Gossamer (Birmingham)/Chapter 4
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.