Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXVIII

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◄  Chapter XXVII Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXVIII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXIX  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 216-220)



Chapter XXVIII

THEY lay together now and did not speak and the Colonel felt her heart beat. It is easy to feel a heart beat under a black sweater knitted by someone in the family, and her dark hair lay, long and heavy, over his good arm. It isn’t heavy, he thought, it is lighter than anything there is. She lay, quiet and loving, and whatever it was that they possessed was in complete communication. He kissed her on the mouth, gently and hungrily, and then it was as though there was static, suddenly, when communications had been perfect.

“Richard,” she said. “I’m sorry about things.”

“Never be sorry,” the Colonel said. “Never discuss casualties, Daughter.”

“Say it again.”

“Daughter.”

“Will you tell me some happy things I can have for during the week and some more of war for my education?”

“Let’s skip war.”

“No. I need it for my education.”

“I do too,” the Colonel said. “Not maneuvers. You know, in our army once, a general officer through chicanery obtained the plan of the maneuver. He anticipated every move of the enemy force and comported himself so brilliantly that he was promoted over many better men. And that was why we got smacked one time. That and the prevalence of week-ends.”

“We’re on a week-end now.”

“I know,” the Colonel said. “I can still count up to seven.”

“But are you bitter about everything?”

“No. It is just that I am half a hundred years old and I know things.”

“Tell me something more about Paris because I love to think of you and Paris in the week.”

“Daughter, why don’t you lay off Paris?”

“But I’ve been in Paris, and I will go back there again, and I want to know. It is the loveliest city in the world, next to our own, and I want to know some things truly to take with me.”

“We will go together and I will tell you there.”

“Thank you. But tell me a little now for this week only.”

“Leclerc was a high-born jerk as I think that I’ve explained. Very brave, very arrogant, and extremely ambitious. He is dead, as I said.”

“Yes, you told me.”

“They say you should never speak ill of the dead. But I think it is the best time to speak truly of them. I have never said anything of a dead that I would not say to his face,” and he added, “in spades.”

“Let’s not talk about him. I have reclassified him in my mind.”

“What do you want then; picturesque?”

“Yes please. I have bad taste from reading the illustrated papers. But I will read Dante all week while you are gone. I’ll go to mass each morning. That should be enough.”

“Go to Harry’s before lunch too.”

“I will,” she said. “Please tell me some picturesque.”

“Don’t you think we might better just go to sleep?”

“How can we go to sleep now when we have so little time? Feel this,” she said and pushed her whole head up under his chin until she forced his head back.

“All right, I’ll talk.”

“Give me your hand first to hold. I’ll have it in my hand when I read the Dante and do the other things.”

“Dante was an execrable character. More conceited than Leclerc.”

“I know. But he did not write execrably.”

“No. Leclerc could fight too. Excellently.”

“Now tell me.”

Her head was on his chest now, and the Colonel said, “Why did you not want me to take off the tunic?”

“I like to feel the buttons. Is it wrong?”

“I’ll be a sad son of a bitch,” the Colonel said. “How many people fought in your family?”

“Everybody,” she said. “Always. They were traders as well and several of them were Doges of this city as you know.”

“But they all fought?”

“All,” she said. “As far as I know.”

“OK,” the Colonel said. “I’ll tell you any God damn thing you want to know.”

“Just something picturesque. As bad or worse than in the illustrated papers.”

Domenica Del Corriere or Tribuna Illustrata?”

“Worse if possible.”

“Kiss me first.”

She kissed him kind, and hard, and desperately, and the Colonel could not think about any fights or any picturesque or strange incidents. He only thought of her and how she felt and how close life comes to death when there is ecstasy. And what the hell is ecstasy and what’s ecstasy’s rank and serial number? And how does her black sweater feel. And who made all her smoothness and delight and the strange pride and sacrifice and wisdom of a child? Yes, ecstasy is what you might have had and instead you draw sleep’s other brother.

Death is a lot of shit, he thought. It comes to you in small fragments that hardly show where it has entered. It comes, sometimes, atrociously. It can come from unboiled water; an un-pulled-up mosquito boot, or it can come with the great, white-hot, clanging roar we have lived with. It comes in small cracking whispers that precede the noise of the automatic weapon. It can come with the smoke-emitting arc of the grenade, or the sharp, cracking drop of the mortar.

I have seen it come, loosening itself from the bomb rack, and falling with that strange curve. It comes in the metallic rending crash of a vehicle, or the simple lack of traction on a slippery road.

It comes in bed to most people, I know, like love’s opposite number. I have lived with it nearly all my life and the dispensing of it has been my trade. But what can I tell this girl now on this cold, windy morning in the Gritti Palace Hotel?

“What would you like to know, Daughter?” he asked her.

“Everything.”

“All right,” the Colonel said. “Here goes.”