|◄ Chapter XI|| Across the River and Into the Trees
written by Ernest Hemingway
|Chapter XIII ►|
|Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 115-148)|
THEY were at their table in the far corner of the bar, where the Colonel had both his flanks covered, and he rested solidly against the corner of the room. The Gran Maestro knew about this, since he had been an excellent sergeant in a good company of infantry, in a first-rate regiment, and he would no more have seated his Colonel in the middle of a room than he would have taken up a stupid defensive position.
“The lobster,” the Gran Maestro said.
The lobster was imposing. He was double the size a lobster should be, and his unfriendliness had gone with the boiling, so that now he looked a monument to his dead self; complete with protruding eyes and his delicate, far-extended antennae that were for knowing what rather stupid eyes could not tell him.
He looks a little bit like Georgie Patton, the Colonel thought. But he probably never cried in his life when he was moved.
“Do you think that he will be tough?” he asked the girl in Italian.
“No,” the Gran Maestro assured them, still bowing with the lobster. “He’s truly not tough. He’s only big. You know the type.”
“All right,” the Colonel said. “Serve him.”
“And what will you drink?”
“What do you want, Daughter?”
“What you want.”
“Capri Bianco,” the Colonel said. “Secco and really cold.”
“I have it ready,” said the Gran Maestro.
“We are having fun,” the girl said. “We are having it again and without sorrow. Isn’t he an imposing lobster?”
“He is,” the Colonel answered. “And he better damn well be tender.”
“He will be,” the girl told him. “The Gran Maestro doesn’t lie. Isn’t it wonderful to have people who do not lie?”
“Very wonderful and quite rare,” the Colonel said. “I was thinking just now of a man named Georgie Patton who possibly never told the truth in his life.”
“Do you ever lie?”
“I’ve lied four times. But each time I was very tired. That’s not an excuse,” he added.
“I lied a lot when I was a little girl. But mostly it was making up stories. Or I hope so. But I have never lied to my own advantage.”
“I have,” said the Colonel. “Four times.”
“Would you have been a general if you had not lied?”
“If I had lied as others lied, I would have been a three-star general.”
“Would it make you happier to be a three-star general?”
“No,” said the Colonel. “It would not.”
“Put your right hand, your real hand, in your pocket once and tell me how you feel.”
The Colonel did so.
“Wonderful,” he said. “But I have to give them back you know.”
“No. Please no.”
“We won’t go into it now.”
Just then the lobster was served.
It was tender, with the peculiar slippery grace of that kicking muscle which is the tail, and the claws were excellent; neither too thin, nor too fat.
“A lobster fills with the moon,” the Colonel told the girl. “When the moon is dark he is not worth eating.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I think it may be because, with the full moon, he feeds all night. Or maybe it is that the full moon brings him feed.”
“They come from the Dalmatian coast do they not?”
“Yes,” the Colonel said. “That’s your rich coast in fish. Maybe I should say our rich coast.”
“Say it,” the girl said. “You don’t know how important things that are said are.”
“They are a damn sight more important when you put them on paper.”
“No,” the girl said. “I don’t agree. The paper means nothing unless you say them in your heart.”
“And what if you haven’t a heart, or your heart is worthless?”
“You have a heart and it is not worthless.”
I would sure as hell like to trade it in on a new one, the Colonel thought. I do not see why that one, of all the muscles, should fail me. But he said nothing of this, and put his hand in his pocket.
“They feel wonderful,” he said. “And you look wonderful.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I will remember that all week.”
“You could always just look in the glass.”
“The mirror bores me,” she said. “Putting on lipstick and moving your mouths over each other to get it spread properly and combing your too heavy hair is not a life for a woman, or even a girl alone, who loves someone. When you want to be the moon and various stars and live with your man and have five sons, looking at yourself in the mirror and doing the artifices of a woman is not very exciting.”
“Then let us be married at once.”
“No,” she said. “I had to make a decision about that, as about the other different things. All week long is my time to make decisions.”
“I make them too,” the Colonel told her. “But I am very vulnerable on this.”
“Let’s not talk about it. It makes a sweet hurt, but I think we would do better to find out what the Gran Maestro has for meat. Please drink your wine. You haven’t touched it.”
“I’ll touch it now,” the Colonel said. He did and it was pale and cold like the wines of Greece, but not resinous, and its body was as full and as lovely as that of Renata.
“It’s very like you.”
“Yes. I know. That’s why I wanted you to taste it.”
“I’m tasting it,” the Colonel said. “Now I will drink a full glass.”
“You’re a good man.”
“Thank you,” the Colonel said. “I’ll remember that all week and try to be one.” Then he said, “Gran Maestro.”
When the Gran Maestro came over, happy, conspiratorial, and ignoring his ulcers, the Colonel asked him, “What sort of meat have you that is worth our eating?”
“I’m not quite sure I know,” the Gran Maestro said. “But I will check. Your compatriot is over there in hearing distance. He would not let me seat him in the far corner.”
“Good,” the Colonel said. “We’ll give him something to write about.”
“He writes every night, you know. I’ve heard that from one of my colleagues at his hotel.”
“Good,” the Colonel said. “That shows that he is industrious even if he has outlived his talents.”
“We are all industrious,” the Gran Maestro said.
“In different ways.”
“I will go and check on what there actually is among the meats.”
“I am industrious.”
“You are also damn sagacious.”
The Gran Maestro was gone and the girl said, “He is a lovely man and I love how fond he is of you.”
“We are good friends,” the Colonel said. “I hope he has a good steak for you.”
“There is one very good steak,” the Gran Maestro said, reappearing.
“You take it, Daughter. I get them all the time at the mess. Do you want it rare?”
“Quite rare, please.”
“Al sangue,” the Colonel said, “as John said when he spoke to the waiter in French. Crudo, bleu, or just make it very rare.”
“It’s rare,” the Gran Maestro said. “And you, my Colonel?”
“The scaloppine with Marsala, and the cauliflower braised with butter. Plus an artichoke vinaigrette if you can find one. What do you want, Daughter?”
“Mashed potatoes and a plain salad.”
“You’re a growing girl.”
“Yes. But I should not grow too much nor in the wrong directions.”
“I think that handles it,” the Colonel said. “What about a fiasco of Valpolicella?”
“We don’t have fiascos. This is a good hotel, you know. It comes in bottles.”
“I forgot,” the Colonel said. “Do you remember when it cost thirty centesimi the liter?”
“And we would throw the empty fiascos at the station guards from the troop trains?”
“And we would throw all the left over grenades away and bounce them down the hillside coming back from the Grappa?”
“And they would think there was a break-through when they would see the bursts and you never shaved, and we wore the fiamme nere on the grey, open jackets with the grey sweaters?”
“And I drank grappa and could not even feel the taste?”
“We must have been tough then,” the Colonel said.
“We were tough then,” the Gran Maestro said. “We were bad boys then, and you were the worst of the bad boys.”
“Yes,” the Colonel said. “I think we were rather bad boys. You forgive this will you, Daughter?”
“You haven’t a picture of them, have you?”
“No. There weren’t any pictures except with Mr. d’Annunzio in them. Also most of the people turned out badly.”
“Except for us,” the Gran Maestro said. “Now I must go and see how the steak marches.”
The Colonel, who was a sub-lieutenant again now, riding in a camion, his face dust, until only his metallic eyes showed, and they were red-rimmed and sore, sat thinking.
The three key points, he thought. The massif of Grappa with Assalone and Pertica and the hill I do not remember the name of on the right. That was where I grew up, he thought, and all the nights I woke sweating, dreaming I would not be able to get them out of the trucks. They should not have gotten out, ever, of course. But what a trade it is.
“In our army, you know,” he told the girl, “practically no Generals have ever fought. It is quite strange and the top organization dislikes those who have fought.”
“Do Generals really fight?”
“Oh yes. When they are captains and lieutenants. Later, except in retreats, it is rather stupid.”
“Did you fight much? I know you did. But tell me.”
“I fought enough to be classified as a fool by the great thinkers.”
“When I was a boy, I fought against Erwin Rommel half way from Cortina to the Grappa, where we held. He was a captain then and I was an acting captain; really a sub-lieutenant.”
“Did you know him?”
“No. Not until after the war when we could talk together. He was very nice and I liked him. We used to ski together.”
“Did you like many Germans?”
“Very many. Ernst Udet I liked the best.”
“But they were in the wrong.”
“Of course. But who has not been?”
“I never could like them or take such a tolerant attitude as you do, since they killed my father and burned our villa on the Brenta and the day I saw a German officer shooting pigeons with a shot-gun in the Piazza San Marco.”
“I understand,” the Colonel said. “But please, Daughter you try to understand my attitude too. When we have killed so many we can afford to be kind.”
“How many have you killed?”
“One hundred and twenty-two sures. Not counting possibles.”
“You had no remorse?”
“Nor bad dreams about it?”
“Nor bad dreams. But usually strange ones. Combat dreams, always, for a while after combat. But then strange dreams about places mostly. We live by accidents of terrain, you know. And terrain is what remains in the dreaming part of your mind.”
“Don’t you ever dream about me?”
“I try to. But I can’t.”
“Maybe the portrait will help.”
“I hope so,” the Colonel said. “Please don’t forget to remind me to give back the stones.”
“Please don’t be cruel.”
“I have my small necessities of honor in the same proportions as we have our great and enveloping love. You cannot have the one without the other.”
“But you could give me privileges.”
“You have them,” the Colonel said. “The stones are in my pocket.”
The Gran Maestro came then with the steak and the scaloppine and the vegetables. They were brought by a sleek-headed boy who believed in nothing; but was trying hard to be a good second waiter. He was a member of the Order. The Gran Maestro served adroitly and with respect both for the food, and those that were to eat it.
“Now eat,” he said.
“Uncork that Valpolicella,” he said to the boy who had the eyes of an unbelieving spaniel.
“What do you have on that character?” the Colonel asked him, referring to his pitted compatriot, sitting chawing at his food, while the elderly woman with him ate with suburban grace.
“You should tell me. Not me you.”
“I never saw him before today,” the Colonel said. “He’s hard to take with food.”
“He condescends to me. He speaks bad Italian assiduously. He goes everywhere in Baedeker, and he has no taste in either food or wine. The woman is nice. I believe she is his aunt. But I have no real information.”
“He looks like something we could do without.”
“I believe we could. In a pinch.”
“Does he speak of us?”
“He asked me who you were. He was familiar with the Contessa’s name and had book-visited several palaces that had belonged to the family. He was impressed by your name, Madam, which I gave to impress him.”
“Do you think he will put us in a book?”
“I’m sure of it. He puts everything in a book.”
“We ought to be in a book,” the Colonel said. “Would you mind, Daughter?”
“Of course not,” the girl said. “But I’d rather Dante wrote it.”
“Dante isn’t around,” the Colonel said. “Can you tell me anything about the war?” the girl asked. “Anything that I should be permitted to know?”
“Sure. Anything you like.”
“What was General Eisenhower like?”
“Strictly the Epworth League. Probably that is unjust too. Also complicated by various other influences. An excellent politician. Political General. Very able at it.”
“The other leaders?”
“Let us not name them. They’ve named themselves enough in their memoirs. Mostly extremely plausible out of something called the Rotary Club that you would never have heard of. In this club, they have enameled buttons with their first names and you are fined if you call them by their proper names. Never fought. Ever.”
“Were there no good ones?”
“Yes, many. Bradley, the schoolmaster, and many others. Give you Lightning Joe as a good one. Very good.”
“Who was he?”
“Commanded the Seventh Corps when I was there. Very sound. Rapid. Accurate. Now chief of staff.”
“But what about the great leaders we heard about like the Generals Montgomery and Patton?”
“Forget them, Daughter. Monty was a character who needed fifteen to one to move, and then moved tardily.”
“I always supposed he was a great General.”
“He was not,” the Colonel said. “The worst part was he knew it. I have seen him come into an hotel and change from his proper uniform into a crowd-catching kit to go out in the evening to animate the populace.”
“Do you dislike him?”
“No. I simply think he is a British General. Whatever that means. And don’t you use the term.”
“But he beat General Rommel.”
“Yes. And you don’t think any one else had softened him up? And who can’t win with fifteen to one? When we fought here, when we were boys, the Gran Maestro and I, we won for one whole year with three to four against one and we won each one. Three main bad ones. That is why we can make jokes and not be solemn. We had something over one hundred and forty thousand dead that year. That is why we can speak gaily and without pomposity.”
“It is such a sad science; if it is a science,” the girl said. “I hate the war monuments, though I respect them.”
“I do not like them either. Nor the process which led to their construction. Have you ever seen that end of the thing?”
“No. But I would like to know.”
“Better not know,” the Colonel said. “Eat your steak before it gets cold and forgive me for talking about my trade.”
“I hate it but I love it.”
“I believe we share the same emotions,” the Colonel said. “But what is my pitted compatriot thinking three tables down?”
“About his next book, or about what it says in Baedeker.”
“Should we go and ride in a gondola in the wind after we have dined?”
“That would be lovely.”
“Should we tell the pitted man that we are going? I think he has the same pits on his heart and in his soul and maybe in his curiosity.”
“We tell him nothing,” the girl said. “The Gran Maestro can convey him any information we wish.”
Then she chewed well and solidly on her steak and said, “Do you think it is true that men make their own faces after fifty?”
“I hope not. Because I would not sign for mine.”
“You,” she said. “You.”
“Is the steak good?” the Colonel asked.
“It’s wonderful. How are your scaloppine?”
“Very tender and the sauce is not at all sweet. Do you like the vegetables?”
“The cauliflower is almost crisp; like celery.”
“We should have some celery. But I don’t think there is any or the Gran Maestro would have brought it.”
“Don’t we have fun with food? Imagine if we could eat together always.”
“I’ve suggested it.”
“Let’s not talk about that.”
“All right,” the Colonel said. “I’ve made a decision too. I’m going to chuck the army and live in this town, very simply, on my retirement pay.”
“That’s wonderful. How do you look in civilian clothes?”
“You’ve seen me.”
“I know it, my dear. I said it for a joke. You make rough jokes sometimes too, you know.”
“I’ll look all right. That is if you have a tailor here who can cut clothes.”
“There isn’t one here, but there is in Rome. Can we drive together to Rome to get the clothes?”
“Yes. And we will live outside the town at Viterbo and only go in for the fittings and for dinner in the evening. Then we’ll drive back in the night.”
“Will we see cinema people and speak about them with candour and perhaps not have a drink with them?”
“We’ll see them by the thousands.”
“Will we see them being married for the second and third time and then being blessed by the Pope?”
“If you go in for that kind of thing.”
“I don’t,” the girl said. “That’s one reason that I cannot marry you.”
“I see,” the Colonel said. “Thank you.”
“But I will love you, whatever that means, and you and I know what it means very well, as long as either of us is alive and after.”
“I don’t think you can love very much after you, yourself, are dead,” the Colonel said.
He started to eat the artichoke, taking a leaf at a time, and dipping them, heavy side down, into the deep saucer of sauce vinaigrette.
“I don’t know whether you can either,” the girl said. “But I will try. Don’t you feel better to be loved?”
“Yes,” the Colonel said. “I feel as though I were out on some bare-assed hill where it was too rocky to dig, and the rocks all solid, but with nothing jutting, and no bulges, and all of a sudden instead of being there naked, I was armoured. Armoured and the eighty-eights not there.”
“You should tell that to our writer friend with the craters of the moon face so he could write it tonight.”
“I ought to tell it to Dante if he was around,” the Colonel, suddenly gone as rough as the sea when a line squall comes up, said. “I’d tell him what I’d do if I were shifted, or ascended, into an armoured vehicle under such circumstances.”
Just then the Barone Alvarito came into the dining room. He was looking for them and, being a hunter, he saw them instantly.
He came over to the table and kissed Renata’s hand, saying, “Ciao, Renata.” He was almost tall, beautifully built in his town clothes, and he was the shyest man the Colonel had ever known. He was not shy from ignorance, nor from being ill at ease, nor from any defect. He was basically shy, as certain animals are, such as the Bongo that you will never see in the jungle, and that must be hunted with dogs.
“My Colonel,” he said. He smiled as only the truly shy can smile.
It was not the easy grin of the confident, nor the quick slashing smile of the extremely durable and the wicked. It had no relation with the poised, intently used smile of the courtesan or the politician. It was the strange, rare smile which rises from the deep, dark pit, deeper than a well, deep as a deep mine, that is within them.
“I can only stay a moment. I came to tell you that it looks quite good for the shoot. The ducks are coming in heavily from the north. There are many big ducks. The ones you like,” he smiled again.
“Sit down Alvarito. Please.”
“No,” the Barone Alvarito said. “We can meet at the Garage at two-thirty if you like? You have your car?”
“That makes it very good. Leaving at that hour, we will have time to see the ducks in the evening.”
“Splendid,” the Colonel said.
“Ciao, then, Renata. Good-bye, my Colonel. Until two-thirty.”
“We knew each other as children,” the girl said. “But he was about three years older. He was born very old.”
“Yes. I know. He is a good friend of mine.”
“Do you think your compatriot has looked him up in Baedeker?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the Colonel said. “Gran Maestro,” he asked, “did my illustrious compatriot look up the Barone in Baedeker?”
“Truly, my Colonel. I have not seen him pull his Baedeker during the meal.”
“Give him full marks,” the Colonel said. “Now look. I believe that the Valpolicella is better when it is newer. It is not a grand vin and bottling it and putting years on it only adds sediment. Do you agree?”
“Then what should we do?”
“My Colonel, you know that in a Great Hotel, wine must cost money. You cannot get Pinard at the Ritz. But I suggest that we get several fiascos of the good. You can say they come from the Contessa Renata’s estates and are a gift. Then I will have them decanted for you. This way, we will have better wine and make an impressive saving. I will explain it to the manager if you like. He is a very good man.”
“Explain it to him,” the Colonel said. “He’s not a man who drinks labels either.”
“In the meantime you might as well drink this. It is, very good, you know.”
“It is,” the Colonel said. “But it isn’t Chambertin.”
“What did we use to drink?”
“Anything,” the Colonel said. “But now I seek perfection. Or, rather, not absolute perfection, but perfection for my money.”
“I seek it, too,” the Gran Maestro said. “But rather vainly.”
“What do you want for the end of the meal?”
“Cheese,” the Colonel said. “What do you want, Daughter?”
The girl had been quiet and a little withdrawn, since she had seen Alvarito. Something was going on in her mind, and it was an excellent mind. But, momentarily, she was not with them.
“Cheese,” she said. “Please.”
“Bring them all and we’ll look at them,” the Colonel said.
The Gran Maestro left and the Colonel said, “What’s the matter, Daughter?”
“Nothing. Never anything. Always nothing.”
“You might as well pull out of it. We haven’t time for such luxuries.”
“No. I agree. We will devote ourselves to the cheese.”
“Do I have to take it like a corn cob?”
“No,” she said, not understanding the colloquialism, but understanding exactly what was meant, since it was she who had been doing the thinking. “Put your right hand in your pocket.”
“Good,” the Colonel said. “I will.”
He put his right hand in his pocket and felt what was there, first with the tips of his fingers, and then with the insides of his fingers, and then with the palm of his hand; his split hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “And now we begin the good part of it again. We will dedicate ourselves to the cheese with happiness.”
“Excellent,” the Colonel said. “I wonder what cheeses he has?”
“Tell me about the last war,” the girl said. “Then we will ride in our gondola in the cold wind.”
“It was not very interesting,” the Colonel said. “To us, of course, such things are always interesting. But there were only three, maybe four, phases that really interested me.”
“We were fighting a beaten enemy whose communications had been destroyed. We destroyed many divisions on paper, but they were ghost divisions. Not real ones. They had been destroyed by our tactical aviation before they ever got up. It was only really difficult in Normandy, due to the terrain, and when we made the break for Georgie Patton’s armour to go through and held it open on both sides.”
“How do you make a break for armour to go through? Tell me, please.”
“First you fight to take a town that controls all the main roads. Call the town St. Lo. Then you have to open up the roads by taking other towns and villages. The enemy has a main line of resistance, but he cannot bring up his divisions to counter-attack because the fighter-bombers catch them on the roads. Does this bore you? It bores the hell out of me.”
“It does not bore me. I never heard it said understandably before.”
“Thank you,” the Colonel said, “Are you sure you want more of the sad science?”
“Please,” she said. “I love you, you know, and I would like to share it with you.”
“Nobody shares this trade with anybody,” the Colonel told her. “I’m just telling you how it works. I can insert anecdotes to make it interesting, or plausible.”
“Insert some, please.”
“The taking of Paris was nothing,” the Colonel said. “It was only an emotional experience. Not a military operation. We killed a number of typists and the screen the Germans had left, as they always do, to cover their withdrawal. I suppose they figured they were not going to need a hell of a lot of office workers any more and they left them as soldiers.”
“Was it not a great thing?”
“The people of Leclerc, another jerk of the third or fourth water, whose death I celebrated with a magnum of Perrier-Jouet Brut 1942, shot a great number of rounds to make it seem important and because we had given them what they had to shoot with. But it was not important.”
“Did you take part in it?”
“Yes,” the Colonel said. “I think I could safely say, yes.”
“Did you have no great impressions of it? After all, it was Paris and not everyone has taken it.”
“The French, themselves, had taken it four days before. But the grand plan of what we called SHAEF, Supreme, get that word, Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, which included all the military politicians of the rear, and who wore a badge of shame in the form of a flaming something, while we wore a four-leafed clover as a designation, and for luck, had a master plan for the envelopment of the city. So we could not simply take it.
“Also we had to wait for the possible arrival of General or Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery who was unable to close, even, the gap at Falaise and found the going rather sticky and could not quite get there on time.”
“You must have missed him,” the girl said.
“Oh, we did,” the Colonel said. “No end.”
“But was there nothing noble or truly happy about it?”
“Surely,” the Colonel told her. “We fought from Bas Meudon, and then the Porte de Saint Cloud, through streets I knew and loved and we had no deads and did as little damage as possible. At the Etoile I took Elsa Maxwell’s butler prisoner. It was a very complicated operation. He had been denounced as a Japanese sniper. A new thing. Several Parisians were alleged to have been killed by him. So we sent three men to the roof where he had taken refuge and he was an Indo-China boy.”
“I begin to understand a little. But it is disheartening.”
“It is always disheartening as hell. But you are not supposed to have a heart in this trade.”
“But do you think it was the same in the time of the Grand Captains?”
“I am quite sure it was worse.”
“But you got your hand honorably?”
“Yes. Very honorably. On a rocky, bare-assed hill.”
“Please let me feel it,” she said.
“Just be careful around the center,” the Colonel said. “It’s split there and it still cracks open.”
“You ought to write,” the girl said. “I mean it truly. So someone would know about such things.”
“No,” the Colonel disagreed, “I have not the talent for it and I know too much. Almost any liar writes more convincingly than a man who was there.”
“But other soldiers wrote.”
“Yes. Maurice de Saxe. Frederick the Great. Mr. T’sun Su.”
“But soldiers of our time.”
“You use the word our with facility. I like it though.”
“But didn’t many modern soldiers write?”
“Many. But did you ever read them?”
“No. I have read mostly the classics and I read the illustrated papers for the scandals. Also, I read your letters.”
“Burn them,” the Colonel said. “They are worthless.”
“Please. Don’t be rough.”
“I won’t. What can I tell you that won’t bore you?”
“Tell me about when you were a General.”
“Oh, that,” he said and motioned to the Gran Maestro to bring Champagne. It was Roederer Brut ’42 and he loved it.
“When you are a general you live in a trailer and your Chief of Staff lives in a trailer, and you have bourbon whisky when other people do not have it. Your G’s live in the C.P. I’d tell you what G’s are, but it would bore you. I’d tell you about G1, G2, G3, G4, G5 and on the other side there is always Kraut-6. But it would bore you. On the other hand, you have a map covered with plastic material, and on this you have three regiments composed of three battalions each. It is all marked in colored pencil.
“You have boundary lines so that when the battalions cross their boundaries they will not then fight each other. Each battalion is composed of five companies. All should be good, but some are good, and some are not so good. Also you have divisional artillery and a battalion of tanks and many spare parts. You live by co-ordinates.”
He paused while the Gran Maestro poured the Roederer Brut ’42.
“From Corps,” he translated, unlovingly, cuerpo d’Armata, “they tell you what you must do, and then you decide how to do it. You dictate the orders or, most often, you give them by telephone. You ream out people you respect, to make them do what you know is fairly impossible, but is ordered. Also, you have to think hard, stay awake late and get up early.”
“And you won’t write about this? Not even to please me?”
“No,” said the Colonel. “Boys who were sensitive and cracked and kept all their valid first impressions of their day of battle, or their three days, or even their four, write books. They are good books but can be dull if you have been there. Then others write to profit quickly from the war they never fought in. The ones who ran back to tell the news. The news is hardly exact. But they ran quickly with it. Professional writers who had jobs that prevented them from fighting wrote of combat that they could not understand, as though they had been there. I do not know what category of sin that comes under.
“Also a nylon-smooth Captain of the Navy who could not command a cat-boat wrote about the intimate side of the truly Big Picture. Everybody will write their book sooner or later. We might even draw a good one. But I don’t write, Daughter.”
He motioned for the Gran Maestro to fill the glasses.
“Gran Maestro,” he said. “Do you like to fight?”
“But we fought?”
“Yes. Too much.”
“How is your health?”
“Wonderful except for the ulcers and a small cardiac condition.”
“No,” the Colonel said, and his heart rose and he felt it choke him. “You only told me about the ulcers.”
“Well you know now,” the Gran Maestro said and did not finish the sentence and he smiled his best and clearest smile that came as solid as the sun rises.
“How many times?”
The Gran Maestro held up two fingers as a man might do giving odds where he had credit, and all the betting was on the nod.
“I’m ahead of you,” the Colonel said. “But let’s not be macabre. Ask Donna Renata if she wishes more of this excellent wine.”
“You did not tell me there were more,” the girl said. “You owe it to me to tell me.”
“There has been nothing since we were together last.”
“Do you think it breaks for me? If so, I would come and simply be with you and care for you.”
“It’s just a muscle,” the Colonel said. “Only it is the main muscle. It works as perfectly as a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. The trouble is you cannot send it to the Rolex representative when it goes wrong. When it stops, you just do not know the time. You’re dead.”
“Don’t please talk about it.”
“You asked me,” the Colonel said.
“And that pitted man with the caricature face? He has no such thing?”
“Of course not,” the Colonel told her. “If he is a mediocre writer he will live forever.”
“But you’re not a writer. How do you know this?”
“No,” the Colonel said. “By the grace of God. But I’ve read several books. We have a lot of time to read when we are unmarried. Not as much as the merchant marine maybe. But plenty. I can tell one writer from another and I tell you that a mediocre writer has a long span of life. They ought to all draw longevity pay.”
“Could you tell me any anecdotes, and we stop talking about this, which is my true sorrow?”
“I can tell you hundreds of them. All true.”
“Tell me just one. Then we will finish this wine and then go in the gondola.”
“Do you think you will be warm enough?”
“Oh, I’m sure I will.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” the Colonel said. “Everything about war bores those who have not made it. Except the tales of the liars.”
“I would like to know about the taking of Paris.”
“Why? Because I told you that you looked like Marie Antoinette in the tumbril?”
“No. I was complimented by that and I know we are a little alike in profile. But I have never been in any tumbril, and I would like to hear about Paris. When you love someone and he is your hero, you like to hear about the places and the things.”
“Please turn your head,” the Colonel said, “and I will tell you. Gran Maestro is there any more in that wretched bottle?”
“No,” the Gran Maestro answered.
“Then bring another.”
“I have one already iced.”
“Good. Serve it. Now, Daughter, we parted from the column of the General Leclerc at Clamart. They went to Montrouge and the Porte d’Orleans and we went directly to Bas Meudon and secured the bridge of the Porte de Saint Cloud. Is this too technical and does it bore you?”
“It would be better with a map.”
“We secured the bridge and established a bridge-head on the other side of the river and we threw the Germans, living and dead, who had defended the bridge, into the Seine River,” he stopped. “It was a token defense of course. They should have blown it. We threw all these Germans into the River Seine. They were nearly all office workers, I believe.”
“The next morning, we were informed that the Germans had strong points at various places, and artillery on Mount Valérien, and that tanks were roaming the streets. A portion of this was true. We were also requested not to enter too rapidly as the General Leclerc was to take the city. I complied with this request and entered as slowly as I could.”
“How do you do that?”
“You hold up your attack two hours and you drink champagne whenever it is offered to you by patriots, collaborators or enthusiasts.”
“But was there nothing wonderful nor great, the way it is in books?”
“Of course. There was the city itself. The people were very happy. Old general officers were walking about in their moth-balled uniforms. We were very happy, too, not to have to fight.”
“Did you not have to fight at all?”
“Only three times. Then not seriously.”
“But was that all you had to fight to take such a city?”
“Daughter, we fought twelve times from Rambouillet to enter the city. But only two of them were worth describing as fights. Those at Toussus le Noble and at LeBuc. The rest was the necessary garnishing of a dish. I really did not need to fight at all except at those two places.”
“Tell me some true things about fighting.”
“Tell me you love me.”
“I love you,” the girl said. “You can publish it in the Gazzettino if you like. I love your hard, flat body and your strange eyes that frighten me when they become wicked. I love your hand and all your other wounded places.”
“I better try to tell you something pretty good,” the Colonel said. “First I can tell you that I love you Period.”
“Why don’t you buy some good glass?” the girl asked, suddenly. “We could go to Murano together.”
“I don’t know anything about glass.”
“I could teach you. It would be fun.”
“We lead too nomadic a life for good glass.”
“But when you retire and live here.”
“We’ll get some then.”
“I wish that that was now.”
“So do I, except that I go duck shooting tomorrow and that tonight is tonight.”
“Can I come duck shooting?”
“Only if Alvarito asks you.”
“I can make him ask me.”
“I doubt that.”
“It isn’t polite to doubt what your Daughter says when she is old enough not to lie.”
“All right, Daughter. I withdraw the doubt.”
“Thank you. For that I will not go and be a nuisance. I will stay in Venice and go to Mass with Mother and my aunt and my great-aunt and visit my poors. I am an only child so I have many duties.”
“I always wondered what you did.”
“That’s what I do. Also, I’ll have my maid wash my head and give me a manicure and a pedicure.”
“You can’t do that because the shoot is on Sunday.”
“Then I’ll do that on Monday. On Sunday, I will read all the illustrated papers including the outrageous ones.”
“Maybe they’ll have pictures of Miss Bergman. Do you still want to be like her?”
“Not any more,” the girl said. “I want to be like me only much, much better and I want to have you love me.”
“Also,” she said suddenly and unmaskingly, “I want to be like you. Can I be like you a little while tonight?”
“Of course,” the Colonel said. “In what town are we anyway?”
“Venice,” she said. “The best town, I think.”
“I quite agree. And thank you for not asking me for more war episodes.”
“Oh you are going to have to tell them to me later.”
“Have to?” the Colonel said and the cruelty and resolution showed in his strange eyes as clearly as when the hooded muzzle of the gun of a tank swings toward you.
“Did you say have to, Daughter?”
“I said it. But I did not mean it in that way. Or, if I did wrong, I am sorry. I meant will you please tell me more true episodes later? And explain me the things I do not understand?”
“You can use have to if you want, Daughter. The hell with it.”
He smiled and his eyes were as kind as they ever were, which was not too kind, as he knew. But there was nothing now that he could do about it except to try to be kind to his last and true and only love.
“I don’t really mind, Daughter. Please believe me. I know about command and, at your age, I used to take considerable pleasure in exercising it.”
“But I don’t want to command,” the girl said. In spite of her resolution not to cry, her eyes were wet. “I wish to serve you.”
“I know. But you wish to command, too. There’s nothing wrong in that. All people such as us have it.”
“Thank you for the such as us.”
“It wasn’t hard to say,” the Colonel said. “Daughter,” he added.
Just then the concierge came to the table and said, “Excuse me, my Colonel. There is a man outside, I believe he is a servant of yours, my Lady, with quite a large package which he says is for the Colonel. Should I keep it in the storeroom or have it sent to your room?”
“To my room,” the Colonel said
“Please,” the girl said. “Can’t we look at it here? We don’t care about anyone here, do we?”
“Have it unwrapped and brought in here.”
“Later, you may have it taken with great care to my room and have it wrapped, solidly, for transport at noon tomorrow.”
“Very good, my Colonel.”
“Are you excited to see it?” the girl asked.
“Very,” said the Colonel. “Gran Maestro some more of that Roederer, please, and please place a chair in such a position that we may view a portrait. We are devotees of the pictorial arts.”
“There’s no more Roederer cold,” the Gran Maestro said. “But if you would like some Perrier-Jouet—”
“Bring it,” the Colonel said and added, “Please.”
“I don’t talk like Georgie Patton,” the Colonel told her. “I don’t have to. And besides he’s dead.”
“Yes, Poor man all his life. Although quite rich in money and with a lot of armour.”
“Do you have anything against armour?”
“Yes. Most of the people inside of it. It makes men into bullies which is the first step toward cowardice; true cowardice I mean. Perhaps it is a little complicated by claustrophobia.”
Then he looked at her and smiled and regretted taking her beyond her depth, as you might take a new swimmer on a shallow, shelving beach, into too deep water; and he sought to reassure her.
“You forgive me, Daughter. Much of what I say is unjust. But it is truer than the things that you will read in Generals’ memoirs. After a man gets one star, or more, the truth becomes as difficult for him to attain as the Holy Grail was in our ancestors’ time.”
“But you were a general officer.”
“Not for too damn long,” the Colonel said. “Now Captains,” the General said, “they know the exact truth and they can mostly tell it to you. If they can’t, you reclassify them.”
“Would you reclassify me if I lied?”
“It would depend on what you lied about.”
“I’m not going to lie about anything. I don’t want to be reclassified. It sounds horrible.”
“It is,” the Colonel said. “And you send them back to have it done to them with eleven different copies of why it should be done, every one of which you sign.”
“Did you reclassify many?”
The concierge came into the room with the portrait, carrying it in its big frame, much as a ship moves when she is carrying too much sail.
“Get two chairs,” the Colonel said to the second waiter, “and put them there. See that the canvas does not touch the chairs. And hold it so it does not slip.”
Then to the girl he said, “We’ll have to change that frame.”
“I know,” she said. “It was not my choice. Take it unframed with you and we’ll choose a good frame next week. Now look at it. Not at the frame. At what it says, or does not say, of me.”
It was a beautiful portrait; neither cold, nor snobbish, nor stylised, nor modern. It was the way you would want your girl painted if Tintoretto were still around and, if he were not around, you settled for Velasquez. It was not the way either of them painted. It was simply a splendid portrait painted, as they sometimes are, in our time.
“It’s wonderful,” the Colonel said. “It is truly lovely.”
The concierge and the second waiter were holding it, and looking at it around the edges. The Gran Maestro was admiring fully. The American, two tables down, was looking at it with his journalistic eyes, wondering who painted it. The back of the canvas was to the other diners.
“It is wonderful,” the Colonel said. “But you can’t give me that.”
“I already have,” the girl said. “I’m sure my hair was never that long over my shoulders.”
“I think it probably was.”
“I could try to let it get that long if you want.”
“Try,” the Colonel said. “You great beauty you. I love you very much. You and you portrayed on canvas.”
“Tell the waiters if you like. I’m sure it won’t come as a great shock to them.”
“Take the canvas upstairs to my room,” the Colonel said to the concierge. “Thank you very much for bringing it in. If the price is right, I am going to buy it.”
“The price is right,” the girl said to him. “Should we have them take it and the chairs down and make a special showing of it for your compatriot? The Gran Maestro could tell him the address of the painter and he could visit the picturesque studio.”
“It is a very lovely portrait,” the Gran Maestro said. “But it should be taken to the room. One should never let Roederer or Perrier-Jouet do the talking.”
“Take it to the room, please.”
“You said please without a pause before it.”
“Thank you,” the Colonel said. “I am very deeply moved by the portrait and I am not entirely responsible for what I say.”
“Let’s neither of us be responsible.”
“Agreed,” the Colonel said. “The Gran Maestro is really very responsible. He always was.”
“No,” the girl said. “I think he did not only from responsibility but from malice. We all have malice, you know, of some kind or another in this town. I think perhaps he did not want the man to have even a journalist’s look into happiness.”
“Whatever that is.”
“I learned that phrase from you, and now you have re-learned it back from me.”
“That’s the way it goes,” the Colonel said. “What you win in Boston you lose in Chicago.”
“I don’t understand that at all.”
“Too hard to explain,” the Colonel said. Then, “No. Of course it isn’t. Making things clear is my main trade. The hell with being too hard to explain. It is like professional football, calcio, What you win in Milano you lose in Torino.”
“I don’t care about football.”
“Neither do I,” the Colonel said. “Especially not about the Army and Navy game and when the very high brass speaks in terms of American football so they can understand, themselves, what they are talking of.”
“I think we will have a good time tonight. Even under the circumstances, whatever they are.”
“Should we take this new bottle in the gondola?”
“Yes,” the girl said. “But with deep glasses. I’ll tell the Gran Maestro. Let’s get our coats and go.”
“Good. I’ll take some of this medicine and sign for the G.M. and we’ll go.”
“I wish it was me taking the medicine instead of you.”
“I’m glad as hell it isn’t,” the Colonel said. “Should we pick our gondola or have them bring one to the landing?”
“Let’s gamble and have them bring one to the landing. What do we have to lose?”
“Nothing, I guess. Probably nothing.”