Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter V

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◄  Chapter IV Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter V
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter VI  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 31-37)

Chapter V

BUT he continued to look and it was all as wonderful to him and it moved him as it had when he was eighteen years old and had seen it first, understanding nothing of it and only knowing that it was beautiful. The winter had come very cold that year and all the mountains were white beyond the plain. It was necessary for the Austrians to try to break through at the angle where the Sile River and the old bed of the Piave were the only lines of defense.

If you had the old bed of the Piave then you had the Sile to fall back on if the first line did not hold. Beyond the Sile there was nothing but bare-assed plain and a good road network into the Veneto plain and the plains of Lombardy, and the Austrians attacked again and again and again late through the winter, to try to get onto this fine road that they were rolling on now which led straight to Venice. That winter the Colonel, who was a lieutenant then, and in a foreign army, which had always made him slightly suspect afterwards in his own army, and had done his career no good, had a sore throat all winter. This sore throat was from being in the water so much. You could not get dry and it was better to get wet quickly and stay wet.

The Austrian attacks were ill-coordinated, but they were constant and exasperated and you first had the heavy bombardment which was supposed to put you out of business, and then, when it lifted, you checked your positions and counted the people. But you had no time to care for wounded, since you knew that the attack was coming immediately, and then you killed the men who came wading across the marshes, holding their rifles above the water and coming as slow as men wade, waist deep.

If they did not lift the shelling when it started, the Colonel, then a lieutenant, often thought, I do not know what we would be able to do. But they always lifted it and moved it back ahead of the attack. They went by the book.

If we had lost the old Piave and were on the Sile they would move it back to the second and third lines; although such lines were quite untenable, and they should have brought all their guns up very close and whammed it in all the time they attacked and until they breached us. But thank God, some high fool always controls it, the Colonel thought, and they did it piecemeal.

All that winter, with a bad sore throat, he had killed men who came, wearing the stick bombs hooked up on a harness under their shoulders with the heavy, calf hide packs and the bucket helmets. They were the enemy.

But he never hated them; nor could have any feeling about them. He commanded with an old sock around his throat, which had been dipped in turpentine, and they broke down the attacks with rifle fire and with the machine guns which still existed, or were usable, after the bombardment. He taught his people to shoot, really, which is a rare ability in continental troops, and to be able to look at the enemy when they came, and, because there was always a dead moment when the shooting was free, they became very good at it.

But you always had to count and count fast after the bombardment to know how many shooters you would have. He was hit three times that winter, but they were all gift wounds; small wounds in the flesh of the body without breaking bone, and he had become quite confident of his personal immortality since he knew he should have been killed in the heavy artillery bombardment that always preceded the attacks. Finally he did get hit properly and for good. No one of his other wounds had ever done to him what the first big one did. I suppose it is just the loss of the immortality, he thought. Well, in a way, that is quite a lot to lose.

This country meant very much to him, more than he could, or would ever tell anyone and now he sat in the car happy that in another half hour they would be in Venice. He took two mannitol hexanitrate tablets; since he had always been able to spit since 1918, he could take them dry, and asked,

“How are you doing, Jackson?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Take the left outside road when we hit the fork for Mestre and we’ll be able to see the boats along the canal and miss that main traffic.”

“Yes, sir,” the driver said. “Will you check me on the fork?”

“Of course,” the Colonel said.

They were coming up on Mestre fast, and already it was like going to New York the first time you were ever there in the old days when it was shining, white and beautiful. I stole that, he thought. But that was before the smoke. We are coming into my town, he thought. Christ, what a lovely town.

They made the left turn and came along the canal where the fishing boats tied up, and the Colonel looked at them and his heart was happy because of the brown nets and the wicker fish traps and the clean, beautiful lines of the boats. It’s not that they are picturesque. The hell with picturesque. They are just damned beautiful.

They passed the long line of boats in the slow canal that carried water from the Brenta, and he thought about the long stretch of the Brenta where the great villas were, with their lawns and their gardens and the plane trees and the cypresses. I’d like to be buried out there, he thought. I know the place very well. I don’t believe you could fix it, though. I don’t know. I know some people that might let me be buried on their place. I’ll ask Alberto. He might think it was morbid, though.

For a long time he had been thinking about all the fine places he would like to be buried and what parts of the earth he would like to be a part of. The stinking, putrefying part doesn’t last very long, really, he thought, and anyway you are just a sort of mulch, and even the bones will be some use finally. I’d like to be buried way out at the edge of the grounds, but in sight of the old graceful house and the tall, great trees. I don’t think it would be much of a nuisance to them. I could be a part of the ground where the children play in the evenings, and in the mornings, maybe, they would still be training jumping horses and their hoofs would make the thudding on the turf, and trout would rise in the pool when there was a hatch of fly.

They were up on the causeway from Mestre to Venice now with the ugly Breda works that might have been Hammond, Indiana.

“What do they make there, sir?” Jackson asked.

“The company makes locomotives in Milan,” the Colonel said. “Here they make a little of everything in the metallurgic line.”

It was a miserable view of Venice now and he always disliked this causeway except that you made such good time and you could see the buoys and the channels.

“This town makes a living on its own,” he said to Jackson. “She used to be the queen of the seas and the people are very tough and they give less of a good Goddamn about things than almost anybody you’ll ever meet. It’s a tougher town than Cheyenne when you really know it, and everybody is very polite.”

“I wouldn’t say Cheyenne was a tough town, sir.”

“Well, it’s a tougher town than Casper.”

“Do you think that’s a tough town, sir?”

“It’s an oil town. It’s a nice town.”

“But I don’t think it’s tough, sir. Or ever was.”

“O.K., Jackson. Maybe we move in different circles. Or maybe we have a differing definition for the word. But this town of Venice, with everybody being polite and having good manners, is as tough as Cooke City, Montana, on the day they have the Old Timers’ Fish Fry.”

“My idea of a tough town is Memphis.”

“Not like Chicago, Jackson. Memphis is only tough if you are a Negro. Chicago is tough North, South, there isn’t any East, and West. But nobody has any manners. But in this country, if you ever want to know a really tough town where they eat wonderfully too, go to Bologna.”

“I never was there.”

“Well, there’s the Fiat garage where we leave the car,” the Colonel said. “You can leave the key at the office. They don’t steal. I’ll go in the bar while you park upstairs. They have people that will bring the bags.”

“Is it okay to leave your gun and shooting gear in the trunk, sir?”

“Sure. They don’t steal here. I told you that once.”

“I wanted to take the necessary precaution, sir, on your valuable property.”

“You’re so damned noble that sometimes you stink,” the Colonel said. “Get the wax out of your ears and hear what I say the first time.”

“I heard you, sir,” Jackson said. The Colonel looked at him contemplatively and with the old deadliness.

He sure is a mean son of a bitch, Jackson thought, and he can be so God-damn nice.

“Get my and your bag out and park her up there and check your oil, your water and your tires,” the Colonel said, and walked across the oil and rubber stained cement of the entry of the bar.