Chapter Seventeen - Raw Material
ONE AFTERNOON DON CAMILLO, who for the past week had been in a chronic state of agitation and done nothing but rush around, was returning from a visit to a neighboring village. When he reached his own parish, he had to get off his bicycle because some men had appeared since his departure and were digging a ditch right across the road.
"We are putting in a new drain," a workman explained, "by the Mayor's orders."
Don Camillo went straight to the Town Hall and when he found Peppone, he lost his temper. "Are we all going off our nuts?" he exclaimed. "Here you are, digging this filthy ditch. Don't you know that this is Friday?"
"Well!" replied Peppone with astonishment. "And is it forbidden to dig a ditch on a Friday?"
Don Camillo roared: "But don't you realize that it's less than two days to Sunday?"
Peppone looked worried. He rang a bell and Smilzo came in. "Hey, Smilzo," said Peppone. "The reverendo says that since today is Friday, it's less than two days to Sunday. What do you think?"
Smilzo pondered seriously. Then he pulled out a pencil and made calculations on a piece of paper. "Why," he said presently, "taking into consideration that it is now four o'clock in the afternoon and therefore within eight hours of midnight, it will actually be Sunday within thirty-two hours from the present time."
Don Camillo watched all these maneuvers and by now was almost frothing at the mouth. "I understand!" he shouted. "This is a put-up job to boycott the Bishop's visit."
"Reverendo," replied Peppone, "where is the connection between our local sewage and the Bishop's visit? And also, may I ask what bishop and why he should be coming here?"
"To the devil with your black soul!" bawled Don Camillo. "That ditch must be filled in at once, or else the Bishop will be unable to pass on Sunday!"
Peppone's face looked completely blank. "Unable to pass? But then how did you pass? There are a couple of planks across the ditch, if I am not mistaken."
"But the Bishop is coming by car," exclaimed Don Camillo. "We can't ask a bishop to get out of his car and walk!"
"You must forgive me, I didn't know that bishops were unable to walk," retorted Peppone. "If that is so then it is quite another matter. Smilzo, call the city and tell them to send us a crane immediately. We'll put it near the ditch and as soon as the Bishop's car arrives the crane can grapple onto it and lift it over the ditch. Understand?"
"Perfectly, chief. And what color crane should I ask for?"
"Tell them chromium or nickel-plated; it will look better."
In such circumstances even a man who lacked Don Camillo's armor-plated fists might have been tempted to come to blows. But it was precisely in such cases as these that Don Camillo, on the contrary, became entirely composed. His argument to himself was as follows: "If this fellow sets out so deliberately to provoke me, it is because he hopes that I will lose my temper. Therefore, if I give him one on the jaw I am simply playing his game. As a fact, I should not be striking Peppone, but a Mayor in the exercise of his functions, and that would make an infernal scandal and create an atmosphere not only hostile to me personally but also to the Bishop."
"Never mind," he said quietly, "even bishops can walk."
Speaking in church that evening, he implored his congregation to remain calm, to concentrate on asking God to shed light upon the mind of their Mayor so that he would not ruin the impending ceremony by compelling the faithful to pass one at a time over a couple of insecure boards. And they must also pray God to prevent this improvised bridge from breaking under the undue strain and thus turning a day of rejoicing into one of mourning.
This Machiavellian sermon had its calculated effect upon all the women of the congregation who, on leaving the church, collected in front of Peppone's house and carried on to such an extent that at last Peppone came to a window and shouted that they could all go to hell and that the ditch would be filled in.
And so all was well, but on Sunday morning the village streets were adorned with large printed posters:
"Comrades! Alleging as a pretext of offense the initiation of work of public utility, the reactionaries have staged an unseemly agitation that has offended our democratic instincts. On Sunday our borough is to receive a visit from the representative of a foreign power, the same in fact who has been indirectly, the cause of the aforementioned agitation. Bearing in mind your just resentment and indignation, we are anxious to avoid, on Sunday, any demonstration which might complicate our relations with strangers. We therefore categorically exhort you to keep your reception of this representative of a foreign power within the limits of a dignified indifference.
"Hurrah for the Democratic Republic! Hurrah for the Proletariat! Hurrah for Russia!"
The streets were further enlivened by a throng of Party members who, it was easy to understand, had been specially mobilized with orders to parade the streets with "dignified indifference," wearing red handkerchiefs or red ties.
Don Camillo, very pale around the gills, went into the church for a moment and was about to hurry away when he heard Christ calling him. "Don Camillo, why are you in such a hurry?"
"I have to go and receive the Bishop along the road," Don Camillo explained. "It is some distance, and then there are so many people about wearing red handkerchiefs that if the Bishop does not see me immediately he will think that he has come to Stalingrad."
"And are these wearers of red handkerchiefs foreigners or of another religion?"
"No, they are the usual rascals that You see before You from time to time, here in the church."
"Then if that is the case, Don Camillo, it would be better for you to take off that contraption that you have strapped on under your cassock and to put it back in the closet." Don Camillo removed the Tommy gun and went to put it away in the sacristy.
"You can leave it there until I tell you to take it out again," commanded Christ and Don Camillo shrugged his shoulders.
"If I have to wait until You tell me to use a Tommy gun, we'll really be in the soup!" he exclaimed. "You aren't likely ever to give the word, and I must confess that in many cases the Old Testament . . ."
"Reactionary!" smiled Christ. "And while you are wasting time chattering, your poor old defenseless Bishop is the prey of savage Russian reds!"
This was a fact: the poor old defenseless Bishop was indeed in the hands of the agitators. From early morning, the faithful had flocked to both sides of the main road, forming two long and impressive walls of enthusiasm, but a few minutes before the Bishop's car was sighted, Peppone, warned by a rocket fired by his outpost to signal the approach of the enemy, gave the order to advance and by a lightning maneuver the red forces rushed forward half a mile, so that upon his arrival the Bishop found the entire road a mass of men wearing red handkerchiefs. People wandered to and fro and clustered into gossiping groups, displaying a "dignified indifference" toward the difficulties of the Bishop's driver who had to go at a snail's pace, clearing a passage by continuous use of his horn.
The Bishop, a bent and white-haired man whose voice when he spoke seemed to come not from his lips but from another century, immediately understood the "dignified indifference" and, telling his driver to stop the car, made an abortive movement to open the door. It appeared that he lacked the necessary strength. Brusco, who was standing near by, fell into the trap, and when he realized his mistake because of the kick Peppone had landed on his shin, it was too late and he had already opened the door.
"Thank you, my son," said the Bishop. "I think it would be better if I walked to the village."
"But it is some distance," muttered Smilzo, also receiving a kick on the shin.
"Never mind," replied the Bishop, laughing, "I wouldn't want to disturb your political meeting."
"It is not a political meeting," explained Peppone gloomily. "These are only workers quietly discussing their own affairs. You'd better stay in your car."
But by now the Bishop was standing in the road, and Brusco had earned another kick because, realizing that he was unsteady on his feet, he had offered the support of his arm.
"Thank you, thank you so much, my son," said the Bishop, and he set out, having made a sign to his secretary not to accompany him, as he wished to go alone.
And thus it was at the head of the entire red horde that he reached the zone occupied by Don Camillo's forces. And at the Bishop's side were Peppone, his headquarters staff, and all his most devoted henchmen because, as Peppone pointed out, the slightest gesture of discourtesy shown by any hot-headed fool to the representative of a foreign power would give the reactionaries the opportunities of their lives.
"The order remains and will remain unchanged," stated Peppone. "Dignified indifference."
The instant Don Camillo sighted the Bishop, he rushed toward him. "Excellency," he exclaimed, with great agitation. "Forgive me, but it was not my fault! I was awaiting you with all the faithful, but at the last moment . . ."
"Don't worry," smiled the Bishop. "The fault has been entirely my own. I took it into my head to leave the car and take a walk. All Bishops as they get old become a little crazy!"
The faithful applauded, the bands struck up and the Bishop looked about him with obvious enjoyment. "What a lovely village!" he said as he walked on. "Really lovely, and so beautifully neat and clean. You must have an excellent local administration."
"We do what we can for the good of the people," replied Brusco, receiving his third kick from Peppone.
The Bishop, on reaching the Square, noticed the large new edifice and was interested. "And what is that handsome building?"
"The People's Palace," replied Peppone proudly.
"But it is really magnificent!" exclaimed the Bishop.
"Would you care to go through it?" said Peppone while a terrific kick on the shins made him wince. That particular kick had come from Don Camillo.
The Bishop's secretary, a lean young man with spectacles perched upon a big nose, had caught up with the procession and now hurried forward to warn him that this was an unsuitable departure from routine, but the Bishop had already entered the building. And they showed him everything: the gymnasium, the reading-room, the writing-room, and when they reached the library he went up to the book shelves and studied the titles of the books. Before the bookcase labeled "Political," which was filled with propagandist books and pamphlets, he said nothing but only sighed, and Peppone, who was close to him, noticed that sigh.
"Nobody ever reads them," whispered Peppone.
He spared his visitor the inspection of the offices, but could not resist the temptation to show off the tea-room that was the object of his special pride, and thus the Bishop, on his way out, was confronted by the enormous portrait of the man with the big mustache and the small eyes.
"You know how it is in politics," said Peppone in a confidential voice. "And then, believe me, he isn't really such a bad egg."
"May God in His Mercy shed light upon his mind also," replied the Bishop quietly.
Throughout all this, Don Camillo's position was precarious. While he was indignant at the presumption upon the Bishop's kindness that inflicted on him an inspection of the People's Palace, which was a structure that surely cried to God for vengeance, on the other hand he was proud that the Bishop should know how progressive and up-to-date the village was. Moreover, he was not displeased that the Bishop should realize the strength of the local leftist organization, since it could only enhance the merits of his own Recreation Center in the Bishop's eyes.
When the inspection was at an end, Don Camillo approached the Bishop. "It seems a pity, Excellency," he said, so loudly that Peppone could not fail to hear him; "it seems a pity that our Mayor has not shown you the arsenal. It is believed to be the most fully supplied of the entire province."
Peppone was about to retort, but the Bishop forestalled him. "Surely not as well supplied as your own," he replied, laughing.
"That's no lie!" exclaimed Smilzo.
"He even has an S.S. mortar buried somewhere," added Brusco.
The Bishop turned toward Peppone's staff. "You wanted him back," he said, "and now you can keep him. I warned you that he was dangerous."
"He doesn't scare us," said Peppone with a grin.
"Keep an eye on him all the same," the Bishop advised him.
Don Camillo shook his head. "You will always have your joke, Excellency," he exclaimed. "But you have no idea what these people are like!"
On his way out of the People's Palace, the Bishop passed the bulletin-board, saw the poster and paused to read it.
"Ah," he remarked, "you are expecting a visit from the representative of a foreign power! And who may that be, Don Camillo?"
"I know very little about politics," replied Don Camillo. "We must ask the gentleman who is responsible for the poster. Mr. Mayor, His Excellency wishes to know who is the representative of a foreign power who is mentioned in your manifesto?"
"Oh," said Peppone, after a moment's hesitation. "The usual American."
"I understand," replied the Bishop. "One of those Americans who are looking for oil in these parts. Am I right?"
"Yes," said Peppone. "It's a downright scandal—any oil there may be, belongs to the people."
"I quite agree," said the Bishop with the utmost gravity. "But I think you were wise to tell your men to limit their reactions to a 'dignified indifference.' We would be foolish to quarrel with America, don't you agree?"
Peppone shrugged. "Excellency," he said, "you know how it is: one puts up with as much as one can and then comes the last straw!"
When the Bishop arrived in front of the church, he found all the local children from Don Camillo's Recreation Center in a neat formation, singing a song of welcome. Then an immense bouquet of flowers was presented to the Bishop by a small child with such beautiful curls and clothes that all the women nearly went out of their minds. There was complete silence while the infant, without pause and in a voice as clear and pure as a little spring of water, recited a poem in the Bishop's honor. After which everyone applauded the child, exclaiming that he was adorable.
Peppone went up to Don Camillo. "Dastard!" he hissed in his ear. "You take advantage of a child's innocence to make me ridiculous before everybody! I'll break every bone in your body. And as for that brat, I'll show him where he gets off. I'll chuck him in the river!"
"Good hunting!" replied Don Camillo. "Since he's your own son you can do what you want with him."
And it really was shocking, because Peppone carried the poor child off to the river like a bundle, and made him recite the poem in honor of the Bishop three times in a row.
Go on to chapter eighteen, The Bell on the meaning of life website.