A Farewell to Arms CHAPTER XXVIII

As we moved out through the town it was empty in the rain and the dark except for columns of troops and guns that were going through the main street. There were many trucks too and some carts going through on other streets and converging on the main road. When we were out past the tanneries onto the main road the troops, the motor trucks, the horse-drawn carts and the guns were in one wide slow-moving column. We moved slowly but steadily in the rain, the radiator cap of our car almost against the tailboard of a truck that was loaded high, the load covered with wet canvas. Then the truck stopped. The whole column was stopped. It started again and we went a little farther, then stopped. I got out and walked ahead, going between the trucks and carts and under the wet necks of the horses. The block was farther ahead. I left the road, crossed the ditch on a footboard and walked along the field beyond the ditch. I could see the stalled column between the trees in the rain as I went forward across from it in the field. I went about a mile. The column did not move, although, on the other side beyond the stalled vehicles I could see the troops moving. I went back to the cars. This block might extend as far as Udine. Piani was asleep over the wheel. I climbed up beside him and went to sleep too. Several hours later I heard the truck ahead of us grinding into gear. I woke Piani and we started, moving a few yards, then stopping, then going on again. It was still raining.

The column stalled again in the night and did not start. I got down and went back to see Aymo and Bonello. Bonello had two sergeants of engineers on the seat of his car with him. They stiffened when I came up.

“They were left to do something to a bridge,” Bonello said. “They can’t find their unit so I gave them a ride.”

“With the Sir Lieutenant’s permission.”

“With permission,” I said.

“The lieutenant is an American,” Bonello said. “He’ll give anybody a ride.”

One of the sergeants smiled. The other asked Bonello if I was an Italian from North or South America.

“He’s not an Italian. He’s North American English.”

The sergeants were polite but did not believe it. I left them and went back to Aymo. He had two girls on the seat with him and was sitting back in the corner and smoking.

“Barto, Barto,” I said. He laughed.

“Talk to them, Tenente,” he said. “I can’t understand them. Hey!” he put his hand on the girl’s thigh and squeezed it in a friendly way. The girl drew her shawl tight around her and pushed his hand away. “Hey!” he said. “Tell the Tenente your name and what you’re doing here.”

The girl looked at me fiercely. The other girl kept her eyes down. The girl who looked at me said something in a dialect I could not understand a word of. She was plump and dark and looked about sixteen.

“Sorella?” I asked and pointed at the other girl.

She nodded her head and smiled.

“All right,” I said and patted her knee. I felt her stiffen away when I touched her. The sister never looked up. She looked perhaps a year younger. Aymo put his hand on the elder girl’s thigh and she pushed it away. He laughed at her.

“Good man,” he pointed at himself. “Good man,” he pointed at me. “Don’t you worry.” The girl looked at him fiercely. The pair of them were like two wild birds.

“What does she ride with me for if she doesn’t like me?” Aymo asked. “They got right up in the car the minute I motioned to them.” He turned to the girl. “Don’t worry,” he said. “No danger of ——,” using the vulgar word. “No place for ——.” I could see she understood the word and that was all. Her eyes looked at him very scared. She pulled the shawl tight. “Car all full,” Aymo said. “No danger of ——. No place for ——.” Every time he said the word the girl stiffened a little. Then sitting stiffly and looking at him she began to cry. I saw her lips working and then tears came down her plump cheeks. Her sister, not looking up, took her hand and they sat there together. The older one, who had been so fierce, began to sob.

“I guess I scared her,” Aymo said. “I didn’t mean to scare her.”

Bartolomeo brought out his knapsack and cut off two pieces of cheese. “Here,” he said. “Stop crying.”

The older girl shook her head and still cried, but the younger girl took the cheese and commenced to eat. After a while the younger girl gave her sister the second piece of cheese and they both ate. The older sister still sobbed a little.

“She’ll be all right after a while,” Aymo said.

An idea came to him. “Virgin?” he asked the girl next to him. She nodded her head vigorously. “Virgin too?” he pointed to the sister. Both the girls nodded their heads and the elder said something in dialect.

“That’s all right,” Bartolomeo said. “That’s all right.”

Both the girls seemed cheered.

I left them sitting together with Aymo sitting back in the corner and went back to Piani’s car. The column of vehicles did not move but the troops kept passing alongside. It was still raining hard and I thought some of the stops in the movement of the column might be from cars with wet wiring. More likely they were from horses or men going to sleep. Still, traffic could tie up in cities when every one was awake. It was the combination of horse and motor vehicles. They did not help each other any. The peasants’ carts did not help much either. Those were a couple of fine girls with Barto. A retreat was no place for two virgins. Real virgins. Probably very religious. If there were no war we would probably all be in bed. In bed I lay me down my head. Bed and board. Stiff as a board in bed. Catherine was in bed now between two sheets, over her and under her. Which side did she sleep on? Maybe she wasn’t asleep. Maybe she was lying thinking about me. Blow, blow, ye western wind. Well, it blew and it wasn’t the small rain but the big rain down that rained. It rained all night. You knew it rained down that rained. Look at it. Christ, that my love were in my arms and I in my bed again. That my love Catherine. That my sweet love Catherine down might rain. Blow her again to me. Well, we were in it. Every one was caught in it and the small rain would not quiet it. “Good-night, Catherine,” I said out loud. “I hope you sleep well. If it’s too uncomfortable, darling, lie on the other side,” I said. “I’ll get you some cold water. In a little while it will be morning and then it won’t be so bad. I’m sorry he makes you so uncomfortable. Try and go to sleep, sweet.”

I was asleep all the time, she said. You’ve been talking in your sleep. Are you all right?

Are you really there?

Of course I’m here. I wouldn’t go way. This doesn’t make any difference between us.

You’re so lovely and sweet. You wouldn’t go away in the night, would you?

Of course I wouldn’t go away. I’m always here. I come whenever you want me.

“——,” Piani said. “They’ve started again.”

“I was dopey,” I said. I looked at my watch. It was three o’clock in the morning. I reached back behind the seat for a bottle of the barbera.

“You talked out loud,” Piani said.

“I was having a dream in English,” I said.

The rain was slacking and we were moving along. Before daylight we were stalled again and when it was light we were at a little rise in the ground and I saw the road of the retreat stretched out far ahead, everything stationary except for the infantry filtering through. We started to move again but seeing the rate of progress in the daylight, I knew we were going to have to get off that main road some way and go across country if we ever hoped to reach Udine.

In the night many peasants had joined the column from the roads of the country and in the column there were carts loaded with household goods; there were mirrors projecting up between mattresses, and chickens and ducks tied to carts. There was a sewing-machine on the cart ahead of us in the rain. They had saved the most valuable things. On some carts the women sat huddled from the rain and others walked beside the carts keeping as close to them as they could. There were dogs now in the column, keeping under the wagons as they moved along. The road was muddy, the ditches at the side were high with water and beyond the trees that lined the road the fields looked too wet and too soggy to try to cross. I got down from the car and worked up the road a way, looking for a place where I could see ahead to find a side-road we could take across country. I knew there were many side-roads but did not want one that would lead to nothing. I could not remember them because we had always passed them bowling along in the car on the main road and they all looked much alike. Now I knew we must find one if we hoped to get through. No one knew where the Austrians were nor how things were going but I was certain that if the rain should stop and planes come over and get to work on that column that it would be all over. All that was needed was for a few men to leave their trucks or a few horses be killed to tie up completely the movement on the road.

The rain was not falling so heavily now and I thought it might clear. I went ahead along the edge of the road and when there was a small road that led off to the north between two fields with a hedge of trees on both sides, I thought that we had better take it and hurried back to the cars. I told Piani to turn off and went back to tell Bonello and Aymo.

“If it leads nowhere we can turn around and cut back in,” I said.

“What about these?” Bonello asked. His two sergeants were beside him on the seat. They were unshaven but still military looking in the early morning.

“They’ll be good to push,” I said. I went back to Aymo and told him we were going to try it across country.

“What about my virgin family?” Aymo asked. The two girls were asleep.

“They won’t be very useful,” I said. “You ought to have some one that could push.”

“They could go back in the car,” Aymo said. “There’s room in the car.”

“All right if you want them,” I said. “Pick up somebody with a wide back to push.”

“Bersaglieri,” Aymo smiled. “They have the widest backs. They measure them. How do you feel, Tenente?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. But very hungry.”

“There ought to be something up that road and we will stop and eat.”

“How’s your leg, Tenente?”

“Fine,” I said. Standing on the step and looking up ahead I could see Piani’s car pulling out onto the little side-road and starting up it, his car showing through the hedge of bare branches. Bonello turned off and followed him and then Piani worked his way out and we followed the two ambulances ahead along the narrow road between hedges. It led to a farmhouse. We found Piani and Bonello stopped in the farmyard. The house was low and long with a trellis with a grape-vine over the door. There was a well in the yard and Piani was getting up water to fill his radiator. So much going in low gear had boiled it out. The farmhouse was deserted. I looked back down the road, the farmhouse was on a slight elevation above the plain, and we could see over the country, and saw the road, the hedges, the fields and the line of trees along the main road where the retreat was passing. The two sergeants were looking through the house. The girls were awake and looking at the courtyard, the well and the two big ambulances in front of the farmhouse, with three drivers at the well. One of the sergeants came out with a clock in his hand.

“Put it back,” I said. He looked at me, went in the house and came back without the clock.

“Where’s your partner?” I asked.

“He’s gone to the latrine.” He got up on the seat of the ambulance. He was afraid we would leave him.

“What about breakfast, Tenente?” Bonello asked. “We could eat something. It wouldn’t take very long.”

“Do you think this road going down on the other side will lead to anything?”


“All right. Let’s eat.” Piani and Bonello went in the house.

“Come on,” Aymo said to the girls. He held his hand to help them down. The older sister shook her head. They were not going into any deserted house. They looked after us.

“They are difficult,” Aymo said. We went into the farmhouse together. It was large and dark, an abandoned feeling. Bonello and Piani were in the kitchen.

“There’s not much to eat,” Piani said. “They’ve cleaned it out.”

Bonello sliced a big white cheese on the heavy kitchen table.

“Where was the cheese?”

“In the cellar. Piani found wine too and apples.”

“That’s a good breakfast.”

Piani was taking the wooden cork out of a big wicker-covered wine jug. He tipped it and poured a copper pan full.

“It smells all right,” he said. “Find some beakers, Barto.”

The two sergeants came in.

“Have some cheese, sergeants,” Bonello said.

“We should go,” one of the sergeants said, eating his cheese and drinking a cup of wine.

“We’ll go. Don’t worry,” Bonello said.

“An army travels on its stomach,” I said.

“What?” asked the sergeant.

“It’s better to eat.”

“Yes. But time is precious.”

“I believe the bastards have eaten already,” Piani said. The sergeants looked at him. They hated the lot of us.

“You know the road?” one of them asked me.

“No,” I said. They looked at each other.

“We would do best to start,” the first one said.

“We are starting,” I said. I drank another cup of the red wine. It tasted very good after the cheese and apple.

“Bring the cheese,” I said and went out. Bonello came out carrying the great jug of wine.

“That’s too big,” I said. He looked at it regretfully.

“I guess it is,” he said. “Give me the canteens to fill.” He filled the canteens and some of the wine ran out on the stone paving of the courtyard. Then he picked up the wine jug and put it just inside the door.

“The Austrians can find it without breaking the door down,” he said.

“We’ll roll,” I said. “Piani and I will go ahead.” The two engineers were already on the seat beside Bonello. The girls were eating cheese and apples. Aymo was smoking. We started off down the narrow road. I looked back at the two cars coming and the farmhouse. It was a fine, low, solid stone house and the ironwork of the well was very good. Ahead of us the road was narrow and muddy and there was a high hedge on either side. Behind, the cars were following closely.