Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 8

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Ascher was very generous to me in the matter of letters of introduction. A large bundle of them arrived at my hotel two days after I paid my visit to his office. There must have been fifty or sixty of them altogether. I sent for an atlas and found that I had a friend ready made for me in every port of any importance in the West Indies and on the east coast of South America as far down as Buenos Aires, and in a good many places inland. I was fascinated by the idea of such a tour; but it was plainly not an excursion to be undertaken without care and consideration. I lingered in New York for a fortnight, buying some additional clothes, getting together a few books on the South American republics, and working out steamboat routes.

I saw young Tim Gorman. He called on me, sent by Mrs. Ascher, to thank me for my good offices. I deserved no thanks; but on the general principle of taking what I could get I allowed the boy to pour gratitude all over me.

“I think,” I said, “you ought to do fairly well out of the thing, financially, I mean.”

“I don’t care about that,” said Tim, “at least not exactly. I—I——” he hesitated for a moment and then blurted out, “I don’t particularly want to be rich.”

“That,” I said, “is precisely how you ought to feel at your age, but when you get to be forty—I’m forty, so I know—you’ll probably be glad enough to have some money.”

“I want some money now,” said Tim. “Do you think I could get——? How much do you think I’ll get out of my cash register?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s hard to name an exact figure, but it will be something pretty substantial.”

“One thousand dollars?” said Tim anxiously.

“A great deal more than that. If Mr. Ascher makes the arrangements he contemplates you’ll get a great deal more.”

I had only the vaguest idea what Ascher meant to do, and could make no kind of guess at how much Tim would ultimately get, but I felt pretty safe in promising two hundred pounds.

“Do you think I could get it at once?” said Tim. “Or even five hundred dollars? I think I could manage with five hundred dollars. The fact is——

“You want to get out of that circus,” I said. “I don’t wonder. It must be a very tiresome job.”

“Oh, no. I don’t mind the circus. It’s rather a nuisance of course moving about, and we always are moving. But I have plenty of time to myself. It isn’t to get away from the circus that I want the money. The fact is that I’m making some experiments.”

“Another invention?” I said. “What a prolific creature you are! No sooner have you perfected a cash register than you start——

“Oh, I’ve been at this for some time, for years. I believe I’ve hit on a dodge—— I say, do you know anything about Movies?”

The word, though common on our side of the Atlantic now, was at that time peculiar to the American language.

“Cinematographs?” I said. “I’ve seen them of course. You have them in your circus, haven’t you, as part of the show?”

“Yes. That’s what set me thinking about them. I’ve always felt that the next step in perfecting the cinematograph would be doing away with the screen, putting the figures on the stage, that is to say reflections of them, so that they would actually move about backwards and forwards instead of on a flat surface. You understand?”

When I was a boy there was a popular entertainment known as “Pepper’s Ghost.” What appeared to be a real figure moved about before the eyes of the audience, was pierced by swords and otherwise ill-treated without suffering any inconvenience. The thing was worked by some arrangement of mirrors. Tim evidently had a plan for combining this illusion with the cinematograph.

“Don’t you think,” he said, “that it would be a great thing?”

“It would be a perfectly beastly thing,” I said. “The cinematograph is bad enough already. If you add a grosser realism to it——

Tim looked at me. I am nearly sure that there were tears in his eyes.

“That’s just what Mrs. Ascher thinks,” he said.

“I daresay she does. She probably regards the cinematograph as a sin against art. What you propose would be an actual blasphemy.”

“Oh,” said Tim, “that’s exactly what she said. Blasphemy! Do you really think so too? I wouldn’t go on with my experiments if I thought that. But I don’t believe you can be right. I—I went round to see Father Bourke. That was after Mrs. Ascher said it was blasphemy and I really wanted to know. Father Bourke is one of the priests at St. Gabriel’s. I consulted him.”

“Well,” I said, “what did he tell you?”

“He said it was all right and that I needn’t bother about what Protestants said was blasphemy. They don’t know. At least Father Bourke seemed to think they couldn’t know.” “You go by what Father Bourke says and you’ll be safe.”

I should particularly like to hear Father Bourke and Mrs. Ascher arguing out the subject of blasphemy together. They might go on for years and years before either of them began to understand what the other meant by the word. But it would be little less than a crime to involve the simple soul of Tim Gorman in the maze of two separate kinds of casuistry.

“In any case,” I said, “I don’t take Mrs. Ascher’s view of the matter. I don’t agree with her.”

“I don’t see,” said Tim, “how cinematographs can be blasphemies so long as there aren’t any pictures of religious things. I’m sure it must be all right and I can go on with what I want to do. If I can succeed in making the figures stand out from one another, as if they were really there——

“You’ll add a new terror to life,” I said. “But that needn’t stop you doing it if you can.”

“I think I can,” he said eagerly. “You see it’s the next thing to be done. The cinematograph is perfect up to that point It must make a new start if it’s to go any further. I should like to be the man who makes the next step possible. What’s wanted now is—is——

“The illusion of distance.”

“That’s it. That’s what I mean. It’s a matter of optics. Just making a few adjustments, and I think I see the way to manage it.”

“If you do,” I said, “you’ll make an immense fortune. The world will pay anything, absolutely anything to the man who provides it with a new torture. It’s an odd twist in human nature—though I don’t know why I should say that. Oddness is really the normal thing in human nature.”

“But I want a thousand dollars,” said Tim, “or five hundred dollars at the very least. I must try experiments.”

“If you ask your brother——” I said.

“Michael isn’t nice to me about it,” said Tim. “He isn’t nice at all. When I asked him for a thousand dollars he said he’d get it for me on condition that I allowed him to manage my cash register in his own way. But I won’t do that. I know what he wants to do.”

“His idea,” he said, “is to let your invention lapse.”

“I know. The machine will never be made. But I want it to be made. I want to see it working everywhere all over the world. You see I’m always travelling about with the circus, sometimes in America, sometimes in England. We go to a lot of different towns. We go to all the big towns there are. I want to be able to go into shops everywhere, in every town in the world and see my machine there. Don’t you understand?”

“Perfectly,” I said. “Mrs. Ascher explained the whole position to me thoroughly. It’s the artist’s soul in you.”

A look of puzzled annoyance came over the boy’s face. His forehead wrinkled and his fine eyes took an expression of painful doubt as they met mine.

“Mrs. Ascher says things like that,” he said, “and I don’t know what she means. I am not an artist. I never learned to draw, even; at least not pictures. I can do geometrical drawing, of course, and make plans of machines; but that’s not being an artist. I can’t paint. Why does she say I am an artist?”

“That,” I said, “is one of her little mannerisms. You will have to put up with it.”

Tim uses the word artist in a simple old-fashioned way, very much as Father Bourke uses “blasphemy.” There is a good deal to be said for their practice. People like Mrs. Ascher ought to invent new terms when they want to express uncommon thoughts. They have no right to borrow words like “artist” and “blasphemy” from common speech in order to set them parading about the world with novel meanings attached to them. It is not fair to people like Tim Gorman and his Father Bourke. It is not fair to the words themselves. I should not like to be treated in that way if I were a word. I cannot imagine anything more annoying to a respectable, steady-going word than to be called upon suddenly to undertake work to which it is not accustomed. The domestic housemaid is perfectly right in resisting any effort to make her do new kinds of work. Her formula, “It’s not my place,” used when she is asked to make a slice of toast, is unanswerable. Why should words be worse treated than housemaids? It is the business of “artist” to stand for the man who paints pictures in oils. “Blasphemy” describes aggravated breaches of the third commandment. What right had Mrs. Ascher or any one else to press them into new services? There ought to be a strong trade union among words.

“And now,” said Tim, “she says I’m not an artist after all because I want to make movies more real. And she’s angry with me. She turned me out of her studio because I wouldn’t promise not to. Of course, I wouldn’t promise such a thing. I think I see how it can be done. The great difficulty is to secure an exact adjustment of the mirrors. There are other difficulties. There’s the awkwardness of transparent figures crossing in front of each other. Also——

“My dear boy,” I said, “don’t explain the thing to me. I am totally incapable of understanding anything connected with mechanics, optics or hydrostatics.”

I can make as good an attempt as most men at replying intelligently to Mrs. Ascher even when she talks of “values,” atmospheres, feeling and sympathy, though her use of these familiar words conveys only the vaguest ideas to my mind. I can, after a period of intense mental effort, understand what Ascher means by exchanges, premiums, discounts and bills, though he uses these words in unfamiliar ways. But I am defeated utterly by the man who talks about escapements, compensating balances and clutches. I suspected that Tim Gorman would pelt me with even more recondite scientific terms if I let things go on.

“You may take my word for it,” I said, “that you’ll get a thousand dollars and more, in the end; but you may have to wait for it. In the meanwhile keep on thinking out your plan for doubling the horrors of our places of popular entertainment.”

That was all I could do for Tim Gorman. I do not think that he deserved more than cold comfort and disagreeable advice. I might have given him, or lent him, a little money, if he had been at work on a really useful invention, something which would benefit humanity. There are lots of such things waiting to be invented. There ought to be some way of stabbing a man who insists on ringing you up on the telephone at unreasonable hours and saying tiresome things. We cannot claim to be civilised until we have some weapon for legitimate self defence attached to every telephone, something which could be operated easily and swiftly by pressing a button at the side of the receiver. It is not necessary that the man at the other end of the wire should be struck dead, but he ought to suffer severe physical pain. If Tim Gorman would turn his inventive genius in that direction, I should not hesitate to advance money to him, even to the half of my possessions.

I called on Mrs. Ascher again before I left New York. I wanted to hear her version of the misunderstanding with Tim. I went, of course, to the studio, not to the hotel. Mrs. Ascher is at her best in the studio. Besides I was much more likely to find her there than anywhere else.

She was hard at work when I entered on a figure, at least two feet high, of a man of very fine muscular development. I glanced at it and then asked where Tim Gorman’s head was.

“You know,” I said, “that I admired that piece of work greatly.”

Mrs. Ascher waved her hand towards a table in the darkest corner of the room.

“It’s not finished,” she said, “and never will be. I’ve lost all interest in it. If you like it take it away. I’ll give it to you with pleasure.”

I found poor Tim, not even swathed in wet bandages, among a litter of half finished fauns and nymphs and several attempts at a smooth-haired dog. Mrs. Ascher had done very little work at him since I saw him before. She had, in pursuance of her own idea, turned half the saucer on which the head stood into a mat of water-lily leaves. The other half—and I felt gratified when I saw this—was worked up into an unmistakable hammer and a number of disproportionately large nails. Tim’s face and head still expressed lofty idealism in the way which had fascinated me when I first saw the thing. But Mrs. Ascher had evidently neglected some necessary precaution in dealing with her material. The neck—and Tim’s neck is an unusually long one—had collapsed. A jagged crack ran half round it close under the right ear. The left side of the neck was curiously crumpled. The head leaned rakishly towards the water-lily side of the saucer.

I remember hearing once of an irreverent choir boy. At a Christmas party, a sort of feast of an Abbot of Unreason held in the less sacred parts of the cathedral precincts, the brat decorated the statue of an Archbishop with a pink and blue paper cap taken from a cracker. The effect must have been much the same as that produced by the subsidence of Tim Gorman’s neck.

“Do you really mean to give it to me?” I said. “I should like to have it very much. I should set it up on my writing table and call it ‘Disillusion.’ But do you think it will collapse any more?”

“Has it collapsed? I suppose it did not dry properly.”

Mrs. Ascher did not even look at it.

“Oh,” I said, “the present effect, the cynical contempt for the original noble spirituality, is the result of an accident? What tricks circumstances play on us! A slight irregularity in drying and a hero becomes a clown. The case of ‘Imperial Cæsar dead and turned to clay’ is not so bad as that of an idealist whose neck has cracked.”

“I’m dreadfully disappointed in that boy,” said Mrs. Ascher. “Will you forgive me if I do not talk of him? Even now I cannot bear to.”

She sighed heavily, showing how much she felt the loss of Tim’s soul. Then she turned to me with one of those bright smiles, one of those charmingly bright smiles, which are the greatest achievements of serious women. Very religious women, women with artists’ souls and the intenser suffragists have these bright smiles. They work them up, I suppose, so as to show that they can be as cheerful as any one else when they choose to try.

“Come and see what I’m doing now,” she said.

I looked very carefully at the man’s figure in front of her.

“This,” she said, “is manhood, virility, energy, simple strength, directness, all that this poor neurotic world is yearning for, the primal force, uncomplex, untroubled, just the exultation of the delight of being.”

“It reminds me faintly of some one,” I said, “the head and face, I mean; but I can’t quite fix the likeness.”

She clapped her hands with delight.

“You see it,” she said, “I am so glad. It’s not meant to be a mere likeness. I need not tell you that. Still I’m glad you see that it resembles him. I am working to express his soul, the mere features, the limbs, are nothing. The being which burns within, that is what I am trying to express. But the fact that you see the external likeness makes me feel more sure that my interpretation of the physical features is the right one.”

“Surely,” I said, “it’s not Gorman, the other Gorman, the elder Gorman, Michael!”

“Yes,” she said.

“Has he been sitting for you?” I asked.

I stopped myself just in time. I was very nearly saying “sitting to you like that?” The figure on which she was at work was entirely undraped. I do not suppose that Mrs. Ascher would have been the least embarrassed even if I had said “like that.” The artist’s soul scorns conventions. But I should have felt awkward if she had answered “Yes.”

“Not exactly sitting to me,” she said. “He just comes here and talks. While he talks I catch glimpses of his great, buoyant, joyous soul and fashion the poor clay to express it.”

“I did not know he was back in New York,” I said.

“Oh, yes, he has been here a week, perhaps more. To me it seems as if he had been here for ever.”

I could not even guess at what she meant by that so I did not try to answer her.

“I wonder he didn’t look me up,” I said.

“Ah,” said Mrs. Ascher, “he has had no time. That abundant, restless energy of his is for ever pressing out into fresh activities.”

I gathered, more from her tone than from her actual words that only an effete, devitalised creature would call on me. A man of abundant energy would naturally sit half the day in Mrs. Ascher’s studio, while she made a fancy body for him in damp clay.

She clasped her hands and gazed with rapt intensity at the statue of Gorman’s soul.

“His patriotism!” she said. “After living in that atmosphere of nebulous cosmopolitanism which is what we hypercivilised people have created in the world, it is everything to get back to the barbaric simplicity of the old love for country.”

“Did he happen to mention,” I asked, “whether he succeeded in wheedling five thousand dollars out of that Detroit man?”

Mrs. Ascher did not hear that; or if she did chose to ignore it.

“The splendid destiny of Ireland,” she said, “has been to escape age after age the malarial fever of culture. The Romans never touched her shores. The renaissance passed her by. She has not bowed the knee to our modern fetish of education. You and I have our blood diluted with——

Gorman must have been at his very best while he talked to Mrs. Ascher. He had evidently made a kind of whirlpool of her mind. Her version of his philosophy of history and politics seemed to me to be going round and round in narrowing circles with confusing speed. The conception of the Romans as apostles of the more malarial kinds of culture was new to me. I had been brought up to believe—not that any one does believe this as an actual fact—that Ireland was once and to some extent still is, an island of Saints and Scholars. I did not obtain any very clear idea of what Mrs. Ascher’s blood was diluted with, but there must have been several ingredients, for she went on talking for quite a long time. When she stopped I made a protest on behalf of my country.

“We’re not so backward as all that,” I said. “We have a Board of National Education and quite a large number of technical schools. In the convents they teach girls to play the piano.”

Mrs. Ascher shook her head slowly. I gathered that she knew much more about Irish education than I did and regarded it as unworthy even of serious contempt.

“Dear Ireland!” she said, “splendid Ireland!”

I suppose Gorman must have been talking to her about fairies, the dignified, Celtic kind, and the dear dark head of Kathaleen ni Houlihan. Gorman is capable of anything. However as my country was being admired I thought I might as well get a little of the credit for myself.

“I am an Irishman,” I said.

Mrs. Ascher looked at me with withering scorn.

“You,” she said, “you—you—you are——

She was evidently in difficulties. I helped her out as best I could.

“An Irish gentleman,” I said.

“An alien,” she replied, “a stranger in the land you call your own.”

“That,” I said, “is just what I say, put more forcibly and picturesquely.”

Then Gorman came in, without knocking at the door. I was very glad to see him. In another minute Mrs. Ascher and I would, perhaps, have quarrelled. Gorman saved us from that catastrophe. I do not think I ever understood before that moment the secret of Gorman’s charm. He came into that studio, a place charged with the smell of damp clay, like a breeze from a nice green field. He was in a thoroughly good temper. I suspect that he hurt Mrs. Ascher’s hand when he shook it.

“I’ve just been looking at Mrs. Ascher’s statue of your soul,” I said. “Splendid muscles in the calves of its legs. You must be enormously proud of them.”

Gorman, under pretence of seeking a place in which to put his hat, turned his back on Mrs. Ascher for a minute. As he did so he deliberately winked at me.

Some day I mean to get Gorman in a private place, “away from everywhere,” as Mrs. Ascher would say. When I get him there I shall ask him two questions and insist on having an answer. First I shall ask him why he devotes himself to Mrs. Ascher. He is not in love with her. We Irish have not many virtues, but we can boast that we seldom make love to other men’s wives. Besides, Mrs. Ascher is not the kind of woman who allows strange men to make love to her. She is, in essentials, far less emancipated than she thinks. It is just possible that he finds her responsive to his fondness for the more flamboyant kinds of rhetoric. Gorman really likes talking about Ireland as an oppressed and desolated land. It is easy enough to move large audiences to enthusiasm by that kind of oratory. It is not so easy, I imagine, to get single, sympathetic listeners in private life. Mrs. Ascher apparently laps up patriotic sentiment with loud purrs. That may be why Gorman likes her. The next thing I mean to ask him is what he means by patriotism. I can understand quite easily what Irish patriotism meant ten years ago. Gorman’s friends wanted my land, a definite, tangible thing. I wanted it myself. But now they have got the land, and yet Gorman goes on talking patriotism. It is not as if he had no sense of humour. Gorman sees the absurdity of the things he says just as plainly as I do. The ridiculous side of his own enthusiasm is never long absent from his consciousness; yet he goes on just the same. I wish I understood how he manages it.