Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 7

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


I had no idea of breaking the promise I made Mrs. Ascher; but I felt a certain hesitation about entering again the Holiest of Holies in the office of Ascher, Stutz & Co. I was a little afraid of Stutz, who seemed to me a severe man, very little tolerant of human folly. Still I would have faced Stutz without shrinking, especially in a good cause. What I really disliked was the idea of suggesting a business policy to Ascher. The man was immeasurably my superior in natural ability and in experience. I felt that I should be guilty of insolence if I offered him any advice, and of something worse than insolence if I insisted on my advice being taken. Yet it was just this which Mrs. Ascher expected of me, and I did not want to disappoint her.

It is true that I was a shareholder in the New Excelsior Cash Register Company. I may have been a director. Gorman said something about my being a director. I had accepted the office, pledged beforehand to the approval of Gorman’s policy and therefore had no right to intervene. What claim had I to insist on Ascher’s doing this or that? I should not feel myself justified in calling on an archbishop and insisting on drastic alterations in the Apostle’s Creed. Ascher is at least an archbishop, possibly a patriarch, or even a cardinal, in that truly catholic church which worships Mammon.

But I had promised.

I went to the office next morning, early. Having forgotten to make an appointment with Ascher beforehand I had to wait some time before I saw him. I sat in the large anteroom through which I had passed when I first visited the office with Gorman. Through the glass door I was able to see the public office outside where men went busily to and fro.

I understood just enough about this business of Ascher’s to be able to read romance, the romance which was certainly there, in the movements of the quiet men who passed and repassed before my eyes, or bent with rarely lifted heads over huge ledgers, or turned over with deft fingers piles of papers in stuffed filing boxes. These men were in touch with the furthest ends of the earth. Coded telegrams fluttered from their hands and went vibrating across thousands of miles of land or through the still depths of oceans, over unlighted tracts of ooze on the sea-bottom. In London the words were read and men set free pent up, dammed streams of money. In Hongkong the words were read and some steamer went out, laden, from her harbour. Gold was poured into the hands of tea-planters in Ceylon. Scanty wages in strange coins, dribbled out to factory workers in Russian cotton mills. Gangs of navvies went to work laying railway lines across the veldt in Bechuanaland. There was no end to the energy controlled, directed by these cable messages, nor any bounds to the field of their influence. Somewhere in Ireland a farmer would go home along a desolate road, crossing brown bogs, thirsty and disconsolate, his lean beasts unsold at a fair where buyers were scarce or shy. What did he know of Ascher or Ascher know of him? Yet the price which he might take or must refuse for those hardly reared bullocks of his depended at the end of a long chain, on what the Aschers in their office said and did.

Perhaps hardly one of all the busy men I watched quite knew what he was doing. They juggled with figures, made précis of the reports of money markets, dissected and analysed the balance sheets of railway companies, decoded messages from London or from Paris, transcribed formulae as abstract, as remote from tangible things as the x and y of algebraic equations. These men all worked—the apologue of the quadratic equation held my mind—moving their symbols here and there, extracting roots, dissolving close-knit phrases into factors, cancelling, simplifying, but always dealing with symbols meaningless, unreal in themselves. Behind them was Ascher, Ascher and I suppose Stutz, who expressed realities in formulae, and, when the sums were done, extracted realities from the formulae again, achieving through the seemingly sterile processes new facts, fresh grasp of the things which are, greater power to deal with them. They knew and understood and held the whole world in leading strings, delicate as silk, invisible, impalpable, but strong.

The door of Ascher’s private office opened and a man passed out. I glanced at him. He was a clean-shaved, keen-eyed, square-jawed man, the type which American business methods have produced, a man of resource and quick decision, but a man, so I guessed, who dealt with things, and money only as the price of things, the reward of making them. He lacked, so I felt, something of the fine spirituality of Ascher, the scientific abstraction of the man who lives in a rarer atmosphere of pure finance.

A clerk at my elbow invited me to leave my place and take my turn with Ascher.

I could not bring myself to plunge straightway into my business. I began by pretending that I had no real business at all.

“Any chance,” I asked, “of our being travelling companions again? I am leaving New York almost at once.”

“I’m afraid not,” said Ascher. “I’ve a great deal to do here still.”

“Those Mexican affairs?”

“Those among others.”

“The Government here seems to be making rather a muddle of Mexico,” I said.

Opinion on this subject was, so far as I knew, nearly unanimous among business men. Every one who owned shares in Mexican companies, every one who had invested hopefully a little while before in Mexican railways, every one who had any kind of interest in Mexico was of the same opinion about the inaction of the American Government.

“I think it is a muddle,” said Ascher, “but the idea in the minds of the men who are making the muddle is a fine one. If only the world could be worked on those principles——

“But it can’t.”

“Not yet,” said Ascher. “Perhaps never. Yet the idea on which the Government in Washington proceeds is a noble one. Respect for constitutional order should be a greater thing as a principle of statesmanship than obvious expediency.”

The man’s unnatural detachment of view worried me. It was the same when Gorman blared out his stereotyped abuse of financiers, his well-worn cliches about money kings and poison spiders. Ascher agreed with him. Ascher, apparently, had some approval for the doctrinaire constitutionalism of university professors turned diplomats. I could not follow him to those heights of his.

“I was thinking,” I said, “of going home by way of the West Indies.”

“Yes? You will find it very agreeable. I was there in 1903 and remember enjoying myself greatly.”

“I wish you and Mrs. Ascher would come too. It would be much pleasanter for me if I had you with me.

“It’s very kind of you to say so; but——

“Besides,” I said, “I should see so much more. If I go by myself I shall step from a steamer into an hotel and from an hotel into a steamer. I shall be forced to buy a Baedeker, if there is a Baedeker for those regions. I shall be a tourist of the ordinary kind. But if I travelled with you I should really see things.”

Ascher took up the telephone receiver.

“If you like,” he said, “I can give you letters of introduction to our correspondents wherever you go. They are bankers, of course, but you will find them intelligent men.”

He summoned a clerk.

“If you give me an idea of your route——” he said.

“At present,” I said, “my plans are very vague. I haven’t settled anything. Perhaps you will give me your advice.”

He drew a sheet of paper towards him and began to write.

“You ought to see the work at Panama,” he said. “It is very interesting and of course of immense importance. Certainly you must see that. Afterwards——

He scribbled on his sheet of paper, making lists of place names and adding notes about ways of travelling.

“If you go further south still——” he said. “I don’t recommend the Amazon, a huge river of course, but unless you are interested in rubber or entomology. The insect life I believe——

“I’m interested in everything,” I said, “even insects which bite.”

“Well, Para, perhaps, then south again. The South American ports are worth seeing.”

A clerk entered while he was speaking. Ascher handed him the list he had written.

“Look out the names of our agents in these places,” he said, “and have letters of introduction made out to them for Sir James Digby.”

The clerk left the room and I thanked Ascher warmly. It seemed to me that he was taking a great deal of trouble for which he could expect no kind of reward. He waved my gratitude aside.

“I think,” he said, “that our agents will be able to make your trip interesting for you. They can tell you what you want to know about the trade and the natural wealth of the places you visit. They will put you in the way of finding out the trend of political feeling. It is their business to know these things, and in visiting new countries—new in the sense that they have only lately felt the influences of our civilisation—it is just these things that you will want to know. If you were going to Italy, or Egypt, or Greece——

Ascher sighed. I felt that he would have preferred Italy to Brazil if he had been travelling for pleasure.

“Ah, there,” I said, “an artist or a scholar would be a better friend to have than a banker.”

“Even there,” said Ascher, “the present and the future matter more than the past, perhaps. But are you tied at all by time? The tour which I have indicated will take some months.”

“I am an idle man,” I said. “I shall go on as long as your introductions last, gathering knowledge which will not be the slightest use to me or any one else.”

“I had better provide you with a circular letter of credit,” said Ascher. “It is never wise to carry considerable sums about in your pocket.”

We had got to money, to business in the strictest sense of the word. My opportunity had plainly come for attacking the subject of the cash register. Yet I hesitated. A banker ought to be the easiest man in the world to talk business to. There is no awkwardness about the subject of toothache in a dentist’s parlour. He expects to be talked to about teeth. It ought to have been an equally simple thing to speak to Ascher about the future of a company in which we were both interested. Yet I hesitated. There was something in his manner, a grave formality, which kept me miles away from him. I thanked him for the promise of the letter of credit and then sat silent for a minute.

“By the way,” said Ascher, “I have just had a visit from a man on business in which you are interested.”

“Was that the man who passed me in the anteroom before I was shown in here?”

“Yes. He came to talk to me about Gorman’s new cash register. He was not an accredited agent, you will understand. He did not profess to represent anybody. He was not empowered to treat with us in any way, but——

Ascher smiled faintly.

“I understand,” I said, “a sort of informal ambassador who could easily be disowned if anything he said turned out to be inconvenient. In politics men of that sort are very useful; but I somehow had the idea that business methods are more straightforward.”

“All negotiations,” said Ascher, “whether in politics or business are carried on in much the same way. But before I go into his suggestions I had better tell you how the matter stands. Mildmay sent us his report and it was entirely favourable to the new machine. I think the invention is likely to turn out a valuable property. We have made inquiries and find out that the patent rights are duly protected here and in all the chief European countries. In fact——

“It was really that and not my travels which I came to talk to you about to-day. I may take it that we have got a good thing.”

“We think so,” said Ascher, “and our opinion is confirmed by the fact that we are not the only people who think so. If I am right about the man who visited me this morning we have very good evidence that our opinion is sound. The men who are in the best position to know about cash registers, who are most interested in their future——

“The makers of the existing machines?”

“Exactly. That is to say, if I am right about my visitor.”

“But how did they—how could any one know about Tim Gorman’s invention?”

Ascher shrugged his shoulders.

“Surely,” I said, “Gorman can’t have been such a fool as to talk to newspaper reporters.”

“We need not suppose so,” said Ascher. “My experience is that anything worth knowing always is known. The world of business is a vast whispering gallery. There is no such thing as secrecy.”

“Well,” I said, “the main point is that this man did know. What did he want?”

“He wanted us to sell the patent rights,” said Ascher. “What he said was that he had a client—he posed as some kind of commission agent—who would pay a substantial sum for them.”

“That is just what Gorman said would happen once it was understood that your firm is behind the new company.”

“Gorman is—well, astute. But you understand, I am sure, that we cannot do that kind of business.”

“I always had a suspicion,” I said, “that Gorman’s scheme was fishy.”

“I do not say fishy,” said Ascher. “Gorman’s plan is legitimate, legitimate business, but business of an unenlightened kind. What is wrong with Gorman is that he does not see far enough, does not grasp the root principle of all business. We have a valuable invention. I do not mean merely an invention which will put money into the pocket of the inventor and into our pockets. If it were valuable only in that way Gorman would be quite right, and our wisest course would be to take what we could get with the least amount of risk and trouble, in other words to accept the best price which we could induce the buyers to give us. But this invention is valuable in quite another way. The new machine, if we are right about it, is going to facilitate the business of retail sellers all over the world. It will save time, increase accuracy, and, being cheaper, make its way into places where the old machines never went.”

“Ah,” I said, “curiously enough I looked at the matter in that way when Gorman first mentioned it to me. I said that the world ought to get the benefit of this invention.”

Ascher nodded.

“I see that,” I went on. “I understand that way of looking at it. But surely that’s altruism, not business. Business men don’t risk their money with the general idea of benefiting humanity. That isn’t the way things are done.”

“I agree,” said Ascher. “It’s not the way things are done or can be done at present, though there is more altruism in business than most people think. Even we financiers——

“I know you subscribe to charity,” I said, “largely, enormously.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Ascher. “But we need not go into that. I believe that business is not philanthropy, finance is not altruism.”

“Then why——?” I said. “On strict business principles, altruism apart, why not take what we can get out of Tim Gorman’s invention and let the thing itself drop into the dustheap?”

“On business principles,” said Ascher, “on the strictest business principles, it would be foolish to do that. From time to time men hit on some improvement in the way of making things or in the way of dealing with things after they are made, that is to say in business methods. Every such improvement increases the wealth of the world, tends to make everybody richer. This invention which we have got hold of is a small thing. It’s only going to do a little, a very little to make the world richer, but it is going to do something for it is going to lessen the labour required for certain results and therefore is going to increase men’s power, a little, just a little. That is why we must make the thing available, if we can; in order to add to the general wealth, and therefore to our own wealth. Those are business principles.”

Ascher paused. I had nothing to say for a moment. Business principles as he explained them were not the business principles I was accustomed to, certainly not the business principles on which Gorman acted. After a minute’s silence Ascher went on.

“The mistake which is most often made in business,” he said, “is to suppose that we grow rich by taking riches from other men, or that nations prosper by depriving other nations of prosperity. That would be true if riches consisted of money, and if there were just so much money and no more in the world. Then business and finance would be a scramble, in which the roughest and strongest scrambler would get most. But that is not so.”

“Isn’t it?” I said. “I should have thought that business just is a scramble.”

“No,” said Ascher, “it is not. Nations grow rich, that is to say, get comfort, ease, and even luxury, only when other nations are growing rich too, only because other nations are growing rich.”

“The way to grow rich,” I said, “is to make other people rich. Is that it? It sounds rather like one of the—what do you call them?—counsels of perfection in the Gospel.”

“Perhaps it is a religious truth too,” said Ascher. “I don’t know. I have never studied religion. Some day I think I shall. There must be a great deal that is very interesting in the New Testament.”

“Confound you, Ascher! Is there anything in heaven or earth that you don’t look at from the outside, as if you were some kind of superior epicurean god?”

“I beg your pardon. I ought not to have spoken in that way. You are, no doubt, a Christian.”

“Of course I am—in—in a general way.”

“I have often thought,” said Ascher slowly, “that I should like to be. But from the little I know of that religion——

“I expect you know as much as I do,” I said.

“It must be,” said Ascher, “very hard to be a Christian.”

I was not going to discuss that point with Ascher. It was bad enough to have an artistic soul awakened in me by Mrs. Ascher. I could not possibly allow her husband to lead me to the discovery that I had the other kind of soul. Nor was it any business of mine to work out harmonies between Christian ethics and the principles of modern banking. I detest puzzles of all kinds. It is far better, at all events far more comfortable, to take life as one finds it, a straightforward, commonplace affair. I have the greatest respect for Christianity of a moderate, sensible kind and I subscribe to the funds of the Church of Ireland. But when it comes to practical matters I find myself in agreement with Wordsworth’s “Rob Roy,”

The good old rule
Sufficeth me, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power
And they should keep who can.

So long, of course, as one does not do anything shady. I do not like lying or theft.

Ascher sat looking at me as if he expected me to tell him exactly how hard it is to be a Christian. I made a determined effort to get back again to cash registers.

“Tim Gorman’s invention will get its chance then?”

“Yes. If we can manage it the thing will get its chance. It will be made and, I think, people will use it.”

“Mrs. Ascher will be very pleased to hear that.”

“Ah,” said Ascher. “Is she interested? But I remember now. Young Gorman has been sitting to her. She would naturally be interested in him.”

“Her idea,” I said, “is that Tim Gorman is producing a baby, with all the usual accompaniments of that difficult business, labour, you know, and pain. She regards you as the doctor in attendance, and she thinks it would be exceedingly wrong of you to choke the little thing.”

Ascher looked at me quite gravely. For a moment I was afraid that he was going to say something about the paradoxical brilliance of the Irish mind. I made haste to stop him.

“That’s Mrs. Ascher’s metaphor,” I said, “not mine. I should never have thought of it. I don’t know enough about the artistic soul to appreciate the feelings of people who give birth to cash registers. But the idea is plain enough. Tim Gorman will be bitterly disappointed if he does not see girls in cheap restaurants putting actual shillings into those machines of his.”

“From my wife’s point of view,” said Ascher, “and from mine, too, that ought to be an important consideration. It’s the artist’s feeling; but business and art—unfortunately business and art——

“I don’t see why they shouldn’t kiss and be friends,” I said. “They’re not nearly such irreconcilable enemies as business and religion. Now that those two have lain down together like a lion and a lamb—I don’t quite see how they do it, but in that new philosophy of yours it seemed quite a simple matter—there’s no real reason why art shouldn’t come in too.”

But Ascher shook his head. He did not seem hopeful of a marriage between art and business. He knows a good deal about both of them, far more, by his own confession, than he knows about religion.