Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 2.

IT was four in the morning.

On the long, low sandy lines of the coast, and on the blue waters, the moonlight was still shining. In the east the great arc of the sky; and the distant mountains, and the plains, with their scattered cities, were all rose‐coloured with the flush of the rising day. Night and morning met, and kissed and parted.

Bruno went down to the edge of the sea, as they told him, and looked, and was stupefied. In some vague way the strange beauty of it moved him. This vast breadth of water that was so new to him, sparkling under the moon, with white sails motionless here and there, and islands, like clouds, and, in face of it, the sunrise, awed him with its wonder as the familiar loveli‐ ness of his own hills and valleys had no power to do.

He forgot the child a moment.

He crossed himself and said a prayer. He was vaguely afraid. He thought God must be there.

He stood motionless. The rose fo the dawn spread higher and higher, and the stars grew dim, and the moon was bathed in the daylight. A boat put out from the shore, and stole softly away across the gleaming blue, making a path of silver on the sea.

Bruno, like a man waking, remembered the warning of the ship: for aught he knew, the boat was a ship, and the child was borne away in it.

His heart grew sick with hear. He stopped the only creature that was near him on the way; a fisherman going to set his pots and kreels in the rock‐pools to catch crabs.

“Is that a ship going away?” he asked.

The fisherman laughed.

“That is a little boat, going fishing. Where do you come from that you do not know a ship?”

“Has one sailed yet, since night? Away? — quite away? — not to come back?”

“What do you mean?” siad the fisherman. “If you mean the mail‐ships or the steamers to Elba or Genoa — no! Nothing will leave port till night. Some will come in. Why do you ask? Do you want to get away?”

The fisher glanced at him with some suspicion.

Bruno’s eyes had a strange look, as if some peril were about him.

“You are sure no ship will go away?” he asked persistently.

“Not till nightfall,” said the fisherman. “There are none due. Besides, there is a dead calm: see how these rowers pull.”

And he trudged on with his lobster‐pots and kreels. This man was in trouble, he thought; it was best not to meddle with him, for fear of getting into any of the trouble.

Bruno went on along the wharf.

The natural shrewdness of a peasant’s habits of action began to stir underneath the confusion of his brain and the perplexity of his ignorance and his sorrow. In many things he was stupid, but in others he was keen. He began to consider what he could best do. That great wide water awed him — apalled him — fascinated him; but he tried not to think of it, not to gaze at it; he looked, instead, up at the moon, and was comforted to see it was the same that hung over the hills of Signa, to light the little grey aziola homeward through the pines. It seemed to him that he was half a world away from the quiet fields where Tinello and Pastore drew the plough beneath the vines.

But he had to find the boy; — that he must do before ever he saw the Signa hills again. He pondered a little, passing along the wharves, then turned into a winehouse that was opening early for seafaring men, and ate some polenta, and drank, and asked them tidings — if they could give any — of a little lad with a violin, who had been stolen.

The tavern folks were curious and compassionate, and would have helped him if they could have done, but knew nothing. Only they told him that if the child had a pretty trick of melody, he would be nearly sure to be taken to earn money where the gay great people lived southward, along where he could see the tamarisk trees. If he did not find the children in the old town, it would be best to go southwards towards noon.

He thanked them, and wandered out and about all the old, ugly, salt‐scented lanes and streets and busy quays, piled with merchandise and fish, and lines of fortifications, and dull squares and filthy haunts, where there was the smell of salt‐fish all day long, and the noise of brawling sailors of divers coutnries, and screaming foreign birds, and the strong odour of fishing nets and sails and cordage.

He heard nothing of the boy; but learned that a ship would go away to the coast of France at sunset.

So at noon, as they had told him it would be best to do, he went along the seashore, southwards, past the lighthouse and through the green lines of feathery tamarisks, that Titania of trees with its sweet breath, that is flower and forest, and spice and sea, and feather and fern, all in one, as it were.

To ask any public authority to aid him never occurred to him. He had been to often at feud with it in his wild youth to dream of seeking it as any help. Bruno and the guardians of order loved not one another. When he saw them at street corners with their shining swords and their soldiering swagger, he gave them a wide berth; or, if forced to go by them, passed with a fiercer glance than common, and a haughtier step, as of one who defies.

His heart was sick as he went by the shining water. The horror came on him that he had been misled. Neither mountebank nor rag‐picker had been sure that the children had come to the shore. At best, it had been only a thought.

Bruno felt for his knife in his waistband, under his shirt. If only he could deal with the man who had taken the boy; and with Lippo.

His soul was black as night as he went along in the full sunshine, with the azure water glowing till his bold eyes ached to look at it.

He had never known till now how well he loved the child.

And if he had drifted away to some vile, wretched, sinful, hopeless life — the life of a beaten dog, of a stage monkey, of a caged song bird — if he lived so and died so, what could he say in heaven or in hell to Pippa?

The sweet tamarisk scent made him sick as he went. The play of the sun on the sea seemed to him the cruellest thing that ever laughed at men’s pain.

When he came amongst the gay people and the music, and the colour and the laughter of the summer bathers, and the beautiful women floating in the water with their long hair and their white limbs, he hated them all — for sheer pain he could have taken his knife and struck at them, and made the sparkling blue dusky with their death. It was not only the child that he lost; it was his power to save his own soul.

So he thought.

He went through the long lines of the tamarisks a brown straight figure, with naked feet and bold eyes full of pain, like a caught hawk’s, in the midst of the fluttering garments and the loosened hair, and the mirthful laughter and the graceful idleness of the bathers, whom Watteau would have painted for a new voyage to Cytherea.

Bruno did not notice what he was amongst. The Tuscan blood is too republican to be daunted by strange rank or novel spectacle. Whatever be its other faults, servility is utterly alien to it, and a serene dignity lives in it side by side with indolent carelessness.

Bruno went through these delicate patricians, these picturesque idlers, these elegant women, as he went through the poppies in the corn. They were no more to him.

He had come into the environs of the Ardensa, with the pretty toy villas glittering on each side of him, and in front the Maremana road, with bold brown rocks and sheep‐cropped hills, going away southward to the marshes and to Rome; and on the sea, boats with wing‐like sails, some white, some brown, and the coral fishers’ smacks at anchor, and in the sunlight the violet shores of Corsica.

All at once his heart leaped.

He heard the notes of a violin, quite faint and distant, but sweet as the piping of a blackbird amongst the white anemones of earliest spring.

There were ten thousand violins and more in the world. He did not think of that. To him there was but one.

He made his way straight towards the sound.

It came from a group of tamarisks and evergreens set round a lawn some short way from the shore where the luxurious bathers, after their sea plunge, were gathered in a little throng, with all the eccentric graces of apparel that fashion is amused to dictate to its followers.

His heart leaped with surer joy as he drew nearer and nearer; he recognised the song that was being sung, a rispetto of the people, strung to an old grand chant of the sombre Neapolitan Traetta; which Signa, having heard the air of it on the sacristan’s organ, had played night after night on his little lute, sitting outside the door of Tinello and Pastore’s stable, while the sun went down behind the hill.

Morirò, morirò, sarai contenta

Più non la sentirai mia afflitta voce!

Quattro campane sentirai sonare

’Na piccola campana a bassa voce.

Quando lo sentirai ’lmorto passare

Fátti di fuora, che quella son io

Ti prego, bella, viemmi a accompagnare

Fino alla chiesa per l’amor di Dio

Quando m’incontri, fallò il pianto amare

Ricòdati di me quando t’amavo

Quando m’incontri, volgi i passi indietro

Ricòdati di me quand’ero teco.

I shall die, shall die; and thou wilt be content

Thou wilt no longer hear my lamentation.

Four bells will ring upon thine ear for me,

And one small bell much lower than the rest!

When thou shalt learn the dead is passing by,

Come forth to see me, for that dead am I.

I pray thee, love, come forth to come with me,

Come to the church for the dear love of God;

And when thou see’st me, gather bitter plants,

And think of me in our dead days of love;

And when thou see’st me, turn thy steps within,

Think of me in the time when I was thine.

Tuscan Rispetto

Bruno knew nothing of the name of the air, but he knew the words, and with a great cry, he pushed his way into the brilliant circle.

The music ceased; the child looked up, he was standing in the midst of the graceful women and idle men playing and singing, with big tears rolling down his cheeks.

Gemma, with a scarlet riband in her short gold locks, and her hands full of sweetmeats, was run‐ ning from one to another of the listeners, taking all they gave.

“Signa!” cried Bruno.

The boy stopped a moment, lifting his great eyes in piteous uncertainty of what was right to do; then the impulse of affection, and of habit, and of home were too strong for his resolution of self‐sacrifice; he sprang into Bruno’s outstretched arms.

“O take me back, take me back, and Gemma too!” he sobbed; “and you will not hurt Lippo? promise me, promise me — because they will hurt you; and that is why I ran away, for fear that I should bring you harm. But I am so unhappy. Gemma laughs and loves it all; but I— O take me back to the Lastra, and they will tell me there if I have hurt Nita and ought to die. But promise me about Lippo first — promise me!”

Gemma stood looking; the sea‐wind blowing the scarlet riband in her curls; she pouted sulkily, and ate a sweetmeat.

“I promise you,” said Bruno; his eyes were blind, his lips trembled; he held the boy in his arms and kissed him on the forehead. Then he set him down, and his hand went to his knife, and a sudden savage remembrance swept across his face, and darkened out of it all tenderness of emotion.

“Let me get at the brute — point him out,” he said, in his teeth, while his eyes glanced over the gathered people.

But there were only the languid idlers staring at him, and asking each other if it were a concerted scene to enhance the charm of the little fellow’s playing. The man, Giovacchino, had disappeared at the first glimpse of the stalwart peasant coming on his errand of vengeance.

Had Bruno known what his face was like, he would have had but little chance of reaching him in the mazes of the tamarisk groves; as it was, pursuit was impossible. He took the two children by the hand, “Point him out, boy — show me him,” said he, breathlessly.

But Signa, bewildered, stared around, and could see nothing like his tempter.

“He is gone, I think,” he whispered, clinging to Bruno’s cloak. “He was not a bad man; he was very kind.”

“He was very good, and I want him,” said Gemma, with a flood of tears. “He has promised me pink shoes, and a coral necklace, and a little gilt carriage to ride in, and a harlequin toy that one can put on the floor to dance.”

“What is it?” said the loungers. “Is it a comedy scene to make one admire the children in new parts?”

Bruno seized Gemma roughly, and took Signa by the hand.

“Let us get home,” he said, and the rage died off his face, and a great serene thankfulness came on it.

He had back the boy.

Pippa would know he tried to keep his word. The man might go unpunished.

Signa clung to him mute and half out of his wits with the sudden wonder of this deliverance from the fate he loathed. Bruno to him had been Providence always — as other children see the strength of godhead in their parent’s care, so he in Bruno’s. To feel that Bruno was there was to Signa to be ransomed out of death. He was speechless and dizzy with his joy.

The idlers under the tamarisks watched him, supposing it some portion of the programme of these pretty children, who had come upon the sands that morning; they boy, with a voice so sweet, that the child Haydn himself never sang more divinely those famous trilli for the famous cherries that in old age he loved to recall with such delight; and the girl with such a little face of grace, that she might have steeped straight down from any tryptich of Botticelli, or flown from any ceiling of Correggio.

“Where are you going to take him? Is the boy your son?” said one of the gentle people, who had been giving their money and their pretty trifles to hear Signa sing and play. “Do you know he is a little Mozart? What do you mean to do with such a genius as his? Not bury it? Tell me all about him. Where do you live?”

But Bruno flashed a dark glance of suspicion over the elegant throng, and answered nothing, only moved his hat in half defiant courtesy of farewell, and turned away, afraid that if he stayed some other means would be found by some one to take the child away.

His hand gripped Signa’s firmly.

“Let us get home,” he said.

Signa smiled all over his little pale startled face.

“To the Lastra!” he said, with a little sigh of sweetest self‐content.

“What genius!” said the throng left under the tamarisk trees.

“What is genius?” thought Signa. “But anyhow if I have it, it will go with home with me. I did not get it here.”

“Why do you cry, Gemma?” he said aloud.

Gemma hung back and stamped her foot, and sobbed with fury, letting all her gilded sweets and pretty treasures of painted paper, fall on the sand as she went.

“I will not go back; I will not go back,” she said. “I want the pink shoes and the gilt carriage. We have nothing to eat at home, and you heard them all say I am so pretty. I want to hear them say it again. I will not go back; I will not!”

“But I am going, too,” said Signa.

Gemma pushed him away and struck at him with her rosy little fists. But no one heeded her rage.

Bruno dragged her along without attention to her lament, and Signa for once was indifferent to her; he clasped his violin close, and he was going back to the Lastra; he was so happy, that it almost frightened him.

He seemed to have lived years since he had run along, with the angel’s gift, by the Greve water three nights before.

Bruno went back straight to the winehouse in the town.

He asked them if they were hungry. They were not. The man who had decoyed them had fed them well; till they were out of sight of shore stolen children had nothing but goodness at his hands; the mountebank in scarlet had only said the truth.

There was a rough, kindly woman at the winehouse. Bruno gave her Gemma to take care of for the few hours that had to pass before they could get away to the Lastra.

Gemma was crying sullenly; she hated to go back; she wanted this pretty gay world that she had had a glimpse of, that was all ribbons and sweetmeats and praise of her prettiness; she hated to be taken to the bed of hay, to the crust of black bread, to the lonely garden, to the trouble of hunting hen’s eggs, and killing grubs in the flowers, and beating sheets with stones in the brook with Palma.

Then he took Signa out into the open air. It seemed to him that what he had to say had better be said there. Betwee four walls, Bruno, hill‐born and air‐fed, felt stifled always.

The boy and he went silently down to the edge of the sea once more.

Signa was startled and subdued.

He felt as if he were a child no longer, but quite old.

He had known what it was to be adrift on the world, to gain money; to be heartsick for home; to hear that he had some great gift that other people wondered at; the contrast and conflict of all these varying emotions had exhausted him. And he was sorry too about Gemma. Gemma, who cried for a strange life, for a strange country, for a strange man — Gemma, who cared more about a scarlet band in her curls, and a gilded box of sugar, than ever she had done for all his music or caresses.

Signa had had his first illusion broken.

He was no longer a child.

Fair faiths are the blossoms of life. When the faith drops, spring is over.

Amidst his great mute happiness at his own home there was a dull pain at his heart. He had found that beyond the mountains he was no nearer God.

Bruno watched in silence along the sea. They came at last along the level shore to a little creek, where the brown rocks cast deep shadows, where the water was in golden shallow pools, full of sea‐weeds and sea‐flowers; where the town was sunken out of sight behind them, and they were quite alone with the wide blue radiance before them in the splendour of the noon.

“Sit here,” said Bruno; and threw himself down upon the rock. Signa obeyed him, letting his little brown leg hang over into the pool, and feel the cool sparkling ripples break against them.

Bruno watched him.

Even now the boy was not thinking of him.

Signa with dreaming eyes was looking out to the sea and the sky, and his hand was, by unconscious instinct, touching such soft minor chords on the strings of his Rusignuolo.

“What are you thinking of?” said Bruno, abruptly. He was jealous of theses far‐away thoughts that he could never follow.

Signa hung his head.

“I do not know — hardly. Only I wondered — why does God make the earth so beautiful and men so greedy?”

His own thoughts were sadder and wider than this, but they were dim to him; he could not put them into better words.

“I supose it is the devil,” said Bruno; he had no better reason or consolation to give.

Religion gives no better.

Signa shook his head. It did not satsify him; but he could find no better himself.

“It is the devil,” repeated Bruno, who believed firmly in what he said.

And he watched the child anxiously; he was oppressed with his own secret; he hated himself because he had not had courage that night of the flood to bear poor dead Pippa to her grave, and tell the simple truth. The truth looked so simple now; so easy and so plain; he marvelled why he had been fool enough to hide it — truth always has this vengeance soon or late.

None desert without seeing that she would have been their noblest friend. Only often it is too late when they do see it. Once driven away with the scourge of lies she is very hard to call back.

“Lippo ill treats you?” he said, abruptly, having resolved to rend the spider’s web that he had let his brother weave about him.

Signa withdrew his gaze from the sea with a sigh. On that world of waters he saw such beautiful things: why must he be brought back to the misery of blows and hunger and ill words?

“You have promised me not to hurt him,” he said, anxiously. “They said you would hurt him — if you knew.”

“And that is why you never told me?”

“Yes. And why I ran away.”

“Tell me everything now.”

The boy obeyed. Bruno listened. His face was very dark. He did not look up; he lay on the rock full length, resting his chin on his hands.

“I am sorry that I promised you.”

That was all he said when Signa’s little tale of childish woe and wrongs was ended. But there was a sound in his voice that told the child why they had said in the Lastra that Bruno, if he knew, would do that upon his brother which would take him himself to end his days in the galleys.

“But you have promised,” said Signa, softly.

Bruno was silent.

He was a fierce man, and in his passion, faithless, and in his ways wild and weak at once, oftentimes. But he never broke a promise — not even one made to the beasts in the yoke of his plough.

There was a long silence, in which the gentle ripple of the water sounded clear; the intense silence of noon when all things are at rest. After a while Bruno rose and lifted the child up, and set him between his knees, sitting on a great brown heap of rocks.

“You have been very unhappy?”

“Sometimes,” said Signa.

“And were silent for fear of evil I should do?”

“Yes:— for fear that they would harm you.”

“You do love me then?”

“You are good to me.”

“Would you love me if I did the evil?”

“Just the same.”

“You would not be afraid of me?”

“No.”

“How is that?”

“You would never harm me.”

“But if I did a great crime?”

“I would hate that; — but I would love you.”

“Who teaches you all this?”

“I seem to hear God say it — when I make the music — I do not know.”

Bruno was silent.

He put the boy from hm, and leaned his head on his hands. Then suddenly he spoke, not looking up; very quickly and any how.

“Listen, I want to tell you the truth. I have hid it because I was a coward — at first from fear of trouble and of people’s talk — and of late because I wanted you to love me, a little, and thought you would not if you knew. Listen, dear. It was such a simple thing. I was a fool. But Lippo put it so. I must have been a coward, I suppose. Listen, I had one sister, Pippa, a young thing; pretty to look at, and idle as a lizard in the sun. I was rough always, and too fierce and quick. They tell you right to be afraid of me. I have done much evil in my years. I was always a brute to Pippa. I had a sort of hate of her. When the girl came my mother looked at none of us. I see her now — a little brown baby laughing or crying all day long, and my mother thinking of nothing but of her. I see her now in the sun under the Pieta in the house door, her little red mouth sucking at her breast, and mother so proud and singing, and talking of the time when she would want her marriage‐pearls. I hated her. No matter — I knew it was a sin. I was rough and cruel with Pippa, grudging her all pleasure and all playtime, and when the mother died she had a hard time of it with me:— yes, I know. And at a winefair she would dance when I forbade her, and mocked me about a woman — never mind — and I struck my knife into her. I should have killed her only the people held me back, and the knife turned on the busk of her bodice, and only stabbed the flesh. You see I was a brute to her. That is what I want you to understand. Well — then — one day she went away. I cannot tell where she went to — no matter. And the years went by. And one night, the night of the great flood that you have heard us tell of — Lippo and I seeking the sheep, came on a woman in the field. She had fallen down over the height, from that road we go on from the town up to the hill. She was quite dead. She had a child. We saw that it was Pippa. Then Lippo urged to me — the sheep would drown; the girl was dead — the town might say that we had murdered her; he thought it best to say nothing till the morning. We took you; we took the child. We left her there till morning. The river rose. It took her body with it. We never found it. Then Lippo urged again — why say that it was Pippa? It would do no good. People would think we were ashamed of her, and so had killed her. We could not prove we had not. What use was it to say anything. The river had her. So I let it be. I was a coward. Then there was the child. Lippo would send it to charity. He had too many mouths to feed. But that I would not have. For Pippa’s son. I got Lippo to keep it with his own, giving him half of all I got. He has had half and more. His children have fattened like locusts off my land. You never told me. I did for the best. Lippo has cheated me. Dear — you are Pippa’s son. I got to love you. I was afraid that you would hate me if you knew. I have been a coward. That is all. Will you forgive me? — Your mother does, I think.”

Signa had listened with breathless lips and wide‐opened, startled, wondering eyes.

When the voice of Bruno ceased, he stretched his arms out with a bewildered gesture; glanced round at sea and sky one moment, then tottered a little, and fell in a dead faint:— the long fatigue, the tumult of emotion, the peril and the pain that he had undergone, the wild delight of rescue and the hope of home, and now the story of his mother and her death, all overcame his slender strength. He fell, quite blind and senseless, down at Bruno’s feet.

When consciousness came back to him his hair and clothes were drenched in the sea water; Bruno hung over him tenderly as a woman; Signa lifted himself and gazed, and stretched his hand out for the violin, and saw Bruno, and remembered all.

“That was my mother!” he said, bewildered, and could not understand.

Bruno’s eyes were wet with tears, salt as the sea.

“You do not hate me, dear?” he said, with a piteous entreaty in his voice. “I have tried to do right by you since. I think she is not angry, longer, if she knows.”

“No,” said Signa, dreamily; confused as though he had been stunned by a heavy fall.

“That was my mother?” he repeated, dully; he did not understand; the owls had never found him on the flood then; he had always thought they had.

“Yes; you are Pippa’s son. I have tried to do the best. You do not hate me — now?”

Signa put his arms round Bruno’s neck.

 

“No. I love you. Take me home.”

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