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Chapter Twenty-three - War of Secession

       Messengers were coming and going at the Town Hall all day long, and Don Camillo could not guess what those devils were up to, especially as everybody claimed not to know. But towards nine o'clock in the evening, when he was preparing to go to bed, someone knocked at the shutter of the window on the church square. It was Smilzo, who said at once: "You've got to come to the Town Hall immediately. Hurry up, because the people have no time to wait upon the con¬venience of the clergy."
     Smilzo was even more peremptory than usual. He felt that he could be so quite safely with the grating of the window between Don Camillo and himself, and furthermore his tone of voice made it plain that he believed that he was entrusted with an unusually important mission.
     "What do you mean by the people?" Don Camillo asked him. "People like yourself?"
     "I didn't come here for a political discussion. If you're afraid to come out of your lair, that's another matter."
     Don Camillo threw on his coat and picked up an umbrella, because just for a change it was raining.
     "Mav I be told what's going on?" he asked on the way.
     "It's not something that can be discussed in the street," said Smilzo. "That's just as if I were to ask you about the latest secret instructions sent you by the Pope."
     "Leave the Pope alone," said Don Camillo, "or I'll break this umbrella over your head. The Pope has nothing to do with it."
     "Whether he does or doesn't is something that we shall see about later, come the revolution," said Smilzo. "But never mind about that just now. You'll see what's going on when we reach the Town Hall."
     Before they arrived a sentry halted them.
     "Give the password," said a voice.
     "Venezia," said Smilzo.
     "Milano," came the reply.
     Once they were past, Don Camillo asked what was the meaning of all this nonsense, but Smilzo said that it wasn't nonsense at all.
     "It's war," he maintained.
     When they walked into the Council room, Don Camillo was very much surprised. The place was full of people, and not people to be dismissed as unimportant, either. All the notables of the village were there, representing all shades of political opinion, with nobody missing. There was a sepulchral silence, and evidently they were waiting for Don Camillo, for when he came in they made way before him. Then Peppone stood up and gave an explanation.
     "Father," he said, "at this tragic time, when our country is in danger, you see here before you our most representative citizens, without distinction of party; farmers, workers, land¬owners, and shopkeepers, all joined in one faith. The attempt of an irresponsible group to trespass on our sacred rights must be defeated at any cost whatsoever . . . and so far I believe we all agree."
     "Good," was the crowd's unanimous reply.
     "In order to do away with any suspicion of party intrigue, the representatives of every faction have decided to choose someone who shall impartially pass opinion upon every decision made by the Committee for Public Safety for the defense of the village. By a secret ballot you were elected, and so, overcoming our political differences, we call upon you to be a member of the Committee in the role of neutral observer."
     "I accept," said Don Camillo, looking around him, and the crowd applauded him loudly.
     "We welcome your help. Here, then, is the situation. The people of Fontanile have answered our statement, duly approved by the representative of the Vatican here present, in an insulting and anti-democratic manner. In short, they have defied their capital city."
     An angry murmur arose from the audience. "Yes!" shouted Peppone. "On historical, geographical, and economic grounds we may call our village the spiritual 'capital' of the whole township, a capital one and indivisible forever."
     "Well spoken!" called the crowd.
     Peppone had now swung into top gear and was going full speed ahead:
     "Strengthened by this gathering's lofty spirit of concord and comprehension, we say that we will not tolerate the 'home-rulers' of Fontanile in their attempt to secede from our township and set up a village administration of their own. We suggest sending them an intimatum to say: Either drop the idea or we'll make you drop it. Because democracy is all very well, but when you're dealing with a bunch of people like those at Fontanile. . . ."
     Peppone was so swollen with rage that he looked even bigger and stronger than usual and his audience stared at him in fascination. Unfortunately, with the word "Fon¬tanile" his vocabulary suddenly gave out and he could not find another word to say. He was standing on a two-inch-thick telephone book, and he seized upon this and slowly twisted it in his hands until it was torn in two. In the river valley an argument of this kind is invariably decisive. The assembly let out a yell of enthusiasm, and when Peppone threw the two parts of the book on the table before him, crying: "And this is our intimatum!" the applause threat¬ened to bring down the ceiling. When quiet once more prevailed, Peppone turned to Don Camillo.
     "Will the neutral observer give us the benefit of his opinion?"
     Don Camillo got up and said calmly but in a loud voice: "My opinion is that you're all crazy."
     His words were like an icy wind, and a heavy silence, fell over the gathering.
     "You've lost all sense of reality and proportion," Don Camillo continued. "It's as if you were building a skyscraper on a six-inch foundation, with the result that the whole thing will topple down on you. It isn't a question of sending ultimatums or tearing telephone books in two. We must use our heads, and if we do so it is clear that there's no use in even discussing the matter until the authorities give Fon¬tanile permission to secede."
     "But we're the authorities," shouted Peppone. "This is a matter for our concern."
     Looking at the assembly, Don Camillo saw old man Rocchi rise from his seat in the front row.
     "We agree, Father," said Rocchi, "that we should act calmly and not dramatize the situation. But if we wait for the authorities to give their permission, then our protest will be a revolt against the Government. We must, in orderly fashion, of course, prevent Fontanile from putting in any request for home rule. I think the Mayor is wrong to speak of using force, but the substance of what he says is right."
     "Good!" came voices from the assembly. "The Mayor has the right idea, even if we belong to different political parties. Politics don't come into this at all; it's the welfare of the village that's at stake. And let's be frank. We know what sort of people they are in Fontanile, and this is something we can't endure."
     Peppone shot a triumphant glance at Don Camillo and Don Camillo threw out his arms in dismay.
     "It's a sad fact," he said, "but people seem to agree only when it comes to doing something very foolish. But before carrying things too far, the two parties to the dispute must have a discussion. We must send a committee over to Fontanile."
     "Of course," said Rocchi, and all the others nodded assent.
     Peppone had no more telephone books to which he could give a "twister," but he took something out of the drawer of the table. This was the famous and insulting answer from Fontanile.
     "How can you 'discuss' anything with people like these?" he asked.
     At that the crowd became very restless.
     "Even an intimatum would be too good for the likes of them," said Farmer Sacchini, shaking his big stick. "This is the only language they can understand."
     Don Camillo felt himself entirely alone.
     "It's no use my asking God to illuminate your minds," he cried, "because it's plain you haven't any. But I say that you simply can't do any of these things you propose."
     "Who'll stop us?" asked Peppone.
     "I will," said Don Camillo. He went resolutely to the door and then turned round while he put up his umbrella. "I'm going straight to the police sergeant," he said. "That may change your plans."
     "You spy!" Peppone shouted, pointing an accusing finger at him from the platform. The crowd formed a wall between Don Camillo and Peppone, and the priest had no alternative but to go straight to the police station.
     The forces of the law, consisting of the sergeant and four men, were put on watch, half at Fontanile and half in the "capital city." The sergeant, since he could not be split in two, rode on his bicycle to reinforce first one squad and then the other. Three days went by and nothing happened.
     "It's clear that they've thought better of it," the sergeant said to Don Camillo. "They seem to have calmed down."
     "Here's hoping God gave them minds and then illu¬minated them," Don Camillo replied without much con¬viction.
     But on the afternoon of the fourth day an ugly incident took place at a big farm known as Case Nuove. A group of unemployed farm laborers swarmed over the place on bicycles, saying that they must be given work. Among other things, their claim was a stupid one., for it had rained for ten days in succession and the only work anyone could do in the fields was to walk a couple of yards and then sink up to the hips in mud. Obviously it was a trouble-making political maneuver. But for fear the farmer or some of his family might pull out a shotgun, the sergeant had to dispatch his men to the spot. Toward evening Don Camillo went to look the situation over. The farm had been cleared of intruders, and these were wandering about in small groups not far away.
     "If we leave, they'll be back in five minutes and start more trouble," said the sergeant. "Night is coming, and that's a tricky time where something like this is concerned."
     Don Camillo ran into one of the groups on his way home and recognized among it the tailor from Molinetto.
     "Have you changed your trade," the priest asked him, "and turned into an unemployed farm laborer?"
     "If people weren't so inquisitive, it would be a very fine thing," grumbled the tailor.
     A little farther on Don Camillo met the old postman riding a bicycle, with a tool-box slung round his shoulder, which served him for his supplementary job as linesman for the telephone and telegraph systems. The priest was surprised to see him out so late, but the old man explained:
     "I'm having a look round. The storm must have brought down a wire somewhere. Neither the telephone nor the tele¬graph is working."
     Instead of going back to the presbytery, Don Camillo went to Brelli's house. He wrote a hurried note and gave it to the youngest boy to deliver.
     "Take your motorcycle and get this to the parish priest at Villetta as fast as you can. It's a matter of life and death."
     The boy was off like a flash. An hour later he came back to report:
     "The priest said he'd telephone right away." The river was swollen with rain and pressing against its banks. So were all the tributaries that poured into it across the plain. In normal weather these streams are ridiculous affairs. Either their beds are completely dry or else they con¬tain only a few spoonfuls of water and one wonders why people with any sense should throw away money building up banks on either side. But they are not only ridiculous; they are unpredictable as well, like an ordinarily temperate man who once in a while goes out and gets . . . well, dead drunk is too mild a phrase for it. When these valley streams rise, they are so many Mississippi's, with the water surging halfway up their banks and over. Now, after the prolonged storm, even the tiniest streams were frighteningly high and people went along the banks measuring their height with a stick. And the water continued to rise.
     Fontanile was divided from the "capital" by just such a stream, and for twenty years no one had seen so much water in it. Night had fallen, but Don Camillo paced nervously up and down the road leading along the bank. His nervousness did not pass until he heard the brakes of a big car. The car was full of policemen, and with their arrival Don Camillo went back to the presbytery and hung his shotgun on the wall. After supper Peppone came to see him, looking very glum.
     "Did you call the police?" he asked Don Camillo.
     "Of course I did, after you staged that diversion at Case Nuove in order to have a free hand for your other mischief; yes, and after you cut the telephone and telegraph wires, too."
     Peppone looked at him scornfully.
     "You're a traitor!" he said. "You asked for foreign aid. A man without a country, that's what you are!"
     This was such a wild accusation that Don Camillo was left gaping. But Peppone had still more to say.
     "You're positively Godless!" he exclaimed. "But your police won't get anywhere. In two minutes God's justice will triumph!"
     Don Camillo leaped to his feet, but before he could say a word there was a loud roar in the distance.
     "The bank at Fontanile has given way," Peppone ex¬plained. "A concealed wire attached to a mine did the job. Now that Fontanile is flooded, they can found a little Venice if they want to!"
     Don Camillo grabbed Peppone by the neck, but before he could squeeze it there came another roar, followed by a splash of water. A moment later the presbytery was flooded. When the water had reached the two men's belts it stopped rising.
     "Do you see what murderers they are?" Peppone shouted. "So this was their little plan!"
     Don Camillo looked sadly at the liquid mess, then shook his head and sighed.
     "Dear God, if this is the beginning of the Great Flood, then I bless You for wiping this idiotic human race off the face of the globe."
     But Peppone didn't see it the same way. "Navigare necessariorum est!" he shouted, wading toward the door. "Italy's manifest destiny is on the seven seas!"
     "Then all we have to do is wait for low tide," concluded Don Camillo philosophically.
     There were three feet of water in the church, and when the candles were lit on the altar they cast the reflection of their flames into the water.
     "Lord," said Don Camillo to the crucified Christ, "I beg your forgiveness, but if I were to kneel down, I'd be up to my neck in water."
     "Then remain standing, Don Camillo," the Lord answered, smiling.
Go on to chapter twenty-four, Bianco    on our site.

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