Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 15.

LIPPO in this last lengthening day of February found hours of sunshine and of leisure to loiter in and out the Lastra doors, set open to the noonday brightness and the smell of the air from the hills, which brought the fragrance of a world of violets with it.

Lippo, with sad eyes and softened voice, said to his gossips:

“My brother is gone down to Rome. Yes — left the old house where we were born, and all his labours, and gone down to Rome. I dread the worst — poor Bruno! He has been an unbrotherly soul to me, and harsh and hasty, and has been misguided always and mistaken. But before he went, he asked my pardon frankly, and you know when a man does that, bygones are bygones. I do not understand those hard hearts which never will forgive. Yes: I dread the worst. You see the poor lad Signa has fallen in evil courses, and been taken in the coils of a base woman, and Bruno hears of it, and will go see for himself, and says that he will drag the boy from ruin though it cost bloodshed. I do dread the worst. Because, you see, youths are not lightly turned from their mad passions and Bruno is too quick of hand and heavy of wrath — it makes me very anxious. Oh, yes indeed, I know he has had little love for me, and been unjust to me, and done me harm; but when a man says that he repents — it may be weak, but I for one could not refuse my hand. And between brothers, too. Indeed, I loved him always, and the poor boy knew that.”

And Lippo sighed.

“What a heart of gold!” said the barber, looking after him as he went up the street.

“Aye, truly, tender as a woman when you take him the right way,” quoth the butcher.

“And a man of thrift: money soon jumps itself treble in his pocket,” said Toto the tinman.

“And a good son of the church,” said the parish priest, who was passing by; and the barber nodded solemnly and added:

“And never a shrewder brain under my razor, with all the polls I have shaved as clean as pumpkins — forty years and one last St. Michael — in the Lastra.”

Lippo went on to the sacristy of the Misericordia, where he had risen to be of good report, and one of the foremost capi di guardia, by dint of assiduous service in the black robes, and bearing to and fro hospital or graveyard his sick or lifeless fellow‐creatures; and being constantly present at mass and requiem.

There was a dead body lying upon the hills as far away as Mosciano — the body of a poor sister of the order, a peasant woman — and the bier and catafalque were going out to fetch her. One of the daily servitors, whose turn it was, had met with an accident to his foot in answering the summons: Lippo, with kindliest quickest willingness, took his place, and bade the man go home and rest, and he would himself pay his fine of absence.

Amidst blessings Lippo moved away under the black and dismal pall.

“A pure good Christian soul,” said the bystanders. “It will be hard for such a man if his wild brother make a shame and scandal for him down in Rome.”

From the Lastra to Mosciano is a long and toilsome way, winding up into the green hills and under the steep heights that are left as nature made them, and have the arbutus and the oak and the stone pines growing at free will in beautiful dells and on bold rocky knolls that lie high under the skies, nameless, and rarely seen of men. There is infinite loveliness in these lonely, wild, richly‐foliaged hill‐tops, with the great golden valley far below, and beyond on the other side the shining plains by the sea. The day was fair; the opposite mountains were silvered with snow; the fox and the wild hare ran across the solitary paths; but it was cold; the north wind blew, the ascent was steep, and the way seemed endless, lying along over the green chain of the high woods. The men, labouring under the weight of the bier, grew footsore and tired; when they brought the poor dead sister down, and laid her in the chapel to await her burial on the morrow, the long hours of the day were already gone — it was night.

Lippo wiped the sweat from his forehead as he laid away his cowl; he was aching in every limb, and his feet were cut and bruised, but he was well content. Those were the things which smelt sweet in the nostrils of his neighbours. To walk in a steam of good savour is, he knew, to walk soon or late to the goal of success.

“You are not strong enough to take such exertion; it was noble of you, but you overtask yourself,” said pretty Candida, the vintner’s wife, as he left the church; and she would have him in, and made him warm himself beside her stove, and brewed him some coffee, and praised him, and hoped with a sigh that Nita knew her own good fortune and his worth.

“Do not make me vain,” murmured Lippo, with a pathetic appeal in his soft lustrous eyes, “Do not make me vain — nor miserable.”

And he said it so sweetly, and his hand stole so gently into hers, and his eyes were so eloquent and so plaintive, that pretty Candida was ready to promise him coffee — or aught else — whenever he passed that way.

So Lippo went home, having done a good day’s work, and meeting the vintner within a few yards from the door, pressed him by the hand warmly, and said — was Candida well? he had not seen her for a week or more; and being praised a little farther onward by the parish priest, said — he had done nothing: oh no! Mosciano was a stretch, but what mattered a little fatigue when there was God’s labour to be done, and the saints’ pleasure? and then, with modest denial of any virtue in himself, took a few farther steps, and mounted to the upper chamber, where his wife was sitting and waiting for him with a scowl and loud upbraiding.

“Nay, dear,” said he, “do not be angered. Poor Tista hurt his ancle at the church, and so I took his turn in fetching a corpse down from the hills; that is all. From Mosciano — an endless way; a day’s work, and a hard one, for a mule. I thought I should have died. And not a bit or drop passing my mouth since noonday, and it is nine of the clock. Dear, give me some wine — quick — I feel faint.”

And Nita, who loved him in a jealous, eager, tyrannous way, got him of the best, and waited on him, and roasted him some little birds upon a toast, and sorrowed over him.

For she was a fierce‐tongued, fierce‐eyed, jealous creature — but his dupe. The sharpest woman will be the merest fool of the man she loves, if he choose to fool her.

“There is a letter come for you,” said Nita, when the birds were eaten.

A letter was a rarity in any household of the Lastra.

Lippo broke it open, and slowly spoiled it out, syllable by syllable.

“Heaven is good to us,” he said softly, and laid it down by the brass lamp.

“What is in it?” asked his wife, watching his face breathlessly.

“Dear — your aunt of most blessed memory is dead; God rest her soul! She died of a stricture of the stomach, all in a moment. Would I had been there! She leaves us all she had; it seems she saved much; her cottage at Assisi and twenty thousand francs in scrip; all to us — to me — without reserve.”

Nita screamed aloud, with her black eyes all kindling with ferocious joy, and flung her brown arms about his neck and kissed him.

“Oh Lippo! oh Lippino! How clever you are! To have thought of taking the silly old soul those conserves and cough potions just in the nick of time! How clever! — I never will say you nay!”

Lippo returned her caress, thinking the lips of Candida were softer. His face grew very grave, with a pensive reproach upon it.

“Oh, my love, your words are unbecoming. You know full well I had no thought of after gain in paying that poor soul the deference due to age. You know it pains me now to be in friendship with all our relatives — and she so old too — it was only duty, Nita; believe me. dear, when we do right, heaven goes with us. I am thankful, of course, that so much more is added to us to keep you and the children in good com‐ fort; but I would sooner far that the kind old creature were living and enjoying life, than gain this greater prosperity by her death; and so, I know, would you, though your quick tongue outruns your heart and does belie it.”

Nita suddenly drew back, and made unseen a grimace behind her husband’s handsome head. She began to feel he was her master. She began to realize her own clumsy inferiority to this delicate fine workmanship of his.

“Anyhow, the cough syrup has brought good measure back” she muttered; her eyes still aglow.

“My journey to Rome, in my boy’s interests, has prospered, thanks to heaven,” said Lippo with calm serious grace; and went and read the notary’s letter to old Baldo.

“You will be a warm man, Lippo,” chuckled the cobbler, who had grown very infirm and kept his bed; “a warm man. You will have all I have too, ere long.”

“May it be very long!” said Lippo, and said it with such earnest graceful tenderness that the old man, though he had known him tell lies morning, noon, and night for five‐and‐twenty years, was touched, and almost thought that Lippo said the truth and meant it.

“Once,” said Baldo, “I did wish that my girl had taken your mad brother. But now I know that she chose aright. Yes — you are a man to prosper, Lippo.”

“All things are with God,” said Lippo; and tired though he was, sat down by the bed and spelt out aloud to the old man, who was drawing near his end, and liked to be well with heaven, one of the seven psalms of penitence.

 

The window‐shutter was not closed; a pretty woman, leaning in the opposite casement, could see, and a canon, who dwelt on the other side of the thin wall, could hear him.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v3.15.html

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