George Gissing: Lord of Slaughter commands curse of universal soldiering
From The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903)
Some one, I see, is lifting up his sweet voice in praise of Conscription. It is only at long intervals that one reads this kind of thing in our reviews or newspapers, and I am happy in believing that most English people are affected by it even as I am, with the sickness of dread and of disgust. That the thing is impossible in England, who would venture to say? Every one who can think at all sees how slight are our safeguards against that barbaric force in man which the privileged races have so slowly and painfully brought into check. [T]he revival of monarchic power based on militarism, makes the prospect dubious enough. There has but to arise some Lord of Slaughter, and the nations will be tearing at each other’s throats. Let England be imperilled, and Englishmen will fight; in such extremity there is no choice. But what a dreary change must come upon our islanders if, without instant danger, they bend beneath the curse of universal soldiering! I like to think that they will guard the liberty of their manhood even beyond the point of prudence.
Near a hamlet, in a lonely spot by a woodside, I came upon a little lad of perhaps ten years old, who, his head hidden in his arms against a tree trunk, was crying bitterly. I asked him what was the matter, and, after a little trouble – he was better than a mere bumpkin – I learnt that, having been sent with sixpence to pay a debt, he had lost the money. The poor little fellow was in a state of mind which in a grave man would be called the anguish of despair; he must have been crying for a long time; every muscle in his face quivered as if under torture, his limbs shook; his eyes, his voice, uttered such misery as only the vilest criminal should be made to suffer. And it was because he had lost sixpence!
I could have shed tears with him – tears of pity and of rage at all this spectacle implied. On a day of indescribable glory, when earth and heaven shed benedictions upon the soul of man, a child, whose nature would have bidden him rejoice as only childhood may, wept his heart out because his hand had dropped a sixpenny piece! The loss was a very serious one, and he knew it; he was less afraid to face his parents, than overcome by misery at the thought of the harm he had done them. Sixpence dropped by the wayside, and a whole family made wretched! What are the due descriptive terms for a state of “civilization” in which such a thing as this is possible?