Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 6.

IT was a sultry night northward.

There was a storm in the air, but it had not broken. The great lake was curled by the faintest of breezes. There was the smell of oranges — leaf and flower and fruit — upon the air. Little boats went sailing through the shadows. The constellations of the Winged Horse shone clear high up in the heavens, though all round the horizon the skies were overcast — the Horse that has a star for his nostril, and that is plumed with strong desire, and that says to the poet, “Mount, and ye shall enter the realms of the sun with me, and ride also through the endless night where Persephone lies sighing.”

Signa — who did not know the stars by any name, but loved them as all dreamers do, and held them in that wistful awe which was with him one half the terror of a child, one half the wonder of a thinker — was drifting in a little boat over the quietness of the water, and looking up at Pegasus.

They were giving his music at Como; and they were about the bring the Lamia out in Milan. He went where his music went, as the way is in this country. But the small strife of the theatres, and the contentious and envious revilings, and the men and women with whom he had to do were all painful to him: too rough, too real, too coarse for him. He broke from them whenever he could, and they had ceased to try and alter him; he was no more fit for their world, they saw, than a young nightingale for a gay brawling street. They laughed at him — which he seldom knew, or knowing did not heed — and let him live in his own fashion as he liked, and made their money out of him, and said all genius was no better after all than an inspired idiotcy, and he was such a boy: only a little peasant still, though he had so sweet a face and so soft a grace.

Signa was careless of them — utterly careless.

He was so purely, naturally, innocently happy, that nothing could much stir or trouble him. All the noise around him was like the sound of a whirlpool to a child seated high on the rocks, who hears it, but only sees the silver seagulls and the sunshine. All the fret of their life could not hurt him; he saw only the dreams and the destinies of his own.

What was beautiful to him in those long months of wandering were not the pleasures which his associates found; he hardly cared even for the praise that made his pilgrimages triumphs. What was beautiful to him were the changing mountains, the fresh wide waters, the unknown old cities, the treasuries of lost arts, the noble churches, the silent monasteries, the lonely little towns that had all some wonder of stone or of colour; the delicious free sense, as of a bird’s flight, with which he was borne from place to place, filling his brain with memories, as a child its hands with flowers, thinking each new one found still lovelier than the last.

He drifted now in his little boat: a fisherman rowed him from point to point along the shores. He had talked to the man till they were both tired; going with the current, little movement of the oars was needful; the man sat mute, thinking of his haul of fish of that morning; Signa lay back looking up at the radiance of Pegasus.

He did not know it as the constellation that belongs to all who dream of any art, but its stars shone down on him with a bright serene light, and he thought how they were shining too upon the water and the hills about his home.

His heart always went back to the Lastra.

His fondest fancy was of what should be the manner of his return to it; to raise works of marble like the palaces he saw, and live a great life in peace and pleasure, with a choir of young singers like himself around him, and the love of all the country with him.

He was so young still; such dreams were possible to him. His hands were filled with the fast fading laurels of earth, but he believed them the changeless asphodels of heaven.

The life of Rossini, had he seen it close, would have hurt him like a blasphemy.

To Signa — reared in simple religious faiths, half pagan, half monastic, which were quite real to him — victory was obligation.

God had given him his desire; so he thought. He said always to himself, “What can I render back?”

In so many things he was only a little peasant still.

The boat floated along, rocked gently on the liquid darkness.

He watched the stars, and dreamed, and dreamed, and dreamed, and seemed to see again, white upon the shadow, a statue he had seen that day at noon: the Love and Psyche of Canova.

Canova — whose soul was dead when he moulded the lascivious charms of the Borghese Venus and the poor vulgar graces of the Dancing Girls — has put all his soul into this marble.

For one moment, in his vision of the face of Love, he has reached the height where the Greek sculptors reign alone.

In the face of Love there is the very heaven of passion — all its longing, all its languor, all its ineffable abandonment and yearning, all its ab‐ solute oblivion, which makes it live only in one other life, and would let the earth dissolve and the heavens shiver as a burnt scroll, and take no heed, so that “only from me this be divided never.”

The boy had watched the statue long, with a strange sense of something missed in his own young years — something unknown; and like a hot wind over him had come the memory of the dancing girl of Istriel.

He had hated that memory, yet there it came.

Her face effaced the softer face of Psyche: Psyche, who is not worthy Love in the marble, as in the fable of the lamp.

Floating along the shores of the lake he dreamed of the statue; only, do what he would, instead of Psyche he saw always the form of the dancer of Istriel. And the boy in his ignorance smiled, remembering the warnings of Bruno.

“What does he know?” he thought, “living on his hill there. All men love — the lowest and the highest. One would be greater surely in all ways, not lesser — if one loved.”

For he did not know that Love will only reach his height by treading all other things beneath his foot. He did not know that Love lends a fire divine to human souls only by burning all their world to waste.

The boat paused at a bend in the shore, grated a little, and then was fastened to the land.

Signa leapt out with the fresh cool leaves smiting him sweet blows upon his eyes and mouth. They had reached the little village where he liked to sleep and see the dawn break over the lake better than to remain in Como, where the singers drank, and laughed, and quarrelled until daybreak, and thought it ill of him unless he joined them.

The boat went on to where the rower lived; — Signa strolled a little on the shore. It was not late, and he could see the white‐walled cottage where he had house room amongst its orange‐trees and myrtles, and he wished to watch the storm which, country‐born and hill‐bred as he had been, he knew was rising, though the lake was still.

The village stood on a small creek: its woods and thickets went to the water’s edge; it was a wilderness of roses. It had a little white church, with one bell; several huts and houses of peasants and fisherpeople; and a few villas that were sought by summer idlers and by rich strangers towards the early autumn time.

Signa walked on the edge of the water, his feet in roseleaves and fallen jessamine flowers: the shore was all a garden, wild or cultured according as the proprietor of the soil were poor or rich.

He wandered along till he lost sight of the roof of his own little dwelling, listening to the soft lapping of the little waves upon the stones and the splash of distant oars.

All at once he paused. He saw a statue in the water through the leaves — at least, the thought it so.

It was the white figure of a woman, half clothed in close clinging draperies, which with her right hand she held upward to her knees; with the other hand she was gathering her hair into a great knot; her naked feet were in the shining water; her arms were bare too. She was quite still at the moment he saw her first, as though awaiting something; the moon had come out of a heavy cloud, and fell on her, so that she looked a piece of sculpture, white as Psyche was.

Then, tired of holding up her hair, she let it fall in a sudden shower, thrust the boughs of the wild roses apart, and stepped from the pebbles and the water on the shore. The movement brought her face to face with Signa.

He saw she was no statue, but a woman; young and living, and impatient of some delay; dripping with water, which ran from her hair and limbs in silvery rain, and made her white thin garments cling to her. She had been bathing in the solitude of her gardens, into which he unwittingly had strayed.

Signa stood still and gazed at her, too much amazed, too startled, too confused, to move or speak. His face flushed with shame — shame for himself and shame for her.

“Forgive me,” he murmured; but his feet were rooted to the ground, his heart beat so loudly it seemed to him to fill the air. The woman — all white there, with her shining limbs and shining hair tangled in the thickets of the roses, with her wet small feet like ivory upon the moss — he thought it all a dream.

She had started, too; then she looked at him with a smile slowly uncurving the rose leaves of her close pouted lips. She was in no wise embarrassed. She stood looking at him with the moonrays full upon her, making the water‐drops like pearls.

Then she laughed.

A pretty laughter pealing through the garden silence, she shook her hair over her like a veil, her white arms and bosom shining through it as through a golden network, like cobwebs in the sun.

Another woman ran quickly up to her with breathless excuse for absence, holding a scarlet shawl in her outstretched arms. She let it be wrapped round her, and turned away, looking at Signa through her hair.

“Stay there,” she said to him; “stay there, and string a romance upon me. I am wet — I was bathing. I will come back. Stay there!”

He stood there, stupefied and entranced, as she had bidden him; not sure, still, whether it were a woman indeed, or only a statue that his fancy warmed.

He was not sure that all was not a trick of his own imagination, and of the sudden shining of the moon out from the dark night.

He stood, bewildered and breathless, listening with throbbing pulses to every noise in the leaves and on the water. If she were a living creature, she had bade him wait.

For his life he could not have moved away.

He felt hot with shame for her if she were indeed a living thing.

Strange stories he had heard in the old folk‐lore of the Lastra — where people believe in many an eerie phase of the night side of nature — came over him with a shiver. What human thing could have looked half so white? or could have borne his gaze without a blush? or could have laughed straightly in his face as she had done?

His brain was giddy, his heart beat high; — he glanced up to find his stars, but they were gone — the clouds had covered them. The rose‐boughs rustled, the grasses seemed to thrill, the shallow water shimmered at his feet. Would she come back, or had she only mocked him? Was she like the beautiful white woman who cannot forget her crimes, but wakes from her grave and strays all night through the great forsaken gardens of the Medici? He shuddered as he thought — he who had been reared where the people believe in the ghostly wanderings of Bianca Capella.

He longed for her back again, and yet he feared her. He strained his eyes to watch for her in the gloom, and yet he was afraid — afraid as he had never been in his childhood going in the darkness over the lonely hill‐lands peopled with the spirits of the dead, as peasants told him.

It might have been hours that he waited there, it might have been but moments; he could not tell which, he had no sense of time; but the moon was still shining when he saw her.

She came under the leaves of the orange‐trees through the crossing rose‐boughs to him; she was still wrapped in white — some glistening thing with silver in it, like a spider’s web that has caught the dew; her wet hair fell over her shoulders; her feet were shod in soft white furs; she had put a string of pearls about her throat, which gleamed a little as snow does as she moved; she came through the shining moonlit leaves, bending down towards him and smiling.

“I have come back. Why, how you look! I was too wet to stay. I know you — yes. I saw you last night, and once before in Venice. Signa! Why, how you look!”

He fell at her feet, touching the hem of her white robe with tremulous timid hands, and gazing up at her with eyes of doubt and fear and adoration, because she was so wonderfully fair to look at, and yet he was afraid of her as of a creature not of earth and not of heaven, just such a lovely terrible thing as that which walked at midnight in the old green gardens of the Medici.

“What are you?” he murmured with the soft grace of a poet’s homage. “You know me — you? Oh, speak a little! Are you my Lamia, that I have dreamed of so often? Or are you Psyche that I saw at noon? You cannot be a living thing, you are too beautiful.”

She stooped, and with her soft, cool hands ruffled the thick hair falling on his brow, and laughed and threw a rose against his lips.

“Lamia! Psyche! They are dead: I live. Know you! Of course I know you. And when I saw you at Venice I was glad; only I said ‘he shall not see me yet — not yet.’ And was it all mere chance to‐night? I thought perhaps you knew, and came. No? Why, how you look! But, indeed, how should you know me? I was a little ragged thing. How well it was we ran away that fair‐day, and how sad you were, and how you cried; and yet I made you play. Poor Signa!”

She, stooping still above him, put her fresh lips to his hair and kissed him on the eyes; and then she laughed again, and then again she leaned to kiss him.

But Signa had sprung upward to his feet.

His face was very pale; his eyes had horror in them and amaze.

“Gemma!” he muttered. “Gemma! Gemma!”

A cloud of anger gathered on the fairness of her face.

“Yes, I am Gemma. Well?”

“Gemma!”

He said the little familiar name again and again, stupidly, as a man says a charm, gazing upon her in the moonlight. He had looked for her among the poor maidens of the working world, amongst the crowds at mass; he had thought often of finding her lonely, longing for home, repentant of her flight, living in some little nook among the roofs, making her daily bread by some sad means; and he had dreamed of how he would raise her up and take her back and crown her with his laurels and make her glad, And this was Gemma.

This beautiful thing unshamed, who came to him wet from the water and laughed, with the moonlight on her wet, half naked limbs. This was Gemma.

She was silent. A great anger obscured the beauty of her face, but there was a touch of shame with it. Her hands tore a rose asunder and threw the leaves on either side of her. She had looked for the passionate rapture with which all her years were full: this mute rebuke in its gentleness smote her dully like a blow.

He stood looking at her with a dazzled, bewildered pain; he was not certain that he was awake; he thought of Palma, praying for her sister and sure she was with Christ.

“Gemma! Is it you, Gemma?” he murmured. “You were a little ragged thing — you were so poor, and now you have those pearls about your throat. Palma was sure you were in heaven, but I said no. I always said that I would Hind you, only I thought so differently. I always hoped — so lonely, so penniless, so sorrowful for them all at home; and then I thought how I would take you back, and we would love you all the better for the sorrows you had had. And now you are like this. Ah, God!”

His voice shook, his lips trembled; the words were all incoherent, confused, almost foolish; but she knew all he meant.

“Poor! lonely! sorrowful!” she echoed; and her azure eyes laughed back at him, though they had more rage than mirth. “You thought I should be that? — I? Did I not get the things I wanted always? You forget.”

“That is what Bruno said,” he muttered; and was still.

“Bruno!”

She had forgotten nothing; nor had she forgiven anything, child though she had been.

When Bruno had dragged her off the sands by the sea away from the gifts and the praises of the great people, she had marked it in her thoughts, a thing to be avenged. Between the manhood of Bruno and her babyhood there had been always war.

“Your father died in Lent,” said Signa suddenly. He did not know what to say. He fancied still she was some shadowy thing that mocked him in the moonlight, not Gemma living.

She looked grave and troubled for a moment.

“Died! He was not old?”

“No, he was not old.”

He echoed the words unconsciously. He did not know what he felt. His heart seemed stifled. He caught her hands in his.

“Oh, Gemma! is it true? Oh, my dear, speak to me more! I never have forgotten you, Gemma. After my music I loved you best of anything; yes, better than Bruno, I think — heaven forgive me! You were a little troublesome, cruel child, but you were — Gemma. Oh dear, it cannot be — you did not seem to have any woman’s shame about you just now looking at me in the water; and then those pearls, and all this dainty, delicate stuff like silver. Gemma, oh Gemma! tell me for the good God’s sake, you are not a thing that your father can never meet in heaven? You are not — lost to us all for ever?”

Her eyelids were dropped as he spoke, and there was not light enough for him to see the changes that passed over her face; anger, contempt, derision, trouble, amusement, all following one another; each and all moved in her by his simple words, but none reaching any depth.

She hesitated a moment how to answer him, he seemed to her so foolish — oh, so foolish! and yet she did not wish for his disdain or his rebuke. She thought she would cheat him just a little while — to see.

She looked at him with the old pouting anger on her lovely mouth, the anger he had known so well when the little child in the gardens of the Giovoli was thwarted in her whim.

“You are very quick to judge me ill,” she murmured.

“Ah, dear, if I judge you wrong, may God heap coals of fire on my head. But what can I think, Gemma? Answer me; answer me truly. I could not hate you, Gemma, not if you were fallen to the vilest depths. Palma might. I do not know — I could not. Oh, my dear, do tell me truly, what fate have you found in the world? What thing have you become? When they said that you were dead, I loathed myself for letting you have your way that morning, and so letting you drift to your own misery; but oh, my dear, my dear — if it should be with you so that death at its worst would have been better! I do not judge you, Gemma; only tell me — tell me truth!”

He knelt down before her in his eagerness and pain; he held her hands; his face, as it looked up to hers, was white with fear and with anxiety.

She was so. lovely, too, above him in the shadows, with the rose‐boughs caught against her and the wet gold of her hair touching the silvered orange‐leaves.

“Am I not beautiful, Signa?” she murmured. “The rest? What does the rest matter — for a woman?”

“Oh, God! Is that all you say?”

He rose again to his feet. Almost he hated her, this perfect shameless thing. And yet she was so beautiful. Looking at her, he shaded his eyes as from the sun or the heat of fire.

“Poor Palma!” he muttered. “Day and night she prays Christ for your soul.”

“My soul!”

Gemma smiled — a soft, slow smile.

Then she looked at him full in the eyes. She did what she would with any man, that way.

“You are too quick to judge. Come back to‐morrow; to the house yonder. Now it is nearly morning. I am cold still after the water. I bathe by moonlight because a negress told me I should keep my beauty so; there is a charm in it. Good‐night. Oh, you will come — yes, I know that. No! Do not stop me. I am cold, I say. Good‐night — come back to‐morrow.”

She drew her white clinging clothes out from his grasp, and laughed a little; for indeed she was amused, though troubled, and put the orange‐boughs aside and threw another rose at him and went: whither he could not see, the night had grown quite dark.

“Gemma! Gemma! stay!” he cried to her. “If you be Gemma, do not leave me so!”

But he called to her in vain. He was alone.

The first thunder of the coming storm rolled over from the mountains, a shrill wind blew on the lake water, the rain drops fell.

She left him to meet the tempest as he might. Wet through, he reached with difficulty the little cottage higher by the shore.

It was dawn; but the dawn was darker than the night had been.

The hurricane was severe, and the sullen lake wrecked more than one boat that in the moonlight had danced lightly on its smiling surface.

Signa did not even try to sleep.

 

He watched the storm.

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