Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 14.

THERE were many mules, and horses, and carts, and men, and women, and asses rattling out over the cross roads from the many various villages and farms towards Prato.

In the ways of the Lastra itself dust was rising as the noisy ramshackle baroccini were pulled out of their stables and got ready with any poor beast that was at home. The cattle had all been driven over in strings the night before from every part of the country, lowing, whinnying, and bleating as they went.

The road over the hill was thick with dust, and trampled with traffic as the children climbed it, and many a rope‐harnessed horse and crazy vehicle flew by them in a cloud of white powder, the driver shrieking, “Via, via, via!”

“We shall be seen and stopped,” said Signa, shrinking back; but Gemma pulled him onward.

“Nonsense,” she said, steadily. “They do not think about us; they think about themselves and the fair; and where they will drink and eat, and how they will cheat.”

Gemma dwelt under the lemon leaves of lonely Giavola; but her experiences of life had been sufficient to tell her, that when your neighbour is eating well and cheating comfortably he will usually let you alone.

She would not let him go back; she kept close hold of his hand, and trotted on her rosy, strong little feet that tired no more than do a mountain pony’s.

She was right in her conclusions. The carts rattled by and no one took any notice of them. Two children running by the wayside were nothing uncommon, that anyone should remark on it and reflect about it; and one or two people who did look at them and recognise them sup‐ posed that they were going somewhere on some errand for Sandro or for Bruno.

They went along unmolested till the sun rose higher and the glittering heavy dews began to pass off from the earth as the day widened.

They descended the hill and proceeded along the straight road of the plain; the great line of the northern mountains unrolled before them in the morning light, with airy grey summits high in the clouds, and the lower spurs purple with shadow, and here and there the white gleam of a village dropped in a ravine, or of a little town shining at the foot of a bold scarp. Monte Morello rose the highest of all the heights, looking a blue, solemn, naked peak against the radiant sky, keeping the secrets of his green oak forests and his emerald snakes for such as have the will and strength to see him near. Beyond, in the distance, far behind the nearer range, were the fantastic slopes of the mountains by the sea, that saw the flames of Shelley’s pyre rise on the solitary shore. They were of faint rose hue, and had a silvery light about them. Signa looked at them; they seemed to him like domes and towers.

“Are those temples, do you think?” he said, in an awed voice, to Gemma.

Gemma looked, and put her finger in her mouth.

“Perhaps they are the tops of the big booths at the fair.”

“Oh, Gemma!” he said, with pained disgust, and would have loosened his hand, but she held it too close and tight.

“If they are booths, we shall get to them in time,” she said.

“I would rather they were temples, though we might never get to them,” said he, with heat and pain.

“That is silly,” said Gemma.

What use were those temples that one never got to; — or of any temples, indeed? Nobody ever fried in them, or made sweetmeats.

That is what she thought to herself, but she did not say so aloud. He was so silly; he never saw these things; and she wished to keep him in good humour.

In time they reached Poggio Caiano: they were used to run along dusty roads in the sun and did not tire quickly. They could both of them run a dozen miles or more with very little fatigue, but it was now seven in the morning.

“I am thirsty,” said Gemma. “I should like some milk. Ask for it.”

There was a cottage by the side of the road with wooden sheds and cackling hens, and bits of grass land under shady mulberries. She saw two cows there. Signa hung back.

“We have nothing to buy it with — nothing!”

“How helpless you are,” said Gemma, and she put her pretty golden head in at the cottage door. There was a brown, kindly‐looking woman there, plucking dead pigeons.

“Dear mother,” said Gemma, coaxingly, “you look so good, could you give us just a little drop of water? We have been walking half the night. Father is gone to Prato with a string of donkeys to sell, and we are to meet him there, and were are so — oh, so thirsty!”

“Poor little souls!” said the woman, melted in a moment, for all Italians are kind in little things. “My child, what a face you have — like the baby, Jesus! Step in here and I will get you a draught of milk. Is that your brother?”

“Yes,” said Gemma.

“Oh, Gemma! to lie is so wicked!” murmured Signa, plucking at her ragged skirt.

“Is it?” said Gemma, showing her pearly teeth; “then everybody is wicked, dear; and the good God must have his hands full!”

The woman brought them out two little wooden bowls of milk.

Gemma drank from hers as thirstily and prettily as a little snake could do. Signa refused his. He said he did not wish for it.

“Perhaps you are hungry,” said the woman, and offered them two hunches of wholesome bread.

Signa shook his head and put his hands behind his back.

Gemma took both.

“You are so kind,” she said, winningly, “and we are hungry. My brother is shy, that is all.”

“Poor little dear!” said the good housewife, won and touched, so that she brought out some figs as well. “And you have been walking far? and have so far still to go? Your father is cruel.”

“He is very poor,” said Gemma, sadly, “and glad to get a copper driving the asses. We come from Scandicci, a long way.”

And then she threw her arms around the woman prettily, and kissed her, and trotted on, hugging the bread and figs.

The woman watched them out of sight.

“A sweet child,” she thought. “If the good Madonna had only given me the like! — ah me! I would have thanked her day and night. The boy is handsome too — but sulky. Poor babies, it is very far to go.”

And she called Gemma back and kissed her again, and gave her a little bit of money, being a soft‐hearted soul and well to do herself.

“Is it wicked to lie?” said Gemma to Signa, showing her white little teeth again. “But, look! — it does answer, you see!”

“I cannot talk to you, Gemma,” said the body, wearily; “you are so wrong, you grieve me so.”

Gemma laughed.

“And yet it is me you always want to kiss — not Palma. Palma, who never tells a lie at all!”

Signa coloured. He knew that that was true. He went on silently, holding the violin close to him, and not giving his hand to Gemma any more. She did not try to take it; it was too far for him to turn back.

They came to the royal gardens of the palace where once Bianca Capella reigned and was happy, and studied her love philtres and potions for death’s sleep. Some great gates stood ajar; there were the green shade of trees and shadows of thick grass.

“Let us go in,” said Gemma; and they went in, and she sat down on the turf and began to taste the sweetness of her figs.

Signa stood by her, silent and sad. She was so wrong, and yet she was so pretty, and she could make him do the things he hated, and he was full of pain because he had left the Lastra and the hills, and went he knew not whither.

“What are you doing there, you little tramps! Be off with you,” cried one of the gardeners of the place, espying them.

Gemma lifted to him her blue caressing eyes.

“Are we doing wrong? Oh, dear signore, let us stop a little, just a very little; we will into stir from here; only we are so tired, so very tired, and in the road it is hot and dusty and the carts are so many!”

The gardener looked at her and grumbled, and relented.

“If you do not stir you may stop a little while — a very little,” he said at last. “Where have you come from, you baby angel?”

“From Scandicci; and we go to Prato.”

The man lifted his hands in horror, because Scandicci was a long long way, away upon the Greve river.

“From Scandicci! Poor children! Well, rest a little if you like.”

And he left the gate open for them.

“Have you beautiful flowers here?” said Gemma, softly, glancing through the trees. “I do love flowers!”

She did not care for a flower more than for a turnip, living amongst gardens always, as she had done. But she knew flowers went to market, like the butter and the eggs.

“Do you? You are a flower yourself,” said the gardener, who had had three pretty children and lost them. “What are you going to do, you and your brother?”

“We are going to play in Prato. We have no father or mother. He makes the music and I dance,” said Gemma, who, though without imagination of the finer sort, could ring the changes prettily in lying.

“Poor little things; and what are your names?”

“I am Rita; and he is Paolo,” said Gemma. “Do you think you could give me a flower — just one — to smell at as I go along?”

“I will see,” said the man, smiling.

Signa stood by mute, with a swelling heart. He knew that he ought to stop her in her falsehoods, but he was afraid to vex her and afraid to lose her. He listened, wounded and ashamed, and feeling himself a coward.

“Why do you do such things, Gemma?” he cried, piteously, as the gardener turned away.

“It is no use telling you, you are so silly,” said Gemma; and she ate fig after fig, lying on her back in the shade of the trees where once Bianca and Francesco had wandered when their love and the summer were at height; and where their spirits wander still at midnight, so the peasants say.

In a little time the gardener returned, bringing with him a basket of cut flowers.

“You may like to sell these in Prato,” he said to the child. “And you will find a peach or two at the bottom.”

“Oh, how good you are!” cried Gemma, springing up; and she kissed the flowers and then the brown hand of the man.

“You have but a sulky companion, I fear,” said the gardener, glancing at the boy, who stood aloof.

“Oh, no! He is only shy and tired. What is this great house?”

“It is a palace.”

“Are there people in it?”

“No. Only ghosts!”

“Ghosts of what?”

“Of a great wicked woman who lived here; and her lovers. She was a baker’s daughter, but she murdered many people, and got to be a duchess of Tuscany.”

“Did she murder them to be a duchess?”

“They say so; and to keep her secrets!”

Gemma opened wondering eyes.

“And she walks here at night?”

“By night; not that I can say I have ever seen her myself.”

“I should like to meet her.”

“Why?”

“Perhaps she would tell me how she did it.”

The gardener stared — then laughed.

“You pretty cherub! — if you have patience, and grow a woman, you will find out all that yourself.”

“Come away,” said Signa, and he dragged her out through the open gates.

She turned to kiss her hand to the gardener. Signa dragged her on in haste.

“A rude boy that,” said the man, as he shut the gates on them.

“They are flowers worth five francs!” said Gemma, hugging her basket of roses; “and you think it is no use to tell lies?”

“I think it is very vile and base.”

“Pooh!” said Gemma, and she danced along in the dust. She had got a basket worth five francs, bread and fruit enough for the day, and some copper pieces as well; all by looking pretty and just telling a nice little lie or two.

He seemed very helpless to her. He had got nothing.

“It is very hot walking,” she said, presently.

“Yes,” said Signa. “But we are used to it, you and I.”

“I hate it, though.”

“But we must do it if we want to get to Prato.”

“Must we?”

She thought a few minutes, then looked behind her; in the distance there were coming along a baroccino and an old white horse.

Gemma gave a sudden cry of pain.

“What is it, Gemma, dear?” cried Signa, melted in a moment and catching her.

“I have twisted my foot on a stone. Oh, Signa, how it hurts!”

She sat down on a log of wood that chanced to lie there, and rubbed her little dusty foot dolefully. Signa knelt down in the dust, and took the little wounded foot upon his knee and caressed it with fond words. He could see no hurt; but then no one sees sprains or strains till they begin to swell.

“Oh, Signa, we never shall get on! It hurts me so!” she cried, and sobbed and moaned aloud.

The cart stopped; there were old people in it coming from the city itself, people who did not know them.

“Is there anything the matter?” cried the old folks, seeing the little girl crying so bitterly.

“She has hurt herself,” said Signa. “She has twisted her ankle or something, and we go to Prato. Oh, Gemma, dear Gemma, is it so very bad?”

Gemma answered by her sobbing.

The old man and woman chattered together a little, then seeing the children were so pretty and seemed so sad, told them there was room in the cart; they themselves were going to Prato — there were eight miles more to do; the boy might lift the girl in if he liked.

Gemma was borne up and seated between the two old people; Signa was told that he might curl himself, if he would, on the rope foot‐place of the baroccino, and did so. The white horse rattle onward.

“You are a pretty boy, too,” said the woman to Signa. “Why do you not talk to one?”

“I have nothing to say,” he murmured.

He would not lie; and he could not tell the truth without exposing Gemma’s pretty fables.

“You are more sulky than your sister; one would think it was your foot that had been hurt,” said the old woman.

It was the third time in half an hour that, through Gemma, he had been called sulky. He hung his head, and was mute, taking care that Gemma’s ankle should not be shakened as they went.

The way seemed to him very long.

He could see little on account of the dust, which rose in large quantities along the road, for the weather was dry and the traffic to the fair was great. Now and then he saw the purple front of Monte Morello and the towers of Prato, lying underneath it to the westward, and farther in the dark quarried sides of the serpentine hills, with the crimson gleam of jasper in the sun; and, much father still, Pistoia; that was all.

Signa took her foot between his hands, and held it tenderly, so that the jolting should not jar it more than he could help.

Her sobs ceased little by little, and she chattered softly with the old driver, telling him that she was going to Prato to sell flowers, and her brother to make a few coins by playing if he could; they had no father or mother. She cried out a little now and then, when the cart went rougher than usual over a loose stone.

“Are you in such pain, dear? Oh, if only I could bear it for you!” said Signa; and the tears came in his eyes to think that she should suffer so much.

“It is better; do not fret,” said Gemma, gravely; and the old woman in the cart thought what a sweet‐tempered child it was, so anxious to be patient and not vex her brother. For Gemma had the talent to get credit for all the virtues that she had not — a talent which is of much more use than any real possession of the virtues ever can be.

The eight miles were very tedious and mournful even to Signa; he was full of sorrow for her little bruised foot, and full of care for her future and his own, and full of reproach to himself for having let her come with him.

“Whatever will come of it — all is my fault,” he thought, tormenting himself whilst the white horse trotted wearily over the bad road, and the clouds of dust blew round them and obscured the green sunny valley and the shining Bisenzio river.

Gemma, moaning a little now and then, leant her curly head against the old woman’s knee, and before very long fell fast asleep, her long black lashes sweeping her rosy cheeks.

“The innocent lamb!” said the woman, tenderly, and covered her face from the sun and from the flies.

When the cart stopped at the south gate of Prato, the old woman woke Gemma softly:

“My pretty dear, we cannot get the things out without moving you, but if you will sit a bit in the shade by the wall there, we will take you up again in a minute, and put you where you like; or maybe you will stay with us and have a taste of breakfast.”

Her husband lifted Gemma with much care down upon the stones, and set her on a bench, Signa standing still beside her.

“What is to be done, Gemma?” he said, with a piteous sigh. “Tell these good people the truth, dear, and they will take care of you, and drive you back again to Giovoli, I am sure. As for me, it does not matter.”

“You are a grullo!” said Gemma, with calm contempt, which meant in her tongue that he was as foolish a thing as lived. “Wait till they are not looking, then do what I do.”

Soon the man and the woman had their backs turned, and were intent on their cackling poultry and strings of sausages.

“Now!” said Gemma, and she darted round a corner of the gate, and ran swiftly as a young hare down the narrow street, clasping her flower‐basket close to her all the while.

“But you are not lame at all!” cried Signa, stupefied, when at length, panting and laughing, she paused in her flight.

Her azure eyes glanced over him with a smile of intense amusement.

“Lame! of course not! But we wanted a lift. I got it. That was all.”

“Oh, Gemma!”

He felt stunned and sick. He could only look at her. He could not speak. He thought the very stones of the street would open and swallow her for such wickedness as this.

Gemma laughed the more to see his face. She could not perceive anything amiss in what she had done. It had been fun to see the people’s anxiety for her; and then they had been carried the eight miles they wanted:— how could anything be wrong that had so well succeeded?

Gemma, with her little plump bare shoulders and her ragged petticoat, reasoned as the big world does:— Success never sins.

Signa could not laugh. He would not answer her. He felt wretched.

“You are a kill‐joy!” said Gemma, pettishly, and sat down on a door‐step to tie up her flowers and consider what it would be best worth her while to do.

She decided that it was of no use at all to consult him. He was full of silly scruples that grew naturally in him, as choke‐grass in the earth.

“It is very nice to be away from everybody,” said Gemma, sorting her flowers, and looking about her with keen pleasure in the sense of liberty and strangeness.

“Oh, Gemma! It breaks one’s heart,” murmured Signa, while the water swam in his eyes. He thought his heart was broken. He felt powerless and utterly wretched. A companion who would have clung to him and needed his protection and his aid would have aroused his courage; but Gemma’s hardihood and dauntlessness and reckless wrong‐doing only seemed to crush him and bewilder him till he felt like any frightened kid lost upon the mountains.

When she rose, he rose also, and crept after her spiritless and weary.

The bold craft of her practical mind and her little merciless words of worldly wisdom beat into impotency all the finer impulses and higher intelligence of his own. Moral impudence scourges spiritual beauty till it is cowed like a whipt dog.

Gemma, for her part, was indifferent; she felt herself the master‐mind of the two; she was perfectly happy seeing strange things, and not knowing what new turn fortune might not take any minute; she thought of Palma hoeing and toiling amongst the cabbages at home with scornful pity, and said to herself, “how nice it is to be away and not have a soul to scold one!” When they came in sight of the cathedral and the belfry, Signa, moved to sudden interest, pulled her skirt.

“Let us go and see the sacra cintola,” whispered the boy, for he was a devout little fellow, and had heard all his days from all the country‐side of the wonders of the holy girdle that Prato enshrines.

“What will the sacra cintola do for us?” said Gemma.

“Nothing,” said Signa, sadly, “nothing — now we have told so many lies.”

“The girdle would not have had that cart,” said Gemma, with a smile that would have been a grin only she was so pretty; and she let Signa draw her onward to the square where the Duomo stands, because, as she thought to herself, there would surely be the most people there, it being the hour of high mass — people always made themselves safe with heaven before they began to jump about and eat and drink.

“Look!” said Signa, forgetful one moment of his woes in his delight at looking up at the great duomo of which so many legends were rife in the country‐side. “Look! Gemma, look! There is Donatello’s pulpit, where they used to show the girdle to the people on the feast days; Donatello you know, who once was only just a poor boy like me, and lived to make the marble speak; the signore at the Certosa told me so; do you think they ever will talk of me hundreds of years after I am dead and gone, as they do about him? Oh, I think they will, because the music does last like the stone, though no one can touch it and feel it like the stone — and I am sure one day I will make some music that they will care about. Oh, Gemma, you are not looking — just see those beautiful children up there, all in the marble, with the white flowers! And where is the mark of the man’s hand that was cut off for sacrilege, you remember? Teresina has told us about it so often! — it was thrown up in the air, you know, and the blood of it made a spot like an open palm on the grey wall up above, that is always, always there; only surely the angles might wash it out now; he must have suffered so much, and been so sorry by this!”

And Signa, trembling at his own vivid imaginations, stood still, gazing up and trying to see the blood‐stain amongst the black and green serpentine of the inlaying above Lucca della Robbia’s Virgin, with her S. Stephen and S. Lawrence. The story was so real to him, he could see the wicked monk going round and round in the aisles, in the dark, with his stolen treasure, unable to find his way out, and believing himself on the road to his own monastery, and so striking the panels of the great door, and crying, “Open, open!” and thus calling down detection and chastisement with his own voice. He could see it all, and he stood gazing up and looking for the blood‐stain above Donatello’s happy snow white children, till he trembled all over with the awe and fever of his own visions. Gemma, not heeding at all and quite indifferent to the sacred girdle, since it was nothing pretty to put on herself, sniffed with her dainty little nose the various fumes of frying and stewing that came from the open doors and windows of the houses in the square, and decided with herself that it was high time to get something more to eat.

It was noon, and breakfast was being prepared everywhere, and a slice of smoking kid or a taste of boar stuffed with prunes were more to her taste than all the stone children of Donatello. She had known what such dainties meant at fairs at Signa and Impruneta, whither she had occasionally been taken by kindly baby‐loving women who pitied her because she had no mother.

She pondered a little; smelling the fragrance of the soup pots, whilst the crowds of people let loose from high mass, like boys from school, filled the piazza, laughing, buzzing, chattering, pushing, loitering, with the broad bright sky cloudless above their heads.

Gemma went and looked wistfully in at an open arched entrance of a fruit shop; beyond, she saw a kitchen with a plump motherly woman in an orange kerchief, who was just taking off the fire a frying‐pan full of bacon and lard, browned and ready for eating.

“Might I just lay my flowers here in the shade one moment or two?” said little Gemma, timidly slipping her basket on to the stone slab under the cool wet leaves that kept the strawberries fresh. “Might I just leave them here one moment with you, they will all fade away in the sun?”

“Certainly, my pretty one,” said the woman. “But where do you want to go?”

Gemma looked very shy and sad.

“Only — to see — to buy — a little bit of bread. I have a centime, and I am so hungry —”

“When did you eat last?”

“Yesterday at noon. Mother is just dead, and there was no more bread in the house, and no money.”

“Poor little soul!” cried the good woman, with her charity alive in a second; human charity is a match that will strike light very quickly, only it will go out again very nearly as rapidly. “Poor little sweet soul!”

“It shall never be said that I turned a hungry child empty away. Come in and eat your fill. There is only my husband; and we are half famished too, for there has been no getting a mouthful were it ever so, so busy as this morning has been; there is scarce a stalk of fruit left, as you see, already. Come in, you pretty morsel, and eat for two.”

Gemma did eat for two, taking no remembrance of Signa outside by the cathedral in the sun. He was well enough with his Donatello and his nonsense. Meanwhile she stuffed her little round mouth full of crisp, brown, savoury bacon, and swallowed her little glass of blue wine, and picked as many bigarreau cherries as she chose, and touched to the quick the hearts of her host and hostess, who were childless.

They only let her go again with many promises that she would return, which indeed she gave willingly, with every intention of keeping them if she found nothing better to do. When she had got her flowers and ran out again to look for Signa, she could not find him. That dismayed her, because he was her mine of money. She pondered a little, selling some flowers in the square meanwhile, because, as she reflected, however sorry one may be, pence are not the less sweet‐smelling for that; then reasoned with herself that such a silly as he would be sure to be inside the cathedral dreaming about the sacrilegious monk; and there, in truth, did she find him, sitting on the lower step of the high altar, with the bronze crucifix above him.

Signa was very pale from weariness and long fasting; but his eyes were full of brightness, and he was almost happy; someone had been playing on the organ somewhere unseen, the church being empty and the custodians dozing in noon‐tide rest, and the noble silence around him and the deep coolness and the beautiful colours and fuzes so lulled him, and yet excited him, that he knew nothing of the flight of time.

“Are you not hungry?” said Gemma, pattering up and dipping her golden head in half impudent obeisance before the altar.

“Hungry? Oh, no!”

The word seemed to him almost like a sacrilege; yet he was hungry, only he had no leisure or sense for it.

“I am,” said Gemma, knowing that her wants were the strongest levers to stir him into movement.

“Are you? I am sorry,” said Signa vaguely, half remorsefully, yet almost incapable, in that beauty and holiness which were around him, of bringing his mind wholly to any ordinary daily thing. “Are you, dear? I am sorry. What can we do? But, oh, Gemma dear, can you feel very hungry in this place? Do look at the paintings. Fra Lippi did them, someone said. He was a monk, I think. And then look at those terrible grey faces and the tails like snakes — they are meant for Sins, are they not? It frightens one, and yet it is so beautiful, all of it.”

Gemma looked with a sort of scorn at the marble sphinxes with their serpent bodies on Mino da Fiesole’s pulpit. They did not move her.

“Sins are pleasant. Those are ugly things,” she said with a premature wisdom. “And I am hungry. Come out.”

Signa went lingeringly, reluctantly looking back into the calm eyes of the sphinxes, and sorrowful to be forced out of that solemnity and stillness into the noise and the confusion of the fair.

“How happy the man must have been who made all those things,” he said to himself, with a dim perception of the beauty of ages in which labour was done for sake of faith and country and God’s will, and not for sake of gold alone.

Gemma jogged his shoulder.

“Do not go to sleep! Come close to me, and do what I ask you — that is all.”

Keeping tight hold of his violin and its bow, Signa obeyed her; the bright, prompt, unswerving will of Gemma always bore him away with it, without any volition of his own. The ascendancy of the unscrupulous will tells, in small lives as in great.

She led him through the flocking people, with the loud clanging bells and the hot sunshine above them.

The noble brown walls of Prato shut in that day a gay and noisy multitude. There were unusual attractions in the way of shows and travelling actors. The country folk had come in from the plain and from both sides of the mountains. The copper‐smelters from the valley of the Bisenzio, the quarry‐workers from Figlone, the pottery‐painters from Doccia, the straw‐plaiters and red‐cap makers of the town itself, the villagers from all the little places round about for twenty miles and more, all had contributed to swell the sum of the merrymaking throngs that put on their best, and ate and drank, made love and bought trinkets and shouted and sang under the frown of the old Ghibelline Castello and the prison that was once a Guelph Palace. There were booths in the streets, flags on the roofs, merry faces at the old grated casements; there was all the uproar of lotteries, charlatans, cheapjohns, and the players of puppets; asses brayed, children screamed, maidens laughed, mandolines twanged, kids and pigs were roasting whole in the streets, mounds of plums and cherries reddened the stones with their juice, barrels of wine ran in a hundred dark old kitchens and at many a quaint corner under a terra‐cotta shrine in the wall; and above all the happy breathless turmoil rose bell‐tower and cupola and fortress and monastery, and above them again the fair blue sky.

Gemma slipped in amongst the multitude, keeping one of Signa’s hands in hers.

She watched her opportunity. There was a pause. One puppet‐show had just ended; the tombola had not begun. She let go his hand.

“Play,” she said, simply.

“Play!” echoed Signa, with his beaming eyes full of pain. “Oh, Gemma! how can I play! so wretched as I am, and away from the Lastra; and Bruno hating me, perhaps; and Nita blind; and all through my own wickedness!”

“Chè!” said Gemma, with serene contempt; “standing crying never mended a broken pot yet; Babbo says so a dozen times a week. I want some sweet cakes, and you have got to get them. How shall we keep ourselves if you do not play? It is all you are good for.”

“How cruel you are!” sobbed the boy, his heart in revolt at his little tyrant, yet his courage weak against her.

“Oh, you silly!” laughed Gemma, and pulled his curls. “Let us dance, then — do as I do — dance the saltarello that old Maro from the Marches taught us last year — that will make you merrier.”

And Gemma began to dance herself, in the agile lithe postures that an old wandering fiddler had taught to the children of the Lastra; for Tuscany has no dance of its own except the droll trescone, which resembles the hopping of frogs.

“Dance, and play the tune!” said Gemma, imperiously, looking like a little white flower blowing up and down in the wind, as her white arms went up above her head, and her small naked feet twinkled on the stones.

Signa, by sheer instinct, obeyed her as a poodle would have done, making the tune come off the strings of his Rusignuolo, and moving wearily to her lithesome invitation, his head hanging down, and his feet feeling like lead, and the big tears coursing down his cheeks.

“Oh, the little love, let one look at her!” said a woman or two, and cleared a space; and others gathered about, and a ring was made, and one score of people, and then another, and then another, gradually grew together, and watched Gemma in the saltarello, which no busked maiden from the wet green woods of the Marches, and no Roman child under the vinehung loggia of a Trastevere winehouse, ever danced with more spirit or more grace.

Gemma was at home in the air, like a butterfly; and untiring she whirled around, and spurned the pavement, as if her little dusty toes had the wings of Mercury.

“Oh, the beautiful little angel!” cried the women, when at least she ceased, hot, and breathless, and panting, with all her yellow hair blown back; and they kissed her, and worshipped her, and loaded her with sweetmeats, and cheap trinkets, and playthings.

Signa stood apart, with swollen eyes and a swelling heart.

“What fun it is!” said Gemma to him, with her little skirt full of spoils.

Signa was silent.

“A sulky boy,” said the women. “Is he your brother, my dear?”

“Yes, and he plays so beautifully,” said Gemma. “He was too tired to dance well. Play, dear, play for these good kind people, who have given us such lovely things.”

The words were simple, and she caressed him as she spoke, but in his ear she whispered: “Play, and get some money; or I will tell the guards, and send you back to Lippo.”

Signa was helpless in her hands.

If he were sent back, there would be woe — and the galleys for Bruno.

He obeyed her, and drew the bow across the strings, and played his old favourite Misero Pargoletto, of Leo, which he had played so many times, that it came to him by sheer instinct and habit. He could not play amiss, even when he was not thinking what he did, his hands found the true place, and struck out the true music.

Insensibly, the sweet accustomed sounds soothed him, drove away his pain, and calmed his sense of desolation and danger.

 

Insensibly, he went on from one thing to another, and the melody gained on the people. They are sure judges of what is pure and excellent. Their ear is accurate; their feelings unerring. The little figure in their midst, with the sweet and serious face, and the small brown hands, that moved so perfectly, touched and won them. Muledrivers, copper miners, pottery‐painters, peasants, townsfolk, merry‐makers, gathered together, and listened to the child, till silence fell on the crowded square, and Gemma, seizing the moment, slipped in from one to another, holding out her little empty palm, and whispering, while her pockets were full of half‐pence, and her ears were full of praises: “We are so hungry, my brother and I!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v1.14.html

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