[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
AT five o'clock next morning a young man and a young woman are climbing the hill that stands between the camp and the sea.
There is only a pale grey light in the sky; the last stars are dying out; the morning is very quiet. Sometimes a cock crows in the closed-up hen houses of the neighbouring farms; sometimes a dog barks through the half-darkness. Save for these there is no sound except that of the soft breeze which passes over the earth before daybreak.
The two walk side by side. They can hardly see each other's faces, and are holding hands to keep together. Partly because of the darkness and partly for reasons obscure even to themselves, they are walking slowly, and pausing at every few steps to take breath. They are trying to make their journey as long as possible. It is to be their last.
" Forgive me, Oskar," says Mona.
" There is nothing to forgive, Mona. It had to be."
" Yes, it had to be. There was no other way, was there? "
" No, there was no other way, Mona." What remained of the internment camp had not been stirring when they passed through the lane that led from the farm to the grazing land, but by the time they are half-way up the hill there are sounds from the black ground below them. Looking back, they see groups of vague figures moving about in the Third Compound. A little later they hear the call of a bugle-the last batch of prisoners is being gathered up. Still later, when the light is better, there is the sharp ringing of a bell-the roll has been called and Oskar is missing.
" It's for me," he says, and they stop. By this time they are near to the wall of the little cemetery that surrounds the tower, and to avoid being seen they wait under its dark shelter.
There is a period of suspense in which neither speaks, but after a while they see the black-coated prisoners form into file, with their yellow-clothed guard on either_ side, and march out of their compound.
" They've given me up," says Oskar, and they both breathe freely.
They hear the word of command, deadened by distance. Then they see the procession of men pass down the avenue and through the big outer gates into the high road. At first there is only the dull thud of many feet on the hard ground, but as the guards close the gates behind them, and the sharp clang of the iron hasps comes up through the still air, the prisoners break into a cheer.
It is wild, broken, irregular cheering, as of fierce disdain, and it is followed by defiant singing
" Glo-ry to the brave men of old,
Their sons will copy their virtues bold, Courage in heart and a sword in hand. . ." A few minutes later the dark figures are hidden by trees, and as they turn the corner of the road by Kirk Patrick their voices die away.
They are gone-back to their own country, which wants them not. The camp that has been their prison for four years is empty. It lies, in the quickening daylight, like a vast black scar on the green face of the mountain.
Suddenly a new thought comes to Mona. They may still avoid death. Life may yet be open to them.
" Oskar," she says, speaking in a rapid whisper, "now that the officers and the guard have gone, isn't it possible that we could escape to somewhere . . . where we should be unknown . . ."
" Impossible! Quite impossible, Mona." " Ah yes, I suppose it is," she says, and they rise to resume their journey.
But just then, in the first rays of morning, from a cottage that is between them and the sea, she hears the voice of a woman singing. She knows who the woman is-one of her former maids, who has lately been married to a farm labourer. Perhaps her husband has gone to his work in the fields, and she is out in their little garden, gathering up the eggs of the hens that are clucking. How happy she must be !
For a moment Mona's heart fails her. She forgets the great thoughts of yesterday, and regrets the loss of the simple joys that are reserved for other women.
" It seems a pity, though, doesn't it? " she says.
" Do you regret it, Mona? " says Oskar, looking round at her. But at the next moment her soul has regained its strength.
" No! Oh, no! It had to be. . . . And then there is our great hope, our wonderful idea! "
" Yes, our great hope, our wonderful idea."
They continue their climbing, still holding each other's hands, but rarely speaking. Sometimes she stumbles, but he holds her up. The larks are singing now, and the young lambs on John Corlett's farm are bleating. Far down, on the seaward side, sheltering in the arms of its red cliffs, is the little white town of Peel. It is beginning to smoke for breakfast.
" Oskar, do you still think that when all this is over, and the hatred and bitterness have died out of people's hearts, they will make war on each other no longer?"
" Yes, in the years to come, perhaps-or they must wipe themselves off the earth, Mona."
" And do you think that God will accept our sacrifice? "
" I'm sure He will-because we shall have died for love and given up all."
" Yes, we shall have died for love and given up all," says Mona, and after that she liberates her hand and walks on firmly.
As they approach the crest of the hill the deep murmur of the sea comes over to them, and when they reach the top its salt breath smites their faces. There it lies in a broad half-circle, stretching from east to west, cold and grey and cruel.
Mona trembles, and the revulsion which comes to the strongest souls at the first sight of death seizes her for an instant. In a faltering voice she says
" It won't be long, will it, Oskar? " " No, it won't be long, Mona."
" Only a few moments? "
" Yes, only a few moments."
" And then we shall be together again for ever? "
" For ever."
" Oh, I shan't care if at the cost of a few moments of suffering I can be happy with you for ever."
She is not afraid now. In front of them are the heather-clad slopes that go down to the precipitous cliffs. They clasp hands again and walk forward. Tears are in their eyes, but the light of heaven is there also.
In a few minutes more they are on the cliff head. It overhangs the sea, which is heaving and singing in its many voices, seventy feet below. The sun is rising, and the sky to the east is flecked with crimson. There is nothing else in sight anywhere, and no other sound except the cry of the sea fowl on the rocks beneath.
" This is the place, isn't it?"
" This is the place, Mona."
" Shall we do as we intended? " " Yes, let us do as we intended."
And then these two children of the universal Father, cast out of the company of men, separated in life and about to be united in death, go through the burial service which they have appointed for themselves.
First, they kneel on the cliff edge, as close as they can get to it, and repeat their prayer
" Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .
Geheiligt wird dein name . . .
Forgive us our trespasses . . .
As we forgive them that trespass against us..."
Then they rise, and, standing hand in hand, with their heads up and their faces to the sea, they sing their hymn
" Jesu, lover of my soul .
Lass mir an dein brust liegen . . ."
Then Oskar unfastens his coat, and taking off the long belt he is wearing he straps it about both of them. They are now eye to eye, breast to breast, heart to heart.
" The time has come, hasn't it, Oskar? "
" Yes, the time has come, Mona." " I can kiss you now, can't I ? "
He puts his arms tenderly about her and kisses her on the lips. She kisses him. It is their first kiss and their last.
" God bless you for loving me, Oskar." " And God bless you, too, Mona. And now good-bye! "
"No, not good-bye. Only-until then." " Until then."
The sun rises above the horizon in a blaze of glory. The broad sea sings her everlasting song. The cliff head is empty.
After a while, when the sky is blue and the morning sunlight is dancing on the waters, a steamer, decked with flags from stem to stern, comes round the headland on the south. It is crowded with soldiers, who are crushing to starboard to catch their first sight of the town which lies behind the headland to the north.
There is the sharp crack of a rocket from the lifeboat house at Peel, and then a band on the steamer begins to play, and the soldiers to sing in rapturous chorus "Keep the home-fires burning . . . Till the boys come home . . ."
A little later the church bells begin to ring. They ring louder and louder and faster and faster every moment, as if pealing their joyous message up to the cloudless sky
" PEACE ! PEACE! PEACE! "
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008