Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 3
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.