Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XVII

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◄  Chapter XVI Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XVII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XVIII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 171-174)

Chapter XVII

WHEN it started to be light, the Colonel saw the portrait. He, very probably, saw it as quickly as any man who was civilized and had to read and sign the forms he did not believe in, could see an object, as soon as it was visible. Yes, he said to himself, I have eyes and they have fairly fast perception still, and once they had ambition. I have led my Ruffians where they were well peppered. There are but three of the two hundred and fifty of them left alive and they are for the town’s end to beg during life.

That’s from Shakespeare, he told the portrait. The winner and still the undisputed champion.

Someone might take him, in a short bout. But I would rather revere him. Did you ever read King Lear, Daughter? Mister Gene Tunney did, and he was the champion of the world. But I read it too. Soldiers care for Mister Shakespeare too, though it may seem impossible. He writes like a soldier himself.

You have anything to say in your defense except to put your head back? he asked the portrait. You want some more, Shakespeare?

You don’t have to defend. You just rest and leave it as it is. It’s no good. Your defense and my defense is no damn good. But who could tell you to go out and hang yourself the way we do?

Nobody, he said to himself, and to the portrait. And certainly not me.

He put his good hand down and found that the room waiter had left a second bottle of Valpolicella alongside of where the first had been.

If you love a country, the Colonel thought, you might as well admit it. Sure, admit it boy.

I have loved three and lost them thrice. Give a credit. We’ve re-took two. Retaken, he corrected.

And we will retake the other one, General Fat Ass Franco on his shooting stick with the advice of his doctor and tame ducks and a screen of Moorish cavalry when he shoots.

Yes, he said softly to the girl who looked at him clearly now in the first and best light.

We will retake and they will all be hung upside down outside of filling stations. You have been warned, he added.

“Portrait,” he said, “why the hell can’t you just get into bed with me instead of being eighteen solid stone blocks away. Maybe more. I’m not as sharp now as I was; whenever.”

“Portrait,” he said to the girl, and to the portrait, and to the girl both; but there wasn’t any girl, and the portrait was as it was painted.

“Portrait, keep your God-damn chin up so you can break my heart easier.”

It certainly was a lovely present, the Colonel thought.

“Can you maneuver?” he asked the portrait. “Good and fast?”

Portrait said nothing and the Colonel answered, You known damn well she can. She’d out-maneuver you the best day you were ever born and she would stay and fight where you would eff-off, discreetly.

“Portrait,” he said. “Boy or daughter or my one true love or whatever it is; you know what it is, portrait.”

The portrait, as before, did not answer. But the Colonel, who was a General now again, early in the morning at the only time he really knew, and with Valpolicella, knew as absolutely as though he had just read his third Wassermann that there was no eff-off in portrait, and he felt shame for having talked to portrait roughly.

“I’ll be the best God-damned boy you ever witnessed today. And you can tell your principal that.”

Portrait, as was her fashion, was silent.

She probably would speak to a horse-cavalryman, the General, for now he had two stars, and they grated on his shoulders, and showed white in the vague, scuffed red on the plaque in front of his jeep. He never used command cars, nor semi-armoured vehicles complete with sand bags.

“The hell with you, portrait,” he said. “Or get your T.S. slip from the universal chaplain of us all, with combined religions. You ought to be able to eat on that.”

“The hell with you,” the portrait said, without speaking. “You low class soldier.”

“Yes,” the Colonel said, for now he was a Colonel again, and had relinquished all his former rank.

“I love you, portrait, very much. But don’t get rough with me. I love you very much because you are beautiful. But I love the girl better, a million times better, hear it?”

There was no sign that she heard it, so he tired of it.

“You are in a fixed position, portrait,” he said. “Without or with any frame. And I am going to maneuver.”

The portrait was as silent as she had been since the concierge had brought her into the room, and aided and abetted by the second waiter, had shown her to the Colonel and to the girl.

The Colonel looked at her and saw she was indefensible, now that the light was good, or almost good.

He saw, too, that she was the portrait of his own true love, and so he said, “I am sorry for all the stupidnesses I say. I do not wish ever to be brutal. Maybe we could both sleep a little while, with luck, and then, perhaps, your Mistress would call on the telephone?”

Maybe she will even call, he thought.