Describing an evening routine, the narrator (whose name is later revealed to be Bonaparte) describes how Belcher would pull his legs out of the ashes of the fireplace and ask, “Well chums, what about it?” An Englishman named ‘Awkins would then bring out a deck of cards. Bonaparte mentions that “we” had picked up some of “their” expressions, answering them with the same word “chums.”
The story opens ambiguously by suggesting that the “we” Bonaparte mentions are different from “them,” the Englishmen. However, their relationships and the reasons for their being together in this place aren’t clarified, giving the sense that the two sides are meeting in friendship. The mere fact that they have a routine implies that all are friendly enough to have an established rhythm. Further, the borrowing of the word “chums” suggests cultural exchange and blending.
Bonaparte introduces another man named Jeremiah Donovan, who would occasionally come to watch the card game rather than play. He often looked over ‘Awkins’s shoulder, chastising him like “one of our own” for playing the wrong cards.
Jeremiah is quickly established as an outsider because he’s only occasionally a presence at the card games. Also, he holds himself apart by not participating in the game. But Jeremiah’s banter with ‘Awkins makes clear that the Englishmen have integrated into the group.
Jeremiah is an awkward man with several eccentric tics that make him difficult to talk to. Bonaparte notes that he has “big farmers feet” and a “broad accent” that the narrator finds amusing and that marks Jeremiah as being from the country. The narrator notes that he himself is from the “town,” as the reader may already have realized.
After he downplays the foreignness of the two Englishmen, Bonaparte emphasizes that Jeremiah has qualities he considers strange and amusing. Bonaparte clearly looks down on Jeremiah for his rural upbringing, even though it seems they’re from the same country.
Bonaparte wonders why he and Noble are there with Belcher and ‘Awkins at all. He describes how the two Englishmen are strangely at home in what he reveals is Ireland, and he mentions that these men were put into his and Noble’s care by the Second Battalion once the manhunt for them got “too hot.” He adds that he feels responsible for them, but that the two Englishmen seem to be just as familiar with the country as he is.
Only now does Bonaparte reveal that Belcher and ‘Awkins are their prisoners, put into their care by another military unit. By suspending the details of the conflict, O’Connor makes it difficult to see them as anything other than friends of the Irish. In addition, their familiarity with Ireland and their comparison to a “native weed” blurs their identity as British soldiers.
By quoting a bit of conversation with ‘Awkins, the narrator finally reveals that his name is Bonaparte. Bonaparte relates that he and ‘Awkins seem to even have acquaintances in common, and ‘Awkins knows Irish songs and dances from his time with the Second Battalion.
Here, ‘Awkins further displays his Irish bona fides by professing his knowledge of Irish song and dance, which he gained during outings to town with the Second Battalion. He seems to be someone eager to absorb as much of Irish culture as possible, regardless of the war between their countries.
Bonaparte, Noble, ‘Awkins, and Belcher are staying at the house of an old woman, whom Bonaparte describes as surly and quick to scold the Irish soldiers. Bonaparte goes on to describe how Belcher helps the old woman with chores, anticipating her needs and being unfailingly polite. He notes that Belcher is a quiet man, while ‘Awkins talks constantly. Belcher is a skilled card player, but when he wins, he lends the money out to ‘Awkins, who promptly loses it.
Bonaparte expresses shock that Belcher is so eager to pitch in with chores in what is technically a prison. Bonaparte further draws a distinction between Belcher, who expresses himself through deeds, and ‘Awkins, who will say anything that’s on his mind. In Bonaparte’s description, Belcher takes on the role of an older brother, bailing out ‘Awkins for his poor performance at cards and enabling him to stay in the game, which is important to the spirit of camaraderie at the old woman’s house.
Bonaparte says that ‘Awkins loves to argue with Noble about religion, which needles Noble in part because Noble’s brother is a priest. Bonaparte describes ‘Awkins as profane, argumentative, and lazy.
As Bonaparte describes him, ‘Awkins seems to enjoy irritating people. He specifically seeks to bother Noble on the subject of religion because he has a family connection to it. It’s clear that ‘Awkins believes in what he’s saying, but it also allows him to argue, which is what he really loves. Argument is more than an intellectual exercise for ‘Awkins; it’s the way he engages with and reaches out to people.
Bonaparte then tells an anecdote about ‘Awkins trying to strike up an argument with the old woman. When ‘Awkins complains about the drought, the old woman attributes it to an obscure rain god. Later, when he states that the capitalist class is responsible for the First World War, the old woman responds cryptically that the cause of the war was the theft of a relic from a Japanese temple.
When ‘Awkins tries to stir up an argument with the old woman, something strange happens. ‘Awkins is rendered speechless. The chasm between ‘Awkins’s anti-capitalism and the old woman’s mysticism is too wide for a debate to occur. Crucially, each are looking for a root cause of World War I, what ‘Awkins calls “the German war.” As both are touched by the Irish War for Independence much closer to home, they need to find some way to make sense of it.