Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter VII

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◄  Chapter VI Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter VII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter VIII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 54-66)

Chapter VII

THE bar was just across from the lobby of the Gritti, although lobby, the Colonel thought, was not the accurate term to describe that gracious entrance. Didn’t Giotto describe a circle, he thought? No, that was in math. What he remembered and loved best as an anecdote about that painter was: “It was easy,” said Giotto as he drew the perfect circle. Who the hell had said that and where?

“Good evening, Privy Counsellor,” he said to the barman, who was not a full paid-up member of the order but whom he did not wish to offend. “What can I do for you?”

“Drink, my Colonel.”

The Colonel looked out of the windows and the door of the bar onto the waters of the Grand Canal. He could see the big black hitching post for the gondolas and the late afternoon winter light on the wind-swept water. Across the Canal was the old Palace and a wood barge, black and broad, was coming up the Canal, her bluff bows pushing up a wave even though she had the wind behind her.

“Make it a very dry Martini,” the Colonel said. “A double.”

Just then the Grand Master came into the room. He was wearing his formal attire as a head waiter. He was truly handsome as a man should be, from the inside out, so that his smile starts from his heart, or whatever is the center of the body, and comes frankly and beautifully to the surface, which is the face.

He had a fine face with the long, straight nose of his part of the Veneto; the kind, gay, truthful eyes and the honorable white hair of his age, which was two years older than that of the Colonel.

He advanced smiling, lovingly, and yet conspiratorially, since they both shared many secrets, and he extended his hand, which was a big, long, strong, spatular fingered hand; well kept as was becoming, as well as necessary, to his position, and the Colonel extended his own hand, which had been shot through twice, and was slightly misshapen. Thus contact was made between two old inhabitants of the Veneto, both men, and brothers in their membership in the human race, the only club that either one paid dues to, and brothers, too, in their love of an old country, much fought over, and always triumphant in defeat, which they had both defended in their youth.

Their handshake was only long enough to feel, firmly, the contact and the pleasure of meeting and then the Maitre d’Hotel said, “My Colonel.”

The Colonel said, “Gran Maestro.”

Then the Colonel asked the Gran Maestro to accompany him in a drink, but the Maitre d’Hotel said that he was working. It was impossible as well as forbidden.

“Fornicate forbidden,” said the Colonel.

“Of course,” the Gran Maestro said. “But everyone must comply with his duty, and here the rules are reasonable, and we all should comply with them; me especially, as a matter of precept.”

“Not for nothing are you the Gran Maestro,” the Colonel said.

“Give me a small Carpano punto e mezzo,” the Gran Maestro said to the bar-tender, who was still outside of the Order for some small, not defined, unstated reason. “To drink to the ordine.”

Thus, violating orders and the principle of precept and example in command, the Colonel and the Gran Maestro downed a quick one. They did not hurry nor did the Gran Maestro worry. They simply made it fast.

“Now, let us discuss the affairs of the Order,” the Colonel said. “Are we in the secret chamber?”

“We are,” said the Grand Maestro. “Or I declare it to be such.”

“Continue,” said the Colonel.

The order, which was a purely fictitious organization, had been founded in a series of conversations between the Gran Maestro and the Colonel. Its name was El Ordine Militar, Nobile y Espirituoso de los Caballeros de Brusadelli. The Colonel and the head waiter both spoke Spanish, and since that is the best language for founding orders, they had used it in the naming of this one, which was named after a particularly notorious multi-millionaire non-taxpaying profiteer of Milan, who had, in the course of a dispute over property, accused his young wife, publicly and legally through due process of law, of having deprived him of his judgment through her extraordinary sexual demands.

Gran Maestro,” the Colonel said. “Have you heard from our Leader, The Revered One?”

“Not a word. He is silent these days.”

“He must be thinking.”

“He must.”

“Perhaps he is meditating on new and more distinguished shameful acts.”

“Perhaps. He has not given me any word.”

“But we can have confidence in him.”

“Until he dies,” the Gran Maestro said. “After that he can roast in hell and we will revere his memory.”

“Giorgio,” the Colonel said. “Give the Gran Maestro another short Carpano.”

“If it is your order,” the Gran Maestro said, “I can only obey.”

They touched glasses.

“Jackson,” the Colonel called. “You’re on the town. You can sign here for chow. I don’t want to see you until eleven hundred tomorrow in the lobby, unless you get into trouble. Do you have money?”

“Yes, sir,” Jackson said and thought, the old son of a bitch really is as crazy as they say. But he might have called me instead of shouting.

“I don’t want to see you,” the Colonel said.

Jackson had entered the room and stood before him at a semblance of attention.

“I’m tired of seeing you, because you worry and you don’t have fun. For Christ sake have yourself some fun.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You understand what I said?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Repeat it.”

“Ronald Jackson, T5 Serial Number 100678, will present himself in the lobby of this Gritti Hotel at 1100 tomorrow morning, I don’t know the date, sir, and will absent himself from the Colonel’s sight and will have some fun. Or,” he added, “will make every reasonable attempt to attain that objective.”

“I’m sorry, Jackson,” the Colonel said. “I’m a shit.”

“I beg to differ with the Colonel,” Jackson said.

“Thank you, Jackson,” the Colonel told him. “Maybe I’m not. I hope you are correct. Now muck off. You’ve got a room here, or you should have, and you can sign for chow. Now try and have some fun.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jackson.

When he was gone, the Gran Maestro said to the Colonel, “What is the boy? One of those sad Americans?”

“Yes,” the Colonel said. “And by Jesus Christ we’ve got a lot of them. Sad, self-righteous, over-fed and under-trained. If they are under-trained, it is my fault. But we’ve got some good ones, too.”

“Do you think they would have done Grappa, Pasubio and the Basso Piave as we did?”

“The good ones, yes. Maybe better. But you know, in our army, they don’t even shoot for self-inflicted wounds.”

“Jesus,” said the Gran Maestro. He and the Colonel both remembered the men who decided that they did not wish to die; not thinking that he who dies on Thursday does not have to die on Friday, and how one soldier would wrap another’s puttee-ed leg in a sandbag so there would be no powder burns, and loose off at his friend from as far a distance as he figured he could hit the calf of the leg without hitting bone, and then fire twice over the parapet to alibi the shot. They had this knowledge shared between them and it was for this reason and for a true, good hatred of all those who profited by war that they had founded the Order.

They knew, the two of them, who loved and respected each other, how poor boys who did not want to die, would share the contents of a match box full of gonorrheal pus to produce the infection that would keep them from the next murderous frontal attack.

They knew about the other boys who put the big ten centime pieces under their arm-pits to produce jaundice. And they knew, too, about the richer boys who, in different cities, had paraffin injected under their knee-caps so they would not have to go to the war.

They knew how garlic could be used to produce certain effects which could absent a man from an attack, and they knew all, or nearly all, of the other tricks; for one had been a sergeant and the other a lieutenant of infantry and they had fought on the three key points, Pasubio, Grappa, and the Piave, where it all made sense.

They had fought, too, in the earlier stupid butchery on the Isonzo and the Carso. But they were both ashamed of those who had ordered that, and they never thought about it except as a shameful, stupid thing to be forgotten and the Colonel remembered it technically as something to learn from. So, now, they had founded the Order of Brusadelli; noble, military and religious, and there were only five members.

“What is the news of the Order?” the Colonel asked the Gran Maestro.

“We have ascended the cook at the Magnificent to the rank of Commendatore. He comported himself as a man three times on his fiftieth birthday. I accepted his statement without corroboration. He never lied ever.”

“No. He never lied. But it is a topic on which you must be chary in your credibility.”

“I believed him. He looked ruined.”

“I can remember him when he was a tough kid and we called him the cherry buster.”

Anch’ io.”

“Have you any concrete plans for the Order during the Winter?”

“No, Supreme Commander.”

“Do you think we should give a homage to the Honorable Pacciardi?”

“As you wish.”

“Let’s defer it,” the Colonel said. He thought a moment, and signalled for another dry Martini.

“Do you think we might organize a homage and manifestation in some historic place such as San Marco or the old church at Torcello in favor of our Great Patron, Brusadelli, the Revered One?”

“I doubt if the religious authorities would permit it at this moment.”

“Then let us abandon all ideas of public manifestations for this winter, and work within our cadres, for the good of the Order.”

“I think that is soundest,” the Gran Maestro said. “We will re-group.”

“And how are you, yourself?”

“Awful,” the Gran Maestro said. “I have low blood pressure, ulcers, and I owe money.”

“Are you happy?”

“All the time,” the Gran Maestro said. “I like my work very much, and I meet extraordinary and interesting characters, also many Belgians. They are what we have instead of the locusts this year. Formerly we had the Germans. What was it Caesar said, ‘And the bravest of these are the Belgians.’ But not the best dressed. Do you agree?”

“I’ve seen them quite well costumed in Brussels,” the Colonel said. “A well fed, gay capital. Win, lose, or draw. I have never seen them fight though everyone tells me that they do.”

“We should have fought in Flanders in the old days.”

“We were not born in the old days,” the Colonel said. “So we automatically could not have fought then.”

“I wish we could have fought with the Condottieri when all you had to do was out-think them and they conceded. You could think and I would convey your orders.”

“We’d have to take a few towns for them to respect our thinking.”

“We would sack them if they defended them,” the Gran Maestro said. “What towns would you take?”

“Not this one,” the Colonel said. “I’d take Vicenza, Bergamo and Verona. Not necessarily in that order.”

“You’d have to take two more.”

“I know,” the Colonel said. He was a general now again, and he was happy. “I figured that I’d by-pass Brescia. It could fall of its own weight.”

“And how are you, Supreme Commander?” the Gran Maestro said, for this taking of towns had pulled him out of his depth.

He was at home in his small house in Treviso, close to the fast flowing river under the old walls. The weeds waved in the current and the fish hung in the shelter of the weeds and rose to insects that touched the water in the dusk. He was at home, too, in all operations that did not involve more than a company, and understood them as clearly as he understood the proper serving of a small dining room; or a large dining room.

But when the Colonel became a general officer again, as he had once been, and thought in terms that were as far beyond him as calculus is distant from a man who has only the knowledge of arithmetic, then he was not at home, and their contact was strained, and he wished the Colonel would return to things they both knew together when they were a lieutenant and a sergeant.

“What would you do about Mantova?” the Colonel asked.

“I do not know, my Colonel. I do not know whom you are fighting, nor what forces they have, nor what forces are at your disposal.”

“I thought you said we were Condottieri. Based on this town or on Padova.”

“My Colonel,” the Gran Maestro said, and he had diminished in no way, “I know nothing, truly, about Condottieri. Nor really how they fought then. I only said I would like to fight under you in such times.”

“There aren’t any such times any more,” the Colonel said and the spell was broken.

What the hell, maybe there never was any spell, the Colonel thought. The hell with you, he said to himself. Cut it out and be a human being when you’re half a hundred years old.

“Have another Carpano,” he said to the Gran Maestro.

“My Colonel, you will allow me to refuse because of the ulcers?”

“Yes. Yes. Of course. Boy, what’s your name, Giorgio? Another dry Martini. Secco, molto secco e doppio.”

Breaking spells, he thought. It is not my trade. My trade is killing armed men. A spell should be armed if I’m to break it. But we have killed many things which were not armed. All right, spell breaker, retract.

Gran Maestro,” he said. “You are still Gran Maestro and fornicate the Condottieri.”

“They were fornicated many years ago, Supreme Commander.”

“Exactly,” the Colonel said.

But the spell was broken.

“I’ll see you at dinner,” the Colonel said. “What is there?”

“We will have anything you wish, and what we do not have I will send out for.”

“Do you have any fresh asparagus?”

“You know we cannot have it in these months. It comes in April and from Bassano.”

“Then I’ll just urinate the usual odor,” the Colonel said. “You think of something and I’ll eat it.”

“How many will you be?” the Maitre d’Hotel asked.

“We’ll be two,” the Colonel said. “What time do you close the bistro?”

“We will serve dinner as late as you wish to eat, my Colonel.”

“I’ll try to be in at a sound hour,” the Colonel said. “Good-bye, Gran Maestro,” he said and smiled, and gave the Gran Maestro his crooked hand.

“Good-bye, Supreme Commander,” said the Gran Maestro and the spell was existent again and almost complete.

But it was not quite complete and the Colonel knew it and he thought: why am I always a bastard and why can I not suspend this trade of arms, and be a kind and good man as I would have wished to be.

I try always to be just, but I am brusque and I am brutal, and it is not that I have erected the defense against brown-nosing my superiors and brown-nosing the world. I should be a better man with less wild boar blood in the small time which remains. We will try it out tonight, he thought. With whom, he thought, and where, and God help me not to be bad.

“Giorgio,” he said to the barman, who had a face as white as a leper, but with no bulges, and without the silver shine.

Giorgio did not really like the Colonel very much, or perhaps he was simply from Piemonte, and cared for no one truly; which was understandable in cold people from a border province. Borderers are not trusters, and the Colonel knew about this, and expected nothing from anyone that they did not have to give.

“Giorgio,” he said to the pale-faced barman. “Write these down for me, please.”

He went out, walking as he had always walked, with a slightly exaggerated confidence, even when it was not needed, and, in his always renewed plan of being kind, decent and good, he greeted the concierge, who was a friend, the assistant manager, who spoke Swahili and had been a prisoner of war in Kenya, and was a most amiable man, young, full of juice, handsome, perhaps not yet a member of the Order, and experienced.

“And the cavaliere ufficiale who manages this place?” he asked. “My friend?”

“He is not here,” the assistant manager said. “For the moment, naturally,” he added.

“Give him my compliments,” the Colonel said. “And have somebody show me to my room.”

“It is the usual room. You still wish it?”

“Yes. Have you taken care of the Sergeant?”

“He is well taken care of.”

“Good,” said the Colonel.

The Colonel proceeded to his room accompanied by the boy who carried his bag.

“This way, my Colonel,” the boy said, when the elevator halted with slight hydraulic inaccuracy at the top floor.

“Can’t you run an elevator properly?” the Colonel asked.

“No, my Colonel,” the boy said. “The current is not stable.”