Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 1.

THE spring went by and the summer, and the tidings that came to the Lastra were always good.

The boy wrote now from here, now from there — now from a mountain town, where his music was playing in a summer theatre; now from a lake palace, where some great prince had summoned him; now from the cities, where foreign directors were seeing him; now from the seashore, where great ladies were wooing him. He said so little; he was hidden from them in a golden cloud; they could scarcely follow him even in fancy. But he was well, he was happy, he was triumphant — he wanted for nothing. They had to be content with that, and to imagine the rest — as best they could.

All the northern country was echoing with his music, up to the edges of the Alps, and from the one sea to the other, and the boy was wandering, welcomed and praised and rejoiced over everywhere, and with his own melodies always ringing in his ears, as the gorgeous genius of the “Anacreon of Genoa” had been three hundred years before. This was all they knew, and they had to be content with it.

He was gone over the land like one of the improvisatori of the old times, with the sound of his “sweet singing” in herald of him everywhere; their lark had gone up against the sun; they could see him no longer; they had their work to do, the work that kept their eyes on the earth.

Bruno laboured on his lands, and went to and fro the markets, and toiled early and late in all weathers, and seldom spoke to any living thing except his dog or his oxen; Luigi Dini opened and folded the black robes of the brethren, and saw the sick and the dead carried by, and unclosed and closed the church doors, and thought that the days grew very long; poor merry Sandro died, quite suddenly, of a ball in his throat; and Palma had to sell her hair to a barber in the town to pay the grave, and to keep the boys and the roof over their heads as best she could, two of them earning something small, and three of them nothing at all; old Teresina fell down her wooden stairs and broke her leg, and could trot about no more as her chief pleasure had always been to do, but had to lie and look over the tops of her roses in the little square window, and only knew when the sun went down by the glow in the bit of sky that was all she could ever now see; — the weeks and the months were very slow to all these, and the luxuriant summer only brought them heat and pain. They could not follow their lark, even in fancy; he was gone so high and so far; and though the summer had come for them, it was all dark and dust. But they were glad to think he was away against the sun — glad all of them.

One morning Bruno went down early to the market in the city. It was August, and he had samples of his wheat with him. He worked hard; never looking over through the belt of pines to the brook under the rushes; worked as hard as he had done when he had worked with a great hope and goal before him; partly because it was the one habit of his life, partly because he so had least time for thought; and also — although, indeed, the boy needed nothing now, and made his money for himself, and would have none sent to him — because the time might come that he would want it.

“Di doman non si è certezza.”

One never knew — so Bruno said to himself, and laid by what he could in the old leathern pouch thrust behind a loose brick in the chimney corner, that had once held the purchase‐money of the land that he had lost.

It was five in the morning; a morning cold with that fresh alpine clear coldness which precedes at daybreak the hottest weather for the noon, and refreshes the thirsty earth with its dense dews, that are as thick as rain. On the bridge he met a girl slowly toiling under a great burden of linen; she stopped as he passed her, and lifted her large eyes to him. She was very thin and very brown.

“Is it you, Palma?” he said to her; he could not refuse to stop: poor Sandro had been a good friend and kindly to the boy. “Is there anything I can do for you? You look ill?”

“No,” she said, timidly. “I wanted to know — Do you have any news of him ever?”

“All is well with him — yes,” said Bruno. “That Gigi sees — sees in the printed papers. He has not written now — not for some time. You see, it is not as if we could read what he writes or write ourselves. I daresay it seems to him as if we forgot, since we can never answer.”

“He will not think that we forget,” said Palma, and stood still with her great eyes clouded.

“No. But no doubt it seems as if we were all dead. It is to be half‐dead in a way — not to read and write — I see that now. I used to think it only fit for poor pale fools in cities. Not a thing for a man — unless one were a priest.”

“But he knows we cannot write,” said Palma, “and Luigi Dini does for us — for you, at least. Perhaps it is he himself who does forget.”

“Why not?” said Bruno. The thought was like an arrow in his heart, but he would never open his lips to blame the boy.

“Why not?” murmured the girl.

Why not indeed? They had nothing to do but remember; — he had all the world with him.

“Good day,” she added, and moved to take up the bundle of linen, that she had rested for a moment on the parapet of the bridge.

But Bruno looked at her curiously. He had seen her a score of times since the Lenten time when Sandro had died, but he had not noticed before that her hair was clipped short to her head like a young conscript’s.

“What have you done with all your braids?” he asked.

“I sold them.”

“What for?”

“To pay for my father’s burial:— it just paid it.”

“I wish you had let me know, I would have paid. Poor child! I never noticed it before.”

“That is because I tied a handkerchief on. The barber shaved my head quite close. Now the hair is grown just a little.”

“You are a good girl. Can you manage to live — any how?”

“Yes. We can just live. Franco and Beppo earn a little.”

“But you must work very hard?”

“I have always done that. Why not?”

“But you are a pretty girl when you have your hair. You must marry.”

Palma gave a quick shudder.

“Oh, no.”

“And why not?”

She coloured to the bronze rings of her shorn curls.

“My brothers will want me many years yet; and then I shall be old.”

She nodded to him, and went her way over the bridge, carrying the linen she had washed for the canon’s housekeeper on the hill. Bruno walked onward: he thought little of the girl — though he had always liked her for her courage and her industry — he thought much of one of her answers: “Perhaps it is he himself who does forget.” Yes; — of course it was he himself; it is always the one who goes that forgets, always the one who is left that remembers.

No doubt the boy forgot them; why not? He said so to his own heart every day all through the long months when the letters came so seldom and the printed papers were so full of Signa’s name and Signa’s music.

He walked on trying to fancy what his boy looked like in all those strange cities amongst all those strange faces; trying to fancy how it was when the streets were thronged and the flowers were tossed and the theatres were besieged and the vivas were shouted: he had seen such nights of applause, such hours of homage himself in carnival times in his youth when Florence had found some singer or some musician in whom its heart delighted, and for whom its winter roses were gathered, and its voices uplifted in one accord.

But he could not imagine the boy amongst such nights as these — Pippa’s son — the little delicate lad running with barefoot by him in the dust, and looking up through his curls to see if the heavens had opened to show him the singing children of God.

It perplexed him. He could not grapple with it.

All through the warm months, in the long oppressive evenings, with the thunder‐clouds brooding overhead, or the sirocco driving the straw and dust through the gates, the old man had sat in the doorways and read out to all the many listening groups this tale and that, this history and the other, of the victories of Signa’s music wherever it was heard, welcomed in every little city of the plains and every gay town on the shores of lake or sea as the carnations were welcomed and the swallows and the nightingales; — all through those months Bruno, hearing, had come no nearer to comprehension of it, no nearer than the vague dull sense that the world had got the boy and he had lost him.

He had grown used to it, as we grow in a manner used to any pain, wearing it daily as the anchorite his girdle of sharp iron; he was proud of it in his own silent way as the seamen on the shores of Genoa were proud when they heard how the old world had been forced to take an empire from their

“Nudo nocchior; promettitor di regni.”

Proud when he went through the Lastra or down the streets of the city, and men who had long shunned him paused in his path to say, “and that young genius they talk so much of northward, is that indeed your boy?” and he answered, “yes: it is Pippa’s son,” and went his way. Proud so. Proud of the boy and for him:— the little corncrake that left the fields to cleave his flight where eagles go.

But he could not comprehend it; could not realize that the little fellow so late singing his sequence at mass, with the other children, in holy week, with his ragged homespun shirt, and hungry stomach and sad eyes, could now have name and fame with other men, and be spoken of as they spoke in Florence of the great Cimarosa.

It was true, no doubt, and he was sure of it; and working in his field he thought of nothing else, and said for ever to himself, “if he has got his desire, what does it matter for me?” but still it was dark to him; there were times when the great oppressive weight of it lay on him as if he had been buried alive, and in his grave could hear the footsteps of the boy going away — away — away, farther and farther, always over his head, but beyond his reach and beyond his call for ever.

It was a stupid feeling, no doubt, born out of ignorance and emotion and solitude; but that was what he felt often — often in the quiet lonely nights when there was no moon in the skies, and no sound on the mountains.

This day he walked straight to the city, and did his trafficking in the square before the heat had come, and while the shadows were still long on the steps between the white lions.

By noon these matters were done with by most of the men, for the weather was at its sultriest, and the shade of the cool arched granaries and winebarns in the country better to be desired than the scorching pavement. He went into the place of S. Maria Novella, having a last errand there to a harness maker; in the blinding sunshine of the unshadowed square there was a white slender figure, a boy’s face, a gesture that he knew — be‐ fore he could speak Signa had thrown himself upon his neck.

“It is I! yes it is I,” he cried, “I have just come by the iron way that you hate so — I thought I would walk, I thought I might meet you, being Friday. Ah, dearest, truest, best friend! — all that I am you have made me; all that I may become will be yours!”

Bruno looked at him speechless. Once before he had rejoiced so greatly — only to find his error. He dared not now be glad.

He gazed at the boy — so changed and yet in so much the same — the solitary sunlit square went round and round him like a whirlpool of white fire. The great stones seemed to heave and dance.

“I made sure now you had forgotten,” he muttered; and stood stupidly like own of his own oxen when it has been very long in the dark, and is led out on a sudden into the full blaze of the noon.

“Forgotten. Did you think me lower than the beasts?” said Signa, and he kissed the man’s brown hands.

“Yes, it is true,” he added. “Yes, I was base not to come back long ago. But every day I said to‐morrow, and every morrow brought some change, some wonder, some great thing to do or to hear; and so the summer has slipped away as the spring did. But forget! — oh, never, never! What would I be now but for you? — a starved and beaten thing in Lippo’s house.”

“Let us go in here,” said Bruno, and he mounted the steps of the church with the white marble of it shining in the noonday sun, and went into the body of it where the light was like a great rainbow stretching from one stained window to another. There were a few people about it, some gazing at the pictures; some kneeling in dark corners.

Bruno drew him down the marble steps into the silence of the green cloister; there was not a soul there; the gate was left open, the guardian of the church dozed in the heat, sitting in the shade under the pillars.

In the solitude where only Giotto’s faded saints and angels looked upon them, he drew the boy close to him and looked in his face.

“My dear, my dear! God is good!” he muttered. “I doubted it, aye, I doubted; God forgive my doubt. When that traitor took the land I could have killed him. God is good. My hands are clean. And the world has not taken you from me; men have not made you forget. Ah, our God is good. Let us praise him!”

He leaned against one of the columns with his face bent down on his arm; his bare chest heaved, his strong nervous limbs trembled; the hot sun poured in on his uncovered head, then silently he put his hand out and grasped Signa’s, and led him into the Spanish Chapel, and sank on his knees.

The glory of the morning streamed in from the cloister; all the dead gold and the faded hues were transfigured by it; the sunbeams shone on the face of Laura, the deep sweet colours of Bronzino’s Cœna glowed upward in the vault amidst the shadows; the company of the blessed, whom the old painters had gathered there, cast off the faded robes that the Ages had wrapped them in, and stood forth like the tender spirits that they were, and seemed to say, “Nay, we, and they who made us, are not dead, but only waiting.”

It is all so simple and so foolish there; the war‐horses of Taddeo that bear their lords to eternity as to a joust of arms; the heretic dogs of Memmi, with their tight wooden collars; the beauteous Fiammetta and her lover, throning amongst the saints; the little house, where the Holy Ghost is sitting, with the purified saints listening at the door, with strings tied to their heads to lift them into paradise; it is all so quaint, so childlike, so pathetic, so grotesque — like a set of wooden figures from its Noah’s Ark that a dying child has set out on its little bed, and that are so stiff and ludicrous, and yet which no one well can look at and be unmoved, by reason of the little cold hand that has found beauty in them.

As the dying child to the wooden figures, so the dead faith gives to the old frescoes here something that lies too deep for tears; we smile, and yet all the while we say — if only we could believe like this; if only for us the dead could be but sleeping!

Bruno sank on his knees on the bench by the west door, under the beautiful Bronzino that the shadows were so covetous of; where the word Silenzio is written on the wall.

In him the old simple blind faith lived, as it had lived in the hearts of the old painters, that had covered the stones here with their works.

He cried straight to heaven, and he believed that heaven heard him.

Holding the boy’s hand in his, and with his head thrown back, and his eyes meeting the full sunrays that glanced from Bronzino’s Christ to him, he blessed God, who had brought back the body safe and the soul pure.


Then his head sank, his forehead fell upon the back of the bench; he knelt silent many moments. He spoke to his God alone — or to his dead; not even Signa heard.

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