Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 10.

THAT night, when Signa had gone to his bed of hay, and had fallen asleep there, with the tears left wet upon his lashes, Bruno sat still and lost in thought, with his head sunk upon his breast.

The boy must go.

That was sure. That was plain to him.

Signa had begged to stay and do his will in all things — meaning what he said. Touched into passionate repentance of his own hardness of heart by this noble remorse which had bent the strength of the man before him, he had vowed in uttermost sincerity of purpose to live and die on the hill‐side. Bruno, a suppliant before him, had awed and ruled him; as Bruno, a master tyrant over him, never could have done.

When he had been embittering his soul against the love that saved and sheltered him, that love had been returning to him, bringing the fierce, proud, stern soul of the man into supplication before him — him — a child, a debtor, a beggar, an ingrate!

The sharpness of the contrast had stung him to the quick.

At the first words of Bruno he had fallen on his neck in passionate contrition.

His thankless, oblivious, selfish passion had seemed vile to him as a crime.

“Forgive me,” Bruno had said.

But the boy had known that the forgiveness needed was for himself.

That passion may be an infirmity of man; but that ingratitude is a curse of hell.

“I will do what you wish,” he had vowed, in all the breathless eagerness of his repentance. “I shall be happy — so happy! I will never go away — never, never! Let my foolish dreams die. They are not worth a moment of sorrow or regret to you. I shall be happy here — so happy!”

Bruno had smiled; but it was a smile whose tenderness had half appalled the boy.

“My dear,” he answered; “later we will talk of that. I sinned enough against you; I will try to do right — henceforth.”

And when it was midnight, and the boy slept in the little corner chamber with the blessed palm‐sheaf above his head, Bruno sat still and pondered — how to do this right.

Passion had mastered him. The old brutal, swift, savage, unthinking rage, which had done so much evil in his day, had burst out like a smothered flame, and for the first time had smitten the living thing in which all his affections and all his atonement centered. When he had struck his heel down on the Rusignuolo, it had seemed to him as if he were crushing out the devil that was tempthing the boy from his side into all the evil of the world. All his own great love and uncounted sacrifice had been as nothing beside a plaything of wood, a toy of sound and wind! — it had seemed to him as if he gave a kingdom and got back a stone.

In the fury of his pain, all that was worst in him had surged up from its long sleep and broken its bonds. He let all the evil in him loose. He went down into the city and plunged into all the licence that he had sternly shunned so long. He came out from the riot of it cooled and in his right mind, like a man who awakes from the heavy sleep of drugs. Three nights had gone by; he hated himself; he thought of the boy without bitterness and with longing; he felt as if he were not worthy to meet the clear eyes of a child.

He went, in the dull grey rain of the afternoon, into a little dark chapel in the oldest quarter of the city, and kneeled down in the black shadow of it, and confessed his sins. It was his duty, he thought; he had been reared so. He believed that he purified his soul.

He was vile in his own sight.

In his remorse, the broken Rusignuolo seemed to him — no less than it had seemed to Signa, mourning it on the hillside — a human thing, with a voice from heaven in it, that he had hurled into death and silenced by a deed as cruel as Cain’s.

He went homeward, along the familiar road, with the Ave Maria bells ringing through the fog. As he went, he struggled hard with himself. He hated this madness, as it seemed to him, which had taken possession of the boy. He hated it at once with the jealousy of an affection which beheld in it an irresistible rival, and with the superstitious fear which an uneducated intelligence has of an incomprehensible mental power.

Bruno was of the same stuff as the men who in earlier ages burned the magic out of creatures whom they believed bewitched, and thought the ruthless torture that they dealt a righteous service both to God and man. In his sight, it was a sorcery which enthralled Signa, and made him blind to all the peace and safety and plenty and sweetness of the life upon the hills.

But, with the bating of his fury, the calmness of reason had returned to him. It was a sorcery — that he thought; but it was one which there was no combating — that he saw also. He saw that it would only be possible to stifle it, by destroying the very core of the boy’s life.

He might keep his hand on the throat of his nightingale — true; but, under the pressure, the life would go out with the song.

Though to him this strange absorbing instinct which killed all other was beyond any possible comprehension, Bruno, by the force of his love for the lad, knew that he must let him go, or see him fade away into a hopeless and joyless creature, for ever beating and thirsting to be free.

As he went along the road in the rain which he never felt, under the sound of the bells which he never heard, he thought, and thought, and thought — tearing the selfishness out of his heart with the same haste and rage as in other years he had hurled oaths or stricken steel at those who had offended him.

To do right by the boy.

That had been his first intent, his sole desire, since, driving his cattle out on the day after the flood, he had made his mute promise to dead Pippa.

But, what was right?

He did not know. His reason as a man told him that, the strong instincts of the brain being stifled, the boy would fall into a feeble, worthless, and unhappy thing. His ignorance as a peasant made him fear, with all a peasant’s dread of the unknown and the unseen, the world into which Signa pined to soar away, and the art which usurped all his desires.

Music! — well, what was it? Just a thing that came to every flute‐voiced girl carrying her linen to the river’s brink, every lithe‐fingered shepherd or ox driver who, when his work was done, thrumbed on a mandoline before the cottage door.

This power which took empire over the boy and drove him from all paths of custom and of duty, and made him happy with a few signs upon a piece of paper; — that was beyond all sense and meaning to him; — a horrible exaggeration and distortion of an innoccent thing, such as men sent who had the evil eye.

Which would be right?

To burn and stamp this madness out of the young soul? — or to let it have its way and trust to heaven?

If only he knew! —

In the Lastra the lamps were burning. There was a funeral going through the gates; the bier borne by the brothers of the Misericordia.

Unconsciously, from habit, he stood still and crossed himself, and uncovered his head. When it had passed a thought had come to him.

He entered the church where Luigi Dini was putting out the lights after benediction. Bruno went up to him without greeting.

“Old Maso told the lad men by music have been greater than kings. Is that a lie?”

The old sacristan was used to him, and took no offence.

“It is a truth,” he answered.

“Can the lad be great?”

“I think so.”

“But is that happiness?”

“No.”

“What is the use of it then?”

“It is what is not happy that speaks to men of God. Happy men think of their coffers — of their children — of their bodies — of their appetites: they are content with all that.”

“You have known a great man?”

“Never out of books.”

“And happy men?”

“Yes; they were three parts fool, and the rest rogue.”

Bruno was silent: he wanted to be as God to the lad. He wanted to give him endless daylight and ceaseless peace. He wanted to be his fate; and stand always between him and pain and sorrow and accident and the calamities of earth.

The old man looked up at him, and understood his thought.

“You cannot do it,” he said, answering what was not spoken. “It is not given to any life to be the providence of another.”

The veins swelled on Bruno’s forehead: a heavy sigh broke from him: he was never a man to let another know the thing he felt, but now pain mastered him — the miserable pain of irresolution and of uncertainty, and of that sense, beyond all others oppressive, of combating in the dark an unseen and unmeasured force.

He stretched his hands out with an unconscious gesture, as of a blind man seeking guidance.

“Look: you know the boy as well as I. Better maybe. For his soul is dark to me. He is higher than I. It is as when a bird goes up — up — against the sun. You cannot follow it. There is too much light where it is gone. I only want to do the best. For me it does not matter. You see I have got the bit of land for him; the land on the mountain; I have made it good land and rich, and it is a safe provision for him all his days. But, then, when he breaks his heart at thoughts of it, and is crazed to learn and talks of being great — if only I could tell what to do? Perhaps it is a boy’s whim, and to do right one should be hard with him and rough, and stamp it out, and seem cruel now, and he would be thankful in a few years’ time? And then again, if one made a mistake — if one did the wrong thing — if he sighed and fretted, and wanted what he had not, and were never content, and fell away to feebleness and uselessness — how would one forgive oneself — ever? How can I tell? I do not understand. If, at seventeen, they had said to me, ‘There is a bit of good land all for you; all your own, and you beholden to no man, and working all for yourself, and sharing with no master;’ I should have been mad with joy and pride. I should have seen nothing but my corn and my grapes. I should have thought I was better off than anyone else in the wide world. Why should it not be so with him? I do not understand. He is Pippa’s boy. He has our blood in him. He should love the soil. He did not get his dreams from Pippa. If one only knew; — for me it does not matter. I will cut off my right hand if that will serve him; if that will keep his soul here and hereafter. But what he wants seems madness. Is it a devil that lures him? Or is it an angel calls? How can one know? I want to do the thing that best will serve him. But how to find it? Tell me, if you know. Do not think of me. For me it does not matter.”

He ceased, and leaned his hand on the rail before the dark altar on which the last light had just sunk out; the rail shook with the trembling of his strong nerves; his head dropped upon his chest.

The old man looked at him a moment.

“You will be lonely if he go — it is not fair to you: you have done all for him all his life.”

Bruno gave an impatient gesture.

“I say — for me it does not matter. I can live alone. Answer for the boy — as if I were dead, and there were only him to think of — for his good.”

“Then I say — let him go.”

Bruno was silent. He breathed hard.

“Let him go,” repeated the sacristan. “I never knew a great man. No. My path did not lie that way. But I did know one, a man that might have been great. Truly great, I think. It was when I was a lad. He was a little older than I was. He travelled with the first little troop that I belonged to then; singers, and actors, and musicians, all of us, going from town to town as the fairs, and the feasts, and the carnival, and the vintage, fell. You have heard me talk of it. He was the son of a poor organist, and was himself a violin‐player, hardly more than a boy, just keeping body and soul together; he played divinely, and he wrote beautiful things just as your boy does now. People would weep to hear him. It was like nothing mortal. He had an old mother, widowed, and a little sister in Perugia. They lived wretchedly. He sent them every coin that he could get. He stinted himself. One night while he was playing he fainted. It was only hunger. Hunger is so common. The world is so full. He used to dream of greatness, just as your lad does. And indeed the things he made were perfect, only he had so little time; and never had any chance to get them heard. One day he had a letter from his mother. His grandfather, a hard man, who had denounced her for her marriage, had relented and had offered to take home my Claudio into his house and way of business, on condition that he should touch no note of music ever again. The old man was a money‐changer and banker in the north, sharp and keen, and hard as any stone. The mother and the little sister implored him; they starved for all that he could do; and here were peace and plenty, only waiting for his will. They wrote and wrote and wrote; then at last they came. They wept, and raved, and entreated, and reproached. They wore him out; he yielded. ‘It will kill me,’ said Claudio. ‘But if it must be — for them —’ That night he burned all he had ever written. It was to him worse than any murder. He believed that he killed his soul. He suffered hideously. Death seemed to pass over him as the flames took his music. ‘No one will ever hear it now,’ he said. And he smiled. I suppose they smile like that in hell, thinking of what they have to see, and of the heaven they will never see. He went. The mother and the little sister were happy. They had enough, and more than enough. ‘Claudio will be a rich man,’ they said to me. They rejoiced in their success. They thought they had done rightly for him as well as happily for themselves. When a year and a little more had gone by I got a message begging me to go to Claudio in Trieste. I was with a theatre in Verona at the time. I did not know how too it; but I felt that I should never see his face again unless I hastened. I crossed the sea. I found him dying. ‘I did my best,’ he said to me. ‘Indeed I did my best. But I died when they killed the music in me. My body has dragged on a little longer, but I died then.’ Then he asked them to let me sing to him; he had kept his vow; he had never played or heard one note. The mother and the sister were there weeping. The old man said, ‘Yes: he may have what he will now.’ I sang to him — as men have sung masses burning at the stake. For I loved Claudio. The dying life flamed up in him as he heard. It came back for one moment into his veins, into his eyes, into his soul. He raised himself with such a look upon his face — ah! such a look; if there be angels indeed they must look so! — and he lifted his voice, and sang with all the strength and beauty of his youth returned to him, the Eterno Genitor, the chant that Metastasio died singing. One moment — but a moment, so it seemed — the glory of the song brought his life back. Then his voice dropped — all suddenly. His mother raised him. He was dead. The old man cried to heaven to take his gold and give him back the boy. But heaven does not hear these prayers, or will not answer them. They told me later he had laboured at the desk with patience, and with constant effort; but it had killed him. When the old man had relented, and would have made him free in his own way, it was too late. If you blind a bird you cannot give sight and liberty again; nay, if you beseech God ever so, even He cannot do it. There are things that done, cannot be undone, by God or by man. His mother lived out her days a rich woman. His sister had a large inheritance, and wedded wealthily. But it had been bought with Claudio’s life, and who shall say what the world did not lose? That is true. He was my friend. It was fifty years ago — all that. Claudio would be old. But the look that was in Claudio’s eyes is in your boy’s. And I think — I think — if you keep him here, and deaden his soul in him, that his fate will be too, the same.”

Bruno made no answer.

He stood still with his head bent by the side‐altar, in the glooom of the church that was only lightened by the brazen sconce that the old man carried in his hand. He had not lost one word; his breath came slowly and loud; he did not understand: he did not know what it was that this dead lad and this living one loved beyond ease and safety, and friends, and peace, and daily bread. He did nto understand one whit the more, but he saw what he must do.

He turned with a heavy sigh like a man who stoops to take up a great burden on his shoulders and walk on with it.

“Good‐night!” he said, simply, and he went through the little dark church lost in thought, and out into the starless, misty night.

Luigi Dini went up the wooden stairs into the room where the brethren keep their robes and masks.

“He will let the boy go,” he said to himself.

The bell had rung for succour for a peasant who had been flung from a mule‐cart on the road going to Sta. Marià; some brethren were busily fastening their cloaks while others got out the black stretcher to go and fetch the wounded man. Amongst them was Lippo, ever foremost in good works.

As Lippo drew the hood over his head he was telling his neighbour how his brother Bruno had lent money out for several years on hypothec to the poor wretch Baccio Alessi, the gilder, in the city, on the fine little piece of land under Artemino, that ran with what he farmed; and of how poor Baccio, being close driven by unlooked‐for calamity, and the cruelty of creditors who had no mercy on a hard‐working creature, had been in direst need, and Bruno, seeing good his time, and taking advantage of necessity, had foreclosed and drawn his claim so tightly and so suddenly, that Baccio Alessi had no chance or claim, and so the land had passed to Bruno; — who, as he once had wasted all his substance on evil‐living and light women, now would make soup out of pebbles and milk a mill‐stone for the sake of his ill‐begotten darling whom he had foisted on the memory of poor Pippa.

“He will let the boy go,” thought the old man, while Lippo, mourning over his brother’s hardness of greed and the poverty of poor Baccio in the city, drew his cowl close and hurried away to help raise the the half‐dead peasant; and Bruno, solitary and musing, went up into the darkness and the silence of the hills.

“The boy must go,” thought Bruno, as he flung his cloak across his mouth against the watery cold, and ascended the sea‐road in the teeth of the wind from the northward.

The outer world was a black and empty space to him. The cities were whirlpools of vice, into which the young were caught as in nets. The only life that he could comprehend, or could believe to be of any worth, was the life of the husbandman living and dying under one roof. In the dreams that made the future beautiful to the lad he himself had no belief. In the greatness that the lad aspired to he saw no reality and no excellence; but only a vague dark chimera of folly that would lead down, down, down, into a bottomless abyss.

He had no consolation of hope.

He had no fond simple belief in some impending though unknown good, such as mothers who love their sons without comprehending them, are solaced by when their children leave them.

To him all beyond was rayless, meaningless, comfortless.

He had said truly; he did not understand.

He only knew that the boy would perish here like the dead Claudio; and so must go.

The rest was with the future. The silent, dark, inexorable future, which he burned to tear asunder as Milo tore the oak, and see the heart of it and the secret; no matter what they were.

All he did know was that he himself was nothing in the life that owed him all.

The boy must go:— go to forget the sweet hill‐side, the hand that gave him daily bread, the old straight wholesome ways, the old clean simple paths, the old innocent natural affections; go to forget them all; go to get drunk on this strange madness of unrest; go to be possessed of this fever of desired greatness.

Bruno cheated himself with no false faiths.

If the boy went now he went for ever.

His steps indeed might return, but the heart and the youth, and the love of him never. If he went to the world and to fame and to art, these would hold him for ever. Bruno knew none of the three, but this he felt. No baseless hopes, no lingering blindness duped him.

Nevertheless he knew that he must go.

Go, whilst he himself stayed to labour for him, and get out of the soil the means for him to pursue the things he wished, and change his visions into reality if such things ever were done in the world; and keep here roof and house and refuge for him, if so be that he should never find his dreams come true, but should return sickened and bruised with effort and with failure.

The boy must go: this was his own portion; to labour here, and get the gold together that would give this young thing wings.

He did not think of that with any regret.

It was to him natural. He had of late years so bent all his energies and all his endurance into working for the good of the boy, that to continue doing this was nothing that seemed to him generous or strange. It was what he had always said to himself that he would do for Pippa’s son.

So he went home to his hills.

The morrow would be All Souls Day.

It was late in the afternoon. He went out of his way to the little church of his daily worship.

Vespers were just over. The old priest was in his sacristy. Two or three peasants were coming out. The little, dark church was being hung with veils of black, here and there, by the sacristan; and a woman, who wept as she worked, was putting up some branches of everlasting flowers — her lover had died in the harvest time.

Bruno went into the sacristy, and laid some money down on the table.

“For Pippa’s soul — to‐morrow!”

The old priest gave him his blessing; he dwelt on the same hillside, and believed in the story of Pippa.

Bruno went out into the twilight.

“She will know I keep faith with her,” he said to himself; and then entered his dwelling‐house, and stood before Pippa’s son, and said —“Forgive me!”

When many hours had gone by, and the boy was at rest, Bruno sat on, with his solitary lamp burning.

He sat motionless while the night waned; not sleeping; wide awake, but half paralyzed as a man under gunshot pain.

He was at peace with himself; at least, he had that deep, sad peace — sad as death — which follows the surrender, for another’s sake, of all the hopes of life.

The calm of a great repentance, and of an unflinching self‐sacrifice were with him. The cold funeral meats wherewith Duty feeds her faithful.

But a great loneliness weighed on him, and closed round him. He felt that he had given a kingdom, and got back a stone.

Like all generous natures, he had poured out his gifts unthinking, ungrudging, and without measure.

His hand were empty, and his heart was desolate.

That was his reward.

It is a common one.

The night wore on; the intense chilliness of coming dawn came into the house like ice; the cock crowed from the stable. He rose and went into the inner chamber, where the boy was; it was only parted by an archway from the common room.

Signa lay asleep, his head upon his arm, his face turned upward. Bruno lowered the lamp, shading it with one hand, so as not to awaken him. Its light fell on his soft young limbs, on his thick lashes, on his beautiful mouth. Bruno looked at him long. Then two great tears gathered in his own eyes, and fell down his cheeks slowly, like the great rain drops that follow storm.

He stood silent for awhile; the lad slept on, unconscious; then he set down the lamp, and blew the flames of it out, and, without noise, unbarred his house‐door, and went into the open air and began his labour for the day.

There was a strong wind blowing from the north. Rain was falling. It was dawn — but dawn without the sun.

 

He yoked his oxen; and alone and in the darkness he began the day.

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