Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 14.

BRUNO went straight to the steward, and told him that he was about to go to Rome.

It was as base to him to leave his land as it is to the soldier to desert his post.

The land was more than your mother; so he thought; it fed you all your life long, and gave you shelter when you were dead, and men would have you cumber their households no more. He loved every clod of the good sound earth, and every breath of its honest fresh fragrance. He looked to lie in it when he should be buried and gone for ever, by the side of Dina, under the pines, with his feet resting for ever on the mountain‐side that they had trodden so long. He had always a fancy that in his grave there he should know when the corn was springing and feel the soft rainfall.

The love of the country was in his blood, in his brain, in all the soul he had. He could not comprehend how life would go on with him elsewhere. He was rooted to his birthplace as an oak is to its forest.

Nevertheless he tore himself away.

He did not know what penalty might avenge, what fate might follow, his desertion of the soil. His lord might be furious. His possessions might be pillaged. When he returned he might find himself ruined, ejected, displaced; — if he returned at all; — if; — who could tell?

The thing he did was, to him, as if he stepped off a great precipice into the emptiness and nothingness of silent and unfathomable air.

Its bones might be broken in the fall, and his very existence cease to be.

Nevertheless he went: as he would have leapt off an actual height down into unknown space, if by so doing he could have saved the boy.

In the white marble of the great Borghese sculpture, Curtius leaps down, and the world hails a hero:— no one saw Bruno, or would have praised him had they seen, yet the courage was scarcely less, and the sacrifice nearly as absolute.

Indeed the hero saw glory in the bottomless abyss and darted to it:— the peasant saw nothing except impenetrable gloom and hopelessness. Yet he went; because the son of Pippa was in peril.

He went back to his homestead, and put all his things in order.

It was high noon.

He took out from its hiding place his copper pitcher with his savings in it. They were not much in value. He had had only one harvest time and one vintage to save from, since his all had been taken for the Actea. Such as they were he stitched them in the waistband of his trousers, and put a shirt or two up in a bundle, and so was ready for his journey. He could not go until evening. He worked all day; leaving everything as it should be, and so far as it was possible nothing for new hands to do; except so far as seeing to the beasts went, that was of necessity a new care every day.

He had been brought up on this wooded spur, looking down on the Signa country; all his loves and hatreds, joys and pains, had been known here; from the time he had plucked the maple leaves in autumn for the cattle with little brown five‐year‐old hands he had laboured here, never seeing the sun set elsewhere except on that one night at the sea. He was close rooted to the earth as the stonepines were and the oaks. It had always seemed to him that a man should die where he took life first, amongst his kindred and under the sods that his feet had run over in babyhood. He had never thought much about it, but unconsciously the fibres of his heart had twisted themselves round all the smallest and the biggest things of his home as the tendrils of a strong ivy bush fasten round a great tower and the little stones alike.

The wooden settle where his mother had sat; the shrine in the house wall; the copper vessels that had glowed in the wood‐fuel light when a large family had gathered there about the hearth; the stone well under the walnut tree where dead Dina had often stayed to smile on him; the cypress‐wood presses where Pippa had kept her feast‐day finery and her pearls; the old vast sweet‐smelling sheds and stables where he had threshed and hewn and yoked his oxen thirty years if one: all these things, and a hundred like them, were dear to him with all the memories of his entire life; and away from them he could know no peace.

He was going away into a great darkness. He had nothing to guide him. The iron of a wasted love, of a useless sacrifice, was in his heart. His instinct drove him where there was peril for Pippa’s son:— that was all.

If this woman took the lad away from him — where was there any mercy or justice, earthly or divine? That was all he asked himself, blindly and stupidly; as the oxen seem to ask it with their mild sad eyes as they strain under the yoke and goad, suffering, and not knowing why they suffer.

Nothing was clear to Bruno.

Only life had taught him that Love is the brother of Death.

One thing and another had come between him and the lad he cherished. The dreams of the child, the desires of the youth, the powers of art, the passion of genius, one by one had come in between him and loosened his hold, and made him stand aloof as a stranger. But Love he had dreaded most of all; Love which slays with one glance dreams and art and genius, and lays them dead as rootless weeds that rot in burning suns.

Now Love had come.

He worked all day, holding the sickness of fear off him as best he could, for he was a brave man; — only he had wrestled with fate so long, and it seemed always to beat him, and almost he grew tired.

He cut a week’s fodder for the beasts, and left all things in their places, and then, as the day darkened, prepared to go.

Tinello and Pastore lowed at him, thrusting their broad white foreheads and soft noses over their stable door.

He turned and stroked them in farewell.

“Poor beasts!” he muttered, “shall I never muzzle and yoke you ever again?”

His throat grew dry, his eyes grew dim. He was like a man who sails for a voyage on unknown seas, and neither he nor any other can tell whether he will ever return.

He might come back in a day; he might come back never.

Multitudes, well used to wander, would have laughed at him. But to him it was as though he set forth on the journey which men call death.

In the grey lowering evening he kissed the beasts on their white brows; there was no one there to see his weakness, and year on year he had decked them with their garlands of hedge flowers, and led them up on God’s day to have their strength blessed by the priest — their strength that laboured with his own from dawn to dark over the bare brown fields.

Then he turned his back on his own home, and went down the green sides of the hill, and lost sight of his birthplace as the night fell.

All through the night he was borne away by the edge of the sea, along the wild windy shores, through the stagnant marshes and the black pools where the buffalo and the wild boar herded, past the deserted cities of the coast, and beyond the forsaken harbours of Æneas and of Nero.

The west wind blew strong; the clouds were heavy; now and then the moon shone on a sullen sea; now and then the darkness broke over rank maremma vapours; at times he heard the distant bellowing of the herds, at times he heard the moaning of the water; mighty cities, lost armies, slaughtered hosts, foundered fleets, were underneath that soil and sea, whole nations had their sepulchres on that low windblown shore. But of these he knew nothing.

It only seemed to him that day would never come.

 

Once or twice he fell asleep for a few moments, and waking in that confused noise of the stormy night and the wild water, and the frightened herds, thought that he was dead and that this sound was the passing of the feet of all the living multitude going for ever to and fro, unthinking, over the depths of the dark earth where he lay.

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