Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 20.

THE next morning old Teresina, being a hale old body, and active, climbed up the slope to Giovoli, and told Palma the tidings.

The girl was hoeing amongst the frost‐bitten ground, and digging out cauliflowers.

She straightened her back and listened, with her great eyes open in humid wonder, to the tale the old woman brought; a tale enlarged and glorified, as such narratives ever will be passing from mouth to mouth.

Palma could understand nothing of it; less than any of them. She had never been out of the Lastra. She had never been in any city, or heard any music except that at church and at the country merry‐makings such as those at Fiastra. It was all obscure to her, terrible, incomprehen‐ sible. It was as if they had told her Signa had been made a king.

“Sure it was his heart’s wish, so we ought to be glad,” said old Teresina, when all her story was done.

“Yes, indeed,” said Palma; but her head was in a whirl, and her throat was full. She knew, as Bruno knew, that living for the world, he was dead to them — quite dead. All the country was talking of him: how should he remember?

“She is a stupid little mule,” thought the old woman, angrily. “She feels nothing, she sees no greatness in it all — she is only good to grub among her cabbages.”

And she went away huffed, and thinking she herself had been a fool to walk all the way to Giovoli to tell her news.

Palma worked on amongst the hard sods, filling her hand‐truck with cauliflowers, which her brother would wheel down to the market at the back of the Palace Strozzi.

She was always hard at work, in the open air in all weathers, and knowing no rest; for they were poorer than ever now her brothers grew so big; and, what with the mill tax, and the goods tax, and the tax at the gates for every scrap of eatable stuffs or inch of homespun cloth, the lives of the poor are terrible in this land, where all the earth runs over with plenteousness.

Hour after hour she hoed, and dug, and uprooted, and packed the green heads of the vegetables one on another: all the while her heart was like lead, and her tears were dropping.

“One ought to be glad; he would have broken his heart here; one ought to be so glad,” she said to herself.

But gladness does not come for the commanding of it, nor at the voice of duty. She could not feel glad; she could only feel, “We shall never be anything more to him — never any more.”

Signa had been the one grace, the one poem, the one sweet gleam of leisure, rest, and fancy, in all the deal level of her laborious life.

All the rest was so dull, so hard, so unlovely; all the rest was just one constant uphill struggle for sheer life — one ceaseless rolling of the stone of poverty upward every day, to have it fall heavy as ever back again with every night. Her father was idle, her brothers were quarrelsome; their needs were many, and their ways of meeting them were few; everyone leaned one her, everybody looked to her, everything was left for her to do and save: she had a nature that would have been happy on a very little, but she had no time to be happy; no one every thought she could want such a thing. All the loveliness about her always, from the blaze of sunrise over the hills to the mitre flower in the path between the cabbages, she had no time to note; if she had a moment to rest, she was so tired she could only sit down with closed eyes, heavily, stupidly, like an overdriven horse.

Signa alone had sometimes made her look up and see the daybreak, look down and see the cyclamen; Signa alone, with his smile and his song, and his dreams and his fancies, had brought her a little glimpse of that life of the perception and of the imagination without which the human life differs in nothing from that of the blinded ass at the grinding mill.

She clung to him quite unconsciously; he was the sole ray of light in her long dark day of toil: toil that no one thanked her for, because it was so simply her duty and her obligation.

She loved him with the simplest, tenderest, most innocent affection; and with infinite humility, because she so seldom could reach the height of his thoughts or the stature of his mind. He was the one beauty in her life; he was so unlike all else that surrounded her; even when she knew him wrong, his error was more divine to her than others’ right; the hope of him when he was coming, the memory of him when he had gone, had illumined for her so many days of joyless labour; when his life had gone quite out of hers she had been desolate, with a desolation the more absolute because no one guessed, or, guessing, would have pitied it.

And now at his victory she was not surprised. She could not understand it, but she had believed in him as he had believed in himself; and, so believing, had been sure that he would do the thing he wished.

Therefore the news had found her, and had left her, so quiet — so quiet: only with a weight at her heart like a stone.

She knew, as she had known at Fiastra, his feet might return, but his soul never! She tried to make herself glad; she hated herself because she failed to rejoice.

“He would have broken his heart if he had not succeeded,” she said to herself; and all the while she worked amongst the black earth whose chinks were filled with ice, and her feet were numb with cold, and her poor wisp of a woolen shirt was blown through and through by the north wind, and she tried to cheat herself and believe that she was glad.

When the cabbages were all packed, and the rest of the garden labour done, she went within a minute, and got out a little morsel of paper‐money sewn within her mattress, and stood and thought.

Years before it had been given her by her godmother; the only little bit of money she had ever had for herself; and she had been told by her father to spend it on herself; and she had saved it always from year to year, thinking, when she could get a little bit to add to it, to buy some stockings and shoes for mass days; for she was a little ashamed of her bare feet in the churches. But the other little bit she had never got yet; all that was made by her labour being always wanted for the black bread for the boys’ mouths, of which, though she toiled ever so, there was never enough.

She had clung to the hope of getting it always, but day after day, year by year, the hope drifted farther and farther away, and the little scroll of a bank‐note was all alone in the mattress — a yellow tumbled scrap of a few francs in worth.

Now she took it out, and meditated a moment, and then ran down into the town. It was with her as if she were weighted with some heavy burden dragging at her heart‐strings with every step; yet with every step she said to herself, “I am glad; oh, dear Madonna, make me glad!”

She ran down to a nook in the town where there dwelt a man by name or nick‐name Chilindro: a little old man of great repute in the place as a draughtsman, and whose business it was, for due payment, to make those coloured drawing which by the score adorn the Voto chapels; thank‐offerings for great mercies, and propitiatory presents to the saints, where colour is lavish, and perspective unknown, and miracles commemorated in a primitive art that scorns all rule save that of the buyer’s fancy.

Chilindro drove a good trade in his art: the peasants love these votive pictures, and believe in them beyond all other ways of pleasing heaven.

Does a man escape death by fire or water, does he fall unharmed from roof or rick; does a child pass through peril unscathed, or a mother hear her son is saved from shipwreck, or a loose horse in mad career pass without trampling on a prostrate creature; — the miracle, if it have been wrought for pious souls, is drawn and painted, or a fitting print is coloured; and the Madonna, or the Saint invoked, beams out from flames or waves or clouds; and the record of the heavenly grace is carried up to some favoured chapel, and hung with thousands of others, to show that there still is gratitude on earth, and plead for further favours still from heaven.

Chilindro did not know how to draw, but that was no matter; in these pictures art is nothing, faith is all things; large splashes of red and blue, and the people taller than the houses, and the Madonna or the Saint always very prominent, that is sufficient. Chilindro was a good old man, and a great gossip, and had a high repute for holiness, and had painted the miracles of the Signa country for thirty years and more, till heavenly interpositions seemed no more to him than the dropping of an apple seems to any other man.

Palma climbed up to the attic against the south wall, where, when times were good and accidents were many, he spent his days, and took his orders, and put on his spectacles, and drew his wonderful wooden men and women, and his shipwrecks wtih gaping fish far bigger than the vessels, and his blazing hayricks with the Virgin sitting in the flames, and putting them out with the mere borders of her robe; for Chilindro, though he could not draw a straight line, had a very great reputation, and people came from far and near to him, even from the shores of the sea, and the coasts of the marshes, where the little chapels, that crown the heathered rocks and path, amongst the rosemary over the blue waters, have so many of these offerings from seamen and seamen’s wives, and the coral fishers and the trawlers who draw their daily bread from the deep.

Palma went up to the old man, in the dusk of the late winter afternoon, and drew out her piece of yellow paper.

“Is that enough for a good one!” she asked, with all her heart in her eyes.

The old man scanned it prudently.

“It depends on what you want; has your sweetheart been in trouble? Is that it?”

“No,” said Palma, too utterly absorbed in longing to do right, to heed the jest or blush for it. “Look; I am not sure what it should be, but something that would please S. Cecilia. It is she who listens to all music, and sends beauty into it, is it not?”

“Aye, aye,” said Chilindro, roughly, being not over‐sure himself, and preferring fires and shipwrecks, which were all the Madonna’s. “Aye, aye, go on, what do you want with S. Cecilia? I deal with no childishness, you know; that were profane.”

Palma leaned both her hands on his table, and her heart was beating so, that he might have seen her rough bodice heave with it, only he was an old man and did not care for girls.

“Profane! oh no; no, no! It is the very life of his life. It is the only thing he loves. If you would do something very beautiful for her that would please her very much, and show her I am glad? Something that would please him too, if ever he should see it? I would take it up myself and pray with it, and so she would watch over him always. That was what I thought. This is all the money I have. I have saved it for years; meaning to buy shoes always. If it be enough, if you would make it do? then she would know how glad I try to be. Only I cannot — I cannot — not just at once.”

Her voice choked in her throat; her eyes glazed imploringly at the old man, as though he held the keys of heaven; she had absolute faith in the power of what she strove to do; if she could have given her life‐blood to get the picture, she would have given it willingly.

The old man scanned her curiously. She was too thin and ill‐clad, and blown and beaten by the weather to have much beauty; yet she looked almost handsome, in her brown, rough, simple way, as she leaned there in the dusk over his board, with her great braids wound about her shapely head, and her breast heaving, and all her soul shining in her eyes.

“It is that boy who has made his fame in Venice,” thought the old Chilindro, but he had seen too much of men and women to seem to know the thing they did not wish themselves to tell; he had painted votive offerings for road‐brigands in his earlier days, and taken their money and asked nothing but what they chose to say: a still tongue, he held, being as gold to whosover has the wit to keep it safely tucked behind his teeth. His business was to make the pictures, not to turn people’s memories and desires inside out; besides, he saw the story of the girl in her gleaming innocent eyes.

There were so many stories like it; without them half the walls of half the votive chapels would be bare.

He looked at her and at the paper note, then seemed to meditate.

“It is a low price — and S. Cecilia: that is more difficult than the Madonna; she is more hard to please. Our Lady is everywhere. She is used to it. Still I will do my best, you being a young thing, and wishing it so much: only your price is low. Because you will want laurel, and harps, and the trumpet of fame, and all the rest; it is to get triumph for the youth and for his music that you wish?”

“Yes!” said Palma, with a sigh that shuddered her with an infinite pain. “Yes; triumph always, what he longs for — triumph eternal, that shall live longer than he lives. That is what he used to say. Ah, you are good to do it for so little — then they will know in heaven I am glad.”

The old Chilindro was silent. he was used to see all woes and joys of human emotion. He was used to mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, mistresses of men, who came and wept and laughed and prayed, and were mad with rapture at the sweet sudden deliverance from death of some life that made the sum of theirs. But this girl moved him; she was so quiet, and yet there was such longing in her eyes.

Nevertheless, he took her money.

“I will do the picture, and you may come for it this time to‐morrow,” he said, as he raked up the little note into his leathern bag. “But, that you are wise, I will not say. My dear, in failure they come back; in success, never.”

“I know,” said Palma.

“And you still wish the picture?”

“I will be here for it this time to‐morrow; and you are good to do it.”

Then she went.

Chilindro did no work that night, but went and gossipped: on the morning he did better for her than he did for most; he took a little wood‐engraved head of Raffaelle’s Cecilia, and left it undaubed by colour, and drew round it in his own clumsy fashion the laurel and the bay, and all immortal symbols, Pagan and Christian, twisted altogether, and lettered under with the little line “Hauritis acquas in gaudio.”

He did not know very well why he wrote that in his flourishing gilded letters, but he thought it would serve its turn.

Then he put it in a plain black frame, which was a free gift, and could not have been claimed as portion of the picture.

It was much simpler than his flames and waves, his azures and his crimsons; and yet, somehow, he thought he liked it better than them all.

With the dusk of the day Palma came for it. To her, too, it seemed beautiful. She looked at it in silence, her hands crossed on her bosom, that he should not see how high it heaved.

“It is good of you to have done so much for me,” she said, gently, and then took the picture and folded it under her ragged wooden shawl, and again went away, without another word.

Chilindro was disappointed.

“I wish I had made her pay for the frame,” he thought, as his door shut upon her.

Palma, with the speed of a goat, ran up into the hills; she had so little time to spare; her brothers would be home by nightfall, clamorous for their dish of soup.

There was a little church high above Giovoli that she loved well; a little old brown tumbling church, where Signa and Gemma had often played with her amongst the old tombs in their babyhood, and sat with the sheep‐dog up by the altar, wondering at the little stone children and the broken pieces of jasper and porphyry, and the blazoned S. Sebastian, with the arrows in him, up in the narrow window, cobweb‐hung.

And sometimes Signa, with Gemma and her at his feet on the steps of the altar, had sung the chants he sang at matins and complin with the other choir children; and the sweet little flute‐like voice of him had gone sighing out through the arched door to the sunshine, and away over the gorge and the rosemary, till it found the thrushes singing too, and was lost in the myrtle leaves with them.

She ran up the hill to this little church; there were no thrushes now, and the rosemary and myrtle were bare, and the savage north wind pierced her through and through, and the ice in the clefts cut her feet.

It was just open for evening service.

There were a few scattered huts and farms, whose peasants would steal into it sometimes, and sit down in the darkness and rest, if they did not pray. She went in and threw herself down on her knees in the corner nearest the altar. It was there that she meant to aske to have the picture hung — just there; where the old broken rail was still bright with the jasper, and where Signa had used to sit and sing.

 

“Oh, dear God! I am glad, indeed; I am glad!” she said, as she kneeled with her hand on the stone and the little picture close clasped against her breast. “Gemma is dead; and he is the same as dead to me. But Gemma is safe with you and the angels, and he has the thing that he wished. I am glad, indeed, I am glad. I would not have them back — oh, no! — only perhaps he will see the picture once, and then he will know I did what I could; then he will know. — I am glad!”

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