Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 17.

A GREAT bell clanging within the iron gates jarred on the silence.

He looked up; there was a man there by his side without who rang thus.

A voice answered the stranger’s demand through a grated wicket. Was she within? No; she was not within.

Bruno opened his lips to say that they lied; but kept back the words unuttered: the other was naught to him.

“I raised her from the very dust and have to ring at her gates like a beggar,” the stranger muttered, with tones too low for Bruno’s ear to hear them; then he turned and went away unwillingly. The moon fell full upon him. He saw the motionless dark figure of the peasant leaning by the wall. He looked and spoke:

“Is it you who dread Argol? What do you do here?”

“What do you?” said Bruno; his mouth scarcely unclosed, his whole heart and soul were full of frozen pain; his hand was against every man’s; he would have struck a child dead, or have spat upon the cross. What use were man or God? Where was their justice?

He looked at the stranger sullenly; who rang at her gates must be her friend — his foe.

The moon had risen fully, and shone with that pure and dreamful light which takes two thousand years of age away from Rome; the moonlight in which they say the dead gods rise and walk — weeping.

The face of the man was turned to him in it; a fair proud face, with something arrogant and something gentle, and the eyes of a poet and the lips of a cynic.

Bruno stared on him, wondering, doubting, remembering; then ground his teeth as a mastiff would at sight of what he loathed, and sprang erect.

“Wait! I know you,” he said, slowly; “You are the painter — Istriel.”

“Yes,” said the other, with a careless smile, as of one whose name meant homage. He was known so well by princes and by people. It seemed nothing strange.

“I meant to look for you. Wait there,” said Bruno. “Oh! I went and read your face, line by line, in the city where you have painted it; I meant to deal with you one day — and, yet, yonder, it was so dark there; you escaped me. Oh, I know you now.”

He spoke savagely, with his teeth set, still staring upon Istriel; startled, the other looked and kept his ground; he was a bold man, and knew that in his life he had sown enemies broadcast. This might be one of them.

“So you come to ring at her gates?” said Bruno. “When you shared her with all the world, were you not sick of her? You great men are less squeamish than we peasants are. When we throw the rotten fruit away, we have done with it. Do you know what Sandro said when she came to the birth? ‘Such a white child — so white‐God send her a white soul too.’ That is what he said, and he died looking at the little white plaster Christ on the wall, and saying, ‘I had a white child too; has the Holy Mother got her safe? Shall I see her the other side of the sun?’ That is what he died saying —”

“I do not understand,” said Istriel.

Bruno laughed aloud.

“No, no doubt: why should you? You take the loveliest, vilest thing you own, and strip it bare and smile, and paint it so, and send it out to all the multitudes — that is genius. You go down to hell and bring up a curse from it, and throw it out broadcast amongst the living people — that is genius. You have cursed my boy. Ten thousand others, too, for aught I know. But his was the gentlest, purest, sweetest soul that lived, and came so fresh from heaven, that he brought all heaven’s music with him in his ear and in his mouth, and was for ever hearing it and making others hear it. I have seen fierce men fighting cease and grow quiet, only because the child passed — singing. Look you, the lizards would come from their holes and the sheep and the goats stand listening round him, and the snakes lie still and quiet, in the sun there on the hills, because he piped upon his little lute — the broken lute I gave him. He never hurt a living thing. When he was a young child, he would take scorpions in his hand and say that he was sorry for them, because they hated men and had no one to love them — that was my boy. It is of no use telling you; how should you know, how should any one know, as I do? God sent him on to earth, I think, just to show what a human thing can be — how beautiful — when it has no greed and no vile thought. I laboured for the land and got it, and then I lost that, and all was to begin over again; and I could bear it — somehow — because he was safe, and things went well with him, and he had his heart’s desire; and when he came home to me, though the world had got him, it had not hurt him — not one whit, nor did he forget nor cease to care. But after he saw the accursed picture, then it was all over. There are women that have little white souls like doves, and when they enter the heart of a man, it is with him as if the Holy Spirit were there, and they nestle in him, and keep him from evil; but there are others; — your picture was accursed, I say. It bewitched him. It poured fire into him; the fire that consumes the bones and the nerves and the brain. When a boy or a man loves a woman that is vile, he kisses corruption on the mouth.”

“That is true,” said. the other; “but what have I done to you that you should upbraid me thus?”

He did not understand in any way the fierce onslaught and the confused meanings of the unknown man who fronted and arraigned him in the moonlight; but the rough eloquence of it fascinated him, and the courage and very rudeness of it and passionate pathos moved him to know more.

“You are a great man, that I hear,’” answered Bruno, “and you spend your strength painting lewd women. I do not know. I suppose it seems good to you. For me, it looks a poor pastime. Those men of old that coloured our walls — they saw God and the saints, and the great deeds that were done when men were giants; so they painted them. You paint what you see — I suppose. Is that what it is to have talents? to make dancing wantons live unperishing and drive innocent souls mad with sick passions? I praise heaven that I am a peasant and a fool. When you come to die, will it be well with you? to see these women for ever about your bed, and think of the young lives you have burned up with the teachings of wicked desire? If my right hand could create such things as that Innocence of yours, I would cut my hand off rather than leave it its cunning.”

“You are an ascetic?” said Istriel, with a smile. He was surprised at the fierce earnestness of this peasant, and was of that temper which will quarrel with nothing which is new to it and diverts it.

“I do not know what you mean,” said Bruno. “I am a man, and have been a bad man. At least, they have always said so. But I would slay myself before I would pander to the vileness of the world as you do. God gives you that gift of yours, to make the likeness of his living things, and give them more beauty than any real life has. And what do you do with it? Make shameless women glow like the fire, and the rose, and the jewels of the kings; and drive pure souls to hell with longing for them. What are you better than a pander and a tempter? You might make men see heaven, and you will not. You are like a jewel in a toad’s head. Has all your learning taught you no greater thing? is there nothing on all the broad earth but a naked wanton? For me, I have been a fool and a sinner with many a living woman in my time: that is the folly of all men; there is nature in that, and good may come out of its evil; but to set a vile creature up on high, and colour every hue of her, and draw every line, and set her up in the midst of the people, and seem to say to them, ‘There is nothing in all the world to worship but only a beautiful body, with a foul cancer hid in it;’ since to do that is what they call genius, I praise Fate that made me unlettered and unlearned, and sent me to dwell with my beasts at the plough.”

The painter Istriel looked at him with greater intentness: the rough eloquence stirred a certain shame in him; he knew that in it there was a grain of truth; in his own youth he had had pure aspirations and spiritual aims, and he had descended to delight and stimulate with the matchless grace of his colour, and the vital power of his hand, the sated materialism of his age.

He recognised in the passionate imperfect words of the man before him the temper which had made the men of the Middle Ages hurl their marble bacchanals and painted syrens into the flames at Savonarola’s word.

He was less offended than aroused.

“What has any one of my pictures done to you?” he asked. “Men like you feel no impersonal pain; what is your personal wrong at my hand?”

Bruno’s eyes glanced at him with a deep mute scorn.

“I do not know what you mean. Your wantons never hurt me. Only I would hew the wood you paint them into a million pieces, and thrust them in the nearest kiln to burn to ashes — if I could. From the time he saw that accursed thing all was altered with him. It got into him like wine — like poison. It made him drunk. Before — he lived in all the sweet sounds he heard; just as a bird does in the leaves and the light. He was always hearing beautiful things, and seeing them — we could not. He was so near the angels — my boy! But after he saw your accursed picture, it was the woman he saw — always the woman; she got between him and God. Do you not know? And so when she chose, she took him. It is like the plague. He looked with innocent eyes on your picture; when he looked away, he knew that we are all beasts. Yes, that is what your genius does for men. It is great; ah! so is the marsh fever, for it can kill a king if he pass by; your picture has killed my boy. When he found it living, he fell down before it. You see. He has no brain, or soul, or memory, or beauty left; all his dreams are dead; he only sees your wanton. Because you played with a wretched thing like that, must you make her a public glory to lure men’s souls? Why did you do it? Was there not the sea, and the sun, and the children, and the face of the mountains, and all the wide world for you to make a likeness of, and call all the nations to look? Was the great blue sky too narrow for you that you must needs go and make a devil‐star out of the mud of the sewer? Because the woman had no shame with you, must you crown her for that, and make others that look on her shameless? Your hand is accursed; your hand is accursed, I say. Were I lord and king, I would have it struck off in the sight of all the people. Look — the wanton you made takes my boy from me; from the world, from his art, from his God!”

He paused abruptly; he had spoken with broken impetuous passion; the long‐locked gates of his silence once burst asunder, all his heart rushed forth in his words; he smote wildly like a blind man in the midst of foes.

Istriel listened; the wrath that rose in him was daunted by a vague trouble, a restless uncertain shame.

“Whom do you speak of?” he said, with a wonder that held his wrath in check. “Your boy I is it possible that you mean the musician that they call Signa?”

Bruno made a gesture of assent.

Istriel was silent. In his soul he hated the young lover of his Innocence; the beautiful boy who had youth, who had fame, who had her.

“What have I to do with that?” he said, bitterly. “She takes a whim for him; a fancy of a month; he thinks it heaven and eternity. She has ruined him. His genius is burned up; his youth is dead; he will do nothing more of any worth. Women like her are like the Indian drugs, that sleep and kill. How is that any fault of mine? He could see the thing she was. If he will fling his soul away upon a creature lighter than thistle‐down, viler than a rattlesnake’s poison, poorer and quicker to pass than the breath of a gnat — whose blame is that except his own? There was a sculptor once, you know, that fell to lascivious worship of the marble image he had made; well — poets are not even so far wise as that. They make an image out of the gossamer rainbow stuff of their own dreams, and then curse heaven and earth because it dissolves to empty air in their fond arms — whose blame is that? The fools are made so —”

He spoke with fierce curt scorn; he too had loved this worthless loveliness that he had christened Innocence.

“It is as bad as that with him?” muttered Bruno. “It is true then all they say?”

Istriel laughed.

“Most true. All Rome can read it. Her fancy is done; and now his hell has come. It is always so. But what can it be to you? What is he to you?” he said, abruptly.

Bruno smiled; a smile of the pale passion which is bitter as death, and deep as the bottomless sea.

“I have given him all my life,” he said, simply. “All my life. And you and your wanton have destroyed him.”

“He is your son?” said Istriel.

“No. They all thought so, but they were wrong. He was Pippa’s son,” said Bruno, whose mind was clouded with the lores and fury of his pain, and who at all times had the peasant’s optimism, and believed that every one must know, without need of explanation, who he was, and what he meant, and why he spoke.

“Pippa!” echoed Istriel. His memories were wakened by the name, and went back to the days of his youth, when he had gone through the fields at evening, when the purple beanflower was in bloom.

“What is your name then?” he asked, with a changed sound in his voice, and with his fair cheek paler.

“I am Bruno Marcillo; I come from the hills above the Lastra a Signa.”

Istriel rose, and looked at him; he had not remembered dead Pippa for many a year. All in a moment he did remember: the long light days, the little grey‐walled town, the meetings in the vine‐hung paths, when sunset burned the skies; the girl with the pearls on her round brown throat, the moonlit nights, with the strings of the guitar throbbing, and the hearts of the lovers leaping; the sweet, eager, thoughtless passion that swayed them one to another, as two flowers are blown together in the mild soft winds of summer; he remembered it all now.

And he had forgotten so long; forgotten so utterly; save now and then, when in some great man’s house he had chanted to see some painting done in his youth, and sold then for a few gold coins, of a tender tempestuous face, half smiling and half sobbing, full of storm and sunshine, both in one; and, then at such times had thought “Poor little fool! she loved me too well; — it is the worst fault a woman has.”

Some regret he had felt, and some remorse when he had found the garret empty, and had lost Pippa from sight in the great sea of chance; but she had wearied him, importuned him, clung to him; she had had the worst fault, she had loved him too much. He had been young and poor, and very ambitious; he had been soon reconciled; he had soon learned to think that it was a burden best fallen from his shoulders. No doubt she had suffered; but there was no help for that — someone always suffered when these ties were broken — so he had said to himself. And then there had come success and fame, and the pleasure of the world and the triumphs of art, and Pippa had dropped from his thoughts as dead blossoms from a bough; and he had loved so many other women, that he could not have counted them; and the memory of that boy and girl romance in the green hill country of the old Etruscan land had died away from him like a song long mute.

Now, all at once, Pippa’s hand seemed to touch him — Pippa’s voice seemed to rouse him — Pippa’s eyes seemed to look at him.

This was Bruno, then? — the great, dark, elder brother, whom she had feared, and had often pointed out to him in the fading evening light from afar on the hillsides, and had begged him never to meet, lest there should be feud about her and bloodshed.

This was Bruno.

All in a moment the past leaped up to him, and grew fresh as yesterday.

This was Bruno — and what, then, was the boy?

He mastered the horror and the emotion which possessed him; but his mouth was dry, and his voice was unsteady, as he asked,

“She was your sister — Pippa?”

“Yes.”

“Is she dead, then?”

“Yes.”

“When did she die?”

“On the night of the flood, in the dark, we found her dead, Lippo and I. The child was at her breast. She had fallen from the edge of the road. She could tell us nothing. What is it to you? Why do you want to know?”

Istriel was silent a moment — a shiver as of some great cold went over him. Then he spoke suddenly,

“Because I was her lover. I took her from your country. That lad, if he be hers, is mine. She loved me too well to be faithless. There are women so.”

Bruno stared at him stupidly. The sense of what he heard was long before it reached him, or brought perception of its truth. Then all at once he understood.

“It will kill him!” he muttered, at last; “it will kill him! Do you not see?”

With a shudder, Istriel looked him slowly in the face.

Remembering the boy, their mutual thoughts dulled passion, numbed rage, and struck them mute.

 

Bruno’s hand, raised to strike the lover of dead Pippa, fell to his side nerveless and strengthless as a reed that is plucked upward by the roots.

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