Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 4.

SIGNA went down into the Lastra and sat awhile with Teresina in the room over the sea‐gate, and spoke with old friends — of whom he found many, since they are flowers that grow fast in the soil of success — and spent some hours in the sacristy, turning over, with curious emotion, the yellow scores and crabbed manuscripts which had once been written to him in an unknown tongue.

Then he passed down into the city.

He knew so little of it, scarcely more than if he had been a stranger. Bruno had held him back from it always.

He strayed into the galleries, quiet and deserted in the strong August heats, and saw the face of the Samian Sybil and the beauty of the Venus of Titian.

As he wandered down the corridor which holds the portraits of the artists painted by themselves, he paused before one which seemed to him, in a way, familiar. It was the head of a man still young; a head that had grace and power in it, but also levity and caprice. It was roughly painted in black and white.

“Whose head is that?” he asked the custodian dozing in the sun.

“A living painter’s — one Istriel.”

“Of what country?”

“France. He is a great man there. He did that for us by order of the King.”

“I have seen him somewhere; where does he live?” said Signa, and mused a little while; and then remembered the morning of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, and the gift of the Fair Christ.

“He lives in France, I suppose,” answered the other. “But I think he is a great deal in Rome. I think he works there a great deal.”

“What kind of things does he paint?”

“Women, for the most part, I believe. There is a picture they talk very often of just now; you can see a copy of it in the town: it is very fine — a woman.”

“A portrait?”

“Oh, no; just a woman dancing.”

“I will see it,” said Signa, and he went where the man directed him for sake of those two gold coins that had bought his Rusignuolo.

“Who knows?” he thought, “without those forty francs I might never have known more of music than to thrum on a lute to the sheep.”

Who could tell? All Bruno’s labour of eighteen years might have been of less use than two gold pieces tossed by a stranger.

He found the place where the copy of the great picture could be seen; a copy made by the painter’s pupils, and shown for a little while by his permission, the original being in Paris. It was a picture of which all the world had talked two years before, whilst Signa was buried under the dust of study, and the darkness of poverty, and the disbelief of men.

The copy was alone in a small cabinet, hung with red, and lighted from the top; it was a full‐ length form of a woman dancing — only that; on a sombre background of brown shadow.

Was it so beautiful?

He did not know. But he shaded his eyes as from too much sun. It dazzled him. The figure stood out form the darkness like a living thing; all the light was concentrated on the exquisite fairness and warmth of the supple body, on the head turned over the shoulder, on the upraised arms tossing castenets above; on the know of pomegranate buds above the ear; on the rounded limbs, lithe as reeds and white as snow; on the transparent scarf of scarlet, touched with gold, which was the only drapery. The figure bent a little backward, showing every curve and grace of it: the face was beautiful.

It was called, with the arrogance of a genius that knew its hold upon the world, “A Sister for the Seven Dancers of Herculaneum.”

Signa stood before it blinded, stunned, confused.

No living woman had ever moved him as this dancer did. He gazed and gazed till, as the passion of the Spanish love‐song says, “his heart’s blood was drawn from him through his eyes.”

And yet the picture hurt him.

Hurt him by the taint that there was upon its loveliness; as there is in that of the Venus Calipyge of Naples.

An old man, looking at the picture at the same time, spoke of it.

“Yes; it is a beautiful study,” the stranger said. “I have seen the original. This is a fine copy. The artist has touched it here and there himself.”

“It is not a portrait?” said Signa, timidly. He could not bear to speak of the picture, and yet he wanted to know more of it.

“Oh, yes, it is a portrait. Only you see that he has painted it in the old Greek manner — the feet off the ground, no sign of earth, indeed; the figure floating, as if she flew. Yes, it is drawn from life. A girl — a woman — whom they call Innocence, in Paris.”

“Innocence! And painted there!

The old man smiled.

“Nay, Vitellius called his bear so. The wild beast shamed it less than does the woman, perhaps.”

The next morning he said to Bruno,

“I have found the name of the man who gave me that money in the Lastra. It is Istriel. You remember my losing the paper in the rushes as I ran.”

“What do you want with any man now?” said Bruno, jealously; “or with any man’s help?”

“Nothing, indeed; but I should like to see him.”

“I cannot see why you should think about him.”

“Perhaps I never should have got beyond my little lute but for him.”

Bruno gave an impatient gesture.

“We are what we are,” he said, with rough fatalism. “It is no chance wind that blows the notes into the nightingale’s throat, and the screech into the owl’s; all that is settled beforehand.”

Signa was silent. He did not say his thought aloud which was:

“I wish to meet this painter, because I want to know where he found her, or if he only fancied her — that ‘Sister of the Seven Dancers.’”

He said instead, “Come down into the city and see a picture of his.”

“I cannot to‐day,” said Bruno, “because there is so much to do. Watering alone takes six hours in this dry weather; but to‐morrow, perhaps, I can.”

To‐morrow he went. He did not know anything about any of the arts, but he was at home amongst them; they were familiar things to him: it is so with all his country‐folk.

He stood and looked at it for some time; then he laughed a little.

“Yes; it is a beautiful — wanton.”

He had hit the blot on it.

Signa sighed unconsciously and restlessly. The picture beguiled him, bewitched him, and yet hurt him.

Bruno said, “Do not look at it too long; it will get into you — like marsh fever;” and took him away.

When they were in the sun again in the streets, he added:

“If your baby Gemma were alive, that is just what she would be like.”

“No! never!” said Signa, indignantly; he did believe she was living, but he looked for her always amongst the innocent maiden faces at mass in the churches.

Bruno laughed a grim laugh.

“Let us hope she is dead,” he said. “Only the devil never cuts his very best flowers down early.”

Signa did not answer.

“Your painter must be bred to spread the plague,” said Bruno.

Signa did not ask him what he meant.

He went and found Palma.

“You do pray for Gemma’s soul?” he said to her.

“Always,” said Palma.

“Well, pray more, dear. Perhaps she needs it, who knows?”

“Oh, no; she is in heaven,” said Palma. “Such a child — and Christ so good.”

“Well, never mind. Pray always.”

“That is all he thinks I am of use for, to pray for Gemma’s soul,” thought Palma. But she reproached herself for the thought, as mean and base.

She had never ceased to love Gemma and mourn her; — only she wished he would not talk of her, not so very much.

Signa wandered about the woods alone, and saw always before him, in the golden fires of the summer day, “The Sister of the Seven Dancers.”

She banished the sweet veiled face of Lamia.

“Your painter should cut off his right hand: it is like the sun; it breeds corruption,” said Bruno, who knew the force of the flesh and the devil, and had in him a fierce, scornful wrath against that picture which had burnt his boy’s soul with its impure sorceries.

One day Lippo met him in the pine woods, no one being near.

“Dear nephew,” said Lippo, softly. “We cannot meet. Bruno is implacable. He will never forgive what he thinks an injury. See here:— I knew his little piece of land had to be sold to give your work a trial and a chance of favour. I said to myself: ‘I have a kind father‐in‐law and good friends, shall I offer to lend the money?’ But then I bethought me, ‘Bruno would only answer with a blow.’ So when it was quite sure the land must go, I said to an honest soul in the city whom I could trust, ‘Go, buy it in your own name, and make it over to me; so the thing shall not wound my brother, and yet the piece of ground not go away from the family.’ So said, so done. Dear — I only hold the land in trust. I tried to explain to Bruno, but his head was full of traitors and of wrath; I could make no way with him. He would have brained me with his spade. But this I wish to say to you — my children are dear to me, but justice is dearer still. If ever you wish the land back again, I will sign it over to you — almost as a gift: I would say quite so; but, when one has so many mouths to feed, one is not altogether the master of one’s purse. Dear — be quite sure of this: I bought it, hoping to please Bruno; never to spite and vex him, as he thinks. Christ knows there is no venom in my heart. The other night, when you had such a welcome I was proud and glad; I should have come foremost amongst them, only Bruno is so violent, and I feared it might look time‐serving. But, believe me, no one is prouder than I am, and Nita; she says fifty times if once, ‘To think he is so great — the little drowned baby that sucked with Toto!’ Dear — you have been made to think ill of us. It is a pity. And in your grand, famous ways in the future years you will not want us; that is true. Still, be sure our prayers go with you; and, though we are only poor folks toiling hardly in a little village, we shall not shame you, for we are Christians and we pay our way; and if you ever should desire back that little bit of land — well, I look on it still as yours, and I never let the interests of my children bar the road of justice. No, that were to serve them with very narrow sight and worldly selfishness. Bruno has misjudged me always. Well — the saints bore all evil and were patient. So must we. Dear — farewell. If ever you dare brave my brother’s wrath, and will like to look in on us, you will find frank welcome. But perhaps I am not right to ask it. Your duty is to Bruno before all things. Yes; to you he has been good. Farewell.”

And Lippo went away quite softly through the pines.

Signa was moved. True, they had been unkind to him; but such wrongs fade fast in generous natures, and, where an impersonal passion reigns, personal injuries seem slight and are soon forgotten.

Perhaps Bruno had been harsh and too swift in his ire, he thought regretfully. Bruno’s error was too great haste of temper and strength of hatred; that all the country knew.

“I wish they could be reconciled,” thought the boy, and lingered on his way home wondering if there were any means to do it.

He hinted at forgiveness that night to Bruno.

Bruno set his heel down with a force that jarred the house.

“I do forgive as much as can be asked of any man; — I let him be.”

Meanwhile Lippo went homeward to his house by Our Lady of Good Counsel, pondering whether he could not prevail on Baldo to help him to acquire another acre or two of ground, quite near on the same hill, which rumour said would soon be in the market. Baldo had grown to have strong faith in the prudence and wisdom of his son‐in‐law.

“You will let the boy have back the land at what you gave for it!” screamed Nita, when her husband told of her of the things he had said; for she was a rough, impetuous woman, of fierce temper, and could never see an inch where he saw a full mile.

Lippo smiled, his gentle pensive smile.

“Nay, dear; that is a question for the future. The children’s interests must not be forgotten; that were not just to them; and land rises in value every day, and money gets more scarce.”

And he sauntered out into the warm, star‐lighted streets.

He liked his game at dominoes.

“I have seen the dear lad,” he said to Momo and Tonino and his other gossips. “I met him quite by chance. So tall as he is, and so graceful, and so like a young prince: one would not know him. His heart is full of love for us. He can‐ not show it. No. He would come to us; but I said to him — I say always —‘Your duty, before all else, to Bruno.’ I must say it — knowing what I know. His duty is to him:— as Toto’s duty is to me. Oh, yes. He is a noble lad: spoiled in much; yes, but of a good heart. Bruno has not done ill in letting him have the land’s money for his opera; I know it has paid Bruno back thrice over. Bruno has a clear head and a keen eye. They know that in the Square of the Signorià. Poor boy! Well — I say poor — perhaps stupidly, but it does seem so. Parted from us all, and ruled by Bruno; and, like all people that have genius, a baby, a simpleton, a mere piece of wax — in worldly matters. All the country is ringing of him. It is a great thing to think: unless we had let him go the church functions and learn the plain‐song and be so much with the sacristan in the organ loft, he might never have known all that there is in him; he might have been a little shepherd, barefoot on the hills — yes, still. Throw your bread upon the waters; — aye:— perhaps come back to your own mouth it will not; but you will be blessed by it, someday. The dear boy! — no doubt in his great world he will forget us all, why not? We are peasants, when all is said; and he will go to palaces. But then the good that we have done to him keeps with us like a cypress bough that never withers and drives the evil spirits far away. Dear boy! — to think he is so great! — and will be rich too; if, at least, his gold be left him, and his career well managed. That is the only thing I fear. Bruno loves him — oh, surely, in his way. But then Bruno loves money too.”

And Lippo sighed, and piled the dominoes in a little heap absently, and with a sad, nervous gesture — thinking. The gossips shook their heads.

Lippo was so just a man: that all the town knew. Of such men is the kingdom of heaven. To be sure his window had been dark that night when all the Lastra was rejoicing; but that had only been good feeling in him. He had not liked to seem to claim the boy’s remembrance — when there was such great triumph too.

“We may remind those who fail, of us,” said Lippo, with a gentle smile. “But we must be forgotten by those who succeed — if they choose it shall be so.”

“You are so good,” said his neighbours; and began to mutter to one another that Bruno, when he had sent the boy to the great schools and sold the land for him, had only been sharper of sight and more prudent of forecast than ever — yes.

And the Lastra was well content to think that, when it had welcomed so loudly the young hero of the Actea, it had left Bruno standing aloof, and had not noticed him — not even when Signa bade them.

The lad stayed on till vintage came again and passed; correcting and perfecting his new music of the Lamia in the fresh hill air, in the sweet smell of the fruit; and now and then went down into the city, and stood and gazed at the dancer of Istriel, and drank in the impure sorcery of her, without knowing it.

“Your painter is like the sun; he breeds rottenness from beauty,” said Bruno; who knew the force of the flesh and the devil, as he called it, and felt a sort of sullen scorn of this strange painter who spent his strength in giving enduring shape to the fleeting graces of wantons.

To Bruno it seemed a poor thing to fill a man’s life.

Women were women — to be toyed with if you would; but to pass your life painting in their own likeness their wiles of a moment and their postures of pleasure! — that seemed to him poor pursuit enough. This painter was only a name to him, a vague shadow; but he felt a fierce wrath against him. But for the coins that had bought the Rusignuolo, who could tell? — Signa might have dwelled contented in the peaceful husbandry of the hills.

For the iron was always in his soul. He was proud of his boy, and loved him, and knew that now Signa could never be other than he was; and so ceased to chafe at the unchangeable; and tried to make the best of an undesired destiny. But, like Palma, it was all in vain that he brought his thank‐offering, that he prayed to his gods, that he said a thousand times, “I am glad.”

In his heart there was no gladness.

In his heart he lamented still and rebelled.

With the last day of vintage Signa spent his last hours on the hills.

The Actea was being given at the theatre of Como, and he had to go thither, and thence to Milan, where its music was yet unknown.

He had a sort of longing to buy that dancer of Istriel and take her with him, and look at her always; but it was impossible: despite his new‐born fame and Lippo’s fables he was poor; he made some money, but no more than was needed, for his costs of travel and his simple ways of living and the gifts that he loved to throw broadcast. He was famous, indeed; but he was only a boy, and had to deal with a shrewd world, and it cheated him. The world, like Lacedemonia, is fond of hounding into silence and exile its Timothei who dare to add new chords to its lyre of song; but it is unwise to do it, for its Timothei are so intent on stringing the lyre anew, and hearing the full, sweet sound of their fresh creation, that the world may empty their pockets unfelt, as it will, and unchidden. Its Timothei are its golden geese — it should be content to pluck them; but it is not often so; seldom is it satisfied with doing less than what kills them.

It was very early in the morning.

There had been heavy rains at night, and there was, when the sun rose, everywhere, that white fog of the Valdarno country which is like a silvery cloud hanging over all the earth. It spreads everywhere and blends together land and sky; but it has breaks of exquisite transparencies, through which the gold of the sunbeams shines, and the rose of the dawn blushes, and the summits of the hills gleam here and there, with a white monastery, or a mountain belfry, or a cluster of cypresses seen through it, hung in the air as it were, and framed like pictures in the silvery mist.

It is no noxious steam rising from the rivers and the rains: no grey and oppressive obliteration of the face of the world like the fogs of the north; no weight on the lungs and blindness to the eyes; no burden of leaden damp lying heavy on the soil and on the spirit; no wall built up between the sun and men; but a fog that is as beautiful, for it has beams of warmth, glories of colour, glimpses of landscape such as the moon would coldly kill; and the bells ring, and the sheep bleat, and the birds sing underneath its shadow; and the sunrays come through it, darted like angels’ spears: and it has in it all the promise of the morning, and all the sounds of the waking day.

Bruno’s dwelling was lifted out of it, but it spread everywhere beneath; and the tops of the highest hills seemed to ride on it like ships upon a sea.

Signa paused and looked over the vast scene as he and Bruno came out into the air. He had to leave at eight of the morning for the northern lakes, trusting himself to that iron way and horse of fire which Bruno had never ceased to hate and to mistrust, through night and day for so many years he had heard the steam beast thunder dully through his valley, winding as the river wound.

They came out of the house after their meal of bread, which was all they broke their fast with, and stopped by mutual impulse under the old mulberry‐tree by the porch.

Bruno had said nothing to dissuade him from departure. He had grown to see the necessity of their lives being perpetually asunder.

Signa could only come to him now and then — that he saw; and the times of his coming must grow rarer and rarer, and the links of union between them fewer and fewer — that he saw too. He never complained. He hardly regretted. He had known that it would be so, when he had broken the Rusignuolo. It was a dull, ceaseless, unchanging pain to him, but he said nothing. What was done, was done.

This young singer — this young hero — this young crowned dreamer of dreams, could by no miracle be brought back and be made into a peasant lad, and be contented with a labourer’s lot.

If he ever returned to live here it would only be because the world drove him back with a broken heart; therefore Bruno said, in his dark corner in the church, to the unknown power that he worshipped: “Let him never be brought back — never.”

The world had his boy. Since the world would only part with him if it flung him bruised and ruined away — let the world keep him.

“After all it does not matter for me,” said Bruno, and taught himself to think so.

Only a vague fear, a shapeless anxiety, haunted him always. He knew too little of any life beyond that of his own country side to be able to go with Signa, even in fancy, into these strange new lines of his fate. He was too ignorant, and mistrusted himself too much, to be able to tell the lad what it was that he dreaded. But in his heart he was full of trouble.

“All is well enough with him now,” he thought. “But when the woman comes?”

For Bruno thought that the great world, since it was made up of men and women, must have the same fatality in it as the life he knew.

The woman makes or mars the man: the man the woman. Mythology had no need of the Fates.

There is only one; the winged blind god that came by night to Psyche.

So much Bruno knew.

A weight of longing and of warning was upon his heart. But he stood silent in the arched way of his house.

The boy seemed now so much wiser than he; had seen so many cities and men; had sown the seeds of his young brain and made already harvest; — was great, though so young. What could he say himself? — a man who knew nothing except to drop the wheat grain into the earth, and wait for sun and storm to make it multiply?

What came in his mind to say were a million confused things; he did not know how to sort them, and shape them into speech.

At last he did say, with the heavy gloom of parting on him:

“Woman is god or devil to man, as he to her. Dear, when you love a woman — tell me. Will you tell me that?”

Signa smiled musingly.

“Oh, yes! I love my Actea and my Lamia. They are the real and living women to me. The rest are shadows.”

“That will not last,” said Bruno, curtly. “Your Actea and your Lamia will be the shadows soon.”

Signa shook his head.

“Not to me. Mozart loved his wife; but it was not of his wife he thought when he was dying. It was of his requiem.”

“You speak like a child,” said Bruno; and they were silent.

It was of no use speaking: they did not understand each other. The boy knew the powers of art, of which the man was insensible. The man knew the powers of passion, of which the boy as yet was ignorant.

Bruno saw in the future a fate that wrestled with him for the soul of Pippa’s son. It wore to him the likeness of that “Sister of the Seven Dancers” of the city of ashes.

To him she was a symbol: she haunted him; he hated her. She — or her likeness — would dispute the boy’s life with him.

As he had hated the sorcery of the Rusignuolo, so he hated the vision of the unknown woman. What use were the boy’s promise, the boy’s faith, the boy’s foolish proud confidence in the empire on him of his dreams? Bruno knew well — a woman would look some day — just look; — and all these things would be as vapours drifting before the break of day.

“Love kills everything, and then dies itself,” he said, bitterly. “Or, perhaps, it does not die: then it is a flame, always burning, burning, burning, till the body and the heart are cracked, empty, shrunken potsherds. That is love.”

Signa shuddered a little.

“You frighten me,” he said.

“I wish I could,” said Bruno.

And he knew that he could not: that, say what he would, some single look from a woman’s eyes would undo it some day. He had never thought about it till he had seen that Dancer with the pomegranate blossom, in the town; but now he knew — there would be a foe to him some day, that he would not be able to break under his foot, as he had broken the Rusignuolo.

His heart was heavy, standing there in the white cold mists of the daybreak.

To the boy, the future was a golden haze — a mirage full of fair colours — a certainty of national love and public praise, and sweet intoxication, and all the liberty of an untrammelled genius. To the man, the future was dark: he saw no way into it; he had not faith in it; he doubted the good faith of the world.

No doubt it was because he was ignorant. He had told himself so; but he had no belief in this fair fortune blown from the breath of other men.

“It is to plough and to sow in the sand‐bed of the river,” he said to himself. And it seemed to him that Signa mistook the shadow of a reed for the sword of fire of an archangel.

“If your great world should turn against you, should tire of you — they say it is capricious — your heart will be broken,” he said, abruptly, with his hand on the lad’s shoulder.

Signa looked up and smiled.

“No; the world cannot hurt me. My music has gone down into the hearts of the people. It will live there. Nothing else matters.”

“But the world is changeable, I have heard.”

“Fashion is — the people are not. In Milan the other day they sang the same chants in the cathedral that St. Gregory composed five hundred years after Christ. Nothing can hurt me now. If the great world did not want me, I know my force now. I should go through the countries, teaching my songs to the people everywhere. Death itself would not hurt me very much, because, though dead — they might forget me quickly enough, no doubt — but the music would live, and my soul would live in it. What else do I want?”

“I cannot understand,” said Bruno. “You talk as if you had no body to be pained or pleased. One would think you were a spirit — to hear you. It is nonsense; — if one kill a nightingale with a stone, then the song is killed too.”

“Perhaps not,” said Signa softly. “Perhaps a poet has passed and heard it, and sings the song over again to the world.”

But Bruno did not see what he meant.

“One stones it, and it is dead; there is an end,” he repeated, with a sick, heavy sense of peril upon him — of what he did not know clearly; but it seemed to him that the boy walked with his head in the clouds and his feet in the quicksands.

He could not help it.

He could not guard Signa’s steps, nor bend his eyes to earth. It was beyond him. He could only hope; and with Bruno, do what he would, his hope had always the drooped clipped wings of doubt.

They stood silent together; while the sun, behind the sea of snowy mist, shone golden in their faces.

“Dear,” he said, at last, “you go away into a vast unknown world. I cannot help you, nor follow you; nor even warn you — not to do any good. I know the things of the soil, as well as any man; but nothing else. No doubt you go to greatness, having won it for yourself already. And you so young! And I suppose nothing else would ever have contented you; so, it is best so. But there are things, I think, that will go hard with you — one cannot tell; you have not suffered yet, and you seem all mind, just as a flower is all bloom. That will not last: you will find the beast in you some day — even you. Dear, it is not for me to preach, or teach, or counsel anything. I have led a bad life often, and I know nothing. If I were to begin to talk, I might hurt you. One fears to handle your soul: it is like a white moth — to me. What I want to say is just this. You know I promised your dead mother. What one says to the dead, one must keep faith to, more than to the living. The living can avenge themselves, but those poor dead — Dear, will you remember? I want to meet your mother, face to face, on the Last Day; and to just say to her —‘This is your boy; I have done my best by him; he comes back to you with a pure soul; I have given my life for his.’ Will you remember? You are far away from me always now; much farther than by miles. I can do nothing — only hope and fear. If evil do assail you, think of that. Help me to keep my faith with Pippa.”

Signa heard him — moved, subdued, perplexed.

The great shadow of Bruno’s doubt fell also upon him.

Was there so much more peril in the world than he knew?

He bowed his head.

“I will try,” he said, simply.

Bruno thought, “He does not say — I will.”

They left the house, and went down through the wet woods and the clouds that floated on the sides of the hills.

Before another hour, he was gone.

Bruno stood a little while alone on the edge of the iron rails, listening to the distant thunder of the steam, as the last curl of the smoke disappeared in the windings of the valley. The fog had lifted and passed away. Mountain and river and vineyard and homestead stood out clear in the morning light; his own hill rose above them all — the quarries shining in the sun, the bold pines piled against the brightness of the sky.

“It is a good augury,” he said, to himself.

He tried to think so.

He retraced his steps up the cliff road, and went home alone, and yoked his oxen to the plough, and drove them up and down beneath the vines, as on the day when Pippa’s body had drifted away on the face of the flood to the depths of the sea.

“It is a good augury,” he said to himself, as the glory of the morning spread over all the earth beneath him.

But, though the sun shone, it seemed to him as if, on all the land and water, a great, empty, desolate silence had fallen.

All was so still.

He was alone.

 

“The birds do not sing after vintage,” he told himself; and tried to think that it was only that.

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