Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 9.

IT was a soft, clear winter in the country round the Lastra.

On Christmas‐day the wind‐flowers were still rosy and purple and snow‐white in the grass of the fields; and, with the new year, the red roses blossomed behind the iron bars of the casements, and in the corn‐fields the crocuses were thinking that it was already time to come through the earth. Girls plaited at the doors on the mild mornings, as if it were summer; and there was seldom a curl of wood‐smoke on the air, except when the soup‐pots were simmering.

Men coming and going from the city, and post‐bags dropped as the letter‐cart ran down over the bridge from the Upper town; brought tidings, in the soft, silvery weather, of the Actea and the Lamia.

In all the cities one or the other was being given; north and south, under the Alps, and by the seashore of Vesuvius, they were playing and singing the music of the young master, who called himself by the old, historic word of “Signa.”

“What name will you take for the great world?” they had said to him, when he was still but a little scholar.

“Only Signa,” he had said; and he signed all that he wrote so.

“My mother was the flood, and my father the owls,” he said to himself; he liked best to have it so; dead Pippa was a pain to him; and her lover, whoever he had been, whether prince or peasant, had no hold on his thoughts. “I am Signa,” he said, that was all his own; owing no man anything for it, nor the Church either. Signa, just as the walls were, and the gates and the bells and the woods and the old painted frescoes.

Everywhere they were playing and singing his music, and it had even echoed over the Alps, and spread itself northward and southward, in that victory of the lyre with which his country has so often avenged herself for the invasions of the sword.

His music was in the throats of the people.

In grim Perugia Augusta, in dark Bologna, in smiling Como, in grand Ravenna, in the City of the syrens, in the busy marts of Milan, in sombre obscure Etruscan towns, in mighty opera houses, in little solitary theatres, anywhere, and everywhere, the melodies of the Actea and the Lamia were ringing; they had the pure science which allures the cultured ear, and the potent sympathies which sway the multitudes; learned doctors followed their accurate combinations with delight in the solitude of the study, and boys and girls caught their sweet simplicity with rapture, and sang them to the woods and fields, as birds their love calls.

The Actea and the Lamia were sisters and rivals both at once; the Asiatic slave, with her crucified god and her murdered master, and the Venus of the flute, with her crowned passion and her divine honours, divided between them the adulation of the people.

Some found noblest the sacrificed love, some the victorious; some the dishonoured grave that held the world for Actea, some the imperial art that rendered Lamia stronger than her tyrant; but whether one or the other, or whether both together, the two stories, old as the cities of the world are old, fresh as love is fresh, took hold upon the souls of the people, and by the interpretation of his harmonies thrilled the world anew, as Rome had trembled when Actea had wept, and Athens when Lamia had stayed the lifted sword.

There is a chord in every human heart that has a sigh in it if touched aright.

When the artist finds the keynote, which that chord will answer to, in the dullest as in the highest — then he is great.

Signa had found it.

Found it by the instinct which men call genius, not knowing what else to say.

To the quiet Lastra, with the corn springing about it, and the smell of the pines coming down on the wind, and the fishermen throwing their nets in the full waters, tidings of these great triumphs of the little fellow who had run barefoot amongst them, came every now and then; written in letters, spelled out of news sheets, and oftener still brought by the mouths of men coming from the little fairs of the towns, or the grain markets of the city.

They played the Actea in the city itself before Christmas,

The men and women of the Lastra went many of them down into the city to hear this wonderful music which Pippa’s son had made: poor Pippa, who had always plaited ill. And many more, who could not go, heard of it on the market‐days and brought back all the strange marvels of it that were told, and said how, at midnight on Christmas Eve, when the people sang all together in the cathedral, praising God for the past year, for the good and ill together, some solitary voice had lifted itself and sung the death song of the Christians, insomuch that the whole multitude was carried away as with one impulse, and chanted it together as by one voice, standing and beating their breasts with streaming eyes under the great dome, when the music had got upon them, so that no force could restrain them, but they had poured out under the midnight stars into the fresh air, and gone their various ways in various streams in the teeth of the northern wind, singing the hymn still in all the streets, and filling Florence with it, as it had been filled in the olden time with the litanies of Savonarola.

All that Bruno heard when he drove his mule through the little towns, or went down into the city to buy or sell; all that and much more of the same spirit in the winter‐time, when he worked by lanthorn‐light early and late, and the snow lay on the mountains between him and the sea.

Luigi Dini went and heard, and said his Nunc Dimittis in the great peace of his heart. He had loved Music, and had served her as the very humblest and lowest of her drudges; and it had been given to him to feed on his crumbs of knowledge, and refresh with his cup of the water of faith, this young High Priest had hers, this heaven‐born Apollino.

Sitting in an obscure corner of the vast area of the Pagliano, the old man heard the thunders of applause, and saw the house filled from floor to roof, and listened to the grave song of Actea, and thanked fate which had let him live so long: few men can do as much.

“Will you not go and hear it?” he said to Bruno.

Bruno answered —

“No.”

“No! Not when the city rings with it?”

“Why should I? I have heard it — long ago — when he was a little child, sitting in the thrashed straw, plating on the old cracked lute I gave him. I had it all — so long ago.”

“A child’s twitterings on a lute! You talk idly — you know nothing of this.”

“I know enough,” said Bruno. For in his heart he still hated it, the art which had taken away Pippa’s son. It was always his antagonist; always his conqueror.

But for that, Signa would have been so happy in the little house that would have been built by the brook where the rushes blew. So happy — and safe always.

He and Palma worked in the short winter days, and got up in the dark and beat the black earth for their daily bread; and neither of them ever forgave this mystical passion which had usurped the life of Signa, and taken him from them to give him to the world.

Bruno worked early and late, because it had been his habit from his birth upward, and had so grown into him as to be a very part of himself. But he had lost zest in it. He had no longer any aim. The man, by temper open‐handed, did not care to save for saving’s sake, and the mere pleasure of seeing the money accumulate, as most men did; and Signa did not want his help. Signa earned his own money.

Life, without a central purpose around which it can revolve, is like a star that has fallen out of its orbit. With a great affection or a great aim gone, the practical life may go on loosely, indifferently, mechanically, but it takes no grip on outer things, it has no vital interest, it gravitates to nothing.

Bruno was too hardy and too used to the ways of labour to leave any labour undone or ill done; but the days were all stupid alike to him; he would have been content to have had no more of them. His crops, his cattle, his fruits, his oil ceased to fill him with pride, or to rack him with anxiety; a bad year or a good year was the same to him; he had no end to save for; there was Lippo in the three fields by the brook: and Signa wanted no help. The old gloom fell upon him; the old dark thoughts took possession of him.

The people on the hill saw that he worked harder than ever he had done before, now that he was once more alone. But they did not know that the joy had gone out of the work for him.

Before, Bruno had had that pride and pleasure in his daily labours without which labour is but as the task of the treadmill. In his comely stacks, in his even furrows, in his plenteous crops, in his cleanly vines, in his well‐nourished beasts he had taken delight. His fields had been to him as a fair picture; his harvests as a stout victory; he would have ploughed against any man to and fro the steepest slope with the same triumph in his skill as a Napoleon in his battles.

But now all that was changed with him. His work had lost that gladness in it which alone sweetens life’s perpetual struggle. A sense of captivity had come over him. That large liberty which the breath of the mountains gives had gone away from him.

One market‐day he had to stay later in the city over a bargain, which Savio had bidden him miss on no account; it was night before he could harness his little beast and think of moving homeward. It was Twelfth‐night, and all the place was in a pleasant tumult. Carnival had come in that day, and everywhere there were laughter and lights and sport and jest, and at the corners of the streets masks were dancing.

Time had been when he had had full zest in that merry fooling; when he had come down in the dark evenings from his homestead, walking all the way, and spent the midnight in the masked riot, leaping round the bonfires and flying in the circles of the mad dancers, and then had gone up again, before dawn broke, to his oxen and his wheat‐fields and his olive‐pressing.

But those days were done for him; he passed through the mummers dark and silent, with never a look at them, with his cloak wrapped across his mouth. His errand took him past the great theatre; the lighted lamps gleamed on the printed word of Actea; a multitude was thronging in while the city clocks chimed eight.

Bruno halted a moment. He had said he would never hear it. A sort of hatred thrilled in him at sight of the gathering people: it was to fill their ears and to have his name in their mouths that Signa had foresworn the old safe ways of his mother’s people.

So Bruno thought, at least, who did not know that genius is, at its best, but a slave, driven on by the whip of an imperious and incomprehensible obligation.

He had said he never would hear it, But at sight of that dense crowd pressing inwards, a curious impulse to go with them seized on him.

Without thinking much what he did, he entered too; drew from his pouch the price they asked him; and found himself carried onwards by the pressure into the body of the house.

He had been there once or twice in his life — no more. It is the theatre of the people indeed, but peasants go to humbler ones, and Bruno, except on carnival nights, had never, even in his maddest years of youth, spent much time in the city. The Lastra had been his world.

He stood and leaned against a pillar as he might have done in a church, and the sweet, solemn harmonies of the overture thrilled through the immense space round him.

Look where he would there was a sea of human faces; the theatre was crowded, and there was not empty room left for a little child. A curious emotion filled him with pain and pride together. All this throng of living people was summoned by the magic of the boy whom he had lifted from the breast of his dead mother like a lamb from a drowned ewe. He had never realised before what thing it was; this power of the artist on the multitude; this power which is most the result of genius in proportion as it is least its object. As he watched the silent, breathless multitude such a power seemed to him like a sorcery.

He recognised the beauty of the music, but it was not that which moved him. It was to see all that wrapt intent throng of men and women ruled by the spell cast on them by the boy who, to him, was still only as a child: the boy who only a day before, as it seemed to him, had been a little thing carrying a lead of vine‐leaves for the cattle, and happy if a crust of bread were given him to eat on the hill‐side at noonday.

He stood and watched and listened; the rapturous applause, the tearful silence, the ecstasies of admiration, made his brain dizzy, and his heart throbbed. This was fame — to hold a mass of idle, curious, indifferent people in these trances of delight, in these rhapsodies of emotion; — he understood it at last. Each wave of these great sounds seemed to lift the boy he loved farther and farther from him. The shouts of the multitude were like the noise of a sea tempest in his ears, bearing away from him and drowning the one innocent affection of his life. He realised his own impotence to follow or reach or do anything more to aid the life which had been swept out of his orbit. All in a moment Signa grew an inaccessible, unfamiliar, far‐distant thing to him — like any one of those stars which he looked up to at night, and which the priests said were worlds lying in the hollow of the hand of Deity.

“It is to be like a god,” he said to himself, as the music pealed through the space around him, and held the people quiet in the breathlessness of their delight. He did not wonder any more that Signa had refused to be content with beating the earth for his daily bread.

He heard two men close by him say:—

“It is strange the boy himself should be away — the first time any of his music is given here — his own city, too, as one may call it.”

“Aye: he is in Rome. They play the Lamia there in carnival.”

“And there is a woman, so they say.”

“There always is a woman.”

The two men passed onward, laughing.

Bruno touched them.

“Sirs — forgive me — is that true?”

“Is what true?”

They looked at him in surprise; a contadino with his dark cloak about bird, and his careless defiance of attitude, and his look of the mountain and the weather.

“That which you said — that ‘there is a woman; that this is why he does not come?”

“All we know nothing,” they answered him lightly. “So they say. So young as he is, and a lion everywhere, it is quite natural. But what can it be to you?”

“I am from his country,” said Bruno, simply; he thought, perhaps, it would not do the lad good to say much more. “I come from the Lastra, if you could tell me anything of him?”

“Indeed we know nothing,” said the men. “We never saw the youth; but everyone is talking of him; so they will gossip — it may not be true. That is all; somebody said a woman kept him down in Rome — some light woman out of France. But they would be sure to say so, true or untrue. Fame is a sugared paper; but it brings all wasps down on it. Nay, indeed, we know no more.”

And with many asseverations and many excuses, as though he were a prince and not a peasant, courtesy being the common way of the country, the men went out through the crowd into the night air, and Bruno followed with the pressing throng.

“Some light woman out of France.”

The words sung in his ear like a hornet’s booming.

He went and harnessed his mule, and went back through the gay merry glittering streets, and over the river across dark Oltrarno, and so out into the solitary country.

He met scarcely anyone upon the way.

The high road was quiet as a bridle‐path across the fields, and the Lastra was hushed, with fastened casements, and asleep.

The mule flew speedily over the level ground, and strained slowly up the steep hill road; the river shone — the leafless plain was dark — the night was very cold — the skies were clouded — a dark winter storm hung over where the sea lay, and hid the Lyre and the Cross of Cignus and the five stars, dedicated to the plumed steed which bears poets to their dreams, and lifts them to the highest height — to let them fall.

“A light woman out of France.”

The words went with him as a curse rings on the ear long after it is spoken.

What would she do with him? with that tender reed of his soul, which the gods had singled out from all its fellows, and taken away from the mountain brook of its birth to make into a flute for their pleasure?

Bruno drove on through the gloom up into the loneliness of his own hills.

He felt like one chained.

The life which had seemed to him the best of all lives grew into a prison cell. He was wedded to the soil; fastened down to one daily track; held fast as by a cord about his feet.

It had always seemed to him so well that a man should never stir from one nook — should get his bread where his fathers got theirs — should find his joys and his pains in one spot — should live and die on the soil that saw his birth. Men who sought fortune far afield had seemed to him no better than the gypsies. Men who bore their reckless discontent for ever to fresh pastures had seemed to him base sons of a fair country. A narrow field was a world too wide for a man to do the duties of it, so his people had always said; dwelling here, and letting the centuries go by without bringing to them any change. Generation after generation, they had filled the graves that the sheep cropped around the old brown church. He had always said, “mine will be there too,” and been content.

Now — all in a moment — the hill‐side that he loved narrowed to a prison‐house. Other men were free to come and go, to follow the evil that they dreaded, and seek it out and combat it; but the peasant cannot stir.

The earth has fed him; the earth claims him. He is her son, but he is her bondsman too; as Ishmael was Abraham’s.

All peril and all shame might encompass the young wandering life of Signa: and the man who had set himself to give his own life for it could no move to see the truth or wrestle against fate.

“A light woman out of France.”

The words ran with him through the dark like furies chasing him.

It might not be true: it might be true.

It might be true: what likelier?

Signa, inspired of heaven, and amongst sharp human eyes a fool — as genius always is; — a giant in his art, an infant in his ignorance; — what plaything costlier or more alluring to a woman?

He had the power of the Apollo Cytharaedus indeed over men; but in all other things, save his music, he was but a child; a child still half asleep, who looked at life with smiling eyes, and stretched his hands to it as to a sunbeam. What likelier than that a woman held him? and a woman worthless it was sure to be.

The heart of silver falls ever into the hands of brass.

The sensitive herb is eaten as grass by the swine.

Fate will have it so. Fate is so old, and weary of her task; she must have some diversion. It is Fate who blinded Love — for sport — and on the shoulders of possession hung the wallet full of stones and sand — Satiety.

Bruno reasoned nothing so.

Only he knew the boy; and he knew Love; and he said to himself:

“Fate will come that way.”

He had no hope; he felt that what the men had said was true. There was a woman yonder there in Rome.

Of course it might be so, and no harm come. Hurricanes pass; some trees stand and are the stronger for the storm; some break and fall for ever.

Or there might be no hurricane; only a sweet, mild, south wind that blew a little hotly for a space, and whirled him on it like a straw; — no more.

But not to be there! — not to know! Going through the winter night to his lonely house, Bruno felt as though the soil that he had loved as loyal sons their mothers, was a gaol.

His feet were lettered to it.

An alien force held the life that he had sworn to save, and might destroy it and he never nearer, but working like his beasts amongst the sprouting corn, from dawn to night, no freer than the beasts were.

Reaching the summit of the hill he looked back southward to the low mountains that lie between the plain and Rome.

The black clouds that folded the Winged Horse in their mists had now stretched thither; over those mountains there was darkness, but the stars were seen. Far away, above where they told him was the place of Rome the star Argol was shining clearer than all the rest.

Astrology and astronomy alike were nought to him; he could find his way by Polaris if wandering at night — that was all: for the rest they were to him only veiled, nameless wonders that he never thought of: only this star he knew. Argol dreaded of Arab and Chaldean.

For on the night when Dina had died above there where the pines were, that star had shone alone, as it did now, when all the sky was dark.

And an old man, now dead, a shepherd, who had been a soldier of Napoleon in his youth, and had brought strange perilous faiths and fancies with him from the land of Egypt, had said to him that night when Dina had died:

“That is the Demon Star. We knew it in the desert. It means death — or worse.”

Bruno had known it always ever after; he knew it now. Argol was shining above Rome.

Men who dwell in solitude are superstitious. There is no “chance” for them.

The common things of earth and air to them grow portents; and it is easier for them to believe that the universe revolves to serve the earth, than to believe that men are to the universe as the gnats in the sunbeam to the sun; they can sooner credit that the constellations are charged with their destiny, than that they can suffer and die without arousing a sigh for them anywhere in all creation. It is not vanity, as the mocker too hastily thinks. It is the helpless, pathetic cry of the mortal to the immortal nature from which he springs:

“Leave me not alone: confound me not with the matter that perishes: I am full of pain — have pity!”

To be the mere sport of hazard as a dead moth is on the wind — the heart of man refuses to believe it can be so with him. To be created only to be abandoned — he will not think that the forces of existence are so cruel and so unrelenting and so fruitless. In the world he may learn to say that he thinks so, and is resigned to it; but in loneliness the penumbra of his own existence lies on all creation, and the winds and the stars and the daylight and the night and the vast unknown mute forces of life — all seem to him that they must of necessity be either his ministers or his destroyers.

Bruno went on with a shudder in his veins — beholding Argol.

He had released his weary mule from his burden and walked up the steep path between his winter fields, holding the drooping mouth of the beast. It was very cold in the hours before morning on the heights where he dwelt. There was ice on the roots of the pines where the rain waters had settled, and the north winds chased the great clouds around the head of the hill. His home was dark and silent.

When he had put the mule in the stall and thrown down hay for it, he entered his house with the cheerlessness of the place closing in upon him like a numbing frost. He paused on his threshold and looked back at the southward skies.

Argol was shining over Rome.

He set his lantern down before his crucifix that hung against the wall.

“Are you not stronger than that star?” he muttered to it. “I have tried hard to serve you — are you not stronger? — can you not save him? — let the star take my soul if it must have one. My soul! — not his. Do you not hear? Do we all cry — and you are deaf? Let the star do its worst on me — that does not matter. Do you hear?”

The crucifix hung motionless upon the wall. He had expected some sign; he knew not what.

Men had often been answered by such signs; so the priest told him; out of the lives of saints in the legend of gold.

But for him all was dark; all was silent. No voice answered him in his perplexity. Nothing cared.

 

Only through his open door he saw the blackness of the night and Argol shining.

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