Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 4.

SO the truth was told at last.

And the Lastra, of course, after taking the night to consider, rejected it as a fiction.

When truth in any guise comes up from her well, she has the fate of Genevra, when Genvra rose from the tomb; every door is closed and bolted, and friends look her in the face and deny her.

In the Lastra, after the first surprise of Bruno’s speech had passed away, there remained very few believers in his story.

Old Teresina, who had always said that he was the better man of the twain; and Luigi Dini, who had seen him at a deathbed or two, and thought he had a soft heart under a hard hide; and his friend Cecco, the cooper, who made casks and tubs under the line near the bridge, with the old workshop with the barred window, and the vine behind it; these three and a few women, who had loved Bruno in other years, and had sore hearts still, when they stopped working to think — these did believe; but hardly anybody else.

At the time of his speaking, no one had heard him without belief.

There was that strong emotion, that accent of truth, which always cleave their way to the hearts of hearers, however hard those hearts be set in antipathy or opposition.

But after a while, feeling his way by little and little, and stealing softly into the minds of his townsfolk, Lippo, wandering about with his sweetest voice, and tears in his eyes, sighed and murmured that he would not speak; nay, let poor Bruno clear himself, if he would; he did not wish to say anything. He could clear himself. Oh, yes: as easily as you could split a melon in halves. People knew him. He was a poor man and of no account, but he had tried always to do good. He had been wrong; yes, that he felt; twice wrong in giving the shelter of his roof to his brother’s base‐born one, and then, again, in letting the infirmity of anger master him about all that good gold squandered on a squeaking toy. But in nothing else, so far as he could judge himself — searching his heart. As for poor Pippa, heaven knew he had sought high and low, vainly, for years and years, and never could get tidings of any fate of Pippa’s. There had been a dead woman and child found, but not by him; a woman Bruno had driven to her ruin; but, no, he would say nothing. The Lastra knew him and his brother both. Let it judge which spoke the truth. Only this, he swore by all the hosts of saints, no scrap of Bruno’s money or morsel of food off Bruno’s land had he or his ever touched in these nine years. The child he had taken in out of sheer pity, Bruno turning against his duty to it. But, there, he would say nothing. He was glad and thankful when some natural feeling had awakened in Bruno for the boy:— who knew what good it might not bring to that poor darkened soul? If he wanted witness, there was Adamo, the wineseller, who had seen him thrown brutally off the shafts of Bruno’s baroccino, and had heard his life threatened by him; but, there — no — he would say nothing. The neighbours knew him. As for gratitude, that no man might look for; but it was hard to be maligned after nine years’ forebearance. But the saints had borne much more and never took their vengeance. In his own humble, poor little way, he would endeavour to do like them.

So Lippo, to the Lastra — softly and by delicate degrees; and such is the force of lying, a force far beyond that of truth at any time, that two‐thirds of the town and more believed in him and pitied him. For, start a lie and a truth together, like hare and hound; the lie will run fast and smooth, and no man will ever turn it aside; but at the truth most hands will fling a stone, and so hinder it for sport’s sake, if they can.

Lippo jeopardised in credit a few days, recovered ground, and, indeed, gained in the public estimation, with time; so very prettily did he lie.

The parish priest took his part, and that went far; and the counsel of the Misericordia did the same, and that went farther still.

Lippo, a good soul, who rarely missed early Mass, and often came to Benediction; who never did anything on holy days, except lie on his face in the full sun, and made his children do the same; who, if he was offended, kept a tongue of oil and lips of sugar; and who was almost certain to have all Baldo’s savings, when that worthy should be gathered to his father’s: Lippo, plausible and popular, and always willing to loiter and chatter at street corners and play at dominoes and take a drink:— Lippo had a hold on public feeling that Bruno never would have gained, though he had shed his life‐blood for the Lastra.

Most people knew, indeed, that Lippo was a liar; but then he was so excellent a man that they respected him the more for that.

So Lippo recovered his standing, and even heightened it; and kept well out of the way of his brother; and was browbeaten by his wife within doors for the loss of all the gain the boy had been to them, but went to mass with her all smiles, and on feast‐days with his children was a picture of felicity; and so no one was the wiser for what quarrels raged under the tiles of Baldo’s dwelling by the Loggia.

And only old Teresina and Luigi Dini and Cecco and such like obstinate simpletons believed, or admitted they believed, that Pippa had been found dead on the night of the great flood.

Why should they have believed it? It is dull work to believe the truth.

Bruno in return bent his straight brows darkly on them, and kept his knife in his belt, and let them shout evil of him till they were hoarse in the market‐place and wineshop.

He was hated by them just as Lippo was believed in; he was unpopular just as Lippo was popular.

“Well, let it be so,” he said to himself. He was indifferent.

“Other folk’s breath never made my soup‐pot boil yet,” he would say to the old priest of his own hillside, who would sometimes remonstrate with him on the misconstruction that he let lie on him. “They believe in Lippo. Let them believe in Lippo. Much good may it do to him and them.”

But the old Parocco shook his head, having a liking for this wild son of the church, of whose dark, fierce, tender, self‐tormenting soul he had had his true glimpses in the confessional, when Easter times came round and men of their sins disburdened themselves.

“But it will do you harm,” said he. “The walnut‐tree laughs at ants; but when the swarm is all over its trunk and in its sap, where the tree then?”

But Bruno bent his delicate dark brows, that made him like a head of Cimabue’s drawing; and smiled grimly. If every man’s hand were against him, he cared nothing: he had his good land to till, and the boy with him in safety.

If he could have wrung his brother’s throat he would have been happier indeed. As it was, having promised the boy, he passed Lippo in the Lastra with such a glance as Paul might have given to Judas; and otherwise seemed no more to remember that he lived, than if he had been a dead snake that he had flung out in the road for the sun to wither.

“The same mother bore you,” the priest would urge sometimes, “and you honour the same God.”

“What has that to do with it?” said Bruno. “Though he were my father, I would do just the same. He cheated me.”

“But forgiveness is due to all.”

“Not to traitors,” said Bruno.

And no one could move him from that faith. And Lippo would go a long way round outside the gates rather than meet the glance of his brother’s in the narrow thoroughfares of the Lastra.

 

Though on the whole, good man, the neighbours pitying him, he was the better for the wrath of Bruno, especially since he was quicker than ever to answer to the Misericordia bell, and droned louder than ever his responses of the mass, being wise in his generation.

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