Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 5

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Gorman called for me at my hotel next morning at 9 o’clock.

“Time to start,” he said, “if we’re to keep our appointment with Ascher.”

I was still at breakfast and did not want to start till I had finished.

“Do you think,” I said, “that it’s wise to tackle him quite so early? Most men’s tempers improve as the day goes on,—up to a certain point, not right into the evening. Now I should say that noon would be the very best hour for business of our kind.”

But Gorman is very severe when he is doing business. He took no notice whatever of my suggestion. He pulled a long envelope out of his pocket and presented it to me. It contained a nicely printed certificate, which assured me that I was the owner of one thousand ordinary shares in the New Excelsior Cash Register Company, Ltd. The face value of the shares was five dollars each.

“I did not mean to take quite so many shares,” I said. “However, I don’t mind. If you will work out the rate of exchange while I finish my coffee, I’ll give you an English cheque for the amount.”

Gorman laughed at the proposal.

“You needn’t pay anything,” he said. “All we want from you is your name on our list of directors and your influence with Ascher. Those shares will be worth a couple of hundred dollars each at least when we begin our squeeze and you don’t run the slightest risk of losing anything.”

The owning of shares of this kind seems to me the easiest way there is of making money. I thanked Gorman effusively and pocketed the certificate.

We went down town by the elevated railway, and got out at Rector Street. Tim Gorman met us at the bottom of the steps which lead to the station. He was carrying his cash register in his arms. We hurried across Broadway and passed through the doors of a huge sky-scraper building. I thought we were entering Ascher’s office. We were not. We were taking a short cut through a kind of arcade like one of the covered shopping ways which one sees in some English towns, especially in Birmingham. There was a large number of little shops in it, luncheon places, barbers’ shops, newspaper stalls, tobacconists’ stalls, florists’ stalls, and sweet shops, which displayed an enormous variety of candies. We were in the very centre of the business part of the city, a part to which women hardly ever go, unless they are typists or manicure girls. Above our heads were offices, tiers and tiers of them. I wondered why there were so many florists’ shops and sweet shops. The American business man must, I imagine, have a gentle and childlike heart. No one who has lost his first innocence would require such a supply of flowers and chocolate at his office door.

There were lifts on each side of this arcade, dozens of them, in cages. Some were labelled “Express” and warned passengers that they would make no stop before the eleventh floor. I should have liked very much to make a journey in an express lift, and I hoped that Ascher’s office might turn out to be on the 25th or perhaps the 30th floor of the building. I was disappointed. Gorman hurried us on.

We emerged into the open air and found ourselves in a narrow, crooked street along which men were hurrying in great numbers and at high speed. On both sides of it were enormously tall houses. There was just one building, right opposite to us, which was of English height. It was not in the least English in any other way. It was white and very dignified. Its lines were severely classical. It had tall, narrow windows and a door which somehow reminded me of portraits of the first Duke of Wellington. The architect may perhaps have been thinking of the great soldier’s nose. Gorman walked straight up to that door.

“Here we are,” he said.

“Surely,” I said, “this Greek temple can’t be Ascher’s office?”

“This is the exact spot.”

“Tell me,” I said, “do we take off our shoes at the threshold or say grace, or perform some kind of ceremonial lustration? We can’t go in just as we are.”

Gorman did not answer me. He went through the door, the terribly impressive door, without even bowing. There was nothing for me to do but follow him. Tim followed me, nursing his cash register as if it had been a baby, a very heavy and awkwardly shaped baby.

We passed into the outer office. At the first glance it seemed to me like a very orderly town. It was built over with small houses of polished mahogany and plate glass. Through the plate-glass fronts—they were more than windows—I could see the furniture of the houses, rolltop desks of mahogany, broad mahogany tables, chairs and high stools. All the mahogany was very highly polished. The citizens of this town flitted from one glass-fronted house to another. They met in narrow streets and spoke to each other with grave dignity. They spoke in four languages, and English was the one used least. From the remoter parts of the place, the slums, if such a polished town has slums, came the sound of typewriters worked with extreme rapidity. The manual labourers, in this as in every civilised community, are kept out of sight. Only the sound of their toil is allowed to remind the other classes of their happier lot. Some of the citizens—I took them to be men of very high standing, privy counsellors or magistrates—held cigars in their mouths as they walked about. These cigars are badges of office, like the stripes on soldiers’ coats. No one was actually smoking.

Gorman was our spokesman. He explained who we were and what we wanted. We were handed over to a clerk. I suppose he was a clerk, but to me he seemed a gentleman in waiting of some mysterious monarch, or—my feeling wavered—one of the inferior priests of a strange cult. He led us through doors into a large room, impressively empty and silent. There for a minute we left while he tapped reverently at another door. The supreme moment arrived. We passed into the inmost shrine where Ascher sat. My spirit quailed.

Every great profession has its own way of hypnotising the souls of simple men. Indeed I think that professions are accounted great in accordance with their power of impressing on the world a sense of their mysteriousness. Ecclesiastics, those of them who know their business, build altars in dim recesses of vast buildings, light them with flickering tapers, and fill the air with clouds of stupefying incense smoke. Surgeons and dentists allow us fleeting glimpses of bright steel instruments, very strangely shaped. It is contrived that we see them in a cold, clear light, the light of scientific relentlessness. There is a suggestion of torture, not brutal but exquisitely refined, of perfected pain, achieved by the stimulation of recondite nerves of very delicate sensibility. Lawyers wear archaic robes and use a strange language in their mysteries, conveying to us a belief that Justice is an ancient witch whose evil eye can be averted only by the incantation and grotesque posturing of her initiate priests. But I am not sure that financiers do not understand the art of hypnotic suggestion best of all. I have worshipped in cathedrals, sweated cold in operating theatres, trembled before judges, but there is something about large surfaces of polished mahogany and very soft, dimly coloured turkey carpets which quells my feeble spirit still more completely.

There was a heavy deadening silence in Ascher’s private office, and our voices, when they broke it, sounded like the cheeping of ghosts. There was an odour more oppressive than the smell of incense or the penetrating fumes of iodoform. Some one, many hours before, must have smoked a very good cigar in the room, and the scent of it lingered. The doors of huge safes must have been opened. From the recesses of these steel chambers had oozed air which had lain stagnant and lifeless round piles of gold bonds and rich securities for years and years. The faint, sickly odour of sealing wax must have been distilled from immense sticks of that substance and sprinkled overnight upon the carpets and leather-seated chairs. I breathed and my very limbs felt numb.

But certain souls are proof against the subtlest forms of hypnotism. Gorman had escaped from the influence of his church. He would flip a sterilised lancet across a glass slab with his finger and laugh in the face of the surgeon who owned it. He walked with buoyant confidence into Ascher’s office. My case was different. I stood and then sat, the victim of a partial anæsthetic. I saw and heard dimly as if in a dream, or through a mist. Poor Tim trembled as he laid his cash register down on one of Ascher’s mahogany tables. I could hear the keys and bars of the machine rattling together while he handled it.

Ascher spoke through a telephone receiver which stood at his elbow. Another man entered the room. We all shook hands with him. He was Stutz, the New York partner of the firm. Then Ascher spoke through the receiver again, and another man came in.

With him we did not shake hands, but he bowed to us and we to him. He was Mr. Mildmay. He stood near the door, waiting for orders.

Tim Gorman unpacked his machine and exhibited it. I have not the remotest idea what its peculiar virtues are, but Tim believed in them. His nervousness seemed to pass away from him as he spoke about his invention with simple-minded enthusiasm. Love casts out fear, and there is no doubt that Tim loved every screw and lever of the complicated mechanism.

Mr. Mildmay left his place near the door and came forward. His deferential manner dropped off from him. He revealed himself as a mechanical expert with a special knowledge of cash registers. He and Tim Gorman pressed keys, twisted handles and bent together in absorbed contemplation over some singular feature of the machine’s organism. Gorman, the elder brother, watched them with a confident smile. Ascher and Stutz sat gravely silent. They waited Mildmay’s opinion. He was the man of the moment. A few minutes before he had bowed respectfully to Ascher. In half an hour he would be bowing respectfully to Ascher again. Just then, while he handled Tim Gorman’s machine, he was Ascher’s master, and mine of course. They were all my masters.

The inspection of the machine was finished at last. Tim stood flushed and triumphant. The child of his ingenious brain had survived the tests of an expert. Mildmay turned to Ascher and bowed again.

“It’s a wonderful invention,” he said. “I see no reason why it should not be a commercial success.”

“Perhaps, Mr. Mildmay,” said Ascher, “you will study the subject further and submit a report to us in writing.”

Mr. Mildmay left the room. I had no doubt that he would report enthusiastically on the new cash register. Mechanical experts do not, I suppose, write poetry, but there was without doubt a lyric in Mildmay’s heart as he left the room. Tim packed the thing up again. Now that the mechanical part of the business was over, he relapsed into shy silence in a corner. His brother took out a cigarette and lit it. I would not have ventured to light a cigarette in that sanctuary for a hundred pounds. But Gorman is entirely without reverence.

“Well,” he said, “there’s no doubt about the value of the invention.”

“We shall wait for Mr. Mildmay’s report,” said Ascher, “before we come to any decision; but in the meanwhile we should like to hear any proposal you have to make.”

“Yes,” said Stutz, “your proposals. We are prepared to listen to them.”

Stutz seemed to me to speak English with difficulty. His native language was perhaps German, perhaps Hebrew or Yiddish or whatever the language is which modern Jews speak in private life.

“The matter is simple enough,” said Gorman. “Our machine will drive any other out of the market. There’s no possibility of competition. The thing is simply a dead cert. It can’t help going.”

“A large capital would be required,” said Stutz, “a very large capital.”

“Yes,” said Gorman, “a very large capital, much larger than I should care to see invested in the thing. I may as well be quite frank with you gentlemen. At present the patents of my brother’s invention are owned by a small company in which I am the chief shareholder. If we ask the public for a million dollars and get them—I don’t say we can’t get them. We may. But if we do I shall be a very small shareholder. I shall get 5 per cent. or 6 per cent. or perhaps 10 per cent. on my money. Now I want more than that. I’m speaking quite frankly, you see. I believe in frankness.”

He looked at Ascher for approval. Stutz bowed, with an impassive face. On Ascher’s lips there was the ghost of a mournful little smile. I somehow gathered that he had come across frankness like Gorman’s before and had not altogether liked it. Gorman went on. He explained, as he had explained to me, the plan he had made for forcing the owners of existing cash registers to buy his company out. At last he got to the central, the vitally important point.

“All we want, gentlemen, is your backing. You needn’t put down any money. Your names will be enough. I will make over to you such bonus shares as may be agreed upon. The only risk we run is lawsuits about our patent rights. You understand how that game is worked. I needn’t explain.”

It was evident that both Ascher and Stutz understood that game thoroughly. It was also plain to me, though not, I think, to Gorman, that it was a game which neither one nor other of them would be willing to play.

“But if we have your names,” said Gorman, “that game’s off. It simply wouldn’t pay. I don’t want to flatter you, gentlemen, but there isn’t a firm in the world that would care to start feeing lawyers in competition with Ascher, Stutz & Co.”

“That is so,” said Stutz.

“And your proposal?” said Ascher.

“If they can’t crush us,” said Gorman, “and they can’t if you’re behind us, they must buy us. I need scarcely say that your share in the profits will be satisfactory to you. Sir James Digby is one of our directors. There are only four others, and three of them scarcely count. There won’t be many of us to divide what we get.”

I felt that my time had come to speak. If I was to justify Gorman’s confidence in me as an “influence,” I must say something. Besides Ascher was looking at me inquiringly.

“I’m not a business man,” I said, “and I’m afraid that my opinion isn’t worth much, but I think——

I hesitated. Ascher’s eyes were fixed on me, and there was a curiously wistful expression in them. I could not understand what he wanted me to say.

“I think,” I said, “that Gorman’s plan sounds feasible, that it ought to work.”

“But your own opinion of it?” said Ascher.

He spoke with a certain gentle insistency. I could not very well avoid making some answer.

“We are able to judge for ourselves,” he said, “whether it will work. But the plan itself—what do you think of it?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m a modern man. I have accepted all the ideas and standards of my time and generation. I can hardly give you an opinion that I could call my own, but if my father’s opinion would be of any use to you—— He was an old-fashioned gentleman, with all the rather obsolete ideas about honour which those people had.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” said Gorman.

“Oh, yes,” I said. “He’s been dead for fifteen years. Still I’m sure I could tell you what he’d have said about this.”

“I do not think,” said Stutz, “that we need consider the opinion of Sir James Digby’s father, who has been dead for fifteen years.”

“I quite agree with you,” I said. “It would be out of date, hopelessly.”

“But your own opinion?” said Ascher, still mildly insistent.

“Well,” I said, “I’ve been robbed of my property—land in Ireland, Mr. Stutz—by Gorman and his friends. Everybody says that they were quite right and that I ought not to have objected; so, I suppose, robbery must be a proper thing according to our contemporary ethics.”

“And that is your opinion of the scheme?” said Ascher.

“Yes,” I said. “I hope I’ve made myself clear. I think we are justified in pillaging when we can.”

“You Irish,” said Ascher, “with your intellects of steel, your delight in paradox and your reckless logic!”

Stutz was not interested in the peculiarities of the Irish mind. He went back to the main point with a directness which I admired.

“This is not,” he said, “the kind of business we care to do.”

“Mr. Gorman,” said Ascher, “we shall wait for Mr. Mildmay’s report on your brother’s invention. If it turns out to be favourable, as I confidently expect, we may have a proposal to lay before you. Our firm cannot, you will understand, take shares in your company. That is not a bank’s business. But I myself, in my private capacity, will consider the matter. So will Mr. Stutz. It may be possible to arrange that your brother’s machine shall be put on the market.”

“But your proposal,” said Stutz obstinately. “It is not the kind of business we undertake.”

The interview was plainly at an end. We rose and left the room.

Tim Gorman did not understand, perhaps did not hear, a word of what was said. He followed us out of the office nursing his machine and plainly in high delight. Curiously enough, the elder Gorman seemed equally pleased.

“We’ve got them,” he said when we reached the street. “We’ve got Ascher, Stutz & Co quite safe. I don’t see what’s to stop us now.”

My own impression was that both Ascher & Stutz had definitely refused to entertain our proposal or fall in with our plans. I said so to Gorman.

“Not at all,” he said. “You don’t understand business or business men. Ascher and Stutz are very big bugs, very big indeed, and they have to keep up appearances. It wouldn’t do for them to admit to you and me, or even to each other, that they were out for what they could get from the old company. They have to keep up the pretence that they mean legitimate business. That’s the way these things are always worked. But you’ll find that they won’t object to pocketing their cheques when the time comes for smashing up Tim’s machine and suppressing his patents.”

I turned, when I reached the far side of the street, to take another look at Ascher’s office. I was struck again by the purity of line and the severe simplicity of the building. Two thousand years ago men would have had a statue of Pallas Athene in it.