Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 2

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We saw very little of Ascher and nothing at all of his wife during the first two days of our voyage. My idea was that they stayed in their cabins—they had engaged a whole suite of rooms—in order to avoid drifting into an intimacy with Gorman and me. A millionaire would naturally, so I supposed, be suspicious of the advance of any one who was not a fellow millionaire. I was mistaken. Ascher was simply seasick. When he recovered, two days before Mrs. Ascher raised her head from the pillow, he showed every sign of wanting to know Gorman and had no objection to dining with me.

In the meanwhile I found out a great deal about Gorman. He was delightfully unreserved, not only about his own past, but about his opinions of people and institutions. Old Dan Gorman had, it appeared, married a new wife when he was about sixty. This lady turned Michael, then a young man, out of the house. He bore her no ill will whatever, though she deprived him in the end of his inheritance as well as his home. For several years he “messed about”—the phrase is his—with journalism, acting as reporter and leader writer for several Irish provincial papers, a kind of work which requires no education or literary talent. Then he, so to speak, emerged, becoming somehow, novelist, playwright, politician. I have never made out how he achieved his success. I do not think he himself knows that. According to his own account—and I never could get him to go into details—“things just happened to come along.”

He was entirely frank about his opinions. He regarded landlords as the curse of Ireland and said so to me. He did not seem satisfied that they are innocuous, even when, being deprived of their estates, they are no longer landlords. I do not like being called a curse—hardly any one does—but I found myself listening to the things which Gorman said about the class to which I belong without any strong resentment. His treatment of us reminded me of Robbie Burns’ address to the devil. The poet recognised that the devil was a bad character and that the world would be in every way a brighter and happier place if there were no such person. But his condemnation was of a kindly sort, not wholly without sympathy. He held out a hope that “ould Nickie Ben” might still “hae some stake”—stake in the country I suppose—if he would take thought and mend. The reformation would have to be a drastic one, nothing less than a complete change of his habits, character and opinions. But such a thing was not wholly impossible. That was very much what Gorman thought about me.

Next to Irish landlords Gorman disliked financiers more than any other people in the world. He did not, by his own confession, know anything about them; but he had got into touch with a group of journalists in London which specialises in abuse of the class. Gorman repeated all the stock arguments to me and illuminated the subject with some very well worn apologues.

“A financier,” he said, “is a bloated spider, which sits in a murky den spinning webs and sucks the life-blood of its victims.” I wondered how Ascher would like this kind of talk if he ever joined our party.

There was not, of course, the same note of personal bitterness in Gorman’s condemnation of financiers which I noticed in his attacks on landlords. He had learned to hate my class during the impressionable years of childhood. He had only found out about financiers when he was a grown man. And no one, not even a convert to a new faith, ever believes anything with real intensity except what he was taught before he was eight years old. But it was not to be expected that Ascher would be as patient as I was, even if the abuse with which Gorman assailed his class lacked something of the conviction with which he attacked me.

I asked Gorman one evening why, holding the opinions he did, he had chosen as his table mates a banker and an unrepentant landlord. He had a whole shipload of passengers to choose from, most of them, no doubt believers in democracy, some of them perhaps even socialists, the kind of socialists who travel first class on crack Cunard steamers. He seemed surprised at the question and did not answer me at once. An hour or so after we had passed away from the subject he returned to it suddenly and explained that it was necessary to distinguish between individuals and the classes to which they belong. A class, so I understood, may be objectionable and dangerous in every way though the men who form it are delightful.

“Take the Irish priests, for instance,” he said. “The minute we get Home Rule, we’ll——

He paused significantly.

“Deal with them?” I suggested.

He nodded with an emphasis which was positively vicious. “All the same,” he said, “there are lots of priests whom I really like, capital fellows that I’d be glad to dine with every day in the week—except Friday.”

Apparently he was glad to dine with Ascher and me every day in the week, including Friday.

“There’s no sense,” he said, “in refusing to talk to a man just because you don’t like his opinions.”

I agreed. I even offered proof of my agreement. I was at that moment talking to Gorman and I certainly did not like his opinions.

When Ascher joined us at dinner on the third evening of our voyage, he turned out to be a very quiet, gentle little man with no outward sign of great wealth about him. He drank nothing but Perrier Water which was a surprise and, I fancy, something of a disappointment to Gorman. He expected Ascher to order champagne and was quite ready to take his turn in paying for the wine. Ascher smoked half a cigarette after dinner and another half cigarette before he went to bed. Gorman confided to me that millionaires and half-crown cigars had always been associated in his mind before he met Ascher. To me the most surprising thing about the man was the low opinion he had of himself and his own abilities. He was deferential to Gorman and even seemed to think what I said worth listening to. He knew all about Gorman’s two novels and his play. He had read many of Gorman’s newspaper articles. He used to try and make Gorman talk about literature and art. Gorman, being a man of great intelligence, hates talking about literature, and suspects that any one who accuses him of art is poking fun at him. Ascher took both literature and art quite seriously. He evidently thought that men who write books belong to a superior class. As a matter of fact Ascher has far more brains than any author I have ever met; but he does not know this.

Ascher lay down without protest under all the outrageous things which Gorman said about financiers. His extreme meekness seemed to stimulate Gorman.

“No qualities,” said Gorman, “are required for success as a financier except a low kind of cunning and a totally unscrupulous selfishness.”

Ascher seemed to agree with him. I wanted to point out that considering the very large number of men who are cunning and the general prevalence of selfishness the number of successful financiers is surprisingly small. But Gorman did not give me a chance of speaking.

“Political life in every modern state,” said Gorman, “is poisoned, poisoned at its source by the influence of the great financial houses. Democracy is in shackles. Its leaders are gagged. Progress is stopped. Politics are barren——” He delivered this oration at dinner one night, and when he came to the barrenness of politics he knocked over Ascher’s bottle of Perrier Water with a sweep of his hand “and it is the subtle influence of the financiers, the money kings, what the Americans used to call the Gold Bugs, which is responsible for the mischief.”

Ascher assented with a sort of wavering smile.

“The proof of what I say,” said Gorman, “is to be found in the well-known fact——

I interrupted him at this point. He had cited his well-known fact to me several times. The son of a Liberal Cabinet Minister married the daughter of a well-known Conservative who had been a Cabinet Minister. It may be my stupidity but I cannot see how that union proves that financiers control politics. I am not, and never shall be either a money king or a gold bug, but in mere dread of hearing Gorman produce his well-known fact again I took up the task of defending the class to which Ascher belongs.

“After all, Gorman,” I said, “you ought to be a little grateful. You know perfectly well that there wouldn’t be any politics if financiers and other capitalists did not pay for them.”

“That’s just what I say,” said Gorman.

“No,” I said. “That’s not what you say. You say that financiers poison politics. But there’s the greatest difference between paying for a performance and poisoning the performers. Take a theatre for instance——

“Talking of theatres,” said Gorman, “there’s a rattling good circus going on in New York at present. I’ll take you two men to see it some night.”

But I was not going to let Gorman ride away in this manner from an argument in which he was being worsted.

“Do let me finish what I am saying,” I said. “All your Parliaments and legislative assemblies are simply national theatres kept up for the amusement of the people. Somebody has to put up the money to keep them going. The ordinary man won’t do it. You can’t even get him to vote without hypnotising him first by means of a lot of speeches and newspaper articles and placards which stare at him from hoardings. Even after you’ve hypnotised him you have to drag him to your polling booth in motor cars. He wouldn’t go if you didn’t. As for paying for your show, you know perfectly well that there’d be no money for the running of it if it weren’t for a few financiers and rich men.”

One of Gorman’s most delightful characteristics is that he bears no malice when an argument goes against him.

“Begad, you’re right,” he said. “Right all the way along. At the present moment I’m on my way to America to get money for the Party. There’s a man I have my eye on out in Detroit, a fellow with millions, and an Irishman. I mean to get a good subscription out of him. That’s why I’m on this ship.”

“Curious,” I said. “I’m after money too. I have some investments in Canadian railway shares—nothing much, just a few thousands, but a good deal to me. I’m a little uneasy——

I looked at Ascher. A man in his position, the head of one of the great financial houses, ought to be able to give very good advice about my shares. A word from him about the prospects of Canada generally and the companies in which I am interested in particular, would be very valuable to me. Gorman was also looking inquiringly at Ascher. I daresay a tip on the state of the stock market would be interesting to him. I do not know whether party funds are invested or kept on deposit receipt on a bank; but Gorman is likely to have a few pounds of his own. Ascher misinterpreted our glances. He thought we wanted to know why he was going to America.

“The condition of Mexico at present,” he said, “is causing us all some anxiety. My partner in New York wants to have a consultation with me. That’s what’s bringing me over.”

“Ah!” said Gorman. “I rather respect those Mexicans. It’s pleasant to hear of wealthy men like you being hit sometimes.”

“It’s not exactly that,” said Ascher. “As a firm we don’t lose directly whatever happens in Mexico. What we have to consider is the interest of our customers, the people, some of them quite small people, who went into Mexican railways on our advice. Banking houses don’t put their money into investments. That’s not our business. But banking is a very dull subject. Let’s talk of something else.”

He turned to me as he spoke.

“You were speaking just now,” he said, “about the necessity of putting up money for the support of theatres. If we are to have any real dramatic art in England——

Banking is a fascinatingly interesting subject compared to art; but Ascher does not think so, and Ascher had taken hold of the conversation. He appealed to Gorman as a man whose services to literature and drama had never been properly recognised. He appealed to me as a member of a cultured class. Neither of us was sympathetic or responsive. Gorman knows that he has never rendered any service to literature at all, that he wrote novels because he wanted money in the days before a grateful country paid him £400 a year for walking round the lobbies of the House of Commons, that he tumbled into his play by accident and made money out of it because a very charming lady was more charming than usual in the part he wrote for her.

Gorman—this is one of the advantages of being an Irishman—has no illusions about himself. I have none about my class. It is not cultured and does not want to be.

When Ascher had smoked his half cigarette we left the dining saloon and went to our special corner in the lounge. Ascher talked on till nearly ten o’clock about art and drama and music as if they were the only things of any interest or importance in the world. Then he went to bed. Gorman and I agreed that art, drama, and music are of very little importance and less interesting than anything else. Gorman’s weekly articles, quite the best things of their kind then being published, are all about art, so he has a perfect right to express his opinion. What we wanted to hear Ascher talk about was money.

“I’ve always wanted to know what high finance really is,” I said. “It seems a pity not to be able to find out now we’ve got a man who understands it.”

“I’ll take him in hand to-morrow,” said Gorman. “There’s no use our having him to dine with us and looking after him all the way across if we don’t get anything out of him.”

Gorman’s words were cryptic. I wanted to get knowledge—the sort of knowledge which would satisfy my curiosity—out of Ascher; chiefly knowledge though I would not have refused a little inside information about Canadian affairs. Gorman might very well want something more. He might want a subscription to the funds of his party. I hoped he would not get it; either out of Ascher or out of the man at Detroit of whom he spoke. I am not a member of any political party but I hate that to which Gorman belongs. If I were attached to a party and if Gorman’s friends joined it in a body, I should leave it at once. My opinion, so far as I have any opinion, is that what Ireland wants is to be let alone. But if the Irish Nationalist Party were to adopt a policy of deliberately doing nothing and preventing other people from doing anything I should not support it. I should then search about for something revolutionary and try to insist on carrying it out. Nothing would induce me to be on the same side as Gorman and his friends. Such is the nature of an Irish gentleman.

I lay awake for a long time that night, smoking cigarettes in my berth and meditating on the fact that, of the three of us I was the one who was going to America for purely selfish purposes. Gorman was trying to get money for his party, for his own ultimate advantage no doubt, but in the first instance the money was not for himself but for a cause. And Gorman is a politician, a member of a notoriously corrupt and unscrupulous professional class. Ascher was taking a long journey in order to devise some means of rescuing his clients’ property from the clutches of a people which had carried the principles of democracy rather further than is usual. And Ascher is a financier. No one expects anything but enlightened greed from financiers. I belong by birth and education to an aristocracy, a class which is supposed to justify its existence by its altruism. There was no doubt a valuable lesson to be learned from these considerations. I fell asleep before I found out exactly what it was.

Gorman did as he promised. He took Ascher in hand next day. He made the poor man walk up and down the deck with him. There is nothing on shipboard more detestable than that tramp along the deck. Only the strongest minded man can avoid counting his steps, making an estimate of yards, and falling into the bondage of trying to walk a fixed number of miles. Conversation and even coherent thought become impossible when the mind is set on the effort to keep count of the turns made at the end of the deck. I am sure that Ascher did not enjoy himself; but Gorman kept him at it for more than an hour. I watched them from the deck chair in which I sat, rolled up very comfortably in my rug. At one o’clock, when we ought to have gone down to lunch, Gorman stopped opposite my chair. He proclaimed his success jubilantly.

“We’ve been talking about finance,” he said, “high finance. Pity you wouldn’t join us.”

Ascher bowed towards me. Gorman described Ascher’s manners as foreign. I daresay they are. There is a certain flavour of formal courtesy about them which Englishmen rarely practise, of which Irishmen of my generation, partly anglicised by their education, have lost the trick.

“Sir James would only have been bored,” said Ascher.

“Not he,” said Gorman, “he’s just as keen as I am to know what bankers do with money.”

“It’s a dull trade,” said Ascher, “very dull. Some day I shall give it up and devote the rest of my time to——

“Don’t say art,” said Gorman.

Ascher opened his eyes and looked at Gorman with a mild kind of wonder.

“Of course,” he said, “I can never be an artist. I haven’t got the temperament, the soul, the capacity for abandon. But I might find enjoyment, the highest pleasure, in understanding, in appreciating, perhaps even in encouraging——

“Sort of Mecenas,” said Gorman. “I wonder if Mecenas was a banker. He seems to have been a rich man.”

“He was a descendant of kings,” I said, “but that’s no reason why he shouldn’t have made money.”

“Anyhow,” said Gorman, “you’d find art just as dull as banking if you went in for it systematically.”

“But artists——!” said Ascher, “genuine artists! Men with inspiration!”

“Selfish conceited swine,” said Gorman.

“Well,” I said, “you ought to know. You’re an artist yourself. Ascher told me so yesterday.”

“I remember your two novels,” said Ascher, “and I recognised in them the touch, the unmistakable touch.”

“Let’s go down to lunch,” said Gorman.

He left the deck as he spoke. Even Gorman does not like to stand self-convicted of being a selfish conceited swine. Ascher laid his hand on my arm as we went down to the saloon.

“What a brilliant fellow he is,” he whispered. “I never realised before how magnificently paradoxical your Irish minds are. That pose of abject self depreciation which is in reality not wholly a pose but a vehement protest against the shallow judgment of a conventionalised culture——

Ascher’s language was a little confusing to me, but I could guess at what he meant. Gorman appeared to him to be an unappreciated Oscar Wilde, one of those geniuses—I am bound to admit that they are mostly Irish—who delude the world into thinking they are uttering profound truths when they are merely outraging common sense.

It would be going too far perhaps to say that Ascher fawned on Gorman during luncheon. He certainly showed his admiration for him very plainly.

During the afternoon we talked finance again. Ascher did it because he wanted to please Gorman. I listened and learned several things which interested me very much. I got to understand, for instance, why a sovereign is sometimes worth more, sometimes less, when you try to exchange it for dollars or francs; a thing which had always puzzled me before. I learned why gold has to be shipped in large quantities from one country to another by bankers, whereas I, a private individual, need only send a cheque to pay my modest debts. I learned what is meant by a bill drawn on London. It took me nearly half an hour to grasp that. Gorman pretended to see it sooner than I did, but when he tried to supplement Ascher’s explanation with one of his own he floundered hopelessly.

It was while we were at tea that afternoon that Mrs. Ascher put in an appearance for the first time. She was a tall, lean woman, with dark red hair—Gorman called it bronze—and narrow eyes which never seemed quite open. Her face was nearly colourless. I was inclined to attribute this to her long suffering from seasickness, but when I got to know her better I found out that she is never anything but pallid, even when she has lived for months on land and has been able to eat all she wants. The first thing she did after we were introduced to her was to put her hands up to her ears and give a low moan, expressive of great anguish. Ascher explained to us that she was very musical and suffered acutely from the ship’s band. I made up my mind definitely that she was not the sort of woman I like. Gorman, on the other hand, took to her at once. He could not stop the band, but he led the lady away to a distant corner of the writing room.

For the rest of the voyage Gorman devoted himself to her. I do not mean to suggest that he flirted with her either frivolously, or with yearning artistic seriousness. Gorman enjoys the society of women and is never long happy without it, but I do not think he cares for love-making in any form. Besides he spent most of his time in her company watching her playing Patience. Owen Meredith wrote a poem in which he glorified the game of chess as an aid to quiet conjugal love-making. But so far as I know no one has suggested that Canfield—it was Mrs. Ascher’s favourite kind of Patience—has ever been used as an excuse for flirtation. No woman, not even if she has eyes of Japanese shape, can look tenderly at a man when she has just buried a valuable two under a pile of kings and queens in her rubbish heap.

The result of Gorman’s devotion to the lady was that I was left to improve my acquaintance with her husband. The more I talked to Ascher the better I liked him. His admiration for his wife’s sensitiveness to sound was very touching. I am convinced that he knew a great deal more about music than she did and appreciated it more. But her sudden outbursts of petulance when the band played seemed to Ascher a plain proof that she had the spirit of an artist. He confided in me that it gave him real pleasure to see her and Gorman together because, as artists, they must have much in common. Ascher has a very simple and beautiful nature. No one with any other kind of nature could put up with Mrs. Ascher as a wife.

Mere simplicity of soul and beauty of character would not, I am afraid, have kept me at Ascher’s side for the rest of the voyage. Virtue, like the innocence of the young, is admirable but apt to be tiresome. What attracted me most to Ascher was his ability, the last thing he recognised in himself. When he found out that I was interested in his business he talked to me quite freely about it, though always with a certain suggestion of apology. There was no need for anything of the sort. He revealed to me a whole world of fascinating romance of which I had never before suspected the existence. Some day, perhaps, a poet—he will have to be a great poet—will discover that the system of credit by means of which our civilisation works, deserves an epic. Neither the wanderings of Ulysses nor the discoveries of a traveller through Paradise and Purgatory make so splendid an appeal to the imagination as this vastly complex machine which Ascher and men like him guide. The oceans of the world are covered thick with ships. Long freight trains wind like serpents across continents. Kings build navies. Ploughmen turn up the clay. The wheels of factories go round. The minds of men bend nature to their purposes by fresh inventions. Science creeps forward inch by inch. Human beings everywhere eat, drink and reproduce themselves. The myriad activities of the whole wide world go profitably on. They can go on only because the Aschers, sitting at their office desks in London or New York, direct the purchase or sale of what are but scratches with a pen on bits of paper.

There is, no doubt, another way of looking at the system. The ships, the kings, the mighty minds, the common men, are all of them in bondage to Ascher and his kind. He and his brother financiers are the unseen rulers, the mysteriously shrouded tyrants of the world. This system of credit, which need not be at all or might be quite other than it is, has given them supreme, untempered power, which they use to the injury of men. This is Gorman’s view. But is it any less romantic than the other? An epic can be written round a devil as greatly as round a hero. Milton showed us that. What is wanted in a poet’s theme is grandeur, either fine or terrible. Ascher’s grip upon the world has surely that.