Meaning of Life
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Catholic Faith

Chapter Thirty-one - The Bell

       THE RIVER embankment did not give way, even where everyone said it was sure to crack, and so the next morning many people went back to the village, which lay below the water-level, in order to fetch more of their belongings. But towards nine o'clock something unexpected happened. The water had risen higher, and although it did not penetrate the main embankment it found a weak spot elsewhere.
     About a mile east of the village, the road running along the embankment went over a bridge across the Fossone, a tributary which poured at this point into the Po. The Fossone had solid banks of its own, but because the Po was so high, it had reversed its course and was running away from instead of into the river. Just below the bridge, where the banks of the Fossone joined those of the river, the water tunneled underneath and then came up in a jet, making the hole larger and larger. There was no way of holding it, and the villagers soon returned with wagons and trucks to seek safety.
     Don Camillo had worked all alone until three o'clock in the morning, carrying things to the second floor and attic of the presbytery. Then he was so tired that he fell into a dead sleep. At half-past nine in the morning he was awakened by the shouts of people running to take refuge on the embank¬ment. Soon the noise died away, and he got up to look out of the window at the deserted church square. He went down to explore further and then climbed up into the bell tower. From this vantage point he could see that the water had already crept up on the lower part of the village and was slowly creeping higher. It had encircled the isolated hut of old Merola, and when it reached the ground-floor windows the whole thing crumbled. Don Camillo sighed. The old man had not wanted to leave, and it was by sheer force that they had taken him away. Now the pace of the advancing water was faster; the rain had left the earth so thoroughly soaked that it could not absorb a drop. It was up to the higher part of the village, which lay stretched out perfectly flat before it. Hearing a crash in the distance, he looked through his field-glasses and saw that a hundred and fifty feet of one bank of the Fossone had given away. Then, going over to another window, he noticed a crowd of people on the main embank¬ment gazing in the direction of the village.
     Those who had gone with their trucks and wagons for a second load of their belongings had been forced back. Now they stood with evacuees from other villages, who had brought their livestock and household goods with them, looking down at the newly flooded area, half a mile away. No one spoke, and old women shed silent tears. Their village seemed to be dying there before them, and they began to think of it as already dead.
     "There is no God!" said an old man gloomily.
     But just at that moment the church bell rang. There was no mistaking the sound, even if the tone was somewhat different from usual. All eyes were fixed on the church tower.
     After Don Camillo had seen the crowd on the embankment he went back to the ground. The water had climbed the three steps leading to the church door and was running into the nave.
     "Lord, forgive me for forgetting that it is Sunday," said Don Camillo, kneeling in front of the altar.
     Before going to prepare himself in the sacristy, Don Camillo stepped into the little room at the base of the bell tower, whose floor was lower than that of the church and already covered with eight or ten inches of water. He tugged at a rope, hoping that it was the right one. It was, and when the crowd on the embankment heard it ring, they said:
     "Eleven o'clock Mass!"
     The women joined their hands in prayer and the men took off their hats.
     Don Camillo lit the candles and began to say Mass. The water was climbing the altar steps and soon it touched his vestments. It was muddy and cold, but Don Camillo paid no attention. His congregation was dry and safe on the em¬bankment. And when it was time for the sermon, he did not mind the fact that the church was empty, but preached to his parishioners just as if they were there before him. There were three feet of water in the nave, and pews and con¬fessionals had overturned and were floating at random. The door was wide open, and beyond it he could see the sub¬merged houses on the square and the lowering clouds on the horizon.
     "Brethren," he said, "the waters have boiled up from the river bed and now are sweeping everything before them. But one day they will be calmed and return to their rightful place and the sun will shine again. Even if you lose everything you have, you can still be rich in your faith in God. Only those who doubt God's mercy and justice will be impoverished, even if their possessions are intact."
     And he went on at considerable length in the flooded church, while from the embankment people continued to stare at the tower. When the bell sounded for the elevation, the women knelt down on the damp ground and the men bowed their heads. Then the bell rang again for the final blessing. The Mass was over, and people moved about freely and talked in a low tone of voice, hoping to hear the bell again. Soon afterwards it rang out gaily once more, and the men took out their watches and said:
     "Noon! It's time to go for dinner."
     They got into whatever vehicles they had with them and went to the improvised canteens and shelters. And looking back over their shoulders at the village, which seemed to be afloat in a sea of mud, they were obviously thinking:
     "As long as Don Camillo's there, everything's all right."
     Before Don Camillo went back to the presbytery he looked up at the Lord above the altar.
     "Forgive me, Lord, for not kneeling. If I were to kneel, I'd be in water up to the neck."
     His head was bent and he could not be sure that the Lord had smiled. But he was almost sure that He had, for there was a glow in his heart that made him forget the fact that he was soaked to the waist. He got over to the presbytery, seizing on the way a floating ladder, with whose help he managed to climb into a second-storey window. He changed his clothes, had something to eat and went to bed. Towards three in the afternoon there was a knock at the window.
     "Come in," said Don Camillo, and there was Peppone.
     "If you'll come down, there's a boat rowed by some of my boys waiting for you," Peppone mumbled.
     When a man is lying in bed, or even sitting up in it, he is in no position to come out with a phrase that will go down in history. So Don Camillo leapt to his feet and shouted:
     "The old guard dies, but it never surrenders!"
     Although he was on his feet, he had nothing on but his drawers, and this detracted from the solemnity of the occasion. But Peppone was in no mood to notice.
     "Then devil take you," he said angrily. "You may not get another chance to escape so soon!"
     The rescue squad rowed on. When the boat passed in front of the open church door, Peppone shouted to the rowers to watch out on the left. While they were looking in the other direction, he had time to take off his cap and put it back without being observed. For the rest of the way he cudgeled his brain to know what Don Camillo had meant about the old guard that dies but never surrenders. Even if the water stood eight feet high, the flood seemed to him to have abated since he knew that Don Camillo was at his post.
Go on to chapter thirty-two, Everyone At His Post    on our site.

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