The battery in the next garden woke me in the morning and I saw the sun coming through the window and got out of the bed. I went to the window and looked out. The gravel paths were moist and the grass was wet with dew. The battery fired twice and the air came each time like a blow and shook the window and made the front of my pyjamas flap. I could not see the guns but they were evidently firing directly over us. It was a nuisance to have them there but it was a comfort that they were no bigger. As I looked out at the garden I heard a motor truck starting on the road. I dressed, went downstairs, had some coffee in the kitchen and went out to the garage.
Ten cars were lined up side by side under the long shed. They were top-heavy, blunt-nosed ambulances, painted gray and built like moving-vans. The mechanics were working on one out in the yard. Three others were up in the mountains at dressing stations.
“Do they ever shell that battery?” I asked one of the mechanics.
“No, Signor Tenente. It is protected by the little hill.”
“Not so bad. This machine is no good but the others march.” He stopped working and smiled. “Were you on permission?”
He wiped his hand on his jumper and grinned. “You have a good time?” the others all grinned too.
“Fine,” I said. “What’s the matter with this machine?”
“It’s no good. One thing after another.”
“What’s the matter now?”
I left them working, the car looking disgraced and empty with the engine open and parts spread on the work bench, and went in under the shed and looked at each of the cars. They were moderately clean, a few freshly washed, the others dusty. I looked at the tires carefully, looking for cuts or stone bruises. Everything seemed in good condition. It evidently made no difference whether I was there to look after things or not. I had imagined that the condition of the cars, whether or not things were obtainable, the smooth functioning of the business of removing wounded and sick from the dressing stations, hauling them back from the mountains to the clearing station and then distributing them to the hospitals named on their papers, depended to a considerable extent on myself. Evidently it did not matter whether I was there or not.
“Has there been any trouble getting parts?” I asked the sergeant mechanic.
“No, Signor Tenente,”
“Where is the gasoline park now?”
“At the same place.”
“Good,” I said and went back to the house and drank another bowl of coffee at the mess table. The coffee was a pale gray and sweet with condensed milk. Outside the window it was a lovely spring morning. There was that beginning of a feeling of dryness in the nose that meant the day would be hot later on. That day I visited the posts in the mountains and was back in town late in the afternoon.
The whole thing seemed to run better while I was away. The offensive was going to start again I heard. The division for which we worked were to attack at a place up the river and the major told me that I would see about the posts for during the attack. The attack would cross the river up above the narrow gorge and spread up the hillside. The posts for the cars would have to be as near the river as they could get and keep covered. They would, of course, be selected by the infantry but we were supposed to work it out. It was one of those things that gave you a false feeling of soldiering.
I was very dusty and dirty and went up to my room to wash. Rinaldi was sitting on the bed with a copy of Hugo’s English grammar. He was dressed, wore his black boots, and his hair shone.
“Splendid,” he said when he saw me. “You will come with me to see Miss Barkley.”
“Yes. You will please come and make me a good impression on her.”
“All right. Wait until I get cleaned up.”
“Wash up and come as you are.”
I washed, brushed my hair and we started.
“Wait a minute,” Rinaldi said. “Perhaps we should have a drink.” He opened his trunk and took out a bottle.
“Not Strega,” I said.
He poured two glasses and we touched them, first fingers extended. The grappa was very strong.
“All right,” I said. We drank the second grappa, Rinaldi put away the bottle and we went down the stairs. It was hot walking through the town but the sun was starting to go down and it was very pleasant. The British hospital was a big villa built by Germans before the war. Miss Barkley was in the garden. Another nurse was with her. We saw their white uniforms through the trees and walked toward them. Rinaldi saluted. I saluted too but more moderately.
“How do you do?” Miss Barkley said. “You’re not an Italian, are you?”
Rinaldi was talking with the other nurse. They were laughing.
“What an odd thing—to be in the Italian army.”
“It’s not really the army. It’s only the ambulance.”
“It’s very odd though. Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”
“Oh, isn’t there? I was brought up to think there was.”
“That’s awfully nice.”
“Do we have to go on and talk this way?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief. Isn’t it?”
“What is the stick?” I asked. Miss Barkley was quite tall. She wore what seemed to me to be a nurse’s uniform, was blonde and had a tawny skin and gray eyes. I thought she was every beautiful. She was carrying a thin rattan stick like a toy riding-crop, bound in leather.
“It belonged to a boy who was killed last year.”
“I’m awfully sorry.”
“He was a very nice boy. He was going to marry me and he was killed in Somme.”
“It was a ghastly show.”
“Were you there?”
“I’ve heard about it,” she said. “There’s not really any war of that sort down here. They send me the little stick. His mother send it to me. They returned it with his things.”
“Had you been engaged long?”
“Eight years. We grew up together.”
“And why didn’t you marry?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was a fool not to. I could have given him that anyway. But I thought I would be bad for him.”
“Have you ever loved any one?”
“No,” I said.
We sat down on the bench and I looked at her.
“You have beautiful hair,” I said.
“Do you like it?”
“I was going to cut it all off when he died.”
“I wanted to do something for him. You see I didn’t care about the other thing and he could have had it all. He could have had anything he wanted if I would have known. I would have married him or anything. I know all about it now. But then he wanted to go to war and I didn’t know.”
I did not say anything.
“I didn’t know about anything then. I thought it would be worse for him. I thought perhaps he couldn’t stand it and then of course he was killed and that was the end of it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “That’s the end of it.”
We looked at Rinaldi talking with the other nurse.
“ What is her name?”
“Ferguson. Helen Ferguson. Your friend is a doctor, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He’s very good.”
“That’s splendid. You rarely find any one any good this close to the front. This is close to the front, isn’t it?”
“It’s a silly front,” she said. “But it’s very beautiful. Are they going to have an offensive?”
“Then we’ll have to work. There’s no work now.”
“Have you done nursing long?”
“Since the end of ‘fifteen. I started when he did. O remember having a silly ideas he might come to the hospital where I was. With a sabre cut, I suppose, and a bandage around his head. Or shot through the shoulder. Something picturesque.”
“This is the picturesque front,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “People can’t realize what France is like. If they did, it couldn’t all go on. He didn’t have a sabre cut. They blew him all to bits.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you suppose it will always go on?”
“What’s to stop it?”
“It will crack somewhere.”
“We’ll crack. We’ll crack in France. They can’t go on doing things like the Somme and not crack.”
“They won’t crack here,” I said.
“You think not?”
“No. They did very well last summer.”
“They may crack,” she said. “Anybody may crack.”
“The Germans too.”
“No,” she said. “I think not.”
We went over toward Rinaldi and Miss Ferguson.
“You love Italy?” Rinaldi asked Miss Ferguson in English.
“No understand,” Rinaldi shook his head.
“Abbastanza bene,” I translated. He shook his head.
“That is not good. You love England?”
“Not too well. I’m Scotch, you see.”
Rinaldi looked at me blankly.
“She’s Scotch, so she loves Scotland better than England,” I said in Italian.
“But Scotland is England.”
I translate this for Miss Ferguson.
“Pas encore,” said Miss Ferguson.
“Never. We do not like English.”
“Not like the English? Not like Miss Barkley?”
“Oh, that’s different. You mustn’t take everything so literally.”
After a while we said good-night and left. Walking home Rinaldi said, “Miss Barkley prefers you to me. That is very clear. But the little Scotch one is very nice.”
“Very,” I said. I had not noticed her. “You like her?”
“No,” said Rinaldi.