|◄ Book II|| A Farewell to Arms
written by Ernest Hemingway
|Book IV ►|
|Jonathan Cape (pages 173-247)|
Now in the fall the trees were all bare and the roads were muddy. I rode to Gorizia from Udine on a camion. We passed other camions on the road and I looked at the country. The mulberry trees were bare and the fields were brown. There were wet dead leaves on the road from the rows of bare trees and men were working on the road, tamping stone in the ruts from piles of crushed stone along the side of the road between the trees. We saw the town with a mist over it that cut off the mountains. We crossed the river and I saw that it was running high. It had been raining in the mountains. We came into the town past the factories and then the houses and villas and I saw that many more houses had been hit. On a narrow street we passed a British Red Cross ambulance. The driver wore a cap and his face was thin and very tanned. I did not know him. I got down from the camion in the big square in front of the Town Major’s house, the driver handed down my rucksack and I put it on and swung on the two musettes and walked to our villa. It did not feel like a homecoming.
I walked down the damp gravel driveway looking at the villa through the trees. The windows were all shut but the door was open. I went in and found the major sitting at a table in the bare room with maps and typed sheets of paper on the wall.
“Hello,” he said. “How are you?” He looked older and drier.
“I’m good,” I said. “How is everything?”
“It’s all over,” he said. “Take off your kit and sit down.” I put my pack and the two musettes on the floor and my cap on the pack. I brought the other chair over from the wall and sat down by the desk.
“It’s been a bad summer,” the major said. “Are you strong now?”
“Did you ever get the decorations?”
“Yes. I got them fine. Thank you very much.”
“Let’s see them.”
I opened my cape so he could see the two ribbons.
“Did you get the boxes with the medals?”
“No. Just the papers.”
“The boxes will come later. That takes more time.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“The cars are all away. There are six up north at Caporetto. You know Caporetto?”
“Yes,” I said. I remembered it as a little white town with a campanile in a valley. It was a clean little town and there was a fine fountain in the square.
“They are working from there. There are many sick now. The fighting is over.”
“Where are the others?”
“There are two up in the mountains and four still on the Bainsizza. The other two ambulance sections are in the Carso with the third army.”
“What do you wish me to do?”
“You can go and take over the four cars on the Bainsizza if you like. Gino has been up there a long time. You haven’t seen it up there, have you?”
“It was very bad. We lost three cars.”
“I heard about it.”
“Yes, Rinaldi wrote you.”
“Where is Rinaldi?”
“He is here at the hospital. He has had a summer and fall of it.”
“I believe it.”
“It has been bad,” the major said. “You couldn’t believe how bad it’s been. I’ve often thought you were lucky to be hit when you were.”
“I know I was.”
“Next year will be worse,” the major said. “Perhaps they will attack now. They say they are to attack but I can’t believe it. It is too late. You saw the river?”
“Yes. It’s high already.”
“I don’t believe they will attack now that the rains have started. We will have the snow soon. What about your countrymen? Will there be other Americans besides yourself?”
“They are training an army of ten million.”
“I hope we get some of them. But the French will hog them all. We’ll never get any down here. All right. You stay here to-night and go out to-morrow with the little car and send Gino back. I’ll send somebody with you that knows the road. Gino will tell you everything. They are shelling quite a little still but it is all over. You will want to see the Bainsizza.”
“I’m glad to see it. I am glad to be back with you again, Signor Maggiore.”
He smiled. “You are very good to say so. I am very tired of this war. If I was away I do not believe I would come back.”
“Is it so bad?”
“Yes. It is so bad and worse. Go get cleaned up and find your friend Rinaldi.”
I went out and carried my bags up the stairs. Rinaldi was not in the room but his things were there and I sat down on the bed and unwrapped my puttees and took the shoe off my right foot. Then I lay back on the bed. I was tired and my right foot hurt. It seemed silly to lie on the bed with one shoe off, so I sat up and unlaced the other shoe and dropped it on the floor, then lay back on the blanket again. The room was stuffy with the window closed but I was too tired to get up and open it. I saw my things were all in one corner of the room. Outside it was getting dark. I lay on the bed and thought about Catherine and waited for Rinaldi. I was going to try not to think about Catherine except at night before I went to sleep. But now I was tired and there was nothing to do, so I lay and thought about her. I was thinking about her when Rinaldi came in. He looked just the same. Perhaps he was a little thinner.
“Well, baby,” he said. I sat up on the bed. He came over, sat down and put his arm around me. “Good old baby.” He whacked me on the back and I held both his arms.
“Old baby,” he said. “Let me see your knee.”
“I’ll have to take off my pants.”
“Take off your pants, baby. We’re all friends here. I want to see what kind of a job they did.” I stood up, took off the breeches and pulled off the knee-brace. Rinaldi sat on the floor and bent the knee gently back and forth. He ran his finger along the scar; put his thumbs together over the kneecap and rocked the knee gently with his fingers.
“Is that all the articulation you have?”
“It’s a crime to send you back. They ought to get complete articulation.”
“It’s a lot better than it was. It was stiff as a board.”
Rinaldi bent it more. I watched his hands. He had fine surgeon’s hands. I looked at the top of his head, his hair shiny and parted smoothly. He bent the knee too far.
“Ouch!” I said.
“You ought to have more treatment on it with the machines,” Rinaldi said.
“It’s better than it was.”
“I see that, baby. This is something I know more about than you.” He stood up and sat down on the bed. “The knee itself is a good job.” He was through with the knee. “Tell me all about everything.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” I said. “I’ve led a quiet life.”
“You act like a married man,” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“This war is killing me,” Rinaldi said, “I am very depressed by it.” He folded his hands over his knee.
“Oh,” I said.
“What’s the matter? Can’t I even have human impulses?”
“No. I can see you’ve been having a fine time. Tell me.”
“All summer and all fall I’ve operated. I work all the time. I do everybody’s work. All the hard ones they leave to me. By God, baby, I am becoming a lovely surgeon.”
“That sounds better.”
“I never think. No, by God, I don’t think; I operate.”
“But now, baby, it’s all over. I don’t operate now and I feel like hell. This is a terrible war, baby. You believe me when I say it. Now you cheer me up. Did you bring the phonograph records?”
They were wrapped in paper in a cardboard box in my rucksack. I was too tired to get them out.
“Don’t you feel good yourself, baby?”
“I feel like hell.”
“This war is terrible,” Rinaldi said. “Come on. We’ll both get drunk and be cheerful. Then we’ll go get the ashes dragged. Then we’ll feel fine.”
“I’ve had the jaundice,” I said, “and I can’t get drunk.”
“Oh, baby, how you’ve come back to me. You come back serious and with a liver. I tell you this war is a bad thing. Why did we make it anyway.”
“We’ll have a drink. I don’t want to get drunk but we’ll have a drink.”
Rinaldi went across the room to the washstand and brought back two glasses and a bottle of cognac.
“It’s Austrian cognac,” he said. “Seven stars. It’s all they captured on San Gabriele.”
“Were you up there?”
“No. I haven’t been anywhere. I’ve been here all the time operating. Look, baby, this is your old tooth-brushing glass. I kept it all the time to remind me of you.”
“To remind you to brush your teeth.”
“No. I have my own too. I kept this to remind me of you trying to brush away the Villa Rossa from your teeth in the morning, swearing and eating aspirin and cursing harlots. Every time I see that glass I think of you trying to clean your conscience with a toothbrush.” He came over to the bed. “Kiss me once and tell me you’re not serious.”
“I never kiss you. You’re an ape.”
“I know, you are the fine good Anglo-Saxon boy. I know. You are the remorse boy, I know. I will wait till I see the Anglo-Saxon brushing away harlotry with a toothbrush.”
“Put some cognac in the glass.”
We touched glasses and drank. Rinaldi laughed at me.
“I will get you drunk and take out your liver and put you in a good Italian liver and make you a man again.”
I held the glass for some more cognac. It was dark outside now. Holding the glass of cognac, I went over and opened the window. The rain had stopped falling. It was colder outside and there was a mist in the trees.
“Don’t throw the cognac out the window,” Rinaldi said. “If you can’t drink it give it to me.”
“Go something yourself,” I said. I was glad to see Rinaldi again. He had spent two years teasing me and I had always liked it. We understood each other very well.
“Are you married?” he asked from the bed. I was standing against the wall by the window.
“Are you in love?”
“With that English girl?”
“Poor baby. Is she good to you?”
“I mean is she good to you practically speaking?”
“I will. You will see I am a man of extreme delicacy. Does she—?”
“Rinin,” I said. “Please shut up. If you want to be my friend, shut up.”
“I don’t want to be your friend, baby. I am your friend.”
“Then shut up.”
I went over to the bed and sat down beside Rinaldi. He was holding his glass and looking at the floor.
“You see how it is, Rinin?”
“Oh, yes. All my life I encounter sacred subjects. But very few with you. I suppose you must have them too.” He looked at the floor.
“You haven’t any?”
“I can say this about your mother and that about your sister?”
“And that about your sister,” Rinaldi said swiftly. We both laughed.
“The old superman,” I said.
“I am jealous maybe,” Rinaldi said.
“No, you’re not.”
“I don’t mean like that. I mean something else. Have you any married friends?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I haven’t,” Rinaldi said. “Not if they love each other.”
“They don’t like me.”
“I am the snake. I am the snake of reason.”
“You’re getting it mixed. The apple was reason.”
“No, it was the snake.”
He was more cheerful.
“You are better when you don’t think so deeply,” I said.
“I love you, baby,” he said. “You puncture me when I become a great Italian thinker. But I know many things I can’t say. I know more than you.”
“Yes. You do.”
“But you will have a better time. Even with remorse you will have a better time.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, yes. That is true. Already I am only happy when I am working.” He looked at the floor again.
“You’ll get over that.”
“No. I only like two other things; one is bad for my work and the other is over in half an hour or fifteen minutes. Sometimes less.”
“Sometimes a good deal less.”
“Perhaps I have improved, baby. You do not know. But there are only the two things and my work.”
“You’ll get other things.”
“No. We never get anything. We are born with all we have and we never learn. We never get anything new. We all start complete. You should be glad not to be a Latin.”
“There’s no such thing as a Latin. That is’Latin’thinking. You are so proud of your defects.” Rinaldi looked up and laughed.
“We’ll stop, baby. I am tired from thinking so much.” He had looked tired when he came in. “It’s nearly time to eat. I’m glad you’re back. You are my best friend and my war brother.”
“When do the war brothers eat?” I asked.
“Right away. We’ll drink once more for your liver’s sake.”
“Like Saint Paul.”
“You are inaccurate. That was wine and the stomach. Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake.”
“Whatever you have in the bottle,” I said. “For any sake you mention.”
“To your girl,” Rinaldi said. He held out his glass.
“I’ll never say a dirty thing about her.”
“Don’t strain yourself.”
He drank off the cognac. “I am pure,” he said. “I am like you, baby. I will get an English girl too. As a matter of fact I knew your girl first but she was a little tall for me. A tall girl for a sister,” he quoted.
“You have a lovely pure mind,” I said.
“Haven’t I? That’s why they call me Rinaldo Purissimo.”
“Come on, baby, we’ll go down to eat while my mind is still pure.”
I washed, combed my hair and we went down the stairs. Rinaldi was a little drunk. In the room where we ate, the meal was not quite ready.
“I’ll go get the bottle,” Rinaldi said. He went off up the stairs. I sat at the table and he came back with the bottle and poured us each a half tumbler of cognac.
“Too much,” I said and held up the glass and sighted at the lamp on the table.
“Not for an empty stomach. It is a wonderful thing. It burns out the stomach completely. Nothing is worse for you.”
“Self-destruction day by day,” Rinaldi said. “It ruins the stomach and makes the hand shake. Just the thing for a surgeon.”
“You recommend it?”
“Heartily. I use no other. Drink it down, baby, and look forward to being sick.”
I drank half the glass. In the hall I could hear the orderly calling. “Soup! Soup is ready!”
The major came in, nodded to us and sat down. He seemed very small at table.
“Is this all we are?” he asked. The orderly put the soup bowl down and he ladled out a plate full.
“We are all,” Rinaldi said. “Unless the priest comes. If he knew Federico was here he would be here.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s at 307,” the major said. He was busy with his soup. He wiped his mouth, wiping his upturned gray mustache carefully. “He will come I think. I called them and left word to tell him you were here.”
“I miss the noise of the mess,” I said.
“Yes, it’s quiet,” the major said.
“I will be noisy,” said Rinaldi.
“Drink some wine, Enrico,” said the major. He filled my glass. The spaghetti came in and we were all busy. We were finishing the spaghetti when the priest came in. He was the same as ever, small and brown and compact looking. I stood up and we shook hands. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“I came as soon as I heard,” he said.
“Sit down,” the major said. “You’re late.”
“Good-evening, priest,” Rinaldi said, using the English word. They had taken that up from the priest-baiting captain, who spoke a little English. “Good-evening, Rinaldo,” the priest said. The orderly brought him soup but he said he would start with the spaghetti.
“How are you?” he asked me.
“Fine,” I said. “How have things been?”
“Drink some wine, priest,” Rinaldi said. “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake. That’s Saint Paul, you know.”
“Yes I know,” said the priest politely. Rinaldi filled his glass.
“That Saint Paul,” said Rinaldi. “He’s the one who makes all the trouble.” The priest looked at me and smiled. I could see that the baiting did not touch him now.
“That Saint Paul,” Rinaldi said. “He was a rounder and a chaser and then when he was no longer hot he said it was no good. When he was finished he made the rules for us who are still hot. Isn’t it true, Federico?”
The major smiled. We were eating meat stew now.
“I never discuss a Saint after dark,” I said. The priest looked up from the stew and smiled at me.
“There he is, gone over with the priest,” Rinaldi said. “Where are all the good old priest-baiters? Where is Cavalcanti? Where is Brundi? Where is Cesare? Do I have to bait this priest alone without support?”
“He is a good priest,” said the major.
“He is a good priest,” said Rinaldi. “But still a priest. I try to make the mess like the old days. I want to make Federico happy. To hell with you, priest!”
I saw the major look at him and notice that he was drunk. His thin face was white. The line of his hair was very black against the white of his forehead.
“It’s all right, Rinaldo,” said the priest. “It’s all right.”
“To hell with you,” said Rinaldi. “To hell with the whole damn business.” He sat back in his chair.
“He’s been under a strain and he’s tired,” the major said to me. He finished his meat and wiped up the gravy with a piece of bread.
“I don’t give a damn,” Rinaldi said to the table. “To hell with the whole business.” He looked defiantly around the table, his eyes flat, his face pale.
“All right,” I said. “To hell with the whole damn business.”
“No, no,” said Rinaldi. “You can’t do it. You can’t do it. I say you can’t do it. You’re dry and you’re empty and there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else I tell you. Not a damned thing. I know, when I stop working.”
The priest shook his head. The orderly took away the stew dish.
“What are you eating meat for?” Rinaldi turned to the priest. “Don’t you know it’s Friday?”
“It’s Thursday,” the priest said.
“It’s a lie. It’s Friday. You’re eating the body of our Lord. It’s God-meat. I know. It’s dead Austrian. That’s what you’re eating.”
“The white meat is from officers,” I said, completing the old joke.
Rinaldi laughed. He filled his glass.
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’m just a little crazy.”
“You ought to have a leave,” the priest said.
The major shook his head at him.
Rinaldi looked at the priest.
“You think I ought to have a leave?”
The major shook his head at the priest. Rinaldi was looking at the priest.
“Just as you like,” the priest said. “Not if you don’t want.”
“To hell with you,” Rinaldi said. “They try to get rid of me. Every night they try to get rid of me. I fight them off. What if I have it. Everybody has it. The whole world’s got it. First,” he went on, assuming the manner of a lecturer, “it’s a little pimple. Then we notice a rash between the shoulders. Then we notice nothing at all. We put our faith in mercury.”
“Or salvarsan,” the major interrupted quietly.
“A mercurial product,” Rinaldi said. He acted very elated now. “I know something worth two of that. Good old priest,” he said. “You’ll never get it. Baby will get it. It’s an industrial accident. It’s a simple industrial accident.”
The orderly brought in the sweet and coffee. The dessert was a sort of black bread pudding with hard sauce. The lamp was smoking; the black smoke going close up inside the chimney.
“Bring two candles and take away the lamp,” the major said. The orderly brought two lighted candles each in a saucer, and took out the lamp blowing it out. Rinaldi was quiet now. He seemed all right. We talked and after the coffee we all went out into the hall.
“You want to talk to the priest. I have to go in the town,” Rinaldi said. “Good-night, priest.”
“Good-night, Rinaldo,” the priest said.
“I’ll see you, Fredi,” Rinaldi said.
“Yes,” I said. “Come in early.” He made a face and went out the door. The major was standing with us. “He’s very tired and overworked,” he said. “He thinks too he has syphilis. I don’t believe it but he may have. He is treating himself for it. Good-night. You will leave before daylight, Enrico?”
“Good-by then,” he said. “Good luck. Peduzzi will wake you and go with you.”
“Good-by, Signor Maggiore.”
“Good-by. They talk about an Austrian offensive but I don’t believe it. I hope not. But anyway it won’t be here. Gino will tell you everything. The telephone works well now.”
“I’ll call regularly.”
“Please do. Good-night. Don’t let Rinaldi drink so much brandy.”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Good-night, Signor Maggiore.”
He went off into his office.
I went to the door and looked out. It had stopped raining but there was a mist.
“Should we go upstairs?” I asked the priest.
“I can only stay a little while.”
“Come on up.”
We climbed the stairs and went into my room. I lay down on Rinaldi’s bed. The priest sat on my cot that the orderly had set up. It was dark in the room.
“Well,” he said, “how are you really?”
“I’m all right. I’m tired to-night.”
“I’m tired too, but from no cause.”
“What about the war?”
“I think it will be over soon. I don’t know why, but I feel it.”
“How do you feel it?”
“You know how your major is? Gentle? Many people are like that now.”
“I feel that way myself,” I said.
“It has been a terrible summer,” said the priest. He was surer of himself now than when I had gone away. “You cannot believe how it has been. Except that you have been there and you know how it can be. Many people have realized the war this summer. Officers whom I thought could never realize it realize it now.”
“What will happen?” Istroked the blanket with my hand.
“I do not know but I do not think it can go on much longer.”
“What will happen?”
“They will stop fighting.”
“I hope so,” I said.
“You don’t believe it?”
“I don’t believe both sides will stop fighting at once.”
“I suppose not. It is too much to expect. But when I see the changes in men I do not think it can go on.”
“Who won the fighting this summer?”
“The Austrians won,” I said. “They kept them from taking San Gabriele. They’ve won. They won’t stop fighting.”
“If they feel as we feel they may stop. They have gone through the same thing.”
“No one ever stopped when they were winning.”
“You discourage me.”
“I can only say what I think.”
“Then you think it will go on and on? Nothing will ever happen?”
“I don’t know. I only think the Austrians will not stop when they have won a victory. It is in defeat that we become Christian.”
“The Austrians are Christians—except for the Bosnians.”
“I don’t mean technically Christian. I mean like Our Lord.”
He said nothing.
“We are all gentler now because we are beaten. How would Our Lord have been if Peter had rescued him in the Garden?”
“He would have been just the same.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“You discourage me,” he said. “I believe and I pray that something will happen. I have felt it very close.”
“Something may happen,” I said. “But it will happen only to us. If they felt the way we do, it would be all right. But they have beaten us. They feel another way.”
“Many of the soldiers have always felt this way. It is not because they were beaten.”
“They were beaten to start with. They were beaten when they took them from their farms and put them in the army. That is why the peasant has wisdom, because he is defeated from the start. Put him in power and see how wise he is.”
He did not say anything. He was thinking.
“Now I am depressed myself,” I said. “That’s why I never think about these things. I never think and yet when I begin to talk I say the things I have found out in my mind without thinking.”
“I had hoped for something.”
“No. Something more.”
“There isn’t anything more. Except victory. It may be worse.”
“I hoped for a long time for victory.”
“Now I don’t know.”
“It has to be one or the other.”
“I don’t believe in victory any more.”
“I don’t. But I don’t believe in defeat. Though it may be better.”
“What do you believe in?”
“In sleep,” I said. He stood up.
“I am very sorry to have stayed so long. But I like so to talk with you.”
“It is very nice to talk again. I said that about sleeping, meaning nothing.”
We stood up and shook hands in the dark.
“I sleep at 307 now,” he said.
“I go out on post early to-morrow.”
“I’ll see you when you come hack.”
“We’ll have a walk and talk together.” I walked with him to the door.
“Don’t go down,” he said. “It is very nice that you are back. Though not so nice for you.” He put his hand on my shoulder.
“It’s all right for me,” I said. “Good-night.”
“Ciaou!” I said. I was deadly sleepy.
I woke when Rinaldi came in but he did not talk and I went back to sleep again. In the morning I was dressed and gone before it was light. Rinaldi did not wake when I left.
I had not seen the Bainsizza before and it was strange to go up the slope where the Austrians had been, beyond the place on the river where I had been wounded. There was a steep new road and many trucks. Beyond, the road flattened out and I saw woods and steep hills in the mist. There were woods that had been taken quickly and not smashed. Then beyond where the road was not protected by the hills it was screened by matting on the sides and over the top. The road ended in a wrecked village. The lines were up beyond. There was much artillery around. The houses were badly smashed but things were very well organized and there were signboards everywhere. We found Gino and he got us some coffee and later I went with him and met various people and saw the posts. Gino said the British cars were working further down the Bainsizza at Ravne. He had great admiration for the British. There was still a certain amount of shelling, he said, but not many wounded. There would be many sick now the rains had started. The Austrians were supposed to attack but he did not believe it. We were supposed to attack too, but they had not brought up any new troops so he thought that was off too. Food was scarce and he would be glad to get a full meal in Gorizia. What kind of supper had I had? I told him and he said that would be wonderful. He was especially impressed by the dolce. I did not describe it in detail, only said it was a dolce, and I think he believed it was something more elaborate than bread pudding.
Did I know where he was going to go? I said I didn’t but that some of the other cars were at Caporetto. He hoped he would go up that way. It was a nice little place and he liked the high mountain hauling up beyond. He was a nice boy and every one seemed to like him. He said where it really had been hell was at San Gabriele and the attack beyond Lom that had gone bad. He said the Austrians had a great amount of artillery in the woods along Ternova ridge beyond and above us, and shelled the roads badly at night. There was a battery of naval guns that had gotten on his nerves. I would recognize them because of their flat trajectory. You heard the report and then the shriek commenced almost instantly. They usually fired two guns at once, one right after the other, and the fragments from the burst were enormous. He showed me one, a smoothly jagged piece of metal over a foot long. It looked like babbitting metal.
“I don’t suppose they are so effective,” Gino said. “But they scare me. They all sound as though they came directly for you. There is the boom, then instantly the shriek and burst. What’s the use of not being wounded if they scare you to death?”
He said there were Croats in the lines opposite us now and some Magyars. Our troops were still in the attacking positions. There was no wire to speak of and no place to fall back to if there should be an Austrian attack. There were fine positions for defense along the low mountains that came up out of the plateau but nothing had been done about organizing them for defense. What did I think about the Bainsizza anyway?
I had expected it to be flatter, more like a plateau. I had not realized it was so broken up.
“Alto piano,” Gino said, “but no piano.”
We went back to the cellar of the house where he lived. I said I thought a ridge that flattened out on top and had a little depth would be easier and more practical to hold than a succession of small mountains. It was no harder to attack up a mountain than on the level, I argued. “That depends on the mountains,” he said. “Look at San Gabriele.”
“Yes,” I said, “but where they had trouble was at the top where it was flat. They got up to the top easy enough.”
“Not so easy,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “but that was a special case because it was a fortress rather than a mountain, anyway. The Austrians had been fortifying it for years.” I meant tactically speaking in a war where there was some movement a succession of mountains were nothing to hold as a line because it was too easy to turn them. You should have possible mobility and a mountain is not very mobile. Also, people always over-shoot downhill. If the flank were turned, the best men would be left on the highest mountains. I did not believe in a war in mountains. I had thought about it a lot, I said. You pinched off one mountain and they pinched off another but when something really started every one had to get down off the mountains.
What were you going to do if you had a mountain frontier? he asked.
I had not worked that out yet, I said, and we both laughed. “But,” I said, “in the old days the Austrians were always whipped in the quadrilateral around Verona. They let them come down onto the plain and whipped them there.”
“Yes,” said Gino. “But those were Frenchmen and you can work out military problems clearly when you are fighting in somebody else’s country.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “when it is your own country you cannot use it so scientifically.”
“The Russians did, to trap Napoleon.”
“Yes, but they had plenty of country. If you tried to retreat to trap Napoleon in Italy you would find yourself in Brindisi.”
“A terrible place,” said Gino. “Have you ever been there?”
“Not to stay.”
“I am a patriot,” Gino said. “But I cannot love Brindisi or Taranto.”
“Do you love the Bainsizza?” I asked.
“The soil is sacred,” he said. “But I wish it grew more potatoes. You know when we came here we found fields of potatoes the Austrians had planted.”
“Has the food really been short?”
“I myself have never had enough to eat but I am a big eater and I have not starved. The mess is average. The regiments in the line get pretty good food but those in support don’t get so much. Something is wrong somewhere. There should be plenty of food.”
“The dogfish are selling it somewhere else.”
“Yes, they give the battalions in the front line as much as they can but the ones in back are very short. They have eaten all the Austrians’potatoes and chestnuts from the woods. They ought to feed them better. We are big eaters. I am sure there is plenty of food. It is very bad for the soldiers to be short of food. Have you ever noticed the difference it makes in the way you think?”
“Yes,” I said. “It can’t win a war but it can lose one.”
“We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.”
I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates. Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot. He was born one. He left with Peduzzi in the car to go back to Gorizia.
It stormed all that day. The wind drove down the rain and everywhere there was standing water and mud. The plaster of the broken houses was gray and wet. Late in the afternoon the rain stopped and from out number two post I saw the bare wet autumn country with clouds over the tops of the hills and the straw screening over the roads wet and dripping. The sun came out once before it went down and shone on the bare woods beyond the ridge. There were many Austrian guns in the woods on that ridge but only a few fired. I watched the sudden round puffs of shrapnel smoke in the sky above a broken farmhouse near where the line was; soft puffs with a yellow white flash in the centre. You saw the flash, then heard the crack, then saw the smoke ball distort and thin in the wind. There were many iron shrapnel balls in the rubble of the houses and on the road beside the broken house where the post was, but they did not shell near the post that afternoon. We loaded two cars and drove down the road that was screened with wet mats and the last of the sun came through in the breaks between the strips of mattings. Before we were out on the clear road behind the hill the sun was down. We went on down the clear road and as it turned a corner into the open and went into the square arched tunnel of matting the rain started again.
The wind rose in the night and at three o’clock in the morning with the rain coming in sheets there was a bombardment and the Croatians came over across the mountain meadows and through patches of woods and into the front line. They fought in the dark in the rain and a counter-attack of scared men from the second line drove them back. There was much shelling and many rockets in the rain and machine-gun and rifle fire all along the line. They did not come again and it was quieter and between the gusts of wind and rain we could hear the sound of a great bombardment far to the north.
The wounded were coming into the post, some were carried on stretchers, some walking and some were brought on the backs of men that came across the field. They were wet to the skin and all were scared. We filled two cars with stretcher cases as they came up from the cellar of the post and as I shut the door of the second car and fastened it I felt the rain on my face turn to snow. The flakes were coming heavy and fast in the rain.
When daylight came the storm was still blowing but the snow had stopped. It had melted as it fell on the wet ground and now it was raining again. There was another attack just after daylight but it was unsuccessful. We expected an attack all day but it did not come until the sun was going down. The bombardment started to the south below the long wooded ridge where the Austrian guns were concentrated. We expected a bombardment but it did not come. It was getting dark. Guns were firing from the field behind the village and the shells, going away, had a comfortable sound.
We heard that the attack to the south had been unsuccessful. They did not attack that night but we heard that they had broken through to the north. In the night word came that we were to prepare to retreat. The captain at the post told me this. He had it from the Brigade. A little while later he came from the telephone and said it was a lie. The Brigade had received orders that the line of the Bainsizza should be held no matter what happened. I asked about the break through and he said that he had heard at the Brigade that the Austrians had broken through the twenty-seventh army corps up toward Caporetto. There had been a great battle in the north all day.
“If those bastards let them through we are cooked,” he said.
“It’s Germans that are attacking,” one of the medical officers said. The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.
“There are fifteen divisions of Germans,” the medical officer said. “They have broken through and we will be cut off.”
“At the Brigade, they say this line is to be held. They say they have not broken through badly and that we will hold a line across the mountains from Monte Maggiore.”
“Where do they hear this?”
“From the Division.”
“The word that we were to retreat came from the Division.”
“We work under the Army Corps,” I said. “But here I work under you. Naturally when you tell me to go I will go. But get the orders straight.”
“The orders are that we stay here. You clear the wounded from here to the clearing station.”
“Sometimes we clear from the clearing station to the field hospitals too,” I said. “Tell me, I have never seen a retreat—if there is a retreat how are all the wounded evacuated?”
“They are not. They take as many as they can and leave the rest.”
“What will I take in the cars?”
“All right,” I said.
The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front. There was no more disorder than in an advance.
That night we helped empty the field hospitals that had been set up in the least ruined villages of the plateau, taking the wounded down to Plava on the river-bed: and the next day hauled all day in the rain to evacuate the hospitals and clearing station at Plava. It rained steadily and the army of the Bainsizza moved down off the plateau in the October rain and across the river where the great victories had commenced in the spring of that year. We came into Gorizia in the middle of the next day. The rain had stopped and the town was nearly empty. As we came up the street they were loading the girls from the soldiers’whorehouse into a truck. There were seven girls and they had on their hats and coats and carried small suitcases. Two of them were crying. Of the others one smiled at us and put out her tongue and fluttered it up and down. She had thick full lips and black eyes.
I stopped the car and went over and spoke to the matron. The girls from the officers’house had left early that morning, she said. Where were they going? To Conegliano, she said. The truck started. The girl with thick lips put out her tongue again at us. The matron waved. The two girls kept on crying. The others looked interestedly out at the town. I got back in the car.
“We ought to go with them,” Bonello said. “That would be a good trip.”
“We’ll have a good trip,” I said.
“We’ll have a hell of a trip.”
“That’s what I mean,” I said. We came up the drive to the villa.
“I’d like to be there when some of those tough babies climb in and try and hop them.”
“You think they will?”
“Sure. Everybody in the Second Army knows that matron.”
We were outside the villa.
“They call her the Mother Superior,” Bonello said. “The girls are new but everybody knows her. They must have brought them up just before the retreat.”
“They’ll have a time.”
“I’ll say they’ll have a time. I’d like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us.”
“Take the car out and have the mechanics go over it,” I said. “Change the oil and check the differential. Fill it up and then get some sleep.”
“Yes, Signor Tenente.”
The villa was empty. Rinaldi was gone with the hospital. The major was gone taking hospital personnel in the staff car. There was a note on the window for me to fill the cars with the material piled in the hall and to proceed to Pordenone. The mechanics were gone already. I went out back to the garage. The other two cars came in while I was there and their drivers got down. It was starting to rain again.
“I’m so—sleepy I went to sleep three times coming here from Plava,” Piani said. “What are we going to do, Tenente?”
“We’ll change the oil, grease them, fill them up, then take them around in front and load up the junk they’ve left.”
“Then do we start?”
“No, we’ll sleep for three hours.”
“Christ I’m glad to sleep,” Bonello said. “I couldn’t keep awake driving.”
“How’s your car, Aymo?” I asked.
“It’s all right.”
“Get me a monkey suit and I’ll help you with the oil.”
“Don’t you do that, Tenente,” Aymo said. “Ifs nothing to do. You go and pack your things.”
“My things are all packed,” I said. “I’ll go and carry out the stuff that they left for us. Bring the cars around as soon as they’re ready.”
They brought the cars around to the front of the villa and we loaded them with the hospital equipment which was piled in the hallway. When it was all in, the three cars stood in line down the driveway under the trees in the rain. We went inside.
“Make a fire in the kitchen and dry your things,” I said.
“I don’t care about dry clothes,” Piani said. “I want to sleep.”
“I’m going to sleep on the major’s bed,” Bonello said. “I’m going to sleep where the old man corks off.”
“I don’t care where I sleep,” Piani said.
“There are two beds in here.” I opened the door.
“I never knew what was in that room,” Bonello said.
“That was old fish-face’s room,” Piani said.
“You two sleep in there,” I said. “I’ll wake you.”
“The Austrians will wake us if you sleep too long, Tenente,” Bonello said.
“I won’t oversleep,” I said. “Where’s Aymo?”
“He went out in the kitchen.”
“Get to sleep,” I said.
“I’ll sleep,” Piani said. “I’ve been asleep sitting up all day. The whole top of my head kept coming down over my eyes.”
“Take your boots off,” Bonello said. “That’s old fish-face’s bed.”
“Fish-face is nothing to me.” Piani lay on the bed, his muddy boots straight out, his head on his arm. I went out to the kitchen. Aymo had a fire in the stove and a kettle of water on.
“I thought I’d start some pasta asciutta,” he said. “We’ll be hungry when we wake up.”
“Aren’t you sleepy, Bartolomeo?”
“Not so sleepy. When the water boils I’ll leave it. The fire will go down.”
“You’d better get some sleep,” I said. “We can eat cheese and monkey meat.”
“This is better,” he said. “Something hot will be good for those two anarchists. You go to sleep, Tenente.”
“There’s a bed in the major’s room.”
“You sleep there.”
“No, I’m going up to my old room. Do you want a drink, Bartolomeo?”
“When we go, Tenente. Now it wouldn’t do me any good.”
“If you wake in three hours and I haven’t called you, wake me, will you?”
“I haven’t any watch, Tenente.”
“There’s a clock on the wall in the major’s room.”
I went out then through the dining-room and the hall and up the marble stairs to the room where I had lived with Rinaldi. It was raining outside. I went to the window and looked out. It was getting dark and I saw the three cars standing in line under the trees. The trees were dripping in the rain. It was cold and the drops hung to the branches. I went back to Rinaldi’s bed and lay down and let sleep take me.
We ate in the kitchen before we started. Aymo had a basin of spaghetti with onions and tinned meat chopped up in it. We sat around the table and drank two bottles of the wine that had been left in the cellar of the villa. It was dark outside and still raining. Piani sat at the table very sleepy.
“I like a retreat better than an advance,” Bonello said. “On a retreat we drink barbera.”
“We drink it now. To-morrow maybe we drink rainwater,”
“To-morrow we’ll be in Udine. We’ll drink champagne. That’s where the slackers live. Wake up, Piani! We’ll drink champagne tomorrow in Udine!”
“I’m awake,” Piani said. He filled his plate with the spaghetti and meat. “Couldn’t you find tomato sauce, Barto?”
“There wasn’t any,” Aymo said.
“We’ll drink champagne in Udine,” Bonello said. He filled his glass with the clear red barbera.
“We may drink—before Udine,” Piani said.
“Have you eaten enough, Tenente?” Aymo asked.
“I’ve got plenty. Give me the bottle, Bartolomeo.”
“I have a bottle apiece to take in the cars,” Aymo said.
“Did you sleep at all?”
“I don’t need much sleep. I slept a little.”
“To-morrow we’ll sleep in the king’s bed,” Bonello said. He was feeling very good.
“To-morrow maybe we’ll sleep in—,” Piani said.
“I’ll sleep with the queen,” Bonello said. He looked to see how I took the joke.
“You’ll sleep with—,” Piani said sleepily.
“That’s treason, Tenente,” Bonello said. “Isn’t that treason?”
“Shut up,” I said. “You get too funny with a little wine.” Outside it was raining hard. I looked at my watch. It was half-past nine.
“It’s time to roll,” I said and stood up.
“Who are you going to ride with, Tenehte?” Bonello asked.
“With Aymo. Then you come. Then Piani. We’ll start out on the road for Cormons.”
“I’m afraid I’ll go to sleep,” Piani said.
“All right. I’ll ride with you. Then Bonello. Then Aymo.”
“That’s the best way,” Piani said. “Because I’m so sleepy.”
“I’ll drive and you sleep awhile.”
“No. I can drive just so long as I know somebody will wake me up if I go to sleep.”
“I’ll wake you up. Put out the lights, Barto.”
“You might as well leave them,” Bonello said. “We’ve got no more use for this place.”
“I have a small locker trunk in my room,” I said. “Will you help take it down, Piani?”
“We’ll take it,” Piani said. “Come on, Aldo.” He went off into the hall with Bonello. I heard them going upstairs.
“This was a fine place,” Bartolomeo Aymo said. He put two bottles of wine and half a cheese into his haversack. “There won’t be a place like this again. Where will they retreat to, Tenente?”
“Beyond the Tagliamento, they say. The hospital and the sector are to be at Pordenone.”
“This is a better town than Pordenone.”
“I don’t know Pordenone,” I said. “I’ve just been through there.”
“It’s not much of a place,” Aymo said.
As we moved out through the town it was empty in the rain and the dark except for columns of troops and guns that were going through the main street. There were many trucks too and some carts going through on other streets and converging on the main road. When we were out past the tanneries onto the main road the troops, the motor trucks, the horse-drawn carts and the guns were in one wide slow-moving column. We moved slowly but steadily in the rain, the radiator cap of our car almost against the tailboard of a truck that was loaded high, the load covered with wet canvas. Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped. I got out and walked ahead, going between the trucks and carts and under the wet necks of the horses. The block was farther ahead. I left the road, crossed the ditch on a footboard and walked along the field beyond the ditch. I could see the stalled column between the trees in the rain as I went forward across from it in the field. I went about a mile. The column did not move, although, on the other side beyond the stalled vehicles I could see the troops moving. I went back to the cars. This block might extend as far as Udine. Piani was asleep over the wheel. I climbed up beside him and went to sleep too. Several hours later I heard the truck ahead of us grinding into gear. I woke Piani and we started, moving a few yards, then stopping, then going on again. It was still raining.
The column stalled again in the night and did not start. I got down and went back to see Aymo and Bonello. Bonello had two sergeants of engineers on the seat of his car with him. They stiffened when I came up.
“They were left to do something to a bridge,” Bonello said. “They can’t find their unit so I gave them a ride.”
“With the Sir Lieutenant’s permission.”
“With permission,” I said.
“The lieutenant is an American,” Bonello said. “He’ll give anybody a ride.”
One of the sergeants smiled. The other asked Bonello if I was an Italian from North or South America.
“He’s not an Italian. He’s North American English.”
The sergeants were polite but did not believe it. I left them and went back to Aymo. He had two girls on the seat with him and was sitting back in the corner and smoking.
“Barto, Barto,” I said. He laughed.
“Talk to them, Tenente,” he said. “I can’t understand them. Hey!” He put his hand on the girl’s thigh and squeezed it in a friendly way. The girl drew her shawl tight around her and pushed his hand away. “Hey!” he said. “Tell the Tenente your name and what you’re doing here.”
The girl looked at me fiercely. The other girl kept her eyes down. The girl who looked at me said something in a dialect I could not understand a word of. She was plump and dark and looked about sixteen.
“Sorella?” I asked and pointed at the other girl.
She nodded her head and smiled.
“All right,” I said and patted her knee. I felt her stiffen away when I touched her. The sister never looked up. She looked perhaps a year younger. Aymo put his hand on the elder girl’s thigh and she pushed it away. He laughed at her.
“Good man,” he pointed at himself. “Good man,” he pointed at me. “Don’t you worry.” The girl looked at him fiercely. The pair of them were like two wild birds.
“What does she ride with me for if she doesn’t like me?” Aymo asked. “They got right up in the car the minute I motioned to them.” He turned to the girl. “Don’t worry,” he said. “No danger of—,” using the vulgar word. “No place for—.” I could see she understood the word and that was all. Her eyes looked at him very scared. She pulled the shawl tight. “Car all full,” Aymo said. “No danger of—. No place for—.” Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. Her sister, not looking up, took her hand and they sat there together. The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob.
“I guess I scared her,” Aymo said. “I didn’t mean to scare her.”
Bartolomeo brought out his knapsack and cut off two pieces of cheese. “Here,” he said. “Stop crying.”
The older girl shook her head and still cried, but the younger girl took the cheese and commenced to eat. After a while the younger girl gave her sister the second piece of cheese and they both ate. The older sister still sobbed a little.
“She’ll be all right after a while,” Aymo said.
An idea came to him. “Virgin?” he asked the girl next to him. She nodded her head vigorously. “Virgin too?” he pointed to the sister. Both the girls nodded their heads and the elder said something in dialect.
“That’s all right,” Bartolomeo said. “That’s all right.”
Both the girls seemed cheered.
I left them sitting together with Aymo sitting back in the corner and went back to Piani’s car. The column of vehicles did not move but the troops kept passing alongside. It was still raining hard and I thought some of the stops in the movement of the column might be from cars with wet wiring. More likely they were from horses or men going to sleep. Still, traffic could tie up in cities when every one was awake. It was the combination of horse and motor vehicles. They did not help each other any. The peasants’carts did not help much either. Those were a couple of fine girls with Barto. A retreat was no place for two virgins. Real virgins. Probably very religious. If there were no war we would probably all be in bed. In bed I lay me down my head. Bed and board. Stiff as a board in bed. Catherine was in bed now between two sheets, over her and under her. Which side did she sleep on? Maybe she wasn’t asleep. Maybe she was lying thinking about me. Blow, blow, ye western wind. Well, it blew and it wasn’t the small rain but the big rain down that rained. It rained all night. You knew it rained down that rained. Look at it. Christ, that my love were in my arms and I in my bed again. That my love Catherine. That my sweet love Catherine down might rain. Blow her again to me. Well, we were in it. Every one was caught in it and the small rain would not quiet it. “Good-night, Catherine,” I said out loud. “I hope you sleep well. If it’s too uncomfortable, darling, lie on the other side,” I said. “I’ll get you some cold water. In a little while it will be morning and then it won’t be so bad. I’m sorry he makes you so uncomfortable. Try and go to sleep, sweet.”
I was asleep all the time, she said. You’ve been talking in your sleep. Are you all right?
Are you really there?
Of course I’m here. I wouldn’t go away. This doesn’t make any difference between us.
You’re so lovely and sweet. You wouldn’t go away in the night, would you?
Of course I wouldn’t go away. I’m always here. I come whenever you want me.
“—,” Piani said. “They’ve started again.”
“I was dopey,” I said. I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock in the morning. I reached back behind the seat for a bottle of the barbera.
“You talked out loud,” Piani said.
“I was having a dream in English,” I said.
The rain was slacking and we were moving along. Before daylight we were stalled again and when it was light we were at a little rise in the ground and I saw the road of the retreat stretched out far ahead, everything stationary except for the infantry filtering through. We started to move again but seeing the rate of progress in the daylight, I knew we were going to have to get off that main road some way and go across country if we ever hoped to reach Udine.
In the night many peasants had joined the column from the roads of the country and in the column there were carts loaded with household goods; there were mirrors projecting up between mattresses, and chickens and ducks tied to carts. There was a sewing machine on the cart ahead of us in the rain. They had saved the most valuable things. On some carts the women sat huddled from the rain and others walked beside the carts keeping as close to them as they could. There were dogs now in the column, keeping under the wagons as they moved along. The road was muddy, the ditches at the side were high with water and beyond the trees that lined the road the fields looked too wet and too soggy to try to cross. I got down from the car and worked up the road a way, looking for a place where I could see ahead to find a side-road we could take across country. I knew there were many side-roads but did not want one that would lead to nothing. I could not remember them because we had always passed them bowling along in the car on the main road and they all looked much alike. Now I knew we must find one if we hoped to get through. No one knew where the Austrians were nor how things were going but I was certain that if the rain should stop and planes come over and get to work on that column that it would be all over. All that was needed was for a few men to leave their trucks or a few horses be killed to tie up completely the movement on the road.
The rain was not falling so heavily now and I thought it might clear. I went ahead along the edge of the road and when there was a small road that led off to the north between two fields with a hedge of trees on both sides, I thought that we had better take it and hurried back to the cars. I told Piani to turn off and went back to tell Bonello and Aymo.
“If it leads nowhere we can turn around and cut back in,” I said.
“What about these?” Bonello asked. His two sergeants were beside him on the seat. They were unshaven but still military looking in the early morning.
“They’ll be good to push,” I said. I went back to Aymo and told him we were going to try it across country.
“What about my virgin family?” Aymo asked. The two girls were asleep.
“They won’t be very useful,” I said. “You ought to have some one that could push.”
“They could go back in the car,” Aymo said. “There’s room in the car.”
“All right if you want them,” I said. “Pick up somebody with a wide back to push.”
“Bersaglieri,” Aymo smiled. “They have the widest backs. They measure them. How do you feel, Tenente?”
“Fine. How are you?”
“Fine. But very hungry.”
“There ought to be something up that road and we will stop and eat.”
“How’s your leg, Tenente?”
“Fine,” I said. Standing on the step and looking up ahead I could see Piani’s car pulling out onto the little side-road and starting up it, his car showing through the hedge of bare branches. Bonello turned off and followed him and then Piani worked his way out and we followed the two ambulances ahead along the narrow road between hedges. It led to a farmhouse. We found Piani and Bonello stopped in the farmyard. The house was low and long with a trellis with a grape-vine over the door. There was a well in the yard and Piani was getting up water to fill his radiator. So much going in low gear had boiled it out. The farmhouse was deserted. I looked back down the road, the farmhouse was on a slight elevation above the plain, and we could see over the country, and saw the road, the hedges, the fields and the line of trees along the main road where the retreat was passing. The two sergeants were looking through the house. The girls were awake and looking at the courtyard, the well and the two big ambulances in front of the farmhouse, with three drivers at the well. One of the sergeants came out with a clock in his hand.
“Put it back,” I said. He looked at me, went in the house and came back without the clock.
“Where’s your partner?” I asked.
“He’s gone to the latrine.” He got up on the seat of the ambulance. He was afraid we would leave him.
“What about breakfast, Tenente?” Bonello asked. “We could eat something. It wouldn’t take very long.”
“Do you think this road going down on the other side will lead to anything?”
“All right. Let’s eat.” Piani and Bonello went in the house.
“Come on,” Aymo said to the girls. He held his hand to help them down. The older sister shook her head. They were not going into any deserted house. They looked after us.
“They are difficult,” Aymo said. We went into the farmhouse together. It was large and dark, an abandoned feeling. Bonello and Piani were in the kitchen.
“There’s not much to eat,” Piani said. “They’ve cleaned it out.” Bonello sliced a big cheese on the heavy kitchen table.
“Where was the cheese?”
“In the cellar. Piani found wine too and apples.”
“That’s a good breakfast.”
Piani was taking the wooden cork out of a big wicker-covered wine jug. He tipped it and poured a copper pan full.
“It smells all right,” he said. “Find some beakers, Barto.”
The two sergeants came in.
“Have some cheese, sergeants,” Bonello said.
“We should go,” one of the sergeants said, eating his cheese and drinking a cup of wine.
“We’ll go. Don’t worry,” Bonello said.
“An army travels on its stomach,” I said.
“What?” asked the sergeant.
“It’s better to eat.”
“Yes. But time is precious.”
“I believe the bastards have eaten already,” Piani said. The sergeants looked at him. They hated the lot of us.
“You know the road?” one of them asked me.
“No,” I said. They looked at each other.
“We would do best to start,” the first one said.
“We are starting,” I said. I drank another cup of the red wine. It tasted very good after the cheese and apple.
“Bring the cheese,” I said and went out. Bonello came out carrying the great jug of wine.
“That’s too big,” I said. He looked at it regretfully.
“I guess it is,” he said. “Give me the canteens to fill.” He filled the canteens and some of the wine ran out on the stone paving of the courtyard. Then he picked up the wine jug and put it just inside the door.
“The Austrians can find it without breaking the door down,” he said.
“We’ll roll.” I said. “Piani and I will go ahead.” The two engineers were already on the seat beside Bonello. The girls were eating cheese and apples. Aymo was smoking. We started off down the narrow road. I looked back at the two cars coming and the farmhouse. It was a fine, low, solid stone house and the ironwork of the well was very good. Ahead of us the road was narrow and muddy and there was a high hedge on either side. Behind, the cars were following closely.
At noon we were stuck in a muddy road about, as nearly as we could figure, ten kilometres from Udine. The rain had stopped during the forenoon and three times we had heard planes coming, seen them pass overhead, watched them go far to the left and heard them bombing on the main highroad. We had worked through a network of secondary roads and had taken many roads that were blind, but had always, by backing up and finding another road, gotten closer to Udine. Now, Aymo’s car, in backing so that we might get out of a blind road, had gotten into the soft earth at the side and the wheels, spinning, had dug deeper and deeper until the car rested on its differential. The thing to do now was to dig out in front of the wheels, put in brush so that the chains could grip, and then push until the car was on the road. We were all down on the road around the car. The two sergeants looked at the car and examined the wheels. Then they started off down the road without a word. I went after them.
“Come on,” I said. “Cut some brush.”
“We have to go,” one said.
“Get busy,” I said, “and cut brush.”
“We have to go,” one said. The other said nothing. They were in a hurry to start. They would not look at me.
“I order you to come back to the car and cut brush,” I said. The one sergeant turned. “We have to go on. In a little while you will be cut off. You can’t order us. You’re not our officer.”
“I order you to cut brush,” I said. They turned and started down the road.
“Halt,” I said. They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on either side. “I order you to halt,” I called. They went a little faster. I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired. I missed and they both started to run. I shot three times and dropped one. The other went through the hedge and was out of sight. I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field. The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip. I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant. He was far across the field, running, his head held low. I commenced to reload the empty clip. Bonello came up.
“Let me go finish him,” he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road. Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger. The pistol did not fire.
“You have to cock it,” I said. He cocked it and fired twice. He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge. He came back and handed me the pistol.
“The son of a bitch,” he said. He looked toward the sergeant. “You see me shoot him, Tenente?”
“We’ve got to get the brush quickly,” I said. “Did I hit the other one at all?”
“I don’t think so,” Aymo said. “He was too far away to hit with a pistol.”
“The dirty scum,” Piani said. We were all cutting twigs and branches. Everything had been taken out of the car. Bonello was digging out in front of the wheels. When we were ready Aymo started the car and put it into gear. The wheels spun round throwing brush and mud. Bonello and I pushed until we could feel our joints crack. The car would not move.
“Rock her back and forth, Barto,” I said.
He drove the engine in reverse, then forward. The wheels only dug in deeper. Then the car was resting on the differential again, and the wheels spun freely in the holes they had dug. I straightened up.
“We’ll try her with a rope,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s any use, Tenente. You can’t get a straight pull.”
“We have to try it,” I said. “She won’t come out any other way.”
Piani’s and Bonello’s cars could only move straight ahead down the narrow road. We roped both cars together and pulled. The wheels only pulled sideways against the ruts.
“It’s no good,” I shouted. “Stop it.”
Piani and Bonello got down from their cars and came back. Aymo got down. The girls were up the road about forty yards sitting on a stone wall.
“What do you say, Tenente?” Bonello asked.
“We’ll dig out and try once more with the brush,” I said. I looked down the road. It was my fault. I had led them up here. The sun was almost out from behind the clouds and the body of the sergeant lay beside the hedge.
“We’ll put his coat and cape under,” I said. Bonello went to get them. I cut brush and Aymo and Piani dug out in front and between the wheels. I cut the cape, then ripped it in two, and laid it under the wheel in the mud, then piled brush for the wheels to catch. We were ready to start and Aymo got up on the seat and started the car. The wheels spun and we pushed and pushed. But it wasn’t any use.
“It’s —ed,” I said. “Is there anything you want in the car, Barto?”
Aymo climbed up with Bonello, carrying the cheese and two bottles of wine and his cape. Bonello, sitting behind the wheel, was looking through the pockets of the sergeant’s coat.
“Better throw the coat away,” I said. “What about Barto’s virgins?”
“They can get in the back,” Piani said. “I don’t think we are going far.”
I opened the back door of the ambulance.
“Come on,” I said. “Get in.” The two girls climbed in and sat in the corner. They seemed to have taken no notice of the shooting. I looked back up the road. The sergeant lay in his dirty long-sleeved underwear. I got up with Piani and we started. We were going to try to cross the field. When the road entered the field I got down and walked ahead. If we could get across, there was a road on the other side. We could not get across. It was too soft and muddy for the cars. When they were finally and completely stalled, the wheels dug in to the hubs, we left them in the field and started on foot for Udine.
When we came to the road which led back toward the main highway I pointed down it to the two girls.
“Go down there,” I said. “You’ll meet people.” They looked at me. I took out my pocket-book and gave them each a ten-lira note. “Go down there,” I said, pointing. “Friends! Family!”
They did not understand but they held the money tightly and started down the road. They looked back as though they were afraid I might take the money back. I watched them go down the road, their shawls close around them, looking back apprehensively at us. The three drivers were laughing.
“How much will you give me to go in that direction, Tenente?” Bonello asked.
“They’re better off in a bunch of people than alone if they catch them,” I said.
“Give me two hundred lire and I’ll walk straight back toward Austria,” Bonello said.
“They’d take it away from you,” Piani said.
“Maybe the war will be over,” Aymo said. We were going up the road as fast as we could. The sun was trying to come through. Beside the road were mulberry trees. Through the trees I could see our two big moving-vans of cars stuck in the field. Piani looked back too.
“They’ll have to build a road to get them out,” he said.
“I wish to Christ we had bicycles,” Bonello said.
“Do they ride bicycles in America?” Aymo asked.
“They used to.”
“Here it is a great thing,” Aymo said. “A bicycle is a splendid thing.”
“I wish to Christ we had bicycles,” Bonello said. “I’m no walker.”
“Is that firing?” I asked. I thought I could hear firing a long way away.
“I don’t know,” Aymo said. He listened.
“I think so,” I said.
“The first thing we will see will be the cavalry,” Piani said.
“I don’t think they’ve got any cavalry.”
“I hope to Christ not,” Bonello said. “I don’t want to be stuck on a lance by any—cavalry.”
“You certainly shot that sergeant, Tenente,” Piani said. We were walking fast.
“I killed him,” Bonello said. “I never killed anybody in this war, and all my life I’ve wanted to kill a sergeant.”
“You killed him on the sit all right,” Piani said. “He wasn’t flying very fast when you killed him.”
“Never mind. That’s one thing I can always remember. I killed that—of a sergeant.”
“What will you say in confession?” Aymo asked.
“I’ll say,’Bless me, father, I killed a sergeant.” They all laughed.
“He’s an anarchist,” Piani said. “He doesn’t go to church.”
“Piani’s an anarchist too,” Bonello said.
“Are you really anarchists?” I asked.
“No, Tenente. We’re socialists. We come from Imola.”
“Haven’t you ever been there?”
“By Christ it’s a fine place, Tenente. You come there after the war and we’ll show you something.”
“Are you all socialists?”
“Is it a fine town?”
“Wonderful. You never saw a town like that.”
“How did you get to be socialists?”
“We’re all socialists. Everybody is a socialist. We’ve always been socialists.”
“You come, Tenente. We’ll make you a socialist too.”
Ahead the road turned off to the left and there was a little hill and, beyond a stone wall, an apple orchard. As the road went uphill they ceased talking. We walked along together all going fast against time.
Later we were on a road that led to a river. There was a long line of abandoned trucks and carts on the road leading up to the bridge. No one was in sight. The river was high and the bridge had been blown up in the centre; the stone arch was fallen into the river and the brown water was going over it. We went on up the bank looking for a place to cross. Up ahead I knew there was a railway bridge and I thought we might be able to get across there. The path was wet and muddy. We did not see any troops; only abandoned trucks and stores. Along the river bank there was nothing and no one but the wet brush and muddy ground. We went up to the bank and finally we saw the railway bridge.
“What a beautiful bridge,” Aymo said. It was a long plain iron bridge across what was usually a dry river-bed.
“We’d better hurry and get across before they blow it up,” I said.
“There’s nobody to blow it up,” Piani said. “They’re all gone.”
“It’s probably mined,” Bonello said. “You cross first, Tenente.”
“Listen to the anarchist,” Aymo said. “Make him go first.”
“I’ll go,” I said. “It won’t be mined to blow up with one man.”
“You see,” Piani said. “That is brains. Why haven’t you brains, anarchist?”
“If I had brains I wouldn’t be here,” Bonello said.
“That’s pretty good, Tenente,” Aymo said.
“That’s pretty good,” I said. We were close to the bridge now. The sky had clouded over again and it was raining a little. The bridge looked long and solid. We climbed up the embankment.
“Come one at a time,” I said and started across the bridge. I watched the ties and the rails for any trip-wires or signs of explosive but I saw nothing. Down below the gaps in the ties the river ran muddy and fast. Ahead across the wet countryside I could see Udine in the rain. Across the bridge I looked back. Just up the river was another bridge. As I watched, a yellow mud-colored motor car crossed it. The sides of the bridge were high and the body of the car, once on, was out of sight. But I saw the heads of the driver, the man on the seat with him, and the two men on the rear seat. They all wore German helmets. Then the car was over the bridge and out of sight behind the trees and the abandoned vehicles on the road. I waved to Aymo who was crossing and to the others to come on. I climbed down and crouched beside the railway embankment. Aymo came down with me.
“Did you see the car?” I asked.
“No. We were watching you.”
“A German staff car crossed on the upper bridge.”
“A staff car?”
The others came and we all crouched in the mud behind the embankment, looking across the rails at the bridge, the line of trees, the ditch and the road.
“Do you think we’re cut off then, Tenente?”
“I don’t know. All I know is a German staff car went along that road.”
“You don’t feel funny, Tenente? You haven’t got strange feelings in the head?”
“Don’t be funny, Bonello.”
“What about a drink?” Piani asked. “If we’re cut off we might as well have a drink.” He unhooked his canteen and uncorked it.
“Look! Look!” Aymo said and pointed toward the road. Along the top of the stone bridge we could see German helmets moving. They were bent forward and moved smoothly, almost supernatu rally, along. As they came off the bridge we saw them. They were bicycle troops. I saw the faces of the first two. They were ruddy and healthy-looking. Their helmets came iow down over their foreheads and the side of their faces. Their carbines were clipped to the frame of the bicycles. Stick bombs hung handle down from their belts. Their helmets and their gray uniforms were wet and they rode easily, looking ahead and to both sides. There were two—then four in line, then two, then almost a dozen; then another dozen— then one alone. They did not talk but we could not have heard them because of the noise from the river. They were gone out of sight up the road.
“Holy Mary,” Aymo said.
“They were Germans,” Piani said. “Those weren’t Austrians.”
“Why isn’t there somebody here to stop them?” I said. “Why haven’t they blown the bridge up? Why aren’t there machine-guns along this embankment?”
“You tell us, Tenente,” Bonello said.
I was very angry.
“The whole bloody thing is crazy. Down below they blow up a little bridge. Here they leave a bridge on the main road. Where is everybody? Don’t they try and stop them at all?”
“You tell us, Tenente,” Bonello said. I shut up. It was none of my business; all I had to do was to get to Pordenone with three ambulances. I had failed at that. All I had to do now was get to Pordenone. I probably could not even get to Udine. The hell I couldn’t. The thing to do was to be calm and not get shot or captured.
“Didn’t you have a canteen open?” I asked Piani. He handed it to me. I took a long drink. “We might as well start,” I said. “There’s no hurry though. Do you want to eat something?”
“This is no place to stay,” Bonello said.
“All right. We’ll start.”
“Should we keep on this side—out of sight?”
“We’d be better off on top. They may come along this bridge too. We don’t want them on top of us before we see them.”
We walked along the railroad track. On both sides of us stretched the wet plain. Ahead across the plain was the hill of Udine. The roofs fell away from the castle on the hill. We could see the campanile and the clock-tower. There were many mulberry trees in the fields. Ahead I saw a place where the rails were torn up. The ties had been dug out too and thrown down the embankment.
“Down! down!” Aymo said. We dropped down beside the embankment. There was another group of bicyclists passing along the road. I looked over the edge and saw them go on.
“They saw us but they went on,” Aymo said.
“We’ll get killed up there, Tenente,” Bonello said.
“They don’t want us,” I said. “They’re after something else. We’re in more danger if they should come on us suddenly.”
“I’d rather walk here out of sight,” Bonello said.
“All right. We’ll walk along the tracks.”
“Do you think we can get through?” Aymo asked.
“Sure. There aren’t very many of them yet. We’ll go through in the dark.”
“What was that staff car doing?”
“Christ knows,” I said. We kept on up the tracks. Bonello tired of walking in the mud of the embankment and came up with the rest of us. The railway moved south away from the highway now and we could not see what passed along the road. A short bridge over a canal was blown up but we climbed across on what was left of the span. We heard firing ahead of us.
We came up on the railway beyond the canal. It went on straight toward the town across the low fields. We could see the line of the other railway ahead of us. To the north was the main road where we had seen the cyclists; to the south there was a small branch-road across the fields with thick trees on each side. I thought we had better cut to the south and work around the town that way and across country toward Campoformio and the main road to the Tagliamento. We could avoid the main line of the retreat by keeping to the secondary roads beyond Udine. I knew there were plenty of side-roads across the plain. I started down the embankment.
“Come on,” I said. We would make for the side-road and work to the south of the town. We all started down the embankment. A shot was fired at us from the side-road. The bullet went into the mud of the embankment.
“Go on back,” I shouted. I started up the embankment, slipping in the mud. The drivers were ahead of me. I went up the embankment as fast as I could go. Two more shots came from the thick brush and Aymo, as he was crossing the tracks, lurched, tripped and fell face down. We pulled him down on the other side and turned him over. “His head ought to be uphill,” I said. Piani moved him around. He lay in the mud on the side of the embankment, his feet pointing downhill, breathing blood irregularly. The three of us squatted over him in the rain. He was hit low in the back of the neck and the bullet had ranged upward and come out under the right eye. He died while I was stopping up the two holes. Piani laid his head down, wiped at his face, with a piece of the emergency dressing, then let it alone.
“The —,” he said.
“They weren’t Germans,” I said. “There can’t be any Germans over there.”
“Italians,” Piani said, using the word as an epithet, “Italiani!” Bonello said nothing. He was sitting beside Aymo, not looking at him. Piani picked up Aymo’s cap where it had rolled down the embankment and put it over his face. He took out his canteen.
“Do you want a drink?” Piani handed Bonello the canteen.
“No,” Bonello said. He turned to me. “That might have happened to us any time on the railway tracks.”
“No,” I said. “It was because we started across the field.”
Bonello shook his head. “Aymo’s dead,” he said. “Who’s dead next, Tenente? Where do we go now?”
“Those were Italians that shot,” I said. “They weren’t Germans.”
“I suppose if they were Germans they’d have killed all of us,” Bonello said.
“We are in more danger from Italians than Germans,” I said. “The rear guard are afraid of everything. The Germans know what they’re after.”
“You reason it out, Tenente,” Bonello said.
“Where do we go now?” Piani asked.
“We better lie up some place till it’s dark. If we could get south we’d be all right.”
“They’d have to shoot us all to prove they were right the first time,” Bonello said. “I’m not going to try them.”
“We’ll find a place to lie up as near to Udine as we can get and then go through when it’s dark.”
“Let’s go then,” Bonello said. We went down the north side of the embankment. I looked back. Aymo lay in the mud with the angle of the embankment. He was quite small and his arms were by his side, his puttee-wrapped legs and muddy boots together, his cap over his face. He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as any one I ever knew. I had his papers in my pocket and would write to his family. Ahead across the fields was a farmhouse. There were trees around it and the farm buildings were built against the house. There was a balcony along the second floor held up by columns.
“We better keep a little way apart,” I said. “I’ll go ahead.” I started toward the farmhouse. There was a path across the field.
Crossing the field, I did not know but that some one would fire on us from the trees near the farmhouse or from the farmhouse itself. I walked toward it, seeing it very clearly. The balcony of the second floor merged into the barn and there was hay coming Out between the columns. The courtyard was of stone blocks and all the trees were dripping with the rain. There was a big empty twowheeled cart, the shafts tipped high up in the rain. I came to the courtyard, crossed it, and stood under the shelter of the balcony. The door of the house was open and I went in. Bonello and Piani came in after me. It was dark inside. I went back to the kitchen. There were ashes of a fire on the big open hearth. The pots hung over the ashes, but they were empty. I looked around but I could not find anything to eat.
“We ought to lie up in the barn,” I said. “Do you think you could find anything to eat, Piani, and bring it up there?”
“I’ll look,” Piani said.
“I’ll look too,” Bonello said.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll go up and look at the barn.” I found a stone stairway that went up from the stable underneath. The stable smelt dry and pleasant in the rain. The cattle were all gone, probably driven off when they left. The barn was half full of hay. There were two windows in the roof, one was blocked with boards, the other was a narrow dormer window on the north side. There was a chute so that hay might be pitched down to the cattle. Beams crossed the opening down into the main floor where the hay-carts drove in when the hay was hauled in to be pitched up. I heard the rain on the roof and smelled the hay and, when I went down, the clean smell of dried dung in the stable. We could pry a board loose and see out of the south window down into the courtyard. The other window looked out on the field toward the north. We could get out of either window onto the roof and down, or go down the hay chute if the stairs were impractical. It was a big barn and we could hide in the hay if we heard any one. It seemed like a good place. I was sure we could have gotten through to the south if they had not fired on us. It was impossible that there were Germans there. They were coming from the north and down the road from Cividale. They could not have come through from the south. The Italians were even more dangerous. They were frightened and firing on anything they saw. Last night on the retreat we had heard that there had been many Germans in Italian uniforms mixing with the retreat in the north. I did not believe it. That was one of those things you always heard in the war. It was one of the things the enemy always did to you. You did not know any one who went over in German uniform to confuse them. Maybe they did but it sounded difficult. I did not believe the Germans did it.
I did not believe they had to. There was no need to confuse our retreat. The size of the army and the fewness of the roads did that. Nobody gave any orders, let alone Germans. Still, they would shoot us for Germans. They shot Aymo. The hay smelled good and lying in a barn in the hay took away all the years in between. We had lain in hay and talked and shot sparrows with an air-rifle when they perched in the triangle cut high up in the wall of the barn. The barn was gone now and one year they had cut the hemlock woods and there were only stumps, dried tree-tops, branches and fireweed where the woods had been. You could not go back. If you did not go forward what happened? You never got back to Milan. And if you got back to Milan what happened? I listened to the firing to the north toward Udine. I could hear machine-gun firing. There was no shelling. That was something. They must have gotten some troops along the road. I looked down in the half-light of the hay-barn and saw Piani standing on the hauling floor. He had a long sausage, a jar of something and two bottles of wine under his arm.
“Come up,” I said. “There is the ladder.” Then I realized that I should help him with the things and went down. I was vague in the head from lying in the hay. I had been nearly asleep.
“Where’s Bonello?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you,” Piani said. We went up the ladder. Up on the hay we set the things down. Piani took out his knife with the corkscrew and drew the cork on a wine bottle.
“They have sealing-wax on it,” he said. “It must be good.” He smiled.
“Where’s Bonello?” I asked.
Piani looked at me.
“He went away, Tenente,” he said. “He wanted to be a prisoner.”
I did not say anything.
“He was afraid we would get killed.”
I held the bottle of wine and did not say anything.
“You see we don’t believe in the war anyway, Tenente.”
“Why didn’t you go?” I asked.
“I did not want to leave you.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, Tenente. He went away.”
“All right,” I said. “Will you cut the sausage?”
Piani looked at me in the half-light.
“I cut it while we were talking,” he said. We sat in the hay and ate the sausage and drank the wine. It must have been wine they had saved for a wedding. It was so old that it was losing its color.
“You look out of this window, Luigi,” I said. “I’ll go look out the other window.”
We had each been drinking out of one of the bottles and I took my bottle with me and went over and lay flat on the hay and looked out the narrow window at the wet country. I do not know what I expected to see but I did not see anything except the fields and the bare mulberry trees and the rain falling. I drank the wine and it did not make me feel good. They had kept it too long and it had gone to pieces and lost its quality and color. I watched it get dark outside; the darkness came very quickly. It would be a black night with the rain. When it was dark there was no use watching any more, so I went over to Piani. He was lying asleep and I did not wake him but sat down beside him for a while. He was a big man and he slept heavily. After a while I woke him and we started.
That was a very strange night. I do not know what I had expected, death perhaps and shooting in the dark and running, but nothing happened. We waited, lying flat beyond the ditch along the main road while a German battalion passed, then when they were gone we crossed the road and went on to the north. We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us. We got past the town to the north without seeing any Italians, then after a while came on the main channels of the retreat and walked all night toward the Tagliamento. I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles. My leg ached and I was tired but we made good time. It seemed so silly for Bonello to have decided to be taken prisoner. There was no danger. We had walked through two armies without incident. If Aymo had not been killed there would never have seemed to be any danger. No one had bothered us when we were in plain sight along the railway. The killing came suddenly and unreasonably. I wondered where Bonello was.
“How do you feel, Tenente?” Piani asked. We were going along the side of a road crowded with vehicles and troops.
“I’m tired of this walking.”
“Well, all we have to do is walk now. We don’t have to worry.”
“Bonello was a fool.”
“He was a fool all right.”
“What will you do about him, Tenente?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can’t you just put him down as taken prisoner?”
“I don’t know.”
“You see if the war went on they would make bad trouble for his family.”
“The war won’t go on,” a soldier said. “We’re going home. The war is over.”
“Everybody’s going home.”
“We’re all going home.”
“Come on, Tenente,” Piani said. He wanted to get past them.
“Tenente? Who’s a Tenente? A basso gli ufficiali! Down with the officers!”
Piani took me by the arm. “I better call you by your name,” he said. “They might try and make trouble. They’ve shot some officers.” We worked up past them.
“I won’t make a report that will make trouble for his family.” I went on with our conversation.
“If the war is over it makes no difference,” Piani said. “But I don’t believe it’s over. It’s too good that it should be over.”
“We’ll know pretty soon,” I said.
“I don’t believe it’s over. They all think it’s over but I don’t believe it.”
“Evviva la Pace!” a soldier shouted out. “We’re going home!”
“It would be fine if we all went home,” Piani said. “Wouldn’t you like to go home?”
“We’ll never go. I don’t think it’s over.”
“Andiamo a casa!” a soldier shouted.
“They throw away their rifles,” Piani said. “They take them off and drop them down while they’re marching. Then they shout.”
“They ought to keep their rifles.”
“They think if they throw away their rifles they can’t make them fight.”
In the dark and the rain, making our way along the side of the road I could see that many of the troops still had their rifles. They stuck up above the capes.
“What brigade are you?” an officer called out.
“Brigata di Pace,” some one shouted. “Peace Brigade!” The officer said nothing.
“What does he say? What does the officer say?”
“Down with the officer. Evviva la Pace!”
“Come on,” Piani said. We passed two British ambulances, abandoned in the block of vehicles.
“They’re from Gorizia,” Piani said. “I know the cars.”
“They got further than we did.”
“They started earlier.”
“I wonder where the drivers are?”
“Up ahead probably.”
“The Germans have stopped outside Udine,” I said. “These people will all get across the river.”
“Yes,” Piani said. “That’s why I think the war will go on.”
“The Germans could come on,” I said. “I wonder why they don’t come on.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about this kind of war.”
“They have to wait for their transport I suppose.”
“I don’t know,” Piani said. Alone he was much gentler. When he was with the others he Was a very rough talker.
“Are you married, Luigi?”
“You know I am married.”
“Is that why you did not want to be a prisoner?”
“That is one reason. Are you married, Tenente?”
“Neither is Bonello.”
“You can’t tell anything by a man’s being married. But I should think a married man would want to get back to his wife,” I said. I would be glad to talk about wives.
“How are your feet?”
“They’re sore enough.”
Before daylight we reached the bank of the Tagliamento and followed down along the flooded river to the bridge where all the traffic was crossing.
“They ought to be able to hold at this river,” Piani said. In the dark the flood looked high. The water swirled and it was wide. The wooden bridge was nearly three-quarters of a mile across, and the river, that usually ran in narrow channels in the wide stony bed far below the bridge, was close under the wooden planking. We went along the bank and then worked our way into the crowd that were crossing the bridge. Crossing slowly in the rain a few feet above the flood, pressed tight in the crowd, the box of an artillery caisson just ahead, I looked over the side and watched the river. Now that we could not go our own pace I felt very tired. There was no exhilaration in crossing the bridge. I wondered what it would be like if a plane bombed it in the daytime.
“Piani,” I said.
“Here I am, Tenente.” He was a little ahead in the jam. No one was talking. They were all trying to get across as soon as they could: thinking only of that. We were almost across. At the far end of the bridge there were officers and carabinieri standing on both sides flashing lights. I saw them silhouetted against the sky-line. As we came close to them I saw one of the officers point to a man in the column. A carabiniere went in after him and came out holding the man by the arm. He took him away from the road. We came almost opposite them. The officers were scrutinizing every one in the column, sometimes speaking to each other, going forward to flash a light in some one’s face. They took some one else out just before we came opposite. I saw the man. He was a lieutenantcolonel. I saw the stars in the box on his sleeve as they flashed a light on him. His hair was gray and he was short and fat. The carabiniere pulled him in behind the line of officers. As we came opposite I saw one or two of them look at me. Then one pointed at me and spoke to a carabiniere. I saw the carabiniere start for me, come through the edge of the column toward me, then felt him take me by the collar.
“What’s the matter with you?” I said and hit him in the face. I saw his face under the hat, upturned mustaches and blood coming down his cheek. Another one dove in toward us.
“What’s the matter with you?” I said. He did not answer. He was watching a chance to grab me. I put my arm behind me to loosen my pistol.
“Don’t you know you can’t touch an officer?”
The other one grabbed me from behind and pulled my arm up so that it twisted in the socket. I turned with him and the other one grabbed me around the neck. I kicked his shins and got my left knee into his groin.
“Shoot him if he resists,” I heard some one say.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Itried to shout but my voice was not very loud. They had me at the side of the road now.
“Shoot him if he resists,” an officer said. “Take him over back.”
“Who are you?”
“You’ll find out.”
“Who are you?”
“Battle police,” another officer said.
“Why don’t you ask me to step over instead of having one of these airplanes grab me?”
They did not answer. They did not have to answer. They were battle police.
“Take him back there with the others,” the first officer said. “You see. He speaks Italian with an accent.”
“So do you, you,” I said.
“Take him back with the others,” the first officer said. They took me down behind the line of officers below the road toward a group of people in a field by the river bank. As we walked toward them shots were fired. I saw flashes of the rifles and heard the reports. We came up to the group. There were four officers standing together, with a man in front of them with a carabiniere on each side of him. A group of men were standing guarded by carabinieri. Four other carabinieri stood near the questioning officers, leaning on their carbines. They were wide-hatted carabinieri. The two who had me shoved me in with the group waiting to be questioned. I looked at the man the officers were questioning. He was the fat gray-haired little lieutenant-colonel they had taken out of the column. The questioners had all the efficiency, coldness and command of themselves of Italians who are firing and are not being fired on.
He told them.
He told them.
“Why are you not with your regiment?”
He told them.
“Do you not know that an officer should be with his troops?” He did.
That was all. Another officer spoke.
“It is you and such as you that have let the barbarians onto the sacred soil of the fatherland.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the lieutenant-colonel.
“It is because of treachery such as yours that we have lost the fruits of victory.”
“Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked.
“Italy should never retreat.”
We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoner stood in front and a little to one side of us.
“If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper.
“Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot,” he said.
Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabinieri on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots. They were questioning some one else. This officer too was separated from his troops. He was not allowed to make an explanation. He cried when they read the sentence from the pad of paper, and they were questioning another when they shot him. They made a point of being intent on questioning the next man while the man who had been questioned before was being shot. In this way there was obviously nothing they could do about it. I did not know whether I should wait to be questioned or make a break now. I was obviously a German in Italian uniform. I saw how their minds worked; if they had minds and if they worked. They were all young men and they were saving their country. The second army was being re-formed beyond the Tagliamento. They were executing officers of the rank of major and above who were separated from their troops. They were also dealing summarily with German agitators in Italian uniform. They wore steel helmets. Only two of us had steel helmets. Some of the carabinieri had them. The other carabinieri wore the wide hat. Airplanes we called them. We stood in the rain and were taken out one at a time to be questioned and shot. So far they had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it. They were questioning a full colonel of a line regiment. Three more officers had just been put in with us.
“Where was his regiment?”
I looked at the carabinieri. They were looking at the newcomers. The others were looking at the colonel. I ducked down, pushed between two men, and ran for the river, my head down. I tripped at the edge and went in with a splash. The water was very cold and I stayed under as long as I could. I could feel the current swirl me and I stayed under until I thought I could never come up. The minute I came up I took a breath and went down again. It was easy to stay under with so much clothing and my boots. When I came up the second time I saw a piece of timber ahead of me and reached it and held on with one hand. I kept my head behind it and did not even look over it. I did not want to see the bank. There were shots when I ran and shots when I came up the first time. I heard them when I was almost above water. There were no shots now. The piece of timber swung in the current and I held it with one hand. I looked at the bank. It seemed to be going by very fast. There was much wood in the stream. The water was very cold. We passed the brush of an island above the water. I held onto the timber with both hands and let it take me along. The shore was out of sight now.
You do not know how long you are in a river when the current moves swiftly. It seems a long time and it may be very short. The water was cold and in flood and many things passed that had been floated off the banks when the river rose. I was lucky to have a heavy timber to hold on to, and I lay in the icy water with my chin on the wood, holding as easily as I could with both hands. I was afraid of cramps and I hoped we would move toward the shore. We went down the river in a long curve. It was beginning to be light enough so I could see the bushes along the shore-line. There was a brush island ahead and the current moved toward the shore. I wondered if I should take off my boots and clothes and try to swim ashore, but decided not to. I had never thought of anything but that I would reach the shore some way, and I would be in a bad position if I landed barefoot. I had to get to Mestre some way.
I watched the shore come close, then swing away, then come closer again. We were floating more slowly. The shore was very close now. I could see twigs on the willow bush. The timber swung slowly so that the bank was behind me and I knew we were in an eddy. We went slowly around. As I saw the bank again, very close now, I tried holding with one arm and kicking and swimming the timber toward the bank with the other, but I did not bring it any closer. I was afraid we would move out of the eddy and, holding with one hand, I drew up my feet so they were against the side of the timber and shoved hard toward the bank. I could see the brush, but even with my momentum and swimming as hard as I could, the current was taking me away. I thought then I would drown because of my boots, but I thrashed and fought through the water, and when I looked up the bank was coming toward me, and I kept thrashing and swimming in a heavy-footed panic until I reached it. I hung to the willow branch and did not have strength to pull myself up but I knew I would not drown now. It had never occurred to me on the timber that I might drown. I felt hollow and sick in my stomach and chest from the effort, and I held to the branches and waited. When the sick feeling was gone I pulled into the willow bushes and rested again, my arms around some brush, holding tight with my hands to the branches. Then I crawled out, pushed on through the willows and onto the bank. It was halfdaylight and I saw no one. I lay flat on the bank and heard the river and the rain.
After a while I got up and started along the bank. I knew there was no bridge across the river until Latisana. I thought I might be opposite San Vito. I began to think out what I should do. Ahead there was a ditch running into the river. I went toward it. So far I had seen no one and I sat down by some bushes along the bank of the ditch and took off my shoes and emptied them of water. I took off my coat, took my wallet with my papers and my money all wet in it out of the inside pocket and then wrung the coat out. I took off my trousers and wrung them too, then my shirt and under clothing. I slapped and rubbed myself and then dressed again. I had lost my cap.
Before I put on my coat I cut the cloth stars off my sleeves and put them in the inside pocket with my money. My money was wet but was all right. I counted it. There were three thousand and some lire. My clothes felt wet and clammy and I slapped my arms to keep the circulation going. I had woven underwear and I did not think I would catch cold if I kept moving. They had taken my pistol at the road and I put the holster under my coat. I had no cape and it was cold in the rain. I started up the bank of the canal. It was daylight and the country was wet, low and dismal looking. The fields were bare and wet; a long way away I could see a campanile rising out of the plain. I came up onto a road. Ahead I saw some troops coming down the road. I limped along the side of the road and they passed me and paid no attention to me. They were a machine-gun detachment going up toward the river. I went on down the road.
That day I crossed the Venetian plain. It is a low level country and under the rain it is even flatter. Toward the sea there are salt marshes and very few roads. The roads all go along the river mouths to the sea and to cross the country you must go along the paths beside the canals. I was working across the country from the north to the south and had crossed two railway lines and many roads and finally I came out at the end of a path onto a railway line where it ran beside a marsh. It was the main line from Venice to Trieste, with a high solid embankment, a solid roadbed and double track. Down the tracks a way was a flag-station and I could see soldiers on guard. Up the line there was a bridge over a stream that flowed into the marsh. I could see a guard too at the bridge. Crossing the fields to the north I had seen a train pass on this railroad, visible a long way across the flat plain, and I thought a train might come from Portogruaro. I watched the guards and lay down on the embankment so that I could see both ways along the track. The guard at the bridge walked a way up the line toward where flay, then turned and went back toward the bridge. I lay, and was hungry, and waited for the train. The one I had seen was so long that the engine moved it very slowly and I was sure I could get aboard it. After I had almost given up hoping for one I saw a train coming. The engine, coming straight on, grew larger slowly. I looked at the guard at the bridge. He was walking on the near side of the bridge but on the other side of the tracks. That would put him out of sight when the train passed. I watched the engine come nearer. It was working hard. I could see there were many cars. I knew there would be guards on the train, and I tried to see where they were, but, keeping out of sight, I could not. The engine was almost to where I was lying. When it came opposite, working and puffing even on the level, and I saw the engineer pass, I stood up and stepped up close to the passing cars. If the guards were watching I was a less suspicious object standing beside the track. Several closed freight-cars passed. Then I saw a low open car of the sort they call gondolas coming, covered with canvas. I stood until it had almost passed, then jumped and caught the rear hand-rods and pulled up. I crawled down between the gondola and the shelter of the high freight-car behind. I did not think any one had seen me. I was holding to the hand-rods and crouching low, my feet on the coupling. We were almost opposite the bridge. I remembered the guard. As we passed him he looked at me. He was a boy and his helmet was too big for him. I stared at him contemptuously and he looked away. He thought I had something to do with the train.
We were past. I saw him still looking uncomfortable, watching the other cars pass and I stooped to see how the canvas was fastened. It had grummets and was laced down at the edge with cord. I took out my knife, cut the cord and put my arm under. There were hard bulges under the canvas that tightened in the rain. I looked up and ahead. There was a guard on the freight-car ahead but he was looking forward. I let go of the hand-rails and ducked under the canvas. My forehead hit something that gave me a violent bump and I felt blood on my face but I crawled on in and lay flat. Then I turned around and fastened down the canvas.
I was in under the canvas with guns. They smelled cleanly of oil and grease. I lay and listened to the rain on the canvas and the clicking of the car over the rails. There was a little light came through and I lay and looked at the guns. They had their canvas jackets on. I thought they must have been sent ahead from the third army. The bump on my forehead was swollen and I stopped the bleeding by lying still and letting it coagulate, then picked away the dried blood except over the cut. It was nothing. I had no handkerchief, but feeling with my fingers I washed away where the dried blood had been, with rainwater that dripped from the canvas, and wiped it clean with the sleeve of my coat. I did not want to look conspicuous. I knew I would have to get out before they got to Mestre because they would be taking care of these guns. They had no guns to lose or forget about. I was terrifically hungry.
Lying on the floor of the flat-car with the guns beside me under the canvas I was wet, cold and very hungry. Finally I rolled over and lay flat on my stomach with my head on my arms. My knee was stiff, but it had been very satisfactory. Valentini had done a fine job. I had done half the retreat on foot and swum part of the Tagliamento with his knee. It was his knee all right. The other knee was mine. Doctors did things to you and then it was not your body any more. The head was mine, and the inside of the belly. It was very hungry in there. I could feel it turn over on itself. The head was mine, but not to use, not to think with, only to remember and not too much remember.
I could remember Catherine but I knew I would get crazy if I thought about her when I was not sure yet I would see her, so I would not think about her, only about her a little, only about her with the car going slowly and clickingly, and some light through the canvas and my lying with Catherine on the floor of the car. Hard as the floor of the car to lie not thinking only feeling, having been away too long, the clothes wet and the floor moving only a little each time and lonesome inside and alone with wet clothing and hard floor for a wife.
You did not love the floor of a flat-car nor guns with canvas jackets and the smell of vaselined metal or a canvas that rain leaked through, although it is very fine under a canvas and pleasant with guns; but you loved some one else whom now you knew was not even to be pretended there; you seeing now very clearly and coldly—not so coldly as clearly and emptily. You saw emptily, lying on your stomach, having been present when one army moved back and another came forward. You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire. There was, however, no insurance. You were out of it now. You had no more obligation. If they shot floorwalkers after a fire in the department store because they spoke with an accent they had always had, then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business. They might seek other employment; if there was any other employment and the police did not get them.
Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation. Although that ceased when the carabiniere put his hands on my collar. I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about the outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more and I wished this bloody train would get to Mestre and I would eat and stop thinking. I would have to stop.
Piani would tell them they had shot me. They went through the pockets and took the papers of the people they shot. They would not have my papers. They might call me drowned. I wondered what they would hear in the States. Dead from wounds and other causes. Good Christ I was hungry. I wondered what had become of the priest at the mess. And Rinaldi. He was probably at Pordenone. If they had not gone further back. Well, I would never see him now. I would never see any of them now. That life was over. I did not think he had syphilis. It was not a serious disease anyway if you took it in time, they said. But he would worry. I would worry too if I had it. Any one would worry.
I was not made to think. I was made to eat. My God, yes. Eat and drink and sleep with Catherine. To-night maybe. No that was impossible. But to-morrow night, and a good meal and sheets and never going away again except together. Probably have to go damned quickly. She would go. I knew she would go. When would we go? That was something to think about. It was getting dark. I lay and thought where we would go. There were many places.