Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 5.

SO the child went up to the hills with Bruno, and stayed there for good and all, with Tinello and Pastore, and the big magnolia tree, and the old gilded marriage coffer, and the hens and the chickens, and the terra‐cotta annunciation, and the drying herbs and beans, and the big white dog from the Maremma marshes, and the palm blessed on Easter day.

He was not quite the same.

He would never be quite the same again, Bruno thought — and thought aright.

The child’s vision had widened, and his thoughts had saddened; and he knew now that there was a living world outside his dreams; and he doubted now that the skies would ever open to let him see the singing children of God.

And alas! though he cried his heart out for her, Gemma never returned.

Sandro came back without her, and cried a little for a week, but was not disconsolate, and on the whole found his nutshell of a house more tranquil without the little sulky, self‐willed beauty. But Palma mourned her long; and her playfellow likewise.

Palma was sure that Gemma was dead. “She fell in the sea and was drowned: else she would come back,” said Palma always, powerless to comprehend that any deliberate choice could keep her sister long away from her. She had loved Gemma with that extreme affection which a profoundly selfish nature often begets on a very generous one. She had sacrificed herself for Gemma twenty times a day with delight in the sacrifice. Any little treat, any better food, any morsel of fruit, she had always saved for Gemma; she had waited on Gemma as if she had been born a little negro, and the other a little princess; she had always taken Gemma’s misdeeds on her own shoulders, and screened her, and served her in all possible ways. Gemma had been the woe and torment of her childish life; but she had never known it; Gemma had also been its idol. The shrewdness and the laziness of Gemma had taught her to make a scapegoat and a slave of Palma, when they had been mere babies. Palma had been happy in the servitude. She had firmly believed that Gemma had loved her in return; and so she had done, when she had wanted her.

“She is drowned; else she would be back,” said Palma, to all attempts of others at consolation, and she hid a little scrap of black ribbon, all she could get, about her little brown throat, and having saved up a penny, by great toil, with centime pieces, took it to the priest of the church above Giovoli, and, sobbing, intreated him to say a prayer for Gemma’s soul. The old man put back her penny, and forbore to smile, and said a mass for nothing — being touched.

What might be Gemma’s fate, no one could tell; children were kidnapped — so they said in the Lastra; and borne away to carry plaster statues, or skip on a strained rope, or play in circus‐tricks, or wander with a monkey, and were beaten if they returned to their masters with too few coins at night — so they said; and the Lastra was sure that his would be the fortunes of lost Gemma. But Signa, full of agonized remorse for her, still felt in his own heart that it was likelier that some way Gemma would not suffer very much. “She will always suck the orange herself, and fling the peel in some one else’s eyes,” said Bruno, when he spoke of her; and Signa, though he resented the saying, and would not assent to it, knew in his heart that it was true.

“I was so wicked to let her go with me!” said Signa often, in bitter self‐reproach. But the good‐natured Sandro did not reproach him.

“My dear,” he said, “when a female thing, however, small, chooses to go astray, there is not the male thing, however big, that could ever hinder her.”

Sandro never looked beyond his pots of pinks and beds of roses; but he knew so much human truth as that.

What Gemma had gone to, who could tell? — wandering with little Savoyards and Roman image‐sellers, or dancing with dogs and monkeys, in rainy streets of northern towns, or under the striped canvas of merryandrews’ booths; that was what most of the children did who were tempted and taken over sea.

“Anyhow, wherever she is gone she is happy if she has got a bit of ribbon in her hair and a sugar‐plum upon her tongue, and she will get them for herself, I will warrant, anywhere,” said Bruno, who could not have honestly said that he was sorry she was lost.

But Signa, when he said these things, cried so that he ceased to say them; and gradually the name of the sunny‐headed little thing dropped out of memory except with Signa and Palma, who would talk of her often in their leisure minutes, sitting under the wall by the fountain watching the old speckled toads come and go, and the chaffinches preen their white wings, and the cistus buds unfold from the little green knots, and the snakes’ bread turn ruby red till it looked like a monarch’s sceptre dipped in the bloodshed of war.

Whenever at night the storm howled, or the snow drifted over the face of the hills in winter, Signa would tremble in his bed, thinking of his poor lost playmate, as she might be at that very hour homeless and friendless on the cruel stones of some foreign town. His imagination tormented him with vision and terror of all the possible sufferings which might be falling to her lot.

“It was my fault — it was my fault,” he said incessantly to himself and everyone; and for a long time utterly refused to be comforted. When the great day of his first communion arrived, and he went, one of a long string of white‐clad children, with his breviary in his clasped hands, and little brown shabby Palma behind him with the other girls, Signa felt the hot tears roll down his cheeks, thinking of the absent, golden‐headed, innocent‐eyed thing, who would have looked so pretty with the wreath of white wild hyacinths upon her head.

“The boy is a very lamb of God; how he weeps with joy at entering the fold,” thought the good old Parocco, from the hills, looking at him.

But Signa was thinking of Gemma.

“Dear love, do not fret for her,” said Tere‐ sina, that very day, after the service of the church, in her own little room over the Livornese gate, “never fret for her. She is one that will light on her feet and turn stones to almonds always; trust her for that.”

But Signa did fret; though he knew that they were right.

And he had lost his own mystery and wonder for himself. He was nothing strange that the owls had found in the soft night shadows and dropped down at the gates of Signa, as he had always thought.

He was only Pippa’s son.

Poor Pippa! She was not dear to him. He could not care for her. When he went along the sea road he had no instinct of remembrance of the night that he had lain against her breast and had had his cries hushed upon its aching warmth.

Just Pippa’s son, as Toto was Nita’s — this was all?

That the angels had breathed upon him and said to each other, “Let this little soul see light,” and then had dropped him softly on the waters, and so the white wise birds had found him and borne him to the Lastra, there to grow up and hear aobut him the music of the heaven he had been sent from — that had been intelligible to him, and had seemed quite natural and beautiful and true.

But Pippa’s son, as Toto was Nita’s!

This was pain to him and perplexity. It made all dark.

A child’s feet are bruised, and stumble on the sharp stones of a hard, physical, unintelligible fact.

He was much happier, in truth, than he had ever been: unbeaten, unstarved, unpunished; with only the free, fresh, open‐air toil to do; and the man’s strong affection about him for defence and repose; and often allowed to wander as he would and play as he chose, and dream unhindered as he liked; — his life on Bruno’s hillside was, beside his life in the Lastra with Lippo, as liberty by slavery, as sunshine by rain.

And yet a certain glow and glory were gone out of his day for him; because of the truth about himself which to himself was so much less easy of understanding than the vaguest fable or wildest miracle would have been.

Pippa’s son! — no brighter born or nearer heaven than that.

It was his faith and fancy that were bruised and drooped like the two wings of some little flying bird that a stone strikes.

The boy had something girlish in him, as men of genius have ever something of the woman; and all that was gentlest and simplest in him suffered under the substitution of this harsh, sad history of his birth, for all his pretty, foolish faiths and fancies.

But in all the manner of his life he was much happier.

In the country of Virgil, life remains pastoral still. The field labourer of northern countries may be but a hapless hind, hedging and ditching dolefully, or at best serving a steam‐beast with oil and fire; but in the land of the Georgics there is the poetry of agriculture still.

Materially it may be an evil and a loss — political economists will say so; but spiritually it is a gain. A certain peace and light lie on the people at their toil. The reaper with his hook, the plougher with his oxen, the girl who gleans amongst the trailing vines, the child that sees the flowers tossing with the corn, the men that sing to get a blessing on the grapes — they have all a certain grace and dignity of the old classic ways left with them. They till the earth still with the simplicity of old, looking straight to the gods for recompense. Great Apollo might still come down amidst them and play to them in their threshing‐barns, and guide his milk‐white breasts over their furrows — and there would be nothing in the toil to shame or burden him. It will not last. The famine of a world too full will lay it waste; but it is here a little while longer still.

To follow Tinello and Pastor e as they ploughed up and down the slanting fields under the vines, dropping the grain into each furrow as it was made; to cut the cane and lucerne for the beasts, and carry the fresh green sheaves that dripped dew and fragrance over him as he went; to drive the sheep up on to the high slopes, where the grass grew short and sweet, and the mosses were like velvet under th esotne pines, and lie there for hours watching the shadows come and go on the mountians, and the bees in the rosemary, and the river shining far down below; to load the ass and take him into the town with loads of tomatoes or artichokes or pumpkins or salads, as the season chanced to be, and ride him back amongst the hills, dreaming that the “cucco” was a war‐horse, and the pines the serried lines of spears, and he a paladin, like Rinaldo, of whom he had read in an old copy of the “Morgante Maggiore” that lay in the sacristan’s chest in the Lastra, the sacristan holding it profane but toothsome versifying; to keep watch over the grapes near vintage time in the clear moonlit nights when the falling stars flashed by scores across the luminous skes, and see the day‐dawn rise and the sun mount over the far Umbrian hills, and wake all the birds of all the fields and all the forests into song; to pluck the grapes when they were ripe, with the bronze leaves red and golden in the light, and load the waggon and dance on the wine‐press till his feet were purple, while all over the hillsides and along the fields by the water far and near the same harvest went on, with the echoes of the strife and the play and the laughter and the bursts of song making all the air musical from the city to the sea; — this was the labour that he had to do, with kindly words and with easy pauses of leisure, the passing of the months only told by the change of the seeds and the fruits and the blossoms, and by the violets and the crocuses in the fields giving place to the anemones and the daffodils, and they to the snow‐flakes and the narcissus, and they to the scarlet tulip and the blue iris, and they to the wild‐rose and the white broom, and they to the traveller’s joy and the yellow orchid, and so on through all the year, with as many flowers as there were hours.

The life on the hillside was full of peace for him, and wholesome labour and innocent freedom and all those charms of this country of sight and scent and sound which either are utterly unknown, unfelt, incomprehensible, or are joys strong as life and fair as children’s dreams; for men and women are always either blind to the things of earth and air, or have a passion for them: there is no middle‐way possible.

You shall know “the hope of the hills” in its utmost beauty, or know it never.

Signa did know it, small creature though he was, and wholly untaught; and the joy of the hills was with him day and night whilst he dwelt here so high in air, with the deep mountain stillness round him and the sky seeming nearer than the earth.

Weeks and months would go by, and he would not leave the hillside for an hour, having no other companions than the little wild hares and the gentle plough‐oxen and the blue jays that tripped amongst the white wakerobins, and the sheep that he would drive up under the beautiful red‐fruited arbutus thickets, while far down below the world looked only like a broad calm lake of sunshine — like a sea of molten gold.

The child was tranquillised, though he was saddened, by that perfect solitude.

It was the most peaceful time also that Bruno’s life, tempestuous though monotonous, had ever known.

Since he had lost the boy, he had come to know as he had never done before the full force of his great love for him. Signa was not to him only a creature that he cared for with all the strength of his nature, but he was like a soul committed to him straight and fresh from the hands of God, by care of which, and by all means of self‐devotion and self sacrifice, he was to redeem his own soul and to secure an everlasting life.

He did not reason this out iwht himself, because reasoning was not the habit of his mind; but it was what he felt every time that he bowed his head before an altar or knelt before a crucifix. He prayed, with all his heart in the prayers, that he might do the best for the lad in all ways.

Most days he went on bread himself that he might be able to give meat twice a week to the growing boy. He went to the fairs in the early day, and left them as soon as his traffic was done; so that he might not spend money in roystering, and get fighting as of old. He looked away from women, and strove not to be assailed by them; so as to waste his substance on their tempting. He laboured on his fields even earlier and later than he had ever done, to make them produce more; and so have means to get little trifles of pleasure or better nourishments for the boy. He grew more merciless at bargains, harder in buying and selling; he gave no man drink, and flung no feast‐day trinkets into women’s breasts: all the Tuscan keenness became intensified in him — he laboured for the boy.

Folks said that, losing his open‐handedness, he lost the one saving grace and virtue he had had in him: he let them say it — if he were pitiless on others he was no less so on himself. He combated the devil in him — what he called the devil — because he could not let the devil loose to riot in his blood, as he had used to do, without lessening the little he had, and that little would be the all of Pippa’s son.

Now that Signa was under his roof and always present with him, his love for the boy grew with each day. The sort of isolation in which his ill‐repute and evil tempers had placed him with his countryside, made the companionship and the affection of this little human thing more precious than it would have otherwise been.

And as Lippo’s story obtained footing more and more in the Lastra, and the taverner’s tale of how he had struck Lippo off the cart under the pony’s hoofs spread and took darker colours, men and women looked colder than ever upon him, and avoided him more and more. Why should they not? — since now he never bought their absolution with a drink and the cards for the one sex, and bold wooing and free money for the other.

So the years rolled quietly on, without incident and with no more noteworthy memory in them than the excellence or the paucity of the vintage, the large or small yield of the Turkish wheat, the birth and the sale of a calf, the dry weather and the wet.

Only to Bruno a great aim had been set, a great hope had arisen.

Before he had worked because he was born to work, now he worked because he had a great object to attain by every stroke that he drove into the soil, by every heat‐drop that fell from his brow like rain.

There was a little piece of ground on the hillside which was much neglected — a couple of fields, a strip of olives, and a breadth of wild land on which the broom and myrtle only grew. It ran with the land which Bruno farmed, and he had often looked at it longingly.

It was allowed to go to waste in a great degree; but Bruno knew the natural richness of the soil, and all that might be done with it; and it had the almost priceless advantage of a water‐course; a mountain‐fed rush‐feathered brook, running through it. To own a little bit of the land entirely is the peasant’s ideal of the highest good and glory, everywhere, in every nation. Nine times out of ten the possession is ruin to themselves and the land too. But this they never will believe till they have tried it.

It was Bruno’s ideal.

All the other land of the hillside was the duke’s, his padrone’s; that he never thought of possessing any farther than the sort of communism of the Tuscan husbandry already accorded it to him. But this little odd nook always haunted and tempted him to passionate longing for it.

It belonged to a carver and gilder down in the city. It was said that the man was poor and incapable, and often in difficulty. Bruno, who was not a very good Christian in these matters, used to wish ardently that the difficulty might drift as far as bankruptcy, and so the morsel of soil come into the market.

For he had an idea.

An idea that occupied him as he drove Tinello and Pastore under the vines, and looked across at those ill‐tilled fields, where the rosemary had it nearly all her own way, except where the bear’s berry and the wild cistus and the big sullen thistles, and the pretty little creeping fairy‐cups disputed possession. An idea that grew more alluring to him every night as he smoked his pipe before sleeping, and watched the first ripple of moonlight on the little brook under the brush‐reed, the gardener’s rush, and the water‐star.

It so grew with him that one day he acted on it, and put on a clean blue sht, and threw his best cloak over one shoulder with the scarlet lining of it turned back; and, being thus in the most ceremonious and festal guise that he knew of, he went first to his own fattore, who was a good old man and his true friend, and then took his way straight down in to the city.

A few weeks later Tinello and Pastore were driven through the rosemary and turned it upside down, and a pruning‐hook shone among the barren olives, and a sickle made havoc amongst the broom‐reeds in the little brown stream, and the gardener’s rush was cut too to tie the broom‐reeds up in bundles.

There was no one there to see except a neighbouring peasant or two, who knew Bruno of old too well to ask him questions; and the fattore, when he rattled up‐hill in his little baroccino, knew what was doing, and stopped to look with approval.

But when rumours of it in time filtered down the hillside to the city market‐place — as rumours will, trickling through all obstacles like water — and busybodies asked the carver and gilder in his dusky shop in the shadow of the Saints of Orsanmichele, whether it were true that he had sold the land or not, the man said, “No,” and said it angrily.

“How could any man,” he asked, “sell any place or portion of his own in this now‐law‐ beridden country without his hand and seal and all his goods and chattels and his price and poverty being written up and printed about for any gaping fool to read?”

Which was true: so the busybodies had to be content with conjecture; and Bruno, with whom the busybodies never meddled any more than dogs do with a wasps’‐nest, worked on the little nook of land at his odd hours, till the rosemary dared show her head nowhere, and the brook thought it only lived to bear brooms for the market.

This addition made Bruno’s work more laborious than ever; but then it was of his own chioce if he did so, and no affair of anyone’s. Besides, no one except its own peasants ever concerned themselves with what went on upon this big, bold, lonely hill, with its lovely colours and fragrant smells, that had the sunset blaze over it every night in burning beauty in weather serene, or dark with storm. It was his fattore’s business only, and his fattore was content.

And the carver and gilder was so, down in the city by Orsanmichele; for every month on a market‐day he had a little roll of much‐soiled bank‐notes, and these were so rare to him thay they were thrice welcome. Whatever else Bruno’s secret might be, he kept it — with a mountaineers silence, and a Tuscan’s reticence.

Tinello and Pastore turned the first sod of this bit of land in the month when Signa was found and Gemma lost; and Bruno always took an especial pleasure in sending the boy to work on that little brook‐fed piece of the hill rather than on any other.

He himself never neglected his own acres; but he took a yet greater pride in this small slope, which he had made golden with corn; and those old rambling trees, which he had made bear as fine olives as any on the whole mountain side.

On great feast or fast days — when even Bruno, who was not altogether as orthodox as his Parocco said he should be, in being useless on the hundred odd days out of the year that the Church enjoins, let his plough, and spade, and ass, and ox be idle — he would, as often as not, saunter down into this nook, taking the boy with him; and for hours would loiter through the twisted olive boughs, and sit by the side of the pretty, shallow, swift water running on under the sun and shade, with the tall distaff canes blowing above it, with a dreamy pleasure in it all, that he never took in the land, well as he loved it and cared for it, where his father’s fathers had lived and died, ever since Otho’s armies had swarmed down through the Tyrol passes, and spread over the Lombard and the Tuscan lands.

“You are so fond of the these three fields. Why is it?” said Signa, one day, to him, when they walked through the green plumes of the maize that grew under the olives.

“They were barren; and see what they are now. I have done it,” answered Bruno.

And the boy was satisfied, and cut the brook reeds into even lengths, sitting singing, with his feet in the brook and his face in the sun.

He thought so little about these things: he was always puzzling his brain over the old manuscript music down in the sacristy in the Lastra. Whenever Bruno let him go off the hillside he ran thither, and sat with his curly head bent over the crabbed signs and spaces, sitting solitary in the window that looked on the gravestones, with the ruined walls and the gateway beyond, all quiet in the sunshine.

The music which the old Gigi had most cared for and copied, and gathered together in dusky, yellow piles of pages, was that which lies between the periods of Marcello of Venice, and Paësiello, and which is neglected by a careless and ingrate world, and seldom heard anywhere except in obscure, deserted towns of Italy, or in St. Peter’s itself.

There was no one to tell Signa anything about this old music, on which he was nourished.

The names of the old masters were without story for him. There was no one to give them story or substance; to tell him of Haydn serving Porpora as a slave; of Vinci, chief of counterpoint, dying of love’s vengeance; of Paësiello gathering the beautiful, savage, Greek airs of the two Sicilys to put into his operas, as wild flowers into a wreath of laurel; of Cimarosa in his dungeon, like a blinded nightingale, bringing into his music all the gay, rich, elastic mirth of the birth country of Pasquin and Polichinello; of Leo marrying the sweet words of Metastasio to sweetest melody; of the dying Mozart writing his own requiem; of the little scullion, Lully, playing in the kitchen of the Guise the violin that the cobbler had taught him to use; of Stradella, by the pure magic of his voice, arresting the steel of his murderer on the evening stillness of San Giovanni Lateranno; of Pergolese breaking his heart under the neglect of Rome, while Rome — he once being dead — loved and worshipped him, and mourned him with bitter tears, and knew no genius like his; of Jacopo Benedetti, the stern advocate, leaving the world because the thing he loved was slain, and burying his life in the eternal night of a monk’s cell, and as he penned his mighty chaunts, and being questioned wherefore, answering weeping, “I weep, because Love goes about unloved.”

There was no one to tell him all these things, and make the names of his dead masters living personalites to him. Indeed, he knew no more than he knew the magnitude of the planets and distance of the stars, that these names which he found printed on the torn, yellow manuscripts, a century old or more, were of any note in the world beyond his own blue hills.


But he spelt the melodies out, and was nourished on them:— on this pure Italian music of the Past, which has embalmed in it the souls of men who followed Raffaelle, and Mino, and Angelico, and Donatello, and who breathed in all the mountain‐begotten and sea‐born greatness of “il bel paese Ch’Appenninen parte e’l mar circonda, e l’Alpi”— men who were as morning stars of glory, that rose in the sunset of the earlier arts.

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