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Chapter Twenty-four - Bianco

      NOWADAYS THE people of the Po River Valley go to the city by bus, in one of those cursed modern machines where a human being travels like a trunk, and even if he is sick at his stomach he cannot budge from his seat. And during the winter, when there is a heavy fog or a treacherous coating of ice on the roads, he risks, at the very least, ending up in a ditch.
     And to think that once upon a time there was a real steam train—even though it was only a very small one, with no more than a couple of carriages—which ran smoothly along its track through fog and ice! Until one fine day a city slicker discovered that it was out of date and substituted for its fidelity the fickleness of a vehicle supposedly more modern.
     The steam train used to transport not only people, but sand, gravel, bricks, coal, wood and vegetables as well. It was eminently practical and at the same time full of poetry. Then, one day, a dozen workmen wearing municipal badges appeared upon the scene and proceeded to tear up the tracks. And nobody protested; in fact, the general comment was: "It's about time." Because nowadays even old women who go to the city no more than once a year and spend the rest of their days just waiting for time to go by are in a hurry.
     The train ran from the city to the river, and no farther, although this was not the end of the line. The largest villages of the region are strung out along the highway followed by the train, except for a particularly important one, two or three miles away, which it could not have reached except by making a long detour among the canals. On the road which linked this village to the highway, a special horse-drawn car carried passengers to and fro.
     Bianco, the last horse to perform this service, was the handsomest of the lot, a beast so noble that he seemed to have stepped down from some public monument. On the village road the ties between the two rails of the line had been covered with tightly packed dirt and along this path Bianco trotted six times a day. A few minutes before the car came to a stop, that is, as soon as he heard the brake grinding, Bianco stepped out from between the rails and trotted alongside them. Then, as soon as the driver called: "Whoa!" he slowed down, without any danger of the car's bumping into his hindquarters.
     Bianco was on the job for a number of years and knew it thoroughly. He had extraordinarily keen ears and could hear the train's steam whistle long before anyone knew that it was coming. He heard the whistle announcing the train's arrival at Trecaselli and pawed the stable floor to signify that it was time to hitch him to his car, pick up the village passengers, and start for the highway, in order to reach it with five minutes to spare. The first day that the whistle failed to sound because the train was no longer running. Bianco seemed to be bewitched. He stood tensely, with his ears sticking straight up into the air, and waited. For a whole week he behaved in the same way, until finally he set his mind at rest.
     Yes, Bianco was a fine creature, and when he was put up at auction everyone wanted to buy him. Barchini was the highest bidder, and he hitched Bianco to a brand-new red wagon. Even between the wagon shafts, Bianco cut a handsome figure. The first time that he was hitched to the wagon. Bianco almost upset his new master, who was sitting on top of a load of beets. For when Barchini called out: "Whoa!" and pulled the reins, Bianco stepped to one side so abruptly that Barchini almost toppled over. But this was the only time that Bianco's memory tricked him; he caught on at once to the fact that the wagon was very different from a car running on rails. He had a touch of nostalgia every time he went along the road between the village and the highway. On the way out, nothing happened, but when he started home Bianco had a way of walking on the extreme left-hand side of the road, beside the ditch where the track had formerly been laid. The years went by, but, as he grew older, Bianco was such a good fellow that Barchini considered him one of the family, and even when he was no longer of much use no one dreamed of getting rid of him. He was given light work, and one day when Barchini caught a hired man beating him he went for him with a pitchfork, and if the fellow hadn't run up into the hayloft he would have found himself speared.
     With the passage of years, Bianco became increasingly weary and indifferent. There came a time when he did not swish his tail to scare off the flies, and he never had to be tied up because there was no likelihood that he would move from the place where anyone left him. He stood stock-still, with his head hanging, like a stuffed horse instead of a real one.
     One Saturday afternoon Bianco was hitched to a light cart to take a bag of flour to Don Camillo. While the driver carried the bag into the presbytery on his shoulder, Bianco waited outside with his head hanging. All of a sudden he raised his head and pricked up his ears. The sight was so unexpected that Don Camillo, who was standing at the door lighting a cigar, let the match drop from his hand. Bianco stood tautly on the alert for several minutes, and then, wonder of wonders, bolted away. He galloped across the square, and it was sheer luck that nobody was run down. Then he turned into the road leading to the highway and disappeared, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.
     "Bianco's gone crazy," people shouted.
     Peppone came by on his motorcycle, and Don Camillo tucked up his cassock and mounted behind him.
     "Fast!" Don Camillo shouted, and Peppone threw out the clutch and went like the wind.
     Bianco galloped down the road, with the cart swaying behind as if it were tossed on a stormy sea. If it didn't smash to pieces, it must have been because the patron saint of carts had his eye on it. Peppone drove his motorcycle at full speed, and half-way up the road the horse was overtaken.
     "Run along beside him," said Don Camillo, "and I'll try to catch the rein near the bit."
     Peppone steered close, and Don Camillo stretched out his hand toward the rein. For a moment Bianco seemed to remember that he was a very old nag and consented to being caught; then suddenly he speeded up and Don Camillo had to let go.
     "Let him run!" Don Camillo shouted into Peppone's ear, "Go faster, and we'll wait for him at the highway."
     The motorcycle shot ahead. When they reached the highway, Peppone braked. He tried to say something, but Don Camillo motioned to him to be silent. A few seconds later Bianco galloped into sight. Soon he threatened to join the highway traffic and Peppone had an impulse to give the alarm. But he didn't move in time, and then, after all, it turned out to be unnecessary. When Bianco reached the highway he came to a halt and dropped down on one side. He lay there sprawling in the dust, while the cart fell, with its shafts broken, into the ditch. Along the highway came the steam-roller, which was flattening out a coat of macadam. As the steam-roller passed by it whistled and then from the bag of bones—which was all that was left of Bianco—came a whinny. That was the end; now Bianco was a bag of bones indeed. Peppone stood looking down at the carcass, then he tore off his cap and threw it down on the ground.
     "Just like the State!" he shouted.
     "What do you mean, the State?" asked Don Camillo.
     Peppone turned round with a fierce look on his face.
     "The State! A man may say he's against it, but when the whistle calls him, he comes forward, and there he is."
     "Where is he?" asked Don Camillo.
     "Here! There! Everywhere!" shouted Peppone. "With his helmet on his head, his gun in hand and a knapsack over his shoulder . . . And then it turns out that the call came not from the train, but from a steam-roller, but meanwhile he's a dead duck!"
     Peppone wanted to say a great many things, but he didn't know where to begin. He picked up his cap, put it on his head and then lifted it again in salutation.
     "A salute to the People!" he exclaimed.
     Others began to arrive, in carts and on bicycles, and among them was Barchini.
     "He heard the whistle of the steam-roller," Don Camillo explained, "and believed it was the train. That was plain from the way he stopped at the highway."
     Barchini nodded. "The main thing is that he should have died believing," he said.
Go on to chapter twenty-five, The Ugly Madonna    on our site.

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