[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
THREE nights later Oskar comes again. As usual he will not enter the house, so she has to stand at the door to speak to him. His eyes are bright and he is eager and excited. " Mona, I have something to suggest to you."
" It's not to be wondered at that people brought up in a little island like this should have these hard feelings and narrow ideas. But the English are not like that. They are a great, great people, and if you are willing to go with me to England. . . ."
" What are you thinking of, Oskar? " He tells her more about himself than she has ever yet heard. He is an electrical engineer, and before being brought to Knockaloe he had been chief engineer to a big English company on the Mersey, at a salary of a thousand a year. When the war broke out his sympathies had been dead against his own country, chiefly because of " that quack, the Kaiser."
" Oskar ! "
" It's true. I can't account for it. was secretly ashamed of it in those days, but I would have joined up in the British Army if they would have had me. They wouldn't! "
On the contrary, the authorities had called him up for internment. Then his firm, which had been loath to lose him, had tried to obtain his exemption. They had failed, and when the time came for him to go the chairman of the company had said: " Heine, we're sorry you have to leave us, but if you want to come back when the war is over, your place will be waiting for you."
"But could he . . . do you think it possible. . . ."
" Certain! Oh, he's a great old man,
Mona, and if he were to break his word to me I should lose faith in human nature. So I...I... "
" I intend to write to him, telling him I shall soon be at liberty, and if you will only agree to go with me. . . ."
He stops, seeing tears in her eyes. Then, in a husky voice, he says
I'm sorry to ask you to leave your island."
" It is turning me out, Oskar ; that's the bitterest part of it." `'
Then you will go to England with me? "
"Yes," she says, and he hurries off in high spirits to write his letter.
During the next week Mona tries hard to feel happy, but little by little vague doubts oppress her. One day she overhears scraps of a conversation between the Commandant and the Governor, who are arranging for the breaking up of the camp and the disposal of its portable property. As they stand in the avenue they are talking about the Peace Conference.,
" It's a pity," the Commandant is saying, " but it has always been my experience that the first years of a peace are worse than the last years of a war."
And the Governor is answering: " All the same, we should be fools to trust those traitors again. We have beaten the German brutes, and what we have got to do now is to keep them beaten."
"I'm not like that, your Excellency," says the Commandant. " I'll fight my enemy with the best, but when the fighting is over I want to forget and, if I can, forgive. I was at the front in the early days, and after a bad bit of an engagement I came upon a 'German officer in a shell hole. He was in a terrible state, poor fellow, and we couldn't take him in, so I decided to stay with him. His mind was perfectly clear, and he said, 'Colonel' (I was colonel in those days), `don't you think this is strange?' `What's strange?' I asked. `Well,' said he, 'if you and I had met in the trenches I suppose you would have tried to kill me for the sake of Motherland, and I should have tried to kill you for the sake of Fatherland, yet here you are trying to save me for the sake of ... Brotherland.' More of the same kind he said in those last hours, and when the end came he was in my arms and his head was on my breast, and I don't mind telling you I . . . I kissed him."
Mona felt a thrill going through and through her. Brotherland ! That was what all the world would be soon. And then Oskar and she, living in Liverpool, in their great love would be happy and unashamed.
That night Oskar comes back. His face is pale and his lips are quivering. He tries to speak, but finding it hard to do so he hands her a letter. It is from the engineering firm on the Mersey
SIR,-We have received your letter of the 10th inst. addressed to our late chairman, who died during the war, and regret to say in reply to your request that you should be taken back in your former position, that it is now filled to our satisfaction by another engineer, and that even if it were vacant we should find it impossible to re-engage you for the reason that feeling against the Germans is so strong among British workmen that none of them would be willing to serve under you, and the fact that you had married an English wife, as you say, would increase, not lessen, their hostility.
" I wouldn't have believed it," says Oskar.
" It's the war," says Mona. "Will it never, never end? "
" Never," says Oskar, and he turns away with clenched teeth.
Mona goes to bed that night with a heavy, heart. If English workmen will not work with Oskar, England, also, is closed to them, and Brotherland is a cruel dream.
Another week passes. The disbanding of the camp goes on as usual, with its toll of two hundred and fifty men daily. The Fourth and Second Compounds are now beginning to be called upon. The men of the Third are being kept to the last, because many of them, like Oskar, are engineers, and therefore useful in removing the electric plant, which is to be sold separately. But their turn will come soon and then . . . what then?
A week later Oskar, comes again. His face is thin and pinched and his eyes are bleared as from want of sleep, but his spirits are high, almost hysterical.
" Mona," he says, " I know, what we have to do."
" What? " " The English may be hard and unforgiving, but the Germans are not like that."
" The Germans? "
" Oh, I know my people. They may fight like fiends and demons-they do, I know they do-but when the fighting is over they are willing to be friends with their enemies."
" What are you thinking of now, Oskar? " says Mona, but she sees what is coming.
" If you were willing if you could only find it possible to go with me to Germany. ,.
" Germany? " Mona feels dizzy.
" It's a sin and a shame to ask you to leave your native country, Mona, but since it is turning you out, as you say . ''
Mona is covering her ears.
"Don't speak of it, Oskar. I can't listen to you 1 It's impossible."
Oskar is silent for a moment, then he says in a tremulous voice
" I would make it up to you, Mona, Yes, I swear to God I should make it up to you. I should dedicate every day and hour of my life to make it up to you. You should never regret it-never for one single moment."
" But how could I go . . ."
" Just as other women are going. Lots of the men are taking their German wives back with them. Why shouldn't I take my English wife? "
" Wife? "
" Certainly. The chaplain would marry us."
" The chaplain? "
" Yes, in the camp chapel, late at night or early in the morning, with two of my comrades as witnesses."
" Have you spoken to him, then? "
" I have, and he says that being made in a Lutheran church by a Lutheran clergyman, it would be a good marriage according to German law, so Germany would receive you."
" But where . . . where should we go to ? "
" My mother's first." " Your mother's? "
" Where else? Oh, she'd love it! She's the best mother a man ever had. Do you know, she has written to me every single week since I came here. And now she's only living to welcome me home."
" But, Oskar, are you sure she will . . ." " Welcome you? Of course she will. She's growing old, poor soul, and has been lonely since my sister's death. After we're married I'll write to say I'm bringing another daughter home to love and comfort her. . . ."
" Write first, Oskar."
"As you please. It isn't necessary, though. I know quite well what she'll say. But even if she couldn't welcome you for yourself-and why shouldn't she?-she would for my sake, anyway."
" All the same, write first, Oskar."
Very well, I will. And if her answer is all right, you'll go? "
" Heavens, how happy I am! What have I done to deserve to be so happy? "
Mona watches him as he goes off, with his quick step, until he is lost in the sinister shadows cast by the big arc-lamps that cut through the night. Then she goes indoors and tries to compose herself. It takes her - a long time to do so, but at length, being in bed, she remembers a beautiful thing she had read to her father in the days when he lay upstairs
" Whither thou goest, I will go. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God."
For days after that Mona finds herself singing as she goes about her work. And at night, when she is alone, she is always thinking of her forthcoming life in Oskar's home. She can scarcely remember her own mother, except that she was an invalid for years, but she sees herself nursing Oskar's mother, now that she is old and has lost her daughter.
" I mustn't go empty-handed, though," she thinks.
That brings back the memory of long John Corlett and his threat of " putting the law " on her.
It must have been stuff and nonsense about the dilapidations eating up the stock, but she will see an advocate and have things settled up immediately.
" I'm afraid the man is right, miss."
It is the advocate whom Mona is consulting.
" It was a bad bargain your poor father made with the Government, and the only people likely to profit by it are the landlord and the incoming tenant."
" Then what do you advise me to do, sir? "
" Sell up your stock, have the dilapidations valued, pay the money due, and start afresh on whatever is left."
"Do it for me at once, please," says Mona, and she sets off home with an easy, if not a happy, mind.
But hardly has she got there and changed into_ her dairy clothes, and begun on her evening milking in the cow-house, with the watery winter sun coming in on her through the open door, when she sees Oskar approaching with a look that strikes to her heart. His face is white, almost ghastly, and he is walking like an old man, bent and feeble.
" What has happened? "
" There! What do you think of that? " he says, and with a grating laugh he gives her a letter.
" Is it from your mother? " " Look at it."
" Is she refusing to receive me? "
" Read it. It's written in English-for your benefit, apparently."-
" OSKAR,-The contents of your letter have distressed me beyond measure. That a son of mine should think of marrying an Englishwoman--one of the vile and wicked race that killed his sister-is the most shocking thing that has ever happened to me in my life."
There is more of the same kind-that if Oskar attempts to bring his Englishwoman to Germany his mother will refuse to receive her; that if she did receive her every selfrespecting German woman would cry shame on her and shun her house for ever; that the feeling in Germany against the abominable English is so bitter, because of their brutal methods of warfare and their barbarous ideas of peace (starving hundreds of German children by their infamous blockade, drowning German sailors under the sea in their submarines, burning German airmen alive in the air, and now ruining everybody by crushing demands for reparations which will leave Germany a nation of beggars), that no decent house would shelter any of them.
" Tell your Englishwoman from me that if she marries you and comes to this country she will be as a leper whom nobody will touch. Never shall she cross this threshold! Oskar, my son, I love you, and I have waited all this time for you; I am old, too, and have not much longer to live, but rather than hear you had married an Englishwoman I would see you dead and buried."
When Mona looks up from the letter, Oskar is gazing into her face with a ghastly smile.
" That's a nice thing to send a fellow after four years' imprisonment, isn't it? " he says, and then he breaks into heart-breaking laughter.
" I was so sure of her, too. I thought she would do anything for me-anything."
Again the laughs-wildly, fiercely.
" What has happened to the woman? Has the accursed war taken all the heart out of her? The German people, too-have they all gone mad? Starving German children, drowning German sailors, burning German airmen! Good Lord, has the whole nation gone crazy? "
Mona feels as if she were choking.
" She is old and hasn't much longer to live, and just because I'm going to marry the best girl in the world and. take her home with me . . ."
But his laughter breaks into sobs and he can say no more. Mona feels the tears in her throat as well as in her eyes, but at length she says
" Oskar, it's all my fault. I've come between you. You must go home without me -to your country and your mother." Oskar lifts his broken face and cries
" Country? Mothers I've got no country and no mother either. Go home to them? Never 1 Never in this world 1 "
At the next moment he has gone off, with long strides, before Mona can reach out her hand to stop him.
Being alone, she has to go on with her work as usual-the " creatures " have to be milked and foddered. But after the men from the compounds have been served (only three of them now) she has time to think out her situation.
Since Oskar's mother refuses to receive her, Germany also is closed to them. Because she loves Oskar, and Oskar loves her, and they are of different races and their nations have been at war, they are to be hunted through the world as outcasts, and no place is to be left for them.
" Poor Oskar! It's hardest for him, though," she thinks.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008