[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
IT is the Saturday before Easter. Looking out of her bedroom window in the morning, Mona sees nothing but a desolate black waste where the crowded compounds have been. Four unborn springs and summers buried in the bosom of the blackened fields-when, oh when will they grow green again?
Only in the Third Compound is there any activity. Few men are left even there. Oskar has told her he is to,leave with the last batch, but the time for him to go is coming on inexorably.
The "houses" are empty, the " creatures " no longer call, and the unnatural silence of the farmyard oppresses her. As long as she had the work of three farm hands to do her strength never failed her, but now that she has only to attend to herself she is always tired and weary.
The spring is beginning to appear, and through the open door she sees that the daffodils are blooming in the little patch of garden in front of the house. This reminds her of what she did on the day of her father's burial, and she plucks some of the flowers, intending to lay them on his grave.
There is nobody in the avenue when she walks through-between the lines of barbed-wire fences that have no faces behind them now-and past the empty guards' houses near to the gate. There is nobody on the road either, as far as to the lych-gate of Kirk Patrick.
There he lies, her father, his upright headstone, inscribed to " Robert Craine of Knockaloe," cheek by jowl with the sloping marbles that mark the graves of the Germans who had died during the four years of internment-all his race-hatred quenched in the peace of death.
Only a few yards away, on the grass of a mound that had no stone over it, is the glass dome of artificial flowers which she herself had placed on the grave of Ludwig, the boy with the cough. The glass is cracked, no doubt by the snow and frost of winter, and the white flowers have perished. Poor father ! Who knows but in a little while his dust may mingle with that of the German boy in the mother-bosom that bore them both! Oh God, how, wicked is war, how cruel, how senseless!
'Mona is coming out of the churchyard when she hears the tapping of a mason's chisel and then sees the mason himself behind a canvas screen, which shelters him from the winnowing of a light breeze that is blowing up from the sea. He is at work on a large block of granite, lettering a long list of names.
After a moment she speaks to him, and he tells her what the block is-the base of a cross to the men of the district who fell in the war. It is to be set up outside the gate of the parish church at Peel. The ceremony of unveiling it is to be on Easter Monday-that is to say, the day after tomorrow. The time is to be nine in the morning, because that is the hour when the boys of Peel and Patrick who have survived the war are expected to return home by the steamer that is to leave Liverpool on Sunday night. The Lord Bishop of the Island is to unveil the memorial, and all the clergy and Town Commissioners and big people of the two parishes are to be present. All the men, too, and their mothers and wives and children.
It will be a grand sight, girl. I suppose you won't be going, though? "
Mona catches her breath and answers " " No."
After another moment she begins to look over the names. All four sides of the base are full of them, and the mason seems to be lettering the last. She tries to find her brother's name and cannot do so. At length, not without an effort, she says
" But where is Robbie's name? "
The mason pauses in his work, and then answers
" Robbie Craine's? Well, to tell you the truth, it is not on the list they made out for me. "
" They-who are they? "
" Well, the Bishop and the clergy and the Town Commissioner and so on."
" But my brother died in the war, and won the Victoria Cross, didn't he?"
" Maybe he did."
" You know he did. Then what has he done that his name is not in the list with the rest? "
The mason, preparing to resume his work, replies
"Maybe it's what somebody else has done that has kept him out of it."
The word falls on her like a blow on the brain, and she goes off hurriedly. As she turns the corner of the road she hears the thin ring of the mason's chisel, and it sounds like the thud of doom. Is she, and everybody who has ever belonged to her, to be wiped out of living memory? What has she done to deserve it? But after a moment of fierce anger her former helplessness comes back on her and she begins to cry.
" I can't tell in the world why good people should be so unkind."
Later in the day a new strength, the strength of defiance, comes over her. Oskar may say it is the war, and even the peace, that has poisoned people's souls, but if it was God who put it into her heart to love Oskar, and into Oskar's heart to love her, it is for God to see them through. He will, too-certainly He will. If she has to become a servant girl herself and scrub her fingers to the bone, why shouldn't she? God will open people's eyes some day, and then the Bishop and the clergy and the Town Commissioners will have to be ashamed of themselves.
" I'm a good woman-why shouldn't they? "
Being without stock of her own now she has to go into town that evening to buy provisions for housekeeping. The shop-keepers show her scant courtesy, but she puts up with no neglect and no disrespect. It is almost dark when she has finished her shopping, and then, for a near cut back to Knockaloe, she passes, with her string bag in her hand, through a by-street which has an ale-house at one corner.
There she comes upon a tumultuous scene. In front of a small house, with the door standing open, a crowd of women and children have gathered to listen to a wild quarrel that is going on ;within. There is a man's voice swearing, a girl's voice screaming and an old woman's pleading.
" So this is what my maintenance from the army has been spent on-keeping you and your . . . German bastard."
" It's not my fault, Harry; I tried to get another place and nobody would have me."
" Neither will I have you, so get out of this house quick."
" Leave me alone! Leave me alone, I tell you! If you touch my child I'll scratch your eyes out."
" Out you go, you harlot, and to . . . with you."
" Harry! Liza ! Harry! Harry! Children! " cries the old woman.
Mona asks the women of the crowd what is going on.
"Don't you know, miss? It's Liza Kinnish, the girl with the German baby. Her brother has come home from the war, and he is turning her out-and no wonder."
A number of men, half-intoxicated, come from the ale-house, but they make no attempt to intervene, and at the next moment a bare-headed soldier, also in drink, with the upper buttons of his tunic torn open, comes from the house, dragging after him a girl with a baby in her arms and her disordered hair streaming on to her shoulders.
" Out you go-you and your d German offal! "
Flinging the girl into the street, the man returns to the house and clashes the door behind him.
" Let me in! " screams the girl, hammering at the door with her spare hand.
The door opens and the soldier comes to the threshold.
" Look here, you . . . I'm not going to have the fellows sneering at me when they come home on Monday morning, so if you are not gone to . . . out of this inside two minutes . . ."
" Why did you come home? " cries the girl. " You beast! You brute! Why didn't the Germans kill you? "
At that the soldier, foaming at the mouth, is lifting his clenched fist to the girl when Mona, crushing through the crowd of women and throwing down her string bag, lifts her own hand and strikes the man full in the jaw, and he falls like a log.
Then, while he squirms on the ground, stunned and winded, she turns on the men from the ale-house, who have previously been drinking with him and taunting him and egging him on.
" And you! " she cries. " What are you? Are you men Q You white-livered mongrels! Your mothers were women, and they'd be ashamed of you."
By this time the soldier has scrambled to his feet and, with blood in his mouth, he is trying to laugh.
" Ha, ha, ha! So this is another of them, is it? She's in the same ease herself, they're telling me. Oh, I've heard of you, my lady. You used to think great things of yourself, but when the parson marries you there'll be three of you before him at the altar, as the saying is. Ha, ha, ha! "
The men laugh and some of the women begin to titter. A harder blow than she had dealt the soldier has fallen upon Mona. She stands for a moment as if turned to stone, then picks up her bag, sweeps through the crowd and hastens away.
So this is what people think of her! After all the struggling of her heart and the travailing of her soul, this is what people think! Oh, God ! Oh, God!
She had been sleeping badly of late, but that night she hardly sleeps at all. Towards the grey dawning she has a sense of Robbie being in the room with her. He is wearing his officer's uniform, just as in her mind's eye, when she felt so proud, she had often seen him. She knows he is dead, and she thinks this is his spirit, and it has come to reproach her.
" Mona, if anybody had told me three years ago that such a thing would happen I should have killed him. Yes, by God, I should have killed him."
Mona tries to speak, but cannot. "Rob..."
" Lord, how proud I was of you! When they told me I had won the Victoria Cross I laughed and said, 'My sister. would have won it long ago if she had been here.' Nobody hated the Germans as you used to do, but now that you've given yourself to one of them . . ."
Rob . . . Rob . . ."
"What else could you have done it for? Everybody believes it, too. Father believed it, and it was that that killed him."
Again Mona tries to cry out and cannot. " Hide yourself away, Mona. Hide your sin and shame in some miserable corner of the earth where nobody will know you. You've broken my heart, and now.. . ."
" Robbie ! Robbie ! "
Her own voice awakens her. The rising sun shines on her as she sits up in bed in her, wretchedness.
Only a dream ! Yet it has told her everything. This is the end. Here has her road finally led her. Her love is doomed. Life, as well as the world, is now closed to her. But to stand in the pillory as long as she lives for a sin she has not committed-it is too much! Better die - a thousand times better !
When she asks herself how, it seems so simple. And when she thinks of the consequences they seem so slight. There will be nobody to care-nobody except Oskar. He will be better without her, and can go home when his time comes. Either of them could get on alone. It is only together that they are not allowed to live, and since only one of them can live, it is so much better it should be Oskar,
There is a pang in the thought that Oskar will suffer. Yes, he will be sorry. But he will get over it. And when he is at home and the first pang of losing her is past and he wants to be happy, being so young and such a man, perhaps . . . who knows. . . .
But no, she cannot think of that.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008