Meaning of Life
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Chapter Ten - The Defeat

      THE RACE to finish their projects first that had now been in process for nearly a year was won by Don Camillo, who managed to complete his recreation centre while Peppone's People's Palace still lacked all its locks.
     The recreation centre proved to be a very up-to-date affair: a hall for social gatherings, dramatic performances, lectures and suchlike activities, a library with a reading and writing room and a covered area for physical training and winter games. There was in addition a magnificent fenced sports ground with a gymnasium, running track, bathing pool and a children's playground with giant-stride, swings, etcetera. Most of the paraphernalia was as yet in an embryonic stage, but the important thing was to have made a start.
     For the inauguration ceremony Don Camillo had prepared a most lively program: choral singing, athletic competitions and a game of football. For the latter Don Camillo had succeeded in mustering a really formidable team, a task to which he had brought so impassioned an enthusiasm that in the course of the team's eight months of training the kicks administered by him alone to the eleven players were far more numerous than those that all those players put together had succeeded in giving to the ball.
     Peppone knew all this and was deeply embittered. He could not endure the thought that the party that genuinely represented the people must play second fiddle in the celebration organized by Don Camillo on the people's behalf.
     And when Don Camillo sent to inform him that in order to demonstrate his "sympathetic understanding of the more ignorant social strata of the village" he was willing to allow a match between their Dynamos football team and his own Galliards, Peppone turned pale, summoned the eleven lads of the local sports squadron and made them stand to attention against the wall while he made them the following address: "You are to play against the priest's team. You have got to win or I shall smash in every one of your faces. The Party orders it for the honor of a down-trodden people!"
     "We shall win!" replied the eleven, sweating with terror.
     As soon as this scene was reported to him Don Camillo mustered the Galliards and addressed them as follows.
     "We are not here among uncouth savages such as your opponents," he said, smiling pleasantly. "We are capable of reasoning like sensible and educated gentlemen. With the help of God, we shall beat them six goals to none. I make no threats; I merely remind you that the honor of the parish is in your hands. Also in your feet. Therefore let each of you do his duty as a good citizen. Should there be some Barabbas among you who is not ready to give his all even to the last drop of his blood, I shall not indulge in Peppone's histrionics with regard to the smashing of faces. I shall merely kick his backside to a jelly!"
     The entire countryside attended the inauguration, led by Peppone and his satellites with blazing red handkerchiefs round their necks. In his capacity as mayor, he expressed his satisfaction at the event and as personal representative of the people he emphasized his confident belief that the occasion they were celebrating would not be made to serve "unworthy ends of political propaganda such as were already being whispered of by ill-intentioned persons."
     During the performance of the choral singers, Peppone was able to point out to Brusco that, as a matter of fact, singing was also a sport, inasmuch as it developed the expansion of the lungs, and Brusco, with seeming amiability, replied that in his opinion the exercise would prove even more efficacious as a means of physical development for Catholic youth if they were taught to accompany it with gestures adapted to the improvement not only of their lung power, but also of the muscles of their arms.
     During the game of basketball, Peppone expressed a sincere conviction that the game of ping-pong had also not only an undeniable athletic value, but was so graceful that he was astonished not to find it included in the program.
     In view of the fact that these comments were made in voices that were easily audible half a mile away, the veins of Don Camillo's neck were very soon swelled to the size of cables. He therefore awaited with indescribable impatience the hour of the football match, which would be that of his reply.
     At last it was time for the match. White jerseys with a large "G" on the breast for the eleven Galliards. Red jerseys bearing the hammer, sickle and star combined with an elegant "D" adorned the eleven Dynamos.
     The crowd cared less than nothing for symbols, anyway, and hailed the teams after their own fashion: "Hurrah for Peppone!" or "Hurrah for Don Camillo!" Peppone and Don Camillo looked at one another and exchanged slight and dignified bows.
     The referee was a neutral: the clockmaker Binella, a man without political opinions. After ten minutes' play the sergeant of police, pale to the gills, approached Peppone, followed by his two equally pallid subordinates.
     "Mr. Mayor," he stammered, "don't you think it would be wise for me to telephone to the town for reinforcements?"
     "You can telephone for a division for all I care, but if those butchers don't let up, nobody will be able to avoid there being a heap of corpses as high as the first-floor windows! Not His Majesty the King himself could do a thing about it, do you understand," howled Peppone, forgetting the very existence of the republic in his blind fury.
     The sergeant turned to Don Camillo, who was standing a few feet away. "Don't you think . . .?" he stuttered, but Don Camillo cut him short.
     "I," he shouted, "simply think that nothing short of the personal intervention of the United States of America will prevent us all from swimming in blood if those accursed Bolsheviks don't stop disabling my men by kicking them in the shins!"
     "I see," said the sergeant, and went off to barricade himself into his quarters, although perfectly aware that the common sequel of such behavior is a general attempt to close the festivities by setting fire to the police station.
     The first goal was scored by the Galliards and raised a howl that shook the church tower. Peppone, his face distorted with rage, turned on Don Camillo with clenched fists as though about to attack him. Don Camillo's fists were already in position. The two of them were within a hair's-breadth of conflict, but Don Camillo observed out of the tail of his eye that all other eyes present were fixed upon them.
     "If we begin fighting, there'll be a free-for-all," he muttered through clenched teeth to Peppone.
     "All right, for the sake of the people."
     "For the sake of the faith," said Don Camillo.
     Nothing happened. Nevertheless, Peppone, when the first half ended a few moments later, mustered the Dynamos. "Fascists!" he said to them in a voice thick with contempt. Then, seizing hold of Smilzo, the centre-forward: "As for you, you dirty traitor, suppose you remember that when we were in the mountains I saved your worthless skin no less than three times. If in the next five minutes you haven't scored a goal, I'll attend to that same skin of yours!"
     Smilzo, when play was resumed, got the ball and set to work. And work he did, with his head, with his legs and with his knees. He even bit the ball, he spat his lungs out and split his spleen, but at the fourth minute he sent the ball between the posts.
     Then he flung himself on to the ground and lay motionless. Don Camillo moved over to the other side of the ground lest his self-control should fail him. The Galliards' goal¬keeper was in a high fever from sheer funk.
     The Dynamos closed up into a defensive phalanx that seemed impregnable. Thirty seconds before the next break, the referee whistled and a penalty was given against the Galliards. The ball flew into the air. A child of six could not have muffed it at such an angle. Goal!
     The match was now over. The only task remaining for Peppone's men was that of picking up their injured players and carrying them back to their pavilion. The referee had no political views and left them to it.
     Don Camillo was bewildered. He ran off to the church and knelt in front of the altar. "Lord," he said, "why did You fail to help me? I have lost the match."
     "And why should I have helped you rather than the others? Your men had twenty-two legs and so had they, Don Camillo, and all legs are equal. Moreover, they are not My business. I am interested in souls. Da mihi animam, caetera tolle. I leave the bodies on earth. Don Camillo, where are your brains?"
     "I can find them with an effort," said Don Camillo. "I was not suggesting that You should have taken charge of my men's legs, which in any case were the best of the lot. But I do say that You did not prevent the dishonesty of one man from giving a foul unjustly against my team."
     "The priest can make a mistake in saying Mass, Don Camillo. Why must you deny that others may be mistaken while being in good faith?"
     "One can admit of errors in most circumstances, but not when it is a matter of arbitration in sport! When the ball is actually there . . . Binella is a scoundrel . . ."
     He was unable to continue because at that moment the sound of an imploring voice became progressively audible and a man came running into the church, exhausted and gasping, his face convulsed with terror.
     "They want to kill me," he sobbed. "Save me!"
     The crowd had reached the church door and was about to irrupt into the church itself. Don Camillo seized a candlestick weighing fifty pounds and brandished it menacingly.
     "Back, in God's name, or I strike!" he shouted. "Remember that anyone who enters here is sacred and immune!"
     The crowd hesitated.
     "Shame on you, you pack of wolves! Get back to your lairs and pray God to forgive you your savagery."
     The crowd stood in silence, heads were bowed, and there was a general movement of retreat.
     "Make the sign of the cross," Don Camillo ordered them severely, and as he stood there brandishing the candlestick in his huge hand he seemed a very Samson.
     Everyone made the sign of the cross.
     "Between you and the object of your brutality is now that sign of the cross that each one of you has traced with his own hand. Anybody who dares to violate that sacred barrier is a blasphemer!" He himself stood back and closed the church door, drawing the bolt, but there was no need. The fugitive had sunk on to a bench and was still panting. "Thank you, Don Camillo," he murmured.
     Don Camillo made no immediate reply. He paced to and fro for a few moments and then pulled up opposite the man. "Binella!" said Don Camillo in accents of fury. "Binella, here in my presence and that of God you dare not lie! There was no foul! How much did that reprobate Peppone give you to make you call a foul in a drawn game?"
     "Two thousand five hundred lire."
     "M-m-m-m!" roared Don Camillo, thrusting his fist under his victim's nose.
     "But then ..." moaned Binella.
     "Get out," bawled Don Camillo, pointing to the door.
     Once more alone, Don Camillo turned towards the Lord. "Didn't I tell you that the swine had sold himself? Haven't I a right to be enraged?"
     "None at all, Don Camillo," replied the Lord. "You started it when you offered Binella two thousand lire to do the same thing. When Peppone bid five hundred lire more, Binella accepted the higher bribe."
     Don Camillo spread out his arms. "Lord," he said, "but if we are to look at it that way, then I emerge as the guilty man!"
     "Exactly, Don Camillo. When you, a priest, were the first to make the suggestion, he assumed that there was no harm in the matter, and then, quite naturally, he took the more profitable bid."
     Don Camillo bowed his head. "And do You mean to tell me that if that unhappy wretch should get beaten up by my men, it would be my doing?"
     "In a certain sense, yes, because you were the first to lead him into temptation. Nevertheless, your sin would have been greater if Binella, accepting your offer, had agreed to cheat on behalf of your team. Because then the Dynamos would have done the beating up and you would have been powerless to stop them."
     Don Camillo reflected awhile. "In fact," he said, "it was better that the others should win."
     "Exactly, Don Camillo."
     "Then, Lord," said Don Camillo, "I thank you for having allowed me to lose. And if I tell you that I accept the defeat as a punishment for my dishonesty, You must believe that I am really penitent. Because, to see a team such as mine who might very well—and I am not bragging—play in Division B, a team that, believe me or not, could swallow up and digest a couple of thousand Dynamos in their stride, to see them beaten ... is enough to break one's heart and cries for vengeance to God!"
     "Don Camillo!" the Lord admonished him, smiling.
     "You can't possibly understand me," sighed Don Camillo. "Sport is a thing apart. Either one cares or one doesn't. Do I make myself clear?"
     "Only too clear, my poor Don Camillo. I understand you so well that . . . Come now, when are you going to have your revenge?"
     Don Camillo leaped to his feet, his heart swelling with delight. "Six to nothing!" he shouted. "They'll never even see the ball! Do You see that confessional?"
     He flung his hat into the air, caught it with a neat kick as it came down and drove it like a thunderbolt into the little window of the confessional.
     "Goal!" said the Lord, smiling.
Go on to chapter eleven, The Avenger


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