Two soldiers, evidently brothers, stood at the door of the railway carriage—one inside the compartment, the other on the platform.
“Now, you won’t forget to write, Bill,” said the latter.
“No,” said Bill. “I shall be back at—tonight, and I’ll write all round to-morrow. But, lor, what a job. There’s mother and the missus and Bob and Sarah and Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim, and—well, you know the lot. You’ve had to do it, Sam.”
“Yes,” said Sam, ruefully; “it’s a fair teaser.”
“And if you write to one and miss another they’re offended,” continued Bill. “But I always mention all of ’em. I say ‘love to Sarah,’ and ’hope Aunt Jane’s cold’s better,’ and that sort of thing, and that fills out a page. But I’m blowed if I can find anything else to say. I just begin ‘hoping this finds you well, as it leaves me at present,’ and then I’m done. What else is there to say?”
“Nothing,” said Sam, mournfully. “I just sit and scratch my head over the blessed paper, but nothing’ll come. Seems as though my head’s as empty as a drum.”
“Same here. ’Tisn’t like writing love-letters. When I was up to that game ’twas easy enough. When I got stuck I just put in half a page of crosses, and that filled up fine. But writing to mother and the missus and Sarah and Jim and the rest is different. You can’t fill up with crosses. It would look ridiklus.”
“It would,” said Sam.
Then the train began to move, and the soldier in the train sank back on his seat, took out a cigarette, and began to smoke. I found he had been twice out at the front, and was now home on sick leave. He had been at the battle of Mons, through the retreat to the Marne, the advance to the Aisne, the first battle of Ypres, and the fighting at Festubert. In a word, he had seen some of the greatest events in the world’s history, face to face, and yet he confessed that when he came to writing a letter, even to his wife, he could find nothing to say. He was in the position of the lady mentioned by Horace Walpole, whose letter to her husband began and ended thus: “I write to you because I have nothing to do: I finish because I have nothing to say.”
I suppose there has never been so much letter-writing in the world as is going on to-day, and much of it is good writing, as the papers show. But the case of my companion in the train is the case of thousands and tens of thousands of young fellows who for the first time in their lives want to write and discover that they have no gift of self-expression. It is not that they are stupid. It is that somehow the act of writing paralyses them. They cannot condense the atmosphere in which they live to the concrete word. You have to draw them out. They need a friendly lead. When they have got that they can talk well enough, but without it they are dumb.