Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 8.

IF Pippa had not been quite dead that night when they had found her in the fields? If here had been any spark of life flickering in her that with warmth and care and a surgeon’s skill might have been fanned back again into a steady stream? It was not likely; but it was possible. And if it had been so, then what were he and Lippo?

The sickly thought of it came upon him many a time and made him shiver and turn cold. When he had left the woman lying in the field he had been quite sure that all life was gone out of her. But now he was not so sure. Cold and the fall might have made her senseless. Who could tell? — if they had done their duty by her — Pippa might have been living now.

It was not probable. He knew the touch of a dead thing, and she had felt to him dead as any slaughtered sheep could be. But sometimes, in the long lonely nights of autumn, when he sat watching his grapes, with the gun against his knee, lest thieves should strip the vines, Bruno would think of it, and say to himself —“If she were not really dead, what was I?”

He told all to the good priest in the little brown church beneath the vines on his hill; told it all under the seal of confession, and the priest absolved him by reason of his true penitence and anxious sorrow. But Bruno could not absolve himself.

He had left her there for the flood to take her; — and after all she might have been brought back to life, had he lifted her up on his shoulders and borne her down in to shelter and warmth, instead of deserting her there like a coward.

The water had done it; had washed her away out of sight and killed her if she were not already dead when it rose, and swept her out to the secrecy of the deep seas. But he told himself, at times, that it was he who was the murderer — not the water.

When he looked at the river shining away between the green hills and the grey olives, he felt as if it knew his guilt, as if it were a fellow sinner with him, only the more innocent of the two. Of course the pain and the remorse of it were not always on him. He led an active life; he was always working at something or another, from daybreak till night; the free fresh air blew always about him, and blew morbid fancies from his brain. But at times, when all was quiet, in the hush of midnight, or when he rested from his labours at sunset, and all the world was gold and rose, then he thought of Pippa; then he felt the cold, pulseless breast underneath his hand; then he said to himself —“If she were not quite dead?” The torment of the thought worked in him and weighed on him, and made his heart yearn to the little lad, who, but for his cowardice, might not now have been motherless and alone.

Bruno sat on at his house door that night, watching the little lad run along the hill. He could see all the way down the slope, and though the trees and the vines at times hid Signa from sight, and at times he was lost in the wheat, which was taller than he, yet at intervals, the small flying figure with the sunset about its hair, could be seen going down, down, down along the great slope, and Bruno watched it with a troubled fondness in his eyes.

He was doing the best for the child that he knew. He had him taught to read and write; he had him sing for the priests; he was learning the ways of the fields, and the needs of beasts, tending his sheep and Lippo’s by turns, as a little contadino had to do in the simple life of the open air. he could not tell what more to do for him; he a peasant himself and the son of many generations of peasants, who had worked here one after another on the great green hill above the Lastra valley.

He did not know what else to do.

That was the way he had been brought up, except that he had never been taught a letter; running with bare legs over the thyme on the hills, and watching the sheep on the high places amongst the gorze, and pattering through the dirt after the donkey, when there were green things to go into market, or loads of fir cones to be carried, or sacks of corn to be borne to the grinding press. If there was a better way to bring up a child he did not know it. And yet he was not altogether sure that Pippa, if she saw, from heaven, was satisfied.

The child was thinner than he liked, and his shirt was all holes, and never a little beggar was poorer clad than was Signa winter and summer; and Bruno knew that he gave into Lippo’s pocket more than enough to keep a child well, for his land was rich, and he laboured hard, and he bore with Lippo’s coming and going, and prying and calculating always to make sure how much the grain yielded, and to count the figs and potatoes, and to watch the winepress, and to see how the peas yielded, and to satisfy himself that he always got the full amount they had agreed for; he bore with all that from Lippo, though it was enough to exasperate a quieter man, and many a time he could have kicked his brother out of his fields for all that meddling and measuring; and being an impatient temper and resentful, chafed like a tethered mastiff, to have Nita and her brood clamouring for roots and salads and eggs and buckwheat, as if he were a slave for them.

“The half of all I get,” he had said in the rash haste of his repentance and remorse; and Lippo pinned him to his word.

He would have given the world that instead of that mad bargain made without thought, he had taken the child to himself wholly and told the truth in the Lastra, and given the poor dead body burial, and been free to do with Pippa’s boy whatever he chose. But Bruno, like many others, had fallen by fear and haste into a false way; and stumbled on in it galled and entangled.

Bruno was now over forty years old, and his country folk spoke more ill of him rather than less. When he went down into the Lastra to sit and take a sup of wine, and play a game at dominoes as other men did, none were glad to see him. The women owed him a grudge because he married none of them, and the men thought him fierce and quarrelsome, when he was not taciturn, and found that he spoiled mirth rather than increased it by his presence.

He was a handsome man still, and lithe, and burnt brown as a nut by the sun. He wore a loose shirt, open at the throat, and in winter he had a long brown cloak tossed across from one shoulder to the other. He had bare feet, and the walk of a mountaineer or an athlete. Marching beside his bullocks, with a cart‐load of hay, or going down the river for fish, with his great net outspread on its circular frame, he was a noble, serious, majestic figure, and had a certain half wild, half lordly air about him that is not uncommon to the Tuscan peasant when he lives far enough from the cities not to be contaminated by them.

The nine years that had run by since the night of the flood, had darkened Bruno’s name in the Lastra country.

Before that night he had been, whatever other faults or vices he had had, openhanded to a degree most rare amongst his people. A man that he had struck to the ground one day, he would open his leathern bag of coppers to the next. Whatever other his crimes, he had always been generous, to utter improvidence, which is so strange a thing in his nation, that he was often nicknamed a madman for it. But no one quarrels with a madness that they profit by, and Bruno’s generosity had got him forgiven many a misdeed and many a license, by men and women.

Since the flood, little by little, parsimony growing on him with each year, he had become careful of spending, quick to take his rights, and slow to fling down money for men’s sport or women’s kisses. The country said that Bruno was altogether given over to the devil, he was no longer good to get gain out of even; he had turned niggard, and there was no excuse for him, they averred; a better padrone no man worked under than he, and his fattore was old and easy; and the land that in the old time had served to maintain his father and mother with a tribe of children to eat them out of house and home, now had only himself upon it, good land and rich, and sheltered though on the mountains, whilst, as every one knows, the higher the land lies the better is the vintage. Men gossipping in the evenings under the old gateways of the Lastra, watching Bruno with his empty bullock‐cart go back between the hedges to the bridge, would shake their heads:—

“A bad fellow!” said Momo, the barber, for Bruno never came to have his head shaved as clean Christians should in summer, but wore his thick dusky mane tossed back much like a lion’s.

“Brutal bad!” echoed Papuccio, who was a tailor, with slack work. “No doubt that little fly‐blow is his own, and see how he fathers it on Lippo. Lippo has as good as told me it was that poor Frita’s child by Bruno; you remember her, a pretty young girl, died of a ball in the throat — or they said so — very likely it was Bruno, that wrung her neck in a rage — I should not wonder. He would have left the boy to starve, only Lippo took it home, and shamed him.”

“He is good to the child now,” said Noë, the tinman, who had a weakness for seeing both sides of a question, which made him very disagreeable company.

“Oh hi!” demured the barber, with his under‐lip out in dubious reply. “The other day the little lad was bathing with my youngster, and I saw his back all blue and brown with bruises. ‘Is he such a bad child you beat him so?’ I said to Lippo, for indeed he was horrid to look at, and Lippo, good man, looked troubled. ‘Bruno will be violent,’ he told me quite reluctantly, ‘he forgets the child is small.’ Oh, I daresay he does forget, and when he has him alone there flays him of half his skin!”

“Why say the child was Bruno’s or Frita’s, either. He was found in the fields at the great flood, and Frita was dead a year before,” said Noë, who had that awkward and unsocial quality, a memory. “Not but what I daresay it is Bruno’s, and perhaps he pays for it,” he added with an afterthought, willing to be popular.

“No, not a stiver,” said the barber. “Lippo and Nita have said to me a score of times, ‘we took the boy from pity, and we keep it from pity. Not a pin’s worth shall we ever see back again this side heaven. But what matter that. When we feed eight mouths it is not much to feed a ninth.’ They are good people, Lippo and his wife.”

“Good as gold,” said Brizzo, the butcher, “and saving money, or I suppose it is old Baldo’s; they have bought that little pasture up at Santa Lucia; a snug little place, and twenty little Maremma sheep upon it as fat as I ever put a knife into; — Lippo has God’s grace.”

“A fair spoken man always, and good company,” said Momo, who had shaved him bare and smooth as a melon that very morning.

This was the general opinion in the Lastra. Lippo who had always a soft smart word for everybody; who smiled so on people who knew he hated them, that they believed they were loved whilst he was smiling; who was always ready for a nice game at dominoes or cards, and if he did cheat a little, did it so well that no one could fail to respect him the more for it; Lippo was well spoken of by his townsfolk, and one of the Council of the Misericordia had been often heard to say that there was not a better man in all the province.

But Bruno, now that he chose to save money, was a very son of the fiend without a spot of light anywhere. Now that he would never drink, and now that he would never marry, the Lastra gave him over to Satan, body and soul, and for all time.

Bruno cared nothing at all. They might split their throats for any notice that he took.

“Ill words, rot no wheat,” he would say to his one friend, Cecco, the cooper; who lived across by the bridge, and had a workshop there, with a great open arch of the thirteenth century sculpture, and a square window with crossed bars of iron, and a screen of vine‐foliage behind it that might have been the background of a pietà— so beautiful was it when the sun shone through the leaves.

He went on his own ways, ploughing with his oxen, pruning his olives, sowing and reaping, and making the best of his land, and going down on market days into the city, looking as if he had stepped out of Ghirlandaio’s panels, but himself knowing nothing of that, nor thinking of anything except the samples of grain in his palm or the cabbages in his cart.

Bruno earned nothing for other folks’ opinions. What he cared for was to keep faith with Pippa in that mute compact born of his remorse, which he firmly believed the saints had witnessed on her behalf.

He had cared nothing for the child at first, but as it had grown older, and each year caught hold of his hand more fondly, as if it felt a friend, and lifted up to him its great soft serious eyes, a personal affection for this young life which he alone protected, grew slowly upon him; and as the boy became older, and the intelligence and fancies of his eager mind awed the man whilst they bewildered him, Bruno loved him with the deep love of a dark and lonely soul, for the sole thing in which it makes its possibility of redemption here and hereafter.

He sat now at the house‐door and watched the running figure so long as it was in sight. When the bottom of the hill was reached and the path turned under the lower vines, he lost him quite, and only knew that he must still be running on, on, on, under all those roofs and tangles of green leaves.

He was not quite at east about him. The boy never complained; nay, if questioned, insisted he was happy. But Bruno mistrusted his brother, and he doubted the peace of that household. The children, always grovelling and screaming, greedy and jealous, he hated. It was not the nest for this young nightingale — that he felt. But he did not see what better to do.

Lippo held him fast by his word; and he had no proof that the boy was really ill‐used. Sometimes he saw bruises on him, but there was always some story of an accident, or of a childish quarrel to account for these, or of some just punishment, and he, roughly reared himself, knew that boys needed such; and Signa’s lips were mute; or if they ever did open, said only “they are good to me,”— a lie, for which he confessed and besought pardon on his knees in the little dark corner in the Misericordia church.

Still Bruno was not satisfied. But what to alter he knew not, and he was not a man who could spare time or acquire the habit of holding communion with his own thoughts.

When the child had quite gone out of sight, he rose and took his sickle again and went back to his wheat.

He seldom had anyone in to help him; men were careless sometimes, and split the straw in reaping, and spoiled it for the plaiters. He generally got all the wheat in between S. Procolo’s day and S. Paul’s; and the barley he took later.

The evening fell suddenly; where this land lies they lose the sunset because of the great rise of the hills; they see a great globe of fire dropping downward, it touches the purple of the mountains, and then all is night at once.

The bats came out an the night kestrels and the wood owls, and went hunting to and fro. Nameless melodious sounds echoed from tree to tree. The cicali went to bed and the grilli hummed about in their stead; they are cousins, only one likes the day and the other the night. The fireflies flitted, faint and paling, over the fallen corn. When the wheat was reaped their day was done. later on a faint light came above the far Umbrian hills — a faint light in the sky like the dawn; then a little longer, and out of the light rose the moon, a round world of gold ablaze above the dark, making the tree‐boughs that crossed her disc, look black.

But Bruno looked at none of it.

He had not eyes like Pippa’s child.

He stooped and cut his wheat, laying it in ridges tenderly. The fireflies put out their lights because the wheat was dead.

But the glowworms under the leaves in the grass shone on; they were pale and blue, and they could not dance; they never knew what it was to wheel in the air, or to fly so high that men took them for stars; they never saw the tree‐tops of the nests of the hawks, or the lofty magnolia flowers, the fireflies only could do all that; but then the glowworms lived on from year to year, and the death of the wheat was nothing to them; they were worms of good sense, and had holes in the ground.

 

They twinkled on the sod as long as they liked, and pitied the fireflies, burning themselves out by soaring so high, and dying because their loves were dead.

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