Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 18.

IT was a winter’s night in the Lastra.

The cold had been severe. It was the first month of the young year. Snow was resting on the barbecane and watch‐towers of the Porta Fiorentina and on the ledges and battlements of all the old walls. It melted every morning when the noon sun touched it, but it lay there every night. The villas were all deserted. The nobles were down in their palaces in the city. The little churches rang their bells regularly over the barren solitary country, like soldiers firing over a forsaken field. The rivers were swollen, but had not overflowed; every little thread of water was swelled into a brook, and every hill‐fed brook into a torrent. The people were hard pressed at times for food and oil. There was a good deal of suffering in the little homesteads: most of all in those set high on the hillsides and the mountain crests, that were swept by the bitter fierce winds from the north, wehre the dwellers could see no faces save those of their own households, until spring should have come and made the mule‐tracks passable again.

Even down in the Lastra things were not very bright; for the people are poor, and the taxes are many.

It was high carnival in the great towns, but they had not much to do with that. Now and then some groups of men and girls went down to join the mummery in the city with masks on and ribbons fluttering, and came back white, not with snow, but with the flour‐pelting; and for the nidnight fair, under the gallery of the Medici, the contadini dressed up their wine barrels in quaint guise, and the straw plaiters took their prettiest baskets and tassels and hats and toys, and the best looking maidens went down with the best winter fruits, to stand and laugh behind the flaring torches under the evergreens and the flags, and, perhaps, have a waltz and a scamper down the broad pavement, with the stars shining above and the tambourines and cymbals clashing, and the Vecchio Tower frowning on the pastime and the blaze.

Otherwise the Lastra had nothing to do with carnival, except that now and then it put a fat goose in its pot, or munched a bit of toothsome strong bread from Siena, or ahd a set of strolling players in the old Loggia that used to be a hospital in the days when Antonino preached charity as the saving of men, and uprooted his damask rose‐trees in the eternal antagonism of Theology and Nature.

It was a winter’s night in the Lastra.

It was the first night of the midnight winefair in the city and the noisiest folks were away. In the wineshop, however, of one, Sanfranco, a good merry man and a son‐in‐law of old Teresina, a score or more of people, men and women, were gathered.

The great wooden nail‐studded doors of the arched entrance were shut to against the driving wind. The oil wicks flamed brightly, though they could only dimly light up the dark‐vaulted cavern‐like entrance room; but long branches of trees flamed on the dogs, and Sanfranco sold good wine, and his wife was a popular soul and made the best maccaroni in the commune, and a bough outside his door always showed that hunger as well as thirst might be allayed within.

At the moment no one was eating or drinking. The straw‐covered flasks stood about unnoticed. The pipes had grown cold.

Old Teresina, who was at supper with them, had her distaff idle and both hands on her knees, as she strained her ears to hearken. Men and women sat and leaned around in various postures, but all with the same stillness and intentness, listening. Sanfranco himself forgot to chalk the scores of the night; and his wife, for once, let her frying‐pan frizzle itself into blackness. They were all gathered together in absorbed attention.

The sacristan of the Misericordia sat in their midst: his spectacles were on his nose, his three‐wicked lamp burned close at his elbow: he had a newspaper in his hands, and other papers crumpled at his feet. He had been reading aloud sometime; his glasses were dim with mist, his voice faltered, and his sight almost failed him; for this was what he read:

“What shall we say of this child? For he is no more than a child. Rossini was twenty‐one when Venice first welcomed, with one voice, his mighty ‘Tancred.’ This lad is even younger. We predict for him a fame even greater than Rossini’s. Since our grandfathers worshipped Cimarosa, there has been no parallel to the rapture of this city at the ‘Actea.’ The grave song of Actea is on every woman’s lips to‐day; the death chant of the Christian is echoed by every gondolier. All the air and all the waters seem full of this new music, which, to the most perfect freshness of fancy unites the severe grace and sonorous harmony of Durante and Pergolese. If it have a fault at all, it is too pure. It has the passions of faith, of heroism, of aspiration; it has not the passion of love; it belongs to the soul; it has passed by the senses. This is the result of youth. It is more divine than it is anything else. But its exquisite beauty, its truth to all the requirements of the noblest musical art, above all, its real sublimity of conception have carried all before it. There has been no such scene as that of last night in Venice since Rossini’s Aria di Rizzi rose on every tongue. All the city was in tumult. Men and women wept like children. From the first act, which opens with the chorus of the gladiators, to the last, which closes on the grave of Nero, there was not for one moment doubt or coldness in the audience. Its reception was an ever‐increasing tempest of delight. Men who had gone listless and even hostile were overborne and carried away by the universal enthusiasm. The young artist could not be found at the moment the opera commenced. When the second act had passed, and such a shout as might have wakened the very dead, shook the house from floor to roof, he was found hidden in one of the dark unused passages below the stage. He had fainted —”

The old man paused; his voice was choked with emotion; he let the paper fall at his feet.

The men gave a deep glad cry; the women sobbed aloud.

“My pupil! yes, I may call him that,” mur‐ mured Luigi Dini. “I taught him all he knew — at first.”

Then he took up the printed sheets, and went on with his slow measured reading —

“When at length he came before the people, he looked more like some beautiful pale young ghost of Desdemona or of Francesca, than like a youth who had fought his battle with the world — and conquered. When all was over, the people got hold of him, clambering on the boards to reach him, and carried him aloft on their shoulders, and bore him out into the air, smothered with the flowers and the handkerchiefs of women. A whole fleet of gondolas accompanied him homewards. The great chant had caught the ear of the whole city. The nobles of Venice seized him, and bore him away to a brilliant feast. They sang it as they took him to his home. They sang it under the windows. They brought him out again, and again, and again. The night rang with their cheers, and with the echoes of his music. It was not until morning that anything like order or stillness prevailed. Like the southern poet who loved Venice so well, he awakes and finds himself famous. It is said that he is a little contadino, the son of a contadino also, in a village in Tuscany, and that all the study he has ever had has been a year or two in Bologna. It is said, too, that his friends are so poor, and he so penniless, that yesterday he had not a coin to buy himself a crust of bread. He calls himself only Signa.”

Luigi Dini caught his breath a moment, and his withered lips quivered.

“They then pass on to speak of the music, critically, and in detail,” he said, striving to seem calm. “You will not care to hear that. It is too long. But you see — we were no idle dreamers, no mere weavers of cobwebs. You see — my boy is great.”

“My little Signa, that I hid in the coffer!” cried old Teresina, with the tears streaming down her cheeks, yet laughing in her joy.

“Little Signa, that Nita beat like a dog!” said her daughter, laughing and crying.

“Little Signa, that thought it such a fine thing to have a bowl of soup with the children on Sundays!” said Sanfranco himself.

“Little Signa, that we thought no better than a baby!” said his son, a strong, lusty, young blacksmith.

“Little Signa, that is only Pippa’s son!” said Cecco, the cooper. “Only Pippa’s son! and that baseborn.”

“Little Signa no more,” said Luigi Dini; “and baseborn? what does that matter? God has called him into the light of the world.”

“Will he ever look back to us?” murmured the old woman, with the slow tears falling down on her hank of flax.

“Never mind. We will look up at him,” said the old man, gently. “But I do not think he will forget. We do not think the stars see us in the daytime, but if we go down into a well, we see that they do, just the same: so will it be with him. The great light may hide him from our sight, but he will see us all the same.”

They were all silent.

“Did he write anything himself?” said Cecco, the cooper, after a pause.

“He wrote, ‘Tell Bruno,’ and sent me all these papers. That was all.”

“Bruno!” echoed the cooper, who was his friend.

They had none of them thought of Bruno.

“Poor Bruno,” said the old man, sadly; he was thinking of the price that Bruno had paid for the night of victory in Venice.

“You cannot go up to him to‐night,” said Sanfranco; “the hill‐paths are perilous.”

“No. The post came so late too, from the state of the roads. I will go up the first thing in the morning.”

“Perhaps he will be in here to‐night. I think he went through to the wine‐fair. I think he had to go — yes, he said so.”

“Yes, he said so,” echoed Cecco. “But only to take wine to Savio’s stall. He will not stay.”

“Does he expect to hear this news at all?”

“Not at all,” said the sacristan. “The man of Venice had dealt so ill with the lad, putting off, till here is nigh the close of the carnival. We began to think that he would cheat us utterly. He had a ballet that ran well. He did not care. No. Bruno had ceased to hope. ‘What is done is done;’ that is all he has ever said about it.”

“It is a wonderful glory!” said the woman. “Read us again. Read us again, good Luigi.”

And he read again, the story which already he knew so well by heart, that it mattered little that his eyes swam so often, and that the printed letters were wrapped in mist.

As he read this second time, the heavy iron‐beaded door swung open, letting in a blast of bitter frosted air, that almost blew the lights out: a man came into the room, shaking snow at each step on to the red bricks, and muffled in his thick brown cloak, wearing it across his chest and his mouth, in the same fashion that Dante and Guido Calvacanti once did theirs.

It was Bruno.

His baroccino stood without, with the mule tired and cold, and the candle dark in the lantern that swung from the shafts. He had deposited the wine at Savio’s stall, and had come away, leaving to others the riot, and dance, and glee, and jest, and mumming, and masking of the great carnival fair, under the arches of the galleries on the edge of the Arno.

In many a bye‐gone year he had been the wildest there; with rough jests over the sale of the wine, and rough wooing of the women’s torch‐lit graces, and mad dancing with black dominoes and rainbow‐hued maskers, while the drums and flutes had resounded through the great arcade till the daylight broke.

“Sanfranco, will you give me a light?” said he, coming into the midst of them with the rush of cold air; “mine is gone out, and the frost makes the hills bad driving.”

Then his sight fell on the sacristan with the printed paper, and he glanced over all the faces of the others, and read them.

He strode up to the old man.

“There is news of him?” he said, under his breath, with passionate thirsty eyes.

“Yes, great and good news,” said Luigi Dini; but his feeble voice was drowned in the deep shouts of the men, and the women’s shrill cries, each eager to tell the tale the quickest, and to be the first.

“Great and good news!” they clamoured. “All Venice is mad for him, Bruno. He has taken the city by storm. The people have feasted him, and chanted him all the night long. Only think! only think! Just our own little Signa. Just Pippa’s son — as you say. He is great. He is famous. He has all the world after him. Only think! only think!”

Bruno stood in the centre of them, the snow falling in flakes off his garments, his eyes turning bewildered from one to another. Then he put his hand up before his sight, like a man blinded with a sudden blaze of light. It was so hard to understand. It was so hard to conceive as possible.

“Do they laugh at the boy? or at me?” he muttered, with the anger of a sudden suspicion awakening in the flash of his glance.

“No, no! No, no!” said Luigi Dini; “who would have the heart to make a mock of it? And what is there so strange? It is what we hoped and prayed for, only it passes beyond all our prayers. The lad is great — yes, do not look so. The dear child is great, and his future is safe. God is good; and you sold the land not in vain.”

Bruno dropped down on a bench that stood near.

“God is good,” he muttered.

They were all silent. They could not shout and chatter and praise and wonder any more. There was that in his intense stillness which overmastered and awed them.

Whether it were pain or thankfulness they could not tell. Whichever it was, it was beyond them.

Sanfranco was the first to speak. He touched Bruno on the arm.

“Stay here in the warm and let him read you the news — such news! We have heard it twice over, but we can hear it thrice. I will see to your beast. Do not go back to the hills this rare night. We ought to have a bonfire on the roof of the big gate. Stay with us.”

Bruno rose to his feet, still with that unsteady dazzled look on him like a man wakened by a blaze of fire.

“No,” he said, absently. “No; — see to the mule — he is cold and lame; — come away with me, Luigi. Let me hear — all alone.”

The old sacristan made a gesture to the others to be quiet and cease from their pressing; and gathered up all the papers.

“Yes. We will go to my quiet little room. It will be best,” he said, and put his hand on Bruno’s arm and guided him out of the doorway into the dark freezing night. It was but a stone’s throw to the sacristy. Bruno went out like a blind man.

Sanfranco followed them, and put up the mule in his stable.

“One would think he was not glad after all,” said he to his wife, returning.

“Nay, he is glad and thankful,” said his old mother‐in‐law, who was clipping an oil wick. “If it had not been for his labour, who would ever have heard of the dear little lad? But — look you — the stars may see us in the day, as Luigi says, mayhap they do; but if a star were all one had to love, it would be hard work to feel the loneliness and the cold close in, and sit in the dark water of the well and only catch a glimpse of the star now and then shining ever so far away up in the light of the sun — and we out of the light for ever.”

“That is true, mother,” said Sanfranco. “But you talk like a book.”

“Nay, nay, never so; — I talk sense,” said the old Teresina. “But that is how it will always be with Bruno and Pippa’s boy; just the well and the star; — just the well and the star — do you see?”

“I see,” said Cecco, the cooper, who loved Bruno; and he emptied half a flask of wine.

The grey dawn came into the little room by the Misericordia Church, with the black crossbones and the memento mori everywhere about it, and beyond its lattice the old broken battlements and the dull winter skies.

He had it all read to him — over and over again. He sat leaning against the table with his head on his hands.

He understood it all; he understood it — the fame of the arts is that which is most intelligible to the peasants of this country, those descendants of the men who ran weeping and laughing before Cimabue, and filled the churches to hearken to the oratories of S. Philip Neri.

They understand it by instinct.

So did he. But it was still like a sudden blaze of flame, so close to his face that whilst he was dazzled by it his eyes were darkened and sightless.

Was he thankful? — yes, he thanked God. God was good. So he said from the depths of his heart.

Living for the world, the boy was dead for him.

And yet he thanked God.

Time went away and he took no count of it. His feet and limbs were cold, but he had no sense of it. The little lamp paled and the chilly dawn came, but he had no perception that it was morning. He sat thinking — thinking of this wonderful thing which that night had brought: of this distant city, where the little fellow who had run barefoot by his side was raised up as a prince amongst men.

Affection quails before the supremacy of art; as art in its turn cowers under the supremacy of passion.

The boy was dead to him; that he knew.

The old man who had sat quiet and patient, sleeping a little and waking up to warm hands over his little pot of ashes, touched him at last, almost frightened at the silence and the stillness with which he leaned there, with his head on his hands.

“The dear, good lad!” he said, softly. “He will write himself, ‘princeps musicorum’ after all; — aye, we always said it; — he and I dreaming here together, the old fool and the young one as they used to say. But do not lament for it, Bruno; I mean do not sorrow for ourselves. He will not forget. He is too true of heart.”

Bruno shivered a little, waking to his first sense of the cold that had frozen around him. He rose: he smiled a little.

“I will pray that he may forget,” he said, slowly. “When he remembers — then he will have dropped down from this height. He was my lark. I broke his cage. Let him go up — up — up. Why should he fall — for me?”

He spoke dreamily, and he had his hand before his eyes, with the same dull sense of confusion and of wonder which had come upon him when he had first listened to the news. He put out his hand and grasped Luigi Dini’s in farewell.

“Tell him I have heard,” he said. “Tell him I am glad. What money I can, I will send. There is nothing more to say.”


Then he threw his cloak over his mouth, and went down the staircase through the little church that was quite dark. Luigi Dini fumbling with the keys, unlocked the door and let him out; he passed up the street towards the seaward gate, without remembering that his mule stood in Sanfranco’s stable.

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