Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 19
I look back on the time I spent soldiering—soldiering under war conditions—as a curious blank in an otherwise interesting and amusing life. From the day on which I rejoined my regiment until the day, about five months later, when I escaped from the hospital in which I was incarcerated, my mind stopped working altogether. I took no interest whatever in any of the things which used to excite me, which are now, I am thankful to say, beginning to amuse me again. Politicians, I believe, pranced about with fascinating agility. I did not care to look at them. Newspaper proprietors demanded the immediate execution of one public man after another. I do not believe I should have cared if a guillotine had been set up in Piccadilly Circus and a regular reign of terror established. I lost sight of Gorman. The Aschers faded from my memory.
I spent three months or so in camp with my old regiment. I worked exceedingly hard. I ate enormously. I slept profoundly. I attained an almost incredible perfection of physical health. I ceased to think about anything. My experience of the business of actual fighting was brief. I had little more than a month of it altogether. Then they sent me home with a shattered leg. I worked harder than ever when I was at the Front. I was often very uncomfortable. I remained amazingly healthy. I suffered at last a good deal of physical pain. I did not think at all, even about the progress of the war.
I date my awakening again to the interests of life from the day when Gorman paid me his first visit. I was convalescent and had made myself fairly comfortable in a cottage near Guildford. I had got rid of the last of a long series of nurses. My leg had ceased to cause me any active annoyance, but I was beginning to find myself a good deal bored and not a little depressed. When Gorman walked in I was not, just at first, particularly glad to see him.
“Let me congratulate you,” he said.
“On being alive? Is that a blessing?”
I had been brooding over the fact that I was lame for life. Gorman’s breezy cheerfulness rather jarred me.
“Of course it’s a blessing to be alive,” said Gorman, “but I wasn’t thinking of that. What I was congratulating you on was being a hero. D. S. O., isn’t it? Tell me all about it, won’t you?”
I have been given the right of appending those three letters to my name, so I suppose I must have avoided the worst kinds of blundering and incompetence. But I have no recollection of doing anything to deserve the honour. I fear I answered Gorman rather ill-temperedly.
“There’s nothing whatever to tell,” I said. “I just crawled about in a trench, generally muddy. Everybody else did exactly the same.”
Gorman is still the same man he always was, amazingly tactful and sympathetic. He realised at once that I hated talking about the war and was in no mood for recounting my own experiences. Instead of pressing me with silly questions until he drove me mad, he dropped the subject of my D. S. O. and began to babble agreeably about other things.
“Politics,” he said, “have got into a frightful state. In fact there are hardly any politics at all. We haven’t had a decent rag since the war began. We all sit round cooing at each other like beastly little green lovebirds in a cage. It can’t last long, of course. Sooner or later somebody’s bound to break out and try to bite; but for the present Parliament’s the dullest place in Europe.”
I began to feel slightly interested.
“I remember hearing,” I said, “that you Nationalists promised not to cheer for the Germans.”
“We did more than that,” said Gorman. “We rallied to the Empire at the very start and have kept on rallying ever since. It felt odd at first, but you get used to anything in time, even to being loyal. You’d have been surprised if you’d heard me singing, ‘God Save the King’ in Dublin last week.”
“Did you really?”
“Twice,” said Gorman, “on two consecutive days.”
A world in which such things could happen might, I began to feel, be worth living in after all. I smiled feebly at Gorman. He responded with a delicious wink.
“What’s happened to Home Rule?” I said.
“For the present it’s hung up; a case of suspended animation; our idea is that if we’re thoroughly loyal now the English people will be so grateful to us——”
“But they’ll be just as grateful to the Ulstermen,” I said. “They’re loyal, too, I suppose.”
“That’s the difficulty, of course,” said Gorman. “But what else could we do? If we’d allowed the Orangemen to make a corner in loyalty at the present crisis——”
“Crisis!” I said. “How that word brings it all back to me? Are we still going through a crisis? Fancy the word surviving!”
“It’s about the only part of our old political system which does survive. The rest’s gone, hopelessly.”
Gorman sighed, and I began to feel depressed again: But Gorman is not the man to sorrow long, even over the decay of the British Constitution. He dropped the unpleasant subject and started fresh.
“Tim,” he said, “has been rather a disappointment to me. He hasn’t invented a single thing since the war began.”
“I should have thought,” I said, “that this would have been his opportunity.”
“So it is. The country’s simply crying out for inventions. Aërial torpedoes, traps for submarines, wireless methods of exploding the enemy’s ammunition, heaps of things of that sort. Tim might scoop up an immense fortune and be made a baronet. But instead of inventing—and he could if he chose—the young fool is flying about somewhere and dropping bombs on German railways. I’m inclined to think it was a mistake putting Tim into the Flying Corps at all. I wonder if we could get him out again. Do you know any one you could write to about him?”
“No,” I said, “not a soul.”
“Pity,” said Gorman. “A little personal influence helps a lot in things of this sort, and a letter from you——”
I thought it time to change the subject.
“The Aschers?” I said. “Ever see them now?”
“I met her in the Park on Sunday. She’s Red Crossing. Had on the most elaborate costume you ever saw. Imagine a nurse’s uniform brought up to the standard of the highest art, or perhaps I ought to say an artistic dress with the red cross for motif. She told me that she expects to go to the Front next week.”
“Thank God she didn’t go sooner! She might have nursed me if she’d been there in time.”
“She’d have done it all right,” said Gorman. “I hear she’s a splendid organiser in spite of her clothes. Always was a remarkable woman, though you didn’t care for her. There’s been a lot of trouble about Ascher.”
“Did he go bankrupt?”
“Oh, dear no. Quite the contrary. All that financial part of the business was well managed and there wasn’t any serious smash-up. They say that Ascher helped a lot, in fact that it was very largely his advice which the Government took. All the same a lot of people turned on him afterwards, in spite of all I did to get him naturalised. They wanted to imprison him; but that was absurd. It’s all very well to round up ordinary Germans, barbers, waiters and people of that sort, and put them in concentration camps. But you can’t imprison a man who’s worth millions. That sort of thing isn’t done in any civilised state.”
“Besides,” I said, “Ascher didn’t deserve it.”
“Of course not. But that wouldn’t have saved him. In fact that has nothing whatever to do with the matter. Popular opinion ran very strongly against Germans, whether naturalised or not. And things were beginning to look very nasty for Ascher. However, we managed all right.”
“Oh,” said Gorman, “in the usual way. Diverted it.”
“Gorman,” I said, “I’m afraid I’m getting stupid. Fighting must have muddled my brain. I don’t quite follow you. What did you divert?”
“Popular opinion,” said Gorman. “We turned it away from Ascher, started everybody hunting a fresh hare. It wouldn’t have done to imprison Ascher, really wouldn’t, for a lot of reasons; so we all began making speeches about beer. Temperance, you know; I made one myself. Then everybody forgot about Ascher and things settled down.”
“Politics aren’t as dead as you said they were, Gorman. You politicians——”
“It’s all very well sneering at politicians, and I don’t mind your doing it, not a bit, especially as you’re wounded. But if it hadn’t been for us politicians—— Tell me this now, is there anybody else in the country who can divert popular opinion from an awkward subject?”
I do not suppose there is. But I did not care to argue about it.
“Do you think,” I said, “that Ascher ever regretted his decision?”
“What decision? Oh, to stay in England? No. I don’t think he ever has. He’s done pretty well for himself in spite of any little trouble there’s been. I should say he’s no worse off than he was.”
“I wasn’t thinking of the matter from a business point of view,” I said.
“From every other point of view,” said Gorman, “he was wrong. A man ought not to go back on his country under any circumstances whatever.”
“I don’t agree with you,” I said.
“His conscience,” said Gorman, “if financiers have consciences which I doubt——”
“Some day,” I said, “when I’m a bit stronger, we’ll argue the whole thing out.”
We have argued it out, since then, twenty times at least. We are no nearer reaching a conclusion than we were.