Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 11.

BRUNO lay down that night, but for an hour only. He could not sleep.

He rose before the sun was up, in the grey wintry break of day, while the fog from the river rose like a white wall built up across the plain.

It is the season when the peasant has the least to do. Ploughing, and sowing, and oil pressing, all are past; there is little labour for man or beast; there is only garden work for the vegetable market, and the care of the sheep and cattle, where there are any. In large households, where many brothers and sisters get round the oil lamp and munch roast chestnuts and thrum a guitar, or tell ghost stories, these short empty days are very well; sometimes there is a stranger lost coming over the pinewoods, sometimes there is a snow‐storm, and the sheep want seeing to; sometimes there is the old roistering way of keeping Twelfth‐night, even on these lonely wind‐torn heights: where the house is full and merry, the short winter passes not so very dully. But in the solitary places, where men brood alone, as Bruno did, they are heavy enough; all the rest of the world might be dead and buried, the stillness is so unbroken, the loneliness so great.

He got up and saw after his few sheep above amongst the pines; one or two of them were near lambing; then he laboured on his garden mould amongst the potato plants and cauliflowers, the raw mist in his lungs and the sea‐wind blowing. It had become very mild, the red rose on his house‐wall was in bud, and the violets were beginning to push from underneath the moss; but the mornings were always very cold and damp.

An old man came across from Carmignano to beg a pumpkin gourd or two; he got a scanty living by rubbing them up and selling to the fishermen down on the Arno. Bruno gave them. He had known the old creature all his life.

“You are dull here,” said the old man, timidly; because every one was more or less afraid of Bruno.

Bruno shrugged his shoulders and took up his spade again.

“Your boy does grand things, they say,” said the old man; “but it would be cheerfuller for you if he had taken to the soil.”

Bruno went on digging.

“It is like a man I know,” said the pumpkin‐seller, thinking the sound of his own voice must be a charity — “a man that helped to cast church bells. He cast bells all his life; he never did anything else at all. ‘It is brave work,’ said he to me once, ‘sweating in the furnace there and making the metal into tuneful things to chime the praise of all the saints and angels; but when you sweat and sweat and sweat, and every bell you make just goes away and swung up where you never see or hear it ever again — that seems sad; my bells are all ringing in the clouds, saving the people’s souls, greeting Our Lady; but they are all gone ever so far away from me. I only hear them ringing in my dreams.’ Now, I think, the boy is like bells — to you.”

Bruno dug in the earth.

“The man was a fool,” said he: “Who cared for his sweat or sorrow? It was his work to melt the metal. That was all.”

“Aye,” said the pumpkin‐seller, and shouldered the big yellow wrinkled things that he had begged; “but never to hear the bells — that is sad work.”

Bruno smiled grimly.

“Sad! He could hear some of them as other people did, no doubt, ringing far away against the skies while he was in the mud. That was all he wanted; if he were wise, he did not even want so much as that. Good day.”

It was against his wont to speak so many words on any other thing than the cattle or the olive harvest or the prices of seeds and grain in the market in the town. He set his heel upon his spade and pitched the earth‐begrimed potatoes in the skip he filled.

The old man nodded and went — to wend his way to Carmignano.

Suddenly he turned back: he was a tender‐hearted fanciful soul, and had had a long lonely life himself.

“I tell you what,” he said, a little timidly; “perhaps the bells, praising God always, ringing the sun in and out, and honouring Our Lady; perhaps they went for something in the lives of the men that made them? I think they must. It would be hard if the bells got everything; the makers nothing.”

Over Bruno’s face a slight change went. His imperious eyes softened. He knew the old man spoke in kindness.

“Take these home with you. Nay; no thanks,” he said, and lifted on the other’s back the kreel full of potatoes dug for the market.

The old man blessed him, overjoyed; he was sickly and very poor; and hobbled on his way along the side of the mountains.

Bruno went to other work.

If the bells ring true and clear, and always to the honour of the saints, a man may be content to have sweated for it in the furnace and to be forgot; but if it be cracked in a fire and the pure ore of it melt away shapeless? The thought went confusedly through his brain as he cleaned out the stalls of his cattle.

Down in the plain all the bells were ringing, the sweet peal of S. Giusto replying to the long full chime of Peretola from across the water, and all the other villages calling to one another over the wintry fields; some with one little humble voice, some with many melodious notes, while down in the hollow, where the city lay, the deep cathedral bells were booming, and all the countless churches answering; but Bruno on his hill heard none of these.

He only heard the winds moaning amongst the unbending pines.

He only heard the toads cry to one another, feeling rain coming, “Crake! crake! crake! We love a wet world as men an evil way. The skies are going to weep; let us be merry, Crock! crock! crock!”

And they waddled out — slow, quaint, black things, with arms akimbo, and stared at him with their shrewd hard eyes. They would lie snug a thousand years with a stone and be quite happy.

Why were not men like that?

Toads are kindly in their way, and will get friendly. Only men seem to them such fools.

The toad is a fakeer, and thinks the beatitude of life lies in contemplation. Men fret and fuss and fume, and are for ever in haste; the toad eyes them with contempt.

The toads looked at Bruno now, and he at them. A soft thick rain had begun to fall. It scudded over the plain, and crossed the river, and came up the hill‐side, dim and yet dense, stealing noiselessly, and spreading vastly, as if it were the ghostly hosts of a dead army.

Sometimes on the hill‐tops, clouds would break that never touched the plain; sometimes in the plain it was pouring, while the hills were all in sunshine. Now mountain and valley had the rain alike.

Bruno worked on in it, not heeding, till the water ran off his hair, and his shirt was soaking. He did not think about it. He was thinking of what the men had said: “A light woman out of France.”

All the evil in the world might be happening that very hour, and he would know nothing.

There was no way to move; no way to hear. He was like a chained dog.

“I am like the toads,” he thought; “the whole city might burn to the ground, and they would croak in their pool, and know nothing.”

But he was not like the toads, for he dreaded this fire, which he could not see.

It rained thus several days.

Bruno saw no one. He had his hands full with the birth of weakly lambs, in the wet ague‐giving weather, that made the mossy ground under the pines a swamp. One or two nights he watched all night by a sheep in her trouble; with the great pines over his head, and the broken rocks strewn around. He worked early and late, seeing no creature, except the dumb lad he had as shepherd and the dogs. It was dark before four in the afternoons. He took his big lanthorn into the shed, and hewed wood, or ground maize, all the evening, with the heads of the oxen near him, over their half door. He felt as if he could not face the cold lonely kitchen and living room, with their empty hearths.

Do whatever he might, he looked across to where Rome was, and thought of the “light woman out of France.”

The drenching rains hid Argol, with all the other stars. But he had seen it that once. It was enough. It haunted him.

Silently and uselessly he raged against his own impotence. Why had he not been any creature free to roam? — a gipsy, a tramp, a vagabond, anything so that he could now have set his face to the south, and bent his steps over the hills.

The habits of his life were on him like so many chains. The soil held him as the flat stone holds the sucker of leather. Change as possible never occurred to him. The peasant thinks no more of quitting his land than the sentinel his post. Come what may, there he stays.

Several of these days and nights went by; it rained always. There was no communication from village to village. A grey cloud overspread the whole great landscape.

Bruno worked as if it were bright harvest weather; and it went ill with some of his ewes, and tried him; but going and coming, rising and lying down, sitting in his sheep hut on the mountain side, and working the millstones by torchlight in the shed, one thought alone went with him, and racked him sore: was it true what they said of the boy in Rome?

At last the rain cleared; the roads grew more passable; the last lamb was born that would be born for some weeks; he put the mule in the shafts, and drove down into market with his sacks of potatoes. When he had done his business, a thought struck him. He went to the place near the Rubaconte bridge, where he had seen the dancing girl of Istriel.

The painting was gone. He asked them if they had any pictures of it; the things that the sun took? They had, and sold him one. It seemed to him very dear. It cost more than a flask of wine.

But he took it with him.

“What is that man, Istriel?” asked Bruno, of the seller of the copies, who was an old Florentine, and knew something of painters and their ways, and had been about the Villa Medicis in earlier years in Rome.

The man shrugged his shoulders.

“He is Istriel. That is enough to say. It is as when one says any other great name. It speaks for itself.”

“Great! From painting wantons!”

“Tiziano painted them.”

“He is not of our country?”

“No. Of France. But he often works in Rome. He has a palace there.”

“I thought painters were poor? How should he live in a palace?”

“They are poor for the most part, and I think it is best for their pictures when they keep so. But he is not. He paints naked women so beautifully that all the world runs to see. Not to be bigger than your time is — that is a wonderful secret to make you rich.”

“I do not understand,” said Bruno.

The man who had seen hundreds of students come and go out of the class‐rooms and the painting‐rooms, laughed.

“Oh, I understand — because I see so much of them. They are all alike. They come with great bright eyes, and lean cheeks, and empty purses. They study our giants, they do beautiful things. No one wants them. They starve a few years, then they see what the world likes. They change, and paint wantons in silk clothes, or without, as large as life; or else, little rapiered mannikins, frilled and furbelowed, no bigger than a shoe‐buckle. Then they make money. This Istriel has made more money than them all, because he draws almost with the force of our Michel Angelo, and colours with the softness of their Greuze. He is a wise man, too. He knows his age. I remember him well a student down in Rome. A handsome, gay, charming lad, with great genius. He might have done better things than his naked women. But I do not know — very likely. He is right. They call him the new Tiziano, and he is at the head of his school, and can get its weight in gold for any picture. No man needs more.”

“I do not understand,” said Bruno, whom all these words only confused.

The old man chuckled, and nodded, and turned to other people to sell other photographs of the Sister of the Seven Dancers. For many a long year he had swept out the floors, and set the easels, and trimmed the palettes in the Villa Medicis, and had seen the young artists grow old, and knew how they grew to the greed of the world, as vines to the twists of the maple.

Bruno was perplexed. Painters had ever been to him mysterious religious men, who lived to the glory of God, and made church walls and monastic altars eloquent with sacred meaning to the common people. That was what he thought; he who, from the time when he had run with his father’s mule to market, had trodden the streets of Del Sarto, and Giotto, and the Memmi brethren, and said his ave in haste in the cool summer dawns, in Or San Michele before the white tabernacle of Orgagna.

Istriel was nothing to him. Yet his soul rose in a sullen scorn against the man who had so fair a gift from heaven, and only used it to show a dancer bounding away over “the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,” and taking the foolish souls of the young and the guileless with her.

Bruno would uncover his head before a Madonna or a Magdalen, and feel, without knowing why, that those who could make such things live on the pale plaster or the brown cypress wood, were men worthy of honour. But against the painter of Innocence, all the manliness and all the strength of his character, arrayed themselves in fierce contempt.

Going out of the street of the Archibusieri that day, he met Savio. The old man stopped him.

“So they expect your boy in the town to‐night, for a great gala. What! Did you not know? Perhaps he meant to surprise you. He has done that before. No doubt he will come round by the seaway from Rome to Signa.”

“It is possible,” muttered Bruno. “He may be there now, then!”

“Like enough. I heard them saying in the streets something, I am not sure what, of a great festa for the court, and of the king, and of your boy being sent for. He would be sure to come by the sea, I think. Most likely he is already there. You had better go home. Besides, the lambs must not long be left.”

“No,” said Bruno, almost stupidly.

Was it possible Signa was so near as this, and all the gossip of the woman that held him was untrue? No doubt the boy meant to surprise him. Each time he had done so. Each time, when his letters had been few and brief, he had returned safely; glad and well and proud. No doubt what the men had said had been a folly; born of jealousy and disparagement, the twin parasites that feed on all success, and kill it if they can.

Bruno’s heart grew light.

He did not stop to doubt or question. It seemed so natural. Nothing was likelier than that the lad, summoned for any fresh or special honour, would have had no space to write of it, but would have come round by the seaway to tell the tale of it, and give a brief glad greeting, and then pass down into the city. Nothing likelier.

Bruno left Savio, in haste, thinking of the boy reaching the hill thence by the early morning time, as he no doubt had done, and finding him absent. All these precious hours lost, too! It was now one o’clock. “Toccò” was sounding from all the city clocks. He met another man he knew, a farmer from Montelupo.

“Brave doings!” said the Montelupo man. “A gala night to‐night for the foreign prince, and your boy summoned, so they say. No doubt you are come in to see it all?”

Bruno shook himself free quickly, and went on; for a moment it occurred to him that it might be best to wait and see Signa in the town; but then he could not do that well. Nothing was done at home, and the lambs could not be left alone to the shepherd lad’s inexperience; only a day old, one or two of them, and the ground so wet, and the ewes weakly. To leave his farm would have seemed to Bruno as to leave his sinking ship does to a sailor. Besides, he had nothing to do with all the grandeur; the king did not want him.

His heart grew light again, and he felt proud as he heard the people talking in the streets, of how the princes had ordered this great night of Lamia; and how the theatre would be lit “like day;” and how standing room there was not to be had, no, though you could give all the jewels and gold and silver for it off the Jewellers’ Bridge. He felt proud. All this stir and tumult and wonder and homage in the city was for Signa; princes seemed almost like his servants, the king like his henchman! Bruno was proud, under his stern, calm, lofty bearing, which would not change, and would not let him smile, or seem so womanish‐weak as to be glad for all the gossiping.

The boy wanted no king or prince.

He said so to them, with erect disdain.

Yet he was proud.

“After all, one does hear the bells ringing,” he thought; his mind drifting away to the old Carmignano beggar’s words.

He was proud, and glad.

He stopped his mule by Strozzi Palace, and pushed his way into the almost empty market; to the place called the Spit or Fila, where all day long and every day before the roaring fires the public cooks roast flesh and fowl to fill the public paunch of Florence.

Here there was a large crowd, pushing to buy the frothing savoury hot meats. He thrust the others aside, and bought half a kid smoking, and a fine capon, and thrust them in his cart. Then he went to a shop near, and bought some delicate white bread, and some foreign chocolate, and some snowy sugar.

“No doubt,” he thought, “the boy had learned to like daintier fare than theirs in his new life;” theirs, which was black crusts and oil and garlic all the year round, with meat and beans, perhaps, on feast nights, now and then, by way of a change. Then as he was going to get into his seat he saw among the other plants and flowers standing for sale upon the ledge outside the palace a damask rose‐tree — a little thing, but covered with buds and blossoms blushing crimson against the stately old iron torch rings of the smith Caprera. Bruno looked at it — he who never thought of flowers from one year’s end on to another, and cut them down with his scythe for his oxen to munch as he cut grass. Then he bought it.

The boy liked all beautiful innocent things, and had been always so foolish about the lowliest herb. It would make the dark old house upon the hill look bright to him. Ashamed of the weaknesses that he yielded to, Bruno sent the mule on at its fastest pace; the little red rose‐tree nodding in the cart.

He had spent more in a day than he was accustomed to spend in three months’ time.

But then the house looked so cheerless.

As swiftly as he could make the mule fly, he drove home across the plain.

The boy was there, no doubt; and would be cold and hungry, and alone.

Bruno did not pause a moment on his way, though more than one called to him as he drove, to know if it were true indeed that this night there was to be a gala for the Lamia and the princes.

He nodded, and flew through the chill grey afternoon, splashing the deep mud on either side of him.

The figure of S. Giusto on his high tower; the leafless vines and the leafless poplars; the farriers’ and coopers’ workshops on the road; grim Castel Pucci, that once flung its glove at Florence; the green low dark hills of Castagnolo; villa and monastery, watch‐tower and bastion, homestead and convent, all flew by him, fleeting and unseen; all he thought of was that the boy would be waiting, and want food.

He was reckless and furious in his driving always, but his mule had never been beaten and breathless as it was that day when he tore up the ascent to his own farm as the clocks in the plain tolled four.

He was surprised to see his dog lie quiet on the steps.

“Is he there?” he cried instinctively to the creature. which rose and came to greet him.

There was no sound anywhere.

Bruno pushed his door open.

The house was empty.

He went out again and shouted to the air.

The echo from the mountain above was all his answer. When that died away the old silence of the hills was unbroken.

He returned and took the food and the little rose‐tree out of his cart.

He had bought them with eagerness, and with that tenderness which was in him, and for which dead Dina had loved him to her hurt. He had now no pleasure in them. A bitter disappointment flung its chill upon him.

Disappointment is man’s most frequent visitor — the uninvited guest most sure to come; he ought to be well used to it; yet he can never get familiar.

Bruno ought to have learned never to hope.

But his temper was courageous and sanguine: such madmen hope on to the very end.

He put the things down on the settle, and went to put up the mule. The little rose‐tree had been too roughly blown in the windy afternoon; its flowers were falling, and some soon strewed the floor.

Bruno looked at it when he entered.

It hurt him; as the star Argol had done.

He covered the food with a cloth, and set the flower out of the draught. Then he went to see his sheep.

There was no train by the seaway from Rome until night. Signa would not come that way now, since he had to be in the town for the evening.

“He will come after the theatre,” Bruno said to himself, and tried to get the hours away by work. He did not think of going into the city again himself. He was too proud to go and see a thing he had never been summoned to; too proud to stand outside the doors and stare with the crowd while Pippa’s son was honoured within.

Besides, he could not have left the lambs all a long winter’s night; and the house all unguarded; and nobody there to give counsel to the poor mute simpleton whom he had now to tend his beasts.

“He will come after the theatre,” he said.

The evening seemed very long.

The late night came. Bruno set his door open, cold though it was; so that he should catch the earliest sound of footsteps. The boy, no doubt, he thought, would drive to the foot of the hill, and walk the rest.

It was a clear night after the rain of many days.

He could see the lights of the city in the plain fourteen miles or so away.

What was doing down there?

It seemed strange; — Signa being welcomed there, and he himself knowing nothing — only hearing a stray word or two by chance.

Once or twice in his younger days he had seen the city in gala over some great artist it delighted to honour; he could imagine the scene and fashion of it all well enough; he did not want to be noticed in it, only he would have liked to have been told, and to have gone down and see it, quietly wrapped in his cloak, amongst the throng.

That was how he would have gone, had he been told.

He set the supper out as well as he could, and put wine ready, and the rose‐tree in the midst. In the lamplight the little feast did not look so badly.

He wove wicker‐work round some uncovered flasks by way of doing something. The bitter wind blew in; he did not mind that: his ear was strained to listen. Midnight passed. The wind had blown his lamp out. He lighted two great lanterns, and hung them up against the door‐posts; it was so dark upon the hills.

One hour went; another; then another. There was no sound. When yet another passed, and it was four of the clock, he said:

“He will not come to‐night. No doubt they kept him late, and he was too tired. He will be here by sunrise.”

He threw himself on his bed for a little time, and closed the door. But he left the lanterns hanging outside; on the chance.

He slept little; he was up while it was still dark, and robins were beginning their first twittering notes.

“He will be here to breakfast,” he said to himself, and he left the table untouched, only opening the shutters so that when day came it should touch the rose at once and wake it up; it looked so drooping, as though it felt the cold.

Then he went and saw to his beasts and to his work.

The sun leapt up in the cold, broad, white skies. Signa did not come with it.

The light brightened. The day grew. Noon brought its hour of rest.

The table still stood unused. The rose‐leaves had fallen in a little crimson pool upon it. Bruno sat down on the bench by the door, not having broken his fast.

“They are keeping him in the town,” he thought. “He will come later.”

He sat still a few moments, but he did not eat.

In a little while he heard a step on the dead winter leaves and tufts of rosemary. He sprang erect; his eyes brightened; his face changed. He went forward eagerly:

“Signa! — my dear! — at last!”

He only saw under the leafless maples and brown vine tendrils a young man that he had never seen, who stopped before him breathing quickly from the steepness of the ascent.

“I was to bring this to you,” he said, holding out a long gun in its case. “And to tell you that he, the youth they all talk of — Signa — went back to Rome this morning; had no time to come, but sends you this, with his dear love and greeting, and will write from Rome to‐night. Ah, Lord! There was such fuss with him in the city. He was taken to the foreign princes, and then the people! — if you had heard them! — all the street rang with the cheering. This morning he could hardly get away for all the crowd there was. I am only a messenger. I should be glad of wine. Your hill is steep.”

Bruno took the gun from him, and put out a flask of his own wine on the threshold; then shut close the door.

He stripped the covering off the gun.

It was such a weapon as he had coveted all his life long, seeing such in gunsmiths’ windows and the halls of noblemen: a breech‐loader, of foreign make, beautifully mounted and inlaid with silver; amongst the chasing of it he could see engraved lines: he could distinguish his own name and Signa’s — the one he knew the look of, having seen it so often on summons papers for mad deeds done against the petty laws of his commune; the other he knew because it was painted over the railway place upon the hill. He could decipher Bruno — Signa; and he guessed the rest: a date, no doubt, and some few words of memory or love.

He sat still a little while, the gun lying on his knees; there was a great darkness on his face. Then he gripped it in both hands, the butt in one, the barrel in the other, and dashed the centre of it down across the round of his great grindstone.

The blow was so violent, the wood of the weapon snapped with it across the middle, the shining metal loosened from its hold. He struck it again, and again, and again; until all the polished walnut was flying in splinters, and the plates of silver, bent and twisted, falling at his feet; the finely tempered steel of the long barrel alone was whole.

He went into his woodshed, and brought out branches of acacia brambles, and dry boughs of pine, and logs of oak; dragging them forth with fury. He piled them in the empty yawning space of the black hearth, and built them one on another in a pile; and struck a match and fired them, tossing pine‐cones in to catch the flames.

In a few minutes a great fire roared alight, the turpentine in the pine‐apples and fir boughs blazing like pitch. Then he fetched the barrel of the gun, and the oaken stock, and the silver plates and mountings, and threw them into the heat.

The flaming wood swallowed them up; he stood and watched it.

After a while a knock came at his house‐door.

“Who is there?” he called.

“ It is I,” said a peasant’s voice. “There is so much smoke, I thought you were on fire. I was on the lower hill, so I ran up — is all right with you?”

“All is right with me.”

“But what is the smoke?”

“I bake my bread.”

“It will be burnt to cinders.”

“I make it, and I eat it. Whose matter is it?”

The peasant went away muttering, with slow unwilling feet.

Bruno watched the fire.

After a brief time its phrenzy spent itself; the flames died down; the reddened wood grew pale, and began to change to ash; the oaken stock was all consumed, the silver was melted and fused into shapeless lumps, the steel tube alone kept shape unchanged, but it was blackened and choked up with ashes, and without beauty or use.

Bruno watched the fire die down into a great mound of dull grey and brown charred wood.

Then he went out, and drew the door behind him, and locked it.

 

The last rod rose dropped, withered by the heat.

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