Guests of the Nation- Intermediate Level

I

As the sun was going down the big Englishman, Belcher, would move his long legs away from in front of the fireplace and say “Well, chums, what about it?”.

“All right chum,” Noble and I would answer, for we had picked up some of their curious expressions. Then the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards.

Sometimes Jeremiah Donovan would come up and watch over the game. He would get excited over Hawkins’ cards, which he always played badly. “You fool,” he would shout at him, as if he was one of our own. “Why didn’t you play the three?”

But ordinarily Jeremiah was a serious man who seemed happy enough with the way things were, much like the big Englishman, Belcher. He was looked up to only because he was quite good at documents, though he was slow even with them. He wore a small cloth hat and leather coverings over the lower half of his long pants, and always seemed to have his hands in his pockets. When you talked to him, his face would redden and he would rock from toe to heel and back, looking down all the time at his big farmer’s feet. Noble and I used to make fun of his strong country 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. It seemed to me that you could have held that pair anywhere from here to Claregalway and they’d have been quite happy to stay there. 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. Noble and I, being young, were pleased to be given the job of looking after them. But Hawkins made us look like fools when he showed that he knew the country better than we did.

“You’re the man 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 at which some of the girls of the neighborhood turned up. Seeing that the two Englishmen were so nice, our boys could not leave them out. Hawkins learned to dance to “The Walls of Limerick,” “The Siege of Ennis” and “The Waves of Tory” as well as any of them. But he could not teach our boys any English dances, because at that time they would not dance to foreign music.

So whatever advantages Belcher and Hawkins had with the Second, they just took naturally with us. After the first couple of days we gave up on the idea that we had to watch them all the time. Not that they could have got far. They had strong English accents, and wore brown English army jackets along with the farmer’s pants and boots we gave them. But I believe they never gave any thought to escaping and were quite happy to be where they were.

It was a treat to see how Belcher got on with the old woman in the house where we were staying. She was always finding problems with things we did, and quick to speak angrily to us about them. But before she had a chance of giving our guests, as I may call them, an example of her ways, Belcher had made her his friend for life. She was cutting up thin pieces of wood to light the fire. Belcher, who had not been more than ten minutes in the house, jumped up and went over to her. “Allow me,” he said, smiling his strange little smile, “please allow me.” She was too surprised to speak as he took the axe from her. After that Belcher would always be offering to help, carrying a bucket, a basket or an armful of wood for the fire. As Noble said, he got into trying to guess what she might want next and would have hot water, or any other little thing she needed, ready for her.

For such a huge man (and though I am five foot ten myself I had to look up at him) Belcher was uncommonly quiet. It took us a little while to get used to him, walking in and out like a ghost without speaking. Hawkins talked enough for ten men, so it was strange to hear Belcher come out with a single “Excuse me, chum,” or “That’s right, chum.” The thing he liked most was cards. He was a remarkably good player, and could have won all of Noble and my money. 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 spent too much time talking, and we probably lost to Belcher for the same reason. Because Noble had a brother who was a priest, Hawkins worried the life out of him by arguing about religion into the early hours of the morning. He had a string of hard to answer religious questions and, when talking about them, mixed his arguments with bad language. He was a terrible man to listen to, and a fright to argue with. He never did any work around the house and, when he had no one else to argue with, he would start on the old woman.

He met his match in her. When he tried to get her to talk about why God was causing the drought, she made him look silly. She said that it had nothing to do with God but was caused by Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky, who controlled the weather. Another day he was complaining about the capitalists for starting the German war. The old lady stopped what she was doing and said:

“Mr Hawkins, you can say what you like about the war. You think you can fool me because I’m only a simple country woman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count who took that statue of a god from a temple in Japan. Believe me, Mr Hawkins, nothing but sadness and hardship can follow people who disturb the hidden powers.”

A queer old girl, all right.

II

One evening after dinner, Hawkins lit the lamp and we all sat down to play cards. Jeremiah Donovan came in too, and sat and watched us for a while. I suddenly saw 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 how they try to control the 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 with a serious look on his face. “Oh, they did, did they?” he said in a voice which showed that he thought this was a silly argument. “They believed all the things you believe – isn’t that what you mean? And you believe that God created just one man and one woman, Adam and Eve, and that they are responsible for everyone who has been born since. You also believe that silly old story about Eve and the apple in the Garden of Eden. Well listen to me, chum! If you’re allowed to believe a silly idea like that, I’m allowed to believe my own silly idea. And that is that the first thing your God created was a capitalist, with his own sense of right and wrong and a Rolls-Royce to go with it. Am I right, chum?” he says to Belcher.

“You’re right, chum,” says Belcher with a smile, as he got up from the table to stretch his long legs in front of the fireplace and stroke his moustache.

Seeing that Jeremiah Donovan was going outside, and that there was no knowing when the argument about religion would be over, I went out with him. We walked down towards the village together, and then he stopped. His face turned red as he said quietly that I should have stayed in the house, keeping guard. I didn’t like the way he said it, and anyway I was bored with life there, so I replied by asking what the hell we wanted to guard them for at all.

He looked at me in surprise. “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages,” he said.

“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 unfair of you not to warn Noble and I 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 had our men prisoner 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 you had a dog that you knew you may have to shoot one day, you’d try not develop close feelings for it. 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 around that’s a trouble to you, you’ll be free soon enough.”

It was not the hanging around that was a trouble to me at all by this time. I had worse things to worry about. When I got back to the house the argument was still on. Hawkins was maintaining in his best style that there was no next world, and Noble saying that there was. I could see that Hawkins had had the best of it.

“Do you know what, chum?” he was saying with a knowing smile. “I think you’re just as big an 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 nothing. What’s heaven? You don’t know. Where’s heaven? You don’t know. You know anything! 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 store where you hand in a ticket and get your 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 light 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, our senior officers, who had come to know the Englishmen well, would hardly want to see them shot.

“I think so too,” said Noble.” It would be very cruel to scare them without good reason.”

“It was very unfair of Jeremiah Donovan, anyhow,” said I.

The next day we found it very 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 in front of the fireplace as usual, with his usual look of waiting in quietness for something unexpected to happen. Hawkins did notice, but 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 seriously. “You and your Adam and Eve! I’m a Communist, that’s what I am. Communist or against the government, it all comes to much the same thing.” And he went round the house, repeating to himself whenever the thought came to him: “Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve! Nothing better to do with their time than pick apples!”

III

I don’t know how we got through that day, but I was very glad when it was over.

After the tea things were cleared away, Belcher said in his peaceable way, “Well, chums, what about it?”

We sat round the table and Hawkins took out the cards. Just then I heard Jeremiah Donovan’s footsteps on the path. A sense that the worst was about to happen 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, his face turning 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 quietly so that no one could hear us. 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 moved 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 anyone else to know.”

We watched Feeney and Noble go round to the shed and then went inside the house. 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. You could see that though Belcher didn’t say anything, he was a bit upset too.

The old woman was for having them stay no matter what we said. She didn’t stop saying so until Jeremiah Donovan lost his temper and spoke angrily to her. He had a nasty temper, I noticed. It was very dark in the house by this time, but no one thought of lighting the lamp. In the darkness the two Englishmen got their overcoats and said good-bye to the old woman.

“Just as a man starts to feel at home somewhere, some bastard at headquarters thinks you’re getting it too easy and moves you,” said Hawkins shaking her hand.

“A thousand thanks,” said Belcher to the old woman. “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 Jeremiah Donovan told them. He was shaking with excitement.

“There were four of our men shot in Cork this morning and now you’re to be shot as a reprisal.”

“What are you talking about?” said Hawkins sharply. “It’s bad enough being moved 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 meaningless talk 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 in a serious voice.

“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 pulled him on, but it was impossible to make him understand that we were serious. I had a revolver in my pocket and I kept fingering it and wondering what I’d do if they put up a fight for it or ran. I was wishing to God they’d do one or the other. I knew that, if they did run for it, I’d never fire on them.

Hawkins wanted to know if Noble was in it, and when we said yes, he asked us why Noble wanted to shoot him. Why did any of us want to shoot 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 officers in the British Army?

By this time we’d reached the bog, and I felt so sick I couldn’t even answer him. We walked along the edge of it in the darkness. Every now and then Hawkins would stop and begin all over again, as if he was excited about it, about our being chums. I knew that nothing but the sight of the grave would make him understand 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.

IV

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. The picture of them so still and silent in the bog brought it home to me that it was all really going to happen. My last bit of hope disappeared.

Belcher, on recognising Noble, said: “Hallo, chum,” in his quiet way. 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 he could not get it out of his mind, Hawkins asked if anybody thought he would 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 friend. 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 something 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 damned bog?”

“What would you do?” asked Donovan.

“I’d go with him wherever he was going, of course. Share my last penny with him and stick by him through thick and thin. No one can ever say of me that I let down a friend.”

“We had enough of this,” said Jeremiah Donovan, as he pulled back the hammer of his revolver to make it ready to fire. “Is there any message you want to send?”

“No, there isn’t.”

“Do you want to say your prayers?”

Hawkins came out with a rude remark that even shocked me and turned to 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. Does that show you I mean what I say? Give me a gun 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 friend and then kill him. They’re not the tools of any capitalist.”

I alone of the crowd saw Donovan raise his revolver to the back of Hawkins’s neck. As he did so, I shut my eyes and tried to pray. Hawkins had begun to say something else when Donovan fired. As I opened my eyes at the bang, I saw Hawkins drop to his knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet. He fell slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep, with the lantern-light on his thin legs and bright farmer’s boots. We all stood very still, watching him.

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. Seeing it wasn’t big enough, he 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, thinking better of it, 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 put the gun to his head again and fired. By this time I didn’t seem to know what I was doing. Belcher, who was having trouble tying the handkerchiefs, came out with a frightening laugh as he heard the shot. It was the first time I had heard him laugh, and it sounded so unnatural.

“And last night he was so curious about it all,” he said quietly. “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 man 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 stream 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 revolver, 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 useful around 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. As he did this, Donovan lifted his gun and fired. The big man fell heavily, 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 small circle of lantern-light between ourselves and the dark, and birds making noises all round, woken from their sleep by the guns. Noble went through Hawkins’s pockets 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. The old woman was sitting by the fireplace, praying quietly to herself. We walked past her into the room, and Noble lit a match to light the lamp. She rose quietly and came to the door with all of her fighting spirit gone. “What did you do with them?” she asked in a soft voice.

The question surprised Noble and the match went out in his hand. “What’s that?” he asked without turning round.

“I heard you,” she said.

“What did you hear?” asked Noble.

“I heard you. Do you think I didn’t hear you, putting the tools back in the shed?”

Noble lit another match and this time was able to light the lamp.

“Was that what you did to them?” she asked.

Then, by God, still standing by the door, she fell on her knees and began praying again. 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 front door, watching the stars and listening to the crying of the birds dying out over the bogs. It is so strange what you feel at times like that. You can’t describe it. Noble says he saw everything ten times the size. It was as though to him there were nothing in the whole world but that little piece of bog with the bodies of two Englishmen growing cold in it. But with me it was as if the bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away. Even Noble and the old woman, praying softly behind me, and the birds and the stars were all far away. I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely, like a child who had taken a wrong turn in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.