Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 3.

AN hour later two men came with lanthorns into the fields that lie between the rough vineyards underneath the road from the sea. They had sheep there, which they were going to drive into the town in the morning, and they were afraid that the flock, terrified in the winds and rains, might have broken loose, and strayed across the iron rails of the other road that runs by the river, and might get crushed under the wheels of the night trains running from the west.

As they went they stumbled against something on the ground, and lowered their lights to look.

There was a broken bramble‐bush, and some crushed ferns, and a thing that had fallen from the height above the soaking soil. By their dim lanthorns they saw that the thing was a woman, and bending the light fuller on her as well as they could for the rain, they saw that she had been stunned or killed by the fall.

There was a great stone on which the back of her head had struck. She lay face upward, with her limbs stretched out; her right arm was close round the body of a living child; her breast was bare.

The child was breathing and asleep; he had fallen upon his mother, and so had escaped unhurt.

The men had been born peasants, and they were used to wring the throats of trapped birds and to take lambs from their mothers with small pity. They lifted the boy with some roughness and some trouble from the stiffening arm that enclosed him; he began to wail and moan; he was very wet and miserable, and he said a little word which was a call for his mother, like the pipe of a little bird that has fluttered out of the nest, and lies cold on the grass and frightened.

One of them took him up, and wrapped his cloak across the little sobbing mouth.

The other knelt down, and tried to make his light burn better, and laid his hand on the woman’s breast to feel for pulse of life. But she was quite dead. He did what he could to call back life, but it was all in vain; at length he covered her breast, and stared up at his fellow.

“This looks like Pippa,” he said, slowly, with a sound as of awe in his voice.

The other lowered his light too and looked.

“Yes, it is like Pippa,” he said, slowly, also.

Then they were both silent for some moments, the lanthorn light blinking in the rain.

“Yes, it is Pippa; yes, certainly, it is Pippa,” said the first one stupidly; and he ran his hand with a sort of shudder over the outline of her features and her form.

The one who held the child turned his light on the little wet face; the baby ceased to cry, and opened his big, dark, wondering eyes at the flame.

“And whose byblow is this?” said he.

“The devil knows,” said he who knelt by the mother. “But it is Pippa. Look here on her left breast — do you see? there is the little three‐cornered scar of the wound I gave her with my knife, at the wine fair, that day.”

The other looked closer while the rain beat on the white cold chest of the woman.

“Yes, it must be Pippa.”

Then they were both silent again a little, for they were Pippa’s brothers.

“Let us go and tell them in the Lastra, and get the bier.” said the one who knelt by her, getting up to his feet, with a sullen, dazed gloom on his dark face.

“And leave her here?” said the one who had the child.

“Why not? nobody will run away with the dead!”

“But this little beast — what can one do with him?”

“Carry him to your wife.”

“There are too many at home.”

“She has one of his age; she can take him.”

“She will never touch Pippa’s boy.”

“Give him to me, then, and stay you here.”

“No, that I dare not — the foul fiend might come after her.”

“The foul fiend take your terrors. Let us get into the Lastra; we can see then. We must tell the Misericordia, and get the bier —”

“There is no such haste; she is stone dead. What a pipe this brat has! One would think he was a pig with the knife in its throat.”

“It is very cold. Who would have thought it could have lived — such a fall as that, and such a night!”

“It lives because nobody wants it. She had no gold about her, had she?”

“I do not know.”

The one who held the child stopped over the dead woman awhile, then rose with a sigh of regret —

“Not a stiver; I have felt her all over.”

“Then she must have done ill these five years.”

“Yes — and yet so handsome, too. But Pippa never plaited even.”

“Nay, never — poor Pippa!”

So they muttered, plodding over the broken heavy ground, with the sound of the swollen river in their ears and the lanthorn lights gleaming through the steam of the rain. In the noise of the waters the child sobbed and screamed unheard. The man had tossed him over his shoulder as he carried the new‐born lambs, only with a little less care.

They clambered up into the road and tramped through the slough of mud into the town. The woman had drawn nigh to the upper town by a dozen yards, when her foot had slipped, and she had reeled over to her death. But the feet of the shepherds were bare, and kept sure hold, like the feet of goats. They tramped on, quick, through the crooked streets and over the bridge; the river had run high, and along the banks, and on the flat roofs of the towers there were the lights burning of the men who watched for the flood. They heard how loud and swiftly the river was running as they went over the bridge and down in to the irregular twisting streets, and under the old noble walls of the lower village of the Lastra.

The one who carried the child opened a rickety door in the side of a tumbledown house, and climbed a steep stairway, and pushed his way into a room where children of all ages, and trusses of straw, and a pig, and a hen with her chickens, and a black crucifix, and a load of cabbage‐leaves and maize‐stalks, and a single lemon‐tree in a pot, were all together nearly indistinguishable in the darkness. He tossed the child to a sturdy brown woman with fierce brows.

“Here, Nita, here is a young one I found in the fields. Feed it to‐night, and to‐morrow I will tell the priest and the others, and we shall get credit. It is near dead of cold already. No — I cannot stay — do you hear how the waters are out? Bruno is down below wanting me to help to house the sheep.”

He clattered away down the stairs, and joined his brother in the street.

“I told her nothing of Pippa,” he said, in a whisper. “If she knew it were Pippa’s not a drop of milk would he get to‐night. As it is, it is a pretty little beggar; she will let him share with Toto. She knows charity pleases Heaven. And — and — see here, Bruno, why need we speak of Pippa at all.”

His brother stared at him in the murky gloom. “Why? — why we must fetch her in and bury her.”

“The waters will do that before morning if we let them alone; that will spare us a deal of trouble, Bruno.”

“Trouble — why?”

“Oh, it is always trouble — the church and the law, and all the rest. Then you know the Syndic is such a man to ask questions. And nobody saw her but ourselves. And they may say we tumbled her over. She has come back poor, and all Signa knows that you struck her with your knife on the day of the fair, and that she has been a disgrace and a weariness always. We might have trouble, Bruno.”

“But the child?”

“Oh, the child! I have told Nina we picked it up lost in the fields. Why should we tell anybody to‐night about Pippa? The poor soul is dead. No worse can come. Men do not hurt dead women. And there is so much to do to‐night, Bruno. We should see for our sheep on the other side now, and then stay down here. The devil knows what pranks the Arno may not play to‐night. In five hours I warrant you he will be out all over the country.”

“But to leave her there — all alone — it is horrible!”

“How shall we show we did not push her there to her death?”

“But we did not.”

“That is why they would all say we did. Everybody knows that there was bad blood with us and Pippa: and most of all with you. Let the night go over, Bruno. We want the night to work in, and if she be there at day dawn, then we can tell. It will be time enough.”

“Well — lie as you like,” said the other, sullenly. “Let us get the sheep in anyhow.”

So they went out to the open country again, through the storm of the west wind that was blowing the river back from the sea, so that it could not get out, and was driven up again between the hills, and so overflowed the lands through which it travelled. The men worked hard and in earnest, housing their own sheep and driving their neighbours’ cattle on rising knolls, or within church doors, or anywhere where they were safe from the water; and then came down again into the street towards midnight, where all the people were awake and astir watching the Arno, and holding themselves ready to flee.

“You have got the ague, Bruno,” said the man at the wine‐shop, for his arm shook as he drank a draught.

“So would you if you had been up to your middle in water all the night like me,” said the elder brother, roughly.

But it was not the water, they were too used to that. It was the thought of the woman dead all alone under the old sea‐road.

The night became a bitter black night. Up the valley the river was out, flooding the pastures far and near. Boats went and came, taking help, and bringing homeless families. Watchfires were burning everywhere. Bodies of drowned cattle drifted in by scores. There were stories that the great city herself was in flood. In such a time every breath is a tale of terror, and every rumour grows instantly to giant proportions.

The upper town of Signa itself was safe. But was great peril for the low‐lying Lastra. No one went to their beds. The priest prayed. The bells tolled. The men went to and fro in fear. The horrid loudness of the roaring waters drowned all other sounds.

When the morning broke, sullen and grey, and still beaten with storm, the cold dull waste of water stretched drearily on either side of the great bridge. The two brethren went with the crowd that looked from it eastward and westward.

The river had spread over the iron rails, and the grassy, broken ground, and the bushes of furze, and reached half way up to the rocks and the hill‐road above. The wind had changed, and was blowing in from the eastward mountains. The water rolled under its force with furious haste to the sea like a thing long imprisoned, and frantic with the joy of escape.

“It has taken Pippa,” said the brothers, low to one another.

And they felt like men who have murdered a woman.

 

Not that it mattered of course. She was dead. And if not to the sea, then to the earth, all the dead must go — into darkness, and forgotten of all.

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