Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 7.

LOCAL tradition has it that all this plain of Signa was once a lake with only the marsh birds calling and the reeds waving in the great silence of its waters — long ago. Their “long ago” is very dim in date and distance, but very clear to fancy and to faith. Here Æneas is a hero born only yesterday, and Catiline brought his secret sins into the refuge of these hills an hour since its seems; and Hercules — one can almost see him still, bending his bold brows over the stubborn rock in that stream where the quail dips her wing and the distaff cane bends to the breeze.

Nay, it is not so very far away after all since the dove plucked the olive off the moun‐ tains yonder, and no one sees anything strange in the stories that make the sons of Enoch and the children of Latona tread these fields side by side, and the silver arrows of Apollo cleave the sunshine that the black crucifixes pierce. Nay, older than tale of the Dove or legend of Apollo is this soil. Turn it with your spade and you shall find the stone coffins and the gold chains of the mighty Etruscan race whose buried cities lie beneath your feet, their language and their history lost in the everlasting gloom.

This was once Etruria, in all the grace and greatness of her royalties; then through long ages the land was silent, and only heard the kite shriek or the mountain hare scream; then fortified places rose again, one by one, on the green slopes, and Florence set to work and built between her and the sea — between her and the coast, and all her many enemies and debts — the walled city of Lastra Signa; making it noble of its kind, as she made everything that she touched in the old time; giving it a girdle of the massive, grey mountain stone, and gateways with carven shields and frescoes; and houses within, braced with iron, and ennobled by bold archways and poetised by many a shrine and symbol.

And the Lastra stood in the green country that is called the Verdure even in the dry city rolls, and saw the spears glisten among the vines, and the steel head‐pieces shine through the olives, and the banners flutter down from the heights, and the condottieri wind away on the white road, and the long lines of the pilgrims trail through the sunshine, and the scarlet pomp of the cardinals burn on the highway, and the great lords with their retinues ride to the sea or the mountains, and the heralds and trumpeters come and go on their message of peace or strife; and itself held the road when need arose, staunchly, through many a dark day, and many a bitter night, for many a tale of years, and kept its warders on the watch‐towers, looking westward through the centuries of war. And then the hour of fate struck when the black eagle, who has “two beaks to more devour,” flew with his heavy wing over the Arno; and the Republic had no help or hope but in Gideon, as she called him:— frank Ferruccio.

Ferruccio knew that the Lastra was the iron key to the gates of Florence. But he had no gifts of gods to make him omniscient, and he was rash, as brave men are most apt to be. With his five hundred troopers he wrought miracles from of valour and of relief, but in a fatal hour he, scouting the country to search the convoys of food that he conveyed to Florence, left the Lastra for Pisa, and the traitor Bandini whispered in the ear of Orange, “Strike now — while he is absent.” And Orange sent his Spanish lances and the Lastra beat them back. But he sent them again as many in numbers against the place as well as all Ferruccio’s army, and with artillery to aid, and they made two breeches in the walls, and entered and sacked and pillaged, and ravished and slew; the bold gates standing erect as they stand to‐day.

Is not the record painted in the Hall of Leo the Tenth?

The brave gates stood erect, but the Lastra was an armed town no more.

Its days of battle were done.

The grass and the green creepers grew on the battlements; and out of the iron doors there only passed the meek oxen and the mules and the sheep.

The walls of the Lastra are very old, and are still beautiful. Broken down also in many places, and with many places where are hillocks of grass and green bushes instead of the old mighty stones, or, worse still, mean houses and tiled roofs. But they are still erect in a great part and very picturesque, with the ropemakers at work on the sward underneath them, and the white bullocks coming out of their open doors. The portcullis still hangs in the gateways that face the east and the west, and the deep machicolations of the battlements are sharp and firm as a lion’s teeth. There is exquisite colour in them, and noble lines severe and stern as any that Arnolfo drew, or raised. “She is so old — our Lastra!” say the people, with soft pride, while the women sit and spin on the stairs of the old watch‐towers, and the mules drink, and the waggons pass, and the sheep are driven under their pointed archways.

Of the Lastra it may be written, as of the old tower of Calais church:—“It is not as ruins are, useless and piteous, feebly or fondly garrulous of better days; but useful still, going through its daily work as some old fisherman beaten grey by storm yet drawing his daily nets.” Its years of war indeed are done; it can repel no foe — it can turn aside no invader; the wall‐sorrel grows on its parapets, the owl builds in its loopholes, the dust of decay lies thick upon its broken stairs; in its fortified places old women spin flax and the spiders their webs; but its decay is not desolation, its silence is not solitude; its sadness is not despair; the Ave Maria echoes through it morning and night; when the warm sunrise smites the battlements, its people go forth to the labour of the soil; when the rays of the sunset fill the west, there rises from its mountains a million spears of gold, as though the hosts of a conquering army raised them aloft with a shout of triumph; it garners its living people still as sheep within a fold —“its bells for prayer still rolling through its rents.” Harvest and vintage and seed‐time are precious to it: fruits of the earth are brought within it; the vine is green against its doors, and the corn is threshed in its ancient armouries; beautiful even where unsightly; hoary with age, yet linked with living youth; noble as a bare sea cliff is noble, that has kept the waves at bay throughout uncounted storms, the Lastra stands amidst the green billows of the foliage of the fields as a lighthouse amongst breakers; its towers speaking of strength, its fissures of sorrow, its granaries of labour, its belfries of hope.

When a great service was over, and the bishop and the nobles had passed away in their glory, and the bells had ceased for a season to ring, and the white‐robed contadini had gone up amongst their hills, and the families of Lastra had gone within doors and closed their window‐shutters to the sun, the little singer, who loved every stone of the old place, laying off his little surplice, and by a rare treat being free of task and punishment, and sent only to gather salads from the hill garden of his one friend, made his way quickly through the village, and out by the western gate.

Just a child of Pippa’s — with no name or use or place or title that anyone could see, or right to live at all, if you pushed matters closely.

That was all he was — a child of Pippa’s, who had died without a coin upon her, or a roof she could call her own, or anything at all in this wide world except this little sunny‐headed, soft‐limbed, useless thing, fresh as dew and flushed like apple‐blossoms, that she left behind her, as the magnolia‐leaf, dropping brown, to the brown earth, leaves a blossom.

Himself, he did not know even as much as this, which indeed was as bad as nothing to know. To himself he was only a foundling, as he was to everyone else; picked up as any blind puppy might have been, motherless, on the face of the flood.

The old white town had stood him in the stead of father and mother, and nation and friends; and though the Church, purifying him with baptismal water, had given him a long saint’s name, Signa was his true eponymus.

The children had called him Signa, because of the name on the little gilt ball that they were scratched on — the little gilt ball which Nita had hung round his neck by its string again.

“It looks well to give it to him,” she had said to her husband. “And it would fetch so little, it is not worth keeping for oneself.”

So his little locket had been left him — the locket that had been bought that day of the fair, and filled with a curl of sunny‐brown hair, which Pippa had cut off herself in the dusk where the vines met overhead; — and he was called after the word that was on it, first by the children, and then by their elders, who had said, “As well that as any name, why not? the dogs of Jews are often called after the towns that bear them; why not this little cur, so near drowned here, after the place that sheltered him?”

Hence he was Signa, like the town; and in a vague fancy that he never followed out; he had some dim idea that this village of the Lastra, which he loved so dearly, had created him; out of her dust, or from her wandering winds, or by her bidding to the owls that roosted in her battlements: how he did not know, but in some way. And he was thoroughly content; loving the place with a great love quite reasonless, and quite childlike, and yet immeasurable.

He was proud because he had the name. Whey they beat him, he would not cry out, because the Lastra had been brave; so the old people who told stories of it to him said; and he would be brave likewise.

It was like his impudence to dare be brave when honest‐born children squealed like caught mice! so Nita would say to him a score of times, slapping his cheek when Toto had trodden on her gown, or beating him with the rods of alder when Toto had stolen the fritters from the frying‐pan.

“She is a good woman, Nita,” said the neighbours, shaking out the gleaned hay before their house‐doors, or sitting to plait together in the archways; “and Lippo is an angel. To think of them — seven children, and an eight nigh — and keeping, all for charity, that little stray thing found at the flood. Any one else had sent it packing, a poor child, as one could tell by its clothes that were all rags, and no chance for any rich folk ever coming after it. And yet treating it always like their own, share and share alike, and no preference shown — ah, they were good people. Old Baldo, too, not saying even a word, though he was a sharp man about shoe‐leather, and no blame to him, because, after all, who will save the skin of your onion for you unless you do it yourself?”

As from a baby it grew into a little child, Bruno ever and again saw to its wants.

“The child must be clean,” he had said; and he would not have it go in rags.

“The child must be well kept,” he had said; and he would not have its curls shaved close, as Toto’s was.

Then as it grew older.

“Let the child learn,” he had said; and Nita humoured him, because she believed it to be his own offspring, and Lippo, because of that good half of everything, which kept his father‐in‐law in such good humour, and left himself free to idle in the sun, and lie face downward on the stone benches, and do nothing all day long except kill flies.

So Lippo and his wife were very careful to have the child’s curls shine, instead of shearing them close as they did their own babies’, and when he ran into the street would give him a big lump of crust to eat as people passed, and on saint days take him with them to the church in a little frock snow‐white, like one of the straight‐robed, long‐haired, child‐figures in any panel or predella of Della Francesca or the Memmi. He was so pretty that people gave him cakes and fruits and money, just for the beauty of his wistful eyes, and to see his little mouth, like a carnation bud, open to sing his Aves.

And of course there was reason that the child, once home, should give up the cakes and fruits to the other children who were like foster‐brothers and sisters to him, and as for the money, of course he could not keep it, being such a little thing; they took it from his to take care of it — they were good, honest people.

As for the little lad, true he was hungry often, and beaten often, when no one was looking, and worked like a footsore mule at all times.

But then nobody noticed that, because he was always taken to mass, and had the little white shirt on just like Toto, and no difference made, and all his curls brushed out. The curate’s sister said there never was so sweet a soul as Lippo’s, for of course it all was Lippo’s doing; Nita was an honest woman, and true‐hearted; but Lippo it was that was the saint in the house. Another man would have turned the brat out by the ears first sight: not he — he cut the stray child’s bread as big as any of his boys’, and paid for him, too, to learn his letters.

So the curate’s sister said, the neighbours said after her; and Lippo, being a meek man, smiled gently, and cast his eyes down underneath the praise, and said in answer, that no one could have turned a pretty baby like that out after once housing it, and added, with a kindly grace that moved the women to tears, that he hoped the child might be like those gold‐winged porcellini that, flying in your window with the sunbeams, bring good will and peace, the people say.

This day, after the ceremony, the little fellow ran over the bridge and up the hill‐road, where his mother, of whom he knew nothing, had met her death. He was stiff with a severe beating that had been given him.

The night before there had been a basket of red cherries missing, and Toto had been found crunching them in the loft, and Toto had said that he had been given them by Signa, who first had eaten half; and old Baldo, who had got them as a present for the priest, had been beside himself with rage, and Nita had beaten Signa, as her habit and daily comfort was, because he never would cry out, which made him the more provoking, and also was always innocent, than which there is nothing more irritating anywhere.

He was very stiff, and felt it now that the music was all done; but almost forgot it again in the pleasure of the hill‐side and the holyday.

The country was full of joys to the child that he never reasoned about, but which filled him with delight. The great bold curves of the oak bough overhead; the amethyst and amber of the trefoil blossoms; the voices of the wood doves; the jovial croakings of the frogs; the flash of butterflies; the glories of the oleanders here, white as snow, and there rosily radiant as flame; the poppies that had cast their petals, and had round grey heads like powdered wings; the spiders, red and black, like bits of old Egyptian pottery; the demure and dusky cavaletti, that looked like ghosts of nuns, out by an error in the daylight; the pretty lizards that were so happy asking nothing of the world except a sunbeam and a stone to sleep under; the nightingales that were so tame, and sang at broad noontide to laugh at poets; the orchids, gold and ruby, the mimicked bees and flies to make fun of them, because there is so much humour in nature with all her sweet seriousness of beauty; the flies that shone like jewels; the hedges of china roses that ran between the corn; the gaunt stern spikes of the artichokes; the green Madonna’s herb; the mountains that were sometimes quite lost in the white mists, and then of a sudden lifted themselves in all their glory, with black shadows where the woods were, and hazy breadths of colour where the bare marble shone beneath the sun; — all these things, so various, great and small, wonderful and obscure, under his feet, or on the far horizon, were sources of delight to the child, who as he went lost sight of nothing from the little gemmed insect in the dust he trod to the last glow left on the faintest, farthest peak of the great hills that rose between him and the sea.

Nobody had ever told him anything.

None had led him by the hand and bade him look.

Some instinct moved him to see and hear where others were blind and deaf. That was all.

To the ploughman of Ayr the daisy was a tender grace of God, and the mouse a fellow traveller in the ways of life.

To Signa, who was only a baby still, and was beaten most days of the week, and ran barefoot in the dust, the summer and the world were beautiful without his knowing why, and comforted him. For in all the sea of sunshine — as in the music — he forgot his pain.

He ran like a little goat up the road with the green river winding below, and the hills changing at each step with those inconstancies of light and shade, and aspect, and colour in which all hills delight. It was an hour before, always climbing steadily, he reached an old stone gateway set in breadths of grain just golden for the sickle, with a black crucifix against it, and above it a little framed picture of the Annunciation.

He stooped his knee, and crossed himself; then ran between the old stone posts, which had no gate in them, and sent his voice up the hill‐side before his feet. “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!”

“Here!” sang the man’s voice in answer from above, amongst the corn.

Signa climbed the steep green patches that ran between the wheat and under the vines up the face of the hill, and threw his arms round Bruno’s knees.

“A whole day to spend!” he cried, breathless with running. “And are you working? Why it is Corpus Domini. They do not work anywhere!”

Bruno put down the handful of corn that he had just cut and wound together.

“No; one should not work,” he said, with some shame for his own industry. “But those clouds look angry; they may mean rain at sunset; and to spoil such grain as this — and the Padre will not come this way; he never gets so far down on feasts. And you are well, Signa?”

“Oh quite well.”

“But you must be hungry? — running so?”

“No; I can wait.”

“You have had your bread then?”

“Yes.”

It was not true. But then Signa had found out two things: one, that when he told Bruno that he was ill‐treated or ill‐fed at home, there were quarrels and troubles between Bruno and his brother; and the other, that if he let Bruno see that he was at all unhappy, Bruno seemed to be consumed with self‐reproach. So that the child whose single love, except that for the old town itself, was Bruno, had early learned to hold his tongue and bear his sorrows silently as best he might, and tell an innocent little lie even now and then to spare pain to his friend.

Bruno always took his part. It was Bruno who got him any little joy he ever knew, and Bruno who would not let them shave his pretty clustering curls to make a bare round pumpkin of his head like Toto’s; and one day when he had been only seven years old, and Bruno by chance had found him crying, and learned that it was with the smart of Nita’s thrashing, Bruno and Lippo had had fierce words and blows; and late that night the eldest boy of Lippo’s had come and shaken him in his bed of hay, and hissed savagely in his ear:

“You little fool, if you go telling my uncle Bruno we ill‐treat you, he will strike at my father and kill him perhaps, who knows, he is so violent, and then a nice day’s work you will have made for every one; — you little beast. My father dead, and Bruno at the galleys, all through you who are not worth the rind of a rotten melon, little cur!”

And Signa, trembling in his bed, had vaguely understood the mischief he might do, though why they quarrelled for him, and why Lippo gave him a home, and yet ill‐treated him, or why Bruno should have any care to take his part, he could not tell; but he comprehended that all he had to do was to accept ill‐usage dumbly, like the dogs, and bring none into any trouble by complaining. And so he grew up — with silence for a habit: for he loved Bruno.

Bruno, who was fierce and wayward and hated and feared by every one on the country side, but who to him was gentle as a woman, and was always kind. Bruno, who had a terrible knack of flashing out his knife in anger, and who had quarrelled with all the women he had wooed, and who had a rough heartless way of speech that made people wonder he could be of the same blood and bone as mild and pleasant Lippo, but who to him was never without a grave soft smile that took all the darkness from this face it shone on, and who for him had many tender thoughts and acts that were like the blue radish flower on its rough, grey, leafless stalk.

The child never wondered why Bruno cared for him. Children take love as they take sunshine and their daily bread. If it rain and they starve, then they wonder, because children come into the world with an innocent undoubting conviction that they will be happy in it, which is one of the oddest and the saddest things one sees; for, being begotten by men and borne by women, how can any such strange error ever be alive in them?

Bruno put by his reaping‐hook, and let the big bearded turkish wheat stand over for another day. He had risked his own soul to make sure of the wheat — for to Bruno it was a soul’s peril to use a sickle on a holy day; — but he let go the corn rather than spoil the little fellow’s pleasure.

“You can eat something again — come,” he said, stretching his hand out to the boy’s.

Pippa’s child was like her, only with something spiritual and far‐reaching in his great dark eyes that hers had never had, and a gleam of gold in the soft thickness of his hair that did not come from her. He was more delicate, more slender, more like a little supple reed than Pippa ever had been, and he had a more uncommon look about him; but he was like her — like enough to make Bruno still shudder now and then thinking of the dead woman left all alone to the rain and to the river.

“Come and eat,” he said, and took the child indoors.

His house had a great arched door where Pippa had stood plaiting many a night. It had a brick floor and a ceiling of old timbers, and some old dusky chests and presses that would have fetched a fortune in city curiosity shops, and a strong musty smell of drying herbs and of piles of peas and beans for winter uses, and trusses of straw cleaned and cut for the plaiters; and hens were sitting on their eggs inside an old gilded marriage coffer six hundred years old, if one, whose lid, that had dropped off the hinges, was illuminated with the nuptials of Galileo in the style of the early school of Cortona.

Through a square unglazed window there was seen the head of a brindled cow munching grass in her shed on the other side, and through a wide opening opposite that had no door, the noon sun shining showed the great open building that was granary and cart‐shed, and stable and hothouse all in one, and where the oil‐presses stood, and the vats for the wine, and the empty casks.

Against one of the walls was a crucifix with a little basin for holy water, for Bruno was a man who believed in the saints without question; and above the arched entrance there grew a great mulberry‐tree that was never stripped, because he had no silkworms, and magnolias and cistus‐bushes, and huge poppies that loved to glow in the stones, and big dragon‐heads flaming like rubies, and arabian jessamine of divinest odour, and big myrtles, all flourishing luxuriant alike together, because in this country flowers have nine lives like cats, and will live anywhere, just because no one wants them or ever thinks of gathering them unless there be a corpse to be dressed.

“Eat,” said Bruno; and he got the little lad out some brown bread and a jug of milk, and a cabbage‐leaf of currants, which he had gathered early that morning before the mass‐bells rang, being sure Signa would come before the day should be over.

Signa ate and drank with the eager goodwill of a child who never got enough, except by some rare chance on a feast‐day like this; but the larger part of the currants he left on the leaf, taking only one or two bunches.

Bruno watched him.

“Are you going to give them away?”

“I will give them to Gemma — I may?”

“Do as you like with your own. But if you must give them to any one, give them to Palma.”

Signa coloured on both his little pale cheeks.

“I will give them to the two,” he said, conscious of an unjust intention nipped in the bud.

“Palma is a better child than Gemma,” said Bruno, sharpening a vine‐stake with his clasp‐knife.

Signa hung his head.

“But I like Gemma best.”

“When that is said, there is no more to be said,” answered Bruno, who had learned enough of human nature on the hills and in the Lastra to know that liking does not go by reason nor follow after merit.

“Gemma is so pretty,” said the little fellow, who loved anything that had beauty in it; and he ran and got his mandoline out of the corner where Bruno let him keep it, and began to turn its keys and run his fingers over its strings and call the cadence out of it with as light a heart as if his back had never been black and blue with Nita’s thrashing.

“If Gemma broke your chitarra, would you like her the better then?” asked Bruno.

“I would hate her,” said Signa under his breath; for he had two idols — his lute and the Lastra.

“I wish she would break it, then,” said Bruno, who was jealous of this little child for whom Signa was saving his currants.

But Signa did not hear. He was sitting out on the threshold of an empty red lemon‐pot turned upside down, with the slope of the autumn corn and the green hillside beneath him in the sun, and beyond them, far down below in the great valley, and golden in the light were first the walls of the Lastra set in the sea of vines, and then the towers and domes of Florence far away; and farther yet, where the east was warm with morning light, the mountains of Umbria, with the little towns on their crest, from which you see two seas.

With all that vast radiant world beneath him at his feet, Signa tuned his mandoline and sang to himself untired on the still hillside. The cow leaned her mouth over the window‐sill, and listened; cows seem so stupid, chewing grass and whisking flies away, but in their eyes there is the soul of Io; the nightingales held their breaths to listen, and then joined in till all the branches that they lived in seemed alive with sound; the great white watch‐dog from the marshes came and laid down quite quiet, blinking solemnly with attentive eyes; but the cicali never stopped sawing like carpenters in the tree‐tops, nor the gossipping hens from clacking in the cabbage‐beds, because cicali and chickens think the world was made for them, and believe that the sun would fall if they ceased from fussing and fuming:— they are so very human.

Bruno laid himself down face forward on a stone bench, as contadini love to do when they have any leisure, and listened too, his head upon his arms.

The water dropped from the well‐spout; a lemon fell with a little splash on the grass; the big black restless bees buzzed here and there; blue butterflies danced above the grain as if the cornflowers had risen winged; the swallows wheeled round the low red‐tiled roof; the old wooden plough lay in the shade under the fig‐trees; the oxen ate clover and the leaves of cane in fragrant darkness in their shed; the west wind came from the pines above with the smell of the sea and the thyme and the rosemary.

Signa played and sang, making up his song as he went along, in rhymes strung like chains of daisies, all out of his own head, and born in a moment out of nothing, and, beginning with the name of a flower, and winding in with the sun and the shadow, the beasts and the birds, the restless bees and the ploughshare at rest, and the full wheat‐ears and the empty well‐bucket, and anything and everything little and large, and foolish and wise, that was there about him in the midsummer light.

Anywhere else it might have been strange for a little peasant to make melody so; but here the children lisp in numbers, and up and down on the hills, and in the road when the mule‐bells ring, and on the high mountains with the browsing goats, the verse and song of the people fill the air all day long — this people who for the world have no poet.

Bruno, lying face downward and listening, half asleep, to the rippling music, thought it pretty, but nothing rare or of wonder; the little lad played better than most of his age, and had a gift for stringing his rhymes, that was all.

For himself, he was almost jealous of the lute as he was of the child Gemma. For Bruno loved the boy with a covetous love and a strong love, and felt as if in some way or other Signa had escaped him.

The boy was loving, obedient, grateful, full of caressing and tractable ways; there was no fault to find with him; but Bruno at times felt that he held him no more surely than one holds a bird because it alights at one’s feet.

It was a vague feeling with him. Bruno, being an unlearned man, did not reason about his impressions nor seek to know whether they were even wise ones. But it was a strong feeling with him, and something in the far‐away look of the little lad’s eyes as he sang, strengthened it.

Pippa had never had that look; no one had it except the little Christs or St. Johns sometimes in the old frescoes in the churches that Bruno would enter once a year or so, when he went to Prato or Carmignano or Pistoia to buy grain or to sell it.

“That is God looking out of the eyes,” an old sacristan here said once to him, before one of those altar pictures, where the wonderful faces were still radiant amidst the fading colours of the age‐clad frescoes.

But why should God look out of the eyes of Pippa’s child?

Why was God in him more than in any others?

Those children in the frescoes were most fitting in their place, no doubt, amongst the incense, and the lilies, and the crosses, and above the sacred Host. But to sit at your bench, and eat beans, and be sent to fetch in sheep from the hills; — Bruno felt that a more workaday soul was better for this, he would have been more at ease if Signa had been just a noisy, idle, troublesome, merry morsel, playing more like other boys, and happy over a baked goose on a feast‐day. He would have known better how to deal with him.

 

And yet not for worlds would he have changed him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v1.7.html

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