Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 7.

FOUR months later, on a Sunday morning, Signa and he walked to their own parish church over the ploughed land for early mass.

The bells were ringing all over the plains below. Their distant melodies crossing one another came upward on the cool, keen air.

The church was exceeding old, with an upright tower, very lofty and ruddy coloured, and with an open belfry that showed the iron clapper swaying to and fro, and the ropes jerking up and down, as the sound of the tolling echoed along the side of the hill.

The brown fields and the golden foilage sloped above and below and around it. A beautiful ilex oak rose in a pyramid of bronzed foilage against its roof. The few scattered peasant who were its parishoners went one by one into the quietness and darkness and stillness. The old priest and a little boy performed the offices. The door stood open. They could see the blue mountain side and the vines and the tufts of grass.

Bruno this morning was more cheerful and of more gaiety of words than the boy had ever seen him. His character was deeply tinged with that melancholy which is natural to men of his country, where their passions are strong, and which lends its dignity to all the coutenances of Sarto’s saints, or Giotto’s angels, of Fra Bartolemmeo’s prophets, or Ghirlandaio’s priests, countenances that anyone may see to‐day in the fields of harvest, or in the threshing‐barns, anywhere where the same sun shines that once lit the early painters to their work.

Bruno kneeled down on the bricks of the old hill church with the truest thanksgiving in him that ever moved a human heart; one of the desires of his soul had been given him; going through the fields he had thought, “Shall I tell him yet? — or wait a little.” And told himself to wait till he should get the boy down to the borders of the brook quite in solitude.

With labour he had compassed the thing he wished. He had made the future safe by the toil of his hands. He was happy, and he blessed God.

Kneeling on the red bricks, with the moutain wind blowing over him, he said to himself:

“I think Pippas must know. The saints are good. They would tell her.”

He breathed freely, with a peace and joy in his life that he had not known since the dark night when he had let the dead boy drift out to the sea.

A sunbeam came in through a chink in the stone wall, and made a little glow of silvery light upon the pavement where he knelt. He thought it was Pippa’s answer.

He rose with a glad light shining in his eyes.

“We will not work to‐day,” he said, when the office was over.

Usually he did work after mass.

They went home, and they had coffee and bread. Coffee was a thing for feast days. He went outside and cut a big cluster of yellow Muscat grapes, growing on his south wall, which he had left purposely when he had taken all the others off the vine for market.

He laid them on Signa’s wooden platter.

“They are for you,” he said. “It is fruit for a prince.”

Signa wanted to share them with him, but he would not. He lighted his pipe and smoked, sitting on the stone bench by his door under the mulberry. Under his brows he watched the boy, who leaned against the table plucking his grapes with one hand, and with the other making figures with a pencil on the paper.

Signa’s lithe, slender limbs had a girl’s grace in them; his shut mouth had a sweet sereneness; his drooped eyelids had a dreamy sadness; his lashes shadowed his cheeks; his hair fell over his forehead; he was more than ever like the Sleeping Endymion of Guercino.

But he was not asleep. He was awake; but only awake in a world very far away from the narrow space of four walls in which his body was.

“You look like a picture there is in the city,” said Bruno, suddenly, who had stalked through the Tribune as contadini do. “The lad in it has the moon behind him, and he dreams of the moon, and the moon comes and kisses him — so Cecco, the cooper, said — and never of another thing did the boy think, sleeping or waking, but of the moon, which made herself a woman. Is the moon behind you? You look like it.”

Signa raised his head and his long dusky lashes; he had not heard distinctly; he was intent upon the figures he was making.

“I have never seen the city,” he said, absently; “never since I used to run in, when I was little, after Baldo’s donkey.”

“What are you doing there?” said Bruno, looking enviously at the pencil; he was envious of all these unknown things, which he always felt were so much better loved by the boy than ever he was or would be himself.

Signa coloured to his curls.

“I was writing — music.”

“Write music! How can you write a thing that is all sound? You talk nonsense.”

“I think it is right,” said Signa, wistfully. “Only I cannot be sure. There is nobody to tell me. Gigi thinks it is correct — but impossible. He thinks no one could ever play it. I can play it. But then I hear it. That is different.”

“Hear the paper? You get crazed!” said Bruno. “Dear — you get too old to dream of all this nonsense. Your Rusignuolo is a pretty toy enough, and you play so that it is a joy to listen to you. That I grant. But it is a childish thing at best, and gets no man his bread. Look at the old beggar Maso who wanders about with his flute. Music has brought him to that pass.”

“The beggar Maso says that men, by music, have been greater than kings,” murmured Signa, with his eyes dropped again on his score.

“Then he lies, and shall get a crust at this door no more,” said Bruno, in hot haste.

For the world was a sealed book to him, and music a thing universal but of no account, like the meadow‐mint that sweetened the fields; a thing of a shepherd’s pipe, and a young girl’s carol, and the throats of the villagers at Passion week masses, and the mandolines of lovers and merrymakers going home on S. Anna’s Eve through the vines after dance and drink.

Signa sighed, and bent his head closer over his paper. He never disputed. He was not sure enough of the little he knew.

“You like it better than the grapes,” said Bruno, with vexed irritation. He had saved the grapes two months and more with the thoughts of Signa’s pleasure in them always at his heart. It was a little thing — a nothing. But still —

Signa folded up his paper and ate his grapes, with a flush almost of guilt on his face. All his soul was in the concerto that he was writing.

He had found his own way through the secrets of composition by instinct — for genius is instinct, only a higher and stronger form of it than any other. The sacristan knew a little — a very little; but that little had been enough to give the boy a key to the mysteries of the science of sound.

Who can think that Raffaelle would have been less Raffaelle, even though Sanzio had been a breaker of stones, and Perugino a painter of signs?

Genius is like a ray of the sun:— from what it passes through, it will take its passing colour; but no pollution of air, of water, no wall of granite, no cloud of dust, no pool of mire, will turn it back, or make it less the sunray.

Bruno blamed himself that he should have said a hasty word. The fire ran off his tongue unawares. When all his heart and mind wre full of the boy, he felt impatient to see that blank paper — those dots without meaning — raised in rivalry with him, and outstripping him.

“Dear,” he said, very gently, and putting his hand on Signa’s shoulder; “come down to the brook with me, will you? I have something to say; and I talk best in the air, though talk is no great trick of mine at the best.”

Signa rose obediently — he always obeyed. But, by sheer habit, and reached down the Rusignuolo from the top of the chest.

Bruno saw, and his brows drew together.

“Always that thing!” he thought; but he said nothing.

They went out into the air.

The little book was brimming from the autumn rains; it is these little brooks that bring about the great floods. The reeds and rushes were blowing merrily: no one cut them this time in the year. Red‐breasted chaffinches were bathing and chirping. Fir‐apples were tossing down in the ripples. The grass was bright with the cups of the autumn anemones, in all colours. Robins were singing in the olives; and, higher, a cushat cooed.

Bruno stopped and looked at it all, with a smile in his eyes; — a smile proud and full of peace.

“Sit here, dear,” he said, pushing the boy gently down on a large boulder of brown stone.

He remained standing still, with always the same look in his eyes.

He laid his hand on Signa’s shoulder. His voice, as he spoke, was low, and very soft.

“It is sixteen years to‐day since I found you by your mother. She had her arm round you. You had your mouth at her breast. She was dead. It was the night of the great flood. Sixteen years ago, dear. You must be seventeen now; for they said — the women who knew — that you looked a year old, or more, that night.”


Signa lifted his head and listened. All this he knew, and it had always a certain sharp pain for him.

“Yes,” said Bruno, and paused a moment. “Sixteen years. The first nine went all wrong. But I thought I did well. I think Pippa sees you now — and is content — and quite forgives. You are a pure, good, frank boy, and fair to look at; and have no fault, if one may say so of any mortal thing. God knows I do not speak in idle praise; no, nor in vanity. You are as nature made you. But your mother would be glad. Now, dear, listen. When one is seventeen, one is not a child any more; one begins to labour for oneself, to think of the future! At twelve I was more a man than you are now, indeed; but that — so best — so best — so best! Keep young. Keep innocent. Innocence does not come back: and repentance is a poor thing beside it.”

Signa listened, with earnest upraised eyes, his feet hanging in the fast, brown water, the vioin lying by him amongst the anemone flowers and the brown plantain stems.

“I have been tormented for your future,” said Bruno. “Yes; very often. For if I die to‐morrow, I have thought what would become of you? — and I had nothing to leave! And you — oh, you labour well and cheerfully for me, dear. I do not mean that; but for others, there are stronger lads, and hardier; and who like field toil more, and do not dream at all. And you do dream — too much. I have been tormented often, when I have been roofing the stacks, and have thought — just a fall and a blow on the head for me, and where would the lad find a home?”

Signa laid his cheek against the hand that rested on his shoulder — a long, brown, sinewy hand, good to grasp a weapon or wield a flail.

“For you see,” went on Bruno, his eyes shining as they glanced down on the boy’s face, and then at the old olive trees and the brown fields corn‐sown, “while that treacherous beast was draining me, I could hardly keep myself together; much less could I well lay by for you. A few francs in an old bag, at the end of a year, that was all, do what I would. But I had often looked at these three fields and the olives. If I could get them for my own, I thought; but it was hopeless. What could I do, with the snake coiling and sucking always, and all his brood? But when I got you safe that day, away from the Lastra and Lippo, and I was all my own master, then I said to myself — it is possible, just possible! So I went first to the fattore, and got his consent, and showed him my plans, and he had nothing against them; and then I went down into the city and saw Baccio Alessi. Oh, you do not know. That is that ass who let the thistles he ought to sup off choke up all this good soil. I went straight in to Baccio — the fool was gilding a frame — and I put straight before him: all I would give and do. I found he was half willing to sell; wanted three thousand francs — for me, he might as well have said three millions! I could not get it anywhere, even Savio would not lend it, though I would have worked it out — somehow. But I laid my plan before Baccio; we both cunning as rats, and slow and sure; and at last we came to terms, hammering away at them for days and days. I was to have the land to farm, in the way that seemed best to me; and I was to give him half I got off it for ten years, and two hundred and fifty francs a‐year as well, paid monthly; and at the end of the ten years the ground was to be mine — mine — mine!”

Bruno stopped; his breath came quickly; his hand tightened on the boy’s shoulder.

Signa looked up, listening; but calmer than Bruno had fancied he would be. To him it was such a gigantic thing, and so marvellous; he wondered the boy could hear it and keep so quiet and sit so still.

“You know all I have done to the land,” he pursued. “You can see. You are farmer enough to judge that, my dear. But I have never neglected anything on the old soil — no, Savio says that. He is quite content that it is as it is. He praises me to the padrone; only the padrone is so gay, and young; it is not matter to him. Now when that fool Baccio yonder saw what his half became, and all I got out of his ground, he was for being off his bargain. Of course. But I have him tight, hand and seal, and good testimony to it. A Tuscan is no bird to catch with chaff. He was grieved in his soul, I can believe, when he saw all the land would give. But that of course was no business of mine. Now this last summer — the saints are good to one — Baccio, who is a shiftless dolt, and leaks on all sides like a rust‐eaten pipkin, got deeper and deeper into his troubles, and was as well‐nigh being sold up by his creditors as a man can be to deep head above water at all. Now, dear, you have never been stinted for anything? No? You have had all the food you wished for, and all the leisure time you wanted, and I do not think you have ever had a narrow measure of anything? Nevertheless, I saved money. When Savio had taken his dues, and Baccio had had his month’s portion, I was always able to put away something in that old copper pot, that I slip in the chimney, where nobody ever would look for it; not even a magpie. So, when I heard the fool was so nigh his rope’s end, I counted my money. I had six hundred francs, and there were two years to run under Baccio. I went down and saw him. I told him I would give him the money down if the land were made mine at once. The poor devil sprang at the chance. He thought the money would help him over the bog of his debts; and he knew in a month or two, if I did not have his bit of land, the creditors would take it, and divide it between them. So he asked nothing better than to do what I wished. He had lost the courage to higgle. I paid him the money down on the nail, and the notary made the ground over to me, for ever and ever. Do you understand, dear? It is mine!”

Signa smiled up in his eyes.

“How glad I am — if you are glad!”

“If I am glad!”

Bruno looked at him bewilderedly. Was the lad stupid or blind, that he did not know — that he did not guess? and with those three fair fine fields of wheat, and those good olives round him in the sun as plain and as fair to be seen as the gold disc round the head of the Gesu child on the altars?

“Glad!” he echoed; “be glad for yourself, too, dear. Do you not understand? What is mine is yours. I have worked the land for you. It shall be your inheritance, Signa. No, rather, when you are of age, my dear, I shall make it over to you, in your own name, and then you will be your own master, Signa. Your own master — do you understand?”

Signa sprung up and threw his arms round the man’s brown neck.

“You are so good — so good! To care for me like that; to think so much; to work so hard. Oh! What can I do in answer?”

Bruno was silent. He was always ashamed of emotion, and he was vaguely disappointed. What the boy felt was gratitude, not joy; not, in any way, the great enraptured pride of possession, which Bruno had expected would have filled his young heart to overflowing.

For seven years he had toiled night and day, and denied himself all rest of the body, or pleasure of the senses, that he might make this one portion of mother earth his own. And now, the boy loved him for his love indeed; but for the gift — did he care for it? Not so much as he did for the gift of a blank sheet of paper to scrawl signs on. No one tithe as much as he had cared for the gift of the old brown wooden Rusignuolo.

He put Signa gently away from him, and sat down also by the side of the singing brook.

“You do not quite understand,” he said, and his voice had a changed sound in it, and his throat felt dry. “Dear, you are seventeen, as I said, and it is time to think of the future. Now that is why having this land makes me so much at peace. Do you not see? It will be all your own; and on it alone a man could live. Oh, yes, live well, if we build up a little house on it, and the stones lie so near hereabouts, and Savio would get me leave to take them, and there is a brambly corner there by the last olive. But that is not what I am thinking of; I daresay I shall live to be old; I am tough as an ox; and threatened men never die, they say, and so many would like to stick a knife in me; still, anything may happen. And now, what I mean is this: this land shall be yours, your own entirely, as fast and as sure as the notaries can bind it; and then, when I do die, you learning to be a good husbandman, and having all the produce of your own fields to do as you like with, and so getting to care for the work as you do not yet, because you are so young, Savio will let you stay on in my place in the old cottage, where your mother was born; and you will marry, and have children, and grow a rich contadino — and there is no better life under the sun, no, not anywhere; and so your future is safe, my dear, do you see, and that is why I thank God. Because I have lain awake many an hour, saying to myself if I should die to‐morrow, or be killed in a brawl, what would the boy do? But now you are safe, quite safe for all your life long, because you have your own bit of land to live on, and get your bread out of, and that is the sweetest thing that the world holds for any man; and so I bless the saints that they have let me get it for you, and — and I think Pippa knows.”

His voice fell low, and he uncovered his dark curly head, and made the sign of the cross on his breast.


The boy kissed his hand — but was quite silent.

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