Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 13.

SIGNA ran on under the walls where the men make ropes on the grass, but where it was all deserted now.

He had never known what passion was before. He had borne all ill‐usage as his due. He had let himself be kicked and cuffed as a gentle little spaniel does, only looking up with wistful eyes of sorrowful wonder.

But now the fury of a sudden sense of unbearable wrong had boiled up in his veins and mastered him, and was hissing still in his ears and beating still in his brains.

A sense of having done some great crime was heavy on him. He knew he had been very wicked. He could feel himself striking, striking, striking, and the woman’s eyeballs under his hands. He might have killed her for anything he knew. To his vivid little fancy and his great ignorance it seemed quite possible. And yet he had borne everything so long, and never said a word, and lain awake so many nights from pain of bruises.

Could anybody be very angry with him for having lost his temper just this once?

Bruno would not — that he knew.

He heard the steps of Lippo and the barber and the mutterings of their voices pursuing him. He ran as if he had wings. A great vague terror of hideous punishment lent him the speed of a gazehound. He doubled the walls at headlong speed, his bare feet scarcely touching the ground, and darted in at the door of old Teresina’s dwelling in the western gateway. By heaven’s mercy she had not drawn the bolt.

The old woman was in her short kirtle, with the handkerchief off her grey knot of hair, getting ready for going to bed, with one little lamp burning under a paper picture of the Nativity.

Signa ran to her, tumbling over the spinning‐ wheel and the dozing cat and the huge brown moon‐like loaf of bread.

“Oh, dear Teresina! let me hide here!” he cried in his terror, clinging to her skirts. “Lippo is after me. They are so angry about the violin, and I have hurt Nita very much because she knocked me down. Hide me — hide me quick, or they will kill me or give me to the guards!”

Old Teresina needed not twice telling. She opened the big black coffer with the illuminated figures, where she had hidden the violin inside, and motioned the child to follow it. The coffer would have sheltered a man.

She left the lid a little ajar, and Signa laid himself down at the bottom with the old‐world smell of incense and spiced woods. His wooden Rusignuolo was safe; he kissed it, and clasped it to him. After all, what did anything matter, if only they would leave that to him in peace?

“Lie still till they have been here to ask for you,” said Teresina; and she tied her handkerchief over her head again and began to spin.

In a few minutes there was rapping on her door.

Teresina put her head out of the window, and called to know who was there.

“It is I— Lippo,” a voice called up to her in answer. “Is the little devil with you? We have loved him as our own, and now he has half murdered Nita — Nita that fed him from her bosom and treated him inch for inch like Toto all these years! Here is Papucci — he will tell you. Is the boy with you?”

“I have not seen him all day,” said Teresina. “I thought he was on the hills. Come up, good Lippo, and look, and tell me more. The child has a sweet pipe, but heaven only knows where the devil may not lurk. Come up, Lippo, and tell me all. You make me tremble.”

“You work late, mother,” said Lippo, suspiciously, tumbling up the stairs into the chamber.

“Aye. Lisa’s bridal is on S. Anne’s day, and there is next to no sheeting. A granddame must do what she can for the dower. But tell me all — all — quick, dear! How white you look, the saints keep us!”

“White! With a little viper nurtured nine years stinging you, and a dear, good wife blind, I daresay, for life, who would not be white?” wept Lippo, glancing sharply through the shadows of the room. “And of course you must have heard — two hundred francs and a beastly fiddle! and it is enough to bring the judgment of Holy Church —”

“I have heard nothing,” said Teresina, with her hands uplifted in amaze. “Sit down and tell me, Lippo and Pupucci too; you look ready to drop, both of you. Two hundred francs! Gesu! why, it would buy up the whole of the town! And a fiddle — ah, now I think of it, the dear naughty little lad was always sighing for an old thing in Tonino’s window that he had played on once.”

“If I could find him or it I would break it in shivers over his head,” said Lippo, forgetting his saintly savour. “I am a meek man, as you know, and a merciful, and never say a harsh word to a dog; but my dear wife blind, and all that money squandered, and Bruno, if that little beast is gone to him, ready to smash every bone in my body! It is horrible!”

“Horrible, truly,” gasped Teresina. “It is like a green apple to set one’s teeth on edge. But tell me the tale clear; how is one to understand?”

They told her the tale, both in the same breath, with every ornament that imagination and indignation could lavish on it: death may be imminent, time may be money, a moment lost may mean ruin or murder or a house devoured by flames; but, all the same, Lippo and his country‐people will stop to tell their tale. Let Death’s scythe fall or Time’s sands run out, they must stand still and tell their tale.

The story‐tellers of the Decamerone are true to nationality and nature.

And while they told it Teresina trimmed fresh her lucernata, and made the wick burn so brightly that there was not a nook or cranny of the little place in which a mouse could have been hidden unseen.

“But you never will go after him to Bruno’s,” she said, when the narrative was done, and all her horror poured out at it in strongest sympathy. “The child is half‐way there by this time, and Bruno takes part with him right or wrong — you best know why — and he is so violent; and at night, too, on that lonely hill; there might be mischief.”

“Aye, there might,” said Papucci, with a quaking in his voice: she knew her men.

“No fear of that,” said Lippo, with a boast; “Bruno is fierce, we all know his fault — dear fellow, the saints change his heart! But with me — oh, never with me.”

“For all that he shook you once many years ago when you beat the child all in justice and good‐meaning — shook you as a big dog does a little one,” said Teresina, with a nod of her head and a twinkle in her eyes. “I would not go nigh him, not to‐night; you must think of your good Nita and all those children. With the morning you shall be cool, both of you. But Bruno on that hill, in the dark — I should not care to face him, not on ill terms. You have your family, Lippo.”

“But if we leave it till the morning —”

“Well, what harm can come? The child’s sin is the same, and Nita can have law on him; and, about the money, Bruno, of course, must hear reason, and give up the fiddle, and let you get the whole sum back. Tonino would see the justice of that: you have reared and roofed the child; all his is yours — that is fair right. But if you cross Bruno, of a sudden, in the night —”

“There is reason in what you say, mother,” assented Lippo, whose heart was hammering against his ribs in mortal terror of confronting Bruno.

And after a little while he went, glad of an excuse to veil his fears from the loquacious barber.

“Tell Nita I shall see her in the morning, and how sorry I am, because I loved the lad’s little pipe, and never thought he had such evil in him,” said Teresina, opening her door to call the valediction after them down the stairway. Then she came and opened the lid of the coffer.

“He is gone now — jump out, little one.”

“Oh, why did you keep him?” cried Signa, looking up as if he were in his coffin. “I thought he never would go, and I was so afraid. And have I hurt her so much as that, do you think?”

“As if your little fists could bruise a big cow like Nita — what folly! I kept him to send him away more surely. When you want to get rid of a man, press him to stay; and if you have anything you need to hide, light two candles instead of one. No, you have never hurt Nita. Take my word, she is eating an onion supper this minute. But there will be trouble when Bruno knows, that I do fear.”

Signa sat up in the coffer, holding the violin to his chest with two hands.

“Am I a trouble to Bruno?” he said thoughtfully.

“Well, I should think so — I am not sure. The brothers are always quarrelling about you. There is something underneath. You have never complained to Bruno?”

“No. Georgio told me Bruno might kill Lippo if I did, and then they would hurt Bruno — send him to the galleys all his life; so Georgio said.”

“Like enough,” muttered Teresina. “But you cannot hide this, little one. All the Lastra will talk about it.”

“And there will be harm for Bruno?”

“He will be violent, I dare say — he always is. Bruno does not understand soft answers, and Lippo is all in the wrong; and then, of course, Bruno must learn at last how they have treated you. It will be a pasticcio.”

Teresina sat down on her wooden chair, and twitched the kerchief off her head, again perplexed and sorrowful; to make a pasticcio— a bad pasty — is the acme of woe and trouble to her nation.

“Can I do anything?” said Signa wistfully, sitting still in the open coffer.

“No — not that I see — unless you could put yourself out of the world,” said the old woman, not meaning anything in particular, but only the utter hopelessness of the matter in her eyes.

Signa looked up in silence; he did not miss a word.

“No, there is nothing to be done,” said Teresina, in anxious meditation. “Bruno will get into trouble about you — I have always thought he would. But that is not your fault, poor little soul! There is something —. Lippo is a fox. He plays his cards well, but what his game has been nobody knows. Perhaps he has made a mistake now. Bruno must know they have ill‐used you. That comes of this money. Money is god and devil. Why could that painter go and give you gold? — a bit of a thing like you. Any other man than Bruno would have put it by to buy you your coat for your first communion. But that was always Bruno — one hand on his knife and the other scattering gifts. For my part, I think Bruno the better man of the two, but no one else does. Yes; there must be trouble. Bruno will break his brother’s head, and Lippo will have law on him. You might go to Tonino and get him to take the fiddle back; but then it was only forty francs, and Lippo will always scream for the two hundred that the fools have chattered about; that would be no good. Oh, Dio mio! If only that angel at the Certosa had not sent you anything. Angels stand aloof so many years, and then they put their finger in the dough and spoil the baking. May they forgive me up above! I am an ignorant old woman, but if they would only answer prayer a little quicker or else not at all. I speak with all respect. My child, sleep here to‐night, and be off at dawn to Bruno. Sleep on it. Get up while it is grey, to have the start of Lippo and his people. But sleep here. There is a bit of grass matting that will serve you — there, where the cat is gone. And I will get you a drop to drink and a bit of bread, for tired you must be and shaken; and what the Lastra see in Lippo to make a saint of baffles me; a white‐livered coward and a self‐seeker. He will die rich; see if he do not die rich! He will have a podere, and keep his baroccino, I will warrant, before all is done!”

She brought the child the little glass of red wine and a big crust; he drank the wine — he could not eat — and laid down as she told him by the cat upon the matting. He was so unhappy for Bruno; the Rusignuolo scarcely comforted him, only every now and then he would stretch out his hand and touch it, and make sure that it was there; and so fell asleep, as children will, be they ever so sorrowful.

He woke while it was still dark, from long habit, but the old woman was already astir. She made him take a roll and a slice of melon, as she opened her wooden shutter and looked out on to the little acacia trees below, and the big mountain, that was as yet grey and dark.

“Get you up the hill, dear, to Bruno, and out of the house before the men are about underneath with the straw,” she said to him. “and I do not know what you can say; and I misdoubt there will be ill words and bad blows; and it has been said for many a year that Bruno would end his days at the galleys. I remember his striking his sister once at the wine fair in Prato — such a scene as there was — and the blood spoiled her brand new yellow bodice, that was fit for the Blessed Mary — speaking with all respect. There is Gian undoing his big doors below — every place is full of grain now. Run, run, dear little fellow, and the saints be with you, and do not forget that they love a peacemaker; though, for the matter of that, we folks are not like them — we love a feud and a fight, and we will prick our best friend with a pin rather than have dull times and no quarrel. Run off quick, and take the melon with you.”

He did as she told him, and ran away. She watched him from the little square window over the carnation pots. She was a good soul, but she could not help a thrill of longing to see how Bruno would down into the Lastra like a brown bull gored and furious.

“Only the one that is in the right always gets the worst of it,” thought Teresina (who had seen her seventy years of life), as the last star died out of the skies, and she turned from the lattice to scrub out her pipkins and pans, and fill her copper pitcher with water, and sweep the ants away with her reed besom, and then sat down to spin on at Lisa’s bridal sheeting, glancing now and then at the mountain, and wondering what would happen.

What would happen?

That was what tortured the little beating heart of Signa, as he ran out into the lovely cold darkness of the dawn, as the chimes of the clocks told four in the morning. He held his slice of melon and bread in one hand, and clasped the violin and its bow close to him with the other. A terrible sense of guilt, of uselessness, of injury to others, weighed on him.

Even Teresina, who was fond of him, had confessed that he was a burden to Bruno, and a cause for strife at all times, and no better. Even Teresina, who was so good to him, had said that he could do nothing unless he could get himself out of the world.

The words pursued him with a sense that the old woman would have bitten her tongue through rather than have conveyed into the child’s mind — a sense of being wanted by no one, useful to no one, undesirable and wearisome, and altogether out of place in creation.

He was old enough to feel it sharply, and not old enough to measure it rightly. Besides Nita and Toto and Georgio and all of them, had told him the same thing ten thousand times: what was said so often by so many must be true.

To kill himself never entered his thoughts. The absolute despair which makes life loathsome cannot touch a child. But he did think of running away, hiding, effacing himself, as a little hare tries to do when the hounds are after it.

He would go away, he thought; it was his duty; it was the only thing he could do to serve Bruno, and he was ashamed of himself, and so sorrowful; and perhaps people might be kind to him on the other side of the mountains where the sun came from; perhaps they might when they heard the Rusignuolo. Other boys decide to run away for love of adventure or weariness of discipline, but he resolved to run away because he was a burden and brought wild words between two brothers, and was good for nothing else.

The curse of granted prayers lay heavy on his young frightened soul. The thing he had desired was with him; the thing that he had thought was sweeter than food or friends or home, or anything; and yet his feet were weary and his heart was sick from the woe which it had brought upon him.

“Still it is mine — really mine!” he thought, with a thrill of happiness which nothing could wholly stifle in him, as his hand wandered over the strings as he went, and drew out from them soft sighing murmurs like the pipe of waking birds.

Meanwhile he was quite resolute to run away; down into Florence, he thought, and then over to where the sunrise was. Of the west he was afraid; the sea was there, of which he had heard terrible things in the winter evenings, and the west always devoured the sun, and he supposed it was always night there.

“I will just bid Gemma good‐bye — just once,” he thought, running one, stumbling, and not seeing his way, because his eyes were so brimming with tears; but sight did not matter much. He could find his way about quite safely in the darkest night.

The gates of the great gardens were open, for the labourers were already at work there, and he ran into the shadowy, fresh, dew‐wet place, looking for her.

If he could find her without going to the cottage, he thought, it would be best, because her father might have heard and might detain him, thinking to please Bruno.

He was not long before he saw her. Out of bed at daybreak, as birds are out of their nests, lying on her back in the wet grass by the marble pond, where the red Egyptian rushes were in flower, and muching the last atom of a hard black crust which had been given her for her breakfast, while the big water lilies still were shut up, and the toads were hobbling home to their dwellings in the bottom of the tanks.

Gemma was one of those beautiful children, who, in the land of Raffaelle, are not a fable. As they grow older, they will lose their beauty almost always; but the few people who ever had time to look at Gemma, thought that she would never lose hers.

No doubt there was some strains of the old Goth or of the German blood in her from the far times when Totila had tramped with his warriors over the ravaged valleys, or Otho had come down like a hawk into the plains. She was brilliantly fair; as she lay now on the grass on her back, with her knees drawn up and her rosy toes curled, and her arms above her head, she shone in the sun like a pearl, and her face might have come out of Botticelli’s choir, with its little scarlet mouth and its wonderful bloom and its mass of lightest golden hair cut short to the throat, but falling over the eyes.

“Gemma, I have brought you some more breakfast,” he said to the pretty little child.

She threw her arms round his neck, and set her pearly teeth into the melon. The bread followed. When she had done both she touched his cheek with her finger.

“Why are you crying?”

“Because I am no use to anyone. Because I bring trouble on everybody.”

Gemma surveyed him with calm, serious eyes.

“You bring me good things to eat.”

That was his use; in her eyes there could be no better.

The tears fell down Signa’s face; he sobbed under his breath, and kissed Gemma’s light curling locks with a sorrow and force in his lips that she did not understand.

“I think I will go away, Gemma,” he said, with a sort of desperate resolve.

Gemma, who was not easily excited, surveyed him with her blue eyes seriously as before.

“Where?”

“I do not know.”

“That is silly.”

Gemma was a year younger than he. But she was not vague as he was, nor did she ever dream.

“I will go away, I and the Rusignuolo,” said Signa, with a sob in his throat. “It is the only way to be no burden — to make peace.”

Gemma pushed a lizard with her little rosy toes.

“Mimi does not bring me so much fruit as you do,” she said thoughtfully. Mimi was a neighbour’s son, who was nine years old, and worshipped her, and brought her such green plums and unripe apples as his father’s few rickety trees would yield, by windfalls. She was wondering how it would be with her if she were left to Mimi only.

“Perhaps I will get you beautiful golden fruit where I go,” said Signa, who always unconsciously fell into figures and tropes. “The signore in the monastery said my mouth would drop pearls. I have seen pearls — beautiful white beads that the ladies wear. They are on the goldsmith’s bridge in the city. When my lips make them you shall have them round your curls, Gemma, and on your throat, and on your arms; how pretty you will be!”

He was smiling though his tears, and kissing her. Gemma listened.

“With a gold cross like Bice’s?” she said, breathlessly. Bice was a rich contadina who had such a necklace, a string of pearls with a gold cross, which she wore on very high feasts and sacred anniversaries.

“Just like Bice’s,” said Signa, thinking of his own woe and answering to please her.

Gemma reflected: pushing her little foot against the wet gravel in lines and circles.

“Run away, at once!” said she suddenly, with a little shout that sent the lizards scampering.

“Oh, Gemma!” Signa felt a sting, as if a wasp had pierced him. Gemma loved him no more than this.

“Run away, directly!” said the little child, with a stamp of her foot, like a baby empress.

“To get you the pearls?”

Gemma nodded.

Signa sat still, thinking; his tears fell; his eyes watched a blue and grey butterfly in the white bells of the aloe flower. He could not be utterly unhappy, because he had the violin. If it had not been for that —

“Why do you not go?” said the little child fretfully, with the early sunbeams all about her little yellow head in a nimbus of light.

Signa got up; he was very pale; his great brown eyes swam in a mist of tears.

“Well — I will go — I have got the Rusignuolo. Perhaps it is not true what the signore said — but I will go and see. If I can get pearls — or anything that is good — then I will come back, and the Lastra will be glad of me, and I will give everything to the Lastra, and to Bruno and you. Only, to go away — it will kill me, I think. But if I do die, I shall be no burden anymore then on anyone. And if the signore spoke truth, and I am worth anything, then I will be great. When I am a man I will come back and live here always, because no place can be ever so beautiful; and I will make new gates, all of beaten gold; and I will build the walls up where they are broken; and I will give corn and wine in plenty everywhere, and there shall be beautiful singing all the night and day, and music in all the people’s homes, and we will go out through the fields every morning praising God; and then Signa will not be old or forgotten any more, but all the world will hear of her —”

And he went, not looking back once at the rushes and the water‐lily and the little child; seeing only his own visions, and believing them; — as children and poets will.

But Gemma, pausing a moment, ran after him.

“Take me, too!”

“Take you — away?”

“Yes. I want to go too.”

Signa kissed her with delight.

“You are so fond of me — as that?”

“Oh, yes; and I am so tired of black bread, and Mimi’s plums are always green.”

Signa put her away a little sadly.

“You must not come. There is your father.”

“Yes. I will come. I want to see what you will see.”

“But, if you should be unhappy?”

“I will come back again.”

Signa wavered. He longed for his playmate. But he knew that she wished a wrong thing.

“I cannot take you,” he said, with a sigh. “It would be wicked. Palma would cry all the day long. Besides, I am nothing — nobody wants me. I go to spare Bruno pain and trouble; that is different. But you, Gemma, all of them love you.”

“Let us go,” said Gemma, putting her hand in his.

“But I dare not take you!”

“You do not take me,” said Gemma, with a roguish smile, and the sophism of a woman grown. “You do not take me. I go.”

“But why? Because you love me?”

Gemma ruffled her golden locks.

“Because they give me nothing to eat.”

“They give you as much as they have themselves.”

“Ah! but you will give me more than you have,” said Gemma, with the external foolishness and internal logic of female speech.

Signa put her away with a sigh.

“Perhaps I shall have nothing, Gemma. Do not come.”

Gemma stopped to think.

“You will always get something for me,” she said, at last. “Take me — or I will go and tell Bruno.”

Signa hesitated, and succumbed to the stronger will and the resolute selfishness of the little child: they are more often feminine advantages than the world allows.

“You will be angry with me, Gemma, in a day, if I let you have your way,” he said, hanging his head in sad perplexity.

Gemma laughed: she was so pretty when she laughed; Fra Angelico would have delighted to paint her so.

“When I am angry, I am not dull,” she said, with much foresight for her own diversion. “The boys slap me back again. But you never do. Let us go — or I will run up and tell Bruno.”

“Come, then,” said Signa, with a sigh; he knew that she would do what she said. Gemma, nine years old, was already a woman in many ways, and had already found out that a determination to please herself and to heed no one else’s pleasure was the only royal road to comfort in earthly life.

And she was resolved to go; already she had settled with herself what she would make Signa do, shaping out her projects clearly in the sturdy little brain that lived under her amber curls.

She was thought a beautiful child, but stupid; people were wrong.

Gemma lying doing nothing under a laurel bush, with her angelic little face, and her stubborn refusal to learn to read, or learn to plait, or learn to spin, or learn to do anything, was as shrewd as a little fox club for her own enjoyments and appetites. She lay in the sun, and Palma did the work.

“We will go to Prato,” said Gemma, all smiles now that her point was gained.

“I thought — Florence,” said Signa, who, in his own thoughts, had resolved to go there.

“Chè!” said Gemma, with calm scorn. “Boys never think. You would meet Bruno on the road. It is Friday.”

Friday is the market day, when all fattori and contadini having any green stuff to sell, or grain to chaffer for, or accounts to settle with, meet in the scorch of the sun, or in the teeth of the north wind, in face of Orcagna’s Loggia; a weather‐worn, stalwart, breezy, loquacious crowd, with eyes that smile like sunny waters, and rough cloaks tossed over one shoulder, and keen lips at close bargains either with foe or friend.

“And there is a fair at Prato,” said Gemma, “I heard them saying so at the millhouse — when I took Babbo’s grain.”

“But what have we to do with a fair?” said Signa, whose heart was half broken.

Gemma smiled till her little red pomegranate bud of a mouth showed all her teeth, but she did not answer him. She knew what they would have to do with it. But he — he was dreaming of gates of inlaid gold for the Lastra.

What was the use of talking any sense to him? He was so foolish: so Gemma thought.

“Prato goes out — to the world,” she said, not knowing very well what she meant, but feeling that an indefiniteness of speech was best suited to this dreamer with whom she had to do. “And if you want to get away you must go there at once — or you will have Bruno or Lippo coming on you, and then there will be murder; so you say. Come. Let us run across the bridge while we can. There is nobody here. Come — run.”

“Come, then,” said Signa, under his breath, for it frightened him. But Gemma was not frightened at all.

It was now five.

The great western mountain had caught the radiance of the morning shining on it from the opposite mountains, and was many‐coloured as an opal; the moon was blazing like a globe of phosphorous, while the east was warm still with rosy light; all above them, hills and fields and woods and river and town, were bathed in that full clear light, that coldness of deep dew, that freshness of stirring wind, that make the earth as young at every summer sunrise in the sough, as though Eos and Dionysius were not dead with all the fancies and the faiths of men, and in their stead Strauss and Hegel reigning, twin godhead of the dreary day.

She took his hand and ran with him.

Signa’s tears fell fast and his face was very pale; he kept looking back over his shoulder at each yard; but the little child laughed as she ran at topmost speed on her little bare toes, dragging him after her down the piece of road to the bridge, and across the bridge, and so on to the hillside.

“I know Prato is the other way of the mountains,” said Gemma, who had more practical shrewdness in her little rosy finger than Signa in all his mind and body. “I have seen the people go to the markets and fairs, and they always go up her — up, up — and then over.”

Signa hardly heard. He ran with her because she had tight hold of his hand; but he was looking back at the gates of the Lastra.

No one said anything to them. On the north side of the bridge no one had heard the terrible story; and if they had heard, would not have had leisure to say anything, because it was threshing time, and everybody was busy in one way or another with the corn — piling it one the waggons, driving the oxen out to the fields for it, tossing it into the barns or the courtyards, banging the flails over it, or stacking the straw in ricks, with a long pole riven through each to stay the force of the hurricanes.

 

When the country side is all yellow with reaped grain, or all purple with gathered grapes, Signa people would not have time to notice an emperor; their hearts and souls are in their threshing barns and wine‐presses. When they are quiet again, and have nothing to do but to plait or to loiter, then they will make a mammoth out of a midge in the way of talk, as well as any gossippers going.

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