Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 5.

PALMA looked out of her cottage door, and saw the trail of smoke too — going farther and farther away under the green leaves along by the river, round between the mountains. She watched it, shading her eyes; and turned slowly within into the house.

He had not thought to say a word of parting that morning; a kind, careless farewell, the night before, at the garden gate, when Bruno was by — that had been all.

“Why do you cry, Palma?” said the youngest of her brothers, who was only twelve, and a cripple, with his small limbs mis‐shapen and withered.

“Do you ask? — with father not six months in his grave?” murmured Palma.

Her heart smote her as she said it. She was lying to the child.

She went about her daily work. It was for her as if she did it in the dark. But she did it, missing nothing — not even slurring anything. There was so much to be done, with all those five boys, and two only of them earning anything.

Once in that long, laborious day she stole up‐stairs, and looked at the necklace.

“He was thinking that he was buying for Gemma,” she said, as she looked.

Later in the day, the eldest son of Cecco, the cooper, came and leaned over the wall as she worked. He was a cooper too, and a fine‐built youth, and well spoken of in the Lastra.

“You will not think of it, Palma?” he said to her, with his brown eyes wistful and sad.

“You are good; but, no; — never!” said Palma, and went on weeding.

What he wanted her to think of was himself. He did not mind her cropped hair, that would grow. He loved her industrious ways, her independence, her patience, her care of her brothers. His father was well‐to‐do; he would look over the absence of a dower.

“I shall not marry,” said Palma, always.

And when the young cooper said, for the hundredth time, “You will not think of it?”— in this warm, radiant, summer forenoon — Palma only said, “Never!” and went on, stripping her tomatoe bushes of their fruit, and hoeing between the lines of her newly set cauliflowers.

She belonged, she said, to her brothers. So her living self did — her body and her brain, such as it was; and her strong, laborious, untiring feet and hands. But her heart belonged to two other lives — one dead and the other lost: the two lives that had been by hers in their childhood, in the moonlit lemon alleys of Giovoli, and the calm shadows of the old church of St. Sebastian.

Signa and Gemma were always together in her thoughts:— one dead, the other lost.

Cecchino, the son of Cecco, could give her a good house in the Lastra, and a full soup‐pot always, and a good store of house linen, and shoes and stockings, and a settled place in the world. Oh, yes; she knew. And his mother, who was a tender soul, had said, “He loves you, we will not mind about the dower, and you shall have my own self‐spun sheets and my string of pearls.” And they were all good — good as gold. And Beppo and Franco, who foresaw help for themselves in this union, upbraided her always, and railed at her when the bread was too stale, or the sour wine ran short.

But Palma — though she knew, none better, the worth of bread and wine in this life, and the use of a strong arm to bar the door against the Old Man Poverty whom the devil has given leave to hobble perpetually upon the earth and creep in at all cold hearths — Palma shook her head, and would not even think of it, however Cecchino besought her.

“I will not marry you; I do not love you,” she told him. And Cecchino urged that marriage should come first, love last, with women.

“Not so,” said Palma. “That is to have the leaves bitter and the flowers leafless — like the endive. But it is not only that. I will not marry. I will work for my brothers while they want it; and when they do not want me, I will go into a convent — and rest so. That is what I mean to do — Our Lady willing.”

And Cecchino could not change her.

That was what she meant to do.

Rest so; — a brown‐faced, middle‐aged woman, in a white coif, saying prayers in a little cell, on knees stiff from many years of toil, and going amongst the orphans and the poor, and tending dying souls — that was how she saw herself in the future.

It did not appal her.

Any thought of marriage did.

In the convent she would be able to pray for Signa and for Gemma; — and then in heaven she might see their faces.

Perhaps if she worked very hard and prayed very much, the Madonna might call her up quickly, and give her some grace of beauty, there, in heaven to be like them. Sometimes she hoped that, quite humbly; and never sure that she could merit it.

In the twilight of this day — having laboured hard, and seen her brothers come and go, and smiled on them, and forced a cheerful laugh for them, because a dull house was bad for boys, and apt to drive them to the wineshops and the lotteries — Palma stole up, foot‐weary though she was, to the little church above the gardens of Giovoli.

She carried her little crippled brother on her back, because he fretted if he were left long alone, and set him down where the last gleam of sun fell, and gave him a few pebbles to play with, which contented him, because he was not very bright of brain.

Then she went herself and prayed in the nook by the column where S. Cecilia hung. She had lost faith in it, because he had seemed to have none. He had thanked her for her thought of him, but he had never seemed to think it possible that it could have helped him in any way to fame.

“Keep him safe in the world, and let him meet Gemma in heaven,” she prayed; and said it over and over again, in passionate reiterated supplication, clinging to the pillar with her arms wound about it, and her forehead pressed against its cold grey stone.

She prayed there till the moon shone through the stained window on to the broken jasper; and the little cripple cried because the air grew cold, and he could not rise to catch the glow‐worm alight upon the altar step.

She did not ask anything for herself.

Hard work for ten or twenty years longer, and then rest — on the rough boards of a convent bed, and by the death agonies of beggars.

That was her future.

It did not affright her.

“Only keep him safe on earth — and her in heaven.”

That was all she prayed.

She was sure the saints would hear her.

She came out into the moonlight, carrying the lame boy on her back, and with the glow‐worm like a little lamp within her hand. She was almost happy.

 

Prayers, innocent and in firm faith, brought the benediction of their own fulfilment. She was sure of that.

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