| || Chapter Fourteen - The Wall |
PEOPLE CALLED it Manasca's Garden, but it was just a quarter of an acre of underbrush, with weeds as tall as poplars, sur¬rounded by a ten-foot wall. A forgotten plot with a hundred and fifty feet of frontage on the square and ninety feet on the tree-lined street leading into it. Because it was the only vacant site in the square, old Manasca had been offered any amount of money for it but he had never been willing to sell. For years and years it lay there, just as fallow and unculti¬vated as its owner, until finally the old man died and it was inherited by his son, together with a pile of thousand-lire notes and other pieces of property here and there on both sides of the river. Young Manasca thought it was a shame not to put the plot to use, and finally he went to see the Mayor.
"Men are starving because they can't find work," he said very directly, "but you proletarians, as you call yourselves, with all your red kerchiefs, are such a filthy bunch that it's a sin to give you anything to do."
"We're not as filthy as you fine gentlemen," Peppone answered peacefully. "The best of you deserves to be strung up on a rope made of the guts of the most miserable of us."
Young Manasca and Peppone had had a fist-fight every day until they were twenty; as a result they were very good friends and understood one another perfectly. So now Peppone asked what he was driving at.
"If you promise you won't trip me up with trade unions, Party, vice-Party, victims of the Resistance movement, social justice, rightful claims, sympathy strikes and all the rest of your revolutionary paraphernalia, I'll provide work for half the men in the village," Manasca told him.
Peppone put his fists on his hips.
"Do you want me to help you exploit the worker? To convince him he ought to toil for a dish of spaghetti and a kick in the pants?"
"I don't intend to cheat anybody. I'll pay regular wages and old-age insurance and give you a barrel of wine into the bargain if you promise me that those stupid fools won't walk out in the middle of the job and try to blackmail me. It's a big project, and if it doesn't come off I'm a ruined man."
Peppone told him to lay his cards on the table.
"I propose to put up a five-storey building in the garden," said Manasca. "Big-city stuff, with a hundred-foot arcade on to the square, shops, a cafe, a restaurant with rooms to let above it, a garage, a petrol pump and so on. If all goes well, I'll let you run the petrol pump. However much of a nuisance you are, you know how to get things done. With a building like that we'll make this into an important market centre and turn our yokels into sophisticates."
Peppone had never laid eyes on Paris or London or New York, but he imagined the new building as equal to any of theirs. And he could see a red-and-yellow petrol pump in front of his workshop, with a pump for compressed air as well.
"A complete filling-station needs a hydraulic machine to lift cars up for greasing," he murmured.
"There'll be a hydraulic machine and all the other gadgets you can think of," said Manasca. "But you've got to make me a promise."
"What if I'm not re-elected Mayor?" Peppone said anxiously.
"So much the better! The new Mayor will be afraid of you and your gang. And that's more than you can say for your¬self!"
Peppone brought a fist down on his desk.
"That's a bargain! And I'll kill the first man that gives you trouble. The future of the village is concerned, and anyone that doesn't do a good job will get a swift kick. Tell me what you need and I'll find you the right people."
"Let's have a clear understanding," said Manasca. "You're not to hire only people from your own Party. I want men that are willing to work and have the know-how."
"That's right; all men are equal when they're hungry," Peppone said sententiously.
And that evening, with due solemnity, he gave the news to his Party stalwarts.
"Tell people that, while others chatter, we actually do something. We're building a skyscraper."
A week later, a crew of wreckers began to tear down the wall. And then it was that trouble began. The wall was a mass of stones and rubble and mortar, at least three hundred years old, which was easy enough to smash; but there was something on the wall that everyone had forgotten. On the street side, just a yard before the corner, there was a niche, with a rusty grating over it to protect a Madonna painted inside.
The Madonna was a thing of no artistic value, painted by some poor devil two or three hundred years before, but everyone knew her; everyone had greeted her a thousand times and stopped to put a flower in the tin can at her feet. And if the wall around her were torn down, the Madonna would fall to pieces. Manasca sent for an expert from the city, one of those fellows who can peel a painting off a wall. But after studying the situation he declared that there was nothing to do.
"If we so much as touch the painting, it will crumple into dust."
Meanwhile the wreckers were advancing, and when they were a couple of yards away on either side, they stopped. Peppone came to look at the Madonna clinging to the last bit of wall and shook his head.
"Nonsense!" he said. "This isn't religion; it's superstition. There's no intention of hurting anybody's feelings. For the sake of this painting, are we to give up a plan that's provid¬ing work for a lot of people and doing something for the village as well?"
The wreckers were tough fellows, who would just as soon have demolished their own mothers. And there they stood in front of the remaining scrap of wall. Their chief, Bago, spat out a cigarette butt and shook his head.
"I wouldn't destroy it even on orders from the Pope!" he exclaimed, and the others looked as if they felt as he did.
"No one said anything about destroying it," shouted Peppone. "That's all sentimentality, traditionalism, child¬ishness and so on. There's only one thing to do, to tear down as much of the wall as possible, then to prop up and protect what's left, lift it away and put it somewhere else. In Russia they move fifteen-storey buildings from one street to another, and no matter how far we may be behind them, we ought to be able to pull off a trick like this one."
Bago shrugged his shoulders.
"In Russia they may move buildings, but they haven't any Madonnas to move," he mumbled.
Brusco took a good look and then threw out his arms in despair.
"There's a crack at the back of the niche, and it's a miracle that the whole thing hasn't fallen apart years ago. The wall's made of mud and stones, and if you try to lift a piece of it out you'll be left with a fistful of sand."
Peppone strode up and down, and half the village gathered to look on.
"Well then, what have you got to say, all of you?" Peppone snarled. "You can see the situation for yourselves. Are we to stop work or not? Say something, or may God strike you dead!"
"We'd better go and see the priest about it," was their conclusion.
Peppone jammed his cap down on his head.
"All right. Since the future of the village is at stake, I suppose we'll have to call upon the priest."
Don Camillo was transplanting some vegetables in his garden when Peppone and the rest of them looked over the hedge. Manasca explained the problem, and Peppone put the question:
"What shall we do?"
Don Camillo asked for further details and prolonged the discussion. Of course, he already knew what it was all about and only wanted to gain time.
"It's late now," he said at last. "We'll decide to-morrow."
"In the city I've seen any number of churches that have been de-consecrated and taken over by coal merchants or cabinet-makers," said Peppone. "If a church can be transformed in that way, why can't we do the same thing with a picture painted on a wall?"
"The very fact that you've come to consult me shows that there are some difficulties in your minds," said Don Camillo.
That night the priest could not sleep for worry. But the next morning, when Peppone and his gang appeared before him, he had a solution.
"If you are quite sure in your consciences that there is no way of saving the picture, then go ahead and tear down the wall. It's for the good of the whole community, and a poor old painted Madonna wouldn't want to take bread out of men's mouths and stand in the way of progress. God be with you! But go at it gently."
"Very well," said Peppone, touching his cap, and march¬ing off with his men to the square.
When they reached the Madonna he turned and said to Bago:
"You heard what the priest told us, didn't you? We're not giving offence to anyone."
Bago twisted the visor of his cap to one side of his head, spat into his hands and grasped the handle of his pick. He raised the pick in the air, left it suspended there for several minutes, and then said: "Not me! I'll not be the one to do it."
Peppone stormed and shouted, but none of the men was willing to deliver the fatal blow. Finally he seized the pick himself and advanced towards the wall. He raised it above his head but when through the grating he saw the Madonna's eyes upon him, he threw it down on the ground.
"Devil take it!" he exclaimed. "Why should this be the Mayor's job? What has a Mayor to do with the Madonna? The priest ought to be good for something. Let him do it! Everyone to his own trade, I say."
And he went angrily back to the presbytery.
"All done?" Don Camillo asked him.
"The devil it's done!" shouted Peppone. "It's no use."
"Because the Madonna and saints are your racket. I've never called on you to smash a bust of Marx or Lenin, have I?"
"No, but if you want me to, I'd be glad to oblige," said Don Camillo.
Peppone clenched his fists.
"Do what you see fit," said Peppone. "But remember that as long as the Madonna's there, we can't go on with the work, and you'll be responsible for the resulting unemployment. I'm a Mayor by profession, not a destroyer of Madonnas. And I don't want to be told that we're a bunch of sacrilegious Reds, smashing up saints wherever we find them."
"Very well, then," said Don Camillo. "The rest of you can go along, while I talk to the Mayor."
When the two men were left alone together, they said nothing for several minutes. Then Don Camillo broke the silence.
"Peppone, it's no good, I can't tear it down."
"Neither can I," said Peppone. "If you, who specialize in saints, haven't got the nerve. . . ."
"It's not a question of nerve," said Don Camillo. "It's like it was with the angel in the bell tower, who for hundreds of years had looked down on the village. The eyes of this Madonna have seen all our beloved dead; they have reflected the hope and despair, the joys and sorrows of centuries past. Do you remember, Peppone, when we came back from the war in 1918? I gave the Madonna flowers, and you put them in your tin cup."
Peppone grunted, and Don Camillo ran his hand over his chin. Then he threw his coat around him and put on his hat.
When they arrived in front of the Madonna, they found half the village waiting there. There was a stranger also, a young man who had come in a car, and from the manner in which Peppone ran to greet him, it was clear that he was a Party bigwig from the city. Now he stepped forward and looked at the Madonna.
"Well," he said, "if things are as you tell me and the priest agrees that you can't give up a project that's so good for the community and the working-man, then I'll be the one to cut through your middle-class sentimentality. I'll do the job myself."
He took a pick and started over to the wall. But Don Camillo laid a hand on his shoulder and pulled him back.
"It's not necessary," he said roughly.
There was a deep silence, while everyone looked expect¬antly at the wall. Suddenly the wall quivered and then slowly cracked open. The wall did not fall to the ground; it crumbled into a heap of stones and plaster. On top of the neap, free of the rusty grating and the shadows of the niche in which it had dwelt for so long, stood the Madonna, completely unscathed. Although she had been painted two or three hundred years before, she was as fresh as a rose.
"She can go back to the same place in the new wall," said Manasca.
"Motion carried by unanimous applause!" shouted Pep¬pone. And he thought of his old Army tin cup, with the offering of flowers from Don Camillo.
Go on to chapter fifteen, The Sun Also Rises on the meaning of life website.