Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 14.

NEARLY two years had gone away.

It was a still night at the end of September. It was on the eve of the vintage.

The vines lie open everywhere: to the roads, to the streams, to the mule‐tracks, to the bridle‐paths, over the hills, down by the water under the cypresses, against the old towers, anywhere and everywhere, climbing like gipsy children, and as little guarded.

Only when they are quite ripe, then the peasants keep watch with their guns at night; the gipsy children have grown as precious then as little queens. Over the dark and quiet country shots echo every now and then; perhaps it is a bird shot, or a dog, or, a fox, or nothing at all, or perhaps a man — it matters little; if he were stealing the grapes he deserves his fate, and living or dead will never complain.

Bruno, like others, loaded his gun and watched abroad in these latter weeks when the vintage was so near.

In September, summer has the day, but autumn takes the night. It was the twentieth, and after sunset was cold. He wrapped his brown cloak round him, and with his white dog walked to and fro the grass paths of his vines, or sat on the stone bench outside his house while the hours wore away.

On the morrow they would all begin to gather; nearly everybody in the Signa country, at the same time and moment. Then the winepresses would run over in the shade of the great sheds, and the oxen would munch at their will the hanging leaves unmuzzled.

It would be an abundant vintage, and wine in the winter plenteous and cheap; there was joy in all the little households scattered over the mountains and the plains, behind the gold of their stacks, and under the blue of their skies.

The hours wore away. The clock of the vil‐ lage church midway on the hill told them with its sad dull sound; all clocks and bells sound mournful in the night. There was no wind; but the smell of the ripened fruit, and of the stone‐pines, and the balm firs, was strong upon the air. The moon was a slender crescent, just resting on the black edge of the mountains before it sank from sight. The turf was pale in the shadows, with the faint colours of the leafless colchicum, and the blush hues of the mitre‐flowers. The screech‐owl hooted with joy high in the tops of the trees. The bats wheeled, like brown leaves blown about on a wild breeze. Bruno sat in the fragrant cold darkness, with his old gun resting against a hive, and stretched before him the dog.

He sat thinking of the yield of the morrow, out alert for every sound. It was so lonely here that theieves were likelier to be daring than in any place with aid nearer, within call; but on the other hand, there were no tramps from the towns, nor idlers from the beggar‐haunts; it was too high to be traversed, or even known to such as these. He had had frays with poachers thrice in all the years he had lived alone there; that was all; and each time they had been worsted, and had fled with his good swanshot in their flesh.

As he sat now, when it was past midnight, and the moon had vanished behind her mountain, withdrawing her little delicate curled golden horn, as if to blow with it the trumpet call of morning, he heard steps coming up the steep ascent of his own fields, and the fallen leaves rustling and crackling. The dog sprang up, barking. Bruno pointed his gun.

He did not speak; it was not his way; if they came there after an evil errand let them get their measure, and be paid for it. He waited.

It was too dark to see anything. It was of no use to fire aimlessly into the cloudy blackness of the clustered vines.

The steps came nearer, the leaves rustled louder. He lifted his gun to his shoulder, and in a another second would have fired at the wavering shadow that seemed to move the boughs; when suddenly the dog’s wrath ceased; it sprang forward with a yelp of welcome, leaping and fawning; he paused, afraid that he might fire on the dog, angered with the beast and astonished; the dog bounded into the darkness, and out of the darkness there came a slender swift figure, graceful from the vines, as the young Borghese Bacchus.

Signa stretched his arms out.

“Do not fire! do not fire! It is I!”

Bruno threw his gun upward, and shot the charge off in the air, then with all his soul in his eyes, caught the boy in his strong hands.

“Oh, my dear! oh, my love! I might have killed you!”

All the great silent longing heart of him went out in the tenderness of the words.

Till this moment he had hardly known how he had longed to see the face of the boy.

After a little he drew Signa within the porch, and went and lighted a lamp, and brought it out, and let its rays shine on the lad from head to foot; and looked at him again and again and again, with his own dark oxlike eyes, dim and yet luminous, with all his heart shining out of them, while he never spoke a word.

Signa had changed but little, except that he had grown tall, like a young acacia tree; he was very pale, and very thin; he looked fatigued and weak; he had all the soft grace of his nation; his limbs were beautiful in shape, though very slender; his throat was like a statue’s, and his delicate head drooped always a little downward, like a flower on a bending stalk.

He was more than ever before like the Endymion of the Tribune.

The moon had kissed him. With earth he had nothing more to do. His eyes seemed to say —

“Why keep me here?”

Bruno felt it — dimly.

“Your body is come back,” he said, sadly. “But —”

He did not end his phrase. He knew what he felt. But he knew hardly how to say it.

The sould would never come back: never.

“Yes, I am come back,” said Signa, with a smile, answering the words and not the thought. “I would not write. I walked all the way to save the money. I thought I should have been here before dark. Have I seemed thankless? What can I say? You have given me more than life. You have given me life eternal.”

“Hush! Come in and eat. You look weak, come in.”

Bruno — someway — why he did not know, could not bear the boy to thank him. He gave all his own life for the boy’s — just that — no more, no less. But he could not bear to speak of it.

Leaving the vines to any chance of theft, he took Signa within and heaped for him such rude fare as his house held; bread and wine, and some fine fruit that had been meant for the market. He watched him at the meal with fond eyes, as a mother might have done, but he spoke little. His heart was full. He was so happy.

The boy had walked all the way to see him; only to see him!

He had not forgotten. He had needed nothing. He had only come back from remembrance and affection. The moment paid Bruno for all the twenty long months of solitude and toil.

“You wanted to see me, and you walked all the way!” he said, over and over again; those words and nothing more. It was so incredible to him, and yet so natural. He was grateful, as liberal natures are to those who owe them all things, and pay them with an hour’s tenderness.

Signa coloured a little and looked away.

“Yes, I walked; what of that? It was so long a time — to see you and the Lastra —”

Then he touched Bruno’s hand with his lips, in soft caressing grace.

“It was good of you,” said Bruno, simply, and the tears stood in his eyes. The boy had loved him always — never forgotten — had walked all the way only to see his face again!

The seventeen years of labour and of sacrifice and of forethought and of shelter all rolled away from his recollection; he had done nothing, so it seemed to him; and it was he who was Signa’s debtor. Generous natures wrong themselves as much as others wrong them.

“If you had sent me word you should have had the money to travel; I would have got it somehow,” he said, resting his elbows on the table, and still gazing at Signa, while the brass lamp burned between them, its wick wavering in the draught. “I did not ask you, dear — no — Luigi Dini said that you were best left undisturbed, and I said, let him be till his heart speaks — till he remembers and wants to come. Ah, dear, it is more than your body that comes back — it is your heart too.”

“Surely,” murmured Signa, but the colour rose a little again in his pale cheeks, and he drank off his wine quickly.

“You have walked far to‐day?”

“Only from Prato: and through Carmignano — I thought of Gemma. Nothing is ever heard of her?”

“Nothing. Palma is well — a good girl, as good as gold.”

“Poor little Gemma!” said Signa, with a sigh; he could not quite forget the pretty golden‐headed sullen little temptress that had made him play and dance that fair day on the stones of Prato.

“If she be alive she is bad. You cannot change a gnat to a bee,” said Bruno, briefly. “And, dear, do tell me of yourself — there is so much to hear — you have been happy?”

Signa’s eyes shone like Endymion’s lifted to the moon.

“Happy! — that is so little. It is much more than that.”

“But the people are good to you. You want for nothing? You have all you wish?”

“Oh, no, I want for nothing. Perhaps, I am hungry sometimes and cold; — the other lads laugh, the masters blame; — the bread runs short, the shirts are worn out, the women say so — what does it matter? It makes so little difference. While one has strength enough, and can have faith in oneself — one has the future. What do the little things signify? One does not notice even —”

Bruno was silent. He did not understand.

“The angels speak to him, I suppose,” he thought.

“Is the Lastra changed?” said Signa, “I cannot give it gates of gold — not yet.”

“How should the Lastra change?” said Bruno, to whom it was immutable and eternal as the mountains.

“I do not know, ” said Signa. “Only I am so changed that it seems to me everything else must be so too. It is as if I had been away a thousand years.”

“You were so sad of heart for us.”

Bruno’s face lightened with a deep unspoken gladness. All this while that he had been resigned to be forgotten, the boy had longed for his old home, and now had tramped on foot two hundred miles and more to clasp him by the hand!

Signa answered with swift questions of a score of things: Tinello and Pastore, and Teresina at the gate, and the harvest, and the flowers of Giovoli, and the old priest on the hill, and the things and people of the old life he had left.

Himself he knew that he seemed to have been parted from them a thousand years, not for his regret or for his sorrow, but for the immeasurable distance of thought and knowledge that divided him from them all; from that hopeless sense “they cannot understand,” which yawned in an unbridged gulf of difference between himself and them.

“And to‐morrow we begin to gather,” said Bruno, replying to him. “It will take two days or more. The grapes are very fine; the last rains swelled them so. You will see all the people. There is not one dead. They will be so glad. No doubt you thought of vintage when you chose the time? It was well chosen.”

“I did not remember,” murmured Signa, glancing at the brown knapsack that he had put away in one corner. “But as I came along I noticed the vines were ready; and by Carmignano a woman gave me a ripe bunch. You will be busy then all the week?”

“But you will stay the week, and more?”

“If you wish.”

He leaned his head on his hand; he spoke wearily; his face flushed a little with the same uneven changeful colour.

“You are tired, dear,” said Bruno, tenderly. “From Prato; — it is a long way for you. Very long. And the nights cold. You look to have so little strength. You must have overworked yourself. Go to your bed, dear. That will be best now. We shall have time to talk; and it is selfishness to to keep you up; and with your eyes so sleepy. Look, you see the bed is ready. I have always kept it so. Quite ready. For I said who knows — he may get tired of the city or of his learning, and come back without one’s knowing. Only I did think you might forget; — and you have not forgotten. The people will be so glad; and you will play to them.”

“And if ever you should tire and should be of a different mind,” he added, setting down the lamp by the little bed. “They say boys do change — dream of great things, and of learning, and then see the cities a little, and the hollowness and labour of it all, and grow content to return into the old quiet ways, and leave the world to its own burdens — they say so, men who know. Well, if ever it should be so with you, or if it be so now, why there is your bit of land by the brook always ready for you as this bed is, and getting better and better every year, and yielding more. A safe place for you, and daily bread, and the house we would build in no time — that is, you know, if ever you should change and wish for it. There it always is. A solid bit of land:— if you should ail anything or be disappointed, or see with different eyes; that is all, dear. Good night, and the saints keep you. And it was good of you to think of me, and to walk all the way.”

Signa was too tired to hear the words very clearly, and was ready to stretch himself wearily on the little familiar mattress over which Bruno had been careful to set the blessed palm of the previous Easter. Bruno left him and took his gun again and went out into the moonless night to continue his watch of the vineyard.

But all the sky seemed light to him.

The boy had wanted to see him, and had walked all the way! He was quite happy as he sat in the silence and the darkness. A great hope was warm around his heart. The boy had come back.

That proof of love was so precious to him that all his years of toil were effaced by it and all his solitude glorified.

Who could say that the old ways and the old habits, and the native air and the native soil, and the freedom of the high hills, might not have some sweetness in them after all, and roost at home those young, tired, wandering feet? It was possible at least.

Bruno crossed himself where he sat, with the musket resting at his knee, and thanked the Mother of God. He thanked her. He would not pray for anything. He would not ask for anything. He was content — quite content.

The boy had come back. That was enough.

“Only to see me; only just to see me! — and walking all the way!” he repeated to himself while the hours wore away.

Dawn came very soon.

 

It seemed to Bruno that it had come when the last gleam of the moon behind the mountains had shone on the face of Signa, with the red vine‐leaves against his forehead.

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