Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XLI

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◄  Chapter XL Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XLI
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XLII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 288-294)



Chapter XLI

SO that was that, and maybe it was that day or maybe it was another that made the miracle. You never knew, he thought. There was the great miracle and he had never consciously implemented it. Nor, he thought, you son of a bitch, did you ever oppose it.

It was colder than ever and the broken ice re-froze and the calling duck did not even look up now. She had abandoned treachery for an attempt at security.

You bitch, the Colonel thought. Though that is unjust. It is your trade. But why is it a hen calls better than a drake. You ought to know, he thought. And even that’s not true. What the hell is true? Drakes actually call better.

Now don’t think of her. Don’t think of Renata because it won’t do you any good, boy. It might even be bad for you. Also you said good-bye. What a good-bye that was. Complete with tumbrils. And she would have climbed up in the damned tumbril with you too. Just so long as it was a real tumbril. Very rough trade, he thought. Loving and leaving. People can get hurt at it.

Who gave you a right to know a girl like that?

Nobody, he answered. But Andrea introduced me to her.

But how could she love a sad son of a bitch like you?

I do not know, he thought truly. I truly do not know.

He did not know, among other things, that the girl loved him because he had never been sad one waking morning of his life; attack or no attack. He had experienced anguish and sorrow. But he had never been sad in the morning.

They make almost none like that, and the girl, although she was a young girl, knew one when she saw one.

Now she is at home and sleeping, the Colonel thought. That is where she ought to be and not in any god damn duck blind with the decoys frozen up on us.

I wish to hell she was here though, if this were a double blind, and have her looking to the west just in case one string did come in. It would be nice if she were warm enough. Maybe I can trade somebody out of one of these real down jackets that nobody ever sold that had one. The kind they issued to the Air Force once by mistake.

I could find out how they are quilted and make one with duck down from here, he thought. I’d get a good tailor to cut it and we would make it double-breasted with no pocket on the right and lay in a chamois shooting patch so the gun butt would never catch.

I’ll do it, he said to himself. I’ll do it, or I will get one off some joker and have it cut down for her. I’d like to get her a good Purdey 12, not too damn light, or a pair of Boss over and unders. She should have guns as good as she is. I suppose a pair of Purdey’s, he thought.

Just then he heard the light swish of pinions, fast beating in the air, and looked up. But they were too high. He only looked up with his eyes. But they were so high they could see the barrel, and him in it, and the frozen-in decoys with the dejected hen, who saw them too, and quacked hard in her loyal treachery. The ducks, they were pin-tails, continued on their flight out toward the sea.

 

I never give her anything, as she pointed out. There was the small moor’s head. But it does not mean anything. She selected it and I bought it. That is no way to give a gift.

What I would like to give her is security, which does not exist anymore; all my love, which is worthless; all my worldly goods, which are practically non-existent except for two good shot-guns, my soldier suits, the medals and decorations with the citations, and some books. Also a retired Colonel’s pay.

With all my worldly goods I thee endow, he thought.

And she gave me her love, some hard stones, which I returned, and the picture. Well, I can always give her back the picture. I could give her my ring from V.M.I., he thought, but where the hell did I lose that?

She wouldn’t want a D.S.C. with cluster, nor two silver stars, nor the other junk, nor the medals of her own country. Nor those of France. Nor those of Belgium. Nor the trick ones. That would be morbid.

I better just give her my love. But how the hell do you send it? And how do you keep it fresh? They can’t pack it in dry ice.

Maybe they can. I must inquire. But how do I get that condemned jeep engine to that old man?

Figure it out, he thought. Figuring things out has been your trade. Figuring things out when they were shooting at you, he added.

I wish that son of a bitch that is lousing up the duck shooting had a rifle and I had a rifle. We would find out pretty soon who could figure things out. Even in a lousy barrel in a marsh where you can’t maneuver. He’d have to come to get me.

Stop that, he said to himself, and think about your girl. You do not want to kill anyone anymore; ever.

Who are you feeding that to, he told himself. You going to run as a Christian? You might give it an honest try. She would like you better that way. Or would she? I don’t know, he said frankly. I honest to Christ don’t know.

Maybe I will get Christian toward the end. Yes, he said, maybe you will. Who wants to make a bet on that?

“You want to bet on that?” he asked the calling duck. But she was looking up at the sky behind him and had commenced her small chuckling talk.

They came over too high and never circled. They only looked down and went on toward the open sea.

They must really be rafted up out there, the Colonel thought. There’s probably some punt gunner trying to sneak up on them now. They will be pretty close into the lee with the wind and someone is sneaking onto them now surely. Well, when he makes his shot some may break back this way. But with it frozen-up I suppose I really ought to pull out instead of staying here like a fool.

I have killed enough and I have shot as well or better than I can shoot. Better hell, he thought. Nobody shoots better than you here except Alvarito and he’s a kid and shoots faster. But you kill fewer ducks than many bad and fair shots.

Yes, I know about that. I know about that and why and we don’t go by the numbers anymore and we threw away the book too, remember?

He remembered how, by some miracle of chance in a war, he had been with his best friend for a moment in action in the Ardennes and they were pursuing.

It was early fall and it was on a high upland with sandy roads and trails and the trees were scrub oak and pines. The enemy tank and half track prints showed clearly in the moist sand.

It had rained the day before, but now it was clearing and visibility was good and you could see well across all the high, rolling country and he and his friend were glassing it as carefully as though they were hunting game.

The Colonel, who was a General then, and an assistant divisional commander, knew the individual print of each tracked vehicle they were pursuing. He also knew when the enemy vehicles had run out of mines and approximately the number of rounds that remained to them. He also had figured where they had to fight before they reached the Siegfried. He was sure they would not fight at either of these two places but would race for where they were going.

“We’re pretty far up for people of our exalted rank, George,” he said to his best friend.

“Ahead of the point, General.”

“It’s okay,” the Colonel had said. “Now we throw away the book and chase for keeps.”

“I couldn’t agree more fully, General. Because I wrote the book myself,” his best friend said. “But suppose they had left something there?”

He pointed to the logical place to defend.

“They didn’t leave anything there,” the Colonel had said. “They haven’t enough stuff left even for a chicken-shit fire-fight.”

“Everybody’s right until he’s wrong,” his best friend said, adding, “General.”

“I’m right,” the Colonel said. He was right, too, although in obtaining his exact knowledge he had not fulfilled the complete spirit of the Geneva Convention which was alleged to govern the operation of war.

“Let’s really chase,” his best friend had said.

“There’s nothing holding us up and I guarantee they won’t stop at either of those two. I didn’t get that from any kraut either. That’s from my head.”

He looked over the country once more, and heard the wind in the trees and smelled the heather under their boots and looked once more at the tracks in the wet sand and that was the end of that story.

I wonder if she’d like that? he thought. No. It builds me up too much. I’d like to get somebody else to tell it to her though and build me solid. George can’t tell it to her. He’s the only one that could tell it to her and he can’t. He sure as hell can’t.

I’ve been right over ninety-five percent of the time and that’s a hell of a batting average even in something as simple as war. But that five percent when you are wrong can certainly be something.

I’ll never tell you about that, Daughter. That’s just a noise heard off stage in my heart. My lousy chicken heart. That bastard heart certainly couldn’t hold the pace.

Maybe he will, he thought, and took two of the tablets and a swallow of gin and looked across the gray ice.

I’m going to get that sullen character in now and pick up and get the hell to the farm house or the lodge, I suppose that I should call it. The shooting’s over.