by Gaius Marcius
November 21st, 1898
I hope this letter finds you well whenever it does find you; the post has been so slow and irregular that I only received your letter about the beginning of the Tirah Expedition yesterday. You may perhaps return from the Hindu Kush before you ever read this. I will not be satisfied until you are safely home in England, for I cannot say that I think you safe even in the Raj no matter how many years of peace have gone by since the Mutiny. The Afghans you are fighting now were paid by Her Majesty’s government for years, and yet they rebelled just as the troops who betrayed your father 40 years ago. Who can say when or where the next Holy War will begin? I still have terrible nightmares that you will be caught in some treacherous plot before we can see each other again. Forgive me for burdening you with my fears and dark forebodings, but I cannot speak of them to anyone here at home.
Your sister Elizabeth has been visiting since Sunday last. She is ordinarily a great comfort to me during this separation as she is always cheerful and hopeful. I think she finds me rather timid, for the last time I spoke of my nightmares she tried to drown my fears in a great many well meaning but comfortless words:
“How can you be so cruel to the memory of Charles’s poor father? How can you doubt the success of Charles’s great mission in the East? The savages in those mountains have never heard of a parliament or a doctor or a chapel, but they are certain to want such Christian peace and freedom as we enjoy just as soon as they see it. Once the Army makes such places safe, we have teachers, missionaries, and provincial governors ready to civilize their tribes. Look at the success we have had in Egypt and South Africa. Why, in a few years traveling to Hindustan will be as safe as a trip to Dover! We will hardly know we have left home, but for the color of the people in the streets.”
Elizabeth is also very sanguine at the prospect of fighting battles to spread our glorious empire; not having a husband on the deadly frontiers no doubt aids her in this. She would be very cross to hear me say so, but I would trade a great deal of India just to have you home again on our tiny patch of land so that little George could know his father before he becomes quite a young man. Elizabeth would think me unpatriotic for placing family above country, but you, Charles, know that I could not be more proud of your honorable work and your sacrifices. I just pray that all of this will not be for naught.
Oh, do tell me in your next letter if I am worrying like a foolish, selfish wife and mother. I can hardly bear this separation. If you see any indication of that bright future that your sister so fervently believes is coming, tell me so I can banish these cares from my mind. Despite Elizabeth’s cheerful words I have my doubts, and those have only been strengthened by present circumstances.
I mentioned in my previous letter that my father had returned injured from the Sudan Campaign for a long convalescence. I suppose the strain of caring for him has embittered my heart and quenched forever the thoughts of a soldier’s glory that were so important in my foolish, youthful daydreams. I am seeing the end of war in my own home, and I pray that you will avoid such a fate. I should be thankful to have Father here at all; many of his friends never returned from the Mahdi’s War. How many times have we paid, proselytized, educated, or defeated this heathen enemy only to see it return the moment our attention flags? The Mahdi swore to conquer the world with his Moslem army and even demanded that Queen Victoria surrender her crown to him. Thank God he cannot send his soldiers into England!
Father made such a sad picture when he arrived; blind in one eye and bedridden. I do not know how I endured the first weeks. He would wail in the night like a little child and hardly believed he was in England when we managed to wake him. He almost struck Dr. Strong during these fits. Father’s leg has healed enough that he can hobble with a crutch or very slowly with a cane, but it was a great disappointment to find that the doctor believed he would never ride or hunt as he used to do. Father became more sullen and silent after that visit. There were interminable evenings sitting by in silence, the room stifling with the coal fire to keep him warm. Not three words passed between us in all those long hours besides calls for the whisky bottle or moans for his opium.
I kept the house silent and undisturbed as long as possible, and was driven nearly to distraction doing so. One day I came into the house after a few minutes in the garden and found George standing in the middle of the sitting room that I had worked so hard to keep him away from. George climbed right up on Father’s lap, as if he had lived here always, and has now become Father’s regular companion and quite a little blessing as well. You know, I think little George is the only person who can move Father to smile or speak, though the latter is still rare enough.
I did catch Father having perhaps the first true conversation since his return. Father did not know that I was in the passage or I am sure he never would have said so much, but George would keep tugging at his army jacket and asking when he could have one just like it. Father laughed a bitter laugh and took George up on his knee:
“My boy, when I see a fine lad like you wanting such a thing, not knowing what it means and what it costs, my one old eye does not seem so tired, and my aching leg is less painful for a moment. I am sorry that all those best traits of youth give way at last to sadness and regret. But I will tell you true, though you may cry all day to hear it, I would have given both legs and both eyes to know that you would never have to wear a coat like this.”
“Why,” cried George, “aren’t I good enough to wear a uniform like you and Father?”
“It is not you that is unworthy. I would gladly see you fight for this nation if the uniform were good enough for you; if the generals and the ministers deserved such a soldier as you. But now my boy, I’ll make you a promise. If you will grow up good and honest, on your 18th birthday I’ll make a present of this coat to you.”
“But that will be years and years, Grandfather!”
“It won’t be near so long as you think. Let’s see now, you should be of age in, well, 1910? Your father and his men will have every sort of villain put to rights by then, and Lord willing there won’t be any need for such coats but to keep warm of a winter’s evening, or to bring to mind the bad old days when men died wearing them in the far away, lonely deserts and mountains.”
I have never told Father what I heard him say, but I hope for your sake and for George’s that he is right.
Your loving wife,