Guests of the Nation – Frank O’Connor
At dusk the big Englishman, Belcher, would shift his long legs out of the ashes and say “Well, chums, what about it?” and Noble and myself would say “All right, chum” (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards. Sometimes Jeremiah Donovan would come up and supervise the game, and get excited over Hawkins’ cards, which he always played badly, and shout at him as if he was one of our own, “Ah, you divil, why didn’t you play the tray?”
But ordinarily Jeremiah was a sober and contented poor devil like the big Englishman, Belcher, and was looked up to only because he was a fair hand at documents, though he was slow even with them. He wore a small cloth hat and big gaiters over his long pants, and you seldom saw him with his hands out of his pockets. He reddened when you talked to him, tilting from toe to heel and back, and looking down all the, time at his big farmer’s feet. Noble and myself used to make fun of his broad accent, because we were both from the town.
I could not at the time see the point of myself and Noble guarding Belcher and Hawkins at all, for it was my belief that you could have planted that pair down anywhere from this to Claregalway and they’d have taken root there like a native weed. I never in my short experience saw two men take to the country as they did. They were passed on to us by the Second Battalion when the search for them became too hot, and Noble and myself, being young, took them over with a natural feeling of responsibility, but Hawkins made us look like fools when he showed that he knew the country better than we did.
“You’re the bloke they call Bonaparte,” he says to me. “Mary Brigid O’Connell told me to ask what you’d done with the pair of her brother’s socks you borrowed.”
For it seemed, as they explained it, that the Second had little evenings, and some of the girls of the neighborhood turned up, and, seeing they were such decent chaps, our fellows could not leave the two Englishmen out. Hawkins learned to dance “The Walls of Limerick,” “The Siege of Ennis” and “The Waves of Tory” as well as any of them, though he could not return the compliment, because our lads at that time did not dance foreign dances on principle.
So whatever privileges Belcher and Hawkins had with the Second they just took naturally with us, and after the first couple of days we gave up all pretence of keeping an eye on them. Not that they could have got far, because they had accents you could cut with a knife, and wore khaki tunics and overcoats with civilian pants and boots, but I believe myself they never had any idea of escaping and were quite content to be where they were.
It was a treat to see how Belcher got off with the old woman in the house where we were staying. She was a great warrant to scold, and cranky even with us, but before ever she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, a lick of her tongue, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was breaking sticks, and Belcher, who had not been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up and went over to her.
“Allow me, madam,” he said, smiling his queer little smile. “Please allow me,” and he took the hatchet from her. She was too surprised to speak, and after that, Belcher would be at her heels, carrying a bucket, a basket or a load of turf. As Noble said, he got into looking before she leapt, and hot water, or any little thing she wanted, Belcher would have ready for her. For such a huge man (and though I am five foot ten myself I had to look up at him) he had an uncommon lack of speech. It took us a little while to get used to him, walking in and out like a ghost, without speaking. Especially because Hawkins talked enough for a platoon, it was strange to hear Belcher with his toes in the ashes come out with a solitary “Excuse me, chum,” or “That’s right, chum.” His one and only passion was cards, and he was a remarkably good card player. He could have skinned myself and Noble, but whatever we lost to him, Hawkins lost to us, and Hawkins only played with the money Belcher gave him.
Hawkins lost to us because he had too much old gab, and we probably lost to Belcher for the same reason. Hawkins and Noble argued about religion into the early hours of the morning, and Hawkins worried the life out of Noble, who had a brother a priest, with a string of questions that would puzzle a cardinal. Even in treating of holy subjects, Hawkins had a deplorable tongue. I never met a man who could mix such a variety of cursing and bad language into any argument. He was a terrible man, and a fright to argue. He never did a stroke of work, and when he had no one else to argue with, he got stuck in the old woman.
He met his match in her, for when he tried to get her to complain profanely of the drought she gave him a great come¬down by blaming it entirely on Jupiter Pluvius (a deity neither Hawkins nor I had ever heard of, though Noble said that among the pagans it was believed that he had something to do with the rain). Another day he was swearing at the capitalists for starting the German war when the old lady laid down her iron, puckered up her little crab’s mouth and said:
“Mr. Hawkins, you can say what you like about the war, and think you’ll deceive me because I’m only a simple poor countrywoman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple of Japan. Believe me, Mr. Hawkins, nothing but sorrow and want can follow people who disturb the hidden powers.”
A queer old girl, all right.
One evening we had our tea and Hawkins lit the lamp and we all sat into cards. Jeremiah Donovan came in too, and sat and watched us for a while, and it suddenly struck me that he had no great love for the two Englishmen. It came as a surprise to me because I had noticed nothing of it before.
Late in the evening a really terrible argument blew up between Hawkins and Noble about capitalists and priests and love of country.
“The capitalists pay the priests to tell you about the next world so that you won’t notice what the bastards are up to in this,” said Hawkins.
“Nonsense, man!” said Noble, losing his temper. “Before ever a capitalist was thought of people believed in the next world.”
Hawkins stood up as though he was preaching. “Oh, they did, did they?” he said with a sneer. “They believed all the things you believe – isn’t that what you mean? And you believe God created Adam, and Adam created Shem, and Shem created Jehoshophat. You believe all that silly old fairytale about Eve and Eden and the apple. Well listen to me, chum! If you’re entitled to a silly belief like that, I’m entitled to my own silly belief – which is that the first thing your God created was a bleeding capitalist, with morality and Rolls-Royce complete. Am I right, chum?” he says to Belcher.
“You’re right, chum,” says Belcher with a smile, and he got up from the table to stretch his long legs into the fire and stroke his moustache. So, seeing that Jeremiah Donovan was going, and that there was no knowing when the argument about religion would be over, I went out with him. We strolled down to the village together, and then he stopped, blushing and mumbling, and said I should be behind, keeping guard. I didn’t like the tone he took with me, and anyway I was bored with life in the cottage, so I replied by asking what the hell we wanted to guard them for at all.
He looked at me in surprise and said: “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages.”
“Hostages?” I said.
“The enemy have prisoners belonging to us, and now they’re talking of shooting them,” he said. “If they shoot our prisoners, we’ll shoot theirs.”
“Shoot Belcher and Hawkins?” I said.
“What else did you think we were keeping them for?” he said.
“Wasn’t it very unforeseen of you not to warn Noble and myself of that in the beginning?” I said.
“How was it?” he said. “You might have known that much.”
“We could not know it, Jeremiah Donovan,” I said. “How could we when they were on our hands so long?”
“The enemy have our prisoners as long and longer,” he said.
“That’s not the same thing at all,” said I.
“What difference is there?” said he.
I couldn’t tell him, because I knew he wouldn’t understand. If it was only an old dog that you had to take to the vet’s, you’d try and not get too fond of him, but Jeremiah Donovan was not a man who would ever be in danger of that.
“And when is this to be decided?” I said.
“We might hear tonight,” he said. “Or tomorrow or the next day at latest. So if it’s only hanging round that’s a trouble to you, you’ll be free soon enough.”
It was not the hanging round that was a trouble to me at all by this time. I had worse things to worry about. When I got back to the cottage the argument was still on. Hawkins was holding forth in his best style, maintaining that there was no next world, and Noble saying that there was; but I could see that Hawkins had had the best of it.
“Do you know what, chum?” he was saying with a saucy smile. “I think you’re just as big a bleeding unbeliever as I am. You say you believe in the next world, and you know just as much about the next world as I do, which is sweet damn-all. What’s heaven? You don’t know. Where’s heaven? You don’t know. You know sweet damn-all! I ask you again, do they wear wings? ”
“Very well, then,” said Noble. “They do. Is that enough for you? They do wear wings.”
“Where do they get them then? Who makes them? Have they a factory for wings? Have they a sort of store where you hand in your chit and take your bleeding wings?”
“You’re an impossible man to argue with,” said Noble. “Now, listen to me…” And they were off again.
It was long after midnight when we locked up and went to bed. As I blew out the candle I told Noble. He took it very quietly. When we’d been in bed about an hour he asked if I thought we should tell the Englishmen. I didn’t, because I doubted if the English would shoot our men. Even if they did, the Brigade officers, who were always up and down to the Second Battalion and knew the Englishmen well, would hardly want to see them plugged.
“I think so too,” said Noble.” It would be great cruelty to put the wind up them now.”
“It was very unforeseen of Jeremiah Donovan, anyhow,” said I.
It was next morning that we found it so hard to face Belcher and Hawkins. We went about the house all day, scarcely saying a word. Belcher didn’t seem to notice; he was stretched into the ashes as usual, with his usual look of waiting in quietness for something unforeseen to happen, but Hawkins noticed it and put it down to Noble’s being beaten in the argument of the night before. “Why can’t you take the discussion in the proper spirit?” he said severely. “You and your Adam and Eve! I’m a Communist, that’s what I am. Communist or Anarchist, it all comes to much the same thing.” And he went round the house, muttering when the fit took him: “Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve! Nothing better to do with their time than pick bleeding apples!”
I don’t know how we got through that day, but I was very glad when it was over, the tea things were cleared away, and Belcher said in his peaceable way: “Well, chums, what about it?”
We sat round the table and Hawkins took out the cards, and just then I heard Jeremiah Donovan’s footsteps on the path and a dark presentiment crossed my mind. I rose from the table and caught him before he reached the door.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I want those two soldier friends of yours,” he said, getting red.
“Is that the way, Jeremiah Donovan?” I asked.
“That’s the way. There were four of our lads shot this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.”
“That’s bad,” I said.
At that moment Noble followed me out, and the three of us walked down the path together, talking in whispers. Feeney, the local intelligence officer, was standing by the gate.
“What are you going to do about it?” I asked Jeremiah Donovan.
“I want you and Noble to get them out; tell them they’re being shifted again; that’ll be the quietest way.”
“Leave me out of that,” said Noble, under his breath. Jeremiah Donovan looked at him hard.
“All right,” he says. “You and Feeney get a few tools from the shed and dig a hole by the far end of the bog. Bonaparte and myself will be after you. Don’t let anyone see you with the tools. I wouldn’t like it to go beyond ourselves.”
We saw Feeney and Noble go round to the shed and went in ourselves. I left Jeremiah Donovan to do the explanations. He told them that he had orders to send them back to the Second Battalion. Hawkins let out a mouthful of curses, and you could see that though Belcher didn’t say anything, he was a bit upset too. The old woman was for having them stay in spite of us, and she didn’t stop advising them until Jeremiah Donovan lost his temper and turned on her. He had a nasty temper, I noticed. It was pitch-dark in the cottage by this time, but no one thought of lighting the lamp, and in the darkness the two Englishmen fetched their topcoats and said good-bye to the old woman.
“Just as a man makes a home of a bleeding place, some bastard at headquarters thinks you’re too cushy and shunts you off,” said Hawkins shaking her hand.
“A thousand thanks, madam,” said Belcher, “A thousand thanks for everything” – as though he’d made it up.
We went round to the back of the house and down towards the bog. It was only then that Jererniah Donovan told them. He was shaking with excitement.
“There were four of our fellows shot in Cork this morning and now you’re to be shot as a reprisal.”
“What are you talking about?” snaps Hawkins. “It’s bad enough being mucked about as we are without having to put up with your funny jokes.”
“It isn’t a joke,” says Donovan. “I’m sorry, Hawkins, but it’s true,” and begins on the usual rigmarole about duty and how unpleasant it is. I never noticed that people who talk a lot about duty find it much of a trouble to them.
“Oh, cut it out!” said Hawkins.
“Ask Bonaparte,” said Donovan, seeing that Hawkins wasn’t taking him seriously. “Isn’t it true, Bonaparte?”
“It is,” I said, and Hawkins stopped.
“Ah, for Christ’s sake, chum!”
“I mean it, chum,” I said.
“You don’t sound as if you meant it.”
“If he doesn’t mean it, I do,” said Donovan, working himself up.
“What have you against me, Jeremiah Donovan?”
“I never said I had anything against you. But why did your people take out four of your prisoners and shoot them in cold blood?”
He took Hawkins by the arm and dragged him on, but it was impossible to make him understand that we were in earnest. I had the Smith and Wesson in my pocket and I kept fingering it and wondering what I’d do if they put up a fight for it or ran, and wishing to God they’d do one or the other. I knew if they did run for it, that I’d never fire on them. Hawkins wanted to know was Noble in it, and when we said yes, he asked us why Noble wanted to plug him. Why did any of us want to plug him? What had he done to us? Weren’t we all chums? Didn’t we understand him and didn’t he understand us? Did we imagine for an instant that he’d shoot us for all the so-and-so officers in the so-and-so British Army?
By this time we’d reached the bog, and I was so sick I couldn’t even answer him. We walked along the edge of it in the darkness, and every now and then Hawkins would call a halt and begin all over again, as if he was wound up, about our being chums, and I knew that nothing but the sight of the grave would convince him that we had to do it. And all the time I was hoping that something would happen; that they’d run for it or that Noble would take over the responsibility from me. I had the feeling that it was worse on Noble than on me.
At last we saw the lantern in the distance and made towards it. Noble was carrying it, and Feeney was standing somewhere in the darkness behind him, and the picture of them so still and silent in the bogland brought it home to me that we were in earnest, and banished the last bit of hope I had.
Belcher, on recognising Noble, said: “Hallo, chum,” in his quiet way, but Hawkins flew at him at once, and the argument began all over again, only this time Noble had nothing to say for himself and stood with his head down, holding the lantern between his legs. It was Jeremiah Donovan who did the answering. For the twentieth time, as though it was haunting his mind, Hawkins asked if anybody thought he’d shoot Noble.
“Yes, you would,” said Jeremiah Donovan.
“No, I wouldn’t, damn you!”
“You would, because you’d know you’d be shot for not doing it.”
“I wouldn’t, not if I was to be shot twenty times over. I wouldn’t shoot a pal. And Belcher wouldn’t – isn’t that right, Belcher? ”
“That’s right, chum,” Belcher said, but more by way of answering the question than of joining in the argument. Belcher sounded as though whatever unforeseen thing he’d always been waiting for had come at last.
“Anyway, who says Noble would be shot if I wasn’t? What do you think I’d do if I was in his place, out in the middle of a blasted bog?”
“What would you do?” asked Donovan.
“I’d go with him wherever he was going, of course. Share my last bob with him and stick by him through thick and thin. No one can ever say of me that I let down a pal.”
“We had enough of this,” said Jeremiah Donovan, cocking his revolver. “Is there any message you want to send?”
“No, there isn’t.”
“Do you want to say your prayers?”
Hawkins came out with a cold-blooded remark that even shocked me and turned on Noble again.
“Listen to me, Noble,” he said. “You and me are chums. You can’t come over to my side, so I’ll come over to your side. That show you I mean what I say? Give me a rifle and I’ll go along with you and the other lads.”
Nobody answered him. We knew that was no way out.
“Hear what I’m saying?” he said. “I’m through with it. I’m a deserter or anything else you like. I don’t believe in your stuff, but it’s no worse than mine. That satisfy you?”
Noble raised his head, but Donovan began to speak and he lowered it again without replying.
“For the last time, have you any messages to send?” said Donovan in a cold, excited sort of voice.
“Shut up, Donovan! You don’t understand me, but these lads do. They’re not the sort to make a pal and kill a pal. They’re not the tools of any capitalist.”
I alone of the crowd saw Donovan raise his Webley to the back of Hawkins’s neck, and as he did so I shut my eyes and tried to pray. Hawkins had begun to say something else when Donovan fired, and as I opened my eyes at the bang, I saw Hawkins stagger at the knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet, slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep, with the lantern-light on his lean legs and bright farmer’s boots. We all stood very still, watching him settle out in the last agony.
Then Belcher took out a handkerchief and began to tie it about his own eyes (in our excitement we’d forgotten to do the same for Hawkins), and, seeing it wasn’t big enough, turned and asked for the loan of mine. I gave it to him and he knotted the two together and pointed with his foot at Hawkins.
“He’s not quite dead.” he said. “Better give him another,” Sure enough, Hawkins’s left knee was beginning to rise. I bent down and put my gun to his head; then, recollecting myself, I got up again. Belcher understood what was in my mind.
“Give him his first,” he said, “I don’t mind. Poor bastard, we don’t know what’s happening to him now.”
I knelt and fired. By this time I didn’t seem to know what I was doing. Belcher, who was fumbling a bit awkwardly with the handkerchiefs, came out with a laugh as he heard the shot. It was the first time I had heard him laugh and it sent a shudder down my back; it sounded so unnatural.
“Poor bugger!” he said quietly. “And last night he was so curious about it all. It’s very queer, chums, I always think. Now he knows as much about it as they’ll ever let him know, and last night he was all in the dark.”
Donovan helped him to tie the handkerchiefs about his eyes.
“Thanks, chum,” he said. Donovan asked if there were any messages he wanted sent.
“No, chum,” he said. “Not for me. If any of you would like to write to Hawkins’s mother, you’ll find a letter from her in his pocket. He and his mother were great chums. But my missus left me eight years ago. Went away with another fellow and took the kid with her. I like the feeling of a home, as you may have noticed, but I couldn’t start another again after that.”
It was an extraordinary thing, but in those few minutes Belcher said more than in all the weeks before. It was just as if the sound of the shot had started a flood of talk in him and he could go on the whole night like that, quite happily, talking about himself. We stood around like fools now that he couldn’t see us any longer. Donovan looked at Noble, and Noble shook his head. Then Donovan raised his Webley, and at that moment Belcher gave his queer laugh again. He may have thought we were talking about him, or perhaps he noticed the same thing I’d noticed and couldn’t understand it.
“Excuse me, chums,” he said. “I feel I’m talking the hell of a lot, and so silly, about my being so handy about a house and things like that. But this thing came on me suddenly. You’ll forgive me, I’m sure.”
“You don’t want to say a prayer?” asked Donovan.
“No, chum,” he said. “I don’t think it would help. I’m ready, and you boys want to get it over.”
“You understand that we’re only doing our duty?” said Donovan.
Belcher’s head was raised like a blind man’s, so that you could only see his chin and the top of his nose in the lantern-light. “I never could make out what duty was myself,” he said. “I think you’re all good lads, if that’s what you mean. I’m not complaining.”
Noble, just as if he couldn’t bear any more of it, raised his fist at Donovan, and in a flash Donovan raised his gun and fired. The big man went over like a sack of meal, and this time there was no need of a second shot.
I don’t remember much about the burying, but that it was worse than all the rest because we had to carry them to the grave. It was all mad lonely with nothing but a patch of lantern-light between ourselves and the dark, and birds hooting and screeching all round, disturbed by the guns. Noble went through Hawkins’s belongings to find the letter from his mother, and then joined his hands together. He did the same with Belcher. Then, when we’d filled in the grave, we separated from Jeremiah Donovan and Feeney and took our tools back to the shed. All the way we didn’t speak a word. The kitchen was dark and as we’d left it, and the old woman was sitting over the hearth, saying her beads. We walked past her into the room, and Noble struck a match to light the lamp. She rose quietly and came to the doorway with all her cantankerousness gone.
“What did ve do with them?” she asked in a whisper, and Noble started so that the match went out in his hand.
“What’s that?” he asked without turning round.
“I heard ye,” she said.
“What did you hear?” asked Noble.
“I heard ye. Do ye think I didn’t hear ye, putting the spade back in the shed?”
Noble struck another match and this time the lamp lit for him.
“Was that what ye did to them?” she asked.
Then, by God, in the very doorway, she fell on her knees and began praying, and after looking at her for a minute or two Noble did the same by the fireplace. I pushed my way out past her and left them at it. I stood at the door, watching the stars and listening to the shrieking of the birds dying out over the bogs. It is so strange what you feel at times like that that you can’t describe it. Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.