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  Carry On Coningsby Dawson

Letter XXXV

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December 20th, 1916.

Dear Mr. A.D.:

We have hundreds more books for your enjoyment. Read them all!

I've just come in from an argument with Fritz when your chocolate formed my meal. You were very kind to think of me and to send it, and you were extraordinarily understanding in the letter that you sent me. One's life out here is like a pollarded tree--all the lower branches are gone--one gazes on great nobilities, on the fascinating horror of Eternity sometimes--I said horror, but it's often fine in its spaciousness--one gazes on many inverted splendours of Titans, but it's giddy work being so high and rarefied, and all the gentle past seems gone. That's why it is pleasant in this grimy anonymity of death and courage to get reminders, such as your letter, that one was once localised and had a familiar history. If I come back, I shall be like Rip Van Winkle, or a Robinson Crusoe--like any and all of the creatures of legend and history to whom abnormality has grown to seem normal. If you can imagine yourself living in a world in which every day is a demonstration of a Puritan's conception of what happens when the last trump sounds, then you have some idea of my queer situation. One has come to a point when death seems very inconsiderable and only failure to do one's duty is an utter loss. Love and the future, and all the sweet and tender dreams of by-gone days are like a house in which the blinds are lowered and from which the sight has gone. Landscapes have lost their beauty, everything God-made and man-made is destroyed except man's power to endure with a smile the things he once most dreaded, because he believes that only so may he be righteous in his own eyes. How one has longed for that sure confidence in the petty failings of little living--the confidence to believe that he can stand up and suffer for principle! God has given all men who are out here that opportunity--the supremest that can be hoped for--so, in spite of exile, Christmas for most of us will be a happy day. Does one see more truly life's worth on a battlefield? I often ask myself that question. Is the contempt that is hourly shown for life the real standard of life's worth? I shrug my shoulders at my own unanswerable questions--all I know is that I move daily with men who have everything to live for who, nevertheless, are urged by an unconscious magnanimity to die. I don't think any of our dead pity themselves--but they would have done so if they had faltered in their choice. One lives only from sunrise to sunrise, but there's a more real happiness in this brief living than I ever knew before, because it is so exactingly worth while.

Thank you again for your kindness.
    Very sincerely yours,

The suggestion that we might all meet in London in January, 1917, was a hope rather than an expectation. We received a cable from France on Sunday, December 17th, 1916, and left New York on December 30th. We were met in London by the two sailor-sons, who were expecting appointments at any moment, and Coningsby arrived late in the evening of January 13th. He was unwell when he arrived, having had a near touch of pneumonia. The day before he left the front he had been in action, with a temperature of 104. There were difficulties about getting his leave at the exact time appointed, but these he overcame by exchanging leave with a brother-officer. He travelled from the Front all night in a windowless train, and at Calais was delayed by a draft of infantry which he had to take over to England. The consequence of this delay was that the meeting at the railway station, of which he had so long dreamed, did not come off. We spent a long day, going from station to station, misled by imperfect information as to the arrival of troop trains. At Victoria Station we saw two thousand troops arrive on leave, men caked with trench-mud, but he was not among them. We reluctantly returned to our hotel in the late afternoon and gave up expecting him. There was all the time a telegram at the hotel from him, giving the exact place and time of his arrival, but it was not delivered until it was too late to meet him. He arrived at ten o'clock, and at the same time his two brothers, who had been summoned in the morning to Southampton, entered the hotel, having been granted special leave to return to London. A night's rest did wonders for Coningsby, and the next day his spirits were as high as in the old days of joyous holiday. During the next eight days we lived at a tense pitch of excitement. We went to theatres, dined in restaurants, met friends, and heard from his lips a hundred details of his life which could not be communicated in letters. We were all thrilled by the darkened heroic London through which we moved, the London which bore its sorrows so proudly, and went about its daily life with such silent courage. We visited old friends to whom the war had brought irreparable bereavements, but never once heard the voice of self-pity, of murmur or complaint. To me it was an incredible England; an England purged of all weakness, stripped of flabbiness, regenerated by sacrifice. I had dreamed of no such transformation by anything I had read in American newspapers and magazines. I think no one can imagine the completeness of this rebirth of the soul of England who has not dwelt, if only for a few days, among its people.

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Carry On
Coningsby Dawson

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