Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 6.

BRUNONE MARCILLO, always known as Bruno, did what all his people had always done for seven hundred centuries and more.

They had been vassals and spearmen in the old warlike times, and well‐to‐do contadini ever afterwards; giving their sons, when need arose, to die in the common cause of the native soil, but otherwise never stirring off their own hillside; good husbandmen, bold men, fierce haters, honest neighbours, keeping their women‐kind strictly, and letting their males have as much license as was compatible with unremitting and patient labour in all seasons.

They were a race remarkable for physical beauty — a beauty that is strictly national; the dark straight‐browed classic beauty which Giotto has put in his Garden of Olives, and Signorelli given to his noble Prophets.

They had always intermarried with mountain races like their own, or taken wives from the Lastra households, where the ancient blood ran pure. The father of Brunone and Lippo had done otherwise; he had taken a work‐girl of the city, a pretty feckless thing, whom he had seen one market night that he had strayed into the Loggia theatre, when a good harvest had put too much loose cash in his pockets, and the humours of Cimarosa’s Nemici Generosi had been making him laugh till he cried.

The girl had become to him a good wife enough, nobody had denied that; but she was not of the stern stuff that the Marcillo housewives always had been, with their busts of Ceres and their brows of Juno, their arms that could guide the oxen and their heads that could balance a wine‐ barrel.

She was timid, and some said false, though that was never proved, and she had not the hill‐born strength of mind and body that these people who had lived nigh a thousand years in the same air possessed.

Her second son, Filippo, or Lippo, inherited her constitution, and with it her supplicating caress of manner and her timidity — perhaps her falseness too; but the Lastra did not think so; the Lastra was fond of Lippo, though he had deserted the ways of his fathers, and dwelt in an idleness not altogether creditable and altogether alien to the habits of his race, who had always been used to labour together, father and sons, and often grandsons, all under the same roof and on the same fields, generation after generation.

When the large family dwindled down to one man, it was out of custom to leave so much land to solitary labourer. But Brunone Marcillo was a favourite with his master, and one of the best husbandmen in the province; besides he was sure to marry and fill the house, they thought, so he was left undisturbed, and the land suffered nothing; for though he loved his pleasure in a wild lawless way, and took fierce fits of it at times, he was devoted to his home‐ stead and his work, and loved his birthplace with that fast‐rooted love of the Tuscan which makes the little red roof under the red waning skies, on the solitary upland, or in the silent marsh, or amidst the blue‐flowered fields of the flax, or above the thyme‐covered, wind‐blown hills by the sea, more precious and more lovely than any greater fate or fairer gifts elsewhere.

All alone on his little farm Bruno became a man well to do, and who could have put money by had he not loved women so well — so they said.

It was a broad rich piece of land that went with the dwelling house he occupied. He grew wheat, and maize, and beans, and artichokes, and had several sturdy fig‐trees that yielded richly, and noble olives that numbered their hundred years, and the vines that marched with his corn were amongst the best in the Signa country.

The half of all its produce was his, according to the way of the land and the provisions of custom, and the house was a better one than most of its degree; and the fields that were his lay well on the open hillside, sun‐swept, as was wanted by vines and grain both, but sheltered from cold winds by the jutting out of the quarried rocks and the woods of ilex and pine that were above.

Bruno was a laborious workman, and was skilled in field labour; he knew how to make an ear of barley bear double, and how to keep blight away, and the fly from the vine.

He could not read; he could not write; his notions of God were shut up in a little square coloured picture, framed and hung up over the gateway into his fields to bring a blessing there; his idea of political duty was comprised in hating any one who taxed him, and being ready to shoot any one who raised the impost on grain; but he was a husbandman after Virgil’s own heart; he wanted no world beyond the waving of his corn, and if a steer were sick, or when the grapes were ripe, he took no sleep, but watched all night, loving his cattle and his fruits as poets their verse or kings their armies.

On the whole Bruno led a contented and prosperous life, and if he had not been so ready with his wrath, might have been welcome in all households; and if he had not been over fond of those fairs in all the little towns where wandering players set up their little music booths, and of the women that he found there, and of the license that is always to be had by any man whose money‐bag has its mouth open and its stomach filled, might also have become a very wealthy man in his own way. But he was fierce, and every one feared him, and he was improvident, and every one fleeced him. And he was lax and lawless in his loves, and had a dangerous name in the countryside amongst the mothers of maidens.

So that he of all men had had no title to be hard upon Pippa: and yet hard he had been always.

The most amorous men and the wildest are usually the most exacting of virtue and modesty in their own women.

He had always hated her: yes, honestly hated her he told himself; and as she grew up into girlhood, and they were shut alone in the same house, always opposed on to another, Pippa’s idleness, and sauciness, and rebellion against homekeeping, and passion for dancing and straying and idling, infuriated him against her more and more with every day that dawned.

Bruno, with all his excesses, never neglected or slurred over his labour. The land and its needs were always first with him. He would have had his sister one of those maidens, numerous around him, who asked nothing better than the daily round of household and field duties; who could reap as well as a man; who could harness an ox and guide him; and who were busy from dusk of dawn to nightfall hoeing, drawing water, spinning, plaiting, shelling beans, rearing chickens, drying tomatoes, setting cauliflowers, thinning fruit‐trees, winding silk off the cocoons, and went to bed with tired limbs and a light conscience, never dreaming of more pleasure than a stroll on a feast‐day with a neighbour, or a new white linen skirt for some grand church function.

“Why was not Pippa like that?” he had asked himself, angrily, ten thousand times, instead of a girl that would hardly do as much as tie up a few bunch of carnations or S. Catherine lilies for the market.

The Marcillo women had always been reared in strong usefulness and in stern chastity. This handsome, buoyant, gay, insolent, idle thing offended him in every way and at every turn.

He would have married her away willingly, and dowered her well, to the first honest fellow; but Pippa had laughed in the faces of all the neighbours’ sons who had wanted her to wed with them. She was in no hurry, she said.

She made all the countryside in love with her, and then turned her back on it with a saucy laugh, and the sunshine in her face was never merrier than whenever she heard that two young fellows had quarrelled about her, and drawn knives on one another, and set all the Lastra talking.

So that when Pippa disappeared many were glad, and none very sorry. Bruno smarted with shame — that was all.

Indeed, when she was gone away, the townsfolk talked of a foreigner, a student and painter, who had been seen with the girl at evening on the road, or by the river, or in the shadow of the old Lastra bastions; a young man with a delicate face, and a playful way, and a gay tongue, who had wandered on foot, with his knapsack and colours, down from the Savoy country and into Tuscany, and had danced often with Pippa, and had been met with her after sunset, on the hillside.

But none had told Bruno till too late, being afraid of his ready knife if a hint were taken wrong, and he had known nothing of these tales until Pippa had vanished, and even then the neighbours were slow to rouse his wrath by telling the scanty rumours they had heard.

Even the young man’s name the people had not known; a youngster lightly come and lightly gone, whom no one took account of, till of a sudden they noticed that he had been unseen since Pippa had been missing. He had lodged a little while above a wine shop, and gone up and down the river, and to and from the old white town, painting; and had danced at the fairs and learned to strum on a guitar, and eaten piles of fruit, and been restless and graceful as a firefly: that was all; and only a few women had observed as much as that.

It told nothing to Bruno; and, besides, if they had told him a hundred times as much, he could have done nothing; a contadino is rooted to the soil, and it no more would have seemed possible to him to travel into far countries than to have used his ploughshare for a boat, or driven his steers to turn the sea like sod.

People had hardly ever though what Pippa’s fate had been. If anything great had come to her, the countryside would have heard of it.

In these little ancient burghs and hillside villages, scattered up and down between mountain and sea, there is often some boy or girl, with a more wonderful voice, or a more beautiful face, or a sweeter knack of song, or a more vivid trick of improvisation than the others; and this boy or girl strays away some day with a little bundle of clothes, and a coin or two, or is fetched away by some far‐sighted pedlar in such human wares, who buys them as bird fanciers buy the finches from the nets; and then, years and years afterwards, the town or hamlet hears indistinctly of some great prima donna, or of some lark‐throated tenor, that the big world is making happy as kings, and rich as kings’ treasuries, and the people carding the flax or shelling the chestnuts say to one another, “That was little black Lià, or that was our old Momo;” but Momo or Lià the village or the vinefield never sees again.

If anything great had come in that sort of way to Pippa, Signa would have heard of it. There is always someone to tell of a success — always someone to bring word, so that the friends may gird up their loins, and go and smell out the spoil, claim the share of it, and remind Momo, as he comes out of a palace, of his barefoot babyhood, and call to Lià’s mind the time when she, who now quarrels with princes, was glad of the day’s bran‐bread.

But none had ever said anything of Pippa. She had dropped out of sight and remembrance, and no one had asked what had become of her, though the girl had been beautiful in her way, darkly, brightly, roughly, tenderly, capriciously beautiful, like the barley blowing from shade to sun — only, no men ever would stand her temper, said the women.

That had been conceded everywhere: and her brothers had been pitied.

Between the day that she had gone over the fields with the farewell word to old Viola and the night that she had stumbled to her death, over the sea, in the dark road, no one had ever heard or known anything of Pippa.

But it was not because her story was a strange one; it was only because it was so common. Mystery is to the tongue of the storyteller as butter to the hungry mongrel; but what is simple is passed over by human mouths as daisies by the grazing horse.

Her tale was very simple.

That fair‐day in Signa she had been so resolute to go to the merry‐making, because of the stranger, who would whirl to the thrum of the mandolin as a bat does when a lamp burns, and who would come through the beanflowers to see her plait straw when her brothers were out in the fields, and who was gay like herself, and passionate, and young, and found but one song worth the singing when the sun went down and the fireflies burned.

Then there had come Bruno’s blow, and the stab in her breast — and all a man’s natural passion of sympathy had been aroused, and all a girl’s terror of her fierce brother’s worse vengeance, if only the truth were known.

And so her lover took her with him when he went back to France, while the beanflowers faded and died; and Pippa loved him like a dog:— poor Pippa! who always having been so saucy of tongue, and stubborn of neck, and proud, and full of petulance, clung like a vine, and crouched like a spaniel, and trembled like a leaf, when once she loved, as all such women do.

Thus the broad shining Tuscan fields were changed for streets of Paris, and the hills of olive for the roofs of lead; and the song of the grilli for the beat of the drum; and the fires of the lucciole for the shine of the gas; and Pippa, a thing of sun and wind and seablown air, fresh as a fruit and free as a bird, was cooped up in a student’s attic, with the roar of the traffic for ever on her ear, and the glistening shine of the neighbour’s house‐roofs for ever before her casement.

He did what he could for her.

He was a landscape painter and a student of Paris. He had a beautiful face, great dreams, ardent passions, and no money, except such little pittance as an old doting mother, a widow in a little Breton hamlet, could send him, by pinching herself of oil and bread. For three months he worshipped Pippa; and this scarlet poppy from the Tuscan wheat glowed on a hundred canvases in a hundred forms; and then of course he tired. Then, of course, the poppy ceased to be a magical flower of passion and of sleep; it seemed only a red bubble, blowing useless in the useful corn.

He thought he hid this from her; but she felt, before he knew, it. Women will always do so who love their lives out in a year, as Pippa did.

The Mimis, and Bibis, and Libis around her were happy enough, with a pot of mignonette for their garden, and a theatre for their heaven, and a Sunday in the woods now and then for their liberty. Besides, they could all chatter with one another, and change their lovers, if need was, and sing little triplets, like little canaries, as they sat sewing at rose‐coloured ball‐skirts, or twirling up their cambric mock‐rosebuds.

But Pippa was in exile. Pippa had the woman’s worst crime of loving over much. Pippa had brought nothing with her but her own full, fierce, fond, little heart of storm. Pippa felt her heart break in this cage.

Pippa could not read. Pippa knew nothing that he talked of, except when he told her that he loved her, and men get weary of saving this too long to the same woman. Pippa could only plait straw — and that not very well; and no one wanted it in Paris.

Pippa, when in the dance‐gardens, one night, struck with a knife at a man who would have kissed her, and wounded him sorely, and when hidden away from the perils that arose, could not be made to see she had done wrong, because Bruno had stabbed her, and she had borne him no malice, and here she was on her just defence, and had done right, she thought. Then her lover grew wroth with her, and Pippa, whose spirit was broken, like that of all fiery creatures when they love, could only sob and kiss his feet; and then — he went elsewhere.

Then came hard winters, and a crying child, and the garret was cold and empty, and debt stole in like a ghost, and hunger with him, and Pippa sold her pearls — real pearls, fished up from the deep sea by coral divers, and worn at fairs and feasts by her with the honest pride of the true Tuscan peasant. Only she never let him know the pearls were sold. She made him think that it was one of his own pictures which had brought them that little heap of gold.

But the money lasted very little time, and the child sickened and died, and the summer came; but that would not banish hunger; and Pippa lost her beauty, and her rich, round, radiant look, and her great brown eyes got a frightened look — because he so seldom kissed her now, and sometimes would give her a little gesture like that which a man gives when he sweeps away quickly with his elbows some dead flower or dropped ashes. Yet still he was good to her — oh, yes — he was good. Pippa told herself so a thousand times a day. He never beat her. Pippa, once so saucy and so proud, was grateful. Love is thus.

Then another winter came, the third one — that was hardest. They had nothing to eat for many days. They sold their clothes and their bed‐linen, and even the copper pot in which their food was stewed; and she had no more pearls.

Pippa had nothing either of her beauty left but her straight brows and her big, lustrous eyes. She was no longer even a bright bubble, as the field poppy was. She was a little dusky peasant, pale and starved, and blown amongst the snow like a frozen redbreast.

“It is the pictures that he cares for,” she had learned to say to herself. She had found his out. She got to hate them, the senseless things of wood and colour, that cost so much money, and now had all his looks, all his longings, all his memories, all his regrets.

She hated even those canvas likenesses of herself, that had blossomed into being with the purple beanflowers, under the summer suns of Signa, when their passion was new‐born.

Pippa loved her lover with the same love, fierce, and faithful, and dog‐like, and measureless, as when he had first taken her small head within his hands, and kissed her on the eyes and mouth.

But it was a love that could understand nothing; least of all, change.

One day, in the bitterness of the mid‐winter, after weeks of hunger, and the shameful straits of the small debts that make the commonest acts and needs of daily life a byword and reproach, she woke to find herself alone.

There were twenty gold pieces on the bed, long stript of all its covering, and a written line or two. She took the paper to the woman of the house below, who read it to her. It hold her that he was gone to Dresden to copy a famous picture for a wealthy man; he sent her all the sum they had advanced him, and said a little phrase or two of sorrow and of parting, and of hope of better days, and of the unbearable pain of such beggary as they had known. He spoke vaguely of some union in the future.

Pippa cast the twenty gold pieces into the mud of the street, where the poor scrambled and clutched and fought for them. She understood that she was forsaken.

All he had said was true; but the great truth was what he had not said. Pippa was ignorant of almost everything; but this she knew enough to know.

That night they took her to a madhouse, and cut close the long brown braids of her hair, and fastened together the feet that had used to fly, as the wind flies, through the paths of the vines in summer.

Poor Pippa! She had always plaited ill; the women had always said so.

In half‐a‐year’s time she gave birth to a child, and her reason came back to her, and after a time they let her go. She promised to go to her own country.

But she cheated them, and went to Dresden. She had kept that name in her mind. She got there as best she could, begging on the way or working; but of work she knew so little, and of workers there were so many. She carried the child all the way. Sometimes people were good to her; sometimes they were bad; oftenest they were neither one nor the other. Indifference is the invincible giant of the world.

When she reached Dresden it was summer. The city was empty.

With much trouble she heard of him. The copy was done, and he was gone back to France.

“Perhaps he does not want you. If he wanted you he would not leave you,” said a comely woman, who was sorry for her, but who spoke as she thought, giving her a roll of bread under a tree in the street.

“Perhaps he does not want me,” thought Pippa. The words awoke her memory. She had been left by him. He would not have left her unless he had been tired — tired of all the poverty and pain, and of the passion that had lost its glow, as the poppy loses its colour once being reaped with the wheat.

There was a dull fierce pain in her. There were times when she wished to kill him. Then at other times she would see a look of his face in the child’s and would break into an anguish of weeping.

Anyway, she set backward to find him.

Carrying the child, that grew heavier with each day, and travelling sometimes with gipsies and vagrants, and mountebanks, but more often alone, and begging her bread on the way, she got back into France after many months. She had got stupid and stunned with fatigue and with pain. She had lost all look of youth, but she kept the child as fresh as a rose; and now and then she would smile, because his mouth laughed like her lover’s.

Back into Paris she went. The strange fortunes that shelter the wretched kept her in health and strength, though she rarely had a roof over her at night, and all she ate were the broken pieces that people gave her in pity.

In his old haunts it was easy to hear of him; he had gone to study in Rome.

“He will do well for himself, never fear,” they said in the old house on the Seine water, where her dream of joy had dreamt itself away. Some great person, touched by his poverty and genius, and perhaps by his beauty, had given him the means to pursue the high purposes of his art at leisure. Some said the great person was a woman, and a princess: no one knew for sure. Anyhow, he was gone to Rome.

Pippa knew the name of Rome.

People had gone through Signa sometimes, to wind away by the sea road, amongst the marshes and along the flat sickly shores, to Rome. And now and then through Signa, at fair time, or on feast days, there had strayed little children, in goatskins, and with strange pipes, who played sad airs, and said they were from Rome.

But the mountains had always risen between her and Rome. It had always been to her far off as some foreign land. Nevertheless, she set out for Rome by the sole way she knew — the way that she had travelled with him — straight across France and downward to the sea, and along the beautiful bold road, under the palm trees and the sea alps, and so along the Corniche back to Signa.

She knew that way; and toilsome though it was, it was made sweet to her by remembered joys.

He had gone with her; and at every halting place there was some memory so precious, yet so terrible, that it would have been death to her, only the child was there, and wanted her, and had his smile, and so held her on to life.

Her lover had been with her in the summer and autumn weather; and all the way had been made mirthful with love’s happy foolish ways; and the dust of the road had been as gold to her, because of the sweet words he murmured in her ear: and when they were tired they had leaned in one another’s arms, and been at rest; and every moonlit night and rosy morning had been made beautiful, because of what they read in each other’s eyes and heard in the beating of each other’s hearts.

Pippa had forgotten nothing; she had only forgotten that she had been forsaken.

Women are so slow to understand this always; and she, since that day when she had flung the money in the street, and fallen like a furious thing, biting the dust, and laughing horribly, had never been too clear of what had happened to her.

There was the child, and he — her love — was lost. This was all she knew.

Only she remembered every trifle, every moment of their first love time; and as she went, walking across great countries as other women cross a hayfield or a village street, she would look at the rose‐bush at a cabin door, and think how he had plucked a rosebud there; or touch a gate rail with her lips, because his hand had rested on it; or lift the child to kiss a wayside crucifix, because he had hung a rope of woodbine there and painted it one noonday; and at each step would murmur to the child, “See, he was here — and here — and here — and here,” and would fancy that the baby understood, and slept the sweeter because told these things.

Poor Pippa! — she had always plaited ill.

Women do, whose only strand is one short human love.

The tress will run uneven; and no man wants it long. Still, it is best to love thus. For nothing else is Love.

So she had walked on, till the golden autumn weather lost its serenity, and stirred with strife of winter wind and rain; so she had walked, and walked, and walked — a beggar girl for all who met her, with no beauty in her, except her great, sad, lustrous eyes — until she found herself come out once more on that familiar road which she had trodden daily in her childhood and her girlhood, with her hank of straw over her arm, and a pitcher of milk, or a sheaf of gleaned corn, or a broad basket of mulberries balanced on her head.

She thought she would see Bruno — just once. He had been rough and fierce with her; but once she could have loved Bruno, if he would have let her do so. She thought she would show him the child, and ask him — if she never got to Rome —

 

Then her foot slipped, and she fell down into darkness, and of Pippa there was no more on earth — only a dead woman, that the flood took out, with the drowned cattle and the driftwood, to the sea.

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