[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
THREE months pass. The Internment Camp has been growing larger and larger. There are five compounds in it now, and twenty-five thousand civilian prisoners, be- sides the British Commandant and his officers and guard-two thousand more. It is a big ugly blotch of booths and tents and bare ground, surrounded by barbed wire and covering with black ashes like a black hand the green pastures where the sweet- smelling farm had been. In the middle of the camp, cut off from the compounds, is the farm-house, and its outhouses, with their many cows, and its farm-servants who sleep in the rooms over the dairy.
Mona is the only woman among twenty- seven thousand men. The Commandant, who is kind, calls her " The Woman of Knockaloe." The first shock of her brother's loss and her father's seizure is over and she is going on with her work as before. After all the " creatures " of the cow-house have to be attended to, and if she could not leave Knockaloe before the Ger- mans came she cannot leave it now when her father lies half-paralysed upstairs.
As often as she can do so during the day she runs up to him, and at night, after she has given the men their supper, she reads to him. It is only the Bible now, and by the old man's choice no longer the Gospels, but the Old Testament-Job with its lamenta- tions, and afterwards the Psalms, but not the joyful ones, only those in which David calls on the Lord to revenge him upon his enemies. Her father is a changed man. His heart has grown bitter. He takes a fierce joy in David's denunciations and mutters them to himself when he is alone.
The girl was right. Those spawn of the Pit-what fate is too bad for them?
Christmas comes, the second Christmas, then spring, the second spring. Mona watches the life of the camp with loathing. Rising in the grey of the morning, she sees the prisoners ranging round their com- pounds like beasts in a cage, and on going to bed in the dark she sees the white light of the arc-lamps which have been set up at the far corners of the camp to prevent their escape during the night. She hears of fre- quent rioting, rigorously put down, and then of an attempt at insurrection in the messroom of the First Compound and of four prisoners being shot down by the guard. Serve them right! She has no pity.
She overhears the guards talking of indescribable vices among the men of the Third Compound and then of terrible punishments. Her work sometimes requires that she should pass this compound, and as often as she does so she becomes conscious that behind the barbed wires the men are looking at her with evil eyes and laughing like monkeys. Her flesh creeps-she feels as if they were stripping her naked. The beasts! The monsters!
One sunny morning in the early summer Mona is awakened by the loud boom of a gun from the sea. Looking out she sees a warship coming to anchor in the bay. Later she sees great activity in the officers' quar- ters and hears that the Home Secretary has come from London to make an inspection of the camp and that the Commandant has sent for the Governor. Still later she sees the three going the rounds of the compounds. Towards noon they pass the farm on their, way to the Commandant's dining- room, and, the kitchen window being open, Mona hears what the stranger, who looks angry, is saying
What can you expect? Shut men up like dogs and what wonder, if they develop the vices of dogs! The only remedy is work, work, work."
A few days after that the joiners and bricklayers are building workshops all over the camp and within a month there is the sound of hammering and sawing and planing from inside these places, as if the prisoners were -svorking. Mona laughs. They will never turn these creatures into human beings-never, !
Autumn comes and the fields outside the camp are waving yellow and red to the har- vest, but the Manx boys, nearly all that are worth anything, are away at the war, and the farmers are saying the corn will lie down uncut and rot on 'the ground if they cannot get help to gather it.
One night she hears that the better- behaved of the prisoners are to be sent out to the neighbouring farms to work at the harvesting, and next morning she sees a batch of them going off with their guard, down the avenue and through the gates.
" There'll be trouble coming of this," she thinks. " Such men are not to be trusted."Inside a month the camp is ringing with a scandal. The letters arriving at the camp for the prisoners have always been examined by censors. Most of the letters have come from friends in their own country, but now it is found that some are from Manx girls who, having met with German prisoners while working on the land, have struck up friendships. One of these girls has written to tell her German lover that she is in " trouble " and that the wife of her master is turning her out. Her name is Liza Kinnish.
Mona's anger is unbounded. The slut! She has a brother at the war too! Mona has no pity for such creatures. While their boys out there at the front are fighting and dying for them they are carrying on at home with these German reptiles ! Serve them right, whatever the disgrace that falls on them!
" I'd have such women whipped-yes, whipped in the public market-place."
From that time forward Mona hates the prisoners as she had never hated them before. She cannot bear to look into their German faces or to hear the sound of their German voices. All the same she has to live among them for her father's sake and even to serve them twice a day with the milk from the dairy.
Late in the year, at seven in the morning, she is measuring the milk into the cans, which are marked with the numbers of the various compounds. The prisoners come to carry them away, saluting her with the mist about their mouths as they do so, but she makes no answer. When she thinks they have all gone she finds the can of the Third Compound still standing by the dairy door where she had left it.
The pale-faced boy who coughed always came for that, and was generally the last to arrive. After a while, when she has her back to the door, she hears a voice behind her.
" Is this for me, miss?"
She starts. Something in his voice arrests her. It is not harsh and guttural, like that of the other prisoners, but soft, deep and human. For one dizzy moment she almost thinks it is Robbie's.
She turns. A young man, whom she has never seen before, is on the threshold. He is about thirty years of age, tall, slim, erect, fair,-haired, with hazel eyes and a clean-cut face that has an open expression. Can this be a German?
After a moment of silence Mona says " Who are you? "
He tells her. The young fellow who had fetched the milk before had broken a blood-vessel on awakening early that morning and been carried up to the hospital.
" What's your name? " " Oskar."
" Oskar what? " " Oskar Heine." " And you are in Compound Three? "
Mona gazes at him in silence for a moment, and then recovering herself, she says
" Yes, that's yours."
The young man touches his cap and says " Thank you."
Mona tries to answer him but she cannot. He goes off, carrying his can, and with his guard behind him. Mona finds herself looking after him, first through the door and then through the dairy window.
All that day she goes about her work with a serious face and is cross with the farm hands when they do anything amiss. And at night, when supper is over, and her father calls down to her to come up and read his Bible, she calls back,
" Not to-night, dad-I've got a headache."
Then she sits before the fire alone and does not go to bed until morning.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008