Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XI

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◄  Chapter X Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XI
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 106-114)



Chapter XI

THEY came in, out of the wind and the cold, through the main entrance of the Gritti Palace Hotel, into the light and warmth of the lobby.

“Good evening, Contessa,” the concierge said. “Good evening, my Colonel. It must be cold outside.”

“It is,” the Colonel said, and did not add any of the rough or obscene phrases about the extent of the cold, or the force of the wind, that he could ordinarily have employed, for their mutual pleasure when speaking, alone, with the concierge.

As they entered the long hallway that led to the big stairs and to the elevator, leaving, on your right, the entrance to the bar, the doorway onto the Grand Canal, and the entrance to the dining room, the Gran Maestro came out of the bar.

He was wearing a formal white jacket, cut long, and he smiled at them and said, “Good evening, my Countess. Good evening, my Colonel.”

Gran Maestro” the Colonel said. The Gran Maestro smiled and, still bowing, said, “We are dining in the bar at the far end. There is no one here now in the winter time and the dining room is too big. I have saved your table. We have a very fine lobster if you would like him to commence with.”

“Is he really fresh?”

“I saw him this morning when he came from the market in a basket. He was alive and a dark green and completely unfriendly.”

“Would you like lobster, Daughter, to start your dinner?”

The Colonel was conscious of using the word, and so was the Gran Maestro, and so was the girl. But to each one it meant a different thing.

“I wanted to have him for you in case any pescecani came in. They are down now to gamble at the Lido. I was not trying to sell him.”

“I would love some lobster,” the girl said. “Cold, and with mayonnaise. The mayonnaise rather stiff.” She said this in Italian.

“It isn’t too expensive?” she said to the Colonel, seriously.

Ay hija mia,” the Colonel said.

“Feel in your right pocket,” she said.

“I’ll see that he is not too expensive,” the Gran Maestro said. “Or I’ll buy him myself. I could get him quite easily with a week’s wages.”

“Sold to TRUST,” the Colonel said, this being the code designation of the task force occupying Trieste. “He only costs me a day’s wages.”

“Put your hand in your right hand pocket and feel very rich,” the girl said.

The Gran Maestro had sensed this was a private joke and had gone; silently. He was happy about the girl, whom he respected and admired, and he was happy for his Colonel.

“I am rich,” the Colonel said. “But if you tease me about them, I will give them back, and on the linen tablecloth, and in public.”

He was teasing rough in his turn; throwing in the counter-attack without even thinking.

“No you won’t,” she said. “Because you love them already.”

“I would take anything I love and throw it off the highest cliff you ever saw and not wait to hear it bounce.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” the girl said. “You would not throw me off any high cliffs.”

“No,” the Colonel agreed. “And forgive me for talking badly.”

“You didn’t talk very badly and I didn’t believe it anyway,” the girl told him. “Now should I go to the women’s room to comb my hair and make myself presentable, or should I come up to your room?”

“Which do you wish?”

“To come to your room, of course, and see how you live and how things are there.”

“What about the hotel?”

“Everything is known in Venice anyway. But it is also known who my family are and that I am a good girl. Also they know it is you and it is I. We have some credit to exhaust.”

“Good,” the Colonel said. “By stairs or elevator?”

“By elevator,” she said, and he heard the change in her voice. “You can call a boy or we can run it ourselves.”

“We run it ourselves,” the Colonel said. “I checked out on elevators long ago.”

It was a good ride with a slight bump, and a rectification at the end, and the Colonel thought: Checked out, eh? You better be checked out again.

The corridor was now not simply beautiful, but exciting, and putting the key into the lock was not a simple process, but a rite.

“Here it is,” the Colonel said when he swung the door open. “What there is of it.”

“It is charming,” the girl said. “But it is awfully cold with the windows open.”

“I’ll close them.”

“No, please. Leave them open if you like it that way.”

The Colonel kissed her and felt her wonderful, long, young, lithe and properly built body against his own body, which was hard and good, but beat-up, and as he kissed her he thought of nothing.

They kissed for a long time, standing straight, and kissing true, in the cold of the open windows that were onto the Grand Canal.

“Oh,” she said. Then, “Oh.”

“We owe nothing,” the Colonel said. “Not a thing.”

“Will you marry me and will we have the five sons?”

“I will! I will.”

“The thing is that, would you?”

“Of course.”

“Kiss me once again and make the buttons of your uniform hurt me but not too much.”

They stood there and kissed each other true. “I have a disappointment for you, Richard,” she said. “I have a disappointment about everything.”

She said it as a flat statement and it came to the Colonel in the same way as a message came from one of the three battalions, when the battalion commander spoke the absolute truth and told you the worst.

“You are positive?”

“Yes.”

“My poor Daughter,” he said.

Now there was nothing dark about the word and she was his Daughter, truly, and he pitied her and loved her.

“No matter,” he said. “You comb yourself and make a new mouth and all that, and we will have a good dinner.”

“Say once more, first, that you love me and make the buttons very tight.”

“I love you,” the Colonel said quite formally.

Then he whispered into her ear as gently as he knew how to whisper, as his whisper was when they are fifteen feet away and you are a young lieutenant on a patrol, “I love you only, my best and last and only and one true love.”

“Good,” she said, and kissed him hard so he could feel the sweet salt of the blood inside his lip. And I like that too, he thought.

“Now I will comb my hair and make my mouth new and you can watch me.”

“Do you want me to shut the windows?”

“No,” she said. “We will do it all in the cold.”

“Who do you love?”

“You,” she said. “And we don’t have too much luck do we?”

“I don’t know,” the Colonel said. “Go ahead and comb your hair.”

The Colonel went into the bathroom to wash up for dinner. The bathroom was the only disappointing part of the room. Due to the exigencies of the Gritti having been built as a palace, there had been no site for bathrooms at the time of building, and, later, when they were introduced, they had been built down the corridor and those entitled to use them gave due warning before-hand and water was heated and towels laid out.

This bathroom had been cut, arbitrarily, from a corner of the room and it was a defensive, rather than an attacking bathroom, the Colonel felt. Washing, and forced to look in the mirror to check any traces of lipstick, he regarded his face.

It looks as though it had been cut out of wood by an indifferent craftsman, he thought.

He looked at the different welts and ridges that had come before they had plastic surgery, and at the thin, only to be observed by the initiate, lines of the excellent plastic operations after head wounds.

Well, that is what I have to offer as a gueule or a façade, he thought. It is a damn poor offer. The only thing is that it is tanned, and that takes some of the curse off of it. But, Christ what an ugly man.

He did not notice the old used steel of his eyes nor the small, long extending laugh wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, nor that his broken nose was like a gladiator’s in the oldest statues. Nor did he notice his basically kind mouth which could be truly ruthless.

The hell with you, he said to the mirror. You beat-up, miserable. Should we rejoin the ladies?

He went out from the bathroom into the room, and he was as young as at his first attack. Every worthless thing had been left in the bathroom. As always, he thought. That’s the place for it.

O'ù sont les neiges d’antan? O'ù sont les neiges d’autre-fois? Dans le pissoir toute la chose comme 'ça.

The girl whose first name was Renata, had the doors of the tall armoire open. They were all mirrored inside and she was combing her hair.

She was not combing it for vanity, nor to do to the Colonel what she knew it could and would do. She was combing it with difficulty and without respect, and, since it was very heavy hair and as alive as the hair of peasants, or the hair of the beauties of the great nobility, it was resistant to the comb.

“The wind made it very tangled,” she said. “Do you love me still?”

“Yes,” the Colonel said. “May I help you?”

“No, I’ve done it all my life.”

“You could stand sidewise.”

“No. All contours are for our five sons and for your head to rest on.”

“I was only thinking of the face,” the Colonel said. “But thank you for calling my attention. My attention has been faulty again.”

“I am over bold.”

“No,” the Colonel said. “In America, they make such things of wire and of sponge-rubber, such as you use in the seats of tanks. You never know there, whether there is any truth in the matter, unless you are a bad boy as I am.”

“Here it is not that way,” she said, and, with the comb, swung her now parted hair forward so that it came below the line of her cheek, and slanting back, hung over her shoulders.

“Do you like it neat?”

“It’s not too neat but it is damn lovely.”

“I could put it up and all that sort of thing if you value neatness. But I cannot manage hairpins and it seems so silly.” Her voice was so lovely and it always reminded him of Pablo Casals playing the cello that it made him feel as a wound does that you think you cannot bear. But you can bear anything, he thought.

“I love you very much the way you are,” the Colonel said. “And you are the most beautiful woman I have ever known, or seen, even in paintings by good painters.”

“I wonder why the portrait has not come.”

“The portrait is lovely to have,” the Colonel said, and now he was a General again without thinking of it. “But it is like skinning a dead horse.”

“Please don’t be rough,” the girl said. “I don’t feel at all like being rough tonight.”

“I slipped into the jargon of my sale métier.”

“No,” she said. “Please put your arms around me. Gently and well. Please. It is not a dirty trade. It is the oldest and the best, although most people who practice it are unworthy.”

He held her as tight as he could without hurting and she said, “I would not have you be a lawyer nor a priest. Nor sell things. Nor be a great success. I love you to be in your trade and I love you. Please whisper to me if you wish.”

The Colonel whispered; holding her tight, and with his heart broken, honestly and fairly, in his whisper that was as barely audible as a silent dog whistle heard close to the ear, “I love you, devil. And you’re my Daughter, too. And I don’t care about our losses because the moon is our mother and our father. And now let’s go down to dinner.”

He whispered this last so low that it was inaudible to anyone who did not love you.

“Yes,” the girl said. “Yes. But kiss me once more first.”