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Arnold Bennett: The Slaughterer

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

British writers on peace and war

Arnold Bennett: War casualties and war profiteers

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Arnold Bennett
From Riceyman Steps

“Pentonville! Joe, d’ye mean ye’ve been to prison?” He nodded. “What a shame!” she exclaimed in protest, not at his having done anything wicked enough to send him to prison, but at the police having been wicked enough to send him to prison. She assumed instinctively and positively that he was an innocent victim of the ruthless blue men whom some people know only as pilots of perambulators across busy streets.

“There was no option, ye know, so I had fourteen days.”

She dropped on her knees at the bedside, and put her left arm under his neck and threw her right arm over his waist, and with it felt again the familiar shape of his waist through the bedclothes, and gazed into his homely, ugly face upon which soft, dark hair – a beard on the chin – as sprouting. This faith and tenderness made Joe cry.

“Tell me,” she murmured, scarcely hoping that he would succeed in any narrative.

“Oh, it’s nothin’,” Joe replied gloomily. “Armistice Day, ye know. I had my afternoon, and I went out.”

“Were ye in a place, Joe?”

“I had a part-time place in Oxford Street – carrying coal upstairs, and cleaning brasses and sweeping and errands. And a bed. Yes, in the basement. Sort of a watchman. Doctor he give me a testimonial. Least, he sent it me when I wrote and asked him…I went down to Piccadilly to see the sights, and when it was about dark I see our old divisional general in a damn big car with two young ladies. There was a block, ye see, in Piccadilly Circus, and he was stopped by the kerb where them flower-girls are, ye know, by the fountain, and I was standing there as close as I am to you, Elsie. We used to call him the Slaughterer. That was how we called him. We never called him nothin’ else. And there he was with his two rows o’ ribbons and his flash women, perhaps they weren’t flash, and I didn’t like the look of his face – hard, ye know. Cruel. We knowed him, we did. And then I thought of the two minutes’ silence, and hats off and stand at ‘tention, and the Cenotaph, and it made me laugh. I laughed at him through the glass. And he didn’t like it, he didn’t. I was as close to him as I am to you, ye see. And he lets down the glass and says something about insultin’ behaviour to these ladies, and I put my tongue out to him. That tore it, that did. That fair put the lid on. I felt something coming over me – ye know. Then there was a crowd, and I caught a policeman one on the shoulder. Oh, they marched me off, three of ’em! The doctor at the station said I was drunk, me as hadn’t had a drop for three days! Next morning the beak he said he’d treat me lenient because it was Armistice Day, and I’d had some and I’d fought for the old country, but assaulting an officer of the law, he couldn’t let that pass. No option for that, so he give me fourteen days.”

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From Sacred and Profane Love

Great grief is democratic, levelling – not downwards but upwards. It strips away the inessential, and makes brothers. It is impatient with all the unavailing inventions which obscure the brotherhood of mankind.

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