[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
IT is Christmas week again-the last Christmas of the war. Two Swiss doctors, ap- pointed by the warring nations to inspect the Internment Camps throughout Europe, have arrived at Knockaloe.
After going the rounds of the five com- pounds they come to the farm to test the milk. They are pleasant men, and Mona asks them to take tea.
Sitting at the table in the kitchen they talk together, not paying much attention to Mona, of the complaints made by the prisoners, particularly by one of them, who had said he had not been able to eat the potatoes provided because they had been full of maggots, whereupon the sergeant of the guard, who had been showing them round, had cried
" Don't believe a word of it-the man's a liar," and then the prisoner had said no more.
" I dare say the fellow was lying all right," says one of the doctors, " but that sergeant is a bit of a beast."
"Is it like that in all the camps-in Germany, for instance? " asks Mona.
" Worse there than anywhere. Some of the officers in German camps are barbarians without bowels of compassion for anybody, and some of your British prisoners are living the lives of the damned."
" But that's the devilish way of war. It seems to make martyrs and heroes of the men who lose by it, and brutes and demons of the men who win."
" Not always, my friend."
" No, not always, thank God!"
After that they turn to Mona, congratulating her on the cleanliness of her dairy, and asking her what help she has to keep things going. Being afraid to speak of Oskar, she tells them she is alone.
" Wonderful! " says one of them. " But it's what I always say-one person working with his heart will do more than ten who are working with their hands only."
" It's the same on the battlefield," says the other. " And that's why this country has won the war, and the Germans have lost it."
Lost it? " says Mona. " Is the war over, then? "
" It soon will be, my girl. Your enemy may make a last kick, but the war cannot last much longer."
Mona's heart leaps up. Can it be possible that the war is coming to an end? Then it will soon be well with her and Oskar.
It is not because Oskar is a German, but because the Germans are at war with her own people that her people look black at her. It is war, not race, that is the great obstacle to their love, and when the war is over the obstacle will be gone.
" O Lord, stop the war, stop it, stop it," she prays every, night and every morning. There are to be no carols this Christmas, but special services are to be held in the camp on Christmas Day, and a great Lutheran preacher is coming to conduct them.
On Christmas Eve Mona is carrying a bowl of oats to a young bull she has put out on the mountain, when she hears the singing of a hymn in the prison chapel and she stops to listen. It must be the prisoner-choir practising for to-morrow's service, and it must be Oskar who is playing the har- monium.
" Ein feste Burg ist unsex Gott . . ." The language is unknown to her, but the tune is familiar; she used to sing it herself when she was in the choir of the Wesleyan Chapel
" A sure stronghold our God is still . . ." The same hymn, the same religion, the same God, the same Saviour, and yet . . . How wicked! How stupid!
On Christmas morning Mona has finished her work in the dairy when she hears the far-off sound of the church bells in Peel, and looking out over the camp she sees groups of the prisoners (Oskar among them) making their way to the prison chapel.
Suddenly, as she thinks, a new thought comes to her. If it is the same religion, why shouldn't she go to the service? If the guard will permit her to pass, why shouldn't she?
Almost before she is aware of what she is doing she has run upstairs, changed into her chapel clothes, and is crossing the avenue towards the gate of the Third Compound.
The camp chapel (half church, half theatre) is a large wooden barn with a stage at one end, no seats on the floor. On the stage, behind a small deal table, the Lutheran pastor, in a black gown, is reading the lesson from his big Bible. On the floor in front of him are five or six hundred men, all standing in lines. They make a pitiful spectacle-same young (almost boys), some elderly (almost old), some wearing good clothes, some in rags, some well shod, some with their naked feet showing through the holes in their worn-out shoes, some with fine clear-cut features, and some with faces degraded by drink and debased by crime. Every eye is on the pastor, and there is no sound in the bare place but the sound of his voice.
The silence is broken by the lifting of the latch of a door near to the stage. At the next moment a woman enters. Everybody knows her-it is " the Woman of Knockaloe." She stands for a moment as if dazed by the eyes that are on her, and then somebody by her side (she knows who it is, although she does not look at him) touches her arm and leads her to a chair, which has been hurriedly brought in from an ante-room and placed in the middle of the front row.
When the lesson is finished the pastor gives out a hymn. It is the same hymn as she heard last night, but after the man from the door has stepped forward and played the overture on the harmonium, she finds herself on her feet in the midst of the prisoners.
In full, clear, resonant voices the men are singing in their German, when suddenly they become aware that a woman is singing with them in English-the same hymn to the same tune.
" Ein feste Burg ist anser Gott . . . "
" A sure stronghold our God is still . . . "
The voices of the men sink for a moment, as if they are listening, and then, as by one spontaneous impulse, they rise and swell until the place seems to throb with them.
When the hymn comes to an end Mona sits and the pastor begins his sermon. She can understand only a word of it now and again, and her eyes wander to the door.
Oskar is there. His head is up and his eyes are shining.
" O Lord, stop the war, stop it, stop it 1 " Summer has come again; the sun rises and sets, the birds sing and nest, the landscape preserves its solemn peace, but still the war goes on. The last kick of the enemy, which the Swiss doctors had foreseen, has been made and it is over. After a devastating advance, there has been a still more devastating retreat.
The prisoners in the camp know all about it. Their spirits had risen and fallen according to the fortunes of their armies at the front. At first they were truculent. They talked braggingly about vast German forces marching upon London, blowing up Buckingham Palace, putting an end to the British Empire, and then turning their attention to America. Afterwards they were sceptical. If the English newspapers reported German defeats they knew better, having received their German newspapers which reported German victories. Now they are sullen. What is the war_ about, anyway? Nothing at all ! In ten years' time nobody will know what was the cause of it!
Mona is in a fever of excitement. Is the war coming to an end at last? What does Oskar think? Why doesn't he come to her? Is he still thinking he has brought trouble enough on her already?
At length he comes. It is late at night. She hears his voice calling to her in a tremulous tone from the other side of the open door.
He has never called her by that name before.
She is standing on the threshold, trembling from head to foot, never before having been face to face with him since the night of her father's seizure.
" It's all over, Mona."
" What is, Oskar? "
" Germany is beaten. The Hindenburg line is broken, and revolution has begun in Berlin."
" Does that mean that the war will soon be at an end? "
" It must be."
She hesitates for a moment, then she says, with a quivering at her heart
" But surely you are glad of that, Oskar -that the war will soon be at an end? "
He looks into her face and then turns away his own.
I don't know. I can't say," he answers.
She looks after him as he goes off. Her eyes gleam and her heart throbs.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008