Chapter Nine - Return to the Fold
THE PRIEST who had been sent to supply the parish during Don Camillo's political convalescence was young and delicate. He knew his business and he spoke courteously, using lovely, polished phrases that appeared to be newly minted. Naturally, even though he knew that he was only in temporary occupation, this young priest established some small changes in the church such as any man feels to be necessary if he is to be tolerably at his ease in strange surroundings.
We are not making actual comparisons, but it is much the same when a traveler goes to a hotel. Even if he is aware that he will remain there only for one night, he will be inclined to move a table from left to right and a chair from right to left, because each one of us has a strictly personal concept of aesthetic balance and color and experiences discomfort on every occasion when, being at liberty to do so, he does not exert himself to create such harmony as he desires.
It therefore happened that on the first Sunday following the new priest's arrival the congregation noticed two important innovations: the great candlestick that supported the big paschal candle with its floral decorations and which had always stood on the second step at the Gospel side of the altar had been shifted to the Epistle side and placed in front of a small picture representing a saint—a picture which had previously not been there.
Out of curiosity, together with respect to the new parish priest, the entire village was present, with Peppone and his henchmen in the foremost ranks.
"Have you noticed?" muttered Brusco to Peppone with a stifled snigger, pointing out the candlestick, "Changes!"
"M-m-m," mumbled Peppone irritably. And he remained irritable until the priest came down to the altar rails to make the customary address.
Then Peppone could bear no more, and just as the priest was about to begin, he detached himself from his companions, marched steadily towards the candlestick, grasped it firmly, carried it past the altar and placed it in its old position upon the second step to the left. Then he returned to his seat in the front row and with knees wide apart and arms folded stared arrogantly straight into the eyes of the young priest.
"Well done!" murmured the entire congregation, not excepting Peppone's political opponents.
The young priest, who had stood open-mouthed watching Peppone's behavior, changed color, stammered somehow through his brief address and returned to the altar to complete his Mass.
When he left the church he found Peppone waiting for him with his entire staff. The church square was crowded with silent and surly people.
"Listen here, Don—Don whatever you call yourself," said Peppone in an aggressive voice, "Who is this new person whose picture you have hung on the pillar to the right of the altar?"
"Santa Rita da Cascia," stammered the little priest.
"Then let me tell you that this village has no use for Santa Rita da Cascia or anything of the kind. Here everything is better left as it was before."
The young priest spread out his arms. "I think I am entitled . . ."he began, but Peppone cut him short.
"Ah, so that's how you take it? Well, then let us speak clearly: this village has no use for a priest such as you."
The young priest gasped. "I cannot see that I have done anything ..."
"Then I'll tell you what you have done. You have com¬mitted an illegal action. You have attempted to change an order that the permanent priest of the parish had established in accordance with the will of the people."
"Hurrah!" shouted the crowd, including the reactionaries.
The little priest attempted a smile. "If that is all the trouble, everything shall be put back exactly as it was before. Isn't that the solution?"
"No," thundered Peppone, flinging his hat behind him and placing his enormous fists on his hips.
"And may I be allowed to ask why?"
Peppone had reached the end of his supplies of diplomacy. "Well," he said, "if you really want to know, it is not a solution because if I give you one on the jaw I shall send you flying at least fifteen yards, while if it were the regular incumbent he wouldn't move so much as an inch!"
Peppone stopped short of explaining that in the event of his hitting Don Camillo once, the latter would have hit him half a dozen times in return. He left it at that, but his meaning was clear to all his hearers with the exception of the little priest, who stared at him m amazement.
"But, excuse me," he murmured. "Why should you have any wish to hit me?"
Peppone lost patience. "Who in the world wants to hit you? There you are again, running down the left-wing parties! I used a figure of speech merely in order to explain our views. Is it likely that I should waste my time hitting a scrap of a priest like you!"
On hearing himself termed a "scrap of a priest," the young man drew himself up to his full five feet four inches and his face grew purple till the very veins in his neck swelled.
" 'Scrap of a priest' you may call me," he cried in a shrill voice, "but I was sent here by ecclesiastical authority and here I shall remain until ecclesiastical authority sees fit to remove me. In this church you have no authority at all! Santa Rita will stay where she is and, as for the candlestick, watch what I am going to do!"
He went into the church, grasped the candlestick firmly and after a considerable struggle succeeded in removing it again to the Epistle side of the altar in front of the new picture.
"There!" he said triumphantly.
"Very well!" replied Peppone, who had observed his actions from the threshold of the church door. Then he turned to the crowd which stood in serried ranks in the church square, silent and surly, and shouted: "The people will have something to say to this! To the town hall, all of you, and we will make a demonstration of protest."
"Hurrah!" howled the crowd.
Peppone elbowed his way through them so that he could lead them, and they formed up behind him yelling and brandishing sticks. When they reached the town hall, the yells increased in volume, and Peppone yelled also, raising his fist and shaking it at the balcony of the council chamber.
"Peppone," shouted Brusco in his ear, "are you crazy? Stop yelling! Have you forgotten that you yourself are the mayor?"
"Hell! ..." exclaimed Peppone. "When these accursed swine make me lose my head I remember nothing!" He ran upstairs and out on to the balcony, where he was cheered by the crowd including the reactionaries.
"Comrades, citizens," shouted Peppone. "We will not suffer this oppression that offends against our dignity as free men! We shall remain within the bounds of the law so long as may be possible, but we are going to get justice even if we must resort to gunfire! In the meantime I propose that a committee of my selection shall accompany me to the ecclesiastical authorities and impose in a democratic manner the desires of the people!"
"Hurrah!" yelled the crowd, completely indifferent to logic or syntax. "Long live our Mayor Peppone!"
When Peppone and his committee stood before the bishop he had some difficulty in finding his voice, but at last he got going.
"Excellence," he said, "that priest that you have sent us is not worthy of the traditions of the leading parish of the district."
The bishop raised his head in order to see the top of Peppone. "Tell me now: what has he been doing?"
Peppone waved his arms. "For the love of God! Doing? He hasn't done anything serious ... In fact, he hasn't done anything at all ... The trouble is that. . . Oh, well, Eminence, he's only a half man . . . you know what I mean, a priestling; when the fellow is all dressed up -— your Eminence must excuse me, but he looks like a coat-hanger loaded with three overcoats and a cloak!"
The old bishop nodded his head gravely. "But do you," he inquired very graciously, "establish the merits of priests with a tape measure and a weighing machine?"
"No, Excellence," replied Peppone. "We aren't savages! But all the same, how shall I put it—even the eye needs some satisfaction, and in matters of religion it's the same as with a doctor, there's a lot to be said for personal sympathies and moral impressions!"
The old bishop sighed. "Yes, yes. I understand perfectly. But all the same, my dear children, you had a parish priest who looked like a tower and you yourselves came and asked me to remove him!"
Peppone wrinkled his forehead. "Monsignor," he ex¬plained solemnly, "it was a question of a casus belli, an affair sui generis, as they say. Because that man was a multiple offence in the way he exasperated us by his provocative and dictatorial poses."
"I know, I know," said the bishop. "You told me all about it when you were here before, my son, and, as you see, I removed him. And that was precisely because I fully understood that I had to deal with an unworthy man ..."
"One moment, if you will excuse me," Brusco interrupted. "We never said that he was an unworthy man! . . .''
"Well, well; if not 'an unworthy man'," continued the bishop, "at any rate an unworthy priest inasmuch as . . ."
"I beg your pardon," said Peppone, interrupting him. "We never suggested that as a priest he had failed in his duty. We only spoke of his serious defects, of his very serious misdeeds as a man."
"Exactly," agreed the old bishop. "And as, unfortunately, the man and the priest are inseparable, and a man such as Don Camillo represents a danger to his neighbors, we are at this very moment considering the question of making his present appointment a permanent one. We will leave him where he is, among the goats at Puntarossa. Yes, we will leave him there, since it has not yet been decided whether he is to be allowed to continue in his functions or whether we shall suspend him a divinis. We will wait and see."
Peppone turned to his committee and there was a moment's consultation, then he turned again to the bishop.
"Monsignor," he said in a low voice, and he was sweating and had gone pale, as though he found difficulty in speaking audibly, "if the ecclesiastical authority has its own reasons for doing such a thing, of course that is its own affair. Nevertheless, it is my duty to warn your Excellency that until our regular parish priest returns to us, not a soul will enter the church."
The bishop raised his arms. "But, my sons," he exclaimed, "do you realize the gravity of what you are saying? This is coercion!"
"No, Monsignor," Peppone explained, "we are coercing nobody, because we shall all remain quietly at home, and no law compels us to go to church. Our decision is simply a question of availing ourselves of democratic liberty. Because we are the only persons qualified to judge whether a priest suits us or not, since we have had to bear with him for nearly twenty years."
"Vox populi vox Dei," sighed the old bishop. "God's will be done. You can have your reprobate back if you want him. But don't come whining to me later on about his arrogance."
Peppone laughed. "Eminence! The priests of a type such as Don Camillo don't really break any bones. We came here before merely as a matter of simple political and social precaution, so as to make sure that Redskin here didn't lose his head and throw a bomb at him."
"Redskin yourself!" retorted the indignant Gigotto, whose face Don Camillo had dyed with aniline red and whose head had come in contact with Don Camillo's bench. "I never meant to throw any bombs. I simply threw a firework in front of his house to make him realize that I wasn't standing for being knocked on the head even by the reverend parish priest in person."
"Ah! Then it was you, my son, who threw the firework?" inquired the old bishop indifferently.
"Well, Excellence," mumbled Gigotto, "you know how it is. When one has been hit on the head with a bench one may easily go a bit too far in retaliation."
"I understand perfectly," replied the bishop, who was old and knew how to take people in the right way.
Don Camillo returned ten days later.
"How are you?" inquired Peppone, meeting him just as he was leaving the station. "Did you have a pleasant holiday?"
"Well, it was a bit dreary up there. Luckily I took my pack of cards with me and worked off my restlessness playing patience," replied Don Camillo. He pulled a pack of cards from his pocket. "Look," he said. "But now I shan't need them any more." And delicately, with a smile, he tore the pack in two as though it were a slice of bread.
"We are getting old, Mr. Mayor," sighed Don Camillo.
"To hell with you and with those who sent you back here!" muttered Peppone, turning away, the picture of gloom.
Don Camillo had a lot to tell the Lord above the altar. Then at the end of their gossip he inquired, with an assumption of indifference:
"What kind of a fellow was my replacement?"
"A nice lad, cultured and with a nice nature. When anyone did him a good turn, he didn't bait them by tearing up a pack of cards under their noses."
"Lord!" exclaimed Don Camillo, raising his arms. "I don't suppose anyone here ever did him a good turn, anyway. And then there are people who have to be thanked like that. I'll bet You that now Peppone is saying to his gang: 'And he tore the whole pack across, zip, the misbegotten son of an ape!' And he is thoroughly enjoying saying it! Shall we have a wager?"
"No," replied the Lord with a sigh; "because that is exactly what Peppone is saying at this moment."
Go on to chapter ten, The Defeat on the meaning of life website.