Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter IV

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◄  Chapter III Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter IV
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter V  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 20-30)



Chapter IV

NOW, on his way into Venice, keeping strictly controlled and unthinking his great need to be there, the big Buick cleared the last of San Dona and came up onto the bridge over the Piave.

They crossed the bridge and were on the Italian side of the river and he saw the old sunken road again. It was as smooth and undistinguished now, as it was all along the river. But he could see the old positions. And now, along each side of the straight, flat, canal-bordered road they were making time on, were the willows of the two canals that had contained the dead. There had been a great killing at the last of the offensive and someone, to clear the river bank positions and the road in the hot weather, had ordered the dead thrown into the canals. Unfortunately, the canal gates were still in the Austrians’ hands down the river, and they were closed.

So there was little movement to the water, and the dead had stayed there a long time, floating and bloating face up and face down regardless of nationality until they had attained colossal proportions. Finally, after organization had been established, labor troops hauled them out at night and buried them close to the road. The Colonel looked for added greenness close to the road but could not note any. However, there were many ducks and geese in the canals, and men were fishing in them all along the road.

They dug them all up anyway, the Colonel thought, and buried them in that big ossario up by Nervesa.

“We fought along here when I was a kid,” the Colonel told the driver.

“It’s a God-damn flat country to fight in,” the driver said. “Did you hold that river?”

“Yes,” the Colonel said. “We held it and lost it and took it back again.”

“There isn’t a contour here as far as you can see.”

“That was the trouble,” the Colonel said. “You had to use contours you couldn’t see, they were so small, and ditches and houses and canal banks and hedgerows. It was like Normandy only flatter. I think it must have been something like fighting in Holland.”

“That river sure doesn’t look anything like the Rapido.”

“It was a pretty good old river,” the Colonel said. “Up above, it had plenty of water then, before all these hydroelectric projects. And it had very deep and tricky channels in the pebbles and shingle when it was shallow. There was a place called the Grave de Papadopoli where it was plenty tricky.”

He knew how boring any man’s war is to any other man, and he stopped talking about it. They always take it personally, he thought No one is interested in it, abstractly, except soldiers and there are not many soldiers. You make them and the good ones are killed, and above they are always bucking for something so hard they never look or listen. They are always thinking of what they have seen and while you are talking they are thinking of what they will say and what it may lead to in their advancement or their privilege. There was no sense boring this boy, who, for all his combat infantryman badge, his Purple Heart and the other things he wore, was in no sense a soldier but only a man placed, against his will, in uniform, who had elected to remain in the army for his own ends.

“What did you do in civil life, Jackson?” he asked.

“I was partners with my brother in a garage in Rawlins, Wyoming, sir.”

“Are you going back there?”

“My brother got killed in the Pacific and the guy who was running the garage was no good,” the driver said. “We lost what we had put in it.”

“That’s bad,” the Colonel said.

“You’re God-damned right it’s bad,” the driver said and added, “sir.”

The Colonel looked up the road.

He knew that if they kept on this road they would come, shortly, to the turn that he was waiting for; but he was impatient.

“Keep your eyes open and take a left hand turn on the road leading off this pike,” he told the driver.

“Do you think those low roads will be good with this big car, sir?”

“We’ll see,” the Colonel said. “Hell, man, it hasn’t rained in three weeks.”

“I don’t trust those side roads in this low country.”

“If we get stuck, I’ll haul you out with oxen.”

“I was only thinking about the car, sir.”

“Well, think about what I told you and turn off on the first left side road you see if it looks practicable.”

“That looks like one coming up, from the hedges,” the driver said.

“You’re all clear behind. Pull up just ahead of it and I’ll go over and have a look.”

He stepped out of the car and walked across the wide, hard-surfaced road and looked at the narrow dirt road, with the swift flowing canal beside it, and the thick hedge beyond. Beyond the hedge, he saw a low red farmhouse with a big barn. The road was dry. There were not even cart ruts sunk in it. He got back into the car.

“It’s a boulevard,” he said. “Quit worrying.”

“Yes, sir. It’s your car, sir.”

“I know,” the Colonel said. “I’m still paying for it. Say, Jackson, do you always suffer so much any time you go off a highway onto a secondary road?”

“No, sir. But there’s a lot of difference between a jeep, and a car as low hung as this. Do you know the clearance you have on your differential and your body frame on this?”

“I’ve got a shovel in the trunk and we’ve got chains. Wait till you see where we’re going after we leave Venice,”

“Do we go all the way in this car?”

“I don’t know. I’ll see.”

“Think about your fenders, sir.”

“We’ll cut the fenders off like the Indians do in Oklahoma. She’s over-fendered right now. She’s got too much of everything except engine. Jackson, that’s a real engine she’s got. One hundred and fifty ponies.”

“It certainly is, sir. It’s a great pleasure to drive that big engine on the good roads. That’s why I don’t want anything to happen to her.”

“That’s very good of you, Jackson. Now just quit suffering.”

“I’m not suffering, sir.”

“Good,” said the Colonel.

He was not, either, because just then he saw, beyond the line of close-bunched brown trees ahead, a sail moving along. It was a big red sail, raked sharply down from the peak, and it moved slowly behind the trees.

Why should it always move your heart to see a sail moving along through the country, the Colonel thought Why does it move my heart to see the great, slow, pale oxen? It must be the gait as well as the look of them and the size and the color.

But a good fine big mule, or a string of pack mules in good condition, moves me, too. So does a coyote every time I ever see one, and a wolf, gaited like no other animal, gray and sure of himself, carrying that heavy head and with the hostile eyes.

“Ever see any wolves out around Rawlins, Jackson?”

“No, sir. Wolves were gone before my time; they poisoned them out. Plenty coyotes, though.”

“Do you like coyotes?”

“I like to hear them nights.”

“So do I. Better than anything, except seeing a ship sailing along through the country.”

“There’s a boat doing that over there, sir.”

“On the Sile canal,” the Colonel told him. “She’s a sailing barge going to Venice. This wind is off the mountains now and she makes it along pretty good. It’s liable to turn really cold tonight if this wind holds and it ought to bring in plenty ducks. Turn to your left here and we’ll run along the canal. There’s a good road.”

“They didn’t have much duck shooting where I came from. But there was plenty of it in Nebraska along the Platte.”

“Do you want to shoot where we’re going?”

“I don’t believe so, sir. I’m not much of a shot, and I’d rather stay in that sack. It’s a Sunday morning, you know.”

“I know,” the Colonel said. “You can stay in the sack until noon if you want.”

“I brought my repellent. I ought to sleep O.K.”

“I’m not sure you’ll need it,” the Colonel said. “Did you bring any K-rations or Ten in One? They’re liable to eat Italian food, you know.”

“I brought a few cans to help out and a little stuff to give away.”

“That’s good,” the Colonel said.

He was looking ahead now to see where the canal road joined the main highway again. There he knew that he would see it on a clear day such as this was. Across the marshes, brown as those at the mouths of the Mississippi around Pilot Town are in winter, and with their reeds bent by the heavy north wind, he saw the squared tower of the church at Torcello and the high campanile of Burano beyond it. The sea was a slate blue and he could see the sails of twelve sailing barges running with the wind for Venice.

I’ll have to wait until we cross the Dese River above Noghera to see it perfectly, he thought. It is strange to remember how we fought back there along the canal that winter to defend it and we never saw it. Then one time, I was back as far as Noghera and it was clear and cold like today, and I saw it across the water. But I never got into it. It is my city, though, because I fought for it when I was a boy, and now that I am half a hundred years old, they know I fought for it and am a part owner and they treat me well.

Do you think that’s why they treat you well, he asked himself.

Maybe, he thought. Maybe they treat me well because I’m a chicken colonel on the winning side. I don’t believe it, though. I hope not, anyway. It is not France, he thought.

There you fight your way into a city that you love and are very careful about breaking anything and then, if you have good sense, you are careful not to go back because you will meet some military characters who will resent your having fought your way in. Vive la France et les pommes de terre frites. Libert'é', Venalit'é', et Stupidit'é. The great clart'é of the French military thinking. They haven’t had a military thinker since du Picq. He was a poor bloody Colonel, too. Mangin, Maginot and Gamelin. Take your choice, Gentlemen. Three schools of thought. One; I hit them on the nose. Two; I hide behind this thing which does not cover my left flank. Three; I hide my head in the sand like an ostrich, confident in the greatness of France as a military power and then take off.

Take off is putting it very cleanly and pleasantly. Sure, he thought, whenever you over-simplify you become unjust. Remember all the fine ones in the Resistance, remember Foch both fought and organized and remember how fine the people were. Remember your good friends and remember your deads. Remember plenty things and your best friends again and the finest people that you know. Don’t be a bitter nor a stupid. And what has that to do with soldiering as a trade? Cut it out, he told himself. You’re on a trip to have fun.

“Jackson,” he said, “are you happy?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Shortly, we are coming to a view that I want you to see. You only have to take one look at it. The entire operation will be practically painless.”

I wonder what he’s riding me for now, the driver thought. Just because he was a B.G. once he knows everything. If he was any good as a B.G. why didn’t he hold it? He’s been beat up so much he’s slug-nutty.

“There’s the view, Jackson,” the Colonel said. “Stop her by the side of the road and we’ll take a look.”

The Colonel and the driver walked over to the Venice side of the road and looked across the lagoon that was whipped by the strong, cold wind from the mountains that sharpened all the outlines of buildings so that they were geometrically clear.

“That’s Torcello directly opposite us,” the Colonel pointed. “That’s where the people lived that were driven off the mainland by the Visigoths. They built that church you see there with the square tower. There were thirty thousand people lived there once and they built that church to honor their Lord and to worship him. Then, after they built it, the mouth of the Sile River silted up or a big flood changed it, and all that land we came through just now got flooded and started to breed mosquitoes and malaria hit them. They all started to die, so the elders got together and decided they should pull out to a healthy place that would be defensible with boats, and where the Visigoths and the Lombards and the other bandits couldn’t get at them, because these bandits had no sea-power. The Torcello boys were all great boatmen. So they took the stones of all their houses in barges, like that one we just saw, and they built Venice.”

He stopped. “Am I boring you, Jackson?”

“No, sir. I had no idea who pioneered Venice.”

“It was the boys from Torcello. They were very tough and they had very good taste in building. They came from a little place up the coast called Caorle. But they drew on all the people from the towns and the farms behind when the Visigoths over-ran them. It was a Torcello boy who was running arms into Alexandria, who located the body of St. Mark and smuggled it out under a load of fresh pork so the infidel customs guards wouldn’t check him. This boy brought the remains of St. Mark to Venice, and he’s their patron saint and they have a cathedral there to him. But by that time, they were trading so far to the east that the architecture is pretty Byzantine for my taste. They never built any better than at the start there in Torcello. That’s Torcello there.”

It was, indeed.

“St. Mark’s square is where the pigeons are and where they have that big cathedral that looks sort of like a moving picture palace, isn’t it?”

“Right, Jackson. You’re on the ball. If that’s the way you look at it. Now you look beyond Torcello you will see the lovely campanile on Burano that has damn near as much list on it as the leaning tower of Pisa. That Burano is a very over-populated little island where the women make wonderful lace, and the men make bambinis and work day-times in the glass factories in that next island you see on beyond with the other campanile, which is Murano. They make wonderful glass day-times for the rich of all the world, and then they come home on the little vaporetto and make bambinis. Not everyone passes every night with his wife though. They hunt ducks nights too, with big punt guns, out along the edge of the marshes on this lagoon you’re looking across now. All night long on a moonlight night you hear the shots.” He paused.

“Now when you look past Murano you see Venice. That’s my town. There’s plenty more I could show you, but I think we probably ought to roll now. But take one good look at it. This is where you can see how it all happened. But nobody ever looks at it from here.”

“It’s a beautiful view. Thank you, sir.”

“O.K.,” the Colonel said. “Let’s roll.”