Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 18

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No one has greater respect and admiration for Ascher than I have. I respect his ability. I admire his cool detachment of mind and his unfailing feeling for justice. I recognise in him a magnanimity, a certain knightliness which is very rare. But it is vain to pretend that I can ever regard Ascher as an intimate friend. I am never quite comfortable in his company. He lacks something, something essential. He lacks a sense of humour.

No one in England—no one I suppose in Europe—wanted to make jokes during that critical week which followed my interview with Ascher. The most abandoned buffoon shrank from jesting when every morning brought a fresh declaration of war by one great power on another. But even under such circumstances the sense of the ridiculous survives—a thing to be carefully concealed—in those who are fortunate enough to possess it. Ascher has no sense of the ridiculous. He sees men and women clad in long, stately robes moving through life with grave dignity like Arab chiefs or caliphs of Bagdad. He sees their actions conditioned and to some extent controlled by the influences of majestic inhuman powers, the genii of eastern tales, huge, cloud-girt spirits of oppressive solemnity. In reality most people wear motley all day long and the fairy powers are leprechauns, tricksy, irresponsible sprites, willing enough to make merry with those who can laugh with them; but players of all Puck’s tricks on “wisest aunts telling saddest tales.”

I sometimes think that it is Ascher’s chivalry, his fine knightliness, which has killed his sense of humour. I cannot suppose that Sir Galahad found any delight in the quips of fools. His owl-like eyes, large with the wonder of Holy Grails, looked stupidly on faces wrinkled with merriment. King Arthur could never have talked as he did to Guinevere—Tennyson is my authority for the things he said—if he had not had in him the soul of an earnest member of a league for the sympathetic study of social problems. Ascher is as chivalrous as any member of King Arthur’s fellowship, and humour, if he ever had the sense of it, is dead in him. But perhaps he was born without it and is by nature hopelessly serious because he is a German. For the Germans never seem to be able to appreciate the fact that the grandiose is invariably comic, and that nothing in the world is more difficult than to stand toes to the line of the high heroic without stepping across it into the region of the ridiculous. I think of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” of Nietzsche’s “Zara-thrusta,” of the Kaiser Wilhelm’s amazing “Weltauf-fassung,” and it seems to me that such things could not be in any nation where one single man knew how to laugh.

If Ascher had in him the faintest glimmering of a sense of humour he would never have appealed to me, choosing the silent and ghostly middle of the night for the performance, to decide his point of honour for him. What am I that he should imagine me capable of settling high questions of that kind? An expatriated Irishman, a dispossessed landlord, a man without one high ambition, a mere mocker of enthusiasm of every kind. No one, unless he were absolutely blind to the ridiculous, would have consulted me on such a subject as the honour of a gentleman.

Yet, in her total lack of humour, Mrs. Ascher is as bad as her husband is. If such a thing were possible I should say that she is worse. There is, at all events, less excuse for her. She is not knightly, not very knightly, though she did champion the cause of poor, oppressed Ireland. She is an American, not a German, and the Americans pay high honour to their humourists. Perhaps she has lived too long with Ascher. Perhaps she has devoted herself too much to art and her steady contemplation of the sublime has killed her sense of the ridiculous. At all events it is dead. She has no humour now.

It is almost impossible to imagine that any woman would have been capable of calling in Gorman and me as advisers and helpers at a critical moment of her life. Yet that is what Mrs. Ascher did.

We obeyed the summons of course, both of us.

Gorman got there first. I found him seated opposite Mrs. Ascher in the large drawing-room of the house in Hampstead. Mrs. Ascher is lacking in humour, but she has a fine sense of dramatic propriety. Great decisions can only be come to fittingly, mighty spiritual tragedies can only be satisfactorily enacted, in spacious rooms. And there must be emptiness. Knicknacks and pretty ornaments kill high emotion. The chamber of a dainty woman, the room which delicate feminity has made its own, will suit a light flirtation, the love-making of a summer afternoon, but deep passion is out of place in it.

I walked cautiously across a wide space of slippery floor in order to shake hands with Mrs. Ascher. I saw that Gorman was sitting in a huge straight-backed chair with heavily carved elbow rests. It was the sort of chair which would have suited a bishop—in the chancel of his cathedral, not in his private room—and a major excommunication might very suitably have been delivered from it.

“I am in great trouble,” said Mrs. Ascher, “and I have asked you two to come to me because you are my friends. I was right to call you, was I not?”

She looked at Gorman and then at me, evidently expecting us to make a confession of friendship for her. Gorman wriggled in a way that made me think the carving of the chair must be sticking into him somewhere. But he did not fail Mrs. Ascher.

“You were right,” he said with deep feeling, “altogether right.”

I was not going to be outdone by Gorman.

“‘A friend,’” I said, “‘must bear a friend’s infirmities.’”

The quotation was not wholly happy, but Mrs. Ascher seemed to like it. She smiled gratefully.

“My husband,” she said.

I knew it must be her husband’s affairs which were troubling her.

“He is in a very difficult position,” I said. “I had a long talk with him the other night. It seems to me that he has to choose between——

Gorman interrupted me.

“He’s in an infernally awkward hole,” he said. “The English people will lose their tempers to a certainty, not at first perhaps, but as soon as anything goes against them. When they do they’ll make things damnably unpleasant for any one who’s suspected of being German or even remotely connected with Germany. That’s the sort of people the English are. And Ascher is just the man they’ll fasten on at once. They’ll hunt him down.”

Mrs. Ascher looked at Gorman while he spoke. Her face expressed a quiet dignity.

“That is not the difficulty,” she said. “What people say or think of us or do to us does not matter. We live our own lives. We can always live them, apart from, above the bitter voices of the crowd.”

“All the same,” said Gorman, “it will be unpleasant. It will be a great deal worse than merely unpleasant. If I were Ascher I should get on the safe side at once. I should give a thumping big subscription—£50,000 or something that will attract attention—to some popular fund. I should offer to present the War Office with half a dozen aëroplanes to be called ‘The Ascher Flying Fleet’; or a first-rate cannon of the largest size. A good deal can be done to shut people’s mouths in that sort of way.”

“You do not understand,” said Mrs. Ascher.

She turned to me, evidently hoping that I would explain Ascher’s real difficulty to Gorman. I hesitated for a moment. It was plain to me that though Gorman did not appreciate the reality of the spiritual crisis, he did understand something which had escaped me and, so far as I knew, had escaped Ascher also. I had a vivid recollection of the unenviable position of men suspected of lukewarm patriotism during the Boer War. In the struggle we were then entering upon popular passion would be far more highly excited. The position of the Aschers in England might become impossible.

Gorman with his highly developed faculty for gauging the force and direction of popular opinion understood at once and thoroughly the difficulties that lay before Ascher. What he did not understand was the peculiar difficulty which Ascher felt. I responded to Mrs. Ascher’s glance of appeal and tried to explain things to Gorman.

“Ascher,” I said, “is pulled two ways. His country is pulling him. That’s the call of patriotism. You ought to understand that, Gorman. You’re a tremendous patriot yourself. But if he goes back to his country now he absolutely ruins his business. That means a lot more than merely losing his money. It means more even than losing other people’s money, the money of the men who trusted him. It means that he must be false to his commercial honour. You see that, don’t you, Gorman? And there doesn’t seem any way out of the dilemma. He has got to go back on his patriotism or on his honour. There is no other course.”

I looked at Mrs. Ascher for approval. I had stated her husband’s dilemma clearly, I believed fairly. Gorman could hardly fail to understand. I thought Mrs. Ascher would have been pleased with me. To my amazement she acknowledged my efforts with a burst of indignation.

“Oh,” she cried, “you do not understand, either of you. You do not even begin to understand. I suppose you cannot, because you are men and not women. You men! All of you, my husband, too, though he is far above the rest of you—but even he! You concern yourselves about things which are nothing. You argue about phantoms and discuss them as if they were realities. And all the time you miss the things which are. You think”—she spoke directly to Gorman and her voice expressed the utmost scorn—“you think about reputation, the way men babble about each other and will babble about us. Why should we care? Even if we were afraid of what men say there are places in the world to which the voices of Europe cannot reach. There are islands in the sea where the sun shines and palm trees grow, to which the talk of men who dwell in cities never comes.”

I recollected the desire which Mrs. Ascher had once expressed to me of getting “far, far away from everywhere.” She evidently hoped to be able to try that experiment.

She turned from Gorman and faced me.

“You talk,” she said, “about honour and patriotism. What are they? Words, just words. It is only you men, slaves of your own conventions, who take them for realities. We women know better. You go about life imagining that your limbs are bound with fetters. They are bound with delusions. We women know. Love and beauty are real. Nothing else is. All your fine words are like the flags under which your dupes go out to die; fluttering rags to us whose eyes are open. You talk—oh, so finely you talk—about the shadows your own imaginings cast, and you end in being afraid of them. You talk—you dare to talk to me of money——

This was a totally unjust accusation. I had not talked about money. I had more sense than to mention money to a woman in Mrs. Ascher’s frame of mind.

“I have money enough of my own,” she said. “He and I want very little. What do we care for except just to love each other and to see beautiful things and to escape from all this nightmare of blood and hate and horror and hideousness?”

I felt helpless. Mrs. Ascher had undoubtedly hit on a new solution of the problem. She proposed that Ascher should impale himself not on one or other, but on both horns of the dilemma, be false to every kind of honour and loyalty. It was, I suppose, possible for Ascher to pack a bag and take to flight, simply to disappear, leaving everything behind him. He and she might go to some valley in the Rocky Mountains, to some unknown creek on the Californian coast, to some island in the South Pacific. If she were right about honour and faithfulness and patriotism, if these are, after all, only idols of the tribe, then she and Ascher might be very happy. They would have all that either of them required.

I looked at Gorman. He shrugged his shoulders, helpless as I was. Mrs. Ascher began to plead with us in a way that was very strange to listen to.

“Life is so short,” she said. “Already most of it is gone from us. We have only a few years more, he and I. Why should we be miserable? There is happiness waiting for us. There is nothing between us and happiness except words, honor, patriotism, right, wrong. These are words, only words. They are gossamer threads which we break as we go, break without feeling them if only we go boldly. Will you not help me? Tell him that what I say is true. He will listen to you because you are men; and you know in your hearts that I speak what is true, that I have hold upon reality.”

There was a moment’s silence after she stopped speaking. Before either Gorman or I attempted to make any answer Ascher himself came into the room. I certainly did not expect to see him. Mrs. Ascher was, I am sure, as much surprised as I was. It was about twelve o’clock and at that hour Ascher is always in his office. He crossed the room quietly. He greeted Gorman and me without a sign that our presence was unexpected or unwelcome. He went to his wife and took her hand in his. She clung to him, looking up into his face. She knew at once that he had something very important to say to her.

“You have decided?” she said.

Ascher’s eyes met hers. His face seemed to me full of tenderness and pity. He held her hand tightly. He bowed his head, a silent “yes” to the question she asked.

“To leave it all and come with me?” she said; “away, away.”

Ascher did not speak; but she knew and I knew that his decision was not that.

The scene was very painful. I felt that I had no right whatever to witness it Gorman, I am sure, would have been glad to escape. But it was very difficult for us to get away. Neither Ascher nor his wife seemed, conscious of our presence. We stood helpless a little apart from them. Gorman, with that unfailing tact of his, did, or tried to do the only thing which could have relieved the intolerable tension. He made an effort to get us all back to the commonplace.

“You’re in a devil of an awkward situation, Ascher,” he said. “A good deal seems to me to depend on whether you are a naturalised British subject or not. If you have been naturalised you ought to be able to pull through, though it won’t be pleasant even then.”

“I have not been naturalised,” said Ascher. “I never thought of it.”

“That’s a pity,” said Gorman. “Still—in the case of a man in your position I daresay it can be managed even now. I’ll use my influence. I know most of the members of the Cabinet pretty well. I can put it to them that, from an English point of view, considering the tremendous importance of your business, considering the financial collapse which would follow—oh, we’ll be able to manage.”

“Thank you,” said Ascher, “but that purely legal aspect of the matter does not at the moment strike me as the most important or the most pressing. No doubt it is important and your kindness will be helpful. But just now I cannot speak about that. There is, you see, my country and the loyalty I owe to it. I do not seem to escape from that obligation by a process of law. I may legalise, but do I really justify, treachery to the claim of patriotism?”

I have always felt,—felt rather than known,—that there is a queer strain of mysticism in Gorman. His arid common sense, his politics, his rhetoric, his tricky money-making, are the outside, visible things about him. Behind them, deep down, seldom seen, is a strange, emotional love for his country. When Ascher spoke as he did about the claim of patriotism Gorman understood. The innermost part of the man was reached. Without hesitating for an instant, without consideration or debate, Gorman leaped to a solution of the problem.

“Loyalty to your country comes first,” he said; “it must. Everything else goes by the board. I did not know you felt that way about Germany; but since you do—— There is no more to be said. Go back to your own country of course. You can’t help yourself.”

I have no doubt that Gorman meant exactly what he said. If he had been in Ascher’s position, if once the issue became quite plain to him and the tangle of political alliances were swept away, he would have thrown all his interests and every other kind of honour to the wind. He would have sacrificed his business, would if necessary have parted with his wife; he would have been loyal to the land of his birth, entirely contemptuous of any other call or any claim.

Mrs. Ascher clung tightly to her husband’s arm.

“Words,” she said, “words, only words. You must not listen to him.”

Ascher felt for her hands again, grasped them and held them pressed close against him. He turned from Gorman to me.

“And you,” he said, “what are you going to do?”

The question took me by surprise. I had no difficult decision to make. My course was in clear daylight. Besides, it did not matter to any one what I did.

“You, yourself,” said Ascher again. “What are you going to do?”

“Oh,” I said, “I’m going back to my regiment. I suppose they’ll take me. Anyhow I shall offer myself.”

“And fight?” said Ascher.

“Well, yes. I suppose I shall fight. This war won’t be over in a week. I’m pretty sure to get my turn. Yes, I shall almost certainly fight.”

“Why?” said Ascher. “What will you fight for?”

It was Gorman who answered the question. He had recovered from his brief outburst, and had become the normal Gorman again.

“The war,” he said, “is for the liberation of Europe. It is a vast struggle, an Armageddon in which the forces of reaction, absolutism, tyranny, a military caste are ranged against democracy. It is their last appearance upon the stage of history. Vindicated now, the principles of democracy——

“If you think,” I said, “that I’m going out to fight for the principles of democracy, you’re making a big mistake. There’s nothing in the world I dislike more than that absurd democracy of yours.”

“Then why?” said Ascher, mildly persistent. “Why are you going to fight?”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t want to say anything offensive about your people, Ascher. The Germans have a lot of fine qualities, but if they were to win this war, if they were to succeed in imposing their civilisation and their mentality on us all, if they were to Germanise the world, the sense of humour would perish from among men. Nobody would any longer be able to laugh. We—we should find ourselves taking governments and officials seriously. Just imagine! To live under a bureaucracy and not to see that it was funny! Surely it’s worth while fighting for the right to laugh.”

“You Irish!” said Ascher. “Even in times like this your love of paradox——

“Don’t say it,” I said. “If you can possibly help it don’t say that. I admit that I brought it on myself and deserve it. I apologise. That is not my real reason for going back to my regiment. I only gave it to you because I don’t know what my real reason is. It’s not patriotism. I haven’t got any country to be patriotic about. It’s not any silly belief in liberty or democracy. I don’t know why I’m doing it. I just have to. That’s all.”

“Noblesse oblige,” said Ascher. “Your honour as a gentleman.”

I shuddered. Ascher—there is no other way of putting it—is grossly indecent. A woman has a sense of modesty about her body. It would be considered an outrage to strip her and leave her stark naked in the middle of the room. I cannot see why a man should not be credited with some feeling of modesty about his soul. I detest having my last garments plucked from me in public. Complete spiritual nudity causes me very great embarrassment.

“You can put it that way if you like,” I said. “The plain fact is I can’t help myself. I must go back to my regiment. I have no choice.”

“I have come to see,” said Ascher, “that I have no choice either. There is such a thing, though perhaps Mr. Gorman will not believe me—there is such a thing as the honour of a banker. It compels me.”

He put his arm round his wife’s waist as he spoke. Still holding her hands in one of his, he led her from the room. Her head drooped against his shoulder as they went out.

“I suppose that means,” said Gorman, “that he’s going to stick it out and see the thing through. It will be infernally awkward for him. I don’t think he realises how nasty it will be. He hasn’t considered that side of it.”

“A man doesn’t consider that side of things,” I said, “when he’s up against it as Ascher is.”

“Well, I’ll do my best about the naturalisation papers. That’ll be some help.”

“It’s very hard to be sure,” I said, “but I’m inclined to think that Ascher is right.”

“He’s utterly wrong,” said Gorman. “A man’s country ought to come first always. You don’t understand that because you’re denationalised; because, as you say yourself, you have no country. But it’s true, whether you understand it or not.”

“When I think of that business of his,” I said, “the immense complexity of it, the confidence of thousands of men in each other, all resting at last on a faith in the integrity of one man, or rather of a firm—the existence of such a business, world-wide, international, entirely independent of all ties of race, nationality, language, religion, in a certain sense wider than any of these—it’s a great, human affair, not English nor German, not the white man’s nor the yellow man’s, not Christian nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan, just human. Ascher owes some kind of loyalty to a thing like that. It’s a frightfully complicated question; but on the whole I think he is right.”

Gorman was not listening to me. He had ceased, for the time, to be interested in Ascher’s decision. I tried to regain his attention.

“Ascher says,” I said, “that there is such a thing as the honour of a banker, of a financier.”

That ought to have roused Gorman to a contradiction; but it did not.

“Do you think,” he said, “that we could get them to take on Tim in any job connected with flying machines? This war will knock all his inventions into a cocked hat. He will simply be left, and he has a real turn for mechanics. If he got messing about with aëroplanes he might do something big, something really valuable. But I don’t know how to go about getting that sort of job for him. I’m not in with military people. Look here, you’ve a lot of influence with the War Office——

“No,” I said. “None.”

“Nonsense. You must have. A word from you—— I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll work Ascher’s naturalisation papers for him, and you get Tim taken on by the Army Flying Corps people.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “you’d like me to get you a Staff appointment while I’m at it.”

“Oh, no,” said Gorman. “I’m not a soldier, I’m a Member of Parliament. My job is——

Gorman hesitated. For a moment I thought that he was in real doubt, was actually wondering what place he ought to take, what work he ought to do.

“Yes,” I said. “You. Now, what is your idea for yourself?”

Gorman drew himself up to his full height, squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest.

“My place,” he said, “is in the great council of the Empire.” I gasped.

“Good Lord!” I said. “You don’t really think—you can’t think, that your silly old Parliament is going to matter now; that you politicians will be allowed to go on talking, that there will be divisions in the House, and elections and all that foolishness.”

Gorman, still heroically erect, still enormously swelled in chest, winked at me with careful deliberation. I was immensely relieved.

“Thank God,” I said. “For a moment I thought you really meant it—all that great-council-of-the-Empire business, you know. It would have been a horrible disappointment to me if you had. I’ve come to have a high regard for you, Gorman, and I really could not have borne it. But of course I ought to have known better. You couldn’t have believed in that stuff, simply couldn’t. Nobody with your intelligence could. But seriously, now, I should like to know—I’m sure you won’t mind telling me—— What are you going to do? Your party, I mean. It seems to me you’re in rather a hole. The Irish people will expect you to take the regular line of backing the enemy.”

“The Irish people be damned,” said Gorman; “our game is to support the Government.”