November 6th, 1916.
My Dear Ones:
Such a wonderful day it has been— I scarcely know where to start. I came down last night from twenty-four hours in the mud, where I had been observing. I'd spent the night in a hole dug in the side of the trench and a dead Hun forming part of the roof. I'd sat there reliving so many things—the ecstatic moments of my life when I first touched fame—and my feet were so cold that I could not feel them, so I thought all the harder of the pleasant things of the past. Then, as I say, I came back to the gun position to learn that I was to have one day off at the back of the lines. You can't imagine what that meant to me—one day in a country that is green, one day where there is no shell-fire, one day where you don't turn up corpses with your tread! For two months I have never left the guns except to go forward and I have never been from under shell-fire. All night long as I have slept the ground had been shaken by the stamping of the guns—and now after two months, to come back to comparative normality! The reason for this privilege being granted was that the powers that be had come to the conclusion that it was time I had a bath. Since I sleep in my clothes and water is too valuable for washing anything but the face and hands, they were probably right in their guess at my condition.
So with the greatest holiday of my life in prospect I went to the empty gunpit in which I sleep, and turned in. This morning I set out early with my servant, tramping back across the long, long battlefields which our boys have won. The mud was knee-deep in places, but we floundered on till we came to our old and deserted gun-position where my horses waited for me. From there I rode to the wagon-lines—the first time I've sat a horse since I came into action. Far behind me the thunder of winged murder grew more faint. The country became greener; trees even had leaves upon them which fluttered against the grey-blue sky. It was wonderful—like awaking from an appalling nightmare. My little beast was fresh and seemed to share my joy, for she stepped out bravely.
When I arrived at the wagon-lines I would not wait—I longed to see something even greener and quieter. My groom packed up some oats and away we went again. My first objective was the military baths; I lay in hot water for half-an-hour and read the advertisements of my book. As I lay there, for the first time since I've been out, I began to get a half-way true perspective of myself. What's left of the egotism of the author came to life, and —now laugh—I planned my next novel—planned it to the sound of men singing, because they were clean for the first time in months. I left my towels and soap with a military policeman, by the roadside, and went prancing off along country roads in search of the almost forgotten places where people don't kill one another. Was it imagination? There seemed to me to be a different look in the faces of the men I met—for the time being they were neither hunters nor hunted. There were actually cows in the fields. At one point, where pollarded trees stand like a Hobbema sketch against the sky, a group of officers were coursing a hare, following a big black hound on horseback. We lost our way. A drenching rainstorm fell over us—we didn't care; and we saw as we looked back a most beautiful thing—a rainbow over green fields. It was as romantic as the first rainbow in childhood.
All day I have been seeing lovely and familiar things as though for the first time. I've been a sort of Lazarus, rising out of his tomb and praising God at the sound of a divine voice. You don't know how exquisite a ploughed field can look, especially after rain, unless you have feared that you might never see one again.
I came to a grey little village, where civilians were still living, and then to a gate and a garden. In the cottage was a French peasant woman who smiled, patted my hair because it was curly, and chattered interminably. The result was a huge omelette and a bottle of champagne. Then came a touch of naughtiness—a lady visitor with a copy of La Vie Parisienne, which she promptly bestowed on the English soldier. I read it, and dreamt of the time when I should walk the Champs Elysees again. It was growing dusk when I turned back to the noise of battle. There was a white moon in a milky sky. Motor-bikes fled by me, great lorries driven by Jehus from London buses, and automobiles which too poignantly had been Strand taxis and had taken lovers home from the Gaiety. I jogged along thinking very little, but supremely happy. Now I'm back at the wagon-line; to-morrow I go back to the guns. Meanwhile I write to you by a guttering candle.
Life, how I love you! What a wonderful kindly thing I could make of you to-night. Strangely the vision has come to me of all that you mean. Now I could write. So soon you may go from me or be changed into a form of existence which all my training has taught me to dread. After death is there only nothingness? I think that for those who have missed love in this life there must be compensations—the little children whom they ought to have had, perhaps. To-day, after so many weeks, I have seen little children again.
And yet, so strange a havoc does this war work that, if I have to "Go West," I shall go proudly and quietly. I have seen too many men die bravely to make a fuss if my turn comes. A mixed passenger list old Father Charon must have each night—Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Huns. To-morrow I shall have another sight of the greenness and then—the guns.
I don't know whether I have been able to make any of my emotions clear to you in my letters. Terror has a terrible fascination. Up to now I have always been afraid—afraid of small fears. At last I meet fear itself and it stings my pride into an unpremeditated courage.
I've just had a pile of letters from you all. How ripping it is to be remembered! Letters keep one civilised.
It's late and I'm very tired. God bless you each and all.