Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 11.

A FEW days later fell the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, and Signa for more than half a year had been promised a great treat.

Bruno had said that on that day he would take him to see the marble men and the painted angels of the Certosa Monastery, some ten miles away along the bend of the the green Greve water.

What Bruno promised he did always; the child had the surest faith of his word; and by five o’clock in the fair sunrise of the June morning, Signa slipped down the dark staircase, and undid the door and ran out bareheaded into the sweet cold air, and stood waiting on the stones.

The Madonna of Good Council smiled on him through her wooden wicket; bells were ringing over the country around; some tender hand had already placed before the shrine a fresh bunch of field flowers; the sky was red with the rose of the daybreak.

He had not waited long before a tall figure turned the corner, and Bruno’s shadow fell upon the slope.

“You are ready? That is right,” he said, and without more words the child ran on by his side out of the lofty Fiorentina gate.

The morning was fresh and radiant, very cold, as it always is in midsummer, before the sun has warmed the earth and drunk up the deep night dews that drench the soil.

The shutters of the houses were unclosing and through the open doors, and in the darkness of the cellars there was the yellow gleam of wheat, cut and waiting for the threshers; the gardens and yards were yellow, too, with piles of straw‐hats wetted and drying; the shadows were broad and black; men were beginning their work in the great arched smithies and workshops; there was everywhere the smell of the wet earth refreshed and cooled by night.

They went along the road that leads to the Greve river; — past the big stone barns where the flails would be at rest all day for sake of good SS. Peter and Paul; past the piles of timber and felled fir‐trees that strewed the edge of the road; past the old grey villa of the Della Stufa who nigh a thousand years before had come over the mountains, Christian knights and gallant gentlemen, with their red cross and their tawny lions on their shields; the chapel bell was calling the scattered cotters of Castagnolo to first mass; past the pretty bridge of the Stagno (the pool) with its views of the far mountains, and the poplar‐trees that the Latins named so because of the restlessness of their leaves, like the unresting mob; past the great fortress of the Castel Pucci, once built to hurl defiance at the city itself, now white and silent, sheltering in its walls the woeful pain, and yet more woeful joys, of minds diseased; past the worthy barber’s shop, where it is written up that he has only painted his sign with the tricolour to quiet tasteless whirligigs, he being a man of humour, with a pity kindred to contempt of all the weathercock vagaries of politics; past the old dirty, tumble‐down, wayside houses, where the floors were strewn with the new straw picked for the plaiting, and the babies were lying in flat fruit‐baskets, swaddled and laughing, and the girls were getting ready for mass with bright petticoats and braided hair and big earrings, and, if they were betrothed maidens, strings of pearls about their throats; past all these till they came to the Greve bridge, where they met a priest with the Host in the brightness of the festal day‐dawn.

They uncovered their heads and knelt down in the dust and prayed for the passing soul till the little bell, borne before the holy man, had tinkled away in the distance. Then they walked on by the Greve water under the shivering poplars and amongst the grazing sheep.

There is no regular path along the river; but they made one for themselves, brushing through the canes, getting round the rushes, or when it was needed, wading knee‐deep, or oftener, for the water was low, walking in the stony sand of the dry river bed.

Once it was a warlike water enough, in the old days when the Lotteringhi and Alberti, and Acciajoli and Pandolfini, and all the other great races, Guelph and Ghibelline, had their fortified places bristling along its banks; when its stone landing quays were crowded with condottieri watering their horses ere they went to lend their lances to the strongest; when mighty nobles in penitence raised shrines and built hospitals beside it to seek God’s grace upon their arms; when the long lines of pilgrims wound along it, or the creeping files of sumpter mules, of the bright array of the White Company; in those days Greve was a busy stream, and was as often as not made red with the blood let out in many a skirmish or the reflected flames from a castle fired in feud.

But all that is of the past. Now it is only a millrace, a washing pool, a ford, a fishing burn, anything the people liked to make of it; it sees nothing but the miller’s mules or the grape waggons, or the women with their piles of white linen; and the only battles it beholds are the fighting of the frogs in the canebrake or of the tree sparrows in the air. Now the Greve is a simple pastoral river. No one has ever sung of it that one knows. It lies so near to the Arno, held dear by every poet and made sacred by every art, that the little Greve is as a daisy set beside a crown diamond; and no one thinks of it.

Yet perhaps — only one dare not say so for one’s life — perhaps it has as much real loveliness as Arno has. It has the same valley — it has the same mountains — it is encompassed by the same scenes and memories; and it has a sylvan beauty, all of its own, like Wye’s or Dart’s or Derwent’s.

Grassy banks where the sheep browse; tall poplars, great oaks, rich walnuts, firs, and maples, and silver larch, and the beautiful cercis that blossoms all over in a night; calm stretches of green water, with green hills that lock it in; old water‐mills, half‐hidden in maize and dog‐grass and plumy reeds; broken ground above with winding roads from which the mule bells echo now and then; steep heights, golden with grain, or fragrant with hay, and dusky with the dark emerald leaf of the innumerable vines; deep sense of coolness, greenness, restfulness everywhere; and then, where the river’s windings meet its sister stream the Ema, set in a narrow gorge between two hills, yet visible all along the reaches of the water while far off, the mastery of the Carthusians — the Certosa — ending all the sweet song of peace with a great hymn to God.

This is the Greve — with flowering rushes in it, and the sun in its water till it glows like emeralds, and goats going down to drink, and here and there a woman cutting the green canes, and dragon‐flies and swallows on the wing, and oxen crossing the flat timber bridge, and from the woods and rocks above the sound of chapel bells and reapers’ voices falling through the air, softly as dropping leaves.

Bruno and the child kept always along the course of the water, walking in its bed or climbing its banks as necessity made them.

Bruno was never a man of many words; the national loquacity was not his; he was fierce, sudden, taciturn, but he smiled on the little lad’s ecstasies, and though he could tell him none of the ten thousand things that Signa wished to know, yet he said nothing that did not suit the joyous and poetic mood of the child; for though Bruno was an ignorant man, except in husbandry, Love is sympathy, and Sympathy is intelligence in a strong degree.

Signa was wildly happy; leaping from stone to stone; splashing in the shallow water with a jump; calling to the gossipping frogs; flinging the fir‐apples in the air; clapping his hands as the field‐mice peeped out from the lines of cut grain; wondering where the poppies were all gone that a week before had “run like torchmen with the wheat.”

Once, his hands filled with blossoms and creepers from the hedges, he stopped to gather a little blue cornflower that had outlived the corn as mortals do their joys.

“Why is it called St. Stephen’s crown?” he asked.

“How should I tell?” said Bruno; for indeed it seemed to him the silliest name that could be.

“Do you think it saw when they stoned him, and was sorry?” said Signa.

“How should a flower see? You talk foolishness.”

“Flowers see the sun.”

“That is foolish talk.”

“And the moon, too, else how could they keep time and shut and go to bed? And somebody must have named them all — who was it?”

Bruno was silent. Cattle liked dried flowers in their hay, and horses would not eat them; that was all he knew about them, and when the child persisted, answered him:

“The saints, most likely.”

But he said within himself:

“If only the boy would pull off lizards’ tails, or snare birds, like other boys instead of asking such odd questions that make on think him hardly sensible sometimes!”

Signa, a little pacified, gathered his hands full, and ran on, puzzling his little brain in silence. He had a fancy that St. John had named them all one day out of gladness of heart when Christ had kissed him. That was what he thought, running by the Greve water.

Who did indeed first name the flowers? Who first gave them, not their Latin titles, but the old, familiar, fanciful, poetic, rustic ones that run so curiously alike in all the different vulgar tongues?

Who first called the lilies of the valley the Madonna’s tears; the wild blue hyacinth St. Dorothy’s flower? Who first called the red clusters of the oleander St. Joseph’s nosegays, and the clematis by her many lovely titles, consolation, traveller’s joy, virgin’s bower? Who gave the spiderwort to St. Bruno; the black briony for Our Lady’s Seal; the corn‐feverfew to St. Anne; the common bean to St. Ignatius; the bane‐berry to St. Christopher; the blue valerian to Jacob for his angel’s ladder; the toywort to the shepherds for their purse? Who first called the nyctanthes the tree of sadness; and the starry passiflora the Passion of Christ? Who first made dedication of the narcissus to remembrance; the amaranthus to wounded, bleeding love; the scabius to the desolation of widowhood? Who named them all first in the old days that are forgotten?

It is strange that most of these tender old appellatives are the same in meaning in all European tongues. The little German madchen in her pinewoods, and the Tuscan contadina in her vineyards, and the Spanish child on the sierras, and the farm‐girl on the purple English moorlands, and the soft‐eyed peasant that drives her milch cows through the sunny evening fields of France, all gathering their blossoms from wayside green or garden wall, give them almost all the same old names with the same sweet pathetic significance. Who gave them first?

Milton and Spenser and Shelley, Tasso and Schiller and Camoens — all the poets that ever the world has known, might have been summoned together for the baptism of the flowers, and have failed to name them half so well as popular tradition has done, long ago in the dim lost ages, with names that still make all the world akin.

Meanwhile the man and boy came to a wooden bridge that bullocks were crossing, with flowers in their frontlets and red tassels. There was a broken arch beyond of a bridge that Greve had thrown down in flood. The reaped wheat was lying on the hills. The long cool grass tossed about to the water’s edge. Children were fishing in the shallows.

Up above there was an open space, with a house that had a green bough over its door, and men drinking, and mules resting with their noses in fresh cut cane leaves. Here they left the bed of the stream, and went up on the high path that goes along the wooded heights with the bold green bluffs on either side, and the vines below, and the river under the aspens between them.

They went along the path which is hardly more than a mule and ox track, rising higher and higher, with the blue mountains behind them, through the blackberry brambles and the starry clematis, and the wild myrtle, and the innumerable hill flowers of all hues, and past a rambling farm‐house called Assinaria, with old arched doorways, and a boy drawing water by a rope, standing in a high unglazed window, with blue shirt and brown limbs, against the dark behind him, like a figure painted upon an oaken panel; and then ankle ‐deep through the sea of yellow corn strewn all about around the place awaiting threshing, and out on to a knoll of rock set thick with rosemary, and so on in view of the Certosa.

The Certosa, afar off, above the stream with the woods in front beneath it, so that it seemed lifted on a forest throne of verdure against the morning splendour of the east; as he saw it, Signa was still a minute, and drew a deep, long breath.

Approached from the Roman road the monastery is nothing; a pile of buildings, irregular, and only grand by its extent, on a bare crest of rock; but approached from the Greve river, when the morning sun, shining behind it, shrouds its vast pile in golden mist, and darkens the wooded valley at its feet, the monastery is beautiful, and all the faith and the force of the age that begot it are in it: it is a Te Deum in stone.

“It looks as if the angels fought there,” said Signa, with hushed awe, as he stood on the sward and made the sign of the cross; and indeed it has a look as of a fortress, Acciajoli, when he raised and consecrated it, having prayed the Republic to let him make it war‐proof and braced for battle.

“Men fight the devil there,” said Bruno, believing what he said.

The chimes of the monastery were ringing out for the first mass; deep bells and of sweet tone, that came down the river like a benediction on the day.

Signa kneeled down in the grass.

“Did you pray for the holy men?” Bruno asked him when they rose, and they went on under the tall, green, quivering trees.

“No,” said Signa, under his breath. “I prayed for the devil.”

For him!” echoed Bruno aghast, “what are you about, child? are you possessed? do you know what the good priests would say?”

“I prayed for him,” said Signa, with that persistency which ran with his docile temper. “It is he who wants it. To be wicked there where God is, and the sun, and the bells.”

“But he is the foe of God. It is horrible to pray for him.”

“No,” said Signa, sturdily. “God says we are to forgive our enemies and help them. I only asked him to begin with His.”

Bruno was silent. He did not know what to say to the boy. The devil to him was a terrible reality; had he not seen him with his black, foul deformity and flame‐vomiting jaws on the frescoed walls, whenever he had entered any church in the heat of noon, to sit a little and turn his face to the pillars, and hear the murmurs of low mass in some side chapel?

The devil lived in the flesh for Bruno; the devil had made him stab Pippa; the devil was always in the fire of his tongue, and in the haste of his hand; and these holy painters of the church had surely seen the devil in the flesh, or how could they ever have portrayed him?

“Pray for those the devil enters, carino,” he said, sadly. “When you have done with them it will be time to pray for him, and they count by tens of thousands.”

“It is best to pray for him, himself,” said Signa, with his docile determination to keep his own ideas which Nita so constantly endeavoured to thrash out of him. “Perhaps men made him bad, because they would not leave him any hope of being better.”

“Do no talk of those things, the priests would not like it, Signa,” said Bruno, to whom such a manner of speaking of Satan seemed impious — only the child was so young — heaven, he trusted would not be angry.

Signa was silent; he obeyed an order always; only he kept his own ideas; it was as a dog obeys a call, but keeps its instincts.

But his joyous chatter was subdued. He kept looking up at the great monastery above the woods, that was all in a glow of sunlight, and where men fought the devil, and, perhaps, saw God.

“I would not fight him,” he thought to himself. “I would just bring him out, and tell him to look down the river, and I think he would take no more pleasure in hell then.”

And he fancied he saw golden‐haired Michael and the angel that was called Gabriel leading the dark incarnate Sin out there, into the light, till the sun changed his sable wings to silver.

Satan was as real to him as to Bruno; only he felt sorry for him, always sorry, when he heard the priests talk of him and saw the old terrible pictures on the walls of all the woe he wrought and the devouring flames.

Signa had thought a great deal about all these things — sitting in the dusky aisle with his hand telling his beads and his little hot feet on the cold pavement, while they droned out the mass.

There were other country people waiting to go in; the peasants love these places; you will see them very often in little groups, hushed and yet happy, wandering very quietly through the aisles of the churches or monasteries, or sitting against the columns or in the shade on the altar steps. Though they are a mirthful people at times, and like their lotteries and dominoes and whirling dances and gossiping jokes, there is something in the solemn rest, in the serious dusky stillness, that suits them strangely; the houses of God are really to them abodes of rest; they take their tired limbs there and get repose actual as well as figurative; perhaps they do not think about anything, but sit in a sort of day sleep when their prayers are done; but the influence of the place is with them and their love for it is true.

A white‐frocked brother met them in the long vaulted passage‐way, looking as though he had stepped out from some canvas of Del Sarto’s, and they went in with the five other contadini waiting there; Bruno, with his brown cloak on one shoulder and a clean shirt, and the child in rough white linen with a carnation at his throat; a flower in the ear or at the throat is seen here so often with bare legs and feet.

Signa, awe‐stricken and full of the beauty of the place, was mute as they strayed through its cloisters and crypt, and followed the white‐frocked brother, and passed other monks kneeling wrapt in prayer or meditation. Only when he came to where the old bishop was asleep in the wonderful marble of Fracesco di San Gallo he was moved by a sudden impulse, and plucked the end of Bruno’s cloak.

“I should like to sing him something,” he whispered.

“Sing? to whom?”

“To that old man,” said Signa, and then coloured, ashamed of himself.

“His soul is in heaven, he would be angered,” said Bruno in dismay. “He hears much better singing than yours. Look! the padre is shocked at you, and in this holy place!”

Signa hung his head.

“Are you fond of singing, little fellow?” asked a stranger, who had been looking at the Perugino on the wall.

Signa nodded shyly.

“And why do you want to sing to the dead bishop?”

“Because he is only asleep,” said Signa, timidly, “and it might give him pretty dreams. Old Teresina says she always had good dreams towards morning, because I go under the house singing.”

“Sing, then,” said the stranger, and turned to the monk with some words of entreaty.

“If it be a holy song,” said the monk, with reluctant consenting.

“He sings well,” said Bruno, with an outbreak of the tender pride in Signa, which he endeavoured to conceal, but could not always.

Signa was shy and silent for a minute; he wished he had not spoken of doing it, with this grand strange signore there; but the old dead man’s face smiled at him, and the Holy Child in Perugino’s picture seemed to look down in expectation; he forgot the living people; the bishop and the Gesu were all he saw; he joined his hands as if he were at prayer, and sang a sacrament hymn of Pergolesi that they sang in his own church.

Whether the good bishop dead five hundred years, or hard‐hearted honest Perugino sleeping under the wayside oak in Frontignano, heard or not, who shall say till the secret of the grave be loosed? But the contadini standing reverently by, and the white‐robed monk, and the listening stranger heard, and held their breath. The monk turned his head a moment to Perugino’s picture to see if it were not some miracle being wrought there, and the Angels of the Nativity singing instead of this peasant child.

Signa sang on as larks do, forgetting everything when once his voice was loosened on the air, and without knowing what he did, left the hymn of Pergolesi, and sang on and on and on cadences that were to be traced to no written score, and that came to him, he never could tell how — just as they came upon the mountain side, with not a creature near. The words were the words of the Latin services, but the cadences were his own as much as the thrush’s are its own in the hawthorn time.

He might have sang on till sunset if two other monks drawn by the unwonted sounds had not come near and looked on through the half open door. The sound stopped him; he paused startled and half ashamed; and not another note could be got from him.

“He is not angry,” he whispered to Bruno, looking at the statue. “He is smiling still.”

“You would make marble smile, if it had frowned through ages, till you sang,” said the stranger, while the monks murmured something of a gift of God. “My pretty little boy, you may make the world hear of you, your mouth will drop gold.”

Signa glanced at him bewildered; he understood nothing of this kind of language.

“Come with me where I am painting,” said the stranger, “I should like to hear who taught you your perfect phrasing — who taught you to sing, I mean? Come with me a few minutes. Is that your father with you?”

“That is Bruno,” said Signa. For the first time it occurred to him — why had he no father? Was he born out of the old town from the stones and ivy as the owls were?

“Not your father? What is he to you then?”

“He is always good. I keep his sheep sometimes.”

The artist did not ask any more; the boy was some peasant’s son; it did not matter whose. “But who taught you to sing?” he pursued.

“I sing in the churches at home.”

“But have you had no teacher?”

“No,” said Signa; then added, after a pause, “The birds do not have any.”

“But much that you sang — it is no known music — is it composed by some village genius of whom no one has heard?”

Signa was very puzzled.

“I sing the music that I have in my head,” he said, after a little while.

“Then it is you who have the genius — a second Mozart?”

Signa could not understand those words at all. Perhaps he was something wicked. Nita was always saying so.

“A genius? that is a sin?” he asked softly.

The artist laughed. “Yes; unless you can sell it well. A sin sold well is half forgiven.”

The child did not understand, but was a little frightened. To speak of sin at all was eerie in this great place, where men all day long and all night long fought the fiend.

“I should like to paint your face,” said the stranger: “as Perugino did the Holy Child’s that you look at so — oh, a few lines will do, but I fancy your face will be well known to a great world one day, and you have a look in your eyes that is beautiful — can you wait?”

The child asked Bruno. Bruno was displeased, but an Italian has a respect for art and artists; he muttered unwillingly that it was a feast day, the boy might do as he liked for him; it was a folly, but it would not hurt; it was not as if it were a girl.

The child went willingly into the room that is sacred to the Popes, and where dread Leo frowned on him. In the wide window, looking to the north on to the purple mountains, there stood an easel and other things of a painter’s work; the artist being a great man, and bringing authority of governments with him, was painting that glorious view, and living in retreat there for a few days.

Bruno followed them; he would rather have preferred that strangers should leave the boy alone; he was jealous over him, and he thought that praise would make him vain.

So Signa stood in his little white shirt, with his dark curls that had the gold light in them touching his throat, and the painter painted his head and shoulders with his chest half bare, and the carnation bright against the skin.

He swept the likeness in with the fast, broad, true touches of a great artist, who with a dozen strokes can suggest a whole picture, as Rembrandt drew Jan Six’s Bridge.

In half an hour he had what he wanted; a little face full of sadness and joy together, and most purely child‐like, with a look in the eyes that would make women weep.

He had been waiting for such a face in his great picture of the child Demophöon in the sacred fire; for whose scene he had come to these purple hills and dreamful plains as all the old painters — and Rafaelle, in his days of wisdom — had come to these or such as these.

To move the boy to wondering interest and wake the eager, rapt look in his eyes, the painter talked to him, with easy graphic language, simple, yet eloquent, such as the child had never heard.

He told him about the flowers he loved; about the mountains; about the dead Acciajoli, whose marble effigies were in the crypt below; about Donatello, who had carved the stone warriors in their mighty rest; about Guiliano, who had sculptured the fruits and flowers there to take away all terrors from the tomb; about S. Bruno the founder, and of the far lone Alps, where he had dwelt, forbidding the sight of woman for many a mile around; about the builder of this charter‐house, gentle Orgagna, that good old man, who loved to paint Cupids frolicking with young maidens under orange boughs, and brave youths hawking under sunny skies, and yet could draw Black Death as if he feared her not, but sent her upward through the air as though, by allegory, not to leave men without hope; one of those mighty workers who could write sculptor on their canvas and painter on their marble; one of those great, rich, wise lives that make the best of our own look so barren, spent in raising great piles and colouring beautiful things, and dwelling in peace and honour, and closing tranquilly when their course was run. Orgagna was writing sonnets when he died to a young lad he loved. Sixty years old, and yet with strength and youth and faith enough, and enough freshness of heart and soul, to write a sonnet that should please a boy! These men had never been bitten in the heel by the snake of Satiety; the wound which kills the Achilles of Modern Art.

Bruno, stretched on a bench, lay still as a felled tree and listened.

“If I could talk like that to Signa he would love me better,” he thought; but how was he to talk like that — a man who knew how to make barley grow, and how to drive bullocks over the land, and how to cleanse the vines with sulphur, but no more.

He wished the painter would not tell the child the world would know of him — what use was there in that. Valdarno and the hills were world enough — and were he to sing and the great unknown cities hear him, he would have to go away for that, and Bruno hoped to keep him always — always — always, and see him safe for all the future after him on that good piece of land on the hill‐side, where Pippa had come through the beanflowers at sunset.

What better life was there than that, with the meek beasts on the corn‐lands, high in the air amongst the vines?

Kings no doubt were higher, and great lords; but Bruno pitied them.

Two o’clock came, and the monks had their simple dinner in their refectory, and the same fare was brought to the artist as to any laity who may dwell there in retreat, and he made them bring portions for the contadino and the child, and added wine of his own getting, rich and rare.

Bruno and Signa took it without ado, and with the single animal‐like grace which is bred in Italian blood as in the limbs of the chamois or the wings of the swallow.

He was a great man, perhaps, and rich, no doubt, and far above them; but why should they be ashamed to break his bread with him?

They would have broken theirs with him.

As for him, now he had the face he wanted — the face that he had sought for high and low amongst the beautiful children of the Riviera, and always vainly — he did not care how soon they went nor where; and yet the boy had a wonderful voice — only children were so often wonderful in Italy that no one ever heard of when they were grown to men — a precocious, swiftly passing, universal genius, that burst to beauty like a rose laurel blossom, and dropped down without fruit. Still, this little barefoot boy, that sang to the dead bishop, had something in his face that surely would not die.

“If I took you with me to the big world they would make an idol of you, little lark,” he said, as the boy put down his white bowl of soup. “Would you come if I would take you?”

Signa looked up to Bruno’s face and across at the hills that hid his old town from his sight.

“No,” he said, simply, but his face flushed all over suddenly; a vague fancy, a dim possibility broke before him like the faint rose that is promise of the sunrise. Only he was too young and knew too little to be able to be sure of what he thought.

“No? Well, you are right,” said the great painter, smiling. “To a million blanks one prize, only the prize is a proud one, once got; though the men whose hands are empty deny it, to console themselves. But be content in your life, little fellow; it is a good one; you are not like a town child, ‘un brin d’herbe, sans soleil, entre deux pavés.’ You have the sun and the air and the country, the old painters knew the value of these; we do not. Look here, my pretty boy, take these pieces and buy what you fancy, and if you ever do wander far afield and want help, here is my name; come to me and remind me of the Certosa, and such influence as I have with other men I will use for you. But is you are wise you will not wander. The ox furrows are safer travelling than the city stones. Farewell.”

He gave the boy two gold pieces of France, and smiled at him. and went within to the dormitory. He would not have minded the child remaining all the day, but he was tired of seeing that black‐browed contadino stretched, listening and silent, on the bench. Besides, he wanted to go on with his landscape.

“Am I to keep them,” said Signa, looking down at the money in his palm.

“Money is money,” said Bruno, briefly. “It is forty francs. Francs do not hang in the hedges.”

Signa was silent in absolute amaze. He had never had a centime for his own in his whole life. He felt dizzy.

Then all at once he gave a ringing shout of rapturous joy.

“I could buy the violin!” he cried, till the vault of the chamber echoed.

It was to him as if could buy the earth and the sun and the planets.

“Yes; you can buy the violin,” said Bruno.

Signa laughed all over his little face as a brook does when the sun and wind together please it; he was beside himself with bewildered happiness. He shouted, he leaped, he sang, he raced, regardless of the silence and sanctity of the place, till Bruno hurried him away fearful that the good brethern might enter and be displeased.

“What did the paper say? you have forgotten the paper,” said Bruno, as they passed the pharmacy, where the monks were distilling their sweet odours and strong waters with a delicate fragrance of coriander and coromandel seeds, and of dried herbs and lemons and the like, upon the air.

Signa, giddy and breathless, unfolded the crumbled scrap on which the painter had written his name with a pencil, his surname — Istriel — curtly, as men write who know that the one word tells all about them to the world.

He spelt the name out slowly, but the line beneath it puzzled him; it was only an address in Paris, but then the little boy did not know what Paris meant.

He crushed the slip of paper together with the gold and ran out of the cool vaulted corridors, that were so still and hushed and grey, like twilight, into the path that runs down the vines.

“I can buy the violin!” he cried to the bright sky; he thought that the sky smiled back again.

After all the angels had thought of him.

“Oh this wonderful day!” he shouted. “Oh Bruno, are you not happy that we came?”

“I am glad if you are glad”, said Bruno. And that was the truth at all times. Half way down the hill Signa stopped and looked back to the monastery.

“I forgot to thank the Holy Child,” he said, with sharp contrition.

“Where? and for what?”

“The little Christ in the picture that they call Perugino — he sent me this to buy the violin. I am sure of that. He smiled at me all the while I sang, and I never said a prayer to thank him. Let me go back.”

“They would not let you in; say your prayers to him at home; he will be quite as pleased. But it was the painter who gave you the money.”

“It was the Holy Child sent it,” said Signa, who had seen so many frescoes of the heavenly host descending to mingle in the lives of men, and had heard so many miracles and legends, that the visible interposition of Perugino’s Gesu was only such a thing as he had looked for naturally.

Well, the Gesu might, why not? thought Bruno, the child was worthy even of such memory.

He did not know — it seemed presumptuous to think they could think in heaven of a child’s wish for a wooden toy; but still, who could tell? — it is such simple, humble, foolish hopes as these that keep the peasants’ hearts and backs from breaking under the burden of unending toil. Untiring intelligence may live best without a faith, but tired poverty and labour must have one of some sort. Called by what name it may be, it is the selfsame thing, the vague, sad, wistful hope of some far off, but certain, compensation.

To Bruno, indeed, it seemed that the Gesu had sanctioned the spending of a vast fortune on a mere plaything; it was the cost of a sheep or of a barrel of wine; but he could no more have denied the child than he could have cut his hand off — besides, if the saints willed it.

As for Signa, he had no doubt that heaven had sent it to him. He cried and laughed in his delight. He showed his gold to the birds, to the frogs, to the butterflies. He leaped from stone to stone in the water, laughing at his own image. He stopped to tell every contadino he met, and every fisherman throwing a net from the canes. He ran through the hedges of acacia and clematis, and told the spiders weaving silver in the leaves. He stopped to tell the millers at the mill‐house over the river, where the good men leaned out of a little square window with the yellow light of a candle behind them, and above the moss‐grown roof the apple boughs interlaced against a dreamy blue evening sky, like a Rembrandt set in a Raffaelle. He caught a big brown velvet stingless bee, and whispered it the story, and let it go free to carry the news before him to the swallows in the Lastra; and when he came to red cross that stands on a pile of stones, where the Greve is broad and green under the high woodlands, where they mighty Acciajoli once reigned, he knelt down and said the prayers he had forgotten, while the wind chased the shadows in the water, and the weir and the waterwheel sang to each other.

“Will it be too late to buy it to‐night?” he said, as he saw Venus rise above the mountains from the sea.

“Not if Tonino be not in bed,” said Bruno, who never could bear not to humour the child. So they walked on as fast as they could.

“You are tired?” said Bruno. “If you are tired get on my back.”

“I am not tired!” laughed the child, who felt as though he had wings, and could dart all the way home as swiftly and straight as a dragon‐fly. It was quite dark when they reached the Lastra.

It was a hot night. The mosquitoes and the little white moths were whirling round the few dusky lamps. There were lights behind the grated windows, and darksome doorways lit as Rembrandt loved.

The men stood about in their shirt‐sleeves, and the women lingered, saying good night as they plaited the last tress. There were groups in the archways, and on the high steps, and in the bakers’ and wine‐sellers’ shops, where the green boughs were drooping after the heat of the day. In uncurtained casements only lighted by the moon young mothers undressed their sucklings. There was a smell of ripe fruit, of drying hay, of fir‐apples, of fresh straw, of that sea‐scent which comes here upon the west wind, and of magnolia flowers from the villas on the hills.

Signa’s heart beat so fast he felt blind as he flew under the gateway, and looked to see if Tonino had shut his house for the night.

His heart leaped in him as he saw a light in the place, and the big keys magnified in the shadow till they were fit for the very keys of St. Peter, and in the door the locksmith himself, with bare arms and easy mind, chatting with his neighbour, Dionisio the cobbler.

Signa darted to him.

“Give it me! quick — quick — quick — oh, please, good Tonino!” he panted. “See — here are the forty francs — all beautiful real gold — and the fair child in the monastery sent it to me to‐day. Quick — quick, oh dear Tonino! You never have sold it while we were away?”

“The child pleased an artist to‐day, and sat for a picture, and so got the money. Let him have the toy,” said Bruno, following, to the astonished Tonino, who had stretched out a hand by sheer instinct to seize the boy, making sure that he had stolen something.

“I have not sold it,” he said, with wide open eyes. “But buy it — forty francs! — the like of you, you little bit of a fellow! It cannot be! It cannot be!”

“Oh, dear Tonino!” cried the child, piteously, and he began to tremble all over with dread, his colour went and came hotly and whitely in the yellow gleams of the locksmith’s brass lamp; and he could hardly speak plain for excitement, with both his hands clinging to the man’s bare arm. “Oh, dear, good Tonino, you never have sold it? oh say you have not sold it? Here is the gold — beautiful real money, and you never do have gold in Signa, and pray, pray do let me have it quick; I have longed for it so. Oh, you never will know how! Only I said nothing because you all scolded and laughed; and now, perhaps, you have sold it — do say you have not sold it?”

And Signa broke down, crying with a very rain of tears in the reaction from this immeasurable joy to fear.

Bruno’s hand fell heavily on the locksmith’s shoulder.

“It is good money. You cannot refuse your own price. Let the boy have the fiddle.”

“But a baby like that!” stammered Tonino. “And if there are painters about that pay so, there is my little Ginna, rich and rosy as a tomato, and how can you, even in conscience, let that brat squander such a heap of wealth — the price of a calf almost, and a barrel of wine quite, and the best wine in the commune too; and sure he ought to be made to take it to that good soul Lippo, who has kept him, body and soul together, all these years, when any other man would have let such a little mouse drown in the flood where he came from; and I do not think I could in conscience let the lad throw all that away, and he a beggar one may say, unless I speak to Lippo and Nita first, and they be willing, because —”

Bruno’s eyes took fire with that sudden light which all the Lastra had dreaded since he had been a stripling, and his hand went inside his shirt, where, about the belt of his breeches, he was always believed to carry a trusty knife, notwithstanding all law and peril.

“Keep your conscience for your neighbours’ kettles and pans that you send home with new holes when you solder the old ones!” shouted Bruno. “Out with the fiddle, or as the saints live above us, choked you shall be, and dead as a doornail. Take the gold and fetch me the toy, and learn to preach to me if you dare!”

“But in conscience,” stammered the locksmith.

“Give the child the plaything,” he cried in a voice of thunder, shaking him as a dog does a chicken, “or it shall be the worse for you. You know me!”

“I would take the gold when I could get it, if I were you, Tonino,” whispered the cobbler, who was a man of peace. “Gold is a rare sight for sore eyes in Signa, and what is Lippo to you?”

“That is true,” murmured the tinman, frightened out of his wits, and thankful for any excuse to yield. “But it is only to‐day that I heard that the fiddle is worth quite double. There is a great singer come to stay at one of the villas who saw it — and to let a child have it who will break it — nevertheless, to please a neighbour —”

And having soothed himself a little with this elaborate and useless fiction, as his country folk will, always deriving a very soothing and softening effect from the pleasure of lying, Tonino went grumbling within, and poked about with his dim lamp, and came out slowly with the violin, and clutched the two gold pieces before he would let it go. Signa, who stood trembling with wild excitement, took the precious instrument in both his hand with trembling reverence, the tears falling fast down his cheeks.

“Beast! you have made him cry!” muttered Bruno, and kicked the tinman into his own doorway with a will, and laid his hand on the child’s shoulder, and strode up the street of the Lastra, glancing from right to left with mute challenge if any man should have the courage to stop his progress.

No one attempted to call him to account. Tonino was not a popular man, and the weight of Bruno’s wrath and the keenness of his knife had been felt by more than one of the eager, chattering audience who leaned out of the windows and crowded each other in the doorways, in breathless hope to see a pretty piece of stabbing.

Bruno went through them in silence. Signa trotted by his side, his hands clasping the violin to his chest, and his great eyes dewy with tears, yet radiant as jewels, in his joy.

Tonino grumbled that if a man made such a sweet morsel of his own bastard he should not be above the owning of it, and went to his bed with sore bones and a grieved heart that he had not asked double for the fiddle; though for more years than he could remember he had always thought it worthless lumber.

Bruno and Signa went up the street in the moonlight, with yellow flashes now and then falling across them from the lamps swinging in the doorways.

“Where will you play on it, dear little lad,” said Bruno, gently, “if you take it home?”

The child looked at him with the smile of a child dreaming beautiful things in its slumber.

“I will keep it at old Teresina’s. She will let me, and I will bring it to you when I come. Oh! is it really, really true that I have got it?”

“Quite true; and it is dearer to you already than the old lute, Signa?”

Signa was silent. Bruno had given him the lute.

They passed out of the Lastra and along the road into the street that curves towards the bridge; it was quite dark; but at the little café there which looks towards the river, several men were drinking and playing dominoes on the stones by the feeble light of the brass oil‐lamps. Bruno saw Lippo amongst them.

He put his own tall from with the dark cloud of his brown cloak between Lippo and the child, and strode on carelessly without stopping.

“Good night,” he called out, “I am taking the boy up with me. I want him to help stack wheat, and he will have to be up at four, so he had best sleep on the hill.”

Lippo nodded, and hardly looked up from his dominoes.

They went on over the bridge unquestioned.

They bridge had many groups upon it as on all hot nights; leaning against the parapets, and chatting in the cheerful, garrulous Tuscan fashion. The moon was bright on the wide reaches of the river. The sky was studded with stars.

On a summer night, Signa loses her scars of war and age, and is young as when Hercules shook her sunny waters from his sunny locks; resting from labour.

The child looked up at the stars. He wondered if ever in all the world there had been so happy a thing as he. And yet he could only see the stars through his tears; he did not know why the tears came.

An aziola owl went by with its soft cry,

“Such as nor voice nor lute nor wind nor bird

    The soul never stirred,

Unlike and far sweeter than they all.”

“Oh, dear Chiù!” said Signa to the owl, calling it by the familiar name that the people give it, “will you tell the little Christ how happy I am, and the old dead bishop too? They may think I am thankless because I cry. Do tell them, Chiù, you go so near the sky!”

“What fancies you have,” said Bruno; but the little brown hand was hot as it touched his own. “You are tired and excited,” he said more gravely. “You dream too much about odd things. The owl is hunting gnats and mice, and not thinking about the angels.”

“I am not tired,” said Signa, but he was walking lame, and his voice was weak and trembled.

Bruno, without asking him, lifted him up in his arms; he himself was a strong man, and the light burden of the thin little lad was a small one to him.

“Go to sleep, I will carry you up the hill,” he said, putting the child’s head down against his shoulder. Signa did not resist. He still clasped the violin to him.

Bruno went up the steep road where his mother had carried him through the darkness and cold before she stumbled and fell.

With fever and fatigue Signa dropped asleep, and not awaken all the way up the long lonely paths through the vines and the reapen fields.

“How he loves that thing already — as never he will love me,” thought Bruno, looking down at him in the starlight with the dull sense of hopeless rivalry and alien inferiority which the self‐absorption of genius inflicts innocently and unconsciously on the human affections that cling to it, and which later on Love avenges upon it in the same manner.

Bruno, nevertheless, was glad that he had it. Fierce and selfish in all his earlier life, he had taught himself to be gentle and unselfish to Pippa’s son. He carried him into the house, still sleeping, and laid him down under the crucifix on a pile of hay, and would have undressed him, but the child, murmuring, resisted, clasping the violin to him, as though in his sleep, afraid that anyone should take it from him.

So Bruno left him as he was upon the hay with his tumbled curls and his violin folded in his crossed arms, in the deep dreamless sleep of a great fatigue, and lit a lanthorn and went round to fodder to cow and see to the ass, and make sure that all had been safe during his absence, and then, with his loaded gun beside him, laid down to rest himself.

He had not been asleep an hour himself, before he was awakened by silvery sweet music that seemed to him to be like the voices of all the nightingales in May singing together; but the nightingales were most of them dumb now — now that the lilies were dead, and the hay gathered.

Bruno started up and listened and looked; he too believed in a dim sort of way in the angels; only he never saw them come down on the slant of the sun‐rays as the good men had done that had decorated the churches.

The moon was shining into the house; by the white cool light he was that it was the child sitting up in the hay and playing. Signa’s eyes were open and lustrous, but they had a look in them as if he were dreaming.

His chin was resting on the violin, his little hands fingered the keys and the bow; his face was very pale; he looked straight before him; he played in his sleep.

Bruno listened aghast; he had a melodious ear himself, the music was never wrong in a chord; it was sweet as all the nightingales in the country singing all together.

He dared not wake the boy, who played on and on in the moonlight.

“It is the gift of God,” thought Bruno, awed and sorrowful; because a gift of God put the child farther and farther from him.

He listened, resting on one arm, while the owls cried “Woe!” from the great walnut trees over the house‐roof. The sweet melody seemed to fill the place with wonder, and to live in the quivering rays of the moon, and to pass out with them through the lattice amongst the leaves, and so go straight to the stars.

A little while, and it faltered a moment, and then ceased. Signa’s head dropped back, his eyes closed, his hands let the violin sink gently down; he slept again as other children sleep.

“It is a gift of God; one cannot go against a gift of God,” said Bruno, making the sign of the cross on his own broad breast. And he was very sorrowful; and yet proud; and could not bear that it should be so, and yet would not have had it otherwise; as men were in the old days of faith whose sons and daughters went out to martyrdom.

When he got up to his labour before the sun was up, and while the faintest rose‐red alone glowed beyond the mountains in the east, he stepped noiselessly not to awaken the boy, and left him sleeping while he went out to his work at the stacking of corn, with the earth dim with shadow and silvered with dew.

 

He thought of the child and the gifts of God. He did not know that he had seen Pippa’s lover.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v1.11.html

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