“Hello,” he said. “I didn’t know you. What are you doing in that uniform?”
“They’ve put me in it.”
“I am very glad to see you, Nicolo.”
“Right. You look well. How was the show?”
“We made a very fine attack. Truly. A very fine attack. I will show you. Look.”
He showed on the map how the attack had gone.
“I came from Fornaci,” Nick said. “I could see how it had been. It was very good.”
“It was extraordinary. Altogether extraordinary. Are you attached to the regiment?”
“No. I am supposed to move around and let them see the uniform.”
“If they see one American uniform that is supposed to make them believe others are coming.”
“But how will they know it is an American uniform?”
“You will tell them.”
“Oh. Yes, I see. I will send a corporal with you to show you about and you will make a tour of the lines.”
“Like a bloody politician,” Nick said.
“You would be much more distinguished in civilian clothes. They are what is really distinguished.”
“With a homburg hat,” said Nick.
“Or with a very furry fedora.”
“I’m supposed to have my pockets full of cigarettes and postal cards and such things,” Nick said. “I should have a musette full of chocolate. These I should distribute with a kind word and a pat on the back. But there weren’t any cigarettes and postcards and no chocolate. So they said to circulate around anyway.”
“I’m sure your appearance will be very heartening to the troops.”
“I wish you wouldn’t,” Nick said. “I feel badly enough about it as it is. In principle, I would have brought you a bottle of brandy.”
“In principle,” Para said and smiled, for the first time, showing yellowed teeth. “Such a beautiful expression. Would you like some Grappa?”
“No, thank you,” Nick said.
“It hasn’t any ether in it.”
“I can taste that still,” Nick remembered suddenly and completely.
“You know I never knew you were drunk until you started talking coming back in the camions.”
“I was stinking in every attack,” Nick said.
“I can’t do it,” Para said. “I took it in the first show, the very first show, and it only made me very upset and then frightfully thirsty.”
“You don’t need it.”
“You’re much braver in an attack than I am.”
“No,” Nick said. “I know how I am and I prefer to get stinking. I’m not ashamed of it.”
“I’ve never seen you drunk.”
“No?” said Nick. “Never? Not when we rode from Mestre to Portogrande that night and I wanted to go to sleep and used the bicycle for a blanket and pulled it up under my chin?”
“That wasn’t in the lines.”
“Let’s not talk about how I am,” Nick said. “It’s a subject I know too much about to want to think about it any more.”
“You might as well stay here a while,” Paravicini said. “You can take a nap if you like. They didn’t do much to this in the bombardment. It’s too hot to go out yet.”
“I suppose there is no hurry.”
“How are you really?”
“I’m fine. I’m perfectly all right.”
“No. I mean really.”
“I’m all right. I can’t sleep without a light of some sort. That’s all I have now.”
“I said it should have been trepanned. I’m no doctor but I know that.”
“Well, they thought it was better to have it absorb, and that’s what I got. What’s the matter? I don’t seem crazy to you, do I?”
“You seem in top-hole shape.”
“It’s a hell of a nuisance once they’ve had you certified as nutty,” Nick said. “No one ever has any confidence in you again.”
“I would take a nap, Nicolo,” Paravicini said. “This isn’t battalion headquarters as we used to know it. We’re just waiting to be pulled out. You oughtn’t to go out in the heat now—it’s silly. Use that bunk.”
“I might just lie down,” Nick said.
Nick lay on the bunk. He was very disappointed that he felt this way and more disappointed, even, that it was so obvious to Captain Paravicini. This was not as large a dugout as the one where that platoon of the class of 1899, just out at the front, got hysterics during the bombardment before the attack, and Para had had him walk them two at a time outside to show them nothing would happen, he wearing his own chin strap tight across his mouth to keep his lips quiet. Knowing they could not hold it when they took it. Knowing it was all a bloody balls—. If he can’t stop crying, break his nose to give him something else to think about. I’d shoot one but it’s too late now. They’d all be worse. Break his nose. They’ve put it back to five-twenty. We’ve only got four minutes more. Break that other silly bugger’s nose and kick his silly ass out of here. Do you think they’ll go over? If they don’t, shoot two and try to scoop the others out some way. Keep behind them, sergeant. It’s no use to walk ahead and find there’s nothing coming behind you. Bail them out as you go. What a bloody balls. All right. That’s right. Then, looking at the watch, in that quiet tone, that valuable quiet tone, “Savoia.” Making it cold, no time to get it, he couldn’t find his own after the cave-in, one whole end had caved in; it was that started them; making it cold up that slope the only time he hadn’t done it stinking. And after they came back the teleferica house burned, it seemed, and some of the wounded got down four days later and some did not get down, but we went up and went back and we came down—we always came down. And there was Gaby Delys, oddly enough, with feathers on; you called me baby doll a year ago tadada you said that I was rather nice to know tadada with feathers on, with feathers off, the great Gaby, and my name’s Harry Pilcer, too, we used to step out of the far side of the taxis when it got steep going up the hill and he could see that hill every night when he dreamed with Sacré Coeur, blown white, like a soap bubble. Sometimes his girl was there and sometimes she was with someone else and he could not understand that, but those were the nights the river ran so much wider and stiller than it should and outside of Fossalta there was a low house painted yellow with willows all around it and a low stable and there was a canal, and he had been there a thousand times and never seen it, but there it was every night as plain as the hill, only it frightened him. That house meant more than anything and every night he had it. That was what he needed but it frightened him especially when the boat lay there quietly in the willows on the canal, but the banks weren’t like this river. It was all lower, as it was at Portogrande, where they had seen them come wallowing across the flooded ground holding the rifles high until they fell with them in the water. Who ordered that one? If it didn’t get so damned mixed up he could follow it all right. That was why he noticed everything in such detail to keep it all straight so he would know just where he was, but suddenly it confused without reason as now, he lying in a bunk at battalion headquarters, with Para commanding a battalion and he in a bloody American uniform. He sat up and looked around; they all watching him. Para was gone out. He lay down again.