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Chapter Fifteen - The Sun Also Rises
ONE AFTERNOON an old woman by the name of Maria Barchini came to confession. Don Camillo listened to her quietly, but toward the end he was startled almost out of his skin to hear her say hesitantly: "Father, I'm going to vote for the Communists."
He came out of the confessional and said to her: "Come along over to the presbytery." And when they had sat down in his study, he asked if there were anything wrong with her head. "I thought I'd explained all these things any number of times," he told her. "Didn't you understand me?"
"Yes, I understood," said the old woman. "I'm willing to do whatever penance you prescribe, to fast or make a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary. . . . But I'm voting for the Communists."
"There's no use my wasting breath to explain some¬thing you say you already understand," Don Camillo said brusquely. "If you vote for those people, I can't give you absolution."
She spread out her arms in a gesture of resignation.
"God will forgive me," she said, "and I'll pay whatever the price may be. The main thing is for my boy to come home. A mother must be ready to sacrifice herself for her son."
Don Camillo looked at her in bewilderment and asked her what her son had to do with the election.
"Two ladies came from the city the other day," she explained, "and promised that if I voted for the right candidates my boy would be sent back from Russia. These people are friendly to the Russians, and if they win they'll bring back the prisoners of war. They took down my name and put it high on their list. And I gave them the boy's picture. I can understand why you can't give me absolution, but I still say a mother must sacrifice herself for her child."
Don Camillo shook his head.
"I see," he muttered. "But you've got to be sure your boy will really come."
"I had lost all hope until they gave it back to me. When you're drowning, you know, you'll clutch at any straw."
"I see," said Don Camillo. "But what if the Communists don't win?"
"Ah well . . ." the old woman sighed. "I have to do all I can. They put his name at the head of the list. I saw them write it down. And they were respectable people, educated people. They said they knew how things are, but a mother has to do everything she can for her son. I'll have to vote for the 'People's Front.' "
Don Camillo stood up and traced a cross in the air.
"Ego te absolvo," he said. "Say four Our Fathers, four Hail Marys and four Glorias for penance. And God be praised."
And when from his window he saw the old woman leave the church, he went to talk to the Lord on the altar.
"Lord," Don Camillo said impetuously, "if a woman is willing to sacrifice herself in the hope of saving her son, Don Camillo has no right to take her hope away. If I had refused her absolution it would have been like saying: 'You're will¬ing to make any sacrifice for your boy, but God is against you.' And that would have been a wicked thing to say, for even when hope is based on material things, its origin is divine. In Your divine wisdom You Know how to turn evil means to a good end, and You choose to speak through sacrilegious mouths in order to restore hope to a mother's heart. To refuse her absolution would have meant telling her she had no right to hope, and to deny hope means to deny You."
The Lord smiled.
"What have you in mind, Don Camillo?" he asked. "Do you want me to vote for the 'People's Front'?"
"I merely wanted to explain why I gave old Maria Barchini absolution in spite of the fact that she's voting for the Communists."
"And why must you explain, Don Camillo? Did I ask for any explanation? Aren't you at peace with your own conscience?"
"I'm not, Lord, that's just the trouble. I should have taken away from Your enemies the vote they have extorted from that poor woman."
"But her illusions have been turned into hope, and you have just said that hope is divine, Don Camillo."
Don Camillo ran his big hands over his face.
"That's equally true," he admitted. "What's to be done?"
"I can't tell you," the Lord said. "I don't go in for politics."
Peppone was in his workshop, busy repainting a mud¬guard on his truck, when Don Camillo accosted him.
"Some of your filthy propagandists are going round telling poor people whose boys are still in Russia that if they vote for the Communists the Russians will send all the prisoners home."
"I don't believe it," muttered Peppone. "Give me the names of some of the people."
"That would be violating the secrecy of the confessional. But I swear to you it's true."
Peppone shrugged his shoulders.
"I didn't send anybody out on such a mission. It must be an idea from the city. Anyhow, we're at war, aren't we? And each side must use whatever cards he has in his hand."
"Exactly," said Don Camillo gloomily.
"You have a trick up your sleeve, for that matter. If someone votes for us, you won't grant him absolution."
"I shan't refuse absolution to anyone who's been given the false hope of recovering a son. But when the time comes, God will refuse absolution to you. You're damning your own soul!"
Don Camillo spoke very calmly and then went away. Peppone stared after him, open-mouthed, for he had never heard Don Camillo speak just like that before, in a cold, far-away voice that seemed to come from another world. He thought of it several times both that day and the next. Then posters appeared on the walls announcing a meeting of the Socialist Unity Party and, in accordance with directives from headquarters, he had to organize a counter-demonstration. On Sunday the village was packed with people.
"In the front row, just below the platform, put the com¬rades from Molinetto and Torricella," ordered Peppone. "At the first slip made by one of the Socialist speakers they're to go into action. Our own people are all going to Molinetto and Torricella to do the same job at the Christian Democrat and Nationalist rallies. Brusco and I and the rest of the local leaders will stay in the Town Hall. We're not to appear on the scene unless there's trouble."
The Socialist speaker was about thirty-five years old, a well-bred man and a born orator. As soon as Peppone heard the voice he jumped up on a chair and peered out of the window.
"It's him!" he stammered. And Brusco and Bigio and Smilzo and all the rest agreed that it was he indeed and had nothing more to say.
A few minutes later, the nuisance squad went into action. The speaker made telling answers to their insults and accusations, and finally they lost control of themselves and made a rush for the platform. Peppone signaled to them from the window, but it was too late. The crowd gathered in front of the house where the speaker had been rushed to safety. Peppone and his seconds made their way through to the door. The speaker was sitting on a sofa inside, while a woman bandaged his hand. He had blood on his face because someone had struck him with a key across the forehead. Peppone looked at him, gaping.
"Hello there, Peppone," said the wounded man, raising his head. "Did you organize this little party?"
Peppone did not answer, and the wounded man smiled again.
"Ah, so Brusco's here, and Smilzo, and Straziami, and Lungo. Well, I'm here too. Our old group is together again, all except for Rosso and Giacomino, who died in our moun¬tain encampment. Who could have imagined that Peppone was going to organize a party like this for his old com¬mander? . . ."
Peppone spread out his arms.
"Chief, I didn't know . . ." he stammered.
"Oh, don't let that bother you," the wounded man interrupted him. "We're at war, and everyone plays the cards he can. I quite see your point of view." The bandage was finished, and he got up to go. "So long, Comrade Peppone," he said with a smile. "We saved our skins from the Germans; now let's hope we can save them from the Communists, too. Rosso and Giacomino are lucky to have died when they did, up in the mountains."
He got into a waiting car, and Peppone heard the hooting and shouting that accompanied its departure. When the "chief" had spoken that last sentence, his voice had been as cold and far-away and otherworldly as Don Camillo's when he had said: "You're damning your own soul!"
That evening, the leaders of the squads that had done a job at Molinetto and Torricella came to report. At Molinetto the Christian Democrat speaker had been forced to stop half-way through his address, and nothing serious had happened. At Torricella the Nationalist had received a slap in the face. Peppone knew them both. The first was a university professor and the second had been in a German labor camp.
"They gave them an even rougher time in the city," the leader of the Molinetto squad was saying. "They trampled down some students and gave a police sergeant a black eye."
"Good," said Peppone, getting up to leave the room.
The sun was setting as he walked slowly along the road leading down to the river. On the bank someone was smoking a cigar and looking into the water. It was Don Camillo. They said nothing for a while, until Peppone observed it was a fine evening.
"Very fine," Don Camillo answered.
Peppone lit the butt of a cigar, inhaled a few mouthfuls of smoke, then put it out with his shoe. He spat angrily.
"Everybody's against us," he said glumly. "Even my old Partisan commander. Everybody, including God."
Don Camillo went on quietly smoking. "Everybody's not against you. You're against everybody, God included."
Peppone crossed his arms on his chest. "Why did you say I was damning my own soul? Just because old Maria Barchini's going to give us her vote?"
"Maria Barchini? Who's she?"
"I went yesterday to see all the families whose boys are prisoners in Russia, and she told me that two women had called upon her on behalf of the People's Front. I told her that they were fakers and that even if she were to vote as they said she'd never see her son again."
Don Camillo threw away his cigar.
"And what did she say?"
"She asked how she was to vote in order to get back her son. I told her I didn't know, and she said if no party could bring him back there was no use in voting at all."
"You're an idiot," said Don Camillo.
He said it solemnly, but not in that cold far-away voice. Peppone felt better. When he thought of the blood on his former commander's face and the slap given to the former labor-camp inmate at Molinetto and the old professor at Torricella who couldn't finish his address because of the shouts, he felt like crying. But he took hold of himself and called out fiercely:
"We're going to win!"
"No," Don Camillo said calmly but firmly.
For a moment they just stood there silently, each one looking straight ahead. The valley stretched out peacefully under the evening sky and the river was just the same as it had been a hundred thousand years before. And so was the sun. It was about to set, but the next morning it would rise again from the opposite direction. Peppone—who can say why?—found himself thinking of this extraordinary fact and privately came to the conclusion that, to tell the truth, God knows His business.
Go on to chapter sixteen, Technique of the Coup D'etat
on the meaning of life website.