Across the River and Into the Trees/Chapter XXXIII

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◄  Chapter XXXII Across the River and Into the Trees
Chapter XXXIII
written by Ernest Hemingway
Chapter XXXIV  ►
Charles Scribner's Sons 1950 (pages 247-252)

Chapter XXXIII

“I WILL skip the detailed part since you are, justifiably, and should be, sleepy,” the Colonel said. He watched, again, the strange play of the light on the ceiling. Then he looked at the girl, who was more beautiful than any girl that he had ever seen, ever.

He had seen them come and go, and they go faster, when they go, than any other thing that flies. They can go faster from fair beauty to the knocker’s shop than any other animal, he thought. But I believe that this one could hold the pace and stay the course. The dark ones last the best, he thought, and look at the bony structure in that face. This one has a fine blood line too, and she can go forever. Most of our own lovely beauties come from soda counters, and they do not know their grandfather’s last name, unless, maybe, it was Schultz. Or Schlitz, he thought.

This is the wrong attitude to take, he said to himself; since he did not wish to express any of these sentiments to the girl, who would not like them anyway, and was soundly sleepy now the way a cat is when it sleeps within itself.

“Sleep well, my dearest lovely, and I will just tell it for nothing.”

The girl was asleep, still holding his bad hand, that he despised, and he could feel her breathe, as the young breathe when they are easily asleep.

The Colonel told her all about it; but he did not utter it.

So after I had the privilege of hearing General Walter Bedell Smith explain the facility of the attack, we made it. There was the Big Red One, who believed their own publicity. There was the Ninth, which was a better Division than we were. There was us, who had always done it when they asked for you to do it.

We had no time to read comic books, and we had no time for practically nothing, because we always moved before first light. This is difficult and you have to throw away the Big Picture and be a division.

We wore a four-leaf clover, which meant nothing except among ourselves, who all loved it. And every time I ever see it the same thing happens in my inner guts. Some people thought that it was ivy. But it was not. It was a four-leaf clover disguised as ivy.

The orders were that we would attack with the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division of the Army of the United States, and they, and their Calypso singing PRO never let you forget it. He was a nice guy. And it was his job.

But you get fed up with horse-shit unless you like the aroma or the taste. I never liked it. Although I loved to walk through cow-shit when I was a kid and feel it between my toes. But horse-shit bores you. It bores me very rapidly, and I can detect it at over one thousand yards.

So we attacked, the three of us in line, exactly where the Germans wished us to attack. We will not mention General Walter Bedell Smith any further. He is not the villain. He only made the promises and explained how it would go. There are no villains, I presume, in a Democracy. He was only just as wrong as hell. Period, he added in his mind.

The patches had all been removed even as far back as the rear echelon so that no Kraut would know that it was us, the three he knew so well, who were going to attack. We were going to attack with the three of us in line and nothing in reserve. I won’t try to explain what that means, Daughter. But it isn’t any good. And the place we were going to fight in, which I had taken a good look at, was going to be Passchendaele with tree bursts. I say that too much. But I think it too much.

The poor bloody twenty-eighth which was up on our right had been bogged down for some time and so there was pretty accurate information available about what conditions in those woods were going to be like. I think we could conservatively describe them as unfavorable.

Then we were ordered to commit one regiment before the attack started. That means that the enemy will get at least one prisoner which makes all the taking off of the Divisional patches silly. They would be waiting for us. They would be waiting for the old four leaf clover people who would go straight to hell like a mule and do it for one hundred and five days. Figures of course mean nothing to civilians. Nor to the characters from SHAEF we never saw ever in these woods. Incidentally, and of course these occurrences are always incidental at the SHAEF level, the regiment was destroyed. It was no one’s bloody fault, especially not the fault of the man who commanded it. He was a man I would be glad to spend half my time in hell with; and may yet.

It certainly would be odd if instead of going to hell, as we always counted on, we should go to one of those Kraut joints like Valhalla and not be able to get along with the people. But maybe we could get a corner table with Rommel and Udet and it would be just like any winter-sports hotel. It will probably be hell though and I don’t even believe in hell.

Well anyway this regiment was rebuilt as American regiments always are by the replacement system. I won’t describe it since you can always read about it in a book by somebody who was a replacement. It boils down, or distills, to the fact you stay in until you are hit badly or killed or go crazy and get section-eighted. But I guess it is logical and as good as any other, given the difficulties of transport. However it leaves a core of certain un-killed characters who know what the score is and no one of these characters liked the look of these woods much.

You could sum up their attitude in this phrase, “Don’t shit me, Jack.”

And since I had been an un-killed character for around twenty-eight years I could understand their attitude. But they were soldiers, so most of them got killed in those woods and when we took the three towns that looked so innocent and were really fortresses. They were just built to tempt us and we had no word on them at all. To continue to use the silly parlance of my trade: this could or could not be faulty intelligence.

“I feel terribly about the regiment,” the girl said. She had wakened and spoken straight from sleep.

“Yes,” said the Colonel. “So do I. Let’s drink to it once. Then you go to sleep, Daughter please. The war is over and forgotten.”

Please don’t think that I am conceited, Daughter, he said, without speaking. His true love was sleeping again. She slept in a different way than his career girl had slept. He did not like to remember how the career girl slept, yes he did. But he wanted to forget it. She did not sleep pretty, he thought. Not like this girl who slept as though she were awake and alive; except she was asleep. Please sleep well, he thought.

Who the hell are you to criticize career girls? he thought. What miserable career did you attempt and have failed at?

I wished to be, and was, a General Officer in the Army of the United States. I have failed and I speak badly of all who have succeeded.

Then his contrition did not last, and he said to himself, “Except the brown-nosers, the five and ten and twenty percenters and all the jerks from wherever who never fought and hold commands.”

They killed several men from the academy at Gettysburg. That was the big kill day of all kill days, when there was a certain amount of opposition by both sides.

Don’t be bitter. They killed General McNair by mistake the day the Valhalla Express came over. Quit being bitter. People from the Academy were killed and there are statistics to prove it.

How can I remember if I am not bitter?

Be as bitter as you want. And tell the girl, now silently, and that will not hurt her, ever, because she is sleeping so lovely. He said lovely to himself since his thinking was often ungrammatical.