Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 16

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It must have been the novelty of the thing which brought people flocking to the hall I hired for the exhibition of Tim Gorman’s new cinematograph. I was aware, in a vague way, that my invitations had been very generally accepted; but I made no list of my expected guests, and I did not for a moment suppose that half the people who said they were coming would actually arrive. I have some experience of social life and I have always found that it is far easier to accept invitations than to invent plausible excuses for refusing them. I do not consider that I am in any way bound by my acceptance in most cases. Dinners are exceptional. It is not fair to say that you will dine at a house unless you really mean to do it. But the givers of miscellaneous entertainments, of dances, receptions, private concerts and such things are best dealt with by accepting their invitations and then consulting one’s own convenience. That is what I thought people were doing to me.

I had no reason to expect any other treatment. I was not offering food or wine in large quantities or of fine kind. I was not a prominent figure in London society. My party was of no importance from a political or a financial point of view and I could scarcely expect the scientific world to take a cinematograph seriously. Yet I found myself the host of a number of very distinguished guests, many of whom I did not even know by sight.

Three Cabinet Ministers arrived, looking, as men immersed in great affairs ought to look, slightly absent-minded and rather surprised to find themselves where they were. They were Cabinet Ministers of a minor kind, not men in the first flight. I owed their presence to Gorman’s exertions in the House of Commons. He told me that he intended to interest the Government in Tim’s invention on the ground that it promised an opportunity of popularising and improving national education. I had a seat kept for Ascher beside the Cabinet Ministers. I did not suppose that he would particularly want to talk to them, but I was sure that they would like to spend the evening in the company of one of our greatest financiers.

No less than five members of the Royal Society came, bringing their wives and a numerous flock of daughters. They were men of high scientific attainments. One of them was engaged in some experiments with pigs, experiments which were supposed to lead to important discoveries in the science of eugenics. I cannot even imagine why he came to see a cinematograph. Another of them had written a book to expound a new theory of crystallisation. I have never studied crystallisation, but I believe it is a process by which particles of solid matter, temporarily separated by some liquid medium, draw together and coalesce. My scientists and their families afforded a good example of the process. They arrived at different times, went at first to different parts of the hall, got mixed up with all sorts of other people, but long before the entertainment began they had drawn together and formed a solid block among my guests.

Two Royal Academicians, one of them a well-known portrait painter, arrived a little late. They were men whom I knew pretty well and liked. They have urbane and pleasant manners, and are refreshingly free from affectations and fads. In my opinion they both paint very good pictures. I introduced them to Mrs. Ascher; but this, as I should have known if I had stopped to think, was a mistake. Mrs. Ascher regards the Royal Academy as the home of an artistic anti-Christ and Academicians as the deadliest foes of art. Not even the suave courtesy of my two friends saved them from the unpleasant experience of hearing the truth about themselves. Mrs. Ascher was not, of course, bluntly rude to them, and did not speak with offensive directness. She poked the truth at them edgeways, the truth that is, as she saw it.

The church did not support me very well. I distinctly remember inviting six bishops. Only one came and he was Irish. However, he wore silk stockings and a violet coat of aggressively ecclesiastical cut, so he looked quite as well as if he had had a seat in the House of Lords. I introduced him to the eugenic pig breeder, but they did not seem to hit it off together. After a few remarks, probably about the weather, they separated. The eugenist is rather a shaggy man to look at. That may have prejudiced the bishop against him. I imagine that most bishops feel shagginess to be embarrassing.

Lady Kingscourt brought a large party, chiefly women in very splendid attire. There were, I think, eight of them altogether, and they had only one man with them, a subaltern in a Guards regiment. He slipped away almost at once, telling me as he passed out, that he wanted to telephone to a friend and that he would be back in a few minutes. I do not think he came back at all. He probably went to his club. I do not know what was said to him the next day by the ladies he deserted. I thanked Lady Kingscourt for coming. I really think it was very good of her to come. She had fair warning that Gorman was going to make a speech and she knew that all Gorman’s political friends, probably Gorman himself, regarded her as an abandoned woman who played fast and loose with the morals of military officers and undermined their naturally enthusiastic loyalty to Liberal Governments. By way of acknowledgment of my quite sincere thanks Lady Kingscourt squeezed my hand.

“I always make a point,” she said, “of encouraging any movement for the good of the masses. They are such deserving dear things, aren’t they?”

It is impossible to guess at what Lady Kingscourt thought we were doing; but her heart was warm and kind. If ever class hatred comes to play an important part in English life it will not be the fault of the aristocracy. I doubt whether any labourer would sacrifice his evening’s leisure to encourage a movement for the good of Lady Kingscourt. Nor would the kindliest Socialist speak of women of the upper classes as “deserving dear things.” The nicest term used by progressive people to describe these ladies is “parasites,” and they often, as we had just been learning, call them worse names than that.

Lady Kingscourt and her party represented the highest layer of fashionable life. I had, besides her, a large number of women of slightly dimmer glory who were yet quite as finely dressed as Lady Kings-court, and were, I am sure, equally eager for the good of the masses. My hall, not a very large one, was well filled before nine o’clock. I had every reason to congratulate myself on the success of my party, so far. It remained to be seen whether Gorman would make a good speech and whether Tim’s ghosts would exhibit themselves satisfactorily. Between the speech and the ghosts my guests would have an opportunity of drinking tea and champagne cup, handed round by twelve nice looking girls wearing black and white dresses, hired out to me (both the girls and the dresses) for the evening by the firm which had undertaken to manage the refreshments.

According to my time table Gorman ought to have begun his speech at nine o’clock. Instead of doing so he came to me and whispered that he would give late comers ten minutes law.

“Nothing more unpleasant for an audience,” he said, “than having their toes trodden on by people who come in late, just as they are beginning to get interested in what is going on.”

Nothing, I imagine, is more unpleasant for a speaker than to have his audience looking round to see who the newcomers are, just as he is beginning to warm to his subject. I gathered from his anxiety about the audience, that Gorman intended to make a great effort. I looked forward to his speech. Gorman, at his best, is really a very fine speaker.

At ten minutes past nine Gorman mounted the platform, the narrow strip of platform left for him in front of the pits occupied by Tim’s apparatus. The clatter of general conversation ceased, and the Cabinet Ministers, sitting in the front row with Ascher, clapped their hands. The rest of the audience, realising that applause was desirable, also clapped their hands. Gorman bowed and smiled.

Then my elbow was jerked sharply. I looked round and saw Jack Heneage. Jack is a nice boy, the son of an old friend of mine. I have known him ever since he first went to school. About six months ago his father and I between us secured a very nice appointment for the boy, a sort of private secretaryship or something of that sort. I understood at the time that Jack’s business was to run messages for an important man’s wife; and that the appointment would lead on to something good in the political world. I was surprised to see him standing beside me for I had not asked him to my party and he was not wearing evening clothes. Jack would never go anywhere, willingly, unless he were properly dressed.

“Sit down,” I said, “and don’t talk. Mr. Gorman is just going to make a speech.”

“Is Ascher here?” said Jack.

“He is; in the front row.” “Thank God. I’ve been chasing him all over London. Office, club, private house, tearing round in a taxi for hours. My Chief wants him.”

“Your chief can’t get him now,” I said. “Not for half an hour, perhaps three quarters. Gorman isn’t likely to stop under three quarters. Till he does you can’t get Ascher.”

“I must,” said Jack. “I simply must. It’s—it’s frightfully important.”

Gorman began his speech. I did not hear what he said because I was trying to restrain Jack Heneage, but the audience laughed, so I suppose he began with a joke. Jack shook off my hold on his arm and walked right up to the front of the hall. I saw Gorman scowling at him but Jack did not seem to mind that in the least. He handed a note to Ascher. Gorman said something about the very distinguished audience before him, a remark plainly intended to fill in the time while Jack and Ascher were finishing their business. Ascher read the note, rose from his seat and came towards me. Everybody looked at him and at Jack who was following him. Gorman repeated what he had said about the distinguished audience.

“I find,” Ascher said to me, “that I am obliged to leave you. I am very sorry.”

“I have a taxi outside,” said Jack, pushing Ascher towards the door.

Ascher lingered, looking at me wistfully.

“I may not be able to return,” he said. “If I cannot will you bring my wife home? The car will be here and can drive you back to your rooms afterwards.”

I was a little surprised at the request. Mrs. Ascher is, I should think, pretty well able to take care of herself.

“I think we ought to start, sir,” said Jack Heneage, taking Ascher by the arm.

“Perhaps,” said Ascher to me, “if you are kind enough to see my wife home you will wait in my house till I get back. I may have something to say to you. It is possible that I shall reach the house before you do, but I may be late. I do not know. Will you wait for me?”

“Won’t you come on, sir?” said Jack.

I noticed, then, that Jack was excited and nervous. I do not ever remember having seen him excited or nervous before, not even when he went in second wicket down in the Eton and Harrow match with seventy runs to make and an hour left to play. I held Ascher’s coat for him and watched them get into the taxi together.

When I got back to the hall Gorman was well into his speech and had captured the attention of his audience. I was able to pick up the thread of what he was saying almost at once. He was discoursing on the arts of peace, contrasting them with the arts of war. In past ages, so Gorman said, the human intellect had occupied itself mainly in devising means for destroying life and had been indifferent to the task of preserving it. Gunpowder was invented long before the antitoxin for diphtheria was discovered. Steel was used for swords ages before any one thought of making it into motor cars. These were Gorman’s illustrations. I should not have thought that motor cars actually preserve life; but Gorman is a good orator and a master in the art of concealing the weak points of his argument. His hearers were quite ready to ignore the mortality statistics of our new motor traffic. The pig-breeding scientist led a round of applause.

Gorman developed his theme. The intellect of the modern world, he said, was not only occupied with the problems of preserving life, but was bent on making life more convenient and happier, especially the life of the toiling masses of our people. The mediaeval world built cathedrals, fine castles, Doge’s palaces and such things. We have supplied mankind with penny postage stamps. Which, Gorman asked, is the greater achievement: to house a Doge or two in a building too big for them or to enable countless mothers—sorrowing and lonely women—to communicate by letter with the children who had left the maternal home?

After dwelling for some time on the conveniences Gorman passed on to speak of the pleasures of modern life. He said that pleasures were more important than work, because without pleasures no work could be really well done. When he reached that point I began to see how he meant to work up to the cinematograph and Tim’s invention. I tried to get a glimpse of Mrs. Ascher’s face. I wanted to find out how she was taking this glorification of Tim’s blasphemy against art. Unfortunately I could only see the back of her head. I moved along the side of the hall as much as I dared in the hope of getting a sight of her face from some angle. I failed. To this day I do not know whether Mrs. Ascher admired Gorman’s art as an orator enough to make her forgive the vile purpose for which it was used.

When I began to listen to the speech again Gorman had reached his peroration.

The arts of war, he said, were the natural fruits of the human intellect in a society organised on an aristocratic basis. The development of the arts of peace and pleasure followed the birth of democracy. Tyrants and robber barons in old days loved to fight and lived to kill. The common, kindly men and women of our time, the now at length sovereign people, lived to love and desire peace above all things.

“The spirit of democracy,” said Gorman, “is moving through the world. Its coming is like the coming of the spring, gentle, kindly, gradual. We see it not, but in the fields and hedgerows of the world, past which it moves, we see the green buds bursting into leaf, the myriad-tinted flowers opening their petals to the sunlight. We see the lives of humble men made glad, and our hearts are established with strong faith; faith in the spirit whose beneficence we recognise, the spirit which at last is guiding the whole wide world into the way of peace.”

I gathered from these concluding remarks that all danger of war had passed from the horizon of humanity since the Liberal Government muzzled the House of Lords.

Gorman did not mention this great feat in plain words. He suggested it in such a way that the Cabinet Ministers in front of him understood what he meant, while Lady Kingscourt and her friends thought he was referring to a revolution in China or Portugal or the establishment of some kind of representative government in Thibet. Thus every one was pleased and Gorman climbed down from the platform amid a burst of applause.

Lady Kingscourt clapped her pretty hands as loudly as any one. Her husband is a territorial magnate. Her brothers are soldiers. But she is prepared to welcome democracy and universal peace as warmly as any of us. Perhaps what attracted her in Gorman’s programme was the prospect of a great increase in the pleasures of life.

We drank tea, ate sandwiches, cheered our hearts with champagne cup, chattered loudly, and, the men of the party, stretched our legs for half an hour. Then we settled down again to gape at Tim’s moving figures. The new mirrors were well worth the money I spent on them. The thing worked better, far better, than when I saw it in the barn. I think the audience was greatly pleased. Everybody said so to me when the time came for escape from the hall.

Mrs. Ascher and I drove back to Hampstead together. I told her how Ascher had left the hall and that it might be late before he got home. She sat silent beside me and I thought that she was wondering what had happened to her husband. Just before we reached the house she spoke, and I discovered that she had all the time been thinking of something else, not Ascher’s absence.

“I was wrong,” she said, “in condemning the cinematograph and this new invention. It is—at present it is vile beyond words, vile as I thought it; but I see now that there are possibilities.”

“May I tell Tim that?” I said. “It would cheer him greatly. The poor boy has never really got over what you said to him in New York, about blasphemy, you know.”

“You may tell him,” said Mrs. Ascher, “that his invention is capable of being used for the ends of art; that he has created a mechanical body and that we, the artists, must breathe into it the breath of life.”

We reached the house.

“I am coming in, if I may,” I said. “Mr. Ascher asked me to see him to-night if possible. I promised to wait for him even if he does not get home till very late.”

“I shall not sit up with you,” said Mrs. Ascher. “I want to be alone to think. I want to discover the way in which art is to take possession of mechanics, how it is to inspire all new discoveries, to raise them from the level of material things up and up to the mountain tops of beautiful emotion.”

“I shall tell Tim that,” I said. “He’ll be awfully pleased.”

Mrs. Ascher held my hand, bidding me an impressive good-night.

“There is a spirit,” she said, “which moves among the multitudinous blind gropings of humanity. It moves all unseen and unknown by men, guiding their pitiful endeavours to the Great End. That End is Duty. That spirit is Art. To recognise it is Faith.”

The Irish bishop who attended my party is a liberal and highly educated churchman. He once told me about a Spirit which moves very much as Mrs. Ascher’s does. Its aim was goodness and the bishop called it God. His definition of faith was, except for the different object, precisely Mrs. Ascher’s.

Gorman propounds a somewhat similar philosophy of life, and occasionally talks about faith in the same rapt way. I do not suppose that he actually holds the faith he preaches, certainly not as Mrs. Ascher and the bishop hold theirs. No Irishman is, or ever can be, a Liberal after the English fashion; but Gorman does talk about the spirit of democracy and says he looks forward to its guiding Humanity to a great end, universal peace.

I made my way into Ascher’s study, wondering how long I should have to wait for him.

I wondered where he was and what he was doing. Who sent Jack Heneage to search for Ascher? I could not remember whose private secretary Jack was. Mrs. Ascher was thinking of art and beauty, the bishop, no doubt about God and goodness. Gorman was turning over in his mind nice new phrases about democracy and peace. What was Ascher doing?