Chapter Ten - Thunder on the Right
PEPPONE'S PASSION to show moving-pictures was inherited straight from his father. His father, too, was mechanically minded, and he had brought the first threshing-machine to the Valley, as all the old inhabitants remembered very well. Young people may laugh because they fail to see any connection between moving-pictures and a threshing-machine. But the young people of today are benighted creatures born with their telephone numbers imprinted on their brains, and where passion is concerned they have about as much grace as a pig in a cornfield.
In the old days, electric power was a luxury confined to the city; and since a moving-picture projector has to be run electrically, country people had no chance to see any pictures. But Peppone's father mounted a dynamo on the steam engine that powered the thresher, and when his machine wasn't needed in the fields he hitched two oxen to it and went from village to village, giving picture shows. So many years have gone by that the young people of today can't possibly visualize a steam engine drawn by two oxen. It was painted green with magnificent bands of shiny brass around it and had an enormous fly-wheel and a tall chimney, which was lowered while it was traveling from one place to another. It didn't smell or make any noise, and it had a very wonderful whistle.
So Peppone's ambition to show moving-pictures was quite legitimately in his blood. As soon as the auditorium of the newly built "People's Palace" was at his disposal, this was the first thing that came into his mind. One fine morning the village awoke to find itself plastered with posters announcing the opening of the moving-picture season at the People's Palace the next Sunday.
Now Don Camillo's father had never even thought about going round the countryside to show moving-pictures, but for some time Don Camillo had been set upon the idea of acquiring a projector for his Recreation Centre and Pep-pone's announcement made his stomach turn over. He was somewhat consoled on Sunday by a fierce storm and a flood-like downpour of rain. At ten o'clock in the evening he was still waiting to hear what had happened when his friend Barchini, dripping but happy, appeared at the door.
"There were only a few waifs and strays at the People's Palace," Barchini told him. "The rain kept the people from the outskirts away. What's more, the lights kept going on and off, and finally they had to stop the show. Peppone was fit to burst."
Don Camillo went to kneel before the Lord on the altar.
"Lord, I thank You . . ." he began.
"What for, Don Camillo?"
"For sending a storm and disrupting the electric current."
"Don Camillo, I had nothing to do with the lights going off. I'm a carpenter, not an electrician. And as for the storm, do you really think that Almighty God would inconvenience winds, clouds, lightning and thunder simply in order to prevent Peppone from showing his pictures?"
Don Camillo lowered his head.
"No, I don't really think so," he stammered. "We men have a way of thanking God for anything that falls in with our plans, as if it had come to pass just for our pleasure."
At midnight the storm died down, but at three o'clock in the morning it came back more fiercely than before, and an unearthly noise awakened Don Camillo. He had never heard a crash so loud and so close, and when he reached the window and looked out he was left gaping. The spire of the church tower had been struck by lightning, and cleft with jagged rents. It was just as simple as all that, but to Don Camillo it was so incredible that he rushed to tell the Lord about it.
"Lord," he said in a voice shaky with emotion, "the church spire has been struck by lightning."
"I understand, Don Camillo," the Lord answered calmly.
"Buildings are often struck that way in the course of a storm."
"But this was the church!" Don Camillo insisted.
"I heard you, Don Camillo."
Don Camillo looked up at the crucified Christ and threw out his arms in dismay.
"Why did it have to happen?" he asked bitterly.
"A church spire has been struck by lightning in the course of a storm," said the Lord. "Does God have to justify Himself for this in your sight? A short time ago you thanked Him for sending a storm that damaged your neighbor, and now you reproach Him because the same storm has damaged you."
"It hasn't damaged me," said Don Camillo. "It has damaged the house of God."
"The house of God is infinite and eternal. Even if every planet in the universe were to be reduced to dust, the house of God would still stand. A church spire has been struck by lightning; that is all anyone is entitled to think or say. The lightning had to strike somewhere."
Don Camillo was talking to the Lord, but during the conversation the thought of the mutilated tower was uppermost in his mind.
"Surely that particular stroke could have stayed away," he said. And the Lord took pity on his sorrow and continued to reason gently with him:
"Calm yourself, Don Camillo, and think it out clearly. God created the universe, and the universe is a perfect and harmonious system, in which every element is indissolubly bound, whether directly or indirectly, to all the rest. Everything that happens in the universe is necessary and foreordained, and if this stroke of lightning had not fallen exactly where and when it did, the harmony of the universe would have been troubled. This harmony is perfect, and if the lightning struck at this time and place, then it is a meet and right thing and we must thank God for it. We must thank Him for everything that takes place in the universe, for everything is a proof of His infallibility and the perfection of His creation. The stroke of lightning had to fall just where it did and not an inch in any other direction. The fault is man's, for having chosen to build the tower in that place. He could quite as well have built it a couple of yards farther off."
Don Camillo thought of his mutilated tower and there was bitterness in his heart.
"If everything that happens in the universe is foreordained and a manifestation of God's will, and otherwise the system would not be perfect, then the church tower had to be built where it is and not a couple of yards farther off." "Yes, it could have been built a couple of yards farther off," the Lord assured him, "but then man would unconsciously have violated God's law. And that God didn't allow."
"Then there's no free will," protested Don Camillo.
The Lord continued to speak with great gentleness.
"Woe to the man who out of anger or grief or sensual excitement forgets those things that deep down inside he cannot help but know. God points out the right way, but man has a choice of whether to follow it or not. In His infinite kindness, God leaves man free to choose the wrong way and yet, by repentance and recognition of his mistake, to save his soul. A church spire has been struck by lightning in the course of a storm. The lightning had to strike there, and so the man who built the tower is to blame. Yet the tower had to be built where it is and man must thank God for it."
Don Camillo sighed.
"Lord, I thank You. But if with Your help I manage to put up another spire, I am going to arm it with a lightning conductor."
"Yes, Don Camillo, if it is fore-ordained that you are to put a lightning conductor on the tower, then you will surely do so."
Don Camillo bowed his head. Then in the first light of dawn he climbed up to examine the damaged tower more closely.
"Exactly," he said to himself at last. "The tower had to be built just where it is!"
Soon people began to crowd into the square to see the tower. They stood there in the torrential rain and looked at it in bewilderment, without speaking. When the square was full, Peppone and his crew appeared on the scene. He pushed his way to the front of the crowd and stood there for some time staring at the sight. Then he solemnly pointed one finger to the sky.
"Here is a proof of God's wrath!" he exclaimed. "This is God's answer to your boycott. Lightning strikes where God wills, and God wills it to accomplish a purpose."
Don Camillo listened from the presbytery window. Pep-pone spied him there and pointed him out to the crowd.
"The priest is silent," he shouted, "because the lightning struck his church. If it had struck our People's Palace, he'd have plenty to say."
Smilzo looked up at Don Camillo too.
"This is God's answer to the warmongers!" he shouted. "Hurrah for Mao Tse-tung!"
"Hurrah for peace and the Confederation of Labor!" chorused his followers.
Don Camillo counted to fifty-two before saying what was boiling up inside him. Then he said nothing. He took a half-smoked cigar out of his pocket and lit it.
"Look at that!" shouted Peppone. "Nero fiddling while Carthage burns!"
With which slightly garbled historical reference, he and his gang stalked proudly away.
Towards evening Don Camillo took his bitterness to the altar.
"Lord, " he said at the end of his prayer, "what maddens me is to hear those scoundrels speak of Your divine wrath. I wouldn't dream of destroying the harmony of the universe, but after the blasphemous things they said this morning it would serve them right if lightning were to strike their People's Palace. Their blasphemies were enough to provoke divine wrath in earnest!"
"You're indulging in somewhat loose talk yourself, Don Camillo," said the Lord mildly. "Have you the face to inconvenience God in all His majesty just in order to knock down the four walls of a village shack? You must respect your God more than that, Don Camillo!"
Don Camillo went back to the presbytery. The distance was a short one, but at night, even within the space of a few steps, there's no telling what may happen. It was still raining, and at midnight the rain was coming down harder than ever. At one o'clock the stormy cacophony of the night before was repeated, and at two a clap of thunder aroused the whole village. By 2.10 everyone was awake, because a building in the square was afire, and the building was the People's Palace. When Don Camillo arrived the square was crowded with people, but Smilzo and his followers had already extinguished the flames. The roof had caved in, most of the framework was destroyed and the rest was a heap of smoldering ashes.
Don Camillo edged up as if by accident to
"A neat job," he observed casually. "Lightning seems to have a conscience."
Peppone wheeled around.
"Have half a cigar?" said Don Camillo.
"I don't smoke," answered Peppone darkly.
"You're quite right. The People's Palace is doing enough smoking. But I'm sorry. If you don't smoke, how can I say 'Nero fiddling while Carthage burns'? Only, for your information, it wasn't Carthage, it was Rome."
"That's good news! With every priest in it, I trust!"
Don Camillo shook his head and said gravely and in a loud voice: "You mustn't provoke God's wrath. Don't you see what you've brought upon yourself with the sacrilegious words you uttered this morning?"
Peppone almost jumped out of his skin with rage.
"Don't lose your temper," Don Camillo advised him. "The Marshall Plan might help you out."
Peppone stood face to face with Don Camillo, his fists clenched.
"The roof will be repaired in a few days," he shouted. "We don't need any plans; we'll take care of it ourselves."
"Good for you, Mr. Mayor," said Don Camillo, dropping his voice. "That way you can kill two birds with one stone. When you get the Council to appropriate money for the People's Palace, you can allot something for the repair of the church tower as well."
"Over my dead body!" said Peppone. "Ask your Americans for that. The People's Palace is a public utility, and the church is a private corporation."
Don Camillo lit the butt of his cigar.
"It was a fine stroke of lightning," he observed; "much more powerful than mine. It made a magnificent noise and did quite a bit of damage. Someone really ought to study it from a scientific point of view. I think I'll speak to the police sergeant about it."
"Keep your nose in your own business." said Peppone.
"My business is to get you to repair the church tower."
Peppone shot him a somber look.
"All right," he said between clenched teeth. "But some day I'll settle accounts with you."
Don Camillo started back to the presbytery. There was nothing more to see or to say. He meant to go straight home, but he knew that the Lord was waiting for him.
"Don Camillo," said the Lord severely, when the priest stood before him in the half-dark church. "Aren't you going to thank Me because the People's Palace was struck by lightning?"
"No," said Don Camillo, with his head hanging. "A stroke of lightning is part of the natural order created by God. Surely God wouldn't inconvenience winds, clouds, lightning and thunder simply in order to please a poor devil of a country priest and knock down the walls of a village shack."
"Exactly," said the Lord. "And how could God take advantage of a storm to throw a bomb on to the roof of the People's Palace? Only a poor devil of a country priest could think of a thing like that."
Don Camillo held out his arms.
"Yes, Lord, but even in this shameful deed there is evidence of God's mercy. If the poor devil of a country priest, tempted by Satan himself, hadn't tossed a bomb on to the roof of the People's Palace, then the case of dynamite hidden in the Palace attic wouldn't have exploded, and its presence there was a menace. Now the menace has been eliminated and the poor devil of a country priest has found a way to have the spire of his church tower properly replaced. Moreover, an individual who took the Lord's name in vain has received the punishment he deserved."
"Don Camillo," said the Lord, "are you sure you did the right thing?"
"No," Don Camillo replied. "God leaves man free to choose between right and wrong. I did wrong, I admit it, and I shall repent."
"Aren't you repentant already?"
"No, Lord," whispered Don Camillo. "It's still too early. I must ask for an extension."
The Lord sighed, and Don Camillo went off to bed. In spite of his guilty conscience, he slept like a log and dreamed that there was a gleaming gold spire on the church tower. When he woke up, he thought happily of his dream. But he realized that he had forgotten one very important thing. So he dropped off to sleep again and dreamed that on the gleaming spire there was a wonderful lightning rod.
Go on to chapter eleven, Red Letter Day on the meaning of life website.