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John Galsworthy: Friend becomes foe with war psychosis

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

John Galsworthy: Selections on war

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John Galsworthy
From The Burning Spear (1919)

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Mr. Lavender sat forward a little on his chair. “I shall never admit,” he said, “that we are going to take anything, for that would be contrary to the principles which we are pledged to support, and to our avowed intention of seeking only the benefit of the human race; but our inhuman foes have compelled us to deprive them of the power to injure others.”

“Yes,” said the Major, “we must just go on killing Germans and collaring every bit of their property we can.”

Mr. Lavender sat a little further forward on his chair, and the trouble in his eyes grew.

“After all’s said and done,” continued the Major; “it’s a simple war – us or them! And in the long run it’s bound to be us. We’ve got the cards.” Mr. Lavender started, and said in a weak and wavering voice:

“We shall never sheathe the sword until -”

“The whole bag of tricks is in our hands. Might isn’t Right, but Right’s Might, Mr. Lavender; ha, ha!”

Mr. Lavender’s eyes lighted on his glass, and he emptied it in his confusion. When he looked up again he could not see the Major very well, but could distinctly hear the truculent bonhomie of his voice.

“Every German ought to be interned; all their property ought to be confiscated; all their submarines’ and Zeppelins’ crews ought to be hung; all German prisoners ought to be treated as they treat our men. We ought to give ’em no quarter. We ought to bomb their towns out of existence. I draw the line at their women. Short of that there’s nothing too bad for them. I’d treat ’em like rabbits. Vermin they were, and vermin they remain.”

During this speech the most astounding experience befell Mr. Lavender, so that his eyes nearly started from his head. It seemed to him, indeed, that he was seated at dinner with a Prussian, and the Major’s voice had no sooner ceased its genial rasping than with a bound forward on his chair, he ejaculated:

“Behold the man – the Prussian in his jack-boot!” And, utterly oblivious of the fact that he was addressing Aurora’s father, he went on with almost terrible incoherence: “Although you have conquered this country, sir, never shall you subdue in my breast the sentiments of liberty and generosity which make me an Englishman. I abhor you – invader of the world – trampler underfoot of the humanities – enemy of mankind – apostle of force! You have blown out the sparks of love and kindliness, and have for ever robbed the Universe. Prussian!”

The emphasis with which he spoke that word caused his chair, on the edge of which he was sitting, to tilt up under him so that he slid under the table, losing the vision of that figure in helmet and field-grey which he had been apostrophizing.

“Hold up!” said a voice, while Blink joined him nervously beneath the board.

“Never!” cried Mr. Lavender. “Imprison, maltreat me do what you will. You have subdued her body, but never will I admit that you have conquered the honour of Britain and trodden her gentle culture into the mud.”

And, convinced that he would now be dragged away to be confined in some dungeon on bread and water, he clasped the leg of the dining-table with all his might, while Blink, sagaciously aware that something peculiar was occurring to her master, licked the back of his neck. He had been sitting there perhaps half a minute, with his ears stretched to catch the half-whispered sounds above, when he saw a shining object appear under the table, the head, indeed, of the Prussian squatting there to look at him.

“Go up, thou bald-head,” he called out at once; “I will make no terms with the destroyer of justice and humanity.”

“All right, my dear sir,” replied the head.

“Will you let my daughter speak to you?”

“Prussian blasphemer,” responded Mr. Lavender, shifting his position so as to be further away, and clasping instead of the table leg some soft silken objects, which he was too excited to associate with Aurora, “you have no daughter, for no woman would own one whose hated presence poisons this country.”

“Well, well,” said the Major. “How shall we get him out?”

Hearing these words, and believing them addressed to a Prussian guard, Mr. Lavender clung closer to the objects, but finding them wriggle in his clasp let go, and, bolting forward like a rabbit on his hands and knees, came into contact with the Major’s head. The sound of the concussion, the Major’s oaths, Mr. Lavender’s moans, Blink’s barking, and the peals of laughter from Aurora made up a noise which might have been heard in Portugal. The situation was not eased until Mr. Lavender crawled out, and taking up a dinner-knife, rolled his napkin round his arm, and prepared to defend himself against the German Army.

“Well, I’m damned,” said the Major when he saw these preparations; “I am damned.”

Aurora, who had been leaning against the wall from laughter, here came forward, gasping:

“Go away, Dad, and leave him to me.”

“To you!” cried the Major. “He’s not safe!”

“Oh yes, he is; it’s only you that are exciting him. Come along!”

And taking her father by the arm she conducted him from the room. Closing the door behind him, and putting her back against it, she said, gently:

“Dear Don Pickwixote, all danger is past. The enemy has been repulsed, and we are alone in safety. Ha, ha, ha!”

Her voice recalled. Mr. Lavender from his strange hallucination. “What?” he said weakly.

“Why? Who? Where? When?”

“You have been dreaming again. Let me take you home, and tuck you into bed.” And taking from him the knife and napkin, she opened the French-window, and passed out on to the lawn.

Lavender, who now that his reason had come back, would have followed her to the death, passed out also, accompanied by Blink, and watched by the Major, who had put his head in again at the door. Unfortunately, the spirit moved Mr. Lavender to turn round at this moment, and seeing the head he cried out in a loud voice:

“He is there! He is there! Arch enemy of mankind! Let me go and die under his jackboot, for never over my living body shall he rule this land.” And the infatuated gentleman would certainly have rushed at his host had not Aurora stayed him by the slack of his nether garments. The Major withdrawing his head, Mr. Lavender’s excitement again passed from him, and he suffered himself to be led dazedly away and committed to the charge of Mrs. Petty and Joe, who did not leave him till he was in bed with a strong bromide to keep him company.

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