[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
THE old farmer died, without speaking, a few days after his second seizure. Mona watched with him constantly. Sometimes she prayed, with all the fervour of her soul, that- he might recover consciousness. But the strange thing was that sometimes she found herself hoping that he might never do so.
When the end came she was overwhelmed with remorse, but still struggling to defend herself. It was early morning, and she was alone with him at the last. In the wild burstings of affection, mingled with self- reproach, she cried
" I couldn't help it, father. I couldn't help it."
They buried her father at Kirk Patrick in the family grave of the Craines, which was close to the German quarter. Her relations from all parts of the island came " to see the old man home." There were uncles and aunts and cousins to the third and fourth degree, most of them quite unknown to her. When the service was over they went back to the farm-house, by permission of the camp authorities, to hear the will read by the vicar. It had been made shortly after the death of Robbie and consisted of one line only
" I leave all I have to my dear daughter." The uncles and aunts and cousins, who had no claim on the dead man, were shocked at his selfishness.
" Is there no legacy to anybody, parson? " " None."
" Not so much as a remembrance? "
" Nothing. Everything goes to Mona." " We'll leave it with her, then," they said, and rose to go. As they passed out of the house Mona heard one of them say to another
" It will be enough to make the man turn in his grave, though, if the farm goes to a Boche some day."
That night, sitting late over a dying fire, Mona overhears a group of men and boys talking on " the street " outside. They are her servants on the farm. Having heard her father's denunciation of her on Christ- mas Eve they have since been circulating damaging reports, and now they are busy with their own plans for the future.
" She has killed the old man, that's the long and short of it."
" So it is."
"I'm working no more for a woman that's done a thing like that."
" Me neither."
A week later they came to Mona one by one with various lying excuses for leaving her. Asking no questions she pays them off and lets them go.
She has been alone for three days when the Commandant, with his kind eyes, comes to see what he can do: What if he sends some of the guard to help her?
" No, sir, no."
" Some of the Germans, then? "
" But, good gracious, girl, you can't carry on the farm by yourself."
" I'm strong. I'll manage somehow, sir." " But sixteen cows-it's utterly impos- sible-utterly 1 "
" Half of them are dry now and will have to go out to grass. I can attend to the rest, sir."
" But won't you be afraid to live in this house alone-a woman, with men like these about you? "
" I don't think I will, sir."
Half a year has passed. Mona has seen nothing of Oskar since Christmas. With a thrill of the heart she hears of the wide liberty he has won by his ability and good behaviour. But even in that there is a certain sting. He is free of the camp now as far as the barbed wire extends; why does he not come to see her? Sometimes she feels bitter that he does not come, but again the strange thing is that sometimes she is sure that if he did come she would run away from him.
All the same, she has a sense of his pre- sence always about her. No matter how, early she rises in the morning she finds that the rough work of the farm, unfit for a woman, has been done by other hands before she has reached the cow-house.
For a long time this sense as of a supernatural presence, unseen and unheard, helping her and caring for her and keeping guard over her, strengthens her days and sweetens her nights. But at length something happens which causes her courage to fail.
Rumour has come to the camp that a great enemy offensive is shortly to be made on the Western front. To meet the need of it the old guard of tried and trusted men are sent overseas, and their places filled by a new guard, which seem to have been recruited from the very sweepings of the streets.
The captain of this new guard assigned to the first three compounds (the nearest to the farmhouse) turns out to be a brute. His antecedents are doubtful. His own men, to whom he is a tyrant, say he has been a barman in a public-house somewhere, and that a few years before the war he was convicted of a criminal assault on a woman.
Mona becomes aware that she is attracting the attention of this ruffian. He is asking questions about her, following her with his evil eyes, and making coarse remarks that are intended to meet her ears.
" Fine gal! Splendid! What a woman for a wife, too! "
During the day he finds excuses to call at the farm-house and engage her in conversation. At length he knocks at her door at night. It is late, the camp is quiet, nobody is in sight anywhere. Before knowing who knocked Mona has opened the door. The man makes an effort to enter, but she refuses to admit him. He pleads, coaxes, threatens and finally tries to force his way into the house.
" Don't be a fool, girl. Let me in," he whispers.
She struggles to shut the door in his face. Her strength is great, but his is greater, and he has almost conquered her resistance when the figure of another man comes from behind.
It is Oskar. With both hands he takes the blackguard by the throat, drags him from the door and flings him five yards back into the road, where he falls heavily and lies for a moment. Then he gets up and shambles off, saying nothing, and at the next instant Oskar himself, without a word to Mona, turns away.
It is midsummer. The insular horse-racing has begun-an event in which the prisoners are keenly interested, but of which they are supposed to know nothing. Since the changing of the guard the moral of the camp has gone down headlong. Drink has been getting in-nobody knows how. It is first discovered in the First Compound, com- monly called the millionaire's quarter.
Suspecting an illicit traffic the officers raid a tent occupied by a German baron, and find half a dozen men about a table, with champagne, cigars, brandy and every luxury of a fashionable night club. A searching inquiry is made by the Commandant. It has no result. The captain of the guard, who is zealous in helping, can offer no explanation. Later it is discovered that still worse corruption is going on in the Second Compound. The sailors are quarrelling, fighting and rioting under the influence of raw spirits, generally rum, probably much above proof. Where does their money come from? And how does the drink get into the camp? For their work in the workshops and on the land the prisoners are paid, but their small earnings (less a tax to the camp and a small sum for " fag-money ") go into the camp bank, to be distributed when the war is over. Once more an inquiry is fruit- less. The men refuse to speak, and the captain of the guard is bewildered.
One morning, on rising, Mona sees Oskar Heine in the avenue talking through the barbed-wire fence to a group of sailors in the Second Compound. The men are behaving like infuriated animals, clenching and shaking their fists as if vowing vengeance. A moment afterwards she sees the captain, with a quick step, as if coming from the First Compound, cross the avenue, disperse the men by a fierce command, and then turn hotly on Oskar. Mona is too far away to hear what is being said, but she sees that Oskar, without answering, walks slowly away.
An hour afterwards, when she is at work in the dairy, she hears harsh cries from the Second Compound. Going to the door she sees a shocking scene. The infuriated prisoners, whom she had seen talking to Oskar, augmented by at least a hundred others, are hunting a man as if with the intention of lynching him. They are shouting and gesticulating, and the man is screaming. They have torn his coat off, and the upper part of his body is almost naked. He is running to and fro as if trying to escape from his pursuers, and they are beating him as he flies and kicking him when he falls. The soldiers on guard at the gate of the compound are racing to the man's relief and threatening with their rifles, but the rifles are being wrenched out of their hands and turned against them. The clamour is fearful. The whole compound is in wild disorder.
"The thief! The cheat! Search him! Strip him!"
Without waiting to think what she is doing, but with a frightful apprehension of danger to Oskar, Mona runs into the compound (there being no one at the gate to prevent her), and with her strong arms, which are bare to the elbows, she struggles through the mob of drunken men.
" Stop! Stand back! You brutes!"
More from the sound of her voice than from the strength of her muscles the prisoners fall away and she reaches their victim. He is on the ground at her feet, bleeding about the face and head and crying for mercy.
It is the captain of the guard !
When the miserable creature sees who has rescued him he squirms to her feet and calls . on her to save him. A body of the guard from another compound come running up and carry him away, and the infuriated men slink off to the cover of their quarters.
Later in the day Mona hears that six of the prisoners have been arrested and sent to the lock-up at Peel and that Oskar Heine is one of them. Still later she learns that they are to be brought up for trial in the morning.
What is Oskar to be charged with? Mona has not been summoned, but she decides to go to the trial. She has a presentiment of something evil that is to happen to her there, but all the same she determines to go.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008