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Chapter Twenty-seven - Horses of a Different Color

       THEY CALLED him Romagnolo, simply because he came from the province of Romagna. He had come to the village years ago, but he was still romagnolo to the core. And to explain what this means I must tell you that this man had the nickname of "Civil-and-with-the-band." In the course of a political rally, the platform under him gave way and he started to fall to the ground. Upon which he called out with alacrity: "Civil, and with the band!" to signify that he wanted a civil burial, and not a Church one, with the band playing the Hymn of Garibaldi in slow tempo for a funeral march. When they start a new town in Romagna, they first throw up a monument to Garibaldi and then build a church, because there's no fun in a civil funeral unless it spites the parish priest. The whole history of the province is concerned with spite of this kind.
     Now, Romagnolo was a man with the gift of gab and one who spoke with the big words that can be read in revolutionary papers. The fact that there was no more king had knocked the props from under his pet subject for an argument, so he had to concentrate his heavy artillery upon the clergy. He finished every speech with the sentence:
     "When I die, I want a civil funeral and the band playing."
     Don Camillo was acquainted with the whole story, but had never paid it any attention. And so one day Romagnolo button-holed him in order to say:
     "For your information, remember that after having steered clear of you my whole life long, I intend to steer clear of you when I'm dead. I don't want any priest at my funeral."
     "Very well," said Don Camillo calmly. "Only you're barking up the wrong tree. You ought to go to the veterinary surgeon. I look after Christian souls, not animals."
     Romagnolo started to make a speech.
     "When that Pope of yours ..."
     "Don't bother anyone so far away. Let's stick to present company. I'll have to pray God to grant you a long life so that you'll have plenty of time to think better of it."
     When Romagnolo celebrated his ninetieth birthday the whole village turned out for the festivities, including Don Camillo, who walked up to him with a smile and said: "Congratulations!"
     Romagnolo shot him a resentful look and shouted:
     "You'd better pray to your God again. Some day or other He'll have to let me die. And then it will be my turn to laugh."
     The strange business of the horses took place in the following year.
     The business of the horses took place in a village on the other side of the river.
     A seventy-four-year-old Red had died, and they held a civil funeral, with red flags, red carnations, red kerchiefs, and in short red everything. The coffin was placed on the hearse carriage, the band began to play the "Red Flag" in funeral tempo, and the horses started forward with their heads hanging low as they always did on such occasions. Behind them came the procession, with red flags flying. But when they reached the church, the horses came to a stop and no one could make them budge. Several men pulled them by their bridles and others pushed the hearse from behind, but the horses stood their ground. When someone took a whip and began to beat them over the back, the horses reared up and then fell on to their knees. Finally, they were set on their feet and walked along for a short distance, but when they got to the cemetery they reared up again and started to go backward.
     The old man himself hadn't refused to have a religious funeral, the newspapers explained; his sons had imposed their ideas upon him. The story traveled all over the countryside, and anyone who wanted to test the truth of it had only to cross the river to hear it first-hand. Whenever a little knot of people gathered to discuss it, Romagnolo would descend upon them, shouting: "Middle Ages. That's stuff for the Middle Ages!"
     And he went on to say that there was nothing miraculous about it; there was a perfectly rational explanation. For years immemorial the horses had stopped in front of the church, and so they had followed their usual habit this time as well. People were impressed by this version of the story and went to Don Camillo about it.
     "What do you say?"
     Don Camillo threw out his arms.
     "Divine Providence knows no limits, and may well choose the humblest flower or tree or stone to teach a lesson to men. The sad part of it is that men pay so little attention to those of their fellows whose job it is to explain God's word, and choose rather to heed the example given them by a horse or a dog."
     Many people were disappointed with this way of speaking and some of Don Camillo's most important parishioners brought their complaints to the presbytery.
     "Father, this thing has created quite a sensation. Instead of dismissing it so lightly, you ought to interpret it and bring out its moral teaching."
     "I can't say anything more than what I said before," answered Don Camillo. "When God decided to give men the Ten Commandments he did it, not through a horse, but through a man. Do you think that God is so badly off as to call upon horses? You know the facts; let each one of you take from them what lesson he may. If you don't like what I have said, go to the Bishop and tell him to put a horse in my place."
     Meanwhile, Romagnolo was sputtering with rage, because people shrugged their shoulders at his explanation.
     "That's all very well," they said, "there's nothing extraordinary or miraculous involved, but . . ."
     So it was that Romagnolo button-holed Don Camillo again.
     "Father, you're just the man I wanted to see. What is the official interpretation of the horse story?"
     "Barking up the wrong tree, as usual," Don Camillo replied with a smile. "Horses aren't my line. You ought to go to the vet."
     Romagnolo made a long speech to explain the horses' behavior, and at the end Don Camillo simply threw out his arms.
     "I can see that the thing has made quite an impression upon you. If it has caused you to stop and think, then I say thank God for it."
     Romagnolo raised a threatening skinny finger.
     "I can tell you one thing," he said, "and that is, the horses won't stop when my coffin passes by!"
     Don Camillo went to talk to the Lord on the altar.
     "Lord, the foolish things he says are not meant to hurt You; they're just barbs directed at me. When he comes up for Judgment, remember that he hails from Romagna. The trouble is that he's over ninety, and anyone could knock him over with a feather. If he were in his prime, it would be a different matter. I'd get after him."
     "Don Camillo, the system of teaching Christian charity by knocking people over the head is one that doesn't appeal to me," the Lord answered severely.
     "I don't approve of it myself," said Don Camillo humbly. "But the fact is that often the ideas people have in their heads aren't so bad; it's just that they're in bad order. And sometimes a good shaking-up will cause them to fall into place."
     Romagnolo went to Peppone's office and declared with no preamble: "Take this piece of legal paper, call two of your jumping-jacks to bear witness, and write down what I say."
     He threw the piece of paper on the Mayor's desk and sat down.
     "Put the date on top and write clearly: 'I, the undersigned Libero Martelli, ninety-one years old, by profession a free-thinker, in full possession of all my faculties, desire that upon my death all my property and possessions be transferred to this township for the purpose of buying a motor hearse to take the place of the present horse-drawn vehicle . . .'"
     Peppone stopped writing.
     "Well?" said Romagnolo. "Do you want me to leave all my worldly goods to the priest?"
     "I accept, of course," Peppone stuttered. "But how are we to buy a motor hearse so soon? It would cost at least a million and a half liras, and we . . ."
     "I have two millions in the bank. Just go ahead and buy it, and I'll pay."
     Romagnolo came out of the Town Hall glowing with satisfaction and for the first time in his life went deliberately to the church square.
     "Everything's settled, Father!" he shouted. "When I go by in my coffin, the horses won't stop. I've taken care of priests and horses alike."
     Romagnolo got too excited, and drank more than was good for him. Not that wine hurt him, after having been good for him all his life long. Water was his downfall. Coming home one night full to the gills with wine, he was so over-poweringly sleepy that he lay down in a ditch. At over ninety years of age, spending the night in a puddle of water isn't exactly healthy. Romagnolo caught pneumonia and died. But before closing his eyes he summoned Peppone.
     "Is everything agreed?" he asked him.
     "Yes. Your wishes will be faithfully observed."
     Romagnolo was the motor hearse's first customer. And the whole village turned out to see its inauguration. The band struck up, and the hearse moved slowly and steadily along. But in front of the church it came to a sudden stop. The driver wriggled the gear lever frantically, but all in vain. He looked under the hood, but found the plugs, carburetor and points all in perfect order and the tank full of petrol. The church door was closed, but Don Camillo was looking through a crack. He saw men milling about the hearse, and the hearse standing, obviously stuck, among them. The band had stopped playing and the bystanders had fallen into an astonished silence. The minutes dragged by, until Don Camillo ran to the sacristy and pulled the bell rope.
     "God have mercy on you," he panted; "God have mercy on you ..."
     And the bells tolled out in the silent air. People shook themselves and the driver shifted the gear. The motor started and the motor hearse pulled away. No one could follow it any longer, because the driver put it into second and then into third gear, and it disappeared in a cloud of dust in the direction of the cemetery.
     
Go on to chapter twenty-eight, Blue Sunday    on our site.
     
     

     
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