Chapter Eighteen - The Bell
DON CAMILLO, AFTER a week during which he verbally attacked Bigio at least three times daily wherever he met him, and shouted that he and all house-painters were robbers and lived only by extortion, had at last succeeded in agreeing with him on a price for whitewashing the outside walls of the rectory. And now, from time to time, he went to sit for a while on the bench in the church square to enjoy the spectacle of those gleaming white walls with the newly painted shutters and the climbing jasmine over the doorway.
But after each gratifying contemplation, Don Camillo turned to look at the church tower and sighed heavily, thinking of Gertrude. Gertrude had been carried off by the Germans, and Don Camillo had fretted about her for nearly three years. Gertrude was the largest of the church bells, and only God could provide the necessary cash for the purchase of another bell of her majestic proportions.
"Stop brooding, Don Camillo," Christ said one day. "A parish can get along very nicely even if the church-tower lacks one of its bells. Noise is not everything. God has very sharp ears and can hear perfectly well even if He is called by a bell the size of a hazelnut."
"Of course He can," replied Don Camillo with a sigh. "But men are hard of hearing and it is to call them that bells are needed: the masses listen to those who make the loudest noise."
"Well, Don Camillo, peg away at it and you'll succeed."
"But, Lord, I have tried everything. Those who would like to give haven't the money, and the rich won't shell out even if you put a knife to their throats. I've been very near success with Sweepstakes tickets ... A pity! If only someone had given me the shadow of a tip, just one break and I could have bought a dozen bells . . ."
Christ smiled. "You must forgive My carelessness, Don Camillo. You want Me in the coming year to keep My mind on the race? Are you also interested in the numbers game?"
Don Camillo blushed. "You misunderstood me," he protested. "When I said 'someone' I wasn't referring to You! I was speaking in a general way."
"I am glad of that, Don Camillo," said Christ with grave approval. "It is very wise, when discussing such matters, always to speak in a general way."
A few days later, Don Camillo received a summons to the villa of the Signora Carolina, and when he came home he was fairly bursting with joy.
"Lord!" he exclaimed, breathless before the altar. "Tomorrow You will see before You a lighted candle of twenty pounds' weight. I am going to the city to buy it and if they haven't got one, I'll have it specially made."
"But, Don Camillo, where will you get the money?"
"Don't You worry, Lord; You'll have Your candle if I have to sell the mattress off my bed to pay for it! Look what You have done for me!"
Then Don Camillo calmed down a little. "The Signora Carolina is going to give all the money needed for casting a new Gertrude!"
"And how did she come to think of it?"
"She said she had made a vow," explained Don Camillo, "to the effect that if the Lord helped her to bring off a certain business deal, she would give a bell to the church. Thanks to You, the deal was successful and within a month's time Gertrude will once more lift up her voice to Heaven! I am going now to order the candle!"
Christ checked Don Camillo just as he was taking off under full steam. "No candle, Don Camillo," Christ said severely. "No candle."
"Because I do not deserve it," replied Christ. "I have given the Signora Carolina no help of any kind in her affairs. If I were to intervene in such matters, the winner would bless Me while the loser would justifiably curse Me. If you happen to find a purse of money, I have not made you find it, because I did not cause your neighbor to lose it. You had better light your candle in front of the middleman who helped the Signora Carolina make a profit of nine million. I am no middleman."
The voice was unusually severe, and Don Camillo was filled with shame.
"Forgive me," he stammered. "I am a poor, dull, ignorant country priest and my brain is filled with fog and foolishness."
Christ smiled. "Don't be unjust to Don Camillo," He exclaimed. "Don Camillo always understands Me, and that is clear proof that his brain is not filled with fog. Very often it is precisely the intellect that fogs the brain. It is not you who have sinned; indeed your gratitude touches Me. But the Signora Carolina is neither simple nor honest, when she sets out to make money by enlisting God's help in her shady financial deals."
Don Camillo listened silently with his head bowed. Then he looked up. "I thank You, Lord. And now I shall go and tell that usurer that she can keep her money! My bells must be honest bells. Otherwise, it would be better to die without ever again hearing Gertrude's voice!"
He wheeled around, proud and determined, and Christ smiled as He watched him walk away. But as Don Camillo reached the door, Christ called him back.
"Don Camillo," said the Lord, "I know what Gertrude means to you, because I can always read your mind, and your renunciation is so fine and noble that it would purify the bronze of a statue of the Antichrist. Get out of here quickly or you will have Me granting not only your bell, but who knows what other devilment."
Don Camillo stood quite still. "Does that mean I can have it?"
"It does. You have earned it."
In such contingencies, Don Camillo invariably lost his head. As he was standing before the altar he bowed, spun on his heel, set off at a run, pulled himself up halfway down the nave and finally skidded as far as the church door. Christ looked on with satisfaction because even such antics can at certain times be a way of praising God.
And then, a few days later, there occurred an unpleasant incident. Don Camillo surprised an urchin busily working on the newly whitened walls of the rectory with a piece of charcoal. Don Camillo saw red. The urchin made off like a lizard, but Don Camillo was beside himself and gave chase.
"I'll collar you if I burst my lungs!" he yelled.
He started hot on the trail across the fields and at every step his ire increased. Then suddenly the boy, finding his escape blocked by a thick hedge, stopped, threw up his arms to shield his head and stood still, too breathless to utter a word. Don Camillo bore down on him like a tank and grasping the child's arm with his left hand, raised the other, intending dire punishment. But his fingers closed on a wrist so small and emaciated that he let go.
Then he looked more attentively at the boy and found himself confronted by the white face and terrified eyes of Straziami's son. Straziami was the most unfortunate of all Peppone's satellites, not because he was an idler—he was in fact always in search of a job, but because, once he found one, he would work quietly for one day and on the second he would have a fight with his employer, so that he seldom worked more than five days a month.
"Don Camillo," the child implored him, "I'll never do it again!"
"Get along with you," said Don Camillo abruptly.
Then he sent for Straziami, and Straziami strode defiantly into the rectory with his hands in his pockets and his hat on the back of his head.
"And what does the people's priest want with me?" he demanded arrogantly.
"First of all that you take off your hat or I'll knock it off for you, and secondly that you stop needling because I won't put up with it."
Straziami himself was as thin and as colorless as his son, and a blow from Don Camillo would have felled him to the ground. He threw his hat onto a chair.
"I suppose you want to tell me that my son has been defacing the Archbishop's Palace? I know it already, someone else told me. Your gray Eminence need not worry: this evening the boy will get a whipping."
"If you dare lay a finger on him, I'll break every bone in your body," shouted Don Camillo. "Suppose you give him something to eat! That wretched child is nothing but a skeleton."
"We aren't all the pets of the Eternal Father," began Straziami sarcastically. But Don Camillo interrupted him.
"When you do get a job, try to keep it instead of getting thrown out on the second day for spouting revolution!"
"You look after your own bloody business!" retorted Straziami furiously. He turned on his heel to go, and Don Camillo caught him by the arm. But that arm, as his fingers grasped it, was as thin as the boy's, so Don Camillo let go of it.
Then he went off to the altar. "Lord," he exclaimed, "must I always find myself taking hold of a bag of bones?"
"All things are possible in a country ravaged by so many wars and so much hatred," Christ replied with a heavy sigh. "Suppose you tried keeping your hands to yourself?"
Don Camillo went next to Peppone's workshop. "As Mayor it is your duty to do something for that unhappy child of Straziami," said Don Camillo.
"With the funds available, I might possibly be able to fan him with the calendar on that wall," replied Peppone.
"Then do something as chief of your beastly Party. If I am not mistaken, Straziami is one of your star scoundrels."
"I can fan him with the blotter from my desk."
"Heavens above! And what about all the money they send you from Russia?"
Peppone worked away with his file. "Stalin's mail has been delayed," he remarked. "Why can't you lend me some of the cash you get from America?"
Don Camillo shrugged his shoulders. "If you can't see the point as Mayor or as Party leader, I thought as the father of a son (whoever may be his mother!), you'd understand the need for helping that miserable child who comes and scribbles on my wall. And by the way, you can tell Bigio to clean my wall free of charge."
Peppone carried on with his filing for a bit, then he said, "Straziami's boy isn't the only child in the village who needs to go to the sea or the mountains. If I could have found the money, I would have set up a camp long ago."
"Then go and look for it!" exclaimed Don Camillo. "So long as you stay in this workshop and file bolts, Mayor or no Mayor, you won't get hold of money. The farmers are lousy with it."
"And they won't part with a cent, reverendo. They'd shell out fast enough if we suggested founding a camp to fatten their calves! Why don't you go to the Pope or to Truman?"
They quarreled for two hours and very nearly came to blows at least thirty times. Don Camillo was very late in returning.
"What happened?" Christ asked. "You seem upset."
"Naturally," replied Don Camillo, "when an unhappy priest has had to argue for two hours with a Communist Mayor in order to make him understand the necessity for founding a seaside camp and for another two hours with a miserly woman capitalist to get her to fork out the money for that same camp, he's entitled to feel a bit gloomy."
Don Camillo hesitated. "Lord," he said at last, "You must forgive me if I even dragged You into this business of the money."
"Yes, Lord. In order to compel that usurer to part with her cash, I had to tell her that I saw You in a dream last night and that You told me that You would rather her money went for a work of charity than for the buying of the new bell."
"Don Camillo! And after that you have the courage to look Me in the eye?"
"Yes," replied Don Camillo calmly. "The end justifies the means."
"Machiavelli doesn't strike me as sacred Scripture," Christ exclaimed.
"Lord," replied Don Camillo, "it may be blasphemy to say so, but even he can sometimes have his uses."
"And that is true enough," agreed Christ.
Ten days later when a procession of singing children passed by the church on their way to camp, Don Camillo hurried out to say good-by and to give out stacks of holy pictures. And when he came to Straziami's boy at the end of the procession, he frowned at him fiercely.
"Wait until you are fat and strong and then we shall have our reckoning!" he threatened.
Then, seeing Straziami who was following the children at a little distance, he made a gesture of disgust. "Family of scoundrels," he muttered as he turned his back and went into the church.
That night he dreamed that the Lord appeared to him and said that He would sooner the Signora Carolina's money were used for charity than for the purchase of a bell.
"It is already done," murmured Don Camillo in his sleep.
Go on to chapter nineteen, Fear, on the meaning of life website.