A Way You’ll Never Be

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◄  The Sea Change The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway
A Way You’ll Never Be
written by Ernest Hemingway
The Mother of a Queen  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1966 [1938] (pages 402-414)




THE ATTACK had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farm houses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river. Coming along the road on a bicycle, getting off to push the machine when the surface of the road became too broken, Nicholas Adams saw what had happened by the position of the dead.

They lay alone or in clumps in the high grass of the field and along the road, their pockets out, and over them were flies and around each body or group of bodies were the scattered papers.

In the grass and the grain, beside the road, and in some places scattered over the road, there was much material: a field kitchen, it must have come over when things were going well; many of the calf-skin-covered haversacks, stick bombs, helmets, rifles, sometimes one butt-up, the bayonet stuck in the dirt, they had dug quite a little at the last; stick bombs, helmets, rifles, intrenching tools, ammunition boxes, star-shell pistols, their shells scattered about, medical kits, gas masks, empty gas-mask cans, a squat, tripodded machine gun in a nest of empty shells, full belts protruding from the boxes, the water-cooling can empty and on its side, the breech block gone, the crew in odd positions, and around them, in the grass, more of the typical papers.

There were mass prayer books, group postcards showing the machine-gun unit standing in ranked and ruddy cheerfulness as in a football picture for a college annual; now they were humped and swollen in the grass; propaganda postcards showing a soldier in Austrian uniform bending a woman backward over a bed; the figures were impressionistically drawn; very attractively depicted and had nothing in common with actual rape in which the woman’s skirts are pulled over her head to smother her, one comrade sometimes sitting upon the head. There were many of these inciting cards which had evidently been issued just before the offensive. Now they were scattered with the smutty postcards, photographic; the small photographs of village girls by village photographers, the occasional pictures of children, and the letters, letters, letters. There was always much paper about the dead and the débris of this attack was no exception.

These were new dead and no one had bothered with anything but their pockets. Our own dead, or what he thought of, still, as our own dead, were surprisingly few, Nick noticed. Their coats had been opened too and their pockets were out, and they showed, by their positions, the manner and the skill of the attack. The hot weather had swollen them all alike regardless of nationality.

The town had evidently been defended, at the last, from the line of the sunken road and there had been few or no Austrians to fall back into it. There were only three bodies in the street and they looked to have been killed running. The houses of the town were broken by the shelling and the street had much rubble of plaster and mortar and there were broken beams, broken tiles, and many holes, some of them yellow-edged from the mustard gas. There were many pieces of shell, and shrapnel balls were scattered in the rubble. There was no one in the town at all.

Nick Adams had seen no one since he had left Fornaci, although, riding along the road through the over-foliaged country, he had seen guns hidden under screens of mulberry leaves to the left of the road, noticing them by the heat-waves in the air above the leaves where the sun hit the metal. Now he went on through the town, surprised to find it deserted, and came out on the low road beneath the bank of the river. Leaving the town there was a bare open space where the road slanted down and he could see the placid reach of the river and the low curve of the opposite bank and the whitened, sun-baked mud where the Austrians had dug. It was all very lush and over-green since he had seen it last and becoming historical had made no change in this, the lower river.

The battalion was along the bank to the left. There was a series of holes in the top of the bank with a few men in them. Nick noticed where the machine guns were posted and the signal rockets in their racks. The men in the holes in the side of the bank were sleeping. No one challenged. He went on and as he came around a turn in the mud bank a young second lieutenant with a stubble of beard and red-rimmed, very blood-shot eyes pointed a pistol at him.

“Who are you?”

Nick told him.

“How do I know this?”

Nick showed him the tessera with photograph and identification and the seal of the third army. He took hold of it.

“I will keep this.”

“You will not,” Nick said. “Give me back the card and put your gun away. There. In the holster.”

“How am I to know who you are?”

“The tessera tells you.”

“And if the tessera is false? Give me that card.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Nick said cheerfully. “Take me to your company commander.”

“I should send you to battalion headquarters.”

“All right,” said Nick. “Listen, do you know the Captain Paravicini? The tall one with the small mustache who was an architect and speaks English?”

“You know him?”

“A little.”

“What company does he command?”

“The second.”

“He is commanding the battalion.”

“Good,” said Nick. He was relieved to know that Para was all right. “Let us go to the battalion.”

As Nick had left the edge of the town three shrapnel had burst high and to the right over one of the wrecked houses and since then there had been no shelling. But the face of this officer looked like the face of a man during a bombardment. There was the same tightness and the voice did not sound natural. His pistol made Nick nervous.

“Put it away,” he said. “There’s the whole river between them and you.”

“If I thought you were a spy I would shoot you now,” the second lieutenant said.

“Come on,” said Nick. “Let us go to the battalion.” This officer made him very nervous.

The Captain Paravicini, acting major, thinner and more English-looking than ever, rose when Nick saluted from behind the table in the dugout that was battalion headquarters.

“Hello,” he said. “I didn’t know you. What are you doing in that uniform?”

“They’ve put me in it.”

“I am very glad to see you, Nicolo.”

“Right. You look well. How was the show?”

“We made a very fine attack. Truly. A very fine attack. I will show you. Look.”

He showed on the map how the attack had gone.

“I came from Fornaci,” Nick said. “I could see how it had been. It was very good.”

“It was extraordinary. Altogether extraordinary. Are you attached to the regiment?”

“No. I am supposed to move around and let them see the uniform.”

“How odd.”

“If they see one American uniform that is supposed to make them believe others are coming.”

“But how will they know it is an American uniform?”

“You will tell them.”

“Oh. Yes, I see. I will send a corporal with you to show you about and you will make a tour of the lines.”

“Like a bloody politician,” Nick said.

“You would be much more distinguished in civilian clothes. They are what is really distinguished.”

“With a homburg hat,” said Nick.

“Or with a very furry fedora.”

“I’m supposed to have my pockets full of cigarettes and postal cards and such things,” Nick said. “I should have a musette full of chocolate. These I should distribute with a kind word and a pat on the back. But there weren’t any cigarettes and postcards and no chocolate. So they said to circulate around anyway.”

“I’m sure your appearance will be very heartening to the troops.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Nick said. “I feel badly enough about it as it is. In principle, I would have brought you a bottle of brandy.”

“In principle,” Para said and smiled, for the first time, showing yellowed teeth. “Such a beautiful expression. Would you like some grappa?”

No, thank you,” Nick said.

“It hasn’t any ether in it.”

“I can taste that still,” Nick remembered suddenly and completely.

“You know I never knew you were drunk until you started talking coming back in the camions.”

“I was stinking in every attack,” Nick said.

“I can’t do it,” Para said. “I took it in the first show, the very first show, and it only made me very upset and then frightfully thirsty.”

“You don’t need it.”

“You’re much braver in an attack than I am.”

“No,” Nick said. “I know how I am and I prefer to get stinking. I’m not ashamed of it.”

“I’ve never seen you drunk.”

“No?” said Nick. “Never? Not when we rode from Mestre to Portogrande that night and I wanted to go to sleep and used the bicycle for a blanket and pulled it up under my chin?”

“That wasn’t in the lines.”

“Let’s not talk about how I am,” Nick said. “It’s a subject I know too much about to want to think about it any more.”

“You might as well stay here a while,” Paravicini said. “You can take a nap if you like. They didn’t do much to this in the bombardment. It’s too hot to go out yet.”

“I suppose there is no hurry.”

“How are you really?”

“I’m fine. I’m perfectly all right.”

“No. I mean really.”

“I’m all right. I can’t sleep without a light of some sort. That’s all I have now.”

“I said it should have been trepanned. I’m no doctor but I know that.”

“Well, they thought it was better to have it absorb, and that’s what I got. What’s the matter? I don’t seem crazy to you, do I?”

“You seem in top-hole shape.”

“It’s a hell of a nuisance once they’ve had you certified as nutty,” Nick said. “No one ever has any confidence in you again.”

“I would take a nap, Nicolo,” Paravicini said. “This isn’t battalion headquarters as we used to know it. We’re just waiting to be pulled out. You oughtn’t to go out in the heat now—it’s silly. Use that bunk.”

“I might just lie down,” Nick said.

Nick lay on the bunk. He was very disappointed that he felt this way and more disappointed, even, that it was so obvious to Captain Paravicini. This was not as large a dugout as the one where that platoon of the class of 1899, just out at the front, got hysterics during the bombardment before the attack, and Para had had him walk them two at a time outside to show them nothing would happen, he wearing his own chin strap tight across his mouth to keep his lips quiet. Knowing they could not hold it when they took it. Knowing it was all a bloody balls—if he can’t stop crying, break his nose to give him something else to think about. I’d shoot one but it’s too late now. They’d all be worse. Break his nose. They’ve put it back to five-twenty. We’ve only got four minutes more. Break that other silly bugger’s nose and kick his silly ass out of here. Do you think they’ll go over? If they don’t, shoot two and try to scoop the others out some way. Keep behind them, sergeant. It’s no use to walk ahead and find there’s nothing coming behind you. Bail them out as you go. What a bloody balls. All right. That’s right. Then, looking at the watch, in that quiet tone, that valuable quiet tone, “Savoia.” Making it cold, no time to get it, he couldn’t find his own after the cave-in, one whole end had caved in; it was that started them; making it cold up that slope the only time he hadn’t done it stinking. And after they came back the teleferica house burned, it seemed, and some of the wounded got down four days later and some did not get down, but we went up and we went back and we came down—we always came down. And there was Gaby Delys, oddly enough, with feathers on; you called me baby doll a year ago tadada you said that I was rather nice to know tadada with feathers on, with feathers off, the great Gaby, and my name’s Harry Pilcer, too, we used to step out of the far side of the taxis when it got steep going up the hill and he could see that hill every night when he dreamed with Sacré Coeur, blown white, like a soap bubble. Sometimes his girl was there and sometimes she was with some one else and he could not understand that, but those were the nights the river ran so much wider and stiller than it should and outside of Fossalta there was a low house painted yellow with willows all around it and a low stable and there was a canal, and he had been there a thousand times and never seen it, but there it was every night as plain as the hill, only it frightened him. That house meant more than anything and every night he had it. That was what he needed but it frightened him especially when the boat lay there quietly in the willows on the canal, but the banks weren’t like this river. It was all lower, as it was at Portogrande, where they had seen them come wallowing across the flooded ground holding the rifles high until they fell with them in the water. Who ordered that one? If it didn’t get so damned mixed up he could follow it all right. That was why he noticed everything in such detail to keep it all straight so he would know just where he was, but suddenly it confused without reason as now, he lying in a bunk at battalion headquarters, with Para commanding a battalion and he in a bloody American uniform. He sat up and looked around; they all watching him. Para was gone out. He lay down again.

The Paris part came earlier and he was not frightened of it except when she had gone off with some one else and the fear that they might take the same driver twice. That was what frightened about that. Never about the front. He never dreamed about the front now any more but what frightened him so that he could not get rid of it was that long yellow house and the different width of the river. Now he was back here at the river, he had gone through that same town, and there was no house. Nor was the river that way. Then where did he go each night and what was the peril, and why would he wake, soaking wet, more frightened than he had ever been in a bombardment, because of a house and a long stable and a canal?

He sat up; swung his legs carefully down; they stiffened any time they were out straight for long; returned the stares of the adjutant, the signallers and the two runners by the door and put on his cloth-covered trench helmet.

“I regret the absence of the chocolate, the postal cards and cigarettes,” he said. “I am, however, wearing the uniform.”

“The major is coming back at once,” the adjutant said. In that army an adjutant is not a commissioned officer.

“The uniform is not very correct,” Nick told them. “But it gives you the idea. There will be several millions of Americans here shortly.”

“Do you think they will send Americans down here?” asked the adjutant.

“Oh, absolutely. Americans twice as large as myself, healthy, with clean hearts, sleep at night, never been wounded, never been blown up, never had their heads caved in, never been scared, don’t drink, faithful to the girls they left behind them, many of them never had crabs, wonderful chaps. You’ll see.”

“Are you an Italian?” asked the adjutant.

“No, American. Look at the uniform. Spagnolini made it but it’s not quite correct.”

“A North or South American?”

“North,” said Nick. He felt it coming on now. He would quiet down.

“But you speak Italian.”

“Why not? Do you mind if I speak Italian? Haven’t I a right to speak Italian?”

“You have Italian medals.”

“Just the ribbons and the papers. The medals come later. Or you give them to people to keep and the people go away; or they are lost with your baggage. You can purchase others in Milan. It is the papers that are of importance. You must not feel badly about them. You will have some yourself if you stay at the front long enough.”

“I am a veteran of the Eritrea campaign,” said the adjutant stiffly. “I fought in Tripoli.”

“It’s quite something to have met you,” Nick put out his hand. “Those must have been trying days. I noticed the ribbons. Were you, by any chance, on the Carso?”

“I have just been called up for this war. My class was too old.”

“At one time I was under the age limit,” Nick said. “But now I am reformed out of the war.”

“But why are you here now?”

“I am demonstrating the American uniform,” Nick said. “Don’t you think it is very significant? It is a little tight in the collar but soon you will see untold millions wearing this uniform swarming like locusts. The grasshopper, you know, what we call the grasshopper in America, is really a locust. The true grasshopper is small and green and comparatively feeble. You must not, however, make a confusion with the seven-year locust or cicada which emits a peculiar sustained sound which at the moment I cannot recall. I try to recall it but I cannot. I can almost hear it and then it is quite gone. You will pardon me if I break off our conversation?”

“See if you can find the major,” the adjutant said to one of the two runners. “I can see you have been wounded,” he said to Nick.

“In various places,” Nick said. “If you are interested in scars I can show you some very interesting ones but I would rather talk about grasshoppers. What we call grasshoppers that is; and what are, really, locusts. These insects at one time played a very important part in my life. It might interest you and you can look at the uniform while I am talking.”

The adjutant made a motion with his hand to the second runner who went out.

“Fix your eyes on the uniform. Spagnolini made it, you know. You might as well look, too,” Nick said to the signallers. “I really have no rank. We’re under the American consul. It’s perfectly all right for you to look. You can stare, if you like. I will tell you about the American locust. We always preferred one that we called the medium-brown. They last the best in the water and fish prefer them. The larger ones that fly making a noise somewhat similar to that produced by a rattlesnake rattling his rattlers, a very dry sound, have vivid colored wings, some are bright red, others yellow barred with black, but their wings go to pieces in the water and they make a very blowsy bait, while the medium-brown is a plump, compact, succulent hopper that I can recommend as far as one may well recommend something you gentlemen will probably never encounter. But I must insist that you will never gather a sufficient supply of these insects for a day’s fishing by pursuing them with your hands or trying to hit them with a bat. That is sheer nonsense and a useless waste of time. I repeat, gentlemen, that you will get nowhere at it. The correct procedure, and one which should be taught all young officers at every small-arms course if I had anything to say about it, and who knows but what I will have, is the employment of a seine or net made of common mosquito netting. Two officers holding this length of netting at alternate ends, or let us say one at each end, stoop, hold the bottom extremity of the net in one hand and the top extremity in the other and run into the wind. The hoppers, flying with the wind, fly against the length of netting and are imprisoned in its folds. It is no trick at all to catch a very great quantity indeed, and no officer, in my opinion, should be without a length of mosquito netting suitable for the improvisation of one of these grasshopper seines. I hope I have made myself clear, gentlemen. Are there any questions? If there is anything in the course you do not understand please ask questions. Speak up. None? Then I would like to close on this note. In the words of that great soldier and gentleman, Sir Henry Wilson: Gentlemen, either you must govern or you must be governed. Let me repeat it. Gentlemen, there is one thing I would like to have you remember. One thing I would like you to take with you as you leave this room. Gentlemen, either you must govern—or you must be governed. That is all, gentlemen. Good-day.”

He removed his cloth-covered helmet, put it on again and, stooping, went out the low entrance of the dugout. Para, accompanied by the two runners, was coming down the line of the sunken road. It was very hot in the sun and Nick removed the helmet.

“There ought to be a system for wetting these things,” he said. “I shall wet this one in the river.” He started up the bank.

“Nicolo,” Paravicini called. “Nicolo. Where are you going?”

“I don’t really have to go.” Nick came down the slope, holding the helmet in his hands. “They’re a damned nuisance wet or dry. Do you wear yours all the time?”

“All the time,” said Para. “It’s making me bald. Come inside.” Inside Para told him to sit down.

“You know they’re absolutely no damned good,” Nick said. “I remember when they were a comfort when we first had them, but I’ve seen them full of brains too many times.”

“Nicolo,” Para said. “I think you should go back. I think it would be better if you didn’t come up to the line until you had those supplies. There’s nothing here for you to do. If you move around, even with something worth giving away, the men will group and that invites shelling. I won’t have it.”

“I know it’s silly,” Nick said. “It wasn’t my idea. I heard the brigade was here so I thought I would see you or some one else I knew. I could have gone to Zenzon or to San Dona. I’d like to go to San Dona to see the bridge again.”

“I won’t have you circulating around to no purpose,” Captain Paravicini said.

“All right,” said Nick. He felt it coming on again.

“You understand?”

“Of course,” said Nick. He was trying to hold it in.

“Anything of that sort should be done at night.”

“Naturally,” said Nick. He knew he could not stop it now.

“You see, I am commanding the battalion,” Para said.

“And why shouldn’t you be?” Nick said. Here it came. “You can read and write, can’t you?”

“Yes,” said Para gently.

“The trouble is you have a damned small battalion to command. As soon as it gets to strength again they’ll give you back your company. Why don’t they bury the dead? I’ve seen them now. I don’t care about seeing them again. They can bury them any time as far as I’m concerned and it would be much better for you. You’ll all get bloody sick.”

“Where did you leave your bicycle?”

“Inside the last house.”

“Do you think it will be all right?”

“Don’t worry,” Nick said. “I’ll go in a little while.”

“Lie down a little while, Nicolo.”

“All right.”

He shut his eyes, and in place of the man with the beard who looked at him over the sights of the rifle, quite calmly before squeezing off, the white flash and clublike impact, on his knees, hot-sweet choking, coughing it onto the rock while they went past him, he saw a long, yellow house with a low stable and the river much wider than it was and stiller. “Christ,” he said, “I might as well go.”

He stood up.

“I’m going. Para,” he said. “I’ll ride back now in the afternoon. If any supplies have come I’ll bring them down tonight. If not I’ll come at night when I have something to bring.”

“It is still hot to ride,” Captain Paravicini said.

“You don’t need to worry,” Nick said. “I’m all right now for quite a while. I had one then but it was easy. They’re getting much better. I can tell when I’m going to have one because I talk so much.”

“I’ll send a runner with you.”

“I’d rather you didn’t. I know the way.”

“You’ll be back soon?”

“Absolutely.”

“Let me send—”

“No,” said Nick. “As a mark of confidence.”

“Well, ciao then.”

“Ciao,” said Nick. He started back along the sunken road toward where he had left the bicycle. In the afternoon the road would be shady once he had passed the canal. Beyond that there were trees on both sides that had not been shelled at all. It was on that stretch that, marching, they had once passed the Terza Savoia cavalry regiment riding in the snow with their lances. The horses’ breath made plumes in the cold air. No, that was somewhere else. Where was that?

“I’d better get to that damned bicycle,” Nick said to himself. “I don’t want to lose the way to Fornaci.”