Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 18.

“LET me think — let me breathe!” said Bruno, and he staggered farther out into the darkness, gasping for air.

The horror of an inevitable and irrevocable destiny closed in on him like a cage of iron.

There are hours in the lives of men when the old Greek sense of being but the sport of an inexorable Fate, from which there is no possible escape, sweeps away all hope and power of self‐help, and strikes all courage blinded to the dust.

What could he do?

The powers of heaven and hell were alike against him‐so he thought.

He was no god to struggle with this ghastly curse of risen years — these poison‐mists of perished passions.

It was no fault of his.

His hands were innocent — his soul was free of guilt; yet he suffered as the guilty do not. It is often so.

There was a sound as of many waters in his ears; the white moon and the curled palm leaves went round and round; the great stones seemed to heave beneath his feet.

He saw the face of the man before him as in a mist — blood‐red.

“Get you gone,” he muttered, “get you gone. You have no share with him. For you, he would have drowned, like any lamb that the flood took. He is mine — mine — mine. My hands worked for him; my bread fed him; my roof sheltered him. He was naught to you. You have lived your life and never thought. He is naught to you; he is mine. Get you gone!”

And he struck at the air — blindly.

The other shrank away before that great just passion — shrank, palsied and awed, in all his proud vain manhood, as though old age had seized him. He had dropped the serpent’s tooth of a careless love by the wayside, and thought no more; and now an armed host sprang on him.

“But — to save him?” he murmured, and was still.

Bruno stood erect, and in the changing shadows his form seemed to tower and dilate, and grow to giant’s stature.

“Leave him to me!” he cried; and his voice rolled like thunder down the deserted ruined ways of Rome. “He is mine; he is mine! My soul for his — that I have said — always — always — while you feasted and were famous, and kissed your wantons, and took no thought. Get you gone; get you gone. You gave him your life; but I gave him my soul.”

The other shrank back into the shadows.

Bruno stood silent, with his face to the stars.

“Is there a God, there?” he cried to them. “Is there a God, that he lets the innocent suffer for the guilty?”

The serene star‐covered heavens seemed chill as any vault of ice. What cared they for his pain!

It was no blasphemy in him that cried thus, and thus doubted; it was faith in its death agony; the faith of Peter’s “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

He was alone in the pale night.

The lover of dead Pippa, who had never feared anything in life, feared him.

“Is it all of no use?” muttered Bruno to the silence; and silence answered him. Was it all of no use? — the long years of toil; the patient sacrifice; the unceasing resistance of selfish desire; the bitter winters; the burning summers; the effort; the anxiety; the prayers; the love?

Was it all of no use? Did neither men nor God care anything?

That unutterable and terrible loneliness which comes to all in their death‐hour, and comes to some in their full height of life, encompassed Bruno now.

It seemed to him as if he stood solitary amidst the wreck of the whole world.

He had tried to build up in safety the temple of this young life, so that every fair and pure thing might be garnered therein, and no foul spirits ever enter; he had been willing to cement its corner‐stone with his heart’s blood; and by the sweat of his labour, and by the pain of his perishing hopes, purchase a blessing upon it. And now it burned and crumbled before his sight, blasted with the lightning of a hideous passion. And he stood by, with bound hands.

“My soul for this,” he muttered. That he had said always; that he would give still; only it seemed to him that there was no way to force on fate such barter.

It is not given to any life to be the providence of another — so the old man had told him in the sacristy of the Lastra, and he found the truth now.

A great sickness came on him; a loathing of life and of the hopes with which he had cheated himself through these twenty long years of vain sacrifices.

He seemed to feel the long wet hair of dead Pippa, and the cold of her lifeless breasts. Was it an hour ago that they had found her by the old sea road, or was it twenty years?

He stood stunned and stupid in the silent ways of Rome.

A great darkness was over all his mind like the plague of that unending night which brooded over Egypt.

All the ferocity of his nature was scourged into its greatest strength; he was sensible of nothing except the sense that he was beaten in the one aim and purpose of his life.

Only — if by any chance he could still save the boy.

That one thought — companion with him, sleeping and waking, through so many joyless nights — stayed with him still.

It seemed to him that he would have strength to scale the very heights of heaven, and shake the very throne of God until He heard — to save the boy.

The night was far gone; the red of the day‐dawn began to glow, and the stars paled.

He did not know how time went; but he knew the look of the daybreak. When the skies looked so, through his grated windows at home, he rose and said a prayer, and went down and unbarred his doors, and led out his white beasts to the plough, or between the golden lines of the reaped corn; all that was over now.

The birds were waking on the old green hills and the crocus flowers unclosing; but he —

“I shall never see it again,” he thought, and his heart yearned to it, and the great hot slow tears of a man’s woe stole into his aching eyes and burned them. But he had no pity on himself.

He had freedom and health and strength and manhood, and he was still not old, and still might win the favour of women, and see his children laugh — if he went back to the old homestead, and the old safe ways of his fathers. And the very smell of the earth there was sweet to him as a virgin’s breath, and the mere toil of the ground had been dear to him by reason of the faithful love that he bore to his birthplace. But he had no pity on himself.

“My soul for his,” he had said; and he cleaved to his word and kept it.

In his day he had been savage to others. He was no less so to himself.

He had done all that he knew how to do. He had crushed out the natural evil of him, and denied the desires of the flesh, and changed his very nature to do good by Pippa’s son: and it had all been of no use; it had all been spent in vain, as drowning seamen’s cries for help are spent on angry winds and yawning waters. He had tried to follow God’s will and to drive the tempter from him, for the boy’s sake; and it had all been of no avail. Through the long score of years his vain sacrifices echoed dully by him as a dropt stone through the dark shaft of a well.

Perhaps it was not enough.

Perhaps it was needful that he should redeem the boy’s soul by the utter surrender and eternal ruin of his own — perhaps. After all it was a poor love which balanced cost; a meek, mean love which would not dare take guilt upon it for the thing it cherished.

To him crime was crime in naked utter blackness; without aught of those palliatives with which the cultured and philosophic temper can streak it smooth and paint its soft excuse, and trace it back to influence or insanity. To him sin was a mighty, hideous, hell‐born thing, which, being embraced, dragged him who kissed it on the mourn, downward and downward into bottomless pits of endless night and ceaseless torment. To him the depths of hell and heights of heaven were real as he had seen them in the visions of Orgagna.

Yet he was willing to say, “evil be thou my good,” if by such evil he could break the bonds of passion from the life of Pippa’s son.

He had in him the mighty fanaticism which has made at once the tyrants and the martyrs of the world.

“Leave him to me,” he had said, and then the strength and weakness, and ruthless heat, and utter self‐deliverance of his nature, leaped to their height, and nerved him with deadly passion.

“There is but one way,” he said to himself; — there was but one way to cut the cords of this hideous, tangled knot of destiny, and let free the boy to the old ways of innocence.

“He will curse me,” he thought; “I shall die — never looking on his face — never hearing his voice. But he will be freed — so. He will suffer — for a day — a year. But he will be spared the truth. And he is so young — he will be glad again before the summer comes.”

For a moment his courage failed him.

He could face the thought of an eternity of pain, and not turn pale, nor pause. But to die with the boy’s curse on him — that was harder.

“It is selfishness to pause,” he told himself. “He will loathe me always; but what matter — he will be saved; he will be innocent once more; he will hear his ‘beautiful things’ again; he will never know the truth; he will be at peace with himself, and forget before the summer comes. He never has loved me — not much. What does it matter — so that he is saved. When he sees his mother in heaven some day, then she will say to him —‘It was done for your sake.’ And I shall know that he sees then, as God sees. That will be enough.”

And he refused to have pity on himself; and hardened his heart, and faced the red of the breaking day with his resolve stronger and firmer in his soul, till he seemed to himself to be no more a man with nerves to wound and heart to suffer, but a thing of iron set to vengeance as a clock is wound to strike.

There was no other way, that was what he thought; no other way to turn the boy to innocence, and spare him ever any knowledge of the truth.

The same terrible sense of crime as duty which of old nerved the hands of Judith and of Jael, came on him now. In the great blindness that was upon him it seemed to him that to shrink from this act set to him, would be the feeblest cowardice. It seemed to him that all the forces of Satan were at war with him, and that not to strike them down and crush them out, would be to pander to and aid them, and shrink, a craven, from their path.

The passion which makes tyrannicides was in him now.

“I have lived righteously, and no good has come of it,” he said to himself. “If came can save him — crime shall be sweeter to me than all virtue.”

That was all he felt; dully, savagely, hopelessly, with that despair upon him which is irresponsible as madness.

He had given all his manhood to the boy, and surrendered all the hopes and ties and pleasures and tender follies which make the toil of manhood bearable, and soften creeping age of half its terrors — and one after another alien forces had arisen and taken the thing he had laboured for away from him.

His heart was hard. His blood was fire. Fate had been merciless and God been deaf. He grew merciless too, and stopped his ears to pity.

Pity!

Where was there any in all this wide world? The fiend sent a creature on to earth with a wooing mouth and a white body, and she ate up youth and innocence, and all pure desires, and all high endeavours, and devoured souls as swine the garbage; and from heaven there was never any sign.

The young day grew wider and brighter and redder in the sky. Nightingales sang in the gardens on the other side of the high walls. The wind rose fragrant with the smell of wet grass‐ways and of the laden orange boughs. He noticed nothing. The time had gone by with him when any sight or sound had power on him. He only waited — waited silently — drawn back within the shadow of the walls.

With the full morning the bolts of the gates were drawn back, there came forth a young man with a face strange to him, and rich garments, and a smile of triumph on his mouth; a little later came a woman, with brass buckets on her shoulders going to fetch water from the fountain in the public square a street or two beyond.

He, waiting for such a moment’s favouring chance, went within. The fresh dark gardens were deserted. There was a stone terrace with two flights of steps; winged lions; and grim marble masks. He ascended the stairs, and pushed back some great doors which were unlatched within. They yielded to his hand. He entered the silent house.

Two or three servants, drowsy or drunken, lay about on the couches in the great vaulted entrance whose white and red marbles gleamed in the golden glory of the slanting sunrays.

One of them raised himself sleepily, and stopped him with a stupid smile.

“Where do you go? — what would you do?”

Bruno pushed him aside:

“I go to my work,” he answered, and passed onward. The other, muttering, dropped back again into his vinous rest.

Bruno went on. Long corridors, empty banqueting rooms, chambers rich with sculptures and with frescoes, deserted splendours where the flowers were fading, and the morning shining through the crevices of closed shutters, all followed one on another like the tombs of dead Etrurian kings. All the household slept, after the long, gay amorous vigil of the night. He traversed the silent places as a living man traverses the solitude of sepulchres. He had no knowledge where to find the thing he sought; but he went on without a pause; he had grasped Evil by the hand; it guides unerringly.

His bare feet smote the bare marble and trode on, inexorable as the tread of time. After many chambers — the vast, beautiful, painted chambers of Rome, lofty as temples, and cool as the deep sea — he saw a door closed, with garlands of roses coloured on its panels under the morning sunbeams.

He thrust his strength against it; it resisted a moment, then gave way and opened noiselessly; a fierce exultant joy leaped up in his heart like a sudden flame; he had found his goal.

Here no daylight came; a little lamp was burning, a Cupid swung it from a chain; there was deep colour in the shadows everywhere; the gloom of the place was filled with aromatic odours.

He paused neither for the loveliness nor the stillness of it; he went through its fragrant darkness with the same slow calm steps. As destiny comes to men to strike, unhasting but unresting, so he went to her.

He paused a moment and looked on her. Her bed was white as sea‐foam is, it rose and sunk like billows under her; her loosened hair half covered her; her arms were cast above her head; her limbs were lightly crossed; she was one of those women who are most beautiful in sleep; and her sleep was soft and smiling and profound in its repose, as when she had slumbered on the nest of hay by Palma’s side in the old hut at Giovoli.

In her disarray, in her abandonment, in her deep dreamless rest, she was like a white rose just ruffled with the dew and wind, and shutting all the summer in its breast.

He stood and looked on her.

In her nude beauty she was to him sexless; in her perfect loveliness she was to him loathsome.

She was no woman; but all the evil, all the wrong, all the injustice, and all the mockery of human life made manifest in the flesh in her.

He stood and looked on her; at her red closed mouth, at her fair curled limbs, at her soft breast that rose and fell with the even measures of her peaceful breath.

Then he leaned forward and drew his knife from his belt, and, stooping, stabbed her through the heart — again and again and again — driving each stroke farther home.

She quivered a moment, then was still; she passed from sleep to death.

He went out, no man staying him, or asking him anything, into the broad bright daylight of the outer air.

“It was for him,” he said in his thoughts, and a great serenity was with him as of some duty done.

Man would slay him, and God would bid him burn in hell for ever:— what matter? — the boy was saved.

He went on, erect, in the full sunshine. Justice was done.

A deep, fierce, exultant calm was on him. He would perish — body and soul — but the boy was saved.

In the streets there were many people, and the multitudes were silent and afraid, and there was a sound as of weeping among women, and the stir and the press grew greater at each step; and through the crowds there was brought out in the living light of the joyous day an open bier; met followed mourning as once they followed Raffaele.

“What is it?” he asked, and paused, for a great fear fell upon him.

A woman answered him.

“His wanton was faithless, look you — and last night alone he knew it. So he slew himself — why not? She had killed all his soul in him. When Love is dead, one’s body best dies too.”

They brought the bier through the weeping crowds.

The face was uncovered to the light. It was the face of Signa.

They had folded his hands on his breast, and his eyes were closed as in slumber.

Love had killed him.

 

Why not? It is the only mercy that Love ever has.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v3.18.html

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