| || Chapter Twenty-six - The Flying Squad |
THAT YEAR as usual the time came round for "Party Paper Promotion Day." Peppone himself was supposed to go about hawking papers in order to give a good example, but he didn't want to be made a fool of, and so three or four days beforehand he stopped Don Camillo, who was coming back from a parochial call he had made on his bicycle.
"Once is enough, Father, but twice is too much," Peppone said solemnly.
"What do you mean?" asked Don Camillo, putting one foot on the ground.
"Sunday is Party Paper Promotion Day, and I won't stand any of your joking. You stick to your business and I'll stick to mine. An insult to me is an insult to the Party."
Don Camillo shook his head.
"If I meet you on the street, I can at least buy a paper, can't I?"
"No; if a reactionary in uniform approaches the local leader of the People's Party to buy the People's Party paper, it's an attempt to provoke violence. It's almost as bad as if I were to force a paper on you. Each one of us should stick to his own job: you dish out propaganda for the Pope and I dish it out for the Party."
"Good," said Don Camillo. "Then you admit that dishing out propaganda for the Pope is within my rights."
"Of course, as long as you don't do it in an aggressive and provocative fashion. Within your own province you can dish out propaganda for anything you damn well please."
"That's a bargain!"
When Sunday morning came, Peppone had mapped out his strategy.
"We won't show our faces, because rather than buy a paper these people are capable of staying away from Mass. Of course, their staying away is a Party triumph, because it rescues them for once from the domination of the clergy. But the Party paper doesn't profit. We'll spread word that we've gone to Castclletto, and that way they'll be tricked into going to Mass. When they all come out at noon we'll blockade the square and see who has the nerve to refuse the paper!"
The plan worked well. People went to Mass, and a few minutes before noon every street leading away from the square was covered. But when twelve o'clock came nobody left the church.
"He's caught on to the trick and is dragging out the Mass so as to keep them there longer," said Peppone. "But a lot of good that will do him!"
A few minutes later, they did pour out, but instead of scattering they stood compactly together.
"What are those devils up to?" mumbled Peppone. "They must be waiting for someone."
Just then there came a loud noise from the top of the church tower.
"He's set up a loud-speaker," Peppone shouted. "But if he makes a political speech there'll be hell to pay."
The noise from the loud-speaker increased, and became recognizable as the applause of a crowd. Then came a clear, powerful voice, that of the Pope speaking to two hundred and fifty thousand citizens of Rome. He spoke succinctly of the cardinal imprisoned by the Reds of Hungary, and when the loud-speaker had spilled the last wave of shouting and cheering down from the church tower, the village square was filled with people. They had come out of their houses, even the oldest and most infirm among them, from every direction, and Peppone's gang was disrupted and drowned in their surge. Some people were hurrying home, others talking excitedly to one another and feeling braced up by the two hundred and fifty thousand Romans gathered in St. Peter's Square. When the transcribed broadcast from Rome was over, Don Camillo turned on the gramophone, and a flood of music and singing kept the villagers' spirits high.
In the end, Peppone's gang found themselves still holding their papers in the middle of a deserted square. Smilzo tried offering them to a few stragglers, but they paid him no attention. Peppone was the last one to regain his self-control. He had such confusion in his head and such convulsions of rage in his stomach that he didn't know his left hand from his right. He began to see straight only when Don Camillo appeared at the church's open door. With lowered head, Peppone advanced toward him, and when he had come close he stood his ground and clenched his teeth. Don Camillo looked at him with a smile.
"As you see, I kept my part of our bargain," he said. "You advertised the Party and I advertised the Pope."
When you have a whole dictionary full of swear-words in your mind, it is useless even to begin to come out with them, so Peppone merely drew a sigh that had the volume of a cyclone. He stood there, with lowered head, wishing that he had horns like a bull and could disembowel Don Camillo and the whole of Christianity as well.
"Give me a copy of your paper," said a voice, and fifteen lire floated into Peppone's field of vision. Mechanically he held out the paper and took the money, but before slipping it into his pocket he remembered something, raised his head and saw Don Camillo standing there with the Communist paper in his hand. Then he really lost control. He raised the pile of papers above his head and threw them down to the ground with every ounce of strength the Creator had put into his muscles. It was a lovely crash. Then he wheeled about and walked away, while Smilzo picked up the papers and started to follow. But after he had gone a few feet, he turned to throw over his shoulder:
"When Stalin speaks from St. Peter's Square, then you'll hear something!"
Don Camillo showed considerable interest.
"Does your paper say when that's going to be?" he asked.
"No, it doesn't," Smilzo grudgingly admitted.
"Well, for a Russian paper, it's singularly ill-informed," Don Camillo said in a loud voice.
Peppone heard him, and wheeling about again he came back and stood in front of Don Camillo.
"Does the Vatican news-sheet say when the Pope will speak in Moscow's Red Square?" he asked him.
"No," said Don Camillo.
"Then we're even," Peppone shouted.
Don Camillo threw out his arms in mock despair.
"If that's so, why do you lose your temper so easily?" he asked.
"Because it's not so. And I'd like to see you and that Pope of yours hanging up there where you put the loudspeaker."
"Peppone, you know His Holiness can't travel so far from Rome."
"Then I'll take you there," shouted Peppone. "All I want is to see you swinging from the same gallows."
"You pay me too much honor, Peppone. I'm tempted to buy another copy of your informative paper."
At that Peppone walked away. He had a family and couldn't afford to get into real trouble.
It was a stormy February evening and the valley was full of melancholy and mud. Don Camillo was sitting in front of the fire, looking at some old newspapers, when he got news that something serious had happened. He threw down the papers, put on his black coat and hurried into the church.
"Lord," he said, "there's more trouble with that devil's son."
"Whose son do you mean?" asked the Lord.
"Peppone's. God the Father must have turned His back on him. . . ."
"How do you know, Don Camillo? Does God let you look into His books? And how can you intimate that He loves one human being less than another? God is the same for all men."
Don Camillo went behind the altar to search for something in a cabinet.
"Lord, I don't know anything," he said. "The fact is that Peppone's little boy is badly hurt and they've called me to give him Extreme Unction. A rusty nail did it ... apparently just a trifle . . . And now he's at death's door."
Having found what he was searching for, Don Camillo passed hastily in front of the altar, genuflected and started to hurry away. But he had only gone half the length of the church when he stopped and came back.
"Lord," he said, when he came to the altar, "I have a lot to say, but no time to say it. I'll explain to You on the way. Meanwhile, I'm not taking the Holy Oil with me. I'm leaving it here on the railing."
He walked hurriedly through the rain, and only when he arrived at Peppone's door did he realize that he was holding his hat in his hand. He wiped his head with his coat and knocked. A woman opened and led him down the hall until she stopped in front of a door to whisper something. The door was thrown open with a loud shout, and there was Peppone. Peppone's eyes were startled and bloodshot, and he raised his fists threateningly.
"Get out of here!" he shouted. "Go away!"
Don Camillo did not move. Peppone's wife and his mother were hanging on to him, but Peppone seemed half-mad and threw himself upon Don Camillo, grabbing hold of his chest.
"Get out! What do you want here? Did you come to liquidate him? Get out, or I'll strangle you!"
He shouted an oath strong enough to make the sky tremble, but Don Camillo did not blench. Pushing Peppone aside, he walked into the child's room.
"No!" shouted Peppone. "No Holy Oil! If you give him that it means he's done for."
"What Holy Oil are you talking about? I didn't bring any Holy Oil with me."
"Do you swear it?"
Then Peppone grew calm.
"You mean you really didn't bring the Holy Oil?"
"No. Why should I?"
Peppone looked at the doctor, then at Don Camillo and then at the child.
"What is the trouble?" Don Camillo asked the doctor.
"Father," the doctor answered, "only streptomycin can save him."
Don Camillo clenched his fists.
"Only streptomycin?" he shouted. "And what about God? Can't God do anything?"
The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
"I'm not a priest. I'm a doctor."
"I'm disgusted with you," said Don Camillo.
"Good," chimed in Peppone.
"And where is this streptomycin?" Don Camillo asked, beside himself.
"In the city," the doctor answered.
"Then we'll go and get it."
"It's too late, Father. It's only a matter of minutes now. And there's no way of reaching the city. The telephone and the telegraph are both cut off because of the storm. There's nothing we can do."
Don Camillo picked up the little boy and wrapped him in a blanket with a rubber sheet over it.
"Come on, you idiot," he shouted to Peppone. "Call out your squad."
The squad was waiting in Peppone's workshop. It consisted for the moment of Smilzo and a few young loafers.
"There are half a dozen motorcycles in the village. I'll get Breschi's racer, and you round up the rest. If they won't give them to you, shoot."
Then all of them went off in various directions.
"If you don't lend me your motorcycle, this child is going to die," Don Camillo said to Breschi. "And if he dies, I'll wring your neck."
Breschi was speechless, although deep-down inside he wept at the idea of his brand-new machine being rattled about on a wet night. Ten minutes later the motorcycle squad was complete. A few of the owners had been knocked down, but Don Camillo said that didn't matter.
"With six of us starting, surely one will get to the city," said Don Camillo. He himself was astride the shining red racer and held the child to him under his coat.
Two ahead, two behind, with Don Camillo in the middle and Peppone ahead of them all on Brusco's big motorcycle, this was the formation of the "flying squad" as it shot along the deserted valley roads under the rain. The roads were slippery and every curve an unexpected menace. Skirting hedges and ditches, the "flying squad" went through gravel and mud to the paved highway. There the motors began to roar, and they raced in dead earnest. All of a sudden Don Camillo heard a pitiful moan from the bundle he pressed to him. He must go even faster.
"Lord," he implored through clenched teeth, "give me more speed! And you, you filthy machine, let's see if you have any real guts in you!" The racer seemed to leap ahead, passing all the rest, including Peppone, who didn't have Don Camillo's Lord to give him more speed!
Don Camillo could not remember the details of his arrival. They told him that he charged in with a child in his arms, took the hospital doorman by the neck, thrust a door open with one shoulder and threatened to strangle a doctor. The "flying squad" went home, leaving Peppone's boy in the hospital to recover. Don Camillo returned to the village blowing his horn like Gabriel's trumpet, and covered with glorious mud.
Go on to chapter twenty-seven, Horses of a Different Color on our site.