Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 9.

IT was night when Signa crept back from the side of the brook to the house.

The sun had left a stormy red over the mountains. In the valley it was raining heavily. Wind blew from the west. The bells were ringing for the benediction through the dense violet‐hued vapours.

The poor peasant who most often aided Bruno on his fields was putting up the bar before the oxen’s stable.

He turned his lanthorn to the boy, and nodded.

“You will be up by dawn, Signa — will you? It is too much for me to do alone.”

The boy stopped, shading his face from the lanthorn lest the man should see his swollen eyelids and his pallid cheeks.

“Is Bruno gone?” he asked.

“Yes. Did you not know? But, there; he never says anything. It is his way. How your voice shakes. You have got a chill. Yes. He came down from the mountains an hour ago and told me he should be away a day — two days; perhaps more; — would I sleep in the house and see to the things? No offence. But you are no more than a baby. Mind, the guns are loaded; and leave the wine where I can get it easy if you go to bed.”

Signa locked himself in his little room, heeding neither the guns nor the wine.

All night the rain beat against his lattice and the winds raged over the roof. All night he tried by the light of a feeble little lamp to mend his shattered Rusignuolo.

It was quite useless. The wooden shell he could piece together well enough; but the keys were smashed beyond all chance of restoration, and for the broken silvery strings there was no hope.

The Rusignuolo was mute for evermore. As mute as a dead bird.

Signa never slept, nor even undressed. He sat looking at the violin with a sick dead apathy of pain.

He watched by it as a living bird will watch by the dead one which has been its comrade in song and flight, and never more will spread wing with him or praise the day beneath the summer leaves.

When the morning came and the peasant flung a shower of pebbles at his shutter to rouse him, he was still sitting there, tearless and heart‐broken, with the fragments of the Rusignuolo before him.

The habits of his life were strong enough to make him rise and dip his head in water and shake his hair dry, and go down and help the man in his stable and field work. But, first he laid the violin reverently, as though he buried it, in a drawer, where his rosary and his communion ribbon and his book of hours and his little locket were all laid with sprigs of fir and cypress and many rose leaves to keep them sweet. His face was very white: he had a scared, appalled look in his eyes, and he hardly spoke.

The peasant asked him if he had seen a ghost in the night?

Signa shook his head; but he thought that he had heard many — ghosts of his silent melodies, ghosts of his dead dreams, ghosts of all the gracious, precious, nameless, heaven‐born things that he and the Rusignuolo together had called to them from the spirit‐world; from the shadows and the storms, from the stars and the sun.

The long, dreary, dull day dragged out its weary length. It had ceased to rain, but the valley was hidden in vapour. He could not see the river or the villages, or the distant gleam of the golden cross. Dusky mists, white and grey, floated along the face of the mountains, and rose like a dense smoke from the plains.

He helped the peasant all the day, his own peasant training teaching him by instinct to labour whilst he suffered. He fed the beasts and plucked up the beet‐root, and drew water and stacked wood, and did whatever the man told him to do.

No one came near. The hillside was still as a grave. The fog drifted beneath it, and hid the rest of the world. He and the man worked on alone. The oxen lowed in the byre, missing their master. The screech‐owl finding it so dark began to hoot. A great awe, like that of the sight of death, weighed upon Signa.

He feared every thing, and yet he feared nothing.

The Rusignuolo was ruined and voiceless.

It seemed to him as if the end of the world had come.

He went up the stairs and looked at it often. No tears would come to his eyes; but his heart felt as if it would burst.

Never again would it speak to him.


A dull aching hatred of the man who had done this evil rose up in him. Hatred seemed like a crime — after all that he owed to Bruno; but it was there.

He was unutterably wretched.

If there had been anyone he could have spoken to, it might have been better; but the only thing that had ever understood him was dead — lying mute and broken amongst the rose leaves.

He could only work on silently with his heart swelling in him, and let the horrible grey hours come and go.

The peasant wondered fifty times, if once, where Bruno could be gone. Bruno, who, for forty‐nine years, never had set foot off his own hill and valley, save that once to the sea.

But Signa answered him nothing. He did not care. He did not ask himself. If Bruno were dead — the Rusignuolo was dead. It would be only justice.

The boy’s heart was cold and numb.

The Rusignuolo was dead, and all his hopes and all his dreams and all his faiths dead with it.

“Why did he take me out of the flood?” he thought, as he looked down in to the dull vapours of the great rain‐clouds that hovered between him and the plain.

There is a silence of the mountains that is beautiful beyond all other beauty. There is another silence of the mountains that is lonely beyond all other loneliness.

The latter silence was about him now with the world of water and mist at his feet; that dim white grey world in which he might have drifted away with his mother — but for Bruno.

“Why did he save me, then?” he thought. “If he must kill all that is worth anything in me now?”

And his heart grew harder against Bruno with each hour that went by, and brought the wet, oppressive, sullen evening round again, with the wind loud amongst the pines.

The boy looked out through the iron bars of his open lattice into the cold still night, full of the smell of fallen leaves and fir‐cones. The tears fell down his cheeks; his heart was oppressed with a vague yearning, such as made Mozart weep, when he heard his own Lacrimosa chanted.

It is not fear of death, it is not desire of life.

It is that unutterable want, that nameless longing, which stirs in the soul that is a little purer than its fellow, and which, burdened with that prophetic pain which men call genius, blindly feels it way after some great light, that knows must be shining somewhere upon other worlds, though all the earth is dark.

When Mozart wept, it was for the world he could never reach — not for the world he left.

With the morning Palma came up; the same weather lasted, but weather did not matter to her. She came for sticks and gorze for her firing, which she could glean above on the wild ground. Usually Signa helped her. Now he murmured that he had too much to do, and let her go up under the trees alone in the falling rain.

What was Palma to him, or any living thing? the Rusignuolo was ruined.

He sat on the low stone wall with the rain on him, and left all his work undone.

The absence of Bruno weighed on him with a vague sense of misfortune and fear, and yet he did not wish him to return; he wished him to keep away — always, always, always, he thought; how should he bear to see the man who had slain his Rusignuolo, and how could he ever avenge it on the man who had given him bread and shelter and love, and almost life?

The boy’s heart was sick with sorrow, and the first bitterness of wrath that had ever found resting‐place in him.

He wished that he were dead — he wished that he had never lived.

Palma came down from the higher ground under the ppines, with a sack of fir‐apples on her shoulders, and a great bundle of dry boughs and brambles balanced above it on her head. Her feet were black with the moss and mud; her wisp of a skirt was clinging to her, wet through; her brown face was warm with work. She stopped by the wall.

“Is anything the matter?”

Signa shook his head; he could not speak of it.

“Cippone told me Bruno was gone away,” she said, meaning the man in the field: ‘Is that true?’”

“Yes, it is true.”

“Then there must be something.”

Signa was silent; sitting on the wall with his wet hair blowing about him.

Palma rested her sack and her faggot on the stone parapet, and looked anxiously in his averted face.

“Dear Signa, do tell me.”

“It is nothing,” said Signa, slowly; “only he is a brute — he kills what is greater than himself; and I hate him.”

“Oh, Signa!”

The girl’s sunburned cheeks grew ashen: the slowness and coldness of his answer frightened her more than any outburst of wild grief or rage would have done. It was so unlike him.

“I hate him,” said Signa. “Palma, see here. He pretends to love me, and he breaks my Rusignuolo, and he breaks my heart with it; and he thinks he loves me, both body and soul, because he buys a bit of land and bids me live on it all the days of my life, and dig, and sow, and plough, and hew, and draw water, and lead a life like the oxen’s — no better: he calls that love. To do with me exactly what he wishes himself! To make a mule of me — a mule — a stupid plodding thing, mute as the stones: he calls that love.”

“Oh, Signa!”

She could say nothing else. She was so amazed and so aghast, that all her love of the soil as a Tuscan, and all her instincts of class and of custom as a peasant, were roused in horror at him. Only she was so fond of him. She could not think him wrong. She had a true woman in her — this poor brown girl, who went half naked in the wind, and bore her burdens on her back like any beaten ass.

“‘Oh, Signa!’” echoed the boy, impatient of her tone, tossing his wet hair out of his eyes. “Oh; no doubt you think my gratitude is as poor as his love. No, it is not. If it had been anyone else — I am only seventeen, and not strong, they say, but I would have found some way to kill what killed my Rusignuolo. Oh, I know he took me out of the flood — off my dead mother’s breast, and has been good — very good, and I have loved him. But now, because I cannot promise him to live as he lives; because I cannot choke the music out of me; because I want to go away, and see whether what I do is worth anything or worth nothing, because I feel I could be great as Gigi says that Paësiello, and Palestrina, and Pergolese were; now he turns against me, now he is a brute, now he breaks the violin under his heel as if it were an empty husk of maize! And then he calls that love; and you look at me in horror, as if I were some heartless thing because I would sooner any day have my lute than such a love as that; — to set its foot upon my throat and keep it mute, as the kite sets his claw into the thrush’s!”

He spoke with vivid, tremulous, petulant passion; the first passion that had ever convulsed the tender, dreamful youth of him; all the colour flushed back into his face, his mouth quivered, his eyes flashed fire through the rain.

Palma listened with a great terror in her. But she was a brave girl, and swift to reason and to see the right.

“Is your gratitude so much more real than his love?” she said, quickly; and then was sorry that she had said it, fearing it too harsh.

Signa winced a little, struck home by a sudden consciousness.

“You cannot buy gratitude,” he said, angrily. “I was grateful, heart and soul, and I would have died for him two days ago. But now, he has forfeited all that. I hate him — I hate him, I tell you!”

“Does a moment’s rage outweigh sixteen years’ care so soon?”

“He broke the Rusignuolo,” said Signa; and his fair mouth, set with a stern serenity, gave him for the moment almost the look of manhood.

Palma looked at him, and thought how beautiful his face was; her eyes filled with tears.

“What do you want? — To go away?”

“To go away now, that I may come back great.”

“Are people happier that are — what you call great?”

“Happy! that I do not know; perhaps not. I daresay not. What does that matter? It is not to have lived in vain. Not to be put under the sod like a dead horse. Not to be forgotten while there are men on earth. It is to do the thing one has it in one to do; to see the sun always while other people stare at the dust. It is — it is — oh what is the use of talking. You never would know, you never understand.”

“No, dear,” said Palma, with a sigh; “and what does Bruno want of you?”

“To live as he does. To be a contadino always. He has bought that bit of land for me by the brook, you know it; he would give it me for my own; and when I am a man I am to live there, and take some girl to be my wife, and so be safe, as he calls it, and happy, as he thinks! That is what he has laid out for me. That is what he wants.”

Palma coloured to the roots of her dusky rippling hair, and then grew very pale, as pale as her olive skin could be.

“And all that does not please you?”

“Please me! Oh, Palma, when one has the song of the angels always in one’s ears!”

His mouth trembled, his voice faltered; how could he say what was in him; the force greater than himself that drove him on? the futile despair at his own powerlessness to alter his fate, which made him heartsick at this future, which they all thought so fair?

Palma did not understand. A sickly pain settled over her; a sense of isolation and of immeasureable distance from the other life which had grown up with her own amongst the flowers of Giovoli.

Besides, to have a bit of land, and dwell on it and die on it; that seemed to her, as it had seemed to Bruno, the very sum and crown of human desire.

The “sublime discontent” which stirred in the young soul of Signa was as far from any range of her vision as were the angels’ songs he said he heard.

She believed in the angels indeed; but for her they were mute. For her they ever abode beyond the great white clouds, invisible and silent.

She did not speak for a little time. Then she rose, and left her sack and her faggot on the wall.

“It is true, dear. I do not understand. I am stupid, I dare say. I will just go in and see if there is anything to do in the house. I can stay a very little while. I have everything to do at home. Father is so busy taking the lemons indoors.”

Signa let her go. He was looking through the still falling rain at the mountains, where he could no longer see the sunrise, and at the plain where the golden cross was still behind the mist.

When he had had the Rusignuolo with him, he had never cared whether there were rain or sun.

Palma went into the house, and, like the laborious and cleanly creature that she was, found much to do with broom and pail and duster; made a fire underneath the cold soup‐pot, cut fresh vegetables into it, and scoured out the pots and platters of the daily use which were lying foul about the place. She was accustomed to such work, and could get through it quickly.

She worked hard and fast, the tears swimming in her eyes all the while. She did not know very well what ailed her. She only knew that Signa wanted to go away. That the life, which seemed so natural and so good to them all, was a thing impossible to him.

She loved him better than all her brothers; and it had hurt her curiously to hear him talk with such scorn of the little house that Bruno would have built for him on the hill by the brook, and of the girl that in time might have dwelt with him there in the face of the great glad sunrise.

It was not that she thought she could have been chosen to be that girl — oh, no! — never‐ theless it hurt her with a dull and confused pain. Besides, she felt that he was wrong; and she did battle with herself whether she ought or ought not to tell him so.

She decided to tell him. Signa seemed to her sturdier, stronger, lower nature, like some beautiful, delicate shy song‐bird, that a rough word would scare and drive away like a shower of stones. He was so unlike them all. To Palma, who only saw her cabbages, and her broom, and her water‐bucket, those eyes of his, which were always looking upward, and seeing such beautiful things in the clouds and the sunbeams, seemed like those of a young saint.

If the church had made him “beato” she would not have been astonished; she would have worshipped him honestly, and besought his intercession with God whom he was always so near.

And, yet, now she knew he was in the wrong, and she wrestled with herself, scouring out the metal pans, whether it were her bounden right to tell him so, or whether she might without cowardice hold her peace. And perhaps he would only laugh her to scorn; she knew she was stupid, except just for this rude hand labour, and that she knew nothing at all, not even her letters all through; and that she had never seen anything except this green hill and the walls of the Lastra; — while Signa knew so much — so much! — and had been as a child to the city and to the sea, and now could tell one so many things about the old walls that for him had tongues, and the ways of the birds and the beasts on the mountains; and had read all the lives of the saints, and could see right away into heaven when he had the dream‐look in his eyes — so she thought.

Nevertheless, being a brave girl, and with a resolute heart, her conscience would not let her keep mute. When she had done the house up tidily, and even put a new sprig of bay under the Madonna, she went out into the air; the rain had ceased, but the white mist was hanging everywhere. Signa still sat looking down into the vapours of the plain. She touched him timidly.

“Dear, do not be angry with me; but I want to say one word. I am not clever, I know. But the priest says, when one is very clever one does not see simple things so straight. I do not know. I want you to think. Of course you can judge better than I. But — do you do rightly by Bruno? He has been so good, and given up so much, and hoped so much: is it not just a little hard that you should be so longing to leave him? Perhaps he does love you selfishly. But is not your want to get away selfish too? He has been cruel. Oh, yes! that is certain. But then no doubt he was in pain: he hardly knew what he did. If I were you, I would try and do what he wishes. Yes, I would. You would have had no life at all if it had not been for him. Is that nothing? I would try if I were you.”

Then, afraid of what she had said, and afraid of being late at her home, she took up her sack and her faggots, and went away into the rain‐fog, down the rough side of the ploughed land, over the yellow and brown leaves fallen from the vines.

“She does not know. She knows no more than the mules or the stones know,” thought Signa, while she ran on with firm, fast feet, and the boughs like a dark cloud over her head.

Genius lives in isolation, and suffers from it. But perhaps it creates it.

The breath of its lips is like ether; purer than the air around it, it changes the air for others to ice.

The day went on, and Bruno did not return. The peasant pondered and wondered, but had the soup and the wine and stayed and saw to the fields and the cattle.

Signa wandered up into the woods, and waited there till nightfall. The rain had passed away, but there was no sun.

The brow of the hill is very wild. A great breadth of gorse and myrtle, with huge stones scattered over it, and thousands of sea pines standing bold against the sky. Here in spring and summer the nightingales sing in countless numbers.

He had so often taken his violin up there and played in concert with them, echoing and catching all their notes.

It seemed to him terribly silent now.

Palma’s words pursued him into that cool grey silence.

She did not know: she was so stupid: and still she had awakened his conscience.

Conscience and genius — the instinct of the heart and the desire of the mind — the voice that warns and the voice that ordains: when these are in conflict it is bitter for life in which they are at war; most bitter of all when that life is in its opening youth, and sure of everything and yet sure of nothing.

The boy threw himself downward on the wet earth, and leaned his cheek on his hands, and gazed into the dim watery world underneath him, where all the distant towns and the pale villages began to gleam, whitely and faintly, like little clouds on the dark greyness of the plains, and the dull blue and black of the mountains, which rose like ramparts of iron in the east and north.

The girl was stupid — so stupid that everyone knew she had nver learnt her alphabet even — and yet he felt that here she had seen and had spoken aright. That he felt.

Signa had had few moral teachings in his seventeen years of life.

There is virture on these lonely hillsides, but it is virtue, self‐sown, wind‐drifted, like the wild pomegranate bushes, and the wild peach trees.

No one had taught him what was right or wrong, so long as he observed all the rules of the church, and did not blunder against any civil law. So far as he had been told, he had goodness enough to make his peace with heaven. But the boy’s own mind had clearness and simplicity in it, and went by instinct to a higher sense of right and wrong than any he had been ever taught — as Palma’s did likewise; Palma, who trotted in the mud or dust all her days, and whose brain was all dulled with small cares as with cobwebs.

He knew that she was right.

That he was thankless and selfish; that the hate which throbbed sullenly in him was almost a crime; that a wolf cub, fed and housed and cared for as he had been, would have had more gratitude than he.

He knew that she was right.

That his life ought to be offered to the man who had done all for it; that his long debt ought to cancel an hour’s wrong; that since he had no other way or means of payment save obedience, he should obey — even to the sacrifice of all his dreams, even to the crushing out of all his soul.

He lay chest downward underneath the pines, and gazed in the misty depths belows, and felt the hard sharp pain of his consciousness of right gnaw at him with her remembered words. He could see the line of his olive trees and the fields where he was to labour all his life long, facing the sunrise.

He was wise enough to know that he could not have both lives. That as he grew to manhood he must cease to be either peasant or musician; that he must renounce one thing or the other. He had lived too much on the soil not to know the ruthless toil of hours and the ceaseless patience and purpose which the soil, ere it will consent to repay him anything, exacts from the husbandman.

He knew that he must choose, now and for ever.

It was the old common choice between bodily need and spiritual desire; only for him the lower need was the one linked with duty, the higher need was the one linked with sin.

He lay and gazed at the dark fields that were to be his own, and the brook that glimmered like a glow‐worm under its dusky rushes. And it had been there that the violin had been broken and al its melody silenced for ever and aye!

It froze his heart against the little spot. He hated that shallow water which could sing on and on and on, where the greater music had been hushed into dumbness.

It seemed like a parable to him.

Just as the violin had been stricken mute there, so would be the powers in him. Just as the silver string had snapt, so would his heart break by that cruel streamlet. He saw himself growing older and older, living on and on, with the music dying in him every day and every year, a little more and a little more.

He saw himself as he would be on that land that looked to the morning light:— spending his breath in shouting call‐words to the panting oxen; spending his strength in sowing and in reaping the sum of his daily bread; touching his lute perhaps at evening with dull tired hands, that others might dance under the olive boughs.

What use would the morning light be to him then? What would it say to him? He would only be able to look on the black earth he turned, as it dawned; he would only grow to loathe the little song birds, awakened by its beams, because they would be free and he never. He lay looking down and thinking and seeing himself thus — as he would be — in all the years to come.

His eyes were dry, his face was calm, the coldness that had frozen about him in the night, when he had watched by his ruined Rusignuolo, never changed. It was as if all his boyhood had perished in him with that lost music.

The struggle was hard in him. All the longing of his soul wrestled with the consciousness of duty which the speech of the girl had stung into life. He knew that he ought to forgive. He knew that he ought to obey. All the earth and all the air aorund him spoke to him of this man’s exceeding love. He looked down on the river from whose flood it had rescued him. He looked down on the roof under whose shelter it had harboured him. He looked down on the old grey gateway beside whose shadow it had faced calumny and forgiven treachery for his sake. He looked down on the old dark trees beneath whose foliage it had toiled for him in endless labour from daybreak to nightfall, in light and in darkness, through sixteen years.

And he let the blow of a moment’s passion sweep it all away as thought it had never been. Mighty and enduring as granite, it was to him dissolved in a second of time like an image of snow.

He wrestled with himself for this. He strove against the hardening of his heart. He struggled to change himself; to forgive; to obey.

It was of no use.

With the music from the broken strings, gratitude and affection had passed out of his heart, and left a dead silence there. A silence in which his conscience indeed spoke; but spoke in vain.

When the Ave Maria tolled dully under the mists of the plain, he got up slowly, and went slowly homeward.

His mind was made up: he would not live on in his body slaying his soul.

“He killed the Rusignuolo,” he said to himself. “He would kill me.”

And he resolved to live his own life; how or where he knew nothing; only by his own means and in his own way, no longer eating the bread of the man who loved him indeed, but who hated his genius, and who wished it to perish.

“What one can do is sweeter and dearer than what anything is,” he thought to himself, with the terrible self‐absorption of the artist in his art; — terrible — because ever fore‐doomed to die in agony soon or late, under some human passion that avenges the rejection of humanity.

And he went slowly down the hill‐side home, losing sight of the brook and the olives, for it had grown quite dark.

The house was silent. The shutters were closed. The dog was mute. He lifted the latch of the door and entered.

There was the glow from a lighted lamp upon the stone of the floor.

In the light stood Bruno.

He came forward and bowed his head before the boy. He said:


“Forgive me.”

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