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Chapter Eleven - Red Letter Day
BARCHINI, THE village printer and stationer, had been ill for some time, and there was no one to replace him in the shop, for his was the sort of business where "boss" and "workers" are combined in one and the same person. So it was that Don Camillo had to hire someone in the city to print his parish magazine, and when he went back to read the proofs he amused himself by poking about among the machines.
The devil is a rascal who has no respect for anything or anybody, and plays his tricks not only in night-clubs and other so-called resorts of perdition, but also in places where honest men are at work. In this case, the devil was lurking near the machine where a man was printing letterheads, and when Don Camillo got out to the street he found himself in a pretty pickle. Since the flesh is notoriously weak and even the most honorable of parish priests has some flesh and blood in his make-up, what was Don Camillo to do when, upon his return to the village, he found his pockets stuffed with five or six sheets of writing paper bearing the address of the provincial headquarters of a certain political party?
A few days later Peppone was surprised to receive a registered letter with a city postmark and on the back the name Franchini, which he had never heard before. Inside, there was a letterhead which made him instinctively draw himself to attention.
Dear Comrade,—Of course, you are already acquainted with the latest American betrayal, a secret clause in the nefarious Atlantic Pact which compels the other conspiring nations to watch over their democratic parties and sabotage any efforts on behalf of peace. Since we are under watch by the police, it is folly to put our Party name on our envelope, that is, except when we actually want the police to find out about something. When the time comes you will receive detailed rules for the conduct of your correspondence.
We are writing to you to-day about a delicate and strictly confidential matter. Comrade, the capitalists and clergy are working for war. Peace is under attack, and the Soviet Union, which alone has the benevolent power to defend it, needs the help of active friends.
The Soviet Union must be ready to bear the onslaught which the Western world is preparing to launch against it. The sacred cause of Peace needs men of unshakable faith and professional ability, ready to discipline themselves for action. We are so sure of you, Comrade, that the Special Committee for Political Action has unanimously decided to admit you to the inner sanctum. Here is a piece of news that should fill you with pride and joy; you are to be sent to the Soviet Union, where your mechanical talents will be put to work in the cause of Peace.
The Socialist Homeland will accord to the members of the Peace Brigade the rights and privileges of a Soviet citizen. We call this to your attention as one more sign of our Soviet comrades' generosity.
Instructions as to the day of departure and the equipment you should take with you will follow. You will travel by air. In view of the delicacy of this matter, we order you to destroy this letter and to send your reply to the comrade whose name and address are on the envelope. Take good care. Today, more than ever, the sacred cause of Peace is in your hands. In the expectation of a prompt reply . . .
For the first time in his life Peppone disobeyed a Party order. He did not burn the letter. "This is the most eloquent testimonial I have ever received from the Party," he said to himself. "I can't part with an historical document of this kind. If some fool should ever question my merits I'll wave this in his face and make him bite the dust. There's nothing more powerful than the printed word."
He read the letter over any number of times, and when he knew it by heart he added: "I've worked hard, certainly, but this is a great reward!" His only regret was that he could not exhibit the letter. "Now," he said, "I must write an answer in equally historic terms, an answer that will bring tears to their eyes. I'll show them what kind of feelings I have in my heart, even if I never went past the third grade in school." That evening he sat down in the cellar to work over his reply.
Comrade,—I overflow with pride to be chosen for the Peace Brigade and awate further Party orders. Let me anser with the Socialist cry, "I obey!" like the red-shirt Gaaribaldi, even if my first impulze is to go rite away. 1 never asked a favor befor, but now 1 ask to be alowed to be the furst to go.
Peppone read this over and saw that it needed a bit of polish and punctuation. But for a first draft it would do very well. There would be time enough to make a second draft the next day. No need to hurry. It was more important to write the kind of a letter that would be published in the Party papers with a note from the Editor above it. And he calculated that three drafts would do the job.
As Don Camillo was smoking his cigar and admiring the beauties of spring one evening on the road that led to the mill, he found Peppone in his path. They talked about the time of day and the weather, but it was obvious that there was something Peppone wanted to get off his chest and finally he came out with it.
"Look here, I'd like to talk to you for a minute as man to man instead of as man to priest."
Don Camillo stopped and looked at him hard.
"You've made an unhappy start," he observed, "by talking like a donkey!"
Peppone made an impatient gesture.
"Don't let's talk politics," he said. "I'd like you to tell me, as man to man, what you think of Russia."
"I've told you that eighty thousand times," said Don Camillo.
"We're quite alone, and no one can overhear us," Peppone insisted. "For once you can be sincere and leave political propaganda out of it. What's it like in Russia, anyhow?"
Don Camillo shrugged his shoulders.
"How should I know, Peppone?" he said. "I've never been there. All I know is what I've read about it. In order to tell you anything more, I'd have to go and see for myself. But you ought to know better than I."
"Of course I do," Peppone retorted. "Everyone's well off in Russia; everyone has a job. The Government is run by the people, and there's no exploitation of the poor. Anything the reactionaries say to the contrary is a lie."
Don Camillo looked at him sharply.
"If you know all that, why do you ask me about it?"
"Just to get your man-to-man opinion. So far I've always heard you talk strictly as a priest."
"And I've always heard you talk as a comrade. May I hear your man-to-man opinion as well?"
"To be a comrade means to be a man. And I think as a man just the same that I think as a comrade."
They walked on for a while, and then Peppone returned to the attack.
"In short, you'd say a fellow's just about as well off in Russia as he is here."
"I said nothing of the sort, but since you say it, I'll admit that's more or less my opinion. Except, of course, for the religious angle."
"We agree then," he said. "But why do you suppose people speak and write so much against it?"
Don Camillo threw out his arms. "Politics . . ."
"Politics! . . . Politics! . . ." muttered Peppone. "America is all mixed up with politics in the same way. But no one talks about America quite so violently as about Russia."
"Well, the fact is that people can go to see America for themselves, while very few of them have ever set foot in Russia."
Peppone explained that Russia had to be careful. Then he grasped Don Camillo's sleeve and stopped him.
"Listen ... as man to man, of course. If a fellow had a chance to take a good job in Russia, what would you advise him to do?"
"Peppone, you're asking me quite a hard . . ."
"Man to man, Father. . . . I'm sure you have the courage to be frank."
Don Camillo shook his head.
"To be frank, then, I'll say that if it were a question of taking a good job I might advise him to go."
Life is a queer sort of proposition. Logically, Peppone ought to have leaped in the air with joy. But Don Camillo's reply did not make him at all happy. He touched his hat and started to go away. After he had taken a few steps he turned round.
"How can you conscientiously advise a fellow to go to a place where you've never been yourself?" he asked.
"I know more about it than you think," Don Camillo said. "You may not realize it, but I read your newspapers. And some of the people that write for them have been to Russia."
Peppone wheeled abruptly.
"Oh, the newspapers! . . ." he grunted as he walked away.
Don Camillo was jubilant and he hurried back to the church to tell the Lord the whole story.
"Lord, he's got himself into a real tangle! He'd like to say he won't go, but in view of his position he doesn't dare to refuse the honor. And he came to me in the hope that I'd bolster up his resistance. Now he's caught worse than ever and doesn't see how he can get out of it. I shouldn't like to be in his shoes, I can tell you!"
"And I shouldn't like to be in yours—that is, if God would allow it," the Lord answered. "For they're the shoes of a wicked man."
Don Camillo's mouth dropped open.
"I played a good joke on him, that's all," he protested, stammering.
"A joke's a joke only so long as it doesn't cause pain," the Lord rebuked him.
Don Camillo hung his head and left the church. Two days later Peppone received another letter.
Dear Comrade,—We are sorry to say that, on account of unexpected complications, neither you nor any of the others chosen as members of the Peace Brigade will be able to go to the Soviet Union at this time. Forgive us for causing you this disappointment, but for the moment you can best serve the cause of Peace by staying where you are.
No one ever knew who it was that brought an enormous candle into the church under cover of darkness that evening. But Don Camillo found it burning near the crucifix when he went that night to say his prayers.
Go on to chapter twelve, The Strike on the meaning of life website.