Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 10
I reached home early in May and underwent an experience common, I suppose, to all travellers.
The city clerk, returning after a glorious week in Paris, finds that his family is still interested in the peculiarities of the housemaid, the Maud, or Ethel of the hour. To him, with his heart enlarged by nightly visits to the Folies Bergères, it seems at first almost impossible that any one can care to talk for hours about the misdeeds of Maud. He knows that he himself was once excited over these domestic problems, but it seems impossible that he ever can be again. Yet he is. A week passes, a week of the old familiar life. The voluptuous joys of Parisian music halls fade into dim memories. The realities of life, the things on which his mind works, are the new lace curtains for the drawing-room window, the ridiculous “swank” of young Jones in the office, and the question of the dismissal of Maud the housemaid.
I found London humming with excitement over Irish affairs and for a while I wondered how any one could think that Irish affairs mattered in the least. Fresh from my wanderings over a huge continent Ireland seemed to me a small place. It took me a week to get my mind into focus again. Then I began once more to see the Home Rule question as it should be seen. South America and Ascher’s web of international credit sank into their proper insignificance.
I met Malcolmson in my club a week after my return. He very nearly pulled the buttons off my waistcoat in his eagerness to explain the situation to me. Malcolmson has a vile habit of grabbing the clothes of any one he particularly wants to speak to. If the subject is only moderately interesting he pulls a sleeve or a lappet of a coat. When he has something very important to say, he inserts two fingers between the buttons of your waistcoat and pulls. I knew I was in for something thrilling when he towed me into a quiet corner of the smoking room by my two top buttons.
I have known Malcolmson for nearly twenty years. He was adjutant of my old regiment when I joined. He was senior Major when I resigned my commission. He became colonel a few years later and then retired to his place near Belfast, where he has practised political Protestanism ever since. I have never met any one more sincere than Malcolmson. He believes in civil and religious liberty. He is prepared at any moment to do battle for his faith. I do not know that he really deserves much credit for this, because he is the sort of man who would do battle for the love of it, even if there were no faith to be fought for. Still the fact remains that he has a faith, rather a rare possession.
When he had me cornered near the window of the smoking room, he told me that the hour of battle had almost come. Ulster was drilled, more or less armed, and absolutely united. Rather than endure Home Rule Malcolmson and, I think, a hundred thousand other men were going to lay down their lives. It took Malcolmson more than an hour to tell me that because he kept wandering from the main point in order to abuse the Government and the Irish Party. Of the two he seemed to dislike the Government more.
Irish politics are of all subjects the most wearisome to me; but I must admit that Malcolmson interested me before he stopped talking. I began to wish to hear what Gorman had to say about the matter. I could not imagine that he and his friends contemplated a siege of Belfast, to rank in history alongside of the famous attempt to starve Derry.
There was no difficulty about getting hold of Gorman. In times of furious political excitement he is sure to be found at the post of duty, that is to say, in the smoking room of the House of Commons. I wrote to him and invited him to dine with me in my rooms. It would have been much more convenient to give him dinner at one of my clubs. But I was afraid to do that. I belonged to two clubs in London and unfortunately Malcolmson is a member of both of them. I do not know what would have happened if he had found himself in the same room with Gorman. The threatened civil war might have begun prematurely, and Malcolmson is such a determined warrior that a table fork might easily have become a lethal weapon in his hands. I did not want to have Gorman killed before I heard his opinion about the Ulster situation and I disliked the thought of having to explain the circumstances of his death to the club committee afterwards. There is always an uncertainty about the view which a club committee will take of any unusual event. I might very easily have been asked to resign my membership.
Gorman accepted my invitation, but said he would have to be back in the House of Commons at 9 o’clock. I fixed dinner for half past seven, which gave me nearly an hour and a half with Gorman, more time than Malcolmson had required to state his side of the case.
But Gorman was very much more difficult to deal with. He was not inclined to discuss Home Rule or the Ulster situation. He wanted to talk about Tim’s cash register, and, later on, about the new way of putting cinematograph pictures on the stage.
“I have been wandering about since I saw you last,” I said, “and I’ve been in all sorts of strange places. I’ve lost touch with things at home. Hardly ever saw an English newspaper. I want you to tell me——”
“Interesting time you must have had,” said Gorman. “Run across the trail of our friend Ascher much? I expect you did.”
Gorman very nearly sidetracked me there. I was strongly tempted to tell him about the impression which Ascher’s gossamer had made on me.
“The slime of the financier,” said Gorman, “lies pretty thick over the world. You’ve seen those large black slugs which come out in summer after rain, big juicy fellows which crawl along and leave a shiny track on the grass. They’re financiers.”
“Yes,” I said, “quite so. But tell me about Home Rule.”
“It’s all right. Can’t help becoming law. We have it in our pockets.”
“This time next year,” I said, “you’ll be sitting in a Parliament in Dublin.”
“There’ll be a Parliament in Dublin all right this time next year; but I’m not sure that I’ll be in it. After all, you know, Dublin’s rather a one-horse place. I don’t see how I could very well live there. I might run over for an important debate now and then, but—— You see I’ve a lot of interests in London. I suppose you’ve heard about the new Cash Register Company and what Ascher’s done.”
“Not a word. Do I still hold those shares of mine?”
“Unless you’ve sold them you do, but they’ll be very little good to you. Ascher has simply thrown away a sure thing. We might have had—well, I needn’t mention the sum, but it was a pretty big one. I had the whole business arranged. Those fellows would have paid up. But nothing would do Ascher except to put in his spoon. I’m blest if I see what his game is. He has one of course; but I don’t see it.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “he wants to have your brother’s invention worked for what it’s worth.”
“Rot,” said Gorman. “Why should he? I expect he has some dodge for squeezing us out and then getting a bigger price all for himself; but I’m damned if I see how he means to work it. These financial men are as cunning as Satan and they all hang together. We outsiders don’t have a chance.”
“What about Ulster?” I said. “I was talking to a man last week who told me——”
“All bluff,” said Gorman. “Nothing in it. How can they do anything? What Ascher says is that he wants the old company to take up Tim’s invention and work it. There’s to be additional capital raised and we’re to come in as shareholders. Ascher, Stutz & Co. will underwrite the new issues and take three and one-half per cent. That’s what he says. But, of course, that’s not the real game. There’s something behind.”
“Doesn’t it occur to you that there may be something behind the Ulster movement too?”
“No. What can they do? The Bill will be law before the end of July.”
“They say they’ll fight.”
“Oh,” said Gorman, “we’ve heard all about that till we’re sick of the sound of it. There’s nothing in it. The thing’s as plain as anything can be. We have a majority in Parliament and the bill will be passed. That’s all there is to say. I wish to goodness I saw my way as plainly in the cash register affair.”
Gorman’s faith in parliamentary majorities is extremely touching. I suppose that only politicians believe that the voting of men who are paid to vote really affects things. I doubt whether men of any other profession have the same whole-hearted faith in the efficacy of their own craft. Doctors are often a little sceptical about the value of medicines and operations. No barrister, that I ever met, thinks he achieves justice by arguing points of law. But politicians, even quite intelligent politicians like Gorman, seem really to hold that human life will be altered in some way because they walk round the lobbies of a particular building in London and have their heads counted three or four times an hour. To me it seemed quite plain that Malcolmson would not bate an ounce of his devotion to civil and religious liberty even if Gorman’s head were counted every five minutes for ten years and Gorman were paid a thousand a year instead of four hundred a year for letting out his head for the purpose. Why should Malcolmson care how often Gorman is counted? There is in the end only the original Gorman with his single head.
“Anyhow,” said Gorman, “I’m keeping in with Mrs. Ascher.”
He winked at me as he said this. I like Gorman’s way of adding explanatory winks to his remarks. I should frequently miss the meaning, the full meaning of what he says if he did not help out his words with these expressive winks. This time he made me understand that he had no great affection for Mrs. Ascher, regarded her rather as a joke which had worn thin; but hoped to pick up from her some information about her husband’s subtle schemes. I knew his hopes were vain. In the first place the Aschers do not talk business to each other and she knows nothing of what he is doing. In the next place Ascher had no underhand plot with regard to the cash register. He was acting in a perfectly open and straightforward way. But Gorman cannot believe that any one is straightforward. That is one of the drawbacks to the profession of politics. The practice of it destroys a man’s faith in human honesty.
“How’s Tim?” I asked. “Last time I saw him he was in great trouble because Mrs. Ascher said he was committing blasphemy.”
“Tim’s in England,” said Gorman. “I was rather angry with him myself for a while. If he had followed my advice about the cash register——. But Tim always was a fool about money, though he has brains of a sort, lots of them.”
“Still working with that circus?”
“Oh, dear no. Left that months ago. He got some money. No, I didn’t give it to him. I fancy it must have been Ascher. Anyhow he’s got it. He’s down in Hertfordshire now, living in a barn.”
“Why? A barn seems an odd place to live in. Draughty, I should think.”
“He wanted space,” said Gorman, “a great deal of space to work at his experiments. I’m inclined to think there may be something in this new idea of his.”
“The living picture idea? Making real ghosts of the figures?”
“That’s it. And, do you know, he’s getting at it. He showed me some perfectly astonishing results the other day. If he pulls it off——”
“You won’t let Ascher get hold of it this time,” I said. Gorman frowned.
“I wouldn’t let Ascher touch it if I could help it, but what the devil can I do? We shall want capital and I suppose Ascher is no worse than the rest of them.”
By “them” Gorman evidently meant capitalists in general and financiers in particular.
“That’s the way,” he said. “Not only do these scoundrels control politics, reducing the whole system of democracy to a farce——”
“Come now,” I said, “don’t blame the capitalists for that. Democracy would be a farce if there never was such a thing as a capitalist.”
“Not content with that,” said Gorman, “they keep an iron grip upon industry. They fatten on the fruits of other men’s brains. They hold the working man in thrall, exploiting his energy for their own selfish greed, starving his women and children——”
Gorman ought to keep that sort of thing for public meetings. It is thoroughly bad form to make speeches to an audience of one. I must say that he seldom does. I suppose that his intimate association with Mrs. Ascher had spoiled his manners in this respect. She encouraged him to be oratorical. But I am not Mrs. Ascher, and I saw no reason why I should stand that kind of thing at my own dinner table.
“But the day is coming,” I said, “when organised labour will rise in its might and claim its heritage in the fair world which lies bathed in the sunlight of a nobler age.”
Gorman looked at me doubtfully for an instant, only for a single instant. Almost immediately his eyes twinkled and he smiled good-humouredly.
“You ought to go in for politics,” he said. “You really ought. I apologise. Can’t think what came over me to talk like that.”
I cannot resist Gorman when he smiles. I felt that I too owed an apology.
“After all,” I said, “you must practise somewhere. I don’t blame you in the least; though I don’t profess to like it. No one can do that sort of thing extempore and if it happens to suit you to rehearse at dinner——”
“Nonsense,” said Gorman. “There’s not the slightest necessity for practice. I could do it by the hour and work sums in my head at the same time. Any one could.”
Gorman is modest. Very few people can make speeches like his, fortunately for the world.
“All the same,” he said, reverting abruptly to the starting point of his speech, “it’s a pity we have to let Ascher into this new cinematograph racket; but we can’t help it. In fact I expect he’s in already.”
“Lending money to Tim for experiments?”
“He wouldn’t do that,” said Gorman, “unless he’d made sure of his share of the spoil afterwards.”
“Gorman,” I said, “why don’t you make a law to suppress Ascher. You believe in making laws, and, according to your own showing, that would be a very useful one.”
Gorman gave me no answer. I knew he could not, because there is no answer to give. If laws had any effect on life, as Gorman pretends to believe, he would make one which would do away with Ascher. But he knows in his heart that he might just as well make a law forbidding the wind to blow from the east. Instead of taking any notice of my question he pulled out his watch and looked at it.
“Nine o’clock,” he said. “I must be off to the House at once. An important division has been arranged for a quarter past. Just ask your man to call a taxi, will you?”
“Why go?” I said. “If the division is arranged the result will be arranged too.”
“Of course it is,” said Gorman. “You don’t suppose the Whips leave that to chance.”
“I must say you manage these things very badly. Here you are smoking comfortably after dinner, not in the least inclined to stir, and yet you say you have to go. Why don’t you introduce a system of writing cheques? ‘Pay the Whip of my Party or bearer 150 votes. Signed Michael Gorman, M. P.’”
“That’s rather a good idea,” said Gorman. “It would save a lot of trouble.”
“The cheque could be passed in to some sort of clearing house where a competent clerk, after going over all the cheques, would strike a balance and place it to the credit of your side or the other. That would be the Government’s Majority, and you wouldn’t have to go near the House of Commons at all except when you wanted to make a speech. I don’t think you need go even then. You might make your speeches quietly in your own home to a couple of reporters.”
“It would simplify parliamentary life enormously,” said Gorman, “there’s no doubt of that. But I don’t think it would do. I don’t really. The people wouldn’t stand it.”
“If the people stand the way you go on at present they’ll stand anything.”
“I wish,” said Gorman, “that you’d ring for a taxi.”
I rang the bell and five minutes later Gorman left me. He had not told me anything about Home Rule, or how his party meant to deal with a recalcitrant Ulster. He seemed very little interested in Ulster. Yet Malcolmson was indubitably in earnest. I felt perfectly sure about that.