[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]

SIXTH CHAPTER

 

MONA knows that this is the beginning of the end. She finds herself thinking of Oskar constantly, and especially when she is dropping off to sleep at night and awakening in the morning. With a hot and quivering heart she asks herself what is to come of it all. She does not know. She dare not think. A feeling of shame and dread seems to clutch her by the throat.

One day the neighbouring farmer who comes to visit her father blurts out another of his shocking stories. It is about a mid- day raid over London.

Towards noon on a beautiful summer day, in an infant school in East London, a hundred little children, ranging in age from three years to six, had been singing their hymn before the time came to scamper home in childish glee to dinner, when out of the sunshine of the sky two bombs had fallen from a German air-machine and killed ten of them and wounded fifty. The scene had been a frightful shambles. Some of the children had been destroyed beyond all recognition, their sweet limbs being splashed like a bloody avalanche against the broken walls. And when, a moment later, their mothers had come breathless, bare-headed and with wild eyes to the schoolhouse door, they saw the mangled bodies of their little ones brought out in a stream of blood.

Mona enters her father's bedroom just as the babbler is finishing his story. The old man, who is quivering with rage, has struggled to his feet and is stamping his stick on the floor and swearing-nobody ever having heard an oath from his lips before.

" They'll pay for it, though-these damned madmen and their masters-they'll pay for it to the uttermost farthing! Cursed be of God, these sons of hell! "

The Government in London must make reprisals. They must destroy a thousand German children for every British child that had been destroyed !

Mona tries first to appease and then to reprove him. What good will it do to the poor dead children in London that other children in Germany, now living in the fulness of their childish joy, should be massacred ?

" The children are innocent. . . ."

" Innocent? They'll not be long innocent. They'll grow up and do the same themselves. Oh my God, do Thou to them as with the Midianites who perished at Endor, and became as the dung of the earth! "

" Hush! Hush! Father! Father!"

" Why not? What's coming over thee, woman? What's been happening down- stairs to change thee ? "

At that word Mona feels as if a sword has pierced her heart, and she hurries out of the room.

After a while the mother-instinct in her comes uppermost. Her father is right. To make war on children is the crime of crimes. The people who do such things must belong to the race of the devil.

That evening she is crossing to the " haggard " when she meets Oskar Heine coming out of his compound. She does not look his way, but he stops her and speaks.

" You've heard what's in the papers? " " Indeed I have."

" I'm ashamed. I'm sorry."

" Never mind about sorry. Wait until the same is done to your own people, and then we'll see, we'll see."

He is about to tell her something, but she will not listen, and goes off with uplifted head.

A week passes. Mona has seen nothing more of Oskar Heine. Being free to come and go as he likes, he must be keeping out of her way. She is feeling less bitter about that shocking thing in London. After all, it was war. It is true that all the victories of war are as nothing against the golden head of one darling child, but then nobody sees that now. Nobody in the world has ever seen it-nobody but He. . . .

" Suffer the little children to come unto me . . .

But only think! That was said two thousand years ago, and yet ... and yet ... Christmas is near, the third Christmas. Mona reads in the newspaper that it has been agreed by the Marshal and generals commanding on both sides of the Western Front that there shall be a four hours' truce of the battlefields on Christmas Eve. How splendid! A truce of God in memory of what happened two thousand years ago! Why couldn't they have it in the camp also? She suggests the idea to Oskar.

" Glorious! Why can't we? " he says. He will find a way to put the matter up

to the Commandant, and then he will speak to the prisoners.

Since the prisoners have been set to work they have been living a more human life in their amusements also. Every compound has its band. The guards have their band, too. Mona hears from Oskar that the Commandant consents.

" It's Christmas! God bless me, yes, why not? " he says.

The prisoners are delighted, and the guards agree to play with them.

" Oh, they're not such bad chaps after all," the captain says.

At the beginning of Christmas week there is the muffled sound at night of the bands in various parts of the camp practising inside their booths. Oskar comes to the door of the farm-house to say that they intend to play in unison, and want the " Woman of Knockaloe " to choose the carols and hymns for them. Mona chooses what she knows.

" NoŽl," " The Feast of Stephen," and " Lead, Kindly Light."

" Splendid! " says Oskar. He is to be the conductor in Compound Three.

Snow falls, then comes frost, and on Christmas Eve the ground of the black camp is white and hard, and a moon is shining - a typical Christmas.

Mona has had a bustling day, but at nine she is finished and goes upstairs to sit with her father. The old man, who is in bed, has heard something of her activities, and is not too well pleased with them.

" What's coming over thee, girl? " he keeps on repeating. " What's coming over thee anyway? "

" Goodness sakes, why ask me that, dad? It's Christmas, isn't it? "

Having three hours to wait, she sits by the fire and reads to him-from the Gospels this time:

"And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

" For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. . . .

" And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude o f the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

" Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men."

Mona stops. The old man is breathing heavily. He has fallen asleep.

At eleven o'clock Mona is in her own room. What a magnificent night! The moon is shining full through the window, making its pattern on the carpet. Outside it is so bright that the entire camp is lit up by it, and there had been no need to switch on the big are-lamps.

The camp lies white in the sparkling snow. For the first time for more than three years it is not distinguishable from the country round about. The white mantle of winter has made camp and country one.

It is quiet out there in the night. Not a breath of wind is stirring. A dog is barking in the Fifth Compound, which is half a mile away. There is no other sound except a kind of smothered hum from the insides of the booths, where twenty-five thousand men are waiting for the first hour of Christmas Day-only this and the rhythmical throb of the tide on the distant shore. The old man in the next room is still breathing heavily.

Mona, too, is waiting. She is sitting up on her bed, half-covered by the counterpane. At one moment she remembers Robbie's watch and thinks of taking it out of the drawer and bonding it up and putting it on, but something says " Not yet." Although Peel church is nearly a mile away, she tells herself that on this silent night she will hear, the striking of the clock.

She thinks of the battlefront in France. The truce of God is there too. No booming of cannon, no shrieking of shells, only the low murmur of a sea of men in the underground trenches and the bright moon over the white waste about them. Thank God! Thank God!

At a quarter to twelve she is up again and at the window. A dim, mysterious, divine majesty seems to have come down on all the troubled world. The moon is shining full on her face. She hears marching on the crinkling snow-the band of the guard are crossing the avenue to take up the place assigned to them on the officers' tennis-court. Behind them there is the shuffling of irregular feet-her farm-hands are following.

Then, through the thin air comes the silvery sound of the clock of Peel church striking midnight, and then, clear and distinct, from the guards' band the first bar of ' ` The Feast of Stephen."

" When the snow lay on the ground . . ." After that another bar of it from the Third Compound (Oskar must be conducting)

" Deep and crisp and even . . ."

Then comes another bar from the First Compound, and then another and another from the distant Compounds Four and Five.

After that there is a second carol

" NoŽl, NoŽl, born is the King of Israel. . . ."

Then another carol and another, all played like the first, and finally, verse by verse, from near and far, the hymn she had selected

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom."

Mona is crying. Now she understands herself-why she suggested this to Oskar and why Oskar has carried it out. If only peace would come the barrier that divides them would be broken down! God send it ! God send it !

Her breath on the window-pane has frosted the cold glass, but she is sure she sees somebody coming towards the house. It is a man, and he is stumbling along, half doubled up as if drunk or wounded. He is making for the front door. Trembling with half-conscious apprehension of the truth, Mona runs downstairs to open it.

The man is Oskar Heine. By the light of the lamp she had left burning on the table she sees him. He is clutching `vith one hand a bough of the trammon tree that grows by the porch, and in the other he holds a sheet of blue paper. His cap is pushed back from his forehead, which is wet with perspiration, his eyes are wild, and his face is ashen.

" May I come in? " " indeed yes."

He comes into the house, never having done so before, and drops heavily into the old man's seat by the fire, which is dying out.

" What is it? " she asks.

"Look," he says, and hands her the paper. " It has just come. The post was late to-night." His voice seems to be dying out also.

Mona takes the paper. It is in English, and, standing by the lamp, she begins to read it aloud

. "American Consulate-Mannheim." " That's my home-Mannheim."

" I :regret to inform you . . ." " Don't! Don't ! "

Mona reads the rest of the letter to herself. It is from the American Consul, and tells Oskar that in a British air raid in the middle of the night the house in which his mother had lived with his sister had been struck by a bomb, and the wing in which his sister slept had been utterly destroyed.

Mona makes a cry and involuntarily reads aloud again

" The child is missing and it is believed "

Don't ! Don't ! "

There is silence between them for a moment, only broken by Oskar's low sobs and Mona's quick breathing.

" Your sister? "

" Yes, I wanted to tell you about her that night of . . ."

" I know," says Mona. With a stab of remorse the memory of what she had said has come back to her.

" Only ten. Such a sweet little thing- the sweetest darling in the world. Used to write every week and send me her 'sketches. My father died when she was a baby, and since then she has looked on me as father and brother too. And now ... Oh, it is too stupid ! It is too stupid ! "

Mona cannot speak, and he goes on saying

" It is too stupid. It is too stupid!"

He drops his head into his hands, and Mona sees the tears oozing out between his fingers.

', Mignon! My little Mignon ! "

Still Mona does not utter a word, and at last he gets up and says

" I had to tell you. There was no one else."

His face is broken up and he is turning to go. Mona can bear no more. By a swift, irresistible, unconquerable, almighty impulse she flings her arms about his neck.

Meantime, the old man upstairs had been awakened by the bands. He had raised him- self in bed to listen. The carols out there in the night touched him at first, but after a while they made him feel still more bitter. He was thinking about Robbie. What was the good of singing about peace in the midst of war? Peace? There would be no peace until the righteous God, with His mighty hand and outstretched arm, had hewn His enemies to pieces !

He heard a heavy thud at the door down- stairs, and then a man's voice, with Mona's, in the kitchen. His first thought was of " The Waits," for which Manx girls stayed up on Christmas Eve, and then a blacker thought came to him.

He struggled out of bed, pulled on his dressing-gown, fumbled for his walking- stick, and made for the stairs. It was dark on the landing, but there was light below coming from the kitchen, and, making a great effort, he staggered down.

How long Mona and Oskar were in each other's arms they did not know. It might have been only for a moment. But all at once they became aware of a shuffling step behind them. Mona turns to look. Her father is on the threshold.

The old man's face is ghastly. His eyes blaze, his mouth is open and his lips quiver, as if he is struggling for breath and voice. At length both come, and he falls on Mona with fearful cries.

" Harlot! Strumpet! So this is what has been changing thee ! Thy brother dead in France, and thou in the arms of this German! May God punish thee ! May thy brother's spirit follow thee day and night and destroy thee ! Curse thee ! Curse thee ! May the curse of God . . ."

The old man's voice chokes in his throat. His face changes colour, and he totters and falls.

Before Mona is aware of it same of the farm-hands are in the house picking the old man up. She had left the outer door open, and they had heard her father's cries.

They carry him back to bed, limp and unconscious. Mona stands for some moments as if smitten by a blow on the brain. A horror of great darkness has fallen on her. When she recovers self-possession she looks round for Oskar. He has gone.


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Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008