Every so often we post one of Giovanni Guareschi's Don Camillo stories, both because he's one of the best Catholic culture short story writers of the last century, and because sometimes we get enough realism to know we're not going to have time to post that day.
For some reason, this story has been on my mind lately, so here it is.
Whenever Don Camillo saw old man Rocchi come to the church or the rectory he grumbled to himself: "Here's the commissar." For old man Rocchi was the leader of the watchdogs who appoint themselves in every parish to scrutinize the conduct of the priest, in church and out of it, and to write letters of protest to the bishop when they find it shocking or even improper. Of course the old man never missed a single service, and since he and his family occupied one of the front pews he followed everything Don Camillo said and did, and would turn to say to his wife in the middle of Mass: "He skipped something," or: "Today he's not got his wits about him," or: "Don Camillo isn't what he used to be." And he would go to the rectory afterwards to comment upon the sermon and give Don Camillo some sound advice.
Don Camillo wasn't the type to worry about such things, but it was a bother to feel old Rocchi's eyes constantly upon him, and whenever he had to blow his nose in the middle of Mass he raised his eyes to Christ on the cross above the altar and silently prayed: "Lord help me blow my nose in a manner that will not cause a scandal!" For Rocchi was a great stickler for form. More than once he had remarked: "When the priest at Treville has to blow his nose in the middle of Mass, nobody knows it, but this one sounds like a trumpet calling to the Last Judgment."
That is the kind of a man Rocchi was, and if such men exist in the world it must mean that they have a place to fill in it. He had three sons and one daughter, Paolina, who was the most virtuous and most beautiful girl in the village. And it was Paolina that startled Don Camillo almost out of his wits one day in the confessional.
"I can't grant you absolution before you do what you are supposed to," he told her.
"I know," said the girl.
This is the sort of thing that happens in every village, and in order to understand it one really has to have lived in one of the low houses in the broad valley and to have seen the moon rise like a great red ball over the bank of the river. There is no visible movement in the valley and a stranger may have the idea that nothing ever happens along the deserted river banks, that nothing could happen in the red and blue houses. Yet more things happen there than up in the mountains or in the big city. For the blazing summer sun gets into people's veins, and that big red moon is utterly unlike the pale satellite they see in other places; it blazes just like the sun, inflaming the imaginations of the living and the bones of the dead. Even in winter, when the valley is filled with cold and fog, the heat stored up during the summer is so great that people's imaginations aren't cooled off sufficiently to see things as they actually are. That is why every now and then a shotgun peeps out of a thicket or a girl does something she oughtn't do.
Paolina went home, and when the family had finished saying the evening rosary she stepped up to her father. "Father, I must have a talk with you," she said.
The others went their various ways and Paolina and her father were left beside the fire.
"What's it all about?" asked the old man suspiciously.
"It's time to think about my getting married."
"Don't you bother your head about that. When the time comes, we'll find the right sort of fellow."
"The time has already come, Father, and I've found him."
The old man opened his eyes wide. "Go straight to bed, and don't let me hear you talk of such things again!" he ordered.
"Very well," said the girl, "but you'll hear other people talking about them."
"Have you given some cause for scandal?" asked the horrified father.
"No, but the scandal will come out. It's not something that can be concealed."
Rocchi took hold of the first thing that came to hand, which happened to be a broken broomstick. The girl crouched in a corner, hiding her head, and received a rain of blows upon her back. Luckily the broomstick broke again and her father quieted down.
"If you're so unlucky as to be still alive, get up," he told her. "Does anyone know about it?"
"He knows--" murmured the girl, causing the old man to lose his head again and start to beat her with a stick taken from a bundle of faggots by the fire. "And so does Don Camillo," she added. "He wouldn't grant me absolution." Again the old man took it out on her. Finally she got in another word: "If you kill me, it will be an even worse scandal," she said, and that calmed him.
"Who's the man?" he asked.
"Falchetto," she answered.
She would have produced less of an effect if she had named Beelzebub in person. Falchetto was the nickname of Gigi Bariga, one of the most stalwart of Peppone's henchmen. He was the intellectual member of the gang, the one who wrote speeches, organized rallies and explained the Party directives. Because he understood more than the others, he was the unholiest of them all. The girl had taken so much punishment by now that the old man pushed her onto a couch and sat down beside her.
"You've beaten me enough," she said. "If you touch me again, I'll call for help and tell everybody. I have to protect the life of my child."
At eleven o'clock that night the old man gave in to his fatigue. "I can't kill you, and in the state you're in, you can't very well enter a convent," he said. "Marry, then, and be damned, both of you."
When Falchetto saw the effects of Paolina's beating his jaw dropped. "We must get married," she said, "or this will be the death of me."
"Of course!" said Falchetto. "That's what I've been asking you all along. Right away, if you give the word, Paolina."
It was no use thinking of marriage at quarter to one in the morning, but words exchanged at the garden gate, before the fields covered with snow, had a certain value and significance.
"Have you told your father everything?" Falchetto asked.
She did not answer, and Falchetto realized that it was a stupid question.
"I'll take my Tommy gun and shoot up your entire family," he exclaimed. "I'll--"
"There's no need to shoot. All we have to do is go get the priest's permission."
Falchetto stepped back. "You know I can't do that," he said. "Just think of my position. We can go to the mayor."
The girl pulled her shawl around her. "No, never," she said. "I don't care about what may happen. Either we are married like Christians or else I'll never see you again."
"Paolina!--" Falchetto implored her, but she had already slipped through the gate in the opposite direction from that which she had so often taken before.
Paolina stayed in bed for two days, and on the third day her father came up to her room. "You saw him the other evening," he said: "I happen to know."
"So do I."
"Nothing doing. He won't have a Christian wedding. And I say a Christian wedding or nothing at all."
The other man shouted and stamped his feet. Then he left his daughter, threw his overcoat over his shoulders and went out. And a few minutes later Don Camillo had a difficult problem before him.
"Father, you already know the story," said Rocchi.
"I do. Children need looking after. It's a parent's job to give them some moral principles."
Rocchi was properly put in his place, and he would gladly have strangled Don Camillo.
"I've consented to the marriage, but the rascal won't have anything to do with the Church."
"That doesn't surprise me."
"I've come to ask you this: is it more scandalous for a girl in my daughter's condition to marry outside the Church or not to marry at all?"
Don Camillo shook his head. "This isn't a question of scandal. It's a question of good or evil. We must consider the unborn child."
"All I care about is to get them married and let them be damned!" said Rocchi.
"Then why do you ask for my advice? If all you care about is to get them married, let them marry as they please."
"But she says if she can't have a church wedding she'll have none at all," groaned the unhappy father.
Don Camillo smiled. "You ought to be proud of your daughter. Two wrongs don't make a right. I say she has a head on her shoulders and you ought to be proud of her."
"I'll have to kill her, that's all," Rocchi shouted as he left the rectory.
"You don't expect me to argue the girl out of a church wedding, do you?" Don Camillo shouted back after him.
During the night Paolina heard a hail of pebbles against her window and finally her resistance was overcome and she went down. Falchetto was waiting, and when she saw his face she burst into tears.
"I've left the Party," he told her. "Tomorrow they'll get out an announcement of my expulsion. Peppone wanted me to write it myself."
The girl went closer to him. "Did he beat you up?" she asked.
"I thought he'd never stop," Falchetto admitted. "When are we going to get married?"
"Right away, if you give the word," she said. And her impulse was just as foolish as his, because it was almost one o'clock in the morning and poor Falchetto had one eye as black as a lump of coal.
"I'll talk to the priest about it tomorrow," he said. "But I won't go near the town hall. I don't want to see Peppone." He touched his black eye and Paolina put a hand on his shoulder.
"We'll go to the mayor, too," she said. "I'll be there to stick up for you."
Paolina went early the next morning to Don Camillo. "You can grant me absolution," she told him. "I didn't do any of the things I confessed to you. My only sin is to have told you a big lie."
Don Camillo was puzzled, but she quickly explained. "If I hadn't made up that story, my father would never have let me marry Falchetto."
Don Camillo shook his head. "Don't tell him the truth at this point," he advised her, secretly thinking that old man Rocchi had it coming to him.
"No, I won't tell him, not even after we're married," said the girl. "He beat me just as hard as if what I told him had been true."
"That's what I say," chimed in Don Camillo. "Such a beating shouldn't be given in vain."
As he passed by the altar, Christ frowned down at him. "Lord," said Don Camillo, "Whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted."
"Don Camillo," said Christ, "for some time now you've been skating on thin ice."
"With God's help no ice is too thin," said Don Camillo. "This wedding will be worth a dozen of the usual kind."
And so it was.