Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 10.

THE little fellow had a laborious life at the best of times, but he had so grown up in it that it never occurred to him to repine.

True Toto, the same age as himself, and a mother’s darling, led one just as lazy and agreeable as his was hard and over‐worked. Toto sported in the sun at pleasure, played morra for halfpence, robbed cherry trees, slept through noon, devoured fried beans and green almonds and artichokes in oil, and refused to be of any earthly use to any human creature through all his dirty idle days as best beseemed to him. But Signa from the cradle upward had been taught to give way to Toto, and been taught to know that the measure of life for Toto was golden and for him was lead. It had always been so from the first, when Nita had laid him hungry in the hay to turn to Toto full but screaming.

Signa, sent out in the dark before the sun rose to see to the sheep on the hill, kept on the hill winter and summer if he were not sent higher to fetch things from Bruno’s garden and fields; running on a dozen errands a day for Baldo or Lippo or Nita; trotting by the donkey’s side with vegetables along the seven dusty miles into the city, and trotting back again afoot, because the donkey was laden with charcoal, or linen to be washed, or some other town burden that Lippo earned a penny by in fetching for his neighbours; early and late, in heat and in cold, when the south wind scorched, as when the north wind howled, Signa was always on his feet, doing this and that and the other. But he had got quite used to it, and thought it a wonderful treat that they allowed him to sing now and then for the priests, and that he let his voice loose as loud as he liked on the hill‐sides and in the fields.

When he went up into these fields and knew the beautiful Tuscan world in summer, the liberty and the loveliness of it made him happy without his knowing why, because the poetic temper was alive in him.

The little breadths of grass‐land white as snow with a million cups of the earth‐creeping bindweed. The yellow wheat clambering the hill‐sides and darkened to ruddy bronze when the vine‐shadows fell over it. The springtide glory of the Judas trees, which here they call in cruel irony the Tree of Love, with their rose flowers blushing amongst the great walnuts and the cone‐dropping figs. The fig‐trees and the apple‐trees flinging their boughs together in June, like children clasping arms in play. The glowworm lying under the moss, while the fireflies shone aloft in the leaves. The blue butterflies astir like living cornflowers amongst the bearded barley, and the dainty grace of the oats. The little shallow brooks sleeping in sun and shade under the green canes, with the droll frogs talking of the weather. The cistus, that looks so like the dog‐rose that you pluck one for the other every day, covering the rough loose stones and crumbling walls with beauty so delicate you fear to breathe on it. The long turf paths between the vines, left for the bullocks to pass by in vintage time, and filled with colours from clover or iris, blue bugloss, or bright fritillaria. The wayside crucifixes so hidden in coils of vine and growing stalks of rush‐like millet and the swaying frond of acacia off‐shoots that you scarce can see the cross for the foliage. The high hills that seem to sleep against the sun, so still they look, and dim and dreamful, with clouds of olives, soft as mist, and flecks of white where the mountain villages are, distant as far off sails of ships, and full, like them, of vague fancy and hope and perils of the past. All these things were beautiful to him, and he was very happy when he went up to Bruno.

Besides, this tall dark fellow, who scowled on everyone and should have been a brigand, people said, was always good to him.

He had to work, indeed, for Bruno, to carry the cabbages into the town, to pump the water from the tanks, to pick the insects off the vines, to cut the distaff canes, to carry the cow her fresh fodder, to do all the many things that are always wanting to be done from dawn to eve on a little farm. But then Bruno always spared him half an hour for his lute, always gave him a good meal, always let him enjoy himself when he could, and constantly interceded to get him spared labour on a feast day, and leave to attend the communal school.

He did not wonder either at Bruno’s kindness or at the other’s unkindness; because children take good and evil as the birds take rain and sunshine. But it lightened the troubles of his young life and made them bearable.

He had never wandered farther than the hills above the town, and sometimes he was sent with the donkey into Florence; that was all. But the war‐worn staunch old Lastra is enough world for a child; it would be too wide a one for an historian, could all its stones have tongues.

It is a trite saying that it is not what we see but how we see that matters; and Signa saw in his battle‐dinted world‐forsaken little town more things and more meanings than a million grown‐up wanderers would have seen in the width of many countries.

He got the old men to tell him stories of it in the great republican centuries; the stories were apocryphal, no doubt, but had that fitness which almost does as well as truth in popular traditions, and, indeed, is truth itself in a measure.

He knew how to read, and in a old muniment rooms, going to decay in farmhouses and granaries, found tattered chronicles which he could spell out with more or less success. He knew all the old towers and ruined fortresses as the owls knew them. When he got a little time to himself, which was not very often, he would wander away up into the high places and play his lute to the sunny silence, and fancy himself a minstrel like those he saw in the illuminations of the vellum rolls that the rats ate in many a villa, once a palace and now a wine‐warehouse, whose lords had died out in root and branch. Wading knee‐deep in the green river water amongst the canes and the croaking frogs that the other boys were fishing for, his shining eyes saw the broad channel of the river filled with struggling horses and fighting men, as they told him it had been in the old days when Castruccio had forded it and Ferruccio had ridden over it with his lances.

It was all odds and ends and waifs and strays of most imperfect knowledge that he got, for every one was ignorant around him, and though the people were proud of their history, they so mixed it up with grotesque invention and distorted hyperbole that it was almost worthless. Still the little that he knew made the old town beautiful to him and venerable and most wonderful, as Troy, if he could see it entire, would seem to a Hellenic scholar. His little head was full of delicate and glorious fancies, as he pattered on his bare brown feet beside the donkey under the gateways of the Lastra; — the west one with its circlet of azure where the monochrome used to be, and its chasm of green where the ivy and bushes grow; and the east one with its great stone shields, and its yawning depth of arch, and its warders’ turrets on the roof.

He was so absorbed in thinking, that he would sometimes never see the turnips jump out of the panniers, or the chestnuts shake out of the sacks on the donkey’s back, and Nita would beat him till he was sick for leaving them rolling in the Lastra streets — to be puzzling about old colours on the tops of gates, when the blessed vegetables were flying loose like mad things on the stones! — it was enough to call down the instant judgment of heaven, she averred.

Those gleams of blue on the battlements, what use were they? and as for the clouds — they were always holding off when they were wanted, and coming down when rain was ruin. But as for turnips and beans — about their preciousness there could be no manner of doubt. And she taught the priority of the claims of the soup‐pot with a thick cudgel, as the world teaches it to the poet. The poet often learns the lesson, and puts his conscience in to stew, as if it were an onion; finding philosophy will bake no bread.

But no beating could cure Signa of looking at the frescoes, and hearing the angels singing in the clouds above.

Signa was not as other children were. To Nita he seemed more foolish and more worthless than any of them, and she despised him.

“You cannot beat the gates down nor the clouds,” said Signa, when she thrashed him, and that comforted him. But such an answer seemed to Nita the very pertinacy of the Evil One himself.

“He was an obstinate little beast,” said Nita, “and if it were not for that half of Bruno’s land ‐”

But he was not obstinate. He only stretched towards the light he saw, as the plant in the cellar will stretch through the bars.

Tens of millions of little peasants come to the birth, and grow up and become men, and do the daily bidding of the world, and work and die, and have no more of soul or Godhead in them than the grains of sand. But here and there, with no lot different to his fellows, one is born to dream and muse and struggle to the sun of higher desires, and the world calls such a one Burns, or Haydn, or Giotto, or Shakespeare, or whatever name the fierce light of fame may burn upon and make iridescent.

Some other relaxations and enjoyments too the child found; and here and there people were good to him; women for the sake of his pretty innocent face, with the cloud of dusky golden hair tumbling half over it always, and priests for the sake of his voice, which gave such beauty to their services, when anything great happened to demand a full ceremonial in their dark, quiet, frescoed sanctuaries scattered under the hills and on them. Indeed Lippo would have taken him into the city, and made money of his singing in the celebrations at Easter time, or on Ascension Day, or in Holy Week at the grand ceremonies of Rome. But of that Bruno would never hear. He set his heel down on the ground with an oath.

“Sell your soul, if you please, and the devil is fool enough to pay for it,” he said, “but you shall never sell the throat of Pippa’s child like any trapped nightingale’s.”

Poor Lippo sighed and yielded; it was one of those things in which his own good sense and calm wisdom had to let themselves be overborne by this brother’s impetuous unreason. The churches — even the great ones — pay but a few pence; it was not worth while risking for a few coppers, or for an uncertain future, that lucrative, “half of my half” off the rich fields and vine‐paths of the Artimino mountain.

So Signa sang here and there, a few times in the year, in the little choirs about the Lastra for nothing at all but the love of it; and in the Holy Week sang in the church of the Misericordia, where one of his chief haunts and sweetest pleasures was found at all times.

It is the only church within the Lastra walls, the parish church being outside upon the hills, and very little used. It is a small place, grey and grim of exterior, with its red door veils hanging down much worn, and having, within, its altar piece by Cimabue, only shown on high and holy feasts; no religious building in this country, however lowly, is quite without some treasure of the kind.

The church fills to overflowing at high mass, and the people stand on the steps and in the street, and the sound of the chanting and the smoke of the incense, and the tinkle of the little bells come out on to the air over the bowed heads, and with them there mingle all sweet common country sounds, from bleating sheep and rushing winds, and watch‐dogs baying afar off, and heaving ropes grating boats against the bridge; and the people murmur their prayers in the sun, and bow and kneel and go home comforted, if they know not very well why they are so.

Above the body of the church, led up to by a wooden staircase, there are the rooms of the Fraternity to which all good men and true belong for the love of the poor and the service of heaven. Rooms divided into little cells, each with the black robes and mask of a brother of the order in it; and black‐lettered lines of Scripture above, and the crossbones of death; and closets where the embroidered banners are, and the sacred things for holy offices, and the black velvet pall, with its memento mori and its golden skulls, that covers each brother on his last travel to his latest rest.

Here, in the stillness and the silence, with these symbols of death everywhere around, there dwelt at this time in the dull songless church a man who, in his day, had been a careless wandering singer, loving his art honestly, though himself one of the lowliest of her servitors.

Born in the Lastra, with a sweet voice and an untrained love of harmony, his tastes had led him to wander away from it, and join one of the troops of musicians who make the chance companies in the many small theatres that are to be found in the Italian towns which lie out of the great highways, and are hardly known by name, except in their own commune. He had never risen high in his profession, though a favourite in the little cities, but had always wandered about from season to season from playhouse to playhouse; and in the middle way of his career a drenching in a rain‐storm, after a burning day, had made his throat mute and closed his singing life forever. He had returned to his birthplace, and there joining the Misericordia, had become organist and sacristan to their church in the Lastra, and had stayed in those offices some thirty years, and now was over seventy; a silent, timid, old creature usually, but of a gentle temper, and liking nothing better than to recall the days of his wanderings as a singer, or to linger over the keys of his old organ with some world‐forgotten score before him.

There was little scope for his fondness for melody in the Lastra. It was only in Holy Week that he could arrange any choral service; or once in two or three years, perhaps, there would come such a chance for him as he had had on that day of Corpus Domini when the bishop’s visit had brought about an unusual greatness of ceremonial.

At all other times all he could ever do was to play a few symphonies or fugues at high mass, and if any village child had a great turn for melody, teach it the little science that he knew, as he taught Signa; Signa who was so docile a pupil that he would have knelt in happy obedience to the whip which S. Gregory bought for his scholars — only he never would have merited it for the transgressions of singing out of time.

The stillness, the sadness, the seclusion, where no sound came unless it were some tolling bell upon the hills, the melancholy associations of the place, which all spoke of pain, of effort, of sorrow, of the needs of the poor, and of the warnings of the grave, all these fostered the dreamful temper of the boy, and the thoughtful‐ ness which was beyond his years; and he passed many a happy tranquil hour listening to the old man playing, or trying to reproduce upon his lute, as best he might, themes of the musicians of earlier generations — from the figure of Merula — from the airs of Zingarelli — from the Stabat Mater of Jesi — from the Benedictus of Jomelli — from the Credo of Perez — from the Cantata of Porpora — knowing nothing of their names or value, but finding out their melodies and meanings by sheer instinct.

Luigi Dini — whom everyone called Gigi — had many a crabbed old score and fine sonata and cantata copied out by his own hands, and the child, having been taught his notes, had grown able to find his way in this labyrinth, and pick out beautiful things from the dust of ages by ear and instinct, and make them all his own, as love appropriates whatever it worships; and never knew, as he went over the stones of the Lastra with the donkey, and woke the people in their beds with his clear voice, whilst all was dark, and only he and the birds were astir, that when he was singing the great Se circa, se dice, or the mighty Misero pargoletto, or the delicious Quelli‐là, or the tender Deh signore! he was giving out to the silent street, and the dreaming echoes, and the wakening flush of day, airs that had been the rapture of the listening world a century before.

Grave Gregorian melodies; Laudi of Florentiae laudisti of the Middle Ages; hymns from the monasteries, modelled on the old Greek traditions, with “the note the slave of the word;” all things simple, pure, and old filled the manuscripts of the sacristy like antique jewels. Signa, very little, very ignorant, very helpless, strayed amongst them confused and unconscious of the value of the things he played with, and yet got the good out of them and felt their richness and was nourished on the strength of them, and ran away to them at every stolen moment that he could, while Luigi Dini stood by and listened, and was moved at the wonderful instinct of the child, as the Romans were moved at the young Mozart’s rendering of the Allegri requiem.

Music was in the heart and the brain of the child; his feet moved to it over the dusty roads, his heavy burdens were lightened by it, and, when they scolded him, often he did not hear — there were so many voices singing to him. Where did the voices come from? he did not know; only he heard them when he lay awake in the straw, beside the other boys, with the stars shining through the unglazed window of the roof, as he heard them when the hot noon was bright and still on the hill‐top where he strayed all alone with his sheep.

One day he found the magical voices shut up in a little brown prison of wood, as a great soul ere now has been pent in a mean little body; — one day, a wonderful day, after which all the world changed for him.

In a little shop in the Lastra by the Porta Fiorentina, there was a violin for sale. A violin in pear‐wood, with a shell inlaid upon its case, and reputed to be very, very old.

Tonino, the locksmith and tinman, had it. So many years before that he could not count them a lodger had left it with him in default of rent, and never gone back for it. The violin lay neglected in the dust of an old cupboard. One day a pedlar had spied it and offered ten francs for it. Tonino said to himself, if a pedlar would give that, it must be worth four times the sum at least, and put it in his window with his old keys and his new saucepans, and his ancient locks and his spick and span bright coffee pots; a little old dusky window just within the tall east gateway of the Lastra, where the great poplars throw their welcome shadow across the sunny road.

Signa going on an errand there one day and left alone in the shop took it up and began to make the strings sound, not knowing how, but finding the music out for himself as they young Pascal found the science of mathematics.

When Tonino entered his workshop, with a pair of hot pincers in his hand, he was frightened to death to hear the sweetest sounds dancing about the air like butterflies, and when he discovered that he child was playing on his precious violin that the pedlar would give ten francs for, he hardly knew whether to kiss the child for being so clever or whether to pinch him with the red hot nippers for his im‐ pudence. Anyhow he snatched the violin from him and put it in the window again.

A thing that could make so sweet a noise must be worth double what he thought.

So he put a price of forty francs upon it, and stuck it amongst his tins, hoping to sell it; dealers or gentlefolks came sometimes up and down the Lastra, seeing if there were any pretty or ancient thing to buy, for the people have beautiful old work very often in lace, in majolica, in carvings, in missals, in repoussé, in copper and can be cheated out of these with an ease that quite endears them to those who do it.

A few people looked at Tonino’s violin, but no one bought it; because the right people did not see it, or because it was an old violin without any special grace of Cremona or value of Bologna on its case. As it lay there in the window amongst the rusty iron and the shining tin things, with the dust drifting over it, and the flies buzzing about its strings, Signa saw it twenty times a week, and sighed his little soul out for it.

Oh the unutterable wonder locked up in that pear‐wood case! oh, the deep undreamed‐of joys that lay in those mute strings!

The child thought of nothing else. After those murmurs of marvellous meanings that had come to him when touching that strange thing, he dreamed of it by day and night. The lute was dear to him; but what was the power of the lute beside those heights and depths of sound that this unknown creature could give? — for a living creature it was to him, as much as was the redbreast or thrush.

Only to touch it again! just once to touch it again!

He begged and prayed Tonino; but the tinman was inexorable. he could not risk his bit of property in such babyish hands. True the child had made the music jump out of it; but that might have been an accident, and who could tell that another time he would not break it — a little beggar’s brat like that, without people to pay for it if any damage were done.

“Give me my forty francs and you shall have it, piccinino,” Tonino would say with a grin, knowing that he might as well tell the child to bring him down the star‐dust from the skies.

Signa would go away with his little head hung down; the longing for the violin possessing him with a one‐idea’d passion. In the young child with whom genius is born its vague tumultuous desires work without his knowing what it is that ails him.

The children laughed at him, the old people scolded him, Nita beat him, Bruno even grew impatient with him because he was always sighing for an old fiddle, that it was as absurd for him to dream of as it were a king’s sword or a queen’s pearls.

“As if he were not lazy and tiresome enough as it is!” said Nita, boxing his ears soundly, when she went by one evening and caught him leaning against Tonino’s casement and looking with longing, pitiful, ardent eyes at the treasure in its pear‐wood shell.

After a time the child, shy and proud in temper, grew ashamed of his own enthusiasm, and hid it from the others, and never any more tried to soften Tonino’s heart and get leave to touch that magical bow again.

Bruno thought he had forgotten it and was glad. The violin lay with the metal pots and the rusty locks, and no one brought it. Signa when he had to go past, on an errand through the gate, to Castagnolo or S. Maria del Greve, or any other eastward village, tried not to look at the brown shining wood that the wasps and the mosquitoes were humming over at their will. But he longed for it the more because he kept the longing silent, and had no chance of ever feeling those keys of enchantment under his little fingers. A thing repressed, grows.

He would lie awake at night thinking of the violin; if it had not been so wicked he would have stolen something to buy it with; some days it was all he could do to keep himself from stealing it itself.

One bright afternoon in especial, when everyone was at a marionette show in the square, and he had come back very foot‐sore from the city, and passing saw Tonino’s place was empty and the old lattice windows were open and the sun’s rays fell across the violin, it would have been the work of a second to put his hand in, and draw it out, and run off — anywhere — any‐ where, what would it have mattered where, if only he had carried all that music with him?

For genius is fanaticism; and the little barefoot hungry fellow, running errands in the dust, had genius in him, and was tossed about by it like a small moth by a storm.

To run away and wander, with the violin to talk to him wherever he might go:— the longing to do this tortured him so that he clasped his hands over his eyes and fled — without it — as fast as his feet could take him.

To see it lying dumb when at his touch it would say such beautiful things to him! — he ran on through the gateway and down the road with the burning temptation pursuing him as prairie flames a frightened fawn.

If any one had had it who could have made it speak he would not have minded; but that it should lie mute there — useless — lost — hurt him with a sharper pain than Nita’s hazel rods could deal.

“Oh Gemma — almost I stole it!” he gasped, panting and breathless with the horror of himself, as he stumbled up against the pretty child on the green strip that runs under the old south wall, where the breaches made by the Spanish assaults are filled in with ivy, and the ropemakers walk to and fro, weaving their strands under the ruined bastions.

Gemma put her finger in her mouth and looked at him.

“Why not quite?” she said. Gemma had stolen many things in her day, and had always been forgiven because she was so pretty.

“Oh, Gemma, I did — so nearly!” he murmured, unheeding her answer in the confusion of his own new stricken sense of peril and escape.

“Was it to eat?” said Gemma.

“To eat?”

He echoed her words without knowing what he said. Two great tears were rolling down his cheeks. He was so grateful that strength for resistance had been given him; and yet, he was thinking of a song* of the country to a lute; which sings of how its owner would gild its strings and wander with it even as far as Rome — mountains and rocks inclining before its silver sounds.

* Oh quanto suoni bene chitarruzza!

Le tui corde si possono indorare!

Lo manico diventi una fanciulla!

E dove io vada ti posso menare

Ch’io ti posso menar da qui a Roma

E monti e sassi t’abbiano a inchinare!

TUSCAN SERENADE.

If only he could have that beautiful strange thing, he thought, how he would roam the world over fearing nothing, or how happy he would lie down among the sheep and the pines, for ever making music to the winds.

“Why did you not take it, if nobody was by to see,” said Gemma.

“Oh dear, it is wicked to thieve,” said Signa, drearily. “Wicked, you know, and mean.”

Gemma put out her lower lip.

“If no one know, it is all right,” she said, with accurate perception of the world’s standard of virtue.

Signa sighed heavily, his head hung down; he hardly heard her; he was thinking of the violin.

“You are a mammamia,” said Gemma, with calm scorn, meaning he was a baby and very silly. “When I wish to do a thing, I do it.”

“But you do very wrong things sometimes.”

Gemma shrugged her little white shoulders up to her ears.

“It is nice to do wrong,” she said placidly.

“They say things are wrong you know,” she added, after a pause. “But that is only to keep us quiet. It is all words.”

They called her stupid, but she noticed many facts and drew many conclusions. This was one of them; and it was alike agreeable to her and useful. She was a naughty child, but was naughty with logic and success.

“If only he would let me touch it once,” murmured Signa.

Gemma finding him such bad company went away hopping on one foot, and wondering why boys were such silly creatures.

“What is the matter?” said one of the ropemakers kindly to the boy. “Do you want to see the puppet show that came in the morning? Here is a copper bit if you do.”

Signa put his hands behind his back.

“Oh no, it is not that. You are very good, but it is not that.”

“Take what you can get another time,” said the ropemaker, offended and yet glad that his too generous offer had been repulsed by him.

“What an ass you are! The puppets are splendid,” hissed Toto, who was near, and who had spent an hour in the forenoon, squeezed between the tent‐pegs of the forbidden paradise, flat on his stomach, swallowing the dust. “They are half an arm’s length high, and there are three kings in it, and they murder one another just like life — so beautiful! You might have taken the money, surely, and given it to me. I shall tell mother; see then if you get any fritters for a week!”

“I did not want to see the puppets,” said Signa, wearily, and walked away.

It was late in the day; he had worked hard, running into the city and back on an errand; he was tired and listless and unhappy.

As he went thinking of the violin by the walls, not noticing where his steps took him, he passed a little group of strangers. They were travellers who had wandered out there for a day. One of them was reading in a book, and looked up as the child passed.

“What a pity the Lastra is forgotten by the world!” the reader said to his companions; he was thinking of the many memories which the old castello shuts within her walls as manuscripts are shut in coffers.

Signa heard; and flushed with pain up to the curls of his flying hair.

He said nothing, for he was shy, and, besides, was never very sure that people would not take him to Nita for a thrashing; they so often did. But he went on his way with a swelling heart. It hurt him like a blow. To others it was only a small, ancient, desolate place filled with poor people, but to him it was as Zion to the Hebrew children.

“If I could be very great, if I could write beautiful things as Pergolesi did, and all the world heard them and treasured them, then praising me, they would remember the Lastra,” he thought.

A dim, sweet, impossible ambition entered into him, for the first time; the ambition of a child, gorgeous and vague, and out of all realms of likelihood; visions all full of gold and colour, with no perspective or reality about them, like a picture of the twelfth century, in which he saw himself, a man grown, laurel‐crowned and white‐robed, brought into the Lastra, as the old Sacristan told him Petrarca was taken into Rome; with the rays of the sun of his fame gliding its ancient ways, whilst all Italy chanted his melodies and all the earth echoed his name.

“If I could but be what Pergolesi was!” he thought.

Pergolesi who consumed his soul in high endeavour, and died, at five‐and‐twenty, of a broken heart!

But then he knew nothing of that; he only knew that Pergolesi was a great dead creature, whose name was written on the scores of the Stabat and the Salve Regina which he loved as he loved the roll of thunder and the rose at sunrise: and he knew that it was he who had written that “Se circa se dice,” which he had learned in the dusky organ‐loft of the Misericordia; that song in which the great poet and the great musician together poured forth the passion of a divine despair, the passion which, in its deepest woe and highest pain, thinks but of saving the creature that it suffers for:

“Ah, no! si gran duolo

Non darle per me!”

He did not know anything about him, but looked up at the sun, which was sinking downward faintly in the dreamy warmth of the pale green west, and wondered where Pergolesi was, beyond those realms of light, those beams of glory?

Was he chanting the Salve Regina now?

Between him and the radiance of the setting sun stood the little figure of Gemma, her hair all aflame with the light; hair like Titian’s Magdalen and Slave and Venus, like the hair that Bronzino has given to the Angel who brings the tidings of the Annunciation, carrying the spray of lilies in his hand.

“Oh, you mammamia!” she cried, in derision, stopping short, with her brown little sister bowed down beside her under the weight of some earthen pots that they had been sent to buy in the Lastra.

“Oh, you mammamia!” cried Gemma, munching a S. Michael’s summer pear that some one had given her in the Lastra for the sake of her pretty little round face with its angelic eyes.

Signa took Palma’s flower‐pots on his own back, and smiled back at Gemma.

“I have nothing to do before bedtime,” he said: “I will carry these up for you.”

“And then we can play in the garden,” said Gemma, jumping off her rosy feet as she finished the pear. “But what were you thinking of? staring at the clouds?”

“Of a dead man that was a very great man, dear, I think, and made beautiful music.”

“Only that!” said Gemma, with a pout of her pretty lips; throwing away her pear stalks.

“Tell us about him,” said Palma.

“I do not know anything,” said Signa, sadly. “He has left half his soul in the music and the other half must be — there.”

He looked up again into the west.

The two little girls walked along in the dust, one on each side of him; Palma wished he would not think so of dead people; Gemma was pondering on the veiled glories of the puppets, of whose exploits Toto had told her marvels.

“Oh, Signa! if we could only see the burattini!” she murmured, as they trotted onward; she had been sighing her heart out before the tent.

“The burattini?” said Signa. “Yes. Gian Lambrochini would have given me the money to go; but I would as soon hear the geese hiss or the frogs croak.”

“You might have gone in — really in? — and seen them, murders and all?” said Gemma, with wide‐opened eyes of amazement.

“Yes.”

“Money to go in! — to go in! — And you did not take the money even!”

“No; I did not wish to go.”

“But you might have given it to me! I might have gone!”

The enormity of her loss and of his folly overcame her. She stood in the road and stared blankly at him.

“That would not have been fair to the Lambrochini,” said Palma, who was a sturdy little maiden as to right and wrong.

“No — and he so poor himself, and so old!” said Signa. “It would not have been fair, Gemma.”

“If you were fond of me, would you think of what was ‘fair’? You would think of amusing me. It is a shame of you, Signa — a burning shame! And longing to see those puppets as I have done — crying my eyes out before the tent! It is wicked.”

“Dear, I am sorry,” murmured Signa. “But, indeed — indeed, I never thought of you.”

“And never thought of all you might have got with the money!”

Gemma twisted herself on one side, putting up her plump little shoulders, sullenly, into her ears, with a scowl on her face.

It cost a whole coin — ten centimes — to go in to even the cheapest standing‐places in the theatre, and with a whole coin you could get a big round sweet cake for five centimes, and for another centime a handful of melon‐seeds, and for another a bit of chocolate, and for another two figs, and for the fourth and fifth and last a painted saint in sugar. And he might have brought all those treasures to her!

Gemma, between her two companions, felt the immeasurable disdain of the practical intelli‐ gence for the idle dreamer and the hypercritical moralist. She trotted on in the dust sulkily; a little rosy and auburn figure in the shadows, as if she were a Botticelli cherub put into life and motion.

“You are cross, dear!” said Signa, with a sigh, putting his hand round her throat to caress her back into content. But Gemma shook him off, and trotted on alone in outraged dignity.

They climbed the steep ascent of grassy and broken ground past the parish church, with the sombre convent above amongst its cypresses, and the wilder hills with their low woodland growth green and dark and fresh against the south, and then entered the great gardens of Giovoli, where Sandro Zambetto worked all the years of his life amongst the lemons and magnolia trees.

The villa was uninhabited; but the gardens were cultivated by its owner, and the flowers and fruits were sent into the city market, and in the winter down to Rome.

“Are you cross still, Gemma?” said Signa, when he had put the big pots down in the tool‐ house. Gemma glanced at him with her forefinger in her mouth.

“Will you play? What shall we play at?” said Signa, coaxingly. “Come! It shall be anything you like to choose. Palma does not mind.”

Gemma took her finger out of her mouth and pointed to some Alexandrian apricots golden and round against the high wall opposite them.

“Get me four big ones and I will play.”

“Oh, Gemma!” cried Palma, piteously. “Those are the very best, the Alexandria S. Johns for the padrone!”

“I know,” said Gemma.

“But the fattore counted them this very morning, and knows every one there is, and will blame father if one be gone, and father will beat Signa or make Nita beat him!”

“Besides, it is stealing, Gemma,” said Signa.

“Chè!” said little Gemma, with unmeasured scorn. “You can climb there, Signa?”

“Yes, I can climb; but you do not wish me to do wrong to please you, dear?”

“Yes, I do,” said Gemma.

“Oh, Gemma, then I cannot!” murmured Signa, sadly. “If it were only myself — but it is wrong, dear, and your father would be blamed. Palma is right.”

“Chè!” said Gemma, again, with her little red mouth thrust out. “Will you go and get them, Signa?”

“No,” said Signa.

“Tista!” cried Gemma, with her sweetest little chirp, and flew through the twilight fragrance. “Tista! Tista! Tista!”

Tista was Giovanni Baptista, the twelve‐year‐old son of fellow‐labourer of Giovoli, who lived on the other side of the wall; a big brown boy, who was her slave.

Signa ran after her.

“No, No! Gemma, come back!”

Gemma glanced over her shoulder.

“Tista will get them, and he will swing me in the big tree afterwards.”

“No! Gemma, listen — come back! Gemma — listen, I will get them.”

Gemma stood still, and laughed.

“Get them first, then I will come back; but Tista will do as well as you. And he swings me better. He is bigger.”

Signa climbed up the wall, bruising his arms and wounding his feet, for the stones of it were sharp, and there was hardly any foothold; but, with some effort he got the apricots and dropped to the ground with them, and ran to Gemma.

“Here! Now you will not go to Tista? But, oh, Gemma, why make me do such a thing? It is a wrong thing — it is very wrong!”

“I did not make you do anything,” said Gemma, receiving the fruit into her skirt. “I did not make you. I said Tista would do as well.”

Signa was silent.

She did not even thank him. She did not even offer to share the spoils. He was no nearer her good graces than he had been before he had sinned to please her.

“Oh, Signa! I never, never would have believed!” murmured Palma, ready to cry, and powerless to act.

“She wished it so. She would have gone to Tista,” said Signa, and stood and watched the little child eating the fruit with all the pretty pecking ardour of a chaffinch. Gemma laughed as she sat down upon the grass to enjoy her stolen goods at fuller ease. When she had got her own way, all her good‐humour returned.

“What sillies you are!” she said, looking at the tearful eye of her sister, and at Signa standing silent in the shade.

“It is you who is cruel, Gemma,” said Palma, and went, with her little black head hung down, into the house, because, though she was only ten years old, she was the mistress of it, and had to cook and sweep and wash, and hoe the cabbages and bake the bread, or else the floors remained filthy and the hungry boys shirtless and unfed.

Gemma did not know that she was cruel. She was anything that served her purpose best and brought her the most pleasure — that was all.

She ate her apricots with the glee of a little mouse eating a bit of cheese. Signa watched her. It was all the recompense he had.

He knew that he had been weak, and had done wrong, because the fruit trees were under Sandro’s charge, who had no right to any of it, being a man paid by the week, and without any share in what he helped to cultivate; and this on the south wall being the very choicest of it all, Sandro had threatened his children with dire punishment if they should dare even to touch what should fall.

When she had eaten the last one, Gemma jumped up. Signa caught her.

“You will kiss me now, and come and play? There is just half an hour.”

But Gemma twisted herself away, laughing gleefully.

“No; I shall go and swing with Tista.”

“Oh, Gemma! when you promised —”

“I never promised,” said Gemma.

“You said you would come back.”

Gemma laughed her merriest at his face of astonished reproach.

“I did come back; but I am going again. Tista swings better than you.”

And with her little carols of laughter rippling away among the leaves, Gemma ran off and darted through a low door and banged it behind her, and called aloud:

“Tista! Tista! Come and swing me!”

In a few moments on the other side above the wall her little body curled upon the rope, and her sunny head, as yellow as a marigold, were seen flying in a semicircle up into the boughs of the high magnolia trees, while she laughed on and called louder:

“Higher, higher, Tista! — higher!”

Signa could see her, and could hear — that was all the reward he had.

He sat down disconsolate near the old broken statue by the water‐lilies.

He was too proud to follow her and to dispute with Tista.

“I will not waste another hour on her — ever!” he thought, with bitterness in his heart. There were the lute and the music in the quiet sacristy; and old fragrant silent hills so full of dreams for him; and Bruno, who loved him and never cheated him; and the nightingales that told him a thousand stories of their lives amongst the myrtles; and the stones of the Lastra that had the tales of the great dead written on them:— when he had all these, why should he waste his few spare precious minutes on this faithless, saucy, sulky, ungrateful little child?

His heart was very heavy as he heard her laughter. She had made him do wrong, and then had mocked at him and left him.

“I will never think about her, never any more!” he said to himself while the shadows darkened and the bats flew out and the glowworms twinkled, and in the dusk he could still just see the golden head of Gemma flying in the bronzed leaves of the magnolias.

After a while her laughter and her swinging ceased.

The charm of perfect silence fell on the grand old garden. He sat on, soothed and yet sorrowful. The place was beautiful to him, even without Gemma.

In the garden of these children all the flora of Italy was gathered and was growing.

The delights of an Italian garden are countless. It is not like any other garden in the world. It is at once more formal and more wild, at once greener with more abundant youth and venerable with more antique age. It has all Boccaccio between its walls, all Petrarca in its leaves, all Raffaelle in its skies. And then the sunshine that beggars words and laughs at painters! — the boundless, intense, delicious, heavenly light! What do other gardens know of that, save in orange‐groves of Grenada and rose‐thickets of Damascus?

The old broken marble statues, whence the water dripped and fed the water‐lily; the great lemon‐trees in pots big enough to drown a boy, the golden globes among their emerald leaves; the magnolias, like trees cast in bronze, with all the spice of India in their cups; the spires of ivory bells that the yuccas put forth, like belfries for fairies; the oleanders taller than a man, red and white and blush colour; the broad velvet leaves of the flowering rush; the dark majestic ilex oaks, that made the noon like twilight; the countless graces of the vast family of acacias; the high box hedges, sweet and pungent in the sun; the stone ponds, where the gold‐fish slept through the sultry day; the wilderness of carna‐ tions; the huge roses, yellow, crimson, snow‐white, and the small noisette and the banksia with its million of pink stars; myrtles in dense thickets, and camellias like a wood of evergreens; cacti in all quaint shapes, like fossils astonished to find themselves again alive; high walls, vine‐hung and topped by pines and cypresses; low walls with crowds of geraniums on their parapets, and the mountains and the fields beyond them; marble basins hidden in creepers where the frogs dozed all day long; sounds of convent bells and of chapel chimes; green lizards basking on the flags; great sheds and granaries beautiful with the clematis and the wisteria and the rosy trumpets of the bignonia; great wooden places cool and shady, with vast arched entrances, and scent of hay, and empty casks, and red earthen amphoræ, and little mice scudding on the floors, and a sun‐dial painted on the wall, and a crucifix set above the weathercock, and through the huge unglazed windows sight of the green vines with the bullocks in the harvest‐carts beneath them, or of some hilly sunlit road with a mule‐team coming down it, or of a blue high hill with its pine‐trees black against the sky, and on its slopes the yellow corn and misty olive. This was their garden; it is ten thousand other gardens in the land.

The old painters had these gardens, and walked in them, and thought nothing better could be needed for any scene of Annunciation or Adoration, and so put them in beyond the windows of Bethlehem or behind the Throne of the Lamb — and who can wonder?

The mighty lives have passed away into silence, leaving no likeness to them on earth; but if you would still hold communion with them, even better than to go to written score or printed book or painted panel or chiselled marble or cloistered gloom, is it to stray into one of these old quiet gardens, where for hundred of years the stone naiad has leaned over the fountain, and the golden lizard hidden under the fallen caryatide, and sit quiet still, and let the stones tell you what they remember and the leaves say what the sun once saw; and then the shades of the great dead will come to you. Only you must love them truly, else you will see them never.

Signa, in his little ignorant way, did love them with just such blind untaught love as a little bird born in a dark cage has for the air and the light.

When he stole into the deserted villas, where, after centuries of neglect, some fresco would glow still upon the damp walls where the cobwebs and the wild vine had their way; when he saw the sculptured cornices and the gilded fretwork and the broken mosaic in the halls where cattle were stabled and grain piled; when he knelt down before the dusky nameless Madonnas in the little churches on the hills, or found some marble head lying amongst the wild thyme, the boy’s heart moved with a longing and a tenderness to which he could have given no title.

As passion yet unknown thrills in the adolescent, as maternity yet undreamed of stirs in the maiden; so the love of art comes to the artist before he can give a voice to his thought or any name to his desire.

Signa heard “beautiful things” as he sat in the rising moonlight, with the bells of the little bindweed white about his feet.

That was all he could have said.

Whether the angels sent them on the breeze, or the birds brought them, or the dead men came and sang them to him, he could not tell. Indeed, who can tell?

Where did Guido see the golden hair of S. Michael gleam upon the wind? Where did Mozart hear the awful cries of the risen dead come to judgment? What voice was in the fountain of Vaucluse? Under what nodding oxlip did Shakespeare find Titania asleep? When did the Mother of Love come down, chaster in her unclothed loveliness than vestal in her veil, and with such vision of her make obscure Cleomenes immortal?

Who can tell?

Signa sat dreaming, with his chin upon his hands, and his eyes wandering over all the silent place, from the closed flowers at his feet to the moon in her circles of mist.

Who walks in these paths now may go back four hundred years. They are changed in nothing. Through their high hedges of rhododendron and of jessamine that grow like woodland trees it would still seem but natural to see Raffaelle with his court‐train of students, or Signorelli splendid in those apparellings which were the comment of his age; and on these broad stone terraces with the lizards basking on their steps and the trees opening to show a vine‐covered hill with the white oxen creeping down it and the blue mountains farther still behind, it would be but fitting to see a dark figure sitting and painting lilies, upon a golden ground, or cherubs’ heads upon a panel of cypress wood, and to hear that this painter was the monk Angelico.

The deepest charm of these old gardens, as of their country, is, after all, that in them it is possible to forget the present age.

In the full, drowsy, voluptuous noon, when they are a gorgeous blaze of colour and a very intoxication of fragrance, as in the ethereal white moonlight of midnight, when, with the silver beams and the white blossoms and the pale marbles, they are like a world of snow, their charm is one of rest, silence, leisure, dreams, and passion all in one; they belong to the days when art was a living power, when love was a thing of heaven or of hell, and when men had the faith of children and the force of gods.

Those days are dead, but in these old gardens you can believe still that you live in them.

The boy, who did not know hardly why he was moved by it so greatly, musing in this garden of Giovoli, and sitting, watching the glowworms in the ground bindweed, was more than half consoled for the cruelty of his playmate. When the nine o’clock chimes rang down below in the Lastra, he did not move; he had forgotten that if he were away when Nita should shut her house up he would have another beating and no supper.

How often was Giotto scolded for letting the sheep stray?

Very often, no doubt.

When the moon had quite risen, with a ring of mist round her, because there was rain hanging in the air, little feet ran over the bindweed, and a little rosy face, all the prettier for the shadows that played in its eyes and the watery radiance that shone in its curls, looked up into his with saucy merriment.

A little piping voice ran like a cricket’s chirp into the stillness.

“You may swing me to‐morrow — do you hear?”

Signa started, roused from his musing.

The beautiful things were mute; the clouds and the leaves told him nothing more. He was only a little bare‐footed boy, vexed at being left alone and jealous of big brown Tista.

Gemma was a pretty sulky baby, with a pert tongue and a sturdy will of her own; a little thing that could not read a letter, and cared nothing but for eating and for play; but there were shadowed out in her the twin foes of all genius — the Woman and the World.

“Are you sulking here?” said Gemma. “Tista swung me so high! — so high! Much better than you. You must get out of the garden now; father is come to lock the gates.”

Signa got up slowly.

“Good‐night, Gemma.”

“Good‐night, Gemma!” echoed the child, mimicking the sadness of his answer. “Oh, how stupid you are! Just like Palma! Tista has more life in him, only he never has anything for one except those little green apples. You may come and swing me tomorrow, if you like.”

“No; you love Tista.”

“But I love you best.”

She whispered it with all the wooing archness and softness of twenty years instead of ten, with the moonbeams shining in her eyes till they looked like wet cornflowers.

Signa was silent. He knew she did not love him, but only his pears that he got for her from Bruno, or his baked cakes that he coaxed for her from old Teresina.

“You will come to‐morrow?” said Gemma, slipping her hand into his.

“You will flout me if I do come.”

“No,” said Gemma.

“Yes, you will. It is always like that.”

“Try,” said Gemma; and she kissed him.

“I will come,” said Signa; and he went away through the dewy darkness, forgetting the stolen apricots and the choice of Tista. It was so very seldom that she would kiss him, and she looked so pretty in the moonlight.

Gemma glanced after him through the bars of the high iron gate with the japonica and jessamine twisting round its coronet.

Tista was going away on the morrow into the city to be bound ’prentice to a shoemaker, who was his mother’s cousin, and had offered to take him cheaply.

But it had not been worth while to tell Signa that.

“There would have been nobody to swing me if I had not coaxed him,” thought Gemma; “and perhaps he will bring me one of those big sweet round pears of Bruno’s.”

 

And the little child, well contented, ran off under her father’s shrill scolding for being out so late, and went indoors and drink a draught of milk that Palma had begged for her from a neighbour who had a cow, and slipped herself out of her little blue shirt and homespun skirt, and curled herself up on her bed of hay and fell fast asleep, looking like a sculptor’s sleeping Love.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v1.10.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06