[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
THE tenth of November, nineteen hundred and eighteen. All day long there has been great commotion in the officers' quarters. The telephone with Government Office has been going constantly since early morning, and there has been much hurrying to and fro.
An internment camp is like a desert in one thing-rumour passes over it on the wings of the wind. Before midday every prisoner knows everything. The Kaiser has been hurled from his throne by his own people; the German command have asked for an armistice, and the Allied Commander-in-Chief has given them until nine o'clock to-morrow to sign the terms of peace he has prepared for them.
If they do not sign within that time the war will go on to extermination.. If they do, the news will be flashed over the world immediately. At eleven o'clock they will have it at Knockaloe. The guns will be fired in the fort at Douglas, the sirens will be sounded from the steamers in the bay, and the church bells will be rung all over, the island.
Mona is in raptures. The war is near to an end, and all she has prayed for is about to come to pass. Yet even at that moment she is conscious of conflicting feelings. When she thinks of Robbie, she wants to shout with joy that the war has come to a right ending, and the cruel enemy who made it, with all its barbarities and horrors, is humbled to the dust. But when she thinks of Oskar, she feels . . . she does not know what she feels.
Where is Oskar ?
She awakes next morning before the day has dawned and while the arc-lamps are still burning. The first thing she is aware of is a deep murmur, like that of the sea on a quiet but sullen day, jWhich seems to come from all parts of the camp. It was the last thing she had been conscious of when she fell asleep the night before. The prisoners were then walking to and fro in their compounds, in and out of the sinister shadows, and talking, talking, talking. Could it be possible that they had walked and talked all night long?
What wonder? The day that was about to dawn might be the day of doom for them. When night came again their Fatherland might have fallen; they might be men without a country-mere outcasts thrown on to an overburdened world.
When the day breaks and the arc-lamps are put out, Mona sees the men moving about like wraiths in the grey light. But silence has now fallen on them. The ordinary regulations of the camp have been relaxed for the day, and they are not required to go to their workshops. When the bell rings for breakfast some of them forget they are hungry and remain in the open.
It is a November day like many another, fine and clear and cold and with occasional gleams of sunshine on the sea. The cows in the cow-house are lowing, the sheep on the hill are bleating. Nature is going on as usual.
Mona goes to her work in the dairy. When the men come for the milk, she can hardly bear to look into their drawn faces. The prisoners in the First Compound are standing in groups, and if they are talking at all it can only be in whispers. The sailors in the Second Compound are standing together in crowds, but the old riotous spirit is gone; there is no more shouting or swearing.
The hours drag on. Looking beyond the barbed wire boundary of the encampment, Mona sees country carts rattling down the high road at a fast trot as if going to a fair. Somebody is on the church tower of Kirk Patrick doing something with the flagstaff.
At half-past ten the world seems to be standing still. The camp is on tiptoe. All over it men are looking towards Douglas. Their faces are grim, almost ghastly. They seem to be rooted to the ground. Sometimes one of them digs his foot into the earth like a restless horse tired of waiting, but that is the only movement.
Where is Oskar? What is he doing? At length, at long length, there is a certain activity in the officers' quarters. Mona distinctly hears the ringing of the telephone bell in the Commandant's tent, which is not far from the farm-house. In the quiet air and the dead silence she believes she hears the Commandant's voice.
" Hello! Who's there? Government office? . . . Well? . . . Signed, is it? Good! "
At the same moment she hears the striking of the clock at Peel. And before the clock has finished striking there comes the deep boom of a gun.
There can be no mistaking that. It rolls down the valley from the direction of Douglas, strikes the hills on either side, and then sweeps over the black camp towards the sea.
A moment later comes the screaming of sirens, deadened by distance, then the ringing of church bells, now far, now near, and then the dull sound of wild cheering at Peel, where the people, who have been waiting from early morning in the market place, are going frantic in their joy, clasping each other's hands and kissing.
The twenty-five thousand prisoners in the camp stand silent and breathless for a moment. The worst has happened to them -their Fatherland has fallen.
The strain is broken by a ridiculous incident. A terrier bitch belonging to a German baron in the " millionaires' " quarters leaps up to the roof of his tent and begins to bark furiously at the tumult in the air. The little creature's anger becomes amusing. The men look at the dog and then burst into peals of laughter.
A few minutes afterwards the prisoners of the First Compound have recovered themselves and are shaking hands and congratulating each other. After all the war is over. and they will soon be free 1 Free to leave this place and go back home-home to their houses and their Øves and children.
The sailors in the Second Compound are going crazy with delight and behaving like demented creatures. They are laughing and singing at the top of their lungs, punching each other and boxing, playing leap-frog and turning cart-wheels. What does it matter about country? Who cares about the Fatherland, anyway? All the world is their country-all the world and the sea.
Mona is standing at the door of her dairy, quivering with emotion. She is like a woman possessed. What she has hoped for and prayed for has come to pass at last. Peace! Peace! Peace over all the earth! Never has the world had such a chance before. Never will it have such a chance again. The cruelties and barbarities of war, will be no more heard of, and the senseless jealousies and hatreds of races will be wiped out for ever. And then . , . and then ... All at once she becomes aware of somebody behind her. She knows who it is, but she does not turn. There is a moment of silence between them, and then, in a voice which she can scarcely control, she says, half-crying, half-laughing
You, too, will be free to go home soon, Oskar. Aren't you glad? "
There is another moment of silence between them, and then in a low, tremulous voice Oskar answers
" No, you know. I'm not, Mona."
Mona drops her hand to her side, partly behind her, and at the next moment she feels it tightened in a quivering grasp.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008