Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 3.

IT was late in afternoon when they got back to the tavern by the wharves.

The child walked beside Bruno, very pale, and still, and sorrowful.

“You will not hurt Lippo?” he said once.

“I have told you no,” said Bruno.

Then once he asked:

“Had I a father too?”

“No doubt, dear!”

“And why have I not his name? The other children have their father’s name.”

“How can we tell what it may be?”

He could not say to the child —“You have no claim on it.”

“And where is he?” persisted Signa.

“I cannot tell. I know nothing,” answered Bruno, impatient of the theme. “Pippa — your mother — went away to some strange country. We never knew anything more. Girls do these things, sometimes, when they are not happy.”

“Then my father may be — a king?”

“A beggar more likely. Anyway a rogue. Why think of him?”

“Why a rogue?”

Bruno was silent.

“Your mother came back very poor, by the look of her,” he said, after a while. “And sad she must have been, or she would never have thought of her old home.”

Signa was silent too. Then he said, musingly.

“Perhaps he would care to hear me play. Do you think so? When Carlo Gerimino makes at home figures in wood — dogs, and mice, and birds, just what he sees — his father is so proud, and promises to have him taught great things when he is old enough.”

“Do not think of it, I tell you, dear,” said Bruno, with impatience. “You have me. I will do all I can. Think of your Holy Child and your wooden bird; that is better far. He may be dead, and so that and want together drove her here. Anyway, it is of no use to vex your heart for him. We can never know —”

“I thought the owls found me,” said Signa, sadly, and dragged his little tired feet along, bewildered; while the old violin clangoured against him, and his head was bent, and his hair was hanging over his eyes.

He would have sooner chosen that the owls had found him. This sudden story, told in fragments, and never clearly, as was Bruno’s way, oppressed him with a sense of mystery and sorrow.

Pippa’s son? What did that mean!

He did not understand.

But he understood that he would live with Bruno always, and with Tinello and Pastore, and with the sweet wild hillside, all rosemary scented, and dark with the cistus, and the myrtle, and the pine, and that made him glad — that comforted him.

“What beautiful things I shall hear all the day long,” he thought; for when he was alone, where the leaves were, and the sky was above him, he heard such beautiful things, that it was the cruellest pity that they should ever be driven away by the rough noise of Toto’s fretting, and Nita’s rage, and the girls quarrelling, and the baby’s screams, and the jar of the housework, and the creak of the pump‐wheel, and the curses of old Baldo on the gnats and flies.

When they reached the sailors’ winehouse by the wharf, the boy was so tired that he had almost lost all consciousness of anything that went on round him. But at a great rush of voices, and in the foul‐smelling doorway, his dreamy eyes opened, and his dulled ears were started to attention, for he heard the woman of the place calling aloud:

“And who could have thought? a casement no wider than one’s thumb, as one may say? and how she could get through it passes me; the man must have helped her from outside. As the saints live, I took every care. I kept her in the little room at the back, that has the tamarisk in at the window, and shells, and seaweeds, to amuse her, and a beautiful picture of my husband’s sister’s son, of the Martyrdom of the blessed Lorenzo. And she had a good bowl of soup, and a roast crab, and a handful of figs — eating for a princess — and ate it all, every bit, she did; and then she seemed tired and sleepy, and no wonder, thought I, and I laid her down on the bench with a pillow, and just locked the door on her, and went about my work, and thought no more, because my husband is always a poor thing, and there are so many men coming and going, there is more than one woman can get through — up at four, and to bed at past midnight, as I am. And then, looking out in the street, and seeing you coming with the little boy and the fiddle, I went to wake her up, and the room was empty, and some of the tamarisk twigs broken and tumbled down on the floor, so that, of course, through the lattice she must have gone, and the man must have been there to help her out. The window looks on a lane; there is nobody ever there; oh, he might have done it quite well, only so small as the hole is — that beats me. And it is no fault of mine, that Our Lady knows; and why must you be leaving her with me? and you will pay me for the soup, and the crab, and the figs, because she has got them away in her stomach.”

“Is Gemma lost!” cried Signa, with a piteous wail in his voice, that stopped the woman’s torrent of phrases.

“Yes, dear; it seems so,” said Bruno, in perplexity. “But we will find her for you. Do not cry, Signa, do not cry; you hurt me when you cry.”

But to find her was beyond Bruno’s powers. He traced her to the quay, led by a man; that was all he could hear.

They had gone in a smack that sailed away, bound for Gorgona, at three in the afternoon. Some sailors on the wharf remembered noticing a golden‐headed, chattering, little child; she seemed so happy to be off; the smack was some strange one from some of the islands; no Livornese craft; it had come in the day before with pilchards; they supposed that the man had got the owner of it to give him a lift over water; no one had known that there was any need to interfere; they said that the father of the girl had better come and see: no one else could have any right to meddle.

That was all Bruno could learn.

They were quite certain the child with the red ribbon and bare feet had gone to sea; they showed him the distant sail, speeding fast over the waves, which were now freshened by a breeze that had sprung up; by the direction she was taking, they did not think that she was going to Gorgona; anyhow, no one would overtake her till long after nightfall.

Signa stood and sobbed his heart out by the sea.

Bruno pondered a little; he could do no good, and he had barely enough coins upon him to get home, and had no credit in this strange town, nor any friend; besides, who could tell, if Tinello and Pastore were well fed? They might be stolen — heaven alone could tell; if the men threshing with him were not faithful, no one could say what evil might not happen, nor what ruin nor what blame the fattore might not lay upon him for his absence without a word. To stay another night away was impossible; he could do no good to Gemma, and would be penniless himself upon the morrow, and powerless to return.

He pondered a little while, then paid the woman at the winehouse for the crab and figs that she lamented over, and made his way back in the full red sunset heat by the iron way he hated, half‐leading, half‐carrying the boy into the waggon, where Signa wept for his playmate, till he wept himself to slumber, as the train, groaning, started on its way, leaving the brilliancy of the golden west and the blue sea, to plunge across the marshy wastes by Pisa, and traverse the green vine country, where the Ave Maria bells were ringing, and pause in the still twilit ancient towns, and so reach the hills above the Lastra.

It was quite dark when they reached the hill of Signa.

Bruno, quite silent, looked up with a longing glance to the purple lines of pine, where his vines were, and where Tinello and Pastore dwelt in their shed under the great magnolia tree. But before he turned his steps thither, he had to tell of Gemma’s loss; he pressed money on her father, and sent him seaward, on the vague chance that what they had heard might be untrue; then holding Signa by the hand, he went straight down into the Lastra.

It was eight of the night.

Bells for the benediction offices were ringing from many chapel towers on the hills; single sonorous bells answering one another under the evening shadows, and calling across the hills.

The people were all about, idling at their doors, or in knots of three of four talking of the many little matters that make up the history of a country summer day. There was hardly a lamp alight. The moon had not risen.

But the men and women all knew Bruno as he came down into the midst of them with the stately tread of his bare swift feet.

A stillness fell upon them. They thought he came to take his brother’s life most likely. They drew a little into their own doors, and others came up from passages and houseways.

“Where is Lippo?” he asked of them.

No one answered. But by an involuntary unconscious glance that all their eyes took, it was easy for him to see slinking away on the edge of the throng the slender supple figure of this brother.

“Wait there!” cried Bruno. “I shall not harm you — coward.”

Lippo paused; by some such fascinated fear as makes the bird stay to be done to death at the snake’s will.

“People of the Lastra, I have something to say,” said Bruno, standing still; a tall, brown, half bare figure in the gloom, with the boy beside him; all the people ran out to listen; men and women and children, breathless and afraid; what could he be doing with words, he, whose weapon was always straighter and swifter than any speech can be?

The voice of Bruno rang out loud and clear; reaching the open windows and the inner courts, and the loiterers at the gateways.

“I have something to say. I am a rough man. It is easier for me to use my hand, but I want to tell you — it is just to the child. You remember that I was bad to Pippa. I was cruel. I stabbed her, even; you will remember. She was a gay girl, but no harm. She forgave it all; she said so. We never heard of her: you remember that. She went — that was all. That night of the flood we found her dead, Lippo and I; quite dead, under the bank by the sea‐road; just above there. There was a child with her: this child. I left her alone in the night out of fear, and because of the shame of it, and for the sake of the sheep, and because they might have thought that we had killed her — Lippo said so. At dawn I meant to go and tell the Misericordia, and go and bring her in and get her decent burial by holy church. I meant so: that I swear. But at daybreak the flood had got her. Now you know. It was of no use to say anything then — so Lippo said. It was as if one had murdered her. But the good God knows how it came. I got Lippo to take the boy. I said that I would pay for him; give half I got for him — always. I have done it. I thought the boy was happy and well fed. Sometimes I had words with him for the child’s sake. But on the whole, I thought that all was well. For nine years Lippo has had my money and my money’s worth. For nine years he has lied to me, and beaten and starved and hurt the child. For nine years he has lied to me, and cheated me. You know me. I would kill a man as soon as a black snake in the corn; but I have promised the boy. I lost the boy and found him by the sea. The saints are good. The child ran away because he feared that I should do ill on his behalf, and fall into the power of the law. For him I will let Lippo be. If it were not for the child, I would kill him as one kills a scorpion — so! You know me. Go, tell him what I say. Though we live both for fifty years, let his shadow never fall between me and the sun; if he be wise. This is the truth. He has lied to me and cheated me. I do not forgive. Women and dogs may forgive. Not men. This very day the child might have perished body and soul. And what should I have said to Pippa before God’s face when the dead rose? That is all.”

He paused a moment to see if any one would answer there in Lippo’s voice or Lippo’s name. But the darkening groups, half lost in the night shadows, were all still; silenced by amazement and by fear.

Then Bruno turned, and with the boy’s hand still in his, went through the western gateway, and up the road, beneath the trees towards the river and the bridge, homeward.

When he was quite lost to sight the outburst of tongues buzzed aloud, like swarming bees under the stars.

Was this the truth, indeed? and hid so long!

 

Bruno went on his way over the cloudy waters to his hills.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v2.3.html

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