What a curious birthday letter! I think of all your other birthdays—the ones before I met these silent men with the green and yellow faces, and the blackened lips which will never speak again. What happy times we have had as a family—what happy jaunts when you took me in those early days, dressed in a sailor suit, when you went hunting pictures. Yet, for all the damnability of what I now witness, I was never quieter in my heart. To have surrendered to an imperative self-denial brings a peace which self-seeking never brought.
So don’t let this birthday be less gay for my absence. It ought to be the proudest in your life—proud because your example has taught each of your sons to do the difficult things which seem right. It would have been a condemnation of you if any one of us had been a shirker.
“I want to buy
fine things for you
And be a soldier if I can.”
The lines come back to me now. You read them to me first in the dark little study from a green oblong book. You little thought that I would be a soldier—even now I can hardly realise the fact. It seems a dream from which I shall wake up. Am I really killing men day by day? Am I really in jeopardy myself?
Whatever happens I’m not afraid, and I’ll
give you reason to be glad of
Very much love,
The poem referred to in this letter was actually written for Coningsby when he was between five and six years old. The dark little study which he describes was in the old house at Wesley’s Chapel, in the City Road, London—and it was very dark, with only one window, looking out upon a dingy yard. The green oblong book in which I used to write my poems I still have; and it is an illustration of the tenacity of a child’s memory that he should recall it. The poem was called A Little Boy’s Programme, and ran thus:
I am so very young and
That, when big people pass me by,
I sometimes think they are so high
I’ll never be a man at all.
And yet I want to be
Because so much I want to do;
I want to buy fine things for you,
And be a soldier, if I can.
* * * * *
When I’m a man
I will not let
Poor little children starve, or be
Ill-used, or stand and beg of me
With naked feet out in the wet.
* * * * *
Now, don’t you
laugh!—The father kissed
The little serious mouth and said
“You’ve almost made me cry instead,
You blessed little optimist.”
September 21st, 1916.
My Very Dear M.:
I am wearing your talisman while I write and have a strong superstition in its efficacy. The efficacy of your socks is also very noticeable—I wore them the first time on a trip to the Forward Observation Station. I had to lie on my tummy in the mud, my nose just showing above the parapet, for the best part of twenty-four hours. Your socks little thought I would take them into such horrid places when you made them.