Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 2.

THERE is wild weather at Signa. The mountain streams brim over and the great historic river sweeps out in full flood, and the bitter Alpine wind tears like a living thing over the hills and across the plain. Not seldom the low‐lying fields become sheets of dull tawny water, and the little hamlets amongst them are all flooded, and from the clock‐towers the tolling bells cry aloud for succour, while the low, white houses seem to float like boats.

In these winters, if the harvests before have been bad, the people suffer much. They have little or no bread, and they eat the raw grass even sometimes. The country looks like a lake in such weather when the floods are on; only for ships there are churches, and the lighthouses are the trees; and like rocky islands in all directions the village roofs and the villa walls gleam red and shine grey in the rain. It is only a short winter, and the people know that when the floods rise and spread, then they will find compensation, later on, for them in the doubled richness of grass and measure of corn.

Still, it is hard to see the finest steer of the herd dashed a lifeless dun‐coloured mass against the foaming piles of the bridge; it is hard to see the young trees and the stacks of hay whirled together against each other; it is hard to watch the broken crucifix and the cottage bed hurled like dead leaves on the waste of waters; it is hardest of all to see the little curly head of a drowned child drift with the boughs and the sheep and the empty hencoop and the torn house door down the furious course of the river.

Signa has seen this through a thousand winters and more in more or less violence, and looked on untouched herself; high set on her hills like a fortress, as indeed she was, in the old republican days.

In one of these wild brief winters, in a drenching night of rain, a woman came down on foot along the high road that runs from the mountains, the old post road by which one can travel to the sea, only no one now ever takes that way. In sunshine and mild weather it is a glorious road, shelving sheer to the river valley on one side and on the other hung over with bold rocks and bluffs dusky with ilex and pine; and it winds and curves and descends and changes as only a mountain road can do, with the smell of its rosemary and its wild myrtle sweet at every turn. But on a winter’s night of rain it is very dreary, desolate and dark.

The woman stumbled down it as best she might.

She had come on foot by short stages all the way from the sea some forty miles over hill and plain. She carried a bundle with her, and never let go her hold on it however wildly the wind seized and shook her, nor however roughly the rain blew her blind. For the bundle was a child.

Now and then she stopped and leaned against the rocks or the stem of a tree and opened her cloak and looked at it; her eyes had grown so used to the thick darkness that she could see the round of its little red cheek and the curve of its folded fist and the line of its closed eyelashes. She would stop a minute sometimes and bend her head and listen, if the wind lulled, to the breathing of its parted lips set close against her breast; then she would take breath herself and go onward.

The child was a year old, and a boy, and a heavy weight, and she was not a strong woman now, though she had once been so; and she had walked all the way from the sea. She began to grow dizzy, and to feel herself stumble like a footsore mule that has been driven until he is stupid and has lost his sureness of step and his capacity for safety of choice. She was drenched through, and her clothes hung in a soaked dead weight upon her. Even with all her care she could not keep the child quite dry.

Somewhere through the darkness she could hear bells tolling the hour. It was eight o’clock, and she had been in hopes to reach Signa before the night fell.

The boy began to stir and cry.

She stopped and loosened her poor garments and gave him her breast. When he grew pacified, she stumbled on again; the child was quiet; the rain beat on her naked bosom, but the child was content and quiet; and so she went on so.

Sometimes she shivered. She could not help that. She wondered where the town was. She could not see the lights. In earlier years she had known the country step by step as only those can who are born in the air of it and tread it daily in their ways of work. But now she had forgotten how the old road ran. Her girlhood seemed so far away; so very, very far. And yet she was only twenty‐two years of age.

But then life does not count by years. Some suffer a lifetime in a day, and so grow old between the rising and the setting of a sun.

She had gone over the road so many times in the warm golden dawns and the white blamy nights, plaiting her wisps of straw, bare‐headed in the welcome air, and with a poppy or a briar‐ rose set behind her ear for vanity’s sake rather than for the flower’s. But she had been long away — though she was so young — at least it seemed very long to her, and with absence she had lost all the peasant’s instinct of safe movement in the dark, which is as sure as an owl’s or an ass’s, and comes by force of long habit and long treading of the same familiar way. She was not sure of her road; not even sure of her footing. The wind terrified her and she heard the loud surge of the Arno waters below; beating and foaming in flood. She was weak too from long fatigue, and the weight of the water in her clothes, and of the child in her arms, pulled her earthward.

No one passed by her.

Every one was housed, except sentries on the church‐towers watching the rising of the waters, and shepherds getting their cattle upward from the low‐lying pastures on to the hills.

She was all alone on the old sea‐road, and if she were near the lights of Signa she could not see them for the steam and mist of the furious rain.

But she walked on resolutely, stumbling often over the great loose stones. She did not care for herself. Life was over for her. She would have been glad to lie down and die where she was. But if the boy were not under some roof before morning, she knew he would perish of cold in her arms. For she could give him so little warmth herself. She shivered in all her veins and all her limbs; and she was soaked through like a drowned thing, and he was wet also. So she went on, growing frightened, though her temper was bold, and only keeping her courage to love by feeling now and then as she went for the fair face of him at her breast. But the touch of her hand made him cry — it was so cold — and so even that comfort ceased for her, and she could only pray in a dumb unconscious way to God to keep the numbness out of her arms lest they should drop the boy as she went.

At a turn in the road there is a crucifix — a wooden one set in the stone.

She sat down a moment under it, and rested as well as she could, and tried to think of heaven. But the wind would not let her. It tore the covering off her head, and tossed her long hair about; it scourged her with a storm of snapt boughs; it stung her with a shower of shrivelled leaves; it pierced through and through her poor thin clothes. She prayed a little as well as she could in the torment of it, but it went round and round her in so mad a whirl that she could not remember how the words should go. Only she remembered to keep the child warm, as a mother‐sheep sets her body between the lamb and the drifts of snow.

After a while she began to cry.

Do what she would she could not keep a sense of chilliness and discomfort from reaching him; he wanted the ease and rest of some little cosy bed; her cramped arms held him ill, and the old shawl that wrapped him up was wet and cold.

She murmured little words to him, and tried even to sing some scrap of old song; but her voice failed her, and the child was not to be comforted. He cried more, and stirred restlessly. With great effort she bent her stiffened knees, and rose, and got on her way again. The rocking movement, as she carried him and walked on, stilled him a little.

She wished that she had dared to turn up a path higher on the mountain that she knew of, which she had passed as the Ave Maria bell hand rung. But she had not dared.

She was not sure who was there; what welcome or what curse she might get. He who was certain to be master there now had always been fierce with her and stern; and he might be married, and new faces be there too — she could not tell; five years were time enough for so much change.

She had not dared go up the path; now that is was miles behind her she wished that she had taken it. But it was too late now. The town she knew, must be much the nearer of the two, now that she had come down so far; so she went onward in the face of the blinding rain‐storm. She would go up in the morning, she thought, and tell him the truth; if he were brutal to herself, he would not let the child starve; she would go up in the morning — so she said, and walked onward.

Her foot had slipped a dozen times, and she had recovered her footing and gone on safe. Once again in the dark she slipped, her foot slid farther on loose wet earth, a stone gave way, she clutched the child with one arm, and flung out the other — she could not see what she caught at in the dark. It was a bush of furze. The furze tore her skin, and gave way. She slipped farther and farther, faster and faster; the soil was so drenched, and the stones were unloosed. She remembered the road enough to know that she was going down, down, down, over the edge. She clasped the child with both arms once more, and was borne down through the darkness to her death.

 

She knew nothing more; the dark night closed in on her; she lost the sound of the ringing bells, and she ceased to feel the burden of the child.

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