CONVERSES WITH A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR
"Yes," said Mr. Lavender, when they had proceeded some twenty miles along the road for home, "my hunger is excessive. If we come across an hotel, Joe, pull up."
"Right-o, sir," returned Joe. "'Otels, ain't what they were, but we'll find something. I've got your coupons."
Mr. Lavender, who was seated beside his chauffeur on the driving-seat, while Blink occupied in solitude the body of the car, was silent for a minute, revolving a philosophic thought.
"Do you find," he said suddenly, "that compulsory sacrifice is doing you good, Joe?"
"It's good for my thirst, sir," replied Joe. "Never was so powerful thirsty in me life as I've been since they watered beer. There's just 'enough in it to tickle you. That bottle o' Bass you would 'ave 'ad at lunch is the last of the old stock at 'ome, sir; an' the sight of it fair gave me the wind up. To think those blighters 'ad it! Wish I'd known they was Germans--I wouldn't 'ave weakened on it."
"Do not, I beg," said Mr. Lavender, "remind me of that episode. I sometimes think," he went on as dreamily as his hunger would permit, "that being forced to deprive oneself awakens one's worst passions; that is, of course, speaking rather as a man than a public man. What do you think will happen, Joe, when we are no longer obliged to sacrifice ourselves?
"Do wot we've been doin all along--sacrifice someone else," said Joe lightly.
"Be serious, Joe," said Mr. Lavender.
"Well," returned Joe, "I don't know what'll 'appen to you, sir, but I shall go on the bust permanent."
Mr. Lavender sighed. "I do so wonder whether I shall, too," he said.
Joe looked round at him, and a gleam of compassion twinkled in his greenish eyes. "Don't you worry, sir," he said; "it's a question of constitootion. A week'd sew you up."
"A week!" said Mr. Lavender with watering lips, "I trust I may not forget myself so long as that. Public men do not go 'on the bust,' Joe, as you put it."
"Be careful, sir! I can't drive with one eye."
"How can they, indeed?" went on Mr. Lavender; "they are like athletes, ever in training for their unending conflict with the national life."
"Well," answered Joe indulgently, "they 'as their own kind of intoxication, too--that's true; and the fumes is permanent; they're gassed all the time, and chloroformed the rest.
"I don't know to what you allude, Joe," said Mr. Lavender severely.
"'Aven't you never noticed, sir, that there's two worlds--the world as it is, and the world as it seems to the public man?"
"That may be," said Mr. Lavender with some excitement. "But which is the greater, which is the nobler, Joe? And what does the other matter? Surely that which flourishes in great minds, and by their utterances is made plain. Is it not better to live in a world where nobody shrinks from being starved or killed so long as they can die for their kings and countries, rather than in a world where people merely wish to live?"
"Ah!" said Joe, "we're all ready to die for our countries if we've got to. But we don't look on it, like the public speakers, as a picnic. They're a bit too light-'earted."
"Joe," said Mr. Lavender, covering his ears, and instantly uncovering them again, "this is the most horrible blasphemy I have ever listened to."
"I can do better than that, sir," answered Joe. "Shall I get on with it?"
"Yes," said Mr. Lavender, clenching his hands, "a public man shrinks from nothing--not even from the gibes of his enemies."
"Well, wot abaht it, sir? Look at the things they say, and at what really is. Mind you, I'm not speakin' particular of the public men in this country--or any other country; I'm speakin' of the lot of 'em in every country. They're a sort of secret society, brought up on gas. And every now and then someone sets a match to it, and we get it in the neck. Look 'ere, sir. Dahn squats one on his backside an' writes something in 'igh words. Up pops another and says something in 'igher; an' so they go on poppin' up an' squattin' dahn till you get an atmosphere where you can't breathe; and all the time all we want is to be let alone, and 'uman kindness do the rest. All these fellers 'ave got two weaknesses--one's ideas, and the other's their own importance. They've got to be conspicuous, and without ideas they can't, so it's a vicious circle. When I see a man bein' conspicuous, I says to meself: 'Gawd 'elp us, we shall want it!' And sooner or later we always do. I'll tell you what's the curse of the world, sir; it's the gift of expressin' what ain't your real feeling. And--Lord! what a lot of us 'ave got it!"
"Joe," said Mr. Lavender, whose eyes were almost starting from his head, "your words are the knell of poetry, philosophy, and prose--especially of prose. They are the grave of history, which, as you know, is made up of the wars and intrigues which have originated in the brains of public men. If your sordid views were true, how do you suppose for one minute that in this great epic struggle we could be consoled by the thought that we are 'making history'? Has there been a single utterance of any note which has not poured the balm of those words into our ears? Think how they have sustained the widow and the orphan, and the wounded lying out in agony under the stars. 'To make history,' 'to act out the great drama'--that thought, ever kept before us, has been our comfort and their stay. And you would take it from us? Shame--shame!" repeated Mr. Lavender. "You would destroy all glamour, and be the death of every principle."
"Give me facts," said Joe stubbornly, "an' you may 'ave my principles. As to the other thing, I don't know what it is, but you may 'ave it, too. And 'ere's another thing, sir: haven't you never noticed that when a public man blows off and says something, it does 'im in? No matter what 'appens afterwards, he's got to stick to it or look a fool."
"I certainly have not," said Mr. Lavender. "I have never, or very seldom, noticed that narrowness in public men, nor have I ever seen them 'looking fools' as you rudely put it."
"Where are your eyes, sir?" answered Joe; "where are your eyes? I give you my word it's one or the other, though I admit they've brought camouflage to an 'igh art. But, speaking soberly, sir, if that's possible, public men are a good thing' and you can 'ave too much of it. But you began it, sir," he added soothingly, "and 'ere's your hotel. You'll feel better with something inside you."
So saying, he brought the car to a standstill before a sign which bore the words, "Royal Goat."
Mr. Lavender, deep sunk in the whirlpool of feeling which had been stirred in him by his chauffeur's cynicism, gazed at the square redbrick building with bewildered eyes.
"It's quite O. K.," said Joe; "I used to call here regular when I was travellin' in breeches. Where the commercials are gathered together the tap is good," he added, laying a finger against the side of his nose. "And they've a fine brand of pickles. Here's your coupon."
Thus encouraged, Mr. Lavender descended from the car, and, accompanied by Blink, entered the hotel and sought the coffee-room.
A maid of robust and comely appearance, with a fine free eye, divested him of his overcoat and the coupon, and pointed to a table and a pale and intellectual-looking young man in spectacles who was eating.
"Have you any more beef?" said the latter without looking up.
"No, sir," replied the maid.
"Then bring me the ham and eggs," he added.
"Here's another coupon--and anything else you've got."
Mr. Lavender, whose pangs had leaped in him at the word "beef," gazed at the bare bone of the beef-joint, and sighed.
"I, too, will have some ham and a couple of poached eggs," he said.
"You can have ham, sir," replied the maid, "but there are only eggs enough for one."
"And I am the one," said the young man, looking up for the first time.
Mr. Lavender at once conceived an aversion from him; his appearance was unhealthy, and his eyes ravened from behind the spectacles beneath his high forehead.
"I have no wish to deprive you of your eggs, sir," he said, "though I have had nothing to eat all day."
"I have had nothing to eat to speak of for six months," replied the young man, "and in a fortnight's time I shall have nothing to eat again for two years."
Mr. Lavender, who habitually spoke, the truth, looked at him with a sort of horror. But the young man had again concentrated his attention on his plate. "How deceptive are appearances," thought Mr. Lavender; "one would say an intellectual, not to say a spiritual type, and yet he eats like a savage, and lies like a trooper!" And the pinchings of his hunger again attacking him, he said rather acidly:
May I ask you, sir, whether you consider it amusing to tell such untruths to a stranger?
The young man, who had finished what was on his plate, paused, and with a faint smile said:
"I spoke figuratively. You, sir, I expect, have never been in prison."
At the word 'prison' Mr. Lavender's natural kindliness reasserted itself at once. "Forgive me," he said gently; "please eat all the ham. I can easily do with bread and cheese. I am extremely sorry you have had that misfortune, and would on no account do anything which might encourage you to incur it again. If it is a question of money or anything of that sort," he went on timidly, "please command me. I abhor prisons; I consider them inhuman; people should only be confined upon their honours."
The young man's eyes kindled behind his spectacles.
"I have been confined," he said, "not upon my honour, but because of my honour; to break it in."
"How is that?" cried Mr. Lavender, aghast, "to break it in?"
"Yes," said the young man, cutting a large slice of bread, "there's no other way of putting it with truth. They want me to go back on my word to go back on my faith, and I won't. In a fortnight's time they'll gaol me again, so I MUST eat--excuse me. I shall want all my strength." And he filled his mouth too full to go on speaking.
Mr. Lavender stared at him, greatly perturbed.
"How unjustly I judged him," he thought; and seeing that the maid had placed the end of a ham before him he began carving off what little there was left on it, and, filling a plate, placed it before the young man. The latter thanked him, and without looking up ate rapidly on. Mr. Lavender watched him with beaming eyes. "It's lovely to see him!" he thought; "poor fellow!"
"Where are the eggs?" said the young man suddenly.
Mr. Lavender got up and rang the bell.
"Please bring those eggs for him," he said.
"Yes, sir," said the maid. "And what are you going to have? There's nothing in the house now."
"Oh!" said Mr. Lavender, startled. "A cup of coffee and a slice of bread, thank you. I can always eat at any time."
The maid went away muttering to herself, and bringing the eggs, plumped them down before the young man, who ate them more hastily than words could tell.
"I mean," he said, "to do all I can in this fort-night to build up my strength. I shall eat almost continuously. They shall never break me." And, reaching out, he took the remainder of the loaf.
Mr. Lavender watched it disappear with a certain irritation which he subdued at once. "How selfish of me," he thought, "even to think of eating while this young hero is still hungry."
"Are you, then," he said, "the victim of some religious or political plot?"
"Both," replied the young man, leaning back with a sigh of repletion, and wiping his mouth. "I was released to-day, and, as I said, I shall be court-martialled again to-day fortnight. It'll be two years this time. But they can't break me."
Mr. Lavender gasped, for at the word "courtmartialled" a dreadful doubt had assailed him.
"Are you," he stammered--"you are not--you cannot be a Conscientious Objector?"
"I can," said the young man.
Mr. Lavender half rose in horror.
"I don't approve," he ejaculated; "I do not approve of you."
"Of course not," said the young man with a little smile at once proud and sad, "who does? If you did I shouldn't have to eat like this, nor should I have the consciousness of spiritual loneliness to sustain me. You look on me as a moral outcast, as a leper. That is my comfort and my strength. For though I have a genuine abhorrence of war, I know full well that I could not stick this if it were not for the feeling that I must not and will not lower myself to the level of mere opportunists like you, and sink myself in the herd of men in the street."
At hearing himself thus described Mr. Lavender flushed.
"I yield to no one," he said, "in my admiration of principle. It is because of my principles that I regard you as a----"
"Shirker," put in the young man calmly. "Go on; don't mince words; we're used to them."
"Yes," said Mr. Lavender, kindling, "a shirker. Excuse me! A renegade from the camp of Liberty, a deserter from the ranks of Humanity, if you will pardon me."
"Say a Christian, and have done with it," said the young man.
"No," said Mr. Lavender, who had risen to his feet, "I will not go so far as that. You are not a Christian, you are a Pharisee. I abhor you."
"And I abhor you," said the young man suddenly. "I am a Christian Socialist, but I refuse to consider you my brother. And I can tell you this: Some day when through our struggle the triumph of Christian Socialism and of Peace is assured, we shall see that you firebrands and jingoes get no chance to put up your noxious heads and disturb the brotherhood of the world. We shall stamp you out. We shall do you in. We who believe in love will take jolly good care that you apostles of hate get all we've had and more--if you provoke us enough that is."
He stopped, for Mr. Lavender's figure had rigidified on the other side of the table into the semblance of one who is about to address the House of Lords.
"I can find here," he cried, "no analogy with religious persecution. This is a simple matter. The burden of defending his country falls equally on every citizen. I know not, and I care not, what promises were made to you, or in what spirit the laws of compulsory service were passed. You will either serve or go to prison till you do. I am a plain Englishman, expressing the view of my plain countrymen."
The young man, tilting back in his chair, rapped on the table with the handle of his dinner-knife.
"Hear, hear!" he murmured.
"And let me tell you this," continued Mr. Lavender, "you have no right to put a mouthful of food between your lips so long as you are not prepared to die for it. And if the Huns came here tomorrow I would not lift a finger to save you from the fate you would undoubtedly receive."
During this colloquy their voices had grown so loud that the maid, entering in dismay, had gone into the bar and informed the company that a Conscientious Objector had eaten all the food and was "carrying on outrageous" in the coffee-room. On hearing this report those who were assembled--being four commercial travellers far gone in liquor--taking up the weapons which came nearest to hand--to wit, four syphons--formed themselves two deep and marched into the coffee-room. Aware at once from Mr. Lavender's white hair and words that he was not the Objector in question, they advanced upon the young man, who was still seated, and taking up the four points of the compass, began squirting him unmercifully with soda-water. Blinded and dripping, the unfortunate young fellow tried desperately to elude the cordon of his persecutors, only to receive a fresh stream in his face at each attempt. Seeing him thus tormented, amid the coarse laughter of these half-drunken "travellers," Mr. Lavender suffered a moment of the most poignant struggle between his principles and his chivalry. Then, almost unconsciously grasping the ham-bone, he advanced and called out loudly:
"Stop! Do not persecute that young man. You are four and he is one. Drop it, I tell you--Huns that you are!"
The commercial fellows, however, laughed; and this infuriating Mr. Lavender, he dealt one of them a blow with the ham-bone, which, lighting on the funny point of his elbow, caused him to howl and spin round the room. One of the others promptly avenged him with a squirt of syphon in Mr. Lavender's left eye; whereon he incontinently attacked them all, whirling the ham-bone round his head like a shillelagh. And had it not been that Blink and the maid seized his coat-tails he would have done them severe injury. It was at this moment that Joe Petty, attracted by the hullabaloo, arrived in the doorway, and running up to his master, lifted him from behind and carried him from the room, still brandishing the ham-bone and kicking out with his legs. Dumping him into the car, Joe mounted hastily and drove off. Mr. Lavender sat for two or three minutes coming to his senses before full realization of what he had done dawned on him. Then, flinging the ham-bone from him, he sank back among the cushions, with his chin buried on his chest. "What have I done?" he thought over and over again. "What have I done? Taken up the bone for a Conscientious Objector--defended a renegade against great odds! My God! I am indeed less than a public man!"
And in this state of utter dejection, inanition, and collapse, with Blink asleep on his feet, he was driven back to Hampstead.