Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 3.

WITH the morning, Signa went down to see more quietly all his old friends of the Lastra. Passing, he paused by Palma’s hut. She was at work in her garden, gathering tomatoes off the bushes before her poor little dwelling. She had tied the red woolen handkerchief over her head again. She hardly looked up as she thanked him for his gift.

“It is too magnificent for me,” she murmured. “You know I am so poor always, and so ugly now; I have lost my hair.”

“Who would not love you more, dear? — knowing why you lost it,” said Signa, kindly; for he knew the goodness of the girl, and was fond of her in his gentle way — only she never could understand anything, not knowing her letters even, and being always at work like a little windlass that everybody’s hand turns.

But Palma shook her head.

She did not know anything indeed, but the instincts of her sex moved in her and made her feel that no glory of a golden deed is so great a nimbus to a woman as the rays of a physical beauty.

“Indeed, you are never ugly, Palma,” said Signa, to console her. “Dear, you have straight features and such noble eyes; you cannot be ugly, ever. And for the hair, that will very soon grow, and you must wear the necklace on feast days when I am gone, to show that you remember me.”

Remember! Palma thought of the S. Cecilia hung up in the church above on the hill. She had meant to tell him it; she had dreamed always of leading him up there hand in hand, as they had used to go when they were children, and making him sit on the altar‐steps where the jasper was, while she told him what she had done; but she was silent about it now that he was here. Someway she felt almost ashamed of it.

He had made his own fame; he had won his own victory; he did not want her help or S. Cecilia’s. Perhaps he would only smile, she thought. She was not sure of the great use of the picture; all in a moment she had lost her faith in it.

He looked so full of grace, smiling there in the sunshine.

She glanced up at him, feeling as if there were whole worlds of distance between him and her. She could not have done him any good with her prayers up there in the dark; she could not have been wanted. She would have liked to tell him, but she felt ashamed.

“You work so hard, Palma,” he said, leaning over the low stone wall.

“Yes; but I have always done that. It is not new.”

“But the boys must help you, now?”

“A little; but they eat more than they earn.”

“Did your father suffer much — dying?”

“A great deal; it only lasted a day. He could not speak much, but he thought of Gemma; he kept looking at that little Jesus in wax that used to be so like her. He has seen her now — in heaven.”

“You are always sure she is dead?”

“Oh, yes! She would not have forgotten us so long as this, if she were living.”

Signa was silent. He knew that to those who go, forgetfulness is easy; to those who stay, impossible.

“I never think she is dead,” he said at last.

“Why?”

“Because she was so full of life; so sturdy, so mirthful; always in mischief too, and doing so well for herself: things like that do not die.”

“Everything dies if God will it,” said Palma. “For me, I am sure, she would not have forgotten if she were living. Sometimes I pray to her to make me a little sign from heaven, but she never does.”

“She was like a cherub in heaven to look at,” said Signa, who never quite had ceased to mourn his lost playmate or to reproach himself with her fate. After his music, he had most loved Gemma.

“Yes,” said Palma, and stooped down her head over her hoeing at the weeds; she felt so ugly with her short, ruffled, foolish, clipt curls, that made her feel like a shaven dog. She never had thought of her face before; of what it possessed or of what it lacked; but that morning, rising, she had looked at herself in the little square bit of mirror over the flour‐bin, and had thought she was lean and brown and frightful.

“I do not believe she is dead,” said Signa, again. “Sometimes, in the strange cities, I looked about in the women’s faces to see if there may be one that might be hers. She would not alter. I should know her.”

“You never will see her. She is dead,” said Palma, with the obstinacy that is always in the peasant as in the mule.

She worked on amongst her tomatoes, gathering the bright scarlet balls into a skip. She could not tell him about her S. Cecilia.

He would only talk of Gemma all the while, if they were to go up there amongst the thrushes and the rosemary; — besides, the change that was in him she felt more acutely than even Bruno had done. This beautiful young Endymion, whom the moon had kissed, could have wanted no help of hers. Her poor, little picture seemed to her so foolish, so humble, so small; the grace and greatness of his fame could not have grown out of her prayers in that little dark nook. All the year she had thought that it had, and had poured out all her heart in them. But now that she saw him, her hope seemed to her as stupid a thing as if a brown ant creeping by with a grain of corn had thought it filled the granaries of the world.

She was ashamed of her little picture that she had spent all she possessed to hang up there by the altar‐rail, with the ruby light of the stained glass upon it whenever the sun went west. She did not dare to ask him go up to the hill with her and see it.

“I did what I could; but then he did not want anything done,” she thought.

“She is dull and morose; she works too hard, poor girl,” thought he; and he moved away. “Good day, dear, for a little; I will see you before I go.”

“Go! — you go again then?”

“Ah, yes! In a very little. It will be the autumn season soon. I go whenever the ‘Actea’ is played.”

Palma looked up at him; straight in his face.

“And you are quite happy?”

“Quite.”

“And you are really great?”

“Men say so. I do not know. I will be greater if I live.”

“And Bruno lonelier.”

She wished the words, when they were said, unsaid. Signa’s face clouded a moment.

“That is not my fault,” he said, slowly. “And no — perhaps he will not be; — when I am all that I dream of, and when I have gold in both hands, I will come back and live here on the hills, that I promise; and I will build a palace of marble that shall look east and west; and all the hungry shall be fed there, and all the footsore rest. And then, when there are any boys quite desolate, as I was, and dreaming beautiful things, as I did, and wanting help, and not knowing where to turn, then they will all come to me; and I will teach them, and we will sing together, and they shall be happy, and we will give our lives for the world; and men will love us, and through us love God: it will be like the ‘Angeli’ of S. Marco dwelling together with music, with the roses round them, and the sky above!”

He stopped; the cloud had cleared from his face; it was shining with a light that was sweeter than the sun’s.

He was only a boy still; and the world had not dimmed his dreams with its breath.

Of all the innocent things that die, the impossible dreams of the poet are the things that die with the most pain, and, perhaps, with most loss to humanity. Those who are happy die before their dreams. This is what the old Greek saying meant.

The world had not yet driven the sweet, fair follies from Signa’s head, nor had it yet made him selfish. If he had lived in the age when Timander could arrest by his melodies the tide of revolution, or when the harp of the Persian could save Bagdad from the sword and flame of Murad, all might have been well with him. But the time is gone by when music or any other art was a king. All genius now is, at its best, but a servitor — well or ill fed.

Palma listened, looking up at that bright, strange light upon his face; not understanding at all with her mind, but wholly with her heart. The frozen pain in her melted.

She put her full basket back into the house.

“Will you come with me a moment?”

“Where?”

“To the old church, up yonder.”

“Yes, dear.”

She called to her little brother to mind the house, and took Signa up the narrow, winding paths, just trodden down in the grass by a few rare footsteps, going up amongst the vines and then amongst the olives, and then where the land grew wilder amongst the gorse. The vines were hung with grapes that touched them as they went; the wild peaches fell yellow at their feet; the blue radish‐flower was in the grass like gleams of the sky reflected on the dew; big oxen, muzzled and belled, looked at them through the leaves.

“It is so beautiful!” said Signa, mounting higher and higher into the tangle of green and the network of sunbeams.

“Yes,” said Palma. But she did not know it. She had not time. Amongst all its sad losses, poverty has none that beggars it more than its loss of perception.

They reached the old church, brown and solitary, with a few cypresses near it, and round it the sheep grazing; it had once been the chapel of a great villa, of which there was nothing now left but roofless arches and a wall where the rains of five hundred winters had not quite washed away the frescoes.

She took him in, and led him up to the pillar by the altar where the little picture hung.

“I bought it; I put it there,” she said, timidly. “Perhaps it has done nothing, you know; perhaps you do not want it; — but at least it could do no harm, and I have come and prayed here every little bit of time I had to spare. I am sure the saints love you — without that or anything — but it was all I could do. And when you were so far away —”

Signa looked up at the column and understood it all. He stooped and kissed her, touched to the quick.

“Ah dear! — how good to think of me. You bought it — you, who toil so hard? Oh, Palma! I will try and find Gemma for you; — I shall find her; — something tells me so.”

Palma sat down on the lowest altar step; she did not answer. If he had looked at her face he would have seen that it was very pale under the brown that the sun had scorched on it. But he did not look; he was looking up at the painted Sebastian on the roof, and thinking how bitterly Gemma had cried one day because he could not reach down the saint’s golden arrows for her.

The sheep bells tinkled; the smell of the rosemary was sweet on the air; a bird sang, sitting on the old tattered mass‐book.

“Gemma is in heaven,” said Palma, and sat still and pale in the morning light.

Gemma! — who had always been so much happier than she.

“Perhaps I shall find her somewhere in the great world,” said Signa, softly. “And she will have suffered, perhaps, and sorrow have softened her and ennobled her — it does, they say — and made her soul as beautiful as her little body was. Think of that Palma! and then I would bring her home to the palace that I mean to build, and make her happy, so happy; and she would be in all my music, just as the sun is in all the flowers. Think of that Palma! Pray that it may come true. It would be like a story out of the ‘Legend of Gold.’”

Palma was still very pale.

“You will see her in heaven,” she said. “She was drowned in that sea, that I am sure.”

But Signa shook his head.

 

“She is alive; that I am sure.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/signa/v3.3.html

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