”

“But,” said Tim, “Michael told me to get some new clothes. He said he’d pay for them, which was very kind of him. But when I got up to London the shops were shut. I hurried as much as I could, but there were one or two things I had to do before I started. And now I’m afraid Michael will be angry. He said most particularly that I must be well dressed because there are ladies coming.”

“Stand up,” I said, “and let me have a look at you.”

Poor Tim stood up, looking as if he expected me to box his ears. There was no disguising the fact that his costume fell some way short of the standard maintained by Cowes yachtsmen.

Tim surveyed himself with a rueful air. He was certainly aware of the condition of his clothes.

“If I could even have got a ready made suit,” he said, “it might have fitted. But I couldn’t do that. I didn’t get to London till nearly ten o’clock. There was a train at four. I wish now that I’d caught it. It was only a few minutes after three when I remembered about the party and I might have caught that train. But I didn’t want to leave just then. There were some things that I had to do. Perhaps now I’d better not go to the party. Michael will be angry if I don’t; but I expect he’ll be angrier if I go in these clothes. I think I’d better not go at all.”

He looked at me wistfully. He was hoping, I am sure, that I might decide that he was too disreputable to appear.

“No,” I said, “you can’t get out of it that way. You’ll have to come.”

“But can I? You know better than I do. I did brush my trousers a lot this morning—really. I brushed them for quite half an hour; but there are some mark——

He held out his right leg and looked at it hopelessly.

“Stains, I suppose,” he said.

“You’d be better,” I said, “if you had a tie.”

Tim put his hand up to his neck and felt about helplessly.

“I must have forgotten to put it on,” he said. “I have one, I know. But it’s very hard to remember ties. They are such small things.”

“Take one of mine,” I said, “and put it on before you forget again.”

“Anything else?” said Tim.

“I don’t think,” I said, “that there’s anything else we can do. My clothes wouldn’t fit you. I might lend you a pair of boots but I doubt if you’d get them on. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll get yours cleaned. Take them off.”

I do not think that my servant liked cleaning Tim’s boots. But he did it and I daresay it was good for him.

I was a little anxious about the meeting between Mrs. Ascher and Tim. When they parted in New York she was deeply vexed with him and I could not think it likely that a woman as devout as she is would readily forgive a man who had been guilty of blasphemy. On the other hand she had very graciously accepted my invitation to be present when the new invention was shown off. She might, of course, only wish to hear the other Gorman making a speech; but she might have forgotten Tim’s offence, or changed her mind about its heinousness. In any case Tim’s clothes would make no difference to her. Miss Gibson might think less of him for being shabby. But Mrs. Ascher was quite likely to prefer him in rags. Many people regard unkemptness as a sign of genius; which is, I daresay, the reason why poets seldom wash their necks.

I need not have troubled myself about the matter. Mrs. Ascher took no notice of Tim. She was sitting in the saloon carriage when we reached the station and was surrounded with newspapers. She greeted me with effusion.

“Isn’t it glorious?” she said. “Splendid. We have shown them that we too can do daring things, even the sort of things in which they take a special pride. The practical things which the world boasts of, which we artists are not supposed to be able to do at all.”

“I haven’t seen a paper this morning,” I said. “Has any one assassinated the Prime Minister?”

“Look!” she said.

She held out one of the newspapers towards me. I did not have to take it in my hand to see the news. I could have read the headlines from the far side of the platform.

“Steam yacht lands guns on Galway Coast. National Volunteers muster to receive Arms. Coastguards Paralysed. Police Helpless. Crushing Reply to Ulster Lawlessness.”

That, of course, was a Liberal paper. There was a Unionist paper open on the floor at my feet. Its statement of the facts was almost identical; but its interpretation was different Instead of regarding the incident as a lesson in loyalty to Malcolmson it said:

“Act of Rebellion in Connaught. Civil War Breaks Out.”

“In the broad light of day,” said Mrs. Ascher, “at noon. Without an attempt at concealment. Now, now at last, Ireland has asserted herself, has shown that the idealism of the artist is a match for the sordid materialism of the worshippers of efficiency.”

I looked round for Gorman. I wanted to see how he was taking the news. He was on the platform, talking seriously, I fear sternly, to Tim; no doubt about his clothes. Ascher was standing near them; but was not, I think, listening to Gorman. He had the air of patient politeness which is common with him on pleasure parties and excursions of all kinds.

“I can’t help hoping,” I said, “that they haven’t got any ammunition. It sounds an unkind thing to say, but—I’m not much of a patriot, I know, but I’ve just enough love of country in me to dislike the idea of Irishmen shooting each other.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Ascher, “there would be no risk of that if—if men like you—the natural leaders—would place yourselves at the head of the people. Think—think——

I did think. The more I thought the less inclined I felt to agree with Mrs. Ascher. It seemed to me that if I took to paralysing coastguards and reducing policemen to helplessness there would be considerably more risk of shooting than if I stayed quietly in London. The proper leaders of the people—proper though perhaps not natural—are the politicians. The only risk of real trouble in Ireland rose from the fact that men like Malcolmson—natural leaders—had done what Mrs. Ascher wanted me to do, put themselves at the head of the people. If they had been content to leave the question of Home Rule to the politicians it could have been settled quietly. Gorman, for instance, has an instinct for stopping in time. Malcolmson and men like him confuse games with real affairs. I might turn out to be just as bad as Malcolmson if I took to placing myself at the head of the people. Besides I do not like the people.

Gorman came in with Miss Gibson and I was introduced to her. She seemed a nice, quiet little girl, and smiled rather shyly as we shook hands. She sat down beside Mrs. Ascher and refused the cigarette which was offered her. She did not in the least correspond to my idea of what a leading lady in a popular play should be. However I had not much opportunity just then of forming an opinion of her. Gorman, having settled the two ladies, took Ascher and me to the far end of the carriage. The train started.

“That’s a damned silly performance,” said Gorman, “landing those guns in Galway.”

“I should have thought,” I said, “that you’d have been pleased. You were talking to me the other day about the necessity for pulling off some coup of a striking and theatrical kind by way of diverting the sympathy of the English people from Ulster.”

“But this,” said Gorman, “is a totally different thing. I happen to know what I’m talking about. The fellows who’ve got these guns are wild, irresponsible, unpractical fools. They’ve been giving us trouble for years, far more trouble than all the Unionist party put together. They don’t understand politics in the least. They’ve no sense. They’re like—like——” he looked round for some comparison, “in some ways they’re rather like Tim.”

“Dreamers,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Gorman. “They ought to be writing poetry.”

“Lofty souls,” I said, “idealists. Just exactly what Mrs. Ascher thinks you are.”

“Take the case of Tim,” said Gorman. “You’ll hardly believe it but—just look at his clothes, will you?”

Tim was standing by himself in the middle of the carriage. He looked forlorn. He was too shy, I imagine, to sit down beside Mrs. Ascher or Miss Gibson, and too much afraid of his brother to join our group. We had every opportunity of studying his clothes.

“And I told him to buy a new suit,” said Gorman.

“That,” I said, “is just the kind of man that Mrs. Ascher believes in. She was saying to me a few minutes ago that there is nothing more sordid and detestable than the worship of efficiency in practical matters.”

The mention of Mrs. Ascher’s name recalled Gorman to a sense of his duties as a host. The two ladies were not getting on very well together. I imagine that Mrs. Ascher was too much excited by her Irish news to care for talking about the Naval Review we were going to see, and that was a topic which would inevitably suggest itself to Miss Gibson. Miss Gibson, though anxious to be polite, was not likely to know or care anything about Ireland. Gorman left us and joined them.

“Well,” I said to Ascher, “what do you think of this performance in Galway?”

“Have you read the newspapers?” he said.

“The headlines,” I replied. “I couldn’t very well help reading them.”

Ascher stepped across the carriage and picked up one of the papers from the floor. It was the one which declared that civil war had broken out in Ireland.

“I wish,” he said, “that I knew exactly the measure of my nephew’s intelligence.”

“Captain von Richter?” I said.

“Yes. He may—almost anything is possible with a man like him. He may believe that.”

Ascher pointed to the words, “Civil War.”

“I don’t think you need worry about that,” I said. “Whatever Malcolmson and his lot may do those fellows in Galway won’t fight. Gorman and the priests will stop them. You can always count on the politicians and the priests. They’ll prevent anything really serious. The Connaught Celt will never start a civil war; at least not unless he gives up his religion and takes to hanging Members of Parliament. He’s a splendid fighting man—none better—but he won’t run the risk of losing his soul for the sake of a battle. He must be told he ought to fight by some one whose authority he recognises. That’s where we’re safe. All the authorities are against violence.”

“I have no doubt you are right,” said Ascher. “No civil war will be started in the way these papers suggest. I am not anxious about that. It is impossible. But I am anxious lest it should be believed possible by men who do not understand. My nephew, for instance. He will not know what you know. He may believe—and those over him in Berlin—they will not understand. They may think that the men in Ireland who have got the guns will use them. They may even have had something to do with supplying the guns. That is where the danger lies. A miscalculation—not in Ireland—but elsewhere.”

I did not like to ask whether Mrs. Ascher’s enthusiasm for the cause of Ireland had led her to finance the Galway gun-running. Nor did I care to question Ascher about his suggestion that Von Richter had something to do with buying and shipping that cargo or the other which was landed at Larne. Ascher seemed disinclined to discuss the matter further. We joined Gorman and the two ladies at the far end of the carriage, picking up Tim on our way.

Gorman was sitting beside Miss Gibson. He was leaning forward, pointing with outstretched hand to the country through which the train was passing.

“This is the playground of England,” he said. “Here the rich and idle build themselves beautiful houses, plant delightful gardens, live surrounded by a parasitic class, servants, ministers to luxury; try to shut out, succeed to a great extent in shutting out all sense and memory of real things, of that England where the world’s work is done, the England which lies in the smoky hinterland.” He waved his hand with a comprehensive gesture towards the north. “Far from all the prettinesses of glorified villadom.”

“I do think,” said Miss Gibson, “that Surrey and Hampshire are sweetly pretty.”

Miss Gibson may be regarded, I suppose, as one of England’s toys. It was only natural that she should appreciate the playground. It was, so she thought, a district very well suited to the enjoyment of life. She told us how she had driven, in the motor of a wealthy member of Parliament, through the New Forest. From time to time she had spent week-ends at various well-appointed villas in different parts of the South of England, and, as a nice-minded young woman should, had enjoyed these holidays of hers. She frankly preferred the playground to that other, more “real” England which Gorman contrasted with it, the England of the midlands, where the toilers dwelt, in an atmosphere thick with smuts.

Mrs. Ascher, of course, took quite a different view. It filled her with sadness to think that a small number of people should play amid beautiful surroundings while a great number—she dwelt particularly on the case of women who made chains—should live hard lives in hideous places. Mrs. Ascher is more emotional than intellectual. The necessity for consistency in a philosophy of life troubles her very little. As a devout worshipper of art she ought to have realised that her goddess can only be fitly honoured by people wealthy enough to buy leisure, that the toiling millions want bread much more than they want beauty. I have no quarrel with the description of the life of Birmingham as more “real”—both Gorman and Mrs. Ascher kept using the word—than the life of the Isle of Wight. Nor should I want to argue with any one who said that beauty and art are the only true realities, and that the struggle of the manufacturing classes for wealth is a striving after wind. But I felt slightly irritated with Mrs. Ascher for not seeing that she cannot have it both ways.

Gorman, of course, was simply trying to be agreeable. I pointed out—when I succeeded in seizing a place in the conversation—that if Gorman’s theory were applied to Ireland Belfast would come out as a reality while Cork, Limerick, and other places like them would be as despicable as Dorsetshire.

“Wicklow,” I said, “is the playground of Ireland, and it returns nothing but Nationalist members to Parliament. You ought not to go back on your own side, Gorman.”

Mrs. Ascher shuddered at the mention of Belfast and would not admit that it could be as “real” as Manchester or Leeds.

Miss Gibson broke in with a reminiscence of her own. She told us that she had been in Belfast once with a touring company, and thought it was duller on Sunday than any other city in the British Isles.

Gorman, after winking at me, appealed to Ascher on the subject of Belfast’s prosperity. In his opinion the apparent wealth of that city is built up on an insecure foundation of credit. There is no solidity about it. The farmers of the south and west of Ireland, on the other hand, have real wealth, actual savings, stored up in the Post Office Banks, or placed on deposit, in other banks, or hoarded in stockings.

Ascher was most unwilling to join in the discussion. He noticed, as I did, that Miss Gibson’s attention was wandering. In the end, goaded by Gorman, he said that some one ought to teach the Irish farmers to invest their savings in high class international stocks and bonds. He added that £1 notes kept in drawers and desks are not wealth but merely frozen potentialities of credit.

After that, conversation, as might be expected, became impossible for some time, although Ascher apologised humbly.

Gorman restored us to cheerfulness by opening a parcel and handing round two enormous boxes of chocolates. One box was settled on the seat between Miss Gibson and Tim. They ate with healthy appetites and obvious delight. When we reached Southampton that box was nearly empty and neither of them seemed any the worse. The other box lay on Mrs. Ascher’s knee. She and I and Gorman did our best, but we did not get through the top layer. Ascher only took one small chocolate and, when he thought no one was looking, dropped it out of the window.

The motor yacht which Gorman had hired for us turned out to be a swift and well-found ship with a small cabin and possibilities of comfort in a large cockpit aft. We sped down Southampton Water, one of a whole fleet of pleasure vessels large and small. A racing cutter stooped under the pressure of a fresh westerly breeze, to leeward of us. We slipped close past a little brown sailed yawl, steered by a man in white flannels. Two laughing girls in bright red caps sat on the coachroof cabin top. An arrogant white steam yacht, flying the ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron, sliced her silent way through the water behind us. Shabby boats with stained, discoloured sails and chipped paint bore large parties seaward. The stiff front of Netley Hospital shone white in the sun. The conical buoy at the entrance of Hamley river bent its head shorewards as the strong tide swept past it. From the low point beneath Calshott Castle a flying machine rose suddenly, circled round in a wide sweep and then sped swiftly eastwards towards Spit-head. In the roads off Cowes we could discern many yachts at anchor. One of the Hamburg-American lines crept cautiously up the Solent. A belated cruiser, four-funneled, black and grim, on her way to join the Fleet, followed the huge German steamer. The waters of the Solent tumbled in irregular white-topped waves, tide and wind opposed to each other, struggling for mastery.

Gorman hauled luncheon baskets from the cabin. He set Tim and me to open them. The look of a ham which Tim thoughtlessly asked her to hold while he unpacked the dish belonging to it, finished Mrs. Ascher. Our boat was rolling quite appreciably. She retired to the cabin. Even the glass of champagne with which Gorman hurriedly provided her failed to enable her to eat. Miss Gibson fortunately was unaffected. She ate everything that was offered to her and in the course of the afternoon finished Mrs. Ascher’s box of chocolates.

Before we stopped eating we caught our first sight of the Fleet. The ships lay in three long, straight lines off Spithead; battleships, cruisers, lean destroyers, submarines. A hydroplane raced past us, flinging showers of spray and foam high on each side of her. Two naval aeroplanes, their canoe-shaped floats plainly visible, hovered and circled overhead. Pleasure boats were everywhere, moving in and out among the motionless ironclads. A handsome barque-rigged yacht, some very rich man’s summer home, came slowly towards us, her sails furled, using auxiliary steam power.

We swiftly approached the Fleet. Already the vast bulk of the battleships oppressed our spirits. We looked up from the cockpit of our dancing pleasure boat and saw the huge misshapen iron monsters towering over us, minatory, terrible. We swept in and out, across the sharp bows, under the gloomy sterns of the ships of the first line. Ascher gazed at them. His eyes were full of sorrow, sorrow and a patient resignation.

“Your protection,” I said. “Because those ships are there, because they are black and strong, stronger than any other ships, because men everywhere are afraid of them, because this navy of England’s is great, your net of commerce and credit can trawl across the world and gather wealth.”

“Protection,” said Ascher. “Protection and menace. This Navy is only one of the world’s guarantees of peace, of peace guaranteed by fear. It is there as you say, and the German Army is there; that men may fear them and peace be thus made sure. But can peace be secured through fear? Will not these navies and armies some day fulfil the end of their being, rend all our nets as they rush across the seas and desolate the lands? They are more menace than protection.”

Gorman was standing with his back to us. His elbows were resting on the slide of the roof above the steps which led to the cabin. His chin was on his hands and he was staring at the ships. Suddenly he turned.

“The world’s great delusion,” he said. “Hypnotised by the governing classes the workers are everywhere bearing intolerable burdens in order to provide statesmen and kings with these dangerous toys. Men toil, and the fruits of their toil are taken from them to be squandered on vast engines whose sole use is to destroy utterly in one awful moment what we have spent the painful effort of ages in building up.”

He swept his hand out towards the great ship under whose shadow we were passing.

“Was there ever plainer proof,” he said, “that men are mad?”

Miss Gibson sat beside me. While Ascher spoke and while Gorman spoke, she held my glasses in her hand and watched the ships through them. She neither heard nor heeded the things they said. At last she laid the glasses on my knee and began to recite Kipling’s “Recessional.” She spoke low at first. Gradually her voice grew stronger, and a note of passion, tense and restrained, came into it. She is more than a charming woman. She has a great actress’ capacity for emotion.

We moved through waters consecrate, and she expressed for us the spirit which hovered over them. Here English guns raked the ships of Spain. Here, staggering homewards, shot-riddled, came the frigates and privateers of later centuries, their shattered prizes under their lee. Through these waters men have sailed away to fight and conquer and rule in India and in many distant lands. Back through these waters, some of them have come again, generation after generation of them, their duty done, their adventuring over, asking no more than to lay their bones at last in quiet churchyards, under the shadow of the cross, near the grey walls of some English church.

Miss Gibson’s voice, resonant, passionate, devout, lingered on the last syllables of the poem.

“The imperial idea,” I said, “after all, Gorman, it has its greatness.”

Then Tim spoke, shyly, eagerly.

“I wonder,” he said, “if they would let us go on board one of the submarines. I should like to see—— Oh, there are a lot of things I should like to see in any of those ships. They must be nearly perfect, I mean mechanically. The steering gear, for instance——

His voice trailed off into silence.

“What a pity,” said Miss Gibson, “that the King can’t be here. I suppose now there’ll be no royal salutes fired and we shan’t see his yacht.”

“All Mr. Gorman’s fault,” I said. “If he had not nagged on in the way he has about Home Rule, the King would be here with the rest of us. As it is he has to stay in London while politicians abuse each other in Buckingham Palace.”

“That conference,” said Gorman, “is an unconstitutional manœuvre of the Tory party.”

“What’s it all about?” said Miss Gibson.

“The dispute at present,” I said, “centres round two parishes in County Tyrone and because of them a public holiday is being spoiled. All Mr. Gorman’s fault.”