Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 10.

“DEAR Nita,” said Lippo, this night, toasting himself over a little pot of charcoal, “do you know I met my old friend Fede in the city this morning; he has come from Rome.”

Nita grunted an indifferent assent; she was sorting and numbering a pile of sheets and other house linen; her eldest daughter Rita was about to marry a corn chandler of Pistoia — a very good marriage, for the youth was rich and had a farm to boot, and Rita was of that turbulent temper, and had that strong love of theatres, jewellery, and gadding about, which makes a burden of responsibility that a mother prefers to shelve from her own shoulders to a son‐in‐law’s, as soon as may be.

“Fede is doing well in Rome,” said Lippo, loquacious and confidential as it was his wont to be, especially when he had anything in his mind that he intended to keep secret. “Only think! twenty years ago Fede was a poor lean lad here, glad to get a copper by the holding of a horse or running with a message; and now he is as plump and well‐to‐do a soul as one could want to see, with a shop of his own and good money in the banks, and a vineyard by Frascati — all by knowing how to get old women to give their dingy lace up for a song, and coaxing ploughmen to barter old coins they turn up from the mud for brand new francs, and having the knack to make cracked pots and pans and pipkins into something wonderful and ancient! What a thing it is to be clever. But Providence helps always those who help themselves.”

“What have we to do with Fede?” said Nita, who knew that when her lord praised Providence for helping others he generally had put his own spoon into the soup‐plate.

“Oh, nothing — nothing!” said Lippo, caressing his charcoal pan. “Only if ever we see any little old thing — no value, you know — a saucer or a pitcher or a cup or a plate that the old folks use about here — there are scores, you know; why we can give them nice new platters or jugs fresh made from Doccia, and take the old ones and send to Fede — do you see? We shall do a good turn so to all our friends; to those poor souls, who will have new whole things to use instead of old ones, and to Fede, who deals in such droll antique thugs to the rich foreigners.”

Nita’s eyes sparkled.

“He will we us well for them?” she said, suspiciously, never having learned in all her years of marriage the fine arts and the delicacy of her lord.

Lippo waved his hand.

“Oh, my dear! — between friends! Fede is the soul of honour. It will be a pleasure to look out for him; and, besides, such a benefit to one’s poor neighbours, who will have whole, smooth, pretty china instead of the cracked clumsy pots that the silly English‐speaking nations like to worship. I did say to Fede — for one must always think of what is just in conscience before all else — is it right to sell pipkins and pans for idols to the English? And Fede said that for his part, too, he had had that scruple; but that the English are pagans, all of them, always, and if they cannot get a pipkin to put on an altar under glass, fall on their knees before a big red book, like a mass‐book, that they call a Pì‐rage; no one knows what is in it, only by what they find there, or do not find, they smile or frown; some book of a black art, no doubt. So that the pipkin is the more innocent thing, because, when they got a pipkin, then they smile all round. So Fede says —”

“But he will pay us well for anything we find,” said Nita, always impatient of her husband’s moral digressions; “Many old wives I know of have platters and jugs hundreds of years old and more — if that is what they want — such rubbish!”

Lippo waved his hands with a soft gesture to the empty air.

“Dearest! — we are alone. It does not matter. I know your noble nature. But if any one were here — a stranger, or the children — they might think, hearing you, that our souls were basely set on gaining for ourselves. Praise be to the saints; — we are above all need of that, now.”

“With Toto spending all he does!” grumbled his wife, who, for her part, thought it very silly to waste such pretty periods when nobody was listening; why wash your face, she thought, unless you walk abroad?

“The pleasure,” continued Lippo, as though she had not interrupted him; “the pleasure will be in doing two good turns for one; to Fede, whom we have known all our lives — good, thrifty, honest soul, and to our neighbours; just those dear old wives you spoke of, who will be made happy by nice new china in the stead of ugly cracked old pots, heavy as iron. And then there may be now and then a little matter of lace, too — or a crucifix — or a bit of old embroidery — anything that is very ugly and dropping quite to pieces pleases the foreigners. There is so much hereabouts; in the old farms and the dames’ kitchen‐nooks! But of that we will talk more. It is a new idea. Fede just spoke of it this morning. He said to me, ‘There is much money to be made this way — not but what I know you do not care for that — only to serve me and your towns’‐folks.’ And so he took me in my weakest point!”

Nita grinned; marking her sheets.

She was a rough downright vigorous woman, with some sense of humour, and the delicate reasonings of her husband, when they did not rouse her wrath, tickled her into laughter.

She did not understand that he deceived himself with them almost as much as he did others; blowing round himself always this incense of fair motives till he believed the scented smoke was his own breath.

“It is quite a new idea,” pursued Lippo, “and may turn out some benefit to ourselves and others. The other lads are all well placed, but Toto is a torment — nay, dear boy, I know you love him best of all, and so do I; perhaps, after my Rita, but his bold bright youth boils over at times. Oh, it is only the seething of the new pressed grapes; the wine will be the richer and the better by‐and‐bye; — oh, yes. Still, love, there is no being blind to it; Toto is a cause for trouble. Now I see an opening for Toto down in Rome, with Fede. The dear boy does not love labour. It will just suit him well; sauntering about to find the pots and pans and lace and carvings, and idling in the shop to show them afterwards to the great strangers and fine ladies. And Fede will look after him and have a care of him — a fatherly care; and Toto, in time, may come to have a vineyard of his own out by Frascati. And he will please the ladies — he is a pretty lad. Yes, Fede spoke much of it to me to‐day. He wants just such a boy — and hinted at a partnership in trade hereafter. Of course the future always rests with God. We see imperfectly.”

“It seems a nice easy trade,” said Nita, tempted; “and lying must be handy in it; that would suit him. No one lies so nattily as Toto.”

“Oh, my love!” sighed Lippo, “make no jests of the dear lad’s infirmity; his sportiveness leads him into danger, and he is too quick of wit; it is a peril for young tongues — sore peril. But you mistake, indeed. This trade, as you call it, is a most honest one. It buys from some people what they do not want, to sell to some others what they long for; it helps the poor, and shows the rich innocent ways of casing their overflow of gold. Oh! a most honest trade; a trade indeed that one may even call benevolent. You cannot think that I would place your precious boy in any employ where the soul’s safety would be imperiled for him. But to see well into this thing and judge of it, and study Fede’s books, which he offers in the most candid way to show to me, it will be needful that I should run down with him to Rome.”

“What! ” screamed his wife, and let her sheets fall tumbling to the ground.

In all their many years of wedded life Lippo had never stirred from her roof for any journey; she had been a jealous woman, and he had given her cause for jealousy, though never means of proof that she had cause; besides, no one ever stirred from the Lastra from their life’s beginning to its end, unless for some day out at Impruneta ass‐fair or the feast of S. Francis in Fiesole, or the grain and cattle markets over the plain at Prato, or such another town. Folks of the Lastra never travel. It is not a Tuscan way.

“Fede goes down to‐morrow, and I think it will be well that I should go with him,” said Lippo, who was quite resolved to go, but never made a scene for anything, holding that rage and haste knotted your flax and never carded it. “It is a great opening for Toto, your father will see that; and I think the very thing that will be suited to the lad — for, even you, my love, cannot deny that he is idler than one well could wish. It will cost very little — only the journey. I shall lodge and eat with Fede; that is understood. And then there is your aunt, my dear, the good old Fanfanni; I might look in on her at Assisi, passing; you have had ill news of her health, and she has no chick nor child, and what she has will be going to the Church, unless, indeed —”

“Then it is I should go, not you,” said Nits, hotly. “The Church! If she has any bowels for her own kin — never! My father’s only sister, and we with six sons and daughters! To the Church! — oh, infamous! I will go with you, Lippo.”

“Oh, my dearest, if you only could! But only ten days to Rita’s marriage, and the young man coming here daily, and all the bridal clothes unmade; you never can be spared; it would not be decorous, my dear, and I shall be back in such a little time. Three nights at most; and, as for your aunt’s money and the Church — my love, we must use no influence to hinder any sickening soul from making peace with heaven. For me, I shall not say a word. If she wish to leave it to the Church, she shall, for me. But, old and ailing and alone, it is only fit that one should show her that, though she quarrelled with your father in her haste, we bear no malice, and no coldness; that is only right; and, perhaps, if you put up some little thing — some raspberry syrup or some preserved peaches — just some little thing that I could take with me, it might be well — to show we bear no malice. Dear, pack me a shirt or two, and a suit of clothes in case of getting wet; I need no more. And now I will go down and tell your father: he is so shrewd and full of sense. I never do anything without his counsel.”

Lippo went downstairs, knowing that old Baldo would count out a score of dirty yellow notes to be rid of the lad Toto, or have the mere hope of being rid of him; and his wife grumbling and screaming and crying she was the worst used woman in the land, yet did his will and packed him up his things.

Nita believed she ruled her husband with a rod of iron; but, unknown to herself, she was bent by him into as many shapes and to as many uses as he liked.

A firm will, sheathed in soft phrases, is a power never resisted in a little household or in the world of men.

“After all, Toto will be miles away in Rome,” she mused; thinking uneasily of many freaks and foibles which made the Lastra hot as an oven for her Benjamin, and many a bundle of good money wheedled out of her by false stories to be thrown away into the bottomless abysses of the tombola or the State lottery.

So she packed her husband’s shirts, grumbling but acquiescent, and added little dainties for the old aunt at Assisi, and put with them a pictured card of the Agnus Dei, and then went out and told her neighbours that her lord was called away to Rome.

To Rome! It was as if she said, To the very end of the known world. It gave her a kind of dignity and majesty to have a husband travelling so far; it made her almost like a senator’s wife; she almost began to think the Pope had sent for him.

So Lippo got his will and departed in peace, where any other man, less mild and clever, would have raised a storm above his head and gone away under a rain of curses.

Nita was a shrew, certainly, and Baldo a crabbed old curmudgeon, and both, when Lippo had married, had held their money‐bags tight; but Lippo by good judgment and wise patience had got both Nita and Baldo under his thumb without their knowing it, and had the money‐bags too; and yet he never said a harsh word — never.

“The fool is violent,” said Lippo. “If we can only fly and fume like angry dogs, why is our reason given us?”

Man was marked out from the brutes by the distinctive human faculty of being able to cheat his fellows; that was what he thought, only he never used any such word as cheat. He never used any unpleasant words. If driven by the weakness of mortality ever into any breath of anger, he confessed it to his priest with instant and unfeigned repentance. He was ashamed of it as an error of intelligence.

“If we sin with our body, perhaps we cannot help it; that is animal in us,” he would say: “but to go astray with our mind is shameful. That is the human and divine part of us.”

And he used his humanity and divinity with much skill for an unlearned man, who only knew the little world of his own birth‐place.

And he journeyed now to Rome peaceably, keeping the real chief object of his journey to himself, and pausing at Assisi to see the old sick aunt, whom he so charmed with his syrups and confections and his disinterested religious fervour, that she made up her mind that Mother Church was, after all, as well off as a fat sitting hen, and determined to leave her savings, which made a nice little nest‐egg, as her life had been long and prudent and laborious, to this good man and to his children.

“Though Baldo is a bad one,” said she, shaking her white head.

Lippo smiled and sighed.

“Oh, a kind soul, only too bent on things of the mere passing world, and thinking too much that heaven is like the binding to a shoe — the last thing to be thought of, and stitched on in a minute when you want.”

“A bad one,” said the old woman, thinking all the more evil of him from his son‐in‐law’s gentle words; for Lippo, though he had never heard of a little crooked poet in the northern isles, knew, to perfection, the artistic way to “hint a fault and hesitate dislike.”

And when he was gone, she hobbled straight to a notary’s office in the town and made her testament, bequeathing a small sum for masses for her soul; but leaving all the rest to her grandnephews and nieces in the Lastra, under their father’s rule.

“Mother Church is plump enough without my crumb,” she said to herself, “and never a priest amongst them all has ever thought to bring me a sup of syrup. They can give one eternal life, I know, but still when one’s cough is troublesome —”


So Lippo, dropping his bread on many waters by the way, journeyed discreetly down to Rome.

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