Letter from Charles Doughty-Wylie to Gertrude Bell written over the course of several days, on the 14th, 15th and 18th of December, 1914.
About this item
My dear Gertrude –
I suppose to most people these nights would be rather lonely – but that’s why to me they are often welcome and much to my mind – Sometimes I write to you – sometimes I work – but even to write is poor – it goes so slow while ten million thoughts chase by in squadrons - & before I’ve written the edge & shadow of me the others have galloped over it and left it shapeless – they go too quick – sometimes I would tell you of dreams & fancies, sometimes of the days work, & hopes & fears – sometimes of you & me – But never I seem to speak to you – just the very slightest touch of them such as they come & the dust as they go – a poor thing to throw to even a dreamwoman for her to refashion –
Last mail went – and it came to me that I had said nothing of what was in my head to say to you about your brother whom you love – if he has gone god keep him for you – I know what you’ll be feeling – you poor dear – its no good saying what I believe so wholly – that what is written is written - & that he will come back to you – that’s no good to you – what I want to say is that I feel for you & send you sympathy & hope & love – the best of my mind & remembrance.
Did I tell you of the new move & the dangerous Pan Islamic governor of the country bordering with the Mullah – from Somaliland they wire to me to ask if I will protest – formally protest etc - & they wire to the Colonial Office who will wire to the F.O. – who will wire to me no doubt – But I, no – all that’s rot – what I’m here for is to keep this country quiet for the time, to avoid by any means at this time any further necessity for English effort, if it can be avoided – Protest, no – if it was to be backed up, all right – otherwise (but perhaps I am wrong) that isn’t the way – Such a cause would simply give to Abdullah Sadik an importance he has not yet got – simply confirm the Habshi in a belief that they can do no harm – all enemies would cry we are on the right line, forward – they would give me a civil answer, but smile secretly over their stomachs – why should they appoint a notable of Harar to reign in Harar as he did aforetime? If even at my wish (should I call it prayer or threat?) they did not send him, his reputation & his mantle & his increased glory would descend upon his brother or his uncle – No – I don’t protest.
What then? Is it to be sit still & wait on the Lord? Or in other words eat 3 meals & go to bed regularly – well – something like that – What I have done is to send to Abdullah, by a mutual friend – to ask why seeing he will be our neighbour he does not come & see me before he goes to tell of his advancement, and to talk of trade – He who never expected such a thing is quite flattered – oh yes he will come without fail before he starts – he would like to be friends etc – now he has to ask the Habshis – to talk over this as they will talk – then I’m ill - & the days pass - & he’s delayed 3 weeks at least. By that time the war goes on & victory nears us - & Abdullah accepts things as they are –
Then I shall see the Prime Minister tomorrow – I’m better & I can get as far as that – tomorrow or the next day. To him I say something of this kind – That he is the cleverest man in Abyssinia (this is true) – that I want to talk to him alone – That I must soon go to the war if it is not finished & which is in the hands of God. I want to go, but the Minister (they hate him - & like me) thinks it will soon be finished & wants to see the end – that I care here as he knows well to make friends – sent here specially because we are friends and can talk to each other – if I was an Abyssinian I should be like them, searching for lasting peace, to crown the King, and to insure my independence – (what they want is also money, but I don’t say that) – the King of England has offered them a treaty which would ensure it, and I am ready to go on with it – But there has come the war – they are pulled this way & that, not knowing who will win – I understand that – But think a little – We shall win this war – France England & Italy together & who then can say no to us? What we want we well can have – I daresay he does not feel so sure of us winning as I do, but supposing that we do – let him wait a little if he likes, but not too long, not so long as to lose the moment to make friends – Friendship or enmity now will be remembered – I am a friend, notoriously a friend – what if I say it is no use – Abyssinia does not listen – her enemies were right – she does not want to be a friend of ours – she hangs my men, she builds forts over my head, she sends open enemies to govern frontiers nearest to us – she allows her country to be a hotbed of intrigue against us – she refuses to sell us at a splendid price the only thing we want from her, Tsana water – I give it up. I will say to my Government I was a fool, I thought I could make friends, but I cannot – let her go her own way – the Italians are spending £600,000 on defences in Eritrea – who will keep them off if we do not, for the French will follow us?
There is really only a little time left –
And then I’ll switch off & talk about the American treaty & the ratification I’m preventing – and the state of the town, full of robbers, men killed every night, & the new religion & the trouble such things are - & take my leave - & leave him to think & to speak to the Prince as if my ideas were his own –
But I’m afraid there’s more behind it than I know. Lij Yasu & this minister visited the Germans 2 days before - & there’s been talk of a paper – Was it money or what? Tonight some friends of mine are feasting the German Secretary who always gets drunk & may talk – what else can I do?
There is the other course – the protest, the banging of the table – the pleasantest easiest way – but surely it is no moment for that – we have enough on our hands, without my appealing for help or backing –
And instead of all this rot, I might be leading a counterattack at Ypres! I could do it a great deal better – and it satisfies the soul. It is hard sometimes to think of those things - & perhaps to fail here also – Not that they matter failure & success – nothing matters – except the things which belong to the garden - & the doing of the day’s work.
I’ve written you a long letter, all about myself & my happenings – now I’ll get out the book & go to bed and read it - & think of you –
I hope that enteric inoculation didn’t bother you much – It sometimes does – but you’ve got to be done twice, at 10 days interval if I remember right – once is said to be little good –
Tonight came the news of B. 11. & her really brilliant feat – I only wish it had been the Goeben – and as far as I can see a general push forward in France, slow of course & costly, but it means winning – If we were together we’d talk over the war – but at a month’s range – when you get my letters it would be quite impossible for you to remember what was happening a month ago – so much happens every day –
I suppose the Messendiyeh [sic] would have been near Chanak out of sight of the sea, thinking herself quite safe behind her mines, especially in those smooth & narrow waters where one can see a submarine (I would think) from the cliffs each side.
You said something once of an Indian colony – but not East Africa as it is – they might have German East Africa which I have long thought was a good idea – They tell me it is a beautiful country, the Kilimanjaro part.
I’m expecting news of the Dresden and Carlsruhe [sic], and then if no more have got out, it will be well –
As to this place, I had a very busy day. With the French & Italian ministers, Indian complaints of Jibuti, a rather ugly assault by Arabs in the town, telegram from the F.O. about Indian Govt complaints of Jibuti arms, more from Somaliland about Abdullah Sadik, messages from the Prime Minister that he was very late, Council still sitting etc – eh landolillah I didn’t want to ride the 4 miles, and a day or two will not matter – and my feastgivers report has not come yet – It seems that at a German feast to Lij Yasu he drank success to the German arms! But that doesn’t mean much in this country – Still he is leaning that way, no doubt. The banker has shewn me that if it is money it doesn’t come through them – But it might be paper, or the “anticipated victory” security. Rough things are more difficult & will be for a time, Abyssinia will do nothing I believe - & in the end we will have our will of her – you said once it is no good propping up rotten kingdoms – I agree, provided you are willing to put something in their place. Otherwise prop, knowing it is only for a time.
In one letter you talk of happiness, my woman of gold - & you quoted Masefield – and you asked me if I was happy – no – rarely. Happiness is of the garden, it was that I always worshipped and have pursued – it’s a mystic thing like death & morning which looks suddenly over the world and is forgotten – in love, yes, one dreams of it dream woman, but there also so often it is over the next hill after all – because love itself is rarer still – and those who do not long for it can be happy in a garden of their own – if there are people who have never longed for love. And you who give me in these books and letters (how I love them) royal purple and a million gems, you ask me if I am happy – if one could live in books & dreams I would be – but I walk this earth and I want you with me –
Two nights I didn’t write – one because I had caught a French Counsellor of State to Abyssinia & played chess & talked – he’s been many years here - & I catch him sometimes, he & his bulldog, to dine – He doesn’t come much by day, - it excites comment. He gave me a black picture rather, but you’ve had all that –
And the other night the mail came and your letter – I’ll never tell you much I like them – and I read the whole week’s Times, & various other papers & letters, which lasted me nearly all night –
I’ve seen my Prime Minister & said my say - & today I played 2 chukkas at polo with the Sikhs & the Italian minister & feel quite beat to the world – though normally I play four when I’m fit – I’ve still some ponies I’ve never found time to try, but the two new ones I rode today promise well –
Among other letters was one from Thesiger who said he would come back when the F.O. told him to do so – But of course – what else could he do? Does he expect me to thank him for that? I didn’t hear from my wife & don’t where [sic] she is – Who is Miss Harbury? I hope she’s some useful person – Judith has quite enough to see to without looking after stray girls – I would have refused her altogether unless really strong & useful – My regiment has been terribly killed. If I was only there I could be commanding – Damn Thesiger - & the Habesh – I’m tired & in a bad temper – of course one can’t choose one’s worth & nobody but a fool thinks he can – But still, but still – I can’t write not even to you tonight.
Yes I will though – a little more – just for that very reason, because its you – to get back if I could out of stupidity & rage & fatigue & general beastliness – Lij Yasu is going away & with him (& the war between them) goes my treaty also –
Its no good – I’m still the starling – I can’t get out – But I loved your letter – and the picture of hospital days is one I well can see – its good work, and you’ll do it splendidly – I wonder have you done to France, have you gone to Syria, oh lucky sitter on the magic carpet! I wish I had you my dear, and then away would fly the devils aforesaid – Dreams! Dreams! I know I never shall – But I do in a way – your love your thoughts your words living & breathing, is that nothing? If one was great enough it would be enough – Don’t think I’m complaining – For what you give me is great and I know it & love it & am grateful.
Is sex so much? and the senses & the contact and those bewildering things – they can be so much – but at best they are only the landscape, the other thing is the sun we see it by – you said once you would still love me if I had a dozen wives – they would not matter – and that is true my dear
That thing you knew by sunlight – they don’t matter – nor are the senses a bewildering power except in sunlight – they are not exactly “sullen slaves” either – just walkers by the way & pleasant enough companions, to be left easily & carelessly at any hill of solitude. Yes, I know you might say that at one of those hills someday, carelessly & easily I hope also, one may leave life itself – but not the sunlight – I don’t know.
Not – its not a great thing sex – not really – its always grossly overrated like chastity – which is only the faint beginning of a virtue – and often a positive vice –
But still I can’t get out, to talk to you tonight – my bars worry me – the bars of my mind. I’ll go behind them & growl to myself – the last Pan Islamic German scheme is to bribe L. Yasu with Jibouti & the Nile to send 50,000 men in to the Sudan. But I have an arrow or two left – even though the shelling of Hartlepool (which to me is very little) will be made very much of here. Its in the days work - & when I’m really doing it I don’t think so much of Zonnebeke & my regiment. But it’s the rest of the time that counts –
Goodnight dear Gertrude