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George Gissing: The morbid love of war

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

British writers on peace and war

George Gissing: Selections on war

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George Gissing
From The Crown of Life

Arnold was interested. He had only the slightest acquaintance with Hannaford, and would like to hear more of him.

“Not long ago,” Piers responded, “he was a teacher of chemistry at Geneva – I got to know him there. He seems to speak half a dozen languages in perfection; I believe he was born in Switzerland. His house down in Surrey is a museum of modern weapons – a regular armoury. He has invented some new gun.”

“So I gathered. And a new explosive, I’m told.”

“I hope he doesn’t store it in his house?” said Mr. Jacks, looking with concern at Piers.

“I’ve had a moment’s uneasiness about that, now and then,” Otway replied, laughing, “especially after hearing him talk.”

“A tremendous fellow!” Arnold exclaimed admiringly. “He showed me, by sketch diagrams, how many men he could kill within a given space.”

“If this gentleman were not your friend, Mr. Otway,” began the host, “I should say -”

“Oh, pray say whatever you like! He isn’t my friend at all, and I detest his inventions.”

“Shocking!” fell sweetly from the lady at the head of the table.

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Mr. Hannaford’s sanctum alone had character; it was hung about with lethal weapons of many kinds and many epochs, including a memento of every important war waged in Europe since the date of Waterloo. A smoke-grimed rifle from some battlefield was in Hannaford’s view a thing greatly precious; still more, a bayonet with stain of blood; these relics appealed to his emotions. Under glass were ranged minutiae such as bullets, fragments of shells, bits of gore-drenched cloth or linen, a splinter of human bone – all ticketed with neat inscription. A bookcase contained volumes of military history, works on firearms, treatises on (chiefly explosive) chemistry; several great portfolios were packed with maps and diagrams of warfare. Upstairs, a long garret served as laboratory, and here were ranged less valuable possessions; weapons to which some doubt attached, unbloody scraps of accoutrements, also a few models of cannon and the like.

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Mrs. Hannaford was something of an artist; her husband spoke of all art with contempt – except the great art of human slaughter. She liked the society of foreigners; he, though a remarkable linguist, at heart distrusted and despised all but English-speaking folk. As a girl in her teens, she had been charmed by the man’s virile accomplishments, his soldierly bearing and gay talk of martial things, though Hannaford was only a teacher of science. Nowadays she thought with dreary wonder of that fascination, and had come to loathe every trapping and habiliment of war. She knew him profoundly selfish, and recognised the other faults which had hindered so clever a man from success in life; indolent habits, moral untrustworthiness, and a conceit which at times menaced insanity. He hated her, she was well aware, because of her cold criticism; she returned his hate with interest.

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