3/18/15

On Private Property

When Captain Nicholas Nicholson found himself falling head downwards through empty space, the whole of his previous life passed before him. At least if it did not, the narrator of his adventures will certainly say it did; as it affords that unscrupulous scribe the most rapid method of describing who the Captain was and how he happened to be in mid air at the moment. He would describe at some length the life at public school, the first faint stirring of the human brain at Cambridge, the joining of a Socialist society, the growing belief in social order and system of the German type so abruptly interrupted by enlistment in 1914, the incident of the girl in the tea-shop of whom he could never find further traces, the quarrel with the solicitor who had put all the family patrimony to the higher purposes of finance, and finally the experiences in the Air Force which had terminated in the way described above.

He never heard himself crash; but he came to semi-consciousness in an atmosphere of racking clamour which gradually lessened till he heard voices round him; one saying something about somebody having an artificial leg and the other observing that such legs were very beautifully made nowadays. Then he relapsed into unconsciousness with an under current of pain; and woke in a white light to see men standing about in white clothes and wearing spectacles; he supposed they were Prussians, but their faces looked hard and alien enough to be Chinese. The talk was still of the excellence of artificial limbs; and looking down, Nicholas saw that his own legs had been replaced by lengths of shining steel rods with mechanical joints of glittering complexity.

“Well,” he said, forcing his courage to cheerfulness, “by your account it is almost as good as having real ones.”

“It is much better,” said a man with shaven head and shining spectacles, without a movement in his wooden face, “The leg of nature is a most inefficient instrument.”

“Come now,” said Nicholas, “if that were true you might just as well cut off my arms as well.”

“We are going to,” said the man in goggles.

Darkness redescended and when he awoke he was sitting up with metal arms and legs and looking down a long white-washed corridor; and the man at his side told him breakfast would be ready in half-an-hour. They walked passed rows of doors, as in the passages of an hotel, and outside each door stood a pair of steel legs, newly burnished, like the boots left outside bedrooms to be cleaned.

“You won’t want your legs at breakfast,” said his companion; and such was clearly the case; for he was lowered by a sort of chain from above so that his truncated body fitted into a hole in the long benches flanking the tables. He has left his legs in a sort of cloakroom, duly receiving a ticket. He said something about exercise; and was gravely told that after the meal (which was of a simple but scientific sort) he would parade for a proper constitutional in the grounds. It is true that when the time came for this, he was in turn relieved of his arms, by another official (duly receiving a ticket for them) since science had already determined that arms are not used in walking or legs in eating.

After this his story becomes a little confused; there are improbable passages about his renewing the quarrel with the solicitor and sending for legs to kick him, or reunion with the tea-shop girl and a temporary lack of arms with which to embrace her; but familiar faces and old emotions often come back in this confused way in dreams; and this experience must be regarded as a dream; for he shortly woke up in an ordinary hospital and found the world had not yet progressed quite so far as he had fancied.

~G.K. Chesterton   

(from Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables by G.K. Chesterton)

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