Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 1.

WHEN he reached Prato it was quite night. Most of the houses were shut up; but, as it had been a great fair day, there were lights in many places, and little knots before winehouse doors, and groups coming and going to the sound of mandolines, laughing and romping about the old crooked streets.

There was a bright moon above the old town where Fra Lippo once lived. The shadows of walls, and gables, and toweres, and roofs, were black as jet. The women and youths danced on the pavement, while somebody strummed a guitar for them. Thre was a smell of spilt wine and dead flowers. Some mountebanks, in scarlet and blue and silvery spangles, were coming down a lane, having finished their night’s work, drum and fife sounding before them.

Bruno saw nothing of all this.

He only looked for a little, thin, pale face with big brown eyes as bright as stars.

He stopped the pony before a little osteria that was open, because some men were still playing draughts and drinking in its doorway, and bid them put the beast in the stable; and asked if they had seen a little boy and a girl somewhat younger, they boy having a fiddle with him, and long hair.

The people did not know; they had not noticed; scores of children and country‐folks had been about Prato all the day.

Bruno left the pony and baroccino with them, and wandered out where chance took him. He had no acquaintance in Prato. He had only come there a few times to buy or sell, if there were a good chance to do either with profit.

But he inquired of every creature he saw for the children.

He asked the girls dancing. He asked the old man raking up the melon‐rinds and fig‐skins out of the dust. He asked the women barring up their casements for the night. He asked the lovers sauntering in the white, moon‐lit midnight, with their arms round one another. He asked the dusky monk, flitting like a brown shadow from one arched doorway to another. But none could tell him anything; nobody had noticed; some thought they had seen a little fellow with a violin, but were not sure; one girl had, she knew, and had thought that he had played prettily; and remembered there had been a crowd about him; but where the child had gone, had no idea.

“He must be in the town,” thought Bruno, and looked for him in every nook of shadow — under arches or on the steps of shrines, thinking to find them curled up asleep, like kittens after play.

He tramped through and through the town, not staying for any rest or drink, footsore and heartsore, and putting away form him as best he could the dark perplexity of how he should tell the child the truth, without risking the loss of his affections; or, keeping his secret, save the boy from Lippo.

As he went pondering, with midnight tolling from the ancient bells above him, one of the mountebanks came to him down a dim passage‐way, a rose‐coloured and gold‐bedizened figure, skipping in the shadows with a mask on, and a bladder that it rattled.

“Are you looking for two children?” it said to him through its grotesque visage. “I can tell you of him — a little lad with a fiddle, and a pretty baby, white as a lily. They were here all day in Prato. And this evening Giovacchini, whom we call the Ape, took them both off with him to the sea. They went willingly! — oh,they went willingly! The Ape’s children always do; only they never know what they go to! Do you understand? The Ape has such a pretty cajolery with him. He would make the little Gesu off the very altars dance and play for him. But if you are their father, as I take it, follow them to Livorno, the Ape will take ship there at once. Follow them. For the Ape is — not so pleasant when children once are out of sight of shore. You understand!”

And, singing, the mountebank, with his masked face grinning from ear to ear, rattling his peas in his gilded bladder, skipped away as he had come, too suddenly and swiftly for Bruno to stretch a hand to stay him.

“Is that true?” cried Bruno, with a great gasp. He felt as if a strong hand had gripped his heart and stopped its beating.

An old man, raking the fruit skins that revellers had left on the stones, looked up from his basket of filth.

“I daresay it is true,” said he. “Why not? That man they call the Ape seeks pretty children, and catches some, and takes them off to strange countries, to go about and play and dance, or sell the plaster casts, or grind the barrel organs. I have heard of him. It is a trade, like any other. He always takes care that they go willingly. Still, if you be their father, and have no mind to lose them, best be off. He would be sure to go to sea at once.”

“The sea! Where is the sea?” said Bruno.

He did not know, except that it was somewhere where the sun went every night.

“Go to Livorno. They have gone to Livorno safe enough. The Ape will be sure to ship with them, and he got a score more I warrant! Go to Livorno.”

“Livorno!” the name told hardly anything to Bruno; it was where the fish came from, that was all he knew, and the river ran there; and now and then from it to Signa there would come some seafaring fellow home for a week to his parents or brothers, bringing with him tales of strange coutnries, and weeds that smelt of salt, and wonderful large shells; and such a one would put up in one of the chapels a votive‐offering, picturing a shipwreck, or a vessel burning on the ocean, or a boat straining through a wild white squall, or some such peril of deep waters from which he had been delivered — that was all Bruno knew.

Except into the great towns to sell or buy seeds or oxen, Bruno had never stirred from the hill he was born on, and to quit it had never entered his imagination.

To him, Livorno was as Nova Zembia or the heart of Africa is to denizens of wider worlds.

The contadino not seldom goes through all his life without seeing one league beyound the fields of his labour, and the village that his is registered at, married at, and buried at, and which is the very apex of the earth to him. Women will spin and plait and hoe and glean within a half a dozen miles of some great city whose name is an art glory in the mouths of scholars, and never will have seen it, never once perhaps, from their birth down to their grave. A few miles of vine‐bordered roads, a breadth of corn‐land, a rounded hill, a little red roof under a mulberry tree, a church tower with a saint upon the roof, and a bell that sounds over the walnut trees — these are their world: they know and want to know no other.

A narrow life no doubt, yet not without much to be said for it. Without unrest, without curiosity, without envy; clinging like a plant to the soil; and no more willing to wander than the vinestakes which they thrust into the earth.

To those who have put a girdle round the earth with their footsteps, the whole world seems much smaller than does the hamlet or farm of his affections to the peasant:— and how much poorer! The vague, dreamful wonder of an untravelled distance — of an untracked horizon — has after all more romance in it than lies in the whole globe run over in a year.

Who can ever look at the old maps in Herodotus or Xenophon without a wish that the charm of those unknown limits and those untraversed seas was ours? — without an irresistible sense that to have sailed away, in vaguest hazard, into the endless mystery of the utterly unknown, must have had a sweetness and a greatness in it that is never to be extracted from “the tour of the world in ninety days?”

But Bruno was almost as simple and vague in belief as the old Father of History, and the idea of the earth he dwelt on was hardly clearer to him than to any Lake dweller in Lacustrine ages. Dangerous people called Francesi were in great numbers beyond that sea whose west wind sent the rain up, and the floods, and the fish; and in Rome God lived, or St. Peter did — which was the same thing: so much he knew; he did not want to know more; it would not have done him any good, the priests said so.

Therefore, when he heard now that the children were gone to the sea shore, it was for him as if they had gone with any falling star into the dusky and immeasurable depths of night. But being a man who thought little but acted fast, and would have followed Signa into the fires of the bottomless pit, he did not tarry a moment, but flung his cloak over his shoulder, and prepared to go straight seaward.

“I will go get the pony,” he said, stupidly, like a man stunned, and was moving off, but the old man raking in the dust stopped him.

“Nay: what good is a pony, forty miles if one? If the beast were fresh you would not be in time. The Ape is there by this time. Go by the iron way. So you wil get to the sea a little after sunrise.”

“The iron way?” said Bruno, dully: the thought was new and strange and weird to him; he saw the hateful thing, it is true, winding every day through the green vineshadows underneath his hill, but to use it — to trust to it — it was like riding the horned Fiend.

“To be sure,” said the old man with the rake and basket. “Come — I will show you the way — it is a good step — you will give me something for charity.”

“I might get a horse,” muttered Bruno, and pulled his canvas bag out and counted his coppers and his little dirty crumpled notes.

He had not very many francs; twenty or so, that was all; just what he had taken in the market on the Friday before. He ahd never been away from home. He had no idea what travel might cost.

“No horse that you could hire would get by day‐break to the sea,” said the old man, who knew he would get nothing by his hiring a horse, but thought he might turn a penny for leading him to the rail. “Think — you want those children — and if you saw the ship just out of port and could not reach her — would you forgive yourself? You would never see them again then — never all the rest of your days. The Ape would take care of that. But go by the quick way. They will come through from Florence in a few minutes. I hear the clock striking.”

Bruno shivered a little under his brown skin. Never to see the boy again! — and what would he say to Pippa on the great day when all the dead should meet?

“For the boy’s sake,” he muttered: there was no peril or evil he would not have run the gauntlet of to serve or save the boy.

“Show me the way — if it be the best way,” he said to the old man, with that curious and pathetic helplessness which at times comes over men who, physically courageous, are morally weak.

“Yes, I will show it you. But you will give me something?” stipulated the rag‐gatherer, shouldering his basket. Bruno nodded.

The old man hobbled on before him through a few crooked lanes and little streets, throwing quaint black shadows on the moon‐whitened pavement with his rake and his rush‐skip. Bruno followed; his brain in a dark confusion, and his heart sick for the danger to the boy.

When they reached the place by the Bisenzio Gate, the iron horse already was rushing in through the cool white night, flinging foam and fire as it came.

It seemed to Bruno as if ten thousand hammers were striking all at once. The showers of sparks seemed to him as from hell itself.

He would watch for thieves alone on the dark hillside in autumn nights. He could break in wild colts to the shafts and fierce steers to the yoke. He would stride through a hostile throng at a brawl, at a winefair, careless though every man there were his foe. He had the blood in him that has flowed freely from Monteaperto to Mentana. But he was afraid of this unnatural and infernal thing. His fancy was bewildered, and his nerve was shaken by it.

He was like a soldier who will face a mine, but shudders from a spectre.

“It is horrible — unnatural — unchristian,” he muttered as the great black engine, with its trail of flame and smoke, stood panting like a living animal.

“But we must use the devil’s work when it serves us. All the saints say that,” said the old man, dragging him to the hole in the wall, and twisting his money out of the bag and getting him his pass in due exchange.

Bruno was like a sheep; he followed mechanically; dull with the ghastly fear of what had happened to the boy, and the vaguer personal terror of the unknown force to which he had to trust.

There were great noise, great shouting, hurrying to and fro; roaring of the escaped steam; lights green and red flashing in the dark.

Confused and uncertain, Bruno caught his bag out of the old man’s hand, sprang in a hole that someone shoved him to; and felt himself moving without action of his own, with the sparks of fire dancing past his eyes.

“For the boy,” he said to himself; and made the sign of the cross under his cloak, and then sat down as he saw others do.

If he went to his death it was in seeking the boy: he would meet Pippa with a clean soul.

The old man hobbled away chuckling. Bruno, true to his word, had given him a penny; but in his palm he held four of the dirty notes, each of one franc.

“I might have taken more,” he said to himself, with self‐reproach. “He never would have known. The saints send one folks in trouble!”

Bruno was borne on swiftly through the night.

With him there were a monk, a conscript, and two contadini with a basket of poultry between them, and two melons in a handkerchief. An oil lamp burned dully overhead, throwing yellow gleams on the young soldier’s boyish face, and the begging‐friar’s brown cowl, and the black brows of the sleeping peasant woman, and the green wrinkled globes of the fruit.

They rocked and thundered, and rattled and flew; the white steam and the rain of sparks drifting past the wooden window.

Bruno was like a man in a nightmare. He only dimly understood the danger assailing the boy. He had heard that men took children to foreign countries; tempting them with fair promises, and then grinding their little souls in the devil’s mill. But it was all vague to him like everything else that was outside the lines of his vines, or beyond the walls of the Lastra.

Only a word of the rag‐picker’s haunted him like a ghost.

The man would take ship; and he, himself, might reach too late and see the ships sailing — sailing — sailing — and never be able to overtake it or see the face of the child again.

The horror clung to him.

He sat gazing into the night; making the sign of the cross under his cloak, and muttering ever and again an ave.

“You are in trouble my good son?” said the monk.

“Yes, father,” answered Bruno: but he said no more. It was not his way to take refuge in words.

A great dull tumult of horror was on him. The strange noise and swaying motion added to it. All the ill that ever he had done in all his life — and it was much — surged up over him. It was divine vengeance on his sins, he thought; he had not clean hands enough to save Pippa’s child. He had been a wild, fierce man, and had never ruled his passions, and had struck rough blows when he should have asked forgiveness; and had been lawless in his loves, and had made more than one woman rue the day his wish had lit on her.

It seemed to him that it must be his sins which were pursuing him. For the little lad was so innocent; why should this misery befall them else?

His thoughts were all in disorder, shaken together, and whirling round and confusing him, so that all he could think of was that ship sailing away and he on shore, helpless:— only now and then, in the midst of his pain, he thought too of his oxen, Tinello and Pastore:— were they hungry? — would the man to whom he had left them have wit to give them their suppers? — would they bellow with wonder at not seeing him in their stable? — if he were a minute late they always lowed for him, thrusting their great white heads over the wooden half‐door.

So his thoughts went round and round, and the night train flew on with him past the shining river in its thickets of cane and acacia, and the grey hills silvery in the the moonshine, and the knolls of woodland with their ruined fortresses, and the vineyards that grew green where ruined Semifonte was levelled with the soil; and the silence of walled Pistoia holding the ghost of great Farinata; and Pisa with her cold dead beauty like a lifeless Dido on her bier; and so past the great dense woods and breezy heathery moorlands of the king’s hunting grounds, till in the light of the moon a white streak shone, and the monk pointing to it said to them:

 

“There is the sea.”

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