Chapter Seven - The Polar Pact
THOSE WERE the days when there was a great deal of argument about that piece of international political machinery known as the "Atlantic Pact," which may have owed its name to the fact that between words and deeds there lies the breadth of an ocean. Peppone took the whole proposition as a personal insult. He was so thoroughly incensed by the American "saboteurs of peace" that if it had been within his power he would have declared war upon the United States without an instant's delay. He was in this state of boiling frenzy when he saw Don Camillo pass by with his nose in the breviary, and from the workshop door threw at him an oath enough to make anyone's hair stand up on end.
Don Camillo stopped and raised his eyes. "Did you call me?" he asked mildly.
"I was speaking to God," said Peppone threateningly. "Do you think you are the Deity in person?"
"No, I don't. But since God hasn't time to listen to you, say what you have to say to me."
Although Peppone could hardly wait to declare war on the United States, he didn't want to open hostilities with an attack upon Don Camillo, who stood all too close by and held in one hand a piece of steel cable he had just picked up from the ground. There was no point in being blessed by a priest who wielded an aspergillum like that, and so he contented himself with shrugging his shoulders. Fortunately, at this very moment, a tractor clanked up and came to a halt between them, and Peppone turned his attention to the driver's tale of woe.
"There's something wrong," said the driver. "The motor spits and kicks back. It must be the timing."
Now Peppone, in addition to being Mayor, was the village mechanic—in fact he was the best mechanic within miles. He could work wonders with machinery of all kinds, but in this case the tractor was a Ford and Peppone looked at it with distaste, pointing the handle of his hammer at the plate bearing the words "Made in U.S.A."
"The U.S.A. and I are through with each other," he said. "If you want to get this piece of junk fixed, go and see the priest. He's the one that's in with the Americans."
Don Camillo had just resumed his walk, but he turned back slowly. He peeled off his overcoat and gave it, along with his hat and breviary, to the driver. Then he rolled up his sleeves and began to tinker with the motor.
"Give me a pair of pincers," he said and the driver got one out of his tool-box. Don Camillo worked for a few minutes longer and then stood up straight. "Start it going," he said.
The man stepped on the starter.
"Like clockwork," he said happily. "How much do I owe you, Father, for your trouble?"
"Not a penny," said Don Camillo. "It's included in the Marshall Plan!"
A moment later the tractor pulled away. Peppone was left gaping and Don Camillo opened his breviary under his nose.
"Read this and tell me what it means," he said, pointing to a sentence on the page.
Peppone shrugged his shoulder.
"My Latin won't take me that far," he mumbled.
"Then you're a donkey," Don Camillo said calmly, continuing his walk. He had got grease up his nose, but he was proud of it.
This incident was a trifling matter, but it put Peppone in a very bad humor. That evening, when he had gathered his stalwarts together in the People's Palace, he shouted that something must be done to show the indignation of the masses over the signing of the infamous Atlantic Pact.
"We must take over and occupy some important place," he exclaimed in conclusion. "It's got to be a spectacular protest."
"Chief," said Smilzo, "we already occupy the People's Palace and the Town Hall. Our children occupy the school and our dead the cemetery. All that's left for us to occupy is the church."
"Thanks!" said Peppone. "And if we occupy it, what do we do next? Say Masses to compete with those of the Vatican? No, we must occupy a place that will benefit the whole people. Brusco, do you get what I mean?"
Brusco caught on at once.
"Good," he said. "When do we start moving?"
"Right away. Before midnight all our people must be put on the alert. They must move in waves, beginning at two o'clock and by five the whole Island must be ours."
Just at the village the river broadened to such an extent that it seemed like a patch of sea, and there lay the place known as the Island. It was not an island, really, but a strip of land fifty feet offshore running parallel for about half a mile to the mainland, and attached to it at the lower end by a spit or tongue of muddy earth almost submerged by water. The Island was not cultivated, but was given over to a grove of poplars. That is, the poplars grew of their own accord, and every now and then the owner, Signor Bresca, came to mark with a knife those that were to be cut down and sold.
Peppone and his followers had said for some time that this was a typical example of abandoned and neglected private property and that it ought to be turned over to the workers for development as a co-operative farm. Its occupation had been put off from one day to another, but now the time had come.
"We'll oppose the 'Atlantic Pact' with a 'Polar Pact' of our own!" Peppone exclaimed on the evening of this historic decision.
It seems that, in spite of appearances, the word "Polar" in this case was derived from the River Po. It was a strictly local and proletarian term, with no reactionary Latin pedigree. Surely it was time to do away with Julius Caesar, and the ancient Romans, who together with the clergy used Latin to pull the wool over the people's eyes. At least, this was Peppone's answer to someone who objected on etymological grounds to his idea of giving a Party newspaper the name of "The Polar Call."
"The days of etymology are over," Peppone told him. "Every word is making a fresh start."
In any case, the "Polar Pact" was put into action, and at seven o'clock the next morning Don Camillo was warned that Peppone and his men had occupied the Island. The "men" were actually for the most part women, but, be that as it may, they were cutting down poplars as fast as they could, one after another. One tree, higher than the rest, had been plucked like a chicken neck and now served as a pole from which the Red Flag fluttered happily in the April breeze.
"There's going to be trouble," the messenger told Don Camillo. "Someone's called for special police from the city. Peppone has started to cut the connecting spit of land and says he'll hold out there indefinitely. If you don't do something there's no telling where the trouble will end."
Don Camillo pulled on a pair of rough twill trousers, rubber boots and a hunter's jacket, for he knew that the island was a sea of mud.
Peppone was on the spot, standing with his legs far apart, directing the cutting of the channel. At first he failed to recognize Don Camillo; then he pretended not to; but in the end he couldn't help bursting out with: "Did you disguise yourself so as to spy on the enemy's camp?"
Don Camillo came down from the river bank, plunged halfway up his legs into the mud, crossed the channel and arrived in front of Peppone.
"Drop all that, Peppone," he pleaded, "the police are on their way from the city."
"Let them come," Peppone answered. "If they want to get over here, they'll have to borrow the United States Navy!"
"Peppone, it's only fifteen yards from the shore to the Island, and bullets can travel."
"It's only fifteen yards from the island to the shore, for that matter," said Peppone somberly, "and we have bullets too."
Peppone was really in a bad fix, and Don Camillo knew it.
"Listen," he said, pulling him to one side, "you have a right to be a fool and behave like one if you want to. But you have no right to involve these other poor devils in your folly. If you want to be sent to prison, stand your ground and shoot. But you can't compel the rest of them to be sent along with you."
Peppone thought for a minute or two and then shouted: "The others can do as they please. I'm not forcing anybody. Those who want to stick it out can stay."
The men who were digging the channel stopped and leaned on their shovels. They could hear a roar of motors from the main road.
"The jeeps of the special police," Don Camillo said in a loud voice. And the men looked at Peppone.
"Do as you please," Peppone muttered. "Democracy allows every man to follow his own will. And here on the Island we have democracy!"
Just then Smilzo and the other Comrades arrived upon the scene. Smilzo shot a curious glance at Don Camillo.
"Is the Vatican sticking its nose into things again?" he asked. "You'd better make yourself scarce, Father; it's going to be hot around here."
"Heat doesn't bother me," Don Camillo answered.
A cloud of dust rose from the road.
"They're here," said the shovellers. With which they threw down their shovels and made their way ashore. Peppone looked at them with scorn.
There were six jeeps in all, and the police inspector stood up and called out to the men who were hacking at the underbrush on the island: "Move on!"
They went on hacking, and the inspector turned to one of his aides.
"Perhaps they didn't hear," he said. "Play some music!"
His aide fired a volley of shots into the air, and the Islanders raised their heads.
"Get moving!" the inspector shouted.
Peppone and his henchmen grouped themselves at one end of the channel. Some of the men who had been working behind them crossed over. When they reached the shore they scattered to right and left, skirting the jeeps that were in their way. About a dozen diehards continued to cut down the underbrush. Peppone and his men fell into line, forming a wall along the channel, and stood there with folded arms, waiting.
"Move on! Clear out!" came a shout from the bank.
No one budged, and the police got out of their jeeps and started down the river bank.
The veins of Peppone's neck were swollen and his jaw was set. "The first one to lay hands on me will get strangled," he said darkly.
Don Camillo was still there beside him, forming part of the living wall.
"For the love of God, Peppone," he murmured, "don't do anything rash."
"What are you doing here?" Peppone asked him, startled.
"Doing my duty. I'm here to remind you that you're a thinking being and therefore have got to think things out clearly. Come on, let's go!"
"Go ahead! I've never run away in my life, and I never will."
"But this is the law!"
"It's your law, not mine. Go on and obey it."
The police were down beside the river, just opposite the Island.
"Clear out!" they shouted.`
Don Camillo tugged at Peppone's sleeve.
"I won't move out of here alive. And the first one to lay hands on me gets his skull cracked!"
The police repeated their injunction and then began walking through the mud. When they came up against the wall of men they repeated it again, but no one moved or gave any answer.
A sergeant grabbed hold of Peppone's jacket and would have come to a very bad end if Don Camillo hadn't pinned Peppone's arms down from behind.
"Let go!" he muttered between his clenched teeth.
Don Camillo had on the same sort of trousers and boots and jacket as the rest, and when the police started laying about them he got one of the first blows and was sorely tempted to let Peppone go, and to pitch some of the attackers into the water. Instead, he took it without batting an eyelash. More blows fell on his head and on those of Smilzo and the others. But no one said a word. They held on to each other and took it in silence. Finally, they had" to be hauled away like rocks, but none of them had opened his mouth or moved a finger in revolt.
"They're crazy in this village," the inspector grumbled. By now the Island was empty, because the few men who were left had escaped in boats. The police got into their jeeps and drove away.
Don Camillo, Peppone, and the others sat silently on the shore, gazing into the water and at the Red Flag waving from the plucked poplar.
"Father, you've got a bump as big as a walnut on your forehead," said Smilzo.
"You don't need to tell me," said Don Camillo. "I can feel it."
They got up and went back to the village, and that was the end of the "Polar Pact."
Go on to chapter eight, The Petition on the meaning of life website.