Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 8.

“IS it not good, Signa?” said he, after he had borne the silence a little time with no answer but the cooing of the dove in the cranberry bushes.

Signa laid his head against Bruno’s arm, as a girl would have done.

You are good!”

“No, I was never that,” said Bruno, with some of his old roughness. “But the life for you will be good. The best the world holds — owing nothing to any man, and all to the work of one’s own hands and the good black mould that feeds one’s hunger all one’s years, and covers one’s nakedness when one is dead. Ah, dear! I think you are so young you do not see how great a thing it is to set your foot on a bit of earth, and say “this is mine!” A king cannot say any more. Only, the king puts dead men into it, and we put the seed that is life.”

Signa was silent. He was thinking that he knew a greater thing: to be king in a realm that conquerors cannot assail, in a world that the lives around cannot enter.

He was oppressed and frightened by this, which Bruno had meant should be the crown and joy of his sum of seventeen years. It was as if the weight of the earth bestowed on him was heavy on his heart.

To get rich — to marry — to have children. The common ideal of human kind appalled the pure and lofty fancies of the boy.

To live and die a tiller of the soil, the common lot of the common mortal, terrified the young soul which had believed itself the care of angels.

He felt as if a great chain had been flung round him, fastening him down on to the hillside. And yet what could he say to this unchangeable unselfish devotion which had thought to benefit him?

He sat and looked at the brown running water, as it rippled over his feet and the wind blew among the rushes. He loved every rood of the land, and every cloud‐mist that floated over it, and every little humble flower that helped to make the soil beautiful; he loved the great dusky pinewoods above his head and the old roofs and towers by the river in the plain far below; he loved the roads he had run on with a baby’s feet and the blue mountains that he had worshipped with a poet’s heart; he loved them all with passion and fidelity.

And yet this future, of which Bruno spoke as a supreme mercy of heaven, oppressed him with a deadly sense as of imprisonment.

Bruno watched him, and saw nothing of what he felt; he only saw the troubled shadows that had come instead of the cloudless sunshine which he had thought to see dawn on the boy’s face. He was struck dumb with amaze — he was mortified to the quick; he was nearer to rage against Signa than ever he had been in all his life.

What could it mean?

He had given the boy a priceless gift — a treasure that moth could not eat nor rust cor‐ rupt; he had made safe his future at the cost of seven years of incessant toil and unending self‐denial. And this was all — silence! only silence! as though he had said to the child, as Abraham to Ishmael “Arise, and depart from me.”

He had come down to the side of the brook at peace with heaven and all men; he had rejoiced with the pure joys of an unselfish sacrifice and of a duty fulfilled; he had counted for years on the pleasure of this one moment; he had said to himself ten thousand times, ploughing in the rain and wind or rising in the stormy dusk of winter dawns: “How happy the boy will be! — how happy!”

And now the gift was given, and Signa sat silent, watching the brook run by them.

He thought it must be because Signa did not understand.

He spoke again, twisting the rushes to and fro in his right hand.

“Look here,” he said; “perhaps you do not see. I think you are not glad. It is strange. What other lad — Do you know all it means to have a bit of land of your own? You cannot, I think. It means freedom. You would be a poor man with only this, that I know; but you would never need to starve, and you would be always free. No beggar and no bondsman — always free. Do you understand what this means? You are seventeen. Some day you will see a girl you want. Listen. When Pippa was but a child — not twelve, I think — I loved a woman — not the first I loved, nor yet the last, may heaven be merciful to my sins! but the best — yes, the one I loved the best. The girl was poor, a daughter of many; her father a shepherd up above there. She was called Dina. I think she was not handsome; but she was like a wild rose — yes, just like that; a thing you could not be rough with; a thing that all the air round her sweet. I loved her best of all. Well, well; you do not know. You will know. If I had married her, all would have gone right. She could keep me from fair and fray, from riot and quarrel, as none of the others ever could. I would have married her. But I was one among many, working on the same soil. My father said, ‘How bring another mouth, when there was not enough for the mouths there were? There was not room for a mouse the more in the old house.’ Dina had nothing but the poor rough shift and gown she wore. He would not hear of it; so I never married Dina. We met by stealth up in yon pines. We loved each other. Trouble came. You are too young. Never mind. Dina died of it in the end, a year later — that was all. And there was no soft little white soul between mine and the devil any more. I let myself go to all the evil that chose to come in my path. I stabbed and cursed and gambled and rioted, and made men afraid of me and women rue me. If I had married Dina — I never saw any other woman that I cared to marry; nay, I would have given none the place that ought to have been Dina’s. Sometimes I go up and look at where she lies still, in that little square place with the white walls round it, right up there under the pines, where you see the cloud now — that cloud that has come down and past the mountain. Yes, up there. Sometimes I can feel her arms about my throat, and feel her kiss me still. I never think of any of the others. Buy you do not understand. What I meant to say was, if I had had a little piece of land like this, and had not been one amongst so many, I should have married Dina, and she might not have died. God knows, at least, I should not feel it in the way I feel it now, that it was I who brought her death on her; and I should have lived with cleaner soul and straighter steps, I think. Now you, dear, you are a gentle boy, and tender of nature, and will love some girl more innocently than I ever did. And when we have built your little house — just see how it will stand, with the sunrise always in face of it, which will please you so; and that curve of the hill to keep it from the northerly storms — why, then, I say, you can bring home any honest, pretty maiden that you take a fancy to, and need not ask my will nor anyone’s, but can live God‐ fearing and wholesomely all your days, instead of being cast adrift on lame chances and blind passions. For you are not very strong, my boy, and a tranquil life will be the best for you; and then, when death does come to you, and you see your mother face to face at last, why, then you will say to her that I kept you out of hell, though I could not keep myself. And I shall not mind hell, dear. No! Let it burn me as it may, if only they leave me just a little light, so that I can look up and see you happy by God’s throne — you and my poor Dina. A man can be a man in hell, I think.”

His voice ceased.

What he spoke of was no metaphor to him, but dark dread truth, as sure to come to pass as night to follow day.

Signa looked, half fearfully, up into his face. What could the boy say?

He only vaguely understood all that the strength and the weakness, the sternness and the tenderness, the force and the frailty of the man’s soul wrestled with and overthrew. He only felt the dead weight of a future that appalled him, being forced on him by the hands that were stretched out to give him blessing.

A bitter sense of his own cruel thanklessness, and of his impotence to make himself more thankful, choked up in his heart all other emotions.

He was mute a little while, his chest heaving and his eyes burning with an insufferable shame of his own ingratitude. Then all at once he threw up his head, and spoke with the desperate pain of one who feels himself most utterly unworthy, yet is carried out of himself by the force of a passion stronger than his will.

“What can I say?” he cried. “Oh, how good you are to think so of me and never once of yourself! And any other boy — oh, yes, I know — any other than I would be so happy and so proud. You must hate me, because I am so thankless. No — not thankless in my heart. Most thankful — only it is not what I want. It sounds so vile to say so; and you toiling and saving, and thinking only of me and of my future all those years. But one is as one is made. You know the rose could not live the water‐life of the rush, the dove could not burrow in the moss and sand like the mole. We are as we are made. We cannot help being rose or rush, dove or mole. Something does it for us — God they say. Only one wonders. You must hat me, so cold as I seem, and so base and so callous; and you thinking only of me all these years, and giving up your life for mine. But it is better to tell you the truth, and you will try and forgive it, because I cannot help it. It is stronger than I am. I do not want any land nor any girl. I do not want to be a contadino always, living and dying. I should do no good. I love this hillside — ah, dearly! I would spend all my life upon it. But then not in the way you wish. Only when I should have learned all I want, and should come home here for ever and ever, and watch the sunrise, and make music all day long that should go away to all the ends of the earth and take the name of Signa with it, and make it great everywhere in men’s mouths. But to stay here now and always — never knowing anything, never hearing a mass sung, nor a cantata placed, nor an opera given; never doing anything except put the grain in and reap it, and dig round the olives and trim them — oh, I would rather you would throw me in the brook, and fling stone on me till I should be dead. When I take the cattle out, I do not think of them — I think of the music that is always about me, all around me, everywhere. I love the land, but it is because of its beauty I love it; of ploughing and weeding, and watering, and stacking — I help you because I ought to do it; but my heart is not in my body while I do do it. My heart is with the birds, with the clouds, with the stars — anywhere — but never in the labour at all. If I were alone here in other years, as you say, I should let the briars and the rosemary eat it all up as Baccio did. Oh listen, do listen, and do not be angry. What I want to do is to learn; to hear beautiful things, and see if I cannot make more beautiful things myself. I have heard that there are schools of music, where one can know what one is worth. I play the old great things the great masters wrote, and when I play them, then my heart is in my body, and my soul seems to live in my hands. I cannot help it. The only thing I care for in all the world is music, and I do think that God has meant me to give my life to it for the world. You remember what that stranger said when I sang to him when I was only a child. I do not want my mouth to drop pearls. I do not want gold, or pleasure, or comfort. But if I could go away where I could learn. I have written — but I do not know what it is worth. If I could go away where I could hear great things, and study them, then I think I could make you proud of me — then I think I could honour the Lastra. Oh, listen, listen, listen! I am not thankless, indeed. But what I want is to have the beautiful things that I hear live after me. I would die a thousand deaths, if it were possible, so that only I could give life to them, and know that the world would say, ‘He was only a little lad — he was only Signa — but his music was great.’”

Then his voice ceased quite suddenly, and he dropped his face on his hands and trembled. For he was afraid of the fruit of his words; and his unthankfulness made his soul black and loathsome in his own sight.

At the first phrase Bruno had sprung to his feet, and had all the while stood looking down on him, not breaking in upon him by a breath or by a sign. Only over his face there had come the old darkness that had been banished so long; his eyes under the straight black line of his brows had the old murderous fire in them.

He listened to the end.

Then he set his heel on the violin which laid on the sedges at his feet and stamped it down again and again as if it had been a snake.

“Accursed be the toy that has bewitched you — accursed the gold that bought it, and the man that gave —!”

The bruised wood cracked and broke under his heel; a single string snapped with a shrill, sad, shivering sound, like the cry of some young thing dying. The boy sprang erect, his fair face in a blaze of wrath and horror, his slender hands clenched. For a moment they looked at one another; — a sullen gloom set in the man’s flaming eyes; a wild reproach and a hopeless defiance in the boy’s.

Then Signa’s arms dropped, and he flung himself on his ruined treasure — covering it with kisses — weeping as girls weep.

Bruno looked down on him, and the fierce scorn on his face deepened, and he laughed aloud.

Mourn in despair for a broken plaything, and slay without a thought a love that would burn in hell through all eternity to serve him!

Without a word he turned and went up the mountain‐side.

The boy lay face downwards in the grass, sobbing, with the shattered wood under his quivering lips.


Bruno never looked back.

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