Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXIII

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◄  Chapter XXII Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXIII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXIV  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 194-198)



Chapter XXIII

THE Colonel arrived at the lobby of the Hotel Gritti-Palace. His gondolieres were paid off and, now, inside the hotel, there was no wind.

It had taken two men to bring the gondola up the Grand Canal from the market. They had both worked hard, and he had paid them what it was worth, and some more.

“Are there any calls for me?” he asked the concierge, who was now in attendance.

The concierge was light, fast, sharp-faced, intelligent and polite, always, without subservience. He wore the crossed keys of his office on the lapels of his blue uniform without ostentation. He was the concierge. It is a rank very close to that of Captain, the Colonel thought. An officer and not a Gentleman. Make it top sergeant in the old days; except he’s dealing always with the brass.

“My lady has called twice,” the concierge said in English. Or whatever that language should be called we all speak, the Colonel thought. Leave it at English. That is about what they have left. They should be allowed to keep the name of the language. Cripps will probably ration it shortly anyway.

“Please put me through to her at once,” he told the concierge.

The concierge commenced to dial numbers. “You may talk over there, my Colonel,” he said. “I have made the connection.”

“You’re fast.”

“Over there,” the concierge said.

Inside the booth the Colonel lifted the receiver and said, automatically, “Colonel Cantwell speaking.”

“I called twice, Richard,” the girl said. “But they explained that you were out. Where were you?”

“At the market. How are you, my lovely?”

“No one listens on this phone at this hour. I am your lovely. Whoever that is.”

“You. Did you sleep well?”

“It was like skiing in the dark. Not really skiing but really dark.”

“That’s the way it should be. Why did you wake so early? You’ve frightened my concierge.”

“If it is not un-maidenly, how soon can we meet, and where?”

“Where you wish and when you wish.”

“Do you still have the stones and did Miss Portrait help any?”

“Yes to both questions. The stones are in my upper left hand pocket buttoned down. Miss Portrait and I talked late and early and it made everything much easier.”

“Do you love her more than me?”

“I’m not abnormal yet. Perhaps that’s bragging. But she’s lovely.”

“Where should we meet P”

“Should we have breakfast at the Florian, on the right hand side of the square? The square should be flooded and it will be fun to watch.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes if you want me.”

“I want you,” the Colonel said and hung up.

Coming out of the telephone booth he, suddenly, did not feel good and then he felt as though the devil had him in an iron cage, built like an iron lung or an iron maiden, and he walked, gray-faced, to the concierge’s desk and said, in Italian, “Domenico, Ico, could you get me a glass of water, please?”

The concierge was gone and he leaned on the desk resting. He rested lightly and without illusion. Then the concierge was back with the glass of water, and he took four tablets of the type that you take two, and he continued resting as lightly as a hawk rests.

“Domenico,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I have something here in an envelope that you can put in the safe. It may be called for either by myself, in person, or in writing, or by the person you have just put that call through to. Would you like that in writing?”

“No. It would be unnecessary.”

“But what about you, boy? You’re not immortal, are you?”

“Fairly so,” the concierge told him. “But I will put it in writing, and after me, comes the Manager and the Assistant Manager.”

“Both good men,” the Colonel agreed.

“Wouldn’t you like to sit down, my Colonel?”

“No. Who sits down except men and women in change of life hotels? Do you sit down?”

“No.”

“I can rest on my feet, or against a God damned tree. My countrymen sit down, or lie down, or fall down. Give them a few energy crackers to stall their whimpers.”

He was talking too much to regain confidence quickly.

“Do they really have energy crackers?”

“Sure. It has something in it that keeps you from getting erections. It’s like the atomic bomb, only played backwards.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“We have the most terrific military secrets that one General’s wife ever told another. Energy crackers is the least of it. Next time we will give all Venice botulism from 56,000 feet. There’s nothing to it,” the Colonel explained. “They give you anthrax, and you give them botulism.”

“But it will be horrible.”

“It will be worse than that,” the Colonel assured him. “This isn’t classified. It’s all been published. And while it goes on you can hear Margaret, if you tune in right, singing the Star Spangled Banner on the radio. I think that could be arranged. The voice I would not describe as a big one. Not as we know voices who have heard the good ones in our time. But everything is a trick now. The radio can almost make the voice. And the Star Spangled Banner is fool-proof until toward the last.”

“Do you think they will drop anything here?”

“No. They never have.”

The Colonel, who was four star general now, in his wrath and in his agony and in his need for confidence, but secured temporarily through the absorption of the tablets, said, “Ciao, Domenico,” and left the Gritti.

He figured it took twelve and one half minutes to reach the place where his true love would probably arrive a little late. He walked it carefully and at the speed he should walk it. The bridges were all the same.