Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter VIII

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◄  Chapter VII Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter VIII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter IX  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 67-76)



Chapter VIII

THE Colonel said nothing and preceded the boy down the corridor. It was large, wide and high ceilinged, and there was a long and distinguished interval between the doors of the rooms on the side of the Grand Canal. Naturally, since it had been a palace, there were no rooms without excellent views, except those which had been made for the servants.

The Colonel found the walk long, although it was a very short one, and when the waiter who served the room appeared, short, dark and with his glass eye in the left eye socket gleaming, unable to smile his full, true smile as he worked the big key in the lock, the Colonel wished that the door would open more rapidly.

“Open it up,” he said.

“I will, my Colonel,” the waiter said. “But you know these locks.”

Yes, the Colonel thought. I know them, but I wish that he would get it open.

“How are your family?” he said to the waiter, who had swung the door wide so that the Colonel, now entered, was within the room with the high, dark but well-mirrored armoire, the two good beds, the great chandelier and the view, through the still closed windows, onto the wind beaten water of the Grand Canal.

The Canal was grey as steel now in the quick, failing, winter light and the Colonel said, “Arnaldo, open the windows.”

“There is much wind, my Colonel, and the room is badly heated due to the lack of electric power.”

“Due to the lack of rainfall,” the Colonel said. “Open the windows. All of them.”

“As you wish, my Colonel.”

The waiter opened the windows and the north wind came into the room.

“Please call the desk and ask them to ring this number.” The waiter made the call while the Colonel was in the bathroom.

“The Contessa is not at home, my Colonel,” he said. “They believe you might find her at Harry’s.”

“You find everything on earth at Harry’s.”

“Yes, my Colonel. Except, possibly, happiness.”

“I’ll damn well find happiness, too,” the Colonel assured him. “Happiness, as you know, is a movable feast.”

“I am aware of that,” the waiter said. “I have brought Campari bitters and a bottle of Gordon Gin. May I make you a Campari with gin and soda?”

“You’re a good boy,” the Colonel said. “Where did you bring them from. The bar?”

“No. I bought them while you were away so that you would not have to spend money at the bar. The bar is very costly.”

“I agree,” the Colonel agreed. “But you should not use your own money on such a project.”

“I took a chance. We have both taken many. The gin was 3200 lire and is legitimate. The Campari was 800.”

“You’re a very good boy,” the Colonel told him. “How were the ducks?”

“My wife still speaks of them. We had never had wild ducks, since they are of such expense, and outside of our way of life. But one of our neighbors told her how to prepare them and these same neighbors ate them with us. I never knew that anything could be so wonderful to eat. When your teeth close on the small slice of meat it is an almost unbelievable delight.”

“I think so, too. There is nothing lovelier to eat than those fat iron-curtain ducks. You know their fly-way is through the great grain fields of the Danube. This is a splinter flight we have here, but they always come the same way since before there were shot-guns.”

“I know nothing about shooting for, sport,” the waiter said. “We were too poor.”

“But many people without money shoot in the Veneto.”

“Yes. Of course. One hears them shoot all night. But we were poorer than that. We were poorer than you can know, my Colonel.”

“I think I can know.”

“Perhaps,” the waiter said. “My wife also saved all the feathers and she asked me to thank you.”

“If we have any luck day after tomorrow, we’ll get plenty. The big ducks with the green heads. Tell your wife, with luck, there will be good eating ducks, fat as pigs with what they have eaten from the Russians, and with beautiful feathers.”

“How do you feel about the Russians, if it is not indiscreet to ask, my Colonel?”

“They are our potential enemy. So, as a soldier, I am prepared to fight them. But I like them very much and I have never known finer people nor people more as we are.”

“I have never had the good fortune to know them.”

“You will, boy. You will. Unless the Honorable Pacciardi stops them on the line of the Piave, which is a river which no longer contains water. It has been syphoned off for hydro-electric projects. Perhaps the Honorable Pacciardi will fight there. But I do not think he will fight for long.”

“I do not know the Honorable Pacciardi.”

“I know him,” said the Colonel.

“Now ask them to ring Harry’s and see if the Contessa is there. If not, have them ring the house again.”

The Colonel took the drink Arnaldo, the glass-eyed waiter, made him. He did not want it, and he knew that it was bad for him.

But he took it with his old wild-boar truculence, as he had taken everything all of his life, and he moved, still cat-like when he moved, although it was an old cat now, over to the open window and looked out on the great Canal which was now becoming as grey as though Degas had painted it on one of his greyest days.

“Thanks very much for the drink,” the Colonel said, and Arnaldo, who was talking into the telephone, nodded and smiled his glass-eyed smile.

I wish he did not have to have that glass eye, the Colonel thought. He only loved people, he thought, who had fought or been mutilated.

Other people were fine and you liked them and were good friends; but you only felt true tenderness and love for those who had been there and had received the castigation that everyone receives who goes there long enough.

So I’m a sucker for crips, he thought, drinking the unwanted drink. And any son of a bitch who has been hit solidly, as every man will be if he stays, then I love him.

Yes, his other, good, side said. You love them.

I’d rather not love anyone, the Colonel thought. I’d rather have fun.

And fun, his good side said to him, you have no fun when you do not love.

All right. I love more than any son of the great bitch alive, the Colonel said, but not aloud.

Aloud, he said, “Where are you getting on that call, Arnaldo?”

“Cipriani has not come in,” the waiter said. “They are expecting him at any moment and I am keeping the line open in case he arrives.”

“A costly procedure,” the Colonel said. “Get me a reading on who’s there so we don’t waste time. I want to know exactly who is there.”

Arnaldo spoke guardedly into the mouthpiece of the telephone.

He covered the mouth of the phone with his hand and said, “I am talking to Ettore. He says the Barone Alvarito is not there. The Count Andrea is there and he is rather drunk, Ettore says, but not too drunk for you to have fun together. The group of ladies that comes in each afternoon are there and there is a Greek Princess, that you know, and several people that you do not know. Riff-raff from the American Consulate who have stayed on since noon.”

“Tell him to call back when the riff-raff goes and I’ll come over.”

Arnaldo spoke into the phone, then turned to the Colonel who was looking out of the window at the Dome of the Dogana, “Ettore says he will try to move them, but he is afraid Cipriani will not like it.”

“Tell him not to move them. They don’t have to work this afternoon and there is no reason why they should not get drunk like any other man. I just don’t want to see them.”

“Ettore says he will call back. He told me to tell you he thinks the position will fall of its own weight.”

“Thank him for calling,” the Colonel said.

He watched a gondola working up the Canal against the wind and thought, not with Americans drinking. I know they are bored. In this town, too. They are bored in this town. I know the place is cold and their wages are inadequate and what fuel costs. I admire their wives, for the valiant efforts they make to transport Keokuk to Venice, and their children already speak Italian like little Venetians. But no snapshots today, Jack. Today we are giving the snapshots, the barroom confidences, the unwanted comradely drinks and the tedious woes of the Consular services a miss.

“No second, third or fourth vice-consuls today, Arnaldo.”

“There are some very pleasant people from the Consulate.”

“Yeah,” the Colonel said. “They had a hell of a nice consul here in 1918. Everybody liked him. I’ll try to remember his name.”

“You go back a long way back, my Colonel.”

“I go back so damn far back that it isn’t funny.”

“Do you remember everything from the old days?”

“Everything,” the Colonel said. “Carroll was the man’s name.”

“I have heard of him.”

“You weren’t born then.”

“Do you think it is necessary to have been born at the time to know about things that have happened in this town, my Colonel?”

“You’re perfectly correct. Tell me, does everybody always know about everything that happens in this town?”

“Not everybody. But nearly everybody,” the waiter said. “After all, sheets are sheets and some one has to change them, and some one has to wash them. Naturally I do not refer to the sheets in a hotel such as this.”

“I’ve had some damn good times in my life without sheets.”

“Naturally. But the gondoliers, while they are the most cooperative and, for me, the finest people that we have, speak among themselves.”

“Naturally.”

“Then the clergy. While they would never violate the secrecy of the confessional, talk among themselves.”

“It is to be expected.”

“Their housekeepers talk among themselves.”

“It is their right.”

“Then the waiters,” Arnaldo said. “People talk at a table as though the waiter were stone-deaf. The waiter, according to his ethics, makes no attempt to ever overhear a conversation. But sometimes he cannot escape from hearing. Naturally, we have our own conversations among ourselves. Never in this hotel of course. I could go on.”

“I believe I get the point.”

“Not to mention the coiffeurs and the hair-dressers.”

“And what’s the news from the Rialto now?”

“You will get it all at Harry’s except the part you figure in.”

“Do I figure?”

“Everyone knows everything.”

“Well, it’s a damn pleasant story.”

“Some people don’t understand the Torcello part.”

“I’m damned if I do sometimes myself.”

“How old are you, my Colonel, if it is not indiscreet to ask?”

“Fifty plus one. Why didn’t you find out from the concierge? I fill out a slip there for the Questura.”

“I wanted to hear it from you yourself and to congratulate you.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Let me congratulate you anyway.”

“I can’t accept it.”

“You are very well liked in this city.”

“Thank you. That is a very great compliment.”

Just then the telephone buzzed.

“I’ll take it,” the Colonel said and heard Ettore’s voice say, “Who speaks?”

“Colonel Cantwell.”

“The position has fallen, my Colonel.”

“Which way did they go?”

“Toward the Piazza.”

“Good. I will be there at once.”

“Do you want a table?”

“In the corner,” said the Colonel and hung up.

“I am off for Harry’s.”

“Good hunting.”

“I hunt ducks day after tomorrow before first light in a botte in the marshes.”

“It will be cold, too.”

“I dare say,” the Colonel said and put on his trench coat and looked at his face in the glass of the long mirror as he put on his cap.

“An ugly face,” he said to the glass. “Did you ever see a more ugly face?”

“Yes,” said Arnaldo. “Mine. Every morning when I shave.”

“We both ought to shave in the dark,” the Colonel told him, and went out the door.