Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXI

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◄  Chapter XX Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXI
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXII  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 184-189)

Chapter XXI

THE Colonel took the ten centesimi gondola across the Canal, paying the usual dirty note, and standing with the crowd of those condemned to early rising.

He looked back at the Gritti and saw the windows of his room; still open. There was no promise nor threat of rain; only the same strong wild, cold wind from the mountains. Everyone in the gondola looked cold and the Colonel thought, I wish I could issue these wind-proof coats to everyone on board. God, and every officer that ever wore one, knows they are not water-proof, and who made the money out of that one?

You can’t get water through a Burberry. But I suppose some able jerk has his boy in Groton now, or maybe Canterbury, where the big contractors’ boys go, because our coats leaked.

And what about some brother officer of mine who split with him? I wonder who the Benny Meyers of the ground forces were? There probably wasn’t only one. Probably, he thought, there must be very many. You must not be awake yet, to talk that simply. They do keep the wind out though. The raincoats. Raincoats my ass.

The gondola pulled up between the stakes on the far bank of the canal and the Colonel watched the black-clad people climb up out of the black-painted vehicle. Is she a vehicle? he thought. Or must a vehicle have wheels or be tracked?

Nobody would give you a penny for your thoughts, he thought. Not this morning. But I’ve seen them worth a certain amount of money when the chips were down.

He penetrated into the far side of the city, the side that finally fronted on the Adriatic, and that he liked the best. He was going in by a very narrow street, and he was going to not keep track of the number of more or less north and south streets that he crossed, nor count the bridges, and then try and orient himself so he would come out at the market without getting up any dead ends.

It was a game you play, as some people used to play double Canfield or any solitary card games. But it had the advantage of you moving while you do it and that you look at the houses, the minor vistas, the shops and the trattorias and at old palaces of the city of Venice while you are walking. If you loved the city of Venice it was an excellent game.

It is a sort of solitaire ambulante and what you win is the happiness of your eye and heart. If you made the market, on this side of town, without ever being stymied, you won the game. But you must not make it too easy and you must not count.

On the other side of the town, game was to leave from the Gritti and make the Rialto by the Fondamente Nuove without a mistake.

Then you could climb the bridge and cross it and go down into the market. He liked the market best. It was the part of any town he always went to first.

Just then he heard the two young men behind him saying the things about him. He knew they were young men by their voices and he did not look back, but listened carefully for distance and waited for the next turn to see them, as he turned.

They are on their way to work, he decided. Maybe they are former Fascists or maybe they are something else, or maybe it is just the line that they are talking. But they are making it pretty personal now. It isn’t just Americans, it is also me, myself, my gray hair, the slightly crooked way I walk, the combat boots (those, of that stripe, disliked the practicability of combat boots. They liked boots that rang on the flag stones and took a high black polish.).

It is my uniform which they find to be without grace. Now it is why I am walking at this hour, and now it is their absolute security that I can no longer make love.

The Colonel swung sharp to the left at the next corner, seeing what he had to deal with and the exact distance, and when the two young men came around the corner which was formed by the apse of the church of Frari there was no Colonel. He was in the dead angle behind the apse of the ancient church and as they passed, he, hearing them come by their talk, stepped out with a hand in each low pocket of his raincoat and turned himself, and the raincoat, with the two hands in the pockets, toward them.

They stopped and he looked at them both in the face and smiled his old and worn death smile. Then he looked down at their feet, as you always look at the feet of such people, since they wear their shoes too tight, and when you take the shoes off them you see their hammer-toes. The Colonel spat on the pavement and said nothing.

The two of them, they were the first thing he had suspected, looked at him with hatred and with that other thing. Then they were off like marsh-birds, walking with the long strides of herons too, the Colonel thought, and something of the flight of curlews, and looking back with hatred, waiting to have the last word if the distance was ever safe.

It is a pity they weren’t ten against one, the Colonel thought. They might have fought. I should not blame them, since they were defeated.

But their manners were not good in respect to a man of my rank and age. Also it was not intelligent to think all fifty year old Colonels would not understand their language. Nor was it intelligent to think old Infantrymen would not fight this early in the morning against the simple odds of two to one.

I’d hate to fight in this town where I love the people. I would avoid it. But couldn’t those badly educated youths realize what sort of animal they were dealing with? Don’t they know how you get to walk that way? Nor any of the other signs that combat people show as surely as a fisherman’s hands tell you if he is a fisherman from the creases from the cord cuts.

It is true they only saw my back and ass and legs and boots. But you’d think they might have told from the way they must move. Maybe they don’t anymore. But when I had a chance to look at them and think, Take the two of them out and hang them, I believe they understood. They understood quite clearly.

What’s a man life worth anyway? Ten thousand dollars if his insurance is paid up in our army. What the hell has that got to do with it. Oh yes, that was what I was thinking about before those jerks showed; how much money I had saved my government, in my time when people like Benny Meyers were in the trough.

Yes, he said, and how much you lost them at the Chateau that time at ten G’s a head. Well nobody ever really understood it except me, I guess. There’s no reason to tell them now. Your commanding general sometimes puts things down as the Fortunes of War. Back at Army they know such things are bound to happen. You do it, as ordered, with a big butcher-bill and you’re a hero.

Christ, I am opposed to the excessive butcher-bill, he thought. But you get the orders, and you have to carry them out. It is the mistakes that are no good to sleep with. But why the hell sleep with them anyway. It never did any good. But they can certainly crawl into a sack sometimes. They can crawl in and stay in there with you.

Cheer up, boy, he said. Remember you had a lot of money on you when you picked that one. And you might have been stripped if you lost. You can’t fight a lick anymore with your hands, and you didn’t have any weapon.

So don’t be gloomy, boy, or man, or Colonel, or busted General. We’re almost to the market now and you made it without hardly noticing.

Hardly noticing is bad, he added.