Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 15.

WITH the sunrise the vintage began.

Signa opposed nothing; but entered into all the work and pleasure as if he were the little fellow who had run home with his Rusignuolo seven years before. There was an effort in it all; his heart was not in it; in his eyes there was the old far‐away wistful look; and, at times, he fell into abstraction and silence. But Bruno was too incessantly occupied to notice these shadows on his sunshine. The boy was home again; that was enough. When he saw Signa’s slender brown hands pulling down the grape clusters, and heard his voice calling across the hillside to the men with the teams, he was content; so utterly content himself that it did not occur to him to dream that the youth could be otherwise. And he was very proud of him.

Proud of his soft grace, of his straight limbs, of his delicate, serious beauty; proud of that very something about him which was so difficult to define, but which seemed to separate him from all those around him as widely as the solitary gold‐winged oriole differs from the brown multitude of the tree‐sparrows.

Signa had learned other things beside his own art away there under the Alpine winds; he had studied all that he could, night and day, old lore and new; — it was not very much, but to his old associates it seemed miraculous; they did not understand what it was, but they felt that this young scholar was a glory to them. One told another, and from all the country about, as far as the bridge of Greve, people came to see him and speak with him, and when the good priest challenged him in Latin, and he could answer with ease and grace, and when the head gardener of Giovoli, who was a Frenchman, spoke to him in his own tongue, and was fairly answered in it, Signa seemed to his old friends and com‐ panions something very wonderful — a little fellow running barefoot and cutting food for the oxen only a day ago, as it seemed.

They said one with another that he could not have been Pippa’s son; — no, certainly, that was surer than ever — never poor Pippa’s son; — if Bruno’s! Who knew? Bruno had been famous for his physical comeliness in his younger years. Who knew? — patrician ladies had strange fancies sometimes; their contadini could tell rare tales of some of their love fancies.

So they gossiped going down the hill after seeing the boy in the cool evening shadows, or talking with him in the Lastra. At last it became settled with them; the human tongue, once beginning to jump, takes such grasshopper‐leaps from conjecture to affirmation — yes, that was the secret of it all, they said. Bruno had pleased some grand dame too well for her peace or honour, and this was how it came that hte boy had such tastes and such an air about him, and Bruno money enough to make a scholar of him; — yes, that was how it was.

“We always knew it,” said the women, with a sagacious twirl of their distaff; and added, that they could name the erring princess if they chose, but it was perilous work to light truth under great names; like thrusting burning straws under a hornets’ nest.

As for Lippo he waited, hearing all they said; and then, by accident, was in the street close by the Livorness Gate as the boy came down old Teresina’s stairs, and stopped with his gentlest smile before him.

“Dear; we rejoice to hear you do so well,” he said, with outstretched hands, knowing his wife was safe over her linen, washing in the brook underneath the trees by S. Maria. “It is so sad. Bruno is hard to turn — we are estranged. But is was all an error. I was too rough with you about that violin when you were little. Yes, that I feel; I have done penance for it often. But we were as good to you as we knew how to be, so poor as we were and with so many children. Indeed, we loved you always, and Nita nursed you. You and my Toto are foster‐brothers. I never can forget all that.”

Signa put out his hands.

“I forgive everything,” he said gently. “When one is free and away, that is easy. But friends we cannot be; it would be unjust to Bruno. And I do not know that I do well. I cannot tell — not yet. One may fail.”

And he went on his way to the church of the Misericordia, the little dark church, where his first communion with the old masters of his art had opened to him the glories that lie in the science of sound.

Lippo went the other way, chagrined.

“I wish he would not say that he forgives,” he thought; “it sounds as if one had dealt ill by him. I am glad I did not ask him to the house. Perhaps it is all moonshine what they say of him. ‘One may fail,’ he says. Fail in what thing I wonder? Nita was right. It is as well to wait, and be quite sure. Only, whatever happens, Nita nursed him. That he never can forget, if he should succeed in anything and get a name.”

For Lippo, like many others before him, held that a life that rises from obscurity to triumph should look back in grateful obligation to those who, when it was in obscurity, did their best to keep it there.

The stone in the mud cries to the butterfly against the clouds, “Come down and kiss me, for when you were a grub I did my best to crush you: is not that a link between us?”

“We will go down to Fiastra,” said Bruno, on the third evening, when all the grapes were gathered in. It was so the old farm‐house was called where all the hillside danced at vintage time. The bell was ringing from its roof; an old bell that had on its copper —“Lavora: et noli contristari,” and had been cast in the tenth century or earlier.

They were rich peasants at Fiastra. They had cattle and horses of their own. They had a wide rambling dwelling‐house with immense halls and large lofty chambers. There was a great stone court‐yard in the centre; the house ran round three sides of it; the fourth side was open to the hill‐slope, with all the landscape shining through a screen of pines. They had a numerous family of grown‐up sons and young daughters. All through the vintage month, while the maize was being picked, they used to dance there, and ring the bell above the roof and bring all the contadini above and below within hearing up and down to the merriment. The youths and the maidens shelled the Indian corn, and romped and jested and made love; when night fell, some one played on a mandoline; perhaps there was a pipe or a flute, too, and sometimes some wandering musician had a tambourine. They whirled and jumbped about to the rattling music, while the old people smoked or spun, and the babies tumbled with the dogs, with the yellow maize lying in a pile and the calm night skies above, and the hill‐side shining white in the starlight through the colonnade of the graceful serious pines. They had done this in the old house for centuries, always, as maize harvest and vintage came round; prosperous folks, honest, simple and gay; generation succeeding generation, without break, and changing in nothing.

There still are many such in this country. Soon there will be none. For Discontent already creeps into each of these happy households, and under her fox‐skin hood says: “Let me in — I am Progress.”

They had always gone down to Fiastra. It was the custom on all the hill‐side. But since Signa had been away, Bruno had had no heart to go there; the lads and the girls were so merry and so happy in their manner of life; it had made his heart ache the more; why could not Pippa’s son have been so?

But now all was well again. It was different. The boy had come back. “Walked all the way! — just to see me!” Bruno had said to each neighbour that day, going out of his habit of silence in the gladness of his soul.

It was early; they were still shelling the last maize; the bell was just beginning to sound; girls were trooping in, in their work‐a‐day dress; but each had their little strings of pearls round their throats. Palma, who came amongst them, had no pearls. She was not so much even as a contadina. She felt very brown and rough and unlovely beside the grace of Signa. She oculd not keep herself form thinking how Gemma would have looked if she had stayed there and had lived; how pretty, though having no ornament but her bright glancing hair and her wild‐rose cheeks.

Palma took a portion of corn and shelled it, sitting apart on a bench. She was not content like Bruno.

“His body has come back, but not his heart,” she thought: “and his feet will soon wander again.”

“Will you not dance with me, Palma?” he asked her, when they touched the mandoline.

Palma looked up and smiled; but she shook her head. She danced like all the rest at other times, but this night she could not; she seemed to herself to have suddenly grown coarse and heavy, and to have her feet shod with lead. To be fit for him, she thought, one wanted butterfly’s wings and a face like a flower’s — a face like what Gemma’s would have been, if Gemma had been dancing there.

Bruno stood with the elder men and talked of the vintage and the new wine, smoking their pipes under the eaves of the house, where a great walnut tree touched the red tiles.

But all the time his eyes followed Signa.

He thought, “He enjoys the old life; he is happy in it; he will not go away again.”

Palma sat and shelled her maize and watched him too, as he threw his light limbs about in the careless gestures and joyous bounds which here, without order or figure, do duty for the western saltarello and the tarantalla of the south.

But Palma thought:

“He does it to please them; he does not care; he is thinking of other things; he wants to be away.”

For Palma noticed that his laugh ceased quite suddenly very often, as the laughter of one who at heart is not gay; she noticed that he hardly looked at the brown buxom maidens whom he whirled round in the measures, but often looked away through the stems of the pines to the starlit country, as if the tall straight trunks were the bars of a cage; she noticed that when he paused to take breath and came and sat down beside her and some other girl, though his mouth smiled, his face was grave, and though his words jested, his attention wandered.

“He sees the old ways are good, and that there is no place like home,” thought Bruno.

But Palma thought:

“He loves us all still; but he is tired of us. We are dear to him still; but we are wearisome to him, and he would like to be away.”

For Bruno deceived himself, because he had hope; but Palma having no hope, had no deception.

After a time, they were fatigued with their romps and their dances, and all rested awhile; cracking walnuts, eating almonds, whispering, joking, bandying love nonsense, with the stars over their heads, and the old dark house behind them, with rich bits of colour here and there in the men’s blue shirts, in the girls’ red petticoats, in the children’s brown limbs, in the broad gold of the sunflowers, in the glazed terra‐cotta of the Ascension above the house‐door, in the scarlet kerchiefs hanging from a casement, as the light of the stars or of the lamp in the doorway fell fitfully on them.

Signa sat apart under the walnut tree; he had forgotten where he was; he was thinking of what was dearer to him than any man or woman. He started as they spoke to him.

“Signa! Signa!” the girls cried. “Have you left your heart in Bologna? Why are you dreaming there? Come, sing us something. Let us see if your grand learning has made your voice any sweeter? You have not played a note.”

“Sing? here?” he asked, lifting his head in surprise.

His thoughts had gone so far away.

Bruno put his hand on his shoulder:

“Sing or play. Who should care to hear you, if not your old friends here?”

Signa had the habit of obedience in him; he never disputed any wish of Bruno’s. He took a mandoline from the old fellow who was thrumming it for the dancers; a grey‐headed farmer, seventy years old, who, nevertheless, could string a dance tune together as prettily as any one, and liked to see his grand‐daughters skip about like kids.

No one can make much music with the mandoline, but there is no other music, perhaps, which sounds so fittingly to time and place, as do its simple sonorous tender chords when heard through the thickets of rose‐laurel or the festoons of the vines, vibrating on the stillness of the night under the Tuscan moon. It would suit the serenade of Romeo; Desdemona should sing the willow song to it, and not to the harp; Paolo pleaded by it, be sure, many a time to Francesca; and Stradella sang to it the passion whose end was death; it is of all music the most Italian, and it fills the pauses of the love songs softly, like a sigh or like a kiss.

Its very charm is, that it says so little. Love wants so little said.

And the mandoline, though so mournful and full of languor, as Love is, yet can be gay with that caressing joy born of beautiful nothings, which makes the laughter of lovers the lightest‐hearted laughter that ever gives silver wings to time.

Signa took the mandoline and struck a few broad sweet chords, sitting under the heavy shade of the walnut leaves, with the pines and the starlit valley before him; just a few chords in the minor key; sad and soft, and almost solemn.

Then he sang.

He sang the old Misero pargoletto of Leo, which they had heard him sing a thousand times when he was a little fellow driving the sheep, and then he sang the Tu che accendi of Rossini’s Tancred, born from the lagunes of Venice, and known wherever a note of music has ever been heard; and then he paused a little, while the young men and the girls filled the air with their chiming voices that echoed the delicious familiar cantilena, in a chorus that vibrated through the pines and up to the skies, as if a thousand nightingales were singing; and then with a few sadder chords, sweet and almost solemn, he passed on to music that they did not know, airs that were quite strange to them, grave recitatives and sweet lovers’ serenades and grand airs of prayer and sorrow, and ritornelli, light as thistledown, and cathedral chants as solemn as death; they were all his own, with the freshness of a genius in them that had invigorated itself from study, but had borrowed nothing and retained its own originality, as the flower takes fresh colours from the bees, yet is a flower still, and never is a bee.

“What is it?” they asked one another; for what with their own songs handed down from mouth to mouth and their little wandering theatres and their love of what is good in melody and the traditions of it, common in all households, these people know by ear so much that is ancient and beautiful; though they could not talk learnedly about it, and though the names of the masters are as Sanscrit to them.

“What is it?” they asked one another; but they soon ceased to whisper even that, and could only listen in rapt silence.

It was music that had a familiarity to them, inasmuch as it had something of the wild, fresh, hill‐born fragrance of their own popular songs, with which they followed the bullocks and lightened the toils of seed‐time and harvest. But, again, it was wholly unlike what they knew, having a purity and rarity in it. Something of the radiance of the old Greek music blended with the solemnity of the litanies and the misereri of the Renaissance of religious com‐ position; it was music in which the voice of the lover pleading to his beloved on the moonlit nights of vintage was blended with the cry of the desolate soul to stay the hand of the the God that scourged it; it was music true to that proufound canon of the Italian people: “La musicà è il lamento dell’amore, o’ la preghiera a gli Dei.”

They listened — the girls leaning their arms on their knees, and their cheeks on their hands; the young peasants resting against the pine‐stems, or stretched on the benches of stone; the old people drawn together underneath the lamps and the story of the Ascension, with their pipe‐bowls cold with ashes, and their spinning‐wheels ceasing to turn.

The very dogs were silent, and the little tumbling children, falling against one another, kept mute, with their curls intermingled, and their big bright eyes lifted upward.

The face of Signa was quite in shadow where he sat under the walnut branches; the mandoline lay motionless across his knees; he sang on, and on, and on, as the young David might have sung to the madness of Saul.

He had forgotten all that surrounded him, his soul was in his music.

When his voice ceased quite suddenly, he looked at the people about him; the women were in tears, the men listened breathless; there was a moment’s silence, then they sprang to their feet, all of them with one accord, and flung themselves on him, and kissed his hands, and his hair, and his clothes, and his feet, and shouted, and laughed, and cried, and lifted him up on their shoulders, and called otu to the moon just sinking —

“Look at him! look at him! Our own little Signa, and yet as great as this! Oh, the beautiful music! Did the angels teach it to you, dear — the angels you used to see?”

Bruno alone stood apart, and Palma sat in the shade of the high house wall.

When they let him go at last that night, he smiled on them, standing bareheaded in the shadows:

“You are the first to praise me — I will always think of that.”

Then he broke loose from them and went quickly away, forgetting everything. For his heart was beating loud, and, his eyes swam, and the faintness of a great emotion made the hill‐side reel before him for a moment. He wanted to be alone. They were only peasant people — farming‐men and girls from the fields — but if they were moved like that, would the world be wholly indifferent?

He climbed up the steep path towards Bruno’s home, and sat down under one of the pines and thought. The old house of Fiastra was below him, he was out of the hum of the voices, but he could have heard dance music had there been any. He was glad it was all silent — he was glad they could not dance again — so soon.

There was no sound anywhere around him.

Far down below the lights of the Lastra glistened; above were the fields and the woods and the blue mountain crest. This was his home. He loved it. Nevertheless he said to himself: “Every day here is a day lost. How shall I tell it to Bruno?”

Bruno — who to every man he met, and to every woman coming through the vines, had said always, with such pride in his voice, “He has come back — he has walked all the way only to see me — only just for that!”

And Signa never heard him without a rush of blood to his cheeks and a rush of shame to his heart — knowing that it was not so.

He had not been there long before a step crushed the fallen leaves and fir‐needles, a step ascending with swift, elastic, even tread, the tread of feet that have never been trammellled in leather.

“Dear, are you there?” said Bruno’s voice.

Signa rose and met him. They went upward together.

The old house of Fiastra was shutting itself up for sleep; the people were breaking up and going homeward; going without their usual twitter of flute and thrilling of mandoline, and without their usual jests and laughter, talking in low murmurs of the wonderful boy, who yet was their own little fellow — the little fellow that had been hungry, and footsore, and beaten, and made a mock of so many years, in the house by the Mother of Good Counsel.

The heavens were brilliant. Coma Berenice was setting northward, and above the sea mountains Arcturus shone in full splendour, soon to pass away. Perseus gleamed bold on his white field of light: he had been shooting fire‐arrows half August through the sky, and now was still. Very low down, eastward and southward, as though watching over Rome, the strange lone star Fomalhaut hung in its mighty solitude. Orion still was hunting in the far fields unseen.

“Was that all out of your own head?” said Bruno abruptly, as they mounted together under the pines.

“My own music? Yes.”

“It is very fine,” said Bruno, and was silent. His voice had lost its happy and hopeful intonation.

“Ah, if only I were sure,” said Signa.

“It is very fine,” repeated Bruno.

He knew it. He could not have told why. He had heard, like all his countryfolk, the gay grace of Rossini and Cimarosa, and the grave grace of Donizetti and Bellini, in the little dusky crowded theatres of the populace down in the city, in all the seasons of autumn and carnival. It was only a pastime to him; a sport not fit to fill the life of a man. Music was like the grass — it grew everywhere. That was what he thought. But he knew that the songs of Signa were beautiful — knew it by the wet faces of the women, by the shining eyes of the men. And his heart was heavy with fear.

“Do they not tell you it is fine where you study?” he asked. “They must know there.”

“Some do,” said Signa, and then he hesitated, and his lips were mute.

“It is what you care most for — still?”

Signa drew a heavy breath.

“Ah, it is all I live for! Did I not say you have given me more than life — life eternal.”

“What will be will be,” said Bruno, with the old gloom deepening on his face. “It is not I, nor anyone. It is just that — the thing that is to be.”

“Fate,” said the boy.

“Perhaps that is what you scholars call it,” said the man. “It may be the great God, it may be the Devil.”

“May it not be ourselves,” said Signa, “or others?”

Bruno did not answer. His face was dark. He had neither mind nor mood to unravel thought, or unweave the subtleties of fancy. What he felt was that there was a force stronger than he, and always against him. It did not matter what it was called.

They walked on in silence slowly. The moon was gone, but all the stars were shining, and there was a little tremulous light on the moss under their feet. Signa stopped and lifted up a stone that had fallen across a few sprays of cyclamen, and raised up the drooping delicate pink heads of that most lovely and tender of all blossoms.

“Look!” he said. “My music was the cyclamen — circumstance was the stone; what my hand does for the mitre‐flower, you did for my music and my life. I cannot call that Fate. It is something much warmer and much more beautiful to me.”

“You talk like a poet,” said Bruno, roughly. “I am an unlearned man. I cannot follow figures.”

Signa threw the stone away, and went on without saying more.

When they had got to the house Bruno struck a match and lighted his brass lamp.

“Good night,” he said, and would have gone to his bed, but Signa stopped him.

“I have something to say,” he murmured. “Could we talk now? Something I came all the way on purpose to say — it could not be written.”

“Ah!” said Bruno.

He sat down on the settle by the cold empty hearth. He drew his hat over his eyes. A dull, weary shadow was on his face. It seemed to him as if a knife went to his heart.

And he had said all through these three days to the people, “He has walked all the way to see me — only just to see me!”

“Let us hear it,” he siad, and set down the lamp. He could not tell what it could be; but before he heard it all his hope died in him. The boy had not come for him, and the old life would not hold him.

Signa remained standing, leaning against the marriage‐coffer.

“My music that you heard to‐night,” he said, softly. “That is from an opera I have written. The first — the only one. I have called it ‘Actea.’ Oh, you do not know; the story does not matter. She was the love of Nero, an Emperor of Rome, and she a slave. I have studied hard. Yes, indeed. It is not to praise myself. It was a happiness — no pain. If only one could learn more; but the nights and the days seem so short; even with sleeping only four hours. I have made all the opera myself. The music, of course, but the story of it and the words too — all the libretto. I would not speak to anyone of my idea, and if one be at all a musician, one should be just a little also of a poet; enough for that. There is the jealousy of Actea and Poppea, and the triumphs in the Circus Agonistes, and the marytrdom of the Christians, and Nero harkening to the harping of Terpnos, and the death of Nero, and then Actea all alone by the grave; but you heard some of the music, all is said in that; I know that it is good. The great Father Polidria says so. He even says it is great. But it will not please the world; that is what he says. He thinks that ‘canterello’ began with Rossini, who was great, and who had much else besides; and has descended to all the little composers that are reigning now, and who have nothing else besides, and, in so descending, has increased and grown worse, and has corrupted the ear of the people, so that they only want noise and glitter, and care nothing for true harmony or pure cadence. Perhaps it is thus. He should know. He says that the people in all the nations have lost their critical faculty and their understanding, and that even in opera seria they now desire as much jingling and noise and spectacle as in the buffa. And so he thinks that my Actea’ would fail, because it has too much of Pergolese in it.”

Bruno interrupted him:

“Tell me what you want; what you come for? I cannot understand all these long words.”

“I am so sorry,” said Signa, with the soft contrition of a chidden child. “I am always thinking of it; always talking of it; I forget — I must tire you; but I hardly know what you will say, what you will think — listen. All my soul, all my life, is in the opera. If only it could be heard I feel sure that it would make a great fame for me, and that is what you wish, is it not? You would not have me live and die an obscure musician, writing for little theatres or teaching song in the cities? Oh, no! Oh, my God, no! It would be better to work in the fields here for ever.”

Bruno’s teeth shut close together.

“I begin to understand — go on.”

And sitting under the eaves of Fiastra that night, watching the young men and the maidens dance together, he had said in his heart, with security, “He is content. The old ways will hold him!”

“You know,” said Signa, still leaning against the old gilded coffer, with his face in the glow from the lamp. “An opera to be known must be heard on some stage; and it must be a great stage: and the rendering of it good, or the music will have no chance to be great in the world. I have said nothing to you, because I hoped so much to send you word of some great victory for it, all in a moment, while you were thinking of me as only a little scholar. But the ‘Actea’ was finished in spring, and I managed to travel to Milan — never mind how, walking most of the way — and there I played from it, and showed it to many directors that come to the city, the score of it is in my knapsack there, and they have all wondered at me, and called me Mozart, and said that the music was good, some even said great; and the death chant of the Christians, and the grave song of Actea, they said were sublime. But they were all afraid of it. They all thought it too serious, too passionate, too thoughtful. I suppose it has not ‘cantarello’ enough. They said it would cost much, and would almost certainly fail to please. They are afraid of their money — afraid to spend it, and not to see it again. It is that everywhere, money. It has half broken my heart. To hear them say that it is beautiful, they all grant that, and yet to find not one there that will have the courage to give it to the world! I have seen them, of all nations, and it is always the same. ‘You are a young genius, you are a Mozart,’ they all say. Oh heaven! how would ever anyone have known of Mozart if they had all dealt with him as these men deal with me!”

Bruno looked up.

“Poor lad!” he muttered; the thought of Signa, suppliant and repulsed, moved him; he hated the music that thus enchained the boy’s soul; but he hated as much those traffickers in the labour of the brain, who had made him suffer.

Signa went on full of his own thought.

“They told me I should take a homelier theme, with tragedy in it, like the Gazza Ladra; as if the meanness of the plot were not what destroys the beautiful music there! They were all afraid of my Actea. Oh, you do not know what I have endured. The hope of it, the despair of it, the waiting, the longing, the beseeching, the thinking every time ‘Here is one who will understand;’ and then always the smae disappointment at the end. I have been sick with the pain of it, mad with it; but you must not think that I lied to you when I said I was happy. I have been happy always because I believe in my genius; I do believe in it against everything. It is not vanity. I love the opera; but I love it as if God gave it me. It comes out of me just like the song out of the bird. No more. All the summer I have toiled after these men, one or other of them; the city of Milan is full of them; getting singers, and players, and melodies for their theatres, all over the world, for the next winter. I have lost weeks and months waiting, waiting, waiting; and often all day without a bit of anything to eat, because they do not think — those people — or because they do and know one is so poor. I suppose they never want for food themselves, and so forget.”

“You never told us.”

Bruno’s voice was husky: his face was dark with troubled pain. When he had thought this young life so happy and so tranquil and so safe, it had been in conflict and torment, beating against the buffets of the world. He was bewildered; he had a dull sense of having failed in all that he had done; failed utterly.

“Oh, no, what was the use?” said Signa, “It was no fault of anyone’s: things are so, if one have not money. You gave me all you could. I thought the ‘Actea’ would be taken at once. I thought that I should send you word of my triumphs while you were still all thinking me a little useless scholar. But it was not to be. If they could say that I wrote ill, I could bear it. Yes, I would tear it all up and think the failure was in me, and study more, and do better; but they cannot say that. The work that I have done is good. The coldest of them own it. Oh, heaven! it is that that breaks my heart: all my life is in it. I would die this hour, oh, so gladly, if I could be quite sure that my music would be loved, and be remembered. I do not know: there can be nothing like it, I think:— a thing you create, that is all your own, that is the very breath of your mouth and the and the very voice of your soul; which is all that is best in you, the very gift of God; and then to know that all this may be lost eternally, killed, stifled, buried, just for want of men’s faith and a little gold! I do not think there can be any loss like it, nor any suffering like it, anywhere else in the world. Oh, if only it would do any good, I would fling my body into the grave to‐morrow, happy, quite happy; if only afterwards, they would sing my songs, all over the earth, and just say ‘God spoke to him; and he has told men what He said.’”

His hands clenched as he paused, his eyes burned, his face changed, and his mouth quivered; the madness of a great passion was in him — the pure impersonal hero‐passion of genius, which only reigns absolute in earliest youth, and whose death‐note is human love.

Bruno looked at him darkly, drearily.

This was the boy that he had thought had walked all the way only to look on his own face, and that he had thought had only cared for his old home, and come to live for ever on the calm hillside! What could he understand of this impassioned spiritual pain? — he was like a man watching a delirium that raves in an unknown tongue.

Bewteen them there was that bottomless chasm of mental difference, across which mutual affection can throw a rope‐chain of habit and forbearance for the summer days, but which no power on earth can ever bridge with that iron of sympathy which stands throughout all storms.

“I cannot follow — all that,” he muttered, wearily. “You go beyond me. No doubt you are born for greater things than I know. It is dark to me. But you came here for something — some wish, some aid — tell me that. Perhaps I can help you. But I am ignorant. I cannot understand all that you say. Tell me the thing you want. I am better at acts than at thoughts.”

Signa, recalled to himself, hesitated a moment: then he spoke, with the colour changing on his bent‐down face.

“Well — all the hot months I have waited on these men. Waited and waited, all to no good. They are all afraid. Perhaps they think in their hearts that a boy like me — yesterday a peasant, and still with my shirts in holes, and only nineteen years old — perhaps they think I never can be really worth the great world’s hearing. Anyhow — they refuse. All refuse. ‘Have it played in your own country, and then we will see,’ say the foreign ones. ‘This country is too poor to risk uncertain ventures in it,’ say our own people. It is always some excuse. Some way they are afraid; of me or of the music. And then no one cares very much to risk new music. The theatres fill with the Ballo in Maschera and the Cenerentola, and all the rest. They only want them to fill. That is all. Nothing is to be done with them. ‘Comte Ory brings me as much as your Actea would were it successful,’ said one director to me. ‘And I have all the Comte Ory decorations, and all the singers know it by heart; why should I risk what might be half my ruin?’ For music they do not care, these men. No more than the men who sell wine in the wine‐shops care for the beauty of the vines. But now — only I do not know what you will say, you will think me mad; — now, last week in Milan, I have found a director who would take the Actea. Yes, take it, and bring it out in Carnival in Venice. In Venice — where they made Rossini’s fame, and sang the Ti riverdo even in the courts of law! I do not know whether he is a good man or a bad. But I would have kissed his feet. For he believes in the Actea —”

“Well?” said Bruno, as he paused.

Signa’s face flushed hotter, then grew very pale.

“He will bring it out, this coming Carnival!” he murmured. “Only, as the risk is great, he says — he must have from me, before he does commence it, three thousand francs, one half the cost of it on his theatre.”

“From you?” Bruno looked at him, doubting his own senses.

“From me, yes,” said Signa, and faltered a moment, and then threw himself at the feet of Bruno, with that caressing, suppliant grace of action which makes an Italian bend his knee as naturally as a flower stoops before the wind.

“Oh, listen! You have been so generous, so good, so long‐suffering — it is a shame to ask for more, to trespass further. Yes, I know. But, oh, listen to me, just this once again. What is the use of life in me if I cannot make men hear my music? I feel I am strong; I feel I am right; I feel what I do is great — only I have not the means of success in this world. Just see a skylark, the bird that mounts, mounts, mounts, ever singing; if it had a stone at its feet it could not mount, and so it could not sing, and yet its song would be in it just the same, and it would break its heart because it had to be mute. I am like the skylark:— only the stone with me is poverty. You see they have all had some little money. Mozart had his father’s help, and Haydn Prince Esterhazy’s, and everyone of them, some little thing just to loosen the stone off their foot as they rose first; — and once risen, then no lark wants anything more than only just the air and his own two wings. Now — oh, I know it is so much to ask, and in a way it is shameful; but you love me and I have no one but you. Now — that land you bought for me, you send me the worth from it always, and you mean to sign it away to me when I am of age, and you would like me to live on it for ever. Now — now — would it be impossible; would it be wicked in me to pray for it; — would you sell it at once, sell it straight away to whoever would buy it, the fields, and the olives and all; and give me the money for the Actea? Ah, my God! — do do it! My life is worth nothing to me, and what should ever I do with the land? It is yours I know, and I have no right yet; — but if you do still mean to give it to me, let me have the value of it now — now, for the Actea, and deliver me out of this torture and give me a chance to be great. Ah, my God, do hear me! — it will be as if you ransomed me out of hell!”

His head dropped on his hands; he sobbed aloud; he knelt still at Bruno’s feet, but all drooped into himself like a crushed flower. He was ashamed of his own prayer; and yet the passion of his longing shook him from head to foot. What use were the land, and the olives, and the rush‐shadowed brook to him? What he wanted was fame eternal.

Bruno was silent.

This was why the boy had come back.

After awhile Signa lifted his head timidly and glanced upward. Bruno’s face told him nothing: it was dark as a tempest, and, under all its bronze hue, pale; but it said nothing: it was like a moonless night.

The boy was afraid. He thought there would break upon him an outburst of such rage as had shattered his lost Rusignuolo.

But none came. Bruno was quite calm and was mute.

“Will you do it?” said Signa, with a great fear at his heart, touching the man’s brown hands with a soft, shy supplication like a girl’s. “Will you do it? See, you are so strong, so good — you think so much of my body and my peace, and my happiness; which all are as nothing to me: wil you help me to save my soul? will you help me out from this death in life? Dear God! if you knew —”

A terrible hopelessness seized him and stopped his prayer on his lips. Bruno’s face was so dark and so still: there was no response in it. A ghastly despair froze the boy’s beating heart.

How could he ever make this man understand — this man who knew nothing — this man who followed his oxen, and reaped his corn, and was content?

Bruno rose.

“I will think of it,” he said, slowly; and his voice in the darkness and the stillness of the lamplit house, sounded deep and hollow, as a brave bell that is broken will sound. “I will do it — if I see if for your good. I must think.”

Then he went out into the night air and drew the house door behind him, and the boy heard the echo of his footsteps passing away upward to the higher hills.

He knew that his prayer would be fulfilled. He did not know that for one single instant, as he had knelt there, Bruno could have struck him down and stamped his life out with as passionate a hate as he had once stamped the music out of the broken violin:— one instant in which the heart of the man had risen and cried against him:

“I have given you all my life — and you bring me back a stone.”

The next day early Bruno went down into the Lastra. He went to the sacristy of the Misericordia.

“Write to this man of Venice,” he said briefly. “Have it all in black and white: what he has said, what he will do.”

Luigi Dini looked up astonished.

“What! He has told you! You mean —?”

“We can speak of it when the answer comes. Write,” said Bruno, and went out into the tender sunshine and through the merry ways of the Lastra, that were overflowing with gathered grapes and laughing faces, down into the city, to the house of the notary who had served him in the transfer from Baccio Alessi, the carver.

“I may wish to sell my land — that land — in a little while,” he said. “If you find an honest man at a fair price, tell me.”

The notary looked up as the sacristan had done.

“Sell the land! The land you were so proud of! What can that be for?”

“That is no concern of any man’s. When you find the bidder tell me,” said Bruno, and went into the great square, where, the day being the market‐day, all the men from the villages and the villas were chaffering together with sonorous resonant voices, raised high in dispute or discussion.

“Bruno is going to do some evil thing,” said the other men, seeing the look upon his face. They had been used to tell danger from the dark‐ ness of his face, as storm from the cloud‐crown of Monte Morello.

But he did no evil. He trafficked with them, driving his bargains closely, and giving few words to all, with the glaive of Perseus and the bronze head of the Medusa above him in the shadow of the arch.

When the day was ended, he entered the baptistery, and prayed there in the twilight.

Then he crossed the river, and went out of the gates homeward.

More than one man, going by with swift wheels and little jingling bells, and flying fox‐tails at the pony’s harness, stopped and offered him a lift; but he shook his head, and strode on along in the dust.

It was the twenty‐fourth hour — the close of day — when he reached the foot of his own hill. The sun was just going down behind the great mountain and the sharp peaks that lie between the valley and the sea. It was nearly dark when he had mounted high enough to see his own roof above the olives.

He passed Fiastra.

The bell that said, “Lavora: et noli contristari” was ringing loud.

On the path above there was a little tumult of young men and girls running merrily one on another to reach the open gates. They had torches with them, flaming bright in the dusk, and branches of fir and boughs of the vines that they tossed over their heads; they were shouting and leaping, and scampering, and singing in chorus. As they drew near the farmhouse, they called out to the people within:

“We have brought him down! — we have got him! We will make him sing — our own little Signa, who is going to be so great!”

Four of the youths had Signa aloft on their shoulders. They had sought him out where he was moping in solitude, as they termed it; and had besought him and besieged him with airy laughter and fervent entreaty, and a thousand appeals and reproaches of old friends to one who deserted them; and he had not been proof against all that kindly flattery, all that tender supplication, which had the honey in it of the first homage that he had ever known; and they had borne him away in triumph, and the girls had crowned him with vine leaves and the damask roses that blossom in hazel and grape time, and danced round him in their rough, simple glee, like the peasants of Tempe round the young Apollo.

Bruno drew back into the shadow of the pines, and let them pass by him. They did not see him. They went dancing and singing down the steep grass paths, and under the archway, into the courtyard of Fiastra.

It was a quaint, vivid, pretty procession, full of grace and of movement — classic and homely, pagan and mediæval, both at once — bright in hue, rustic in garb, poetic in feeling.

Teniers might have painted the brown girls and boys leaping and singing on the turf, with their brandishing boughs, their flaring torches, their bare feet, their tossing arms; but Leonardo or Guercino would have been wanted for the face of the young singer whom they carried, with the crown of the leaves and of the roses on his drooped head, like the lotus flowers on the young Antinous.

Piero di Cosimo, perhaps, in one of his greatest moments of brilliant caprice, might best have painted the whole, with the backgrounnd of the dusky hillside; and he would have set it round with strange arabesques in gold, and illumined amongst them in emblem the pipe of the shepherd, and the harp of the muse, and the river‐rush that the gods would cut down and fill with their breath and the music of heaven.

Bruno stood by, and let the innocent pageant pass, with its gold of autumn foilage and its purples of crocus‐like colchicum.

He heard their voices crying in the court: “We have got him — we have brought him. Our Signa, who is going to be great!”

He stood still a little while: then he went up to his own home, and lit his lantern, and foddered his cattle, and worked in his sheds. He was too far off from Fiastra to hear any sound of the singing, but every now and then the wind, which blew that day from the south‐east, brought upward the bursts of applause, the enthusiastic shouts, that succeeded the intervals of silence; mere murmurs as the wind brought them; but to Bruno they sounded like the echo of the clarion of Fame, crying aloud to him from the great world, “He is mine.”

It was late when Signa returned, brought back by the young men, who left him with caress and with gratitude as to a creature far above them, and went away singing low amongst themselves in chorus the greatest air that he had written, the chant of the dying Christians, which had in it all the majestic magnificence of the “Rex tremendæ majestatis,” and all the pathetic resignation of the “Huic ergo parce Deus,” of Mozart’s “Dies Iræ.”

Signa stood on the threshold and listened to the broad, regular periods, the sonorous pathetic rhythm of his requiem, as the voices rose and sank, and grew fainter and fainter, as the steps fell away down the hillside.

They were only peasants, only labourers of the flail and the furrow; but they could sing whatever took their ear with unerring truth and time. It was the first time that ever he had heard any music of his own upon the mouths of others: it was the first time that any of that sympathy, which is the sweetest part of public homage, had ever come to him:— he stood and listened with a tumultuous pleasure swelling at his heart, and a delicious sense of power on the lives of others stirring in him.

“It will live,” he murmured to himself, as he listened there on the threshold until the voices died into silence, as the young men went on their several ways to their own homesteads, and parted.

Bruno was working still in one of the sheds, his lantern burning beside him. He had been sifting grain, stacking wood, cleaning wine casks, with the white dog watching him and the night wearing away.

Signa went within, and stood by him a little timidly. He had not seen him that day, save for a few moments in the early morning.

“You did not come to Fiastra to‐night,” he said gently, not knowing well what to say.

“No,” said Bruno, without lifting his head, whilst he piled the brush‐wood.

“Are you angry with me?” said Signa, with the child‐like way that was natural to him.

“No,” said Bruno, but he worked on without raising his head.

Signa’s mouth quivered a little. He knew that he had done no wrong, and yet he was not at peace with himself.

“Perhaps I am very selfish to ask so much,” he said, hesitating a little as he spoke. “I know I have no right; I know I have no more of my own than the dog there. But, indeed — indeed — what use would the land be to me? what joy would it bring me? And you are so good.”

Bruno paused in his labour a moment.

“I said: I must think. Let it be. Wait a week — then I will tell you. I do not know that you are selfish. It is I, more likely. I will do what is for your good. Only leave me in peace. Do not talk.”

And he lifted more wood.

Signa stood by him sadly. He was not satisfied. He knew that he had gained what he wished, that his desire would be given him. But his victory brought a sense of pain and of wrong‐ doing, as victory over a noble foe does to a soldier.

Bruno could never measure the height of the boy’s intelligence; the boy could never measure the depth of Bruno’s nature. In some ways they were for ever both strangers one to the other. Between human creatures it is often so.

As he stood there, confused, troubled, mute, Bruno looked up with a gesture of impatience, and laid his hand on the lad’s shoulder, but gently, for since the day of the broken Rusignuolo he had sworn to heaven never to be ungentle with Pippa’s son.

“I am not angered,” he said. “But leave me alone. Go with your friends; sing, dance, be caressed, take your pastime; enjoy yourself, dear, while you can. Do not think that you have hurt me; only leave me alone. It is not a thing to be done in a day. But you may trust me. What is best for you, that I will do: only I will not talk of it.”

He thrust him gently out of the shed into the night air against the open house‐door.

 

“It is late. Go to your bed.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v2.15.html

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