Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 16.

SIGNA went, and climbed up to his own room, and opened the old drawer and looked at his broken violin lying where he had left it, with its rosemary and its sprigs of cypress, as if it were a dead thing in a coffin.

“Perhaps the world will prize you some day,” he thought, “as it does the old wooden shoe of Paganini.”

He was happy because he had faith in himself, and hope; almost as happy as when the fair angel had given him the Rusignuolo; but he had a heavy sense amidst his joy of having sinned against Bruno.

He only partly understood the pain that he had dealt. He only dimly saw how the man who had believed that his return had been one of affection was wounded to the quick by the revelation that ambition and personal desire and immediate need had been the sole impulses moving him. He only very vaguely comprehended that to ask Bruno to give up the land which he had slaved for seven years to gain, was to shatter at a blow all the pride of his days, all the hope of his life.

The great genius overmastering him was like a cloud before his eyes. If he were cruel to Bruno, he was cruel unconsciously; as he was cruel to his own body in inflicting on it hunger and cold and all corporal ills whilst he followed the spirits that beckoned to him.

If he asked Bruno to give up much, he himself was ready to give up everything. If it could have been said to him, “Die now, and your music shall live,” he would have accepted the alternative without a pause, and gone to his death rejoicing.

It was the sublime fanaticism of genius, which, like all other fanaticism, is cruel. The desire for glory had entered into him, as yet impersonal, but none the less all‐absorbing and dominant.

Once he had been content to have leisure and rest, to hear the “beautiful things” of his fancy. Now he had no peace unless he could repeat them to the world of men:— as at first the lover is content with the perfect possession of his mistress; but, when this has been enjoyed awhile in secret, grows restless for the world to know the joy that crowns his passions.

The days passed away with him in a fever of unrest, eating little, sleeping little, vaguely consoled and elated by the homage his old comrades gave him, but missing much of the beauty of autumn, because the unrest of ambition was in him. The little mitre‐flower would not tell him half the things it had whispered him in his childhood, and the great winds wandering amongst the pines had lost much of their melody for him. He was always thinking —“Will they kill my soul in me? Shall I die unheard and unknown?”

Palma came up no more to Fiastra: she stayed down in her father’s house, washing, mending, ironing, scrubbing, hoeing, toiling.

“I am nothing to him,” she said to herself. “If I had been Gemma, he would have made his songs about me.”

Signa strayed sometimes into Giovoli, indeed, as he went to old Teresina’s and other places that he had known; but he was always thinking, thinking — always absorbed; sometimes seeming to listen, and then writing music on any scrap of paper from his pocket, and at other times singing over softly to himself the recitatives and the airs of his ‘Actea.’

The two weeks of uncertainty were torture to him. His hope and fear were in equal portions, and each possessed him by turns to all exclusion of the other.

“I thank heaven, lad, you did fail at the school of design in the city, and came home to make honest tubs and churns and buckets,” said Cecco, the cooper, to his own youngest son, in the workshop with the vine behind the barred window.

They all had a dim sense that Signa was going to be great; but they most of them thought it a bad thing, and pitied him, and pitied Bruno for not having a good, strong, contented youth, who would have helped him with the land and held it after him.

As for Bruno himself, he never spoke to any man of the boy or of the land.

Letters came and went. Luigi Dini and the notary, who was a good man and kindly, puzzled the matter out together, and dealt with it cautiously and carefully. Weeks went by with all things unsettled. At length the sacristan called Bruno down into the Lastra, and said to him:—

“The man of Venice is an honest man. There is no fear. If the half of the cost is be paid, he will produce the work in carnival and do it all justice. There is no fear. He will not say it will succeed, but he will give the test. He is a true man, as such men go, living by their own wits and the brains of others.”

Bruno shaded his eyes with his hand a few minutes; then he nodded his head to the old man, and drove to the city, and said to the notary, “Sell the land.”

The notary had some time before found with ease a man who was willing and able to buy — money down, with no faltering or pilfering.

“The deeds shall be ready by the week’s end,” he said now; and he sent and called in the buyer, a stranger to Bruno and a dweller in the city; and they shook hands on the bargain, and it was concluded beyond the possibility of change.

Bruno did not speak once.

“Does he sell under pressure of debt, that he looks so dark? It is whispered about,” said the buyer.

“Then a lie is whispered about,” said the notary. “He sells because he chooses to sell. And it is his way to look like that.”

But the notary thought to himself, “The man is a fool. The boy has a pipe like a chaffinch, and so the good land is to go in a puff of sound. The boy must be his own, or he would never do so foolishly.”

For the notary, though he dealt with the letters to and from the city of Venice because he was paid to do so, and it was no business of his, was sincerely sorry that the solid soil was being bartered away for a lad’s silly dream, and was sorry, moreover, for Bruno.

“It will all end in vapour, and the boy will die in a garret. It is always so,” said the notary, though his own dwelling‐house was close against a wall on which was written “Qui nacque Cherubini.”

Bruno returned to his own hills in the stormy autumnal evening, and entered his own house.

Signa was sitting by the oil‐lamp writing music. He seldom did any other thing. His hand on the dark oak table was white and small as a girl’s; his cheeks were flushed with a feverish colour; he looked weak, and he was very thin.

Bruno went up behind him and laid both his hands on his shoulders. He did nt care for the boy to look up at his face.

“Dear, it is done,” he said gently. “You have got your desire. Your music will be heard in the winter. Ask Luigi Dini the rest.”

Then he left the room and locked himself in the loft above the stable of Tinello and Pastore. He could not trust himself to speak more. All the night he had no sleep.

He went out again before daybreak, while the stars were still shining.

He went out and upward to the little brook rushing away under its reeds, to the three little fields corn‐sown, to the narrow grassy paths under the gnarled olives.

Kings leaving their kingdoms have suffered less than he, losing this shred of land.

Nine years he had laboured on it, giving it the sweat of his brow and the ache of his limbs, and all the stolen hours that other workers give to rest or pleasure; and now it was going from his as sand runs out of a glass.

All the toil was over and useless. All the nine years were passed like a breath of smoke, and left no more tale or worth.

He sat down by the edge of the bright shallow water. It was now close upon daybreak. No sound stirred, upward or downward, on the great hill.

He was quite quiet. He had the dull dark look on his face that had come there when the boy had first asked this gift at his hands. He said to himself, that what befell him was just. On that spot by the rippling burn he had shattered the boy’s treasure: it was only meet now that he should lose his own.

He did not waver. He did not repine. He made no reproach, even in his own thoughts. He had only lost all the hope out of his life and all the pride of it.

But men lose these and live on; women also.

He ahd built up his little kingdom out of atoms, little by little; atoms of time, of patience, of self‐denial, of hoarded coins, of snatched moments:— built it up little by little, at cost of bodily labour and of bodily pain, as the pyramids were built brick by brick by the toil and the torment of unnoticed lives.

It was only a poor little nook of land, but it had been like an empire won to him.

With his foot on its soil he had felt rich.

He had wondered that men lived who spent their souls in envy.

It had been his ambition, his longing, his dream, his victory: labour for it had been as sweet to him as the kisses of love; and when he had made it all his own, he would not have changed places with princes or with cardinals.

And now it was gone — gone like a handful of thistledown lost on the winds, like a spider’s web broken in a shower of rain. Gone: never to be his own again. Never.

He sat and watched the brook run on, the pied‐birds come to drink, the throstle stir on the olive, the cloud shadows steal over the brown, bare fields.

The red flush of sunrise faded. Smoke rose from the distant roofs. Men came out on the lands to work. Bells rang. The day began.

He got up slowly and went away; looking backwards, looking backwards, always.


Great leaders who behold their armed hosts melt like snow, and great monarchs who are driven out discrowned from the palaces of their fathers, are statelier figures and have more tragic grace than he had; — only a peasant leaving a shred of land, no bigger than a rich man’s dwelling‐house will cover; — but vanquished leader or exiled monarch never was more desolate than Bruno, when the full sun rose and he looked his last look upon the three poor fields, where forever the hands of other men would labour, and forever the feet of other men would wander.

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