Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXIX

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◄  Chapter XXVIII Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXIX
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXX  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 221-229)



Chapter XXIX

THEY lay on the pleasantly hard, new-made bed with their legs pressed tight against one another, and her head was on his chest, and her hair spread across his old hard neck; and he told her.

“We landed without much opposition. They had the true opposition at the other beach. Then we had to link up with the people who had been dropped, and take and secure various towns, and then we took Cherbourg. This was difficult, and had to be done very fast, and the orders were from a General called Lightning Joe that you never would have heard of. Good General.”

“Go on, please. You spoke about Lightning Joe before.”

“After Cherbourg we had everything. I took nothing but an Admiral’s compass because I had a small boat at that time on Chesapeake Bay. But we had all the Wehrmacht stamped Martell and some people had as much as six million German printed French francs. They were good until a year ago, and at that time they were worth fifty to the dollar, and many a man has a tractor now instead of simply one mule who knew how to send them home through his Esses, or sometimes his G’s.

“I never stole anything except the compass because I thought it was bad luck to steal, unnecessarily, in war. But I drank the cognac and I used to try to figure out the different corrections on the compass when I had time. The compass was the only friend I had, and the telephone was my life. We had more wire strung than there are cunts in Texas.”

“Please keep telling me and be as little rough as you can. I don’t know what the word means and I don’t want to know.”

“Texas is a big state,” the Colonel said. “That is why I used it and its female population as a symbol. You cannot say more cunts than Wyoming because there are less than thirty thousand there, perhaps, hell, make it fifty, and there was a lot of wire, and you kept stringing it and rolling it up, and stringing it again.”

“Go on.”

“We will cut to the break-through,” the Colonel said. “Please tell me if this bores you.”

“No.”

“So we made the mucking break-through,” the Colonel said, and now his head was turned to her head, and he was not lecturing; he was confessing.

“The first day most of them came over and dropped the Christmas tree ornaments that confuse the other people’s radar and it was called off. We were ready to go but they called it off. Quite properly I am sure. I love the very highest brass like I love the pig’s you know.”

“Tell it to me and don’t be bad.”

“Conditions were not propitious,” the Colonel said. “So the second day we were for it, as our British cousins, who could not fight their way out of a wet tissue towel, say, and over came the people of the wild, blue yonder.

“They were still taking off from the fields where they lived on that green-grassed aircraft carrier that they called England, when we saw the first of them.

“Shining, bright and beautiful, because they had scraped the invasion paint by then, or maybe they had not. My memory is not exact about this part.

“Anyway, Daughter, you could see the line of them going back toward the east further than you could see. It was like a great train. They were high in the sky and never more beautiful. I told my S-2 that we should call them the Valhalla Express. Are you tired of it?”

“No. I can see the Valhalla Express. We never saw it in such numbers. But we saw it. Many times.”

“We were back two thousand yards from where we were to take off from. You know what two thousand yards is, Daughter, in a war when you are attacking?”

“No. How could I?”

“Then the front part of the Valhalla Express dropped coloured smoke and turned and went home. This smoke was dropped accurately, and clearly showed the target which was the Kraut positions. They were good positions and it might have been impossible to move him out of them without something mighty and picturesque such as we were experiencing.

“Then, Daughter, the next sections of the Valhalla express dropped everything in the world on the Krauts and where they lived and worked to hold us up. Later it looked as though all of the earth had erupted and the prisoners that we took shook as a man shakes when his malaria hits him. They were very brave boys from the Sixth Parachute Division and they all shook and could not control it though they tried.

“So you can see it was a good bombing. Just the thing we always need in this life. Make them tremble in the fear of justice and of might.

“So then daughter, not to bore you, the wind was from the east and the smoke began to blow back in our direction. The heavies were bombing on the smoke line and the smoke line was now over us. Therefore they bombed us the same as they had bombed the Krauts. First it was the heavies, and no one need ever worry about hell who was there that day. Then, to really make the breakthrough good and to leave as few people as possible on either side, the mediums came over and bombed who was left. Then we made the break-through as soon as the Valhalla Express had gone home, stretching in its beauty and its majesty from that part of France to all over England.”

If a man has a conscience, the Colonel thought, he might think about air-power some time.

“Give me a glass of that Valpolicella,” the Colonel said, and remembered to add, “please.”

“Excuse me,” he said. “Be comfortable, honey dog, please. You asked me to tell you.”

“I’m not your honey dog. That must be someone else.”

“Correct. You’re my last and true and only love. Is that correct? But you asked me to tell you.”

“Please tell me,” the girl said. “I’d like to be your honey dog if I knew how to do it. But I am only a girl from this town that loves you.”

“We’ll operate on that,” the Colonel said. “And I love you. I probably picked up that phrase in the Philippines.”

“Probably,” the girl said. “But I would rather be your straight girl.”

“You are,” the Colonel said. “Complete with handles and with the flag on top.”

“Please don’t be rough,” she said. “Please love me true and tell me as true as you can, without hurting yourself in any way.”

“I’ll tell you true,” he said. “As true as I can tell and let it hurt who it hurts. It is better that you hear it from me, if you have curiosity on this subject, than that you read it in some book with stiff covers.”

“Please don’t be rough. Just tell me true and hold me tight and tell me true until you are purged of it; if that can be.”

“I don’t need to purge,” he said. “Except heavies being used tactically. I have nothing against them if they use them right even if they kill you. But for ground support give me a man like Pete Quesada. There is a man who will boot them in.”

“Please.”

“If you ever want to quit a beat-up character like me that guy could give you ground support.”

“You are not beat-up, whatever that is, and I love you.”

“Please give me two tablets from that bottle and pour the glass of Valpolicella that you neglected to pour, and I will tell you some of the rest of it.”

“You don’t have to. You don’t have to tell me and I know now it is not good for you. Especially not the Valhalla Express day. I am not an inquisitor; or whatever the female of inquisitor is. Let us just lie quietly and look out of the window, and watch and see what happens on our Grand Canal.”

“Maybe we better. Who gives a damn about the war anyway?”

“You and me, maybe,” she said and stroked his head. “Here are the two things from the square bottle. Here is the glass of decanted vino. I’ll send you better from our own estates. Please let us sleep a little while. Please be a good boy and we just lie together and love each other. Please put your hand here.”

“My good or my bad?”

“Your bad,” the girl said. “The one I love and must think about all week. I cannot keep it like you keep the stones.”

“They’re in the safe,” the Colonel said. “In your name,” he added.

“Let’s just sleep and not talk about any material things nor any sorrows.”

“The hell with sorrows,” the Colonel said with his eyes closed and his head resting lightly on the black sweater that was his fatherland. You have to have some damned fatherland, he thought. Here is mine.

“Why aren’t you President?” the girl asked. “You could be an excellent president.”

“Me President? I served in the Montana National Guard when I was sixteen. But I never wore a bow tie in my life and I am not, nor ever have been, an unsuccessful haberdasher. I have none of the qualifications for the Presidency. I couldn’t even head the opposition even though I don’t have to sit on telephone books to have my picture taken. Nor am a no-fight general. Hell, I never even was at SHAEF. I couldn’t even be an elder statesman. I’m not old enough. Now we are governed in some way, by the dregs. We are governed by what you find in the bottom of dead beer glasses that whores have dunked their cigarettes in. The place has not even been swept out yet and they have an amateur pianist beating on the box.”

“I don’t understand it because my American is so incomplete. But it sounds awful. But don’t be angry about it. Let me be angry for you.”

“Do you know what an unsuccessful haberdasher is?”

“No.”

“It is not discreditable. There are many of them in our country. There is at least one in every town. No, Daughter, I am only a fighting soldier and that is the lowest thing on earth. In that you run for Arlington, if they return the body. The family has a choice.”

“Is Arlington nice?”

“I don’t know,” the Colonel said. “I was never buried there.”

“Where would you like to be buried?”

“Up in the hills,” he said, making a quick decision. “On any part of the high ground where we beat them.”

“I suppose you should be buried on the Grappa.”

“On the dead angle of any shell-pocked slope if they would graze cattle over me in the summer time.”

“Do they have cattle there?”

“Sure. They always have cattle where there is good grass in the summer, and the girls of the highest houses, the strong built ones, the houses and the girls, that resist the snow in winter, trap foxes in the fall after they bring the cattle down. They feed from pole-stacked hay.”

“And you don’t want Arlington or Père Lachaise or what we have here?”

“Your miserable boneyard.”

“I know it is the most unworthy thing about the town. The city rather. I learned to call cities towns from you. But I will see that you go where you wish to go and I will go with you if you like.”

“I would not like. That is the one thing we do alone. Like going to the bathroom.”

“Please do not be rough.”

“I meant that I would love to have you with me. But it is very egotistical and an ugly process.”

He stopped, and thought truly, but off-key, and said, “No. You get married and have five sons and call them all Richard.”

“The lion-hearted,” the girl said, accepting the situation without even a glance, and playing what there was she held as you put down all the cards, having counted exactly.

“The crap-hearted,” the Colonel said. “The unjust bitter criticizer who speaks badly of everyone.”

“Please don’t be rough in talking,” the girl said. “And remember you speak worst of all about yourself. But hold me as close as we can and let’s think about nothing.”

He held her as close as he could and he tried to think about nothing.