Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 9

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Now that my leg has been smashed up hopelessly, by that wretched German shell, I shall never ride or shoot again. I have to content myself with writing books to occupy my time, a very poor form of amusement compared to tramping the fields after partridge. I suppose it is inevitable that a man in my position should indulge in regretful memories. My mind goes back now and then to certain days in my boyhood and I find myself picturing scenes through which I shall not move again.

There are fields stretching back from the demesne which used to be mine. In the autumn many of them were stubble fields and among them were gorse covered hills. I used to go through them with my gun and dogs in early October mornings. There were—no doubt there still are—though I shall not see them—very fine threads of gossamer stretching across astonishingly wide spaces. The dew hung on them in tiny drops and glittered when the sun rose clear of the light mist and shone on them. Sometimes the threads floated free in the air, attached to some object at one end, the rest borne about by faint breaths of wind, waved to and fro, seeking other attachment elsewhere. Some threads reached from tufts of grass to little hummocks or to the twigs which form the boles of elm trees. Others still, with less ambitious span, went only from one blade of grass to another or united the thorns of whin bushes. The lower air, near the earth, was full of these threads. They formed an indescribably delicate net cast right over the fields and hills. I used to see them glistening, rainbow coloured when the sun rays struck them. Oftener I was aware of their presence only when my hands had touched and broken them or when they clung to my clothes, dragged from their fastenings by my passing through them.

I have no idea what place these gossamer threads occupy in the economy of nature. I find it difficult to believe that the life of the fields and gorsy hills and young plantations would be either better or worse if there were no such thing as gossamer. But I am no longer contented with my ignorance. I mean to find out all that is known about gossamer, and satisfy myself of the truth of the tradition that the threads are spun by tiny spiders, though surely with very little hope of snaring flies.

I spent six months making the tour which Ascher planned for me. I returned to London in the spring of 1914, full of interest in what I had seen and learned. I intend some day to write a book of travels, to give an account of my experiences. I shall describe the long strip of the world over which I wandered as a landscape on a quiet autumn morning, netted over with gossamer. That is the way it strikes me now, looking back on it all. Ascher and men like him have spun fine threads, covering every civilised land with a web of credit, infinitely complex, so delicate that a child’s hand could tear it.

A storm, even a strong breeze comes, and the threads are dragged from their holdings and waved in wild confusion through the air. A man, brutal as war, goes striding through the land, and, without knowing what he does, bursts the filaments and destroys the shimmering beauty which was before he came. That, I suppose, is what happens. But the passing of a man, however violent he is, is the passing of a man and no more. Even if a troop of men marches across the land their marching is over and done with soon. They have their day, but afterwards there are other days. Nature is infinitely persistent and gossamer is spun again.

I remember meeting, quite by chance, on a coasting steamer on which I travelled, a bishop. He was not, judged by strict ecclesiastical standards, quite entitled to that rank. He belonged to some American religious organisation of which I had no knowledge, but he called himself, on the passenger list, Bishop Zacchary Brown. He was apostolic in his devotion to the Gospel as he understood it. His particular field of work lay in the northern part of South America. He ranged, so I understood, through Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. He was full of hope for the future of these lands, their spiritual future. I had long talks with him and discovered that he regarded education, the American form of it, and commerce, the fruit of American enterprise, as the enemies of superstition and consequently the handmaids of the Gospel.

He wanted to see schools and colleges scattered over the republic in which he was interested. He wanted to see these lands heavily fertilised with capital.

“If you have any spare money,” he said, “put it into——

I think he said fruit farming in Colombia. Whatever the business was—I forgot at the time to make a note of the particulars—he promised that it would develop enormously when the Panama Canal was opened. The advice may have been perfectly sound; but I do not think it was disinterested. Bishop Zacchary Brown was not anxious about my future or my fortune. He did not care, cannot have cared, whether the Panama Canal made me rich or not. Nor did it seem to him an important thing that the fruit trade of South America should develop. What he cared for was his conception of religion. He saw in the inflow of capital the way of triumph for his Gospel, the means of breaking up old careless, lazy creeds, the infusion of energy and love of freedom. Ascher, so I conceived the situation, was to stretch his threads from Calvary to the grapefruit trees of Cartagena.

At Bahia I was introduced to a Brazilian statesman. I met him first at the house of one of Ascher’s banker friends. We talked to each other in French, and, as we both spoke the language badly, understood each other without much difficulty. It is one of the peculiarities of the French language that the worse it is spoken the easier it is to understand. A real Parisian baffles me completely. My Brazilian statesman was almost always intelligible.

He was interested in international politics, the international politics of the western hemisphere. I found that he was distrustful of the growing power of the United States. He suspected a policy of Empire, a far-reaching scheme of influence, if not actual dominion, centred in Washington. He regarded the Monroe Doctrine as the root from which such an extension of power might grow. It was no business of mine to argue with him, though I am convinced that the citizens of the United States are of all peoples the least obsessed by the imperial idea. I tried, by looking sympathetic, to induce him to develop his theory. In the end I gathered that he hoped for security from the imperial peril through the increase of wealth and therefore power in the South American republics.

“Our natural resources,” he said, “are enormous, but undeveloped. We cannot become strong in a military sense. We cannot possess fleets with which to negotiate——

I should have said “threaten” instead of “negotiate” for that was plainly what he meant. But statesmen have to be careful in their use of words.

“—Unless we can obtain capital with which to develop our wealth. The great money-lending countries, England and France, ought in their own interests to pour capital into our republics. The return, in the end, would be enormous. But more important still, they would establish a balance of power in the western world. Why do not your financiers understand?”

Again Ascher. Battleships are to be towed across the ocean, from the ship yards of the Clyde to these far-off seas, at the ends of the gossamer threads which Ascher spins. The Gospel and international politics are caught in the same web. I seemed to see Diocletian the Emperor and Saint John, who said, “Love not the world,” doing homage together to the power of capital, leading each other by the hand through the mazes of the system of credit.

I saw beautiful scenes, wide harbours where stately ships lay anchored, through whose shining gates fleets of steamers trudged. I never escaped from the knowledge that the gossamer threads stretched from mast to mast, a rigging more essential than the ropes of hemp and wire. I saw the lines of steel on which trains go, stretched out across vast prairies, and knew that they were not in reality lines of steel at all but gossamer threads. I saw torrents made the slaves of man, the weight of falling water transmuted into light and heat and force to drive cars swiftly through city streets; but all the wheels and giant masses of forged steel were tied together by these same slender threads which Ascher spun in the shrine of that Greek temple of his, Ascher and his fellow bankers.

Always the desire was for more capital. There was room for thousands of ships instead of hundreds. There were whole territories over which no trains ran. There was potentiality of wealth so great that, if it were realised, men everywhere would be raised above the fear of want. A whole continent was crying out to Ascher that he should fling his web across it, join point to point with gossamer, in Amazonian jungles, Peruvian mountain heights, Argentine plains and tropical fruit gardens.

I met and talked with many men whose outlook upon life was profoundly interesting to me. Those whom I came to know best were Englishmen or men of English origin. Some of them had built up flourishing businesses, selling the products of English factories. Some acted as the agents of steamboat companies, arranging for freights and settling the destinations of ships which went voyaging. Some grew wheat or bred cattle. Like all Englishmen whose lot is cast in far countries they retained their feeling for England as a home and became conscious as Englishmen in England seldom are, of love for their own land. Like all Englishmen they grumbled ceaselessly at what they loved.

They spoke with contempt of everything English. They abused English business methods and complained that Germans were ousting Englishmen from the markets of the world. They derided English Government and English statesmanship, ignoring party loyalties with a fine impartiality. They decried English social customs, contrasting the freedom of life in the land of their adoption with the convention-bound ways of their home. Yet it always was their home. I felt that, even when their contempt expressed itself in the bitterest words.

Whatever their opinions were or their affectations, however widely their various activities were separated, these men were all consciously dependent on the smooth working of the system of world-wide credit. They were Ascher’s clients, or if not Ascher’s, the clients of others like Ascher. They were in a sense Ascher’s dependents. They were united to England, to Europe, to each other, by Ascher’s threads. Whether they bred cattle and sold them, whether they grew corn, whether they shipped cargoes or imported merchandise, the gossamer net was over them.

I returned to London with these impressions vivid in my mind, perhaps—I tried to persuade myself of this—too vivid. I had travelled, so I argued, under the shadow of a great banker. I had gone among bankers. It was natural, inevitable, that I should see the world through bankers’ eyes. Perhaps credit was not after all the life blood of our civilisation. I failed to convince myself. The very fact that I could go so far under the shadow of a bank proves how large a shadow a bank throws. The fact that Ascher’s correspondents brought me into touch with every kind of man, goes to show that banking has permeated, leavened life, that human society is saturated with finance.

In a very few months, before the end of the summer which followed my home-coming, I was to see the whole machine stop working suddenly. The war god stalked across the world and brushed aside, broke, tore, tangled up, the gossamer threads. Then, long before his march was done, while awe-struck men and weeping women still listened to the strident clamour of his arms, the spinners of the webs were at work again, patiently joining broken threads, flinging fresh filaments across unbridged gulfs, refastening to their points of attachment the gossamer which seemed so frail, which yet the storm of violence failed to destroy utterly.