Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 12.

FEBRUARY days are in the Signa country often soft as the May weather of the north.

The trees are setting for leaf, the fields are green, the mountains seem full of light; the birds sing and the peasants too, the brooks course joyously down the hills, the grass is full of snowdrops and the pearly bells of the leucoium, and millions of violets pale and purple; there are grand sunsets with almost the desert red in them, and cold transparent nights, in which the greatness of Orion reigns in its fullest glory, and, watching for the dawn, there hangs that sad star which we call the Serpent’s Heart, and the Arabian astrologers called the Solitary One.

The stars were still out when Bruno with each dawn rose from his short, troubled, lonely sleep, and went out to his work as was his wont.

He worked early and late. There was nothing else for him to do.

He was consumed with impatience and anxiety, but he laboured on in his fields. To leave them never occurred to him. The sailor in mid‐ocean is not more chained to one narrow home than Bruno was by habit and custom and narrowness of knowledge to his high hill tops.

A fever of desire to hear, to see, to learn, to make sure, consumed him. He ate his very heart away with the gnawing wish to know the worst. But Rome was as vague to him and as far off as the white moon that faded away over his pine‐woods as the daylight waned to noon.

On his own land, in his own labour, he was a strong skilful man, able to cope with any labour and turn aside any disaster. But away from his own soil he knew nothing. Custom and ignorance hang like a cloud between the peasant and the outer world. He is like the ancient geographers of old, who feared to step off the shore they knew lest they should fall into an immeasurable, incomprehensible abyss.

Bruno would have walked through fire or plunged headlong in the sea to serve or save the boy; but the lack of knowledge paralysed him; Rome to him was far off as the stars; he could only work and wait, and rise in the dark coldness before morning, haunted with nameless fear, and counting the dull dead days as they dragged on, and meeting the old sacristan who said always, “he does not write; — oh, that is because all is well; when young things are happy they forget.”

Once or twice he took out a handful of money from off the copper pitcher set behind the chimney bricks, and went to his priest. “When we pay for masses for the dead it does do them good?” he said. “Hell if they be in it gives them up — lets them loose — is it not so?”

“Most certainly, my son,” said the old pastor.

“Then can we not buy them for the living? There is hell on earth,” said Bruno, and emptied out his handful of curled yellow notes, and looked at his priest with wistful pitiful eyes.

“Tell me what the trouble is,” said the Par‐ roco, who was the best and kindliest of souls, and had always had a weakness for this sinner whom he had confessed and shriven every Easter for so many years.

“I am not sure what it is,” said Bruno, and told him what he knew.

“Masses will do nothing, since there is a woman,” said the old priest, sadly.

“Are women stronger than hell then?”

“I have lived seventy years; and I think so. But it is not a case for masses. Prayer for your lad I will say with my full heart’s willingness. But put up your notes. I will not take them.”

But Bruno would leave them on the little wooden seat of the sacristy. “Give them away in charity,” he said; “perhaps heaven will remember it to the boy.” And he would leave them there.

“We may get a soul out of purgatory, but a lad out of a woman’s toils — that is harder,” thought the priest, but he only said, rolling up the notes: “I will make sick folks happier with them, Bruno, since you wish it. That can neither harm you nor him.”

“Pray for him, never mind me,” said Bruno, simply; and he left the little old red church, with its high crumbling tower, where the daws built, and the owls, and the beautiful blue jays.

It was a little solace to him that prayer should rise up there in the stillness of the hills, and pass out of the narrow windows with the wind, and go up through the sunshine and the clouds to where they said God and the saints were. Who knew what it might do?

But it gave little rest to the anxious, troubled, heavy soul of the man. Nature had made Bruno for action; to pray, and hope, and trust, and wait resigned, was a woman’s way; it was not his.

The bitter ferocity, too, with which he had broken and burned the gun had not passed away. With Bruno nothing passed. His passions were flames which burned their passage indelibly. He kept the secret of his pain in his own mind unspoken; but the rage with which he had destroyed what had seemed to him as insult — as payment in base metal when the gold of remembrance and of affection was withheld — that rage chafed in him always.

He never opened his lips to blame Signa. He never let any one in his hearing say they marvelled at Signa’s forgetfulness of him. When any man said within earshot of him that it was strange that the boy should have passed a night in the city and never sent any tidings home, Bruno had answered him sharply: “The lad has great things to think of; he belongs to all the world now; not to one hill‐top; when I complain of him others may do so too; till then let them have a care.” And people knowing his humours were afraid, and never said a slighting word; but supposed that Bruno was content.

But the fury with which he had thrust the rifle into the fire consumed him always. The gift — hurting him like a blow, cast to him as it seemed like so much wage — had dug a chasm between him and the boy he loved.

Any other time he might have taken it as a symbol of grateful tenderness. But now — when Signa forsook him‐it added a sting to the sharpness of his pain under neglect. It seemed to him the very insolence of success of triumph of riches, which said — “So my debts are paid.”

In cold reason the next day, when he raked out the fire and found one silver plate unburned amidst the embers, he stamped it under his heel, and hurled it into the deep well at his door.

Signa had had the unhesitating unhalting sacrifice of twenty years of his life, and thought to pay him by a gunsmith’s glittering toy!

That was how it seemed to him.

So he worked on amidst the fields, and let the days go: between him and the boy there was a gulf of silence. Bruno’s heart revolted against him. He asked himself why he had let the years go by and lived without woman’s love, and the laughter of children, and the good will of men which comes from easy spending, that Pippa’s son might have his way and pay him with forgetfulness? Why had he consumed a score of years in rigid self‐denial, ceaseless labour, and barren solitude for this boy’s sake only in the end to be abandoned for the first wanton face that smiled, and recompensed with such reward as careless princes give the forest‐guards that drive their game?

Yet the great loyal love in him cleaved even to what he thought thankless and thoughtless and forgetful. He still would have bought Signa’s peace at any price of his own body or soul; he still said to the priest, “Pray for him; for me it does not matter.”

But in the short soft days and in the long cold nights there was a heavy darkness always on him. Once he said to the priest:

“If she take him from me — there is no God.”

And he toiled in his fields with the fragrance of the coming spring in all the soil, and looked across at the low lines of the hills, and felt his heart like a stone, his feet like lead.

One fresh chill daybreak, as he worked with the silver dew on every blade of grass, and spread like a white veil over all the hills, his brother’s voice called him.

Looking up he saw Lippo. He stood on the other side of one of the low stone walls that are built across the sloping fields to stay the force of water coming from the heights in winter rains.

Bruno did as he had done ten years and more; he worked on and seemed never to see the figure of his brother between him and the light.

They met a hundred times a year and more; Bruno did always so. For him Lippo had ceased to live.

The priest had urged him vainly to forgiveness.

“Who cannot hate, cannot love;” Bruno had answered always. “Forgetfulness is for women. Forgiveness is for dogs: I have said it.”

“Bruno, may I speak a word to you?” said Lippo, gently. He had his softest and most pensive face; his eyes were tender and regretful; his voice was calm and kindly; in his boot he had slipped a knife, for fear — no one could tell — Bruno was violent, and he had left his cowherd in the lower fields within a call; but in his look and attitude Lippo had the simplest trustfulness and candour. He seemed oppressed and sorrowful: that was all.

Bruno went on and worked as he had done on the day that he had heard his brother was the owner of the neighbouring land. He was cutting his olive‐trees. He slashed the branches and flung them from him with force; so that if they would they might strike Lippo in the face.

Lippo watched the gleaming steel play in the grey leaves; and was glad he had bethought him to slip that knife within his boot.

“Bruno,” he said, very gently. “Do not be in haste or rage. I come in all true brotherliness; the saints are my witnesses. You have been in anger against me many years. Some of your anger was just; much unjust. I could not defend myself from your accusations of having dealt ill with Pippa’s child unless I had blamed Nita — and what husband can shield himself at his wife’s cost? Poor soul! She has many virtues, but her hand is rough, and her tongue harsh, and mothers think it a merit to hurt other children to benefit their own. A woman’s virtue is locked up in the cupboard by her own hearthstone. Nita has been an honest wife to me; but she has — a temper.”

Bruno slashed a great bough from his tree, and flung it downward; it struck Lippo. He moved aside, blinded for the moment, then went gently on.

“A temper:— oh, I know it, none so well. No doubt the poor child suffered from it, and were it not that in marriage one must serve a wife at every hazard, and take her wrong‐doing as one’s own, I could have proved to you with ease that what you thought my treachery was none of mine, but bitter pain and grief to me; aye, indeed. Again and again I have gone supperless to give the little lad my portion. You know I never was master in my house. The money has always been hers and her father’s. Never once have they let me forget that, though Baldo is a good soul in much.”

Bruno descended from his ladder, lifted it from the tree upon his shoulder, and turned to leave his olives, as though there were no man speaking or waiting on the other side the wall. He would not waste words on Lippo, and, if he looked at him he knew that he would do some evil on him; — this brother who had cheated him and got his land.

He shouldered his ladder, and turned to mount the sloping field.

“Wait!” cried the other. “Bruno — as surely as we are sons of one mother, I come to you in all amity.”

Bruno went on up the hill.

“Bruno, wait!” cried Lippo. “By the Lord above us, I come with good intent.”

Bruno did not pause, nor look back.

He went up the slope of the grass‐lands, leisurely, as though there were no one near.

“But if I come to make amends?” said Lippo.

Bruno laughed, a short deep laugh, fierce as a fierce dog’s bite; and went on his way against the glittering dews of the rising ground.

Lippo cried to him from the wall —

“But I have journeyed up from Rome.”

Rome! Involuntarily, unconsciously, Bruno stopped, and turned his head over his shoulder. The name of the city struck him like a shot. It was the last word he would have dreamed of hearing. It was the place for ever in his mind. It was the dim, majestic, terrible world that Argol shone on in the frosty nights.

Lippo, who had never travelled beyond the hills round the Lastra and the town walls of Florence, had journeyed back from Rome!

In the natural movement of surprise and wonder he halted a moment under the olive trees and looked back.

Lippo took that one moment of riveted attention. He leaped the wall lightly, and joined his brother.

“Bruno — as I live, I come to make amends. I want to speak to you about the boy. If you will not listen, it is he who will suffer. He destroys himself — there.”

Bruno halted. Mechanically he shifted the ladder from his shoulder, and set it up against the nearest tree. He was taken by surprise. He was forced to show his sense of his brother’s presence and his brother’s words. He was shaken out of his stern self‐control, his impenetrable reticence. Do what he would, he felt his face pale, his eyes fall, under Lippo’s. Passionate questions sprang to his lips; but how could he trust a traitor and a liar?

In the instant of his hesitation, Lippo spoke.

“I have been down to Rome. On business. To place my son in trade there. Nay, listen. All the city will tell you I speak truth. Of course I heard of Signa. It was impossible not to hear. At the Apollo they play his Actea; all the town is full of him. Of his great genius no one can say enough. But if some means be not found to save him, he will be destroyed, body and soul. A woman has hold of him. He only lives for her. I caught sight of him once two nights ago; he was with her in the moonlight. He looks so changed; one would not know him for that happy, simple lad of our last autumn time. Listen. All boys have follies. This might pass as such a folly does. But it will not do so — no. Because this woman is not as others are. She is the vilest of the vile, but beautiful:— the saints forgive me, but when I saw her, I felt one might do any crime for such a face as that. They call her Innocence! In mockery, no doubt. For they say there is no living thing more cruel than she is, nor more depraved, nor more voracious of all kinds of wealth. That is the worst. This woman is rich. The boy is poor. You know what they will say — he lives upon her, or they say he does. I know it is not true. Your Signa is too proud and pure for that. But, still, they say so; and great men, while they praise his genius, look askance on him — so I hear. Nay:— it is a sorcery. A strong will would break from it. But the lad is not strong. When God gives genius, I think he makes the brain of some strange glorious stuff, that takes all strength out of the character, and all sight out of the eyes. Those artists — they are like the birds we blind: they sing, and make people weep for very joy to hear them; but they cannot see their way to peck the worms, and are for ever wounding their breasts against the wires. No doubt it is a great thing to have genius: but it is a sort of sickness, after all; and when love comes —”

Bruno, standing with his back against the olive, heard his brother’s voice run on, and did not stop him. His eyes were fastened with anxious, hungry pain on Lippo’s face. He knew that Lippo spoke the truth.

“The boy has amorous fancies, like any other,” he muttered. “Why not? Why not? You hate him, because you wronged him. Therefore you make much from little. You lie now; you always lied. Get you gone — while I let you go in peace.”

Lippo sighed.

“Nay, Bruno — it is you who do wrong to me. Why should I come and tell you this? It cannot pleasure me, nor hurt me. Only one has some natural affections, some bowels of compassion — and he was poor Pippa’s son! I do not blame the lad; a boy like that. And if you saw the beauty of the woman! Only, I said to myself, Bruno should know of this; and, rather than ask a stranger to meddle in it, I came myself. Because he is the woman’s toy, her tool, her feel, her slave. He does nothing with his time. He never touches pen nor lute, nor anything of art. I hear she says to him, ‘Give me a rival in your art, I leave you.’ And he, to do her will, flings all his life away. Some say she loves him really. Some say that it is only wantonness, because the world talks of him; and so she likes to rule him, and, in a month or two, will break his heart, and send him out a beggar and an idiot. Nay — I say nothing more than all Rome says; in truth, not a tittle so much. It is the common gossip of the streets. The woman is rich. She has had great lovers, princes and the like. The boy is known to live under her roof, to be lapped in luxury; — you know what men will say.”

Bruno sprang forward and seized his brother by the shoulders, in an iron grasp.

“It is a lie of Rome — a lie, a lie. They grudge my boy his glory, and so they stone him thus, and fling their mud upon him!”

“It is not a lie. Think — is he not silent to you? Is he frank with you, and glad, and truthful, as of old? It is true, terribly true: a woman has bewitched him.”

“As God lives — do you say this in honesty and pity or brutally, to triumph in his weakness?”

Lippo looked him full in the eyes, candidly.

“In honesty and pity.”

Bruno gazed in his brother’s face. Lippo’s eyes met him in steadiness and sorrow. Bruno let him go, and stood stupefied, mastering, as best he could, his own suffering, lest Lippo should read it and be glad. In his heart, he knew that the story brought from Rome was true.

Lippo took up his narrative; he had a sweet, pathetic voice, and skill in speech, like almost all his countrymen.

“Bruno, I know I have offended you; nay, more — wronged you, in the days gone by. I am poor, amongst crafty well‐to‐do folks, who goad me on; I have many children; I have a troubled home, and noisy hearth. I know I have thought too much of getting on in life, and laying by; and so was untrue to your trust sometimes, and so lost your confidence — justly. That I see now. And you have been harsh and violent. You cannot gainsay that. But as the angels watch us this hour in heaven, I have no single thought but the boy’s good in what I tell you now. He is so young. He is soft‐hearted as a girl. He is alone in a great turbulent world, that first turns his head with flattery and homage, and then reviles him the first moment that, he falls. They tell me it is always so. The world is a spoilt princeling, and the genius in it is the dog it first flings cakes to, and then bids go drown. They say so. But, I think Signa may be saved. He is so young. It cannot be that this sudden passion has killed all natural, innocent love and gratitude in him. That is impossible, his heart is good: even to me — whom you had made him hold as his foe — he was most gentle always. It cannot be he has forgotten all he owes to you, or would be altogether deaf to what you urge on him. It cannot be that all old memories and old affections are dead in him.”

Bruno stood with the grey wood and leaves of the old olive‐tree behind him; his head was bent; his face was very white, under the brown hues from the sun; his lips quivered under the dark, drooping hair; he strove to seem calm, but Lippo read the pain that tortured him.

“It is too true, indeed,” said Lippo. “Where a woman is, and the love of her, there reason has no hold, and gratitude no abiding place. And she is beautiful. She makes you dizzy, even seeing her go by in the moonlight, you standing in the gutter. After our brown, dusky, sturdy maidens, that white wonder seems more than a woman — somehow. They rave of her in Rome. It seems she has abandoned all her mighty lords, and doats on Signa; and they do say, too, that in a month or two she will veer round and laugh at him, and take up her lords again; and then — there will be worse evil still. Because the boy is mad for her, and believes her all she is not. When he learns the truth, there will be trouble; and any day may show it. When her fancy ends, then what will become of the lad? I spoke to an old man, whom my friend knew, one of the flute‐players of the opera‐house, and he told me that they think the boy’s genius will die out altogether, he cares for nothing — only for the woman and her whims and will. It is a sorcery. Signa is not like other youths. He was always thinking of the angels, and of all manner of strange sights and sounds, that none but himself could ever see or hear. Now that he loves this woman as he loved his music — it will go hard with him. Because a wanton cannot ever love. That grown men know.”

Bruno was silent. His face moved with a great emotion that he had no longer power to conceal; he could no longer affect to doubt his brother’s words, or deny the things they spoke of; the misery and danger for the boy spread before him as if they were written on the limestone hill and on the cloudless winter sky; he forgot all else.

His brother’s treacherous deeds against himself paled into nothing; his true and loyal faith to Pippa’s son made his own wrongs grow as nought to him; he would have let snake bite him to serve Signa. So he let the triumph of Lippo sting him, thinking only of the peril of the boy.

“Why have you come to say all this to me? You have hated the boy, and been false to him and to me. Of all this — if it be true — you are glad.”

“Nay! God knows you wrong me!” cried Lippo, as with a burst of generous indignation, of pained sincerity. “You wrong me cruelly. The poor boy I never hated — heaven and earth! — why should I? I doubted that he was Pippa’s son. I did believe him yours. But either way he was my kith and kin. I erred. I say so. No man can do more. But chiefly I erred through weakness, letting a too violent woman have her way in my little household. I have admitted my fault there. I did not continue loyal to your trust as I should have done. I sacrificed duty to the sake of keeping peace at home. In a word — I was a coward. You who are brave as lions are, have furious scorn for that. But Bruno, as we are sons of one sainted mother, my heart is free of every taint of bitterness against you or the boy. I have been proud of his greatness. Any ray of it is so much light and honour on us all. I grieve, as any creature with human blood in him would do, to know that all his future has been put in pawn to a vile woman. I come to tell you because I said — how should he hear anything on that lonely hill? And because I thought that if you saw him — went to him — some change might come, or you might save him from some rash, mad deed, when he finds out what thing it is he worships. That is why I come. Upbraid me if you will; but do not doubt me.”

“Do you know more of her?”

“Nothing more.”

“Where does she come from?”

“From France, I think.”

“She is called that name — Innocence?”

“Yes.”

“It is the same woman whose likeness was shown in the town yonder?”

“That I do not know.”

“A man called Istriel painted her.”

“That I do not know either; I only know what I have told you.”

“She passes for rich?”

“She is rich.”

“How long has — he — been with her?”

“Two months — or something more; so they say.”

“Where does she live?”

“At a palace called the Sciallara; going up by what they call the Campidoglio.”

“That is hard to remember. Write it.”

Lippo took out a torn letter and a pencil, and, making the wall his desk, wrote it in the clumsy handwriting which he had taught himself ]ate in life. “You will do nothing rash,” he said, pleadingly, as he gave the paper.

Bruno took it.

“I cannot tell what to do.”

His face was dark and weary; his breath came quickly; his eyes had a sort of piteous wish for counsel in them; he was so utterly ignorant of what course to take. He could not see his way. He would have grasped any hand as a friend’s that could have led him through the darkness.

“I wish I had not told you,” said Lippo, with sudden candid self‐rebuke and regret in his vexed tones. “Perhaps I should have held my tongue. But it seemed horrible. To know the lad in such a woman’s power, and not speak of it to you, to whom he is the very apple of the eye, though he forgets so —”

Bruno winced, as a brave steer that has borne the heat and labour of the day unflinchingly winces at the fly that stings him in the wrung nostril, where the iron is.

“You did right to tell me,” he said simply. “It was good in you and honest.”

“I asked the grace of heaven on it,” answered Lippo.

Bruno looked at him.

Lippo’s eyes met his with clear and honest candour.

A short troubled sigh heaved Bruno’s chest quickly for a moment.

“I must think,” he muttered, and he turned and took the ladder on his shoulder, and began to mount the hill.

“Stay, Bruno,” said his brother, “Stay one moment. We have been sundered so long. Tell me we are friends?”

Bruno looked at him, turning his head, as he went slowly up the grass between the olives. His own eyes were very sad, and had a heavy dark reproach in them.

“I am not a man to forget,” he said, “A foe is a foe — always — to me. A traitor always a traitor. But if you mean well by the lad, and would save him, I will forgive you if I can.”

Then he went onward.

Lippo stood silent; a little faint smile came on his mouth.

“He will go to Rome,” he thought.

Suddenly Bruno turned once more and came downward to him with a swift stride. The generous, fierce, tender nature of him welled up in a sudden warmth and emotion.

“Lippo, you have done good now, it shall cancel the evil. I cannot forget; it is not in me to forget; but if I save the boy we will live in fellowship. You stole the land — yes. But I will ask God’s grace to wash that out of mind with me. If you mean well by the lad — that is enough.”

He stretched his hand out: Lippo took it.

Then they parted.

Bruno went upward to his house, leaving the olive trees untouched.

Lippo went downward into the Lastra.

“He will go to Rome,” he thought, “and he will quarrel with the boy, or kill the wanton.”

And he smiled, going through the buoyant springlike air, as the western wind blew keen from the mountains.

Lippo knew that wise men do not do harm to whatever they may hate.

They drive it on to slay itself.

So without blood‐guiltiness they get their end, yet stainless go to God.

Lippo, content, walked on in the brilliant sunshine of the morning; he smiled on children as he passed them and gave a beggar money.

As he went back he saw Palma carrying up linen to wash in the washing‐place behind her on the hill‐side.

 

“Shall I tell her,” thought he, and he paused a moment. But Lippo was a kindly man when he had no end to serve by being cruel; and he disliked giving pain, unless he gained something by it. He had soft words and gentle deeds for every body when they cost him nothing. So he went on and left Palma in ignorance; Palma, who every year, on the feast of the dead, prayed for her sister as for one safe in heaven.

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