[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
ANOTHER month has passed. Mona has been fighting a hard battle with herself. Some evil spirit seems to have found its way into her heart and she has had to struggle against it all day and every day.
" It can't be true! It's impossible! I should hate myself," she thinks.
To fortify herself against her secret enemy she spends as much time as she can spare with her father. The old man is now bitterer than ever against the Germans. They have killed his son, and he can never forgive them.
" Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered. . . . Let not the ungodly have their desire, O Lord; let hot burning coals' fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire and into the pit, that they may never rise again."
Mona hears the old man's voice through the thin partition wall that separates her room from his, and she makes an effort to join in his imprecations. But the terrible thing is that she catches herself thinking they are wicked psalms, and that David, when he said such things, was not " a man after God's own heart " but a devil.
This frightens her and she tries to make amends to her conscience by being as harsh as possible to the prisoners. When Oskar comes to the dairy with the rest she never allows herself to look at him, and when he speaks, amhich is seldom, she snaps at him or else tries not to hear what he is saying. But one morning she is compelled to listen.
" Ludwig's gone." " Ludwig ? "
" The man who used to come for the milk."
" The boy with the cough? "
" Yes. Died in the night and is to be buried to-morrow. Just twenty-two and
such a quiet young fellow. Ile was the only son of his mother too and she is a widow. I've got to write and tell her. She'll be broken-hearted."
Mona feels a tightening at her throat, and then tears in her eyes, but she forces herself to say: " Well, she's not the only mother. who has lost a son. People who make wars must expect to suffer for them."
Oskar looks at her for a moment and then goes off without speaking again. At the next moment she catches herself looking after him through the window just as he turns his head and looks back.
" Oh God forgive me! Forgive me!" she thinks and feels as if she would like to beat herself.
A week later when Oskar comes as usual he is carrying a small wooden box, which he sets down inside the dairy door. It is from Ludwig's mother, and contains one of the little glass domes of artificial flowers which the Germans lay on the graves of their dead.
" She asks me to lay them on Ludwig's, but how can I, not being allowed to go out of the gates? "
The lid of the box has been loosened, and lifting it, he shows the glass dome with an inscription attached. Mona allows herself to stoop and look at it. It is in German.
" What does it -say? " she asks.
" `With Mother's everlasting love."' Mona feels as if a knife has gone to her heart, but she rises hastily and says sharply " You may take it away. I'll have nothing to do with it," and Oskar goes off, but he leaves the box behind him.
All day long she tries not to look at it, but it is constantly meeting her eye, and in the evening, when her work is done and everything is quiet, she picks up the box, puts it under her cloak and turns towards the gates of the encampment.
"Better have it out of my sight," she thinks as she goes into the churchyard of Kirk Patrick.
She has no difficulty in finding the place. Other Germans have died and been buried since the camp began. Here they lie in a little square by themselves at the back of the church, with recumbent white marble stones above them inscribed with their foreign names. On the last of the graves, not yet covered, she lays the flowers and then throws the box away.
" After all, it's only human. Nobody can blame me for that."
But do what she will she cannot help thinking of the German boy and of his mother weeping for him in his German home.
She has heard the tramp of a horse's hoofs on the road behind her, and as she returns through the lych-gate the rider draws up and speaks to her. It is the Commandant, who has been taking his evening ride before dinner. He asks what she has been doing and she tells him quite truthfully. He looks serious and says: " It's natural that you should feel pity for some of these men, but take an old man's advice, my child, and don't let it go any further."
Mona tries to follow the Commandant's counsel, but doing so tears her heart until it bleeds. Even the hours with her, father fail to fortify her. The old man is well enough now to sit up in a chair in his bed- room and certain of his neighbouring farmers are permitted to see him. One of them, a babbling fellow, tells him of the sinking of a great passenger liner by an enemy submarine and the loss of more than a thousand lives.
The old man breaks into a towering passion. " Those sons of darkness, may the Lord destroy them for ever! May the cap- tain of that submarine never know another night's sleep as long as he lives! May the cries of the drowning torment his soul until it comes up for judgment, and may it then be damned for ever ! "
" Be quiet, father," says Mona. " You know, what the doctor said. Besides, is it Christian-like to follow the sins of a man to the next world and wish his soul in hell? "
But when she is alone in her own room she knows that her Christian charity is all a delusion.
" Oh God help me! God help me! Send me something to help me," she cries. One morning in summer the Commandant calls on her father and she leads him upstairs. He takes a little leather-covered case out of his pocket and, opening it by its spring, shows a military medal.
" What is it? " asks the old man.
" The Victoria Cross, old friend, won by your son for conspicuous bravery in battle and sent to you by the King."
The old man wipes his eyes and says " But who is to wear it now that Robbie is gone? "
" May I make a suggestion? " says the
Commandant. " Let your daughter wear it. Why not? "
" Yes, yes, why not? " says Mona, and she seizes it convulsively and pins it on her breast.
Next morning, feeling braver, with the medal on her breast, she looks Oskar Heine full in the face when he comes to the dairy door as usual. He sees it and asks what it is and where it came from, and with a proud lift of the head she tells him, almost defiantly, about Robbie and what he did at the war.
" What a splendid fellow your brother must have been," says Oskar.
Mona gasps. All her pride and defiance seem to be stricken out of her in a moment. The English newspapers continue to come, and one evening, in the midst of reports of indescribable German barbarities, Mona finds a letter from an English soldier to his family telling of a good act by an enemy. He had been wounded in an en-
gagement in Belgium and, left all day for dead on the battlefield, he had crawled at night on his stomach over half a mile of churned-up land to a lonely farmhouse, being drawn to it by a dim light in a window. The Farmer had turned out to be an old German, but he had been " a white man " for all that, and though some of the officers of the victorious German army were even then drinking and singing and making merry in his front parlour, he had smuggled the wounded British lad into his cellar, and helped him to escape in the morning.
Some dizzy impulse, vaguely associated with misty thoughts of Oskar, causes Mona to carry the newspaper upstairs and to read the boy's letter to her father.
" So there's good and bad in all races, you see. That old German farmer must be a good creature," she says. Whereupon the old man, who has pulled himself up in bed to listen, says, with tight-set lips and an angry frown:
" Maybe he is, but who knows if he isn't the father of the brute who fired the ex- plosive bullet into my son's heart? "
Mona drops the newspaper and flies from the room, and the old man cries after her in a whimpering voice
" What's coming over thee, girl? I can't tell in the world what's coming over thee."
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008