Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 9.

THE child Signa ran on through the soft gray night.

Toto was afraid of the night, but he — never.

The fireflies ran with him along the waves of the standing corn. Wheat was cut first on the sunniest land, and there was much still left unreapen on the lower ground.

One wonders there are no fairies where there are fireflies, for fireflies seem fairies. But no fairies are found where the Greek gods have lived. Frail Titania has no place beside Demeter; even Puck will not venture to ruffle Pan’s sleep; and where the harp of Apollo Cytharœdus was once heard, Ariel does not dare sing his song to the bees.

Signa caught a firefly in his hand and watched it burn a minute and then let it loose again, and ran on his way.

He wished he could be one of them, up in the air so high, with that light always showing the mall they wished to know; seeing how the owls lived on the roofs of the towers, and how the bees ruled their commonwealth on the top of the acacias, and how the snow blossom came out of the brown magnolia spikes, and how the cypress tree made her golden balls, and how the stone‐pine added cubics to his height so noiselessly and fast, and how the clouds looked to the swallows that lived so near them on the chapel belfries, and how the wheat felt when it saw the sickle, and whether it was pained to die and leave the sun, or whether it was glad to go and still the pain of hungry children. Oh what he would ask and know, he thought, if only he were a firefly!

But he was only a little boy with nothing to teach him anything, and a heart too big for his body, and no wings to rise upon, but only feet to carry him, that were often tired, and bruised, and weary of the dust.

So he ran down towards the Lastra, stumbling and going slowly, because he was in the dark, and also because he was so constantly looking upward at the fireflies, that he lost his footing many times.

Across the bridge, he turned aside and went up into the fields to the right of him before he walked on to the Lastra.

Between the bridge and the Lastra it is a picturesque and broken country. On one side is the river, and on the other hilly ground, green with plumes of corn, and hedges of briar‐rose, and tall rustling poplars, and up above, cypresses; and old villas, noble in decay, and monasteries with frescoes crumbling to dust, and fortresses that are barns and stables for cattle, and convent chapels, whose solitary bell answers the bells of the goats as they graze.

Signa ran up the steep grassy ways a little, and through a field of two under the canes, twice his own height, and came to a little cottage, much lower, smaller, and more miserable than Bruno’s house; a cottage that had only a few roods of soil apportioned to it, and those not very arable.

Before its door there were several sheaves of corn lying on the ground; all its produce except the few vegetables it yielded. The grain had been cut the day before and was not carried in on account of the day being a holy one, for its owner did not venture to risk his hereafter as Bruno had dared to do.

The man was sitting on the stone bench outside his door; a good‐humoured fellow, lazy, stupid, very poor, but quite contented. He was one of the labourers in the gardens of a great villa close by, called Giovoli. He had many children, and was as poor as it is possible to be without begging on the roads.

“Where is Gemma,” called Signa. The man pointed indoors with the stem of his pipe:

“Gone to bed, and Palma too, and I go too, in a minute or less; you are out late, little fellow.”

“I have been with Bruno,” said Signa, unfolding his cabbage leaf and his currants in the starlight, that was beginning to gleam through the deep shadow of the early evening. “Look, I have brought these for Gemma; may I run in and give them to her? They are so sweet!”

The gardener, who was called Sandro by everybody, his name being Alessandro Zanobetto, nodded in assent. He was a good‐natured, idle, mirthful soul, and could never see why Lippo’s wife should treat the child so cruelly; he had plagues enough himself, but never beat them.

“If Gemma be asleep she will wake, if there be anything to get,” he said, with a little chuckle; himself he thought Palma worth a thousand of her.

Signa ran indoors.

It was a square‐built place, all littered and untidy; there were hens at roost, and garden refuse, and straw with a kid and its mother on it; and a table and a bench or two, and a crucifix with a bough of willow, and in the corner, a bed of hay upon the floor, sweet‐smelling, and full of dry flowers.

Two children were in it, all hidden in the hay, except their heads and the points of their feet.

One was dark, a little brown, strong, soft‐eyed child, and the other was of that curious fairness, with the hair of reddened gold, and the eyes like summer skies, which the old Goths have left here and there in the Latin races. Both were asleep.

They were like two little amorini in any old painting, with their curving limbs, and their curly heads, and their rosy mouths, curled up, in the withered grasses; the boy did not know anything about that, but he vaguely felt that it was pretty to see them lying so, just as it was pretty to see a cluster of pomegranate flowers blowing in the sun.

He stole up on tiptoe, and touching the cheek of the fair one with a bunch of currants, laughed to see her blue bright eyes open wide on him with a stare.

“I have brought you some fruit, Gemma,” he said, and tried to kiss her.

“Give me! give me quick!” cried the little child tumbling up half erect in the hay, the dried daisies in her crumpled curls, and her little bare chest and shoulders fit for a statue of Cupid. She pushed away his lips; she wanted the fruit.

“If I do not eat it quick, Palma will wake,” she whispered, and began to crunch them in her tiny teeth as the kid did its grasses. The dark child did wake, and lifted herself on her elbow.

“It is Signa!” she cried, with a little coo of delight like a wood pigeon’s.

“I kept you no currants, Palma!” said Signa, with a pang of self‐reproach. He knew that he had done unkindly.

Palma looked a little sorrowful. They were very poor, and never hardly tasted anything except the black bread, like dogs.

“Never mind; come and kiss me,” she said, with a little sigh.

Signa went round and kissed her. But he went back to Gemma again.

“Good‐night,” he said to the pretty white child, sitting up in the hay; and he kissed her once more. So Gemma was kissed twice; and had the currants as well.

Palma was used to that.

Signa ran out with a hardened conscience. He knew he had been unjust; but then if he had given any of the currants to Palma, Gemma never would have kissed him at all.

He liked them both; little things of ten and nine, living with their father and their brothers close to the gates of the great garden, low down on the same hill where, higher, Lippo’s sheep were kept.

He liked them both, having seen them from babyhood, and paddled in the brook under the poplars with them, and strung them chains of berries, and played them tunes on the pipes he cut from the reeds.

They were both his playfellows, pretty little things, half‐naked, bare‐footed, fed by the air and the sun, and tumbling into life, as little rabbits do amongst the grass.

But Palma he did not care about, and about Gemma he did. For Gemma was a thousand times prettier, and Palma loved him always, that he knew; but of Gemma he never was so sure.

Nevertheless, he knew he had not done them justice about those currants, and he was sorry for it, as he ran along the straight road in to the Lastra, and with one look upward to the gateway that he loved, though he could not see the colour on the parapet because it was dark, he darted onward quickly lest the gate should close for the night and he be punished and turned backward, and hurried up the passage into Lippo’s house.

Lippo lived in a steep paved road above the Place of Arms, and close to the open‐arched loggia what used to be the wood market, against the southern gate. There is no great beauty about the place, and yet it has light and shade, and colour, and antiquity, to charm a Prout or furnish a Canaletto. The loggia had the bold round arches that Orcagna most loved; the walls have the dim, soft brown and greys of age, with flecks of colour, where the frescoes once were; through the gateway there come the ox carts and the mules, and the herds of goats, down the steep paved way; there is a quiver of green leaves, a breadth of blue sky, and at the bottom of the passage‐way there is a shrine of our Lady of Good Council, so old that he people can tell you nothing of it; you can see the angels still with their illumined wings, and the Virgin with the rays of gold, who sits behind a wicket of grey wood, with a carven M interlaced before her, and quaint little doors that open and shut; but of who made it or first set it up for worship there they can tell you nothing at all.

It is only a bit of the Lastra that nobody sees except the fattori rattling over the stones in their light carts, or the contadini going in for their master’s letters, or now and then a noble driving to his villa, and the country folks coming for justice or for sentence to the Prefettura. But there is beauty in it, and poetry; and the Madonna who sits behind her little grey wicket has seen so much since first the lilies of liberty were carved on the bold east gate.

The boy’s heart beat quickly as he went up the stairs; he was brave in a shy, silent way, and he believed that the angels were very near, and would help him some day. Still Nita’s weighty arm, and the force of her alder twigs or her ash stem, were not things to be got rid of by dreaming, and the angels were very slow to come; no doubt because he was not good enough, as Signa thought sorrowfully. And he had sent them further away from him than ever by that unjust act about the currants, so that his heart throbbed fast as he climbed the rickety stairs where the spiders had it all their own way, and the old scorpions never were frightened by a broom, which made them very happy, because scorpions hate a broom, and tumble down dead at the sight of one (cleanliness having immeasurable power over them), in as moral and allegory as Æsop and Fontaine could ever have wished to draw.

Nita and all her noisy brood were standing together over the table with a big loaf on it, and an empty bowl and flasks of oil and vinegar, getting ready for supper.

Lippo was down in the street playing dominoes, and old Baldo was sitting below puzzling out, by a bronze lamp, from a book of dreams, some signs he had had visions of in a doze, to see their numbers for the tombola.

“How late you are, you little plague, I gave you till sunset,” screamed Nita, as she saw him. “And where is the salad — give me — quick!”

“I am very sorry,” stammered Signa, timidly. “The salad? I forgot it. I am very sorry!”

“Sorry; and I waiting all this time for supper,” shrieked Nita. “Nothing to do but just to cut a lettuce, and some endive off the ground, and you forgot it. Where have you been all day?”

“With Bruno.”

“With Bruno — of course with Bruno — and could not bring a salad off his land. The only thing you had to think of, and we waiting for supper, and the sun over the mountains more than an hour ago, and you stuffed up there, I warrant, like a fatting goose!”

“I had some bread and milk,” said Signa. He was trembling in all his little limbs; he could not help this, they beat him so, so often, and he knew well what was coming.

“And nothing else?” screamed Nita, for every good thing that went to him she con‐ sidered robbery and violence done on her own children.

“I had fruit — but I took it to Zanobetto’s girls,” said Signa, very low, because he was such a foolish little fellow, that neither example, nor execration, nor constant influence of lying could ever make him untruthful, and a child is always either untruthful or most exaggeratedly exact in truth — there is no medium for him.

“And not to us,” screeched Nita’s eldest daughter, and boxed him on the ear.

“You little beast,” said Georgio, the biggest boy, and kicked him.

Toto waited about, and sprang on him like a cat, and pulled his hair until he tore some curls out by the roots.

Signa was very pale, but he never made sound nor effort. He stood stock‐still and mute, and bore it. He had seen pictures of S. Stephen and S. Lawrence and of Christ — and they were still and quiet always, letting their enemies have their way. Perhaps, if he were still too, he thought it might be forgiven to him — that sin about the currants.

Nita, with an iron hand, sent her offsprings off, reeling to their places, and seized him herself and stripped him.

He was all bruised from the night’s beating still; but she did not pause for that; but she did not pause for that. She plucked down her rod of alder twigs, and thrashed his till he bled again. Then threw him into the hay in the inner room beyond where the boys slept.

All the time he was quite mute. Shut up in the dark his courage gave way under the pain, and he burst out crying.

“Dear angels, do not be angry with me any more,” he prayed, “ and I only did it to make Gemma happy; and they beat me so here, and I never tell Bruno.”

But the angles, wherever they be, never now come this side of the sun; and Signa lay all alone in the dark, and go no rest nor answer.

“The lute will be sorry,” he thought, getting tired of waiting for the angels.

He told all his sorrows and joys to the lute, and he was sure it understood, for did it not sing with him, or sigh with him, just as his heart taught it?

 

“I will tell the lute,” said Signa, sobbing in his straw, with a vague babyish dim sense of the great truth that his art is the only likeness of an angel that the singer ever sees on earth.

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