Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XL

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◄  Chapter XXXIX Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XL
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XLI  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 278-287)



Chapter XL

HE was in the sunken oak hogshead that they used in the Veneto for blinds. A blind is any artifice you use to hide the shooter from that which he is attempting to shoot, which, in this case, were ducks.

It had been a good trip out with the boys, once they had met in the garage, and a good evening with excellent food cooked on the old open-hearth kitchen. Three shooters rode in the rear seat, on the way to the shooting place. Those who did not lie had permitted themselves a certain amount of exaggeration and the liars had never been in fuller flower.

A liar, in full flower, the Colonel had thought, is as beautiful as cherry trees, or apple trees when they are in blossom. Who should ever discourage a liar, he thought, unless he is giving you co-ordinates?

The Colonel had collected liars all his life, as some men gather postage-stamps. He did not classify them, except at the moment, nor treasure them truly. He just enjoyed, completely, hearing them lie at the moment, unless, of course, something concerned with duty was involved. Last night there had been a fair amount of good lying after the grappa had been passed around, and the Colonel had enjoyed it.

There had been smoke in the room from the open charcoal fire; no, there were logs, he thought. Anyway a liar lies best when there is a little smoke or when the sun has set.

He had come close to lying twice himself, and had held it up, and merely exaggerated. I hope anyway, he thought.

Now here was the frozen lagoon to ruin everything. But it was not ruined.

A pair of pin-tails came, suddenly, from nowhere, slanting down fast in a dive no airplane ever made, and the Colonel heard their feathered trajectory and swung and killed the drake. He lay on the ice, hitting it as solid as a duck can hit ice, and, before he was down, the Colonel had killed his mate, who was climbing, long-necked and fast.

She fell alongside the drake.

So it is murder, the Colonel thought. And what isn’t nowadays? But, boy, you can still shoot.

Boy, hell, he thought. You beat-up old bastard. But look at them come now.

They were widgeon, and they came in a whisp that coagulated and then stretched to nothing. Then they coagulated again and the treacherous duck on the ice started to talk to them.

Let them turn once more, the Colonel said to himself. Keep your head down, and do not move even your eyes.

They are going to come in.

They came in well, with treachery speaking to them.

Their wings were suddenly set to alight, as when you lower the flaps. Then they saw it was ice and they rose, climbing.

The shooter, who was not a Colonel now, nor anything but a gun handler, rose in the wooden barrel and got two. They hit the ice almost as solidly as the big ducks.

Two is enough from one family, the Colonel said. Or was it one tribe?

The Colonel heard a shot behind him, where he knew there was no other blind, and turned his head to look across the frozen lagoon to the far, sedge-lined shore.

That does it, he thought.

A bunch of mallards, that had been coming in low, were flaring up into the sky, seeming to stand on their tails as they climbed.

He saw one fall, then heard another shot.

It was the sullen boatman shooting at the ducks that would have come to the Colonel.

How, how can he do that? the Colonel thought.

The man had a shot-gun to shoot any cripples that might be escaping where the dog could not get them. For him to fire at ducks that were coming to the Colonel’s blind was, in shooting, as bad a thing as one man could do to another.

The boatman was too far away to hear a shout. So the Colonel fired at him twice.

It is too far for the pellets to reach, he thought, but at least he will know that I know what he is doing. What the hell is this all about? On a beautifully run shoot like this one too? This is the best organized and best run duck shoot I have ever shot at and I have had as much fun shooting here as I ever had in my life. What is the matter with that son of a bitch?

He knew how bad his anger was for him. So he took two of the pills and washed them down with a drink of Gordon’s gin from his flask since there was no water.

He knew the gin was bad for him too and he thought, everything is bad for me except rest and very light exercise. OK, rest and light exercise, boy. Do you suppose that is light exercise?

You, beauty, he said to himself. I wish you were here now and we were in the double blind and if we could only just feel the backs of our shoulders touch. I’d look around and see you and I would shoot the high ducks well, to show off and try to put one in the blind without having it hit you. I’d try to pull one down like this, he said, hearing the wings in the air. He rose, turned, saw the single drake, long necked and beautiful, the wings fast moving and travelling to the sea. He saw him sharp and clear and in the sky with the mountains behind him. He met him, covered him and pulled as he swung as far back as he could swing the gun.

The drake came down on the ice, just outside the perimeter of the blind, and broke the ice as he fell. It was the ice that had been broken to put out the decoys and it had re-frozen lightly. The calling hen looked at him as he lay and shifted her feet.

“You never saw him before in your life,” the Colonel said to the hen. “I don’t believe you even saw him coming. Though you may have. But you didn’t say anything.”

The drake had hit with his head down and his head was under the ice. But the Colonel could see the beautiful winter plumage on his breast and wings.

I’d like to give her a vest made of the whole plumage the way the old Mexicans used to ornament their gods, he thought. But I suppose these ducks have to go to the market and no one would know how to skin and cure the skins anyway. It could be beautiful, though, with Mallard drake skins for the back and sprig for the front with two longitudinal stripes of teal. One coming down over each breast Be a hell of a vest. I’m pretty sure she’d like it.

I wish that they would fly, the Colonel thought. A few fool ducks might come in. I have to stay ready for them if they do. But none came in and he had to think.

There were no shots from the other blinds and only occasional shots from the sea.

With the good light, the birds could see the ice and they no longer came in and instead went out to the open sea to raft up. So he had no shooting and he thought without intention, trying to find what had made it at the first. He knew he did not deserve it and he accepted it and he lived by it, but he sought, always, to understand it.

One time it had been two sailors when he had been walking with the girl at night. They had whistled at her and, the Colonel thought, that was a harmless enough thing and he should have let it go.

But there was something wrong with it. He sensed it before he knew it. Then he knew it solidly, because he had stopped under a light, in order that they might see what he wore on his shoulders, so that they might take the other side of the street.

What he wore on each shoulder was a small eagle with wings out-stretched. It was embroidered onto the coat he wore in silver thread. It was not conspicuous, and it had been there a long time. But it was visible.

The two sailors whistled again.

“Stay over there against the wall if you want to watch it,” the Colonel had said to the girl. “Or look away.”

“They are very big and young.”

“They won’t be big for long,” the Colonel promised her.

The Colonel walked over to the whistlers.

“Where is your shore patrol?” he asked.

“How would I know?” the biggest whistler said. “All I want is a good look at the dame.”

“Do people like you have names and serial numbers?”

“How would I know,” one said.

The other said, “I wouldn’t tell a chicken Colonel if I had.”

Old army boy, the Colonel thought, before he hit him. Sea lawyer. Knows all his rights.

But he hit him with a left from nowhere and hit him three times as he started to go.

The other one, the first whistler, had closed fast and well, for a man who had been drinking, and the Colonel gave him the elbow in the mouth and then, under the light, had a good right hand shot at him. When it was in, he glanced at the second whistler and saw that was okay.

Then he threw a left hook. Then he put the right way into the body, coming up. He threw another left hook and then turned away and walked toward the girl because he did not want to hear the head hit the pavement.

He checked on the one that had it first, and noted he slept peacefully, chin down, with the blood coming out of his mouth. But it was still the right color, the Colonel noted.

“Well, there goes my career,” he said to the girl. “Whatever that was. But those people certainly wear funny pants.”

“How are you?” the girl asked.

“I’m fine. Did you watch it?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll have bad hands in the morning,” he said absent-mindedly. “But I think we can walk away from it all right. But let’s walk slowly.”

“Please walk slowly.”

“I did not mean it that way. I meant let’s not be hurried in our departure.”

“We will walk as slowly as two people can walk.”

So they walked.

“Do you want to try an experiment?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s walk so we make even the backs of our legs look dangerous.”

“I’ll try. But I don’t think I can.”

“Well, let’s just walk then.”

“But didn’t they hit you?”

“One pretty good right behind the ear. The second boy when he came in.”

“Is that what fighting’s like?”

“When you’re lucky.”

“And when you’re not lucky?”

“Your knees bend too. Either forward or backward.”

“Do you still care for me after you have fought?”

“I love you much more than before if it were possible.”

“Can’t it be possible? It would be nice. I love you more since I saw that thing. Am I walking slowly enough?”

“You walk like a deer in the forest, and sometimes you walk as well as a wolf, or an old, big coyote when he is not hurried.”

“I’m not sure I wish to be an old big coyote.”

“Wait till you see one,” the Colonel said. “You’ll wish. You walk like all the great predators, when they walk softly. And you are not a predator.”

“That I can promise.”

“Walk a little ahead so I can see.”

She walked ahead and the Colonel said, “You walk like a champion before he is the champion. If you were a horse I would buy you if I had to borrow the money at twenty percent a month.”

“You don’t have to buy me.”

“I know about that. That was not what we were discussing. We were discussing your gait.”

“Tell me,” she said. “What happens to those men? That’s one of the things I don’t know about fighting. Shouldn’t I have stayed and cared for them?”

“Never,” the Colonel told her. “Remember that; never. I hope they split a good concussion between them. They can rot. They caused the accident. There is no question of civil responsibility. We were all insured. If I can tell you one thing, Renata, about fighting.”

“Tell me please.”

“If you ever fight, then you must win it. That’s all that counts. All the rest is cabbage, as my old friend Dr. Rommel put it.”

“Did you really like Rommel?”

“Very much.”

“But he was your enemy.”

“I love my enemies, sometimes, more than my friends. And the Navy, you know, wins all their fights always. This I learned in a place called the Pentagon building when I was still permitted to enter that building by the front door. If you like we can stroll back down this street, or walk it fast, and ask those two that question.”

“I tell you truly, Richard. I have seen enough fighting for one night.”

“Me too, to tell the truth,” the Colonel said. But he said it in Italian and it started, “Anche io. Let’s go to Harry’s for one, and then I will walk you home.”

“Didn’t you hurt your bad hand?”

“No,” he explained. “I only threw it once to the head. The other times I punched to the body with it.”

“May I feel it?”

“If you will feel very softly.”

“But it is terribly swollen.”

“There is nothing broken in it and that sort of swelling always goes down.”

“Do you love me?”

“Yes. I love you with two moderately swollen hands and all my heart.”