Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 5.

MEANWHILE Bruno went up the hills; up the same old road which had felt Pippa’s footsteps on it the night before; with the river underneath it, and on the other side of the mountains rising, with the olives and vines about their sides, and on their summits old watchtowers and fortresses, and dusky woods of ilex, and cloudy masses of stone‐pine, that sent their strong odour down the valley a score of miles.

Bruno went on his way, looking neither right nor left. He went over the ground so often, and he had seen it all from the year he was born; always this and never anything else; and long familiarity dulls the sense of beauty, even where such sense has been awakened, and Bruno’s never had been — except for a woman’s looks.

He strode on, not looking up nor looking back; a straight‐limbed, swarthy, fine‐built peasant, of thirty years or more, with the oval face of his country, and broad, black, luminous eyes, soft and contemplative, like the eyes of the ox, when the rage was not alight in them.

He did not look round, because peasants do not look up from the soil; and he did not look back, because he had no care to see the spot where he had kneeled down in the wet grass by the broken bushes, with the noise of the river in his ears.

He went up the sea‐road some way, and then quitted it and ascended to the left. The estate to which he belonged was on the side of a spur of the mountains, that turns to Signa, and faces straight down the valley, and whose wine is named as famous in the Bacco in Toscana of Redi.

There are beautiful hills in this country, steep and bold, and formed chiefly of limestone and sandstone, covered all over with gum‐ cistus and thyme, and wild‐roses and myrtle, with low growing laurels and tall cypresses, and boulders of stone, and old thorn trees, and flocks of nightingales always, and the sad‐voiced little owl that was beloved of Shelley.

Bruno’s farmstead was on one of these hills; half the hill was cultured, and the other half was wild; and on its height was an old, grey, mighty place, once the palace of a cardinal, and where there now dwelt the steward of the soil on which Bruno had been born.

His cottage was a large, low, white building, with a red roof, and a great arched door, and a sun‐dial on the wall, and a group of cypresses beside, and a big walnut‐tree before it. There was an old well with some broken sculpture; some fowls scratching under the fig boughs; a pig hunting for roots in the black bare earth; behind it stretched the wild hill‐side, and in front a great slope of fields and vineyards; and far below them in the distance the valley and the river and the bridge, with the high crest of the upper Signa, and the low lying wall‐towers of the Lastra on either side of the angry waters.

Bruno did not look back at it at all. He saw the sun rise over it, and the beautiful pale light steal up, and up, and up, and up, wherever he rose to his work in the day‐dawn. But is was nothing at all to him. When now and then a traveller or a painter strayed thither, and said it was beautiful, Bruno smiled, glad because it was his own country — that was all.

He went into his cold, quiet, desolate house, and sat down for a minute’s rest; he was tired. There was no one to greet him. He did everything for himself. He had no neighbours. The nearest contadino lived a mile down beyond the fields which in summer were a sea of maize and a starry world of fire‐flies; and the old palace was some distance higher on the crest, where the gorze grew thickest, and the mountain moss clustered about the roots of the stone‐pines.

Here — in the long, low rambling dwelling, with the sun‐dial on its wall, and the great archways underneath it, and the stacks of straw before it — there had been nine of them once. Now Bruno lived there alone.

He sat down a minute on the settle, and thought. Thinking was new work to him. He never thought at all, except of the worm in the ripening wheat, or the ticks in the flock’s fleeces. The priest did his thinking for him. What use was it to pay a priest for having opinions if one had to think for one’s self as well?

But he sat and thought now.

Poor Pippa! what a little, ruddy, pretty thing she was, lying in her white swaddling bands, when he was a big rough boy twelve years old, with bare feet and chest, who used to come in from the fields hungry and footsore, and feel angry to the last‐come child in his mother’s arms, getting all her care and caresses.

He bore Pippa a grudge from her birth.

They were all boys, rough and tumble together, share and share alike; and then one summer morning the girl came, and their mother never seemed the same to them again — never any more. The little girl, with a face like the bud of the red rose laurel, seemed to be all she thought about — or so they fancied; and anything good that could be got, honey, or a drop of new milk, or a little white loaf from the town, or an apricot from the fattoria, was always set aside for Pippa; pretty, saucy, noisy, idle Pippa, who was more often in mischief than they were, but never got, as they did, a thrashing, and a wish that the devil might come and fetch away all naughty children.

There had been times when he had hated Pippa, hated her from the first day he saw her lying on her mother’s bosom, with her little red mouth, clinging as bee does at a flower, to the night when he had scolded her for dancing with any fool that asked her, and then she had mocked him about a dead love, and he had struck at her with his knife, and the people had dragged him off her, all blind with rage and shame at his own misdoing; and the blood had sprouted up out from her neck, and stained the lace she wore as red as a goldfinch’s feathers.

He had hated her always.

It seemed to him now that he had been like a brute to her — poor, pretty, brown‐eyed, happy, self‐willed thing, who had been spoilt from her babyhood upward.

Lippo remembered how provoking she had been, and justified himself as he went home through the Lastra.

But Bruno forgot it, and only reproached himself. He had always been rough and fierce and moody with her — oh yes, no doubt. If he had been patient with her — he twelve years older, too — she might never have run away from her home on the hill, and borne that nameless child, and gone to her death on the old sea‐road.

No doubt he had done wrong by her; had been too severe and tyrannous, and had helped to make the cottage distasteful to her after their mother had died and he had become master, and had tried to shut her in, as a thrush is shut in a wicker cage.

He forgot all her faults — poor dead Pippa — and he remembered all his own. Liberal natures will err thus to themselves; and Bruno, with all his evil ways, was liberal as the sun and winds.

Poor Pippa!

He saw her as he had seen her standing out in the light on the hill, with her little brown hands plaiting the straw all unevenly, and her bow‐like mouth gay with laughter at some piece of mischief sweet to her as fig in summer. She had used to look so pretty, with her arch eyes shining under her great straw penthouse of a hat, and her supple, slim shape, in brown and red, like a firefly, standing up as a poppy does against the corn on the amber light of the evening sky, here where the hill was just the same, and only she was a thing that was gone for ever and ever and ever.

Bruno shut his eyes not to see the hill. But he could not shut out his thoughts. He had been a brute to her. It stirred and grew in him; this mute remorse, which Lippo would have laughed out, and which had been awake ever since he had gone about his business as the river rose, and left the dead woman alone to drift down with the flood.

She was dead, of course, and it could hurt her no more to be swept out to the salt sea‐pools westward than to be lowered into the earth in a coffin. Still Bruno, if he had gone straight to the priest and told him, and had let the Church sorrow over and bury her, would not have been tormented by the thought of her was he was now. Now, in a curious kind of half stupid way, he felt as if he had found her and had killed her.

There had been war between him and Pippa always; and though it had shocked him a little to find her lying there lifeless in the dark, yet he had not cared much at first. But since he had forsaken her to the will of the waters, in the vague fear of that nameless trouble which his brother had threatened him with as possible, Bruno — a brave man all his days — felt a coward; and with the tingling shame of that new craven sense came a self‐reproach in which any rough word and fierce act of his life against the lost creature rose in judgment against him.

Poor Pippa!

After all, what had her faults been? Only mirth and over‐eagerness for pleasure, and a quick tongue, and a love of the sunshine idly spent amongst fruits and flowers whilst others were working. These were all.

She had been truthful and generous of temper, and never unwilling to forgive. Nay, though he had struck at her with his open blade that fair‐night, she had called out to the people not to hurt him for it; and when she had left the hillside that very summer — no one knew for whither nor with whom — did she not tell an old woman, who alone saw her going through the millet at break of day with a bundle, “Say to my brothers I am not angry any more; they have been unkind to me, but I have been troublesome, and said hot words very often; and I will pray for them, if that will do any good: only tell them not to try to bring me back, because we never are at peace together”?

Poor Pippa!

He shut his eyes against the sunlight; but, shut them as he would with both hands, he saw her as he had seen her last, coming through the beanflowers, with the long evening shadows and the little golden fireflies seeming to run before her; when he had turned across the fields and avoided her because of the thrust with the knife, which she had never spoken of, and of which he was half ashamed and half defiant, and which therefore he would never admit that he regretted, living on in silence with her under the same roof, trusting to chance.

And chance came — the chance that one summer morning the bed of Pippa was empty, and old Viola, coming in with a sheath of green cane for her donkey, told them how she had met the girl, and of her farewell words.

Shut his eyes as he would, he saw her so, amongst the purple beanflowers that night when his heart had swelled a little at sight of her, and he had been half inclined to tell her he was sorry for that blow, and then had felt the pride rise in him, and had said to himself that the girl had deserved it — disobeying him, and then jesting at him — and so had struck across the rustling corn, and let her go without a word.

And now she was dead — gone out on the flood to the sea; and he had never told her that he had been sorry for the stab, and never could tell her now.

Would God tell her? or any one of the saints?

Bruno wondered. He felt as if that dead woman whom the river had got stood for ever between him and all the hosts of heaven.

He was a strong man, and his emotions and his intelligence were both unawakened, and his life was much like that of his own plough bullocks; but he shuddered through all his limbs as he rose up from the wooden settle and faced the day. Work with the labourer is an instinct, as watching is the house‐dog’s; and pain may stifle it for a moment, but no more.

He went out and unloosed the bar of the stable‐doors, and brought out his oxen, and muzzled them and yoked them together, and drove them out over the steep slanting fields that ran upward and downward, and were intersected by lines of maples and mulberries with the leafless vines clinging to them, and by watercourses cut deep that the rain might be borne down the mountain side, and by wild hedges of briony and rose and arbutus, with here and there winter‐red leaves of creepers that the winds had forgotten to blow away.

It was a grey morning, with heavy white mists lying over all the valley down below; and on the high hills it was very cold. Bruno drove his meek large‐eyed beasts through the black earth with a heavy heart.

He seemed always to see Pippa as she had used to come, when their father lived, and she was a child, with a black loaf and a flask of wine, out to them on the hill in the ploughing time, and stroked the bullocks, and put round their leathern frontlets gay wreaths of anemones, purple and red and blue, or the berries of the beautiful corbezzolo.

And now she was dead — stone dead — like the mouse the share killed in the furrow.

The bullocks, well used to goad and curse, turned their broad foreheads and looked at him with luminous fond eyes: he was so gentle with them — they were grateful, but they wondered why.

Bruno ploughed all day, and the wind blew up from the sea, and he felt as if it were blowing her long wet hair against him.

“I will do good by the child, so help me — and perhaps they will tell her in heaven,” he said to himself, as he went to and fro up and down the shelving fields underneath the lines of the leafless trees.

 

“Perhaps they will tell her in heaven?” he thought, as he went over the heavy wet clods in the mist.

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