Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 6

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I spent a very pleasant fortnight in New York among people entirely unconnected with the Aschers or Gorman. I was kept busy dining, lunching, going to the theatre, driving here and there in motor cars, and enjoying the society of some of the least conventional and most brilliant women in the world. I only found time to call on the Aschers once and then did not see either of them. They were stopping in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and the young man in the office told me that Mrs. Ascher spent the whole of every day in her studio. Her devotion to art was evidently very great. She could not manage to spend a holiday in New York without hiring a studio. I inquired whether any members of the Galleotti family were sitting for her, but the hotel clerk did not know that. He told me, however, that Mr. Ascher was in Washington. Gorman always says that the strings of government in modern states are pulled by financiers. Ascher was probably chucking at those which are fastened to the arms and legs of the President of the United States, with a view to making that potentate dance threateningly in the direction of Mexico. I am sure that Ascher does this sort of thing very nicely and kindly if indeed he does it at all. He would not willingly destroy the self-respect even of a marionette.

Of Gorman I saw nothing more before I left New York. I think he went off to Detroit almost immediately after our interview with Ascher and Stutz. Gorman is not exactly the man to put his public duties before his private interests, but I am sure the public duties always come in a close second. Having settled, or thought he had settled, the affair of the cash register, he immediately turned his attention to that wealthy motor man in Detroit from whom he meant to get a subscription. The future of the Irish Party possibly, its comforts probably, depended on the success of Gorman’s mission. And a party never deserved comfort more. The Home Rule Bill was almost passed for the third and last time. Nothing stood between Ireland and the realisation of Gorman’s hopes for her except the obstinate perversity of the Ulster men. A few more subscriptions, generous subscriptions, and that would be overcome.

After enjoying myself in New York for a fortnight I went to Canada. I did not gather much information about the companies in which I was interested. But I learned a good deal about Canadian politics. The men who play that game out there are extraordinarily clear-sighted and honest. They frankly express lower opinions of each other than the politicians of any other country would dare to hold of the players in their particular fields. In the end the general frankness became monotonous and I tired of Canada. I went back to New York, hoping to pick up someone there who would travel home with me by way of the West Indies, islands which I had never seen. I thought it possible that I might persuade the Aschers, if they were still in New York, to make the tour with me. There was just a chance that I might come across Gorman again and that he would be taken with the idea of preaching the doctrines of Irish nationalism in Jamaica. I called on the Aschers twice and missed them both times. But the second visit was not fruitless. Mrs. Ascher rang me up on the telephone and asked me to go to see her in her studio. She said that she particularly wanted to see me and had something very important to say.

I obeyed the summons, of course. I found Mrs. Ascher clad in a long, pale-blue pinafore. Over-all is, I believe, the proper name for the garment. But it looked to me like a child’s pinafore, greatly enlarged. It completely covered all her other clothes in front and almost completely covered them behind. I recognised it as the sort of thing a really earnest artist would wear while working. Her hair was hanging in loops and wisps about her head, a disorder which was effective with dark-red hair. Her hands were damp and dirty. Her face was smudged here and there, as if, in moments of artistic travail, she had pressed her muddy fingers against her forehead and chin. The room had very little furniture in it, but there were several tables, large and small. On these stood what seemed to me shapeless lumps of various sizes, swathed in damp rags. They reminded me a little of the shrouded objects on the tables of dissecting rooms after the students have gone home. There was the same suggestion of mutilated human forms. Mrs. Archer saw me looking at them.

“Some of my little things,” she said, “but nothing finished. I don’t know why it is, but here in New York I find it very difficult to finish anything.”

“You’re not singular in that,” I said. “The New York people themselves suffer in exactly the same way. There isn’t a street in their city that they’ve finished or ever will finish. If anything begins to look like completion they smash it up at once and start afresh. It must be something in the air, a restlessness, a desire of the perfection which can never be realised.”

Mrs. Ascher very carefully unwrapped a succession of damp rags from one of the largest of her lumps which was standing on a table by itself. I have, since then, seen nurses unwrapping the bandages from the wounded limbs of men. The way they did it always reminded me of Mrs. Ascher. The removal of the last bandage revealed to me a figure about eighteen inches high of a girl who seemed to me to be stretching herself after getting out of bed before stepping into her bath.

“Psyche,” said Mrs. Ascher.

I had to show my admiration in some way. The proper thing, I believe, when shown a statue by a sculptor, is to stroke it with your fingers and murmur, “Ah!” I was afraid to stroke Psyche because she was certainly wet and probably soft. A touch might have dinted her, made a dimple in a wrong place. I dared not risk it. It became all the more necessary to speak.

The first thing I thought of was a quotation from Edgar Allan Poe.

“I pacified Psyche and kissed her,” I murmured, “and tempted her out of the gloom.”

I said the lines in what I am convinced is the proper way, as if they were forced from me, as if I spoke them to myself and did not mean them to be heard. I do not think Mrs. Ascher knew them. I fear she suspected me of making some sort of joke. I hastened to redeem my character.

“Psyche,” I said, “the soul.”

I was right so far. Psyche is the Greek for the soul. I ventured further.

“The human soul, the artistic soul.”

Mrs. Ascher appeared to be absolutely hanging on my words. I plunged on.

“Aspiring,” I said, “reaching after the unattainable.”

I would not have said, “hoping for a yawn” for anything that could have been offered me; but the young woman who stood for Mrs. Ascher’s Psyche must have longed for that relief. The attitude in which she was posed suggested yawning all the time, and we all know how fatal it is to think of a yawn.

“Quite unfinished,” said Mrs. Ascher with a sigh.

“The fault of New York,” I said. “When you get home again——

I hesitated. I did not wish to commit myself to a confession of ignorance, and I do not know whether a damp, soft Psyche can be packed up and transported across the Atlantic to be finished in London.

“But the aspiration is there,” I said, “and you owe that to New York. The air, the very same air which forbids completion, is charged with aspiration. We all feel it. The city itself aspires. Since the great days when men set out to build a tower the top of which should reach unto heaven, there has never been such aspiration anywhere in the world. Look at the Woolworth Building.”

I was maundering and I knew it. Mrs. Ascher’s statuette was very nice and graceful; a much better thing than I expected to see, but there was nothing in it, nothing at all in the way of thought or emotion. There must be hundreds of people who can turn out clay girls just as good as that Psyche. Somehow I had expected something different from Mrs. Ascher, less skill in modelling, less care, but more temperament.

“There’s nothing else worth showing,” she said, “except perhaps this. Yes, except this.”

She unwrapped more bandages. A damp, pale-grey head appeared. It was standing in a large saucer or soup plate. At first I thought she had been at John the Baptist and had chosen the moment when his head lay in the charger ready for the dancing girl to take to her mother. Fortunately I looked at it carefully before speaking. I saw that it was Tim Gorman’s head.

“He sat to me,” said Mrs. Ascher, “and by degrees I came to know him very well. One does, one cannot help it, talking to a person every day and watching, always watching. Do you think——?”

“I think it’s wonderful,” I said.

This time I spoke with real and entire conviction. I am no expert judge of anything in the world except perhaps a horse or a bottle of claret, but I was impressed by this piece of Mrs. Ascher’s work. Tim Gorman’s fine eyes were the only things about him which struck me as noticeable. No artist can model eyes in clay. But Mrs. Ascher had got all that I saw in his eyes into the head before me—all and a great deal more. She had somehow succeeded in making the lips, the nostrils, the forehead, the cheek-bones, express the fact that Tim Gorman is an idealist, a dreamer of fine dreams and at the same time innocent as a child which looks out at the world with wonder. I do not know how the woman did it. I should not have supposed her capable of even seeing what she had expressed in her clay, but there it was.

“You really like it?”

She spoke with a curious note of humility in her voice. My impulse was to say that I liked her, for the first time saw the real good in her; but I could not say that.

“Like it!” I said. “It isn’t for me to like or dislike it. I don’t know anything about those things. I am not capable of judging. But this seems to me to be really great.”

“Ah!” said Mrs. Ascher, “and this time you are sincere.”

She looked at me quite gravely as she spoke. Then a smile slowly broadened her mouth.

“That’s not the way you spoke of poor Psyche’s aspiration,” she said, “you were laughing at me then.”

A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. The woman had understood every word I said to her, understood what I meant as well as what I wanted to convey to her, two very different things. She was immensely more clever than I suspected or could have guessed.

“Mrs. Ascher,” I said, “I beg your pardon.”

“You were quite right,” she said. “That other thing isn’t Psyche. It’s just a silly little girl, the model—— There wasn’t anything about her that I could see, nothing but just a pretty body.”

So she dismissed my apology and turned to Tim Gorman’s head again. She ran her finger lightly round the rim of the saucer.

“What shall I do with this?” she said. “What is his head to stand on, to rise from? I was thinking of water-lily leaves, as if the head were emerging——

I felt that I owed Mrs. Ascher some frankness in return for my first insult to her intelligence. Besides, I was moved. I was, as I had not been for years, emotional. Tim Gorman’s head gripped me in a curious way.

“Good God, Woman,” I said, “anything in the world but that! Wrap up that chorus girl of a Psyche in leaves if you like. Sprinkle rose petals over her or any other damned sentimentalism. But this man is a mechanic. He has invented a cash register. What in the name of all that’s holy has he got to do with water-lily leaves? Put hammers round his head, and pincers, and long nails.”

I stopped. I realised suddenly that I was making an unutterable fool of myself. I was talking as I never talked in my life before, saying out loud the sort of things I have carefully schooled myself neither to feel nor to think.

“After all,” said Mrs. Ascher, “you have an artist’s soul.”

I shuddered. Mrs. Ascher looked at me and smiled again, a half-pitiful smile.

“I suppose I must have,” I said. “But I won’t let it break loose in that way again. I’ll suppress it. It’s—it’s—this is rather an insulting thing to say to you, but it’s a humiliating discovery to make that I have——

Mrs. Ascher nodded.

“My husband always says that you Irish——

“He’s quite wrong,” I said; “quite wrong about me at all events. I hate paradoxes. I’m a plain man. The only thing I really admire is common sense.”

“I understand,” she said. “I understand exactly what you feel.”

She is a witch and very likely did understand. I did not.

“Now,” she said. “Now, I can talk to you. Sit down, please.”

She pulled over a low stool, the only seat in the room. I sat on it. Mrs. Ascher stood, or rather drooped in front of me, leaning on one hand, which rested, palm down, on the table where Tim Gorman’s image stood. I doubt whether Mrs. Ascher ever stands straight or is capable of any kind of stiffness. But even drooping, she had a distinct advantage over me. My stool was very low and my legs are long. If I ventured to lean forwards, my knees would have touched my chin, a position in which it is impossible for a man to assert himself.

“I am so very glad,” she said, “that you like the little head.”

I was not going to be caught again. One lapse into artistic fervour was enough for me. Even at the risk of offending Mrs. Ascher beyond forgiveness, I was determined to preserve my self-respect.

“I wish you wouldn’t take my word for it’s being good,” I said. “Ask somebody who knows. The fact that I like it is a proof that it’s bad, bad art, if it’s a proof of anything. I never really admire anything good, can’t bear, simply can’t bear old masters, or”—I dimly recollected some witty essays by my brilliant fellow-countryman Mr. George Moore—“I detest Corot. My favourite artist is Leader.”

Mrs. Ascher smiled all the time I was speaking.

“I know quite well,” she said, “that my work isn’t good. But you saw what I meant by it. You can’t deny it now, and you know that the boy is like that.”

“I don’t know anything of the sort. I don’t know anything at all about him. The only time I ever came into touch with him he was helping his brother to persuade Mr. Ascher to go into a doubtful—well, to make money by what I’d call sharp practice.”

“I don’t think he was,” said Mrs. Ascher. “The elder brother may have been doing what you say; but Tim wasn’t.”

“He was in the game,” I said.

I spoke all the more obstinately because I knew that Tim was not in the game, I was determined not to be hysterical again.

“I’ve had that poor boy here day after day,” said Mrs. Ascher, “and I really know him. He has the soul of an artist. He is a creator. He is one of humanity’s mother natures. You know how it is with us. Something quickens in us. We travail and bring to the birth.”

Mrs. Ascher evidently included herself among the mother natures. It seemed a pity that she had not gone about the business in the ordinary way. I think she would have been happier if she had. However, the head of Tim Gorman was something. She had produced it.

“That is art,” she said dreamily, “conception, gestation, travail, birth. It does not matter whether the thing born is a poem, a picture, a statue, a sonata, a temple——

“Or a cash register,” I said.

The thing born might apparently be anything except an ordinary baby. The true artist does not think much of babies. They are bourgeois things.

“Or a cash register,” she said. “It makes no difference. The man who creates, who brings into being, has only one desire, that his child, whatever it may be, shall live. If it is stifled, killed, a sword goes through his heart.”

It seemed to me even then with Mrs. Ascher’s eyes on me, that it was rather absurd to talk about a cash register living. I do not think that men have ever personified this machine. We talk of ships and engines by the names we give them and use personal pronouns, generally feminine, when we speak of them. But did any one ever call a cash register “Minnie” or talk of it familiarly as “she”?

“He thinks,” said Mrs. Ascher, “indeed he is sure—he says his brother told him——

“I know,” I said. “The machine isn’t going to be put on the market at all. It is to be used simply as a threat to make other people pay what I should call blackmail.”

“That must not be,” said Mrs. Ascher.

Her voice was pitched a couple of tones higher than usual. I might almost say she shrieked.

“It must not be,” she repeated, “must not. It is a crime, a vile act, the murder of a soul.”

Cash registers have not got souls. I am as sure of that as I am of anything.

“That boy,” she went on, “that passionate, brave, pure boy, he must not be dragged down, defiled. His soul——

It was Tim Gorman’s soul then, not the cash registers, which she was worrying about. Having seen her presentation of the boy’s head, having it at that moment before my eyes, I understood what she meant. But I was not going to let myself be swept again into the regions of artistic passion to please Mrs. Ascher.

“Well,” I said, “it does seem rather a shady way of making money. But after all——

I have mentioned that Mrs. Ascher never stands upright. She went very near it when I mentioned money. She threw her head back, flung both her arms out wide, clenched her fists tightly, and, if the expression is possible, drooped backwards from her hips. A slightly soiled light-blue overall is not the garment best suited to set off the airs and attitudes of high tragedy. But Mrs. Ascher’s feelings were strong enough to transfigure even her clothes.

“Money!” she said. “Oh, Money! Is there nothing else? Do you care for, hope for, see nothing else in the world? What does it matter whether you make money or not, or how you make it?”

It is only those who are very rich indeed or those who are on the outer fringe of extreme poverty who can despise money in this whole-hearted way. The wife of a millionaire—the millionaire himself probably attaches some value to money because he has to get it—and the regular tramp can say “Oh, money? Is there nothing else?” The rest of us find money a useful thing and get what we can of it.

Mrs. Ascher let her arms fall suddenly to her sides, folded herself up and sat down, or rather crouched, on the floor. From that position she looked up at me with the greatest possible intensity of eye.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “You’re thinking of my husband. But he hates money just as much as I do. All he wants is to escape, to have done with it, to live peaceably with me, somewhere far away, far, far away from everywhere.”

Her eyes softened as she spoke. They even filled with water, tears, I suppose. But she seemed to me to be talking nonsense. Ascher was making money, piling it up. He could stop if he liked. So I thought. So any sensible man must think. And as for living somewhere far, far away, what did the woman want to get away from? Every possible place of residence on the earth’s surface is near some other place. You cannot get far, far away from everywhere. The thing is a physical impossibility. I made an effort to get back to common sense.

“About Tim Gorman’s cash register?” I said. “What would you suggest?”

“You mustn’t let them do that hateful thing,” she said. “You can stop them if you will.”

“I don’t believe I can,” I said. “I’m extraordinarily feeble and ineffectual in every way. In business matters I’m a mere babe.”

“Mr. Gorman will listen to you,” she said. “He will understand if you explain to him. He is a writer, an artist. He must understand.”

I shook my head. Gorman can write. I admit that. His writing is a great deal better than Mrs. Ascher’s modelling, though she did do that head of Tim. I do not hail Gorman’s novels or his plays as great literature, though they are good. But some of his criticism is the finest thing of its kind that has been published in our time. But Gorman does not look at these matters as Mrs. Ascher does. I do not believe he ever wrote a line in his life without expecting to be paid for it. He would not write at all if he could find any easier and pleasanter way of making money. There was no use saying that to Mrs. Ascher. All I could do when she asked me to appeal to Gorman’s artistic soul was to shake my head. I shook it as decisively as I could.

“And my husband will listen to you,” she said.

“My dear lady! wouldn’t he be much more likely to listen to you?”

“But we never talk about such things,” she said. “Never, never. Our life together is sacred, hallowed, a thing apart,

“‘Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot
Which men call earth.’”

It surprised me to hear Mrs. Ascher quote Milton. I did not somehow expect to find that she knew or liked that particular poet. I am nearly sure he would not have liked her.

“We cannot desecrate our union,” she said, “by talking about money.”

The subject to be discussed with Ascher was plainly not money, but Tim Gorman’s soul. Money only came incidentally. However, there was no use arguing a point like that. There was no use arguing any point. I gave in and promised to see Ascher about the matter. I prefer Ascher to Gorman if I have to persuade any one to act midwife at the birth of a cash register. Gorman would be certain to laugh. Ascher would at all events listen to me courteously.

“To-morrow,” said Mrs. Ascher.

“Certainly,” I said. “To-morrow, quite early.”

Mrs. Ascher uncoiled herself and rose from the floor. I struggled to my feet rather stiffly, for my stool was far too low. She took my hand and held it. I feared for a moment that she meant to kiss it.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you again and again.”

I took a long walk after I left the studio. I wanted to assimilate a new fact, to get my mental vision into focus again.

Ever since I thought about things at all, I have regarded the “artist” outlook upon life as a pose, and the claim to artistic temperament as an excuse for selfishness and bad temper in private life. Mrs. Ascher had convinced me that, in her case at least, the artist soul is a reality. She was hysterical and ridiculous when she talked to me, but she was sincere. She was not posing even when she crumpled herself upon the floor and looked like a sick serpent. She was in simple earnest when she mouthed her lines about money, money. There might be, probably were, several other people in the world like Mrs. Ascher, might even be many others. That was the new fact which I wanted to digest.

I reflected that I myself was kin to her, had in me, latent and undeveloped, an artist’s soul. I had felt the thing fluttering when I lost my self-control and talked flamboyantly about the head of Tim Gorman. It was necessary that I should keep a firm grip on myself. I belong to a class which has lost everything except its sanity. I think it is true of the Irish aristocracy that even its period of greatest glory, even when Grattan was waving his arms and shouting “Esto Perpetua!”, it remained sane. I have nothing else left of what my forefathers bequeathed to me, but I still have this temperament. A man clings desperately to the last remnants of his heritage.

The artist’s soul is a reality. I admitted that. But it is also a disease. I had learned to believe in it as a man learns to believe in influenza when his temperature runs up to 104 degrees and his bones ache furiously. But there is a difference between admitting the existence of a disease and deliberately cultivating the germs of it.

I crossed 5th Avenue at 32nd Street in great peril of my life, for the traffic at that point is as wild as the emotions of the artistic soul.

It came into my mind that quite possibly the thrills and throbs which Mrs. Ascher enjoys, of which I myself had a brief and mild experience, are not only real, but worth while. There may after all be something greater in the world than common sense. I fell to dreaming of what life might be like to the man who refused to take it as it is, who insisted on seeing above him, not silly little twinkling stars, but great worlds coursing through the infinite spaces of eternity. I ran into a boy carrying books, while I was thinking about eternity. His books were scattered over the pavement and I hurt my knee. I decided that my faint longing for what Mrs. Ascher would call “higher possibilities” is a temptation, something to be conquered. I finished my meditation with a “Retro Satanas”, and returned to my hotel for luncheon, confident that I should come out victor in my struggle.

Ascher has certainly far more determination and force of character than I have; but he does not seem able to break himself of the habit of making money. His wife says that he hates doing it and wants to stop. But he goes on doing it. He has formed a habit of making money, and habit is almost unconquerable. It was plainly the path of wisdom for me to check my tendency towards art at the very beginning, not to allow the habit of feeling artistically, indeed of feeling at all, to form itself.