Guests of the Nation – Pre-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 unusual words. Then the little Englishman, Hawkins, would light the lamp and bring out the cards.

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

But most of the time Jeremiah was a serious man who seemed happy enough with the way things were, much like the big Englishman, Belcher. He was only made leader because he was quite good at army paperwork, though he was slow even with that. 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 the way he spoke, because he was from the country and 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 them 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 another unit when the search for them in their area became too dangerous. 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 her brother’s socks that you borrowed.”

For it seemed, as they explained it, that the soldiers in the place where they were held before 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 things Belcher and Hawkins could do before, they naturally did with us. After the first few days we gave up on the idea that we had to watch them all the time. Not that they could have got far. Anyone could tell they were English from the way they spoke, and they 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.

We were surprised 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 could give the two Englishmen 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 her. 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 Belcher liked most was cards. He was a very good player, and could have won all of Noble and my money. However, whatever we lost to him, Hawkins lost to us. And Hawkins only played with 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. Hawkins worried the life out of Noble by arguing about religion into the early hours of the morning. Because Noble had a brother who was a priest, he would ask him difficult questions about God and Heaven and, when talking about them, mix 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.

But he could not win an argument against her. The last year had been unusually dry and farmers all around were complaining that if it did not rain soon their families would go hungry. When Hawkins tried to get her to talk about why God would allow this to happen, 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 woman 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 image of one of their gods from a temple in Japan. Believe me, Mr Hawkins, nothing but sadness and hardship can follow people who wake up the hidden powers.”

A strange 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 they are up to in this,” said Hawkins.

“Don’t be so stupid!” 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 from them came 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 ideas about 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 sit in front of the fireplace.

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 asked why we had to guard them 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 some of our men prisoners, 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 tell Noble and I about 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 telling us in his usual way 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? Is there a special place in heaven they are made? Is there 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 did not think the English would shoot our men. Even if they did, our officers at headquarters, who had come to know the Englishmen well, would surely not want to see them shot.

“I think so too,” said Noble.” It would be a terrible thing to scare them without good reason.”

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

The next day we found it difficult to face Belcher and Hawkins, and said very little as we went about the house. Belcher didn’t seem to notice. He sat with his long legs in front of the fire, 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 right way?” he said to us seriously. “You and your 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 happy 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 feeling that the worst was about to happen crossed my mind. I left the table and went outside to met 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 men 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, an officer from headquarters, 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 softly. 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 where they were being held before. Hawkins let out a mouthful of bad words. You could see that though Belcher didn’t say anything, he was very unhappy about it too.

The old woman was for having them stay no matter what we said. She didn’t stop saying so until Jeremiah Donovan spoke angrily to her. He had a bad 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 coats and said good-bye to the old woman.

“Just as a man starts to feel at home somewhere, someone 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 to make up for it.”

“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.” Then he began on the usual meaningless talk about duty and how unpleasant it was. I had never noticed before how people who talk a lot about duty find it so 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 for the love of God, 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 our men who were 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 part of 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 think for one second 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 seeing 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 from me when the time came. 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 seeing Noble, said: “Hallo, chum,” in his quiet way. Hawkins started to argue with him at him at once, beginning 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!”

“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, more by way of answering the question than of wanting to get into the argument. But he sounded as though something he’d always been waiting for had come at last.

“Anyway,” continued Hawkins, “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 stupid 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 no matter how difficult things get. No one can ever say of me that I let down a friend.”

“We have had enough of this,” said Jeremiah Donovan. “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 answer 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 others.”

Nobody answered him. We knew that was no way out.

“Hear what I’m saying?” he said. “I’m through with it. I’ll give up on England and anything else you like. I don’t believe in what your side are fighting for, but it’s no worse than mine. That make you happy?”

Noble lifted his head, but Donovan began to speak and he lowered it again without answering.

“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 the two other boys do. They’re not the sort to make a friend and kill him. They’re not the tools of any capitalist.”

I alone of the group saw Donovan lift 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 noise, I saw Hawkins drop to his knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet. He fell slowly and as quiet as a child 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 if he could borrow mine. I gave it to him and he tied 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 lift. 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 man, 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 wanting to know what it was all about,” he said quietly. “It’s very strange, 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 our child with her. I like the feeling of a home, as you may have noticed, but I couldn’t start another again after that.”

Belcher went on to surprise us by saying more in the next few minutes 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 lifted his revolver, and at that moment Belcher gave his strange 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 a lot, and about silly things such as my being so useful around a house. 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 held his head high, 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 men, if that’s what you mean. I’m not complaining.”

Noble, just as if he couldn’t bear any more of it, reached out towards 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 what came next – only that it was the worst part 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 put his hands together in front of him. He did the same with Belcher. Then, when we’d filled in the grave, we left 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 stood up quietly and came to the door with all of the fight gone out of her. “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.