At dusk the big Englishman Belcher would shift his long legs out of the ashes and ask, “Well, chums, what about it?” and Noble or me would say, “As you please, chum” (for we had picked up some of their curious expressions), and the little Englishman 'Awkins would light the lamp and produce the cards.
I couldn't at the time see the point of me and Noble being with Belcher and 'Awkins at all, for it was and is my fixed belief you could have planted that pair in any untended spot from this to Claregalway and they'd have stayed put and flourished like a native weed.
And another day the same 'Awkins was swearing at the capitalists for starting the German war, when the old dame laid down her iron, puckered up her little crab's mouth and said, “Mr 'Awkins, you can say what you please about the war, thinking to deceive me because I'm an ignorant old woman, but I know well what started the war. It was that Italian count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple in Japan, for believe me, Mr 'Awkins, nothing but sorrow and want follows them that disturbs the hidden powers!”
He looked at me for a spell and said, “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages.” “Hostages — ?” says I, not quite understanding. “The enemy,” he says in his heavy way, “have prisoners belong to us, and now they talk of shooting them. If they shoot our prisoners we'll shoot theirs, and serve them right.”
Because there were men on the Brigade you daren't let nor hinder without a gun in your hand, and at any rate, in those days disunion between brothers seemed to me an awful crime. I knew better after.
I rose quietly from the table and laid my hand on him before he reached the door. “What do you want?” I asked him. “I want those two soldier friends of yours,” he says reddening. “Is that the way it is, Jeremiah Donovan?” I ask. “That's the way. There were four of our lads went west this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen.” “That's bad, Jeremiah,” says I.
“Just as a man mikes a 'ome of a bleedin' place,” mumbles 'Awkins shaking her by the hand, “some bastard at headquarters thinks you're too cushy and shunts you off.” Belcher shakes her hand very hearty. “A thousand thanks, madam,” he says, “a thousand thanks for everything . . .” as though he'd made it all up.
We walked along the edge of it in the darkness, and every now and then 'Awkins would call a halt and begin again, just as if he was wound up, about us being chums, and I was in despair that nothing but the cold and open grave made ready for his presence would convince him that we meant it all. But all the same, if you can understand, I didn't want him to be bumped off.
“Listen to me, Noble,” he said. “You and me are chums. You won't come over to my side, so I'll come over to your side. Is that fair? Just you give me a rifle and I'll go with you wherever you want.”
“Poor blighter,” he says quietly, “and last night he was so curious abaout it all. It's very queer, chums, I always think. Naow, 'e knows as much abaout it as they'll ever let 'im know, and last night 'e was all in the dark.”
“But my missus left me eight years ago. Went away with another fellow and took the kid with her. I likes the feelin' of a 'ome (as you may 'ave noticed) but I couldn't start again after that.”
“I never could make out what duty was myself,” he said, “but I think you're all good lads, if that's what you mean. I'm not complaining.”
…but with me it was the other way, as though the patch of bog where the two Englishmen were was a thousand miles away from me, and even Noble mumbling just behind me and the old woman and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lonely. And anything that ever happened me after I never felt the same about again.