Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 1.

HE was only a little lad coming singing through the summer weather; singing as the birds do in the thickets, as the crickets do in the wheat at night, as the acacia bees do all the day long in the high tree tops in the sunshine.

Only a little lad with brown eyes and bare feet, and a wistful heart driving his sheep and his goats, and carrying his sheaves of cane or millet, and working among the ripe grapes when the time came, like all the rest, here in the bright Signa country.

Few people care much for our Signa and all it has seen and known. Few people even know anything of it at all, except just vaguely as a mere name. Assisi has her saint, and Perugia her painters, and Arezzo her poet, and Siena her virgin, and Settignano her sculptor, and Prato her great carmelite, and Vespignano her inspired shepherd, and Fiesole her angel‐monk, and the village Vinci her mighty master; and poets write of them all for sake of the dead fame which they embalm. But Signa has found no poet, though her name lies in the pages of the old chroniclers like a jewel in an old king’s tomb, written there ever since the Latin days when she was first named Signome — a standard of war set under the mountains.

It is so old our Signa, no man could chronicle all it has seen in the centuries; but not one in ten thousand travelers thinks about it. Its people plait straw for the world, and the train from the coast runs through it: that is all that it has to do with other folks.

Passengers come and go from the sea to the city, from the city to the sea, along the great iron highway, and perhaps they glance at the stern, ruined walls, at the white houses on the cliffs, at the broad river with its shining sands, at the blue hills with the poplars at their base, and the pines at the summits, and they say to one another that this Signa.

But it is all that they ever do do; it is only a glance, then on they go through the green and golden haze of Valdarno. Signa is nothing to them, only a place that they stop at a second. And yet Signa is worthy of knowledge.

She is so ancient and so wise, and in her way so beautiful too; and she holds so many great memories in her; she has so many faded laurel‐boughs as women in their years of age keep the dead rose‐leaves of their days of love; and once on a time — in the Republic’s time, as her sons will still turn from the plough or rest on the oar to tell to a stranger with pride; — she was a very Amazon and Artemis of the mountains setting her breast boldly against all foes, and they were many, who came down over the wild western road, from the sea or from the Apennines, with reddened steel and blazing torch to harry and fire the fields, and spread famine and war to the gates of Florence.

These days are gone.

The years of its glory are done. It is a grey quiet place which now strays down by the water and now climbs high on the hill, and faces the full dawn of the day and sees the sunset reflected in the mirror of the river, and is starry with fireflies in midsummer, and at noon looks drowsy in the heat and seems to dream — being so very old. The buttressed walls are ruins. The mass bell swings over the tower roofs. The fortresses are changed to farms. The vines climb where the culverins blazed. White bullocks and belled mules tread to and fro the tracks which the free lances made; and the peasants sing at their ploughs where the hosts of the invaders once thundered.

Its ways are narrow, its stones are crooked, its summer dust is dense, its winter mire is heavy, its hovels are many, its people are poor — oh, yes, no doubt — but it is beautiful in various ways and worthy of a scholar’s thought and of an artist’s tenderness. Only the poet does not come to make it quoted and beloved by the world as one single line on the drifting autumn leaves has rendered Vallombrosa.

Here where the ancient walls of its citadel rise hoary and broken against the blueness of the sky; there where the arches of the bridges span the river, and the sand and the shallows and the straw that is drying in summer shine together yellow in the sun; her where under the sombre pointed archways the little children play, their faces like the cherubs and the cupids of the renaissance; there where the cobblers and coopers and the plaiting maidens and the makers of the yellow rush brooms, all work away under lintels, and corbels, and carved beam timbers, four hundred years old if one; here where through the gate ways with their portcullises woven over by the spiders, there only pass the patient mules with sacks of flour, or the hay carts dropping grasses, or the waggons of new wine; there where the villas that were all fortresses in the fierce fighting times of old, gleam white in the light upon their crests of hills with their cypresses like sentinels around them, and breadths of corn and vineyards traversed by green grassy paths, that lead upward to where the stone pine and the myrtle make sweet the air together. In all these Signa is beautiful; most of all, of course, in the long light radiant summer when the nightingales are singing everywhere, noon as well as night; the summer which seems to last almost all the year, for you can only tell how it comes and goes by the coming and the going of the flowers; the long‐lived summer that is ushered in by the daffodils, those golden chamberlains of the court of flowers, and dies, as a king should, on the purple bed of anemones, when the bells of the feast of the saints sound its requiem from hill to hill. And Signa revels in all that brightness of the Tuscan weather, and all about her seems singing, from the cicala piping away all day long, through the hottest heat, to the mandolines that thrill through the leaves at night as the peasants go by strumming the chords of their love‐songs. Summer and song and sunshine; — Signa lies amidst them like some war‐bruised shield of a knight that has fallen among the roses and golds the nest of a lark.

One day in summer Signa kept the Feast of the Corpus Domini with more pomp and praise than usual. The bells were ringing all over the plain and upon the hill‐sides, and the country people were coming in from all the villages that lie scattered like so many robins’ nests amongst the olives and the maize plumes and the arbutus thickets everywhere around. They were like figures out of a Fra Bartolommeo or a Ghirlandajo as they came down through the ripe corn and the red poppies from the old grey buildings up above; in their trailing white dresses and their hoods of blue, with the unlit tapers in their hands, and the little white‐robed children running before with their chaplets of flowers still wet from the dew. It was the procession of Demeter transmitted through all the ages, though it was called the Feast of Christ; it might have been the hymns of Ceres that they sang, and Virgil might have looked upon them with a smile of praise as they passed through the waving wheat and under the boughs red with cherries.

The old faith lives under the new, and the old worship is not dead, here in the country of Horace and in the fields where Proserpine wandered. The people are Pagan still; only now they call it being Christian, and mingle together Cupid and the Madonna in their songs.*

It was fairest summer weather. There was sure harvest and promise of abundant vintage. The sweet strong west wind was blowing from the sea, but not too roughly, only just enough to shake the scent out of the acacia blossoms and fan open the oleanders.

The peasantry were in good heart and trooped down to the feast of the Body of God from the loneliest farmstead on the highest hill‐crest; and from every villa chapel set along the mountains, or amongst the green sea of the valley vines, there was a bell ringing above an open door.

The chief celebration was at Signa, which had broken from its usual ways, and had music on this great service because a mighty bishop had come on a visit in its neighbourhood, and all its roads and streets and lanes were swept and garnished and watered, and at many open casements there were pots of lilies, white and orange, and in many dark archways groups of little children on whose tiny shoulders it would have seemed quite natural to see such wings or rose or azure as Il Beato gave his cherubim.

Si è partita una nave dallo porto,

Ed è lo mio struggimento.

Madre Maria, dategli conforto

Acciò vada la nave a salvamento.

Lo mare gli si possa abbonacciare

E le sue vele doventin d’argento.

E tu Cupido, che lo puo’ aiutare,

Cogli sospiri tuoai mandagli il vento.

Rispetto Toscano.

A ship goes out from port,

And with it goes my own immense desire.

Oh, Mother Mary, lend it strength and comfort,

So that the ship may steer to sure salvation.

And all its sails become of silver pure.

And thou, dear Cupid, who canst aid it too,

Breathe froth thy sighs and waft it fairest winds.

Tuscan Popular Song.

The procession came out from the white walls above on the cliff, and down the steep ways of the hill and across the bridge, and through the Lastra to the little church of the Misericordia. There were great silk banners waving heavily; gold fringe that shone and swayed; priests’ vestments that gleamed with silver and colour; masses of flowers and leaves borne aloft; curling croziers and crimson baldacchini; and then came all the white‐clothed contadini, by tens, by twenties, by hundreds, and the cherubic children singing in the sun; it was Signa in the Middle Ages once again, and Fra Giovanni might have stood by and painted it all in a choral book, or Marcillat have put it in a stained window, and have illumined it with the azure sky for its background, and the rays of the morning sun slanting down, like beams that streamed straight to earth from the throne of God.

The procession came down the hill and across the bridge, with its irregular arches and its now shallow green water shining underneath, and on its sands the straw lying drying, and beyond it the near hills with their dusky pines, and the white streaks where the quarries were cut, and the blue haze of the farther mountains.

All the people were chaunting the Laus Deo — chaunting with chests made strong by the mountain air, and lips made tuneful by the inheritance of melody; men and women and children were all singing, from the old white‐haired bishop who bore the host, to the four‐year‐old baby that trod on the hem of its mother’s dress.

But above all the voices there rose one sweetest and clearest of all, and going up into heaven, as it seemed, as a lark’s does on a summer morning. He was only a little fellow that sang — a little boy of the Lastra a Signa, poorer than all the rest; with his white frock, clean, but very coarse, and a wreath of scarlet poppies on his auburn curls; a very little fellow, ten years old at most, with thin brown limbs and a lean wistful face, and the straight brows of his country, with dark eyes full of dreams beneath them, and naked feet that could be fleet as a hare’s over the dry yellow grass or the crooked sharp stones.

He was always hungry, and never very strong, and certainly simple and poor as a creature could be, and he knew what a beating meant as well as any dog about the farm. He lived with people who thrashed him oftener than they fed him. He was almost always scolded, and bore the burden of others’ faults. He had never had a whole shirt or a pair of shoes in all his life. He kept goats on one of the dusky sweet‐scented hillsides above Signa, and bore, like them, the wind and the weather, the scorch and the storm. And yet, by God’s grace and the glory of childhood, he was happy enough as he went over the bridge and through the white dust, chaunting his psalm in the rear of the priests, in the ceremonies of the Corpus Domini.

For the music was in his head and in his heart; and the millions of leaves and the glancing water seemed to be singing with him, and he did not feel the flints under his feet, or the heat of them, as he went singing out all his little soul to the river and the sky and the glad June sunshine, and he was quite happy, though he was of no more moment in the great human world than any one of the brown grilli in the wheat, or tufts of rosemary in the quarryside; and he did not feel the sharpness of the stones underneath his feet or the scorch of them as he went barefoot along the street, because he was always looking up at the brightness of the sky, and expecting to see it open and to see the faces of curly‐headed winged children peep out from behind the sunrays as they did in the old pictures in the villa chapels.

The priests told him he would see them for a certainty if he were good; and he had been good, or at least had tried to be, but the heavens never had opened yet.

It is hard work to be good when you are very little and very hungry, and have many sticks to beat you, and no mother’s lips to kiss you.

But he tried in his own small way. When he carried the bright blue plums to the market, not to taste even one when his mouth was parched with the dust and the sun; to let his reed‐flute lie mute while he searched for a straying kid; to tell the truth, though it cost him a thrashing; to leave his black bread untouched on a feast morning, though he was so hungry, because he was going to confession; to forbear from pulling the ripe grapes as he went along the little grass paths through the vines; — these were the things that were so hard, and that he tried his best to do, because in his little dim mind he saw what was just, and in his loneliness endeavoured with all his might to follow it, that he might see the faces of the angels some day; and he wondered now why he could not see the cherubs through the blue smiling sky, as the old fresco‐painters had done who did not want it half so much as he did, because no doubt the painters were wise men and knew a great deal, and were very happy, and were not like him, who was always wanting to know everything, and could never get any one to tell.

The old painters would have painted him, and would have made a cherub of him, with his wreath of poppies and his wondering eyes and his little singing mouth, and would have taken all the leanness out of his face, and the paleness out of his cheeks, and the darns out of his little coarse frock, and would have made his field‐flowers roses of paradise, and would have glorified him, and made him a joy to the wondering world for ever.

But he did not know that; he did know that the painters never saw any other little angels than just such foot‐tired and sun‐tanned little angels as he, which their genius lifted up and transfigured into the likeness of the children of God.

He did not know that Fra Angelico would have kissed him, and Raffaelle would have put him for ever in the internal sunshine of the Loggie, with gold rays about his head and the lilies of Mary in his hands.

He only looked up — in vain — for the cherubs in the shining morning skies, and was sorry that he was not good enough to have the right to see them; and yet was glad at heart as he went carrying his taper in the rear of the silken banners and the silvered robes and the chaunting contadini, over the green sunlightened Arno water, with the midsummer corn blowing on all the hills around, and the west wind bringing the salt of the sea with it to strengthen the young bud‐clusters of the vine.

Glad — because he was so young, and because he was sure of one creature that loved him, and because the music thrilled him to his heart’s delight, and because it was a happiness to him only to sing, as it is to the thrush in the depths of the woods when the day dawns, or to the nightingale when she drinks the dew in heats of noon off the snow of a magnolia flower.

He had a little lute of his own, given to him by the only hand that ever gave him anything. Where he lived he might not play it on pain of its being broken; but upon the hills he did, and along the country roads; and when people were asleep in their beds in Signa, they would be awakened by notes that were not the birds’ rippling up the street in the sweet silent dark, and going higher and higher and higher — it was only the little fellow playing and singing as he went along in the dusk of the dawn to his work.

In the Lastra no one thought anything of it. In any other country, lattices would have been opened and heads hung out and breaths of deep pleasure held to listen better, because the child’s music was wonderful in its way, or at least would have been so elsewhere. But here there was so much music everywhere: nobody noticed much. It was no more than a hundred other lutes strumming at cottage doors, than a thousand other stornelli or rispetti sung as the oxen were yoked.

There is always song somewhere.

As the wine‐waggon creaks down the hill, the waggoner will chaunt to the corn that grows upon either side of him. As the miller’s mules cross the bridge, the lad as he cracks his whip will hum to the blowing alders. In the red clover, the labourers will whet their scythes and sickles to a trick of melody. In the quiet evenings a kyrie eleison will rise from the thick leaves that hide a village chapel. On the hills the goatherd, high in air, amongst the arbutus branches, will scatter on the lonely mountain side stanzas of purest rhythm. By the sea‐shore, where Shelley died, the fisherman, rough and salt, and weatherworn, will string notes of sweetest measure under the tamarisk tree on his mandoline. But the poetry and the music float on the air like the leaves of roses that blossom in solitude, and drift away to die upon the breeze: there is no one to notice the fragrance, there is no one to gather the leaves.

The songs of the people now are like their fireflies in summer. They make night beautiful all over the dusky hills, and the seas of vine, and the blowing fields of maize, in a million lonely places of the mountains and the plains. But the fireflies are born in the corn and die in it; few eyes see their love‐fires, except those of the nightingale and the shrew mouse.

Theocritus cried aloud on his Sicilian muses, and the world heard him and has treasured the voice of his sweet complaining.

But the muse of these people now lives with the corncrake under the wheat, and the swallow under the house‐eaves, and is such a simple natural home‐born thing that they think of her no more than the firefly does of her luminance. And so they have no Theocritus, but only ever‐renewing bursts of song everywhere as the millet grows ripe, and the lemon‐tree flowers, and the red poppies leap with the corn.

Often they do not know what they sing:— Does the firefly know that she burns?

This little fellow did not know what he sang.

He did not know what he was.

At home he was always being told that he had no right to exist at all; perhaps he had not; he did not know.

Himself, he thought God had made him to sing, made him just for that; as he made the finches and nightingales. But he did not tell any one so. At home they would have asked him what should the great God want with his puny oat pipe. Toto could make as good a noise cutting a reed in the fields any day.

Perhaps Toto could. He thought his own voice better, but he was not sure. He was only glad to sing, because all the world seemed singing with him, and all the sky seemed one vast space of sweetest sound — as, perhaps, it seems to a bird, who knows?

When he went to bed in the hay he could hear the nightingales and the owls and the grilli singing all together in the trees behind the village and in the fields that stretched by the river; and in the dusk of the dawn when he ran out with his little bare feet, dripping with dew, there were a million little voices hymning in the day. That was what he heard. Other people, no doubt, heard cart‐wheels, and grinding mills, and the scolding of women, and the barking of dogs, and the creaking of doors, and a thousand other discordant things; but to him the world was full of the singing birds and the humming insects, and the blue heavens teemed with a choir of angels: he could not see them, but he heard them, and he knew they were near, and that was enough: he could wait.

“Do you hear anything up there?” the other children would ask him, when he stood listening with his eyes lifted, and they could not see so much as a bird, and he would look back to them quite sorrowfully.

“Do you not hear, too? You are deaf then!”

But the children of Signa would not allow that they were deaf, and pelted and fought him for saying so. Deaf, indeed! when it was he who was the simpleton hearing a bird song where none was.

Were they deaf? or, was his dreaming?

The children of Signa and he never agreed which was which.

It is the old eternal quarrel between the poet and the world; and the children were like the world, they were strong in numbers; since they could see no bird, they would have it there could be no music, and they boxed his ears to cure him of hearing better than his neighbours.

Only it did not cure him.

His angels sung above him this day of the Corpus Domini, and he did not feel the sun hot on his bare head, nor the stones sharp under his bare feet, and he did not remember that he was hungry, and that he had been beaten that morning, until the music ceased suddenly, and he dropped to earth out of the arms of the angels.

Then he felt his bruises, and the want of food gnawed in him, and he gathered up his little white acolyte’s dress and ran as quickly as he could, the withering poppies shaking off his hair.


He was only Pippa’s child.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58