Meaning of Life
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Chapter Seventeen - Benefit of Clergy

       THE TIME has come to speak of Smilzo, official messenger at the Town Hall and head of the "flying squad" of the local Communist Party, and to brand him for what he was, an example of flagrant immorality, a man without any sense of shame, because a man must be shameless to live openly with a woman to whom he is not married in a village of the Po Valley. And the woman who shared his bed and board was just as shameless as he.
     People called Moretta a "kept woman," but in reality she was a girl quite capable of keeping herself. She was big-boned and as strong as any man, and farmers hired her to run a tractor, which she maneuvered just as skillfully as Peppone. Although the women of the village referred to her as "that hussy," no man but Smilzo had ever made advances to her without getting a slap in the face that left him groggy. Nevertheless, it was a village scandal to see him carry her on the handlebars of his bicycle, which was where she rode when she didn't occupy the saddle and carry him.
     Don Camillo had come into the world with a constitu¬tional preference for calling a spade a spade and so it was that he spoke from the pulpit of "certain women who rode around on racing bicycles, flaunting their flanks as freely as their faces." From then on, Moretta wore blue dungarees and a red kerchief around her neck, which left the village even more shocked than before. Once Don Camillo managed to catch hold of Smilzo and say something to him about "legalizing the situation," but Smilzo only jeered in his face.
     "There's nothing to 'legalize' about it. We do nothing more and nothing less than people who are idiotic enough to get married."
     "Than decent men and women . . ." Don Camillo sputtered.
     "Than idiots who spoil the beauty of affinity between two united souls by dragging a clumsy oaf of a mayor or a priest reeking of tobacco into it."
     Don Camillo swallowed the aspersion on his tobacco and came back to the main point of what he was saying. But Smilzo continued to jeer at him.
     "If God Almighty had intended men and women to be joined in matrimony, He'd have put a priest with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden! Love was born free and free it ought to remain! The day is coming when people will under¬stand that marriage is like a jail sentence, and they'll get along without benefit of clergy. And when that day comes there'll be dancing in the churches."
     Don Camillo found only a brick handy. He picked this up and threw it, but Smilzo had learned during the period of the Resistance movement to slip between one volley of machine-gun fire and another, and so the brick was wasted. But Don Camillo was not discouraged, and one day he lured Moretta to the presbytery. She came in her blue dungarees, with the red kerchief around her neck, and lit a cigarette as soon as she sat down before him. Don Camillo refrained from scolding her and spoke in the mildest tone of voice he could manage.
     "You're a hard-working girl and a good housekeeper," he told her. "I know that you don't gossip or waste money. And I know too that you love your husband . . ."
     "He isn't my husband," Moretta interrupted.
     "That you love Smilzo, then," said Don Camillo patiently. "And so, although you've never come to confession, I'm con¬vinced that you're a decent sort of woman. Why do you have to behave in such a way that people brand you as indecent?"
     " 'People' can go straight to ... where they belong," Moretta retorted.
     Don Camillo was growing red in the face, but he went ahead with his plan and murmured something about getting married. But Moretta interrupted him.
     "If God Almighty had intended men and women to be joined in matrimony. . . ."
     "Never mind," said Don Camillo, interrupting her in his turn. "I know the rest already."
     "Love was born free and free it ought to remain!" Moretta concluded gravely. "Marriage is the opium of love."
     The village gossips did not give up so easily. They formed a committee and went to tell the Mayor that the affair was bringing shame upon the village and for the sake of public morals he must do something about it.
     "I'm married myself," said Peppone, "and I have a right to perform a civil marriage, but I can't force people to marry when they don't want to. That's the law. Perhaps when the Pope comes into power things will be different."
     But the old crones insisted.
     "If you can't do anything as Mayor, then as head of the local section of the Party you can bring pressure on them. They're a disgrace to the Party, too."
     "I'll try," said Peppone, and so he did.
     "I'd rather join the Socialist Party than marry," was Smilzo's answer.
     That was all there was to it, and with the passage of time the scandal abated, or rather politics took its place. But one day it came to the fore again and in a clamorous manner. For some time Comrade Moretta was not seen about, and then all of a sudden there was a startling piece of news. There were no longer two Comrades, but three, because, as the midwife told it, a little girl had been born to them, and one far prettier than they deserved. The old crones of the village began to wag their tongues again, and those who were politically-minded said:
     "There are Communist morals for you. It's a hundred to one these godless parents will never have the child baptized."
     The news and the comment reached Peppone's ears, and he rushed to the godless parents' home.
     Don Camillo was reading when Smilzo came in.
     "There's a baptizing job for you to do," Smilzo said abruptly.
     "A fine job indeed," muttered Don Camillo.
     "Must one obtain a nihil obstat before having a baby?" Smilzo asked him.
     "The nihil obstat of your own conscience," said Don Camillo. "But that's strictly your affair. Only if Moretta arrives dressed in her blue dungarees, I'll chase you all away. You can come twenty minutes from now."
     Moretta came with the baby in her arms and Smilzo at her side. Don Camillo received them along with Peppone and his wife at the door to the church.
     "Take all that red stuff off," he said, without even looking to see if they really were wearing anything red. "This is the House of God and not the People's Palace."
     "There's nothing red around here except the fog in your brain." muttered Peppone.
     They went into the church and over to the baptismal font, where Don Camillo began the ceremony.
     "What's the name?" he asked.
     "Rita Palmira Valeria," the mother stated firmly.
     There was a dead silence as the three names—every one of them of internationally famous Communists—echoed in the little church. Don Camillo replaced the cover on the font and was just about to say "then go and get her baptized in Russia" when he saw the Lord looking down at him from the Cross. So he just took a deep breath and counted to ten instead.
     "Rita is for my mother, Palmira for his and Valeria for my grandmother," Moretta pointed out.
     "That's their bad luck," said Don Camillo dryly. "I say Emilia Rosa Antonietta."
     Peppone pawed the ground, while Smilzo sighed and shook his head, but Moretta seemed secretly pleased.
     Afterwards they went to the presbytery to sign the register. "Under the Christian Democrat Government, is Palmira a forbidden name?" Peppone asked sarcastically.
     Don Camillo did not answer, but motioned to him and his wife to go home. Smilzo, Moretta and the baby were left standing in front of the table.
     "Enciclica rerarum novium," said Smilzo more cleverly than correctly, with the look of a man resigned to his fate.
     "No. I'm not making a speech," Don Camillo said coldly. "I just want to give you a warning. By not getting married you are not hurting the Church. You're just two cockroaches trying to gnaw at one of the columns of Saint Peter's. Neither you nor your offspring are of the slightest interest to me."
     At this moment the bundle in Moretta's arms stirred, and the "offspring" opened her eyes wide and smiled at Don Camillo. She had such a pink little face that Don Camillo paused and then his blood began to boil and he lost his temper.
     "Miserable creatures!" he shouted. "You have no right to visit your foolish sins upon the head of this innocent baby. She's going to grow up to be a beautiful girl and when people are envious of her beauty they'll throw mud at her by calling her a 'kept woman's child.' If you weren't such wretches you wouldn't expose your daughter to people's jealous hypocrisy. You may not care what people say about you, but if on your account they slander her . . ."
     Don Camillo had raised his fist and thrown out his chest so that he looked even taller and bigger than he was, and the two parents had taken refuge in a corner.
     "Get married, you criminals!" the priest shouted.
     Pale and perspiring, Smilzo shook his head.
     "No; that would be the end of everything for us. We couldn't face people."
     The baby seemed to enjoy the scene. She waved her hands and laughed, and Don Camillo was taken aback.
     "Please, I'm begging you!" he exclaimed. "She's too beautiful!"
     Strange things can happen in this world. A man may try with a crowbar to force a door open and not move it a single inch. Then when he is dead tired and hangs his hat on the knob in order to wipe the sweat off his brow, click, the door opens. Moretta was a stubborn woman, but when she saw that Don Camillo's anger was dying down as he looked at her baby, she threw herself on to a chair and began to cry.
     "No, no," she sobbed. "We can't marry because we're married already. We did it three years ago, only nobody knows, because we chose somewhere far away. We've always liked free love. And so we've never told a soul."
     Don Camillo went to douse his face in cold water. When he came back, Smilzo and his wife were quite calm, and Moretta was holding out a paper which was a marriage certificate.
     "Under the secrecy of the confessional," she whispered.
     Don Camillo nodded.
     "So you've registered with your employer as 'single,' " he
     said to Smilzo, "and you don't get any of the benefits of being a family man."
     "Exactly," said Smilzo. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for my ideals."
     Don Camillo handed back the certificate.
     "You're two donkeys," he said calmly. Then, when the baby smiled, he corrected himself: "Two and a half donkeys."
     Smilzo turned round at the door and raised a clenched fist in salute.
     "There'll always be a place on the gallows for those who run down the people," he said gravely.
     "You'd better hang your hat on it then, so as to reserve a place for yourself!" answered Don Camillo.
     "The election we lost was just a passing phase," said Smilzo. "We have come from very far and we still have far to go. Farewell, citizen priest."
Go on to chapter eighteen, Out of the Night    on our site.

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