Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 2.

WHEN he rose he looked calm, and his eyes shone with the peace of a tranquil happiness.

“Let us talk here a little,” he said, and they went out into the arcades of Giotto’s cloister, where the mountain winds, and the autumn rains, and the fierce beating of the midsummer suns, have stripped the saints and prophets bare.

“And you are a great man!” he said, with a slow soft smile. “A great man! you — Pippa’s son — my little cowherd and sheep boy! Forgive me, dear; it seems strange.”

“Nay, the music in me is great; not I;” said Signa. “I am like the reed that the gods took to breathe through — that is all.”

“And that is pretty of you to say. But a man is known by his works, as a tree by her fruit; and yours are good. You were no dreamer, my boy, as we thought.”

“But if you had not sold the land!” said Signa.

Bruno winced.

“Why talk of that? What is done is done. The land was for you; you were right to have it sold. I see that now, dear — it was only hard at first.”

“But who has it? You said a traitor.”

“Lippo has it. He brought it secretly. Honestly as money goes — but not fairly — there is a difference. But why speak of these things. Never put back on your teeth a walnut that has the worm. Dear — you think I have suffered. Do not poison your pleasure with that fancy. When the news came that winter night, I had more content — for you — than ever the land would have brought with it. I said, ‘God is good.’ God is good. He has given you your heart’s desire; and you have come back safe; and have not forgotten.”

He was leaning against one of the columns, the boy was sitting on the marble ledge where the graves are. Bruno looked down on him as the sun shone above his young upturned face. Signa was not much changed; his dress was all of white linen, but it was very simple; the sea, the travel, and the hope, and new glory of his life had warmed his cheek, and invigorated his limbs; that was all; but there was about him, and upon him, that immeasurable, indescribable alteration which raises up the childhood that dreams into the manhood that has accomplished; he was a boy still, but he was a boy who had fought his fight, and had conquered.

He was no longer Endymion sighing fitfully in a tormented sleep with vain desire; he was the Endymion who had held his divine mistress in his arms, and vanquished, and possessed her.

“Do not think of the land any more, ever again,” said Bruno. “It was of use. That was all it could ever have been. It is for me now as I had never had it. That is all. Dear, tell me of yourself rather; — you have so much to tell.”

It was a noble lie.

The land was the cruellest loss of his life. Every time that the voice of his brother echoed up through the pines, every time that he saw the strange hands amongst the olive boughs and the river rushes, the longing of vengeance possessed him as ardently as in the moment of Lippo’s first taunts, the sharpness of his loss was as poignant to him as in the hour when the had first said to the notary, “sell.” But Bruno gave his gifts with both hands; he did not weight them with a millstone of appraisement.

Signa had so much to tell; days, weeks, months, could not have exhausted for him the story of his wanderings and his victories. He had lost nothing of his simple eager faith, nothing of his spiritual endless aspirations; only now, instead of dreaming of victory he had achieved it; now, instead of the passionate praises of genius, he had its passionate joys.

He told his story sitting under the arches of the noble cloisters, with the strong August sun making the marble warm like human flesh. It was the same story that Bruno had heard from the letters and from the printed sheets, month after month; but it only now took life and colour for him, it only now became an actual truth for him, heard from the boy’s happy breathless lips, with the blue shining above the open court.

Signa was a great singer in the land, as Cimarosa had been in his, with his gay melodies caught from the threshing barns and the orange‐gatherers and the coral‐fishers and the vintage‐dancers; as the poet Chiabrera had been with his mighty odes that echoed like the roll of battle; as the improvisatore Bernardo had been with his silver lute that held the Romans still as listening goats that circle round a shepherd’s pipe:— that he could understand now, wonderful though it was; now that the boy’s eyes shone back to his, and the boy’s own lips told him of cities and villas and seashores and mountain palaces, and the tumult of towns in summer nights, and the chorus of strange voices under his casement singing his own songs till the dawn broke.

He could understand it now; and though it took Pippa’s son away from him — quite away into a world where he himself could never tread — yet he was proud of it and glad — bewildered, but very glad.

“That you should be so great, you little thing!” he murmured, and smiled, thinking of the night coming in from the Certosa, when he had carried the child, worn‐out and tired, as the owls cried and Signa dreamed of the Fair Angel.

To Bruno the boy was only such a little thing — no more than a girl was, or a bulrush, or a willow rod in the stream.

And half the nation was chaunting his music, and the other half babbling of his name!

“The land did not go in vain!” he thought, with a thought that he would not utter aloud, lest it should seem a regret or a reproach; and then he rose and shook himself, with a glow of joy on his olive skin and a softened light beaming under his straight drooped eyes.

“Let us go, dear. Hark! The clock is striking. We have talked here three hours. I will get your baggage; you left it yonder — yes? It is not fair to keep you from the Lastra. And you are tired, too, no doubt, and hungry. Will you sleep to‐night on your own little hard bed, after lying under those great nobles’ roofs? Do palaces smell sweeter than our hills? I think they cannot.”

Talking so, with a quickness and abundance quite rare to him, that came with the proud overflowing of his silent heart, he went and sought the boy’s small packages, and swung them over his shoulders and came out again into the hot sunshine smiling.

He was only a peasant, with bare feet and shirt open at his breast, and his face dark with many years of toil; but there was nobility about him, and dignity, and freedom.

Signa, who, though he had half forgotten, loved him, looked at the dark erect figure of him against the white marble and the blue sky, and thought the old painters might have painted him there in the chapter‐house as the Shepherd King, the Re Pastore of Metastasio.

“Can you walk, dear? Oh, it is too far! I did not bring the cart to‐day,” said Bruno.

Signa laughed.

“Too far! The dear old, dirty, ugly road that I had to trot down in an hour after Baldo’s beast! No; I should like to see every stone of it! And perhaps the people will know me. I think so.”

So they went.

“You should have a chariot, like a young prince; and you walk as we do in the dust,” said Bruno with a smile. He was so proud and glad. All jests seemed sweet.

“I love the dust. Does it not go to the Lastra?”

And he stooped and raised a little of the dust in his hand and kissed it and blew it away and laughed. He too was so happy. All trifles had their charm.

“Poor Palma asked for you this morning,” said Bruno.

“Palma did? I have brought a trinket for her.”

“A trinket! She sold her hair in Lent to pay her father’s burying.”

They went on along the road. It was dusty, noisy, unlovely, as it always is; with the people sitting out at their doors, and the smiths and the joiners and the coopers and the straw‐plaiters all at work in the darksome open interiors.

Presently one woman clapped her hands.

“If that is not little Signa that used to live on the hill!”

And then a blacksmith stood and stared.

“What, Bruno Marcello! Is that your boy?”

And the contadini going by in their carts turned and looked and shouted.

“That is Signa, only he looks like a lordling all in his white and with shoes on!”

And they drove away and said in the gates of the Lastra:

“Signa is come home. He will be here in a very little; we passed him on the road.”

But the road was long to Signa; for now one would speak, and then another would shake hands, and one man would fetch out a stoup of drink, and some girl would give him a fresh carnation; and what with one thing and another, and the gathering groups and the recognitions and the wonder and the eager greetings and the reluctant farewells, his path was made as slow as any young conqueror’s going along laurel‐hung streets in war‐time; and by the time they came in sight of the shields on the Porta Fiorentina, it was nearly night, and the Ave Maria was sounding everywhere, and the lamps were beginning to be lighted.

In this country people gather together, like mosquitoes after a wisp of lighted straw, on the slenderest pretext, to follow and to watch, and to chatter.

There was a throng on his steps laughing, shouting, chattering, not knowing very well why they went, but vaguely fancying that he, since the world had made a king of him, must have grown rich, and would by and by throw some gold to the foremost.

There was a little crowd at his back, and out of the great east gate there came another crowd; there was a white‐haired old man at their head; they had torches flaring red on the dusk; women ran with them and children; the deep voices and the shrill ones rose together — they were singing his own Death Chaunt of the Christians. Luigi Dini, who led them, had taught it to them to sing as requiem in the Holy week of the past Lenten season.

When the peasants had driven in saying, “Signa comes,” the old man had called his choristers together, and many young brethren of the confraternity, and had said to them, “Let us meet him with his own music — there can be no welcome like that.”

Signa stopped suddenly; his heart swelled, his eyes swam; he had had many a grander triumph, many a more radiant spectacle, many a louder‐toned praise from bigger multitudes; but none had moved him like that little crowd in the fitful glow of the torches, those fresh, rough, untrained voices singing his own music in the dusk and the heat of the summer night — at home.

They came out to meet him as a conqueror; and, only such a little while before, he had been a little child they mocked at for hearing the angels singing in the clouds, when for their ears only the crickets chattered in the corn.

He stood still while the torches tossed about him, and the strong familiar voices throbbed and thrilled upon the air; then he threw his left arm round Bruno’s shoulders, and stretched his right hand out to the old man; and he looked at the brown well‐known faces turned upward in the shadow of the old grey gate:

“Dear friends! what I am, these two have made me. The heavens would not have opened for me if on earth these two had not succoured me. When I am gone, will you remember that?”

In an after time the people said to one another, “What did he mean —‘when I am gone’?”

Then, standing outside the gateway there, and stretching in a long line through the Lastra, while every casement and every doorway had its cluster of eager faces, they all flung their torches in the air, and shouted vivas loud enough to stir the soldier soul of dead Ferruccio, sleeping far away; then, as the peasants had done above Fiastra before the world had heard of him, they lifted him on their shoulders; and, laughing and shouting and crying and leaping like young children in their pride and pleasure, they bore him away under the arch of the old gate, chaunting the chorus of the Christians, while from every dark doorway and every grated window heads were thrust and hands were offered, and in the small dull town just going to its sleep there was one universal outcry:

“It is little Signa come home!”

Up by the shrine of the Good Counsel, Lippo’s window alone was dark.

And Palma, mending the great holes in her brother’s shirts by the light of a solitary oil‐wick while the boys were sleeping, knew nothing of the festival within the gates.

It was late ere they would let him go. They were poor people, all of them; working for their daily bread; but if he could have eaten gold that night they would have found means to change their loaves to it, they were so proud of him — their little neglected, laughed‐at waif and stray, to whom the grilli in the moonlit wheat had taught such sweet‐toned singing.

They forgot that they had been rough with him — that they had kicked him about like a little lame dog — that they had said all manner of cruel things to him and of the man who defended him: those who do wrong can so easily forget. But neither did he care to remember.

They were the people of the Lastra to him — the people of his home.

That was enough.

They would carry him into Sanfranco’s house; they would pour forth the richest wine that the country could yield; they would all touch him, all look at him, all have a word with him; they would come in one on another in an endless stream, with a ceaseless delight; they would pour question on question, wonder on wonder, and stand and look at him as if he were a young god come down on earth.

“And to think if I had not let him have that fiddle so cheap, the world might never have heard of him — never!” said Tonino the tinman, looking in on the edge of the crowd, though he did not venture farther.

For not only the fly on the spoke praises to itself for the speed of the wheel, but the stone that would fain have hindered it, says, when the wheel unhindered has passed it, “Lo! see how much I helped!”

Signa, perceiving him in the dark without, looked over at him and smiled.

He did not care to remember his hurts. He was happy, and men all seemed to him brothers in the sunshine of God’s peace, like the saints in the Spanish Chapel where he had prayed that day.

“When I was a little thing,” he said to them, “I dreamed of gates of gold for the Lastra here. Gates of gold I never can give. But, if all go well with me, I will live and die amongst you here; and you will make my grave on the high hills, and you will sing what I have written when you bury me.”

“Why does he talk of dying?” they said to one another. “His life is only just begun.”

But Signa did not hear them. He was looking down on them with a smile; while his eyes were wet with tears.

He had looked like that when he had been a little child, and they had said, “Is it the angels he hears? — nay, it is only the crickets in the corn that are humming.”

It was late when they would let him go. Bruno had waited patiently, saying nothing to any soul, drawn back a little near the door, with the look of a great peace upon his face; but silent, because too proud and with too much scorn in him to say:

“You see that I spoke truth. And this is no young god — this is only Pippa’s son, whom you derided.”

The crowd went with him out by the sea gate, and took leave of him till the morrow, kissing his hands and his clothes, and shouting and leaping around him, and bidding him be down at sunrise — all the tables of the town should be spread for him.

He had refused to be taken homeward. He wished to tread with his own feet the lovely, familiar road. As the last of the throng left him, and Bruno and he were alone, in the moonless, sultry night of the hottest month of the year, the echo of the people’s voices followed them, still singing the chaunt of the “Christians.”

“Fame has only the span of a day, they say,” murmured the boy half aloud. “But to live in the hearts of the people — that is worth something.”

“They love you now. Ten years ago they beat you — ten years hence they will beat you again if the humour takes them,” thought Bruno; but he said nothing. After all, he might be wrong.

There was a little light in a little hut by the wayside. Bruno looked at it.

“That is where Palma lives now,” he said. “The other house went with the garden. She works late to‐night — there are so many boys.”

“I will give her what I have brought,” said Signa, and he paused and knocked at the door. “It is I— Signa!” he cried aloud.

The girl unbarred the door, and flung it open. She did not speak, but her great eyes were alight with a fire like the leaping of the dawn, and she trembled from head to foot.

“It is I,” said Signa, slipping into her hand a little packet. “Look — you must wear this to please me — to show you I did not forget. I will come and see you in the morning, dear. Good‐night!”

He kissed her cheek, and went away.

Palma took the parcel to the light, and opened it; it was a string of carved coral beads and a cross.

“And I am so ugly, now! oh, so ugly! Oh, how cruel God is!” she cried, in a passion of anguish, and dropped her poor brown head on her hands; her head that was like a boy’s.

She had never before thought it any pain to have given her brave black tresses to pay her father’s grave; only a duty, so simple and natural, that it was not to be thought twice about in any way, and never to be lamented with self‐pity; but now she could have wept her very soul out to have lost her sole treasure, to be so unlovely, so absurd, so shameful, to have given up her one crown and veil of womanhood.

“I am so ugly!” she moaned, sitting on the bare mud floor with the pretty coral necklace in her lap.

It was all the reward that her sacrifice brought her — to know herself disfigured and discrowned, when Signa’s eyes should fall on her with the morrow’s sun.

She had never thought about herself, never taken any count whether she were lovely or unlovely, ill or well: in her laborious life filled to the brim with work that was never done, there was no time for any such speculation; she toiled all the day long and half the night without joy or pause, or recompense of any sort; honest and pure and loyal to her task by sheer instinct, as birds are clean, or leaves are fresh; never before with any thought of herself, all her life being merged in the lives she served; but now, for the first time, her heart cried out in sick rebellion.

God had made her ugly — just as Signa came.

He, unwitting, went on with Bruno up the sea‐road where his mother had stumbled to her death. There was hardly as breath of air, even on the hills. After a while, having reached a height, they paused and looked behind them. It was all a great sea of darkness, fragrant, but solemnly dark, like a mighty grave.

“And you love nothing but your music still?” said Bruno, suddenly. “Nothing? no woman? You would tell me?”

“No woman, no!” said Signa; and he spoke the simple truth. Yet in the gloom of the night his face grew warm. He had loved no woman yet; but, in his visions of late, the angels that came to him had all women’s forms and women’s faces as in the visions of the Paradise on Orgagna’s field of gold.

As they stood and looked back into that soft impenetrable darkness, there came a fluttering line of light, which, undulating like a fiery snake, stole through the shadow up and up and up towards the clouds.

“What is that?” cried the boy, startled and unnerved after the homage and the wakeful fancies of the night.

“They are the torches,” said Bruno. “A hill burial — that is all. There are so many lights; it is some young thing dead.”

“The torches came to meet me in triumph an hour ago,” thought Signa, and a shiver went over him, and he ceased to look back.

 

The lights stole up the hillside towards some lonely tomb amongst the silence of the woods, then vanished, and all was dark.

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