Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter VI

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◄  Chapter V Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter VI
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter VII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 38-53)



Chapter VI

IN THE bar, sitting at the first table as he came in, there was a post-war rich from Milan, fat and hard as only Milanese can be, sitting with his expensive looking and extremely desirable mistress. They were drinking negronis, a combination of two sweet vermouths and seltzer water, and the Colonel wondered how much taxes the man had escaped to buy that sleek girl in her long mink coat and the convertible he had seen the chauffeur take up the long, winding ramp, to lock away. The pair stared at him with the bad manners of their kind and he saluted, lightly, and said to them in Italian, “I am sorry that I am in uniform. But it is a uniform. Not a costume.”

Then he turned his back on them, without waiting to see the effect of his remark, and walked to the bar. From the bar you could watch your luggage, just as well as the two pescecani were watching theirs.

He is probably a Commendatore, he thought. She is a beautiful, hard piece of work. She is damned beautiful, actually. I wonder what it would have been like if I had ever had the money to buy me that kind and put them into the mink? I’ll settle for what I have, he thought, and they can go and hang themselves.

The bar-tender shook hands with him. This bar-tender was an Anarchist but he did not mind the Colonel being a Colonel at all. He was delighted by it and proud and loving about it as though the Anarchists had a Colonel, too, and in some ways, in the several months that they had known each other, he seemed to feel that he had invented, or at least, erected the Colonel as you might be happy about participating in the erection of a campanile, or even the old church at Torcello.

The bar-tender had heard the conversation, or, rather, the flat statement at the table and he was very happy.

He had already sent down, via the dumb-waiter, for a Gordon’s gin and Campari and he said, “It is coming up in that hand-pulled device. How does everything go at Trieste?”

“About as you would imagine.”

“I couldn’t even imagine.”

“Then don’t strain,” the Colonel said, “and you will never get piles.”

“I wouldn’t mind it if I was a Colonel.”

“I never mind it.”

“You’d be over-run like a dose of salts,” the waiter said.

“Don’t tell the Honorable Pacciardi,” the Colonel said.

He and the bar-tender had a joke about this because the Honorable Pacciardi was Minister of Defense in the Italian Republic. He was the same age as the Colonel and had fought very well in the first world war, and had also fought in Spain as a battalion Commander where the Colonel had known him when he, himself, was an observer. The seriousness with which the Honorable Pacciardi took the post of Minister of Defense of an indefensible country was a bond between the Colonel and the bar-tender. The two of them were quite practical men and the vision of the Honorable Pacciardi defending the Italian Republic stimulated their minds.

“It’s sort of funny up there,” the Colonel said, “and I don’t mind it.”

“We must mechanize the Honorable Pacciardi,” the bar-tender said. “And supply him with the atomic bomb.”

“I’ve got three of them in the back of the car,” the Colonel said. “The new model, complete with handles. But we can’t leave him unarmed. We must supply him with botulism and anthrax.”

“We cannot fail the Honorable Pacciardi,” the bartender said. “Better to live one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep.”

“Better to die on our feet than to live on our knees,” the Colonel said. “Though you better get on your belly damn fast if you want to stay alive in plenty places.”

“Colonel, do not say anything subversive.”

“We will strangle them with our bare hands,” the Colonel said. “A million men will spring to arms overnight.”

“Whose arms?” the bar-tender asked.

“All that will be attended to,” the Colonel said. “It’s only a phase in the Big Picture.”

Just then the driver came in the door. The Colonel saw that while they had been joking, he had not watched the door and he was annoyed, always, with any lapse of vigilance or of security.

“What the hell’s been keeping you, Jackson? Have a drink.”

“No, thank you, sir.”

You prissy jerk, the Colonel thought. But I better stop riding him, he corrected.

“We’ll be going in a minute,” the Colonel said. “I’ve been trying to learn Italian from my friend here.” He turned to look at the Milan profiteers; but they were gone.

I’m getting awfully slow, he thought. Somebody will take me any day now. Maybe even the Honorable Pacciardi, he thought.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked the bar-tender shortly.

The bar-tender told him and looked at him with his wise Italian eyes, not merry now, although the lines of merriment were clearly cut where they radiated from the corners of each eye. I hope there is nothing wrong with him, the bar-tender thought. I hope to God, or anything else, there’s nothing really bad.

“Good-bye, my Colonel,” he said.

Ciao,” the Colonel said. “Jackson, we are going down the long ramp and due north from the exit to where the small launches are moored. The varnished ones. There is a porter with the two bags. It is necessary to let them carry them since they have a concession.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jackson.

The two of them went out the door and no one looked back at anyone.

At the imbarcadero, the Colonel tipped the man who had carried their two bags and then looked around for a boatman he knew.

He did not recognize the man in the launch that was first on call, but the boatman said, “Good-day, my Colonel. I’m the first.”

“How much is it to the Gritti?”

“You know as well as I, my Colonel. We do not bargain. We have a fixed tariff.”

“What’s the tariff?”

“Three thousand five hundred.”

“We could go on the vaporetto for sixty.”

“And nothing prevents you going,” the boatman, who was an elderly man with a red but un-choleric face, said. “They won’t take you to the Gritti but they will stop at the imbarcadero past Harry’s, and you can telephone for someone from the Gritti to get your bags.”

And what would I buy with the God-damn three thousand five hundred lire; and this is a good old man.

“Do you want me to send that man there?” he pointed to a destroyed old man who did odd jobs and ran errands around the docks, always ready with the unneeded aid to the elbow of the ascending or descending passenger, always ready to help when no help was needed, his old felt hat held out as he bowed after the un-needed act. “He’ll take you to the vaporetto. There’s one in twenty minutes.”

“The hell with it,” the Colonel said. “Take us to the Gritti.”

Con piacere,” the boatman said.

The Colonel and Jackson lowered themselves into the launch which looked like a speed boat. It was radiantly varnished and lovingly kept and was powered with a marine conversion of a tiny Fiat engine that had served its allotted time in the car of a provincial doctor and had been purchased out of one of the grave-yards of automobiles, those mechanical elephant cemeteries that are the one certain thing you may find in our world near any populated center, and been reconditioned and reconverted to start this new life on the canals of this city.

“How is the motor doing?” the Colonel asked. He could hear her sounding like a stricken tank or T.D., except the noises were in miniature from the lack of power.

“So-so,” the boatman said. He moved his free hand in a parallel motion.

“You ought to get the smallest model Universal puts out. That’s the best and lightest small marine engine I know.”

“Yes,” the boatman said. “There are quite a few things I should get.”

“Maybe you’ll have a good year.”

“It’s always possible. Lots of pescecani come down from Milano to gamble at the Lido. But nobody would ride twice in this thing on purpose. As a boat, it is fine, too. It is a well built, pleasant boat. Not beautiful as a gondola is, of course. But it needs an engine.”

“I might get you a jeep engine. One that was condemned and you could work it over.”

“Don’t talk about such things,” the boatman said. “Things like that don’t happen. I don’t want to think about it.”

“You can think about it,” the Colonel said. “I’m talking true.”

“You mean it.”

“Sure. I don’t guarantee anything. I’ll see what I can do. How many children have you got?”

“Six. Two male and four female.”

“Hell, you mustn’t have believed in the Regime. Only six.”

“I didn’t believe in the Regime.”

“You don’t have to give me that stuff,” the Colonel said. “It would have been quite natural for you to have believed in it. Do you think I hold that against a man after we’ve won?”

They were through the dull part of the canal that runs from Piazzale Roma to Ca’Foscari, though none of it is dull, the Colonel thought.

It doesn’t all have to be palaces nor churches. Certainly that isn’t dull. He looked to the right, the starboard, he thought. I’m on the water. It was a long low pleasant building and there was a trattoria next to it.

I ought to live here. On retirement pay I could make it all right. No Gritti Palace. A room in a house like that and the tides and the boats going by. I could read in the mornings and walk around town before lunch and go every day to see the Tintorettos at the Accademia and to the Scuola San Rocco and eat in good cheap joints behind the market, or, maybe, the woman that ran the house would cook in the evenings.

I think it would be better to have lunch out and get some exercise walking. It’s a good town to walk in. I guess the best, probably. I never walked in it that it wasn’t fun. I could learn it really well, he thought, and then I’d have that.

It’s a strange, tricky town and to walk from any part to any other given part of it is better than working crossword puzzles. It’s one of the few things to our credit that we never smacked it, and to their credit that they respected it.

Christ, I love it, he said, and I’m so happy I helped defend it when I was a punk kid, and with an insufficient command of the language and I never even saw her until that clear day in the winter when I went back to have that small wound dressed, and saw her rising from the sea. Merde, he thought, we did very well that winter up at the juncture.

I wish I could fight it again, he thought. Knowing what I know now and having what we have now. But they’d have it too and the essential problem is just the same, except who holds the air.

And all this time he had been watching the bow of the beat-up beautifully varnished, delicately brass-striped boat, with the brass all beautifully polished, cut the brown water, and seen the small traffic problems.

They went under the white bridge and under the unfinished wood bridge. Then they left the red bridge on the right and passed under the first high-flying white bridge. Then there was the black iron fret-work bridge on the canal leading into the Rio Nuovo and they passed the two stakes chained together but not touching: like us the Colonel thought. He watched the tide pull at them and he saw how the chains had worn the wood since he first had seen them. That’s us, he thought. That’s our monument. And how many monuments are there to us in the canals of this town?

Then they still went slowly until the great lantern that was on the right of the entrance to the Grand Canal where the engine commenced its metallic agony that produced a slight increase in speed.

Now they came down and under the Accademia between the pilings where they passed, at touching distance, a heavily loaded black, diesel boat full of cut timber, cut in chunks, to burn for firewood in the damp houses of the Sea City.

“That’s beech, isn’t it?” the Colonel asked the boatman.

“Beech and another wood that is cheaper that I do not recall, at this moment, the name of.”

“Beech is, to an open fire, as anthracite coal is to a stove. Where do they cut that beech?”

“I’m not a man of the mountains. But I think it comes from up beyond Bassano on the other side of the Grappa. I went there to the Grappa to see where my brother was buried. It was an excursion that they made from Bassano, and we went to the big ossario. But we returned by Feltre. I could see it was a fine timber country on the other side as you came down the mountains into the valley. We came down that military road, and they were hauling lots of wood.”

“In what year was your brother killed on Grappa?”

“In nineteen-eighteen. He was a patriot and inflamed by hearing d’Annunzio talk, and he volunteered before his class was called. We never knew him very well because he went so quickly.”

“How many were you in the family?”

“We were six. We lost two beyond the Isonzo, one on the Bainsizza and one on the Carso. Then we lost this brother I speak of on the Grappa and I remained.”

“I’ll get you the God-damned jeep complete with handles,” the Colonel said. “Now let’s not be morbid and look for all the places where my friends live.”

They were moving up the Grand Canal now and it was easy to see where your friends lived.

“That’s the house of the Contessa Dandolo,” the Colonel said.

He did not say, but thought, she is over eighty, and she is as gay as a girl and does not have any fear of dying. She dyes her hair red and it looks very well. She is a good companion and an admirable woman.

Her palazzo was pleasant looking, set well back from the Canal with a garden in front and a landing place of its own where many gondolas had come, in their various times, bringing hearty, cheerful, sad and disillusioned people. But most of them had been cheerful because they were going to see the Contessa Dandolo.

Now, beating up the Canal, against the cold wind off the mountains, and with the houses as clear and sharp as on a winter day, which, of course, it was, they saw the old magic of the city and its beauty. But it was conditioned, for the Colonel, by his knowing many of the people who lived in the palazzos; or if no one lived there now, knowing to what use the different places had been put.

There’s Alvarito’s mother’s house, he thought, and did not say.

She never lives there much and stays out at the country house near Treviso where they have trees. She’s tired of there not being trees in Venice. She lost a fine man and nothing really interests her now except efficiency.

But the family at one time lent the house to George Gordon, Lord Byron, and nobody sleeps now in Byron’s bed nor in the other bed, two flights below, where he used to sleep with the gondolier’s wife. They are not sacred, nor relics. They are just extra beds that were not used afterwards for various reasons, or possibly to respect Lord Byron who was well loved in this town, in spite of all the errors he committed. You have to be a tough boy in this town to be loved, the Colonel thought. They never cared anything for Robert Browning, nor Mrs. Robert Browning, nor for their dog. They weren’t Venetians no matter how well he wrote of it. And what is a tough boy, he asked himself. You use it so loosely you should be able to define it. I suppose it is a man who will make his play and then backs it up. Or just a man who backs his play. And I’m not thinking of the theatre, he thought. Lovely as the theatre can be.

And yet, he thought, seeing now the little villa, close up against the water, ugly as a building you would see on the boat train from Havre or Cherbourg, coming into the banlieue before Paris as you came into town. It was over-run with badly administered trees, and not a place that you would live in if you could help it. There he lived.

They loved him for his talent, and because he was bad, and he was brave. A Jewish boy with nothing, he stormed the country with his talent, and his rhetoric. He was a more miserable character than any that I know and as mean. But the man I think of to compare him with never put the chips on the line and went to war, the Colonel thought, and Gabriele d’Annunzio (I always wondered what his real name was, he thought, because nobody is named d’Annunzio in a practical country and perhaps he was not Jewish and what difference did it make if he was or was not,) had moved through the different arms of the service as he had moved into and out of the arms of different women.

All the arms were pleasant that d’Annunzio served with and the mission was fast and easily over, except the Infantry. He remembered how d’Annunzio had lost an eye in a crash, flying as an observer, over Trieste or Pola, and how, afterwards, he had always worn a patch over it and people who did not know, for, then, no one really knew, thought it had been shot out at the Veliki or San Michele or some other bad place beyond the Carso where everyone died, or was incapacitated, that you knew. But d’Annunzio, truly, was only making heroic gestures with the other things. An Infantryman knows a strange trade, he thought; perhaps the strangest. He, Gabriele, flew, but he was not a flier. He was in the Infantry but he was not an Infantryman and it was always the same appearances.

And the Colonel remembered one time when he had stood, commanding a platoon of assault troops, while it was raining in one of the interminable winters, when the rain fell always; or at least, always when there were parades or speeches to the troops, and d’Annunzio, with his lost eye, covered by the patch, and his white face, as white as the belly of a sole, new turned over in the market, the brown side not showing, and looking thirty hours dead, was shouting, “Morire non è basta,” and the Colonel, then a lieutenant, had thought, “What the muck more do they want of us?”

But he had followed the discourse and, at the end, when the Lieutenant Colonel d’Annunzio, writer and national hero, certified and true if you must have heroes, and the Colonel did not believe in heroes, asked for a moment of silence for our glorious dead, he had stood stiffly at attention. But his platoon, who had not followed the speech, there being no loud speakers then, and they being slightly out of hearing of the orator, responded, as one man, at the pause for the moment of silence for our glorious dead, with a solid and ringing “Evviva d’ Annunzio.”

They had been addressed before by d’Annunzio after victories, and before defeats, and they knew what they should shout if there was any pause by an orator.

The Colonel, being then a lieutenant, and loving his platoon, had joined with them and uttered, with the tone of command, “Evviva d’Annunzio,” thus absolving all those who had not listened to the discourse, speech, or harangue, and attempting, in the small way a lieutenant can attempt anything, except to hold an indefensible position, or intelligently direct his own part in an attack, to share their guilt.

But now he was passing the house where the poor beat-up old boy had lived with his great, sad, and never properly loved actress, and he thought of her wonderful hands, and her so transformable face, that was not beautiful, but that gave you all love, glory, and delight and sadness; and of the way the curve of her fore-arm could break your heart, and he thought, Christ they are dead and I do not know whether either one is buried even. But I certainly hope they had fun in that house.

“Jackson,” he said, “that small villa on the left belonged to Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was a great writer.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jackson, “I’m glad to know about him. I never heard of him.”

“I’ll check you out on what he wrote if you ever want to read him,” the Colonel said. “There are some fair English translations.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Jackson. “I’d like to read him anytime I have time. He has a nice practical looking place. What did you say the name was?”

“D’Annunzio,” the Colonel said. “Writer.”

He added to himself, not wishing to confuse Jackson, nor be difficult, as he had been with the man several times that day, writer, poet, national hero, phraser of the dialectic of Fascism, macabre egotist, aviator, commander, or rider, in the first of the fast torpedo attack boats, Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry without knowing how to command a company, nor a platoon properly, the great, lovely writer of Notturno whom we respect, and jerk.

Up ahead now there was a crossing place of gondolas at the Santa Maria del Giglio and, beyond, was the wooden dock of the Gritti.

“That’s the hotel where we are stopping at, Jackson.”

The Colonel indicated the three story, rose colored, small, pleasant palace abutting on the Canal. It had been a dependence of the Grand Hotel—but now it was its own hotel and a very good one. It was probably the best hotel, if you did not wish to be fawned on, or fussed over, or over-flunkied, in a city of great hotels, and the Colonel loved it.

“It looks O.K. to me, sir,” Jackson said.

“It is O.K.,” the Colonel said.

The motor boat came gallantly up beside the piling of the dock. Every move she makes, the Colonel thought, is a triumph of the gallantry of the aging machine. We do not have war horses now like old Traveller, or Marbot’s Lysette who fought, personally, at Eylau. We have the gallantry of worn-through rods that refuse to break; the cylinder head that does not blow though it has every right to, and the rest of it.

“We’re at the dock, sir,” Jackson said.

“Where the hell else would we be, man. Jump out while I settle with this sportsman.”

He turned to the boatman and said, “That was thirty five hundred, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, my Colonel.”

“I’ll not forget about the over-age jeep engine. Take this and buy your horse some oats.”

The porter, who was taking the bags from Jackson, heard this and laughed.

“No veterinarian will ever fix his horse.”

“She still runs,” the boatman said.

“But she doesn’t win any races,” the porter said. “How are you, my Colonel?”

“I couldn’t be better,” the Colonel said. “How are all the members of the Order?”

“All members are well.”

“Good,” said the Colonel. “I will go in and see the Grand Master.”

“He is waiting for you, my Colonel.”

“Let us not keep him waiting, Jackson,” the Colonel said. “You may proceed to the lobby with this gentleman and tell them to sign me in. See the sergeant gets a room,” he said to the porter. “We’re here for the night only.”

“The Baron Alvarito was here looking for you.”

“I’ll find him at Harry’s.”

“Good, my Colonel.”

“Where is the Grand Master?”

“I’ll find him for you.”

“Tell him I’ll be in the bar.”