Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 12.

IN the fair bright weather of the spring, when the virgin gold of the daffodills was scattered broadcast everywhere, an old man with white hair and horn spectacles hobbled over the stones by the south gate to the post for a letter, and got it, and went and read it in the shade by the shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel, and then took his way through the Lastra to go across the bridge towards the great hills.

As he went under the west gateway, an old woman put her head out over a window‐board that had roses on and some hyacinths not yet in bloom.

“Is he well?” she cried down into the street.

“Quite well,” said the old man, looking up; and went on between the budding trees.

Before he reached the bridge, a girl raced down the sloping fields, all green with corn. She had great knots of scarlet windflowers and white snowflakes, that she was tying up for market, in her hands. Her feet were wet, because she had been standing in the brook to get the flowers; she had a pitcher slung at her back; her heart beat so high and her breath came so fast that the lacing of her ragged bodice broke.

“Is he coming back?” she asked, and her great black eyes shone like stars.

“Coming back! — no!” said the old man, with a smile. “He must never come back now, Palma. That would never do.”

The girl turned and went away up the fields slowly, letting the snowflakes drop.

The old man went on up the sea‐road.

There was the lovely afternoon light everywhere; all the soil was radiant with leaf and blade; the river was a sheet of gold and green shining like the lizards; the air was so clear that on the highest and farthest heights the smallest dwelling gleamed, white as any pearl, and each tree told; near at hand, along the footpaths, every tuft of grass had the rich ruby and purple of the anemone in it, and the fresh odours of the violet; while the daffodils were tossing everywhere above the short green wheat. But the sacristan looked at none of these things.

He was old.

An hour and more’s sturdy laboured walking brought him midway on the great hill, with the stone‐pines on its summit, and the blue mountain in its rear. A west wind was blowing sweetness from the firwoods and salt from the sea. A man was at work in the beanfields that ran under the olives.

He straightened his back and looked up, shading his eyes from the sun. Then he saw the open letter, and made an eager stride forward.

“Is he happy?” he asked.

“This is the love that loves best,” thought Luigi Dini. And he sat down in the shade.

“Is he happy?” Bruno asked, resting his hand on his hip, under the olive boughs, in the March afternoon.

And the old man answered him truthfully from the letter that was a sealed book to Bruno, “Yes — he is happy;” and read him what the boy said.

Bruno looked at the piece of paper with longing eyes. He wished that in his own boyhood he had learned to read, instead of wading amongst the canes, and climbing for nests of birds, and scaling convent walls to get the grapes, and romping and dancing with every girl he could whenever a mandolin was playing.

Signa wrote the truth; he was happy.

He had a little room in the roof. He heard the clanging of the coppersmiths’ hammers all day long. He missed the freedom of the hills, as all hill‐born creatures shut in cities do. The fare he had was meagre and untempting. To the people whom he was with he was a little peasant, a little student, nothing more; they were too busy to heed him further.

The town was very dark, very chilly, very oppressive; with the furious alpine winds driving through it, and the high arcades shutting in the blackness of the shadows, and the bitternes of the cold, it was like a vast tomb, after the radiance of the sunset and the sunrise from the mountains beyond the Lastra.

Physically he suffered much in his new life. Like Rossini, he had to study his score in his bed, to keep his hands from being numbed to ice. When he went out in the gloom of the streets, it seemed to him as if noon were night. He fainted twice from hunger and the stifling sense of want of air in the class‐room of the academy. He did not know how to breathe, being shut for ever within four walls — he who had been used to dwell on the high hills with the sheep, and wander through the thyme and the gorse like the kids.

Other lads mocked him for a thousand things — for his girlish beauty; for his gentle ways; for his coarse‐spun shirts; for his horror of hurting any creature; for his innocence of mind; for his long thick curls; for his hatred of shoes, which he would fling off the moment that he wanted to run fast; — for a thousand things that made him at once so wise and so foolish, so childlike and so thoughtful; while they were town‐bred world‐ worn young scholars, who knew everything and meditated upon nothing.

He suffered much in many ways.

Yet he wrote no lie when he told them he was happy. He was happy, though always lonely, and sometimes frightened, and very often persecuted. He was happy, looking upward at the face of the St. Cecelia. Happy, learning all that the great professors of his chosen art would teach him. Happy, in his own little attic, that he would fly to for refuge, as a bird to its nest, studying with all the powers of his mind the themes that had been given him to comprehend or to compose; happiest of all, when they ordered him a sonnet of Metastasio, or an ode of Guisti, to be set to music in a dozen different ways, and he could let all his subtlest combinations and wildest fancies have full play, and, sitting in the little dark garret, heard again the “beautiful things” that he had used to hear on his own mountains, till it seemed to him that the Rusignuolo was with him once more.

“I am as happy as ever I can be,” he wrote, not thinking how cruel the words might sound; and wrote the truth.

For cold and hardship did not hurt him much or seem great things to bear upon his training in the house of Lippo. And mockery wounded him little, because he heard so little what they said, being always dreaming; and those in authority over him praised him for his docile ways, and found his talent great; and many women were kind to him for the sake of his fair face with its beautiful amorous‐lidded eyes that never yet had found a woman beautiful; and he believed in his own fate.

Who can do this, is happy.

When life is still a coin unspent, it looks of purest gold, and bears on it, under a bough of laurel, the figures of Victory and of Love. But when it is paid away and gone for ever, its poor change left from it is of base metal. Even if other men still see stamped on its alloy the Victory or the Love within the garland, we who hold the poor coin in our own hands know that the figures struck on it are those of Failure and of Falsehood, and that the laurel‐wreath was copied from a faded knot of fennel.

Signa, whose coin was still unspent, wrote truly, “I am happy.”

Meanwhile another suffered greatly to give him happiness.

Bruno, a poor man as the world measures such things, had always been a rich one in his own esteem. The Lady of Poverty of S. Francis had been a mistress with whom he had never quarrelled.

True, he had to labour in all hours and all weathers; he had to be content with rough bread and onion‐soup most of his days; he had to be abroad in the driving hailstorms as in the scorching sirocco.

But all things are measured by habit and weighed by comparison. Beside such a man as Sandro Zampetti or the poorer peasants on his own hillside, Bruno was almost wealthy, having no need to stint himself for wood or oil or wine, having those fine cattle of his own, and having, whenever he had cause to go down into the city, loose money in his pocket, more or less, for drinking with a friend or idling with a woman. He had never thought of himself as a poor man since becoming, at his parents’ and his brother’s death, the only owner of the old house he and his forefathers had been born in; to have a roof over him and food enough, and to be debtor to no man for anything — that seemed to him wealth.

Perhaps the world was happier when the bulk of its people thought so also.

But now, for the first time in all his life, the check and gall of poverty pressed on him — the chain which rivets to the soil those who gain their bread from it was for the first time heavy about his feet.

He had to send the boy from him; he had to let him go and live alone; he had to trust blindly that all was well. He could not stir. He could not go and see for himself. He could not move and dwell wherever the thing he loved might drift. He had to stay there, and turn the same sods and prune the same trees day after day, month after month, year after year.

For the first time he realised the one supreme good of money — that it gives wings to men.

When the heart of a man or woman is where the feet are, wings are not needed; but when the heart goes longingly far away, and the feet must still abide on the same spot, then the simplest and hardiest yearns for flight.

Gold is the talaria of Hermes.

Bruno, who knew nothing of Hermes, but saw the winged figure painted in a thousand places and modelled in a thousand ways in the friezes of old villas and the streets of old towns, longed for such plumes to his ankles that he might bridge space and see the boy. But freedom and travel were as impossible to him as those feathered sandals. He had to stay treading his fields from dawn to nightfall. For the first time as he followed his oxen he felt as if the clinging sods were weights of leaden fetters.

Still he worked more than ever.

As it was, he could scarcely make ends meet. It was a very different thing to keep the boy where food and drink, light and fuel, all came off the soil, costing nothing; and to keep him far off in a city where every crumb called for a coin.

Luigi Dini, indeed, whom he had sent with him, had put the lad with people that he knew — good, honest, simple‐living souls, who gave him a room under their roof for little in the grand square where the Guardamorta of Dante is, and where the coppersmiths and market‐folks wrangle and tussle all day long.

But to maintain him thus, and meet the cost of his studies too, drained dry the leathern sack in which Bruno, when his accounts were squared with his master, put his surplus. All that came from the bit of land which had been Alessio’s he counted as the boy’s, and put aside for him entire, and sent to him as it was wanted. But that was not sufficient; and to obtain all that was needed Bruno had to stint himself down to the leanest portion that a man can live on even in this land of his where hard handlabour is often cheerfully wrought from daybreak to evensong on a piece of blackened week‐old bread.

His beasts he would not stint, not even for Signa. His oxen were to him fond fellow‐labourers and friends. But himself he denied all except the sheer necessities of life; and the grey came into his dark hair, and his strong, slender, erect frame grew leaner still, and he never went down into the city save early in the forenoon of a market morning, lest temptation should assail him and he should spend a coin on his own appetites or wishes. His life was going away from him with no sweetness in it and no love and no pleasure. But he did not think of that. It did not matter.

Two years went by — swiftly to the boy, leaping from height to height of his great art, and feeling nothing of poverty or privation, because always living in impersonal desires, and always dreaming of the future time, and always hearing the music of the spheres above all the bray of voices and the clang of metal and the tumult of footsteps in the streets around him.

But very slowly to Bruno.

To rise in the dark; to toil all day; to lie down for the heavy dreamless sleep of bodily fatigue; to wrestle with storm and drought and blight and hurricane; to chaffer for small gains; to follow the oxen up and down and to and fro; to go tired into an empty house and eat an un‐ shared loaf and go to a joyless bed; — this was his portion.

There was nothing in it to give wings to time.

One day succeeded another without change, and the tale of one month was as the tale of another. It was the life of a beast of burden — nothing more. He had always thought no life could be better; but it was oppressive to him now.

Other men laboured for their children, or had that dusky settle by the wood embers made bright by some fresh‐faced, new‐wed maiden. But he was all alone — alone with the thought of dead Dina on the mountain height and Pippa’s body drifted to the sea.

Men would have little to say to him — they were Lippo’s friends.

He lived in almost absolute solitude. Sometimes it grew dreary, and the weeks seemed long.

Two years went by — slowly.

Signa did not come home. The travel to and fro took too much money, and he was engrossed in his studies, and it was best so; so Luigi Dini said, and Bruno let it be. The boy did not ask to return. His letters were very brief and not very coherent, and he forgot to send messages to old Teresina or to Palma. But there was no fear for him.

The sacrsitan’s friends under whose roof he was wrote once in a quarter, and spoke well of him always, and said that the professors did the same, and that a gentler lad or one more wedded to his work they never knew. And so Bruno kept his soul in patience, and said, “Do not trouble him; when he wishes he will come — or if he want anything. Let him be.”

To those who have traversed far seas and many lands, and who can bridge untravelled countries by the aid of experience and of understanding, such partings have pain, but a pain lessened by the certain knowledge of their span and purpose. By the light of remembrance or of imagination they can follow that which leaves them.

But Bruno had no such solace.

To him all that was indefinite was evil; all that was unfamiliar was horrible. It is the error of ignorance at all times.

To him the world was like the dark fathomless waste of waters shelving away to nameless shape‐ less perils such as the old Greek mariners drew upon their charts as compassing the shores they knew.

He had no light of knowledge by which to pursue in hope or fancy the younger life that would be launched into the untried realms. To him such separation was as death.

He could not write; he could not even read what was written. He could only trust to others that all was well with the boy.

He could have none of that mental solace which supports the scholar; none of that sense of natural loveliness which consoles the poet; his mind could not travel beyond the narrow circlet of its own pain; his eyes could not see beauty everywhere from the green fly at his foot to the sapphire mountains above his head; he only noticed the sunset to tell the weather; he only looked across the plain to see if the rain‐fall would cross the river. When the autumn crocus sank under his share, to him it was only a weed best withered; in hell he believed, and for heaven he hoped, but only dully, as certain things that the priests knew; but all consolations of the mind or the fancy were denied to him. Superstitions, indeed, he had, but these were all:— sad‐coloured fungi in the stead of flowers.

The Italian has not strong imagination.

His grace is an instinct; his love is a phrenzy; his gaiety is rather joy than jest; his melancholy is from temperament, not meditation; nature is little to him; and his religion and his passions alike must have physical indulgence and perpetual nearness, or they are nothing.

Bruno, who had strong passions and blind faiths, but who had no knowledge and no insight, was solitary as only a man utterly ignorant can be solitary. But he never complained even in his own thoughts: and he never attempted to seek any solace. He had set himself on absolute self‐sacrifice, and he went through with it, as thousands and tens of thousands of his own countrymen have done before him in the old days from Chrysostom to Francis, in the monasteries that rise majestic amidst the brown wastes of the sun‐burned plains, and crown the emerald radiance of the hill‐throned vines.

He was in the fields all day, having a crust of bread in his pocket, and a flask of his own wine under the hedge. He went indoors only when it was quite dark, and was at work again before any gleam of sun showed over the Umbrian mountains. Nothing broke the monotonous measure of his time. Nothing relieved the constant strain of toil. He thought that he grew old. But it was only that his weeks and months had the dulness and the barrenness of age.

Climbling the steep vinelands, reaping in the sun, driving his oxen, working among the bare boughs in the teeth of the north wind, he thought always of Signa, far away there in the unknown city amongst the unfamiliar people.

Did Signa think of him?

He wished that he could know.

The boy’s letters were few; but then that was because their postage cost money, and every centime was of value. Luigi Dini read them. They had always messages, tender, thankful, affectionate.

But that was not much.

Bruno knew that the boy’s soul and heart and fancy had long left him, and soared into a world that he himself could no more reach than he could reach the star Sirius shining over the reapen fields in the hot nights. He doubted if remembrance had much hold on this child, who when with him and beside him had always been dreaming of the future. He did not reason about it. Only he said to himself:—

“It is as if he were dead.”

But as, had the boy been dead, he would have spent all that he possessed on masses and prayers to ransom his soul and purchase heaven for him, as he would have fancied that he could do, so he toiled now, and with as little thought of recompense or remembrance.

“It is as if he were dead,” he said often.

“Nay, nay!” the old man would urge to him. “He only lives a stronger life, that is all, on his own wings, as full‐fledged birds do. The world will hear of him. He will be fortunate, I think. He will do something great. He has true genius. Then he will come to you and say, ‘I should have been a little hungry homeless goatherd all my years had it not been for you. All that I am, and all that I do, and all that men praise in me, I owe to you.’ That is how he will come back one day.”

But Bruno shook his head, and worked on amongst his vines and wheat, not lifting his eyes up from the soil.

“What will be, will be,” he said, curtly.

But he did not deceive himself, nor did he even desire to be much remembered.

 

Remembrance of himself would mean, for the lad, failure.

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