Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 15.

AS it chanced that day Bruno heard nothing. He did not leave his fields, the week being the threshing time, and he having a man to help him whom he had to pay, and being anxious to do all his grain and stack the straw entirely before the Sunday. And down in the Lastra, Lippo, whose courage though not his wrath had cooled, found excuse to go up to his sheep who were ailing, and got out of reach of his wife’s tongue, and spent the day in pondering how best he could compass the getting back the money without rousing the ire of his brother too hotly on his own person. He held Bruno by a chain indeed, but he had a foreboding that under too severe a strain the chain would snap, and he repented him of the impolitic passion into which his wife had hurried him — nine years of prudence and hypocrisy had been undone in five minutes’ rage!

It was eight in the evening. There was red still in the sky, but the sun had gone down. Bruno had set a torch in the ring in the wall of his stone stable, and was still threshing by its light with the peasant whom he had hired to help him. Unless they worked late and early there could be no chance of finishing the grain by the Sunday morning; and he wanted it threshed and done with, that he might have all his time for his maize and vines, and begin the ploughing forthwith.

The ruddy light gleamed on and off; the flails rose and fell; the floor was golden; the walls were black; the air blew in, fragrant with the smell of the meadow‐mint in the fields and the jessamine that clung to the arched doors, and the stone‐pines that dropped their cones on the grass above where the hill was rock.

Bruno was very tired and hot; he had worked all day on a drink of sharp wine from four of the morning, and had only stretched himself on the bench for an hour’s sleep at noon. Nevertheless he went on belabouring the corn with all his will, and in the noise of the flail and the buzz of the chaff about his ears, he never heard a voice calling from outside, coming up the fields; and a child was standing at his side before he knew that anyone was there.

Then he left off, and saw Palma, Gemma’ s sister.

“Do not come lounging here. You will get a blow of the flail,” he said roughly.

“Signa!” panted Palma, who was crying. She had been crying all the way up the hill.

“If you want the boy he is in the Lastra. Get out of the way.”

“Is he not here? We were sure they were here,” said Palma, with a sob, knee‐deep in the tossing straw.

“No,” said Bruno, whirling his flail about his head. “Be off with you. I can have no brats idling here.”

“But Signa is lost, and Gemma was with him!” said Palma, with wide‐open black eyes of abject terror.

“Lost! what do you mean? The boy is somewhere in the Lastra, doing Lippo’s work.”

“No,” said Palma, with a sob. “They were in the garden at Giovoli — very early — Mimi saw them — and they went away together — very fast — over the bridge. And Babbo sent me to ask you — he was sure that they were here. But old Teresina says that Signa must have run away, because Lippo and Nita beat him horribly — about a fiddle — I do not know — and all the town is talking because Signa hit Nita in the eyes; and I know she was cruel to him always, only he never, never would tell you.”

Bruno flung down his flail with an oath that made the little girl tremble where she stood in the gold of the corn.

“Stay till I come, Neo,” he said quickly to the contadino working with him, and caught his cloak from a nail, and without another word or a glance at the sobbing child, strode away through his vines in the twilight.

Palma ran with him on her sturdy little legs, telling him all she knew, which was the same thing over and over again. Bruno heard in unbroken silence.

His long stride and the child’s rapid little trot kept them even, and took them fast into the road and on to the bridge. At the entrance of this bridge Sandro met them: though the children were always together, Sandro knew little of Bruno, and was afraid of the little he did know. But the common bond of their trouble made them friends. He seized hold of Bruno as he went to the bridge —

“Do not waste time in the Lastra. He is not in the Lastra. There was some horrid quarrel — so they say, Nita knocked the body down — all about that fiddle and the quantity of money. The boy has run away, and my Gemma with him — my pretty little Gemma! — and a minute ago there came in Nisio with his baroccino; he has been to Prato, and he says he saw them there, and thought that we had sent them — there is a fair. You can see Nisio; he is stopping at the wineshop just across. That was at four in the day he saw them. The boy was playing. Will you go? I do not see how I can go — they will turn me away at Giovoli if I go — all my carnations potting and all my roses budding — and then the goat is near her labour, and nothing but his child to see to her or to keep the boys in order — and what the lad could take Gemma for, if he would run away, though she was only a trouble in the house, and a greedy poppet always, still —”

Bruno, before half his words were done, was away over the bridge, and had reached the wineshop, and had confronted Nisio — Dionisio Riggo, a chandler and cheesemonger of the Lastra, who had a little bit of land out Prato way.

“You saw — the boy — in Prato?”

Nisio grinned.

“I saw Lippo’s foundling in Prato. Is that much to you? Nay, nay! I meant no offence indeed. Only you are so soft upon the boy — people will talk! Yes, he was there, playing a fiddle in a crowd. And the little girl of Sandro’s — the pretty white one — with him. Only a child’s freak, no doubt. I thought they were out there for a holiday. Else I would have spoken, and have brought them home. But they can take no harm.”

Bruno left him also without a word, and went on his way as swiftly as the wind up to the house of Lippo.

Old Baldo was working at a boot at his board before his door. Lippo, who had just come down from the hills, was standing idling and talking with his gossip the barber. His wife was ironing linen in an attic under the roof, her eyes none the worse, though she had bound one up with a red handkerchief that she might make her moan with effect to the neighbours.

Bruno’s hand fell like a sledge‐hammer on his brother’s shoulder before Lippo knew that he was nigh.

“What did you do to the boy?”

Lippo trembled, and his jaw fell. People came out of the other doorway. Old Baldo paused with his awl uplifted. Children came running to listen. Bruno shook his brother to and fro as the breeze shakes a cane by the river.

“What did you do to the boy?”

“I did nothing,” stammered Lippo. “We were vexed — all that money — and nothing but a fiddle to show. That was natural you know — only natural was it? And then the child grew in a dreadful passion, and he flew on my poor good Nita like a little wild cat, and blinded her — she is blind now. That is all the truth, and the saints are my testimony!”

“That is a lie, and the devils are your sponsors!” shouted Bruno, till the shout rang from the gateway to the shrine. “If harm have come to the child, I will break every bone in your body. I go to find him first — then I will come back and deal with you.”

He shook Lippo once more to and fro, and sent him reeling against the cobbler’s board, and scattered Baldo’s boots and shoes and tools and bits of leather right and left; then without looking backward or heeding the clamour he had raised, he dashed through the Lastra to get home, and fetch money, and find a horse.

Old Baldo did not love his son‐in‐law. His daughter had been taken by Lippo’s handsome, soft, pensive face, and timid gentleness and suavity of ways, as rough, strong, fierce‐tempered women often are; and Baldo had let her have her way, though Lippo had brought nothing to the common purse. It was a bad marriage for Nita, the sole offspring of the old cobbler, who owned the house he lived in, and let some floors of it, and was a warm man all the Lastra said, with cosy little bits of money here and there, and morsels of land even, bought at bargains, and a shrewd head and a still tongue, so that he might be worth much more that even people fancied, where he sat stitching at his door, with a red cap and a pair of horn spectacles, and a wicked old tongue that could throw dirt with any man’s or woman’s either.

Lippo stood quivering, and almost weeping.

“So good as we have been!” he moaned.

“You white‐livered cur!” swore old Baldo, who had been toppled off his stool, and was wiping the dust off his grey head, and groping in the dark for his horn spectacles, with many oaths. “You whining ass! Your brother only serves you right. It is not for me to say so. It is ill work washing one’s foul linen in the town fountain. But if Bruno break your neck he will serve you right — taking his money all these years, and starving his brat, and beating it; — pah!”

“And what would you have said if I had pampered it up with dainties?” said Lippo, panting and shivering, and hoping to heaven Nita’s hands were in the starch, and her ears anywhere than hearkening out of the window.

“That is neither here nor there,” said old Baldo, who, like all the world, detested the tu quoque form of argument. “That is neither here nor there. The pasticcio was none of my making. I said there were brats too many in the house. But you have got good pickings out of it, that is certain; and it is only a raging lion like Bruno, a frank fool, and a wrathful, and for ever eating fire and being fleeced like a sheep, that would not have seen through you all these years.”

Lippo upset the stall again by an excess of zeal in searching for the spectacles, and prayed the saints, who favoured him, to serve him so that, in the noise of all the falling tools, his terrible father‐inlaw’s revelations might not reach the listening barber.

Rage in, wit out:— Lippo sighed to think that his lot fell for ever amongst people who saw not the truth and wisdom of this saying.

He found the spectacles, and then gathered himself together with a sigh.

“My brother shall not go alone to seek the boy,” he said with gentle courage and a sigh. “I thought the child was safe upon the hill, or else — Harm me? — oh, no! Poor Bruno is a rough man; but he owes me too much — besides, he is not bad at heart — oh, no! Perhaps I was hasty about that money. After all, it was the child’s. But when people are poor, as we all are, and never taste meat hardly twice a year, and so much sickness and trouble everywhere, it overcomes one. So much money for a toy! — for, after all, an old lute does as well. Tell Nita I am gone to look for Signa, and may be out all night.”

“He is a good man, and it is a shame to treat him so,” said the women at the doors.

Old Baldo picked up his waxed thread, and made a grimace to himself, as he went to his work again, with a lanthorn hung up above him on a nail. But it was not for him to show his daughter, or her husband, in the wrong. Besides, popular feeling, so far as it was represented in the lane between the gateway and the shrine, was altogether with Lippo.

He had struck a chord that was sure to answer. People who lived on black bread and cabbages, and had a good deal of sickness, and laboured from red dawn to white moonlight to fill empty mouths, were all ready to resent with him the waste of gold pieces on a child and a fiddle.

He knew the right key to turn to move his little world.

Good man as he was, he went down the lane with an angry heart, saying, as old Vasari has it, things that are not in the mass; but he said them to himself only, for he had a character to lose.

Under the light of the lamp that jutted out from the east gateway, where the old portcullis hangs, he saw Bruno. He was putting a little, rough, short pony into a baroccino, having hired both from a vintner, whose tavern and stable were open on to the street.

The baroccino was the common union of rope and bars and rotten wood and huge wheels, which looks as if it would be shivered at a step, but will in truth whirl unbroken over mountain‐heights, and fly unsinking over a morass. The pony was one of those sturdy little beasts which, with a collar of bells and a head‐dress of fox‐tails, fed on straw and on blows, and on little else besides, will yet race over the country at that headlong, yet sure‐footed, speed, which Tuscans teach their cattle, heaven knows how. Bruno had hired both of the vintner, to save the time that his return home would have taken him.

The street was quite dark. The lamp in the gateway shed a flickering gleam over Bruno’s dark face and the brass of the pony’s headstall.

Lippo’s heart stood still within him with fear. Nevertheless, he went up to the place. He had a thing to say, and he knew he must say it then or never.

“Bruno, give me one word,” he said, in a whisper, touching his brother on the arm.

Bruno flashed one glance at him, and went on buckling the straps of the harness.

“Are you going to quarrel with me — about the boy?”

“As God lives, I will kill you if harm come to him.”

Lippo shivered.

“But if you find him safe and sound — boys are always safe and sound — do you mean to quarrel with me? — do you mean to take him away?”

“If you have dealt ill with him, it will be the worse for you.”

Lippo knew the menace that was in his brother’s voice, though Bruno did not look up once, nor leave off buckling and strapping. And he knew that he had dealt ill — very ill.

“Listen, Bruno!” he said, coaxingly. “He will tell you things, no doubt; children always whine. We have punished him sometimes; — one must punish children, or what would they be? If you listen, he will tell you things, of course. Children want to live on clover, and never do a stroke of work. ”

Bruno freed his arm from his brother’s hand, with a gesture that sent the strap he was fastening backward up into Lippo’s face.

“You have hurt him, and you have lied, and you have betrayed me and cheated me,” he said between his teeth. “I know that — I know that! Well, your reckoning will wait — till I have found the child.”

Lippo’s blood ran very cold. Concealment, he saw, was impossible any longer. If the boy were found, he knew that he would have scant mercy to look for from Bruno’s hands.

“But hear a word, Bruno,” he said; and his voice shook, and his fingers trembled as they clutched at Bruno’s cloak, as the latter took the ropes that served for reins and put his foot on the step of the baroccino. “Just a word — just a word only. Will you take him away? Will you cease to pay? Will you break our compact? Is that what you mean?”

Bruno sprang on the little cart, and answered with a slash of his whip across Lippo’s mouth.

Lippo, stung with the pain of the blow, and goaded by a laugh that he caught from the vintner, who stood watching in his tavern doorway, sprang up also on the iron bar that serves as footboard to the little vehicle.

“Take care what you do!” he hissed in his elder’s ear. “Take care! If you cease to pay — if you take the child — I will say what I said. I will make him hate you; I will tell him who he is; I will tell him how you stabbed his mother at the fair; I will tell him how you — you — you left her alone dead for the flood to take her, and maybe had murdered her, for aught I know. And see how he will love you then, and eat your bread. Now strike me again, if you like. That is what I shall say. And what can you do? Tell me that — tell me that! Now go and ride out all the night, and think and choose. How weak you are! — ah, ah! How weak you are against me now! — how weak, with all your rage!”

Bruno struck him backwards off the step. The pony dashed away into the darkness. Lippo fell in the dust.

When the tearing noise of the wheels and the hoofs flying away into the night over the stones had died away, Lippo lifted his head to the vintner, who had raised him from the ground, and had poured some wine into his mouth.

“Good friend,” said gentle Lippo, with faltering breath, wiping the dust and a little blood from his forehead; “good friend, say nothing of this — it would only bring trouble on Bruno. I would have gone with him to find the boy, but you saw what his passion was. He thinks me to blame; perhaps I was. So much money thrown away on a toy of music for a child, when a pipe cut in the fields does as well, and it might have been laid aside for his manhood! And so much want as there is in the world! But never mind that; say I was wrong — only do not tell people of Bruno. You know he is brawling always, and that gets him a bad name; and not for paradise would I add to it. He is too quick with his hands, and will take life, I always fear, one day; but this was an accident — a pure accident only! Oh, I am well — quite well; not hurt at all. And your wine is so pure and good.”

 

And he drank a little more of it, and then went away home; and the vintner watched him, going feebly, as one bruised and shaken would do; and shook his head, and said to three or four others who came in for a flask and a turn at dominoes, that that beast Bruno had well‐nigh killed his brother and driven over him; and that it would be well to give a hint of the story to the Carabineers when they should next come by looking after bad men and perilous tempers.

END OF VOL. I.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v1.15.html

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