Chapter Fifteen - The Meeting
AS SOON AS PEPPONE read a notice posted at the street comers announcing that a stranger from the city had been invited by the local section of the Liberal Party to hold a meeting in the Square, he leaped into the air.
"Here, in the red stronghold! Are we to tolerate such a provocation?" he bawled. "We'll see who commands here!"
Then he summoned his General Staff and the stupendous announcement was studied and analyzed. The proposal to set fire to the headquarters of the Liberal Party was rejected. That of forbidding the meeting met with the same fate.
"That's democracy for you!" said Peppone sententiously. "When an unknown scoundrel can speak in a public square!"
They decided to remain within the bounds of law and order: general mobilization of all members, organization of squads to supervise things generally and avoid any ambush. Occupation of strategic points and protection of their own headquarters. Pickets were to stand by to summon reinforcements from neighboring sectors.
"The fact that they are holding a public meeting here shows that they are confident of overpowering us," said Peppone. "But they will not find us unprepared."
Scouts placed along the roads leading to the villages were to report any suspicious movement, and were already on duty from early that Saturday morning, but they failed to sight so much as a cat throughout the entire day. During the night Smilzo discovered a questionable character on a bike, but he proved to be only a normal drunk.
The meeting was to take place Sunday afternoon, but up until three o'clock not a soul showed up.
"They will be coming on the three fifty-five train," said Peppone. And he placed a large contingent of his men in and around the railroad station. The train steamed in and the only person who got off was a thin little man carrying a small canvas suitcase.
"It's obvious that they got wind of something and didn't feel strong enough to meet the emergency," said Peppone.
At that moment the little man came up to him and taking off his hat politely asked if Peppone would be so kind as to direct him to the headquarters of the Liberal Party.
Peppone stared at him in amazement. "The headquarters of the Liberal Party?"
"Yes," explained the little man, "I am due to make a short speech in twenty minutes' time and I don't want to be late."
Everybody was looking at Peppone and Peppone scratched his head. "It is really rather difficult to explain, because the center of the village is a mile away."
The little man looked very unhappy. "Is it possible to find some means of transportation?"
"I have a truck outside," muttered Peppone, "if you want to come along."
The little man thanked him. Then, when they got outside and he saw the truck full of surly faces, red handkerchiefs and Communist badges, he looked at Peppone.
"I am their leader," said Peppone. "Get up in front with me."
Halfway to the village, Peppone stopped the engine and examined his passenger, who was a middle-aged gentleman, very thin and with clear-cut features. "So you are a Liberal?"
"I am," replied the gentleman.
"And you are not alarmed at finding yourself alone here among fifty Communists?"
"No," replied the man quietly. A threatening murmur came from the men in the lorry.
"What have you got in that suitcase?"
The man began to laugh and opened the case. "Pajamas, a pair of slippers and a toothbrush," he exclaimed.
Peppone pushed his hat onto the back of his head and slapped his thigh. "You must be nuts!" he bellowed. "Why aren't you afraid?"
"Simply because I am alone and there are fifty of you," the little man explained quietly.
"What the hell has that got to do with it?" howled Peppone. "Doesn't it strike you that I could pick you up with one hand and throw you into that ditch?"
"No, it doesn't strike me," replied the little man as quietly as before.
"Then you really must either be weak in the head, or irresponsible, or out to bait us."
The little man laughed again. "It's much simpler than that," he said. "I'm just an ordinary, decent man."
"Ah, no, my good sir!" exclaimed Peppone. "If you were an ordinary, decent man, you wouldn't be an enemy of the people! A slave of reaction! An instrument of capitalism!"
"I am nobody's enemy and nobody's slave. I am merely a man who thinks differently from you."
Peppone started the engine and the truck lurched forward. "I suppose you made your will before coming here?" he jeered as he jammed his foot on the accelerator.
"No," replied the little man unperturbed. "All I have is my work and if I should die, I couldn't leave it to anyone else."
Before entering the village, Peppone pulled up for a moment to speak to Smilzo, who was acting as orderly on his motor-bike. Then, by way of several side streets, they reached the headquarters of the Liberal Party. The doors and windows were closed.
"Nobody here," said Peppone gloomily.
"They must all be in the Square, of course. It is already late," retorted the little man.
"I suppose that's it," replied Peppone, winking at Brusco.
When they reached the Square, Peppone and his men got out of the truck, surrounded the little man and forced their way through the crowd to the platform. The little
man climbed onto it and found himself face to face with two thousand men, all wearing the red handkerchief.
He turned to Peppone who had followed him on to the platform. "Excuse me," he inquired, "but have I by any chance come to the wrong meeting?"
"No," Peppone reassured him. "The fact is that there are only twenty-three Liberals in the whole district and they don't show up much in a crowd. To tell you the truth, if I had been in your place, it would never have entered my head to hold a meeting here."
"It seems obvious that the Liberals have more confidence in the democratic discipline of the Communists than you have," replied the little one.
Peppone looked disconcerted for a moment, then he went up to the microphone. "Comrades," he shouted. "I wish to introduce to you this gentleman who will make you a speech that will send you all off to join the Liberal Party."
A roar of laughter greeted this introduction and as soon as it died down the little man began speaking.
"I want to thank your leader for his courtesy," he said, "but it is my duty to explain to you that his statement does not express my wishes. Because if at the end of my speech you all went to join the Liberal Party, I would feel it incumbent upon me to go and join the Communist Party, and that would be against all my principles."
He was unable to continue, because at that moment a tomato whistled through the air and struck him in the face.
The crowd began jeering, and Peppone turned white. "Anyone who laughs is a swine!" he shouted into the microphone, and there was immediate silence.
The little man had not moved and was trying to clean his face with his hand. Peppone was a child of instinct and quite unconsciously was capable of magnificent impulses; he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, then he put it back again and unknotted the vast red kerchief from his neck and offered it to the little man.
"I wore it in the mountains," he said. "Wipe your face."
"Bravo, Peppone!" thundered a voice from the first-floor window of a neighboring house.
"I don't need the approval of the clergy," replied Peppone arrogantly, while Don Camillo bit his tongue with fury at having let his feelings get the better of him.
Meanwhile, the little man had shaken his head, bowed and approached the microphone. "There is too much history attached to that handkerchief for me to soil it with the traces of a vulgar episode that belongs to the less heroic chronicles of our times," he said. "A handkerchief such as we use for a common cold suffices for such a purpose."
Peppone flushed scarlet and also bowed, and then a wave of emotion swept the crowd and there was vigorous applause while the hooligan who had thrown the tomato was kicked off the Square.
The little man resumed his speech calmly. He was quiet, without any trace of bitterness; smoothing off corners, avoiding contention. At the end he was applauded, and when he stepped down from the platform a way was cleared before him.
When he reached the far end of the Square and found himself beneath the portico of the Town Hall, he stood helplessly with his suitcase in his hand, not knowing where to go or what to do. At that moment Don Camillo hurried up to Peppone who was standing just behind the man. "You've lost no time, have you, you Godless rascal, in making up to this Liberal priest-hater."
"What?" gasped Peppone, turning toward the little man. "Then you are a priest-hater?"
"But . . ." stammered the man.
"Hold your tongue," Don Camillo interrupted him. "You ought to be ashamed, you who demand a free church in a free state!"
The little man attempted to protest, but Peppone cut him short before he could utter a word. "Bravo!" he bawled. "Give me your hand! When a man is a priest-hater he is my friend, even if he is a Liberal reactionary!"
"Hurrah!" shouted Peppone's satellites.
"You are my guest!" said Peppone.
"Nothing of the kind," retorted Don Camillo. "This gentleman is my guest. I am not a boor who fires tomatoes at his adversaries!"
Peppone pushed himself menacingly in front of Don Camillo. "I have said that he is my guest," he repeated fiercely.
"And as I have said the same thing," replied Don Camillo, "it means that if you want to come to blows with me about it, I stand ready!"
Peppone clenched his fists.
"Come away," said Brusco. "In another minute you'll be boxing with the priest in the public Square!"
The question was settled in favor of a meeting on neutral territory. All three of them went out into the country to luncheon with Gigiotto, a host completely indifferent to politics, and thus even the democratic encounter led to no results of any kind.
Go on to chapter sixteen, On the River Bank on the meaning of life website.