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Chapter Nineteen - The Bicycle
IN THIS slice of land between the river and the highway it is hard to imagine a time when the bicycle did not exist. Here, in the valley, everyone from five years old to eighty rides a bicycle. Little boys make remarkable riders because they sup¬port themselves on bent legs in the middle of the frame, and their bicycles move in anything but a straight line, but they do move just the same. The peasants for the most part use women's models, and the paunchy landowners trundle along on old-fashioned contraptions with a high seat which they reach by means of a little step screwed on to the rear axle.
City people's bicycles are utterly laughable. With gleam¬ing metal gadgets, electric batteries, gears, baskets, chain-guards, speedometers and so on, they are mere toys and leg-exercisers. A genuine bicycle should weigh at least sixty-five pounds; it should have lost most of its paint and at least one pedal. All that should be left of the remaining pedal is the shaft, rubbed smooth and shiny by the sole of the rider's shoe. Indeed, this should be its only shiny feature. The handlebars (with no rubber tips to them) should not be at the conventional right angle to the wheels, but inclined at least twelve degrees one way or the other. A genuine bicycle has no mudguard over the rear wheel, and hanging before the front mudguard there should be a piece of automobile tire, preferably red, to ward off splashes of water. A rear mud¬guard may be allowed when the rider is excessively disturbed by the streak of mud that accumulates on his back during a rainstorm. But in this case the mudguard must be split open
in such a way that the rider can brake in so-called "American style," that is by pressing his trouser turn-up against the rear wheel.
A Po Valley bicycle has no mechanical brakes and its tires wear conspicuous patches, so protuberant as to impart to the wheels a spirited, jumping motion. In the little world a bicycle blends with the landscape; it would never try to be showy, and beside it, those dressed-up racing models are like third-rate chorus girls next to a substantial housewife. City people can't be expected to understand these things; where sentiments are concerned they are about as delicate as cows in clover. They live quite contentedly in their civic corruption, and never refer to their female poodles as bitches. They have what they call their "toilets" or "lavatories" right in the middle of the house, whereas every self-respecting country¬man puts his honestly named "water-closet" in an outhouse at the far end of the courtyard. To locate this convenience next to one's eating or sleeping quarters is supposed to be a symbol of "Progress," but to leave it outdoors, where it is out of reach and lacking tiled walls and pavement, is to my mind cleaner and more truly civilized.
In the valley a bicycle is just as necessary as a pair of shoes, in fact more so. Because even if a man hasn't any shoes he can still ride a bicycle, whereas if he hasn't a bicycle he must surely travel on foot. This may hold true in the city as well, but in the city there are trams, while in the valley there are no rails of any kind, but only bicycle, motorcycle, and wagon tracks, cut every now and then by the trail of a snake that has slithered from one ditch to another.
Don Camillo had never been in business, unless it is busi¬ness to buy a pound of beef or a couple of black cigars and the accompanying box of what are locally called "lightning bolts," that is, sulphur matches to be struck on the soles of one's shoes or the seat of one's trousers. But if Don Camillo had never been in business he enjoyed seeing it go on, and whenever Saturday was a fine day he mounted his bicycle and went to the weekly market at La Villa. He was interested in livestock, farm machinery, fertilizers, and sprays, and when he could buy a bag of copper sulphate with which to protect the grapevines behind the presbytery he felt just about as happy as Farmer Bidazzi with all his acres. There were all kinds of amusement stands in the market-place and the holiday atmosphere and bustling activity never failed to put him in good humor.
On this particular Saturday, then, Don Camillo got on his old bicycle and gaily ate up the seven miles to La Villa. The market was unusually crowded and Don Camillo got more fun out of it than if it had been the yearly fair at Milan. At half-past eleven he went to get his bicycle from the spot where he had left it. He pulled it out by the handlebars and, work¬ing his way through all the confusion, started towards the narrow street leading to the open country. Here the Devil came into the picture, because Don Camillo stopped at a shop to buy some trifle, and when he came out his bicycle, which he had left leaning against the wall, had disappeared.
Don Camillo was equipped with outsize bones and muscles. From his toes to the top of his head he was as tall as an ordinary man standing on a stool, and from the top of his head to his toes he was a hand's breadth taller, which means that although other people saw him as of one height he saw himself as of another; that is, his courage was a hand's breadth greater than his considerable physical stature. Even if someone were to have pulled a shotgun on him, his blood pressure wouldn't have gone up a single degree. But if he stumbled over a stone in the road or someone played a trick upon him, he was unnerved by the humiliation. At such times he felt almost sorry for himself and positively melancholy.
Now, with his bicycle gone, he did not make a row. He asked an old man standing nearby if he had seen anyone ride off on a woman's bicycle with a green basket. And when the man said no, he touched his hat and went away. He walked by the police station, but never thought of going in. The fact that a country priest, with twenty-five lire in his pocket, had been robbed of a bicycle was a private and moral problem, and not one to be introduced into the public domain. Your rich man, to whom it is all a matter of money, may rush to report a theft. But to the poor it is a personal injustice, in the same class as striking a cripple or knocking his crutch out from under him.
Don Camillo pulled his hat down over his eyes and started to walk home. Every time he heard a cart or wagon behind him, he ducked down at the side of the road. He wanted to go home under his own steam without having to talk to any¬body. And he wanted to cover the whole seven miles on foot in order to underline the thief's guilt and his own sense of injury. He walked alone through the dust and heat for a solid hour without pause, brooding over the misfortunes of a Don Camillo who seemed to him to exist quite apart from himself. At a certain point a side road came into the one along which he traveled, and he stopped to lean on the wall of a small brick bridge. Leaning up against the same wall was his bicycle. He knew every inch of it, and there was no chance of any mistake. Immediately he looked round, but no one was in sight. He touched the bicycle and tapped the handlebars with his knuckles. Yes, they were of solid metal. The nearest house was at least half a mile away and the bushes were not yet covered with enough leaves to provide a hiding-place. Finally, he looked over the wall of the bridge and saw a man sitting in the dried-up bed of the stream. The man stared up at him enquiringly.
"This bicycle is mine," Don Camillo said with a little hesitation.
"The one here against the wall of the bridge."
"Good," said the man. "If there's a bicycle on the bridge and it's your bicycle, that's not my business."
"I was just telling you," Don Camillo said with consider¬able perplexity. "I didn't want there to be any muddle about it.
"Are you sure it's yours?" the man asked.
"I should say I am! It was stolen from me while I was in a shop at La Villa an hour ago. I don't know how it got here."
The man laughed.
"It must have got bored waiting and gone on ahead of you," he said.
Don Camillo threw out his arms in uncertainty.
"Are you, as a priest, able to keep a secret?" the man asked him.
"Then I can tell you that the bicycle got here, because I brought it here myself."
Don Camillo opened his eyes wide
"Did you find it?"
"Yes, I found it in front of the shop. And I took it."
"Was that your idea of a joke?" asked Don Camillo, after another moment of hesitation.
"Don't be silly!" the man protested. "Do you think that at my age I go around joking? I meant to take it for keeps. Then I thought better of it and pedaled after you. I followed you up to about a mile back, then I took a short-cut, got here before you and put it right under your nose."
Don Camillo sat down on the wall and looked at the fellow below him.
"Why did you take a bicycle that wasn't yours?" he asked.
"Everyone to his own trade. You deal in souls and I deal in bicycles."
"Has that been your trade for long?"
"No; just for the last two or three months. I operate at markets and fairs, and I usually do pretty well, because a lot of these peasants have stone jars full of banknotes. This morning I had no luck, and so I took your bicycle. Then I saw you come out of the shop and go your way without telling anybody. I began to be sorry and followed you, I still don't understand exactly why. Why did you duck down every time a wagon caught up with you? Did you know I was behind you?"
"Well, I was. And if you'd accepted a lift, I'd have turned back. But since you kept on walking I had to follow."
Don Camillo shook his head. "Where are you going now?" he asked.
"Back to see if there's anything doing at La Villa."
"To see if you can lay hands on another bicycle."
"Then keep this one."
The man looked up at him.
"Not on your life, Father. Not even if it were made of solid gold. It would be on my conscience and ruin my career. I prefer to stay clear of the clergy."
Don Camillo asked if he had had anything to eat, and the man said no.
"Then come and eat something with me."
A wagon came by, and in it rode a peasant called Brelli.
"Come along, you wretch!" said Don Camillo. "You take the bicycle and I'll go in the wagon."
Then he stopped Brelli and told him that he had a pain in his leg. The man came up from below the bridge. He was so angry that he threw his cap on the ground and cursed a large number of saints before he got on the bicycle.
Don Camillo had had the meal ready for ten minutes by the time the bicycle thief arrived at the presbytery.
"There's only bread, sausage, cheese, and a drop of wine," said the priest. "I hope that's enough for you."
"Don't worry, Father," said the man. "I've taken care of that." And he put a chicken on the table.
"The creature was crossing the road and I accidentally ran over it," he explained. "I didn't want to leave it to die there, and so I put an end to its pain. . . . Don't look at me like that, Father. I'm sure that if you cook it properly, God will forgive you."
Don Camillo cooked the chicken and brought out a bottle of special wine. After an hour or so, the man said he must be about his business, but there was a worried look on his face.
"I don't know how I can go back to stealing bicycles," he sighed. "You've demoralized me completely."
"Have you a family?" Don Camillo asked him.
"No, I'm all alone."
"Then I'll take you on as a bell-ringer. Mine just went away two days ago."
"But I don't know how to ring bells."
"A man who knows how to steal bicycles won't find that hard to learn."
And he was a bell-ringer from that day on.
Go on to chapter twenty, The Prodigal Son on our site.