Chapter Five - A Matter of Conscience
FOR SOME time Peppone had been bringing the hammer down on the anvil, but no matter how accursedly hard he struck it, he could not get a certain tormenting thought out of his mind.
"The fool!" he mumbled to himself. "He's going to make things worse!"
Just then he raised his eyes and saw the fool standing before him.
"You scared my boy," Straziami said gloomily. "He was restless all night long, and now he's in bed with fever."
"It's your own fault," said Peppone, hammering away, with his eyes on his work.
"Is it my fault that I'm poor?"
"You had orders, and Party orders have to be obeyed without discussion."
"Hungry children come before the Party."
"No, the Party comes before everything."
Straziami took something out of his pocket and laid it on the anvil.
"I'm turning in my card. It doesn't stand for Party membership any more; it just means that I'm under special surveillance."
"Straziami, I don't like your way of talking."
"I'll talk as I choose. I won my freedom at the risk of my own skin, and I'm not going to give it up so lightly."
Peppone put down the hammer and wiped his forehead with the back of one hand. Straziami was one of the old guard; they had fought side by side, sharing the same hunger and hope and despair.
"You're betraying the cause," said Peppone.
"Isn't the cause freedom? If I give up my freedom, then I'm betraying the cause."
"We'll have to throw you out, you know. You're not allowed to resign. If you turn in your card, you'll be thrown out."
"I know it. And anyone that cheats too much is thrown out three months before he does it. To think that we have the face to call other people hypocrites! So long, Peppone. I'm sorry that you'll have to consider me your enemy when I'll still look on you as a friend."
Peppone watched Straziami walk away. Then he took hold of himself, threw the hammer into the corner with a loud curse, and went to sit in the garden at the back of the workshop. He couldn't get used to the idea that Straziami had to be thrown out of the Party. Finally, he jumped to his feet.
"It's all the fault of that damned priest," he decided. "Here's where I get him."
The "damned priest" was in the presbytery leafing through some old papers, when Peppone came in.
"I hope you're happy!" Peppone said angrily. "At last you've managed to hurt one of our people."
Don Camillo shot him a curious glance.
"Is the election affecting your mind?" he asked.
"Proud of yourself, aren't you? Just to have ruined a fellow's reputation, when this social system of yours has given him nothing but trouble."
"Comrade Mayor, I still don't understand."
"You'll understand well enough when I tell you that it's all your fault if Straziami is thrown out of the Party. You took advantage of the fact that he's so poor and lured him to accept a filthy food parcel from America. Our Party delegate got wind of it and caught him at his own house, red-handed. He threw the food out of the window and struck him across the face."
It was clear that Peppone was highly excited.
"Calm yourself, Peppone," said the priest.
"Calm yourself, my foot! If you'd seen Straziami's boy when the food was practically taken off his plate and he watched his father being struck, you wouldn't be calm. That is, not if you had any feelings."
Don Camillo turned pale and got up. He asked Peppone to tell him again exactly what the Party delegate had done. Then Don Camillo shook an accusing finger in Peppone's face.
"You swindler!" he exclaimed.
"Swindler yourself, for trying to take advantage of poor people's hunger and get them to vote for you!"
Don Camillo picked up an iron poker standing in one corner of the fireplace.
"If you open your mouth again, I'll slaughter you!" he shouted. "I haven't speculated on anybody's starvation. I have food parcels to distribute and I haven't denied them to anyone. I'm interested in poor people's hunger, not their votes. You're the swindler! Because you have nothing to give away except printed papers full of lies, you won't let anyone have anything else. When somebody gives people things they need, you accuse him of trying to buy votes, and if one of your followers accepts you brand him as a traitor to the people. You're the traitor, I say, because you take away what someone else has given. So I was playing politics, was I? Making propaganda? Straziami's boy and the children of your other poor comrades who haven't the courage to come for food parcels don't know that they come from America. These children don't even know that there is such a place. All they know is that you're cheating them of the food they need. You'd say that if a man sees that his children are hungry he's entitled to steal a crust of bread for them to eat, but you won't let him take it from America. And all because the prestige of Russia might suffer! But tell me, what does Straziami's boy know about America and Russia? He was just about to tuck away the first square meal he's seen for some time when you snatched it out of his mouth. I say that you're the swindler."
"I didn't say or do a thing."
"You let another man do it. And then you stood by while he did something even worse, while he struck a father in the presence of his child. A child has complete confidence in his father; he thinks of him as all-powerful and untouchable. And you let that double-faced delegate destroy the only treasure of Straziami's unfortunate boy. How would you like it if I were to come to your house this evening and beat you in front of your son?"
Peppone shrugged his shoulders. "You may as well get it out of your system," he said.
"I will!" shouted Don Camillo, livid with rage. "I'll get it out of my system, all right." He grasped both ends of the poker, clenched his teeth and with a roar like a lion's bent it double.
"I can throw a noose around you and your friend Stalin as well," he shouted. "And after I've got you in it, I can pull it tight, too."
Peppone watched him with considerable concern and made no comment. Then Don Camillo opened the cupboard and took out of it a parcel which he handed to Peppone.
"If you're not a complete idiot, take this to him. It doesn't come from America, or England, or even Portugal, for that matter. It's a gift of Divine Providence, which doesn't need anybody's vote to rule over the universe. If you want to, you can send for the rest of the parcels and distribute them yourself."
"All right. I'll send Smilzo with the truck," muttered Peppone, hiding the parcel under his coat. When he reached the door he turned round, laid the parcel on a chair, picked up the bent poker and tried to straighten it out.
"If you can do it, I'll vote for the 'People's Front,' " leered Don Camillo.
Peppone's effort made him red as a tomato. The bar would not return to its original shape, and he threw it down on the floor.
"We don't need your vote to win," he said, picking up the parcel and going out.
Straziami was sitting in front of the fire reading the paper, with his little boy crouched beside him. Peppone walked in, put the parcel on the table and untied it.
"This is for you," he said to the boy, "straight from the Almighty." Then he handed something to Straziami: "And here's something that belongs to you," he added. "You left it on my anvil."
Straziami took his Party membership card and put it into his wallet.
"Is that from the Almighty, too?" he asked.
"The Almighty sends us everything," muttered Peppone, "the good along with the bad. You can't ever tell who's going to get what. This time we're lucky."
The little boy had jumped to his feet and was admiring the profusion of good things spilled out on the table.
"Don't worry; no one will take it away from you," Peppone said reassuringly.
Smilzo came with the truck in the afternoon.
"The chief sent me to pick up some stuff," he said to Don Camillo, who pointed out the parcels waiting stacked up for him in the hall.
When Smilzo came to pick up the last lot of them, Don Camillo followed him as he staggered under his load and gave him a kick so hearty that both Smilzo and half of his parcels landed in the truck.
"Make a note of this along with the list of names you gave to the Party delegate," Don Camillo explained.
"We'll settle with you on election day," said Smilzo, extricating himself from the confusion. "Your name is at the head of another list of ours."
"Anything more I can do for you?"
"No. But I still don't understand. I've had the same treat¬ment from Peppone and Straziami already. And all because I carried out an order."
"Wrong orders shouldn't be carried out," Don Camillo warned him.
"Right. But how can one know ahead of time that they're wrong?" asked Smilzo with a sigh.
Go on to chapter six, War to the Knife on the meaning of life website.