Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 6.

“YOU never come to the garden now,” said Palma. “You are always in the sacristy.”

“The music is there, and Gigi will not let me bring it away,” said Signa.

“But what do you want with that music?” said Palma. “You make it so beautifully out of your own head.”

Signa sighed.

“I learn more — playing theirs. You like my music; but how can I tell? — it may be worth nothing — it may be like the sound of the mule’s bells, perhaps.”

“It is beautiful,” said Palma.

She did not know what else to say. She meant very much more than that.

Signa was fifteen now, and she was the same.

Palma was a tall, brown girl; very strong, and somewhat handsome. She had her dark hair in great coils, like rope, round her head; and she had an olive skin, and big brown eyes, like a dog’s. She had a very rough poor gown, far too short for her, and torn in very many places; she wore no shoes, and she worked very hard.

She was only a very poor common girl; living on roots and herbs; doing field work in all weathers; just knowing her letters, but that was all; rising in the dark, and toiling all day long till nightfall, at one thing or another. And yet, with all that, she had a certain poetry of look in her — a kind of distant kinship to those old saints of Memmi’s on their golden grounds, those figures of Giotto’s with the fleur‐de‐lys or the palms. Most Tuscans have this still — or more or less.

With the rest and food that Bruno allowed to him, and the strong hill air, which is like wine, Signa, from a little, thin, pale child, had grown into a beautiful youth: he was very slender, and not so strong as the young contadini round him; but the clear, colourless brown of his skin was healthful; and his limbs were agile and supple; and his face had a great loveliness in it, like that of Guercino’s Sleeping Endymion. And his empress of the night had come down and kissed him, and he dreamed only of her; she was invisible yet filled all the air of heaven; and men called her Music — not knowing very well of what god she comes, or whither she leads them, or of what unknown worlds she speaks.

It was a noon, and Palma had snatched a moment of leisure to gnaw a black crust, and to sit under the south wall, and to talk to Signa, who had come for melon‐seeds for Bruno.

She loved him dearly; but he did not care very much for her. All the love he had in him outside his music he gave to Bruno.

Bruno he had grown to love strongly since the story by the sea; he did not wholly understand the intense devotion of the man to himself, but he understood it enough to feel its immeasurable value.

With Palma and him it was still the same as it had been on the night of the white currants and green almonds. He kissed her carelessly and she was passionately grateful. They had been playmates, and they were often companions now.

Only he thought so little about her, and so much of the Rusignuolo, and the old manuscripts in the Misericordia Church.

And Palma knew nothing; which is always tiresome to one who knows something, and wants to know a great deal more, as Signa did. The lot of an eager, enquiring, visionary mind, cast back on it own ignorance, always makes it impatient of itself and of its associates.

The boy felt like one who can see amongst blind people: no one could under stand what he wanted to talk about; no one had beheld the light of the sky.

Palma indeed loved to hear his music. But that did not make her any nearer to him. He did not care for human ears.

He played for himself, for the air, for the clouds, for the trees, for the sheep, for the kids, for the waters, for the stones; played as Pan did, and Orpehus and Apollo.

His music came from heaven and went back to it. What did it matter who heard it on earth?

A lily would listen to him as never a man could do; and a daffodil would dance with delight as never woman could; — or he thought so at least, which was the same thing. And he could keep the sheep all round him, charmed and still, high above on the hillside, with the sad pines sighing.

What did he want with people to hear? He would play for them; but he did not care. If they felt it wrongly, or felt it not at all, he would stop, and run away.

“If they are deaf I will be dumb,” he said. “The dogs and the sheep and the birds are never deaf — nor the hills — nor the flowers. It is only people that are deaf. I suppose they are always hearing their own steps and voices and wheels and windlasses and the cries of the children and the hiss of the frying‐pans. I suppose that is why. Well let them be deaf. Rusignuolo and I do not want them.”

So he said to Palma under the south wall, watching a butterfly, that folded was like an illuminated shield of black and gold, and with its wings spread was like a scarlet pomegranate blossom flying. Palma had asked him why he had run away from the bridal supper of Griffeo, the coppersmith’s son — just in the midst of his music; run away home, he and his violin.

“They were not deaf,” resumed Palma, “But your music was so sad — and they were merry.”

“I played what came to me,” said Signa.

“But you are merry sometimes.”

“Not in a little room with oilwicks burning, and a stench of wine, and people round me. People always make me sad.”

“Why that?”

“Because — I do not know:— when a number of faces are round me I seem stupid; it is as if I were in a cage; I feel as if God went away, farther, farther, farther!”

“But God made men and women.”

“Yes. But I wonder if the trapped birds, and the beaten dogs, and the smarting mules, and the bleeding sheep think so.”

“Oh, Signa!”

“I think they must doubt it,” said Signa.

“But the beasts are not Christians, the priests say so,” said Palma, who was a very true believer.

“I know. But I think they are. For they forgive. We never do.”

“Some of us do.”

“Not as the beasts do. Agnoto’s house‐lamb, the other day, licked his hand as he cut its throat. He told me so.”

“That was because it loved him,” said Palma.

“And how can it love if it have not a soul?” said Signa.

Palma munched her crust. This sort of meditation, which Signa was very prone to wander in, utterly confused her.

She could talk at need, as others could, of the young cauliflowers, and the spring lettuces, and the chances of the ripening corn, and the look of the budding grapes, and the promise of the weather, and the likelihood of drought, and the Parocco’s last sermon, and the gossips’ last history of the neighbours, and the varying prices of fine and of coarse plaiting; but anything else — Palma was more at ease with the heavy pole pulling against her, and the heavy bucket coming up from the water‐hole.

She felt, when he spoke in this way, much as Bruno did — only far more intensely — as if Signa went away from her — right away into the sky somewhere — as the swallows went when they spread their wings to the east, or the blue wood‐smoke when it vanished.

“You love your music better than you do Bruno, or me, or anything, Signa,” she said, with a little sorrow that was very humble, and not in the least reproachful.

“Yes,” said Signa, with the unconscious cruelty of one in whom Art is born predominant. “Do you know, Palma,” he said suddenly, after a pause. “Do you know — I think I could make something beautiful, something men would be glad of, if only I could be where they would care for it.”

“We do care,” said the girl gently.

“Oh in a way. That is not what I mean,” said the boy, with a little impatience which daily grew on him more, for the associates of his life. “You all care; you all sing; it is as the finches do in the fields, without knowing at all what it is that you do. You are all like birds. You pipe — pipe — pipe, as you eat, as you work, as you play. But what music do we ever have in the churches? Who amongst you really likes all that music when I play it off the old scores that Gigi says were written by such great men, any better than you like the tinkling of the mandolines when you dance in the threshing barns? I am sure you all like the mandolines best. I know nothing here. I do not even know whether what I do is worth much or nothing. I think if I could hear great music once — if I could go to Florence —”

“To Florence?” echoed Palma.

It was to her as if it were a thousand leagues off. She could see the gold cross, and the red roofs, and the white towers gleam far away in the plain against the mountains whence the dawn came, and she had a confused idea that the sun rose somehow out of the shining dome; but it was to her like some foreign land: girls live and old women die within five miles of the cities, and never travel to see them once; to the peasant his paese — his hamlet — is the world. A world wide enough, that serves to hold him from his swaddling bands to his grave clothes.

“To Florence,” said Signa. “There must be great music there. But Bruno will never let me go. If there be vegetables to take to the city, he takes them himself. He says that cities are to boys as nets to birds.”

“But why?” began Palma, having eaten her crust, and with her hands braiding the straws one in another.

But Signa pursued his own thoughts aloud:

“There is a score of a man called Handel in the church. It is part of what they call an oratorio; a kind of sacred play, I suppose, that must be. It is marked to be sung by a hundred voices. Now, to hear that — a hundred voices! I would give my life.”

“Would it be better than to hear some one singing over the fields?” said Palma.

Signa sighed.

“You do not understand. The singing over the fields, yes, that is beautiful too. But it is another thing. Some one has scribbled in old yellow ink on some of the scores. In one place they wrote, ‘The Miserere of Jomelli, sung in the Sistine this Day of Ashes, 1752; fifty‐five voices, very fine.’ Dear! To hear that! — it must be to singing in the fields like the lightning on the hills to a glowworm.”

“The lightning kills,” said Palma, meaning simply what she said, and not knowing that she pointed a moral in metaphor.

“I must go back with the seeds, Palma,” said the boy, rising from under the old south wall.

He was not vexed with her, only no one understood — no one, as he said to the Rusignuolo, when he went home with the basket slung at his back, playing the violin as he went over the hills, as his habit was, while the little children ran down through the vines to listen, and the sheep stood on the ledges of the rocks to hear, and the hollowed crevices gave the sound back in faint, sweet, faithful echo.

Palma, plaiting as she walked, went to her father’s cottage, and laid her straw aside, and twisted her short skirt as high as her knees, and went down into the cabbage bed and worked; hard labour that made her back bend like an osier, and her brown skin wet with heat, and her feet cold and black with the clinging soil.

He lived in the air like a white‐winged fringuillo; and she in the clods like a poor blind mole.

“We are nothing to him, anyone of us,” she thought, and a dew that was not a raindrop fell for a moment on the crisp green cabbage leaves.

But she hoed and weeded and picked off the slugs, and scolded herself for crying, and laboured ceaselessly all the afternoon over the heavy earth; and then put a pile of the cabbages into a great kreel, and carried it on her back into the Lastra, and sold it for a few coppers; and then went home again to make her brother’s shirts, and draw the water that filled the troughs of bark that ran across the plot of ground, and clean her poor little hovel as well as she could with five boys and a pig and hens and chickens always sprawling on the floor; and when the sun set, washed the mud off her limbs, and climbed the rickety ladder into the hole in the roof, where her straw mattress was, with two bits of wood nailed in the shape of a cross above it.

Palma worked very hard. In winter, when the bitter mountain wind was driving everything before it in a hurricane whose breath was ice, she had to be up and out in the frosty dark before day, no less than in the soft dusk of the summer dawns. She had all the boys to attend to and stitch for; her father’s clothes to make; the cottage to keep clean as best she might: she had to dig and hoe, and plant the slip of ground on which their food grew: she had to help her father often in the great gardens: she had to stand on the square stone well, and draw the water up by the cord and beam, which is a hard task even for a man to do, long together; and, finally, in all weathers, she had to trudge wherever she was wanted, for the good‐natured Sandro was as lazy as he was cheery, and put labour on what shoulders he could, so only they were not his own.

If ever she had a minute’s leisure, she spent it in plaiting, and so got a few yards down a week, and a few coppers to add to the household store; for they were very poor, with that absolute poverty which is often glad to make soup of nettles and weeds; frequent enough here, and borne with a smiling patience which it might do grumbling northern folk, whose religion is discontent, some good to witness if they could.

This was Palma’s life always; day after day; with no variety, except that sometimes it was cabbages, and sometimes lettuces, and sometimes potatoes, and sometimes tomatoes; and that when the sun did not grill her like a fire, the north wind nipped her like a vice; and when the earth was not baked like a heated brick, it was a sodden mass that she sunk into like a bog. This was always her life.

Now and then she went to a festival of the saints, and put a flower in her rough black braids as her sole means of holy‐day garb; and twice a year at Ceppo and at Pasqua tasted a bit of meat. But that was all: otherwise her round of hours never changed, no more than the ass’s in the brick‐kiln mill.

Nevertheless she put up her cross above her bed, and never laid herself down without thanking the Heavenly Mother for all the blessings she enjoyed.

The State should never quarrel with the Churches. They alone can bind a band on the eyes of the poor, and like the lying watchmen, cry above the strife and storm of the sad earth, “All’s well! All’s well!”

Palma never thought for a minute that her lot was a hard one. Her one great grief had been losing Gemma. Under all else she was happy enough; a brave, and cheerful, and kindly girl, and with no evil habit or coarse thought in her; and pure as Una, though she had to stand on the well‐ edge with bare arms and legs, gleaming like a bronze in the sun, and the wind blowing her poor thin skirt like a leaf.

Meanwhile the boy went up the hillside thinking not at all about her.

He was thinking of an epitaph he ahd seen in an old book the day before — an epitaph from a tomb under an altar of St. Simon and St. Jude in Rome:—


He was thinking how beautiful a thing it would be to die, if one were sure of having “Musicæ Princeps” written above one’s rest under the golden glory of St. Peter’s dome.

He was no longer content, like the boy Haydn, over a wormeaten clavecin — content with the pleasure of sound and of fancy, and pitying kings because they were not as he.

He was no longer content thus.

The desire of eternal fame — the desire of the moth for the star — had entered into him.

He had no thought to be unkind to those he lived with; but he became so, innocently and unwittingly.

All his mind and heart were with those crabbed manuscripts in the sacristy, and with the innumerable harmonies and combinations thronging in his brain. He wanted to learn; he wanted to understand; he wanted to know how others had been able to leave to the world, after their death, those imperishable legacies of thought and sound. He could only dream uselessly; puzzle himself uncertainly; wonder hopelessly: he thought he had power in him too something great, but how could he be sure?

Meanwhile he was only a little peasant riding out with the barrels of wine, pruning the olives, shelling the maize, driving the cow up to her pasture under the pines. And Bruno said always, “when you come after me”—“when you are a man grown and sell corn in the town market yourself”—“when you are old enough to go in on a Friday and barter”— and ten thousand other phrases like these, all pointing to one future for him as the needle points to the pole.

The boy was heavy hearted as he went up the hills.

Sometimes he was ungrateful enough to wish that Bruno had never followed and found him on the sea‐shore; that he had wandered away with Gemma into the dim tangle of an unknown fate. All his affections clave to the beautiful mountain world on which he lived; but all his unsatisfied instincts fluttered like young birds with longing for far flight.

Sometimes he wondered if there were any great man whom he could ask — and was vexed that he had lost the little bit of paper by the waterside the night he had run from the Lastra. It might have been of use — who could tell?

“Are you tired?” said Bruno, that evening. “You should not tire. At your age I could walk from here to Prato and back, and never a bead on my forehead nor a muscle weary.”

“I am not tired,” said Signa. “I was thinking.”

“You are always thinking. What good does it do?”

“I was thinking:— ever so many hundred years ago, down in the city, I have read that three men, a Corsi, a Bardi, and a Strozzi, found poet and composer, musician and singers, all themselves, and gave the city an opera in Palace Corsi; the second it ever heard. Are there any nobles like that now?”

“I do not know. And how can you tell what an opera is?”

“I can fancy it. Gigi has told me.”

“An opera is a pretty thing. I do not deny it,” said Bruno, too true a son of the soil to be deaf to the charms of the stage. “When I was a youngster; indeed always before — before I had more to do with my money — I was for ever going down to get a standing‐place in the summer theatre: the women round you, and the fine music, and the big moon overhead — oh, yes, I used to care for it very much; but after all they are follies.”

“Would you let me go — and hear one?”

Signa’s eyes lit, all the paleness and fatigue went out of his face, he looked up at Bruno as a spaniel at his master.

“What for?” said Bruno, sharply. “If you want merrymaking, they dance every night down at Fiastra, the girls and the boys.”

Signa’s face fell; he went without a word into his own little bedchamber.

To jump about in the droll Tuscan rigadoon, and to whirl round plump Netta or black Tina — that was not what he wanted. But how could Bruno understand?

He could hear the sound of the bell from the roof of the Fiastra farm, calling the dancers along the hillside, but he shut his door and sat down on his bed and took out his violin.

After all, it was the only thing that could understand him.

His small sqaure casement was open; clematis flowers hung about it; the vast plain was a vague silvery sea, full of all the beautiful mysteries of night.

He played awhile, then let the Rusignuolo fall upon his knee and the bow drop. What use was it? Who would ever hear it?

The fatal desire of fame, which is to art the corroding element, as the desire of the senses is to love — bearing with it the seeds of satiety and mortality — had entered into him, without his knowing what it was that ailed him.

When he had been a little child, he had been quite happy if only the sheep had heard his music, and only the wandering watercourse answered it. But now it was otherwise. He wanted human ears to hear; he wanted all the millions of the earth to sing in chorus with him.

And no one of them ever would.

The power in him frightened him iwth its intensity and its longing: his genius called on him as the Jehovah of Israel called on the lad David: and, at the summons of the solemn unseen majesty, all the childhood and the weakness in him trembled.

He sat quite quiet, with the violin upon his knee, and his eyes staring out at the starry skies.

The heavens were brilliant with constellations: Red Antares flamed in the south; the Centaur lifted his head; and radiant Spica smiled upon the harvest. The moon was at the full, and all the sky was light, but it did not obscure “the length of Orphiuchus large,” nor the many stars held in the Herdsman’s hand, nor the brilliancy of Altair and Vega.

Bruno, working out of doors under the house‐wall, heaving up the buckets from the tank, and watering his salad plants in the evening coolness, noticed the silence. He was used to hear the sweet sad chords of the Rusignuolo all the evenings through, outstripping the living nightingale’s song.

“Perhaps he is beginning not to care for it,” he thought; and was glad, because he was always jealous of that thing, for whose sake the boy was so often deaf and blind to everything around him.

“When he knows what I have done,” thought he, letting the bucket down in to the splashing water, that glittered like a jewel in the starlight. “When he knows all I have down, and sees his future so safe, and feels the manhood in him, and knows he will be his own master, then all these fancies will go by fast enough. Strong he never will be perhaps, and he will always have thoughts that no one can get at. But he will be so happy and so proud, and his music will just be a toy for him — nothing more: just a toy, as Cecco’s chitarra is when he takes it up out of work‐hours. He will put away childish things — when he knows the saints have been merciful to me.”

And he stopped to cross himself, before he took up the rope and drew up the pail and flung the water over the rows of thirsty green plants.

The saints had been merciful to him.

All things had thriven with him since the day he had told the truth in the Lastra. The seasons had been fair and prosperous. The harvests large. The vintage propitious. There had not been one bad year, from the time he had taken the boy home in the face of his neighbours. Everything had gone well with him. It seemed to him that every grain he had put into the earth had multiplied a millionfold; that every green thing he had thrust into the mould had brought forth and multiplied byeond all common increase.

He had laboured hard, doing the work of three men; sparing himself no moment for leisure or recreation; crushing out of himself all national inborn habits of rest, or of passion; denying himself all indulgences of the body; toiling without cessation when the hot earth was burning under the months of the lion and scorpion, as when the snows drifted thick in the ravines of the Apennines. And now his reward was almost at hand.

He almost touched the crown of all his labour.

He thanked the saints and crossed himself, then flung the last shower of water over his plants, and went indoors to his bed with a heart at ease.

“He is tired of his toy; he is not playing,” he thought, as he closed the household bars and beams against the sultry lustre of the night, and set his old gun loaded against his side, and threw his strong limbs on his mattress with a sigh of weariness and a smile of content.

After all he had done well by Pippa’s child:— in a very little while he would have bought the boy’s safe future, and housed it from all risks, so far as it is ever possible for any man to purchase the good‐will of fate.


The saints were very merciful, thought Bruno; and so thinking fell into sleep with the stillness and the fragrance of the summer night all about him in the quiet house.

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