Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 12.

“WHERE is the little bit of paper with the name on?” said Bruno, eating his bit of black bread when the morning was up wide and golden over all the harvest land.

Signa lifted up his head from his violin. “I lost it. When I caught the bee, coming home, the paper flew away, the winds too it; does it matter?”

“No. Only it might have been a friend for you. Do you recollect the name?”

Signa shook his curly head.

Recollect anything! — with the violin in his hand, and the music dancing out on the sunbeams, and saying everything for him that he never could say for himself.

What was the name to him; the giver of the gold had only been the ministrant of the little Christ.

Bruno let him alone.

The boy was so happy; sitting in the shade there; trying all cadences that came to him on this new, precious, wondrous thing; he had not the heart to call him to come out in the sun and carry the wheat.

He had been too rough with Pippa. He atoned by being too gentle with this child.

So he went out into the fields again by himself, and built up his stacks, made low because of the hurricanes that come over when there are white squalls upon the sea, and covered till there should be time to thatch them, with snowy linen cloths, so that they look like huge mushrooms growing for the table of Gargantua.

When he had been at work some two or three hours, hearing at intervals, when the wind blew it towards him, the song of the violin that the boy was enjoying within with the cow in her shed, and the sitting hens, and the tethered goat and her kid for listeners, he heard the little feet that he knew patter over the stubble, and from his half completed stack looked down on Signa’s upraised face.

The child had the violin with him.

“Bruno,” he asked shyly, “I have been thinking — there is old Nunziata often without bread, and Giudetta, whose children all died of those poison berries, and Stagno the blind man, that has no legs either, and — and so many of them that want so much, and are only hungry and sad — was it selfish of me not to give them the money between them — was it wicked to have the violin? I am sure the angels meant the violin, you know; but still did the angels wish me to think of others or all of myself? What do you think? Do you think I was wrong?”

“Anyway it is too late now, bambino,” said Bruno, with the curtness of his natural speech. “You have wanted the violin a year, why spoil the pleasure of it?”

“But was it selfish?” persisted Signa.

“Why worry yourself; it is done?”

“But is was, then?” cried the little fellow, with a sort of feverish pain.

Bruno came down the ladder and took up more corn.

“Oh, no; you things that love sounds or sights or bits of wood or oils and earths better than human creatures, always are selfish, so. But I don’t know why ever you should be blamed. There is no more selfish beast than a cow with her calf, or a woman with her wean. Why should you not have your fiddle like that; only you will be like Frisco. I knew Frisco — he thought of nothing but saving every scrap of money to buy things to paint with, and he was always after the churches and the gateways and places where the colours are; and he said it was a fine gift, and a glorious one. I am not saying it was not; only he went away and left his old mother to be kept by the commune, and people say he is a great man away in Rome; but the old soul is dead and never saw him again. Not that it is for me to say evil of any man.”

“But I have no mother,” said Signa.

Bruno shrank as though a grass adder had stung him; and stooped and gathered more corn again.

“No, dear,” he said, after a moment, very gently, “make a mother of your music if you can. The good God gave it you in her stead. And it is not selfish, dear; you praise heaven in it, and make the children dance with joy, and the old folks forget they are old when they hear you. Do they not say so in the Lastra a thousand times? Do not fret yourself, Signa. The angels sent you the fiddle. Be glad in it. To quarrel with happiness is to quarrel with God. It is but seldom he sends any; perhaps he would send more, only whenever they get it people spoil it by fuming and fretting, as a bad spinner knots the smooth flax. Play to the sick folk and the old and the sorrowful. That will be the way to please the little Christ.”

Signa was comforted, and sat down amongst the loose wheat and played all his little fancies away on those strings that were to him as of silver and gold, whilst the cicale buzzed in chorus in the tree‐tops, and all the field finches strained in their pretty throats in rivalry.

But he did not play gaily as he had done in the house. He was afraid the Gesu was not content; and why had he no mother as other boys had?

Bruno, working on the top of his golden rick could have bitten his own tongue out for having reminded the child of that.

Signa never asked any questions. They had told him he had come on the wave of the flood, and for himself he thought that the owls had dropped him there. But then it was never of any use to ask an owl. They never said anything to any one, except “Chiù, chiù!” “Woe, woe!”

Bruno sent him away at sunset, with a big basket of beans and cabbages for Nita, to propitiate her into good humour.

It was cheating his lord, because it is understood that what a contadino takes for eating shall be what is needed in his own house; but Bruno did not see harm in it; the men who would not take a crumb out of their master’s dwelling for all the temptings of the worst hunger, will never see any sin in taking things off the soil they labour on, and Bruno was no better than his neighbours. Besides, he would have done a wrong thing knowingly, to serve or help the child.

“I should love him little if I would not take a sin on my own soul for his welfare,” he said to himself often; that was his idea of how he ought to keep his word to Pippa. He did not argue it out so clearly as that, because peasants do not analyse, but the sense of it moved him always.

So Signa kissed his old lute in farewell, and laid it away on the old marriage box under the crucifix, and sprinkled rose‐leaves on it and meadow mint, because he fancied it would like sweet smells, and then shouldered his big skip full of vegetables, and made his way down the hill, hugging the violin close to him.

The waning moon hung silvery and round over the town as he entered. In many of the interiors and in the stone barns the men were thrashing, the flails heaving and falling in pleasant regular cadence, the workers knee‐deep in the yellow grain. A few machines hum in Tuscany, but they are very few; they fear to spoil the straw for the plaiters, and they cling to the old ways, these sons of Ceres Mammosa.

The rush skip on his back was heavy, but his heart was light as he went. The wonderful wooden thing that he could make sing like a nightingale was all his own for ever.

Only to think what he could do; all that he heard — and he heard so much from the birds and the bees and the winds at dawn, and the owls at night, and the whispering canes and the poplars down by the water, and the bells that swing for prayer — he could tell again on those wonderful strings, of whose power and pathos the child, all untaught, had a true intuition.

With the violin against his shoulder he felt strong enough to face the world and wander over it — ten years old though he was, and of no more account than a little moth, that a man can kill with the wave of the hand.

The fancy came once to him to go away, with the wooden Rusignuolo, as he called it, and see what people would do to him, and what beautiful things he could hear, going along the roads, and into the strange streets, playing. If only he had not loved the town so well; but every stone of the Lastra was dear to him. They held his feet to the soil.

And, besides, he was only a little child, and the mountains looked too high for him to climb, though those old painters, he knew, must have gone higher still, or how could they have seen the clouds and the little angels and amorini that dwell in the worlds where the rose never fades and the light never ceases?

But neither mountains nor clouds were within his reach, so he only trotted down into the Lastra with his skip of cabbages and beans upon his little tired back, very happy because he had his heart’s desire; and if he had been selfish he had asked to be forgiven — none of us can do more.

All people were still astir in the place; by eight of the clock it is nearly dark under these hills when once the day of SS. Peter and Paul is past; they were sitting about in the street, the doorways showed the golden straw that the girls were still sorting; there was the smell of the fields everywhere; oxen in red waggons crept through the twilight taking grain to the thrashing barns; men came in from the river‐side with their nets wet and their bare legs shining with sand, and their pumpkin gourds full of little fish; here and there was a brown monk with his huge straw hat on his shoulders and his rosary dangling in front of his knees.

He nodded up at old Teresina; eighty years old and spinning at a high window under the gateway; she would let him go and play his violin there in her little dusky den, among the ropes of onions and the strings of drying tomatoes, and with the one little square lattice looking out to the bold mountain of the high Albano range that rises above Artimino and Carmignano, and takes all the rose of the dawn, and all the purples of the storm, and wears them as its own, and has the sun go down behind it and the star of love rise from it.

Then he ran up the little dark stairs into the room where she lived; a bright old soul with many daughters and sons and grandchildren scattered over the place; a good spinner and good plaiter still, though nigh eighty years old, she had spent all her years here under the western gate, seeing the harvest waggons and the grape barrels come and go for nearly three‐fourths of a century; she could remember the French fellows with Murat riding through; she had sat at her window and watched them; she had just married then; she had seen the sun sink down over the mountains calm and golden, or red and threatening, every night of her life; and had never slept elsewhere than here, where the warders had lighted their beacons and pointed their matchlocks in the old days long before her, when the news come that the Pisans were marching from the sea; the Lastra was her world, but it had been wide enough to make her shrewd and keen of sight, and happy enough to keep her kindly of temper and of quick sympathy with youth and childhood.

Of the child Signa she was very fond; she liked to be woke in the dark mornings by his fresh voice carolling some field song of the people as he went out under the gateway to his work. And she was one of the few folks who liked Bruno better than his gentler brother.

“I have seen them both with their bullcocks when they were lads,” she would say to her neighbours. “Bruno made his do a hard day’s work, but he fed them well and never galled them, and the beasts loved him. Lippo would hang his with tassels and flowers, and pat them if people were looking! but he would prick them twenty times an hour and steal their fodder and sell if for a penny and play morra. Do not talk to me! the fierce one for my money!”

So when Signa ran in to her and told her the story of the violin, not very coherently, mingling the tinman and the little Christ and the gold pieces and the marble bishop all together in an inextricable entanglement, Teresina was sympathetic and held up her hands, and believed in the angels and wondered at the beautiful gift with all the ardour that he could have desired, and said of course, to be sure he might keep it there; why not? and play it there too, she hoped, and opened for its safer concealment the heavy lid of a great chest she had in her chamber; one of those sarcophagus‐like coffers, which the Middle Ages made in such numbers and ornamented with such lavish care; this one was of oak wood, very old; and a hungry connoisseur had told her that it was of the workmanship of Dello and had offered her any money for it; but she had told him that Dello, whoever he was, was nothing to her, and that the chest had held her bridal linen and now held her cere‐clothes already, and all of her own spinning, and would hold her granddaughters’ and great granddaughters’ after her, she hoped.

So the chest, whether of Dello or not, remained in its corner, and she opened it and let Signa lay his Rusignuolo in it on her bridal sheets, and her shroud, that she had finished last winter and was very proud of, and helped him cover it with the dead rose‐leaves and the sprigs of lavender, which she had put there to keep moth away, and the bough of cypress which she had laid there to bring good luck.

So Signa, quite sure that all was safe, went away quite happy and shouldered his kreel again, and went towards Lippo’s house.

Signa turned up by the old shrine that has the grey wood door and the soft pink colour and the frescoed seraphs by the high south gate, and mounted the paved steep lane to Lippo’s house.

There was a little gossipping crowd before it; old Baldo with his horn spectacles shoved up on his forehead, and Momo the barber, who had a tongue for twenty, and Caccarello, the coppersmith, and several women, foremost of whom was Nita screaming at the top of her voice, with both hands in air in gesticulation, and Toto beating the drum tattoo with a metal spoon on a big frying‐pan as a sort of chorus to his mother’s cries.

Whilst still he toiled up the lane concealed from their view by the burden of cabbages, he caught her flying sentences, scattered like dry peas rolling out of a basket.

“Two hundred francs in gold! given him, all for his peaking little face, and thrown away — thrown away — thrown away on a wretched creaking thing that Tonino kept amongst his nails and his keys! and never a centime brought to us! to people that took him out of the water like a half‐drowned pup and have spent our substance on him ever since as if he were our own. Oh, the little viper! — fed at my breast as he was and laid in the cradle with my own precious boy! Two hundred francs all in gold! — all in gold! and the horrid little wretch squanders it on a toy with a hole in it for the wind to come out of, squeaking like a mouse in a trap. But there must be law on it — there must be law! that brute Tonino could not claim a right to take such swarms of money from a pauper brat!”

“Nay,” said the barber. “Tonino tells us he swore his conscience was hair on end at such a thing. But when a man has a knife at his throat —”

“I saw the steel touch him, so he shivered,” swore Caccarello, the coppersmith.

“And the fiddle was worth a thousand francs. It was a rare Cremona,” whined the barber. “It is poor Tonino that is cheated — near as bad as you, dear neighbour!”

“But the money was not the little brat’s, it belonged to those who nourished and housed him,” said a fat housewife, who often gossipped with Baldo over a nice little mess of oil and onions.

“That, of course,” said Caccarello. “But Lippo is so meek and mild. He has cockered up that flyblow as if it were a prince’s lawfully‐begotten son and heir.”

“Lippo is a heaven‐accursed fool,” said old Baldo, with a blow of his staff — he was never weary of telling his opinion of his son‐in‐law —“but he is not to blame here. He never could have fancied that a little beast would come home with the price of a prime bullock and go and waste it on a fiddle without a thought of by your leave or for your leave, or any remembrance of all he owed in common gratitude for bed and bread. The child could be put in prison, and so he ought to be; what is a foundling’s gain belongs to those that feed him. That is fair law everywhere. If Lippo were not daft he would hand the boy over to the law and let it deal with him.”

“Bravo!” said the little crowd, in chorus; for Baldo was a well‐to‐do old man and much respected, wearing a silk hat and velvet waistcoat upon feast‐days.

“Ay, truly,” said Nita, stretching her brawny brown arms in all the relish of anticipated vengeance, while Toto beat louder on his frying‐pan, and called in glee:

“And you will shave his head now, mother? and give me that gilt ball of his to sell? and when his back is raw as raw, you will let me rub the salt in it?”

Nita kissed his shaven crown, forgetful of the character for goodness that she had been at such pains to build up before her townsfolk; but Lippo, mindful of his fair repute, reproved him.

“Only a little wholesome chastisement: that is all we ever allow; you know that, my son.”

And Toto grinned. He knew his father’s tricks of speech.

The neighbours thought nothing of it; take a brat off the face of the flood and bring it up out of charity, and then see it squander the first money that it touched upon a fiddle, without so much as bringing home a farthing! They were unanimously of opinion that it would have provoked a saint into exchanging her palm‐sheaf for a rod of iron.

A fiddle too, that Tonino swore was worth a thousand francs, if one, and a purest old Cremona; as if an oat pipe cut in the fields were not good enough for this little cur picked out of the muddy water! And then they all of them had children too; pretty children, or, at least, children they all thought pretty, and where was ever a painter found to give them money for their faces?

Money was scarce in the Lastra, and popular feeling ran strong and high against Signa for having ventured to have a piece of good fortune fall upon him. If he had brought it home now and put it in Lippo’s strong box and Lippo had given them all a supper with it, and played a quarter of it away in morra or draughts, as no doubt he would have done, then, indeed, they might have pardoned it. But a fiddle! and not a single centime for themselves.

“Punish him I will,” murmured Lippo, goaded to desperation, but thinking woefully of what his brother would say, or worse still, do, on his own skin and bones. “Still, he is such a little thing, and saved by me, as one may say — not that I take merit. It is a horrible thing — all that good gold squandered on a fiddle, and we robbing our precious children nine long years to feed a bastard deserted by those that had the right; and yet, dear friends, a child no older than my Toto —”

“Maudlin ass,” quoth Baldo in high wrath, while the barber said that Lippo was too great a saint to live, and the others answered that such goodness was beautiful, but Lippo must look at home; and all the while Nita screamed on to the night air, bewailing.

Signa heard, as he laboured up the hill beneath his load of cabbages, the angry voices rolling down the slope and drifting to the Madonna sitting with the glory round her head behind her little wooden wicket.

The poor Madonna often heard such words. When they had spoken them worst they gave her flowers.

Signa heard. What had he done? That they had power to put him in prison he never doubted. They had power to beat him — why not to do anything else?

His limbs shook, and his heart sank within him. Yet one great thought of comfort was with him — the fiddle was safe under its rose‐leaves and its lilac mint‐flowers. Teresina would not let it go.

He understood that the story of his buying the violin had run through the Lastra, gathering exaggerated wonders as it went. Indeed, if only he had thought a little, he would have known that the scene at the tinman’s shop by the archway never could pass without being talked about by the dozen idle folks who had had nothing to do but to watch it.

But even Bruno had not thought of that. Italians love secrets; but they bury them as the ostrich buries her head.

Toiling up under his overshadowing cabbages, and in the dusk of the evening, they did not see him. The loud shrill voices thrilled to his very bones.

“Let me get at him!” thundered old Baldo, who echoed his daughter always. “Two hundred francs! The little brute! And he owes me that for lodgement! Oh, Nita mine! now see what comes of taking nameless mongrels —”

“Two hundred francs!” moaned Lippo, his voice shaking with a sort of religious horror, “When he might have brought half to my wife, who has been an angel of mercy to him, and spent the other half in masses for his poor dead mother’s soul, which all the devils are burning now!”

“That is the thought of a good man, but of an ass!” said Baldo bluntly. “They should have come to your strong box and mine, son; and as many francs as there were shall he have lashes!”

“Let me get at him! — let me get at him! Oh, the little snake that I suckled at my breast, robbing my own precious child for him! Two hundred francs! two hundred francs! A year’s rent! A flock of sheep! — wine to flood the town! — waggons of flour! — ten years’ indulgence! — half this world and all the next, why one might buy for such a sum as that! And flung away upon a fiddle‐case! But to prison the child shall go, and Tonino must disgorge. Let me only catch him! Let him only come home!”

Signa, in the dark upon the stones, looking up, saw this excited crowd, with waving hands, and fists thrust into each other’s eyes, and faces glowing in the light of the gateway lamp, and voices breaking out against him and blaming Bruno.

They were ready to fling him bodily into the Arno.

He was shy, but he was brave. His heart sickened and his temples throbbed with horror of the unknown things that they would wreak upon him. But he lowered the load off his shoulders, and darted up the paved way into their midst.

“It is all untrue,” he panted to them. “It was only forty francs, and Bruno had nothing to do with it, and the little Gesu of Perugino sent me the money for my own, and selfish it might be, I know; but that I have asked God; and beat me you may till I am dead, or put me in prison, as you say, but it was all my own, and my wooden Rusignuolo is safe, and you cannot touch it, and —”

A stroke of Nita’s fist sent him down upon the ground.

He was light and agile. He was on his feet in a second. All the wrongs and sufferings of his childhood blazed up like fire in him. He was a gentle little soul, and forgiving; but for once the blood burned within him into a furious pain.

Stung and bruised and heated and blinded by the blows that the woman rained on him, he sprang on her, struck her in the eyes with all his force, and tearing himself out of the score of hands that clutched at him, he slipped through his tormentors and fled down the slope.

“I will tell Bruno! I will tell Bruno!” he sobbed as he went; and while the women surrounded the screaming Nita, who shrieked that the little brute had blinded her for life. A solemn silence fell upon the men, who looked at Lippo. If Bruno were told, life would not pass smoothly at the Lastra.

That minute of their hesitation gave the child time for his liberty. When Lippo and the barber pursued him, he was out of sight, running fast under the shadow of the outer walls, where all was silent in the dusk.

 

“This comes of doing good!” groaned Lippo to the barber.

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