By G. A. Birmingham
Copyright, 1915, George H. Doran Company
"For that mercy," said Gorman, "you may thank with brief thanksgiving whatever gods there be." We were discussing, for perhaps the twentieth time, the case of poor Ascher. Gorman had reminded me, as he often does, that I am incapable of understanding Ascher or entering into his feelings, because I am a man of no country and therefore know nothing of the emotion of patriotism. This seems a curious thing to say to a man who has just had his leg mangled in a battle; but I think Gorman is quite right about his fact I went out to the fight, when the fight came on, but only because I could not avoid going. I never supposed that I was fighting for my country. But Gorman is wrong in his inference. I have no country, but I believe I can understand Ascher quite as well as Gorman does. Nor am I sure that I ought to be thankful for my immunity from the fever of patriotism. Ascher suffered severely because at a critical moment in his life a feeling of loyalty to his native land gripped him hard. I have also suffered, a rending of the body at least comparable to Ascher's rending of the soul. But I have not the consolation of feeling that I am a hero.
I have often told Gorman that if he were as thorough-going as he pretends to be he would call himself O'Gorabhain or at the very least, O'Gorman. He is an Irishman by birth, sympathy and conviction. He is a Member of Parliament, pledged to support the cause of Ireland, and this in spite of the fact that he has brains. He might have been a brilliant, perhaps even a successful and popular novelist. He wrote two stories which critics acclaimed, which are still remembered and even occasionally read. He might have risen to affluence as a dramatist. He was the author of one single-act play which made the fortune of a very charming actress ten years ago. He has made a name for himself as a journalist, and his articles are the chief glory of a leading weekly paper. But the business to which he has really devoted himself is that of an Irish patriot. He says amazingly foolish things in public and, in private, is always quite ready to laugh at his own speeches. He is a genuine lover of Ireland, an inheritor of that curious tradition of Irish patriotism which has survived centuries of disappointed hopes, and, a much stranger thing, has never been quite asphyxiated by its own gases.
I happen to belong to that unfortunate class of Irishmen whom neither Gorman nor any one else will recognise as being Irish at all. I owned, at one time, a small estate in Co. Cork. I sold it to my tenants and became a man of moderate income, incumbered with a baronetcy of respectable antiquity and occupied chiefly in finding profitable investments for my capital. By way of recreation I interest myself in my neighbours and acquaintances, in the actual men and women rather than in their affairs. No definition of the Irish people has yet been framed which would include me, though I am indubitably a person—I take "person" to be the singular of people which is a noun of multitude—and come of a family which held on to an Irish property for 300 years. My religion consists chiefly of a dislike of the Roman Catholic Church and an instinctive distrust of the priests of all churches. My father was an active Unionist, and I have no political opinions of any sort. I am therefore cut off, both by religion and politics, from any chance of taking part in Irish affairs. On the other hand I cannot manage to feel myself an Englishman. Even now, though I have fought in their army without incurring the reproach of cowardice, I cannot get out of the habit of looking at Englishmen from a distance. This convinces me that I am not one of them.
I am thus—Gorman is quite right about this—a man of no country. But I understand Ascher as well as Gorman does; though I take a different view of Ascher's ultimate decision.
I met Gorman first on board a Cunard steamer in the autumn of 1913.
I was on my way to Canada. My excuse, the reason I gave to myself for the journey, was the necessity of looking into the affairs of certain Canadian companies in which I had invested money. There were rumours current in England at that time which led me to suspect that the boom in Canadian securities had reached its height and was about to subside. I did not really believe that I was likely to find out anything of value by stopping in an hotel at Montreal or travelling in a train to Vancouver. But I was tired of London and thought the trip might be pleasant. I went to Canada by way of New York, partly because the big Cunarders are comfortable steamers, partly because I find New York an agreeable city. I have several friends there and I like the life of the place—for a fortnight at a time. I do not know whether I should like it for a longer time because I have never had money enough to live in New York for more than a fortnight. As a regular place of residence it might be too stimulating for me; but I shall probably never know how I should feel about it at the end of six weeks.
It was Gorman who took the initiative on board the steamer. I do not think that I should ever have made his acquaintance if he had not forced himself on me. He accosted me, introduced himself, carried the acquaintance through to an intimacy by sheer force of personality, and ended by inducing me to like him. He began his attack on me during that very uncomfortable time just before the ship actually starts. It is never possible to settle down to the ordinary routine of life at sea until the screw begins to revolve. There is an hour or two, after the passengers have embarked, which is disquieting and fussy. Mail bags, so I understand, are being put on board. Stewards, carrying cabin trunks, swarm in the corridors. Passengers wander restlessly about or hurry, with futile energy, from place to place. Pushing men hustle each other at the windows of the purser's office, under pretence of expecting letters or despatching telegrams. Women passengers eye other women passengers with suspicion and distrust. It is very interesting to notice how people who scowl at each other on the first day of a voyage exchange cards and promise to pay each other visits after six days as fellow travellers. At the end of another six days—such is the usual unfortunate experience—the cards are lost and the promises forgotten. A poet and, following him, a novelist have compared human intercourse to the "speaking" of ships that pass in the night. They would have found a more forcible, though perhaps less poetic, illustration of their idea in the friendships formed by passengers in the same steamer. They are intimate, but they are as a rule utterly transitory. However I have no right to complain. The friendship which Gorman forced on me has lasted eighteen months and shows no sign yet of wearing thin.
He caught me in the smoking room. I had settled down quietly in a comfortable chair, and was wondering, as I always do in that smoking room, at the grain of the wood in the panel above the fireplace. There was no one else in the room except a steward who hovered near the door which leads to the bar. Experience has taught me that the smoking room, the most populous part of the ship during the voyage, is generally empty during the two hours before the start. I thought I should have the place to myself. I was half way through my cigar and had failed to decide whether the panel is a fake or a natural curiosity when Gorman entered. He is a big man and fat. He is clean shaved and has bushy grey eyebrows. Heavy rolls of skin hang down from his jaws. He wears an unusually large gold signet ring. His appearance is not attractive. He sat down beside me and addressed me at once.
"Sir James Digby?" he said.
That is my name. I admitted it by nodding.
"I was glancing over the passenger list," he said, "and saw you were on board. The purser told me you were up here somewhere. My name's Gorman, Michael Gorman."
The name gave me no information beyond the fact that the speaker was an Irishman. There must be several thousand Gormans in Ireland and I could not remember that I was acquainted with any one of them. I nodded again.
"I don't suppose you remember me," said Gorman, "but you used to see me pretty frequently once, about twenty-five years ago. My father kept the only shop in Curraghbeg, and you used to come in and buy sweets, a penny worth at a time. You were a small boy then. I was a bit older, fifteen or sixteen perhaps."
Curraghbeg is a miserable village standing in the middle of the tract of land which used to be my property. It is close to Curraghbeg House, where my father kept up such state as befitted an Irish gentleman of his day. I believe I was born there. If I thought of any place in the world as home I suppose it would be Curraghbeg; but I have no feeling for the place except a mild dislike. The House is now a nunnery, in better repair, but almost certainly more gauntly hideous than when I owned it. The village, I expect, is still as sordid as when I saw it last. I remembered Gorman's shop, a dirty little public house, where sacks of flour, tea and sugar candy were sold, as well as whisky and emigration tickets. I also remembered my father's opinion of Gorman, old Dan Gorman, the father of the man beside me. He was "one of the worst blackguards in the county, mixed up with every kind of League and devilment." Those were the days when the land agitation was at its height and Irish gentlemen—they were fighting for their existence as a class—felt rather strongly about the leaders of the people.
Of any younger Gorman I had no recollection whatever. Nor did I at that moment, or for some time afterwards, connect the son of the ruffianly old publican with the journalist and politician of whom I had heard a good deal.
"Funny thing," he said, "running into you like this. Let's have a drink of some sort."
He snapped his fingers to attract the attention of the steward.
I am not, I fear, thoroughly modernised. Though I like American social life I have never been able to accept the theory of the wickedness of class distinctions. As a political system democracy seems to me extraordinarily foolish, but I would not go out of my way to protest against it. My servant is, so far as I am concerned, welcome to as many votes as he can get. I would very gladly make mine over to him if I could. I do not suppose that it matters much in reality whether laws are made by dukes or cornerboys, but I like, as far as possible, to associate with gentlemen in private life. I was not prepared to sit drinking with the son of old Dan Gorman if I could help it.
I intended to say so, as politely as such a thing can be said. The man's face made me pause. He was looking at me with a curious smile, half innocent, half whimsical. His eyes expressed friendliness of a perfectly simple, unaffected kind. I realised that he was not a snob, that he was not trying to push himself on me for the sake of my position and title, the position of a disinherited Irish landlord and a title which, for all any one could tell by hearing it, might be the reward of a successful provincial doctor. I realised also, with an uncomfortable shiver, that he understood my feeling and was slightly amused at it. It struck me suddenly that I, and not Gorman, was the snob.
The steward stood at his elbow.
"Whisky and soda?" said Gorman. "We are still in English waters. Or shall I say cocktails, as we're, on our way to America?"
I am a temperate man and have made it a rule not to drink before luncheon. But I was so much ashamed of my first feeling about Gorman that I thought it well to break my rule. I should, under the circumstances, have considered myself justified in breaking a temperance pledge, on the principle, once explained to me by an archdeacon, that charity is above rubrics. I gave my vote for whisky and soda as the more thorough-going drink of the two. A cocktail is seldom more than a mouthful. Gorman gave the order.
"Don't you think," he said, "that it would be rather a good plan for us to sit together at meals? I'll make arrangements with the steward and have a table reserved for us in the upper saloon. I can manage it all right. I often cross on this boat and everybody knows me."
Again he looked at me and again smiled in his fascinating childlike way.
"I'm A-1 at ordering meals," he said, "and it really; does make a difference on these ships if you know how to get the best that's going."
That was the one attempt he made to justify himself in forcing his company on me. But it was not the hope of better dinners, though I like good dinners, which led me to agree to his proposal. I was captivated by his smile. Besides, I had not, so far as I knew, a single acquaintance among the passengers. I should be better off with Gorman as messmate than set down beside some chance stranger who might smile in a disagreeable way, or perhaps not smile at all.
"Very well," I said. "You arrange it."
"It would be pleasant," he said, "if we could get hold of a couple of other interesting people, and make four at our table."
I do not deny that Gorman is an interesting person, but I did not see what right he had to put me in that select class. I could only hope that the other interesting people would regard me as he did. He pulled a passenger list out of his pocket and turned over the pages.
"What about the Aschers?" he said.
He handed the list to me. There was a pencil mark opposite the name of Mr. Carl Ascher. Immediately below it was "Mrs. Ascher and maid."
"I don't know him," I said. "Who is he? Has he done anything particular?"
"Heavens above!" said Gorman. "Who is Ascher! But perhaps you don't recognise him apart from the rest of the firm. Ever heard of Ascher, Stutz & Co.?"
I recognised the name then. Ascher is a banker, one of those international financiers who manage, chiefly from London offices, a complicated kind of business which no ordinary man understands anything about, a kind of foreign business which for some reason very few Englishmen undertake.
"If the man's a millionaire," I said, "he won't care to dine with us—and he's probably a Jew—not that I've any particular prejudice against Jews."
"He's not a Jew," said Gorman. "He's an Englishman. At least he's as English as any man with a name like that can be. I expect he'll jump at the chance of feeding with us. We're the only people on board the least likely to interest him."
I admire Gorman's splendid self-confidence, but I do not share it. I shrank from seeking the friendship of a millionaire.
"He has his wife with him," I said. "Perhaps she——"
I meant to suggest that Mrs. Ascher might not care to be thrown with a couple of stray men of whom she knew nothing. Gorman thought I meant something quite different.
"She's an American," he said, "or was before she married Ascher. I hear she goes in for music and pictures and literature and all that sort of thing, which may be boring. But I daresay we shan't see very much of her. She'll probably be seasick the whole time."
I have often wondered where Gorman gets all his astonishingly accurate information about people whom he does not know. He was very nearly right about Mrs. Ascher. She was seasick for four out of the six days of our voyage.
"Anyhow," he went on, "we must put up with her if we want to get hold of the husband. And I should like to do that. I've never had a chance before of being intimate with one of the big bugs of finance. I want to know what it is that those fellows really do."
When Gorman put it to me that way I withdrew all my objections to his plan. I very much want to know "what those fellows really do." I am filled with curiosity and I want to know what every kind of fellow really does. I want to have a long talk with a Parisian dressmaker, one of the men who settles what shape women are to be for the next six months. I want to get at the mind of a railway manager. I want to know how a detective goes about the job of catching criminals. Of course I want to understand international banking.
"Besides," said Gorman, "a millionaire is a very useful kind of man to know."
Millionaires are useful acquaintances because there is always a chance of getting money from them.
"Don't count on me as a bridge player," I said. "I'm no good at the game and never play for high points. You wouldn't win anything worth while with me as one of the party."
"I wasn't thinking of bridge," said Gorman.
He was not. He was thinking, I fancy, of his brother. But we did not get to Gorman's brother for more than a week.
Having got my consent, Gorman went off to "set" Ascher. I use the word "set" deliberately, for Gorman, when bent on getting anything done, reminds me of a well-trained sporting dog. He ranges, quarters the ground in front of him and finally—well, he set me as if I had been a grouse. He set Ascher, I have no doubt, in the same way.
I did not think it likely that he would secure the Aschers. Millionaires are usually shy birds, well accustomed to being pursued by all sorts of ordinary men. They develop, I suppose, a special cunning in avoiding capture, a cunning which the rest of us never achieve. However Ascher's cunning was no use to him in this case. Gorman is an exceedingly clever dog.
The trumpet, bugle, cornet, or whatever the instrument is which announces meals at sea, was blaring out its luncheon tune when Gorman returned to me. He was in high triumph. He had captured the Aschers, reserved the nicest table in the upper saloon and secured the exclusive service of the best table steward in the ship. I think he had interviewed the head cook. I began to appreciate Gorman's qualities as a travelling companion. His handling of the servants of the Cunard Company during the voyage was masterly. I never was so well looked after before, though I always make it a practice to tip generously.
Gorman proposed that we should have another whisky and soda before going down to luncheon. He is a genial soul. No churl would want to drink two glasses of whisky in the early part of one day. When I refused he looked disappointed.
On the way down to luncheon he asked the lift boy how his mother had got over her operation. It would never have occurred to me that the lift boy had a mother. If I had thought the matter out carefully I might have reached the conclusion that there must be or at one time have been a mother for every lift boy in the world. But Gorman did not reason. He simply knew, and knew too that this particular lift boy's mother had been in a Liverpool hospital, a fact which no method of reasoning known to me would have enabled him to arrive.
The lift boy loved Gorman. His grins of delight showed that. Our table steward, a very competent young man, adored him. The head cook—I judged by the meals we had sent up to us—had a very strong personal affection for Gorman. I do not wonder. I am myself fond of Gorman now. So is Ascher. Mrs. Ascher goes further still. She respects and admires Gorman. But Mrs. Ascher is a peculiar woman. She respects people whom the rest of us only like.
We saw very little of Ascher and nothing at all of his wife during the first two days of our voyage. My idea was that they stayed in their cabins—they had engaged a whole suite of rooms—in order to avoid drifting into an intimacy with Gorman and me. A millionaire would naturally, so I supposed, be suspicious of the advance of any one who was not a fellow millionaire. I was mistaken. Ascher was simply seasick. When he recovered, two days before Mrs. Ascher raised her head from the pillow, he showed every sign of wanting to know Gorman and had no objection to dining with me.
In the meanwhile I found out a great deal about Gorman. He was delightfully unreserved, not only about his own past, but about his opinions of people and institutions. Old Dan Gorman had, it appeared, married a new wife when he was about sixty. This lady turned Michael, then a young man, out of the house. He bore her no ill will whatever, though she deprived him in the end of his inheritance as well as his home. For several years he "messed about"—the phrase is his—with journalism, acting as reporter and leader writer for several Irish provincial papers, a kind of work which requires no education or literary talent. Then he, so to speak, emerged, becoming somehow, novelist, playwright, politician. I have never made out how he achieved his success. I do not think he himself knows that. According to his own account—and I never could get him to go into details—"things just happened to come along."
He was entirely frank about his opinions. He regarded landlords as the curse of Ireland and said so to me. He did not seem satisfied that they are innocuous, even when, being deprived of their estates, they are no longer landlords. I do not like being called a curse—hardly any one does—but I found myself listening to the things which Gorman said about the class to which I belong without any strong resentment. His treatment of us reminded me of Robbie Burns' address to the devil. The poet recognised that the devil was a bad character and that the world would be in every way a brighter and happier place if there were no such person. But his condemnation was of a kindly sort, not wholly without sympathy. He held out a hope that "ould Nickie Ben" might still "hae some stake"—stake in the country I suppose—if he would take thought and mend. The reformation would have to be a drastic one, nothing less than a complete change of his habits, character and opinions. But such a thing was not wholly impossible. That was very much what Gorman thought about me.
Next to Irish landlords Gorman disliked financiers more than any other people in the world. He did not, by his own confession, know anything about them; but he had got into touch with a group of journalists in London which specialises in abuse of the class.
Gorman repeated all the stock arguments to me and illuminated the subject with some very well worn apologues.
"A financier," he said, "is a bloated spider, which sits in a murky den spinning webs and sucks the life-blood of its victims."
I wondered how Ascher would like this kind of talk if he ever joined our party.
There was not, of course, the same note of personal bitterness in Gorman's condemnation of financiers which I noticed in his attacks on landlords. He had learned to hate my class during the impressionable years of childhood. He had only found out about financiers when he was a grown man. And no one, not even a convert to a new faith, ever believes anything with real intensity except what he was taught before he was eight years old. But it was not to be expected that Ascher would be as patient as I was, even if the abuse with which Gorman assailed his class lacked something of the conviction with which he attacked me.
I asked Gorman one evening why, holding the opinions he did, he had chosen as his table mates a banker and an unrepentant landlord. He had a whole shipload of passengers to choose from, most of them, no doubt believers in democracy, some of them perhaps even socialists, the kind of socialists who travel first class on crack Cunard steamers. He seemed surprised at the question and did not answer me at once. An hour or so after we had passed away from the subject he returned to it suddenly and explained that it was necessary to distinguish between individuals and the classes to which they belong. A class, so I understood, may be objectionable and dangerous in every way though the men who form it are delightful.
"Take the Irish priests, for instance," he said. "The minute we get Home Rule, we'll——"
He paused significantly.
"Deal with them?" I suggested.
He nodded with an emphasis which was positively vicious.
"All the same," he said, "there are lots of priests whom I really like, capital fellows that I'd be glad to dine with every day in the week—except Friday."
Apparently he was glad to dine with Ascher and me every day in the week, including Friday.
"There's no sense," he said, "in refusing to talk to a man just because you don't like his opinions."
I agreed. I even offered proof of my agreement. I was at that moment talking to Gorman and I certainly did not like his opinions.
When Ascher joined us at dinner on the third evening of our voyage, he turned out to be a very quiet, gentle little man with no outward sign of great wealth about him. He drank nothing but Perrier Water which was a surprise and, I fancy, something of a disappointment to Gorman. He expected Ascher to order champagne and was quite ready to take his turn in paying for the wine. Ascher smoked half a cigarette after dinner and another half cigarette before he went to bed. Gorman confided to me that millionaires and half-crown cigars had always been associated in his mind before he met Ascher. To me the most surprising thing about the man was the low opinion he had of himself and his own abilities. He was deferential to Gorman and even seemed to think what I said worth listening to. He knew all about Gorman's two novels and his play. He had read many of Gorman's newspaper articles. He used to try and make Gorman talk about literature and art. Gorman, being a man of great intelligence, hates talking about literature, and suspects that any one who accuses him of art is poking fun at him. Ascher took both literature and art quite seriously. He evidently thought that men who write books belong to a superior class. As a matter of fact Ascher has far more brains than any author I have ever met; but he does not know this.
Ascher lay down without protest under all the outrageous things which Gorman said about financiers. His extreme meekness seemed to stimulate Gorman.
"No qualities," said Gorman, "are required for success as a financier except a low kind of cunning and a totally unscrupulous selfishness."
Ascher seemed to agree with him. I wanted to point out that considering the very large number of men who are cunning and the general prevalence of selfishness the number of successful financiers is surprisingly small. But Gorman did not give me a chance of speaking.
"Political life in every modern state," said Gorman, "is poisoned, poisoned at its source by the influence of the great financial houses. Democracy is in shackles. Its leaders are gagged. Progress is stopped. Politics are barren——" He delivered this oration at dinner one night, and when he came to the barrenness of politics he knocked over Ascher's bottle of Perrier Water with a sweep of his hand "and it is the subtle influence of the financiers, the money kings, what the Americans used to call the Gold Bugs, which is responsible for the mischief."
Ascher assented with a sort of wavering smile.
"The proof of what I say," said Gorman, "is to be found in the well-known fact——"
I interrupted him at this point. He had cited his well-known fact to me several times. The son of a Liberal Cabinet Minister married the daughter of a well-known Conservative who had been a Cabinet Minister. It may be my stupidity but I cannot see how that union proves that financiers control politics. I am not, and never shall be either a money king or a gold bug, but in mere dread of hearing Gorman produce his well-known fact again I took up the task of defending the class to which Ascher belongs.
"After all, Gorman," I said, "you ought to be a little grateful. You know perfectly well that there wouldn't be any politics if financiers and other capitalists did not pay for them."
"That's just what I say," said Gorman.
"No," I said. "That's not what you say. You say that financiers poison politics. But there's the greatest difference between paying for a performance and poisoning the performers. Take a theatre for instance——"
"Talking of theatres," said Gorman, "there's a rattling good circus going on in New York at present. I'll take you two men to see it some night."
But I was not going to let Gorman ride away in this manner from an argument in which he was being worsted.
"Do let me finish what I am saying," I said. "All your Parliaments and legislative assemblies are simply national theatres kept up for the amusement of the people. Somebody has to put up the money to keep them going. The ordinary man won't do it. You can't even get him to vote without hypnotising him first by means of a lot of speeches and newspaper articles and placards which stare at him from hoardings. Even after you've hypnotised him you have to drag him to your polling booth in motor cars. He wouldn't go if you didn't. As for paying for your show, you know perfectly well that there'd be no money for the running of it if it weren't for a few financiers and rich men."
One of Gorman's most delightful characteristics is that he bears no malice when an argument goes against him.
"Begad, you're right," he said. "Right all the way along. At the present moment I'm on my way to America to get money for the Party. There's a man I have my eye on out in Detroit, a fellow with millions, and an Irishman. I mean to get a good subscription out of him. That's why I'm on this ship."
"Curious," I said. "I'm after money too. I have some investments in Canadian railway shares—nothing much, just a few thousands, but a good deal to me. I'm a little uneasy——"
I looked at Ascher. A man in his position, the head of one of the great financial houses, ought to be able to give very good advice about my shares. A word from him about the prospects of Canada generally and the companies in which I am interested in particular, would be very valuable to me. Gorman was also looking inquiringly at Ascher. I daresay a tip on the state of the stock market would be interesting to him. I do not know whether party funds are invested or kept on deposit receipt on a bank; but Gorman is likely to have a few pounds of his own. Ascher misinterpreted our glances. He thought we wanted to know why he was going to America.
"The condition of Mexico at present," he said, "is causing us all some anxiety. My partner in New York wants to have a consultation with me. That's what's bringing me over."
"Ah!" said Gorman. "I rather respect those Mexicans. It's pleasant to hear of wealthy men like you being hit sometimes."
"It's not exactly that," said Ascher. "As a firm we don't lose directly whatever happens in Mexico. What we have to consider is the interest of our customers, the people, some of them quite small people, who went into Mexican railways on our advice. Banking houses don't put their money into investments. That's not our business. But banking is a very dull subject. Let's talk of something else."
He turned to me as he spoke.
"You were speaking just now," he said, "about the necessity of putting up money for the support of theatres. If we are to have any real dramatic art in England——"
Banking is a fascinatingly interesting subject compared to art; but Ascher does not think so, and Ascher had taken hold of the conversation. He appealed to Gorman as a man whose services to literature and drama had never been properly recognised. He appealed to me as a member of a cultured class. Neither of us was sympathetic or responsive. Gorman knows that he has never rendered any service to literature at all, that he wrote novels because he wanted money in the days before a grateful country paid him L400 a year for walking round the lobbies of the House of Commons, that he tumbled into his play by accident and made money out of it because a very charming lady was more charming than usual in the part he wrote for her.
Gorman—this is one of the advantages of being an Irishman—has no illusions about himself. I have none about my class. It is not cultured and does not want to be.
When Ascher had smoked his half cigarette we left the dining saloon and went to our special corner in the lounge. Ascher talked on till nearly ten o'clock about art and drama and music as if they were the only things of any interest or importance in the world. Then he went to bed. Gorman and I agreed that art, drama, and music are of very little importance and less interesting than anything else. Gorman's weekly articles, quite the best things of their kind then being published, are all about art, so he has a perfect right to express his opinion. What we wanted to hear Ascher talk about was money.
"I've always wanted to know what high finance really is," I said. "It seems a pity not to be able to find out now we've got a man who understands it."
"I'll take him in hand to-morrow," said Gorman. "There's no use our having him to dine with us and looking after him all the way cross if we don't get anything out of him."
Gorman's words were cryptic. I wanted to get knowledge—the sort of knowledge which would satisfy my curiosity—out of Ascher; chiefly knowledge though I would not have refused a little inside information about Canadian affairs. Gorman might very well want something more. He might want a subscription to the funds of his party. I hoped he would not get it; either out of Ascher or out of the man at Detroit of whom he spoke. I am not a member of any political party but I hate that to which Gorman belongs. If I were attached to a party and if Gorman's friends joined it in a body, I should leave it at once. My opinion, so far as I have any opinion, is that what Ireland wants is to be let alone. But if the Irish Nationalist Party were to adopt a policy of deliberately doing nothing and preventing other people from doing anything I should not support it. I should then search about for something revolutionary and try to insist on carrying it out. Nothing would induce me to be on the same side as Gorman and his friends. Such is the nature of an Irish gentleman.
I lay awake for a long time that night, smoking cigarettes in my berth and meditating on the fact that, of the three of us I was the one who was going to America for purely selfish purposes. Gorman was trying to get money for his party, for his own ultimate advantage no doubt, but in the first instance the money was not for himself but for a cause. And Gorman is a politician, a member of a notoriously corrupt and unscrupulous professional class. Ascher was taking a long journey in order to devise some means of rescuing his clients' property from the clutches of a people which had carried the principles of democracy rather further than is usual. And Ascher is a financier. No one expects anything but enlightened greed from financiers. I belong by birth and education to an aristocracy, a class which is supposed to justify its existence by its altruism. There was no doubt a valuable lesson to be learned from these considerations. I fell asleep before I found out exactly what it was.
Gorman did as he promised. He took Ascher in hand next day. He made the poor man walk up and down the deck with him. There is nothing on shipboard more detestable than that tramp along the deck. Only the strongest minded man can avoid counting his steps, making an estimate of yards, and falling into the bondage of trying to walk a fixed number of miles. Conversation and even coherent thought become impossible when the mind is set on the effort to keep count of the turns made at the end of the deck. I am sure that Ascher did not enjoy himself; but Gorman kept him at it for more than an hour. I watched them from the deck chair in which I sat, rolled up very comfortably in my rug. At one o'clock, when we ought to have gone down to lunch, Gorman stopped opposite my chair. He proclaimed his success jubilantly.
"We've been talking about finance," he said, "high finance. Pity you wouldn't join us."
Ascher bowed towards me. Gorman described Ascher's manners as foreign. I daresay they are. There is a certain flavour of formal courtesy about them which Englishmen rarely practise, of which Irishmen of my generation, partly anglicised by their education, have lost the trick.
"Sir James would only have been bored," said Ascher.
"Not he," said Gorman, "he's just as keen as I am to know what bankers do with money."
"It's a dull trade," said Ascher, "very dull. Some day I shall give it up and devote the rest of my time to——"
"Don't say art," said Gorman.
Ascher opened his eyes and looked at Gorman with a mild kind of wonder.
"Of course," he said, "I can never be an artist. I haven't got the temperament, the soul, the capacity for abandon. But I might find enjoyment, the highest pleasure, in understanding, in appreciating, perhaps even in encouraging——"
"Sort of Mecenas," said Gorman. "I wonder if Mecenas was a banker. He seems to have been a rich man."
"He was a descendant of kings," I said, "but that's no reason why he shouldn't have made money."
"Anyhow," said Gorman, "you'd find art just as dull as banking if you went in for it systematically."
"But artists——!" said Ascher, "genuine artists! Men with inspiration!"
"Selfish conceited swine," said Gorman.
"Well," I said, "you ought to know. You're an artist yourself. Ascher told me so yesterday."
"I remember your two novels," said Ascher, "and I recognised in them the touch, the unmistakable touch."
"Let's go down to lunch," said Gorman.
He left the deck as he spoke. Even Gorman does not like to stand self-convicted of being a selfish conceited swine. Ascher laid his hand on my arm as we went down to the saloon.
"What a brilliant fellow he is," he whispered. "I never realised before how magnificently paradoxical your Irish minds are. That pose of abject self depreciation which is in reality not wholly a pose but a vehement protest against the shallow judgment of a conventionalised culture——"
Ascher's language was a little confusing to me, but I could guess at what he meant. Gorman appeared to him to be an unappreciated Oscar Wilde, one of those geniuses—I am bound to admit that they are mostly Irish—who delude the world into thinking they are uttering profound truths when they are merely outraging common sense.
It would be going too far perhaps to say that Ascher fawned on Gorman during luncheon. He certainly showed his admiration for him very plainly.
During the afternoon we talked finance again. Ascher did it because he wanted to please Gorman. I listened and learned several things which interested me very much. I got to understand, for instance, why a sovereign is sometimes worth more, sometimes less, when you try to exchange it for dollars or francs; a thing which had always puzzled me before. I learned why gold has to be shipped in large quantities from one country to another by bankers, whereas I, a private individual, need only send a cheque to pay my modest debts. I learned what is meant by a bill drawn on London. It took me nearly half an hour to grasp that. Gorman pretended to see it sooner than I did, but when he tried to supplement Ascher's explanation with one of his own he floundered hopelessly.
It was while we were at tea that afternoon that Mrs. Ascher put in an appearance for the first time. She was a tall, lean woman, with dark red hair—Gorman called it bronze—and narrow eyes which never seemed quite open. Her face was nearly colourless. I was inclined to attribute this to her long suffering from seasickness, but when I got to know her better I found out that she is never anything but pallid, even when she has lived for months on land and has been able to eat all she wants. The first thing she did after we were introduced to her was to put her hands up to her ears and give a low moan, expressive of great anguish. Ascher explained to us that she was very musical and suffered acutely from the ship's band. I made up my mind definitely that she was not the sort of woman I like. Gorman, on the other hand, took to her at once. He could not stop the band, but he led the lady away to a distant corner of the writing room.
For the rest of the voyage Gorman devoted himself to her. I do not mean to suggest that he flirted with her either frivolously, or with yearning artistic seriousness. Gorman enjoys the society of women and is never long happy without it, but I do not think he cares for love-making in any form. Besides he spent most of his time in her company watching her playing Patience. Owen Meredith wrote a poem in which he glorified the game of chess as an aid to quiet conjugal love-making. But so far as I know no one has suggested that Canfield—it was Mrs. Ascher's favourite kind of Patience—has ever been used as an excuse for flirtation. No woman, not even if she has eyes of Japanese shape, can look tenderly at a man when she has just buried a valuable two under a pile of kings and queens in her rubbish heap.
The result of Gorman's devotion to the lady was that I was left to improve my acquaintance with her husband. The more I talked to Ascher the better I liked him. His admiration for his wife's sensitiveness to sound was very touching. I am convinced that he knew a great deal more about music than she did and appreciated it more. But her sudden outbursts of petulance when the band played seemed to Ascher a plain proof that she had the spirit of an artist. He confided in me that it gave him real pleasure to see her and Gorman together because, as artists, they must have much in common. Ascher has a very simple and beautiful nature. No one with any other kind of nature could put up with Mrs. Ascher as a wife.
Mere simplicity of soul and beauty of character would not, I am afraid, have kept me at Ascher's side for the rest of the voyage. Virtue, like the innocence of the young, is admirable but apt to be tiresome. What attracted me most to Ascher was his ability, the last thing he recognised in himself. When he found out that I was interested in his business he talked to me quite freely about it, though always with a certain suggestion of apology. There was no need for anything of the sort. He revealed to me a whole world of fascinating romance of which I had never before suspected the existence. Some day, perhaps, a poet—he will have to be a great poet—will discover that the system of credit by means of which our civilisation works, deserves an epic. Neither the wanderings of Ulysses nor the discoveries of a traveller through Paradise and Purgatory make so splendid an appeal to the imagination as this vastly complex machine which Ascher and men like him guide. The oceans of the world are covered thick with ships. Long freight trains wind like serpents across continents. Kings build navies. Ploughmen turn up the clay. The wheels of factories go round. The minds of men bend nature to their purposes by fresh inventions. Science creeps forward inch by inch. Human beings everywhere eat, drink and reproduce themselves. The myriad activities of the whole wide world go profitably on. They can go on only because the Aschers, sitting at their office desks in London or New York, direct the purchase or sale of what are but scratches with a pen on bits of paper.
There is, no doubt, another way of looking at the system. The ships, the kings, the mighty minds, the common men, are all of them in bondage to Ascher and his kind. He and his brother financiers are the unseen rulers, the mysteriously shrouded tyrants of the world. This system of credit, which need not be at all or might be quite other than it is, has given them supreme, untempered power, which they use to the injury of men. This is Gorman's view. But is it any less romantic than the other? An epic can be written round a devil as greatly as round a hero. Milton showed us that. What is wanted in a poet's theme is grandeur, either fine or terrible. Ascher's grip upon the world has surely that.
We landed in New York and to my satisfaction I secured the rooms I usually occupy. They are in a small hotel off Fifth Avenue, half way between the streets which boast of numbers higher than fifty, and those others which follow the effete European customs of having names. It is one of the paradoxes of New York that the parts of the city where fashionable people live and spend their money are severely business-like in the treatment of streets, laying them out so as to form correct parallelograms and distinguishing them by numbers instead of names, as if terrified of letting imagination loose for a moment. Down town where the money is made and the offices of the money makers are piled one on top of another, the streets are as irregular as those of London or Paris, and have all sorts of fascinatingly suggestive names. My hotel stands in the debatable land between the two districts. Fashionable life is ebbing away from its neighbourhood. Business is, as yet, a little shy of invading it. The situation makes an appeal to me. I may be, as Gorman says, a man of no country, but I am a man of two worlds. I cling to the skirts of society, something of an outsider, yet one who has the right of entry, if I choose to take the trouble, the large amount of trouble necessary to exercise the right. I am one who is trying to make money, scarcely more than an amateur among business men, but deeply interested in their pursuits. This particular hotel seems to me therefore a convenient, that is to say a suitable place of residence for me. It is not luxurious, nor is it cheap, but it is comfortable, which is perhaps the real reason why I go to it.
I gave Gorman my address before I left the ship, but I did not expect him to make any use of it. I thought that I had seen the last of him when I crossed the gangway and got caught in the whirlpool of fuss which eddied round the custom house shed. I was very much surprised when he walked in on me at breakfast time on the second morning after our arrival. I was eating an omelette at the time. I offered him a share of it and a cup of coffee. Gorman refused both; but he helped himself to a glass of iced water. This shows how adaptable Gorman is. Hardly any European can drink iced water at or immediately after breakfast during the first week he spends in America. I do not take to the stuff till I have been there about a fortnight. But Gorman, in spite of his patriotism, has a good deal of the cosmopolitan about him. Strange foods and drinks upset him very little.
"Doing anything this evening?" he asked. "If not will you spend it with me? Ascher has promised to come. We're going to a circus and on for supper afterwards. You remember the circus I mentioned to you on the steamer."
I hesitated before I answered. I suppose I looked a little astonished. That Gorman should propose an evening out was natural enough. I should not call him a dissipated man, but he has a great deal of vitality and he likes what he calls "a racket" occasionally. What surprised me was that a circus should be his idea of dissipation. A circus is the sort of entertainment to which I send my nephew—a boy of eleven—when he spends the night with me in London on his way to school. My servant, a thoroughly trustworthy man, takes him there. I pay for the tickets. Gorman, Ascher, and I were three grown men and we could not boast of a child among us to serve as an excuse for going to a circus.
"It's quite a good show," said Gorman.
I tried to think of Ascher at a circus. I failed to picture him, a man educated up to the highest forms of art, gazing in delight while a lady in short petticoats jumps through a hoop from the back of a galloping horse. I had not been at a circus for about thirty years, since my tenth birthday indeed, but I do not believe that the form of entertainment has changed much since then. The clowns' jokes—I judge from my nephew's reports—are certainly the same as they were in my time. But even very great improvements would not make circuses tolerable to really artistic people like Ascher.
"I've got free passes for the best seats," said Gorman.
He had mistaken the cause of my hesitation. I was not thinking of the cost of our evening's amusement.
"You journalists," I said, "are wonderful. You get into the front row every time without paying, whether it's a coronation or a funeral. How did you manage it this time?"
"My brother Tim is connected with the show. I daresay you don't remember him at Curraghbeg. He was fifteen years younger than me. My father married a second time, you know. Tim is my half-brother."
I did not remember Gorman himself in Curraghbeg. I could not be expected to remember Tim who must have been still unborn when I left home to join the Army.
"Tim has the brains of our family," said Gorman. "His mother was a very clever woman."
I never heard Gorman say anything worse than that about his step-mother, and yet she certainly treated him very badly.
"You're all clever," I said. "Your father drove mine out of the country and deprived him of his property. It took ability to do that. You are a Member of Parliament and a brilliant journalist Timothy—I hardly like to speak of him as Tim—owns a splendid circus."
"He doesn't own it," said Gorman.
"Well, runs it," I said. "I expect it takes more brains to run a circus than to own one."
"He doesn't exactly run it," said Gorman. "In fact he only takes the money at the door. But he has brains. That's why I want Ascher to meet him. I didn't ask Mrs. Ascher," he added thoughtfully, "though she hinted for an invitation, rather made a set at me, in fact."
"Give her my ticket," I said. "I don't mind a bit. I'll buy another for myself in a cheap part of the house, and join you at supper afterwards. You ought not to disappoint Mrs. Ascher."
"I don't want Mrs. Ascher this time. She'd be in the way. She's a charming woman, of course, though she does bore me a bit about music and talks of her soul."
"Good Heavens!" I said. "You haven't been discussing religion with her, surely. I didn't think you'd do a thing like that, Gorman. You oughtn't to."
"Never mentioned religion to her in my life. Nothing would induce me to. For one thing I don't believe she has any."
"You're a Roman Catholic yourself, aren't you?"
"Well," said Gorman, "I don't know that I can say that I am exactly; but I'm not a Protestant or a Jew. But that's nothing to do with it. Mrs. Ascher doesn't talk about her soul in a religious way. In fact—I don't know if you'll understand, but what she means by a soul is something quite different, not the same sort of soul."
I understood perfectly. I have met several women of Mrs. Ascher's kind. They are rather boastful about their souls and even talk of saving or losing them. But they do not mean what one of Gorman's priests would mean, or what my poor father, who was a strongly evangelical Protestant, meant by the phrases.
"We are not accustomed to souls like hers in Ireland. We only go in for the commonplace, old-fashioned sort."
"She wouldn't be seen with one of them about her," he said. "They're vulgar things. Everybody has one.
"Soul or no soul," I said, "you ought to invite Mrs. Ascher to your party. Why not do the civil thing?"
"I'll do the civil thing some other time. I'll take her to a concert, but I don't want her to-night."
"Perhaps," I said, "your brother's circus is a little—shall we say Parisian? I don't think you need mind that. Mrs. Ascher isn't exactly a girl. It would take a lot to shock her. In fact, Gorman, my experience of these women with artistic souls is that the riskier the thing is the better they like it."
That is, as I have noticed, one of the great differences between a commonplace, so to speak, religious soul and a soul of the artistic kind. You save the one by keeping it as clean as you can. The other seems to thrive best when heavily manured. It is no disparagement of the artistic soul to say that it likes manure. Some of the most delicious and beautiful things in the world are like that, raspberries for instance, which make excellent jam, roses about which poets write, and begonias. I knew a man once who poured bedroom slops into his begonia bed every day and he had the finest flowers I ever saw.
"Gorman," I said, "did it ever occur to you that Mrs. Ascher's soul is like a begonia?"
"Bother Mrs. Ascher's soul!" said Gorman. "I'm not thinking about it. The circus is a show you might take a nun to. Nobody could possibly object to it. The reason I headed her off was because I wanted to talk business to Ascher, very particular business and rather important. In fact," here he sank his voice to a confidential whisper, "I want you to help me to rope him in."
"If you've succeeded in roping him into a circus," I said, "I should think you could rope him into anything else without my help. Would you mind telling me what the scheme is?"
"I'm trying to," he said, "but you keep interrupting me with silly riddles about begonias."
"I'm sorry I mentioned begonias. All the same it's a pity you wouldn't listen. You'd have liked the part about manure. But never mind. Go on about Ascher."
"My brother Tim," said Gorman, "has invented a new cash register. He's always inventing things; been at it ever since he was a boy. But they're mostly quite useless things though as cute as the devil. In fact I don't think he ever hit on anything the least bit of good till he got this cash register."
"Before we go further," I said, "what is a cash register?"
"It's a machine used in shops and cheap tea-places for——"
"I know now," I said. "It has keys like a typewriter. That's all right. I thought for a moment it might be a book, a ledger, you know. Go on."
"Well, Tim's machine is out and away the best thing of its kind ever seen. There's simply no comparison between it and the existing cash registers. I've had it tested in every way and I know."
I began, so I thought, to see what Ascher was to be roped into.
"You want money to patent it, I suppose," I said.
But that was not it. Gorman had scraped together whatever money was necessary to make his brother's invention secure in Europe and America. He had done more, he had formed a small private company in which he held most of the shares himself. He had manufactured a hundred of the new machines and was prepared to put them on the market.
"Ah," I said. "Now I see what you're at. You want more capital. You want to work the thing on a big scale. I might take a share or two myself, just for the sake of having a flutter."
"We don't want you," said Gorman. "The fewer there are in it the better. I don't want to have to divide the profits with a whole townful of people. But we might let you in if you get Ascher for us. You have a lot of influence with Ascher."
I had, of course, no influence whatever with Ascher. But Gorman, though he is certainly a clever man, has the defects of his class and his race. He was an Irish peasant to start with and there never was an Irish peasant yet who did not believe in a mysterious power which he calls "influence." It is curious faith, though it justifies itself pretty well in Ireland. In that country you can get nearly anything done, either good or bad, if you persuade a sufficiently influential person to recommend it. Gorman's mistake, as it seemed to me, lay in supposing that influence is equally potent outside Ireland. I am convinced that it is no use at all in dealing with a man like Ascher. If a big financial magnate will not supply money for an enterprise on the merits of the thing he is not likely to do so because a friend asks him. Besides I cannot, or could not at that time, boast of being Ascher's intimate friend. However Gorman's mistake was no affair of mine.
"If Ascher goes in at all," I said, "he'll do it on a pretty big scale. He'll simply absorb the rest of you."
"The fact is," said Gorman, "I don't want Ascher to join. I don't want him to put down a penny of money. All I want him to do is to back us. Of course he'll get his whack of whatever we make, and if he likes to be the nominal owner of some bonus shares in our company he can. That would regularise his position. The way the thing stands is this."
I had finished my breakfast and lit a cigar. Gorman pulled out his pipe and sat down opposite to me. I am not, I regret to say, a business man, but I succeeded in understanding fairly well what he told me.
His brother's cash register, if properly advertised and put on the market, would drive out every other cash register in the world. In the long run nothing could stand against it. Of that Gorman was perfectly convinced. But the proprietors of the existing cash registers would not submit without a struggle.
Gorman nodded gravely when he told me this. Evidently their struggles were the very essence of the situation.
"What can they do?" I said. "If your machine is much better than theirs surely——"
"They'll do what people always do on these occasions. They'll infringe our patents."
"But the law——"
"Yes," said Gorman, "the law. It's just winning law suits that would ruin us. Every time we got a judgment in our favour the case would be appealed to a higher court. That would happen here and in England and in France and in every country in the world civilised enough to use cash registers. Sooner or later, pretty soon too—we should have no money left to fight with."
"Bankrupt," I said, "as a consequence of your own success. What an odd situation!"
"Now," said Gorman, "you see where Ascher comes in.
"I do. But I don't expect he'll spend his firm's money fighting speculative law suits all over the world just to please you."
"You don't see the position in the least. There'll be no law suits and he won't spend a penny. Once it's known that his firm is behind us no one will attempt to touch our patent. People aren't such fools as to start playing beggar-my-neighbour with Ascher, Stutz & Co. The whole world knows that their firm has money enough to go on paying lawyers right on until the day of judgment."
"I hope to goodness," I said, "that we shan't meet lawyers then."
Gorman smiled. Up to that point it had been impossible to move him from his desperate earnestness, but a joke at the expense of lawyers is sure of a smile under any circumstances. With the possible exception of the mother-in-law joke, the lawyer joke is the oldest in the world and like all well tested jokes it may be relied on.
"There won't be any lawyers then," said Gorman. "They'll go straight to hell without the formality of a trial."
This seemed to me to be carrying the joke too far. I have known several lawyers who were no worse than other professional men, quite upright and honourable compared to doctors. I should have liked to argue the point with Gorman. But for the moment I was more interested in the future of the new cash register than in the ultimate destiny of lawyers.
"If you get Ascher to back you," I said, "and your patents are safe, you'll want to begin making machines on a big scale. Where will you get the money for that?"
"You haven't quite caught on yet," said Gorman. "I don't want to make the things at all. Why should I? There would have to be a large company. I have neither time nor inclination to manage it. Tim hasn't that kind of brains. Besides it would be risky. Somebody might come along any day with a better machine and knock ours out. People are always inventing things, you know. What I want is a nice large sum of hard cash without any bother or risk. Don't you see that the other people, the owners of the present cash registers, will have to buy us out? If our machine is the best and they daren't go to law with us they must buy us out. There's no other course open to them. What's more, they'll have to pay pretty nearly what we ask. In fact, if we put up a good bluff there's hardly any end to the extent to which we can bleed them. See?"
I saw something which looked to me like a modernised form of highway robbery.
"Is that sort of thing common?" I said.
"Done every day," said Gorman. "It's business."
"Well," I said, "there's one justification for your proceedings. If half what you say about your brother's invention is true the world will get the benefit of a greatly improved cash register. I suppose that's the way civilisation advances."
"The world be damned," said Gorman. "It'll get nothing. You don't suppose the people who buy us out are going to start making Tim's machine. They can if they like, of course, once they've paid us. But it will cost them hundreds of thousands if they do. They'd have to scrap all their existing plant and turn their factories inside out, and in the end they wouldn't make any more profit than they're making now. No. They'll simply suppress Tim's invention and the silly old world will go on with the machines it has at present."
"Gorman," I said, "you gave me to understand a minute or so ago that you went in for the old-fashioned kind of soul, the kind we were both brought up to. I'm not at all sure that I wouldn't rather have Mrs. Ascher's new kind, even if it——"
"Don't start talking about begonias again," said Gorman.
"I wasn't going to. I was only going to say that even plays in which nothing happens and grimy women say indecent things—that's art you know—seem to me better than the sort of things your soul fattens on."
"I don't see any good talking about souls," said Gorman. "This is a matter of business. The other people will crush us if they can. If they can't, and they won't be able to if Ascher backs us, they'll have to pay us. There's nothing wrong about that, is there? Look at it this way. We've got something to sell——"
"Cash registers," I said. "But you don't propose to sell them."
"Not cash registers, but the right to make a certain kind of cash registers. That's what we're going to sell. We could sell it to the public, form a company to use the rights. It suits us better for various reasons to sell it to these people. It suits them to buy. They needn't unless they like. But they will like. Now if we want to sell and they want to buy and we agree on the price where does anybody's soul come in?"
"There is evidently," I said, "a third kind of soul. The original, religious kind, the artistic kind, and what we may call the business soul. You have a mixture of all three in you, Gorman."
"I wish you'd stop worrying about my soul and tell me this. Are you going to help to rope in Ascher or not? He'll come if you use your influence with him."
"My dear fellow," I said. "Of course I'm going to help. Haven't you offered me a share of the loot?"
"I thought you would," said Gorman triumphantly. "But what about your own soul?"
"I haven't got one," I said.
I used to have a sort of instinct called honour which served men of my class instead of a soul. But Gorman and Gorman's father before him and their political associates have succeeded in abolishing gentlemen in Ireland. There is no longer the class of gentry in that country and the few surviving individuals have learned that honour is a silly superstition. I am now a disinterested spectator of a game which my ancestors played and lost. The virtue desirable in a spectator is not honour but curiosity. I wanted very much to see how Ascher would take Gorman's proposal and how the whole thing would work out. I promised to sit through the circus, to attend the supper party afterwards and to do the best I could to persuade Ascher to join our robber band.
Mrs. Ascher is not the woman to miss an entertainment she desires merely because she lacks an invitation. She arrived at the door of the circus in a taxicab with Ascher. Gorman and I were there and when he first saw Mrs. Ascher he swore. However he was forced to give her some sort of welcome and he did it pretty well, though I fear Ascher might have noticed a note of insincerity in his voice. But that was only at first. Gorman's temper changed when we reached our seats and Mrs. Ascher threw off her cloak.
She was wearing an evening gown of the most startling design and colour. I should have said beforehand that a woman with a skin as pallid as that of a corpse and so little flesh that her bones stick up jaggedly would be wise to avoid very low dresses. Mrs. Ascher displayed, when she took off her cloak, as much skin and bone as she could without risking arrest at the hands of the police. Her gown, what there was of it, was of a vivid orange colour and she wore emeralds round her neck. If the main object of wearing clothes is, as some philosophers maintain, to attract attention, then Mrs. Ascher understands the art of dress. She created a sensation. That was what pleased Gorman. He is a man who likes to be the centre of interest wherever he is, or if that is not possible, to be attached to the person who has secured that fortunate position. Mrs. Ascher attracts the public gaze wherever she goes. I have seen people turn round to stare at her in the dining room of the Ritz in New York and at supper in the Carlton in London. The men and women who formed the audience in Gorman's circus were unaccustomed to daring splendour of raiment. They actually gasped when Mrs. Ascher threw off her cloak and Gorman felt glad that she had come.
She said a few words to me about the delight which an artist's soul feels in coming into direct contact with the seething life of the people, and she mentioned with appreciation a French picture, one of Degas' I think, which represents ballet dancers practising their art. Then she and Gorman settled down in two of the three seats reserved for us. Ascher and I retired modestly to the back of what I may call the dress circle. After a while when the performance was well under way, Gorman's brother came in. I suppose the greater part of his evening's work was done and he was able to leave the task of dealing with late comers to some subordinate clerk. He looked a mere boy, younger than I expected, as he stood at the end of the row of seats trying to attract his brother's attention. Gorman was so much occupied with Mrs. Ascher that for some time he did not notice Tim. I had time to observe the boy. He had fair hair, and large, childlike blue eyes. He was evidently nervous, for he shifted his weight from one leg to the other. He kept pulling at his tie, and occasionally patting his hair. He was quite right to be uncomfortable about his hair. It was very untidy and one particular lock stood out stiffly at the back of his head.
Gorman saw him at last and immediately introduced him to Ascher and to me. But Tim was far too nervous to sit down beside us. He crept after his brother and took a chair, three seats beyond Gorman, away from Mrs. Ascher. She spotted him directly and insisted on his sitting beside her. She is a woman who likes to have a man of some sort on each side of her. Tim Gorman was little more than a boy but he was plainly frightened of her. I suppose that gave zest to the sport of annexing him. Besides, his eyes are very fine, and, if souls really shine through eyes, showed that he was refreshingly innocent. I expect, too, that there was something piquant in the company of the clerk who takes the money at the door of a second-rate entertainment. Mrs. Ascher has often told me that she is more interested in life than in anything else, even art. She distinguishes between life and real life. Mine, I gather, is not nearly so real as that of a performer in a travelling circus. I do not know why this should be so, but I have no doubt that it is. Mrs. Ascher is not by any means the only person who thinks so. Tim Gorman's life was apparently real enough to attract her greatly. She paid him the compliment of talking a good deal to the boy, though she was far too clever a woman to let the elder brother feel himself neglected.
A learned horse had just begun its performance when Tim Gorman entered. It went on for some time picking out large letters from a pile in front of it and arranging them so as to spell out "yes" or "no" in answer to questions asked by a man with a long whip in his hand. The animal used one of its front hoofs in arranging the letters, and looked singularly undignified. Ascher sat quite still with an air of grave politeness. I tried to get him to tell me what he thought of the learned horse but could get nothing out of him. Long; silences make me uncomfortable. I felt at last that it was better to talk nonsense than not to talk at all.
"I suppose," I said, "that learned men look almost as grotesque to the angels as learned horses do to us. I can fancy Raphael watching a German professor writing a book on the origin of religion. He would feel all the while that the creature's front paw was meant by nature for nobler uses."
"Yes," said Ascher, "yes. Quite so."
He spoke vaguely. I think he did not hear what I said. Or perhaps the learned horse struck him differently. Or his mind may have been entirely occupied with the problem of Mexican railways so that he could pay no attention either to the learned horse or to me. If so, he was wakened from his reverie by the next performance.
A company of acrobats in spangled tights, three men and one young woman, took possession of the arena. At first they tumbled, turned somersaults, climbed on each other's shoulders and assumed attitudes which I should have said beforehand were impossible for any creature with bones. Then a large net was stretched some six feet from the ground and several trapezes which had been tied to the roof were allowed to hang down. The acrobats climbed up by a ladder and swung from one trapeze to another. The business was commonplace enough, but I became aware that Ascher was very much interested in it. He became actually excited when we reached the final act, the climax of the performance.
The programme, at which I glanced, spoke of "The Flying Lady." The woman, her spangles aglitter in a blaze of lime light, did indubitably fly, if rushing unsupported through the air at some height from solid ground is the essence of flying. Two of the men hung on their trapezes, one by his hands and the other by his legs. They swung backwards and forwards. The length of the ropes was so great that they passed through large arcs, approaching each other and then swinging back until there was a long space between them. The young woman, standing on a third trapeze, swung too. Suddenly, at the upward end of a swing, just as her trapeze hung motionless for an instant, she launched herself into the air. The man on the next trapeze came swinging towards her. She caught him by the feet at the very moment when he was nearest to her. He swung back and she dangled below him. When he reached the highest point of the half circle through which he passed, she was stretched out, making with him a horizontal line. At that moment she let go and shot, feet foremost, through the air. The man who hung head downwards from the next trapeze came swiftly towards her and caught her by the ankles. The two swung back together and at the end of his course he let her go. The impulse of his swing sent her, turning swiftly as she flew, towards a ladder at the end of the row. She alighted on her feet on a little platform, high up near the roof of the building. There she stood, bowing and smiling.
The people burst into a shout of cheering. Ascher leaned forward in his seat and gazed at her. The two men still kept their trapezes in full swing. The third man, standing on a platform at the other end of the row, set the remaining trapeze swinging, that from which the woman had begun her flight. A minute later she flung herself from the platform and the whole performance was repeated. I could hear Ascher panting with excitement beside me.
"A horribly risky business," I said, "but wonderful, really wonderful. If one of those swings were a fraction late—— But of course the whole thing is exactly calculated."
"Yes, yes," said Ascher, "calculated, of course. It's a matter of mathematics and accurate timing of effort. But if it were worked by machinery, with lay figures, we should think nothing of it. Somebody would do sums and there would be nothing particular in it. The wonderful thing is the confidence. The timing of the swings might be all right; but if the woman hesitated for an instant, or if one of the men felt the slightest doubt about the thing's coming off—If they didn't all feel absolutely sure that the hands would be there to grasp her at just the proper moment—It's the perfect trust which the people have, of each other, of the calculations—Don't you see?"
I began to see that Ascher was profoundly moved by this performance. I also began to see why.
"It's like—like some things in life," I said, "or what some things ought to be."
"It's like what my life is," said Ascher. "Don't you see it?"
"I should be rather stupid if I didn't see it, considering the trouble you took to explain the working of international credit to me for two whole days."
"Then you do understand."
"I understand," I said, "that you are that woman. Your whole complex business is very like hers. It's the meeting of obligations exactly at the end of their swing, the fact that at the appointed moment there will be something there for you to grasp."
"And the confidence," said Ascher. "If the bankers in any country doubt the solvency of the bankers in another country, if there's the smallest hesitation, an instant's pause of distrust or fear, then international credit collapses and——"
He flung out his arm with a gesture of complete hopelessness. I realised that if anything went wrong between bankers in their trapeze act there would be a very ugly smash.
"And in your case," I said, "there's no net underneath."
The girl and the three men were safe on firm ground again. They were bowing final acknowledgments to the cheering crowd. I suppose they do the same thing every night of their lives, but they were still able to enjoy the cheering. Their faces were flushed and their eyes sparkled. They are paid, perhaps pretty well paid, for risking their lives; but the applause is the larger part of the reward.
"Also," I said to Ascher, "nobody cheers you. Nobody knows you're doing it."
"No. Nobody knows we're doing it. Nobody sees our flights through the air or guesses the supreme confidence we bankers must have in each other. When anybody does notice us it's—well, our friend Gorman, for instance."
Gorman holds the theory that financial men, Ascher and the rest, are bloated spiders who spend their time and energy in trapping the world's workers, poor flies, in gummy webs.
"And of course Gorman is right in a way," said Ascher. "I can't help feeling that things ought to be better managed. But—but it's a pity that men like him don't understand."
Ascher is wonderful. I shall never attain his mental attitude of philosophic tolerance. I do not feel that Gorman is in any way right about the Irish landlords. I felt, though I like the man personally, that he and his friends are deliberately and wickedly perverse.
"Some day," said Ascher, "something will go wrong. A rope will break, or a man will miss his grip, and then people in one place will be starving, while people somewhere else have food all round them rotting in heaps. Men will want all sorts of things and will not be able to get them, though there will be plenty of them in the world. Men will think that the laws of nature have stopped working, that God has gone mad. Hardly any one will understand what has happened, just that one trapeze rope has broken, or that one man has lost his nerve and missed his grip."
"She might have fallen clear of the net," I said, "and come down on the audience."
"When we slip a trick," said Ascher, "it will be on the audience that we shall come down; and the audience, the people, will be bruised and hurt, won't in the least know what has happened."
Gorman—I suddenly recollected this—had an adventure in finance to propose. If Ascher goes into the scheme I shall have an opportunity of watching an interesting variant of the trapeze act. We shall get the people, who own the existing cash registers on the swing and then hold them to ransom. We shall set our small trapeze oscillating right across their airy path and decline to remove it unless they agree to part with some of the very shiniest of their spangles and hand them over to us for our adornment. I wondered how Ascher, who is so deeply moved by the perils of his own flights, would like the idea of destroying other people's confidence and upsetting their calculations.
I looked down and saw that Gorman had left his seat. Mrs. Ascher had been making good progress with Tim. The boy was leaning towards her and talking eagerly. She lay back in her seat and smiled at him. If she were not interested in what he was saying she succeeded very well in pretending that she was. All really charming women practise this form of deception and all men are taken in by it if it is well done. Mrs. Ascher does it very well.
When the net was cleared away and the trapezes slung up again in the roof, we had a musical ride, performed by six men and six women mounted on very shiny horses. Mrs. Ascher, of course, objected strongly to the music. I could see her squirming in her seat. Ascher did not find the thing interesting and began to fidget. It was, indeed, much less suggestive than either the learned horse or the acrobats. You cannot discover in a musical ride any parable with a meaning applicable to life. Nothing in the world goes so smoothly and pleasantly. There are always risks even when there are no catastrophes, and catastrophes are far too common. Ascher probably felt that we were out of touch with humanity. He kept looking round, as if seeking some way of escape.
Fortunately Gorman turned up again very soon.
"I hope you won't mind," he said, "but I have changed the arrangement for supper. Mrs. Ascher," he nodded towards the seat in which she was writhing, "wants to meet the Galleotti family. They're not a family, you know, and of course they're not called Galleotti. The woman is a Mrs. Briggs, and the tallest of the men is her husband. The other two are no relation. I don't know their names, but Tim will introduce us."
I looked at my programme again. It was under the name of the Galleotti Family that the acrobats performed.
"That will be most interesting," I said.
"I'm afraid it won't," said Gorman. "People like that are usually quite stupid. However Mrs. Ascher wanted it, so of course I made arrangements."
Mrs. Ascher evidently wanted to see life, the most real kind of life, thoroughly. Not contented with having the doorkeeper of a cheap circus sitting, so to speak, in her lap all evening, she was now bent on sharing a meal with a troupe of acrobats.
"It's rather unlucky," Gorman went on, "but Mrs. Briggs simply refuses to go to the Plaza. I had a table engaged there."
"How regal of you, Gorman!" I said.
"You'd have thought she'd have liked it," he said. "But she made a fuss about clothes. It's extraordinary how women will."
"You can hardly blame her," I said; "I expect the head waiter would turn her out if she appeared in that get-up of hers. Very absurd of him, of course, but——"
I was not conscious that my eyes had wandered to Mrs. Ascher's dress until Gorman winked at me. Fortunately Ascher noticed neither my glance nor Gorman's wink. I had not thought of suggesting that Mrs. Briggs' stage costume was no more daring than what Mrs. Ascher wore.
"Of course," said Ascher, "she wouldn't come to supper in tights. It's her other clothes she's thinking of. I daresay they are shabby."
I could understand what Mrs. Briggs felt. Gorman could not. I do not think that any feeling about the shabbiness of his coat would make him hesitate about dining with an Emperor.
"I hope you won't mind," he said to Ascher, "but we're going to rather a third-rate little place."
Gorman had evidently meant to do us well in the way of supper, champagne probably. He may have had the idea that good food would soften Ascher's heart towards the cash register scheme, but Mrs. Ascher's insistence on meeting the Galleotti family spoiled the whole plan. We could not talk business across Mrs. Briggs, so it mattered little what sort of supper we had.
Mrs. Ascher left her seat and joined us. Tim, looking more nervous than ever, followed her at a distance.
"Take me out of this," she said to me. "Take me out of this or I shall go mad. That dreadful band!"
She spoke in a kind of intense hiss, and I took her out at once, leaving the others to collect our hats and coats and to hunt up the Galleotti family. When we reached the entrance hall she sank into a seat. I thought she was going to faint and felt very uncomfortable. She shut her eyes and murmured in a feeble way. I bent down to hear what she was trying to say, and was relieved to find that she was asking for a cigarette. I gave her one at once. I even lit it for her as she seemed very weak. It did her good. When she had inhaled three or four mouthfuls of smoke she was able to speak quite audibly and had forgotten all about the horror of the band. Her mind went back to the Galleotti family.
"Did you notice the muscular development of those men?" she said. "I don't think I ever saw more perfect symmetry, the tallest of the three especially. The play of his shoulder muscles was superb. I wonder if he would sit for me. I do a little modelling, you know. Some day I must show you my things. I did a baby faun just before I left London. It isn't good, of course; but I can't help knowing that it has feeling."
The tallest Galleotti probably has feeling too, of a different kind. I expect he would have refused Gorman's invitation to supper if he had known that he was invited in order to give Mrs. Ascher an opportunity of studying his muscular development at close quarters. Perhaps he had some idea that he was to be on show and did not like it. Instead of wearing his spangled tights he came to supper in a very ill-fitting tweed suit, which completely concealed his symmetry. The other two men were equally inconsiderate. Mrs. Briggs wore a rusty black skirt and a somewhat soiled blouse. Mrs. Ascher was disappointed.
She showed her annoyance by ignoring the Galleotti Family. This was rather hard on Gorman, who had invited the family solely to please her and then found that she would not speak to them. She took a chair in a corner next the wall, and beckoned to Tim Gorman to sit beside her. Tim was miserably frightened and dodged about behind the tallest of the Galleottis to avoid her eye. I expect her manner when the band was playing had terrified him. I felt certain that I should be snubbed, but, to avoid general awkwardness, I took the chair beside Mrs. Ascher.
I tried to cheer her up a little.
"Just think," I whispered, "if Mr. Briggs looks so commonplace in every-day clothes, other men, even I perhaps, might be as splendid as he was if we put on spangled tights."
I had to whisper because Mr. Briggs was near me, and I did not want to hurt his feelings. Mrs. Ascher may not have heard me. She certainly did not answer; I went on:
"Thus there may be far more beauty in the world than we suspect. We may be meeting men every day who have the figures of Greek gods underneath their absurd coats. It's a most consoling thought."
It did not console Mrs. Ascher in the least; but I thought a little more of it might be good for her.
"In the same way," I said, "heroic hearts may be beating under the trappings of conventionality and great souls may——"
I meant to work the idea out; but Mrs. Ascher cut me short by saying that she had a headache. There was every excuse for her. She wanted to see the muscles of Mr. Briggs' shoulders and she wanted Tim Gorman to sit beside her. Double disappointments of this kind often bring on the most violent headaches.
The supper party was a failure. The Galleotti men would talk freely only to Tim Gorman and relapsed into gaping silence when Ascher spoke to them. Mrs. Briggs would not speak at all, until Gorman, who has the finest social talent of any man I ever met, talked to her about her baby. On that subject she actually chattered to the disgust of Mrs. Ascher, who has no children herself and regards women who have as her personal enemies. We had sausages and mashed potatoes to eat. We drank beer. Even Ascher drank a little beer, though I know he hated it.
Not a word was said about Tim's cash register until the Galleotti family went away and the party broke up. Then Gorman suddenly sprang the subject on Ascher. Mrs. Ascher, having snubbed me with her headache story, at last captured Tim Gorman. She spoke quite kindly to him and tried to teach him to help her on with her cloak, a garment which Tim was at first afraid to touch. I heard her, when Tim was at last holding the cloak, asking him to sit for her in her studio. Tim has no very noticeable physical development, but he has very beautiful eyes. Mrs. Ascher may have wanted him as a model for a figure of Sir Galahad. Her interest in the boy gave us a chance of talking business.
It was not a chance that I should have used if I had been Gorman. It seemed to me foolish to lay a complicated scheme before a man who has just been severely tried in temper by unaccustomed kinds of food and drink. However, Gorman set out the case of the cash register in a few words. He did not go into details, and I do not know whether Ascher understood what was expected of him. He invited Gorman to bring Tim and the machine to the bank next day and promised to look into the matter. Gorman, still under the delusion that influence matters, insisted on my being one of the party. He described me as a shareholder in the company. Ascher said he would be glad to see me, too, next day. My impression is that he would have agreed to receive the whole circus company rather than stand any longer in that grimy restaurant talking to Gorman.
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.