Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 17

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Ascher’s servant followed me into the study. He placed a little table beside the chair on which I sat. He set a decanter of whisky, a syphon of soda water and a box of cigars at my elbow. He brought a reading lamp and put it behind me, switching on the electric current so that the light fell brightly over my shoulder. He turned off the other lights in the room. He asked me if there were anything else he could do for me. Then he left me.

A clock, somewhere behind me, chimed. It was a quarter to twelve. I poured out some whisky and lit a cigar. I sat wondering what Ascher was doing. The clock chimed again and then it struck. It was twelve o’clock. It was a clock with a singularly mellow gong. The sounds it made were soft and unaggressive. There was no rude challenge in its assertion that time was passing on, but the very gentleness of its warnings, a gentleness deeply tinged with melancholy, infected me with a strange restlessness. When for the third time its chiming broke the heavy silence of the room, I rose from my chair. The gloom which surrounded the circle of light in which I sat weighed on my spirits. I touched a switch and set the lights above the fireplace shining.

Over the mantelpiece hung a picture, a landscape painting. A flock of sheep wandered through a misty valley. There were great mountains in the background, their slopes and tops dimly, discernible through a haze. The haze and the mist wreaths would certainly soon clear away, dispersed by a rising sun. The whole scene would be stripped of its mystery. The mountain sides, the valley stream and the grazing sheep would be seen clear and bare in the merciless light of a summer morning. The painter had chosen the moment while the mystery of dawn endured. I felt that he feared the passing of it, that he shrank from the inevitable coming of the hour when everything would be clear and all the outlines sharp, when the searching sun would tear away the compassionate coverings, when nature would appear less beautiful than his heart hoped it was. It was with this picture, with this and one other, that Ascher chose to live.

I moved round the room, turning on yet other lights. Over Ascher’s writing desk hung a full length portrait of a woman, of Mrs. Ascher, but painted many years ago. I have no idea who the artist was but he had seen his sitter in no common way. The girl, she was no more than a girl when the picture was painted, stood facing me from the canvas. She was dressed in a long, trailing, pale green robe. Her hands were folded in front of her. Her head was a little thrown back, so that her neck was visible. Her skin, even then in the early days of her womanhood, was almost colourless. The red colour of her hair saved the picture from deathly coldness, contrasting sharply with the mass of pale green drapery and the pallid skin. I have never thought of Mrs. Ascher as a beautiful woman or one who at any time of her life could have been beautiful. But the artist, whoever he was, had seen in her a singular alluring charm. I cannot imagine that I could ever have been affected by her even if I had seen her as the artist did, as no doubt Ascher did. I like normal people and common things. I should have been afraid of the woman in the picture. I am in no way like Keats’ “Knight at Arms.” I should simply have run away from the “Belle Dame sans merci,” and no amount of fairy songs or manna dew would have enabled her to have me in thrall. But I could understand how Ascher, who evidently has a taste for that kind of thing, might have been fascinated by the morbid beauty of the girl in the picture. I could understand how the fascination might become an enduring thing; a great love; how Ascher would still be drawn to the woman long after the elfishness of girlhood passed away. The soul would still remain gleaming out of those narrow eyes.

The clock chimed close beside me. It was a quarter to one. I sat down again, poured out more whisky and lit a fresh cigar. I left all the lights in the room shining. I was determined to drag myself back to the commonplace and to cheerfulness.

I took a book from the table beside me. It was evidently a book which Ascher had been reading. A thin ivory blade lay between the pages, marking the place he had reached. The book was a prophetic forecast of the State of the future, a record of one of those dreams of better, calmer times, which haunt the spirits of brave and good men, to which cowards turn when they are made faint by the contemplation of present evil things. I read a page or two in one part of the book and a page or two in another. I read in one place a whole chapter. I discerned in the author an underlying faith in the natural goodness of man. He believed, his whole argument was based on the belief, that all men, but especially common men, the manual workers, would gladly turn away from greed and lust and envy, would live in beauty and peace, naturally, without effort, if only they were set free from the pressure of want and the threat of hunger. The evil which troubles us, so this dreamer seemed to hold, is not in ourselves or of our nature. It is the result of the conditions in which we live, conditions created by our mistakes, not by our vices. I wondered if Ascher, with his wide knowledge of the world, believed in such a creed or even cherished a hope that it might be true. Do men, in fact, become saints straightway when their bellies are full?

It is strange how childish memories awaken in us suddenly. As I laid down Ascher’s book there came to me a picture of a scene in my old home. We were at prayers in the dining-room. My father sat at a little table with a great heavy Bible before him. Ranged along the wall in front of him was the long line of servants, the butler a little apart from the others as befitted the chief of the staff. My governess and I sat together in a corner near the fire. My father read, in a flat, unemotional voice, read words which he absolutely believed to be the words of God. “Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Well, that is a different creed. To me it seems more consonant with the facts of life. Man as he is can neither enter into nor create a great society nor enjoy peace which comes of love. Hitherto the new birth of the Spirit, which bloweth where it listeth, has been for a few in every generation. The hour of rebirth for the mass of men still lingers. Will it ever come—the time when all the young men see visions and all the old men dream dreams?

I stirred uneasily in my chair and looked up. I had not heard him enter the room, but Ascher stood beside me.

“I am glad you are here,” he said. “I hoped you would be; but I am very late.”

“Yes,” I said, “you are very late. It is long after midnight. Where have you been? What have you been doing?”

Ascher sat down opposite to me, and for some time he did not speak. I made no attempt to press my questions. If Ascher wanted to talk to me he would do so in his own time and in the way he chose. I supposed that he did want to talk to me. He had asked me to his house. He had bidden me wait for him.

“I have no right,” said Ascher at last, “to trouble you with my difficulties. I ought to think them out and fight them out for myself; but it will be a help to me if I can put them into words and feel that you are listening to me.”

He paused for so long that I felt I must make some reply to him, though I did not know what to say.

“I don’t suppose I can be of any use to you,” I said, “but if I can——

“Perhaps you can,” said Ascher. “You can listen to me at least. Perhaps you can do more. It is a large call to make upon your friendship to treat you in this manner, but—I am in some ways a lonely man.”

I have always, since the day I first met him, liked and respected Ascher. When he spoke about his loneliness I felt a sudden wave of pity for him. It seems a strange thing to say, but at that moment I had a strong affection for the man.

“What I partly foresaw and greatly dreaded has come,” he said. “I am certain now that war is inevitable, a great war, almost perhaps in the end quite worldwide.”

“And England?” I said, “is England, too——?”

“Almost inevitably.”

“Germany?” I said.

Ascher nodded.

I was throbbing with excitement. For the moment I felt nothing but a sense of exultation, strangely out of harmony with the grave melancholy with which Ascher spoke. I suppose the soldier instinct survives in me, an inheritance from generations of my forefathers, all of whom have worn swords, many of whom have fought. We have done our part in building up the British Empire, we Irish gentlemen, fighting, as Virgil’s bees worked, ourselves in our own persons, but not for our own gain. There is surely not one battlefield of all where the flag of England has flown on which we have not led men, willing to fall at the head of them. It seems strange now, looking back on it, that such an emotion should have been possible; but at the moment I felt an overmastering sense of awful joy at Ascher’s news.

“I cannot tell you where I have been to-night,” said Ascher, “nor with whom I have been talking. Still less must I repeat what I have heard, but this much I think I may say. I was sent for to give my advice on certain matters connected with finance, to express an opinion about what will happen, what dangers threaten in that world, my world, the world of money.”

“There’ll be an infernal flurry on the Stock Exchange,” I said. “Prices will come tumbling down about men’s ears. Fellows will go smash in every direction.”

“There will be much more than that,” said Ascher. “The declaration of war will not simply mean the ruin of a few speculators here and there. You know enough about the modern system of credit to realise something of what we have to face. There will be a sudden paralysis of the nerves and muscles of the whole world-wide body of commercial and industrial life. The heart will stop beating for a short time—only for a short time I hope—and no blood will go through the veins and arteries.”

Ascher spoke very gravely. Yet, though I had spent months watching the workings of his machine, I could not at the moment share his mood. The war fever was in my blood.

“I should change my metaphor,” said Ascher. “It is not a case of a body where the heart pumps blood into the arteries, but of springs which make brooks, brooks which flow into streams, which in their turn feed great rivers. Now those springs will be frozen. In a million places of which you and I do not even know the names, credit will be frozen suddenly. There will be no water in the brooks and streams. The rivers will run dry.”

Ascher had asked for my sympathy. I did my best to give it.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility for you,” I said, “and men like you. But you’ll pull through. The whole thing can’t collapse, simply can’t. It’s too big.”

“Perhaps,” said Ascher, “perhaps. But it is not that side of the matter which I wish to speak to you about. You will forgive me if I say that you can hardly understand or appreciate it. What I want to say to you is something more personal. I want”—Ascher smiled wanly—“to talk about myself.”

“You stand to lose heavily,” I said. “I see that.”

“I do not know,” said Ascher, “whether at the end of a week I shall own one single penny in the world. I may very well have lost everything. But if that were all I should not trouble much. Merely to lose money—but——

He stopped speaking, and for a long while sat silent The clock behind me chimed again. It was half past two.

“I suppose,” said Ascher, “that you have always thought of me as an Englishman.”

“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I’ve never thought whether you are an Englishman or not. I wasn’t interested. I suppose I took it for granted that you were English.”

“I am a German,” said Ascher. “I was born in Hamburg, of German parents. All my relations are Germans. I came over to England as a young man and went into business here. My business—I do not know why—is one to which Englishmen do not take readily. There are English bankers of course, but not very many English financiers. Yet my particular kind of banking, international banking, can best be carried on in England. That is why I am here, why my business is centred in London, though I myself am not an Englishman. I am a German. Please understand that. My brother is a general in the German Army. My sister’s sons are in the German Army and Navy. My blood ties are with the people from whom I came.”

I realised that Ascher was stating a case of conscience, was perhaps asking my advice. It seemed to me that there was only one thing which I could advise, only one possible course for Ascher to take. Whatever happened to his business or his private fortune he must be true to his own people. I was about to say this when Ascher raised his hand slightly and stopped me.

“I want you to understand,” he said, “my blood ties are with the people from whom I came; but I am now wholly English in my sympathies. I see things from the English point of view, not from the German. I am sure that it will be a good thing for the world if England and her Allies win, a bad thing if Germany is victorious in the war before us. Yet the blood tie remains. Who was the Englishman who said, ‘My country, may she always be right, but my country right or wrong’? It seems to me a mean thing to desert my country now, even although I have become a stranger to her. Is it not a kind of disloyalty to range myself with her enemies?”

Again Ascher paused. This time I was less ready to answer him.

“I have also to consider this,” he went on, “and here I get to the very heart of my difficulty. I have lived most of my life here, and I have built up my business on an English foundation. I have been able to build it up because I had ready made for me that foundation of integrity which your English merchants have established by centuries of honest dealing. Without that—if the world had not believed that my business was English, and therefore stable, I could not have built at all or should have built with much greater difficulty. My bank is English, though I, who control it, am not. If I go back to my own people now, now when it seems treachery to desert them, the whole machinery of the vast system of credit which I guide will cease to work, will break to fragments. Of my own loss I say nothing, indeed I think nothing. But what of the other men, thousands of them who are involved with me, whose affairs are inextricably mixed with mine, who have trusted not me, but my bank, trusted it because it is an English institution? And it is English. Have I the right to ruin them and to break up my bank, which belongs to your nation, of which in a sense I am no more than a trustee for England? You understand, do you not? My bank is just as certainly of English birth as I am of German birth. Yet it and I are one. We cannot be divided. What am I to do?”

Ascher was asking questions; but I did not think that he was asking them of me. I felt that it was my part to listen, not to answer. Besides what could I answer? Ascher had given me a glimpse of one of those intolerable dilemmas from which there is no way of escape. The choice between right and wrong, when the nobler and baser parts of our nature are in conflict, is often very difficult and painful. But there are times—this was one of them—when two of the nobler, two of the very noblest of our instincts, are set against each other. When we can only do right by doing wrong at the same time, when to be loyal we must turn traitors.

When Ascher spoke again he seemed to have drifted away from the subject of the coming war, the financial catastrophe and his own trouble. I did not, for some time, guess where his words were leading.

“I have been a very careful observer of English life,” he said, “ever since I first came to this country, and no class in your nation has interested me more than you minor gentry, the second grade of your aristocracy.”

“Often spoken of as the squirearchy,” I said. “It is generally supposed to be the most useless and the least intelligent part of the community. It is rapidly disappearing, which, I daresay, is a fortunate thing.”

“Your greater nobility,” said Ascher, “is modernised, is necessarily more or less cosmopolitan. It has international interests and is occupied with great affairs. It has been forced to accept the standard of ethics in accordance with which great affairs are managed. Your merchants and manufacturers have their own code, by no means a low one, and their theory of right and wrong. Between these two classes come the men with lesser titles or no titles at all, families which spring from roots centuries deep in the soil of England, men of some wealth, but not of great riches. They have their own standard, their code, their peculiar touchstone for distinguishing fine conduct from its imitation, their ethic.”

“Yes,” I said, “I can understand your being interested in that. It is a survival of a certain antiquarian value. It is the quaintest standard of conduct imaginable, totally unreasonable and inconsistent. But it exists. There are some things which a gentleman of that class will not do.”

“Exactly. These men—may I say you, for it is you I am thinking of. You have your sense of honour.”

I never was more surprised in my life than I was when Ascher said that to me. Nothing that I have ever said or done in his company could possibly have led him to suppose that I am a victim of that outworn superstition known as the honour of a gentleman.

“You have an instinct,” said Ascher, “inherited through many generations, a highly specialised sense, now nearly infallible, for knowing what is honourable and what is base. I do not know that any of my countrymen have that sense. I am sure that the class to which I belong has not. We look at things in a different way.”

“A much better way,” I said, “more practical.”

“Yes, more practical. Better perhaps in the sense of being wiser. But I have a wish, an odd fancy if you like, to see things your way, to guide my conduct according to your standard of honour.”

As well as I could make out Ascher was asking me to decide for him on which horn of his infernal dilemma he was to impale himself, and to base my decision on a perfectly absurd and arbitrary set of rules for conduct, none of which could by any possibility be made to apply to a situation like his.

“My dear Ascher,” I said, “I can’t possibly judge for you.”

“You could judge if it were your own case,” he said. “You could certainly judge then. Have you ever in your life been in the smallest doubt, even for a moment, about the way of honour, which it is?”

“That is all very well,” I said; “I quite admit I do know that. I generally do the other thing, but I know what I ought to do according to the ridiculous standard of my class. But I don’t know what you ought to do. That’s a different thing altogether.”

“Because I am not of your class? not a gentleman?”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” I said. “There aren’t any gentlemen left. The species is extinct. The very name of it is vulgarised. You’re as near being one as anybody I know. And that has nothing to do with it. Gentleman or not, you’ve go to decide for yourself. No man living can do it for you.”

“Your class would decide for me if I belonged to it,” said Ascher. “The collective wisdom of your class, the class instinct. It would make me certain, leave me in no doubt at all, if only I belonged to it, were one of you. The choice I have to make——

Ascher paused.

“It’s a nasty choice to have to make. You’ve got to be disloyal either way you go. That’s what it comes to.”

“There is no other way,” said Ascher sadly, “no third way.”

“Not that I can see.”

There was, in fact, a third way, though I did not see it at the time. Mrs. Ascher discovered it. I heard of it two days later.