Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter III

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◄  Chapter II Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter III
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter IV  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 12-19)

Chapter III

THAT was day before yesterday. Yesterday he had driven down from Trieste to Venice along the old road that ran from Monfalcone to Latisana and across the flat country. He had a good driver and he relaxed completely in the front seat of the car and looked out at all this country he had known when he was a boy.

It looks quite differently now, he thought. I suppose it is because the distances are all changed. Everything is much smaller when you are older. Then, too, the roads are better now and there is no dust. The only times I used to ride through it was in a camion. The rest of the times we walked. I suppose what I looked for then, was patches of shade when we fell out, and wells in farm yards. And ditches, too, he thought. I certainly looked for plenty of ditches.

They made a curve and crossed the Tagliamento on a temporary bridge. It was green along the banks and men were fishing along the far shore where it ran deep. The blown bridge was being repaired with a snarl of riveting hammers, and eight hundred yards away the smashed buildings and outbuildings of what was now a ruined country house once built by Longhena showed where the mediums had dropped their loads.

“Look at it,” the driver said. “In this country you find a bridge or a railway station. Then go half a mile from it in any direction and you find it like that.”

“I guess the lesson is,” the Colonel said, “don’t ever build yourself a country house, or a church, or hire Giotto to paint you any frescoes, if you’ve got a church, eight hundred yards away from any bridge.”

“I knew there must be a lesson in it, sir,” the driver said.

They were past the ruined villa now and onto the straight road with the willows growing by the ditches still dark with winter, and the fields full of mulberry trees. Ahead a man was pedalling a bicycle and using both his hands to read a paper.

“If there are heavies the lesson ought to say a mile,” the driver said. “Would that be about right, sir?”

“If it’s guided missiles,” the Colonel said. “Better make it two hundred and fifty miles. Better give that cyclist some horn.”

The driver did, and the man moved over to the side of the road without either looking up or touching his handlebars. As they passed him, the Colonel tried to see what paper he was reading, but it was folded over.

“I guess a man would do better now not to build himself a fine house or a church, or to get who did you say it was to paint frescoes?”

“Giotto, I said. But it could be Piero della Francesca or Mantegna. Could be Michelangelo.”

“Do you know a lot about painters, sir?” the driver asked.

They were on a straight stretch of road now and were making time so that one farm blended, almost blurred, into another farm and you could only see what was far ahead and moving toward you. Lateral vision was just a condensation of flat, low country in the winter. I’m not sure I like speed, the Colonel thought. Brueghel would have been in a hell of a shape if he had to look at the country like this.

“Painters?” he answered the driver. “I know quite a little about them, Burnham.”

“I’m Jackson, sir. Burnham’s up at the rest center at Cortina. That’s a fine place, sir.”

“I’m getting stupid,” the Colonel said. “Excuse me, Jackson. It is a fine place. Good chow. Well run. Nobody bothers you.”

“Yes, sir,” Jackson agreed. “Now the reason I asked you about painters, is these madonnas. I thought I ought to see some painting so I went to that big place in Florence.”

“The Uffizi? The Pitti?”

“Whatever they call it. The biggest one. And I kept looking at those paintings until madonnas started to run out of my ears. I tell you, Colonel, sir, a man who hasn’t been checked out on this painting can only see just about so many madonnas and it gets him. You know my theory? You know how crazy they are about bambinis and the less they got to eat the more bambinis they got and that they have coming? Well, I think these painters were probably big bambini lovers like all Italians. I don’t know these ones you mentioned just now, so I don’t include them in my theory and you’ll put me straight anyway. But it looks to me like these madonnas, that I really saw plenty of, sir, it looks to me like these just straight ordinary madonna painters were sort of a manifest, say, of this whole bambini business, if you understand what I mean.”

“Plus the fact that they were restricted to religious subjects.”

“Yes, sir. Then you think there is something to my theory?”

“Sure. I think it is a little more complicated, though.”

“Naturally, sir. It’s just my preliminary theory.”

“Do you have any other theories on art, Jackson?”

“No, sir. That bambini theory is as far as I’ve thought it through. What I wish is, though, they would paint some good pictures of that high country up around the rest center at Cortina.”

“Titian came from up there,” the Colonel said. “At least they say he did. I went down the valley and saw the house where he was supposed to be born.”

“Was it much of a place, sir?”

“Not so much.”

“Well, if he painted any pictures of that country up around there, with those sunset color rocks and the pines and the snow and all the pointed steeples—”

Campaniles,” the Colonel said. “Like that one ahead at Ceggia. It means bell tower.”

“Well, if he painted any really good pictures of that country I’d sure as hell like to trade him out of some of them.”

“He painted some wonderful women,” the Colonel said.

“If I had a joint or a roadhouse or some sort of an inn, say, I could use one of those,” the driver said. “But if I brought home a picture of some woman, my old woman would run me from Rawlins to Buffalo. I’d be lucky if I got to Buffalo.”

“You could give it to the local museum.”

“All they got in the local museum is arrow heads, war bonnets, scalping knives, different scalps, petrified fish, pipes of peace, photographs of Liver Eating Johnston, and the skin of some bad man that they hanged him and some doctor skinned him out. One of those women pictures would be out of place there.”

“See that next campanile down there across the plain?” the Colonel said. “I’ll show you a place down there where we used to fight when I was a kid.”

“Did you fight here, too, sir?”

“Yeah,” the Colonel said.

“Who had Trieste in that war?”

“The Krauts. The Austrians, I mean.”

“Did we ever get it?”

“Not till the end when it was over.”

“Who had Florence and Rome?”

“We did.”

“Well, I guess you weren’t so damned bad off then.”

“Sir,” the Colonel said gently.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the driver said quickly. “I was in the Thirty-Sixth Division, sir.”

“I’ve seen the patch.”

“I was thinking about the Rapido, sir, I didn’t mean to be insolent or lacking in respect.”

“You weren’t,” the Colonel said. “You were just thinking about the Rapido. Listen, Jackson, everybody who’s soldiered a long time has had their Rapidos and more than one.”

“I couldn’t take more than one, sir.”

The car went through the cheerful town of San Dona di Piave. It was built up and new, but no more ugly than a middle western town, and it was as prosperous and as cheery as Fossalta, just up the river, is miserable and gloomy, the Colonel thought. Did Fossalta never get over the first war? I never saw it before it was smacked, he thought. They shelled it badly before the big fifteenth of June offensive in eighteen. Then we shelled it really badly before we retook it. He remembered how the attack had taken off from Monastier, gone through Fornace, and on this winter day he remembered how it had been that summer.

A few weeks ago he had gone through Fossalta and had gone out along the sunken road to find the place where he had been hit, out on the river bank. It was easy to find because of the bend of the river, and where the heavy machine gun post had been, the crater was smoothly grassed. It had been cropped, by sheep or goats, until it looked like a designed depression in a golf course. The river was slow and a muddy blue here, with reeds along the edges, and the Colonel, no one being in sight, squatted low, and looking across the river from the bank where you could never show your head in daylight, relieved himself in the exact place where he had determined, by triangulation, that he had been badly wounded thirty years before.

“A poor effort,” he said aloud to the river and the river bank that were heavy with autumn quiet and wet from the fall rains. “But my own.”

He stood up and looked around. There was no one in sight and he had left the car down the sunken road in front of the last and saddest rebuilt house in Fossalta.

“Now I’ll complete the monument,” he said to no one but the dead, and he took an old Sollingen clasp knife such as German poachers carry, from his pocket. It locked on opening and, twirling it, he dug a neat hole in the moist earth. He cleaned the knife on his right combat boot and then inserted a brown ten thousand lira note in the hole and tamped it down and put the grass that he had cored out, over it.

“That is twenty years at 500 lira a year for the Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare. The V.C. carries ten guineas, I believe. The D.S.C. is non-productive. The Silver Star is free. I’ll keep the change,” he said.

It’s fine now, he thought. It has merde, money, blood; look how that grass grows; and the iron’s in the earth along with Gino’s leg, both of Randolfo’s legs, and my right kneecap. It’s a wonderful monument. It has everything. Fertility, money, blood and iron. Sounds like a nation. Where fertility, money, blood and iron is, there is the fatherland. We need coal though. We ought to get some coal.

Then he looked across the river to the rebuilt white house that had once been rubble, and he spat in the river. It was a long spit and he just made it.

“I couldn’t spit that night nor afterwards for a long time,” he said. “But I spit good now for a man who doesn’t chew.”

He walked slowly back to where the car was parked. The driver was asleep.

“Wake up, son,” he had said. “Turn her around and take that road toward Treviso. We don’t need a map on this part. I’ll give you the turns.”